2019 NHRA READING NATIONALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
NO. 9-RANKED CRAMPTON SURPRISES TOP FUEL FIELD WITH VICTORY IN COUNTDOWN OPENER - In all-Kalitta Motorsports final round Sunday at Mohnton, Pa., No. 9 Countdown qualifier Richie Crampton inserted himself into the NHRA Top Fuel title conversation.
In denying back-to-back victories for U.S. Nationals-winning teammate Doug Kalitta in the final round, Crampton used his Mopar Express Lane Nationals triumph to leap to fifth place in a playoff opener that was full of surprises.
All eyes were on top qualifier Brittany Force, who clocked the quickest pass in the sport’s history Saturday, and points leader Steve Torrence, who was poised to go on another Countdown-sweep tear like he did last year. But Torrence – and his wild-card dad Billy, who ran a selective schedule, won twice, and qualified for championship contention – lost in the opening round. And Force’s car broke at the starting line in the semifinals to help set up the showdown between teammates.
That all paved the way for Gatornationals winner Crampton to be perfect in both of his final-round appearances this season and claim his first trophy on the Maple Grove Raceway 1,000-foot course.
Crampton ran a 3.738-second elapsed time at 329.10 mph to top Kalitta’s 3.779-second – and faster 331.28-mph – pass. With that, he joined Jack Beckman (Funny Car), Jason Line (Pro Stock), and Jerry Savoie (Pro Stock Motorcycle) on the winners podium.
For the DHL Dragster driver, the victory was No. 10, which tied him with his boss and crew chief, drag-racing pioneer Connie Kalitta.
“He’s one of my heroes,” Crampton said at the top end of the racetrack. “I’m so lucky to be part of this team. This is big. It’s the business time of the year. I probably didn’t deserve to win, the way I’ve been driving lately.
“I can’t believe I’ve won 10 of these races. I can’t believe I get to drive a Top Fuel dragster, coming from the middle of Australia,” he said. “To drive for Connie and to get 10 NHRA Top Fuel wins is pretty special. It’s some big shoes to fill when you’re driving for Connie and the Kalitta family and you’re Doug’s teammate. He sets the bat pretty high.” On the way to meet reporters, he said, he thought, “This hasn’t sunk in yet. I’ve been lucky to win some big races . . . now Reading. This place is pretty special. I used to watch this race on TV in Australia when I was a kid, when it would air finally.”
But Crampton does drive a dragster and he did win – and he’s just 54 points out of first place as the tour moves to suburban St. Louis Sept. 27-29 for the AAA Insurance NHRA Midwest Nationals at World Wide Technology Raceway. He’s also one single point behind No. 4-ranked Antron Brown.
Kalitta took over points lead for the first time since Steve Torrence grabbed it at Phoenix and led for the next 17-plus races. He’s 33 points ahead of Force. Torrence fell to third place – the lowest he has been in the standings since the April race at Houston.
The Torrences uncharacteristically started race day from the middle of the ladder, and the reigning class champion bowed out in the first round against close friend Clay Millican. Blanking in bonus points [for just the fifth time in four years] marked a continuation of his troubles at this facility.
“Maple Grove has been a problem for us. We’re either really good or really bad, and this year we just weren’t that good,” Torrence said, alluding to three Round 1 defeats and a failure to qualify, along with one victory and one runner-up finish, in nine appearances. “Good race with ‘Hillbiilly’ (Millican), but it didn’t go our way. I didn’t do my job. He threw a .047 light at us, but that’s what you get when you’ve got that big No. 1 on your car. Big bullseye and today they hit it. We just need to regroup and go back to doing what we do. There’s still a lot of racing left. At least the pressure’s off on whether we can sweep.”
The pressure, or at least the attention, has shifted to the Kalitta team.
“Our team is aware of the points, and we know the pressure is on. I just have to do my job. I feel like I have a great car right now. We ran really well in qualifying at Indy and were near the top of the sheets. So we knew we could run with anyone out there. It’s been a long season, but this is when it all counts,” Crampton said.
“We’re coming good at the right time of year. It’s all because of the hard work by the team at the track and back at the shop. It sure is nice to see a shift in that domination that Torrence has had. We didn’t want them struggle. We wanted to step up and race with them. And I think now we can,” he said. “The performance of our cars at Kalitta Motorsports has kind of where we want to be – running kind of low [3.]70s and high .60s, that’s what you’ve got to do to win. It’s going to be a long Countdown, and I expect those Torrence cars are going to come around again. We all know that. But for now, we’re just going to focus on what we can do to get to the finish line first.”
He took the victory – and what he figures will be a redoubled effort from the Torrences, Force, and Brown out of the Don Schumacher Racing organization – in stride. He took neither lightly Sunday, but at the same time, he didn’t get too wound up about either the victory or its possible short shelf life.
