2019 NHRA U.S. NATIONALS - FUNNY CAR NOTEBOOK
FORCE EMOTIONAL, REFLECTIVE FOLLOWING HISTORIC FIFTH U.S. NATIONALS FUNNY CAR WIN
It took John Force more than a year to earn his historic 150th career win.
It took him less than a month to win No. 151.
Only this time, it wasn’t just any ordinary win.
Force tied Ed “the Ace” McCulloch for the most wins all-time in Funny Car at the U.S. Nationals, defeating Jack Beckman in the final at the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway on Monday to earn his fifth win at the biggest drag race in the world.
Afterward, Force was overcome with emotion in talking about just what this win means to him.
“I had a lot of people after Seattle, sponsors, they called me and they said, ‘we heard you say you are over it.’ I was over that moment. I didn’t realize how hard it was on me mentally. I didn’t know it until it was done,” a tearful Force said. “I’m in the wrong generation. My window has passed. I don’t belong here anymore against these young guns. I’m not quitting, but it just isn’t making any sense. I go out here with these kids that want to win so bad and I keep thinking is there a plan for me? What is it? Win Indy? I never thought I would get a chance again no matter how good I was.”
Force’s numbers at the U.S. Nationals are staggering.
He has five wins. He has visited nine final rounds. He has 53 round wins at this race alone. Oh, and he got the job done this weekend at age 70, a full 17 years since his last U.S. Nationals win in 2002. His other wins at the Big Go came in 1993, 1996 and 1998.
Immediately following the race, Force admitted that he had contemplated on more than one occasion exactly when he was going to call it quits after his nearly five decades in the sport. After seeing his win totals decline and suffering more and more errors on the track, Force revealed that retirement weighed heavily on his mind.
And, at least for a moment, that included the very real possibility of that day coming this weekend.
“Racing is what I love to do, but I have looked at different directions in life to go. I have a job to do, to raise money to keep this ship afloat for well over 120 employees. The issue is, I can’t get my book done. I can’t get my movie done because it has been rewritten so many times because I keep moving on,” Force said. “I am trying to figure out where I am going in life because I know Father Time is against me. When I got that 150 and then the next weekend at Brainerd I blow the tires off of it, I said here we are right back where we started. Then I come here to Indy and all of a sudden this car is running like cars should run and I am driving like you should drive. I thought, I’ve got 150, when do you walk out the door?
“It is coming. I don’t know when because every time I think it is now, it passes. I thought about it in Seattle, just walk out. And I even said today, if you (win) at Indy walk out. But I couldn’t do it. I stood there and said, ‘you are going to have a heart attack. You are going to die here like you always say.’ I don’t mean I want to die. The next step, I know where it goes. I’m just lost. And winning this, I just didn’t think I would get the chance again. I didn’t think I could get that good with the right team that supported me when I have failed so much.
“I missed my window. I should have retired for that quality of life 20 years ago. I should have walked away and now I don’t even know how to walk away. It is pathetic. I come out here and I ache and I hurt. It is getting tougher. But I owe this sport for so much.”
Force was especially reflective of his horrific 2007 crash at Dallas that put him in the hospital and the death of JFR driver Eric Medlen that same year as the first time he truly considered when he would hang up his racing helmet. And, after hearing many of those same self-doubts return in recent years, those thoughts once again returned to the forefront.
“I was in that hospital in ‘07 and my doctor told me, ‘you are done. You aren’t going to race again. You are going to be lucky to walk.’ I fought to get back,” Force said. “Now I am hearing, ‘you are 70. This thing is over.’ And you know what? It is true. It is just a matter of how bad you want it. It doesn’t matter if you are a race car driver. It doesn’t matter what you are in life. You do it because you love it. And when you don’t do good, you do the best you can.
“There are a lot of guys out here with more talent than me that just don’t have the race car with the money or the right crew chief. I just happen to be one of the lucky ones. “Someday, I’ve got to go out that door and I have said two things. It would be nice to win a championship and it would be nice to win Indy one more time. This race really means a lot to my girls, to show my grandkids. Now they are already starting on about going after the championship. I don’t know how to get off of this train, but I’ve got to.”
And his victory on Monday was as exciting as they come.
Matching up with the No. 1 qualifier and quickest car for much of the weekend Jack Beckman, it was a true showdown of titans. With the Wally on the line, the two veterans left together, separated by just seven thousandths at the tree. Behind early, Force slowly pulled ahead and just edged Beckman at the line.
Force crossed the stripe with a 3.919-second pass at 324.44 mph in his PEAK Chevrolet Performance Accessories Camaro SS Funny Car to earn career win No. 151 and his second of the year. Beckman, on the other hand, dropped to 0-for-5 in finals this season with a 3.940 at 325.92 mph in the Infinite Hero Foundation Dodge.
“Somebody up there liked me better on this day,” Force said. “I’m racing guys that are young. Beckman, that guy is the best out there on the tree. I went out there jerking around trying to deepstage, doing everything stupid, but it is the only way I could stay up with these kids. It is just like somebody wanted me to win this race and I don’t know why.
“I am just having an emotional day because I won Indy. Jack Beckman, if he had taken his helmet off, I would have kissed him on the lips.”
And, final round aside, Force’s day wasn’t lacking in drama.
Jonnie Lindberg gave the eventual event champion all he could handle in the opening round, but Force drove to his quickest pass of the entire weekend to overcome Lindberg’s starting line advantage. Force ran a 3.858 at 329.58 mph, just ahead of Lindberg’s 3.943 at 323.19 mph.
From there, the road got much easier for Force.
Robert Hight went up in smoke in the second round, a big moment for Force who was a sleepy .098 on the tree as he sailed down Broadway with a 3.913 at 326.95 mph. In the semifinal, it was a similar scene as Matt Hagan’s tires shook loose at the hit of the throttle, while Force cruised to a 3.940 with a big speed of 330.88 mph.
Beckman, who looked like the class of the field for much of the weekend, defeated Justin Schriefer, Bob Tasca and J.R. Todd to reach his fifth final of the year, coming up short in all five races.
Following the win, Force exclaimed on camera at the top end, “get off that couch. Don’t let anyone tell you you can’t do it.”
He later explained that his outburst was directed at all of the people out there that are told they can’t do something because of age or other life hindrances.
“If you knew the letters that I get. I’m no preacher. I can’t save or cure the sick, but people write me all of the time,” Force said. “So I yelled out for people to get off that couch. I’ve seen so many people who are tired, people younger than me who give up because they’ve been told by the system that it is over. Well this is a big moment for me. Don’t let anyone tell you that you are too old. Get out there. Walk. Stay alive and keep moving. That is the world.”
After a roller-coaster weekend filled with the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, Force ended the day reflective of his nearly 50-year racing career and where the next few years might take him.
Because, while the season has certainly been nostalgic for the 70-year-old, he has a championship to chase with the Countdown beginning in two weeks at Maple Grove Raceway.
“Sooner or later it is going to get you. The ‘ol pump is going to quit. I’m back there pounding the coffee. If you only saw it, my doctor would come in here and have NHRA pull my license,” Force said with a laugh. “They would say this guy is on a suicide mission. But I’m not. I just love it so much. That is what is really pathetic. I started and I didn’t know my kids. I don’t know my wife anymore. I just go down this road to run out here and do this stuff because it is the greatest sport in the world.
“I almost feel bad. How is an old piece of s**t like me able to beat these kids, no matter how good my car is. I’m going to run until I drop because if I stop, I’ll die. And that is what I’m afraid of.”
FUNNY CAR - SUNDAY
ALMOST PERFECTION - It wasn’t perfect.
But it was darn close.
Jack Beckman was low elapsed time in three out of five qualifying sessions and inside the top four in the others to take his first No. 1 qualifier since Gainesville in 2018, 38 races ago. It was his 25th career top qualifier award as he heads into Monday as the clear favorite at the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway.
“I don’t want to say that we were perfect, because we weren’t low of every run. But I think we’ve been as close to perfect as any Funny Car has been lately,” Beckman said. “Tomorrow’s conditions should be different. I don’t know that we have a huge advantage if the sun is out and the track is hotter, but I think psychologically everybody on our team is revved up.”
Beckman earned the top spot with his time from Saturday with a 3.861-second pass at 330.07 mph. In his five qualifying passes, Beckman was first, first, second, fourth and first, capping the weekend with an impressive 3.875 at 335.23 mph to set the tone heading into raceday on Monday.
“I think that is so important to set the tone knowing that you could be the best,” Beckman said. “As quick as our car has run, I think the most impressive thing has been that 335 mph timeslip from the last run.”
In addition to earning his first top qualifier award since March of last year, Beckman is also seeking his first race win in over a year. He has been to four finals this season, but came up short in each.
Now he shifts his focus to raceday, trying to treat a potential second win at the U.S. Nationals as just another race.
“Picture you are going into the Olympics and you have done 10,000 high dives in your life and all of a sudden you tell yourself that this is the most important one and you screw something up,” Beckman said. “I don’t think you need to try harder to do well in the car. I feel like I’m doing the best that I can. Tomorrow is raceday and you have to be flawless. Tomorrow it is not about e.t. slips, it is about win lights. You don’t even have to be good, you just have to be better than the car in the other lane.”
With the strong showing, Beckman earned an impressive 26 bonus points over the course of qualifying, a big boost as the former champion tries to chase down another spot in the Countdown and move a spot higher once the points reset following the race.
“Before they readjusted the points format, the max you could get in Indy because of the extra qualifying run was 23 points. We did even better than that with the new bonus format,” Beckman said. “That is almost a round. And while we are not racing for a championship tomorrow, we are racing to reset the points and get a seed for racing in the championship. 10 points might be the difference at the end of the year.
“If you had a crystal ball and you knew it didn’t matter, ok. But we don’t, so every point potentially matters right now.”
Beckman will face Justin Schriefer in round one on Sunday in the quickest Funny Car field in NHRA history.
QUICKEST IN HISTORY - The 2019 Funny Car field at the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals officially became the quickest field in class history on Sunday.
