2018 NHRA SOUTHERN NATIONALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
PRITCHETT, HER NEW PAL LUCY SHOW GIRL POWER IN TOP FUEL TRIUMPH - Leah Pritchett’s Top Fuel victory over final-round opponent Blake Alexander in Sunday’s Southern Nationals at Atlanta Dragway underscored the NHRA’s “Women of Power” initiative this month – particularly considering she shared the podium with Funny Car winner Courtney Force.
But for Pritchett, the real “girl power” was her bond with a Make-A-Wish guest named Lucy. Together they were Lucy and Ethel. Pritchett turned out to be Wonder Woman for the awed youngster. Or maybe it was the other way around as Pritchett shone for the first time since the 2017 Brainerd race.
“That has been a minute,” Pritchett said with a grin.
In recording her sixth victory and Don Schumacher Racing’s first Top Fuel victory since that same Minnesota event last August, Pritchett forged a bond with her new friend.
“This win, it means a lot – and to have it, to do it, with Lucy here. There’s a young lady, Lucy. Make-A-Wish granted a wish for her. Her one wish was to spend a weekend with us racing, and that’s what she got,” Pritchett said.
Lucy had the run of Pritchett’s DSR pit – going “everywhere, in the pits, with the tow vehicle, with the guys from first thing in the morning ’til the end,” Pritchett said.
That’s outside Pritchett’s routine, for on race days, she usually likes keeping to herself: “On race day, I have a lot of solitude. I don’t touch my phone. I don’t talk to anybody.” But Lucy changed that Sunday, and Pritchett won.
“She’s my sister in there, and we’re going round after round after round and I’m like, ‘Girlfriend, this is a wish, and this is my wish, too, that we can win together,’” the driver of the FireAde Dragster said.
“Actually, you want to talk about attitude – she has carried the attitude for this entire weekend,” Pritchett said. “For her to be upbeat and positive about her condition and be out here in this heat when her condition is about swelling - and I think I’m hot right now. She has to deal with her body swelling to life-threatening situations. For us to win with her in Hotlanta, this one is for her and the Ronnie Thames Foundation.”
Her winning 3.874-second elapsed time at a speed of 322.42 mph on the 1,000-foot course at Commerce, Ga., was automatic, as Alexander disqualified himself with a foul start.
In this showdown between Pritchett and her former Bob Vandergriff Racing team, the two youngest Top Fuel drivers and Jr. Dragster graduates were going for a first Wally statue, her first of the year and his first ever.
After tuning guidance from crew chief Ron Douglas that produced round-wins against Antron Brown, Brittany Force, and Steve Torrence, Alexander launched the Pronto Service Center Dragster for Bob Vandergriff Racing just six-thousandths of a second too early in his first final-round appearance. That was his 28th NHRA start; some of his races have come in the Funny Car category.
Many would say Pritchett and crew chiefs Todd Okuhara and Joe Barlam were stuck in neutral, having a rough patch or a slump.
“Everybody kind of says that, right? They call it a slump, and they call it a drought. I think you’re talking somewhat to the wrong person because I waited 20 years or so, 19, to get my first Top Fuel win. When you have that glimpse of victory and you continue and you chase and you drive and you encourage each other even more, then you gain more victories, and that’s what we have at Schumacher,” Pritchett said.
“So we know that we’re capable and that’s what we live off of. I think [I have] a completely positive mindset, and that’s the culture that our Top Fuel team and Schumacher live within: not letting non-wins for a certain number of races get us down. Don [Schumacher] is there and he’s letting us know. But it’s really that drive, determination, advancement, and the never willing to give up. That’s what this team put on the track.”
She said she really didn’t feel any weight on her slender shoulders.
“When you have seriously that amount of support behind you it’s really not that heavy,” Pritchett said of any burden. “I’ve watched Antron and Tony and other DSR teams carry that weight before and get it done, and I feel like when we say we’re racing one round at a time, that is seriously that mindset - instead of . . . you can believe the exact opposite and put everything on you.”
Pritchett has been a blur all season, racing in other classes and exhibitions and dashing about nearly every racetrack like a flea. But she said he doesn’t look at those responsibilities as liabilities.
“I believe that I’m blessed with so many opportunities, to be a part of so many different industries. I mean, on Friday I get to speak about STEM to students and encourage the 150 careers that the Army offers for what their passion is in life to the science behind making pizzas to high-performance accessories for Mopar to flavored water that’s making girls’ dreams come true,” Pritchett said. “All of those things, you can look at it two ways: It could be a distraction, or an extreme blessing. And I have an opportunity to condition my mind in a way that none of my competitors do. So I take that and look at it with a positive light and think I’m going to give 150 percent across the board at all times. And then that 150 percent I think will turn into what is your status quo of 100. That’s just the way I go about it. We want to be great at everything and with the greatest team (I consider) on Earth, and I’m trying to live up to their standards.
She credited Okuhara and Barlam for navigating the tough, ever-changing elements this weekend.
“I mean, the conditions out there were varying all weekend long, and that’s why my hat’s off to Joe and Todd for continuously finding what was right and wrong and adjusting to it and overcoming what we had in the right lane.”
As for being one of two female winners Sunday, Pritchett said, “I think that’s pretty cool. I would have much rather seen Matt Hagan win for my Mopar guys, Mopar muscle. I’m true to my people, and that Mopar team has supported us very heavily. We’re super-closely aligned. I don’t think it’s the month of the woman, so to speak, or of the year. I think what NHRA has done with the fans have not only absorbed but encouraged and gotten behind is strengthening us, so I don’t think we’re here for a small amount of time. We’ve got a lot of incredible people that believe in us. We just happen to be women doing the things that other guys have been incredibly great at.
“I look at it from a ratio standpoint,” she said. “What is the ratio of women in that particular category? It’s very small. So that is why I consider it a big deal. Not necessarily because we’re women. But say there were two red coins in a sea of black coins, and the two red keep popping up on top. Like, what are the chances of that? Well, there’s something to it. What’s to it are our partners, the people that believe in us. But it starts with believing in yourself. And I know that Courtney and Brittany [Force] and Erica [Pro Stock’s Enders] and the other women believe real hard in themselves. And that is very infectious. Believe in yourself and you get people that believe in themselves, too, and you put it together, and man, on a Sunday you get a Wally.”
Man. And that reminds of Alexander, who was making his 28th start, some of which have come in the Funny Car class.
In the semifinal, Alexander put the brakes on Steve Torrence, who was seeking his fourth victory in seven events. He denied Torrence his second straight and third overall Atlanta victory.
However, as the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series moves to Topeka for the Menard’s Heartland Nationals in two weeks, Torrence stretched his lead over No. 2 Tony Schumacher in the Top Fuel standings from 77 points to 120. It’s the 17th time in 21 races that Torrence has led the dragsters.
“We let that one get away, and I hate that,” Torrence said, “But that’s why we hit the gas. You never know what’s going to happen. We started to spin [the tires], and that gave Blake the opening he needed. I just wish he’d have gone ahead and taken out Leah in the final. Still, we’re leaving with a bigger lead than we had coming in here, and we know we’ve got a bad-ass race car for Topeka.”
Top qualifier Clay Millican lost in the quarterfinals to Mike Salinas. But the Parts Plus/Great Clips Dragster driver came away with low E.T. and top speed of the meet (3.758, 331.12 in qualifying). Susan Wade
COURTNEY FORCE CAPTURES ATLANTA FUNNY CAR VICTORY - Courtney Force capped a superb weekend Sunday at the Southern Nationals.
Force, who qualified No. 1, knocked out the competition culminating with a win over Matt Hagan in the finals at Atlanta Dragway.
Force clocked a 4.046-second elapsed time at 313.73 mph to oust Hagan’s 4.148-second 291.13 lap.
This was Force’s second win of the year in her Advance Auto Parts Chevy Camaro as she also won in Phoenix, Ariz., Feb. 25 from the No. 1 qualifying spot. Sunday, Force beat Jeff Diehl, Tim Wilkerson, Cruz Pedregon and then Hagan.
