2017 NHRA SOUTHERN NATIONALS - ATLANTA NOTEBOOK
TORRENCE THE TALLER OF THE TWO TEXANS IN TOP FUEL FINAL - The all-Texas Top Fuel final round of the Lucas Oil NHRA Southern Nationals stirred up some passion in winner Steve Torrence before he squared off Sunday afternoon against Tony Schumacher.
He boasted that he’s the “real Texan” of the two: “He’s just a transplanted Yankee,” Torrence said of his rival. Then the conservative Torrence referred to the more liberal state capital: “He lives in a place that ain’t even Texas – he lives in Austin.”
He punctuated his flurry of friendly insults by landing a soft jab, needling Schumacher – the racer he beat at Atlanta for his first victory in 2012, back when Schumacher had recorded “just” 67 of his 83 victories. Atlanta Dragway is the only track Schumacher hadn’t mastered, and Torrence had some fun with that.
“He ain’t got it done yet,” Torrence said, “and he ain’t going to do it on my watch.”
Then Torrence backed up his talk in his third consecutive final-round appearance, earning his second straight victory. He covered the Commerce, Ga., 1,000-foot course in 3.745 seconds at 320.81 mph in the Capco Contractors Dragster, while Schumacher smoked the tires on his U.S. Army Dragster and wound up with a 4.061-second elapsed time at a 243.28-mph speed.
It was an anniversary, of sorts, for Kilgore, Texas, native Torrence, who emphasized the he beat Schumacher here “five years ago today” – pronouncing it “to-DAY.”
But he’s focused more on the future than the past or even the present.
“The race car I have now is the best race car I’ve ever had in my life,” Torrence said. “The thing goes out there and does exactly what they tell it to do. We struggled the first few races, but at Vegas [where he qualified No. 1] we kept our noses to the grindstone and found some stuff. We stayed Monday and tested, and the consistency has built on what we found there. And my driving is showing that I’m confident in it.”
And, to borrow a phrase from Schumacher, Torrence said, “I’m driving like a machine. [Crew chief] Richard Hogan is the key to that, along with Bobby Lagana, Justin Crosslin, Chris Martin, Mike Wingo, Cale Hood, Gary Pritchett. All those guys are my family. I’ll put that race team up against anybody out here. I’ve got a badass group of guys.”
He acknowledged that “it’s going to be a long season” but said he’s particularly proud of accomplishing what he has as an independent racer – one who has been able for two straight weeks to stop the Don Schumacher Racing powerhouse.
“We run this out of our pockets,” Torrence said after his second Atlanta victory and 10th in all. “That speaks volumes about what you can achieve with just hard work, dedication, and a lot of heart.”
Using a play on the word “juggernaut,” Torrence said, “The Schumacher cars set the bar. They’ve had a jugger-knot on it, and I just untied the jugger-knot. I’m winning races and hurting feelings – and that’s what I’m here to do.”
He has won 15 of his 20 elimination rounds so far this season, and he climbed a position in the standings. He moved from fourth to third, 35 points behind No. 2 Schumacher. Torrence advanced Sunday to his third consecutive final-round appearance for the first time in his Top Fuel career by defeating Smax Smith, Shawn Langdon, and Leah Pritchett. And in all but his semifinal-round performance, Torrence ran faster than the career-best E.T. he brought here, and that semifinal clocking was a mere four-thousandths of a second slower.
Torrence joined L.E. Tonglet (Pro Stock Motorcycle), Bo Butner (Pro Stock), and Ron Capps (Funny Car) in the winners circle.
Schumacher had won from the No. 1 starting spot in March at Gainesville and Sunday was trying to win his 84th victory from the No. 1 starting position for the second time this year. He eliminated Brittany Force, Bob Vandergriff, and Doug Kalitta on the way to his 147th final-round appearance.
The eight-time series champion is 17-6 in eliminations and has reached two semifinals and four final rounds in seven events so far this year. His only blemish was a quarterfinal defeat at Royal Purple Raceway two weekends ago.
In spite of losing traction for the start of his run and shutting off his engine as he approached the finish line, Schumacher defended his U.S. Army Dragster, despite the fact “it started quivering pretty early and he was on a really good run.
“So that was it,” Schumacher said. “I tried to pedal it maybe once, maybe twice, but he was on a good run. But, otherwise, the car was running fine today. The round before, we beat him by 11-thousandths of a second. It’s all about timing, and that’s how this sport is. The first round, anybody else would’ve beaten me. When you get breaks, you get breaks. He made a great run. He made a good light and he made a good run and he won the race. It’s all good, and the big picture looks great. We’re going rounds and we’ve got a good U.S. Army car. There are a handful of good cars out there and we’re getting around some big boys. And we’re gaining back the ground we lost in the championship a few weeks ago.
Schumacher remains in second place, a mere 14 point behind his Don Schumacher racing colleague Pritchett as the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series reconvenes in two weeks at Topeka.
“We gained a little bit on Leah but not enough,” Schumacher said.
An oildown cost him 10 points. He said, “You hate to give those up, but it’s our job to keep the oil in the motor and not make mistakes. It’s on to Topeka.”
And Torrence had a maybe-not-so-comforting thought for his fellow Texan: “We call our car the Motel 6 Vision. We leave lights on.” Susan Wade
CAPPS GETS HIS THIRD WIN IN A ROW - Ron Capps is flexing his muscles.
The reigning NHRA nitro Funny Car world champion won his third race in a row when he captured the title at the Southern Nationals in Atlanta Sunday with a hole shot in the final round.
Capps clocked a 3.991-second time at 317.79 mph to defeat a quicker Tim Wilkerson, who had a 3.978 ET at 316.60 mph. The difference was at the starting line as Capps had a .040 reaction time, while Wilkerson had a 0.110 light.
"I think the car speaks for itself," said Capps, who drives the NAPA Dodge for Don Schumacher Racing. "It's exciting to see what's going to happen next. I'm happy that Tim ran good and I'm a Tim Wilkerson fan. I don't think a fan that doesn't like Tim Wilkerson. He's a great guy and I get up to race him."
Capps now has 52 career NHRA National events - 51 in Funny Car and one in Top Fuel.
On Sunday Capps beat J.R. Todd, John Force, and Wilkerson.
"This probably is one of the more difficult race tracks to navigate," Capps said. "You really had to be ready for two to three separate bumps. As a driver with the front ends the way they are and the laid-back headers it is lifting the front end and carrying it half a football field at a time and it makes for an exciting run but at the same time you're just hoping the car stays in the middle."
Capps acknowledged nothing came easy for him at Southern Nationals, especially in the semifinals against Hight and his world championship crew chief Jimmy Prock.
"What's funny is Rahn Tobler (Capps' crew chief) and Prock go on trips together and it cracks me up because I wonder what they talk about," Capps said. "This is big to get a win like this because when they are sitting around the pool enjoying themselves I guarantee he is going to rib him a little bit. Jimmy Prock brings every bit of Rahn Tobler out. I don't see him get like that unless we race Dickie Venables or Jimmy Prock. I could walk in and not know who we are going to race and I can tell if it is Jimmy Prock and I know Jimmy approaches things the same way and it is fun for a driver. I know Robert and I enjoy it. We know those two are going to go up there and we are two lucky dudes. We have to do our jobs but we are going to have a battle. That was a big win." Tracy Renck
BUTNER CLAIMS SECOND WIN WITH ATLANTA VICTORY - It took Bo Butner 46 national-event races to get his first NHRA Pro Stock victory when he won at Houston last month.
