FORCE DISMISSES BOTH TORRENCES TO PRESSURE TOP FUEL LEADER - After Brittany Force tamed the seemingly unconquerable Capco beast that is reigning Top Fuel champion Steve Torrence Sunday in the final round of the NHRA Dodge Nationals at Las Vegas, she needled him.

“Bet you Steve-o is shaking in his boots right now,” the Advance Auto Parts Dragster driver said with glee after beating him with a track-record 3.652-second elapsed time to his 3.719.

Force’s 3.652-second blast clocked a speed of 334.73 mph. Torrence’s 3.719 final-round E.T. came with a 330.63-mph speed.

Back at the starting line, Force’s crew chief, Dave Grubnic, summed up the Countdown to the Championship chase: “It’s sure getting exciting, isn’t it?”

Yes, it is.

She’ll go the last race of the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series in second place, trailing Torrence by just 16 points in the standings.

“We’re still in the fight,” Grubnic said, looking ahead to the Auto Club Finals at Pomona, Calif., but he conceded, “They’ve got years on us.”

The Capco team certainly has statistics on its side. Although they’re tied at two victories apiece in head-to-hear final rounds, Torrence had won two-thirds of their meetings at previous races. He has won 28 times since the start of 2017 for a 169-42 elimination record and claimed the No. 1 seed entering the past three Countdowns. That means he has won 80 percent of his race -day matches.

But Force warned beforehand, “We’re looking to do some damage.” And she did, even though she actually trails Torrence by three more points than she did entering the Las Vegas race. But she achieved her goal to capture a victory on the 1,000-foot course at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

She shared a “double” victory for the NHRA’s “Women of Power” with Pro Stock winner Erica Enders, as well as “the two Matts” – Funny Car’s Hagan and Pro Stock Motorcycle’s Smith. Enders’ victory was the 150th by a female driver, and Force’s was No. 151.

Making her 23rd career final round, fourth of the season, and second at this event, Force claimed her 10th Top Fuel Wally trophy. It was her second this season and her first at this fall event on the northern outskirts of Las Vegas.

But even as the confetti swirled around her on the winners’ podium, Force was thinking about taking it to Torrence again at Pomona. Her mind already was drifting to dreams of stinging him again on the final weekend of the year on her home track at Pomona.  

In 2017, Force shaved his lead to 20 points and triggered his understandable anti-Countdown tirade by denying him the title. He got what he was looking for the following year by leaving every opponent in the dust as he won every round of the six-race playoff.

Torrence said his goal had been to win the last two races of the year, so “everything else will take care of itself.” But it didn’t unfold that way Sunday. And he is resolved not to let her ambush him again.

“We still control our own destiny,” Torrence said, “and that’s all you can ask for. The bottom line is the same: if we win Pomona, we win the championship.  So that’s our goal.  

“They had a great car this weekend,” Torrence said of Force’s team.

She did. Force set the national speed record at 338.17 mph in qualifying. In the semifinals, she beat Billy Torrence by an even smaller margin in what may some regarded as the race of the day. She came to Las Vegas trying to hold off Billy Torrence as much as she was trying to catch Steve Torrence. Only 25 points separated her and Billy Torrence at the start of the weekend.

“She beat both me and my dad [topping No. 4 Billy Torrence in the semifinals], so my hat’s off to them.  But I couldn’t be prouder of these Capco boys.  We had some adversity, especially with my dad’s car, but they kept us in the hunt and gave us a chance.”

Torrence equaled his personal record for elimination-rounds victories in a single season with 58, almost twice as many as Force. But in the Countdown Era, as he knows all too well, what counts is how good a title-eligible racer is in the last six events.

Nobody had better brush aside Mac Tools Dragster driver Doug Kalitta, who’s 55 points off Torrence’s pace in third place.

He reached Sunday’s semifinal for what looked like the showdown of the Countdown, a battle between the first- and second-seeded contenders. But in stunning fashion, Kalitta never got the chance to run side-by-side with Torrence. He beat first-round foe Shawn Reed, who was driving the dragster that carried Jordan Vandergriff to the Dallas final. Then he knocked off top qualifier Leah Pritchett in the quarterfinals.

However, calamity struck for Kalitta in his semifinal against Torrence as he had a perfect opportunity to win and assume the points lead. But something in the safety box broke and released the parachutes during the burnout. Torrence used Kalitta’s misfortune to solo into his 14th final in 23 events.

Kalitta said, “I don’t know what happened. I was going forward, and the thing just shut off. It’s a very sinking moment when you see your parachute release like that. It is just real unfortunate. We were definitely going to give it our best out there to see if we could get by Steve. We are just going to drag it out to Pomona and go after the championship there.”

“Doug Kalitta is a hero of mine,” Steve Torrence said. “That’s heartbreaking for those guys.  That’s not the way we wanted to win the round, but that’s drag racing. Those guys will be back after us at Pomona – and the Capco Boys will be back, too.  It’s a battle, and we’re in it. So you can’t ask any more.”

But the Top Fuel class’ four leading contenders are within 86 points of each other. And they’ll provide more, all right, in two weeks. Susan Wade

MATT HAGAN IN TITLE HUNT ON THE STRENGTH OF SECOND WIN IN A ROW - There was a time – not long ago – that Matt Hagan’s chances of winning an NHRA nitro Funny Car Mello Yello Series world championship seemed dead.

That’s not the case anymore.

Thanks to back-to-back wins at Dallas and Las Vegas, Hagan is right in the title hunt, just 56 points behind leader Robert Hight with one race remaining – the Auto Club Finals in Pomona, Calif. (Nov. 14-17).

Hagan put himself in this position by winning the NHRA Nationals presented by Pennzoil at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway Sunday.

Hagan clocked a 3.876-second elapsed time at 331.36 mph in the finals to beat Jonnie Lindberg’s 3.945-second lap at 321.12 mph at The Strip.

“We are just thankful to be here, and the glory goes to God,” Hagan said. “It all worked out and lined up. We got some lady luck this weekend and I want to say thank you to my guys who bust their a** and work so hard on this car. To come back from nothing and not really be in it to now we’re right in the thick of this hunt with points-and-a-half in Pomona. I love my guys and Dickie Venables (Hagan’s crew chief), bad a** job. I love you.”

Hagan pilots the MOPAR Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Widebody for Don Schumacher Racing.

“Good job to Jonnie and Jim Head and those guys, he drove his a** off (Sunday),” Hagan said. “I’m telling you what, I’m excited. I’m fired up right now. When you have that opportunity to come into Pomona and still be in the championship hunt, that is why we do this. This is what gets my adrenaline pumping. I love winning races, but it is about this hunt. That’s what gets me fired up and gets me motivated. It makes me want to come in here and dig and work and just keep my nose to the grindstone and turn on win lights. I’m just so proud of my guys. They are killing it.

Coming into Pomona, I wish it was tomorrow. Let’s do this. Let’s get it done.”

The unofficial points standings after Vegas have Hight in front followed by Jack Beckman (46 points back), Hagan (56 back), John Force (72 back), Bob Tasca III (104 back), Ron Capps (160 back), J.R. Todd (182 back) and Tommy Johnson Jr. (188 back).

In Pomona, the points-and-a-half system will be in play. There is a maximum of 191 points available for competitors in Pomona. Qualifying runs are 15 points, with a maximum of 26 points in qualifying and 30 points are up for grabs each round.

“We kind of knew (the 6-disc clutch) needed to be in there, but we were struggling with it,” Venables said. “It just takes time. It takes runs and fortunately, we were able to do that and get the thing where it needs to be. What a great job Matt did all weekend. He drove his butt off. My guys, I can’t say enough about them. They were flawless.”

Hagan, who won NHRA nitro Funny Car world titles in 2011 and 2014, captured his 33rd career win and fourth this season. He has victories this season in Phoenix, Ariz., Epping, N.H., Dallas and Las Vegas.

This was Hagan’s second career win at the Vegas fall race. His other came in 2017.

Hagan’s victory parade Sunday consisted of wins over Paul Lee, Tommy Johnson Jr., Bob Tasca III and Linberg.

“To come out here and turn four win lights on and win the race in front of everybody (all his sponsors), that’s a fairytale,” Hagan said. “The points are going to fall where they fall. All we can do is focus on what we can control and that isn’t a whole lot out here. We just have to do the best job we can, and it will fall where it falls.

I guess Tasca kind of cost me a championship one time back in the day, so I’ve always kind of had it out for him a little bit. We played some games up there on the starting line and it didn’t work out my way and here in the Countdown we have met him three times and loaded him up three times. But I have a lot of respect for that guy. He gave me a ride back from the top end (Sunday). He was like 'man, I really look up to as far as leavers and the starting line and all that kind of stuff.' He said some really kind words that he didn’t have to say after just getting beat. It showed how much respect he has for me and I have that much if not more respect for him.”

Following the St. Louis race Sept. 29, Hagan dropped to ninth in the points and things looked bleak.

“I think a lot of people wrote us off,” Hagan said. “Everybody was kind of moping around and then we bounced back and I told my guys we could still do this. I’m going to get my pom poms on and start cheering. We are still in this thing. It’s hard to win back-to-back races and to do that showed you what we are capable of. To win three a row is almost impossible. I’m sure people do it all the time, but it is really hard to do. I will tell you this much, we are going to go into Pomona and we are going to work as hard as we can and we are going to double-check and triple-check ourselves and we are going to put the best race car underneath me and I’m going to drive to the best of my abilities and we are going to leave it on the table and it will be what it will be.”

Hagan did give a look into what his immediate plans will be before he gets to Pomona.

“I have been an adult all weekend and I’m not going to be an adult (Sunday night),” Hagan said. “Second of all, I think that practice makes perfect and you never practice enough. I’ve seen a lot of times people push something away. They want something so bad that they go up  there trying to something or make something happen and I’ve learned over 10 years of driving and winning some championships that you have to believe in your abilities and hone your skills, but let it come to you. If it is meant to be it will be. Everybody around fully has to do their job. All I can control is leaving the starting line on time, keeping it in the groove and turn the win light on and rest of it has to take care of itself.” Tracy Renck

ERICA ENDERS GETS HUGE VEGAS WIN IN CHASE FOR WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP - Erica Enders has been to the top of NHRA’s Pro Stock Mello Yello Series mountain, winning back-to-back world championships in 2014-15.

