2021 NHRA MIDWEST NATIONALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
STEVE TORRENCE REGAINS TOP FUEL POINTS LEAD AS NHRA TOUR HEADS TO HOME TRACK IN TEXAS - The NHRA Top Fuel father-son duo of Billy and Steve Torrence celebrate with lunch at their favorite Mexican restaurant every Monday after one of them wins a race.
Maybe this week they ought to invite fellow Top Fuel racer Josh Hart.
Steve Torrence defeated Mike Salinas in Sunday’s final round of the Midwest Nationals at World Wide Technology Raceway to take back the points lead he saw Brittany Force swipe from him the week before at Charlotte. And he can thank Hart, in part, for that.
Hart defeated two of the top three in the standings, nemesis Force and No. 3-ranked Justin Ashley. Then in the semifinal round, Torrence had to beat the driver who had done him those favors. And he did, reclaiming the No. 1 ranking that he clearly has believed never should have been vulnerable in the first place.
He and his Capco Contractors Dragster team had 411 points on Force and her Monster Energy / Flav-R-Pac Dragster group at the end of the regular season, and the NHRA – in the Countdown-spawned “points adjustment” that the Torrence camp has referred to as “pencil parity” – handed her back all but 20 points. But Torrence knows those are the rules everyone must play by. And he didn’t harp on it at all Sunday after recording his 49th victory which ties him with Doug Kalitta for fifth on the class’ all-time winners list.
Torrence simply said, “We’ll just see if we can take advantage of the opportunities we get. I’ve been here before. I know what the stress and pressure are. We’ll count on what got us here, and that’s those Capco Boys.”
And as the Camping World Drag Racing Series moves south to Dallas for the Oct. 7-10 Texas Fall Nationals as part of the Texas Motorplex’s Stampede of Speed, Torrence is just one victory shy of hitting the No. 50 plateau – a particularly remarkable feat, considering he has competed in Top Fuel just since 2012.
That’s on his mind right now only because it means he would be one step closer to locking down his fourth consecutive series crown. Only six pro drivers in the sport’s history so far have won four straight championships: Don Prudhomme, Bob Glidden, Lee Shepherd, Kenny Bernstein, John Force, and Tony Schumacher.
At least until his lunch at El Charro at Tyler, Texas, has time to digest Monday, Torrence can savor his ninth victory in the season’s 16 races. It came at the expense of early conquests Shawn Langdon and Antron Brown, as well, and finally Salinas. Torrence won with a 3.736-second elapsed time at 328.78 mph on the Madison, Ill., 1,000-foot course against Salinas’ 3.996, 226.70 in his wounded Scrappers Racing Dragster.
But No. 1 qualifier Salinas – who moved up to fourth place in the standings, was no pushover, by any means. He cut an outstanding .011-second light, while an admittedly distracted Torrence left the starting line with an abysmal .142.
“There he went,” Torrence said of Salinas’ spot-on launch, “and I’m like, ‘Oh, s---, boys, we got to go!’ And so I saw Scrappers for a loooong way! And I’m like, ‘No way am I going to catch this guy. And then his car quit. We got around him, and I’m like, ‘Oh, Lord, I’m glad you’re on my side today, because I did a lot to screw that up.”
With the addition to the original schedule of the Bristol, Tenn., event right after the one at Ennis, Texas, the 2021 Countdown to the Championship consists of seven races rather than the customary six. That means a lot of racing still is left – and more time for Torrence’s challengers to take more shots at his points lead. That’s what propped up Force’s spirits after her disappointing day Sunday.
She called her result in suburban St. Louis a “tough day for this Monster Energy / Flav-R-Pac team, getting beat in the second round. We had a hole out, but I also wasn’t there on the starting line. There’s still four races left in this Countdown, and that’s plenty of time for us to regroup and move forward.”
She’s second in the order, 36 points behind Torrence after a 57-point swing for the weekend in his favor. Her results stained an otherwise stellar performance that saw her set low E.T. and top speed of the meet at 3.641 seconds and 337.66 mph, despite watching Salinas end her No. 1 qualifying streak at eight. She fell one short of matching Gary Beck’s early-1980s record.
Billy Torrence improved to third place in the standings. Justin Ashley dropped from third to fifth and Leah Pruett from fifth to sixth. The rest of the top 10 remained the same.
Hart, a rookie who missed the Countdown only because several of his R+L Carriers Dragster crew members had a scare with COVID mid-summer and the team sat out two races Hart had planned to attend, said, “We’re in it. We’re going to race for it, to upset the championship as much as we can.” Hart indicated he doesn’t consider himself a part-time team, especially with victories at Gainesville in the season opener and during the Countdown at Charlotte: “Look at how many times we’ve been in the semifinals.”
Following their semifinal match-up Sunday, Torrence came over to Hart and the two exchanged words of respect. “Lot of respect there between both of us. We’re on the same page that way. He’s good people, one of the very few real ones out there. Lot of respect for him.”
And maybe the Torrences can think of Hart when they’re enjoying their enchiladas. Susan Wade
MATT HAGAN WINS ST. LOUIS, SIGNALING AN ESCALATION OF THE FUNNY CAR POINTS BATTLE - Matt Hagan is back in the winner’s circle.
The reigning NHRA nitro Funny Car world champion sat out the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis and the event in Reading, Pa., after testing positive for COVID-19.
Hagan drove his New Holland Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Redeye from the No. 1 qualifying position to victory lane at the Midwest Nationals Sunday in St. Louis.
Hagan clocked a 3.933-second elapsed time at 333.49 mph in the final round to defeat Bob Tasca III, who clocked a 3.967-second lap at 329.99 mph.
This was Hagan’s 39th career NHRA nitro Funny Car national event victory and third this year to go along with his wins in Denver and Brainerd, Minn. The win also pushed him to the top of the points standings – 59 in front of second place Ron Capps.
Hagan received a boost from his substitute driver Tommy Johnson Jr., who won the Reading event, and the points he earned counted for Hagan.
On Sunday, Hagan had a bye in round one and then defeated J.R. Todd, Cruz Pedregon and Tasca.
