2017 NHRA NEW ENGLAND NATIONALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
FORCE BREAKS MINI-SLUMP WITH MONSTER TOP FUEL VICTORY AT EPPING - Top Fuel racer Brittany Force said after securing the No. 2 qualifying position for the NHRA New England Nationals she said, “I’m expecting a lot out of race day.”
She got everything out of it she had hoped for Sunday.
With a 3.716-second elapsed time in the Monster Energy Dragster at 328.62 mph on the Epping, N.H., 1,000-foot course, Force earned her first victory of the season and her fourth overall, beating Antron Brown in the final round.
Brown countered with a 3.728-second, 327.98-mph performance in the Matco Tools / Toyota Dragster.
In the winners circle, Force joined Pro Stock’s Erica Enders, as well as Matt Hagan, who aced out her sister Courtney Force in the Funny Car final. So it was a rare day with the opportunity for three pro female racers to share the podium.
“I was hoping it was going to be us ladies in the winners circle, but we take it one step at a time,” Brittany Force said.
That’s how she has had to take her Top Fuel season. After a runner-up finish at Phoenix, she hadn’t made it to a semifinal and became stuck in a rut with three straight first-round losses (at Houston, Charlotte, and Atlanta). But the team tested at Lucas Oi Raceway at Indianapolis recently, and that pointed her in the right direction, she said.
“The Indy test turned everything around,” Force said. “Leaving Atlanta [three races ago], we knew what the problem was [with the chassis], and we were going to prove it on the racetrack in testing. And we were right. We knew it was a problem in the clutch. We knew we were good after that.”
She credited her team for all of her success.
“It’s all about the team – [consultant] Alan Johnson, [crew chief] Brian Husen, and my entire team. They’re the ones who put this whole car in motion. They’re the ones who turn those win lights on and got us here today,” she said. “And the key to it all was us sticking together: keep an eye on the prize and never backing away from it, never giving up and keep fighting for it. And that’s what we did.
“Working with Alan Johnson has been awesome. He pulled me aside before that final round, and he said, ‘Antron, he’s going to bring it. He always does. But we’ve got something for him, and I know you’ve got something for him, too.’ So I knew it was going to be a good race. And we went straight down there, turned that win light on.
“I lost focus for a second, because I knew he got in trouble next to us. I thought I saw my win light, but I wasn’t sure. There’s a lot going on. Getting off the racetrack, I was proud. I knew we got our job done.”
She did so by eliminating Steve Chrisman, Troy Coughlin Jr., and Shawn Langdon to return to the final round for the first time since February at Phoenix – in her “lucky 13th” career final-round appearance.
Brown had reached his fourth final of the season by defeating Shawn Reed, Scott Palmer, and Leah Pritchett. But Force denied Don Schumacher Racing a sixth double-nitro triumph this season. With Alan Johnson serving as a tuning advisor to both Force and two-time winner Steve Torrence, they are the only ones to stop the DSR steamroller of Pritchett, Brown, and Tony Schumacher.
Leapfrogging Clay Millican, Force improved from seventh place to sixth in the standings as the tour heads this coming weekend to Englishtown, N.J., for the Summernationals.
This was a wild weekend for Force. She saw her sister set both ends of the track record, then blow her Funny Car to smithereens in qualifying. Then her brother-in-law, Graham Rahal, won both of the IndyCar Series races at Detroit this weekend. Dad John struggled in qualifying and started a surprising 13th. And she had a little of her own emotional ups and downs, although this victory erased her disappointment of seeing Leah Pritchett swipe the No. 1 qualifying spot from her Saturday.
“There’s so many distractions,” Brittany Force said. “When you pull up to that starting line, you have to eliminate everything. My sister was sitting right in front of me in the lane, and I didn’t want to watch. I had to keep my focus where I was. You could see the team celebrating, but I wasn’t focused on what her car was doing. I was focused on what our car was doing.”
Force is a Southern California native, from Yorba Linda. But the East Coast has been her place to shine, with victories at Gainesville, Fla., Charlotte, and now Epping. Her previous victor came in the Midwest last August at Brainerd, Minn.
“I don’t really care where we win – East Coast, West Coast – as long as we get the job done,” she said.
With the victory, she inched closer to 100 round-wins. She’s at 98, as she broke above .500 in elimination rounds for the year and for her career. She has four victories in 11 finals as of this 105th race.
In the five years since the NHRA added new England Dragway to the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule, Force sisters Brittany and Courtney each have won, as has their father, 16-time Funny Car series champion John Force.
“It is pretty cool to see,” Brittany Force said. “To do it with them is pretty awesome.”
Courtney Force won here (against her dad in the final round) on her birthday weekend in June 2013, at the inaugural NHRA New England Nationals. Next year, because of a schedule shift, Brittany Force will have the chance to repeat her victory on her birthday, July 8. The 2018 race here is set for July 6-8. Susan Wade
HAGAN MAKES SOME NOISE OF HIS OWN IN FUNNY CAR - With all the headlines in NHRA nitro Funny Car class of late being about Ron Capps’ four wins in a row – it was his Don Schumacher Racing teammate and fellow world champion Matt Hagan, who stole the spotlight Sunday.
Hagan clocked a 3.897-second lap at 331.77 mph to defeat Courtney Force’s 3.927-second run and win the New England Nationals for the first time in his career in Epping, N.H.
