2016 NHRA NATIONALS: LAS VEGAS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
TORRENCE JUMPS TO SECOND PLACE WITH TOP FUEL VICTORY OVER TOUGH TODD - Steve Torrence has conquered cancer.
He has survived a heart attack.
He has beaten some of the toughest NHRA Top Fuel racers the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series has to line up against him. And in the final round Sunday at the NHRA Toyota Nationals, he defeated one of the rising stars like himself, Kalitta Motorsport’s JR Todd.
His winning 3.734-second elapsed time at 323.81 mph in the Capco Contractors / Rio Ammunition Dragster on the 1,000-foot course at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway elevated him to second place.
“The Capco guys have really stayed focused and stayed driven and done what it took to overcome just some bad luck and a couple screw-ups on my part,” Torrence said. “But, you know, we got a really good team. We got a championship-caliber team, I believe.
“We came into this deal at the first of the season, knowing that we were going to have to race Antron [Brown] for the championship. He has been the most dominant [driver] the last few years,” he said. “Antron’s a brother of mine. And he won a championship – we were able to seal the deal for him.”
That was noble of him, considering Brown beat him in the previous final round, at Dallas. By the end of the first round, only Brown and Doug Kalitta were eligible to win the series title. Australian Wayne Newby had a chance to slow down Brown’s title march in the quarterfinal but lost. All Brown needed to do to win his third crown was have Kalitta drop out. Torrence took care of that for his friend, nicking Kalitta in their Round 2 showdown by a mere two-thousandths of a second.
“And thank God I didn’t have to race [Brown] in the final, because the odds of getting over him are tough. But I snuck over to Brittany’s pit, got some of that Monster [Energy Drink] before the final round and was able to get a light on JR,” Torrence said, alluding to the fact he and Force share tuning consultant Alan Johnson.
“It’s been a good weekend altogether,” Torrence said. “We kind of struggled the first few races of the Countdown and dropped the ball. We had to turn it on and come up here and try to do some good. We went to the final at Dallas, and that guy [Brown] stole my dadgum cowboy hat. So, I come here and I wanted to take a picture with them pretty girls [the Las Vegas Showgirls].”
He said he has learned through this up-and-down season to appreciate the opportunity he has.
“You know, I’ve gone out and really beat myself up and tried hard to be better and do this and do that,” Torrence said. “And you’ve got to kind of just take a step back and realize this is a job, but this is like playing a professional sport. You play professional baseball, you play professional football, or you drag race professionally. We’re getting to live what most people dream about.
“And so,” he said, “I had that heart attack, and I redirected my focus. I said, ‘You know, I’m going to have fun and enjoy the opportunity that I’ve been given.’ And I think that it’s [helped] in my driving, and just overall for the team. We’re having fun. That’s what I told them this morning. I said, ‘We got a good hot rod. And we did all right during qualifying. But hell, let’s go have a good time today.’ We had a good time every round, and them lights kept coming on.”
Todd, driving the SealMaster Dragster, challenged Torrence with a 3.762-second, 321.96-mph pass in his third final-round appearance at this event. (He reached the final in 2006 and 2014.)
"Tough way to end a strong day for the SealMaster Toyota team,” he said. “We wanted to pick up the win with all of these great Toyota people on site, but it was not our day. Look forward to Pomona and hopefully ending this season on a strong note."
He eliminated No. 3-ranked Shawn Langdon, top qualifier Clay Millican, and newly crowned repeat champion Antron Brown. But Torrence used a .041-second reaction time to end Todd’s strong showing. Todd launched in a respectable .061 of a second.
Torrence knows winning the finale – on the same track where he won the season opener – won’t be easy.
“You know, it’s tough out here. These guys are bad-to-the-bone hot rod guys, and we’re out here competing with the best in the business,” he said. “We just keep our head down, focus, and try to go rounds and see where we stand on that stage. We ain’t going to be in that No. 1 spot, but we can damn sure try to be No. 2.
“This Capco team has really persevered. That’s the biggest thing,” Torrence said. “Richard Hogan, Bobby Lagana, and all those boys have worked many, many hours to get us to where we’re at. You know, we’re just a family run team out here, and we’re competing with the big dogs. And you know, we’re stacking some of those Schumacher trailers and Kalitta cars on the trailer, and that’s what we’re out here to do. And be competitive and race at the fullest capacity we can.”
Mission accomplished Sunday. Susan Wade
JOHN FORCE DELIVERS COMMAND PERFORMANCE IN LAS VEGAS - Just call John Force the “Show Stealer.”
While many fans and media members at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway were focused on Ron Capp’s quest for his first NHRA Funny Car title, the 67-year-old Force came away with his 147th career win in the NHRA Toyota Nationals.
Force defeated his daughter, Courtney, in the final with a pass of 3.884 seconds at 327.19 mph to earn his fourth victory of the season and sixth win at the modern Las Vegas track. Courtney followed with a pass of 3.906 seconds at 325.85.
“We gave them a good show, and that’s what the fans come for,” John Force said. “I rolled in deep on her, and she still left on me.
“I’m excited just to be in the hunt with these kids. That kind of just sums it all up.”
Sunday’s weather conditions offered cloud cover, temperatures in the mid 70s and high grip. As track temps climbed to over 105 degrees, the nationally-televised semifinals offered an enticing matchup between the Force family and Don Schumacher Racing title contenders Matt Hagan and Capps.
Force stopped Hagan while Courtney shot down Capps, who will take an 86-point lead into the final event at Pomona.
“Capps looks real good right now, but we’re going to fight him at Pomona,” John Force said. “He’s already a champion in my books. That’s just the way I feel about him.”
John Force even took a good-natured dig at his old rival Don Schumacher.
“They told me all I had to do was win this and I had a shot at Capps. I won it, and then they tell me that I didn’t have a shot,” John Force said. “I want a recount. If I don’t get it, I’m building a wall between me and Schumacher.”
John Force has a reputation for closing seasons in style, and this season has been no exception. He already has two victories in the Countdown.
“It’s just a bit late, but it’s pretty exciting when I see the stands packed and all the other good things going on with the sport. To be a part of it at my age, it’s really awesome,” Force said. “Those kids make me thrive.”
To the delight of the media, Force touched on many subjects in his post-race press conference and revealed that he came to terms with his sponsor, PEAK, on a new long-term deal.
One reporter even asked Force if spirit of a 20-something was trapped in his body.
“No, I’m just learning about what you can really do at my age,” he said. “It ain’t over until I say it’s over. There’s things you have to do to make yourself better, and I’ve learned some real tricks.”
Instead of slowing down, the animated 16-time Funny Car world champion talked about bigger and better things to come for his expansive Team Force operation.
“I’ve got some young kids on my crew, and we’re building a young group for the future,” he said. “I’m looking at building more teams and sponsors are starting to look and talk. We’ve got some new deals coming that we’re going to be announcing.”
Force said that he gained an emotional boost early Sunday when he learned about health struggles of a young girl, who overcame her issues.
“We think we’ve got problems, but there’s people that will fight every day,” Force said. “I gave my win trophy to this kid. I’ve never given up a necklace, but she’s getting a necklace too.
“I walk out there in pain every round. Then I heard her story and I was glowing with love. I just went out there and said `Let’s drag race. Win or lose, let’s have some fun.’ And that’s what NHRA Mello Yello drag racing is all about.”
Force, who endured a long dues-paying process early in his career, credited his many achievements to one simple factor.
“I’m the luckiest man on earth because luck sometimes just makes stuff happen for me. You just say “that shouldn’t have happened. It’s just like the good Lord has got a plan for me. We’re fighting the fight.” Allen Gregory
SHANE GRAY EARNS JACKPOT IN FINAL VEGAS RACE - Shane Gray recently announced that he will give the keys of his Pro Stock Valvoline/Nova Services Chevrolet Camaro to his teenage son, Tanner, next season.
Judging from Sunday’s NHRA Toyota Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Tanner will have a tough act to follow.
With a steady pass of 6.719 seconds at 204.76 mph, Gray defeated his Gray Motorsports teammate Drew Skillman to end a 52-race winless skid.
“I can’t believe it,” said Gray after his fifth career win. “I’ve been in 10 semis this year and haven’t won since the U.S. Nationals in 2014, so this is almost as good. I have one more race to run and then my son is getting in the car.
“I can’t think of a better time to win. I want to thank NHRA for everything through the years and Mello Yello and everybody who has stood beside us.”
The Mooresville, North Carolina, resident, who also builds engines for World of Outlaws sprint car drivers, plans to play a vital role in the career of his son.
Tanner Gray has been racing since age 12, competing in everything from Outlaw Karts and 360 Sprint Cars to Junior Dragsters.
“I can’t wait to get out here and watch him,” Shane Gray said.
Entering the Las Vegas event, Gray had climbed from seventh to fourth with his playoff surge.
Jason Line entered Sunday’s eliminations with a 19-point lead over his KB Racing teammate Greg Anderson. Line left Las Vegas with that same margin as both KB drivers lost in the semifinals. Anderson, the No. 1 qualifier, fell to Gray. Line lost control of his car shortly after the start and Skillman took advantage.
“We just have to make our own drama, I guess,” Anderson said. “The good news is that some of the pressure is off. We still had a good team day and it looks like KB Racing has a handle on the championship.
“We just don’t know who is going to win it yet. We still have work to do, and Jason is obviously in better position than me. He can’t lose first place as long as he qualifies at Pomona.”
Line was not in a celebratory mood Sunday evening. He was more peeved at the lackluster performance of his Camaro in the semifinals.
“It didn’t make it 10 feet,” Line said. “It just missed somehow. I stayed in it way too long because I had this crazy urge to win. It was frustrating. We’ve struggled lately and somehow we still come out of here with the (point) lead.
“Pomona is going to be interesting. It’s going to be fun because one of us is going to win the championship. It’s just crazy we’re dragging it out like this. Maybe it will come down to the final round again.”
That in-house championship tussle between KB teammates took a backseat to the emotional farewell tour of Gray, who said that he still plans to compete in a handful of selected events next season.
