2017 NHRA LUCAS OIL NATS - BRAINERD NOTEBOOK
PRITCHETT'S DREAM SEASON ROLLS ON AS SHE CLAIMS FOURTH VICTORY OF 2017 - Top Fuel standout Leah Pritchett ran the table in a big way this weekend at Minnesota's Brainerd International Raceway, establishing a new national elapsed time record of 3.640-seconds at 330.63 mph during qualifying to become the fastest driver in the history of the NHRA.
With her momentum on overdrive, Pritchett rolled through eliminations Sunday by taking out Rob Passey, Scott Palmer and Clay Millican before lining up beside Don Schumacher Racing teammate and defending class champion Antron Brown in the final.
Pritchett laid down a pass of 3.682, 328.06 to take the win light over Brown, who coasted through with a mark of 4.001, 246.35 after hazing his tires and slowing as he approached the top end of the track.
It was the fourth win of the season for the driver of the Papa John's Pizza Top Fueler, and the fifth of her career. Adding to the historical significance of her accomplishment at Brainerd was the fact that Pritchett and Funny Car winner Alexis DeJoria became the first two female drivers to win in the nitro classes at the same event. Her win also tied the single season mark set by Top Fuel pioneer Shirley Muldowney.
"That is something to be incredibly proud of," Pritchett said. "Shirley was an incredible racer, and she was as tough as nails.
“Don Schumacher has given me the best team, in my opinion,” Pritchett said. “We keep continuing to prove that. I really like that these numbers and their work ethic and the consistency really backs it up when I say we have the best team because we have the best hot rod. To go multiple times backing up our national record and doing so many other amazing things this season has just been incredible. The only thing that would be better would be if we could see this marathon all the way through to the end of the season.
"In the meantime, we're really going to enjoy this win because those guys really, really deserve it."
When asked how much confidence changing back to the clutch disc package the team utilized at the beginning of the season, and the subsequent record-setting performance they achieved this weekend, gave her heading into the Countdown, Pritchett had this to say:
"That definitely gives us a lot of confidence, but in the meantime we have worked on a couple of different things, specifically in the blower program and getting our chassis back to how it was at the beginning of the season. So, as we made small climbs without having that clutch disc package in, putting that back in and everything coming together technically all worked to put those numbers on the track.
"So, yeah, that confidence is there. You never thought that you could be in love with a clutch disc before, but we are"!Brian Wood
DEJORIA ENDS WINLESS DROUGHT WITH BRAINERD VICTORY - The winless drought is over for nitro Funny Car driver Alexis DeJoria.
DeJoria, who last won in April 3, 2016 in Las Vegas, found the winner’s circle again with her victory Sunday at the Lucas Oil Nationals Sunday at Brainerd (Minn.) International Raceway.
DeJoria, piloting her Tequila Patron Toyota Camry for Kalitta Motorsports, claimed the win by beating Tommy Johnson Jr. in the final round.
DeJoria clocked a 3.906-second lap at 330.96 mph to edge Johnson’s 3.933-second run at 324.44 mph.
“I’m very resilient, that’s the way I was raised,” DeJoria said. “You never give up and the last two years have been really, really difficult. There have been lots of ups and downs, injuries, no wins, just can’t get up to speed with everybody else. We’re just fighting so hard out there and you start to lose yourself in it and you start to forget why you even came here. You forget the love you had in the beginning, that spark starts to go away and it’s sad. I don’t ever want to be in it, but honestly it is times like that that makes this so much better because you really appreciate every moment.”
This was fifth career NHRA nitro Funny Car win, and her first at Brainerd. DeJoria’s victory parade was comprised of wins over Tim Wilkerson, Cruz Pedregon, John Force and then Johnson Jr.
“This was a huge win for us,” DeJoria said. “My gosh, all day long a bunch of bad a** drivers who have been driving way longer than probably I’ve been alive, except for Tommy. There were no gimmes. We got a little bit of luck against Timmy in the first round and it was what we needed. We haven’t got any good breaks and that’s been hard. I’ve been getting beat on holeshots the last two races, which kills me, but (Sunday) we were both on our game.”
After winning with a 4.416-second run against Wilkerson, DeJoria found her groove with a 3.883-second lap in her win over Pedregon.
“I can tell you when I got back to the pit, I ran into the crew chief lounge and I jumped on both of them (her crew chiefs, Nicky Boninfante/Tommy DeLago) and shook them. It was just incredible. We’ve been struggling to get back in the 3.80s and it has been rough, but you have to race smart out there. Sometimes we don’t qualify that well, but on race day we have a good package and we definitely did (Sunday). I’m so proud of Tommy and Nicky and the whole team for sticking it out. Those guys have been run through the mud and they are here and supportive just like the Kalitta organization. I’m so blessed to be racing for them.”
DeJoria missed three races this season – Charlotte, Atlanta and Topeka, Kan., to tend to family matters, and Chad Head was her substitute driver.
“We love Chad so much, but the guys were really happy when I came back, and I think Chad was too,” DeJoria said. “We’re not trying to rotate the Earth, we’re just chipping away at it and getting better and better every run. When I start getting confident, watch out because I have the blinders on and I’m dead focused. Against John Force in the semifinals, I felt like it was Indy 2014 finals all the way. I just had that drive again and nothing could faze me. We ran up here and we were so late and they were so courteous to let me rush and get dressed and I just had that fire in me all the way through. I just have an incredible team. I can’t say enough about them.”
