2019 NHRA MIDWEST NATIONALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
TORRENCES BACK IN TOP FUEL, WITH BILLY IN WINNERS CIRCLE AND STEVE TWO POINTS OFF LEAD - Even before the NHRA’s Countdown to the Championship began three weeks ago at Reading, Pa., reigning Top Fuel champion Steve Torrence asked the most loaded question of all: “How’s it going to look if my dad goes out and wins the championship and he raced 16 of the 24 races?”
After Billy Torrence defeated his son Sunday in the all-Capco Dragster, all-in-the-family final round of the AAA Midwest Insurance Nationals at Madison, Ill., that scenario isn’t so far-fetched.
The fact that 10th-seeded Billy Torrence is in the Countdown at all might make the decision-makers at the NHRA scramble for a revised strategy quicker than the Kilgore, Texas, businessman’s winning 3.835-second elapsed time or faster than his 319.67-mph speed.
This third victory of the season for Billy Torrence reinforces Steve Torrence’s argument that the six-race sprint provides “zero incentive to go out and race all of the races and try to do well.” He said, “Ultimately, all you have to do is skate into the top 10 and race really hard for six.”
Steve Torrence, who Sunday chased his father down the 1,000-foot course at World Wide Technology Raceway with a 4.374-second E.T. at 195.93 mph, moved within two points of regaining the lead he lost at Reading to Doug Kalitta. Billy Torrence beat Kalitta in their key quarterfinal match-up.
“Doug’s a great driver, a good friend. That’s a great team. But I went out there and intended to kick his butt – and I did,” the winner said.
The final was a rematch of the Topeka showdown in which son trumped dad. But even before he could get his helmet off at the top end of the track, Billy Torrence was denying he was trying to pay back Steve for the previous outcome of their head-to-head races.
Steve Torrence, too, said racing against his dad or even battling him for a second straight Top Fuel title isn’t all that unusual: “Ultimately, we race to race. It’s a competition. Yeah, we’re family, but you’re going out there and doing the best you can, and we’re both as competitive as each other. Whether it’s my dad or Antron [contender Brown] or anybody else, I still want to win.”
And never mind the unique aspect of a father and son engaged in a championship battle. In 18 races, they hogged 10 victories in 14 different final rounds (counting Topeka as one final). And Billy Torrence started the Countdown with one of the class’ best race-day records at 20-8, despite competing in just 10 regular-season events. When Robert Hight earned the first of his two Funny Car championships in 2009, he gave every racer hope that it’s possible to enter the Countdown in 10th place and win the title. So a Billy Torrence championship is a genuine possibility.
Besides, well in advance of the Countdown kickoff, regular-season champion Steve Torrence pegged his dad as his stiffest competition: “That’s arguably the second-best car at the place, if not the best. If he raced all of them, it would be my main competition, I believe. I see him as the main competition. He’s driving very well. The car is running as good as ours, sometimes even a little bit better. So he’s going to be a threat.”
After Billy Torrence shared the winners circle with Shawn Langdon (Funny Car), Erica Enders (Pro Stock), and Karen Stoffer (Pro Stock Motorcycle), he said, “I’ve got to thank the good Lord for even letting us be here as a family and being able to do this like we do.”
He insisted that “I’m here by invitation only. This is [wife] Mama Kay’s race team. I’m a fulltime pipeliner and a part-time drag racer. It’s tough to come out here, work six or seven days a week and show up out here and drag race. These guys who do this day in and day out are the best. They’re at the pinnacle of drag racing here. It’s pretty humbling to come out here and have this success.”
He said both he and his son stayed on task through qualifying, managed to stay on opposite sides of the bracket, and met in the final round as they had hoped. He said, “It came out better for me this time. But I think Steve pretty much owns me, like 60-0, but it’s good to get one over the kid every now and then.”
The final round represented a recovery for the Torrences, both of whom lost in the first round at the previous event. Billy Torrence said that they had been experimenting with various parts and set-ups because Steve’s abundant lead allowed the team to do so. But Billy reminded them all, “We might ought to go back and dance with the gal that brought us.” So they came to St. Louis with that original combination – “We hadn’t been preparing them identically, but we are now. We’re back to doing that,” he said. And the strategy paid off.
Along the way, they did a little trash-talking after the semifinal with Steve firing the most stinging salvo: “This is probably going to get me arrested for old-man abuse.” After he lost traction in the final run and didn’t back up his lip, Billy said that on their private-plane flight home “I’ll probably talk all the way.” (He did say Mama Kay won’t be refereeing any squabbles “because she’s on Steve’s side. There’ll be four of us in the plane, and I’m sitting by myself.”)
While both Billy and Steve Torrence will be back home at Kilgore, Texas, at 6 o’clock Monday morning, continuing to lay pipe for Capco Contractors, their oil-and-gas-industry business (and only a treat at their favorite Mexican restaurant at nearby Tyler that night), talk about the Countdown will still be part of the buzz among drag-racing fans.
And the issue of the Countdown – and the points adjustment that wiped out Steve Torrence’s 558-point lead over No. 2 seed Kalitta – still sticks in the current champion’s craw. The points-and-a-half system at the U.S. Nationals also manipulated true performance, for Steve Torrence arrived at Indianapolis with a colossal 635-point advantage over then-second Brittany Force. (She dropped to fourth place after Reading but is back in second place in the standings as the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series moves to Charlotte for the Oct. 11-13 Carolina Nationals.)
Back in 2017, Steve Torrence referred to the Countdown as a “welfare points system” and “just a crock of crap” and expressed contempt for what he called “this bulls--- points system.” Two years later, he said he feels “no differently than I did in ’17” about the title-determining format.
“The problem that I have with the Countdown and the restructuring of the points,” he said, “is that when you do have a season that’s really good and you do really well, there’s zero incentive to go out and race all of the races and try to do well. Ultimately, all you have to do is skate into the top 10 and race really hard for six.
“I’ve been criticized by a lot of people and [some have] not really liked my opinion of it. But when you actually have a playoff system, that means that the people that don’t make the playoffs don’t compete and when you’re eliminated, you’re eliminated. It’s in no kind of way a playoff system.
“I don’t know – I mean, I have never benefitted from the Countdown points systems, so I’m probably going to be biased against it. I know that there’s some that have benefited from it. And I may be one of them this year that does. I may be one of them that doesn’t,” he said. “But we had [558-]point lead after Indy and it was cut down to 20. It’s somewhat of a bitter pill to swallow to say that everybody had the same opportunity for 18 races to earn those points and we had to throw them away. At the end of the day, it is what it is.”
What it is right now is a curious twist of events for the Top Fuel class that has seen the points lead change hands, Steve Torrence rebounded from a fall to third place back to within two points of the top spot, Kalitta hang on by a thread to his lead, and the Nos. 9- and 10-seeded drivers winning the first two Countdown races.
Billy Torrence’s initial description of the final four seconds of the weekend was “It’s crazy.”
So is the Top Fuel title chase so far. Susan Wade
SHAWN LANGDON GETS COMPLETE ST. LOUIS NITRO FC WIN - Shawn Langdon had his immense driving talent on full display Sunday at the AAA Insurance NHRA Midwest Nationals in St. Louis.
Those skills landed him in the winners circle in his Kalitta Motorsports Global ElectronicTechnology Toyota in the second of six races in the Countdown to the Championship.
Langdon clocked a 4.068-second elapsed time at 310.41 mph to edge his Kalitta Motorsports teammate and reigning world champ J.R. Todd, who got loose late in the run and came across the finish line in 4.276 seconds at 223.32 mph.
“It’s like my Friday night (drive-up) song said, ‘Don’t call it a comeback,” Langdon said. “We struggled in Reading (Pa., the previous race, losing in the first round). I have to give a lot of credit to the whole Kalitta camp. We made a lot of changes. Changes you normally wouldn’t make, front-halving it, a lot of credit goes to everybody back at Kalitta in the chassis shop for making that call. Then, we changed a lot of different things. It was like one thing after another. Del (Worsham) and Nicky (Boninfante) (Landgon’s crew chiefs) did an awesome job. My whole team did an awesome job. This was a big one.”
