2017 NHRA AUTO CLUB FINALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
FORCE GRABS CHAMPIONSHIP, RUNS TOP FUEL TABLE - Making Top Fuel history wasn’t enough for Brittany Force in Sunday’s eliminations at the Auto Club NHRA Finals at Pomona, Calif.
In the second round of eliminations, she became the first female to win a Top Fuel title since Shirley Muldowney in 1982, all the more remarkable because Force, 31, wasn’t born until 1986.
It was an achievement that struck dad John Force, the 16-time Funny Car champion, with such emotion that he dropped to his knees at the starting line and wept.
It gave John Force Racing its first-ever double-up championship, for Robert Hight had earned his second Funny Car championship and first since 2009 in the opening round.
And it gave tuning consultant Alan Johnson his 12th Top Fuel title with six different racers, including Shawn Langdon, her final-round opponent.
It capped a weekend in which her No. 1 qualifying elapsed time – 3.667 seconds – was best of the meet.
But Brittany Force wanted more. She wanted to put an exclamation point on her weekend – if for no other reason than to wipe from anyone’s memory, from her own memory, that red-light foul in the final at Las Vegas against Terry McMillen. (“I’ve been losing my mind since Vegas. Since that red light, I have been all over the place, trying to make sure when I climb in my race car that I have my focus in the right place. But it’s been tough. I’ve been carrying a gut ache for two weeks,” she said, “and I’ve been wanting to get here today because I just thought, ‘Just get me to Sunday. Get me in my race car, and let’s see what our team can do.”)
She and her Monster Energy Dragster left Langdon in his own tire smoke, speeding off to a 3.668-second, 330.07-mph event-winning performance on the Auto Club Raceway 1,000-foot course that added another $50,000 to John Force Racing’s $1 million jackpot for the day.
“We’ve had an incredible day. I still haven’t wrapped my head around everything that’s happened. This just seems like a dream. And just to lock everything up the way we did, it’s pretty incredible. I never knew we could ever get here. And the reason we are here is because of that Monster team and all the support that I have,” she said. “We struggled. We had our ups and downs. But we pulled it together when it mattered most.
“I have to give all this up to my crew chiefs, Alan Johnson and Brian Husen. They are the ones that made this possible,” Force said. “They never gave up on me. They always had my back, and they kept pushing for more. And I can’t believe we’re here. This is just unbelievable. I have to thank my Dad and my family. They always had my back, no matter what. This is a very proud moment.”
She said her emotional father “was just like Courtney . . . tears in both their eyes. He just hugged me and congratulated me. I really I owe it all to him. He’s the one that gave me this opportunity and taught me everything I know about driving.
“Pretty incredible. Pretty incredible to say that this Monster team, we’re champs, 2017 Champs. That’s huge. I don’t know if I’ll ever get over that,” Brittany Force said after registering her fourth victory of the year and seventh overall. “We’ve accomplished so much this year, but this is something I will never forget. This is something I’ll carry with me forever. It’s something I’m so proud of.”
Points leader Steve Torrence entered this race with a 20-point cushion over No. 2 -ranked Force. By race-day morning, she had sliced his lead to nine points. Her No. 1 qualifying position, coupled with his brake-rotor problem on the starting line that prevented him from making a final qualifying pass, heightened the drama.
Torrence took a respectable No. 5 spot in the line-up (four places behind chief rival Force). However, he lost his last chance to improve and gain some more bonus points. He had trouble with his brakes, and in a terse but scorching reaction, he criticized his brakes supplier by name. That might have felt satisfying, but on the eve of perhaps his first Top Fuel championship, he had to assume his Capco Contractors Dragster team would do Sunday what it did in winning eight times this year.
He eliminated Troy Buff in the first round but lost a close quarterfinal match-up with close friend and intense competitor Antron Brown, the outgoing champion.
Force said she didn’t allow herself to watch the action in front of her.
“I wasn’t paying attention to what was going on on the line next to me. If you look at me in that car, I’m looking down. I’m not looking out there at what Steve’s doing, because for me I can’t focus on all that going on,” she said. “I have to focus on our car, my driving, and our team. And so I put it out of my head and it didn’t matter to me. It mattered what our team could do. I know my team, and our crew chiefs, and that Monster team, I know that they bring everything to the line. And then it’s my job to finish it. And we did that all day long.”
Force dismissed Brown in the semifinals to set up her showdown with Langdon.
Torrence said, “It’s very disheartening. You win nine races (including the Traxxas Nitro Shootout bonus race) and can’t close the deal. I’m not a real big fan of NHRA’s welfare points system, but it is what it is. I want to congratulate Brittany, A.J. [Alan Johnson], John Force and that whole Monster team. They just played the Countdown game better than the rest of us.”
Force advanced to the final round five times in the six playoff races.
“I feel bad for all my guys, everybody on this Capco team,” Torrence said. “They worked their butts off all year, and to come this close to winning it all, well, that kind of sucks, to be honest.”
He finished second, 81 points off Force’s pace.
Both Force and Langdon are from the area, she from Yorba Linda and he from Mira Loma. So they each wanted to shine at their home track.
“I’ve always wanted to win here. It’s my home track, and we had the championship. I mean all of it, it still doesn’t seem real,” she said. “And the only reason it is real is because of all the support I have around me. I mean, it’s huge. Today is huge. We made history with Alan Johnson and Monster Energy and I’m so proud of everyone, I’m proud of my entire team.”
After the final round, Langdon said, “I’m disappointed only for the fact that I really wanted that win for these Global Electronic Toyota guys.” He finished with a 9.818-second elapsed time at 89.10 mph and a No. 7 ranking in the standings.
He’ll make the transition to a Funny Car next season, carrying the same brand. “All in all, it’s a great way to end the season. We got to the final round. We just didn’t have it in the final. We lost to a good car. We lost to the champ.
“It was nice to end, for now, my dragster career, on a good note. I love Pomona and I love coming out here. At Pomona, I give everything I’ve got, and I think my reaction times showed it today,” he said. “I’m heading to Funny Car, and it will be a new chapter in my career. It will be a new challenge, a new learning curve, I’m excited about it, and I’m ready for the challenge.”
Brittany Force’s first public remarks Sunday morning were, “Get me my race car. I’m ready to get this thing going.”
With the way the day unfolded, she hardly wanted it all to stop. Susan Wade
JOHNSON WINS ONE FOR TERRY CHANDLER AT NHRA SEASON FINALE - This one is for Terry Chandler.
That was the declaration made by Funny Car veteran Tommy Johnson Jr. moments after earning his second victory of 2017 and first since the passing of his longtime sponsor, supporter and friend Sunday at the 53rd annual Auto Club NHRA Finals at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona.
Chandler, who had sponsored Johnson’s Make-A-Wish Foundation Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car, along with Jack Beckman’s Infinite Hero machine, for the past few seasons, lost her battle with cancer back in July.
“This has been a very emotional year with the loss of Terry. She was such a great person and I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her,” Johnson said. “I had sat out for five years and she gave me the opportunity to drive for her. To lose her this season was very tough on our entire team. We had four runner-ups throughout the season trying to get a win for Terry and at the last opportunity of the season, we were determined to do it.
“I kept thinking all day what it would mean to get a win for her to close out the season. It was just a great day. It wasn’t an easy win, but we got it done.”
Johnson defeated newly-crowned NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Funny Car champion Robert Hight in the final. Hight smoked the tires just past the 60-foot lights, while Johnson breezed to a 3.920-second pass at 329.10 mph to earn his 17th career NHRA Wally.
The win capped what was not only an emotional day, but a trying one as well. Johnson suffered a fireball in a round one win over Bob Bode and then went into the sandtrap at the top end in round two after defeating Alexis DeJoria.
Ironically, Hight also suffered a trip into the sand in his semifinal win over Courtney Force.
“What are the odds that two people in the final have both been in the sandtrap in one day,” Johnson said. “This is a short track and we had some issues with the chutes. We kept getting the chute caught in the back of the body and just couldn’t get the thing stopped.”
But thanks to a valiant effort by both his team and the rest of the Don Schumacher Racing teams not remaining in competition, Johnson was able to turn the car around and record a semifinal win over No. 1 qualifier Jack Beckman - a 3.890 to a 3.914 - before dispatching of Hight in the final.
“The guys did a great job. I think everybody that was out of competition on the DSR team was over here. There were members from every team and it was just a great team effort,” Johnson said. “It shows you how well we work together to come fighting back. I was a little concerned, we had those issues first round, had issues second round, so in the semis you try and put it out of your mind.
“I was obviously concerned if the chassis was ok. It didn’t hit too hard and amazingly the body was not too bad. We came back up the return road and it was bouncing up and down and we were watching the rocks fall out of it. We stripped the car down, got all of the stuff out of it, and had our best run of the day against Jack (Beckman).”
With the trip into the sand, and the previous fireball from a lost cylinder in round one, Johnson stressed the importance of not giving up as a major reason for the team’s win on Sunday.
“You can’t give up on Sunday. That is one thing about being a Funny Car driver. You have to ignore what is going on around you, put it out of your mind and remain focused on the finish line,” Johnson said. “Whatever is happening is just going to happen. You just have to stay in it and hope for the best.”
Thanks to the late-season win, Johnson finishes sixth in the Funny Car championship as Hight clinched the championship after Ron Capps went out in a round one upset to Del Worsham. That win clinched the title for Hight - his second - and was the second championship in nitro won by the John Force Racing team. Brittany Force won the Top Fuel championship in another come-from-behind effort.
As for Johnson, he can take into the offseason the comfort of having finally won one for Terry, and doing it at the site of his last win with her in attendance. With Chandler unable to attend Johnson’s other win earlier this season at Las Vegas, the last time Johnson and Chandler shared a winner’s circle was at this very race one year ago.
And, ironically, he was running the same body he had on his car in the 2016 win after switching to it following the trip into the sand.
“The last time we took pictures in the winner’s circle Terry was here and I said if we happen to get there today, she will still be there with us,” Johnson said. “And it was kind of funny, as we were pulling up for the final, the body we put on was the body from last season, the one we took to the winner’s circle. So I think it is very appropriate that we are here today.” Larry Crum
BUTNER EARNS FIRST PRO STOCK CHAMPIONSHIP WITH WALK-OFF VICTORY AT NHRA FINALS - Bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth of the World Series with two outs. Lining up for a game-winning field goal with two seconds left in the Super Bowl. Hitting that perfect putt on the 18th green at the Masters.
It is a scenario that sports fans - and competitors - dream about having the opportunity to witness. To say they were there to see the improbable.
