THRILLING TOP FUEL FINAL GIVES FAMILIAR FEELING TO SCHUMACHER, MAKES TORRENCE’S TITLE QUEST SLIGHTLY HARDER - When Steve Torrence formed his family-centric Capco Contractors Top Fuel team, his aim was to become a dominant force in the NHRA’s headliner class like Tony Schumacher was for the drag-racing empire his father built. He wanted “them Capco Boys” to be the badass, fearsome force Schumacher’s U.S. Army supporters were.

When Tony Schumacher sat on the sidelines without funding after the 19-year Army partnership vanished, Steve Torrence was the first one to lament Schumacher’s absence. He said he wished eight-time series champion Schumacher were out there racing with him and the rest of the dragster drivers. He said he wanted to race the best – and beat the best.

With Torrence trying to wrap up his third consecutive Top Fuel championship (which would tie him with Schumacher and Joe Amato as the only ones in the category to achieve that), Sunday’s final round of the Mopar Express Lane SpringNationals at Houston Raceway Park was – for Torrence – an inopportune time to have his wishes come true.

Schumacher is back on the track, even if for maybe just one more race or two in the Okuma / Sandvik Coromant Dragster for a total of only seven appearances in the abbreviated 11-race season. And he jogged Torrence’s memory about who commanded the class before Torrence went on his tear for the past four years.

 Schumacher answered the question “Who can stop Steve Torrence?” with his narrow victory on the 1,000-foot course at Baytown, Texas, that was a side-by-side display of 3.6-second, 330-mph power between the top two qualifiers.

New Texan Schumacher used a 3.669-second elapsed time at 330.63 mph (fastest of the meet) to edge native Texan Torrence’s 3.687 (at 330.07). Following Tommy Johnson’s Funny Car victory, Schumacher gave Don Schumacher Racing the double-up triumph by .0028 seconds, or about 16 inches, about the width of the spill plate on his front wing.

For Torrence, that was his sixth 3.6-second E.T. of the weekend.

The result happened to tip the balance of their head-to-head-races in Schumacher’s favor, to 19-18, although Torrence still has a 6-2 advantage in final rounds.

When Schumacher returned in July in the Global Electronic Technology entry, he wasn’t really a factor in eliminations. His grand re-entry into competition, fairly or unfairly, seemed anticlimactic. But he teamed with surprisingly available familiar crew chief Mike Green, and they have made significant strides since the U.S. Nationals in the Okuma / Sandvik Coromant Dragster. At St. Louis, Schumacher was top qualifier and semifinalist, and he has vaulted from out of competition entirely to top-10 status in this non-Countdown season.

Torrence, of Kilgore, Texas, extended his lead over No. 2-ranked Doug Kalitta this weekend from 51 points to 61 then to 101 as the tour heads to the season finale this coming week at Las Vegas with a points-and-a-half twist tossed into the drama. Schumacher, who lives at Lakeway, Texas, near Austin, is ninth in the standings.

Schumacher, the No. 2 qualifier whom Torrence aced out Saturday by .013 of a second for the No. 1 start and first-round bye privilege, won for the first time since the June 2018 race at Bristol, Tenn. It was his 85th overall.

“I’ve missed the guys and I’ve missed the people. We’ve only had a handful of races back as a team, and they’re doing a great job for Sandvik, Okuma and Toyota,” Schumacher said of his crew. “And Camping World, thank you for stepping up. It feels unbelievable.

“This is our home track. My fiancé [Summer Penland] and her family are from here, and they’re all here today. Half of my neighbors in Austin have come out today and have never been here before. They just saw two of the best semifinal and final rounds you’re ever going to see. That’s what it’s about. It’s about the people who showed up here in the stands, the people who worked so hard on this car. We just love the opportunity.

“Both the semis and the finals were outstanding races,” he said, including his victory against Billy Torrence to send him to his first final since the November 2018 Finals at Pomona, Calif. (in which – you guessed it – Torrence beat him). “That’s about as rewarding of a day as anybody can have.”

Simply coming back from a 26-race layoff is cause enough for a racer perhaps to be rusty. But Schumacher explained what makes Sunday’s victory at Houston (his third here after successes in 2005 and 2009) was particularly remarkable.

“We’ve been through three race cars in six races,” he said.” We qualified excellent, then lost our car after Leah broke one. We had to take a new car out, and that’s just the second race on it. That car hasn’t made two dozen runs down a racetrack, and Mike Green and this Okuma/Sandvik Coromant Toyota team just went out and figured out how to win a race with it. Unbelievable.

“We’ve got one more race in Vegas, and I’m looking forward to that. It’s one of my favorite tracks. I really want to win Vegas,” Schumacher said, “because you get the whole off-season to think about it.”

Although Schumacher denied Torrence his first victory at Houston Raceway Park and relegated him to runner-up for the third time in seven visits, Torrence wasn’t upset.

He said, “That was a hell of a drag race. To be honest, we did exactly what we wanted. In hindsight, I don’t think we’d change anything. They took a shot and made it work. That’s why they won all those championships. The bottom line is we know we’re taking a great car to Vegas.”

