2017 NHRA CAROLINA NATIONALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
DOUG KALITTA SCORES BIG AFTER DAY OF UPSETS IN CHARLOTTE - Doug Kalitta capitalized at the NHRA Carolina Nationals on a day when the top four in points failed to advance to the semis.
But the reality is, Kalitta could very easily have joined them in making an early exit.
“Everything was going normal in [our between round preparation for the semifinal] and then we started the car and it sounded terrible,” Kalitta recalled. “Come to find out we had some nozzles that were plugged. Then we fixed that, and started it again and the same thing, sounded like crap. We changed the cylinder heads and manifold in 30 minutes which was a feat in itself. It was a helluva team effort. We didn’t start it again, and barely made it up here for the semifinal round. We made it up here, just in time. I’m real proud of our guys who chipped in to make it possible.”
The win broke several winless streaks for Doug Kalitta and the Kalitta Motorsports team. For both, it was their first Top Fuel win since the 2016 World Finals at Pomona. Additionally, it was the first win for Doug Kalitta and the team’s Top Fuel operation at the zMAX Dragway in Concord, N.C.
“It’s nice to come up here to get our first win, and we’ve been coming here for a long time, to win in the land of NASCAR. I’m a big NASCAR fan so that makes it great for sure,” said Kalitta.
The day of upsets in Top Fuel started early when Wayne Newby eliminated Leah Pritchett in Round 1, while Kalitta held off Chris Karamesines. Round 2 then saw Tony Schumacher fall to Kalitta, Antron Brown fall to Clay Millican and Steve Torrence fall to Richie Crampton.
Crampton then went off to defeat Brittany Force in the semis while Kalitta defeated Clay Millican, making it an all-Kalitta Motorsport final between Crampton and the 53-year-old Michigan native.
“[Crampton] was killing it with the Countdown cars!” exclaimed Kalitta following his win. Indeed, Crampton had put an end to the days of Scott Palmer in Round 1 as well as Torrence in Round 2 and Force in the Semis.
Kalitta got the win with a 3.775 at 318.39 mph against Crampton’s 3.876 in the final. It was Crampton’s first final since racing J.R. Todd - behind the wheel of the SealMaster car - last year at Sonoma.
“It’s a great day for Connie Kalitta having two of his dragsters in the final round,” said Doug Kalitta. “Richie did a great job stepping into that dragster, making it into the finals. Now we have a dragster win, after the Kalitta Funny Cars had been showing us what to do.
“With the Funny Cars winning the previous two races, that started it really for us. The pedal job J.R. [Todd] did to win at Indy marked the breakthrough for all of our teams. He pulled off an incredible win, and it seems like this has started the momentum building throughout the organization. Everyone is working hard on these teams. And it’s important at 79 years old, Connie Kalitta is out here having fun.
“There’s a lot to be said about getting hot at the right time. We’ve gotten hot at the wrong time. Certainly this is the first race and it great momentum. It’s definitely the right time to make it happen. We have a lot of momentum leaving here, and we will keep our heads down and moving forward.”
Epping and Indianapolis are now the only tracks where Doug Kalitta has yet to take home the win.
Kalitta not only leaves Charlotte with a win there checked off of his list, but also with the points lead. Torrence is just 14 points behind. Samuel Reiman
HIGHT HAS ‘DREAM’ PERFORMANCE IN CHARLOTTE, TAKES OVER FUNNY CAR CHAMPIONSHIP LEAD - Robert Hight has seen it all.
He has won championships. He has won races. He is the quickest and fastest man in Funny Car history. So when Hight considers any race a “dream” scenario, you know it is special.
That was just the case for Hight Sunday at the 10th annual NHRA Carolina Nationals as the former champion overcame a gauntlet of Countdown competitors en route to earning his third victory of the season and 40th of his career at zMAX Dragway in Charlotte.
“It was a perfect day. You can only dream of a day like this,” an elated Hight said. “This was probably one of the toughest race days I’ve ever had. All four rounds were Countdown competitors. It was a lot of hard work, but we got it done. We definitely earned this one.”
Hight bested four Countdown to the Championship competitors on Sunday after struggling to his lowest qualifying position in four months. He then capped the near-perfect day with a win over his John Force Racing teammate Courtney Force in the final.
Hight produced a better light and never trailed in knocking off the No. 1 qualifier with a 3.943-second pass at 328.86 mph behind the wheel of the Auto Club of Southern California Chevrolet Camaro SS Funny Car. Force, in her first final since Epping in June, ran a 3.980 at 315.19 mph in the runner-up effort.
“In all honesty, you can’t lose in that situation. But I will tell you, it is the Countdown and I would have been bummed if we had not taken advantage of all of these cars going out early and not got the win,” Hight said. “I was amped up. I rolled in there pretty good, had a great light and I got the win. But I was nervous. We hadn’t been down that left lane all weekend, but Jimmy Prock said we will be just fine. And rarely is he wrong.”
Hight added wins over J.R. Todd, Tommy Johnson Jr. and Matt Hagan - drivers who have combined for six wins in 2017 - and had little trouble dispatching the trio. Hight set low elapsed time of the day in a round one win over Hagan with a 3.927-second pass at 326.95 mph in the heat of the day, followed by another great run against a tire-smoking Johnson. In the semifinal, Hight again escaped a close race - a 3.985 to a 3.999 - in a win over U.S. Nationals winner Todd.
Force had wins over Alexis DeJoria, John Force and Bob Gilbertson.
“We’ve actually had a pretty great racecar over these last 15 races in hot or cold conditions,” Hight said. “If you look at the races, we are low ET on race day and that was the case today. We didn’t have our best qualifying effort here, but we got it going on Sunday when it really counts.
“We had Matt Hagan first round. When you race Matt Hagan first round you better not go up there shy and I had the right guy for that - Jimmy Prock. We went up there with low ET of race day. Then you move on to Tommy Johnson, another Countdown car with multiple wins this year, and we got him. Then J.R. Todd who has been on a hot streak lately. It was an incredible day.”
Thanks to that impressive performance, Hight leaves Charlotte with a 44-point lead over Ron Capps with five races remaining in the Countdown.
“We got up to No. 2 during the regular season and today, once Capps lost, we took over the points lead and you have to capitalize on that,” Hight said. “Those guys, you know they are going to have some wins in this Countdown, but when they got out earlier, we had to take advantage of that and we did.
“We have been collecting a lot of those little bonus points along the way and I think that is what you are going to have to do in this Countdown. It is almost impossible to have six perfect races and if you have one bad one and you collect a lot of those little qualifying points that can make up for a bad race. We came in here and didn’t get a lot of those points, but we made up for it on Sunday.”
As the series shifts next to the northeast at Reading, a track known for its record-friendly conditions, Hight is excited to see what this team can do, not just in the hunt for a second championship, but in bettering his already impressive national records.
“I look forward to it because you know that elusive 340 mph run is out there. I know I can get it,” Hight said. “We’ve made the first part of the run and different parts of the second and if you put them together, it will run over 340. We just have to have the conditions.
“But while it would be cool to get that barrier, in all honesty, I think we might be better right now in the heat. That separates the cars a little bit. Either way, I am lucky to have (Prock) in my corner no matter where we go.” Larry Crum
ROOKIE SENSATION GRAY TAKES OVER POINTS LEAD AFTER CAROLINA NATIONALS WIN - From the outside, Tanner Gray exudes a sense of confidence rarely seen in a rookie.
On the inside, however, Gray is just as nervous as you might expect a first-year driver to be entering his first championship battle.
