2023 NHRA GATORNATIONALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
THE TEN - TEN DEFINING MOMENTS AND A COUPLE OF EXTRA ONES
Competition Plus’ water-cooler topics from the Amalie Oil Gatornationals
1. - Mike Salinas proves he’s not messing around – The San Jose, Calif., businessman has far too much on his corporate agenda to travel across the country just to spend money and time cavalierly with his Scrappers Dragster. He came to Florida this weekend to win. He nearly hit the Daily Double, finishing as runner-up in Saturday’s Pep Boys Top Fuel All-Star Call-Out bonus race. He scored impressively enough, parlaying his self-described “phenomenal” and “world-record-number” testing results into his eighth career victory and command of the standings as the Camping World Drag Racing Series heads west to Phoenix in two weeks for the Arizona Nationals. He and his crew have a unique relationship. After what he called a “pretty disappointing” weekend last November at the Finals at Pomona, Calif. – where he cemented a respectable top-five finish – Salinas set the tone for the offseason. He told the team, “You’ve got a long offseason. Go find me some horsepower, and let’s not talk until time to go racing. Don’t care what you do, how you do it – find it. And evidently they found it.” That also puts him in a position to win the first Top Fuel #2Fast2Tasty Mission Foods Challenge.
2. - Matt Hagan reminds fans he’s a Funny Car leader, too – After posting back-to-back Gatornationals victories, the Tony Stewart Racing Funny Car driver broke a tie with Tony Pedregon to become fourth on the class’ all-time victories list with 44. He gave crew chief Dickie Venables the best birthday he could have wanted. As for being on that “Funny Car Mount Rushmore” with John Force, Ron Capps, and Robert Hight, Hagan said, “Those two guys – Capps and Hight – they're a great drivers. Ron's a good friend of mine, and Robert, I got a lot of respect for him. It always comes down to those two and me and a couple other drivers every year. There's never been in the last probably eight years that I can think of that we haven't been had a title shot at it at the last day, at the last race. Capps, Force and Hight ... I don't know, maybe one day we might catch Robert, but as far as Force goes, he's going to be the G.O.A.T. forever. I'm going to have to do it ’til I'm 200 if I'm going to catch Force. And Ron's got actually 20 years on me, as far as his driving. To pass some of these other guys that have been out there doing it is an honor, just to even be in that caliber of drivers and people and showmen. It's incredible.”
3 - Gaige Herrera wins on the bike – Pro Stock Motorcycle’s newest young sensation, Gaige Herrera, answered the question of why the legendary Vance & Hines organization hired this soft-spoken 29-year-old fourth-generation competitor from LaHabra, Calif., who has been well-known in other motorcycle circuits. Herrera ran the table – set low elapsed time (6.685 seconds) and top speed of the meet (track-record 203.49 mph, sixth-fastest in class history), qualified No. 1, and won the event. In doing so, he also recorded the first victory for the third-generation Suzuki Hayabusa. Herrera, who made six uneventful appearances last season, said, “I’m at a loss for words. I still can’t believe I’m holding this Wally.” Along the way, in the quarterfinals, he eliminated teammate and mentor Eddie Krawiec. “That right there was a lot of pressure on my shoulders,” Herrera said. “Racing him, that’s big deal. Eddie told me, ‘Go out there and do you.’ He said he felt like he was going to be in trouble.” Turns out he was. Boss Terry Vance told Herrera before the final, “Keep making me proud.” And Herrera said he “can’t explain” how he went from a “Who’s he?” to a “You’ll see.”
3B - Better get there early - NHRA announced on Saturday afternoon a sellout of the second day's qualifying. All three days were packed, including a Friday where the weatherman was no friend, but he did turn out to be accurate. One of the traditions has always been to get there early to avoid the traffic, which left some racers sitting in traffic for almost two hours, even though they were three miles or less down the round. The combination of the Saturday traffic experience and Sunday morning's implementation of daylight savings time inspired many to get there earlier than usual. When many rolled up as early as 5:50 AM (yes, AM), there was already a line of traffic at all gates. However, this time it was because track officials elected to not open the gates and allowed traffic to back up. - Bobby Bennett.
4. - Troy Coughlin Jr. wins Pro Stock opener – For the first time in the past 18 races, neither Greg Anderson nor Erica Enders was in the Pro Stock class’ final round. This is only the first race of the season, but with 21-year-old Mason McGaha posting a runner-up finish to Troy Coughlin Jr., this could be a sign it’s the year the “young kids” of the class start asserting themselves. Besides the obvious positives from his winning performance (becoming the points leader, qualifying for the first #2Fast2Tasty Challenge in two weeks at Phoenix) third-generation racer Coughlin’s special memory from these Gatornationals will be that he scored his first victory when both his father, Troy Coughlin, and grandfather, Jeg Coughlin Sr., saw it firsthand. “To win with my grandfather here today is pretty surreal,” the driver of the Elite Motorsports JEGS.com Camaro said. "He's the man who pretty much started it all for us, as far as drag racing goes. And he's built an iconic brand. It's just fun. This morning I was thinking, 'The chief's coming today.' And it fired me up. It's an honor to have him here."
5. - Josh Hart predicts his own predicament – Cherishing his $80,000 victory Saturday in the Pep Boys Top Fuel All-Star Call-Out bonus race, Hart said, “You have to not take anything like this for granted, because it can go away just like that.” And within 12 hours his elation had become deflation at Gainesville Raceway. Florida’s favorite-son Top Fuel owner-driver lost in Sunday’s first round of eliminations to Tony Schumacher. “I said it yesterday about how humbling this sport can be. I was at the top of the mountain yesterday, and today I didn’t do my job,” said Hart. “Ron (crew chief Douglas) and the guys gave me an amazing race car, and I didn’t take advantage of the opportunity. This will only motivate me, and I wish the Arizona Nationals started tomorrow. We won the Pep Boys Callout, and now we will start focusing on the Camping World Top Fuel championship. There are a lot of races left in the season.” To make the feeling more sickening, Hart ran career-best elapsed time and speed (3.693 seconds, 355.40 mph) in the losing effort.
6. - Side bets spice Pep Boys All-Star Call-Out – If the sanctioning body isn’t going to try to incorporate some of the elements that have made the Steet Outlaws collection of TV programs so explosively popular, then the Top Fuel drivers will. Top Fuel racer Clay Millican figured if the NHRA's Pep Boys All-Star Call-Out event was essentially like “Street Outlaws on nitro,” so when top-ranked Brittany Force chose No. 8 and final seed Millican as her first-round opponent in the specialty race Saturday, he startled her by challenging her to a $1,000 side bet. "I think it caught everybody off-guard and got a chuckle out of the crowd, so it was fun," Millican said. "At the end of the day, either way, if we win or lose, the money's going to charity, so it was just fun to do it." Then Mike Salinas upped the ante. Justin Ashley called out Salinas, and Salinas said, dared Ashley with a $5,000 bet. "This is 100 percent to make it exciting for the fans, make it exciting for my crew and my guys," Salinas said. "I was going to do $10,000, but I didn't want to act like a big shot. Hopefully, we can build on it for the future. What I would like to see is, when we go up for qualifying, people betting on the starting line and get betting into this association and what we're doing because it'll bring a different group of people, so that way, we make the sport more exciting. I'm going to open up a casino at the track myself.
I'm going to carry the money with me. If I lose on the other end, I'm going to give him his $5,000. I got it in cash." Ashley said he wasn’t expecting that, but said, “I should have gone in more prepared that if I knew we were going to call out Mike Salinas, there might have been a side bet that was thrown around. So he caught me off-guard a little bit. But when you're out there in front of people, and he's going to throw a side bet out there, you're not going to say no. It's good for the fans. It makes it that much more exciting. So already a lot on the line, a lot of money on the line, so throw a little bit more on top of it." Ashley said, "It reminds me of, like, you see these drag radial deals where they throw grudge-racing wagers on it. I haven't raced before with betting money on the line, but hey, I'm all for it. I didn't need any more motivation, but now I do."
7. – Smack talk starts – Top Fuel racer Austin Prock said he was licking his chops for some juicy verbal jousting. And he saw it this past weekend – but he wasn’t involved. His Funny Car teammate at John Force Racing was the target of reigning Funny Car champion Ron Capps. Hight was a guest on a few podcast interviews this winter, and he mentioned each time that the Countdown does a disservice to the regular-season winner, and in his 2022 case, he lost a 300-point lead by the manipulation that allowed someone else to win the championship at the 11th hour. Capps was that lucky beneficiary this time. But Capps finally spoke out, reminding that he has been a victim of the Countdown policies more than Hight and more than most. And he directed his “Get over it!” comment toward Hight. “Well, let me tell you,” Capps said, “who’s the person who’s lost the most championships on the last day of the season . . . by less than a handful of points? I guarantee you. But have you ever heard me in all these years, after losing by five points or four points or three points to (Jack) Beckman or (Gary) Scelzi or Force, complain about the Countdown? Ever once? No. It is what it is. We all know it going in. To leave Pomona and wake up Monday morning after you’ve lost the championship, you think back about so many places during that season and that Countdown and if you would’ve just done something a little bit different and gained an extra four or five points, you would be a world champion. It’s that little a difference. I’ve been listening to it all winter long, and I’m tired of it now. Now it’s starting to irritate me. I never complained about it. I laughed about it. So get over it! Get over it! It’s a championship. It’s a Countdown. We all know it.”
8 - Racers qualify for the #2Fast2Tasty Mission Foods Challenge that starts at Phoenix – Whether by tortilla-thin margins or runaway round-wins Sunday at Gainesville Raceway, 16 racers across all four Camping World Series classes earned berths in the first of 12 new bonus events in the regular season. Those who earned spots for the race-within-a-race that awards cash and valuable Countdown bonus points are Steve Torrence, Doug Kalitta, Leah Pruett, and Mike Salinas in Top Fuel, and Matt Hagan, JR Todd, Alexis De Joria, and Chad Green. In the Pro Stock ranks, on the car side, Greg Anderson is the veteran of the bunch that includes Mason McGaha, Troy Coughlin Jr., and Dallas Glenn. Bike racers who earned the distinction are Gaige Herrera, Angie Smith, Jianna Evaristo, and Angie Smith. So fans will see a father-daughter combo in the mex, although they are from different classes: Evaristo is Salinas’ daughter.
9 – Doug Kalitta, Steve Torrence on their ways back to the top – Doug Kalitta acquired tuner extraordinaire Alan Johnson in the previous offseason, and everyone thought that spelled a certain championship for the popular Mac Tools Toyota Dragster driver who was stood up at the Top Fuel altar five times. But it was no slam dunk. He didn’t win a single event last season. But he is showing signs of rebounding well. Kalitta was a semifinal finisher Sunday at Gainesville, and his trajectory looks promising.
“I was hoping to make it to the final, for sure. The car was running strong all day and just super excited about the way things are going so far. Everyone is working together really well, and the crew chiefs are really happy with what they’re seeing. Kind of the way it was in testing, as well, so I’m glad we were able to roll it into the first race. I don’t know what happened on that last run, but it was unfortunate to just smoke the tires. You know drag racing; it happens. Looking forward to getting to Phoenix.”
His first-round victory produced a career-best pass. “That was a cool run,” Kalitta said. “For whatever reason, I was trying to steer it to the middle, and it was drifting to the center towards the end. I could tell I wasn’t going to go over or anything, but it was just one of those things where I knew this thing was really running. We really appreciate everything Toyota does for us and look forward to having a good season.”
Much was made of Steve Torrence’s 2022 season, in which he won “only” twice, but missed the mark by what he considered a long shot for a fifth consecutive championship. But with a new dragster he loves already, Torrence advanced to the final round Sunday and lost by just .022 of a second to Mike Salinas.
“We finally got our consistency back,” Torrence said “When you make big changes like we did last year, there always are issues you don’t anticipate. It takes time, but these guys never lost focus. They kept after it, and we’re obviously headed in the right direction now. Give Mike [Salinas] and those guys all the credit, because they had a great weekend, too. But after how our car ran, I can’t wait to get to Phoenix. I don’t know if anyone can dominate like we did (from 2018-21), but I think we’ll win our fair share. There are a lot of good teams out there, but I wouldn’t trade these guys for anyone else.”
