THE TEN: READING NATIONALS EDITION
Competition Plus’ Water-Cooler Topics From The Pep Boys NHRA Nationals in Reading, Pa.
1 – KALITTA GETS HIS 50TH WIN - Whoever said getting your first win was the hardest obviously never had to seal the deal on their 50th. It took only three years, but Doug Kalitta won his milestone victory on Sunday in Reading, Pa., stopping newly christened points leader Steve Torrence in the final round.
Kalitta could only smile as FoxSports top-end reporter Amanda Busick reminded him that it had been 1,079 days since he held a Wally. Ironically, it was Torrence whom he beat for race win No. 49 back in 2020. Torrence returned the favor earlier this season in Seattle.
If speed equates to horsepower, Kalitta’s 336.99 mph run in the final spoke volumes. He ran a 3.662 elapsed time. Not bad for a backup car.
“It’s been huge, and [team owner] Connie [Kalitta] has always had my back,” Kalitta said. “I love that guy and appreciate all he does for all three of our cars. Getting to win with [tuner] Alan Johnson has been big on my list.”
Kalitta was forced into a backup car when a slick on his Mac Tools-sponsored canopied dragster inexplicably failed. He returned to his conventional cockpit dragster and laid down the gauntlet all day.
“Apparently, this car wanted to get out of the trailer and prove what it could do,” Kalitta said. “We were real fortunate to have a backup car like this.”
2. HIGHT WINS THE RACE AND CALLS HIS SHOT - Robert Hight has been trying to win a national eventbfor Cornwell Tools. And he finally got the job done, beating his 20th different opponent, ChadbGreen, in 100 career final rounds.
Hight ran his second-quickest pass of the weekend, posting a 3.854, 330.39 to easily outrun Green’s 3.928, 327.27 for his 64th career victory. He was the picture of consistency, qualifying with a 3.87, then posting another 3.87, a 3.86, and two 3.85s.
“You can look back to last year, and we were leading the points coming into the Countdown, won this race but didn’t get it done in the end,” Hight said. “We are going to celebrate today, but we have a lot of work to do. We are focused. This team is coming into its own at the right time.”
In a scene reminiscent of Babe Ruth calling his shot, Hight, an avid baseball fan, threw down.
“We have to get our act together; we are going to win Charlotte,” Hight said.
3. MATT HARTFORD'S WONDERFUL, JOYOUS ROAD TO THE WINNER'S CIRCLE - Matt Hartford has had to work a lot easier for every one of his seven wins to the point in his Pro Stock career. He picked up No. 8 by beating Kyle Koretsky in the final round.
Seven days earlier, Hartford was rushed to the hospital with appendicitis. Then, once he got to Reading, his Total Seal-sponsored Camaro developed similar symptoms and had to be rushed to Ron Breslar’s nearby body shop (thanks to Rob’s towing) on Saturday night to fix its ills. Then Hartford, just two weeks after winning the NHRA U.S. Nationals from the No. 1 spot, struggled to qualify, landing 13th quickest.
For only the first time in a two-wide race, since Dave Connolly won the 2006 NHRA Nationals in Brainerd, Minn., a driver won a national event from the No. 13 spot.
“You get your appendix out, and seven days later, you are in a race car,” Hartford said. “The car won’t run, and we have all kinds of electrical issues. I just can’t believe it.”
4. SMITH HIRES HIS OPPONENTS' ASSASSIN AND HIS VICTIM - There was likely not a soul left on the property at Maple Grove Raceway who believed Matt Smith would lose the final round against a rider with whom he’d brought in as a blocker.
Chip Ellis, as talented of a rider as there is in Pro Stock Motorcycle, showed such as he left the starting line with a .400 reaction time, compared to Smith’s .076. Ellis led every increment down the track and was quicker in a losing effort. Even Smith admitted Ellis had the better bike. He had the better bike; he just didn’t own it.
“We still gotta get our 60-foots down,” Smith said after the win.
In particular, Ellis had a 1.045-second 60-foot, an incremental Smith said he needs to overtake Gaige Herrera as the rider to beat in the class. Ellis ran a 6.727, which lost to Smith’s 6.807
Clearly, Smith was playing with a stacked deck after the second round. Three of the four bikes in the Pro Stock Motorcycle semi-finals belonged to Matt Smith Racing.
“Personally, my bike’s still not the bike I need out here to win a championship, to win the seventh championship,” Smith said. “The bike Chip’s on it can win the championship, so we are going to put Angie on that bike for the remainder of the year. Chip’s going to come ride her bike at Charlotte and see if we can fix that bike somehow. But we just got to get my bike better.”
Smith found a way to make his bike better with strength in numbers.
5 – CAUSE OF TIRE FAILURES REMAINS A MYSTERY FOR DOUG KALITTA - Mac Tools dragster driver Doug Kalitta is back in an open-cockpit car – but not by choice. The Countdown contender experienced a tire-shredding incident Saturday during the final qualifying session as he completed his 3.748-second, 332.10-mph pass. The right rear tire tore apart and damaged the rear wing and the chassis. That forced his team to turn to its back-up car.
“The tire did not fault. There was nothing wrong with the tire,” Kalitta Motorsports General Manager Chad Head said. “The car did not have any malfunctions on the run, but something caused the tire to explode. We do not know what caused the tire explosion.”
The last-minute change didn’t seem to affect Kalitta. In his opening-round match-up against Josh Hart, he set low elapsed time of the meet with a 3.658-second pass at 335.73 mph. (That was quicker than No. 1 qualifier Justin Ashley’s 3.687 seconds.) In the second round, Kalitta ran down Kalitta Motorsports teammate Shawn Langdon and won by seven-thousandths of a second.