“Thank goodness we had a bye run because we went out there and smoked the tires,” Hagan said. “Dickie (Vebables, Hagan’s crew chief) obviously made some adjustments and just threw down all weekend. In qualifying and race day, if you give that guy a little time he just dials it in. I’m just so blessed and lucky to have him here. It’s one of those things where I have won a lot of races and a lot of championships with that guy and I just trying to go up there and do my job and leave on time and keep it in the groove. When you have a combination and package like that, it is really hard to beat.”
As good as Hagan has been, especially the last two years, it wouldn’t be surprising for him to boast a little – but that’s not the case.
“I think it so humbling out here, but you have to have that confidence and mentality of winning,” Hagan said. “But it changes so fast day-to-day and race-to-race if you don’t qualify or you go out in first round or your car breaks that we take it in stride. These things are the most humbling things I have ever been around. For me, I try to keep it in perspective and over the years, the championships I have won, I have really been able to take and minimize what I can control, and I focus on that and then everybody else has to do their job and you depend on them, the people who you put in place to do that.
“For me, you start to feel the pressure because we only have four races left. I have been there before, and I understand the hunt and I know that our car is going to be a really serious contender and honestly, I really think we can win this championship. Capps is going to be tough; Robert (Hight) is going to be tough - you name it. It’s a slugfest out there. These crew chiefs are licking their lips and that puts even more pressure on us as drivers. It really comes down to the starting line.”
Hagan acknowledged watching Johnson Jr. win in Reading was a different experience for him.
“It was emotional for me,” Hagan said. “That’s your race car and that’s your team. I had my pom poms up and was cheering for him. Tommy did a phenomenal job. I knew he could, but it was bittersweet for me because I wished I was in the car. But to be honest with you, the new rule that they came up with, COVID is not going anywhere, and we have to deal with it. It gave me a real opportunity as a driver to take a step back and say ‘Hey look. I’m not ready to be in this race car. It gave me a chance to heal my body.’
“If you are not 100 percent out there when you’re going 300 mph you have no business being in a race car. For me, it was tough because I wanted to be driving the race car, but I couldn’t hardly breathe well enough to walk to my bathroom to take a pee. I had no business out there and it gave me time to recover and feel like I’m 100 percent to come out here and do it. I’m blessed and humbled to be here and I feel 100 percent and I’m ready to go win this championship.” Tracy Renck
PRO STOCK STAR ERICA ENDERS CLAIMS ANOTHER WIN IN ST. LOUIS - Reigning two-time NHRA Pro Stock world champion Erica Enders is right in the mix to win three in a row and the fifth of her career after her performance Sunday in St. Louis.
Enders won the NHRA Midwest Nationals for the third year in a row, beating Dallas Green in the finals.
Enders clocked a 6.572-second elapsed time at 207.24 mph to edge Green’s 6.583-second lap at 206.86 mph.
“St. Louis has always been great for me,” Enders said. “I have been coming here since I was 16 years old driving a Super Comp Dragster. Steve Torrence and I would load up our pickups and trailers and with our parents’ permission, come up here and race. It has always been great to me. We have won a lot in Pro Stock here. I think we won here in 2013, 2015 as well. I don’t know why this track has been so kind to us, but I’m grateful.”
This was Enders' 33rd career Pro Stock victory and fourth this season. She also had wins in Las Vegas, Norwalk, Ohio, and Indianapolis in her Melling Performance/Elite Motorsports Camaro.
Enders is now just 17 points behind class leader Greg Anderson.
“We are halfway through the Countdown to the Championship, and we put ourselves within striking distance of Greg and we just have to go to work,” Enders said.
Enders outlasted Bo Butner, Aaron Stanfield, Mason McGaha, and Green Sunday.
“I think it is magical and I think it is awesome,” Enders said about her success in St. Louis. “I think we work really hard to accomplish the things we accomplish and there are a number of tracks on our circuit that treat us very well. St. Louis is one of them, Las Vegas is one of them, Bristol is one of them, Houston is one of them. I’m glad that there are a couple of those within the Countdown. I not sure what it is, but I give the good Lord all the glory. I will take the wins as they come.”
The win also was a much-needed confidence boost for Enders.
“I didn’t have a lot of confidence at all coming in here because we feel like we are getting crushed on the racetrack right now,” Enders said. “We are racing a little bit differently than we have in the past and my guys continue to dig deep at it. It’s no secret, it was pointed out a handful of times today, but the numbers speak volumes. I have struggled behind the wheel and fortunately today we rose to the occasion as a group. I’m proud of it. I know it is going to take a lot of work to compete for this fifth championship, but I have the best guys in the world to be able to do that.”
Enders was on record that she wanted to have more fun again as she is in the midst of hopefully winning another world championship.
“Again, just going back to the fact we are racing a little bit differently than we have in the past,” Enders said. “I’m known for being really good on the tree and there been a lot of wholesale changes on the race car, stuff I can’t talk about, but things that make my performance on the starting line a little bit different. As a driver, I am responsible for 38 men and their families who work for us at Elite. It is a big burden, a lot of pressure. It means so much to me. This is all that matters for me, aside from family. I have given my entire life to this; I have sacrificed a lot. It means the world and I carry a huge load of pressure. I just need to get back to having fun. There are eight million people who would chew an arm off to have the opportunity to do what I do.
“I just need to take a deep breath and remember how blessed I am to do this. I’m thankful for it and I’m going to continue having fun doing it.” Tracy Renck
WILKERSON WORKING OVERTIME, JOHN FORCE-ROBERT HIGHT TO MEET IN FUNNY CAR’S ROUND 1, PRUETT SWAPS CARS, NEITHER BRITTANY FORCE NOR STEVE TORRENCE LEADS TOP FUEL FIELD BUT THEIR BATTLE STILL INTENSE
WILKERSON WORKING OVERTIME – In front of a group of fans that he estimated to be “a bazillion,” including longtime sponsor Dick Levi, Tim Wilkerson stayed among the frontrunners in the Funny Car class at the start of the weekend here at World Wide Technology Raceway. But maybe even more remarkable for the owner-driver-tuner of the Levi, Ray & Shoup Ford Mustang is just how many responsibilities he is juggling beyond the craziness of all that.
