2016 NHRA U.S. NATIONALS - INDY FUNNY CAR NOTEBOOK
HAGAN PREDICTS THEN DELIVERS FIRST U.S. NATIONALS WALLY - Sometimes, you just know you are bound for greatness.
Babe Ruth knew it when he called his home run shot during a game at Wrigley Field in 1932. Joe Namath knew it when he predicted a victory during the 1969 Super Bowl. And Mohammad Ali knew it when he offered up to reporters exactly what round he was going to knock out Sonny Liston in 1965.
On Monday, Matt Hagan joined that list at the biggest race of them all - the U.S. Nationals.
Coming into the 62nd edition of the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway, Hagan admitted that, as soon as he walked onto the property, he knew that this was going to be his weekend. Just a few days later, Hagan made good on that guarantee.
Hagan took the No. 1 spot on Friday and then went four big rounds on Monday at the most prestigious race on the NHRA Mello Yello circuit, ending with a victory over Del Worsham for his first-ever U.S. Nationals trophy.
“I was afraid to say anything to anybody all weekend long, but sometimes you just get to a place and you know you are going to win that race,” said Hagan, collecting his 21st career Funny Car victory. “I don’t know what it is, but I just had that feeling. I just felt good about it all weekend long and I could see it in my guys’ eyes. They were really hungry, especially coming off of a final in Brainerd and not getting it done.
“It was really cool that Del and I got to battle it out again. It was a really great race and we came out on top. I can’t believe that we won the U.S. Nationals.”
Just two weeks earlier, Worsham defeated Hagan at the Lucas Oil Nationals in Minnesota, and on Monday the pair met again in a thriller of a final at drag racing’s Big Go. Hagan took the win on a holeshot with a margin of victory of only .028.
Hagan crossed the stripe in the Mopar Express Lane/Rocky Boots Dodge Charger R/T with a 3.964 at 327.43 mph to earn his first U.S. Nationals Wally, using a sizeable advantage at the starting line to drive around Worsham’s quicker 3.958 at 324.20 mph in the DHL/Mello Yello Toyota Camry.
Adding to the excitement, moments after Hagan’s win, Tony Schumacher won in Top Fuel over Steve Torrence for his record 10th Indy title, giving Don Schumacher Racing its second-ever U.S. Nationals sweep.
“This is just incredible. It’s something I’ve been trying to accomplish in the nine years I’ve been driving for DSR and it’s not an easy task,” said an ecstatic Hagan. “Having the parts and pieces and the people around me, especially Dickie Venables, is the difference. That guy put a hot rod underneath me all weekend long. I am proud to be a part of Don Schumacher Racing and to have great sponsors like Mopar, Pennzoil, Freightliner, Rocky Boots and all of the people that support us out here.
“What was really cool is that it was a badass show for the fans too. They got what they paid for today.”
Hagan added wins over Tommy Johnson Jr., Robert Hight and John Bojec on his way to his first Indy final. Early round opponents Bojec and Hight smoked the tires in those matchups, while Johnson provided a stiff challenge in the semifinal round. Johnson earned a .012 head start, but Hagan chased him down in recording a 3.945 at 323.81 mph to Johnson’s 3.970 at 321.65 mph.
Hagan had passes of 3.894, 3.942, 3.945 and 3.958 on a hot afternoon with track temperatures in excess of 120 degrees to earn the win. And he did it all while battling an illness, waking up Sunday morning with a fever and chills.
“There’s a lot of things that define great people and great moments and Tony (Schumacher) is a prime example of one of those guys that sits up there and, when things come together, they make it happen,” Hagan said. “I’ve listened to him on Sunday mornings and all of the things that have happened to him. He’s had great parts and great pieces and great people around him, but you still have to dig deep and still have to make it work.
“You can’t fold under those moments. You have to be the person that stands out. There’s a lot of great drivers I am surrounded by and that makes this even more special. This is something I’ve been wanting to check off the list for a long time.”
Worsham recorded wins over Ron Capps, Dave Richards and teammate Alexis DeJoria en route to the runner-up finish.
While Hagan dominated the main event in Indianapolis, taking the No. 1 spot and the win, he did suffer a semifinal loss in the Traxxas Nitro Shootout on Sunday to eventual-winner Courtney Force. While disappointing, Hagan said that the added runs helped on Monday, especially in a brand new car debuting this weekend.
“We went to the final two weeks ago in Brainerd and we shook our car apart. So we came out here to the test session with a new fuel system on it, new manifolds and we ran two strong laps,” Hagan said. “After the second pass, Dickie is like, ‘put it in the box, we are good to go.’ Of course, I was like, ‘what? We have another day of testing. What are you talking about?’
“To see the confidence in his eyes with a brand new race car and then to come in here and qualify number one and the car is on kill the whole weekend, was a big boost for me. I think that’s what it takes to win championships, what it takes to win races. And I really feel this car is peaking at the right time.”
The U.S. Nationals also marks the end to NHRA’s regular season, with the eight-race Countdown to the Championship set to kickoff in two weeks in Charlotte. Ron Capps secured the top overall seed in the championship playoffs, followed by Worsham, Hagan, Courtney Force and Jack Beckman. The remainder of the top 10 are Robert Hight, Tommy Johnson Jr., John Force, Tim Wilkerson and Alexis DeJoria.
Now, following one of the biggest victories of his young career, what kind of celebration is in store for Hagan and his team? The kind that comes from a proud father, as Hagan’s dad, David, was on hand to witness it all.
“He flew in this morning,” Hagan said. “Whenever he is here, I know the guys like it because he takes us all out for dinner. They are licking their chops right now for a good steak. I know it is going to be a good celebration. It is a very special moment for me that he is here. Don (Schumacher) is here. It gives me chill bumps just thinking about what we accomplished today.”
SUNDAY FUNNY CAR NOTEBOOK
FOUR FOR HAGAN - Matt Hagan earned his fourth No. 1 qualifying position of the season and the 25th of his career on Sunday, as his pass of 3.858 at 330.80 mph set way back on Friday held up through four more rounds of qualifying.
