2021 NHRA SONOMA NATIONALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
TORRENCE OVERCOMES MISTAKE, OVERTAKES PRUETT AT SONOMA TO KEEP SWING SWEEP HOPE ALIVE - Steve Torrence still has the chance to become the eighth NHRA professional driver and sixth in Top Fuel to sweep the challenging Western Swing.
But he wasn’t patting himself on the back Sunday night after winning the Sonoma Nationals in the wine country of Northern California.
“It was way too close,” the Capco Contractors Dragster driver and points leader said of his final-round race against Leah Pruett – which he won by a mere 15 inches, or 0.0027 of a second.
Torrence blamed himself for what he regarded as a mental lapse in his staging procedure that triggered his close call and forced him to come from behind just before the 1,000-foot finish line.
He said, “I was trying to double-step and thinking of everything I could to ruin my time. But that’s what you get for thinking – you second-guess your guys and change your routine. And I just screwed up. I started to push the gas and eased off, and when the light [on the Christmas Tree] came on, I was dead-late. But fortunately, Leah, she didn’t crush it, either. (His reaction time was .115 of a second, hers .106.)
“I thought they might be able to outrun us,” Torrence said. “They had the better car all day.”
In the end, Torrence won with a 3.757-second elapsed time at 327.98 mph to Pruett’s 3.768, 323.04 in the Okuma Dragster for Don Schumacher Racing.
That gave Torrence his 46th overall Top Fuel victory and a gaudy 41st in the past 87 events in the Camping World Drag Racing Series.
The difference, he decided, was his Richard Hogan- and Bobby Lagana-led team’s preparedness.
“Those guys, they’re really good on race day,” Torrence said. “They’re really race-savvy. They race the racetrack. They race the opponent beside you. There’s a lot of factors that they take into play. I don’t know how many people knew it, but that was a brand-new race car. We brough that car out. That was the first run on it Friday night. We were testing some things on it, on top of having a new race car, Friday night and Saturday (Q2). On Saturday Q3, we put everything back [to their standard trim].”
So even with new equipment, which doesn’t always make a seamless transition, Torrence was able to grab the No. 2 starting position and win against some of his closest competitors who’ll be bunched up in the standings just behind him when the Countdown to the Championship begins in just the fifth race from now.
“Great race out there. Great race day,” he said Sunday after defeating Cameron Ferré, Doug Kalitta, and Antron Brown to ensure his 69th final-round appearance. “This place has been pretty fantastic for how the racetrack has been. The track is unbelievable, and we were able to put on a good show for the fans [who were denied a race last season because of coronavirus restrictions]. The surface is unbelievable. You can go out here and really throw down.”
He said it’s a venue at which racers really can “flex your muscles” and figured that if the traditional format of two qualifying sessions on both Friday and Saturday still were in place, with teams having an early- Friday session to prep for a nighttime run, more records likely would have fallen.
Never mind the what-ifs: Torrence was just happy to win for the sixth time this campaign.
“It’s kind of surreal to think where we’re at. It was a tough day, and really, I can’t believe I’m finding myself in the opportunity to sweep the Swing,” he said.
The three-race-in-three-weekends stretch out west – without the oxygen-rich Pacific Raceways at Seattle in the mix – will conclude this coming weekend at Pomona. Torrence has the chance to be the first driver in any class to win all three Western Swing events since Antron Brown in 2009.
Pruett – who eliminated Justin Ashley and top qualifier Brittany Force before slipping into the final round with a bye run in the field that was four cars short – has been seeking her ninth victory overall and first since the August 2019 event at Brainerd, Minn. Since that time, Torrence has won 11 times – 46 in all.
The reigning and three-time champion remains the runaway points leader, 349 ahead of Brown, his semifinal victim Sunday.
Pruett leaped from eighth place in the standings to fifth as the tour heads downstate to Pomona, for the oddly timed Winternationals this coming weekend. Drivers have four more events (Pomona, Topeka, Brainerd, Indianapolis) to qualify for the seven-race Countdown to the Championship, which will begin at Reading, Pa., in mid-September.
“I think the most impressive thing about this weekend is our progression from last weekend at Denver These Top Fuel cars don’t necessarily have a full reset button, but that’s what we did as a team this weekend,” she said. “We dug deep and found some issues and ultimately, we had great progress this weekend.
“To have such a consistent car from qualifying into eliminations and to put down what we needed to in the semifinals to get lane choice was great to see. We have a very conversational car that listens to us right now. The team is thriving,” Pruett said. “We didn’t have the start to the season we wanted, but this is a marathon of a year, and this is the momentum we’ve been searching for. For Don [Schumacher] to give us the patience and resources to do what we needed to get here has allowed us to open possibilities. It’s great to win rounds and get to the finals. It was a very close race.”
She had been philosophical this weekend, saying, “Drag racing is a sport of ebbs and flows. This is certainly not where we wanted to be at this point in the season, but the trick is to not let it get you down or get inside your own head. All of the biggest names in our industry have gone through spells where they’ve had their struggles, and they’ve always rebounded. My DSR teammates are a perfect example of overcoming adversity and bouncing back. Matt Hagan won the championship in 2011 and then didn’t even make the Countdown the year after. He’s since gone on to win two more championships. Ron Capps is one of the most decorated drivers in our sport, and he had to wait 20 years before winning a championship. Antron Brown, a three-time champ, recently experienced a 42-race winless streak and has since won two races in the last nine events and appears to be back in championship form. As Antron always says, ‘You have to beat resistance with persistence,’ and that is what we will continue to do.”
Torrence has had to fight off the women – on track, that is – all year long, as his rivalry with 2017 champion Brittany Force continues. For the fourth time this year, they qualified 1 and 2. And she’s challenging Brown, angling for that second spot in the standings.
Pro Stock Motorcycle’s Karen Stoffer joined Torrence in the winners circle on a weekend in which women strutted their skills all weekend long. Had Alexis De Joria not lost traction on her final qualifying attempt Saturday, women might have led their fields into eliminations in three classes for just the second time in NHRA history.
Brittany Force, Erica Enders, and Angelle Sampey became the first three women to earn No. 1 qualifying positions in pro categories at the same event, at Reading, Pa., in 2019.
At Sonoma, Angie Smith claimed her career-first top spot in Pro Stock Motorcycle at 6.736 seconds, 203.06 mph in the quarter-mile. Her elapsed time was just six-thousandths of a second shy of matching Angelle Sampey’s 2016 track record, and her speed fell slightly short of the national speed mark of 203.49 that Eddie Krawiec set in May at Charlotte.
Brittany Force was No. 1 in Top Fuel for the second straight weekend, the fourth time this year, and 24th time overall.