The winner at two of the past three races (Indianapolis and Charlotte), Wilkerson entered the weekend at his home track tied with Robert Hight for sixth place in an extremely tight Funny Car Countdown lineup. He said, “I am not thinking about the championship. I just want to go there and run the track and see what happens. They always have a good crowd, and we will be trying to put on a show for them in the Levi, Ray & Shoup Summit Racing Mustang." But he’s a racer, and of course his mind is on that, at least a little bit.
But in addition to those concerns, he is fielding his Top Fuel dragster for the first time with son Daniel Wilkerson tuning for returning driver Keith Murt.
This is Murt’s second go at Top Fuel competition. The Paducah, Ky., businessman struck a one-race deal with Tim Wilkerson when the two bumped into one another at the Funny Car Chaos race at San Antonio recently.
Murt said he wasn’t anxious about hitting the throttle on a dragster again: “I don’t really get tore up until I get to the racetrack. I have a construction company that keeps me 100-percent busy. I think about it at night, and naturally, I am chomping at the bit to go. Now that Tim has won two of the last three races, I am going to have to get my butt in gear. I know the equipment is there and I just have to shine.”
He started Friday unqualified, 19th among the 20 entrants – but he had some excellent company in Leah Pruett, Clay Millican, and Shawn Langdon.
Wilkerson said, “I started putting this Top Fuel dragster together earlier this year with the plan to get Daniel licensed in it. I ran into Keith at the San Antonio Funny Car Chaos race, and we got to talking. He wanted to get back into racing, so we worked out a deal. He is going to run the car this weekend, and then Daniel is going to get his license in it on Monday after the race.”
Murt drove Galveston, Texas, Top Fuel veteran Mitch King’s dragster at selected races in 2012 and 2013. He’s the President of Murtco, a leading mechanical and underground utility contractor that serves the Southern and Midwestern states.
“I met Tim 30-40 years ago when I wanted to run an Alcohol Funny Car and he had one for sale,” Murt said. “I just knew what kind of guy he was right away, even back then. I wanted to jump back into racing again when we bumped into each other in San Antonio. I told him I wanted to race Funny Car, but he said he was building a Top Fuel dragster. So I decided I would drive that. I knew his personality and his mentality when it comes to race cars, so I knew we would be a good fit.”
As if all this weren’t enough to take on, the Wilkersons have been working with several teams this season, including Bob Bode’s Funny Car operation with Bobby Bode behind the wheel. The 19-year-old Bode went out Friday and seized the tentative No. 3 spot in the order – two places higher than Wilkerson. Not bad for the young Arizona State University business-major sophomore whom Wilkerson was helping just to “keep him from being on fire and still have some fun.” Bobby Bode listened to Wilkerson’s general advice to “stay inside a little tune-up box.” And that worked out well for him Friday with his career-best elapsed time of 3.891 seconds and career-best speed of 322.04 mph putting him third on the grid. Wilkerson was fifth, behind No. 4 Hight, at 3.905 seconds, with a faster speed than Bode’s, at 322.11 mph.
When qualifying finished Saturday, Wilkerson was eighth, with lane choice over JR Todd, who has defeated him all three of their previous match-ups this season.
Wilkerson also helps Chad Green, who competes in both the Funny Car and Pro Mod classes. Green is not racing at St. Louis this weekend.
PRUETT CHANGES CARS – Saying her Okuma Dragster “had been handling pretty ill,” Leah Pruett and her Todd Okuhara-, Neal Strausbaugh-, Scott Okuhara-led team decided to bring out a new car overnight. They went with the race car that Tony Schumacher had tested in the day after the spring four-wide race at Charlotte.
Does this mean that the eight-time Top Fuel champion won’t be idle much longer? His testing was in April. So was he keeping his license fresh? Both? Neither?
What the car change meant for sure is that Pruett had a car Saturday that was able to deliver better results than the Friday ride did. She was unqualified, in 17th position, following the opening day of qualifying here at World Wide Technology Raceway.
After improving in the first Saturday session to 10th place, Pruett said, “The power of this Okuma machine is in the people with Todd and Scott, my entire crew. We swapped cars last night. We got us in. The last time that this actual race car went down the track is when Tony tested on Monday in Charlotte 1. So great. Thanks to all the Okuma people that are out here this weekend and looking forward to Q3.”
After moving up even more, to fourth place, in the final session, Pruett said she’s confident because of “pretty much the fact that we can get our Okuma machine powered by Pennzoil straight down that dragway. I mean, we're in the championship hunt. Very blessed to be here. The Maynard family [Tennessee-based philanthropist husband and wife who have provided financial support for her team this season] is with us this weekend, and we just want to keep doing what we do best. Very lucky to be able to do this as a profession and even luckier to be able to enjoy it.”
FORCE-TORRENCE CALCULATIONS – Brittany Force will have to start all over if she is to chase down Gary Beck’s top-qualifying record of nine in a row from the early 1980s. Her streak ended at eight consecutive No. 1s Saturday when Mike Salinas held on to his Friday lead.
But Force earned six qualifying bonus points and seven for taking the No. 2 spot, so she still has an edge on Torrence, who followed her in qualifying with the third starting slot and picked up four bonus points.
Force made a 3.70-second pass that came at a fastest-of-the-meet 331.53 mph early Saturday to get off the bump spot and said that was exactly the number crew chief Dave Grubnic was aiming for: “That's actually right on our target, 3.70 flat, pretty outstanding for this team. This track is a little tricky. You really got to find that groove. If you get out of it, you're in trouble. So we got down there and we get one more tonight.”
She made the most of it, too. Force closed her qualifying effort with a 3.663-second elapsed time that was only .011 of a second slower than Salinas’ 3.652-second E.T.
She called her Saturday performance a “big improvement for this Monster Energy / Flav-R-Pac team today out in St. Louis. Definitely stepped it up and made two awesome runs today. We have a good ladder for tomorrow, and our plan is to go out and turn on four win lights.”
OTHER TOP FUEL MATCH-UPS – Two-time Top Fuel winner Josh Hart, the No. 10 starter, and No. 7 Justin Ashley will line up against each other in the first round Sunday. They have met twice before, with Hart beating Ashley in the semifinal on his way to the Gatornationals victory and Ashley paying him back in Round 1 at Norwalk.
