2017 NHRA NORTHWEST NATIONALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
BROWN OVERPOWERS UNDERDOG McMILLEN IN SEATTLE TOP FUEL FINAL - It was experience against perseverance, this Top Fuel final Sunday at the NHRA Northwest Nationals near Seattle between Antron Brown and Terry McMillen.
It was a three-time series champion on the verge of 660 round-wins when he arrived against an earnest School of Hard Knocks graduate who had 45 round-wins and treated his crew members to steak dinners when they won a single race-day match-up.
It was top qualifier Brown itching to take the points lead from No. 10 starter Steve Torrence versus McMillen, a seemingly perennially hard-luck Countdown contender trying at the least Sunday to hold onto his No. 8 position in the playoff-eligible field.
It was Brown – racing in his fourth straight final, seventh in the past nine events, and 86th of his Top Fuel career that began in 2008 – versus McMillen, making the third final of his career and the first since this April’s Four-Wide Nationals at Charlotte.
It was Brown – seeking his 49th Top Fuel victory that moves him to within three of Joe Amato for third on the NHRA’s all-time list in less than 10 full seasons in the class – versus McMillen, who was going for his first victory in 188 NHRA races since 2007. (Brown has earned 34 victories since 2012. The next most successful driver in that span is Tony Schumacher with a distant 16.)
In the end, it was Brown in the winners circle with his Matco Tools/Toyota/U.S. Army Dragster. He used a slight starting-line advantage to claim his second straight and third overall triumph at Seattle. Brown clocked a 3.776-second elapsed time at 326.48 mph to McMillen’s 3.772, 318.54 in the alligator-adorned Amalie Oil Xtermigator Dragster on Pacific Raceways’ 1,000-foot course.
The Don Schumacher racing driver vaulted atop the standings for only his second stint this season. He had the No. 1 ranking for one week in June, between the Englishtown and Bristol races on the so-called “Eastern Swing.”
“It was tough competition, and we were neck-and-neck every round,” Brown said. “The competition has definitely stepped up its game. It’s going to set up some really interesting stuff in the last two races [before the Countdown field of 10 is set for the six-race playoffs].”
Racers have just the Aug. 17-20 Lucas Oil Nationals at Brainerd, Minn., and the Sept. 1-4 Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis to qualify for the Countdown. And the Indianapolis classic carries points and a half, which is sure to have a significant effect on the scramble at the bottom of the Countdown pack.
Brown reached the final round past Ron Smith, Mike Salinas, and Clay Millican. But he was impressed with the daunting lineup McMillen dismissed: Steve Torrence, Doug Kalitta, and Leah Pritchett. McMillen began his march with a 3.725-second blast that was one-thousandth of a second behind Brittany Force’s low E.T. of the meet (3.724) to knock off points leader Torrence.
Brown called McMillen and his Rob Wendland-tuned car “Strong – strong,” shaking his head for emphasis.
“We know what they’re capable of, and I would’ve said [3.]75 would’ve been a great win for Terry first round. But when he threw that .72 out, boy – whoooo! – that turned some heads. He can run mid-.70s to high .70s – but that dude can run low .70s now,” Brown said. “He’s like, ‘Welcome. I’m in the party now, boys. Here I am, ladies and gentlemen. Terry McMillen’s here. Alligator’s chompin’–
“I tell you what – he tried to chomp us up there in that final. He snapped out. I’ve got a tooth mark on my behind right now,” Brown said after advancing to the semi-finals or beyond in 11 of 16 races this season.
“We’ve got to keep fighting like we are. The fight’s only going to get tougher and rougher,” he said. “I’ve got my work cut out for me, and the boys in the shop go a lot of work to do. This Western Swing will beat – you – down.
“I can’t even believe we’ve been going rounds like we have. I couldn’t be more proud of all of my guys. When things get this rough and this hard, I always give God all the glory because He pulls us through every time,” Brown said.
“Think about it,” he said. “We did that good with seven finals in nine races and we just got the lead back by only 13 points. 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. It’s just a blessing to get another win under our belts. 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.”
McMillen, whose first final came at the March 2016 Gatornationals, credits Don Schumacher Racing for his improvement this season. He drives a DSR-built chassis, and his car contains a pile of parts from the well-resourced megateam whose shop is down the street from his at Brownsburg, Ind.
But McMillen and Wendland and somewhat-green crew performed like veterans Sunday.
The first round of eliminations sharpened the playoff picture a little more for McMillen, as he and his team cooled off one of the hottest drivers and cars and added to his points cushion. McMillen defeated Torrence, a six-time winner and eight-time finalist in the first 15 races.
Afterward, Torrence congratulated McMillen at the top end of the racetrack and said, “I can’t even be mad at you. You flat outran me.” Later he said, “Terry and those guys did a hell of a job. It was just a great effort on their part. All you can do is congratulate those guys, suck it up, and get ready for the next one. We ran our number, what [crew chief Richard] Hogan thought the track would take. They took their shot and made it work.”
More importantly for McMillen, that added Countdown momentum for McMillen. He advanced to the semifinal round a week ago at Sonoma, Calif., with some gracious and timely help from Millican’s crew and Leeza Diehl, wife of Funny Car racer Jeff Diehl. (And Millican is the No. 7 driver in the standings, who leads McMillen by only 47 points.)
That opening-round victory for still-No. 8-ranked McMillen came after playoff-field challenger Shawn Langdon fell to Mike Salinas, the six-year part-time driver who’s preparing to turn full-timer, and No. 9 Scott Palmer come up a little short against Millican. That left Langdon outside the Countdown-eligible field with only two races – at Brainerd, Minn., and Indianapolis – remaining before the elite 10 are established.
What made that sequence of events even more remarkable for McMillen is the fact that during the course of the previous three races, the Amalie Oil Dragster team lost both the cylinder-head and clutch specialists – one of them had defected to Torrence’s Capco Construction Dragster organization.
“It’s tough for us independent guys to hang on to people. It really is,” McMillen crew chief Rob Wendland said. So we’re in training again.”
He credited Bob Peck for tutoring the young crew, many of whom had no nitro experience before this year.
“If it wasn’t for Bob Peck…I’m telling you, that guy . . . he’s been able to play the fiddle, the drums, and the violin at the same time here lately. It takes a tremendous amount of load off of me to still be able to tune the car and do everything. Bob is one of the best teachers. And there’s so much here that is a life experience teaching them. You can’t teach them how it is between rounds. You can’t teach them those kinds of things, [like] developing a work ethic. We work harder than most teams out here, because we don’t have the depth of parts to keep cycling them in. We have to keep the stuff we’re running tip-top, because we [don’t] have a depth on Sunday. So if we’re around Sunday, that’s our depth.”
It was enough for McMillen in the quarterfinals, as well. His .085-second reaction time compared to Doug Kalitta’s rather snoozy .118 gave him a pass to the next round with a 3.804-second E.T. That’s an E.T. that would have qualified him no better than ninth here, even on an uncharacteristically hot Seattle racing surface. But it set up a semifinal match against Leah Pritchett, whom he beat at Sonoma to reach last Sunday’s semifinal.