“We had a great race car all day long and every single guy on our Advance Auto Parts team did a phenomenal job,” Force said. “From getting the No. 1 qualifying spot (Saturday) in our final qualifying run and then to have some consistent runs. We lost lane choice in second round and the semis and we were dropping holes after we were going over a bump down there, we called it our ski jump over in the left lane. We managed to get it fixed up and got it to stop dropping holes and ended up getting lane choice against Hagan. It was a tough match up any time you have to go up against a DSR car, but our Advance Auto Parts boys they got it done and we ended up turning on the win light and it feels good to be back in the winner’s circle.”
This was Force’s 10th nitro Funny Car national event victory, the most by any female in NHRA history and her first at Atlanta. Force is first in the season points – eight points in front of Jack Beckman.
“It is great to be able out here in hot Atlanta and getting a win at the track (Atlanta Dragway) that my sister, Ashley got her first win at (in 2008), I think that’s pretty cool,” Force said. “All day long I thought it would be so cool to get a win here especially because Ashley is here with us. She doesn’t come to a ton of races, so I was real excited that she could be her and celebrate with us in the winner’s circle. Her and Brittany and my husband, Graham (Rahal) and my dad and everybody.”
Courtney acknowledged her team’s 4.038-second lap in the left lane in her semifinal win over Pedregon gave her team a jolt.
“It was definitely a struggle without it spinning or dropping a hole in that left lane,” she said. “But, I have (crew chiefs) Brian Corradi and Dan Hood on my team and it feels good to go up there as a driver with a lot of confidence knowing those guys are tuning the race car and they made it happen. They do a great job working together.” Tracy Renck
NOBILE SCORES PRO STOCK WIN IN ATLANTA - After an agonizing 2017 NHRA Pro Stock season, things are have rebounded nicely for Vincent Nobile so far this season.
Nobile has two national event wins in 2018 – his latest came Sunday at the Southern Nationals near Atlanta.
Nobile clocked a 6.599-second elapsed time at 209.72 mph to defeat Tanner Gray’s 6.614-second lap at 209.52 mph.
“I had the car to beat this weekend, I know we didn’t qualify No. 1, but going back after each run and looking at the computer, we know we could have been the fastest car each session. It just so happened we weren’t during qualifying, but on race day we put it together and we were the fastest car every session, which I thought was pretty big. This track was a little tricky, a lot of adjustment on a Pro Stock car and we finally figured it out come today (Sunday). (Brian) Lump (Self, Nobile’s crew chief) did a great job turning those knobs. We got to keep lane choice. I thought that was pretty big. We wanted to stay in that right lane all day. That was our goal and we did that. All in all, it was a great day.”
Nobile also won the Four-Wide Nationals April 8 in Las Vegas. He now has 12 career wins and moved up to first in the season point standings in his Mountain View Tire Chevy Camaro. Nobile has a 48-point lead over reigning Pro Stock world champion Bo Butner.
Nobile’s victory parade consisted of wins over Alan Prusiensky, Chris McGaha, Greg Anderson and Gray.
Vincent Nobile joined Richard Freeman’s Elite Motorsports team in 2016, finishing fifth in the points, highlighted by a win at Reading, Pa. Last season, Vincent competed in 19 of the 24 races, and placed 10th in the point standings. His best performance was a runner-up effort at Englishtown, N.J.
Vincent sat out the final five races of the season – Reading, Pa., St. Louis, Dallas, Las Vegas and Pomona – when his team owner Nick Mitsos decided to pull the plug.
“Naturally gearing is huge, especially nowadays in Pro Stock because of the Rev limiter,” Nobile said. “Fortunately, this weekend I was the back half guy because our guy Ryan stayed home. Typically, we change the rear gear almost every run because we just can’t seem to get it right, but I guess I got lucky because I only had to change it one when I got here, so that was pretty cool. Gearing is everything. We found a little trick come round two we tried something in the transmission box and it worked out and traveled really well. I don’t know if it will correlate at the next track, being that the track might be a little bit better, but it worked on this track that was a little marginal coming 330.”
Nobile said he wished Nick Mitsos, and his wife, Irene would have been able to celebrate his latest win with him.
“Unfortunately, Nick and Irene are not here this weekend, but I can’t thank them enough for letting me come out here and play because this is play for me,” Nobile said. “They let me come out here and play while they are home watching and cheering us on. It is really awesome to be able to run the whole season. My father (John) and I have a bunch of work back at home, but this is what we love to do so we make it happen. We have the car to beat right now, that’s for sure. If we had to quit and sit home I would have been depressed. I would have just slept the whole day. It is all good and thank you much to the Mitsos family for letting me do this.” Tracy Renck
KRAWIEC OVERCOMES ELEMENTS, POLLACHECK FOR 45TH PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE VICTORY - When Scotty Pollacheck earns his first Pro Stock Motorcycle victory, Eddie Krawiec just might be the first one to congratulate him. He’s still young enough that he can remember the first of his 45 and how it felt finally to be an NHRA winner.
But for now, for Sunday’s action at the Southern Nationals at Commerce, Ga., Krawiec had no mercy. He claimed his second triumph of the three bike-class appearances son far this season.
Krawiec also dismissed Melissa Surber, 2018 race winner L.E. Tonglet, and top qualifier Hector Arana Jr. on the way to his fourth Atlanta Dragway victory. He disappointed six-time runner-up Pollacheck, who traveled from Central Point, Ore., to challenge for his first victory in his first final-round appearance since the 2014 Reading race.
Krawiec’s winning quarter-mile elapsed time aboard the Vance & Hines Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson was 6.922 seconds at 194.91 mph. Pollacheck chased him at 6.958, 193.18 on the Extended Protection Suzuki but lost by approximately eight feet.
Krawiec earned the victory, despite the conditions.
“This track has been very challenging for us this weekend,” he said. “With the different track-prep procedures and all that that’s going on, we have to learn how it changes. And the reason why I say that is well, as more cars run on it, as more prep gets done as the weekend goes on, it gets better and better and better rather than being the best it can be right off the bat.
“But we almost gave it away there in the final. We did, last race, give it away – we think – in the final, when we sort of encountered the same problems with Andrew’s bike. We did the same thing there with mine, because we thought it was going to be good track under it. We underestimated the track. Track ended up being better. It stuck the tire and my bike rattled. Luckily enough it had enough momentum to get through there and go a .92 and get me the win light.
“It’s a challenge but even more so right now dealing with a crosswind. Whenever you’re in a crosswind situation, this track is one of those tracks that has a crown to it, so it wants to pull you left or right depending on which lane you’re in and what you have going on,” Krawiec said. “I really had a better bike than I showed Friday and Saturday, because I was not making the proper chassis adjustments to get the bike down though the track the best it could. After I learned a little bit and made a run . . . You give me enough time to figure it out, I’ll figure it out. I’ll get the right setup.”
Sunday’s victory put Krawiec within three of all-time class leader and teammate Andrew Hines.
But these two racers, who are competitive at everything from tiddlywinks to drag racing, aren’t worried about who wins the victories race, Krawiec said.
“No, he’s the one that tunes my motorcycle. He puts literally the tune-up calls in it for what we’d like to say is our map, you know, for fuel and timing and all that. So he takes a pride when I run fast. He also takes a pride when he runs fast,” Krawiec said. “So we’ve kind of both overcome that as a racer. We focus on our main goal of we want to win, and it doesn’t matter who does it. When we do it, we want to win. I can’t thank him enough for that.
“So it shows you obviously the type of individual he is that when he goes out, the first thing he does is jump on the laptop and get on my motorcycle and starts looking and picking to see how much better he can make it in every little spot,” he said.
“It’s a little more difficult when you’re one person, that’s why it’s really the three of us, it’s Matt [Hines], Andrew, and myself that ultimately make the tune-up calls on these motorcycles, and we try to do our best with three heads. Sometimes three heads aren’t better than one. Sometimes one is better than three. But we’re all looking over each other’s shoulders saying, ‘Why don't you try this’ or ‘Why don't you nit-pick that?’ And we do a good job at that balance,” Krawiec said. “So I think as we continue to learn here, we’re only going to be better.”
