2020 NHRA FINALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
BROWN BREAKS 42-RACE DROUGHT, GIVES DSR 67TH NITRO DOUBLE - Antron Brown, who hadn’t won since the August 2018 race at Seattle (which also ended a sizeable winless streak), turned out to be one of the few Top Fuel racers who could tame newly crowned champion Steve Torrence.
In Sunday’s Top Fuel final of the NHRA Dodge Finals, Brown used a better reaction time (0.042 seconds to 0.128) and a 3.759-second pass at 315.34 mph to bring Torrence back down from the stratosphere in winning again. Torrence countered with 3.740, 322.19 on the 1,000-foot course at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway
With that, Brown ended a 42-race drought to give his Don Schumacher Racing organization back-to-back Top Fuel victories and a back-to-back double-nitro finish, its 67th overall.
The three-time series champion called this 51st Top Fuel triumph “medicine for when things aren’t going your way.” Although he said his team had “been down for so long and kicked all over the place,” he said he believed it was “just a matter of time” before he would be back in his groove.
He said he never let his thoughts wander to the place where he would think he might have won his last Top Fuel race when he registered No. 50.
“I never thought like that,” he said. The thing about it is time. And we got the whole gang back together: [crew chiefs] Brian Corradi, Mark Oswald, Brad Mason, all these Matco Tools / Global Technology boys. It just a matter of time. We just took it one step at a time. We stayed poised on a mission.
He put the abbreviated season in perspective.
Brown said, “Right now, we wouldn’t even be halfway through the year on the runs that we made. So this crew is coming on, and we're getting it figured out. We started with a whole different combination, and everybody said, ‘Why don’t you run this one?’ and I said, ‘No, we’re going to run this one.’ I never lost faith in any of these boys, and Lord knows that we kept our head down, cut out all the static. We stayed true to the game. The only way you can be persistent is with persistence.
“That just shows you what this team is made of. Next year, we're looking forward to 2021. We still got work to do. We're not where we want to be, but we're prepared where we can win rounds. We had low E.T. two of our four rounds today. That’s just showing that we're getting back to where we need to be.”
Brown was not in contention for what would be his fourth championship, although he closed the year with a top-five finish at No. 5. But he said winning the last race of the year gives him a sense of momentum.
“It’s medicine for when things aren’t going your way, and we've been so close and we ran some really good races in the wrong spot at the wrong time. Sometimes you got a little luck on your side, and it really benefits us if we can stay poised,” he said.
“It really started about three races ago where we came in saying, ‘We've got to do what we got to do. We're not worrying. We’re not trying. We're going to do what we can do.’ It paid dividends this weekend,” Brown said, “and that's where the mindset is at going into next year: keep our heads down, work harder and smarter, regroup, and come out. And we're going to be that much father ahead next year, because we’re going to pick up where we left off at this year.”
He said, “The main thing of it is, is that we have all the parts and pieces here at DSR, all the R & D for backing. We have all the engineering, but the thing about it is that we’ve been down for so long and kicked all over the place, it's really a good positive motivator for the boys, the guys on the team. The work you’ve been doing will pay off, and it has paid off. Now we got to keep on going and giving that energy. We are doing something for a purpose.” Susan Wade
HAGAN WINS NHRA FINALS, EARNS THIRD FUNNY CAR WORLD TITLE - To be the man, you have to beat the man.
That old adage, made famous in the 1980s by professional wrestler Ric Flair during his 16-time run as world champion, was on full display Sunday at the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series season finale as the man, Matt Hagan, had to beat the men at his Don Schumacher Racing stable to take his turn atop the Funny Car championship podium.
In the closest battle of the four premier classes, Hagan’s title fight came down to the wire, but the driver of the Mopar Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Funny Car took care of business and left zero room for error by winning the race and, in the process, the championship at the Dodge NHRA Finals presented by Pennzoil at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
“These DSR Funny Cars are all going to the finals every weekend, whether it is me or (Ron) Capps, or Tommy (Johnson), or Jack (Beckman). So we knew that for us to win this, we had to go to the finals,” Hagan said. “That’s a tall order to fill in Funny Car. It just shows the caliber of the team I have. I know how bad we wanted it and how hard these guys have been working. There are a handful of guys on my team that have never won a world championship before and they’ve been with me a little while now. That is something that is really special to be able to give them that and get up on the wheel and drive my ass off.”
Having already clinched the championship in the round prior, Hagan entered the final round against teammate Ron Capps looking to earn his third Wally of the season and add icing to the championship cake. In a battle of the top two qualifiers from Saturday, Capps took a small starting line advantage but saw it quickly evaporate when the engine on his NAPA Dodge Charger Funny Car let go at half track, allowing Hagan to cruise by for the win.
Hagan earned his third win of the season and the 36th of his career with a 3.914-second pass at 326.40 mph. Capps had a 4.463 at 173.70 mph in the losing effort.
“That’s just icing on the cake,” an elated Hagan said. “Capps drilled my ass on the tree, but I was still solid. We have a good car and these guys just did a great job. I’m excited. We worked hard over the offseason and we showed up. We’ve had a fast car all year long. We came back and made up a lot of points on Beckman, then took the lead and kept the lead.
“We just kept digging every race and kept getting better and better. The car kept running better and better. As a driver, that makes me want to step up and make sure I don’t give it up on a holeshot or anything like that with big rounds there in front of us. I’m just amazed. This win is all about my guys.”
Entering this weekend’s race, all four DSR drivers were mathematically eligible to win the championship. Hagan paced the field, but in a season where the four drivers at Don Schumacher Racing swept the Funny Car class with a perfect 11 wins in 11 races after Sunday, Hagan knew that it would take something special to walk away the victor.
Capps, Hagan and Johnson took care of business on Saturday, qualifying first, second and fourth on the ladder, while Beckman placed himself behind the eight ball qualifying in the bottom half of the field.
On Sunday, Beckman was the first to fall out of the championship picture in a round one loss to Paul Lee - his second first-round defeat in as many races. Losing lane choice with his 10th place qualifying effort, Lee drove around the driver of the Infinite Hero Foundation Dodge with a 3.933 at 327.82 mph to Beckman’s 3.975 at 317.05 mph.
Two rounds later, Johnson was next to fall as the DSR team continued to cannibalize each other with Capps taking the round win - a 3.906 to a 3.943 - and handing the championship to Hagan.
“This was one of the hardest ones because you don’t know what’s going to happen next,” Hagan said. “This one has been more draining mentally than anything. Are the sponsors going to let us race? What’s happening with Covid? We didn’t even know when the season was going to end. So, mentally, I think this has been one of the most stressful championships, but I like this championship because there was no reset. I really love that old school feel to it. So that, to me, is a really special championship because of that.”
Hagan’s road to victory included wins over Cruz Pedregon, Paul Lee and Alexis DeJoria. Hagan recorded the quickest and fastest pass of the event in the round one defeat of Pedregon - a 3.901 at 328.38 mph - and built on that momentum throughout.
He gave up lane choice to both DeJoria and Capps, but drove around both to collect the win.
Capps had wins over Chris Morel, J.R. Todd and Johnson to reach his fourth final of the season.
Hagan finishes the season with three wins in five final round visits. He was an impressive 27-8 in rounds won and lost, winning a staggering 77 percent of his rounds this season. It is also Hagan’s third championship, to go along with titles in 2014 and 2011.
With Hagan’s win, Sunday also finalized an impressive 11-for-11 sweep for the Don Schumacher Racing team in Funny Car. Hagan, Beckman and Johnson all had three wins apiece, while Capps added two victories to the perfect tally.
Down the stretch, however, Hagan was at his best, visiting three final rounds in the season's final four races and led the championship wire-to-wire over that same stretch.
While the unique nature of this year’s championship will certainly be one to remember in a shortened season brought about by the pandemic, Hagan’s mind is already shifting to what to do in the offseason and what is next for his team.
“I already want to get going tomorrow. I think that sometimes it’s too long to think about stuff. I just hope that my team stays together so we can keep everybody here,” Hagan said. “It’s really nice to give these guys a world championship that have never tasted it. I’ve been on the other side of it where you lose it. A few times I’ve runnered-up. I’ve come back and won the world championship. This time, we just did what it took in an environment that was unpredictable. So we’ll go out there and enjoy the night and focus on Monday for next year.” Larry Crum
ENDERS SECURES FOURTH PRO STOCK WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP ON WILD DAY IN VEGAS - You win some, you lose some.
And sometimes, others win some for you by losing.