Hagan’s new track-record run earns him his second top qualifier award in a row and third in the last six races.
“I didn’t think it was going to stick,” Hagan admitted. “I thought there was going to be an 83 or an 84 out there somewhere and we were surprised to see that 85 still there on Sunday. But that is racing. Everybody is swinging for the fences and sometimes it falls your way.”
Despite not bettering his run, Hagan remained consistent throughout the ensuing qualifying sessions. He also earned his way to the semifinals of the Traxxas Nitro Shootout on Sunday, but fell to eventual winner Courtney Force with a 3.926 to a 3.941.
And he did all that while feeling a bit under the weather.
“I woke up this morning with a sore throat and running a fever. But whether you have a cold or not, you have to crawl in this race car and get focused and give it your all,” Hagan said. “In the Traxxas race, we didn’t have enough I guess. Now we have to shift our focus to winning Indy, which I have never done in my career.
“I think it is very possible. We have a car that is very capable of doing just that. I just have to go out there and make sure I am leaving on time, keeping it in the groove and trying to turn that win light on all day long tomorrow. This is the biggest race of the year and we need to treat it as such.”
Hagan will face John Bojec in round one on Monday.
NO ONE DOES IT BETTER - He is, perhaps, the biggest name in NHRA history.
His performance on the track is only matched by his larger than life personality off of it. He is a 16-time champion. He is the winningest man in NHRA history. And he is a legend at the U.S. Nationals.
Of course, his name is John Force.
And of all of the races he has run, the more than 700 races, nearly 2,000 competitive passes, nothing compares to being at the Big Go.
“This is like Daytona or the Indy 500. You have gotta win it. The sponsors are watching. We have won this race a lot and dominated. We haven’t been dominating, but we have turned the corner,” said Force, a four-time U.S. Nationals champion.
While John’s daughter, Courtney, currently sits second in the Funny Car championship standings, his other two cars - that of Robert Hight and his own - are currently outside the top five and have, for the most part, struggled to keep up with the overwhelming Don Schumacher Racing and Kalitta Motorsports stables.
But Force put a lot of time into testing just for this race and he hopes a big weekend here will propel the team into the Countdown to the Championship, which begins in two weeks at zMAX Dragway at the NHRA Carolina Nationals.
“I spent money on testing for all four teams. Some of my race cars are fast and some are having some breakage issues. You have to look at the big picture. We can compete with anybody. There is a certain part of the race track from 60 feet to 330 feet where we are not running fast. We are working on making that faster,” Force said. “I don’t like winning races by being lucky. I like to win races by being fast. This new Chevrolet Camaro is really working. I have the money to test and run thanks to all my sponsors. I am moving ahead.”
The last time Force hoisted a Wally at Lucas Oil Raceway was 2002 when he outran Tommy Johnson Jr. Since that race, he has raced to two more finals, losing in 2010 to daughter Ashley Force Hood and in 2014 he lost an incredibly close race to Alexis DeJoria.
So for a man who has done it all in the sport, does the nostalgia and history of the biggest race of them all ever fade? Let Force explain.
“I drive out to Lucas Oil Raceway sometimes and I want to get that mood. I come out at night too because we qualify at night. You listen to the music and you have that dream to stand at the starting line. Then you get out to the track and you remember all that you dreamed, remembering all of those times being out here at 9 o’clock at night dreaming of having one more shot to get into the race,” Force said. “It’s the hard work that gets put in that makes it all happen. Sometimes the work best you down, but if you have that dream for those moments, it gets you through it. Once you get into the race and the fight, the dreaming is over.”
Force qualified sixth on Sunday and will race Chad Head in round one on Monday.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO THE FUNNIES - On the property this weekend in Indianapolis are dozens of nostalgia Funny Cars. From the “USA 1” to the “Ramchargers” to the “Detroit Tiger,” decades of classic floppers have participated in cacklefests, exhibition passes and autograph sessions from some of the sport’s greatest drivers.
And it’s all part of NHRA’s celebration of 50 Years of Funny Car that has taken place at races throughout the year, culminating with this weekend’s Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals. During the biggest race of them all, nearly every form of Funny Car to make a lap during an NHRA national event is represented.
From the signature long, smoky burnouts to the wild and zany rides that are often associated with these volatile, short-wheelbase, high-horsepower nitro machines, fans fondly recall some of the greatest Funny Cars in NHRA history. Cars such as the Chi-Town Hustler, Jungle Jim, Don Schumacher’s Stardust Barracudas, John Force’s Brute Force Chevys, Raymond Beadle’s famed Blue Max Mustangs and Don Prudhomme’s U.S. Army machines, to name a few.
Earlier this year, Competition Plus took part in its own fan-voted celebration of 50 years of Funny Cars by allowing current drivers to select their favorite Funny Cars of all-time and allowing the fans to vote on the winner. After nearly two months, Del Worsham’s Blue Max won over Jeff Diehl’s Jungle Jim machine.
FORCE BRINGS THE FIGHT - On Saturday, it was all Don Schumacher Racing.
On Sunday, John Force got his revenge.
It was an all-John Force Racing final in the Funny Car version of the Traxxas Nitro Shootout, as Courtney Force defeated Robert Hight in the final of the $100,000 specialty race Sunday at the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals.
One day after Don Schumacher Racing placed all four cars in the final four of the Top Fuel shootout, a race eventually won by Tony Schumacher over teammate Leah Pritchett, JFR placed two of its three cars in the championship bout on Sunday. Of the eight cars qualified for this year’s Traxxas Funny Car shootout, three were Schumacher cars, three were Force cars, Kalitta had a representative and Tim Wilkerson. But it was JFR left standing in the end.
“To come into the Traxxas Nitro Shootout in an all-JFR final and knock out the DSR guys in the process is definitely huge for what our guys are doing back at the shop,” Force said.
