2019 NHRA HEARTLAND NATIONALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
HIGHT COLLECTS 49TH WIN, TIES ‘THE SNAKE’ AT HEARTLAND NATIONALS - Just two short decades ago during the summer of 1995, a young man by the name of Robert Hight traveled to what is now known as Heartland Motorsports Park in Topeka, Kansas and went to work as a clutch specialist for John Force Racing.
In 2005, Hight returned to Topeka to earn his license in the Funny Car class.
Today, 25 seasons and two Funny Car world championships after getting his first shot in the business, Hight tied the legendary Don “The Snake” Prudhomme on the all-time NHRA win list with his 49th career victory at the 31st annual Menards NHRA Heartland Nationals presented by Minties.
“It was 25 season ago that I came in here and went to work doing the clutch. I got my Funny Car license here and have a lot of fond memories here. Now, getting to win this race a few times is pretty cool,” Hight said. “I can’t even believe I am in the same sentence as Don Prudhomme. That is a really big deal. 49 wins, that is crazy. And what is really crazy is I am only 100 (wins) back from John (Force). But I am coming.”
Hight collected career win No. 49 Sunday against Jack Beckman. Both Hight and Beckman found themselves qualified in the bottom half of the field and had to overcome a treacherous field on race day, but saved enough for a great drag race in the final.
Beckman got away cleanly with a sizable starting line advantage, but Hight managed to chase him down by the 200-foot mark and never trailed again in taking his fourth win of 2019. Hight saved his best work for the final, running low elapsed time of the entire event with a 3.896-second pass at 330.88 mph in the Auto Club Chevrolet Camaro SS Funny Car.
Beckman ran a 3.969 at 323.97 mph in the losing effort.
“This is the second time this year that we have been in the bottom half of the field. We just had bad luck,” Hight said. “We didn’t miss it or do anything wrong, we just, every run, had bad luck. We would have something break or something fall off and then, finally, we get it together in Q4. We were low E.T. of that session and from that point forward we were low E.T. every round on race day.
“Once you get going with this Auto Club Chevy team, Jimmy Prock, Chris Cunningham, you just start rolling. Everybody knows their job and you work together so well it is just a lot of fun.”
But Hight’s day was far from easy.
Qualifying ninth, Hight faced a tough matchup in every round on Sunday, eliminating Shawn Langdon, J.R. Todd and Tommy Johnson Jr. to reach his sixth final round of the year.
And it was an eventful day to say the least. In the first two rounds, both Langdon and Todd ran into issues with Langdon popping the motor and Todd smoking the tires, giving Hight clean wins. Then, in the semifinal against the most recent race winner, both Hight and Johnson were early on the tree, but Hight was a touch better in taking the round win.
“I think there was a little bit of luck involved today,” Hight said. “When you go through the ladder like we did, you need it. We raced (Shawn) Langdon, he is great on the tree and has a great car and they run in the 80s, which we knew we had to run to beat him. J.R. Todd, he is the champ for a reason. Then we go up against Tommy Johnson, who won last week, and Jack Beckman, a former champion. It doesn’t get any harder than that.
“This one here was well earned. After some of those earlier runs, for the final round, you know you have to go up there and perform. I spent most of the time between rounds working on my tree, getting that out of my head.”
Beckman, who was just behind Hight in 10th on the ladder, had wins over Matt Hagan, Tim Wilkerson and John Force to reach his second final of the year.
With the win, Hight extends his lead in the Funny Car championship. He has also now been to the final round in six of 10 races as the Auto Club team at John Force Racing has proven the class of the field so far in 2019.
“When your car is running like mine it is pretty impressive. It is not Steve Torrence impressive, but it is still great nonetheless,” Hight said of Top Fuel’s Torrence, who won his fifth race in a row on Sunday. “Funny Car is pretty tough. We have a lot of confidence right now no matter where we are at. People think this car only runs good when the conditions are good, but I think we showed last night when it was hot and then today once it got hot. Running a 3.89 on a 122-degree track is pretty impressive.
“That all lies with Jimmy (Prock). Jimmy is a winner. This is what he does. That is what he lives for. Sometimes I feel sorry for him because that is all he does is stare at that computer and think about ways to make this Auto Club Chevy faster.”