No. 5 qualifier Billy Torrence will go against No. 12 Scott Palmer, one of the racers the Torrences have helped along the way. And former Don Schumacher Racing teammates Spencer Massey (No. 6), driving for Pat Dakin in his Commercial Metal Fabricator Dragster, is pitted against No. 11 Antron Brown, who’s closing out his time as an official DSR driver.
Clay Millican, the No. 13 qualifier, will give up lane choice to No. 4 Leah Pruett in Round 1.
New team owner Tripp Tatum, with a car built to mimic the Capco Dragsters of Steve and Billy Torrence, said he thinks as the No. 8 starter he has the car that “most definitely” can defeat 49-time winner Doug Kalitta, the No. 9 starter, Sunday morning, “the way this car has been put together by the best that's out there, three-time champions. I'm very blessed to have the situation in front of me. So one run at a time. It's just got to be that way.”
WATCH THIS ONE – One of the juiciest match-ups of the first round of Funny Car eliminations will be the one between the Nos. 7 and 10 qualifiers – Robert Hight and John Force, teammates and bosses at John Force Racing and championship contenders. Force is third in points and Hight is tied with Tim Wilkerson for seventh on a leaderboard on which the No. 1 seed and the ninth are separated by just 97 points.
Hight started the day in the tentative fourth position, but his AAA Chevy Camaro went nowhere helpful in the early Saturday session. But he posted a 3.898-second, 327.11-mph showing in his final chance. He improved but was shoved down to seventh as his rivals improved, as well.
He said after the field was set that it was “overall not a bad qualifying effort, not great but not terrible. Obviously, we were hoping to move a bit to get us out of that first round match-up with John. Not ideal with us both chasing a championship. It’s bound to happen, but you hope it’s at the end of race day, in the finals. We’ll have our work cut out for us, but it’s nothing this AAA team hasn’t handled before and can’t handle again.”
Force had his glitches Saturday, too. His parachutes, for some reason, popped out at about the 800-foot mark on the 1,000-foot course on his Q2 run. Despite that to slow him down, Force had a 3.915-second time at 304.94 mph. He called it “a fluke” and said he would “have loved to have had that back – but the early numbers looked good.” When he climbed from his car and someone told him the parachutes had come out prematurely, Force said, Never had a clue. I was just trying to truck down through there and get this thing in the show. This is St. Louis. Everybody wants to do good here. We’re in the Countdown.”
P.A. announcer Alan Reinhart said Force crew chief (and son-in-law) Danny Hood is at home at Yorba Linda, Calif., quarantining, evidently from a positive COVID test, while Joe Barlam and Tim Fabrisi orchestrated everything at St. Louis. Force sent his love to Hood via the nhra.tv streaming platform and said, “Fabrisi and Barlam are holding their own out here, with your help on TV every round. I got to get him on TV. He’s in bed. I ain’t supposed to talk about all this am I? No. Goodbye.”
Force went back to his car and coaxed only 6.881-seconds at 93.84 mph out of it in his final chance to move away from an early showdown against Hight. But he ran into tire smoke.
He said he still is “figuring this car out. Like I said, made some changes, had a fluke with the parachutes in that first run. We have good information for tomorrow, so we should be OK. This championship fight is getting exciting. Just glad to be in it.”
After Friday qualifying, Force said he and the team made some changes in the PEAK Chevrolet coming into this weekend. He said he wasn’t worried. “We’ll just have to see how it goes,” he said. “We’ll put on a show, so come on out.”
ZIZZO’S CONSISTENCY IMPRESSIVE FOR PART-TIMER – Top Fuel “Super Part-timer” T.J. Zizzo is back on track for only the second time this season. And curiously, the popular Lincolnshire, Ill., native ran a 3.798-second elapsed time at 325.53 mph in the Rust-Oleum Rocket Dragster right off the trailer Friday.
That E.T. and speed might not sound all that impressive – the E.T. was the last in the 3.7-second range Friday as he took 11th place in the provisional order, not even in the top half of the field. However, for a team whose members each have full-time jobs not connected to the race car and for a team that chooses its own appearances based on non-NHRA concerns, it was extraordinary.
Consider that Zizzo’s most recent pass before Friday was at 3.777 seconds in the first round at Brainerd, Minn., in pre-Countdown competition. And last year at this race, he registered three consecutive runs in the 3.75-second range, including back-to-back 3.75s during eliminations.
That shows consistency – actually, improvement, because he qualified at Brainerd with a 3.861-second best. That’s a testament to crew chief Mike Kern, longtime friend and adviser Rahn Tobler, clutch specialist Tony Smith, and the rest of the mechanics who Zizzo said “show up and work on our race car, no matter what I’m doin’.”
He said, “I still love what we do. For years, people have asked, ‘Why don’t you try to go fulltime? Because I’ve got way many other things going on. But I love it because I don’t have to worry about it every day. There’s a delight to that.”
Four-time and reigning Pro Stock champion Erica Enders said Friday after qualifying No. 3 behind the two most recent winners, Greg Anderson and Kyle Koretsky that she needs to keep reminding herself “to have fun doing it.” Zizzo has that mastered. He doesn’t have four titles like she does, but he has satisfaction of his own definition.
Zizzo has raced with “the same people on our team for nearly 20 years. To be able to go out and compete with the best of the best, the Doug Kalittas of the world, the Steve Torrences of the world, and have their respect, is pretty bad-ass. That is like playing minor-league baseball and being able to go to the majors whenever the heck you want.”
He has a choice, a precious concept and one unique part of this sport. In what other sport can someone compete on a professional level when he or she “feels like it” or decides the budget can handle it on a self-selected weekend?
For the Rust-Oleum team, Zizzo said, “One of the reasons we do this is the people we meet. The people in the sport are fantastic. I don’t care if they’re competitors. There’s a wonderful group of people in this sport.”
And right now, Zizzo said he has “been working on T.J. Zizzo since Brainerd. I am the first one to tell you I am dedicated to our race team and doing everything I can to be physically and mentally prepared for an event. Physically, I am always working on our race car. I love it. Mentally, I am taking a new approach to this event. It is more of a personal approach, and we will see if it pays off. I am working on myself. Sometimes working on yourself can translate into success in all areas of your life. Personal and mental health is key to success, and I really believe that.” He said he looked “forward to climbing in that car with a clear mind.”
