2018 NHRA ARIZONA NATIONALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
TORRENCE BACK ON RIGHT TOP FUEL COURSE; SO IS RUNNER-UP PALMER - Steve Torrence was perturbed enough last November that he wound up second in the final Top Fuel standings after being in the catbird seat for so long. Then he became further annoyed in the season-starting Winternationals at Pomona, Calif., where he disqualified himself with a red light start in the second round.
So the tenacious Texan said he was looking for a “do-over” for the Capco Contractors Dragster team here this weekend at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park.
He got it Sunday, winning the Arizona Nationals at Chandler, Ariz. – against one of his closest nitro brothers, Scott Palmer, who was making his career-first final-round appearance in the Cat Spot Litter / Marck Industries Dragster.
Torrence, who won eight races in 11 finals last season, began his 2018 march with a 3.729-second, 330.72-mph pass on the 1,000-foot course for his 17th overall Top Fuel victory. He also has the points lead as the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series prepares for the Amalie Oil Gatornationals at Gainesville, Fla., in three weeks.
Palmer, the easygoing fan favorite, experienced immediate tire smoke, cut off his engine, and rolled across the finish line in 6.449 seconds at 102.70.
“Anymore there’s not an easy round. There’s no room for error,” Torrence said after joining Courtney Force (Funny Car) and Chris McGaha (Pro Stock) on the winners podium to celebrate with what the NHRA called a sellout audience.
Torrence said he took advantage of lane choice to get past Steve Chrisman in the first round. Blake Alexander, the Funny Car convert who Torrence called “hungry” and “a young kid fighting for his position out here, was next in line. Torrence indicated he was glad to dismiss him, because, he said that Bob Vandergriff-owned dragster is running well and Alexander is adapting nicely to his new class.
By the semifinal round, the Top Fuel class had a 75-percent chance of welcoming a new winner. But Palmer and Torrence reduced the odds to 50 percent. Palmer ended the Cinderella career-second start of Greg Carrillo, who opened the day by beating traction-plagued top qualifier Tony Schumacher. And Torrence defeated his 2018-debuting dad with 3.722 seconds of elapsed time to 3.726, or a victory margin of about seven feet.
“The only way that could have been better was if we were in the next round, if it was the finals,” Torrence said of the father-son match. He said it was the “toughest race of the day. He’s been getting more and more comfortable the car – and that’s a problem. He’s going to race more this year, and I know I’m going to have to race him some more. He did an unbelievable job. He’s keeping us on our toes. He taught me how to race. I’m really proud of him. That was the coolest thing.
“I think some people were anticipating me to win and him to smoke the tires or whatever, but we’re not that way. We’re going to race heads-up,” he said. “That guy right there is my biggest opponent. Not only if I lose to him I have to hear about it today, but I’ve got to hear about it for the duration of time until we race again. I live close to that guy, and he’s going to talk trash to me every opportunity he gets. It was good race – whether we won or lost, I didn’t care. That puts my dad going to the final, and not only is he my dad, he’s my sponsor and he has spent a lot of money out here, doing this. I want him to have success.
“And it was cool having Scott Palmer in there [in the final] with us,” Torrence said.
So Palmer knew if he could get past Carrillo (which he did), he would be facing a Torrence one way or another. Would it be Steve Torrence, who has shared manpower, equipment, data, and – in his words – “millions of dollars’ worth of information” with him? Or would it be Billy Torrence, whose wife Kay sends Palmer Bible verses and devotions every morning?
“That guy’s a third car to our team,” Torrence said of Palmer. “He’s going to run all 24 and my dad’s not, but when we run together, we run together. And he has a lot of our parts and pieces and all of our information. And we try to make sure he does as well as we can get him to do. And that teams’ doing really good over there. I’ve known Scott Palmer since I was 15 years old. So I’ve known him 20 years.
“I asked him when we were going up there for the final, ‘Man, 20 years ago, did you think we’d be here?’ He said, ‘No, I thought we’d be painting cars’” and that Torrence would be digging ditches and laying pipe in them. Said Torrence, “I’m still doing that, but we’re both racing. The round with my dad was cool, but racing Palmer in the final was awesome in its own right. It’s a heck of a day.”
Palmer, whose primary sponsor is a cat-litter company, used his typical humor to highlight his emotions at reaching a final for the first time: “It’s what we do it for. I’m lucky. If this doesn’t make you want to go get a cat, what does?”
FOX TV analyst Bruno Massel said in Palmer’s pit, “It’s almost like you went to a party and a drag race broke out.”
Palmer didn’t get a trophy for making the final, but he regarded the day as successful nevertheless. He advanced past Richie Crampton in a first round that saw half of the eight match-ups decided by upsets, then beat Leah Pritchett and fellow upset-minded racer Carrillo.
Torrence did get the trophy, but maybe he “won” when he came to terms with his 2017 finish.