“Oh, yeah. I’m trying to win every time I come,” Gray said. You know, I mean, it’s not like I’m not ever going to drive again. I’ll probably run two or three races next year. And shoot, I might run Indy and then why wouldn’t a guy run at home? So, that’ll be about it. “
Gray, who lives just outside of Charlotte, North Carolina in Mooresville, said he now has a better appreciation of the conflicting emotions his father Johnny felt during his final season as Shane was preparing to make his debut.
“Yeah, absolutely,” Gray said. “I never really could understand how he could tell me, “Oh, I’d rather see you win than me”, yeah right. I understand now 100 percent.
“I’m 45 years old now, almost 45, and I’m just glad to see dad where he’s at today.” Allen Gregory
PRO STOCK BIKE’S HARLEYS TIED FOR LEAD, VEGAS WINNER SAVOIE JUST THREE POINTS BEHIND - Antron Brown stole all the suspense from the Top Fuel championship chase Sunday at the NHRA Toyota Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
But Jerry Savoie poured the drama into the Pro Stock Motorcycle season showdown with his final-round 6.915-second, 194.13-mph victory on the White Alligator Racing Suzuki over red-lighting Andrew Hines.
In the semifinals, Hines had pulled even with Vance & Hines Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson teammate Eddie Krawiec. So as the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series comes to a close in two weeks at Pomona, Calif., the two share the points lead – with Savoie just three points behind them.
Savoie, as calm and collected as he is in any other situation, said the scenario “takes the pressure off, really.”
He said, “You know, last year, I said I wasn’t worried about the Countdown: whatever happened happened. And this year to do what we did here … We’ve been working hard.”
He said crew chief Tim Kulungian “went back to the shop and looked at a bunch of notes and got on the dyno and the engine that we had back home and did some work. I mean, look, it’s like football or anything else. The harder you work, the better you get. And it all came together this weekend: No. 1 qualifier every round.
“We’ve got a fast motorcycle, thanks to Vance and Hines. They give us the power. So it’s going to be very, very interesting when we get to Pomona,” Savoie said. “We’ll give them a run for their money.”
In a warning more to the entire class than just to the Vance & Hines duo, he said, “We got one bad motorcycle. These boys better pay attention, because we want to win.”
At stake is the $75,000 champion’s payout. The Vance & Hines team has won it 11 times in the past two decades. Savoie never has won it.
He said he’ll prepare for the culminating moment of the season the only way he knows:
“I’m going to get back [to home in Cut Off, La.] and go on the alligator farm and raise alligators. Friday I have some Italians coming in, some customers. The day after that, I’m going to fly to Mexico and go to my ranch, relax a little bit for two or three days, look at some Whitetail deer.”
That sounds incredibly intense.
It might be more so for Kulungian.
“Tim’s going to go back. Tim’s the guru man. He’s the man that looks at his notes and where we failed and where we showed promise,” Savoie said. “And you know, that guy’s a Rainman. He’s a brother to me.”
He said he isn’t going to fret about anything.
“I really don’t care what everybody else does out here. We do our own thing,” Savoie said. “If you’ll notice, a lot of times I’m not even out of my pit area. I don’t roam around. Even on the line, I don’t care. Scotty Pollacheck hung me out this morning for like six seconds, which it’s racing, I’m not mad at him. And Matt Smith pattin’ on the throttle . . . Let them play their games. Let them do whatever they’ve got to do.”
Savoie knows he can hold his own with any of them and that sometimes things just don’t go his way on race day.
“We lost in Dallas because we broke a sir clip on the clutch. We gave it away. It wasn’t none of our faults, just a mechanical failure. So, two in a row would have been great. But we didn’t get it. Hats off to the Harleys. They’re more consistent,” he said. “A lot of people gripe and complain. They’re consistent, man. They win races. They’re in the finals every weekend. Here we are. God, I’m so humbled to be here.”
The victory was his sixth overall, his first at Las Vegas, and his second in six finals this year. The St. Louis winner claimed his second Countdown victory in this fifth of six playoff events.
Savoie advanced to his third final round in four races past Pollacheck, future teammate LE Tonglet, and Matt Smith.
He said Las Vegas has “been a good place for me. But I will tell you this, when we win, we usually go home and go to bed. But we’re in Vegas, and I’ve been in bed at 8:30 every night this week so I can focus. We gonna party tonight. That’s a promise.”
Hines, meanwhile like was plotting instead of partying.
He’ll take his 38-10 elimination record into Pomona after Savoie denied him the victory in this first final round since the Countdown kickoff at Charlotte. There he lost to Chip Ellis.
Hines beat Joey Gladstone, Angie Smith, and Krawiec to go for his sixth victory in nine finals this season. For the record, his minus-.018-second foul start negated a 7.015-second, 190.00-mph run. Susan Wade
SATURDAY NOTEBOOK - BROWN GETS MORE GOOD NEWS, HIGHT FOR PRESIDENT?, ‘DUKESOF HAZARD’ GO DRAG RACING: JUST ANOTHER WILD DAY AT THE STRIP
JUST WIN BABY - Clay Millican came to the The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in search of his first career NHRA Top Fuel win.
After Saturday’s action before a sell-out crowd, the excitable driver from Dummonds, Tennessee, was feeling lucky about cashing in on his history in the NHRA Toyota Nationals.
“I would not be surprised, I really, really wouldn’t,” Millican said. “I’m just so excited to know that we can run with anybody.”
Much of Millican’s excitement comes from his track-record run of 3.689 seconds at 327.27 mph in Saturday’s fourth qualifying session
That was good enough to earn Millican his second No. 1 spot of the season and fourth of his career.
“That’s my career-best run, but we still have the gigantic fish that got away at Dallas,” said Millican, referring to the most recent stop on the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series tour.
“Friday night at Dallas, we ran a .207 and I was told that was the greatest three-thirty foot ever run, but we couldn’t make it stand. Shoulda, coulda, woulda.”
Running off that jaw-dropping baseline, Millican said he was not surprised with his record-setting blast Saturday.
“I was very confident,” Millican said. “There’s more in this car and all my guys know what to do when the conditions are there.”
Millican described his day of research, development and records with driver-turned-crew-chief David Grubnic and ambitious team owner Doug Stringer.
‘Grubby is so goal oriented and he’s very good at making plans,” Millican said. “When we left the trailer, our plan was to run .372. [Grubnic] felt like that was a safe number that we could get to.
“By the time we got up there and [Grubnic] had made his last check of the track, he and Doug talked and the last number that I was told was a .370. Once I got in the car, they made another change and it worked.”
Millican has appeared in eight final rounds without cashing in on a big payday, so know all the keys to success on elimination day.
“Obviously, the conditions are always different on Sunday versus what we had tonight,” Millican said. “We know that we’ve got a car capable of running with anyone. We’ve simply got to put together four good runs
“Obviously, I hope it’s cold [Sunday]. Right now, I will take our car against anybody when the conditions are right. For the little single-car team that we have, I am unbelievably happy with everything and it’s just going to keep getting better.”
Millican said he delayed his plans to watch Saturday night’s Elton John from a backstage vantage point in order to meet with the media following his top qualifying effort.”
Today’s big drama will involve Toyota drivers Antron Brown and Doug Kalitta.
Kalitta gained two points on the two-time world champion Brown in qualifying, but Brown will take a 148-point lead over Kalitta into eliminations. Kalitta will need to go one round further than Brown to extend the title race to the season finale on Nov. 10-13 in Pomona California.
HE'S FAST JACK - Beckman secured his fifth No. 1 qualifier of the season, 20th of his career with the track elapsed time record run of 3.871 at 327.43 in his Infinite Hero Dodge Charger R/T during the fourth qualifying session. In the first round of eliminations Beckman will race against Jeff Arend.
”We got our act together with that .871,” Beckman said. “It was a sigh of relief. I told the guys when they picked me up at the top end in the tow vehicle, ‘That should at least keep us in the top four.’ No way I would have bet that would have stayed No. 1. It’s pretty gratifying to leave with the green hat for being No. 1.”
MATCO TOOLS RENEWS WITH DSR, BROWN – For 15 years, Matco Tools, Don Schumacher Racing, and Antron Brown have become as synonymous of a bond as baseball, hot dogs and apple pie. They announced a three-year contract extension Saturday.
Tim Gilmore, Matco Tools president, is among Brown’s biggest fans.
“We couldn’t have asked for a better person to represent Matco on the track,” Gilmore said. “Antron is not just our driver. He’s part of our family. To us, he IS Matco. Not only is Antron Brown a champion in this sport, but he also embodies the key values and mission of our company. He understands the importance of family, service, dedication, and trust which has made him a natural fit and someone we are excited to support over the years.”
Gilmore said he became a Brown believer at this venue several years ago. Brown had dropped out in an early round of eliminations, and Gilmore had expected to see a typical attitude he had seen in others racers just after they had lost. He said he was astonished that Brown was at the rope line at his pit, smiling and greeting fans and signing autographs. Gilmore said he loves DSR because “they go the extra mile” to make his clients feel welcome.
Brown called his 14-year relationship with Matco and his 16 years with DSR (including nine in Top Fuel) “a true blessing for me.” He thanked Matco, because “they were the first ones who took a chance on me.”
With a 150-point lead headed into this weekend, Brown is on the cusp of clinching a third world championship for Matco Tools in five years. If Brown can leave Las Vegas with a 131 point lead, it would mark the second consecutive season he has clinched here.
Matco’s relationship with DSR began in 2001 when Whit Bazemore drove DSR’s first Funny Car. Matco was an associate for Brown on a DSR Pro Stock Motorcycle in the summer of 2003 and expanded to primary branding when he moved up to Top Fuel in 2008 with another organization.
Brown moved from NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle competition where he won 16 times in Top Fuel to start the 2008 season. It was the first time the native of New Jersey, who now lives near Indianapolis, drove in the cockpit of a four-wheel racecar.
“Matco took a really big chance on me, and they caught a lot of flak for doing that,” Brown said. “But they knew my determination.”