Since Traxxas took over sponsorship of the annual race within a race, Schumacher Racing and JFR have traded the Funny Car win back and forth with John Force winning in 2012 and 2014 and Jack Beckman winning in 2013 and 2015. Now Courtney Force has added her name to that list.
In addition to winning the Traxxas Nitro Shootout, Courtney Force also placed her Traxxas Chevy Camaro inside the top five in qualifying with the fourth quickest pass of the weekend with a 3.867 at 327.11 mph. She will face Jim Campbell in round one on Monday.
CLOSE SHAVE - Talk about a close call.
During the third round of qualifying Saturday night at the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals, Robert Hight suffered a massive explosion of his Auto Club Chevrolet Camaro SS that sent the car’s body high into the air and left Hight with a handful of a car in front of him. Hight’s car, running smoothly to the finish line in the right lane, took a hard left across the track following the failure, putting him right in the path of another car.
And that other car was that of Dave Richards.
Making his first-ever Indy start, Richards had a front-row seat to the carnage, before quickly realizing that he was soon about to be part of the story.
“All I saw was a big flash,” Richards explained. “I’m trying to focus on my lane and I saw the flash and I knew immediately that he blew up. I had no idea how bad it was until I saw the replays. Right at the last second, I saw him really come over in my lane and I just grabbed the wheel and yanked it really hard left and he just barely grazed the back of the car.
“I’m just thankful that we really didn’t get tangled up, because that would have been really bad.”
Richards, who was on a good haul during that qualifying session, broke the blower belt just past half-track as Hight motored right past him. Just shy of the finish line, Hight’s car let go and Richards was left in a situation he had yet to face in his young nitro career.
“Honestly, that is the first time it has ever happened to me,” Richards said. “I kinda just knew he was coming over and once I felt him just barely bump the back of the car and then I didn’t feel him anymore or hear anything, I knew I was in the clear. I knew he was behind me and at that point I was like, ‘wow, that was a close one.’”
With the excitement hopefully behind him, Richards shifts his focus to Monday eliminations, having squeaked his way into the field in the 15th spot with a weekend-best pass of 4.103 at 310.84 mph.
“This is my first time here, so it’s really exciting to be able to be here and compete and actually have a car that is competitive,” Richards said. “I fell like we have a good shot of running with the best of them. We are used to running on limited funds, and to be able to make all of the qualifying runs and give me more seat time feels great.”
ANOTHER WILD RIDE - Saturday it was Robert Hight. On Sunday, it was Ron Capps’ turn to take a wild ride.
During the first round of the Traxxas Nitro Shootout, Ron Capps’ parachute failed to deploy in a win over John Force, sending the NAPA Auto Parts Dodge Charger into the sand, into the catch nets and onto its roof.
With his hands hard on the brake, Capps’ parachutes did not deploy until about 150 feet shy of the sandtrap. Carrying quite a bit of speed, Capps positioned the car in the middle of the track, rolling into the trap and onto its roof as it bumped into the catch net at the top end of the track.
“After finishing the run, I didn’t feel the chutes hit. I hit the button several times and at that time I went into survival mode,” a clearly shaken Capps said. “You go through the checklist. Get on the brakes, make sure the fuel is shut off. I reached down and shut it off manually. Then I saw the Safety Safari guy scrambling on the top end not knowing which way I was going to go. I was on the brakes so hard it was probably bubbling the fluid. I centered the car as best as I could and thought, this is it, time to brace myself.
“I haven’t gone into the sand at that rate of speed and I didn’t want to flip it over. I put it in a slide and worked it right up until the end until it caught and flipped over. The worst part was lying there upside down with no way out. I started freaking out, I was running out of air and I was yelling at the safety team to get me out and they kept yelling back that they are trying.
“My daughter had texted me just before the run wishing me good luck and my wife is in the suite. It was a scary experience, but I am standing here right now thanks to those guys back at the shop.”
It was the second major incident in as many days as Robert Hight’s Auto Club Chevrolet Camaro SS Funny Car exploded in spectacular fashion, sending the body high into the air Saturday night.
KALITTA SHOWDOWN - One of the most interesting matchups in round one of Funny Car on Monday will occur between the No. 7 and No. 10 qualifiers as the Kalitta teammates of Del Worsham and Alexis DeJoria will do battle, with one heading home earlier from the Big Go.
DeJoria, making her return after two weeks on the sideline nursing an injury, was strong in her first passes since Sonoma with a weekend-best 3.945 at 324.28 mph. Worsham, sporting brand new Mello Yello lettering on the side of his DHL Toyota Camry, qualified seventh with a 3.874 at 328.86 mph. It is Worsham’s lowest qualifying position since Chicago.
In four previous matchups this season, the duo have split those races with two wins each.
IT’S FOOTBALL SEASON IN THE PEDREGON PITS - In just one week, the NFL returns to stadiums and living rooms across the nation.
But it is already football season in the pit of veteran Funny Car pilot Cruz Pedregon.
A longtime Oakland Raiders fan, the two-time NHRA world champ, who has made numerous trips to Oakland camps through the years, has taken a bit from the Raiders playbook that he is hoping he can apply to his own operation. And, currently riding the wave of one of the worst seasons in his famed career, any help will go a long way in getting this team back where it needs to be.
“We are close. It’s not as bad as it looks from the outside. I know we are missing a lot of runs, smoking the tires, but we just need more time on the track,” said Pedregon, who is currently 12th in points with one runner-up finish, but only five round wins all season. “We have the combination, we are just trying to refine it. We are a run or two, maybe half a dozen, from getting it. I am confident we will be there by the end of the year and go into ‘17 with some optimism.
“I am in talks with some people to help bolster our roster. I am like the owner, like the GM of a football team. I just have to get some people in here that will make a difference.”
Unfortunately, that turnaround won’t start this weekend. Pedregon just missed the field on Sunday, qualifying 17th with a weekend-best of 4.753 at 222.99 mph.
“It’s always been a special race to me. I have been fortunate to win it three times, but it has been a long time,” Pedregon said. “It’s a big race. Everybody is into it. It pays the best. It’s the mothership of them all.”