Gray entered the 2017 Countdown to the Championship in the second position in the Pro Stock standings with an improbable four wins during the regular season, but all that reset for the first of six events in the race for the Pro Stock crown.
But you wouldn’t know any of that with the way Gray performed in the opening round of the Countdown, recording wins over three former champions with 156 wins between the trio to take over the Pro Stock championship lead.
“If you would have told me I would leave here as the points leader before we started, I would have told you you were crazy,” Gray said. “I definitely thought we were going to win a little bit, but this season has gone better than I think anybody expected. The guys have such a good handle on the car and they are making my job so much easier.”
Gray earned his fifth victory of the year in a dominating win over Greg Anderson Sunday at the 10th annual NHRA Carolina Nationals at zMAX Dragway. Gray outdueled the four-time champ at the tree and never trailed in clocking a 6.614-second pass at 208.07 mph in the Gray Motorsports/Valvoline Chevrolet Camaro. Anderson recorded a 6.638 at 207.82 in the runner-up effort.
“This is probably up there as far as my biggest wins. My grandparents came from New Mexico to watch and, I’m not really an emotional guy, but my grandpa hugged me and it was hard not to tear up,” Gray said. “I am really blessed to be able to win here. To have my friends and family here makes it so much better. It is definitely special.”
Gray added wins over defending Pro Stock champion Jason Line in the semifinals, along with Erica Enders and Val Smeland.
Gray was quickest of round one in the win over Smeland and again in round two against Enders, overcoming a starting line disadvantage to chase down the former champion. In the semifinal, Gray made up for his round two stumble, never trailing in setting low elapsed time for the third consecutive round. He had passes of 6.583, 6.586 and 6.610 to advance to his sixth final of the year, all after starting from the No. 1 position.
“Something my grandpa told me, it takes everybody out there and everybody pitched in today and got me here,” Gray said. “They saved me against Erica when I was .044 against her. That’s the last thing you want when you line up against her and they bailed me out of that one. I bailed them out against Jason and then we all came together for the final. I really couldn’t be any prouder of this team.”
Thanks to that sterling performance, Gray takes a 25-point lead over Bo Butner into the second of six races in the Countdown next weekend in Reading. And he credits his amazing start, and incredible season, to a supportive family backing him every step of the way.
“Anytime you can have your family there supporting you, there giving you advice, you don’t have those problems with trust issues that you might have somewhere else,” Gray said. “You just have to sit back and trust them and that makes it so much easier. The bond there is so much greater than you can get with anybody else. It makes it pretty special.
“I am definitely excited for the rest of the season. I really do think we are going to come out the champion.” Larry Crum
OUT WITH THE NEW, IN WITH THE OLD FOR CHARLOTTE WINNER EDDIE KRAWIEC - Eddie Krawiec took the points lead at the NHRA Carolina Nationals at the zMAX Dragway in Concord, N.C. on Sunday by taking a step back.
The Vance and Hines Harley-Davidson rider had entered the countdown in a solid second place in the points. Despite this, the 40-year-old New Jersey native had been dissatisfied with some of the results earlier on in the year after many adjustments had been made to the bike’s old chassis.
“We debuted [the brand new bikes] back in Englishtown, the Harley Davidson street rod body and chassis platform and we kinda struggled a lot,” explained Krawiec, sporting a yellow hat after defeating teammate Andrew Hines in the final in Charlotte. “We expected to run better and do better but it proved to give us a little bit of a fit, the motorcycle was not happy on the starting line.
“When you’re giving up three, four, five hundredths to some of these motorcycles out here at the 60 foot and the 330 mark you really can’t run them down even if you’re a hundredth better in the back, it’s not going to happen, you’re still four, five hundredths behind them.
“Everybody really put the effort in back at the shop to make what we had better and we had Plan B but we continued to work on Plan A and that was to work on our bikes and our chassis and our setups and keep going.”
Unfortunately for Krawiec and his team, Plan A was not yielding promising results, and so the U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis they reverted back to Plan B and took home the Wally.
“There are certain renditions of chassis of motorcycles out here that have all been proven and you kind of make a hybrid when you’re going through your development phase,” added Krawiec. “Again I thought we were going down the right road but then there was a huge stop sign at the end and we hit our heads into it.
“We’re going to continue to work away at it. I’ll tell you the truth right now, we have another rendition of another new chassis that hopefully we’re going to go out and go test and it’s just an evolution of everything to try and make your team better.”
Despite having the old chassis that he could trust underneath him, it was not a walk in the park for Krawiec to take home the Wally in Charlotte. But after defeating Charlie Sullivan in Round 1, he saw an opportunity open up in front of him in Round 2.
“I think the biggest round win for me was probably the second round of this race because I watched in front of me the points leader [LE Tonglet] go out and I knew if I wanted to get into that points lead, I had to now win,” explained Krawiec. “I had Matt Smith as a huge competitor, he’s a great racer and he has a fast motorcycle, and I knew if I could get around that round it would help gain momentum for me. Unfortunately my momentum stops when there’s Jerry [Savoie] in the other lane.”
Savoie red-lighted against Krawiec in the semifinal, and so Krawiec advanced to the final where he squared off against Hines.
“It’s a win-win every time we get to race each other and obviously for our team guys, but we’re still out here and we’re still racing for points and we’re still racing for the championship,” said Krawiec. “Andrew’s the one that tunes my motorcycle, he’s the one who puts the tune-up in there and makes all the proper changes to fuel injection or ignition timing or to whatever he thinks it’s going to make optimal and I have 100 percent trust in him to go and do that.
“Even though I’m in the other lane he wants to make my bike as fast as he can because that’s a direct reflection on him too.”
Krawiec took home the win with a 6.850 ET in the final at 196.87 mph, after a 0.023 reaction time.
“It’s probably one of my most proud races as a driver to go out there and be .012, .012, .020 and .023 was my worse light in the final and, to be able to say that, it’s something that I hang my hat on,” Krawiec added.
Krawiec now holds a 48-points lead over Tonglet leaving Charlotte, a lot of which he has his team and old chassis to thank for.
“When you have a notebook of 15 years of development and you go to something completely outside of your circle you go to use that notebook,” Krawiec explained. “And so my crew chief Matt Hines, you’re staring at a graph and that’s what he does all day, he looks at it and he needs to figure out what it takes to get it from point A to point B as fast as possible. And when you take that notebook and information away, it’s hard to do especially when you’re going into the final few races of the year, so we are excited to have the package that we have now and we feel very comfortable going into these final five races.
“I think statistics has always shown most of the time the person that came out of here as the leader has gone on to win the championship, and hopefully that stays true.” Samuel Reiman
SATURDAY NOTEBOOK – IT’S PLAYOFF EVE AT THE ZMAX
ANYTHING LESS IS A DISAPPOINTMENT - For 20 years, Ron Capps had been unable to earn the title of NHRA Funny Car champion.
Now that he finally has, he’s not prepared to give it up.
“It’s funny how it was such a relief to finally win the championship,” said Capps, “and then I’ve enjoyed it so much… the stuff that came along with it: being up for ESPY awards, being voted into the San Diego Hall of Champions… I thought winning was the greatest thing ever, and I was still sort of gleaming from winning the championship, and doing all the press through the off-season, and really enjoying being called ‘Champ’ and seeing the stuff, the new cardboard cut outs for NAPA and the handouts, and the trailer picture came and it’s me holding the trophy, 2016 World Champion. All that was awesome.