He advanced past her this time, too. Ironically, at Sonoma he beat Pritchett and faced Brown in the semifinal. And Seattle’s semifinal result produced the same scenario, only this time in the money round.
Wendland made sure he pointed out to everyone that the Amalie Oil Dragster team is the only one at the moment in the pro ranks who has a female clutch specialist. But he took special delight in informing the fans that Kaylynn Simmons’s boyfriend, Blake Holding, just happens to be Pritchett’s clutch and tire assistant. He couldn’t resist adding, “And she just kicked his ass!”
Millican was Brown’s semifinal victim, and after his loss, he went to McMillen’s pit to see whether the Amalie team needed him to send any of his Stringer Performance crew members over to help prep the car for the final round. Funny Car privateer Jeff Diehl had his mechanic’s apron on and was hard at work on the Amalie Dragster within 10 minutes of the semifinal victory.
Brown shared the Seattle winners circle with Funny Car’s Robert Hight and Pro Stock’s Drew Skillman. All received large silver-cup trophies that commemorated this 30th version of the Northwest Nationals. Track President Jason Fiorito presented the special honor, which is anchored by an engraved plaque that lists the names of all 29 previous winners. Susan Wade
HIGHT DOMINATES AT NORTHWEST NATIONALS - There is good. There is great. And then there is Robert Hight’s weekend in Seattle.
Most drivers only dream of a weekend as dominant as the one Hight, crew chief Jimmy Prock, and the John Force Racing team enjoyed at Pacific Raceways, as the driver of the Auto Club Chevrolet Camaro had low elapsed time in seven of his eight runs, claimed the No. 1 qualifying position and earned his second win in three races at the 30th annual NHRA Northwest Nationals.
“This is a weekend you dream about,” said Hight, who claimed his 39th career win on Sunday. “These cars are hard to run. They are finicky, lot of things can happen, and to do what we did this weekend was something else.
“We smoked the tires in Sonoma and weren’t even close. Jimmy Prock said we are not going to do that again. He said we are going to race smarter, be better and roll in here and run four-flat the first run soft. That was good enough for number two. Then, after that, all seven runs were low E.T. of every single session. That gives you, as a driver, so much confidence. It is just amazing to have that kind of dominating performance.”
Hight beat Tommy Johnson Jr. in the final with yet another chart-topping performance. With the Wally on the line, Johnson got away first in the Make-A-Wish Dodge Charger, but Prock Power took over as Hight was able to chase him down and catch him en route to posting the second quickest elapsed time of the entire weekend. Hight had a 3.890-second pass at 328.62 mph in the triumph, beating out Johnson’s 3.978 at 323.27 mph.
But the win wasn’t without drama.
“In the final, my heart stopped,” Hight said. “In the final round, you just want to roll in there, stop and be ready. This thing doesn’t have a lot of tug on it, so Jimmy runs a lot of stall in it. So when you let go of the brake, this thing doesn’t really want to roll. So I took a chunk and it lit the light, then it blinked on, off, and I thought, ‘this isn’t what you want to do in the final round.’
“I let go of the brake again and the tree comes down. Tommy Johnson left on me, but I was shallow as can be. And when you can run an .89 and just stand on the gas and be somewhat on time, you are going to win these races with a car like this.”
With the win - Hight’s first in Seattle - the veteran racer also collected win No. 250 for John Force Racing.
“It is a huge milestone. It wasn’t that long ago that I got 200 for John,” Hight said. “We were racing Mike Neff in Topeka, so one of us was going to get it and I ended up edging Neff out and got the 200th. It doesn’t seem like that long ago, but we have amassed 50 more and with the way our cars are running, 300 is not that far off.”
And, ironically, Hight had to take out the entire John Force Racing Funny Car stable to get that milestone win. Hight eliminated team-boss John Force in round two and Courtney Force in the semifinal, adding a win over Jeff Diehl in round one to reach his fourth final of the season.
In both, the Force family had strong runs, good enough to win against just about anybody - just not their teammate.
“You expect to race a teammate in the semis. It shows you qualified well. But racing John second round was not ideal,” Hight said. “It is not what we want to do and Jimmy Prock didn’t take either one of them lightly. When we are racing those Chevys we know how good they can be.
“We would certainly rather be racing them in the final, but to win one of these, you have got to go through a heavy-duty lineup. Tommy Johnson in the final, that is a great car, great team. You just have to take them one at a time and pick them off like we did today.”
Johnson had wins over Jim Campbell, Ron Capps and Matt Hagan to reach his fourth final of the year.
More than anything, Hight’s win in Seattle showed that this team is peaking at just the right time, winning two of the three races in the Western Swing with two races remaining before the Countdown to the Championship. It also showed that his team can get it done in varying conditions, an important element in the chase for championship No. 2.
“That is what really gives you confidence,” Hight said. “Last week in Sonoma we ran .80 flat, almost 340 mph, so that means we have a good combination when it is cool. And then you roll in here and it is hot and to be No. 1 qualifier again and be low E.T. just about every round shows that my guys really have a handle on these things. And that is not easy to do.
“You can have a good cold weather tuneup and not a hot weather tuneup or vise versa. They have got it going on wherever we are at.”
And while most teams will take a much-needed break after three-straight races, Hight is geared up to keep running this weekend at the annual Night Under Fire at Summit Motorsports Park in Norwalk, Ohio.
“We don’t have a break,” Hight said. “John Force and I are going to Norwalk to do a little match racing. We will use it as a test session and hopefully get a little bit better.” Larry Crum
SKILLMAN EARNS THIRD WIN IN FOUR RACES WITH SEATTLE VICTORY - Just two rounds.
That is all that stood between Drew Skillman and a potential sweep of the Western Swing as the young racer earned his second win of the three-race west coast stretch on Sunday with a victory over Erica Enders at the 30th annual NHRA Northwest Nationals at Pacific Raceways. The result afforded Skillman his third total win in the last four races and sixth of his career as the driver of the Ray Skillman Chevrolet Camaro continues to peak at just the right time.
“We really thought we were going to sweep the swing,” a disappointed Skillman said. “We really thought we had the car to do it and I missed it by two rounds. But we made up for it here. Everyone at Gray Motorsports has provided us with great power and our teams are working really well together. Ray Skillman Motorsports has been kicking butt, so I really can’t complain.”
Skillman earned career win number six on Sunday with a power play on his former teammate. In the final, Enders left first, but Skillman made up the difference by the time the cars passed the Christmas tree and he was able to pull away to the tune of a 6.604-second pass at 209.33 mph in a tremendous drag race. Enders, in her fourth final of the year, had a 6.609 at 209.49 mph.