It took Butner two more races to get victory No. 2 as he won the Southern Nationals Sunday in Atlanta.
“I told them, there was no way in the world I could go another 40-something races and not try and win one of these,” Butner said. “Again, we have had the car to win with probably for a year-and-a-half. Now, it’s just all coming together and I’m doing my job, and you have to be at the right place at the right time.”
Butner beat Erica Enders in the finals, clocking a 6.569-second elapsed time at 211.26 mph to defeat Enders’ 6.593-second time at 210.97 mph.
“They (Enders’ team) have definitely improved a lot, and they drive very, very good,” Butner said. “If I go up there and be 30 (on the Christmas tree), the car should win the race. You have to have a lot of trust in your car and I definitely do.”
Butner’s other round wins Sunday were over Wally Stroupe, Vincent Nobile, Jeg Coughlin and then Enders. Butner beat Coughlin in the finals at Houston when Coughlin had a red-light start.
Butner didn’t have any exact reason why it took him so long to get to the Pro Stock winners circle.
“Back in the late 1990s, I won like eight divisional races, but I could not win a national event,” he said. “It was the same people and it’s the same track and then it just happened. I think I won my first two within like two races. I won like Dallas and Pomona within in a month. I don’t know how you explain it, but I’m happy with this car and I’m happy with this team.”
Butner drives a Camaro and is a teammate to Greg Anderson and Line.
Despite his recent run of success, Butner welcome a break before returning to the track at Topeka, Kan. (May 19-21)
“I’m ready to go home and work just to get the mindset off and then show up at Topeka and hopefully get four qualifying runs in because those qualifying points are huge, and they are starting to make a difference,” Butner said. Tracy Renck
TONGLET WINS W.A.R. AGAINST BOSS IN BIKE FINAL - It was all-out WAR in Sunday’s final round of the Lucas Oil NHRA Southern Nationals.
Jerry Savoie and L.E. Tonglet race in the Pro Stock Motorcycle class under the White Alligator Racing banner. This showdown between teammates featured two Louisiana tough guys, one an alligator farmer down in the bayous of Cut Off, the other a firefighter from metro New Orleans. It was a battle between two champions: a young man and his elder, although the younger Tonglet earned his crown before Savoie did it last year.
But the final round at Atlanta Dragway was anticlimactic.
Savoie’s Suzuki broke on the launch. Tonglet, who had a spectacular .007-second reaction time, zipped on to a 6.843-second elapsed time at 194.35 mph on the Commerce, Ga., quarter-mile.
“It went silent. I didn’t hear him beside me,” Tonglet said. “I wish we could have had a close race, but this won’t be the last time both bikes will be in the final, and we’re going to put on a good show.”
He said he learned he was going to be an easy winner by about half-track: “At about the eighth-mile, and I’ll probably get in trouble for this, I looked up at the screen.”
In claiming back-to-back victories, Tonglet shared the winners podium with Bo Butner (Pro Stock), Ron Capps (Funny Car), and Steve Torrence (Top Fuel).
Savoie, who was runner-up here last season, officially wound up with a 34.292, 20.68.
“This NitroFish Suzuki is flyin’, thanks to Tim [crew chef Kulungian]. I’ve got a great group of guys. Without any of them, it wouldn’t be possible. My dad’s here, lining me up and keeping me calm. And [brother] GT’s at home, just a phone call away.”
Before this year, Tonglet had raced only with his father and brother. He said Kulungian, compared to dad Gary, “is more of a numbers guy. He’s got a lot more information coming off the bike than we had in the past. My dad’s old-school. His computer actually runs in DOS mode. Our computer stuff is old, but Tim’s got the latest and greatest, and it really shows. He’s got a handle on both bikes” Tonglet said.
However, the 12-time winner said this early success – two victories in the bike class’ first three of 16 events – has been a little surprising.
“We did not think we were going to win the second race of the season with my bike, just because it was all new stuff and Tim’s still learning about it,” he said. “We knew we were going to be fast. We just didn’t think it’d come this soon. It’s great. It’s hard to explain.”
Tonglet advanced to the final round by defeating Cory Reed, Andrew Hines, and Scotty Pollacheck, each of whom especially was wanting to win. Savoie set up the showdown with his teammate by beating Matt Smith, Hector Arana Jr., and Eddie Krawiec.
After the semifinal, Savoie was as giddy as if he had won the race, saying, “I’m so excited. We put both Harleys on the trailer.”
That was a measure of achievement for Tonglet, too. He said that after the semifinal round, “the pit area was a lot of fun. The team already won. It was just [left to determine] which rider was going to win. To be able to experience that was great. I’ve never raced with a teammate.”
Beating Hines and seeing Savoie knock off Krawiec was a coup to him. Said Tonglet, “Whenever you can do that, it’s a great accomplishment. They’re the two baddest bikes out here. They’re the fastest. They’ve got the most championships.”
As for Pollacheck, Tonglet said, “He’s riding very well this year. He’s on a fast motorcycle. His day will come – I just hope I’m not in the other lane.”
The way his season is going, it’s a good chance that he might be in another final and maybe against Pollacheck . . . or against Savoie again. And Pro Stock Motorcycle fans will be ready to see that good show Tonglet promised. Susan Wade
WORSHAM’S CAREER GETS KICK-START AT ATLANTA, PRO STOCK’S JOHNSON ‘PSYCHED’ TO QUALIFY NO. 9, DIXON TO RETURN IN TOP ALCOHOL FUNNY CAR, CAN SCHUMACHER DANCE?
WILL HE HAVE ANOTHER CLOSE ONE? – No. 5 qualifier Doug Kalitta won the Top Fuel final here last season with the closest Top Fuel victory margin in NHRA history. He defeated teammate JR Todd by less than .0000 of a second. Kalitta probably could do without the drama. The race was the closest Top Fuel race in history. It was his third Southern Nationals victory (to go along with his triumphs in 2005 and 2006).
“There’s a lot of history at Atlanta. We’ve been real fortunate there,” Kalitta said. “To win that race with J.R. (by less than 0.0000 seconds) was about as close as you can get and we squeezed one off there. You never really know how close it was until you turn that corner. To win four races at one track would be really strong. We’ll be gunning for it.”
First in the line of fire for Kalitta in Sunday’s eliminations will be No. 12 Chris Karamesines.
Kalitta won’t meet Todd all day. Todd has switched to the Kalitta Motorsport team’s DHL Toyota Camry Funny Car (leaving the SealMaster Dragster to rookie Troy Coughlin Jr.). But Todd won’t have it any easier than if he did line up against Kalitta – as the No. 13 Funny Car qualifier, Todd will begin race day against No. 4 starter Ron Capps, winner of the past two races (Houston, Charlotte).
“It always stinks to lose two qualifying passes, but my Mac Tools Toyota team got our machine tuned up quick. This has been a great track for us in the past, and I am hoping for another solid run tomorrow.”
EIGHT TITLES BUT CAN HE DANCE? – Competition Plus knew better than to ask, but eight-time Top Fuel champion Tony Schumacher volunteered what he thinks of the fact Atlanta Dragway is the lone facility on the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series at which the U.S. Army Dragster driver hasn’t won.
“You know, I really don’t care, because it really doesn’t matter,” he said. “Yeah, I want to win it. This U.S. Army team wants to win each and every weekend. I guess that’s the only thing to talk about when we’re talking about Atlanta. What are people going to do when we finally win there? Will they ask me what kind of a dancer I am? That’s how important of a question it isn’t. It’s almost a dumb question.”