In addition to backing Brown’s team, Matco Tools is the Official Tool Supplier for DSR, which has won 292 NHRA event titles, including 25 this year with two Mello Yello events remaining.
A year after he was 19-3 in the six-race playoffs with three Countdown victories, he’s 12-1 in these playoffs with three trophies already and two more races to complete.
Brown didn’t secure that third championship Saturday. But team owner Schumacher said, “There’s nobody better than Antron Brown. There’s still a door that needs to be closed and races to be won. But I’m really, really proud of the Matco Tools team and their work ethic.”
THE OTHER DEBATE - The fact he has no experience doesn't scare NHRA Funny Car driver Robert Hight.
On November 6, Hight will debate NASCAR racer Joey Logano at the AAA Texas 500 NASCAR race in Ft. Worth. The debate will kick off at 9:45 AM (CST) at the AAA display.
The great debate, Hight hopes, will determine which is better, racing in a straight line or turning in circles.
"No experience whatsoever with debating, but I have good ammo because I’m talking about NHRA drag racing being better than NASCAR racing," Hight said. "So that’s easy to talk about, right?"
Hight wouldn't reveal his game plan but says drag racing's naturally good attributes make his job easier.
"The fans can come back here in the pits and be a part of what’s going on, see my team work on my car, get autographs from all the drivers," Hight said. "We get the fans more involved than NASCAR."
And right now, the election is in the hands of those fans who are decidedly on Hight's side.
"Right now I’ve got 53 percent of the votes, he’s got 47 percent, and each of us has a race to gain votes," Hight said. "When I go to Dallas to do this debate, I’ll be at that NASCAR race, and hopefully I can sway some of those NASCAR fans to vote NHRA."
Hight said the debate should help AAA Auto Club of Southern California in the presentation of the company to motorsport fans.
"I think Auto Club is using it as a measurement of how well their activation is at an NHRA event versus a NASCAR event," Hight said. "Right now that gives me a lot of pride, knowing that we go in with each of us having one race to get votes and us leading. We finish off at Pomona, and we know there are a lot of AAA fans and AAA members at that race that’ll be out there voting."
Hight promises, as much as he and Logano want to drive their points home, there will be no mudslinging like in the United States Presidential debates.
"He and I are going to have a good time," Hight said. "He’s a good guy. No mudslinging. We’ve all had enough of that with what’s going on in the Presidential campaign. In fact, I think either him or I could do a better job than either one of those two bozos."
THORN IN BROWN’S SIDE – Shawn Langdon has a few distinctions. He has won NHRA national titles in Jr. Dragster, Super Comp, and Top Fuel. He also has won both the Traxxas Nitro Shootout and the JEGS Allstars. But this season he has earned another “honor.”
The third-ranked driver of the Sandvik /Red Fuel Toyota Dragster said with equal amounts of pride and matter-of-factness, “We’ve been the only thorn in their side in the Countdown.”
Langdon defeated Brown in the first round, handing Brown his lone round-loss since the quarterfinals at Indianapolis in early September.
“They’ve won every other race,” Langdon said of the Matco Tools / Toyota / U.S. Army Dragster teams that works out of the same Don Schumacher Racing shop at Brownsburg, Ind. “Antron is just doing an excellent job. They’re running away with it.
“When teams are on fire like that, sometimes it’s just hard to put them out and you’re just out there racing for second place,” Langdon said. “Yet we still have a chance and we’re going to continue to do our best. We’re not giving up just yet. I felt that the last few races, my driving has been at an all-time high. I feel real good about my driving and the way our Sandvik/Red Fuel Toyota car is running.”
His turnaround is remarkable. He started the season with five straight Round 1 losses, but crew chief Phil Shuler methodically guided Langdon back from 13th place to seventh by the beginning of the Countdown, with victories at Bristol, Tenn., and Norwalk, Ohio, along the way.
"What we did at the beginning of the year, nobody was hanging their heads," Langdon said. "You're just going to go through struggles once in a while. But what we've done since is what we're capable of. I'm very proud of what we've been able to accomplish in my first full year as a driver with this team at DSR. We've got a great car, a great team and everyone's done a great job.
“Starting the Countdown in seventh, we've made a really good move and have a great chance to finish second," he said. He entered this event only 22 points behind Doug Kalitta for the runner-up spot. "We still have a very, very outside chance to win a championship, but second place is nothing to hang your head about in this class. There's so many tough, competitive teams and we're just going to continue to try and win races."
THEM DUKES - There's no coincidence James Butner III's racing name is Bo.
Butner, a former NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series standout, who recently graduated into the Pro Stock ranks with the KB Racing team, earned his name because of two situations: an abundance of Jims in the family and his love of the 1970s television series the Dukes of Hazzard.
"There was Dad and then my Grandpa," Butner said. "And I have a son actually, the fourth. But, as a kid, there was too many Jim’s. I have a step-brother named Jim."
One Friday night, while sitting in front of the television when Bo Luke, the character portrayed by John Scheider, belted out a healthy yell while his car was airborne, James III's proclaimed from then on he'd only answer to the name Bo.
And, with Grandpa's blessing, it was so decreed.
Therefore, it should come as no surprise on Halloween weekend in Las Vegas; Butner rolled through the staging lanes with his tow vehicle blasting Dixie out of the air horn, pulling a bright orange Chevrolet Camaro adorned in the iconic General Lee graphics.
The original General Lee is a 1969 Dodge Charger, making his rendition on a Chevrolet a sacrilege to some Mopar fans.
"I love the guys at Mopar, and they’re good people, but I’m trying to help them out," Butner said with a smile. "Because this car will definitely be in the top half, maybe No. 1 qualifier. I’m not real sure they have a Mopar that can do that. And it will be in on Sunday."
This weekend, they've got the whole gang with them.
"We’ve got Daisy Duke, Boss Hog, Uncle Jesse, we’ve got Luke, and I’m going to be Bo," Butner explained. "I got to wear some tight jeans on Saturday and a blonde wig. But, getting the whole crew. Got Enos, Rosco, we got them all."
"We’ve got to have fun," Butner said. "We got so much feedback, and the fans love it. And what NHRA needs to know . . . I’m a hillbilly, and I love this stuff."
WHOAAA! – The Funny Car field already had an official stunt-car driver in Jon Capps. But in Saturday’s marathon third overall qualifying session, Gary Densham gave the sizeable crowd his best version of one. Driving a ’14 Mustang that used to be among the John Force Racing fleet, Densham got a workout while trying to corral the fishtailing car that at one point tilted on two wheels as it flirted with the guard wall. Five pairings later, Alexis DeJoria – finally starting to feel more normal following her July wallbanger at Sonoma – wasn’t able to haul in her rebellious Toyota Camry. After she crossed the finish line, her car skated across the center line and smacked the left-lane wall hard on the driver’s side. She exited on her own power.
But even the stuntman himself didn’t escape the day without trouble. In the final qualifying session, the Steve Plueger-owned Dodge he was driving got out of the groove and hiked the front wheels. The car slammed down hard, and Capps kept it off the wall. But it shot across the track and took a massive hit against the opposite guard wall. After a few minutes, Capps exited the car on his own and was evaluated and released by Safety Safari personnel.
He said he suspected the car broke a suspension piece.
“There was nothing I could do,” Capps said. “I was just along for the ride.” But he was quick to say, “I’d jump back in the thing in a second,” if permitted. He said the team was working on some funding for next season but first hoped to return to action in two weeks for the Auto Club Finals at Pomona, Calif.
Jon Capps seemed far more gung-ho after his accident than brother Ron Capps, who was watching the drama unfold and sped on his own crew chief Rahn Tobler’s scooter to the scene.
“I got down there and Jon was a little loopy. I wasn’t sure if he was knocked out when I got down there,” Ron Capps said.
“They [officials] were yelling at me to get off the track. I’ll take whatever punishment it is, but I didn’t want to leave the car there until I knew he was all right,” the Funny Car points leader said.
He praised the skill of all the drivers in the class and said, “There’s always, usually, something wrong – something broke, something gone wrong. You get used to running these cars and you have to make a split-second decision. And I know my brother has driven a lot of stuff.
“Everybody’s concerned. We’re a big [NHRA] family out here. We’ve got to race each other for championships [and] we don’t want to see anybody get hurt. I’m just glad he’s all right,” Ron Capps said. “I don’t know how he jumps in once a year and does this. I’m nervous about jumping in every two weeks or every week.
“I feel bad for Plueger and those guys. Those seven or eight guys who work on that car, they’re all volunteers. And I feel bad for them. I’m glad he [Jon] is all right,” he said.
QUICK AND QUIRKY – The Toyota Nationals will feature the quickest Funny Car field in history. Jeff Arend, a recent Canadian Drag Racing Hall of Fame inductee at Montreal, claimed the 16th and final position with a 4.045-second elapsed time.
Alluding to the multiple delays in each Funny Car session Saturday, Terry Blount, the NHRA’s vice-president of public relations and communications, quipped, “The quickest field took the longest to qualify.”
Unique to this field is the flurry of 3.8-second E.T.s. This marks the first time 14 of the 16 qualifiers ran quicker than four seconds.
No. 1 qualifier Jack Beckman cited rain on this sunny Las Vegas day, accidents, oildowns, “and all kinds of stuff” for maybe the craziest day of time trials he has seen in a long time.
“We saw all kinds of stuff you don’t normally see,” he said.
STILL FIGHTING – The championship math might not be in the favor of 16-time NHRA Funny Car champion John Force, but facing the seemingly impossible never stopped John Force.
“I don’t care what the math says. Until they tell me it’s impossible to win the championship this year, I am going to fight with everything that I have to win it. I owe that to my fans, the sponsors and my teammates. We have been underdogs before, and I guess I am an underdog for these last two races. I have the fire to win, and I am going to give these races everything I have,” he said.
“We are going to fight to win this race, and then we are going to fight to win Pomona. We have to keep running good with this PEAK Chevrolet,” Force said. “Robert [Hight] is running great with the Auto Club Chevy . . . and Brittany is doing her job [in Top Fuel]. We are going after wins this weekend.”
