2022 NHRA THUNDER VALLEY NATIONALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
COOL-IN-THE-HEAT TOP FUEL WINNER ASHLEY MAKES MOVE IN STANDINGS - Nothing much this past weekend fazed Justin Ashley, Sunday’s NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals Top Fuel winner.
The 136-degree temperature Sunday afternoon on the storied Bristol, Tenn., racetrack didn’t. (“It was a challenge, but it’s always a challenge [each race]. Honestly, I try to do the same thing every time,” he said. “But it’s the crew chiefs, Mike Green and Tommy DeLago, who did a great job in looking at the track and analyzing it.”)
Starting from the 14th qualifying position didn’t. (“The Wally’s the same. We’ll collect it from any position,” the Phillips Connect / Vita C Dragster / Toyota Dragster driver said.)
Having to face a stout line-up of Josh Hart, Doug Foley, and Steve Torrence – and then fellow finalist Shawn Langdon – didn’t. (“We were just focusing on our lane. It was about racing our racetrack,” he said.)
The only thing that kind of had Ashley a bit concerned was what he could give his dad, Mike Ashley, as a Fathers Day gift.
He told his father – who won the first official Pro Modified race at this dragstrip in 1990 and later won here in Funny Car – “You know, you are impossible to shop for on holidays like Fathers Day.”
By the end of the day, he solved his problem. He handed Mike Ashley the trophy and said, “You’re welcome. Here’s something I can give you.”
Justin Ashley said, “It’s very emotional for me and our entire team. Every win is special in its own way. But there’s something about Bristol. The track has so much history. You look up there [on the Legends of Thunder Valley sign atop the grandstands] and you see all those famous names inducted into the Bristol Hall of Fame. It’s a privilege to race here, and being on Fathers Day weekend, that adds a lot of prestige. It’s a collective team effort.”
In fact, he said he almost felt selfish taking the Wally home: “I’m really happy to win this on Fathers Day for my dad and winning on the track that he won on before but [also] for all our team’s fathers. We have so many fathers on the team, and they deserve this one. I feel like I shouldn’t even be taking home a Wally,” Ashley said. “I should give it to them, and they should keep it collectively.”
In winning, Ashley improved from fourth place to third in the Top Fuel standings, passing Steve Torrence. Ashley is only 52 points behind leader Brittany Force as the Camping World Drag Racing Series heads north to Norwalk, Ohio, this coming weekend for the Summit Racing Equipment Nationals.
Torrence sliced Force’s lead over him from 99 points to 71. Mike Salinas, the No. 1 qualifier at Bristol who was seeking a third straight victory here, is in second place, 25 points off the pace.
Torrence lasted one round longer than Salinas.
With his 3.813-second, 325.30-mph performance on the Bristol Dragway 1,000-foot course, Ashley spoiled Shawn Langdon’s quest for a pro-sportsman double-victory day.
Langdon, in the CMR / Toyota Top Fuel Dragster for Kalitta Motorsports, countered with a 3.841-second elapsed time and 320.51-mph speed. He was making his first final-round appearance since the March 2021 Gatornationals and hadn’t won since the 2020 U.S. Nationals.
The 2013 Top Fuel champion already was a winner Sunday when he pulled to the starting line against Ashley. Within the preceding hour, he had beaten John Labbous in the final round of Super Comp eliminations.
Afterward, Langdon said he was “bummed” that he couldn’t pull off the double challenge.
“It’s so hard to not be mad about today, and I’m not mad. I’m bummed,” he said. “I wanted that double up so bad. Haven’t doubled up at a national event before and to have the opportunity and just lucky to have the opportunity. But when you have the opportunity there, you don’t want to give it away. All in all, great weekend to have the CMR group on board. We’ve had the last two races where the car has been running good, so no complaints there. It’s only looking up from here.”
Langdon had been on a bit of a roll, having reached the semifinals two weeks ago at Epping, N.H. – where, incidentally, he lost to Justin Ashley.
Ashley, the runner-up at Houston and at the previous event at Epping, is in a strong position as the race to make the Countdown is about to heat up. And he almost shrugged that off.
“Going back-to-back finals really puts us in a good position. But when we had a first-round exit or a second-round exit, we felt the same way,” he said. “We knew how good the program was, as a whole. The way the Countdown is set up, you’ve got to get hot at the right time. It’s important to stack these round-wins early on.”
What often gives Ashley the edge is his preparation and attention to detail. Part of that is his insistence on being prepared mentally and emotionally, not just physically.
“You have to have a lot of mental toughness to be out here when everything’s on the line,” Ashley said. “Pressure’s a privilege, and you’re going to put yourself in a position to be successful when you have that pressure on you. The mental side, visualization, and a lot of other techniques, that’s something I take pride in working on. It’s just as important as the physical game, if not more important. It’s definitely a key aspect to a winning driver.”
And that’s what Justin Ashley is once again. Susan Wade
FIRST LAP NEVER WINS THE RACE AS CAPPS PROVES IN BRISTOL VICTORY - Two-time NHRA Funny Car champion Ron Capps has been around drag racing long enough to know it's not how one starts a race but how they finish that counts. On Sunday, the NAPA Auto Parts-sponsored driver's race day started off ugly with an uppercase U.
Capps entered eliminations as the No. 9 seeded driver and was on his way to victory over Paul Lee in the opening round when the engine grenaded in his Toyota Supra GR, causing severe damage to his new Funny Car body. If not for the quick thinking of a crewmember who guided him down the track with his disheveled race car at 270-plus miles per hour, he might have crossed the centerline or collided with Lee.
"It's funny. I do some SIM racing with a bunch of NASCAR people on Monday nights," Capps explained. "TJ Majors, he's a legendary spotter in the NASCAR series; he races with us. I literally, when it blew up, it also got the windshield, and I couldn't see, and that was my biggest concern. I didn't know where Paul Lee was.
"I got on my radio, and I said, 'I can't see."