“But then going to every race since then has been almost like winning the championship over in a small way. Because I haven’t seen a lot of these people at these racetracks since last year before we won it, so it’s like, ‘Hey, Champ,’ and they come up and grab your arm and they tell you, ‘Hey, I told you you were going to win it last year.’ So that all being said, I’ve enjoyed that so much that I’m motivated to do it again just because of that, not necessarily because I want to be champion. I mean it’s just been fun to represent our sport as an NHRA Champion. And yeah anything less would be, it would be severely disappointing.”
Capps is sitting in the right spot to try and win the championship again, having entered the Countdown as the NHRA Funny Car point’s leader. And while it could be assumed that his championship defense didn’t get off to a great start after qualifying 11th on Friday, Capps was smiling as he considers that, if anything, his competition could be getting lulled into a false sense of security.
“[Friday] it torched a head gasket,” Capps explained. “Doesn’t do it very often but we know why it did it. And it was on a good run. It probably was going to be Q1 last night.
“Today you can’t go to Q1 probably with these conditions, but we can steal those three points every session, and we can move up.
“The good thing is, and this is where all the crazy point counting’s going on, I guarantee you every driver, every crew chief, every crew member, every owner’s been looking at two weeks of where they are in the standings. Yesterday all the counting of the little points started. That’s all everybody. If they tell you they’re not counting points, they’re lying. Everybody in this countdown. When you stand back and look at it yesterday, it wasn’t that bad. Courtney and J.R. both ran good, and they’re sixth and eighth in points, or something like that. They’re back a ways from us. Yeah they ran good, they gained some on us, but it wasn’t like they’re number two or three where they’re only a round behind us. So it could have been worse.
“Sometimes you’ll see me get out on a Sunday when I hear a team has lane choice over us, we didn’t run good the run before, and they may have said something in their interview like they got us, they got the NAPA car when they’re down.
“I won’t say a thing. It’s like talk. They think they know, they got us. We know what we’ve got going on.”
In fact, notes Capps, his poor qualifying result on Friday may just be setting up for a memorable win on Sunday.
“Give me a weekend where you’ve got to struggle a little bit, and things are thrown at you as a crew chief and a driver and you’ve got to drive in certain areas in the lanes.
“Give me one of those weekends and you win, and I’ll take that any day over everything going great. Because to me those are the weekends you look around in the winner’s circle, you look at your guys and you’re wore out, you’re beat up, you’re dirty, got clutch dust all over me, the crew chief looks like he hasn’t slept in three days, and you’re in the winner’s circle. Those to me are the best days ever, the best weekends.”
CHANNELING SCOTTY - Clay Millican smiled as he signed an autograph and admitted he was channeling his inner Scotty Cannon, the former NHRA Funny Car racer, and Pro Modified icon who proudly sported a mohawk haircut.
Saturday at the NHRA Carolina Nationals, Millican had his own variation of the Mohawk, one side dyed red and the other orange.
"It is crazy hair weekend," Millican explained, so as to justify his step outside of the conservative Drummonds, Tenn.-look. "I’ve actually skipped going to Great Clips for the past couple weeks so that I could have some hair to get crazy hair done. I’ve got sponsor colors in there, orange on one side, red on the other and it is awesome. If you look at all these people getting their hair done, getting crazy colors, it’s a fun, fun thing.
"[Sponsor] Parts Plus was like, “alright, go get your hair done. It’s just got to be Parts Plus orange on one side at least.” Great Clip does this, the kids love it. To be truthful I kind of love it too."
Millican is quick to point out in the corporate world where activation is king; the crazy hair promotion has proven to be a homerun.
"They do this at a lot of races," Millican explained. "The kids really love it. It’s fun. I get to go back to the pit area, and the crew guys will make fun of me but what they don’t know is, I’m going to sneak them over here to get it done too. I’ll just tell them I have helmet hair."
NOT THE DONKEY - Top Fuel racer Terry McMillen fought his way into the Countdown to the Championship, and he's very content not to be the donkey in the middle of a high-power horse race.
McMillen understands what he needs to accomplish to prevent this from happening.
"Just continue to do what we’ve been doing," McMillen said. "[Crew chief] Rob [Wendland's] done a great job with the car and just making it very consistent. If we can keep doing that we’re going to create our own opportunities. In the past, we always had to wait for someone to smoke the tires or something else go wrong and then we could maybe squeak by and get the win. We’re not in that position anymore. Today we can win from any position. Even if we qualified 16th, I’d feel comfortable running against number one today because I know we have a car that can do it."
Rolling through the gates of zMax Dragway, the reality that he has the opportunity to contend for an NHRA title hit McMillen.
"That’s probably the most exciting part about this is that you look at where our car started to peak as a team and going forward it’s like, there’s nobody that we can’t outrun out here," McMillen said. "I’m going to guarantee we’re not a .60 car but we will play in the low .70s all day long. On race day that seems to be what it takes after the first round. So you squeak by the first round, and anything after that is wide open.
"I think we’re certainly up for the battle. If anything, the adrenaline is going to carry us through. We’re pumped up, we’re ready to go, and we’ll put this Amalie top fuel dragster somewhere higher than eight."
OF SHINING, AND A SHINER - Jonnie Lindberg enters the NHRA Carolina Nationals with a black eye, in more ways than one.
Firstly, over his right eye, where he struck himself with a torque wrench while working in the workshop on Sunday. Lindberg had to have five stitches and is wearing a large pair of sunglasses this weekend to help cover up his injury.
Secondly, in the championship, where he fell short of making the countdown despite making it to the final twice in his rookie NHRA Funny Car season. While Lindberg got off to a solid start in his rookie campaign, he has yet to return to the final since.
“[Our season] started really good, and then we sucked basically,” Lindberg put it bluntly. “But we had some bad luck and stuff, but I’m pretty happy anyway.
“The guy we race runs better than us first round a lot. Sometimes the tune-up wasn’t right, you know. But it’s my first year, I’ve been to two finals, of course you want to win, you know. But hopefully we can get a win. The season isn’t over yet. We ran really good in Indy so we learned a lot there. But this track is tricky, it’s pretty hot here and the traction is down a bit.”
Looking back, Lindberg believes the key factor in whether he’s made the finals or not has been luck.
“I smoked the tires first round against J.R. in Gainesville and he smoked them worse than me and I peddled and I won, you know. In Vegas too, but it hasn’t been easy. It’s not easy to go to the final, so we had a good working car.
“But then a lot of first round smoke the tires, and we just missed the tune-up. But we do our best, but I’m happy. The crew is working really hard. I wish we could get a win for them, because they work so hard all the time.
“Like Jim Head is a good teacher. He tunes the car, and he’s been driving a Funny Car for a long time. So, I learn a lot and I like to drive, but to tune a car as much as to drive a car. So I learn a lot about how to tune a fuel car.
“First thing Jim said when I started working here is, ‘I ruined your life. You’ll never want to go back to Alcohol again. You’ve tasted Nitro now.’ And he’s right. Nitro, it’s the only thing I want to do right now.”
IT'S NOT A SPRINT, IT'S A MARATHON - If it's got wheels and will go reasonably fast, Richie Crampton will drive it.
Reasonable is all in the interpretation, as Crampton races at three-seconds to the 1,000-foot mark in over 320 miles per hour during his return to the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing,
With this said, running an 8.27 at 165 miles per hour pales in comparison. However, when taking into consideration Crampton recorded this in a 3000-plus pound, 1957 Chevy 210 4-door station wagon with rust on the quarter-panels -- it's definitely a noble accomplishment.
