2020 NHRA SUMMERNATIONALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
FIRST-TIME TOP FUEL FINALISTS ASHLEY, ZIZZO MUST WAIT FOR DREAMS TO PLAY OUT - Justin Ashley, making just his seventh start, said he has been imagining this moment for his whole life – which would be about 25 years.
T.J. Zizzo would be fibbing if he said he hadn’t spent much of his 44 years working and planning to get to the final round of an NHRA Top Fuel race – something he predicted he could do days before the start of the event.
Both made it Sunday at the Lucas Oil Summernationals, but neither came away with a Wally trophy.
One of them will . . . eventually. The only catch is the winner will have to wait until Labor Day, a little more than six weeks from now.
Rain washed out the final rounds of eliminations at Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis just as teams were heading to the starting line for the final rounds.
“It’s definitely a little bit disappointing having to wait till Labor Day weekend, but we came together and agreed that it was the right decision. It was the rational decision to make,” Ashley said.
He said his Aaron Brooks-led crew “did an outstanding job today. This is so much more than just about me. It's about these guys. It’s about our sponsors – StrutMasters, Menards Autoshocker, Kato – the list goes on and on. So we'll be back for the U.S. Nationals. We’ll be able to run it then, and it is what it is. The circumstances are where they are. We can't change them. So we're looking forward to the opportunity.”
Zizzo, although he, too, was really looking forward to his first showdown in the so-called “Rust-Oleum Rocket,” was nonchalant about the sudden change of events.
He said it’s “still exciting. We still got a race to win. Mother Nature may have rained on our parade, but we still have a race to win. We’ll come to the U.S. Nationals. It'd be a pleasure to win the U.S. Nationals twice in one weekend.
“This whole deal is cool,” he said. “Justin Davis, who owns that team that Justin Ashley drives for – cool guy, young guy – he was a fan of the sport. To be a fan of the sport and have a dream someday of doing something in this sport to own his own Top Fuel team is pretty badass. I saw him on Thursday. He was flipping on top of his trailer, put his awning up alongside us, my dad and I and our team. I didn’t even know he's a team owner. I had no idea until he came up and introduced himself. So that's all cool and both of us have an opportunity to win it at the U.S. Nationals and then win it again.”
Ashley’s Strutmasters.com Dragster crew was thrashing Sunday even as they were being summoned to the staging lanes for the final. A broken throttle cable had sent the team into a bit of a spin. The rain delay helped them sort out at least some of the problems, and they got the engine to fire up again. Despite the last-minute scramble, Ashley said he believed he had a strong car heading into the finals.
“We did. We felt really confident about our car,” Ashley, who hadn’t gone past Round 2 this year, said. “I think top to bottom, everyone from Davis Motorsports was doing an awesome job all day long. It was my job to just sit in the car and just drive. We felt really confident going to the finals, and there's no reason that's really [changing] between now and the U.S. Nationals.
“This was probably one of the most exciting days in drag racing I've ever had," the young racer from New York’s Long Island, said. “To be able to reach a final in Top Fuel has been a dream of mine. I've seen it in my head over and over and over again, but to actually apply it and be able to do that is super awesome. A bummer we're not going to have a chance to finish the deal, but I'm excited for us and I'm excited for T.J. T.J. Zizzo is a great guy. He’s got a great car and just looking forward to lining up against him in a few weeks.”
Same goes for Zizzo. In his first 80 races, 68 times he either missed the qualifying cut or lost in the first round as he learned the ropes at the sport’s most elite level. But he wouldn’t say he had a sure thing going, not even after defeating Terry Totten, Todd Paton, and 2018 U.S. Nationals winner Terry McMillen.
“You never have lightning in a bottle when you're going up against competition like this. That's a challenge and a half. Every round is a tough one,” Zizzo said. “But to be able to do what we did at the opportune moment to turn on three win lights was fantastic. It's a good feeling. It was our goal coming here.
“One of the guys on our race team also works in our body shop [the family-owned business at Lincolnshire, Ill.] and we talked about it this week, because we had to work diligently on a Ferrari Pista, which is a badass car to get done. Finished it up on Thursday so we could be here on Friday and his goal was, ‘T.J., can we at least make it to the final round? That's a goal of mine.’ Which we did. So all is good,” he said.
“Now, I'm kind of glad we're not running it [the final round] tomorrow, because I got a Bentley to finish tomorrow for a customer and I don't want to piss him off. And there's a lot of other things going on in my life at the body shop that are truly as important as this race car,” Zizzo said. “We run a very successful body shop. One of our team members said, ‘Man, I never know what I'm going to see in your body shop.’ So for me to be able to be at the body shop tomorrow conducting business is great. So we look forward to the U.S. Nationals.”
With Ashley and Zizzo in Top Fuel’s final round – and Jason Scruggs and Chad Green duking it out in the Pro Modified final – this race was the first in 23 years that featured first-time finalists going against one another. The last to square off in their career-first finals were Cristen Powell and the late Bruce Sarver in the May 1997 Top Fuel final at Englishtown, N.J. Powell, an 18-year-old high-school senior at the time, won.
Sunday’s first two rounds had long-range implications. The dominating Torrences beat up on each other in the opening round, with last week’s winner Billy taking out reigning class champion son Steve. They entered the event with Steve in second place, thanks to his Phoenix victory and a 6-1 round record, and Billy in third place, just nine points behind him.
But Leah Pruett, who lurked one point behind Billy Torrence in the standings at the start of the weekend, eliminated him in Sunday’s quarterfinals (before she bowed out against Ashley). For Torrence Racing, winners at 35 of the past 75 races, it marked their shortest day since both lost in the first round last September in a Countdown to the Championship event at Reading, Pa.
“You don’t race on paper,” Steve Torrence said. “No matter what, you’ve still got to go out and do the job. And we didn’t do the job today. It’s not what we wanted for [wife] Natalie’s birthday, but that’s racing. We’ll have to regroup and see what happens.”
In the quarterfinals, Ashley denied points leader Doug Kalitta the chance to advance to his fifth consecutive final round.
“That was just racing. A second-round loss, that’s one of those deals that you just hope doesn’t happen,” Kalitta said. “We had a pretty strong run in going A to B. We were right there. Overall, it was good having [new sponsor] Osborn on the car with us this weekend. I love running this place. We’ll just keep our heads down and move on to the next one.