De Joria was going for her career-fifth No. 1 position in the Funny Car ranks. She ended up the No. 2 starter – for the fifth time in this season’s first nine races. She also has begun eliminations from the third-, fifth-, and six-place berths.
Ultimately, Torrence took center stage, despite one female rival besting him for the No. 1 honors and another one nearly disrupting his momentum and his shot at one of the last distinctions he has yet to earn.
The Kilgore, Texas, native might rather have a beer than any of the wine that Sonoma is famous for producing. Whatever his preference is, he earned a sip of it Sunday. Susan Wade
ROBERT HIGHT FINDS SOME COOKIN’ IN SONOMA, WINS FC TITLE - There’s no question Robert Hight loves racing at the Sonoma (Calif.) Nationals.
The two-time NHRA nitro Funny Car world champ – 2009 and 2017 – had won three times at the facility in 2008, 2018 and 2019 and after July 25 make it four wins for Hight in Sonoma.
Hight clocked a 3.971-second time at 322.50 mph to edge Matt Hagan’s 3.991-second lap at 324.44 mph.
“It’s crazy,” Hight said. “I love this place. It is the first place I ever I got to see a national event drag race. I just knew this is what I wanted to do. I never thought I would get to drive one of these things. When I was kid like that, I wanted to be a mechanic and learn about these cars. Roger Primm from Reno, Nev., close to where I used to live gave me the opportunity and then John Force. I have been with John, now 26 years, to think that I came here (to Sonoma) to watch a race and then I would get to drive one of these things and win, I’m a very lucky guy.”
This was Hight’s 53rd career national event win and his second this season to go along with his Houston victory. The Sonoma Nationals were canceled last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hight beat Steven Densham, J.R. Todd, Ron Capps and then Hagan. Hight’s 53rd career national event win, broke his tie with former Top Fuel world champion and legend Joe Amato on the NHRA all-time wins list.
“I can’t even believe that’s even possible,” Hight said. “It has kind of been a blur. Joe Amato, I mean he for the longest time was the winningest Top Fuel driver ever. He since has been passed, but really Joe Amato I couldn’t believe watching him all those years, he just dominated Top Fuel. To say, I have more wins than he does almost is unbelievable to me.”
And nothing came easy Sunday for Hight.
“Steven Densham in first round, his dad (Gary) is who I took over driving for and he was a great, great racer for a lot of years. You have to go up there with your ‘A’ game and get the job done. Then after that I raced three world champions in a row. It is fun. They bring out the best in us. I really think that (his crew chiefs) Jimmy Prock and Chris Cunningham stumbled on to some things this weekend.
“We haven’t had a lot of consistency this year. We won a race and been in some finals, but no consistency. This is our best weekend by far and it is happening at the right time because coming up here pretty quick, the U/S. Nationals, the biggest race of the year and The Countdown. This is where you really want to start shining and getting your act together. We are heading to Auto Club Raceway (in Pomona, Calif.) next weekend and it is where John Force Racing’s home is and my sponsor, the Automobile Club of Southern California. We usually race there in February and November, and it will be different, but hopefully we will go in there with a little momentum and keep this rolling.”
Hight rolled into Sonoma knew he need a strong performance. He was sixth in the points standings and coming off a first-round loss at the Mile-High Nationals July 18 in Denver.
“I definitely saw this as an opportunity,” Hight said. “Once you win a race at a certain facility, win the U.S. Nationals, win the (world) championship you know you can do it. Now, you have confidence. The first few years I came here (to Sonoma) we would qualify well, but we never race well. I couldn’t hardly win a round at this place. Now, I have won here four times, which is pretty impressive.”
Hight was thrilled his team was able to gain a truckload of points on the drivers in front of him in the standings.
“This was a big day in points for us,” Hight said. “Bob Tasca, the points leader went out early, my boss John Force went out, we beat J.R. Todd. Everybody we beat from second round on was ahead of me in points, so this was a big points day for the Auto Club team. That’s exactly what we have to keep doing. We want to go into the Countdown No. 1, and I don’t see that as a problem if we race and do what we know how to do. Hopefully we are on the right track now.” Track Renck
AARON STANFIELD CLAIMS SECOND PRO STOCK WIN THIS SEASON WITH SONOMA VICTORY - Versatility is a strong attribute for Aaron Stanfield.
A week after losing in the semifinals of the Factory Stock Showdown at the Dodge//SRT Mile-High NHRA Nationals Presented by Pennzoil, July 18 in Denver, Stanfield switched classes to Pro Stock and was in top form at the Sonoma (Calif.) Nationals.
Stanfield clocked a 6.557-second elapsed time at 209.56 mph to defeat Dallas Green who came in at 6.580-seconds at 207.69 mph in the finals at Sonoma July 25.
“There were definitely a lot of tough competitors (Sunday),” Stanfield said. “We did a really good job with the car, and I did a decent job driving. Everybody is tough in this class felt really good to do good (Sunday).
“The guys worked really hard on the car, and they made some changes in the semifinals and obviously the car picked and was making some good runs. I will be honest with you I haven’t even seen a time slip, so I don’t know what I ran. I know the guys worked hard and made some changes and driving the car felt really good.”
This was Stanfield’s third career Pro Stock win in NHRA’s Camping World Drag Racing Series and second this season as he also won in Epping, N.H., June 13.
Stanfield drives a Camaro for Richard Freeman’s Elite Motorsports team. His victory parade Sunday consisted of wins over Chris McGaha, Matt Hartford, No. 1 qualifier and points leader Greg Anderson and then Green. He improved his 2021 elimination-round record to 14-6.
Stanfield qualified No. 5 with a 6.537-second elapsed time at 209.62 mph.
“Greg has had a super-fast car all year long,” Stanfield said. “We all know what he can do behind the wheel. It’s cool, No. 1 to get to race him. Back when my dad (Greg) raced Pro Stock he and Greg were pretty big rivals. So, it is cool to get to race him and get to beat him. I hate that he had to shut off. I think it would have been a really tight race at the finish line, but unfortunately that is sometimes how it goes.”
Greg Stanfield was an NHRA Pro Stock driver back in the day, winning three national events and finishing a career-best second in the point standings in 2010.
Stanfield arrived in Sonoma third in the Pro Stock points standings and will likely move up after his performance Sunday. he finished seventh in the Pro Stock points standings a year ago and claimed his first career Pro Stock win in Houston. Tracy Renck
Earlier this year, she said she was glad to be back on the Camping World Drag Racing Series but was completely satisfied with her decision: “When I meet my Maker, I don’t think He’s going to care how many Wally trophies I earned. He’s going to car more about how good I was to people.”