So as a former winner of this race, having raced at the Big Go for more than two decades, what is Pedregon’s best memory of this event?
“Winning that first one,” Pedregon said. “When I crossed the finish line, I remember I raced Del Worsham in the final, I was so emotional. It was such a weight off my shoulder. I really felt like they will never be able to take this away from me. I will be up there with the greats that have won this race. The other two are obviously big, but that first one, when that little bulb comes on in your lane, it means you have made it.”
WHAT ABOUT THE BOAT TIMES - The last word you would think to use when describing a nitro Funny Car is safe.
Of course these 10,000 horsepower machines have years of research and development behind them and of course they are much safer than they were 30, 20, even 10 years ago. But to actually call a car that is capable of speeds in excess of 335 miles per hour and covers the 1,000 foot distance in less than four seconds safe, is a hard sell.
But that is exactly how veteran nitro racer Bob Bode would describe them.
A former powerboat racer, Bode made the switch to Funny Car racing nearly two decades ago and he did it because it was the safer option. Say what?
“I ran powerboats for 20 years and it was pretty dangerous over there. I lost a bunch of friends. As I got older, I said I need to do something safe, so I bought a Funny Car,” Bode said with a laugh. “Believe it or not, I feel way safer in this than I ever did in the boats. With all of the safety rules, these things are built so well. This car, if you crash one, it will beat you up, don’t get me wrong, you have to respect it, but with the boat racing, it didn’t beat you up, it just killed you. That is a tough, nasty sport.
“When I was younger I thought I was a gladiator. Now I know I’m not. Now I know I can get hurt. When I am in this thing, I know I can get hurt, but I feel much better about it.”
So, after years racing in both disciplines, which is harder to drive? That, too, is an easy answer.
“This, by a long shot,” Bode said. “The boat, you had a full second to react. If it came up out of the water or nosed over, you had a second. When you run the Funny Car, you have a quarter of a second. When this thing moves to the wall or is going to blow up, you don’t have a second. After a second, you have smacked the wall and are on fire.
“Everything three to four times faster. That was hard to get used to, but after 16 years, I think I have it down.”
This weekend marks more than 15 years at the U.S. Nationals for Bode, and he gets chills coming here just as he did the very first time.
“Indy is always a great because of the people. But Indy has never been that good to us,” Bode said. “Out of the 15 or 16 years I have been here, I have probably only qualified five times and I have wrecked more stuff than all of the other places put together.
“Every year, someone says to me, ‘let’s go somewhere else.’ But we always come back. It’s just a great place to race.”
Bode turned those fortunes around this weekend, qualifying 14th with a 4.095 at 310.77 mph and will race Ron Capps in round one on Monday.
A TALE OF TWO SEASONS - It is hard to put in a nutshell the season Tim Wilkerson has had.
After winning the second race of the season in Phoenix, Wilkerson rocketed up the Funny Car standings into the top five and by Houston, one more win and a runner-up finish helped place Wilkerson first in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series championship.
Since that moment, however, Wilkerson has been in a steady decline. He has won only five rounds of racing and has slide from first back to ninth in the championship.
This weekend, Wilkerson is looking to once again right the ship and, hopefully, gain some momentum entering the Countdown to the Championship which is set to begin in just two weeks. And to do that, Wilkerson says he has to put all of the added pressure that comes with a race at Lucas Oil Raceway and put it behind him.
“I try not to get too excited by all of the craziness that surrounds the race,” Wilkerson said. “I need to look at this as just another race to help keep my focus on the Levi, Ray & Shoup Mustang and winning.”
Wilkerson’s roller-coaster season continued on Sunday, losing in the first round of the Traxxas Nitro Shootout to Matt Hagan and then qualifying ninth with a 3.914 at 323.97 mph. He will face Robert Hight in round one on Monday.
HEADING HOME - Three drivers missed the cut for the U.S. Nationals on Sunday as three-time Indy winner Cruz Pedregon qualified 17th, just outside the cut, joining Justin Schriefer and Tim Gibbons who will also not be racing on Monday.
SATURDAY FUNNY CAR NOTEBOOK
MORE OF THE SAME - Nothing changed among the top three in Funny Car after two more rounds of qualifying on Saturday as Matt Hagan remained on top with a 3.858 at 330.80 mph retained from Friday night’s session. Jack Beckman (3.859, 333.08 mph) and Ron Capps (3.861, 325.30 mph) remained in second and third.
The big change came from Courtney Force as the driver of the Traxxas Chevrolet Camaro rocketed from the bottom half of the ladder following an aborted Friday run all the way up to fourth with a 3.867 at 327.11 mph under the lights. Tommy Johnson Jr., who was sixth on Friday, improved his time as well and moved up to fifth with a 3.868 at 329.99 mph.
Currently on the outside looking in with two more sessions to go are Chad Head, Cruz Pedregon and Tim Gibbons.
ALMOST PERFECT - There is no other word to describe the 2015 U.S. Nationals for Jack Beckman other than perfect.
He won the $100,000 Traxxas Nitro Shootout. He was No. 1 qualifier for the Big Go. And then he won it all in a shootout with Robert Hight. It was a weekend unlike any other and one that he won’t soon forget.
But that won’t be the case this weekend.
Beckman just missed out on qualifying for this season’s Traxxas Nitro Shootout in the lottery drawing on Wednesday, and then came up just short again on Friday, qualifying in second behind teammate Matt Hagan with a 3.859 at 333.08 mph.
While he won’t have a chance at the triple, he will try to get as close as possible over the next three days in the Infinite Hero Dodge Charger R/T.
“Last year was as close to a perfect racing weekend as a drag racer could have,” Beckman said. “But when you’ve stood on the top of Everest, going to other mountains don’t look quite as good. We are not in the Traxxas shootout this year. We aren’t the quickest out here. This year hasn’t been been a bad season, we are currently sitting fourth, we’ve won a race. And coming into Indy, it’s points and a half. We want to get to the Countdown second and winning this race is the way we get that done. That would fix a whole lot of issues.”