“I don’t even want to think about getting the big trophy at the end of the year yet,” Crampton said. “I know I’ve got a lot of work to do between now and then.” He said knowing the Maple Grove Raceway winner since 2013 has gone on to win the championship in November is “a pretty neat stat to think of. That’s pretty cool. I’s like the No. 1 on the side of my DHL Dragster. We’re peaking at the right time, but we’re not going to get carried away with it. We’ve got a lot of big races left. I know we’ve got the car to do it. It’s just got to go in the right direction for us.”
He said, “I hope this is [Doug Kalitta’s] year. If it’s not him, it’d better be me that gets the big trophy.”
Today certainly was Crampton’s day.
“It was definitely a great day for the whole team. For Dougie to take the points lead heading out of here and we made a good jump in the points, as well . . . that’s what you need to do. It’s that time of the year. It’s time to execute on race day,” Crampton said. “[Tuners] Connie and Kurt Elliott gave me the car to do it.
“Doug’s car is running good, and no one can argue that Doug’s not one of the best out here at leaving and driving the race car. To have him as a teammate is a huge asset to me. He helps me lot. It was kind of odd going up [to the starting line]. It was win-win whether I was won or was runner-up. I was pretty much going to leave fifth in points and he was going to leave in the points lead, no matter who won the final. We’ve just got a great team,” he said.
With the two teams working well together, Crampton said, “hopefully, that’s a sign of more good things to come in the Countdown. We’re going to try our best. I’ve got to dig deep, drive like I know I can, and hopefully we’ll be standing around, talking about this at the next race or two,” Crampton said.
He said “leaving here with a trophy is great, but you don’t feel like you’ve earned it all day long when you have a round like that [semifinal]. But you’ve got to take ’em any way you can get ’em. Having mechanical problems is something that didn’t happen to us today, like what happened to them. It’s unfortunate, but it speaks volumes for my team that we didn’t have anything go wrong. Heck, if I could have four solo runs on race day, that would be just fine. The hot weather was the great equalizer today. Brittany did a great job in qualifying, setting the national record, but we all knew that today was going to be different [regarding weather conditions]. It worked good for us.”
Crampton beat Dan Mercier and Brown, then got a freebie into the final when the dragster of semifinal opponent Brittany Force sprang a fuel leak after the burnout. He smoked the tires right away in his solo semifinal pass. It was the perfect scenario, especially after Torrence exited early in eliminations.
“It was odd. But all know the law of averages catches up with everyone at some point. The Top Fuel field is tough, but to see the Torrences go out like that is not what anyone expected to see. I know they’re going to come back strong next [race]. Everyone is. So for now, I’m going to make the most of what we’re able to capitalize on them. Good for Team Kalitta.”
The two teammates met as the 2017 Countdown began at Charlotte – but Crampton was a blocker for Kalitta at that time. This time Kalitta was racing in his 99th career final and seeking to be perfect in three finals this season. Kalitta defeated Smax Smith, Mike Salinas, and Austin Prock to zoom up on his 100th final. He had won the Winternationals to start the year and the U.S. Nationals to close the 18-race “regular season.” But Crampton took a 2-1 edge on him in final matches – and said he was going to enjoy that while it lasts.
Kalitta said the result was “not exactly how we wanted to finish out the day, but if we had to lose, at least it was to one of our teammates. It’s always fun to race Connie’s car in a final. It was a good race, and we ran pretty well. But Richie and the DHL guys made a really strong run. I was a little nervous in the semis, because in the first two rounds we went down the right lane, so I wasn’t sure what to expect down the left lane. But the TRD Toyota guys are out there looking at both lanes. I’m just really proud of those guys and my entire Mac Tools team.”
Dave Grubnic, crew chief for Force’s dragster, explained the problem that knocked the No. 1 qualifier from Sunday’s action: “It was leaking up at the manifold. It was through a jumper line we have on our fuel rail, and the leak was bad enough that it would have ended up pulling in front of the rear tire. It wasn’t safe to run the car, so we shut the car off. It’s just one of those things that happens. We found the leak and fired the car back up here in the pit to make sure everything was good, and it is. So we’ll be ready. for St. Louis.” Susan Wade
BECKMAN CAPTURES READING WIN BY DEFEATING FORCE - At times it seems like Jack Beckman can be overlooked in NHRA’s Mello Yello Series star-studded nitro Funny Car class.
Well, the 2012 world champion showed Sunday at the Mopar Express Lane NHRA Nationals Presented by Pennzoil at Maple Grove Raceway in Reading, Pa., that he’s definitely a championship contender.
Beckman won the first race in the Countdown to the Championship by defeating legendary John Force, the 16-time world champ, on a holeshot in the finals.
Beckman clocked a 3.958-second lap at 330.07 mph compared to Force’s quicker 3.952-second run at 328.78 mph.
The difference was at the starting line. Beckman had an .028 reaction time compared to Force’s .068 reaction time.
This was a rematch of the final round at the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis, Sept. 2, a race Force won.
