2023 NHRA CIRCLE K FOUR - WIDE NATIONALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
Competition Plus’ Water-Cooler Topics From The Circle K Four-Wide Nationals in Charlotte, NC.
Competition Plus’ water-cooler topics from the Circle K Four-Wide Nationals at zMAX Dragway at Concord, N.C.
1. More hurrahs for Herrera - Vance & Hines newcomer Gaige Herrera’s Pro Stock Motorcycle record is untarnished this season.
Although the campaign is just two races old, Herrera clearly is the racer to beat. He has scored back-to-back No. 1 starts and victories aboard the Gen 3 Hayabusa Suzuki.
The bikes will be back in action, in conventional two-wide format along with the rest of the pro categories, at the May 19-21 Gerber Collision and Glass Route 66 Nationals at Joliet, Ill.
2. Kramer the cream of the Pro Stock field - Deric Kramer held off the two hottest Pro Stock racers on the Camping World Drag Racing Series tour – top qualifier Matt Hartford and Dallas Glenn, winner of the past two races – as well as rising star Fernando Cuadra Jr. to win for the first time since the fall Charlotte event here in 2019.
“Once you win one of these,” five-time winner Kramer said, “there’s nothing more that you want to do than win another.”
Clutching his Wally trophy, the Colorado native said, “After you hoist one and you don’t hoist another for a long time, you think it might never come [again]. Finally we got it done today.”
He did so with a 17-inch margin of victory over Glenn.
3. Well, Austin Prock can’t say that anymore - When Top Fuel driver Austin Prock reached the final round, he remarked, “I’ve never had any luck here, but maybe today’s my day.”
His hunch was correct. He outran Leah Pruett and Josh Hart and got no opposition from red-lighting Steve Torrence to claim his first victory of the year in his second final-round appearance in three races. Prock was runner-up to Justin Ashley at the Winternationals at Pomona, Calif.
Prock doubled up in the winner's circle with Funny Car victor Robert Hight, whose tuner and assistant crew chief happen to be Prock’s dad, Jimmy, and brother, Thomas, respectively.
4. Hight shakes off early season slump to win Funny Car trophy - When Robert Hight marched to victory at the Arizona Nationals, race No. 2 of the season, it appeared he was on his way to being one of the early rulers of the Funny Car class.
But the three-time champion with 63 victories in 401 races encountered a couple of uncharacteristic first-round exits at Pomona and Las Vegas. Two-wide or four-wide, that was something he didn’t want to repeat. So he and his John Force Racing team stayed behind at Las Vegas and did some testing.
Make that ... they did some changing. Both Hight and crew chief Jimmy Prock made no secret of it. And why should they? It paid off with a dramatic turnaround, as he used a holeshot to edge runner-up Alexis DeJoria (who entered the final round with the best average elapsed times in eliminations this year). John Force and Ron Capps were no threats in the final round.
Hight shared the winner's podium with Top Fuel colleague Austin Prock.
5. ‘Cuadra Quad,’ or ‘The Quadras?’ - Fans at xMAX Dragway got to witness a quartet of Cuadras on the track at the same time this weekend. All four of the Corral Boots Pro Stockers, driven by Fernando Cuadra Sr. and sons Fernando Jr., Cristian, and David, made historical four-abreast qualifying runs Saturday.
Seeing the family of luxury leathercrafters and bootmakers from Leόn, Guanajuato, Mexico, competing together at this final four-wide race of the year has been a dream for patriarch Fernando Cuadra Sr. He had hoped to do it at the previous race, at Las Vegas, but Top Sportsman regular David Cuadra still needed to complete his Pro Stock licensing passes.
In the end father Fernando Sr. missed the cut for eliminations, but his three sons qualified.
Fernando Cuadra Jr., the No. 15 starter, advanced to the final round but red-lit away his chance for a first victory. Twins Cristian and David Cuadra dropped out in the first round Sunday.
"Making it to the first final round of my career at a four-wide race is really incredible," Cuadra Jr. said "I know that our first win is close, and we just keep getting better. This is a great [Elite Motorsports] team, and I'm proud of my brother David for doing so well in his Pro Stock debut."
5a. "Stop Forrest, Stop" - Well, it was a good argument for a while. When Pro Modified racer Rickie Smith stopped the clocks during the Q3 session at 5.669 seconds at 252.47 miles per hour. He was almost .05 quicker than No. 2 qualifier Justin Bond.
“That was pretty badass,” Smith said. “I don’t know exactly where it come from, but I’ll take it.”
Such a moment might be the ultimate 'oops' moment for a drag racer who has long contended that the nitrous combination competes at a disadvantage.
“I don’t know. I mean, it’s got the exact same tune-up it had here last year,” Smith said. “I changed one thing in the car, and I don’t know if it’s just getting more nitrous when I’ve done that or what I’ve done, but that’s the exact same jets in this car here last year.”
Depending on which run doorslammer fans give more credibility, at a Northeast Outlaw Pro Mod event at Maryland International event back in 2019, Dean Marinis ran 5.572 seconds at 255.19 mph in the Harry Pappas-owned, Pat Musi Racing Engine-powered Camaro. - Bobby Bennett
6. All in the family: Husband, wife finish weekend as runners-up - Top Fuel racer Leah Pruett recorded the 10th runner-up finish of her career a few minutes after husband Tony Stewart took his career-second runner-up result in the Top Alcohol Dragster class.
Going for her 11th victory, Pruett came in second to Austin Prock, the John Force Racing driver she has met in eliminations four times in five events this year.
Stewart’s McPhillips Racing teammate Mike Coughlin used a triple holeshot to gain the victory in the quad that also included Julie Nataas and Cody Krohn. At 5.260 seconds, Stewart, making his third final in his first five races, had the quickest quarter-mile elapsed time of that final quad but had to settle for second place.
“I’m very proud of our performance. Every single time I’m in that car, it’s a rush, and the thing I love most about racing is this team and working together. Those are my highs,” Pruett said. “I have a lot of grit and get mad about things. Watching Tony runner-up and knowing what he felt, I wanted to win even more but didn’t quite get it done. Leaving here in third is something to hold our head high on moving forward. There’s always a small downside to it, because you can taste the win and we weren’t able to chew on it right there. We’re hungry, and we’re going to be eating soon.”
7. Who says Pro Stock Motorcycles aren’t entertaining? - The first round of Pro Stock Motorcycle eliminations produced plenty of drama Sunday. Gaige Herrera, No. 1 qualifier for the second of the season’s only two bike-class appearances so far this year, kept his momentum rolling. The Gatornationals winner – who already owns four of the Pro Stock Bikes’ top-10 elapsed times – advanced to the semifinal, then the final round once again. But the wild action for that quad happened after Herrera won in Round 2. Kelly Clontz also advanced out of the first round for only the fifth time in her career.
As she and Herrera made the turnout from the top end of the track, debuting rider Marcus Hylton plowed between them and into the sand pit on his Blake Gann-owned Pirana Racing entry.
Clontz – already wound up because she thought she lost, then learned she was moving on to the semifinal round – said of the near-collision, “I looked both ways. Mama taught me how to look both ways. I’m glad my buddy [Hylton] is all right. But he comes flyin’ by me, and I’m like, ‘Oh, my goodness!’”
Two quads earlier, John Hall timed out, as did an angry Jianna Evaristo. She contended that the lights on the Christmas Tree never came down.
But on another positive note, the finalists in this class were the top four qualifiers: Gaige Herrera, Eddie Krawiec, Matt Smith, and Steve Johnson.
So stay in your seats, folks, watch these racers, and go get your hot dogs some other time.
8. Funny Car star Hagan’s relationship with zMAX hits another snag - For Matt Hagan, zMAX Dragway has been the site of some of his coolest memories and some of his most spectacularly frightening ones. His first qualifying attempt Friday fell into the latter category.
At the end of his 326-mph run, the parachutes on his Operation Healing Forces Dodge failed to deploy, and he bounced across the sand trap and nose-first into the first catch fence. The front end of his car was demolished, the carbon-fiber body ripped apart like scrap paper. Safety Safari workers lifted it up and off the chassis and carried it away in pallbearer fashion.
“We got Operation Healing Forces on the side of the car. It looks like we’re going to have Operation Heal That Body a little bit,” an uninjured Hagan said after exiting his car and surveying the damage. “The solenoid pulls broke off [and I was] trying to do it manually, as well ... just nothing there. All you can do is just grab some brake and hang on for the ride. I thought I could get her slowed down so I could nose her in the sand, but she wouldn’t slow down enough. I’m good. Everything’s good. I just hate that it happened. You run one of these things long enough, something’s going to happen.”