He said, “We’ve got a great U.S. Army car right now – probably the best car we’ve had for Atlanta. We’ve been in the finals there before and just haven’t won. In all reality, we’ve got a great race car and a great race team. We’ll just go out and do our job. Maybe 30 or 40 years from now, we’ll look back and see that we’ve done great stuff across the board. When I’m strapped into the U.S. Army car this weekend and the light comes on, the only thing I’m going to be thinking about is hitting the gas and getting down the racetrack, just like I do during every run, each and every weekend. I don’t go up there and say, ‘Why don’t we win here?’”
CHASSIS CHANGES – While many racers and their teams enjoyed some fun family times in the Southeast between the Charlotte and Atlanta races, Brittany Force’s Monster Energy Dragster team was hard at work back at the Brownsburg, Ind., shop, making chassis updates.
“They headed back to Indianapolis [from Charlotte] Monday morning to front-half the car and then [had to] get it over [here] for the weekend. It’s a lot of work. I always appreciate my team and everything they do,” Force said. “To bring home a win would make everything worth it.”
Force appears to struggle. She finished qualifying in 16th place Saturday. She’ll have to chase her fourth overall victory starting with a match-up against No. 1 qualifier Tony Schumacher. They’ve met twice in eliminations so far this season, and each has won.
The Monster Energy Dragster already has underdone changes during the early part of the 2017 Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season. She raced to the final round in the second race, at Phoenix, but they had to incorporate a safety change after that event. The NHRA mandated Top Fuel cars have an extra crossmember to the bay area just beyond the foot box.
That new mandate, NHRA Vice President of Technical Operations Glen Gray said, came from data that Kalitta Motorsports has gathered from research conducted since Larry Dixon’s Top Fuel accident at Gainesville and presented to the SFI Chassis Committee.
And its timing is partly in response to the decision by three top-running dragster teams to approach the NHRA Tech Department with concerns. They were troubled that the top rails on the 300-inch-wheelbase cars were bowing at top speeds. Gray said the Kalitta-driven research indeed “showed some loads that higher than they needed to be.”
Those changes didn’t work out as the Force team planned, so JFR opted for more effective updates. And Norm Boutot, the JFR fab shop manager, planned these newest changes with consideration for 2018 spec changes he expects the SFI and NHRA to hand down.
Boutot told John Kernan, of NHRA and FOX Sports, that they made the chassis too stiff when they front-halved Brittany Force’s car after the Phoenix race in February.
“We went overboard, as far as thickness of the frame-rail tubing,” Boutot said. “And in light of what’s coming up for next year, as far as rules, go, we now have an idea of where the ‘safe zone’ is, with the changes the NHRA and SFI have come up with. And with that, we have decided to build our car so it will be a safe spec for next year, as well as legal. And we’re going to go ahead and do that instead of waiting until next year,” Boutot said. “We were a little worried when we stepped up our tubing that we might see what we’ve seen . . . and that is we’ve lost some of our flexibility.”
Boutot is one of the voting members on the SFI Chassis Committee, as are Aaron Brooks (who heads the Morgan Lucas Racing chassis-building program, Joe Fitzpatrick from Don Schumacher Racing, Murf McKinney, and others.
Gray said that group is “working on a new specification for 2018 that goes a little bit beyond just adding that bar [the crossmember]. We’re 99.9 percent sure of what the spec is going to be for next year, but it isn’t completely finalized yet. So Norm is building a car, assuming that’s what it’s going to be. And that’s very good assumption to make.
“As soon as the  spec is completely finalized,” Gray said, “we’re going to let all the teams know” so they get a head start on any changes they need to make. The 2018 specs, he predicted, won’t cause major budget woes: “There are some cars out here already that meet the new spec and won’t have to do anything [because] they front-half the cars frequently.” Gray lauded the process, saying, “You have the best minds, the people who re actually building the cars, and you have real data.”
OTHER MATCH-UPS – The Nos. 8 and 9 qualifiers, Bob Vandergriff and Scott Palmer, respectively, will go Sunday, as will Clay Millican (4) and Terry Haddock (13).
Charlotte victor Steve Torrence (2) and Smax Smith (15) will meet in Round 1. When Torrence thought he had claimed his second No. 1 starting position of the year, he playfully poked at Leah Pritchett’s Papa John’s Dragster team: “Oh-oh! It looks like these Capco boys found something! C’mon, Pizza Man!”
No. 7 Shawn Langdon is paired with Pat Dakin (10), and Langdon said, “We have Dakin tomorrow; he can make good runs, so for us it is just sticking to our lane and our game plan and make a good run tomorrow. We found a major problem that was setting us back the first two races in the clutch area. That was our first run after finding the problem, so we were more trying to start from scratch.”
Antron Brown, the No. 3 qualifier, is prepping for a race against No. 14 Troy Coughlin Jr. The three-time champion’s performance marked the sixth time in seven races this season that he has qualified in the top three. After rain washed out Friday’s sessions, Brown earned bonus points for each pass. He enters Sunday’s eliminations looking for his fifth Atlanta victory.
DIXON TO RETURN – Three-time Top Fuel champion Larry Dixon, who’s second on the class’ all-time victories list, will return to the racetrack at Norwalk – in a Top Alcohol Funny Car. He’ll drive the Hussey Gaskets entry that Tony Bartone owns, Steve Boggs tunes, and Sean Bellemeur also drives. “I’m fortunate they let me license and now drive in an event,” Dixon said.
ATLANTA KEY TO WORSHAM CAREER – As one of just three drivers ever to win both Top Fuel and Funny Car championships, Del Worsham already is considered one of the great drivers in NHRA history. But if it hadn’t been for the 1991 Southern Nationals here at Atlanta Dragway, Worsham’s career might have been much different.
At the time, Worsham was a rookie, just trying to make it through the season with his family-owned and run team. As they went to Atlanta, the team was preparing to return to Orange, Calif., and shelve the car after the race to save money and try to return to the racetrack later in the year. Instead, the 21-year-old went on to defeat Mark Oswald – who’s Antron Brown’s co-crew chief today – in the final to become the youngest winner in NHRA Funny Car history. The $20,000 payout provided the money the team desperately needed to fund the remainder of the season, which would include a second victory at Englishtown, N.J., also over Oswald in the final, and Rookie of the Year distinction.
“That’s the truth. That’s exactly how it went down,” Worsham said. “I would’ve still raced, but we weren’t going to continue on the tour at that point. At that point, we were going to go home for a while and kind of regroup and save some money and then pick up later in the season, maybe the last few races. My dad and his partner had pretty much spent all the money that they wanted to spend, juts getting the car that far.
“We actually had gone farther in the season than I thought we were going to go,” he said of that time. “When we started the season, we were going to one or two races and kind of see what happened. The next thing I know, I’m here in Atlanta now, and for all intents and purposes, we were as far as we really should’ve gone at that point.
“But winning that race, that was a lot of money to give a 21-year-old,” Worsham said. “Getting $20,000 to win the race changed things. Now we had money to buy more parts. It just kind of excited everyone [involved with the team], and we decided to go for a few more,” Worsham said.
Worsham said his Atlanta and Englishtown victories were markedly different, although they didn’t occur all that far apart on the schedule.
Oswald, he said, “had us whipped at Atlanta. The only way to beat him at Atlanta was for him to make a mistake. We knew that, and we made sure if he made a mistake we were there to capitalize on it. When we won at Englishtown, we had low E.T. [of the meet] in the final round. We were a whole different team. By then we had a new body. We had made a bunch more runs. It was different scenarios, same outcome.