“We had a pretty good car in Pomona [last fall]. We had a half-ass driver,” he said. “I went up there and – I’ll just be honest with you – I didn’t have my mind right since the wreck [at Dallas]. I wasn’t really in the right place in Pomona, not that you’re scared. But I was kind of pissed that it didn’t go the way I wanted it to. I finally sat down and said, ‘Hey, you’ve got to suck it up. This is going to happen to anybody and everybody out here.’
“I think not only did we outrun everybody last year, but I left on pretty much everybody we raced. And I had the best team and the best race car. I just had to remind myself of it. So we showed up today and done what we needed to do.” Susan Wade
COURTNEY FORCE RIDES EMOTIONAL ROLLER-COASTER TO PHOENIX WIN - It was an emotional roller-coaster ride Courtney Force didn’t want to take.
After watching her legendary father John Force sent to the hospital after a horrific crash following a second-round win over Johnnie Lindberg, Courtney had to summon the courage to move on Sunday at the Arizona Nationals.
She did that and more.
Courtney proceeded to capture the victory when she beat Tommy Johnson Jr. in the finals at Wild Horse Motorsports Park near Phoenix.
Courtney clocked a 3.834-second elapsed time at 337.16 mph, which bettered the track-record speed she set in qualifying. Johnson slowed to 6.814 seconds after smoking the tires.
This was Courtney’s first nitro Funny Car victory since Houston 2016, and her first win with Brian Corradi as a co-crew chief. Corradi left Don Schumacher Racing and Antron Brown’s Top Fuel team and joined John Force Racing this past offseason. Courtney’s last final-round appearance came at the Las Vegas race this past fall.
The victory puts Force second in the points standings behind Matt Hagan who she defeated in the second round, just moments after seeing her father’s wreck.
“It’s been great having Corradi working with Dan Hood, they are kind of like family, like I’ve said before,” Courtney said. “Brian and Dan have known each other for a long time and it has been a really great connection with the entire team. Every single one of my guys on my Advance Auto Parts Chevy Camaro has been working so hard. Today was actually a tough day; we had a 40-minute turnaround in the semis, and they got it up there. We were able to get that win, obviously my dad wasn’t in the other lane for that run, but we still made a solid pass down the race track. We didn’t have lane choice in the final and we came back up there, and it was nice of TJ to wait for us and we were able to go down there and lay down that killer number. Thanks to my guys, they gave me the confidence to get in that car today and they make me feel safe in that car because of the amazing job they do on it.”
This was Courtney’s ninth career NHRA nitro Funny Car win and snapped her 43-race winless streak.
“To take home the whole race and get the Wally at the of the weekend is incredible,” she said. “It’s definitely a great start to our season and we’ve been looking for a win for a long time now, and it feels like forever, but this one definitely feels good and I know this will help my dad feel a lot better.”
That final-round performance caught Force a little bit by surprise.
“We lost lane choice and we really had not got down in the left lane and it was the final round and I knew we were going to be gunning for it,” Force said. They told me all day long, if anything doesn’t feel right in the car we aren’t going to be mad at you if you need to shut it off. My dad told me to go out there and kick their asses and I told him I was going to do it. I’m really excited I’m able to bring him home the Wally. My (emotions) are a little overwhelming.
I’m shocked I didn’t cry in my top-end interview because it has been an extremely emotional day. Coming from Pomona we were all trying to get our heads on straight and have a fresh start when we come to Phoenix and dad has a huge explosion in the lights and that’s one of those things that’s out of your control. It’s unfortunate that it happened to his car and him and I’m glad to see that Lindberg is Ok, but you have to switch your focus and get back in the car and my dad and my crew chiefs are the ones who gave me the confidence to get back in my race car and battle it out all day long. These cars are unpredictable, we know that as drivers and we had a great race car all weekend and I’m real excited that we able to prove to everyone we have the car to get it done.”
Courtney acknowledged she saw her father in the ambulance before he left the track and went to the hospital, which lifted her emotionally. John was released Sunday evening from the hospital and came back to the track to congratulate Courtney.
“He looked good,” Courtney said. “He was yelling and screaming at everybody, per usual, but he told me to go out there and kick their asses. That was the only thing he said to me and that was all I needed to hear to get back in my race car. I knew I didn’t have anything to worry about. When he’s yelling and screaming, that’s when you know he is all OK. Hearing that from him is the confidence I needed. He would have told me to sit it out if the car wasn’t safe. I push myself hard and I do it for my team, do it for the fans out here who came out here to watch a good race and I do it for my sponsors. I don’t want to let anybody down.”
According to Courtney, her team told her she didn’t have to get back in her race car after her father's accident, which she thought about.