Plenty has happened to him here. In 2012, his breathtaking engine explosion caught the attention of media worldwide. The year before, Hagan was the first Funny Car driver to break the four-second barrier with his 3.995-second pass, which prompted zMAX Dragway officials to post a commemorative sign on the retaining wall near the starting line. Today that elapsed time isn’t even one of the class’ top 10.
Between two-wide victories in 2011 and 2014, Hagan earned a four-wide trophy in 2013. He has raced in five final quads at this event (2010, 2013, 2016, 2017 and 2019).
But he said, maybe prophetically, even before the event started, “You still have to stay humble. These cars are a handful. They’re a handful to drive, and they’re a handful for the tuner. There is nothing easy about it. You can win a race and then roll to the next one and unload the car and not even go down the track. I’ve been there and done that, so as much as you think you have it figured out, these Funny Cars are funny.”
Hagan said, “We’re going to test our old back-up car on Tuesday, which will give us more confidence, as well, in case we need to pull it out.” Too late. The team had to press it into service, starting in Q2. Hagan lost in Sunday’s opening Funny Car foursome.
9. Hartford team motivated by missed details, substandard dinner - Matt Hartford and his Total Seal, CIP1, GETTRX Chevy team were perturbed enough by the shock of having the rear end of their Pro Stock Camaro lock up at the starting line during Friday night qualifying for the Circle K NHRA Four-Wide Nationals.
He said, “We went to bed last night really disappointed in the fact that we knew we had a car last night that could go to the pole.”
Maybe more distasteful was the fact that staying late at the track caused them to miss out on a decent dinner.
“Last night, getting out of here late and stopping at the wing place for dinner, none of us were in a good mood, even with the food we had to eat,” he said.
Saturday’s results were much easier to digest. Hartford rebounded early Saturday with a 6.538-second, 208.52-mph blast down the zMAX Dragway quarter-mile that earned him his second straight No. 1 qualifying position and second career No. 1 start.
“I think luck was on our side last night,” Hartford said, “because had we had that failure at 1,000 foot or even past the finish line last night, I think it'd be a whole different outcome today. And I'm not sure the car would be in one piece. So it was lucky for us that the car broke right here before we fired it up.
“We just regrouped and said, ‘OK, that run’s over. Come out here and we're first car out – which means we got to be pulled back some because the lane's not going to be as good – and let's just go up there and make a good run. We know we have enough to probably get into the top five, and if we make a great run, we'll go No. 1.’ And that's what we did,” he said.
“We have a great team. The Total Seal, CIP1, GETTRX Camaro is a rocket ship right now. It's the best car I've ever had. It's the best team I've ever had. And we're just going to see if we can start trying to capitalize on it,” Hartford said.
The team had a pep talk Friday night, and Hartford said, “The message was ‘Let's not try to overlook some of these details, because obviously there was a detail that we had overlooked. That is what cost us not to run last night. Overlooking these details makes us end up leaving the track really late and having to eat at places we don't want to eat.’ And that was really the message. It's like, if we do our job right, we can get out of here on time and have an enjoyable evening. Just focus on the details. We're all going to make mistakes. That was a complete team miss why we failed last night. There was not one individual – it was our entire team could have recognized that problem at some point in time, and we didn't. So it's on our checklist of ‘Here's another one of the million ways to losing in drag racing,’ and we'll not have that one again.”
Neither will they tolerate an unappetizing plate of yucky chicken wings.
10. Quotes: They said what?! - “You said the reason you wanted to interview me was so we didn’t have to listen to that anymore. ... No, I really wouldn’t.”
Tony Stewart to Hannah Rickards, referring to schlock-jockey Jason Logan’s “singing” and declining to participate in karaoke
“I’ve never experienced as much joy [as] I did being there for Tony and the McPhillips Racing’s team win. My heart was about to explode on the line, being so full of happiness for him. When it is something you work hard at and dedicate a great deal of time to and you watch someone do the same and have a contributing role in it, the enjoyment factor achieves a new height. Most specifically, Tony is a racer. And that tiger was very much starving for a win since getting out of the seat of the sprint car and NASCAR Cup cars.”
Top Fuel racer Leah Pruett, regarding husband Tony Stewart’s first NHRA victory earlier this month, at Las Vegas
“These things are cyclical, you know? You go through excellent winning streaks, and then you go through some difficult times. In the end, the teams that become championship teams and worthy of being champions in the fans’ eyes, are the ones that get through adversity. We don’t point fingers. We don’t get mad at each other. We gather information. We work hard. We test – and go out and win. We’ll find that place. We’re getting closer every day.”
Tony Schumacher, Top Fuel driver of the SCAG Power Equipment dragster
JINX, WHAT JINX? - Austin Prock hasn’t had much luck in competition at zMAX Dragway north of Charlotte. In fact, he hasn’t had much luck competing at either facility that houses the unique four-wide format.
On Sunday, Prock overcame those shortfalls and collected his first win in the four-car format at the Circle K NHRA Four-Wide Nationals.
“To rebound like we did after an awful weekend in Vegas really shows how strong this team is,” Prock said. “I’ve never had any success here in Charlotte and went from pretty much going out in the first round each time I’ve been here to winning the whole thing. I am super proud of my team. This category is just brutal right now, so this is extra special.”
Not only was Prock successful in the final round, he was masterful all day long. He finished first in all three of his quads Sunday and saved his best stuff for last.
In a quartet that saw him matched up with Steve Torrence, Leah Pruett and Josh Hart, Prock drove his Montana Brand dragster past all three with an afternoon-best 3.684-second pass at 330.88 mph to earn his first win of the season and fourth of his career.
Pruett was closing on Prock as they approached the finish line, but ultimately fell short at 3.708 at 329.99 mph. Hart was third with a 3.756 at 327.82 mph, while Torrence went red by a wide margin to finish fourth.
After crossing the stripe, Prock wasn’t sure whether he had won the race -- another facet of the four-wide format.
“When you are in the outside lanes, if you are quick you can catch the win light, but I missed that so I didn’t even know I won until I turned the corner,” Prock said. “I didn’t know if (Torrence) had red-lit or if he just got a massive holeshot on me. I don’t use a radio, so this four-wide stuff -- when you are in the middle lanes -- it is miserable sitting in the shutdown because you don’t know what you ran, if you won or lost, nothing. I knew it was on a great pull and my crew chiefs were so confident today. They told me we are going to go up there and outrun everybody, and I believe we did that.”
While Prock’s four-wide struggles continued in the most recent race on the tour in Las Vegas with a first-round exit, Prock felt that competing in that format in back-to-back races helped him gradually figure out the puzzle presented by these events.
“It felt like I came into Vegas with a better mindset of how to handle it, and then having them back-to-back, you are just much more comfortable coming into this second four-wide,” Prock said. “Now that I am comfortable on the four-wide, it is going to feel odd going back to two-wide. It is all as hard as you make it.”
Prock was quickest in all three of his sessions on Sunday, advancing in round one with a 3.686 at 331.53 mph alongside Justin Ashley in a win over Mike Salinas and Jacob McNeal. In round two, it was again easy sailing for the eventual winner with a 3.715 at 328.78 mph to advance alongside Leah Pruett (3.753) in eliminating Pat Dakin and Justin Ashley. In the other semifinal quad, it was Hart with a 3.706 leading the way alongside Torrence (3.705) in a win over Doug Foley and Brittany Force.
Ironically, in two of Prock’s three quads, he saw a driver go red, with Torrence’s final-round infraction throwing him off his game.
“I had two people red light against me today,” Prock said. “The first one I kept my composure and it was a lot closer. And then when Steve hit the gas, it startled me, but I kept my composure again. I heard him leave and was like, 'Oh, s***, am I late?’ I’m going down there and I see his header flame out of the corner of my eye so that caught my attention and I missed the win light.”
Prock’s win produced a nitro double for John Force Racing as Robert Hight also collected a Wally in the Funny Car category moments earlier. Prock's victory was the first for crew chief Chris Cunningham in a solo role with the team.