“You can’t think of it that way,” said Beckman about getting revenge against Force. “You can think of it that way if it is wrestling, boxing, if it is a contact sport. H*ll, you can think of it that way if you’re NASCAR driver because you’re allowed to block, but in NHRA you have zero control over what the car and driver in the other lane are doing. So, did I want to beat him? Of course. Did it sting he beat us in the Indy final? Duh. But, none of that was going to help me be any better.
The thing with John is, in case you guys have not noticed, he will not stage first. He will not even pre-stage first, so Indy I parked on him and he went in first. Here I thought, I don’t want to take myself out of my element, so I just did my normal thing. John will never hang you out, he just will not go in first and that worked out Ok for us. You never know. Some fans came over before the final and said they would go razz John and I said, ‘Don’t poke the bear.’ That guy always seems to find a way to get motivated and win more races.”
Force acknowledged Beckman won the race at the starting line.
“Good day; got to the final. Beckman with an .028 light. I can’t beat that on my best day,” Force said, “But, my PEAK car has been very consistent, and these kids give me a lot of heart and a great race car that’s fast.”
Beckman, who pilots the Infinite Hero Foundation Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Funny Car for Don Schumacher Racing, earned his first win of the season and 29th of his career in the nitro Funny Car ranks, which put him 10th all time.
On Sunday, Beckman defeated Jim Campbell, Robert Hight, J.R. Todd and Force in his victory march. He also rocketed to the top of the points standings with five races left in the season. He leads second-place Force by 19 points.
“Our Sunday, I think it was perfect,” Beckman said. “Truly, that car was consistent, and it was fast. It is one thing to be consistent and be a tenth off the field, to run numbers like we did as good as any other car out here up and down the race track all four runs. The first three cars didn’t even make down the right lane against us, and frankly I will take that. I’m fine with them smoking the tires in the other lane. But to win a great side-by-side race, which is thrilling for the fans and good for the TV coverage, and to do it on a holeshot is just awesome.”
Beckman said doubt became creeping in with him about getting a victory this season.
“With six races left and you look at the caliber of cars out here, you don’t know if you’re going to win a race,” Beckman said. “I know we have a car capable of winning a race. I know if I drive up to my potential, we have a driver capable of winning a race.
Sometimes it is just trying to find both of those on the same run on the same weekend.There’s not a bad race win. I have three Wallys from Phoenix and they are exactly the same height as my Indy trophy. So, there’s not a bad race to win. There a few that are extra special. This one will be extra special for a few reasons. It is our first win in the SRT Hellcat, all of our teammates have already done that. We did it to take over the points lead, and it has been way too long since we have been to a winner’s circle. For a shot in the arm, for a psychological boost, for that mental edge that I think that you need that intangible to win a championship, this might be the thing that was the first step for us. Winning in Maple Grove sets the tone and you like that feeling. It is an addiction you can’t cure. We are getting to the point where this car is listening and doing exactly what we tell it to do and that makes for a dangerous combination. When a car runs that good, you drive better. I don’t care what anybody else says. You just perform better as a driver.”
Beckman’s last victory – before Sunday – was in Brainerd, Minn., in August of 2018.
“My math shows that was a 25-race losing streak, and I have had a 55-race losing streak, but during that I still got a paycheck, and during that time I still got to drive a nitro Funny Car and during that time I still got to hang out with the fans between rounds,” Beckman said. “So, am I feeling sorry for myself? When you don’t win and you feel like you have done something to let the team down, not only are they not getting to hold that trophy, they are losing bonus money on their salary. It’s nice I can go back there, and they will go, ‘You did a good job for us today.’” Tracy Renck
JASON LINE WINS READING, TAKES POINTS LEAD - Winning championships is nothing new for Pro Stock driver Jason Line.
Line captured NHRA world championships in 2006, 2011 and 2016.
Line took a small step in adding to his total by winning the Mopar Express Lane NHRA Nationals Presented by Pennzoil at Maple Grove Raceway in Reading, Pa., Sunday.
Line clocked a 6.553-second run at 210.60 mph in his Summit Racing Equipment Chevrolet Camaro to edge Fernando Cuadra’s 6.594-second lap at 208.78 mph.
“It was a big victory for sure,” Line said. “Not one of my shinier moments, but a big victory nonetheless. I was a little tardy, I wasn’t Alex Laughlin tardy, but I was tardy. Not what you want to do in the final round for sure.”
Line had a .070 reaction time. When Laughlin won the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis, Sept. 2 he had a 0.120 reaction time against Erica Enders in the finals, but got the win when Enders had engine trouble late in the run.
Cuadra also runs KB motors and was gracious in defeat to Line and beating a customer like Cuadra wasn’t lost on Line.
“It really looked like his (Cuadra’s) day,” Line said. “Even Greg (Anderson, Line’s teammate) had me juked out. He told me your car is probably not going to start when you get up there because it was his day to win. I did feel a little bit bad. He struggled all year and today was his first round win. One side of me really wanted to see him win, but everything happens for a reason and he’s going to get his win, there’s no question about it. It was a nice day for him as well.”
