2019 NHRA VIRGINIA NATIONALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
STEVE TORRENCE HITS ANOTHER OUT OF THE PARK, WINNING RICHMOND - Steve Torrence brought up a baseball reference in talking about his recent winning streak, so let's do the same: Over the last 56 races, Torrence is batting .393. That'd be a cinch for the Hall of Fame in baseball, but that's other-wordly in NHRA drag racing.
Torrence won the Virginia NHRA Nationals on Sunday at Virginia Motorsports Park, scoring his 22nd win in the last 56 Top Fuel races. The next best driver over that span has six victories.
"It's really humbling because this sport is in no way that lopsided," Torrence said. "We've just had a really, really good car and a great group of guys. There are times when I go out and do my job, and I've won some races on holeshots. But time and time again, those Capco boys … they don't make mistakes. They provide me with a race car that can win every round. When you have that, it's a confidence-booster, a confidence-builder, and it makes you go up there and drive the car. A great race car can make a mediocre driver look awesome. I would say that's where I'm at."
Torrence has won the last three Top Fuel races, following up victories at Charlotte and Atlanta. That means he's won nine of the last 13 races (a .692 clip), including sweeping the six Countdown to the Championship races in 2018.
"I don’t know if there's any one thing that you can attribute that to," Torrence said. "During the middle of the season is where (crew chief) Richard (Hogan) and Bobby (Lagana) really prevail. They have a great handle on subpar conditions. … It doesn’t the guy who hits home runs; it takes the guy who hits doubles and triples."
Torrence has hit plenty of home runs lately, as he's now up to 30 victories in his career, matching Matt Hines and Matt Hagan for 29th all-time.
"Well, I'm going to tell you for the 30th time, even a blind squirrel can find an acorn every now and then," Torrence said. "No, honestly, hats off to the whole Capco (team). They gave me the best race car of the day. We were the guys who went down the track four times in a row. All I had to do was not run over anything or anybody – and they gave me the best car ever."
Torrence beat Todd Paton in the first round and Scott Palmer in the second round before facing his dad in the semifinals.
"Today, I talked a little trash," Torrence said. "I told him, 'They're going to get me.' He goes, 'What do you mean?' I said, 'Well, I'm going to be abusing the elderly.'"
Billy Torrence left first on his son (.070-second RT to .084) but hazed the tires at half-track and watched Steve go by.
"I was glad to get around him," Torrence said. "I've got to go home and go to work with him tomorrow, and I've got to look at all those guys in the office, and I'm glad I can say I kicked his butt and he didn't kick mine."
That put Steve Torrence in the final against his good friend, Antron Brown, a driver who held a 29-9 record over him in previous races. But Torrence had a slight advantage on the starting line and made a pass of 3.881 seconds at 319.82 mph to edge Brown's 3.899 at 309.49 mph.
What had been an 0-for-5 final round deficit for Torrence against Brown is now even at 5-5.
"Man, I tell you, that guy has kicked my butt over and over and over," Torrence said. "I don’t know if I'm making any progress on him, because I think it was 32-2. I don't know what the numbers are. … AB, in my opinion, is the best. He's proven it time and time again that when the pressure's on, he's the best driver out here.
"To say that we're neck and neck, I'm honored and proud to say that because he's the baddest guy on the block right now."
One could say that about Mike Trout now – make that, Steve Torrence. Lee Montgomery
CAPPS MAKES IT TWO IN A ROW, WINS RICHMOND - Make it a double for Ron Capps – as in two victories in a row.
The veteran nitro Funny Car driver claimed his latest win by taking the title at the Virginia NHRA Nationals Sunday near Richmond.
Capps, who pilots the NAPA Dodge for Don Schumacher Racing, clocked a 4.097-second elapsed time at 310.98 mph to defeat reigning world champion J.R. Todd, who went up in smoke right off the starting line.
“I got ready to roll up and I saw about 120 Kalitta members walking around up there and I was picturing the mosh pit,” Capps said. “I need to spoil the mosh pit. I don’t want to lose and watch the mosh pit at the starting line and I’m friends with a lot of those guys. It was impressive to watch them all walk in front of my car. I thought I don’t know if they do that to intimidate me or not. They had lane choice and to be honest with you, I was surprised they picked the left lane. We were in the staging lanes back there and Richard Hogan (Steve Torrence’s crew chief) came over and we were talking about the Montana Days and the Montana Express and he said he was picking the right lane and I knew we were getting put in the right lane and I just kept my mouth shut and I told the guys don’t say anything on the radio and just keep our mouths shut and just hope they stay over in the left. Not that I knew what was going on that the left was better or worse, but I knew if Richard Hogan is picking it (the right lane) it has to be darn good. Once the car started, they couldn’t switch lanes. I rolled it in there and it was vintage Rahn Tobler.”
Through six races of the 2019 NHRA Mello Yello Series season, Capps, the 2016 nitro Funny Car world champion, had only won five rounds in eliminations and had not won a race. Now, he has eight wins in a row, counting the previous event the Arby’s Southern Nationals in Atlanta and he has moved up to third place in the season point standings.
This was Capps' 63rd career NHRA Wally – one coming in Top Fuel. He beat Jim Campbell, Robert Hight, Tommy Johnson Jr., and Todd to reach the winner’s circle in Richmond for the first time.
Capps is fourth on NHRA’s all-time nitro win list behind John Force, Tony Schumacher, and Kenny Bernstein
“That’s the 30th win for (crew chief) Rahn Tobler and I just since 2012, which is incredible to me,” Capps said. “We qualified so well and we did have the one hiccup in Q3, the car quit down there, but it did break the belt and we were pushing to see how many runs we could get on our new belts, which were twice as many as the old belt and we were really happy with it. We gave up three points, but I talk about the time about trying things when we can under race conditions. Going into first round against Jim Campbell, you obviously have Jim Dunn (Campbell’s team owner) and he’s a legend for a reason, especially (Sunday) with the weather being hotter. Going up there and not make a mistake was my mindset. It went out there and went 3.99 and we got lane choice over Robert Hight.”
The second round in a battle against Hight was a pedal fest, as both Funny Cars smoked the tires almost immediately.
“If had a live microphone in my helmet you would laugh because I’m probably talking to myself, like don’t do this,” Capps said. “Both cars went right up in smoke and now you let off the gas and you have to wait for those Goodyears to slow, but you’re also listening to hear if the other car was in trouble, which it was. I thought, OK, here we go this is against one of the best guys there is in Robert Hight.