While it is easy to become overwhelmed with the history and the pressure the U.S. Nationals places on a driver, Beckman admits that the only way to survive the grueling four-day weekend is to put the pressure behind you.
As they say, that is easier said than done.
“During the Olympics, I saw one of the guys on the hurdles trip over the first hurdle. You say, how do you make the Olympics and trip over the first hurdle,” Beckman said. “It’s not a physical thing, it’s a mental thing. That person told himself, this is more important than anything leading up to here. The truth is, every run should be important. If you take the same mental framework into every run, you go up to the starting line focused.
“Yes, in the back of your mind you know it’s Indy. The points are 150 percent of regular. You get an extra run. But you can’t treat it any differently and expect good results.”
KABOOM - During Q3 Saturday night, Robert Hight’s Auto Club Chevrolet Camaro SS suffered a massive explosion just past the finish line that left the maching in pieces and the car’s body lying in the grassy area on the other side of the guardrail.
Running alongside Dave Richards in the final qualifying session of the night, Hight’s car was cruising along in the right lane when the header flames went out just shy of the finish line and moments later exploded in spectacular fashion, sending the car’s body high into the air. The car then took a violent turn left into Richards’ lane and the pair just avoided touching before Hight was able to regain control of the machine. Hight was uninjured in the incident.
“It was marching along pretty good and there was no indication of a problem and all of a sudden it just exploded,” Hight explained. “Next thing I knew the force blew me over into the next lane and we just missed hitting the other car. We have a lot of work to do tonight to get this thing ready for the Traxxas Shootout tomorrow.”
SAFETY FIRST - It is one of the most controversial decisions in the history of NHRA drag racing.
Moving the finish line from the traditional quarter-mile distance to 1,000 feet for the nitro categories following the death of Scott Kalitta in 2008 was a move met with overwhelming debate amongst racers and the traditional drag racing community. When the move was made, it was the first time NHRA had conducted racing at any distance other than a quarter-mile at a national event since the first one was held in 1955.
But after nearly a decade and thousands of passes made at the 1,000 foot mark, the debate is once again making headlines.
Originally designed to artificially slow down the nitro cars all while giving them an extra 320 feet of stopping distance, the topic has once again entered the conversation as Funny Car teams continue to lower the bar and produce ETs and speeds even quicker than what was being achieved at the quarter-mile.
In Indianapolis this weekend, more than half the field recorded a pass in the three-second zone on Friday with three passes at more than 330 miles per hour. Earlier this year, Matt Hagan recorded an unbelievable 3.822-second lap and a lap at more than 335 mph to set the national record in both. And the scary part is, he believes that passes in the 3.70s are not that far off.
So as fans continue to support the movement seeking a return to the “traditional” finish line distance, racers have other ideas. Namely, making it home to their kids each night.
“These cars are so fast. They cover so much ground now and I get it, some of these fans are diehard. They grew up watching quarter-mile racing, but I say this to them, they have never been on fire and unable to see where you are at and you need every inch of real estate to get these things stopped,” said Hagan, who has been the driving force behind a number of benchmarks in the class including being the first driver in the three-second zone and the first in the 3.80s. “I think it is a great move that NHRA made to give us another 320 feet to get these cars shut down. We are going faster than we ever have in the history of the sport.
“I hate it for those folks that are disappointed, but I enjoy seeing my kids too. I know what we do is dangerous, but I think as long as NHRA keeps doing the things they are doing to keep us safe, I am going to keep crawling back in them.”
The lessons learned following the death of Kalitta at Englishtown in June of 2008 continue to be a driving force behind the advancement of safety innovations with both the NHRA and the individual teams. And Hagan has seen those advancements each and every year in an effort to keep the drivers as safe as possible.
“In most sports, stuff has to happen for change to happen. The loss of Scott is one of those things that is very, very unfortunate, but it brought change and it was change in a safer direction,” Hagan said. “Anybody that is upset about (1,000 foot racing), I tell them, ‘here are the keys brother.’ These cars are violent. They are fast. But that is why we get paid to do what we do. But you also have to keep safety in mind. I still have a family to think about and folks that I want to go home to.
“It’s great to be fast and loud, but you also have to be safe doing it.”
As the Funny Car teams continue to lower the elapsed time and speed records each and every weekend, Hagan admits that the next round of safety advancements in the class need to be in development now to stay out front of the incredible speeds the cars are achieving.
“Obviously, I would maybe like to see Goodyear come out with a tire that you can run 350 with. Because, at the end of the day, these crew chiefs are going to make these cars go faster and faster,” Hagan said. “The biggest thing we run into is real estate and getting them stopped. You can’t make them heavier and what we are doing now is putting the rev limiter on to slow them down and what people don’t realize is that is really dangerous for us.
“Within three seconds you are on the rev limiter and then you are dropping cylinders down on the big end and I am having to reel the car back in and in a Funny Car, that is a handful. Some of my fastest runs have been some of the runs I feel like I am the most at risk.
“There is not a great answer. Maybe the only answer is Goodyear comes up with something that we can run 350 with and let these crew chiefs do what they do. Because the technology is there to reach even greater speeds.”
WELCOME BACK ALEXIS - It was the most painful month of her life - both literally and figuratively.
After suffering a broken pelvis during a crash at the NHRA Sonoma Nationals, Alexis DeJoria knew she would miss some time, she just didn’t know how much. She knew that she would miss the Northwest Nationals one week later in Seattle, so she set her sights on a return in mid-August in Brainerd.
And then that date came and went. Suddenly DeJoria, with a win already this season and a spot comfortably in the Countdown to the Championship, was left wondering just when she would be given the green light to return.
“That first week was very painful,” a dejected DeJoria said. “There was nothing I could really do. I couldn’t start physical therapy because it was just too soon. They just wanted me to stay at home and rest and heal. That was tough, but at the same time, I was in so much pain, there’s no place I really wanted to be at that moment.”