In the season finale of the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series, Pro Stock points leader Erica Enders entered Sunday’s race knowing that she had her work cut out for her. A poor qualifying effort on Saturday left the defending class champion behind the eight ball, while her championship rivals all found themselves with favorable paths to victory in the top half of the ladder.
But races aren’t run on Saturday, and a string of upsets in the opening round of Sunday’s Dodge NHRA Finals presented by Pennzoil handed Enders the opening she needed and she took full advantage, racing to her fourth victory of the season and winning her fourth NHRA Pro Stock world championship at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
“To be able to secure our fourth world championship and become the winningest female, that’s pretty awesome,” Enders said. “A goal that I set as a child was that I wanted to be the best race car driver on the planet, not just female. But this is a really big step for me to be ahead of two of my idols, Shirley Muldowney and Angelle (Sampey). And I don’t feel like I’m anywhere near done yet.”
With the title secured, Enders drove her Melling/Elite Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro to the final round where she faced first time finalist Kyle Koretsky. Facing a giant in the sport, Koretsky was the first to blink, going red in his first career final round to hand Enders her fourth Wally this season and 29th of her career.
Enders had a 6.643-second pass at 206.39 mph in the winning effort.
While the win was certainly a perfect cap to a wild and crazy year in the sport, the championship itself proved rather anticlimactic.
After qualifying 12th the day prior, Enders was prepared for a slugfest on Sunday. Instead, she watched as both of her championship rivals went down in monumental first round upsets.
First, Enders’ Elite Motorsports teammate Jeg Coughlin fell to Aaron Stanfield in the first pairing of the day on a hole shot - a 6.687 to a 6.667. Then, in the next-to-last pairing of the round and with Enders having already advanced, Jason Line fell to No. 15 qualifier Cristian Cuadra in another holeshot as Cuadra posted a .002 reaction time and ran a 6.691 at 204.98 mph. Line posted a 6.653 at 205.51 mph in the losing effort.
The losses by Line and Coughlin - both in their final drives after announcing that they would retire at the end of the season - sealed the title for Enders, who went on to add wins over Alex Laughlin, Troy Coughlin and Greg Anderson to reach her fourth final round of the year.
“I can’t speak highly enough of both of those guys,” Enders said. “They are legends and they will be hall of famers for sure. It was an honor to race alongside them for much of my career. Jeg has helped me tremendously and it’s been an honor to be his teammate.”
With her fourth championship, Enders entered elite company as one of the winningest competitors in Pro Stock history. She joins a short list of greats, including Bob Glidden, Warren Johnson, Jeg Coughlin, Greg Anderson, and Lee Shepherd as drivers with four or more titles in the class.
“On one hand it’s surreal, but on the other I have to give all of the credit to the people that surround me,” Enders said. “The biggest part of the puzzle are the people that you have and that is something that wasn’t part of my career until I got here. I had some really great people that I worked with before and it just didn’t gel the way it did when I got here to Elite.
“I have had the same core group of people from the beginning. This is my seventh season with these guys. To have my name even mentioned with the Jeg Coughlin’s or Jason Line’s it means a lot to me. But I want to keep it going, that is the competitor in me.”
While all of her round wins were important on Sunday, none was bigger than her semifinal matchup with Greg Anderson.
With the title already decided, Enders wanted to end the season with an exclamation mark and that included a win over one of her chief rivals. With her car down on power, Enders used a sizable advantage on the tree to make up ground and win on a hole shot - a 6.642 at 206.42 to a 6.625 at 207.66 - in one of the closest races of the season.
“I would be lying to you if I didn’t tell you that I had a ton of doubt after qualifying yesterday,” Enders said. “All of us, my crew chiefs included, we were stumped as to why our car was so slow. We swapped engines thinking maybe something was hurt that the dials in our computers weren’t showing, but the next run showed us that we have a deeper issue. Greg outran us by .005 - that’s a huge margin.
“But that is why we race on Sunday. My guys went up there, all of my crew chiefs were working together, crunching numbers, running data, and made the best call that they possibly could because we knew we had to swing for the fence to beat Greg Anderson and I knew I had to get up on the wheel.
“The team, they are big competitors and they are awesome at what they do. So any time that we can load someone up that has a performance advantage is pretty substantial. That was obviously our round of the day.”
Enders added a big round one win over teammate Alex Laughlin and bested Troy Coughlin in round two in another hole shot win - a 6.677 to a 6.673.
Enders noted after the race that she was especially pleased with her eventual race victory given the optics of a seemingly easy round one win over her teammate and higher qualifier, the win that would ultimately secure the championship.
“I know what people are going to say about the first round matchup with my teammate Alex Laughlin,” Enders said. “Regardless, we won there and won the race. So no matter what scenario some internet jockey can come up with, we earned this and got it done. I just wanted to make that little note because I anticipate the comments and the emails that are forthcoming.”
Enders finished the year with four wins in 10 races and led the standings for much of the year. She slipped to third at the halfway point of the season, but a big win at the U.S. Nationals sparked a comeback that saw her top the championship for five of the season’s final six races.
Now the focus shifts to a unique offseason with fewer opportunities to mingle and prepare for 2021, but Enders says that she is up for the challenge as she prepares to contend for a fifth Pro Stock title.
“This is going to be the longest offseason of all time,” Enders said. “With no SEMA and no PRI and no start at the beginning of February, that is a long time. So to leave on this high note is awesome. We know that we have our work cut out for us, but the next couple weeks I think we’re going to go deer hunting and maybe park our ass on a beach somewhere.
“I’m just so proud of my team. I’m proud of my guys. What a year.” Larry Crum
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE’S ‘DAVID’ TEAM BRINGS ITS ‘BIG ROCK’ TO LAS VEGAS, WINS BIG - It’s a smaller-budgeted Pro Stock Motorcycle operation from King, N.C., that is frugal with the funding it gets from an assortment of sponsors.
But the husband-wife team of Matt and Angie Smith put their dollars and their determination in the right place Sunday at the NHRA Dodge Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. And they headed home with all the available hardware.
Matt Smith claimed his fourth series championship before the second round of eliminations was over. He had hoped to meet Angie Smith in the final round, bur she went on to take the event Wally trophy, defeating Steve Johnson.
With that, they had the distinction of hitting the first bike-class jackpot in the Camping World Drag Racing Series era.
For Matt Smith, his fourth series crown was especially satisfying because he eliminated two racers from the better-funded Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson team. The first was Round 1 opponent Angelle Sampey, then six-time and reigning champion Andrew Hines. The third Vance & Hines racer and title contender, Eddie Krawiec, fell to Hector Arana Jr. in the quarterfinals. That handed the championship to Matt Smith.
“Well I said it all along: they can play all the games they wanted to. We came here to win this championship and try to win this race,” he said. “I said on an earlier interview today, I'm going to beat Angelle first round, I’m going to beat Andrew second round, and we're going to win this thing fair and square and not have any gimmes. We haven’t had any gimmes all year long, and we’re not starting now.
“That team’s got all the money in the world. They get three times, maybe four times, more money than everybody else out here, and we still beat them. That's a privilege for us and for our team.”
Matt Smith Racing, which also includes Scotty Pollacheck, one of the final-day challengers, ended up first, third, and fifth in the final standings.
“That's a pretty good year for our team, to be a small team like we are,” Matt Smith said. “We're nowhere near the size they are. But man, Denso, Lucas Oil, Mark Stockseth, everybody helps us, Greg Butcher Trucking. I couldn’t do it without them, and it takes all of them to be able to let this little giant come and get to play against the big boys.”
Even so, he said this wasn’t his most gratifying championship.
“No, I think my most satisfying might have been my very first one,” Smith said. “It's because it was my first one. I had to win the race to win the championship. If I didn't win that race, I was going to be third in points. That's what it was - either first or third. And we got it done there, and we did it here. Just so proud to be affiliated with Denso and everybody else.
“The biggest thing is we are a four-time champ,” he said, “and I never in my wildest dreams thought I could ever do that in NHRA.”
It wasn’t all that alarming to anyone who follows the class. He also fields the bike of Pollacheck, whom Angie Smith beat in the quarterfinals to fend off her husband’s rival. Arana took care of the rest for the Smiths when he beat Krawiec.
“Yeah, I feel bad for Scotty. We talked about it before that round. It looks like that motor was going away and obviously it blew up that time,” Smith said. “But it was just disappointing. We don't want to blow motors up, but we don't want to go up and not be able to run, either. They just didn't give us enough time to change that thing. But hat’s off – he had a great year. He went 200 [mph], won the U.S. Nationals, won his first race ever, finish third in points. That’s the best he’s ever done. Got Angie her first 200 mph.”