Kalitta still has a mathematical chance to interrupt Torrence’s march into the history books. The maximum number of points available in the finale, including all bonuses, is 183, while a first-round loser will earn at least 46 points. Round victories will produce 30 points.

His team’s take on that is that the task is “serious but not insurmountable.”

Kalitta lost to Antron Brown in Sunday’s second round. And he said, “We knew the championship would come down to the last race. We have a hole to dig out of, for sure. The one thing about this Mac Tools team is we are going to keep fighting. There are points and half in Las Vegas, and if we get a couple quick qualifying runs, we can make up some ground on Saturday. We are going to go into the weekend with our focus on winning the race and getting the championship.

“We didn’t make up ground this weekend, which is disappointing,” he said. “There is one race left, and we just want a chance to get that championship. We have that opportunity, and the Mac Tools team just has to capitalize on it.”  

Torrence has to make sure not to stumble in qualifying or in eliminations. Otherwise, he doesn’t have to do a whole lot different this coming weekend at Las Vegas to record his third straight championship. So it’ll be his turn to take a shot and see if it works. Susan Wade

TJ'S IMPROBABLE FC WIN PUTS HIM IN THE THICK OF CHAMPIONSHIP SHOWDOWN - The reality of the situation couldn't have been any clearer for Tommy Johnson Jr.  

To have a chance to at what could be, unfortunately, his last legit chance to win an NHRA Funny Car title, 21-time NHRA national event winner had to find a way to leave Houston Raceway Park with win No. 22.

Sunday, at the NHRA Springnationals, an event rescheduled amid a pandemic-ravaged season, Johnson proved he still has a measure of magic left in his final races as the driver of the MD Center-cloaked Dodge Charger Funny Car.

Johnson stopped teammate Ron Capps in the final round.

"It was a must-win," Johnson admitted. "We get close and, then we stumble, and I think we're out of it and then next race here we come again. I think we've been a thorn in their side a little bit because we just keep coming back every time. It's like a heavyweight battle. We get knocked to the canvas, and we get back up and here we come again and keep swinging."

The win was Johnson's third of 2020 and moved him to within 42 points of leader Matt Hagan.

"Really. every one of these guys," Johnson said of his crew. "They don't quit, and you can't quit. It's been a weird year, and it's been a good year for our team. Even though it's been a tough year for everybody, it's been a really good year. That's three wins this year. I hate it because it's been such a weird year because we're having such a good year. For these guys, I hate it because maybe we could have won a bunch more if there were more races. But just super happy with the fight in these guys, they just keep coming. The Countdown this year, you don't need one. I mean this has got drama written all over it for Vegas."

Johnson heads into The Strip at Las Vegas trailing Matt Hagan by a mere two rounds of competition and a second-place qualifying bonus points earning effort.

"It's probably our best shot," Johnson said. "In the years past, we've been there; I think three times. I've been second once and we weren't expected to be there ... like, 'Oh, where'd they come from?"

"This time, we're there and want to go. I've almost gotten used to the disappointment, and it aggravates you after a while. You're like, 'Come on, all these other guys win, and how come I can't win one?'

"So there's a little bit of extra drive in there because of the past disappointments and I can relate well with what Capps went through for so many years and what Doug Kalitta goes through every year. I feel for those guys because I've been there a lot and it gives you a little extra something. But in the big picture, it takes the whole team, and it's just not you. It's the whole team. So it takes a good team, it takes a good driver, it takes a good car. It takes a lot of luck, and then you can put together a championship. They're few and far between. You just need everything to go your way and doesn't always go your way. So maybe this year. Maybe Terry is looking down on us. Maybe this is our time."

The victory marked the 66th time Don Schumacher Racing has doubled up with Tony Schumacher also winning Top Fuel. It was the 13th straight victory for DSR's Funny Car teams.

Such stats are not odd for the nitro powerhouse, but the 2020 season has been anything but ordinary. However, as Johnson sees it, the drag strip is as regular as it gets.

"It's definitely been different," Johnson said. "It's a closer atmosphere. We don't have the distractions maybe that we might normally have but at the same time once you fire the engine, there's no difference. I've raced all around the world. Everything is different in the world until you get to a drag strip. It's all the same. So even though the world's different these days, it's still the same at the dragstrip, but when they pull the wires on the thing, it's every man for themself and whichever team does a better job is who's going to win, and these guys have done a really good job under really tough circumstances."

Johnson's final round opponent Capps actually helped TJ's championship hopes when he took out point leader Jack Beckman in the first round. Capps was the 16th qualifier. The runner up finish put Capps third place in points and just one point behind Johnson headed into Las Vegas.

"It was just a good race," Johnson said. "You knew it was going to be a solid race. I didn't see him the whole way, and I threw the parachutes, and he passed meI I thought, 'He must have been closer than I thought."

"I did happen to see the light come on, but that was I was like, 'Ooh, that was closer than I wanted it to be." Bobby Bennett

THIRD-GEN STANFIELD DELIVERS DAY FOR THE AGES - Most parents hope their children will improve on what they could accomplish in life. For Greg Stanfield, an accomplished drag racer who delivered on a high level, son Aaron delivered more than anyone could have expected.

