CAPCO CREW MEMBER DISCUSSES NEW RESOLVE – Steve Torrence understandably was monumentally disappointed that he didn’t close the 2017 as the Top Fuel championship. He won eight times in 11 final-round appearances, was 56-16 on race day, led the standings on three separate occasions following 10 of 24 races, and won both the U.S. Nationals and Traxxas Nitro Shootout with all the momentum heading into the Countdown. But a massive crash at Dallas, from which he was blessed to escape unhurt, set his program back at the worst possible. He battled gamely but never recaptured the magic and watched Brittany Force take the title.

The emotional toll takes time to erase, And that’s true, as well, for Torrence’s loyal and hard-working Capco Contractors Dragster crew.   

Clutch specialist Gary Pritchett, whose wife Leah Pritchett dogged Torrence for Top Fuel supremacy all season long from the Don Schumacher Racing camp, said after the 2017 experience, “We’ve got something to prove this year.”

Never mind that they started last season with something to prove, too – and they did. And that was that a single-car team could compete seriously and contend for a championship. But once again, they will begin a season with a defiant attitude, not particularly as underdog but as a team with unfinished business.  

“[Car chief] Bobby Lagana says it best: If we have half the season we had last year, it’s a success,” Gary Pritchett said. “We won eight races. I mean, that doesn’t happen. So if we could reverse that, maybe win a couple, or we end the same. If we could just win the championship, that’d be great. I mean, in 2016, we finished third, in 2017 we finished second, now 2018 might be meant to be to finish one. Three, two, one.”

Of the 81-point deficit, he said, “It was close.” But it wasn’t Pritchett’s first such experience.

“In 2007, I was on Hot Rod Fuller’s car. Same deal, in Pomona we lost it,” he said. “Somebody else won it, and it was there for the taking, same deal. We were ahead. We had the bullseye on our back, and we lost it, you know, with Fuller. Pressure gets to you. What got us here was when we had that accident, when he [Torrence] wrecked. It hurt us. You know, it’s hard to recover from that. That’s what got us a lot.”

He agreed that the team recovered as well as possible: “We did.”

Still, the fact remains, he said, that “Brittany won four races last year. She won three of them in the Countdown. So I mean, they just came on at the right time.”

Torrence spoke out about the drawbacks of the Countdowns’ six-race format on that last day of the 2017 season. Pritchett said, “Oh yeah. You can argue it all day.”0

Pritchett said, “Winning Indy last year and winning the Shootout, that was so special. Most of us have never won Indy, and then we won, we doubled up and that was just so special to do that, too. You know, that’s like winning the Super Bowl. It was awesome.

“We doubled up that year in ’07, too, with Fuller. And we almost won the championship. It’s like deja vu. I’m like, ‘Ah, man, we’re going to do it this year.’ It hurt. It hurt bad. A lot of us . . .the [newest] guy on this team has 11 years’ experience, maybe 10 years.”

And that’s a long time to wait to get that close and lose the opportunity on the final day of the season.

BROWN SEES BRIGHT FUTURE – Both Antron Brown and wife Billie Jo, who are celebrating their wedding anniversary this week, have grown up in drag-racing families, his in New Jersey, hers in Louisiana. So naturally they passed along their passion to their children. All three have raced Junior Dragsters from an early age, and they’ve learned life lessons – the same ones Brown is learning as he and the Matco Tools Dragster team prepare for a run at a fourth Top Fuel championship: “You’ve got to put the work in. If you’re struggling, you’ve got to go test. If you want to get better, you’ve got to test to get it right.”

And, perhaps prophetically, 13-year-old Anson Brown spoke to his father’s 2018 title chase.

“By working hard, Anson won the Junior Dragster championship this past year,” Antron Brown said. “The funny thing was his speech at the championship when he got up and said, ‘Well, Dad, since you’re not going to win a championship this year, at least you can celebrate mine with me.’”

Despite advancing to 10 final rounds last season, winning four times, and compiling a 53-20 elimination-round record, Brown finished fourth in the Countdown last year. ”It’s definitely not where we want to finish. At the end of the day, we had a very competitive season,” he said, adding that “I feel the future is going to be bigger and brighter.”

Looking back, Brown said, “We got into the Countdown and our timing was off. We struggled with a lot of problems we don’t usually have.  We fought through them, but we just seemed to be racing the wrong car at the wrong time. Now it’s time for a new chapter for this team and time to get better.  

“This is a new beginning for us,” he said, alluding to the rise of longtime crewman Brad Mason to co-crew chief with Mark Oswald following Brian Corradi’s departure to John Force Racing. “It’s going to be fun and exciting – and we’re coming after them.”

He said the (in his eyes) subpar performance “absolutely” strengthened his and his team’s resolve.

“We had a lot of shifting around this off-season, and it’s no big secret that we lost one of our crew chiefs. That’s a blow to us. It’s like losing one of your all-star players. But it also gives a chance for one of other guys in line to stand up,” Brown said. “Mark Oswald has run cars for us before, and he’s the lead. He’ll have Brad Mason by his side running this Matco Tools Toyota Dragster this year. A number of our guys stepped up, and we’ve made a couple of great additions. Now it’s a new chapter. We have some younger blood with Brad. Mark is so pristine on how he handles all the data and analyzes things. Brad’s been putting together our cars for years, so we’ll have a bright future with a good one-two punch. It re-energized me, as well. I’m learning more about the race car where I was more off it before. Now they’re filling me in and I feel the future is going to be bigger and brighter.”

Oswald concurred: “Last year, we had a better year than it appeared. It just didn’t end up that way. We didn’t have the good races when we needed to. We were stronger in the early part of the season. In the end, we’re all here for the championship. We’ve all won races, and it’s nice because that’s what pays the money. But for us, the championship is the prize.

“We’re here testing to get back on track and get some of the new guys acclimated to their jobs, as well as getting some of the other guys on the team transitioned into new positions. I’m tickled to death for Brad Mason. I know he’s going to do great,” Oswald said.

Brown said he, too, needed to get back into the groove: “This off-season I actually took more time off from the extra activities like TV [hosting] and going non-stop. I just shut it down and took December off, and then after Christmas I got back into the gym. I’ve been around the shop and seeing that the boys have it all under control. I’m rested. I’m fit and I’m ready to go.”

GOT TO GO – Richie Crampton ran a 3.867-second elapsed time in the Kalitta Air Dragster Saturday morning, then headed to Sky Harbor Airport. He was in a rush to get home to Indianapolis because he learned wife Stephanie had gone into labor. The couple is about to add a son to the family, a brother for daughter Emma.  