“You start questioning things a little bit but I told them I’m fine, I’m good,” she said. “I said let’s get it down there, and let’s have a good run and take it round-by-round. It is the same race car we’ve been running, and you have to block out that out and know this is the race car you know how to drive (Matt) Hagan came up to me when I had to race him (in the second round) and he told me you’re a great driver, you know how to do this - just clear your head. It was kind of nice to hear that. I know he didn’t want me to beat him, but it was nice of him as a competitor to tell me you know what to do out here and just remember that. It’s great to have competitors out here who are so amazing and so supportive.” Tracy Renck
UNBURDENED McGAHA TAKES ARIZONA NATIONALS PRO STOCK TROPHY - Who wouldn’t enjoy besting a three-time champion?
Pro Stock’s Chris McGaha sure did in the final round Sunday afternoon at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park at Chandler, Ariz.
The Harlow Sammons Chevy Camaro driver used a nearly perfect .007-second reaction time against Jason Line to leg out a winning 6.529-second elapsed time at 211.59 mph on the quarter-mile to earn his sixth victory in nine final rounds at the Arizona Nationals. Line challenged with a 6.538-second E.T. and 210.14 mph in the KB / Summit Racing Chevy Camaro but fell about eight feet (.0258-second).
“Jason’s over there. That’s one of the guys I come to race, right there,” McGaha said. “You know you’ve got to bring your A-Game right there, because he’s good at what he does.”
Line reached this 97th career final round past Vincent Nobile, Greg Anderson, and No. 1 qualifier Deric Kramer.
McGaha was especially thrilled because he claimed just his second victory against Line in 10 meetings, eliminating Tanner Gray, Erica Enders, and Alex Laughlin on the way.
“The .007 [light] means I didn’t screw it up. When the crew chiefs give you a good car, that’s the last thing you want to do,” McGaha said. “It’s kind of like a field-goal kicker. He sits over there on the bench the whole time and then he has to come out and win the game. That’s kind of what you feel like as a driver: Don’t mess it up, because you’re the last guy.”
McGaha had performed well at the Christmas Tree all day, nailing a .009 light in the first round against the ultra-aggressive Gray.
“Maybe it was adrenaline in the finals,” he said.
What made the victory – as he described it – “very satisfying” was the fact he did it with his own engine program.
“We’re the little guy from Odessa, Texas, with a one-car team and not a lot of data,” he said. “They say ‘not a lot of data,’ but sometimes you can get too much data and it starts to become cloudy.”
He showed respect for “all the other teams that are trying to make Pro Stock have enough cars and what have you,” no matter what their budgets, big or small, multi-car teams or independents like himself. “Our shop doesn’t have enough depth to do that, but we try to do what we can and help some of the other guys like Steve Graham and Joey Grose.”
The addition of Adam Hornberger as crew chief during the offseason is proving to be beneficial already.
“I’ve kind of relieved myself of the crew-chief duties, let him totally take it over. It’s kind of working out good right now. I think I didn’t realize how overloaded I had made myself. And maybe that’s helping me drive better,” McGaha said. “I always felt I needed to do something in the pits to help my driving, but maybe I obviously had overloaded myself. Maybe we can get it going good and see what happens.”
He said, “We picked up power this winter. We did find some power that we’d been lacking and looking for. When we unloaded and it went No. 1 on the first session, we said, ‘OK, we’ve got something that can compete.”
But all the pieces didn’t fall into place this weekend that easily.
“Then we lose a push rod on Q4, the good session. I’ve done that so many times since we’ve gone to EFI – it was like déjà vu,” he said. He told himself, “If we can overcome this, we can make it happen. I guess we overcame it.”
It certainly looks that way. Susan Wade
NHRA ARIZONA NATIONALS SELLOUT ON SUNDAY - NHRA and Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park officials announced a sellout crowd for Sunday eliminations at the 34th annual NHRA Arizona Nationals. Fans from all over the southwest region packed the grandstands, pit areas and campgrounds.
This is the first time in Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park history there has been a sellout crowd on Sunday
at the NHRA Arizona Nationals.
“We want to thank all of the fans that came out to show support this weekend at the NHRA Arizona Nationals,” Erin Barry, Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park general manager, stated. “We had great weather, perfect track conditions, and record-breaking times. We thank NHRA and our fans.”
This is the first sellout crowd of the 2018 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season.
FORCE, LINDBERG CRASH IN PHOENIX; FORCE TRANSPORTED TO HOSPITAL
John Force and Johnnie Lindberg were involved in a two-car accident during the second round of Funny Car eliminations at the NHRA Arizona Nationals.
Lindberg appeared uninjured and was seen walking back to his pits.
“I got up and walked away,” Lindberg said. “I felt good and the doctors came to my trailer to check me out and told me that I’m good.”
Force was alert and conscious and talking to NHRA medical personnel. He was transported to a hospital for further evaluation.
Force appeared headed towards a quarter-final when his Peak-sponsored Camaro Funny Car exploded at the finish line. The chassis shredded the body, and the concussion of the blast turned Force right, and into the pathway of Lindberg, who had already pulled his parachutes.