“I had a really good car this weekend. The driver was not the best, but my team carried me to the finals,” Skillman said. “In the final we actually got lucky. I’m pretty calm in the car, nothing really phases me, and in that race I was trying to kill the tree and apparently I did not. I was really shallow and missed it by a hair. Erica is one of the best leavers in the country and luckily she missed it too.”
Skillman added wins over Bo Butner and Alan Prusiensky to reach his fourth final of the year. Enders, meanwhile, eliminated Skillman’s teammate, Tanner Gray, along with Jason Line and Matt Hartford.
And both young racers had to overcome some unusual weather conditions to get the job done, with unseasonably warm temperatures mixing with a heavy cloud of smoke from wildfires burning hundreds of miles north.
“We were concerned about the high temperatures. This track doesn’t have a lot of heat on it, so we don’t really know what it is going to do when it gets hot and this track held up beautifully,” Skillman said. “This track was really good all weekend. I never had a bad run where you could blame the track.”
While Skillman couldn’t lay claim to only the second-ever sweep of the Western Swing by a Pro Stock driver, his team at Gray Motorsports can. While Skillman won the first and third legs of the trifecta, Tanner Gray added a win in the middle last weekend in Sonoma, as Gray Motorsports has now surpassed KB Racing for the most wins in the category this season with seven.
It is a unique dynamic, as Skillman’s own team uses Gray Motorsports horsepower in their cars. But while not a team in the traditional sense, it isn’t any different on the information sharing and teamwork side of things.
“We are actually a team. We are awning-to-awning. We share all of our data. They have every run we have and we have every run they have. They talk to everyone in the morning, we even flip coins for tires sometimes. We share everything,” Skillman said.
With the team as a whole having won four-straight races, Skillman is ready to move forward having climbed from eighth one month ago to fifth in the championship standings with just two races remaining before the Countdown to the Championship gets underway in September.
“We are just passionate about what we do. It is what we love to do. I’m a racer. That is why I am here. I don’t do this for a living. I do this to have fun and be around my guys and we come here to win,” Skillman said. “With that said, we have some stuff in the pipeline that should be very, very good for the Countdown. We should definitely be at the top of the page every time.” Larry Crum
SATURDAY - KALITTA MAKES HUGE LEAP, COUNTDOWN HOPEFULS LOOK FOR STRONG WEEKEND, JOHNSON ENGAGED ON AND OFF TRACK, R&R HELPS ENDERS
KALITTA CLIMBS TO NO. 2 – Forty-two-time winner Doug Kalitta had as much trouble navigating the 135-degree track temperature Friday as anyone, and he didn’t make it to the top end under power in either of his two chances. But crew chief Jim Oberhofer turned all the right knobs Saturday afternoon and propelled Kalitta to the No. 2 position with a 3.744-second blast at 326.48 mph. The Mac Tools Dragster driver has the unfortunate distinction of being the highest-ranked driver in the standings without a victory this year. He entered this race in the No. 6 position, just two points removed from the top five. Here at Pacific Raceways, Kalitta has a 2014 victory in four finals (1999, 2000, 2003, 2014). He was No. qualifier here in 2010.
“My Mac Tools team is working so hard, and I know a win is coming soon,” Kalitta said. He’ll face 15th-place Terry Haddock in Sunday’s opening round of eliminations, his 450th race day.
“That run was a great way to end qualifying for the Mac Tools team. We have hit on a great tune-up, and I hope that translates to four win lights tomorrow here in Seattle," Kalitta said.
He clinched his spot in the Countdown by qualifying for this race.
FORCE STAYS ON TRACK – Even before Brittany Force and her Monster Energy Dragster arrived in Seattle, she said, “Once we get there, we can’t hold back – everything needs to be running on all cylinders. We can’t afford any mistakes.”
She did appear to make any Friday, taking command of the Top Fuel field early Friday as the only racer that first session in the 3.7-second range with her elapsed time (3.792 at a class-best 323.89). Steve Torrence bumped her down to the provisional No. 2 spot in the second session.
Force, who wound up as the No. 5 starter, will have lane choice over No. 12 Troy Buff in the first round Sunday as she seeks a second 2017 victory to go with the one she earned in June at Epping, N.H.
Her fifth semifinal finish of the year last week at Sonoma Calif., lifted her to fifth place in the Top Fuel standings for the first time since April. (A semifinal appearance Sunday would be her first here in five visits. She has a single round-win at Pacific Raceways, in 2015, against Troy Buff.)
“Each week we’re getting better and better,” she said. “We always want to go further – we don’t want to stop at the semis. We feel good about where we are.”
WINNING ‘STREAK'? – Clay Millican’s Fathers Day Top Fuel victory at Bristol – poignant because his first in NHRA competition not only came in his home state of Tennessee but on a day he had dreaded after losing son Dalton in a motorcycle accident – just might be the most popular drag-racing victory ever.
However, another one might have come right on the heels of Millican’s triumph at Bristol Dragway.
This one might have been a little embarrassing – with the accent on the last three syllables.
Evan Bader, track announcer at Summit Racing Equipment Motorsports Park, threw down – and guaranteed he’d throw down his clothes - if Millican scored back-to-back victories at his family’s racetrack at Norwalk, Ohio, the following week.
In a public declaration on Facebook – which officially makes it legally binding in all 50 U.S. states and three territories – Bader, son of showman Bill Bader Jr. and grandson of racing ringmaster Bill Bader Sr., said in a June 25 post, “Dude, if Clay Millican wins the Norwalk Nationals, I’ll run the quarter-mile naked. And that’s a promise.”
The Baders are men of their word, but the long and the short of it is that Evan Bader didn’t have to let it all hang out. Millican defeated Scott Palmer – the singing-impaired Countdown contender who himself has promised to belt out “Boomer Sooner” when he earns his first NHRA trophy – then lost in Round 2 to eventual winner Steve Torrence.
And verification from the Huron County, Ohio, Superior Court confirms that the offer was a one-time bargain that is past its expiration date.
Nothing could top the victory “on Rocky Top,” anyway.
“It was an absolute picture-perfect weekend,” Millican said, still savoring the moment during the Northwest Nationals at Pacific Raceways, near Seattle. “For years I’ve been saying when the time was right it was going to happen, and the time was right. It was a phenomenal weekend. That’s a Hollywood script, it really was. We had the best car of the day, and when you have the best car and win lights come on, you get a Wally at the end.”
“You know, nothing will probably ever top that weekend because of the circumstances, being Father’s Day and all the things that went along with that,” he said.
The next picture-perfect weekend could come this weekend, especially if he can get past first-round opponent Scott Palmer.
“Four more win lights,” Millican, the International Hot Rod Association’s most successful Top Fuel racer with six straight championships, said.
“You know, we have a car capable of winning on any Sunday now, we really do,” he said of his Parts Plus/Great Clips/UNOH/Fraternal Order of Eagles Dragster for Stringer Performance.
