TORRENCE DEFEATS KALITTA IN EPIC TOP FUEL FINAL IN ARIZONA DESERT - The Top Fuel final round of the NHRA Arizona Nationals was a battle between reigning champion Steve Torrence and Doug Kalitta, the man he defeated by a mere three points for his second straight title last November.

It was a showdown between the class dominator who didn’t enter the season-opener at Pomona two weeks ago and the perennial contender who did show up at the Lucas Oil Winternationals and won for the third straight time.

It was a juicy match-up the fans at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park wanted to see Sunday at Chandler, Ariz.

And once again, Torrence got the better of Kalitta.

Even though they had identical reaction times of .066 of a second, Torrence earned his 37th victory with a 3.679-second elapsed time at 321.27 mph in the Capco Contractors Dragster. It was his 29th in 68 starts and the team’s 34th in the past 69 events, dating back to 2017. It also marked the third straight year a Capco Dragster-driving Torrence has won this second event on the schedule.

Kalitta covered the 1,000-foot course in suburban Phoenix in 4.052 seconds at 218.90 mph in the Mac Tools entry in pursuit of his 49th triumph.

“It felt good to be back in the car,” Torrence said after joining Tommy Johnson Jr. (Funny Car) and Erica Enders (Pro Stock) in the winners circle.

“There’s always more work to be done and more history to be made, but I am blessed with what we have been able to accomplish the past few seasons. Two championships would not have been possible without the hard work and dedication of Richard Hogan, Bobby Lagana Jr., Gary Pritchett and all the rest of these bad-to-the-bone Capco Boys, along with favorable blessings from the Lord.”

Torrence expressed great respect for Kalitta.

“When you look at another driver and what you want to emulate, he’s the guy. I have tons of respect for Doug Kalitta,” Torrence said. “He’s a genuinely good person. You watch what he does and just the way that he drives the car, how he stays calm, how he handles situations.” He said that at the Winternationals, Kalitta “won that whole race just on driving ability, because they didn’t have the best car. But he went out and got it done. Doug’s the greatest. He’s one of the best drivers there’s ever been.”  

Meanwhile, Kalitta said, “Man, we are off to a great start. I would have loved to have gotten another win today, but you look at our performance and we got stronger every run. We had a great day today, even if we didn’t get our second win of the season. Our performance all day just kept getting better and better. We had some tough competitors, and just about every round we were racing a championship-caliber team. It looks like we might have given it a little too much in the final, but we can correct that. We have the points lead and we are giving the fans and our sponsors like Mac Tools, Toyota, Mobil 1, NGK, Sealmaster and WIX Filters a great show. We got three win lights, and we’ll head to the Gatornationals with some momentum.”

Kalitta will enter the March 12-15 Amalie Oil Gatornationals with a 59-point lead over second-place Brittany Force as the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series heads to the Southeast.

Torrence was the No. 1 qualifier. Nevertheless, he said he was experiencing “a little bit of the jitters” Sunday morning. And he got a challenge immediately, when first-round opponent and hometown hero Jim Maroney, of nearby Gilbert, launched in a eye-popping .026 seconds.  

Torrence had told his crew before even getting in car on race day, “I just feel like somebody’s going to try to mess with me a little bit today. I think it was a complete accident, but Jim Maroney puts the top bulb out, and I’m lookin’ over there and not paying attention and went .095 [on the tree]. I just got out and laughed about it. Great guy. It just is what it is. But when you go through what you went through at Pomona, you just kind of expect for some of that to go on.”  

But Torrence prevailed, then survived a bit of a wild quarterfinal against Shawn Langdon.  

Torrence had a late light (.143 of a second), but Langdon lost traction right away.  

“Versus Langdon, I go in and the bulb just kind of flickers and flickers and flickers and won’t stay on. I have a whole brain-fade there, as well,” he said.  

Torrence started smoking his tires, so Langdon got back on the throttle. Torrence had to pedal the car and managed to hold off the Kalitta Motorsports driver.  

“Fortunately, I was able to get it down through there,” he said.

It was crazy, too, from Langdon’s viewpoint. He said, “We were going to get after it but smoked the tires. I got off the throttle and saw Steve having some issues. That is when it gets exciting. I got back on the throttle, but I just couldn’t catch up to him.”

In the all-Torrence semifinal, Steve Torrence eliminated father Billy, last year’s winner here – just like he did in the 2018 semifinals en route to his only other Top Fuel victory at this facility. That put Steve Torrence in his 56th overall final round.   

That was a bit of a surprise. the winner said: “I thought they had a better car. I thought they would outrun us. I needed to be on my game at the tree. It was close at the end, but I did my job on the tree.”

Kalitta’s march to his 103rd final round began with a freebie from Shawn Reed, who left before the Christmas tree starting device activated. Then Kalitta matched up once again with Brittany Force, whom he beat in their Winternationals semifinal. This time the stakes were a little higher, for in Round 1, Force  won with a 3.643-second pass at 337.92 mph that reset both ends of the track record that was the second-fastest and sixth-quickest in Top Fuel history. He won handily in the semifinal Sunday against Antron Brown, clocking his career-best E.T. (3.672 seconds) and fastest speed of the year (330.55 mph).

Torrence said, “I knew that they had just run their career-best and we were going to throw down in the final.”

To win a third straight championship, Torrence knows he has the car, crew, and driving ability to do it. He also knows he has to keep focused and not let off the gas – although he knows full well Kalitta is one of those who would love to break that concentration with a few victories along the way, too.

“I don’t see any reason why we can’t continue to do well,” Torrence said coming into the weekend a race later than expected, “but to win a championship, everything has to fall into place. It’s a difficult thing to do just one time. And it gets more difficult when you’re trying to win a second time, because you’ve got a target on your back.  And now we’re trying for a three-peat.  

“It’s a long season, and we know how the system works. But our philosophy hasn’t changed.  We still want to win every race.  There’s always room for improvement. The goal is to try and be as perfect as possible. That has to become a habit. And that’s why we race just as hard in the regular season as we do in the Countdown. Our mindset is to win every race,” Torrence said. Susan Wade

JOHNSON JR CLAIMS FUNNY CAR CROWN AT ARIZONA NATS - Back in 1989, Tommy Johnson Jr. made his debut in the nitro ranks in Phoenix – competing in Top Fuel.

The talented, versatile driver has come a long way since. Sunday he captured his 20th career NHRA national event title and 18th in Funny Car.

Johnson clocked a 3.883-second elapsed time at 326.40 mph to defeat his Don Schumacher Racing teammate Jack Beckman, who slowed to 6.156 seconds.

Johnson pilots the MD Anderson Funny Car, while Beckman drives the Infinite Hero Foundation Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat.  

On his way to the big final-round showdown, Johnson defeated Paul Lee, Bob Tasca III and Ron Capps.

“We had a good car and we came up here (Sunday) and we had a lot of confidence,” Johnson Jr. said. “As a driver going in each round knowing you have a car that’s going to perform makes your job a little easier and gives you a little less stress. The guys did a great job. Even in a Pomona, we had a good car and it just dropped a cylinder in the second round. We had a little issue with that in qualifying here and we worked hard to fix that and now it is running really well and consistent.”

In the final, Johnson saw it as a win-win against Beckman.

“There wasn’t going to be a loser in the final, Doug Chandler is supporting both of these teams, and both are giving cars,” Johnson Jr. said. “They are paying forward so much you love to bring it home for somebody like that who helps so many others. I wanted to win, but even if we had loss, Doug still won. That’s the main focus of both of our teams to do the job Doug is wanting us to do and promote these foundations he’s supporting. No matter who won that it was a win. He (Beckman) got the first one of the year and I got the second one, so it is even now.”

This is Johnson Jr.’s second career win in Phoenix – the first coming in 2006.

“Coming into a track that you have won at in the past, it gives you a little more confidence,” Johnson said. “You know how to get to the winner’s circle, and I started my (nitro) career back here in 1989 in the Top Fuel car and it’s a big circle and nice to be able put a cap on it with a win. We had a struggle in the Countdown last year. We had a great season and then in the (six-race) Countdown we struggled. That’s totally opposite of what we had done in the past. We weren’t real pleased with the finish of the season. So, to come out strong at the beginning of the year this year, I’m happy for all my guys.”

Johnson moved into second in the Funny Car point standings behind Beckman, the current point leader. Johnson finished eighth in the points standings a year ago.

“I was very relieved when I turned the corner down there (in the finals),” Johnson said. “We had such a good car last year and we didn’t finish well at all, so to come out strong and get that out of the way right off the bat, now it just shifts to maintaining it. You learn from your mistakes you make, and I think we learned well from last year with what went wrong and what we needed to do to fix it. It’s nice to be able to know that you did fix it.” Tracy Renck

THREE-TIME PRO STOCK CHAMP ENDERS TAKES PHOENIX VICTORY - Reigning NHRA Mello Yello Series Pro Stock champion Erica Enders is back in the winner’s circle.

Enders clocked a 6.531-second time at 210.44 to defeat Bo Butner’s 6.606-second lap Sunday in the finals of the Arizona Nationals at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park near Phoenix.