“It feels really good to get a win early in the season like this,” Prock said. “It sets us up to do our part at John Force Racing to get a handful of wins this year and keep up in points and give ourselves a really good chance at the championship. We’ve got another crew chief with Chris Cunningham and Joe Barlam; together I know they are going to do a good job. They have already proved that this year. We’ve had our ups and downs, but when it is on, it is on. It is a real fast racecar and a real fun racecar to drive.”
While Prock ended the 2022 season with plenty of success, taking two of the season’s final six races, he admits that he has been struggling mentally on the track this year. While he had a runner-up finish in Pomona, he hadn’t advanced past the second round in the other races until Sunday. And that win has already helped boost his confidence for the rest of the year.
“I honestly don’t feel like I’ve been that confident,” Prock admitted. “I feel like I found that again this weekend. I haven’t been really happy with my driving ability that I’ve shown this year. This weekend, I was much more proud of myself. I’m pretty hard on myself. All of us out here want to be the greatest driver in our category. I’ve been up there trying to push myself so hard instead of just going up there and doing what I know to do.
“Losing is one thing, but if you lose on the driver's end it really hurts. I was happy with how this weekend went. Hopefully it can continue.”
BACK IN THE CLUB - It is safe to say that Robert Hight has been very un-Robert-Hight-like as of late on the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series tour.
After gaining the points lead following a win in Phoenix in the second race of the year, Hight then suffered back-to-back first-round losses in the next two races, leaving the team scrambling for answers just four races into the season.
But after a test session in Las Vegas and a slew of changes thrown at the car, Hight came into this weekend’s Circle K NHRA Four-Wide Nationals at zMAX Dragway with a renewed confidence. And that confidence paid off in a big way with his second win of the season Sunday.
“We did change the car around,” Hight said. “We had two first-round losses in a row. We stayed and tested Monday in Vegas, and we actually had some ignition problems. I’m thinking we are not going to get the data that we need with the clutch because the engine didn’t run right, but Jimmy (Prock) said we are going to be fine. To come here and make basically seven respectable runs down the track, I’m proud. I’m proud of him just easing into it and not overdoing it and giving me a chance to win. You can see it in his eyes that there is more left in it. When you are up against the group we had in the final, whoever comes out on top is a big deal.”
The quartet of drivers that Hight referenced in Sunday’s Funny Car four-wide final round also included Hight's team owner, John Force, in addition to Ron Capps and Alexis DeJoria. While all four drivers were capable of taking home the Wally trophy, in the end it was Hight left standing on a holeshot. Hight drove his Flav-R-Pac Chevrolet Camaro to a 3.888-second pass at 328.30 mph, just nipping DeJoria, who had low elapsed time of the round with a 3.872 at 333.41 mph, but was the slowest off the line of the quad.
Capps, who had the quickest reaction time of the bunch, was third with a 3.932 at 331.85 mph, while Force saw his attempt at a third straight Charlotte four-wide win fall short with a 3.924, 329.26 mph to place fourth.
“When you have the team that we have, it is not just the Flav-R-Pac team that I drive for,” Hight said. “We’ve got four really good teams that work together. When you have this team behind you, you always have confidence no matter what happened last week. With Jimmy Prock as your crew chief, I always feel like I’m one run away from being low ET. These wins come with great people, and we couldn’t do it without the group that we have.”
Sunday’s win was especially challenging for Hight as he, like the rest of his competitors, had to wait through a lengthy delay after rain showers washed over the track moments before the start of first round for the Funny Car category. After nearly four hours of delays, Hight finally got suited up for his first hit at the track, and was impressed by the work that the NHRA did to get the track ready for the remainder of the event.
“It is not easy,” High said of the delay. “You have to get up for these runs. You can’t stay ready like that all day long. You have to relax a little bit and hope it quits raining and then get back up all over again. It is not what you want to do. You have already waited long enough for first round, you just want to get the show on the road.
“And then for the car to go down the track every run -- really, hats off to the NHRA and the Safety Safari. They have had challenging conditions all weekend. They just did a great job. There was a lot of great side-by-side racing with all four cars, all four lanes. It is tough enough to do two lanes, but to do four, they earned it this weekend. They deserve to be sitting up here.”
After the lengthy delay, Hight got back up and advanced out of his first quad alongside Mike McIntire Jr. with a 3.926 at 329.10 mph, defeating Alex Laughlin and J.R. Todd in the process. He then produced low elapsed time of the second round with a 3.875 at 331.28 mph to advance to the final alongside Force, while sidelining McIntire and Cruz Pedregon.
While Hight’s recent struggles were turned around with the win, his chief rival in points leader Matt Hagan was suddenly bit with the same bug. Hagan lost in the first round to DeJoria and Chad Green, running into trouble during his run. Thanks to that loss, Hight was able to make up ground in the championship battle as he went on to earn the 63rd win of his career.
“You get excited when you hear he lost first round. Then you know the door is open and the opportunity is there,” Hight said. “You can’t let that affect you. You have to stay focused and take it one run at a time. In the first round I had a horrible light, but got my act together second and third and we got the job done.
“It is 40 points to the winner, so that is a big swing here. It was a big day for us. We needed this to get right back in the hunt. He and I are the only two that have won this year. He’s got one on me and I have to catch him.”
EUPHORIA, KRAMER STYLE - This win was a long time coming for veteran Pro Stock driver Deric Kramer.
How long? Over three years, back on Oct. 14, 2019 at the NTK NHRA Carolina Nationals.
He ended that drought Sunday at the same track with a win in the Circle K NHRA Four-Wide Nationals in Charlotte, N.C.
“The GetBioFuel Chevy Camaro is a fun car to drive, that’s first and foremost,” Kramer said. “That right there is enough to keep someone wanting to be out here. But once you hoist the Wally and you get that feeling ... my very first opponent that I ever raced against in Pro Stock, Jason Line, said my very first race, 'The moment you win one all you want to do is win another.' When the drought is so long you think that it is never going to happen again and when it finally does euphoria just washes over you.”
The win was the fifth of Kramer's NHRA Pro Stock career. He had two each in 2018 (Topeka, Kan., and Brainerd, Minn.) and 2019 (Chicago and Charlotte).
Kramer won the quad in Round 3 with a 6.555-second elapsed time at 208.88 mph. Dallas Glenn was second at 6.581 seconds, Matt Hartford (9.252) was third, and Fernando Cuadro Jr. had a redlight start.
Kramer arrived in Charlotte fresh off a trip to the Round 3 quad in Las Vegas before coming up short against Glenn.
“We’ve been, as a team, struggling with the car the last couple of years -- just little gremlins that would occasionally show up -- and we were able to kind of solve those right towards the end of last year,” said Kramer, who finished 10th in the 2022 points standings. “Then we built some momentum through the offseason, and you go to a finals in a race (in Vegas) and we stayed and tested the next day and just getting more and more laps makes me comfortable; gets the crew more comfortable and we get more data. It all compiles and you get this compounded effect for a victory.
“In that test session, we found a lot of small stuff. We were getting a handle on changes we made in the offseason. We fixed our gremlins in the past year and got new stuff over the offseason, and we wanted to get a handle on the new powerplant, and I think we did that pretty well.”
When the car is running well, it is good news for Kramer.
“It is great,” he said. “If the car is consistent and the car is fast you know you have a car underneath you that takes pressure off you. All you have to do is go out there and do your job as best you can and let the chips fall where they do. When the car is running that good, you have a really good chance to keep going.”
Matt Hartford, the No. 1 qualifier in Charlotte, was in all three quads with Kramer. Hartford won quad 1 and Kramer returned the favor in quad 2. Then Kramer got the win in quad 3.
“It is a great experience,” Kramer said about racing against Hartford three times in one day. “We have had a lot of runs against each other in the past couple of years, and as long as win lights keeping coming on in my lane, I look forward to it.”
Although Kramer defeated Hartford in quad 2, he wasn’t putting much stock in the win.
“To me the Four-Wides are awesome. I love them, and they are probably my favorite races on the circuit,” Kramer said. “There is so much chaos. There is so much different. I just enjoy it. I just enjoy the opportunity to try and be in the next round, that’s all you are really looking for. You are looking for any light. Until today, I couldn’t tell if blinking was good or solid was good. It is definitely one or the other for me and I’m happy to have them both lit.”
Up next on the NHRA national event schedule is the Gerber Collision and Glass Route 66 NHRA Nationals presented by PEAK Performance in Chicago, May 19-21. Chicago is returning to the schedule this season, and Kramer was the track’s last Pro Stock champ in 2019.