"We will leave with the points lead, no matter what. But it would have been great to get two more round-wins today. You want to put as many rounds on the guys behind you as possible. The Torrences are back there, and there are other cars, too," he said.
Kalitta simply left looking forward to returning here. "We will be back in Indy in a couple weeks. There is a lot of history and we have won rounds. This weekend we were with Osborn and we'll be back with Mac Tools in a couple weeks. Rob and Troy have a great handle on this tune-up, and I have a lot of confidence,” Kalitta said. “We are going to just try and qualifying as best we can and win as many rounds as possible."
No. 1 qualifier Clay Millican had a rough Sunday from the start. He said, “A gremlin bit us in the booty” after losing in the first round to No. 16 Todd Paton.
Paton earned only his second career round-win, more than four years after he beat Brittany Force at Epping, N.H. He was driving Funny Car racer Terry Haddock’s dragster.
“Literally the car cut off and then when I hit the throttle, it didn't rev up. It didn't do anything correctly,” Millican said of the Parts Plus Dragster. “Obviously, the thing ran great in qualifying. Something electrically went weird with the car. When I finished doing the burnout, we have a load button that resets the timing and resets the clutch. The car actually cut off, like it went dead. The moment I touched the button, the car went dead. When I let off the button it started right back up, which is very scary. They're in there now trying to figure it out. But we have a bug somewhere. Not sure yet what it is, but we have a gremlin. It was not happy.”
But Millican said he’ll be back here Aug. 8-9 for the third Indianapolis race that was added Thursday to the ever-changing Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule.
“Absolutely ready for it. We’re very disappointed today. When you qualify No. 1, like, on paper you're supposed to win it. It doesn't always work that way,” Millican said. “And I had even said to a lot of people, ‘You can count on Terry Haddock’s car just going down the racetrack, and we just need to go down the racetrack – and we should be able to outrun him.’ But we didn't properly go down the racetrack. So he kicked our butt, and hats off to those guys. They work hard, and it's awesome to have them out here. Just a little frustrating not knowing that something was wrong going up. That's the thing, with as many electronics that our on these cars now, it's always something that's out there that can bite you and it got us, whatever it is.”
The early-August NHRA Indy Nationals is a replacement for the Dodge Mile-High Nationals that was set for that weekend at Denver. Both the Denver and Brainerd, Minn., events have been postponed because of state and local public-health restrictions. Susan Wade
RAIN-DELAYED, GUARANTEED FUNNY CAR TRIUMPH WILL VAULT DSR TOWARD MILESTONE - While the NHRA Top Fuel class had everything from A to Z before Justin Ashley and T.J. Zizzo reached the final round, the Funny Car finals looked like business as usual Sunday at Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis.
That is, until a rainstorm halted the race just before the final round Sunday. The victor – either Matt Hagan or Jack Beckman – will be decided during the Labor Day weekend, about six weeks from now, on this same dragstrip during the Denso U.S. Nationals.
This final round also guarantees that DSR will earn a victory for the seventh straight time since the October 2019 Dallas race. The last time the organization didn’t win in the Funny Car class was the fall event at Charlotte last Oct. 14.
For the third straight race, the class with have an all-Don Schumacher Racing final. Hagan, last weekend’s winner, will go against Beckman, the Winternationals winner, Phoenix runner-up, and points leader.
And that will push DSR to 349 victories, on the verge of becoming the first drag-racing team to hit the 350 plateau. When DSR does hit the 350-victory mark, it will rank among motorsports’ elite organizations. Team Penske Racing has 556, World of Outlaws legend Steve Kinser has recorded 690 feature victories, and Ferrari has 238 Formula 1 triumphs. Chip Ganassi Racing is zooming up on 230 victories on the strength of winning the first four IndyCar races of this year.
Hagan drove the Mopar Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Redeye to the final past Ron Capps, JR Todd, and Bob Tasca Sunday and Beckman and his Infinite Hero Dodge Charger advanced past Chad Green, Tim Wilkerson, and Tommy Johnson Jr. to continue the DSR streak.
For Hagan, it was yet another turn of events that has kept him from getting any sense of rhythm.
He had a semifinal finish at Pomona, Calif., to begin the season, then was unable to compete on race day at Phoenix because of a mechanical problem. Then coronavirus wreaked havoc on the world and stopped racing for more than four months. Hagan came back for the restart and won the first of four races at Indianapolis a week ago. However, he encountered some drama in qualifying this weekend – he had to make a last-ditch effort to make 16-car line-up. Then, when it appeared he was back in his groove, this postponement took away the momentum he was building.
“Well, obviously, that's not what we want to do. I mean, we felt like we had momentum coming off the last weekend and this weekend in the final. But that's racing. We can't control the weather,” Hagan said.
“The problem with it is that you get in this rhythm and groove and then you step away from it. But we can't control Mother Nature, and obviously the fans over here would have loved to see a final and somebody crowned, but we’ll get there,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll be happy when the U.S. Nationals rolls around and we win two races in one weekend. It’s just losing some of that momentum is always tough. When your car is on a rail sometimes, it's easy to fall off of that.
“At the end of the day, it's two team cars, and we want to win,” he said. “It comes down to he's leading the points right now and we're chasing the points. So we need to put a ‘W’ on the board to at least even the score up right now. They got a great car.”
Hagan recorded low elapsed time in each of the first three rounds Sunday.
Hagan said, “It’ll be interesting, because Don [Schumacher] was talking about how with the next weekend coming up that we race here with only two qualifying sessions it would be hard to kind of push and trying to make the field. It’s hard enough to make the field. We almost didn't make the field this weekend. Qualifying is getting tricky. It'll be tricky for everybody with only those two runs. But I'm good with it.”
Beckman, on the other hand, didn’t overthink the situation.
“Who cares? We're in the final,” he said. “Everybody else can complain about ‘boy wouldn't want to be in their situation.’ I'm glad I'm in our situation. When we come back we get to run for the trophy.