And for NHRA Pro Stock competitor Bo Butner, he will one day get to tell his children and grandchildren that he got to live that moment for himself.
Butner completed a historic comeback Sunday at the 53rd annual Auto Club NHRA Finals at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, erasing a 40-point deficit to class leader Greg Anderson and earning his very first NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Pro Stock championship with a walk-off victory over Tanner Gray.
“When you are little kids you play these games like shooting basketball with your friends. You imagine there is no time left and you have one free throw to win the game. That is what I kept telling myself going into that race,” said Butner, who earned his fifth victory of the season. “It has been a long season. A very tough season. We were all kind of bunched together, but I have to say this about my KB Racing team, they give me the best. It is amazing. I probably didn’t drive the best today, but when it is your day, God blesses you. And He did that today.”
Butner defeated Gray in a thrilling final that saw the former sportsman world champion walk away with a margin of victory of only a few hundredths thanks to a tire issue for the young rookie. Gray got away cleanly with a .022 reaction time, marginally better than Butner’s .051, but began to make a move toward the centerline allowing Butner to catch and pass Gray for the win.
Butner crossed the stripe in the Jim Butner Auto Chevrolet Camaro with a 6.554-second pass at 210.70 mph to earn the championship-clinching win. Gray had a 6.653 at 208.62 mph in the runner-up effort.
“I don’t know exactly what happened to Tanner’s car, but Tanner is tough. He is going to be a good champion. I made a joke that I hope none of my fans shot out his tire going down the track,” Butner said with a laugh. “(A blown tire) actually happened to me once. It happened to me in the finals in Stock. But today was our day. This year it is ours. This belongs to KB.”
Entering this weekend’s NHRA Finals, KB Racing teammates Butner, Greg Anderson and Jason Line all had an opportunity at the championship. Anderson entered with the lead, with Butner needing to go one additional round than his teammate to clinch the title and Line needing to go two more rounds.
Line was eliminated from contention after suffering a semifinal loss to Gray, while Butner opened the door for himself when he defeated Anderson in that same semifinal round. And did he ever.
Anderson earned a slight starting line advantage, but Butner made up the difference by the time they passed the Christmas tree and increased his lead at every increment down the track. Butner advanced with a 6.551 at 210.05 mph, just ahead of Anderson’s 6.565 at 209.92 mph.
With Anderson out of the picture, all Butner had to do was win the race and the championship was his.
“The semifinal was how it should be. You have to put your destiny in your own hands. I don’t want to watch someone else win for me,” Butner said. “It felt good today. I made a good run against Greg and, shocking to me, actually got some butterflies during that race. But then you have to get your game face back on for the final.”
Butner also added wins over Jeg Coughlin and Shane Gray en route to the win. Gray had wins over Line, Drew Skillman and Alex Laughlin.
With the win, Butner earns his very first championship in the same year he recorded his first NHRA national event win. Butner entered this season 0-for-6 in final rounds before earning his first win at Houston back in April. From there the wins seemed to snowball as he went on to win the regular season title and take home five total wins during a magical 2017 campaign.
“We are supposedly the little team, but we are not. We are a team with KB. I have the same stuff as them. Same car, same motors, same tuners. To me, it is not a surprise,” Butner said. “Today it was just who went the furthest out of us three. After the race, Greg was actually the first person to meet me down there. He gave me a big hug and said you deserve it this year. That is big coming from him.
“This has been an incredible year. When I finally won the national event in Houston, I got out of the car and couldn’t wait to get that trophy. But once we won there, we kept clicking them off. I thought we could do this after that.”
So what does it mean to add his name to the history books alongside some of the greats of the Pro Stock class?
“It hasn’t set in yet. It is the biggest honor to see the return from the fans and sportsman guys. It is awesome and we are very fortunate,” Butner said. “This is an amazing team and I am just glad to be a part of it all.” Larry Crum
HINES FOILS CHAMP KRAWIEC’S PLAN TO SWEEP BIKE HONORS - Terry Vance, co-owner of the Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson operation, said before the Pro Stock Motorcycle final round between Andrew Hines and newly minted class champion Eddie Krawiec, “I think Eddie’s just got destiny going with him.”
Vance was partially right. Krawiec came into race day Sunday as the lone Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Countdown contender to have clinched a championship. That happened to him Saturday. Then Krawiec, the No. 1 qualifier with a meet-best 6.781-second elapsed time, knocked out Lance Bonham in the first round. He followed by dismissing the outgoing champion, Jerry Savoie, and later two-time champion Matt Smith to reach his ninth final round this season.
No one could blame Vance for thinking Krawiec was unstoppable. Krawiec was racing in a final round for the third consecutive time.
But he was.
It was Hines’ turn to shine.
And it was about time. Hines hadn’t won since the 2016 U.S. Nationals. Naturally he was frustrated, for last season he won five time in nine final-round appearances.
Moreover, he had worked closely with Harley-Davidson engineers to bring the manufacturer’s new Street Rod to life. But for all his effort and pride in the project, he saw the flaws in it as the season went along and he struggled on-track in a way five-time champions aren’t used to struggling.
“It was a long year – for my side of the team, at least,” Hines said after claiming his 48th overall victory.
“We had a pretty good struggle there in the middle of the season with both our Street Rods. But our team found ways to make ourselves better: figure out how to tune better, how to make the motorcycles more consistent. That’s what I’m most proud about, what we had to overcome to get back to the level we expect of ourselves. It was a rocky road there through the middle. We were fighting and trying to figure how to make those new chassis work for us,” he said. “They would respond. They make a good show bike now.”
He said, “This year we built three new chassis, and typically we run one chassis for 10 years. So there’s a lot of work at Vance & Hines, with all our guys putting in long hours. We asked the world of them, and they delivered.”
For the record, Hines overcame Krawiec’s outstanding .005-second reaction time and won with a 6.856-second elapsed time and 196.02-mph speed on the Auto Club Raceway quarter-mile. Krawiec countered with a 6.930, 177.58.
Hines’ victory moved him up to second place, where he ended the season 169 points off his teammate’s torrid pace.
Once again, Krawiec was unable to win at the Finals in the same year he earned a championship.
With the team’s dominance in the class, at least this gives them something new to aim for in 2018. Susan Wade
POMONA 2 – NHRA Finals
KRAWIEC SELAS CHAMPIONHIP DEAL IN BIKE CLASS, FUEL FRONTRUNNERS STRUGGLE, DE JORIA HOSTS FANCY HOSPITALITY FOR SENDOFF, WORSHAM REFLECTS ON HIS RETRO SEASON,
TORRENCE PUTS BRAKES ON HIS BRAKES SUPPLIER – Saturday was not a great day for fuel-class points leaders.
While Robert Hight had a terribly stressful day and weekend in his Funny Car quest for the title and watched his primary rival qualify in the top five with seemingly little effort, Steve Torrence headed into race day on a sour note.
After his burnout in the final qualifying session, official starter Mike Gittings ordered him to shut off his Capco Contractors Dragster and his crew pushed it from the starting line.
Torrence, not one to suffer in silence, called out the manufacturer of his brakes, Lamb Components, Inc.
"I had another issue with some brake rotors. I'll tell you what, we argued with the people at Lamb about their product: wasn't what it was supposed to be. There's the second time they cost us."
BOAT CHAMP REED WILL HAVE 10 TOP FUEL RACES IN 2018 – Shawn Reed, fresh from his fifth Lucas Oil Drag Boat Racing Series championship in 13 seasons, qualified 15th and will give No. 2 starter Clay Millican a run for his money in Round 1 of Sunday’s eliminations.
And the Seattle-area native said he plans to return next season for 10 races.
“We got funded for 10 more races next year, with Hughes Oilfield Transportation, my longtime sponsors in the boat. They’ve been helping me in the car. And we just announced that Global came on for 10 races next year, as well. So you know that, their help along with my sponsorship from Barbara Hughes, hopefully we’ll be having a car in the mid- to low-.70s next year and be able to compete more than we have this year at the 10 events that we go to.”
Reed said shifting mental gears back and forth between boat racing to drag racing can be a little taxing.
“That’s what’s tough,” he said. “This weekend I’m struggling on my lights here because just the change from me driving the boat last weekend, they’re just a completely different set of lights. These come up so fast, I’m just kind of behind it a little bit. But I get better as the weekend goes, so hopefully I’ll be OK for tomorrow.”
One major difference in boat racing is that competitors get a running start.
“You get a 125-foot running start. There’s a number clock that counts down and we leave on a portion of that number. So you know, I’ve been doing that for a long time, so I’m pretty used to that. Coming over here, sitting in the stands, everybody thinks that we’re the slowest mind-to-foot there is, but there’s quite a delay in a Top Fuel Dragster to when the car actually moves.”
Reed said he recognizes the danger of both endeavors but said he has a stronger sense of security in the dragster.
As for boat racing, he said, “I do know that’s dangerous, but anything that goes fast is dangerous. [Because of] the Safety Safari and all these guys, I really do feel safer in this car than I do in that boat.
“You know what? I’m just living the lucky life I’ve got going right now,” Reed said. “I mean, they’ll never take anything away from me. If I get hit by a bus tomorrow, my life’s been great.”
CRAMPTON HOPES DRIVING GIG CONTINUES – Richie Crampton builds race cars at Morgan Lucas Racing and maintains several others, including those of Steve Torrence and Scott Palmer and says he’s “just pretty lucky” to be doing what he loves for a living.
But it’s no secret he’d like to return to his role next year as driver of the SealMaster Dragster at Kalitta Motorsports. Crampton stepped in at Indianapolis in September when Troy Coughlin Jr. opted to return to the sportsman ranks.
And the consensus is that he has done a commendable job in his pinch-hitter function.
“It’s definitely been good for me to get back in the seat,” Crampton said. “Charlotte was good for the SealMaster Toyota guys. We were able to help Doug out. You know, that’s what we’re trying to do, big picture, because obviously I can’t contend for a championship. It’s just been great to get back into the driver’s seat, particularly for the legendary Connie Kalitta.”
Evidently Crampton has not been informed what the team’s plans are for the SealMaster Top Fuel entry or whether they include him.
“They know for sure that I would love to be back driving for this organization, and they’re trying to just figure everything out right now. So I’m trying not to be pushy, but I like my chances at getting to drive here again if there’s enough race cars to go around and all that kind of stuff, you know? So, yeah, pretty excited and really looking forward to driving for Kalitta in 2018 if it all comes together.”
If he had to give his best pitch to Kalitta Motorsports about why they should retain his services, he suggested that he might be a little tongue-tied.