“And we’ve been working . . . let me rephrase that . . . Grubby [crew chief Dave Grubnic] and the boys have been working to make this a car that’s capable of beating all the cars out here. And we really are there. We’ve had a couple of opportunities since Bristol that we probably let get away from us, but these guys are always working to make sure that we can run with any of them.
“And it’s a never-ending mouse trap,” Millican said. “These things, you’ll think, ‘OK. I’ve got ahold of it, and things are good, and then they’ll throw you a curveball. We kind of had that in Sonoma last weekend, but if you go back and look at Chicago and Denver, we had a really, really good race car. And we got beat.
“But it will happen again. That will not be our only win,” Millican vowed. “My hope is that we win them all. But our game plan is to really, really be on point during those last six races. The last six are definitely the most important, and that’s where our focus is.”
PALMER EYES PRIZE - With his opening-round victory last Sunday at Sonoma, the CatSpot/Marck Industries/Tommy Thompson Dragster driver extended his ninth-place lead over No. 10 Troy Coughlin Jr. from 32 points to 47. That might not sound like much, but Leah Pritchett bumped Terry McMillen from the final berth of last year’s playoff field by a single point and went on to finish seventh, miraculously, to cap a grueling year for her.
Like No. 8 McMillen, who entered this event with a 23-point edge in the standings, Palmer is trying to hold onto his position to make his first career appearance in the Countdown. Rookie Troy Coughlin Jr., who’s being squeezed by an aggressive Kalitta Motorsports teammate Shawn Langdon, anchors the current top 10. But the gap between No. 8 McMillen and No. 11 Langdon is 98 points. So only this race and the ones at Brainerd and Indianapolis are left before the layoff-eligible group is set. That’s hopeful news for Langdon and Coughlin but a more angst-ridden reality for McMillen and Palmer.
Palmer secured the No. 13 position and will try to upset No. 4 Clay Millican in the opening round of eliminations Sunday.
McMILLEN, WENDLAND PLUGGING AWAY – Terry McMillen’s breakthrough semifinal finish at Sonoma last Sunday was a huge and timely boost to his Countdown chances. He has a tough draw for the first round of eliminations this Sunday in No. 7 Steve Torrence, the points leader who has been the hottest racer in the pro classes lately.
McMillen’s crew chief, Rob Wendland, said he’s confident his team will hold onto his No. 8 position in the standings for this race and the remaining two before the Countdown field is closed.
“I mean, basically it’s just us staying square with what we’re doing right now,” Wendland said. “We’re just trying to race smart, and as long as we keep doing that, I think we stand a fair chance. I think our performance is there, and I think it helps us a little bit maybe when the tracks are a little hotter. It kind of evens the playing field a little bit. I don’t think at this point right now we can afford to make the big horsepower because of the parts attrition that it takes to do that.”
Perhaps this race is coming at exactly the right time, when a lot of teams haven’t figured out the hot tracks.
“Yeah, perfect for us,” Wendland said. “But it’s also perfect for Scott [Palmer], and I don’t know about the Kalitta cars. They’re pretty gung-ho right now. You know, this is right down our alley. We can get down some slick mess because it doesn’t take a whole bunch of horsepower to do that. It takes finesse. Scott’s been on a lot of tracks that aren’t necessarily known for traction and stuff like that. So we all have a pretty good idea of what it takes to slip-slide down through there. I may be wrong, but in years past when we’ve seen the sun like this on this particular race track, it tends to fall off more so than it does other tracks.”
The McMillen team certainly is keeping an eye on Palmer but also has to be concerned that No. 11 Shawn Langdon, the 2013 champion, powering up through the middle of the pack.
“I think Scott has a great relationship with the Capco car. I know that they help him quite a bit. So I think each one of them at any time can turn around and give us a hell of a battle,” Wendland said. “Right now we’re in this dog fight. And I’m not giving up. It’s just intense. But I’ve learned over the years, working for Don [Schumacher] and [John] Force and these guys, you don’t get tangled up in that points system. Just go out there and do the best job at what you can. Be positive about your judgement, judgement calls on tuneups. Don’t tune your car from somebody else’s mistakes out on the track. Do what you know.”
Scott Garwood – “The Legacy Coach” who has built a career “solving the hidden challenges unique to high-profile and highly successful individuals” – is someone Wendland said “does bring out the best in you about being positive about your judgement calls and all these different things. He helped me in 2012, and he came over to Johnny Gray.He has helped Matt Hagan you know with his lights, having this positive awareness of who I am on the starting line and believing in yourself and all these kinds of things. And Johnny Gray says, ‘Hey, you ain’t going to teach this old dog a new trick. It ain’t going to happen. You’re just barking up the wrong tree.’ And I said, ‘You should be helping the crew chiefs. They’re the guys that have to make all the decisions and have the pressure’. And he goes, ‘OK. I’ll help you.’ So starting then, it’s like we went on this streak. And I just saw him last weekend, and I thanked him again. Here we are, six years later, and I think about [his advice] all the time: You know, take a deep breath, be confident in your decisions, walk straight and tall, push your chest out, and just tell them to get out of the way because here you come.”
HAGAN MAKES BIG LEAP – Mopar Dodge driver Matt Hagan said crew chief Dickie Venables would have a challenge here this weekend because of the heat but quickly added, “That's what Dickie likes. He'll know what to do." He did, all right. It took Venables a couple of runs – although guiding Hagan to sixth- and seventh-place showings in the first day of qualifying wasn’t shabby. Venables found the right combination early Saturday, and Hagan leaped to No. 2 in the order in the third overall session. Hagan’s 3.930-second elapsed time equaled that of Don Schumacher Racing colleague Tommy Johnson Jr., and he slid ahead of Johnson based on speed. Johnson had clocked a 324.05-mph speed.
"This weekend is all about turning it around and getting back to where we were," Hagan said. "The Swing has not been kind to us, but I have all the confidence in the world that Dickie and these Mopar boys will give us a good race car."
Hagan, who has parlayed three victories into a No. 2 status in the standings, has a first-round match-up Sunday with No. 15 Gary Densham.
"The Countdown is right around the corner, and it's only going to get tougher," Hagan said. "Maybe we're getting all of our bad luck out of the way before the Countdown starts. But really, I know Dickie and these guys have a game plan together and I have all the confidence in the world that we'll be in the fight."
JOHNSON ENGAGED, ON TRACK AND OFF – Except for Matt Hagan passing him in the Northwest Nationals lineup early Saturday to steal the No. 2 starting berth, life is good for Tommy Johnson Jr. He’s happy that he’s in Seattle, where he seems to perform well nearly every year and where he has won in both nitro classes.
And he’s happy in his personal life, for he and longtime girlfriend Amy officially are engaged. Johnson proposed during a visit two Thursdays ago – the day before the Toyota Sonoma Nationals began – to the Christopher Creek Winery at Healdsburg, Calif., as they took a stroll through the vineyard. Matchmaker for the couple is Diane Green, wife of U.S. Army Dragster crew chief Mike Green. Johnson said they haven’t set a wedding date yet. They’ve been working together in their candle-making venture, with unique designs they sell through the website “etsy” more so than they are making wedding plans.