“(Sunday) was excellent,” said Enders, a three-time NHRA Pro Stock world champ – 2014-15 and 2019. “Coming in here off Jeg’s dominating performance in Pomona (Calif., at the Winternationals) we knew that we just had to get my car happy because we share data obviously and there’s no reason why my car, Alex (Laughlin’s), Aaron Stanfield’s car, Marty Robertson’s car shouldn’t run the same as Jegs. Our objective coming in was to get my car as happy as possible. We tested in Tucson (Ariz.) on (Feb. 19) so coming in we were optimistic, and we finally got our act together for that one run on Saturday and the guys gave me a tremendous race car (Sunday). It was very consistent and very fast, and we crushed the competition (Sunday) and it was really fun.”  

This was Enders' 26th career Pro Stock national event win. Enders pilots a Camaro for Elite Motorsports. This season the Richard Freeman-owned Elite Motorsports team is 2-for-2 at national events with Coughlin winning the Winternationals and Enders Phoenix.

“I would bet my money on it (that Elite will be dominant the rest of the year),” Enders said. “We definitely have the target on our backs and Pro Stock just really goes in cycles. You have to have the staying power and battle through the valleys and that’s something we have at Elite Motorsports. Since our championship in 2015, the next three years were really kind of crappy for a lack of a better word. We’re back to our championship form. We are back to that dominating horsepower that we were used to those two back-to-back championship years. I’m thrilled and ride the wave as long as you can because it is certainly going to change at one point.”
Enders’ victory parade Sunday consisted of wins over Fernando Cuadra Jr., Chris McGaha, Jason Line and Butner.

“I definitely think it does,” said Enders when asked if an early-season win will boost her confidence. “Especially considering the only two wins I had last year didn’t come until the Countdown which is obviously the most crucial time and I’m thankful that’s when they came, but we struggled and battled through the beginning of the year and through the summer. I’m thankful (the wins) came when they did, and we were able to secure our third championship. But it certainly wasn’t a championship year for us. Our goal coming out this year, especially with Jeg retiring from full-time racing (after the 2020 season), is to not take any round for granted. Just go out there and battle it out every single time and I think we finished 1-2 last year and that’s our goal this year.

I’m thrilled with the group we have at Elite. It’s super unique and it’s something money can’t buy and that’s what makes it so coveted. I’m proud of my guys. It’s really awesome. I want to pinch myself.”

Enders' win Sunday was the perfect birthday gift for team owner Freeman.

“Richard Freeman, we call him our fearless leader, he turned 47 (Feb. 23) and he said this morning at breakfast that I didn’t have to buy him a present, just get me a Wally (Sunday),” Enders said. “I’m into that because I’m broke. We were able to get it done.” Tracy Renck


FIXING, FLIPPING, FUELING POSITIVE MEMORIES – Justin Ashley has learned a lot about driving a dragster since earning his Top Fuel license in 2017. When pressed to reveal the most profound lesson he has learned in his short four-race driving career, it's a no-brainer for the driver of the Dustin Davis Motorsports Strutmaster.com entry who’s starting a career-best fifth Sunday at the NHRA Arizona Nationals at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park near Phoenix.

"Stay balanced," Ashley, the 25-year-old successful real-estate developer on New York's Long Island and host of the online series “Fix, Flip, Fuel,” said.  "It's not an easy thing to balance work and racing, and being at the racetrack and engaging in all the things that are going on and then actually have to sit in the car and focus on driving.

"Sometimes, it's easy to get distracted by all the outside noise. The most significant thing I've learned is to be able to balance everything and once I'm in the car, put all my emotions away and just focus on solely the task at hand and doing the best job I can to help my team."

Ashley has remained true to his objective, scoring an impressive four round-wins, including a semifinal finish in his debut race last October at the NHRA Carolina Nationals. Ashley opened the 2020 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series by reaching the quarterfinals at the Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals.

And Saturday, following a lengthy rain delay, Ashley nailed down the No. 5 starting position with a personal-best 3.707-second elapsed time at 322.81 mph.

“It feels great to run our personal best. It's a testament to how great of a group we have,” Ashley said. “Our team works so diligently, and they work so hard to be able to give ourselves an opportunity to win every time we come to the racetrack. And I'm really happy for this group of guys, for this team right here, because they deserve it. And we know that we're going to continue working at it, and continue to grow as a team and continue to improve.

“To be able to qualify in the top half is really great. I mean, that's the first time we've been able to do that,” he said. “And it's growing in this sport. It’s about taking steps, and that's one big step for us. And it's all, at the end of the day, once you're in the show, you're in the show. But to be able to qualify for the top half of the field is a big accomplishment for us as a group.”

He’ll have lane choice over No. 12 starter Scott Palmer.

So Ashley truly won’t be sneaking up on anybody now. He pretty much blew his own cover.

“Yeah, I guess not, right?” he said. “Yeah, that went out of the water pretty quickly.”

He said his move up the ladder Saturday wasn’t shocking to him.

“Now I know the way [crew chief] Aaron Brooks, I know the way he thinks. He wants to go up there and run really well. So it didn't catch me by surprise at all,” Ashley said, “because I know that this is something that we're capable of. I wasn't sure when I first got to the top end what we had revved, but it certainly felt really good. So when they told me we were at a 70 I was just super-impressed, super-happy for us. And I know that tomorrow is where we got to make it count.”

The one common denominator Ashley and his team have showcased is the ability to be resilient in the face of adversity. In all four starts, the team has struggled in qualifying, yet rebounded on race day to become one to be reckoned with.

"I think that more so than anything else, it just speaks to how well our team responds in times of adversity," Ashley said. "We've struggled a little bit thus far during qualifying, but our team is always working hard and working diligently to make sure that whatever we're going through we're going to get to the end of it and we'll get it resolved. And luckily for us, it seems to translate into, at least for now, the first few rounds of eliminations."

On Friday, when teams fired up for the first qualifying session of the NHRA Arizona Nationals, Ashley returned to race at Wild Horse Motorsports Park. He has driven there only once, earning his license to race a Top Alcohol Dragster.

Ashley smiles at the forgettable experience.

"I did terribly," Ashley admitted. "Pretty much everything you can imagine going wrong went wrong. I was really struggling that weekend. And there's a few schools of thought on it. I was actually thinking about this recently, that I could go back there and be like, 'Oh, this is a place where I had bad memories. This is where I struggled.’

"And I don't look at it that way. I look at, 'All right, now's my chance to go in there and instead of making Phoenix a place that I associate with the struggles, I make it associated with success,” he said. 

He said he was looking forward to getting here “and having my first official race at this racetrack and making sure that it's a place that has good memories now from this point forward.

“I mean, I would say that the last time I raced here was just a test session, and it didn't go according to plan. I was determined this time to come in here and change the narrative around, so it's something that I'm glad we were able to do, at least over the course of the first two days. I want to, yeah, I mean, I've really enjoyed the experience here. The track itself is really super beautiful, and it's the first time I'm ever getting a chance to actually compete in a race in Phoenix. So I'm going to do everything in my power to make sure that this place stays positive for me and us as a group.”  – By Bobby Bennett

HAGAN MAKES PERSONAL HISTORY - Matt Hagan made a little personal history Saturday with his 3.859-second pass at 331.61 mph in the Mopar Dodge Charger Hellcat Funny Car.

It was more than just his third straight top-qualifying position – a first in his career – and his second at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park. It also was his 38th No. 1 spot, which pushed him past Tony Pedregon on the class list and ties him with legend Kenny Bernstein for fifth.

Hagan, last year’s race winner here, said, “I passed Tony Pedregon on the list, and I’ve got so much respect for him. He’s a real wheelman, and I’ve always looked up to him.”

But as he prepared to meet No. 16 Jeff Diehl in the opening round of eliminations Sunday in his bid for a fourth Arizona Nationals trophy and 34th overall victory, Hagan credited his Don Schumacher Racing-owned car and crew chief Dickie Venables.

“We’ve got a really great race car,” said Hagan, whose Funny Car pole streak dates back to last November and the Finals at Pomona, Calif., where he repeated the feat at the Winternationals 14 days ago. “This Mopar Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat is driving well. It’s handling well. It gets up on the tire easily. It’s really been performing.”

And Hagan said he’s confident he can go back-to-back at Chandler, Ariz.: “Dickie won a championship with Tony Pedregon. He won a championship with me. He’s just one of those guys that will rise to the occasion. I know when I’m strapped in the car, and the conditions are right, he can really throw down. Having Dickie in your corner is like an ace up your sleeve, and my guys are doing such a great job wrenching on the car. All in all, just really excited about tomorrow. Supposed to have great weather. It should be a great race day, and I’m ready to get after it.”

ARIZONA, HEY WON’T YOU GO MY WAY? – KB Racing Pro Stock teammates Bo Butner and Jason Line got a sneak peek at the newly resurfaced Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park surface a few weeks ago when they attended the Barrett-Jackson auction. Butner pronounced it “beautiful” – and that’s what he has been hoping this weekend is for him on this same track.

