2022 NHRA SONOMA NATIONALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
WILL BLISTERING-HOT BRITTANY FORCE HELP JFR FORGE A DYNASTY? - Brittany Force’s merciless speed-surging performance against the best of the NHRA Top Fuel class at the Denso Sonoma Nationals had to share the spotlight Sunday with jolting news from Don Schumacher Racing (DSR).
The post-race announcement that Don Schumacher has turned his majority ownership of his multiple-championship-winning team over to business partners Joe and Cathi Maynard doesn’t mean the dissolution of his one-time seemingly unstoppable megateam that has recorded 366 victories and 19 series crowns.
However, this latest twist in Top Fuel history does usher in a new era for eight-time class champion, 85-time winner, and all-time victories leader Tony Schumacher. Coupled with four-time and reigning champion Steve Torrence’s current struggle to maintain supremacy over an ever-improving cast of contenders, it begs one question.
Is John Force The Last Emperor of nitro-class drag racing?
The recipient of crew chief Dave Grubnic’s powerful artillery of engine combinations, Brittany Force routed hopeful teammate Austin Prock, Torrence, Shawn Langdon, and Mike Salinas to seize the points lead from Salinas. She won with a 3.709-second elapsed time at 335.48 mph to crush his robust 3.741, 320.05.
But her winning speed actually was the slowest Sunday for the 2017 champion. Force already owned nine of the Top Fuel class’ 10 fastest speeds – and she still does. But she scrambled the numbers Sunday, inserting that 335.48 mph, along with a 336.07, a 336.49, and a 337.75.
While she sealed the deal, her father, John Force – the 16-time champion with 155 victories – fell short of sharing another father-daughter winners circle like they did last August at Topeka. Nevertheless, he’s fourth in the Funny Car standings and gaining momentum, while his John Force Racing (JFR) teammate and company president, Robert Hight, is the runaway points leader.
So will JFR, seemingly crippled by COVID less than two years ago, rise from its own difficulties and take advantage of others’ to return to the powerhouse it was?
The answer will become clearer after four more regular-season races and a Countdown to the Championship that promises to become intense once the sanctioning body applies its points adjustments and bunches the fields for the six-race sprint to the title.
On the Top Fuel side, that makes Torrence – who took positives from his second-round exit at Sonoma – even more determined to recapture his dominating form.
“That’s as consistent as we’ve run since we made all these changes,” Torrence said. “And I think that’s the first time we’ve gone 330 (miles an hour) this year. I can’t wait to get to Seattle, because if we keep giving ourselves chances like we did today, we’re going to get that first win [of the season] sooner rather than later.”
The Camping World Drag Racing Series returns this next weekend to Pacific Raceways, near Seattle, for the first time since 2019, for the Flav-R-Pac Northwest Nationals.
Meanwhile, Torrence’s Capco Dragster covered the Sonoma Raceway 1,000-foot course under power and posted competitive numbers with every run with times in the high 3.6-second and low 3.7-second range. And he earned qualifying bonus points in each session for just the second time this year. His 330.80-mph top speed, in the third and final qualifying pass, was the fastest speed he has clocked since last October (when he hit 333.58 mph at Bristol, Tenn.).
All that’s to say that it appears Torrence isn’t going to let Force steamroll him. And because he has seen it work this way before, he knows that the rather unpopular points adjustments just might help him this time around.
Salinas, who powered to his 14th final-round appearance Sunday, has four victories and a 26-8 race-day record. And he still is scrapping with his Scrappers Racing team to carve out his own legacy in the class. He’s only six points off Force’s pace.
Force has plenty of time to imagine dynasties and even to stay grounded, thinking about the here and now. For at least one evening, she just wanted to drink up the thrill of conquering this racetrack for the first time in her career.
"Incredible race day for this Flav-R-Pac/Monster Energy team. Coming into races, you go off of how you have done in the past. And we’ve always struggled with the Western Swing. Sonoma has always been one I’ve wanted to win. It’s almost a home track for me. I’ve watched my dad as a kid with my sisters, raced Super Comp and A-Fuel, celebrated all the other John Force Racing team wins. I always wanted to win here, and we finally pulled it off,” Force said.
As for DSR, whose changes become official Monday, July 25, Tony Schumacher will continue competing – under the alphabet-soup-like team name of Maynard Family Racing/Don Schumacher Racing (JCM/DSR).
“It’s incredible to see how passionate the Maynards are about our sport,” Tony Schumacher said. “Together, we will continue to represent our roster of JCM and DSR partners such as Scag Power Equipment and Okuma to the best of our abilities both on and off the track as we race for a bid to compete in the 2022 NHRA Countdown to the Championship playoffs.”
Both Tony Schumacher and Antron Brown – who appeared to have dynasties that no one could imagine ending and together boast 11 series titles under the DSR banner – aren’t in the top 10. Brown is 11th and Schumacher 12th in the standings but could be eligible for the Countdown by attending every regular-season event. Still, that’s not characteristic of either racer.
“Make no mistake,” Don Schumacher said. “I love drag racing, and while I may be taking a step back from the Top Fuel team at this time, I have no intention of leaving the sport. Full fields are imperative to the health of NHRA, and we will continue to look for opportunities that will allow us to field championship-contending nitro teams. But for now, this move makes sense.”
He said he’ll concentrate on his opportunities with DSR Performance “and will continue to engineer and supply leading racing parts to the drag racing community in addition to expanding our defense and aerospace contracts. Earlier this season, we announced the launch of an exciting new project, the DSR 1150 crate engine, but I feel that we’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of DSR Performance’s capabilities. By being able to let go of the reins of the Top Fuel team a little bit, we’re able to focus our attention on continuing to develop that side of the business.” Susan Wade
BOB TASCA III BLAZES TO NITRO FC WIN AT SONOMA - Bob Tasca III know his team is a championship contender in NHRA’s nitro Funny Car class.
On Sunday, his team proved that to be true at the Denso Sonoma (Calif.) Nationals.
Tasca clocked a 3.911-second elapsed time at 325.61 mph to beat the legendary John Force who clocked a 3.998-second run at 326.56 mph.
“I said in the interview, some points of the season, we look kind of silly because the only reason why we're out here is to run for a championship period,” Tasca said. “And we didn't have a car that could do that for most of the season. We didn't have a car that could do that at the end of last season. We led the points most of 2021. And we couldn't run when the conditions got good. And when you race with Jon Schaffer and Mike Neff, that's all these guys think about is winning a championship. So, we tested a lot this season. We made some of the quickest and fastest runs I've ever made in my career during testing, which I used to get (teased) by my buddy there, Tony Pedregon. He said, ‘Yeah, you're winning the Monday Nationals.’ The truth is, we sacrificed a lot this season to get to where we are right now. And when we came into this race, we really didn't have a handle on this setup. It showed a lot of promise. In testing, we put it maybe once or twice in a few races during the year.”
Testing and real results finally came together in Sonoma.
“Mike was just determined that it had to be this weekend,” said Tasca about things clicking. “And Friday, the car ran good early and shook. Saturday morning, it did kind of the same thing. And Saturday night I'm like, ‘Mike, maybe we should just go back to what almost won the last two races.’ And he's like, ‘No, no, no, I'm close.’ It made that run Saturday night, and that was really a pretty extraordinary run. I'm not quite sure anyone has ever been that quick on 118-degree track. We ran that 3.87 with a five, and then it came up this morning and it did the same thing, did the same thing in the second round. We slowed it down a little bit against Robert. We were a little worried about the track, and then ran lights out in the finals. So, I guess this has come full circle for us because we just wanted to be ready.”
With his recent string of success, Tasca has moved up to fifth in the points standings.
“With the way the points are in the regular season, really doesn't matter,” he said. “As long as you can be in the top five, top six, anyone can win the championship. But you can't win the championship if you can't run 87s and conditions like you see right here. It's not going to happen. You can think it can happen. You can wish it can happen, but it's not going to happen. And this is a setup. And I think we just kind of put the whole field on notice that, when the conditions are like this in the Countdown (the last six races of the season), we're going to be right with them.