"And [crewman] Travis, at the starting line, got on his radio and guided me at 280 miles an hour to a stop, almost like a remote control car. He just kept telling me I'd be all right. Just left or right. Keep it; you're all right. I literally could not see, it had gotten fuel all over, and it cracked the windshield. I couldn't unbuckle and lean out to the side to try to see. So that was a scary moment as a driver.
"What do you do? My first instinct was to unbuckle and then lean out, and you're like, 'Dummy, don't do that. That is not what you're supposed to do."
Capps and team saved the best for last, running the only three-second pass on race day to stop Tim Wilkerson in the final round. He ran a 3.984 elapsed time at 324.36 seconds in the final round to score the first race win in Funny Car for the new GR Supra.
Much of the 2022 season has been dominated by Matt Hagan and Robert Hight, but on a muggy day on a track that required a seasoned driver and tuner, Capps reminded everyone he's still very much in the race for the championship.
"This year has been an emotional year, being now a team owner, having people to worry about, and just a lot of noise going on in the background for me, besides just showing up in my helmet," Capps explained. "The win in Vegas, I was still in shock, honestly. I mean, it was great. A couple of weeks afterwards, I was still in shock. We actually did this. It's an amazing thing. I'm living the dream, the American dream, small business owner, and I'm getting to do it in the sport I grew up in. So it's been fun.
"Today felt different because it just felt like we, not that we didn't earn the other one, we just worked really hard at this one. We knew that win for Toyota was out there. I almost felt a little bad because JR Todd's team, the DHL team, and Alexis and Del Worsham's team, they worked so hard on getting that Supra body out here."
Make no mistake, Capps loves the new Toyota Supra GR body, and as a freshman team owner, when he grenaded the engine in the first round, he was more concerned with the damage to it than his wallet.
"When it happened, I was so bummed," Capps said. "I was just kind of looking at the body like, 'oh, we spent so much time massaging and getting this brand new Supra body."
"A lot of work went in. Yes, we got it. We got it mounted. But my guys, they spent so much time beyond what our manufacturer mounted it and all that stuff. There were a lot of man-hours, a lot of man-hours behind the scenes to get the car where we wanted it. I didn't even think about the money. I was just like, 'Oh, this body, oh my gosh".
"I knew we had another one, and I was just devastated that we had hurt that body. It felt like I hurt something very close to me."
Refocusing after the incident was no problem for Capps, and as he headed into the final round, he knew his tuning duo of Dean Antonelli and John Medlen had a little special sauce in the tune-up. Following the first round snafu, Capps admits his car performed like a bracket car.
However, it returned to being a horsepower-breathing beast in the final round. He felt it in the seat of his pants following the final warmup.
"We were rushed on the warmup for live TV," Capps said. "We warmed the car up and I sensed something in the motor. It was definitely hopped up more, I could tell. We had a thing, we always check with a clutch. I told Guido when we shut off, I go, 'It had more than it had all day of what we were talking about."
"He said, 'I know. I had to make adjustments after every warmup in the staging lanes, and it came out perfect."
"When it does that, it's going to get up and go. And that's not what you want on a track today, that heat and those bumps."
Antonelli told CompetitionPlus.com he had the car tuned to run the only three-second run of the day. Capps knew the run would stick.
"It went 274 miles an hour the run before, in the right lane, at half-track," Capps said. "That's thumping on a track like today. That is a feather in the cap for those guys to go 3.98 in that final round because nobody thought we would see a three-second run today. Everybody thought 4.0s were going to win this thing."
Why? This weekend's race had character, and since the tour was in the heart of NASCAR territory, Capps used a stock car reference to describe it.
"I know that NASCAR's off, so I got a lot of buddies and teammates in NASCAR watching us today, and I said [on TV], 'This is a lot like their Darlington. The Southern 500."
"I mean hot, humid, demanding. You cannot take your mind off it for one second. And as a team, you got to do everything right every single time. And we pulled it together. It was pretty cool."
And just like a roundy-round race, it's not the first lap that counts; it's the last.
THERE WAS SOME GOOD, PLENTY OF BAD, AND LOTS OF UGLY IN STANFIELD'S BRISTOL WIN - Pro Stock icon Warren Johnson said there was no such thing as an ugly win, just a win. With all due respect to the professor of Pro Stock, he likely never saw what happened Sunday during the Thunder Valley Nationals final round.
It's not often race fans are treated to a pedalfest and a blow-up in a Pro Stock race, but that's precisely what happened when Elite Motorsports teammates Aaron Stanfield and Erica Enders met in the money round at Bristol Dragway.
Earlier in the day, when Troy Coughlin Jr.'s Jegs-sponsored Pro Stock Camaro showered the top end of the track with titanium sparks, team owner Richard Freeman remarked, "Aint ever seen that before."
"That for sure did not go according to plan," Stanfield admitted. "We wanted to obviously make two nice clean runs and show obviously what we can do, but sometimes it goes like that. So I've been running fast all weekend long, and it's been really tricky. I dropped the clutch and it started shaking a little bit in the top of the gear and I got off the gas and saw a bunch of tire smoke, and [crew chief] Big Allen [Lindsay] was on the radio yelling at me, telling me to 'go, go, go!"
"So I stuck it back in gear and was able to get around."
The victory marked the first time Stanfield had won from the No. 1 qualifying position and the first time he'd beaten Enders in a final round. It also stopped Ender's consecutive win streak at three in a row.
After the winner's circle celebration, Stanfield was still uncertain what had happened to Enders' Camaro.
"I would imagine engine failure with a lot of oil," Stanfield said. "The video I saw, it looked like the whole entire car was filled up with smoke. But I'm unsure. Just like any racing engine, they're ticking time bombs, so they're running them extremely hard so we can compete at the highest level."
Regardless of what transpired in the final round, Stanfield's familiarity with Bristol Dragway came into play, as did Lindsay's past success when he was crew chief with Mike Edwards.