Now, Enders is on the cusp of winning her third world title after her memorable performance at the NHRA Nationals presented by Pennzoil at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway Sunday.

Enders left Vegas atop the points standings – 92 in front of her Elite Motorsports teammate Jeg Coughlin Jr. with one race remaining – the Auto Club Finals in Pomona, Calif. (Nov. 14-17). Enders came to Vegas with a 28-point lead in the standings.

“I don’t think complacency is a word in our vocabulary,” Enders said. “We are going to go out to Pomona to win the race. We’re not going to visit. We are not going to just put 60 points on the board because it is 30 points a round out there. Anything can happen and when it is your day it is your day and when it is your year it is your year. I’m happy with where we are at, but we are going to dig deep and try harder. I’m going to try my best to put it in the winner’s circle and I know my guys will as well.”

Enders piloted her Melling Performance-sponsored machine to beat Coughlin Jr. in the finals at The Strip. She clocked a 6.617-second elapsed time at 208.04 mph in her Chevy Camaro to edge Coughlin’s 6.620-second lap at 201.70 mph in his Camaro.

“Jeg is a legend for a reason, winner of all sorts of classes in the sport and in my opinion the best driver I have ever seen,” Enders said. “I’m humbled to be his teammate and lucky to drive along side of him. For an all-Elite final, we were able to put the icing on the cake to put the Melling Performance car in the winner’s circle.”

Enders win was historic as it was the 150th NHRA national event by a female driver. Moments later, Brittany Force made it 151 with her win over Steve Torrence in the Top Fuel finals.

“Race day was fun, and race day was really challenging,” said Enders, who drives for Richard Freeman. “My guys just keep on giving me a good race car. We weren’t the fastest one on the property (Sunday), but we certainly were able to get it done. I struggled a little bit mentally, but my dad, my sister and of course my guys stood behind me and pulled me through. It was a whole lot of positive vibes and prayers going up to the good Lord.”

Enders win also was the 200th by a Camaro in Pro Stock in the NHRA ranks.

“We are all about milestones (Sunday),” Enders said. “I forgot about the 150th until Amanda (Busick) gave us the trophy down there and that was pretty exciting. We barely missed the 100th when Courtney (Force) got it. We were able to get the 150th and I was able to share it with Brittany Force in the winner’s circle. I’m just really proud to be apart of the group of such strong, smart, talented females out there. We are showing them how it is done, (Sunday) anyway.”

In Pomona, the points-and-a-half system will be in play. There is a maximum of 191 points available for competitors in Pomona. Qualifying runs are 15 points, with a maximum of 26 points in qualifying and 30 points are up for grabs each round.

The unofficial Pro Stock standings have Enders leading, followed by Coughlin, Bo Butner (113 points back), Jason Line (116 back), Matt Hartford (118 back), Greg Anderson (157 back) and Deric Kramer (158 back).

“I tell you what, this is the highest of high and lowest of lows and the most nerve-wracking circumstances I have ever been in my life. I don’t know if I want to throw up or jump up and down.”

This is Enders 25th career national event win and fifth win at The Strip in Vegas. This is Enders second win of the season with the other coming in St. Louis Sept. 29.

“It was a great day,” Enders said. “I love The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. It has been really good to me and I hope it keeps on coming. This win was huge for us. We knew coming in here that we wanted to gather up all the bonus points we possibly could. Unfortunately, we had some things go wrong and we had the car shut off the second run of qualifying and the third run we were first out and that’s a little detrimental to our health in Pro Stock. We were kind of behind the 8-ball a little bit coming into race day, but we were able to rise to the occasion. To be a part of the female group out here, it is just a stellar bunch of women, it is an honor.”

We go up there every single run and give it everything we have. My guys do the best they can, and I do the best I can, and it turned out great (Sunday).” Tracy Renck

LAS VEGAS WINNER SMITH ‘RUNNING ON MEAN’ AS TITLE HUNT ZOOMS TO CLOSE AT POMONA - When Matt Smith nailed his Pro Stock Motorcycle No. 1 qualifying position Saturday for the NHRA Dodge Nationals, he said his Denso-sponsored motorcycle “is running on mean right now.”

And he wasn’t kidding.

His winning 6.855-second elapsed time at 195.90 mph on The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway quarter-mile just reinforced that.

Smith dusted off year-long nemesis Steve Johnson, who challenged on his own Suzuki with a 6.863, 194.04 in his bid for a seventh overall triumph and his first since the March 2014 Gatornationals.

The margin of victory for Smith was .0053 seconds, or about 18 inches, on a day chock-full of thrilling side-by-side match-ups in all pro classes.

Before eliminations, Smith had said, “We’ve got a lot of confidence.” However, he said the best he could hope for was a second-place finish in the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series’ final standings.

“The Charlotte race killed us. My goal right now is to win the next two races and get as many points as we can and then finish second,” Smith said. “That’s our goal right now – unless Andrew [leader Hines] stumbles and loses first or second round in both races. Then we have a shot. But ultimately, we’re going for second right now.”

Smith is halfway toward accomplishing his mission. But Hines made it to the semifinals, where Smith dispatched him.

So where does that leave Smith?

He improved from fifth place to fourth and is 117 points away from the lead – with Jerry Savoie and Eddie Krawiec between them. The wild part is that No. 2 Savoie is 115 points off the pace and Krawiec is 116 away from a fifth championship. So Hines’ toughest challengers have only a three-point spread among themselves.

And the Auto Club Finals at Pomona, Calif. – the Nov. 14-17 season finale – comes with a maximum of 191 points.

So “running on mean” will come in handy for Smith.

Johnson got the jump on the launch with a .028-of-a-second light. Smith’s reaction time was a still-respectable but slower .031 of a second. But Smith took control by about half-track and used his quickest pass of the day to win for the first time in the Countdown, the fourth time this year, and fourth time at this venue. In his 54th overall final, Smith recorded his 24th victory, his first of the Countdown, his fourth of the year, and fourth at this venue.

Johnson was making his 22nd career final round, second this year, second of the Countdown, and first at this event.

Surprisingly, the two had met just twice before in final rounds, and each had won once. But Smith had a 16-12 advantage against Johnson overall. Susan Wade




DAKIN EXCEEDS EXPECTATIONS – Top Fuel veteran Pat Dakin’s mission this weekend at the Dodge Nationals was to shake down Brandon Welch’s Beal Racing Dragster and help crew chief Scott Graham prep it for the former Funny Car racer’s crossover licensing passes Monday at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The plan was to make a few aborted runs and maybe if all went well to make a full pass.

But with a twinkle in his eye, Dakin said Friday morning, “The first one is just going to be half-track just to make sure everything works. And then if everything looks good then it’s going to go to the stripe on the next one. Why not? If it looks good the first one, there’s no reason not to."

His big objective is to get a license on Monday. We’ve got to have something that will get him licensed, so that’s what we’re going to do. Might as well try to qualify. I just came out here just to try to get this thing down the track and get it to where he can get his license on Monday. If we qualify, all the better.”

And it was all the better for the Beal Racing team that has taken what it learned from the late Chuck Beal and switched from the Funny Car class to Top Fuel. But the weekend didn’t start out perfectly.

An ignition problem caught them off-guard Friday. So Dakin didn’t get to take the car – which was Richie Crampton’s SealMaster Dragster from last year - down the track until Saturday.

He made the most of his two runs Saturday and qualified the Beal Racing entry in 15th place in the 16-car field with a 3.848-second elapsed time at 275.62 mph. He’ll race No. 2 qualifier Brittany Force in the opening round of eliminations Sunday.

“It’s a good car. It’s a good chassis,” he said. “Scott fixed the deal up for him to buy this car from Kalitta. This thing’s close to our car, not quite 100 percent, but it’s close.”

Graham will continue to work with Dakin primarily but will serve as Welch’s crew chief when the San Diego racer is expected to make his limited-schedule appearances.  

“Scott’s going to help them,” Dakin said. “Brandon’s only going to race the West Coast, which doesn’t interfere with us at all.”

Dakin couldn’t resist channeling Funny Car team owner and former driver Jim Head, downplaying the compliment Welch paid him in asking him to test the car: “A monkey can drive these things. All you’ve got to do is step on the gas and pay the bills. That’s the only thing you’ve got to do.”

He said Welch, who co-owns the team with cousin Tyson Porlas, is getting the hang of budgetary decisions determining whether he’ll be an aggressive or conservative driver.

“I pay for everything out of my pocket, and Brandon does too. Right now he does, so he’s going to learn.”

CORY MAC FINDING PEACE IN RETIREMENT DECISION – Cory McClenathan, the 34-time winner who’s No. 9 all-time in the class, said he isn’t sad to be retiring from his successful Top Fuel career.

“No. I mean this has been coming for a while. I’ve been out here, doing this for a long time,” he said. “It is. I don’t think about it until I get to the track and I’m talking to people.

We would talk about old times and they’re like, ‘Why are you leaving? We don’t want you to.’ Well, I don’t want to leave. It’s just, I think at my age, at 56, that it’s time to say, ‘OK - kind of s--- or get off the pot.’ Everybody says, ‘Oh, you’re still young, to keep doing this,’ and I don’t feel like I can’t handle the car anymore. It’s just like man, I want to do something different. What am I going to do? And trying to find a full-time deal, you know as well as I do, nowadays . . . It’s hard.

“I’d really like a fulltime ride, and when you have just part-time rides, there’s very few you end up being really happy with. I mean, I love driving for Dexter [team owner Tuttle] doing part-time stuff,” McClenathan said. “We never say never, but it’s time for the next chapter.

“I don’t know what that’s going to be,” he said. “I’ve had a couple possibilities. It’d still kind of keep me out here. So you know, you might still see me. I’ll still be wearing a helmet. But I’m stepping out of a Top Fuel car for good. You just might find me in a different class, that’s all. We never know. I always leave everything open, but it’s time to step out of this. I’m very blessed.