DeJoria arrived in Brainerd 14th in the season point standings and with the win she is now 10th with 664 points. She is 12 points in front of 11th place Pedregon. The final regular season race is the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis (Aug. 30-Sept. 4). At Indy, there is an increased amount of points in play via the points-and-a-half system for this event (150 points to the winner). The top 10 finishers in NHRA’s pro classes qualify for the six-race Countdown to the Championship, which begins Sept. 15-17 in Charlotte, N.C.
“The last two races have been very tough, the last race (Seattle), I could have used one of my reactions times I had (Sunday), that would’ve been amazing,” DeJoria said. “I know everything happens for a reason. (Sunday) was just surreal. To go from the 14th spot all to way to 10th and Indy is a good race for us, we won there (in 2014). I just feel 100 percent better than I did the last race (at Seattle).”
DeJoria acknowledged being in the winner’s circle with Brainerd’s Top Fuel champ Leah Pritchett made things even more special.
DeJoria became the 250th female to win a national NHRA event on Sunday and Sunday’s win marked the first time two female drivers in the nitro categories won the same national event.
“It’s a big deal,” DeJoria said. “It’s 2017, it’s not as hard as it was for Shirley Muldowney, but obviously there’s just a handful of us and it’s going to be a big deal no matter what when girls do something. I just hope more females get in the pro ranks. We’re h*ll of drivers, obviously the cars, the bikes, they don’t know the difference. It’s a huge honor to be one of the two women who have won at the same time at the same event.” Tracy Renck
TANNER GRAY WINS PRO STOCK TITLE AT BRAINERD - Tanner Gray may be only 19 years old, but he’s making competing in NHRA’s Pro Stock class look like second nature.
Gray, a rookie, has now won four national events this season, his latest coming when he captured the title at the Lucas Oil Nationals Sunday at Brainerd (Minn.) International Raceway.
Gray clocked a 6.610-second lap at 207.56 mph to defeat Bo Butner’s 6.629-second run at 207.85 mph in the finals.
Gray, who drives the Gray Motorsports Chevy Camaro, has wins at Las Vegas, Topeka, Kan., Sonoma (Calif.) and Brainerd this year. His win in Brainerd moved him from third to second in the season points standings.
Gray, qualified No. 1, received a first-round bye and then beat Erica Enders, Jason Line and Butner to reach the winner’s circle.
“I don’t know what these guys have done, but they have a handle on this car the last few races,” Gray said. “They have something going right for them over there and they are making my job a h*ll of a lot easier. I’m just blessed to be able to be sitting in the driver’s seat.”
At the final race of the regular season, the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis (Aug. 30-Sept. 4) Tanner will get a special treat as he will get to compete against his father, Shane, and grandfather, Johnny in the Pro Stock class.
“That will be a lot of fun,” Tanner said. “That will be the first time getting to race my grandpa. I’ve got to race my dad over the years, but I’m really looking forward to that (racing my grandpa). Hopefully we will go out there and give my grandpa a good car so he can go out there and maybe win the thing, that would be cooler than me winning it. It’s definitely going to be a busy weekend, but it will all be worth it at the end of it.”
Tanner was quick to thank his family for this opportunity.
“I wouldn’t be here without him (his father) and my grandpa, my mom, any of them, this is crazy,” Tanner said. “If you would’ve told me I was going to win four races my first year, I would have told you that you were crazy. We’re definitely have something going right over there and it’s clicking at the right time.”
This weekend, Shane, Tanner’s father, was racing and in the process, he was breaking in new tires and doing long burnouts and even a dry hop. The actions of his father didn’t go unnoticed by Tanner.
“It was cool,” Tanner said. “I love long burnouts. I love dry hops. I can sit there on YouTube all day and go back and watch that stuff. I think it’s awesome. I think it needs to be mandatory. When you get to the race, you have to buy a new set of tires and that’s what you race on for the weekend. You don’t have tire choices. Go to Goodyear when you get there and select your tires and obviously you’re going to have to do some big burnouts to get them broke in before race day. That’s my opinion on it. I think the fans like it and it is fun for us drivers. I would have been doing them to, but the crew chief wasn’t too happy about me getting the motor hot. I’m just enjoying myself and we’re all having a really fun time and hopefully we will keep it up.”
Tanner now has a 4-0 record against Butner this season, including 3-0 in finals rounds.
“I just tried to treat this like any other race,” he said. “It was kind of cool to be able to leave on him. I went in there and pre-staged and looked down at my brake pressure and I looked back up and he went in and double-bulbed me. I think that’s awesome. I think it’s part of racing and I think it is good for the fans and brings some excitement and I was cool with it. I’m having a lot of fun.” Tracy Renck
JERRY SAVOIE PREVAILS IN BATTLE OF WHITE ALLIGATOR RACING TEAMMATES - Not bad for a guy who's goal in drag racing was to win one race.