“I don’t know, man. I’m not much of a salesman, particularly when it comes to myself. So, you know, I just hope I can come back and do it again,” Crampton said. “There’s so many people in the world that want to do what I’m now doing, and I’m very lucky to be in the position I’m in. So I’m hoping that they see something in me to keep me around.”
All in all, he has plenty to keep him busy in his adopted home of Brownsburg, Ind.
“That’s what’s been great about finishing up this year is everyone at Lucas, Morgan and everyone I work with, we’re still really busy building race cars and maintaining Steve Torrence’s stuff and Scott Palmer’s and some Alcohol guys. We’ve got a lot of work going on, but they’ve given me the luxury of being able to leave on a Thursday and come to these races and get back to work Monday, Tuesday sometimes. So yeah, it’s been pretty busy for me,” he said. “I haven’t had much time to just relax with my family, because when we’re not racing on weekends, I’m working every day at the shop with the guys and building good race cars.”
HADDOCK A GRATEFUL 16TH – Terry Haddock drew the short straw – facing No. 1 qualifier and championship contender Brittany Force in the first round of eliminations. But he said he’s just happy to be competing in eliminations, particularly considering he had a supercharger explosion in his final qualifying pass.
“We come out here and do the best we can. We keep ‘em honest, and we’re having fun,” the journeyman racer who lives at Temple, Texas, said.
As for the mishap with the blower, Haddock said, “I don’t know what happened. That shouldn’t have happened. We’ll fix it.
“We get to race tomorrow, right?” he asked, not 100 percent sure at the time whether he had stayed in the field. “That’s all you can ask for. Thanks to the NHRA for having us and to all the fans for coming out to support us.”
Blake Alexander and Steve Faria failed to qualify. Alexander missed the cut by three-thousandths of a second, as Terry McMillen leaped onto the grid and knocked him off. Faria’s DNQ was just as frustrating for him, but it came swiftly. His car wouldn’t start in Q4, and he never had a chance to make a final attempt.
HIGHT THROWS SCARE INTO HIS TITLE CHASE – Robert Hight was on the brink Saturday of losing the championship for which he had worked so hard to contend.
The 2009 champion from John Force Racing – the points leader and winner of two Countdown races and two more this season – was unqualified after the first day of the NHRA Finals at his team sponsor’s track and event. He slipped into the field, taking the temporary bump spot with a 4.399-second elapsed time. Bob Bode came along after Hight’s third attempt with a 4.037-second run that lifted him to the No. 12 position and knocked Hight from the field again.
Hight’s fate came down to his last qualifying opportunity as he dueled promising class rookie but experienced racer Jonnie Lindberg in a side-by-side pairing.
Lindberg was on the bump spot, fighting to stay 16th and avoid his first DNQ of the year. Hight was trying desperately to claim a spot for race day at Lindberg’s expense.
Hight lost traction about a third of the way down the 1,000-foot course, and his engine backfired. That could have doomed his championship chance, but Lindberg also hit a snag, struggled, and never could overtake Hight.
So Hight is 15th in the order and is set to face upset-minded Tim Wilkerson, who has lane choice as the last-minute No. 2 starter.
HELL WEEK – They literally have both been there, done that and have the championship T-shirts to prove it.
Robert Hight (2009) and Ron Capps (2016) both have Funny Car championships to their credit, and to see them over the course of the last two weeks you'd think they'd have the pressure down pat.
Hight came into this weekend's battle as the driver to beat, having overtaken Capps two weeks ago in Las Vegas.
"This year is a different scenario," Hight explained. "All I had to do in ’09 was come here and qualify, and we were the champs. Here I’ve got to go round for round with Capps, or if we go to the final, beat him."
Once the engine fires, all those mental stories dissipate.
"You’ve got a 10,000 horsepower beast sitting in front of you, and you know, you focus," Hight said. "You’ve got to focus to do good in one of these things, and I don’t seem to have any trouble when this thing starts, and we’re ready to go. Sitting here thinking about everything, that’ll drive you crazy."
Capps has been to the championship wedding, and while he finally married the deal last season, there were many seasons where he was the bridesmaid.
Even though it was clear Capps was going to seal the deal, he wasn't about to take anything for granted.
"Last year, I remember this off weekend that we had coming into Pomona I was a nervous wreck because every single minute I had that I wasn’t keeping busy, I was thinking about the scenarios," Capps recalled. "But last year was a little different because we had a little bit of a cushion over Hagan coming in. And while everybody else thought it was a done deal, I was pretty much grabbing everybody saying, ‘No, do not even talk like that."
The two saw each other for the first time during Thursday's pre-race NHRA press conference.
"I saw Hight right when I walked in, and I walked up behind him and grabbed him by his shoulders and, ‘Hey, man.' I go, ‘How was your off weekend?"
"He answered, 'Dude, it’s been driving me crazy,' and I said, ‘Oh, I’m not the only one."
Capps admits no matter how busy one tries to keep themselves, the pressure of the unknown still takes over.
"You couldn’t keep busy enough," Capps admitted. "I stopped at a stop light, you know, driving with the kids, and you start zoning out and thinking about the scenarios, the points. The kids were like, ‘Dad, green light, you’ve got to go."
Hight believes Capps is preaching to the choir.
"It’s been the the longest week and a half since Vegas that I’ve ever spent in my life, I mean just painful," Hight said. "And I was busy. I didn’t have like time just to sit around, but we were busy, SEMA show, a lot Auto Club stuff. We’re working on things for next year.
"But it drug on."
Capps fared the better of the two in qualifying, landing in the No. 6 spot, scheduled to race Del Worsham.
Capps was able to trim Hight's 15-point lead down to 11 by picking up bonus qualifying points.
Hight's qualifying effort was not one of his finest efforts as he used a last-ditch 4.132 elapsed time to make the field at No. 15 and will race Tim Wilkerson in Sunday's first round. – Bobby Bennett
CHANDLER MEMORY SALVES DISAPPOINTING END OF YEAR – For a few weeks, Tommy Johnson Jr. and his Make-A-Wish Dodge Charger team have been preparing for the next season.
"We stayed to test after the Las Vegas race and worked with a six-disk-clutch set-up that showed a ton of potential," the Don Schumacher Racing driver said.
That was some consolation.
"The Countdown hasn't been what we were expecting or what we were hoping," seventh-ranked Johnson said. "But I'm very enthused about what we learned during testing. We're going to stick to the six-disk and try to get a head start on next year."
But Johnson got a shot of excitement Friday, taking the provisional Q1 lead. And he ended up with an enviable No. 4 start Sunday, when he’ll start his day against Bob Bode.
Johnson won this race a year ago. And he said he remembers celebrating with Terry Chandler, who passed away this July 4.
"The last winners circle she was in was with us in Pomona a year ago," Johnson said. "We took goofy pictures and had a lot fun. It's one of the things I miss the most about her is the good times we had like that. If we win, she'll be in the winners circle with us."
NOW, THAT'S HOSPITALITY - Alexis DeJoria wanted her final race as an NHRA Funny Car driver to be a spectacular experience. She wanted the hospitality experience to be one level higher than that.
In the midst of race, haulers are arranged for what appears to be a permanent facility aimed to enclose one heck of a going-away party for the Patron-sponsored driver.
"We definitely don’t have a casual set up this weekend," Allison McCormick, DeJoria's publicist said. "We definitely went all out for Alexis’ last race. We have probably triple the amount of pit space that we normally do for hospitality."
The makeshift facility isn't just for looks.
"We have one of Alexis’ good friends, Rich Bennett, DJ’ing. He’s a professional DJ, travels all over the world," McCormick said. "We have a photo booth. We have a little lounge area. We have a big Patron bar with everyone’s favorite Patron cocktails. We have a candy bar, catered food. It’s awesome."
Awesome is probably a fair assessment, considering the fact that a few NHRA team owners have come by for a closer inspection.
Could this be the future of NHRA hospitality?
"That would be cool, right?" McCormick said. – Bobby Bennett
YEAR RACING WITH DAD AGAIN MELLOWS WORSHAM –In Del Worsham’s life, he has Mello Yello and just plain mellow.
He said dad Chuck isn’t ornery and impatient. But then again, the racer with both a Top Fuel and Funny Car championship said this season of leaving the high-budget, high-pressure world of drag racing and going back to the father-son arrangement has given him a new perspective, too.
He said Chuck Worsham is “much mellower, much mellower than he was in the early days. But I found out yesterday that there still is a little glimmer of hope that he still has a little snap in him.”
The son said he supposes that maybe he has grown up and wised up.
“I think so. Everybody’s mellower than they were. Everybody is,” Del Worsham said. “We’ve accomplished a lot. There’s things we still want to do, and we still have goals, but I think that we’re just doing what we want and everybody realizes that you know you don’t get this every day, and we got another chance to do it. Just want to make the most out of it.”
He indicated he feels rather happy about this season, all things considered.
“I do, I do. You know, if I had a f-----g crew chief, it would have been a lot better. Nah, I do. Yeah, we did,” he said with a laugh. “Did it go 100 percent the way we wanted? No. We had ups and downs. But all in all, the car’s running well. It’s ending on a high note. It’s running the way we want it to. This is what I was looking for in the beginning, and it just took us a little while to get here. But it’s going well.”
He said he certainly has learned one truth.
“Oh my goodness. I’ll tell you one thing” You never, ever burn bridges that you might have to cross again someday, because I sure called back on a lot of people to help me out. And they all stepped up and did a great job – a lot of friends, a lot of sponsors, and I’m glad I didn’t burn any bridges through the years,” Worsham said.
He can’t help but think that maybe some of the big-team drivers are looking at him and saying, “Wow, he looks like he’s having a good time.”
“I’m sure, yeah. I know everybody out here, and pretty much the majority of them, if they’ve been around here at all or they know me or my Dad at all, they understand the moves that were made and why they were made. The decisions and the position that we took, I don’t regret any of them.”
So what’s in store for 2018?
“Oh my goodness. Man, 2018 . . . Hopefully a little more success than 2017 as far as like on the track. I think we’re way ahead of where we were. It’s back to just, you know, like everybody said, we’ve just got to get our finances in order. You know, there’s sponsors out there, there’s a nice platform to pull from out here with NHRA Mello Yello. We just got to get our sponsors in order and get all the help we can and make sure that we’re prepared for what truly is a grind,” Worsham said. “I did as much racing in 2017 as I did literally in 1992. I think at one point, I don’t know exactly how many weeks we raced in a row, but it was months in a row. We raced NHRA, we match raced, we licensed, and we tested, and I have a lot of miles in an 18-wheeler again. There’s things that you can never get back, and I’m glad I did it.”