10- Racers appreciate NHRA starting the Camping World Drag Racing Series season at Gainesville – Traditionally, the Gatornationals always took the No. 3 slot on the schedule. And it came after visits to Pomona, Calif., and Phoenix and before the first of two Las Vegas races – after which the tour went back East to Charlotte. So the teams, most of which are headquartered at Brownsburg, Ind. – had to cross the country several times before mid-April. The sport broke with that custom in 2021, following a COVID-disrupted 2020. This year, in a cost-saving effort for the teams and the sanctioning body, as well, the season opened at Florida’s historic Gainesville Raceway again. Alluding to Saturday’s announced sell-out crowd, Funny Car’s Capps, who is in his second year of thinking like a budget-minded team owner and not simply a driver, said, “Starting the season off with the Gatornationals was something I think the fans really love.”
Before the event began, he also said racers were excited about that for economic reasons: “It is going to save, from an owner's standpoint, a ton. And I applaud NHRA for finally making the move, because for years, NHRA teams talked about our seasons starting at Pomona on the West Coast, going over to Phoenix, and then going all the way to Florida and then all the way back to Vegas and then all the way back to Charlotte or wherever we would go. There were other reasons I'm sure, but it was dumb. And so they finally made the change. I'm sure it ruffled the feathers a little bit of NHRA when they made the change. But again, I'm thankful. It is a huge deal for us just to go down and run and test ... and not have to zigzag the country with the price of diesel right now.”
10B - That blows - In the history of Pro Modified, dating back to the 1990 debut in Darlington, South Carolina, there has always been at least one of the original power adders - supercharged or nitrous. There's a first time for everything. The entire 16-car Fueltech Pro Modified field featured sixteen supercharged entries, either conventional or centrifugal versions. The turbo entries were also absent. Fans of the class will remember in the first-ever Pro Modified national event, there were 15 nitrous cars and the lone supercharged Monte Carlo driven by Stanley Barker. The No. 1 qualifier was Mike Ashley's nitrous Beretta. - Bobby Bennett
FINAL NOTEBOOK - THE SEASON GETS UNDERWAY WITH EXCITING SUNDAY ELIMINATIONS
SALINAS MAKES STATEMENT WITH GAINESVILLE WIN - During the offseason, Mike Salinas had one mission for his Scrappers Racing team: Find more performance.
While that sort of request is common in a sport that is measured in thousandths of a second, how it is accomplished was a bit of an anomaly. Following the final pass of the 2022 season in Pomona, Calif., Salinas handed the reins of his 11,000-horsepower dragster to his team and fully stepped away from the decision-making process.
The result? A victory at the season-opening Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals.
Salinas won a titanic duel with four-time world champion Steve Torrence in the final, while also adding a round win over reigning world champion and top overall qualifier Brittany Force. That allowed him to collect the eighth Wally of his career and his first at historic Gainesville Raceway.
“During the offseason, I told my guys, ‘You’ve got a long offseason. I need you to find me some horsepower. Find me some mile-an-hour and let’s not talk until it is time to go racing,’” Salinas said. “Evidently, they found it. We came and did some testing and ran some amazing numbers. The track wasn’t good enough to run them this weekend, but in testing we did some world-record numbers, so we knew we had something really good for the class.”
In that final-round showdown, Torrence got away first and set off on a clean run toward the finish line. But Salinas made up that ground by the 330-foot mark and never trailed again behind the wheel of his Scrappers Racing dragster, recording a 3.700-second pass at 330.31 mph in a photo-finish to collect the win. Torrence was just behind with a 3.754 at 333.82 mph in his Capco Contractors machine.
“Steve and I have been jousting for years, so it was like let’s see what we can do with him and let’s have some fun,” Salinas said. “Our car was very consistent. Rob (Flynn) and Arron (Cave) did a great job with the car, and the runs were nice and clean. I’m really relaxed in the car right now and having a great time. But I will tell you when we won, I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ Because these wins are hard to come by.”
In such a close matchup, Salinas doubled down on his effort against Torrence, keeping his foot in the throttle well past the 1,000-foot race distance to assure the trophy went home with him.
“I drove my car to the 1,320 because I wasn’t stopping,” Salinas said. “My crew chief tells me I’ve got to stop doing that, but every run I drove it through the 1,320 even though I’m not supposed to. To be honest, the car was so good and I could hear some of them coming -- and I could hear Steve, so I kept in it. Really the car was just amazing today, just perfect.”
To add to what was already a very successful week in Florida, Sunday’s matchup with Torrence was actually Salinas’ second final round of the weekend. Just 24-hours prior, Salinas fell in the final of the Pep Boys NHRA All-Star Top Fuel Callout specialty race to Josh Hart.
So what was the difference between the two results? Lane choice.
“Yesterday, the right lane was amazing and the left lane was not good at all. Today, the right lane was amazing again so I’m trying to cut a good light. I’m trying to shallow stage. I have to get lane choice for the next round,” Salinas explained. “So for a guy like me who is not that great on the light sometimes, every run I’ve got to (do some things) to get back into the game. Today I got lane choice every round. That was the difference.
"Getting lane choice over Brittany, for me, was a big deal. That kid is good and she’s no joke. She’s a world champion. And then I get to play with Steve in the last one. I’m telling you, they threw me to the lions. You just have to put your guard up and battle them one at a time.”
In that other marquee matchup, Salinas simply outperformed the reigning NHRA Top Fuel world champion with a solid run from point A to point B. Salinas had a 3.699, 334.32 mph in the second-round matchup with the top qualifier, and Force's 3.758, 332.75 simply wasn't enough.
In the semifinal, Salinas was again up to the task against Tony Stewart Racing’s Leah Pruett, powering to a 3.727, 332.67 to reach his first final round since Las Vegas in the fall. Salinas added a 3.669, 334.82 mph, in his other competitive pass in a win over Justin Ashley.
Torrence reached his 82nd final round with wins over Scott Palmer, Tony Schumacher and Doug Kalitta.
It was an auspicious start for Salinas, a 61-year-old California native, but one he expected after placing such a heavy burden on his team in the offseason. While he stopped short of giving his team a blank check with the car, he admits that he knew the team he has assembled could be successful and fiscally responsible at the same time.
“What we were lacking, it really didn’t take money, it took ability,” Salinas said. “Rob Flynn has it. Arron Cave has it. They came up with some amazing stuff for the car this year and I think we’re going to run really hard all year long.”
Salinas also reiterated that he did not check in on the team during the offseason, instead leaving it to them to find the magic sauce.
“When you get a repairman to come to your house to fix a sink, why would you tell them how to do it?,” Salinas added. “I hired that man to do a job, why would I stick my nose in there? I walk in, tell them ‘good morning’ and they tell me it is time to warm up the car. We leave people alone and let them do their job.”
After the race, Salinas was reflective of just how far this team has come since it debuted just a few years ago. From struggling to make the show to beating the marquee drivers in the sport, Salinas said that there is just something magical about this team that he hopes can propel him to special things in 2023.
“You don’t ever forget where you come from,” Salinas said. “This is the stuff people dream of. I’ve been dreaming of this stuff all my life, and I go home and I’ll sit there and watch these races -- and after it’s over, I still don’t believe it is me.
“I’m growing as a driver. I’m still learning so many different things. These people out here, they’ve been doing this for years. I’m a businessman and I get to come out and play with them.”
But Salinas is no longer just a novelty act in the class, he is a real threat to win as he proved this weekend with two final rounds in two days against the best drivers in the world.
“These guys, you better have your 'A' game. You better come to fight with them,” Salinas said. “But here’s what I will tell you: They’re all beatable. They’re all beatable if you control yourself, maintain your composure and your people, (let) your crew do their job. It’s just kind of special what we have right now.”
HAPPY BIRTHDAY HOMIE - In the pit area of the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series, there is perhaps no driver who speaks more highly of the relationship with his crew chief than Matt Hagan.
Through every high and every low, after every chart-topping pass and Wally trophy, Hagan is quick to give praise to Dickie Venables and the work he does to prepare the car on race day.
So it was only fitting that on Venables’ birthday, Hagan got him something extra special.
On Sunday, Hagan opened the season with four win lights and the 44th win of his career at the Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals at Gainesville Raceway. And immediately after being handed the trophy, he knew exactly where it was going.
“I can’t say enough about Dickie Venables. It is his birthday today, and this is a super awesome birthday present. I plan on giving him the trophy,” Hagan said. “My guys work so hard. We had our entire team come back from last year and that is kind of unheard of on a fuel car. Tony (Stewart) creates a work environment where you want to be here, to be a part of this. That says a lot. And I think that had a lot to do with our success (today).”
After multiple tries to earn a Wally at one of NHRA’s oldest crown-jewel events, Hagan has now gone back-to-back at the Gatornationals after giving team owner Tony Stewart his first win in the sport at the same race a year ago.
And he earned Sunday's win against 2021 Gainesville winner J.R. Todd.
With both drivers looking to get their 2023 campaign off to a good start, Hagan and Todd put on a great show in the Funny Car final. After leaving the starting line with identical reaction times, Todd began to pull away in his DHL Toyota GR Supra before the engine expired near mid-track with a visible concussion, allowing Hagan to cruise past for the win.
Hagan drove his Direct Connection Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Funny Car from point A to point B with precision, recording a 3.926-second lap at 329.34 mph to collect his first season-opening win since 2018. Todd limped across the line at 4.141 to finish runner-up.
“I knew they were going to have a good car and he is a great driver. To face off in the finals, I knew it was going to be a good race,” Hagan said. “J.R. actually poked out in front of me, and when you can see someone (during a run), it ain’t good. Then something happened over there with him, and we drove around him and turned on the win light.
“To win back-to-back Gators, I tried pretty much my entire career to just win one. It was a different feel this weekend because you usually start in Pomona, but to be here in Florida and watch the fans pile in here yesterday was just amazing.”
To add to the drama of a final round at the Gatornationals, the two finalists were thrown an extra curveball in the form of the live television broadcast. With a tight turnaround window following their semifinal runs, both drivers had to scramble just to make the final, and that led to some chaos in preparation.
“We were pushed in the final there and almost didn’t get to warm up because of the TV slot,” Hagan explained. “At the end of the day, you do what you need to do to make the round and get the TV time. Being on Fox and being able to win as a TSR driver is huge.”
After the run, Hagan was again quick to give praise to his team for staying calm under pressure and for providing him with peace of mind in the final.
“Trust is earned, it is not given with most stuff you do in life,” Hagan said. “Each one of those guys on that car earned my trust. I crawl in that car knowing it is put together right. Knowing that, if there is a mistake or something happens, it won’t happen again. My guys very rarely make a mistake, and that is huge.
“Me and Dickie are the biggest variables out there. He is changing stuff and I am driving differently, and when those guys can put that car together and it is the same every time, it takes that variable out of it. It makes his tuning ability better. The confidence we have as a team is huge.”
While winning a race is certainly not surprising for Hagan, winning so early in the season was a bit of a shock. During the offseason, the team built a brand new car and did very little testing coming into the race. That left Hagan working out some of the quirks of the car while at the same time trying to go rounds.
“Honestly, everything in my area got changed for this season,” Hagan said. “It fits me better, and I have the steering wheel where I want it and the fuel shutoff where I want it, but the clutch pedal is different. The steering box is different. Where we have the steering wheel is different. So it has been an adjustment. I am up there trying to hold the pedal in and my leg is shaking and I’m thinking, ‘We need to change this.’ But the car is running great. It is consistent, and it is driving really well.
“I just can’t say enough about Dodge and the support they give us here at TSR. We didn’t test very much. We spent four days out here a couple of weeks ago and just really dialed the car in and felt confident about it. So we loaded it in the box and came back here. There is a lot to be said about Dickie and his experience in this result today.”
Hagan dipped into the 3.8-second zone thrice Sunday in wins over Tim Wilkerson, Bob Tasca and Alexis DeJoria. His best lap came in round one, a 3.879 at 335.82 mph in a win over a tire-smoking Wilkerson.