When he rolled through the gates at World Wide Technology Raceway, “the Rust-Oleum Rocket is going to be as prepared as she has ever been,” Zizzo said. “Our team always puts in a valid effort. Tony, Mike, and Rahn got a run under their belts in Brainerd, and we will just continue to build from that. We got data from Brainerd, even though we didn’t make all the runs we could have. That data is so important for this weekend. We will see how much of that we can implement.”
With upstate Route 66 Raceway at Joliet dropping from the Camping World Drag Racing Series tour, Zizzo said, “St. Louis feels like our new hometown track. We have a lot of guests coming which is super-cool. One goal we have is to run a personal best. Everyone around me feels like that is possible.”
That would mean topping his 3.752-second pass he clocked in 2017 at the fall Las Vegas race. And he fell just .046 of a second short Friday night. His best speed is 329.75 mph, so if he were to surpass that this weekend, he’d need to find nearly five more miles an hour.
Zizzo qualified 15th and will race against No. 2 qualifier and points leader Brittany Force in Sunday’s first round of runoffs.
PEDREGON ON STEADY COURSE – Two-time Funny Car champion Cruz Pedregon loves his team and what they have brought him this season since he hired the entire Don Schumacher Racing crew that had prepped Tommy Johnson Jr.’s car for a string of outstanding seasons.
"The team is doing a great job, top to bottom,” the Snap-on Dodge Charger owner-driver said. “We're seeing solid, consistent runs from the tuning we're doing, and we are really in the mix for the championship. J.C. [crew chief John Collins] is excited about running at Gateway again, since he won it last year with his previous team."
Runner-up at two of the past four races (Brainerd and Charlotte) and a final-quad racer at the Charlotte four-wide event, Pedregon has been on point this year. Only three times all year has he qualified in the bottom half of the field (including at Norwalk, where he won from the No. 10 starting spot). He arrived at World Wide Technology Raceway as a top-five driver, only 52 points out of the lead.
Pedregon said elimination rounds right now are "really tough," considering that his rivals are "armed up" during Countdown competition. With just five races, counting eliminations here Sunday, remaining in the season, he said he sees lots of opportunity.
He used his opportunities in the two Saturday sessions and finished with a fifth-quickest 3.896-second elapsed time at 328.62-mph speed.
“We were on a really good run the first run [Q2], and I shut it off. I thought I felt something. In the second round [Q3], J.C. pushed a little hard out in the middle, and he just let it do its thing. The car runs right between .87 and .90 every time. So hey, great job, great team effort there, but the Snap-on car’s in the field. They're handing out some good E.T.s here, but it'll be a good race. I mean, that's what it should be, should be a close race.”
And Should Pedregon win Sunday, he’ll have Victory No. 38, which will tie him with Matt Hagan for No. 5 on the class’ all-time list. As the No. 5 qualifier, his first opponent will be No. 12 Jim Campbell and the Jim Dunn Racing Blaze Instruments entry.
Pedregon’s Snap-on Dodge sports the sponsor’s “Socket to Breast Cancer” paint scheme for the next four races to support breast-cancer awareness fundraising efforts for The Pink Fund in the United States and for the Kelly Shires Foundation in Canada. Both organizations help breast-cancer patients in their time of need, including providing valuable information. Snap-on just donated $10,000 this past week to those causes. Pedregon’s older sister Dora is a cancer survivor, so his commitment to the program is personal. (For more information about these organizations, please visit their websites: ThePinkFund.org and KellyShiresFoundation.org.).
This has been a busy, and not always pleasant, week for Pedregon since he turned 58 year old last Sunday at Charlotte, although he did help Collins celebrate his birthday this weekend. Shaun Stafford, Snap-on Tools’ Diagnostic Sales Developer, passed away, and Pedregon honored Stafford’s memory Saturday by striking out his racing number on the car.
DE JORIA LOOKING FOR BIG LEAP – Alexis De Joria said she was hoping to “make a great run Friday night during the first session” to “set the tone for the rest of the weekend.” The message after her No. 13 showing, on her 44th birthday, is that she will and the Bandero Tequila/ ROKiT Toyota Camry team at DC Motorsports will need to step it up if she is going to make a points-scrambling move on the Funny Car leaderboard here at St. Louis. She came into the event in ninth place, just four points behind No. 8 Bob Tasca III and 45 out of being in the top-five . . . and better yet, just 51 points away from fourth place. And she said she’s excited for the remaining four Camping World Drag Racing Series races after this one, for they’re ones at which she has fared well in the past.
“When you look at the races we have coming up to close out the season, I have performed well there over the years. I think we could get on a roll at just the right time and make this Countdown interesting,” De Joria said.
She knows how to do it. De Joria has advanced to the semifinals at two of the last three races (five times overall) and has started eliminations from the top half of the field at 11 of the past 12 races (No. 2 six times). And one of these days, with Del Worsham and Nicky Boninfante turning the wrenches, they should have a breakthrough weekend.
WANT TO TRADE SEATS? – When points leader Ron Capps and second-ranked Matt Hagan qualified 1-2 in the provisional order Friday, Capps said, “Funny Car is so fun for the fans right now, but for the drivers and the crews, it’s going to be like old school Pro Stock. It’s going to come down to the wire. With us going 1 and 2 tonight and running so close to each other, you’re going to see a lot of that over these last few races. Matt and I have the two best seats in the house.”
Surely Hagan figures Capps got the better seat, by one-thousandth of a second (3.888 to Hagan’s 3.889) as they put on a side-by-side show at 332-plus mph to close Funny Car’s opening session.
Hagan said he wanted to go fast with his first-time New Holland-branded yellow-and-blue livery, and he did. Then again, he said he’s “confident in this racecar in all conditions.”
This is the first foray into drag racing for New Holland, an Italy-headquartered global brand of agricultural machinery that Hagan uses on his 3,4000-acre cattle and hemp farm in Southeastern Virginia, near Christiansburg.
Hagan, the three-time and current champion, will be seeking his 39th victory Sunday. He’ll start from the No. 1 position with a bye run into the second round against the winner of the Tim Wilkerson-JR Todd match-up.