So Matt Smith conceded he’s not exactly a stereotypical underdog.
“We’re the only team out here that all three members have gone 200 mph,” he said. “So yeah, we're the David with the big rock.”
Angie Smith scored her second career victory and first since the 2014 Epping, N.H., race.
“It feels awesome. You never know when your next one is going to be and I guess I'm just a true testament of you never give up on your dreams and you work really hard and it'll come,” she said.
Despite the completely unconventional nature of this season, she said it has been “very satisfying - and the main focus was to bring the championship back to MSR [Matt Smith Racing]. Never did I imagine that we could go out there and win the race.”
She did, with a 6.917 elapsed time at a 194.83-mph speed against Johnson’s 6.990, 189.07.
“I knew all three bikes were capable of winning races at any time, because we have fast motorcycles and if it wasn't for everybody that helped us we wouldn't be here,” Angie Smith said. “This is a true testament to how you work really hard, you keep your head down, and things turn around.”
She expressed pride in topping Johnson “because he's been out here, I think, the longest out of all the Pro Stock Motorcycle category, and he's one of the best out here and everybody’s the best. This is the elite of motorcycle drag racing. You can never take any rounds for granted, and you got to be on your game each and every round. I was a little late, but you know what? These guys right here [the crew], they gave me the bike to win. I owe it all to them because I was a little late. I've been .15, .20 and .30, [in reaction times], and I didn't want to go and throw it away on a red light. So I just wanted to be conservative, and my bike helped me out on that one.” Susan Wade
ALREADY REELING PEDREGON TEAM STAGGERED BY NEW 1-2 PUNCH COMBO, ASHLEY NAMED ROOKIE OF THE YEAR, SCHUMACHER STILL SHINES FROM HOUSTON VICTORY, TITLE RACES TIGHT IN ALL PRO CLASSES, DSR PLANS AMBITIOUS 2021, CAPPS SEES BRIGHT FUTURE FOR NHRA
SNAP-ON TEAM TAKES ANOTHER GUT PUNCH – From Cruz Pedregon’s “What Possibly Could Go Wrong Next?” File . . .
The two-time Funny Car champion and his Snap-on Dodge team still are absorbing the shock of losing crew chief Eric Lane, who was killed Oct. 19 in an off-track accident at Mineral Wells, Texas, during what was supposed to be a relaxing fishing-trip getaway between the Dallas and Houston races. Meanwhile, they all have been trying to decide what Lane would have been instructing them to do at this final event of the season.
"It still hasn't fully settled in with us,” Pedregon said, “so we're pressing on to implement so many of the things 'Hop' helped us with in doing away with the things that weren't working on the car, keeping the good, and trying several new things.”
Compounding the task is that Pedregon has a completely different crew this weekend. Three of his team members tested positive for coronavirus. So the team owner and General Manager Caleb Cox scrambled Thursday to assemble mechanics.
As if that weren’t enough to deal with this weekend, the team’s tow vehicle was totaled here at Las Vegas Thursday as the result of another driver running through a red light at an intersection not far from the airport.
“Not a great way to end the year,” Cox said, adding that “I don't even know where to start” explaining how everything unfolded. But it all confronted him as soon as he stepped off the airplane. Once he turned his phone back on, he saw a message from one of the folks holding down the fort at the Brownsburg, Ind., shop, asking him to call. And that was the start of his uber-busy day Thursday.
“I found out that somebody had run a red light and totaled our tow vehicle. Thankfully, nobody was hurt in the accident, but I had to go back to the airport and get another tow car for the weekend,” he said. “I had to go check out the tow vehicle, look at all the reports. And it's pretty messed up. So that was tough.
“And then I found out two of my guys were pretty sick. So they went and got tested, just to be sure, and then right before we left for the track to start working they found out that two of them were positive for Covid. They were here. They were already here. But luckily, they were together. But the rest of the team, just to be safe, needed to go get tested,” he said.
“I called the NHRA and told them what was going on, because I don't want to hide anything from NHRA and I don't want to be the team that ruins it for everybody,” Cox said. “So I just want to play by all the parameters and all the rules. I talked to [the NHRA] doctor and kind of got his feelings of what we need to do, steps we need to take. The whole team had to go get tested. It came back. Everybody was negative, except for one person,” Cox said.
“So there [we were,] three men down. Due to the NHRA policy and doctor's recommendations that they had been around these people for more than 15 minutes in close proximity, even though they were negative, they're still not allowed out at the track, which is kind of frustrating – because if you look at the NFL, the MLB, and stuff like that. If we could get a second negative test, it could be possible for them to come out. Cruz is kind of upset about that. But you got to follow the policies that are in place. We're all playing on things that we don't really know about and so taking precautions, you got to.”
Cox said, “next was the logistical nightmare of finding an entire new crew in less than 24 hours.”
So while the bulk of the crew was in quarantine, Pedregon and Cox started reaching out to available mechanics.
“We were pounding the phones all day Friday, trying to get things done,” Cox said. “It's good to have a long list of drag-racing friends.
“I got guys like [supercharger expert] Nick Holm and Matt Thompson. Matt Thompson won a championship as Jack Beckman's clutch guy.They both live in Lake Tahoe. They drove down, and they got here about 3 a.m. Bobby Lane, Krista Baldwin's boyfriend, and Chris [“Warrior”] Kullberg, who used to be our car chief, they’re in Indy. Bobby was in North Carolina. Bobby was nine hours from Indy. He drove from North Carolina and made the plane by 10 minutes. Got out here. Then Brad Littlefield, he was going to obviously crew Jason Rupert's car. But Johnny West said his car wasn't ready. So Brad drove over, and he’s doing our clutch. Then we might get one of the Scrappers guys [from Mike Salinas’ team] who’s actually going to be out here watching to volunteer to come in and help,” Cox said.
He said he and Pedregon are “thankful to have really good friends who want to help. We started the car last night [Friday], just to make sure. We wanted everything together to make it as [less stressful as possible]. We can't thank Justin Ashley's team enough, a couple of guys that have worked for us that are over there, and Del's team. Del sent some of his guys down to help put this together to make sure everything's right. So you can't thank those guys enough. Everybody coming together, asking, ‘What do you guys need? What do you need help with?’ When you think of the drag-racing community, how they rallied around Dom and Richie and Eric . . . If you need something done or need something to help, everybody is willing to help. That's great, and it shows definitely this weekend when you need a full team.”
As for the tow vehicle, Cox simply went back and rented another car from National. (“It was just the quickest thing to do in that time frame,” he said.)
“I think we put together a pretty good team, and you still have Ronnie Thompson and Nick Casertano running it. I'm glad Ronnie came out last week and helped.
Cox said Pedregon hardly has the proper words to thank everyone who has helped.
“We’re kind of waiting for 2020 to be over and start with 2021. I don't want to find out anything else that could go wrong,” Cox said. “I just want to get through this safely. Get everything back to Indy and then just start working towards next year.”
Before they get started on next year’s plan, they’ll be attending next Thursday’s funeral for Lane at the Lane family’s home church, the Avon United Methodist Church in Avon, Ind. (6850 E. US Hwy 36; Avon, Ind. 46123). The November 5 service will begin at 2 p.m. (Face masks will be required.) For those not able to attend in person, services will be available in a live-stream format through the church’s website, www.avonumc.com. The link will be available closer to the date of the service. Burial will follow at the West Ridge Park Cemetery in Indianapolis.
Pedregon said Lane’s “impact during his short time with the team is already paying off in the success we had last weekend: making the best pass of our 2020 season and coming so close to a semis win, only to be denied it by a one-second holeshot."
In memory of Lane, Cruz Pedregon Racing Team Manager Caleb Cox established a GoFundMe account that will help support Lane's wife, Kelly, and their young daughter, Melaynee. The fund has raised $41,725 as of Saturday afternoon. Many others have handed or sent private donations, as well, Cox said.
The team also will continue to pay tribute to the Pink Fund with its special paint scheme in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Snap-on, the team's primary sponsor, has dedicated a portion of sales to the Pink Fund in the past six years totaling $475,000. That contribution is earmarked to meet non-medical expenses of individuals undergoing breast cancer treatment.
Lane’s passing directly has affected one Top Fuel team, as well. Jim Maroney, who had raced with Terry Haddock and with Kim Davidson, relied on Lane when he started his own operation from his Gilbert, Ariz., shop and began at this race last year.