In the other rounds, Hagan simply proved quicker. He drove around Tasca in the second round with a 3.882 to a 3.922, before an even closer 3.896 ousted DeJoria's 3.912 in the semifinals.
Todd had wins over Blake Alexander, Robert Hight and Chad Green.
In addition to his own success, Hagan’s Top Fuel teammate Leah Pruett reached the semifinals in the other nitro category, giving Tony Stewart Racing a great start to the year.
“To kick it off with TSR’s first win of the year one year after getting their first-ever win here, it was just a special weekend,” Hagan said. “I was really excited to see Leah go some rounds today, and the guys were pumped up and my guys were pumped up. The camaraderie between the two teams is great. There is great chemistry there.
“For us, you just can’t count Dickie Venables out. That guy has got so much experience. He has won me so many races and we have won championships together. We are just always in the thick of it and that is all you can really ask for.”
THAT'S HOW YOU START IT - Last season saw a jumpstart in Troy Coughlin Jr.’s Pro Stock career.
Coughlin finished a career-best fourth in the points standings thanks to two wins and three-runner-up finishes. He kept that momentum rolling into 2023 as he won the season-opening Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals Sunday.
Coughlin, driving the Jegs.com/Elite Performance Chevrolet Camaro, muscled past Mason McGaha in the finals.
Coughlin clocked a 6.637-second time at 208.71 mph to defeat McGaha’s 6.765-second 207.94 mph effort in Gainesville, Fla.
“I let the clutch out; I just thought, ‘Well, hold on, we can make it out of low gear here. Just get there,’ Coughlin said. “Try to just get, just get there. And it worked out.”
Sunday’s victory was Coughlin’s third career NHRA Pro Stock national event win in his fourth year in the class. He beat Larry Morgan, Deric Kramer, and Dallas Glenn before ousting McGaha.
The win was extra special for Coughlin because his grandfather Jeg was in attendance.
“It’s pretty surreal. It’s pretty cool,” Troy said about having his grandfather there for his win. “The man that pretty much started it all for us as far as the drag racing goes. To have him here on the property is, excuse my French, but it’s pretty badass. It’s pretty cool just to see him. He’s a legend. He’s a guy who started an iconic brand. An iconic brand with just such neat philosophy with family and excitement, and it’s just fun.
“When I was driving in here this morning, I thought when my dad texted me last night, he said, ‘How am I going to get him in here?’
“I’m thinking, ‘It’s easy. We’ll get him in here.’ I emailed him a pass, and I was like, ‘Man, the chief’s coming today.’ It just fired me up. It just added like a couple of degrees of timing in me.
“First couple rounds, didn’t show it, but the next couple, I picked it up a little bit. But it’s just really exciting; it’s an honor to have him here. He’s helped me tremendously. He’s a once to two times a week phone call, whether it be about business or racing or life. That guy’s just a really good man and I’m just extremely honored and lucky to have him in my life, and to have him here today is... Tomorrow I may have an even better answer.”
In the 19 Pro Stock events contested last season, Team Elite won 15 times, and team member Erica Enders won the world championship.
Coughlin has now made it 16 for the last 20 for Elite in his yellow and black Camaro. Coughlin also qualified No. 1 at the Gators with a 6.515-second effort at 212.29 mph. It was the third time he qualified No. 1 in the Pro Stock class.
“Well, at Elite Motorsports, it’s a little newer than the Jeg’s legacy. It doesn’t date back to 1960, but it’s really the same type of honor to me,” Coughlin said. “You look at Erica (Enders), she’s a five-time world champion, and you’re driving for a team that wins championships. So, they have that same demeanor. When they pull in the gates, they expect to dominate; they expect to win. And you pull in with that same attitude 100%. That’s exciting to me. I like that. It’s a great fit. It’s really neat if you like that type of competitive edge.”
Surprisingly, Coughlin was the only driver who had real success for Elite at the Gators, and he was happy to lead the way.
“It’s definitely exciting,” Coughlin said. “Turn four (win lights) on for our group. It’s a feather in our cap, and I think it’s a testament to them. It just shows that everybody pulls together and looks at our trials as stepping stones to as if we can keep going no matter what. We got one dog in the fight, and we can push through, and we can look at what errors we had, and we can look towards the future with these errors and build on them. And you know, look at the issues with the cars we had, and we could prevent those issues and look at the data and prevent them and get stronger.”
Troy took a moment to describe what it is like to be part of the winning family tradition of the Coughlins.
“I remember watching Jeg Jr. win all the time and Pappy (Jeg Sr.) being here,” Troy Jr. said. “He used to back him up from his burnouts, and dad (Troy Sr.) up from his burnouts, and Mike and John when they were in the trucks. So that was normal to me, and that’s what Elite is for me now. What the Coughlin Brothers Racing is. So that’s really exciting to me. A lot of my childhood, yeah, it comes rushing back to you when you see him coming up to you wanting to give you a big hug when you’re holding the Wally. It’s your whole childhood rushing back to you and there’s nothing like it. It’s hard to describe.”
Coughlin also loves the family feel of Elite Motorsports.
“That’s one big family, and that is the single coolest thing about it is everybody works together,” Coughlin said. “If one team’s out, they’re all working together. Everybody’s working together. And you’re never flustered because you’re never super rushed because everybody’s always helping each other. You’re always ready; everybody’s working together, and you’re ready to go. You’re never mentally rushed because you know everybody’s got it.
“Everybody’s got their position, and everybody knows each other’s roles and how to help each other and support each other. They mean it when they help each other too, which is really exciting. When everybody wins, everybody wins. It’s really exciting. It’s something to watch; it’s fun. It’s really a family team. It’s a lot like; it is truly the closest thing to my family team.”
One thing Troy was happy to talk about in his post-race press conference was the benefits of the sport.
“It’s an emotional sport, it’s a family sport, there’s nothing like it,” he said. “And in fact, if you have a car, you can take it to a local dragstrip and race it. However, you cannot take your car to your local NASCAR track or round track, and probably you cannot take it on that track. However, you can take it out there and race street legal and bracket race it. You can make little money, too, in the process. That’s what’s fun.”
Sometimes the Pro Stock class can be pretty predictable at NHRA national events, but that wasn’t the case at the Gators.
“There’s always those races where the track and the weather sometimes you don’t know if you’re going to make it out of gear,” Coughlin said. “But with the guys in the crew chief lounge, I have the most faith in the world. You know, you have so much trust in faith in Mark Ingersoll, and Tim Freeman, and Chase Freeman; he’s our newest crew chief. All the guys on my car, everybody in the engine shop. Gosh, there’s so many people at Elite Motorsports. There are so many new faces that have transitioned into roles that, heck, we’ve got guys coming from Kalitta Motorsports who are jumping in on Erica’s car. They’re doing a fantastic job, and it’s exciting.
"That means we have awesome people training them. Showing them how to do this to these 500-cubic inch big block machines that are so precise and it’s hard to run these cars. It’s not very simple, let alone to drive. But to operate them, to work on them, to get them to function, to get them to be consistent. Ask Mark Ingersoll or Tim Freeman, or those guys, or Greg on how easy they are to tune and to be a crew chief, and you’ll get a fun answer.”
One thing that wasn’t lost on Coughlin was the overflowing crowd watching the action in the stands at the Gators.
“Well, we have a great sanctioning body for sure,” Coughlin said. “We’re very lucky. I felt a ton of love. What a great crowd response; it was sold out. I mentioned that in three or four interviews. I mean, the fans are always a blast here in Gainesville. What a great market. I’ve always had a blast, even when I ran the Top Fuel (dragster); it was always a lot of fun to mingle with the fans here. I can’t wait to come back. I wish we ran two times here, and I want to come back tomorrow, personally. I’m excited as heck, and I’m really happy with the change (to start the season in Gainesville). It was a great decision and really, really happy that it sold out and I had a blast.”
FIRST TIME IS THE CHARM - It didn't take long for Gaige Herrera, the newest rider in the Vance & Hines camp, to find the winner's circle.
Herrera, who joined the renowned team in the offseason, won the season-opening Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals Sunday.
Herrera, on the Mission Foods Vance & Hines Suzuki, clocked a 6.706-second time at 200.89 mph to defeat Angie Smith's 6.845-second run on her Matt Smith Racing Buell in Gainesville, Fla.
"Racing for Vance and Hines, I mean, it was a dream, but being able to work with them, they're an awesome team to work with," said Herrera, 29. "They helped me out a lot as far as being comfortable on the bike, and it's showing. I'm (at a) lost for words. I took every round one step at a time, and I was just out there having fun, and I still can't believe I'm holding this Wally."
Herrera, who calls La Habra, Calif., home, made his Pro Stock Motorcycle debut last year, qualifying for NHRA national events in St. Louis, Dallas, Las Vegas, and Pomona, Calif.
The finals-victory culminated a dream weekend for Herrera, who qualified No. 1 with a 6.685-second 203.49 mph lap. He then beat Ron Tornow, his teammate Eddie Krawiec, and Jianna Evaristo before taking care of Smith in the finals.
"Obviously, you never want to race your teammate, but that right there, it was a lot of pressure on my shoulders," said Herrera about racing Krawiec, a multiple-time world champ. "I mean, he's one of the greatest out here. And to not only be teammates, it's a big deal to me to be teammates with Eddie Krawiec, but to line up next to him; was definitely a lot of weight on my shoulders.
"Unfortunately, I was hoping it would've been in the final, but it's not how the cards played this weekend, but getting to race him that's a big deal. 'Cause I grew up watching him, and Andrew (Hines) go back and forth on the Harleys, and to be able to race him, that was a big deal to me."
Herrera said he didn't use any of Krawiec's advice against him.
"No, not really. Honestly. Eddie said, 'Just go out there and do you,'" Herrera said. "He said that he felt like he was going to be in trouble, and that made me feel good. Just like I said, just being able to race Eddie and to be at this level with all these great competitors. I mean, it's awesome."
In his post-race interview, Herrera said he had not spoken to Terry Vance about his performance.
"I haven't seen Terry yet, but I saw him out there each round, and he just kept saying, 'Do what you're doing and keep making me proud.' So that right there, I mean, having those words come out of Terry's mouth, I can't even explain how it makes me feel. To be out here and make Terry happy and the whole Vance & Hines and the Suzuki team, it's a big deal to me."
Herrera did take a moment to talk about his rise from obscurity to Wally-winning PSM rider to start the 2023 season.
"It makes me feel... I mean, I can't explain it," he said. "If you would've asked me at the end of last season if I was going to be racing the Gatornationals and with Vance & Hines, I would've probably said no. Because I was just out there having fun last year, and I didn't expect anything from it. So, to be out here in front of all these fans and end up on top, I can't put it in words, honestly. It's an amazing feeling. And yeah, I'm really happy."
Herrera was not only victorious on Sunday, but dominant throughout. He was by far the fastest motorcycle on the property.
"I run a Nitrous Pro Street Bike normally; that's basically what I used to run all the time," Herrera said. "I've qualified, I think, the best third, but I'm usually about a tenth, tenth, and a half behind. I'm used to being the underdog. So, coming here and having a decent advantage on the field was definitely a different feeling. I've never been in that situation. And to be there and basically to repeat a bracket bike was a big thing to me. Just hitting my shift points, going A to B straight, that was a big accomplishment to me, and yeah, it ended up good."
Having the reality of capturing a Wally is something that Herrera has been dreaming about for years.
SATURDAY NOTEBOOK - HART POCKETS $80,000 IN WILD, HIGH-STAKES TOP FUEL CALL-OUT; #2FAST2TASTY BONUS RACES GET VARIED REACTIONS; FANS HAVE CHANCE TO SHARE IN HALL OF FAMER’S CRUSADE; PEDREGON EXPANDS BUSINESS INTERESTS
THIS IS MY HOUSE - Call it home-track advantage ... or home cooking ... or just plain skill ... but Ocala, Fla., Top Fuel racer Josh Hart is making a habit of excelling at Gainesville Raceway during the Amalie Oil NHRA Gatornationals.
He immediately wrote his name in the sport’s record book here at Gainesville, about 30 miles from his home, in March 2021, winning the Top Fuel trophy in his first pro-level event – which happened to be the season-opener that year, too.