“I came from a final-round appearance in the last four-wide (in Las Vegas), then I won this final round here in Charlotte and we are going to Chicago where I’m the defending champ. I think that is all I can say right there,” Kramer said.
MR. 1.000 - Still batting 1.000, Gaige Herrera.
On Sunday, Herrera won for the second time in as many races aboard the vaunted Vance & Hines NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle.
Herrera’s latest accomplishment came when he was victorious at the Circle K NHRA Four-Wide Nationals in Charlotte, N.C.
His latest win on the Mission Foods Suzuki Hayabusa came with an added bonus. He set the NHRA elapsed-time record in the round three quad with a 6.710-second lap.
"I'm on Cloud Nine," he said. "I mean, like we talked about when I was in here when I was No. 1 qualifier, I was coming in here trying to go a few rounds, basically make a little bit of a presence, not do like we are doing. To be out here and go No. 1 back-to-back qualifiers from Gainesville to Charlotte and win the races back-to-back is a lot to take in, and I'm enjoying the ride."
In quad 3, Herrera easily defeated reigning world champ Matt Smith (6.780 seconds), Eddie Krawiec (6.784) and Steve Johnson (6.810) with his blistering ET.
"Anytime you get to line up against any of those three, and to be able to go out there and be in the final with them and come out on top, that's awesome," Herrera said. "All the teams out here put in a lot of work and it is going to be a tough season. We are out here basically dominating, but it is the beginning of the season, and it is going to be a long, good ride."
In quad two, Herrera had quite the scare of being eliminated as he clocked a 6.857-second lap at only 170.02 mph, but he was still able to win the quad.
"I put it in high gear and the kill switch came out," he said. "Luckily, I had a pretty good light and I was able to still get the win light. I thought I was done for. When that happened, my helmet hit the windscreen and I reeled the clutch in and tucked and prayed, and luckily my light still came on."
The rapid rise to stardom for Herrera hasn't gone unnoticed by his fellow competitors.
"Not many people talk to me much anymore," Herrera said with a chuckle. "I don't blame them. I would probably be the same way. I mean, last year when I was out here getting my feet wet I used to talk to everyone and now I'm their biggest threat. Like I said, I would be the same way because I'm a very competitive person. I'm one to congratulate everyone and good luck and all that, but when it comes down to racing it is all business."
Herrera said he welcomes the pressure he knew would be inherent in being named to drive for the powerhouse Vance & Hines team.
"I have raced for thousands of dollars in the grudge scene and doing Pro Street and all that," he said. "To be up here with three other riders is a lot of pressure, but it is a different kind of pressure. It is a lot more where you have to be focused on what is happening on the light. We all saw first round [that] one guy got timed out and the other didn't see the tree come down on their side.
"That was definitely my worry. I pretty much, after I saw that, I got in and counted a certain number and put it on the two-step to make sure I was ready for anything to happen. I didn't want to wait and get timed out or have something happen to me."
Herrera, a fourth-generation racer, is part of a family that has been part of the sport for years.
"That's a lot of motivation," he said. "My great grandfather started all this with his three sons. They did gassers and they raced in Hawaii and all that. For me to continue that, it is a lot. It is a big part of me. A big drive for me to keep the name going and hopefully put it in the history books for however long I do this. It means a lot to me."
SATURDAY NOTEBOOK - HART RESPONDS TO CRITICS; THE TONY STEWART FACTOR; RICKIE SMITH'S OOOPS MOMENT
HART-FELT RESPONSE - As Josh Hart sees it, if he can throw off world-class Top Fuel drivers just by taking his time staging, it says a lot about them, not him. He’s not saying that he should be considered the scapegoat. Hart refuses to be one.
Hart was the source of ire from his fellow competitors, who took exception to the slower staging process. In the spirit of drag racers, even though NHRA drag racers are afforded seven seconds to stage once their opponent rolls into the beam, it is customary to stage rapidly, especially in fuel racing.
This time, Hart had two drivers expressing their displeasure with him.
“I watched the video over and over and over again,” Hart said. “I was in at ifve seconds. I don’t know what else to say. I wasn’t the one that got timed out.”
Hart said he’s in the middle of being someone with remorse and someone questioning the remorse.
“I saw all the write-ups and stuff about me being unapologetic,” Hart said Saturday at zMAX Dragway. “I just don’t really know what else I could have done. I was struggling with something that weekend. I got in before I got timed out. I did my job, so that’s where I’m at.”
Hart said that while some of his colleagues commented on his slow staging ritual, Sunday afternoon in Vegas was the first time anyone brought it to his attention and never in the two-wide competition.
“Never. Ever. First time I ever heard it,” Hart said. “There’s a lot of stuff I want to say, but in the end, we see each other every damn weekend. You can’t be enemies out here over stuff like that, but I guess other people have different opinions.”
On Friday in Charlotte, Hart went the extra effort to make sure the Vegas debacle didn’t happen again.
“I definitely was not the last one in, and I will not be the last one in from this point on,” Hart said with a smile. “Lesson learned.”
Not everyone has been a critic. As Hart noted, some have offered their support.
“I just don’t understand why the more popular drivers expect for us newer people to tee up the win lights for them,” Hart said. “It doesn’t make any sense. So I’m just going to continue to do my thing. I’ve never been a very cliquey person. I’m very comfortable by myself, so if they don’t want to be my friend, it’s not going to hurt my feelings.
“I never in a million years thought that the reaction I got from what happened in Vegas would have been what happened in Vegas. But when we left there, we said, ‘what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,' and now we’re here in Charlotte.”
But Hart did offer some sage advice to his critics.
“All I can say is I got to pay for my stuff,” Hart said. “So slamming stuff, banging stuff, screaming, yelling -- a lot of people say that’s the passion. All I can say is be careful of the quiet ones because that’s where the real passion is.”
WELL, THERE GOES THAT ARGUMENT -Drag racing is all about those “knowing when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em” moments. Rickie Smith had one for the ages Saturday afternoon at when he drove his way to the No. 1 qualifying position in Pro Modified with the quickest-ever nitrous run recorded in the NHRA competition.
Smith went from unqualified to a place in drag racing history.
Smith stopped the clocks during the Q3 session at 5.669 seconds at 252.47 miles per hour. He was almost .05 quicker than No. 2 qualifier Justin Bond.
“That was pretty badass,” Smith said. “I don’t know exactly where it come from, but I’ll take it.”
Smith said he figured such a monumental run would have come at a density altitude of 800 to 900 feet. This one was every bit of 2,100.
“That’s pretty hateful,” Smith admitted. “I figured it would run .73, .74. I don’t know where that came from. We’ll just have to see if it shows up again.”
Such a moment might be the ultimate 'oops' moment for a drag racer who has long contended that the nitrous combination competes at a disadvantage.
“I don’t know. I mean, it’s got the exact same tune-up it had here last year,” Smith said. “I changed one thing in the car, and I don’t know if it’s just getting more nitrous when I’ve done that or what I’ve done, but that’s the exact same jets in this car here last year.”
Depending on which run doorslammer fans give more credibility, at a Northeast Outlaw Pro Mod event at Maryland International event back in 2019, Dean Marinis ran 5.572 seconds at 255.19 mph in the Harry Pappas-owned, Pat Musi Racing Engine-powered Camaro.
STUFF HAPPENS - Some might find it hard to believe, but the plan was never for Tony Stewart to drag race. Whenever a reporter asked when he was going to transition from owner to driver, he’d respond, “Nice try.”
With a straight face, Stewart’s wife and Top Fuel racer Leah Pruett will back up the claim.
“That most definitely was not ever any type of initial plan," she said. "We’ve been very up-front about what the plans have been as they’ve come.”
Stewart, the jack of all motorsports driving trades and a master of them all, had flirted with Top Fuel even before he and Pruett became an item. He had taken a lap or so behind the wheel of Tony Schumacher’s U.S. Army Top Fuel dragster when they were marketing teammates. But, as Stewart believed, Top Fuel was a nice place to visit but not to live.
Then a funny thing happened along the way to be a spectator. Stewart formed a nitro team, and Pruett, as well as Matt Hagan, left Don Schumacher Racing to join the new operation.
“He was there supporting me and getting involved, and he goes, ‘I’ve reached a limit to where I can’t relate to you and Matt because I haven’t driven these cars as a driver,'” Pruett recalled. “So that’s what piqued his interest, and that first move was, ‘Okay, if I drive a Top Fuel car, I’ll be able to then be in that conversation, know what they’re feeling, and hearing.'"