“Obviously you have to race the race track, but you race the racer as well,” Hagan said. “People who say don’t think about who is beside you, but I think that’s crap, everybody does. You know other driver’s tendencies are and what they are going to do, like how they stage and how long they will have out on the pedal and all that kind of stuff. A lot of times you just have to go do you and not get out of your routine and that’s what I tried to do all day (Sunday). I knew we had a great race car.”
Hagan, a two-time NHRA nitro Funny Car world champion (2011, 2014) won his third race this season, and his first since taking the title at the Arizona Nationals Feb. 26 at Wild Horse Motorsports Park in Phoenix.
This is Hagan’s 25th NHRA national event win. His other wins this year also came at the expense of Courtney Force as he beat her in the finals of the season-opening Winternationals Feb. 12 in Pomona, Calif.
“Dickie Venables (Hagan’s crew chief) came in here the first day and was trying to run it like it was Topeka (Kan., the last race) and it wasn’t quite like Topeka and we didn’t go down the race track,” Hagan said. “Dickie knew we were better than that and he reeled it back in and made two really nice on Saturday and built a lot of confidence coming into Sunday. The car was on a string all day long and it just went right down the race track, and didn’t hardly have to drive it. Everything went the way it should’ve today.”
Hagan ousted John Force, Del Worsham, Tommy Johnson Jr., and then Courtney Force.
“We kept lane choice all the way up to the final which I thought was pretty big because we really liked that left lane a lot better than the right,” Hagan said. “I think the right gave a lot of people some trouble today so to be able to stay over there most of the day, but Dickie went down in the right lane and won in the right lane, so that’s pretty cool and hat’s off to him and all my guys busting their a**. I’m just very blessed to be able to win and blessed to able to mouthpiece in and put a helmet on. Glory goes to God and hopefully we can do it next weekend. Every time I sit in the car this year, when my brother passed it put stuff in perspective and you really do appreciate it and take every day and don’t take it for granted.”
On Jan. 8 of this year, Kyle Hagan, 33, died from an apparent brain aneurysm.
The New England Nationals was the first race of four in a row. The next stop is the Summernationals in Englishtown, N.J., July 8-11.
“You used to think the Western Swing was tough, and now we have four in row,” Hagan said. “All the behind scenes stuff these guys have to do to make four in a row is crazy. These race cars eat parts and it cost so much to make each run.”
Hagan is brimming with optimism about the remainder of the season for his team.
“We have a race car that I think can win this whole thing this year,” Hagan said. “You just have a little luck come your way. Look at that NAPA car (driven by Ron Capps) those guys couldn’t do anything wrong. Hat’s off to those guys to win four in a row like that, and I’m not knocking them, sometimes you just have to be a little lucky with some stuff to. You just have to take every round and make it count because there a lot of times when it comes down to one or two rounds there at the end of the year and you have to push in those situations.” Tracy Renck
ENDERS BREAKS WINLESS DROUGHT AT EPPING - Erica Enders knows how to win NHRA Pro Stock national events. She won the 2014 and 2015 world championships and had 21 national event wins on her resume.
That number was stuck at 21 when she made it to the winner’s circle at the Las Vegas fall race in 2015. In all, 33 races passed before Enders returned to Victory Lane and that came Sunday at the New England Nationals in Epping, N.H.
Enders clocked a 6.534-second time at 213.16 mph to defeat Tanner Gray’s 6.550-second lap at 212.06 mph.
“It’s kind of just a culmination of everything that has happened over the past year-and-a-half, I mean 2016 was nothing short of a challenge for us and we sucked for a lack of a better term, but we stayed together,” Enders said. “I keep talking about my team, but I have the most unique group of individuals and it is so awesome to have a group that has my back and I will tell you and will tell you that’s 100 percent of the reason why I am able to drive the way I drive is because I have their support and their confidence. Throughout those trials and tribulations and challenges and adversity we faced they always rise to the top.”
Enders drives a Chevy Camaro for Richard Freeman at Elite Motorsports.
“It’s been going back to a proven combination, which is the Chevy powerplant at Elite, and I’m actually driving my 2014 championship car with a new front end on it,” Enders said. “Rick Jones and Rickie Jones and the guys back at the shop at Quarter-Max did an excellent job with that car and it just goes to show you that you don’t need new pipe to win a race. I’m super proud and I just think this is just the tip of the iceberg for us. We needed some things to fall our way. We were fortunate in 2014 and 2015. We had a fast car and we drove well and we had things fall our way, and the little things haven’t gone our way yet this year and maybe this is the turning point for us. When you pull up here in your race car with the baddest team on the planet, you have to believe with all your heart that you’re the baddest there is also. That’s not being cocky, it is being confident in what you have. You have to believe it to achieve it, and I learned that at a young age.”
Enders was happy to start a new victory streak at Epping.
“I’m super excited to get this done in Epping,” Enders said. “This track means a lot to our sport and certainly means a lot to the fans, there’s something about being on the East Coast, the fans love Pro Stock, so that’s exciting being that everybody else out here breathes nitro. There’s a small group of people who still love the factory hot rod class so it’s exciting to come on the East Coast and I’m glad to get it done here in Epping.”
Enders defeated Shane Tucker in round one, who was a no show, and then she beat Jason Line and Bo Butner on holeshots before ousting Gray. Tracy Renck
SATURDAY - SMAX SMITH EXUDES ‘ATTRACTIVE INSANITY, NEW ENGLANDER BOSS CELEBRATES 40 YEARS IN DRAG RACING, ENDERS ABUZZ, ‘BOSTON STRANGLER’ TRIBUTE CAR UNVEILED
Smax Smith zipped into his Top Fuel pit, his blond, wavy, shoulder-length hair blowing in the cold morning breeze. He looked like a rock star, scurrying about, making sure the roadies had placed his various guitars just so for his impending concert.