"Definitely feel comfortable here," Stanfield said. "I was lucky enough to win Top Dragster here, and we won Father's Day twice. Father's Day, for sure, kind of gives you a little added extra factor there because that's the best Father's Day gift I could give my dad. But this place is just beautiful and the fans are great. There's always a good crowd here and I think it's just one of the best tracks on the circuit, but it just definitely feels comfortable here.
Stanfield now has six career Pro Stock wins in ten finals, but never one like the one he experienced Sunday.
"That's definitely a pretty wild one there," Stanfield said. "For sure, at least for me, in my perspective, yes. That was definitely the oddest final round."
JUMBLE OF EMOTIONS HITS SAVOIE IN PRO STOCK BIKE VICTORY AT BRISTOL - Jerry Savoie said when he began his NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle racing career almost a dozen years ago at age 52 that he “just wanted to win one race.”
It has turned into a series championship and 14 victories, with his triumph Sunday at Bristol, Tenn., at the Thunder Valley Nationals.
It was an emotional accomplishment for Savoie, for a number of reasons.
If nothing else, it capped a steaming hot day in which he faced a tricky track and a buzz-saw of competitors. First, he faced four-time champion Eddie Krawiec. Next in his way was gritty Joey Gladstone, who already has proven he is willing to drag his battered body out of a hospital bed to get back on a bike that put him in there to begin with.
As if they weren’t enough to keep him off-guard, Angie Smith – who set and lowered the best elapsed time of the meet in her first two Sunday appearances – was his semifinal opponent. And if he were to win, he would have to beat a resolute Angelle Sampey, the top qualifier and the three-time champ from his part of the Louisiana bayou.
(“They’re fast, Eddie and Angelle,” he said. “She's so tiny the bike doesn't even know she's on it. So, she's got a slight advantage. But they're bad-ass. They've always treated us good, and we respect them. Here we are. I'm just glad it's not the Harley and Suzuki days. I'm glad it’s the Suzuki against the Buells and V-Twins.”)
In between facing Smith and Sampey, Savoie blew up his motor, which led to a frenzied 32-minute engine swap before the final. And before he rolled to the starting line, he already felt in debt to Sampey for her patience and the race officials who agreed to swap the final-round order with the Pro Stock class to give him more time to get in place.
“Today in third round, we broke an engine, so we made a swap and went back to a two valve, which worked out. No tune-up, really. It's like the first hit on it. So it was all good,” he said.
Winning under such circumstances would be emotionally draining at any event. But the fact this was Fathers Day added a dimension of sentiment to it. And when he took advantage of Sampey’s red-light disqualification and won with a 6.929-second elapsed time on the Bristol Dragway quarter-mile at 194.30 mph, Savoie paid tribute to his late father, whose nickname was “Blue.”
Through tears, Savoie held his trophy and said, “His blood runs through my veins. He gave me my need for speed. Blue, I love you.”
Later, he said, “The most important thing as far as this day . . . my dad passed away years ago. He's a big drag-racing fan. I don't know why, but he loves John Force. I never figured that one out, but my uncles are all gone now. But all of them had that need for speed. I'm just so thankful that on this weekend, on this day, that I could dedicate this trophy to him.”
Almost everyone else in the class had acquired some data from the Pro Stock Motorcycle’s first-ever visit to Bristol Dragway last fall during the Countdown. But Savoie wasn’t there in October. He was back home in Cut Off, La., contending with the area’s third hurricane in a year or so and all the damage it left in its wake at his home and large-scale alligator farm. And he had missed the previous race with a broken toe. So he was just a little bit behind the curve.
And the 63-year-old said his preferences are changing: “I'm having fun. I'm in that age now. I don't like traveling. I like being home. I got a dear wife at home [Vonnie]. I love her very much, and I just don't like being away from home. So if you ever see me not out here anymore, it's not because I don't love racing, not because I don't love the people, because I want to be home. I got cattle. I got alligators coming out my wazoo.”
Besides, he said Pro Stock Motorcycle is “a tough class. People think it's easy, but, man, trust me.”
So he couldn’t hold back at the top end, as this complex bundle of emotions came spilling out.
“I said I wouldn't cry, now I got down there, and man, I'd be damned if I didn't cry,” Savoie said. “You get to be my age and you can run with these youngsters – you got to keep it together.”
Overall, though, he said, “To be running out here with all these youngster and all these pretty girls, God has blessed me.”
God also has blessed Jerry Savoie with crew chief Tim Kulungian and . . . um . . . Goober, Lily, and a pair of pink socks dotted with alligators.
“Goober is the name of the engine, and he's named after my son when he was a young boy. Goober and Lily are the two names we won the championship with and we ran really good in 2016 and 2019. Tim’s got so much information on this engine. He just put everything in and put a tune-up on it,” Savoie said. “We missed the 60-foot, but if we didn't have this shake, I think we could have ran with the four-valve this weekend. I'll be surprised in Norwalk if we're not running a two-valve. I mean, the weight limit’s ridiculous. You weigh 590 compared to 630. So we possibly could go back to the two-valve. We can run with it.
“I think right now you have a thing between the Monster head and the Vance & Hines head. I don't think we touched the surface yet, but we're really trying to get a handle on it, and we run against them. Tim is very professional. He does a lot of work at home to try to make our program better,” he said.
As for the socks, Savoie was happy to roll up his pantleg and show them off before the race and afterward.
“When we did the driver intro, they said, ‘What you're going to say? What are you going to tell Eddie?’ I said, ‘I'm only going to say a very few words, but you see that?’” Savoie said, pointing to his novelty socks. “That’s alligators, and what do alligators do? They eat things. So that's my lucky socks.”
Savoie ate up the round-wins Sunday, and he, like Top Fuel racer Mike Salinas, has fallen in love with Bristol Dragway.
“When I came here, I said, ‘It's a beautiful place. I’d love to win one here.’ Some kind of magic about it. It's just a beautiful place,” he said. “The sound, the echo coming off the hills. Whoever planned this out really thought well. You did a great job.”