“But we were getting better each race; the car was getting faster and faster. I was getting more and more experience behind me. We were qualifying better. We were getting better match-ups. We rolled into Englishtown pretty confident,” Worsham said.
He said $20,000 back then went way farther in 1991 than it does today. (Today a Funny Car victory pays $50,000.)
“We had a little rig – a duallie with a little trailer. I didn’t have any overhead, so to speak. We had one crew guy, who was paid, like me, very minimally,” Worsham said.
Back in his first visits to Atlanta, he said the team stayed “at the HoJo [Howard Johnson’s] in Commerce during the race.” But in the weeks before and the week after the event, Worsham stayed with J. Ed Horton, just over the state line in South Carolina – working out of the shop that Tim Wilkerson crew chief Richard Hartman operates his own business out of today. At night, Worsham said he slept on the floor of Horton’s living room “with a kerosene heater. I’ll never forget it.”
JOHNSON ‘PSYCHED’ TO BE NO. 9 – Not often do racers express joy about qualifying mid-pack on a starting grid, but Allen Johnson said Saturday that starting eliminations from the No. 9 position “just psyches the heck out of me.”
For the Marathon Petroleum / J&J Racing Dodge Dart owner-driver, it’s his best qualifying performance all season. And he knew he had to be on top of his game, with everyone in the class getting just two qualifying chances because of Friday’s rain-shortened program.
“When you only get two runs, you got to be perfect in qualifying, just like you have to be on race day,” Johnson said. “You got to be more focused.”
He was, and for his effort, he’ll have to face No. 8 Vincent Nobile in the first round of eliminations Sunday.
“We tried to start today just how we ended in Charlotte and build on it,” he said. “We had a plan for this weekend to stay very close to what we did in Charlotte and not change a whole lot. I’m really excited about being No. 9. It just psyches the heck out of me.”
At the beginning of this stretch of three races in three straight weekends, Johnson said he has found some major performance gains in his engine department.
“We made some serious gains in Houston and Charlotte. We’re not 100% there yet,” he said, “but if I had one word for last weekend in Charlotte, it’d be progress.”
Johnson beat Greg Anderson in the final here in 2002 and led the field in 2010. He’s seeking his 28th victory. Johnson entered this race wit 450 elimination round-wins.
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE
ARANA STOKED ABOUT QUALIFYING – Pro Stock Motorcycle rider Hector Arana Jr. has been eager to have a strong performance this weekend, and he has done that so far in style, grabbing the No. 4 starting slot with a 6.866-second elapsed time that’s just two-thousandths of a second slower than No. 3 Chip Ellis. A mere .017 of a second separates the top four qualifiers. L.E. Tonglet, last week’s winner at Charlotte, is No. 3.
Especially because he said the Lucas Oil Buell team made such a monumental effort to arrive here prepared, Arana Jr. said his showing Saturday “goes to show what job my dad does at the shop” at Corydon, Ind.
"I've never raced with anything but Lucas Oil on the side of my bike, so this race has become huge for us," he said. "I want to win every race, but certainly when Forrest and Charlotte Lucas [company founders] put their name on something, you want it even more.
"We haven't shown what we're capable of the first two races, but we're ready. I love racing. That's why I'm out here. In fact, that's why we are out here as a team, so I'm ready to go."
He will square off against No. 13 Mike Berry in the opening round of runoffs Sunday.
The addition of two-time Pro Stock champion and 25-time national-event winner Jim Yates to their crew has made a significant difference, Arana Jr. said.
"We're in a good rhythm now. Atlanta is a good track and can be very fast. I had a transmission issue last weekend in Charlotte, so we pulled the whole thing out and completely rebuilt it. Everything else was freshened up, also,” he said.
The goal was to qualify both bikes in the top half of the field, and they did that. Hector Arana Sr. posted a 6.867-second E.T. – just one-thousandth of a second slower than his son. Jerry Savoie posted an identical time but took the No. 5 spot with a faster speed – a 194.58 mph, compared to Arana Sr.’s 194.21. That relegated him to sixth place.
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE, PRO MOD CLASSES SNEAK IN SESSION, BUT RAIN, COLD KEEP TOP FUEL, FUNNY CAR, PRO STOCK IN PITS
THIS GATOR IS HUNGRY – Terry McMillen, fresh off his final-round appearance at last Sunday’s Four-Wide Nationals near Charlotte, N.C., in the Amalie Oil Xtermigator, promised, “I’m confident it won’t be the last time you see this green gator in the finals this season.”
He said, “Right now we’re one round behind where we were this time last year, but we’re one car ahead of where we were.”
McMillen was referring to the violent engine explosion that sprayed massive flaming parts in all directions in his first-round race against Tony Schumacher. Within minutes, Don Schumacher himself appeared on the scene and reassured McMillen that he already had phoned the DSR builders back at Brownsburg, Ind., and instructed them to start preparing the independent owner-driver a new dragster. And McMillen hasn’t forgotten the super-team owner’s generosity of spirit and manpower.
“Don Schumacher deserves a lot of credit for the performance of this car, and I can’t thank Don and DSR enough for the great car they built for us. Having their parts available to us is a big plus for our program,” McMillen said.
“You also have to look at the stability we have with a top-notch guy like [crew chief] Rob Wendland and the crew he has put together with Bob Peck and everyone else. These guys and girl have been together for two years now, and they’re all really starting to work together like a finely tuned team. We had less than an hour to get back up there for the final round [at Zmax Dragway], and they gave us the chance we needed to get to race in the finals.”
That was McMillen’s first final-round appearance since the Amalie Oil Gatornationals in March 2016. And last Sunday was a perfect time to show his sponsors what he and his team are capable of doing.
“Having the support of our marketing partners through all of this means a lot to us. We had Ken Holder from Amalie [at Concord, N.C.]. It’s always good to do well when your sponsors show up,” McMillen said.
This season, the Amalie Motor Oil bosses can show up at just about anytime and see McMillen performing well.
“Our average qualifying time is 3.799 seconds so far this season. And that’s pretty good, considering we didn’t even know how to run in the 70s before this season,” he said.
McMillen said he counted the Four-Wide weekend, overall, as a success: “There were a lot of firsts for us. We got our first round-win at the Four-Wides and our first win against Doug Kalitta. Our team is really coming together, and I think when we get into these hot weather races [such as this one at Atlanta Dragway], I think we have a car that everyone is going to want to avoid on Sundays.”
LAGANA’S ODYSSEY DIZZYING – Dom Lagana probably ought to be snuggled in bed, sleeping soundly – hibernating. He can do that Sunday, when the drag racers here in Atlanta are competing for the Wally trophy. By then, the driver/mechanic extraordinaire will have logged 600 miles by race-car hauler and be in the process of earning more than 18,000 by air.
Lagana is competing again for Rapisarda Autosport International this weekend at New South Wales, Australia’s Sydney Dragway in the Gulf Western Oil Nitro Thunder event. It’s the penultimate race in the 400 Thunder championship series, and he’ll have some familiar company there in sidelined NHRA racer Richie Crampton, who’s driving the Lamattina Top Fuel entry.
Curiously for an NHRA racer or fan, all classes at the Gulf Western Oil Nitro Thunder will compete in the “all-run format,” which features no eliminations. Each driver will race in all three rounds of racing. Winners are decided by a points system based on victories in their pairings and elapsed-time rankings. The overall event winner is determined by the final-race pairing of the night.