The two Funny Cars became entangled through their parachutes, and came to a stop with both cars bodyless.
Force would have faced his daughter and No. 1 qualifier Courtney Force in the semis.
"As they were taking him away to check him out, he told me to go out there and kick their asses, and that's what I am going to do," Courtney said. "Hopefully he's watching." Bobby Bennett
UPDATE: JOHN FORCE RELEASED FROM HOSPITAL
In an accident eerily reminiscent of his 2007 crash at Dallas, John Force won his second round race in Sunday’s 34th annual NHRA Arizona Nationals before an engine explosion sent his PEAK Coolant and Motor Oil Camaro careening into the Toyota of Jonnie Lindberg.
The two cars, linked together by tangled parachutes, hit one wall, then the other before coming to a stop in a cloud of smoke. As a precaution, the 68-year-old veteran was transported for further evaluation and released Sunday evening from Chandler Regional Hospital.
The 148-time tour winner returned to the track to congratulate daughter Courtney who won the Funny Car title in his absence. Dave Densmore
SATURDAY NOTEBOOK – WHOLE LOT OF SHUFFLING GOING ON
DERIC GETS A GREEN HAT - The third time was the charm for Pro Stock driver Deric Kramer. Prior to this weekend's NHRA Arizona Nationals, the Sterling, Colorado-based driver had qualified in the top half of the show only twice.
Kramer rocketed to the top of the charts during the Q-4 session, leapfrogging Erica Enders with a 6.522 elapsed time at 210.80 miles per hour.
"We came up there with one goal in mind, and that was to beat Chris McGaha to the finish line, and he made it easy for us," Kramer said of the Texas-based driver who was lined up against him in qualifying.
A round earlier Kramer made his quickest pass of the season on a run he believes left a lot to be desired.
"We went back and looked at the data and could see basically how much I screwed up," Kramer admitted. "We figured we could fix those issues and tune a little bit on the car. We got lucky and went to the top."
Oh, how much difference a year can make, Kramer qualified eleventh at the 2017 event.
BACK TO THE TOP - When the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing stars were at Wild Horse Motorsports Park earlier this month, Courtney Force was in the middle of the action though she was still trying to find her groove with her team and new tuner Brian Corradi. The third day of testing she was given Corradi's blessing to take the car the full length of the 1000-foot course and the end result was the quickest run of the day.
Friday, she led the first session but was bumped down in the next session when she smoked the tires and lifted. This was the break Jack Beckman needed to tie her run, and get the top spot because of a faster speed.
Force took over the top spot in the category with a record run of 3.826 seconds at 335.98 mph in her Advance Auto Parts Chevrolet Camaro during the final session of the day. After recording seven No. 1 qualifiers in 2017, she is aiming for her first event victory since Houston 2016.
“That last pass today was pretty incredible, we have run well here in the past and I’m excited to be back in that top spot,” Force said. “We are hoping to turn this consistency into a win, we just have to keep being consistent on race day.”
Force is set to face off against Del Worsham in round one of eliminations on Sunday.
CHA-CHING - Some of the NHRA's crew chiefs have their own recreational vehicles, whether it's dirt bikes, street rods or bracket cars. U.S Army Top Fuel dragster crew chief Phil Shuler has raised the bar considerably for his peers.
Shuler owns what is called a Radial vs. The World late-model Camaro, a volatile doorslammer which is essentially a Pro Modified car with 10.5-inch drag radial tires. These cars can essentially cover the eighth-mile drag racing course in 3.7-seconds at over 200 miles per hour.
This kind of competition kind be addictive.
"It's a disease; I'm pretty sure ... for which there is no known cure,” Shuler suggested.
Shuler is paired with the colorful and very talented Stevie "Fast" Jackson, making the rounds in a style of racing which has been packing smaller drag racing venues for almost a decade.
Last Sunday at South Georgia Motorsports Park located outside of Valdosta, Ga., Shuler and Jackson pocketed $50,000 for winning the Lights Out 9 event as well as an announced side wager on a grudge race.
As good as his Strange Engineering-sponsored, Shadow 2.0 race car might be, it's the one behind the wheel with whom Shuler believes is the one who makes the magic.
"I believe he's one of the best, if not the best," Shuler said in a previous CompetitionPlus.com interview. "We get along perfect, like two sisters. He's one of the few people I've ever met who has the determination and lives in the mindset I do, where we love drag racing as much as breathing. We both hate losing equally, and don't know how to quit."
TRYING TO KEEP HIS LIGHTS ON AT LIGHTS OUT - One NHRA Pro Stock driver can relate to the lure of the fast-paced world of Drag Radial competition.
If Alex Laughlin was looking for a challenge, he found it last week. Not that driving an NHRA Pro Stocker to the top of Friday's NHRA Arizona Nationals wasn't a challenge; but when you pilot what is essentially a Pro Modified car on 10.5-inch tires, this takes the complexity to another level.
