2023 NHRA ROUTE 66 NATIONALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
THE TEN - Competition Plus’ Water-Cooler Topics From The Gerber Collision and Glass Route 66 Nationals at Joliet, Ill.
1. Camping World is out as series sponsor after 2024
The NHRA is seeking a new sponsor for its premier pro series. Jeffrey Young, NHRA’s vice-president of marketing and communications, confirmed Sunday that the drag-racing sanctioning body has been actively searching for a replacement for Camping World, which has decided not to renew its agreement with the final run of the 2024 season.
“Our contract expires at the end of next season. They let us know that they’re not going to renew that at the end of 2024. They said they’re going to invest that [money] in their employees,” Young said during the NHRA’s Gerber Glass and Collision Route 66 Nationals at Joliet, Ill.
“Our team’s out looking for a new sponsor. They’re out, pitching for the future and having a lot of conversations,” Young said. “We expect to make an announcement soon.” However, Young didn’t give a timetable for such an announcement.
Camping World replaced longtime NHRA sponsor Coca-Cola, whose various brands served as sponsor for the Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock, and Pro Stock Motorcycle programs. After Camping World CEO Marcus Lemonis admittedly enjoyed letting his negotiations and decision-making process play out on the social-media platform Twitter, the deal became official Oct. 4, 2020.
Young said, “We’re still working closely with Camping World this year to make sure we do things in our contract. We continue to push [that] they’re the great partner they are and they’ve been.”
2. Matt Hagan, Robert Hight lose early, open door for new winner
Matt Hagan and Robert Hight have passed the 2023 Wally trophies back and forth for the previous five races. But with them out – Hagan in the first round, Hight in the second – the door was open for a fresh winner. And Tim Wilkerson took advantage of it to claim his first victory since the 2021 fall Charlotte race.
The 1999 Chicago winner defeated Ron Capps in the final round for Maynard Wilkerson Racing’s first victory and said, “I’m trying to keep my emotions in check. I’m about to cry.”
3. Clay Millican claims third Top Fuel trophy, second at Chicago
“I still love my job. I’ve been doing it a long time and I’m not done yet,” Millican said after making a huge step toward a top-10 placing in the standings. He was 12th entering the race but has improved one spot.
“This is huge for this team. We’ve been struggling, and it’s been tough. We got all new parts and pieces from [team owner] Rick Ware, and they believed in us,” Millican said. “For a little while, it looked like we were better with the old stuff, but I think we’ve got it figured it out. And hopefully we can go out and get some more of these this year.
“My very first [NHRA] race was at this racetrack, and 20 years later I won this race. Now 25 years later [after that first race], we did it again. This group of people never quit and never stop, and they turned this car around flawlessly today,” he said.
4. Gaige Herrera remains undefeated in Pro Stock Motorcycle
The Vance & Hines newcomer has run the table (won from the No. 1 starting position and set low E.T. and top speed of the meet) at all three Pro Stock Motorcycle events this year, won Saturday’s #2Fast2Tasty Challenge, and at Joliet alone posted three of the four quickest runs in class history. His crew chief, Andrew Hines, calls the resident of nearby DeMotte, Ind., “flawless” and “a phenom” and said he’s proud to see Herrera “rise to the occasion. It’s a lot of pressure, and he’s feeling it now. The kid is just solid now.”
6. Joe, Cathi Maynard expand their NHRA footprint
The newly minted Maynard Ashley Racing team won’t look any different, really, on the racetrack. However, news Saturday that Max Out Motorsports (formerly Justin Ashley Racing & Davis Motorsports) and JCM Racing merged to form Maynard Ashley Racing will have implications more on the business side of the operation.
This new organization – separate from Maynard Wilkerson Racing in Funny Car and JCM on the Top Fuel side with Tony Schumacher – will campaign the Phillips Connect Toyota Dragster that Justin Ashley drives and Mike Green and Tommy DeLago tune. Maynard Ashley Racing (MAR) was founded with the purpose of delivering world-class results, on and off the racetrack, for a growing community of marketing partners and fans drawn to Ashley.
Behind Maynard Ashley Racing is a partnership between JCM Racing, led by emerging leaders Joe and Cathi Maynard, and Max Out Motorsports LLC, a newly formed powerhouse partnership between Justin Ashley, Dustin Davis, and Jim Epler.
Ashley said the first three seasons made “a wonderful, excellent, fantastic chapter, but it’s time for the next chapter. It’s about growth. It’s about stability on and off the racetrack. And now is the right time.
“This new team shows growth. It shows strength. It shows stability. And we want to be out here, doing this for a very long time, because this is what we love to do. And it's a business on and off the racetrack, and that's where our focus is,” the young driver said. “I have a lot of gratitude. I feel very blessed to be in the position that we're in now, to be able to announce today the formation of our new partnership ... to be able to take our program to the next level.
“Joe and the Maynard family have done such a fantastic job. We really want to be a part of their group,” Ashley said. “It’s getting a lot of really great people together to be able to discuss business and be on the racetrack.”
7. NHRA’s 2023 season has some surprises in its first quarter
As the current campaign has rounded the quarter-pole and six of 21 races are in hand, more than a few racers across the pro landscape have yet to score a victory.
In the Top Fuel class, among those seeking a first victory of 2023 are Brittany Force, Steve Torrence, Tony Schumacher, Shawn Langdon, Josh Hart, Doug Kalitta, and Leah Pruett. In Funny Car, John Force, Ron Capps, J.R. Todd, Bob Tasca III, and Alexis DeJoria have yet to record a victory. Erica Enders, Greg Anderson, and Bo Butner are looking in Pro Stock, too. Same for Matt Smith and Eddie Krawiec – and everybody in the Pro Stock Motorcycle class but Gaige Herrera – want a bike-class Wally.
Curiously, Brittany Force and her brother-in-law, IndyCar veteran driver Graham Rahal, happened to be on their respective racetracks at the same time Sunday afternoon. She was facing Clay Millican for the chance to advance to the Top Fuel final round at Route 66 Raceway, and Rahal was making his last-chance effort to earn a berth in next Sunday’s Indianapolis 500. She lost to Millican, and Rahal failed to qualify. His own Rahal Letterman Lanigan teammate Jack Harvey aced him out by .007 mph (229.166 to 229.159). Brittany’ Force’s sister, former Funny Car driver Courtney Force, who’s married to Rahal, comforted her sobbing husband with a pat on the shoulder.