Line’s victory parade in his Ken Black Racing machine consisted of wins over Wally Stroupe, Bo Butner, Matt Hartford and Cuadra. This was Line’s 50th career Pro Stock national event win and put him in first place in the points standings – 39 in front of his KB Racing teammate Bo Butner.
Line is only the fifth Pro Stock driver in NHRA history to get at least 50 national event wins, joining Warren Johnson, Anderson, Bob Glidden and Jeg Coughlin Jr.
Line made his Pro Stock debut in 2003 in Columbus, Ohio.
“I probably should have got there a long time ago,” said Line about now having 50 career Pro Stock wins. “That means I have had some great race cars to drive and some great people who I have got to work with over the years. It has been a fun ride for sure. There is no easy race day for sure. I was pretty fortunate. I didn’t drive great by any means, but I had a great Hot Rod for sure. Sometimes you have to win ugly and I’m Ok with that to.”
Line has three career victories in Reading – 2004, 2011 and 2019.
“Over the years I’ve traditionally had really fast cars here (in Reading), and I like this place,” Line said.
The second race in the six-race Countdown to the Championship is the AAA Insurance Midwest Nationals in St. Louis, Sept. 27-29.
“If you would have asked me at Seattle (Aug. 2-4) if I would have thought we would have had a chance to win the championship I would have told you no,” Line said. “Right now, we arguably have the best car. In the last three race I’m sure we have got the littlest points of any car out there. I’m not trading with anybody that’s for sure. We have a good chance. All we have to do is do a good job of driving and it will happen. It is easier said than done, but that’s what makes Mello Yello drag racing great.” Tracy Renck
‘SMUDGY’-LOVING SAVOIE SCORES SECOND STRAIGHT VICTORY TO SHAKE UP BIKE CLASS - Jerry Savoie tossed to the ground his 6.774-second, 198.66-mph winning time slip Sunday, as if it didn’t matter.
It does. However, the Pro Stock Motorcycle’s hottest racer at the outset of this year’s Countdown to the Championship is not caught up in possessions. He has the 2016 championship. He has “things,” including a loving family, a successful alligator-farming business in Louisiana, a cattle ranch in Mexico, and an outstanding drag-racing bike team.
For Savoie, the emotion is in the journey.
And right now, the journey has delivered him right to the top of his class.
With his victory Sunday over Steve Johnson at the Mopar Express Lane NHRA Nationals near Reading, Pa., Savoie earned a second consecutive victory for the first time in his career and gained the No. 1 position in the standings.
He’s six points ahead of Andrew Hines, with the second race of the Countdown set for two weekends from now at Madison, Ill., near St. Louis.
“To win two in a row is amazing,” he said as he accepted his 11th overall Wally trophy at the end of the racetrack. “I never take it for granted.”
Savoie used a dazzling .011 reaction time to launch himself past Johnson’s 6.805-second, 196.59-mph challenge in what he called “smudgy” conditions.
It was Johnson’s first final-round opportunity in nearly five years, since the Charlotte Countdown race in the fall of 2014.
The joy for Johnson was that the final showcased a pair of Suzukis – in a world that has been dominated by the Vance & Hines Harley-Davidsons and the Buell bikes. So for the Birmingham, Ala.-based runner-up, finishing second had its silver lining. Besides, it was his third time to run for the money on the Maple Grove Raceway quarter-mile. And along the way, he ousted current champion Matt Smith, with whom he has been exchanging verbal jabs and provoking on social media for most of the year.
But Savoie relied on his quickest pass of the weekend to join Richie Crampton (Top Fuel), Jack Beckman (Funny Car), and Jason Line (Pro Stock) in the winners circle – and thanked the Vance & Hines organization for its prep work on his engine.
The winner said it was “just a great, great day for my whole team. I don’t take any of this credit. Tim [crew chief Kulungian] and Rick [Elmore] and Freddie [Camarena] and my brother Cory and everybody on the team, they just worked their butts off. And here we are.”
Savoie, 60, has talked about retiring from the sport and said Sunday, “At my age, I can still do it. If you’d see me working at the farm at home, I’m still 25 years old. Reactions are good. You know, you always want to go out on top. And I was wondering for awhile there, If I do retire [at year’s end], will I ever win another one [during the remainder of this season]?’ I really wanted one more [victory]. Then making the run for the championship, I took three races off . . . and said, ‘If we do well in Indy, we could be No. 6.’”
Savoie won the U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis on his White Alligator Racing Suzuki to secure the No. 5 spot to start the Countdown. The Cutoff, La., racer remains fifth in the standings, 34 points off Andrew Hines’ lead.
“We ended up at No. 5 – and today was just a dream day, because we had three Harleys in the second round, and they all went out. That means you can step up two more rounds, gain a lot of points. Matt Smith went out to a spoiler [Johnson], and Hector Jr. went out,” he said of the Nos. 3 and 4 playoff seeds. “And bam! Here we are! No one, not even myself, expected this. It’s a great accomplishment, and all the glory goes to God.”