Hight will look to continue his strong season when the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series visits Bristol Dragway later this week for the third of four races in a row at the NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals. Larry Crum
TORRENCE WINS FIFTH STRAIGHT IN TOPEKA FATHER, SON FINAL - Father’s Day may still be a week away, but the Torrence family was able to celebrate a few days early.
Steve Torrence, who has done just about everything there is to do in the sport, checked another box off his list of firsts when he met his father, part-timer Billy Torrence, in Sunday’s Menards NHRA Heartland Nationals presented by Minties. It was the first time the father-and-son duo have met in an NHRA final as the younger Torrence continued his hot streak with his fifth straight win Sunday at Heartland Motorsports Park.
“This is something that will probably stand out forever,” Torrence said. “We have always raced together. I raced my dad growing up and watching him race is what made me want to do this. So to be able to compete with him at this level in Top Fuel, to go first and second in qualifying and in almost every session and carry that momentum through race day, was amazing. He drove so well. It is expected that I do well, but (my dad) gets in the car every now and then and kicks butt.
“I think that this final will probably be one of my most memorable, aside from my first final ever and first race win. This is right up there at the top, if not above it.”
After qualifying first and second on Saturday, the duo made easy work of the competition on Sunday, leading to their first-ever final against one another. The father and son team had met several times prior in earlier rounds, with Steve dominating those races, and Sunday’s race proved no different.
In a very close drag race, Steve Torrence took the victory over his father with a 3.750-second pass at 326.16 mph in the Capco Contractors dragster, while Billy Torrence crossed the stripe just a few feet behind with a 3.768 at 326.00 mph.
So, after a close race and the first final between the two, were there any words shared at the top end?
“Not really,” Torrence said. “We are both competitive. Nobody was upset, but he wanted to win. I wanted to win. I just had a better racecar and I went a little quicker. He left on me and he was trying to get that win. We don’t have any team orders, (my dad) was trying to end the streak quicker than anybody.
“We didn’t talk much before. I said, ‘I am fixing to kick your butt, I will see you here in a little bit.’ He said the same thing. It was fun. We go up there and went head-to-head and we really raced each other tough.”
While the action on the track was certainly fierce, the intensity on the starting line might have been even greater. While father and son were squaring off, the woman connecting the two was left - quite literally - divided between them.
“I saw (mom) before the run. I saw her on dad’s side and then she walked over to my side and acknowledged me. Then she went up there and stood in the middle,” Torrence said. “I don’t know who she was rooting for. I am hoping for the baby boy, but it could have been for the old man. I don’t know.”
Either way, she had to have been proud of both.
Torrence reached his sixth final of the 2019 season with wins over Terry Totten and Antron Brown, earning a bye in the second round thanks to a short field. The short day led Torrence to his fifth victory in a row and 32nd of his career, winning at one of only four tracks on the NHRA schedule he had yet to win.
“I had not won here ever in Top Fuel, so strike this one off the list,” Torrence said. “It is all about being consistent. We have to go to Bristol next week and we will try to qualify and then take it one step at a time. That has been our motto the past two years, one step at a time. And we have to try to maintain that consistency if we want to remain on this path. Every week it is the same story, don’t look at the end goal, let’s look at what is ahead of us right now. The end goal will handle itself.”
Billy Torrence, making only his sixth start of the year, reached his second final of the season and the third of his career with wins over Lex Joon, Richie Crampton and Austin Prock.
The success of both cars on Sunday, combined with the team’s impressive tally of 18 wins in the last 34 races - winning more than half of the races run over that span - has left all eyes on the small, family-run operation out of Texas. While racing on par with many of the great racing teams in all of motorsports over the past decade, to Torrence and his team, he is just enjoying the ride and refuses to acknowledge that success until later - much later.
“I had this discussion with my dad yesterday. We have been very dominant, yes, but we have been very fortunate and blessed. We are just a family-run, sometimes two-car team that goes to show that a lot of hard work, dedication, perseverance and just sticking with it when it sucks, will get you there,” Torrence said. “We have a huge support group with this race team and everybody involved with it, especially those guys back at Capco. They take great pride in Capco and this race team and that is a lot of motivation to do well. I know that what they are doing day in and day out keeps us out here, so I appreciate that.