This was Langdon’s second win of the season and second nitro Funny Car win of his career – he won the Four-Wide Nationals April 28 in Charlotte, N.C.
Langdon, who won the 2013 NHRA Mello Yello Series Top Fuel world championship, joins select company in St. Louis with his latest win. He and Gary Scelzi are the only drivers in St. Louis to win Top Fuel and nitro Funny Car Wallys. Scelzi won three times in Top Fuel in St. Louis – 1998-2000 and once in Funny Car in 2004.
Langdon, meanwhile, won the Top Fuel crown in St. Louis in 2016 while driving for Don Schumacher Racing. This was Langdon’s 16th career NHRA national event win with 14 of those coming in Top Fuel.
On Sunday, Langdon beat Tommy Johnson Jr. on a holeshot, won a pedalfest in found two against Jim Campbell, edged Bob Tasca III with just enough horsepower and then upended Todd in the finals.
Not bad considering Langdon qualified No. 10 with a 3.905-second ET at 310.41 mph.
“What an incredible day,” Langdon said. “Going through qualifying, we didn’t have a fast race car, we had a consistent race car. After Reading (Pa.) where we smoked the tires a lot and blew the tires off at the starting line we kind of had to go a little bit of a conservative mode, but it really kind of put us behind in qualifying and we qualified 10th and had to race a very tough car in Tommy Johnson in the first round. They told me they were going to give me the best car they can, and they left it up to me and fortunately it worked out. We ended up getting a holeshot win and gave the guys a little bit of confidence.
We came back second round and it was not supposed to do that. It was not supposed to do that. It blew the tires off at the hit. I feel like I have a lot of learning to do in driving a Funny Car because it is a lot different than a dragster. I took my time and was patient and allowed the car to recover and I squeezed the throttle back and I saw him (Campbell) having some issue. My old Super Comp days came back in because as I was tracking, I could see I was going to get there first. I could tell the motor was laboring really hard, so I clicked off a little bit early before the finish line. I didn’t want to blow anything up anymore than I already probably am. With that win there, I knew my guys were going to get their sh*t together and they saved my butt in the semis. I made a killer run against Tasca.”
Langdon, who entered St. Louis 10th in the points standings, moved up to seventh in the points – 80 behind leader Robert Hight.
“In the final, I don’t know what happened,” Langdon said. “I hit the gas and I heard that thing laboring, but it was a final round in the Countdown, and I wasn’t lifting for nothing. I was expecting to the yellow car (Todd’s) and our car was struggling, but fortunately we got the yellow win light. We have felt like we have had a car capable of winning for a while now and we keep running into the buzz saws in every round. We felt like we had a big day today.”
This has been a successful couple of weeks for Langdon on the drag racing scene. Last weekend, Langdon participated in the Sparco Fall Fling 500 in Bristol, Tenn., one of the majors on the high-dollar bracket racing scene. He scored a runner-up on Day 2, the $30,000-to-win day.
Up next for Langdon is the NHRA Carolina Nationals Oct. 11-13.
“Any time you get a win in the Funny Car class it builds momentum and we need to keep it going,” Langdon said. Tracy Renck
ERICA ENDERS FINALLY CLOSES DEAL IN FINAL ROUND, WINS AT ST. LOUIS - Erica Enders finally found her way back to Victory Lane.
After losing eight consecutive final rounds dating back to the spring race in Charlotte, N.C., in 2018, Enders was celebrating Sunday in St. Louis.
Enders clocked a 6.598-second elapsed time at 208.36 mph to muscle past Matt Hartford’s 6.621-second lap at 207.30 mph at the AAA Insurance NHRA Midwest Nationals in St. Louis, the second race in the six-race Countdown to the Championship.
Hartford cut an .003 light to Enders’ .018 reaction time, but Enders was able to chase him down.
“This win means the world to me,” Enders said. “We’ve been through a lot of crap, for the lack of a better word, my guys have stuck behind me and our partners have stuck behind us. Richard Freeman organized the most the perfect group of guys and they get better and they get better and they get better and they continue to impress me. It was my dad’s birthday. I told him I was going to do my best to bring him a Wally and we did it. I’m ready for the remaining four races, I put my money on us.
Enders, who qualified No. 1 with a 6.552-second lap at 209.85 mph, beat Alan Prusiensky, Aaron Stanfield, her teammate at Elite Motorsports, Chris McGaha, and then Hartford, who utilizes Elite Motorsports horsepower.
“I really feel like I learned a lot (Sunday) on a hot, tricky day,” Enders said. “We were able to step up to the plate in the finals, Matt left on me, but our Elite horsepower drove around him at the other end and we were able to get a win. It is kind of crazy that this is our first win of the year, but it is all coming together at the right time. You have to trust the process. It feels like it has been an eternity since we won in 2018 at the spring Charlotte race. You do this long enough and to have two years like we had in 2014 and 2015 and to go through the valleys we have gone through, you wonder if it is going to happen again. We just continue to put our heads down and work hard, but this win definitely means a lot to our entire program.”
Enders, who is behind the wheel of her Melling Performance/Elite Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro for Richard Freeman, now has 24 national event wins. Enders, who won world championships in 2014-2015, had lost in three final rounds this season in Chicago (June 2), Brainerd, Minn. (Aug. 18) and Indianapolis (Sept. 2).
“I finally got a trophy,” Enders said. “It feels like dogs years, man. This is what perseverance is all about, you don’t quit, you just keep going. We redeemed ourselves here after our poor performance in Reading.”
Enders lost in the second round in Reading, Sept. 15 to Fernando Cuadra Sr.
“I knew every time I fired that bad boy up (Sunday) that we were going to go out there and make a really great pass,” Enders said. “My guys are giving me a car that I just have to drive to the winner’s circle. It is tough task, but I like the pressure. I’m really excited to have learned what I learned (Sunday) as a driver and I’m going to take that into consideration moving forward. My confidence level is pretty high.”
Enders is now second in the point standings, just 11 behind leader Jason Line.
“We are less than a round of racing out of the lead in the chase for the world championship,” Enders said. “There are four races to go and 16 rounds and I’m excited about it and hopefully we will drive ourselves to the winner’s circle four more times.” Tracy Renck
STOFFER STRIKES ANOTHER BLOW FOR SUZUKI IN HISTORIC PRO STOCK BIKE VICTORY - All season the lament, mostly from Steve Johnson, has been that the Suzukis are on the wrong end of an unfair Pro Stock Motorcycle rule advantage.
But Karen Stoffer reinforced a truth that her White Alligator Racing team boss Jerry Savoie and even Johnson have helped prove in the past three races.
She defeated Harley-Davidson headliner Andrew Hines in Sunday’s final round of the AAA Midwest Insurance Nationals at Madison, Ill., near St. Louis.
Blasting down the World Wide Technology Raceway quarter-mile in 6.869 seconds at 197.74 mph on her Big St. Charles/Skillman Auto Suzuki, Stoffer topped Hines’ 6.876, 196.59 on the Vance & Hines Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson Street Rod.
The Minden, Nevada, resident joined Pro Stock’s Erica Enders on the winners podium. Their victories marked the first time females have won at the same race in Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle.
Other pro winners Sunday were Billy Torrence in Top Fuel and Shawn Langdon in Funny Car.
This event also matched the record set at the 2008 U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis and tied at the 2015 Sonoma Nationals for the most females to compete in the professional ranks at a single event. The number is nine. And this weekend, the Pro Stock Motorcycle class had six female racers (Kelly Clontz, Andie Rawlings, Jianna Salinas, Angelle Sampey, Angie Smith, and Stoffer). The Top Fuel included Brittany Force and Leah Pritchett, and Enders was the lone female Pro Stock driver.