She’ll get no argument on that. But it was gratifying, just the same, to earn her first victory since the 2019 Countdown to the Championship race at St. Louis – where, like Sunday at the NHRA Sonoma Nationals, she defeated Andrew Hines.
“Absolutely, definitely a very, very exciting day, especially for me with this being on my bucket list,” she said after her 6.798-second pass at 197.36 mph on the White Alligator Racing Suzuki gave her a victory margin of 0.0051 seconds, or approximately 18 inches, ahead of Hines with his 6.800 200.98 on his Vance & Hine entry.
“So it’s been a challenge. We've been in the final one time and lost,” Stoffer said, “and been here for many years. And it's considered a home track for me, so very, very happy.”
She marched past Scott Bottorff, Joey Gladstone, and boss/teammate Jerry Savoie to set up her 10th overall victory. Hines beat Ryan Oehler, Matt Smith, and Cory Reed to reach the final.
While the fans in the grandstands – who missed their 2020 race to COVID cancellation – loved the thrilling side-by-side final round, Stoffer said she knew Hines was close but usually tries to concentrate on her own progress down the quarter-mile course.
“I try really hard not to know what's going on in the lane next to me unless there's something catastrophic happening,” she said. “But pretty much, I just keep my head down. I stay focused. I look for that finish line, stay tucked, and usually when I hit high gear, I just try and get under the paint as best I can. Sometimes I'll turn my head a little bit to get under the paint more. So I knew that he was right there, and I knew it was going to be a good race. Immediately after, I picked my head up, I look to see my win light. And that was the big smile on the face.”
Much of the credit, she indicated, goes to crew chief Tim Kulungian.
“You know, Timmy worked really hard after the Denver race to find the power in both of our bikes and got to thank him tremendously for that. He gave us the power when I couldn't get the tree down right,” Stoffer said.
“But luckily, the tree came to me a couple of rounds. Tim just said on that last final round, we first went in and he said, ‘Go ahead and just grab as much throttle as you can, twist it hard, and you're good.’ That’s what he said on the final round. Going through the rounds today, I just kept my head down, keeping focused on what I had to do, and felt pretty confident that Tim gave me the bike.”
And in the showdown, she didn’t pay attention to numbers – including the 24-9 edge Hines had on her in previous events and the 3-1 advantage he had over her in their history of final-round pairings.
The NHRA Camping World Series action will shift to Pomona, Calif., this coming weekend for the unseasonably named Winternationals that normally open the season in February. But this year it’s the 10th race among the 13 so-called regular season events before the Countdown to the Championship fields are set Labor Day weekend at Indianapolis. Stoffer is fifth in the standings after sharing the winners circle with Steve Torrence (Top Fuel), Robert Hight (Funny Car), and Aaron Stanfield (Pro Stock).
Stoffer was part of a showcase of women racers Sunday and actually, all weekend long. Both she and Top Fuel runner-up Leah Pruett had close showdowns. And Brittany Force was low qualifier in Top Fuel, as was Angie Smith in Pro Stock Motorcycle.
Angie Smith claimed her career-first top spot in Pro Stock Motorcycle at 6.736 seconds, 203.06 mph. Her elapsed time was just six-thousandths of a second short of matching Angelle Sampey’s 2016 track record, and her speed fell slightly short of the national mark of 203.49 that Eddie Krawiec set in May at Charlotte.
Alexis De Joria barely missed a chance to lead the Funny Car field, settling for the No. 2 spot for the fifth time in this season’s first nine races. So fans almost witnessed women leading their fields into eliminations in three classes for just the second time in NHRA history. Brittany Force, Erica Enders, and Angelle Sampey became the first three women to earn No. 1 qualifying positions in pro categories at the same event, at Reading, Pa., in 2019.
What genuinely made the victory special for Stoffer was her connection to the Seipel family, who have been dubbed “ The First Family of Drag Racing in Northern California.” Ted and Georgia Seipel were named Grand Marshals of the event, and Stoffer has had a longtime friendship with them and their son Kyle, who passed away June 21 following a three-year battle with cancer. Georgia Seipel was the Sonoma Raceway dragstrip manager until 2018 and her husband Ted was a Super Gas pioneer. Kyle Seipel, fondly known in the racing family as “Big Nasty,” took over the track-management reins from his mother, but he was well-known by that time from his days as a racer, crew chief, and promoter. He and Peter Biondo produced the Spring Fling bracket races.
Stoffer said the Seipel name is synonymous with Sonoma and is part of her own racing history.
“It was hard to come here and not say the name Seipel,” Stoffer said. “It's just been engrained from Day One. Whether you change the name four or five times for this racetrack, the Seipel name stayed consistent. So that's kind of how we started here. And when Georgia and Ted travel around to all the other division 7 tracks, we'd always stop and talk and say hi. Definitely this, to me, can be Sonoma. It can be Sears Point. It can be Infineon. But to me, it's Seipel.
“My first experience with the Seipel family was racing here at Sonoma and it was bracket racing. It was actually the NMRA Association. My husband was in the same class as I was, and we ended up racing each other in the final. This was way back in the late ’80s, early ’90s,” she said. “And Georgia Seipel came down and talked to us because it was the first husband-and-wife final way back in the day. Right there we instantly connected. And then of course, I moved on to Division 7 bracket racing, and this was one of the division seven tracks. So every time we came here, obviously, Ted and Georgia and Kyle and the whole family, we knew them well. We raced with them a lot. Respected every one of them. We used to comment on Kyle when he raced his car: we always saw his head turn when he was bracket racing.”
And Stoffer was turning heads Sunday. Susan Wade
SATURDAY NOTEBOOK – ANOTHER PACKED HOUSE, ANOTHER GREAT DAY OF RACING
FEELS LIKE THE FIRST TIME - It wasn’t hard to see Jason Rupert had a lot on his mind.
It was Friday morning, and his first run in an NHRA Big Show Funny Car was just hours away. One might have thought with the intensity and focus Rupert displayed; the run was just minutes away.
Rupert has been accustomed to pressure in his career, first as a front-running NHRA Top Alcohol Funny Car driver back in the day and then later as a multi-time nostalgia Funny Car champion.
This pressure was a different story as Rupert did his best to adapt to the challenge.
Sure, Rupert had brought in veteran journeyman Johnny West as his “make stuff happen” man, and behind the scenes, had championship-winning tuner Rahn Tobler helping out in an advisory role.
Still, Rupert couldn’t help himself.
“I’m doing my best not to overthink the situation,” Rupert said as he looked on at the team meeting being conducted by longtime friend and team member Brad Littlefield.
Team meetings aren’t Rupert’s forte.
“Brad likes to do it,” Rupert admitted. “He’s pretty good at it. Besides, they say I’m too mean.”