Lagana narrowly missed a berth in the Four-Wide Nationals final round this past Sunday. He qualified 13th and finished third in his quad in Round 2 of eliminations. Then he remained at zMAX Dragway until Monday afternoon, helping Top Alcohol Dragster driver Ashley Sanford finish her Top Fuel licensing process. Then he hopped in the Nitro Ninja Dragster trailer and drove it back to Brownsburg, Ind. After that, he headed to Indianapolis International Airport and began his 9,300-mile journey to Sydney, where he touched down Thursday morning.
“It’s a long way to travel but all worthwhile,” Lagana said. “I really enjoy coming to Australia to race and hang out with Santo [team owner Rapisarda], his boys, and the Rapisarda family.”
His RAI crew chief, Lee Beard, had stayed on in Australia after the previous race, Easter Sunday at Willowbank Raceway, near Brisbane.
“I’m confident he will have the car fully prepped to go racing,” Lagana said. “It shouldn’t be too much of a problem adjusting to racing a quarter-mile in Sydney after running 1,000 foot last weekend in Charlotte. I’m a purist at heart and love the extra race distance.”
SANFORD LICENSED, EAGER TO RACE – Ashley Sanford called Dom and Bobby Lagana “some of the most intelligent, bad to the bone, hard-working and humble guys in drag racing, and it's been an honor to accomplish my dream with them” after they helped her complete her Top Fuel licensing pass Monday at Concord, N.C. She also praised her parents, Shane and Michele Sanford: “My parents are the reason my dream even became attainable, because when everyone else called me crazy, they were the ones who sacrificed the blood, sweat, and tears to help make this journey happen.”
Knowing she had cleared the first of several hurdles on her way to competing against the sport’s elite racers, Sanford added, “You best believe I'm not going anywhere anytime soon! I can't wait to see where this journey will take me next.”
When she made her first passes in the Top Fuel car a month ago at Las Vegas, she didn’t share too much about what her next step would be. Tripp Tatum (who has expressed faith in her ability to handle the car) shares the ride with Dom Lagana. So it’s unclear, perhaps even to her, whether she will share the dragster with Tatum and Lagana, field her own independent team, or drive for someone else altogether. Who her sponsor(s) might be also is unknown. But she did say, “There’s a lot in the works that we’re trying to figure out.”
Sanford said, “With the Nitro Ninja car, there are opportunities to run events with them. It just has to financially work and time-/schedule-wise work. So if all the stars could align, absolutely I could see us doing an event this year. But that’s if all the stars align, and sometimes you don’t get that lucky in racing. There are absolutely no guarantees, but if we could make it happen, we would absolutely love to.”
NO SNEAKING UP – Steve Torrence, despite winning last Sunday’s Four-Wide event that he has called “a gimmick” and “not real racing,” is happy to be competing once again in the sport’s traditional format. But now that he has been the one to halt the Don Schumacher Racing Top Fuel steamroller this season, Torrence said, “We can’t sneak up on anybody anymore, and that makes you feel pretty good. It’s taken awhile to put all the pieces together, but now when this team shows up, everyone knows we have a car that can win. Nobody takes us lightly. We get everybody’s best shot and we wouldn’t have it any other way.”
He might be selling himself a little short, for no one has taken him lightly. He has been to the finals at the past two races, qualified first at Las Vegas, and won nine times altogether. He has started in the top five spot on the grid at all but the first race of the year, and he was in the top half of the field then. Besides, last season he finished third in points after recording a class-best eight No. 1 qualifying positions and eight final-round appearances. He’s trying to become the first driver in NHRA history to win championships in both the Top Fuel and Top Alcohol categories.
What made the Charlotte victory even more gratifying was the fact team owner Don Schumacher cautioned Torrence when he announced he would field his own, independent team that he wouldn’t be competitive at all against teams such as DSR. “He told me that I can’t do this on my own and be competitive with these multi-car teams,” Torrence said. “I’ll just be honest with you, it pissed me off. We can and we have and we’re going to continue to do so.”
Torrence earned his first victory here at Atlanta Dragway in 2012, in an improbable upset of Tony Schumacher, who had set the track record as No. 1 qualifier. By contrast, Torrence was in his first final round in his 55th pro race. He won twice more that year and cracked the top 10 in the final standings.
CREW LIVES MATTER – It has been a tough stretch for NHRA nitro-class crew members as the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series gathers for the third straight weekend, at the Lucas Oil Southern Nationals at Atlanta Dragway.
Clint Brewer, the clutch specialist for Scott Palmer’s Marck Industries/Voodoo II Dragster, spent several days after last week’s race in the hospital at Charlotte with a ruptured intestine. And Palmer and his team kept vigil at the hospital. Palmer called Brewer “a very close friend to our entire team” and said that as soon as Brewer became ill “I’ve been more focused on his health than race stuff – he’s a great person and friend.”
But the team did more than just visit Brewer at Carolinas Health Care System Northeast at Kannapolis, N.C. They opened a Go Fund Me account online to help cover at least some of his medical expenses.
“He’s self-employed back home in Dallas. So we need to keep him in business,” Palmer said.
According to Palmer’s crew chief and fiancée Ashley Fye, “after a weekend of busting his behind on the car and being in pain, he woke up Monday morning in unbelievably intense pain. We took him to the ER, and he was diagnosed with a ruptured intestine, and emergency surgery soon followed. I'm happy to say that he's . . . recovering, but he's got a long road ahead of him. He's going to have some huge bills to try and pay off, as well as not being able to work now due to his recovery. He's in construction and remodels, so he's a in a very physical business. I'm just trying to band together all of our supporters and friends so he can focus on his recovery, rather than how he can pay for this shocking surprise. His medical bills will likely be over $50,000.”
The online fundraiser on Brewer’s behalf accepts donations at https://www.gofundme.com/clints-hospital-bills. The initial goal was to raise $15,000, and in just three days, 100 people – including racers and crew chiefs – contributed a total of $13,380.
“Anything anyone can contribute will help immensely, and I, our whole Scott Palmer Racing team, and Clint himself will appreciate it tremendously. Thanks for supporting Clint. We're going to be bummed to not have him at the track for a while, but he needs to get better quick so he can join us out there again,” Fye said.
Ron Capps’s Funny Car team had its medical scare at the race before that. When Capps won the Houston Funny Car final, he said, "We know we're taking this trophy to our crewman and brother Joe Chrisman tonight. Joe had emergency surgery after we got to Houston. He'll be fine, and I'm sure this will make him feel a lot better."
Chrisman, one of the clutch specialists on the NAPA Dodge and a relative of Top Fuel racer Steve Chrisman, is missing his third straight event this weekend.
After arriving at Royal Purple Raceway at Baytown, Texas, fellow crew member Dustin Heim rushed Chrisman to Houston Methodist St. John’s Hospital in nearby Nassau Bay with a burst appendix. He underwent surgery and remained hospitalized until that Tuesday after the race. He’s back at the Don Schumacher Racing shop at Brownsburg, Ind., performing light duties. (Ironically, Heim missed the Epping, N.H., race last June with a herniated disc in his back , and Capps won that event, too.)
Like Chrisman, Frank Plotkowski, clutch man for Shawn Langdon’s Global Electronic Technology Dragster at Kalitta Motorsports, has been ordered by doctors not to lift more than 10 pounds for about six weeks.
He started becoming ill that Friday at Houston and felt worse as the day progressed but dismissed his pain as possible hunger pangs.