One day after Top Fuel did the same, the Funny Car class became the quickest-ever with the bump spot coming in just five thousandths shy of an all three-second field when Justin Schriefer made the ladder with a 4.005-second pass at 317.94 mph to secure the record.
The previous record was set at the NHRA World Finals at Pomona in 2016 which also featured 15 cars in the three-second zone with a bump spot of 4.029 seconds.
The Top Fuel bump spot came in at 3.782-seconds, setting the record for that class on Saturday night.
RETIREMENT, KISSING CAPPS, MONKEYS & QUITTING ALCOHOL - A CANDID CONVERSATION WITH FORCE - Earlier this week, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck decided to retire from the National Football League.
Plagued by injuries, uncertainty, and a reduced passion for the game, the 29-year-old quarterback said he had had enough and told the team that he was hanging up his cleats to spend more time at home with his family.
That announcement had a profound impact on John Force.
Having become a familiar face around Colts games with his racing operation located in Indianapolis, Force took the news a little harder than most. After all, retirement is a word that comes up more and more often in his daily life.
The difference between the two competitors is staggering. Luck is a youthful 29, while Force just turned 70. Luck never won a Super Bowl, while Force is a 16-time Funny Car champion. Luck is about to be a first-time father, while Force has raced professionally alongside his daughters.
But despite all the differences, despite the age gap, the sport gap, the championship gap, the two are remarkably similar in the life decisions they are currently wrestling.
“I don’t plan on retiring, but I have days that I think, ‘man, you’re tired, maybe you should,’” Force said. “You know, I said to my doctor a few weeks ago after winning, ‘man, I really feel tired.’ And he goes, ‘John, you just turned 70.’ I told him, ‘yeah, but you said my heart is good’ and he says ‘it ain’t about your heart, you’re in perfect health.’ Then he asks me how long I have felt that way and I told him, ‘20 years.’ He says, ‘yeah, that’s about right. Guys (your age) are retiring.’
“I look at Luck who just retired. I really feel bad for the guy with the stuff they are saying. The fans, we love you, but they expect us to be warriors and die on the playing field. And probably the only one stupid enough to do that is me. But with (Luck), with his shoulder, with his ankle, he’s got a new baby on the way. He’s got the rest of his life. When I was his age, I was just starting. But to be told at that age that if you get hit in the leg by one of these 300-pound freight trains that you ain’t going to walk again? You’ve got to think about stuff like that.
“Now here I am 70 and too stupid to quit. They already told me, ‘if you get hit in the head again, you’ll be walking around crazy.’ But as my wife says, ‘nothing will change, he’s already nuts.’ The key is I do it because I love it. I know Luck loves it and it broke his heart. I don’t know the man, but I’ve watched him because of this town and he is hurting, as are the fans.
“People live for football like they do baseball and racing. They live for it and it hurt them losing their dream. But you know what? He had to do what he had to do. Now there are two other quarterbacks out there ready to take his place. Some new tiger will surface. And I’m sure there is some new guy that will take my place someday. But right now, they are going to have to drag me away from this sport.”
To help with his longevity in the sport, Force has undergone several transitions in his life in recent years. He’s given up alcohol. He is eating better. He is going to the gym regularly. And he is generally taking up the routines that many of the top youngsters stick to to try and stay young and competitive for as long as the as the sport - and his body - will allow.
And that is especially important following a string of head injuries over the past few years following several impacts with the wall.
“It all really started when I crashed in ‘07. I was broken up really bad. My arms and legs, knees, bones, and the doctor says, ‘you need to treat every day like Disneyland. Put down the phone,
don’t run the business, or you ain’t going to walk out of here.’ They told me I might never drive again and that scared me,” Force said. “Then last year when I hit my head, when I crashed four times, I had more miles in a helicopter and an ambulance than I did on the race track. When I went (to the doctor) they said, ‘how many times have you been hit?’ They saw all of the videos and they said, ‘wow, were you knocked out every time?’ and I told them I was. And they said, ‘first of all, do you drink?’ And I told them every day, but I do my work and I win. And they said, ‘the brain floats in water. And if you want to get well, quit drinking.’
“So I quit drinking. And I’ve never had a problem since. It’s been over a year, since March of last year. I just went cold turkey because I wanted to walk and I wanted to think because I have days sometimes where I am like, ‘why don’t I remember that?’ So I know I’m a lucky guy.”
The other thing driving Force at this point in his career is safety. Safety for himself. Safety for his daughter. And safety for his teammates and even his competitors.
“I’ve got a beautiful family around me. I’ve got four great teams. I’ve just been really lucky and I can’t quit,” Force said. “When we lost Eric (Medlen), I saw what his dad and mom and all of his family went through. It was painful. So I need to keep building technology. I need to keep learning and keep trying. We build our own cars here in Indy and I don’t know if anybody listens to us, but if they want to know anything we know, we tell them.
“I won’t know until I’m just so tired that I can’t get out here anymore, but even then I’m going to just keep doing it because the car does the running. And, God, when I get in that car, I’m alive again. It’s like my heart starts working and everything is good.”
And, of course, Force is far from done winning.
At the NHRA Northwest Nationals at Pacific Raceways in early August, Force famously won his 150th career NHRA race, a milestone that belongs to him and him alone.
It was an overwhelming moment, one that generated a flood of emotion - and actions - that took even him my surprise. He jumped out of the car. He crowd surfed with the fans. He jumped - and fell over - a fence. And, of course, he kissed fellow Funny Car competitor Ron Capps whom he had just defeated in the final.
“I didn’t realize how big it was. I’ve had records. I’ve set every record that is out there. I’ve had years where I would win 14 or 15 races and I’ve had years where I might win one. But everybody said that this is 150. They even gave me a painting of 150 that they painted after Denver last year because they said ‘he’s going for it.’ And it took me a year and a bunch of races to win it,” Force said. “I didn’t realize how big it had got. Television was hyping it every week. And after I won it, there were people from Chevrolet, presidents from companies, Peter Clifford, (Glen) Cromwell from NHRA. They all wanted to be a part of it. (Richard) Petty said that Ronald Reagan was there in the stands when he got his 200th win. And I’m thinking, I know it would be tough to get (Donald) Trump there, but it was his hometown. He could have been there.
“Then I kissed Capps at the end of the track. I just had an emotional meltdown. I love the kid and I hugged him and kissed him. Then I go up in the stands and, at my age, no women are looking at me, but I did have two guys propose to me. They both wanted to kiss me because they saw (the Capps kiss) on the big screen.”
After the race, Force received phone calls from folks across the industry, but it was the reception he received from his family that was the most rewarding.
“They were so relieved. My wife was relieved. She said, ‘we saw what you were going through.’ Honestly, it wasn’t that I couldn’t win 150, I just couldn’t win,” Force said. “I didn’t want to think about it because it doesn’t help you. I told my people not to even bring it up. I didn’t realize how important it was until I did it. I got out of the car and went crazy. All of a sudden, all of that which had built up in me for so many races just exploded. I was swearing. I even had to apologize because some of it snuck through (on television). I was just overwhelmed.”
So is Force glad it is behind him? Yes and no.
While he is glad that the weekly interviews and constant chatter is no longer about 150, he said he was a little sad to see the figurative monkey hanging from his back go. Because, at the end of the day, the little guy served as motivation.
“You know what is funny? I had heard all of the stories about having a monkey on your back, but I didn’t think about it. I go to four or five races and I lose in the final and they are all like,’ ah, you’ve got a monkey on your back.’ I don’t believe in that stuff,” Force said. “When I got out of the car, I said, ‘heck with that monkey,’ And then I thought, ‘no, wait, where is that monkey?’
“Because the truth is, as Austin Coil said, it is trying to tell you something. You think you know your car and then you are crossing centerlines and you’re doing crazy stuff and you are screwed up on the Christmas tree, driving in deep when you don’t want to go deep. And (Coil) said to me, ‘that ain’t the John Force I know.’ So I went and had a talk with that monkey. And it was basically telling me you don’t know your car.
“Now I love that monkey. Because that monkey really got me back on track. Why aren’t you winning? Why are they telling you you’ve got a monkey that doesn’t exist? But I realized, you better look at why you’re not winning.
“So about two months ago they changed the steering in the car. All of a sudden I looked like I could drive again. They changed the brakes. They just did so many things. So the monkey really helped me. Now I tell anybody that when they say they’ve got a monkey on their back that it is a good omen. Because all you need to do is pay attention.
“I’m thinking about buying a monkey so I can have a friend.”
This weekend, just a few weeks removed from that career-defining win, Force will be going for another milestone as he tries to tie Ed McCulloch for the most Funny Car wins all-time at the legendary U.S. Nationals with five. If he could do that, the 16-time champion and 150-time race winner would add yet another notch to what has already been a nostalgic campaign for the greatest driver to ever strap into a race car.
“Indy is the granddaddy. I’ve won it four times, but I don’t think about it. My sponsors don’t want to hear about what I’ve done, they want to see what I am doing now,” Force said. “Working with Chevrolet at the Chevrolet U.S. Nationals, it is the biggest race of the year. So to come here and win would be huge.”
But, most of all, the lasting impact of Force’s historic season is not lost on the fans.
Not one to shy away from signing hundreds, if not thousands, of autographs in a given weekend, Force’s pit area in Indianapolis has been filled to the brim with eager fans hoping to get a picture, a handshake, or an autograph with the 70-year-old who just keeps defying logic and Father Time.
And, as Force will quickly admit, it is those fans that truly keep him young.
“I’m addicted. My daughter Brittany said to me once, ‘I lost and I’ve got to go out to the ropes and I don’t know what to say to them.’ I said, ‘honey, they don’t even know that you lost. Your name is Force. You’re beautiful. They just love you.’ That’s what I do. I go out there and they say, ‘hey Force, how are you gonna do next round?’ And I say, ‘I’m going to win.’ They don’t even know if I’ve won or lost,” Force said. “I tried being miserable. I’ve sat with drivers at autograph sessions and I’ve seen them going through the pain and I’m not going to do anything that I don’t love.