“When you do take a step back and get out of the box and look at what we have been able to accomplish, it is pretty amazing. It is something I never thought could happen. When you are a kid you want to be able to do this, but then you get a bit older and you realize, well, I don’t know how achievable that is. Then you get the opportunity and you think, I want to win a race. And you win a couple of races and then you want to win a championship. And we were able to do that.
“We’ve achieved pretty much every goal we have set out to do, but deep down you are still a competitor. You want to be in that moment and have that competition and that feeling. So we try not to look at all of that stuff right now. We can look at it some other time when we are not racing. When some people step back and look at what they are doing they lose focus. We just have to go one round at a time and, eventually one day, we will look back and say we were pretty good at one time.”
Torrence will look to make it six-in-a-row in one week when the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series travels to Bristol Dragway for the NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals. Larry Crum
SATURDAY NOTEBOOK – MAN … IT WAS A HOT ONE IN THE HEARTLAND
CHAMPIONS REMAIN ON TOP - Defending Top Fuel and Funny Car world champions Steve Torrence and J.R. Todd claimed the top spot in each of their respective categories Saturday afternoon at Heartland Motorsports Park.
Torrence’s second qualifying run of 3.760-seconds at 325.45 mph stood strong through Saturday’s qualifying efforts. He will start from the No. 1 position for the 21st time in his career as he looks for his fifth consecutive victory this season in his Capco Contractors dragster. He will line up against Terry Totten for the first round of eliminations.
“I tell you what, probably all of the odds are against us,” S. Torrence said. “Richard Hogan (crew chief) and Bobby Lagana (crew chief) and that whole Capco group over there are doing awesome. My dad has come out and done really well. We’ve got a lot of pipeliners back home working really hard to keep us out here and, 'thank you' to them. It’s Topeka and I’ve never won here in Top Fuel and I’m hoping that we can get the monkey off our back and do some good here tomorrow.”
Billy Torrence’s pass of 3.765 at 323.58 landed him the No. 2 spot in Capco Contractors dragster and rookie Austin Prock is seeded No. 3.
Todd secured his first No. 1 qualifier of the season and 100th for Kalitta Motorsports with his pass of 3.924 at 318.99 Friday evening in his DHL Toyota Camry Funny Car. He is chasing his second win on the season and first career victory at Heartland Motorsports Park.
“That’s pretty awesome because I don’t have too many No. 1 qualifiers under my belt,” Todd stated, regarding clinching the 100th No. 1 for his team. “I’d say most of those came from Dougie (Kalitta, Mac Tools driver) who is the leader over there. That was a good run Friday night which we knew that Q2 was going to be your best round of the weekend. We have a really good car heading into race day tomorrow and no reason that we can’t turn on four win lights. That’s the plan for tomorrow.”
Tim Wilkerson’s run of 3.931 at 318.54 locked-in the No. 2 position for Sunday and 16-time world champion John Force is third.
NO. 1 FAN OF THE MAN - Scott Palmer admits it took him about 5,000 or so bicycle ramp-jumps for him to realize being Evel Knievel’s successor was not in his life’s plans.
“I probably didn’t break as many bones as he did,” Palmer admitted.
This weekend, Palmer is repping the legendary daredevil through his museum located just down the highway from Heartland Motorsports Park. The tribute is more than just a decal, as Palmer is sporting an Evel Knievel-themed firesuit and helmet.
Palmer made it official this weekend, but he and the iconic car-jumper go way back.
Palmer’s first memory of Knievel was in believing he’d watched Knievel get killed while jumping the fountains at Caesar’s Palace in December 1967.
“That’s the one that made him famous because he had that horrible crash,” Palmer recalled. “Then it was probably six months later he was on Wide World of Sports again. We all waited for Wide World of Sports to see what was going on, and it was Evel Knievel again. It seemed like he had just crashed, and he was back on again.”
Palmer believes Knievel was a drag racer trapped in a daredevil’s life. Representing him through his Evil Knievel Museum promotion provides Palmer with the best of both worlds.
“You always see these big teams get to do cool stuff like with the Yankees or the White Sox,” Palmer explained. “I’m not a stick and ball sports guy, so this is my deal. I think we’re the right team to do it.”
Palmer said his Evel Knievel Museum program came together last year when he visited the facility throughout the race weekend.