“I wasn’t going to race this year. I was going to sit out. And the next thing you know, we had some dialog and I got a call, and I ended up sitting on this fantastic W.A.R. bike. It worked out really well,” Stoffer said after earning her ninth overall victory but first of the season and first since the 2015 Norwalk, Ohio, race.
It has worked out well, for she jumped from fifth place to second in the standings, 34 points behind freshly reinstated leader Hines.
“It has been a long time. Who thought I would even be here? I wasn’t scheduled to race this year. And we’re winning a race in the Countdown, and that’s phenomenal,” Stoffer said.
Savoie, who had won at Indianapolis to close the regular season and at Reading, Pa., to begin the Countdown to the Championship, fell from the lead to fifth place. He lost in the first round Sunday by about three feet to Hector Arana Jr. with what Stoffer said were some unexpected mechanical issues with his bike.
“It was a bummer to see Jerry go out, especially like he did,” Stoffer said.
Crew chief Tim Kulungian and crew came to her and placed on her shoulders the responsibility to salvage the team’s weekend. She simply said, “OK” and complied.
“The team said, ‘You’ve got to do something about this damage, try to mitigate it a little bit,’ I said, ‘OK,’” Stoffer said.
She already had eliminated title contender Ryan Oehler, so her mission ended up being to knock out Matt Smith (who took himself out with a foul start) and the early-season dominating Harley-Davidson duo of Eddie Krawiec and finally Hines.
Mission accomplished, Stoffer said, marveling at the “heavy hitters” she defeated Sunday.
Before the final round, Kulungian and Savoie told her, “Just do what you’ve been doing. We’re right behind you. We’ve got the bike set up. What you’re doing is fine. What you’re doing will win the race. Just be Karen and go out there and do your job.”
Once again, her concise reply was “OK.”
And Karen was Karen, the fifth different winner in the class this season.
“And that’s what we did,” Stoffer said, making it almost sound effortless.
“I really don’t feel the pressure out there against any one team – because every single team is phenomenal,” she said. “I listen to the team, and I just did what I was doing.”
She said, “It was huge to be able to put everything together, to actually be here [on the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series tour], then to be in the top 10, and to do well at this race.”
One of her sponsors, Big St. Charles Motorsports, who signed on for the six Countdown events, is a leading motorcycle, ATV, and watercraft dealer located at nearby St. Charles, Mo. So it was particularly gratifying for her to perform well at this facility where she never had won before.
“It’s pretty cool,” Stoffer said. “Our team is not a high-budgeted team. We come out here on passion. We come out here with a few great sponsors but not huge amounts of money. And we have fun. Our focus is really to expose this sport to everybody who wants to be able to do it and help train them and show them what they can do when they have that passion.
“What you saw with Erica and me speaks volumes to everybody, not just women. If you have the passion, if you have the will and the ability, you can come out here and do what you want to do. You can progress so that you can win. Handicap, height, weight, gender, nationality . . . it doesn’t matter,” she said.
Ironically, while this is the first time Stoffer and Enders have won pro Wally trophies at the same race, it isn’t the first time they have won on the same day.
When Stoffer defeated Antron Brown in the 2004 Houston final for her first Pro Stock Motorcycle victory, Enders won that day in the sportsman-level Super Gas category.
“So we’ve had that picture together before,” Stoffer said of crossing paths with Enders in the winners circle 15 years ago. “I love the girl. She’s great. She’s awesome, someone I respect tremendously.”
Stoffer said, “The NHRA is so diverse in every capacity. [Everyone’s] talking about women and gender. But you also have height and age. We had Reggie [Showers], who had two amputated legs. There’s no prejudice in this sport – at all, zero. Anybody in any capacity can come out and race this sport, and I think it speaks volumes. It doesn’t have any gender favoritism. Everybody can go down this racetrack.”
And she did it quickest the most times Sunday – including by .0098 of a second against class all-time victories leader Hines, who had beaten her twice in previous finals and 23 times in their previous 31 head-to-head match-ups. Susan Wade
SATURDAY NOTEBOOK – IT’S A SELLOUT AS THE LEADERBOARD SHUFFLES ON DAY TWO
DOING THE FORCE-CORRADI SHUFFLE - John Force has a new dance partner. And he and new crew chief Brian Corradi are spinning around, showing off their fancy Funny Car moves now that they have mastered not stepping on each other’s toes.
They trust one another. They have worked to understand and care about each other. And they’re turning heads as they prepare to take the big bow onstage – not just at this weekend’s AAA Midwest Insurance Nationals at World Wide Technology Raceway, near St. Louis, but in November at the year-end awards ceremony in Hollywood.
And the way they’re gliding through the end of the regular season and the start of the Countdown, they just might be the stars at the grand ballroom.
Force – who earned his record-extending 150th victory at Seattle, his 151st two races later, and opened the Countdown with a final-round appearance at Reading, Pa. – put his Peak/Blue DEF Chevy Camaro at the top of the order Saturday.
He did so with a 3.842-second elapsed time and 334.40-mph speed on the 1,000-foot course at Madison, Ill.
“It’s been consistent all weekend, ‘Old Blue’ my PEAK BlueDEF Camaro. It ran a .99[-second E.T.] in the first session then ran a .91 and .91 again. I didn’t think it would step up and run better than an .85,” Force said.
“Corradi said, ‘Let’s just see what it’ll do. Brian Corradi is a different guy than an Austin Coil,” the top qualifier said of the tuner who guided him to the majority of his 16 series championships and remains a confidante today.
“We all come from different ways of life. Corradi and I, we go around about stuff, but he was really concerned about my race car, with hurting me, and that really mattered to me. He said that in a meeting we had a couple days ago and then again today. And so I found some heart in there, and that matters to me that way,” Force said. “He surrounds himself with a great team: my son-in-law Daniel Hood, Ashley’s husband, and Tim Fabrisi and all these young kids. They really want a shot at the top – and I want a shot, too. I’m the old kid in the family, but I’m starting to get my head right, racing with Corradi. And we just have to learn how to understand each other.”
He has found that Corradi knows what he’s talking about.
“Corradi said what it would do, and it did it,” Force said.
Matt Hagan stepped up and nudged John Force Racing’s Robert Hight from the top position in Saturday’s third overall qualifying session. That didn’t surprise Force, but his own performance did at least a little bit.
“I really thought Robert Hight or even Hagan might pull it out, because they had nothing to do but go for it,” Force said. “But we got it, got that No. 1. We come here with AAA Missouri and it’s very important that Robert or I or [Top Fuel drivers Austin] Prock or Brittany [Force] get it done. This PEAK team got it tonight. It was a good night for me, and hasn’t even sunk in yet.”
But Jack Beckman warned everyone at the last race – that Force doesn’t need any extra motivation to figure out how to storm from even out of nowhere to win races and championships.
Force will meet No. 16 qualifier Terry Haddock in the first round of eliminations Sunday.
The surprising bottom half of the Funny Car ladder starts with points leader and Reading winner Beckman and includes Countdown racers Shawn Langdon and Tim Wilkerson, as well as dangerous Blake Alexander and Cruz Pedregon. Susan Wade
SWIPER, NO SWIPING! - Top Fuel title contender Mike Salinas sent the message right away at the AAA Midwest Insurance Nationals that he’s knuckling down and doesn’t plan to stay in sixth place in the standings.
He was quickest in Friday’s first session at Madison, Ill.’s World Wide Technology Raceway. Billy Torrence got his 15 minutes of fame as the leader overnight and early Saturday, while Salinas and his Scrappers Racing Dragster lurked close behind. And then Salinas marched in at the 11th hour, in Saturday afternoon’s final session, and reclaimed the top spot.
Salinas covered the 1,000-foot course near St. Louis in 3.687 seconds at 330.55 mph for his fifth No. 1 start this year and sixth overall.
And he credited his car, his crew, and some secret squirrels.