Maybe in the stillness of these beautiful Tennessee hills after all the noise died down Sunday, Savoie could hear the echo meant for him: “You did a good job.” Susan Wade
CLEAR THE MECHANISM - It’s one of those things she doesn’t want to focus on, but can’t help but think about it. Enders has won four of the first six events this season. Of those four, three are consecutive, a feat she’s only pulled off once in her career.
“There are way more valleys than there are peaks in this sport, but you just have to ride the wave of success as long as you can,” Enders said. “The pendulum swings in different directions at different times, and we’re on a really great high right now. But I feel like we can continue this for sure. I’m the biggest variable as a human in the cockpit, so if I can continue to do my job I know my guys, when their backs are against the wall, they perform every single time and I try to do the same. So I feel like we’ve really learned how to race on Sunday together because it’s very different than qualifying.
“You don’t just throw stuff at a wall and hope it sticks. You actually have to perform under pressure as a group, and a lot of things have to go right and right now, they are for us. It’s a long season. We’re not even halfway through yet. But I love it. I’m having so much fun.”
To maintain such a high level of performance, one must be able to block out the noise, a process Enders has mastered more than ever lately.
“There’s a lot of noise and I think Joe Costello made a really good point the other day on his show,” Enders explained. “He said, ‘the young kids are like a clean computer hard drive.”
“There’s not a whole bunch of jumbled mess in there or the blue screen of death popping up every once in a while because they don’t know any different. They’re getting to come into something in state-of-the-art equipment with horsepower that you used to could not buy, and you can now.
“So it’s a different era of Pro Stock. But yeah, there’s a lot of outside noise, there’s a lot of white noise and that’s probably the biggest challenge is to be able to clear your mind and hit the reset button. If you aren’t feeling great or confident or positive, you really kind of have to talk yourself into it and manifest it because I’m the only one that can control that.”
So how does she clear the noise?
“I spend a little time, before they call us up for first round on Sunday, in my lounge just by myself,” Enders said. “Otherwise, I’ll sit in the car and visualize and go through runs, my foot on the clutch, my hand on the shifter, close my eyes and make runs in my head. Usually, if I can just be alone and not have a whole bunch of clutter going on, then I got to give my sister [Courtney] a lot of credit. She really helps me with my mental side, and so does my dad. He’s a positive mental attitude coach before he was a business guy, and he instilled a lot of that stuff in us.
“But it’s not to say it comes without challenge. There are days you wake up, and you’re just not feeling it, and those are the days you have to work really hard to be better. I guess a long answer to your question would be just like a few minutes alone, visualize and say a prayer.
YOU GOTTA KEEP BRINGING THAT UP - Two defending champion drivers keep having to touch on the same subjects, subjects they aren’t keen on revisiting. Top Fuel champion Steve Torrence doesn’t seem enthused about chatting about his lack of wins in 2022, and likewise Pro Stock No. 1 Greg Anderson isn’t fond of chatting about being stuck on 99 wins.
“It’s crazy to think that people are saying, ‘Oh, you got a bad season,” and if we haven’t won a race in seven or eight races or whatever it is, but our season’s gone a lot better than everybody but two people,” Torrence said. “I think we’re third in the points right now, and a couple of those people behind us have won races. So in no way does it seem like it’s a bad season to me, but you set the bar pretty high when you go years without losing or without not winning a race in more than, I guess, three races is what they said. So that’s just setting the bar pretty high.
“I’m just fortunate and blessed to have been the guy that did it. So we are enjoying it. Everything’s going good. And you hear, “Oh, well, Steve, he’s got a family now. He’s not got that edge that he had, and he’s not this and he’s not that.” I’m still the same guy. Just able to keep my mouth shut a little bit better.”
Anderson has been one race win shy of 100 dating back to last November in Pomona, Ca.
“It’s a cool number,” Anderson said. “It’s a damn cool number. And I’m not panicking. I’m going to get it someday, whether it comes this weekend or next weekend or 10 weekends from now. I honestly, I’m not going to lose faith. I know I’m going to get it. I know I’ve got a great race team and I can still get the job done. I may not be what I once was, but I can still get the job done. So it’s going to happen. And it’s going to be a fantastic day when it does happen.”
Ironically for Anderson, win No. 1 in his incredible career came at Bristol Dragway.
HOME SWEET SECOND HOME - Funny Car racer Bob Tasca III didn’t do well in his home race, the NHRA New England Nationals, two weekends ago, losing in the first round. But that’s okay, this weekend, the Cranston, Rhode Island-based Tasca is racing at his other home, the home away from home.
Bristol Dragway has been good to Tasca, who has qualified No. 1 here and also won.
Tasca isn’t off to the same start like he was last year, when after eight races, he was leading the points. This season has been up and down, with the TascaParts.com-sponsored driver checking in at seventh in the standings.
“We’ve had a car that has started to come out a little bit, obviously very disappointed with New England, back-to-back, semi-final rounds at Charlotte and Richmond,” Tasca explained.
“The bottom line is that we went out in the first round, but the car... The early numbers on that run, on the E1 run at Epping for those conditions, were some of the quickest that I’ve ever been on. And that’s what we’ve really been working on, is getting the car to get quicker to the 330.
“Unfortunately, it was a little too quick on that racetrack on Sunday morning, but we were actually cautiously optimistic leaving Epping, that we kind of found something with the setup. The bottom line is, we got to go out there and show it on a full weekend, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. And, we haven’t really done that to the level that we expect our team to do that this season.”
Tasca understands the frustration that comes along with dropping the ball, but has complete faith in his team that they will pull out of it better than ever.
“I know Mike and John got a little frustrated, but to be quite frank with you, I wouldn’t go into battle with anyone else but those guys,” Tasca said. “They’re very, very conscientious. They’re obviously championship caliber and when they catch their stride, look out. That’s really what it comes down to and we’d really like to catch our stride this weekend.”
Tasca believes the upcoming stretch of back-to-back races could be the key.
“I love the back-to-back,” Tasca admitted. “It’s been a little while since we’ve gone back-to-back. I think it’s exactly what this team needs, is to get out there and run Bristol, go right to Norwalk, and set up for the west coast swing where it’s time to make our move. For me, I’m laser focused on getting that top five, let the points reset, and then it’s game on.