“I love signing autographs. I love the people. It is what keeps me going.”
VIRTUAL INSANITY - Ron Capps is quite the experienced racer.
When he is not driving his NAPA Auto Parts Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat with Don Schumacher Racing, Capps is behind the wheel competing at other race tracks all around the world. Sometimes competing at multiple tracks in one day. Sometimes just hours apart.
How does he do it?
Capps is an integral part of the growing world of online racing that is taking the industry by storm.
Capps is a member of an elite team of real-world race car drivers that serve as testers for some of the top racing simulators in the industry. From iRacing to other online and offline racing games, Capps is one of the first names that is called upon when a new game is about to come out and Capps uses his experience behind the wheel of several different cars over the course of his career to test the realism and fun-factor of each game.
“I was one of the original beta testers. Anytime something new comes out and they are going to beta test it, I am in a small group of race car drivers that they call,” Capps said. “It has grown quite a bit, but originally it started with Justin Wilson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and others. I started playing the original video games in the late 90s and that is really when it got serious.”
Capps recalls in those early days of the sim racing community spending late nights at his home, playing online until three and four in the morning with Earnhardt Jr., Martin Truex Jr. and others.
“Dale had a setup at his house and back then Martin Truex lived with him. So Martin was on all of the time. It was funny to logon to a game and see Martin and Dale when it is midnight at my house and 3 a.m. in North Carolina and we are playing video games all night,” Capps said. “Back then we approached it the same. (Earnhardt and Truex) and a couple IndyCar drivers that were always there, (Kevin) Magnussen in Formula 1, some rally drivers, a lot of them were always on there. I’ve been involved with iRacing since it came out. We knew it was going to be big. You talk to Earnhardt Jr. or Truex, even early on as basic as it was, you could tell this was going to be huge.
“It really didn’t get crazy until a few years ago when, now, all of a sudden every NASCAR guy is using it. I’ll get a message that there is a new game coming out and I will get home and logon and test and send notes. I’ve been very lucky in my career to have been able to test with IROC, driven sprint cars, midgets. I’ve gotten to do a lot of cool stuff in other cars so it has really helped me give them feedback. I always look forward to it.”
What began as a fun hobby for some and an opportunity to test for others, has turned into real-world contracts and seats in real race cars on real race tracks.
Take for instance NASCAR driver William Byron. Byron, who grew up in the heart of racing country in Charlotte, saw a race on television as a child and decided he wanted to do that himself one day. Lacking the resources to get in an actual race car, Byron began his own race operation in the lucrative world of iRacing as a teenager, winning over 100 races with nearly 300 top fives in online competition.
By the time he was 15, his father put him behind the wheel of a real car for the first time and, today, Byron pilots the No. 24 Chevrolet for famed Hendrick Motorsports.
From a virtual seat to a very real one, Byron is just one of millions of online racers who compete online. And he is also one of the hundreds of drivers that are seeing their virtual successes turn into real-world opportunities.
It has grown so big, in fact, that many real-world race teams with the likes of NASCAR, IndyCar and Formula 1 have begun hiring virtual racers to be a part of their teams to race in online leagues. In fact some of these races, like those with iRacing, have found airtime on television including with the NBC Sports Network.
“Look at William Byron. I raced with him. He had never driven a car, he was an iRacing guy, and he whipped all of our butts,” Capps said. “To have somebody from a video game doing well and then get offered a chance at a real ride, and not just any ride, but Hendrick. And then to actually succeed and win races from growing up racing in a video game? It is crazy to think that that is the world today.
“It is so realistic and always fun. It is fun when I get a message that something new is coming out and I go home and hop on the simulator.”
So what is next for the world of online racing?
While the possibilities are limitless, Capps has one sole focus that he is hoping to achieve over the next few years. To bring drag racing to the virtual world.
“I talk to those guys all the time and they are very much wanting to do a drag race game,” Capps said. “We’ve talked about just coming out with one car - a dragster or a Funny Car - initially. It will be so much fun when it finally does happen. People are going to love it. We are going to work on that and see if we can make it happen.”
Who knows? Maybe in a few years we will be crowning both a real-world and online U.S. Nationals champion.
LIGHT ‘EM UP - Drag racing is exciting.
What more can you say about a competition that touts 330 mile-per-hour passes with flames towering high above wild looking race cars that are covering distances of 1,000 feet in less time than it took you to read this sentence.
Drag racing is also a sport.
Away from all of the screaming motors and clouds of nitro, this is still a competition with rules and order to be followed. An exciting sport, but still a sport.
But above all else, drag racing is entertainment.
Fans aren’t packing the stands each weekend to see nice, orderly runs between gentlemen and ladies. They are packing the stands to see chaos. They purchase tickets to see crazy numbers and to see what makes nitro racing so exciting - the unpredictability.
So what can an organization do to enhance a sport that is inherently exhilarating, but also a competition with procedures to follow?
One thing - make it a show.
In an effort to make the nitro rounds more of a, well, show, the NHRA has been adding new elements to the program culminating with Friday’s new Prime Time showcase of the nitro classes. The unique evening session featured a rock concert-like wall of flames along the guard wall alongside each burnout. It showcased loud music individually chosen by the drivers. It even had an NHRA official acting as a DJ on the starting line complete with headphones and a mixing board.
The scene was more along with what you might see at a high-end nightclub or even during pre-game introductions at an NFL or NBA game.
But this was the NHRA.
“I think it is great. The walkout music. The pyro on the burnouts. We are here to put on a show,” said Funny Car driver Matt Hagan. “People are spending their hard-earned money to come out here and spend the weekend with us or camp out, so at the end of the day, while I want to win races, we are still showmen.”
And Hagan knows a thing or two about showmanship.
One of the more interactive and personable drivers in the pits, Hagan lavishes in the opportunity to showcase more of who he is as a person with his own unique music and introduction video blaring while doing his burnout with pyro blasting alongside the track. He said it makes for a great atmosphere for the fans, but also for the drivers who get up on the wheel a little more with the added air of excitement.
But more than anything, Hagan understands that plugging in a few additional elements also increases the draw for younger fans. After all, if you can bring the fans out for a show and a little thrill, you might actually make them fans of drag racing at the same time.
“I love that we get to pick our music. That we get to show a little bit of what we like or what we are into,” Hagan said. “It is like Monster Jam. Getting these kids involved is just one of those things where, I don’t really care about monster trucks, but when I get home my kids do. So of course I go there and I buy the shirts and the drinks and all of that stuff. We’ve got to get kids
involved and put on a great show. We’ve got to create that thrill for everybody. Because, at the end of the day, where the kids want to go mom and dad follow.”
On Friday, Hagan rolled into the water box with with an EDM version of the song Sail by Awolnation playing all while burning out alongside firebombs. It was truly a sight and one Hagan hopes the NHRA will continue to develop to help increase the overall show.
“A lot of people, that is why they follow you on Instagram or other platforms. They want to know who you really are, what makes you tick,” Hagan said. “That is just another little layer people get to see. They say, ‘he likes EDM music, I thought he was just a country boy.’ It is stuff like that that gets fans closer to the drivers and feel a part of the event.”
Of course, with the smoke and fire out of the way, Hagan now shifts his focus to the other part of his job - race car driver.
The 2016 winner of this race and the track record holder for the class at 3.799 seconds at 338.77 mph set in 2017, Hagan enters the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals sixth in points, seeking a little momentum entering the Countdown to the Championship in two weeks.
And, tying in with the theme of fan entertainment, Hagan is also enjoying a more consistent track prep from the NHRA that has brought the elapsed times down a tick and allowed for more competitive runs. A far cry from earlier in the season.
“I was able to win Indy three years ago here and to put your name up on that board is very humbling. It is one of those things where, no matter how long you continue to do this, you don’t want to be done without winning Indy. And we did that,” Hagan said. “I think that we are putting on a great show for the fans out there right now. I think that the NHRA is doing a lot better job of glueing the track back a little more, giving us more side-by-side racing.
“We might not be able to set those records anymore, but at the end of the day, we need to be able to put on a good show. Hats off to them for getting everything back to where we are not tire smoking every other lap. I want to set more records, but at the end of the day, if we put on a great show and keep these fans happy and coming back and growing our sport, I am looking forward to that.”
So with the possibility of additional elements being added to the evening nitro session to make them more entertaining for the fans, is there anything that Hagan isn’t willing to do to put on a show?
“I just don’t want to actually be on fire,” Hagan said with a laugh. “Other than that I am good.”
FAST 8s - Eight drivers raced into the 3.80s over the weekend with Bob Tasca holding down the final spot in the fast eight. His 3.894 at 325.85 mph placed him in eighth on the ladder. He
will try to extend his streak of consecutive races with a round win to nine-straight when he faces Paul Lee in round one on Monday.
RAINY DAY BLUES - No one likes rain at a race track.
Not the fans, not the crews, not the drivers. Especially not the drivers.
Rain keeps crew chiefs guessing and drivers battling a green race track with ever-changing conditions. If that wasn’t bad enough, now add the pressure of racing at Indy. And add on top of that the pressure of not being qualified.
It is enough to drive anyone crazy.
“It is frustrating,” said Tommy Johnson, driver of the Riley Kids Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Funny Car. “It starts to wear on you after a while. Indy is stressful enough without all of this. Then you start adding this into it. It tests you for sure.”
Entering Sunday, Johnson’s race weekend had been marred with one problem after another. His team swung and missed on Friday. Then car issues on Saturday left Johnson - the No. 2 man in points coming into the U.S. Nationals - on the outside looking in entering the final day of qualifying.
“It has been freak stuff,” Johnson said. “We missed the first-round tuneup. In the second run I put a hole out for no apparent reason. And then it broke a piston in the run (Saturday) and the pan pressure switch shut it off. Just stuff that normally doesn’t happen. And this is the wrong place for it to happen.”
And then the rains came.