“He [Eric Lane] was my first crew chief on my first Top Fuel car as a team owner,” Maroney said. “We are going back to his tune-up, with the assistance of Johnny West, this weekend. He will be sorely missed by all of us on our team. He was helping us by phone up until the day of his passing, and we miss him tremendously. He was our friend, and our hearts go out to his wife and family.”
ASHLEY RECEIVES ROOKIE-OF-YEAR AWARD DURING QUALIFYING – In a departure from tradition, the NHRA awarded the 2020 Rookie of the Year trophy to Top Fuel racer Justin Ashley during a break Saturday from qualifying for the Dodge Finals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Saying, he was “just really excited and going to cherish this moment,” Ashley, 25, Plainview, N.Y., insisted that “I'm fortunate enough to win rookie of the year, but it's far from an individual award. It's a team award. It's because of Aaron Brooks, Dustin Davis, all the team members, top to bottom, who contribute daily to get us out here doing this.
The Strutmasters.com / Auto Shocker Dragster driver said he has experienced “so many high points” but that “the first step is just being out here in and of itself . . . it's just amazing.”
Ashley, who won the postponed final round of the Lucas Oil Summernationals in September at Indianapolis, said he is “really just grateful to be here, grateful for my sponsors.”
It was a red-letter day for Ashley, who announced during the surprise presentation ceremony that “Chip Lofton and Strutmasters.com have renewed for next year. Auto Shocker / Got Stink have renewed for next year, too. We're just proud to represent all our sponsors. Proud of this team, and in a crazy year, NHRA stood tall and they really did an awesome job.”
Ashley qualified for every national event during the 11-race season, led the Top Fuel class in reaction-time advantage and registered secured 10 elimination-round victories.
Second-generation Pro Stock racers Mason McGaha and Kyle Koretsky also were eligible for the award.
“This is a huge honor,” Ashley said, “and I have to thank my family, my sponsors and the NHRA for giving me the chance to chase my dream of being a professional Top Fuel racer. Thank you to Davis Motorsports, Chip Lofton at Strutmasters.com, MANSCAPED, Auto Shocker, Kato, Lucas Oil, King Engine Bearings, Justice Brothers, Sanit, Guardlab, Hero Soap Company, Menards, and Impact.
“I also want to thank Mason and Kyle for having awesome rookie seasons in a tough class like Pro Stock. I know we will all have fantastic careers,” Ashley, son of former driver Mike Ashley.
Justin Ashley began the season with quarterfinal finishes in February at the Winternationals at Pomona, Calif., and the Arizona Nationals at Chandler, [near Phoenix] before the coronavirus pandemic put racing on hold. The shortened schedule turned out to be an advantage Ashley, who had planned to enter selected races. It allowed him to attend the full season and provided him more seat time.
Consequently, Ashley became more comfortable in his dragster and continued to win rounds and finally the showdown between another first-time finalist, T.J. Zizzo. The delayed final round took place during the U.S. Nationals, during Saturday qualifying. The next day, he was involved in a wild pedal-fest in his semifinal race against eventual race winner Shawn Langdon.
NHRA President Glen Cromwell said, “The NHRA is very proud of Justin Ashley and his accomplishments throughout the 2020 season. Justin has proven himself as a force to be reckoned with in the very competitive Camping World Drag Racing Series Top Fuel class.”
Mechanical issues beset Ashley through the tough run of back-to-back race weekends. Throughout the season, Ashley relied on support and guidance from his father Mike, a three-time Funny Car national event winner and former Pro Modified racer.
“I am so thankful to share this season and this Rookie of the Year award with my father,” Justin Ashley said. “He has been by my side the whole season, and I owe all my success to him. He helped me build an amazing team, led by crew chief Aaron Brooks, and we accomplished a lot. But there is a lot more I want to accomplish in my career. This is just the beginning, and I can’t wait to get the 2021 NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series season started.”
Ashley becomes the 15th NHRA Rookie of the Year recipient from the Top Fuel category. Since 1990, 15 previous winners of the honor have gone on to win NHRA championships.
TOP FUEL VETS IMPRESSED WITH ASHLEY – Newly named NHRA Rookie of the Year Justin Ashley said, “If it were up to me, I would be fine not knowing who I was racing against. I really just try to focus on doing my job every time. It doesn’t matter if I am racing the No. 1 qualifier or the No. 16 qualifier. I don’t get too high or low. I try to do the same thing, go through the same routine every run, whether it is first round or a final round.
“That being said, there are certain guys that you win against that are the upper echelon guys – Shawn Langdon, Doug Kalitta, Antron Brown, or Steve Torrence. [And] when you win, there is something just a little more special, because these guys are world champions or have won a ton of races. Winning against those top-tier guys is a little bit of a different feeling when you get out at the top end,” the Strutmasters.com / Auto Shocker Dragster driver said.
Ashley might be pleased to know it’s a matter of mutual respect. Here’s what his contemporary “heroes” had to say about him and the job he has done this season:
2013 Top Fuel champion Shawn Langdon - “He has done exceptionally well. It is nerve-racking, coming in your rookie year racing against guys you have grown up watching. The rare thing that you see is a rookie come in and raise a bar on any level. Typically, rookies come in and they just try to find their own and try to blend in. It is really hard to be a rookie and stand out at anything. He has come in and excelled in a couple areas.”
“He has done a fantastic job on the starting line. He came in and raised the bar on reaction times. That is really rare to see. For someone to do that, first you have to tip your cap to them, and second, you have to get back in and do your homework to better yourself, to raise your bar to that level. That is what he has done to us and what we have been trying to do and catch up to him. For his rookie year he has his first victory, he has gone some rounds, and he has definitely gotten his name out there. He has gotten noticed, and that is really all you can ask for in your rookie season.”
1998 Rookie of the Year and 49-time Top Fuel national-event winner Doug Kalitta – “From what I have seen, he is doing a great job. He is really consistent on the tree. He is hammering the tree most of the time. You have to be on your ‘A’ game when he rolls up next to you for sure. I am real proud to see what he is doing.”
1999 Rookie of the Year and three-time Top Fuel champion Antron Brown – “The kid has done a phenomenal job. Justin has been very sharp. He is very poised, which I don’t think a lot of people understand. He doesn’t get too excited or too down. He is poised, and he is always in that mode to attack. I saw it when he first started and drove our Top Fuel dragster and got his license. I could see that demeanor in him. All he honestly needed was more laps down the racetrack, like anybody else when you drive a nitro car. His mindset and his focus with his racing, you see nothing gets to him. I expect to see him do great things, and he will be a championship contender.”
Two-time Top Fuel champion Steve Torrence – “He has done an exceptional job. I kind of watched him a little bit through the alcohol dragster ranks, and he is always on the tree. He seems to be really smooth, and he has picked up and adapted really well.”
Eight-time Top Fuel champion Tony Schumacher – “Justin is doing a great job. Obviously, like me, having a father that is there to guide you through it is outstanding. The key is he apparently listens. I haven’t sat down and had a conversation with him, and I don’t need to. The kid has a father who knows how to race, and he has a lot of friends helping out. The kid is paying attention, because he is doing a great job.”
DSR BOSS STILL SAVORING HOUSTON FINAL – Drag racers tend to long for the next race. If they have a disappointing performance, they’re eager to try again as soon as possible. If they have an outstanding day, they want to use the momentum to repeat it.
But Tony Schumacher’s gnat’s-eyelash victory last Sunday in the Houston final round of NHRA Top Fuel eliminations against ace Steve Torrence is something his father, team owner Don Schumacher, wanted to savor just a few days more. This weekend’s Dodge Finals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway is guaranteed to crown a sixth Funny Car champion from the Don Schumacher Racing (DSR) organization.
While the DSR Funny Cars have been unstoppable in the past 13 final rounds, Tony Schumacher is the only DSR Top Fuel driver to win this year. His victory at Houston put an exclamation mark on a remarkable comeback statement for both the eight-time series champion and DSR. It broke DSR’s 17-race drought since Leah Pruett’s triumph at Brainerd, Minn., in August 2019. And it was Schumacher’s first trip to the winners circle since June 2018, at Bristol, Tenn. (It also boosted his already runaway all-time class lead in round-wins to 850. That’s third-best in NHRA history, behind idle John Force in Funny Car and Warren Johnson in Pro Stock.)