Hector Arana Jr. was top qualifier with a 6.806-second, 198.76-mph performance that held up as best of the weekend. His father was the No. 2 qualifier. However, Krawiec said he wasn’t at all concerned to see that Arana Jr. had five-hundredths-of-a-second advantage in qualifying on the next-closest competitor.
“Well, the way I look at it is I’m the guy standing here with the Wally, so it shows you how much concern I had of it,” Krawiec said.
“You’ve got to win races. That’s what has to get it done. You can have the fastest car in qualifying or fastest bike in qualifying all day long, but you’ve got to get it done on race day. He has a fast motorcycle. There’s a lot people that have a fast motorcycle, but I need to stay focused on my camp to make sure I have a fast motorcycle. And the two crew guys being Matt and Andrew both of us all crew chiefing motorcycles and trying to do the best that we can, we need to stay focused. We have fast motorcycles. I don’t know if they’re that fast. I can tell you for sure we wouldn’t have ever run that fast today, especially in a head wind situation. But we’re standing here, got it done, and that’s the way that I look at it is you need to race and you need to race the track conditions that you have. They’re changing every lap, and it’s new to all of us and we’re learning. So I think the more runs we can make, the better off we are going to be.”
Pollacheck advanced to the final past Cory Reed, Hector Arana, and Reed’s Team Liberty mate Angelle Sampey. Susan Wade
ANDERSON CALLS OUT THE PROFESSOR, IT’S KALITTA-CRAMPTON AGAIN, MILLICAN ‘DEFENDS,’ FORCE HOOD CELEBRATES 10TH ANNIVERSARY OF HER HISTORIC FEAT, PEDREGON CRUISES ON
TOP SPORTSMAN COMPETITOR KILLED DURING QUALIFYING AT SOUTHERN NATIONALS
Top Sportsman competitor Randy Alexander was involved in a serious crash Saturday during qualifying at the NHRA Southern Nationals.
The NHRA has released the following statement:
It is with heavy hearts that we report Randy Alexander of Harvest, Ala., passed away at a local hospital after sustaining injuries in an on-track incident at the NHRA Southern Nationals in Commerce, Ga. NHRA and the entire racing community extend their deepest condolences and their prayers to the participant’s family and friends. We also ask that everyone respect the family’s privacy during this difficult time.
BIKER ARANA JR. LONE PRO STOCK RECORD-SETTER – Elapsed-time and speed track records for both the Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle classes have been intact since 2014.
Greg Anderson was quickest and fastest in the Pro Stock class at 6.586 seconds, 210.11 mph. However, he couldn’t touch the March 2014 performances of Erica Enders (6.493 seconds) and Jason Line (213.00 mph). He said he has “been just a tick off on Sundays.” So as he goes for his 90th career victory at Atlanta Dragway Sunday, Anderson will have to advance past No. 16 Val Smeland in the first round.
But Hector Arana Jr. changed the bike-class numbers in the third overall session Saturday morning. His 6.806-second pass lifted him to the top of the order. It fell short of the track-record elapsed time (6.794 seconds) Eddie Krawiec set in 2014. However, he erased Krawiec’s four-year-old speed record of 197.54 mph. Arana Jr. clocked 198.76 mph en route to his first No. 1 qualifying performance since last August at Brainerd, 11 races ago. In the third session, his dad grabbed the No. 2 spot, .044 of a second behind. And that’s where they stayed through the final session. Arana Jr. will race “Flyin’ Ryan” Oehler, the No. 16 qualifier, and his father will meet No. 15 Karen Stoffer.
“I feel confident. We know we have fast motorcycles,” Arana Jr. said after earning his 20th of his career on the Lucas Oil Buell. But said he benefited from testing earlier this week and had to dial in his new set-up correctly. He said in Q4, he experimented to see how aggressive he could be with the racetrack.
In March at Gainesville, Fla., Arana Jr. became the first Pro Stock Motorcycle racer to break the 200-mph barrier.
He told Cycle Drag writer Jack Korpela, “What’s really awesome is [going 200 mph] was something that we’ve been working towards for many years. Then when it happened, it was something that was out of the blue. The run before we went 196, so when we went 200 it was a total surprise. That just added to the excitement. We’ve had great feedback and response from fans, and it feels good to have people coming up and congratulating you. It’s definitely a good feeling, and it keeps your confidence up.”
“Now’s the time where we have to start doing well and start figuring things out,” Arana Jr. said. “We have fast bikes, but the goal is consistency to make a fast pass every time. Dad learned a lot in testing, and hopefully we’ll be able to apply that going forward and capitalize.”
MILLICAN, FORCE LEAD NITRO FIELDS – Also qualifying No. 1 were Clay Millican (Top Fuel), who held onto his Friday lead of 3.758 seconds at 331.12 mph, and Courtney Force (Funny Car), who captured the honor on her final pass Saturday at 3,932, 324.51.
Millican held off a hard-charging Brittany Force, who will start No. 2, a mere two-thousandths of a second slower than Millican.
“I said last night I thought it would stay. But typical Atlanta, the weather changed. Brittany [Force] was knocking on the door of taking that No. 1 spot away,” Millican said. “We made a decision. Grubby [crew chief Dave Grubnic] has final decision, but as a group, we got together. He said, ‘I feel like we need to defend.’ That’s what he called it: ‘We need to defend.’ And so we were pushing. He wasn’t pushing to do [3.]75 again. He was pushing to go quicker than that. It got very close to making it. She made a great run, [3.]760. She was just right there. But we held in there and got the green hat.”
After escaping the efforst of Brittany Force, Millican will line up against another determined female in the opening round. He’ll race Audrey Worm.
Courtney Force registered her second straight No. 1 start here, and also for th second straight time in the Southern Nationals, she’ll meet Jeff Diehl in the first round of runoffs.
“To be honest, I wasn’t sure if we were going to be able to improve from yesterday. We had great track conditions [Friday]. It was cooled off a lot. Then coming out today we had some cloud cover and laid down some numbers,” she said.
The Funny Car field, like the Top Fuel grid, barely is full. Each has 16 racers this weekend. So does the Pro Stock class. The Pro Stock Motorcycle class is the only one in the pro ranks that had overflow numbers. Missing the cut Saturday were Jim Underdahl, Kelly Clontz, Mark Paquette, and Andie Rawlings.
10TH ANNIVERSARY – Courtney Force said she’s hoping to celebrate in the winners circle Sunday with Funny Car forerunner sister Ashley Force Hood (wife of her co-crew chief Dan Hood). Force Hood defeated her father, John Force, in the 2008 Southern Nationals final to become the first female winner of a Funny Car event.
The four-time Funny Car winner is here this weekend to mark the 10th anniversary of her historic feat.
She said, “Winning Atlanta in 2008 was a huge deal for me personally, for many different reasons. It was my first win as a Funny Car driver, and I was the first female to win in that category – which was special. But it also followed a very difficult 2007 season, losing our teammate Eric [Medlen] and my dad’s crash. To have a really happy moment at the track with my team, that is what made that day most special. And to get to compete against my father in the final round was really exciting. There wasn’t the nervousness or pressure that usually comes with a final round, because JFR had already won the race. I remember being in the lanes with his team and mine, joking with each other, and it was just a really great night.”
Not all of the experience was rosy. She described her mindset by the time they finally staged following a brief rain delay.
“One unique memory about the win that not many people know is that I actually got really upset with my father on the starting line before the final,” Force Hood said. “We had done our burnouts, and then it started to sprinkle and they shut us off. At the time we all had radios between teams and dad was freaking out on the radio about the safety of the track and if it was dry downtrack. Meanwhile, I was trying to stay focused in my car. Looking back, I know yelling over the radio and talking nonstop was his way of keeping his energy up during the delay. But this was really distracting to me. I even remember wondering if he was trying to mess with me. I finally ripped the earplugs right out of my helmet. So I was actually really amped up and irritated by the time we started our cars and made the final run.”