I waited what was an eternity in my mind, but still isn’t and I gave it another hit hoping it would hook up and take off and it didn’t. At the same time, I’m trying not to blow it up and over rev it. Each time you’re hitting it, it is like ice. Then I waited and said calm down and then I squeezed the throttle about an eighth of a throttle and the car just kind of took off and was just driving, it was like I tractor, it was a trip. I’m just driving along quarter throttle and I could hear him go one more whack and I could hear him on the gas. Then, I slowly started easing on to mine and it was just like driving a car and when I saw it was going to be hooked up, I was at halftrack I went all the way to the floor and it just took off. Then, it put a cylinder out and started driving me to the left, so I had full crank to the right and I could hear him out my side window and I didn’t want to look and it is already going toward the center line and I just wanted to get there and hopefully not cross and lose five points, which we did after the finish line, but I didn’t want to add insult to injury and DQ on that run. I went through there and hit the button on the steering wheel like I always do and as soon as I let off, I was right on the center line and he came flying by me. I didn’t have time to look at the guard rail for a win light, so I didn’t know until we got around the corner and they pulled him away from the TV people. Robert and I had a great talk about how fun that was.”
Capps traced the source of that victory to the fact Don Schumacher, his team owner, let him run a fuel altered at the March Meet.
“That so felt like one of those fuel altered runs, and the dirt car racing I’ve got to do over the years,” he said. “Those moments of driving those different cars helped in those moments (Sunday). Again, I can’t stress enough it is the tune-up because there are a lot of cars out here you could not do that abuse to because it would not stay together. It would probably have the body blown off at halftrack. You out all that together and it was nice to give the guys back something.” Tracy Renck
LAYOFF DOESN’T COOL OFF BUTNER AS HE WINS IN PRO STOCK AGAIN - Bo knows Pro Stock – especially this season in NHRA’s Mello Yello Series.
Butner won his fourth race in five attempts this season, the latest victory came Sunday when he snared the Wally at the NHRA Virginia Nationals in Richmond.
Butner won the final round with a 6.599-second elapsed time at 209.01 mph to defeat his KB Racing teammate Greg Anderson, who came in at 6.607 seconds at 210.18 mph.
Butner, the 2017 Pro Stock world champion, also qualified No. 1 with a 6.648-second lap at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
“This has absolutely been an amazing season,” Butner said. “Again, a good call to comeback, retirement (from Pro Stock) was short. KB Racing shows, I’m racing the boss right there and they still give me the best. There’s never any monkey business. They give me the best. I had a new ‘19 Camaro out there this week. It was the first time for that car and that was cool. I can’t complain. Things are still falling our way. Greg is the most competitive dude you will ever meet, but we are still happy when we get two KB cars in the final round because that lets Ken and Judy (Black) win and that’s what’s important to us. We still want to win, don’t get me wrong, I’m a racer, I really want to double up.”
This was Butner’s 11th career Pro Stock win and his fourth this season as he also was victorious at Pomona, Calif., Gainesville, Fla., Las Vegas and Richmond. He departed Richmond atop the points standings with 545 points. Alex Laughlin is in second place with 358 points.
Butner now has 26 career national event victories in five different classes.
In Richmond, Butner also was competing the Factory Stock Showdown, where he lost in the final round on a holeshot to former Pro Stock standout Drew Skillman.
“He (Skillman) is a good friend and a good racer,” Butner said. “I’m glad he’s in that and not in Pro Stock. With Tanner (Gray) and him (Skillman) gone (out of the Pro Stock class), I’m not saying it is any easier, but it is easier. He (Skillman) is a good driver and they are nice enough to let me fly here (to Richmond) with them on their jet and I’m flying home with them and that will make our (flight) a lot better. Good job to them. We have made some good strides with that Cobra Jet and it is going to be fun this year and I think we can double up somewhere.”
Butner defeated Wally Stroupe, Chris McGaha, Jeg Coughlin and Anderson in his victory march Sunday.
“It was very hot out and I’m way out of shape to be driving two cars seven rounds in one day,” Butner said. “It was fun. I would like to do it again. In Pro Stock, we have a good enough car to win the championship with, but we all know it starts over (in the six-race Countdown to the Championship) and you have to be this good every day. It is a tough class and a lot of the other racers and a lot of teams are going to be coming in and getting their fair share of wins, but let’s just hope it is one of the KB guys.” Tracy Renck
ANDREW HINES STAYS HOT IN RICHMOND, WINS FOURTH RACE OF 2019 - Andrew Hines continues to add his already Hall of Fame-type resume.
Hines stormed to victory in the Virginia NHRA Nationals on Saturday at Virginia Motorsports Park, beating Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson teammate Eddie Krawiec in the final round.
The win was the 52nd of his Pro Stock Motorcycle career, extending his lead in the category. He matched Joe Amato for 11th all-time across all NHRA classes.
And Hines scored his fourth victory in the first five PSM races of the season, matching a feat accomplished by older brother Matt Hines in 1998.
All that came after matching Matt Hines and Krawiec for second place on the all-time PSM No. 1 qualifiers with 44. But Hines and his Harley team are far from finished adding to those stellar numbers.
"All in all, we had a spectacular weekend," Hines said. "(Number) one and two qualifiers, and Angelle (Sampey) was fifth. She made a killer lap in the first round of eliminations. … This was her turning point for the weekend for her riding. … We're looking forward to more success with all three bikes consistently.
"The new chassis is really good. It's very forgiving. It plants the tire completely differently than what we've had in the past. We're able to apply more power, we're able to run more ignition timing through first gear and utilize the gear ratio we've got. … The total package is really good."
Hines showed that Sunday. He was second-quickest of the first round in beating Jianna Salias, third-quickest of the second round in beating Ryan Oehler, quickest of the semifinals in beat Matt Smith and quickest in the final in beating Krawiec.
Yes, you can say Hines and his team have a pretty good handle on the Harley Street Rod.
"We have developed a very good hot-weather tuneup for our Street Rods," Hines said. "That's saying a lot. Typically, we tend to not look forward to the middle of the season because that's where our performance kinda of falls off and people tend to make up the ground on us. Today, we took what we've learned the last couple weeks between Charlotte, when it got hot, and Atlanta, when it was really hot, and worked on the tuneup. Every round, we don't go up there with the same tuneup, ever."
