2019 NHRA SOUTHERN NATIONALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
TORRENCE RACES TO SECOND CONSECUTIVE VICTORY WITH STRONG SOUTHERN NATIONALS EFFORT - Don't look now, Top Fuel competitors, but Steve Torrence has heated up.
Torrence didn't win in the first five races of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season, which is news only because he swept ALL six races of the 2018 Countdown to the Championship to win his first title.
Torrence has been plenty fast in 2019, though, qualifying No. 1 once and No. 2 twice in those winless races. And then he broke through with a victory in the Four-Wide Nationals at Charlotte last weekend to end the "drought."
And now's he's won again, becoming the first Top Fuel driver to win twice in 2019. The two-race winning streak came after the Texan said he needed to find some motivation.
"I found motivation," Torrence said. "It's not directed at anybody, but I have to have that mindset, that attitude to go out here and be in the right zone. … I’m not Antron (Brown). Antron's the happiest guy all the time; I'm not. I'm happy when I get out but when I get in I want to kill that guy or girl beside me. I want to chop that Tree off and leave just a little stub smoking and go down there and crush them.
"I’m not here for fun, I'm here to win. You can take that however you want, but it's not malicious toward anybody."
Torrence capped off his 29th career victory in a final-round matchup of the last two Top Fuel champions, as 2017 title-winner Brittany Force, the No. 1 qualifier in Atlanta, lined up in the right lane against Torrence.
"She and I battled it out in 2017 for the championship, and (Force's current crew chief) Grubby (David Grubnic) and (Torrence crew chief Richard) Hogan battled it out all year last year with (driver Clay) Millican," Torrence said. "Going up in the final round, I had confidence because we did have lane choice. Throughout the day, the right lane had trended to not being able to go down it as quickly, and (it was) a little more difficult to maneuver."
Force, though, inched ahead early in the run until fading, slowing to a run of 3.989 seconds at 274.00 mph. Torrence surged ahead at half-track and pulled away to a winning pass of 3.863 at 320.20 mph.
The victory was Torrence's 29th in Top Fuel and came at the venue where he won his first pro race in 2012. Of those 29 wins, 21 have come since the start of the 2017 season. All the credit, Torrence said, goes to his race team, led by Hogan and Bobby Lagana Jr.
"It's like you hear the same interview from me every time," Torrence said, "but those are the guys who are the reason for this success. That's the kind of team it takes to do this."
Torrence started race day with his best pass, 3.782 at 319.60 mph to beat Luigi Novelli. Torrence, though, said he was nervous racing the No. 15 qualifier.
"I clearly remember racing Luigi in Chicago last year or the year before and going out and smoking the tires," Torrence said. "It's hard not to get nervous because you want to go out there and do your job and not screw up."
He raced No. 7 qualifier Scott Palmer in the second round, pedaling to a 4.043-second run at 263.41 mph to take out Palmer, who smoked the tires at the hit.
Torrence said he's been trying to help Palmer on the starting line, as Palmer has tended to be his own worst enemy there, thinking of too many things instead of focusing on the Christmas Tree.
"I just told him, 'When you get in this car, you're not racing me, you're not racing anybody but yourself,'" Torrence said. "He was .044 first round, so I was like, 'OK, don't do that again.'"
Shawn Reed was the next opponent, as he'd taken out No. 3 qualifier Doug Kalitta and No. 6 qualifier Dom Lagana in earlier rounds. Torrence was clearly ready, using a .055 light to score a holeshot victory. The numbers: Torrence ran 3.876 at 318.17 mph, while Reed was .081 on the Tree and ran 3.864 at 315.78 mph.
"I knew the car could run well, and I looked through some of the qualifying and first round, and Reed had been on the Tree pretty solid," Torrence said. "I went up there and got my head right and focused. … (Holeshot wins) are the most gratifying as a driver, those or winning a pedalfest, because that's when the ball's in your court." Lee Montgomery
CAPPS SNARES FIRST FUNNY CAR WIN OF SEASON AT ATLANTA - This hasn’t been a Ron Capps-type season.
Through six races of the 2019 NHRA Mello Yello Series season, the 2016 nitro Funny Car world champion had only won five rounds in eliminations and had not won a race.
The driver of the Don Schumacher Racing NAPA Brakes Dodge changed all that Sunday at the 39th annual Arby's NHRA Southern Nationals in Atlanta.
Capps, on a holeshot, beat Tim Wilkerson in the final round.
Capps clocked a 4.068-second lap at 315.34 mph to Wilkerson’s quicker 4.052-second elapsed time at 310.05 mph.
The difference was at the starting line. Capps had a .064 reaction time compared to the .090 reaction time of Wilkerson.
“It was an eventful weekend,” said Capps, who has at least one win a season for 11 consecutive seasons. “We left Houston with so much confidence and we had that whole chassis thing throw us a curveball in Charlotte. We barely got qualified and probably should not have qualified and we just escaped to get out of there. We got here and struggled a little bit and so did a lot of other people. I didn’t realize until I stood back and watched the TV show Saturday night and said, ‘Wow, we are not the only ones.’ It was rain-shortened a little bit and the conditions were changing a lot and I could see (Rahn) Tobler (Capps’ crew chief). He looked like a beat-down dog and he had no confidence. He’s so big-hearted and he’s helped so many people out here and works very well with our other crew chiefs. (Saturday night) Eric Lane, Dickie Venables, and John Collins put their runs up and said what do you need? Because they have been helped so often by Rahn Tobler and that was neat. That made the hair on my neck stand up.