The 24-race grind, he said, “just never seems to be a solid foundation, and that’s what I’m all about. I like the family thing.

“I look back, and it’s like – You know what? I’ve been very lucky, had a great career. Still got a lot of great fans. I’m really happy. You know, I miss all my friends, because they’re all out here all the time. That’s the hardest thing. I’ve got a mom to take care of, and my daughter [Courtney] is in vet school right now. She’s going to be a veterinarian. She’s going to be what I wanted to be until I got one of these,” McClenathan said with a nod to the dragster. “So I’ll still be able to hang out with her and deal with dogs and animals, which I love. You guys all know that. I mean, I made that very clear to everybody. But it’s time for something to change. I need to change things. It’s time for that second chapter. I’m 56 years old. I finally moved into a house where I could unload all my trophies and everything, I look around and I’m like, ‘You know, it’s been pretty good to me.’'

He has been busy since he raced in the Top Fuel class fulltime.

“I’ve been doing the off-road deal with the Lucas series. I really enjoy that. We had our own series with Nitro Outlaws with Dexter Tuttle. That was fun. We enjoyed that. Not doing that anymore. I think he’d like to do it again, just got to get enough people interested and make bigger fields. There’s things we could do, like get with NHRA and maybe run the Nitro Outlaw deal at division races, because then division races don’t have just [have] alcohol cars. They can have some nitro cars to watch, as well, like an 80-percent type of deal. The 80-percent deal, you can run 3.90s with it and it doesn’t hurt anything. So the typical guy that comes out that’s a one-car team, he can go out and have fun. You keep the same motor in the frame rails all year. We’re putting 28-30 runs on a crank. It’s a way different deal. But to come out and swing with the big boys, that’s tough.”

He said he has a plan for his near future.

“When my daughter gets done with vet school, she’ll come back, and she’ll do something in California. Meanwhile, I’ll take care of my mom. I’m back in Corona, so I’m close enough to her where I can see her a few days a week and do some work. And I’ve got a ‘real job’ already set up, so I’m going to do that,” he said. “I bought a company called Race Glass, and we make off road bodies for all the stuff that I’ve been doing. I figured if you’re going to be in it, why not be selling something to make some money? It’s just, it’s business. There’s good B2B [opportunities], and you know people go through those bodies, so you’re always doing something. I’m going to start doing a dragster body and like VW front ends and race cars and stuff like that. So we’re going to try to take it to a different level and start making more carbon fiber stuff. There’s a long way to go with that and of course with RevChem and all their composites, they make everything for all the fiberglass, for all the carbon fiber, so it’s kind of a win-win for me.”

McClenathan laughed when reminded that if Doug Kalitta wins the Top Fuel championship, the Mac Tools Dragster driver will pass along to him the dubious distinction of being the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series competitor with the most victories and no championship. Like 46-time winner Kalitta, McClenathan has been series runner-up four times.

“Oh, you’re going to make me feel bad,” he said with a wag of his head. “I know, it used to be me and Capps, and then Capps won. And then I’m like, ‘OK, now it’s me and Doug’. So if Doug wins, which you know . . .I wish them all good luck . . . Steve [Torrence] and those guys, they come swinging a big bat. Kalitta’s, they can do the same thing. So if things go the right way, he could win a championship, I know he’s been working hard at that – we all have through the years. We’ve been close what, four times? I’m tired of being a bridesmaid and never get to do the deal, but at the same time, I’ve been very lucky. Met a lot of good people out here, had a great career, so I’m here to have some fun for the last couple races – and to see the fans, tell them thank you and go my way.”

STOFFER, KULUNGIAN CLICK – Karen Stoffer began the Pro Stock Motorcycle season in 10th place and the Countdown in sixth. Today she’s No. 2 in the standings. That’s thanks to a Countdown victory at St. Louis, a runner-up finish at Charlotte, and a semifinal effort at Reading. Her late surge on Jerry Savoie’s Tim Kulungian-tuned White Alligator Racing Suzuki is her best opportunity to claim her first championship.

“It’s pretty cool. Everybody asked me, ‘Is this part of Tim’s strategy?’ And really, I think Tim just figured out my riding style and the bike and putting us together,” she said. “And he did it at the late end of the season, just because this is his first season or only season with us, maybe. You know, I think it was just timing, and lucky for me.”

Stoffer said Kulungian is “very cool. I think that I have a totally different riding style and he was able to figure it out, and that’s pretty cool.”

She lost in the second round at Dallas to eventual winner Savoie, who is third in the standings and trailed Stoffer by 13 points at the beginning of this weekend. He said that day, “You always think that your partner can maybe help you. But we don't race like that. I know she was No. 2. If I was No. 2, I wouldn't expect her to give it to me. The bottom line is we race, and I want a championship just as bad as anybody else. So whoever gets in my way, I'm going to do what I can to beat them.”

She completely understood.

“Oh yeah,” Stoffer said. “I’ve been riding with teammates off and on with our team. But I wouldn’t want it any other way. I want a heads-up race and the best teams tuning them both, and that’s how it should be. I hope that we can do that again a couple more times in the final round. May the best performance combined come out the winner. I think it’s awesome. We’re all in agreement, so that works for me. I’m just fortunate to be on the bike and have a good season.”

It’s a bonus for Stoffer, who had planned to take a hiatus this year.

“My plan was . . .  We know that the Stoffer/Underdahl team here is missing a little on the R&D side, so my plan was actually to step back and the monies that they would save for me go to R&D. We really need to pick up the bike from an R&D standpoint and get ahead of everything. I probably would have been a coach on the sidelines and then I think that the WAR team found out and they gave us a call. Jerry had a need and we were able to fill it, so it worked out really good.”

Stoffer, the No. 8 starter Sunday, will take on No. 9 Angie Smith in Round 1 of eliminations.

Melissa Surber

SURBERS HELP SULLIVAN – Pro Stock Motorcycle’s “Kalifornia Katie” Sullivan – who married Top Fuel Harley racer Greg Justice in September so technically now is Katie Justice – had tested earlier this month at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona. She was preparing to race in NHRA competition for the first time since the July race at Sonoma. She competed before that in March at Gainesville, Fla., and here in the four-wide event in April.

However, she couldn’t take advantage of her extra seat time in the Sullivan Drilling Suzuki all weekend here, because she lost an engine at the end of her 7.049-second pass at 191.78 mph in Friday’s opening session. She was unable to participate in Friday evening qualifying. Consequently, she slipped from 12th to 16th overnight as she characterized the experience as “a heartbreak.”

She didn’t move off that bump spot during Saturday’s first (and third overall) session, but she did receive some help from James Surber, whose daughter Melissa also competes with him in the class. He gave up his bike so Sullivan could continue racing this weekend. She ran a slower 7.168-second elapsed time at 184.17 mph in Q3, but her Friday time of 7.049 kept her on the bump spot with one more chance to improve. She remained on the bump through the final session and will meet top qualifier Matt Smith in Sunday’s opening round.

Katie Sullivan

“This is the coolest,” Sullivan said after securing her spot in the race-day line-up. “I’ve never ridden a Buell before.” She thanked the Surber family for trusting her with their race bike. “We’re just living the dream,” she said.  

(This trip to Las Vegas is a contrast from the Orland, Calif., native’s June trip to Ipswich, Australia, for the Gulf Western Oil Winternationals. She set the Australian E.T. record a 6.969-second blast and won the event. “When I got home, it was Father’s Day,” she told her hometown newspaper’s Patrick Gordon back in August. “My dad always races with me but wasn’t able to go, so when I got home, I was able to give him that trophy for Fathers Day, and that was probably one of the coolest moments of my career.”)

Sullivan’s plan is to compete, as well, at the Nov. 14-17 Auto Club Finals at Pomona, Calif., with sponsors Force Wear Group, Motowear International, World Wide Bearings.com, and Tough Girl Designs.

Meanwhile, Melissa Surber rode her All Things Wood / Junior Pippin Trucking Buell to 13th place in the order. The Mooresville, N.C.-based racer who’s from the Shelter Cove / Fortuna, Calif., area, has qualified for three of the five events she has entered this season. Last year she made the field at one of her three races, and she competed at 11 events in 2017. Surber will line up against No. 4 starter Andrew Hines when eliminations begin Sunday.

HE REALLY WAS FLYIN’ – “Flyin’ Ryan” Oehler went flying off the end of the track and into the pea gravel with no brakes following his final qualifying pass. He entertained the crowd by – in public-address announcer Alan Reinhart’s words – “going full Rickie Bobby” and imitating the Will Ferrell character in the “Talladega Nights” invisible-fire scene. The No. 12 qualifier said his bike wasn’t too worse for wear and that he’d be ready for Sunday’s match against No. 5 Jerry Savoie.


CALM ASHLEY QUALIFIES IN Q4 – One of the first lessons Justin Ashley learned before he fired the car for his first run in a Top Fuel dragster was to leave the emotions out of the cockpit. The 24-year old successful real estate developer, who drives the Strutmasters.com Influencer dragster for Davis Motorsports, sat emotionless as his crew fired the engine for his fourth and final qualifying session at the Dodge NHRA Nationals presented by Pennzoil in Las Vegas, Nev.

Ashley was unqualified with one last opportunity to continue the run of improbable fortunes, which started two weeks ago at zMax Dragway with a semifinal finish in his driving debut. The first time out, the second-generation driver made his best pass out of the trailer and held on for a berth in the field.

This time, run after run, was terminated by a gremlin plaguing the supercharger belt, which kept throwing it from the engine. It was the same issue which ended his race day against Steve Torrence in Charlotte.  

The fourth time was the charm for the Aaron Brooks-tuned dragster as Ashley thundered to a 3.786 second, 322.19 mile per hour pass, good enough for No.14 in the field.  

"That's why they give us four runs," an elated Ashley said as he exited the canopied dragster built by Don Schumacher Racing.  

"How's that for a flair for the dramatic? I do my very best to try and keep the emotions out of it, and try to treat it like a test run or just another pass. But human nature in a situation always puts everything in perspective. I had a pretty bad stomach ache."

