2021 NHRA FINALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK

 

 

       

 

NHRA AUTO CLUB FINALS – Pomona, Calif. 

 

SUNDAY

‘NEW SHERIFF’ STEVE TORRENCE GIVES TOP FUEL CLASS WHAT-FOUR - Steve Torrence has a fourth consecutive Top Fuel championship and 51st victory after breaking away from Brittany Force’s challenge in the first round of Sunday’s NHRA Auto Club Finals at Pomona, Calif., escaping scary encounters with Doug Kalitta and Cameron Ferré, then defeating Antron Brown in the final round. 

And now – partly tongue-in-cheek – he’s relishing a new role in the class. 

Tony Schumacher is returning to full-time action in 2022. And although the two have recognized they aren’t the only ones in the sport’s headliner class, they’re eager to go head-to-head. It’s only natural, for the two have had dynastic performances and streaks in the NHRA’s Top Fuel class. 

When Torrence early Sunday became the seventh driver in the sport’s 70-year history to record four consecutive championships and later in the afternoon completed his 11th victory this season, he invited more comparisons. For instance, Torrence is the first in 13 years, since Schumacher in 2008, to win at least half the races on the Camping World Drag Racing Series tour. During Schumacher’s run of six straight titles, he won 77.6 percent of his individual races (312-90). Torrence has won 81.7 percent of the time in the past five years (263-59). Torrence joins Schumacher, the class all-time leader with 85 trophies and eight championships, on the title-streak list along with Don Prudhomme, Kenny Bernstein, Lee Shepherd, Bob Glidden, and John Force. 

Schumacher’s comeback doesn’t mean that Torrence is gunning strictly for him.  It just means he’s a tough customer – Torrence’s favorite kind of opponent  - and someone else he’d like to prove himself against Tony Stewart Racing new team with Leah Pruett, new independent team owner Brown, 2021 rookie sensation Josh Hart, young gun Justin Ashley, and . . . well, everybody else in the line-up. 

But Torrence, with a sly grin, delivered a message Sunday on the 1,000-foot Auto Club Raceway course for the whole class and one after the race to Schumacher.    

“Everybody that knows Tony Schumacher – and Tony’s a good friend of mine – knows he has a really big ego, and he doesn’t like it when you kind of trash-talk him. He said something about it’s not a comeback because he’s been here before. But I’m going to tell him, ‘You left, and I’m the sheriff now.’” 

But Torrence was just having a little well-deserved fun. 

He’s fully aware that victories and championships don’t come easy at all in what he calls a ‘What have you done for me lately?’ sport. But he figured that he and his Capco Contractors team likely have inspired independent racers with their accomplishments. 

“I don't know if that's the reason that those guys are coming in. I think maybe they've taken what we've been able to do as a single-car team, here in the last year more of a two-car team, but just as an independent. You don't have to be part of a three-, four-, multi-car team to be successful. You don't have to build parts in- house to be successful. You can buy stuff off the shelf. You can go put it together right and work on it. I mean, a Top Fuel car, there's some stuff that we do, but most of that stuff is only going to live just a short, very short period of time. So it's not like you're going to spend a lot of time and effort on it like the Pro Stock guys or the bike guys do,” Torrence said. 

“I don't want to take credit for it,” he said. “But I think that that's probably been the model that some of these guys are following . . . just ‘Hey, man, those guys are going and buying parts. They got good guys, and they go race one car full-time and one car part-time, and they're successful.’ 

“So there's definitely guys that are coming for us. I mean, but it’s competition. They're like, the longer you stay at the top, the harder it is to stay there. And there's a lot of good drivers and a lot of good teams that are forming and are out here that are going to be out here full-time: Josh Hart, Justin Ashley, Antron, all these guys,” Torrence said. 

Now that seven-month-old daughter Haven Charli is his winners-circle pictures, his perspective has changed a bit, he said: “All this is important, but being a dad is more important than anything else. 

“It doesn’t change you so much as what you want to do, your drive. It just changes the importance of it,” he said. “Everybody has seen me go out here and make a fool out of myself multiple times, and it’s something I don’t want her to see. I don’t want to be that guy. And I’ve done my best to change that,” he said. “This is a high-intensity, emotion-driven sport. You let the emotions get the better of you and people will let you remember it always. I’ve done all I can to overcome it, and that’s all I can do. 

“But I got her now,” Torrence said. “I want her to say, ‘That was my dad who didn’t do that dumb stuff.’ I want to make her proud, make my wife and the rest of my family proud.” 

He expressed his own pride in his “bad-to-the-bone Capco Boys,” saying they “have taken me to the front year after year. They stood tall when they needed to. I don’t know how we got here, but it’s nothing short of the grace of the Good Lord and my mom and dad who supported my dream all my life.” At just 38 years old, he has survived cancer as a teenager and a heart attack a few years ago that was attributed to his cancer treatment. 

Torrence gave kudos to Brittany Force, his closest challenger. Her only hope Sunday was that Torrence would lose in the opening round and she would win the race. 

Neither happened, and she said after losing in the opening round to Billy Torrence, Steve’s dad, “Overall, it’s been a great season. A lot of teams wish they could be in our position. I will say congratulations to the Capco team and Steve Torrence. They did an amazing job. We’ll be back here shortly, and I can’t wait to chase him down and start all over again.” 

He said winning this race after already clinching the championship was super-meaningful to him. 

“It was big. Last year, we won the championship. We got beat in the final. Same scenario. I'm racing Antron at Vegas, and I go up there and I do something stupid. I'm late on the tree and lose on a holeshot. I did not want to do that today. And it goes back to what my guys told me a few races ago, ‘Go do you. We're proud of what you do and don't try to do anything else.’ And so I went up there and did my job,” he said. “And the outcome fell our way. The car ran good. I've been OK on the Tree all day, been very consistent. 

“You start looking at how many wins you got. Well, that's one win away from where Antron’s at right now with 52. And so you can't help but think of that. You want to kind of get higher up on the ladder. You're only as good as your last race, and that race is over with. So now it's time to go to work again. It's time to get ready for next year, because we have a target on our back and every year it gets bigger,” Torrence said. 

“There's a lot of people taking shots at us, and a lot of people making them stick. And so we got to we got to up our game. We got to bring the A-game every time. And if we don't, we won't be here again,” Torrence said. 

He’ll be back all right, right here at Auto Club Raceway in mid-February – this time setting off the conversation about whether he can pull off a fifth straight championship. Susan Wade

CAPPS SURVIVES SCARE TO WIN SECOND FUNNY CAR CHAMPIONSHIP AS TASCA TAKES WALLY AT NHRA SEASON FINALE - What a roller-coaster ride of an afternoon for Ron Capps.

In an encapsulation of his season as a whole, Capps watched as the championship slipped through his fingertips in one round, only to gain it back moments later thanks to an assist from another driver. In the end, Capps was able to hold on to earn his second career NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series championship in Funny Car despite an early exit at the Auto Club NHRA Finals at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona.

Meanwhile, it was Bob Tasca that was the last driver standing on the day as he drove to his third win of the season and ninth of his career on Sunday.

“This was just typical Pomona,” Capps said. “Coming in was very unique. Being a home track, we had a lot of friends and family and everyone around me wanted to help me keep my mind clear. I wanted to do everything like we did in August when we won the delayed Winternationals.

“Funny Car is so tough. I’ve just had to chug along (in this class) with some great people around me and kind of just do our thing. I’m happy to be No. 2 to (the greatest of all-time, John Force). To have a second championship, it validates a little bit more for me. But I’m still going to wake up on January 1 and think, ‘Let’s go get another one.’”

On a day that saw championship-swinging results in nearly every round, the final round was rather tame as the matchup between Tasca and Alexis DeJoria had little bearing on the title picture.

In a final few saw coming on another unpredictable afternoon of racing in the Funny Car category, Tasca got the job done in a thrilling matchup as the driver of the Ford Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford Mustang got away first and drove to a stout 3.955-second pass at 321.65 mph. DeJoria shadowed him throughout, but ultimately fell short in her Bandero Tequila Toyota Camry with a 3.974 at 322.58 mph in her second runner-up finish of the season.

“I’ve been chasing a Pomona Wally for a long time,” Tasca said. “I remember being out here as a kid with my dad after Bob Glidden won walking down that left lane. I’ve always wanted to win Pomona. It is a special race. 56 years ago my grandfather won this race, so this is just a special day for my family for sure.”

Tasca added wins over J.R. Todd, Jim Campbell and John Force to reach his fifth final round of the year.

Before the final, it was a no-holds-barred cage fight for the championship.

In round one, championship hopefuls Cruz Pedregon and J.R. Todd suffered early exits, before a titanic matchup between the top two title contenders in the second round.

Hagan and Capps traded the lead in the championship throughout the Countdown to the Championship, but it was Capps who came into the NHRA season finale with a two-round advantage thanks to back-to-back first round exits for Hagan at the previous two races.

As fate would have it, the pair matched up in the second round on Sunday with Hagan eliminating his Don Schumacher Racing teammate with a 3.948-second pass at 322.34 mph. Capps, in his NAPA Auto Parts Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat, got away first, but couldn’t keep up in posting a 3.995 at 319.45 mph.

With the win, Hagan kept his championship hopes alive for another round. In the semifinal, however, it was DeJoria playing spoiler as the eventual runner-up simply outdrove the defending Funny Car champion with a 3.940 at 321.04 mph to Hagan’s 3.975 at 317.79 mph, handing the title to Capps.

“We wanted to get the points just above the next cutoff which was 60 points and we were just shy of doing that (coming into the race). But we ended up putting it over the threshold this weekend which probably ended up helping us win the championship,” Capps said. “The fact that we had to meet up in the second round, I knew just what was going to happen. I’ve been here a bunch of times and we have lost a lot of championships by close margins. I figured there was no way it was going to be easy. That team is too good to just get by them and expect them to not put up a fight.”

While it wasn’t the prettiest way to end a season, a championship is still a championship and it was made all the more special for Capps as he celebrated alongside his first-year crew chiefs Dean Antonelli and John Medlen. The duo, which guided Jack Beckman’s car last season, came onboard in the offseason when Capps’ longtime crew chief Rahn Tobler retired.

“Tobler retiring in January was so sudden right before the season started. Luckily, that team with Jack Beckman was kept intact,” Capps said. “Guido (Antonelli) and I go way back to my first year as a Top Fuel driver. We became very fast friends and here we are later on getting to work together finally.