BROWN GIVES CONTEXT TO DIVERSITY – February brings a celebration of black history across America. And Antron Brown addressed the notion he’s still the only black champion in major American auto-racing history.

“It’s very humbling, and it’s been a blessing,” he said. “There were a lot of people that raced before me who paved the way for me. I had a lot of people that I looked up to, including my dad, my uncle, and my grandfather who started it off in my family. And then there were different people like Wendell Scott on the NASCAR side, James Stewart from SuperCross, as well as Lewis Hamilton in F1 overseas. To be one of those trailblazers is definitely a blessing, but it’s also part of my duty to go out here and let these younger kids and teenagers look at me and say, ‘If Antron Brown can do it, I can do it.’

“I want them to know that when I grew up I was just like them where I had the same dreams. I had a lot of determination and drive, but the thing was I never stopped,” Brown said. “I put myself out so when I got the opportunity, I was prepared to take the opportunity. That’s what I try to tell the kids today – ‘You’re going to get an opportunity, and when you do, you have to seize it and jump on it. And once you jump on, it’s going to be a bucking bull at first. So you have to hold on and eventually you’ll tame it down. Then you’re going to ride that wave and live that dream.’”

He said, “Drag racing has always been diverse. It’s not something they had to implement or put in. Drag racing has always been accessible to anyone, and there’s a level for everyone, regardless of what you’re driving.  You go to the dragstrip and race. My dad was drag racing before I was born. It doesn’t matter what race or color you are. People respect you for your machine and how fast you can go. Doesn’t matter if you’re running a station wagon. As long as you can match the number on the board, you’re taking home that money. That’s the unique thing about our sport: it’s always been wide open and accessible. There’s drag racing all over the place. There’s never been a need to make it diverse, because it’s been diverse since I was a kid.”


CANDID CRUZ, BROOKS MAKE BIG CHANGES – If candor counts for anything, two-time champion Cruz Pedregon and crew chief Aaron Brooks are the Funny Car leaders. Consider some of their preseason confessions:

Pedregon:  “We’ve done some analytics and the elephant in the room has been our inconsistent runs.”

Brooks: “Last year was a little bit of a beat-down. It made me feel pretty stupid for a while.”

Pedregon: “Talk is cheap, but I feel like we’ll be in the mix this year.”

Brooks: “I’ll be disappointed if we’re not in the top five.”

Pedregon: “I feel confident that 2017 was the year we put money in the bank and this year is going to be the year we start to collect interest – and that’s on the track, performance-wise.”

Pedregon: “I’ve been eating right and working out this off-season.  I wanted to make sure I did my part and we want to provide our sponsors with as light a car as possible.  We put the car on a diet and we put me on a diet. If it makes us go faster – and it will – then it was an easy decision.”

The theme of the Snap-on Toyota Camry team is that it is making progress, working hard – through a diet that shaved 15 pounds from Pedregon, a key hire in Glen Huszar as Brook’s right-hand man, and deciding where the focus needs to be.

And both Pedregon and Brooks said the outlook for 2018 is much better. “It’s bright,” the team owner-driver said.

“We struggled last year, but we knew going into the year it was going to be a rebuilding year with a lot of changes,” Brooks said. “We have some more new guys who have joined the program, but we’ve gone over our Snap-on Camry from front to back and refined every part of the car. We feel good and feel like we’ve landed the right combination toward the end of the year and we’re starting off with that.  We feel if we can gain the consistency, we feel like we should be able to be a top-five car.

“I think we have a good handle on where we are going with our program and our tune-up,” Brooks said. “I feel good, and I sleep a little better at night.”

Brooks is sleeping well, Pedregon is stylin’, and together they’re thrilled to have the veteran Huszar on board. Pedregon said his newest hire “has been flying under the radar a little bit. He’s worked with Tim Richards, and he won a championship in 2010 with Tommy DeLago [and Matt Hagan]. He really brings a previously missing element. We brought him in at the end of last year at Las Vegas and Pomona to see how he would fit in, and after the first weekend Aaron Brooks and I looked at each other like ‘Wow, we need that guy here.’  In big-time drag racing, you can’t have just one guy overseeing things. And with Aaron, Glen, and myself, I think we have three. I think good things are coming for the Snap-on Toyota this year.”

“Surrounding myself with the right people has been a missing ingredient for the last few years,” he said. “The truth is last year was a rebuilding year for us and it was a tough year, but Snap-on Tools stuck behind us and we just signed a new three-year deal through 2020, and of course, Toyota, who I go back with to their early days of midget racing. Having their track support helps puts us on a more level playing field with the bigger teams.”

This year is goal is no surprise: “Our goal this year is simple – to win.  f we can get by that first round or two – once you make the semis, you’re in the game and the next thing you know you’re in the winners circle. Qualifying is one of the keys, and round wins will come if we’re consistent. That’s been our main focus.”

Brooks especially likes the idea of working with a familiar crew. That, he said, will contribute heavilty to that much-needed consistency: “It’s huge to bring back our management team intact. It’s hard to build consistency if you’re always changing people or changing parts. Consistency is the name of the game. Obviously, we want to win a race, then multiple races, and earn our way into the Countdown and try to win a championship. We have a good combination and a top driver, and I’ll be disappointed if we’re not in the top five.”

BECKMAN PUTS TRYING TEST INTO PERSPECTIVE – Jack Beckman said his Infinite Hero Dodge Charger has been treating him terribly in the preseason test session. “We’re 0 for 5,” he said of his sluggish start to the Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park event this week. “But you know what? Literally half our clutch pack is brand new, so you have to be patient about this. It would be different if this was a Monday test after a national event where we knew exactly what the track conditions were and what clutch combination it needed. We’re running on a track that hasn’t seen nitro cars in months.   We’re also running with 40-degree headers, which in essence makes the car seem heavier.

“So if we had all of our stock discs in, it would be easier to adapt to the track and the headers. But why would we? We’ve only got enough of last year’s stuff to go two and a half races. Why use that up getting acclimated to the new headers and rev limiter and stuff and know we’re going to have to change it again come two races into the season?” he said. “So we’re going to bite the bullet right now, make wholesale changes in the bellhousing and just stay until we figure it out.”

He said he figured the team, with about a dozen total passes, would have enough data by the close of Saturday to be ready for the season opener next week at Pomona, Calif.

“One of the great things about being on the well-funded teams is we have the parts to be able to make a lot of runs and still not deplete our inventory for Pomona,” Beckman said. “You know, some of the independent guys really have to pick and choose on their test runs.”

Despite the difficult start to the 2018 effort, Beckman said, “Nobody’s pulling their hair out. This is just the nature of nitro racing. When you change half the clutch discs in there . . . yes, we have a clutch dyno. Yes, it tells us some things about the disc. But we dyno one disc at a time against an electric motor. This is an 11,000-horsepower nitro motor with five other discs and a lot more things in the bellhousing that are potential variables. And then throw in the new header rule here and it’s a lot of things to sort through.”