ANDERSON ON CUSP OF FIFTH PRO STOCK CHAMPIONSHIP, EARNS SIXTH NO. 1 OF SEASON - It’s not over until the fat lady sings.
Well whoever that person is, she hasn’t performed yet, but she is warming up.
Greg Anderson took one step closer to the fifth NHRA Pro Stock championship of his illustrious career with his sixth No. 1 start of the season to top the 53rd annual Auto Club NHRA Finals Saturday at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona.
Anderson topped the Pro Stock field for the 93rd time in his career in his Summit Racing Equipment Chevrolet Camaro with a weekend-best 6.541-second pass at 209.79 mph set Friday afternoon in Q1, just edging teammate Jason Line who had a 6.546 at 210.14 mph.
Drew Skillman qualified third with a 6.555 at 211.69 mph, while Jeg Coughlin (6.558) and Bo Butner (6.559) round out the top five.
“The great news is, I have a great car. The bad news is, I have to race against two guys who have the same exact equipment that I’ve got,” Anderson said, referring to the battle between his KB Racing teammates Butner and Line. “It’s going to be a battle royale tomorrow. We knew that coming in and as the table was set throughout qualifying, we are exactly where we thought we were going to be. We were all within thousandths of each other and it’s all going to come down to who does what on the starting line and exactly how perfect a run the car makes.
“If I was a betting man, I couldn’t handicap it. We are all even, I just hope my experience comes through for me. But you just never know, anything can happen on race day.”
Anderson came into this weekend with a multiple round lead over Butner and Line, but no matter the final results, a KB Racing Camaro will emerge Sunday with a championship. Whether that is Anderson with his fifth, Line with his fourth or Butner with his very first, only time will tell.
“I said it yesterday, let’s just skip Saturday and get to it. It is a dream scenario for us at KB Racing to have all three of us and only the three of us involved in the championship,” Anderson said. “We’ve got three great cars, three even cars, and while I can’t tell you who is going to win, I know I am going to be excited when I get here in the morning and hopefully I will have a smile by the end of the day.”
With the stage set, Anderson will face Alan Prusiensky in round one, while Butner will square off with Shane Gray and Line draws Deric Kramer.
While Anderson still holds a sizable advantage, he admits that after 1,000 competitive rounds run in his career, he knows never to take anything for granted.
“People keep saying you are in a great position. You should have it in the bag. In the bag? We all run the same and one car has to go two rounds farther and the other has to go three. That can happen any given Sunday,” Anderson said. “Anybody can beat anybody out there in this class and that is the beauty of it. It can happen. It has happened. If I make it to the final, I’ve got it. If I don’t make it to the final, it could come down to those two cars. My job is to make it to the final and there is a long way to go until then.”
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE
KRAWIEC CLOSES TITLE DEAL – With his final qualifying pass down the Auto Club Raceway quarter-mile for the NHRA Finals, Eddie Krawiec officially claimed his fourth NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle championship and his sixth No. 1 qualifier of the season.
Krawiec gave the Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson organization its 12th series crown in the past 20 years and its ninth in 13 campaigns.
After he accepted congratulations from Peter Clifford and a jacket and medal from Coca-Cola/Mello Yello representative Al Rondon, Krawiec quipped, “I’m lookin’ like [flamboyant rapper] Flavor Flav up here with my medal.”
In a more serious tone, Krawiec said, “I attribute this to teamwork.”
He credited his crew chiefs, brothers/multi-time champions Matt Hines and Andrew Hines, and crew members Ray Veirs, Scott Sceurman, and Mike Mullaney, as well as “everybody at Harley-Davidson for their support and NHRA for giving us a great place to race. I just couldn’t do it without my team. I’ve got Matt Hines smiling away, Andrew Hines smilin’ away.” Then his voice choking with emotion, he said, “I’ve got my family. This is something special.”
The seven-time winner this season said he was thrilled to wrap up his quest for the title today and not have to endure a nerve-wracking day of eliminations Sunday: “Usually I’m grumpy as hell on Saturday night, and my wife doesn’t like it. The work isn’t finished yet. We have a race tomorrow. I’m going to do my best to be in the winners circle.”
Krawiec’s first championship, in 2008, was rare because it came without any victories that season. Then he won back-to-back titles in 2011-2012. This one marked a first for the still-brand-new Harley-Davidson Street Rod.
Team co-owner Terry Vance said of his latest champion, “In the last six races he has ridden as good as you can do. Those guys [on the crew] have worked as hard as they can. In Las Vegas, Eddie broke the transmission and Angelle [Sampey] red-lighted. We got lucky with that one. Sometimes you have a year when everything goes your way. He pretty much had this in the bag when he came here.”
For the sixth time this year, Krawiec will start Sunday’s eliminations from the No. 1 spot and will meet No. 16 Lance Bonham in the opening round.
HERE’S ONE FOR THE UNDERDOGS – Lance Bonham aced Australian Luke Crowley (Ipswitch, Queensland) from the field by two-thousandths of a second Saturday. And that played out after Bonham missed his final chance to make a qualifying run because his bike wouldn’t start and he was pushed from the line.
After his decisive run, the Sunnyvale, Calif., racer declared, “I’m so happy! The old, fat guy finally made it in! The Harleys are scared because I’m going to run them.” Bonham slipped into the field with a 7.152-second elapsed time.
Crowley’s best pass was a 7.154. Bonham, who will turn 68 years old this Christmas Eve, has three Harley-Davidson Drag Racing Series Pro Gas victories (Denver, Seattle, Las Vegas) in 2015 and one in 2014 (Salt Lake City).
MIXING IT UP – The Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson trio – the organization’s first race with more than two bikes – dominated the Pro Stock Motorcycle field Friday. In both opening-day sessions, Chip Ellis, Andrew Hines, and Eddie Krawiec – in that order – were atop the line-up. The team continued to rule Saturday, but the order of the three was reversed. After the early Saturday session and on the final grid, Krawiec jumped to the top with a 6.781-second elapsed time on his Street Rod. That edged out Hines’ improved 6.799 (from 6.817) seconds. Ellis’ best time remained his 6.805 from the second session Friday.
DALE ALDO RETIRING – Attending the NHRA Finals at Pomona is one of the last official acts for Dale Aldo before he retires as director of motorsports marketing at Chrysler.
And Mopar-supported drivers Allen Johnson, Jim Campbell, Leah Pritchett, Tommy Johnson Jr., Ron Capps, Matt Hagan, and Jack Beckman shared in his send-off celebration Saturday.
Aldo has worked with Mopar trackside for 10 years. He was a part of six championships in the Pro classes, seven if Capps wins, as well as the 2016 Manufacturers Cup.
His enthusiasm for drag racing extends beyond his own Mopar drivers. He said diversity is a huge feather in the NHRA's cap.
"Another thing that's nice about drag racing is the gender equality," he said. "You see Courtney Force and Erica Enders and Karen Stoffer and Melanie Troxel. It's amazing that you see that. So it's not just a bunch of guys. You see women out there competing and winning, and it's more exciting.
"I have a daughter. We have wives and sisters and mothers and it's good to see women competing equally with men. It's really a very wonderful thing," Aldo said. "And Antron Brown and Erica Enders have won recently. It's a nice diversity. It excites people. And it's inclusive. If nothing else, drag racing is inclusive."
POMONA 2 – NHRA Finals
NITRO CLASS RACES NAIL-BITERS – One year ago, Steve Torrence and Brittany Force shared race data as part of an arrangement whereby tuning consultant Alan Johnson split his time, attention, and expertise. Today all Torrence and Force share is the chance to wear the Top Fuel crown.
Other championship contenders are Doug Kalitta and three-time and reigning titlist Antron Brown, but they have entered this 24th and final event of the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season a respective 84 and 135 points off Torrence’s pace.
Although the NHRA will be awarding 30 points for each elimination round-win rather than the customary 20 at this race, Kalitta and Brown remain mathematically eligible to claim the championship. But Torrence has a mere 20-point advantage over Force as each goes for a first series title. So it appears likely the Top Fuel class will crown a new champion this weekend.
Only Torrence, the scrappy 34-year-old Kilgore, Texas, independent, and Force, the 31-year-old daughter of drag-racing legend John Force and native of nearby Yorba Linda, Calif., control their own destinies. If either one wins the race, he or she also will win the championship.
None of the contenders earned as much as a point in Friday’s opening session. But Force stormed back in the second session with the quickest and fastest pass in the class, at 3.667 seconds and 330.31 mph. She picked up three points and the provisional No. 1 qualifying position, and Torrence earned one as the fourth-quickest in the second session.
“That first [chance] didn’t go as planned, but we put it behind us, came back out, and made an awesome run. And we get two more tomorrow,” Force said.
The winner of this event (who, of course, might not be either Force or Torrence) will earn 150 points, and every racer has arrived here with the chance to rack up as many as 191 points.
That makes the Funny Car title chase just as unpredictable.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun,” current Funny Car king and Ron Capps said. He comes into the event trailing points leader Robert Hight by 15 points. “These are big, big moments, and it’s going to come down to who can get through these big moments without making a mistake. I want to win [a second championship] as much as the first one. Having these moments, it’s something you can enjoy the rest of your life. To do it again would be huge.”
Capps, representing Don Schumacher Racing, and Hight, president of John Force Racing, have set the stage for a showdown between the NHRA’s top two powerhouse organizations. The tension is ratcheted even more because of the starting line altercation two Sundays ago between Force and Schumacher at the previous race, at Las Vegas. But it’s a duel, as well, between Capps’ crew chief, Rahn Tobler, and Hight’s tuner, Jimmy Prock, both of whom have guided their drivers to some impressive achievements this year.
Hight has won four of the past nine races, including the Dallas event, in which he defeated Capps in the final round. He was the first Funny Car driver to dip into the 3.60-second elapsed-time range. He owns both ends of the national record (3.793 seconds, August, Brainerd, Minn., and 339.87, July, Sonoma, Calif.). Hight climbed from as far back as 10th place after Race No. 2 (at Phoenix) to lead the points for one week following his Countdown-opening victory at Charlotte. He has won two Countdown events and has a 42-19 mark in eliminations.
Capps has registered eight victories in 12 rounds and led the standings for nearly the entire season as he has run up a 52-15 record. Capps defeated Hight in the Houston final round but lost to him in the showdown at Dallas. So they split the Texas races – but each wants to be the Lone Star in the Funny Car class after this weekend.
“It is a unique dynamic, and it has played out well for the fans,” Capps said. “You always expect Robert’s team to be in it late, and it’s always been a battle between us. This year, everybody knows about the power Prock makes and the speeds they’re running. With Tobler and our team, we’ve been able to put pressure on our opponent and stay consistent, so the dynamic has been fun. You couldn’t ask for two more different situations. But Robert and I let the cars do the talking. It’s fun to get up there, step on the gas, and see who wins each one.”