“I know Alan has some secret squirrels in his head,” Salinas said of tuner Alan Johnson, who has gathered and parlayed a wealth of performance information to earn 12 Top Fuel crowns with six different drivers.
“Alan has a really funny look when he does some knob-twisting,” he said. “He just gives you this glance. It’s amazing. It’s like, ‘Hang on, Baby – we’re going.’
“I’m just happy being part of this group. I’m learning so much,” Salinas said. “When you come with Alan Johnson, it’s like I don’t know anything about racing. He’s teaching me a lot, and the crew is teaching me a lot. I appreciate what they’re doing with me and helping me. They’re doing a great job, and I appreciate it. The crew is ready for the Countdown.”
He said one of the main things he is learning is that “driving a fast race car is not like driving a slow car – and there is a difference.” But he said Johnson wasn’t going to do anything rash this weekend just to get back into the No. 1 position.
“He doesn’t make big jumps. He makes small jumps. He moves in little by little, little by little. But he’s consistent – and very, very good at what he does,” Salinas said.
Billy Torrence is the No. 2 qualifier with a 3.699-second elapsed time. He and Salinas are the only ones to post 3.6-second E.T.s so far this weekend.
The John Force Racing duet of Austin Prock and Brittany Force are third and fourth, respectively, with Prock clocking the Top Fuel’s fastest speed of the weekend: 332.10 mph.
Salinas will race against fellow Californian and No. 16 qualifier Cameron Ferré in Sunday’s first round of eliminations, but Salinas has faith in his own car and crew.
“You don’t have to set the world on fire first round. At the end of the day, winning the race, that’s the main thing. We’re not hurting parts. I think we’re going to have a really fast car for race day. I’m looking forward to it,” he said.
“The car’s real smooth, real fast,” Salinas said, adding, “Funny part is it has more in it.”
Especially with six different winners in the nine races since Salinas earned his second 2019 victory at Bristol, his rivals aren’t laughing. Susan Wade
BRIMMING WITH CONFIDENCE - For the second time in as many NHRA Countdown races, Erica Enders will lead the Pro Stock field into Sunday’s eliminations.
The Houston native took over the top qualifying position from early leader Bo Butner Friday evening and held onto it through two Saturday sessions at the AAA Midwest Insurance Nationals at World Wide Technology Raceway.
Her 6.552-second pass at 209.85 mph on the Madison, Ill., quarter-mile in the Melling Chevrolet Camaro gave Enders her 21st career No. 1 start.
“I have a great car underneath me, and we’re ready for race day. It definitely makes going to sleep on Saturday night a tick easier,” Enders, who’s seeking her first victory of the year after runner-up finishes at Chicago, Brainerd, and Indianapolis, said.
If she can beat No. 16 Dodge Dart driver Alan Prusinesky in the first round Sunday, she will reach the 20-round-win plateau this season. It would be another achievement to add to her list of happy memories here, where in 2005 she announced she would be stepping up in 2006 from the sportsman-level Super Comp class and turning professional to race Victor Cagnazzi’s Pro Stock car. She also won the Pro Stock trophy here in 2012 and 2013.
But she doesn’t have her head in the past. She’s completely engaged in the details of the present.
“Something that I’ve worked on all weekend is my reaction times,” she said, “and we’ve been between .011 and .017 on all four runs. And that’s pretty great, and that makes me feel good. Just having that confidence means everything.”
She relied on that self-assurance when she made her first pass Saturday, for she already had been moved down in the order to seventh by the time she rolled to the starting line. Her crew told her, “If you stage right and shift right and we have our stuff together, we’ll go right back to the top. And sure enough, we did.”
Enders and No. 2 qualifier Jeg Coughlin packed a 1-2 punch for Elite Motorsports as the only two to dip into the 6.55-second elapsed-time range.
Steve Graham barged into the field in the final session at No. 14 to spoil a lineup that would have included Fernando Cuadra and two sons, Fernando Jr. and Cristian. The father will start from the No. 10 slot and face Bo Butner, and Cuadra Jr. will race out of the No. 13 position and meet Greg Anderson. But Cristian Cuadra missed the cut along with Wally Stroupe and Robert River.
Enders celebrated her father’s birthday Friday by capturing the provisional top spot. That performance allowed her – in her words - “to redeem myself.” She said she was the cause of a sub-par first-session run that left her in a respectable but distasteful fourth place – and cost her the chance to have low elapsed time in all four qualifying sessions. She knew the reason right away – her new helmet with what she called a “badass” paint job but ineffective padding to suit her driving style.
“I drive with my ears,” she said. The padding, she said, made her feel like she had her hands over her ears. And she said not being able to hear the pitch of the engine threw her off enough to miss her gear-shifting points. It was an especially annoying fate, because she said her car was prepared perfectly.
“When I drive it right, the sky’s the limit,” Enders said.
And she said she’s optimistic and confident heading into race day. And the two-time series champion said her crew members “have their swagger back” as the team continues to “crawl our way back to the top.”
This weekend’s overall strong performance, coupled with solid ones at Brained and Indianapolis to end the regular season and at Reading to start the Countdown, has her feeling that way with five races remaining in the season.
“We have struggled the last couple of years. Perseverance pays off,” Enders said. “It’s been frustrating, for sure, with the guys I have and the ability they have to not see win lights and winners circle pictures as often as we might expect them or think they should happen. But they’ve done a tremendous job sticking with me. We’re not giving up. I promised them I’m going to drive my tail off.”
So far she is keeping her promise. - Susan Wade
FINE WITH THAT - So far this weekend at World Wide Technology Raceway in suburban St. Louis, Matt Smith’s own transmission has been giving him more trouble than his NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle rivals.
Smith leads the field for Sunday’s AAA Midwest Insurance Nationals eliminations with a 6.801-second elapsed time and 198.93-mph speed on the Madison, Ill., quarter-mile course that’s .037-seconds quicker than closest competitor Steve Johnson.
His transmission broke in third gear during his final qualifying run Saturday (and gave him fits Friday evening, as well), but his E.T. from earlier in the day was enough to secure the 35th No. 1 starting spot of his career. Unruffled, Smith said he’ll pop another tranny in for race day and will be good to go against No. 16 qualifier Jianna Salinas in the opening round.
If he can beat her, he’ll have his 340th elimination round-win.
Smith, rider of the Elite Motorsports Denso Auto Parts EBR, was part of a Pro Stock sweep in time trials. Erica Enders, his Elite teammate, was No. 1 in Pro Stock. Moreover, dad Rickie Smith was quickest among the Pro Modified racers Saturday.
“It’s a pretty proud moment,” Smith said.
And it comes at a venue he said he thinks of as “my second home track.” The reigning series champion and reigning champion here at this facility also won here two other times, in 2007 and 2013. He said he loves this dragstrip because “it has lots of bite.” He said he felt assured coming into this weekend because “it’s one of our better tracks. And we’ve got our good motor in.”
He indicated that he might have led the 16-bike field at the close of Friday qualifying had he not pushed himself out of his comfort zone and tried something more aggressive in the second overall session.
“We just missed it yesterday evening,” Smith said Saturday. “So today we got it.
“Tomorrow’s important,” the No. 3-seeded driver in the playoffs said. “We need to win the race. We were 23 points out coming into this race [behind Suzuki-riding class leader Jerry Savoie and 17 behind No. 2-ranked Harley-Davidson star Andrew Hines]. As long as we go to the semifinals or finals, we’ll stay in the hunt. You can ‘t have any first-round losses in the Countdown.”
Smith will be going for his 24th career victory and first since the one he earned upstate at Joliet, Ill., in June. Smith was runner-up earlier this season, at Las Vegas and Sonoma.
He said that he’ll work on the transmission, then try the go-kart track at World Wide Technology Raceway for some relaxation.