Rupert paused and smiled, “I’m just kidding; I’m really not.”
“You can only do so much yourself, so you got to trust people and delegate,” Rupert said. “I got a good group of guys here. I’m pretty happy about that.
Rupert pondered the moment he officially would become an NHRA Drag Racing World Series driver.
“I’m going to try not to make any mistakes,” Rupert said. “I’m trying not to overthink it. If the car does anything that it shouldn’t do, I’ll just lift off the throttle.”
True to his word, when Rupert hit the throttle in Friday’s lone session, the Ford Mustang Funny Car made a turn inside, and true to his word, he lifted.
“It left the starting line decent, and I was a little late on the light, but I was concentrating a little bit more on making sure I drove it straight and all that kind of stuff,” Rupert said. “That was the good shot, though. Now we get to run in the heat.
“I would have like to make it down the track, but I mean, it happens. We didn’t hit nothing, and it felt good.”
IN STEP WITH MOTHER NATURE - One could call it collusion between Mother Nature and multi-time Pro Stock champion Greg Anderson.
Anderson was dominant in the final day of Pro Stock qualifying, setting a torrid pace with his run of 6.513 at 210.44 in his HendrickCars.com Chevrolet Camaro. It now gives Anderson his seventh No. 1 qualifier in eight Pro Stock races this season and an incredible 113 in his standout career.
"We certainly watched the weather and know what's going to happen," Anderson said. "And you haven't had bad weather for any of the three qualifying runs, but the one this morning was a little bit better. And you hadn't had sun on the race track all day long. So we knew that was going to be our best chance to snag it up whole. And we didn't make a great run last night, but we still got the data. We got the info we needed. We made the changes we needed this morning and came out and hit her on the bullseye, so.
When the combination of good weather and a good track interect, good things happen.
"It felt good going all the way down the racetrack. Racetrack is smooth as can be and in great shape like it always is. The weather cooperated, and low and behold, there we go. We got a number one qualifier. So job well done. The team did a great job. They've done a fantastic job all year long. I've had a great hot rod all year long, every race car I've been at. So they just come to expect it from them. They certainly rise when they need to rise and make it happen. And it's a pleasure to drive right now. So I'm having fun. I'm very proud to wear the colors, the Hendrick colors, on the side of the car, and try to record represent them as good as I can."
Anderson, the current points leader, will open eliminations against Steve Graham, again trying to gain his 97th career win and tie Warren Johnson for the most in Pro Stock history.
IT'S ALL MINE - NHRA announcer Alan Reinhart was technically right when he announced Pro Stock Motorcycle rider Angie Smith had a pile of No. 1 qualifier hats. However, those were ones given to her when her husband Matt Smith qualified on top.
Saturday in Sonoma, she got one of her own.
Smith earned her first career No. 1 qualifier with an impressive run of 6.736 at 203.06 on her Denso Auto Parts EBR. Smith’s run came during the final qualifying session after watching her husband, Matt, take the top spot and make the fastest run in class history with a pass of 205.04 earlier in the day. She answered with her strong pass to close out the day, giving her plenty of momentum heading into eliminations.
"When they told me I went 6.73, actually the first comment out of my mouth was, 'Matt's behind me. He's there behind me. So don't count him out yet," Angie said. "That's pretty awesome run out there. I didn't think that a .73 was out there. I thought maybe a .75 was out there. When I rounded the corner they told me I was number one and I was ecstatic."
She was both ecstatic and emotional.
"I always say, 'There's no crying in drag racing."
"The tears started flowing because you always dream of days like this. And when there's so many elite riders in our class being Number One Qualifier is hard. I mean, winning a race is hard, but being Number One Qualifier, out of three sessions, I think is even more tough than winning a race. And we did it. That's all I can say."
Just to think the tension in her pits was so thick one could cut it with a knife. The team changed engines between sessions.
"I was very not a good person, I was upset because I didn't get to make the second round of qualifying," Smith admitted. "We came back, we looked at it, there wasn't any data. So we just, all the other, like Scotty and Matt, downloaded their runs, and then we were going to look at my bike and see what was going on. And then we tried to start it and it didn't start. So we decided at 2:30 to do a motor swap. So we did a motor swap in 30 minutes and hats off to my whole crew, because every single crew person on our team, even Matt, we were out there, we jumped in and everybody had a role. We swapped engines in 30 minutes, started it up, warmed it up, and then we got up there.
"And when the scoreboard says 6.73, I think that's a good testament to our horsepower. Because I think every single motor that we have is really, really good. And this motor actually hasn't been in a motorcycle in two and a half years."
KEEPING CONSISTENT - Brittany Force put together a trio of strong runs in qualifying at Sonoma Raceway, ending up in the No. 1 spot on Saturday at the 33rd annual NHRA Sonoma Nationals.
Force’s impressive run of 3.694-seconds at 329.42 mph from Friday in her 11,000-horsepower Flav-R-Pac dragster gave her the No. 1 position for the second straight race. It’s also her fourth No. 1 qualifier of the year and 24th in her career, and she’ll open raceday against Ron August. She also posted a stout run of 3.716 at 330.31, which is the fastest run of the weekend in the class, to close out qualifying, giving Force added confidence she can pick up a win after two runner-up finishes this year.
“We want that win,” Force said. “In Ohio a few weeks back, we had a runner-up finish and it felt good to get there, but we want to complete the thing and end up in the winner’s circle. We had outstanding runs from my entire team this weekend. We had three solid runs and I’m happy about that, and I’m looking forward to raceday tomorrow.”
THE CHAMP'S OLD PLAYGROUND - About 45 miles or so south of Sonoma, nitro was alive and well in the area. Long before there was were the luxury suites or spacious paved pits of Sonoma Raceway, there was Fremont Dragway. Originally built on land leased from Southern Pacific Railroad, the parcel land was originally a small airfield for the United States Navy.
The drag strip boomed in the early to mid-1970s when legendary promoter Bill Doner kept the facility packed with the finest Funny Car talent of the era. A few years later, the track joined the NHRA tour by hosting the Golden Gate Nationals. By 1988, the gates closed for good, and the facility became commercial and residential property.
Iconic Funny Car driver John Force was a regular at Fremont in the early days of his storied career. The 16-time champion didn’t recall accolades he earned because he didn’t earn anything significant.
Force recalled days of survival.
“Raymond Beadle and [Tom] McEwen having to feed me and give me T-shirts, so I looked like a real racer is what I remember the most,” Force said.
Today, Force is an adored icon in the sport, so much so a race fan on Friday brought him a large onion.
“It’s kind of cool,” Force said. "It’s more than I got at Fremont. It can go on a burger.”