NOT THIS TIME – Joey Haas, who put his small-budgeted Terry Totten-owned team top of mind in Top Fuel with his final-round appearance this July at Denver, didn’t fare as well this weekend. He was unqualified when he came to the starting line for his final shot at making the 16-car field. He lost traction early in the run and missed the cut. Also failing to qualify in Top Fuel were Keith Murt, Lex Joon, and Buddy Hull.
At the outset of the final Top Fuel qualifying session, Joon and Hull opted out and accepted DNQs. That was somewhat of a relief for Shawn Langdon who at that time occupied the bump spot. Only Haas and Murt could knock Langdon from the field. Neither did (Murt ran a 4.060, not enough to beat Langdon’s 3.989 at the time). And Langdon closed his day in more secure fashion, running a 3.787 to improve to the No. 14 slot (13th at first then dropped to 14th).
That assured Langdon a spot in the field – and it justified Kyle Wurtzel’s gamble to pass on a final chance to improve. Wurtzel made his surprise decision before he knew he would be locked into a starting spot for Sunday’s eliminations. For all his strategy, he’s 16th and couldn’t opt out of drawing No. 1 qualifier Mike Salinas in the opening round Sunday morning.
Langdon, meanwhile, is set for a Round 1 meeting with Steve Torrence, the No. 3 qualifier. He and Torrence have faced each other three time already this season, and Torrence has won all three times. Langdon qualified 14th last weekend at Charlotte but has qualified worse only twice this season, 16th at both Norwalk and Indianapolis. It’s a similar story for Torrence, whose No. 5 start at Charlotte was his lowest all year. Torrence otherwise had qualified no worse than fourth (three times) and at every other event he was No. 1 or No. 2. Torrence has a 42-7 record in eliminations so far.
COUGHLIN DIGGING COUNTDOWN INTENSITY – Troy Coughlin Jr. managed to stay in the top half of the Pro Stock field Saturday and will have lane choice over another young, eager racer, No. 9 Mason McGaha.
"This is my first time in the Countdown and I can tell you that it's a pretty intense atmosphere at the racetrack these days," Coughlin said. "Pro Stock has always had the closest racing of any professional category, and yet somehow it's gotten even closer these last few events. It's pretty insane and exciting all at the same time.
"It's fun to be in the thick of things every race and when the competition gets this tight it takes everything up another level,” he said. “You know everyone is making great horsepower, so it comes down to which driver gets off the clutch pedal and through the gears the quickest. Mistakes are magnified, and win lights mean 1,000 times more than normal."
The happy news for Coughlin is that he doesn’t have to face Greg Anderson, at least not in the first round Sunday. Anderson, the points leader and No. 1 qualifier again, has beaten Coughlin in the first two Countdown races, in the semifinals at Reading, Pa., and last weekend in the quarterfinals at Charlotte. And Anderson did it by .001 seconds at Reading and .009 seconds at Charlotte.
"We need to get on the right side of these super-close ones," Coughlin said. "It's the nature of Pro Stock to have races decided by thousandths of a second, which is pretty crazy if you think about how much goes into a run. To have two completely different teams and drivers produce a race where you're literally an inch or two apart at the other end of the quarter-mile is hard to fathom, but it's actually fairly common.”
STANFIELD A DOUBLE THREAT – Aaron Stanfield has put himself into a pretty strong position to win as many as two trophies this weekend at World Wide Technology Raceway. For the second time this season, the 2019 Factory Stock Showdown champion qualified No. 1 at a Constant Aviation Factory Stock Showdown national event. Stanfield made the two quickest runs Saturday to solidify his position at the top of the field. In the final session, he improved his previous-best run with a blistering 3.765 second pass at 176.12 mph.
He said, “That last run felt like poetry in motion. The front end didn’t come up too much because the track was pretty tight. We were able to keep the front end down. It set me back in the seat pretty good. I could tell it was a really good run.”
In the Pro Stock class, the 26-year-old Louisiana racer took the No. 4 starting spot (behind Greg Anderson, Kyle Koretsky, and Dallas Glenn). He’ll open eliminations against Kenny Delco, a Countdown contender and the No. 13 qualifier.
Other Pro Stock pairings for the first round are: Anderson v. Fernando Cuadra, Koretsky v. Fort Worth businessman and class newcomer Marty Robertson, Glenn v. Cristian Cuadra, Erica Enders v. Elite teammate Bo Butner, Rodger Brogdon v. Matt Hartford, and Chris McGaha v. Deric Kramer.
Failing to qualify for the Pro Stock field were Alan Prusiensky, Fernando Cuadra Jr., and Robert River.
CRASHES FRAME ATTITUDES ABOUT WWTR FOR NITRO RACERS PRUETT, HIGHT; BOBBY BODE GRABS HIGH SPOT IN FUNNY CAR WITH CAREER-BESTS; TORRENCE, FORCE RECOMMIT TO THEIR TOP FUEL JOUST AFTER BOTH LEAVE CHARLOTTE WITHOUT WHAT THEY WANT; TATUM SURPRISES IN TOP FUEL
Nitro-class racers Leah Pruett (Top Fuel) and Robert Hight (Funny Car) have had rough visits recently to World Wide Technology Raceway at Madison, Ill. However, both said before qualifying began Friday at the NHRA Midwest Nationals that they were eager to get right back on the suburban St. Louis dragstrip.
Pruett took a wild ride during the second round of eliminations here last year, one that destroyed not only her Don Schumacher Racing dragster but also her championship hopes. The defiant No. 5-ranked Countdown driver had no fear running in that same right lane Friday night. Her performance Friday was much safer, at 6.680 seconds, but that wasn’t at all what she had planned for her Okuma-sponsored entry. What she had in mind was conquering this racing surface.
She said, “The St. Louis track got me last year, and this year, we’re going to get it. It took a lot away from our team last year with the crash, and it’s not something that we don’t talk about or address. We had a great race car at that time and one of our best and lightest bodies, and we were deep in the championship hunt. This year, I feel like as an anniversary gift of the crash, we’ll be rewarding ourselves with a solid program and really looking to own that track.