“First thing I did was show him a picture of my living room wall and the whole wall in my house is Evel Knievel,” Palmer said. “I told him, ‘I’m not just here taking the tour, I’m for real.”
Palmer believes it’s essential to keep Knievel’s legacy alive.
“It’s important for everyone to keep that alive because here’s a guy who proved he could show off and make a living,” Palmer said. “But you can’t quit.”
And, Palmer isn’t quitting. He’s having too much fun.
PUT ME IN COACH - Hard to say who’s having the better season this year, Robert Hight or the Los Angeles Dodgers. Right now, the major league baseball team is 43-21, with a 9-game lead atop the National League West. Hight is atop the NHRA’s Funny Car standings with a 168 point lead, the equivalent of eight round wins.
Hight is a bona fide Dodgers fan. He believes when a person’s professional stick and ball team is doing well, life is indeed good.
“I think it’s like everything in life when things are going good, your mental state is better,” Hight explained. “If your relationship, your sports team, whatever. You wake up in the morning, and you look forward to listening to the game or watching the game in the evening.”
Hight’s occupation might be a drag racer, but his hobby is baseball.
“I think you need something to get away from the racing,” Hight said. “Unfortunately the guy that’s the winningest guy in history doesn’t follow anything – John Force. He is drag racing 24/7.
“I think you need a release, something to get away from drag racing. For me, it’s fun to go to a baseball game or watch it on TV or follow a sports team.”
Falling in love with baseball was a natural progression for Hight, who grew up playing baseball in Southern California.
“I played starting in Little League and played in high school, and I was third base and caught,” Hight said. “Catcher was probably the most fun position for me Because you have a little bit of control of the game and you are in charge of what’s going on, and I like that.
Hight can only dream of winning a championship in the same season as the Dodger would be more than a dream come true.
“I’ve always thought that if the Dodgers could ever get it done and win a championship that Auto Club would let me go to Pomona and put Dodgers on the car, and hopefully I’m in the running for the championship,” Hight explained. “In 2008 when I ran the Dodger car I went down to the last day of the season with a chance to win the championship, racing the Dodger car and Tommy Lasorda came out, gave my team a pep talk in the morning.
“Came back after I lost, which he didn’t have to do and that was probably one of the coolest things was he came back, and I was in my lounge, and I was pretty bummed, pretty down. He said, “Next year starts today. So get out of this funk and get out there with your team. Do you know how many times the Yankees beat me in the World Series before I finally got them? It didn’t happen because I was down and out all winter. I lost, and I had to get right back to work and put this team back together and get ready. You work hard enough, and you’ll eventually get it.”
“Then we went on next year, and in 2009 I won my championship. I’m not saying that had anything to do with it but he gave me the right mental attitude after a loss to start looking at next year.”
PRO MOD RUNS DISQUALIFIED - Three Pro Mod entries had their runs disqualified following Friday’s Q-2 session.
Friday’s provisional No. 1 Khalid alBalooshi (5.735), No. 5 Rickie Smith (5.845), and No. 11 Harry Hruska (5.923) went into Saturday’s final day of qualifications without an official run on the board.
Their runs were thrown out due to each of their cars being out of compliance on their ECU (Electronic Control Unit) firmware.
Smith withdrew his turbocharged Mustang and reentered the event with his trusty nitrous Camaro. However, this entry didn’t pass tech either.
WHEN MEMORIES OVERLAP REALITY - Mike Kloeber spent the better part of Friday morning in Topeka chasing a clutch issue he'd faced during qualifying last Saturday. It was as if he was chasing a gremlin around the sprawling Heartland Motorsports Park.
There was very little time to reflect on one of the most significant accomplishments in his storied career. In October 1993, Kloeber tuned Jim Epler to the first career 300 mile per hour run in a Funny Car.
Friday, Kloeber returned to Heartland Motorsports Park following a decade on the sidelines after reuniting with Clay Millican, a driver with whom he's experienced the most success with during his career.
Just to think, in 1993, Kloeber had no idea who Millican was.
But the Kroger forklift driver and aspiring drag racer knew who Kloeber was.
"Wishing I was driving a Top Fuel car at that point," Millican said. "I knew who Kloeber was, but he didn't know me. If you would have told me one day we'd be teamed up in the fuel ranks and would win championships together (in IHRA), I would have said you had a little too much to drink."
