GAIGE HERRERA RETURNS TO HIS WINNING WAYS IN CHARLOTTE
So much for a slump.
Gaige Herrera, the most dominating driver in the NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle class this season, lost in the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis and then slipped up in Reading, Pa., last weekend losing in the second round of the first race of the six-race Countdown to the Championship.
Herrera didn’t have a lasting hangover from his sub-par performances.
Instead, Herrera, who is in his first season driving for powerhouse team Vance & Hines in his Mission Foods Suzuki rebounded to win the Betway NHRA Carolina Nationals Sunday in Concord, the second race of the six-race Countdown to the Championship.
Herrera claimed the title when Hector Arana Jr. registered a red-light start in the final round at zMax Dragway.
“It was a good Sunday. We're here,” said Herrera in the winner’s press conference. “I got the Wally, so I can't complain. But I'm glad my bike was consistent again (Sunday). It came off the trailer running strong, and then yesterday we kind of had two little bobbles and missed out on the little points there, but I'm glad it turned around (Sunday), and we came home with the win. So, I'm happy with that, and it's definitely one of my favorite tracks.”
This was Herrera’s seventh victory in 11 seasons. He also qualified No. 1 for the 10th time this season. If Herrera qualifies No. 1 at one of the final four races, he will tie Matt Hines single season Pro Stock Motorcycle record of 11 No. 1 qualifiers in 1998.
On Sunday, Herrera beat Jerry Savoie, Matt Smith, Chase Van Sant, and Arana Jr. Herrera improved his 2023 elimination-round record to a stout 34-4.
“I'm going to say they're going to have to dig down and do some work,” said Herrera about what teams should do to beat him. “Andrew (Hines) and all those guys, they don't quit. Like (Saturday), we were trying new things to basically kind of make my bike as consistent as possible after spinning and racing in Reading, and my bike just does not like the 60-foot slope. If it does, it's a mud, really. So, I mean that's the biggest thing is just how much work they've put into my motorcycle to get it to work the way it does. It is fast.”
The dominance of Herrera has caused other teams like Matt Smith Racing and White Alligator Racing bringing out blockers in Chip Ellis and Jerry Savoie, respectively. And Herrera welcomes the challenge of all-comers.
“Oh, I love it. Just that feeling that teams are doing whatever they can to try to stop me. It is hard to put into words. I never thought I'd be in this position,” Herrera said. “Obviously, I'm with one of the best teams, Vance & Hines, and all of them, and it's pretty cool. And racing Matt (Smith) in second round, the ladder couldn't have worked out any better for us (Sunday), or for me. Yeah, I regained the points lead, so I definitely got a lot of momentum going into St. Louis.”
Herrera regained the season points lead and has a 52-point advantage over Matt Smith.
“Yeah, I was excited,” Herrera said about the possibility of racing Smith in the second round. “I actually wanted to skip the first round and just race him first? No, I mean, yeah, I was definitely excited to race Matt. I don't want any win easy. I have a really fast motorcycle compared to a lot of others out here, and so it makes it look easy, but at the same time, they're all very tough competitors, and at any minute, they should be able to run the same. So, I was definitely excited to run Matt because you never know what he's going to pull out of the hat. Unfortunately, I think he had a motor failure or something like that when we ran, but you can never take them lightly.”
Now that Herrera is back in the points lead, he doesn’t want it to slip through his grasp again.
“To me, now it's more pressure on my shoulders, so I got to maintain it and keep my composure on the starting line against everyone,” Herrera said “When I raced Matt, that was probably the best round, I would say, for me, because the little games on the starting line started a little bit, and I love that part. I think it keeps me more into it, more excited, and keeps me on my game more, I should say. So yeah, now I'm the one being chased again, but we're just going to try to keep doing what we've been doing all season.
“I would say it's just from me racing for many years and not always winning. I've always been taught and told you got to lose before... You learn to lose before you can win, type of thing. So, my biggest thing is you just got to look at the big picture. You can't pinpoint little things and dwell on them type thing. Like in Indy, we had a spark plug failure, and in Reading, we spun (in) the second round. It's just one of those things. You have your ups, you have your downs, but you got to look at the ups way more than the downs. So yeah, I'm glad I'm able to keep my composure against all these guys. I grew up watching them, and they're all fierce competitors, so it's always a dogfight.”
Herrera has gone from an unknown quantity to a star, and he talked about the whirlwind experience.
“As far as riding the bike, I've learned a lot from Andrew (Hines) and Ed (Krawiec), and it's actually remarkable or crazy, really, how much I've learned from them,” Herrera said. “Coming into the first race, I was basically just riding the bike the way I knew, and now I kind of ride it a little different now than before. I've progressed a lot as a rider, and even on the starting line and the overall package, I should say. I feel like it's only going to get better from here. I mean obviously it's hard to believe that with all the wins I've gotten this season, but I got to give that mainly to the whole team and all the guys at the shop. I get the easy job, I like to say because all I do is ride the bike.”
Herrera acknowledged consecutive defeats in Indy – the race before the Countdown – and Reading fueled his competitive juices.
“Losing those two races kind of lit a fire under me, kind of made me mad to a point,” he said. “After Reading, when we spun, I was a little pissed off, you should say, because we really couldn't pinpoint what happened. That's the biggest thing. When you can't figure out what really happened and what caused it, that basically made me dig down. Me and Andrew were going over data and everything, trying to figure out what happened. So that really got me involved in it. So yeah, it was definitely a lot of pressure coming into this race because I felt like we had to get back to where we were. Coming off Friday night and running good, we were happy with that. Then Saturday, the bike kind of turned around and showed us that it wasn't happy again. So, to be able to come back (Sunday) and have a very consistent motorcycle definitely took some weight off our shoulders and gave us the confidence going into St. Louis.”
The NHRA Countdown to the Championship continues at the Midwest Nationals in St. Louis, Sept. 29 through Oct. 1.
“Like I said, you can't count Matt (Smith) out,” Herrera said. “He's going to pull something out of the hat again. Like I said, I'm all for the whole blockers thing if he can do it. So, Matt had a rough weekend this weekend, but overall, he's going to regain, and it's going to be in St. Louis again, and I guarantee we're not going to meet up in the second round again. He's going to figure it out, whatever issue he had this weekend. I don't want it any other way. I'd rather me and Matt be in the final in Pomona to dictate the championship. That's just how I am as a racer. I'm very competitive, so it's going to be good.”