“Pomona did not go as planned,” he said, “but I guess I'm not a rookie any longer, and I know that you're not going to win the championship the first race. I won four out of the first five races last year and didn't win the championship. I feel like we got a little bit of bad luck out of the way now . . . so hopefully we'll be back on track."

Things went well Friday for the owner-driver of the Strutmasters / Jim Butner Auto Group Chevrolet Camaro. Butner was fifth after both sessions. After a rain-delayed third and final session Saturday, he stayed right there with his best elapsed time of 6.580 seconds. He’ll start his quest for a 12th Pro Stock victory against Round 1 opponent Val Smeland, the No. 12 qualifier.

The 2017 NHRA Pro Stock champion has a victory in Phoenix but not in the pro ranks. He defeated Mark Faul in 2002 for the Super Stock trophy.

Butner also competed this weekend in the Top Sportsman class. He qualified Factory Stock Showdown partner Jack Hodge's Cobra Jet Mustang in 18th place and lost in the first round to Joe Roubicek.

FOLEY BACK IN THE GROOVE – Doug Foley updated his Top Fuel license and gathered fresh data on this same racetrack during a preseason test session in late January. And what he learned was enough to help him clock a 3.878-second, 311.13-mph pass and vault him into the No. 14 slot in Sunday’s starting lineup. In his first NHRA start in almost 11 years, he’ll meet No. 3 Leah Pruett in Sunday’s first round of eliminations.

The Don Schumacher Racing-built Foley and Lewis Strutmasters.com Dragster made its 2019 debut at the NHRA Carolina Nationals at Concord, N.C., near the team’s home base. Todd Paton drove the car that weekend. Since then, his Scott Gaddy- and Jack Wyatt-led team spent months preparing for this first of 10 scheduled events this season.

In this first race for Foley since 2011, he has support from Burns Mechanical, DDP Roofing, Inc., and Red Line Synthetic Oil, in addition to Strutmasters.com.

This race serves as a reunion for Foley and partner and fellow New York native Tim Lewis, who first joined forces in 2001 and raced together off and on for nearly 20 years in IHRA and NHRA Top Fuel, as well as in the NHRA Top Alcohol Dragster class.

“Tim doesn’t plan on going to every race, so the fact that he’s going to be at our first race back is really exciting to me. It’ll be me and him back together at the first event,” Foley said. “We’re never going to be able to say it’s our first race after this.”

That’s when Foley and Lewis decided to step up to NHRA Top Fuel competition. Between 2007 and 2011, Foley raced at 40 NHRA national events, and his best starting spot was at No. 3. And Foley noticed how much more aggressive the class has become in his absence.

“It’s an enormous amount of pressure to perform well, just because the cars are at such a high level. The quality is unbelievable. Yeah, we don’t have the quantity of cars that we had before, but that doesn’t mean anything on Sunday. You still got to beat the cars that are out there, and they’re pretty darn good, Foley said.

He got some measure of assurance when he got back in the driver’s seat three weeks ago.

“When I jumped back in the car at testing for the first time in almost 10 years, it felt like 10 years ago,” Foley said. “There is a calm and a sense of peace in there. You get an opportunity to do something that a lot of people don’t get the chance to do. I’m just grateful that Tim was willing to give it another go and that we had the ability to put another team together.”

Foley said he’ll be treating this race as an extension of his preseason testing.

“We feel a tremendous amount of pressure, but at the same time, we’re being reasonable with our expectations,” Foley said. “We’re looking at the first three or four races as more of a test session as far as getting a tune-up figured out and trying to watch our parts attrition, while at the same time trying to develop relationships. The pressure is not just on the track. It’s on what we do at the shop, how the team jells together and it’s about how Guy [Pierce, whose responsibility is relationship development] and I work together to generate the funds necessary to continue increasing the performance of the team.”

TOTTEN SLIPS INTO FIELD – Making his first Top Fuel appearance since the October 2018 Las Vegas race, Terry Totten nabbed the 16th and final starting position with a 4.126-second elapsed time. He has the task of trying to upset top qualifier Brittany Force, who aced out early leader Steve Torrence Saturday by one-thousandth of a second with a 3.670-second run.


HURT BY SHORTENED SCHEDULE – Cameron Ferré was the odd man out in the 17-car Top Fuel field after qualifying was cut to only one session (three overall) because of persistent rain.

Three Pro Stock drivers – Fernando Cuadra, Steve Graham, and Joey Grose – also were victims of the weather change Saturday. They missed the field.

The bright news for Cuadra is that sons Cristian and Fernando Jr. qualified at 14th and 15th, respectively.

Fort Worth businessman Marty Robertson, a known entity in the radial-tire world, took Pro Stock’s No. 16 position in just his second race with Elite Motorsports with a 6.695-second elapsed time on the Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park quarter-mile.

In the 2019 version of this race, pro classes had just three qualifying opportunities, too, with one session Friday and two Saturday.


CHAMP V. CHAMP – It’ll be an IHRA champion against an NHRA champion in Top Fuel’s first round Sunday, with No. 10 Clay Millican in the Parts Plus Dragster going against DHL Dragster driver Shawn Langdon, the No. 7 starter.

UPSET-MINDED – Shawn Reed, who enjoyed a surprise upset of three-time champion Antron Brown in the first round of the Winternationals two weeks ago, has another tough draw this week in Winternationals winner Doug Kalitta. Reed, of Bob Vandergriff Racing in the Hughes Oilfield Transportation Dragster, qualified ninth. Kalitta will start eighth in the Mac Tools Dragster.


YOUTH V. PHOENIX EXPERIENCE – Austin Prock, 24, qualified the Montana Brand / Rocky Mountain Twist Dragster 11th in the Top Fuel class with a 3.775-second pass that was just three-thousandths of a second slower than No. 10 Clay Millican. For that, Prock will square off against 2019 race winner Billy Torrence, 65, who grabbed the No. 6 spot in the Torrence Racing / Capco Dragster.

“We had a little bit of weather today and qualifying got shortened but we made some progress. We were battling some things from Pomona in the final that carried over here, but we got the car back in shape. It was running really good early, good enough to run a .66 and we just barely missed it. One more small change and we should be ready to go for tomorrow,” Prock said. “This Montana Brand / Rocky Mountain Twist team has a big first-round matchup – and those are the ones that get me excited. So I’m looking forward to that.”


CLOSE QUARTERS – Less than two miles an hour is what kept Funny Car racer Alexis De Joria from having the No. 9 spot in her ROKiT / ABK Beer Toyota Camry and first-round meeting with No. 8 Ron Capps. Instead she’ll start out of the No. 10 gate and race seventh-place starter Tim Wilkerson. She is fresh from a semifinal showing at the season-opener at Pomona, Calif., in her first race since coming out of a two-year retirement.

De Joria and JR Todd had identical 3.916-second elapsed times, but he took the No. 9 spot with a faster speed. His run came at 317.64 mph, hers at 316.30. So Todd will take on Capps, whose NAPA team and he are looking for a break after a hauler fire on its way out West and then a huge engine detonation at the Winternationals two weeks ago.

Ironically, Wilkerson took that No. 7 spot in his Levi, Ray & Shoup Ford Mustang because he had a slower speed than No. 6 Jack Beckman in the Infinite Hero Dodge Charger. He and Beckman had identical E.T.s, too – 3.889 seconds – and Beckman will line up against No. 11 Cruz Pedregon and his Snap-on Toyota Camry.

Wilkerson, the 2016 winner here, said, "We were trying to go a little faster, but I haven't quite figured out how to make my car go early yet. My LRS Mustang is fast, but it isn't 'fast-fast’ yet. It's deadly consistent, though. I think it's going to give me a little margin of error later on in the year when the tracks are a little dicier. It's giving me a little bigger window to work in, so if I get up there and screw up, there is a better chance that it'll still go down the track.

"Man, this Mustang sure does go down the track nice. Holy moly," he said. "Hopefully the tuning window is going to get a little bit bigger for us as we go, but everything is working good right now. Our guys are doing a good job. And this Ford Mustang Funny Car body is really working well. We're excited about all of that, so tomorrow we're just going to go up there and race the racetrack. We've got a good chance, and that's all you can ask for."

WHAT A DIEHL – Privateer Funny Car owner-driver Jeff Diehl opted out of a Pomona appearance, so the Arizona nations will be his first of the season. At 6.987 seconds on the 1,000-foot course, the Funny Car class’ “Surfer Dude” claimed the No. 16 place to anchor the field. The catch is that he will have to tackle top qualifier Matt Hagan.


TWO MUSTANGS MEET – In his first time back at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park since two of his Funny Car crew members were injured during preseason testing, Bob Tasca III had a decidedly better experience this weekend. The Motorcraft / Quick Lane Ford Mustang owner-driver took the No. 5 spot in qualifying and will meet another Mustang racer, No. 12 Blake Alexander, on Alexander’s first race day for team owner Jim Head.