Crampton was one of two drag racers during this weekend's NHRA Carolina Nationals who took part in the Hot Rod Drag Week competition. The event which requires participants to drive from track to track in the same vehicle they race down the track is a combination of endurance and high performance.
Many participants began planning for Drag Week as early as the week following the most recently completed event.
"I bought the car December 16th, just an old rusty beater, me and Jonnie Lindberg drove up to get it," Crampton explained. "I found it on Craigslist, and he and I went and picked it up in the snow. Myself, and Jonnie and Rod Centorbi, my old assistant crew chief from Lucas, put the thing together in eight months."
In eight months they created a monster of a sleeper car.
"We added a 2008 6-liter LS Chevy motor out of a Silverado. I basically, I put a four-inch Callies crank in it, Manley pistons and rods, the stock cylinder heads with Manley valves and springs, and that’s really it," Crampton said. "Little hydraulic roller cam. It was given the Holley EFI system, and two 68/70 Precision turbos made it run exceptionally well on the road on E85, so it ran very cool in the hotter weather as well, and then made big power at the race track, so I was happy."
It's a sleeper car until it fires up and rolls down the interstate, luggage rack and all.
"I think 90 percent of the people just love the fact that I haven’t touched any of the original paint," Crampton said. "It does look a little rough, but once you open the doors and you see all the carbon fiber interior and the chromoly, and all the cool stuff, you know. I got a great response on the car, driving on the highway as well as people would come and check it out at the race track. They couldn’t believe what was actually inside that old body."
For the record, those luggage racks were fully functioning for this oddball freeway runner.
"Surprisingly the car rides exceptionally smooth on the highway," Crampton explained. "It’s a little loud, but you’re going to have that with a race car with no mufflers. But really it was a lot of fun. You know, we put about 500 pounds worth of spare parts and tools on top of the roof rack I had on it, and all that being said, it still drove great and basically ran flawlessly. So I’m hooked, and I’m looking forward to doing it again."
Two-time NHRA champion Larry Dixon also participated in between Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series events. Dixon, who raced a Chevy II, was in unison with Crampton in describing the event as an ultimate experience.
"I love it," Dixon said. "I mean, you’re on the road with 400 other hot rodders, they’ve all got their idea of the ultimate street machine. It’s a great event. I mean I call it an Iron Man triathlon for hot rodders because it really is an Iron Man. You try to do the things you’re trying to do, and then drive and put over a thousand miles on your vehicle. There isn’t a person there that’s rude; they’d give you the tires off their car to help you get down the road. It’s just a really neat event, and a lot of great people."
"It was one of the cooler experiences for me to date you know. Drag Week is something I’ve always wanted to do," Crampton added.
CASTELLANA SHINES - Mike Castellana locked down the second qualifying position before earning a first round win against Khalid Al Balooshi, extending his day longer than No. 1 qualifier Shane Molinari who dropped his initial match against Pete Farber during the NHRA J&A Service Pro Mod Drag Racing Series portion of the NHRA Carolina Nationals at zMAX Dragway.
Points leader Castellana powered to a 6.000-second pass at 246.84 mph in his Al-Anabi Racing Chevrolet Camaro to earn the victory and extend his lead over second place Troy Coughlin, who dropped his first-round matchup. Castellana is set to go up against Jonathan Gray in the quarterfinals.
"We're just happy to get by first round,” Castellana said. “We'll take it one round at a time. Obviously [Troy] went out which is good for us. We'll just keep plugging away. Hopefully we'll build up a bigger lead and go from there."
Danny Rowe will face off with Mike Janis in the quarterfinals, Pete Farber takes on Steve Jackson and Jim Whiteley opposes Chuck Little when eliminations continue on Sunday.
Castellana is currently leading the Pro Mod points standings and has two victories on the year.
BLAME IT ON RICHIE - Shawn Langdon is stepping behind the wheel of his Global Electronic Technology Dragster at zMAX Dragway this weekend with a bruised knee following an incident at a go-kart track.
“We were racing [at the GoPro Motorplex in Mooresville, North Carolina] and we get done with the first race and so I pulled into the pits first and I think [Richie Crampton] was a little upset that I was nudging him on the track and he took it back in the pits,” Langdon explained. Langdon then made the mistake of trying to get out of his kart before all of the cars had come to a stop. “I felt J.R. [Todd] kind of come right behind where he tapped the back of my car, he’s there. Well I start getting out and Richie comes in and hits J.R.’s kart and then it hits my kart, so as I’m trying to get out of it and it just takes my feet out from underneath me.
“So I’ve been ripping Richie all weekend that he was trying to take me out because he’s trying to take my ride and all this kind of stuff. But we’re having fun with it. I got a little battle scar on my knee but it’s no big deal. We had a lot of fun actually. It was a neat event to be able to go out there and have fun doing it. I told Richie I’ll have my attorney’s talk to him on Monday about my knee.
“I think Richie actually had the overall quick time… he was rubbing it in… he came out of there with all the laughs for sure. I came out of there with a bruised knee and a little bit of a bruised ego, but that’s OK.”
Langdon, who enters the countdown in 10th in the points, believes that activities such as go-kart racing help to keep him competitive heading into the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series events.
“Anything I do, I do to win. So, I think it’s just having that competitiveness, the competitive mindset that whatever you do, you’re trying to be the best at. So I think you can kind of parlay that over to during the week when you’re doing different things, being competitive, trying to constantly up the ante to get yourself better at whatever you’re doing.
“It’s just your mindset so you don’t come into a race being in a relaxed state of mind.”
Langdon will need that competitive mindset if he hopes to make up the deficit he has to the points leaders in the countdown, having missed the opening several rounds of the NHRA Top Fuel season.
“It’s just all about getting hot at the right time,” summarized Langdon. “If we can capitalize on making good runs and going rounds in eliminations, our key is going to be the first three races of the countdown. We’ve got to do good at the first three races to put ourselves in a position for the last three races. So you know at this point, you know we definitely need to get a win or two here or there.
“I definitely think that we have a top five team. We just started a little behind the eight ball… we’ve been playing a little bit of catch up all year long.
“We have the capabilities of winning rounds, winning races, and competing for the championship. I mean this team with J.R. Todd a couple years ago, I believe they came from the ninth spot starting out the countdown and finished second. So I mean there’s a possibility, there’s always a possibility of it.”
THE BEST-LAID PLAN - Two-time NHRA Top Fuel Larry Dixon doesn't question the divine plan which put him in a Funny Car a little over three decades following his licensing for nitro in a dragster.
"God’s got a plan, I don’t argue it," Dixon said with a smile. "The opportunity came up, and it worked out. I love working with Steve Boggs and his crew and driving for Tony Bartone. It’s a great car and a great team, and it’s a lot of work."
Dixon is in his first season running the Bartone Brothers Top Alcohol Funny Car. He's already won a divisional crown and looking for his first national victory.
Don't let the notion he's driven a fuel car at well over 300 miles per hour allow you to make the assumption driving a car 50 miles slower doesn't bring a challenge.
"It’s a new challenge, it’s a challenge," Dixon confirmed. "You don’t just get in this car and just drive it. You know, a Top Fuel car I feel like I could drive blindfolded. This car you’ve got to work, but I’m having fun. I think I’m up to maybe 11 full passes in this car. So, it’s getting more fun, but you’ve still got to work."
There's no stabbing and steering here.