PEDREGON STILL SHINING – Cruz Pedregon is keeping his momentum going from his Charlotte victory. He was the provisional No. 1 qualifier Friday after the first session with a 4.118-second elapsed time, saw only Robert Hight pass him in the order in the night session, and improved Saturday morning to 3.969. Through three sessions, he was third behind Tommy Johnson Jr. by a mere thousandth of a second. He settled into fourth place and will line up in Round 1 against veteran John Smith, the No. 13 starter.
Pedregon said, "When I signed with Snap-on in 2010, I had a team where everyone had left me, all the crew and the crew chief. I had nothing until Snap-on came on board and sponsored me. Within a year, we were winning races,” he said. “We really had something going on then. I was tuning the car, but really, my plate was full. But by 2014, we started to win fewer races and by 2015, we just hit the wall. There was some technology going on in Funny Car that we weren't privy to and we fell behind as a team. So we had to regroup as a team. I went and hired Aaron [Brooks], who was crew chief of the [freshly disbanded] Lucas Oil team, who was hungry and very dedicated.
“I needed to bring in someone like Aaron who could take over my team and run it the way it needed to be run. There was just too much to do for one guy. I was driving and I was tuning and just fell off the pace. So I had to bring in some new people and, thankfully, this year, we were joined by Glen Huszar, who has a lot of years with DSR and Kalitta, as the assistant crew chief on the car. So it's been a one-two punch. Aaron's been a great asset. Last year was frustrating because he had his ideas and I had mine, but we kept our heads down. Aaron weathered the storm of my ranting and craziness and today we had a car that just won a race. It just goes to show if you stick with good people that they'll make you look good."
Pedregon said that before his Charlotte triumph his “performance has really been a lot better than we've shown. The pressure that I've been feeling is that even though the car is on the upward swing, it's been more consistent and we're qualifying in the top half every week, but we still didn't have anything to show for it.”
He has plenty now.
FUNK BE GONE – Shawn Langdon came to Atlanta looking to get rid of some glitches in his Kalitta Motorsports-owned Global Electronic Technology Toyota Camry Funny Car – that or just some bad juju. “We have bad luck right now,” Langdon said. “We have had a bad string of bad luck, but that is part of the learning process.We will do the best we can to get the gremlins out of the race car and turn this around." At Charlotte, the car’s throttle cable broke on the launch, spoiling his high hopes. “We felt good about [that run, that race]. We had some changes in the car that we felt was going to turn it around, so we could be able to compete for the win. It is part of drag racing. You have to take the good with the bad. We know we have a great team. We just have to get out of this funk.
“We are just going to keep doing what we have been doing. We are consistently learning, and I am beginning to feel more at home inside a Funny Car with this consistent seat time. Everything is new: me driving the car and the guys working with me. We have nothing to hang our heads about. We have a great group behind the Global Electronic Technology Camry. We know the areas to address, so I am excited hopefully to get the car back to what we had earlier this year.”
Langdon never won at Atlanta in Top Fuel but was No. 1 qualifier in 2013.
RACERS FORGE ON AT SOUTHERN NATIONALS DESPITE SWIPED EQUIPMENT, TRACK-PREP CONCERNS, WHILE ATLANTA DRAGWAY EVOKES RANGE OF MEMORIES, OFFERS CHANCES FOR MORE HISTORY
It has been a tough week for some NHRA racers as the NHRA Southern Nationals opened Friday at Atlanta Dragway with the first of two qualifying days. Two racers had their equipment swiped by persons known and unknown. One prominent Funny Car driver took to Twitter to vent about track prep. Tony Schumacher once again had to find a new way to answer the too-old question “Why haven’t you won at Atlanta?” Has Steve Torrence gone P.C. on everybody? Will Richie Crampton manage to draw another first-round opponent besides Doug Kalitta? Karen Stoffer is the smart one – she’s going to Hawaii.
MOVING FORWARD – In the aftermath of former racing partner Joe Riccardi’s sudden and secret exit in the middle of the night last weekend from Charlotte’s zMAX Dragway, Pro Stock Motorcycle’s Matt Smith said Friday he’s starting to recoup his losses.
“I haven’t talked to him myself, but [wife] Angie has talked to him,” Matt Smith said about Riccardi. “He’s texted me a couple things. He laughed about the Competition Plus article. He laughed about it. He said, ‘That’s a good fictional story.’”
He was referring to Lee Montgomery’s article that Competition Plus posted this past Tuesday.
Riccardi responded to Montgomery’s phone call to his business office this past Monday and was quoted in the article as saying, "Basically, my response is San Marino Excavating, we made a business decision to halt the program. There's no personal hard feelings, no ill will. I wish Matt and Angie the best of luck, and that's it. That's our official response. There's a contract put in place, and we will follow the contract. We will follow the contract to the 'T.' We've spent a lot of money on the program since the end of last year, and we just didn't feel like it was a good business decision and we just ended the program. That's all there is to it. Any odds and ends, there's a contract in place for a reason. That's all. Matt got his ignition box back that he claimed he needed to run his Victory, and we'll wish them the best of luck."
Matt Smith said, “We did get Angie’s tire back here, her wheel and tire back. We exchanged his wheel and tire. But the real sh---y thing he did before that is he branded her tire . . . which is totally stupid. He got a hot iron and put his logo in her tire, on the side of her tire. So if that doesn’t speak volumes of what kind of person this guy is, I don’t know what is. Anyway, we’ll try and get through it.
“Hopefully he’s going to come to his senses. Got a lot of people talking to him about paying me the money he owes me for the bike, the parts and pieces on it that’s mine, and walk away and be done with him. I don’t know. If he comes back out here, he’s made a lot of enemies. I can count five people right now, five different teams that he’s got,” Smith said. “But anyway, he’s not welcome out here by a lot of people. So maybe he’ll go play in snowmobiles again and go back up there and do that. We’re a family out here, and hopefully enough people talk to him that he’ll come to his senses and give me what’s mine, and we’ll be done with him and we’ll get on to racing.”
He said his desire is that Riccardi then would “leave us alone.”
The incident could work out in Smith’s favor. He said, “I’ve had two or three sponsors contact me over this incident, willing to help out. We’ve got two new little sponsors that told me that they’ll step up and help me out with this because of what he’s done. So hopefully we’ll get a big one to go on the back of the bike so we can continue this year.
I guess we’ll move forward.”
At least Smith knew who took his belongings. Top Fuel rookie Audrey Worm doesn’t have that luxury. Her trailer was robbed near Knoxville, Tenn., as her small-budgeted Leverich Racing team traveled here. As of Friday afternoon, she and husband/crew chief Aaron Grant hadn’t heard any updates from the police.
“We have a case number, so I guess we can just keep checking on it with the case number. I hope they find something, but I don’t know,” Worm said. “We said it’s the dumbest stuff to steal, because it’s not like you can run it on the street. Everyone said it will end up showing up, because someone will try to sell it to somebody that we know, and one of these big teams will say, ‘Well, yeah, that’s Audrey’s parts.’ Both the heads have serial numbers, and the pit bike has a serial number, and the supercharger has a serial number.”
Both Worm and Grant said if the stolen items reappeared, they might or might not be useable. “They would probably be fine. We would just have to look them over and see what we can run and what we can’t run. All the racks that they took had brand-new stuff in them, and the supercharger was a really good, newer supercharger.”
Worm said at first she hesitated to post news of the theft onto her Facebook page, “but I said it doesn’t hurt to get more eyes out there. The last I checked [Friday morning], 291 people shared it to get it out there nationally. So, I mean, we’ve got to come up with something with that many eyes and fans that are out there trying to help us find our stuff.”
She has had plenty of offers for help since she arrived here.
“Terry McMillen said, ‘Come over with anything [you] need.’ Tim Wilkerson gave us a whole bunch of pins and buttons to build our racks. [Jack] Beckman’s guys just dropped off three impact guns to use for the weekend, because our impact guns got stolen.”