Kloeber had no idea of the fortunes which awaited him, as the two would go on to be the winningest Top Fuel team in IHRA history.
"Wasn't even a figment of my imagination in 1993," Kloeber admitted. "Never even dreamed that I would get a Clay Millican. When I first met Clay, I met him at the race track. He was driving a rental race car and I was the rental crew chief that went with the rental race car owned by Nitro Nick Boninfante Sr. I was kind of in between big jobs at the time so it was natural."
Once Kloeber met Millican, he knew he was on the verge of something special.
"The thing that sticks in my mind about Clay Is the really long conversation, a couple hours, we just sat in the side of that big, giant open-sided John Carey trailer which was a really unusual trailer," Kloeber said. "We sat and talked for hours. That day, that conversation cemented the fact in my mind that Clay was going to be a really good driver because he asked all the right questions and he listened carefully, hung on every word.
"Clay asked the kind of questions that Don Prudhomme would ask of the race car himself, Dale Pulde, Jerry Ruth, Ed McCulloch. He was more like all of those guys in his conversation the questions he asked were all connected to important things and yet he had no experience. He didn’t know to ask these kinds of questions and communicate in these kinds of ways. I could tell he was interested in doing all the he could to be the best Top Fuel driver he could and he was already a good racer.
"That was easy to see in all the steps he had taken to get to Top Fuel, having really fast bracket cars, so on and so forth. He had done everything you needed to do to get to the point where he was kind of an old textbook way of working your way up. That day, that long conversation kind of cemented in my mind what kind of person Clay was and I was right. It all turned out to be true. He’s been a really great driver and an even better friend. I’ve never worked with anybody better than Clay."
Would an NHRA win with Millican in Topeka overshadow the 300 mile per hour milestone?
"I don’t think it would replace that, it would just be another really good memory to put right next to that and winning the U.S. Nationals, the Big Bud Shootout," Kloeber admitted. "You can't ever take those things away and when they happen they’re often times the biggest thing that’s ever happened. But there will be other things that are big and important."
KEEPING SHARP - Pro Stock isn’t in competition this weekend in Topeka, but that’s not keeping Bo Butner on the sidelines. The current Pro Stock point leader is competing in the Factory Stock Showdown division.
“It’s great to get seat-time, and I don’t care if it’s in a golf cart,” said Butner, who kept his Sportsman skills sharp with a go at Super Comp in Chicago. “I’d run four or five classes at an event if NHRA would let me because I think the more you do, the better you’ll get. We’ll see this weekend, but I have to beat those Skillman folks. They’re pretty tough, and then there’s Kevin Skinner coming around and running really good. We don’t know what the Dodges are going to do, but they got a little help.
“We’re going to do the best we can, and by all means, we should be in the final. I can’t wait for this race. That car is a lot of fun, and I miss it when I don’t get to drive it.”
BACK TO OLD BLUE - After his brand-new Mustang sustained rear quarter-panel damage last weekend, Tim Wilkerson had to bring an old car back to the Funny Car wars.
Wilkerson qualified in the No. 2 position and swept in a handful of bonus points to sweeten the deal heading into Sunday eliminations.
"We sure can't wait to win with that new Funny Car body, but she had to go back and get some work done after we made contact with the wall in Chicago, and so far, this old body has been pretty good to us here," said Wilkerson, who was sturdy out of the gate as he powered to a 4.037-second pass at 295.92 mph for the No. 3 spot in the opening act.
The second session on a hot Friday in Topeka amounted to a killer 3.931, 318.54 that was second best of all and landed the team in the No. 2 position. Through two more rounds of qualifying, Wilk held strong.
"Back in 2016, we won Phoenix with our old Funny Car body, then came out well with the new one," recalled Wilkerson. "I think we can do the same thing here. Tomorrow is going to be a different day, but I know what we're capable of."
Wilkerson's first national event win came in Top Alcohol Funny Car at Topeka in 1994, and he has been to the final round there twice in a nitro Funny Car – most recently in 2008. He has yet to seal the deal, but he sees Sunday as a chance to right that particular stat.