“Times are different right? It's limited crowds. It's a whole lot of restrictions. The trophy hasn't changed and I think it's up to the teams to keep that feeling, whether it's the final round of the U.S. Nationals or the final round of the second meet at Indy. Its going to be the same size trophy,” Beckman said. “So when we roll back around for that one, I think maybe this plays into our favor. We front-halved our car. We changed the clutch disc. It was speaking a different language than us but we’re finally getting a handle on it. We've gotten quicker every run. I think you give us a couple more runs, we're going to be right back to where we were when we left Pomona [in February and with a trophy].”
Hagan was more intense about his performance, saying, “I really have a lot of confidence in Dickie Venables. He’s really got this car dialed in and he's one of those guys where you just give him a few runs and he's dangerous. No different than after qualifying, he got it all figured out and we were aggressive this morning when it was cool. And it was just off to the races from there. So I think it'll be the same way with no matter where we go and what we're doing and it looks like we're going to end up at Indy quite a bit. I think we got a lot of good data to work off of, and I don't know that it can get a whole lot hotter than 140-some-degree racetrack. We got a little bit of everything to work off of here. It's going to be what's going to be.”
Beckman said, “In a lot of ways, these [impromptu Indianapolis] races will have a little asterisk next to them. What’s not going to be different is the trophy. It’s the exact same size as every other Wally we’ve earned. It’s going to mean just as much. We’re going to work just as hard for it. Whether we run tonight, tomorrow, or in three weeks it really doesn’t matter to me. We have a car and a team that can adjust. We struggled in qualifying and the team worked hard and figured it out. The car came around and we’re in another final round and someone is getting a trophy. I don’t care when they run it – we’re going to run our tails off.”
Beckman said all he knows is that “I love the sport, and when I came back after four and a half months off and I walked into the pits, it seemed like we just left Phoenix two weeks ago. It was very surreal. I've been away so, so long I'd never been out of a car that long in my entire career and it reminded me how much I really love this. So it's great to be back.”
Mello Yello Drag Racing Series will visit Indianapolis one more time before the Denso U.S. Nationals Labor Day Classic here. The NHRA announced last Thursday it had to shelve two more events, one at Denver, one at Brainerd, Minn. In place of the Denver race, Aug. 6-9, the sanctioning body added a third Indianapolis event to the calendar. Susan Wade
TWO FIRST-TIMERS MAKE PRO MOD FINAL IN RAIN-PLAGUED SECOND INDIANAPOLIS RACE - Saltillo, Miss.’ Jason Scruggs, master of the eighth-mile doorslammer ranks and two-time Pro Extreme champion in the defunct ADRL, came to the NHRA to race against the best Pro Modified drivers.
Turns out he’s one of them.
He reached the money round Sunday of the Lucas Oil Summernationals at Indianapolis and will face another first time finalist, Chad Green.
Green is no stranger to the NHRA’s E3 Spark Plugs Pro Mod Series presented by J&A Service or to this historic dragstrip.
Last September, the Midland, Texas, native left the U.S. Nationals by ambulance following a frightening, wall-smashing, flipping crash during qualifying. He underwent back surgery for his injuries at I.U. Methodist Hospital.
This Sunday, Green left intact but without a trophy, just like Scruggs.
Rain, which soaked the entire Central Indiana area just as the finalists were being towed to the staging lanes, forced postponement of the event. It will finish during the Denso U.S. Nationals this Labor Day weekend, in about six weeks.
Green came up empty-handed also in the Funny Car class, where he qualified 11th in Tim Wilkerson’s second Mustang but lost in the opening round to Jack Beckman.
Scruggs made his NHRA debut here at the U.S. Nationals in 2018, missing the overflow field of 30. The next year he started ninth in an equally competitive lineup and finished in the opening round.
He’s a cotton and soybean farmer who tends his 28,000 acres while finding time to build homes and help manage the family Farm, Lawn & Garden home-improvement store near Tupelo, Miss.
He told National Dragster, “It’s hard for me to leave, so when we go, we have to win.”
Green has other plans for Scruggs.
In his 2018 rookie season in the series, Green finished fifth in the standings on the strength of two runner-up finishes. He was one of just four racers in the ultra-competitive class to qualify at all 12 events on the schedule. Susan Wade
DSR APPROACHING MILESTONE – Matt Hagan’s victory here at Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis in last weekend’s E3 Spark Plugs Nationals pushed Don Schumacher Racing (DSR) within two of reaching the 350-victory plateau.
The Brownsburg, Ind.-headquartered megateam anticipated achieving the milestone in March at Gainesville, Fla., but the season was suspended before the pro racers ever could hit the track. DSR has the chance again this weekend.
Mark Pawuk or Leah Pruett could help DSR – already drag racing’s most successful team – earn its 350th or even its 351st triumph, if one of them wins in the Factory Stock Showdown class’ season debut. The team also is fielding four Top Fuel cars and four Funny Cars – one-fourth of each nitro-powered class. So it has the opportunity to put three drivers in the winners circle (that officially isn’t staging because of limited crowds).
Competing in Top Fuel are Antron Brown, Cory McClenathan, Leah Pruett, and Tony Schumacher. Points leader and Winternationals winner Jack Beckman, Phoenix victor Tommy Johnson Jr., Indianapolis winner Hagan, and Ron Capps are 1-2-3 and 6 (respectively) in the Funny Car standings.
A lot of circumstances would have to align perfectly for a multiple-victory day for DSR. But it has happened before. The organization has “tripled” twice so far, at Reading in 2004 (Tony Schumacher, Gary Scelzi, Angelle Sampey) and at the fall Las Vegas race in 2006 (Schumacher, Beckman, Richie Stevens).
Counting his own five victories in the early 1970s as a driver, Don Schumacher has assembled a team that has captured 161 Top Fuel wins, 162 in Funny Car, 18 in Pro Stock Motorcycle, and three each in Pro Stock and Factory Stock Showdown. Tony Schumacher is the in-house leader with 84 Wally trophies, and Capps follows with 50. Brown has 43 of his total of 50 with DSR. Hagan and Beckman have 34 and 31 victories, respectively.
When DSR does hit the 350-victory mark, it will be the first in drag-racing history to do so. By comparison, Team Penske Racing has 556, World of Outlaws legend Steve Kinser has recorded 690 feature victories, and Ferrari has 238 Formula 1 triumphs. Chip Ganassi Racing is zooming up on 230 victories on the strength of winning the first four IndyCar races of this year.