8. T.J. Zizzo lives up to his self-described ‘Super Part-Timer’ label
The long-time Top Fuel driver from Lincolnshire, Ill., coined the term “super part-timers” to describe himself and others who might not race full-time but are trophy contenders who have earned respect from their peers when they do show up. And Zizzo, who hadn’t been to a race in about two years, didn’t disappoint.
He anchored the field of 16 and upset top qualifier Mike Salinas in the opening round of eliminations Sunday, then defeated Leah Pruett in the quarterfinals.
That semifinal appearance (which ended with a loss to Josh Hart) earned him a berth in the Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge that will take place at the next race, the June 2-4 New England Nationals at Epping N.H.
It was unclear Sunday whether the Zizzo team would make the trip to the racetrack north of Boston where they raced many times in IHRA competition. If he does not, the opportunity falls to Jacob McNeal, who distinguished himself in Scott Palmer’s dragster by knocking out title contender and two-time 2023 winner Justin Ashley in the first round. If McNeal would pass on the chance, Pruett would be next in line to participate.
9. Alexis DeJoria joins elite group of drag-racing women
Alexis DeJoria, the first woman in Funny Car to qualify for 100 races, also is the first to reach 200 in the class, and she becomes the sixth woman to have competed in 200 or more events. Top Fuel’s Leah Pruett is on track to make her 200th race this August at Brainerd, Minn.
Pro Stock’s Erica Enders heads the list, with this event marking her 340th. Pro Stock Motorcycle’s Angelle Sampey has the second-most starts (292), and her bike-class associate, Karen Stoffer, follows with 276. Brittany Force (Top Fuel) is 18 races past 200, and motorcycle racer Angie Smith is at 212.
Ten pro drag-racing women – including Leah Pruett, Courtney Force, Melanie Troxel, and Shirley Muldowney – are in triple digits. Ashley Force Hood, who stopped racing after 2010, had 92 Funny Car appearances, and Top Fuel racer Hillary Will logged 70 races before 2008.
10. Wilkerson launches ‘Route 66 Raceway In 2024’ campaign
Funny Car winner Tim Wilkerson made a plea to drag-racing fans Sunday:
“Everybody out there, please, please get on social media, call NHRA, call whoever the hell owns this place – I don’t know who owns it – and tell them we want to do this some more! This is a great facility. It’s crazy – to have it locked up for the last two years is dumb,” he said. He remarked about the strong crowd, as well. And he said he’s starting the grassroots campaign now.
SATURDAY NOTEBOOK - NO. 8 SEED CARUSO WINS INAUGURAL NHRA PRO STOCK ALL-STAR CALL-OUT, PRO MOD’S BARNETT RUSHES TO RESCUE WHEN THINGS GO WRONG WITH WRIGHT, NEW ASHLEY TOP FUEL TEAM EMERGES, FUNNY CAR’S KING SHARES FIREFIGHTER’S LIFE, CAPPS SALUTES HADDOCK AFTER WINNING SPECIALTY FINAL
CARUSO REIGNS AT ALL-STAR CALL-OUT – Camrie Caruso leaned over the oversized trophy she just had earned for beating Aaron Stanfield in the final round of Saturday’s inaugural NHRA Pro Stock All-Star Callout.
“It’s so pretty,” she declared.
And it was so heavy she hardly could lug it around Route 66 Raceway, topped with a prizefighting-style belt that’s way too big to fit around her tiny waist. But the $28,000 winner’s share of the purse fit neatly in her pocket as she carried the KB Titan Team banner in the bonus race that played out during qualifying for the Gerber Collision and Glass Route 66 Nationals at Joliet, Ill.
“Honestly, it was super awesome. I told the guys at the beginning of the year I want to win all the specialty races this year, as well as obviously as many races as possible,” she said. “This Pro Stock All-Star Callout gave us another chance to bring home a trophy at a racetrack I've never been to before. This was a whole bunch of new and first-time excitement for us this weekend. We managed to get it done. I'm excited and I couldn't be more thankful.”
But it wasn’t a breeze for the driver of the Tequila Comisario Chevrolet Camaro.
“After the first round we had to change engines,” Caruso said. “We hurt the engine pretty good and couldn't continue with it. Everybody on the Tequila Comisario KB Titan Racing team – even from the other cars – came over and helped us get ready for the second round. We won and we didn't really have a whole lot of time to come back up for the final, but the guys pushed through and made it happen. They gave me a great car and it all worked out in the end.”
Still, she handled each of her assignments with aplomb and navigated the field that was evenly divided between her KB Titan Racing team and Elite Motorsports. If she, as the No. 8-seeded among the eight entrants, was considered the vulnerable one of the bunch in the beginning, she certainly didn’t project any fear as she eliminated first Cristian Cuadra, then Troy Coughlin Jr. and Stanfield – all from the Elite camp.
“I have said it before, and I'll say it a million times: There's no easy rounds in a specialty race or a regular race,” she said. “This class is so tight and full of great drivers, you never really have an easy round. The competition makes me a better driver, because I have a need to beat them. I wasn’t worried about being called out, but you … had to race somebody, so it didn't matter who it was. We still have to beat them. That didn't really faze me. It was a cool deal.”
Caruso added, “I thought it was cool how it all played out. It was all Elite versus KB Titan Racing in the first round, which I thought was really awesome. Being the first All-Star Callout winner is cool and special. This is what I've wanted for a long time and what my dad has wanted for me for a long time. To be able to be a part of it and live in the moment and take it all in as we go track to track is incredible.
“Everybody was pretty excited about the KB Titan Racing versus Elite match-ups. I know the first round didn't go how we all wanted to go for the whole KB Titan team,” she said, alluding to the losses for Dallas Glenn, Matt Hartford and Kyle Koretsky. “I was watching down at the top end, since I was [in] the first pair, and I was like, ‘Well, this should be interesting.’ Then in the second round, to be called out by T.J. Coughlin because l was the only non-teammate made it even more interesting.”
“It sounds silly. This whole team pulled together to get this win. The crew guys plus Kyle, Dallas, Greg – all of them were helping after we needed to switch engines. It's like a big family over here. If it wasn't for all of them coming together and welcoming us with open arms, I wouldn't be having the season I'm having,” Caruso said. “They make me want to be better because they all are accomplished. It makes me push myself to be as good as they are.”