"It's real neat that this is the 15th anniversary of our first national event win, and it would sure be cool to celebrate it with our first Topeka fuel Funny Car win," said Wilkerson, a 20-time winner on the NHRA Pro tour. "I think it's going to be a good day tomorrow. It's been too long since we've been able to get to the winner's circle on Sunday, and we've been close. We need to get this bridesmaid dress knocked off and get an I do."
FRIDAY NOTEBOOK – J.R REBOUNDS, TORRENCE KEEPS ROLLING IN TOPEKA
THE BOOM FACTOR - There are no operator manuals for Funny Car, but if there were one, it would read, “It’s not a matter of if I Funny Car will blow up, it’s when it will.”
It took 33 races into his relatively short Funny Car driving career before Shawn Langdon experienced the boom of a Funny Car.
“It’s pretty crazy. I can’t even really describe it,” Langdon said of his experience during last Sunday’s NHRA Route 66 Nationals eliminations. “The concussion of it is what kind of gets you. I hadn’t experienced that so I wasn’t thinking about that or even expecting it and then when it did it just kind of stunned me for a couple of seconds. The next thing, when I realized what was going on, was that the body was kicked up, the dash was up, and I couldn’t see where I was going.”
The experience for an accomplished driver like Langdon was frightening because there was a moment where he didn’t know his location on the track. It’s a helpless feeling for a driver who had prided himself for maintaining control of his machine regardless of his driving situation.
“At the time I didn’t even know that I had crossed the center line or hooked the cone with my parachute,” Langdon admitted. “I was just trying to concentrate on trying to get the car stopped. I kept looking around just trying to look for a sign of anything, and I had noticed looking up, I had seen the scoreboard, and I noticed it was kind of far away.
“I guess it was just just track awareness. I just noticed it was further away than it should have been, so that kind of gave me an indication that I wasn’t really in my lane but rather I was probably on the center line or close over. So I tried to bring it back and still not knowing, I undid my chinstrap a little bit and looked out the side window and saw the guardrail, so that was kind of my indicator of that I was not in my lane.”
The concussion is the game-changer for most any driver who suffers a catastrophic engine explosion. It was for Langdon.
“I don’t even know how to describe the boom, the concussion of it,” Langdon said. “We’ve been working really hard with Toyota, TRD, Kalitta on safety.”
Of particular concern for Langdon, and the Kalitta Motorsports team, has been in keeping the bodies attached to the chassis. A body tethering system worked to keep the Toyota body attached to the frame.
“We were able to learn some stuff from it as far as the direction with the body tethers because obviously the last thing that we want to do is have a body come off the car and hurt anybody or anybody in the grandstands.”
Out of all the lessons learned, Langdon admits the incident only confirmed what he already knew.
“I learned that funny cars are very dangerous,” Langdon said, shaking his head. (Mark Rebilas Photo)
SCHOOL IS IN SESSION - Steve Matusek never passes on the chance to discuss his favorite class – Pro Modified.
Friday afternoon during the NHRA Heartland Nationals, Matusek participated in the first-ever Pro Mod School with Brian Lohness, an gathering designed to introduce the intracacies of drag racing’s most volatile race cars.
This is the first time there has been a town hall style of event focusing on the Pro Modifieds since they first entered NHRA competition in 2001.
“I think it’s great for the sport because it gives the fans an inside look at what’s happening,” Matusek said. “It takes some of the rumor mill out of the equation and it gives them some insight on what happens behind the scenes. Not just from mechanically and technologically but also from racing these cars on Sunday.”
Matusek said the gathering was important because all too often it’s taken for granted that everyone knows what Pro Modified is about.
“We live in our own world, right?” Matusek asked. “And sometimes you can’t see the forest through the trees so I think it is important to be able to sit down and describe some of the nuances of the cars.”
Matusek said getting chosen to participate in the first Pro Mod School has been a flattering experience.
“We’ve been working really hard over the years trying to get this class to grow and trying to maintain the momentum that we’ve created,” Matusek explained. “It feels good that the NHRA is reaching out and wanting to expand the class and utilizing some of the drivers, team owners and crew chiefs to explain what these cars are all about and what we’re trying to accomplish.”
DRAGGING THE LINE WITH TOBLER - Riding the wave of success can be a tricky one for a crew chief. Few can surf the treacherous waters of tuning better than Rahn Tobler, crew chief for the NAPA Auto Parts Funny Car.