Now, with a Pro Stock Motorcycle championship already on his resume, Jerry Savoie raced to his second win of the 2017 season and the eighth of his career when he defeated teammate and points leader LE Tonglet in the final round Sunday at the Lucas Oil Nationals at Minnesota's Brainerd International Raceway.
Savoie’s 6.846 pass at 194.80 on his White Alligator Racing Suzuki bettered Tonglet’s 6.910 at 194.02 on his Nitro Fish Racing Suzuki.
“The season has been really good," Savoie said. "I’ve had some misfortune a couple times and my riding hasn’t been like it should be. LE is solid as a rock so when you beat him it’s pretty rewarding. He’s taught me a lot and I’ve taught him some things and we thrive off each other. We bring out the best in each other and that’s what it takes to win races.”
Savoie, an alligator farmer who lives in Lafourche Parish deep in the bayou country of Louisiana, faced Mike Berry, Angie Smith and Matt Smith before lining up against Tonglet in his third final-round appearance of the season. Tonglet, who is also a native of Louisiana and has five victories this season, raced past 2016 Rookie of the Year Cory Reed and five-time world champ Andrew Hines before facing his teammate.
Savoie gives crew chief Tim Kulungian much of the credit for the success that he and Tonglet enjoy, and having both bikes in the final round was a great accomplishment.
"Tim is a very humble man who takes everything to heart and never takes anything for granted. He always wants to do better and it's never enough. He shoulders the responsibility and pressure of preparing two bikes for each race, and does an outstanding job."
Drag racing is not only a very satisfying experience for Savoie, but it effects him on a very emotional level as well.
"When you drag race and everything is clicking it shows on the track. That is my family away from home and I love them all."
This family connection is even deeper in a very personal way for Savoie.
"Every time I make a pass I talk to my father, who passed away from cancer years ago. I talk to him every time I put the bike into gear. You'll see me take a deep breath between first and second gear because that's when I say 'come on Daddy, come on and ride with me.' He loved drag racing and he's always with me."
Savoie's dad was surely riding with him at Brainerd, because it takes a lot to defeat his young teammate, as he'll readily admit.
"He does a great job, and when you can run with him that says a lot, The boy is good, man, and you can't take that away from him. He's my partner and if he wins a championship or I win a championship or neither of us wins a championship I'm so humbled in life that it really doesn't matter. It's cool." Brian Wood
SATURDAY NOTEBOOK – BURNOUTS AND REUNITED SPEED MERCHANTS RULE THE DAY
REUNITED AND IT RUNS SO GOOD - The move came totally unexpected in July 2013. The driver and crew chief combo of Robert Hight and Jimmy Prock, largely believed to have been joined at the hip, had set the performance world on fire and even won a championship.
The two remained apart for almost four years, and three races into the 2017 season, after Prock had left and come back, reunited with his former driver. The performances of the last four races have Hight feeling a bit of the good old days.
"We got the band back together, and we’re having a blast," said Hight, who on Friday evening became the first Funny Car driver into the 3.70s. "Working hard, working together, talking to Jimmy. There’s not a day that goes by where Jimmy Prock and I don’t talk about the race car. Just best of friends and it’s like we never left each other and I hope we never do again."
This feeling was how it used to be in their first time together and while not publicized, drifted apart on their combination. Hight believes they know the pitfalls of what separated them before and have the knowledge of what not to do.
They also have Chris Cunningham.
"I think Chris Cunningham has made Jimmy Prock better," Hight revealed. "He is a great addition to this team. I saw Jimmy go right up to Chris before the [3.79] run and they had a little pow-wow up there in the staging lanes and then Jimmy goes right back to the box and it just worked out perfect."
Hight believes Cunningham is the voice of reason for Prock's aggressive nature.
"Without a doubt," Hight said. "You can hear that on the radio. He [Chris Cunningham] is assertive. When Jimmy asks him something it’s not “well I don’t know”, it’s “yes, do this and do that”. He’s sure of himself and they are a great team. I was amazed that when I got back with Jimmy what a difference the two of them made together because Jimmy really never had anybody when he was with me to bounce ideas off of."
Let the record reflect Cunningham is no "yes" man.
"Jimmy does not sit still," Hight said. "He wants to go quicker and faster. In fact, I bet you by know he’s looked at the data and figured out where he could have run better than a .79 with a few tweaks here and there. There is no perfect run to Jimmy Prock. He is always out to be quicker and faster every single run."
And this suits Hight just fine.
BEAAAAUUUUUTIFUL SMOKY BURNOUT - When you race on a part-time basis and winning a championship isn't your focus, you can have some fun, and for Shane Gray, there's no finer entertainment than nearly eighth-mile burnouts in a Pro Stocker.
Yes, you read correctly. A nearly eighth-mile burnout in a Pro Stocker elicited an ovation from the race fans at the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals including fans who stood up to deliver the praise.
"We’re just breaking in tires for Tanner and my dad for Indy," Gray said. "It’s a good place to break tires in and run the car a little bit. We’re just kind of doing everything in one motion. It’s just part of the process. Instead of going testing we’re just doing it here."
Gray has gone beyond the eighth-mile mark before, passing the finish line at Farmington Dragway, a 660-foot facility located outside of Winston-Salem, NC.