Right now, Johnson is focusing on finishing his extra-special Western Swing and preparing for the Countdown and possibly his first NHRA championship. He was Funny Car runner-up to Ron Capps, yet another DSR mate, last year.
"Seattle is one of the tracks where I've won in Top Fuel and Funny Car," the Make-A-Wish Dodge driver said. "There are just certain tracks on the tour you always seem to do well at. I feel comfortable there and love going back to the area to kind of re-live the memories of my first Top Fuel win and just two years ago winning Funny Car. I don't know what it is about Seattle, but I always seem to do well here. I come in relaxed because of the confidence from our past success. You just seem to do better when you're relaxed and with no distractions and not trying too hard."
Johnson held onto the No. 3 starting position. His first opponent Sunday will be No. 14 Jim Campbell.
A special cheerleader helps, too.
BECKMAN CAN ATONE FOR 2016 – No. 3-ranked Funny Car driver Jack Beckman remembers just about everything he has absorbed about the history of professional drag racing and his career. However, he’d like to forget his previous trip here, when in the second round he committed one of only a few red-light disqualifications in his entire career.
The 2012 champion and driving-school instructor called that “bitterly disappointing" and said, “There’s no excuse. There's no way to spin it. I absolutely made a mistake up there. But it doesn't matter. Our job is to react when the tree comes on."
He arrived her bummed, too, that he lost to eventual winner JR Todd last Sunday at Sonoma, Calif. Beckman had a seemingly unbeatable lead a few hundred feet from the finish line, but an engine problem triggered the shutoff of a safety system and Todd zipped past him.
“Our car just quit running at 200 feet," Beckman said. "I was dead in the water and we were coasting. It's a helpless feeling to know that that car's coming up on you and going 150 miles an hour faster than you're going. You're hoping you're going to get to the finish line first, and we weren't able to do it."
He has a chance to atone for those disappointments Sunday, and he’ll have lane choice in his first-round pairing with No. 12 Del Worsham.
Beckman won at this track in 2007 and 2015.
Alexis De Joria said, “Seattle has so many great memories for us.” She earned her first Top Alcohol Funny Car victory here and became the second woman in class history to win a national event. “And we’ve done very well here in the past in our Tequila Patrón Toyota Camry Funny Car. It’s one of the West Coast races, and it’s always great to be back ere. We’re going to need to start making up some points. It’s going to go down to the wire and I’m up against some really tough competition for that final playoff spot, including a couple of our other Toyota drivers. So things are going to be really exciting.” She will meet Jonnie Lindberg in the first round of Sunday runoffs.
FUNNY CAR RAIDER? – Anyone who knows anything about Cruz Pedregon knows he’s an avid Oakland Raiders fan. And on his trip from Sonoma to Seattle this past week, he made a return visit to the NFL team’s training camp. It was his third visit, but this one included a chat with SiriusXM NFL radio host Gil Brandt about two of his passions – Raiders football and drag racing. "Nothing like a day with my favorite football team to get me pumped and ready for the race weekend ahead," Pedregon said. "I love that the Raiders' website calls the year ahead a 'Return to Greatness' for the team. And, as a two-time world champ, I'm ready for our team and this car to do the same."
The No. 13 qualifier’s next move will be to square off against No. 4 Courtney Force in Sunday’s first round.
Crew chief Aaron Brooks said, “The Snap-on Toyota is running well, and Cruz is definitely in gear after spending some time in his home state and with his NFL team. The fans really have some great racing to watch in this tight Funny Car field this year. We're pleased with the progress of our program this season and plan to stick with what's working in the weeks ahead."
ENDERS’ LUCK TURNING AROUND? – This year’s Western Swing has been a bust for two-time Pro Stock series champion Erica Enders. However, she pulled into Seattle rested and ready after a Wine Country tour in Northern California and a rafting trip on the McKenzie River in Oregon and some sightseeing at Seattle’s iconic Pike Place Market before qualifying started at Pacific Raceways. That R&R worked its magic, as she rebounded with a No. 4 spot in the Northwest Nationals order.
“Mark and Marshall Stockseth, the husband and wife who sponsor us and Matt and Angie [Smith in the ProStock Motorcycle class], they invited me to the Wine Country to go wine tasting with them. And in the 14 years I’ve raced in Sonoma, I’ve never taken the time to do that. So it was a first-time treat for me,” she said.
They toured the Opus One, Jordan, and Far Niente wineries.
“One of the head guys is really good friends with Rip Reynolds, the co-crew chief on Tommy’s [Johnson’s] car. So it was neat. We had a really good time. I enjoyed that.”
She also said the rafting trip was fun.
“I had never been. It was cool. It wasn’t as scary or intense as I thought it was going to be. We probably didn’t raft the craziest river, by any means. We flew into Eugene on Richard’s plane, and then we drove about 45 minutes up the mountain. He rented a house up there, and we just had a good time. It was nice.”
KB-Summit Racing star Bo Butner – the man who had made her on-track results miserable by eliminating her at both Denver and Sonoma – joined the group, along with his fiancée, racer Randi Lyn Shipp. Enders resisted the urge to shove Butner overboard.
“Richard organized that whole trip and took all of us. It was fun to just have a day and not really talk about race cars, just relax and have fun. We had two boats, because I think there’s like 15 or 16 people, so we had two rafts. I fortunately was on the calmer of the two because the other guys, like Alex Laughlin was there too, he was on that raft with like most of my crew guys,” she said.
“Me, Randi Lyn, Bo, Richard, Jake my engine guy, and Robert my clutch guy were on our raft, so it was much more calm. And none of us fell off,” she said. “But everybody on the other raft either got pushed in or fell off. And the water was like 37 below. It was so cold, like take your breath away. It’s really fast moving. You can get in trouble pretty quick. We wore life jackets the whole time, obviously. “I’m not much for cold water. I don’t like to be cold or wet.”
In downtown Seattle, they killed some time and had some lunch at Pike Place Market, a city landmark. “They had these amazing fresh flowers – huge bouquets for $10 and $20. I wanted some so bad,” Enders said. “I said, ‘I could put them in my lounge.’
"You need these times to get business and racing off your mind, even if it's just for a day, and focus on the family side of this crazy sport. It was another great team-building experience, something we were blessed to do together. All-in-all, a really cool experience," she said.
“Richie [husband Stevens] got to race in Denver, so that was cool. I actually have had a really nice Western Swing,” she said, “aside from not winning yet. I’m not done yet.”
Enders will race No. 11 qualifier Matt Hartford in the opening round Sunday.
LANGDON WANTS IN TOP 10 AT 200TH RACE - Shawn Langdon, the 2013 Top Fuel champion, is ranked 11th in the standings, largely because he didn’t have a race car to drive until the fifth event of the season. But with this weekend’s Northwest Nationals and two more races (at Brainerd, Minn., and Indianapolis) to make the Countdown field of 10, Langdon is putting pressure on Kalitta Motorsports rookie teammate Troy Coughlin Jr. Langdon arrived at Pacific Raceways trailing Coughlin by just 28 points.