“John Medlen, well we have had some weird stuff going on where John has been feeling Eric’s (Medlen) presence. Today when we lost, we have a couple of pictures of Eric in the lounge and John apologized to Eric and he said the picture talked right back to him and said it is going to be alright. That made me feel better.

“It has just been so fun to work with these guys and this team. And to win another championship, you couldn’t have scripted it any better.”

In all, five different drivers took a turn atop the championship standings, including Capps, Hagan, Todd, Force and Tasca.

For much of the season Tasca looked to be the favorite, leading the standings for much of the first half of the season. But after early exits in four-straight races during the summer months, Tasca slipped from the lead and was never able to recover.

“It is a shame. We ran into clutch problems. You can make excuses all you want, but we just ran out of clutch discs that we liked and we couldn’t get them,” Tasca said. “We had enough to finish this race, so we saved them and we put them in. I knew we were going to have a good weekend because we know how to set the car up. But it was too late as we were snakebit in the playoffs and got behind early and weren’t able to reel it in.

“We have a great team. Everyone is coming back next year so we should be right back in the hunt.”

Now, with a short offseason around the bend, Capps has some things to sort out for 2022 and has hinted at a few announcements coming in December. Until then, the only thing he has to worry about is where to place his second NHRA championship trophy.

“My wife has never let any racing stuff in my house, but we’ve had the world championship trophy next to our TV where we sit and watch in the family room,” Capps said. “And it has just sat there by itself. Every time we sit down to watch TV I am glancing over at it thinking how cool it would be to have another one on the other side of the TV not thinking it would ever happen again.” Larry Crum

ANDERSON EARNS FIFTH PRO STOCK CHAMPIONSHIP IN DOMINATING FASHION AT NHRA FINALS - Was there ever really any doubt?

After boasting on Saturday that he possessed by far the best car and the best team following his 12th No. 1 qualifier of the season, Anderson backed that up with a dominating win and yet another title Sunday at the Auto Club NHRA Finals at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona.

Leading the Pro Stock championship standings in the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series wire-to-wire, Anderson closed out the 2021 season with his fifth career championship and 99th career win to cap a historic season for the veteran racer. It was a season that saw Anderson overtake doorslammer legend Warren Johnson as the winningest Pro Stock driver in NHRA history and move into a tie for third all-time in titles behind only Johnson and 10-time champion Bob Glidden.

“That is the meanest racecar I have ever had in all of the years I have raced,” Anderson said. “In comparison to the class and the rest of the cars, just the quality of runs we were able to make this weekend right off the trailer, was fantastic. It never skipped a beat.

“It is just a big relief because I really believe that I definitely had the best racecar all year and in spades this weekend. So, in my mind, it would have been a shame to lose the championship. We got it done and I rode that championship horse to the finish line.”

And what a way to get it done.

Entering the weekend a little over a round ahead of chief NHRA rival Erica Enders, Anderson gobbled up every available point in qualifying and then laid down four nearly flawless runs on race day to reach his ninth final round of the season and 167th of his career.

The championship-decider came in the penultimate round as Anderson and Enders matched up with the title on the line. With the pair nearly deadlocked all-time in prior races - 22-21 in favor of Anderson - it was Anderson adding to that tally in the end.

Enders had the starting line advantage, but rattled the tires. She drove through the tire shake, but was unable to make up the difference as Anderson cruised to a 6.578-second pass at 208.23 mph. Enders followed close behind with a 6.742 at 206.92 mph.

In yet another chapter in a heated rivalry between the two, Anderson was happy to earn it on the track as he pulled one ahead of Enders in championships with his fifth overall and first since 2010.

“I am very proud of everybody on the race team this weekend. We definitely came prepared to race,” Anderson said. “I love the competition in this class. I love what everybody does. It was a clean day of racing and we had a great, great day. We had some luck and some fortune and that is what it takes to win one of these things.”

With the championship secured, Anderson matched up in the final with one of the only other drivers to put a scare in Anderson this season in Kyle Koretsky. Koretsky, whose only career victory came against Anderson just three races ago, actually had the quickest time and speed in the race, but on this day Anderson was not to be denied.

Anderson used a .027 light to take a holeshot victory over Koretsky with a 6.574 at 208.23 mph in his HendrickCars.com Chevrolet Camaro. Koretsky took the runner-up spot for the third time this season behind the wheel of his Lucas Oil/NitroFish Chevrolet Camaro with the quicker and faster 6.567 at 209.56 mph.

“That was just flat out fun. At that point, it is not a job anymore and it becomes fun,” Anderson said. “That has to be why I came up with a better light in the final all of a sudden. The tension and pressure was off and you are just going out and racing for fun. There is a lot of pressure on these races and you try to act like there isn’t, but there is. Obviously I was a different driver today when the pressure was off.”

Anderson added wins over Deric Kramer and John Callahan to finish the clean sweep of the weekend. Koretsky had wins over Troy Coughlin, Aaron Stanfield and Dallas Glenn.

“Overall, it wasn’t easy competition or easy conditions out there. You had blazing sunshine and, as a driver, it was tough to see your way down the race track. There was such a glare every time,” Anderson said. “To run those low ETs it takes shifting them darn near perfect and obviously steering them perfect and keeping them in the groove and somehow we were able to do that today.”

In addition to the success Anderson enjoyed on Sunday, this season was bittersweet in just how much noise there was surrounding the now five-time champion. Not only was he chasing Warren Johnson’s win record throughout the year, things at times got rather heated on and off the track between some of his competitors in a wild season of racing.

“You’ve got to be tough in the mind. That is what you have to train yourself to do,” Anderson said. “There are punches thrown and you get knocked to the ground and you have to get up. I’ve never been a quitter. I’ll never quit. The will to succeed and the will to win (drives you). Obviously I do this because I love the competition and this class has that in spades. I think that is why I am enjoying this so much.”

In a unique note, Anderson’s win in his HendrickCars.com Camaro is the second title this season for primary sponsor Rick Hendrick. Hendrick won the NASCAR Cup Series championship one weekend prior with driver Kyle Larson sporting an identical scheme as Anderson.

“I think I had more fun racing this year than a lot of years. Just the association with Rick Hendrick and the Hendrick Automotive Group and wearing those colors, it is just an honor,” Anderson said. “I’ve looked up to that operation for so many years and to be a part of it feels pretty special.”

With five championships and 99 wins now under his belt, shortly after winning on Sunday the questions already began to pile up as to exactly when Anderson was going to hang up his race suit and helmet. His response was of no surprise for a man making history with every pass.

“To finish the season and get a 99th win, I can’t quit now,” Anderson said matter-of-factly. “We are one (win) away from 100. I’ve got to keep digging and keep trying to get over that 100 hump. I still feel like I can compete and win races and championships. I’m going to give it up when I feel I can’t win anymore. I don’t know if that is six months from now, three months from now or 10 years from now. Right now, it is not that time yet.” Larry Crum

MATT SMITH CLAIMS PSM WIN IN SEASON FINALE IN POMONA - Reigning NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle world champion Matt Smith knew exactly what he had to do to win his fifth NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle world championship – win the Auto Club NHRA Finals in Pomona, Calif., Nov. 11-14.

That’s exactly what he did.

Smith clocked a 6.817-second time at 200.74 mph and defeated a quicker Karen Stoffer who came across the line at 6.766 seconds at 198.47 mph.

The difference was at the starting line as Smith had an .011 reaction time compared to Stoffer’s 0.101 light.

Smith defeated Ryan Oehler, Angelle Sampey, Eddie Krawiec and then Stoffer, the No. 1 qualifier, to capture his 32nd career win and sixth of the season in 15 races.

“When I came to this race I just wanted to turn seven win lights on,” Smith said. “We turned three win lights on Friday and Saturday in qualifying and the goal was to at least get three win lights (Sunday). After we won second round, we beat Angelle on a holeshot and I saw Steve (Johnson) lose to Eddie (Krawiec) in the pair in front of us. I knew at that point we were champs. The big problem I had after I crossed that finish line is I had no brakes.

“It is pretty scary little deal. I kept pumping, pumping, pumping the brakes and nothing was happening. I thought we are going into the beach. My focus was to get the motor shut and keep the bike upright and not lay it over and tear up a bunch of stuff. It was a job. My guys cleaned up that bike to the frame. We came back up here and put a new set of pads on the front and made it into the semis.”

Smith arrived in Pomona with a 20-point lead over Johnson and a 30-point lead over Sampey. 

Smith knew he was going to have a challenge against Stoffer.

“I knew we were going to have a tough race against Karen, I knew she had the better bike, and she was in the left lane,” Smith said. “The left lane was the best lane for Pro Stock car and Pro Stock bike, it just is. I went up there and hit the tree as hard as I could and the sun was bad there in the finals. I stuck out and went .011 and best run of the weekend for me and turned on that seventh win light to claim the race and the championship.” Tracy Renck

SATURDAY NOTEBOOK

 

HIGHT SQUASHES RUMORS THAT HE IS PURSUING HIS OWN TEAM,  HART ‘PLAYING MONOPOLY IN REAL LIFE,’ ANGIE SMITH READY TO MENTOR NEW TEAMMATE, BIKE CLASS GETS Q3 SCRAMBLE AS STOFFER PREVAILS AND JOHNSON GETS POINT PENALTY, ANDERSON LISTENING TO HIS GUT

Robert Hight made a statement Friday evening at the NHRA Auto Club Finals at Pomona, Calif., taking the provisional No. 1 qualifying position. But he made a bold and absolute statement afterward, refuting the rumor that he is leaving John Force Racing to start his own team. 

Hight, who rose from crew member to driver to President of the organization and three-time champion, said, “That’s bullshit, 100 percent. If John gave me the team right now, I wouldn’t take it. I don’t want anything to do with owning a race team.” 

He said he wasn’t interested in copying Top Fuel racer Antron Brown, who is making his final appearance this weekend for Don Schumacher Racing (DSR) after 13 years with that organization. 

“Oh hell no,” Hight said. “No – because I want to be part of the machine that we have. I don’t want to be out on an island. 

“If John gave me the truck and trailer and race cars and the team and the sponsorship tomorrow, I wouldn’t take it. So no, I’m not into that,” he said. 

Hight is a vital gear in the John Force Racing machine that has produced 21 championships and 286 victories. As President, he is in the unique – and by all indications, satisfying – position of being able to help shape policy, initiate business-development opportunities, and conduct sponsorship negotiations. 

“That’s why I want to continue,” the driver of the Auto Club Chevrolet Camaro said.