The sight of him flitting about (“My feet never touch the ground,” he says) transported the imagination to much grander purpose. But the reality is that he operates a bare-bones, unsponsored dragster that he supposes is about 100 pounds overweight . . . out of a little red barn-like trailer that’s almost overlooked among the Taj Ma-Haulers in the NHRA pro pits. And he clearly loves every second of his hardscrabble drag-racing existence. He was down Saturday to just one cylinder head and enough lunch fixin’s to feed his fun-loving Ant Hill Mob Racing volunteer crew of 10. But who cares? One of his fans called it “attractive insanity,” and Smith immediately was pondering printing that on T-shirts. “Attractive insanity” fits.
Of course it does.
“This is brilliant!” Smith said, glancing around his unglamorous but happy pit.
It’s a gloriously amusing atmosphere at the Smax Smith pits, compared to the mundane tasks that occupy his 9-to-5 life in Canada’s Ontario province. He does government-mandated safety checks on automobiles and repairs as needed at his shop. Occasionally he cleans windows and does odd jobs to supplement his income.
That’s the kind of stuff he was doing this time last year, after qualifying for the Top Fuel field at the New England Nationals. But rain forced postponement of Sunday’s eliminations, and Smith and his crew couldn’t stay – each of them had to report for work that Monday. Smith said he was “heartbroken” when he watched the race on TV and saw that first-round opponent Steve Torrence smoked his tires. Had Smith been there and taken that first-round victory, he would have received a bye. So he had the potential to advance to the semifinal round.
He’s back for more, reveling in the fact he has raced for 43 years without a miss.
“People are starting to see that we’re here. This is the first time ever I’ve had hero cards,” Smith said. “They tell us we’re a great inspiration. They tell us, ‘You’re brave, taking on all those guys. We’re getting spanked, but we’re not looking stupid.’”
When the team came up the return road Friday, after the New England Dragway crowd in the grandstands gave them a standing ovation. “They went wild,” Smith said. “Fans here are so unreal.”
Fellow Top Fuel racer Scott Palmer knows how that feels, being the underdog, and maybe that’s why he has so generously helped Smith. Smith expressed his gratitude in an unconventional way: “I told Scott, ‘I’m a pacifist, but I’d punch somebody in the head for you.’ Scott told me, ‘I’d do the same for you, but I really would punch somebody.’”
Bobby and Dom Lagana, Dave Richards, Terry McMillen, Jimbo Ermalovich, Jeff Diehl, Troy Coughlin Jr., and Don Schumacher Racing never pledged to punch anybody, but each has donated parts and advice to Smith.
And companies also are noticing Smith. A South Carolina-based company named Judson, which manufactures carpet-cleaning equipment, has shown interest in Smith’s team. In order to raise funds for sponsorship, the company said it plans to raffle away a carpet-cleaning machine, aiming to attract $200,000 it will earmark for Smith. So maybe Smith is turning the corner.
That’s a smart thing. He knows he won’t be a rock star, even though many people have spotted him in an airport or other public place and begged him for an autograph, thinking he was Sammy Hagar. Smith did have a band in the 1980s. He called it the Ant Hill Mob Shed Band, because “we weren’t good enough to be a garage band.” He band landed a gig in Germany. The client paid him in advance. Considering that “I can’t sing a note – I just shouted” and was sure the client would demand his money back, Smith said he and the band took the payment straightaway and blew it all at a nearby pub so they wouldn’t have anything to pay back.
He said he has become friends with the rock band Iron Maiden and plans to attend Wednesday’s concert at Newark on the way to next weekend’s Englishtown, N.J., race. But any notion of a rock-star lifestyle has passed, but his dream of drag racing lives on.
GOODRICH MARKS 40TH YEAR IN SPORT – Mike Smith has driven Rhea Goodrich’s and Paul Weiss’ New Englander Funny Car for seven years (starting at the 2011 Englishtown event), but Goodrich is celebrating his 40th year in the sport.
Goodrich, 72, began drag racing in 1977 with a Chevy Monza he fielded with Bob Simmons. Goodrich, who won his first trophy in a B Altered a mechanical engineer spent his career in the aerospace industry for Pratt. As a high-schooler, Goodrich actually built an Altered, using tubing from swing sets and anything sturdy he could find. Just out of college, he turned his efforts to his Aquarius Dodge Challenger.
But he said his biggest thrill throughout all those years of racing comes every day: “putting the car together and seeing it work the way you want it to. We look for the root cause and make an adjustment. We can’t [afford to] go test. We test to qualify.” That calm, hardworking approach serves him well during the wintertime, when he donates his time as an engineering mentor at Xavier High School in his hometown of Middletown, Conn.
Four decades later, although Goodrich hasn’t won an NHRA national event, he still insists on “looking for the small, positive feedback” and being “thorough and meticulous.” And he insists that’s what he stresses to his eight or nine crew members.
In this first 2017 appearance, Goodrich and Weiss are a man short – and a key crew member, at that. Tuner Mike Throckmorton is in Phoenix, tending to a family emergency, and also will miss next weekend’s Summernationals at Englishtown, N.J. After each run this weekend, a crew member has downloaded Race Pak data, dashed to the media center, and e-mailed it to Throckmorton. By long distance, they’ve discussed the tune-up and coordinated he decision-making.