But as the days and weeks passed by, DeJoria found herself feeling better and better. She worked at rehabbing her body, then she began working on the mental aspect. Before long, the driver of the Tequila Patron Funny Car knew that her time was coming - and it would probably come at Indy.
“I had a lot of help from my family and my husband. What can I say? I was an impatient athlete. Every athlete will tell you the same thing, you try to hurry the process, hurry the recovery as fast as you can,” DeJoria said. “When I left Sonoma I was on crutches. I was on crutches for the first four or five days and after that, I was like, ‘to hell with these things. If I have to hobble around, I will do that.’
“I tried to get back for Brainerd, but there was no way. My crew chief and doctors were like, ‘Alexis, no. You might feel better physically, but you still have a fractured bone and that is going to heal when it wants to heal.’ After that I circled Indy. That is when I was coming back.”
With a little help from her teammates, DeJoria finished up her rehab and was given the green light to compete this weekend just this past week. And, as you might imagine, there was no holding her back once she got behind the wheel.
“Del (Worsham) offered to test the car, giving me a little more time to heal. I got the x-rays done a week before I came out here and even the doctors were amazed. All the therapy, all the treatments I’ve been doing every week, really worked,” DeJoria said. “And there was no hesitation when I got back in the car. I was gunning for people.
“We got a brand new seat poured. It is super comfortable, we had to make a few adjustments, it was a little hard to steer that first pass, but we are getting the hang of it. I’m ready to fight.”
DeJoria, the 2014 winner of the U.S. Nationals, enters this weekend’s event at Lucas Oil Raceway 10th in points, 87 points clear of Chad Head. She will look to secure her spot this weekend in the Countdown to the Championship with a strong performance.
BLACK AND YELLOW - No, it’s not the 1990s. Cole Trickle did not just walk through the doors. But Mello Yello is back.
For the first time in nearly 40 years, the Coca-Cola company’s citrus-flavored soft drink brand, Mello Yello, will appear on an NHRA Funny Car.
To celebrate Funny Car’s half-century of racing, Mello Yello is partnering with Kalitta Motorsports to co-brand the team’s DHL-sponsored Toyota Camry Funny Car at the U.S. Nationals this weekend in Indianapolis. The one-time custom-wrapped car will be driven by the reigning NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Funny Car champion, Del Worsham.
“It’s an honor to have Mello Yello and the Coca-Cola Company join DHL on our Toyota Camry for this weekend’s event,” said Worsham, who won the previous event in Brainerd in his 500th career start. “The U.S. Nationals is an iconic event, and to be able to carry Mello Yello for our biggest race of the season, is very exciting. Our DHL Camry has been running very strong recently, and I plan on doing well for DHL, Mello Yello and all of the great guests here with us this weekend.”
COURTNEY IN DIAPERS - A lot of people remember their first time at the Big Go.
Families enjoying a day at the races. Years of father-son bonding. Whether your first time or your 50th, there is nothing quite like the U.S. Nationals.
Just ask Courtney Force.
Force has been coming to Indianapolis since she was in diapers, crawling around the pits since 1988, watching as her father has won an amazing four Indy titles. And even as a kid, she recognized that this race meant just a little bit more.
“Literally, since we were kids, we’ve all been out here. For me, this was like the end of our summer as we were getting ready to start school and go back home to California. It was the last big race,” Force said. “This was always the one where I asked my mom, ‘is this the race where dad gets two trophies?’ That was the only way I could wrap my head around it. It’s a special race and it always has been and I knew that as a kid.
“All those years, sitting in the stands. Sitting in the tow truck during the final round. It was always a lot of fun. And, of course, the winner’s circles. All those memories compile together. It would be pretty surreal if I could do the same thing.”
A win this weekend would mean even more for Force as she has more on the line than any other driver on the property. The Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals. Home of the Traxxas Nitro Shootout. All taking place at Lucas Oil Raceway.
And all are major sponsors on the side of Force’s car.
“It’s definitely in the back of your head when you are at this race. It’s exciting, but it also puts a lot of pressure on you,” Force said. “Being at Lucas Oil Raceway, competing in the Traxxas Nitro Shootout, racing at the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals, it definitely pumps you up to want to get the win here to show your sponsors and the fans that you have the car to beat out here.”
So as Force prepares to juggle trying to win her primary sponsor’s major race in the Traxxas Nitro Shootout, while at the same time keeping her composure for a shot at the big prize on Monday and maintaining her spot as the second car in the points, Force paused and took a moment to weigh just what a win here this weekend would mean.
“You go down in history when you win at Indianapolis. You are always remembered on that list of greats that have won here before,” Force said. “My dad has won here. My sister Ashley has won here. Personally, I would love to do it to join my family. It would mean a lot to win at the U.S. Nationals.”
THROWING IT BACK - As the years pass by, things change.
In the olden days, it was not uncommon to walk through the pits and see the drivers working right alongside their crews, rebuilding motors, making adjustments and preparing the car prior to each run.
While you can still see that in a modern nitro pit, it is far less often as drivers as ushered from PR appearances to interviews to autograph sessions, all while the task of preparing the car falls solely on the crew. But for some of the smaller teams, that old school, throwback pit atmosphere still exists.
And one of those teams is that of Funny Car driver Justin Schriefer.
Schriefer, who got his start scrubbing and washing parts for other teams and is now driving a Funny Car at the Big Go this weekend in Indianapolis, remembers well how he got to this point.
“This is our dream just to be out here with these teams,” Schriefer said. “I was a bracket racer starting out, then I got into Top Sportsman. My brother and I were looking for a Hemi motor for our Challenger and I ran into Dale Creasy Sr. and we went racing with him. Next thing we know, we are addicted. I started out cleaning the body and scrubbing and washing parts and stuck with it until one day they are letting me touch the motor.
“I worked my way up from there. One day, Dale just said, ‘I’ll put you in the car.’”
Trying to make the field this weekend, when walking through the pits, you will see Schriefer still working right alongside his crew preparing the car, just like the throwback days of drag racing lore.