“One thing I’ve learned is that it takes a lot of good people to make everything happen. And I don’t think with one team you can have enough good people to make things happen. So I want to be part of the machine that we have now. We have a lot of great people that pull their weight and have been doing this a lot of years. I want to be part of a team, not out on an island by myself.” 

Hight debunked another crazy rumor that floated around the drag-racing community recently, that current Funny Car leader Ron Capps will leave DSR – like Brown, Leah Pruett, and Matt Hagan – and join John Force Racing. 

“I’ve heard lots of rumors,” Hight said, “but I don’t believe that’s going to happen.” 

Instead, he said, “Our goal is to get Austin Prock back in the seat, have four of our own cars. It makes more sense for the whole infrastructure that we have at John Force Racing – the fab shop, the machine shop to make our own parts – it honestly makes more sense with the investment that we have to make for four teams [rather] than just three.” 

Hight said JFR is “working on it” to bring Prock, the 2019 NHRA rookie of the year, back to the cockpit. He is licensed in both the Top Fuel and Funny Car classes but competed in a dragster. 

“I’d say it’s looking really good right now,” he said of Prock’s potential return but cautioned that nothing ever is certain until contracts are signed. “I’d say there’s a better than average chance he’s going to be out here at Pomona [when the February 17-20 Winternationals will begin the 2022 season].” 

He hinted that current marketing associate Frank Tiegs – Prock’s original sponsor with Montana Brand and Rocky Mountain Twist and whose Flav-R-Pac brand is on Brittany Force’s dragster this year – will be involved in Prock’s team. 

‘PLAYING MONOPOLY IN REAL LIFE’ – Josh Hart has a lot of plans, in the racing and non-racing business worlds, and he has been juggling plans for the 2022 Camping World Drag Racing Series and his Brownsburg, Ind.-headquartered race team, as well as expansions for his Ocala, Fla., Burnyzz American Classic Horsepower empire. 

The Top Fuel team owner-driver of the R+L Carriers Dragster has purchased a second operation. Like his current, extensively modified equipment, this twin he purchased from Bob Vandergriff Racing. The reason, Hart said, is “to increase my investment in the NHRA, to offer hospitality, and do a better presentation for meet-and-greets for future business partners – and maybe an opportunity for a second driver in the future.” 

Moreover, he owns a brand-new Dodge Challenger Mopar DragPak and plans to race it next season in the Factory Stock Showdown class. The original plan was for wife Brittanie Hart to drive it, but she hasn’t had the chance to prepare fully for that yet. 

“The car definitely needs some laps on it, so I’ll do it probably this upcoming year, make the debut with that car,” Josh Hart said. “When we first got possession of the car, I tagged Leah Pruett [on social media]: ‘Leah Pruett’s pretty awesome, but why does she get to have all the fun?’” 

His crew will be plenty busy during the off-season, getting that second dragster up to par with his current car that has carried him to two victories this season. 

“We’ll take our time and do it right. It’ll be worth it in the long run,” Hart said. “We’re going to start off just using it as a back-up car while we’re kind of hunting around for maybe someone else who has the wherewithal to be able to drive it. A couple of people have mentioned things. I really wish I could create an alliance with somebody that really did have good funding and good driving ability. There are a lot of opportunities right now. I’m excited about it.” 

He said he’s unsure whether to establish a rental program or team with a second driver who can generate his or her own marketing relationships. He said he has had his eye on a couple of people from the Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series as potential partners. 

The rear wing of his dragster bears two words: “Anything’s Possible.” For Hart, that includes things he never even hoped were possible.  

“I never wanted to own a Top Fuel team. I wanted to drive for somebody. But I wouldn’t change it for the world now,” he said. “I’ve put myself in the position where I have the financial position to do whatever I need.” 

However, just because he could start his own Top Fuel team didn’t mean he wanted to do it. “That wasn’t the plan,” he said, although he said, “I’ve never worked for anybody else. I always tell everybody it’s The Road Less Traveled, but it’s worth it if you can stomach it.” 

One aspect of team ownership he has caught onto quickly and effectively is investing time in the companies that have invested financially in his Top Fuel effort. In this first-ever trip to California, for instance, Hart spent all day Thursday – from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. – at an R+L Carriers employment open house. It’s something he does at every one of his stops on the Camping World Drag Racing Series tour.  

R+L Carriers is involved with Hart and drag racing because it is looking to attract quality applicants to fill truck-driving positions. And Hart said the trucking company “absolutely” is getting them: “They’re doing very well with it. The dragster’s a good pull. But they won’t give out tickets. They won’t do anything to jeopardize the pool, per se. They’re really trying to focus on just getting good applicants. It has been pretty neat to watch. I’m just basically the conduit. And that early success just might sway R+L Carriers to return with Hart next year. “We’re working on it now,” Hart said, “but the rumors are yes.” 

Sometimes, that seemingly never-ending game of Monopoly comes to life for the 38-year-old businessman. Just a few days ago, Brittanie Hart forced him to think about his insatiable urge to work hard and acquire more automotive-related businesses. 

“There’s a company in Ocala that we’re looking to buy out. She sat me down and said, ‘I love you more than anything else in the world, but when is enough enough?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. I never stopped to think about it.’ I just kept on going. She wants to enjoy life, and I’m still plugging away. She’s probably right. I told her the truth: ‘I never stopped to look around. That’s the first roadblock she has ever presented to me. It’s probably time to cool a little bit and get settled in.” 

It probably is, but for the immediate future, Hart said, it’s “full steam ahead. This is something that I’ve been planning for a while. After this, I might yield to my wife’s advice. There’s just a lot of moving pieces: the race team in Indianapolis and the multiple businesses that we own in Ocala. It’s just time to get this last one bought and settle in and start enjoying life a little bit. This is something I thought would double our sales revenue. 

“I feel like I’m extremely methodical in my chess game. You’re playing Monopoly, but you’re playing Monopoly in real life,” he said. 

Hart is just as calculating in his racing operation. For example, elevating crew chief Ron Douglas to partner was strategic. 

“Everybody is scrambling right now: This person’s going to that person. Truthfully, I didn’t know what ‘Silly Season’ was. Somebody said it to me, and I go, ‘What’s that?’ I thought, ‘Oh, wow.’ I didn’t know – rookie. I called Ron into my office, and I said, ‘Hey, why don’t I just make you a partner of this? I’ll give you x-percent, and if you leave me, you walk away from your cut, and if you stay with me as we build this operation, we’ll build it into a multimillion-dollar team. And when we sell it, you take x-percent.’ He goes, like, ‘Wow. Really?’ 

“So I’m trying to make NHRA involved, too, just take care of the people who take care of you,” Hart said. 

Inclusion is a Hart hallmark. Maybe that’s because when he was a boy growing up in Northeast Indiana, his family was, by admission, “extremely poor – like, got to figure out how to get food. That starts a fire in your soul that maybe won’t ever go out. You just keep on going. 

“I was really, really poor in elementary and middle school. There was the Michael Jordan Retro Taxi tennis shoes that came out, and I could never have those. I got picked on when I was at school. So when I won my first race in alcohol – it was the Indianapolis Nationals – I went out and spent all that money on every pair of Michael Jordan Retro Taxi tennis shoes that I could buy. I mean, I bought every color combination. It was just ridiculous,” Hart said. “As far as the material stuff goes, I feel like I have what I want. Now it’s about taking care of my family. The businesses is that effort to not ever go back to that place. If every business kicks off a positive revenue stream, that’s kind of like building a portfolio in the stock market. My thirst is quenched, as far as the ‘stuff’ goes. I have my cars that I love.” 

From real-life’s Baltic Avenue to Boardwalk, Josh Hart has passed Go and collected way more than $200. He’s gobbling up properties, becoming a tycoon – a benevolent one, donating contingency money to Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series regulars, giving hours of time to sponsors, valuing his employees, and fattening his wallet for his family . . . all while remembering “Anything’s Possible.” 

ANGIE SMITH STEPS UP TO MULTIPLE TASKS - Angie Smith said her left index finger is “doing good. It's probably the best that it’s felt in the last several weeks that it’s been injured. Every day I think it gets a little bit better. By no means is it 100 percent. But it's a lot better than it was [at the previous race] in Vegas.” 

She was performing routine maintenance on her Denso-branded EBR motorcycle after Friday qualifying at Bristol, Tenn., and she accidentally smashed her finger. It forced her from that race, but she was back on the track in the following one. 

“It still hurts,” she said this Friday. “It's just one of those things. I mean, this is our job, and this is what we got to do. I wrote, ‘No pain, no gain’ on my windshield of my bike because it was painful, but I was like, ‘I got to go out here and do this.’” 

After all, Angie Smith has a lot of tasks on her plate right now. She’s trying to do whatever she can to help husband and team boss Matt Smith clinch a fifth series championship. 

She also is looking ahead to 2022, when she’ll be riding a V-Twin. She said, “Matt is building a Suzuki for him, and he's going to ride whatever bike is faster at that race. All he cares about at the end of the day is winning. It makes it no fun to come to the track if you're not that person.” 

Smith said a V-Twin bike, at least the way they prepare theirs at Matt Smith Racing, requires a different set of skills. “Our V-Twins have a lot more torque. So second, third and fourth gear, they're very aggressive motorcycles. Our V-Twins, and I'm speaking from the MSRP Twins, we run our clutch set-up and our transmission like a Pro Stock car. So it's really fast through the gears, we’re high gear by the eighth-mile. But other teams don't do that. But we run ours like a Pro Stock car, because he's had training from his dad, Pro Stock car, Pro Mod car and all that. So we run our stuff like a car. We get after it early.” 

And she’s preparing for the addition of Jianna Salinas and Jimmy Underdahl, who she said “are going to have their own truck and trailer, but they're going to be pitted with us. Matt's going to kind of head up the team with the tune-ups and things like that. So I think it's going to be a really neat deal for us”). And she said she’s excited about a brand-new role: mentor to Salinas. 

“Me being a mentor, by no means am I the best at anything out here,” Angie Smith said. “My husband does a really good job. But I see some of the struggles that Jianna has dealt with that I've had to find out and figure out my own solution to, because he hasn't had those problems. I see some of her struggles, so I can give her feedback of things that I've done to figure out how it worked for me, versus when Matt goes, “I don't know how to fix it. You just got to fix it.” 

Surrounded by three independent, purposeful sisters in Jacqueline, Jasmine, and Janae, and a strong mother in Monica Salinas, Jianna Salinas certainly feels comfortable learning from another woman. 