In the only pass that weather permitted after the three-hour rain delay, Kalitta knocked off Leah Pruett to reach his third final round in seven races. After another brief stoppage, Tony Schumacher and Steve Torrence rolled to the line for their semifinal match to see who would face Kalitta in the final. Then it began to rain again. And track conditions by then had deteriorated.
“I’m super-excited. My guys gave me a great car,” Kalitta said. “There’s some seriously close racing going on here. It’s time to step up, get up on the wheel.” After his first-round victory, he said, “I wasn’t sure what to expect. It has a different look from [inside], not having the canopy. It felt good. It’s one of my old faithful cars.”
Langdon’s Kalitta Air Careers dragster team worked late into Saturday night to make this back- up car faithful again for the 49-time winner. Meanwhile, a truck already was on its way from the Ypsilanti, Mich., shop to retrieve the disabled primary car. Kalitta might not have the canopy- equipped car ready for next weekend’s race at Charlotte.
6 – SLEW OF TITLE CONTENDERS LOSE EARLY - Eight of the 12 Countdown qualifiers lost in the first two rounds Sunday. Eliminated in the first round at this first Countdown race were the Nos. 7, 8, 9 and 10 drivers – (in order) Mike Salinas, Austin Prock, Clay Millican, and Josh Hart. Joining them on the sidelines in Round 2 were top-seeded Justin Ashley, No. 3 Antron Brown, No. 5 Brittany Force, and No. 11 Shawn Langdon. That left Countdown participants Tony Schumacher, Steve Torrence, Leah Pruett, and Doug Kalitta in the Final Four.
Ashley, determined not to let his points lead slip from his grasp like it did in last year’s Countdown, began the playoffs as Tony Schumacher’s breakout victim. After Schumacher snapped a streak of seven first-round losses to score one of the biggest upsets of the day at Ashley’s expense, Ashley said, “It’s disappointing. Ultimately, for that team, I’m happy for them. They’ve been struggling all year. This is a part of racing; as disappointing as it is, this sport has so many ups and downs.”
Among the Funny Car class title contenders, only Cruz Pedregon and J.R. Todd made opening- round exits. Round 2 took a heavier toll. Tim Wilkerson, John Force, and Alexis De Joria bowed out. And in a monster match-up, No. 3-ranked Robert Hight defeated No. 2 Matt Hagan by one ten-thousandths of a second.
Hight said of Hagan and his Dodge, “That’s the car you’re going to have to beat for the championship. You’re going to have to beat him week in and week out. You don’t expect to run those guys in the second round. But when those opportunities come up, you’ve got to get it done.”
In the Pro Stock class, points leader Dallas Glenn hadn’t red-lit all season, but this first one Sunday against Round 1 opponent Cristian Cuadra – by a mere one-thousandth of a second – cost him.
The biggest news in the Pro Stock Motorcycle category up until the final round was Jianna Evaristo’s second-round defeat of Mr. Everything Gaige Herrera. However, the Nos. 4-8 racers (Eddie Krawiec, Angie Smith, Steve Johnson, Chase Van Sant, and Marc Ingwersen) and No. 10 Kelly Clontz also were gone by Round 2.
7 – TONY STEWART EARNS REMATCH WITH MADISON PAYNE - Tony Stewart advanced Sunday to the final round of the Top Alcohol Dragster competition against Madison Payne in a rematch of their fall 2022 Las Vegas final. She won that one.
Monday, he evened the score by winning the race and overtaking the championship points lead.
“I always have liked the opportunity to hopefully get a point lead, at least be in the lead,” Stewart said. “Even if it’s by one point, just the fact that you’re in the point lead, I feel like carries weight. And to have a weekend like we had this weekend, we battled through a lot to get back there, but this is huge. I mean, there’s not, but a handful of races left this year, so we’re trying to make the most out of every one of them that we’re claiming, which we’re claiming all but one more this year. So we’ll have one throwaway race that we can’t claim, but this was one that we obviously did, and getting maximum points is a huge deal for us on the standings.
Stewart won the Division 1 race here at Maple Grove Raceway in August and a Division 3 event in May at Indianapolis.
9 – KORETSKY FAMILY RECEIVES KUDOS FOR ITS WORK AT MAPLE GROVE RACEWAY - In hosting its second Pep Boys Nationals, the Koretsky family of Kenny, Karen, Kenny Jr., and Kyle drew lots of praise for purchasing Maple Grove Raceway and continuing to make improvements for fans and racers.
Sportsman racer Jeff Eastburn of Elkton, Md., said, “We are so fortunate as racers to have the Koretsky family buy Maple Grove. The improvements here just keep coming. The way people are treated here is the best. We’re very lucky. I’ve known Kyle for a long time. He and both of my kids raced Jr. Dragsters many years ago. We’re lucky to be here.” He lauded “the way the place is kept. The grass is cut. Everything’s trimmed. They’ve paved some more in the field for the racers parking out there ... just an absolutely fantastic job. All the buildings are painted. They’ve added some new buildings. They’ve expanded the campground. They just keep getting better and better.”
Classy was the remark by Aaron Stanfield after he won the FlexJet Factory Stock Showdown final over Del Holbrook: “We’re lucky we have the Koretsky family to give us a place like this to race.” It came shortly after Kyle Koretsky had eliminated Stanfield in the second round of Pro Stock eliminations.
Funny Car top qualifier Bob Tasca III, a close friend and business associate of Koretsky, said the packed grandstands all weekend were “a testament to the Koretsky family for reinvesting in our sport. They’ve given the fans a best-in-class facility. And thank you to all the fans for recognizing that. They saw a taste of that last year.” He said the Koretskys “took it up a level this year. They’ll take it up a level next year.”