It’s ironic that Force’s onion gift reminded him of the one time he won at Fremont. Though he left the track in the black, it didn’t take long before the likable Force was back in the red.
“I beat Raymond Beadle in the final there, I went into the restaurant and Waterbed Fred, and everybody was cheering me like ‘Force won!” Force recalled. “And then I heard them saying, ‘The winner of the race buys dinner.”
“I was so proud when I was done buying food and drinking with all the people I was broke,” Force said. “I spent the whole check.”
However, Force kept on keeping on. It was just his nature as a survivor.
“I can remember the time my Silverado Chevrolet with the Chaparral behind it ran out of gas on the way to Fremont,” Force said. “And sitting alongside the road, waiting for a racer to come by and give me gas.”
Unfortunately, no one helped Force.
“We ended up having to go to town and mooch it,” Force admitted. “We were that broke.”
THE NEXT GENERATION - Friday Night’s qualifying for at least one stretch of qualifying looked more like a Reunion of Nostalgia Funny Cars at Bakersfield.
Former teammates Jason Rupert and Steven Densham lined up alongside one another during the Q1 session.
“We talked about it right before the run,” Rupert said. “It was pretty fun. I mean, the Denshams and the Ruperts go back, shoot way before Steven was born and way before I was even born. So, we’re just a couple of drag racing families, and we’re really good friends.”
“I told him when I walked up in the staging lanes, I was like, ‘Jason, I’m just going to pretend like it’s a Nostalgia race,” Densham added.
Rupert’s dad Frank, and Densham’s father, Gary, raced one another back in the day.
“I knew Jason always had the dream of doing this,” Densham explained. “I knew Jason would eventually do it because he’s the guy that goes after what he wants. I knew he’d get there. I just didn’t know if I would be there or if dad would be there, but I’m glad that we were able to run against him in his first run. It was nice. It made it a little bit easier for him,”
The drivers understand they are part of the next generation of drivers to add to the foundations their fathers laid.
“It’s an honor to be considered one of the next generation,” Densham said. “My dad is so good at it. I’m just trying not to make any mistakes. He’s so good at it, he ain’t going to make mistakes. He’s going to save things and save money, and I’m just trying to get a couple of runs under my belt so I can feel more comfortable in the car. Friday’s run was probably my seventh actual full-time run. For the most part, I’m still getting a handle on these cars.”
When Saturday’s qualifying concluded, Densham made his way into the field as 13th quickest with a 4.099, 245.81. Rupert will be a spectator on Sunday as he was unable to make a full pull and fell short of the 4.176 bubble.
ALL OF THAT AND MORE - Just like his Nostalgia Funny Car alumni Steven Densham and Jason Rupert will attest, Tony Jurado learned that a Camping World Drag Racing Series Funny Car is absolutely sensory overload.
“The thrill is there,” Jurado said. “It’s cool being here. I’ve always wanted to do this, but there’s a lot to drive in these fuel cars. I have a ton of respect for those drivers, the guys who drive these cars. It’s a difficult learning curve, and we’re getting through it. But absolutely, it’s awesome.”
Jurado got off to a tough start in Friday’s Q-1 session, crossing the centerline and taking out timing cones. He was able to get a run on the board in Saturday’s opening session with a 4.597, 195.31. In the final session on Saturday, Jurado realized a dream by running a personal best 4.176, 270.86, to claim the final spot in the field.
Of special note, there were five ex-Heritage Series drivers in competition in the Funny Car division this weekend. Jurado said it wasn’t hard to see the Nostalgia Funny Car series has become a training ground for future Big Show stars.
“I think for me it was,” Jurado said. “I don’t know if that works for everybody else. But that was my goal. I started with a Pro Mod blown alcohol car, then went to nostalgia and to nitro. I didn’t want to jump right into the big car. I made 50 or 60 runs in that car and then progressed to this. For me, it worked.”
Jurado entered the final session in the 17th spot, and his run put him as high as 13th. However, four pairs later, he’d dropped to the bump spot.
"This has been a tough journey licensing, and getting through the whole process of this big show car," Jurado said. "But I knew we were able to do it. And just really happy."
EITHER JESUS OR FORCE - No one can work an NHRA crowd like John Force, even when he’s outside the field looking in.
Force entered Sunday’s final session in the No. 17 spot. He launched and ran a 3.965, 324.67 to climb to fifth quickest in the field.
“The sport will humble you, but bottom line, I sat there and I got knocked out, and I’m 100 years old, but this race car will make you 18,” Force said. “Man, when they said you’re bumped out, that’s when I came to life, the fire in my stomach; I’m ready to rock and roll.
“I’m telling you what, I even said at the other end. ‘Get me. I think I’m having a heart attack.”
“My guy goes, ‘Really?”
“No, I’m just bs’ing you.”
Shortly after Force’s top-end interview, top-seeded qualifier Ron Capps heard a lot of ruckus after the 16-time champion spoke.
“I know either John Force was in front of the grandstands or Jesus showed up,” Capps surmised.
SHAKE ME BRO - Let the record reflect; Clay Millican has zero interest in living vicariously through others.
Back in June when an inner ear infection left him on the sidelines as a spectator and watching Austin Prock drive his Parts Plus Top Fuel dragster, Millican wasn't enthused with the situation but confident it was the right move to step aside.
"It was one of the craziest weekends for me to see that going on," Millican said. "And at the same time, it was probably the hardest decision in racing that I've ever made. When I stood on the gas that Friday night, everything was just kind of disoriented, and I'm like, this is not smart. I've driven these cars with broke bones. I've driven them with stitches. I've even driven with an IV bag inside my fire suit before from dehydration. But these cars are so fast and so crazy that if you're not at a hundred percent, you don't need to do it."
Millican recalled the moment he tearfully informed his team of the team of what was expected to be a temporary situation.
"I had this whole pump me up kind of speech in my mind for them," Millican said. "And the moment the words started coming out of my mouth, that I can't drive, I absolutely started bawling like a baby. And while that was not my intent at all, I didn't mean for that to happen, but what that tells me is how much I love this sport, how much I love what I get to do, and also I think it probably shows how much respect I have for our competitors and our fans, because could I have just tried to get away with it? Probably. Probably. But this sport means so much to me. It wasn't the right thing for me to do."
Though his "Win One for the Gipper" speech didn't go as planned, the substitution couldn't have gone any better.
"It definitely brought out a tear," Millican said of watching his car win. "If you listen to the broadcast in the booth, I felt some frogs getting in my throat when Austin was turning on win lights. It was a crazy experience. I don't want to do it again, but I'm so proud of how this group came together and did everything necessary to keep the Parts Plus car out there and I'm healthy and ready to go. But with the renewed sense of, I love this.