“We got here around 1:30 and just kind of looked through the trailer to see what we had and what we didn’t have. We had some parts coming to get shipped in that we could use,” Worm said. “But my husband builds all the racks and stuff and he’s like, ‘They took all my good parts, and now we have bent pistons and all the pistons we scuffed last weekend in Charlotte.’ So he was worried about putting racks together.”
She said that so far, the team is recovering “pretty good,” especially after “working hard on it all last night. They [crew] left here at 3:30 in the morning [Friday], came back to the hotel around 4 o’clock. So they’re on minimal sleep, but we’re out here to win rounds, so we got to do what we got to do.”
Worm wasn’t ready to make a pass in the opening qualifying session. She made her first pass of the weekend in the cooler night session and experienced a flash-bang about halfway down the 1,000-foot course. She was 15th in the provisional order Friday with two more qualifying sessions remining Saturday.
It’s a huge disappointment for the racer who plans to be a candidate for the Auto Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award that honors the NHRA pro ranks’ top rookie driver. She advanced in her first-round quartet at Charlotte last Sunday and had hoped to build on that success.
“Oh yeah, I was ecstatic last weekend. I was jumping up and down, and I was getting all emotional,” Worm said. “I couldn’t believe just the help that we got from Antron’s guys and Beckman’s guys and Tasca’s guys. I was sitting in the car ready to warm up, and I just started crying.” She said the crew suddenly became worried. “They all thought something happened,” Worm said. “I’m like, ‘No, I’m happy-crying’. I said, ‘All these guys don’t have to come over and do this for me.’ I felt so honored that they would come over and help us get back out there for Round 2.”
Worm and Leverich Racing are planning to enter nine more events this year.
“I told all the guys, ‘Now we just got to get ourselves on TV, winning [a] round, and then I can say on TV, ‘Hey, everyone that took my stuff, we kind of need that back.’”
HAGAN TWEET TRIGGERS TRACK-PREP DISCUSSION – Two-time Funny Car champion Matt Hagan shared his opinion about the NHRA’s new track-preparation formula that started three races ago, at Houston, and its effects this past week. He said it, and he’s done talking about it.
“I said what I had to say. I just thought it needed to be addressed,” the driver of the Mopar Express Lane Dodge Charger said Friday afternoon.
Hagan spoke his mind immediately following Sunday’s NGK Spark Plugs NHRA Four-Wide Nationals at Charlotte’s zMAX Dragway.
“Obviously, NHRA needs to address the track-prep situation. There’s a lot less grip out there, and that’s why everyone’s smoking the tires and blowing up,” said. “Hopefully, they can get this situation figured out.”
But by Wednesday, Hagan still was perturbed. That’s when he wrote in a Twitter post, “I’ll say it cause no one else will say it. @NHRA should be embarrassed for the show that we put on in charlotte. I’m very sorry to all our fans that paid to see that. @NHRA has changed track prep up to slow the cars down and end result is tire smoke, explosions and a poor show!!”
Hagan wasn’t the only racer who grumbled about the NHRA’s new track-prep results, nor was he the only one whose car blew up last Sunday during eliminations. More than halfway down the 1,000-foot course, running in a four-wide setting, his tires lost traction. He pedaled the car, and the engine exploded with a fiery boom, shredding off half the body and flinging shrapnel in every direction.
Naturally, the NHRA’s decision to change its nitro-class track preparation seemed logical to some, distasteful to others, and a moot point to those who shrugged and simply figured they would need to learn to adapt.
What the NHRA did was change the compound-to-alcohol ratio, from 75 percent compound and 25 percent alcohol to 65 percent compound and 35 percent alcohol.
JR Todd, who came close to earning his third consecutive Funny Car victory at Charlotte, alluded to the problem in his post-race interview.
“We had a DHL Camry capable of winning the whole race. We just didn’t do the best job of negotiating the track conditions. We ran well in the first round, but still had to back it way down from what we were set up to run. We were dealing with marginal track conditions in the second round, and we clearly didn’t back it down enough like the two winners in our quad. We went out there and spun the tires. It’s frustrating, because we know this facility is good,” Todd said. “Looking back on it, we probably would have done some things different. It’s just a product of what we’re dealing with in track prep now. We’ve got to figure out how to race on it.”
Jack Beckman, the 2012 Funny Car champion, acknowledged the problem last Sunday: "With the new style of track prep, the last two races have been very difficult for the nitro crew chiefs to adjust to, and it’s made it pretty interesting as a driver.”
The Infinite Hero Dodge Charger driver elaborated Friday before qualifying began for the Southern Nationals.
He said, “I appreciate and respect that [Hagan] did that.” Then he tried to analyze the situation from both sides.
“Listen, this is not somebody rolling the dice and deciding what to do. There was a lot of due consideration going into this. I know a lot of the team owners would like them to cut down on track prep simply because then we won’t be able to accelerate the cars as hard, and it won’t be as hard on parts. That makes sense. I know that for Goodyear, there’s a concern over the escalating speeds of the cars and unless you want to do a major rules change, track prep is a potential thing that could slow the cars down. We have to balance that with putting on a great show,” Beckman said.
“Chicago Friday night, a track with a ton of grip, cutting down to 65 percent would probably be the exact thing to do. Now, maybe a Funny Car can’t run the national record, but it can still run a 3.82. Norwalk, 142 degrees, you probably want to prep that to its optimal level of traction. Nobody’s going to tear a tire apart, nobody’s going to run 340 miles an hour there. We just want to put on a good show for the fans,” he said. “So it’s finding that happy medium there, and I think that we realize that Charlotte was probably a step too far.”
Beckman asked, “There’s a couple of things that you can do, but how much is that going to cost each team? How much is that going to cost Tim Wilkerson? How much is that going to cost Terry Haddock? You know, we can’t lose these independent teams out there. So any rules change is going to always have unintended consequences. And if it’s a change to the teams, it’s going to have a cost tied to it, as well. So I just think it’s not an easy call to make, balancing between a great show for the fans and keeping these things within the parameters that the other manufacturers don’t get too concerned about.”
Top Fuel ace Antron Brown put a positive spin to it ultimately, but his explanation for his own engine concussion at Charlotte seemed to back up Hagan’s accusations.
“We were out there pushing.” Brown said. “We expected the track conditions to be good as the track was cooler. We figured a .72 [3.72-second elapsed time] would be good enough to get the job done. To our surprise, we didn’t even make it to the 330-foot mark when we started to smoke the tires. I did a quick pedal, and the track didn’t have the traction we expected. I immediately let off. The tires kept spinning. It backfired and blew up.
“It was just one of those deals that you have to get used to the way the track is prepped now. We know the track prep is less, and now we know the track is not as good as it used to be. Everybody knows it. Now everybody has to get prepared for it,” Brown said. “You could see all these other teams having the same problems. The number one, two and three qualifiers were gone (after Round 1). The toughest part is we’re pushing hard and wanting to run well. We’ll just suck it up and try to get better with it. This racing is a challenge and if it was easy, then everybody would be doing it. We all have to adapt to it. We just need to keep pushing forward.”
DAZZLING NUMBERS DOWNPLAYED – Steve Torrence has recorded some exceptional statistics in the Capco Contractors Dragster – besides winning the Top Fuel trophy at three of the year’s six completed raceS and owning the points lead. He has won 12 of the past 32 races, dating back to last season, and led the standings after 15 of the past 21 events. His No. 9 start two weeks ago at Houston marked the first time in a Top Fuel-best 59 races that he hadn’t begun eliminations from the top half of the order. Moreover, Torrence during the past 21 races has earned as many Top Fuel trophies as the drivers from Don Schumacher Racing, John Force Racing, and Kalitta Motorsports combined. As statistician/PR rep Dave Densmore noted, that’s nine for Torrence and nine total for DSR, JFR, and Kalitta Motorsports.
But he hasn’t had that swagger everyone saw almost all last year. He doesn’t talk like the dominator he actually has been so far. He hasn’t really tried to dial back or become subdued.