And in his first Pep Boys Top Fuel All-Star Call-Out appearance Saturday, Hart powered past Austin Prock, Brittany Force, and Mike Salinas to win and earn $80,000 – the biggest payout of the year – as the Camping World Drag Racing Series schedule kicked off again with this East Coast classic.
“I'll just say that nice guys don't finish last,” Hart said. The R+L Carriers Dragster owner-driver, a true family man who along with wife Brittanie and daughter Helen just welcomed son Banks, also was referring to his Ron Douglas-led crew. As Hart met with reporters after his victory, he praised his team.
“It's a huge, huge accomplishment for our team,” Hart said. “We have prepared like no other through December, January, and February. To go right out and win a specialty race right off the trailer is awesome. This R+L Carriers crew are the ones that should be sitting in the seat talking about this win. I'm just the jockey that gets to hit the gas. All the credit goes to the team. This is obviously off-the-charts awesome.”
Remembering, perhaps, that his rapid rise also had its plateaus, Hart said, “You have to not take anything like this for granted, because it can go away just like that. Savor the moment.”
He said his team “saved” him in his first-round Call-Out match-up with Austin Prock.
“When you go up against Prock, you got to be deadly on the tree. And I was off my game a little bit in that first round. It was my first competitive pass with this [brand-new Morgan Lucas Racing-built] R+L Carriers Top Fuel dragster. I was kind of nervous about staging. [Crew chief] Ron Douglas and the team saved me on that one.”
“In Round 2, against Force when she called me out, I think everybody was expecting that. That becomes a kill-them-with-kindness type of situation. I left on her with a 40 [.040-second] light.”
He won handily in the final against Mike Salinas, who had advanced past Justin Ashley and Doug Kalitta in earlier rounds. But that wasn’t what he expected when he went to the starting line.
Hart said, “With Salinas, you know, he's run some crazy numbers in testing. And you always have that in the back of your mind. I'm just glad that I left on him. Ron and the team again get the credit.”
With Gatornationals eliminations looming Sunday, No. 7-qualified Hart will face eight-time class champion Tony Schumacher in the first round. He and Schumacher, a five-time Gatornationals winner, have split their two career meetings. Hart said he didn’t feel additional pressure to win his second Gatornationals in three years.
“No pressure,” Hart said, “but I am 100 percent more relaxed because, again, once you have the confidence and you've taken your sled down the track a couple of times, you're like, ‘I got this.’ It's when things are going sideways and crazy and you're pedaling and then you start psyching yourself out. So those guys on my team, they're awesome. Like I said, they were the ones that should be sitting right here, not me.”
It has been an action-packed week for Hart, who owns the constantly growing Burnyzz Speed Shop. He hosted the first Gatornationals FanFest at his shop in Ocala. Nearly two dozen Camping World Series competitors joined Hart and legend “Big Daddy” Don Garlits for a free autograph session, an extravagant car show, and live music. An estimated 5,000-7,000 fans attended the first-time event.
And Hart expressed appreciation for the local community and its support.
“Ocala has been amazing to me, not just from the business support, but with the racing community,” Hart, who launched his first business with $300 and a plan, said. “We planned on having 75 people in our hospitality, and this is our first time doing hospitality, and I counted 200-plus. The local support is off the charts. I've never seen anything like not only here at the racetrack, but people that are now stopping into the shop just for merchandise or just to, you know, meet me and I'm like, man, I'm a janitor if you want me to clean up the messes around here. Just awesome support locally.”
In the preseason, Hart said the competition would be even more difficult than it was last year, and the 16-driver line-up hasn’t made a liar out of him. From top to bottom, from No. 1 starter Brittany Force to No. 16 Keith Murt, each driver in the Top Fuel field is part of a multi-car, multi-million-dollar operation.
Hart methodically has built his racing operation on his own until last year. That’s when he partnered with fellow Floridian Chris Armstrong, of Armstrong Homes. The additional financial support, as well as business expertise, has helped Hart take his program to the next level.
“This car does not want for anything. We will do whatever it takes to make sure this thing is equivalent to all the multi-million-dollar teams,” Hart said. “The confidence comes from what happened to me last year. I took it for granted, and I was like ‘Hey, I'm going to come out and have some fun,’ but it's not fun. It's a business. So this year, when I show up, I want to start trying to enjoy every single moment.”
And Saturday he had one more milestone moment to savor.
Pep Boys Top Fuel Allstar Callout Results
Josh Hart (.084) 3.765, 331.77 mph, def. Austin Prock (.063) 4.564, 164.89 mph
Brittany Force (.049) 3.744, 335.48 mph, def. Clay Millican (.067) 5.247, 128.69 mph
Mike Salinas (.074) 3.751, 333.41 mph, def. Justin Ashley (.033) 3.870, 299.06 mph
Doug Kalitta (.073) 3.753, 330.88 mph, def. Steve Torrence (.099) 3.774, 331.28 mph
Mike Salinas (.068) 3.763, 330.63 mph, def. Doug Kalitta (.072) 7.924, 101.35 mph,
Josh Hart (.041) 3.757, 330.88 mph, def. Brittany Force (.075) 8.884, 74.07 mph
Josh Hart (.052) 3.748, 331.53 mph, def. Mike Salinas (.077) 10.235, 74.57 mph
A LITTLE SOMETHING-SOMETHING ON THE SIDE –Top Fuel racer Clay Millican figured if the NHRA's Pep Boys All-Star Call-Out event was essentially like Street Outlaws on nitro, they might as well go in all the way. Friday's Pep Boys Call-Out ceremony was television-quality entertainment.
That's why when Millican, as the No. 8 seed, was called out by the top runner, Brittany Force, he challenged her to a $1,000 side bet. Judging by Force's reaction, the move caught her off-guard.
Millican made sure before he threw the side bet out there that he didn't catch his wife, Donna, by surprise.
"The truth is the whole truth and nothing but the truth ... right before I walked out on stage, I called Donna to make sure it was OK. I did that because I've never paid a bill in my life. I've never balanced a checkbook, and I have no idea how much money's in the bank,” Millican said. “So I had to call her to see if it was OK for me to do that."
With Donna's blessings, Millican made the challenge.
"I think it caught everybody off-guard and got a chuckle out of the crowd, so it was fun," Millican said. "At the end of the day, either way, if we win or lose, the money's going to charity, so it was just fun to do it."
Millican might have made the first bet, but Mike Salinas made the largest. Justin Ashley called out Salinas, who made a memorable moment during the ceremony. He challenged Ashley to a $5,000 race.
"This is 100 percent to make it exciting for the fans, make it exciting for my crew and my guys," Salinas said. "I was going to do $10,000, but I didn't want to act like a big shot.
"Hopefully, we can build on it for the future. What I would like to see is, when we go up for qualifying, people betting on the starting line and get betting into this association and what we're doing because it'll bring a different group of people so that way we make the sport more exciting. I'm going to open up a casino at the track myself."
Make no mistake, Salinas says every bit of this is real.
"I'm going to carry the money with me," Salinas said. "If I lose on the other end, I'm going to give him his $5,000. I got it in cash."
Maybe this was why Ashley had the deer in the headlights look with Salinas' challenge.
"I wasn't expecting it," Ashley said. "I should have gone in more prepared that if I knew we were going to call out Mike Salinas, there might have been a side bet that was thrown around. So he caught me off-guard a little bit. But when you're out there in front of people, and he's going to throw a side bet out there, you're not going to say no. It's good for the fans. It makes it that much more exciting. So already a lot on the line, a lot of money on the line, so throw a little bit more on top of it."
It's almost like grudge racing, Top Fuel style. At least, that’s how Ashley sees it.
"It reminds me of, like, you see these drag radial deals where they throw grudge-racing wagers on it," Ashley said. "I haven't raced before with betting money on the line, but hey, I'm all for it. I didn't need any more motivation, but now I do."
ATTABOY - Now that is how you make a first impression.
Less than two months after being introduced as the newest rider with the Vance & Hines Pro Stock Motorcycle team, Gaige Herrera immediately established himself as a threat. With a lightning-quick final pass and a track speed record, Herrera took the No. 1 spot in his first NHRA race with his team and heads into race day with a shot to add a Wally at the Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals at Gainesville Raceway.
“It has been a dream come true,” Herrera said. “It still doesn’t feel real to be at the Gatornationals. Not only that, but being on the top team with the Vance and Hines Mission Suzuki team. When I got that phone call in November from Andrew (Hines), that right there took forever to sink in. To be here and to be on top, I can’t ask for much more. It has been an awesome couple days of qualifying.”
Herrera was one of the top three riders in all four qualifying sessions Friday and Saturday at the historic north-Florida facility, but it was his final two qualifying passes that turned heads. Herrera came into the final session as the top qualifier with a 6.688-second elapsed time, but lowered that number with a 6.685-second pass at a track-record speed of 203.49 mph aboard his Gen III Hayabusa body.
“We tried a few new things which worked out very well,” Herrera said. “The new Gen III Hayabusa body is very nice to ride. It’s very stable, very neutral. I’d say it is the best bar bike I’ve ever ridden. The bike is so predictable to the point where I can refine what I have to do and go A to B the best that I can.”
Herrera added that while qualifying first is quite an accomplishment in his first time out, his speed during that final round tipped just how much performance this new bike has for race day.
“I never stop pushing myself,” Herrera added. “Going to the top and running 203, that right there is a big accomplishment as it is.”
STILL ROLLING - Reigning NHRA nitro Funny Car world champion Ron Capps didn’t lose any momentum in the offseason.
Capps powered his NAPA Auto Parts Toyota GR Supra to a 3.874-second elapsed time at 333.25 mph in Q4 to grab the No. 1 qualifying spot at the season-opening Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals Saturday.
“Yeah, very cool,” Capps said. “That round (Q4), for me, it was a little bit of anxiety because I couldn't see the Christmas tree. I could barely see the pre-stage, the blue, and then I started bumping it in and I could see the bottom half of the blue stage light, light up, but I couldn't see any ambers. I just said to myself, ‘Okay man, don't mess up and leave before the tree. Just wait until Robert (Hight) hits the gas and go, which is what I did. It was hard to go down the track because he is out in front of me, and you're used to just shutting it off when that car's out in front of you. I'm like, ‘Well, he is not pulling away, we're just staying there.’ Every time I do that, my brain would say, ‘Stop looking, focus on the track.’
“So, I'm looking and looking and looking, looking and I was like, ‘Oh, he is in front of me.’ I don't know how late I was. It was hard to judge, but when they told me what it was, how close it was, I mean that's down to staging. I mean that's just trickling it in. Guido (Capps’ crew chief Dean Antonelli) and the guys just throwing it down.”
This was Capps 36th career No. 1 qualifying position and second in a row at the Gators in Gainesville, Fla. He will face Terry Haddock in round one.
Capps is aiming to win the Gators for the fifth time in his decorated career to go along with the titles he captured in 2006, 2007, 2015 and 2020.
If Capps wins the Gators for the fifth time it would tie him with his former boss legend Don Prudhomme’s five Gainesville Funny Car wins (1974, 1975, 1976, 1980 and 1987), which would make him the second-winningest Funny Car driver in the track’s history.
MORE CHANCES – After a Saturday of high-stakes competition folded into Top Fuel qualifying at the Amalie Oil NHRA Gatornationals, all four Camping World Drag Racing Series categories will be laying the foundation Sunday for more bonuses – ones with Countdown implications.
The dragster class dived into its Pep Boys All-Star Call-Out that awarded $80,000 – the biggest payout of the season – to winner Josh Hart. But during eliminations Sunday, racers will be competing for berths in the semifinals at Gainesville Raceway to qualify for the inaugural Mission Foods-sponsored #2Fast#2Tasty Challenge.
Beginning at the March 24-26 Arizona Nationals at Phoenix, this additional event-within-an-event will introduce competitive racing to the Saturday schedule at “regular season” events throughout the season (except for the two four-wide races, in Las Vegas and Charlotte), pitting semifinalists from the previous race against each other in a rematch. They’ll face off during the first Saturday qualifying session. Then the two winners will meet in the final qualifying session. On the line will be additional purse money (aside from the event earnings) – and bonus points for the Countdown to the Championship.