“And now you can throw your name in the hat to run for the championship. Nobody guaranteed a championship. Robert was trying to guarantee they was going to sweep the swing. He's sweeping, but he's not sweeping the swing, right? But you got to be in the conversation of it. And that's what I think we've done here this weekend. And we just got to load this thing up and go to Seattle and try to do the same thing.”
This was Tasca’s first win of the season and the 10th of his career.
Tasca’s victory should not come as that big of surprise he made it the finals of the previous two events in Norwalk, Ohio, and Denver, Colo., before losing to Robert High twice in those final rounds.
On Sunday, Tasca disposed of Jason Rupert, Blake Alexander, Hight and then 16-time world champion Force.
Tasca did acknowledge testing at races to get the tune-up right is a mental grind.
“It's hard,” he said. ”It's more than dedication. It's mentally debilitating. We look silly some races. I get emails from fans like, ‘Hey, listen, did you guys forget how to race.’ Right? I mean, we got some veteran people, but at the end of the day, we look at the early numbers. When we mean early numbers, we mean 60 feet and we hyper focus on that because if you can't get the car to move early, you'll never get it to run what it needs to run at the finish line.
“It all is in the first 300, 400 feet. And we just couldn't do it. And Mike and John, and I won't say they don't care about winning and losing races, they just care about getting a setup that can go run for a championship. And if we had to sacrifice some races, which we certainly did this year, that's what we've done to get here. I mean, this car showed the field that we had some of the quickest early numbers ever on 118-degree track. And then when the track cooled down, we were there. When it heated up a little bit, we were there.”
Tasca said when his car is running smooth it is more than a relief.
“It's exciting for me as a driver because it gets difficult to put all this in and lose first round,” he said. “And see the Hights and the Hagans go out there running numbers, and we're struggling, right? And it's not a lack of knowledge. What we are challenged with, and all of these teams are here challenged with, primarily the inconsistency of clutch discs, right? So, they're not the same. The motor we can be made the same, heads we can make the same, the blowers we can make the same, but the clutch discs are never the same. And that's what we're challenged with. And as you go through iterations of batches, these guys have figured out a way where they can take a clutch setup and make it act the way they want to act. It takes a lot of time, a lot of effort. I give a lot of credit to Ford. We've been working with our engineers on our clutch program, and they've helped us. I joked this weekend. I said, "I think they put Ford autopilot in the car.’ I'm telling you right now, I mean this very humbly, there were runs today that you didn't need Bob Tasca in the car. You could have taken a fan out of the stand, sat them in that thing, and just said, ‘Listen, when that light goes yellow, hit the throttle, close your eyes, count to 3.8, and then just hit that button right there and the car will stop.’ And that's a testament of the setup, right? I mean, that thing was as straight as an arrow all day long. And the quickest and fastest runs you make are typically like that.”
Despite his recent success, Tasca isn’t making any bold predictions.
“I think, hey, listen, Robert (Hight) is the gold standard right now,” Tasca said. “I mean, anyone says different, they haven't looked at the points lately. I don't think I beat the guy in three years, right? So mentally, in Norwick and Denver, he had the upper hand. I mean, his car was just running a little better than our car. And we gave it the best shot we got. Out here, we had the upper hand, and he knew it. They had to come get us. I think, as a driver, that puts you in a real nice spot. John Force, John Force is superhuman. Let's just put that on record, okay? He's 73 years old. If the average person knew what we went through in a weekend mentally, physically, how difficult it is to get through a weekend in one of these cars with full layer of firesuits on, strapped in so you hardly can't breathe. And you look over next to you and the guy's 73 years old, I think, maybe 74. He's superhuman, okay?
“The guy is a legend. I wouldn't be here sitting at this stage if it weren’t for John Force. There's nobody out here I want to race more than John. I mean, how often do you get any athlete in any sport gets to go toe to toe with the greatest of all time in maybe the next thousand years? I know that he brings his ‘A’ game. I knew he was going to drop the top bulb. I mean, eventually I just got to... John and I are going to have a sidebar. And say, ‘John, listen, if we ever race each other again in the finals, don't put the top bulb down, because I already know you're going to put the top bulb down.’ But he taught me a lot of this. And he said, ‘Tasca, I created my own assassin.’” Tracy Renck
ERICA ENDERS FINALLY GETS COVETED SONOMA PRO STOCK WIN - Erica Enders is an NHRA Pro Stock star. She has four world championships as proof.
And Sunday she checked something else off her bucket list.
For the first time in her decorated career, she won the Denso Sonoma (Calif.) Nationals.
Enders used a holeshot to beat her rival, Greg Anderson.
Enders, driving an Elite Motorsports Camaro, clocked a slower 6.574-second elapsed time at 196.62 mph to Anderson’s 6.565-second lap at 208.01 mph.
The difference was at the starting line.
Enders had an .018 reaction time compared to Anderson’s .049 reaction time.
“It's huge for us and as I mentioned down on the track, this race has evaded us somehow for 18 years with racing Pro Stock,” Enders said. “So, every year I set my goals and Sonoma was on the list and we were finally able to capitalize on it. We've had a tremendous race car all year. My guys worked so hard in the off season to make up the gap that KB Racing had put on us last year and it's paying off. It's just really exciting for me and to be able to win this weekend, just shy of the finish line down there, my motor let go and just kind of went flat and I look left and I don't see Greg and I'm like, ‘Please, please, please, don't run out of real estate,’ and saw the beacon light up on the guard wall and it was just a significant win for me personally.”
This was Enders 39th career Pro Stock victory. It was her sixth win of the season in 10 Pro Stock national events, and she also has one runner-up effort to her name. She also was the No. 1 qualifier.
“We lost Grandpa (Royce) Freeman two weeks ago, just prior to Denver and we wanted to park this Melling Performance car in the Winner’s Circle for him in his honor and his family has done such an excellent job of continuing his legacy,” Enders said. “Even when he was alive, he raced Pro Stock back in the 1970s and instilled that love for NHRA drag racing in his three boys, one of which is Richard Freeman, who I drive for and Bryce Lee and Robert, who did my clutch for a lot of years.
“So, this is huge, and we wanted to win for grandpa. We have a grease board in our trailer and it's a to-do list and last week it was, ‘Win Denver for grandpa,’ and we erased Denver and we put Sonoma and we were able to get it done. So, this one means a lot for a lot of different reasons.”
On Sunday Enders beats Fernando Cuadra Jr., Mason McGaha, who beat in the first round in Denver July 17, teammate Aaron Stanfield and then Anderson.
“I want to talk a little bit about the Cuadra boys and their dad, Fernando,” Enders said. “Such a great addition to team Elite. Those two boys are badass behind the wheel. They've been on the wrong side of green the last couple of weeks, but as soon as they figure that out, they're going to be a force to be reckoned with. So, I knew I had to be on my game then. I was 11 on the tree. Second round, we had Mason McGaha who beat me on a whole shot, threw some stuff at the wall last week and it stuck. He was double oh three, I was 20 and he was able to turn the wind light on. So that was a little bit of a redemption there.”
Then came the match up with her teammate – Stanfield. Enders is first in the points standings and Stanfield is second, 80 points behind.
“Racing Aaron in the semi-finals, my teammate, obviously, you mentioned we've raced in the finals a lot this year and been able to come on top quite a few times, but he's a super talented driver behind the wheel,” Enders said. “I know the motors that are under his hood because they're the same ones I run. I know what the crew chief said he uses 'cause they're mine.
“So, that was kind of the round of the day. I knew if we could get past Aaron, we could park this Melling Performance car in the winner’s circle. No disrespect to Greg, but we have this slight performance advantage on those guys right now and I wanted to run on mean up there. I knew he would probably be going for my jugular, and I wanted to go for his. So, fortunately enough, I was good enough on the tree to make up for our engine exploding at the finish line and again, to do it for grandpa, to do it for my Melling boys, it just means so much to me. I'm so excited.”
As dominate as Enders has been in 2022, she knew nothing would come easier for in Sonoma.