Three times before Ashley believed he was on "the pass," only to have the rug pulled out from underneath him. And it was no walk in the park for decorated tuner Brooks either who admitted, "We've changed everything on the car that we could."

"When I reached the finish line, then I knew it was the run," Ashley said. "We've had some incredible runs to the eighth-mile. When I got to the finish line, that was probably the most relieved I've been since I started racing Top Fuel."

Ashley will race second-year superstar Billy Torrence in Sunday's first round of eliminations. – Bobby Bennett

HOW OLD?! –Is it polite to ask a man his age? Veteran Top Fuel driver Chris Karamesines won’t tell. He just hints. The number that’s floating around is 83. But then again, he has been 83 for a few years. But maybe the mystery is solved. In a May 1964 issue of Modern Rod magazine, Karamesines is described as “a 35-year-old family man.” So if Karamesines was 35 years old in 1964, basic math would indicate he’s 90 years old today. Who knows, though? Maybe he was fibbing or fudging in 1964. We might never know the truth. However old he is, “The Greek” failed to make the field here at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Joining him on the Top Fuel DNQ list this weekend are Troy Buff (who missed the cut by just three-thousandths of a second), Cory McClenathan, Jim Maroney, and Rob Passey.

MARONEY LOOKING AHEAD – Score it a rough “welcome back” for Jim Maroney, who rolled through the gates this week to debut his own team and his Morgan Lucas-built American Flowtech Dragster.

The 26-year veteran from Gilbert, Ariz., with a successful resume in the Western Fuel Altered series has raced most recently with Terry Haddock and Kim Davidson.  

But he said, “Throughout my career, I’ve always been my own owner and tuner and made my own decisions. After having partnered up and having rented other Top Fuel teams, to rent someone else’s car and to not have that control how money is being spent or how the car ran the way it did, it was time to do my own thing. Going into this, not being on a multi-million-dollar budget, the whole idea of putting this team together is to put together the best people, the best parts that we can afford, and to make sure the car is as perfect as we can make it. Part of that process is to have Johnny West and Eric Lane on board to sort through those things.”

They have a few glitches to sort through after four disappointing qualifying attempts. But their extensive experience no doubt will overcome those mechanical gremlins as they all gel as a team. And Maroney, focusing on his many positives from the weekend, already is looking to his next appearance, in two weeks at the season finale at Pomona: “We will definitely be in Pomona, and hopefully we can progress from where we are today.”

In the new team’s debut, the car leaked fuel during the burnout because of a fuel-line parts failure. So he sat out his first opportunity.

After the crew pushed the car from the starting line and as the Safety Safari crew cleaned up the spill, Maroney said, “You know, we have done everything we can to make sure we’ve done everything right. That was a brand-new, crimped, pressure-tested line that came apart. All you can do is trust the tools around you, and in this case, it came back to bite us. Better at the burnout than at the hit. We’ll be back. Absolutely. We’ll see you on Sunday, let’s put it that way.”

Later, he said, “First hit in the car at this point and looking at the computer compared to other cars, we were really close. We just need to fine-tune it a little more and we will be right there. The engine is extremely happy, which is good for a new combination. We just missed by that much. For the first hit in the car, I’m real excited.”  

In the second qualifying session, the car launched well but the tires shook loose, causing Maroney to abort the run. Saturday’s performance was disappointing, as in both Saturday sessions ended immediately in tire smoke and early shutoffs. In the final session, the blower belt broke.

“Everything went smooth. The burnout went smooth,” Maroney said Saturday. “All the previous problems we had the previous pass were cleared up. It left the line hard, cut a good light, the car reacted like it was supposed to, but the blower belt wasn’t in for the ride. It was a brand-new blower belt, and she didn’t like it. She broke the blower belt about 100 foot out. It looks like we are done for the weekend. In general, I’m extremely happy with the team who are a bunch of volunteer guys. We’ve got the big teams asking who my crew guys are. We are a bunch of nostalgia racers who came together who wanted to do this. Eric Lane has been a huge asset this weekend.

“We actually made huge progress. It may not have looked like it,” he said. “If we weren’t a team of volunteer guys, we would stay and test on Monday. But everyone has to be back to work on Monday. I just wish we could’ve made the show tomorrow for Torco, Dixxon Flannels, Firehouse Subs, and the rest of the companies who have been giving us a hand.”

Lane, who most recently worked with Bob Tasca’s Funny Car team, will call the tuning shots with West’s assistance.  

COSTUME PARTY – Cam McMillen, six-year-old son of Top Fuel driver Terry McMillen, won hearts this weekend by dressing for Halloween as dragster dominator Steve Torrence. His outfit was complete with jeans, a black Capco shirt, and cowboy boots and hat. He even imitated the Texas racer’s drawl, exaggerating his declaration “How ‘bout them Capco Boys?!” True to custom during the Halloween weekend at Las Vegas, the Pro Stock class led the way with costumes. Fans saw a parade of characters, including Ghostbusters, a turkey, a dinosaur, a unicorn, ‘70s disco dancers, The Grinch, “Toy Story” and “Gilligan’s Island” characters, “Flo” from the Progressive commercial, and the Geico gecko.


REAL WORLD INSIGHT - Just like Bob Tasca’s information exchange with fighter-jet mechanics from Nellis Air Force Base this weekend, the fourth edition of the Mopar CAP “Assemble Your Future” initiative had Funny Car racer Matt Hagan energized.

“These are great opportunities for our youth,” said Hagan. “We just finished up our fourth Mopar CAP “Assemble Your Future” program and my message was to take advantage of every situation. These students are on the path to becoming master technicians and having a great future for themselves. It’s about finding a way to make yourself standout and set themselves apart from others just looking for a job. Having a passion to learn from every opportunity is what is going to pay off. I compared it to me having to put extra time in the seat to be better than the guys I’m racing for wins and the championship. With my family involved in the business, I know firsthand the importance of finding quality techs. If me talking to them helps them in any way, it’s a positive.

“I said after winning in Dallas, that being able to make an impact with students is extremely important today. We won that race carrying Western Tech and Mopar CAP colors and here we are this weekend with another chance to impact young minds. I’m hoping we have the same outcome this weekend. If we want to be champions this year, we must do our part and win on Sunday. That’s it.”

No. 7 Hagan will face No. 10 Paul Lee in the opening round of Sunday’s eliminations.

FCA Performance Institute Director Keith Yancy also was excited about the program at Las Vegas, especially after experiencing the success at the previous three events, at Houston, Denver, and Reading.

“It’s been a fantastic year for us,” Yancy said. “We’ve been in four locations, and this is our final one. We’ve had great success with this program bringing CAP students together with our dealer representatives in great race venues. Frankly, we couldn’t have had better success. We’ve had people get jobs as a result. We great indelible experiences that everyone has enjoyed. We have had fantastic support from our brand partners and from our racers. Quite honestly, it’s been a phenomenal year for us and we look forward to doing more in the future.”

More information is available at: www.MoparCAP.com. 




INTO THE WILD BLUE YONDER – Bob Tasca III, owner-driver of the Motorcraft / QuickLane Ford Mustang Funny Car, got an unmatched view of Las Vegas Thursday with some elite company.

He experienced breaking the sound barrier as he flew in an F-15 Eagle with United States Air Force Brig. Gen. Robert G. Novotny, 57th Wing Commander at Nellis Air Force Base, which is situated across the road from The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

“Yeah, it was unbelievable,” Tasca said, knowing that mere words are inadequate to describe the privilege. “I have such an appreciation for physically and mentally what those guys and girls go through, and they do it for our country. It’s humbling because they’re the real heroes out here. We’re just all saluting them as they go by, truthfully.”

An apples-to-oranges comparison – because neither the Air Force’s F-15 nor Tasca’s 11,000-horsepower Funny Car has an equal – is mind-boggling. Earlier this year. Tasca reset both his elapsed-time and speed bests at 3.855 seconds (St. Louis) and 332.67 mph (Reading, Pa.). Prized by the Air Force for its maneuverability, acceleration, range, weapons, and avionics, the F-15 is powered by two Pratt and Whitney F100-FW-100, 220 or 229 turbo engines with afterburners. They can reach a maximum speed of 1,875 mph in the Mach 2 class.

Lt. Col. Christina Sukach, who accompanied Novotny and his crew of F-15 mechanics when Tasca returned the favor Friday and showed them his universe, said the F-15 doesn’t accelerate as fast as the Funny Car but the race car would be no match in the air for the fighter jet once it hit its potential. She clarified that each machine is purpose-designed with its own specific functions.

“You know, the launch was good but it wasn’t, it was kind of, everything’s relative. I’m used to something a lot faster,” Tasca said. “But then once he left and he put that thing straight up, forget it, forget it. It was awesome.

Tasca made the most of his opportunity. He didn’t regale his Mike Neff-led Funny Car team, who joined him at Nellis AFB for the adventure, with mundane tales of whether he put his breakfast in reverse or passed out. He dived right into conversation with Novotny, asking technical questions and absorbing every bit of information he could.

“Yeah, well because I’m a pilot,” he said, “and it was great for me to be able to really engage him on things that I look at in my plane and what I learned in aviation. I’ve always been intrigued with aviation. Being in awe of the machines the Air Force flies, the fighter planes, ultimately inspired me to be a pilot. I have so much respect for aviation and the level of details and rules and regulations they have to be able to fly a fighter plane. It’s the pinnacle of aviation, the pinnacle of performance.”

Tasca gave himself what he called “the greatest gift” and realized a lifelong dream to become a pilot. He flies approximately 100,000 miles a year to NHRA races in a TBM 900. He more than doubled his usual ceiling of 31,000 feet in the F-15.

“I have so much respect for aviation, the processes and procedures and the discipline. It’s just a privilege to fly, it’s not a right. And you really get that sense, yesterday when I was around the pilots and the crew members and the checks and balances,” Tasca said. “The questions that I had were questions that I, just flying my own plane, [want to know]: ‘Hey, what’s the stall speed of this thing?’ and ‘How fast are you when you go over the fence?’ and ‘What’s your rotating speed?’ So it’s just unbelievable. It just was so much fun.”