Force remained the fastest in the field with a top qualifying speed of 331.94 mph.
In seeking his fourth Toyota Nationals victory, No. 3 starter Force will begin against No. 14 qualifier John Bojec, the 139th different racer the legend has faced in competition. Force has lined up against at least one new opponent in every season of his career.
Force, 67, said he stays sharp to keep up his end of the bargain with his young crew members.
“I have all these young guys working on my race car and Jon Schaffer, Jason McCulloch, and Nick Casertano leading them. I can’t let them down by not trying my hardest. I get so much energy from them,” he said.
“You want to be in the fight, and right now we are barely on the outside. I still believe I can win this championship. I want to win this championship for PEAK, Auto Club, Traxxas, Monster Energy, Chevrolet, Lucas Oil, and Mac Tools. I also want to win it for all my fans. They give me more energy than I think they know. When I have a tough race, I get out on the ropes and they put me back together,” Force said.
ANOTHER HALF A FIELD – The Funny Car class overflow could fill half of another bracket. The eight racers who missed the cut were Dave Richards, Bob Bode, Brandon Welch, Jim Campbell, Jon Capps, Gary Densham, Anthony Begley, and Phil Burkart.
The Top Fuel category had a “plus-2.” Troy Buff, who had air-pressure problems in Saturday’s early session and had to shut off his car then got out of shape a bit in his final chance, missed the cut by a mere one-thousandth of a second. Morgan Lucas, bumped out in the final session by teammate Richie Crampton then plagued with some mechanical glitch during his Q4 burnout, brought up the rear at No. 18.
OVERFLOW – For the first time this season, the Pro Stock Motorcycle class entries outnumbered those of the always brimming Pro Modified class. The J&A Service Pro Mod Series season finale drew 23 racers and the bikes had 27 vying for 16 spots.
The DNQ list for the Pro Stock Motorcycle class was almost a Who’s Who of the class’ racers: Jim Underdahl, Fred Camarena, Chaz Kennedy, Mike Berry, Joe DeSantis, John Hall, David Hope, Gunner Courtney, Lance Bonham, Brian Bognuda, and Kristen Ashby.
The same goes for the Pro Mod field, which excluded Rick Snavely, Eric Latino, Kenny Lang, Mike Knowles, Mike Castellana, Clint Satterfield, and Ray Martin.
(By contrast, the Pro Stock class had just one driver too many for the 16 positions. Alan Prusiensky was the lone racer to miss the cut.)
ADIOS, BRYCE – Goodyear’s Bryce Jones, sales account manager for drag tires, will step away from the dragstrip following the season finale next month at Pomona, Calif. He’ll switch to the company’s Latin America Tires division.
YIKES - Las Vegas, already a prime spot for people-watching on any day, is especially colorful at Halloween time. And the Pro Stock Motorcycle contingent made the Toyota Nationals one fun and silly place Saturday.
Matt and Angie Smith and their entire team participated in the Pro Stock Motorcycle tradition of donning costumes during the final qualifying session.
"I was V for Vendetta. My crew guy was Freddy Krueger. Angie was a witch, and her crew guy was Scream," Matt Smith said. "Just having some fun out here. It's Halloween in Vegas, and it doesn't have to be Halloween for people to look funny out here, because you see a lot of strange stuff. But we love coming here."
The Smiths also were celebrating a Pro Modified series championship for Rickie Smith, Matt’s father.
Alligator farmer Jerry Savoie wore, not exactly surprisingly, an alligator hat, but he earned another green hat as the bike class’ top qualifier.
Other sightings Saturday included a shark (perhaps in honor of UNLV’s former basketball coach Jerry “Tark The Shark” Tarkanian??), a Royal Canadian Mounted Police “Mountie,” characters from the movie “Toy Story,” superheroes, a matador, Olympic athletes, and folks in masks, wild wigs, and top hats and tails.
ANDERSON PACES PRO STOCK - Four-time world champion Anderson took over the No. 1 qualifying position with a 6.677 pass 205.72 in his Summit Racing Equipment Chevy Camaro during the third qualifying session. It is Anderson’s seventh No. 1 qualifier of the season, 87th of his career. He will take on Seattle winner Aaron Strong in the first round.
“We made some adjustments overnight and came out this morning and hit the bullseye,” Anderson said. “My car made two great runs today and I think it’s ready for race day. Great recovery after yesterday. We grabbed some of those small points and those are very important this time of year. So I feel great. I feel great on Saturday night.”
CONTENDERS AND ONE-TIME CHALLENGERS ALIKE SCRAMBLE BEHIND LEADERS
AH LEAH! - It’s been an adventurous season for Leah Pritchett, but the California native is not lacking for confidence in this weekend’s NHRA Toyota Nationals.
Just consider her performance in Friday’s opening round of qualifying at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
“We expected to throw down,” Pritchett said. “To be only the third pair out, we expected that some other ones would throw down too. They tried, but they just can't catch us - end of story.
With a pass of 3.705 seconds at 326.63 mph during the second session, Pritchett established a track elapsed time record in her Pennzoil dragster. She will shoot for the second No. 1 qualifier of her career Saturday.
Pritchett said her positive attitude comes from the guidance and wisdom of veteran tuners Todd Okuhara and Joe Barlam.
“When I talk about the confidence of this team with Todd and Joe (Barlam), it sticks,” Pritchett said. “It sticks on the track, and it sticks in my mind and in my heart.”
From the first blast on her record run Friday, Pritchett said she knew that her Don Schumacher Racing team had performed magic once again.
“Our Pennzoil dragster went out there and quivered just a little bit. I'm like 'alright, it's going, it's going through, we're hauling,” she said.
Doug Kalitta earned the No. 2 spot with a pass of 3.709 at 326.95 while Antron Brown followed in third after running 3.723 at 324.59.
Brown has a nearly insurmountable 150 point lead in points over runner-up Kalitta.
As for Pritchett, she is ready for more fast action in Vegas
“Talk about living a dream right now and being with the best team out there and the best people in my crew. I’m enjoying it,” said Pritchett, who has bounced around different teams in recent seasons. “We are keeping our head down but you have to enjoy it for a little bit.
“We have to learn from what we just did and move on and just consistently do that over and over again and that’s what we’ve been doing these last races. Vegas has always been kind of good to me. Our car number is 777, so we’re just going to keep rolling with it while staying focused and in the zone.” - Allen Gregory
BROWN ON VERGE OF TITLE NO. 3 – Antron Brown will clinch his second straight and third overall Top Fuel championship if closes this event with at least a 130-point margin between him and his closest competitor.
The Matco Tools / Toyota / U.S. Army Dragster driver for Don Schumacher Racing, a seven-time winner this season, also is seeking his fourth victory in five Countdown races. He already has won six of the past 10 playoff races, dating back to last year – and he already has assured that he’ll lead the series in victories for the fourth time in five seasons.
Brown opened this weekend with a 150-point lead over second-place Doug Kalitta and a 172-point advantage over third-place Shawn Langdon. (The three have an association with Toyota, and their point standings assure that a Toyota-branded Top Fueler will claim the title for the sixth time in seven years.
Brittany Force, Steve Torrence, and Tony Schumacher came to Las Vegas 4-5-6 in the standings.
But Brown clearly is the toast of the class again this season. The class hasn’t seen performance statistics that staggering since Tony Schumacher dominated with six consecutive championships between 2004 and 2009. Schumacher won 50 of 140 events – 35.7 percent – during his record title streak. Brown has won 30 of 118 events – 25.4 percent – since the start of 2012. That puts the Army-sponsored tandem in the same statistical realm as Formula One’s Michael Schumacher and Ayrton Senna, open-wheel championship-car racing’s A.J. Foyt, and NASCAR’s Jimmie Johnson.
Michael Schumacher earned five straight championships from 2000 through 2004, in a run that included 48 Grand Prix victories in 86 events (55.8 percent). Foyt had 32 USAC Champ Car wins in 79 races (40.5 percent) during his stretch of four championships and two runner-up finishes from 1960 through 1965. Ayrton Senna had a 39.6-percent success rate with 38 trophies in 96 races – while capturing three Formula One titles and two runner-up finishes from 1988 through 1993. Johnson’s 35 victories in 180 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races during his rule with five consecutive championships from 2006 through 2010 gave him a 19.4-percent winning rate. Competition Plus gives a special thank-you to True Speed Communication’s Laz Denes for the research.
At the center of all these dizzying numbers is one man, a husband and father of three, who is taking nothing for granted.
“It would be great to close this out in Vegas, and that’s our hope. We want to win it, and we want to win it as quick as possible. But you can’t take any of this for granted. That’s why we all work so hard to get to this point,” Brown said. “Our heads are really focused on the end, and the end is not until they say, ‘This is the 2016 world championship winner.’ We’re in a great situation right now, but we don’t feel comfortable yet, and our work is not done yet. We’re not going in defensive mode. We’re just going to try to keep doing the same things we’ve done to get to this point.
“When you get into the Countdown, the bar gets raised. Our mindset is always striving to be better and trying to be more efficient, and I’m always doing something because I know my guys are doing the same thing. When we get to the racetrack, you can look everyone in the eye and know we’re all ready. You can feel that emotion in our trailer, and that’s the coolest part.”
FORCE’S SEASON CARRIES HISTORICAL ASTERISK – Brittany Force knows Antron Brown, Doug Kalitta, and Shawn Langdon all would have to fall off the face of the Earth for her to win this year’s Top Fuel championship. But she has driven her way to at least a fine-print section of the NHRA history book.
The driver of the Monster Energy Dragster for John Force Racing is fourth in the standings. She’s the first female since 1982, when Shirley Muldowney won her final Top Fuel championship, to score as high as a No. 4 placement. With only this race and the Auto Club Finals at Pomona remaining on the 2016 schedule, Force has a chance to cut into the 41-point gap between her and No. 2 Doug Kalitta.