“Ah, season’s far from over. We’re only 25 percent done, so I mean I’ve still got time to revert to my old ways,” Torrence said, returning to Atlanta Dragway as the reigning event champion. “I just really haven’t had too much to say. You know, I don’t think a lot of people took us as serious as they should have last year. I probably had a different attitude that I had a chip on my shoulder and I’m out here to prove a point and you know, kind of stand my ground. And I think that not only did we prove our point as a team, but we stood our ground pretty damn strong. I mean it didn’t finish the way that we wanted it to, but we did win twice as many races as anybody.
“You know, I don’t think this year I have to [strut]. I don’t think I have as much of a point to prove. I think we pretty much proved it last year. Those gold men, they speak for themselves. And when you have more of them than anybody for the season or whatever, whether you got the big gold one at the end of the year or not, I mean it’s all… I don’t want to put the wrong words out there, but we outran everybody pretty much every time we raced them last year,” he said. “We just had a little bit of hard luck in the Countdown. So we’re going to try to do the same thing this year and do as good or better than we did last year.”
So Torrence still is candid. He just, well, hasn’t been baited.
“I say what I think. I say and do what I think. I’m just going to let our actions and our race car do the talking until I need to say something,” Torrence said. “I have the same confidence and the same drive and ambition that I had at any time last year, probably more than ever. We have a lot to prove. And you know, right now we’re going to let the race car do the talking. Last year, there was some things that kind of spurred me into making some of the comments and things that I said and did. This year, nothing’s happened. I’ve not been provoked.
“I’m happy, I’m having a great time. The race team has been successful, Capco is doing really well right now, we’re super busy. Everything’s going good,” he said, “and nobody has made any snide comments or remarks or tried to stir the pot, and I like it that way. I’m not going to stir the pot – but if you do, I’ll definitely help.”
He said the car still needs some tweaking: “We’re still working on it, and that’s what I said at Charlotte. We’re still fine tuning this thing to get it to where we want it to be. I don’t think it’s there yet. I think we’re real close to having everything back like we want it, but it’s just not there yet. We’re just biding our time trying to work on this thing and get it going. We can go back to like we were last year but we’re trying to get better.”
Despite his more modest talk at the moment, Torrence hasn’t become too shy. He said he and his Richard Hogan-led band of brothers “is a family. We argue and fight, but when it comes down to it, it’s all for one and one for all. They’re my brothers. We work hard. We play hard. And we’re all committed to the same goal. And that’s not just winning the championship. It’s crushing these guys every week.”
KALITTA SHINES HERE – Doug Kalitta has three Wally trophies from Atlanta. In 2005, he beat final-round opponent David Baca, and in 2006, he won against Melanie Troxel, who still has the record for starting that season with five consecutive final-round appearances. His most recent victory – his 40th overall – came in 2016, at the expense of Kalitta Motorsports teammate JR Todd, by 0.0000 seconds. That was the closest Top Fuel final run in class history. (Pro Stocker Mike Edwards was the only other NHRA racer to enjoy that margin of victory, when he defeated Allen Johnson in 2012 at Bristol.) Kalitta has advanced to the final here also in 2014 (against Spencer Massey) and 1999 (against Gary Scelzi). Twice in the previous four visits here (2014, 2016) he has led the field into eliminations.
“I have some great memories at Atlanta Dragway,” Kalitta said, “and coming off our performance in Charlotte, I am excited for this weekend. My Mac Tools machine has performed strong, and the guys are working hard. I know we will have a shot at the win this weekend.”
He’s going for his 50th No. 1 qualifying position this weekend.
DRIVE FOR FIVE – Atlanta Dragway has plenty of historical milestones across all the pro classes, and this year’s Top Fuel eliminations could produce another one. Antron Brown will try to become the most successful racer in the class at this Northeast Georgia facility. Brown is tied with inactive racer Larry Dixon at four victories. A victory – to go with his 2008, 2011, 2013, and 2015 – also would put Brown in the company of Tony Schumacher, Dixon, and retired legend Joe Amato as the fourth driver in Top Fuel history to earn 50 overall.
EARNEST ALEXANDER FINDS HOME AT BVR – When Blake Alexander burst onto the NHRA professional scene in 2011, he was an exuberant college kid with a mop of boy-band hair, a huge and winning smile, and a relentless marketing plan to acquire racing partners for a lasting Funny Car or Top Fuel career.
Today his hair is shorter, his countenance more serious, and he’s a married man working both his marketing services company and the two-year-old concrete company he and one of his high-school friends started in 2016.
“We do artisan concrete, so it’s not necessarily pouring it outside on the streets,” he said, “but doing outdoor kitchens, indoor different countertops and sinks, mantles, fireplace surrounds. Basically anything that anyone wants us to make, wall panels, we’re installing those this weekend in an office.
He said it was hard emotionally to see drag racing going on without him while he has sat on the sidelines.
“I just work hard at [his businesses] and try to put my head down and just focus on other stuff. It does, I guess, kind of bother me when I’m there on Sunday and want to compete,” Alexander said. “But everyone’s dealt a hand of cards and I’m trying to play my hand of cards the best I can.”
Alexander still is the earnest entrepreneur. And this season he’s paired with Bob Vandergriff, a team owner who appreciates, like Alexander does, the unflagging work it takes to cultivate sponsors.
He said he is enjoying “working with Bob, working with all his guys, and putting together a program for my sponsor, Pronto Auto Service Centers. Just coming out here where they have customers and activation with NHRA.” He said he’s dialed in on “trying to do our best on Sunday and having a good time with the customers in between.”
He and Vandergriff, who’s from nearby Alpharetta, Ga., seemed to find each other because they have the same drive.
“I would say we think alike,” Alexander said. “We kind of understand how to get out here. Our starting stories are kind of similar, where we had to earn our way into the sport by getting sponsorship and doing that. His was a little while ago, but it’s still kind of the same story with me nowadays. It’s just the sport’s grown a little bit and changed a little bit. But we definitely think alike, and he has a great group of people. I like working with Ron Douglas, the crew chief. We’ve gotten along really well, and just like I said, [I’m] trying to do our best for our sponsors and all the people that help us to get out here and do this.”
He laughed at the notion he’s so much more serious.
“I don’t want to let these guys down,” Alexander said.
Plans call for Alexander to race at “about 10” more events this season, “basically one a month. The next two are Chicago and Norwalk and then run more later in the year.”
DYNAMICS SHIFT – Don Schumacher Racing has 69 double-nitro victories – victories in both the Top Fuel and Funny Car classes in the same weekend. But it hasn’t had any this year and none in 23 races, not since the Topeka race last May. (Antron Brown won that one in the Matco Tools/U.S. Army/Toyota Dragster, and Ron Capps won in the NAPA Dodge Charger Funny Car.) That’s a 26-race drought for the seven-car megateam that at times has seemed unstoppable. And this season, DSR has blanked in Top Fuel in six races so far.
Only Matt Hagan at Pomona and his Funny Car colleague Jack Beckman at Gainesville have scored any victories for DSR all year. So the organization is 2-for- 12 in nitro-victory chances.
And most recent Funny Car winner Cruz Pedregon underscored the point. He said, “We've had five different Funny Car winners in six races this season. That's a great accomplishment. I saw JR Todd [last Sunday] morning at driver intros and congratulated him for winning the last two races. They're a fellow Toyota team in the DHL car. It shows that the DSR and John Force cars don't have all the answers. We can stick our nose in there and mix things up with them.”
The reason for the shift toward parity is somewhere among a long list of related and unrelated factors. Among those is the improved performance of many smaller-budgeted teams. For example, Scott Palmer (February at Phoenix) and Shawn Reed (March at Gainesville) reached their first final rounds. Terry McMillen has morphed from Top Fuel underdog to threat at each race, especially since winning his first NHRA trophy last fall at Las Vegas. The Amalie Oil Dragster driver was runner-up at Houston and in the final four-wide quartet at Charlotte the following week. (The trend also has hit the Pro Stock class, one in which DSR has not participated in many years. In Pro Stock, Matt Hartford was the season’s first first-time winner, in April at Houston, one race after Deric Kramer had advanced at Las Vegas to his first final-round appearance. That class has had six different winners.)