"Your starting line leave RPM, your shift RPM, you’ve got to be on your game," Dixon said. "I’m the ultimate critic of my ability, and I want to do everything perfect you know, to be able to give them the best opportunity to make the best run. So, I’m a work in progress but they keep calling me up and let me drive, so I feel very fortunate."
Is Dixon ready to try a Funny Car with some pop (or nitro) in the tank?
"Oh gosh, I don’t know," Dixon said, shaking his head. "You know, as fast as them cars go, who knows. It would be fun to try."
IT'S A NUMBERS AND NAME GAME - In a different part of Charlotte Motor Speedway, the No. 15 car driven by Pretty Ricky might be just another one of 40 cars in the field. However, this No. 15 runs too fast to turn left.
Tanner Gray unveiled a new paint scheme highlighting his racing heritage leading up to racing Pro Stock.
"It’s always been my racing number," Gray, who previously raced oval track competition. "And I think it’s just something really cool that we did for here. Kind of takes you back into my circle track days when I did that, and you know they run the numbers on the door. Besides Bo’s Dukes of Hazzard paint scheme, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Pro Stock car with a number on the door. So I think it’s definitely something pretty cool, and it’s kind of a retro look.
"I like the old school look anyway. It definitely means a lot to me, and hopefully, we can win the championship with that. I think it would be pretty cool."
As for the Pretty Ricky moniker, that's a different kind of story.
"Just kind of a joke that we’ve had around the shop for me for a couple of years now," Gray explained. "I guess I've always cared about what I looked like when I go out, so everybody’s made fun of me and called me pretty boy and stuff like that."
And then a crew member christened him, "Pretty Ricky."
"I don’t know if you know the R&B song, the guy talks about Pretty Ricky and stuff like that," Gray explained. "That’s kind of where it came from and then when I decided to bring out the all-white [fire]suit, that kind of played along with it."
THUS SAYETH THE REV. BECKMAN - One thing is for sure at any NHRA event; the drivers know how to show their appreciation for the fans, whether it is through autograph signing, posing for photographs… or helping a couple tie the knot.
NHRA Funny Car driver Jack Beckman has now performed his services as an ordained minister at several NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series events, the latest of which were wed Saturday afternoon behind the Don Schumacher Racing hospitality units at zMAX Dragway.
“A lot of people want that highly religious, God-surrounding type of wedding, and I’m not that guy,” explained Beckman. “I married a couple in Reading two or three years ago and they asked me if I would do it. And I said, ‘Well, I can’t, I wouldn’t know how to do something like that.’ And they go, ‘Well, it’s easy.’ They gave me the website to go to. You log in, you become an ordained minister, and away you go.
“Well I think that was my sixth or seventh wedding now. I did one for friends of mine, a formal type of ceremony, indoors, everything you would think a wedding would be, minus the church. And then the majority of them have been in Don Schumacher hospitality, and it’s just folks who typically they’re their second marriage, or they’re older. They don’t necessarily want the fanfare. They’re hardcore drag race fans. They’re having a fun weekend, they think it’d be a wonderful way to incorporate the wedding.”
Beckman wed Mike and Helen Thompson Saturday in front of a small crowd in the zMAX Dragway pit area. For both Mike and Helen, a couple in their 50s who met at the speedway two years ago, it was their first marriage.
“This is the only one I’ve ever done that I never spoke to them until the day of the wedding,” said Beckman. “Every other one, some of them asked me a year in advance, and then we’ll communicate a couple times and I say, ‘OK, give me some background.’ I figure if I’m going to do this and it’s going to tie them together legally and hopefully emotionally, I want to be able to say some things about them. This one I literally had about 10 minutes of prep time. But as it turns out, it was a good 10 minutes. They met here at the race two years ago, and I love their vows. They read vows to each other that they had written, and they were really sincere and heartfelt. So a lot of people say, ah it’s a gimmick that people want to get married at a racetrack. Well, to each their own. This is what they decided to do for that, but they’re taking it very, very seriously.”
Something else Beckman is taking very seriously is the NHRA Funny Car championship, where he enters the countdown fourth in the points. While Ron Capps, Robert Hight and Matt Hagan have been making the headlines in the top three in points, Beckman hasn’t been flying far under the radar as he enters the countdown in fourth.
““I’ve got my share of time in the limelight here,” says Beckman. “I don’t do this for the limelight, but we’re not done having the spotlight shined on us, and that’s fine. You know, the NAPA car really has been the class of the field this year, they won a third of the races. They just saw a big lead evaporate. Dickie Venables and Hagan, they set the world on fire, they run huge numbers. Same with Jimmy Prock and Robert Hight. So I actually don’t mind kind of being in the shadows and making that surge at the last minute. I don’t think anybody’s overlooking us.”
EVERYBODY'S A CRITIC - If Greg Anderson has heard it once, he's heard it a million times.
Anderson, a multi-time NHRA Pro Stock champion, time and time again has either read or heard about how to make the factory hot rod division better for the series and race fans. He's also heard it from everyone but those who race the class.
"I think [CompetitionPlus.com] leads the choir there," Anderson said with a smirk on his face. "It’s all good. Everybody’s trying to figure out something new and something exciting for the class. We are too. We as racers are thinking every minute how we can make this deal more exciting. We’ve got what we set out to get: we got parity. Anybody can win the race, we’ve got great competition. That’s what we all thought we needed, we’ve got that."
Anderson asks if Pro Stock is broken because of low car counts, couldn't the same be said of the other categories? It's a sentiment echoed by his teammate Bo Butner.
"There’s still something missing," Anderson admitted. "We still need a little bit more excitement. I’ve thought before that the cars need to be faster. And they keep getting a little bit faster. These last couple of years we made a little bit of a step backward. So I still believe in that, and I’m not sure what the best way is to do that. But we’re all thinking every day and hey, if one of you guys can come up with a great idea, we’re fine with that. We don’t care who comes up with the good idea; we just need a good idea."
Anderson considers himself a drag racer, through and through. This mentality is why he struggles with the showmanship aspect of trying to spotlight the division with gimmicky activations such as burnout contests.
"We race for the competition of it and trying to race as hard as we can and work as hard as we can to be the best, baddest dog that you can be when you go to the race track," Anderson explained. "Unfortunately that’s not the whole pie anymore. That doesn’t get everything you need. So, that’s just what we know.
"Times change, you’ve got to change with the times. We just have to figure out what the right change is going to be moving forward. But by no means is the class broken. It’s got all the main ingredients we strive for; we just need to find a couple of things to make it just a little bit more exciting to the casual fan.
And if some aspects of showmanship must be incorporated into the big picture of keeping the class relevant for the average fan, he's willing to give it a true under certain conditions.
"I have no problem doing that in the right way as long as it doesn’t give up the hardcore dedication that they’re racing as hard as you can," Anderson said. "I don’t want to give that up just for the WWF or whatever. I don’t want to turn into that. But obviously there’s room for both, it just needs to be the right way. We’re certainly going to lean more towards the hard-nosed, hard knuckle racing. That doesn’t mean we can’t do some things a little out of the box."
Anderson understands more than a little outside of the box might be the thought process in today's world.
"Times change and you’ve got to change with the times," Anderson said. "You just need to make sure you make the right change I guess. So we're; still, we’ve got a lot of very intelligent people that race in this class. You would think that some of these racers that we race against and crew chiefs and team owners could come up with a great future for what we need to be doing. But so far we haven’t hit that right button. We will; we’re thinking about it every day."
FATHER KNOWS BEST - Hector Arana Jr. heads into the Countdown in the No. 3 spot in NHRA’s Pro Stock Motorcycle class.