An average race car driver probably could’ve won in that car (Sunday). It was a car you dream about driving. You’re going down the lane when people are struggling and Rahn Tobler pulled out vintage Rahn Tobler and went 4.02 in the lane no one wanted in the second round and then went up there every run and went down the lane they thought was inferior and we won the race.”
This was Capps' 62nd career NHRA Wally – one coming in Top Fuel. He beat Shawn Langdon, John Force, Tommy Johnson Jr., and Wilkerson to reach the winner’s circle at Atlanta Dragway.
“I was in deep against Tim so it’s not a holeshot in my mind,” Capps said. “I hate to see somebody lose like that and I’m the biggest Tim Wilkerson fan in the world. It still hasn’t hit me yet (the win). I woke up (Sunday morning) and we didn’t have the best confidence in the world. We knew we could win from any position and on top of that we bring out the NAPA Brakes car, it is such a great program for the month of May. Great deals on brakes and putting money in people’s pockets and it is fun to be a part of that. Then you add the concept that we are in the backyard of NAPA Auto Parts. We had the highest of the high officers from NAPA Auto Parts out on Friday for the first time. It was really fun to see them witness our sport for the first time.
Then, to give this car a win you dream about as a sponsored race car driver to be able to win in your sponsor's backyard and it just never happens. That’s the kind of thing you get excited about. The fans all day long talked about how they loved this point scheme.”
Capps arrived in Atlanta ninth in the points standings and moved up to seventh in the points six points behind sixth-place Wilkerson. He qualified No. 11 with a 4.149-second lap, but then stepped it up on race day.
“Ironically, I drive better when we are struggling a little bit,” Capps said. “The times you are going to win the championships, the moments you’re going to look back on and the fun part of winning and having really good seasons is when you get into the holiday season and you get together for the Christmas party and you talk about the low points and how you got through and what high points really won you the championship or set you up for the championship. In 2016, the DNQ in Vegas, we learned a lot, stayed on Monday, got better and won the championship.
We’ve been struggling and as a driver I’ve learned throughout the years driving for Roland Leong, Ed “The Ace” McCulloch and Snake and now Don Schumacher and Tobler. The crew chiefs need you more than ever when they are searching. Rahn Tobler has made it look easy a lot in the last decade and I’ve been the lucky guy behind the wheel. You have to be good when they need you the most. When the car is running great you just keep it in the groove the win light is probably going to come on. All the crew chiefs I have had are old school guys and I don’t look for the pat on the butt and for them to tell me I did good. If they don’t say anything to me that means I did good. Rahn Tobler just told me that he went up there and didn’t try and push the car. He said 'let Ron drive the car.'”
Capps did discuss racing and defeating legendary John Force four times in a row in Atlanta and the respect he has for him.
“I came here as a rookie in Top Fuel in an unsponsored car driving for Roger Primm and made it to the final round, but prior to that week at the time John Force for some reason took a liking to me and took me under his wing,” Capps said. “I was driving Top Fuel and he was taking me out at night to dinner and I felt like I was out with Elvis. I had one of the funniest weeks I’ve ever had in my life and I was in awe to be hanging out with John Force. He taught me how to do a lot of things in the cockpit even though it wasn’t in a Funny Car and I will never forget that. I ended up in a Funny Car racing him and 25 years later for me to battle with him and second round against him it feels like a world championship at Pomona every time. I used to joke about that you wanted to beat him in the rental car back to the airport. You want to beat John Force so to do it (Sunday) was huge. He’s searching for that big (150th national event) win and I don’t want to be the guy in the other lane who helps him get it.” Tracy Renck
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE STAR ANDREW HINES KEEPS ROLLING IN ATLANTA - Pro Stock Motorcycle star Andrew Hines is making a statement this season.
The veteran Harley-Davidson driver won his third national event in four attempts when he took home the title Sunday at the 39th annual Arby's NHRA Southern Nationals in Atlanta.
Hines claimed his latest crown by defeating Jerry Savoie in the finals at Atlanta Dragway.
Hines clocked a 6.865-second lap at 195.05 mph to zip past Savoie’s 6.919-second run.
“It was a good day,” said Hines, a five-time world champion. “My motorcycle is like nothing I ever had in my career before. This new chassis that was concocted at our shop, we all put our two cents in, and it is working really, really good. It doesn’t do much wrong and it makes for charging through eliminations much easier. The bike, you could just draw a chalk line down the race track, it didn’t quiver a tire, it didn’t do anything in first gear. It accelerated and took on the 1-2 and had the front wheel up to about 400 feet and drop it down and it would just take off again. Something we’ve struggled with in the final round is good 60 foot and in the finals that was my best of the weekend and probably the best of the season.”
This was Hines' 51st win of his career and the 100th for Harley-Davidson. Hines’ victory parade consisted of wins over Melissa Surber, Ryan Oehler, Hector Arana Jr. and Savoie. Hines improved to 14-8 in elimination rounds against Savoie.