Greg knew what the next-generation Stanfield could pull off. After all, it’s how he trained him to be.

On Sunday at the pandemic-delayed NHRA Springnationals, Stanfield won his first career Pro Stock title, doubled up as the Factory Stock Showdown winner, and clinched the SAMtech.edu Factory Stock series championship.

“Definitely can’t put it into words,” the younger Stanfield said. “I remember sitting at home back when NHRA would only have the live feed on a radio, and I would listen to my dad race, and I’ve dreamed of the day that I could hold up a Pro Stock Wally since I was a little guy. It’s always been at the top of my list of goals, along with winning a world championship.”

Greg’s boy faced several second and third-generation racers behind the wheel of the Janac Brothers Camaro en route to his double-up. Case in point, he beat Troy Coughlin, Kyle Koretsky, and Jeggie Coughlin to win Pro Stock. In the finals of Factory Stock, he beat David Barton.

“To be honest, this whole day has been so crazy just accomplishing huge dreams that I never thought I’d be able to accomplish,” Stanfield ssaid. “I guess I haven’t had time to soak it all in. I felt I was pretty calm throughout the entire day. So I think that helped me.”

Stanfield could have gotten rattled in the Pro Stock final. Before his match with Coughlin, the iconic Pro Stock racer had problems getting his car to fire. Then when he got it fired, he pulled into the water, and it died again. Amid the mayhem, Coughlin did a short burnout, staged and left on Stanfield. Stanfield appeared unfazed.

“I try to stay as calm as I can stay in the race car,” Stanfield reiterated. “It was definitely a different procedure, but nevertheless, I knew my guys have my best interests in mind. I stayed focused, and we did our job and got it done.

“What my dad has taught me is when you hop in the race car, clear your head, and focus on what you got to do. That’s what I was able to do today. I’m thankful for everything that he’s taught me and thankful to have these memories with him.

“My Dad’s always taught me by saying,  ‘Aaron, the great ones can slow everything down and focus on what they need to do.

“That’s what I try to do. It doesn’t always happen but it definitely worked out today.”

Doubling up and winning a championship are incredible feats, but beating Jeggie Coughlin in a Pro Stock race, well, Stanfield understands that is a feat all in itself.

“Along with my dad, I always thought he was my hero,” Stanfield admitted. “But Jeg is a legend in the sport of drag racing and a legend in Pro Stock. In my eyes, he is one of the best ever to hop in a race car. Funny enough, in my very, very first Pro Stock race, I raced Jeggie and I beat him because he red-lighted. I have not beat him until this day and he’s beat me a lot.”

Despite falling in the second round, Erica Enders stretched her points lead as she tries to win back-to-back world titles and her fourth overall. She leads Jason Line and Coughlin by 55 points heading to Las Vegas. Bobby Bennett


“Don’t take a Wally for granted.”

That’s the first thing he said Sunday following his final-round Pro Stock Motorcycle victory over Ryan Oehler at the twice-rescheduled Mopar Express Lane SpringNationals at Houston Raceway Park.

Top Fuel racers such as Larry Dixon, Antron Brown, and Tony Schumacher could have told him that, but Krawiec had to learn for himself.

And he did. He tried unsuccessfully since the 2018 event at Brainerd, Minn. He went to a string of eight final rounds since then and left with eight runner-up finishes.

First, it was L.E. Tonglet, then Hector Arana Jr. and Matt Smith and Jerry Savoie who beat him, followed by four straight fruitless showdowns against his longtime teammate, Andrew Hines. For several years, the class almost had been The Andrew and Eddie Show, with the Vance & Hines Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson duo greedily grabbing the lion’s share of victories and championships – together they have earned nine for the Brownsburg, Ind.-headquartered team. But lately, Krawiec had been losing to not only his Harley-Davidson shop partner but also to racers on Suzukis and Buells, a number of them who were Vance & Hines clients.

But with his 6.801-second elapsed time at 198.61 mph on the Baytown, Texas, quarter-mile Sunday afternoon, Krawiec reminded the Pro Stock Motorcycle class he’s still there and still dangerous.

Oehler, who had won the season-opener in July at Indianapolis, reached the final Sunday by knocking off points leader and No. 1 qualifier in the semifinal round. He challenged Krawiec in the final with a 6.905, 181.37.

“This is a huge deal for me personally,” Krawiec said, clutching the Wally statue that is his first with a Camping World Drag Racing Series nameplate on it and his 48th in all.

How did it feel for him to return to a winners circle?

“I never thought I’d have to answer that question,” Krawiec said. “It seems like with two-plus years being out of it, it just feels good. I feel like I’ve accomplished everything I’ve needed to and don’t have to prove anything. But it’s nice just to get it done.

“It’s a big team effort. There’s a lot of people who help us. That’s what I really attribute this to,” he said. “The rider has to do his job, and I got better and better as the rounds went on, so I’m happy about that.”

Krawiec shared the podium with other winners Schumacher (Top Fuel), Tommy Johnson Jr. (Funny Car), and Aaron Stanfield. For each it was a previous moment. Schumacher had waited almost as long as Krawiec (since June 2018, at Bristol, Tenn.) to win again. Tommy Johnson Jr. preserved his chances to grab a first Funny Car championship. Aaron Stanfield, who already in the day had clinched the Factory Stock Showdown series title, claimed his first Pro Stock trophy. So the celebration was one of hope and anticipation.