JUST LOOKING OUT FOR FRIEND – Pro Modified racer Mason Wright left Route 66 Raceway after his late Friday crash during qualifying for the NHRA’s Gerber Collision and Glass Route 66 Nationals.
Reportedly sore but otherwise unhurt, Wright opted to finish the weekend at home with family at Odessa, Texas. His car slammed into the wall, showed a flash of fire, flipped onto its roof and wound up in the right lane in the shutdown area.
His friend and fellow Pro Mod racer Lyle Barnett, who was in the other lane, had trouble with his own car and didn’t go the full quarter-mile. But when he saw Wright’s car get out of the groove and everything that ensued, Barnett sprinted down the track to check on him.
Barnett said that tearing down the track was “just really a natural reaction, I think. Mason's a buddy of mine. That's my old team that I've raced with the past two years, and Mason's now racing for him [Richard Freeman, owner of the Elite Motorsports Chevy]. And I know those guys.
“And honestly, the crash is one thing, the fire's another,” said Barnett, who recovered from serious burns in a 2015 accident. “... I wasn't really thinking about it. I just kind of took off and went down there and probably shouldn't have. That's the Safety Safari’s job. But I just did – and Mason's OK, and that's really all that matters. Thankfully, my car did not make the run, and I had aborted way early, so we didn't get together.”
However, he said, “So I got a front-row seat to something pretty scary. There wasn't a whole lot of fire, but there was a big flash of it. It was enough to get your attention. But the most important thing is that Mason is OK. The car can be fixed. And I'm sure you'll see him back out before the year is over, but just glad he is OK.”
He said he didn’t have any flashbacks to his own hellish experience from the Lights Out 6 event at South Georgia Motorsports Park almost eight years ago. According to reports, Barnett’s car suffered an electronics failure that caused his engine to explode. Barnett was trapped inside his burning car for 28 seconds, and the temperature was an estimated 1,500 degrees. By the time the car stopped and he was able to escape, he had second- and third-degree burns to about 15 percent of his body, with heavy damage to his hands and face.
The following June, Barnett was back in a race car. On Saturday, he didn’t let what would have been a reasonable aversion to fire keep him from rushing to his friend’s aid in a split second.
“I wouldn't say I had flashbacks, it was really just more that I wanted to go make sure he was OK. That fire’s some scary stuff,” Barnett said. “And the Safety Safari reacted very fast, got the fire out, got Mason out, and there's really minimal fire damage to the car itself. So, just glad he is OK.
“I saw him this morning at the hotel. He was sore, but he was ready to get home and see his family, which I completely understand,” Barnett said. “And, like I said, I think you'll see him before the year's up.”
NEW TEAM EXPANDS MAYNARDS’ REACH – The newly minted Maynard Ashley Racing team won’t look any different, really, on the racetrack.
However, news Saturday that Max Out Motorsports (formerly Justin Ashley Racing & Davis Motorsports) and JCM Racing merged to form Maynard Ashley Racing will have ramifications more on the business side of the operation.
This new organization – separate from Maynard Wilkerson Racing in Funny Car and JCM on the Top Fuel side with Tony Schumacher – will campaign the Phillips Connect Toyota Dragster that Justin Ashley drives and Mike Green and Tommy DeLago tune. The move is immediate.
Maynard Ashley Racing is a partnership between JCM Racing, led by emerging leaders Joe and Cathi Maynard, and Max Out Motorsports LLC, a new partnership between Justin Ashley, Dustin Davis, and Jim Epler.
Ashley said the first three seasons made “a wonderful, excellent, fantastic chapter, but it’s time for the next chapter. It’s about growth. It’s about stability on and off the racetrack. And now is the right time.
“This new team shows growth. It shows strength. It shows stability. And we want to be out here, doing this for a very long time because this is what we love to do. And it's a business on and off the racetrack, and that's where our focus is,” the young driver said. “I have a lot of gratitude. I feel very blessed to be in the position that we're in now, to be able to announce today the formation of our new partnership . . . to be able to take our program to the next level.
“Joe and the Maynard family have done such a fantastic job. We really want to be a part of their group,” Ashley said. “It’s getting a lot of really great people together to be able to discuss business and be on the racetrack. … It’s a blessing, and the fact that Joe, Cathi, and their team have decided to join forces with us, I feel, validates our team and all that we’ve been working for.”
Joining them is the Eric and Kim Lehman family, who from the inception of JCM have been partners. Maynard Ashley Racing’s goal is to take advantage of JCM’s vast resources and expertise – including the military experiences of U.S. Army veterans – to reshape the way business and racing can mesh.
Joe Maynard said, “Cathi and I are very pleased to bring our family’s passion for the sport and drive for excellence into the Maynard Ashley Racing partnership. This relationship will provide greater opportunities for our JCM Racing team, our racing partners and sponsors, our driver development program, and veterans of all ages. Justin is a young and highly skilled driver/partner that represents all that is positive for Maynard Ashley Racing, Max Out Motorsports, and JCM Racing.”
Ashley’s driving skills are regarded highly, and he proved his commitment to on-track performance Saturday. In defeating Austin Prock in the final round of the Top Fuel Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge, Ashley became the first two-time (and a back-to-back) winner of the bonus race that awards Countdown to the Championship points and a tidy $10,000 payout.
He said of the Challenge, “This deal does mean a lot to us. It's a new deal. Everyone's kind of getting used to it, but [we’re] really grateful for Mission Foods and how they've put on this challenge. I think that anytime you add an additional opportunity to race and collect bonus points along the way, I think it's special – not to mention the $10,000 cash always helps, as well.
“This was a great day. I think we did a good job of running well and setting the tone for ourselves going into tomorrow. Tomorrow's a new day, but I’m really proud to be able to represent Mission Foods and Philips Connect, Toyota and our whole team today,” Ashley said.
Moreover, he said the bonus race helps prepare a driver for race day.
“I was in the car earlier and actually thinking about how this helps get you set up for race day. You know in Round 1 you always get those butterflies and not as much in qualifying, but I had them today in Q2,” he said. “I think it does kind of mentally help from a driver's perspective, just kind of getting raised to a mode you try every time to approach each run the same. But only to a certain extent can you actually do that. To be able to put the driver’s in a position to get ready before Sunday, I definitely think it provides at least a little bit of an advantage.”