However, he said, “We’ll be fine. I’m really confident. Honest to God, this is why we test.

“Last year, two weeks before this point, we still didn’t have a full crew, and we were switching from the five-disc to the six-disc clutch. We were making tons and tons of changes here. So, no, this year – yes, we’re changing disks around but we’re keeping the same clutch platform and we’ve got all the same people back on the car. So everybody’s got to deal with the header change. Everybody’s got to deal with the rev limiter change, and we’re just doing a couple of things that will help us get through the year.”

For Indianapolis-based crew chiefs Dean Antonelli, John Medlen, and Neal Strausbaugh and the crew members, this week’s opportunity to come to Phoenix and simply thaw out has been a positive step in prepping for Pomona, Beckman said.

“It’s been a long, cold winter in Indy. I live in Southern California, I’ve been going surfing a lot. These poor guys, there haven’t been a whole lot of days that it’s been above freezing in Indy. So for them to get out here in the sun and get back to doing what they get paid for, which is to run a nitro car down the track, it’s a great feeling,” the 2012 champion said. “You can see the smiles back on their faces. But what we really need to underscore and put the exclamation point is a good E.T. to the finish line.”



McMILLEN READY FOR MORE – Terry McMillen had planned simply to go 300 or 330 feet on the Wild Horse Pass Motorsports dragstrip Thursday to test a list of new equipment in his Amalie Oil Dragster before next week’s start of the 2018 NHRA Mello Yello season. But the joy on his face was hard to disguise.

“It’s good to be back and for Team Amalie, we’re just going out there and we’re going to hope for the best and try to get some more wins like we did in Vegas last year,” McMillen said, “because that was just overwhelming. I want some more of those overwhelming experiences. So it was really good, and you know, I’m just excited to be back out here and doing what we do.

“It’s just exciting. I can’t wait. Pomona’s a week away. It’s a week away. When we left Pomona, we were what, 90 days out from the next race? Those 90 days felt like about 15 because it’s flown by,” he said.

After years of trying, McMillen made the 2017 Countdown to the Championship field. And that label of “Countdown driver” makes him proud.

“I like that. I like the sound of that, I like the fact that we won a race finally. Hopefully we can go out there and do some more,” he said. “The thing is, it’s going to be tough this year. A lot more cars coming out, some real powerhouses. You know, you’ve got the Scrapper guys [Mike Salinas], and that whole team over there’s going to be tough. And he’s got Alan Johnson helping the deal, and Doug [Kuch] is tuning it. Doug and I won some races in IHRA in Top Fuel.

“So there’s a lot of new cars, a lot of new faces coming out this year. It’s going to make it a little more interesting and guys that are going to run fast,” McMillen said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that our team is going to prevail, and we’re just going to have a great year. We’re ready to hit the gas and get it started.”

McMillen was eager to climb into his dragster for the first time since last November – a car he said has “a lot of changes on it. The thankful thing is all the crew folks are all the same, and all that. But, you know, we have different superchargers and different clutch cans and cannons, and just changed a lot of stuff on it,” he said. Before his first launch of 2018, he said he was ready to “make that hit and get some data so that we know what we have to work with. Right now it’s kind of like you almost go up there with the car detuned, because you know you’ve got a better blower than maybe what you had last year but you don’t know how much better because we don’t have any numbers to work with yet. We’re going to go up there relatively safe and just try and make a hit . . .  just to get a read on everything.

“It’s got a new fuel pump on it. It’s a little bit larger, so we just got to make sure that everything’s doing its thing,” he said Thursday. “So we get to 300 feet it should give us enough information that Rob [crew chief Wendland] can sneak it down there the rest of the way tonight or tomorrow.”

He laughed at his “off-season.” McMillen said, “It was great to get a couple weeks off. And I say a couple weeks off – there was no really off-season, but there were a couple weeks that we were back at home, everybody, and they can sleep in their own bed. But about two weeks after that, everybody’s like, ‘When are we leaving town? When are we going to go?’ So that lull in action, while it was busy at the shop, it still wasn’t getting anybody road time and stuff like that. So we were all really excited just to get to Phoenix and make things happen.

“My hat’s off to my crew because Rob Wendland and the entire team have done a great job. The car started up, everything was flawless on the warmup. We’ll go up and see what we have and, you know, and then we’ll try and get after it,” he said. “Our goal certainly hasn’t changed. We want to be in the top 10 next year. We want to be better than ninth, and we’d like to see a couple more wins. I really believe we have the combination to do it, and now that we have a taste of it, the hunger is even greater than it was before.”

He said passion is at the core of what he and all the NHRA racers do.

“I think sometimes you get in a rut, I know we have. You get in a rut where you know it’s attainable, the car’s running good and all that, and you’re trying to make things happen: you’re trying to force the tree, you’re trying to do whatever you have to do to make something happen,” McMillen said. “While that anxiety is always going to be there – and if it’s not you shouldn’t be here – but while it’s always going to be there, I think it’s relatively important to understand the passion. This sport’s a passion-driven industry. This is what it’s all about.

“And each one of these [crew] guys and gals out here put their heart and soul into this car to make it the best that they can, and they’re proud of the work that they do. I mean, looking back two years ago when some of these folks didn’t even know the difference of clutch disk and fingers, or anything, and now we’re becoming a very seasoned team. It’s just all the leadership and the support from Amalie, and all our other sponsors [including] Ross Pistons, and Flatout Gaskets, and everybody that’s been behind us forever, because without them, we would have never made it this far. They stuck with us when it was really bad and ugly and now we’re kind of like riding back on the top of the wave again. It’s a pretty great deal.”

KALITTA, CREW CHIEF HAVE TUNNEL VISION – When Jim Oberhofer started working for Kalitta Motorsports, Doug Kalitta was the bottom-end specialist for uncle / boss Connie Kalitta’s Top Fuel dragster. Today, Oberhofer marks his 10th season as crew chief for Doug Kalitta’s Mac Tools Dragster. They won their first event together in 2009, and now Oberhofer has stepped down from his position as Kalitta Motorsports Vice-President to concentrate on his crew-chief duties and giving his driver, a 43-time winner, his first title. The team’s goals, Oberhofer said, are “to win a championship, plain and simple.”

He said to do so “would be very special. Doug’s more than just a driver to me. He’s like a brother. We’ve had a lot of great times and some struggles here, as well. I’ve been with the Kalitta organization for 30 years. We’ve always had great drivers here at Kalitta Motorsports, because that’s what Connie has wanted. We’ve been fortunate over the years to have some great drivers, and this group that we have right now is special. They’ve won a lot of races between them. The talent here is unbelievable. We all work together. We’re one team with four cars.”  