“The way I look at a 15-point lead is, we just have to go further than Capps,” Hight said. “No matter what, we need to go one round further than him, or we both lose in the same round, and it’s over. But our goal [coming] into Pomona is to win that race, go in there and go four rounds, and cap off a championship with a huge win at our home track in front of our sponsors, at the Auto Club Finals. That’s what we’re going to do.”
GODSPEED, JUNIOR – Pro Stock Motorcycle racer, team owner, and goodwill ambassador Junior Pippin, who lost his battle with cancer this past Sunday, will be laid to rest Saturday in his hometown of Conyers, Ga. Pippin, 64, whose given name was Lewis G. Pippin, operated Junior Pippin Trucking and fielded the bike Chip Ellis has been racing.
This weekend Ellis is riding the third Harley-Davidson Street Rod that pays tribute to Pippin. And he would have made proud the man he always calls “Mr. Pippin” – he led both Friday qualifying sessions, topping his early 6.839-second pass with a 6.805.
Afterward, Ellis said he didn’t really want to face the media.
"I didn't want to come up here [to the press room]," Ellis said, his voice cracking with emotion. "I knew you were going to make me cry.
“It's heavy. It’s tough. When the bike cranks up, all of that goes away,” he said. “It's all good. We are going to try our best to make it all happen. I'm at a loss for words. These guys are good to me. They are my friends. To have this opportunity to come out on this Screamin' Eagle Harley-Davidson and show out like we have been is pretty awesome."
Eddie Krawiec, on the verge of earning a fourth Pro Stock Motorcycle championship, said he was proud of bosses Byron Hines and Terry Vance for making the suggestion to remember their friend. “In honor of Junior, Chip needs to be racing."
Hector Arana Jr. also said, "It's important that we honor Junior Pippin this weekend. He passed away from cancer this past week, and we're all heartbroken. Junior was a very close friend of my dad, and he was always very cool to me as I came up to the pro ranks. He was a great racer and a better man. He'll be missed."
A wide grin spreading across his face, Hector Arana said, “Junior Pippin rescued me once.” He told how the soft-spoken Georgia native befriended him when he had a mechanical issue with his motorhome last fall at Charlotte. Arana phoned Pippin to ask if he knew anyone from whom he could rent one. Ellis was going to drive one, Arana the other, to St. Louis. But Pippin, despite being seriously ill and forced to sit out races, immediately headed out the door to drive to Charlotte. Pippin went to zMax Dragway to pick up Arana's trailer and delivered it to St. Louis.
That prompted Ellis to call Pippin “the real deal” and the literal definition of a “good human being.”
Pippin is survived by his wife, Lisa Pippin; sons and daughter-in-law, Trent and Sonya Pippin, Derek Pippin, Scot Pippin; and grandchildren, Clarice, Garrett, Sarah and Michael.
Funeral Services will be Saturday at 2 p.m. at Scot Ward's Green Meadow Chapel with Pastor Eric Lee of Light of Calvary Baptist Church officiating. Interment will follow at Green Meadow Memorial Gardens. The family will receive friends Friday evening and Saturday from noon-2 p.m., prior to the service at the funeral home (Scot Ward Funeral Services, 699 American Legion Road, Conyers, GA 30012, 770-483-7216).
On Pippin’s Facebook page, his family posted this message: “The Pippin family sends out their love and thanks for the outpouring of prayers. God's love and speed to everyone.” News of his passing Sunday came with a note from the family that “Junior lost his fight with cancer today, but Heaven was rewarded with one of the most loving, kindest, and hard-working men this world has ever had the privilege to know.”
PRO STOCK’S JOHNSON KEEPING DOOR OPEN – Allen Johnson, the 2012 Pro Stock champion, has won many more times than he has lost in his previous 503 races – his record is 459-371. He has 27 victories in 59 final-round appearances and 37 top-qualifying starts (including at this race in 2010). He has won this event twice against fellow finalist Vincent Nobile (2012, 2015) and was runner-up in 2013 to an overwhelmed and emotional Rickie Jones.
This Sunday, Johnson just might show the same raw passion as Jones did four years ago. Johnson is calling it quits after this weekend, stepping away from the Marathon Petroleum/J&J Dodge Dart – at least on a regular basis. But the numbers and the achievements, as impressive as they are, aren’t all Johnson said he’ll miss.
“I’m trying to be upbeat at this last race and just enjoy the friendships, fans, and atmosphere,” he said. “But to be honest, my retirement is starting to grip me a little bit emotionally. And shoot, it’s hard.”
He first came 22 years ago to what’s known today as Auto Club Raceway fresh from Greeneville, Tenn., energetic after a successful IHRA career, and buoyed by a sense he was in drag-racing Disneyland. He couldn’t get over how he could walk around this storied racetrack at the Winternationals in his shirtsleeves in February, even with snow atop Mt. Baldy as the iconic backdrop for the classic season-opener.
Now he’s at the 2017 Finals, ranked seventh in the Countdown standings. Johnson is resolute not to bow out in the first round like did last year but rather to make a splash, like he did in 2015, when he won the final Pro Stock race in the carburetor era. Or he’d like to top his 2012 showing here.
“My favorite memory of racing in Pomona is when we won the championship in 2012,” Johnson said. “To win those last three races that year and cap off the championship in Pomona has to be one of my favorite memories.”
And Johnson, who said he’s “probably going to do some sportsman racing in the future here and there,” didn’t rule out racing in the Pro Stock class again.
“I don’t have any plans of racing in Pro Stock in the future, but I never say never,” he said. “If someone called me and told me the field was short and they had an extra car for me to drive, I’m not saying I wouldn’t do it.”
SO CAL GAL ENDS IT WHERE SHE STARTED – Alexis DeJoria calls Austin, Texas, her home these days, but the Venice Beach, Calif., native has a special spot in her heart for the Auto Club Raceway at Pomona – Pomona Raceway for most of her life, or simply “Pomona,” drag-racing code word for the birthplace of the sport.
This weekend, as she retires, or at least takes a hiatus from competition, De Joria says this moment is “bittersweet.”
The Tequila Patrón Toyota Camry driver for Kalitta Motorsports said, “Growing up in Southern California, Pomona was ‘the track.’ It was my home track and where I first witnessed NHRA drag racing. As much as I’m looking forward to Pomona this weekend, it’s bittersweet because it’s my final race. This track holds a lot of history for me. It’s where I became the first female in NHRA history to make a three-second Funny Car run and where I became the first woman to compete in 100 Funny Car events. I raced Division 7 here. It’s a special place for me.”
And to kick off her last qualifying experience here, De Joria was second only to Tommy Johnson Jr. early Friday. However, she clocked the class’ fastest speed in that first session at 329.10 mph. She dropped to fourth in the later Friday session but improved both her elapsed time and speed (from 3.902 to 3.887 seconds and from 329.10 to 331.94 mph).
DeJoria, who always has been attracted to hot rods and all fast machines, was 16 years old when a friend first brought her to the Fairplex drag strip for an NHRA event. Now she’s closing a 12-year career in the sport and a six-year stint in a Funny Car, with five victories (including the prestigious U.S. Nationals) and the thrill of breaking numerous records.
“There’s going to be a lot going on this weekend. It will be exciting and fun but, of course, we want to go out with a bang and win our final race together,” she said of her Nicky Boninfante-Tommy DeLago-led crew, “As much as that track means to me, a win there would be unreal.”
It was at the 2016 Circle K NHRA Winternationals that she became the first woman to compete in 100 Funny Car events. Two years earlier - February 8, 2014 – De Joria was the first female to make a three-second Funny Car run (3.997 seconds). And here at this event in 2014, she was the No. 1 qualifier (3.998 seconds).
FAREWELL, SORT OF
MIXED EMOTIONS, ONE GOAL – Shawn Langdon, moving next year from the Top Fuel class to Funny Car, is from Mira Loma, Calif., not far from Auto Club Raceway. And he said “you definitely have extra butterflies coming in,” but he also said “you just roll in with extra confidence.”
Said the driver of the Global Electronic Technology Dragster, “It is a bit of a homecoming and the place where I got my start racing Juniors. It is a great track for me. Pomona is that place for me. I have had a lot of success there in the past, and we are focused on ending my last race in Top Fuel for the time being on a strong note. It is bittersweet, as it is the last time with me with this [Kalitta Motorsports] team. They have worked hard, and it has been a pleasure to be their driver. We have come so close to a win, and we want to get it done this weekend. They deserve it.”
Steve and Samantha Bryson, owners of Global Electronic Technology, thought Langdon’s nephew deserved a Jr. Dragster. And they unveiled their generous gift to five-year-old Caden Casner, of Mira Loma, Calif., before qualifying Friday morning. The delighted recipient – son of Langdon’s sister Stephanie and her husband Cody – signed hero cards they also presented to him and posed for pictures in his dragster. Casner has hung out with cool Uncle Shawn at several races this year.
SANFORD TROOPING FROM ALCOHOL RANKS TO TOP FUEL ONLY – As Ashley Sanford makes her final appearance in the Top Alcohol Dragster class this weekend, she’ll have more than her usual Southern California family and friends in her cheering section at Auto Club Raceway.
The aspiring fulltime Top Fuel racer from nearby Fullerton will host Girl Scouts from the San Gorgonio Council.
The Redlands-headquartered council guides more than 12,000 young ladies, preparing them – in their words – “to empower themselves and the world,” practicing “a lifetime of leadership G.I.R.L. (Go-getter, Risk taker, Innovator, Leader) experiences and connections . . . and take action to make a difference in the world.”
These Scouts explore STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) topics – everything from power tools, the science of ice cream, entrepreneurship, and building a working roller coaster to cybersecurity, computer coding, and space exploration. This Saturday they’ll learn from Sanford how her Top Alcohol Dragster and a Top Fuel dragster work. And Sanford, a former Girl Scout, will inspire them to consider careers in the drag-racing and automotive industry.
“I am thrilled that the Girl Scouts are going to be joining us this weekend at the Auto Club Finals,” Sanford said. “I grew up as a Girl Scout. It was a huge part of my childhood. So to have the opportunity to introduce these young women to drag racing is an amazing platform I'm honored to use.
“I grew up being fearless, never afraid to get my hands dirty, and Girl Scouts shaped me to be that courageous young girl who is now competing head to head with men – unlike any motorsport in the world. They gave me the push to always believe in myself and never give up,” she said. “Without that support I wouldn't be where I am today.”