“My sister's my ultimate hype girl,” Enders said. “Even when I'm down in the dumps she makes me believe in myself even when I don’t, and it is just crucial to be positive. And coming into race day, I know I have the car to beat right now. It's just it's the way the cookie crumbles and that will change. I guarantee it. But right now, all I have to do is go up there and do my job and not mess up. So, that was kind of my mindset today. Just crack the tree every single time with exception to Aaron's run because he rolled the beams. My eye transfer went to his stage bulbs instead of my drop. So, I was late there, but all day long, I think we were 11, 20, 18. So pretty consistent there and I'm super stoked and it takes me back to my first win in 2012 against Greg Anderson who didn't want to be the guy to get beat and he was, and it was awesome.”
Enders has 39 Pro Stock national event wins but relished sharing the winner’s circle with first-time national event winner Joey Gladstone in Pro Stock Motorcycle.
“Being able to share the Winner’s Circle with Joey Gladstone is so significant,” Enders said. “Courtney (Erica’s sister) and I said, ‘Today is your day, man. This is your third final round. You are winning today,’ and that I'm honored to share the Winner’s Circle with him because this is something he'll never forget and being able to capitalize on Sonoma is something that I'll never forget. Then going to Seattle, it was my second win ever and the first time two Pro girls won, me and Courtney Force, so that stands out in my mind as well as we head there next week. Just an amazing day. I give God the glory and I'm so stoked. I know I don't show it very well. My dad says, ‘Act excited,’ and I say, ‘I am excited,’ but I really am excited. I'm so happy.”
Enders this version of herself winning for the first time in Sonoma is far different than when she started competing in Pro Stock.
“My sister's younger than me, but she's way stronger than me mentally and she's helped me along the way, and she has way more street smart,” Erica said. “So, it was definitely a battle, but I would tell my younger self to not care so much what other people think and what the internet says about you. You're living a dream and those people are sitting on their mom's couch in their basement. So, I love what I do. I'm blessed to do it and the people, the naysayers just they don't matter. They suck.
“So, I would tell old Erica not to listen to all that crap and it's just jumble in your ears and to focus on the main goal. And if I could have learned that a lot younger and acquired thicker skin at a lot younger age, it would've been a significant advantage. But this Erica is way different than Erica five years ago, but for sure, different than Erica 18 years ago 'cause I used to make my sister ask for ketchup at a restaurant 'cause I was too shy.” Tracy Renck
EMOTIONAL GLADSTONE EARNS CAREER-FIRST PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE VICTORY AT SONOMA - Joey Gladstone experienced a 180-degree emotional swing on the Sonoma [Calif.] Raceway quarter-mile Sunday at the NHRA Denso Sonoma Nationals.
For him, race day began with the kind of surprise no Pro Stock Motorcycle racer wants.
“First round, I threw my hands up after what happened. The bike wouldn’t do a burnout, and I didn’t know if I could fix it,” he said.
But for some reason, the Precision Service Equipment Suzuki rider didn’t let it upset him. He said he still felt rather lucky.
“In racing, it’s funny – some days you feel like you can’t lose. And today felt a lot like that,” Gladstone said. “It’s kind of like gambling. If it keeps hitting back and you’re betting on red, eventually it’s going to hit red, right? I guess the odds were in my favor today.”
His gut feeling was correct. By the end of this second race on the Western Swing (but he last for the motorcycle class), Gladstone was shedding tears of joy, reveling in his first-ever NHRA victory.
Gladstone defeated Jianna Evaristo, Katie Sullivan, and Jerry Savoie before using a holeshot in his third consecutive final-round appearance to clip Eddie Krawiec.
He covered the course in 6.759 seconds at 200.68 mph to defeat Krawiec, who countered with a quicker 6.758-second elapsed time at 199.67 mph aboard the Vance & Hines Mission Foods Suzuki. Gladstone denied Krawiec his 50th victory.
In the process, Gladstone moved up to No. 2 in the standings, a mere two points behind new leader Angelle Sampey and 10 ahead of previous leader Steve Johnson.
Although Gladstone said, “The bike was just on rails all day,” he was quick to say, “The race gods made us earn it.”
And he did, unable to stop the flow of tears as he received his Wally statue.
“I’ve been waiting for this day since I was 12 years old, when I decided I wanted to race Pro Stock Motorcycle,” Gladstone, who just turned 31 July 9. “To finally be here and to race these guys, to race the best in the world, this means everything to me and makes it all worth it. I spent my whole life trying to get here.”
Moments later, as he soaked in his accomplishment, surrounded by fans on the racetrack who had gathered around to congratulate him and other winners Brittany Force (Top Fuel), Bob Tasca III (Funny Car), and Erics Enders (Pro Stock), Gladstone said he told himself before the final, “I can do this. I’ve got to keep grinding. It’s taken me 20 years after the initial thought of Pro Stock Motorcycle came in my mind. I’ve dedicated my life to this, and to be standing here [on the podium] in front of all these wonderful people [fans] at this amazing facility, I’ll never forget this. Thank you, guys.”
In visiting with reporters, the feeling of that first victory hadn’t quite fully sunk in yet. He said, “This is pretty surreal. This means a lot to me. It means more to me than you could ever imagine.”
He said that when he saw his scoreboard win light come on, he drifted into a bit of daydream for a second or so: “I’m actually pretty surprised I got the bike stopped. The last thing on my mind was getting the bike stopped and shut off.”
The team, who included mentors Michael Phillips and Andrew Hines in addition to teammate Cory Reed, who’s recovering still from nasty injuries he suffered last fall at Charlotte, received plenty of praise.
He said, “My team did an awesome job. I won with the right group of guys. I want to show my appreciation to Jim and Annie Whiteley and Cory Reed for treating me like a son and a brother and affording me the opportunity to have this blessing to do this and show our potential and follow our dreams.”
Gladstone said that all day long, he “tried not to overthink it” and tied to act nonchalant, because “once you get to the later rounds of the day, everything is just a bonus. You’ve just got to do your job.”
He did, and afterwards it struck him just how elite his group of competitors are.
“The people I’m racing with are top-tier. The men and women I race against are top-notch. They’re incredible competitors. These people are stout,” he said. “You have to be perfect. That’s why I came here. I came here to race the best. We’re still green. I think with more time and more refinement, we’ll become one of those names.”
For right now, though, Gladstone said he is enjoying the idea that he and Reed, 29, are “a couple of renegade 20-, 30-year-old guys out here, swinging with these guys and making ’em sweat. This is so cool. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
He said, “This is just the start. We’re hungrier now. We’re going to stand on it a little bit. We’re going to get this championship. The monkey’s off my back. Now I want a bigger one.”
The monkey will be right back on there when the bikes reconvene next Aug. 12-14 at Heartland Park at Topeka for the Menards Nationals presented by PetArmor. The class will skip this weekend’s Flav-R-Pac Northwest National at Seattle. Susan Wade
HART HAVING FUN AGAIN, SHEDDING SOPHOMORE SLUMP; GLADSTONE HUNGRY FOR FIRST BIKE VICTORY; ASHLEY EYEING BIG PRIZE; NEW RULE POLARIZES BIKE CLASS
HART SET TO BREAK OUT OF SOPHOMORE SLUMP – Josh Hart turned a lot of heads last season. The part-time driver from Ocala, Fla, became the first driver since Darrell Russell in 2001 to win in his debut when Hart scored a massive win at the 2021 NHRA season opener in Gainesville, Fla., last season.
Hart, who appeared in 12 races last season, ran strong every time he showed up at the racetrack and would score his second career win later in the season in Charlotte, putting the rest of the Top Fuel class on notice that he was a force to be reckoned with.
With all the talk in the offseason about the stacked field in Top Fuel heading into the new year, Hart, who was stepping up to run a full season in 2022, would be expected to continue his outstanding performance from the year prior and be one of the frontrunners in the class.
