THE TEN - NHRA ROUTE 66 NATIONALS EDITION
Competition Plus’ Water-Cooler Topics From The Gerber Collision and Glass Route 66 Nationals at Joliet, Ill.
1. Camping World is out as series sponsor after 2024
The NHRA is seeking a new sponsor for its premier pro series. Jeffrey Young, NHRA’s vice-president of marketing and communications, confirmed Sunday that the drag-racing sanctioning body has been actively searching for a replacement for Camping World, which has decided not to renew its agreement with the final run of the 2024 season.
“Our contract expires at the end of next season. They let us know that they’re not going to renew that at the end of 2024. They said they’re going to invest that [money] in their employees,” Young said during the NHRA’s Gerber Glass and Collision Route 66 Nationals at Joliet, Ill.
“Our team’s out looking for a new sponsor. They’re out, pitching for the future and having a lot of conversations,” Young said. “We expect to make an announcement soon.” However, Young didn’t give a timetable for such an announcement.
Camping World replaced longtime NHRA sponsor Coca-Cola, whose various brands served as sponsor for the Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock, and Pro Stock Motorcycle programs. After Camping World CEO Marcus Lemonis admittedly enjoyed letting his negotiations and decision-making process play out on the social-media platform Twitter, the deal became official Oct. 4, 2020.
Young said, “We’re still working closely with Camping World this year to make sure we do things in our contract. We continue to push [that] they’re the great partner they are and they’ve been.”
2. Matt Hagan, Robert Hight lose early, open door for new winner
Matt Hagan and Robert Hight have passed the 2023 Wally trophies back and forth for the previous five races. But with them out – Hagan in the first round, Hight in the second – the door was open for a fresh winner. And Tim Wilkerson took advantage of it to claim his first victory since the 2021 fall Charlotte race.
The 1999 Chicago winner defeated Ron Capps in the final round for Maynard Wilkerson Racing’s first victory and said, “I’m trying to keep my emotions in check. I’m about to cry.”
3. Clay Millican claims third Top Fuel trophy, second at Chicago
“I still love my job. I’ve been doing it a long time and I’m not done yet,” Millican said after making a huge step toward a top-10 placing in the standings. He was 12th entering the race but has improved one spot.
“This is huge for this team. We’ve been struggling, and it’s been tough. We got all new parts and pieces from [team owner] Rick Ware, and they believed in us,” Millican said. “For a little while, it looked like we were better with the old stuff, but I think we’ve got it figured it out. And hopefully we can go out and get some more of these this year.
“My very first [NHRA] race was at this racetrack, and 20 years later I won this race. Now 25 years later [after that first race], we did it again. This group of people never quit and never stop, and they turned this car around flawlessly today,” he said.
4. Gaige Herrera remains undefeated in Pro Stock Motorcycle
The Vance & Hines newcomer has run the table (won from the No. 1 starting position and set low E.T. and top speed of the meet) at all three Pro Stock Motorcycle events this year, won Saturday’s #2Fast2Tasty Challenge, and at Joliet alone posted three of the four quickest runs in class history. His crew chief, Andrew Hines, calls the resident of nearby DeMotte, Ind., “flawless” and “a phenom” and said he’s proud to see Herrera “rise to the occasion. It’s a lot of pressure, and he’s feeling it now. The kid is just solid now.”
6. Joe, Cathi Maynard expand their NHRA footprint
The newly minted Maynard Ashley Racing team won’t look any different, really, on the racetrack. However, news Saturday that Max Out Motorsports (formerly Justin Ashley Racing & Davis Motorsports) and JCM Racing merged to form Maynard Ashley Racing will have implications more on the business side of the operation.
This new organization – separate from Maynard Wilkerson Racing in Funny Car and JCM on the Top Fuel side with Tony Schumacher – will campaign the Phillips Connect Toyota Dragster that Justin Ashley drives and Mike Green and Tommy DeLago tune. Maynard Ashley Racing (MAR) was founded with the purpose of delivering world-class results, on and off the racetrack, for a growing community of marketing partners and fans drawn to Ashley.
Behind Maynard Ashley Racing is a partnership between JCM Racing, led by emerging leaders Joe and Cathi Maynard, and Max Out Motorsports LLC, a newly formed powerhouse partnership between Justin Ashley, Dustin Davis, and Jim Epler.
Ashley said the first three seasons made “a wonderful, excellent, fantastic chapter, but it’s time for the next chapter. It’s about growth. It’s about stability on and off the racetrack. And now is the right time.