Hines needed a spot-on tuneup against Smith, who actually had lane choice for their matchup. Smith, too, brought out his powerful engine used earlier in the season for the semis, but Hines and the Harley was up to the task.
Hines left first with an .025-second reaction time and then made a good pass of 6.837 seconds at 196.62 mph to outrun Smith's 6.856-second run at 196.67 mph.
"We haven't done much engine development since Pomona," Hines said. "Our dyno is just now getting up and going, so we can work on it and try and make some more horsepower. The newest ECU we got from MoTeC on there … it opens up so many doors, and now we’re able to utilize more of the power the engine is making. We're closer to that performance gap that (Smith's) engine had in Pomina. It's nice to see that we can run with him – we're out 60-footing him now, too. Our bikes are working really, really well.
"I didn't know that he had brought out the good one, so it’s nice to know that we can take that one down. You saw he was putting up big speeds. We're hanging right there with him."
Hines and Krawiec had identical reaction times in the final, which meant the winner would be decided by who had the best bike. It was Hines, whose 6.845 edged Krawiec's 6.858.
"Cool to win here and Richmond," Hines said. "I went to the finals here last year and runnered-up to L.E. Tonglet. I've really look forward to coming back to this event because it's pool-table flat out there. You don't have to worry about a single bump all the way down the race track. I knew my bike was 60-footing really well last year and we just kind of took the same mentality into this race." Lee Montgomery
SATURDAY NOTEBOOK – VIRGINIA MIGHT BE FOR LOVERS, BUT SATURDAY WAS FOR THE HOT WEATHER TUNE-UP
MILLICAN DID IT - Clay Millican locked-in his first Top Fuel No. 1 qualifier of the 2019 season Saturday afternoon following setting the track ET record during the first round of qualifying at the second annual Virginia NHRA National at Virginia Motorsports Park.
Millican claimed his 21st career No. 1 qualifier after his pass of 3.749 at 325.30 set the track ET record Friday evening in his Parts Plus / Strutmasters.com dragster. He will be chasing his first win of the season and fourth of his career when he lines up against Dan Mercier Sunday morning for the first round of eliminations.
“From the guy that qualified 12 times last year and only won twice, qualifying No. 1 doesn’t mean you’re going to win,” Millican said. “Mike (Kloebler, crew chief) said we need to turn on win lights and that’s our game plan. This car has made a lot of No. 1 qualifiers, but our goal is to go consistently down the racetrack and turn on win lights. I’m not going to lie; qualifying No. 1 is pretty cool.”
“FORCE” ING HIS WAY TO THE TOP - John Force’s pass from Friday evening of 3.899 at 321.88 in his PEAK Coolant and Motor Oil / Heculiner Chevrolet Camaro set the track ET record and remained strong through Saturday’s qualifying efforts. He secured his second No. 1 qualifier of the season and 157th of his career.
“I’ve got to give credit to Daniel Hood (crew chief), Brian Corradi (crew chief) and the entire team that makes it happen,” Force said. “They gave me a good car. It was a little warm, but that gives us our race day tune-up, and we’re ready. I still say to the (Franklin) family that bought this track that this is the best surface and that .89 broke the track record. I want to thank them, and that is very important.”
Force and the PEAK Coolant and Motor Oil / Herculiner team closed out the third qualifying session Saturday with a 4.205-second pass at 237.92 mph after smoking the tires but would stay at the top of the pack heading into the final session. In his last pass of qualifying, the Funny Car legend ran the third quickest run of the session with a 3.978-second pass at 320.81 mph giving him a total of six bonus points throughout the two days of qualifying.
“We came out today and ran a .97 when it was pretty warm, and it gave us a race day tune-up. So, we’re ready,” said Force who will race Jeff Diehl in the first round of eliminations. “Corradi and Danny, they’ll be ready tomorrow. I just have to sign autographs, take care of the fans and the sponsors, and try to stay cool and calm and get out there and drive my car. Reaction times are off for everybody, and I’m really terrible, so I have a lot of work to do tomorrow if I’m going to get 150, but I’m sure going to try. That’s why I come here. You don’t need to get all of that in your head, though. If it comes, it’ll come, and it will.”
HOT WHEN IT’S HOT - Steve Torrence didn’t qualify No. 1, but a 3.82 in Saturday’s Q-3 session went a long way giving him a great chance to be No. 1 on Sunday. It was clear that crew chief Richard Hogan found something for race day, conditions which are expected to mirror Saturday’s heated qualifying heats.
“I’m not real for sure what he found, but I tell you, him and Bobby Lagana, they do really well on some of the tracks that are not the best, when you’ve got to really go out there and have the finesse and try to manipulate these cars to get down through there on that surface that’s just a little hotter than what we normally deal with,” Torrence explained. “Going up there I had a lot of confidence. I saw him getting in, and out of the box changing the flows and working on the timers, so I feel like we’d go down. I didn’t really expect an .82. I’d seen some .86s and .88s out there, but those guys are the best, and that’s why we do good in the hot weather.
“Hands down I feel like I’ve got the best horses I’m riding at this race, and that’s Richard Hogan and Bobby Lagana. I’m proud of those guys, and we’ll see what we can do tomorrow.”
RUN MUSTANG RUN - Tim Wilkerson had the honor of debuting a brand new 2019 Ford Mustang Funny Car body before qualifying. The beautiful Mustang is detailed with a brilliant, colorful Levi, Ray and Shoup 40th anniversary scheme, and Wilkerson would love to put it in the winner’s circle on Sunday at Virginia Motorsports Park.
In qualifying, the veteran driver worked to learn the personality of his new ride and put up a best time of 4.029-second at 310.05 mph for the No. 12 position.
Saturday was highlighted by the fact that Wilkerson’s 40th anniversary LRS Mustang was awarded NHRA’s Best Appearing Car trophy. The head-turning didn’t stop there, though. In the final qualifying round, Wilkerson’s gorgeous new car was uninjured despite a ton of smoke billowing from beneath the body at the top end.
“It looks like it must have stuck a piston down there close to the finish line. It had a hole out, and then it broke a rod on deceleration. We haven’t done that in a long time, and that was painful,” explained Wilkerson, who will race Shawn Langdon in round one on Sunday.