Tasca asked, and Novotney answered – in words and by action. Novotny manages the Air Force’s most diverse flying wing of 37 squadrons at 11 installations. He has more than 2,500 flight hours in 11 different aircraft and more than 540 combat hours.

“Well, he tested me. He took me on a 5g pull, a 6g pull, and then we went to just under 9 gs and I was good. I said, ‘I’m ready’ and then about 35 minutes into the flight, we started to do some dog-fighting, and I started to get way behind the airplane because I didn’t know which way he was turning,” Tasca said. “It just puts it into perspective truly how talented these guys are and the conditioning both mentally and physically.

“It was the most physically challenging thing I’ve ever done in my life – ever,” he said. “I was soaking wet. You could have wrung my t-shirt and socks out – and I never left my seat. I don’t know if I’ve ever been that physically drained. It’s hard to explain the level of energy it consumes. I felt like I ran two marathons and I hadn’t left the seat. The physical demands on your body, it’s just incredible.

“We did a barrel roll and hard banks,” Tasca said. “It’s like it’s not even real. You’re flying upside down. We went supersonic. We broke the sound barrier. It was incredible. It was so cool to go through the whole flight prep, from parachute training to ejection training, pre-mission prep, going through what we’re going to do.

“I had so much respect for them before I got in the plane, but to see what their bodies are able to withstand while at the same time making decisions and being in combat, it takes a special kind of person to be able to do that. I was so honored to be around such dedicated men and women, and I’m so grateful for all they do for our country. Just awesome, just proud to be a part of it.”

But it wasn’t just a “Wow, that’s cool” encounter for Tasca. It was a marvelous benefit as the Ford Motor Company consultant and NHRA Y.E.S. Program spokesman learned and shared in the cross-pollination.

“To be able to highlight the Air Force and their need of maintenance technicians on aircraft, how that compares to our need for technicians at Ford and Lincoln dealerships and on our race team, and the vital role they play in the success of our race team or a fighter crew, I’m very grateful and humble to be around such extraordinary heroes in our military,” he said.

“It’s a great cause. We’re trying to raise awareness of all that the Air Force has to offer,” Tasca said. ”The U.S. Air Force, you know, everyone thinks about pilots, but they really need crew members that keep the airplane [in service]. So we’re out there, creating awareness for the U.S. Air Force on the need for crew members and pilots, but at the same time a lot of the veterans that are coming out of the Air Force, we’re offering positions at Ford dealerships as technicians. So you know, you work on an airplane, you work on a car, it’s mechanics, it’s working with your hands. It’s a great need for both of us. We all need technicians.”

His ride Thursday, he said, “was an interesting experience for me, a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but there’s so many differences between what we do and what they do. But the one thing that’s not different – it’s actually exactly the same – there’s no pilot in the country that will get in an aircraft, there’s no race-car driver on the planet that will get in his race car if they don’t trust their crew. You have to have total confidence in your crew. When you do that, then you get in your machine and the only thing that you’re focused on is the task at hand. It was so evident to me with the General and how engaged he was with his crew and how well they knew that aircraft and certain, x people are assigned to a specific airplane and they’re a master at their trade, and then the pilots get in and do their job, and it’s no different than what we do.”

Tasca said he felt a swell of pride when he was able to welcome Novotny and Co. to The Strip for Friday qualifying at the Dodge Nationals.

“I really did,” he said. “I’m so proud of my team and what we do out here and the camaraderie and the work ethic. So to have them out here and see what we do.

“Our guys are masters at this race car. It’s their race car, not my race car, and I know that. And then when I get in that thing and they all look at me, it gives the driver so much confidence that I’m going to go up there, I’m going to do my job, and we’re going to put ourselves in a position to win. So it was truly an extraordinary honor for me to be able to go in their world for a day and have them in our world for a day and be able to talk about our challenges. The Air Force, it’s about people and recruiting and training. It’s no different than our challenges, recruiting and training. So it’s just a great opportunity. Just an extraordinary experience.

Novotny sat in Tasca’s Motorcraft / QuickLane Mustang when the crew warmed it up Friday, and they went to the starting line to watch Tasca run. Pretty cool. Novotny celebrated when he saw Tasca take the provisional No. 3 position in the 16-car lineup with a 3.862-second E.T.

“We’ve got some friends for life, I can tell you that much. Just tremendous people,” Tasca said.

The one takeaway from this weekend, he said, is that “my car’s a whole lot easier to do than what they do.”  

NEW COMBO PAYING OFF ON TRACK AND OFF? – Antron Brown said he’s happy he and his Matco Tools Toyota Dragster are back in Las Vegas, where he has had success. The former Pro Stock Motorcycle racer has won here four times, all in Top Fuel (2011, 2013, 2016, 2017). Only the 2013 victory has come in the fall race.

Brown promised that he and the team were “going to come out swinging. Our goal is to qualify in the top five and be in a position to win the race on Sunday. We just need to go out there and do what we do and have fun.”

He said, “All of our guys have been working so hard, and the plus is that our Matco Tools Toyota is starting to respond to what [crew chiefs] Mark Oswald and Brad Mason are wanting it to do. They have a new tuning combination they’re working on, and we’re just going to get better and stronger.”

Meanwhile, Brown is scoring a coup for the sport this fall. He is featured in the Toyota RAV4 Hybrid TV “Fanatics” commercial that was filmed at Irwindale Dragstrip and has been airing in prime time during National Football League broadcasts. The ad represents a strategic initiative Toyota, designated as the Official Car of NHRA, has with NFL audiences.

“It was an incredible experience to go out there on the set and shoot,” Brown said, and for Toyota to link sports fans, drag-racing fans, and both Toyota’s flashy RAV4 and the eyeblink-quick Matco Tools Dragster. “I had a blast. It was an absolutely great experience. It was cool to interact there with people that were there and learn so much of what Toyota does on the mobility side of the automobile world.”

Brown said he has received “crazy calls and texts and on social media people are watching prime-time NFL football games and they’re calling me up and seeing the commercial that’s playing during NFL breaks. That’s pretty awesome when you take a guy like me from this NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing world and we’re on prime-time, where people can see what we do.”

He said it was exciting for a prime-time football audience to “see our car, and they played it in real time” and for Toyota “to show on that commercial where people get the gist of what we do.

“I come out and say, ‘Cool hybrid,’ and then you see a car like mine, which is not fuel-efficient, that burns a lot of fuel [and] it’s got a lot of power. I can outrun it [the RAV4] in a quarter of a mile, but in the long term, that RAV4 hybrid will kick my butt, because it can go across the map in two tanks of gas.”   

According to a Sept. 8 article by Tanya Gazdik in Media Post, the TV analytics platform Entertainment Data Oracle (EDO) “scored every ad airing during the 2019 NFL Kickoff game, then ranked them based on the incremental search activity above the baseline generated by each ad. For automotive, Toyota drove the highest share of search engagement with 47 percent. Gazdik quoted Kevin Krim, president and chief executive officer of EDO, as saying that NFL viewership “skews slightly male, in line with the male skew of new car buyers. But football is also the most popular sport for women, by a wide margin, and women are heavily involved in new-car purchase decisions. Second, overall NFL viewers tend to be lighter TV viewers than average, so this is where autos can find their audience on TV.”

She followed with a Krim comment that  “the NFL provides for the ultimate live viewing experience — not only are the ratings huge, but advertisers and sponsoring brands benefit tremendously from the passion of the fan base and the huge level of engagement that viewers have with the games while watching them live.”

Gazdik wrote, “Toyota’s alignment with the NFL via key sponsorships is certainly a driver, as the brand was clearly among the top three NFL TV advertising spenders in 2018, says Steve Shannon, a veteran auto executive and EDO advisory board member."

Moreover, Brown’s Matco Tools Diagnostics livery this weekend promotes the launch of the newest member of the Maximus Family, the Maximus Flash+. Brown will campaign this scheme during the final two races of the 2019 season.  

Brown said, “We’re coming out deep with the new Maximus Flash+ scheme this weekend, and this car is jazzy from top to bottom. The coolest thing about it is Matco’s new Maximus line is coming out. All of the shop owners will get to flash their cars from all of the top OEMs. They can do it out of their garage, and they have 100 percent tech support at their home base through the Maximus family.”

WOMEN TIE RECORD – The most female drivers in professional categories to compete in a single Mello Yello Drag Racing Series event is 11, and the contingent of female pro racers at this Dodge Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway ties the record.

The first time was at the 2017 Chicago race, followed by this fall Las Vegas race. It occurred twice again in 2018, at Atlanta and the Finals at Pomona, Calif. Most recently, 11 women pros raced at this March’s Gatornationals at Gainesville, Fla.

The Pro Stock Motorcycle class accounts for eight of them: Kelly Clontz, Andie Rawlings, Jianna Salinas, Angelle Sampey, Angie Smith, Karen Stoffer, Katie Sullivan, and Melissa Surber. The Top Fuel class includes two females, Brittany Force and Leah Pritchett. Erica Enders is the lone woman in Pro Stock, and the Funny Car class at the moment is all-male. Perhaps in 2020, with the return of Alexis De Joria, the group will rewrite the record.

KALITTA CONSISTENT – Doug Kalitta arguably has been the most consistent of the upper-tier Top Fuel title contenders. In the past five races, including the U.S. Nationals which set the Countdown fields in the pro classes, Kalitta has a victory in three final rounds.

“We have had a great race car the past two months and, really, all season. I can’t complain about anything on the performance side. I have a lot of confidence. And getting to two finals in the Countdown [Reading, Charlotte] has given us a real shot at the championship. It is a wide-open race this season.

"We have come close to the championship a number of times,” the four-time runner-up in the final standings said. “This year has been great, getting the win at the U.S. Nationals. That was a big win for this Mac Tools Dragster team and for Kalitta Motorsports. We have two races to go, and we are going to put all our energy into getting that championship. I have been close to the championship before, and I would love to win the championship this season. I have the race car that can do it, and I feel as confident behind the wheel as I ever have. There are two races left in the season, and I want to win them both.”