“There’s a lot of great racers in the class. You can’t take anything for granted, I said with these Wallys. Sometimes they come as fast as they go. Sometimes you get ’em-get ’em- get ‘em, and the next thing you know, it’s gone – gone for two years. Don’t take I for granted. Take every win for what it is and appreciate it, you know? . . . even more so with the level of competition level in the class. It’s crazy. We now have four or five motorcycles that are all fighting for the championship. So it’s great racing and the way it should be.”

Some winning racers will say they had a feeling that they would be successful that particular day. But Krawiec wasn’t going to fib. He didn’t have any such notions Sunday.

“I’d lie to you if I told you yes,” Krawiec said with a long-deserved laugh.

“I’ve had it three or four other times. I didn’t have any luck some rounds. You need those lucky rounds or you need to get by things,” he said. “I had a part failure last race [at Dallas [where he had won three times], just a little TPS sensor, go bad against Jerry {Savoie, in the semifinals at Texas Motorplex]. Prior races to that, I’ve had little, stupid gremlin problems – not necessarily mechanical: some self-inflicted. But you have to be on your game at all times.”

Motivation never has been a problem for Krawiec. He said, “I go to every single race with the intention of winning it. I don’t want to go any other way. When that feeling goes away is when I don’t want to do this anymore.”

But he’s ready to go to Las Vegas next weekend and roll the dice on one last chance to win in this year that has been frustrating for so many people, racers and non-racers alike. The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway will host the season final for the first time in the sport’s history. Susan Wade



FSS CROWN GOES TO STANFIELD – When 25-year-old Aaron Stanfield pulled to the starting line Sunday for his Pro Stock final-round match against Jeg Coughlin Jr., he did so as a champion. With his second-round victory over David Kramer, Stanfield clinched the SamTech Factory Stock Showdown championship at the Mopar Express Lane SpringNationals at Houston Raceway Park.

“I have a lot of great people around me. They put in the hours with me at the shop. We’ve worked really hard on this program,” the son of former Pro Stock and Pro Stock Truck racer Greg Stanfield said.

He races the Janac Brothers entry, and Stanfield thanked them for the chance to drive their car under the Elite Motorsports banner.

“I’m just really happy,” Stanfield said. “I’ve been dreaming of this day since I was a little boy watching my dad race. It’s cool to do that not only for me but for my dad and the Janac Brothers.”

Incidentally, Stanfield defeated Coughlin in the Pro Stock final. It was his first victory in the class, and he was emotional after claiming it in just his 35th round of competition (against the five-time champion who was making his 1,064th final-round appearance).

Stanfield had little time to celebrate. He had to go back to the pits and prepare for his Factory Stock Showdown semifinal round.

GORDON EARNS TAFC TITLE – Doug Gordon, waiting and observing at the top end of the racetrack, secured his first Top Alcohol Funny Car championship when rival Sean Bellemeur’s car failed to fire back at the starting line for his semifinal match against Chris Marshall.

Gordon has been racing for 25 years, since he was 19. Now he’s racing with his daughters.

After finally capturing the top prize, he said, “We never thought that this could actually, really happen. This year the family has gone on the road with me, and we’ve got a great team. My dad [a former racer] works so hard on this thing. It’s finally come together. It’s just a dream deal. This is so exciting.”

Gordon said, “I hate to have it happen with Bellemeur not being able to start like that.  But we had a great year.”   

Kyle Koretsky

THREE VIE FOR ROOKIE HONORS – Visions of NHRA Pro Stock racing danced in Kyle Koretsky’s head, and the 31-year-old was all ready for his pro debut at the Gatornationals at Gainesville, Fla. He was more than ready after running a 6.494-second pass at 212.39 mph and earning his license at the World Doorslammer Nationals at nearby Orlando the week before.

Then, like everyone else, he had to put his dreams and ambitions for 2020 on hold as coronavirus concerns put racing on hold. Finally, four months later, Koretsky resumed his pursuit – not at Gainesville but at Indianapolis. So where and when he started his Pro Stock career didn’t go as planned, but how his first year has unfolded is pretty much on target.

And for that, Koretsky – a/k/a “Kid Chaos” (as the junior version of dad Kenny Koretsky, “Captain Chaos”) – is one of three candidates – all second-generation drivers – for the NHRA’s rookie of the year.

His fellow Pro Stock racer Mason McGaha and Top Fuel’s Justin Ashley also have been nominated.

Koretsky is an accomplished sportsman racer who regularly has entered Super Comp races along with Pro Stock to gain extra seat time this season. He said, "In my opinion, Pro Stock is the most difficult professional class there is. Each class requires a certain skill set, but you have to make the perfect run every single time in Pro Stock. That's hard to do. Even the best in the business make mistakes.” But he said, “I think we're doing pretty good.”