And that time in the go-kart Saturday night might be the only fun he gets, for Eddie Krawiec, Karen Stoffer, Hector Arana Jr., and Angelle Sampey could scramble the points behind Savoie and Hines in a hurry. - Susan Wade
MOMENTS OF MAYHEM - During the final round of qualifying at the AAA Insurance NHRA Midwest Nationals in Madison, Ill., Pro Mod driver Rick Hord lost control of his turbocharged 2018 Chevrolet Camaro and crashed.
Hord, who was not qualified prior to the run, pulled a wheelstand around the 200-foot mark, and made a quick move toward the centerline. He then corrected but the car darted to the right. The race car then turned up on its side just before impacting the retaining wall just past half-track, resulting in a quick fireball.
The car ended up on its roof where it slid to a stop. Hord exited the car under his own power.
DONE BLOWED IT UP - If you can’t be the fastest, be the most spectacular.
Saturday at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway, Tim Wilkerson was a bit both.
Wilkerson was on a strong pass in front of his home crowd, but down-track, his engine exploded into a fireball and the carbon fiber Funny Car body was ejected from the chassis. He brought the car to a stop and he emerged uninjured, and there were no injuries reported from the skyward Mustang body.
“Right before it blew, it just kind of half-way laid over, then bang,” explained Wilkerson. “That’s the first time we’ve ever had that happen – to me, anyway, that far down the track. It’s drag racing, and when you run a Funny Car, you know you have the potential for those type of situations.
“But we’ve got all of our Wilk’s Warriors and LRS fans here, and I’m sure the morale that these folks bring us will be enough to help us get everything back together. We’ll have something for whoever we race tomorrow, you know we will.”
Wilkerson, who is No. 9 in the NHRA Countdown to the Championship points heading into raceday, will square off with Jonnie Lindberg in the first round.
THE BLACK AND YELLOW - Good thing the weatherman is wrong a time or five.
Five-time Pro Stock champion Jeg Coughlin Jr. took full advantage of improved weather conditions, rocketing up to the lofty No. 2 position.
“It was supposed to be in the 90s with bright sun on the track today but we ended up having not much sun at all and some good cloud cover so most everyone was able to step it up,” Coughlin Jr. said. “The track stayed really tight all day, which kind of nullified what we did yesterday, but fortunately for us we jumped up to second place and then we were second-quickest again in Q4 so we’re very pleased”
Coughlin was fourth overall after Friday’s evening session, which is normally the best of time trials. But a stout 6.558 at 208.01 mph in Q3 placed his JEGS.com Elite Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro just behind his teammate Erica Enders’ 6.552 at 209.85 mph and a few ticks ahead of current points leader Jason Line’s 6.560 at 209.52 mph.
“First session Friday we were off just a little bit but Rickie (Jones, crew chief) and the yellow and black JEGS crew got after it and we moved up to fourth with a great night run,” Coughlin Jr. said. “In most cases, that’s the best time to show off but we got this agreeable shift in the weather today and we were able to give these great fans a show.
“Anytime all the team cars are running well, and when one of us is No. 1, like Erica is here, then we know we have a bunch of data to share, which makes us all stronger. We have a very talented bank of crew chiefs at Elite and Rickie, who heads up my car, has been making great calls. I like our chances to win another one here in St. Louis.”
A five-time winner at World Wide Technology Raceway, Coughlin was victorious at this facility in Pro Stock in 2002 and 2009, Super Stock in 1997 and 2003, as Top Dragster in 2010. He also was runner-up in Pro Stock in 1998, 2007 and 2010.
When Pro Stock eliminations begin around noon local time, Coughlin will be facing Val Smeland, who topped out at 6.633 at 207.30 mph.
“We came into this race off a strong semifinal finish in Reading (Pa.) that could have been even better than it was,” Coughlin Jr. said. “The guys just freshened everything up so we could just continue on the progression we were making there. We’re enjoying the momentum we’ve built.
“Tomorrow is supposed to be just like what they called for today, which was hot and sunny, but it could turn out like it did today and stay a touch cooler. I hope it’s cloudy so we can thrill the fans a little more, but if it’s sunny then it will be very interesting to see how the crew chiefs are tested.”
CRUZ FOR THE CAUSE - Cruz Pedregon's Dodge Charger has a new pink paint scheme to recognize the partnership his primary sponsor Snap-on has with The Pink Fund, an organization dedicated to covering 90-day, non-medical, cost-of-living expenses for individuals undergoing breast cancer treatment.
"My sister Dora was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago, and Molly MacDonald, The Pink Fund founder, was a great resource to her," Pedregon said. "Thankfully, Dora owns her own business, has great insurance, and her husband and family to support her, so she didn't need the financial assistance many do from The Pink Fund, but Molly was an invaluable source for information Dora couldn't find anywhere else. It's an honor to host Molly here at the track and have The Pink Fund logo on the car as a 'thank you' for being so helpful to my sister and to hundreds of other families each year."
Until now Pedregon had kept quiet that his sister, Dora Williams, had a lumpectomy two years ago followed by radiation and will be on medication for several years. She says the diagnosis was hard for Cruz and her brothers to face, but they checked on her regularly and sent flowers during her surgery and radiation treatments.
"Everything moved quickly after the cancer was found on a mammogram," Williams said. "I really didn't have time to process it all, I just kept going. Molly took the time to talk with me about breast cancer, especially after the medication kicked in and it just got the best of me.”
The Snap-on Dodge® paint scheme features The Pink Fund logo atop a background filled with a multitude of individual pink ribbons to honor the many people affected by breast cancer. The ribbons are designed to resemble flames found in classic hot rod designs to ensure the team has a car that looks as fast as it runs on the track.
Snap-on will once again dedicate a portion of pink-themed promotional tools sales to The Pink Fund, bringing its total donation over the past five years to more than $400,000.
JOON'S EXCITING ADVENTURE - Lex Joon missed the 16-car field, managing an 18th best 4.143 elapsed time. The team had high hopes coming in because of some new mechanical changes they were employing.
"Since St. Louis, we've upgraded to a larger size lifter, this is part of the valve train which will allow the car to withstand the current power we are making," Joon said. "With help from Todd Paton at Performance Data Systems, the dashboard is fixed and for the first time ever the lights are working. Lots of work and a big investment in parts and labor but we know it's all worth it. We will do what we have to do to make sure we make it into the top 10 in the near future, starting in 2020. For a small, independent team this may seem like a huge undertaking, but that doesn't scare us off. The team has been supercharged with the support coming from Chip Lofton/Strutmasters and Lance Larsen, just over the top! We're looking forward to attracting new companies to join with us for the future."
On Friday, the team played host to Nashville, Tenn.-based music group The Blue Trees.
"In the Netherlands, music is not as widely available as in the United States," Joon explained. "Since our move here, we have enjoyed the opportunity to explore a variety of music. Gerda loves country music, and I lean toward Classic Rock and Country."
Joon used their song Rhythm and Brews as his walk-up song on Friday evening.
"Really cool to see the relationship between music and our sport," Joon said. "What's really great is they share the same mentality as our team; when it's your passion you #neverquit!"
TWO POINTS WILL DO - Austin Prock kept the momentum rolling with a 3.707-second pass at 332.10 mph that had him picking up two additional bonus points. Prock’s time would hold as third quickest as he laid down another solid 3.712-second pass at 330.55 mph. His No. 3 spot is his second of the season and his best race day start.
“It’s been our best weekend so far for this Montana Brand / Rocky Mountain Twist team. Our car has been performing at the top of the charts all weekend long and we got the No. 3 qualifier spot,” said Prock who races T.J. Zizzo round one. “I’m excited to see what we can get done tomorrow and if we can keep it up, I think we’ll be hard to beat.”
If you’re going to lose the top spot, it’s acceptable to lose it to the boss.
Entering the day sitting No. 1, Robert Hight and his AAA Missouri Chevy Camaro SS team ran into some trouble on their third qualifying run and had to shut off early to a 5.106-second pass at 145.94 mph.