With that, Schumacher moved into ninth place in the Top Fuel standings. That doesn’t sound particularly glorious. However, Schumacher has improved from his uncharacteristic No. 18 ranking following his first race in July that marked his return from an 18-month layoff while seeking funding. More significantly, it allowed him to move deeper into the top 10 after he was 15th at the end of the U.S. Nationals – something no one would have been permitted to do if the Countdown to the Championship were in place this year. (Doug Foley also moved from 11th to 10th after the Gatornationals but skipped St. Louis and Dallas and is 11th again.)
That Schumacher did it in the Okuma/Sandvik Coromant/Toyota Top Fuel dragster, his third different car in six races, with his second crew chief of the season and a crew assembled in mid-season, in just his seventh race back in the seat bears mentioning. But it was how that team, essentially a part-time team with no realistic designs on the championship, did it that still impresses Don Schumacher.
“That was an amazing job by Tony, Mike Green, and that whole team. They have done a phenomenal job to go out there and win the race in Houston against Steve Torrence, who has definitely been dominating over the last three years. He doesn’t win every race, but he is right there. There were only a few inches Tony won by. An amazing race . . . And an amazing job by the whole team – and the team back in Brownsburg that builds the cars and builds all the engine parts – the blocks and the heads and everything else that we use,” he said.
“It was a very tight race down there [at the end of the 1,000-foot course]. Steve left on Tony, but if you really look at the numbers and compare Steve’s racing numbers and Steve’s numbers in the previous rounds, he took it in a little bit deep. Steve’s 3.68 was probably a 3.66 also, but he just took it in deeper at the starting line. It was just one heck of a race, a heck of a job on the starting by both Steve and Tony. I think Tony snuck ahead at the 330-foot mark and kept it that way through the finish line. How can you have that close of a race with 11,000-horsepower Top Fuel dragsters going down a 1,000-foot racetrack that each lane is a little bit different and the way we run the cars and tune ’em – all of those things are different for each team? What an amazing race for the fans that were there and the fans to watch it on TV. I was amazed by how tight it was.”
Tony Schumacher proved once again that he can master those dramatic moments. But Don Schumacher also heaped praise on the Torrence team: “It was very cool. I can only give Steve and the Torrence camp all of the accolades in the world. I’m pretty certain that Steve will win a third world championship in a row. They have done a phenomenal job. Richard Hogan and Bobby Lagana and Steve and Billy and Kay – that whole group has done a remarkable job over the last few years. It was a real reward to be able to beat them in the finals. That’s not taking anything away from Steve, Billy, Kay, Richard Hogan, Bobby Lagana, or that whole team. Mike Green and Tony had to dig really, really deep to be able to do that. And it’s a real reward when you can go out and beat the best.”
That victory carried a little-known irony and sentiment for Don Schumacher. He said, “My permanent driving number back in the ’60s and ’70s was 356. That is the number that Tony has on the Top Fuel dragster as his number now: 356. And that race that Tony won was the 356th race with Don Schumacher Racing winning.”
In the past three races, Tony Schumacher has been second-quickest or better in every Top Fuel qualifying session. He earned the No. 1 starting spot at St Louis.
“We had been through three race cars in the first six races. Houston was just the second race on our car. It hadn’t made two dozen runs down a racetrack and Mike Green, and this Okuma/Sandvik Coromant Toyota team, just went out and figured out how to win a race with it. Unbelievable. Incredible opportunity,” he said.
“We’re starting to get a little data. We had none when we came in at Indianapolis in July. We had to borrow thoughts from other crew chiefs and get a starting point, which we’re grateful for. We have a great brain trust throughout our team. Then we adjust it to what we think would work best for us. With an Antron or Leah car, they might go out and run great, but we have our own ideas and they’re working well,” Schumacher said.
He has been relegated to back-up cars since his return to competition. And if Antron Brown or Leah Pruett has a problem, the full-time teammate reclaims the car and Schumacher is moved to whatever is available. Referring to his Houston ride, Schumacher said, “They took that [St. Louis top-qualifying] car for somebody else [after Pruett’s car broke in half at St. Louis], and we took another car and just ran it. I understand the situation I was put in. I was put in this to fulfill contracts for other people – and I’m good with that. I love driving a race car. I will go out and do that stuff, as long as I’m in a canopy car in one of my father’s cars.
“We just love the opportunity,” he said. “We’ve got one more race in Las Vegas, and it’s one of my favorite tracks. In a normal season, we get to do it in the beginning and get to do it at the end. The track is absolutely amazing. We go fast. I absolutely love it, and we’ve had some incredible success [here]. I really want to win, because you get the whole off-season to think about it.”
AND THEN THERE WERE TWO – Steve Torrence definitely has the advantage over closest rival Doug Kalitta in the Top Fuel championship chase, by precisely 101 points, but Kalitta is taking the tortoise-and-hare strategy.
This weekend’s points-and-a-half format, a debatable monkey-wrench thrown into the flow of competition, means 168 points are up for grabs in competition, including qualifying bonus points and the 30 points awarded per round-win during eliminations.
A number of complicated scenarios could lead to Kalitta earning his first championship, but the most realistic, his camp figured, is a Torrence loss in the first round and a Kalitta victory.
“We have a chance to get the world championship, and that is all we want,” Kalitta, who has five runner-up finishes, said. “It is a longshot, but strange things can happen on race day. Nothing is guaranteed. This Mac Tools team is going to go out there and take care of our business. That is all we can do.
“We missed the championship by three points last year but won the last race,” he said. “This year we need to win the last race, and I think we could win the champions by about the same margin. I honestly don’t really look at that stuff, but our focus Saturday and Sunday will be to put this Mac Tools Dragster in the winners circle.”
A victory Sunday would make him only the fourth Top Fuel racer in NHRA competition to record 50 victories. It would tie him with Antron Brown for fourth on the list.
Kalitta, a 49-time Top Fuel winner, has won here twice (2004, 2015) in six final rounds (was runner-up in 2003, 2005, 2007, and 2014). So that’s a streak of four finals in five years. However, Kalitta said he doesn’t buy into the notion of luck.
He said, “I don’t think there are tracks that are lucky for a driver. I do think there are tracks where your team has a good handle on the conditions. This Mac Tools team has a lot of data, so I know my crew chief, Rob Flynn, will be able to make the right decisions when the time comes. We only have two qualifying runs, so that makes it tricky. But we can’t race with any regrets.”
Torrence, meanwhile, will be racing with one eye on Kalitta, despite the fact all the Capco Contractors Dragster driver had to do this weekend to secure his third straight series title was qualify third or better Saturday and win his first-round match Sunday. Torrence had made 12 consecutive runs of 3.72 seconds or less on the 1,000-foot courses.
His qualifying performance Saturday followed his pattern for the past four seasons. In that span, Torrence has qualified either first, second, or third in nearly 60 percent of the races he has entered (48 of 81) – and he came to Las Vegas on the heels of back-to-back No. 1 starts at Dallas and Houston. Even more significant is the fact he has converted 93 of his past 104 starts into first-round victories.
This weekend, Steve Torrence was second – only to is dad, with Kalitta on his heels in the No. 3 qualifying position. Quickest in the class Saturday was Billy Torrence, with a 3.728-second pass that surpassed Steve Torrence’s 3.731 and Kalitta’s 3.746.
Billy Torrence will race No. 14 Cameron Ferré, because the field was two drivers short of full. That leaves Steve Torrence on the other side of the ladder to try to move past fellow Texan Kebin Kinsley into Round 2. Kalitta will have his hands full racing Justin Ashley, who Saturday was named 2020 NHRA Rookie of the Year. Kalitta and Ashley have split four decisions so far this season. Steve Torrence and Kalitta are on the same side of the ladder and have the chance to meet in the semifinal round.
In this world capital of oddsmaking, Torrence easily can calculate the probabilities when two 11,000-horsepower dragsters are at the starting line: “Anything can happen in this sport.” That’s what he said – and what he saw last week. Six 3.6-second elapsed times, the envy of any Top Fuel racer, didn’t guarantee him anything. He lost to Tony Schumacher by .0028 seconds, or about 16 inches.
That didn’t derail his quest for the crown, but it did remind him nothing is certain. “I’ve learned not to take anything for granted," he said. “We still have to dot all the “I”s and cross all the “T”s. Doug and his guys, they’re not going to roll over. If we make a mistake, it changes everything.”
That’s just what Kalitta is hoping for.
But Torrence knows that – and he knows it can happen. He was the victim of the unexpected in 2017, when he wrecked with two races to go, couldn’t coax what he needed from his replacement car, and saw Brittany Force claim a championship that most thought would be his. And of course, in a positive spin, he performed the seemingly impossible in 2018, sweeping all six events in the Countdown.