Over the off-season, Laughlin purchased a C-6 Corvette with the intent of competing in major drag radial events such as those promoted by Donald "Duck" Long, and competing in the volatile Radial vs. The World [RvW] division.
Last weekend in Valdosta, Ga., Laughlin's diametrically opposite worlds collided and the experience was one he enjoyed.
"Honestly everybody, for the most part, has been pretty cool and receptive," Laughlin said. "Driving the car is totally different, everything about it is just totally different. Do I want to come back? Yes. Are there things that NHRA can learn from this race? Yes. Are there things that these guys can learn from an NHRA race? Yes.
"Honestly like if you combine the two, you would have a really, really cool event. It’s a cool event nonetheless, but it’s uncontrolled chaos. It’s just, it’s unbelievable. But overall I’m glad to be here. So, I wanted to do this, and I’m able to do it, so I’m thankful for that."
The Lights Out 9 event featured a 32-car field, and 59 cars fighting for a spot. Laughlin ended up No. 9 on the starting grid on the strength of a 3.867 elapsed time at 202.85.
Laughlin, who also competes in the Top Alcohol Dragster division, admits the experience has broadened his horizons.
"Driving the car is just so different because this thing doesn’t pull the front wheels, no weight transfers in any direction other than just straight backward," Laughlin explained. "The car leaves the starting line real soft and then comes on super strong, for the second half of the track. Burnouts are different; everything’s different. There’s a whole different routine for everything. You know, including the fact that we have a screw blower supercharger on a freaking Hemi out here is like, and this tiny little tire is trying to manage the horsepower is a whole task in itself."
Laughlin employed veteran doorslammer icon Frankie "The Madman" Taylor to call his shots, and while Einstein might have defined insanity as the act of doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, with all due respect the smart one never drove an RvW car.
Laughlin understands Pro Stockers, and RvW cars have maybe a few similarities. The have four wheels, and they go fast.
"The Pro Stock car is really fun to drive up to like half-track," Laughlin explained. "Once you hit high gear, you know, you’re just kind of hanging out looking around. Where this thing, you’re kind of bored for the first 60 foot or so, and then you better freaking hang on for dear life because it’s coming and it may go into a wheelstand out at the freaking finish line."
SAVING THE BEST FOR LAST - Jeg Coughlin Jr. saved his best qualifying pass for last, navigating Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park in 6.553 seconds at 210.14 mph early Saturday evening to jump up to the 11th starting slot .
"That final pass definitely felt much better," Coughlin said. "It moved out to the left a little bit, and I had to work to get it back in the groove, but I could tell as soon as I let the clutch out this thing was screaming. It could have been even better, but I hit the rev-limiter in the 4-5 gear change, which is a big no-no, because it's like tapping the brakes, which you obviously don't want to do. Even so, we put an okay number up there.
"We're obviously making some horsepower with these Elite Performance engines with all four team cars laying down pretty decent runs. My car is getting better, for sure."
EVERYDAY THEY'RE SHUFFLING, SHUFFLING - Pro Stock qualifying took on the imagine of the Mello Yello cans game during oildowns, where electronically three cans of the series sponsor move around like a shell game with an NHRA logo underneath.
The second day of Pro Stock qualifying took on a similar look.
Alex Laughlin, by .001 of a second, staked his claim on the provisional pole, knocking fellow Texan Chris McGaha.
In the third session, Deric Kramer jumped over Laughlin, but one run later Greg Anderson jumped to the front of the pack, running a 6.530, 211.66. His elation was short-lived as Friday's low qualifier Alex Laughlin reclaimed the top spot with a 6.529.
The final session saw Erica Enders leapfrog to the top with a 6.527. Two pairs later Kramer returned to the head of the pack with a 6.522.
MEMORIES - Del Worsham cherishes his memories from the former Firebird Raceway, now called Wild Horse Motorsports Park.
Worsham was sponsored by CSK Auto Parts, an Arizona-based company which was bought out in 2008, ending his 12-year partnership.
It was this deal which helped Worsham to become a contender.
"That was one phone call that changed everything,” Worsham said. “We had won two races during my rookie season, in 1991, but hadn’t been back to the Winner’s Circle since and we were basically just getting along as best we could. It was a small sponsorship, compared to what a lot of the big teams had, but we saw it as a deal that had a lot of room to grow and that’s exactly how it all developed.
"Over the 12 years, we went from underdogs working out of my dad’s garage, at his house, to championship contenders with a huge shop, multiple Funny Cars, and a crew I’d stack up against any other. It took us a couple of seasons to win, but between 1999 and 2008, I won 20 races and our second car won a bunch, too. Things definitely changed, that’s for sure.