Sanford earned her license this May at Charlotte, debuted in the Lagana Family’s Top Fuel dragster in September at the U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis, raced for Rapisarda Autosport International at St. Louis, then accepted RAI’s offer to drive one of its cars last weekend at Sydney, Australia, with Lee Beard tuning.
“It is absolutely surreal to say that in my third Top Fuel event, and not even six months of being a licensed Top Fuel driver, I got to expand my driving horizon literally overseas to Sydney, Australia,” Sanford said. “I am humbled, excited, grateful, honored, and I truly hope this is just the beginning of exciting/out of the blue phone calls.
“My experience in Sydney, although so short, was unforgettable,” she said. “[Team owner] Santo Rapisarda, Tino and Junior [Rapisarda brothers and tuners], and the whole Rapisarda crew made me feel like I was at a home away from home. The warmth, hospitality, and overall positive/fun energy that emitted from the pits was unlike anything I've ever seen. I might have been on the other side of the world, but I felt so close to home, thanks to the Rapisarda family.”
According to team insiders, Sanford was a popular choice, one of the most popular to come from the U.S. to race.
“She has a great personality, and the fans loved her effervescent personality,” one said. “She brained ‘em.” (That’s Australian slang for “She wowed them.”)
“She went out of her way to work with the family and made a positive impact, not only with Santo and the boys but the whole extended Rapisarda family,” he said. “She’s a real team player.”
After this weekend’s event at Pomona, Sanford and family will sell their Top Alcohol Dragster equipment. It’s uncertain which team Sanford will drive for in 2018, but she has been working closely with Alan Johnson Racing, the 15-time NHRA championship team, as it explores returning to competition. The plan is to field a two-car operation with Sanford and Swiss newcomer Noah Stutz.
STICKING WITH STRATEGY – Eight-time winner and Top Fuel points leader Steve Torrence knows he got a lucky break at Las Vegas two week ago, when Brittany Force handed the final-round victory to Terry McMillen with her red-light foul. Had she defeated McMillen, she would have entered the Finals tied with Torrence for the lead. And he said he plans to stick to his familiar strategy to fend off her effort this weekend.
“We just need to take care of business on our end and everything’ll be OK. When we go out and everyone on our team does his job, we have been really successful,” Torrence said. “I’ve got the best bunch of guys in the sport, and if we stay calm and stay focused, I have no doubt that we’re up to the challenge. We just need to go in there and try to win the race.
“We don’t want to make the mistake of becoming too conservative,” he said. “We don’t want to treat the Finals any different than any other race. We just want to go out there and do what we’ve been doing all year long. [Crew chief] Richard Hogan and this Capco crew have given me a competitive car at every event, and we’ve gone out there and run as hard as the conditions would allow. That’s been our strategy all year and it’s gotten us twice as many wins as anyone else, so why would we change?”
Torrence finished third in the standings last year, and he’s trying to become the first driver in NHRA history to win series championships in both the Alcohol and Fuel categories. He was the NHRA Top Alcohol Dragster champion in 2005.
FORCE STAYING CALM – Brittany Force, poised to follow in the footsteps of her 16-time-Funny-Car-champion father John Force, has her own way of preparing herself. She’s relying on logic.
“Looking at this team and this car, I know we’re totally capable of winning it,” she said, referring to her Monster Energy Dragster and her Brian-Husen/Alan Johnson-guided crew.
“I don’t try to focus on the big picture of the Countdown and how many points you need. I try to look at it at the end of the day,” Force said. “Obviously, I hear things and how many rounds out we are, but my main focus is one round at a time. That’s the way I approach it. Some drivers feed off how many points they are behind and how far they are back, but for me, I do it one round at a time. It’s too much pressure, too much on my plate if I look at it another way. And then my focus is lost. It’s not in the right place. It’s not in the car. It’s a distraction. For me, less distraction is better when I’m in the car.”
However, she has succumbed, at least slightly, to the urge to calculate her chances.
“Going to the No. 1 spot, I know how many points I gained. I’m excited about that. I’m pumped about it,” she said. “There’s a lot of pressure. There’s a lot on the line. And were right there. We could take this thing home, or we could lose it, let it slip right between our fingers. You have to have your mind in the right place.”
But she’s human, and naturally she is excited about her opportunity.
“It seems unreal to be here,” Force said. “I’ve watched my dad win 16 championships, and coming into my fifth year, I’m still trying to wrap my head around winning a single race. That’s so huge for me, so exciting. That’s something I’m so proud of. And now to be thinking that we’re in the hunt for a championship, it just seems unreal.”
Force is a three-time winner this year, and two of her victories have come in the first five Countdown races (at Charlotte and Dallas). She also reached the final round at Las Vegas, two weeks ago. Her first victory this season happened in June at Epping, N.H.
KALITTA ALSO IN THE MIX – Once again, Doug Kalitta has a chance on the final weekend of the season to claim his first Top Fuel championship. What might be helpful to the Mac Tools Dragster driver is his confidence in his return to Pomona as the 2016 winner.
“Pomona has been a very good track for myself and the Mac Tools team,” the third-seeded racer said. “We picked up the win there last season, and our goal is to finish the season strong again with a win at the Auto Club Finals.”
He’s seventh in the line-up after two Friday attempts.
Kalitta, who won the Countdown opener at Charlotte, has advanced to four final rounds this year (including the Winternationals here in February and at Norwalk and St. Louis). At Pomona, he has two victories, including the 2006 Winternationals. He’s ninth all-time with 621 round-wins and fifth all-time in Top Fuel with 43 victories.
SALINAS IN SPOILER MODE – Mike Salinas isn’t the least bit shy about his spoiler role this weekend. The 56-year-old San Jose, Calif., scrap-metal industry entrepreneur is making only his seventh appearance in this last of 24 Mello Yello Drag Racing Series events. But he has some ambitious goals.
He wants to earn lane choice for Sunday eliminations when he qualifies his bright orange Scrappers Dragster. That means he needs to be eighth or better on the 16-car grid. And he wants to reach at least the semifinal round. He figures he would need career-best numbers.
Based on the fact he has qualified at every race he has entered, his round-win at Bristol, Tenn., over eventual U.S. Nationals runner-up Kebin Kinsley, and his first-round victory at Seattle against Shawn Langdon, Salinas said he’s confident. And he said he wants to lay a strong foundation from which he can build his 2018 Countdown bid in his first fulltime season.
Salinas claimed the tentative No. 9 spot early Friday and ended up 15th, ahead of Tony Schumacher and still-unqualified Terry McMillen, the Las Vegas winner, and Shawn Langdon.
Salinas’ wife Monica and four racing daughters – Jasmine, Jacquelin, Jianna Rose and Janae – are among the team he carefully assembled and trained. Then he acquired the services of experienced crew chief Doug Kuch and tuning consultant Alan Johnson.
SCHUMACHER PRAGMATIC – Tony Schumacher could win his ninth Top Fuel championship pretty much only if those ahead of him in the standings parked their cars this weekend. But the U.S. Army Dragster driver isn’t whining about having to play out this weekend. “Believe it or not,” he said, “we’re really looking forward to it, which is pretty much the case every race weekend with this U.S. Army team.”
It’s Veterans Day weekend, and Schumacher and Matco Tools/U.S. Army/Toyota Dragster driver Antron Brown – along with their five fellow Don Schumacher Racing mates – will be accompanied on stage by U.S. Army Soldiers during driver introductions Sunday.
It’s the end to a long season, one that didn’t go exactly as Schumacher had planned, but he was gracious: “We want to say hats off to Steve Torrence for the incredible year he and his team have had and to the teams that still have a shot at beating him for the championship. We’re also looking forward to an awesome bout between [DSR’s Ron] Capps and [Robert] Hight for the Funny Car championship. You know, it’s always nice to once in a while enjoy someone else’s good fortune. We’re an awesome race team with an incredible winning record, a championship heritage. Having won championships, we can really enjoy someone else’s championship efforts because we know every little thing that goes into winning them, just what it takes to earn it. Capps is another of our DSR brethren and he’s on the verge of clinching his second straight championship.”
For his own team, he said “it’ll be business as usual. We are going to try and win the race. We’re well aware of the points situation and the fact we can finish as high as third in the points if everything falls into place for us. That would be all well and good, but we’ve first got to go in with the mindset of trying to win this race. The points will take care of themselves, as they always do. If you’re not No. 1 at the end of the season, it really doesn’t matter where you end up, does it? It’s all about winning. This is the best time to win because, if you don’t, you really have a long wait until you get your next chance.”
The thrill of dramatic finishes has been his in years past but not this year. Just the same, Schumacher said, “We’re just going to go out and do our job, be a machine, do the same thing every time and try and try and try. I’m also proud to say there’s not a team out here that tries harder. There are a lot of teams out here that perform well, but there’s no one who works harder than my guys. The kind of adversity we’ve faced this season is half the battle. It’s all about getting through the adversity, keeping us on the track, and winning races. We may not be able to go out and win the championship this year, but we can change the direction of other stuff. So now the goal becomes going out with a win. We’ve just got to go out and make that happen so we can spend the winter remembering that we know how to win.”
NEWBY STARTS OUT THIRD – Leah Pritchett was unable to erase her own track elapsed-time record of 3.672 seconds that she set in February, but she took the provisional lead in the first session with a 3.712, .017 of a second quicker than No. 2 Clay Millican.
Third (at 3.819 seconds) was Wayne Newby, who’s back in the U.S. for the first time since the September Countdown race at Reading, Pa. Ashley Sanford last drove the car, at St. Louis.
After his pass, Newby said, “Got to be happy anytime you make a run and end up in third spot. The boys [crew chief brothers Santo Jr. and Tino Rapisarda] made changes in the clutch, and it worked. I was happy to bring the car back with no parts damaged. No issues. Ready to step up for Qualifying 2.”
He picked up some more horsepower later in the day, improving to 3.785, with a speed of 324.59 mph that topped his 322.96 from earlier. But he’ll start Saturday from eighth place.
“The car was great off the trailer,” Santino Rapisarda said. “We made some changes in the clutch area to what we ran at our last start in America. When we pulled the engine apart, it was all good. The plan for the [second] session [was] to stand on it, because we want to grab a top-10 spot.”
When they did that, he said, “To be in the top 10 at the end of the day is a great result. The team is excited going into Day 2. The plan is to consolidate our spot in the top half of the field and run quicker tomorrow.”