Doug Kalitta loves Oberhofer’s focus. He’d love to shake the annoying distinction of being the NHRA’s most successful competitor without a championship.

“I’ve got the same group of guys this year, and that’s always good to keep the team together. I’m really excited about that. I’m 21 years [in the Top Fuel class] this year, and I’ve been second a lot of times. So I’m really hopeful that we can put something together this year,” Doug Kalitta said. “I’ve got a great team behind me, and I’ve got a bunch of terrific sponsors, including Mac Tools, and Toyota. We really appreciate what TRD has done for us in terms of tech support.”

The work his team does in the Ypsilanti, Mich., shop on the Willow Run Airport property and on the road between races makes the difference.

“I’m at the airport every day, working on different deals. Things have been busy. We have added five 737s, and it’s a step up. Overall, we have 48 planes and over 300 people working with us,” Kalitta said. “I’m very fortunate that my guys here make it easy on me. I’m in the office all week, so they basically make it that I can fly in and drive this thing.”

He said he and his crew “are all a bunch of hungry hunters, and it’s nice to have teammates that you can bounce things off. We’re excited to see Shawn and JR in the Funny Cars. Both are great drivers and I’m expecting big things out of Richie.”

Kalitta said he’s eager for next weekend, when the season opens at Pomona, Calif., at the Lucas Oil Winternationals.

“I have to admit, Pomona is a place I love to run,” he said. “The history of the track makes it a great place to open the season. We’ve run well there, so we’ll see what happens. We want to start fast at Pomona and take it one at a time and just lay it down.”

Oberhofer said a championship for Doug Kalitta would be extra-special for Connie Kalitta, too. Working with him, Oberhofer said, has “been cool. He’s truly one of the most under-appreciated motorsports owners/drivers/crew chiefs in the world. He loves drag racing. He has a passion about it like nobody out here. He makes you want to do things. You want to run through a brick wall for him. There’s just something about him. He has helped the sport from the ground up.”

NO JEALOUSY – Preparing to start her sixth pro season, Brittany Force arrived this week at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park as the Top Fuel champion. And she brought along her No. 1 cheerleader, younger sister Courtney, the No. 3 Funny Car finisher in last year’s standings – who promises she isn’t the least bit jealous.

“It was so cool to watch her this past season and to celebrate with her when she won the championship. It was such a surreal moment. It’s something that we’ve always dreamed of doing together. And we still have a goal this upcoming season. She even said, ‘We still have to win a race on the same day.’ So that’s our goal this year, and hopefully we both can take home a championship this year,” Courtney Force said.

“We’ll see what happens. It’s just been a lot of fun to watch her really grow in Top Fuel. She has been such a hard worker, and it’s been really cool to see her progression. I’ve been really proud of her, and it has been such a great celebration to have JFR take home two championships, something we’ve never done.”

Robert Hight earned his second Funny Car title for John Force Racing the same day last November. The two stood on the winners podium at Gainesville, Fla., when Brittany Force claimed her first Top Fuel victory in 2016.

“I stop to remind my dad every day that we did something really great, because he’s already stressed and thinking about the next season. I keep trying to remind him to enjoy it, because it’s a pretty cool thing,” Courtney Force said, noting that Brittany “has been a one-car team, so it’s pretty cool what she has accomplished, and JFR not really knowing much about Top Fuel.”

Courtney Force is plenty competitive but not with her sister, she said.

“She and I don’t compete against each other, so we don’t have to worry about that,” the Funny Car driver said. “When she won the championship, I was the first person down there [to the end of the track], in tears because I was so proud of her. It wasn’t a competitive thing. It’s family, and we’re both our biggest supporters. Our family is as a whole. I’m competitive in Funny Car. Luckily I don’t have to race against her.

“No matter what,” she said, “I’m proud of her, even if she gets into Funny Car and wins it, I would still be extremely proud of her. That’s a huge accomplishment. That’s something we both have always dreamed of. That’s a dream of mine still, too. I’s so cool to watch her achieve that. It’s inspiring, as well. It’s not something that happens every day. It was pretty cool.”

GRATEFUL CRAMPTON HAS ONE BIG GOAL – Richie Crampton is a self-described realist, and because of that he’s maybe the most thankful driver on the Mello Yello tour. Crampton worked at Don Schumacher racing briefly but made his name at Morgan Lucas Racing [MLR}, first as diligent clutch specialist then driver. He came to Kalitta Motorsports after MLR abandoned the driving side of business, stepping in after Troy Coughlin Jr.’s late-season decision to step from the SealMaster Dragster that once had JR Todd at the wheel.

After MLR parked his dragster and Lucas’, Crampton admittedly was in limbo. He said he had no guarantee he ever would drive a Top Fuel dragster again.

“I think I’m more realistic than anyone out here on just how just hard it is to get a ride with a top-level team like this. I was obviously very fortunate when I was selected to drive for the previous team, but to get the phone call to come here was something I hoped to happen, but in all reality, I didn’t know if it ever would,” Crampton said. “Everyone in the world wants to drive one of these cars, and I understand it. There are a lot of up-and-coming sportsman racers that deserve a shot also, and I get that, too. So for me, it’s just about appreciating what I have here and hope to never be without a ride again.

“It’s pretty cool to have the opportunities I have in front of me right now. Driving for a top-level operation like Connie has here is pretty big,” the seven-time winner said. “Just to drive with all of these great drivers that I’ve looked up to as my teammates, I know I’m going to learn a ton from them. Even though Shawn and JR have migrated over to Funny Cars, I still bounce things off of them. Being teammates with Doug [Kalitta], who has won so many races, just being able to talk to him throughout the year . . .  It’s very exciting for me.  It’s what I’ve always dreamed of. This is what I’ve always wanted to do. I’m back out here with a top-level team and racing again – it’s great.”

Crampton said his goal for 2018 is no different than every other racer’s: “In a nutshell, just win.” But he said his supreme goal is personal: “First and foremost, I want to stand in the winners circle with Connie Kalitta. That would mean a huge amount to me. We want to win rounds and win a lot of races for Toyota, DHL, Kalitta Air, and all of our sponsors who have given me this great opportunity.”

Rob Flynn, his crew chief with the Kalitta Air/Toyota Dragster, said he’s just starting to work with Crampton but indicated he thinks he can help deliver Crampton’s wish.