“I think all of us females out here, we try to stick together. Even though we're fierce competitors on the racetrack, we all try to stick together,” Angie Smith said. “When one of your competitors is struggling, you go over and lend a helping hand and put your arm around them and say, ‘I'm here for you if you need any help or advice,’ and you always give 'em a pat on the back. We're a close-knit family out here. And even though we're all fierce competitors on the track, we lend a helping hand when someone needs it.” 

Smith said Jianna Salinas “knows a lot. She knows the fundamentals and she adapts quick. On Monday, we stayed over in Vegas. She jumped on one of our V-Twin bikes. She's never been on a V-Twin race bike in her life. She rides a Harley on the street, but she's never been on a V-Twin bike. She adapted very, very quickly to our V-Twin bike. It was really good for her to be really open to say, ‘Yeah, I want to try it.’ I think that's good, because when you leave your options open as a rider, then more opportunity may come your way.” 

And no matter what kind of or how much help anybody receives, Smith said, “It's so hard. I mean, this is Pro Stock Motorcycle class is very tough. There are 16 riders that show up on any given Sunday. And you can't write down on paper who you think's going to win, because it always throws you a curveball when you're not expecting it. Some people step up on Sunday, and then some people just come in and run the table from the get-go. So it's just all these Sundays. It's crazy. And now we're down to the last race of the year and Matt’s in the championship hunt. He's got a 30-point lead over Angelle and a 20-point lead over Steve [Johnson, the No. 2-ranked driver]. So we're just going to try and go out there and close the deal.”

Busy, and with her finger still smarting, Angie Smith keeps her nose to the grindstone, and affirming that her husband won’t be accepting any offers to drive a Pro Stock or Pro Mod car. saying, “This is what we eat, sleep, breathe. This is all we care about. And at the end of the day, it's about winning and paying our bills. And it's something that we enjoy to do, and we do it together. It’s something that we love. So everything in our entire year is based around this whole program. So for it to be a different, it would be a huge change to our lifestyle. So right works. And so we're just going to continue to do what we do.” 

JOHNSON GENUINELY PURSUING FIRST TITLE – Sixty-year-old Steve Johnson quipped that he and his modest team have “a 20-foot-wide trailer, some popsicle sticks, and a toolbox.” 

Like the 2004 Boston Red Sox or the 2016 Chicago Cubs, Steve Johnson has had to wait a long, long time to be competitive consistently and on the threshold of a championship. It took him 17 years to earn his first victory. He said, “After 10 years, my mom said, ‘Um, have you thought about construction or lawn care or dentistry?” 

But he has earned nine victories overall, one-third of them this year. And despite the silly talk, Steve Johnson still has a chance to wrap up his 34th racing season with his first series championship tomorrow – despite a bit of a roller-coaster third and final qualifying session. 

He entered this weekend within 20 points of regaining his lead over four-time titlist Matt Smith. But the end of qualifying for this final race, Johnson had incurred a possibly pivotal 15-point penalty. It appeared his bike experienced some kind of mechanical difficulty, and he crossed the center line for a disqualification and the costly point deduction. 

It did cost him his No. 2 ranking in the standings. Angelle Sampey was just 30 points off Matt Smith’s pace at the outset of the event. And in qualifying fifth with bonus points and without any point deductions, she leapfrogged Johnson. 

Had Matt Smith remained No. 1 qualifier, he possibly would have enjoyed a bye run in the semifinal round of eliminations Sunday. The bike class had just 12 racers to compete for 16 places. Instead, that opportunity went to Karen Stoffer aboard the Skillman Auto Group/Big St. Charles Suzuki for White Alligator Racing. She seized the top qualifying position, her first of the season, to relegate Smith to the No. 2 starting spot. Should she defeat first-round opponent Kelly Clontz then the winner of the Scotty Pollacheck-Andrew Hines match-up in the quarterfinals, she would slip unchallenged into the final round. 

Stoffer said, “I don’t try to mess with anybody in the Countdown. But I’m certainly having fun just racing the bike and turning on win lights.” 

Johnson has the No. 4 berth in the order, and he’ll face Freddie Camarena. 

Matt Smith said Friday night, “I know that we can probably get around ahead of Steve, but I felt like we could make ourselves where we had a round on Angelle. So my whole goal was to turn seven win lights on. I'll win up here. They got ol’ Smitty back this weekend. Been very nice all year long, but a-hole Smitty's back this weekend.” 

He put a lot of stock in the order, saying, “No. 1 has an advantage, because he has a bye if he wins, both first and second round, a bye into the finals. Then on the other side of the ladder, you have (Nos.) 2, 3, 4, and 5 on one side. So my goal is to try to be No. 1. And if we can do that, mission accomplished.

Smith will have to fight off Sampey, whom he might meet in Sunday’s second round. Matt Smith will race Ryan Oehler in Round 1, and he’ll need some help from wife Angie Smith. She will line up against Sampey in the opening round, and the winner will face the winner of the all-women pairing. 

So it’s possible that Matt Smith can clinch his fifth championship early in eliminations. It’s also possible that Matt Smith and Johnson could meet in the semifinals.   

Whatever happens, this season has brought more happy drama than ever before for Johnson. 

When he finally earned his first triumph, in 2004 at St. Louis, it came the day popular Top Fuel driver Darrell Russell was killed. Then Johnson earned his third victory, his first of two at the U.S. Nationals, the hard way. He clearly defeated Matt Smith, but the scoreboard declared Smith the winner – and days later, far past the moment to celebrate in style, the NHRA reversed its decision. But no more such hard luck. Johnson is fresh from his victory at Las Vegas, his second in the Countdown to the Championship. And he’s talking (at least sometimes) like a seasoned Countdown heavy hitter, serious about jousting with four-time and current champion and points leader Smith. 

With the help of Pro Stock owner-driver Chris McGaha and three-time Top Fuel titlist and recent Motorsports Hall of Fame of America inductee Larry Dixon – and others – Johnson has knuckled down, learned how his motorcycle actually works, and has started to adopt the mindset of a champion. 

“I could go on about the corniness I have in my heart and soul for this sport. But I do really, really, really want to bring home a championship. I’d love to be part of that championship thing and be able to do it our hometown,” the Granada Hills, Calif., native who operates out of Birmingham, Ala., said. “It’s really, really special, at least to be able to be there and be part of the group. 

“I hate that I made all those dumb mistakes in Bristol,” he said of the weekend in which he let the points lead slip from his grasp. “We wouldn’t have the pressure. But I feel so good now. And I guess I want people to realize whatever their happiness is, jump in feet first. And if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen. You can try again. Right now, we’re trying, and we’re trying again. And I hope to hoist another trophy or so [here this weekend].

One of his competitors, Angie Smith, whose husband is Johnson’s biggest obstacle this weekend, said she’s happy for Johnson that he has experienced success this year. 

“I think it's really good for Steve. I mean, if I had been racing as long as Steve had, I'm not going to say that I had given up, but I would probably have lost faith and hope by now. But I give him kudos because he's stuck it out. He's really worked on his program, and he's really put his program to the forefront of all this. I think it's great,” she said. 

“I don't think you can buy your horsepower from somebody else and outrun the house bike,” Angie Smith said. “So I think if you do your own program, then those are your best opportunities to rise to the top, and I give him kudos for learning and doing the work on his own motorcycle.” 

For at least a couple of years, Johnson and Matt Smith have rumbled a bit, with Johnson objecting to the term “hobby racer” that his nemesis used to refer to many of the racers in the class. And Angie Smith said, “Whatever Matt said to drive him to do that was good, because look where it put him. He might not admit it, but I feel like Matt lit a fire under his behind, and he wanted him to do it. Sometimes constructive criticism hurts, and sometimes it drops you. It's very good for the class.” 

Class pioneer Terry Vance said of Johnson, “He has always been a good rider. He just hasn’t had great stuff [equipment].”   

PLAYIN’ IT STRAIGHT – Matt Smith’s days of bribery are over, at least for now. The owner-racer of the Denso/Stockseth entry was at the center of craziness at this race in 2019, as he offered a bounty on eventual champion Andrew Hines and a bribe to eventual race winner Jianna Salinas. But he said he won’t be doing that on this first race day here at Pomona in two years. 

“No shenanigans,” he said late Friday. “We want to race. If we get Angelle [who passed Johnson for the No. 2 championship seed Saturday] or Scotty [teammate Pollacheck] or Scotty or Steve [contender Johnson] second round, that's great for our team. Let our team control our destiny. If I have to meet one of them into finals, I don't want to get beat by a stupid part that fails or non-Countdown player that something fails on our bike and takes us out. If I lose against Steve or I lose against Angelle, then they deserve to win. But that's what you hope coming into this deal, is you want to make it a race. And that's our goal – to try to get to the finals, and if one of them is in the other lane, then it’s game on again.” 

He said he had no preference: “No, I've said it all year long: the Suzukis have an advantage right now with their new combination and the rules the way they are. My V-Twin is the best V-Twin out here right now, and we're just pushing, pushing, pushing everything we got. That's why we're building a Suzuki next year to play with the rules. But when I look at this, we’re the reigning champ. I've been in this position a lot more than Steve. He’s never been in this position. Angelle, it’s been a lot of years since she’s been in this position. So I feel like I have more experience of being here even though she’s got three championships and I’ve got four, I’ve been here a lot more.” 

TASCA OPTIMISTIC – Most folks in drag racing know the late Bob Tasca Sr., the patriarch of the family, coined the term “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday.” But many might not be aware he was a racer who acquired the nickname “The Big Bopper” and who often said at the racetrack, “I didn't come out here to get a sunburn.” 

And that’s a motto his grandson, current Funny Car owner-driver Bob Tasca III, has adopted, especially this weekend. With soaring temperatures under a cloudless sky, it’s possible he could leave with a sunburn. But what he wants to leave with Sunday is his ninth victory and third of the season. 

“We know we can't win the championship. But it’d be nice to have that trophy all offseason,” Tasca III said. “Unbelievably talented group of people in that trailer. Car’s got to run better. That's the bottom line. I’m very confident on what we have going into this race and into next year.” 

After such high hopes early in the year with victories at Las Vegas and Atlanta (and later runner-up finishes at Norwalk and, in the Countdown, at St. Louis), Tasca’s name was in the conversation weekly. But his drought throughout most of the remainder of the year was annoying to the extremely driven businessman from Rhode Island. 

It irked him to say the words: “We know we can’t win the championship.” 

Tasca said, “That's the only reason why I'm out here. If I didn't believe I could win a championship, I don't need to be here. Sixteen, soon-to-be 19 car dealerships, I am only here to win a championship. That's it. So if I didn't believe we could, then I'm gone. 