RECURRING DREAM – Funny Car points leader Robert Hight agreed with chief rival Ron Capps and his own Top Fuel-contender teammate Brittany Force that the wait between the Las Vegas race two weeks ago and this title-deciding finale seems like an eternity. And the anxiety has triggered a restless night’s sleep for him every night. This title chase is nothing like the one he mastered in 2009. “In 2009, all I had to do [in this race] was qualify. I said to win the championship this year, you need to win three races, and Ron and I each have won two.”
He said he has the same dream every night, and it takes him to the brink of a showdown with Capps.
“And it left me hanging every single night,” Hight said. “Didn’t win. Didn’t lose. I’m not sure what that’s telling me, except it’s time to go racing.”
But he was quick to say, “It’s a dream to be in this position. It’s not a nightmare. It’s a dream.”
It had a scary twist Friday, though. Hight has two chances Saturday to make the field. He’s 17th out of 18 entrants.
SNAP-ON RE-UPS WITH PEDREGON – Cruz Pedregon said that as his self-described “challenging year” winds to a perhaps-merciful close, he has heard some fanciful rumors, especially after he hinted he would make an announcement Friday. He maybe only half-jokingly said, “A lot of people were wondering what the announcement was about. Was I going to join the circus? Or am I going to join the World of Outlaw sprint car racing? That’ll come down the road, but for now I still have a lot of good years in me.”
Snap-on Tools must think so, too, for the two-time champion revealed his primary sponsor has extended its partnership with him for the next three years, through 2020.
“Obviously, sponsorships are really what keep the cars out on the race track, and companies like Snap-On, Toyota, especially Snap-On, they’ve been behind me 100 percent, through thick and thin. That’s what keeps the stars on the track for the fans and all the franchisees out there. But for me, it will allow me to further get my team back to where I want it, and that’s winning races,” he said.
Crew chief Aaron Brooks’ job is safe, Pedregon indicated. Moreover, he said he plans to add – in his words – “another couple key players during the off season to enhance what I’m building here.” He wouldn’t divulge who he plans to acquire, but Competition Plus has learned Brooks’ reinforcements might include a veteran crew member who has worked for Don Schumacher Racing, Kalitta Motorsports, and John Force Racing.
“It’s no secret that I brought on a very high-profile crew chief in Aaron Brooks this year, and we’ve had a little bit of growing pains, but I can tell you right now the way the car sits in the trailer before we unload it here for Friday, it’s going to be one of the top cars,” he said. “I feel like we’ve turned the corner with the set-up on the car. A lot of people looked at this year as, ‘Hey, what are you going to do, Cruz? Are you going to fire Aaron?’ Just a bunch of speculation.
“I want everyone to know that I’m building a program here,” Pedregon said. “It’s one thing to bring people in, but I’m building this for the long haul, for the long term. Hey, Aaron is, like I said, we’ve had our struggles, but we’ve seen the light at the end of the tunnel and I couldn’t be more excited. We had flashes the last couple of races. We did test in Vegas Monday and ran a 3.88 at an early-shut-off 320. Aaron actually goes, ‘Hey, what did you shut it off for?’ We were trying to run 330, but we’ll show it here. Hopefully the first run or two here, we’ll get it right.”
They didn’t. Pedregon has the provisional No. 15 spot in the order after two sessions. He has two more chances to move away from Jim Campbell on the bump spot and fend off points leader Robert Hight and JR Todd, who surprisingly aren’t in the field yet.
“I feel like I’m driving the best I’ve ever driven. These cars are more difficult to drive, as you’ve seen a lot of cars [have difficulty] keeping them straight. But I feel like the experience serves me well. I’m looking forward to the next, certainly the next three years,” he said.
“I’m sure the day will come where I’m going to announce that I’m probably going to leave the sport. But for right now, we’re alive and well, and like I said, I’m going to use all of my experience, along with Aaron and some other people,” Pedregon said. “We want to prove that this is for the little guy out there, the little teams, [that] the single-car teams can still get the job done. I couldn’t think of a better place to announce this than in front of my home folks here. Let’s get it on, baby.”
He said, “Any sponsorship, really, that has any longevity, it’s not just putting a sticker on a car. It’s interacting with the company’s people. And I interact with the franchisees throughout the country. In fact, if you notice, I’m not here on Thursdays. I’m out visiting a local franchisee in different regions, and I go and I usually physically ride in the truck, visit the customers, say thank-you for supporting us and buying our product. Snap-On kind of sells itself. It’s the best tool in the world, but it’s really nice for me to be a part of that, going to the shops and dealerships across the country and support the people that support us.
“It’s a business situation for Snap-O. Without the hospitality that we have at the track, my ride-alongs and all the different things, this doesn’t happen. They do provide the funding to put me on the track, so I roll up my sleeves during the week and on the weekend, I come out here and try to accomplish my goals. I’d like to win a third championship.
It’s going to be tough. The competition’s never been tougher in Funny Car, but I feel everything I’ve ever learned through my owners – the Joe Gibbses, the Larry Minors, everybody, my dad, I’m applying to what I’m doing now. So don’t look at what we’ve done this year as being an indication. We’re moving up. The needle’s pointing up for us, so we’re excited.”
Brooks said, "Making the switch from Top Fuel to Funny Car has been challenging and rewarding, in that we've restructured this team to allow Cruz to concentrate on driving. But he's still key to the game plan we create for each race. We've taken all of our results and combined them into what I believe will be a winning strategy for the seasons ahead.”
WANTS FIRST POMONA VICTORY – Tim Wilkerson never has won at Pomona and hasn’t been to a final round here since 1998, when Ron Capps beat him. So it’s no wonder the Levi, Ray & Shoup Ford Mustang driver said, "It would be so bitchin’ to win Pomona. Points and a half [here], maybe I can catch one of the guys ahead of me. We'll see, but I would sure like to keep the other guys behind me, and it would really be a feather in my hat after JR Todd beat me twice at races I should have won. That irritated me, but they just did a better job than we did at those races. We're going to keep on it, though. I've been to the finals in Pomona once, and it would be so exciting to get there again. I just need to focus, and my guys need to keep their chins up. That's what we need. They've never lost faith in me, and so far, that's kept us going."
Wilkerson is ranked eighth in the standings, and no matter what happens this weekend, he’ll be assured a top-10 finish for the 13th time in his career that spans two decades. The Springfield, Ill., owner-driver-tuner is seeking his first victory of the year and the first since the Charlotte Four-Wide Nationals in the spring of 2016.
He closed Friday in the tentative fifth spot in the lineup.
KB/SUMMIT TEAM 1-2-3 – Jason Line, the current and three-time Pro Stock champion, knows his chances are realistic but more remote for repeating his title. However, the No. 3-ranked KB/Summit Racing Equipment Camaro driver, who’s 76 points out of first place, took hope in that outside chance of overtaking teammate Greg Anderson.
"You never know – I could break Greg's leg before first-round and maybe I'll win the race,” Line joked. “But I don't want to win that way. When it comes down to the championship, crazy things have happened both for us and against us in the past. That's why you go there and race instead of working it all out on paper. A lot of the time, on paper, it looks like one thing, but in reality, it's another. We'll see what happens, but right now, I'm happy. I'm proud to be part of this team."
His team is 1-2-3 in the standings, with Bo Butner in second place, 40 points behind Anderson.
And Anderson showed no signs of slowing down. He ran a 6.541-second elapsed time Friday to take the tentative No. 1 qualifying position. Line is sixth overnight and Butner seventh.
Butner, who led in points much of the regular season, said, “We said all year long that we wanted to be 1-2-3 at the end, and now we're almost there and it's looking like that could very well happen. I'm proud to be part of this team, and proud of what we've accomplished so far. We've got one more to go. We've got the best guys, and I know we'll have my car figured out. We’re going to do our same routine, and if it's meant to be, it'll happen. The big, tall guy behind us [meaning third-place Line] could sneak up on us."
Butner, a Comp champion, has won here at Pomona in Stock and Super Stock.
Anderson, tied for the most victories here in Pro Stock history with 12, including six at this Finals event, knows one more victory guarantees him a fifth championship. But he also knows his teammates are tricky to shake. Butner has won four times this year, and Line perked up again with a triumph at Dallas during the Countdown.
He mock-complained that he wished the points-and-a-half format had been the policy last year, when he lost the title by three points. “I would have won if they had changed that last year. I can’t get my years right.
“This is a dream come true for us,” Anderson said, “but now we have to go out there and settle it amongst ourselves. It's great to have that 40-point lead with my red Summit Racing Chevy Camaro, but still, each round will be worth 30 points in Pomona. This isn't over yet. As great of a weekend we had in Las Vegas, to only come out 40 points ahead, you'll probably have to win the race [here] if you're going to be world champ. That's the way it should be, though. You have to earn every inch of it. I expect a complete knock-down, drag-out brawl." He said he had expected more than three teams to remain in the hunt at this point: “It looked like we were going to have five or six a couple of races ago.”
Candidly, he said it’s not 100-percent accurate that he and his teammates are happy for the other two and are satisfied no matter which one is crowned champion. “I’m supposed to feel that way, and I tell everyone I do,” Anderson said. “But there’s going to be two of us three with bruised egos on Sunday night.” And he said he had his turn to suffer hurt feelings last November.
Anderson said his operation has no “team orders” and just has a special dynamic.
"We try to operate as an open book on this team, and we want to make every car we have as fast as it can be,” Anderson, the 90-time winner, said. “It's just our M.O., and I guess it just comes down to the fact that we do the best we can to beat ourselves – but that's what's so neat about KB Racing. We can't predict what's going to happen. You want them all to be even and let the drivers and crew chiefs settle it. I can't say enough about this race team. It's wonderful to be a part of it. It certainly makes my job more difficult, but that's why I love it so much."
ENDERS READY TO MAKE RUN FOR THIRD TITLE – Erica Enders knows she got a bit spoiled after winning back-to-back Pro Stock championships in 2014 and 2015. Several critical changes in the class turned out to be hurdles in her quest to “three-peat,” but the Melling Performance/Elite Motorsports Camaro driver said she’s ready to take on the competition in 2018.
"When you've been champions it's definitely a bummer when you don't do it again. You get spoiled and addicted to the success,” she said. “But the reality is it's very hard to do what we do and to have great results year after year. There's been a lot of changes since we won our second title. For the second year in a row we didn't quite have the season we wanted or expected. But this season we made so many strides in the right direction that we have huge expectations for our future.
"The key is having the right people around you to overcome and adapt. We're on our way to another championship year, no doubt, and it very well could be next season,” Enders said. “That's the plan. I know I have the best team in the sport, from [owner] Richard Freeman, to our engine guys on to the crew chiefs and mechanics, we're world-class. It's not a matter of 'if.' It's a matter of 'when' for us."