“It was a fantastic day,” Hines said. “There was tough competition with Hector Jr. in the semifinals. His motorcycle is fast, and they are making the most out it. I kept my head cool and it was hard to cut a light here. The tree is not very easy to put up a good number. The best I had out there was an .033, but with the guys giving me a consistent motorcycle each round I could focus on tuning on it and figured out after the first round that I went the wrong way in the second round and after second wrong I went the wrong way in the semis and I talked with Eddie (Krawiec) and I went back over the tune-up and I said let’s put this thing in a position it hasn’t been all day and bam we ran an 86 in the final. That’s when I can put a big smile on my face because my dad at home hates it when we run bad in the final round even if we win. So, it was nice to put low ET on the board up there.”
Hines has also been strong in qualifying this year, starting no worse than fourth on the ladder. He qualified second in Atlanta with a 6.855-second run.
Hines leads the points standings with 444 points, followed by teammate Krawiec, with 366 points.
“My bike and Eddie’s bike correlate pretty well on fuel and timing and 60 foot, he's just lacking the new chassis,” Hines said. “We’re working on that here at our shop. It’s already done, we just have to put the body on it here in the next week and put new wiring system on it and he will be a pain in my butt shortly. Hopefully, we will get that done here in the next eight to nine days and maybe we can test it before Richmond (May 15-17) and bring him out on that one. We’re also running the clutch totally different than anything we have done in the past and it is really working for us. It is probably suffering on reaction time because of that, but we have the bike working really well. It is good enough to repeat and be within the top few numbers of the 60-foot sheet every single qualifying session and every round of eliminations.”
Hines also was thrilled to give Harley-Davidson its 100th win.
“The 100 wins for Harley is monumental,” Hines said. “They took a chance on Vance & Hines in the early 2000s to put this Harley-Davidson program together for NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle and it was a very big struggle at first and to break through in 2004 with the first win for Harley back in Gainesville and have GT Tonglet as the runner-up at the time was fantastic. There have been trials and tribulations and rules changes, different body work, and so on. I think I have ridden eight or nine different chassis over this amount of time, so it has been no shortage of effort over the years to try and get these 100 wins. We have been picking away at it ever since and it is really nice to get the 100th. I smiled when I crossed the finish line. That darn banner we had printed up, I thought it was going to be the bane of our existence. Luckily we were able to knock off 99 and 100 back-to-back and not worry about it from here on out.” Tracy Renck
SATURDAY NOTEBOOK – RAIN TAKES CENTER-STAGE IN SOGGY SATURDAY SOUTHERNS
DEALING WITH THE FORCE - After a rain-delayed afternoon that canceled the final session, Robert Hight and Brittany Force ended the day doubling up as No. 1 qualifiers in their respective categories Saturday at the Arby's NHRA Southern Nationals.
Hight will start race day from the No. 1 position for the fifth time this season, the second time at Atlanta Dragway and 65th time in his career. Before a rain delay cut the Funny Car class short from finishing the third session, Hight was bumped to the No. 13 spot from tenth, where he started the day. When the last six cars came back to make their third qualifying pass, the Auto Club team laid down a stout 3.920-second run at 328.54 mph as the first pass down the freshly dried track. Hight's time would hold making him the first driver since 1987 to be No. 1 in five of the first seven races.
"It's pretty impressive to have a car like this. Going in there we knew we were going to be in the bottom half of the field if we didn't improve but you know, Jimmy, instead of just making a safe run he put it down and ran what he knew it could run which is a 3.92," said Hight who will face Terry Haddock in the first round of eliminations. "When you push that hard, you risk smoking the tires, but they didn't. They made the run, we were low E.T. by two hundredths, and this wasn't even the session we had the best conditions, that should have been last night, and we messed that up, so it doesn't get any better than this right now."
IS THE FORCE WITH BRITTANY IN ATLANTA? - Brittany is the only Force not to win at Atlanta Dragway – and she was reminded of that by younger sister Courtney this weekend.
"All of my family has won here," Brittany Force said. "Courtney won here, Ashley's first win was here, my dad's won here. All the JFR drivers have won here. My sister has been sending me texts all weekend: 'Go get it. This is our race track; this is our family track. Get the job done.' So we're hoping for a win."
Brittany locked in the No. 1 spot Saturday off the efforts of her 3.720-second pass at 319.52 mph Friday night under the lights. It was the first time Force secured the No. 1 spot at the facility and her third No. 1 qualifier of the 2019 NHRA season. In the third and final session of the day, Force shook the tires and shut off her dragster to run a 6.611-second pass at 94.65 mph but remained in the top spot heading into Sunday. She'll start race day matched up against Cameron Ferre.
"I'm feeling good. We're exactly where we want to be, and we picked up some points this weekend. We're No. 1; we have the best shot, best ladder going into race day tomorrow," Brittany said. "Today was an important run, though, and we didn't get down there. I'm not sure what the weather looks like tomorrow, but we really wanted that one which is why we wanted to get back up here for the second run, but everybody lost that run, so we're going into race day as prepared as everyone else."
BLAME IT ON THE RAIN - Jim Campbell has had quite the weekend at Atlanta Dragway. He missed one Funny Car qualifying session with an engine issue, banged a blower in another session and then had to pedal an ailing car to the third qualifying round.