Other match-ups in the first round of Funny Car action Sunday will be No. 13 Paul Lee against No. 4 Tommy Johnson Jr., No. 14 Jim Campbell facing No. 3 Robert Hight, and No. 15 Terry Haddock racing No. 2 John Force.

“I’m second in the show with ‘Ol’ Blue’. I tried to go for it, but I couldn’t get there,” Force, who has won five of seven first-round races against Haddock, said. “We’re going to be good tomorrow [weather-wise], and it’s going to be a beautiful day.”


ELITE IS . . .ELITE – The Elite Motorsports group swept the top three starting spots on the Pro Stock grid. Following No. 1 qualifier Jeg Coughlin were No. 2 Erica Enders and No. 3 Aaron Stanfield. In the lower half of the ladder are Alex Laughlin at ninth (and facing former Elite colleague Matt Hartford) and newcomer Marty Robertson at 16th (and facing Coughlin in the opening elimination round).

“Marty has been drag racing for a while but just got into Pro Stock this year and is racing with Elite, so we know what he has under the hood," top qualifier Coughlin said. "Once they get that car dialed in, he'll be as fast as the rest of us. He had a valiant effort out there today to sneak into the field, so I know he's excited.”


DELCO DOES IT – Kenny Delco’s trip across the country from Setauket, N.Y., wasn’t for nothing. The veteran Pro Stock racer scored his best qualifying position – fourth – in the eight seasons since he returned from a 15-year hiatus. Delco will race good friend, team partner, and fellow New Yorker Val Smeland, the No. 12 starter in the first round of runoffs Sunday.

In other Pro Stock match-ups, No. 11 Deric Kramer has the dubious distinction of lining up next to No. 6 qualifier Jason Line, the three-time and retiring champion who wants to make his “Finish Line Tour” extra memorable. Greg Anderson found himself at No. 10, giving up lane choice to No. 7 Chris McGaha. And Alan Prusiensky, just two races back behind the wheel since his nasty crash at Charlotte last fall, took the No. 13 slot and will meet Delco.






HARD TO BELIEVE – None of the track record-holders in any pro class is on hand for this weekend’s NHRA Arizona Nationals at Chandler, Ariz. Two – Mike Edwards (Pro Stock) and Courtney Force (Funny Car) – are retired, and Tony Schumacher (Top Fuel) remains sidelined without a sponsor. Schumacher (3.649 seconds, 336.57 mph) and Force (3.826, 337.16) set their marks in February 2018. Edwards’ 6.498-second, 213.77-mph performance in February 2013 – seven years ago – still stands as the Pro Stock class’ best here at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park.

Funny Car’s John Force has won this event more times than any pro in any class – eight times. However, the two most successful drivers at this venue behind Force are not here: the late Pro Stock master Bob Glidden and Top Fuel’s Schumacher, who each had five victories here. Ten other pro racers have three Wally trophies from Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, but only Antron Brown in Top Fuel, Jack Beckman and Ron Capps in Funny Car, and Jeg Coughlin in Pro Stock are active. The other six are Kenny Bernstein, Larry Dixon, Cory McClenathan, Darrell Alderman, Kurt Johnson, and Warren Johnson.

HOMETOWN HERO PICKS UP MORE PARTNERS – Jim Maroney, of nearby Gilbert, Ariz., is making his hometown debut as a newly formed independent Top Fuel team owner and driver and said he’s “very excited to race in front of our family and friends. I’ve raced in Arizona my whole life and even worked at this track in the early 90s.” Today he is racing in this familiar arena at the sport’s highest level, and he said, “This is all very exciting for me. We have every hope for this event to improve upon our runs to date and to run quicker and faster than we’ve ever gone.”

Methodical in establishing himself in the Top Fuel class with his own organization (after racing with Terry Haddock and Kim Davidson in part-time schedules), Maroney has been gathering more data with each pass. And this weekend he hopes to surpass his career-best elapsed time of 3.879 seconds on the 1,000-foot course and improve his top speed so far of 302.96 mph.  

“Ultimately, we want to qualify for the show on Sunday, and in a perfect world, we will go a couple rounds of racing,” Maroney said. “This could be an excellent weekend for us.”

It certainly began impressively. Maroney powered to the tentative No. 6 position with a 4.018-second elapsed time in his first qualifying chance. By the end of the day, he had slipped to 13th, still safely in the field.

That’s the racer side of him talking. The businessman side of him is focused on his new local marketing partners, none of whom has been involved in drag racing before. And Maroney said he wants to give them a memorable experience.  

“This weekend we want to welcome on board Tempe Mechanical, who is a HVAC contractor, and WSM Auctioneers. Both companies will be featured on the car and will have a suite on site. We are also partnered with a local company, Dixxon Flannel, who has been generous enough to provide fans with an opportunity to win free product at the race,” Maroney said. “We will also be partnered again with local Firehouse Subs.”

Maroney competed at the Winternationals earlier this month at Pomona, Calif., and lost in the opening round to Leah Pruett, although he beat her off the starting line.

Maroney said he’ll run a limited schedule this season: “I’m trying! I’m one of those low-buck guys – fully fund it myself – to try to make this happen. And I’m going to run as many races as I can. I don’t have $1.5 million of my own money to go to 24 races this year.” He said he’s aiming for somewhere between eight and 12 events.

IS FLAV-R-PAC FORCE’S GOOD-LUCK CHARM? – Brittany Force said, “The Arizona Nationals have always been a tough one for our team in the past. We’ve been runner up three times and just for some reason can’t seem to get the job done.” She has some extra motivation this visit. The No. 3-ranked Top Fuel driver will be introducing newest partnering brand Flav-R-Pac, and, she said, “We’re hoping to turn things around this year, go all the way, and get this Flav-R-Pac team in the winners circle.

“It’s the second race of the season, and our team will be pulling out with a new look. We’ll be debuting our Flav-R-Pac sponsorship. I’m very happy to be teamed up with Frank Tiegs and Flav-R-Pac. It’s one of his companies: frozen fruits and vegetables.”

Tiegs also owns Montana Brand and Rocky Mountain Twist, sponsors of Force teammate Austin Prock’s dragster.

She said, “The car looks awesome. It’s bright yellow and blue. I’m excited to get back to the team, get back in the flow of things. I’m ready to get out there, go some rounds and hopefully bring home a first win for Flav-R-Pac.”  

At the season-opener two week ago at her home track, Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, Calif., Force was No. 1 qualifier with a 3.657-second elapsed time that was quickest of the meet and recorded top speed of the meet at 336.23 mph. She reached the semifinal but lost to eventual winner Doug Kalitta. She made only half-track passes during preseason testing, but her first full pass was an impressive 3.706-second one that made her the provisional leader Friday. She improved Saturday with 3.686- and 3.657-second runs. Force had back-to-back final-round appearances here in 2016 and 2017.

Right off the trailer Friday, Force clocked a 3.707-second elapsed time at a class-leading 328.14-mph speed to take the initial lead. It looks like Force is going be locked in a battle with two of her on-track nemeses: Steve Torrence and Leah Pruett. Torrence bumped Force from her perch Friday evening, running nine-thousandths of a second quicker (at 3.671 to her improved 3.680 in the second session). Pruett matched Force’s 3.680 E.T., but Force sits in second place and Pruett third with a faster speed, 331.12 mph to 328.06.

2019 TOP FUEL WINNER HERE RSVPs: I’M BACK – Billy Torrence always insisted that he was in the second Capco Contractors Dragster “by invitation only” – an invitation from wife Kay Torrence. She owns the two-car team that put at least one dragster in the Top Fuel final round at 18 of the 24 events. (On two occasions, at Topeka and St. Louis, the team put both cars in the final, with father Billy and son Steve splitting the decisions).

The invitation was a standing one from Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, where the elder Torrence claimed the first of four victories in six final rounds in 2019. This was where he launched a part-time skate into the Countdown that took him from 10th place to fifth by the final standings – and took the NHRA back to the drawing board for a better way to conduct the championship chase.

Billy Torrence raced in only 16 of 24 events but won one-fourth of the events he entered, including two in the Countdown. One of those playoff victories, featuring an all-Capco final round, came at St. Louis. And it denied son Steve his 30th triumph in three years. It ended Steve Torrence’s bid to becoming the only Top Fuel racer ever to win 30 races in 30 months. (Four-time Pro Stock champion Greg Anderson recorded 31 victories in a 30-month span from Feb. 23, 2003, through August 23, 2005.)

Friday’s results for the Torrences looked exactly like what they were at the end of last season – Steve No. 1 and Billy No. 5.

KALITTA HAS BIG MO – Winternationals winner Doug Kalitta has had an enviable record at this suburban Phoenix race. He defeated Darrell Russell in 2001 for his only victory here. But he has advanced to the finals also in 2015, 2010 and 2004, and he has qualified No. 1 four times: in 2016, 2014, 2013 and 2003.

“We have definitely gone rounds in Phoenix and been to quite a few finals,” the Mac Tools Toyota Dragster driver said. “It is always close racing, and they have done a lot of improvements over the years. I think we will have a strong weekend with this Mac Tools team. I know I am fired up to get another win. We were in Denver for the Mac Tools Tool Fair between the races, and being around all those great people really gets you pumped up.”