His most recent second-place finish came in 2016, and Kalitta knows he has to do the work himself. After losing at the most recent race, at Dallas, in the opening round to Austin Prock with his hard launch and 334.40-mph track speed record, Kalitta said, “We dodged a bullet in Dallas, but we can’t count on other people making mistakes. I know this team is capable of winning the championship.”

Kalitta said, "We have everything we need to win this championship, and that is because of Connie Kalitta [his team owner and uncle]. I started working on his Top Fuel dragster over 30 years ago. To win the Top Fuel championship would be really special to everyone on this team and at Kalitta Motorsports. I think we have a really good chance, and it will be a battle with Steve [Torrence] and Brittany [Force] and Billy [Torrence]. With points and a half in Pomona you never know what could happen."

He knows what has happened at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. He won against final-round foe Larry Dixon in 2015, and defeated Morgan Lucas in the 2004 final. In 2007, he was runner-up to Rod Fuller. Kalitta’s final-round appearance at Charlotte was the 100th of his career.

VANDERGRIFF NEEDS SOME LUCK – If anyone has an extra four-leaf clover, Jordan Vandergriff certainly would be happy to have it.

The Top Fuel rookie making just his 10th start had a hunch he would be in the final round at the recent AAA Texas FallNationals. And he was right. He defeated six-time IHRA champion Clay Millican in the opening round, then ended debuting Lee Callaway’s Cinderella story, and topped fellow-rookie nemesis Austin Prock.

But he didn’t take advantage of Billy Torrence’s poor .314-second reaction time in the showdown between part-timers. Vandergriff launched in .060 seconds, even better than his .0637 average, but he smoked the tires and couldn’t recover. Torrence gobbled up the 1,000-foot Texas Motorplex course to win for the fourth time this season and second time in the Countdown.  

“I’m very lucky to have been able to make it to my first final. Really was a dream come true, and I had to remind myself to stay focused,” Vandergriff said. “As for how it unfolded, just got unlucky. You need a little luck to win one, and I guess I used it all up on beating Prock!”

That semifinal victory over Prock was a significant one for Vandergriff, who, like Prock, is a candidate for the postseason Auto Club of Southern California’s Road to the Future Award that recognizes the sport’s top rookie in all pro classes.  On a personal note of head-to-head comparisons, it was a key victory for Vandergriff, for Prock was poised to score a second victory. The John Force Racing newcomer had set the track speed record of 334.40 mph in the opening round as he dismissed title-minded Doug Kalitta.

Afterward, winner Torrence was well aware of how abysmal his performance at the Christmas tree was.

“This is Mama Kay’s race team, so I’m here by invitation only. I do have a clone of the winningest car on the planet, so I’m expected to do well. I’m not expected to have a .3-something light in the final,” Torrence said. “It was a very unusual deal. I was going to deep-stage there to get a little better light and kind of missed the whole deal. And it threw my concentration off.”

Then he delivered maybe the quote of the year – or at least the best quote ever by a driver so blatantly asleep at the switch on the starting line: “I was sittin’ there long enough to see that other guy [Vandergriff] leave. I just said, ‘Hold my beer and watch this s---.”

Everyone did watch in amazement as he zipped past the struggling Vandergriff to win and improve from eighth place in the standings to fourth, just 71 points off son Steve’s pace. In between father and son are No. 2 Doug Kalitta, who’s 33 points behind the leader, and No. 3 Brittany Force, who trails Kalitta by 13 points and Steve Torrence by 46.

Billy Torrence is the first two-time Top Fuel winner in the Countdown.

DON’T THINK STEVE TORRENCE HAS FALTERED – Steve Torrence and his Capco Contractors Dragster that steamrolled the Top Fuel class in last year’s Countdown to the Championship aren’t the fierce powerhouse they once were – or are they?

It’s true that they might not have won every round of the Countdown this season – Torrence lost in the opening round at two of the previous four events.

But he still is the class champion, and he still leads the standings, like he did from the spring Charlotte race through the U.S. Nationals in September. He has won this fall Las Vegas race two of the past three years, setting the track record at 333.33 mph last October and winning as part of his Countdown sweep.

And even though his No. 4-ranked father Billy Torrence, at 71 points back, is just one of a handful who are challenging him, Steve Torrence isn’t cutting anyone any slack. That goes for No. 2 Doug Kalitta, whose mission to shake his four-time runner-up status has reached perturbing proportions for him. And it certainly goes for Brittany Force, the No. 3-ranked driver this weekend – she got the 2017 honors that he had worked so impressively hard to achieve. So he isn’t letting off the gas. But he knows that even though he’s in the driver’s seat at the moment in this chase, he has to beware of challengers.

“It looks like it’s going to come down to the last race [the Nov. 15-17 Auto Club Finals at Pomona, Calif.]. But if we go out and execute our plan, we’re going to be hard to beat.  These Capco Boys are battle-hardened.  We’ve been through the good and the bad in the Countdown.  We know how quickly things can change and how important it is to keep your head in the game,” he said. “Our plan is not to get ahead of ourselves - one round at a time.  Do whatever it takes to get the job done.”

It’s no surprise, but Force is ready to take advantage of him if he makes another misstep. She said, “It’s almost over, but we’re not done chasing this championship yet. This team is 13 points behind the No. 2 position and 46 from No. 1, so we’re looking to do some damage. The plan is to stay focused and go after a win. Earlier this year at The Strip, we had a runner-up finish. I’d like to come out and get in that winners circle this time around.”

The Advance Auto Parts Dragster driver is in the best position she ever has been in, including where she was at this point in her 2017 title season. That time, she entered the race 57 points out of first place, then had a runner-up finish here to close Torrence’s lead to just 20 points. Two weeks later, she stunned by capturing the championship over the year-long-strong Torrence.

And Kalitta said he and his Mac Tools Dragster team aren’t going down without a fight – and they aren’t planning to go down at all.

But Torrence’s numbers are extraordinary, not that they will guarantee him a second consecutive championship. In the last three seasons, he has won 28 times – 80 percent of his elimination rounds (169-42) while becoming the only Top Fuel racer to claim three consecutive “regular-season” championships. However, he was quick to say, “Very seldom do I win races. It’s the team behind me and the race car I’m in. I just try not to screw it up. It’s like any other team sport. Success depends on everyone doing his job to the best of his ability. I feel blessed and humbled just to have this opportunity, but since I have it, I want to make the most of it.  Our goal the rest of the way is simple: If we win the last two races, everything else will take care of itself.”

PROCK THE ONE TO BEAT? – Rookie Top Fuel racer Austin Prock made a rather bold prediction following his second semifinal finish during the Countdown, at Dallas. “I think we’ll be the car to beat,” the driver of the Montana Brand / Rocky Mountain Twist Dragster said. He based that on his excellent performance at Texas Motorplex: “My guys gave me an excellent car. We were low of Rounds 1 and 2, got the track speed record [334.40 mph in the opening round as he defeated No. 2-ranked Doug Kalitta in the opening round], ran a career best E.T. [3.688 seconds], and just barely missed it in the semis. We have good momentum going into Vegas.”

The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway also is the facility where he made his first passes in a nitro car, testing in Courtney Force’s Advance Auto Parts Funny Car following the 2018 inaugural western four-wide. “It has a special place in my heart,” Prock said. “When we were there earlier this season, we didn’t do as well as we hoped, but we’ve really progressed since then, so I’m excited to see what we can do.”


PRITCHETT WEARS BRAND-AMBASSADOR HAT – Don Schumacher Racing’s Leah Pritchett’s hopes for her first Top Fuel championship remain alive. She ranks fifth in the standings and is 104 points off Steve Torrence’s lead. A first Las Vegas victory and early exits by the point leaders, could likely cut her margin in half and increase her shot at the title.

“Starting Vegas in the fifth position, we could be worried about who’s on our heels and on the defense, or even have our eyes on those ahead of us in the chase. But we are doing neither,” Pritchett said. “We are focused on our MOPAR hot rod, dialing in our consistency on all fronts from clutch wear to driver weaponry. With that, the desired results will take care of themselves so long as we chase the Wally.”

She took time at the pre-race media conference to spotlight her MOPAR and Pennzoil sponsors, who are partner-brand sponsors of this race. For the Dodge/Mopar/Pennzpil brands, she said, “This is a big race. I look around at some of the other drivers and think, ‘When do they have a primary sponsor that also sponsors that national event?’ And there’s not that many of them. We’re very fortunate to have that. You embrace it it. And we take these opportunities.”

Then she gave a nod to the Mopar Career Automotive Program (CAP) “Assemble Your Future” initiative that has been reaching out Friday to more than 30 students from ATI’s Automotive Training Technician program in cooperation the NHRA’s Youth & Education Services (Y.E.S.) program. The CAP program, through a partnership with Pennzoil, has been hosting next-generation service technician students at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The students have the chance to interact with area Fiat Chrysler dealership representatives and get an inside look at the NHRA. The students have gotten to visit with Pritchett and Don Schumacher Funny Car racer Matt Hagan touring the DSR pit areas.

“We’re out here competing. We’re out here educating,” she said.

SALINAS RETURNS MORE CONFIDENT – Mike Salinas had been around the sport for awhile before he invested in Alan Johnson as his tuner. Then finally, at this venue in April, the Scrappers Racing Dragster boss scored his first victory ever in any form of racing.

Since then, he said, “Everything that we have done has gotten better, smoother, easier. Got good potential. We are a winning team. All the guys work really hard. Myself, everybody. We put more into it than when I first started here, so it’s nice. It’s changed 180 plus.”

Salinas said that “it’s confidence in the car, in myself, everything around us.”

What has made the biggest difference for the San Jose businessman, he said, is “seat time. Everybody’s been working with me really good to learn at this level, so it’s been really nice.”

This is the weekend Salinas had said he planned to test on a Pro Stock Motorcycle the day after the Dodge Nationals concludes. He said Friday, “I’m a little under the weather right now. So if I feel good, I am going to.”