However, with the addition of a new car to begin the year, the R&L Carriers / TechNet Dragster driver would surprisingly struggle out of the gate. Through the first nine races of the 2022 season, Hart would advance past the second round of competition just twice, making it to the final round at the four-wide in Charlotte but endure five first-round losses, and would sit eighth in the standing. Most people would call that the evident "sophomore slump."
"Last year was a storybook year," Hart said. "Everybody talks about the sophomore slump, and we found it. We hurt a lot of stuff in the spring, but the crew has been very patient with me. They always give me a great race car."
Hart admits trying to figure out the new car this season, added with making the jump to a full-time team this year, has maybe thrown them a little bit of a curveball to start. But Hart fully credits his team, along with business partner and crew chief Ron Douglas for keeping the ship afloat.
"So I think we did 12 races last year, so we doubled it," Hart said. "You got the financial end of it, which is manageable, thanks to TechNet and R&L Carriers and all the people that help us. But the staffing alone to make an entire season is unbelievable. You wouldn't understand until you realize that you break three engines, and you got to repair those, and you burn up four sets of heads, and you got to repair those. These guys behind me deserve all the credit. Ron [Douglas] as my business partner, runs the show. He's got these guys well-trained, and he does a fabulous job maintaining the whole
But through the last two races on tour, Hart and his team have found a bit of rejuvenation. A final-round appearance in his sponsor R&L Carrier's backyard in Norwalk, Ohio, followed up with a semifinal finish at the most recent race in Denver, has seen the second-year driver jump to fifth in points heading here to Sonoma for the Denso Sonoma Nationals. The current trajectory has him excited heading into the second half of the year.
"It's been off-the-charts epic," Hart said. "The team was very patient with me in this new car. In the spring, we tested a lot of things. Some things worked, some things didn't. So, to go into Norwalk and runner-up there and then go out in the semifinals in Denver, obviously, we feel like
we're making good progress in the right direction."
Hart, who's also a team owner on top of driving the race car, credits a little advice he got from a particular sponsor that he used to help turn his performance around, as well.
"I'm learning every single pass who I am as a driver, and I've been able to focus a lot lately on just having fun again," Hart explained. "I believe that great leadership starts at the top, and believe it or not, the owner of R&L Carriers called me one day, and he said, ‘You don't look like you're having any fun. You need to go back to the basics, kid, and have some fun.’ And we wound up in the runner-up position in Norwalk. So I'd have to say he was right."
Having run just a part-time schedule last season, this is Hart's first time competing on the Western Swing in Top Fuel. While he's more than enjoying his time racing on the three-race NHRA summer tradition, with just a handful of races before the Countdown, Hart knows there's still a ton of room for improvement to put themselves up there with the frontrunners in the class.
"I can't say that there's not room for improvement," Hart said, “but we're very happy to be in the top half of the top 10. And hopefully, we can maintain that going into the Countdown. So just like I said, one
race at a time." – Darin Williams Jr.
GLADSTONE AIMING FOR NO. 1 – Some Pro Stock Motorcycle fans might be surprised to learn that Joey Gladstone – runner-up at the past two races and four in all – has a mentor, of sorts, in class veteran Michael Phillips.
“He’s more of a racing coach than a riding coach,” Gladstone said. “I have my own unique style of riding. I’ve been riding long enough to where it is what it is. [He’s] more of a racing coach and strategy coach. It keeps me on my toes, keeps me aware of things.
“Michael’s great. He’s a great time to be around,” he said. “He’s a good friend, and he’s a great coach. He helps me with confidence on Sunday. And he always tells me, ‘Who gonna beat you? Nobody.’”
After finishing second to Angelle Sampey at Norwalk and to Matt Smith at Denver, Gladstone is tired of simply participating in a final round. He’s ready to start gathering trophies.
“It definitely makes you hungrier than, I think, winning would,” Gladstone said. “To come that close, you know that you can do it. You’ve already beaten three people that day. It’s just one more person.”
Eliminating anybody is an accomplishment.
“The class is extremely tough,” he said. “Really, every round is a potential final-round match-up, as far as difficulty level.”
That won’t deter him.
“We’re just going to keep chipping away at it. We’re doing a good job. We’re No. 4 in points. So, we’ve just got to keep at it and it’ll come,” Gladstone said.
“I’m here to do the best that I can do, and if the best I can do is to be a champion, then that’s what I want to do. That’s what I’m shooting for. I’m not out here to take second. I’m not complacent taking second place or third or fourth. I want that No. 1 spot.”
Gladstone knows, though, that success doesn’t come easily in his class.
He said, “Pro Stock Motorcycle will humble you as a drag racer. By far, it is the hardest thing to do in motorcycle drag racing, as far as tuning and riding and all that stuff. You have to be perfect. The bike has to be right on the edge. You have to ride ’em perfect. You have to be on time. You have to take care of yourself physically. It’s hard, but it’ll be worth it.”
And in case anyone wonders about Gladstone’s snazzy new Miller Lite beer-themed helmet, Gladstone said with a smile, “I just really like Miller Lite.”
ASHLEY CONTENT BUT NOT SATISFIED - Justin Ashley might sit third in the Top Fuel standings on the heels of two wins this season heading into this weekend's eliminations in Sonoma, Calif., for the Denso NHRA Sonoma Nationals. But the Phillips Connect Dragster driver is more than ready to take the next step forward in putting his team in a serious title-contender position.
"I would say I'm content but not satisfied," Ashley said. "Your foot is always down and ready to take it to the next level, but I think Mike Green, Tommy DeLago, and our entire Phillips Connect team are doing a great job.
"This Top Fuel field is different from what we've seen in years past. It is so deep, from top to bottom, no matter where you qualify, you wake the next day and say, ‘Ahh, I got to race this guy’ or ‘Ahh, I got to race this girl.’ It's just not a comfortable position to be in, so they've done an excellent job stepping up to the occasion,” he said. “[Team owner] Dustin Davis has put the right personnel together, and the team has put us in the perfect position to be successful. But at the same time, there's always room for improvement. There's a lot of room to improve from a driver's side. There's room to improve on a team side. And we're ready for the challenge."
With just a handful of races left before the Countdown to the Championship, Ashley, a former collegiate athlete, has the mindset of looking forward to the big game and relishing the opportunity of competing on the big stage.
"It's exciting. The competitive nature inside you is brought out at this time of the year," Ashley said. "This is playoff time. This is when you got to turn it up and be on your A game. There's no margin for errors during the regular season. We're happy where we are, third in points, but there's room for growth. There's room to improve. But we need to keep our foot down. We need to continue to do better, because I got bad news: These teams behind us, in front of us, will continue to improve, too."
The 2022 Denso Sonoma Nationals has been a special one for Ashley. On Thursday before the event, Davis, who lives in the area, put on a golf tournament and dinner honoring the late, great Eric Medlen, with the proceeds going to Speedway Children's Charities.
"That was a great experience," Ashley said. "I think it was something important that we did as a team to help remember Eric and Eric's life and give back to Speedway Children's Charities. I think that it was a great event. It was a great cause, and [I’m] really appreciative of Phillips Connect and Nordby Homes and everything that Dustin did to put this event together, because I think it was really important that we did it. We're looking forward to doing it year in and year out." - Darin Williams Jr.
NEW LOOK FOR SALINAS - The Scrappers Racing Top Fuel team unveiled a new livery on the starting line today during the first qualifying round at the DENSO NHRA Sonoma Nationals. The sleek NHRA Top Fuel dragster driven by points leader Mike Salinas is sporting the name of a local sponsor, Pleasanton Ready Mix Concrete, at Sonoma Raceway this weekend.
Team owner Salinas has a long history with Pleasanton Ready Mix’s owner, John Santos, and is excited to promote the company throughout the season, especially at a track that is so special to all of the Scrappers Racing team. Santos was one of the first customers of Valley Services, a company founded by Salinas.
“Things have really come full circle in our partnership with Pleasanton Ready Mix,” said Salinas. “They’ve been a sponsor of ours for quite a while now and to have them featured so prominently on our Top Fuel dragster is really special for all of us. We consider Sonoma to be our hometown track and it’s an honor for us to feature a local business here this weekend.”