Make no mistake, if there's a burnout contest Gray is all too willing to be your huckleberry.
"Breaking in tires is one of my favorite things as far as Pro Stock goes," Gray admitted. "It’s always fun. Broke four sets of tires in here and we’ll race tomorrow."
The icing on the cake? Gray did a dry-hop during the Q-4 session.
Before we go likening Gray with the legendary Jungle Jim Liberman as a showman, there is an ulterior motive, and it has little to do with showmanship. A few years ago, Pro Stock teams were forbidden from shaving tires in an attempt to make them lighter. The process of longer burnouts does the same thing.
Gray isn't sure whether the practice of burning the hides extended is detrimental to the Pro Stockers, and it's not like he really seems concerned.
"I can’t tell that it’s done anything to the tune-up," Gray said. "I had an idea for NHRA at one time about when you get here they give each car a set of sticker tires. When you went up there for Q1 you had to start breaking your tires in. I think it would make it interesting."
That's just one of the ideas Gray has for Pro Stock. But he's keeping mum on the others.
"Yeah. I’ve got a lot of stuff to say but I better not," Gray said with a smile.
OF 500 STARTS AND THE HAWAIIAN PUNCH - There was a time when Ron Capps would have looked at you like you were crazy if you suggested he'd be around for 500 races as a professional drag racer.
"It’s a rich man’s sport," Capps said he would have pointed out. "At the time that would have been my thought, it’s a rich man’s sport, and unless I own my own team, there was no way that going to happen. Fast forward, here I am getting to work with two of the biggest names in this sport, Don Schumacher, and Don Prudhomme.
"Then look at the names of the crew chiefs I’ve gotten to work with, Roland Leong, Tim Richards, Dale Armstrong, Ed “Ace” Mccullough and now Ron Tobler."
In the most recent Legends: The Series featuring Leong, he credited Capps as one of his best drivers ever alongside Prudhomme.
"It brought tears to my eyes, it’s that cool," Capps admitted. "It’s one of those pinch me moments. If you go down the list of his former drivers, it’s pretty amazing. So when you hear a guy like that who’s been around that long in this sport, to hear him say that it’s another one of those crazy moments.
"You have to remember I was just a kid building The Hawaiian models. I never in a million years thought I would meet him, let alone work with him and for him. It’s crazy; it’s just nuts. I still can’t believe it."
A SURREAL MOMENT - Last weekend, Capps was a participant in the popular Night Under Fire match race at Summit Racing Equipment Motorsports Park in Norwalk, Ohio.
Because the event is a relaxed atmosphere, Capps' 16-year old son Caden was allowed to back up his father following a burnout.
It seems like yesterday Capps remembered performing the same chore for his father.
"I got to do that as a kid a lot and you don’t get to do it, especially here in the big show races at NHRA," Capps said. "It was a surreal moment for me to look out and have my son backing me up. We had Joe my normal back up guy out there with him the first lap."
Caden drew a kinda-sorta stern talking to from crew chief Rahn Tobler from deviating from the plan a bit.
"[Caden] changed his position [on the second run]," Capps confirmed. "On the second run just assuming we were in the other lane, he thought he was in the right spot and he wasn’t. I enjoyed watching him, not that he got scolded but I enjoyed watching him learn and have Tobler sit him down and explain why he wanted everything done exactly that way."
Capps said it's this attention to detail which resulted in the 2016 NHRA Funny Car championship.
"I’m backing up against the legendary John Force, and there’s my son out there backing me up," Capps recalled. "Force joked with me afterward how cool it was as he was backing up to look up and see my son backing me up. It was just a night that you can’t replace."
BRING ON THE CLOWNS, WE THINK – NHRA Announcer Brian Lohnes learned a valuable lesson Saturday afternoon. When the Kalitta Motorsports team is struggling, it might not be wise to interview team GM Jim Oberhofer.
What was expected to be praise after his driver Doug Kalitta ran a 3.733 in Q-4 was instead an indictment on the other Kalitta teams.
"That was a good run for the Mac Tools team; it's a shame that we look like a bunch of ass-clowns with our other two dragsters. We'll fix it."
CLINCHED – Defending NHRA Pro Stock Bike champion Jerry Savoie and Hector Arana Jr. clinched spots in the Countdown following qualifying on Saturday afternoon.
MCMILLEN STEERING CLEAR OF MURPHY AND HIS LAW – Terry McMillen is doing his best to temper his rightful enthusiasm. The Amalie Oil-sponsored driver entered the Brainerd weekend with a hefty 154-point lead over 11th place.
Still, McMillen has seen this story play out too many times outside of his favor to get too excited before he clinches. In no certain order, McMillen has finished the championship chase by losing with totals of 1, 8 and 11 points.
"Right now we’re just staying focused," McMillen admitted. "Rob and the guys have put together a really good car. This car is going A to B really consistent, so all we need to do is go up there and do our job. Hopefully, it’ll take care of itself. I don’t want to think about the points, but I’d be lying if I sat here and told you that it wasn’t in the back of my mind 24 hours a day."
McMillen understands that while his performances at the two most recent events have been stellar with a semi-final and runner-up finish, he feels the need for at least a two round lead on the competition headed into Indy before he can exhale easy.