“Saturday morning it was hard to get going. I was moving slow,” Plotkowski said. “Then it was really hurting. It felt like I was getting stabbed on the right side.” But he continued to try carrying out his duties, saying, “I can’t just walk away.”
Finally the pain became too much for him, and crew chief Rob Flynn and Team Manager Rachel De Lago urged him to seek medical attention. After a visit with the track doctors, he went to San Jacinto Methodist Hospital at Baytown, where a CAT scan confirmed his appendix was the culprit.
While Plotkowski awaited the doctor’s decision whether to have surgery immediately or the next morning, he watched NHRA’s All-Access on his computer, bummed that he was missing a session for the first time since he joined the tour as a crewman five years ago. When the doctor told him he wanted to head to surgery right away, Plotkowski said, “Can you give me five minutes? My car’s getting ready to run. We’re drag racing at Royal Purple Raceway.”
The doctor complied, but the second that Langdon completed his qualifying pass, Plotkowski was whisked away to the operating room. He said he awoke to the sound of Mario Todd rapping on the recovery-room window and standing there smiling, along with wife Kim. Accompanying JR Todd’s parents was the Kalitta Motorsports hospitality specialist. “That was so nice of them to come and visit,” Plotkowski said.
He returned to the Houston track for race day, “to offer moral support,” he said. That’s where Connie Kalitta, 79, told the 24-year-old Plotkowski, “You’re moving as fast as me now.” Plotksowski’s wild weekend ended with a flight back to Ypsilanti, Mich., aboard the boss’ jet, with Top Fuel racer Doug Kalitta piloting them.
A week ago, Steve Torrence crewman Justin Crosslin lost his mother the day before eliminations at Charlotte. Torrence said, “You spend every weekend with these guys and they become your family. We’re like brothers, and I trust these guys with my life. You form that bond and when anybody is down, you support them. We told him that we would be getting the trophy for him. I’m very fortunate to have my mom [Kay] at all the races. It makes you take a look at what you have and not take anything for granted.”
Crosslin has rejoined the team and is here at Atlanta in the Torrence pit.
PALMER AT THRESHOLD – Scott Palmer is at the threshold of a significant personal Top Fuel milestone. He has been waiting for the right timing, the right conditions, to cross it. And that perfect moment could come this weekend.
“If it’s cool, we’re going to try to run 3.70s [here],” Palmer said. He ran his career-best elapsed time –
3.819 seconds – at Las Vegas. What’s more, he said that for the first time ever he thinks he can do that and more.
“I think we can win if the conditions are right, and that’s the first time I’ve been able to say that since I’ve had a Top Fuel car,” Palmer said. “We have a great car and set a career-best speed last weekend in Charlotte (323.35 mph) and everything looked good. That proves we can push it a little harder. We’ll just keep working on it, but this is probably the most rewarding year we’ve had. Hopefully we can keep making improvements and be at our best by Indy and the Countdown.”
He said, “It’s a controlled reckless right now. You see everybody out there running fast, and you want to go for it. But we have to set our limits so we don’t overdo it right now. We’ve been a little conservative early and it’s probably cost us, but it’s still early. We’re being smart and trying to learn something. It would be hard for things to be going much better right now.”
He is on schedule to race at 24 events for the first time (compared to 19 last season, when his team also ran nine drag boat races with Tommy Thompson Motorsports). And he is in the top 10 in the standings for the first time.
Palmer and Thompson have extended their relationship to 2017, with a twist: Palmer is concentrating solely on drag racing this season.
“With what Tommy has given us, the most challenging part now is our goals are higher,” Palmer said. “We’re running more races so now we want to be in the top 10, and being in the [Countdown] is now a possibility. It’s going to be tough for sure to do that, but we’re moving our goals up. We’re focused solely on the car, and every race we’ve been learning more and more. To be consistent and step up your program, you have to make clean runs.”
With help from the Lagana Racing and Torrence Racing teams and the NHRA Tech Department. Palmer is a victory waiting to happen.
DSR RELYING ON FLETCHER - David Fletcher might not be well-known to drag-racing fans, but he’s a vital part of Don Schumacher Racing’s performance strategy. With much cooler temperatures than the Mello Yello Series encountered at Charlotte last week or Houston the week before and cooler temperatures than in recent years at this track, Antron Brown said Fletcher, the organization’s track specialist, “will be taking a closer look at the track this weekend and letting our crew chiefs know how good it is. You can bet all of the crew chiefs are keeping an eye on that. The potential for some great runs is there, but it all comes down to the track.”
Brown said, “Atlanta is one of my favorite go-to tracks, because it reminds of the old-school tracks that I grew up going to. Winning five [Wallys] would be pretty incredible.” But he knows the facility’s quirky tendencies, too: “It changes so much that it’s always a testament to win there. Sometimes at Atlanta you get four different seasons all in one weekend - cool at night, beginning summer, a summer race, a hot Denver race. That’s what makes it so challenging, yet so rewarding, when you win.
He has done that here twice on a Pro Stock Motorcycle (in 2001 and 2006) and four times in Top Fuel (2008, 2011, 2013, 2015). He’s ranked third, just 68 points behind leader Leah Pritchett.
COOL IS COOL BUT NOT ALWAYS THAT COOL – Clay Millican likes racing in any weather, but the driver of the Parts Plus/Great Clips/UNOH Dragster loves the cool conditions here this weekend. “I like going fast, and this is go-fast weather,” he said. “After the past few races though, I think we’ve proved we can get our dragster down the track in any temperature. We can adapt to changing conditions.” Millican said he applauded the NHRA for pushing the pro qualifying schedule ahead by two hours Friday – although steady rain derailed the plan.
“I think NHRA did the right thing by changing [it]. I’m hearing temperatures are supposed to be in the in the 40s tomorrow night. While us racers like cool weather, these temperatures cross the line and can be dangerous. It causes track conditions that will not do you any favors.”
JOHN FORCE CAN RULE ATLANTA – if John Force can drive his Peak Chevy Camaro to the winners circle this weekend, he can pass the late Pro Stock Motorcycle star Dave Schultz as Atlanta Dragway’s most successful racer. Schultz won here eight times, Force seven. Pro Stock icon and nearby Buford, Ga., resident Warren Johnson, who’s an inactive driver at least at the moment, is a five-time winner here. Top Fuel racers Antron Brown, Larry Dixon, and Doug Kalitta have won here four times each, and Brown won two additional times on a bike.
“They tell me I’ve won the most in Atlanta, but that doesn’t matter,” Force said. “We’re going through a lot this week. The teams will be working hard, and we’ve had team meetings. We tested with two of our teams at Charlotte, and the other two went back to the shop to fix Courtney’s car and work on Brittany’s dragster. It’s going to be tough, but that’s what we’re paid to do – to make it right.
“We turned the corner in Charlotte – but we turned the corner a few races back,” he said. “We’re not where we want to be, but now we’re going to start getting this act together. The guys are on top of it. The aerodynamics are great, and this car is really good. The motor is showing power, but we have to get some more improvements for our motor program. We are right there.”
Force’s most recent Atlanta victory came in 2005 against his own teammate and JFR President, Robert Hight. His previous six victories came within a nine-year stretch, as he went to the finals every year between 1992 and 2000. JFR got another victory in 2008, when Ashley Force [Hood] beat her father and became the first female to win a Funny Car final.
Force is looking for his 149th overall victory, which would and make himself – once again – the oldest driver ever to win in the Funny Car class.
