THE TEN: NHRA ARIZONA NATIONALS EDITION
Competition Plus’ water-cooler topics from the Arizona Nationals at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park
CAMRIE CARUSO NOTCHES FIRST PRO STOCK VICTORY – Pro Stock sophomore Camrie Caruso made NHRA drag-racing history Sunday at the Arizona Nationals at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park near Phoenix, beating Bo Butner in the final round. But the second woman (behind five-time champion Erica Enders) to win in the Pro Stock class had a controversial road to her first pro victory.
In the second round, Caruso faced No. 1 qualifier Cristian Cuadra, who Saturday evening had written his own footnote in the record book as the first Mexican driver to lead a field into eliminations. As they went to stage, Caruso lit both staging bulbs -- not an illegal move but not the best of etiquette. Once the first driver turns on the second staging light, the other has a maximum of seven seconds in which to stage. In the split-second confusion, Cuadra was timed out and not permitted to make the run.
Fernando Cuadra Sr. -- his father, teammate and car owner -- was angry on the starting line as his son’s car was removed. He claimed incorrectly that her move was illegal and said his son “is educated by my family to be courteous, and this is discourtesy. It was a good show. Didn’t happen.”
Dave Connolly, Caruso’s crew chief, said his driver simply made an innocent mistake: “It was just an accident on Camrie’s part. No harm intended on that one. She just took too much of the first bulb and got ’em both.”
Caruso agreed. “Honestly, I took way too much of the first bulb. I went in extremely early to the second bulb. I would never do that intentionally to anyone,” she said. “I definitely didn’t mean to do it there.” She called Cuadra “a great racer” and said it would have been a “tough race . . . if we would’ve gone.
“As soon as I put my line-lock on, it moved a little bit and turned on both bulbs. Then we were in,” she said. “It wasn’t intentional. I did go over and say I’m sorry and that it wasn’t intentional at all. I don’t really like to play starting-line games, because I probably messed myself up, to be honest. I’m still new at this, and you know, we’re really thankful for the win. But it was just a mistake.”
Caruso, the 19th woman to win in a pro category, recorded her personal-milestone victory in her second final-round appearance – again at a racetrack that was marking its final NHRA event. Caruso was runner-up to Enders last spring at Houston Raceway Park, where the land has been sold for commercial expansion.
“We said if we all do our jobs, we win the race,” Caruso said. She’ll race in this coming weekend’s edition of the Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge in Pomona, Calif., and be eligible to win $7,500 and three points toward Countdown supremacy. She said, “We’re going to give it our all to win both.”
Caruso said that at the moment she crossed the finish line in the final round, she didn’t know who had won.
“I’m not going to lie – I wasn’t really sure if I won or not until I pulled off the racetrack,” she said, “because I like to just focus on going straight. I don’t really look around, but it was so awesome. I just went up there and tried to make it just another round and tried my best to do my job, because I knew the guys were going to do theirs.”
She dedicated her trophy to grandfather, “Papa Joe” Caruso, who was home in New York this weekend.
“I’m just excited and thankful. I was really hoping we’d start the year off with a good bang,” she said. “My crew chief, Dave Connelly, has had a great track record with younger drivers and new drivers in the class. I need to hold up my end of the bargain, because my KB Titan teammates always hold up theirs.”
Surprisingly, Enders – the 46-time winner and reigning and five-time Pro Stock champion who’s poised to hit her 440th career round-win plateau – has blanked in the season’s first two races. She dropped out in the first round at both Gainesville, Fla., and Phoenix.
CRISTIAN CUADRA HAS SWEET-AND-SOUR EXPERIENCE – For his part, Cristian Cuadra had a productive weekend, despite his race-day disappointment.
The third-year Pro Stock racer made history Saturday as the first Mexican to qualify No. 1 in any pro class at an NHRA event and put a Ford Mustang at the top of the order for the first time since “Dyno Don” Nicholson topped the qualifying charts at the 1977 U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis. But his race day turned sour in the second round, thanks to a starting-line faux-pas by Caruso.