"I think that will secure number 10 spot, worst case scenario, and we should get locked in off of that," McMillen said. "That’s our goal this week, just to go out there and grab two rounds, but I’ve got no problem winning this thing if it happens."
And with Indy accounting for a point-and-a-half, McMillen now on defense instead of offense, isn't sure if he's a fan of the different point system.
"I really don’t like it anymore," McMillen said with a smile. "Some days it would have been nice to have that when we were running back in our less fortunate days. We’ll just maintain our composure. Don’t go up there and try to reinvent the wheel, just race the racetrack like Rob’s been doing the past few races. We should come out okay if we follow that game plan."
McMillen won't rest until he can put his name on the Countdown board.
"Heck, who knows, we could have World War III tomorrow, and this whole thing could end," McMillen said shaking his head. "But right now we’re confident; we’re upbeat in where we’re heading. It’s all about the Amalie Motor Oil car and my guys, Rob Wendland, and the whole team has done a fabulous job. It made a big difference having these guys two years in a row working on the car. We didn’t have to go back through boot camp in the beginning, and now it’s starting to pay off."
THE NOT SO SECRET, SECRET - The secret to the McMillen's success has been in a right combination.
"The first thing that that we did was switch fuel lines," McMillen explained. "We went to a Brahman Miller fuel line. What was really amazing about that was the car picked up three more gallons of fuel from the minute we hit the gas to the end of the track. That’s a big deal in a fuel car because you’re pumping so much volume in there anyway and it didn’t change the pressure. So that was one thing that made a difference.
"The other thing is that in Sonoma we changed our primary fingers around a little bit and that seemed to help. So coupling the two together started giving the car some positive results. The 60-foots were picking up and certainly running really good. We’re still fighting a little issue, it keeps dropping a couple holes down that top end of the track but we just have to go out there and keep bleeding fuel away and slowly, but surely we’ll get to the point where it stops doing that, and the car will probably even go faster."
ON THE ROAD AGAIN - There was a time when Del Worsham used to be a hired driver; he'd fly in with his firesuit on Thursday and fly home on Monday. This season he walked away from the lifestyle of a hired gun to race with his father and the family's Funny Car team.
Worsham is back on the road again, still a driver but also wheeling the team's eighteen wheeler when needed.
"This week, it was back to how it was in my early years," Worsham said. "I went the western swing, went home for two days, went to Norwalk, Ohio, flew to Salt Lake City, drove the rig to Brainerd, then we head to Cordova and then Indy."
Worsham is learning to appreciate the finer things in life these days.
"When I left Seattle I went to Norwalk for the Night Under Fire, then to Salt Lake City to pick up another rig, drove it myself to Brainerd," Worsham explained. "Beautiful country through Wyoming and North Dakota.
"It’s actually pretty enjoyable by yourself on the road. There’s no one to bother you; you can just drive and think. I’m actually lucky to have a job that allows me to do that and not have to worry about other things, so I feel lucky just to be able to drive the truck."
Worsham entered this weekend's event 31 points out of tenth place, sitting back in 13th place. It's not exactly the place he thought the Lucas Oil team would be after opening the season as a quarter-finalist.
"I thought we’d run better than we did,"Worsham admitted. "We’ve had moments when we’d run ok, but really I thought the car would run more consistent than its run. We’ve made 3-second runs at nearly every race we’ve been to which is good, but we haven’t put runs together like I’ve wanted to do.
"It’s the first half of the season, of the first year back, so I guess a lot of the expectations, including myself, I’m not giving up on it. I think it’s still here and I think we have a great future here and I’m going to keep pushing."
IT AIN'T EASY - For Top Fuel point leader Antron Brown, the struggle is real.
"Think about it, we did that good with seven finals in nine races, and we just got the lead back by only 13 points," Brown said. "That shows you how tough this field is. All these cars are just stepping up to the plate. I never imagined that you could say you have 12 that could win on any given Sunday, but now's the time. We've been to a lot of finals, but we only have four race wins out of nine finals. We aren't even 50-50 right now. We have to do a lot better than that."
Two races, including this weekend's Brainerd event, remain for Brown to clinch the No. 1 seed for the Countdown to the Championship.
"We're in the position that we want to be in at the right time, but there's still two races left, especially with (the U.S. Nationals in) Indy being points and a half," Brown explained. "So it's still anybody's ball game, but the thing is we aren't making points up now. We just need to keep putting points on the board. We had the point lead before, so right now, it feels good. Now we just need to keep doing what we have to do and keep plugging like we have been."
The Seattle win was Brown's 49th in Top Fuel and moved him to within three wins of legendary Joe Amato for third on the NHRA all-time win list in the Top Fuel.
"I'm speechless about that. Joe is from Pennsylvania, and he's always been one of my big heroes in the day of watching this sport," Brown said. "He used to win like it was going out of style. In our profession, we never know when our next win is going to come. You can win a race now and then not win again for another two years. We're going to ride this wave and keep pushing as hard as we can. This makes you feel like you're in some good company to be mentioned with (Don) Prudhomme, Amato ... that's history. People like that are what made this sport what it is today.