This Northwest Nationals marks Langdon’s 200th career Top Fuel race, and the 2012 and 2015 runner-up here said, “Our goal is to leave Seattle in the top 10. We need to qualify well and get down the hot track. I have confidence in my Global Electronic Technology team. We have been able to make some good runs in the heat thus far, so I know we have the data to go some rounds and get into the top 10 leaving Seattle.”
If Coughlin feels threatened, he isn’t letting on. He said, “With the leadership of Jim O[berhofer], Nick [Casertano], Glen [Huszar] and Donnie [Bender], we are going to be just fine. I am going to be as focused as I can be and strive to turn on some win lights for my team.”
IS SEATTLE SCHUMACHER’S LUCKY CHARM? – Since he was runner-up at Atlanta, nine races ago, Tony Schumacher has advanced his U.S. Army Dragster as far as the semifinals just once in the past eight races. But he’s expecting that Seattle charm to work for him this weekend. He said Pacific Raceways is “where we’ve probably had more success than we’ve had at these first two races of the Western Swing combined.”
That’s close: He has won three times in Denver and twice at Sonoma. And he’ll be going for a Top Fuel best of five victories here. That would match Joe Amato’s record five victories at the facility formerly known as Seattle International Raceway.
“We have a great car at this place – very fast – and the crowd seems to be building. Hopefully, we can go out and win it and go off and be in position to wind up the regular part of the season on a high note,” Schumacher said. “Seattle is a fast racetrack and there’s good side-by-side racing. It’s the end of a grueling part of the schedule, so you can be the team that’s not thinking, ‘Let’s get this over with,’ but thinking, ‘Let’s close this out and do it right.’”
If he is to do that, crew chiefs Mike Green and Phil Shuler and the team need to find and fix whatever has been ailing them.
Following the Sonoma first-round loss, Schumacher said, “I can’t give the most detailed answer on this, but something is definitely wrong. What we have is not a simple adjustment thing, but they’ll fix it. Every time we go through this, we change something and it goes down the racetrack. Something just isn’t right. I can’t even guess at it, because right now the crew chiefs can’t even guess at it. It’s something they’ll ponder over the next day or so and make changes and we’ll go to Seattle and go down the racetrack. That’s why we have great people on this U.S. Army team. They can look at stuff and evaluate it and make decisions. I had a good light, did my job, staged the car right. There just isn’t any way to win something like that.”
So what was the problem with the car? What did they find out after Sonoma?
“Good question,” one of Schumacher’s crew members said. “We know that if it smokes the tires it’s hard to win.”
Another piped up: “If it smokes the tires again, we didn’t fix it.”
“We think we fixed it,” Schumacher said.
Evidently they did, for he started fourth on the grid and finished Friday in the provisional No. 3 spot, with two more sessions Saturday. His best for the day was a 3.802 seconds at 322.96 mph.
Schumacher said he had “my own opinion [about the cause of the trouble], but no one listened to me. But I think at that track, I think from listening to a lot of other teams, when it’s hot out, that stuff just doesn’t work. It ain’t what you think it is. So you think it’s going to do this, and it just doesn’t. It feels one way, and acts a different way. But that’s me – I’m a driver. I’m sitting in the car.”
But that was Sonoma. This is Seattle.
“We run great here. I mean, look, I’ve been driving for 20 years. I get in the car and do my job because these guys [his crew] are great at their job. I can’t look back and go, ‘Ah, it smoked the tires, we’re screwed’. Just get up and do your job, every time, the same thing, as best you can, and that’s it. These guys, it ain’t like they forgot how to race cars. It ain’t like anyone forgot how to do it. We’ll figure it out, we always have. At the end of the year, and I’ve been doing it for 20 years, almost always it’s us and Kalitta, or us and Antron, or us and.… We are always the link that’s with someone else. We’re the common denominator with whoever else is fighting for a championship. So we get it figured out at the right time,” Schumacher said.
“We aren’t always the best in the middle of the year, and we’re in the middle of the year, so… It is what it is. We’ll come strong. We’ll be fine. I don’t lose faith in these guys because it smokes the tires. I don’t even lose faith because we get beat first round five times. It makes no difference. It’s just what it is. These guys want to win as much as anyone. It’s uncomfortable for all of us to be in a position where we’re not winning. But we always find our way back, you know. And right now there’s a couple other cars running really good. ‘Can they hold on?’ is the question. It’s easy to win it now. It’s hard to win it when your championship is decided and the pressure’s on and everything matters. We know we can do it, and I like that we know we can do it, because we always do.”
No matter what, Schumacher said, “I think the best thing I can do is be at the top of my game in the cockpit. That would give Mike Green and Phil Shuler even more confidence as we head to Brainerd and Indy. We understand what it’s like to get there, how big those moments are, and how good you’re going to have to be in those moments. That’s how you win titles. That’s how you string together a number of titles: going into it knowing you can do it. You show up knowing, ‘We’ve done this before,’ and you just try to be a machine. It’s more difficult than ever to win one. But everything we do is putting ourselves in position to fight for it, and that’s all you can ask for – to be in the position for the battle. I couldn’t ask for any more. I just have to go out and do my job, because the U.S. Army team is performing well and I don’t want to be the weak link.”
BROWN EYEING NO. 1 PLAYOFF SEEDING – Antron Brown won the Top Fuel trophy for the Seattle race last season, but nobody here saw it. That’s because rain washed out the final round, and the NHRA rescheduled it to run during qualifying at the Brainerd, Minn., race. So he beat Steve Torrence, and his Seattle victory actually occurred 1,560 miles east of here.
The Matco Tools/Toyota/U.S. Army Dragster driver has appeared in the finals at six of the past eight events. He has three victories in eight total finals and has reached the semifinals or beyond 10 times this season. The runner-up at Sonoma last weekend, Brown is seeking his third Seattle victory and his second in this year’s Western Swing. He won at Denver.
“It was great to win that  race, but I wish we could have finished up in Seattle last year for all the fans who came out,” Brown said. “We had a great race versus Steve Torrence, who we have matched up with a lot this year. Seattle’s always been good to us. There are only two races left in the regular season [after this one]. So hopefully we can start to build some momentum in Seattle this weekend to try to get that No. 1 seed heading into the Countdown.”
ONE YEAR MAKES BIG DIFFERENCE FOR PRITCHETT – Last year’s appearance here was just an appetizer, of sorts, for Leah Pritchett. This Seattle race was her first with Papa John’s Pizza. A year ago, she had won the Phoenix race, gotten cut adrift with the rest of her team when Bob Vandergriff abruptly retired, missed one event, and subsequently driven for and drove for three different part-time teams before joining Don Schumacher Racing fulltime. She had only three races left to power her way into her first Countdown opportunity – and she did it by one single point.