Three bonus points will be awarded to the winner, two to the runner-up, and one to the quicker semifinal loser. These bonus points will be added to a driver’s total points at the start of the Countdown to the Championship.
Doug Kalitta was one of the first to applaud Mission Foods for increasing its investment in the sport and the sanctioning body for helping them craft this program.
“From my perspective,” Kalitta said, “it's great that the different sponsors are stepping up and bringing these events back, because they are super-cool that we have these races on Saturday. It brings more excitement for the fans. So yeah, it's super – just definitely appreciate what they're doing to continue to try to build on the sport. So great stuff.”
His Top Fuel rival Austin Prock seconded that and said, “I like the fact that it gives you an opportunity to earn points that you can carry into the Countdown. So if you do have a really good preseason, essentially, and you go into the Countdown and maybe you stumble a little bit, it still gives you opportunity to hang onto a position or two. But it's great to have new companies coming into the sport and growing with us.
“It just adds more excitement for the fans, and that's what it's really all about. Tony Stewart said it the best: We’ve got to figure out a way to get the people in the grandstands, and if we can do that, drag racing will have a long-lasting life.” As a P.S., he added, “I'm just excited to have an opportunity to pedal the race car on Saturday and not get in trouble.”
Justin Ashley’s take on it focused on getting in race-day mode: “Normally, you only have Sundays ... but now there's more opportunities to be able to do that. Now you're going to have an opportunity to do that on Saturday beforehand with these challenges. So anytime we actually get to compete for points, get to compete for round wins, I think it's going to raise the level of all the teams out there and raise the level of all the drivers, too.”
Not everybody rubber-stamped the format of #2Fast2Tasty. Funny Car’s Robert Hight didn’t. He said, “I guess it could create some excitement on Saturdays. I think that’s what they’re trying to do. I don’t know – it could work a lot of ways. You could be really good on Saturdays and suck on Sundays and it’d help you out on points, in the championship. So I’m not sure about all of this.”
Top Fuel owner-racer Josh Hart, no fan of the Countdown to begin with, backed up Hight. Hart called the six-race playoff format “no bueno,” saying, “I don’t like participation awards. I’ve got so much that I want to say, but ... I chose NHRA because there are no participation awards. My kids won’t know what a ‘participation award’ is – not that guy.”
Regarding the 2Fast2Tasty opportunity, he suggested a better premise would be simply offer cash awards without championship-chase-counting points. As it stands now, he said he views it as “a phony attempt to drum up drama. Money, not points, is drama enough.” And he urged the NHRA to stick to the KISS formula that originated with political campaign strategy: Keep It Simple, Stupid.
“The money end of it makes sense, because it will lure more people to participate,” Hart said. “There’s a lot of people in our class who sit out certain qualifiers who shouldn’t. I’m all about that, to help lower-end teams be able to participate and have fun more. I’m pro-that.”
Meanwhile, current Funny Car champion Ron Capps defended the program and said everyone just needs to understand what #2Fast2Tasty is all about.
“I love it and the more that I think about it … it needs to be explained better. And I'm going to help all I can to explain it, because I think when fans realize what's going on, you're going to see ticket sales, for sure on Saturdays, go up a lot for us racers, crew members, drivers, crew chiefs. it's going to be awesome, because you have a chance ... to get back at somebody,” he said.
He thought back to last year’s Pep Boys Funny Car All-Star Call-Out at Indianapolis as an example.
“When Robert Hight called out [Bob] Tasca backstage of that event at Indy, it sent everybody's neck hairs standing straight up. That was awesome,” he said. “And then we proceeded to go out and call out Tim Wilkerson, who was somebody you'd never want to call out. But because he whooped our rear ends the year before in the final round and came out and threw a run down that nobody thought could be done in that lane and we were almost counting the money. I mean, it was bad.
“And so for a year I've sucked that up, and we were able to call him out. And I think talking to the upper management NHRA, a lot of the reason they came up with this was the shootout that we had in Indy last year, the Call-Out scenario that we had.
“So I think this whole #2Fast2Tasty thing is great.,” Capps said. “I think Mission jumping on board is going to be great.”
He seemed to be startled by the number of fans who were up in arms about it: “You go look at my post last week. It was just pure mayhem. People just didn't understand it. The other day, I had half a million people that liked, or unliked, it because people didn't understand it. I almost had to get back on some of the posts and try to talk people off of ledge because they were so upset.”
Capps said he believes enthusiasm for #2Fast2Tasty will grow “the more they understand it” and when fans and maybe even racers realize that “even if you don't win a race, if you get to the semifinals, you're going to have a chance to not only win a little bit of money at the following event, but you're going ... have to wake up Saturday in race-day mode. Normally us racers and us drivers don't in qualifying. You don't go up there with the same mentality you do on race day. So there's going to be a completely different scenario, and I'm getting more excited now as we talk about it.”
Juan Gonzalez, Mission Foods chief executive officer, said, “This is a great opportunity to interact with NHRA fans in a fun and exciting setting, and I strongly believe that our partnership will create some unforgettable moments on Saturday race weekends.”
THE FUNNY CAR CURVEBALL - Before the engine fired in the Funny Car, drag racing's jack-of-all-trades Alex Laughlin quickly realized he'd underestimated the task he faced. It was January 2023, and Laughlin, one month after he was named the driver of the Jim Dunn Racing Funny Car, and he was preparing for his maiden runs at Famoso Raceway in Bakersfield, Ca.
"I 1000% underestimated the difference between the Top Fuel and Funny Car,". Laughlin said. "I thought that based on just the acceleration factor of the Top Fuel car would prepare me a lot more for this."
Those who know, know. Um, no.
"At this point, I feel like I might as well have never driven anything in my life. Laughlin admitted. "Even all of the thousands of runs down the drag strip that I do have might as well just be tossed out the window. And technically, I should be making my first 300-mile-per-hour pull here this weekend. And so, if I were to say that I wasn't a little bit nervous, it would be a complete lie."
Laughlin had earned Advanced ET, Pro Stock, Pro Modified, Top Alcohol, and Top Fuel Dragster licenses before earning his Funny Car driving credentials. For the Funny Car license, he needed only crossover certifications.
Sounds pretty easy, right?
"I've had people out to the track before and explained Top Fuel and how fascinating that is," Laughlin said. "Then, being next to the Funny Cars in the staging lanes, I would explain now these guys are the ones that are the full-blown psychopaths. And then I look back at even my own conversations like that and think, wow, here I am. I'm one of those guys."
How could he not be prepared after having essentially run a Pro Modified-style car and 10.5-inch wide radial tires?
"I thought that that would help, but a Funny Car is like combining a Top Fuel car with a Pro Modified," Laughlin explained. "It's just so different. It couldn't be more different."
Speaking of different, there's the dynamic between the backward-hat-wearing, social media keen Laughlin and the "get off my lawn" Jim Dunn.
"He said that he gets mad sometimes and might yell at me, but he gets over it quick," Laughlin explained. We haven't crossed that bridge yet, though."
HIS VERY FIRST - There’s no time like your first time. And for J.R. Gray, there was no time like the season’s first race to score his first career No. 1 position during the second day of the NHRA Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla.
Gray, driving for Pro Modified legend Mike Janis, overtook Justin Bond atop the Pro Modified leaderboard during abbreviated qualifying with a 5.731 at 250.97 mph; Bond ended up No. 2 in the sixteen-car field with a 5.751, 249.90 pass.
“I’m really stoked,” Gray said. “This is the first No. 1 qualifier of my life in any competition, and I have raced in many classes. The Gatornationals is like my personal Super Bowl because I grew up in Florida and went to this race many times. To be the top qualifier at a track where my dad and Granddad brought me all the time as a kid is just amazing.”
Gray’s milestone pass was one he would likely never forget.
“The track was a little tricky about 100 feet out, so we backed it down, and I had to drive it more than I wanted to at the top end, but it had some good early numbers for the conditions,” Gray explained. “The air was very good, so the back half was very fast.”
Gray will have little time to celebrate his feat, as stringent live television schedules on Sunday, combined with Pro Modified’s inclusion in the FoxSports broadcast, are making it necessary for a Saturday evening first round of eliminations,
Gray is paired with No. 16 qualifier Paul Daigrepont in the first round. Other first-round pairings include Bond vs. Dwayne Wolf; Kevin Rivenbark vs. Mike Thielen; Mike Castellana vs. Billy Banaka; Jerico Balduff vs. Sidnei Frigo; Doug Winters vs. Mason Wright, and the defending series champion Kris Thorne will face the small tire superstar turned Pro Modified racer Manny Buginga. - Bill Walters
WE DON'T NEED NO STINKING TESTING – Preseason testing is overrated, as are a lot of staples in conventional drag racing. Just ask the 11-time NHRA winner Steve Johnson, led Friday's qualifying with a 6.746-second elapsed time at 198.90 miles per hour.
Johnson races Pro Stock Motorcycle with all the passion one can muster, and following the first run, he knew he'd laid down a run. He was like a student who didn't study for a test yet felt they had aced it.
In this case, the "teacher" wasn't there to reveal his score.
"You are down there in the shutdown, and it's like, ‘What did I do? What am I doing good? What am I doing bad?’" Johnson said. "I was happy. At the finish line, you all got to understand. On a Pro Stock motorcycle – I don't know about the other cars – but you can look at 99% of the people down there, and when they pull around the corner, and then they stop, and they're taking off their gloves, their hands are still moving a little bit. It is such an exhilarating ride."
Then there's the new crew guy who needs help understanding the immediate need for data relay.
"I've had lots of brand-new crew guys, but you get a brand-new crew guy, and they'll come down and they'll put the push bag in; they'll start heading back to the pits, and I'm getting mad," Johnson said.
Johnson exclaimed, "What did it run? It's the only thing that matters."
Just a month earlier, Johnson would have given a million dollars he didn't have to have a crewman who forgot the elapsed time.
"We tried to test, and I had a volunteer that showed up, one I bought some engine parts from; I said, 'Hey, if you're going to be there, would you mind staying and helping me start my bike?’" Johnson asked. "He stayed; he got me all ready. We were going to go to the staging lanes, and he got an emergency phone call. Somebody was hurt in his family, and he had to leave."
If Johnson thought his help options were limited during testing, they pale compared to his horsepower resources for the NHRA season opener.
"We have one engine this weekend and I told my guys I wouldn't say that, but I did," Johnson admitted. "I love just letting (the media) know behind the scenes. It's so important that our sport moves forward in every single aspect, but at the same time, you can't forget the people that don't have all of the resources."
And here Johnson is, killing it against the odds.
GWYNN: ‘STILL A RACER’ – For a $20-per-person donation to the Darrell Gwynn Quality of Life Chapter of the Buoniconti Fund To Cure Paralysis, fans can join the newly inducted Motorsports Hall of Fame of America member Gwynn for the Gatornationals track walk. The Walk For Those Who Can’t will start at 8:30 Sunday morning.
The Darrell Gwynn Foundation, which he since has merged with the Buoniconti family’s Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, works to prevent spinal-cord injuries and provides support for people with paralysis and through its Wheelchair Donation Program and Education & Prevention Program.
Gwynn joined the Hall of Fame at the 35th Induction Celebration Presented by Toyota Racing this past Monday at Daytona Beach, with former racing rival “Big Daddy” Don Garlits’ introduction.
His fellow Class of 2023 mates are Drs. Steve Olvey and Terry Trammell (Open Wheel), legendary NASCAR crew chief and SRX Series co-founder Ray Evernham (Stock Car), champ-car driver and USAC official Henry Banks (Historic), NASCAR’s Fonty Flock (Historic), Corvette engineer and General Motors designer Zora Arkus-Duntov (Sports Cars), Dick Burleson (Motorcycles), Ab Jenkins (Speed Records), and Art Chester (Aviation).
“I look at this as the greatest professional accomplishment of my life,” Gwynn said. “We won a championship and won a lot of races, but to get recognized by the largest motorsports-related Hall of Fame is remarkable for me. It was about what we were able to accomplish in a short period of time. What means the most to me is the former inductees vote on who gets into the Hall of Fame, so the racers voted to elect me in. When your peers vote you in, that means the most to me. I'm very honored and humbled. This is the big one. It's like this is kind of the Allisons and the Pettys and the Andrettis and the Foyts.