"It's really the team that I'm with. We've got an all-star cast. We all have a passion for what we do. We don't even have to talk about; we can just look at each other and communicate. When you gel like that, these types of results happen."
RIGHT TIME, RIGHT PLACE - Tommy Johnson Jr.'s recent performances advances are no coincidence. At least this is how the driver of Terry and Doug Chandler's Make-A-Wish Funny Car team driver sees it.
"I think we're starting to peak at the right time," Johnson said, "The past couple of years, this is the time we've made our move. We were runner-up at Brainerd in 2015, and it just seems to be where our team really starts to gel and get a great feeling that is important with the Countdown (to the Championship) coming up."
In 2015, the Make-A-Wish Dodge tuned by crew chief John Collins and assistant Rip Reynolds finished No. 3 in the points standings then went on to finish No. 2 in 2016.
Johnson believes the consistency of the Make-A-Wish Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car will be important heading into the Countdown. He has raced his way into three of the last four final rounds on tour but continues to seek his second win of the season. His first title of 2017 came in March at Las Vegas.
FIGHTING FOR A SPOT - Marathon Petroleum-sponsored, Pro Stock driver Allen Johnson held the provisional No. 1 qualifying spot for exactly 2.53 minutes on Friday. In an event where Johnson needs to make a statement, he stepped up in a big way with a 6.622, 206.86 pass.
Johnson fell to third, and to him, third is a good place to be in with two races left in the regular season. He's on the bubble in the Pro Stock top ten amongst point earners.
“Being No. 10 in the points with two races left before the Countdown, I definitely think there's a target on our backs,” Johnson said. “There are a few racers not in right now that want to be in just as bad as I do so we just gotta do our best out there and it’ll all fall the way it’s supposed to.”
“I think that round win over Greg [Anderson] in Seattle gave us some momentum,” he added. “I think we’re close to finding another hundredth or two on the car so I think we can go to Brainerd and really be in the mix with the top dogs.”
SOMETHING HAD TO CHANGE - Jeggie Coughlin has raced enough times and won enough races to know when something just isn't right. And for the multi-time champion, something just wasn't right with the JEGS.com/Elite Performance Chevrolet Camaro.
Team owner Richard Freeman ordered a massive overhaul of the sleek Rick Jones-built racecar in the days before the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals.
"My racecar has undergone a 100-percent makeover since the last race in Seattle," Coughlin said. "It was absolutely dissected from front to back and top to bottom, with the guys literally checking every single inch of this car. They found some things that were wearing in a suspicous way that they repaired, and some other components here and there that needed attention. They ended up feeling very confident this thing will be back to the way it was at the start of the year."
This season has been decent for Coughlin, but not stellar despite two final round appearances, four semi-finals and a No. 1 qualifier.
Coughlin's two round wins in six races were cause for concern.
"The boys pretty much worked around the clock for seven straight days getting this car sorted out," Coughlin said. "Then they took it testing and one of our crew chiefs, Lump (Brian Self), as well as my teammate, Erica Enders made some passes to shake it out."
Coughlin was ninth quickest in qualifying with a 6.671 elapsed time best.
THE NATURE OF THE BEAST - Funny Car veteran Tim Wilkerson understands his horrible Western Swing experience, where two of his three race experiences were less than spectacular, can be par for the course in what he believes has become one of the toughest classes in professional drag racing.
"I think the biggest thing is that these cars are all so fast now, and they're like a bunch of bracket cars out there,” said Wilkerson, who is currently eighth in Funny Car points. “I have to stay on my game and pay attention, and my guys have to stay focused."
Wilkerson damaged two of his Funny Cars in Denver, and lost in the first round at Seattle. Sandwiched in between the calamity filled outings was a runner-up in Sonoma.
Despite the run of misfortune, Wilkerson could earn his way into the playoffs for the tenth consecutive time with a strong showing this weekend.
"When we left Seattle, we said we were going to go to bed, get up the next morning, and leave that all behind us,” said Wilkerson, who has 20 career wins. “That's just what we did. We went to the Night Under Fire event at the Bader family's Summit Motorsports Park last weekend, and that was a blast, like always. They put on a great show, and it's a real neat deal – plus, it gave us the opportunity to get some ideas for a few things down the road with our program.”
FRIDAY NOTEBOOK – ONE FAST, FREAKY FRIDAY IN BRAINERD AND WE AREN’T IN THE ZOO
FAST DELIVERY – Let the record reflect the quickest driver in the Kings of the Sport is a queen. On the last pass of a rain-delayed Friday, Leah Pritchett thundered to a 3.640, 330.63 to establish a new Top Fuel elapsed time record.
If the record-run holds, Friday’s run establish the sixth No. 1 qualifier this season for the Papa Johns-sponsored driver.
“If I was delivering a pizza then someone would have gotten it real fast,” Pritchett said. “That was so incredibly fun, one hell of a ride.”
It’s only fitting Pritchett’s historic pass came at this race.
Papa John's founder and chairman John Schnatter attended his first Mello Yello Series race with the team at Brainerd last year. .
"Last year at Seattle was the first time we ran the gold Papa John's Pizza dragster and two weeks later John came to Brainerd for his first race with us. A lot has happened since then.