He was timed out when Caruso quickly double-bulbed him at the Christmas Tree, and he was timed out. But he found positives in the trip to Phoenix.
“It’s crazy. Everything starts with a dream,” he said in a happier moment of the weekend. “I was a kid and saw my dad racing, and I wanted to be in that spot. You meet the people at Elite Motorsports to help make the dream come true. My heart wants to go out of my chest, and I feel really, really happy. That’s why we’re here. We want to make history for our country. Now my next goal is to try and get a Wally. That’s something important for me. We want to make history in Mexico, and we’re already making it.
“I’m really proud that we are making history for our country,” he said. “It was a little weird for me, because I knew I didn’t have a good reaction time. But I got up to the top end and looked at my time slip and realized the reaction time was horrible, but the time slip looks awesome. We have a really good team who has my back. They are helping me to learn how to drive and to learn how to stay calm. Thank you, Rick Jones, for the car you built. It only has two events and it’s already flying.”
3. OFFSEASON TENSION ADDS DRAMA TO FUNNY CAR FINAL - The Funny Car showdown was one that drag-racing fans were eager to see. It became a final round featuring not just two three-time Camping World Drag Racing Series champions, but the current one and the one who thought he should be champion this year. Reigning kingpin Ron Capps, the one who won by merely three points last fall, squared off against Robert Hight, who felt cheated by the Countdown points system.
Capps downplayed the offseason strain between the two of them. He said Hight and crew chief Jimmy Prock have set the performance bar and paid respect for the John Force Racing team. But Hight said he still “had a bone to pick” with Capps, presumably for saying that he was becoming irritated with Hight’s Countdown complaints and telling Hight to “get over it.” But Hight also acknowledged Capps’ expertise and said he was looking forward to racing him again.
They’ll have another chance in six days at the Winternationals at Pomona to joust against each other for a Countdown edge. Both earned spots for the first time in the Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge, Hight by knocking off No. 1 qualifier and keen rival Bob Tasca III in the second round and Capps by besting Blake Alexander in the quarterfinals.
But in Sunday’s final round, the spotlight fell on Hight. And he reveled in it.
“I won my first round of racing here. I hope this isn’t the last race here,” Hight said, “but if it is, we’ve got the Wally [trophy].”
Hight admitted that “qualifying did not go well.” This was the third time in a calendar year that he did not make a qualifying pass quicker than four seconds. But every time that happened and his numbers were subpar, Hight has won. He said those gritty victories “are the ones you love. That’s where you dig down after qualifying and you just never give up on that team.”
Capps said nothing about Hight in particular. He focused more on his semifinal victory over Blake Alexander and then his “excitement after winning the semifinals, as close of a race as that was with Alexis, and Del (Worsham) and that great team.” He said, “I can’t believe how happy we were, knowing we were going to be in the #2Fast2Tasty event. It has changed things for a lot of the teams, so we’re looking forward to that in Pomona.”
In spite of losing traction against Hight in the final, Capps said his was “overall, a great weekend here.” He said he’ll remember a “very demanding track, very hard to get down, very hard to drive. I couldn’t be more proud of our team. I’ve got to thank the Toyota engineers. They were helping us a ton with navigating the track conditions. So, great job by everyone, and the best part is we get to go straight into Pomona.”
4. JUSTIN ASHLEY FOCUSES ON FINISHING STRONG – After earning his sixth overall Top Fuel victory and first at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, Justin Ashley realized how things are flip-flopped from last season – and how that’s all right.
“It’s ironic, because last year, we won the first race (the Winternationals, at Pomona) and then lost in the first round at the Arizona Nationals. This time was the opposite. We lost in the first round the first race (the Gatornationals, at Gainesville, Fla.) and came back and won the Arizona Nationals. It sets the tone for the year,” he said.
“You know you got to start strong, but you also got to finish strong especially with the Countdown format. We learned last year that it may be more important to be able to finish strong. But just learning, just growing, winning definitely helps us to collect some momentum. Every point matters, whether it’s early in the year or late in the year. So (being) able to collect those points early on, I think, is really significant.”