Hight and the AAA team got back on track for the fourth and final session when they matched their Friday night elapsed time of 3.877-seconds and crossed the finish line at 331.61 mph. Hight will begin race day from the No. 4 to face Bob Bode in round one.
“Not a bad day for the AAA Missouri team, we were able to match our pass from last night and we’re right there in the mix,” Hight explained. “Race day is going to be exciting. Every point counts, I gained a couple yesterday but John put on a show tonight
“These AAA boys will be working hard tomorrow with Jimmy Prock and Chris Cunningham to defend our win from last year, just hoping to do it with a little less fire. It’s a AAA race so we’re hoping to celebrate with them in the winner’s circle, especially since we didn’t get to do it last year. We’ve done well at the AAA events so hopefully we can keep it up.”
FRIDAY NOTEBOOK – THEY’RE PLAYING WHACK-A-MOLE UNDER THE ARCH
WHACKING THE MOLE - The Torrence father-son duo are like the carnival game “Whack-A-Mole.”
Just when the other NHRA Top Fuel contenders think they’ve driven them into their underground bunkers, the Texas tandem pops up again and causes havoc.
In Friday night qualifying at the AAA Midwest Insurance Nationals, No. 10-ranked Billy Torrence claimed the provisional No. 1 spot in his part-time Capco Dragster that’s a full-time menace even to his reigning-champion son Steve. He clocked a 3.699-second elapsed time at 321.88 mph on the World Wide Technology Raceway 1,000-foot course at Madison, Ill., near St. Louis.
Billy Torrence had started out the day in seventh place and didn’t appear to be on a roll, having finished as runner-up to Doug Kalitta at the U.S. Nationals, then losing in the opening round of the Countdown, at Reading, Pa., two weekends ago.
Meanwhile, Steve Torrence had looked almost unstoppable again this season until recently. Since a runner-up finish at Seattle that put him at eight victories in 11 final rounds, he hasn’t advanced past the quarterfinals and lost in the first round at Reading (for only his second Round 1 defeat all year). With that, he lost the points lead to Kalitta. But he improved Friday from fifth place to second after his first qualifying attempt, vaulting from fifth place in the tentative order to second with a 3.717-second pass.
“The run felt good all the way,” Billy Torrence said of his chart-topping effort Friday – that crossed the stipe on only five or six of his engine’s eight cylinders. “It left good. I knew the car was running really well.
“Before the finish line, it put out two or three holes, and I was having to drive it around. And interestingly enough, for some reason the parachute mechanism malfunctioned. They didn’t come out. And I noticed I was going a little too fast. I had a hold of that brake handle. I probably should have pulled that manual lever, but I wasn’t letting loose of the brake.
“It didn’t scare me too much at the time, because I was going too fast,” he said. “I knew what I had to do. I got the car shut down. I hit the button twice down through there. And you know, I might have been late getting [the parachutes] out, anyway, but I could tell it wasn’t out. I didn’t feel ’em hit. It’s a sudden stop – when they come out, you know it. So as the car started to unload, I pumped the brakes several times and used a little bit of experience and got ’er shut down.”
He said he wasn’t afraid he’d land in the sand trap: “I knew I had plenty of room. I probably ruined a new pair of brake pads.”
He said he wasn’t counting on his 3.699-second E.T. to be the best of the class, for he said son Steve and crew chief Richard Hogan “if they had wanted to, could have lowered that deal, because what we were working on was just calibration between the two cars. They knew what I had. They saw that. They probably could have run two- or three-hundredths quicker, but they chose to leave them just alike to see what the difference was. And it was about a hundredth. So that’s about as close as you can get ’em together.”
Billy Torrence, though last among the title-eligible Top Fuel racers, has a 20-9 race-day record, victories at Phoenix and Sonoma and a final-round spot at Indianapolis in only 10 regular-season appearances. So he’s as dangerous as any higher-seeded driver.
He said Hogan tests constantly and just might be tinkering with some aspect of his tune-up when the weekend’s final two qualifying sessions kick off Saturday.
“That’s what he does. He’ll have my guys testing something. [Steve]’ll test something, too. We’ll try to stay on opposite sides of the ladder and see what we can do [in Sunday’s eliminations],” Billy Torrence said. “We’ll go out tomorrow [Saturday] and try to make some representative passes. It looks like the weather is going to be very similar all weekend.”
One of his main goals, he said, is “try to stay away from Steve. Maybe we can stay on opposite sides of the ladder and win and runner-up this week. If I run across him, chances are he’ll beat me. He usually does. I did beat him one time – they had an engine failure. It’s my wife’s race team, so I don’t do any bragging. Every now and then I sneak up on him.”
And that’s why Billy Torrence can play a mean game of “Whack-A-Mole.” – Susan Wade
HIGHT ‘MANAGEABLE AND FAST’ AFTER PRODUCTIVE FUNNY CAR TEST - Just like the last time he was on the dragstrip at World Wide Technology Raceway, near St. Louis, Robert Hight was ruling the NHRA Funny Car action.
Unlike the last time he was here, Hight was not on fire, not hitting the wall, and not ending up at the hospital with a broken collarbone Friday night.
But the John Force Racing driver and president still was the man to beat as the AAA Midwest Insurance Nationals opened.
Hight, driving the Auto Club of Southern California Chevy Camaro, captured the tentative No. 1 qualifying position with a 3.877-second, 334.90-mph pass on the 1,000-foot course at Madison, Ill.
He gained five qualifying bonus points Friday and said “that’s going to put us back in the ballgame” after yielding his year-long lead at Reading to Jack Beckman. Fortunately for Hight, Beckman’s weekend didn’t start out so well. The Don Schumacher Racing driver evidently didn’t stop at the scale as required after his first run and forfeited his not-so-great-anyway 5.221-second elapsed time that reflected a loss of traction. But Beckman climbed back to the provisional No. 4 spot in the evening session.
After trading places with tentative No. 2 driver Bob Tasca III, the early leader with a 3.958 who improved to 3.904 with the day’s second chance, Hight credited his Monday test session almost two weeks ago at Reading, Pa, for his strong showing Friday.
He said he rather expected that four-pass exercise to produce stellar numbers at St. Louis. He said he had “high hopes” for an outstanding start at this race that his primary sponsor also sponsors.
“There’s very few days you have a test session that’s as productive as that one,” Hight said. “We made four really good runs testing, and usually when you try to fix the car from spinning the tires, it slows down. But [crew chief] Jimmy Prock was not going to let this thing slow down. That’s not how you’re going to win the championship, and that’s not what you need in the Countdown. We were able to get it manageable and keep it fast.”
The Nos. 3-9 racers in the order so far – John Force, Beckman, Matt Hagan, Tommy Johnson, Jonnie Lindberg, JR Todd, and Shawn Langdon – are separated by less than three-hundredths of a second. Terry Haddock sits on the 4.232-second bump spot. Eager to take advantage of the additional two qualifying sessions scheduled for Saturday are Dale Creasy and Jack Wyatt, who are unqualified after Friday’s action.
Hight said it’s “pretty exciting” to excel at his sponsor’s race, calling his performance Friday “a good way to shine and show off.”
Noting that three of the Countdown’s six races (including the Dallas event and the season finale at Pomona, Calif.) are AAA-sponsored events, Hight said that puts no pressure on him. He said the result is the opposite: “They keep me hoppin’, and it’s easier. It makes your days go by quicker. You’re not thinking about all the stuff you could be thinking about. You stay busy and it usually goes well.”
Reflecting on last fall’s painful victory, Hight said, “We got the win. I knew the thing was not happy. I was racing Tim Wilkerson. You’re leading the points. It’s final round. I look over into the right lane, and I didn’t him. So I had to just stay with it. It finally blew up. The biggest deal is that nobody could tell me whether I won. That hurt worse than a broken collarbone.” Susan Wade
HE’S IN THE FAST CAR - If there’s ever a good time to sit on the couch during an off-weekend, Funny Car racer Shawn Langdon hasn’t discovered it. Last weekend while the series was idle, Langdon, also a past NHRA Lucas Oil Series champion, was in Bristol, Tenn., trying to grab a share of the serious coin up for grabs at the Fall Fling 500K.