He is. The Richboro, Pa., resident has qualified for every event he has entered. He earned his first elimination-round victory on the sport’s biggest stage, the U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis, with a victory over Jeg Coughlin Jr. He defeated Coughlin again in the first round of the delayed Gainesville race in September.
Twice this season, at the first of four Indianapolis race and again last weekend at Dallas, Koretsky has recorded top speed of the event with his KB-provided horsepower. This weekend here at Houston, he reached the final round for the first time, continuing his steady improvement in the standings.

Mason McGaha

Also hoping to score just the seventh Rookie of the Year honors for the Pro Stock class since 1996 is Mason McGaha.

The 18-year-old son of Odessa, Texas, Pro Stock regular Chris McGaha (and grandson of longtime sportsman racer Lester McGaha) stepped into the pro ranks at the U.S. Nationals. He earned a spot in the 16-car line-up among 22 entrants. And in his first match in competition, he beat his dad – and next Koretsky – and advanced to the semifinal round.

Mason McGaha shouldn’t be ashamed of any of his elimination-round defeats. He has lost to a total of only three racers – but they represent a combined 10 championships: Erica Enders (3), Jason Line (3), and Greg Anderson (4).    

McGaha started his racing career in the Jr. Dragster ranks but also attended most every event in which his father competed. So he has watched his dad go through his own learning curve and has been absorbing as much as he can all along the way.

If the voting panel gives any thought to how complicated each kind of car is to drive, they might need to recognize that Pro Stock is one of the most technologically advanced and constantly evolving classes in the sport. It features naturally aspirated 500-cubic-inch EFI engines and requires profound precision in every aspect – from machining and assembly to tuning and driving in a world of constant development and change. In this class, races are won or lost by mere thousandths of a second on a regular basis, more often than is the case with either of the nitro-powered cars.

"This is an award that fuel drivers have usually won in the past, and it almost seems like Pro Stock has been overlooked," McGaha said. "It's a pretty cool honor to have your name thrown in the hat, and it would be really special to be in such a small group of Rookie of the Year award winners in such a tough class. It would be an achievement.”

Koretsky said, "It's an honor to even be racing Pro Stock in general, but to be considered a contender for Rookie of the Year is huge. It was definitely one of our goals, not just to qualify for the award, but to try to contend for it. To get it would be huge."

Justin Ashley
(Ron Lewis photo)

Justin Ashley’s performance in the Top Fuel class could make a strong case for his selection, as well.

His father, Mike Ashley, won numerous Pro Modified races across several series and three NHRA Funny Car national events that included the 2007 U.S. Nationals. But the younger Ashley has a victory of his own already. And although it wasn’t the U.S. Nationals, it happened at Indianapolis during the U.S. Nationals. Ashley defeated T.J. Zizzo in a battle of first-time finalists in the interrupted Lucas Oil Summernationals.

That, Justin Ashley said, was the highlight so far of his young career. But he said he’s extremely pleased at his and his team’s overall performance, not just the results of that one race.

“I think overall this Strutmasters.com Top Fuel team powered by MANSCAPED™ had a fantastic rookie season,” he said. “Just putting things in perspective . . . we are racing the best drivers and teams in the world. So to be able to come out in our rookie season and just have an opportunity to be competitive and have a chance to win at every race we went to speaks volumes of our season. I also feel really good about how we represented ourselves off the track.”

The Top Fuel newcomer led the way when it came to sponsorship procurement. He also appeared in number of sponsor marketing activations including a promotional video for Auto Shocker for their social media channels.

“Before anything else, if you want to be out here for a long time you need good sponsors,” Ashley said. “For our program, sponsors mean everything. We have been able to bring on a lot of really great partners. One of the people that has stuck by me from the beginning is Chip Lofton with Strutmasters. When I came over from A Fuel we hadn’t done anything yet, and he took a chance on us. Ever since then, he has been extraordinarily loyal and he has stood by our side during COVID, the most unpredictable time in American history. All our sponsors from Auto Shocker, KATO, Sanit, MANSCAPED to GuardLab have been amazing. I think it is important that as a program we grow together. As our team grows, these sponsors and businesses grow, too.

“As a program,” he said, “we want to be the best representatives that we can be for our sponsors and for the NHRA. [This season] had a lot of unknowns with some unpredictable situations, and I think we really came through.

“There have been a lot of ups and downs our rookie season. We were at our highest point after we won the Summernationals and followed it up the next day by going to the semifinals at the U.S. Nationals,” he said. “The car was running really good and everything was clicking on all cylinders and then the three races after that, two first-round losses and a quarterfinal loss. It is a test. You have to know that at some point of time if you are not going through adversity or struggling with something, it probably means you are not trying hard enough.”  

Besides the victory, Ashley has earned a top-10 finish and he was a top-five driver following four events this summer.

Ashley said, “I think it is cool that Kyle and Mason are also following their dads into racing. I know Pro Stock is a very tough category. All three of us faced some amazing competition this year. I will look forward to seeing them at the track for many seasons to come.”

Only one will return in 2021 as the 2020 Rookie of the Year.




SURPRISING MATCH-UP – Jack Beckman, the No. 2-ranked Funny Car driver coming into the at the Mopar Express Lane Springnationals at Houston Raceway Park this weekend, wasn’t surprised he would register a 3.884-second elapsed time (at 328.14 mph) in the Infinite Hero Foundation Dodge Charger Hellcat that would capture the No. 1 qualifying position in his class.