Ashley, who improved to fourth place in the standings, defeated three Top Fuel champions (Tony Schumacher, Steve Torrence and Shawn Langdon) with a combined 13 crowns and this year’s Gatornationals winner, Mike Salinas.
“It was an incredible race day. To be honest with you, it really was an incredible weekend,” Ashley said. “We knew coming into the weekend that we’re going to have to go through a gauntlet of opponents just if we wanted to give ourselves a chance to win on Sunday. My crew chiefs, Mike Green and Tommy De Lago, they learned a lot. They really approach this the right way. We made a lot of changes in the offseason, and they took Friday and Saturday to make quality laps down the racetrack and learn. We were in a good position to go rounds on Sunday. I think that proved to be the case.
“You have to have four perfect rounds of racing to just give yourself a chance to win, and there were a lot of really great races out there. You had the eight-time champ, Gainesville champ, the four-time champ and a one-time champ. There was no escaping these guys,” he said, “but I am just really proud of my team and grateful that we collected this win.”
Ashley saved his best for the last, for a match-up between perhaps the two best “leavers” in the pro ranks that heightened the anticipation for the Top Fuel final round.
“I knew before that round that they were going to try and step it up because Shawn had been running so well. I knew that they were going to try and take it from that 3.74 range to the 3.70 or 3.71 range,” he said. “I couldn’t have been happier when I looked at the time slip. Just a total team effort, and they’ve been tweaking things. They’ve been working on things, and we’re able to have four rounds today and collect the win. But maybe even more importantly, long run, we’ve got four more runs to collect data. So proud of our Phillips Connect Toyota team powered by National Debt Relief.”
Ashley said they experimented a little bit this weekend: “I think we did make some changes, maybe slightly back to our old set-up. But I think we really stayed with the new one, and it just takes time. And we knew that it was going to take time. It was going to take laps. So it’s just a matter of being patient. Mike Green and Tommy De Lago, they were really patient. I think maybe they went back to the old set-up a touch with a few things. But for the most part, it was just them getting used to the new setup. Hats off to them and the guys. We have a resilient group, and it showed with their ability to put the past behind them and focus on just this race.”
5. DOUG KALITTA GETS A VICTORY – Doug Kalitta hadn’t won a race since the October 2020 St. Louis event, but he made up for lost time Saturday. He won the Top Fuel version of the Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge, defeating Mike Salinas in the final round, and secured his 51st overall top-qualifying position and second straight here at Phoenix. Kalitta aced his first-round assignment against Rob Passey, but Kalitta Motorsports teammate Shawn Langdon ended his bid for that elusive 50th triumph.
Current class champion Brittany Force set the top speed of the meet at 336.23 mph, and Doug Kalitta had low elapsed time of the weekend at 3.679 seconds.
Leah Pruett and Steve Torrence will return to the Challenge this coming weekend at In N Out Pomona Dragstrip. Finalists Shawn Langdon and Justin Ashley will race for the $10,000 bonus money and maximum three points for the first time.
10. TASCA GETS SOLO AFTER ALL - Bob Tasca III thought one of the biggest perks of securing his 10th career No. 1 Funny Car start would be having a bye run in the first round.
He figured that Jim Campbell would not make the show because his run in Saturday’s first qualifying session was disqualified because it didn’t meet the weight requirement and he was unable to take advantage of his final chance to break into the 16-car field because of a staging-lane mishap.
Campbell’s car rolled up against the back of the team’s tow vehicle. Thankfully, no one was injured - no one was in the immediate area of the incident.
However, the front of the body was damaged enough the body suffered a crack just above the wheel well. Campbell had no choice but to skip the third overall and final qualifying session.
Race officials inserted Campbell into the lineup for Sunday eliminations because he made legitimate attempts to qualify. So he was the No. 16 starter, set for a match-up with Tasca.
But on race-day morning, Tasca got his solo pass. Campbell’s car was removed from the starting line again. Tasca fell to eventual winner Robert Hight in the second round.