“We’ve just been around each other a little bit so far, but I think it’s going to work out real well,” Flynn said. “It was good to have him in the fold at the end of last year and learn how things get done here. So he’s not an outsider coming in now.  I think he feels at home. I’m looking forward to Richie driving our car this year. Last year, Shawn did an awesome job with us and Richie did a nice job running in the other car. Having him in our car, I believe Kalitta Motorsports has one of the best driver line-ups out there.”

Flynn said, “We just hit our stride at that point in the Countdown. Hopefully, we can hit the ground running. We haven’t changed a lot, but we are testing some new things.”

For Crampton, “the big difference at this point is I get to contend all 24 events and try to make a run at the Countdown,” he said. “It’s a different dynamic than coming in for Indy, past the midway point of the year. I’m pretty excited for the opportunity to start fresh when everyone runs at the same level playing field as far as the points are concerned and try to win some races this year.”

This chance to test at Phoenix is a blessing.

“Every race we race we went to last year, we just showed up and would make some runs,” he said. “I’m pretty happy with what we did at a couple of the races. For me, getting amongst this operation last year was a good stepping stone for this year.  It’s huge for me to come here and just test. Everyone here at the Kalitta Air Toyota team, they’re working at giving me a really good hot rod – which I know they will. I’m just trying to knock some rust off and get back into my rhythm. So we’ll make a handful of runs here and be looking good for Pomona.”


TASCA RECOVERS FROM EARLY PROBLEMS – The Ford Motor Company returned to fulltime Funny Car racing Wednesday with a big bang – literally.

Bob Tasca’s car grenaded during a practice run Wednesday, then had a mishap at the starting line Thursday. However, the Rhode Island auto dealer and staunch Ford associate at the racetrack and in business wasn’t angry.

“We just broke an intake valve. It’s just one of those things in these cars where everything in the car is brand-new. I mean, brand new, so you can’t blame it on an old part. It is what it is. Things happen and we’ll bounce back from it,” he said afterward. “The car made two great runs. I mean, up until the time it broke, the intake valve, it was some of the quickest 60’ times of my career. So, I mean, the car ran fantastic. And the first run, we shut it off at 330’, our planned shutoff. And the second run, we were outpacing the first run substantially, and it just broke an intake valve. So, hey listen, that’s nitro racing.”

Then Thursday morning, he attempted to make a run but had another problem following the burnout. Fuel gushed from the pipes, and he was unable to make the pass.

“It was a barrel valve. How we adjust the barrel valve, we got a whole new fuel system on this car, and the barrel valve was a little too close to center. We’re working on stuff with reaction time and try to get a quicker light, but we were too close on the barrel valve setting. So after the burnout, the barrel valve didn’t close all the way. It was too close to the edge. It was letting too much fuel in. So that’s where the fuel was pumping out of the pipes,” Tasca said. “We could have run it. It wouldn’t have hurt anything now that we know, but you’re already at a testing and that’s no reason to run the car. So there was no harm, no foul. We had made the right adjustment, and we’ll go back out. It was something we were trying and it was just too close to the edge. But this is testing, right? If you’re going to do something different, you might as well do something different now. This is the time to do it.

“We’ve got plenty of parts. We’ve got plenty of pieces,” he said Thursday. “We’ll make a couple of good runs today, and we’ll make some runs on Friday and Saturday, and we’ll be ready for Pomona.”

One major plus for Tasca is his crew has a lot of experience.

“Got a very talented group of guys, with Eric Lane and Nick Casertano and John Boyce. All these guys except one have anywhere from three to 15 years’ worth of experience, so we’ve got a great team,” Tasca said. “We’ve got a great team. We’ve got great funding. We’ve got great engineering behind us with Ford, which is what we really were lacking for the last three years. Not having Ford part of my deal was tough.

“But we’re in good shape, so we really want to come out swinging,” he said. “I mean, this isn’t a team that should take four or five races to catch our stride. We should be able to come out in Pomona and run well. We have an expectation level of improving at each race because we are a new team, but we’re not a rookie team. I know how to drive a race car, Eric knows how to tune them, and these guys know how to build them.”

Acquiring crew chief Lane, whose most recent experience was helping Ron Capps win a Funny Car championship two years ago as an assistant to Rahn Tobler, was a coup.

“He’s a tremendous asset to the program. I’m really excited. Never been more excited about a season than I am right now. Looking forward to it.”

LIKELY WON’T FLY UNDER RADAR MUCH LONGER – JR Todd said he has shaken the nervousness and is working hard to fine-tune his Funny Car skills. In his second season as a Funny Car racer, the former Top Fuel driver said this campaign “definitely feels different, simply because I’m more comfortable inside the car. This time last year, I was pretty nervous. I didn’t know at all what to expect, and I was just learning every run down the track. I’m still learning, but now I’m working on things to make myself a better driver inside the car. Before, I just wanted to get comfortable and work on things like my reaction time. Now I’m thinking what can I do inside the car to make myself better.

“It’s amazing what running a year in these cars can do for you,” he said. ”They’ll still ground you, though. Shawn [Langdon] put it best when he said, “It’s like playing a video racing game and you make it to the expert level and it’s really hard to play. That’s what driving a Funny Car is.”

Todd is one of only a handful of drivers in NHRA history to win in both classes. Moreover, he scored back-to-back victories at Sonoma in 2016 and 2017 – the first in a dragster, the second in the DHL Toyota Camry Funny Car. His skill blends well with those of his Kalitta Motorsports colleagues.

“In my mind, we have four of the best drivers out here,” Todd said. “We all want to do what we can to make each other better. It doesn’t get much better than Doug Kalitta driving the Mac Tools Toyota. He’s been doing this longer than any of us, and he’s forgotten more than most of us will ever learn. When times get tough, we go to him for some advice. I want to see him and Richie go out and beat all of those guys in Top Fuel, and in turn I think they want to see Shawn and me go out and do the same in these Toyota Camrys. We’ll do whatever we can to make ourselves better than the two other top teams in the sport.”

Todd said he and Langdon “just bounce ideas off each other. He will come to me with something and I’ll say, ‘I know exactly what you’re talking about, because that’s what I went through.’ He’s a world champ, and he knows it’s just going to take some time to figure this thing out, but he’s already doing a great job in testing. Our goal together is just to help each other out. We want to see each other win and make ourselves better than the opposition. I first met Shawn when he was probably 12 and I was 13 at a Junior Dragster national championship in Colorado. It’s cool to see how we’ve progressed through the years to get to this point.”

Still, he won’t feel bad if he has to defeat Langdon on his way to his goals.