MORRISON DELIVERS PAPERWORK IN PERSON – Newest Top Fuel racer Joe Morrison wanted to make sure he was able to race here in the Lucas Oil Summernationals. So he drove about 10 hours from Reading, Pa., where he completed his licensing procedure last Sunday, to the NHRA office at Brownsburg, Ind., to hand in his entry-list paperwork in person before Monday’s deadline.
Morrison, who has competed in several sportsman classes, opened his professional career Saturday with a 4.72-second elapsed time at 203 mph in Gary Leverich’s Hi Tech CAM Dragster. That was good enough to make the provisional field at No. 15 – ahead of veteran Cory McClenathan, who held down the bump spot at 5.749 seconds after the opening qualifying session.
“I am beyond excited,” Morrison said of the whole experience.
His parents’ first date was at New Jersey’s Island Dragway. His father raced there, and his mom worked in the timing tower, even when she was expecting him. “So Iiterally I can honestly say I was going to the races before I was born. I’ve wanted to race fuel cars for as long as I can remember,” he said.
For awhile, Morrison chased a music career – and one of his former band members, guitarist Zak Rizvi, still performs with Kansas (of “Dust In The Wind” fame). “My grand plan – and this is going to show you how low my intelligence level is – was, ‘I’m going to be a rock star and make a lot of money so I can afford to go fuel racing.’ The rock star thing didn’t work out. Let’s face it – that’s a tough deal to do as a career.”
But Morrison, of Flemington, N.J., finally decided to start his racing, and he attended the driving school of Doug Foley – one of his competitors this weekend.
Foley was 11th after the first qualifying runs, so they likely weren’t planning to race each other. But Foley said Morrison’s entry gave the weekend an intriguing twist: “That was that was a big part of my career, giving the people the opportunity to get a chance to drive cars and have fun and do all of this. So yeah, we appreciate all that.”
He said it was great to see one of his students living his own dream. “It's great. To see that people have the same ambition as I do and the school was what allowed me to get here. It's great to see other people come out here and just enjoy the sport as much as we do,” Foley said.
Morrison finished his initial licensing through Foley’s school at Atco Dragway Sept. 11, 2001. “So what the heck?” Morrison figured. “We might as well have a global pandemic when I’m trying to get my Top Fuel license, right?”
The team’s plan is to enter the races at Atlanta, Reading, Gainesville, and Bristol, if they happen. “I’d like to go to Charlotte, too, but three races in a row with a volunteer crew, that’s a little rough. We need to take care of our people,” Morrison said. “On top of that, we have limited resources. We might not have enough parts to do all of that.”
For Morrison and the Leverich team, the two-day format, with only two qualifying chances, is helpful. It means teams are being more conservative with their tune-ups, trying simply to get in the show.
He said, “My last licensing pass would have qualified us 12th [at last weekend’s E3 Spark Plugs Nationals here]. Normally, with a 4.03, you’d be lucky to be 19th.”
But such are the breaks of a drag-racing rock star.
TWO-CLASS STAR GREEN EAGER FOR GREEN LIGHT – Midland, Texas, drag racer Chad Green is making his first appearance of the year – at the racetrack where a high-speed Pro Modified qualifying accident that resulted in upper-back surgery ended his 2019 season last September.
Green is returning in style this weekend, racing in two powerful classes, Funny Car and Pro Mod. And he made the top half of both fields in his first qualifying attempts Saturday. He took the provisional No. 4 spot in the 16-car Pro Mod order with a 5.851-second, 248.84-mph run in his Bond-Coat Corvette, and he was eighth in Funny Car in low-qualifier Tim Wilkerson’s Mustang with a 4.233, 286.50.
He said he made about 50 passes in the Pro Mod car during the offseason but has been away from the Funny Car for about a year and a half. He said he had been “nervous” about again climbing into, oddly enough, not the Pro Mod but rather the Funny Car. The offer was a bit unexpected, he indicated, but welcome. Of the two entries this weekend, Green said he was more excited about racing the Funny Car. He took a couple of shakedown runs Friday in the Pro Mod and another in the Funny Car.
He told Brian Lohnes in an NHRA.tv interview that the two cars are wildly different: “There’s not a comparison. They’re two totally different animals. You drive ’em totally different. I’ve never had a problem switching back and forth between the two. But they are very different and both very volatile.”
His car owners this weekend also are totally different individuals. Wilkerson, who is supplying the Funny Car, is the one who provided the car Green used to earn his license in the class a couple of years ago. His other “boss” this weekend is Pat Musi, who had delegated consulting duties this weekend largely to Dean [Marinis].
ZIZZO FEELING CONFIDENT – The way Top Fuel racer T.J. Zizzo figures it, this is his moment to take his Rust-Oleum Rocket dragster to the first final round of his NHRA career.
At last weekend’s season restart, he qualified No. 5 – after not having raced since last September at St. Louis. “For us to take 10 months off and go out there and be No. 5 qualifier was pretty impressive,” he said. “We'll continue to build on all that.”
And, Zizzo said, "Truthfully, I'll be disappointed this weekend if we don't go to the final round. Ultimately, we have the most competitive combination of driver and car we've had in our whole Top Fuel career. There's no doubt in my mind about that. I know we will get better this weekend, and I also know that our competitors will get better this weekend.”
That’s a bold statement for Zizzo to make, but he has faith in his long-time volunteer crew – and a positive vibe from six days ago, when he defeated Cory McClenathan but then lost to event winner Billy Torrence.
“I'm not going to say we're going to win the event,” Zizzo said, referring to Sunday’s runoffs, “but that would be ideal. Of course, that's always the goal. It would be nice to go to the finals. It would be nice to qualify a little better so we're not racing the best cars until the final round. But that's hard to do, because there are so many good cars out there.”
The wave of racing at Indianapolis, not far from his Lincolnshire, Ill., home, has him rejuvenated. “I see there's more cars on the entry list. That’s great. It’s nice to be able to race back-to-back weekends. It's nice to leave our semi at Indy. It's all good,” he said. And he said he’s thrilled his sponsor has stayed with him during this tough time: “It's nice that a company like Rust-Oleum stands behind all of this. That's super cool. They're a great company that works hard. All their employees work hard. We work hard alongside them every day in our shop.”