“But to be honest with you, my whole career, I've never believed I've had a better chance of winning a championship than I do right now. With the people we have, the talent, my experience in the car, I really feel like my best chance to win a championship is right in front of me,” he said. 

“That's a great feeling. So as sh---y as it is – I'll say the word sh---y – not to leave here with a chance to win the championship, it’s a really great feeling that I have. I've worked my whole career to have the group of men that I have right now in that trailer [and] sponsors that I've always dreamed to represent. So, yeah, I feel really good about going into the next season,” he said. “Four final rounds, two wins, and we can pick up another win. That's a good season. We'll just take it into next year.” 

What’s it going to take to keep his name in the championship conversation until the end of the season next time?  

“That’s a good question,” Tasca said. “Obviously, it's not how we wanted to end the season. We really ran into some clutch-disc issues, and we struggled badly through, I would say, the tail end of this season. We just couldn't get what we wanted due to, I think, a variety of life issues with COVID right now, with materials and so forth. So we did get behind the eight-ball quite a bit on that. The good news is we really learned a lot of what we like and don't like, what the race car likes and doesn't like. We tested in Vegas, made some great runs in Vegas. Car ran good in Vegas too. So I just think that going into next season, we're going to have a lot more inventory of clutch discs that will give these guys a lot more flexibility and not be at the mercy of just supply issues, to be quite frank, that we weren't anticipating. 

“It took us a little by surprise on the clutch disc side. I know Jon and Mike [co-crew chiefs Schaffer and Neff] were pretty disappointed that we just couldn't find a combination and we couldn't buy a disc that we liked, to be quite frank. We ran out of the discs that we were running earlier in the year, which obviously produced pretty good results,” he said. 

“It's amazing how sensitive these cars are. This is an evolving machine,” Tasca said. “Everyone says: ‘Why just can't you set it up like beginning of the year?’ Because you can't. If you could, everyone would have run the set-up that they won the last race and just keep winning. So the cars evolve. Clutch disc is probably the biggest factor to the evolution of the car, because the motors stayed pretty much the same. Tires stayed pretty much the same. Clutch doesn't. That doesn't stay the same. And that's the biggest variable that all of the teams faced, not just us. But I think some of the bigger teams have an advantage because they have bigger inventories, and they can go back into the archives, where a single car team doesn't have that luxury. So we're just going to get more aggressive at buying clutch discs and having a bigger sampling, bigger inventory, different batch numbers to kind of insure ourselves not to get into this predicament again.” 

He said, “I mean, it's not like I got dumb, or anyone on the team forgot how to tune a car. We run the car certain way, and when it doesn't wear the same, when it wears different, when that wear number changes dramatically, it affects how the car goes down the racetrack. If you look at the last couple races, even Vegas, we had top speed of the meet, but we're not low E.T. So that's kind of hard to do, to run top speed and not run low E.T. So we just got to get better through the middle. We feel that we got a good handle on why we're not. We think we’ll see some different performance in this car this weekend.” 

Tasca qualified ninth on the grid and will meet No. 8 starter JR Todd in the first round of eliminations Sunday. 

He has a “happy” motor, he said: “I've been around these cars long enough to understand why things happen. It's frustrating. You would expect in this day and age that you could get a set-up that stays with you a long time. Motor-wise, I think you can. Our motor, knock on wood, it's as happy of a combination as I've ever run, and you can see it with the mile-an-hour. If a motor’s eating itself up, it won't run speed. So the motor is really, really happy. We got a great combination there. 

“We just have to get more consistency in the bell housing. Like I said, I think we really know what we need to do, and I think you'll see something this weekend. I think this car is going to run as good as it's run in a while this weekend, and hopefully that'll be the combination we carry into next year,” Tasca said.

One of the things that has bitten him this season is losing some “like real close, like heartbreakingly close” match-ups. “But that's what makes this sport so exciting,” he said, “It's very unpredictable. Anybody can win on Sunday. That's why we're here. That’s what NHRA racing is all about.” 

ANDERSON TRUSTING HIS GUT – Greg Anderson is trusting his instincts regarding his chances to add a fifth Pro Stock championship trophy to his already crowded case. 

“My gut tells me I think it's ours. I don’t think I’ve ever been more confident. This HendrickCars.com Chevy is absolutely bad to the bone. It’s been flawless three runs in a row, and I guarantee it’s going to be flawless tomorrow. I’m looking forward to it. What an opportunity I’ve got here,” he said, “and I hope I can close that deal and thank everyone who’s supported me all these years, especially this year. And what a great race team I have. 

“In my heart of hearts, I know I’ve had the best race car in the class all year long. It would just be a crying shame to squander the opportunity and not get it done,” Anderson said. “That’s a lot of pressure to put on yourself, and there’s certainly no guarantees and anybody can beat anybody. But I’ve got the best horse, and hopefully I can ride it like a champion.” 

He’s surrounded by champions with his association with Hendrick Motorsports. 

If Pro Stock veteran Greg Anderson, driving the HendrickCars.com Camaro, can hold off archrival Erica Enders, in the Melling / Elite Performance Camaro, he will follow Kyle Larson’s lead from last weekend at Phoenix in the NASCAR Cup Series. 

“It’s tough,” Anderson said. “On that side of the fence, in NASCAR, they’re dominating. They’re winning every race. They’re kings. They’re heroes. And I feel like I’m not holding my end of the bargain up unless I’m winning every race. So I’ve got to find a way to do it, got to find a way to win, to keep pace with the other side of the team. That’s the situation I’m in – but I like it.” 

He said he spoke with Larson just Thursday. 

“He’s a cool dude. He’s absolutely is a cool dude. Man, what a race-car driver he is and just an inspiration to me. He’s giving me all these words of inspiration, and they’re all back there [in North Carolina], pulling for me this weekend. They’re done. Their season’s over. And they’re all focused on this weekend to see if I can close the deal like they did. 

“I got a hell of a sendoff [Thursday] over at Hendrick headquarters and was basically told by Mr. Hendrick that either bring that big trophy home or don’t come home. It was tongue-in-cheek, but he likes to win. The entire organization just loves to win. They were all behind me. But it was like a pep rally at a high school. It was very neat. I’ve never had anything like that.” 

TORRENCE NOT COUNTING HIS CHICKENS YET – “This is a ‘What have you done for me lately?’ sport,” Top Fuel points leader Steve Torrence said as he waited to see if he’ll join an elite group of drag racers who have won at least four consecutive championships. 

And while he managed to qualify No. 2 and score five qualifying bonus points while closest challenger Brittany Force blanked on bonus points and qualified 13th, Torrence knows the stark reality of sports and of this sport.  

She would have to see Torrence lose in the opening round and then go on to win the event to upset him. But Torrence can’t breathe a sigh of relief just yet. 

“You’re only as good as your last run,” the Capco Contractors Dragster driver said. “People talk about us dominating everything, but it’s so competitive out there right now. On a given day, anybody can win. You’ve got Antron [Brown] and Doug [Kalitta] and Clay [Millican] and Brittany [Force] and Leah [Pruett], Mike Salinas [this weekend’s top qualifier], and Shawn Langdon. And then you have a whole new generation coming up, with guys like Justin Ashley and Josh Hart. That’s what keeps us motivated, having to prove ourselves all over again every weekend.” 

During the past five seasons, Torrence has become one of only a handful of NHRA pros to have won races at every track on the Camping World Drag Racing Series tour.  With 10 victories this year, he is the first driver in 13 years, since Tony Schumacher in 2008, to win at least half the races in the series. 

“I say it every week,” Torrence said, “but I mean it every time: all the credit goes to God, my momma [team owner Kay Torrence] and the Capco Boys. I’m just blessed to be the guy who’s strapped in the seat.” 

In the NHRA’s 70-year history, only six have done that: Don Prudhomme, Kenny Bernstein, Lee Shepherd, Bob Glidden, Tony Schumacher, and John Force. Schumacher, so far the only Top Fuel driver in the group, was the most recent racer to do so, earning six straight titles from 2004 through 2009. Force won 10 in a row as part of his unprecedented 16. 

Schumacher said in a recent interview that he’ll be trying “to stop that Torrence freight train” when he returns to fulltime Top Fuel competition. 

He told FOX broadcaster Brian Lohnes that since he announced his 2022 deal with the Maynard family, “all I get on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, everything is ‘You got to stop Torrence.’ I said, ‘Man, there’s a lot of other cars out there.’ He’s that good right now that he is the focus. He’s got a target on him. I’m looking forward to getting out there and getting back in a race car, doing what I love doing. 

“Sitting out has been uncomfortable,” he said. “These cars are fast, and you don’t like to lose that edge. We’ll have to work real hard to get it back.”  

Fifty-time winner Torrence has said a number of times that he has missed racing Schumacher, the most successful driver in the class with 85 victories and eight championships. 

His dominance has reminded fans of Schumacher’s heyday. During his run of six straight titles, Schumacher won 77.6 percent of his individual races (312-90) while winning an average of 8.32 tour events every year. Torrence, by comparison, has won 81.4 percent of the time in the past five years (259-59) while averaging 8.4 race wins per season. 

None of that has a bearing on this weekend’s results. After all, it’s a ‘What have you done for me lately?’ sport. 

CAPPS-ANTONELLI PAIRING CLICKS – NHRA Funny Car points leader Ron Capps knows that drag racing is more than physical, that much of it is mental. But sometimes it’s sentimental, too. 

As he prepares for his last chance to clinch a second championship this weekend, Capps’ mind has been on relationships and the effect they have on his on-track performance. 

He has had a sizeable list of celebrated crew chiefs and said he was “devastated” this time last year when tuner Rahn Tobler decided to retire. But team owner Don Schumacher placed him in the hands of co-crew chiefs John Medlen and Dean “Guido” Antonelli, and together they are in position to give the NAPA Dodge driver his first championship since 2016 – if they can fend off three-time and reigning champion Matt Hagan and veteran two-timer Cruz Pedregon. 

The way qualifying unfolded, Capps got the No. 2 starting spot, with Pedregon sixth and Hagan seventh. Capps helped his cause in qualifying with seven bonus points, and Pedregon and Hagan lagged behind with two apiece. 

The ladder shows that Capps (who faces Terry Haddock in Round 1) could possibly have a head-to-head showdown against Hagan (who races Tony Jurado) in Sunday’s quarterfinals. If that were to happen and Hagan were to win that round, he would have to win the event to claim his fourth championship. If that were to happen and Capps were to beat Hagan, Capps would be the champion. Pedregon needs for both Capps and Hagan to drop out in the first round to have a chance. 