Force, who raced here at The Strip in Super Comp and Top Alcohol Dragster then and made her first Top Fuel runs here, said, “I think doing well in Las Vegas will be a big factor for the championship. Our goal is to have a chance to win the championship when we get to the Auto Club Finals in Pomona. We are going to do everything we can to be in a position where we can win. We go into every race thinking we can win, and it starts with the first round of qualifying. This has been an amazing season, and these last couple of races will be even more exciting with the championship on the line.”
TORRENCE TUTORS BROWN – As promised, Steve Torrence hosted Antron Brown at his Kilgore, Texas, home for a few days after Brown beat him in the final round of the most recent race near Dallas.
Torrence jokingly hinted that Texas hospitality wasn’t uppermost in his mind. “My only chance [to win the championship] was to hold Antron hostage for a couple weeks in Kilgore,” he said. But Brown had the cowboy hat traditionally awarded to the winner of the AAA Texas FallNationals, so Torrence had to school him in cowboy life, Texas style.
Together they enjoyed eating barbecue, Mexican food, and pecan cobbler – and target shooting with everything from rifles to shotguns to fully automatic machine guns and Rambo-like 50-caliber weapons.
“He was really good at it,” Torrence said of Brown’s aim. “He picked it right up. It was a lot of fun, something different for us to do away from the races. It’s been a long season and it’s nice to be able to just relax with good food and good friends.”
The two have become even closer friends during the past three years, attending Bible study together along with about a dozen others at the racetrack, often in Torrence’s Capco Contractors / Rio Ammunition Dragster pit.
“It’s nice to have someone to depend on who you can talk to about something besides racing,” Torrence said. “Antron is just a good Christian guy leading by example. I hope I’m doing the same thing. I think we make each other better on the track and off.”
Both have had outstanding seasons. While Torrence hasn’t produced numbers as gaudy as Brown’s, he has won twice, at the season-opener at Pomona, Calif., and at the Summernationals at Englishtown, N.J. So each swiped a victory in the other’s home arena. Torrence knows he won’t show up Brown in the Countdown. Nevertheless, he said, “We’re still marching forward. We’re going to do the best we can to finish as strong as we can in what has been our best season as a team and my best season as a driver.”
When qualifying began Friday, Torrence was in fifth in points, trailing No. 2 Doug Kalitta by only 47. If Torrence is going to make any kind of a run at the Mac Tools Dragster driver, he’ll have to ditch his poor luck at Las Vegas. In 14 starts here, Torrence has lasted past the second round of eliminations only once and missed the cut.
DON’T TELL PRITCHETT IT’S OVER – So what if Leah Pritchett has no chance to knock off points leader and presumed Top Fuel champion Antron Brown? Technically, as soon as Brown made his first qualifying attempt Friday, he eliminated her from contention officially. She knows she doesn’t have any realistic chance, but she’s barging ahead – this time in the Pennzoil-branded dragster for Don Schumacher Racing – and attacking this Toyota Nationals race as if the series title is on the line.
Besides, in a sense, she already regards herself as a champion: after all, her team owner who helped her to her first Top Fuel victory in Race No. 2 abruptly, if perhaps justifiably, disbanded the team shortly afterward, leaving her to cobble together a season for herself. With help from Ron Thames (FireAde), John Schnatter (Papa John’s Pizza), Don Schumacher, Pennzoil, and others, Pritchett has done just that, thumbing her nose at hardship and disappointment and qualifying for the Countdown.
At 254 points off Brown’s lead, she’s a realist – yet she’s a dreamer . . . but moreover a fighter.
And that’s what landed her the provisional No. 1 qualifying position Friday with a track-record 3.705-second elapsed time.
"It might be very unlikely that we can catch Antron, but that won't keep us from trying," Pritchett said. "The fact is this team led by Todd Okuhara and Joe Barlam put a great bunch of guys together and we became champions when we earned our way into the Countdown.
"We were six months behind the rest of the teams when we started at Atlanta, and our team has fought ever since to get to where we know we can win whenever we show up. Don [Schumacher] and everyone at DSR has gone above and beyond to get us where we are,” she said. “Instead of our team heading to Las Vegas after the Dallas race, they took our race car back to the shop to put new front half on the chassis to get ready for this weekend, testing on Monday, then on to Pomona.”
It’s almost dizzying to hear her voice her enthusiasm. And no one could doubt her when she declared, "Our season is far from over."
Pritchett earned an NHRA Pro Modified trophy on this track in 2011.
‘JUST ONE OF THOSE DEALS’ – Mac Tools Dragster driver Doug Kalitta, the No. 2-seeded Top Fuel contender, said the topic of his repeated bridesmaid status is “definitely one of those subjects like getting your teeth pulled. You know, you don’t really feel like sitting around and talking about it – at least I wouldn’t.”
So don’t expect a flood of frustration from the low-key Michigan airline owner who once again is resigned to missing out on a championship. He put his situation in perspective.
“You know, mathematically, 150 points behind with two races to go, you know we’re going to give it all we got. We’re not going to give up, obviously, until mathematically you can’t,” Kalitta said. “It’s disappointing that unfortunately we lost a little ground. So, it’s just one of those deals. You know the competition level in all the classes, and it just reiterates how important the last six races are. You’ve really got to have your s--- straight and be going rounds and not make any mistakes. So it is what it is at this point. We’ve got a great team, and we’re just going to go out here and see if we can do all we can here in the last two races and see what happens.”
Part of what has happened is Kalitta landed in – yep – the tentative No. 2 slot in the order Friday.
Kalitta has a USAC Sprint Car national title. Does he need an NHRA Top Fuel championship to validate his efforts?
“No. I’m just real proud of really everybody that’s got me to this point. That would mean more to me than anything, to do something like that [win a championship] for everybody that’s helped me along here. But, no, hopefully that won’t be the situation by the time I get done running these things. But, I don’t think so, really,” Kalitta said.
He said what inspires him to return year after year and fighting tooth and nail is simple. He does it for the satisfaction.
“The competition level out here is what does it, really,” Kalitta said. “It’s just tough. And you’ve got such a great group. And we’ve been working on everything that we do. We’re definitely making strides with all of our teams here. And obviously with Del winning the championship last year, getting one for the home team was great. So, it motivated all of us to try and get it again this year. But yeah, it’s just competition. It’s tough.”
He said he doesn’t spend any time comparing himself to Funny Car’s Ron Capps, who’s in a similar situation.
“But it would be great to see him get it done,” he said. “You know, he’s got a good-running car. And [NAPA crew chief] Rahn Tobler, he’s got a few championships under his belt already, so they’re in a good position,” he said.
Kalitta won this race last October, as well as in 2004. He has reached four finals here (one in the fall of 2007 and three in the spring, in 2003, 2005, and 2014).
“Las Vegas is a great track for Kalitta Motorsports as a whole,” he said. “I won the Toyota Nationals last season, and then we had that great all-Kalitta Toyota Funny Car final here in the spring. I am very proud of this Mac Tools Toyota team. They continue to fight and work hard. We are going to go into the Toyota Nationals planning to win and using that momentum to finish the season strong."
He said life without drag racing “would definitely be different. You know, my kids are getting up there in age, too, that they’ll probably move out here before too long. That’s how quickly they grow up,” He said, “I’ve raced probably since 1982, chasing, like when I first started working with Connie, that’s when I started working with him, we were chasing some points thing then. And then my sprint car stuff. I did that for like 10 years. And been out here for 20, so it’s been quite a while I’ve been racing, trying to succeed at the points championship thing. It’s a great opportunity to be out racing in any kind of division. And certainly out here racing the Top Fuel class is pretty cool.”
He said his competitive fires still are stoked. “Just to see the opportunity with what we’re doing with the in-house chassis stuff, just all the advancements that we’re making, motivates I think all the drivers here [at Kalitta Motorsports], especially me, that we’ve got a great chance at running ahead of these guys. Because that’s really what it takes. You’ve got to have a great car and solid performances, and obviously driving the thing, as well,” he said.
“It takes the whole team effort. It’s definitely not just one little piece that makes it happen out here. It’s cool to see how far we’ve come here. My car this year’s been running really well. We’ve just had some bad breaks. Obviously the last couple races, I screwed up the one deal in Reading, and then last weekend we had an opportunity that we just didn’t make it happen running Antron second round. So, it’s those kind of deals that you know, you just have to try to avoid.”
NO NINTH BUT PLENTY OF INCENTIVE – Writers will have to continue calling U.S. Army Dragster driver Tony Schumacher “the eight-time Top Fuel champion.” A ninth is out of the question this year.
But he still has his machine-like mindset: “Well, the championship for us is out of reach, but we still head [into this race] the same way we do for every single event during the season, each and every year, with our U.S. Army team. No matter what happens [here], in the big picture, our ultimate fate always comes down to our ability to execute – to take care of business. Like we do every weekend, we’ll go out and try to get the best possible qualifying position on Friday and Saturday, and then you just get up Sunday morning and see what happens. If we do all that we can do, there’s a good chance we can finish the season with a couple more wins and a few places higher up in the standings.”
Schumacher also has one more distinction. He has won the most Top Fuel races at Las Vegas, eight.
“A lot has to do with where the Las Vegas races fall on the calendar,” he said. “In the spring, we’ve got three weekends under our belts by the time we get there and we’re typically in a groove by then. When it comes to the fall race, the playoff atmosphere and the sense of urgency you have when there are only two events to go, that’s when the U.S. Army team tends to thrive. We have proven to be a high-pressure team over the years, time and time again. I’ve always believed we’re way better under pressure. We live for these final Countdown races and our U.S. Army team has proven that. We’ve been really good at getting the results we need when they have to happen.
“If all goes according to plan,” Schumacher said, “we’ll win Vegas, and hope to make it two in a row to close out the season at Pomona. So much of the final outcome is totally out of our hands, though, so what we need to do is put all our focus looking forward and really put the hammer down these last two weekends of the season.”
Always philosophical, Schumacher said, “Like I’ve always said, you’ve got to be the winningest team at these last six Countdown events. We had a relatively solid regular season, but things really haven’t gone our way during the Countdown, while Antron and his team have been on fire. So, for Vegas and Pomona, we will show up like we always do and represent the U.S. Army to the best of our ability. Our goal is to win these last two races and, assuming Antron can close out the championship, we’ll be first ones there to shake his hand and congratulate him on a stellar year. They will have earned it, and it’s great for the U.S. Army.”