But he's in the show, thanks in part to rain that wiped out Q4. Now, his pass of 5.727 seconds at 122.51 mph won't win any awards, but it was good enough to bump into the 16-car field at the No. 15 spot.
"It's been a pretty interesting weekend," Campbell said. "First off, I believe this is our seventh race. Every race we've had rain so far, so welcome to the Southern Nationals in Atlanta."
But it wasn't rain that stopped an attempt in Q1.
"Q1, so we warmed the car up, and we didn't have any oil pressure," Campbell said. "At that point, Big Jim (Dunn) obviously made the right decision. We went ahead, and we tried to fix everything and stuff and get up there in time. A lot of cars didn't make it down, so it doesn't seem like we missed a lot in Q1 either."
The second qualifying session, on Friday night, was a little more eventful.
"Last night was quite interesting," Campbell said. "You know, the dew point had started coming down, and it was hard to see out of the car. We had that rain previous to it. Strapped in the car, hit the throttle, obviously something happened. Revved up and banged it and unfortunately, it was on live TV, so we kind of sucked all the time down with the cleanup and stuff."
Fox Sports had planned to show Q2 live Friday night, but the cleanup from Campbell's explosion all but nullified that.
Campbell had one more chance to put the Jim Dunn Racing Dodge in the field in Q3 on Saturday. Rain was coming later in the day, so he knew Q3 might be the only chance to qualify.
"We came into it; we knew we had to make a run," Campbell said. "We were on the outside looking in, and we just needed to at least get down the track somewhat. It turned out the rain was coming, and for once God was on our side."
Campbell even joked he was doing his rain dance after Q3.
"I was, I was," Campbell said, "and I don't even know how to dance that well."
A DNQ FOR MCMILLEN – While Campbell was happy the final qualifying session was rained out, Terry McMillen wasn't. After struggling to get down the track in his three attempts, McMillen was the lone Top Fuel car to fail to qualify.
It's the first time since Reading in 2016 that McMillen failed to qualify, a span of 58 races. He came into Atlanta eighth in the Top Fuel standings after reaching the final round last weekend at Charlotte.
HIT OR MISS FOR CRAMPTON – The Top Fuel class is notoriously competitive these days, and results can often be hit or miss. No one knows that more than Kalitta Motorsports driver Richie Crampton.
Crampton won the Gatornationals in March for his ninth career victory, but he's only been past the first round one other time in 2019.
"It's not through lack of trying when we don't do well," said Crampton, who sits in ninth place in the Top Fuel standings. "We just missed it by a tiny amount or whatever. Obviously, it was good to get a win in Gainesville. That was a big race to win, and that was a big boost for us. We're just still working on our race day consistency. I know good things are coming."
Crampton also knows that the team needs to be good later in the season when the Countdown to the Championship starts. Doing well now is nice, but it doesn't guarantee success in NHRA's version of the playoffs.
"I kind of learned my lesson with that last year," Crampton said. "I figured it would all fall in place for us by the Countdown, and it kind of didn't really pan out the way we wanted. So anyone that says they're not worried about it, I don't think's telling the truth.
"We all want to win rounds each weekend. My crew works hard to do that, so does Connie (Kalitta) and Kurt Elliott and everyone here at Kalitta. So I feel like we have a better car than we did last year and we're going to have a good season."
Crampton says his team is keeping its spirits up despite four first-round exits in six races.
"We've got a great group of guys with us here on the DHL car," Crampton said. "We always have a lot of fun, and no one really seems to take it the wrong way. Everyone keeps smiling, keeps working hard and they know that more wins are coming."
MAGICALLY DRY - Scott Palmer earned the No. 10 starting spot in the talent-laden Top Fuel class.
"We are happy with the performance of the car," Palmer said. "It did exactly what it was supposed to do. We smoked 'em first round, and that put us a little behind, but we went down the track in Q2 and Q3 exactly the way we wanted to."
Palmer's best pass of the last two days was a 3.827 at 314.24 mph, which placed him 10th in the 16-car elimination field. For his efforts, he'll open race day opposite No. 7 qualifier Richie Crampton, who posted a top run of 3.814 at 312.64 mph.
"Even though we are not in the greatest qualifying spot, there is no easy draw out here," Palmer said. "Lane choice is important; everybody says if you have it. If you don't have it, everybody says it's not important.
"We actually ran our two best passes in the right lane, which is supposedly the worst lane, so if we can go down the right lane tomorrow with the sun on the track, we think we will be ok."
Entering this weekend's race, Palmer was filled with confidence after scoring a fifth-place finish at the tour's last stop in Charlotte. At that event, he beat category heavyweights Brittany Force and Antron Brown, both past world champions.
"We were third quick of Q3, and that's pretty good if you are the third quickest out of all these cars," Palmer said. "These are some badasses out here. So, we know we can go down the track in race conditions, and that's what we are here for."
RAIN DELAY DERBY - While fans were in and out of the grandstands and the pit area during the rain delays Saturday, competitors were stuck. So what did Richie Crampton do?
"I got in on a Kentucky Derby pool, and I just drew a horse for that,"
Crampton said with a grin. "That was about all I did. Other than that, the guys are using their time to get ready for tomorrow. I mean, that's what it's all about."