Stewart also licensed in Pruett’s Top Fuel car, but quickly realized he needed to be in a Top Alcohol Dragster.
“He does not want to get back in the Top Fuel car after he has been in the alcohol car,” Pruett said. “He goes, ‘I can’t believe Leah, that you let me get in that in 2021.'
“And I go, ‘Yeah, he took the proper steps.' There are many, there’s countless people that have gone from drag racing nothing to drag racing, a Top Fueler, and done very well. So, therefore, his other credentials have already qualified him to take the proper small steps in Top Fuel, and got his license and tested some more.”
Stewart began taking the steps to become a regular drag racer when he began asking Top Alcohol Dragster team owner Rich McPhillips how points work for the divisional and national event schedules.
“The conversation started out, we were in the Durango, ‘Okay, what’s Tony’s other schedule look like and how many could he possibly do? Because he is just running a car for fun because he is going to be at the track, and this is what he is going to do,'" Pruett recalled. "And by the time we ended that entire discussion, it was, ‘All right, 10 national events, four regionals, but if you do well in the first couple, and how are you going to claim, now we’re talking about potential world championships and what we would need for that.”
Pruett admits it only took 45 minutes for Stewart’s plan to go from a having fun moment to competing for a Lucas Oil Drag Racing Championship.
“Tony was in the [McPhillips] green car, which had been super consistent and a fast car,” Pruett explained. “That’s that conversation needed to happen. That was in September because McPhillips’ new car was getting finished. And who was it going to get finished for at that point? Was it going to be Mike Coughlin? What other drivers?
“I said, ‘Tony, this is the time, okay, are we doing this in 2023? Are you running Top Alcohol Dragster? Okay, I guess we are.”
Stewart is undoubtedly a natural driver, but Pruett quickly points out that his education in drag racing cars is on the fast track.
“He is experiencing new appreciation for the world of mechanics and drag racing,” Pruett explained. “I would say, a little bit of frustrations because he goes, ‘When I’m doing a circle track, I can grit my teeth, and I can find a new line, and I can take risks, and if I’ve got to find another 10th, I can push and find it.'
“He goes, ‘[here] I can’t push. And that’s frustrating.'
“I don’t think he ever expected to dive into the mechanics as much as he has been, and I think that’s been really rewarding for him working with the McPhillips team in that way.”
Pruett said Stewart’s humility isn’t often seen in the internet world.
“I think he does know that what he’s doing is good, but he is doing it for the right reasons, and so we’re making sure we bring along as many people and partners and promoting the sport itself,” Pruett said. “It’s not just Tony participating in NHRA and that’s it. In order for us to succeed and stay here, we would love to have a five- and 10-year plan, but we cannot unless this is sustainable financially. The best way for us to make it that way is if we have a platform that continues to grow, so if we can continue to grow the NHRA, we are also helping ourselves and everybody at the same time.
“We do actually work really hard at taking every opportunity that we can. It’s not just a hobby, it is our work and our life.”
MEET THE NEW BOSS, SAME AS THE OLD BOSS - John Force Racing crew chief Dave Grubnic knew that zMAX Dragway could yield a 3.689-second run Friday night. And he was right – but it came from Top Fuel rival driver Josh Hart.
“We’re developing a new program,” Grubnic said following the more-than-respectable 3.730-second pass at 328.70 mph from his own driver, Brittany Force. That moved her into tentative top half of the field at No. 7. But Grubnic wasn’t content to guide Force to a respectable or even more-than-respectable elapsed time. He was going for dominating, leading, No. 1.
He achieved that – together they achieved that – Saturday at the track in Concord, N.C. Force already owned both ends of the track performance record (3.662 seconds from May 2021, and 336.91 mph from last September). But she buried Hart’s accomplishment in her wake in the early Saturday session.
Force racked up her second straight and third overall top-starting spot of the season (in five events) and 45th of her career. She improved her elapsed-time zMAX Dragway mark with a 3.651-second E.T. on the 1,000-foot course at 336.32 mph, which fell slightly short of her track speed record.
“That was an incredible run. It was more than I think our team expected – .65 is just outstanding,” Force said. “And then to be able to run at .74 in that last run so we have three solid runs, three of the four, which is great going into race day, gives us enough information to hopefully carry it over and go some rounds tomorrow.”
Force reinforced Grubnic’s statement, saying she and her team were a little bit in test mode Friday.
“Our game plan coming in yesterday was getting the four runs. We did a little bit of testing in Vegas, because we had the four runs,” she said. “So, yes, yesterday we were still kind of testing some things, finishing up our preseason test and getting this car ready to settle in on the tune-up for the rest of the season. And again, we kind of expected that it might not go down there on that first round, but we got it down there on the second one, so that was good. And then coming in today, it was a whole new set-up. And like Grubnic said, it flew.”
She shrugged off the notion that Grubnic was disappointed with the car’s production Friday.
“That’s just David Grubnic. We won a championship last season, and our team meeting sounded disappointed because of going out early. We didn’t win the thing. David Grubnic, he always wants more,” Force said. “He expects the best of his team and pushes us hard. He wants to win them all.
“I think it motivates all of us. We all want to win together. We set goals each week and coming into each event. We set goals coming into the season of what we want to do. We want to outdo what we did last season. So it’s always motivation for all of us,” the Flav-R-Pac Dragster/Monster Energy Dragster driver said.
But Force, who won five times in her 2022 championship season, already is wanting more, just like Grubnic. She has set top speed of the meet at all four completed events and led the field in both two- and four-wide style this season. Such achievements are welcome, certainly, but for her, winning – and winning a lot – is the main prize.
“The No. 1 qualifiers are great. They give us points. They set us up for a great ladder on race day. But we’re looking for more wins than we had last season. That’s the ultimate goal,” she said. “We want to go into the Countdown in that No. 1 position and then carry it all the way to the end.” -- Susan Wade
JUST FOR DAD - Fernando Cuadra Sr. didn't shed a tear, but he was awful close.
During Saturday afternoon's Q4 session, the first quad of Pro Stock qualifying featured his dream match-up. David Quadra was in lane one, Cristian Cuadra in lane two, the elder Cuadra in lane three, and Fernando Quadra Jr. in lane four.
For the former Mexican drag racing champion, having the family racing alongside one another was his vision when he first entered Pro Stock in the early 2000s.
It was a birthday present delivered three days late. Fernando Sr. was born on April 26, 1959, and his twin sons, Cristian and David, on April 26, 1999. And no, it wasn't planned to be that way, as they were supposed to be born on May 30th.
"There is no way in this life that you can prepare for something like what happened today," Cuadra Sr. said. "Then, suddenly, we got it."
As it turned out, three of the four Cuadras were in the same quad, with Cristian as the early provisional No. 1 in the final group. He relinquished his place to be in the family quad.
In the quad, a bit of drag racing history transpired as three of the four family members qualified for Sunday's eliminations. Fernando Sr. missed the mark, and purposely so. If Dad had qualified, he would have bumped out David, who made the field in his first outing.
"Unfortunately, didn't make it by a few thousandths, no problem, but the bad part is, if I qualify, I bump my son out," Cuadra explained. "I don't like that. As a father, I prefer to give my sons everything."
And for the elder Cuadra, he's done that.
WOULD’VE, SHOULD’VE, COULD’VE - Funny Car veteran Bob Tasca said following the season-opening Gatornationals that “the first five races of the season are really critical to show performance.”
He has done that with a pair of top-qualifying positions now, thanks to his 3.852-second elapsed time Saturday at 324.59 mph in the BG Ford Mustang at the Circle K NHRA Four-Wide Nationals at Concord, N.C.
But Tasca, the Phoenix leader as well, hasn’t won yet. And the ultra-driven owner-racer indicated he’s not far away from remedying that – even with new crew chiefs and despite his car shutting off on his pole-seizing pass.
What he has discovered is that he can excel not just on hot racetracks but also on the cooler ones, that he can run the E.T.s that championships are made of, and that shifting conditions don’t mean varying performance levels.
“We need to string a few together on Sunday. But we’ve just been working on getting this car to run really hard and compete at the top of the pack,” Tasca said.
“So we got a good baseline for tomorrow. Who knows what the conditions will be? The weather is a little crazy right now, but we have a good hot weather set-up and we have a really good cool weather set-up. And I like our chances.”