Entering the final day of qualifying 18th out of the 19 cars on the property with a weekend-best 4.368 at 200.71 mph up to that point, Johnson desperately needed at least one more hit at the track to try and make the field. Then Sunday morning, a massive rain cell formed and washed over the track, leaving Johnson sitting in the pits hoping and praying that he could get another shot at making the biggest drag race of them all.
“I actually thought about it Saturday night. I knew after that last run that we should be ok if we can get it in. The problem is, there was rain coming,” Johnson said.
Thankfully, Johnson eventually got that opportunity.
After watching it rain all morning, Johnson finally got his shot at the track late Sunday morning and made the most of it, jumping up to 10th on the ladder with a 3.909 at 319.82 mph.
The run locked Johnson into the field and assured he would be racing on Monday. It did not, however, prevent Johnson from aging a couple of years while watching it rain. Johnson will face Shawn Langdon in round one on Monday.
UNDER THE RADAR - Robert Hight is the current Funny Car points leader.
He has five wins. He has been to seven finals. He has been the top qualifier eight times.
Yet, amazingly, he has flown under the radar all weekend long.
While the Don Schumacher Racing cars occupied three of the top four spots, Hight was left piddling around midpack much of the weekend before jumping up to sixth in his final hit at the track on Sunday with a 3.884 at 330.07 mph. It has been a very atypical Hight weekend as he had his worst qualifying effort since Norwalk back in June.
“It is painful. It is Indy and we did not exactly qualify where we wanted,” Hight said. “We struggled on Saturday. We didn’t want to be in the middle of the field. We want to be at the top. It is where we have been all year. We have eight number ones and that is the way we want to continue to race.”
Hight will face Tim Wilkerson in round one on Monday as Wilkerson looks to secure the 10th and final spot in the Countdown to the Championship field.
THE STRUGGLE IS REAL - Drag racing is a very humbling sport.
You can be on top of the world one minute, and struggling to make it down the track the next.
Right now, Jim Campbell is in the latter category.
An accomplished racer driving for a winning team in Jim Dunn Racing, Campbell knows that the team has strong runs and round wins in it. The problem is, they haven’t materialized.
Campbell is still chasing his first round win of 2019 and his first sub-four second run since 2016. But neither has been within reach to this point.
“It has been about two-and-a-half years since I made my first three-second run here in 2016. So I’m capable of doing it,” Campbell said. “Those were the days where we had the laid back headers so it was even harder to drive. It was a handful back then. This is just a humbling sport. One minute you are going fast down the track and the next minute you are struggling to get down the track.
“It is definitely a team effort. I’ve got to do my part as a driver and they have to do their part as a crew. I know everybody is trying really, really hard, we just have to get it done.”
But this weekend, the struggles continued.
Campbell has been on strong runs in each hit at the track, but none materialized into a spot in the field.
“I’m not sure really what is going on. Pan pressure has been shutting the car off. Jim Dunn has been doing this since before I was born, so I’m sure if anybody can figure it out, he can,” Campbell said. “I know they are probably just as frustrated as I am.”
To make matters worse, Campbell’s struggles this weekend have coincided with trying to make the quickest field in NHRA Funny Car history.
And Campbell knows a thing or two about being involved in quick fields. He was also a part of the previous quickest field in NHRA history in Pomona in 2016 where he laid down a solid number, only to barely hang on to a spot in the field.
“I was part of the fastest field ever previous to this weekend which was Pomona in 2016 where I ran a 3.97 at the World Finals and it was 15th,” Campbell said. “We just need to go out there and run a three. We’ve been all around it, we just need that extra hundredth of a second. I think it would put a smile on my face. It would put a smile on the whole teams face.”
Unfortunately, none of that added up for Campbell on Sunday.
Campbell came close in his final hit at the track Sunday evening, but a 4.018 was not good enough to make the 16-car field. It was his fourth DNQ of the season.
HEATING UP - Cool weather.
It is the best friend of drag racers everywhere. Mild weather creates a cool track and, typically, ideal conditions for racing. And, most of the time, the quickest and fastest times you will see at a race occurs when the temperatures drop and the clouds come out.
And then there are drivers like J.R. Todd.
Todd and his DHL Toyota race team like to consider themselves a bit of warm-weather experts and have driven to two-straight U.S. Nationals victories in hot and slick conditions. And Todd is hoping for the unnaturally cool weekend to turn back the other way before he hits the track on Monday.
“There is nothing you can do about the weather here at Indy. It is about as unpredictable as it gets,” Todd said. “Those first couple runs we had were nice when it is cool like that. People will
say, ‘I bet you are licking your chops,’ but actually I like it when it is hot and nasty because we seem like we do well in those conditions.
“At the end of the day, all of the teams are dealt the same hand, so you just have to adapt to it. It is a matter of what teams make the right adjustments with the weather. Todd (Smith) and Jon (Oberhofer), they do a really good job staying on top of that and with TRD, a combination like that is what it takes to be able to contend out here.”
While Todd dominated last year with the five great runs in qualifying leading to a big Monday, Todd has been a little under the radar this weekend despite finding a spot inside the top five. Todd drove the DHL Toyota to fifth on the ladder with a 3.883 at 331.20 mph set Friday night.
He will get Cruz Pedregon in round one Monday.
“Last year I don’t think I looked at it like, ‘we won the previous year, so I know we can win this year.’ I just felt like we had a really good car last year. We tested here before the event and ran really well. Then we came out swinging Friday night as the No. 1 qualifier and ran really well all through qualifying,” Todd said. “My confidence was high going into Monday last year. I’m not saying it isn’t high this year, we’ve run really well. I was trying to rip it and I got a little aggressive and couldn’t hang on to it.
“Now we are ready for tomorrow morning. It would be nice to go some rounds and repeat history and move up in the Countdown and get ready for that championship run.”
IN THE FIELD - We’ve already established that this weekend’s Funny Car field is the quickest in NHRA history.
It is a big moment for the class in terms of overall performance, but it means even more to the drivers that are a part of that field.
Especially the ones who are not class regulars.
Ray Martin is one of those drivers. He is here this weekend all the way from Anchorage, Alaska, but he has a solid team behind him in the Worsham Racing camp. And, whether or not he makes noise on Monday, he’s already succeeded in adding his name to the 16 drivers that are a part of the historic field.
“We feel pretty decent about where we are at right now,” Martin said. “Just to be here and be a part of anything with the Worshams and at Indy is pretty awesome.
“I’ve got the best job. I get to drive this car. I’m lucky to be with a great group of people. I have all of the confidence in the world in the car and their ability.”
After nicking a timing block on Friday and skipping Q2 on Saturday, Martin jumped well into the field with a 3.962-second pass at 325.22 mph Saturday evening to secure his spot in the field in the 13th position. He will race Ron Capps in round one Monday.
SEE YOU NEXT YEAR - Three drivers missed the field on Sunday. Jim Campbell (4.018), Phil Burkart (4.047) and Terry Haddock (4.086) were the unfortunate drivers on the receiving end of the record-setting bump spot.
FUNNY CAR - SATURDAY
CHAMPIONSHIP FAVORITE - Can Bob Tasca run with any car in the Funny Car field?
He certainly isn’t shy letting you know what he thinks about that question.
“I know I can,” a confident Tasca said. “The nice thing is people can say it, well we actually do it. We can run with anyone out here on any given Sunday.”
So why the extra boost of confidence?
Well, one year ago at this very same race track, Tasca was stuck in a rut. He was 11th in the championship standings, all but eliminated from the postseason, with a team that was strong, but not yet winning.
Fast forward one year later and Tasca may very well be the hottest driver in the field.
Coming into the 65th Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals, Tasca is perhaps the most consistent car in the pit area. He has won a round at eight-straight races on the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series tour. He has two wins - his first wins since 2012 - and is solidly locked into the Countdown to the Championship.
He is also enjoying the tuning prowess of former John Force Racing-playcallers Jon Schaffer, who joined the team in May after recent stints with Force and Top Fuel-rookie Austin Prock, and Mike Neff.
Now Tasca is ready to take that performance and step it up a notch this weekend, setting the bar for what he hopes is a run to the championship come November.
“What a difference a year makes. A year and the people around me. At the end of the day I’ve seen a lot of people catch lightning in a bottle and, for whatever reason, they get the right group of guys, the right chemistry, and they just start winning,’ Tasca said. “I’ve worked a long time, a lot of years to get to where I am right now. We made that trade with Force and got Shaffer, then Zippy (Neff) came over, and it is like these guys have worked together for 10 years. It is crazy. There is a great vibe, a great level of confidence. And the car is running lights out. We did some testing over the past week and now it is race mode. This is championship mode.
“Neff and I got the guys together on Monday and said the championship starts right now. It doesn’t start in Maple Grove. We want to move up in points. We’ve got a shot to be fifth or fourth depending on how the chips fall this weekend. We want to make a move this weekend and carry that momentum into the championship.”
And that consistency starts in qualifying.
While Tasca has never been known as a homerun hitter on Fridays and Saturdays - though he does have a No. 1 this year just a few weeks ago in Seattle - he knows that just getting down the track is what makes a difference in starting in the top half of the field. And starting in the top half of the field means better opponents and, in turn, round wins.
And in this sport, round wins are king.
In the first half of the year, Tasca struggled to do just that and found himself on the Countdown bubble by the midway point of the year. But in Topeka the team seemed to find their groove and the team hasn’t lost in the opening round since.
“It is all about going rounds. And it starts in qualifying,” Tasca said. “That is something Mike Neff and Schaffer brought over. We want to be one of those cars that goes down (the track) four out of four times. We’ll take our shots at the pole, but we are really focused on going down the race track. The more you go down the race track, the more you learn and the more data you have.
“We’ve got a good briefcase of data right now. We’ve got hot track, cool track. We’ve got 330 mph runs and 3.80 runs. So we’ve got what we need at this point in the season to throw our name in the hat for a championship run.
“When you go back to Richmond we were struggling just to stay in the top 10. This team is in a different zip code right now. I am excited for the guys. Thrilled to have Schaffer and Neff part of the team. I’m excited. I haven’t run for a championship in quite a few years. I am looking forward to it.”