CAPPS EARNS BONUS POINTS AT HADDOCK’S EXPENSE – Ron Capps and his NAPA Toyota team are $10,000 richer for winning Saturday’s Funny Car version of the Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty Challenge. But he earned the spoils on a solo pass because underdog opponent Terry Haddock’s electrical system shut the car off at the starting line.
When Capps got out of his car, he saluted his disappointed final-round foe.
“Terry Haddock is the greatest story out here,” he told the Route 66 Raceway fans. “I was hoping to run him.”
Capps added, “I love what he does. He is the epitome of [drag racing]. I would bet 99 percent of the fans were cheering for him, and I would be, too, if I was sitting up there. I love his kid. I love everything he does. He grinds to get out [here]. They’re here to race. And it just takes me back to when I was a kid. [I love] everything about that team.
“I wish I had money to throw at it. We talked about how hard it is for him. I’m blessed to have a sponsor like NAPA Auto Parts and Toyota and all the people who are our partners. Man, if people only knew the food they have to eat sometimes and the hotels they have to stay in and they’re out here because they love it. I love that about them,” Capps said. “I was bummed [Haddock’s car shut off]. I’m glad we won, but man, I really wanted to make a good drag race out of it.”
The winner – and No. 6 starter for eliminations – said he loves the program that Mission Foods has introduced this season.
“When we saw the first one and we weren’t in it, we were bummed,” he said. “I forgot there’s money. Everybody’s so enticed by the points. We won the championship last year by less than a handful of points. So I can tell you first-hand how important those bonus points are. I’ve lost championships by less than a handful of points. These points are huge. The fact that NHRA and Mission have made a point of making these points go into our bank once the Countdown starts changed everything. It’s such a great program and so glad we were able to get in the winners circle.”
KING GIVES (EXHAUSTIVE) GLIMPSE OF HIS 9-TO-5 – Camrie Caruso was game. She zipped on more than 35 pounds of full fire-protection gear, including air tanks, which is approximately one-third of her body weight.
She joined Pro Mod drivers Lyle Barnett, J.R. Gray, Jerico Balduf, and Mike Thielen Thursday for an afternoon of firefighting skill tests and challenges that Funny Car driver Chris King orchestrated. King is a Chicago firefighter (just like Top Alcohol Dragster driver Johnny Ahten is in Los Angeles), and he put them through their paces, including the challenging “up and over” drill. That consisted of sprinting up five flights of stairs, running across the top of the training facility, then dashing down five flights of stairs down to the main floor, all while carrying the tools of the trade with them.
After that exercise, which could exhaust even the fittest of racers, they received instruction about how to properly breach a door, and they took turns simulating pulling a 150-pound person from a fire. They had some taxing “fun” when they handled a pressurized fire hose and shot water across the training facility, but they also underwent a multi-stage obstacle course. What the group seemed to enjoy was the chance to use a variety of cutting and prying tools to open several automobiles in rescue fashion.
Surprisingly able to stand and smile after all that workout, the drivers posed for a photo with the famed Chicago skyline as a backdrop.
King said, “This has been a dream of mine for a long time, to bring my life as a firefighter to my life as a racer. Bringing these two together is something I've tried to do for a long time, but I'm glad we were finally able to pull it off. It's exciting. I got goosebumps just thinking about it. This is what I do day in and day out. I live for the fire department. I live for drag racing. To be able to combine these into one thing just makes my day. I love it. I really appreciate Camrie, Lyle, JR, Jerico and Mike taking the time to try this out.
“I think today opened their eyes a little bit to what firefighters do every day for the community and it gave them a different perspective on things,” said King, who will be making his 2023 Funny Car debut this weekend. “I hope they had fun, too.”
Caruso said it certainly raised her awareness. She called it “a cool experience that was definitely eye-opening to see what firefighters and first responders have to deal with and the challenges that they go through every day to save people's lives.
“It doesn’t matter what kind of fire it is, these guys are really getting a workout. The work they do is amazing. I really appreciate Chris setting this up, and I also want to thank all the Safety Safari staff for being at the track and being ready to help us. Wearing all the gear today showed me I might need to spend more time in the gym, but it was a great afternoon.”
King said, “Everything I do, I do 100 percent. And whether it is racing or helping others, I want to give it my all. … I started racing motorcycles when I was 10, and I moved over to drag racing at Great Lakes Dragway. Going fast and competing has been in my blood my whole life. I have a lot of people to thank for helping me along the way, including Funny Car pros [and champions] like Frank Hawley and Jack Beckman.”
This Funny Car program is one King, a Top Alcohol Funny Car driver, said he has been working on since his last race two years ago. He said, “I want to test myself against the best of the best, but I also want to make sure my operation goes A to B with quality parts and a professional-looking team. I have to thank Howard Cams, Competition Products, Red Line Oil, and Reid Rocker Arms for coming on board and helping make this happen. We plan on doing at least six, and maybe more, races if everything works out. We are trying to secure sponsors every day.”
King’s current plan is to race Norwalk, Denver, Topeka, Indianapolis and St. Louis.
‘BECKMAN 2.0’ GETS GRAPHIC EXPERIENCE AT RACETRACK – It all started for Jason Beckman with his “little Tony Stewart diecast on I-racing.” He said he wanted to recreate it, so he “spent a few hours watching YouTube tutorials” and taught himself how to use a graphic program. (He cautioned that the description “studied” is a bit too “generous.”)
This weekend, the extensive NHRA drag-racing community has seen the 16-year-old home-schooled Californian’s handiwork – or at least gotten a glimpse of it as it sped down the Route 66 Raceway dragstrip on Chris King’s Funny Car. Seeing that also was a first for the creative young man.
King is one of the many racers that Jason’s father, 2012 Funny Car champion “Fast Jack” Beckman, has helped though the years as a long-time instructor for the Frank Hawley Drag Racing School. And he turned to Jason Beckman for the artwork on his car when he was ready to return to NHRA action with his Howards Cams/Competition Products Dodge Charger for the first time since 2021.