Smith and the New Englander qualified 16th and will race No. 1 qualifier Robert Hight in Sunday’s first round of eliminations. And they’re hoping for a result similar to the one they had in their most recent race-day appearance, last fall at Maple Grove Raceway. At that Reading, Pa., race, Smith qualified seventh and won against John Hale in the opening round.
“That was like winning the world championship,” Weiss, in his 37th year in drag racing, said. “We were hopping around [in celebration].”
Erica Enders matched her provisional No. 1 qualifying effort from Friday night in Saturday's first session. She clocked an identical 6.513-second elapsed time at a slightly faster 213.16 mph to end up No. 2 in the order. Her first-round opponent will be Shane Tucker, who qualified 13th in the short 14-car field.
The impressive run restored confidence that Enders' Elite Motorsports Camaro is a consistent race car. She said the reliability of her Rick Jones-built chassis reminds her a lot of the two cars she and her Elite crew used to win 15 nationals events and back-to-back Pro Stock titles in 2014 and 2015.
"We've definitely got a consistent race car on our hands," Enders said. "Being consistent, and obviously very quick, is exactly how we won our two championships, so we are absolutely buzzing over here right now.
"Three runs all in the 6.51-second range says a lot about the horsepower Nick Ferri and Jake Hairston have been making back at the shop, and I give a bunch of credit to the guys for putting it all together this weekend. We are having fun, and it feels great to know we are running at the top of the
BOSTON STRANGLER OUT FROM UNDER WRAPS – Rick McGarvey received a phone call Thursday from his buddy Mike Casey, a race-car builder / fabricator, asking about decals and team shirts he might have from the old “Boston Strangler” Nostalgia Funny Car that he owned along with driver Arnie Karp, Keith Hughes, and the late Bob Ellison.
“I wondered, ‘What’s he want that for?’” McGarvey said.
Casey shared a little bit more information – and accidentally gave away the secret that Paul Zona and Blair Smith, partners in the “Boston Challenger” Nostalgia Funny Car, were putting the finishing touches on their tribute to the famous “Boston Strangler” DD Funny Car that was a dominant force in the 1970s and ‘80s.
“It seems like everybody in New England knew about it but me,” McGarvey said after the car was unveiled Saturday morning in front of an appreciative and emotional audience gathered at New England Dragway’s New England Hot Rod Hall of Fame Rock. “It blows me away to see it. I had tears in my eyes. It was always popular. People always paid attention to what we did, and we always tried to put on a good show for the people at New England Dragway.”
Karp, too, wept at the sight Saturday morning. He drove the car that, in favorite-son NHRA announcer Brian Lohnes’ words, “gave us guys to root for – our guys – who did it respectfully and in an honorable way, did it the right way.”
It was at a recent race at Atco, N.J., that Karp remarked that putting together a “Boston Strangler” replica is one of the items on his so-called “bucket list.” So Zona and Smith got to work, and the car was supposed to surprise Karp and McGarvey at the June 25 New England Hot Rod Hall of Fame Nationals here. Just the same, finally seeing the car made yet another special memory for the veteran racers.
It’s complete with the decals of original sponsors Arias, Champion, Crane Cams, Cragar, Hays, Kendall GT-1 Racing Oil, Mr. Gasket, S&W Race Cars, VHT, and Winston. Moreover, this new “Boston Strangler” is race-ready for a slate of East Coast events at this facility and at New York’s Lebanon Valley Dragway, Pennsylvania’ s Maple Grove Raceway, and New Jersey’s Old Bridge Township Raceway Park.
“Nostalgia Funny Cars are becoming very big at the tracks,” McGarvey said.
The car was prepped Saturday for an exhibition run, as well.
Among those on hand for Saturday’s ceremony were the Rhode Island-based Tasca family, Cruz Pedregon, Nicky Boninfante, Tommy DeLago, and Tommy Johnson Jr.
“I’m one of the few still here who raced against Arnie,” Johnson Jr. said. “We had a good relationship when we raced against them, and we hung out all the time.”
EAGER FOR DRAG-RACING FACEOFF – Boston Bruins center Tim Schaller, a Merrimack, N.H., native, was watching the New England Nationals up close and personal Saturday, but he’s no newcomer to the sport. He knows the way to Epping’s New England Dragway – he has come here many times. He said he’s interested in driving a dragster. “I’ll talk to the owners. If they want to talk, I’m ready,” he said.
FRIDAY - COURTNEY FORCE GETS SURPRISE CONVERTIBLE, DE JORIA BACK, FUNNY CARS STILL POSTING GAUDY NUMBERS LIKE AT TOPEKA, TANNER GRAY STILL CRUISING
BROWN EXPLAINS ‘NEW GAME’ – Antron Brown, last year’s Top Fuel winner here, assessed the rack , calling it “really, really great.” Brown said, “It’s really smooth, and you’re able to go faster than the track temperature allows you to go at a lot of other racetracks. So that’s what is pretty cool about Epping. You can run hard and you can run fast. There are lots of trees around. We’ve got plenty of oxygen in the air, and the barometer is right. So you can make some good power up there and run hard.
“Last year, we were in a groove. We qualified No. 1. We ran some low E.T.s in each elimination round. This year, we’re going to try and step things up because the competition is just that much more intense than it’s ever been. It takes a perfect weekend to win, and that is going to be our goal, like it is every weekend. All we can do is race as hard as we can every lap because this sport is very humbling. We’ve just been on the right side of it more often than not. This is where this sport’s at right now. It’s at an all-time high and we’re enjoying the challenge,” Brown said.