Savoir reflected on his “dream day” that saw him eliminate Hector Arana, Hines, and teammate Karen Stoffer to reach his 27th final round and third this year.
“In the first round, you never take anybody lightly, especially Hector Sr. He’s the wild card [as the No. 10 Countdown starter], so you’ve got to be on your game. We had a good run. Unfortunately for him, he red-lit.”
The second round featured some starting-line funny business, with neither racer eager to stage his bike. Hines got the jump, but Savoie prevailed, and afterward, Savoie said, “Andrew and I have been going back and forth, and he has been going in first. I didn’t look over at him and notice that he was sitting up [on his bike], but I could feel it. I saw him do that before, and Andrew’s kind of relaxed. So I said, ‘I’m going to be a nice guy today and go in after a long wait.’ But it’s good for our fans and good for the sport and good for the bike class. Everybody loved it. And we came out on top.”
Against Stoffer, he said he knew “Karen’s bike is fast. We all know. She outqualified me. I had to be on my game.”
In the final against Johnson, a non-qualifier for the Countdown, Savoie said, “We stepped it up. I think not that we actually stepped it up. I think conditions changed. They dried out a little bit. The bike just performed better [than it had].”
Savoie and Johnson were teammates for one race a couple of years ago. The union didn’t last past the season-opening Gatornationals. And Savoie indicated he wasn’t sure about racing Johnson Sunday.
“Steve and I have battled it out quite a few times. I don’t like running Steve, because you never know what you’re going to get. Look, he went .80 [seconds] in the finals. He hadn’t been .80 all weekend. He’s a wild card. You never know what to expect out of him,” Savoie said. “And he’s a great racer. He’s been out here many years. I feel for him, because he could use a win. He’s a great guy, and he’s great for our sport. My hat goes off to him.”
Johnson, who gave Savoie crew chief Kulungian his first pro job years ago, said after earning the date against Savoie, “It’s so fun to finally be in the final – we need Suzuki support back in the sport.” Johnson knocked off Kelly Clontz, Arana Jr., and Smith.
Savoie said his bike has experience some crankshaft problems for the past two seasons and that Vance & Hines “has been working on some stuff . . . They went from scratch and it looks like they’ve turned it around. This engine we received in Indy, and Eddie [Vance & Hines employee and racing rival Krawiec] said we need to run it, that it’s a good engine.” The weather, he said, has been a factor in his recent performance gains. “The Suzukis do better in hotter weather,” he said. “Tim is a great tuner, and he got it together in what I call smudgy weather. We love smudgy weather.”
Who knows if the weather at World Wide Technology Raceway will be smudgy? Either way, the Pro Stock Motorcycle championship-chase action will resume Sept. 27-29 with the AAA Insurance Midwest Nationals. Susan Wade
QUALIFYING CONCLUDES AS RACERS PREPARE FOR FAST RACE DAY
LEADERBOARD UNCHANGED - Brittany Force, Ron Capps, Erica Enders, and Angelle Sampey will go into Sunday as the top seeds in their respective divisions.
Force was quickest in three of four sessions, but it was her 3.623-second pass at 331.61 mph which reset the NHRA Top Fuel record and secured her No. 1 spot.
“That run was just outstanding,” Force said. “I knew before I even got into the car, in the staging lanes (crew chief, David) Grubnic jumped in the tow car with me and we had a conversation about what the plan was, what we were going to do and how we were going to set a record. He told me to hang on and get the car down there.
Force set a new track record Friday night at Maple Grove and was low of three of the four qualifying sessions at the first event of the NHRA Countdown to the Championship playoffs. But it was her run from Saturday going in the NHRA history books.
Force wasn’t the only track record-setter.
In Funny Car, Capps reset the Maple Grove Raceway track record on Friday night with his 3.837 pass at 339.28. The run was the 24th No. 1 qualifier of his professional career.
“We feel great,” Capps said. “It allowed us to test a little bit first round today during Q3 and typical (crew chief) Rahn Tobler, we went back up there and the advantage of being the last to run, he’s looking at Mello Yello points. We were surveying what everybody ran because I’m sure he was looking to see what the quickest was in front of us.
In Pro Stock, Enders went 6.480 at 211.96 to take the No. 1 spot in her Melling Performance / Elite Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro. The two-time Pro Stock champ picked up her first No. 1 of the season and 20th of her career.
Pro Stock Motorcycle’s Sampey picked up her second consecutive No. 1 qualifier of 2019 and 51st of her career on her Screamin’ Eagle Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson when she went 6.761 at 197.51.
REJUVENATED - John Force, the winner of two of the last three NHRA tour events, including the U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis, entered the weekend only 20 points behind teammate and regular-season champion Robert Hight and in an event he has won seven times previously, most recently in 2013.