“This new team shows growth. It shows strength. It shows stability. And we want to be out here, doing this for a very long time, because this is what we love to do. And it's a business on and off the racetrack, and that's where our focus is,” the young driver said. “I have a lot of gratitude. I feel very blessed to be in the position that we're in now, to be able to announce today the formation of our new partnership ... to be able to take our program to the next level.
“Joe and the Maynard family have done such a fantastic job. We really want to be a part of their group,” Ashley said. “It’s getting a lot of really great people together to be able to discuss business and be on the racetrack.”
7. NHRA’s 2023 season has some surprises in its first quarter
As the current campaign has rounded the quarter-pole and six of 21 races are in hand, more than a few racers across the pro landscape have yet to score a victory.
In the Top Fuel class, among those seeking a first victory of 2023 are Brittany Force, Steve Torrence, Tony Schumacher, Shawn Langdon, Josh Hart, Doug Kalitta, and Leah Pruett. In Funny Car, John Force, Ron Capps, J.R. Todd, Bob Tasca III, and Alexis DeJoria have yet to record a victory. Erica Enders, Greg Anderson, and Bo Butner are looking in Pro Stock, too. Same for Matt Smith and Eddie Krawiec – and everybody in the Pro Stock Motorcycle class but Gaige Herrera – want a bike-class Wally.
Curiously, Brittany Force and her brother-in-law, IndyCar veteran driver Graham Rahal, happened to be on their respective racetracks at the same time Sunday afternoon. She was facing Clay Millican for the chance to advance to the Top Fuel final round at Route 66 Raceway, and Rahal was making his last-chance effort to earn a berth in next Sunday’s Indianapolis 500. She lost to Millican, and Rahal failed to qualify. His own Rahal Letterman Lanigan teammate Jack Harvey aced him out by .007 mph (229.166 to 229.159). Brittany’ Force’s sister, former Funny Car driver Courtney Force, who’s married to Rahal, comforted her sobbing husband with a pat on the shoulder.
8. T.J. Zizzo lives up to his self-described ‘Super Part-Timer’ label
The long-time Top Fuel driver from Lincolnshire, Ill., coined the term “super part-timers” to describe himself and others who might not race full-time but are trophy contenders who have earned respect from their peers when they do show up. And Zizzo, who hadn’t been to a race in about two years, didn’t disappoint.
He anchored the field of 16 and upset top qualifier Mike Salinas in the opening round of eliminations Sunday, then defeated Leah Pruett in the quarterfinals.
That semifinal appearance (which ended with a loss to Josh Hart) earned him a berth in the Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge that will take place at the next race, the June 2-4 New England Nationals at Epping N.H.
It was unclear Sunday whether the Zizzo team would make the trip to the racetrack north of Boston where they raced many times in IHRA competition. If he does not, the opportunity falls to Jacob McNeal, who distinguished himself in Scott Palmer’s dragster by knocking out title contender and two-time 2023 winner Justin Ashley in the first round. If McNeal would pass on the chance, Pruett would be next in line to participate.
9. Alexis DeJoria joins elite group of drag-racing women
Alexis DeJoria, the first woman in Funny Car to qualify for 100 races, also is the first to reach 200 in the class, and she becomes the sixth woman to have competed in 200 or more events. Top Fuel’s Leah Pruett is on track to make her 200th race this August at Brainerd, Minn.
Pro Stock’s Erica Enders heads the list, with this event marking her 340th. Pro Stock Motorcycle’s Angelle Sampey has the second-most starts (292), and her bike-class associate, Karen Stoffer, follows with 276. Brittany Force (Top Fuel) is 18 races past 200, and motorcycle racer Angie Smith is at 212.
Ten pro drag-racing women – including Leah Pruett, Courtney Force, Melanie Troxel, and Shirley Muldowney – are in triple digits. Ashley Force Hood, who stopped racing after 2010, had 92 Funny Car appearances, and Top Fuel racer Hillary Will logged 70 races before 2008.
10. Wilkerson launches ‘Route 66 Raceway In 2024’ campaign
Funny Car winner Tim Wilkerson made a plea to drag-racing fans Sunday:
“Everybody out there, please, please get on social media, call NHRA, call whoever the hell owns this place – I don’t know who owns it – and tell them we want to do this some more! This is a great facility. It’s crazy – to have it locked up for the last two years is dumb,” he said. He remarked about the strong crowd, as well. And he said he’s starting the grassroots campaign now.