“I don’t think I’ll ever forget any of it, and Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park feels a lot like home because of it. CSK also sponsored the race for many years and we won it twice for them, with the entire executive staff rooting for us. The first time, the cover of National Dragster had a headline that read “Not In Our House!’ and that one definitely got framed. We were part of the CSK family, really, and it was a remarkable change to a lot of our lives. Definitely one of the most valuable things that ever happened to me. I think of it every time I drive through the gate at the track.”
Worsham would later spend three seasons driving for crew chief Alan Johnson, on the Al Anabi team, first in a Funny Car and then in a Top Fuel Dragster. In 2011, he won the Top Fuel World Championship. After making a move to Kalitta Racing, where he was a crew chief for one season before restarting his Funny Car driving career, he saw more success.
In 2015, he drove the Kalitta Toyota Funny Car to another World Championship, becoming only the third driver in history to claim the big trophy in both nitro classes. Now, in 2018, Worsham has kicked off his second season “back home” with his father and many of his former crew members. It’s very much reminiscent of his early days as an independent, but there’s one huge difference. He’s now a proven winner."
THAT WAS THEN; THIS IS NOW - Pomona Funny Car finalists Robert Hight and Matt Hagan both tested well here in Phoenix earlier this month. Together they couldn't seem to get anything going rapidly during the four qualifying sessions.
As a result the two regular homerun hitters barely got anything out of the infield, landing in the second half of the field.
Hagan was the better of the two, ninth with a 3.926 while Hight was No. 11 with a 3.927.
“We’ve been dealing with some clutch issues and like last night, we were just a little off (on the set-up),” Hight explained. We went out there to run 3.80. Jimmy said it’ll either go or it won’t and if it doesn’t, it’ll go first round. I think this Auto Club Chevrolet Camaro is ready to run a big number. I’m excited about eliminations.”
"Still super confident," Hagan added. "We’ve got what it takes to make it happen. Qualifying is qualifying. Obviously, we would’ve loved to throw down some big numbers, but I’ve won from (number) one, and I’ve won from the sixteenth (qualifying spot) before. You’ve just got to be in it to win it. That’s the mentality and mindset that I have, and I feel like our whole team has that right now. I’m not concerned at all. We have a good baseline to work off of from Q1 on Friday. We’ll make some changes and go from there."
FORCE ROUGHING IT - After failing to get the Peak Coolant and Motor Oil Chevrolet Camaro SS Funny Car down the 1,000-foot course on his first two qualifying attempts on Friday, John Force drove to a 3.864 pass at 332.51 during the third qualifying session Saturday to land himself in the No. 4 spot.
“We just struggled and blew up stuff. It was a combination of so many things. Then, my car wouldn’t go down the racetrack yesterday. It wouldn’t go a hundred feet,” Force said. “I met with the crew chiefs this morning and, to see them start talking about how to figure out what we should do, was exciting. Jon Schaffer, Brian Corradi, Jimmy Prock, Chris Cunningham, Jason McCulloch, Dan Hood, everybody got on board and when they came out (of the meeting), they changed it.”
The 16-time champion will be racing Jeff Diehl in the opening round of eliminations and will be looking to increase his 8-0 streak against the driver nicknamed “The Surfer.”
LOOKING FOR SOME MAGIC - When Leah Pritchett left Top Fuel testing in Phoenix, she was understandable on top of the world. This weekend, her world is not spinning on the same axis.
Leah Pritchett ran 3.679, 334.15 to end up No. 4 on the starting grid. However, it wasn't easy.
"The team put in some of the longest hours Friday night trying to figure out what was going on with the car," Pritchett said. "They worked deep into the night. We had some new issues to deal with in Friday’s qualifying runs and the hard work to fix them paid off in Q3. We weren’t necessarily looking to put the strongest number on the board, it was more about just making sure everything was working right. As it turned out, we accomplished both. It’s a testament to this team’s ability to overcome adversity. This weekend didn’t start off the way we hoped it would, but everyone dug in and through great teamwork and leadership we are feeling good. We finally feel like we have our hot rod back."
"Getting down the track today was the important thing and it ended up being one of the most impressive runs when you consider the track conditions were the hottest we’ve had all weekend. The good news is that its great preparation for what we expect on Sunday and provided us a baseline to start with tomorrow. There’s just a great feeling coming to Phoenix between the fans and finally getting back into our rhythm. We wanted to come back here and get a handle on our racecar first and foremost. Now, we can attack tomorrow trying to get it back into the winner’s circle."
FRIDAY NOTEBOOK - IT'S FAST OUT THERE IN THE DESERT!
DESERT STORM - Tony Schumacher knows how to go from point A to point B in rapid fashion. In fact, he's been doing it since 1999. It was then the U.S. Army-sponsored driver became the first NHRA competitor to eclipse the 330-mph barrier (330.23-mph) when this facility was referred to as Firebird Raceway.
During Friday's opening session, Schumacher fired a shot across the bow of the 15 other dragsters making qualifying passes. Schumacher thundered his way to the provisional top spot with a 3.649 elapsed time, a new track record accompanied by the quickest and fastest speed in NHRA competition at 334.65.