CORY MAC – After he failed to qualify the Don Schumacher Racing-owned Nordic Boats Dragster Saturday for the Summernationals, Cory McClenathan isn’t sure if and when he’ll be able to step back into Leah Pruett’s back-up car during 2020. But he’s optimistic.
“We're working on plans to try to figure that out where I can race this car as much as possible,” McClenathan said. “It's a little bit easier because we're right in Don’s backyard. So you don't have to worry about hotels and travel and all that other stuff other than just getting me here from California. So we're working hard on other sponsors and see if they want to jump on for some of these races, because we can do it at a better cost most of the time, especially with only two qualifiers on Saturday, race on Sunday. I'm all about that.”
Last weekend’s results were sub-par for the 34-time winner. “We struggled in qualifying a little bit. But with both cars, Leah’s and my car, we knew exactly what to do for first round, thinking that was going to be the best condition for the weekend. We were going to try to go out there running mid to low 70s” McClenathan recalled. “As soon as I got out there, it went right into neutral. These things are built with a neutral safety switch in them. If you get out there on the track and the clutch is locked up, you need to be able to have it where you can put it into neutral. Well, normally that's a switch in the cockpit. But on our car, it just happens after you get down through the traps. On the reverser, when we got out there, it went into neutral. We came back and took a look at it, and unfortunately the new ballistic blanket that goes around the reverser got caught in between the pin and the reverser itself. So it's just one of those things. Had we checked reverse during the warm-up, it wouldn't have been an issue. So today we check reverse, everything's ready to go, and we [were] ready to go.”
As for Saturday’s stumble, McClenathan said, “It was very hot out today, and we raced in conditions we rarely see. We’ve had two weeks to get this right, and we failed. I’ll get with my partners to see if we can move forward. My hats off to everyone at DSR. It’s a fantastic group. I know the car is badass. I do. The canopy is great to drive. We just couldn’t get down the track, and I say ‘we’ because it takes a team to do this. It’s disheartening. I need to thank everyone who has supported us the past two weeks: Nordic Boats, Revchem Composites, Fatheadz, and Mopar and Bill Estes for giving me that awesome Jeep to drive all week. I hope we can do this again soon.”
Even though his results weren’t what he had hoped for, he said it felt really satisfying to be back out on the track again. “I mean, all my friends, family, everybody that is really close to me has always been out here. So I struggle being away from the racetrack. I tried the Pro-Lite deal and ran the off-road series for a while. I really liked it, but that's really a young man's game in the Pro-Lite series. So having a chance to come back, be in a canopy car, bring Revchem Composites and Nordic Boats with me, I think we're all having fun. We just signed Fatheads Eyewear.”
BUTNER SUBBING FOR SMITH – Bo Butner, the 2017 Pro Stock champion and 2006 Comp Eliminator titlist – earned his Pro Modified license in Harry Hruska's turbocharged car two years ago at Phoenix. However, he never entered a race in that class – until this weekend. He’s driving multi-time champion Rickie Smith’s Strutmasters.com new Chevy for this one race because Smith recently underwent back surgery.
Besides Pro Stock and Comp, Butner has competed in Top Sportsman, Factory Stock Showdown, Super Gas, Stock, Super Stock, and Super Street – like his retiring Pro Stock rival, Jeg Coughlin. But not only is this Butner’s first experience in competition in a Pro Mod, but it also is the first time he has driven with a nitrous-aided engine. “So this should be interesting," he said.
Smith isn’t far away. “The surgery came out great,” Butner said, “and [he's] crew-chiefing me and showing me the way.”
Butner debuted in Super Gas last year at Sonoma, Calif., and won. So with his versatility and skill, Butner expects to give his category challengers a run for their money.
He slid Rickie Smith’s entry into the field at No. 10 with a 5.904-second pass. His first-round opponent will be Jason Scruggs.
"This Pro Mod car is definitely a different animal,” he said, “but it's a brand-new car with maybe 16 runs on it, and I feel comfortable with Rickie and the team. It's a lot like KB Racing, the guys I run with in Pro Stock. They have the same mentality: you race to win. That means Rickie . . . put me in a good car."
The Pro Stock class is idle this weekend. Butner normally races in the SAMTech.com Factory Stock Showdown class, which is opening its season here this weekend. But he has opted out of that class this weekend.
"We still have some R&D work to do with our Factory Stock Showdown car, but we're looking forward to getting back in it, too, when the time is right," Butner said. "For now, we're excited about this deal with Rickie and Strutmasters. It's just one race, but it's going to be a lot of fun."
Butner found himself out of the lineup after the opening qualifying session but managed to beat the 5.952-second bump-spot elapsed time with a 5.904 at 247.16 mph. That bumped out Brandon Pesz, who has had his hands full this weekend, tuning the cars of Jeff and Jason Jones, as well as his own.
IT’S DOCUMENTED – When Paul Lee talks about a widow-maker, he actually isn’t speaking of his Global Electronic Technology/ McLeod Racing / FTI Performance Dodge Charger that cranks out 11,000 horsepower, burns nitromethane, and covers 1,000 feet in about four seconds at more than 300 mph. He’s talking about a heart attack – the deadliest kind, the one he survived in 2016.
The WebMD Corporation filmed Lee last October at Texas Motorplex during the AAA Texas FallNationals, near Dallas, documenting his medical ordeal and his return to elite-level drag racing. Finally the project is complete. “The Green Light: A Race Car Driver’s Journey Back From Heart Attack” showcases the trials of Lee’s rehabilitation back to a healthy lifestyle both on and off the track, and it’s available now at https://youtu.be/vnMDyw5_Rbg.
WebMD is a leading source for trustworthy health and medical news and information.
Lee said, “Courtney Dixon and the entire WebMD crew did a great representation of my journey back to driving a Nitro Funny Car in NHRA. I hope when the ‘over-50’ viewers watch this, that they go to their doctor and get a stress test check-up for any existing or hereditary heart disease problems. Heart attacks can be prevented with the proper care.”
EH - Pat Dakin was on the entry list for the previous weekend’s race but didn’t show up. Where was the Dayton, Ohio, veteran Top Fuel owner-driver? “Home. We just didn’t feel like coming. That’s all,” he said.