“God, when I get in that car, I’m alive again,” Force said. “It’s like my heart starts working, and everything is good. So, don’t let anybody tell you that you’re too old. Get up and stay alive and keep moving.”
Force transformed his approach by undertaking major lifestyle changes that have paid dividends at the wheel of the Camaro in which youngest daughter Courtney chased the championship a year ago.
After a 38-race stretch during which he never climbed higher than No. 7 in points, the 16-time champion has been top three the last four months and top six all season long. His win last month in Seattle secured his 35th consecutive Top 10 finish and his 32nd season with at least one victory. He’s had multiple wins in 26 seasons. He now sets records every time he illuminates a win light.
“Racing is what I love to do,” he said. “I’m trying to fight the old man (in me) every day. You know, I started hearing, ‘you’re 70, this thing is over,’ and it’s really true what they say, it’s how bad you want it.”
HINES STARTS FROM SECOND – In Pro Stock Motorcycle, Andrew Hines qualified second with a 6.774 elapsed time at 198.64 miles per hour. Up to this point, Hines has been second to no one, winning seven of the ten regular-season races in the class.
Hines, the winningest rider in the class, said his approach to winning the championship remains the same as it has always been.
“It’s business as usual,” Hines said. “It’s been such a good year, and we just want to continue on, refine what we’ve learned, and keep moving forward. I feel like you have to constantly improve in this class. You can’t be idle. (Defending world champ) Matt (Smith) is coming on strong, and we saw Jerry (Savoie) come on strong in Indy. But right now, we’re focused on our three Harleys and getting them where we want. I’m excited for these last six races and what we can do.”
Hines, who has 55 career wins, has eight final-round appearances in 2019.
“I’m just trying to be focused on the next run,” Hines said. “You can’t control 3-4 runs from now; you just have to stay focused on the next run. That’s where I’ve struggled in the past, but it’s worked out well. I’m just looking to win the next round. I’ve taken that aspect from [teammate] Eddie (Krawiec), and it’s taken a lot of pressure off. It’s helped make me more consistent, so we’ll look to keep that going.”
LINE MAKES STRONG PUSH - Jason Line, driver of the silver Summit Racing Chevrolet Camaro Pro Stock machine, blasted to a 6.489-second pass at 212.49 to claim the No. 3 qualifying spot and top speed at the 35th annual Mopar Express Lane NHRA Nationals. He claimed eight bonus qualifying points, equally as many as the No. 1 qualifier.
“We got some of the bonus points, but we left some out there,” said Line, who will race KB Racing-powered Wally Stroupe in the first round. “My Summit Racing Chevy Camaro is fantastic right now. I’m super happy with it.”
Friday’s qualifying pushed well into the evening, and under the lights at Maple Grove Raceway the Pro Stockers either came alive or fell flat. For Line, the driver who holds the national record for elapsed time (6.455-second) as well as the honor of making the quickest pass in the new era of electronic fuel injection at the Gainesville race in 2017 (6.476), blasted to a 6.489 in the quick session for the No. 3 spot.
Three other drivers reached the 6.4s: Erica Enders went 6.480 for the pole, Alex Laughlin clocked a 6.486, and KB Racing engine campaigner Deric Kramer powered to a 6.491.
“I was a little surprised [by the 6.489] on Friday, and I didn’t think we would see three other 6.4s, either,” said Line, who has had either low elapsed time or the top speed at each of the most recent three events. “It was enough to give us a good starting spot for tomorrow. That’s all you can ask for.”
HIGHT POSITIONED FOR TITLE RUN - Robert Hight was the best Funny Car racer during the regular season and he headed into Reading as the driver to beat.
Hight has dominated the Funny Car class through 18 consecutive events since taking home the Wally at the season-opening Winternationals.
He went on to follow up the victory with four additional wins, two runner-up finishes, three semifinal appearances and eight No. 1 qualifiers that include two NHRA history-making green hat starts. At the famed Gatornationals, where he also took home the Wally, Hight became the first driver to collect three consecutive No. 1 qualifiers in the first three races of the season since Kenny Bernstein in 1987. Then, at the Southern Nationals outside of Atlanta, he became the first driver since 1987 to be No. 1 in five of the first seven events.
“We didn’t leave Indy with a win, but we left with the No. 1 spot heading into the Countdown, and that feels pretty good. It’s a first for us, and I’m proud of that. Jimmy Prock, Chris Cunningham, and the Auto Club team have been putting in the hard work all season to have the best race car out there, and I think we’ve shown that,” said Hight. “I went to Indy to get in some testing earlier this week before going to Reading, and I’m feeling confident. We figured some things out, and we’re going to have a strong car this weekend.”
BO ON THE GO - Past Pro Stock champion Bo Butner has been the points leader in Pro Stock since Pomona, racking up four wins thus far in 2019.
Butner was dominant right out of the gate, winning four of the first five Pro Stock races. While he’s maintained the points lead throughout the regular season, Butner is looking to re-create magic where he won at Maple Grove Raceway in 2017 en route to his first Pro Stock world championship.