With crew chief Todd Okuhara, assistant Joe Barlam, and car chief Scott Okuhara, Pritchett have won three times in five finals. For the first time in her career, he has led the standings – on two separate occasions for a total of eight races during the first 15. She has led the field on race day five times (for one-third of the season). And she has registered five NHRA track elapsed-time records, more than any other Top Fuel driver.
She is third in the standings, 119 points behind Steve Torrence. She’ll be pressuring DSR colleague Antron Brown, the No. 2-ranked driver and reigning champion, trying to close her 44-point gap. But at this point she has a comfortable lead (of 244 points) over No. 4 Tony Schumacher.
Pritchett won an NHRA Nostalgia Funny Car trophy here. At Paccific Raceways, she posted what at the time was her career-best elapsed time at 3.707 seconds. Since then, she has owned the NHRA record at 3.658 seconds.
"So many great things have happened because of Papa John, Don (Schumacher), all of other partners like FireAde, Dodge, Mopar, Pennzoil and Shell," Pritchett said. "We want to win more races before the Countdown starts, but we can start getting ready for the playoff. It's different from last year, when every run was critical to us just getting into the Countdown and we were able finish seventh. Todd, Joe, Scott, and our fantastic team work so hard on our car that I don't have to worry about that. But I would like to be able to help them work on it more."
SALINAS HAS BIG PLANS – Mike Salinas qualified No. 3 in Friday’s first session and No. 5 in the evening round. But don’t be surprised at the performance of the part-time racer from San Jose, Calif. He is making the fifth of his scheduled 10 or so appearances this season, his sixth in NHRA competition.
Not only is his car running well, thanks to the diligent work of veteran crew chief Doug Kuch (who most recently tuned Leah Pritchett’s dragster for Dote Racing) and some valuable input from engineering/tuning guru Alan Johnson. But he is scouting out shop space in the Brownsburg/Indianapolis area in preparation for a fulltime schedule next year.
“We’re just trying to get this thing to where we can run competitively - because if we can’t run competitively, there’s no use in coming out, you know?” Salinas said. [NHRA drag racing] accommodates everybody, and, you know, we tried it a few different ways, and it did not work. It did not work in every way we tried. And we came out to run competitively and do whatever we can do. But now we’re ready to run.”
“We’re working on some deals now, and we’ll see how they work out. But either way, we know that we have 20 [races] in the bank,” Salinas said.
The Bay Area businessman said he’s aware that this is a gigantic step for his operation, which so far has had a limited budget and limited schedule.
“Our biggest thing is finding time away from businesses. And other than that, we’re going to try and go this. Right now, I’ve got a realtor looking for places in Indy, so we’ll either buy in Indy or find a place that’s suitable for us and then move on from there. But we’re going to be based out of Indy,” he said.
The entire team, which is part-time labor at the moment, will be fulltime workers who are planning to relocate.
As for his level of competitiveness, Salinas said, “We’re getting there. We’re getting there. We have a new program and new tune-ups, and new products, so everything seems to be to where we have the right stuff now. Everything’s working good. The car’s doing just perfect. After last weekend, we have a pretty good handle on everything. Car’s coming back clean, and we’re ready to roll.”
He said, “Our main thing this year is we’re pretty much testing for next year, because we’re trying to set up to go full time next year.”
As for his arrangement with Johnson, Salinas said, “Our deal is set up to run a little different [than that of his ones with Brittany Force and Steve Torrence], but we buy parts from him and so he helps us.”
Salinas said he’ll compete at Indianapolis, Reading, Dallas, Las Vegas and Pomona – “and then get ready for next year.”
He said his goal for the near future is to “get in the 3.60s, be a .70 player, a low .70 player, and be consistent. We set the bar high, and the car has the ability to do it. So now we’re just getting all the crew, driver, crew chief, and everybody together. We’re not hurting for parts and pieces. We’re not here to save parts. We’re here to run hard.
“Now we kind of have a handle on where we’re going with everything. Before it was a little bit clouded through different crew chiefs, different guys. Their vision and my vision weren’t the same. This way with Doug and all the guys, everything, we’re all headed in the same direction,” Salinas said.
TODD - JR Todd, the Funny Car class’ most recent winner, has his career-first Funny Car victory and became just the 16th driver in NHRA history to win in both Top Fuel and Funny Car. For those keeping track, he’s also the first African-American driver in history to win in the class. And the firsts keep mounting. Todd, driving the DHL Toyota Camry, driver also is just the second driver in NHRA history to win at the same track in a different nitro class in consecutive years. after winning at Sonoma in Top Fuel in 2016. And he has one more distinction to chase this weekend. He’ll try to be only the third driver ever to win at Pacific Raceways. He won here in Top Fuel in 2015. If he can earn a Funny Car Wally here, he’ll join Del Worsham and Gary Scelzi in that elite group.
Todd has his mind more on making history in the Countdown.
“We knew it was only a matter of time before the team started to get a handle on things and it would start going in the right direction. I think this DHL Toyota Camry has finally turned the corner. Now we need to continue to build off this in Seattle,” he said. “We still have a lot of work to do to make these things consistently competitive – especially in qualifying. Hopefully, by the time the Countdown rolls around, we will be ready to get after it."
Todd is in the provisional ninth-place slot in the order after two Friday qualifying chances.
FAST FORCE WANTS MORE FROM HIS SPEEDS – PEAK Chevy Camaro driver John Force last weekend at Sonoma, Calif., became only the fourth Funny Car driver to run a 337-mph speed. His career-best 337.16 mph during qualifying there matched his teammate and company president Robert Hight for recording the sixth-fastest speed in NHRA history. His run and Hight’s mean John Force Racing owns seven of the eight fastest runs in class history. Hight broke the speed record in Sonoma at 339.87 mph and has five of the eight fastest speeds. Advance Auto Parts driver Courtney Force ran the third-fastest speed.
The 16-time champion called it “pretty cool” but said, “Let’s see what we can do with it.”
John Force, the most successful racer at Seattle in any professional class, is going for his ninth victory here and his first since 2014. He set the bar this weekend with a 3.973-second pass on the 133-degree racing surface in pursuit of his seventh No. 1 qualifying positions here.
But he said he wants more than just the fun of saying he has some top speeds. He wants victories and a 17th championship. So far this year he has a lone victory, in March at Gainesville, Fla.
“I’m starting my career all over again, and it’s a brand-new ballgame,” Force said. “I ain’t quitting. Just have good days and bad days, and we just have to make them all good days.”
Force has competed in 30 races at Pacific Raceways and qualified for every race since 2009. He competed in his first Funny Car race at Pacific in 1988. His victories here have come in 1991, 1993, 1994, 1996, 2000, 2003, 2004, and 2014. He has been to 10 finals overall.