Kalitta, the only Top Fuel driver ever to win three consecutive Winternationals, said he and his Rob Flynn/Troy Fasching-led team will “try and keep this winning streak going. You love to start the season with a win, and getting three Winternationals wins in a row is definitely special.”

Two weeks ago, veteran Kalitta (who has 48 victories, just two behind No. 4 Antron Brown on the class’ all-time list) showed the sport’s rising stars how it’s done. He defeated Brandon Welch, Justin Ashley, Brittany Force, and Austin Prock to make history. His reaction times were spot-on all day Sunday – including a .036 in the quarterfinals and a .038 in the final round. In the semifinals against Brittany Force, Kalitta won with a blistering 3.675 second pass that was the second-quickest pass of the day.

He said, “That semifinal run was huge. We knew we needed to really put up a good number, and I think we got just about everything that was out there. I am just super-proud of Rob Flynn and all my Mac Tools guys. That Sunday showed that a lot of the behind-the-scenes work with TRD, NGK Spark Plugs and Mobil 1 really paid off and will continue to pay off.”

‘DIGGING HARD FOR WALLY GOLD’ – Leah Pruett said she is “exceptionally excited” to be at Phoenix, and it’s no wonder. Whether the Don Schumacher Racing Top Fuel driver in the Mopar Dodge Dragster is thinking of the past or is completely in 2020 mode, this is a perfect place for the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series to visit right now.  

She has won here twice, in back-to-back style in 2016 and 2017 – with two different race teams (first Bob Vandergriff Racing, then with DSR). She also was runner-up last year to Billy Torrence. She was Top Fuel’s low qualifier in 2017, as well.

But she clearly is thrilled with her semifinal showing at Pomona two weeks ago.

“The fact that we have a race car that is continuously performing at its potential has delivered a degree of confidence in my crew chiefs [Todd Okuhara and Neal Strausbaugh] that I have not seen in a long time,” Pruett said. “Additionally, the fans that attend the Arizona Nationals have become almost family. When a team performs well at a particular track year after year, you kind of become the people’s champion, and there really is no comparable feeling than not only wanting to succeed for ourselves and partners but to uphold their expectations and be the ultimate very best we can. We might not have mineshaft conditions as in before, but we will be digging hard for that Wally gold.”

LANGDON SEEKS FIRST PHOENIX VICTORY – As he prepared for his second race of this back-to-Top-Fuel season, DHL/Kalitta Air/Toyota Dragster driver Shawn Langdon looked back at the season-opener at Pomona and said, “We came off the trailer with some strong runs on Friday. We were provisional No. 1 qualifier, and then we hit a couple snags on Saturday. I think if we get more qualifying runs in Arizona, we will be in great shape for race day.”

At Pomona, his tune-up in the first round was too aggressive, and his pedal job wasn’t enough to stop young Justin Ashley. But Langdon said, “The biggest thing to remember is this season is a marathon, not a sprint. We know we have a race car and team that can win races this season. The support we get from sponsors like DHL, Toyota, Fifth Third Bank, and Sealmaster makes all the difference. We brought on some new partners before Pomona, including Ozium and RevChem Composites, too, that will be great contributors to our success.”

Langdon said the brief conversations he has with tuner and team owner Connie Kalitta are plenty motivational: “Having Connie tune the DHL Dragster that I get to drive is awesome. After a run, I will usually talk with him and Kurt Elliot about the pass. It isn’t a long conversation, by any means, but it is great to just learn from him and get his input.”

Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park isn’t particularly a place Langdon has flourished He was top qualifier here in 2012, but he never has reached the final round here. This will be his 210th event in a dragster, his 258th overall as he goes for his 15th career victory.

LOOK OUT: BROWN RE-ENERGIZED – Three-time Phoenix winner Antron Brown didn’t have the start to the season he had hoped for, with a first-round loss at Pomona to Shawn Reed. But he said, “It’s time to rebound. I’m reenergized, refueled, pumped-up, and ready to get out there with my team. We’re going to go out there, be competitive, and have some fun.

“I always look forward to Phoenix. Wild Horse Pass is always a really good race track this time of year. You can really throw down - not to mention, my Top Fuel career essentially started in Phoenix. I got my Top Fuel license here back at the beginning of 2008, the start of my nitro career, so lots of great memories at [this] track, and I’m looking forward to making a lot of new ones. We always have a lot of great Matco Tools distributor support in Phoenix, and I’m looking forward to my tool truck ride and seeing a lot of our great Matco customers. Just ready to get out there and make it happen,” he said.

Brown – triumphant here in 2009, 2012, and 2014 and runner-up in 2011 – said, “We feel good right now, even though we know we’ve still got our work cut out for us getting the car where we want it. It doesn’t happen overnight. It’s going to take laps, and we know that. But the journey is the meaningful part. We know nothing comes free and you have to put the work in. You can see the mountain in front of you. Are you going to let it eat you up or are you going to conquer it? That’s one of the parts I enjoy most, and you go through it as a team. For us, it’s not a question of if we can do it. We’ve been there before.

“We just have to be poised and confident in the process,” Brown said. “We all have to be in it together. There’s pressure for all of us, and we all share it. If you take it and put it all on your own shoulders, that’s when you start messing up. That’s where experience pays off, and that’s one of the biggest things with this team and our backgrounds.”

The Don Schumacher Racing driver who is preparing to transition to competing under his own-branded banner said, “If you get off to a good start, you can start building momentum. If you have good races, that means you’re making eight laps and you’re going to learn more to grow and be better. If you’re making less runs, that’s less data you’re getting. We just have to continue to stay the course and keep raising our level of performance. We’ve all worked together in the past, and we know we can communicate with each other. So that’s big.”

Big, too, are the three-time series champion’s career-best numbers, which came here: a 3.667-second elapsed time (in 2017) and 333.66 mph (2018). Brown’s numbers were respectable: a day’s best of 3.786, 324.44 for the provisional 12th place. If the predicted rain holds off or clears up, Brown and the rest of the pack will get two chances to improve.

PROCK ROCKIN’ – Some drivers entering the Top Fuel class prefer to scout out the landscape and be cautious and methodical as they merge into the fast traffic. Not sophomore Austin Prock. He’s ready to mix it up with the class leaders right now. Of course, he was ready to do that last year, even on qualifying. (Last February, Prock told Steve Torrence, a racer coming off a Countdown sweep, “I’m coming for you” – in his first day.)  

“We had a great start to the season in Pomona. We made a career-best qualifying position [No. 2] and made a final-round appearance [the second of his career]. I think we’re well on our way to having a really great season. We’re ambitious, and we want to keep our momentum rolling,” Prock said. “This team is ready to get after it and show what we can do.

“I think this Montana Brand / Rocky Mountain Twist team has the drive that it will take to win in the desert, so I’m excited to see what we can get done there,” he said. “We want to keep up our performance and be consistent this weekend, too, especially after what we accomplished at the Winternats.”

His parting thought from that runner-up finish to Doug Kalitta was “I had a lot of fun today, because this thing is hauling ass and I am having a lot of fun driving it. It’s reacting quick and allowing me to leave the starting line good.”

Prock began this season far better than he did last season. And he was impressive then, without hardly any testing and receiving his car within a week of the start of the 2019 season. This time he made the most of testing, registering a 3.682-second pass at 333.08 mph that Friday at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway that led all Top Fuel participants.

“We learned a lot at preseason testing. There’s a lot of things that we wanted to try and things that [crew chief] Mike Green had been putting on his checklist since he’s been here, so it was nice to get that all ironed out. We learned what was good and what didn’t help us much, but we had a really strong race car on the second day,” Prock said. With that, he launched into official competition for 2020 at Pomona as though he were in midseason stride.

At last year’s Arizona Nationals, Prock qualified sixth and narrowly missed his first semifinal appearance. This time the Montana Brand / Rocky Mountain Twist Dragster knows he can top that performance.

He was 10th at the close of Friday qualifying.

THEY’RE BACK AND THEY’RE AS BAD AS EVER – A lot of questions linger about the appeal Steve Torrence’s Torrence /Capco Racing team filed following his $25,000 fine and order to complete anger-management training. The punishment stems from a top-end altercation between Torrence and fellow Top Fuel racer Cameron Ferré last November at The Finals at Pomona, Calif.

One thing definitely not in question is whether Torrence still can dominate his field. The easy and strong answer is yes.

Torrence muscled his way to the top of the grid Friday evening with a 3.671-second elapsed time. Father Billy Torrence, last year’s winner here at Chandler, Ariz., is fifth overnight (3.724, 325.30), with two more sessions scheduled for tomorrow. Then fields will be set for Sunday’s eliminations.

Steve Torrence said, “We missed Pomona. We’re back. Just because we missed one, we didn’t forget what we were doing.”

Both Torrence and Ferré have said they simply want to race and put the three-month-old problem behind them. But it doesn’t appear to have been resolved.