Thanks to that success on the track, Tasca has a renewed sense of confidence behind the wheel.
He will readily admit that his return to the sport was marred with question marks and self-doubt, but this year has lit a fire inside that he hopes can propel him to an NHRA title.
“As a driver, you just drive better. Sometimes when the car isn’t running good you are trying to fix it and that comes with a lot of pressure. And unfortunately, you can’t fix it sitting in the seat,” Tasca said. “But when you get in a car like we have, it gives you confidence. I’ve never driven better in my whole career. Car control, reaction time, all of the above, and that is what it takes to win a championship
“The driver has to have confidence. The crew has to have confidence. And the crew chief has to make it happen. I’ve always said it is 95 percent team and 5 percent driver. The guys have to bolt the car together and the crew chief has to make the right call. If all that happens you’ve got a chance. It doesn’t mean you are going to win, but you’ve got a chance.
“And I am excited to be in the position that we are in and I’m going to try and seize the opportunity.”
BETTER BECKMAN - On Friday night, Jack Beckman made the comment that he wouldn’t guarantee that his time from the opening night of the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals would hold for the rest of the weekend, but he wouldn’t bet against it.
Well, the bad news is Beckman’s time was in fact bested on Saturday. The good news is that it was Beckman doing the lowering.
Beckman ran a weekend-best 3.861-second pass at 330.07 mph in Q2 on Saturday, lowering his own number and remaining good enough to secure the number one spot at least for another day.
“In standard qualifying you get four runs, in Indy you get five runs. Think of that as NHRA handing you that quantity of darts and you throw them and you try to stick one as close to the bullseye as possible,” Beckman said. “Right now we are first and arguably we are the best car out there. I think we are making a statement repeatedly here and because it is also bonus points in each qualifying session, we got four points for being low in Q1, four points for being low in Q2 and another three (in the last session). It is hard to ask anymore as a driver.”
With much cooler conditions than expected, both nitro classes managed to lower Friday’s numbers, with Top Fuel setting a record for the quickest bump spot in NHRA history while also watching Brittany Force reset the track records at Lucas Oil Raceway.
While the Funny Car class didn’t flirt as closely with history, it was still an impressive afternoon across the board.
And for Beckman, being quickest in two of three sessions and second in the other, Beckman has the added opportunity to try things tomorrow to prepare for Monday, a luxury other teams might not enjoy.
“I am on a fast horse. You drive better with a high degree of confidence and we have that right now,” Beckman said. “Being where we are, we literally have the luxury of trying some things that might be a little bit outside of our comfort zone and we are still going to be just fine.
“I don’t know if the weather is going to be similar and yesterday. Maybe we get a couple more hero shots at it, maybe it is hot and sunny, who knows. I think we’ve proven we can run pretty darn good in all conditions.”
If Beckman’s time holds on Sunday, with two more sessions on the schedule, it will be his first No. 1 of the season and the first time he has paced the Funny Car class since March of 2018.
BATTLE FOR SECOND - With Jack Beckman holding down the top spot, the battle this weekend has largely been for second. Ron Capps held it following Friday’s session, John Force took it during Q2, and Matt Hagan ended day two of the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals with the second spot. Hagan ran a session-low 3.874-second pass at 327.66 mph in Saturday’s evening session to jump up to second.
SAVING HIS BEST FOR THE BIGGEST - They say in sport that the best competitors save their best stuff for the biggest stage.
And that is exactly what Bob Bode has enjoyed the past two years at Indy.
Bode has gone rounds, run career-best numbers and just generally been his best on the biggest stage at the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals, considered by many the biggest drag race in the world.
On Friday, Bode continued that trend with yet another career mark with his fastest speed coming just two weeks after having had his most consistent weekend ever at Brainerd. Currently Bode is 13th on the ladder with a 3.982-second pass at 321.81 mph.
“We love coming to Indy. Last year we did very well here. It wasn’t so much us, it was the second race on the car we bought from Tim Wilkerson. So it was Tim’s technology that ran good here last year,” Bode said. “Coming back here with help tuning and all of the guys we have, our aim is pretty high.”
Bode, after a strong qualifying effort last year, defeated Bob Tasca in round before eventually falling at the hands of Shawn Langdon. It was a thrilling moment for the journeyman racer, but one that the team has been able to build on over the past year.
Just two weeks ago, Bode again had a great showing in a tuneup for Indy with a string of consistent runs ending in a first-round win over John Force.
“The car we ran all of last year leading up until now coming off of Brainerd is pretty amazing for us,” Bode said. “We ran an 07, 04, 03 and a 98. In our whole history of 19 years of drag racing, we have never put together four rounds that good. Coming in here, we are confident that the car could go down the track. We hopefully can tweak it and get the number that the car has got in it.”
Adding to Bode’s current high on the race track is that win over Force in the last race.
Coming off of his milestone 150th career NHRA victory, Force fell in round one to Bode, proving just how unpredictable the nitro classes can be. Meanwhile in the other lane, wins like that can help propel a team to new heights.
Just having the opportunity to race against the best in the sport is one thing. But in drag racing, anything can happen and a win over that same racer can be a real thrill.
“When we went up to the starting line last week in Brainerd on Sunday morning we are waiting back in the staging lanes and (Force) is standing there so we walked over and said hi and I said ‘John, it is a treat. I am in the twilight of my career and me just racing you is a real treat. Me racing against you is something that I will remember for a long time,’” Bode said. “He looked at me, shook my hand, and said ‘lets just go out there and have some fun.’
“Just racing him was fine with me. If I lost I was going to be a happy guy. So I get up there, hit the gas, and I had a bad light so I was late, but I never saw him. Guess what, we win. Now I am thinking, if just racing him was a treat, now here I am having just beat the biggest name coming off of his 150th win and that shows you the ups and downs in drag racing. How luck can turn around.
“Whoever was in the lane next to Force was going to win. Thank God it was me.”
BRAND NEW CAR - When shopping for a new car, what is the first thing you do?
Take it for a test drive.
You hop behind the wheel. You see how it feels. You make sure it is the one. Most of the time you ease it out on the road and make sure it drives well and it is safe.
So what do you do when said car isn’t your ordinary daily driver? What if the brand new car you are taking out of the box is a 10,000 horsepower fire-breathing nitro Funny Car?
Well, you push it to the limit and hope for the best.
That is exactly the situation Ron Capps found himself in on Friday when the former world champion unveiled a brand new car, front-halved following last weekend’s win at Brainerd, and promptly drove it to a 3.882-second pass out of the box, good enough for fourth on the charts at the biggest drag race in the land following Saturday.
“Sometimes you stand back and say, ‘oh my gosh, somebody jumped in a car that has never been down the track essentially and, without even thinking about it, stepping on the gas and
going 3.88 seconds at almost 330 mph on a brand new chassis that has never even seen a race track,’” Capps said. “Sometimes you forget what that means.”
Typically, drivers will have an opportunity to test prior to the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals, but a rare pact made by many of the top teams not to test between Brainerd and this weekend’s race meant that Capps came into the race blind as to the performance of the car. But it didn’t take long for Capps to discover that this car will be in the fight all weekend long.
“Obviously nobody attended the Indy test session. To be honest, as much as I have been running around doing sponsor appearances, it is nice not to come here and test because a lot of times if you don’t have a good Indy test, you really can throw yourself for a loop because the track isn’t like it is going to be when we race here,” Capps said. “The thing with Kalitta and Force and Don getting together and saying let’s skip the Indy test, that was cool. That is just a tribute to the shop and this team. To go out first run and do that was huge.”
With the car safely locked into the field already, and an additional qualifying session on the schedule during the four-day race weekend, Capps, crew chief Rahn Tobler and the rest of the team will go to work preparing the car for Monday and even looking ahead to the Countdown.
“Tobler is very good at implementing things that we want to test during qualifying,” Capps said. “The key is to qualify well on Friday and then have a chance (to test) under race conditions on Saturday. You don’t want to give up runs and data, so a lot of times (Tober) will back the car down to make sure it goes down the track and puts something in there that we know we can try for later in the year in the Countdown.
“A lot of times you may see our car slow down on Friday and Saturday in qualifying compared to other cars when in reality we are testing things in real time in real conditions. It is always exciting when we do something like that. It may not show on the board and the fans may not see exactly how that went, but inside the pit area you see a lot of smiles when we are able to do that.
“What you saw on Friday started early in the West Coast Swing. It started Saturday in Sonoma and that is what really gave us momentum for Sunday in Seattle and got us to the final round and then Brainerd. And what we did in Brainerd had a big impact this weekend because of what we got to test.”
Coming into this weekend riding the momentum of two-straight finals, Capps is excited about the possibilities ahead of him as he continues to seek his first-ever win at the U.S. Nationals. In fact, Capps enters this weekend having won at every track on the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule except for Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis.
“It is great to have that momentum, but when we got here yesterday everybody already forgot who won the last race,” Capps said. “Everybody is focused on Indy.”
FULL-TIME TEAM RUNNING PART-TIME SCHEDULE - There is nothing part-time about Paul Lee’s racing operation outside of the schedule.
With a big-time operation, a championship-winning crew chief, and a talented driver, Lee is in a unique situation of having the car and team capable of going rounds and being successful, yet he remains limited in his schedule as to ensure the team is able to compete at its peak each and every race weekend.
“If we don’t have the resources, then we will continue to race a limited schedule like we are doing this year,” Lee said. “My philosophy is that I would rather do less races, but when we do race we come to race hard. We are not out here just to qualify. We come to race. I would rather race eight races and race hard than race 24 races just to be out here. I’m past the part in my career where we are just out here.
“Of course I love being out here, but I am competitive. I want to race and race hard.”
But that all may be changing.
If Lee has it his way and finances line up, Lee may be throwing his hat in the ring as a full-time competitor in 2020 with the ultimate goal of one day contending for a championship. Afterall, isn’t that the dream of every driver who turns a tire with the NHRA?