Pleasanton Ready Mix is the most respected supplier of ready mix concrete in the East Bay area. They provide prompt and reliable delivery of ready mixed concrete to anywhere in or near Alameda and Contra Costa counties.
Additionally, Scrappers Racing has new associate sponsors for the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series Western Swing, Humboldt Sawmill and Allweather Wood. Together these companies provide advanced lumber solutions throughout the western United States.
LATEST PSM RULING STIRS EMOTIONS – Matt Smith can keep all of his worldly possessions.
He said earlier this week, “I would bet everything that I own that at least the top six positions will be Suzuki in Sonoma. If not, the top seven positions will be Suzuki. A V-twin won't even be in the top six.”
He was correct. But that doesn’t give him all that much satisfaction. All it does is confirm that he might not have all the flexibility with his two differently configured motorcycles that he had hoped for. And it affirmed, to him, that “That's how much they got the rules out of hand now again.”
Smith brought out his Suzuki this weekend, and he said he had planned to do that: "I was going to start on a Suzuki in Sonoma because they have an advantage. Well, now they got a whole much more advantage.”
That takes away the advantage he thought he had, of being able to switch between a Suzuki and a V-Twin bike, depending on which would be more beneficial at the moment.
What has the Pro Stock Motorcycle class up in arms again is the NHRA’s latest ruling this past Tuesday, two days following the Denver event. The official statement was this:
“Based on Pro Stock Motorcycle performance data, the NHRA Technical Department is reducing the minimum weight of the 4-valve Suzuki up to 113 CID entries from 630 pounds to 625 pounds. The S&S and VTwin VH160 will be increased from 630 pounds to 640 pounds. All other minimum weights will remain the same. This rule change will go into effect immediately. NHRA reserves the right in the future to make additional rule changes to control performance and maintain parity in the category.”
So with the Suzuki four-valve combination carrying a minimum weight of 625 pounds and the V-Twin bikes returning to the 640-pound minimum weight that was in place at the start of the season, Matt Smith told Competition Plus publisher Bobby Bennett, "That basically cripples any chance the Buell has of being competitive . . . especially at sea level tracks . . . which, that's the majority of our race tracks."
And fellow EBR owner-rider Ryan Oehler pretty much agreed.
The El Bandido Yankee Tequila / Burromax Electric Mini Bike EBR racer said, “It’s a very touchy situation, because everyone takes this very serious. And when you see as many rule changes this season as we’ve seen – it’s probably an historic number. The biggest conflict I see is that races that were at high altitude were used as a determining factor for this weight change. If you do the analysis like I’ve done, you’ll see that races at sea level– this is going to tell the story here this weekend.
“The V-Twins and the Suzukis were very even. Ohio showed the exact same low E.T.,” Oheler said.
Angelle Sampey, on the Vance & Hines / Mission Foods Suzuki, was the Friday provisional leader with a 6.801-second elapsed time, replacing opening-session top qualifier Angie Smith, who raced her Denso-branded V-Twin-powered bike to a 6.843. In Saturday qualifying, Eddie Krawiec secured the No. 1 spot with a 6.798 on a Vance & Hines Suzuki, while Angie Smith was third in the order with a 6.811.
So while their E.Ts. weren’t identical, they were close.
“Now, at the mountain [Bandimere Speedway], the term “Mountain Motor” was invented because of high displacement with engine configurations. This class has two different configurations: the V-Twin and the four-cylinder. The four-cylinders are 113 cubic inches [of displacement] with a four-valve head. The V-Twins are 160 cubic inches. They’re naturally a higher-displacement engine. So it naturally performs better at places like Bristol and Denver,” Oehler said.
“And the [NHRA] went ahead and made an adjustment – which, in my opinion, was a bad decision, just based on the races they were using to determine the differences in the machines,” he said. “Three races [technically, four, counting two Las Vegas events] a year are in high-altitude conditions: Vegas, Bristol, and Denver. That’s not enough races to [make an all-inclusive rule change].
“If you want to have going into those races certain weight changes for the V-Twin versus the Suzuki, I can understand. But you can’t make that as a precedent for the whole season, when 11 of the races won’t be in those conditions,” Oehler said.
Gladstone, the Precision Service Equipment Suzuki racer, was more supportive of the change. He said, “I wish it would have happened last week. Maybe it wouldn’t have been such a big spread, as far as E.T. goes, between the two bikes [his and winner Sampey’s]. We all know what those V-Twins are capable of, so they’ll be just fine. I know they’re upset about it. Maybe if I was in their position, I’d be upset about it, too. The NHRA takes a lot of notes, and they pay attention. They did what they thought was fair. And I think it is fair.”
Points leader Steve Johnson said a wee bit sarcastically, “I could not figure out why my bike was not right in Denver. And then I realized it was 25 pounds heavier than it was the year before.
For me it wasn’t right.
“I’m happy they made a rule change. It’s tough when they make these rule changes. It’s quick. You have to react to ’em. I’m anticipating before the Countdown that if they get back to the [the way the rules were at the] start of the year. If they get it back to where it was at the start of the year, we are going to be golden,” he said.
“The coolest thing about this rule change,” Johnson said, “is there’s going to be another one coming up soon. Those guys in Glendora . . . That’s what racin’ is about, man. If we didn’t have a constant moving target, then we’d all just sit at home and get on our iPad, man.”
CREW CHIEFS ON MOVE – Aaron Brooks, tuner for part-time Top Fuel competitor Doug Foley, reportedly has been helping Steve Torrence’s team this weekend. With Don Schumacher Racing crew chief Todd Okuhara at home in Indiana, recovering from a reported health issue, Phil Shuler (who was a crew chief on the U.S. Army Dragster) is subbing for Okuhara and once again working with Tony Schumacher.
CONTINUOUS TEST SESSION – Pro Stock Motorcycle racer Ryan Oehler is a two-time winner who has shown steady progression ever since he joined the Camping World Drag Racing Series . However, through the class’ first seven races this season, the Bloomington, Ill., has only one round-win. He said this weekend that since the season-opener at Gainesville, Fla., “we’re actually using the year as a complete test session.
“We came in for Gainesville, the very first race of the year, and did a complete reset back to how it was in 2020. First pass off the trailer was the only pass we got.”
Because of rain during qualifying, the field was set on the previous year’s final points. He was eighth and faced No. 9 Jerry Savoie.
“We were fourth-quickest [in that first round of eliminations]. We went a 6.83 [-second elapsed time]. It showed that we were very stout, but we lost to Jerry, who was third-quickest. We didn’t get to make any more runs,” Oehler said. “It was very short-lived. It was a short weekend. No qualifying runs. We went right into first rounds with the best that we could provide for the conditions.
“After that,” he said, “we started working with Brad McCoy, out of North Carolina. We converted all the motors over to a new fuel-injection system. So we’ve been using these parts of the season to get our stuff sorted out for the Countdown, so we can really bring it for the Countdown.”
Like Matt Smith, he has two bikes he can exchange (or lend or lease out).
“We’ve got two bikes. They’ve got two different engine configurations. They’re both Buells, but one is the Gen 2 design, and one is the more-modern Victory style motor, which has a different configuration, based on its connecting rods and crankshafts,” Oehler said. “We’ve got that bike to perform real well. Chip Ellis rode it at Ohio [Norwalk]. It was a top-five bike that weekend. Once again, we lost to a top-four competitor.
“You’re going to see us turn our program around,” he said. “And we’re just using this point system to our advantage moving forward.”
FRIDAY - TURNING GREEN, CLOTHES RIPPING OFF?! TORRENCE MORPHING INTO HULK; HIGHT HOPING TO BUILD ON STELLAR MEMORIES; BROWN SHARES COUNTDOWN STRATEGY
SUPERHERO-STYLE INSPIRATION – The saying is “Go big or go home.”
In the Camping World Drag Racing Series’ 11 races so far this season, Steve Torrence exited in the first or second round five times – but he has finished with six semifinals-or-better performances. Still, that’s not meeting his own tough standard. Besides, he’s a Texan, and Texans think big.