Still unclear, though, is whether the issues that the Torrence Racing / Capco Contractors Dragster team owner Kay Torrence made public Feb. 10 in a prepared statement have been resolved.

Kay Torrence, Billy’s wife and Steve’s mother, said, “Us not being at Pomona had nothing to do with the new Countdown rules or Steve’s health or anything else that’s been said on the Internet. It was about trying to settle the appeal we filed with the NHRA on November the 29th.  We didn’t want any unresolved issues going into the new season, but we had trouble getting them to respond to our letter of appeal. By the time everything was settled, it was too late to get our equipment and crew members to Pomona in time to race.”

A family spokesman for the Torrence team said the reason the Torrence team did not race at Pomona was because they believe they can make the Countdown to the Championship field and simply could afford to sit out one race.

The Torrence team was appealing the punishment handed down for Steve Torrence’s physical contact with competitor Cameron Ferré following their first-round match-up. The sanctioning body fined Torrence $25,000 (which was designated for donation to the Safety Safari emergency-response crew that is present at all 24 national events) and ordered him to complete an unspecified anger-management class.

A family and team representative said during the Winternationals that Torrence paid the fine. The NHRA has made no public statement acknowledging that or addressing the anger-management directive.

The Feb. 10 press release from the Torrence camp said that “the amount of the fine and the stipulation that he attend anger management classes were disputed by Torrence Racing.” However, a subsequent paragraph in the release said: “The fact that a penalty should have been imposed never was in dispute and Steve Torrence quickly accepted full responsibility for the incident . . .”

The Torrences also contended in the same press release that the sanctioning body “was complicit in creating a hostile environment by using an edited video clip that showed Torrence’s reaction to whatever had been the provocation but not the provocation itself. Moreover, Torrence Racing took issue with the NHRA’s apparent hypocrisy in assessing penalties for what it deemed conduct detrimental to the sport and then using video clips of that very same behavior, ostensibly to attract new fans and viewers.”

The race-day argument last November began with Ferré’s starting-line etiquette as a driver not in contention for the championship by using a perfectly legitimate, if not sportsmanlike, practice called deep-staging. Torrence said he didn’t appreciate Ferré’s move and told that to Ferré. Torrence said that wasn’t why he shoved Ferré in the face with his open hand. The situation just escalated after he confronted his opponent about his starting-line decision.

Torrence never has shared what Ferré said to anger him, and the NHRA reportedly issued a gag order to Ferré and his team owner, Terry Haddock.

Also confusing is why the Torrence team participated in preseason testing, along with other teams, the last week of January at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park but Kay Torrence said they didn’t have time to assemble their crews and make the trip from the Brownsburg, Ind., workshop. Teams had a week following testing to arrive at Pomona, Calif., a day’s drive away from Phoenix.

The situation that played out so publicly and again and again on the NHRA website and others suddenly has become secretive.

Never explained was why Steve Torrence didn’t make at least a brief appearance at the Winternationals to receive his Top Fuel championship jacket and ring in pre-race ceremonies.

Has everything been resolved to the satisfaction of all involved? Who knows?

Has the NHRA promised never to use the video of the incident for sensational purposes or at least acknowledged the incongruity of doing so? (It’s the same sort of situation as when the much like insisting that safety is paramount in the sport but using video and images of spectacular crashes and explosions in its advertising for ticket sales.) Who knows?

The whole mess – which included on- and off-camera tough talk from Ferré, who wasn’t disciplined for any of his part of the incident (fairly or unfairly) – seems to linger because of the lack of transparency.

But no one ever can dispute the ability of Steve and Billy Torrence to find their way to the top. That’s transparent and indisputable.

McMILLEN EXCELS – Maybe happiest news of the day came when popular Terry McMillen, whose crew chief Rob Wendland has slogged through the winter and the Winternationals with his arm in a sling after shoulder surgery),  captured the provisional No. 4 starting berth with a 3.696-second pass at 326.79 mph. That elapsed time is one-thousandths of a second slower than McMillen’s career best.


BECKMAN EYES THREE IN A ROW – Because the season break factors in, it might be an “Oh, yeah, that’s right, come to think of it!” moment that Funny Car points leader Jack Beckman is seeking his third consecutive victory this weekend. The Corona, Calif., resident won the 2019 season finale at Pomona, then returned two weeks ago to his home track at nearby Pomona and won the Winternationals.

"Normally after a performance like ours at Pomona, I would’ve wanted to get right back in the car for the next race the following weekend, but I was kind of glad we had a week off because it gave me time to try and shake this cold I’ve been dealing with,” he said. “I’m ultra-excited for the way our Infinite Hero Hellcat has been performing, and the way that our team serviced it flawlessly even with the quick turnarounds on Sunday in Pomona. We’re at the top of our game, and I can’t think of a better way to show it than to get another win in Phoenix."

Beckman has won at this venue three times: in 2008, 2010, and 2011.

‘NITRO-VERSARY’ FOR JOHNSON – Don Schumacher Racing is calling it Tommy Johnson Jr.’s “31st ‘Nitro-versary.'” That’s a great word – and the Funny Car racer  has a great fondness for Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park. It’s where he began his professional career in 1989 in a Top Fuel dragster.

Now, 472 races later, the M.D. Anderson Dodge Charger Hellcat driver is looking for his 20th victory. He has two victories in the Top Fuel class and 17 in Funny Car, putting him in an elite group of double-nitro winners. He was the 12th of only 17 ever to do that.

Johnson credited “a lot of people who helped along the way. There’s a lot of right place / right time, a lot of luck, and a lot of work. There’s stuff I didn’t want to do, but I did it. A lot of things have to line up. People always ask, ‘How do I get into this?’ I tell them, ‘First off, it takes a little money. Secondly, it takes a ton of work and sacrifice and commitment. Otherwise, you’re never going to make it.’”

He has made it, all right, progressing from a family-owned and -operated team to a hired-driver role for NFL Hall of Famer Joe Gibbs (whose driver Denny Hamlin just won his second straight Daytona 500 last week) and NHRA legends Don “The Snake” Prudhomme and “King of Speed” Kenny Bernstein. He’s one of six drivers today for Don Schumacher’s megateam.

“You couldn’t have started off much better than Gibbs,” Johnson said. “That opened my eyes. It was only for a half a season, but it showed me the right way to do things. He definitely did it the right way.” The same is true with his other bosses.

However, Johnson said, “I feel like I’ve always flown under the radar.” Actually, for him, that’s good. He’s as low-key and underrated as his crew chief, John Collins, who, incidentally, also is from Ottumwa, Iowa. “Sometimes attention isn’t always good. Sometimes attention causes unnecessary work. Sometimes it just causes you more headaches than it gains you. I don’t mind being under the radar. That’s kind of how our race team is. A lot of times, nobody is talking about us. The next thing you know, they’re saying, ‘How did he finish second or third? Where’d he come from?!’ It’s always been that way.”

That’s probably not true any longer. Johnson is a perennial contender who has experience racing in both nitro classes and in Australia, Europe, and the Middle East, as well as in the traditional U.S.-grounded Mello Yello Drag Racing Series. He has won drag races in six countries (United States, England, Finland, Sweden, Australia, United Arab Emirates) and has competed in seven NHRA categories: Top Fuel, Funny Car, Nostalgia Funny Car, Top Alcohol Funny Car, Top Alcohol Dragster, Super Gas, and Super Comp. At age 15, Johnson became the youngest person to earn an NHRA competition license. (His sister, Wendy, who lives in North Carolina and no longer races, is the youngest female in the non-Jr. Dragster era to win a national event.)

Johnson said “it feels weird” to think he has raced professionally for more than 30 years. “I say, ‘Man, that makes me sound really old. But I’m not old. I’m just experienced.

“I have a hard time picturing myself as being my age,” Johnson, who’ll turn 52 years old April 6, said. “I don’t feel my age. I certainly don’t act like it most of the time. I don’t know how to describe it, but I guess I’ve enjoyed myself so much through my 20s and 30s and 40s that I don’t ever want to lose that. I loved that time so much. I loved racing so much and loved life so much during that time period that I’m not going to let go of it.”

No need to, he figured. He has a lot of fun memories, having worked his way through the sportsman ranks after starting his drag-racing career on a motorcycle.

“They didn’t have Jr. Dragsters – that’s how long ago it was!” Johnson said, referring to the program that allows youngsters to race as early as age five. “I started drag racing with mini-bikes. It’s actually cool that the track was forward-thinking enough that when several of us kids started getting mini-bikes, they said, ‘Why don’t we set up a class and let ’em race?’ What if they’d never done that? Then I wouldn’t have started until I was old enough to drive a car. As it was, I was starting on motorcycles and I started bracket racing at 14, in a Nova. In Iowa, you could get a driver’s license early. So the track helped. I might not have advanced as fast, but I would have had the desire, even if I had to wait that long.