“There is a lot of money up for grabs right now,” Langdon said of the bracket racing scene.
Langdon scored a runner-up on Day 2, the $30,000-to-win day.
“I ended up runner-up in that race, and after the split, I made $12,000,” Langdon said. “Then I had my buddy Ryan Mangus come out from California. I raced my yellow car and he raced the white car, and he got down to five cars of the 500 grander, and he made $25,000.”
Langdon admits downtime is not his friend. Keeping busy equals keeping sharp.
“If I was just going out racing one car focused on Super Comp and you have a lot of downtime, I felt like I wasn’t as good as if I were running two cars and I was busy all the time between both of the cars,” Langdon explained. “I kind of feel a little bit the same way in this day where I don’t have off weekends. Since February, I’ve maybe had three or four off weekends. I’ve literally raced every weekend that I possibly can.
“I think it just keeps me sharp, it keeps your mental focus; kind of keeps the competitive nature up. You don’t really have any time to come down from the last race where it’s like okay, I’ve got a week or two off and go about other stuff.”
ON THE RIGHT TRACK - Never mind the fact she dominated qualifying and moved up a place in the point standings after a respectable performance two weeks ago at the NHRA Nationals in Reading, Erica Enders came into St. Louis wanting more. After two sessions, she is on the right track for success.
Enders went 6.580 at 207.15 mph on Friday behind the wheel of her Melling Performance/Elite Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro. If the run holds it will be her second straight No. 1 qualifier and 21st of her career.
“We felt like we let one slip through our fingers in Reading, but we’re moving forward with a positive attitude,” said Enders, a 23-time NHRA Pro Stock winner. “We just have to focus on what’s ahead of us, and that’s the mindset we need to have. We moved up to fourth and picked up a lot of qualifying points, so it’s all within reach. Now we have to go out and execute.”
Enders moved from fifth to fourth in points following Reading, trailing race winner Jason Line by 78 points. She earned a total of eight points in qualifying.
“Our mindset is we can’t give up any opportunities to gain those qualifying points,” Enders said. “But my guys are great at having the car ready to go right off the trailer, and I just have to do my job. I think we all like the pressure of it, being ready to go right away and putting down a good run.”
Enders, who has two career wins at St. Louis, picked up three bonus points for her Friday performance.
WHAT COMES AROUND, GOES BACK AROUND – Pro Stock Motorcycle competitor Jerry Savoie, even though he’s won an NHRA championship, has only entered one race weekend as the point leader. A victory two weekends ago at Reading vaulted Savoie into the point lead for the first time since he won the championship by one point. It’s the only time he’s ever been the king of the hill, until now.
Savoie finds himself as the provisional king of the hill with five more races left in the season; a kingdom, he said, no one saw coming.
“I tell you, man, I mean nobody seen it coming,” Savoie said. “I missed three races, and I wasn’t counting on making the Top 10. I wasn’t going to go to Reading. John Hall was going to ride my bike. So we went to Sonoma and did fair, and then we went to Indy and moved up to number five and then moved up to number one on this trip here.
“Steve Johnson did a lot of that help because he’s not in the points and he knocked out Matt, and he knocked out Junior. And the Harleys went out, so that was a big jump for us, you know.”
With his big win at Indy and follow-up in Reading, Savoie knows the competition will be looking at the water’s edge for the alligator lurking just below.
“It was real funny because somebody in the NHRA posted on Facebook early part of last week, week before, and was talking about top contenders Andrew Hines and Matt Smith,” Savoie said. “Angie Smith commented. She was laughing about it. But I told them, I said, ‘Be careful, there’s an alligator out there lurking somewhere.”
For Savoie, the breaks keep rolling his way, and he’s going to ride the wave for as long as it keeps moving him forward.
“We’ve got five races left, and it’s anybody’s game,” Savoie said. “You know, if you think about the season for me, myself, man I went to the finals in Atlanta, and Andrew ran me down. Then we had a good race in Charlotte, and where else did I race we did well? But anyway, I haven’t done badly, but I missed those three races, and by dropping out, everybody’s like, ‘Well you all been sandbagging.’ This and that.”
“It’s not true. Everybody knows we had crankshaft problems last year. I told everybody. With Byron and Eddie and guys at the shop got together and it was a struggle, man. It seems like we’ve got it fixed. We haven’t hurt a crank in a while, and we’re making good power now. We still can’t run the back numbers that Matt and them are running, but, you know, we’ve got a total package.
“They’re [Buell] making more power than we are. They’re complaining about us getting a four-valve, but the bottom line is if we get a four-valve and we go faster, then they can put some weight on everybody, and you can get more interest in the Suzuki market and get more riders to come out that weigh 170 pounds. But the way it is now, these riders can’t compete at this level, they’re too heavy.”
As Savoie sees it, the struggle is real keeping on the south side of 150 pounds.
It’s not so much of a struggle to steer clear of the war of words flying between some of the Buell teams and every other combination in the class.
“If you notice something about our team, you don’t ever hear us commenting or talking about any of that bulls***,” Savoie said. “I stay in my trailer. You don’t ever see me walking around the pits. We stay to ourselves, and we focus on our own program. If most people would focus on their own program, they’d probably be a lot better off. I don’t mean no particular team directly, but the bottom line is we focus on ourselves, and I think it shows.”
But talk against the proposed Suzuki four-valve, and the gator will bite.
“You know, what really gets my ass is they’ve [Buell] got an engine that was never in a production motorcycle,” Savoie said. “So they build a brand new engine. They had a body, well, that wasn’t good enough. They come out with another body; the d*** bike ain’t never went into production. And you want to complain about giving Suzuki’s a four-valve? Kiss my ass, man. That’s bull***.
Yeah, he’s riled up.
“I mean they’re the ones complaining mostly,” Savoie continued. “And the bottom line is they’ve got a body that didn’t even exist, and they were already outrunning us 199, 200 miles per hour. What NHRA does is gives them another body. So don’t tell me about getting a four-valve head. I think it will be good for the class because you get more riders interested in coming out is just the way I see it.”
IT’S YOU AND YOU ONLY - Drag racing is a straight line sport, but drama associated with it can produce many winding turns. Just ask Richie Crampton, who drove his way two weeks ago to the Top Fuel title at the NHRA Nationals in Reading, Pa., the first of six races in the NHRA’s Countdown to the Championship.
Crampton left the event fifth in points and a bona fide contender for the title.
“I’ve always had the utmost confidence in my team, but it does change the dynamic and outlook of the Countdown,” Crampton said. “We try to win every weekend, but seeing we have a real shot at it, it just makes everyone focused a lot more. Not that they weren’t already, but positively, it just really makes it more real and more exciting. I’m enjoying it.”
Crampton’s win at Maple Grove Raceway was the Australian native’s first win outside of Gainesville since 2015, a year when he finished third in points. He won at Gainesville in 2018, but couldn’t find the winning combination the rest of the year. Crampton and his team, led by legendary team owner Connie Kalitta and assistant crew chief Kurt Elliott, won Gainesville again this season but had struggled to get another win. Crampton fell in three straight first rounds before the playoffs, starting in ninth, but all of that went away with four impressive rounds in Reading.
“You can really only worry about yourself,” said Crampton, who has ten career Top Fuel wins. “It’s going to take care of itself. At the end of the day, you don’t have the opportunity to race all the contenders in the first round at the next race. To me, it’s key that we can continue to keep moving forward. Winning races is the ultimate goal, but at the very least going a couple of rounds each weekend. Nobody else is going to help you as much as you can help yourself.”
HOMETOWN ADVANTAGE? - World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway is the home track for Funny Car racer Tim Wilkerson, whose Levi, Ray & Shoup team is based in Springfield, Illinois, just 93 miles from the racetrack.