“Last year, that’s kind of where we dropped the ball early in the Countdown. We led the points for most of the season and we didn’t catch our stride early in that Countdown. And I think at least what we’re planning on as this season will have a different vibe for us as we roll into the Countdown.”
Tasca jumped from No. 14 in Saturday’s final session all the way up to fifth headed into Sunday.
HER KIND OF PEOPLE - It didn't take United States congresswoman Diana Harshbarger long to realize she was in the perfect place on Father's Day eve. She was a guest of former Pro Modified crew chief Randy "Crusher" Lewis (Randy Moore) at the NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals.
Harshbarger has been a staunch supporter of the RPM Act, bipartisan legislation to protect Americans' right to convert street vehicles into dedicated racecars, and the motorsports-parts industry's ability to sell products that enable racers to compete. The bill clarifies that it is legal to make emissions-related changes to a street vehicle for the purpose of converting it into a racecar used exclusively in competition. It also confirms that it is legal to produce, market, and install racing equipment.
"These are my kind of people," said Harshbarger, who represents Tennesse's First District, which spans from Bristol Motor Speedway to Dollywood. "They're out here to have fun. They have a love and a passion for racing, and it's no different to what I have, so we get along real well."
As Harshbarger sees it, the right to be able to work on one's high-performance car is just common sense.
"Well, common sense, I don't know how long it's been gone, but it's missing in action right now," Harshbarger said. "You got to remember, there's a lot of people up there that hold office that have never worked a real job or run a successful business, and they think the world should be different. When you live in a bubble, and you haven't dealt with everyday problems, you get what you get. There is no common sense because you can't even try to do things bipartisanly with anybody. It's very hard, and I work with anybody if they want to push our country forward or my district."
Up until Saturday, Harshbarger's only racing experience had been NASCAR. Despite not having been in person, Harshbarger knew what drag racing was all about.
"They said Shirley Muldowney was there. I'm like, what? My dad and I watched her race all those years ago. So this is, it's nothing new for me to watch it, but be here in the middle of it, that's pretty special.
"These people truly love this sport, and they want it to go forward. They're very proactive in everything they do. That's why I'm involved in RPM legislation because you give the government an inch, they'll take a mile, and we can't have that.
"I use an analogy; it's like the gun legislation right now. You can't give an inch on certain things. We want to do so many things to make things better, but these people are just... They love the sport and there is... They love their faith, their freedom, and they love their flag, and they love their country. What more do you want if you're a first district representative like I am here in Tennessee?"
As Harshbarger sees it, the gearheads just want to be left alone to do what they love. She's here to ensure they get what they want.
"Heck, yeah," Harshbarger said. "They don't want government intrusion. Leave us alone. Let us live our lives. That's more of a libertarian view, and, hey, listen. Don't get involved unless you make their lives a little better, and that's not always the case, either."
EASIER TO ASK FOR FORGIVENESS - Troy Coughlin Jr. really is a good boy. Although at just a shade under 32 years old, he cannot be considered a boy.
Some 22 years old, the third-generation drag racer admits he flirted with the wild side.
A ten-year-old admitted “superfan,” Coughlin just wanted to get close enough to the starting line to see Dad have a chance at winning his first NHRA Pro Stock event.
“I was like 10 years old and Dad was in the Winston ‘No Bull’ Showdown,” Troy Jr. said. “At that point he hadn’t won a Pro Stock race but his car was stout that weekend and he was driving really well. They’d hyped up that race with the big money prizes and everything and it was so exciting to watch him work his way through eliminations.”
Per NHRA regulations, minors could not be on or near the starting line or their racetracks for insurance and liability reasons.
Mike Lentz, the then NHRA head of security, had warned the Coughlin team multiple times.
Still, with his father running through the field like a freight train en route to the finals, Coughlin learned sometimes the best approach is to ask for forgiveness instead of permission. It’s not that the kid wasn't influenced by at least one grown-up.
“He’d try to sneak up there every round,” said JEGS Director of Motorsports Scott “Woody” Woodruff. “I had NHRA race control on my radio headset and I’d hear ‘Troy’s kid is up here again.’ Mike Lentz would immediately look at me and I’d tell him I would handle it. I would usually go tell T.J. to hide somewhere else. I knew how badly he wanted to be up there.”
Then Troy Sr reached the final round against Mark Pawuk.
“Woody told me, ‘At least wait until your dad’s done with the burnout and is pulling forward to stage,’ thinking there wouldn’t be enough time for the security guys to run me off at the point. So that’s what I did and even though it seemed like I’d be banned for life, I was able to watch Dad win his first race.”
He might not be under as much scrutiny this weekend.
“I have a driver’s pass this time so hopefully I won’t get thrown out,” Troy Jr. said with a laugh. “The goal now is to win my first Pro Stock race at the same track where Dad got his. How cool would that be?"
This time he won't have to ask for forgiveness.
“I still have the same crazy passion for this sport that I did back when I was a kid sneaking up to the starting line to watch my Dad and uncles." he said. "I was only dreaming about doing this at that point. Now I’m living that dream and my feelings for the sport haven’t changed one bit. Nothing has changed, except I don’t have to sneak around anymore.”
DOUBLE VISION - Troy Jr. will actually have two chances to win in Bristol as he is scheduled to also compete in the Super Gas category in his Uncle Jeg Coughlin Jr.’s 1957 Chevrolet Corvette Roadster.
“It’s a super fun car to drive and it’s been in the family stable for quite a while now,” Troy Jr. said. “Uncle Mike (Coughlin) wants to race it in Norwalk (Ohio) and since it hasn’t been run for a while I volunteered to blow the dust off it this weekend. It’ll give me some more laps down the strip. Plus, I get to race some more, which is always a plus.
NOW THAT’S A RIDE! - Pro Stock racer Fernando Cuadra Sr. crashed during Friday’s lone qualifying session; he just didn’t hit anything.