“Right now, we might be the champions from last year, but we have a few cars ahead of us that we are chasing,” he said. “All these cars are capable of great things, and these crew chiefs are getting smarter every year. Everybody is raising the bar. This is like an NFL game right now – any given Sunday, any team has a chance to win. It’s anybody’s race. It’s about more than being consistent. It’s about being quick and consistent. That’s the new game.”
ARMY STRONG, EPPING STRONG – Tony Schumacher and his U.S. Army Dragster Top Fuel team have earned back-to-back victories in the previous four visits here. His 2014 victory helped him claim his eighth and most recent series championship. But his 2015 triumph was memorable for its final-round pomp that featured the famed Continental Color Guard, wearing its vintage uniforms and tri-cornered hats, standing at attention behind the starting line. That was in commemoration of the U.S. Army’s 240th birthday.
“Being surrounded by guys capable of the moment is what allowed us to come out on top. To win on the birthday of the U.S. Army and seeing the guys from the Continental Color Guard up there with us, all of it was special. Just a really proud day for all of us,” Schumacher said. “We’re really hoping to be in that same situation this weekend.
“The Army team is a great team,” Schumacher said. “The confidence level is high. We struggled the last couple of races, to be honest with you, even though we pulled off a couple of No. 1s. We had to change some clutch discs we had some extreme success with at the beginning of the year and we’re just getting it figured out. The No. 1 we had at Topeka was an impressive one, because it took guts. It took two crew chiefs who sat together and said, ‘I have an idea.’ The kind of conditions we had there have been so few and far between that we don’t have a log book full of that stuff. So it was nice to have a great run like that and have it to put in the books because, at the end of the year, we’re going to need it. Those were conditions we’ll see at Reading, Pennsylvania, at the end of the year, so it’ll help us go out and try to win the championship.”
He recalled the teamwork that went into that 2015 performance that was particularly special because it was a battle against Larry Dixon reminiscent of their earlier rivalry.
“This is a really tough profession, and it requires a tremendous effort from so many people. And we don’t always get to walk away with the trophy. I really feel like I’ve been blessed and our team has been blessed for going on 17 years to be associated with the U.S. Army. It’s the greatest team there is and built by so many incredible individuals,” Schumacher said. “We talk about how they utilize science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) to do their jobs at the highest efficiency. And that’s what we have to do here with this race car to perform at our best. I rely on Mike [crew chief Green], Phil [ assistant crew chief Shuler] and all my guys to be at their best. I’ve said it for years that it’s a gift to be put in a situation like we were two years ago at Epping.”
POT-STIRRING WITH A PURPOSE - Steve Torrence, loving his Capco Contractors Dragster that he asserts is “the best race car I’ve ever had in my life,” also is enjoying being an admitted pot-stirrer and feather-ruffler at the moment. But he said it’s all in fun – and maybe even a little therapeutic.
“I’m not trying to hurt anybody’s feelings by saying anything bad about them. I’m just stirring the pot a little bit,” Torrence said. “Yeah, I may have ruffled a couple of feathers, and I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t meant to do it . . . but in a non-malicious kind of way. We’re all really competitive and when you get the upper hand, even for a minute, you want to thump your chest a little because you know it won’t last. Right now, I’ve having so much fun.
“We’re just going to ride this horse as long as we can,” he said. “I’ve got a really bad-ass group of guys, but it’s going to be a long, hard-fought battle for the championship. I think we’ve got a good opportunity to prove that we can win it as a one-car team. It may be more difficult, but I think it can be done. You work really hard and eventually, if you look up and find you’re having some success, it makes you proud. You want to go out and beat your chest a little bit and throw those little jabs out there at some of these other teams that are a little more established with bigger budgets and way more personnel. I think it’s good to race with a little chip on your shoulder.”
The teasing, trash-talking Texan has a streak of 39 consecutive races in which he has started eighth or better on the grid. Torrence, runner-up here a year ago, is going for a fifth consecutive final-round berth of 2017. He is the only non-Don Schumacher Racing Top Fuel driver to win this year – DSR has won six of the eight previous Top Fuel races contested thus far, and Torrence won the other two. He has climbed from seventh place in the standings to second, just 29 points off Leah Pritchett’s lead.
“When you’re confident in your race car, it makes you a better driver,” Torrence said, “and right now I’m driving like a machine.”
LAGANA ON TOP FOR AWHILE – Dom Lagana opened Top Fuel qualifying with a 3.806-second E.T. and was No. 1 until the final pairing, until Steve Torrence and Leah Pritchett came along in the final runs of Q1 and staged a duel that produced the two quickest passes of the session.
Pritchett grabbed the top position with a 3.747-second E.T. and 324.50-mph speed. Torrence was second at 7.50, 326.08. That left Lagana in the No. 3 slot. And he was charged up.
“My old man raced here,” Lagana said of his father, the late Bobby Lagana Sr. “I was getting bit by mosquitos when I was two months old. But that 3.80 – that was stout, man.”
Lagana’s Nitro Ninja Dragster is carrying sponsorship from Tommy Thompson’s CatSpot brand of organic kitty litter brand for this race and the Summernationals next weekend at Englishtown, N.J. The Scarsdale, N.Y., native will operate officially as a teammate to Scott Palmer.
COURTNEY FORCE UNHURT IN ENGINE EXPLOSION, WALL-BANGER – NHRA Funny Car racer Courtney Force was uninjured in a violent engine explosion Friday during qualifying.
Force covered the New England Dragway 1,000-foot course in 3.842 seconds at 331.63 mph in the opening session of qualifying, but the engine in her Advance Auto Parts Chevy Camaro exploded as she crossed the left-lane finish line. The body destroyed, the flaming car banged the guard wall.