“His dad, Jack, was very encouraging to me when I was making the move from Alcohol Funny Car to nitro Funny Car,” King said. “I love the NHRA community, and it really is one big family. I am all about paying it forward, so I reached out to see if he wanted to design the look of my Funny Car.”
But the truth is that King – in his words – “saw some of Jason’s artwork and I was really impressed.”
A few months after Jason Beckman took an interest in graphic design, he said, somebody asked him to draw up some graphic schemes and said the magic words: “Hey, I’ll pay you!”
“So,” the teenager said, “that kind of snowballed into what it is now. I'm posting my designs on Twitter.”
King reached out to him via a private message through Twitter and said, “Hey, Jason, I'm really loving your work. Think we could work out a few concepts.” And we did about eight different sponsor concepts. The Howards Cams one landed. [I] tweaked it a little to fit what the sponsor wanted. And when Chris emailed me that it's going to be out there, that was kind of the first awesome moment of that. That was the first awesome moment, actually flying out here and seeing the car wrapped basically nearly identical to what I had on my computer. That’s something else.
“I think this could be a very career path that I'm very passionate about,” Jason Beckman said. “The matter with the graphic design is just finding people to make stuff for.”
Funny Car’s Jim Campbell, another close friend of Jack Beckman, was prepared to sport Jason Beckman’s designs at Pomona, but his ride didn’t materialize. So this is the first time Jason Beckman’s art has gone from his computer to the dragstrip.
Jack Beckman said, “You know how there's natural talent and there's harvested talent? Apparently there was some natural talent, but he took to it like a duck. And he's teaching himself guitar. He's definitely my son in many mannerisms, but he's got this musical gift.”
His design skills have struck a chord, for sure.
His dad said, “He doesn't have all the software to take it from design to ready to print. So there's going to be a gap in there that the people have to do. But he's got an eye for this. And I love that, because he was never into drag racing. He was raised around it; you take it for granted. And now that I'm not driving and I'm back to fixing elevators, ironically, he really is enjoying the drag racing. And then that dovetails with his passion with the car design.”
When the Campbell possibility fell through, Jason Beckman asked his dad, “What about Chicago?” Dad said, “I can't get off of work. It costs money.” But then he changed his mind: “I went, you know what, Jason? I'm going to take off work, and we're going to go to Chicago. I'm telling him, ‘I get that you like your video games, but this is the stuff that is going to create memories for you.’”
Jason was quick to remind him, “The video games are what got me started on it all.”
“There's a balance,” his father reminded. “Life should have a balance.”
This is where careers are made, opportunities are turned into careers.
Jack Beckman said, “This is where life is made. We went to Chris Karamesines’ shop yesterday, the one he has been in since ’63. He gave me the trophy he won at the World Series of Drag Racing in Cordova in 1964. He wanted [Jason] there for that. If those walls could talk. That's where memories are made. That is what makes life special.”
GETTING TOUGHER – Steve Torrence said he has “lots of good memories from Chicago.” And when he won the Top Fuel final here four years ago, that triumph was part of a five-race winning streak that actually was part of a remarkable eight-of-nine-race stretch. All of that led to the first of his four consecutive championships.
But four years later, the landscape is a little different. Torrence is in his familiar position as points leader, but he is seeking his first victory of the season. And accomplishing that is harder than it used to be, Torrence said.
“It’s more competitive now than it was then,” Torrence said. “Now, you’ve got Justin Ashley and Josh Hart, who weren’t even driving Top Fuel in 2019, plus Brittany [Force], Antron [Brown], and all the other usual suspects.
“There are no easy rounds in Top Fuel. You make a mistake, you go home, which is how it should be – and it’s why I go up there with a lot of confidence, whether it’s Chicago, Dallas, or somewhere else. These CAPCO boys make fewer mistakes than anyone else out there. I just try not to be the weakest link in this CAPCO chain.”
WHAT HAPPENED? – Bob Tasca III’s Friday night qualifying run was disqualified because of a malfunction with one of the body latches on his Motorcraft/QuickLane Ford Mustang, forcing him to scramble Saturday to make the Funny Car field of 16.
“It had one latch. The other latch wasn't all the way in. That's why the run was thrown out,” his father, Bob Tasca Jr., said Saturday morning before the final two qualifying sessions.
A number of cars lost traction in Friday’s opening session, and they included Tasca III. Tasca Jr. said, “When the track is cool like that, it gets very tight, and it sticks to tire. It shook and it spun. It wasn't a good run, anyway. So if it was a 3.85, my son would want to jump in one of the Great Lakes.”
No desperate plunges were necessary – Tasca made the grid in the first Saturday session, second overall, at No. 11. However, he slid down to the No. 14 starting position and will meet No. 3 J.R. Todd in the first round of Sunday’s eliminations.
FRIDAY NOTEBOOK - HERRERA, BUTNER, HIGHT SET RECORDS IN OPENING DAY; GLENN CALLS OUT ENDERS TO OPEN PRO STOCK BONUS RACE; #2FAST2TASTY PROGRAM BACK IN PLAY; DeJORIA JOINS EXCLUSIVE LIST
RECORDS FALL IN FIRST DAY OF QUALIFYING – Not all nitro cars made it down the full 1,000 feet of Route 66 Raceway course Friday at the NHRA’s Gerber Collision and Glass Route 66 Nationals. But records fell across the board in the cool temperatures and cloud cover at Joliet, Ill., southwest of Chicago.
With overflow fields in every pro category for the first time this year, bike sensation Gaige Herrera rewrote both ends of the track mark. He ran a 6.677-second elapsed time at 202.45 mph on the quarter-mile course aboard his Andrew Hines-tuned Suzuki.
Bo Butner took the provisional No. 1 qualifying position in Pro Stock with a track-record 6.522-second quarter-mile pass. That eclipsed Drew Skillman’s eight-year-old record by six-thousandths of a second. Butner’s 208.94-mph speed wasn’t enough to top Greg Anderson’s 2019 record of 212.39 mph.
In Funny Car action, Robert Hight’s next round win will be No. 600. But the Cornwell Tools Chevy Camaro driver said he hadn’t kept track of such stats:
“I honestly didn’t realize I was getting that close to 600 round wins. That’s really amazing, and I’m really proud of that," he said. "Hopefully I get well beyond that 600. We’ll see.”
Hight is 13th on the all-time round-wins list and will remain so, even when he reaches the milestone.