At 28 years of age, the younger Arana has the entire attention of his team after his father, Hector Arana Sr., suffered a shoulder injury over the summer that sidelined him.
“All the attention is focused on him only instead of two bikes so all the things are being sped up and he has more time to relax and stay calm and focus,” explains the elder Arana.
The results showed at the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis, where Arana Jr. boasted impressive reaction times in the semi-final and the final, although it was Eddie Krawiec who took home the Wally.
“Hopefully his confidence built up that he can cut the light, he doesn’t have to worry about nothing else and if he continues that path we should be really good contenders for the championship,” added Arana Sr.
Despite his solid position heading into the Countdown, Arana Jr. has had to fight through some electrical problems during the past few rounds on a new motorcycle. Knowing that consistency has been his strong point throughout the season, Arana Jr. opted to revert to his old bike to help carry him through the Countdown.
“We have a fast, consistent Lucas Oil motorcycle and we’re at the points reset now so we’re only 30 points out of first place,” said the younger Arana. “Our goal is to keep up the momentum from Indy, go rounds, race smart and be consistent and if we do that we have a really good chance of winning the championship.”
As for his father, Arana Jr. admits that having his father watch him on the sideline has been a big help.
“He’s one of my mentors and he helps me stay calm, and now that he’s injured he’s been able to watch and help me out a little bit more and help me tune the bike a little more so he’s been doing a lot and its showing.”
”It definitely turned things around,” added Arana Sr. “Since I can’t be doing the riding I’m focusing on the little things now. Helping him, talking to him and just going over the bike also, just little things to pay attention to on his bike.”
As for this weekend, Arana Jr. knows that a strong performance is essential to having a strong shot at the title.
“The championship starts now,” added Arana Jr. “If we want a good shot at it we’ve got to do our best to be as successful as we can at this race, so we’re going to do everything we can to do that.”
WINDING DOWN - For Allen Johnson, the start of the Countdown doesn’t just mark the start of the final six races of the championship, but the final six races of his career.
On Sept. 1, the NHRA Pro Stock racer announced his plans to retire at the end of the season.
But despite being the 2012 season champion, it isn’t his performance on track that Johnson grades the highest when looking back on his career.
“I’d give us an A-minus probably as far as performance,” states Johnson. “But overall, being able to spend that much time with your family, I’d give us an A double-plus.
“I think it’s been a great career for two or three reasons. I’ve not been the baddest man out here the whole time, but I’ve been able to do it with my family, and that is what we set out to do and give my dad the opportunity to build engines and be successful, and we got that done.”
Johnson has taken 29 career wins to date. However, 2017 hasn’t been his strongest season, yet the 57-year-old enters the Countdown ninth in the points and has reason to be optimistic for the upcoming rounds.
“This season has been about just getting the Dodges turned around so we’re semi-competitive,” explains Johnson. “It’s been a hard journey and had to do a lot of work. A lot of changes to the engines and to just say we can qualify third or fourth a couple of times at the end of the year here has just been a big feather in Dad’s cap.
“I think we’re a middle-of-the-pack car now instead of back-of-the-pack car so I think if we can get past the first round and win a couple of rounds, I think we’ll be right back in the thick of it.”
NO TIME FOR PLAYING IN PLAYOFFS - Throughout her record-setting career, two-time Pro Stock champion Erica Enders always has done her best work in pressure-packed situations. When others wilt, she blossoms, which is one of the many reasons she's excited about the first of six race days left in the 2017 season.
"The playoffs are definitely a different animal," Enders said. "We've lived it, we've fought down to the last round of the season, we've felt the most pressure you can feel in this sport and we've come out on top. If that gives us an edge this year, we'll take it.
"Of course, the guys that are going to make the biggest challenges are all veteran teams and most have them have won it all in the past. Either way, whoever wins this year's championship will have earned it, no doubt."
Enders' first test will come Sunday at the 10th annual NHRA Carolina Nationals at zMax Dragway. Enders will start the day as the No. 9 qualifier after posting a best pass of 6.602 seconds at 209.75 mph in time trials.
"We've been testing the tires off these cars the last few months and we are really optimistic about our latest changes," Enders said. "We can already see some big gains in Jeg (Coughlin's) car and my guys are going over that data to make my car better. I know for sure I already feel a lot more confidence in our direction.
"The playoffs are a fight from start to finish. The pressure you feel is because every round feels like a final round with a million dollars on the line. You just know you've got to find a way to win every matchup. There's no holding back."
For her qualifying efforts, Enders will be matched up against part-time teammate and close friend Alex Laughlin in the first round of sudden-death eliminations. Laughlin qualified eighth with a 6.600 at 209.17 mph. The two racers have only squared off once this year and it was during the four-wide race in Charlotte last spring. On that day, Laughlin was one of the two racers to advance out of their quad of racers.
"This team has been in the championship wars and come out on top two different times so we know what it takes," Enders said. "We'll fight this fight until we have nothing left. No matter what, I love these guys and I wouldn't trade places with anyone.
50-CENT PARTS ARE THE DEBIL - Matt Hagan loves the expensive high-performance components on his Freightliner/DSR Funny Car, the more expensive, the more love. But those 50-cent parts are ruining the two-time champion's life, at least in the last two races they have.
"It’s been one those things where you take these cars bolted together there’s $300,000 worth of stuff on them, and then sometimes it comes down to a 50 cent part, $50 part, 50 anything part," Hagan said. "And it’s just like you know all the parts and pieces, and you have one bad part, and you can’t make a run."
The devil is in the details, and lately, those have been the "debil."
"In Brainerd, we had a kill switch which cut the car off, and it’s just a wire. A simple wire," Hagan exclaimed. "But it’s a safety mechanism and it’s there for if the throttle hangs on the burnout or whatever to reach over and shut the car off, which is a good thing, but it’s just another thing that can go wrong on these cars, and it did. It broke and shut the car off on the burnout, number two qualifier.
"And then come into Indy and we’re number one qualifier run a .79, got one of the fastest hot rods out there and then just have basically a check valve on the cannon there which bleeds the air, or allows the air to bleed into the cannon to push the bearing back, and it just went bad. It didn’t have enough pressure to push the bearing back and cost us the run in Indy, first round."
It's a part of drag racing Hagan just cannot bringing himself to shrug his broad shoulders at.
"It just rips your heart out, you know," Hagan said. "And I think it’s because you care so much but it’s just one of those things where you just you know you want to take that part and take it home and jump on it and burn it and stomp it. It’s just like oh my gosh, all the stuff that we have on these cars, the parts and pieces, and it’s these little itty bitty things. So you know the biggest thing is just not mess up the little things and then let all the big things come together."
So how does one stop it? Hagan has his ideas, since these issues have become evil in his eyes.
"Maybe start living right or something. I don’t know man. Go to church more or something," Hagan said. "I mean it happens to the best of us I guess out here. It’s kind of, it’s just a lot of humble pie to eat when it’s two in a row like that. You can take one here and there, but when they’re back to back little things like that, it just, it definitely is hard to choke down that humble pie."
TIMING IS EVERYTHING - The timing is right for Jeg Coughlin Jr. to begin his quest for a seventh NHRA national championship and sixth Pro Stock title. The 76-time national event winner is racing his 400th Pro Stock race this weekend, a mark eclipsed by just two other active drivers -- Greg Anderson and Allen Johnson.
By chance, Coughlin's historic start comes at the beginning of the NHRA's Countdown to the Championship, a six-race playoff among 10 qualified racers to determine the 2017 champion.