TEST EXCITES PEDREGON – Cruz Pedregon hasn’t won a round this year and has won just two since last summer at Norwalk, Ohio. But the Snap-on Tools Toyota Camry driver isn’t discouraged. Instead, he said he’s encouraged. He has made lots of changes in the past few weeks alone, and he has a new crew chief in Aaron Brooks. So he and everyone on the crew have had to adjust to many changes – and Pedregon said he is moving in the right direction.
He said some promising testing results Monday at zMAX Dragway are “going to pay off for us [here]. I put down a career-best time earlier this week with the changes we made, so we're excited to see what car will do for us. We pushed the Snap-on on Toyota during the Four-Wide and made some adjustments but knew testing would offer up some good information before we took on Atlanta Dragway.”
Pedregon’s official career-best elapsed time is 3.897 seconds, which came two weeks ago at Houston. The Charlotte test produced a 3.886. The Camry clocked a 286-mph speed by half-track on the way to a 1,000-foot showing of 318 mph. (That’s well below Pedregon’s career-best speed 324.98 mph)
"We're really proud of what we got out the testing Monday,” Brooks said, “and we’re confident it's going to be valuable for Atlanta and beyond. The weather is something we're watching closely, since it's supposed to be quite a bit cooler in Georgia. Come out to the track or watch the NHRA race coverage on FOX, because we're expecting big things from Cruz and the car."
TOO FAST AND FURIOUSLY UNCOOPERATIVE? – Courtney Force, driving her back-up to the Advance Auto Parts Camaro that banged and scraped the zMAX Dragway guard wall at Charlotte last week, said she’s hoping to get past the first round here – for just the second time this season.
“We have a car that is flying and really just needing to figure out how to get it fixed up for first round,” Force said. “We keep having this problem where it’s trying to spin down, and I am hoping we can get it solved. I thought we did after Houston. We have a fast car, which isn’t a bad problem to have, but we just have to slow it down enough to get it through these rounds.”
She has qualified No. 1 at three consecutive races, setting track records at all three, but only at Houston was she able to advance to the quarterfinals.
This spare car is the one she tested last year at Indianapolis. The back half of the car has some mileage on it. The primary car is at the shop, getting some TLC, and will be ready for competition again later this year.
“I feel good about it because we have already tested with this chassis and body in Indianapolis a while back, and we know this Camaro is good, as well,” Force said. “The chassis didn’t look like it was in bad shape or anything, but we are going to take it back and just check everything before we try and run a race with it.”
Force was runner-up to JFR teammate Robert Hight in 2014. Her elimination-round record here is 7-5, with three of those losses against her own JFR mates: Hight and her father, seven-time Atlanta winner John Force.
GAYDOSH WANTS REVERSAL OF FORTUNE – John Gaydosh is hoping for a reversal of fortune, for his Pro Stock Camaro and for wife Tina in her struggle with rheumatoid arthritis. Moreover, the Gaydoshes plan to help raise awareness about the condition and funding for groundbreaking research through Johns Hopkins University in the hometown of Baltimore.
Last year John Gaydosh started “Burnout Arthritis” to bring awareness to the disease that affects Tina and more than 50 million adults and 300,000 youth in the United States live with every day.
“It causes pain in your whole body, but for me it’s mostly in my hands and feet,” Tina Gaydosh said. “Some days you have flare-ups, which are miserable. For two days after the Gainesville race, I was confined to my bed in pain.” She was diagnosed in 2009, and the disease is progressive.
Together the Johns Hopkins Arthritis Center and Burnout Arthritis are seeking funding for research into causes, treatment, support, and care for those with rheumatoid arthritis.
Tina Gaydosh said, “This all started with a crew shirt raffle. It didn’t go for too much, but when I gave the check to my doctor at Johns Hopkins, he was ecstatic. That’s when we decided to do something more. John told me he would put the logo all over the car and any place else to help out.”
This season the team will be raffling away a helmet. Fans may stop by Gaydosh’s pit to purchase a $10 ticket for a chance to win. Check online at www.burnoutarthritis.com to learn more about the Burnout Arthritis program or to donate to the Johns Hopkins Arthritis Center, select the “Donate” button.
As for John Gaydosh’s on-track condition, he was lucky the Pro Stock car count at Charlotte was just 16. That allowed him not to lose a spot in the lineup, despite a starting-line fuel leak in the last qualifying session there. “We had an O-ring bust on the fuel rail, and it caused the fuel to spray all over the engine and inside the car, so we had to shut it off,” Gaydosh said. But once he made the grid, his bad luck continued. He was set to race in a first-round quad against Vincent Nobile, Drew Skillman, and Jeg Coughlin. But he fouled out when he rolled through the staging lights and distracted Coughlin, as well, the five-time class champion said.
“I went to go stage, and when I put the line lock on evidentially I moved my hand and didn’t have enough line-lock pressure to hold the car where it needed to be,” Gaydosh said. “I put it up on the chip and the car just started rolling forward, so I was dead in the water. It went through the lights, and when I let the clutch out finally, it was just too late. So I just lifted off of it. It’s one of those things that happen. It didn’t need to happen then and there, but it did.”
He said he’s hoping to make the most of a fresh chance here in Atlanta.
COUGHLIN, ENDERS EAGER TO ERASE zMAX WOES – Jeg Coughlin and Erica Enders, who have seven Pro Stock series championships between them, finished last week’s Charlotte race disappointed and way too early for the Nos. 1 and 2 qualifiers. That was the first time since Coughlin joined Elite Motorsports a year and a half ago that they had led the field together.
"I think there will be no lack of motivation for either of us, especially after the weekend we had in Charlotte," Enders said. "We had the two best cars on the property, but neither one of us put together a race-day performance like we were expecting. So we're focused on looking onward and upward. We'll get our act together a little better this weekend and try to win Atlanta."
Coughlin said, "Credit this Elite Motorsports group. These guys have been working so hard, so many late nights, so many off days, to get my car and Erica’s car back to the top of the class like they were in 2014 and 2015, when she won back-to-back championships.
"They pretty much dominated the sport those two years. We switched brands last year and it didn't work out like we had hoped, so they switched everything back. It's so satisfying to see the cars respond and to feel the energy in the pit. It's really cool.”
He said capturing the 1-2 spots in the starting lineup has “been very encouraging, to say the least. But I know we'd trade these No. 1 qualifiers for race wins any day. That's the next thing on the to-do list, and I don't care if it's me, Erica or [teammate] Vincent Nobile that gets it done. We want all of our cars to do well.
"The Pro Stock class is so close right now. We've had six different winners in the first six races. How's that for parity? Now we need to add a seventh different winner this weekend in Atlanta,” Coughlin said.
Winners so far this season have been Jason Line, Greg Anderson, Shane Gray, Tanner Gray, Bo Butner, and Chris McGaha.
CAN ANYONE BREAK KB TEAM’S HOLD HERE? – The KB / Summit Racing team has dominated the past two Pro Stock eliminations here. (The team, which includes Houston winner Bo Butner, has advanced to the final at each of the first six events this season, as well.) Current series champion Jason Line has defeated current points leader Greg Anderson in the final round in 2015 and 2016 at Atlanta. But Anderson has more victories here than any other active Pro Stock driver, with four in 11 finals.
Anderson worked with Warren and Kurt Johnson for 12 years, and he said, “I have a lot of time at that track, all those years I raced with the Johnsons. Since the years I've been on my own with this race team, I've had a lot of success at that racetrack, too. I always look forward to [this race]. It's a big event, and it's just a great place to race."