“We’re running okay, though. We want to be faster; we just haven’t found the get up and go yet, but we’ll figure that out. I’m going to spend some time up there on staring at the data, and we’ll be good for tomorrow. If we can make it run as good as it looks, we’ll be okay.”
STILL SMILING - Winning makes a driver feels good. What makes a driver feel even better is winning a race, and running strong at the next event. Just ask Funny Car driver Ron Capps.
Capps made his best run in Friday’s opening qualifying session, a 3.927 elapsed time at 321.50 miles per hour. The run was also the quickest of the season. The NAPA Auto Parts-sponsored driver picked up bonus points in three of the four sessions for a total of seven.
Great job by (crew chief) Rahn Tobler. We’re having fun with this NAPA Brakes car,” Capps said. “We’re trying to continue on. It’s fun for Tobler to do what he’s done so far in the time I’ve gotten to drive for him which is put numbers up that force the other crew chiefs to go back and have to change their cars. I talked about it in Atlanta; I’m just very lucky to be driving this race car right now.”
“We’re coming up on the end of May and the end of the NAPA Brakes promotion. We’re trying to keep America safe and save people money, and it’s fun to be able to do that with this NAPA Brakes race car. The fans really love it.”
Capps ended qualifying third quickest and races Jim Campbell in the first round.
SITTING PRETTY - Sitting second in the Mello Yello points standings, Brittany Force enters race day in the No. 3 qualifier position on the strength of her 3.772-second pass at 319.98 mph Friday night.
It will be the second time this season that she’ll start race day from the No. 3 qualifier, a spot where she’s won two of her nine career tour victories from. The 2017 Top Fuel world champion and her Advance Auto Parts team got things started on Saturday with a 4.857-second pass at 147.86 mph after shaking the tires but headed into the last session still sitting No. 3. For their final qualifying effort,
Force and the Advance Auto Parts team improved on the day to put a 3.874-second pass at 314.24 mph on the board locking in her No. 3 spot. She’ll face Audrey Worm in the first round of eliminations on Sunday.
“So, we ran good in that last session. The track is hot, and everyone is struggling a little out there, but we made a decent run and got down there,” said Force. “I’m feeling confident going into tomorrow. We pair up with Audrey Worm, and I’m hoping for a long race day. Courtney won this race last year with Advance Auto Parts so we’d like to do the same thing again, make a little history and get Advance back in that winner’s circle.”
THE CHAMP DELIVERS IN THE HEAT - J.R. Todd qualified fourth in Funny Car, one of just a handful of drivers able to improve his position on Saturday as track temperatures soared up to 137 degrees.
The DHL Toyota Camry driver placed second in both sessions, improving his position up to fourth on the final run with a 3.961-second pass at 318.47 mph. For the weekend, Todd earned bonus points for running in the top three in three of the four qualifying runs. He will face Bob Tasca in Sunday’s opening round.
“We’re really happy with how this DHL Toyota ran in the heat today,” said Todd, the 2018 Funny Car world champion. “The forecast is calling for even warmer temperatures tomorrow, and if we can run like this on Sunday, we’ll have a shot to go some rounds.”
Todd’s Kalitta Funny Car teammate Shawn Langdon qualified one spot behind him in fifth with a 3.964 on Friday. He will race Tim Wilkerson in the first round of eliminations.
HADDOCK DELIVERS IN AND FOR THE HEAT - When the track is at its worst, that’s when Terry Haddock is at his best.
Haddock enters Sunday’s Funny Car eliminations at the NHRA Virginia Nationals at the No. 15 qualifier with a 4.170, 296.96 best.
“When it’s hot like this, this is when we do our best,” Haddock said. “Greasy, slippery race tracks. Johnny West and I, we just want it to go down there and pick up where we left off in Charlotte. Atlanta last week we didn’t run worth a crap, and we didn’t know why. Now we can pick up where we left off and maybe try to do a little bit better tomorrow. But when it’s this hot, it helps us because they’ve got to slow down. It’s easier for us to do what we know, and it’s harder for them to back up. So it’s all good.”
Haddock is racing this weekend in honor of Back the Blue, an organization which commemorates and honor the police officers and K9s who made the ultimate sacrifice in the line of duty.
Haddock’s two-car team prominently displays the “Back the Blue” decal, which lists all the 168 fallen officers and K9s, on his Checklist Boards Mustang Funny Car. The Team’s dragster, piloted by Cameron Ferre, also displays “Back the Blue.” Additionally, all members of the Terry Haddock Racing crew are wearing shirts with the same graphic in observance of these brave men and women.
Haddock’s support has personal ties.
“I’d like to take a second to say thank you to all the Back the Blue people who are out here representing this weekend,” Haddock said. “Thank you to all the officers that have passed away in the line of duty to keep us all safe. Not many people know, but when I was a kid, an officer kind of got me on the right track. I used to be the bad kid I guess you could say, but they kind of pointed me the right way, so we do what we can to try and give back.”
KEEPING FOCUSED HIS ITS REWARDS - Greg Anderson, driver of the red Summit Racing Chevy, qualified in the No. 5 position with a best time of 6.578, 209.56. Throughout qualifying, his Pro Stock Camaro showed great power and promise, despite the very hot air in Richmond accompanied by soaring track temps.
The most recent Pro Stock event on the Mello Yello tour was the first weekend of April, and Anderson believes that keeping their noses to the grindstone during the time off is paying off for the KB Racing team. Four of the KB Racing Chevy Camaros finished qualifying in the top 5.
“The time off probably helped us, and we’ve been working hard,” said Anderson, who was awarded three bonus points as a top player in qualifying and scored the No. 5 position. “We got out and tested a couple of times and tried to get our act together. We were a little off the first few races of the year, and we knew we needed a turnaround.
“So far this weekend, it’s been good. We put in the time, and we got a better product. I’m interested to see what happens tomorrow because it’s very hot out there – the first real hot conditions of the year for us. Everybody is kind of learning as we go, but even as hot as it is, this is still a great racetrack. You really don’t have a concern when you go up there because it’s way better than a normal racetrack would be with this heat. The lanes are very even, and it should be a great day tomorrow. All of the KB Racing cars have a shot to win.”
Anderson will race Shane Tucker in round one.