“My goal is to go out there and win as many races as we can,” he said. “Ideally, you want to set yourself up better for going into the Countdown than what we did last season. You want to be somewhere around the top five going into that first Countdown race. We just need to work on our consistency. We started the [2017] season off slow but came around during the summer, but then went back into a slump in the Countdown. We found a lot of things wrong with the car mechanically in the off-season, and we think we’ve adjusted those issues. That should set ourselves up better for 2018. If we can address the consistency in runs down the track, I think we can work together with the Global guys and have two Toyota Camrys compete for the championship this year.”

Todd won two races in his maiden Funny Car season, including the U.S. Nationals. However, he seemed to surprise some people with his success, never mind he had won nine Top Fuel events.

“I’d rather be under the radar. My whole career has been that way. When we won Indy, I don’t think anyone expected us to win Indy, even in the final round they weren’t giving us a shot. That’s fine with me,” he said. “ If we can come out of 2018 with the No. 1 on the side of the car going into next season, that would get everyone’s attention.”

Crew chief Jon Oberhofer said he has no doubt Todd can claim his first championship.

“We have the team to do it, and we have the driver to do it,” Oberhofer said.

Toyota’s support is invaluable, he said.

“It’s been great. I’m really excited about continuing to work with TRD and Toyota and some of the things we’re starting to do with them. The addition of [NASCAR notable] Slugger Labbe to the program has been very beneficial. We’ve opened the lines of communication. There are a lot of technical areas we’ve expanded upon. We’re better as a group than we are individually, and those guys are fantastic. I have nothing but praise for them. We’ve been with TRD for a while, and I firmly believe that they’ll do whatever it takes to help us succeed,” Oberhofer said.

The crew chief said he has noticed impressive improvement in Todd.

“He’s just that much further ahead. At this point last year, he was still figuring it out. He did a really good job last year and ended up the season on a strong note, winning two of the biggest races of the year,” Oberhofer said. “We just need to give him as good a car as we can in 2018.”

COUNTDOWN’S WHEN IT COUNTS – Advance Auto Parts Camaro driver Courtney Force was top qualifier seven times in 2017 but didn’t win a race. However, she had five runner-up finishes, including three in the Countdown, and improved in the playoffs from sixth to third. Even if she had won one event or more in the so-called “regular season,” it’s possible that might have done her much good. Had she converted a couple of those Countdown final-round appearances to victories, she might have given John Force Racing teammate and champion Robert Hight a fiercer challenge.

“That was my best season yet. If you think about it, the fact that we didn’t have a win and to still finish my career best, that tops the one season where I won four or five races. It’s pretty crazy to think that we had such great consistency with our team that we were able to accomplish finishing third without winning a race,” she said. “That goes to show how many finals we went to and the points we gathered from No. 1 qualifiers but really, the consistency that our team had. If we can continue with exactly what we did last year but pick up a couple of wins, who knows what can happen in 2018 for our Advance Auto Parts team?”

With veteran tuner Brian Corradi, who helped Antron Brown earn three Top Fuel crowns, Force should be a serious contender. And she has that feeling that something is about to go her way.

“It’s my seventh season, and I feel like we have a good thing.  I feel like hopefully it can be time,” she said. “Finishing third was pretty great. But I think we’re within reaching distance.”

In both nitro classes. 2017 was a year marked by dramatic swings. In the Funny Car class, Matt Hagan began the year with back-to-back victories and looked like the driver to beat, then Ron Capps got warmed up and make a dominating case for a second straight championship. In the end, it was Robert Hight, who’ll forever be remembered for his 10th-to-first run in the 2009 Countdown, who prevailed.

“You look at the category – it’s extremely competitive. You might get one driver and you say, ‘Oh man, nobody’s going to stop him – he’s on a roll.’ Then all of a sudden, somebody else is on a roll. Then it switches. And my mindset in Funny Car this [past] year kind of changed, because you know, I’ve been there where I haven’t made it in the Countdown. And I knew I wasn’t going to do that again. I did not want to have that sick feeling where I didn’t make the cut,” Force said.

“So our goal was to keep it consistent, just do our thing, not worry, and if we get a win on the way, fine – but all we need to do is continue to go rounds, get the points, and walk ourselves into the Countdown. And we did,” she said. “Then once we got in there, we were in a pretty good position. And everything changed at Indy with the points and a half. And everything switches again. And you have to be on your A Game in the Countdown. Some teams have it figured out, and some don’t. That’s part of our sport. That’s how the NHRA rules are, and you’ve just got to be aggressive and do your best and be your most consistent in the Countdown to the Championship.

“A few years ago, we won back-to-back races in the Countdown and then went out first round the rest of them and slid all the way back to sixth or seventh or something. I was doing so well. I had two great wins. But nothing matters until you get to the Countdown, and that’s where you’ve got to make it happen,” Force said. “We’ve seen Robert go from 10th to first and other drivers go from first to almost 10th. Anything can happen. That’s the moral of the story.”

HEY, BUDDY, CAN YOU SPARE A FUNNY CAR? – Tim Wilkerson’s Levi, Ray & Shoup Mustang has been down the Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park dragstrip four times during this preseason test session. But Wilkerson hasn’t even made one pass. The 21-time winner from Springfield, Ill., has allowed Chad Green to get some seat time during the first two days of open testing. Green, who will compete this year in the NHRA Pro Modified class, earned his Funny Car license here last year, driving Wilkerson’s Ford.

Crew chief Richard Hartman said, “He just wanted to make some refresher runs. It helps us, because we get to evaluate our parts. And it gets him some runs. His goal is to run [in the Funny Car class] someday.”

Green clocked a 4.14-second elapsed time Thursday in his first pass, then attempted another run later that day that he had to abort because of a dropped cylinder. His early Friday run produced his best effort yet, a 3.90-second blast.

Green, of Odessa, Texas, has no Funny Car events scheduled for this year. But Wilkerson last week told Competition Plus writer Jeff Wolf, “Who knows?  One day we might have a two-car team or something neat like that.”

As for Wilkerson, who’s poised to kick off his 22nd season in NHRA pro racing, Hartman said, “He’ll shake out the cobwebs tomorrow [Saturday].”

JOHNSON ‘TESTING BUT NOT TESTING’ – Tommy Johnson Jr. assessed his tune-up performance in a bit of a cryptic way Friday: “We’re testing a lot of stuff, but yet we’re not testing a lot of stuff.”

What he meant was this: “We put the six-disc clutch in last year at the last race, won the race, everything went great. Now we’re experimenting with the six-disc. We only have one race of data on it, so we’re testing a lot of things with the clutch and trying this and trying that just to see what happens. But overall, we’re not testing a bunch of different things. It’s basically just a clutch and tuneup-wise, but as far as new parts and new pieces and new things, no, we’re just pretty standard but continuing our experimenting with the six-disc.”