“I have good help here, but being around it so long, I still want to have my hands on things,” Schriefer said. “The clutch, the pedal, you get used to, when you are driving, mechanically working on the car and setting things the way you like for comfort. It is hard to let that part go.”
And if you are thinking about trying to drag Schriefer away from his duties working on the car, watch out - Schriefer is also a bodybuilder with years of karate experience.
“I started bodybuilding when I was 16,” Schriefer said. “I don’t know how much it helps out on the racetrack, but let’s just say if the car tries to get out of hand, I will do my best to make sure it doesn’t out wrestle me.”
LIKE A KID ON CHRISTMAS MORNING - The U.S. Nationals.
The very mention of its name brings back memories of epic wins, record passes and, of course, lots and lots of nostalgia.
And for the drivers, that feeling of history and excitement are tenfold as they roll through the waterbox and light up the tires in front of the thousands of fans on a track that has hosted nearly every drag racing great this sport has ever known.
“I’ve thought about this race all week long,” said John Hale, driver of the Oberto Beef Jerky/Jim Dunn Racing Dodge Charger Funny Car. “I was as nervous as a little kid going to the doctor’s office last night up there on that run. (Bob) Bode caught fire in the left lane, so I had to sit there a little bit longer. But when it came time to do the job and the motor fired, I put it all behind me and made a run like I always do.
“I am very excited to see what happens this weekend.”
Of course, from Saturday to Monday during one of the longest races on the calendar, there are a number of hurdles along the way. One, of course, is a loaded Funny Car lineup trying to make the field of 16. The second, and one that may be even harder to plan for, is the weather. While there is no rain the forecast, current predictions call for both the temperatures and humidity to steadily keep rising leading to a potentially hot, slippery racetrack come race day.
“Big Jim (Dunn) is in charge of those adjustments,” Hale said. “He watches the weather and has a program that will tell him what head gaskets to use, how much nitro percentage and how much timing to use on the weather change. He’ll monitor the weather during the day and he can pretty much pinpoint what it’s going to be when we do run. The final decision comes on the starting line. He checks the track temperature, adjusts tire pressure, and off we go.”
LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON - It’s not exactly how he’d hoped to be in this position, but Chad Head can secure a spot in the Countdown to the Championship this weekend if he can go more rounds than Alexis DeJoria.
DeJoria, who saw her comfortable lead in the Countdown standings evaporate following an injury that left her sidelined the past two races, holds an 87-point lead over Head enter this weekend’s race. And with points worth more this weekend, anything can happen.
Head admits he is not proud of the season he has had, with only six round wins and two semifinal finishes dotting a season filled with first round losses, but he is excited to be where he is racing at Indy with his longtime racing father Jim Head.
“Every race is exciting for me. Whether it is here, Norwalk, Denver, Sonoma, we all have our favorite tracks. This track is obviously very famous for its history. It’s the biggest race of the year, four day of excitement,” Head said. “I got here early this morning and just cruised around, saw some people I haven’t seen in a long time. It is close to home which makes it nice. I get to see some friends and family. And to be here racing with my dad. Not too many people have that opportunity, to drive a nitro Funny Car with their father. And I think that is pretty cool.”
FRIDAY FUNNY CAR NOTEBOOK
BOYS JUST WANT TO HAVE FUN - Another week, another record.
It is safe to say no one is having more fun out on the racetrack than Matt Hagan.
Hagan once again raced to the top of the charts under the lights during the first of five rounds of qualifying at the 62nd annual Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals on Friday, bettering the previous track record by .078 on his way to the provisional top spot in Funny Car.
“You crawl in there, put your mouthpiece in, strap your belts down tight, and you can just see it in your crew chiefs eyes. It is either going to go, or it ain’t,” Hagan said with a laugh. “It’s not just us, there are a lot of cars out there that are all stacked together. I think this is going to be the most competitive Countdown that we have seen in the history of the sport in Funny Car.”
Hagan took the top spot with a 3.858 at 330.80 mph, just edging teammate Jack Beckman who had a 3.859 at 333.08 mph. Eight drivers bettered the previous Lucas Oil Raceway track record.
“Out of the 16 cars, there are probably a good 12 or 13 that can run what we are running every lap. I think a lot of it is going to come down to reaction time. It is no different than Pro Stock it is so competitive,” Hagan said. “Whoever leaves the starting line first wins.”
RECORD ASSAULT - Week after week, race after race, track records continue to fall on the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series.
Nearly every weekend, the Funny Car record books have been rewritten by half a dozen different drivers. And Friday was no exception.
Under the lights at Lucas Oil Raceway, eight different drivers surpassed the previous track record of 3.936 seconds at the Indianapolis-based track, and those same eight drivers raced right past the previous speed record of 323.74 mph. Tim Wilkerson got the party started with a 3.934 at 328.46 mph in the fifth pairing and it just snowballed from there.
HARD TO BELIEVE – Ron Capps has won a lot of races.
In a career spanning more than 20 years, one that includes more than 475 races run, nearly 100 final round appearances and 50 career victories (good enough for second all-time in NHRA Funny Car), there is little doubt that Capps will go down as one of the greatest Funny Car drivers in NHRA history.
There is just one thing missing from one of the most impressive resumes in the sport – a win at the prestigious Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals. No, strike that, how about just a final round appearance?
As hard as it is to believe, of the more than 1,000 rounds of competitive passes Capps has taken part in, not a single one has taken place in the final round at the Big Go. He has won special events during the U.S. Nationals, including winning three NHRA all-star shootouts, but he has yet to see that success turn into a win at the biggest race of them all.
And that leaves Capps, who has already clinched the regular season title, hungry to finally make it happen this weekend.
“I haven’t won it yet, and I know with this particular race you have to earn it,” Capps said. “That’s why it’s the U.S. Nationals and why it is our biggest race. I love the fact that I have a great crew chief in (Rahn) Tobler who is so experienced and knowledgeable and adaptable to changing conditions.”
And with this weekend featuring a special celebration of NHRA’s 50 years of Funny Car, it would mean even more for Capps to get it done here.