"The Countdown represents a fresh start for everyone," Coughlin said. "It's the NHRA's version of the stick-and-ball playoff system and in the 10 years it's been around it's done exactly what they wanted, which is add a ton of drama to the end of the season. Most champions of this era haven't been crowned until the last race in Pomona (Calif.) so every year we're seeing battles right to the end.
"We've been fortunate to win this deal three times since they instilled the playoff system. We've started at the front and come up empty, and we've also started from the front and a few rows back and won it all so we know anything can happen. It's all about how your team performs from Charlotte forward."
Coughlin qualified No. 6 and will race teammate Vincent Nobile in the first round.
TORRENCE AND ANTRON’S TURF - “I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t think Steve Torrence was a big threat,” said Antron Brown, taking a short break from working on his Matco Tools Dragster on a hot Friday afternoon in Charlotte.
“You better bring forth your best A-plus game, and that’s what we do each and every time we race him.
“It’s going to be a dogfight and I can see that, if you’re going to win the championship, that’s definitely going to be the number one team that you have to go through to make it happen this year.”
A three-time champion in NHRA’s Top Fuel division, Brown is no stranger to having to fight another team for the championship.
“Each championship has its own meaning,” said Brown. “I’ve had to go through a lot of battles. My first championship was a great battle with Tony Schumacher, who’s an eight-time World Champion. My second battle for my second year when I was running for the championship was another great battle with Tony [Schumacher], Steve [Torrence] and [Doug] Kalitta and then our last championship last year came down to the wire racing Doug Kalitta. So when you look at it, each championship has its own meaning. That’s makes them what they are and that’s what makes them special and part of your history of your team and what you’ve done together to make those championships happen.”
Brown and Torrence have both won 44 rounds this year, but Torrence has been able to take home more race wins. Despite their intense competition on track, Brown insists that their rivalry has not affected their relationship away from the drag strip.
“When we get up there and we compete and we race against other teams at the starting line, we’re out here to beat them and there’s not holding your head down or feeling bad for somebody because you beat them or you did this or you did that to them, that’s part of racing.
“Even though we’re good friends off the racetrack, he’s going to give me his best every time and he knows I’m going to give him my best every time. We’re great friends but when we go out there on the racetrack we’re going to battle for this championship and when we go down in the future we might kick back and laugh with each other and joke and talk about the times that we had.
“Even after we got done racing at the U.S. Nationals, I went up and congratulated him in the Winner’s Circle. We give it our all and it’s not anybody’s fault when your team loses, like we lose together and we win together and so we take our hats off to them, they got the job done.
“And they do the same to us too when we’re in the Winner’s Circle. He’ll come by and be in our Winner’s Circle picture and crack jokes. But you know when the race is over and you go home, you know you’ve got to work together for that next race because you know what they’re doing to do what they do, so we’ve got to work harder than what we are, so that’s why I love my race team because that’s what we do.”
Torrence enters zMAX Dragway in Charlotte with a 20-point advantage over Brown, and every qualifying and final eliminations pass will prove critical in determining which one of them - if either - comes out on top.
AERO 101 WITH ANDREW HINES - Eddie Krawiec might have had the better of identical bikes between him and teammate Andrew Hines, Hines admits.
Hines, who rode his bike to No. 1 in qualifying Friday night at zMax Dragway, said there might have been other factors in play. Some he could help, and others he couldn’t.
“The other chassis that we ran before Indy was really dictated by 60-foot,” Hines said. “We were giving up .05 or .06 seconds at a time sometimes. And you just can’t make that up. There’s no way to make that up. In Indy we were giving up maybe .02, .03 on our bad runs. And we got down to one of the flattest 60-foots on Tuesday in testing. So we’re hopefully only going to be giving up .01 at the worst.
“It’s just like a car. Certain vehicles react better in different track conditions. Certain tuners react different in different track conditions and we can’t seem to put our finger on it. There’s some phenomenon with motorcycles we have a different level of inconsistency because the rider is the aero package.”
The aero package in Hines’ case is his lanky build.
“So we’re going down the track and we’re trying to do everything we can to stay tucked in,” Krawiec explained. “Me being of a bigger build, over five inches taller than Eddie, 10 pounds heavier, my arms are definitely longer, my legs are longer. I hang out in the breeze a little bit different. We figured out in the wind tunnel earlier this year that this was a major disadvantage for me. Since he is of a smaller build he was actually more aerodynamic. I’ve had to adjust my riding earlier in the run to try to achieve the same half-track speed as him. For some reason it didn’t have much effect on the half-track to finish line.”
The frustration remains in something which cannot be fixed through changing performance parts.
“The last couple years I’ve always been one mile off of Eddie at the eighth-mile but I make it up at the finish line,” Hines explained. “So we’ve really been focusing on trying to get that eighth-mile speed out of it. It’s been paying dividends for me in the middle of the track so that’s been good. But it all keeps happening really within that first five-feet. But these motorcycles make up that 60-foot time.”
As Hines puts it, “It is what it is.”
“It’s a physical attribute that I can’t change. I could probably lose some weight but I can’t shorten my arms and legs which is a lot of aero drag. Coming here in the spring, we were in the wind tunnel before we came here for four-wide and I learned a few things. So I’ve been working on that throughout the year, it’s been better for me as far as my elbow position. You’ve seen all the pictures, Eddie kind of floats on the bike. He’s got his elbows out. I always thought for years, I want to duct tape his arms to the gas tank. Apparently that’s better.”
EDWARDS IS BACK - He just can't stay away.
Mike Edwards, the 2009 NHRA Pro Stock champion who never officially retired, but hasn't raced since 2014, returned to the strip this weekend with the three-car KB Racing team. He was last an on-site contributor to the KB Racing team in 2015.
Edwards is offering his expertise.
"There were a couple of things Rob Downing wanted somebody else to look at, and I got voted in," said Edwards, who had back surgery at the beginning of the year and has been progressing through recovery. "It's good to be here. I've just been doing things around the house and all the things normal people do – but we all know drag racers aren't normal. The first year after I quit racing, I missed this a lot. As time goes on, I don't miss it as much. But I'm still interacting with these guys a little bit, and with that little fix, I've got enough."
Edwards earned his first Pro Stock win in Houston in 1996, and he acquired 42 Wally trophies and 56 No. 1 qualifier awards over the course of two decades of competing on the NHRA circuit. In all, he claimed two victories in the Modified category and 40 in Pro Stock.
"Mike and I have stayed in contact since he worked with us in 2015," said Downing, who has been at the helm for each of KB Racing's seven world championships and 138 Pro Stock wins. "I'm always bouncing ideas off of him and talking about racecar stuff. I just feel like as competitive as it is, we need every advantage we can get. I know Mike will help us as an extra set of eyes. He and I really click together, and I'm looking forward to having him here this weekend. It would be great if he could be here for each of the Countdown races."
AGING GRACEFULLY, FORCE STYLE – It’s been 30 years since the first time 16-time Funny Car champion John Force crossed the finish line to score his first national event win.
There were no television crews, no overwhelming celebrations, just a couple of French-Canadian men sporting speedos and holding fire extinguishers speaking a foreign language to the fast-speaking Force.
"I didn’t know it was 30 years ago," Force admitted. "Feels more like 50."
Force was a much younger 38 then, but many moons later he's reminded how many seasons have passed.
"You know what it’s like when a fan runs up and says, ‘I’ve got to have my picture with you," Force beamed. "Makes you feel kind of good, my chest bowed out. And then she says, ‘My grandpa loves you."
"Your age starts showing."