HOT-HOT-HOT – Seattle is hot right now, with a hazy pall from British Columbia wildfires in Canada and in Central Washington blanketing most of the state. Bo Butner is hot right now, leading the Pro Stock standings and the provisional Northwest Nationals field as he goes for his fourth top qualifier of the season. And his car is hot – a new 2017 Chevy Camaro for KB–Summit Racing.
“We have some fires up north,” Butner said after clocking the low elapsed time of Friday’s two sessions (6.584 seconds), “but we put a little fire down right there. It was more than I expected.”
The Floyds Knobs, Ind., racer was the only Pro Stock driver in the 6.5-second range on the opening day of the NHRA’s 30th annual visit here.
“The car’s still halfway new, but we ran real good here last year. It’s a new Camaro – 2017. That’s pretty freakin’ hot.” Butner said.
Last year here, he qualified No. 2 and lost in the semifinals to eventual winner Aaron Strong.
"I really thought we would win that race last year, but then it rained. We ran right after it rained, and the track hadn't come around yet, and I had to lift. But I like [this] track. I feel confident every time we go anywhere now, and we know we aren't going to qualify No. 1 everywhere we go, but we know we have a chance to win, no matter where we are.
"There are a whole lot of small battles throughout the season, but there is one war. My crew chief, Darrel Herron, and I have always said that – if you win rounds, the points will come. I think KB Racing has a good shot to be 1-2-3 when it's all said and done. We have our work cut out for us if we're going to do that, but the points are all going to be reset for the Countdown. We just have to keep doing what we're doing. We have good momentum, and we've had it pretty much all year. I think we'll do well in the Countdown, and I'm excited to get there."
LAST YEAR’S WINNER A SPECTATOR – The Top Fuel and Funny Car classes each attracted just enough entries to fill the order, but The Pro Stock class has just 13 this weekend.
And last year’s Pro Stock winner of this race – who actually won the final round at Indianapolis, during the U.S. Nationals last September because of a rainout – isn’t one of them. Despite his storybook march to the trophy, low-budget racer Pro Stock Aaron Strong changed his status this year to no-budget racer.
Strong, from nearby Milton, about 15 minutes away from Pacific Raceways, was on hand Friday. However, he was just making the rounds through the Pro Stock and Comp Eliminator pits, visiting his former racing colleagues, or in his words, “my extended racing family.”
“I just wanted to come out and see everybody and say hi. I haven’t been to a race this year. My last race was the Finals [at Pomona, Calif., last November],” Strong said. “I’m a terrible spectator. For the last 20 years, I’ve hardly ever come to a track unless I was racing.
He said in the sportsman ranks “there’s been an opportunity or two but nothing’s come together. I wouldn’t mind doing that. There are possibilities in Pro Stock – you just have to come up with sponsorship money to do it. No immediate plans.”
The Wally statue Strong earned last year sits in his garage with his other racing hardware, but the modest Strong said he wasn’t planning to “dust it off” and bring it to the track to show it off. “I wouldn’t feel comfortable, walking around with my trophy. That was a year ago. They invited me out to the track two weeks later [after he won the final] and did a podcast from the tower. That was kind of neat.”
He did venture to Pacific Raceways recently, to the facility’s go-kart track for a bachelor party for one of his buddies. He said he didn’t wander over to the dragstrip: “I stayed away. There was nobody racing. It would’ve been like a ghost town. It would probably have been even more eerie. I would have been like a little lost puppy dog, looking down at the benches. I’d have been by myself, crying.” He laughed, maybe only partially joking.
WILL THE REAL GREG ANDERSON PLEASE STAND UP? – OK, so it’s not that uncommon a name, but the Northwest Nationals has two Greg Andersons driving Camaros.
“The other” Greg Anderson is a Top Sportsman racer from Snohomish, about 30 miles north of Seattle, whose ’68 Chevy carries Mischief Distillery sponsorship. The distillery is located in the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle, and it has hosted a fan party and barbecue with captains Casey McManus, Josh Harris, and Sig Hansen from the reality-TV series “Deadliest Catch” before they returned to the Bering Sea to fish for crab and film Season 13 of their program.
The “Pro Stock Greg Anderson” has three Seattle victories (2003, 2004, 2010) in five final-round appearances in the KB/Summit Racing Equipment Camaro and was runner-u to teammate Jason Line in 2011 and 2014.
The No. 2-ranked driver in the current standings said of the racetrack that’s ringed by massive fir trees, “The really cool thing about Seattle is that it brings back memories of racing in Minnesota. It's always a good feeling to get to go someplace that reminds you of home. For as enjoyable as it is to be in such a beautiful place, Seattle has its fair share of challenges. It's the last leg of the swing, everyone is tired – mentally, if not physically – but you really have to hold it together, hang in there, and gut it out.
"You want to win this last of three in a row just as much as you want to win the first and the second, and hopefully, you aren't down on parts by then. We're fortunate that we haven't broken anything to this point on the Western Swing, so that won't be our problem,” he said. “We'll be concentrating on figuring out what that track wants.”
He called the conditions “brutal” with the heat and uncharacteristic haze from British Columbia forest fires. “We've never had that before at this race. We'll certainly have our work cut out for us, but hopefully we'll come home with a trophy,” he said.
“Top Sportsman Greg Anderson” earned the No. 3 starting spot in his class Friday, while the more well-known Anderson sits mid-pack (seventh) with to more qualifying session set for Saturday.
COUGHLIN POINTED IN RIGHT DIRECTION – Jeg Coughlin said he believes his team “feels like we finally shifted our gears last weekend in Sonoma and we're back on the right track. No question, we've had a bit of a lull in our performances the last handful of races but this is still a car that has raced to the final round a few times this year and been on the pole at three events. I know it may not look like it from the cloud looking down, but from inside the ropes, I feel like we're getting a little bit of our stride back. We picked up some momentum with a nice round win in Sonoma, and we're ready to stay on the positive side of things."
Coughlin is ninth overnight and hopes to improve in two Saturday chances to keep up his stellar qualifying reputation. He has qualified in the top half of the field at 13 of 15 previous national events.
"I think we're all looking to get off to a fresh start in Seattle and see if we can't get this JEGS.com/Elite Performance Chevrolet Camaro completely up to speed in these last three races before the Countdown," Coughlin said. "We've put a lot of time and effort into getting all four team cars running strong and now we need to add consistency to the equation so we can make a run in the playoffs.”
He said Pacific Raceways is “a beautiful, beautiful facility. The track, the surroundings are amazing with Mt. Rainer right there as a backdrop. The air is always good, and the track can be very fast."
But what had him excited about arriving here were a victory in 2002 and runner-up finishes here in 2000, 2013, and 2015.
"We love visiting the city and taking in all the wonderful sights. If we can have some things fall our way this weekend, we just might be making some new memories."
"I've been fortunate to spend a few days in Northern California this week playing a little golf with my son and some friends. That's been refreshing,” Coughlin said. “Jeggie III is quite a player now, heading into his second year on the golf team at Ohio State University. I do well to keep him in view these days when we play. I'm very proud of his accomplishments."