Making a qualifying run alongside of Alan Prusiensky, Cuadra drifting towards the centerline and lifted. As the car was slowing in the shutdown following his aborted 7.39 elapsed time, the car apparently hit a bump in the shutdown area, upsetting the chassis and nearly taking the Mustang out of control.
If not for Cuadra’s expertise in flying airplanes, the Mustang might have ended up on its roof.
“In certain moments of your life, you’re a passenger,” Cuadra explained. “There’s nothing you can do. In this case, I was conscious to see what’s going on. I fly airplanes, and I fly with my fingertips. So I was driving the car with the fingertips.”
All the skidding and braking dead-spotted all four tires on Cuadra’s Mustang.
“I have to say something important,” Cuadra added. “The NHRA guy’s Safety Safari was around me, helping me. That amazed me. I’m very thankful for these guys.”
DOOR SNATCHING - Former NHRA Rookie of the Year drag racer Justin Ashley studied his father Mike's drag racing history like a hawk throughout his childhood. But there is one of his Dad's most famous accomplishments that seems to leave him wondering.
Mike won the 1990 IHRA Spring Nationals Pro Modified title at the old Thunder Valley configuration, the second race in the history of the class.
"I know he won here in 1990, and he won here in Pro Mod, but other than that, I don't know much about it," Ashley said. "I do know that he loves Thunder Valley, so I figured there must be a reason.
The elder Ashley had qualified No. 1 in the first-ever Pro Modified race but broke in the opening round. In winning, Mike was so excited when his Beretta came to a stop in the shutdown area he opened the door to celebrate just as runner-up Blake Wiggins passed with the parachutes blossomed. The door went further down the track collected in Wiggins' parachute.
Ashley said he hopes to win on Sunday's Father's Day eliminations, and if he does, he won't make the same mistake.
"Yeah, kind of hard to get your door ripped off in a dragster," Ashley surmised.
WHERE’S THE WRENCH? - Funny Car racer Jack Wyatt loves to think of his makeshift crew at the NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals as a band of brothers, but reality suggests it might be more of a gathering of misfit toys.
Wyatt is racing with a conglomeration of 1990s crewmen, many of whom used to work for Del Worsham over the years.
“I was on my way to Bristol with really no help, and I called these guys up, dusted them off, and brought them back out here and put them to work,” Wyatt said.
They might not win the race, but there’s no shortage of memories when it comes to telling stories of the old days.
“They started telling them [on the first day], and Del and everybody laughed,” Wyatt said. “Then they got out of there in a hurry, saying, “Okay, we’re not doing that here.”
So the roster, according to Wyatt, includes Jeff Edwards, Tom Leskovan, his son Tyler Wyatt, and Rob Hyson.
“We [Edwards] go back as far as working on Doc Holiday’s Telstar car here for the IHRA World Championship,” Wyatt explained. “Tom Leskovan there; we worked on Tasca’s deal crew chiefing on that a few years ago. And then back there in the back, that’s Rob Hyson. That goes way back to when he worked for Al Hoffman and helped everybody through the years after that, too. What a group.”
The best part of the process for an independent team is Wyatt doesn’t have to train the help.
“I just get out of their way,” Wyatt said. “The only thing, they wear me out asking where all the tools are at and stuff. That’s the only thing.”
Tyler is the youngest one out of the group at 40. On the other end, Wyatt is not entirely ready to consider himself the weak link.
“I’m getting old,” Wyatt said with a smile. “Me and Tyler showed up and put the awning up in the heat. Well, I felt bad after that.
“In the whole group. They ask me questions. I go, ‘I don’t know. You guys did it before. Do it, fix it, whatever it takes.”
“I show them where the tools are at, and the parts are at, and that’s what they do.”
YESTERDAY'S YESTERDAY - Paul Lee admits he was at his lowest on Friday at the NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals. After being on the sidelines for six weeks, in his first run back, before staging his Silver Sport Transmissions Dodge Charger Funny Car, his engine developed an oil leak forcing NHRA officials to shut him off and delaying the session.
"I'm pretty happy when I come to the racetrack, but that was one of the lowest times I can think of," Lee admitted.
Lee found a quiet place in his team's hospitality area and just sat. Then, with some advice from a friend, he put the incident behind him. It was simple but effective.
"Hey, yesterday's yesterday and today's today," Lee said.
Lee opened Saturday's qualifying with a planned shut-off, a 4.239 elapsed time at only 251.81 miles per hour to land No. 10. In arguably the worst conditions of the event, Lee ran a 4.084, 310.77, which carried him as high as third but finished the session as eighth, a top spot in the field with crucial lane choice on Sunday.
Lee admits this season hasn't been an easy one, but on the third race with his revamped crew, there's plenty of light at the end of the tunnel.
"These guys, Dustin Heim and Jason Bunker, have turned the team right around," Lee said. "We're going in the right direction, and I'm pretty happy."
IT AIN’T EASY - Josh Hart understands he must trust the process.
Hart, whose team just missed the 2021 Countdown to the Championship, remains a contender for the 2022 playoffs and is working towards having a chance to win once he gets in.
Hart is holding onto seventh provisionally in the points standings headed into the eighth race of the season.
“It’s no secret that we’ve struggled a little bit this year with a new car,” Hart said. “We tested a lot of new things, and some of it we liked, and some of it we didn’t like. So we’re going to try to get back in the groove, definitely try to maintain our top ten status, and get ready for the championship.”
As Hart sees it, testing during national events is a necessary evil with the costs of fuel prices and other necessities going through the roof.
“The only way you’re going to evolve is to test new things and step outside of our comfort zone a little bit. We have, and it’s bit us a couple of times, and we have. It’s a mile-an-hour faster sometimes, so just a lot of testing going on right now.”
Sometimes the uncertainty is a bitter pill to swallow.