“We knew we were going to have to earn this,” he said after securing his first No. 1 start of the year and 28th overall.

However, he was a little startled to discover who he drew as his first-round opponent: No. 16 qualifier Ron Capps, one of his three Don Schumacher Racing team members. Capps is the No. 4-ranked – and, also surprisingly, lowest-ranked among the DSR Funny Car drivers. With a victory at every race since the October 2019 event at Dallas, DSR owns the first four spots in the standings.

“I didn’t realize that with 17 cars here, Capps would be the No. 16 qualifier,” Beckman said. Because he’s locked in the battle with Hagan entering just four points ahead of him and Tommy Johnson Jr. 73 behind him, Beckman joked, “I’m going to talk to them [the NAPA Dodge] team to see if they’ll block for us tomorrow. I don’t think [crew chief Rahn] Tobler or Ron are going to have anything to do with that.

“But I’m happy. I’d rather take it from the No. 1 spot. Matt had a four-point lead coming in. He stretched that out [in the first qualifying session]. Now we’re going to tighten that up a little bit.”

Capps said, “I wasn’t aware that we were 16th until [NHRA on FOX reporter] Amanda Busick told me at the end of the track. You know, it’s so difficult with just two qualifying runs. We need to try some things with some new parts we had built at our DSR shop, and there’s really no time to do that on Sunday. So we have to try to implement those when we can during qualifying. I’m always confident we can win from any position. Unfortunately, we have to race a teammate first round in Jack Beckman. At this point, teammates don’t matter on Sunday morning, as everybody is still fighting for a championship. I never would want to run [against] our Pennzoil/NAPA car in the first place. Tonight Rahn Tobler is going to work on getting the car back to what he’s comfortable with, and we’ll go up there and run the best E.T. we think we can run down that lane and if they beat us, they beat us. Hopefully, we’ll turn the win light on and try to do that a few more times on Sunday.”    

L-R: John Winsauer, CEO of Ant Lifts & President of Freedom Mobility Foundation, Courtney Janes, Executive Director at Infinite Hero Foundation, Jack Beckman, driver of the Infinite Hero Foundation Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Funny Car, Richard Carson, iBOT recipient, and Judy Pittman, Chandler family representative (Photo courtesy of Don Schumacher Racing)

Beckman said the “streak of the DSR cars is awesome, but it’s also ulcer-inducing, because it’s always one of our cars next to us when we go to the late rounds.”

Hagan, with a 3.907, 327.74 performance, picked up three precious qualifying bonus points as the provisional low qualifier. His best run was his first, and that left him in second place in the line-up. The point leader’s first hurdle will be his match-up against No. 15 qualifier Dave Richards.

“We’re going to race our race tomorrow. It will be what it will be, and the cards will fall the way they fall,” Hagan said. “We were still pressing to go out and run good in Q2. I think the left lane is a little worse than the right, and you want to have lane choice tomorrow. I’ll try to be shallow, and it seems like a lot of reaction times are off during qualifying and mine seem OK. So I’ll try to continue that tomorrow and keep lane choice and try to have a long day. We’re here in Pennzoil country, and we want to sell Pennzoil oil and Shell gas and do well for those who support us.”

Texas native Todd Simpson was the odd-man-out in the category that drew 17 entrants.

Just before the first qualifying session, Beckman helped present an iBOT personal mobility device to Richard Carson, a retired U.S. Army combat medic. The iBOT donation was made possible in part by Doug Chandler, benefactor of the Don Schumacher Racing “giving cars” that support the Infinite Hero Foundation and, this year, the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center that’s located here at Houston. Others who helped make the gift to Carson are the TLC Foundation, the Parasol Foundation, and dozens of drag-racing fans who support the Infinite Hero Foundation through donations and purchases of challenge coins that Beckman takes on his passes down the track and autographs.

Steve Torrence is looking for his first win at Houston Raceway Park. (Photo by Mark Rebilas, courtesy of Torrence Racing)

TORRENCE STILL HEADS IN RIGHT DIRECTION – The Top Fuel championship race saw a small but significant shift in the first qualifying session. Steve Torrence earned three bonus points when he topped Tony Schumacher for the provisional top slot. Class leader Torrence entered the event with a 51-point advantage over No. 2-ranked Doug Kalitta, who smoked the tires on his dragster and had to settle for a tentative 14th placing. Torrence reigned with a 3.672-second E.T. at 327.98 mph. Schumacher (3.685) was fastest early Saturday with a 330.07-mph speed. Torrence and Schumacher were the only Top Fuel racers to clock an E.T. in the 3.6-second range in that session, but no one could rewrite Brittany Force’s records from last April (3.661, 332.18).

Torrence held his grip on the top spot, capitalizing on his own opportunities and on Doug Kalitta’s less-than-ideal showing during qualifying. Kalitta rebounded in the final session with a No. 5 qualifying result, despite his supercharger backfire on the 3.764-second run. He was on a really quick pass – reaching the eight-mile mark on the 1,000-foot course in 2.94 seconds – before he experienced a dropped cylinder and then the flash-bang from behind him.  