Hagan is feeling the drama and the pressure. He said Saturday, “It’s tough. I’d relate it to a real fight in life. I mean, we're backed in the corner. One thing I've always learned is never stop throwing punches. And that's what we got to do this weekend. Just keep throwing punches. I have faith in Dickie Venables and all our team, but we’re in that corner right now. We’ve got a real fight ahead of us. It’s cool to take some [military challenge] coins down the track and do some stuff for the veterans. Maybe it’ll bring us some good juju. But like I said, we’ve got to throw some punches. 

“It’s about as simple as it gets: We have to win the race. If we want to win the championship, we have to win the race. If we do that, we’ve done what we set out to do here and all year long. I don’t know how it worked out that way, but the Good Lord above shined on us today and gave us a shot to make our own fate. It all falls on us. I know we have the car, the team, and the people to do this, and I’m excited to have a shot. Ron Capps and that team are great, but we’re going to try and ruin their day,” Hagan said. “That’s what we do out here when we race and let’s see how it plays out tomorrow.” 

If Hagan and Pedregon have first-round losses, Capps will be awarded the 2021 title. 

If Capps exits in the opening round, Hagan would lock in his second consecutive title by advancing to the final round. 

“We always talk about these goals that we have with this NAPA AutoCare team,” Capps said, “and we saw how crazy qualifying was. Our first goal is always to qualify, because you’re not guaranteed to race on Sunday in NHRA drag racing. There are no provisionals. We accomplished that right off the bat on Friday in Q1. 

“Secondly, we wanted to gain some of those important small bonus points and put it over the 60-point threshold with Hagan. It’s a nice cushion. That’s a whole other round that they’d have to win to go around us. We want to wake up tomorrow morning with the thought of winning the race and it will take care of itself,” he said. 

“We saw what happened in Vegas: anything can happen in NHRA drag racing. The goal is to win the race. We have Terry Haddock first round, and we’re focused on that and that alone. If things line up second round against Hagan, then we’ll focus on that. Waking up Sunday morning in November at Pomona with a chance to win a world championship is something I’ve done a lot. We did it in 2016, but I’ve been here a lot where we didn’t accomplish that goal. And that’s made me better in the seat as a driver.” 

So Capps has played out all the scenarios in his head, but he focused on his relationship particularly with Antonelli as the final day of the season loomed. 

“This year has been unique, because Guido and I have been friends for so long and we finally get to work together,” he said. “We met my rookie year [when Capps was competing in a Top Fuel dragster]. I was driving the rig, driving the race car, working on it, and he was a crew member of John Force’s. He took me under his wing back there on the road and taught us some of the cool places to go, little things like where to take your dry cleaning in between races, where to work on the car, things like that.” 

“Guido and [Antonelli’s co-crew chief John] Medlen and our NAPA AutoCare team, we came together quickly, like a duck to water, at the beginning of the season, and it just felt like a natural fit,” Capps said. “Our last race in Vegas was a perfect example of how well we all work together, because, as much pressure as there was on race day, especially with all of the other top Countdown cars going out early, they really knew how to loosen me up and keep me in the right frame of mind. They’ve certainly helped me and my driving throughout the year. The big key for us this weekend is just to continue what we’ve been doing. 

“I feel good going into this weekend. No throwing up,” he said, referring, slightly chagrined, to past years when he was so stressed that he vomited into garbage cans at the racetrack. “I’ve had such a great race car – that’s all team, that’s all car, not driver. And I’ve been really proud of these kids on this team and grateful that we got put together this year. 

“There’s a lot going on in the off-season,” Capps said, “and it’d be really cool for us together to be able to close the deal.  I’ve been in this position a bunch of times before we won in 2016. And that year we didn’t win one race in the Countdown. But we were consistent, and we put pressure on a lot of teams.” 

He said, “I’ve never won the Finals. I’ve won the Winternationals [also at Pomona] four times but never the Finals. Guido himself has had pretty good success at this race.” 

BOBBY BODE GETS HELPING HAND – Bob Bode said he expects to have his son Bobby Bode run about 10 races a season but could run more if he goes out and finds extra funding for that. 

But Dad was proud Saturday, watching his son qualify 14th to set up a first-round meeting Sunday with No. 3 Alexis De Joria. 

“The kid drives well. He keeps it in the right spot. He does everything perfect,” Bode The Elder said. 

Bobby Bode said, “It's such a dream. I mean, I still can't believe I’m 19 and a sophomore at Arizona State. I can’t believe I’m just out here. I mean, I ran a 4.05 [second elapsed time], 310 mph, and I'm battling the sniffles this week. I have a nasty cold, but it's all worth it to be here. Hopefully we can give the big teams a run for their money tomorrow. 

“I'm just super-nervous. I mean, these guys are like double, triple my age. So I'm just lucky to be here, and it's just an honor to race all these big teams out here.” 

Bode saw first-hand Saturday during the final qualifying session how much the seasoned teams are willing to help a rookie. Bode couldn’t get his car in reverse during the burnout process. He had a solo pass – he was supposed to run alongside Terry Haddock, but Haddock was safely in the field and opted out of his chance to make another blast down the track. 

Haddock and his crew members jumped over the wall, helped adjust the idle, and pushed the car back to the starting line so he could make his pass. 

DENSHAM CELEBRATES –  The NHRA has 1,000 races in the history books, and Gary Densham has ben here for about half of them. At least he thinks he has. Everyone has kind of lost track, but Densham decided to settle on this race as his 500th.  He said Saturday, “Well, obviously, I never thought I would have been able to be here at this time. But it’s been wonderful. I mean, the competitors are great. NHRA is great. The fans are absolutely wonderful. What I've got to do in my life has just been unbelievable, and nobody's had more fun, I'll guarantee it.”

 

FRIDAY NOTEBOOK

 

TUNERS STRAUSBAUGH, VENABLES TO FOLLOW PRUETT, HAGAN TO TONY STEWART RACING; ENDERS ISSUES CHALLENGE TO SECOND-GUESSERS AS DEBATE RAGES ON; POLLACHECK TO SIT OUT 2022; TORRENCE, CAPPS, ANDERSON, MATT SMITH CLING TO LEADS, REPEAT TITLE HOPES; KENNY KORETSKY LIKES BEING CHEERLEADER  
 

NASCAR boss and former NFL head coach Joe Gibbs had his stint in NHRA drag racing. And Tony Stewart, the newest legend to invest in the Camping World Drag Racing Series, has taken some advice from him as he is fashioning his nitro-class team with fiancée Leah Pruett and three-time and current Funny Car champion Matt Hagan. 

“Joe Gibbs taught me a long time ago that you win with people,” Stewart said as he announced Friday that Neal Strausbaugh will be the crew chief for nine-time Top Fuel event winner Pruett in 2022 and Dickie Venables will continue his longtime role as tuner for 39-time Funny Car event winner Hagan. 

“Neal and Dickie are the right guys to help build this team and get it ready for next year,” he said. “For the past year and a half, I’ve gotten to know Neal and Dickie and have seen firsthand how they work and interact with everyone on the crew. Both have a strong work ethic and know what they’re doing, but they also know each other and their drivers really well. That kind of familiarity and continuity is massively important as we build this program from the ground up.” 

Veteran co-crew chief Mike Domagala and car chief Ryan McGilvry will join Strausbaugh at TSR, Venables is bringing the same personnel who have helped Hagan earn two of his three Funny Car titles (2014 and 2020) and compete for a potential second straight championship in the season-ending Auto Club Finals this weekend at Pomona, Calif. Continuing with Hagan and Venables will be co-crew chief Michael Knudsen and car chief Alex Conaway. 

Strausbaugh and Venables come from Don Schumacher Racing (DSR), where they have spent a combined 25 years. 

Strausbaugh has been an assistant crew chief since 2008, working in both the Top Fuel and Funny Car classes, first with Cory McClenathan in Top Fuel (2008), Tony Schumacher in Top Fuel (2009-2016), Jack Beckman in Funny Car (2017-2018), and Pruett (2019-present). Venables has had two stints at DSR, spending 2010-2011 with Funny Car driver Johnny Gray before returning in 2013 to lead Hagan’s Funny Car effort. 

“Being a part of TSR is a dream situation,” Strausbaugh, a native of Hillsboro, Ill., said. “There are a lot of great people who are a part of this team, and it starts at the top with Tony. It’s built by racers, for racers, and we have all the resources we need to be successful.” 

Venables, a Texan transplanted in Indiana for the past 25 years, will concentrate on his new duties after this weekend. Right now he’s intently focused on helping second-place Matt Hagan overcome Ron Capps’ 58-point lead in the Funny Car standings.

“We’d like nothing more than to do well this weekend and be able to take the championship,” Venables said. “We’ve got a lot to take care of, but I’m looking forward to what’s coming shortly thereafter. I’ve been doing this a lot of years, and I honestly haven’t looked forward to a program as much as I’m looking forward to this one. Being able to bring all my guys over will help us get started on the right foot and really grow this program. That’s what intrigues me about this opportunity most of all. I enjoy being able to build things from scratch. I enjoy being able to work with people and teach them to work in certain roles.” 

TSR will make its NHRA debut during the 2022 season opener Feb. 17-20 at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona. Those interested in partnering with TSR for its inaugural NHRA season can contact the team at [email protected] 

HOW FAR IS TOO FAR? – Drag racing observers still are debating about Elite Performance’s strategies during the previous race, at Las Vegas, two weeks ago. Enders, who represents Elite, is going against Greg Anderson for the Pro Stock title, which would be the fifth for each of them. 

Anderson lost in the first round at Las Vegas, and Elite teammates Enders and Troy Coughlin Jr. met in the semifinals. The two were neck-and-neck with each other for most of the quarter-mile, but Coughlin’s Camaro went silent at about the 1,000-foot mark. That allowed Enders to sail into the final round with a chance to make up lots of ground on Anderson. And the move was roundly criticized. 

Coughlin justified the result, saying, “This team is a family, and we all know how it works at this point in the season. It happened the other way around in the past with the same teams involved, so now we’ll take these results and head to Pomona to see how it ends.” 

Fellow Pro Stock Countdown driver Matt Hartford expressed his disgust with the race-day ploy: “The qualifying strategy, I’m all for it. If they want to put themselves in the position to race Greg in the first round, more power to them. Nothing against it. But to intentionally shut off against a teammate, I got nothing for ya.” 