“I’ve run well there in all sorts of classes – very fast times, and that’s what builds confidence. When you can search deep in yourself and look at your track records and look at what you’ve accomplished previously, that’s what builds our confidence going into this race,” Pruett said.
“We are pumped, and we want to take on the competition in every facet. We’re definitely ready for it. And I’m ready to take back from St. Louis what was taken from us last year. We are finding our championship race car this weekend.”
The Pomona winner has two more chances Saturday to find it in qualifying.
Hight did accomplish all that he set out to do Friday in Funny Car, either, but he did earn the provisional No. 4 spot in the order behind the Don Schumacher Racing top-ranked tandem of Ron Capps and Matt Hagan and college sophomore Bobby Bode. Hight ran a 3.902-second elapsed time at 326.87 mph on the 1,000-foot course.
With hardly a mention of his messy 2018 victory here, he said, “I’m excited for what we can do in St. Louis.” He even said, “I’ve had some luck at World Wide Technology Raceway. And even when I had some bad luck, it still had some good to it.”
Winning is something he doesn’t mind repeating. But the second of his two victories here – he also won in 2010 – came with painful consequences. As he crossed the finish line to defeat Tim Wilkerson, the engine in his Camaro let go, sending him to the wall and breaking his collarbone. After returning from the hospital, he shared the team celebration with his arm in sling. Hight underwent surgery, then was fitted with some extra padding and, as he recalled, “ended up back in the seat just 10 days later.” He won that race at Dallas, as well.
Despite that incident, Hight said, “I love racing here [and am] hoping we can capitalize on our progress and gain some ground in the points battle. I know this AAA team is putting everything they have into these final five races. It’s time for their hard work to pay off.”
Just the same, he understands what he needs to do: “We have our work cut out for us. I said it from the beginning: I believe you need to win three races in this Countdown to win the championship, and I believe this AAA team can do just that. We had some issues on race day in Charlotte, but we got it handled. Jimmy Prock is one of the most focused crew chiefs out here, and he has really had to pour himself into this Chevy, he and [assistant crew chief] Chris Cunningham both.”
Hight has victories this season at Houston and Sonoma and runner-up finishes at Gainesville and Epping, N.H. As he tries to extend to four the number of consecutive seasons in which he has won a Countdown race, he’s tied with Wilkerson for sixth place in the standings, just 72 points off Ron Capps’ pace. He leads the class in Countdown victories with 12 overall.
Here at World Wide Technology Raceway, he set both ends of the track record at 3.830 seconds and 338.60 mph Sept. 30, 2017, and he has been top qualifier four times (2006, 2016, 2017, 2018).
TORRENCE-FORCE BATTLE RAGES ON - This Countdown has been bringing some drama in the Top Fuel class with an epic battle between Steve Torrence and Brittany Force for the lead. Force and her Flav-R-Pac / Monster Energy team wrested it from Torrence during qualifying last weekend at Charlotte on the strength of qualifying points. She earned the maximum of 17, while he uncharacteristically blanked in bonus markers. That gave her a 21-point edge heading into this race.
But neither of them left zMAX Dragway less than a week ago with everything they wanted. Force took over the points lead but lost in lopsided fashion to Josh Hart in the final round. Torrence didn’t even get the reassurance that the scoreboard and win lights worked correctly when he raced Force in the semifinal round.
Aggravated that he was misled into a premature semifinal victory celebration because of the electronic malfunction, Torrence made sure there was no doubt which one of the two of them was going to take an early upper hand Friday. Force sputtered at the start of her Friday attempt and ended up on the bump spot overnight, with at least three stout performers itching to race into the top 16 with two chances Saturday. Torrence yielded the top spot Friday to Mike Salinas, but he and dad Billy Torrence (the No. 4-ranked Top Fuel Countdown competitor) were second- and third-quickest in the opening session.
Force, the owner of 10 No. 1 qualifiers this season (including the near-record past eight), experienced tire smoke by mid-track and could muster just a 5.620-second performance at 116.81 mph.
“Unfortunately, we didn’t get down there in Q1. I drove it a bit out of the groove, and it went into smoke,” she said. “We’re collecting all the information from tonight, and we’ll adjust for tomorrow. Conditions should still be cool, so we should be able to run well. This Monster Energy / Flav-R-Pac team is not letting one run get to us. We get two more tomorrow, and we’re confident we’ll step up.”
Torrence is heading in a better direction than he was at Charlotte, or so far in the Countdown, for that matter. He hasn’t reached a final round yet at either of the first two Countdown races. But if he pays any attention to history, he needn’t be too worried. Two years ago, the last time the championship was decided in the Countdown format, Torrence also arrived here having lost the point lead following a surprising first-round loss in the playoff opener. In that case, he powered his Capco Contractors Dragster to the final round, igniting his dash to a second straight championship.
Still, it has to be perturbing that just three weeks ago he led Force by 411 points. But thanks to the NHRA meddling in performance-based points, Force fairly and squarely took advantage that his lead was sliced to a mere 20 points. So that heightened the tension when the two of them met in the semifinal and even more so when the scoreboard falsely declared Torrence the winner. At that point, he trailed by a single point and appeared to regain his lead that he had possessed since the second race of the year. Ultimately and correctly, Force finally was determined to have won, and off she went for St. Louis with a 21-point lead.
“I didn’t think that could happen,” Torrence said. (It happens on occasion. Ask Erica Enders.) “I saw the win light and started celebrating. Then they said I lost. As a driver, you look for that light, because most of the time the races are too close to call. That win light is like a beacon in the night. Now you don’t know whether to trust it.”
But Torrence does trust his crew and his car: “These Capco Boys always give me a car that can win. It’s up to me not to screw it up. There’s still a lot of racing ahead. There’s still a lot of racing to do before someone raises that trophy. Brittany’s got a great car but I wouldn’t trade for these Capco Boys. We’re still in a good spot and nothing can stop us if we don’t stop ourselves. We just have to stay consistent, stay focused. We’re going to be there for the long haul, and I know Brittany and Grubby [Force crew chief David Grubnic] are going to be there, too. Should be a fun shootout.”