“I understood the sport, what it took to win. It doesn’t matter what class you’re in. There are basics. And I already had the basics [by the time he could drive a car]. Then you learn each class and what that class takes. But the basics are same in all of them. When kids get out of [the Jr. Dragster program], I understand their mindset, what they’ve learned. They already know the sport. They already know about cutting a light. They already know about working the finish line. If you don’t, you’re not going to win anything. The ones that are winning, they’ve got it figured out,” Johnson said. “I started when I was eight years old, just like they did. Just happened to be on mini-bikes instead of a dragster.”

Now he’s focused on winning at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park for the second time overall and the first time since 2006: “The Arizona Nationals is a race I enjoy. I’ve won it in the past and have done well here. Now that all the rust is knocked off for everyone, I’m excited to get going and see if we can add some more round wins and match our teammate Jack [Beckman] by getting a win in Phoenix. We had a really good weekend in Pomona. We didn’t get the results we were looking for, but our MD Anderson Dodge Hellcat ran really well all weekend, with the exception of round two on Sunday. I feel confident. We had a car that was competitive right from the start with that first qualifying run. It was very consistent. And running low E.T. of first-round gives me a lot of confidence.”

Oh, and of course, Johnson has his eye on that Funny Car title. That will give DSR at least one championship for every one of his drivers. So he is hoping this will be the season he earns that long-awaited first series championship.

“Everybody fixates on the championships,” he said. “OK, I didn’t win a championship – yet. But my entire life, I’ve done what I love to do. I came from Iowa, grew up on an eighth-mile dragstrip, and kept saying, ‘That’s what I want to do for a living.’ And I did it. You know what the odds of that are? They’re pretty slim.”

TODD UPBEAT ABOUT HIS CHANCES – DHL Toyota Camry Funny Car driver JR Todd knows how to learn from disappointment and slough it off at the same time. In the previous race, the season-opener at Pomona, Calif., Todd qualified in the top half of the field and was hoping to build on his satisfying preseason test session at Las Vegas. However, the 2018 series champion dropped a first-round match-up with Tim Wilkerson. Todd has moved on from that, he said.

“You always want to come out strong at the first race, but there are 23 more races after the Winternationals,” he said. “We had a really good test session, and I am not going to let one day of the season upset my enthusiasm for where I think this team is headed. We have so many great partners supporting us, like WIX Filters, Toyota, NGK Spark Plugs, and Mobil 1. I feel really good about how far we can go this season.”

Last season here at Chandler, Ariz., Todd and his DHL team reached the final round, but his car backfired and deployed the emergency shutoff equipment as soon as he hit the throttle. But again, he took it in stride, saying, “That was a tough loss, for sure. We had been running strong leading up to the final, and I felt like we really had something for them in that race. You hate to lose like that, but we put those kinds of things behind us. This season we are looking forward to getting back to Phoenix and getting four win lights on Sunday.”

Todd is the lone Funny Car driver at Kalitta Motorsports this year, with former Funny Car mate Shawn Langdon moving back to a dragster. “I know Shawn will do great in Top Fuel. I don’t mind being the only Funny Car [driver],” Todd said. “We get so much support from Toyota and TRD, and I can still talk with Shawn and Doug [Top Fuel points leader Kalitta] about the track. The Kalitta teams all work together. We have three great race cars over here, and I am excited to get some more round wins with this DHL Toyota Camry Funny Car.”

A victory here would be Todd’s 10th in the Funny Car class, 19th overall. He won nine times in Top Fuel competition.

HAGAN LOVES WARMTH, ANOTHER SHOT AT A WALLY – Normally, farmers don’t get too much rest any time of the year. But Virginia farmer Matt Hagan – last year’s Funny Car winner here – said he had to take it a little easy after the season-opener. And he said he’s really happy to get to the warm, dry desert at Chandler, Ariz.

“All around, good vibes heading into Phoenix,” the Don Schumacher Racing driver of the Mopar Dodge Charger Hellcat said, adding that he was “ready to get into some drier air for my sinuses. I’ve been fighting a cold for the past few weeks now, so I’m hoping the desert air will dry me up and I’ll feel like a human again. But I’m excited to crawl back into my race car; I feel like I’m on top of my game. I’ve rested up the last week or so and am ready to get back into the groove of things.”

He’s ready to shake his cold and a semifinal finish that was disappointing at Pomona two weeks ago, in light of his No. 1 start.
“Semifinal finish in Pomona, probably should’ve been in the finals, but ‘shoulda, coulda, woulda.’ Congrats to my teammate Jack Beckman for winning the race and keeping it in the DSR camp and bringing it home,” he said. “The momentum between what we’ve got going on, and what Jack’s got going on, I feel like we have a good shot at bringing another Wally home to DSR this weekend.”

In Friday’s opening qualifying session, Hagan trailed only Robert Hight. Hagan started off the weekend with a 3.882-second, 324.75-mph run. In the evening session he zoomed to the top of the chart as he and John Force both leapfrogged Hight and bumped Hight to third.

Hagan also won here in 2015 and 2017 (and was runner-up in 2013). And he’s hoping to disrupt this every-other-year pattern at this facility. A 34th victory would keep him seventh on the all-time Funny Car victories list, but he’d be just one behind legend Don “The Snake” Prudhomme and two behind No. 5 Cruz Pedregon. Hagan’s 2019 Phoenix victory was the 150th Funny Car triumph for DSR.

WELL, THAT’S GOOD NEWS! – “I’m not dead yet,” retiring Jason Line declared.

He’s only a second race now into his “Finish Line Tour,” and the three-time Pro Stock champion has noticed the fond farewell he is receiving already.  

“A lot of folks in Pomona had some nice things to say, and that was pretty cool to see and nice to know that I haven’t completely worn out my welcome after this many years,” Line said. “It’s been good. We’re only one race in, but I’ve been able to enjoy that part of it. The people can be the best part of this sport, so that’s been enjoyable. I’m looking forward to the rest of it, as well, and I think it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

But the KB Racing / Summit Chevy Camaro driver, who has two victories at this Arizona Nationals event, clarified his agenda: “I feel like we’re going to compete for a championship as we hope to every year and, of course, my goal is to win a title. It would be nice to be on top again. It’s all about peaking at the right time. That’s my goal and it’s certainly a possibility. We’re testing and trying some new things, but our goal is to keep winning races.”

He said, "I've had a couple of wins in Phoenix [in five final rounds], but I think one of the memories that stands out for me most was racing V. Gaines in the final in 2012. I'd like to say I won, because it's always fun beating a guy like V., but I broke a lifter in the burnout. V. is a good guy, and I miss having him out there. We came up short in the Pomona final two weeks ago [against Jeg Coughlin]. And this weekend, we'll be working to put a Team Summit Chevy in the winners circle. Those are the memories we like most of all."

This is a special season for Line also in that the Pro Stock class is celebrating its 50th birthday. He said, “It’s definitely cool to be part of the 50th anniversary celebration (of Pro Stock). It’s been a fun way to make a living, and it’s been fantastic. From a participation standpoint, the class is the best it’s been in a few years, and that’s a good thing. At some point, I’ll be nostalgic about it, but not right now. It’s been a great ride and I want to enjoy this last season. Just winning races is really the only goal. You can’t win the championship this early, so just winning races is important.”

CAPPS TEAM NEVER RESTING – Ron Capps called it “a little mishap.” But what happened to him in the second round of eliminations at Pomona was anything but “a little mishap.” He experienced a massive engine explosion in the quarterfinals as he raced eventual winner Jack Beckman.

It was disheartening setback for a team that already by the first race of the year had staged an equally massive comeback. The team trailer caught fire on the way to preseason testing at Las Vegas, damaging both of the NAPA Dodge Chargers and a lot of equipment. DSR sent another hauler first to the scene of the trouble, at Amarillo, Texas, to collect what was salvageable, then on to Southern California for the season-opener at Pomona. Despite all the adversity and no preseason testing data to help (like last year, when most of DSR’s teams opted not to attend the PRO test session at Phoenix), crew chief Rahn Tobler and all his mechanics put together a car that took Capps to the No. 7 starting spot in the order and to a first-round victory over über-aggressive Bob Tasca III.

“We wanted to end our ‘Cinderella weekend’ with a trophy,” Capps said following that race, “but getting the ‘Never Rest’ award from NHRA was cool. To go out there, qualify top half, get lane choice, win first round . . . We checked all of the boxes, except winning the race. That’s pretty good, considering these guys have spent a week tearing this thing apart and building a new set-up.”  

So far in 2020, Capps’ team never has rested. He said, “The team spent the early part of last week getting our primary car put back together and ready for this weekend’s race. Our NAPA AutoCare team had an incredible bounce-back after having our trailer catch on fire on the way to preseason testing. After all of that, to qualify top-half in Pomona and to get to the quarterfinals was a perfect example of why you hear me brag about the NAPA Know How of our crew chief Rahn Tobler and the NAPA AutoCare team.”

The happy news is that the Pennzoil Synthetics/NAPA Dodge Charger Hellcat team is at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, ready to go for a fourth victory here since 2003. Capps won this race in 2003, 2009, and 2013, and he was a runner-up in 1998, 2000, 2005, and 2017. Three times Capps led the field into race day (in 2000, 2009, and 2016).