The Phoenix and Charlotte winner said he was more charged up about his livery this weekend. “There’s an extra layer of excitement for me, debuting the Cornwell Tools Chevy. It’s a beautiful car,” he said, “and I’m looking forward to showing it off.”
Hight has shown off here before. He owns both ends of the 1,000-foot track record. He set them in July 2017, at 3.851 seconds and 334.73 mph. And he showed off again Friday evening, trumping those with his pass at 3.831 seconds and 335.07 mph to earn the early No. 1 starting position.
Hight said that run surprised him, for he was thinking that a 3.87 might be more likely. He said when his crew told him what the numbers were, “I had to double-check that I heard that right.”
Steve Torence’s Top Fuel records (3.677, 333.58) from June 2018 still stand through one qualifying session.
GLENN SELECTS ENDERS IN PRO STOCK’S INAUGURAL CALL-OUT – The past three races have vaulted Dallas Glenn to the top of the leaderboard, and this weekend is another key event for the Pro Stock points leader. After back-to-back victories at Pomona and Las Vegas and a runner-up finish at Charlotte, the RAD Torque Systems Camaro driver from the KB Titan Racing team is the No. 1 seed in the Pep Boys Pro Stock All-Star Callout that’ll occur Saturday during qualifying.
Glenn received the first pick of opening-round opponents for the class’ first shot at the $28,000-to-win bonus race. He had his choice of No. 2 seed Matt Hartford, teammates Kyle Koretsky and Camrie Caruso, and the Elite Motorsports quartet that fills out the other half of the field: Aaron Stanfield, Troy Coughlin Jr., Cristian Cuadra, and Erica Enders.
And Glenn opted Friday to square off against Enders, the five-time class champion with the theory that to be the best, a racer needs to go head to head with the best. Despite her shaky start to the season, Enders was feeling cheeky and confident enough to propose a $2,500 wager on their run.
The FS1 television network will air the Callout in a special hour-long program from 4-5 p.m. Eastern, a presentation directly ahead of the NASCAR All-Star Race at North Wilkesboro (N.C.) Speedway. Eliminations for the Route 66 Nationals will be broadcast on FS1 immediately following the NASCAR event.
Glenn said the often-overlooked class “having its own TV show is ... going to be a huge thing. Pro Stock doesn’t usually get its own hour-long segment, so this is going to be exciting for the class.
“I’m really excited to do this. It’s going to be a huge thing for our class. I’m also really excited about the car I have this year. I don’t feel like it’s been absolutely the best car every race, but it’s been the most consistent car, I think, and it’s probably the best car I’ve ever been in,” he said before making his first pass at Route 66 Raceway. “It’s a great track, and I think it will be really good for my driving style and my car.”
Hartford said, “We know the exposure is going to be huge. We’re going to have an audience we’ve never had before, and there’s going to be eight of us out there all with the same goal, and that’s to take the money home.”
He has a little more riding on his first-round match against Coughlin: a bottle of wine.
Coughlin, in the JEGS.com Camaro, is pumped, no matter what else is on the line. He said, “I’m all in. Bring it on. We’ve got a tech card into a shootout, and I’m all in. There’s definitely a lot of luster to this and a lot of excitement. It’s definitely going to be a lot of fun, and we can’t wait.”
Their rival Stanfield said, “It doesn’t matter if you’re competing for a million bucks or $2, I’m going there to win” – and maybe pick up an extra hand in the family racing and engine shop at Bossier City, La. Koretsky called out Stanfield, and if Stanfield wins, Koretsky has to do a stint at the Stanfield business. If Koretsky wins, Stanfield has to work at one of the Koretsky family businesses – one of the Maple Grove Raceway concession stands during the first Countdown race this fall.
But Koretsky was less concerned with his opponent than he was his own performance. The Lucas Oil Camaro driver said, “I definitely think we have a consistent car, but I think it’s time to get the driver on point. I’m super excited we’re in this. It’s my first time in something like this. We’ve got four KB Titan cars and four Elite cars in the (Callout), so it’s pretty cool.”
And that’s how the ladder shaped up: KB Titan drivers vs. Elite Motorsports. Caruso and Cuadra were paired by default.
For perfectionist Cuadra, it’s an opportunity to pay back his dad, teammate Fernando Cuadra Sr. The younger Cuadra said, “We’ve had to work really hard, but hopefully I can win it and I can make my dad happy. We need to try to do everything perfect in this class, so I’m always trying.” He said his Corral Boots Camaro “is running really well right now, so hopefully I can do something good.”
Caruso said before arriving at Joliet that she and her Tequila Comisario Camaro “will be ready to take on any of these drivers. I am glad I have three KB Titan Racing teammates in this race with me.” And she also probably is happy she doesn’t have to race any of them.
“These are some of the toughest drivers in the category, so whoever wins will have some good bragging rights for the rest of the season. I like my chances,” she said. “I am glad we raced in the Mission #2Fast2Tasty Challenge during the Winternationals, because that was like a warm-up for this Pro Stock All-Star Callout.” She never has competed in a big-money Pro Stock race.
The winning driver with the quickest elapsed time will select his or her semifinal opponent.
The opening round is scheduled to take place at 1 p.m. (CDT) Saturday, with semifinals at 3:15 p.m. and the final round at 4:55 p.m.
#2FAST2TASTY RACES RETURN – Route 66 Raceway fans will get a couple of treats Saturday with two separate bonus races during qualifying sessions.
In addition to the Pep Boys Pro Stock All-Star Call-out, semifinalists from past races in the Top Fuel, Funny Car, and Pro Stock Motorcycle classes will compete in the Mission Foods #2Fast#2Tasty Challenge. It’s the first time the bike category has participated, and it’s the first time for the nitro contestants since Pomona. The program skipped the two recent four-wide races, at Las Vegas and Charlotte.
Top Fuel’s Justin Ashley could emerge as the first repeat winner in the Mission #2Fast2Tasty NHRA Challenge. But the $10,000 recipient at Pomona said, “Our approach will remain the same. We will be focused on ourselves, regardless of the opponent in the other lane.”
Ashley will meet Antron Brown in the first round. But John Force Racing teammates Brittany Force and Austin Prock hope to give their organization the money. And they all are looking forward to earning some extra Countdown points.