“It would be hard to top the opportunity we have this year to win Indy during NHRA’s celebration of 50 years of Funny Car,” Capps said. “This year makes Indy even bigger than it already is.”
Of course, it would also be remiss if we failed to mention that Capps has also failed to win a Mello Yello championship during his illustrious career. So if he had to choose just one, which basket would Capps place all of his eggs?
“Growing up reading my dad’s Hot Rod magazines and reading about the U.S. Nationals, it’s always been the pinnacle of our sport. It’s probably more important to me to win Indy than it is a world championship,” Capps said. “That’s how big this race is.”
TRAXXAS SHOOTOUT PREVIEW – It may only be Friday, but it’s the perfect time to take a quick glance at the 2016 Traxxas Nitro Shootout for Funny Car is set to take place on Sunday beginning at 12:30 p.m.
This year’s Shootout features quite a few intriguing matchups thanks to one of the most competitive seasons in NHRA Funny Car history.
Two-time winner of this special Indy-based shootout and 16-time world champion John Force won the lottery drawing on Wednesday, giving him the No. 8 seed against current points leader and five-time winner in 2016 Ron Capps. The two winningest drivers in Funny Car history will square off having faced each other six times already this season in eliminations, with Capps holding a 5-1 edge.
Drivers earn a spot in the Traxxas Nitro Shootout by winning an NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series regular season event, holding the No. 1 spot it the standings or via a fan vote and lottery-style drawing. The race is open to the first seven winners of an NHRA Funny Car or Top Fuel race leading up to the U.S. Nationals.
Defending world champion Del Worsham, defending Traxxas Shootout and U.S. Nationals winner Jack Beckman, Cruz Pedregon, John Hale and Chad Head just missed the cut.
“The bad news is that I got Capps,” said Force after having his name drawn in the random lottery. “But I want to say that these are some of the baddest hot rods in the land; Cruz and Beckman and Worsham. I need the practice. I need some more rounds, but I’m embarrassed. I love Traxxas, but this isn’t how I wanted to get here. I’ve never gambled in my life. I don’t like luck. I play strategy and I’ve got to get my stuff together.”
Other matchups include the battle of the ladies as Houston winner Courtney Force will go up against Las Vegas winner Alexis DeJoria, who will also be making her return to the driver’s seat after an injury in Sonoma left her sidelined the past two races.
Matt Hagan, who won in Atlanta, will be pitted against Phoenix winner Tim Wilkerson, while Gainesville winner Robert Hight will race Bristol winner Tommy Johnson Jr. in the opening rounds.
The winner of the NHRA Traxxas Nitro Shootouts will receive $100,000 in both Top Fuel and Funny Car. The runner-up will receive $15,000.
FEAST OR FAMINE - No one, and we mean no one, has a more love/hate relationship with the U.S. Nationals than Robert Hight.
In 11 previous starts in Indianapolis, the driver of the Auto Club Chevrolet Camaro SS Funny Car has six final round appearances, four first round losses, and one quarterfinal finish. In a seemingly first or last scenario, Hight typically knows how his weekend is going to go after round one of eliminations, including making it all the way to the final of last year’s U.S. Nationals in a narrow loss to Jack Beckman.
With two wins to his credit, Hight enters the race weekend with a ton of confidence backed even further with a top five qualifying run on Friday. Hight qualified just behind teammate John Force in fifth with a 3.881 at 330.31 mph.
“Last year we came off a win in Brainerd so we had some momentum coming in here,” Hight said. “We went to the finals of the Traxxas Nitro Shootout and the finals of the race. I don’t think we are far off with my Auto Club Chevrolet Camaro. We are just a little off. We are missing some consistency and power. That is why we were in Indy last week testing for two days. We learned some things and I think we are headed in the right direction.
“I have said this before, but if you are hunting for a combination at this time of the year you are in trouble. I don’t by any means think we are lost. We just have to dial it in and be a little more consistent.”
FULL PULL – After weeks of “testing” at NHRA events, Funny Car driver John Bojec is ready to get down to business this weekend.
After making only planned shut-off runs at Brainerd, the team, led by crew chief Johnny West, are ready to make a full pull this weekend at the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals. And the team got off to a great start on Friday, blasting to 10th after one of five rounds of qualifying with a solid 4.007 at 299.86 mph.
The Mentor-Ohio based Speed City team is running the last seven races of the 2016 NHRA Mello Yello season.
RACING WITH RILEY - This weekend at the U.S. Nationals Tommy Johnson Jr. and his crew will be racing for more than an NHRA Wally at the biggest race of them all.
They are racing for Riley Kids.
Johnson will be running a special paint scheme on his Don Schumacher Racing-backed Funny Car funded by Terry Chandler during the U.S. Nationals bannering the colors of Riley Children’s Hospital in the Riley Dream Racer Dodge Charger R/T.
“It’s always special to race at Indy in the Riley car because Indy is the home of Riley Hospital for Children,” Johnson said. Indy in itself is big for any driver and everyone wants to win Indy. Then, to be able to win in the Riley car, would bring a lot of special meaning, not only to me and our team, but to the kids and their families as well.”
Johnson and the team treated Riley Kids to a special Papa John’s Pizza party during the week. Johnson, who was quickest during testing leading up to this weekend’s race, qualified sixth on Friday with a 3.882 at 327.43 mph.
THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE - Entering this weekend’s Chevrolet Performance US Nationals, every spot in the NHRA Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship standings is secure in Funny Car - except one.
Nine of the 10 spots in this year’s Countdown are locked up, with only one spot remaining to be decided this weekend.
Currently, Alexis DeJoria, making her return after two weeks on the sidelines nursing an injury, sits in the 10th and final position, 87 points clear of 11th place Chad Head. Cruz Pedregon is currently 12th, 115 points back of DeJoria and John Hale is 13th, 213 points behind DeJoria.
Adding to the drama, it is points and a half this weekend in Indianapolis, meaning truly anything can happen.