NO Q3 FOR LEAH – Leah Pritchett and her Don Schumacher Racing team decided to sit out Saturday's first qualifying session. Sitting No. 4 on the Top Fuel sheet, Pritchett's team didn't figure she'd improve in Q3 since weather and track conditions were considerably worse than Q2 on Friday night. Plus, the team wanted to save some parts, too, so it skipped the session.
Pritchett ended up not running at all Saturday, as Q4 was washed out. She'll start eliminations from the No. 4 spot after a great run Friday.
DON'T QUIT YOUR DAY JOB – As part of Arby's sponsorship of the Southern Nationals, NHRA took four competitors to a local restaurant during the lunch rush. Top Fuel champion Steve Torrence and rookie Austin Prock manned the drive-thru, while Brittany Force and Angelle Sampey helped out at the front counter.
Prock was a natural, having worked in a restaurant a few years ago.
"I worked in a Greek restaurant for probably three or four years cooking in the back," Prock said. "That was actually my first-ever job, skipped dishwashing and everything. They threw me right into the fire. So it brought back good memories.
"I was in there hollering at everyone and calling out orders. Me and Torrence were running the window and making jokes with everyone. Everyone seemed like they were having a good time. The workers enjoyed it, and we picked up the E.T. board in there."
Arby's management keeps track of how fast orders go out the drive-thru window, so of course, Prock and Torrence had to lower that time.
"They average out how fast you get the food out of the window, and we dropped her by a couple of minutes by the time we were done," Prock said. "We had it down pat. I was throwing sauces and napkins in the bag, and he was slinging it out the window.
"(They) had Brittany Force in there and Angelle Sampey running the front counter. The bell was getting rung all day long, so a lot of fun. It was something different for us drivers, get us out of our comfort zone a little bit, and I think it was a good promotion for everyone."
And it made Prock glad he's in racing.
"I actually went to culinary school, and I always liked the culinary background," Prock said. "In the kitchen, it's very similar to the race track. It's fast-paced, it's hot, you've got to get it out, and you've got to make sure it's right because if it's not, your customers are mad, and if you don't have the race car right, your crew, and your driver, the whole team is mad, sponsors are mad. So it's a little bit of the same in a sense, but I definitely enjoyed it."
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE RACERS MEET – The Pro Stock Motorcycle class took advantage of the rain delay to meet in the Vance & Hines pit area, continuing conversations about trying to improve the class and working on future schedules.
"It was more of just an informative meeting because there was a meeting in Charlotte with NHRA and not everybody had a chance to make it out there," Hector Arana Jr. said. "So it was just kind of a recap of going back on what we talked about in Charlotte and kind of the good and the bad."
One topic discussed was the possibility of moving a "floater" race from year to year. This year, the four-wide race in Las Vegas was added to the PSM schedule, and there is a chance the class could race at a different venue next year.
"They had us go to Vegas this year, so they're calling that like a floater race," Arana Jr. said. "The class was saying if they would like to go to a different race that we haven't been to for next year and things like that."
TAKE YOUR PIC, IT'S IMPORTANT - Tommy Johnson Jr. believes lane-choice will play an essential role on Sunday.
His 4.031 landed him seventh in the field, and with lane choice against Matt Hagan in the first round.
"I think lane choice will play a bigger factor tomorrow than it has all year," Johnson said. "Thankfully, we're top-half of the field so we'll have lane choice for first round. Weather conditions should be similar to what we encountered today and the car performed well in both of the qualifying runs in the heat. Looks like we've got a good bracket car for the heat and we'll see what we can do with it."
FRIDAY NOTEBOOK – RAIN, FIRE AND PERFORMANCE HEADLINE FIRST DAY AT ATLANTA
GEORGIA’S HOUSE OF STEVIE FAST - Hailing from tiny Evans, GA, just 75 miles away from Atlanta Dragway, makes "Stevie Fast" Jackson a popular driver this weekend, especially when leading the E3 Spark Plugs NHRA Pro Mod Series qualifying list after Friday's two sessions at the 39th annual Arby's NHRA Southernationals.
"We call this our home race and we have a pile of people here, probably 150 or more. I'm talkin' about everybody from schoolteachers I had in high school, people I've worked with, fans, even guys I used to race against. It's really cool to see racers out here that I used to compete against and tried to crush and to see them out here rooting for us, it's crazy, man," Jackson said.
Jackson drove his roots-blown '17 Camaro to a 5.76 pass at 250.69 mph in Q2, just one-hundredth of a second ahead of Chad Green and his nitrous-fed 2019 Camaro. Alex Laughlin in a twin-turbocharged '18 Camaro was third at 5.79 seconds and a class-leading 256.84 mph, while Erica Enders rounded out the provisional top 16 of 25 Pro Mod entries with a 5.99 pass at 254.62 mph over the Atlanta quarter mile.
"Somebody said to me that they thought the blower cars wouldn't run good here because of the heat and humidity," Jackson said. "But I told them, my car's from Georgia and it's used to breathing this humid, hot air; it likes the air here, feeds on it like a horse!"
Crew chief Billy Stocklin added that he was satisfied with the current number-one run, but couldn't help feeling "there was more to be had."