He’s 209 points from being any threat to Brown.
MAKING HAY WHILE THE SUN IS OUT - Facing an 88-point deficit to Funny Car points leader Ron Capps, Matt Hagan cannot afford a mistake in this weekend’s NHRA Toyota Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Hagan delivered an impressive opening statement Friday and he did it the old-fashioned way. He blasted the competition.
“We’re in a situation right now where we’ve got nothing to lose, so you swing as hard as you can and hopefully connect,” Hagan said.
With a track elapsed-time record of 3.872-seconds at 329.18 mph in his Dodge Charger, the Christiansburg, Virginia, farmer connected for the provisional No. 1 qualifying spot.
“We were shooting for more than that, but we’ll take it and we will be aggressive again Saturday,” said Hagan, who ranks third in points behind Tommy Johnson Jr. and Capps. “I think we’ve got a good game plan.”
Hagan, who has earned five No. 1 qualifying positions this season, said every pass is make or break at this point.
“Obviously, little points matter,” Hagan said. “If qualifying stopped right now, we would have put five on Capps and be less than a round behind Tommy. It all adds up.”
Hagan, a two-time world champion, said he has learned to never take anything for granted during the pressure-packed six-race NHRA Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship.
“You’ve seen some of these championships come down to one or two points in the final or semifinals,” Hagan said. “We’ve got a long way to go and we’ve got lot of ground to make up when you’ve got a car like Capps.”
The confidence booster for Hagan is experienced crew chief Dickie Venables.
“The dude is a bad-ass and he proves it every time we step on the fuel pedal,” Hagan said. “Who knows what will happen [Saturday], but I think today was pretty cool because we had cloud cover.
“The track was tight, it was good out there. The groove is very narrow so you really have to watch what you’re doing. All-in-all we had a good day, so we will come back out and fight hard again and just try to scoop up as much points as we can.”
John Force qualified second after executing a pass of 3.872 seconds at a track record speed of 331.94 mph. The consistent Capps lurks in third
Hagan, who had quickest car in each of Friday’s two sessions, has completed 12 of his last 14 runs in the 3.8-second range.
“From Indy on, we’ve had a great race car,” Hagan. “Unfortunately in the first two races of the Countdown, we were just second quick in the round. That’s just drag racing for you. My guys don’t want to hear excuses."
Hagan said this weekend is all about going hard.
“It’s a dogfight out there,” he said. “I don’t know where we will end up on this deal, but it’s not going to be from a lack of effort on our part. We’re going to go out there swinging and we’re going to swing hard.” - Allen Gregory
CAPPS MAKES LEMONADE FROM LAS VEGAS LEMONS – Anyone who follows the details of Ron Capps’ Funny Car career knows The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway is a venue at which the NAPA Dodge Charger driver hasn’t always had ideal results. At the spring races here in 2012 and this year, he failed to qualify.
In 2012, Jack Beckman edged Capps for the championship by two points, marking the closest margin by which to claim a title in NHRA nitro history. This year, the DNQ happened just six weeks after Capps won the season-opening Winternationals at Pomona, Calif.
But the Don Schumacher Racing driver who has led the Funny Car standings since early June said he doesn’t regard those two tough days as disasters.
"It might be hard for fans to understand,” Capps said, “but those DNQs are a couple reasons why we're in this position. When we didn't advance to Sunday in 2012, it led to Don [team owner Schumacher] deciding to move Tobler over to our team – and we've won 17 races together since then with our NAPA Know How team. This year, after we DNQd, we stayed to test, and Tobler found things with our car that have helped us to such a great season."
Tobler, assistant Eric Lane, and the veteran crew have helped Capps to what will be the best year of his 22-year career, regardless of where Capps finishes in the standings. Even excluding this race and the season finale two weeks from now, Capps has set career-best numbers for most final rounds (10), most No. 1 qualifying positions (4), and most elimination round-wins (51). Capps, whose 49 victories in 481 events ranks him second in the class all-time to NHRA icon John Force, also has in 2016 recorded his quickest (3.843 seconds) and fastest (330.23 mph) passes ever.
Of course, Capps wants to seal the deal that has eluded him for the past 21 years since he switched from driving Roger Primm’s Top Fuel dragster. He wants that Funny Car championship, the one he has come oh-so-close to winning four times, only to finish second. But as badly as he wants it, he has been trying not to dwell on that or get caught up in championship scenarios.
"We have eight qualifying sessions left and as many as eight elimination rounds. So there is so much racing left that anything can happen," Capps said.
All three of his closest challengers are his DSR mates. No. 2 Tommy Johnson Jr., the recent Reading winner at Capps’ final-round expense, has just 64 points to make up. The Nos.3 and 4 racers, Matt Hagan and Jack Beckman, have that championship experience – Hagan twice – and want that again. Hagan is 88 points off the pace, and Beckman is a rather distant by 131 points behind Capps. That 131 is the magic number Capps needs to separate himself from the nearest ambusher. But he has to show well at this race and most likely the next one, too.
"You try not to think about the championship, but it's hard," Capps said, knowing that his lead might not be safe even though he reached the final rounds at the past two races and started the Countdown with two semifinal finishes. "I've been trying to keep busy and not think a lot about it. We're driving 330-mph Funny Cars with nitro in the tank, so anything can happen. But this NAPA team has had such a great season that it would be a shame not to win it. But that's why we race."
Despite those two low moments at the April events here, Capps is tied for the most Funny Car victories at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, with five (2012, 2011, 2009, 2005, 2001). He has been runner-up here twice (2006, 2007) and No.1 qualifier once.
JOHNSON STILL THREATENING CAPPS – Two weekends ago at Dallas was the first time in four 2016 Countdown races that Tommy Johnson Jr. and his Make-A-Wish Dodge Charger did not appear in the Funny Car final round. But he’s eager to make up for that and make up the 64-point deficit between himself and leader Ron Capps.
Johnson, whose April 6 birthday often coincides with the spring NHRA event here, has had positive results at those visits. More importantly, he has fared well at the fall races – such as the one last year, which he won from the No.1 starting position – and he wants to repeat his fortune.
"We've always done well there," he said. "We were No. 1 qualifier last year and went to the finals, so a performance like that this year would really help us move up on the points lead. I'd love to finish what we started here, especially now with the points as tight as they are. This is the time to capitalize on that.
"I know there's still a lot of racing left to do. Our Make-A-Wish guys have just done a great job giving the car what it needs,” he said, referring to crew chief John Collins and assistant Rip Reynolds. “We just need to continue to do that for these last two races. We've been really consistent in the Countdown, so we just want to keep that momentum moving forward.
"These last two races are when you really have to focus. The last two years we finished in third and this year we're still advancing so we're doing all we can to get that championship," Johnson said.
Johnson had an uneasy moment Friday in the first qualifying session, when he threw out the parachute following his pass and it failed to open. Johnson wound up in the sand trap but tuner John Collins and crew got Johnson back on track in the next session. He’s tentatively fourth in the order with two Saturday sessions remaining before the field is set.
Said Johnson of his mishap, “I knew something was wrong with the ‘chutes. I stayed on the breaks pretty hard. I went over and tapped the one time and went back real quick. And I had both hands on the brakes at the top end. There was something funny. The engine was still turning over, trying to pull me through, too. I couldn’t even lock them up with both hands on the brake lever. Luckily, I got it slowed down enough. I don’t think it hurt anything.”
The only thing that took a hit was Johnson’s place in the lineup. He dropped from fourth to eighth provisionally.
TWO CARS, ONE GOAL – For Tim Wilkerson, the fact that only two events in the 24-race Mello Yello Drag Racing Series have yet to play out is immaterial. He’s out of title contention, but he’s still in the fight for a top-five finish. And he should be considered armed and dangerous this weekend.
He showed up here with two cars, an accomplishment that might seem trivial to bigger teams. But, he said, “We spent the time off since Dallas putting together a spare car, so for the first time this season, the trailer left the shop with two cars in it. This team has put in so much time, heart, and effort into the Levi, Ray & Shoup Mustang this year. And we want to finish on a high note.
“Some may say it’s only two races, but that is a lot of rounds and points up for grabs,” Wilkerson said. “A win in Vegas would give us a huge boost in the Countdown to the Championship. Our goal is to get another win and make it into the Top Five before the season is over.”
He came here ranked ninth in the standings, despite some early-season heroics, sparking the same kind of “Yea for the underdogs!” his home-state Chicago Cubs have frothed up in baseball this fall. But Wilkerson is not in a World Series-like showdown like the Cubs are. However, the bottom half of the Countdown field is in a points battle. Less than 100 points separate Wilkerson from fifth-place driver and current Funny Car champion Del Worsham.
LEE EAGER TO HIT THE TRACK, RUNS 13TH – If Paul Lee has any butterflies, they’re “butterflies for excitement,” he said. “I’ve been waiting eight months for this. It’s something I’ve been working for my whole life.”
The momentous occasion is his debut with a well-established team – Kalitta Motorsports – that offers an abundance of resources. The longtime privateer and owner of McLeod Clutches officially is a teammate to Del Worsham and Alexis DeJoria.
“Since I was 13 years old, I dreamed of driving a Nitro Funny Car and winning with a Nitro Funny Car,” Lee – winner of three NHRA Top Alcohol Funny Car races and one IHRA Nitro Funny Car event – said.
“I’ve been with some good teams, but obviously this is a lifetime of hard work and this has been a goal of mine for a long time. So, now that I’m here, you know, it’s just the beginning,” he said.
Lee insisted he feels no pressure as he becomes part of a high-achieving organization.
“I don’t really look at it as any pressure at all. This is opportunity. You know, I’ve been working my whole life. Not for pressure, but to get an opportunity like this. So this is opportunity. I don’t really see any pressure at all.”