“I never thought my name would be included with those people’s. Not bad for a kid from North Miami,” he said with a nostalgic tone. “I was just a little kid, peeking my head through a hole in the fence, watching these guys race and hoping I could compete with them some day. And that was kind of the extent of it. And not only did I get to race with them, the same group of racers felt I was worthy of being voted into the Hall of Fame. It doesn’t get any better.”
Times were better for Gwynn, and times are just different for him now. He has adjusted with grace and amazing aplomb to the ravages of a drag-racing accident in England 33 years ago. It cost him a portion of his left arm and left him paralyzed from the chest down.
“I'm still interested in the mechanic side of it more than anything,” Gwynn said. “Do I miss the driving? Yeah. But I think figuring out how to make 'em go is one of the things that intrigues me as well. So I enjoy talking to the guys about that. I'm not a mechanical mastermind, but I do being involved in the mechanic side of the car, working on the car, and I was always the driver that worked on the car and serviced it and made a lot of the decisions and stuff.”
And this 61-year-old father people still call “The Kid,” this spokesman for the Buoniconti Fund, this fundraiser is a hard-core drag-racing and motorsports guy.
“Yeah, just 24/7 racing on the brain,” he said. “I went to college for a month and I said to my parents, ‘You're wasting your money and my time. I can't do it.’ I had to use my hands.”
And he did.
He said, “I remember just being a kid around all these people and selling them clutch coolers back in the day, in the ’70s. We had an aircraft junkyard in our hometown, and they had these clutch fans. This is before people took the clutch out of the car every run, and they would just cool it off in between runs. Well, there was an aircraft blower that we would buy from the aircraft junkyard. I'd buy 'em for $5 apiece and I'd paint them and I'd sell 'em for $20 apiece. And I'd sell 'em at the national events and the points meets or whatever that I went to.
“And I still wish I had the handwritten list of all the people I sold them to because it was a list,” Gwynn said. “I could see the list in my mind. And I knew a lot of people on the list, but I had a list of people that I sold these things to in drag racing that was second to none. It was everybody that you could possibly think of. And everybody had one and everyone who didn't have one had to have one once they saw one. And it made it to where I started to become friends with these guys and felt closer with these guys. And Shirley had one. Everybody had one – guys, girls, they all had 'em. Raymond Beadle was one of my best customers ... Al Segrini – you name ’em. Garlits had one. And that kind of put me on a relationship level with some of these guys. Not only did I look up to 'em, but now they're calling the house, asking for me, wanting to buy one of my clutch coolers.
“When I was 14 years old, between cutting grass and selling clutch coolers, I had $7,000 in the bank. That's pretty good. And $7,000 in 1976 was a lot of money for a 14-year-old kid. And I was, believe me, I was not an entrepreneur,” Gwynn said. “I just worked for it. It's kind of instilled in you from your parents. Hard work creates opportunities.”
He said he still remembers sitting at his family’s dinner table at age 18, “trying to figure out how we were going to afford to do this (drag racing). And my dad said, ‘We can't afford it. We can't afford it. We can't afford it.’ There weren't too many people that had sponsors that were able to afford to do this. It was basically one two against one. It was my mom and dad saying, ‘How are we going to do it?’ and me saying, ‘Oh, we can do it. We can do it. We can do it.’ And I had no idea. I had youth and enthusiasm, and that's all I knew at the time.
“And we somehow managed to do it without a sponsor up until and through my alcohol days and the first couple years of Top Fuel. We just started figuring out how to make it work and being able to afford it,” Gwynn said.
“I've been doing a lot of reflecting lately about all the memories of going down the road with my dad and me being on the road by myself with an 18-wheeler. I was 19 years old with my 18-year-old girlfriend or a 14-year-old brother in a semi tractor-trailer, crossing the Canadian border. The border patrol looked at us and went like, ‘Holy s---! We've never seen anything like this before. We got to search these guys. It would look like we had stolen the whole damn thing,” he said.
Looking back, he muses now why his parents allowed it: “I'm 19 years old, and you're letting me travel around the country in an 18-wheeler?”
Gwynn said, “I didn't have a lot of experience at 19 years old. I didn't have a lot of experience driving a tractor-trailer when I was driving a tractor-trailer. All the other people that were driving, all the truckers in the world, were all older people. There were no young truckers. The youngest people driving a truck were some of the other racers, the Dale Puldes of the world or whatever. The first car I got my license in was a double-A altered, which is kind of a ride in itself. They say if you can drive one of those, you can drive anything. So we just I learned in one of those.”
His racer dad Jerry, who also worked for Chevron, has been, beyond words, a mentor.
“I learned so much from my dad,” Gwynn said. “He match-raced every weekend, and I would go match racing with him. And one weekend we'd be on a good racetrack, and next week, the next weekend, we'd be on three of the worst racetracks you ever saw in your life. And he'd figure out how to get down (the track), and he'd figure out how to win at the good racetracks and at the bad racetracks. And that just really put a spark in my eye to say, ‘Man, this my dad. He’s really got this together.’
“And that actually helped me win a lot of races down the road because a lot of the races I won in Top Fuel were because of some of the things I learned from my dad. I mean, you could do what you got to do to win the race and hold the brake during eliminations to keep the tires from spinning. (That) was an advantage that I had over the other competitors at the time in Top Fuel who were somewhat unbeatable on the really bad tracks. And it was all stuff I'd kind of learned from my dad at racing all those bad tracks.”
America’s pop culture and sports culture were much different when Gwynn raced, from ages 19-28, and Gwynn said, “We weren't bad boys. We were just a bunch of young kids. We were having the time of our lives. And we didn't even know it, to be honest,” he said. “I missed the days of four guys to a room and just having a ball and having a very competitive car and going around the country and with a half-volunteer crew from the airlines and just going around the country and doing our thing and winning races and setting records and having a good time. Having a good time was a big part of our culture.
“When I was young and racing, we didn't care where we ate, what we did, as long as the car was running good, the car was together. I remember being around some of the other racers, older racers – I won't say any names – but their priorities were like, ‘Where are we going to eat tonight? And how early the flight can we get out after the race, make two or three flight arrangements in case we go out first round or whatever.’ That was not even in the picture. It's like, no, no, I'm staying here and I'm going to work on this thing afterwards and then we're going to drive all night to go to the next one, whatever it was. That's all I do. And I really miss those times, that's for sure. But those times are long gone.
He said, “I like the fact that the time that I grew up in, it was a no-BS time. And if you were fair to people, they were fair to you. Man, I learned from the best of people and had the best of times. And I’d never trade it for anything.”
One of those “best of people” for Gwynn was Ken Veney, a successful drag racer turned cylinder-head guru turned crew chief.
“My later years I had a crew chief, Ken Veney, but before that it was just me and my dad. So when we got to Top Fuel, you got a sponsor, and my obligations became more towards the sponsor and stuff. I had to get a crew chief. Ken was such a great opportunity and a great friend and smart guy, and we worked well together. And it made perfect sense, and we had a lot of success together,” Gwynn said.
“I wouldn't do any interview without mentioning Ken Veney, because if there's one guy that's responsible – obviously my dad and my mom, my parents sacrificed a lot – but if there's one guy responsible that, I would say, for our performance … I would have to say Ken had more to do with it than anything.”
Gwynn said his opinion is that “the best racing was in the late ’70s, in the ’80s. There are probably guys that raced in the ’60s that had to answer to nobody that think their time was the best. But I got to tell you, for me I think the ’80s was the best, because that was when the sport had such a growth spurt and we were seeing so many opportunities.”
The sanctioning body could be poised for another growth spurt, and don’t be surprised that Darrell Gwynn will be on top of it.
HELLO COUCH, REMEMBER ME? - When you're a hired driver with a delayed season opening, you always look for stuff to occupy your suddenly abundant free time. In Shawn Langdon's case, he learned how to travel for fun and not business.
"I went to the shop once," Langdon proclaimed. I was out in California. I've flown around to a bunch of different states, traveled around a little bit, and worked on some bracket cars. I actually got to enjoy life a little bit and not travel all the time."
When you're executive platinum or one of the high frequent flier tiers for the airlines, it's likely your traveling experience consists of three destinations - the airport, the track, and the hotel. Langdon expanded his horizons.
"It does take a little bit of getting used to, I guess, traveling somewhere and not having a schedule, people telling you where to be and where to go. It's actually kind of nice," Langdon said. "It was a nice off-season. It was a great off-season. I was able to do stuff around the house. I was able to do a lot of things that I didn't do during the season. I mean, right now until November, I have one off weekend until November. So we're back in full swing of it. So I definitely took full advantage of the offseason."
Langdon's favorite trip?
"My couch," Langdon said with a smile. "Not moving. Being able to stay in one place all day long. We're busy throughout the season, so the extended off-season is actually really nice.
"The seasons are getting pretty grueling. There's a lot of appearances, a lot of races, a lot of travel, a lot of things during the weeks that we weren't doing before. So yeah, when the off-season came, it was, 'All right, let's take full advantage of it."
FRIDAY NOTEBOOK - CAPPS PUSHES BACK AT HIGHT’S POINTS-SYSTEM LAMENT, CALL-OUT BRINGS INTRIGUE TO GATORNATIONALS, HALL RAISES B.R.A.K.E.S. AWARENESS
‘GET OVER IT!’ – Top Fuel’s Austin Prock was referring to the Pep Boys All-Star Call-Out bonus race when he said in the days leading up to these NHRA Gatornationals at Gainesville, Fla., “I'm excited for a little bit of the smack talk.”
And Ron Capps was referring to the inaugural #2Fast2Tasty specialty event with Countdown implications that will run throughout the season when he said smack talk is making a comeback. “Oh, there will be – oh, yeah. And it's not going to be made up.”
Drag-racing fans didn’t have to wait for the start of the season for a little of it. Capps fired a few salvos across fellow Funny Car racer Robert Hight’s bow in the preseason.
Hight came three points short of the 2022 championship after an undeniably excellent season with eight victories in 12 final rounds, 58 victories in 72 elimination rounds, and the lead in the standings for virtually all season. Capps capitalized on his opportunities on the final day of the season and claimed his third championship.
With that, he matched Hight in season crowns and put himself in position to beat Hight and Matt Hagan as the first since Kenny Bernstein and Don Prudhomme to record four Funny Car championships. That’s an accomplishment Hight – who said he has no intention of racing into his 70s like boss John Force – has his sights on, thinking of “when you hang your helmet up and you want to be No. 2 all-time.” A fourth championship also would match Top Fuel’s Steve Torrence, dual nitro-class king Gary Scelzi, Pro Stock Motorcycle’s Eddie Krawiec, and the late Pro Stock great Lee Shepherd.
And Hight has been vocal this winter about his displeasure with the sanctioning body’s manipulation of the standings. Like Capps, Torrence, Antron Brown, Tony Schumacher, and other drivers who have both benefited and been stung by the points system, Hight understandably felt the bitter disappointment of a valiant effort denied.
Just before the Countdown that starts in September, the sanctioning body erases any advantage a driver has, resets the points, and groups drivers in 10-point increments to manufacture drama – because it can.
“It was a tough one to get over,” Hight said during an episode of Competition Plus’ Power Hour program. “Since 1996, when John Force won 13 of 18 races, I think this is the best Funny Car season anybody has ever had. I’m not sure you can top that. After a year like last year and how it ended, we definitely have something to prove.
“You take 300 points away, then you lose by three. That’s a tough pill to swallow. Everything you earn, it’s tough to see it go out the window,” the Flav-R-Pac Chevy Camaro driver said. “And I know I’ve been on the other side of it, OK? And I get that. The guy or the gal that can do the best job in all the different conditions and all the different racetracks, that should be your champion.”
Hight said, “I’ve been thinking about it a lot.”
And according to Capps, Hight has been talking about it a lot, too – too much to suit Capps.
Hight said, “I’m more hungry than ever.” And Capps gave him something to chew on.