"You're never going to look at a run and say that's everything it's got," he said. "We've put together some pretty good runs this year, but it's always coulda' done this, shoulda' done that. You're never satisfied.
"But we're most concerned about what's going to happen on Sunday and I'm certain that will keep us in very good shape. The number-one goal in qualifying is, well, first of all to qualify, but then to have lane choice going into the first round and I feel confident that will get us both qualified and have lane choice. After that it's all gravy, so I'm happy."
Jackson emphasized the "great job" Stocklin was doing on the tune-up, but also praised the rest of his crew, including Robert Johnson on engines, longest-serving crew member and car chief Jack Barbee, Robbie Lowry, and father-and-son teammates Drew and Austin McClure.
He also said he loves his own job, though somewhat surprisingly admitted driving "The Shadow" was not his favorite part of time spent at the track.
"Hanging out with the fans is the most fun part of my job," Jackson stated shortly after a brief, impromptu autograph session. "I mean, I really enjoy it. There was a kid whose momma said I was his idol and he wears a 'Shadow' shirt on backwards so that everybody sees the car first. How awesome is that? When I hear that, I just think what could possibly go wrong with the race car to make me have a bad day? I mean, that's as good as it gets."
Two more rounds of Pro Mod qualifying are scheduled for Saturday at the Southernationals, at approximately 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., weather permitting. – Ian Tocher
DETERMINATION - Paul Lee isn't letting a heart attack keep him out of a nitro Funny Car.
Two years ago, Lee was set to drive a Kalitta Motorsports Funny Car, but a heart attack caused by a hereditary condition sidelined him. But after a long recovery and under consultation with his doctor, Lee is back, thanks to a partnership with Straightline Strategy Group and Don Schumacher Racing.
When Lee felt he was ready to go back to racing, his doctor told him to go for it, not fully understanding the stresses of NHRA nitro racing.
"He said, 'Oh yeah, you can go ahead and drive your race car,' "Lee said. "But I said, 'I think you might want to come to a race to see what kind of cars these really are. It's not just your daily driver car.' "
Lee's doctor came to Pomona in November and realized Lee needed to do some more work.
"Like most first-timers, he was just blown away by it," Lee said. "So he said, 'Well, this is a little different story.' He said, 'We're going to have to do a little work before we do this.' So we proceeded to do all the things that he wanted to do to get my heart back up in shape and also to test the heart and see how it reacted to the driving of the car. We actually test drove a car with a heart monitor hooked up and everything was fine. He finally signed off on my license and here I am."
Lee has been in excellent health most of his adult life, exercising and eating right and not smoking. But his doctors determined he had a hereditary heart disease that caused clogged arteries.
"It goes to show you anybody over 50, it doesn't matter how good in shape you think you are, you should have a stress test done," Lee said. "Because if I would have had a stress test, it would have shown that I had a clogged artery and they could have fixed it before I actually had a heart attack. But I just try to tell everybody now, especially if you have a history of heart disease in your family, definitely have a stress test."
When he was supposed to race with Kalitta in 2016, long-time friend Jim Oberhofer was a crew chief there. But Kalitta released Oberhofer last year, so he and Lee decided to try and get a package back together. They approached DSR, which agreed to supply parts, pieces and shop space.
Plus, Straighline Strategy Group, which fields the Top Fuel car of Clay Millican, serves as a teammate to Lee.
"We talked to Don (Schumacher), and he basically gave us the green light and said anything you guys need, any way I can help, let us know," Lee said. "So we rented a spot in his shop and pretty much everything you see here in our pit, car, trailers, trucks, parts, is from DSR.
"For the last four months, Donnie Bender and Scott French and Jim O. have been assembling the team, and here we are. We tested at Charlotte this past Monday because we're a new team, get our routine back, and everything went great.
"We're teammates with Clay and the Straightline Strategy Group. We have a marketing alliance, working with Steve Cole, who is a great marketer, and I'm not just saying that because he's standing here, but he is the best. And he's also one of my closest friends. So the whole thing works because I've got, I'm working with my closest friends out here. It's the best. Not only are we out here having fun doing what all our passion is, but I get to do this with my friends."
Lee plans to get to 10 races this year: here, Chicago, Norwalk, Sonoma, Indianapolis and then every Countdown to the Championship race.
And Lee made it clear he is not racing just to qualify.
"We bought the best parts money can buy, we got the best people," Lee said. "We've got Jim Oberhofer working closely with the NAPA team at Don Schumacher. Rahn Tobler's been a huge help. All the guys at the NAPA team, at DSR period, have been a great help with us putting this car together. We all have the best stuff, so we expect to, we're realistic, but we expect to do well. We're not coming here just to qualify. We're coming here to race.
"We're hoping to go out there and raise a few eyebrows. We've come to race, so we're going to do the best we can."
FAMILY TRADITION - Soon the Hedman Performance Group will celebrate its 65th anniversary.
During this weekend's NHRA Southern Nationals the brand is on grand display, emblazoned on the side of the 330-mph Top Fuel dragster driven by third-generation Vandergriff and Rookie of the Year candidate Jordan Vandergriff.