Tasca said, “Come championship time, if you can’t run mid-to-low [3.]80s, you’re not running for a championship. And that’s just the harsh reality of the level of performance out here. And what made us really happy on that [No. 1] run, actually, is we never showed our hand.
“The car shut off at 920 feet [on zMAX Dragway’s 1,000-foot course]. We had a malfunction with the wheel counter, which shuts the car off in the event the driver can’t. And it was, like, crazy because I was wide open throttle. The car felt like it was a rocket ship, and then it just quit. So that’s why I only ran 324 mph. But that was on an .84 run,” he said. “And truthfully, that was the run we’ve been looking for since we put this program together. Very pleased with that run.”
His outstanding run was a mere two-thousandths of a second off John Force’s year-old track elapsed-time record of 3.850 seconds.
“Had it not shut off, we would have been sitting here, trust me, with the track record,” Tasca said. “So we’re going to just try it tomorrow. That’s all I’m going to do. Actually, it was a thousandths off my career best. I ran an .851. Shutting the car off at 920 feet has cost me now my career-best run and the track record. I never felt so bad and went so fast.”
He said he and crew chiefs Aaron Brooks and Todd Okuhara “probably got a little too greedy on that last session” when he got out of shape early in the run and wound-up clocking a 7.613, 90.86 effort. “It’s one of the challenges of four-wide: You don’t get the same lane twice, right? And every lane is a little different. I don’t care how good they make it – they’ve done a great job – but every lane is a little different. And we really didn’t think we pushed that hard on that last session, but it was just too fast.”
His was the only car out of four in his quad to make it down the racetrack. And he said that would have bothered him “if we were plugging in our normal set-up. I’m not saying we tested this weekend, but we were trying a lot of different things. There’s 16 cars here. You’re on the Bellagio of racetracks, right? And if you’re going to go try something to go really fast, here’s the place to do it. So, we wouldn’t have run the run we ran today had we not done what we did Friday.
“So as much as you don’t like to smoke the tires or shake, learn as much on those runs as you do on an .85 run. And then the last one, we were trying a little too hard, so, no. This car has gone up and down the racetrack all season long, so we needed to learn some things. We did. We got the pole, and we got some confidence going into Sunday. So far, mission accomplished.” - Susan Wade
A THING, A CHICKEN WING, AND A STRING - Matt Hartford and his Total Seal, CIP1, GETTRX Chevy team were perturbed enough by the shock of having the rear end of their Pro Stock Camaro lock up at the starting line during Friday night qualifying for the Circle K NHRA Four-Wide Nationals.
“We went to bed last night really disappointed in the fact that we knew we had a car last night that could go to the pole,” he said.
Moreover, they were miffed they had little choice but to stay late at the track and miss out on a decent dinner.
“Last night, getting out of here late and stopping at the wing place for dinner, none of us were in a good mood, even with the food we had to eat,” he said.
But Saturday’s results were much easier to digest.
Hartford rebounded early Saturday with a 6.538-second, 208.52-mph blast down the zMAX Dragway quarter-mile that earned him his second straight No. 1 qualifying position and second career No. 1 start.
“I think luck was on our side last night,” Hartford said, “because had we had that failure at 1,000 foot or even past the finish line last night, I think it’d be a whole different outcome today. And I’m not sure the car would be in one piece. So it was lucky for us that the car broke right here before we fired it up.
“We just regrouped this morning and said, ‘Okay, that run’s over. Come out here and we’re first car out – which means we got to be pulled back some because the lane’s not going to be as good – and let’s just go up there and make a good run. We know we have enough to probably get into the top five, and if we make a great run, we’ll go No. 1.’ And that’s what we did,” he said.
“We have a great team. The Total Seal, CIP1, GETTRX Camaro is a rocket ship right now. It’s the best car I’ve ever had. It’s the best team I’ve ever had. And we’re just going to see if we can start trying to capitalize on it,” Hartford said.
He said he wasn’t especially confident he’d see the results he did.
“There was not even a thought in my mind. We came in this morning with the idea [that]we can go into the top five. If we make the right run, we go No. 1,” he said. “Honestly, I think some of the other cars we expected to run quicker in Q3, I think a few of them missed it. And had a couple of them hit on it, it might have been a little bit closer. But that’s a lot of fun right now.” - Susan Wade
FLYING UNDER THE RADAR FAIL - The Gaige Herrera phenomenon continues.
In capturing his second No. 1 qualifying position in as many Pro Stock Motorcycle races this young season Saturday, the young California Suzuki racer’s dominance of the class is raising eyebrows.
The unassuming Herrera powered his Vance & Hines-fielded Gen3 Hayabusa down the zMAX Dragway quarter-mile with a class-best elapsed time of 6.735 seconds and 201.52-mph speed.
“My whole goal for this whole year was just to come out here and be consistent as a rider and go a few rounds,” Herrera said. “I definitely did not expect to come out here at Gainesville and go to the top and qualifying to win the race. And now to qualify No. 1 here at Charlotte, it's unbelievable. I definitely did not expect it.
“We're always trying to improve. You're always trying to basically outdo yourself each round,” Herrera said. “So, for us to be able to improve during the day compared to last night, that was a big improvement for us, especially Andrew [six-time champion Hines], our crew chief, has got both bikes on rails and it's showing, absolutely.
“It's exciting to have a top-tier bike. And it's a lot of pressure on me, because more pressure is on me then I would say the bike,” Herrera said as qualifying wrapped up for this second appearance of the year for the bike class. “My whole team, they're the best there is out there, and they got a lot of confidence in their machine and what they do. At the end of the day, as soon as we're in the water box, and it's time to go, it's all on me.”
He did say the recognition from his peers “makes me feel good, but at the same time I think puts more pressure on my shoulders because they're expecting us ... to go out there to do good. So I feel like that is a lot of pressure. But to hear people [expressing compliments and praise], that’s an awesome feeling that you can't really explain.”
Herrera’s rapid progress after making a few appearances last season for another team hasn’t shocked Andrew Hines at all.
“Honestly, it didn't surprise me. He has been in pressure situations outside of NHRA racing. I knew if I gave him a great motorcycle that he would be capable of what we accomplished," Hines said. "When I watched him through the later part of the '22 season, he showed the traits that he was ready to win.”
However, Hines said he recognized that Herrera will need to have some rough edges, as it were, sanded down this season: “I'm sure this season will come with some bumps in the road. There are some scenarios that we haven't gone through yet. One was four-wide racing, which Herrera seems to be acing so far; another was a Countdown with a different kind of pressure on the line.
“Winning a race, has fortunately been proven already, along with riding a motorcycle fast enough to be able to reach the records,” Hines said. “A lot of skill is required to understand how to go 6.6 [seconds] and 203-plus mph. These bikes don't just run that fast for no reason. Navigating a racetrack, although it is only a straight quarter-mile, can be tricky. We have helped him learn the chassis setup of these 10-inch-wide tire bar bikes. It's quite different from the Pro Street / Grudge Bikes he was accustomed to. These Pro Stock Motorcycles require fitness to extract the performance. They don't have the aid of hundreds of more horsepower to help lower the E.T.
"With Ed [Krawiec] and myself, I feel we can be a real benefit to him when we get to new territory. We understand the class and racers really well and can make him aware of scenarios that may unfold.”
Herrera wholeheartedly agreed
“Obviously, me coming from a no-bar side of things, I had a few little bad habits which Andrew helped me get around. And like Q1 this weekend, I had a little issue. I kind of was lined up. I wasn't lined up crooked – I was lined up straight, but I threw a lever, and I went crooked on my own and kind of rung out first gear, and it caused a little issue with the transmission," he said. "So that right there is kind of a stepping stone for me. Being off the bike for a little while definitely, I think, was a big issue with that or a big part of that.” - Susan Wade
FRIDAY NOTEBOOK - THANK GOD FRIDAY IS OVER AS A DAY OF CALAMITY MAKES FOR HEADACHE AFTER HEADACHE
RAIN, YOU ARE A PAIN - Tuesday presented an ominous forecast for the race weekend. Friday was a glass-half-full forecast, with rain forecasts of as high as 70 percent. Saturday was supposed to be clear, and Sunday was predicted to be a washout.
A funny thing happened on the way to the track Friday morning: The sun came out, and while qualifying was scheduled to begin at 8 a.m., qualifying did kick off at 11:10.
NHRA got two qualifying sessions for most of the Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series. However, the race went under a delay at the start of professional qualifying as weepers began to percolate the deluge of rain water to the racing surface.