"Our team always likes having John in our pit with us. He's a big drag racing fan and when he's here he's just another crew guy."
This season Pritchett has won three of her five final rounds, and entered the event ranked third in championship points.
CERTIFIABLY HOT - Robert Hight made drag racing history on Friday evening in Brainerd, Minn., as he became the first driver to dip into the 3.7-second zone.
Hight stopped the timers at 3.793, 338.00 miles per hour.
"I've never been part of a milestone like that," Hight said. "I have as a crewman, while working on John Force's car, but never as a driver. We've been on some great runs, and things have happened. I called it earlier in the day when we ran the 3.84. Jimmy Prock has a handle on this car, he and Chris Cunningham and the whole Auto Club team.
Hight clearly earned his pay as a driver.
"This thing was a handful," Hight admitted. "This thing was a handful through the middle."
Hight has won two of the last three NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series events plus the special Night Under Fire match race at Summit Motorsports Park in Norwalk, Ohio last weekend.
“When you’re on roll like we’ve been on and the car’s running so well, this is what you want,” Hight said. “Even though last week was a match race, we still got the win, and we ran great. You don’t want this to ever end. It’s going to at some point, but we want to roll into Brainerd and get right back in there.”
Hight also has two consecutive No. 1 qualifiers – and three of the last four No. 1s. His speed of 339.87 mph in Sonoma was a national record and helped extend his impressive qualifying streak. Hight has qualified third or better in nine consecutive races.
Hight moved to third in the Funny Car points standings after the win in Seattle, only eight points behind second place.
SPONSOR DELIVERY - Hector Arana Jr. found the perfect time to deliver.
During Friday's Q-2 session, the Lucas Oil TV-sponsored rider joined the musical chairs game of provisional low qualifiers, displacing Matt Smith, who knocked wife Angie Smith from the top spot.
Arana's 6.879, 194.24, if it holds will be his first pole of the season, and 19th overall. It will also continue the run of good fortunes the second-generation drag racer has going on presently.
In the last five national events, Arana has raced to a pair of runner-up results as well as two semifinal finishes. He's also qualified No. 2 overall four times and jumped from ninth to third in the Mello Yello championship points.
"The team went home after Sonoma and went through my bike from front to back, checking and double-checking everything," Arana said. "Then they took the motor out of the bike, put it on the dyno as is, and figured out exactly what it was producing when we ran the quickest pass of my career (6.749 seconds in Sonoma).
"They took that data and built two new motors, both of which produced more horsepower than the one we went 6.74 with, so now that motor will be one of the backups and we'll race Brainerd with one of these new ones that are showing to be even better. So yeah, we're pretty excited to start racing."
PROUD AMERICAN - Douglas Jonak considers himself a proud American and a taxpayer, who is all too willing to support his country's military.
Jonak, who races Super Stock with an FGT/B 2010 Mustang, has readily put his support into action.
Jonak's red, white and blue, patriotic-themed Mustang carries the names of those members of the American military killed in the Iraqi-theatre up until 2011.
It's been said that imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, and Jonak has no qualms about admitting he saw the design on an eighteen-wheeler and knew the message would convey positively in the patriotic world of drag racing.
"I’ve had guys come up to me when I am all dressed up and ready to go [inside the car], they knock on my window, and they ask me about it," Jonak said. "I’ve actually had guys with tears in their eyes because they know somebody. In fact, a lot of people have taken pictures of the name of someone that they know really well."
Jonak is an orthodontist and admittedly has donated on occasion his services to those children whose parents are stationed overseas.
The race car brings a different kind of gratification.
Knowing he's paying tribute to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice, leaves Jonak with a feeling of satisfaction knowing he recognizes those brave souls.
"People like to be honored knowing that a friend of theirs or a family member or have had family members’ husbands or wives come up and find their husband’s name," Jonak explained. "The whole point is to make people feel better about something that is hard to feel good about at all. The ultimate reason I did this is because we come to these races and there are people fighting a war right now while we’re sitting here drag racing. It just doesn’t balance out."
NOT OUR TYPICAL VENUE - Don Schumacher Racing drivers Leah Pritchett and Matt Hagan had quite the experience last weekend while performing an exhibition on a temporary drag strip built on Woodward Avenue next to the M1 Concourse in Pontiac, Mich.
The two performed burnouts on Woodburn Avenue bounded by concrete safety barriers.
"That was one of the coolest things I've ever done in a racecar," said Pritchett. "The street was crowned because that's how streets are built to help the water runoff, and it was much more porous than any track I've driven on. I probably got up to 100 mph and went for about 500 feet. Definitely the longest and fastest burnout I've done in a dragster."
There was an estimated crowd of 30,000 for the event.
Neil Strausbaugh, co-crew chief for the Infinite Hero Funny Car team, was part of the supporting cast. He definitely described the experience as one outside of the norm.
"We were more concerned with making sure we didn't blow the tree over," admitted Strausbaugh. "It's not a common thing for us to have to cross four train tracks to get the drag strip."
BO KNOWS ... - With three wins to his credit and a point lead to show for his success, there's nothing holding Pro Stock racer Bo Butner back from challenging for the 2017 NHRA Pro Stock title.