"I decided I wanted to do something special for our hometown race, and with all of us about to celebrate Hedman's 65th anniversary, I reached out to Bob Jr. with an idea to get some exposure for our father's companies while we're racing," said Chris Vandergriff, former Top Fuel driver and president of the Heddman Hustler product line. "What I asked him to do for myself, and the companies, and what he decided to do on his own account, were completely two different paths."
Vandergriff was taken aback by what his older brother Bob and veteran designer Greg Ozubko delivered.
"I am floored he took it to this level," Vandergriff said. "Instead of just getting some signage on both Jordan's and Shawn's car, he gave us Jordan's car all out.
"Thank you to my good friend, and adopted brother, Greg Ozubko for putting in the time, and effort to design everything, and bust his tail to get it all done for the race. Everything he does is first class."
Bob Vandergriff Sr. paved the way for his sons, Bob Jr., Kevin and Chris in the business after purchasing the iconic Hedman Hedders brand in 1979, following a successful stint as Advertising Director for National DRAGSTER.
CAPPS AND HIS RACE CARS – Ron Capps and his Don Schumacher Racing team still don't know what gremlins were in their Dodge Hellcat Funny Car that got relegated to backup duties for the final qualifying session in Charlotte. Crew chief Rahn Tobler decided to move that car to the trailer after struggling in the first two sessions in Charlotte, and it remains there for Atlanta.
"I don't know," Capps said. "We haven't touched it, and rather than going and just getting front-halved, we're hoping we can find out. They looked it over and over. They always do anyway. They scale it before every run. So before we wanted to make sure they look and see what could go wrong."
The car Capps raced with in Charlotte is the same one he'll race with in Atlanta, and he hopes to make it through this weekend without having to pull the recalcitrant car out of the trailer.
"We brought out the other car on Monday in Phoenix and tested with it, and it went really good," Capps said. "We were just going to make runs on it and make it the backup car, and continue running the car we ran in Pomona and Phoenix. Monday at Phoenix went so good that Tobler said, 'Let's just keep running it.' We knew the other one was good, we ran it in Pomona and Phoenix, and we put it upstairs."
But the team had to take that car down at Charlotte after the gremlins with what was the primary car left him out of the field before the final qualifying session. The turnaround between sessions on Saturday at Charlotte was quick, but Tobler prides himself on having a properly prepared backup car, and the backup made a solid qualifying run to get into the field.
"It was just strange," Capps said. "I've driven for quite a while and to have something change like that and really have the guys look through it and not see something flagrant was a little nerve-wracking.
"We know this (Atlanta primary) car. We stayed and made runs on Monday and put everything back like he had it in Houston, and it ran really well. So he was very happy with it. We know this car's good."
TASCA HITS THE BEACH – Bob Tasca III had the No. 2 spot after the first round of Funny Car qualifying Friday, but an unexpected trip to the beach also gave him a damaged Ford Mustang body.
Tasca's parachutes didn't deploy after his 4.027-second, 314.75 mph pass, and despite his best efforts, he entered the sand trap at the top end of the race track.
"It's a pretty humbling feeling in a Funny Car at 314 mph on a very short race track, which this is, and no chutes come out," Tasca said. "I mean the sand trap comes up, (and) as a driver, you have to start making decisions. I always go to the button, and then I go to the lever, and I go to the lever one time. I learned that years ago in my alcohol car where I went multiple times, and truthfully whether you hit it, miss it, one time and then never let go of the brake, and that's what I did. I never let go of the brake.
"I wish I was able to lock the rear tires up, but for whatever reason, I just couldn't lock the rear brakes up no matter how hard I pulled."
Tasca thought about making the wide left turn at the top end anyway, but he wasn't 100 percent sure he'd make it, so he just slid into the sand.
"I went wide, and I thought about making the turn, but the car was going about 33 mph," Tasca said. "It's a little too fast, and I just didn't want to hurt anybody. I wasn't worried about myself, but you make that turn too fast, and the car gets up on two wheels, and it rolls or – I just didn't want to hurt anybody.
"So I figured; unfortunately, the next best option is go in the sand. Didn't go in fast, about 30 mph, about three-quarters of a car, just barely put the whole car in the sand. Did a little bit of damage to the body, which we'll fix tonight — no damage to the chassis.
"I was real happy with the run; it's what the guys wanted to do. So we'll go out here tonight, and we got to the back of the pack. We really want to qualify one, two, or three. That's our goal at every race, and I think we got a real chance to do that tonight, so we'll see.
Tasca is being sponsored by TrueCar for this race, but the body with that livery was the one damaged, so Tasca's Motorcraft body went on for Q2.
"This is a TrueCar race, so I feel bad I won't have it on for tonight, but we'll have the body on for tomorrow and hopefully Sunday," Tasca said. "So, hey, that's racing, and you know the boy's got this thing ready to run right now, and we'll go up there tonight and hopefully go to the pole."
KEEPING PRESSURE IN CHECK - Mike Janis isn't afraid to admit he felt the pressure of being the defending Pro Modified champion entering the 2019 season. But Janis has reveled in that spotlight, carrying plenty of momentum into this weekend's event.