CAREER SECOND BEST FOR PATON - Canadian Top Fuel racer Todd Paton has been on the sidelines for three seasons while other drivers piloted his Top Fuel dragster. Friday he took his family’s dragster for a spin, a quick spin. In fact, the run was the second best of his storied career.
“We’ve been match racing a little bit in the off-season, so I’m still familiar with the operation of the car, but in match race trim this car’s a lot different,” Paton explained. “In national event trim, it’s a beast, and I think I proved that there. I think I got a little bit out of the groove. I haven’t felt the clutch lock up like that in a good long time, and when it came in, I felt it move a little bit to the right, and I probably should have brought it back. But still, 3.92, I’ll take it.
“Second best career lap, so it’s a lot better than I had hoped for coming into it and it looked clean and dry, so hopefully we’ve got something to play with on Sunday.”
Paton’s run placed him No. 13 in the 16-car field.
JUST LIKE DAD - Austin Prock had two clean passes during Saturday’s qualifying. Prock started the day with a 3.882-second pass at 318.24 mph and would keep up the consistency in the final session with a 3.888-second pass at 310.70 mph. From the No. 10 spot, he’ll face Richie Crampton in the first round of eliminations.
Prock said newly signed crew chief Mike Green reminds him a lot of his father, Jimmy Prock in his approach.
“Overall, it’s been a good start with my new crew chief, Mike Green,” Prock said. “We made some good passes in the .80s. The track has been really hot and greasy. That last run we ran .88, but we had a hole out from about 330-feet to the finish line so that definitely slowed us down and we could have easily run a low 3.80 with that run.
“If we get this thing to run on all eight tomorrow, I think we can be a contender and be able to go some rounds. I’m looking at the ladder right now, and I think we can beat a lot of these guys if we just play our cards right and if I leave the starting line good tomorrow. I’m looking forward to it, and hopefully, we can have a career-best weekend for Montana Brand / Rocky Mountain Twist and our new crew chief and Ronnie Thompson.”
HE’S THE MAN - Getting the car to start is half the battle, and for newly christened Funny Car team owner Blake Alexander, the memories of Atlanta were fresh in the minds when the car rolled to the line for Friday qualifying at the NHRA Virginia Nationals.
Alexander’s team was unable to get the car to start in the Atlanta Q-3 (and final) session, as well as the first round.
The issue was traced to the required auto-shut-off safety device designed by Dave Leahy. Along with Leahy, they were able to diagnose an electrical problem. Apparently, there was a failure in the switch which allows them to bypass the wall sensor which automatically throws the parachutes, and shuts the fuel off to the car. An air system leaking was the culprit.
Life is much different for Alexander as a team owner than it was a hired driver.
“There’s just a lot to balance,” Alexander said. “I’m trying to do my best to be a leader and be a supporter of these guys. I mean we are not going to give up, and we’re going to keep fighting. Everything we’re doing right now is paying off a little bit at a time.”
IN THE SHOW - After two days of qualifying with up and down results, Australian Shane Tucker is heading into race day as the No. 12 qualifier. The Auzmet/StructGlass Chevrolet Camaro made one solid run on Saturday and one aborted run to end qualifying. The missed opportunity does not weigh on Tucker heading into a first round match-up with Pro Stock veteran Greg Anderson.
“Overall we had a solid qualifying effort this weekend,” said Tucker. “We have never raced at Virginia Motorsports Park, and we made two solid runs on Friday. Today we made a quicker run in the heat, and we just missed it on the final run. Better to do that today than in the first round tomorrow.”
Tucker’s first round race against four-time Pro Stock Mello Yello world champion Greg Anderson will be a tough match-up. The pair have never raced each other in eliminations.
“You want to be challenged when you are racing, and Greg is an amazing competitor,” said Tucker. “It will be a tough race for sure, but we will give it everything we have. (Crew chief) Rob (Tucker) thinks there is more in this engine so we will be aggressive. We know it will be hot again in first round, but we might have to take some chances to get the win.”
The Auzmet/StructGlass Chevrolet Camaro was the model of consistency in the first three qualifying sessions. It posted runs of 6.715 seconds at 206.16 mph, 6.655 seconds at 206.35 mph and 6.649 seconds at 207.34 mph. On Sunday heading into race day, Tucker and his team will be aiming for a quicker run to start their race day.
“We have been making improvements every race going back to Gainesville and the Gatornationals. I have a lot of confidence in this Chevrolet Camaro team, and I am looking forward to successful race day tomorrow,” added Tucker.
The young Pro Stock driver will be a featured guest on the NHRA Today-style pre-race show with NHRA announcer Alan Reinhart tomorrow morning. He will be on stage at 11 a.m. (ET) for the fans in attendance as well as those tuned in to NHRA.TV.
FRIDAY NOTEBOOK – YES, VIRGINIA THERE IS A BIG SHOW
HERCULINER HERCULES - John Force is the winningest John Force Racing driver at Virginia Motorsports Park, with a history of successes that include four wins and four No. qualifiers. Most notably, Force won the inaugural Virginia Nationals in 1995. His most recent win came in 2000 where he was also the No. 1 qualifier. At last year’s event, Force qualified No. 7 and advanced to the final round where he lost to daughter, Courtney Force, in the 50th all-JFR Funny Car final.
Friday night at the eighth stop on the 24-race tour, Force proved to be hard to beat.
Force is chasing his second No. 1 qualifier of the season and 157th of his career after he set the Virginia Motorsports Park track ET record of 3.899-seconds at 321.88 mph during the second qualifying session.
“I just want to thank my crew chiefs because they’re saying that this is the smoothest track surface on the circuit and this is what we live for,” J. Force said. “I do appreciate all that the (Franklin) family has invested here. I’ve got low ET so far, but that won’t last tomorrow. The kids now know what’s out there. I’m learning every day how to race against these guys. I’m having to reinvent myself is what I’m having to do.”
ATLANTA REDEAUX - In the first round at Atlanta Dragway two weeks ago, Clay Millican made the second-quickest pass – but went home.
Millican ran 3.779 seconds but fell to Antron Brown's 3.771 in a close battle. But Friday at Virginia Motorsports Park, Millican and his Straightline Strategy Group team got a second chance. With the identical setup, Millican made a pass of 3.749 seconds at 325.30 mph in the first qualifying session to secure the provisional No. 1 spot in Top Fuel for the Virginia NHRA Nationals.