Tobler, who has been tuning for the better part of four decades, believes the key to his success is following the line right in the middle of aggressive and conservative.
“You just have to stay in the middle,” Tobler explained. “I try to be just level; we don’t get too high, we don’t get too low. Eventually, you know it will come back around, and that’s what’s happening to our car lately. We had a good car in Houston. We made some changes going in there. They were pretty significant in the way we ran the clutch, same clutch, and we had a good car in Houston. We just got a little heavy with primary in the third round, but we qualified well, we ran well.
“Then with Charlotte, I can’t tell you what happened with all that, but ever since then, we’ve had a pretty good car. We really haven’t changed a whole lot.”
Tobler recently experienced a run of good fortunes with driver Ron Capps, where they have won two of the last three events. In the spirit of the .38 Special song, he holds on loosely to the combination.
“You have to be willing to make changes, and it could just be from last week to this week,” Tobler explained. “You can’t get locked in too much or say, “Well, we did this last week, and it worked.”
“You have to go with what the circumstances are giving you in a given weekend. Now our goal is to when we make that first qualifier that we’re pretty darn close. We’re not going out there trying to attack although the last couple of weekends we’ve had some pretty good Q1’s, but we didn’t do that on purpose, it just happened.
“Once you get the first run of the weekend over, then your tune-up and all those kind of things you pretty much have settled into and then it’s just making some fine adjustments from there. What worked last week doesn’t necessarily work this week. You cannot be locked into everything being identically the same.”
Hitting the mark on the first run can make the difference in the flow of the entire weekend. Last weekend, Capps grabbed the provisional at the NHRA Route 66 Nationals during Friday’s Q-1 session. Miss on the first run and the effects could be detrimental.
“I always try to teach the guys that I work with, in this case, Dustin now, that you need data,” Tobler said. “We don’t care so much that we don’t go out and run low ET. We would rather go from A to B and the more runs we can have going into Sunday; usually the better off we are.”
Tobler admits he has a relatively short tolerance of failure before he uproots his pathway into a different direction, sometimes back to the original baseline.
“No matter what it is whether it’s dropping cylinders or smoking tires at the hit or whatever it is, about two runs is what we’re going to give it,” Tobler said. “Knock on wood; we’re pretty good about fixing it after just one run.
“It normally doesn’t come back and do it the second run. It certainly did to us in Charlotte, and I’m sure there’s been a lot of instances when it’s been that way. We give ourselves about one run to get it straightened out, and we’re pretty disappointed after that.”
Tobler admits he doesn’t establish his tune-up by purely studying the computer data. He’s got an extra asset, the form of the driver’s seat of the pants. When it comes to a driver understanding what language their race car speaks, Tobler believes Capps is at the top of the list.
“It’s like the final in Atlanta,” Tobler explained. “We had run a 4.02 against John in the second round, which was low ET for the rest of the day. We ran a 4.07 in the semis because it kept getting hotter and hotter. We were racing Tim Wilkerson who got his car together in the middle rounds and we’re like, “Man, we cannot just sit on that 4.07. We need to try and step it up a little bit.”
“But one of the turning points was when I turned and looked at Dustin, and I said, “Let’s just let Ron drive.”
“Sure enough he beats Tim on a holeshot so had we done the wrong thing or tried to pep it up a little bit and it smoked the tires we would have never gotten that win. Sometimes your intuition just says he had been driving well that day. I think he had put a .030 light on somebody in the semifinals so you just kind of go with that as well. The driver is certainly what we consider when we make our decisions.”
Tobler believes a tuner is only as good as those they surround themselves with. He’s not afraid to open the proverbial suggestion box.
“I want to be open with everyone,” Tobler said. “If my guy outside that’s doing the body and tires, if he notices something, I want him to come in and tell me. Other people don’t think it’s a big deal, but I’ll always listen to what anybody has to say, and we go from there. So certainly the driver is a major influence in what we do. He’ll ask me something, “Why did it do this? Or, why did it do that?”
“I’m able to show him data. We look at it together because he’s up here with us most of the time anyway and then we’ll tell him what we’re going to do to fix it or how we’re going to approach it differently. So I think from that standpoint when we go up on the next run he knows in his mind that we’re going to take care of this one way or the other.”