MILADINOVICH HAS THE SPIRIT – Alex Miladinovich hasn’t captured any No. 1 qualifying awards or any “Wally” statues. But the Funny Car newcomer, who called himself “a big kid in a candy store, basically” has captured the spirit of drag racing.
He towed his Hot4Teacher Toyota Camry about 2,000 miles from Orange, Calif., in the Los Angeles metroplex, to Indianapolis and said racing at this famous dragstrip is “a dream come true. Coming out here, this is sacred ground. My buddy [Gary] Densham won here in 2003, and he won the Big Bud Shootout. He doubled down. Just the history here with Garlits and Prudhomme and McEwen . . . This is sacred ground and it's an honor to be here.”
He even has seen Hoosier Hospitality at its best. “Everyone in the state of Indiana has been so great to us,” Miladinovich said.
The team premiered at the Winternationals in February at Miladinovich’s home track at Pomona, Calif. Showing up here for the season-restarting doubleheader, he said, represents “the first road trip - and our team needs to really go out and get our true grit. Everyone's doing good. We're holding up, and the time change hasn't killed anybody yet. But this is fun. It's something I've always wanted to do, and now I get to do it, except my kids aren't here because they're doing summer activities. So we're having a good time.”
He said the trip east was uneventful. “The only cool thing is we played a cornhole tournament against Justin Ashley's team, and the Funny Cars won. So that was cool. Yeah, that was good. Everything else was fine with the traveling,” he said. “I got more family out here that came from Georgia and real proud to be here – and road trips are always fun.”
Miladinovich lost a close Round 1 race to JR Todd a weeks ago. He will line up Sunday morning against top qualifier Bob Tasca III.
FATHER-SON DUO HITS PRO MOD RANKS – The Pro Modified class has a new father-son combo, and Jeff Jones says the idea of racing together with son Justin is solving a logistical problem.
“We basically started in Alcohol Funny Car. I loved it,” Jeff Jones said. “Justin wanted to start driving, and we bought him a Pro Mod I guess a year after I had been running the Funny Car. Shortly after that, we decided, ‘Hey, let's run together,’ because we were having this other problem. We couldn’t run eighth-mile in Pro Mod like he wanted to and then me run NHRA Alcohol Funny Car and it was just a son of a gun to try to get everywhere. So long story short, I sold the Funny Car, built another Pro Mod.
“We've updated them. As a matter of fact, I bought new ones. So every car out there is new. They're all built the same. Justin's coming off a second-place finish at Midwest Pro Mod. In the points, he was second, and I was fourth. It's kind of funny. Everybody always said, ‘Hey, why don't you run those second-place races?’ I think I missed being third by less than 20 points. So if I would have run just one, I probably would have done it, but I'm just not that guy. If we can't win, let's put that sumbitch up and let's go drink some cold beer. So we were fine with that. We moved over to here. This is our motor program. We spent a ton of time on it. Nobody has what we have in these motors, and we're pretty excited about that.”
He said, “I think I enjoy racing him more than anything. And I'll be honest with you, we've run together and he's won and I've won. I would never give him a race, but I think I like it more when he wins, just because you know at the end he's so excited he beat his old man and all that kind of stuff. I don't ever give it to him easy. I think we're 50/50 but I think I enjoy watching him win more than I like winning.”
But Saturday, Dad qualified higher on the Pro Mod ladder. Jeff was sixth (at 5.854 seconds), and he’s set for a go against Mike Janis Sunday in the first round of eliminations. Justin Jones squeaked into the field with a 5.941 and has to try to topple No. 1 qualifier Khalid Al Balooshi.
Justin Jones said racing alongside his father is “like nothing else. I've said it before and I've had a bunch of people ask me . . . It's one of those things that you just can't ever forget, and nothing beats being out here with my dad. We're like best friends, and it's a true bonding experience and getting to travel the country together and all that. It's just it's like nothing else.”
The competition level, the younger Jones said, “is tight. We’ve been running Pro Mods for a couple years and a couple different series, and nothing's near as tight as NHRA. It's the premier series and association. We've had a few struggles with some of the cars, but I think will be right there within the pack.”
Jeff Jones said the NHRA Pro Mod series is “where we wanted to be. The only thing that I was really reluctant in doing the Pro Mods was before with all the different series was the eighth-miles, because I love running the court. It's like, you've worked your ass off to get past the eighth-mile and you're missing the icing – you're missing the speed. This is the part you just kind of sit back and ride a little bit, and so I'm all about quarter-mile. This is definitely the place we wanted to be.”
PEDREGON APPEARS TO HAVE FOUND GLITCH – His race shop is about one mile from Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis, so Cruz Pedregon broke down his pit area and took everything back there this week to find out why his Snap-on Dodge encountered problems halfway down the 1,000-foot course Sunday against Tim Wilkerson in Round 1 of eliminations.
Pedregon was the No. 7 qualifier and had lane choice over No. 10 Wilkerson. But he made some changes in his set-up to try to capitalize on the cooler temperatures that came with the unusual 9 a.m. start Sunday. And his car balked at those adjustments, he said.
“That's what we've been working on this week, and you'll see improvement when we hit the track this Saturday," the two-time Funny Car champion promised midweek.
Pedregon, whose best Saturday was a 4.094-second elapsed time, qualified seventh and will square off against Terry Haddock, the No. 10 starter who made a 4.187-second run.
Pedregon posted back-to-back 4.09-second elapsed times during qualifying last weekend. His best was only seven-thousandths of a second behind the time-trials performance of eventual winner Matt Hagan.
"It is so great to be back out on the track, and we are grateful to all the fans who came out to support us," he said. “Everyone is following the social distancing and protective rules. And, for those who can't make it out to the track, we're excited for them for them to be able to enjoy NHRA racing again on FOX Sports and online."
HAGAN LOOKING, FEELING BETTER - Funny Car racer Matt Hagan is no worse for the wear from last weekend’s season-restarting E3 Spark Plugs Nationals here. Winning will do that for a racer.
He experienced an engine backfire in his Mopar Dodge Charger Hellcat near the finish line in his final-round match against Don Schumacher Racing colleague Tommy Johnson Jr. And Hagan was noticeably limping as he got out of his car and made his way around the front to help the Safety Safari crew tend to his smoldering Funny Car.