“It has always been my goal since I was 13-years-old to win a championship and that will always be my goal” Lee said. “That is what you strive for. You may never get the resources to get to that point where you have that opportunity, but that has to be the goal.”
Lee continued to make tremendous strides in his goal to be a top-running car with a career-best elapsed time on Saturday, running a 3.900 at 325.30 mph to place him safely inside the top half of the field. It is the continuation of an upward trend for Lee and crew chief Jim Oberhofer as the team continues marching toward contention each and every weekend.
“All year long the car has been running really good. Jim O and his guys are all experienced crew guys. It is like we are a full-time team out here. These guys are all good. They work well together and even though we are only out for eight races this year, they already work together,” Lee said. “We turn the car around like a full-time team which is awesome. As a driver, if you have confidence in the car then you can do a better job. I have total confidence in the car and these guys.
“We’ve pretty much been going down the track all year. Every once in a while little things come up and bite us, but for the most part we are running good. Running fast and not hurting any parts. It has been really awesome.”
In another piece of exciting news, Lee, owner of McLeod Racing, announced earlier this week that he is expanding his business portfolio with the acquisition of FTI Performance Converters. Through the acquisition, Lee will be working closely with FTI Performance founders Greg and Phaedra Samuel and together they hope to dominate the aftermarket and racing industry with manual, torque converters and automatic transmission drivetrain components.
“We are excited to have FTI Performance with us. They are the leading company that make torque converters and transmissions for the sportsman racers and we are really happy to be associated with them,” Lee said. “Greg Samuel and his team down in Florida do an excellent job and I am glad to be teamed up with them. We are working together to bring FTI and McLeod to the next level.”
FINDING MOTIVATION - You just never know.
Those four little words are the sole driving force behind an entire race team as veteran racer Terry Haddock clings to the possibilities of the unknown in the sport of drag racing.
In more than two decades behind the wheel, Haddock has seen it all in the sport. He has been a world champion in a nitro Funny Car racing with the International Hot Rod Association in the late 2000s. But with the NHRA, he hasn’t been nearly as successful.
In more than 270 starts, Haddock has just seven round wins and spends most race weekends battling on Fridays and Saturdays to make the field instead of fighting to go rounds on Sunday.
But Haddock believes his time is coming. And after years of watching his peers start at the bottom and work their way to the top, Haddock believes that he too can experience what it is like contending for wins on race day.
“No matter what, I love racing. But I feel that when I first started everybody said that you have to pay your dues. Well, we’ve been paying our dues for a long time,” Haddock said. “The way I see it, if you quit now, you don’t know how close you were to getting there. You don’t know if you are there. Plus, I’ve got 20 some years into it, so what are you going to do?”
Part of the motivation driving Haddock on race weekends is the success of other drivers from the same racing circles.
As a former IHRA champion, Haddock has watched former IHRA success stories such as Clay Millican, Terry McMillen, Matt Hagan and others go on to collect Wallys. Now Haddock hopes he can join that list of former IHRA alums to win with the NHRA.
“It is cool to see when a smaller team like Terry McMillen do well. He came from the same place. But the biggest one would be Scott Palmer,” Haddock said. “To see that he came from
the same mold that we did with no financial resources and look at him now. That is a real motivator. It shows that it is out there.”
Of course, money is the biggest hindrance to a team like Haddocks.
Lacking big sponsors and financial backing, Haddock survives on his own grit and determination. But even that isn’t always enough to survive. He cites the fact that there are a number of Top Fuel and Funny Car teams across the country that show up for one or two race stints, but can’t afford to race a full or partial schedule, as part of the problem holding the sport back.
Haddock believes that a better financial model would increase car counts and make it easier for teams such as his to contend on Sundays.
“I think the sport has got a little out of hand with the money. You come here and there are 21 dragsters and 19 Funny Cars. You go to Seattle and there are 16 Funny Cars. The point is that there are cars sitting all across the country that can come out and race, but what it costs to race isn’t covered by what it generates,” Haddock said. “Everybody is doing their best. But you can’t get by on the qualifying checks. We are trying hard, but it is just not enough money.”
For now, Haddock is left playing the hands that he is dealt. And that includes the addition of noted tuner/team manage Johnny West who was added to the team earlier in the year and has made a big improvement in the management of the team.
“Johnny has taught me about details and how important it is. I would always handle the big problems and the big fires and say that the little stuff doesn’t matter,” Haddock said. “He has taught me and showed me how important the little details are. In fact, the little details prevent the big problems we are having. It took a while for me to get my head around it, but it has really been amazing when you can learn from a guy like him because he has done it all.
“He’s lived just like we are. He knows, so now when I am about to do something stupid he usually catches me beforehand and stops it.”
Thanks to that focus on the little things, Haddock has seen gradual improvement. Just two weeks ago in Brainerd Haddock ran his career-best numbers and he hopes to build on that this weekend in Indy.
So what would it mean to finally go a few rounds on Sunday and, perhaps one day, hoist a Wally?
“It would mean validation,” Haddock said. “Everybody knows that on any given day anybody can win. God has a script on how it is going to go. We don’t know, but it is already planned. When it is our day, it will be our day. We just have to be there for it.”
JUST LIKE A WALLY - The current national record in the Funny Car class belongs to Robert Hight at 3.793 seconds at 339.87 mph.
But on Friday night, a 4.005 at 317.94 mph felt like the biggest run in the world.
Because that number belonged to journeyman racer Justin Schriefer in the Justin Schriefer Racing Dodge Charger and it symbolized something even better - a career best for a driver out here racing with his friends and family.
“To me, it was a spectacular run,” an elated Schriefer said. “We were trying to hit the 3.98 range, somewhere in there, but I staged the car wrong. We were right there though. We are really happy with the way the car is running and we’ve been having really good luck out here at Indy every time we come here. It has just been overwhelming for us as a team.
“I have an awesome team, crew chief. Everybody is putting in 100 percent.”
Schriefer is a part-time racer based out of Grant Park, Illinois. He has one prior start in 2019 coming in Chicago where he just missed the cut in 17th. Last year Schriefer also raced at Indy where he also missed the field
But on Friday, Schriefer made a huge step forward and put himself in a great position to potentially make the field at the biggest drag race in the world.
“Last night we came back (to the pit) and we were really happy. We had all candles lit all the way down the track and the car ran really well after about 300 feet. It was one of the hardest pulls I’ve ever felt,” Schriefer said. “When we get the 60-foot times back to where they were at Joliet, we are going to be a 3.95 car. I’m hoping to do that this weekend if the weather holds. We are just taking baby steps right now.”
The Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals represents only the second race of the season for Schriefer, who gets by on race weekends using a small team and a collection of second-hand parts from some of the bigger teams.
But if you were to walk by their pits, you would never know just how small this team really is.
Their pit area is pristine and the entire operation looks the part of one of the super teams, giving the kind of professional, big-team appearance that Schriefer likes to keep at all times.
“We are not very well funded. We came out here with two-and-a-half sets of heads, so we are trying to muscle through this thing the best that we can,” Schriefer said. “We are just trying to be on a total professional level. We like to keep the operation looking good, trying to pick up that big sponsor someday. We are hoping it comes one day.”
Until that day, Schriefer and his team gets by on parts they buy from teams like Steve Torrence. In fact, if it weren’t for some of the bigger teams, a team like Schriefers could never be out here doing what they do.
“I buy a lot of parts from Steve Torrence and Bobby Lagana. They have a lot of nice, quality used parts over there,” Shriefer said. “Big teams like that really help us out and keep us going. We run off of their parts and they like to say that they run off of grocery store parts.”
To add to the excitement, Schriefer is at the track this weekend with his wife and nine-month-old daughter who could be seen sporting a Justin Schriefer Racing t-shirt in the pits on Saturday. It was a special moment to share with his family as the part-time racer tries to take the steps needed to show he can run with the best in one of the few opportunities he gets each year to make some noise.
“Friday night it was like we had won the Wally,” Schriefer said. “It is huge for us. At Joliet we did good right out of the box, but we got bumped out. It was nothing to put our heads down about, we were right there and we showed that again on Friday.
“I don’t know if this will be our last race. If I get some sponsor money, maybe, but this might be the last one for us for the year. I am just tapped out. I want to be able to come back out next year.”
HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO JONNIE! - What a way to celebrate your 30th birthday.
A milestone birthday at the biggest drag race in the world with all of your friends and family on hand, many of which traveled overseas to be here. So how exactly do you celebrate a birthday like that?
“We are going to have a big party on Monday after the race,” said Funny Car racer Jonnie Lindberg. “Win or lose, it is going to be a lot of fun. A lot of people are going to come out and party with us. It is going to be awesome.”
Hailing from Sweden and now calling Indiana home, Lindberg is being joined by friends and family from across Europe this weekend. He will be driving Jim Head’s Head Inc. Ford Mustang
Funny Car, while his brother is driving the family alcohol Funny Car. It is making for quite the family affair for the entire Lindberg family.
“I have a ton of people from Europe here this weekend. It is a lot of fun,” Lindberg said. “Now that I live about five minutes from the track, this is what I consider my home race. I’m looking forward to a fun weekend.”
So with the biggest drag race in the world taking place this weekend, Lindberg was quick to reminisce about his meteoric rise from a street racer in Europe, to European success, to alcohol champion here in the U.S. to driver of a fuel Funny Car all in the span of a little over a decade.
“Everything has just been so quick. I came here with my first half-season in 2014, then in 2015 I won my first alcohol championship. In 2016 I won again. The next year I was in a fuel car,” Lindberg said. “It has been quick. It feels cool to be out here with all of the big guys. When you were growing up you looked up to drivers like Robert Hight and Del Worsham, people you looked at in magazines and on television. And now I am racing against them.”
Growing up racing in his home country of Sweden, as well as Finland, Germany and England, Lindberg knew very quickly this is what he wanted to do.
But in Europe, the sport is much more like it was here several decades ago. And if you want to truly be successful in drag racing, the United States is where you go.