"It was awesome," Millican said. "I'm going to quote what (crew chief) Mike Kloeber said. He said that first qualifying run was like a buyback in bracket racing for first round from Atlanta. He knew there was more in the car, and he said, 'Bolt for bolt, the car was identical to what it was set up in Atlanta when we raced Antron and went 3.77. Just a head gasket change for the weather, and it went .74. That run was a validation of where he had the car set up in Atlanta, and it didn't do it."
Millican said the car had a clutch disc wear more than it should have in Atlanta, or else he may have beaten Brown. But he knew the car still had plenty of speed, though he wasn't sure it had 3.74 speed.
"When I went by the scoreboard, I looked up and thought, 'Is that a .74?'" Millican said. "I'm like, 'Nah, had to be a .79.' That's a pretty dang good run. I kept calling them on the radio, and this track is long enough that nobody really answered me, so I thought, 'Well, I don't know if it was a .74 or a .79,' and it turns out it was a .74. Didn't surprise Mike, but it did me."
Mike Salinas, return to Top Fuel after skipping Atlanta, made a run of 3.754 seconds at 323.04 mph to sit in the No. 2 spot. Brittany Force was third at 3.772 at 319.98 mph, with Atlanta winner Steve Torrence fourth at 3.773 at 321.81 mph and Doug Kalitta fifth at 3.783 at 323.81 mph.
Many of the top runs came in the second qualifying session, though Millican and his team decided to sit out Q2.
"Mike said, 'I don’t know that we have a reason to run, other than I think we can go quicker,'" Millican said. "Economically, you've just got to kind of look at it. We got together as a group, and Mike said, 'I don't know if I have a real reason to run because the conditions we're going to run in are not going to be what we're going to race in.' We're a small team, and it was just one of those deals, 'All right, how do we make that decision.'"
Millican said the entire team discussed it, and decided if Millican had fallen lower than fifth before his Q2 run was supposed to go, he'd make the run. He didn't need to go, after all.
"I'm kind of pleasantly surprised that I'm standing up here," Millican said. "Do I think it'll stay there tomorrow? Probably not if it's cool outside or if it's close to what it was today. For one, I think we can go quicker because Mike said he thought we could. But if it's hotter, it'll probably stay.
BACK IN THE GROOVE - Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and for multi-time NHRA Pro Stock champion Jason Line, a six-week break from the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series worked like a charm as he drove his way to the provisional No. 1 qualifying position during Friday qualifying at the NHRA Virginia Nationals.
Line holds the top spot with two sessions remaining, courtesy of a 6.563 elapsed time at 210.11 miles per hour pass.
“A little time off sometimes is good for me personally,” Line explained.” Pomona 1 is good for me, Pomona 2 not so good. As the year goes on, I get worse. So the little break probably is really good for me. I’m hoping we can race three or four more and then take another break, but I don’t think it will work that way. Yeah, we did work on some things, and we kind of are taking a little bit different approach to things and so far, so good.”
Without elaborating on details, Line confirmed a series of successful tests set up Friday’s success.
“I think, we’re trying to do things a little bit different,” Line said. “Change is tough, especially when you’re old like us. We’ve been doing this a long time. You know, you have to learn to do new things. So we’re in the process of that, and I think we’re going in the right way.”
Line wasn't willing to give up even a hint of what he was alluding to.
“Basically, you know we’re just trying to do a better job. We’re struggling to find more power because the box we’re working in is very small,” Line explained. “So we’re just trying to make sure that we’re using everything that we have.”
HOT STUFF - Pro Stock Motorcycle champion Matt Smith made a statement Friday at the NHRA Virginia Nationals as he belted out a 6.844 elapsed time at 197.91 miles per hour during the Q-2 session. The evening run was definitly an improvement over the quickest run laid down during the opening session.
“We were number one after the first pass with an .85, and we knew we could pick it up a little bit, but the wind picked up, a headwind, and I really thought that we’d slow down,” Smith explained. “When I saw Eddie go the .85, I was like, ‘All right, well, we can do this.”
“Went out and went the .84. We’re still struggling with our 60 foot; we’re working with that. We’re trying to get, where the weight got on us, we have done a lot of testing and finally got our stuff back going. We were giving up five and six hundredths at 60 foot; now we’re only giving up two to three. So if we get that back, we’ll be back on top of everybody again.”
Smith is tuning five bikes this weekend, and while this is a heavy load, he’s nowhere close to spreading himself too thin.
“That kind of helps me,” Smith said. “I try to learn as much as I can from the other riders, Angie and Scotty. Angie’s got just as equal stuff as I’ve got. Scotty’s got the bike; it’s just as equal. We’ve got a different kind of motor in his bike right now, just trying to get him laps and all that. But I mean the motor that’s in his bike will still go sixth to seventh right now. Just got to make laps. We’re working at it real hard to get it all right. I like the job of tuning more bikes because I don’t focus on my stuff so much. I think if I focused on mine too much, then I would second, third, and fourth guess myself. Just go up there with the first guess and go with it.”
Despite Friday being one of the warmest days the Pro Stock Motorcycles have seen this season (air temperature – 90-degrees), Smith’s band of bikes don’t seem to be handicapped.
“We’ve got really good power,” Smith explained. “That’s all I can say. We’ve got some good power. We showed that end of last year; we just struggled a little bit the last two races. I think in the summertime, we’re working on a new clutch, new gear ratio program and I think once I get that back under control, I’m not there yet, but I think when I get that back under control, we’re going to be two to three hundredths ahead of everybody. That’s my goal right now.”
JR’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE - J.R. Todd always wanted the chance, but the opportunity never presented itself. Then he became a two-time NHRA Funny Car champion, and the door opened.
On Wednesday, Todd, through his Wix Filters sponsorship, was able to slide into the cockpit of fellow Wix Filters racer Sage Karam’s Dreyer & Reinbold entry in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s Gasoline Alley.
“That was cool, man,” Todd said, enthusiasm present in his voice. “I’d never sat in one. They asked me the difference between driving a dragster and a funny car and how we sit in them and what have you. I’m like, ‘Well, I’m sure sitting in an Indy car is similar to how we sit in a Top Fuel Dragster.’ But no, it’s way different, man. It’s almost like you’re laying in a recliner in one of those things.”