“It’s awful,” Hart admitted. “As a driver, you get three good laps, and you start getting confident and start trying to just focus on reaction time. Then, like you saw last weekend in Epping, you hit the gas, we smoked the tires, and kaboom. So I’m learning a lot, too. I think it’s like my 70th pass. So everybody’s learning. We’re evolving together as a team.”
Hart’s team fired an impressive shot during Friday’s performance-challenged session, briefly holding the provisional No. 1 qualifying with a 3.791 elapsed time but falling back to second when Steve Torrence tied his performance but had a faster mile per hour.
“That was nice, smooth sailing,” Hart said of the run. “I did feel the bump in the track, which is okay. It unsettled the car a little bit but wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. So I love it here. The weather is nice. I’ve never been here at this time of year, so I’m extremely excited.”
Hart wasn’t trying to hit a home run in baseball terms, but rather a base hit. Either way, he knew he needed to be aggressive regardless of which direction his team chose.
“You can’t even give an inch, though, around here,” Hart said. “Everybody out here will rip your throat out on the starting line, so you just try to make it a little bit faster every time.”
LESS THAN STELLAR - Friday’s lone nitro session was forgettable. Tire shake and aborted runs were the norm in the nitro classes.
Past Funny Car champion JR Todd, while praising the Bristol Dragway effort for attempting to repair the legendary bumps in the racing surface, said the tire shake he experienced in his DHL Toyota was severe.
“You don’t want to experience something like that,” said Todd, “If you do, just make your way down to the local Home Depot and put yourself in the paint shaker and crank that thing on high. That’s about how it feels like. I thought it was going to go through it then it got in that shake zone. It’s tricky out there in Q1.”
Over the offseason, the Bristol Dragway team went to work on the racing surface, resurfacing the track to eliminate some of the nuances which made navigating the surface treacherous at times.
The changes, Top Fuel low qualifier Steve Torrence said, are going to take some getting used to.
“They made the surface a little more level and flat,” Torrence said. “So some of those areas that they had to work on don’t have as much glue or as much rubber on them as what we would like to see. And so those were some tricky areas for all of us and just fortunately, Richard and Bobby were able to navigate that and the car slid through there. And you can see, a 3.79 going low to be number one qualifier, that’s really not what we’re used to here as of late.”
TORRENCE LEADS THE DRAGSTERS - Steve Torrence navigated the complex route from A-to-B at Bristol Dragway better than any other on Friday with a 3.791, 317 miles an hour. If the run holds, it will be the second straight No. 1 for the CAPCO team, which is still searching for their first win of 2022.
“Epping went ... as a whole, it went very good for us,” Torrence said of the recently completed NHRA New England Nationals. “Made some mistakes first round that we were able to identify immediately, knew what the problem was. So to come here and come straight out of the trailer and have a good solid run, especially with the cars that were going down in front of us and not really running good times and not making it down the track. So that was a good run for us to get the ball rolling, to give us some momentum going into race day.
“Tomorrow will be a totally different track condition, I’m sure. And we’ll just see where we go from there, but I think that was a good pass coming out of the trailer and going to the number one spot.
ON TOP OF OL' SMOKY - It didn’t come without some late-Friday-night damage control for the Automobile Club of Southern California Chevrolet Camaro crew.
It likely won’t hold up through two Saturday qualifying runs at the NHRA’s Thunder Valley Nationals at Bristol Dragway.
But Robert Hight will take his 3.971-second elapsed time at 310.98 mph on the 1000-foot East Tennessee course and be glad for his provisional No. 1 spot atop the Funny Car leaderboard.
After popping up through the roof hatch from his smoke-filled cockpit and climbing out at the top end of the racetrack, Hight said, “I think it had an oil leak. I think something was going on. It was starting to slip the tire a little bit. We honestly thought it was going to run a little better than that. It did hit a bump, and it put a cylinder out and it started spinning. I had to drive it a lot.
“But it was going. I know a lot of cars didn’t make it,” he said. “I stuck with it and got the Camaro in [the lineup].”
Hight was the only Funny Car racer to post an E.T. in the three-second range.
Jim Campbell, who took the tentative No. 2 position, posted a 4.080-second run at 306.19 mph, and No. 3 Matt Hagan negotiated a 4.172-second, 235.23-mph pass on the freshly upgraded surface.
What was notable about Campbell’s performance is that he buzzed down the right lane immediately after clean-up from Paul Lee’s fluid leak was completed. After a rain delay and a tire-smoking attempt from Jack Wyatt, Lee left a trail of oil from his burnout back-up. And Campbell did so on a track that was a bit of a mystery to many racers at this point in the weekend because of its newly updated status, effects of a rain stoppage, and the usual idiosyncrasies that every dragstrip presents.
Jimmy Prock, Hight’s crew chief, said after Friday’s run, “We’re not sure about the bumps. The track needs some more runs on it. Once it gets sprayed some more, it’ll come around. At least we got down there, got something [some data] to look at.”
For Hight, it was a bit of a shock: “I’m surprised it’s No. 1.”
But he had no delusions that he would remain the top qualifier, even with hotter (and therefore trickier) conditions that are expected Saturday.
“It won’t stick for tomorrow,” Hight said with authority. “No matter how hot it is tomorrow, it’s not going to stick. Just so everyone knows, 3.97 is not going to hold. A lot more cars are going to run, and the track is going to get better. I think we could run low 3.90s tomorrow. That’s what it’s going to take to be No. 1.” - Susan Wade
ONE FOOT BETTER - Greg Anderson figured that his 6.686, 202 pass which delivered the provisional pole at the NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals makes him a serious threat again.
“It’s about 1,319 feet better than the last first attempt that I made at qualifying at Epping,” Anderson said. “Definitely a much better start. You have to get that data. You can’t lose runs out here. You got to get that data because it’s so important and you got to make quality runs to get quality data. So that was a quality run without a doubt. And as I said, after the problems that we started out with that, in Epping, we gained out of each run and we were a serious car on Sunday. Just needed to get one more run to get it right, to get it perfect, and it carried over into here.
“It’s encouraging. We’ve been working awful hard and yes, we got off to a slow start. We’re coming, we’re back. And I think we’re very close to finding our way to the winners circle again.