“That explosion in the final knocked me around a little, and I ended up hitting my knee on something. I’m a little sore, but I’ve been kicked by cattle harder than that. So this is no big deal,” Hagan, who has raised herds of Black Angus on his Southwest Virginia farm.
A two-time top-qualifier this year and a two-time Indianapolis champion (including his 2016 U.S. Nationals victory), Hagan made his Funny Car debut at this fabled racetrack at the 2008 U.S. Nationals. Thirty-four wins later, Hagan is focused on scoring back-to-back victories here this weekend.
“With just two qualifying shots, it’s far more nerve-wracking when you get up there to the water box. I’m sure plenty of drivers felt that stress level last weekend like we did today,” he said after qualifying. “[Tuner] Dickie Venables did what we needed to do to get in the show and we get to race tomorrow. A hot, greasy racetrack is always tricky to navigate.”
And, of course, Hagan is thinking about how shiny his car looks with its new scheme.
"My car this weekend is beautiful, and those colors really pop. I think it's going to look great at 330 mph, so don't blink,” Hagan said. “Dodge always comes out with some awesome schemes, the coolest and fastest cars. I love that they really give me an opportunity to engage with the fans and the stuff they sell on the showroom floor. I'm excited for fans to see this Mopar Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Redeye, because I love it. It's an amazing paint scheme. My Hellcat Redeye Funny Car might be faster, but when you have a production car that you can grab off the showroom floor and take it out there, that's pretty awesome. It's pure power. It's probably the closest you can get to what we're drag racing, having that raw power in the palms of your hands and underneath you. I can’t wait to get right back in the winner’s circle again this weekend, and I’d love nothing more than to do it with this sleek-looking Redeye.”
ATONEMENT – BUT ANOTHER TEAMMATE – Ron Capps is looking this weekend for a little redemption – or at least a return to his traditional form in the NAPA Dodge Charger. “Our team’s performance wasn’t there like we’re used to. We didn’t qualify well, and that put us in a bad position to race the No. 1 qualifier first round, and even though we were second-quickest of the round, it doesn’t matter when you’re facing a tough teammate like Tommy Johnson Jr. We’re going to focus on qualifying better this weekend and getting back to where the NAPA team is used to, and that’s finishing the weekend with a Wally.”
He did carve out a better start for himself. He’s fourth in the field and will take on the lower-qualified Matt Hagan.
“It’s a tale of two weekends,” Capps said. “We were so disappointed in ourselves for not qualifying better last weekend and putting ourselves in the position of having to run the No. 1 qualifier who was our teammate Tommy Johnson. Today, we finished the first session as the No. 2 qualifier. We tried to push it in Q2, we wanted to go for the pole, we thought we could run a mid-3.90 and that was the time to try it. Unfortunately, we didn’t think the position we were in was going to lands us with a round-one matchup with our teammate Matt Hagan. That’s a tough car right now. They’re coming off a win and running great. We start earlier in the morning, so the first round will give us the best conditions we’ll see all day. It’s going to be triple digits with the heat index, and usually, the NAPA team is really good in those conditions. First-round is going to be really tough, like a final round, but I’m confident in my team and we’ll go up there and do our best.”
BROWN IMPROVING – Antron Brown, a three-time U.S. Nationals winner here, had been hoping for a better showing this week after last weekend’s restart to the season “started off a little rocky” (with a No. 14 starting position) but saw him rebound with a semifinal finish. “After second round, we definitely had a car that could bring that Wally home,” he said.
It didn’t happen, but Brown anticipated a hot, “nasty” day Saturday and said, “We’ve got two runs to get in the show, and we're going to make the best of them.” He did, navigating the conditions to grab the No. 4 berth in the 16-car field in his Matco/Global Electronic Technology/Toyota Dragster. He’ll have lane choice against No. 13 Pat Dakin.
“Our main focus is to qualify in the top of the field and that’ll set us up to go after it on race day. That’s the game plan.” Mission accomplished.
“After qualifying, I’d say that our dragster did good this weekend,” Brown said. “I’m really proud of my guys and also the Global car with Tony [Schumacher]. We qualified four and five and that’s not bad, given how hot it was. We wished the conditions were a little bit better for the second run because we were leaning on it to be better and improve our qualifying position. We pushed a little too much, but we’re ready for race day tomorrow.
“It’s a tough first-round matchup with Pat Dakin and it’s going to be interesting. We’re in a good position. We have lane choice, and that’s what steps up your race day, qualifying well. I’m just very pleased where this Matco Tools/Global Electronic Technology/Toyota/Hangsterfer’s team is headed,” he said.
Last summer at Norwalk, Ohio, Dakin made it to the final round in hot conditions. But he said the scenarios aren’t the same, exactly, and that he didn’t expect crew chief Scott Graham to try to duplicate last year’s set-up.
“These aren't exact conditions, because this is a lot more heat than was up there, but they're close,” Dakin said. “But we're trying to do a tune-up. We tried yesterday to do this with the Norwalk tune-up, and it didn't work. So we'll go back to plan A.”
And what is Plan A? Dakin isn’t telling: “You got to ask Scott Graham that one.”
‘PICANTE PRUETT’ IS ‘SPICY-HOT’? – Leah Pruett had a curious way of describing her Mopar Dodge SRT Hellcat Redeye Dragster.
"I'd like to say that I'm surprised how good this Redeye paint scheme looks, but I've come to expect nothing but the remarkable from Dodge when it comes to showcasing their cars. They stand out on the racetrack and they stand out with their performance. It makes me feel like when you've got a really nice dress and your dancing shoes on, then you go and have a good night out on the town,” she said.
“This Redeye Dragster is going to have a good weekend. I can just tell. There is an aura about it,” she said – correctly. Pruett is the No. 2 qualifier, and she’ll go against No. 15 Lex Joon, who most likely won’t be wearing his sleekest dress and dancing shoes for their first-round date.
Pruett said, “The Redeye stands for ultimate power, and it’s a way for us to be able to relate to those Redeye owners. It's a new version for us to highlight. We had the 1320 and the Demon and I personally have driven a couple of Redeyes, and I wish I had one of my own.” I feel that we are going to not only look good but do well. I'm just very impressed with how forward-thinking Dodge has been working with DSR on the paint scheme. They've actually simplified that paint scheme into something that really pops with the chrome detail, and that flat black is simple and refined. While I love my blue Mopar for how sleek and cool, like ‘with a lot of o's’ cool it is, this Redeye is spicy hot.”