Even more impressive were Schumacher's eighth-mile numbers with a 2.93 elapsed time at 299.20 miles per hour.
"We had a great race car in Pomona," Schumacher explained. "We had a rear-end break, but Doug and his team went out there and did a good job, and won. It's great to be back in a car that is awesome.
"That was an awesome run, had the front wheels in the air a couple of times. It was just a difficult car to drive, just a little cross-breeze. When the wheels come up, it wants to move around some."
And Schumacher's assessment, he believes the Mike Neff/Phil Shuler tuning braintrust got all of the available horsepower on the table. Beforehand, he wasn't so sure making a run on used tires was the way to go.
"I'm not so sure that we are going to go back to the trailer and find much room for improvement," Schumacher said. "I kind of questioned Mike Neff if we were making the right call. He said yes, and that's a confidence we haven't had in a while.
"For him to look at me and give the thumbs-up, and [in essence] say we've got what we want - that's awesome. For an old Funny Car guy, he sure knows what he's doing."
Evidently, Neff, Shuler and Schumacher found some spare horsepower bling as he thundered at an even faster 336.57 mile per hour blast in the second session. He failed to improve on elapsed time but remained No. 1.
BRITTANY BOUNCES BACK - Defending Top Fuel champion Brittany Force might be uncertain as to what went wrong when she crashed during the first round of the NHRA Winternationals 12 days ago, but one thing she's sure - she won't miss a race.
“I flew into Phoenix early (Thursday) morning and headed straight out to the race track to meet up with my team," Force said. "I suited up and got belted back into my car that I ran all last season. It honestly felt good to be strapped back in and I was surprised how comfortable I was. I’m looking forward to getting back in my car tomorrow and getting back in the swing of things with my guys."
Force has piloted her Monster Energy dragster to three runner-up finishes out of her five starts at the facility, including two consecutive finals in 2016 and 2017.
"My thoughts were kind of all over the place," Brittany admitted when asked about her feelings of racing this weekend. "It really feels good to be back."
The decision to return was Force's solely.
"It's what we do," Force said. "I've been out here for six years, and I've never had a mishap. It comes in drag racing. I always wondered when it was going to happen and it was ugly. We've gone back and looked at it, and we know what happened. We've just tried to move forward from there."
IN A HISTORIC LEAGUE OF HIS OWN - Jeg Coughlin Jr. isn't one to rest on his laurels, even if those achievements are pretty lofty.
Coughlin resides in exclusive company; so exclusive in fact that he's the only drag racer in the NHRA's 67-years of existence to win national event titles in seven different classes.
This weekend Coughlin is prepared to raise the bar even higher at the NHRA Arizona Nationals located outside of Phoenix. Coughlin plans to race Top Sportsman in Phil Unruh's Corvette in addition to his regular work in the JEGS.com/Elite Performance Pro Stocker.
Coughlin has collected 76 national event trophies in his career, taking wins in Pro Stock, Comp, Super Stock, Stock, Super Comp, Super Gas and Top Dragster. The six-time national champ says adding a Top Sportsman trophy to his collection would be very special, but he knows it won't be easy.
"My brother Mike raced Top Sportsman for many years, winning a couple of D3 titles in that class, and I can tell you from watching him race it's an extremely tough eliminator," Coughlin said. "I'm excited to give it a go and having the honor of racing Phil Unruh's brand new Corvette is super special. Phil's a regular in our JEGS Allstars races, which speaks volumes of his ability and his equipment.
"I know I will have the best car and motor possible so the pressure will be on me to execute behind the wheel. I do enjoy the races where I have more than one car because you really stay in the zone, as it were, all weekend. This should be fun."
DATA IS KING FOR BT3 - Understanding what the track is telling him and his team is important to Bob Tasca III, and his tuner Eric Lane. At the beginning of the season, Tasca announced he would be returning to full-time status for the first time in three seasons.
Most of the data he's accrued in his return has been at Wild Horse, where he participated in the Nitro Spring Training test session. Most of the meaningful information came a week later at the NHRA season-opener in Pomona.
"When we went to Phoenix to test it was a very green track with a very low run count," Tasca explained. "The clutch setups were very different than leaving Pomona. When you go to a national event, and you have hundreds and hundreds of cars going down the race track, it’s just a different race track."
The track won't be all which is different.
"This weekend will be very different from testing because of the weather," Tasca said. "It’s going to be much cooler and we could see national records getting taken down. We start looking at the weather four or five days out, and you see a high of 61 degrees on Friday and a high of 61 on Saturday and a high of 68 on Sunday, those are national record-type of conditions."
At this point, even though there are other teams Tasca can compare notes with, he's content with minding his own business.