She immediately popped from the cockpit on her own power and raised her hands to indicate she was all right. However, she did go with the emergency medical personnel for evaluation. She was released shortly after.
Despite the spectacular crash, Force was No. 1 with a track elapsed-time record. John Force Racing teammate Robert Hight set the track speed record at 336.74 mph. He finished the first session No. 2 in the order, just seven-thousandths of a second behind Force’s E.T. (3.849 seconds).
“Our Advance Auto Parts team was on an incredible run. I believe we’re still No. 1 qualifier, so that makes things a lot more awesome. It was on a great run. As soon as I went to hit my parachutes, that’s when there was just a huge explosion in my lap, and I was just trying to get the car shut off. I mean, what more can you do at that point? I was driving a Chevy convertible,” Force said.
“I couldn’t really do anything but just try to get the car stopped. So I was on the brakes, just trying to slide it down the wall and just try and get out of the car as soon as I could. I could see the flames, but everything was pretty much gone at that point. So I was just happy to get out of the car and get away from it.
“This is my first convertible that I did not ask for, and someone better have gotten a great picture. Otherwise it’s totally not going to be worth it,” she said. “That’s definitely my first big explosion. I’ve had my fair share of walls, but nothing like that. Not fun for sure, but I really feel for my guys right now, because they’re putting together an entire new car. Obviously, our car from today is toast.”
DE JORIA RETURNS – Mum about the reason for her three-race absence – and with every right to protect her privacy – Alexis DeJoria returned to action Friday in her Tequila Patrón Toyota Camry.
“I’m excited to get back to racing,” she said upon her return from, in her words, “tending to a private family matter.” She said, “I want to thank everyone for their support these past few weeks. Missing races is never easy and certainly not a decision that was made lightly. I can’t wait to get back at it and resume the fight for our spot in the Top 10 this weekend. Right now, the focus is on picking up as many round-wins as possible. I’ve got a great team and a car capable of running with the best of them. I have nothing but the utmost confidence in Nicky [Boninfante] and Tommy [DeLago]. We’re going to race hard and just keep charging forward.”
She didn’t appear to have lost anything in her absence, for she posted a 3.941-second elapsed time at 326.87 mph in her first pass back Friday afternoon.
“It shredded the blower belt. It looked like Spanish moss,” De Joria said. “It’s nice to get a full, solid pass in. It’s nice to be back. I missed being in that seat.”
She’s 14th in the standings, 110 points out of 10th place. Chad Head, Kalitta Motorsports’ director of safety, substituted for her at the Charlotte, Atlanta, and Topeka.
HUNGRY HIGHT – Robert Hight, driver of the AAA Northern New England Camaro for John Force Racing, said he and his team “are hungry, and we are going to do whatever it takes to make sure that we are leaving nothing on the table” for the four-race “Eastern Swing” through Epping, Englishtown, Bristol, and Norwalk. He said he’s hoping to start a streak with a 38th victory that would be his first of the season.
“You need to start that four in a row with some confidence,” he said, “and nothing is a bigger confidence-builder than a win. One that’s coming up that I really want to win is Englishtown. That’s a big race, and I call it one of the majors on the tour. There’s a lot of history there.”
He was in the mix as Funny Car racers traded national records at Topeka. And he indicated this start of the Eastern Swing could turn into an extension of performance superlatives: “If you get conditions in Englishtown and Epping like we had in Topeka, you can see these numbers again. What I like is we have a good car when it’s hot and we have a good car when it’s cool. We’ve just got to put four runs together on Sunday.”
In the past four races, Hight, the Gatorntionals winner in March, has reached the final round once and the semifinals three times. At Topeka, he clocked three of the five fastest speeds in Funny Car history, including a career-best 338.09 mph.
“We are that close,” Hight, who is seeking his first final-round appearance here, said. “We just have to keep working hard. All we can do is keep digging every week. My guys have a lot of work to do to get ready for four races in a row. That’s a grind, but these guys want it just as bad as I do.”
CAN HE TURN PERFORMANCE HIGHS INTO A VICTORY? – Two weeks ago at Topeka, Matt Hagan set the Funny Car national elapsed-time and speed records at 3.802 seconds and an even more astonishing 338.85 mph in his Mopar Express Lane Dodge Charger. He was No. 1 qualifier, but he lost in the final round to Don Schumacher Racing teammate and points leader Ron Capps.
"We really felt like Topeka was our race to win, so we are set on picking up a win this weekend,” Hagan said. “You always want to win, but when you let one slip away, it only makes you want it more and that's where we are at right now."
He’s still marveling at what he gets to do when he isn’t on his Southwest Virginia farm, tending to cattle: "This is as extreme as it gets. At 338 mph with a steering wheel in your lap, I mean there is nothing on planet Earth that is cooler than that. It was just awesome. I don't know what everybody else is looking at, but this is it. This is the extreme of the most extreme.
"We're at that point in the season where we're going to start clicking these races off real fast," the two-time winner who’s second in the standings. "I feel very confident in Dickie [crew chief Venables] and our team that we are in a good spot.”
He was in the provisional 11th spot after his first run Friday.
INTENT ON IMPROVING - In Shane Tucker’s most recent visit here, three years ago, he qualified fourth and advanced to the second round in his 10-race U.S. debut season. The Australian remembered that weekend as “one of my biggest highlights this far in my NHRA career. In the second session, we set a track record with a 6.49 [-second elapsed time], which was the first Pro Stock car in the 6.40s in Epping. That track record lasted about three pairs, but it was still an achievement for our team in only our fifth NHRA event.”