Clay Millican, last year’s Bristol Top Fuel winner, has set low elapsed time at three of the first six races of 2018 and turned in top speed at the Gatornationals. And he has been top qualifier twice. So he’s cutting into some of that DSR dominance. Steve Torrence continues to defy conventional wisdom that an independent team can’t compete evenly with the bigger and bigger-budgeted teams. Torrence has swept the four-wide events this year and won also at Phoenix. Moreover, Kalitta Motorsports has won one-third of the Top Fuel races (Doug Kalitta at Pomona, Richie Crampton at Gainesville) and one-third of the Funny Car finals (behind JR Todd’s triumphs at Las Vegas and Houston).
But not all has been futile for DSR’s efforts, by any means. Tony Schumacher was runner-up at Pomona and Las Vegas, Leah Pritchett led the Houston field, and Brown left Charlotte with top speed of the meet. In February at Phoenix, Schumacher set the national speed record at 336.57 mph.
‘DO I HAVE TO ANSWER THAT AGAIN?’ – It has become an annual ritual, remarking about the fact Tony Schumacher has won at every racetrack on the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series tour except Atlanta Dragway and then asking the U.S. Army Dragster driver to explain the unexplainable.
He has learned to address the never-ending question with humor. His wise-cracking comment this year is this: “The problem with Atlanta is that track’s too long. I was winning there many times and the other guy passed me.”
Then he spoke more seriously: “This race is in the home area for our sponsor, Coca-Cola. It’s an important event, because a number of their executives come out and see what our racing is all about firsthand.”
As for his own team, Schumacher said, “We seem to specialize in the absolute must-win events. And for my entire career, there haven’t been many must-wins in May. But, this year, it’s a little different. We are in need of win in a major way. It’s been over a year now, something like 26 races since we won the 2017 Gatornationals. That’s far too long for this U.S. Army team. We’ve had some chances to win since last year, but we haven’t sealed the deal. [It’s] similar to Atlanta over the years, where we’ve had some great opportunities to win. I’ve made it to a lot of finals [five] in Atlanta. We have to figure out how to finish the mission. It’s time. I can tell you this: with this new energy surrounding this U.S. Army team, I go into every race thinking I’m going to win it. That’s just the way it is. [Crew chief] Mike Neff has brought something out of every one of the guys working on my car. And he’s inspired me to be better. It’s a good-attitude team.”
Schumacher lost his grip on the lead he shared with Steve Torrence and entered this weekend in second place, 77 points off the pace.
GEORGIA ON MY MIND – Antron Brown has won this event six times – four in the Top Fuel class (2008, 2011, 2013, 2015) and twice on a Pro Stock Motorcycle (2001, 2006).
“Atlanta has always been a great racetrack for us. It has an old-school racetrack feel to it. Being from New Jersey, I’ve always loved racing on the East Coast. It gives me that feeling of how I grew up around dragstrips,” he said. “I won my second Top Fuel race there during my first year. That was incredible. I remember that we beat Tony Schumacher in the final on a holeshot. When we went out there and won that race, it was a statement that we were here to compete and win. It gave us an air of legitimacy. We’ve come a long way since then, but man, we could really use another magical weekend like that. That would only build the Atlanta aura for us.”
With first-round losses at the past two races after three semifinal finishes, Brown and his Matco Tools/U.S. Army/Toyota Dragster team are looking to regroup.
“We just want to start doing what we know how to do,” Brown said. “The toughest part is we’re pushing hard and wanting to run well. We’ll just suck it up and try to get better with it. Every time we feel like we start making some headway, we get pushed back. I can tell you this Matco Tools/U.S. Army team is a team with a lot of persistence. And that’s the only way you get through the resistance that we are going through right now. It’s just a matter of time. We are going to keep plugging and pushing forward. Atlanta has been a great place for us in the past.”
HOW WILL SHE START NEXT-100 ERA? – Leah Pritchett has a long memory, and she said she’d like to avenge her 2015 Atlanta final-round loss to DSR mate Antron Brown. “It’s the first place where I made it to the final round and ultimately got beat by Antron. We’d like to get another crack at him in the final,” she said. But this weekend, she opens a special new chapter in her pro career. “Last weekend was my 100th career professional start, and this week we are starting our second 100 at Atlanta, where I made my first start for DSR back in 2016.”
This weekend ends a string of three straight races, during which Pritchett has seen the highs and lows from the cockpit of the Papa John’s Pizza/U.S. Army Dragster. “It’s certainly had a little bit of everything, from grabbing that No. 1 spot in our last qualifying session in Houston to not making it out of the first round in Charlotte,” she said.
And she said she’s ready for what Atlanta Dragway will pitch at her. “It’s a track with some unique characteristics that we are prepared for,” Pritchett said. “We learned some things in Houston that got us to No. 1 in qualifying. They call it ‘Hot-Lanta’ for a reason, but I’m most excited that we get to run under the lights Friday night. It’s a process, and I feel like we are getting closer with each pass. We want to end this three-race swing on a high note, and I really feel like we’re in the right position to do that.”
‘ROCKET SHIP OR DUD’ – Clay Millican loves his Top Fuel dragster, loves crew chief Dave Grubnic, loves his Stringer Performance team . . . just loves drag racing. But he’s honest, too, and he described his car, as it is behaving right now, as “either a rocket ship or a dud.” Millican was referring to its performance consistency. “The Parts Plus/Great Clips Dragster is still the quickest car out there. Our only problem right now is maintaining that consistency, because our car is either a rocket ship or a dud. There’s no in-between with it. I think it’s just a matter of Grubby figuring out that math problem to make the Parts Plus car run more consistently. When that happens, we will be winning more trophies. But I’m going to focus on doing my job. It’s fun knowing we’re capable of beating anyone out there each and every time we line up.” In the first three races, he led qualifying twice and started third at the other. He has been to three semifinals, but he also has lost in the first round once and in Round 2 twice. But he’s an enviable fourth in the standings and never has been worse than sixth (which he was after only one early race in the past six).
And Friday night, the dragster was no dud. The rocket ship showed up, launching him to the provisional No. 1 qualifying position. He covered the 1,000-foot course in 3.758 seconds at a track-fastest 331.12 mph.
Robert Hight earned the tentative top spot in the Funny Car class with a 3.952-second pass in the second session at 327.59. Hight owns the Atlanta Dragway elapsed-time record that he set last year (3.880 seconds). He couldn’t top that or Matt Hagan’s 2016 track speed record of 329.02 mph. But Hight said, “I’m pretty impressed by that run.”
Millican and Hight joined Pro Stock’s Greg Anderson and Pro Stock Motorcycle’s Matt Smith as quickest Friday.
“Qualifying No. 1 is great. We need to do better on Sunday,” Anderson said. “The performance is there. I need to stop making small mistakes. Everyone knows we’re a win waiting to happen. I know they’re coming.”
Smith said he thought his 6.882-second, 196.13-mph performance on his Pro Stock motorcycle might drop to third or even fourth place in the tentative order Friday, especially considering he skipped his Friday night chance to improve. But he and his brand-new bike, which he put together this week after losing many parts to a former business partner last weekend. “It’s been a rough week,” Smith said. “All in all, it turned out pretty nice.” He said, “A victory would mean the world right now.” The team, he said, is seeking funding to complete the season in competitive fashion. “We’re not looking for a lot. We’re looking for a little bit.”
DON’T BET AGAINST HIGHT – Given his success at Atlanta Dragway and his faith in highly regarded crew chief Jimmy Prock, Auto Club Camaro driver Robert Hight began the weekend as maybe the odds-on bet.