“We’re pretty pumped up for Phoenix for many reasons,” Capps said, including the fact that “we get to run the special Pennzoil/NAPA paint scheme for the first time this year. The car will have quite a bit of a different look to it than it has for the past few years, and I’m excited fir fans to see it. The first time we brought a Pennzoil/NAPA car out, we put it in the winners circle. We always have a great time representing Pennzoil along with NAPA AUTO PARTS. I always have confidence going into each and every race, and the Phoenix track has always been good to us. We’d love nothing more than to celebrate with our Pennzoil and NAPA friends in the winners circle on Sunday.”

Capps, who made his professional debut at Phoenix in 1995 in the Top Fuel class, is in his 26th season, 25th in a Funny Car.

Cruz Pedregon (left) and Snap-on franchisee and bracket racer John Kelley share a grill-and-chill moment before racing at the Arizona Nationals began Friday at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park. (Courtesy of Cruz Pedregon Racing)

MILES TO GO BEFORE HE SLEEPS – Cruz Pedregon logged lots of travel miles before the season even started. He went to Iowa and Chicago just before heading to Phoenix for preseason testing. Then it was on to Pomona, Calif., not far from his hometown of Gardena, for the Winternationals, where he qualified 13th and exited in the first round. The Arizona Nationals was two weeks away but just a few hours’ drive away from Pomona. But Pedregon and crew decided they’d recharge better if they traveled back to the shop at Brownsburg, Ind., to assess where they were with the car. And surprisingly, Pedregon got his rest – said he was “revved” when he arrived at Chandler, Ariz., just south of Phoenix.

"We took time in the shop to get some projects done and review data from the opening race prior to Phoenix," Pedregon said. "We wanted the rest after testing and trying out some things in Pomona, so we're revved and ready to hit the track at Wild Horse Pass. We took a closer look at the issue we had with the blower belt in Q3 and studied the good numbers we ran in Q4. After working through those things as a team, we're planning for the fans to see good runs by the Snap-on Dodge this weekend."

At the Arizona Nationals, the team has introduced a trailer paint scheme that pays tribute to the 100th anniversary of primary sponsor Snap-on. Pedregon said he wants to invite NHRA fans attending the race this weekend to stop by his pit and snap a picture with the new hauler livery and post it on social media using the hashtag #Snapon100.

Hanging out with Pedregon and his team and seeing his name on the side of the 11,000-horsepower Funny Car is Arizona’s John Kelley, a Snap-on franchisee who, along with wife Kelly, bracket-races their '89 Mustang. He runs in the professional class, and his Kelly Kelley competes as a sportsman racer.

ALEXANDER KICKS OFF HIS 2020 SEASON – Blake Alexander, making his 2020 debut and his maiden event for Jim Head Racing, scored a 12th-place start in the provisional Funny Car order. He ran a 3.974-second elapsed time and 319.75-mph speed in Head’s 2017 Mustang.


CRASH SCHMASH . . . FORCE LOVES PHOENIX – When John Force thinks of Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, a jumble of emotions swirl around.

“We’ve had some good times here and some bad, but I always enjoy getting to Wild Horse Pass,” the 16-time Funny Car champion said after posting his 105th runner-up finish in his 256th final-round appearance at Pomona, near his Yorba Linda, Calif., home.

His most recent highlight – or lowlight – was from two years ago, when he had problems here in the middle of a monumentally tough start to the 24-race campaign. “I crashed in 2018, and it was a learning experience,” Force said, “but [now-retired-from-racing daughter] Courtney went on to win the race, so that was good.”

The sport’s most successful racer with 151 event trophies overall also is the winningest driver in any pro class at this facility that used to be named Firebird Raceway. He has eight victories here and readily talked about his most recent one – which happened 15 years ago. “The last time I won here was in 2005 so it would be nice to get in the show and get another win this year,” Force said. “I have a great team with Ol’ Blue.”  

That’s his BlueDEF Chevrolet Camaro, which he has high hopes for this year, starting this weekend: “Danny Hood, Ronnie Thompson and Tim Fabrisi gave me a great hot rod in Pomona. To go to the finals, that was really good for the BlueDEF team. I’m excited to see what we can do this season,” said Force. “All of us at John Force Racing had a great weekend. Monster is back with Brittany, the Prock kid and Montana Brand / Rocky Mountain Twist finished runner-up and Frank Tiegs brought on Flav-R-Pac. Can’t forget Robert and Auto Club. They’ve been with us for a long time. It’s just really great to be out here with all our sponsors and we’re looking forward to doing it again at Phoenix.”  

Here at Chandler, Ariz., Force has advanced to 14 final rounds. Among his eight victories are four consecutive ones, from 1994 through 1997. He also has qualified No. 1 here eight times.

HIGHT ITCHING TO DOMINATE AGAIN – Robert Hight hasn’t won here at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park since 2012, and he figures he’s overdue. Besides, he’s used to being in the lead of things. Last season he led the Funny Car standings after every race but one in the 24-event schedule and earned his third series championship. So a dry spell at Phoenix (despite qualifying No. 1 here last year and making a semifinal cameo) and an uncharacteristic second-round loss at Pomona have made Hight long even more for a 52nd Wally trophy.

He knows his Automobile Club of Southern California Chevy Camaro can dominate. It was quickest in two of the three test days recently at Las Vegas (with such glittery numbers as 3.839 and 3,844 seconds on the 1,000-foot course and speeds of 330.12 and 334.40 mph. But it didn’t translate to a victory in the 60th Winternationals.

“Pomona wasn’t a bad weekend for the Auto Club team. We just had a bad race day. It happens, and we’ll bounce back,” Hight, of John Force racing, said. “Jimmy Prock, Chris Cunningham and all the Auto Club guys worked really hard to get us a championship last season, and they’ve continued that into 2020. It just wasn’t our day. The team had a chance to regroup, so we’ll be ready for this one. I have all the confidence in my team.”

He said, “I’m ready to get back in the driver’s seat. We’ve had success [at this track] in the past, but it’s been a while. So I’m ready to get in the winners circle. We came close last year, so it’s a good confidence boost,” said Hight. “This Auto Club team is hungry to get back on top and I’m looking forward to seeing what we can do this weekend.”

Hight was back on top of the leaderboard after one session Friday at Phoenix with a 3.867-second pass at 330.55 mph.  

2016 TOO LONG AGO FOR WILK – Tim Wilkerson can say his final-round record at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park is perfect. It’s true – he’s one for one. But that’s just it – he has been to only one final here, earning a Wally in 2016 as one of his 20 total victories in the Levi, Ray & Shoup Funny Car. The Mustang owner-tuner-driver from Springfield, Ill., said he knows he has some work to do if he’s going to hot the winners circle this weekend: "Our LRS Mustang did exactly what it was supposed to do first round at the Winternationals, and the weather got away from us a little bit for round two and we rattled the tires. But our car showed us some pretty good signs there. I'm pretty optimistic going to this next race because I feel like if the sun keeps shining, things ought to be good there. We’ve got to learn how to run at that track, but we'll do it. We saw how things are starting to work already in Pomona, and that's a good little boost for us going into this second race of the year."

MISTAKES HAPPEN – Matt Hartford still is beating himself up about his red light in the Pro Stock class’ final round of this race last February against Jeg Coughlin.

“I screwed up in the final round last year and let my foot go a little too soon . . . and red-lit and shook the tires, all because of driver error,” the Total Seal Camaro owner-driver told WFO Radio’s Joe Castello this week.”

But his family and friends who are on hand this weekend to cheer for him haven’t been nearly as interested in a year-old faux-pas as they have been about finding out if Hartford has any complementary race tickets so they can watch Scottsdale’s favorite son.

“You definitely have a lot of friends and family who want to come out and support,” Hartford said, “You definitely want to go out there and perform well. We almost closed it last year but not quite.”

Hartford had some problems – “a gremlin” – at Pomona that halted his chances in the second round. It turned out that, according to Hartford, “The car was running on anywhere between five and eight cylinders all the time but never on eight for an entire run.” The gremlin popped up finally, and that was good and bad news. The bad part is that he wasn’t able to go head to head with Erica Enders in that quarterfinal match-up, but at least he and the team finally knew where to solve the problem. He said it was a relay.

He said he and his crew were “99-percent sure” they had found the cause of the trouble. And that was fortunate, because they were starting to go a little bit crazy, switching major components  after every run to troubleshoot the issue.

Hartford wanted to emphasize that the problem was in no way reflective on the KB team. He switched from Elite power to KB engines during the offseason and that Jason Line and Greg Anderson and Co. at KB “are absolutely phenomenal and did everything in their power to make it an easy transition. No doubt in my mind we have really great power.”

The Total Seal President/CEO and wife Amber have logged thousands of miles recently. They took an exotic vacation to celebrate their January birthdays (which happen to b a day apart, the 8th and 9th) – a 14-day cruise through Southeast Asia, to Hong Kong, Vietnam, Thailand, and Singapore. And then he flew back to Seoul for a one-week business trip.