ASHLEY KEEPS FIRST-RACE EXPERIENCE IN PERSPECTIVE – Justin Ashley understands his debut was the exception to the rule.  

First-time Top Fuel drivers aren't supposed to perform to the point. they are one round away from a final round.  

For the 24-year-old driver of Dustin Davis' Top Fuel dragster sponsored by Strutmasters.com, keeping the experience in perspective was not difficult.

"I think after Charlotte, I took a few days to sit back and think about the event and realize how appreciative I was for how everything went and how thankful I am that we had some success and that I have the team that I have," Ashley said. "Then after that, I immediately shifted my focus right to Las Vegas and the next national event, because I know that I can continue to improve as a driver, and we can continue to get better as a team."

Ashley drove his way to the semifinals of the Carolina Nationals in his Top Fuel debut. It was the first of three races he plans to run in 2019, preserving his Rookie of the Year status for 2020.  

This weekend's Dodge Nationals presents an overwhelming challenge: He has raised the bar so high, Ashley will need to run just as well, if not better.  

"I have a lot of confidence in my team, and I have a lot of confidence in Dustin Davis, Aaron Brooks, and Jason Bunker, but I'm also realistic," Ashley said. "I know that, especially in the Top Fuel category, these are the best drivers. These are the best teams in the world, and on any given race day, any team can win. I knew that the competition was going to be tough, so to be able to go out in Charlotte and find success and go a few rounds in your national-event debut, I know that that's rare. But at the same time, I do expect to be successful, and I know my team does, as well."

Ashley understands flying under the radar is no longer an option.  

"They should be gunning for the top guys," Ashley said. "They should be gunning for the Torrences and the Kalittas and the Antron Brown. I don't know about me. I just had one relatively successful national event. But if I did fly under the radar before, then I suppose the cat's out of the bag now."

Ashley will be accompanied by veteran videographer Corey Michalek this weekend, chronicling the outing for a future episode of the new reality/documentary surrounding the successful real estate developer's life both on and off the track.  

"The ‘Fix, Flip, Fuel’ series is an exciting... It's exciting, I think, for me, but more importantly, it's exciting for the fans," Ashley explained. "It's something that's totally different. I never did anything like that before. So to have someone around you and around your personal life and your professional life and then your racing life is a totally new experience, and it definitely took some adjusting to. But then, once you get used to it and you know the real purpose of it, which is to help the fans really get an in-depth, behind-the-scenes, all-access look at my life.

"I realize why I'm doing it, and I know that it's different, and it's something that most people haven't done before. But I think it's exciting, and it's a new avenue, and it's worth every minute of it." – Bobby Bennett

BECKMAN MAKING EVERY CHANCE COUNT – Jack Beckman entered this next-to-last Countdown race second in the Funny Car standings, and he has a warning for all title-eligible competitors.

“I think it will be a big mistake for any team to look past Vegas and look toward Pomona just because Pomona is going to offer points-and-a-half,” the Don Schumacher Racing driver of the Infinite Hero Dodge Charger Hellcat said. “If you stumble first round in Vegas, you’re not going to get those rounds. We can’t look past the next run right now. You can’t afford to give away any points.”   

He has 70 to make up if he is to catch leader Robert Hight and add a second championship to the one he earned in 2012. But Hight isn’t his lone competitor. Beckman knows he needs to hold off No. 3-ranked John Force, the cagey 16-time champion who trails him by four points. Dallas winner Matt Hagan is fourth, 112 points off the lead; Bob Tasca III is 122 behind Hight; and sixth-place Ron Capps, the 2016 champ, is 135 points out of first.  So Beckman has plenty of competition.

Reading winner Beckman is 1-1 in Countdown finals this year, but he also has a first-round loss and is fresh off a second-round defeat two weeks ago at Dallas. He used his runner-up finish at Charlotte as a lesson to stay focused.  

“In a perfect world, you treat Q1 the same as the final round at Pomona. In reality, driving the car is no easier or more difficult whether it’s qualifying or a final round. It’s just the pressure we put on ourselves. I stumbled in the final round at Charlotte, and you can’t do that. If we’re going to win this championship, the car has to be to right and the driver has to be right. I just have to go up there and do my job. I can thrive under pressure, I just didn’t have my head where it needed to be in the final round, and it’s time to get it back.”

He said crew chiefs John Medlen and Dean Antonelli have taken advantages of opportunities. The team didn’t participate in preseason testing. That, Beckman said, “forced us to be more efficient with our testing and incorporate more of it during the regular season.” However, he knows the team must abandon that practice now. “That’s over. Now every single run counts. You want to do everything you can to come out on top. The faster the horse you ride, the better a jockey you become. From a driver’s standpoint, your confidence is always going to be best when you’re driving a fast car. Being confident helps me perform better, and having a fast car never hurts your confidence.”

LANGDON ON SPECIAL MISSION – Shawn Langdon, driver of the Global Electronic Technology Toyota Camry for Kalitta Motorsports and No. 9-ranked Countdown contender, is eyeing a Funny Car title that would give him five in three classes. (He won two in Jr. Dragster and one each in Super Comp and Top Fuel.) But he has a special mission beyond the dragstrip – to join sponsors Steve and Samantha Bryson in supporting the Never Forgotten Foundation (NFF), which will help underprivileged and at-risk families this holiday season. Together their goal is “to deliver hope, help, and over 100,000 meals to the less fortunate in our community,” the Brysons said. “With the help of Team Kalitta as well as all our NHRA fans we know we can make an impact. All money received goes directly to the people. We have zero administrative overhead and have never taken a penny to pay for any costs of running the foundation.”

Team Kalitta and Global Electronic Technology are teaming with Ytel to offer NHRA fans the chance to donate via text and also win prizes for their generosity. Fans can text “NFF” to 411-411 and they will receive information and instructions for the Race 2 Fight Hunger. For every $5 donated fans receive an entry into a raffle for racing-themed prizes that include race tickets and autographed merchandise.
Last year the Brysons donated two box trucks full of food, as well as household items and toys for children. Team Kalitta also participated through in-kind donations. The Never Forgotten Foundation is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization Steve Bryson and his family established with the simple and sole purpose of bringing a smile to the face of those less fortunate.

Langdon’s Camry (and race cars of his Kalitta Motorsports teammates) will sport decals that display donation information at this race and at the season finale at Pomona. Fans can begin donating immediately, and donations will be collected through Thanksgiving.
“We are very excited to be supporting Never Forgotten Foundation again this year,” Langdon said. “We want to give the fans a chance to donate and also give them a chance to win a nice prize for their support. The Brysons are very generous people, and I think what they have been doing for so many families across Southern California and around the world for over a decade is pretty amazing.”
The foundation supports those in need across the country. NFF is ready to help ensure that no one becomes a statistic or becomes forgotten. Throughout the years, the NFF has provided hundreds of thousands of meals to the Long Beach and Orange County Rescue Missions in addition to truckloads of non-perishable personal items for those in need.
From Southern California to wherever the need arises, the NFF has sprung to action and committed substantial resources to help those in need when they needed it the most. In 2015, the foundation began to help underprivileged kids who have aged out of the foster care program stay in college by providing California State University, Long Beach (CSULB) with multiple levels of support.

TODD FOCUSED ONLY ON WINNING HERE AGAIN – Current Funny Car champion JR Todd, the 2018 winner here, knows his chances to repeat his title are rather slim at this point, but he said, “We have an awesome DHL Toyota Camry. It will be tough, but we still have a chance. We will need a lot of help, but you never know in this class. There are a lot of tough competitors out here. At this point, we’re just going to focus on trying to win at Las Vegas again and let everything else fall as it may.” Todd is seventh in the standings, 163 points behind No. 1 Robert Hight.


DOIN’ THE MATH – Ron Capps calls The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway one of his favorite racetracks, and it’s no wonder. He has won the Funny Car trophy at this fall event four times (2001, 2005, 2011-2012). A fifth victory here would give him 65 overall.

That’s a remarkable accomplishment, but Capps is more concerned right now with “little numbers” – qualifying bonus points. The NAPA Dodge Charger Hellcat driver is in sixth place, 135 points behind leader Robert Hight, with this race and just one more before a champion is crowned. He spoke with a sense of urgency, saying, "Our mentality rolling into this weekend is we need to steal as many qualifying points as we can, and we need to try and get as far as we can on Sunday.”

Capps can be confident, for he’s second only to John Force in earning Funny Car bonus points. Force leads the class with 82, and Capps has 75. What’s more, Capps is more than ready to make up for a first-round defeat at Dallas two weeks ago.

“The ultimate goal is always to win,” he said, “but here we feel like we have extra motivation. We don’t want to leave Vegas without a mathematical chance at the championship heading into the last race of the season. This is also one of our key sponsor races with Dodge and Pennzoil, both of which are major sponsors that we’ve had for a long time, so that’s always a little extra incentive to try and get a win where your sponsors are so active.”

HAGAN INSPIRES STUDENTS, HIMSELF – He's a Funny Car driver, husband, father of four, hemp farmer, and retail store owner. And Friday, Matt Hagan, driver of the Mopar Dodge Charger Hellcat for Don Schumacher Racing and No. 4-ranked Countdown racer, was a teacher. He spent a chunk of his morning visiting with more than 2,000 local Las Vegas high school students who were visiting The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway as part of the Y.E.S. program and the Mopar Career Automotive Program (CAP) “Assemble Your Future” initiative.

Hagan spoke with the future leaders about the importance of math, science, and other skills that can lead to new career opportunities. It was the fourth time this season the Mopar CAP activities have integrated drag racing, education, and career development. The opportunity presented itself at Houston, Denver, and Reading, Pa., earlier this year.

The Dallas winner has inspired himself and his team. And although he’s in fourth place, 112 points away from the lead, he talks like a contender in a down-to-the-wire title battle. He’s hoping he can turn his Countdown chances into just that.

“The win in Dallas gave us a little hope, and we know we’re a longshot,” Hagan said. “But anything is doable. And if some people have a bad race, we can be right there. These last two races, we want to be on point, and we want to try to dictate the outcome. We’ve still got a shot at it. But sometimes when you’re trying to make something happen you can try too hard. We’ve just got to focus on what we can do. It’s easy to overthink it and start worrying about points. You just have to put that out of your mind and focus on what you can control. I know we have the ability to win.”