“I started my career with three straight final rounds at Atlanta Dragway and got my first Southern Nationals win on the third try in 2007,” Hight said, “Since then I have picked up a couple more wins [in 2010 and 2014] and been to another final on top of that. [He was runner-up to Ron Capps in 2012]. I think we have been a top-three qualifier four or five times. [He was No. 1 in 2012.] Last year we got to the semifinals, and I would love to get another win in Atlanta.”
Curiously, three of Hight’s six final rounds here have come against John Force Racing teammates. He’s 2-1 against them. He lost to John Force in 2005, but he defeated the boss’ daughters: Ashley Force Hood (2010) and Courtney Force (2014). His first victory here, in 2007, was against Mike Ashley; he has been runner-up to Tony Pedregon (2006) and Ron Capps (2012).
Worrying about being in fifth place in the standings would be unproductive, especially given what Hight and Prock have achieved so far this season – a season that has not been all that kind to Hight or the entire JFR team. Hight was runner-up at Pomona and Houston, and he has qualified well (in the top half of the ladder at five out of six races and first at Houston).
“Jimmy and I are seeing the performance come around and also the consistency,” Hight said. “When the conditions are right and the track is right, I don’t think there are many Funny Cars that can run with my Auto Club Camaro. We just have to stay focused and be ready to adapt. Jimmy is the best at getting the most out of a tune-up, and I am excited to be the driver in his race car.”
FEELIN’ GROOVY AGAIN – Maybe coming to Atlanta is just what John Force has needed. Only the late Dave Schultz has won here more often – the Pro Stock Motorcycle icon won eight times, Force seven. So it’s a feel-good racetrack for Force, who celebrated his 69th birthday Friday. But the 16-time series champion has been starting to feel much better about his Peak Chevy Camaro that gave him such a rough time at the start of the year.
Following his Charlotte mini-comeback, Force said his car is “dropping cylinders every run, but it ain’t blowing up. We still ain’t figured out why it’s blowing up.
“What I went through in the first four or five races nobody should have to go through. I have never seen that much carnage,” Force said, referring to his own three accidents and DNQ at Houston but including Robert Hight’s explosion and daughter Brittany Force’s Top Fuel crash. “It’s just too much mentally on you. I’m shell-shocked, too. The good thing is I’m starting to feel physically well. We are digging our way through it. They always say if it doesn’t kill you it will make you stronger. Well it didn’t kill and I am a lot tougher. I really do love the fact that I will never take qualifying for granted again, and I will never take getting to a final for granted again.”
That final-round appearance, that glimmer of newfound success, has him saying, “We are getting a tune-up now. We are getting a tune-up on this Peak Coolant and Motor Oil Chevrolet Camaro. And that means [Brian] Corradi, [Dan] Hood and [Jimmy] Prock can focus 100 percent on their own cars. Now that my Camaro is going to the other end, we can tune it.” However, he conceded, “We have a lot of work to do.”
MAKE A WISH – Tommy Johnson Jr. said, “Atlanta hasn't always been my best track, but the way we are running lately, and coming off of a final round at the four-wide, I'm pretty excited to see what this year at Atlanta has in store for us.” The driver of the Make-A-Wish Dodge Charger said, “Hopefully, this will be the year that I turn it around in Atlanta and win it and overcome all of the obstacles I've had along the way at [this] track.”
IS IT MY TURN YET?! – Jeg Coughlin is wondering if it’s his turn this weekend.
"We've all stepped up," Coughlin said of the Elite Motorsports contingent, which has claimed the past three Pro Stock victories. "Vincent [Nobile] won Vegas, Matt Hartford beat Erica [Enders] in Houston, then Erica beat Vincent and two others at the Four-Wides this past weekend. Obviously, our Elite crew chiefs – Rick and Rickie Jones, Mark Ingersoll, and Brian 'Lump' Self – have figured some things out and the crew guys on each car are executing very well. It feels so good to have competitive cars."
The one Coughlin is driving is his third this year, and it’s producing much better performances. Since he made the switch after the Las Vegas race, Coughlin has two semifinal finishes in as many races, and he has qualified in the top half of the field at both.
"The Elite team has certainly found its stride, and it's been great to see my teammates win the last three races," Coughlin said. "We definitely want to get involved in the fun. And with the way our car has been running lately, we have a high level of excitement in this pit. Bottom line, you have to be near-perfect to win a race in this class. We're ready."
His wife, Samantha, will be making her second appearance this year in the Super Gas class.
GAYDOSH FORGING ON – Toward the end of last season, John Gaydosh was worried that NHRA’s plans for the Pro Stock class would kill a small-budgeted, already-working-overtime operation such as his. NHRA backed down from its decision to limit the number of Pro Stock appearances on the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule and the number of cars in the Pro Stock field. Now Gaydosh finds himself and his Gaydosh Performance Chevy Camaro at his third consecutive race and fourth of a planned 11 events this season.
Although concerns remain for the privateer from Baltimore, he said, “The car’s good. We’re happy with the car.”
He is working with the father-son McGaha team and said, “Chris and [dad] Lester are awesome to work with. I have good power and can come out here and go rounds. We just have to get the package together.
“It’s hard for us to continue to do this without funding – because we can’t go and test, and if we can’t test, we can’t put runs on it and we can’t find the flaws. You can’t find your flaws, you can’t fix them. You find them on race day,” Gaydosh said.
The solution to the falling-dominoes problem, he said, is “just simple and easy: we need more laps.”
may have exited early at the 2018 NHRA Four-Wide Nationals, but his Chevrolet Camaro Pro Stock continues to show signs of improvement.
Gaydosh qualified 13th last weekend at Charlotte. And in a competitive quad along with Bo Butner, Deric Kramer, and Alex Laughlin, Gaydosh ran respectably. He recorded a stellar .007-second reaction time – identical to Laughlin’s – but saw Butner and Laughlin advance.
“I like racing the four-wide,” Gaydosh said, knowing that the novelty format wasn’t his problem. “I had a few mechanical issues here and there. I’m running an older set of tires, and we don’t know if it was the older tires or something else in that last run,” he said. “I left good – a .007 light – but then the car got loose and I couldn’t bring it back. I had to bail. I’m not wadding up the car.”
ALOHA – Karen Stoffer has a trip to Hawaii in her near future. She’ll get to go fishing and do a little sightseeing. However, it’s a business trip. Stoffer will be helping Tracy Arakaki and his PunishUM Motorsports with the ongoing effort to bring drag racing back to Oahu at the level it was when Hawaii Raceway Park was thriving in the 1950s and ‘60s. Stoffer also will be one of the featured guests Saturday night on PunishUM Motorsports’ TV program on Honolulu station KFVE. The show, broadcast at 5:30 p.m. local time throughout the Hawaiian Islands, is a repeat of the April 27 episode, and it was filmed at the Stoffer / Underdahl Pro Stock Motorcycle race operations at Plainfield, Ind. The PunishUM effort, in the form of a Hawaii State Senate resolution, appeared to be moving forward last month.
Introduced by Senator Will Espero SCR20 (Senate Concurrent Resolution 20 ) sought to ask the Department of Economic Development and Tourism to explore and designate a possible site and form a public private partnership to work together to get another racetrack on Oahu. Although this has been tried on more than several occasions since Hawaii Raceway closed 12 years ago Sen. Espero said, "We must keep trying till we find a solution [for another racetrack on Oahu]."
The measure passed March 6 and moved onto the Ways and Means (WAM) committee. But the bill later died in committee in the state House of Representatives.
Oahu, the most populous island in Hawaii with nearly 1,000,000 residents, has had no racing facility for more than 12 years. Hawaii Raceway Park was the only racing facility in the state of Hawaii that served all types of motorsports, from dirt to asphalt and from drifting to drag racing. On April 1, 2006, the track that accommodated every type of motorsports for nearly 42 years and helped launch the careers for many from Hawaii onto the world stage was sold and converted to warehouses.
The positive news is that a resolution urging the City of Honolulu to explore the feasibility of a racetrack on Oahu has passed in the Honolulu City Council
Pro Stock Motorcycle racer Steve Johnson and Funny Car driver Ron Capps have lent support throughout the past few years.