The average rainfall in Concord, N.C., is 43 inches annually. The past two days delivered a little over two inches.
It didn’t get much better once racing started as a Pro Stock Motorcycle oildown and Matt Hagan’s trip into the sand accounted for a Q1 session that lasted almost three hours.
HART TO THE TOP - Josh Hart sounds like he’s being a little hard on himself.
The owner of the R+L Carriers Dragster criticized his driving through the first four races of the season, but after grabbing the provisional No. 1 qualifying position Friday night – after a series of rain and clean-up delays – at the Circle K Four-Wide Nationals, he was wasting time self-flagellating.
He powered down the 1,000-foot zMAX Dragway course with the day’s only 3.6-second pass – a 3.689-second run at 328.38 mph – for what he said he considered a breakout performance.
“It’s nice to finally hit that milestone where we can demonstrate what we’re really capable of,” Hart said at the end of the opening day of the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series’ second straight four-abreast race. “The team deserves it.”
The Ocala, Fla., resident won the Pep Boys All-Star Call-Out bonus race and its $80,000 payout at the season-opener at his “home track” at Gainesville, and he said he felt he “had the winning car” there. Since that specialty-race success, he started the campaign with three consecutive Round 1 losses, but he rebounded with a final-round appearance at Las Vegas in the first of the season’s two four-wide races.
Still – despite battling a strained neck muscle ironically in his best effort so far – Hart was tough on himself. He said he allowed “a lot of distractions” to interfere with his passes and said he has rededicated himself “to just focusing harder and stronger.
“It was never a car problem, it was a driver problem,” he said. “I’ll openly admit that. I can make a bunch of excuses, but I just didn’t do my job. I messed up in the first round of the Gatornationals, and then we battled gremlins at the Arizona Nationals. We made some progress at the Winternationals, and I think we got back on track in Las Vegas, racing to that final quad. I feel good coming to Charlotte about my driving and the race car. [Crew chief] Ron Douglas is the best, and I wouldn’t trade my crew for anyone else in the pits.” -- Susan Wade
SEALING THE DEAL - Four-wide drag racing works well for Hart. The R&L Carriers-sponsored driver from Ocala, Fla., has fared well each of the two times the special four-abreast drag race has raced to the final quad at zMax Dragway, and he reached the final quad two weeks ago at the Las Vegas Four-Wide Nationals.
Hart has started from the top half of the field in each of the past two four-wide races, and has never started a race in Charlotte from the bottom half.
“I enjoy racing at zMAX Dragway, and we have had some success there,” said Hart, who won his second career Top Fuel title at the Fall NHRA national event in 2021. “It has been a while since we turned on three or four win lights there to get that Wally trophy, and I feel like we have a team that can compete for wins every weekend. We haven’t gotten off to the kind of start I wanted to this season, but we made progress in Pomona and Las Vegas.”
Hart established himself as a phenom out of the gate in 2021, scoring a victory in his first Top Fuel national event at the NHRA Gatornationals, as well as the Charlotte Countdown race, in addition to nearly half a dozen semifinal finishes. Last year Hart raced to two final rounds, but a third win eluded the driver, who took on the full schedule and finished the season No. 7 in the world in Top Fuel.
“We didn’t perform last season as well as I was hoping, but we learned a ton,” said Hart, who was a multi-national event winner in Top Alcohol Dragster. “We had a new car and that was the most Top Fuel races I ever raced in one season. I basically doubled my experience in Top Fuel last year. This season we knew what to expect but the competition was also ready for us. We aren’t sneaking up on anyone this year.”
This season, Hart opened the season by winning the Pep Boys Top Fuel Allstar Callout event and its $80,000 top prize.
YOU GO GIRL - Alexis DeJoria keeps showing off, and after last season’s struggles, she’s taking advantage of a Bandero Premium Tequila Toyota GR Supra that is “acting right.”
DeJoria powered to the provisional Funny Car No. 1 with a 3.876 elapsed time at 333.08 miles per hour, which was also the top speed of the event.
It’s as if DeJoria, now ranked third in the championship points, is making up for lost time. Throughout the first four events, the team has earned the No. 2 qualifying spot three times, advanced to the semifinals twice, and currently holds the category’s best average ET during eliminations.
“We’ve been working towards this, and we’re really excited about how we’re running,” DeJoria said. “This is the best start to our season; our Bandero GR Supra is so consistent. We’ve been getting down the track when a lot of other teams haven’t, and we’ve been getting down there quickly.
“Having a good, consistent race car is a huge confidence builder for our team. I kept telling the team last year when we were struggling that we were building for next year, and it’s definitely paid off so far this season.”
If her run holds through both of Saturday’s sessions, she’ll secure her seventh No. 1 qualifier overall and the third at zMax Dragway.
SIX WEEKS OFF? NO PROBLEM - When Gaige Herrera made his riding debut last month in Gainesville, Fla., he believed that he had a bike capable of winning. The rider? Well, he wasn’t so sure.
Herrera qualified No. 1 in his debut event, which should have given him plenty of confidence and a swagger to make him unbeatable.
“I would say I had to pinch myself, for sure,” said Herrera, who went on to win the Gators from the top qualifying spot. “I have one of the best bikes out here, so it was all up to me. We knew we had the machine to win, and for me to be able to keep my composure and cut a decent light and go A to B every pass, that was a lot of pressure on my shoulders, so I was definitely nervous every round.”
So, his encore performance? That would have to wait another six weeks.
Herrera rode to Friday’s provisional No. 1 qualifying position with a 6.758, 201.10 during the second session.
“It’s been a long break,” Herrera said. “It seemed longer than six weeks because we went testing two times, and we went to Gainesville, so it was go, go, go, and then we just stopped, did no testing, nothing. So that break seemed a lot longer than it was, and I’m excited to be back.”
Herrera admitted he kept his riding skills sharpened during the downtime by riding an outlaw bike in XDA competition. The former rider in the series found himself a celebrity of sorts.
“It’s been unreal, overwhelming,” Herrera said. “The amount of people that reached out to me to congratulate me and that were following and supporting. For that to be my first weekend, it was a dream come true type of thing.”
Herrera’s previous life consisted of racing a much faster bike which one could categorize as racing on the ragged edge. He now considers his NHRA life before throttling up on the outlaw drag racing, even if it does keep him sharper.
“I changed a lot of stuff on my [personal] bike, chassis-wise and stuff, and so the bike is faster,” Herrera explained. “I reset the record on my bike. But to get on something that I would say that sketchy, and knowing in the back of my mind and everything, I got this I got to come back to, I was definitely really timid on how far to push it. Obviously, I still want to be here.
“I’ve crashed one of those bikes because of not really overlooking it. So as far as like sketchy, not knowing the bike, I still won’t do that unless I fully build it. On my bike, I’ve bounced off the wall before. I definitely will not do that ever again; not on purpose. It wasn’t on purpose then, but I rode it way too far. And now, I got a different outlook on things because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity I don’t want to lose.
CUADRA CONTINUES TO IMPRESS - When Fernando Cuadra, a past Mexican drag racing champion, decided to compete on the grand stage of drag racing in the United States, he just wanted his family to be relevant. And if the opportunity to win came along, that would be the icing on the cake.
The elder Cuadra didn't care if he got the accolades as long as his sons Fernando Jr., Cristian, and David got the opportunity to hold up the family's name.
Cristian has been more than holding up the family name over the last year, first by becoming the first Mexican-born driver to qualify No. 1 in Pro Stock and organically landing in the Countdown to the Championship top-10 standings for the 2022 season.
On a day when little seemed to go right for drag racing at zMAX Dragway, Cristian drove to the top of the Pro Stock field with a 6.558 elapsed time at 208 miles an hour.
Going to the top on a monumental day for the Cuadra Family meant the world for Cristian. He got to race for the first time against both his brothers in Pro Stock. David made his Pro Stock debut on Friday.
"It means more that I am racing again against my brothers and my dad," Cuadra said. "When I started four years ago driving Pro Stock, my brother David was helping me since the beginning, and now that he got his license and he's racing next to me, it feels just amazing. I'm proud to be No. 1 because this weekend is special, even if I don't stick to it, to No. 1. I'm really happy to be here. Really happy to be with my brothers and my dad and my mom, of course."
Cuadra's best run came during the calamity-delayed second session. He had enough calamity of his own and missed the first session.