Simply put, Millican is nowhere near the Don Schumacher or Don Prudhomme route, of supervising a team and drivers.
"Definitely not yet," Millican said. "I'm sure that'll hit me someday, but I ain't there yet. I've done this a long time, but woo. I love stomping on that loud pedal, and the internal come out, of like, that's how much this means to me."
Which why Friday's tooth-rattling run behind the wheel in Denver, was such a blessing for Millican.
"At Denver, Friday night, nervous as could be," Millican admitted. "Basically kind of felt like when I started to get my top field license. Hit the gas, thing shook brutally, and I was excited, like super excited to get back to the trailer. And Mike's got his head in the computer in there and I'm like, "Dude, you got to stand up."
"And I give him a big old hug and he's like, 'Man, we just shook the crap out of you."
"And I'm like, 'Yes. And if that don't bother me, I know I'm good to go."
"And so it was awesome."
THIS ONE'S FOR YOU BIG NASTY - For most drag racers, arriving at Sonoma Raceway for this year's 33rd annual NHRA Sonoma Nationals will immediately conjure up warm memories of former track manager Kyle "Big Nasty" Seipel, who passed away last month at the age of 50 after a long battle with cancer. That is certainly the case for Pro Stock driver Troy Coughlin, pilot of the JEGS.com Elite Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro.
"This weekend I'm racing in Kyle's honor," Coughlin said "He did so much for the sport, as a driver, a crew chief, a track manager, and an event organizer, that his contributions set him apart from others. We lost a great person and his impact is sorely missed.
"I can't wait to see his parents, Georgia and Ted Seipel, and tell them in person what Kyle meant to me. I know I'm not alone in my sentiments but I want them to hear it directly from me. I loved the guy and admired him quite a bit."
Quite the opposite of his racing nickname, Seipel was universally respected and loved by drag racers, especially those competing at the sportsman and bracket racing level. Together with fellow sportsman superstar Peter Biondo, Seipel co-created the wildly-popular "Fling" series of high-dollar bracket races, which have exploded in popularity since their inception. He was also a cutthroat competitor, both behind the wheel and under the hood.
"I look up to successful people like Kyle and I try to emulate what they do," Coughlin said. "I try to stay within the process and routine of making competitive runs every time I pull up to the starting line. I think about guys like Kyle, proven winners, and try my best to follow in their footsteps.
"It helps a great deal. Just last weekend I raced at Atco in a big bracket race and I was able to make 23 passes, going as far as the fifth round one day and fourth in another, amongst a very tough field of drivers. That's what it takes to progress, and no one knew that better than Kyle."
FRIDAY NOTEBOOK – A FITTING RETURN AFTER A YEAR’S ABSENCE
REMEMBERING BLAINE: Just the thought of what he was about to do Friday evening at the NHRA Sonoma Nationals at Sonoma Raceway made Mike Salinas’ eyes well up with tears.
Friday evening, as qualifying kicked off for the ninth stop on the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series, there was a sense of pride for Salinas as his dragster rolled forward. The Top Fueler carried the livery of Travers Tools, the last sponsor for the late Blaine Johnson, younger brother of his tuner Alan Johnson.
Salinas has become proficient at honoring drag racing legends. Most recently, Salinas paid tribute to the late Tom “The Mongoose” McEwen.
“This is a good one,” Salinas said. It’s a special one for Alan Johnson and all of our whole group and all the fans that understand what it means. And it’s pretty impressive. I got to see the car today for the first time, and I fell in love with it.”
Salinas admitted he’d been working on their tribute for as long as eight months and replicating the same paint scheme Johnson ran in winning the 1996 NHRA California Nationals in Sonoma. It would be the last NHRA national event win of his life.
“I didn’t personally meet Blaine Johnson, but I was one of those guys on the other side of the ropes and the other side of the fence and on TV watching them,” Salinas explained. “It’s a touching experience. I hope I can live up to the driving part of it, you know? Just to be as good as he was.”
KABOOM! - Brittany Force’s co-crew chiefs David Grubnic and Mac Savage like to swing for the fence in qualifying.
The duo hit a home run Friday night as Force and the Flav-R-Pac Monster Energy team snared the provisional No. 1 qualifying spot at the Sonoma (Calif.) Nationals with a 3.694-second elapsed time at 329.42 mph.
The only setback with the blistering run was the blown engine as Force was crossing the finish line.
“It definitely wasn’t our best run,” Force said. “We will take that No. 1 qualifier, 3.69 is pretty outstanding. We knew it was a good racetrack and conditions were cool. (Dave) Grubnic always likes to go up there and push because he wants that No. 1 spot. It was a great boom through that finish line. It just blew up. You feel it in there as a driver. My guys came on the radio right as when I went through the finish line, and they were telling me good job. I’m thinking ‘were they not watching?’ I don’t think it was good, but obviously we put a good number on the board. We will take that.
“You just feel a big explosion behind you, and it throws you around in the seat. It is not pretty. All I’m thinking about is getting the car shutoff and getting it stopped on the racetrack. We have done this before. There’s a lot of work for my guys. There going to be up there all-night cleaning that car up. The injector was sitting sideways on it. Not pretty, but we’re No. 1 so we will take that.”
Force arrived in Sonoma third in the points standings. She has three No. 1 qualifying spots this season in Las Vegas, Charlotte, and Denver and this would be the 24th of her career if it holds.
“I don’t know, we will see,” said Force when asked if her time would hold through Saturday. “This is a good track out here.”
At the Mile-High Nationals in Denver July 18, Force qualified No. 1 and then lost in the second round to Clay Millican. Force has two runner-up finishes this season in Charlotte, N.C., and Norwalk, Ohio. - Tracy Renck
FRIDAY NIGHT IS ALRIGHT FOR FLYING - Ron Capps’ 2021 trend of qualifying well continued Friday night at the Sonoma (Calif.) Nationals.
Capps, who drives the Pennzoil Synthetics/NAPA AUTO PARTS Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat for Don Schumacher Racing, captured the provisional No. 1 spot with a 3.897-second elapsed time at 328.78 mph.
“I can’t say enough about Guido (co-crew chief Dean Antonelli) and John Medlen,” Capps said. “I won here with John Medlen (in 2010) which was probably one of the most emotional wins I ever had given what we do with Eric Medlen and celebrate his life every year with the ice cream social. John being the assistant crew chief and Guido who I have known forever it was almost a little bit of destiny when Don Schumacher put us together when Rahn Tobler retired.”
Capps, who won the 2016 NHRA nitro Funny Car world championship, had to make a transition this season when his longtime crew chief Rahn Tobler retired in the offseason.