He said he “always gave it 110 percent. I left everything out on the track every run I make. Whether it was qualifying or I ran first round.” Therefore, he doesn’t have any sense of anxiety to push himself even more.
“I treat every single run like it could be my last. That’s how I race. And it could be my last. Every single run could be my last race. Or my last run down the track,” Lee said.
“I don’t treat it any differently.”
The difference now for Lee is that he’s part of a true team, with infrastructure now that can deliver support and results.
“Obviously the more confidence you have in your car and your team, the better you do as a driver. And that goes all the way down the board. If you ask any driver out here, the more confidence they have, the better they do,” he said. “And that’s why it’s a team sport. Because once the team is there and you have confidence in your team, then you as a driver can go out there and do your job.”
Lee posted a 4.580-second, 185.72-mph clocking in a planned half-track run Friday before a rain shower arrived. He registered his first three-second pass in the evening session at 3.986. Ironically, Lee had recorded his previous career-best elapsed time at this event one year ago, driving Chuck and Del Worsham’s car.
Welcomed at the top end of the track to the so-called “three-second club,” Lee said, “It’s a great club to be in. I can’t say enough about the Kalittas.”
Lee wasn’t alone in the three-second range. Twelve Funny Car drivers – including John Bojec, who clocked his first “three” at Dallas in the previous race and Friday sneaked into the Las Vegas top 12 with a 3.990-second E.T. Others in the “threes” were Matt Hagan, John Force, Ron Capps, Robert Hight, Tim Wilkerson, Del Worsham, Alexis DeJoria, Tommy Johnson Jr., Chad Head, and Cruz Pedregon.
HIGHT REALISTIC BUT OPTIMISTIC – The Funny Car championship virtually is out of reach for Hight. He’s 187 points out of first place. Then again, the Auto Club Camaro driver and President of John Force Racing is everybody’s Countdown inspiration because he zoomed from 10th place to the title in 2009.
“It is a big long shot for us to get the championship,” Hight said, “but we still have a mathematical shot. Stranger things have happened in the world of sports, and we are just going to do our job. We need to get every qualifying bonus point and then win this race. We can’t start looking at what other people are doing. We can’t control that. Our goal is to go out and try and win this race and then see where we are heading to the Auto Club Finals.”
If, like last season, he can win this event, he can keep alive his career-long streak of winning at least two events every season. So far he has one win this year (March 20 at Gainesville), but he has two more chances to preserve the unprecedented streak. He was in the same position last season heading into this event.
“I want to win every race, so I don’t think about streaks. But you want to be consistent. My goal every race is to come out and make strong runs on Friday to set up the rest of the weekend. We have been doing that pretty well in the Countdown this season, with the exception of Reading,” he said. (There he qualified fifth and lost in the first round to Tim Wilkerson. He sandwiched that between two top-qualifying performances, at St. Louis and Dallas.)
“In St. Louis and Ennis, I felt like we had the race car that could have won the event. St. Louis was tough, because we made so many quick runs without any issues and we just stubbed our toe a little in the second round. The same deal happened at the AAA Texas Fall Nationals in the semis. We spun the tires a little and it cost us. Funny Car racing is so tough now you just can’t make any mistakes or have even a minor issue,” Hight said.
IF YOU GIVE A MATT A WALLY . . . – Matt Hagan, the third-ranked Funny Car driver out of the Don Schumacher Racing camp, won the most recent race, at Dallas. But the Mopar Express Lane/Rocky Boots Dodge driver wants two more victories.
He didn’t hesitate to speak right up about his immediate goal: “Win the last two races," he said. That Dallas victory was Hagan’s fourth of 2016.
"We just have to come out these last two races and do the best job we can and turn on as many win lights as we can and it'll fall where it falls," said Hagan, who is 88 points behind DSR mate and points leader Ron Capps. He’s only 24 behind No. 2 Tommy Johnson Jr., another DSR Dodge driver.
“We just have to be ready to dig deep and keep working hard. We can only control us. We can't control everything going on around us. So we just have to stay focused and get those win lights," he said.
"Our Mopar/Rocky guys keep getting better and better every weekend, every race," he said with a nod to crew chief Dickie Venables and assistant Michael Knudsen. "It is the fiercest competition I've ever seen out here, and we are holding our own. You have to bring it every time, especially in the Countdown. I feel like as a whole team we do that each lap. Our race cars are outperforming the other guys. Don [Schumacher] is passionate about it, and it shows on the track and in our cars, because he puts so much time, money, and energy into it.”
The four DSR cars occupy the top four spots, and Hagan said, “We all want to finish the year out strong and sweep those top four spots."
Hagan got off to a great start this weekend, setting both ends of the track record in the opening session at 3.882 seconds and 326.95 mph. He regained the lead from John Force in Q2, but Force eclipsed the track speed record at 331.94 mph.
“We’ve got to come back out [Saturday] and be aggressive. We’re in a position that we have nothing to lose,” Hagan said. “We’re going to come out swinging, and we’re going to swing hard.”
Twelve of Hagan’s past 14 elapsed times have been in the envelope-pushing 3.8-second bracket.
Hagan is searching for his first victory at this facility. He has been to the finals twice (2009, 2010) and led the field here three times (2009, 2014, 2015).
BECKMAN HAS MUTIPLE GOALS – Jack Beckman said he and his Jimmy Prock- / John Medlen-led Infinite Hero Foundation team has its collective eye on the trophy this weekend.
"The championship is all but out of reach for us, but the trophy certainly isn't. We feel we have a realistic shot at winning that race," Beckman said. "We are not going to treat Vegas like a test session.”
Or are they?
"We may make a radical change in the clutch department. We will either do it in qualifying to see if it gives us what we want or we will test it more extensively on Monday in preparation for the last race (in two weeks at Pomona, Calif.) and start getting ready for 2017,’ he said.
"Mathematically, the championship is still possible, but realistically, I think second place might be doable for us,” fourth-place Beckman said. “Really, our short-term goal is just a trophy on Sunday in Vegas.
"We need to execute well on Friday in qualifying. We just need to be smart about trying to make four quick runs before we even get to Sunday.”
In his first qualifying chance of the weekend, Beckman brought up the rear, last among the 20 racers after he lost traction early in his run. He crossed the line in 12.639 seconds at 70.94 mph.
PEDREGON PERKING UP – Stuck for most of the season in 12th place and frustrated by 17 first-round losses, two-time champion Cruz Pedregon hasn’t had much to be excited about – until now.
He and his Snap-on Tools Toyota team tested, and whatever they discovered they applied to the Dallas event two weeks ago. Although Pedregon bowed out in Round 1, he did set a personal-best speed of 322.81 mph.
Car chief Chris (“Warrior”) Kullberg called the developments “encouraging” and said, “We’ll be using a similar game plan this week. It’s late in the season, and what we’re doing is working, so we’re feeling good about finishing strong.”
Pedregon said, “It’s been a great month for the team with the things Warrior, Lee [Beard], Ron [Douglas] and I have been able to study and test together. I’m really confident about the work we’ve put into the Snap-on Toyota paying off in the next couple of races and in the 2017 season.
“We’re taking the same combination we ran in eliminations in Dallas and plugging it into what we’re going to do in Vegas,” he said. “We plan on it being a really fast weekend and should see really good results.”
The action was quick and fast Thursday, and Pedregon was 10th overnight. He had to rely on his first-session performance of a 3.952-second elapsed time at 318.99 mph, for his evening results were disqualified. Tech officials threw out Pedregon’s time because they determined in the post-run inspection that his car sat too low to the racetrack. (His Q2 performance wasn’t as quick or fast, anyway.)
On the breast-cancer-awareness front, Pedregon said he’s seeing positive feedback.
“We’ve had such a positive run with The Pink Fund paint scheme to highlight the work our primary sponsor Snap-on is doing with this organization that pays for non-medical expenses of individuals going through breast cancer treatment. Our fans have really responded to it, and we look forward to it bringing lots of awareness to The Pink Fund through NHRA and FOX audiences for all the good they do.”
Snap-on Tools again has a Manufacturers Midway presence that offers a skills challenge and drawings for fans at the track in Las Vegas in support of The Pink Fund.
COURTNEY FORCE LOVES DAD, BUT . . . – Courtney Force loves her father. But she has lost to him all five times they have met this year, and that’s getting old for the competitive youngest daughter of the 146-time winner /16-time champion. She hasn’t gotten past the second round in the Countdown, and she has a pair of first-round playoff defeats. So not advancing farther into race day is getting old no matter who her opponent is.
“It seemed like every time I turned around I was racing my dad for a while this season,” she said. “He definitely makes you a better driver. I have a lot of round-wins this season, but it would be great if I had a few more,” summed up Force.
In one respect, Courtney Force has tied her best season, when it comes to elimination round-wins. So far she has 30, with two races to complete. In 2014, she earned 30 round-wins and four victories in five final-round appearances and a fourth-place finish in the final standings. She has measured her successes in different ways this year. She won at Houston and took the points lead that she maintained through three more races, and she scored a $100,000 Traxxas Nitro Shootout triumph.
“The definite highlight so far was winning that $100,000 in the Traxxas Nitro Shootout at the U.S. Nationals,” Force said. “I think this Traxxas Chevrolet team has a lot more round wins out there, and we would love to get eight more round wins to end this season. There are two more races we can win this season.”
She’s eighth in the standings but has a realistic chance for a career-best Top-Three finish.
“I will need to have some of the drivers out in front stumble, but I think we have a really consistent race car. [Crew chiefs] Danny Hood and Ronnie Thompson have been great this year, and I think it has shown in how well this Camaro has competed,” Force said.
In her first two races here in the Funny Car class, she Force reached the final round. In 2013, her dad beat her at this event to clinch the championship.
“That was a day of mixed emotions for me. I was happy my dad won the championship, but I really wanted to win that race. We were the No. 2 qualifier and our Traxxas Funny Car had been great all day. He got the win and the championship but I still think about that Wally,” Force said. “I have been on the wrong side of some races against my dad a lot this season too. He is a great teacher and teammate, but I definitely want to beat him every time we race each other.”