In the Funny Car version of the race-within-a-race, three-time race winner and points leader Matt Hagan will face upset-minded Terry Haddock in the first round Saturday. Bob Tasca is looking for a reversal of results when he takes on Ron Capps in the other duel.
Gaige Herrera, winner of both Pro Stock Motorcycle races this year, will have a rematch with Jianna Evaristo, and Angie Smith – runner-up to Herrera at Gainesville in the season opener – will try to make it two in a row against Chase Van Sant.
Each challenge winner will earn three bonus points that will be added to their total to begin the Countdown to the Championship playoffs in September. The runner-up will get two points, and the quickest losing semifinalist will receive one point.
DeJORIA HITS 200TH-RACE PLATEAU – No. 2-ranked Funny Car driver Alexis DeJoria, who said this season is “by far the best” she has enjoyed with the DC Motorsports team, compared that to her 2014 campaign. In that year, she said, “We won right away. We were winning. We won Phoenix and Vegas. We were on a hot streak, but as far as this team, DC Motor Sports, this is our best start to a season.”
The consensus is that she’s a victory waiting to happen, and to top off her incentive, she’s celebrating her 200th Funny Car race this weekend. That puts her sixth on the list and first among women Funny Car racers. DeJoria was the first woman to qualify for 100 races, as well.
She subscribes to the “Any given Sunday” notion and said it’s not by chance that she is in second place in the standings with five races – representing about a quarter of the season – in hand.
“All the work that we did last year really paid off. Just really tough. Just trying to utilize all these new parts that we've had and had to really learn about them. Just new body, new clutch stuff last year. New heads and just different ways,” DeJoria said. “We're trying to better our performances, and we had a lot of tough times last year. But I just kept telling myself ... I just knew. I'm like, ‘OK, we're just working towards the future’ and here we are.”
But she’s a racer. And racers, in times like this, want the future to be right now.
“I always want it to be now. This is definitely a sport for people who like instant gratification,” DeJoria said, admitting that it’s frustrating to know she’s capable yet having to watch somebody else win.
“That part is excruciating. It’s like, ‘God, we're just so close. I know we could do this,’” she said.
As for her 200th-race milestone, DeJoria said, “I knew it was going to happen. As far as numbers go, I don't really think about it until someone says something to me.” She learned about it from Allison McCormick, her public-relations representative. “It’s like, ‘Wow! Really?’ I'm not even paying attention to that. I'm just race to race and run by run and trying to do my best,” she said. “I don't really think about the stats. That's why we have our P.R. agent and staff people to let us know, ‘Hey, you know what? You're doing good job.’
“We really don't really talk about it that much unless it's like something that's brought up. But yeah, I mean, it is 200th as a woman. ... This is pretty profound, and I'm very proud of that. Well, whether it's talking male or female, I'm very proud of that.”
Pro Stock’s Erica Enders heads the list, with this weekend’s event marking her 340th outing. Pro Stock Motorcycle’s Angelle Sampey has the second-most starts (292), and her bike-class associate, Karen Stoffer, follows with 276.
Brittany Force (Top Fuel) is 18 races past 200, and motorcycle racer Angie Smith is at 212. Ten pro drag-racing women – including Leah Pruett, Courtney Force, Melanie Troxel, and Shirley Mudowney – are in triple digits. Ashley Force Hood, who stopped racing after 2010, had 92 Funny Car appearances, and Top Fuel racer Hillary Will logged 70 races before 2008.
DeJoria said she’s proud of the fact that the NHRA has no worries about diversity programs “because we've just been doing it for so long. I've seen in NASCAR the younger girls are starting to come in, and I've met a few of our Toyota partner drivers [through] the commercial that I recently did for Toyota with the other women from their sponsored motorsport – really great girls.
"It's awesome to see them coming through the ranks. So, it's getting better. They’re great girls. But they like going around and around [circle-track racing]. It’s just really a preference, but I don't think any of 'em have been to a national event and stood behind a Top Fuel or a nitro Funny Car when they go down the racetrack. That might change their mind.” Then again, DeJoria said, “It might scare the hell out of them.”
DeJoria said she has “some unfinished business here” in drag racing, alluding to her search for her first championship.
“It does take hard work, and it takes a lot of time. And any driver out there will tell you it's not an easy business until you win one,” DeJoria said. “And I think once you do win one, and I'm talking about a championship, it seems that it kind of becomes a little bit easier,” she said. “I don't know what that means, but ... once you start winning, it seems like it starts to just come a little bit more attainable.
“And then, if you're not winning, it's like, ‘Well, why are we not winning? We should be winning.’ But I'll never be that person that just expects to win all the time,” she said. “I know we're going to win. I know we have a great car, but when you expect to win every time and you don't, then you're missing out on the journey. And that's something that I don't ever want to do.”
She said, “You'll lose way more than you're going to win. So, if you're not enjoying the journey, the ride, it'd be pretty depressing. I've been off both sides of that, and I definitely want to keep it on the up and up. Some days will be good, and some days won't be very good. But the thing is, is that this is my life's dream. I'm living my dream. This is what I've always wanted to do.”
RIGHTING THE SHIP - Sometimes, drastic situations require drastic actions.
Drastic might be an extreme description, but when you have a team the caliber of and with the assets that Kalitta Motorsports does, the performance should always be top-shelf. Lately, it hasn’t been.
Team Kalitta conducted an in-season, three-team test at Indianapolis Raceway Park in preparation for this weekend’s return to Route 66 Raceway.
“We expect our teams to perform at a high level; we’ve had some great moments this season, but we lost our way. We are pulling together as a team to get back to how we started the season,” Team Kalitta general manager Chad Head said. “If a team has a bad race, we stay after the event to figure out what’s wrong through testing, but when all three teams aren’t living up to expectations, we owe it to our corporate partners and ourselves to do everything we can to get our teams where they need to be. We invest too much and work too hard not to get the performance our partners expect, and we demand. Except for the big test before Indy, I don’t think we’ve done a three-team, in-season test since I’ve been here, but at this point, it was the right play.”
The test was originally scheduled for Tuesday, May 16 but was postponed a day due to weather. Each team made five testing runs on Wednesday, with most planned as early shut-offs or partial runs to test competitive setups. Making full runs was largely not necessary.