And nothing takes care of something better than walking the fine line, something Tobler has mastered.
SOURCE OF MOTIVATION - Doug Kalitta got the ball rolling for the Kalitta Motorsports team when he won the season-opening NHRA Winternationals in Pomona, Ca. Since then, everyone on the four-car team has won a race.
Kalitta has been in a slump as of late but broke out last weekend at the NHRA Route 66 Nationals, reaching the semi-final round with his Mac Tools dragster.
“Topeka has been good for the Kalitta Motorsports team, and I’ve always felt really positive about going there,” Kalitta said. “The track’s usually good, and I’m excited to get back there. The fans are great, and they do a great job at the facility. It’s a pretty exciting time, and I’m super proud of everyone on the team. We’ve got a bunch of hungry guys on these teams. We’ve got what we need here, and we’re looking forward to having a great year.”
Kalitta is poised for another standout season. He’s been to the semifinals or finals at four races this season, winning in Pomona. After back-to-back first-round losses in Atlanta and Richmond, Kalitta rebounded in Chicago, and he remains impressed with the job Troy Fasching, and Rob Flynn have done as crew chiefs.
“Rob and Troy started working together the last couple races, and they’re really gelling well,” Kalitta said. “We’re coming into our own and hitting our stride. At this time of the year, we’re coming up on some hotter tracks, so it’s a challenge. But with the effort of the guys, it’s going to be fun.”
CHIEFS ON HAND THIS WEEKEND - Former Kansas City Chiefs greats Christian Okoye and Dante Hall will be the grand marshal and honorary starter for the event. They will be joined by Chiefs players, cheerleaders and even the mascot during the highly-anticipated weekend. There will be a special Chiefs Ambassadors VIP tent during the race where fans can meet players, and get autographs and photos on June 8-9. Proceeds from the tent will be donated to Big Brothers Big Sisters.
ENDERS BACK IN PRO MOD - With the 18-race schedule for Pro Stock, two-time Pro Stock champion Erica Enders has had a chance to showcase her versatility as a driver. This weekend, she’s back behind the wheel of her turbocharged Pro Modified.
This weekend marks the sixth of 12 races during the NHRA Pro Mod season, and for Enders, the weekend provides the opportunity for her team to get some issues worked out.
“We struggled with my car in Richmond, but we figured out some of the problems, and hopefully we can apply that this weekend,” Enders said.
A first-round loss in Richmond was the rare rough spot in what has otherwise been a solid year for Enders and her Elite Motorsports team in Pro Mod.
Enders was top speed in the first session with a 254.71 mile per hour blast. Earlier this season, Enders set the speed record in Houston, only to top it two weeks later in Charlotte with a 260.41 pass at zMax Dragway.
THE I.O.U. FILE - Chad Green advanced to his first Pro Mod final round in Topeka last season.
He’s put together another strong start, sitting seventh in points in his Bond-Coat, Inc. nitrous-powered Camaro. But a win manages to stay just out of Green’s reach, something he hopes to rectify this weekend. After a solid test session following the race in Virginia, Green believes his team is finally ready to put it all together.
“Every team has to perform their job perfectly to win in this class,” Green said. “It’s tough competition, and there’s no room for error. Everything has to be on kill. We had a really good season last year and that time in the car just makes you more comfortable. This year we’ve had a good car, but we’ve missed some opportunities. Your whole team has to be flawless to have success in this class, but I’m confident.”
Green has yet to get out of the second round through the first five races in 2019 but believes that could change this weekend because, as he sees it, Topeka owes him one.
“I feel like Topeka owes me one,” Green said. “I let the final round (against Smith) get away from me because of my inexperience. Our car had been running so well. But I’m really excited to get back there. I want to use these next three races before the break to try and get back in the top five. We’re at a critical point in the season where we really need to do well at the next three races, and it sure would be nice to come out of one of them with a win.”
The weekend kicks off a stretch of three straight races for the class, meaning it’s a perfect opportunity for Green to have an impact in the loaded class.
“I feel like we’ve got the car back in shape,” Green said. “I’m excited about these next three races, and hopefully we can go into the break with some good momentum. I think we do better in the warmer conditions, and after our test session, we’ve got our confidence back in the car.”