So Torrence’s turnaround calls for some superhero-style measures. He’s motivating himself for this weekend’s Denso Sonoma Nationals – a race he won last year for the second time – with a huge idea. And he’s hoping it will deliver big results.
“I’m five foot seven,” he said before the Sonoma, Calif., race kicked off Friday with one round of qualifying. “I’m not a big guy, but when I put that helmet on and the adrenaline starts to flow, I turn green, my clothes rip off, and I think I’m ‘The Hulk.’ That’s what you have to do out here, because whoever’s in the other lane is trying to take away what you’ve worked so hard for.”
Torrence has no shortage of rivals wanting to block his path to a fifth consecutive championship: Mike Salinas, Brittany Force, Josh Hart, Leah Pruett, Austin Prock, Shawn Langdon, Clay Millican, Doug Kalitta, Antron Brown. And although he knew his “drive for five” wouldn’t be a cinch, he might not have anticipated he would be winless halfway through the schedule. But that’s the reality as crew chiefs Richard Hogan and Bobby Lagana Jr. have been transitioning to a new engine and clutch combination.
What looked effortless (but wasn’t) – 45 victories in the previous 105 races – simply isn’t repeating this season. And Torrence knew he’d face some obstacles.
“With the success we’ve had over the last five years and the way the car has run, it’s difficult to set that down. It's difficult to abandon something that took you to four [consecutive] championships,” Torrence said. “But we needed to do something different to keep up with Brittany [Force] and Grubby [John Force Racing crew chief David Grubnic].
“We had it figured out for a long time but, in this sport, you can’t stand still. You have to change or get left behind,” he said. “And even though it’s been a little frustrating not to have what we did, we’re pleased with the way things are trending.”
Torrence is fourth in the standings, 133 behind leader Salinas but just 41 away from No. 3 Ashley. The Kilgore, Texas, native won here at Sonoma Raceway in 2017 and last July, so a third victory here could bring the reassurance he could use right now. But maybe now it’s time not to worry about counting points. Maybe it’s time just to stay toward the top of the leaderboard and let the Countdown to the Championship points adjustments – something for which Torrence has shown open disdain – do him a favor this time around.
ALL ABOUT ADDING TO MEMORIES – Funny Car points leader Robert Hight rocked the drag-racing world – and surely struck fear into Goodyear engineers – here in 2017. He clocked a 339.87-mph run that remains the national record. It came in the wake of Matt Hagan’s 338.85-mph pass that May at Topeka. That same weekend in 2017, Hight set his class’ track elapsed-time record at 3.807 seconds.
“These things will run 340 mph. We know they can do it,” Hight said at the time. “When you can say you ran the fastest speed in NHRA history, that’s pretty awesome, and Sonoma Raceway can say it happened here.”
For perspective, the fastest 1,000-foot pass in Top Fuel belongs to Brittany Force, at 338.17 mph – but she didn’t record that until two-plus years later than Hight’s stratospheric run. (She set the bar for dragsters at the 2019 fall Las Vegas race). So Hight’s run truly was spectacular, even more than John Force’s Winston No Bull Showdown victory at Bristol over Top Fueler Bob Vandergriff in 1999.
“This thing was singing down there,” Hight said of his Auto Club Chevy after that Friday night qualifying spectacle in 2017. “It’s hard to explain to everybody, but it’s the coolest noise when you hear that nitro engine running up that kind of rpm.”
While it wowed the fans and Hight’s fellow racers, it caused the NHRA to scramble in an effort to make sure the tire technology could contain the results. And it’s something everyone still is keeping en eye on for the sake of safety.
That’s just one of the memories for Hight at this dragstrip in the Northern California Wine Country. The NHRA has been visiting this facility since 1988 – as Sears Point, Infineon, and Sonoma raceways – without interruption until COVID hit in 2020. And Hight has attended all 33 races here as either spectator, crew member, or driver. He grew up at Alturas, Calif., and this was the closest racetrack, the place where he developed his passion for drag racing.
So naturally, it was a personal triumph when Hight earned the 50th of his 58 trophies at Sonoma Raceway in 2019. He also won here in 2018 and 2021 – giving him three in a row (because the sanctioning body canceled the 2020 race during the pandemic).
All that is in the past – a glorious past for Hight – but what’s he’s concentrating on now is the stretch run ahead of him: this race and four more in the “regular season” before the six-event Countdown to the Championship starts in September at Reading, Pa.
“We have a really good combination. We’re fine tuning it and getting better and better. Staying consistent is the trick, getting down the race track every time,” Hight said.
He already has five victories this season, and the schedule is just halfway completed.
“Competition is getting tougher and tougher, and they’re coming after this Auto Club Chevy. But Jimmy Prock and Chris Cunningham, they know there is more left in this combination,” Hight said. “We have to treat Sonoma exactly like we did Denver: three good qualifying runs, race smart on race day. If we keep doing that, the wins are going to come.”
TIGHT CHASE – Less than 100 points (91) separate the top seven competitors in the Pro Stock Motorcycle standings (between leader Steve Johnson and No. 7-ranked Eddie Krawiec).
Johnson is clear of No. 2 Angelle Sampey by just 10 points and No. 3 Matt Smith by only 19. Joey Gladstone, runner-up at the past two events and still seeking his career-first victory, is fourth in the standings with a 12-7 elimination-round record, just 46 points off Johnson’s pace.
Actually, Johnson was just thrilled to hear the words, “You’re the points leader.” He delighted in asking to hear that again, saying, “That’s some cool stuff right there!”
The Mac Rak Suzuki driver said, “I’ve been really struggling for a couple of races. Everybody knows I lobe this class. This class is before my own racing program. The sanction body is pretty much before, sometimes, I make my house payment. I’m really, really proud of the class, especially the people who are out here and travel the West Coast. This is an exciting race. I always tell everybody, ‘Denver may be the slowest race, but the coolest run in motorcycle drag racing is Q1 in Sonoma, because the rpm just goes, ‘WAA! WAA! WAA!’ It just goes from 10,000 to 14,000 in no time. For those of you who have Mustangs or Camaros or something like that, you make that rpm go from an idle to red line as fast as you can while you’re in each of the gears, that’s what you’ll feel like on a motorcycle. Get rid of the back rest and the seatbelts.
“It’s so fun here, and our class is so good right now. I’m excited to be here,” Johnson said. “I’ve got my buddy, Rusty, and Barry – He’s my fan from Las Vegas. Now he’s working on the clutch. Anybody can come out here and have a good time. It just gives people an idea of the class. There’s people here who’ve got lots and lots of years, and then there’s people that are doing clutches that don’t even have a year[’s experience] working on Pro Stock Motorcycles. Lots of diversity here. Katie’s here [Katie Sullivan Justice, of Oakley, Calif.]. She just had a baby. It’s a fun class, man.”
Johnson said “it really got hard” to juggle the needs of the class with his own program’s needs:
“I started an organization called PRO2. Basically, it was all the owners, all the people putting the money in, and the drivers, having a voice. And then we’d go to NHRA and say, ‘We all need pink wheelie bars or how come the trash cans didn’t get emptied. We talked about things that helped the sanction body promote the sport.”
But it all became overwhelming and, frankly, unproductive, he said.
“What happened was I would write a letter and then I’d get correspondence. Then I’d write another letter, and I’d do some follow-up. All of a sudden, I need a notebook. It got thicker and thicker and thicker. And year after year after year, it got to be so involved that it exactly the opposite of what your basic statement was. You couldn’t manage the class from that standpoint and race in it competitively,” Johnson said. “And we’re trying to do our own engines now, trying to chase sponsorships. So it’s very difficult to multitask effectively.