The Auzmet Architectural/Rob Tucker Racing team made its first 2017 appearance at Charlotte, powered by its own engine program.
“Since we debuted our engine program, our goal was to improve at every race,” Tucker said. “We qualified 15th in Charlotte and 13th in Atlanta. So if we can get 11th or better this weekend, I think we would be fairly satisfied. As a driver, I want to be the best on the sheet after four sessions, regardless of what the car is doing. Maybe we can steal a round or four from the other teams on race day.”
GRAY CONFIDENT – Understandably confident after his second victory in five races this rookie season, Tanner Gray said his family-owned Camaro is “the best car come race day” with an engine that “falls second to none” – but he said he knows “we need to prove that during qualifying."
He did. He led the field in the first session with a 6.518-second, 212.03-mph performance and said, “I’m excited. This is a lot of fun.”
This is Gray’s first time to race at New England Dragway, and he said, "Traveling to new tracks is exciting. I am not distracted by past performances and can go out there with a fresh outlook and drive the car to the best of my ability."
That “best of his ability” is pretty effective so far. The Las Vegas and Topeka winner is third in the standings, just 60 points behind leader Bo Butner, another two-time winner this year.
UP ANDERSON’S ALLEY – In seven races this year, Greg Anderson already has won (at Phoenix) in four final-round appearances and led the Pro Stock standings for all but two times (and been no worse than second). And the currently No. 2-ranked driver has been salivating about ideal conditions at New England Dragway this weekend.
"We just like that cool, Northeast air,” the native Minnesotan said. “(Epping) is like Englishtown, where we love racing. The Northeast is a good place for Pro Stock to run. You always get good track and weather conditions, and our Summit Racing Chevy Camaros just love that. We look forward to these two races every year. For me, the Northeast is a lot like Minnesota with the cool weather, where even if it's warm during the day, it cools down at night. It's very comfortable, and it falls right into line for us. Our cars run really well here.”
Although he didn’t win at Topeka, in the most recent event, Anderson said he’s improving. He’ll tell you his 16-7 elimination-round record shows he wasn’t perfect.
"We didn't win the race in Topeka, we didn't quite execute, but the bottom line is that we did find performance. We made some mistakes, but we did better than we did the weekend before, and that's what you want to do. You have to keep finding that performance every weekend and continue to do better each time," the 87-time winner said.
His performance here has been outstanding. He set the track speed record in 2015 (at 214.72 mph) and knows a third Epping victory could start this four-in-a-row stretch on the right foot.
"It's nice to get into the swing of things, and having a stretch like this helps you race with continuity and do the best you can behind the wheel,” he said. “But heading into four in a row, you hope and pray you don't have any parts breakage, because there won't be a lot of time to repair anything. The goal is to have our ducks in a row so that we can race strong and make it through."
THIS TRACK A RACER FAVORITE – New England Dragway is no secret to Clay Millican, Terry McMillen, Scott Palmer, and Matt Hagan They have raced here a number of times in IHRA competition. But since the NHRA started coming here in 2013, it has become a driver favorite stop on the 24-event Mello Yello Drag Racing Series tour.
This event marks the unofficial end to the first half of the NHRA’s so-called “regular season” and begins an exhausting stretch of four races in consecutive weekends. Racers love to be at the track, and this is one track they say they enjoy visiting.
Pro Stock’s John Gaydosh, of Baltimore, said, “The fans at New England Dragway are the nicest and friendliest fans in the racing series. They actually come up to you and thank you for coming up to New Hampshire. They truly appreciate having NHRA Drag Racing back up here, and they come out rain or shine to see us on the track. They are true super fans.”
Doug Kalitta, who never has won here but led the Top Fuel field in the NHRA’s inaugural here in 2013, said, “They pack them in there like nobody’s business. I don’t get a chance to get up close to Boston very often, and it’s always nice to see other parts of the country." The Michigan businessman is marking his 450th career event. He has 42 victories, fifth all-time in his class, but this facility is one of three at which he never has won (along with Charlotte and Indianapolis).
"It's the newest race on tour, at one of the oldest facilities on tour," Funny Car’s Jack Beckman said of New England Dragway. "I'm a historian, and there's so much Funny Car history in that area. The fans are unbelievably grateful for us coming to their town to race. It's kind of a 'pinch me' moment. It's like a throwback to bring in the contemporary NHRA show into a facility that looks like it could have come out of a time machine from the mid-70s."
Tony Schumacher, a two-time Top Fuel winner here, said, “I absolutely love it up here. We won here two years in a row, and it’s always special to come back to a place like that. One thing I really like about racing up here is that it’s old school. It’s what racing is supposed to be like. Our sport has always been grassroots, and it always will be grassroots. The fans really come out and support the event, and they really pack ’em in all weekend long. It’s just a great place to go to. It’s the people up here who make the place so special – it’s what makes our sport so special everywhere we go. Yes, it’s very old school and grassroots in nature, but who cares what everything looks like? As long as the racetrack is safe and competitive, like it is up there, that’s all that really matters. It’s a facility that is fun to be at and it’s a facility that is very conducive to putting on a great show for the fans.”
Schumacher’s U.S. Army colleague Antron Brown and New Jersey native living in Indiana, agreed and said it simply: “I’m an East Coast guy, so anytime we get to race anywhere close to home, I’m all for it.”