Torrence, who has won here in 2016 and 2018, said, “We’re going to go out and try to win the race just like we do every week. I’ve got a great car, a great crew, and a great opportunity. These are the moments you live for. You have a chance to do something special, to accomplish something extraordinary as a team and as a family.”
Then Saturday morning, possibly 30 hours before he might celebrate a third consecutive championship, Torrence didn’t want to jinx himself. He was in a happy mood but said, “I’m not sayin’ anything. I’m going to do my job, and we’ll let the rest of it handle itself.”
SMITH HAS FOUR PURSUERS – Matt Smith, who took the Pro Stock Motorcycle points lead at Gainesville and has kept command for the past four races, is the favorite and set to claim his fourth championship. His teammate Scotty Pollacheck and Vance & Hines’ Eddie Krawiec are tied for second place, 78 points behind him.
Still with a chance to collect another championship are No. 4-ranked Andrew Hines, who toughed out a final day of the 2019 season before knowing he had his sixth title, and No. 5 Angelle Sampey, a three-time queen of the class whose last title came in 2002. Hines is 86 points out of first place, and Sampey is more of a longshot, with135 points to make up.
Smith, last year’s winner here, said, “For us to clinch the world championship, we just have to make four runs and have no bad luck on those four runs. If that happens, we will win our fourth world championships, and that will mean the world to myself and this team.”
The King, N.C., veteran racer took the No. 2 starting spot and will have a chance to dismiss key rival Angelle Sampey, who is a three-time series champion like he is.
KRAWIEC HAS MOMENTUM – Eddie Krawiec flirted with a move up through the Pro Stock Motorcycle standings from his fifth-place start but by the end of the Dallas race two weeks ago, he was stuck in fifth again, right back where he started. Then he scored a much-needed victory at Houston – his first since the August 2018 Brainerd, Minn., event and leaped from fifth into a tie with Scotty Pollacheck for second place.
After taking the provisional No. 1 qualifying position in the first session Saturday, Krawiec said, “I think any time you have the opportunity to win a championship going into the last race of the year, it’s been a good year. But I still think it's in our grasp to get it. We can make things happen, and I have a great Harley-Davidson right now . . . 6.81 at 198[mph]. I mean, I can't even run that at sea level sometimes when I mess up on the tune-up. But my whole crew, everybody, Andrew and everybody back at the Vance & Hines shop that work on these motorcycles [have been] putting in their work. It's been a long three weeks on the road, but we're going to get it.”
Krawiec encountered a mechanical problem on his second run but retained his spot atop the leaderboard with his 6.818-second elapsed time at 198.12-mph speed. It was his second No. 1 accomplishment of the season and 48th overall. He’ll face Cory Reed in the first round of Sunday’s eliminations.
‘DRAMA WRITTEN ALL OVER IT’ – Tommy Johnson Jr. said this season-ending race “has got drama written all over it,”
And he’s exactly right.
He’s caught in a squeeze between leader Matt Hagan and Jack Beckman. Johnson entered this event second in the standings, 42 points fewer than Hagan. And Johnson was holding down the No. 2 spot by a measly one point more than Beckman.
The real beneficiary is team owner Don Schumacher and the organization, which fields the top four drivers in the class, including Ron Capps. Schumacher already has a guaranteed championship – and is poised to see his Funny Cars complete a sweep of the 11 races in this abbreviated schedule. Bob Tasca, in the Motorcraft / Quick Lane Ford Mustang is the top-ranked non-Don Schumacher Racing Funny Car driver.
The points-and-a half scoring system likely will push the suspense into the final round of competition, fairly or unfairly.
And that could be a big deal for Johnson. He’s uncertain what his opportunity to race at all in 2021 might be, so he said he figures this moment “is probably our best shot. In years past, we have been third three times and been second once, and we weren't expected to be. Every time they think we're out of it, we’re like a thorn in their side. We just keep coming. It’s like a heavyweight battle. We get back up and here we come again and keep swinging. We're kind of like, ‘Oh – where’d they come from?’ and this time we're there and wanting to go.
“We've learned from our mistakes. We've been out here and won a race, then stumbled on the next one, so we can’t do that this time,” Johnson, the winner last Sunday at Houston, said. “We’ve got to go out there, where it’s points-and-a half, and it's going to be a really interesting race.” He said of his John Collins- and Rip Reynolds-led crew, “I'm just so proud of these guys. They just don't quit. They keep fighting. The Dodge Charger Hellcat is a pretty bad boy, and I was pumped up for that final. I just said, ‘We got to win this. We’ll just go do it.’ I’m happy we did it.”
This weekend, Johnson said, ‘You’ve got Hagan, me, and (Jack) Beckman in the points. All Dodge Hellcats. May the best man win.”
Hagan simply said, “I’m confident we’re going to do what we need to do and win this thing. I’ve been on both sides of it. I’ve led and chased and I’d rather lead than be chasing going into Vegas. It’s a hard task trying to make up points. I’m proud of my guys to put ourselves in the position to make some ground this weekend and extend the lead.”
Hagan swiped the most qualifying bonus points – four – in Saturday’s first session, and Johnson got one. Johnson earned two more in the second session. So they emerged pretty much neck-and-neck with each other through qualifying.
With a 3.902-second elapsed time, Capps topped Hagan’s 3.911 to put the NAPA Dodge in the No. 1 position. So as the No. 2 starter, Hagan will race No. 15 Cruz Pedregon, whose No. 16 performance left both Bobby Bode and Alex Miladinovich off the grid.
Johnson was fourth, although he and No. 3 qualifier Alexis De Joria had identical reaction times. She earned the higher berth because her speed was faster (322.42-319.14). Johnson will try to advance to the quarterfinals past No. 13 Jim Campbell.
Beckman, blanked in bonus points Saturday, qualified 10th and needs to get past No. 7 Paul Lee in the first round to keep in the championship chase.
Even when he had the dubious distinction of having the provisional No. 14 in the line-up early Saturday, Beckman wasn’t troubled. He said, “I’ll give [Hagan] those four points. I’ll take ’em 30 at a time tomorrow. Right now the little points don’t matter for me, because we have to go two rounds further than him [in eliminations]. I’ve got a good feeling. The last time I felt this good at a racetrack was Dallas two weeks ago, and that ended well. [He won.] I’d like to control our own destiny, but here’s the problem: There are too many other cars; we can’t control what they do. We just have to go and put our blinders on and race the racetrack.”
At the time, he thought he might draw Hagan in the opening round Sunday. And he said he relished that: “I’d love to meet him early and decide it. It’d be less stress for the crew chiefs. I think the DSR cars are going to take this down to the final round.”
Hagan had a moment of confession after his first run. He said, “We race the track” and “Dickie Venables is a badass.” That’s all true, but he quickly admitted that was at least a tiny bit of bluster: “I’d like to tell you how cool, calm, and collected I am. I haven’t eaten – [at dinner] I ordered a $180 Wagyu steak [an exclusive Japanese cut of beef known for its exquisite texture and taste], and I was trying to choke it down. I’m nervous.” Nevertheless, he said he’d love to run against Beckman in the first round. That won’t happen Sunday morning. But if Hagan beats Pedregon and Beckman defeats Lee in Round 1, the two DSR contenders would meet in the quarterfinals. Johnson is on the opposite side of the bracket and potentially wouldn’t meet either of them until the final round.
NOT A POINTS-SCHEME FAN – Jack Beckman, the 2010 Funny Car champion and 2020 contender, went on the record as saying he’s not keen on the points manipulation everyone is faced with at this race.
“I’ve never been a fan of points-and-a-half,” the driver of the Infinite Hero Dodge Charger Hellcat for Don Schumacher Racing, said. “No round should be worth more than any other round. And I’m consistent whether I’m leading or trailer. That’s the way they’re going to award the points, so in essence there’s the equivalent of six rounds worth of points up for grabs in Vegas. We’re going to have to hope Matt [class leader Hagan] doesn’t go deep [into eliminations]. Ideally, we’d match up with him first round and we could make up lot of rounds. Our fate is not in our hands right now. We’re going to have to win.”
The NHRA imposed a points-and-a-half format at the U.S. Nationals and the Finals at Pomona last season. In this unconventional season, it dispensed with the practice at the Indianapolis marquee race but decided to use it here at the finale.