With the season-opener comes that urge to stake an early claim to supremacy with a Winternationals victory. But Johnson knows the trick isn’t as much to start the season strongly as it is to finish it strongly. He knows the six-race Countdown, for better or worse, determines the championship ultimately.

“That’s where we stumbled at last year,” the Make-A-Wish Dodge Charger driver for Don Schumacher Racing said. “We were actually good right before the Countdown. We were in four out of five finals right before the Countdown, and then we had a problem [with the five-disc clutch]. So you want to win every race. You’re not going to, so you try to do your best at the beginning of the season. But you actually want to be as prepared as you can for the Countdown. It’s unfortunate the whole season is based off of six races, but if you make one mistake in six races, it’s over.”

With every crew member returning, he has at least a moderate advantage.

So the changes to the care were, he said, “pretty flawless.” He said, “We picked up first day of testing – within a run or two, we were back to normal routine. That was nice, actually. You usually come here and watch guys stumble and fumble in the pits, trying to get routines down. Ours looked like we were the fifth round of Pomona basically.”

Johnson has finished among the top six Funny Car drivers for the past four seasons.

“It’s like, ‘Eh, it’s close’. I felt really good when we finished second. I was a little, you know, you’re disappointed but how can you be disappointed with that? And you know that you’re capable, your team’s capable of being No. 1. It’s just unfortunate sometimes things don’t work out your way. I actually mentioned to somebody last year, you can’t have a great season every season. You will have a bad year, and you learn from those. You try to make it not happen twice in a row.

“When opportunity knocks, you’ve got to open the door. If you don’t open the door, you think, ‘What if?’ That’s the heartbreaker of it,” he said.

What’s especially frustrating is that coming close one season doesn’t mean a team can duplicate those tremendous and satisfying runs the next. It’s hard enough to do that once.

“Yes, it is. It’s professional racing and it’s extremely difficult. It’s not like it’s you know, ‘Hey, I’m a whole lot better than everybody. This is easy’. No, it’s everybody is so good. It makes it really tough,” Johnson said. “And then, you can be as good as everybody and if things don’t fall your way, it still doesn’t matter.”

Another factor in the equation, he said, is that “there’s 10 people on this team. All of them have to be perfect - not just me, not just crew chiefs. Everybody has to do their job. It takes a lot of parts and pieces and things to fall into place to make it happen. So you can’t dwell on it.” He said all he or anyone else can do is “evaluate what we did wrong and fix it.”

Later in the 2017 season, “we had a certain disc package that seemed to work really well with the five-disc. And then when we ran out of that disc and had to go to a new one. It just did not fit our setup, and we just struggled with clutch wear and all over the place and just consistency,” he said. “We just couldn’t find a consistent basis with the new disc, and by the time the end of the year’s over with, [the John Collins-led team decided], ‘Well, let’s just go to the six-disc and see if that helps any.’ And that fixed it. It evened out our clutch wear. It fixed everything. Now we’ve kind of got to learn again. Yeah, we put it in and won the first race with it. Well, that doesn’t always happen.”

The passing of Terry Chandler, who funded his team and that of Jack Beckman’s Infinite Hero Charger, threw the future into uncertainty for awhile last year. But Chandler’s husband, Doug, has kept the operations going.

“If not for that, there’d be a lot of people out of work. So I mean, it can’t be all bad, no matter where you finished,” Johnson, who was sixth last year, said. “Doug continuing Terry’s program, I mean, you couldn’t be more thrilled with that. They’re great people and have done really great things, and he’s continuing that.”

NO WORRIES . . . HE’S A PRO – To hear Tommy DeLago tell it, Shawn Langdon is in a perfect position to have a terrific 2018 season. Listen to Langdon and hear a positive tale but one that  shows himself as trying to “minimize my mistakes as a driver and minimize the learning curve.” Either way, Langdon is adapting to his transition from Top Fuel, where he was the 2013 champion, to Funny Car, which he is driving for the first time.

DeLago, crew chief for the Global Electronic Technology Toyota Camry, said, Langdon “may be new to Funny Car, but he’s not new to driving a Fuel car – not really new to driving any drag-racing car. He’s the type of guy who’s ultra-competitive and anything with four wheels he can drive the hell out of. Right now, it’s just a little acclimation for him to get used to having a body around him. It’s a little bit tighter space in the Funny Car than in the dragster.

“He looks like he’s been driving these things for years already, albeit, he’s like 'I’m a little bit behind it and I can do better.' We thought he’d driven it perfect, but he didn’t think he did,” DeLago said. “That right there tells me we don’t have anything to worry about. He knows what he wants to do. He’s very critical of himself and holds himself to high standards. All we have to do is make the car as good as we can for him, and he’ll do the rest. We need to just work on winning rounds and learn to win races as a team and then just let the rest of it come to us.”

From Langdon’s viewpoint, the driver said, “It’s going good. I’m just learning on every run, really. I’m making some small leaps in the learning process just going down the track in testing. It’s been pretty good progress so far. I’m just working through it. Nicky [co-crew chief Boninfante] and Tommy know how to tune the car. If I can minimize my mistakes as a driver and minimize the learning curve that’s going to be the key to our success. It’s part of the reason that I came over here to do this.”

Langdon said JR Todd, who has made the same switch from Top Fuel to Funny Car, “has been very instrumental in my early learning process of these cars – explaining a lot of the things that he went through – just the characteristics of the car. He’s helped me get through steps 1, 2, and 3 of the learning process of what to expect. It’s easy to talk to him. We’re buddies on and off the track. We’ve been sharing a lot of information through testing. It’s going to be a good fit for us both. But at the end of the day, you’ve got to get the seat-of-the-pants deal, and that’s where the testing laps come into play.”

He said he’s excited to go to Pomona this coming week. Langdon grew up in nearby Mira Loma, Calif., just east of the racetrack, and said, “Pomona is where I grew up. I had a lot of success there in the Top Fuel car, so I can’t wait to run this Global Electronic Technology Camry there at the Winternationals. I’ve been waiting since last November to get there.”

And he isn’t interested in making parade laps: “I’m looking to be a contender right out of the gate. Winning the title is the main goal, to win and compete for the championship at the end of the year.”

DeLago and Boninfante aren’t putting pressure on Langdon at all. However, they might be feeling their own pressure. Accountability will do that, but the happy news in that is that’s because, as DeLago said, “Right now, the crew of drivers that we have here at Kalitta has basically made it so there’s no excuses for the crew chiefs. Everything is on the crew chiefs now. We have drivers that are bad to the bone, so now the pressure is on for us to produce. We have to step up to the plate and do our jobs and everything will be fine.”