Anderson said, “I’m OK with them trying to stack the ladder. Those cars wanting to run me, those cars wanting to run somebody else, what’s wrong with that? That’s the way racers should be – shouldn’t fear anybody, should want to race anybody. I absolutely have no problem with that at all. 

“But going out there purposely and throwing out the white flag halfway down the track, that’s not acceptable in my book. Maybe in some people’s minds it is. Not on anybody with KB Racing. I do have a problem with people going out there and purposely laying down or whatever you want to call it and giving the race up,” he said. “It’s a tough decision to make when you have multiple team cars, like we both do. It’s a hard decision to make to not do that. But you just can’t do it. 

“I’ve raced 20 years, and I’ve had sponsorship for 20 years. And there’s been 100 times in those 20 years that you’ve thought to yourself, ‘Man, it would be nice I could get a break from one of my own teammates.’ And never once have we made it happen. You can’t do that. The sponsor won’t accept it. The fans won’t accept it,” Anderson said. 

“It’s terrible, and what happened last week – called it what you want. It looked terrible. It made our class look bad. And I don’t care who’s standing here right now – I’ll tell ’em that same thing: It’s wrong. It’s bad for the class. It’s bad for the sport,” he said. “And whether you’re team cars or not, you have to go out there and race. All these team sponsors have different sponsors on the doors. You can’t do that.” 

Enders had a different spin on the situation. 

She said, “I have one job, and that's to win races and world championships for Melling Performance, for Gallagher, for PeoplEase Transportation, Impact, and all the people that make this possible. But for my boys at Elite Performance and Elite Motorsports, a true teammate is defined by what they do for you, what you do for each other. We’re one family. I'm sick of people and what they got to say. If they want to get a couple million dollars together and come out here and try this, they get to do it how they want to. This is how we do it, and we do it with grace and class.” 

If she is to leave Pomona as a five-time champion, Enders said the formula is simple: “We do what we're best at, and that's going rounds on race day. 

“I have the best team in the world: Mark Ingersoll heading up the crew-chief department, Tim Freeman and Mike DePalma. These guys, I mean, they're fantastic at what they do, and I could not be more proud to be associated with this team. I got to go to work. I’ve got to do my job, and we proved to be able to do it in Las Vegas. And I'm excited about the opportunity. Either way, it doesn't change my life story, whether I'm a four-time world champion or a five-time world champion. But I ain't defeated, and I ain't going home a loser.” 

ONE LAST WEEKEND – After all of the preparation, all of the thrashing, all of the travel in crisscrossing the country several times, all of the mental training, all of the practice on the portable Christmas Tree, all of the money and time and energy, the 2021 NHRA Camping World Series championship journey comes down to this Auto Club Finals at Pomona, California – a continent away from where it began in March at Gainesville, Fla. 

And if anyone at Auto Club Raceway needs Roadside Assistance here on this famed Southern California dragstrip, that means he or she has seen a championship pursuit break down and no tow truck able to salvage it. And no matter what mathematics say, only a handful truly have a chance to add their names (again, in most cases) to the list of champions for this milestone 70th season. This weekend will be a case of probability trumping basic arithmetic. 

In Top Fuel, Capco Contractors Dragster driver Steve Torrence isn’t a shoo-in yet for his fourth straight championship that would put him with elite company (Don Prudhomme, Kenny Bernstein, Lee Shepherd, Bob Glidden, Tony Schumacher, and John Force). But he has a 105-point advantage – the largest among the pro-class leaders. However, closest challenger Brittany Force would have to jump through a lot of hoops in her Monster Energy Dragster to pull off an upset. 

Maybe Tripp Tatum said it best for every Torrence competitor: “Those [Capco] boys are top-notch, and we’re going to do the best we’ve ever done to even have a chance against him.” 

The Funny Car chase, in all practicality, is among just three champions: Ron Capps, Matt Hagan, and Cruz Pedregon. Hagan entered this weekend trailing Capps by 58 points, and Pedregon has 83 to make up. JR Todd is 138 points out of first place and would need a miracle to erase that, even with a maximum of 187 points available from qualifying through eliminations on race day. 

It appears to be a two-person race in Pro Stock. Despite all the new, young names in the class (including third-place Dallas Glenn, who’s 109 points down the line), veterans Greg Anderson and Erica Enders are duking it out for a fifth championship. 

Three racers are in contention in the two-wheeled class. Matt Smith is angling for a fifth series title, but Las Vegas winner Steve Johnson is just 20 points behind him as he tries to regain his lead. And Angelle Sampey is only 30 points down as she goes for Championship No. 4 and her first since 2002. 

This race features a points-and-a-half format. For those who want to keep a session-by-session and round-by-round scorecard, here’s how points are awarded: 

In qualifying, the driver with quickest elapsed time in each session will receive four points. Second-quickest will get three points, third-quickest two points, and fourth-quickest one point. 

After Friday night’s kickoff, Mike Salinas took the Top Fuel class’ provisional No. 1 qualifier, with Steve Torrence earning three points for being second-quickest. Billy Torrence and a surprisingly sentimental Antron Brown (who’s making his last appearance for Don Schumacher Racing) followed. Brittany Force was 11th overnight. 

Greg Anderson is on pace to record his 12th No. 1 starting position in Pro Stock, while Enders took fourth place Friday.  Matt Smith led the Pro Stock Motorcycle field. Contenders Steve Johnson was third and Angele Sampey fourth. 

The qualifying-order points – finalized after two Saturday sessions – break down this way: No. 1 qualifier 10 points, No. 2 nine points, No. 3 eight points, No. 4 seven points, Nos. 5 and 6 six points, Nos. 7 and 8 five points, Nos. 9-12 four points, and N.os. 13-16 three points. 

In eliminations, the winner will earn 150 points, the runner-up 120. Semifinal losers will receive 90 points, second-round losers 60, and first-round losers 30. Any driver who makes at least one qualifying run will get 15. 

POLLACHECK STEPPING BACK FOR A YEAR – The Pro Stock Motorcycle class will be missing one familiar face in 2022. 

Scotty Pollacheck said Friday he is not planning to race next season, opting to take the year off as he and wife Susan are designing a new home and having it built near their current Center Point, Ore., house. 

“We have a big project at home, building the house and the shop and everything. And that's going to keep us really busy. So we'll focus on that, and hopefully that all goes like we wanted to. Anything's possible after that, but that's the plan for now, just to stay home and take care of that,” he said before qualifying began Friday. 

“It's hard enough now, without trying to build a house,” the Denso EBR racer said. “Between working all the time when we're at home and then the time that it takes to do this, that's like two full-time jobs. I don't think I can do three full-time jobs at the same time. 

“We're moving things and changing this and that, getting it just how we want it. So it'll definitely be a really, really cool project when we’re all done, have everything just like we want it.” 

Pollacheck said his victory in May at Atlanta “definitely” was the highlight of his season, “because our big goal for this year was to win when Susan was there, because last year at Indy, she wasn't there. So we definitely had to get that done. And we've had three No. 1 qualifiers this year. So overall it's been an incredible year, just out here at all the races and getting to do what we love to do so much. But yeah, definitely the highlight was winning Atlanta, which was the last race of Atlanta. And it was her birthday weekend. So we mark that one off.” 

PASSION MARKS POMONA PRELUDE – Passion was palpable at the Dodge//SRT Nationals two weeks ago at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. It was the penultimate race of the season, and the stakes were high. Every single qualifying pass meant something, and every single round could – and did – tip the scale in the Camping World Drag Racing Series’ Countdown to the Championship. 

Steve Torrence seemed to have a lot on his mind. He likely was relieved that Top Fuel archrival Brittany Force dropped out in the semifinals and he won for the 10th time this year and for a career-milestone 50th to all but clinch his fourth straight championship. “This is a pivotal moment in the championship right here,” Torrence said from the winners podium. He also indicated he knew he wasn’t home free yet, saying, “Everybody is able to find everybody vulnerable at any given time. This thing is won and lost by thousandths of a second.” 

But rather than gloat or start talking about himself, he paid respects to the late Dylan Cromwell, 23, who lost his life in a highway accident while driving Jim Head Racing’s Funny Car rig to the event – and to all the behind-the-scenes personnel who make “The Show” possible. 

Richard Hartman, crew chief for Funny Car’s Tim Wilkerson, gave a quick tribute to Cromwell during qualifying: “We’re missing Dylan, man, Godspeed, Dylan.” 

Then during race day Sunday, the gamut of emotions came out. Chris Morel triggered a domino-effect of first-round upsets, pretty much knocking 16-time champion John Force out of the running for a 17th crown in a race between two wounded race cars. At the top end of the racetrack, Morel said he was honored to race Force, and his crew chief on the starting line said, “He beat himself. We didn’t beat him.” And Force simply buried any disappointment, encouraged Morel by saying he reminded him of himself when he started out and was eager to win against the legends of his day. And he offered an explanation of what happened to his Camaro: “My motor just shut off. Don’t know why. It just quit.  . . . Just . . . things happen.” 

In the next pairing, Paul Lee, driving the car Ron Capps raced last year, did Capps a favor, ending JR Todd’s day surprisingly early. Lee’s tuner, Jim Oberhofer, joyfully said, “We’ve been struggling in the bellhousing, tearing clutch up, really doubting ourselves a lot” but happy that many of his fellow crew chiefs “made us feel good about ourselves. It worked.” Then he gave an impish verbal jab to brother Jon Oberhofer, who tunes Todd’s car, calling himself “Mom and Dad’s favorite son” and saying, “We tuned it better today.” 

Matt Hagan was the next favorite to fall in succession, and it left him a bit baffled. Still trying to catch his breath, he said, “I don’t know how you bounce back from that, but we’re going to give it a try . . . I mean, points and a half at Pomona. It’s hard to put a really positive spin on that. I haven’t put a hole out [dropped a cylinder] at the step in I can’t remember when – it’s been years. That’s going to be tough to get out of, two [straight] first-round losses. It just sucks. We’ll be better, though.” 

Then when Capps, who desperately needed the gift, won his opening-round match-up against especially-tough-of-late Tim Wilkerson, his co-crew chief, Dean “Guido” Antonelli got a little choked up in acknowledging the blessing. He said later that “it was an emotional 20 minutes watching it unfold. Our team works so hard and so many hours to prepare the car and the parts for the services between runs and days at the shop. (Myself and Medlen have developed procedures over the years because of racing life lessons from failures of items [so] the services are longer than some teams’. When the round was unfolding pair after pair, I couldn’t believe the opportunity that set for us. I never doubted that we could win the championship before first round, but with the quality of the cars in front of us [on the racetrack] and on our heels [in the standings], that even if we won the last two events, we would need some help from the opponents. I could not help but think that Eric was looking over us. Medlen and I talked about the opportunity after the final and both agreed that we had help from Eric.” 