“So I think I’m a serious threat again. And again, last year was a unique year. It’s like every race track I rolled through the gates, you felt like you had a great chance to win the event. And I haven’t quite had that feeling yet this season.
Anderson was quick to point out that the fuel racers weren’t the only ones who needed their “A” game to navigate the Bristol Dragway racing surface.
“That’s character on the racetrack as far as I’m concerned,” Anderson explained. “So that puts it more back into the driver’s hands. You got to do a great job of keeping your car in the groove and keeping it straight and not making a mistake. So that’s fine by me. That’s all part of the deal. And that’s what it should take to win an event. You should have a challenge like you got here and I’m looking forward to it. I love racing at Bristol and this track’s definitely got character. So I like that.
DADDY’S DAY - Racing on Father’s Day for a relatively new father will have new meaning for Top Fuel low qualifier and champion Steve Torrence.
“It’s one of those things that it’s not emotional where you want to tear up,” Torrence admitted. “It’s just so cool. I’ve won this race once before. It was in ’13 and to win a race and to be able to present a trophy to your dad and say, ‘Hey man, Happy Father’s Day. Thank you for everything,”
“That’s special. And then to experience it in this light, where I got my little girl with me, I got my wife here with me and if we could pull off a win, that’ll be something that I’ll remember forever. I’m so fortunate and blessed that we get to spend so much time with her. I’m not on the road and she’s at home with my wife. My whole family gets to come to the racetrack with me and enjoy this together.
“That’s why we do this, so it’s just exciting and fun and it hadn’t become a tear jerker yet, but I’m sure if we win this race and she’s down there at the end, I might be doing a little tearing up or something.
IT IS WHAT IT IS - Well, technically, she is undefeated. She is also No. 1 headed into Saturday's final qualifying.
Angelle Sampey rode her way to the provisional No. 1 qualifying spot with a 6.966, 185 mile per hour pass.
Before last year, the NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle racers didn’t compete at the NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals in Bristol, Tenn. So, when she won last season’s pandemic-delayed event, Sampey became the first and only official, points-paying winner in the event’s history.
Sampey’s win was an improbable one after she entered eliminations as the No. 13 qualifier, before beating Vance & Hines teammates Andrew Hines and Eddie Krawiec before beating Karen Stoffer in the final round.
The run to the top on Friday made up for a disappointing outing in Richmond. Last year's Bristol triumph went a long way to putting that memory in the rear view mirror.
"I'm going to admit that at the last race, I was pretty bummed," Sampey explained. "I blew the race and just started getting really down on myself. And then I started remembering what kind of a time I had here in Bristol last year. And I don't mean with the winning. I personally was struggling here last year. I was afraid of the race track. Things just weren't going well for me. And I ended up winning it.
"So it taught me a lesson of how not to really worry about things. You can't control certain things, and I was worried about too many things and I was worried about winning the race. And at the last race, I was just worried about winning. And I realized that I have to just stop and enjoy the ride. And I've said this a million times, but I think I'm going to finally start listening to myself."
Technically, Sampey isn’t the only NHRA bike winner ever crowned in Bristol. Former rival Matt Hines scored exhibition wins at the 1999 and 200o events.
BRING ON THE BUMPS - Tony Schumacher has 85 Top Fuel wins to his credit but since his return to full-time Top Fuel racing, getting another one has been a challenge. Yet the winningest driver in Top Fuel history isn’t sweating it. He’s having the time of his life despite the lack of win lights.
Schumacher said Friday at Bristol Dragway that his team is on the verge of turning a corner. He knew returning to drag racing after being on the sidelines would be a challenge with expectations, considering the level he established early in his career.
“It’s not as bad as you would think,” Schumacher said. “I’ve been there. I’ve sat through that adversity numerous times. We won a championship in 99, had a great running race car in 2002, and crashed and then really struggled for the next couple of years and then got back up, started winning, hired Alan Johnson, and went out there and won championships. But even in those years, we suffered at the beginning.
“What made “The Run” the run was how awful we were early [in the event]. And it’s that kind of attitude that I think I’d like to bring to the table because when you have adversity, you got to have the losses to make the wins great. We’re suffering through that right now, but I see great light at the end of the tunnel.”
Evidently, according to the eight-time champion, his tuning duo of Todd Okuhara and Marc Denner diagnosed a significant issue plaguing the team.
“My dad [Don Schumacher] always said, ‘It’s going to be like a two by four, it’s going to hit you, and you’re going to go; how did we miss that?”
Despite having only five round wins to his credit thus far in the first eight races, Schumacher is having the time of his life.
“This has been a fantastic season. We haven’t performed to our level,” Schumacher explained. "We will, but to go out and see the cars that are running and the people that are winning, this is for the fans, and they’re seeing some good racing.”
Fortunately for Schumacher, he’s at a venue where success has been plentiful. Despite not winning since 2018, Schumacher’s last trip to Bristol, he remains the winningest driver in Bristol Dragway with six.
Bristol Dragway repaired a good measure of the nuances that made drivers step up to the challenge. One of the keys to his success was navigating a racing surface that demanded the best of its drivers. And the elements, Schumacher believes, can be as challenging.
“I always said that the difficult tracks are the ones I enjoy the most because if everything’s equal and the cars just go down the racetrack and the driver’s kind of taken out of it, cars go fast,” Schumacher said. “It’s dictated by a crew chief that’s, you know, I don’t dislike those trophies. I very much like them, but the races that are difficult, that you have to earn. The last one we won, I don’t remember. I think it was near 2000 degrees out. I just remember it being brutal. And that is a very, very hard way to win a race.
“In that car, it’s incredibly uncomfortable. I mean, you could pass out in those things. I’m in a dome. That sun is pounding on you, and you got to get through it anyway. So the drivers that stay in shape know what to do to stay hydrated and use the oxygen that we use. I’m glad they went and made it flat, but they’re welcome to put the bumps back in. I always enjoy them myself.”