“Here it is the biggest. And the best teams are here,” Lindberg said. “There are more teams and it is much more competitive here. In Europe, it is probably what it was like here 20 years ago. Everybody in Europe stays at the track, camps out, talks shit at night, drinks beer and has fun. Here it is a little more like a job. Back in Europe it is still a hobby.”
While Linderg hasn’t been back to race overseas in a few years, he still returns from time-to-time to help with tuning duties.
And when he does make it back, he is royalty at the track as one of the drivers who has made it in the U.S.
“My brother and I started street racing back in the day and we wanted to go drag racing. It has been my life since I was 15 years old,” Lindberg said. “It is cool to race for somebody that has been around for so long. And to be head-hunted to drive for somebody like that is pretty awesome.”
BY THE DECADE - Want to know just how much performance has been made in the sport in just a decade?
At the U.S. Nationals in 2009, Robert Hight paced the field with a 4.082-second pass and Ashley Force-Hood had the top speed of the weekend at 309.84 mph.
Amazingly, that run would have missed the field entirely this weekend. Meanwhile, the top speed of the meet thus far this weekend is John Force with a 332.67 mph pass.
As an added note of interest, during that U.S. Nationals weekend a decade ago, 10 drivers that raced that weekend also turned a lap this weekend. Those drivers are Hight, Force, Cruz Pedregon, Bob Tasca, Tim Wilkerson, Ron Capps, Jack Beckman, Matt Hagan, Bob Bode and Justin Schriefer.
And the winner at that 2009 race? Force-Hood over Hight.
SMALL WORLD - It really is a small world.
First, there is Phil Burkart. Burkart grew up in Utica, New York and got the racing bug watching a local Funny Car team tuned by Fred Castronovo and driven by brother Phil who piloted the Custom Body Enterprises machine aptly nicknamed the “Utica Flash.”
In addition, Burkart’s father did some machine work for the Castronovo brothers, giving the youngster an opportunity to dive headfirst into the world of drag racing. In fact, Burkart credits those years growing up in Utica as his inspiration to getting into the Funny Car class.
Fast forward several years later and enter in Paul Smith.
The famed “Utica Flash” was later driven by the likes of Rick Johnson, Bobby Hilton, Tom Prock, Tim Groose, Al Segrini and, you guessed it, Paul Smith. In fact, Smith drove the Castronovos’ Dodge Daytona to a second place finish behind Mark Oswald in the 1985 IHRA Funny Car Championship.
In 1998, the worlds of Burkart and Smith, two competitors linked by one man, came together when Burkart licensed with Smith and got his start in the sport.
This weekend at the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals, the man linking those two competitors is being honored with a sticker on the front of Smith’s Dodge Charger Funny Car being piloted by Burkart in memory of Fred Castronovo with the fitting “Utica Flash” across the nose of the car.
“Really, I think at a young age, that is what guided my interest toward Funny Car,” Burkart said. “My father used to do machine work for them on their cars back in the day. In fact we still have
our engine machine shop going in Utica. And, of course, the Castronovo cars were dubbed the Utica Flash.
“The whole thing circles back here because Paul drove for Fred Castronovo in the Utica Flash in the early 80s and then I licensed with Paul in 1998. Paul and I have run a few races over the decades that I have been licensed. We always get along really well and did well when we teamed up so hopefully we can have some success here this weekend.”
While the pairing came together at the last minute, Burkart is confident that he can make some noise this weekend in a car paying tribute to a man linking two longtime competitors.
“This deal came together quickly, but it is a great opportunity to be here,” Burkart said. “We will see what we can do and hopefully ruffle some feathers against some of the big teams that are out here pounding away every weekend.”
THIRD TIME’S THE CHARM – There is nothing quite like being the first to do something.
The first to achieve a milestone. The first to make a discovery. The first to break a barrier.
And then there are firsts at Indy.
The hallowed grounds of the sport of drag racing, careers have been made – and wrecked – at the hands of the fickle beast known as the U.S. Nationals. So to achieve a first at a race getting ready to celebrate its 65th anniversary is truly saying something.
But that is exactly the history that potentially awaits veteran driver J.R. Todd.
Todd will be going for an Indianapolis first this weekend as he tries to win his third U.S. Nationals in a row behind the wheel of his DHL Toyota Camry Funny Car for Kalitta Motorsports. Yes, three-in-a-row is not something new in and of itself. Tony Schumacher has done just that twice. Greg Anderson has back-to-back-to-back-to-back Indy Wallys. Don Garlits, Bob Glidden, Dave Schultz and Warren Johnson have all hoisted a triplet of consecutive wins here.
But it has never been done in Funny Car.
Six drivers have won back-to-back in the full-bodied class – Ed McCulloch, Don Prudhomme, Cruz Pedregon, Ashley Force Hood, Mike Neff and, of course, J.R. Todd.
Now Todd has an opportunity to etch his name in the record books when he tries to become the first Funny Car competitor in the history of the class to win the Big Go for a third consecutive time.
“Man, I try not to think about it. No one has ever won three-in-a-row in Funny Car, but that is our goal,” an excited Todd said. “It won’t be easy for sure. Indy is a place that has a lot of magic and history. I am looking forward to getting this DHL Toyota Camry on the track and seeing what we can do. The Yella Fellas are fired up and we will be ready for anything.”
Winning a third time at Lucas Oil Raceway would certainly be a life-changing moment for the racer who grew up in the Hoosier state, but the achievement itself is not his sole focus this weekend.
Riding a string of bad luck and having not made it out of the second round since his runner-up finish in Virginia back in May, Todd will instead be focusing on baby steps this weekend. Having slid from a season-high second in points following that runner-up finish to Ron Capps to eighth in the Countdown to the Championship, Todd hopes to build a little momentum this weekend to get his team back on track entering the six-race championship finale.
“Winning three U.S. Nationals in a row is all anyone wants to talk about and I get that,” Todd said. “For me, I really am just looking at this race like I did the past two years. It is a long weekend and you have to pace yourself. We have a lot of sponsor commitments and there will be media requests, but when I get in that DHL Toyota Camry I have to block all that stuff out and do my job.”
If Todd were to pull off the win this weekend, it would not only be historic for himself, but for his entire organization. Since 2014, Kalitta Motorsports has won three of the last five U.S. Nationals in Funny Car. In addition to the duo of wins for Todd, Alexis DeJoria won the race back in 2014.
“For whatever reason, it seems like the whole Kalitta Motorsports team picks up a lot of momentum at that time of year,” Todd said. “We’re hoping we can keep that trend going this year. It’s the one race where everyone brings out their best stuff because it’s so important. So much of that preparation then carries over into the Countdown. If you ask drivers that haven’t won Indy before, I think they’d trade pretty much any win for that one.”
UNCHARTED TERRITORY – Jack Beckman thought for sure he would have a win by now. Or two. Or three.
The 2012 NHRA Funny Car champion has been consistent. He’s been fast. Heck, at times he’s been dominant. But none of that has equated to a win entering the final race of the 2019 NHRA Mello Yello regular season.
In fact, Beckman is the only driver locked into the Countdown to the Championship without a win this season.
“I really thought we’d have a win or two under our belts going into the 18th race of the season,” a frustrated Beckman said. “So that aspect has been disappointing. What hasn’t been disappointing is overall performance. We’re a top-five car, we’ve been to three final rounds, and at our last race in Brainerd we set top E.T. and speed of the meet. So we know we have a car that is capable of running quick.”
And on Friday, he continued that trend of being quick early in the weekend.
Beckman set the bar for the Funny Car class during the opening round of qualifying Friday at the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway, running a 3.875-second pass at 328.46 mph to hold off his Don Schumacher Racing teammate Ron Capps.
If his time holds, it will be Beckman’s first No. 1 since March of 2018.
“I thought we threw down a pretty good number. It is going to be tough for somebody to get around that,” Beckman said.
Currently fifth in the Countdown standings, Beckman has still managed to reach three final rounds in 2019. He finished runner-up to Robert Hight twice at Pomona and Topeka and once to Bob Tasca at Norwalk, and was part of the final quartet at the Four-Wide event at Las Vegas.
He has qualified well. He has a winning round record for the year. And many would consider him a threat for a second career championship in his Infinite Hero Foundation Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Funny Car. But that one little zero in the win column has been an itch that this former champion has yet to be able to scratch.
“We’re always one race away. Every time we unload the trailer, it could be our weekend,” Beckman said. “There’s no reason not to be optimistic with the Infinite Hero team. Frankly, I’ll take six runner-ups in the Countdown if that’s what’s needed to get the championship, but at some point, we want to have a trophy sitting on the shelf to show that this year has been successful. And if we can win at Indy, that literally fixes everything.”
And there is no reason to think Beckman won’t be competitive this weekend. He is the 2015 U.S. Nationals winner and a two-time runner-up at this race in 2008 and 2013. While last year he saw an early exit at the hands of Courtney Force, Beckman has gone rounds at Indy almost every year.
WHO’S HOT, WHO’S NOT – This is it.
The time of year for tinkering and experimenting is over. It is get up or shut up time for the racers and teams who are serious about contending for a championship.
This is Indy. And this is the last shot to get it right before a six-race sprint to Pomona.
Some drivers are on the upswing. Bob Tasca and Shawn Langdon have each won at least a round in seven or more consecutive races. Ron Capps has been to two-straight finals. John Force, last race aside, has been going rounds every Sunday.
Others are going in the opposite direction. J.R. Todd hasn’t advanced past the quarterfinals since May and has suffered three first-round defeats in his last four races. Tim Wilkerson has slipped from safely in the Countdown to on the bubble with a string of early exits.
But one driver who is perhaps taking the most momentum into Indianapolis is none other than Tommy Johnson Jr.
Already enjoying a career-best year, and one he readily admits has been his most rewarding as a driver, Johnson knows that in this sport nothing truly lasts. So he is enjoying every moment of this wild run.
“I am really looking forward to this weekend; it’s the biggest drag race of them all and the one you want to win,” Johnson said. “Right now, the way our car is running, coming off that runner-up in Brainerd and seeing the way our new chassis is performing, I’d say this year we have our best shot at taking home the Indy crown.”