“This class is still undercover. When it blows the top off, it’s going to be out of control, I promise you that,” he said. “But it needs a fulltime manager. With social media, especially, we have a lot of fans. Suzuki’s out here with two tractor-trailers, showing off all their stuff. They’ve got really cool motorcycles. For me, it was not possible to manage the class from the PRO2 standpoint. We didn’t do tech. We did everything except tech. But I’m still involved, and luckily we have people who are just as passionate as I am. (I’m saying that because it’s the right thing to say.) I think we can still move forward as a group. We have a council that represents motorcycles, and they do a good job. We just need to keep them on target.
“It’s hard to take yourself out of your own program and do stuff for other people, and that’s what it really takes,” Johnson said.
He said he was unaware that he is just two round-wins away from the 300 plateau. (His career race-day record is 298-429.)
“NICE!! I’m going to get it this weekend!! That’s really cool – 300 wins!!! The percentage is not real good,” he said with a laugh. “Hey, man, when you win a round at this level . . . Marc’s [Ingwersen’s] riding his Buell, and he’s winning rounds, and I’m so proud of him. And he’s not even on a Suzuki. Anybody that can win rounds out here, especially against the ‘high-finance’ teams, it’s really, really special. To win 299 times more than your first round-win. I hope there’s many more to come.”
Johnson has led the Pro Stock Motorcycle standings since he won the Charlotte four-wide race, but he enters with two first-round exits to Jerry Savoie in his most recent appearances.
CAN TRACK BE MAGIC FOR BOTH HUSBAND, WIFE? – Six years ago – June 26, 2016 – Tony Stewart passed Denny Hamlin on the final lap, in the hairpin Turn 11, to win the Toyota/Save Mart 350 for the third time. It ended his 84-race winless streak and turned out to be the final victory of his distinguished NASCAR career. The same year he joined Ernie Irvan in Sonoma Raceway’s Wall of Fame.
This weekend, his wife, Leah Pruett, is hoping this same track will produce equally special memories and give her added momentum following her first 2022 victory last Sunday at Denver. It was the first Top Fuel victory for Tony Stewart Racing.
Pruett set the Sonoma Raceway elapsed-time record at 3.669 seconds in 2017, and she was runner-up to Steve Torrence last year. This visit here, Pruett can keep alive her chances to sweep the Western Swing.
She said her Denver results “proved to ourselves that we are the winning team we’ve believed all along, and infuses confidence into each of our crafts. Making eight runs at Bandimere Speedway, with some extreme turnaround times on Sunday, has exposed our team’s small opportunities to improve. It took a Sunday at Bandimere to show us how we can even improve more as we continue the Western Swing.”
According to Pruett, she doesn’t have to make too many changes from last week’s conditions at 5,800 feet of elevation to this week’s at just 15 feet above sea level. However, she said she is seeing massive changes to her Rayce Rudeen Foundation Dragster.
“There’s not a deep list of adjustments for a driver. Our deliverables stay the same,” she said, “but my approach changes only slightly. On the mountain, the less dense air makes mid-track wheelies a thing and something to be extra-prepared for. Pulling the fronts on the launch is not as frequent, because our initial hit is less, due to less power, via less air. For me, that means there’s a likelihood the car will wash out with the front hiked in the air and become less drivable. Coming to sea level, the car will be at its optimum level of aggressiveness, and I will have to really emphasize the importance of not only square, but straight.”
She said this past week, the Neal Strausbaugh-Mike Domagala-led crew gave the car “a complete makeover in regard to jetting changes, blower compensation, clutch adjustments, chassis weight, and, of course, the new body that will promote the Rayce Rudeen Foundation and its work with organizations and programs to encourage a healthy and productive life that is free of addiction.”
CAN ANYONE FOLLOW SUIT? – Seven drivers have swept the Western Swing, winning in successive weeks at Denver, Sonoma, and Seattle: Joe Amato, Cory McClenathan, Larry Dixon, Tony Schumacher, and Antron Brown in Top Fuel; John Force in Funny Car; and Greg Anderson in Pro Stock.
This weekend, three have the chance to keep their opportunities alive. Top Fuel’s Leah Pruett, Funny Car’s Robert Hight, and Pro Stock’s Matt Hartford are the only ones who have a shot at becoming the eighth (or ninth or 10th) to pull off the challenge.
No two have accomplished the feat in the same year, so that’s another dare out there on the table.
Matt Smith won the Pro Stock Motorcycle final at Denver and is competing this weekend. But the bike class does not visit Seattle, so he isn’t in the hunt to “sweep the Swing.”
The five-time series champ said diplomatically that he is content with the Pro Stock Bikes not completing the Western Swing: “I’ve been to Seattle a couple of times with my dad back in the early days with his Pro Stock car. I’d like to go there one time with the bikes. But the bike class has enough races right now. Our class is not independently wealthy, like some Top Fuel guys, some Funny Car guys, and some Pro Stock car guys are. So going out West this far really hurts our bike count, especially with diesel fuel up this high. I think you can see that from the entry lists of the Denver race and, I’m sure, the entry list of the Sonoma race. We probably picked up a couple of people, but our bike count’s going to be down right now because of the way the economy and the fuel prices are right now.”
ELITE GROUP – Top Fuel’s Doug Kalitta and Funny Car teammates Robert Hight and John Force are among an elite group of racers who have won at Sonoma in three consecutive visits. The others are Mat Mladin of the American Motorcycle Association and NASCAR great Jeff Gordon.
Kalitta, a five-time winner here, was honored in 2008 as a Wall of Fame member, along with Ken Clapp, who was inducted as a longtime NASCAR executive but also is a former NHRA board member.
Surprisingly, Kalitta has yet to reach the winners circle this season, so he’s ready to draw from his luck here.
“We have a great team over here on this Mac Tools / Toyota Dragster,” Kalitta said. “[Crew chiefs] Alan Johnson and Brian Husen have been a great addition, and we just need some things to go our way on race day. We have had a strong race car in qualifying, but we just haven’t gotten any breaks on race day. It seems like you need one thing to go your way if you want to get that win. We are going to make our own luck and give it our best this weekend. I am ready for that next win, and I would love to get another one at the Sonoma Nationals. It is an amazing facility, and we have had a lot of success there.
“We got really hot when I started racing with wins at Sonoma,” he said. “I don’t know what it was about the place, but we really had a good run. I know we can capture some of that success this weekend.”
Kalitta followed the first Top Fuel victory of his career in Sonoma in 1998 with back-to-back winning performances in 1999 and 2000 and again in 2004 and 2005. He also advanced to the final round at the 2002 event.
DIEHL STAYING CLOSE TO HOME – Funny Car veteran Jeff Diehl said he’s “trying to stay on the West Coast because of the craziness and the fuel prices.” But he’s back for a fourth time this season, staying close to home, waiting for the Camping World Drag Racing Series to come to him.
Diehl competed at Pomona, Phoenix, and Las Vegas, and this time he has brought three new sponsors. On board are the iconic SoCal SPEED SHOP, which has been a staple in racing since the late 1940s; Michigan-based Agua Plus Alkaline Water; and Vintage Electric Bikes, of Santa Clara, Calif.
Diehl has been collaborating with Don Knoblauch, tuning Knoblauch’s Atomic Punk Nostalgia Funny Car at Funny Car Chaos races. The next two Funny Car Chaos races on the schedule are at Eddyville, Iowa, (July 29-30) and Kearney, Neb., (Aug. 5-6).
“After those races, I’m looking at running in Dallas, Vegas, and Pomona,” Diehl said. “If I can add anything else I’m going to try. [Tuner] Aaron Brooks helps me quite a bit. I have done everything there is to do in drag racing with the level of funding that I have had. I’m looking for funding to go all the way, and that’s what keeps me trying.” – Tracy Renck
ADDICTED – Cameron Ferré was the Top Fuel runner-up to Mike Salinas at the Charlotte four-wide race this spring, and his reaction was almost as joyous as if he had won that day. He said that moral victory “just pushes the needle in even harder. This is the best drug that you could probably ever fin – not that I’ve ever done drugs.
It’s just one of those things . . . I’ve worked my whole life for this. I’m just so stoked. I could cry. I runnered-up. Imagine what happens when we win – ’cause it’s going to happen.” Ferré’s wife, Angelina, is racing in the Super Comp class this weekend.