JUST WIN AT VEGAS, BABY! – Greg Anderson said he and KB / Summit Racing Chevy teammate Jason Line, who ruled the Pro Stock class for much of the season, said they want to hog the championship showdown, too.
“We’re hoping Jason and I put both cars in the final round and mathematically eliminate the other cars from competition,” Anderson said. “That way when we get to Pomona, the two of us can duke it out and have fun. It’s very important that we close the season in the first and second spots. Easier said than done, but that’s been our goal since day one.”
Naturally, team owner Ken Black, a Las Vegas resident, loves the idea of a seventh series crown for his organization. But he really has just one directive for his drivers, who include Bo Butner.
“There’s always extra pressure, extra incentive to win in Las Vegas,” Anderson said. “I’ve told the story a hundred times. When we started this race team, Ken told us, ‘I want you to do good and have fun, but I don’t really care past Las Vegas. You just need to do good at Las Vegas and I’ll be happy.’ It’s very important to him that we do well in front of his friends and his family.”
Line said, “We worked all season to reach our goal of winning the championship. We’ve won a lot of races this year and had a great season. When you’ve had a year like this, you don’t want to drop the ball and have somebody pass you right at the finish line. I won both the Charlotte races, and now it would be nice to win both Vegas races.”
Line and Anderson are the top two contenders for the Pro Stock championship, with just 26 points separating Anderson from the leader, Line. Butner entering this race in fifth place. Vincent Nobile is third, 114 points behind Line, and Shane Gray is fourth,134 points out of first.
This spring at Las Vegas, both drivers took home trophies—Anderson in the K&N Horsepower Challenge and Line with the event victory.
They open Saturday qualifying with Line in third place, Anderson fifth, and Bo Butner seventh.
ENDERS HOPES VEGAS LUCK STILL ALIVE – Erica Enders knows how to beat the house at Las Vegas. As part of back-to-back championships, she claimed more than $250,000 at this racetrack.
She won four straight Pro Stock finals at The Strip, taking both the spring and fall titles in each of the last two seasons. Each of those had a $25,000 payout. She also won back-to-back K&N Horsepower Challenge trophies in 2014 and '15, worth $50,000 each. By "doubling up" and winning both the K&N race and the national event in the same weekend, Enders received another $25,000 bonus from NHRA. That totals $250,000, plus contingency payouts that made her jackpot even more lucrative.
"Las Vegas has been an awesome place for us, no doubt," Enders said. "Most people blow all their money whenever they go to Vegas, but we've managed to walk away with some nice checks, and for that we're really grateful."
"Including reaching the semis this spring, we ended up winning 24 elimination rounds in a row, which is hard to comprehend but really cool to have accomplished," Enders said, wondering “how many times that's happened in the history of the sport to see where that streak stands all-time.” She quickly added, “But I can tell you it was a fight every step of the way. I'm proud of my team for having pulled it off.”
Her friend, Bob Glidden, topped – and still tops – the NHRA list for most consecutive final rounds at a single event, with 13 from 1977-1989 at the U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis. John Force reached nine straight final rounds at Atlanta (1992-2000) in Funny Car. Tony Schumacher strung together eight final rounds at Indianapolis. And Pro Stock Motorcycle legend Dave Schultz dominated with seven finals in a row at Atlanta from 1990-’96.
"It makes this the best track, for sure,” Enders said. “And the last two fall race wins were super-special because I took over the points lead in 2014 by winning there and then last year we clinched the title outright by winning, so there's nothing but great memories for this track."
This time through, she’s an uncharacteristically distant 10th in the standings, still looking for her first victory of the season.
"Reaching the semifinals in the spring tied for my best outing of the year. So even in a down season, Vegas has still been good to me," Enders said. "We're already working on new stuff for next year and there are big plans for returning to the top. I can't wait for 2017 to start, to be honest, but we still have a chance to help Vincent [her Elite Motorsports teammate Nobile] win this year's title so we'll do all we can for him."
GRAY COMFORTABLE PASSING TORCH – Shane Gray said he certainly would like to win one more time but doesn’t feel pressured to do so in the last two races of what appears to be his final fulltime season behind the wheel of the family’s Valvoline/Nova Services Chevrolet Camaro Pro Stock car. Son Tanner Gray, whose racing roots have been in circle-track competition, will begin his drag-racing career in 2017 – applying Grandpa Johnny Gray’s SKI motto, “Spending Kids’ Inheritance,” to yet another generation.
Teased Shane Gray, "Yeah, Tanner's nipping at my heels now, so I better bear down these last few events and try to get another Wally before they put me out to pasture. The reality is, we win as a team and lose as a team, and I can tell you I will be just as happy and satisfied when Tanner wins next year as I am whenever I win. It'll be fun either way.”
As he watched his son in the driver’s seat, warming up the car, he said, “I think it feels great. I’m excited. I’m real excited for next year. It’ll be a lot of fun for the both of us.”
It might seem weird to Shane Gray to be saying that, for he didn’t understand the concept when his own father said such things at the outset of Shane’s career. And he said he’s pretty sure Tanner doesn’t appreciate it fully yet, just like he didn’t when he started.
But now Shane Gray said he gets it.
“Yeah, absolutely. I never really could understand how he could tell me, ‘Oh, I’d rather see you win than me.” Yeah, right. I understand now 100 percent. It’s just, I’m 45 years old now, almost 45, and I’m just glad to see him where he’s at today.” As for whether Tanner comprehends that right now, he said, “No, not until you get some age on you.”
Shane Gray hasn’t lost his love of driving a Pro Stock car.
“Certainly, we'd like to win these last two races. The car has been fantastic and we seem to be in the semifinals every race now, which puts us right there in the mix to win, we just need to punch through and get it done,” he said. “We'll just take it one run at a time, like always. We've been knocking on the door of a win for quite awhile now, and if we remain persistent and vigilant, we will break through, hopefully, before the year is up.”
He clarified his plans: “I’m trying to win every time I come. I mean, it’d be great. You know, it’s not like I’m not ever going to drive again. I’ll probably run two or three races next year. I’ll probably come back out here next year and run the K&N Challenge, providing I’m still in it. And shoot, I might run Indy and then why wouldn’t a guy run at home [Charlotte]? So that’ll be about it.”
Gray has posted three straight semifinal finishes in the Countdown as part of nine semifinal efforts this year. Gray also is getting some satisfaction in seeing Drew Skillman and Alex Laughlin, his Gray Motorsports engine clients, having their turns in the spotlight. Skillman is the class’ freshest winner, at Dallas, and Laughlin won at St. Louis.
"We're all coming to life at the right time," Gray said. "And certainly it's a big help when you can look at the data from three different cars each round versus going out there and doing it by yourself. Drew and Alex are great drivers, and we're very proud of what they've been able to do this year with our engines."
Gray has improved from seventh to fourth in the playoffs. He has a prime chance to match or top his career-best finish in the standings.
He challenged provisional top qualifier Drew Skillman Friday, taking the No. 2 place in the order with an elapsed time just two-thousandths of a second slower.
HIS OWN TITLE HOPES OVER, COUGHLIN CHEERS ON BROTHER – Troy Coughlin has a slim chance to overtake Rickie Smith and earn back-to-back Pro Modified titles. And younger brother Jeg will be one of his biggest cheerleaders at this Pro Mod season finale when he isn’t strapped into his own Pro Stock car.
"He's solidly in second, just like last year, and we're hoping he can come from behind and lock up another one," Jeg Coughlin said. "He's been on such an impressive run, winning two titles and coming in second two more times over the last four years. That's stout in any pro class, and I'm proud of him and the JEGS.com team over there. We will be cheering hard for them, for sure."
Alas, his own dreams for a sixth Pro Stock title are just dreams this year.
"We'd love to be in the title race and have a car right now that we know can win this race, but that's not necessarily the case this time,” the driver of the Magneti Marelli Mopar / JEGS.com Dodge Dart said. "Having said that, we are a team that never surrenders. So we will attack this weekend with the same enthusiasm and dedication as any other race. We still have a burning desire to win.
"Whenever you race at a track where you've had success in the past, there's a real level of comfort,” this five-time winner here at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway said. “You have great memories to reflect on, and in our case, my brother Troy and nephew Troy Jr. have had some great moments at The Strip as well, so the good vibes are palpable.”
Jeg Coughlin won the spring races in 2000, 2001, and 2009, and the fall event in 2002 and 2008. Only Top Fuel driver Tony Schumacher (with eight victories) and fellow Pro Stock multitime champion Greg Anderson (with seven) have had more success at this facility.
Coughlin, though out of contention for a championship, nevertheless is planning, as though he is in the hunt.
"The last race in Dallas we tried some new things with the Hemi powerplant that didn't necessarily improve our performance,” he said, “so we're reverting back to a tune-up we used in St. Louis and Reading that was decent. If we can qualify mid-pack again and make a few good hits on race day, we could put ourselves in a good position.
"We'll have fun either way,” Coughin said. “Vegas is a destination race for the fans, with all the attractions of the adult playground just down the road. So everyone tends to be a good mood. Plus, it's Halloween weekend, so it should be a little crazy."
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE
THE EXPECTED AND THE UNEXPECTED - Jerry Savoie raises alligators for a living, so it should come as no surprise he recently donated a bit of his handiwork to the annual DRAW Auction.
"I donated an alligator head for the auction," Savoie said proudly." I think it will bring pretty good, you know? I brought it to a Christmas party one time and they were fighting over it."
Fellow Pro Stock Motorcycle racer Joe DeSantis claimed it at the auction and carried it onto the stage at driver introductions the next day at Dallas.
Savoie confirmed he's also donating $5,000 to Breast Cancer research, and said the disease has hit close to home.
"My mother has cancer right now. She’s fighting it," Savoie said. "My sister’s a survivor. And I know it’s not breast cancer, but my father and all his brothers and everybody in my family has died of cancer. So for me it’s a personal fight. And if I can give a little bit back what God gave me and affect the life of one person, that’s the way it is, you know? So, that’s what we’re going to do." – Bobby Bennett