"A water cap broke so that I couldn't make the run," Cuadra explained. "So after that run, I was nervous because I was first pro out -- well, in that lane -- so I was nervous to shake, but the guys from Elite did an awesome job, so I'm happy."
Seeing his father's sacrifices for him and his brothers to race is not lost on Cristian.
"It feels very special because I work in the company, and every day I see my dad working his ass off," Cristian said. "All days he wakes up at [5 a.m.] to go to the company and start working, making phone calls, phone calls to Europe, to all the customers that we have. My mom is also working at the company, so she's helping my dad, so it means a lot for us.
"Plus, when he was racing in 2004, we had the major situation with the business, so I'm really grateful with God because he helped us to be here, and I'm really happy that we found a really nice thing that helped us to get here."
WHOA, NELLIE - Matt Hagan has accomplished a lot during his drag racing career.
He’s the first Funny Car driver in the 1,000-foot era to record a three-second elapsed time, win three series championships, and score 46 race wins. But there was one thing Hagan had never experienced before Friday at zMAX Dragway.
Hagan had never taken a ride into the sandtrap at any dragstrip.
“As a driver, you always Monday quarterback, you ask, ‘Could I have done something different, or better, or reach back up there and try to grab them again?,'" Hagan pondered.
The solenoid that works the parachute release failed on Hagan’s beautiful Operation Healing Forces Funny Car. Hagan was fighting all the way to open the parachute manually.
“I don’t know if I just didn’t get it all or what happened, but then you’re just kind of holding that brake and hoping for the best with your butthole drawn up, you know?” Hagan relayed. “My guys do a great job, and I just tried to get the nose of the car squared up with the sand trap and try to put it in there the best I could, making sure nobody was around me.
“I really honestly thought I was going to get slowed down enough to where I wasn’t going to get in the sand, but the brakes started to fade pretty hard back there. A lot of times these things, these brakes will get hot, and they’ll get better, and they’ll start bouncing, and stuff down there, and I just, it’s like it kind of did the opposite. The brakes just started fading away, and then you’re just kind of bracing for impact because you’re going to get in there.”
Hagan said he experienced many emotions as his car ran through the shutdown area with little deceleration.
“You're definitely helpless, but I think there’s just one of those things where you’re just trying to do the best job you can, and look around you, and making sure that none of those fly guys are out there, and you’re just kind of evaluating the situation as you’re going, 'Oh s***,' you know?" Hagan explained. “I just hate it because I know how hard my guys work, and it just adds extra work for them. And we got a couple of weeks down, but I’m sure that chassis will have to get front-halved, and the body’s ruined, and we got new sponsors on the car, and it’s very unfortunate.
“One of them deals like it’s drag racing. We’ll move forward, we’ll put parts and pieces back together. I’m good to go, and we’ll drag this spare car up there.”
THOSE TYKES ON TRIKES - Drag racing is one of those sports where there’s just about every opportunity for someone to compete -- even if you’re a toddler with a tricycle.
Riding a wave of popularity born of their successful competitive debut in 2022, the “mini-me” stars of the Baby Walker Nationals will be contested before the final round of nitro qualifying Saturday, placing the offspring of elite pro drivers astride upgraded vehicles for a highly-anticipated sequel featuring five-across racing for the first time in drag racing history. That's when five two-year-olds raced in a relatively straight line to a finish line approximately 50 feet away.
Tykes on Trikes is a special event created and produced by Natalie Torrence of Innovative Creation Experts and sponsored by Mark Beatty and the folks at Red Line Synthetic Motor Oil.
The combatants are familiar ones.
On the red trike will be Haven Charli Torrence of Kilgore, Texas, last year’s zMAX winner and the daughter of Natalie and four-time Top Fuel world hampion Steve. She trains on mac-and-cheese and plots strategy on her Cra-z-Art Magna Doodle magnetic drawing board.
Racing on the blue trike from Maidens, Va., will be Olivia Gladstone, daughter of Joey Gladstone, runner-up for the 2022 Pro Stock Motorcycle championship, and his wife, Nicole. She likes her cheese without mac and spends her free time playing in her own custom sandbox.
Not unexpectedly, racing in JEG’S yellow will be Aubrey Coughlin of Ostrander, Ohio, daughter of Troy Coughlin Jr., the Pro Stock winner at the season-opening NHRA Gatornationals in Florida, and his wife, Brenna.
Aubrey loves Cheez-Its, her Baby Shark toy, and pool time.
In the green livery from Ocala, Fla., will be Helen Hart, daughter of 2023 Pep Boys All-Star Call Out winner Josh Hart and his wife, Brittanie. Although she’ll race on return road asphalt at ZMax, Helen’s fondness for playing in dirt may indicate a racing career outside the dragstrip. Like Olivia, she also swears by the natural cheese diet.
Finally, racing in good-guy white will be James Alexander, the son of Funny Car driver Blake Alexander and his wife Leah, who, as a Charlotte resident, may have the home-field advantage. James stays lean and mean by snacking on berries and, when he’s not watching “Daniel Tiger” on TV, keeps fit with walks in the park.
Another round of the Toddler Tricycle Nationals will take place June 24 during the 16th Summit Racing Equipment Nationals at Norwalk, Ohio, with the finale scheduled during the 38th annual Texas Fall Nationals at Dallas, Oct. 13-15.
“Last year’s event was a big hit not only with the fans but with everyone at Red Line Oil," said Beatty, Brand Director for the racing oil used by Steve Torrence and other prominent professionals. “Red Line Oil is all about family, and we are thrilled to see the next generation of racers being raised at the track. What we do is so much more than a job; it’s a passion, and it’s the families with whom we are involved that make it so rewarding.”
DUBIOUS STAT - It’s an occurrence that Justin Ashley said has happened “too many times": Win a race, then lose the first round at the next.
For the record, too many times by Ashley’s standards is once. It happened thrice in 2022 and has happened once this season.
“Honestly, when you go out there and win a race -- and they’re so difficult to win -- you make sure to appreciate them,” Ashley said. “You feel like you have a lot of momentum going to the next race, and then to go out the first round is tough. It’s tough to be able to take that loss. But at the same time, I think we have a healthy understanding of the competition.
“We know that anything can happen and when the season is as long as it is, it’s an emotional rollercoaster. So we’re really prepared for anything at any time.”
Ashley said one of his earliest lessons is the value of blocking out pressure to perform and be a robot when he pulls up to the starting line.
“You go out with the same expectation -- you expect to win every race you go to -- but it is so crucial in the long run for the points just to stack round wins, so you have to stack those round wins," he said. "So even if you win one round or two rounds in an event, they all eventually add up and give you a much better chance to win the championship at the end of the year. So it’s consistency. Our team is working at it, we’ve been working at it, and it’s still really early on in the year; we’ve only had four races. We love those wins, but we’re going to continue to work on stacking those round wins throughout the year as well.”
GUESS WHO’S BACK? - It’s been a while since the Pro Modifieds thundered down the quarter-mile at NHRA events. And if absence grows the heart fonder, the race fans have longed for the most volatile full-bodied eliminator in drag racing.
Missing Pro Modified has little to do with the Charlotte-area fan passion for the doorslammers and everything to do with the fact this style of drag racing was born in the Carolinas. In fact, less than 10 miles away from Bruton Smith’s palatial dragstrip was Shuffletown Dragway, the North Carolina foundation for the first Quick Eight doorslammer race. The Pro Modified movement’s first Quick Eight on record was in Orangeburg, S.C.
This weekend’s event is powered by Culp Lumber Company and will be featured during Sunday’s broadcast on Fox Sports 1 (FS1) that begins at 6 p.m. ET.
A year ago, Stan Shelton also advanced to the final quad a year ago, and the Pro Mod driver works closely with Culp Lumber Company. His wife, Amy, is an executive at the company, which is excited to sponsor the category for the first time at this weekend’s race at zMAX Dragway.
“Charlotte is our home track for NHRA, so it was a logical decision to utilize the sponsorship afforded to NHRA Pro Mod to raise awareness for our family-owned company. Culp Lumber began in the early 1920s by Henry W Culp Sr. and now employs over 100 employees,” Amy Shelton said.
“We are proud to be a third-generation, family-owned company in London, N.C. We produce 125 million board feet of pine lumber each year. This lumber is shipped mainly to northern markets into New England and west to the Mississippi River. Our family has spent many years watching drag racing at Charlotte, and even though we come from a tractor-pulling background, NHRA Pro Mod is now our passion!”