She’ll be seeking her ninth victory, Joon his first.
“What I love about racing are the constant challenges that are thrown at you,” Pruett said. “Todd and Neal [crew chiefs Okuhara and Strausbaugh] have been putting in the extra efforts on Cory’s dragster, and I had to qualify in Factory Stock (Showdown) with the Dodge Drag Pak for our first race this weekend in that class. Everything about this DSR operation is elevated this weekend with us running 10 cars. It’s great to see more fans here today, and this has to be one of the most humid races we’ve ever run. It feels like Florida more than Indy. We’re looking forward to race day, another early start in the morning, and we’re planning on building on last weekend and going more rounds.”
SCHUMACHER NOT SURE HOW LONG FUN WILL LAST – Tony Schumacher has fielded the question at least a dozen times: Will you be back here in August for a third and possibly fourth time here at Indianapolis this year?
“I do not know. Me and Antron are talking about it. I sure would love to. I just don't have that answer,’ he said. “Love to have Global Electronic Technology behind us. And if they choose not to, we're going to keep working on finding the money to go and race.”
But so far, Schumacher said, he’s having a blast.
Last week’s ice-breaker, he said, “was fantastic. Believe it or not, for a veteran like myself as many years as I've been out there, you're still nervous. You get in the car and you think, ‘This thing is going to feel awful fast.’ The facts are the facts. They’re the fastest machines in the entire world. And after warming it up the first time last week I thought, ‘Man, this thing makes a lot of noise.’ But once it starts you're on the starting line and it's like, ‘Man, I've made thousands of these.’ There was no question, no doubt, that I have an absolute love for this sport.”
He said the team “made a lot of changes to our car to replicate Antron’s car. We were using some parts off my car, some off his car last weekend and these guys saw some great promise in our teamwork the way me and Antron drive together and they said let's just move all our stuff. So every piece on these cars are replicas and if nothing else whether we win, lose, draw, we're going to learn from it more that way as a team player. These guys are getting twice the runs by doing it that way.”
After qualifying finished, Schumacher said, “It was just a great day. We made two really outstanding runs down the track. We ended up in the fifth spot. And as hot as it is out, and the few runs we have with this car, Brian and Mark [tuners Corradi and Oswald] did a great job. Working with Antron, and it’s been a fun, fun weekend. It will be different tomorrow with the early start. Conditions will be cooler and different, but all in all, we have a really good race-day car.”
He’ll race familiar foe Terry McMillen, for who this weekend has been a lot about family. Friday night McMillen got to participate at this same event with Jr. Dragster driver son Cameron. The youngster didn’t qualify, but that didn’t matter all that much in the scheme of life.
His proud mother, Cori McMillen, said, Cameron did a great job, but he did not qualify to race. It took a .038 light or better when he made his last pass. I’m not sure what the bump time ended up being. The good news is, we learned a lot. His foot slipped off the pedal when he hit the gas during his third qualifying session. That’s when we realized he has his foot off the pedal when hitting the gas, rather than having it up against the pedal. So on Q4 with his foot on the pedal when he hit the gas, he red-lit.
“It was so cool to watch him stage his car and make passes. I can’t wait to get him more seat time so we can get the bugs worked out,” he said. “We are also blessed to have so many great people who came out to support him tonight. Sounds cheesy but having our team there along with all the text I was getting really made me feel like we won the race! Seriously, we are so blessed!”
Terry McMillen said, “Talk about an awesome experience racing with Cameron for his first official race. His age group (6-12-year-olds) had a .038 reaction time bump spot. We learned so much and had a lot of fun, even though he didn’t qualify. A little more seat time for Cam, and some work on the tune-up from me, and we will get it dialed in. This is just the beginning, and I’m a very proud dad.”
McMillen’s Amalie Oil Dragster crew chief Rob Wendland also had a family moment Saturday. His daughter, Mykala, earned her high-school diploma. Dad couldn’t be there, but through the Internet, he and wife Ashley were able to see video of Mykala walk across the stage at her ceremony.
While the Wendland were sentimental, public-address announcer Alan Rinehart related the touching story and added a word of advice for Mykala regarding her father: “He feels guilty right now, and you probably can hit him up for whatever you want.”
GRAY CARRIES ON FAMILY TRADITION BY HIMSELF – Being the lone member of the famous drag-racing Gray family who’s left in the NHRA at the moment, at least, doesn’t bother Jonathan Gray. Dad Johnny isn’t a presence at the dragstrip. Nor is brother Shane, or Shane’s son, Tanner, the Pro Stock champion who left for NASCAR notoriety. Jonathan Gray’s aunt, the late Terry Chandler, funded the “giving cars” of Funny Car drivers Jack Beckman and Tommy Johnson Jr., and Chandler’s widower Doug Chandler continues that legacy. But the Pro Modified racer is the only Gray on the track today.
“I’ve kind of always been the only one that wanted to do the Pro Mod deal. It would be nice to have everybody out here. But my two nephews are doing the circle-track thing, and they're having a lot of success in that. I love the Pro Mod deal. I've just kind of found a home here, and I wouldn't drive for anybody else,” Gray said.
“Even with the nitrous cars being at a disadvantage, so to speak, with the ProCharger thing coming out here, I'd still rather drive a nitrous car, and I'm only going to drive for one guy. But as far as me being out here by myself, it is what it is. I like it. I enjoy it. I love driving these cars. They're a handful, don't misunderstand me. But they’re a lot of fun.”
He said this is the “first time I've been back in the car since we did that deal at Orlando back in March. When I got to Orlando in March, that was the first time I'd ever drove one with an automatic, because the last time I raced, they were still running clutches. So that was a whole new freaking learning deal there.
“To be honest with you I was not a fan of it, at all. But I've made enough runs now where I'm getting fairly comfortable with it. Thing about this deal is I don't have to worry about the car ever. I just have to worry about me. The monkey behind the wheel is the one you got to worry about in this deal. Other than that, it’s all good,” Gray said.
Scott Smith and Melissa Noakes contributed to this report.