This season, Capps has put together an impressive qualifying report card, having earned a ‘top five’ qualifying position – including two poles – through the first eight events of 2021, and is looking to break through for his first win of the year. He’s fifth in the season points standings.
“We have qualified in the top five at every race this year and that’s pretty stout,” Capps said. “No, we haven’t got a Wally yet, but it is coming. To drive that race car and know when you go to the starting line, and you step on the gas it is going to be No. 1 or No. 2 qualifier almost every time gives you a lot of confidence.
“It’s so cool to do a burnout and be back at this place after not being here last year. It means a lot to me because I live close to here. You often wonder are the fans going to show up and every single race we’ve had has been a packed house with race fans thanking us for being back at the track. I have to tell you being here at this track is all about the people. It really makes you proud of what we are doing with our sport right now.”
If Capps keeps the No. 1 qualifying spot through Saturday it would be the 28th of his decorated career.
Capps said the adjustment from Tobler to Medlen and Antonelli has taken some time.
“I’m supposed to be a veteran and I’m good at adapting,” Capps said. “You race fuel altereds and do other dirt races and stuff, that helps. I just wanted to make Don Schumacher proud because it was spur of the moment that it happened, and teams got put together. That happened the last time I was put with Rahn Tobler, and you what happened there. The next thing I know I was winning race after race.
“A lot of things set me back to being a rookie driving this car. There were a lot of things I had to change in my routine that Guido does differently. It sounds easy, and it sounds stupid, let me tell it was one of the hardest preseason tests and two or three races into the season I was still not comfortable in the car because I had to change everything. A lot of them I can’t talk about because we think it helps the performance of the car, but it was some of the toughest first couple of months of driving. I really had to re-learn a lot of things.”
Drummer Rick Allen of rock band Def Leppard is a special guest of Capps this weekend and he saw the action unfold Friday.
“(Rick) is a big gearhead and I have seen him play many, many times and I got a high-five and a pat on the back from him leaving the pit area,” Capps said. “He’s having a blast. That was cool to have him show up and do what we did. It almost never happens. I have tons of family here up on the hill staying, it is great to do well when you have family with you, especially with what is going on in the world right now.”
GOT EVERY BIT OF THAT ONE - Pro Stock racer Matt Hartford came out of the gate swinging Friday night, as he drove the Total Seal Pro Stock Camaro to the provisional No. 1 spot at the NHRA Sonoma Nationals, the ninth stop on the 2021 NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series. His 6.533, 209.92 pass was enough to edge Kyle Koretsky by .008.
“We thought we could probably go somewhere in the neighborhood of definitely low .54 maybe a mid .53,” Hartford explained. “The car just transferred so well, and 60-foot was great. It transferred well, and the 6.533, I’d say we got all of it.
And as Hartford sees it, Saturday’s warmer conditions could result in the run holding. However, he’s not counting his chickens before the eggs hatch.
“If you look at the weather typically here it’s definitely pretty warm at Noon and 3 PM. So we would think that the weather would be worse than it was here tonight. The track conditions, definitely it’ll be greasier than it was tonight. That track is really tight. So there’s a better-than-not chance that that .53 holds for tomorrow but I’ve raced a long time; it can change in a heartbeat.”
Looking ahead to Sunday, Hartford believes the best thing about starting the race is the possibility of starting from the top spot.
“Sundays are hard, I mean first round is miserable every time for all of us drivers because it doesn’t matter if you qualify one or 16,” Hartford said. “Anything can happen on race day. But I’ll tell you what, I’d rather be qualified one, two, or three going into Sunday than I would be either not qualified or in the bottom half. So we’re happy where we’re at.
“Our goal was to be in the top five after tonight. We figured if we could be in the top five, better yet, in the top three, it makes you feel a little bit more confident going into Sunday.”
MOMENTUM STEALER - If anything, Friday's provisional No. 1 run for Andrew Hines was a personal victory in that, provisionally, he was able to throw a monkey wrench into Matt Smith's plans for total domination of the NHRA Sonoma Nationals.
Hines ran a 6.761, 201.67 in Friday's lone session to edge the defending series champion Smith's 6.769. Smith didn't come away empty-handed as he secured a 203.28 top speed, the third-fastest in the history of the class.
Hines doesn't expect the run to hold through Saturday's remaining sessions, but feels it was good to get one up on his rival, at least for a day.
"It's nice to knock him off the top," Hines admitted. "The funny thing is we ran each other last weekend in Denver in the semis, and he just flat out whooped me by a tenth of a second. And this is the same engine that was in my motorcycle last weekend. Usually, we have a Denver engine and I said, 'You know what, forget it I'm going to run the Denver engine in Sonoma."
"Same transmission, same everything. That shows you how far off base we were for our Denver tune-up. I must have gotten just too way over center trying to really stick it to him in the semi that I just took myself right out of the game with the tune-up. I was there with the reaction time, finally, last race and didn't get him. So it just shows that I thought it was hurt.
"We came here and we looked at the engine and changed valve springs and everything looks fine. I said, 'heck, let's just run it."
"So obviously picked up half a second from the mountain to here on that run and went from being a tenth behind him to a hundredth in front. He had the speed on me this round again, but he's got good power. Obviously he's working the horsepower to make the numbers come up on the mile-per-hour. So we're going to hopefully pick away at it. Right now I'm more focused on getting my V-twin in the top ten."
Missing the first two races of the season while the team prepared the new variation of the V-twin didn't do Hines any favors. He entered the weekend No. 11 in the point standings.
"Just want to have a shot to get all three of our Mission Vance & Hines bikes into the countdown and then we can go from there," Hines added.
Hines believes Saturday's Q-2 session will be the "one" for the Pro Stock Motorcycles. This is where he feels his provisional top spot will be challenged, although he felt Friday's night's run was living on borrowed time at the top.
"I didn't think it would hold up, no," Hines admitted. "This track's known for putting up big speeds and ET's. I felt when I popped the clutch, I'm like, "This thing's actually moving pretty good."
"We have been really struggling hard in 60-foot here lately and I think that might have been actually tied for my best of the season. I felt like it laid down a good run, felt like it ran decent in high gear and obviously 201.6, our Vance & Hines Buell is running pretty strong.
"But that .76, I didn't think would hold. Obviously the Smith camp, they got close with a 6.776 but hey, we'll take it. Right now we're just still in learning phase. Eddie and I have changed so many things on these motorcycles in the last two years since we've been to Sonoma that I think we kind of got lost and just moved off track. I literally took all my notes from two years ago, put them in the bike and it goes to the pole. So obviously I've been doing something wrong here, lately."
FINALLY HOME - All Justin Ashley and his Smart Sanitizer/Strutmaster.com team have wanted to do was to race at a track they could call their home. For two years, it has become apparent home is where you hang your misfortunes.