Johnson’s remarkable season has included a pair of wins at Chicago and Denver, an additional two runner-up finishes and a string of successful Sundays that has placed him second in the Funny Car standings behind only Robert Hight.
In fact, both of Johnson’s wins in 2019 have come against two of this year’s hottest drivers – Hight and Tasca.
Now Johnson enters the famed U.S. Nationals, an event he considers a home race as a resident of nearby Avon, Ind., with plenty of momentum and the confidence to perhaps earn his first career Indy victory. Johnson was the runner-up at Lucas Oil Raceway in 2002 and has been the top qualifier at this race twice.
“I really enjoyed tonight. We were the last pair to run, and we were going for that No. 1 spot,” Johnson said. “We’ll see if we can’t put together a strong weekend and finish off our regular season on a really good note. We have a competitive car that’s capable of winning the race.”
Johnson will also have a little luck this weekend with a special one-off design on the Doug Chandler-funded Make-A-Wish Dodge. For the sixth-straight year, Johnson will don a special Riley Kids livery during the annual Indy event as a way to bring exposure to the locally-based Riley Hospital for Children.
FIRST TIME FOR EVERYTHING – As they say in life, there is a first time for everything.
Even if that first time is accomplished by someone who has done just about everything there is to do in a given field.
For Robert Hight, a man with a sterling resume that showcases nearly 500 round wins, 50 Wallys, 68 top qualifier awards and a couple of championships, he will do just that this weekend when he takes the staging beam on Sunday and claims his first-ever regular season championship.
“I’ve never gone into the Countdown No. 1. You know, its 20 points, and once the Countdown starts, every point is going to matter,” Hight said. “I lost the championship in 2017 by 19 points so to go into the Countdown No. 1, its ours to lose, I guess. If you don’t mess up, it’s yours. I’m proud of my guys for that.”
With a total of five wins in 2019, Hight and the Auto Club team have never trailed in the NHRA Mello Yello points standings. When he secures the regular season title this weekend, he will become the first Funny Car driver in the NHRA’s Countdown era to lead the point standings wire-to-wire.
A win at the season-opening Winternationals set the pace for the two-time championship team. They would go on to earn wins at Gainesville, Houston, Topeka and Sonoma to give the 15-year veteran his 50th career victory. In the process, Hight and the Auto Club team have claimed eight No. 1 qualifiers, just five away from the Funny Car season record.
The closest a driver has come to replicating Hight’s achievement is John Force who was the championship leader in all but two races during the 2010 regular season before going on to win the title later that year.
Already tied with his most wins in a single season, Hight has no doubt that he’ll tally a few more before the end of the season.
“I’m proud of the first part of the season getting five wins and all the No. 1 qualifiers,” Hight said. “Five wins is the most I’ve ever had in a season and I’m going to make a prediction right now that I’m going to need eight or nine to win the championship so that’s going to be a stellar year for the Auto Club Chevrolet. Eight or nine wins, that’s record time stuff.”
In addition, Hight will be chasing his fourth win at the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals, an event he has made it to the finals at six times, most recently in 2015. His first win at Indianapolis came in 2006, just his second season competing.
GOING ROUNDS – In drag racing, being successful is all about one thing.
And few are doing it on a more consistent basis right now than Shawn Langdon.
Langdon is one of only two drivers on a lengthy active rounds-won streak in the Funny Car division, having won at least one round at seven consecutive races. The only driver on the tour to better that number is Bob Tasca who has achieved a round win at eight-straight races.
“We have been making small changes throughout the season. (Co-crew chiefs) Nicky (Boninfante) and Del (Worsham) have been great to work with an we are making runs down the track that are getting quick and quicker,” Langdon said. “You can see that in our qualifying position. Everything builds on itself. You qualify high, you get a better first round opponent and then you can get more data. I don’t know if I have ever been more excited to get to a race track than I am heading to the U.S. Nationals this weekend.”
That qualifying effort includes an impressive 6.5 average qualifying position, having qualified in the top six nine times in the last 12 races and four of the last five. Thanks to that effort, Langdon has set himself up nicely to go rounds on Sunday, as evident by his current winning streak.
Already safely locked into the Countdown to the Championship, Langdon will be throwing caution to the wind this weekend, focusing on adding to his Wally collection in 2019. Langdon has one win this year coming back in April at the Four-Wide Nationals and an additional runner-up in Epping just last month.
If he were to win this weekend, Langdon would join the elite company of Don Prudhomme, Kenny Bernstein, Ed McCulloch and Jim Head as the only drivers in NHRA history to win the U.S. Nationals in both Top Fuel and Funny Car. Langdon won this race in Top Fuel back in 2013 driving for Al-Anabi Racing.
“It is the biggest race of the season. Next to winning a world championship you have to put winning the U.S. Nationals right at the top,” Langdon said. “This Global Electronic Technology Camry Funny Car has the capability to race into the winner’s circle and that is pretty exciting.”
SHOCKINGLY CALM - You wouldn’t think that Tim Wilkerson would be calm coming into the biggest race weekend of the year.
He has lost in the first round at six of the last seven races. He hasn’t qualified in the top half of the field since June. And he’s the only Funny Car driver currently in the Countdown to the Championship not formally locked into the field.
Yet, Wilkerson remains calm.
In fact, he even manages a smile from time to time. Why? Because this year’s U.S. Nationals is a walk in the park compared to last year.
“Last year we were playing defense and that is bad,” Wilkerson explained. “I am a big Chicago Bears fan and I watch the Bears have a terrific football team all of the time, then they play defense and they suck. So I am not going to be a guy that plays defense anymore. Last year in the Countdown we played offense and we did really well, so that is what we are going to do from now on.”
In 2018 Wilkerson entered the regular season finale at Indianapolis in the exact same position he is in now. The only difference is that last year he held a razor thin margin on the field and one little hiccup - an oil down, an on-track incident - and Wilkeron’s championship hopes would be finished.
This year, Wilkerson is again on the Countdown bubble. But unlike a year ago, he is safely in ahead of 11th place Cruz Pedregon, with only a catastrophic result able to knock him out.
“I don’t know how I get myself in these situations. I’m thinking about skipping between Denver and Brainerd, just not even go and make this more exciting,” Wilkerson joked. “I had such a good car at the beginning of the year and lately I haven’t done anything right.
“Thankfully, it isn’t nearly as tense as it was last year. Last year was nip and tuck. This year we are pretty much locked in. In fact, I am testing a few things here getting myself ready for the Countdown.”
As a positive note, after going on to make the Countdown to the Championship last year, Wilkerson actually finished inside the top five when the year was done.
For now, Wilkerson is focused on trying to get a once promising season back on track. A handful of finals in the first part of the season had Wilkerson as high as sixth in the championship standings, but a string of bad luck beginning in Richmond in May has placed the veteran racer on the bubble once again.
“It is a team effort. We live and die as a team and we just aren’t doing a good job as a team,” Wilkerson said. “The car is put together properly, I am just having a lot of trouble in the bell housing making things work correctly. We hope we can do well here this weekend. It is a big payday and that is what we come here for. The guy with the check in the end is the winner, not the guy with the trophy. I can buy a trophy.
“It is all down to this race. I may have a couple runs (this weekend) where I am testing some stuff, but this weekend it is all about this race.”
And Wilkerson got his weekend off on the right foot on Friday with the sixth best time under the lights. Wilkerson drove the Levi, Ray & Shoup Ford Mustang to a 3.923 at 326.08 mph.
HOLDING OUT HOPE - Sometimes, hope is all you have to cling to.
And hope is exactly what is keeping Cruz Pedregon motivated this weekend.
A three-time winner of the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals in the 1990s, Pedregon enters the regular season finale at Indianapolis 11th in the Countdown to the Championship standings, all but eliminated from the postseason.
But, as Lloyd Christmas says to Mary in the film Dumb and Dumber, “so you’re telling me there’s a chance!”
“This is such an important race to us, as well as to all the other drivers and teams, because it can turn your season around with the points-and-a-half at Indy,” Pedregon said. “Our focus is on the upcoming race, and performing well this Labor Day weekend will make it possible for us to keep our eyes on the championship prize.”
That points-and-a-half that all professional classes enjoy at the biggest race of the season is the one and only lifeline that is keeping Pedregon afloat.
Pedregon has struggled much of 2019, winning only six rounds all season, but a semifinal run last month at Denver and gradual improvement on race day has the team feeling better about their year. In fact, crew chief Glen Huszar believes the Snap-on Dodge is very close to finding its footing, whether it results in a miracle this weekend or not.
“This is go time and we have a good understanding of what we need to do to make the best use of the weekend’s extra qualifying round and demonstrate what this car and team can do,” Pedregon said.
Pedregon was also the focus of the early portion of the week in Indianapolis as the team hosted an open house for race fans in their Brownsburg shop on Thursday. The event showcased a handful of drivers signing autographs and over 50 show cars.
NEW LOOK - Bob Tasca debuted the NewFordTech Ford Mustang Funny Car at the U.S. Nationals as Ford continues its campaign to attract, retain, and recognize its automotive technicians.
The special paint scheme coincides with the beginning of the new school year and return of NHRA’s Youth and Education Services program.
Ford offers many avenues for entry into a career as a Ford/Lincoln technician through NewFordTech. High school students interested in becoming Ford or Lincoln automotive technicians have opportunities to continue their education at over 75 post-secondary training locations throughout the country.
Students were also invited to see racing technicians up close in the Motorcraft/Quick Lane Racing hospitality area, while Tasca’s crew members rebuild a 11,000 horsepower engine in just a little over an hour after every run down the 1,000 foot track.
OUTSIDE LOOKING IN - There are a total of 19 cars vying for 16 spots at this weekend’s Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals. Terry Haddock (7.774), Bob Tasca (8.057) and Ray Martin (DQ) were the drivers on the outside looking in after one of five qualifying sessions over the course of the weekend. Tommy Johnson currently holds down the bubble spot with a 4.368.