After qualifying, Kalitta will begin eliminations 60 points out of the Top Fuel lead and is hoping to advance past No. 12 Kebin Kinsley in the opening round to whittle away at Torrence’s cushion. The next and final race of the year – at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway – will feature a dramatic point-and-a-half format.

Torrence, one strategic step closer to claiming his third consecutive championship, said after qualifying Saturday, “Today was a huge success, and the car ran really well. It gives us a lot of confidence going into tomorrow, and that puts a little pressure on the competition. We’ll go out and do the best we can, and we just need to maintain that consistency. We’ve slowly become one of the teams that runs really quick when the conditions are good. We haven’t been that guy in years past. We’ve slowly but surely gotten to the point where we’re confident to go out there and run really hard, because you’re trying to get every point possible.”

The Capco Contractors Dragster was quickest in both of Saturday’s qualifying sessions, so Torrence racked up the maximum number of qualifying bonus points. With that he stretched his lead over Kalitta from 51 points to 61 – with Sunday’s eliminations and next week’s Dodge Finals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway remaining on the abbreviated 2020 schedule.

Because just 15 entrants made qualifying attempts Saturday, Torrence received a bye run into the quarterfinals. So his first competitive race of the day will be against the winner of the Shawn Langdon-Justin Ashley faceoff. It’s possible that Torrence could meet Kalitta in the semifinals. Kalitta would have to defeat Kinsley, then the winner of the Antron Brown-Scott Palmer Round 1 race for that to happen.

Torrence has started eliminations from the first or second position five times at Houston Raceway Park, this facility remains one of only two tracks (along with Minnesota’s Brainerd International Raceway) on which he has yet to win. He was runner-up in 2016 (to Kalitta) and 2017 (to Leah Pruett) and went no farther than the semifinals in his most recent visit here.

But he has supreme confidence in his tuner, Richard Hogan, and the crew. And why not? They have won an average of exactly eight races each season for the past four seasons and 40 overall.

“Richard Hogan and these Capco boys have got this hot rod running on mean right now,” Torrence said.  “I think that’s eight straight runs at 3.720 or better. That just gives a driver so much confidence going up there [to the starting line].”

If Torrence can maintain his momentum, he would follow Joe Amato and Tony Schumacher as the third Top Fuel driver to earn three straight series crowns. (Were it not for the point-manipulated Countdown to the Championship, Torrence already would have accomplished that feat.)

Those aren’t the numbers Torrence said he thinks about. “Hoagie and Bobby [Lagana Jr.] look at the track conditions, the weather conditions, and they just try to set things up so we can make the best run possible. There’s no reward for going out there and rotating the earth,” Torrence said. “There’s really no extra benefit in being No. 1.  We’re just as comfortable when we’re No. 2, to be honest.  You still control your own destiny – and that’s really all we want.”

For the record, Torrence has won seven times from the No. 1 qualifying spot. But he has won more – 12 – from No. 2, including two of his four victories this season.

This scene from St. Louis is one Top Fuel title contender Doug Kalitta wants to repeat Sunday at Houston Raceway Park at Baytown, Texas. He has won here three times already. (Photo by Gary Nastase)

But Kalitta isn’t one to be rattled about the glitch in his first qualifying pass Saturday. He isn’t freaking out about what might happen in eliminations Sunday or by the end of next weekend. He has been through enough of these year-end nail-biters to know how quickly things can turn for anyone in the sport. And when he was on the short end of the stick for one of his NHRA-record five series runner-up finishes, he calmly said, “It isn’t life or death.” So Kalitta is taking the methodical approach.

He said, “We have two races left, and we know what we need to do. The good news is we basically control our own destiny. If we run well in qualifying and win these last two races, we should be the champions. It will be tough, but I have a great team behind me, and I have a lot of confidence.

“We have been here before, so I don’t feel any extra pressure. We just need to focus on what we can control. If we do that, then no matter what happens we will know we gave it our best.”

Having just two chances to qualify makes it tough on everyone, but the importance of each is magnified, he said: “With only one day of qualifying, you really have to make your two passes count. It makes it tough for the crew chiefs, for sure, but Rob Flynn and my Mac Tools guys have been amazing all season. We want to get some of those qualifying bonus points and then get a lot of round wins on Sunday. That will be the key to our success for sure.” He got no bonus points Saturday. (Torrence had his six, Tony Schumacher had four, and Billy Torrence and Antron Brown each picked up one.)

Just the same, Kalitta’s best has been more than OK at Houston. He has won here three times, including twice in the past five years - more times than any active driver. Kenny Bernstein and Larry Dixon also have three victories at Baytown. Kalitta won in 2003, then in back-to-back races in 2015 and 2016.
“We won a lot of races in the first part of the year at the Spring Nationals, so we will see if we can win one in October,” Kalitta said. Referring to the sometimes-iffy schedule and the fact this is the third spot on the 2020 calendar for this race assignment, he said, “I am glad we are getting to race in Houston because we have a lot of representatives from Mobil 1 who will be at the race. And our new sponsor Osborn has some strong Texas ties. I was actually supposed to unveil an Osborn Top Fuel dragster at this race earlier this season. They are featured on my Mac Tools dragster pretty big this weekend.”