LINE NO. 2 BUT GETS SLIGHT EDGE IN QUALIFYING – In a tight title race among three-time and reigning champion Erica Enders and multi-time champions Jason Line and Jeg Coughlin Jr., Line helped himself the most Saturday.
Coughlin and Line entered the weekend tied for second place in the standings, and they trailed Enders by 55 points.
Enders struggled in qualifying and took the No. 12 starting position. Coughlin, who’s retiring after Sunday’s action, was slightly better for the No. 9 position. But the Elite team will reduce itself in the first round as Enders meets No. 5 Alex Laughlin and Coughlin has tough draw in Aaron Stanfield.
But Line earned three bonus points on his way to the No. 2 position in the order to move within 47 points of Enders. The retiring K Racing / Team Summit star will start the final race of his career against Cristian Cuadra.
Greg Anderson, the four-time class champion, was the No. 1 qualifier with his 6.601-second elapsed time at 206.73 mph. He has eight victories here in team owner Ken Black’s hometown and is tied with idle Funny Car icon John Force with eight victories apiece on this racetrack.
Enders, last year’s winner of this race, has won here six times. She owns both ends of the track record (6.559 seconds, 210.28 mph) since October 2015.
DSR PLANS TO RACE NEXT YEAR WITH SEVEN OR EIGHT TEAMS – Don Schumacher said he is working on funding to keep his son, eight-time Top Fuel champion Tony Schumacher, and the entire group of DSR racers on the track fulltime in 2021. Moreover, he is talking about adding a fourth dragster.
The sport’s most successful team owner (with 356 trophies in hand) declined to name the racer to fill the fourth Top Fuel seat. Speculation is it could be Austin Prock, who earned rookie of the year honors with John Force Racing, or Larry Dixon, the 62-time winner and three-time champion who for about a decade was Tony Schumacher’s chief rival. Terry McMillen is looking for a new marketing partner, but would he consider not being his own boss? Would Jordan Vandergriff be a candidate, considering his uncle, Bob Vandergriff, helped guide his start in Top Fuel and blood might be thicker than nitromethane? Andrew Hines, the six-time Pro Stock Motorcycle champion, has expressed interest in driving a dragster one day, and what more might he feel he needs to prove on a bike? Could it be Matt Sackman, the cylinder-head specialist on Antron Brown’s team who earned his Top Fuel license here at Las Vegas last spring and has been racing successfully at the sportsman level? Is it none of the above?
Competition Plus’ best guess is that it likely is somebody who has at least a tentative sponsorship deal at this point. That’s because Don Schumacher has spoken about being focused on finding money to bring back his son and the two Funny Car racers – Jack Beckman and Tommy Johnson Jr. – whose funding will disappear Nov. 1. Schumacher indicated he has funding in place to ensure a 2021 season for Ron Capps, Matt Hagan, and Leah Pruett, while Brown will postpone his debut as a solely independent Top Fuel team owner for one more year. He didn’t express too much concern about having one more program for which to find funding.
Of course that all is speculation, the stuff of “silly seasons.”
But Schumacher will keep his sponsorship-hunters busy for the next few weeks, taking advantage of the extra-long off-season. Next year’s schedule, marking the NHRA’s 70th birthday, is set to begin March 12-14 at Gainesville, Fla., rather than with the February Winternationals at Pomona, Calif.
Paul Mecca is a key piece of the DSR sponsorship-procurement puzzle, and Schumacher said, “Mike Lewis [DSR vice-president] works hard at it. Ted Yerzyk works his tail off, and I have a couple of outside agencies that are working very hard for me. We’re looking at going forward and getting the job done.”
He also said of Beckman and Johnson, “They would be my guys. They have been my guys, but we have to work forward, sponsor-wise and accomplish what we’re working real hard on.”
Those two have driven, with funding from Doug and the late Terry Chandler, the so-called “giving cars” that have raised awareness of the Infinite Hero Foundation and of M.D. Anderson Cancer Center this year and Make-A-Wish and Riley Children’s Hospital in the past.
“I plan on doing my best to run four Funny Cars next year. And we’re looking at doing everything that we can do [with the same four drivers]. That’s what I’m working towards,” Schumacher said.
Schumacher said he couldn’t tell if Beckman was saying “tongue-in-cheek” that he had planned to take up his one-time job as an elevator technician after this weekend’s race. But Beckman said he wasn’t kidding.
“I am going back to work in November,” he said. “I have reactivated my union membership. Hopefully, I find something to keep driving, but I can’t afford not to have a paycheck. I still love what I do for a living.”
Beckman entered this season finale in third place, a single point behind Johnson and only 43 off Hagan’s pace. So right now, he isn’t dwelling on trading his firesuit for coveralls. “We’re still got a great car and a great team,” he said, “and if Vegas is my last race, I want to go out holding a Wally trophy in my hands.”
The same goes for Johnson, who said this race has produced “lots of mixed emotions.” This season has played out in fits and starts and a series of schedule changes and unexpected venues so much so that Johnson said, “Honestly, I'm happy. We're coming into this last race with a shot at the championship. And I'm happy that we even got a season, because it looked like maybe after the second race of the year we wouldn't have a season at all. . . . We've had a great season and would love nothing more than to be able to cap it off with a win and have a few things go our way and maybe sneak away with the championship, as well.”
That would give him a huge boost as he seeks a new sponsor.
As for Capps and Hagan, his other two Funny Car racers, Schumacher said, “They are solidly in place.”
The only thing Capps might have any anxiety about is whether crew chief Rahn Tobler will postpone retirement and stay for another year.
For Capps, the only immediate uncertainty could be whether his trusted crew chief, Rahn Tobler, will stick around one more year and defer retirement. Tobler indicated he will return to the NAPA Dodge team in 2021. “As of right now, yes,” he said.
Capps said Tobler has “mentioned it a few times here and there. Don’s always tried to bring him back. He doesn’t want him to go.”
The 2016 Funny Car champion said, “You think of crew chiefs and matches with drivers and you think of Bernstein and Armstrong . . . and La Haie and Scott Kalitta . . . and Jimmy Prock and Robert Hight.
[Capps said Tobler] keeps track of the wins we have together. The numbers are incredible, the wins we’ve had since 2012. The majority of our team, with the exception of a few guys, since 2012, I’ve had the same crew guys. You don’t see that lack of turnover very often. So that tells you they love working for Tobler and they love working with me, and I feel awesome every offseason that I’ve got the same guys. They’re like family. I would put us up there.
“I’m very proud of what we’ve done together. It’s been fun. When he talks retirement, I don’t like hearing it. It’s kind of a joke with all of us – because we figure there’s no way he could step away. He and his wife have worked on having a plan to enjoy life. We just hope he’ll push it off another year. “
Don Schumacher said Hagan and Pruett will continue to rotate a variety of primary sponsorships for their cars: “It’s very difficult today to rely on just one company to be a full-year sponsor.”
He gave Pruett a vote of confidence, calling her “gritty” and “strong competitor” and “a hard worker.” And he said, “We wish the car hadn’t had the catastrophe that it had in St. Louis. It’d be a different position, points-wise. She’d be a little bit closer to Stevie [Torrence]. She’s still fighting for it. But the reality is - the way I see it, I believe Leah is out of the hunt for the championship, even though numerically, I believe, people can say, she’s still close. I believe Leah is out of the hunt for the championship and it’s going to be between Steve Torrence and Doug Kalitta. The best man will win.”
According to Schumacher, it isn’t true that Pro Mod sensation “Stevie Fast” Jackson will drive for DSR next season.
“Oh, I would love to have him drive for me. But I’d have to find a sponsor and put things together,” Schumacher said. “I think he’s a remarkable personality, a remarkable driver, and I think the world of Phil Shuler and his whole group over there that brings him to the level that he’s at. Stevie Fast is a unique individual, and he deserves to continue to excel at whatever class that he wants to get into. And he will excel because of his personality and his ability. But I do not have a program going together with Stevie Fast for next year. But if one comes forward, I will definitely do that.”
CAPPS SEES POSITIVES FOR NHRA – Ron Capps might be wondering, “What does it take to get another championship?!” He has two victories in three final rounds and an 18-8 record in eliminations – and he’s out of title contention. But the upbeat driver of the NAPA Dodge Charger Hellcat sees nothing but positives for the sport.