“I don’t know if I’d have the guts to go around that place at 230 miles an hour in one of those things the way they sit. It’s pretty sketchy.”
This comment, coming from a man who routinely covers a 1000-foot race course in under four seconds at nearly 330 miles per hour, could easily make you scratch your head.
“I got asked that the other day when I was out there, being that I’m from Indiana, the biggest thing in Indiana pretty much, if racing the Indy 500 was something I was interested in,” Todd admitted. “I was well aware of it as a kid, just not something that I was ever really interested in doing.”
Todd wanted to drag race motorcycles just like his dad Mario. The Brickyard wasn’t even on his radar.
However, it was another Mario who introduced him to the Brickyard on Wednesday.
Indianapolis 500 icon Mario Andretti took Todd on a ride around the famed facility in a two-seater.
“That was awesome,” Todd said. “I did not expect a two-seater to go that fast and to have that much grip and downforce around that place. They’re like, ‘You’re going to want to let a few people go in front of you. That way the tires are warmed up, and everything’s broken in. That way, you get the full effect.”
“They weren’t wrong, man. Like getting in that thing with him, he still has it for an older guy. I mean, that’s kind of a bucket list item getting to say that you rode around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with Mario Andretti wide open, a two-seater Indy car. They said that we were probably going 185 or 190 around there, and it definitely felt like it. That’s the fastest I’ve ever gone turning left by far.”
Running 185 miles per hour in a car that you’re a passenger in, can be frightening for a man who routinely drives one of the most dangerous types of race vehicles in the world.
“I’m pretty sure you can ask any driver, and I’d say that 99 percent of them will tell you that it’s an eerie feeling being in something that fast and you’re not in control,” Todd explained. “I would say that drivers are definitely control freaks and most of us don’t even like riding down the highway with someone else driving, let alone going 190 miles an hour around a speedway when you’re a passenger.
“It’s just a different feeling when you’re not in control of something like that, but as I said before, if I’m not going to be in control of something going that fast, it might as well be Mario Andretti. You know you’re in good hands.”
Todd may have had little interest in driving at the Brickyard as a kid, but after Wednesday’s experience, the story is much different.
“I’m a big fan of those guys and have been as a kid, you know, watching Al Unser Jr. and those guys,” Todd said. “I always thought it was way cool, just never really piqued my interest. But now being around it and sitting in one, as I would definitely like to make some laps in one. I think that would be way cool, especially after getting the ride along with Mario.”
CAN YOU SEE THREE? - Unfortunately for the Top Fuel community, defending NHRA champion Steve Torrence is working on another streak. Torrence has won two in a row and looking for a third at a race where he’s the defending champion.
Torrence, who has won 21 of the last 50 NHRA events, is clearly back at the top of his game after a slow start to the season.
“I’m very confident,” he said, “(and) I think that maybe some of my confidence comes off as cockiness,” Torrence explained. “Looking back on it, maybe some of the ways that I’ve acted weren’t a true indication of who I really am, and I regret that.
“But, really, I don’t have anything to be cocky about. I’ve got a really good group of guys over here that have stuck with me through thick and thin and work their tails off day-in and day-out to give me a race car that can win on every track.
“Then, when I go home to work at Capco (an oil and gas pipeline construction and maintenance company founded by his dad, Billy, who’ll be back in the cockpit of a second Capco dragster this week), I’ve got a great group of guys there that make it possible for me to go off weekends and do what I love to do. It’s very humbling to have that kind of a situation. I’m very blessed.”
Torrence’s domination of the last three seasons has only been rivaled by eight-time series champ Tony Schumacher, who won 23 times in 50 races from 2006-2008.
What makes Torrence’s domination incredible is the reality it’s been achieved with a store-bought combination. Torrence Racing doesn’t build its own chassis or engines or superchargers or cylinder heads. It doesn’t even own its own shop.
“At the end of the day, all the parts and pieces are virtually the same,” Torrence said of his philosophy. “It’s the guys that are putting them together and tuning them that make the difference, and I have the best guys out here. I simply can’t give them enough credit for our success out here.”
A HORSE IS A HORSE - Tim Wilkerson unveiled his brand new 2019 Ford Mustang on Friday at the NHRA Virginia Nationals. The striking Mustang, newly designed by Ford Performance engineers and capable of speeds more than 320 mph, is adorned with a sleek paint job beneath a colorful wrap celebrating the 40th anniversary of Wilkerson’s primary sponsor, Levi, Ray, and Shoup.
“The really neat thing is that we’re able to bring out our brand new Ford Mustang in the same year that we’re celebrating the 40th anniversary of Levi, Ray and Shoup and our 20th year with those great folks as our primary sponsor,” said Wilkerson, of Springfield, Ill. “A milestone is always special, but to have the opportunity to combine them like this just takes it to a whole new level.”
Wilkerson is one of just two nitro Funny Car drivers to have received the new Mustang Funny Car body. Fellow Ford campaigner Bob Tasca III is also competing at the Virginia Nationals with the updated design.
“We’re excited and honored to be one of the first drivers to get this new Mustang. A lot of time and effort went into this design, and from what we’ve seen so far, it looks like this car is very capable,” said Wilkerson, who marks 2019 as his 10th season behind the wheel of a Ford Mustang Funny Car.
During his tenure as a Ford driver, Wilkerson has accumulated ten national event wins. His overall win tally is 20, and so far this season, the amiable driver, tuner, and team owner has been to three final rounds – including two weeks ago in Atlanta, the most recent event on the NHRA tour.
“We’re off to a good start this year in a lot of ways, and we expect that it will get even better from here,” said Wilkerson, who is currently No. 6 in the Funny Car standings. “Ford Performance did an outstanding job with this design, and my chassis builder, Murf McKinney, did his job mounting it for us and getting it ready. I think it looks sharp, and I can’t wait to put it in the winner’s circle for Ford; Dick Levi; Levi, Ray and Shoup; Summit Racing; and everyone who has been behind us for so long.”
TURNAROUND - Last season is so last year for Pro Stock Motorcycle point leader Andrew Hines. Hines advanced to five final rounds but never managed to break through, posting the first winless season of his incredible career since 2003.
Four races into 2019, Hines has already scored three wins and holds a commanding point lead.