At this race in 2014, Enders clinched the title in a final-round victory against Jason Line.And she remembered it well: "Pomona has been decent to us, especially when we won that winner-take-all race in 2014. I mean, we had to win the race and beat our biggest rival that year, Jason Line, to earn the title – and we did it. There's a lot of history here, and the races always symbolize either the start or the end of a season, so there is always a level of excitement. We're ready to race and close out strong."
She’s fifth on the grid with two more sessions.
GRAY WANTS TO ‘GO OUT SWINGING’ – Tanner Gray has participated in just one Countdown to the Championship. He’s a rookie. But he speaks as though he has years of competition. Then again, sometimes he can’t deny his youthful enthusiasm. “Coming into Pomona sitting No. 4 isn’t the place we wanted to be in order to win the championship. We have had an incredibly blessed season and one for the record books, for sure,” he said. “We are going to go out swinging this weekend and give it all we got.”
Dad Shane Gray will join him in trying to upset championship hopes for the KB/Summit trio of Greg Anderson, Bo Butner, and Jason Line.
Shane Gray will be making his first appearance since the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals. There the Gray family made history along with patriarch Johnny Gray. It marked the first time three generations raced in the same NHRA professional class. This time quasi-retired Shane’s entry into the field the focus isn’t history. It’s all about the future.
“Racing in Pomona this weekend will give our Valvoline Chevy Camaro team more data heading into the off season, and allow us to prepare for next season," Shane Gray said. "We are constantly looking at ways to find more power to win more races.”
At the beginning of the season, Shane Gray had decided he was going to run a limited 2017 schedule. “I knew heading into this season that I was going to take a supporting role to both Tanner and Drew [Skillman], and it’s been a blast watching these two young men win rounds and races.
“Our Gray Motorsports team has had a hell of a year," Shane Gray said. "Our engine program has boomed, and we have seen a ton of success with both Tanner and Drew.”
The success likely isn’t over for this camp. Tanner Gray is considered the frontrunner for the Auto Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award that will be awarded Monday night at the NHRA awards ceremony at Hollywood, California. He has five victories and the distinctions of being the youngest driver to win an NHRA national event and having the most victories in a rookie Pro Stock season.
COUGHLIN LOOKING TO ‘SURPRISE SOME FOLKS’ – Jeg Coughlin, who just two weeks ago watched brother Troy Coughlin Sr. earn another J&A Service Pro Modified championship at Las Vegas, is ready for his own season finale. And despite recording six of his 58 Pro Stock victories at this racetrack, Coughlin said he’s hoping “we may be able to surprise some folks."
He said, "We had a promising start to the year and raced to a few finals and racked up a few low qualifiers. But the second half turned into a struggle for us. So it was great to see us rebound a bit in Vegas and get that No. 5 spot in the elimination field. We feel like the car is there.”
Pomona has a special vibe of its own, Coughlin indicated: “Fortunately for me, drag racing seasons always start and end in Pomona, which is one of my favorite places on Earth. The history of the facility, the excitement that comes with both races here -- be it the start of a new year or the crowning of our champions -- always makes this an event where the emotions are running high. We've had great fortune here in the past, and we'd love to recreate some of that and return to the winners circle again.
"More than anything, I'd like to win one for the team," he said. "These guys in the yellow and black shirts have busted their knuckles for us all year, and it would be very rewarding for me personally to share the winners circle with them. We'll certainly do all we can to make it happen."
He’s off to a good start: third, just three-thousandths of a second behind No. 2 Drew Skillman.
TUCKER HOPES TO SHAKE GLITCH - Australian Shane Tucker has returned to Pomona for the first time since his NHRA debut in 2014. This isn’t his first race since then, by any means. But this weekend he’ll be dealing with a bit of a question mark with his Gray Motorsports-affiliated Hot Wheels™ Car Care Products Camaro.
After he lost to Bo Butner in the opening round two weeks ago, Tucker turned the cockpit over to co-crew chief Tommy Lee for a Monday-after test session at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. But, Tucker said, “It didn’t exactly go as planned. We had to take out our good engine and test the spare. We had an electrical issue that potentially could’ve been playing havoc on us since the Dallas race. So it’s good to be able to find something that’ll help us out this weekend in Pomona.”
He said he’s excited to be back on this racetrack: “I made my debut there but haven’t made it back until now, so I’m excited to get back. This track is where it all started for the sport, and they always get a great crowd. Since this is where I made my debut, it will always be special to me. I think Pomona is different than anywhere else NHRA goes.”
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE
ELLIS SALUTES PIPPIN WITH NO. 1 SHOWING – Chip Ellis said when Terry Vance called him a week or so ago and invited him to join the Vance & Hines team at this event, he asked if they were needing a crew member. He thought they wanted him to turn wrenches. He didn’t understand at first that they wanted him to ride a Harley-Davidson Street Rod test bike that doubled as a tribute Junior Pippin, who passed away last Sunday.
Ellis made the most of his offer and led the field in both sessions Friday, heading a 1-2-3 Vance & Hines contingent.
"They just gave me a good bike, and a great tune-up," Ellis said. "I think what was really cool was that was only my second lap on that motorcycle. It's a brand-new bike they just built. Andrew [Hines] tested it after Vegas, and it seems to be running good.
"They made those couple of passes in Vegas, and Terry Vance called me and asked if I wanted to come out and ride it. I thought he was short on crew guys, but then he said he wanted me to ride the new bike they just built. I thought to myself, 'How cool is that?’ And he wanted me to wear my Junior Pippin leathers, too. And that was even cooler. I told him I was on my way."
Said Ellis, "The bike is working good. I'm glad I am able to do this and give them good feedback and represent my friend.
"There's only ever been two Harleys out here, and when Andrew tested this bike, he said it was fast. He pushed Byron [Hines, his dad] and Terry [Vance] to bring it out here and run it. I'm just privileged to do it, and so far we've done very good."
It wasn’t a perfect day, but it was pretty close.
"The first run, I went a little bit crooked, and I didn't realize it had gone as fast as it had,” Ellis said. “It's exciting. It's beyond awesome. I'm here to support Mr. Pippin. His wife wanted me to come out. We came out here because that's what he would want."
He said, “Racing inspired is an understatement. I'm not riding my own bike. I'm riding a new bike which has taken all of my focus to get it down the track. For me, that's good. I am not thinking about anything else but just riding that bike. I'm trying to make good laps to give these guys good data. That way they can get back to the shop and determine whether this chassis is good."
Team riders Hines and Eddie Krawiec are slightly heavier than Ellis, and the qualifying leader said, "That was a big thing yesterday. We had to put 35 pounds on that bike. It helped in the 60-foot and mile per hour. They are learning the tune-up, and I am learning the bike."
KING KRAWIEC? – Eddie Krawiec’s bid for a fourth Pro Stock Motorcycle championship is virtually a cinch. He leads No. 2 L.E. Tonglet by 150 points. Andrew Hines, his third-seeded teammate has ruled himself out of contention, 201 points out of first place. So all Krawiec has to do is qualify to claim another championship. And that’s something he has done at every race since 2007.
He has four victories in this season-ender, but never has he won in a title year. “I’ve never won the championship and the final race in Pomona in the same year, so my goal is to put that stat aside,” Krawiec said. “We still want to go out there and win the race. That’s our goal, and you always go to win the race. That’s something you don’t want to change.”
The Vance & Hines Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson racer has four victories in five playoff races this season, stringing together one of the most dominant playoff runs in NHRA history.
His playoff momentum began at the U.S. Nationals, the regular-season finale at Indianapolis. There he led the field and won the race. Then in the Countdown, he recorded back-to-back victories at Charlotte and Reading before a second-round exit at St. Louis. Then he bounced back, grabbing trophies at Dallas and Las Vegas. With that he has built a 17-1 elimination-round mark during the playoffs.
“It’s been great, and we had luck when we needed it. And I was good when I needed to be good,” the seven-time 2017 winner said. “This has just been one of those times where it’s just all rolled my way. But I was good when I needed to be, and honestly, it all worked out great. For a stretch like this, you couldn’t ask for anything more. You have to be mistake-free, and I feel like I did a good job of that. I feel like I demonstrated I performed well under pressure. Sometimes you do fumble or make a mistake, but I feel like I’ve been there the whole time. What makes this championship stand out is there are a lot of great motorcycles out there that can beat you. When you look at the performance of everybody and the class as a whole, it’s really good.”
WANTS THAT WIN – Lucas Oil Buell racer Hector Arana Jr. has had a season most of his Pro Stock Motorcycle competitors would envy: four final-round appearances and a No. 3-ranking in the standings. But he doesn’t have a victory so far in 2017.
"I want to win in the worst way," Arana Jr. said. "It would be the perfect way to end the year. I've won Pomona before [in 2014], and I think we showed in Las Vegas that our bike and our engines are right where they need to be to give us the chance. It's simply a matter of everything coming together in
He qualified No. 2 in the Las Vegas field and advanced to the final round, but champ-in-waiting Eddie Krawiec defeated him by a mere .015 seconds. It was a gratifying rebound from two first-round losses.
"We really have no explanation for what happened in St. Louis and Dallas," Arana Jr. said. "For some reason, we weren't getting the same numbers we'd been getting all year. And between Dallas and Las Vegas, and now between Las Vegas and Pomona, we're doing the same standard service we
"There's a tendency to make massive changes when you have an off-weekend, and it's tough to stick to the bigger plan. But we had the discipline to do that, and it paid off big-time in Vegas. Now I hope it carries over to Pomona, because we're anxious to get another win."
"We have the data to work from and we have two bikes that both qualified in the top half of the field in Vegas," Arana Jr. said. "I think we have a really good chance to take the trophy.”
IT’S THE LUCAS OIL WINTERNATIONALS – Lucas Oil Products has signed a multi-year agreement to become the title sponsor of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series’ Winternationals, the traditional season-opening race at Pomona, Calif.
Corona, Calif.-headquartered Lucas Oil is a longstanding partner of NHRA, supporting several ongoing drag racing series, events, and facilities: Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series, the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals in Brainerd, Minn., and Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis at Brownsburg, Ind.
The 58th annual Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals presented by ProtectTheHarvest.com will be Feb. 8-11, 2018.
“Lucas Oil has been such an important and integral part of NHRA drag racing,” said NHRA CEO Peter Clifford said. “We couldn’t ask for a better title sponsor to launch us into a great 2018 season and appreciate their partnership.”
“We are pleased to add another exciting national event to our lineup of title sponsorships in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series,” Forrest Lucas, president and CEO of Lucas Oil Products, said. “Lucas Oil started in Southern California, so this title sponsorship is a natural fit.”