“Honestly,” he said, “I think the most positive in years has come out of this crazy 2020 COVID year. I think the Camping World thing sort of piggybacked on the big announcement with FOX and some of the TV shows we’re going to have next year, not only more live TV but the network showing us coming out of the NFL football games [what the parties are calling “an NFL-adjacent event”].” He said, that’s “unbelievable for our sport. That’s the first thing NAPA looked at. Camping World is a major, major company. They have sponsorship with NASCAR and MLB and all kinds of big, big sports. That’s something that they look at right away, and that has a huge impact on what their decisions are, what they do with NHRA. And the fact they’ve been with me for 12 years says a lot about our sport.”
He said he understands the frustration some have expressed about various moves the sanctioning body has made as this odd season has progressed. But the key is to look at the overall picture.
“The NHRA did a lot of things this year. Yes, they had to cut purses. But you have to remember there’s a group of owners that were in contact with them, and we’re trying to get through the year. We had to get back to racing on a number of levels, mainly sponsorship levels. For a lot of teams, people weren’t going to get paychecks -people with families – if we didn’t get back to racing somehow,” Capps said. “So the fact the NHRA pulled off what it did, whether it was Indy [for four straight races], we got back to racing. Yeah, purses were cut. But look what came out of that: Camping World and FOX jumped in and extended [its agreement]. So I’m pretty excited about what’s going to happen.”
The 2021 season will not start with the traditional Winternationals at Pomona, Calif., followed by a visit to Phoenix in February, then the so-called East Coast opener at Gainesville, Fla. Instead it is set to start in March with the Gatornationals classic.
And Capps said, “The beginning of next year is going to be strange. Who knows what’s going to be going on with the pandemic and all? But I think we’ve got a good plan in place. And they did it with a skeleton crew. They had to furlough some really, really good people, and that’s tough.
“How they put it together, someday looking back, it’ll be a good story, the fact that Marcus [Camping World chairman and CEO Lemonis] got on Twitter and started ‘flirting’ with a few of us drivers. Then the NHRA got involved, and it sort of went back and forth to the point that I questioned if it was really Marcus or if somebody hacked his account. He was sending messages back and forth with myself and Leah and JR Todd, and the next thing you know, he’s following me. To get a phone call from NHRA that they were seriously in talks the following week was crazy, to think it maybe was going to happen. Then the next thing you know, it was really going to happen. You don’t hear about that very often.”
Not only did Capps say the NHRA and Camping World are a great fit, but he also said Camping World and Ron Capps are a perfect match, too.
“Gary Scelzi talked me into getting an RV when I was at Don Prudhomme’s, and I’ve had one since,” he said. He said trips with his family and friends between races were “some of the best times.” Capps said, “The RV has been a big part of my kids’ childhood around the races. We’ve got so many great stories with our RVs. And I have literally spent probably enough money at Camping World over the years – no joke – to own a fuel team. So I have always shopped there. It’s ironic how it’s come about.
“I’ve watched what they’ve done with the truck program, and I feel good about it [the NHRA-Camping World partnership]. Hopefully, it all works out,” he said.
With Camping World’s target audience and the NHRA’s matching demographics, Capps said he’s pretty certain the union will be a success.
“He’s a business guy, and the good thing about it is he’s going to make it work for his company. I think he’s already pleasantly surprised,” Capps said. “He sent a couple of his business advisors to Gainesville. The back-and-forth on Twitter started just before Gainesville. He sent a couple of his people to the Gainesville race, just to walk around and watch the sport. Of course, that was a great weekend for me and my team. We won. It was dramatic. We brought out our back-up car after blowing up. There was just a lot of really good racing that weekend.” He said he was excited “to hear him say he sent some people to cruise around under the radar and watch and they called him and were blown away by the sport and what a natural fit it was. I heard him say that.”
LEE, NEW MARKETING PARTNERS COME TO VEGAS TABLE – Paul Lee is a cagey poker player who already happens to love Las Vegas and visits here occasionally to compete in some of the toughest high-stakes tournaments.
And the FTI Performance/McLeod Racing Funny Car driver knows the best way to rake in the jackpot is the have the best hand and get opponents to fold. It’s kind of the same approach to use in drag racing, he said: “Racing is sometimes like playing poker. You need some skill and a lot of luck to win.”
Crew chief Jim Oberhofer and the team are trying to supply Lee with the best “hand.” Lee, an expert on clutches as owner of McLeod Racing with its clutch kits and components, said, “This year we have been battling with some clutch-wear issues that many of the teams that run a five-disc set-up do. We’ve made some great runs this year, but more often than not, we would be on the wrong side of a really close drag race.”
A new ace up his sleeve is the addition of IT consultants company, Innovative Global Technology Group (IGTG), to the roster. IGTG is celebrating ITS 25th year in business with a special anniversary logo which appears this weekend on both Lee’s Funny Car and Clay Millican’s Parts Plus Top Fuel Dragster.
“Clay and Paul are experts in racing, and IGTG is the ‘expert’s expert’ for IT consulting,” IGTG Managing Partner, Scott Kunau, said. “At the end of the day, when the customer wins with a great solution or expert-level issue resolution, we’ve done our job. We can’t wait to join both teams in Las Vegas and we look forward to celebrating with them in the winners circle on Sunday.”
Lee can’t control which one of his opponents might fold, but he has some input on insuring that he can finish in the top 10 in the final standings.
“I’ve had some success in no limit hold ’em poker tournaments over the years, but now it’s time to win at the Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway,” Lee said.
MY BAD – Alex Miladinovich crossed the center line in front of Terry Haddock in their first qualifying attempt Saturday, mowing down timing cones and costing each of the two Funny Car drivers a clocking.
His brother helped him build the “Hot 4 Teacher” Toyota Camry, and after his mishap, he said, “I figure my brother’s going to kill me.
“We have a new clutch. We were testing it two weeks ago at Famoso [at Bakersfield, Calif.]. It showed positive results. And I could feel it start to come in, and it threw me back. And my foot came off the throttle. The G-forces slammed me back down. That was not what I wanted to do,” he said. “And I was like, ‘Aww, gee – thank God Terry’s not next to me.
“I’m embarrassed. I feel really bad,” Miladinovich said. “That’s not supposed to do that. The red-shirt guys are better than that, Id didn’t bring my A game today.”
The Orange, Calif., resident said he showed up to earn his Funny Car license “with $18 in my checking account.” But he said he has been “all in.” Miladinovich said “2020 has been a goofy year. On December 31st, I’m going to take a shot and say forget about this year.” Maybe he’ll have another one and say, “Let’s forget that Saturday Q1 run at the Finals at Las Vegas.”
BACK ON TRACK – Two pro racers who haven’t been on the NHRA scene in a while entered this race and performed well.
Pro Stock stranger Aaron Strong, who won the final round of the postponed 2016 race from his hometown Seattle track during the U.S. Nationals that year then had no more funds to keep racing, returned this weekend. He captured the 16th and final qualifying position and will race top qualifier Greg Anderson.
Strong’s achievement meant that DNQs went to Val Smeland, Alan Prusiensky, Steve Graham, and Fernando Cuadra.
Jim Maroney, the independent Top Fuel racer with his family-centered team, will start from the No. 7 spot. That was a really strong performance for the Gilbert, Ariz., driver, for he had been idle since the February Arizona National near Phoenix, Race No. 2 of what has turned out be an 11-event schedule. He also competed in Pomona, Calif., in the season-opening Winternationals.
Maroney’s first qualifying pass was a 3.971-second effort at 307.37 mph, which gave him the tentative No. 4 berth.
He said that “was a very good run for not being in the car for eight months and the team not working together for eight months. Overall, everything went great. It looks like we torched a head-gasket right at the finish line. We are not even sure what caused it. Everything looks good, including the piston that came out of that hole. It could’ve been a fluke deal, something with that head gasket. Who knows? From a driving standpoint, everything felt good in the car.
“I was telling [crew chief] Johnny West it had been so long. But as I went by half-track, I thought to myself, ‘It’s still pulling, so I’ll keep my foot into it,’ and that just tells you my mind was ahead of the car. I wasn’t waiting on the car the whole time. It’s good and hopefully we can build on it tomorrow,” Maroney said.
He and the team elected to skip the second round of qualifying in order to prepare for Sunday’s eliminations.
“We’ve made a couple little tweaks to the engine, so we will run another .90; hopefully .80, that’s the plan. We will see. Hopefully, I’ll do a little better job on the light. I think I was a little late. I think I had an .082 light or something,” Maroney said. “Tomorrow is a new day. It’s race day, and we will all be on our game.”
Maroney’s first-round opponent will be No. 8 starter Troy Buff, who drives for Carson City, Nev., team owner Bill Miller.