“My motorcycle is like nothing I ever had in my career before,” Hines said. “This new chassis that was concocted at our shop, we all put our two cents in, and it is working really, really good. It doesn’t do much wrong, and it makes for charging through eliminations much easier. Something we’ve struggled with is a good 60-foot time and in the finals (at Atlanta), that was my best of the weekend and probably the best of the season.”
Hines, a 51-time NHRA national event winner, recently became the first 50-time winner amongst NHRA bike drag racers. He also scored the 100th win for the Harley-Davidson brand.
“The thing that has remained solid is my crew,” Hines said. “They’ve been the same the entire time. That’s a testament to how good they’ve been over the years to keep the motorcycle right and keep my mind right. Without a crew that’s as phenomenal as they are, it’s really hard to win these races.”
SMALLER IS BETTER - For Pro Stock racer Rodger Brogdon, an 18-race schedule was the perfect fit to entice the successful Houston-based businessman off of the sidelines and back into competition.
Brogdon got his first taste of the shorter schedule along with his Pro Stock peers with a six-week break from competition.
“It feels like we’ve been off for a year,” Brogdon said.
Brogdon has yet to race at Virginia Motorsports Park since it returned to the tour a year ago. The last time he raced here, he pulled double-duty, running both Pro Stock and Comp Eliminator.
This season Brogdon is running well but feels he could be better than his current seventh-place ranking, just more than three rounds of out second.
Thus far Brogdon has grabbed two No. 1 qualifiers but knows there is plenty more on the table.
“I’ve just got to do a better job,” said Brogdon, who has three career Pro Stock wins. “You can always do better, so we want to just keep improving and not beat ourselves. We’ve got a lot of racing to go. I’m 100 percent confident in my hot rod. I wouldn’t change a thing.
“It’s turned out really well for me. I’m glad to be racing with (team owner) Richard Freeman and the Elite bunch. I know they’re doing everything they can to give me a fast hot rod, and you can’t ask for anything more than that.”
IT’S NOT HOW YOU START - If anyone needed to win in Atlanta, it was Pro Mod veteran Mike Castellana. After not qualifying at the first three races of the year, and crashing at the first race of the season, Castellana credits the tenacity of his crew, led by Top Alcohol icon Frank Manzo, for the turnaround.
“I owe it to my crew,” Castellana said. “Frank, he is amazing what he does with this thing. We struggled a little bit, but he worked at this and my crew, we all just came together at the right time. For all these Al-Anabi Performance teams, it’s amazing what they do for us, and we’re looking forward to the rest of the year.”
The key for Castellana was consistency.
“We had struggled a lot early in the season, but I knew everything would come together,” Castellana said. “I just didn’t expect it to happen as quickly as it did. But Frank and my team do a great job, and they really came through (in Atlanta).”
Castellana believes his team turned a corner in Atlanta and holds the belief the team can win has returned. This confidence could go a long way during a stretch, which includes four races over the next six weeks.
“We feel really confident now, and that’s big in this class,” Castellana said. “We’re making a lot of progress with the car, and when we make laps, Frank just keeps tweaking on the car, and that makes a big difference. We’ll be ready for Virginia.”
KEEPING BUSY - There might have been a six-week hiatus for the Pro Stock cars, but for two-time champion Erica Enders the byproduct of the lesser schedule provided an opportunity to work on her other craft - driving a Pro Modified.
This weekend, she’ll be racing two classes as she did in Gainesville.
“I’ve worked really hard to become a versatile driver,” Enders said. “With Pro Mod running right before Pro Stock, you get in the car in a rushed, pressure situation and it’s up to me to do my job without making mistakes. But that double-duty, I live for it. I like the pressure, and I’m ready for the hustle and bustle.”
Enders doesn’t mind the heavy workload, as she’s missed driving her Pro Stocker in competition.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been out of the Pro Stock car this long,” Enders said. “I’m excited and anxious to get back at it.”
Her Pro Stock year – which includes a pair of semifinal appearances – hasn’t been bad, but Enders is ready to make a significant move and come up with her first win of 2019. She sees the potential, and now it’s time to take advantage.
“We have to start seeing consistent round wins, get our act together on race day and start racing like the championship-caliber team we are,” Enders said. “We haven’t done that yet with Team Red, and we need to see it out of this Melling Performance Camaro.
“I’m ready to get back on my ‘A’ game. I want to see consistent round wins and leave nothing on the table. We’re all very, very capable of that and it’s just a matter of everything coming together. But it takes everybody being on their ‘A’ game. We can’t let round wins slip through our fingers.”
THE TIMES THEY ARE A CHANGIN' - Rookie Top Fuel driver Austin Prock isn’t racing at Virginia Motorsports Park for the first time. He is; however, in a different role this year.
Last season Prock was at the facility located outside of Richmond, Va., as a crew member. He’ll be in his new role as a driver, and with a new crew chief.
Mike Green joined the John Force Racing family over the off weekend. He is a two-time world champion crew chief with 27 event wins under his belt.
Prock, to this point, has three second-round finishes and a career-best elapsed time of 3.699-seconds and speed of 334.15 mph.
“Every time I go down the race track, I’m learning new things and trying to improve my skill set,” Prock said. “That first round in Atlanta was a tough loss. We were close, it was a solid side-by-side race, but we just couldn’t get the job done.
“We’ve had a weekend off to get things back on track, and I’m in the mindset to go out there and go some rounds.”
FEELS LIKE THE FIRST TIME - Friday’s Q-1 pass was the first time Shane Tucker had made a pass down the track at Virginia Motorsports Park. The young Australian made one of his quickest runs of the season, a solid 6.655 seconds. The pass has Tucker sitting in the provisional No. 12 spot heading into Saturday’s final two qualifying sessions.
“I am excited to see the improvement from the first session to the second session. We are starting out with better runs in Q1 and getting quicker. We are getting a handle on this Auzmet Camaro, and I am looking forward to tomorrow,” said Tucker. “I didn’t mind the break between races. I was able to go back to Australia and work on some business projects. I am glad to be back racing for sure.”
On his first pass, Tucker made his inaugural run at Virginia Motorsports Park and posted a 6.715 second, 206.16 mph pass. The run was good enough to position Tucker as the No. 10 Pro Stock car after the first session.
“We felt good after the first run. We are still working on a consistent tune-up and getting a solid run right off the trailer really helps. We are going to continue to get more aggressive every run. I have to thank Rob Tucker and Nick Ferri for all their efforts,” added Tucker.