“We’ve been very blessed,” Butner said. “It’s really the same routine and the same team that we had last year, I just didn’t drive as well last year. I’m not shocked by how the car is running. We still do this to have fun, and I’m lucky enough to be with a team where it is their living. That’s a good spot and the perfect storm for me.”
Butner has been a machine of sorts while working his way up the ladder in Lucas Oil sportsman competition, but now that he's in the major league of professional drag racing the same rules are applicable. He's got to maintain his routine.
“We just have to stick to the same routine of trying to get to the semis, and if we get lucky enough get to the finals,” said Butner, who has three No. 1 qualifiers and seven final round appearances in 2017. “We have to continue to stay on our game. We’ve had some pretty good momentum, and we’re going to have some new stuff for the next two races. Anything you can find anywhere, it’s going to help. We just have to continue to go rounds.”
WHERE EVERYBODY KNOWS YOUR NAME - Brainerd is the place where you pin your name to the board.
Of all the memories two-time Pro Stock champion and two-time Brainerd winner Erica Enders has, it's the culmination of a successful season which jogs her memory the best.
"Brainerd also is where you get to pin your name on the Countdown to the Championship big board, showing you earned a spot in the playoffs," Enders said. "I'll never forget the first time I got to do that in 2011. It was quite a feeling of accomplishment. We've been lucky enough to do it every year since and we'll do it again this weekend, so that's really exciting."
And for Enders, there's no spot like the top spot.
"Back in 2014, the first year we went on to win the championship, I was able to pin my name up there in the No. 1 spot. That was incredible. We ended up starting the Countdown in second, but at Brainerd we were No. 1 and it felt special."
Enders comes into the penultimate race of the 18-race regular season with mixed emotions of a close final round loss in Seattle, .0006 behind Drew Skillman to be exact.
"Losing by less than an inch is tough but on the flip side, we gained a lot of ground on our tune-up and to even be in that position considering the little slump we had this summer is a real credit to my guys," Enders said.
BACK TO THE SANDLOT - Jack Beckman, after spending four of the last five weekends on the road, decided on his first weekend off to do what he does best, he drag raced.
Beckman returned to his drag racing roots last weekend with a trip to near Boise, Idaho, to compete in NHRA Sportsman competition during the Nightfire Nationals at Firebird Raceway.
The 2003 NHRA Super Comp world champion drove Dick VanderMeer's 180-mph Top Dragster and realized to stay on top of the Sportsman game you had better race in it more than once a year.
"It was a great weekend even if I could have done better in Dick's dragster," said Beckman.
ROLLING THUNDER - Rocky Balboa, the fictional movie boxing character made famous by Sylvester Stallone, once proclaimed, "it's not how hard you can get hit, but how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward."
Back in June, two-time NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle champion Matt Smith took a significant hit when he failed to qualify for the NHRA Summernationals in Englishtown, NJ.
Instead of lamenting the shortcoming Smith leveraged the adversity to go on a performance blitz of his own, reaching three final rounds and grabbing two No. 1 qualifiers in the past four races.
“Our team is definitely going in the right direction, and it’s a great feeling,” said Smith, who has jumped from 12th to fifth in the points standings. “After Englishtown, I was ready to sell everything. I was so frustrated because I know how hard we worked. I knew we had a good bike, but it was frustrating. We want back to the wind tunnel, fixed it and made a bunch of changes. The hard work has paid off, and the whole team is excited. Now we’ve been to three finals, and I think we’re on the right track of competing for a championship.”
Smith has won Brainerd twice, and a third would suit him just fine.
“We’re very excited to compete for a championship,” said Smith, who has 18 career wins. “We started with this new motor last year, and I didn’t think it would take off as quick as it has. It’s shown a lot of potential the last 3-4 races. I think we’re just breaking the tip of the iceberg and we’re excited about it. We’re right where we want to be. I feel like we can beat everyone in the class. We’re ready to fight this battle. Come the Countdown; we’ll be ready.”
FIRST TIME FOR EVERYTHING - Brainerd is a unique stop on the 24-race NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series. One Pro Stock racer is learning this first-hand.
John Gaydosh, whose last event was back in June at Norwalk, has never experienced the quarter-mile of Brainerd International Raceway, much less the after-hours phenomenon known as the "Zoo."
“We’ve wanted to compete at the races in Brainerd for so long; it’s really been on our bucket list,” Gaydosh said. “This year we were able to get some extra help from our sponsors so we could finally make the trip.”
Gaydosh inked an associate sponsorship deal with MB Auto and Truck Accessories to make the journey to the Land of 10,000 Lakes a reality. And even though he's been on the sidelines for a little while, he's got a measure of momentum working in his favor. Gaydosh reached the semi-finals in Norwalk.
“I was so proud of the team in Norwalk. We want to keep the momentum going this weekend,” Gaydosh said. “We’ll be running the same engine from Gray Motorsports and hope to have the same success.”
Gaydosh smiles when he mentions those who have made the improbable run into Pro Stock competition possible.
“We are so grateful to Gray Motorsports, Pypes Exhaust, RJS Safety, MB Auto and Truck Accessories and Weldon High Performance. They stood behind Gaydosh Performance and helped up accomplish so much this season.”