Top Fuel had its eyebrow-raising moments. When Leah Pruett was set to race Brittany Force in the quarterfinals, she was a little over-eager, in spite of not being in Countdown contention anymore. She bought herself a disqualification by jumping the throttle too soon. But she had an adamant, über-passionate response when she got out of her dragster: “I was definitely the first one to notice it, to see it. And you know what? I don’t have a dragon breathing down ny throat or my back anymore. It’s just myself. And you know what? My team deserves great things, and they’re going to get them. Yeah, I’m upset about that, but if I didn’t care, I’d be lazy off the line.” Referring to Force crew chief Dave Grubnic, Pruett said, “I know Grubby’s got a great car and a great team. And so do I. I wanted to do well for myself. I do not feel bad about that – double steps happen. This is drag racing. This is the Countdown. We want to do well for Dodge and for our entire team. But I’ve learned from that. Maybe I had too many Sparkling Ices plus caffeine. Whatever it may be. I’ll get it right.” 

(And Torrence, disappointed that Force survived another round and feeling more pressure because of it, said, “Man, I was pulling for Leah. She was going up there, pressing on it, and just didn’t make it. You’ve got to respect that, ’cause when you’re trying to go up there and win, sometimes you make mistakes.”) 

In the first round of Top Fuel eliminations, relative newcomer to the class Alex Laughlin said after beating seasoned Clay Millican, “I know you start to get content with round-wins, especially in other categories. But this one still feels really new and really fresh. Very thankful.” 

Against Billy Torrence to start eliminations, Shawn Langdon learned how JR Todd felt in the 2016 Top Fuel final at Atlanta and how Pro Stock’s Allen Johnson felt at Bristol in their 2012 final. Langdon lost by .0001 of a second – one ten-thousandths of a second. He said he “felt the hole [cylinder] drop at half-track. Felt the hole go out. It’s race day. I’m not going to lift. Sorry to all the fans having to wait on that oildown clean-up. But it’s race day – we’re trying to do what we can. Tough one. That’s drag racing, right?” 

The frustration was thick in Brittany Force’s voice. “This is so difficult. This was our shot to move on and get around him. I finally had a great light [reaction time at the starting line]. I’ve been struggling, and I finally stepped it up there. And I feel like we can’t catch a freakin’ break.”  

KNOW YOUR ROLE - Once upon a time, there was a young boy who walked in his dad's shadow, eagerly wishing he could be what his father was in the drag-racing world. Kenny Koretsky was and is a proud father, running the roads of the NHRA tour up until the mid-2000s as a Pro Stock driver. Kyle was Kenny's boy. 

However, as Kenny hung up his driving suit and Kyle began to work his way up through the ranks of Competition Eliminator and inevitably became a Pro Stock frontrunner under the KB Racing banner, Dad began to notice a change in his status.  

Kyle was not there as Kenny's boy. Kenny became known as "Kyle's Dad." 

And to hear Kenny speak, he couldn't be any prouder.   

"I'm not a great spectator. Everyone knows that, but it's exciting to be a cheerleader," Kenny said with a smile. "He's got horsepower. Greg Anderson, Ken Black gave him a good car, and there's good people here. They all work really hard. So we're really excited." 

Kyle entered Friday's NHRA Finals fourth in the championship point standings on the strength of a season which has yielded a win in the Countdown to the Championship and two runner-up finishes during the regular season.  

Kenny readily admits the landscape of Pro Stock and its engine/car rental-lease program is much different than it was back in the day.  

"I was talking to [Aaron] Stanfield, I said, 'Wow, the engine rental programs of today are much different than when your father was racing,’" Kenny said. "I really wish I had this engine program when I was racing. We would've won a bunch of races. My former crew chief, Eddie [Guarnaccia]. figures we would've won 25, 30 races.  

"It's incredible the horsepower these guys make and how hard they work, and we never could find that magic, that extra 10 horsepower. So it's a great rental program, and I think it's great for the sport. It keeps 16, 18 cars out there, so hopefully it continues next year," he said. 

There's no doubt Kenny is proud of Kyle but is very adamant he's more protective of his kid. If anyone knows the dangers of racing Pro Stock, it's Kenny, who was part of one of the more violent crashes in drag racing history.  

In October 2005, Kenny and fellow Pro Stock racer Bruce Allen were involved in a two-car accident at Dallas that eventually had a profound effect on both drivers' decision to retire from competition.  

Kenny had the accident in the back of his mind when he offered his son his full support as he persued his dream of racing Pro Stock.  

"I thought about it a little bit, but Kyle was racing three or four different cars every week, so he's got the experience," Kenny explained. "He knows when to shut it down if it's not right. And I'll tell you, though, when I see how fast he runs, I feel like getting back in this thing myself. I don't know if I have the balls to do it." – Bobby Bennett 

CAMERON FERRÉ READY FOR POMONA WITH PATON RACING — The 2021 NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series has been a roller-coaster ride for Top Fuel driver Cameron Ferré. 

Ferré drove two races for Del Worsham at Las Vegas’ spring race, the Denso Spark Plugs NHRA Four-Wide Nationals and Sonoma (Calif.) Nationals. 

Then, Ferré joined Paton Racing for the Thunder Valley Nationals in Bristol (Jun. 15-17) and Las Vegas (Oct. 29-31) and will be behind the wheel for them at the Auto Club NHRA Finals (Nov. 11-14). 

“We were supposed to do more races [with Paton Racing] and we have been trying to put things together all year, but because of the border situation, the team is based out of Canada [Brantford, Ontario] so we couldn’t get the car across the border because of COVID-19 and the border restrictions. We were supposed to start in Charlotte [N.C., May 14-16],” Ferré said. 

“I have had this deal put together with EMPI (the largest aftermarket dealer and manufacturer for Volkswagens) for a long time. I have been working with EMPI, and I do off-road stuff with them. We do a lot business stuff outside of the track. The company has been around for almost 60 years. They have been around with Volkswagen drag racing and they are just trying to get it all a little mainstream and on TV. It has been a good deal,” he said.

Ferré, who lives in Huntington Beach, Calif., is a professor at Cerritos (Calif.) College when he isn’t at the track. He teaches auto body and paint classes. 

“This is my third year doing that, and it has been awesome,” Ferré said. “All of lectures are online, but luckily we have been able to have all our labs at the school. It is a good gig.” – Tracy Renck 

ASHLEY HONORED BY GREEN’S COMMENT – Mike Green, Justin Ashley’s crew chief, said during eliminations at the previous event, “We’ve got to keep giving Justin a chance to win – try to stay out of the car’s way and let him see if he can win it.” 

Ashley said, “For him to say something like that really means a lot to me, coming from a guy with his resumé. I think it's funny, because it’s the opposite for me. I'm trying to get out of the way and not mess anything up so the car can do its job. So we're both thinking the same thing, because he is so good. For me, he's the best crew chief in the sport, period. He's done such a phenomenal job with our whole program. He really came in from the beginning and laid a foundation, and we've just grown as a group since then. We've had a lot of fun doing it. We've had a lot of success doing it, but it's because of him. He puts the tune-up in the car and does such a fantastic job. Collectively, as a group, we all love working with him. 

“Mike's incredible. From the beginning of this year, coming in just with the kind of resume that he had, I knew that he was going to be a guy that I can learn a lot from, and it's been exactly that way the whole year,” the driver of the Vita-C/AutoShocker/Smart Sanitizer Dragster said. “He's been a pleasure to work with. I know that every crew chief kind of has their own style. And I just know from my experience with Mike, he is just far and away so easy to drive for, because he's easy to drive with. I think that our communication is really good. So we're having a lot of fun together, and I think that as a team, you see us continue to improve race in and race out. 

“I think that's part of the reason why I love Mike so much is that there's no ego involved,” he said. “In this sport, it's so easy to get caught up in everything and all the emotions and the ups and downs and then ego gets involved. Mike has no ego. That's something I learned from the beginning. He's just focused on winning races, and I think that's what's part of what's so great about him. He doesn't care about any of that stuff. So he's quiet. He's meticulous. But make no mistake about it: he's very strong in his convictions, and he goes out there with the approach that he wants to win every round. He wants to win every race. 

“When you look at the job that he did with Tony's [Schumacher’s] team in 2009 and 2014, that's a really tough gig to step into. You have a lot of shoes to fill stepping in for Alan Johnson. And not only did it do it, he did tremendously successfully, winning two championships in a very competitive Top Fuel class. So I think that says a lot about him. If you ask me, he’s the best crew chief in this sport, period. I love driving with him, and we have a blast together. His talent to me is evident. It's been evident since Day One.” 

KALITTA LIKES POMONA – No Top Fuel driver has won more at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona than Doug Kalitta, whose six victories tie him for most with “Big Daddy” Don Garlits and Tony Schumacher. Kalitta won the most recent Auto Club Finals in 2019 and has triumphed at three of the last four races run in Pomona. Should he win this weekend, he would record his 50th career Top Fuel win. He would be the second in as many events to do that – Steve Torrence reached that plateau two weeks ago at Las Vegas. 


DRAG-RACING AMBASSADOR – Billy Torrence, the Capco Contractors Inc. founder and half of the Torrence Racing tandem that has won 12 of the previous 19 events, is a top-five driver. Once again, he has achieved that despite skipping several races. This season, he passed up all three Western Swing races (at Denver, Sonoma, Calif., and the Pomona Winternationals) and the one in August at Brainerd, Minn. Despite missing those four races, Torrence has won twice (including from the No. 1 qualifying position at Epping, N.H.). 

He consistently says that he’s racing “by invitation only” – at the request of wife Kay, who owns the two-car operation. So just because he misses a few races now and again doesn’t mean he doesn’t enjoy drag racing.

To the contrary, he just might be drag racing’s biggest ambassador. 

“Our sport is the most fun. It’s a great atmosphere,” Torrence said in a recent podcast. “I’m proud to be where we are. We do a prayer. We do a national anthem. We have a non-denominational church service at every race. And there’s a smorgasbord of cuisine: You can eat gumbo, you can eat steak, you can eat beans and cornbread, you can not eat at all. Just make a trip through the pits, and I tell you – it’s the place to be. I raised my kid out there, and I’m going to raise my grandkid out there, too.”