COUGHLIN URGES PATIENCE – For Jeg Coughlin, “patience” is the operative word as Pro Stock teams navigate their ways through it new mix-and-match opportunities for the first time since the class debuted in 1970.

The NHRA ruled that starting this season, racers may use whatever body style and engine he or she chooses. It emerged from the October summit meeting at Dallas between NHRA decision-makers and Pro Stock team owners and drivers.

The move, which Coughlin said has “been talked about for some time,” was a collaborative effort “to help the NHRA and the class steer Pro Stock in a more positive direction.” And it was the latest in a series of changes that have erupted in the class recently after a decidedly dormant period for decades.

“Leading up to 2016, the class hadn’t seen many changes in over 20 years. I’ve been in the class since 1997, and we haven’t seen much technological changes. There were a lot of things that got talked about but never got past the conversation level – things to modernize the class, build excitement levels, and increase participation from the manufacturers to put many brands on the track,” Coughlin said.

The Elite Performance headliner and five-time class champion said this non-traditional approach is something racers and fans alike will “have to be patient with” as they continue to enjoy “the 200-mph side-by-side racing Pro Stock has become famous for.” He said, “If we had at least one team from Chevrolet, Ford, Dodge, potentially a Toyota, and so on, that will generate excitement. When you look back at the ‘60s, when there were rivalries between Ford and Chevy and Chevy and Dodge, that is something that definitely has diminished.”

Eventually key to the initiative, he said, will be a readily available supply of engine blocks and cylinder heads as aftermarket pieces: “This would allow manufacturers to have one style of engine to provide parts for. Instead of doing one-offs, it could be a little more assembly-line or bulk production, which could help lower costs – in time.” Coughlin estimated this transition could take a year or two.

“What’s refreshing is that these latest changes are products of bilateral cooperation,” Coughlin said. “For the first time in my lifetime in the sport and the class, the Pro Stock community is aligned and poised to help NHRA guide this in a better direction,” Coughlin said. “It’s been in a pattern for 30 years, and this is really the first time a united front is interested in seeing the class grow.

“The NHRA wasn’t trying to diminish the class. It has been working with teams even leading into the fuel injection phase,” he said. “And you’ve got five or six different scenarios, and at the end of the day: what teams would like to have, how teams think things should be. At the end of the day, it was just easier to not do anything. I’m not being critical. I’ve sat in meetings in various things in my lifetime – whether it’s philanthropic work or business – where that thing always seems to surface. And how that gets sorted out is though leadership.

“In this case, it just happens to be my team owner, Richard Freeman. He kind of put his arms around the Pro Stock pits and had several candid conversations with the teams that have the five or six different views and all the reasons why we need to do this and Lord knows all the problems that everybody had. And he just gathered them and said, ‘Let’s consider focusing on one thing here. Let’s get together on this.’ There’s a lot of money, a lot of wealth, a lot of ego, a lot of talent in all these people. But there has not been any single leader,” Coughlin said.


Antron Brown came into this preseason testing event at Arizona’s Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park last year confident his long-intact team had the power to steamroll to a third straight and fourth overall NHRA Top Fuel championship. As first Leah Pritchett challenged his reign, then Steve Torrence and finally Brittany Force followed suit, Brown faded to fourth in the final standings.

His return to Chandler, Ariz., near Phoenix, this week produced a class-best elapsed time of 3.714 seconds at 328.46 mph Thursday.

However, his Matco Tools Dragster team has undergone significant personnel changes since November. And that has caused Brown not to doubt but certainly to wobble a bit as the new mix of crew members learns how to gel.

"This is a good start," Brown said. "Yesterday was rough on us, but the track is starting to come around. “Mark Oswald, Brad Mason, our two crew chiefs, and the whole Matco Tools team is doing a real good job. We have a lot of new moving parts in personnel, and we are just trying to get in synch.”

During the offseason, longtime co-crew chief Brian Corradi left the Don Schumacher Racing (DSR) team and joined John Force Racing to reunite with Dan Hood to share tuning duties for Courtney Force’s Funny Car. Brad Mason, who had paid his dues with the tight-knit group since they raced out of the David Powers organization in 2008, earned his promotion to crew chief status with Oswald.

"We lost Brian Corradi, which was a big blow, for sure. But, the chemistry didn't change for us,” Brown said. “Mark Oswald and Brad Mason moved up, and the rest of the guys filled in. We have two new guys that came in and we are just moving forward.

This is just testing, but I can promise you that we are going to get after it tomorrow. We want to keep improving and take this into Pomona. We are starting to gel, and the car keeps improving with each run."

His DSR Funny Car mate Matt Hagan was quickest in his class Thursday with a 3.879-second pass in the Mopar Dodge. And the Christiansburg, Va., farmer who left his tractor behind for the first time since last November said he has had no problems with his ride.

“So far the car has gone down the track every time we wanted it to,” he said after edging current champion Robert Hight for Thursday’s performance honors by one-thousandth of a second.  

“Being able to get behind the wheel and getting a feel for the car again and even though this is my tenth season behind the wheel, it all becomes routine,” Hagan, a two-time champion like Hight, said. “But, you still have to make those passes to get yourself sharp. It's just a great feeling to get behind the wheel again."

This time last year Hagan was on the verge of back-to-back victories – at Pomona, Calif., and here at this racetrack with the desert backdrop – to open the 2017 season.

"You have to put it in perspective, and there are lots of good cars out here," Hagan said. "There are lots of teams trying new stuff, but I have to hand it to [crew chief] Dickie Venables. “He's worked awful hard in the offseason to put us out ahead early. So far the car has gone down the track every time we wanted it to, and we had some times there were planned shutoffs.”

Hight, whose best run Thursday was a second-quickest 3.880-second E.T. at 324.05 mph, improved from his Wednesday start that was unfitting of a champion. On his first run down the track, the engine in his Auto Club Camaro exploded, sending multiple spark plugs into orbit.

"Yesterday certainly didn't go as planned," Hight said Thursday. "Today's three runs were respectable. We definitely got a baseline from today's runs. I shut off a little early on the .88, and Jimmy [tuner Prock]  said it would have run at least 330 miles per hour. We learned a lot about the rev-limiter. I think we will be in better shape tomorrow because the track keeps getting better and better.”

In Pro Stock, Erica Enders drove her Melling Performance / Elite Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro to a 6.555 run at 210.28 and teammate Alex Laughlin tested his Gas Monkey Energy Chevrolet Camaro to a pass of 6.580 at 209.10.

The 2018 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series begins at the Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals presented by ProtectTheHarvest.com on Feb. 8-11 at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, and this test session is designed to help teams work out bugs in their cars for an optimum beginning to the 24-race schedule.

Testing will resume Friday morning and continue through Saturday.


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