Force hasn’t given up at all on her goal for the weekend: “Our Monster Energy / Flav-R-Pac team plans to continue what we’ve been doing. We are looking to get as many points as we can during qualifying and on race day,” she said. “Eight No. 1 qualifiers in a row is a huge accomplishment, and we plan to add to that this weekend while also going for a St. Louis win.”
Justin Ashley, who’s 74 points behind Force in third place, could toss a monkey wrench on both of their plans. So could Billy Torrence, if eliminations set him up for it. So the “fun shootout” Steve Torrence talked about might be fun for the fans but a nerve-wracking one for the top four.
With an extra race this year in the Countdown (with the addition of the October event at Bristol, Tenn.), the Nos. 5, 6, and 7 racers have an extra chance to move up in the standings. No. 5 Leah Pruett, No. 6 Mike Salinas, and No. 7 Antron Brown are separated by 10 points, and a couple of knockout punches to the leaders could scramble matters.
THE BIG PICTURE - One might think Greg Anderson wants to win the NHRA Midwest Nationals to secure his place in drag racing history as the winningest driver in the Pro Stock division.
One might be wrong.
“The good thing about it is, to beat the record, I have to win a race,” Anderson said. “To win a race, that means I get the most points for the event. So it all works together. So that’s the game plan. Trying to find a way to win the race and get as many points as I can, and that’ll go a long ways towards a championship.”
Anderson entered St. Louis with a 15 point lead over Erica Enders, and by running the quickest lap in Friday’s lone session, he extended the lead to two points as Enders also gained one bonus point. His 6.536 second elapsed time was .002 quicker than No. 2 Kyle Koretsky, who is third in points.
“Every point is going to be important,” Anderson said. “There’s no question that this deal’s gonna go down to Pomona. Every single point you can get on the way is going to be important. It always puts a smile on your face when they say you were low ET for the round. It doesn’t matter if it got the pole or not. If you get the three points, that’s what it’s all about. So we had as many points as we could get today, and we’ll have to go back and work on it a little tomorrow. The weather is going to be better tomorrow. So these cars are going to pick up again tomorrow. It’s going to be faster tomorrow.”
Anderson knows his provisional No.1 is precisely that. It’s a temporary top spot.
“It’s not safe, and we’re going to have to come out and give it all we got tomorrow to get those three points and try and keep that pole,” Anderson said. “So it should be interesting. It’s wonderful out here. These are great race conditions. Going to be even better tomorrow. This is what we, as Pro Stock racers, love. It’s fun when it’s like this. So we’re having fun out there.” Bobby Bennett
RELUCTANT, PROVISIONALLY - Consider Funny Car racer Ron Capps to be the reluctant No. 1 qualifier.
Capps, who ran a 3.888-second elapsed time at 332.59 miles per hour to secure the provisional No. 1 spot at the NHRA Midwest Nationals, is grateful for the top spot, but given his druthers he would have been satisfied with being second on the qualifying sheet.
Capps was a fan of second-generation drag racer Bobby Bode, who led qualifying until the final pair with a career-best 3.891 elapsed time.
"Honestly, there was a big part of me that wanted to see Bode end up number one," Capps said. "I would have sacrificed a couple of qualifying points to see Bobby Bode and that Bode family stay number one. Maybe not looking at the end of the year because you could lose a championship by those little points. But Hagan and I got out, and it's like, man, it's a bummer. It's cool he's still in third. But that's a family you want to cheer for, right?"
Capps picked up three bonus points and Matt Hagan snagged two, knocking the expansion of his point lead down to one. Capps now leads Hagan by six points.
Make no mistake, Capps knows every point is crucial as the season winds down.
"I could give you all kinds of great examples, but if you go back and look at, and I can't even tell you what years, but there are several years that I was number two in the world by less than ten points," Capps said. "There's that one year my daughter is hugging me, and I was fine till she started hugging me. But you lose it by less than a round on the last day of the year in Pomona; you start wondering, where could I have made up that one or two or three or four points here and there. And those are those moments we fight for, and it's that one moment it comes crashing down that you realize you lost everything you dreamed about by a few points.
"You think of not just me; it's my team and everybody involved. It's family, and everybody rides that wave. My daughter, whatever age she was at the time, was a wreck. I was better than her, but it's those moments I'll never forget. I'm sure in her mind, being a teenager, she really won't ever forget that moment. So those are great examples and not so great examples of why those points are so important." Bobby Bennett
NOW THAT'S A SHOT! - In baseball, there’s a term called an upper deck shot. An upper deck shot is when a batter hits a baseball as far as possible without going entirely out of the stadium.
When it comes to Top Fuel racer Mike Salinas Friday night during the opening qualifying session at the NHRA Midwest Nationals, upper deck shot seems such an inadequate description.
Salinas blasted out a 3.652 second elapsed time at 327.74 miles per hour, to put his Scrappers Top Fuel dragster exactly .05 quicker than No. 2 qualifier and defending series champion Steve Torrence.
Salinas had the only Top Fuel dragster in the 3.60s Friday.
“We’ve been working on stuff all year, and that’s the first sign of it right there,” said Salinas, whose Top Fuel dragster is tuned by Alan Johnson and Brian Husen. “We had stuff coming our way, but now we know it’s here. Our numbers are getting really good at a 330 even in testing, so I think we’re hitting at the right time.”
There are 20 dragsters in St. Louis, and Brittany Force, who stands one No. 1 qualifier shy of tying Gary Beck’s nearly four-decade-old consecutive pole position mark at eight, sits on the bubble with an off-pace 5.620.
There was probably no one more surprised with the 3.65 than Salinas himself.
“When you watch what Brittany’s been doing, that’s impressive,” Salinas said. “They’ve been doing a great job. All of us are trying to run these crazy numbers. We have a fast car, and now we just need to finish the year off exactly with what we’re doing. Try to have as much fun as possible.”
There’s a whole lot of fun having a .05 advantage on the rest of the field, especially on a run where you lift early. At least that’s how Salinas sees it.
“I actually lifted because we spun it towards the end there,” Salinas said. “It was not bad. Should have been faster, actually. A little disappointed. It made it all the way. We hold ourselves to a higher level. We really do. The same with Alan, I hold him to a higher level, and when he does his best, I expect better. That’s just the way life is." Bobby Bennett