Warren Johnson’s five victories mark the most at this facility. Lee Shepherd earned four there before he died in 1985. If Anderson wins this weekend, he would tie Johnson for Atlanta victories and the Pro Stock points lead that he has owned since his triumph in February at Phoenix.
"We've got the equipment to run well, win races, and win the championship – it's just a matter of executing,” Anderson said. “It's going to be a tough, tough season. We've already had six winners, and there are a lot of great cars that haven't won. But we're a team with great cars, too. We have three great cars between myself, Jason Line, and our KB Racing teammate Bo Butner, and we have as good a chance as anybody. We're happy with our guys, our team, our product, and our performance. We were just a tick off last weekend, but we get it right and we'll win again."
Meanwhile, Line – who still has the track speed record from 2014 (213.00 mph) – is seeking his third consecutive victory here and fourth overall.
"Every racetrack is in our wheelhouse, but KB Racing has really had some good races at Atlanta Dragway,” Line said.
“Over the last two races we've had some issues that haven't helped our cause, that's for sure. That's part of the game, though, and part of the mechanical challenge. We just have to work through it,” he said.
"We aren't quite as good as we were last year, and we're certainly doing better than some other teams out there. But we have room for improvement," Line said. "At the same time, Team Summit is a group of really good folks with a lot of experience and dedication. So we know what we can accomplish. We are a capable group, no doubt about it, and that means we go to every race knowing that we can win."
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE
RECORDS UNTOUCHED – Eddie Krawiec’s Pro Stock Motorcycle track records from May 2014 still are intact at 6.794 seconds and 197.54 mph – for now, anyway. Angelle Sampey’s 6.904-second pass at 193.16 mph led the field in Friday’s qualifying session – the only one the weather permitted Friday.
Hector Arana was fastest at 194.13 mph as he took the provisional No. 2 spot.
ARANA PREPARED – Hector Arana Sr. has just the right approach for this event.
He said, "When I think about how to prepare for Atlanta, the first thing I do is check the weather. The weather always plays a role wherever we go, but I'm not sure it changes as much from hour-to-hour and day-to-day as we've seen in Atlanta. Because of that, you have to be prepared for anything. You have to look at past runs you've made in humid conditions, hot conditions, cooler conditions, running on a green track right after rain, all of it. This place is a good test for your abilities as a crew chief."
The 2009 champion won here in 2015. But this weekend, his longtime sponsor (and 9-to-5 job boss) Lucas Oil is the race’s title sponsor. So Arana knows the value of performing well on his Buell V-Twin at his sponsor‘s and boss’ race.
"It's great that Lucas Oil jumped on board a few weeks ago to become the sponsor of this race, because it's always been a stop on the tour that I enjoy," Arana Sr. said. "Any time you have a drag strip where you've done well in the past, it gives you that extra feeling of being relaxed. You have positive thoughts in your head instead of 'Oh no – that's where such-and-such happened.'"
Arana Sr. also raced to the 2010 final here from the top-qualifying position and was runner-up to Andrew Hines. Arana led the Atlanta fields in 2010 and 2012 on his Lucas Oil bike.
The Arana Luas Oil team has another multiple-time Atlanta winner (1997, 2001) and Pro Stock series champion Jim Yates. He’s most familiar to fans in a Pro Stock pit (where he started the season helping Pro Stock racer Kenny Delco at Pomona) but has been helping Arana and son Hector Arana Jr. all season with their bikes.
"Jim's been a big help already, and as he becomes more familiar with the bikes and how we're a little bit different than the cars he drove and tuned in the past, he'll become an even bigger help," Arana Sr. said. "We all work together: me, Jim, my son Hector Jr., we all talk about what we think will work. That'll never change."
TEAM LIBERTY SENSES TURNAROUND AT HOME TRACK – Atlanta Dragway is a special place for Team Liberty. It’s close to the Cory Reed /Angelle Sampey organization’s newly built shop at Cordele, Ga., just south of Atlanta and Macon on I-75 – a town which also happens to be the Watermelon Capital of the World. It’s where Reed made his debut last year as the No. 14 qualifier to kick-start his NHRA rookie-of-the-year season. Sampey is a four-time winner at this racetrack where she trained to be a Pro Stock Motorcycle racer and dreamed of those four championships she would go on to earn.
“I rode an 8.90 bike and we did a Pro Start race,” she recalled of those days more than 20 years ago, before her 214 races, 42 victories and 400 round-wins. “It’s kind of where it all started. I’ve made a lot of runs on the track. It’s our home track for the team. It’s a full-circle thing.”
For Reed, this 20th career event is memorable, he said, “because I qualified for my first Pro Stock race here and my dad was there to be there to see it. The track can be tricky, but I think I’ve been on a roll since the end of last year. Things have been really clicking for our new team, and I’m looking forward to doing well here this year.”
All four of Sampey’s Atlanta victories have come from the top spot (1999, 2000, 2002, 2004), and she has qualified No. 1 here three other times (1997, 2007, 2106).
So maybe this is where she can turn the corner on a season that so far has seen a lot of trouble for her Precision Services Equipment Victory motorcycle. She arrived her after barely making the field a week ago at Charlotte in her final qualifying attempt. She might not be desperate, but she did say, “If we get qualified in the first round of qualifying [here], it’s going to look like I won the race.”
It’s early in the season – this is the third of 16 Pro Stock Motorcycle events. But Sampey is 10th in the standings and Reed is 13th. Sampey’s round-win las weekend is the only one either has so far. But Sampey – who took on the role as team manager and has top-flight tuning help from former racer Chris Rivas and Ken Johnson, longtime crew chief at Star Racing – said she knows they’ll shake the mini-slump.
“We have the power. We just haven’t been getting the runs down the track because of some of the [mechanical] things that are happening,” Sampey said. “When things start working, we’re going to be an unbelievable team. Cory’s going to be great. There’s nothing you can to do upset him, his reaction times are great, and he doesn’t beat himself. Even with some of the struggles, the team’s morale is unbelievably awesome. You couldn’t ask for a better scenario. We have a good thing going.
“It’s a lot of work, and it’s a lot on my plate. But this team is so awesome and easy to work with,” she said. “They’ve put a lot of responsibility on me, and it makes me real proud. It’s humbling and exciting at the same time, and I’m really enjoying it. It’s amazing how smoothly everyone has worked together. But I still have every bit of passion to race and I don’t want to stop.”
COMEDY OR MAYBE CIRQUE DU SOLIEL IN HER FUTURE? – Andrea (“Andie”) Rawlings might want to consider a career in stand-up comedy. Some might say she should join Cirque du Soleil with her sense of balance and theatrics. In her NHRA debut this March at Gainesville, Fla., she earned plenty of attention when her Suzuki darted toward the wall.
The bike zigged while she zagged. And she won everyone’s respect – all while scaring the stuffing out of everyone – by keeping the bike upright and staying on it until she corralled it and brought it to a safe stop . . . .with her leg and half her body flopping off one side like that of a rag doll.
Rawlings showed that she’s 94 pounds but no weakling, this firecracker from Kissimmee, Fla., who competes under the “Fast Andie Racing” banner.
She showed her sense of humor afterward at the Gatornationals, quipping that she was excited not to be doing interviews from the hospital. And Rawlings told Competition Plus she made a move to the NHRA because “the speed inspired me to keep it legal, and I knew this was the only way I could really go fast without going to prison."
Rawlings missed the Charlotte race but is back and ready to give it another go. She was 12th Friday.