“We have a good car right now,” Butner said. “My Jim Butner Auto Group Chevy Camaro is starting to show some signs of greatness again, and this is the right time for that. We enter the Countdown as the No. 1 seed, and hopefully, that’s where we end up. Of course, you want to win, especially once you know what it feels like – but if it’s a KB Racing car at the end, we’ll be happy.
“We’ve been saying all year that we want to be 1-2-3 at the end, and we’re starting this deal off pretty close to that. Now we just have to keep it going and keep everybody else from separating us.”
CLOSING THE GAP - Jeggie Coughlin’s four impressive qualifying runs helped him close in on overall class point leader Bo Butner by four points due to better overall elapsed times in each session.
“The track has been absolutely amazing all weekend, despite the misty weather, and we’ve run very well,” Coughlin said. “We were third quickest in Q1, ran our best elapsed time of the year in Q2, we were third quickest again earlier today even though it was slightly warmer, and we closed out qualifying with the quickest run of the session.
“The whole program is clicking. The guys are on point, and I continue to feel great behind the wheel. There’s a long way to go with six playoff races on the schedule, but the start to Race 1 has been about as good as we could have asked for.”
On a cool Friday night session when many drivers posted their quickest runs of the year, Coughlin and crew managed to go a tick under the 6.5-second mark with a stout 6.499 at 212.03 mph. That sets up a first-round date with veteran Bob Benza, who posted a best of 6.584 at 200.77 mph.
“We started the weekend with some great cloud cover, cool temperatures and a little mist and everyone ran great,” Coughlin said. “It stayed misty and cloudy today but warmed up a bit, so we all slowed down just a touch. Relative to the field we stayed strong, and even led the last round, so all that’s very encouraging. It’s supposed to be a bit warmer still tomorrow so we’ll need to stay on our toes, but I know we’ll be ready to race.”
Coughlin has won Reading five times in the past, four times in Pro Stock (1999, 2008, 2009 and 2014.) and once in Super Gas.
HOPING FOR ONE BETTER - Tim Wilkerson finished runner-up at last year’s Reading event. The veteran independent driver has finished in the top 10 in 14 of his 22 years as a nitro Funny Car driver, including in each of the most recent 11 years.
Wilkerson enters Sunday’s eliminations as the fourth quickest with a 3.879, 324.90 best.
Wilkerson’s run came in the third session when he was able to move up and score two bonus points, along with a first-round meeting with Terry Haddock.
“That first run today was about what it should have done last night,” explained Wilkerson, who was runner-up at Reading last season. “It was pretty close last night, so we [dialed it] back a little bit for the third run. It worked.”
In the final qualifying session, Wilkerson came to the starting line ready to make another solid pass, but as soon as he hit the throttle, there was a furious bout of tire-spin followed by a massive pop and a flash of fire. Wilk went nowhere, though he will likely make the highlight reel.
“I tried to tune it up for that last run, and it had none of that,” he explained. “I had it too tuned up last night. Just came backwards a little bit to get it down the track. We just need to make the thing go A to B Sunday. We can’t take him lightly, but we have to make the thing go.”
CAPPS MAKES THE RUN OF THE YEAR AS FEMALES TAKE THREE OF THE FOUR TOP SPOTS
MR. SPEED - NHRA implemented less track prep to curtail Funny Cars from going into the 340-mile per hour range. Friday Night, NHRA realized they had better go back to the drawing board as Ron Capps set both ends of the Maple Grove Raceway track record with a 3.837 elapsed time at 339.28 miles per hour. It was the quickest anyone has gone since Robert Hight’s 339.87 in August 2017.
If his top qualifying position holds, it will be Capps’ second No. 1 qualifier of the season and 24th of his NHRA career.
“We knew there was a lot there,” Capps said. “Then we saw a high .80 (run) by (Bob) Tasca and a couple of 90s, and it paid off being at the back of the pack. We have the new Hellcat body, and we really trimmed it out. We really did a lot of things because we ran so good the first lap. It really gave us the chance to try to see what we could do, not just here, but at other Countdown races.”
Tuner Rahn Tobler was taken aback by the fruits of his tuning handiwork.
“We dropped a hole at about 800-feet on the first run, and it still ran 329,” Tobler said. “I figured it would run better on eight [cylinders], but I never imagined that.
“The ET, we tried to press it, and it looked like it responded. He appeared to be driving a lot on the top end, but we will take it.
GUIDED BY THE LIGHT - Capps described Friday’s pace-setting run to be a lot like his previous record-setting run from back in 2012 at Englishtown, NJ.
Capps made the most of the new Dodge Hellcat wide body.
““We have our new Hellcat body really trimmed out and Tobler went outside of his comfort zone. He took the back spoiler down, and did a lot of things since we had such a good first run. It gave us the chance to see what we could do if we see these conditions again at another Countdown race.””
Capps said rarely does Tobler step outside of the race day set up.