Wilkerson reached the finals of last year’s event, falling one round shy of his 21st career national event victory.
“St. Louis is a big race for us, and hopefully we’ll have something for them like we did last year,” Wilkerson said. “That was a very good weekend, and if we can keep our momentum up and go a couple of rounds at a time like we did last year, we’ll be in good shape. I’m excited – we have a pretty decent car with this 40th anniversary Ford Mustang.
“Coming into our home track and having everybody cheering for us, that’s a lot of fun. Our sponsor, Dick Levi, was real pumped after we won first round in Reading; it’d sure be cool to get a win for him and all the folks who stand behind us. It’s going to be a good Countdown.”
The last time Wilkerson won in St. Louis, was in 2008 when he beat Mike Neff, then a driver for John Force Racing.
GETTING A W - Out of 259 NHRA Funny Car races he’s entered, Matt Hagan has won 31 of them. None of those victories have come in St. Louis.
“I’ve never won St. Louis and I’d like to check it off the list,” Hagan admitted. “We blew the tires off second round at our last race in Reading, Pa., and it wasn’t the weekend we were looking for. We’ve got to bounce back. We’ve got five races left, and there are no do-overs. It was great to see our teammate, Jack Beckman, pull down the win, but things change fast in the Countdown. We need to have a good showing in St. Louis so we can put ourselves back in contention.”
Hagan is running the Sandvik Coromat body this weekend, a key figure in the Don Schumacher Motorsports custom parts business.
“We have the DSM Precision Engineering Dodge Hellcat Widebody this weekend, and it’s cool to be able to represent DSM,” Hagan said. “Not a lot of people are aware of all that goes on at DSM back at our race headquarters in Brownsburg, Ind. We make more than 250 parts and do CNC machining work for not just race cars but automotive and aerospace customers as well. It’s a huge operation, and whether it be chassis, engine, clutch or supercharger components, (crew chief) Dickie (Venables) and our guys know they can count on DSM to get them what they need.”
Hagan was 5th quickest on Friday, thanks to a 3.921, 327.66 run in the Q-2 session.
FIRST TIME FOR EVERYTHING - Versatile drag racer Alex Laughlin scored a monumental first victory here in 2016, but it was a bit of a bittersweet achievement as the triumph came just two races after missing the NHRA’s playoffs by a mere two points. This season Laughlin sealed the deal and races now as a championship contender.
Laughlin sure has come a long way, this time entering the event as the third-ranked Pro Stocker in the NHRA’s world.
“That race was just about the time we started running well and qualifying well, and it was so cool, but it kind of stunk because we weren’t in the Countdown,” Laughlin said. “I didn’t really want to be considered the spoiler because I wasn’t in the Countdown, especially because we had missed it by two points. But it definitely makes you appreciate it more now. Things are as good as they’ve ever been, and there’s no reason why we can’t keep it up and get some more wins.”
This season has been a breakout one for Laughlin, enabling him to maintain his status atop the championship point standings all season. Two weeks ago, Laughlin finished in the quarterfinals in Reading, Pa.
“I don’t really feel a lot of pressure because we’ve achieved so much already this season,” said Laughlin, who has three career wins. “It’s been a heck of a season, and I couldn’t ask for anything more. I have all the confidence in the world in my crew chief (Brian ‘Lump’ Self) and having a good car is the least of my worries. Anything from here is a bonus for us.”
CHECKING THE CHECKLIST - It’s not a bucket list, but is a list of desired accomplishments for Karen Stoffer who is in her first season racing with a new team. Making her way into the Countdown was one. Now she seeks her first win since 2015.
Stoffer rode her way to the semifinals two weeks ago at Maple Grove Raceway, where she fell to the eventual winner, current points leader and White Alligator Racing teammate Jerry Savoie. She made substantial strides in the championship point standings, moving up to fifth in points, just 46 points behind Savoie.
“I feel like I’m in a good spot,” said Stoffer, who has eight career wins. “I wish Reading turned out a little different, but I’m happy we’ve got a fast bike, so I’m excited about St. Louis. Every rider out there is tough, so just being in the top 10 is phenomenal. I’m going into this with the hopes and ambition to continue to improve every race, and hopefully, that turns on win lights. It’s been a while since I won a race, but I really feel optimistic about the bike and equipment we have.”
Stoffer has praised the work of crew chief Tim Kulungian, who has adapted to her riding style to give her a bike capable of performing well. She advanced to the final round in Chicago earlier this year, but Stoffer admitted it took some time for everything to come together.
“Tim has found some good things for my style of riding,” Stoffer said. “There were some major differences, and the bike reacts different, but I think he’s done a fantastic job. I’ve been pretty happy with how the season has gone. They’ve got great equipment, and I’m proud to be part of the WAR team. We’re in a great spot in the Countdown, and there’s still an opportunity to do something.”
SO YOU’RE TELLING ME HE HAS A CHANCE? - A once insurmountable Pro Mod lead by Stevie “Fast” Jackson has been cut in the last few races, providing racers such as Mike Janis and Todd Tutterow a chance for a battle down to the wire.
Tutterow trails point leader Jackson by 133 points. Janis is in second, 11 points ahead of Tutterow.
For Tutterow to remain in contention, he will need a near-flawless performance in his blown Al-Anabi Performance Chevrolet Camaro to track down Jackson. But that’s still the goal for Tutterow, and it means having a certain mindset in St. Louis.
“We’re just going to hit it as hard as we can and hope for the best,” said Tutterow, who is third in points. “We should have capitalized at the last race. We put (Jackson) out first round, but we hurt the motor, so that cost us in the next round. That kind of stuff can’t happen. He needs to go out early, and I need to try to win all three. We’ve got to try to win every race and see what happens.”
Tutterow started the season in incredible fashion, winning the first race of the year in Gainesville by beating Jackson in the final round on a holeshot. He advanced to the final round at the second race and will try to revisit that early-season magic to close out the year.
“I feel like we’re in a good place,” Tutterow said. “We did some testing last week, we got everything freshened up, and everything is in good shape right now. I feel very confident in what we’re doing. We’ve been working on a lot of different things with the motor and other areas that have shown a lot of promise. Hopefully, we’ll have a good showing in St. Louis.”
ONE MORE TIME - For as few races as T.J. Zizzo races annually, the 2019 tour has turned out to be one of his better seasons. The Chicago-based driver brought his volunteer crew into World Wide Technology Raceway looking for more of the same.
The last time he raced, he earned a berth in the quickest-ever Top Fuel field in drag racing history.
“Let me just say how we’re still honored to have been part of that field at Indy,” Zizzo said. “It doesn’t escape us how huge a deal that was and still is. But after the success we saw at the Gatornationals and our home track in Joliet, we felt like we left some things on the track at Indy. Losing to Brittany Force, the top qualifier, in the first round isn’t embarrassing because she beats a lot of people every race! We just felt we could’ve done better.”
After two sessions, Zizzo sits in the 12th spot, recording a 3.900 elapsed time at only 261 miles per hour.
Zizzo could have had better if a battery hadn’t died shy of the finish line.
“The battery that runs our ignition ran out before the finish line,” Zizzo admitted. “We were told by a bunch of competitors and the folks that make it that we just need to have better battery maintenance on this thing because we don’t run a lot. You don’t run it a lot; you don’t charge it a lot.
“So truly, a bad battery like you have in your junk drawer at home kept us from crossing the finish line (under power). But hey, I’d rather have it happen in Q2 rather than E1. It just goes to show you how hard this sport is. No matter how close you think you are, there’s always something.”
For now, Zizzo is in the field at a race he never expected to compete in.
“We had only planned on running three races this year,” Zizzo said. “So to come to St. Louis is a little unexpected. I can’t thank our marketing partners enough, and I definitely can’t thank this crew enough. We have folks who’ve been with us for years and literally decades. I couldn’t do this without them, and we’re looking forward to having one more chance to show the world that independent teams can compete with the big boys.”