Kalitta is three-for-four in final rounds this year.  

Matt Smith

SLEW OF HOUSTON RECORDS FALL – In his bid for his first top-qualifier honor, Ryan Oehler was quickest in the opening qualifying session for Pro Stock Motorcycle Saturday with a 6.808-second pass that set the Houston Raceway Park elapsed-time record. He broke the eight-year-old 6.846-second record that Hector Arana Jr. set in April 2012. Oehler ended the day in fourth place, and Kelly Clontz is his opening-round opponent in Sunday’s eliminations.

Angie Smith, buoyed by her outstanding qualifying effort at Dallas last week that included her first 200-mph run, set the track speed record at 198.23 mph Saturday as she took the early No. 3 spot in the bike order.

But Matt Smith stormed back from a first-session disappointment (his bike misbehaved at the first hit of the throttle) to erase their achievements. He blasted to both ends of the track record with a 6.729-second, 199.88-mph run to earn his fourth straight and fifth overall No. 1 start of the year. It also was the second straight Saturday in which he has trumped his wife Angie’s feat – at Dallas he relegated her to the No. 2 starting spot.

Points leader Matt Smith, whose 6.729 performance was the quickest ever with a two-valve V-4 engine, will face No. 16 Mark Ingwersen in Round 1 of eliminations Sunday. Smith has two victories this year in three final-round appearances.

Alex Laughlin

The Vance & Hines Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson trio filled most of the top five, with Angelle Sampey leading the group at No. 2 on the grid after clocking a 6.789-second pass. She and No. 15 David Barron are pitted against each other in first-round action. Eddie Krawiec is No. 3, and he will meet Michael Phillips to start his Sunday. Andrew Hines is fifth and will go against Chris Bostick when runoffs start.   

In Pro Stock qualifying, Alex Laughlin’s 6.506-second E.T. in Pro Stock’s first session was enough to make him the No. 1 starter, but it was .014 of a second shy of the track mark (6.492) that Greg Anderson established two years ago. No one came close to the speed record (213.37 mph) that Erica Enders has owned since April 2013. Laughlin will lead the field for the first time this year and third time overall.

In the Funny Car class, retired Courtney Force’s April 2017 records (3.851 seconds, 331.77 mph) were safe.

ERIC LANE, GARY RICHARDS MOURNED – Two Funny Car teams were touched by tragedy and loss this past week but showed up to compete at this penultimate race of the season.

Dave Richards, driver of the Guaranteed Rate Ford Mustang, is racing just three days after his father, Gary Richards, passed away Wednesday.

And the Cruz Pedregon team, along with the entire drag-racing community, still is in shock over the death late Monday of crew chief Eric Lane during a team-building / R&R visit to Mineral Wells, Texas, following the Dallas race. Lane was struck and killed by a passenger car. Qualifying action paused Saturday before Pedregon made his first pass with a video tribute to Lane on the scoreboards, a moment of silence, and a prayer.

Veteran crew Chief Ronnie Thompson, who at the moment is idle because his John Force Racing team has opted out of competition, volunteered to step in and help Nick Casertano, who was Lane’s tuning partner.    

NEW FACE IN FUNNY CAR – Bobby Bode, son of longtime Funny Car competitor and 2010 Brainerd winner Bob Bode, made his professional debut in the class Saturday. The Arizona State University freshman business major from suburban Chicago marked his first pass in the jump from the Jr. Dragster ranks with a 4.705-second, 171.82-mph eight-mile shutoff run. Bode III put the family-owned Ar-Bee Plastic Bags / Casino Royale Ford Mustang in the early 11th position in the lineup, ahead of far-more-experienced Terry Haddock, Ron Capps, Cruz Pedregon, Todd Simpson, and Bob Tasca III.

The newest racer in the Funny Car class said after his inaugural run, “I was excited and nervous. I think it went pretty smooth. I got toward the center line, so I lifted at about 500-600 feet.”

Nevertheless, Bode said, “I’m an 18-year-old kid driving a Nitro Funny Car. Nothing could be better than this.”

Maybe qualifying in the top half of the order at No. 7 for his first race-day appearance, to boot, could top that. Bode will have lane choice over No. 10 Blake Alexander.

MUSICAL MACHINES – Pro Stock Motorcycle competitor David Barron, who lives just up State Highway 287 from Texas Motorplex at Ennis, is racing deeper in the heart of Texas this week on Hector Arana’s Lucas Oil Buell. He tested on the Arana motorcycle this past week. At the Dallas race last weekend, Barron couldn’t stop his bike in time and plowed into the gravel at the top end of the track and didn’t return and didn’t qualify.

In the Top Fuel class, Kebin Kinsley is back in the Worsham Family-owned dragster that he drove at St. Louis. Last weekend he qualified Dexter Tuttle’s entry at Dallas.

HE’S BACK! – Gilbert, Ariz., Top Fuel owner-driver Jim Maroney told Competition Plus Saturday that he will compete at the season finale next weekend at Las Vegas. Earlier in the year, he said he had considered selling his equipment and stepping away from the tour.