Janis won last weekend in Charlotte, earning his sixth career victory in the talent-heavy class, and he'll look to keep that going this weekend. The veteran has previous success at the track, including a pair of No. 1 qualifiers and a runner-up finish, and he seems poised to take advantage of his car running strong as the temperatures – and championship chase – starts to heat up.
"Atlanta has been a good track for us, and we have a lot of confidence going in," Janis said. "Anything can happen in this class, but we'll go in with a smart gameplan, and that's all you can ask. When we get to conditions that are a little warmer, we always seem to perform well. We race smart on hot tracks, and if it's warmer, we feel like we've got a good advantage. Reading the race track is a big deal to us, and we feel like we really pay attention and race smart when it gets warm."
The race, which is presented by FuelTech, is the fourth of 12 events during the 2019 season. The class didn't race at Atlanta a year ago, while Mike Castellana won the event in 2017. Janis used a hot start a season ago en route to his first NHRA world championship, and he's hoping to repeat it after his impressive weekend in Charlotte.
Janis took down a star-studded field in the final quad at the four-wide race, going 5.799 at 248.52 mph to take down points leader Stevie "Fast" Jackson, fan-favorite Erica Enders and three-time world champion Rickie Smith. It moved Janis to third in points and showed once again how well he performs in pressure situations. That spotlight has grown even brighter racing as the defending champion, but it seems to have brought out the best in Janis thus far in 2019.
"It's a big deal to get confidence after a win like that," Janis said. "The pressure was instant right after we put that No. 1 on the car, but we know we have to be at the top of our game and show everyone that nothing really bothers us. We try to be as positive as possible, and that win was a big deal. Winning never gets old, especially when you fight back. We haven't won since last June, so winning in Charlotte gives you confidence. It was all really gratifying."
RACE NO. 500 FOR WILK – Funny Car driver Tim Wilkerson will race in his 500th NHRA Funny Car event this weekend at Atlanta.
"I can't believe it's been 500 races. That's a long time," Wilkerson said. "We really need to thank (sponsor) Dick Levi (of Levi, Ray & Shoup) for that. He's been the man for 20 years, and I think it's really cool that this year we celebrate our 500th race in our 20th year with Dick Levi. There aren't a lot of teams who have had a primary sponsor for 20 years, and we're beyond grateful to Dick for his support. It really means a lot to us."
Wilkerson's first Funny Car race was in Gainesville in 1996. He's won 20 times in his Funny Car career.
"In the beginning, I started out like everybody else – just happy to qualify and then win a round or two here or there," Wilkerson said. "Once we won a race, it was like, 'Wow. We can do this; now we know it's possible.' We stumbled pretty hard a couple of years, but we're tenacious. We don't give it up. You just keep going."
MATT SMITH RACING SHOP DAMAGED IN WEIRD ACCIDENT – Matt Smith's transport vehicle had a strange accident Thursday morning, and no one was driving.
Smith had started the engine on the truck early Thursday at the home/shop in King, NC., but not long after he went back in the house, he heard a disturbing sound.
"I had already had the trailer pulled out Wednesday night," Smith said. "I went outside at 4:30 in the morning to crank the truck up so everything would air up, and about four minutes later, the truck and trailer, the brakes or something happened, and it went rolling back, went through the shop into the machines. The machines in the shop (are) the only things that saved it from going all the way through the shop."
The shop sits about 10 feet lower than the Smith's house, and Smith thought he had parked the truck and trailer far enough over the incline so that it would roll forward instead of backward, but somehow it went backward.
Not to mention, Smith was confused as to why it rolled at all.
"No idea," Smith said. "I mean when I got down there to jump in it, the parking brake on the truck was pulled, it was in neutral. So I don't have a clue. I pushed it in and put it in drive, and drove it back out. I made sure to get it up over the hill so if it rolled, it rolled forward instead of back in the shop again."
The back of the trailer had minor damage, but the garage door of the shop and the shop itself suffered heavy damage.
"It just went right through the garage door and through the shop," Smith said. "Tore up a bunch of stuff. Luckily it didn't tear the trailer up too bad, but the shop got KO'd pretty good. Got a lot of work to do. My best friend Michael Middleton and my cousin Tyler, they got all the people there yesterday to put a garage door back up so we can get an alarm system back on the shop. But got a lot of work to do inside the shop when I get back."
WHEN WILL SMITH RACE SUPER COMP? – Smith did earn his Super Comp license at zMAX Dragway on Monday, meaning he has three NHRA licenses now: Super Comp, Pro Mod and Pro Stock Motorcycle. Smith has had a Super Comp dragster for some time and hopes to race it later this year. His public relations representative, Sadie Glenn, has driven it a couple times in 2019.
"I just want to be able to race it some, when I can," Smith said. "Just letting Sadie drive it right now. I finally got my license the other day. It's pretty funny, I've got a Pro Mod license, but they wouldn't let me run Super Comp. So I had to get a Super Comp license. I should be good to go now whenever I want to run."
Smith wants to race the Super Comp car at a national event when the Pro Stock Motorcycles don't run, but wife Angie Smith already nixed one weekend.
"I want to do a couple nationals if I can," Smith said. "I wanted to go to Bristol, but it's her birthday weekend, so I'm probably not going to do that. So I don't know, we'll see."
To which Angie Smith said, "It's a guarantee that he's not going to do Bristol."