Top Fuel’s Shawn Langdon (driver of the Global Electronic Technology Dragster for Kalitta Motorsports) said, “The fans were really excited when we came back, and they always have a great turnout. It is a beautiful area with a lot of exciting things to do.”
Tommy Johnson, one of four Don Schumacher Racing Funny Car racers, said, "Epping is one of my favorite tracks of the season. The track has an old-school feel, the fans in that area are tremendous, and it's beautiful there. It's a place I look forward to every year. We've done well there the past couple years.”
Funny Car’s John Force said he’s enjoying the track’s improvements since the days 35 years or so ago when he match-raced there.
“I’ve been racing for four decades. I raced at New England in the early days on the old track,” he said. “Now, there’s a lot of upgrades, a lot of changes. It’s great for the fans. The track surface is really good, and if we get good weather, speed and E.T. records can be set.”
Millican, a West Tennessee native, said, “Even though I am a Southern boy, I consider Epping my home field. After so many wins there in my IHRA days, I have become friends with so many people in the area. It is always a ‘wicked good time’ up in New Hampshire at New England Dragway.”
COUGHLINS PROMOTE BRISTOL RACE – Several members of drag racing’s famous Coughlin family, including patriarch Jeg Sr., joined officials from Bristol Motor Speedway and Dragway today at the historic Bristol Train Station officially to launch the countdown to the June 16-18 NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals weekend.
Troy Coughlin Sr., and Troy’s children, Troy Jr. and Paige, took part in a preview of the race weekend and talked about the personal significance that final eliminations for this race lately have fallen on Fathers Day.
Troy Jr., 26, who is still looking for his first career Top Fuel victory, said it would be unbelievable if he and his dad ended up celebrating victories together in Bristol’s winner’s circle on Father’s Day.
“It’s really something that I’ve thought about since I was five,” Troy Jr., driver of the SealMaster Dragster for Kalitta Motorsports, said. “You might have to pinch me there. It doesn’t get any cooler than that. That’s a story for the books right there. We definitely have the opportunity. Both cars are certainly capable, and we both have great team members behind us. The facility is going to be awesome like it always is, so we are excited about it.”
Troy Coughlin Sr., two-time Mod world champion and the 2000 Bristol Pro Stock winner, said, “That would be so awesome. To be able to do it would be a feat in itself, but to do it on Father’s Day and to be able to take the trophy I would get and give it to Dad. That would be so incredible. We are so blessed to be able to do this, and it’s all because of the great foundation provided to us by our father and mother.”
Troy Sr., who provided the local media in attendance with a demonstration of his sleek yellow and black turbocharged JEGS.com Corvette by firing it up in front of the well-known Bristol sign, will compete in Pro Mod and Troy Jr. is a rookie this season in the highly-competitive Top Fuel category. Troy Sr.’s brother, Jeg Jr., also will compete during the weekend in the Pro Stock class.
Jeg Sr., who started drag racing in the late 1950s and competed in Top Fuel in the 1960s and ’70s – and opened the JEGS Automotive company in 1960 – said the family has enjoyed a lot of success at Bristol Dragway throughout the years. He said he enjoys coming to the area each year and spending Father’s Day at Bristol, cheering on his sons and grandson.
“It’s been extremely exciting for me,” Jeg Sr. said. “Drag racing has been the piece of equipment that we’ve used all of our life to keep our family excited with each other and working together and it’s been an absolute thrill for me to see how it has developed over the years. When Father’s Day rolls around, the family has been so close and it’s been fabulous.”
Jeg Sr. will have another granddaughter besides Troy’s daughter Meghan to cheer on. Another of Troy’s daughters, 16-year-old Paige, is the rising star of the racing family. She and Jeg Sr. worked together to design horse stables when she competed in equestrian events. But she said she wants to follow in the family footsteps and go back to her drag racing roots.
“There’s no place I’d rather be than at the race track with my family. It’s so much fun,” Paige Coughlin said.
She expects to compete in July at Bristol at the NHRA Junior Drag Racing League Eastern Conference Finals. She also recently started the licensing process in Super Comp dragster.
“My dad gave me the opportunity to run a Jr. Dragster a few years ago, and I was also showing horses nationally for a while. Then last year I tested my cousin Jack’s car, and I just fell in love with it all over again. It got me hooked, and I love it. It was a rush to run the Super Comp dragster last week. It was awesome. There are no words to describe it. Hopefully we will be able to go to some races this year,” she said.
“It has been a process learning all about the car, and it’s really different than the Junior, so there’s a lot to learn. Fortunately I am learning from the best with my dad, brother, and uncles,” she said. “Next year I will be old enough to hopefully go race at some national events, and we’ll just go from there.”
Paige Coughlin fired up her JEGS.com Jr. Dragster at the Bristol meet-and-greet alongside her father’s Pro Mod car.
ABACAN NEW NHRA VP-CFO – Roy T. Abacan is the NHRA’s new Vice-President and Chief Financial Officer. He will oversee the financial and accounting organization. Abacan is a CPA with a degree in economics with an emphasis in business from UCLA, and his expertise is in business/financial planning, strategy development, and execution.
NHRA president Peter Clifford said, “Roy is a consummate professional whose skill set meshes with our business needs. Roy’s extensive experience in financial and operational management, both as a strategic advisor and business operator, will be extremely impactful as we focus on our future.”
Abacan, who spent considerable time at Ernst & Young, said. “I am confident we will be able to continue to grow and enhance the sport for the benefit of everyone involved. I’m anxious to roll up my sleeves to help position the organization in the best way possible, and I look forward to working together with everyone in the drag racing community.”