“The test went very well,” Head said. “We learned some things, made some changes, and then learned a lot from the changes. We planned for most of our runs to be early shut offs, and it worked well. Doug made a full run at 3.72 (seconds), and Shawn and J.R. made some really good planned shut-off runs. The combined 15 runs showed us what we needed to know.”
Langdon scored a runner-up finish in Phoenix and a semifinal berth in Las Vegas in the Autodesk dragster. Still, middle-of-the-pack qualifying at each race made eliminations challenging. The team made an excellent run in three of Langdon’s five-round losses but lost a great drag race.
Kalitta and his Mac Tools team started the season excellently, qualifying third and reaching the semifinals in Gainesville before qualifying No. 1 and winning the inaugural Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty NHRA Challenge in Phoenix. After a quarterfinal loss in Phoenix, the team recorded three-straight first-round losses and is mired in 10th place. - Bobby Bennett
FINISH LINE – Top Fuel racer Tony Schumacher will give a final salute to a 1960s-era Army veteran who was a long-ago drag racer and a family friend.
Wally Berg, a longtime NHRA member, passed away suddenly in March, and Schumacher will take him on “one final pass” Saturday. He’ll carry Berg’s ashes in a small bag that he’ll tuck into a pocket of his firesuit.
The Scag/JCM Racing driver said it will be “one heck of a ride” and called it “an honor for me to take him on his final ride.”
“Wally was one of those guys that lived, breathed, and bled racing,” Schumacher said of the Woodstock, Ill., resident who raced dragsters at the local level, including at the fabled Great Lakes Dragaway at Union Grove, Wis., during the 1960s and early '70s.
Berg was a mechanic and owner/operator of Berg Automotive in Crystal Lake, Ill., and Emerald Grove, Wis. He was a helicopter mechanic from 1963-1969, but his passion was for cars and race cars.
His children, including daughter Kathy Hart, a former Chicago radio host, will witness this special tribute.
JOHNSON JR. SHOWS HIS VERSATILITY OFF THE TRACK, AS WELL – The last time the NHRA visited Route 66 Raceway, in 2019, Tommy Johnson Jr. won the Funny Car trophy. The longtime racer, who’s sidelined for the moment without a ride, has extensive experience in both nitro classes, and he’s proving his versatility off the dragstrip, as well.
These days, he said, he has “been busy with my parts and supply business. I continue to supply about 80 percent of the nitro teams with consumable parts and supplies, plus a few nostalgia cars and a few alcohol cars.”
But he has marketable non-automotive skills, too, that have been occupying much of his time.
“I had always enjoyed woodworking, and since the COVID lockdowns, I started building things a lot. That turned into building things for other people and has become almost a full-time job now,” Johnson said.
“I am consistently booked with jobs a couple months out. I build a little bit of everything and don’t specialize in anything. Everything I build is usually custom, one of a kind, or a special need. I am currently working on a kitchen remodel, industrial tables, and just finished a privacy fence. Next up is a pergola and some shadow boxes for firesuits. I bought a CNC router and laser engraver, so that is running almost daily,” he said. “I work seven days a week, usually.”
He said he keeps tabs on the news and trends in NHRA nitro racing and said, “I believe I could jump right back in a car and be competitive right away.
“I stay pretty current with what is going on in the drag-racing world. It helps with all the teams visiting my shop weekly to know what is happening on the inner circle with racing. I would love to be out there, competing with everyone on a weekly basis. But not a lot of competitive open rides are available at the moment. If the right situation becomes available, I would definitely jump back in the seat. It is in my blood, for sure, and it’s something you just don’t turn off.”
Route 66 Raceway, Johnson said, “is a special track to me because that is where I got my Funny Car license in the Joe Gibbs Funny Car the Monday after the national event in 1999.
“I always enjoyed racing at Joliet Route 66 Raceway,” he said. “There are certain tracks that you just feel comfortable at and always seem to do well at.”
He said he remembers the details of that day in 2019 when he won.
“We had a really good car that weekend. We ran low or close to low E.T. each run. It got hotter all day, and the final was probably the worst track conditions we had all weekend. Luckily [Robert] Hight smoked the tires early, and our car came loose way down track. It was the final round, and I couldn’t see or hear Hight. So instead of pedaling it and taking a chance on blowing the body off, I just stayed in the throttle and tried to get it to the finish line. It dropped a bunch of holes and eventually banged the blower, but it was good enough to get to the finish line first. I was lucky enough to be in the final round at Route 66 Raceway five times and have two Wallys [from here].”
ASHLEY, HART HAVE A COUPLE OF THINGS IN COMMON – Top Fuel drivers Justin Ashley and Josh Hart both have said they’re eager to return to traditional-format racing. And both have experience at the stadium-style Joliet dragstrip before they joined the Top Fuel ranks.
“I am ready to get back to racing one driver at a time,” said Hart. “We got our race car figured out in Las Vegas and Charlotte, but with four-wide racing there is a lot going on. I am comfortable in the R+L Carriers Top Fuel dragster now, and I think we will start seeing results in Chicago. I raced there in Top Alcohol Dragster, so it isn’t quite a new facility for me.”
Before Hart switched to the Top Fuel class, he raced at the NHRA national events here from 2016-2018. His best effort came in 2017, when he posted a semifinal finish. Since his Top Fuel career started, Hart has earned two victories, and last season he finished in the top 10 in his first full season in the sport’s headliner category.
“The Chicago track is a great facility, and it feels like a major-league stadium,” Hart said. “When I was racing Top Alcohol Dragster, we had some good and not-so-good races in Chicago. The competition was tough then, and it is tough now. You look around the pits and staging lanes, and there are 14-15 drivers that can win every race. I love that level of competition, and I think I have a team that can compete with anyone.”
Ashley has pretty much the same story. The Phillips Connect Toyota Dragster driver said, “I am definitely looking forward to getting back into the rhythm of traditional two-ride racing. Four-Wide racing certainly has its place, and I have the utmost respect and appreciation for the level of excitement it brings to our sport. But we’ve now shifted our focus to Chicago and the traditional two-wide style of racing that comes with it.”
The seven-time Top Fuel winner raced twice here in the Top Alcohol Dragster class (2017-18) when he was launching his drag-racing career. Now, for the second straight season, he’s a championship contender. He has a pair of victories so far this season.