That victory two weeks ago was Hagan’s first in a Countdown since he won two years ago. That put him in a strong position to win, but he finished fifth in 2017 while Robert Hight cemented his second championship. What’s key is that it gave him reassurance.

“We were definitely more confident coming into the Countdown this year, and the car has been consistent,” Hagan said. “Dickie [crew chief Venables] has put a good car under me, and that just breeds confidence for everyone. That confidence he has, it’s allowed us to not have to mess with the car too much. He’s been working hard, and the car has been running well. Now we just want to make sure we’re on point in these last two races.”

He also said he wouldn’t mind if leader Hight, No. 2 Jack Beckman (who’s 70 points behind Hight), and No. 3 John Force (who’s four behind Beckman) all lose early. That probably is too much to ask, but the Dallas race had its share of early upsets. Besides, with a commanding performance here, Hagan can use the points-and-a-half format at the season-ending Pomona race to his advantage.

“We’ve got nothing to lose, so I’d rather see one of those guys in the first round,” Hagan said of Hight, Beckman, and Force. “But they have to have a bad race, and they didn’t get to where they are by doing a bad job. We’re going to have to leave on time and keep turning on win lights. Dickie is doing everything he can to make the car more effective, faster, and to try to turn on more win lights. So I’m ready.”

McGAHA WORKING WITH SON AT LAS VEGAS – Chris McGaha has his own agenda this weekend as owner-driver of the Harlow Sammons Chevy Camaro (a/k/a the Silver Bullet). Since he won in June at Norwalk, Ohio, the Odessa, Texas, racer has advanced past the second round just once. And he wants to improve from that trend. But he has a little something else on his mind.  Son Mason will be making his second testing appearance in a Pro Stock car here Monday.

The 17-year-old practiced performing burnouts this past Monday at Penwell Knights Raceway at Caprock Motorplex at Penwell, Texas.

“Mason’s current status is working up for Day 2,” Dad said. “Day 1 went super-great, as far as I’m concerned. Made burnouts, staged the car, and let the clutch out. Now, we aren’t ready to throw down, by any means, and say, ‘Hey, we got this.’ We have lots of bridges to climb and not much time to do it. A great Monday at this point would be to get to half-track. If we do, we do. If we don’t, it’s not a big deal. We just have to keep working and dragging him back up there.”

(Disclaimer: No high-schoolers have been harmed in the making of this future Pro Stock ace.)

“Depending on how Monday goes, that will dictate the next step from there,” Chris McGaha said. If Monday goes good, we are possibly staying and doing it again Thursday. We had talked about the Lucas Oil divisional [race] in Vegas and race Comp and enter the car in A/A. But this is all a laid-out plan that can change.” He said he’ll have to “see how the driver feels – and myself – about it. We don’t have to push it hard from this point and don’t need to, either.”

KRAMER VS., WELL, KRAMER – Deric Kramer is fifth in the Pro Stock standings with two races left in the season, and his improved performance in the American Ethanol / Novozymes Chevy Camaro is a result of winning the battle last year with himself.

“I think we raced and tried to win rounds last year where what we really needed to do was learn how to race a season,” Kramer said. “It was a completely new experience for most of us. Not being a full-time team before, we didn’t know what it was going to be like. We’ve done a better job of looking at the bigger picture this year. We definitely have a surplus of parts to choose from that we didn’t have a year ago. Having that piece of mind going down the track, it’s a lot more fun.”

He has two victories (Chicago, Charlotte) and six semifinal appearances, and is in a considerably better position than he was last year, when at this point in the schedule he was ninth. Last year he won just one elimination round in six Countdown races. Already he has seven with eight more rounds up for grabs.

“There’s seven cars within striking distance of that championship and it’s probably the coolest championship hunt I’ve seen since I’ve been in Pro Stock,” Kramer said. “it’s awesome to be a part of. Every race we try to be as good as we can be, and I think we have a good shot. Our motto is, ‘Don’t screw it up four rounds in a row,’ and it’s worked out pretty well. If we don’t screw up, we’re pretty hard to beat. Hopefully we can continue to be a contender.

“You try not to feel any different, and I think that’s the best way to approach it. It can be a stressful position to be in. You figure we’re already in the car for six decisions, and we’ve got 100 decisions to make, so you don’t need to add any more stress,” he said.

Kramer is 72 points out of the lead. Erica Enders has a 28-point margin over No. 2 Matt Hartford, and the seasoned and savvy Jeg Coughlin is third, only 65 points back. Jason Line and Kramer are just three and seven points behind Coughlin, respectively. The Pomona race carries points and half, so the Pro Stock chase is a wild scramble at the moment. And qualifying bonus points could be key.

“We’re just going to do the absolute best we can,” Kramer said. “We’ve got to be one of the two cars in the final round the last two races, so that’s the goal. And then you just try to win every race and let the points fall where they may.”

ANOTHER JACKPOT FOR SAVOIE? – In the week and a half since Jerry Savoie won the most recent Pro Stock Motorcycle race, at Dallas, he has left his alligator farm at Cut Off, La., gone to his ranch in Mexico, and relaxed a little bit. He said he did “do some work on a tractor and a bulldozer” – and he said he’ll “just take it from there.”

Savoie won the 2016 series championship and has moved to third in the standings, thanks to Countdown victories at Reading and Dallas. But he said his 2016 experience doesn’t offer any contrast or comparison to this year’s.  

“No, not really. I take it race by race,” the White Alligator Racing Suzuki team owner said.

“Do I want to win a championship? Absolutely. I can't even tell you where I'm at in the points right now. That's how much I pay attention to it,” he said. “So I don't focus [on points]. When you get caught up in that moment, it could really hurt you. So I try to be as calm and collected as I can."

Las Vegas, with its constant noise and bustle, might be a difficult place to remain calm about anything. But Savoie has managed to resist the entertainment capital’s distractions.

“Long story short, I'm not a gambler, but I do put 10 or 20 dollars in a machine. Last year we went up early.” He said he told wife Vonnie, “Mama I'm gonna put $10 in this machine.” She replied, “Well, we just got here.” Savoie said he told her, “Well, we got a three-hour wait.” He said, “So waiting on our room, I walked around I said this one right here. This one's talking to me. Put $10 in it. First hit, a thousand bucks. I'm like, ‘I'm done.’”

But he’s hoping to hit the jackpot again. He won the U.S. Nationals to close the 18-race “regular season,” so he has won three times in the past five races.

NO VICTORY? NO PROBLEM – Pro Stock Motorcycle’s Eddie Krawiec would like to bank Victory No. 48 this weekend – or better yet, win here and at Pomona and tie legend Don Prudhomme for 15th on the sport’s victories list for all pro racers. That likely would seal Krawiec’s fifth series championship.

But Krawiec is fourth in the standings coming to Las Vegas, 99 points behind leader and Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson Street Rod teammate Andrew Hines. And Krawiec hasn’t earned a trophy all season. However, he has final-round appearances – including at the most recent race, at Dallas – along with a Countdown semifinal effort at St. Louis.

“It’s about being consistent and it’s about being on your game. Right now, if you’re not on your game, there’s a lot of people who can disrupt your weekend. I’d obviously love to get a win, but I’d rather win a championship and not get the win. I’ve done it before. So why not do it again?”

Krawiec won the first of his four titles in 2008, despite no victories that year.  

“Luck just hasn’t rolled my way in certain situations, but with that being said, I think it’s shown that consistency is key,” Krawiec said. “Truthfully, I think these last three [events, at Dallas, Las Vegas, and Pomona] are make-or-break weekends.” He had said a victory at Dallas would have put him “right in contention to win a championship.” It didn’t happen, but at least he got a change of scenery at the starting line. Jerry Savoie’s victory at Texas Motorplex marked the first time this year in five 2019 finals that Krawiec didn’t fall to Hines.

But Krawiec isn’t paying attention to stats like that. He’s ready to hit the track, gobble up qualifying bonus points, and go rounds on race day.

“I like having the pressure on me, and I would rather race with pressure,” Krawiec said. “You know what you have to do. You go to win and you have to make it happen, and that’s it. In the past, I’ve been able to pull through in those pressure situations. But this time of year, the pressure is on everybody. I enjoy it and I like being in that situation, and it’s something that comes with experience. I’m a relaxed racer and I try to not let emotion bother my routine, no matter the round or situation.”

RAT RETURNS – Ron Tornow hurt only his thumb and his pride the last time Mello Yello Drag Racing Series fans saw him race in the Pro Stock Motorcycle class. The accident for the RAT Racing competitor from Pittsburgh occurred at Maple Grove Raceway in the Countdown opener in September. His brakes failed him in the first qualifying session that Friday, and he hit the sand trap full force and flipped from his bike.

He said that’s “not the way I wanted to get on TV.” He didn’t have any other chances the rest of that weekend to be on the race broadcast, because he couldn’t get the bike repaired. So the positive news was that his doomed 7.041-second pass was No. 1 at the time and he eventually did take the No. 14 starting slot with just that one run. He said the pea gravel that’s placed after the shutdown area “gets into everything” and damaged the windscreen and air duct. That, he said, put him “out of commission for the weekend” there.

It happened in his first appearance since this race last fall. So this weekend, Tornow is making just his second appearance in exactly one year.   

Now, Tornow said, he’s seeking a little Las Vegas luck. He can get in line on that one. But he has a decent shot at qualifying and advancing without drama. He’s riding a Matt Smith Racing entry that he said Smith “has been using as an R&D bike this year.” With an overflow of competitors vying for 16 spots in the order, he conceded that “it's going to be a battle just to qualify for the 16-bike field. If Matt can find the right tune-up and I can hit the shift-points, we should be able to qualify and be in the mix on Sunday.”

A friend ribbed Tornow, urging him to stay on the bike this time. He replied, “I thought the cartwheel added a nice touch, but I’ll skip it this time and see if I can just go
faster instead!”