SWING USED TO END HERE – The order of the Western Swing has shifted throughout the years. When the order was Denver-Seattle-Sonoma, Antron Brown became the most recent to sweep the Swing. He completed it July 26, 2009. In all, Brown has won for times in the Top Fuel class at this picturesque Napa Wine Country dragstrip, with that 2009 splash, back-to-back victories in 2011-2012, and a 2015 win.
But his successful history here extends back to his Pro Stock Motorcycle days, where he was a two-time runner-up (in 2004 and 2006). Sixteen years ago at this venue, Brown earned his place in the Mickey Thompson Six-Second Pro Stock Bike Club.
Even his crew chief, Mark Oswald, has had his glory days here. Oswald won the Funny Car trophy at the first NHRA event here July 31, 1988 – 34 years ago – sharing the winners circle with Joe Amato (Top Fuel) and Harry Scribner (Pro Stock).
In 2008 (July 27), Tony Schumacher used his second straight Sonoma victory to become the sixth driver to sweep the Western Swing here.
BROWN READY TO BREAK OUT OF DROUGHT – Antron Brown, driver of the Matco Tools/Toyota Dragster, is looking for his first victory in 28 races, his first since his Atlanta win in May 2021. And he said his new technical alliance with fellow Top Fuel driver Justin Ashley will be paying off even more soon.
He said Ashley and his team “are in race mode. They’ve been in race mode since the beginning of the year. Our team, we’ve been in test mode with a lot of things, because we started with everything brand-new.
“One thing we have learned from them is that we know exactly what they’re doing, where we can parlay our car down the road if we want to vamp it just like theirs. We have that to fall back on, if we want to, if we wanted to get our car just like that,” Brown said.
“But now we’re onto something with our car,” he said. “We learned a lot at our Denver race last week. We were able to identify some areas that we need to focus on. We found out that we’d been having a fuel delivery problem at the step of the throttle off the starting line. We addressed it after Denver qualifying and got better on race day. Now we know we can be more aggressive with the clutch, and that gives us something to work off of this weekend. We landed on something. We’ve got to keep on finessing it to get to where we want it to be. We look forward to showing out for the folks in Nor Cal.
“We’ve been slowly progressing, getting it there. But we’ve been all over the map, trying the newest, latest, greatest wazoos and this and that, testing this and testing that. We have put close to 28 test laps on our car this year, and we’ve been testing at national events,” Brown said. “Our main focus is being in the Countdown and getting better before we get to there.”
Uncharacteristically, Brown is 59 points below the cutoff line to qualify for the Countdown. He has this race and ones at Seattle, Topeka, Brainerd, and Indianapolis to make his move past No. 10 Doug Kalitta, another surprise basement driver.
“You’re going to see with AB Motorsports in these next races leading to Indy where we’re going to start honing in on our race program and we’re going to be competitive, qualifying [among] the top four, top five cars,” the team owner said. “[That’s] our game plan . . . in the Countdown, where we can race the last six races hard for the championship.
“For us, we’ve been there, done it every which way,” Brown said. “We’ve dominated the normal season and we flopped in the Countdown. So this year, we’ve been using the Countdown to our advantage, where we can work on our strategy and work on our program to make us better in the long haul.
“We can’t keep doing the same things we did in a previous year to win a championship, because everybody’s past that,” he said, sounding a lot like Torrence. “We’ve been working on a totally new combination. Right now, we’re very close to getting our car where we want it to be and feel that we can compete with anybody.”
READY TO HEAT UP AGAIN? – Karen Stoffer has cooled off since she opened the Pro Stock Motorcycle season with the national elapsed-time record (6.665 seconds) and a victory at Gainesville, Fla., and No. 1 start and semifinal finish at Houston. She has dropped to sixth place but still is above .500 on race day, at 10-6. Stoffer, of next-door Nevada, was last year’s winner here at Sonoma.
SNAKE, JR ACE THE PLACE – Thirty years ago this August, Don Prudhomme became the first racer to win at this facility in both nitro classes. And 25 years after that, in 2017, JR Todd earned his first-ever Funny Car trophy to become the second.
(Prudhomme won here in Funny Car in 1989 and in Top Fuel in 1992. Todd did it in reverse, earning the Top Fuel trophies first, in 2006 and 2016.)
“Getting that first Funny Car win at Sonoma was pretty special,” Todd said. “I was just getting comfortable in the Funny Car, and we got that win. It gave me a lot of confidence. We went on to win the U.S. Nationals that year and then the championship the next year. That success all really started for me at Sonoma.”
It completed a back-to-back victory showing for Todd, as he won the Top Fuel final here the year before.
If he can win this weekend, Todd would be the lone driver with multiple victories in both nitro categories at Sonoma Raceway.
“This track is amazing,” Todd said before the event began, “and when the conditions are right, you can make some monster runs here. This Friday night could be one of those nights where you are going to want to be in the grandstands. There are so many good Funny Cars racing this season anyone one of them could run low or win the race. I know this DHL Toyota Funny Car team is ready to get a win this season.”
He is in seventh place in the Funny Car standings, and he said, “We would love to move up a couple spots in the points and hopefully go into the playoffs in fifth place or higher. Those last six races [the Countdown], anyone has a shot at the championship. The best time for us to start making that move is this weekend, and I feel good about our chances.”
BEWARE OF HAYMAKERS – Sixth-ranked Funny Car racer Cruz Pedregon said, “Our team is right there on the cusp, ready to win races. We’re just kind of snake-bit in the second round. We just can’t seem to get past that second round.”
In the 11 completed events, Pedregon’s race days have ended in the quarterfinals eight times.
“But we’re qualified in the top five in all but two races. So the Snap-on Dodge Hellcat is flyin’,” he said. “We just need to get those round-wins. And those’ll come. It’s just a matter of going down the racetrack. We’ve had such a great car that goes down the track in qualifying – hot, bald spots on the track, inclement weather, doesn’t matter.”
The strategy, Pedregon said, is “just read that track. Don’t try to hit that home-run ball. Just try to get on base, so to speak. So I’d say pull it back a little bit. I f I keep doing my job and let the crew chiefs do their jobs, we’ll get there.”
Looking back to his first season with crew chiefs John Collins and Rip Reynolds and team last year, Pedregon said, “I was really overthinking it last year, trying to be Mr. Perfect, especially down the stretch. I don’t think I drove to my potential, just because it was a new team. I was trying to cram in all those years of finishing ninth and 10th and jamming it into one year. I was just really overboard with everything and just overthinking it. But this year, I’m relaxed more. I’m letting the guys put a car underneath me and just go out there and do my thing. The dust has kind of settled. There’s no more ‘new team.’ These guys are here. They’re here to stay. We’re just going to enjoy the stretch run.”
Traditionally, Pedregon comes on strong in the later stages of the season.
“If you look at my history,” he said, “we’re notoriously slow starters. We’re like the boxers that kind of go out there and feel a guy out for a few rounds, and then we start throwing haymakers later in the season. This year’s going to be no different.”
WJ PART OF SONOMA HISTORY – Now-retired Warren Johnson, a 2005 Wall of Fame honoree, broke Pro Stock’s 200-mph barrier (at 200.77 mph) here in August 1999, when the venue was called Sears Point.
Current Funny Car drivers John Force and Ron Capps have been honored with induction into the Wall of Fame.
Force, the most successful driver at this racetrack with eight victories, was tapped in 2006, along with Bruton Smith and Jeff Gordon. Capps, a four-time Sonoma winner at this dragstrip that’s not far from his hometown of San Luis Obispo, is a 2015 honoree.
Other drag-racing-connected inductees of the track’s Wall of Fame are Gary Scelzi (2007), Don Prudhomme (2011), and Georgia Seipel (2018).
DID YOU KNOW? – Sonoma Raceway installed nearly 1,700 solar panels throughout the property in 2011, and they help offset more than 40 percent of the raceway’s energy usage. The facility features 20 “owl boxes” designed to encourage owls to nest, therefore helping control the rodent population.