"We just focus on our car," Tasca said. "Our issue is that our early numbers must get quicker. If we can get our number up to 200 feet better and get our driveshaft faster, our car will run a mid-to-low 80 (3.80 seconds). We must do what our car is telling us to do. We see the numbers that our competition is running. We see the split times and time sheets. We have to pick our car up early.
"Eric (Lane) came into the weekend with a clear direction on some specific things that we want to change in the clutch. When we get those early numbers where we want them to be, this car will run at the top of the (scoring) page. We know that because we have the best parts that money can buy. We have a tremendous and talented group of people who tune this Funny Car."
HER NEW BFF "BEST FRIEND FACILITY" - For two years, Top Fuel superstar Leah Pritchett left Wild Horse Motorsports Park testing as the shining star of Top Fuel. The last two seasons she's also departed as the race winner.
Her 3.658-second run from last year still ranks among the Top 10 quickest runs in NHRA history and her 334.73-mph blast two weeks ago has provided the facility located outside of Phoenix to woo her primary admiration away from her home track in Pomona.
"[Phoenix] has actually climbed up the ladder to my number one spot believe it or not," Pritchett admitted. "Pomona used to be my number one because it’s my hometown track. Given the success I have had with a number of teams at Phoenix, the records that we’ve set both officially and unofficially there and it’s where I have the most wins. Every track we go to has an aura of the fan base.
"It’s no different in Phoenix where you see a lot of people that have escaped the cold to be out in the sun, and they are just as excited as we are to get the season started. You get excited about the weather because it’s right on the perfect spot to make those good runs. It’s heightened excitement all the way around. The fans really bring it, and the teams feed off that energy."
THREE CHUTES - Del Worsham grabbed a bit of attention with a third parachute on his Funny Car. He's hoping Saturday will provide the opportunity to use it.
Worsham spun the tires on his first pass, then shook the tires hard on his second qualifying attempt and currently sits in the No. 16 position.
“It’s in the middle, between the other two and about 30 percent smaller than the regular ones," Worsham explained. "It’s also about eight feet longer, and it will deploy first. The thought is to see if the smaller one in the middle will scrub enough speed for the two regular ‘chutes to blossom a little better and not shred so easily.
"With the headers stood back up a bit, we’re all taking more out of the wing, and that changes the aerodynamics back there. I know it’s hard to believe, but it’s not uncommon for the ‘chutes to get caught in a vortex back behind the car, and then they try to suck up under the body. It’s not good when that happens. So, we’ll try this setup and see if it does any good. I hope we have a good fast run tomorrow so we can see if the theory works."
STILL CHASING GREMLINS - Sophomore Pro Stock driver Tanner Gray was unhappy with his first-round loss two weeks ago at the NHRA Winternationals, so in the days before headed here spent time at the newly revamped Tucson Dragway putting his #15 Camaro through its paces.
The culprit of the subpar season-opening performance was believed to be an electrical issue, so the team removed all electronics on the primary car and put into the back-up car. Pull after pull proved the issue was not in the electronics.
Friday's first run was hardly one to brag about as Gray's ride shook the tires forcing him to abort and coast to the No. 16 run in Q-1.
Last season Gray made a quick start look so effortless, racing his way to seven final rounds, earning four No. 1 qualifiers and winning the opening race of the Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship, jumping into the points lead at that moment.
“It was definitely a great start,” Gray said. “My expectations for this year are the same as I had last year – to win. I try to take it race by race and not get too far ahead of myself. I feel like if I can go to each race focused on winning that race, then I'll be a lot better off. I try not to think about the championship too much; we just gotta take it race by race and see where the chips fall.”
Gray ended the day with a 6.591, 209.65 best, and moved up to the 13th spot.
PEDREGON TRENDING UPWARD – After a rebuilding season in 2017, Cruz Pedregon is trending upward early in his Snap-on Toyota Camry Funny Car. After qualifying in the top half of the field at Pomona, Pedregon knocked off Tommy Johnson Jr. in the first round and appeared to have Matt Hagan beaten in the second round before losing a cylinder and still lost by just five one-thousandths of a second. Hagan would go on to win the event.
The last time Pedregon was at Wild Horse was testing three weeks ago and emerged as the third-quickest on the final day of testing.
"We're looking to continue to qualify well," crew chief Aaron Brooks said. "We've got a young team, but we're really coming together as a group … especially with the help we now have from Glen (Huszar). Of course, having a seasoned driver like Cruz behind the wheel makes it a great experience for us all, and we're expecting good runs at Wild Horse Pass this weekend."
Pedregon is running the El Jefe Toyota body which is adorned with a Snap-on Tools franchisee.
This weekend Steve Hoxie is featured. Hoxie was a heavy line mechanic in dealerships before becoming a Snap-on franchisee eight years ago. He says he "used the tools he now loves to sell." Steve's been a drag racing fan for more than 30 years."
Hoxie was onboard with Pedregon as he recorded his fastest speed ever - 333.25 miles per hour.