“Well, let me tell you,” Capps said on a recent WFO Radio podcast, “who’s the person who’s lost the most championships on the last day of the season ... by less than a handful of points?” That would be Capps. He said, “I guarantee you. But have you ever heard me in all these years, after losing by five points or four points or three points to [Jack] Beckman or [Gary] Scelzi or Force, complain about the Countdown? Ever once? No. It is what it is. We all know it going in.
“To leave Pomona and wake up Monday morning after you’ve lost the championship, you think back about so many places during that season and that Countdown and if you would’ve just done something a little bit different and gained an extra four or five points, you would be a world champion. It’s that little a difference,” Capps said.
“I’ve been listening to it all winter long, and I’m tired of it now. Now it’s starting to irritate me,” he said. “I never complained about it. I laughed about it. So get over it! Get over it! It’s a championship. It’s a Countdown. We all know it.”
Before last November, both Capps and Hight had known that same shattering feeling. In 2012, Capps lost to Jack Beckman by two points, the narrowest margin of victory in Funny Car class history. And in 2005, Gary Scelzi aced him out by just eight points. Although Hight used an eight-point advantage in 2019 to deny Beckman a second championship, he had been on the wrong end of another close one, when he lost to Tony Pedregon by 19 points in 2007. So Capps knows Hight’s disappointment all too well.
He remembers that long winter: “You’ve been just stewing for the whole offseason on what happened and watching videos and seeing posts of [your competitor] with a championship trophy. And it's what used to drive me even harder when we didn't win it. So there's a lot to wake up and be motivated about.”
But he’s annoyed by the Countdown criticism, not that he’s thrilled with it himself sometimes. To him, it’s like saying, “I hate getting older” or “I hate paying taxes.” The sport’s executives are fully aware of the Countdown’s unpopularity – even beneficiaries aren’t fans of it – but they’ve given no indication they plan to abandon the manipulative practice. So no one expects it to go away, and most have chosen to figure out how to make it work to their advantage.
Capps said he ran into John Force recently and that “Force made a joke, but it certainly wasn’t.” He didn’t provide any details about Force’s remark or the context of it, but evidently it had to something do with the Countdown.
So the smack talk already is flying.
But Capps did say that Hight inspired him, perhaps inadvertently, to imagine what a fourth championship would mean: “John Force’s got so many championships , it’s so minuscule, compared to what he's done. You look at those guys ... The fact that Robert talks so much about it, it made me even think, ‘Damn, it would be even cooler.’
“So we'll see what happens,” Capps said.
Or who says what about whom.
NEW LOOK TASCA DELIVERS FAMILIAR RESULTS - It's a safe bet that nobody is more excited about the 2023 NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series season than Bob Tasca.
After unexpectedly losing much of his team during the 2022 offseason after a three-win, five-final campaign, Tasca wasn’t sure what the year ahead had in store. And then the pieces started to fall into place.
Just a few months removed from that turmoil, Tasca has more excitement than he has had in years. With new crew chiefs Aaron Brooks and Todd Okuhara calling the shots, Tasca is ready to turn the page and start fresh beginning this weekend at Gainesville Raceway.
And what a start it was, as Tasca drove his PPG Ford Mustang to the top of the charts during opening day at the Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals.
“I was thrown a curveball at the end of the season last year losing all but two of the guys on my team,” Tasca explained. “Being able to bring together Todd Okuhara, who I’ve known for many years, and Aaron Brooks, someone I’ve always admired from afar, is exactly what my program needed. It needed to be shaken up.”
Just three months removed from a fourth-place finish in the NHRA Funny Car championship, Tasca drove his recently debuted PPG machine to a 3.888-second pass at 330.72 mph in the only session Friday. After rain washed out the remainder of the day’s activities, Tasca saw himself in an unfamiliar place atop the charts after starting, and ending the year in 2022, poorly.
“My car didn’t do anything at the beginning of the season and didn’t do enough at the end of the season to really contend for that championship,” Tasca said. “And that was our attitude this offseason -- to make the car run better. Period. I had a good car in the summer months, but it wasn’t good enough when the tracks were cool. But I think you are going to see a very different Tasca Racing going forward. I think you saw it in testing. We were arguably one of the best cars in testing, and then you go and show it on race day and we did that today.”
Tasca said that he is most excited to start the year strong after limping out of the gates in 2022. Tasca was as low as ninth last year until a string of summer victories propelled him into the championship conversation. But another falloff late left the team out of contention, and Tasca hopes to change that beginning this weekend.
“What people don’t realize is the championship is decided in the fall, so the only time we get to see those conditions is the first five races,” Tasca said. “You can’t test in July to get ready for Vegas in the fall. The cars that run really good these first five races, I’m going to put some money on those cars at the end of the year. They may fumble the ball a little bit in the summer, but the bottom line is to win the championship you have to run really good at the end of the season.”
And for Tasca, much of that excitement is centered around his new crew chiefs, who completely overhauled the car during testing earlier this week.
“I sit up in the lounge, and it is awesome to have two crew chiefs actually having a dialogue,” Tasca said. “Todd and Aaron have great conversation, and I think you are going to see it reflected in the racecar. They found a lot of things on the car they didn’t like. I don’t know if it was oversights or the way they did it (before), but at the end of the day clearly I had a good baseline. Then through testing, we made a lot of changes -- probably more than I was comfortable making -- but everything that they did the racecar liked. This is a very different car than what I ran back in Pomona.
“It is a very different attitude with this race team right now, and I love it, quite frankly. I love the attitude of the team. I love the work ethic. I’ve never seen attention to detail and work ethic like I see in some of these guys. I haven’t been this excited about a season in a long time.” - Larry Crum
CALL-OUT SET FOR EIGHT RACERS – Unless some rogue rain shower sweeps into Gainesville overnight, the Pep Boys Top Fuel All-Star Call-Out will unfold as it was meant to, at the Gatornationals instead of the U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis last September.
In 2022, Justin Ashley, Brittany Force, Mike Salinas, and Steve Torrence won their first-round match-ups before wet weather cut short the bonus race – and the entire event for unqualified Antron Brown, Shawn Langdon, and Leah Pruett.
Those three standouts aren’t in this year’s event. But in for the first time and competing for the season’s biggest payout during Saturday qualifying are Josh Hart, Clay Millican, and Austin Prock. The winner will earn $80,000. As the name suggests, the higher-seeded drivers called out their opponents Friday.
Brittany Force is the top seed, so she chose No. 8 Clay Millican and said she and her team didn’t relish racing against any of the Call-Out participants. Last time, she selected Antron Brown and gave “alphabetical order” as her reason.
A week ago, a media member told Millican that his fellow racers might not know exactly what they’d be getting if they were to draw him in the first round. And Millican, driving the Parts Plus Dragster for Rick Ware, replied, “Well, that's OK. We don't know what we got. Hey, it's all brand-new car, brand-new everything, but a lot of the same great people putting the thing together.” Testing went really well, he said, and he got to test here at Gainesville Raceway again right before the race started. Millican said, “I think everybody will kind of size himself up with the (competition) leading into the race, that's for sure.
“Tell you what, I'm glad to be here,” Millican, a first-time Call-out participant said. “You know what, I'm just proud to be a part of it. I don't care if it's first race, last race, just let me step on that loud pedal. I'm sure it's going to be exciting no matter what, ’cause I know when I put my helmet on, I have a blast – win, lose, or draw.”
Last year’s jackpot winner Steve Torrence had next pick, and he said he and the Capco Dragster team “thought long and hard about it” before calling out Doug Kalitta.
“It’s a collective team decision on who you're going to call out, so you can't take it personal,” Torrence said. And Kalitta didn’t.
“Stuff like this is really all about the fans and having some fun with it,” Kalitta, driver of the Mac Tools dragster, said. “And if we can put Steve on the trailer after picking us that'll be even more fun.”
Torrence, the last person to win the Traxxas Shootout and the first person to win the Pep Boys Shootout [when it finished at Indianapolis last September], said, “It’s great for the fans. It's an added dimension that kind of mimics the Street Outlaws, I guess, or some kind of street-racing deal on TV. So [it’s] something gimmicky, I guess.”
Justin Ashley had the last official pick and chose Mike Salinas. And if Salinas’ hunches from testing were correct, maybe he’ll wish he hadn’t, for the California racer said last week, “We had a good test session in Florida, pulled the car right out, ran a really great number, shut off early. Actually, we had a stellar, stellar test session. Both of our cars that we hadn't used in five years, we brought it out and knocked the cobwebs off – and it surprised the heck out of us. We’ll decide which one we're going to use. But everything that we did, we haven't skipped a beat, and our guys jelled and they learned. We moved a few positions around, and it seemed to benefit the performance of the car.”
Ashley isn’t scared. “I love everything about the Pep Boys All-Star Call-Out,” he said. “The field is loaded with talent, and the unique format creates an even higher-level energy and excitement. We’re racing for the big money on FOX, but more importantly we’re racing for our teams, sponsors, and fans. This race brings out the best in everybody.
“If you want to base [your call-out] off of testing, I guess maybe you could do that. But I think it's more just going to be taking an educated guess. There's no good person to choose, anyway,” he said. “That's the quirky thing in it – you haven't really made any real laps, and none of the competition has yet, either. So it's great to be able to open it up that way and open up the season with some excitement. But it's definitely going to be tricky.”
He said, “Last year the rain really impacted the race. We still had success, which speaks volumes about our team, but I am certainly looking forward to a more normal race this year. You’re going to get everyone’s best shot in great conditions and in front of a huge crowd of fans.”
And first-time Call-Out qualifiers Austin Prock and Josh Hart were left to complete the pairings. Prock said he’s eager to rock, and Hart said, “I'm ready to roll. I'm excited to do it and proud to be a part of this group. Let’s do it. I'm just glad there's no participation awards.”
“I personally like that it’s at the first race of the year,” Prock said of the race-within-a-race. “It is going to bring some excitement, and in my opinion, it's going to show who did their homework the best over the off-season. In my opinion, races are won in the race shop. That's where you do all your magic. So it's going to show who's going to be the most competitive. Everybody's going to have some cobwebs and be a little rusty. And you’re going to see who studied up on drilling that Christmas Tree the best.”
He said, “This Call-Out is really special. And it shows how hard we worked last year to earn a spot in this. There's a lot of great cars and drivers that didn't make the cut, and I'm just happy to be one,” Prock said. “It's going to be a blast. It's almost like racing for free money so you can be a little bit more laid-back, in my opinion. It's not like there's a Wally on the line or anything like that. So I'm looking forward to it. We're going to go have a great time, and I'm excited for a little bit of smack talk. It's always fun being involved in that and listening to everybody go back and forth. So really looking forward to it.
“There's some elite drivers in here and world champions and to be in that same group as them."
Force, last year's runner-up, said, “The Call-Out's definitely unique in itself. It really puts this added pressure on each individual, each driver, each team. And it brings up a little bit of drama that wasn't really there before in the Traxxas Shootouts and other specialty races. This really puts a lot of focus on who you're calling out, who your team's picking: Is it personal? Is it what is going on? And I think it just adds the element of excitement and drama really is what it is and it puts just an added race in a race, which I think is great. And doing it at Gainesville, one of the biggest races on our season and opening the season. It’s going to be an exciting event.”
The final round of the Call-Out will be Saturday night, with performances that will not count towards a qualifying position.
“You’re jumping right into it first race of the season. Right in the opening of it all, you jumped right into it, which it would be nice to have a couple of races to find your footing before jumping right into it,” Force said. “But again, it’s just added drama. It's going to pull in a crowd. It's going to put fans in the stands and people viewing. So that's what the sport needs, and that's what we want at the end of the day.”
THE NEXT EPISODE - Brittany Force closed out the 2022 NHRA season at the summit of the drag racing mountain.
The 36-year-old capped a five-win season with multiple track records and 10 pole positions by claiming her second Top Fuel world championship. And she was successful largely because of her prowess for starting races at the head of the field.
On Friday, Force kicked off her 2023 campaign right where she left off as she drove her Monster Energy dragster to the head of the pack on opening day at the Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals at Gainesville Raceway.
“It felt really good to come out in the first race of the season, on the very first run, and go to the top,” Force said. “It is (crew chief) David Grubnic and all of these guys. We have the same group, the same team as last year. We spent a lot of hours testing and it looks like we picked up where we were last season as we move into this season. It is a good start to the weekend.”