This season, NHRA is honoring the first responders. Next year, it's the legends of drag racing.
"It’s going to be a lot of the pros, the Bernsteins, the Prudhommes, the McEwens on our tour next year in ’18 about the Legends. And it was really funny, I was getting heckled by drivers next to me, ‘You should be with them."
"I may have to quit at the end of this year and go on that Legend’s tour next year, but I’ll still bring the race car. Yeah, I’ve been out here a long time. But I see growth, and that’s what really excites me."
Force admits he still has a penchant for getting confused, and for a man who wears so many hats of responsibility, it's understandable. He's never met a deal he didn't like to broker, but at the end of the day, the cagey veteran will tell a VIP, get the heck out of the way, I'm going drag racing.
"If I could focus more, I could be a lot better," Force admitted. "My wife said, ‘Let’s go into this Countdown this time and not be talking about problems, or financial, or some building being built somewhere in America. Let’s focus on getting these teams motivated and getting them winning."
"As a kid, I had two nicknames, Dog Head, and the other one was Scatterbrain. That’s what they called me. I’ve always lived with a million things in my head. But you have to find the music on race day. You see ol’ Capps and Schumacher in there serious with their headphones on, and I’m running around on a motorcycle all day long trying to make deals, ‘Better get in the car."
"But that’s the way I’ve lived, so it’s too late for me to change it. I’ll go down this way. When I get in that car and put on the helmet, and I get in the seat, I love to get into that battle. I just have a key, and I turn it, and I’m into the race. That’s what I do."
TWO SESSIONS IN THE BOOK FOR PRO MOD - Shane Molinari powered to the qualifying lead Friday, the tenth of 12 events this season.
Molinari ran a 5.778-second pass at 256.55 mph in the second qualifying session in his S & T Truck Repair Inc. ’68 Firebird.
"We'll make another pass tomorrow and roll the dice. Hopefully we'll get down the track and go some rounds. We just have to go rounds - that's the goal."
Mike Castellana qualified second with a 5.781 at 252.10, and Eric Latino qualified third with a 5.792 at 252.14.
Castellana is currently leading the Pro Mod points standings and has two victories on the year.
WILK GOES WARRIOR IN CHARLOTTE - Tim Wilkerson didn't have to fight and claw his way into the Countdown, but it was no cakewalk for the Springfield, Ill.-based driver.
Wilkerson, one of the few drivers who pull double-duty as a tuner, is looking to get back to the same magic which propelled him to a championship runner-up in 2008.
"We have a good car right now going into the Countdown, and boy, that could make it interesting," said Wilkerson, who raced to the semifinals in Indianapolis two weeks ago. "My car was leaving the starting line well every run in Indy, and my guys did a real good job out there. I've kept them busy since then. We've had a lot of work to do to get ready for these next six races, but we're ready. Our car seems to like Charlotte, and that's always a good thing."
Wilkerson won the 2016 NHRA Four-Wide Nationals here in 2016, and was No. 1 qualifier at the fall race in 2012.
Wilkerson's 2017 scoreboard includes final round finishes in Atlanta and Sonoma. He was also No. 1 qualifier in Bristol.
"Right now, we're planning to do what we've always done, and that goes one race at a time," said Wilkerson. "We've got six races, and we'll go and win as many rounds if we can. Boy, there are a ton of good cars out there, and you won't have any easy draws – but if we can win two or three rounds a weekend, we'll have a pretty good chance."
BRITTANY’S FUNNY CAR FUTURE - Brittany Force remained in Indianapolis following race day at the U.S. Nationals to do some testing. But not, as some would expect, in her Monster Energy Top Fuel dragster.
Instead, the 31-year-old John Force Racing driver was testing a Funny Car at the Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis. While it’s not Force’s first time in a Funny Car, her test session raised eyebrows as the California native aims to soon have an NHRA Funny Car license.
“I’d love to stay in my Top Fuel Dragster for as long as I could, but it doesn’t always work that way,” explained Force. “Sometimes its sponsors you get, which direction they want to go, if they want you in a Funny Car or a Dragster. So they have a lot of say in things too. So that’s why it’s just getting, jumping in a Funny Car and getting a license and giving that option.”
Force has yet to make a full pass in a Funny Car, but yet already she has learned that it is an entirely different beast from her Top Fuel dragster.
“It’s a fun car to drive,” said Force. “It’s just a whole different animal. Experiencing Funny Car, because I’ve only ever driven Dragsters, they’re a handful. There’s definitely more steering involved.
“You have the engine in front of you, that’s different. You’re sitting right on top of the tires, and really steering on the thing, it’s different. Like I said, it’s a whole different animal, but it’s fun to experience both. It’s pretty cool to be able to say that I’ve driven both.”
While Force’s Funny Car test may have been a lot of fun, it is time to get back to business this weekend as she enters the NHRA Top Fuel Countdown to the Championship in sixth in the points.
“Really every move we make is just as important as any other and you know we’re going to throw down every single run,” states Force. “We need as many points as we can, we need to qualify well, take advantage of all four qualifying passes and you know, do well on race day.
“We’ve pretty much always been a single car team [in Top Fuel]. So we’ve battled it out and you know we’ve done pretty well over the years. We have a handful of wins, four wins, but we’re going for more and we’re going for that championship. But the Monster team, we’re strong and we’re going for that number one.
“I feel great coming into this race, the first race of the season. Our whole team, they’re right there with me and we’re going after it.”
DÉJÀ VU FOR TODD? - In 2015, the DHL team won the NHRA Funny Car championship despite not winning a race until the Countdown.
While J.R. Todd has already taken home the Wally twice this season, he enters the Countdown to the Championship eighth in the points, giving he and the DHL team a lot of work to do if it wants to take home the title.
“To me it didn’t start off that well, at least not as well as I wanted it to,” recalls Todd, reflecting back on the start of his rookie season in Funny Car. “I was still new to the car, really didn’t know what to expect in the car as far as where I needed to be comfort-wise.”
Fortunately for Todd, as he made more passes he started to become more comfortable behind the wheel of the DHL machine.
“I think it all kind of fell into place there on the Western swing and I feel that we’re definitely going in the right direction on the up at the right time of the year.”
Indeed Todd and his Kalitta Motorsports teammate Alexis DeJoria have now won three out of the last four races in Funny Car. Unfortunately, DeJoria just missed the Countdown having not been able to make all of the races this season.
It hasn’t just been Todd’s comfort level that helped him out during the summer months though, as the 35-year-old Indiana native also credits the warmer weather to his success.
“I feel like if the conditions are right, and when I say right for us I mean hot like it is right now, I feel like we can run with anybody in the category and that gives me confidence as a driver.
“Here in the past few races when it’s cooler out, especially in Friday night qualifying, a couple of the John Force cars and DSR cars just have a performance level that the rest of the field hasn’t caught up to.
“We usually don’t race in those cool conditions that you have in Friday night qualifying, so it played in our hands I think there on Monday at the U.S. Nationals, it was the hottest it had been all weekend and that’s the great equalizer for us and I like it when it’s like that.”
Despite his recent success, Todd doesn’t believe the target is on his back heading into the Countdown.
“I still think everybody is more focused on Ron Capps, Robert Hight and Matt Hagan,” says Todd. “Hight and Hagan, they threw out those big times and big speeds in qualifying, and Capps, he’s the points leader, he’s the reigning champion, so he’s the one with the target on his back for sure.
“We just prefer they not talk about us, and we go out and win and hold that trophy in Pomona, and then they will talk about us.”