“It left, and once it got past the shake zone, the car was shaking and rattling so hard because’ it’s trying to grab grip all the way down and I could hear the rpm climbing and the vibration was getting worse. I’ couldn’t see very well. I didn’t want to hit a cone down there, I knew it was going to the right, and I had the wheel turned.
“There are times you drive these cars, and you run off of the light of the headers. I knew kind of where I was at based on the light. To be honest, I didn’t have a good view. All that put together, I knew I was on a good run.”
IT’S THAT TIME AGAIN - No matter what a driver does in the regular season, it’s the stretch of six races which conclude the season that matters the most. Five years ago, the two-time Pro Stock world champ Erica Enders embraced the same intensity and the end result was a Pro Stock championship.
Friday night she was quickest provisionally as she went 6.480 seconds at 211.96. She is aiming for her first top qualifier of 2019.
Just like a baseball superstar connecting on a homerun, Enders knew at the hit this was a good one.
“I let the clutch out, and I knew it was going to be great,” Enders said. “My crew is just beaming with confidence. That makes me really happy because I’ve got my guys’ back. I was able to drive the car successfully on that run.
“We came in on the first run strong. They told me I should be able to go a 6.48 on that run beforehand. If we were bracket racing, we went dead-on with a zero.”
Enders has had plenty working in her favor before Reading thanks to back-to-back final round appearances. She entered the Countdown to the Championship fifth in points, 50 points back of the points leader.
“I more determined than I’ve ever been,” Enders said. “I’m driving well and the really cool part, both of my crew chiefs, they have their swagger and confidence back. They’re ready and I have a really good car right now. It helps me a lot. We have a great car and I love hearing their confidence. It makes me confident and I can go up there with a clear mind. It’s kind of cool.”
Enders is gunning to win a third world title, and her first career win at Maple Grove Raceway, as well as her first victory of the 2019 season. Just missing out on a victory at Indy has only motivated the 23-time event winner, who has made a living out of thriving on high-stakes moments.
“It’s not going to be an easy task, but I’m excited about it, I’m optimistic about it and I’m up for the challenge,” Enders said. “Just picturing the wins and the opportunity at a third championship, it excites me and motivates me. I literally think about it 24/7. I really do love it.”
Enders tested in Tulsa last weekend, which added to the team’s confidence.
“It’s really exciting to race on the East Coast as a Pro Stock driver,” Enders said. “That’s where a lot of our fans are. That’s always exciting and encouraging, and that track has so much history in our sport.”
LADIES NIGHT - Friday Night at the Mopar Express Lube NHRA Nationals in Reading, Pa., the sanctioning body’s gender diversity was on full display as female racers snagged provisional No. 1 qualifiers in three of the four professional categories.
Brittany Force (Top Fuel), Erica Enders (Pro Stock) and Angelle Sampey (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were the quickest in their respective divisions after two sessions.
Since the Pro Stock divisions were the last to qualify on Friday, Sampey sealed the deal, at least provisionally.
“I was nervous going into the second round because I didn’t know what I was going to do,” Sampey said. “I heard Alan talking about Erica and Brittany being No. 1, and he kept calling it, Ladies Night, and I said, ‘That’s right!”
“It was perfect they did that. I’ve always been one of the girls who always just wanted to be a racer. As I’ve gotten older and have a daughter who looks up to me, I understand the importance of female power supporting them. Good job, Erica and Brittany.”
ON TAP - Qualifying at the Mopar Express Lanes NHRA Nationals presented by Pennzoil, will continue Saturday at Maple Grove Raceway with sessions at 1:45 and 3:45 p.m. and with television coverage on FOX Sports 2 (FS1) from 9-10 p.m. ET and on FOX Sports 1 (FS1) from midnight until 1 a.m. E.T.
TIME FOR AN ENCORE? - When you win as much as Steve Torrence has this season, not posting a win in two races can be deemed a slump. But four in a row?
Still, the Capco Racing driver is very much capable of piecing together another 24-round, six-race winning streak to capture a second consecutive title. Torrence won his record third straight regular-season championship by the biggest margin in NHRA racing history (558.points).
“Last year was unbelievable,” Torrence said. “To win six straight races, whether it’s in the Countdown or just the regular season, is incredible. Everything has to go perfect.
“The crew chiefs have to make the right calls, the crew can’t make a mistake putting the parts and pieces together, the driver has to do his job and, even after all that, you still need some luck. So, sweeping the Countdown a second time isn’t that likely, but it’s still our goal.
Torrence won’t be fooling anyone this time around.
“It’ll be even tougher (this year) because we’re running two cars at every race,” said the 35-time tour winner. “If my dad (Billy) hadn’t made the Countdown, he would have run the other car just two or three times. Now, he’s running all six races so that’ll spread us a little thinner, but it’s great for him to get the chance.
“He’s done a great job this year, and I’m really proud of him and that team. We’ve always raced as a family, me, my mom (Kay) and my dad, but to do it at this level is really special.”