With only one qualifying session Friday after rain washed out the rest of the on-track activities, Force drove her 11,000-horsepower machine to the only 3.6-second pass of the day, 3.699 seconds at 336.99 mph. If it holds, it will be Force’s 43rd career top-qualifier award.
Already a two-time champion with a sterling resume littered with many of the fastest passes in NHRA history, one would think that there wouldn’t be much left for Force to achieve coming into this season. Think again.
“Our motivation is that we always want to improve,” Force said. “We had five wins last season, but we want to go beyond that. We want more wins and, ultimately, we want another championship. Now that we have all done it together and know what that feels like, we want to do it again.
“When we won in 2017, I was the first woman in Top Fuel to do it in 35 years, and I said right after that it was not going to be another 35 years until a female does it again. It is pretty cool that we were able to pull it off again. There is always more out there that we want -- more titles, more wins, more track records. We want to accomplish it all. That is why we are here.”
BIKER HALL PUTS ON B.R.A.K.E.S. – John Hall’s 2022 Pro Stock Motorcycle debut this weekend on Jerry Savoie’s White Alligator Racing Suzuki is a personal one. And that’s not just because it’s his first Camping World Series appearance since the June 2021 race at Norwalk, Ohio.
The Hamden, Conn., racer is donating signage on his bike, as well as his leathers and helmet, to Doug Herbert’s B.R.A.K.E.S. (Be Responsible and Keep Everyone Safe) national pro-active teen defensive driving program.
It’s an initiative that impressed Hall and wife Ivette when their children, John and Mika, were students in the free class that features professional instructors, including professional racers and current and former law-enforcement officers.
“As parents, my wife Ivette and I have seen first-hand how B.R.A.K.E.S. training made an immediate and longstanding impact on our two teens when they participated several years ago,” Hall said.
“Given how much B.R.A.K.E.S. has done to make U.S. roadways safer, it’s my honor to represent Doug and his organization during this year’s NHRA Pro Stock season.”
Motorcycle drag-racing legend Terry Vance, co-owner of Vance & Hines, was influential in recruiting support for B.R.A.K.E.S., Hall said.
“Terry has inspired all of us to do what we can to spread the word about Doug’s program and the impact it is having,” Hall said. “It’s so important for those of us in the drag-racing world to use our platforms to tell Doug’s story and bring attention to the critical importance of defensive driving skills.”
“Doug’s story” is at once a heartbreaking, healing, and helpful, hopeful one.
Herbert, a four-time IHRA Top Fuel champion and 10-time NHRA winner, lost his two young sons, Jon and James, in a North Carolina car crash 15 years ago. With the encouragement of Jon’s and James’ classmates who settled on the acronym B.R.A.K.E.S. (Be Responsible and Keep Everyone Safe), Herbert turned his grief into action.
By 2019, B.R.A.K.E.S. had trained approximately 35,000 teens and their parents. Just four years later, that number had exceeded 110,000. This year, the GuideStar Platinum-rated 501(c)(3) non-profit organization is expecting to have a record number of “weekends.” That’s the term for its local-market visits that consists of five three-hour training sessions, three Saturday and two Sunday.
And Kia Motors America has increased its commitment to B.R.A.K.E.S. in 2023, donating a third fleet of vehicles, which will cover the central portion of the U.S. Until this year, the program operated in the Eastern third and Western third of the country. Each fleet featues 22 brand-new Kia automobiles.
“John and Ivette have championed our program within the NHRA community and well beyond,” Herbert said. “We couldn’t be more appreciative of this decision to support our program during in 2023 NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle competition.”
Since Hall graduated from the Frank Hawley & George Bryce Drag Racing program in 2011, he won the 2013 U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis. Later that year, Hall followed up with a second career victory in Epping, N.H.
B.R.A.K.E.S.’ mission is not to serve as a substitute for a driver-education program, but rather to prevent injuries and save lives by training and educating teenage drivers and their parents about the importance of safe and responsible driving. Sessions feature hands-on skills exercises.
More detailed information, including a complete schedule of events, and opportunities to register for a school are available online at www.putonthebrakes.org.
TONY THE TIGER? TIGER KING? SCAG TEAMMATES GRRRRREAT! – A new era has begun for Tim Wilkerson. The longtime independent Funny Car owner-tuner-driver made a decision during the offseason to join forces with Joe and Cathi Maynard’s racing team and become a teammate to Top Fuel ace Tony Schumacher. It was a move that stands to put the perennial championship contender in a much better position to chase his first title.
And so far, the Springfield, Ill., businessman called his early experience with his bright orange and black SCAG Power Equipment / Levi Ray & Shoup Mustang “really interesting” and said, “We got a lot of new parts, and they're kind of eating my lunch at the moment, so we'll see. But we made six runs on a marginal racetrack the last couple or three days, So we'll see how it goes. I'm not that concerned about it. You know me – I don't get wound up. They're just a part, and we'll work on them as we go. And if it don't work good this weekend, it will the next.”
Wilkerson knew he would be in for some ribbing about the loud-orange paint scheme on his race car. With a nod to Tony the Tiger – and the tiger-like appearance of the livery is justified – Wilkerson’s close buddy Ron Capps had a little fun with it.
“Yeah, I'm thinking about having Ron Capps kidnapped and put in shackles after he put my face on a Frosted Flakes box,” Wilkerson teased. “But it's all good. Everything's different.”
Someone suggested his new nickname could be the Tiger King. Wilkerson shot back, “Yeah, there you go. That don't bother me, as long as I don't have the same fate as he has.”
The star of the “Tiger King” Netflix series has his life struggles on the show that, sadly, is aptly subtitled “Murder, Mayhem, and Madness.” This is about all the mayhem and madness – March Madness – he wants to tackle. And it occurred to him that his teammate -- no longer really “The Sarge” this long after his U.S. Army sponsorship disappeared -- could join in the fun: “The other car's got to be Tony the Tiger, right?”
Somebody urged Wilkerson, whose trademark flat-top haircut has been his standard for years, to grow a mullet. “I had one of those back when I was a kid,” he said.
Back to being serious, Wilkerson said life still is even-keeled, even after aligning himself with JCM Racing, and he still is trying to get the best performance from his parts, like he always has.
“We don't have an open checkbook, but the other cars use DSM performance products. We thought, ‘Yeah, we'll try them.' Obviously, there's nothing wrong with Don Schumacher parts because I think they won the championship the last two or three years in a row, so can't be too crummy. And we got some good extra brains with Mike Neff and LJ [Jon Schaffer] to help if I get lost. But I'm not very concerned about it. I got a lot of new parts. It may take me a few runs to get them all to act like they're new parts,” he said.
Wilkerson, always fiercely independent, confessed that it was difficult to move out of his comfort zone and become part of a larger whole of which he doesn’t have complete control. He said it was a dramatic change for him to emotionally and intellectually partner with another entity.
“It was pretty hard, really. I mean, it really was. I don't know if there would have been anybody else out there that I could have tolerated, to be real truthful with you.” Wilkerson said. “Joe [Maynard] and I had a lot of heart-to-heart talks and [he] seems very genuine. And I really am very excited about our next few years together. So I don't really think there's an end.”
ASHLEY DEFIES CRAZY STATS – One curious statistic popped up about Justin Ashley’s 2022 season.
He had seven first-round exits in 22 races. That’s roughly one-third of the season that he didn’t make it past the first round, yet he had a campaign that was the envy of much of the class.
The driver of the Phillips Connect Toyota dragster led the standings after four of the six Countdown races and went to three final rounds during the playoffs, winning one. He advanced to seven finals altogether. He started the season with a victory at Pomona, Calif., and challenged for the championship until the final day of the season and ended it as the No. 4-ranked driver.
Considering that his tech-alliance partner Antron Brown came from as far back as 13th place following the third race (which happened last season to be the Gatornationals) to finish second in the standings, maybe Ashley’s feat isn’t as weird as it might have seemed. Or considering that Austin Prock had a monumentally frustrating season until the Countdown, which he slipped into on the “perfect attendance” rule rather than top-10 performance. That’s when he showed up and his car showed up at the same time, and he won the first and final playoff events to place third in the final standings.
Still, in Ashley’s case, it supports his contention that “fortunately, I have a great team on and off the racetrack” in crew chief Mike Green, assistant tuner Tommy DeLago, and team owner Dustin Davis.
SAME OLD, SAME OLD ... OR IS IT? – If anybody thought Elite Motorsports and the freshly rebranded KB Titan Racing controlled the Pro Stock class, there was proof with Friday’s tightly bunched tentative line-up.
The mega-teams combined for 14 of the 16 cars in the field. Only Mason McGaha and Larry Morgan race independently.
Elite, with five-time and reigning champion Erica Enders leading the way, covered half of the field. Bo Butner (No. 3), Aaron Stanfield (5), Cristian Cuadra (6), Fernando Cuadra (9), Troy Coughlin (10), Jerry Tucker (11), and Fernando Cuadra Jr. followed.
KB countered with newest addition Camrie Caruso in second place, Greg Anderson in fourth, and Dallas Glenn rounding out the top half of the field in eighth. KB anchored the field with No. 14 Kyle Koretsky and KB associates Deric Kramer (15) and Matt Hartford (16).
So the beat – and the beating – goes on, especially for Elite, owner of five championships and a 2022 springboard into this season of 15 victories among the 19 Pro Stock events on the Camping World Series tour.
The Oklahoma-headquartered team tested in nearby Bradenton, Fla., earlier this week, and it appears they accomplished their goals. But they go ahead and set more. The largest team in professional drag racing grew with the addition of Jerry Tucker to the Pro Stock class, but Elite has much more in store for this season.
But what might peak fans’ interest is what the team plans to do in its two Mountain Motor Pro Stock cars that are new to the Elite fleet this season. Enders will compete alongside team owner Richard Freeman in the In the Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series, and they took part last weekend in the World Series of Pro Mod racing's program in Bradenton. David Cuadra will be debuting a new Elite Motorsports Top Sportsman Mustang.
People sometimes forget that Freeman was a race-car driver long before he became a multi-car team owner.
“Yeah, I'm still not worth a shit, but it's OK,” Freeman said. “We had a good time down there at Bradenton. Wes [Buck] did a fabulous job having that race – and it shows that you don't have to have Top Fuel cars and Funny Cars to put on a show. He believes in that, in his heart, and we're going to support it. We had a blast. It was a neat deal.”
Freeman said he “drove very well” at Bradenton. However, he said, “My main struggle is just like when I drive these 500-inch cars, my mind is not completely there, and I don't drive enough to be good letting off the clutch pedal. So our goal there is the same thing over here. We want to get some leased customers, people that can do a good job driving. As far as qualifying, we did well, but we will get better. I was pleased with the first outing, and we'll see what happens from here.”
He said letting out the clutch out on one of those Mountain Motor Pro Stock beasts, with its powerful torque, doesn’t really take his breath away, but he said “It makes you excited all again. That's where I started when I started Pro Stock racing, and it was a lot of fun to get back there, to get back with Frank [Gugliotta] and bought that program from J.R. Carr, and we were all teammates in 2007, 2008, 2009. It was a lot of fun.”
As for not being as skilled as he once was, Freeman said, “After you have spent some time winning, you expect that. So your expectations are high. So we weren't pleased with the outcome, but at the end of the day, I know what it takes to win, and we'll make that happen over there as well.
So Freeman said he’s planning to compete in the NHRA’s Mountain Motor Pro Stock – “hopefully with somebody else driving, not myself,” he said. “But if we don't lease it, I'll drive and go out and have a good time.”
Whatever class Elite has a car in, Freeman and all the team members expect to win, he said.
“Coming off of such a phenomenal season means we’ve got a target on our backs. The competition in all of our categories – Pro Stock, Pro Mod, and Mountain Motor Pro Stock – is going to be fierce this year. But this team thrives under pressure. Tell us we can’t do something and this team will find a way to get it done,” Freeman said.
“The talent we have at Elite Motorsports is second to none, across the board. Every member of that team has been working during the offseason to make us even better. But we know that our competition has been doing the same. It’s going to be an exciting year for everyone.”