Ashley resides on New York’s Long Island, while the Davis Motorsports team he drives for is located in Santa Rosa, Ca., 21 miles outside of Sonoma.
When Davis Motorsports announced plans to field a dragster for Ashley to drive in 2019, the team elected to make its testing debut just south of Sonoma, down in Bakersfield. The plan looked perfect on paper for the Top Fuel novice.
The team had planned for everything, except for one aspect. The kid wasn’t able to drive, forcing his dad Michael to don the firesuit and take the dragster for a shakedown pass.
“It really didn’t go so well,” Ashley admitted. “I ended up having mono and then the first pass down the track, we lit the car on fire. So that’s how this whole thing started it.”
The team made its debut at the 2019 NHRA Carolina Nationals, and reached the semifinals. Ashley finished out the 2019 season, and the team set their sights on the 2020 season.
One of those stops on tour was Sonoma Raceway. However, with the onset of the pandemic, the team’s home track was shut down for the season.
“It’s amazing. It’s like it wasn’t meant to happen until now,” Ashley admitted. “I feel really good about it. Having Mike Green on board is just amazing. He has a lot of experience at this specific racetrack.”
Ashley, on the other hand, not so much. He was at Sonoma as a fan supporting Antron Brown, and prior to that was with his dad, who raced Funny Car.
While the track is the home track to Davis Motorsports, Ashley himself is a young man without a home on the tour. Before Ashley was old enough to race, his home track Englishtown closed down.
“I do feel like I’m a lost soul just trying to find my place,” Ashley admitted.
“I think this specific race here in Sonoma means more to this team than anything else,” Ashley said. “This is now my adopted home. I’m excited to race at this track for the first time.
Ashley was fourth quickest of the opening session with a 3.761, 325.37.
MISSING DENVER - Greg Anderson won't lie; he's always loved the challenge of racing the NHRA Mile High Nationals, but in doing so, the event made for a super challenging return to normalcy a week later in Sonoma, Ca.
"Everybody knows you go to Denver, and you lift up the gas cap and slide a new car underneath it," Anderson said with a smile as he adjusted the valves on his Hendrick Camaro. "You got to reverse all those changes and hope you got them right when you came here. The good news is we're coming from Norwalk. It's very similar. We have slightly bitter air but not the major change you'd have in Denver. Cars are the same and business as usual."
If there was something Anderson missed about skipping Denver was the challenge the high altitude event presented.
"It certainly is a high, high challenge and we've talked about it forever and we've even said, look, if there was a race that we could probably leave off the schedule it would be that one because of all the extra cost and all the extra work," Anderson said. "But still, once you do go there and race it, it's fun. It is a huge challenge, it's a tremendous challenge, everything is completely different. So I missed that this year, and would I rather have a it back? Absolutely. Positively.
"Regardless of the cost, the extra cost and all the hoops you got to jump through to do it, it is still a hell of a lot of fun to go race there. And I missed it. I sat and watched it on TV last week and I absolutely missed it. I definitely want to go back."
If Bandimere Speedway were a baseball field, Anderson characterizes the facility located at 10,000 feet above sea level as a base-hitter's field. Sonoma, well that's a field built with the home run hitters in mind.
"We know when we come here [to Sonoma] you're going to have great atmospheric conditions, you're going to have a great racetrack, going to have great weather, you better learn how to run fast," Anderson explained. "All that stuff you do in the last couple months of just trying to negotiate racetracks, hot, breezy, humid racetracks, and just trying to manage your way down the racetrack, throw all that out the window. You throw everything you got at it here and it'll stick.
"It's like fall and springtime racing in the middle of the summer and we love that. I'd much rather race at these type of racetracks all year long. But you got to get through those hot breezy summer months at some of the hot places. This is the break we look forward to and when you come here you got to make the most of it. You got to hit that home run."
TAKING DENVER FROM PRO STOCK = NOT A GOOD MOVE - Provisional Pro Stock low qualifier Matt Hartford wasn't afraid to speak what was on his mind Friday evening. Leaving Denver off of their schedule was not good.
"I think as a whole that was a mistake," Hartford said. "I think every team out there was really unhappy about not going to Denver. All the teams love going to Denver and I think as far as the sport is concerned, if you're going to have a Western Swing you need to have all three professional categories there. Now I know Pomona replaced Seattle this year, but it's still the western swing. So all of us, we would have preferred to be in Denver and definitely I think it would have helped coming here because we have already been back in the swing of things.
Changing his car to sea level? No problem at all.
"That question, gets brought up a lot of times and the way I always approach it is this, tomorrow we're going to go into a qualifying run so the weather conditions and the track conditions will be totally different than they were tonight," Hartford explained. "Everything that we're going to do for the next round of qualifying tomorrow is the same thing we do to switch from Denver to here, there's nothing different. It takes no extra time. Everybody has all the parts to run at altitude or at sea level so for us it's just a change in conditions between rounds. So no, there's no issue in going from Denver to Sonoma."
THE OPPORTUNITY IS THERE - Matt Hagan has achieved many feats in drag racing, but coming close to sweeping the NHRA’s Western Swing has never been one. In order to sweep the three-race stretch of races spanning from Denver to Sonoma to Seattle (now Pomona), one has to first win the Dodge Mile High Nationals at Bandimere Speedway, the first stop on the tour.
Then the Mopar-sponsored Hagan won his sponsor’s race for the first time five days ago.
“I had been trying to win that race for a long time, and finally, after more than a decade, I was able to check it off the list,” Hagan said of his monumental victory over Alexis DeJoria. “They say you’ve got to win Denver to ‘sweep the Swing,’ and this is the first time in my career that I’ll have an opportunity to do that, but we’ll take it one race and one round at a time.
“I’m still on such a high from Sunday. I was back home working the next day, grinding, getting caught up on my sleep, selling cattle, meat, and CBD. The grind never stops, not even during the Western Swing.”
Hagan has plenty of reasons to be confident racing this weekend. He’s a two-time Sonoma runner-up, with the most recent coming in 2019, the last time NHRA visited here.
“My guys work so hard and I know they’re going to move through this Sonoma race working just as hard to put a great race car underneath me,” Hagan explained. “You can see the confidence in Dickie Venables and in every one of the guys on my team. Our Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Redeye has been running really well these last few races.
“Everything is starting to click. To do what we were able to do in Denver was just amazing, so I can only imagine what we’ll be able to do this weekend back at sea level.”
EBBS AND FLOWS - This season hasn’t been a banner one for Leah Pruett, at least by her lofty standards. She’s ranked eighth in the Top Fuel points, scoring five first-round wins in eight events.
Pruett has won five first rounds in the eight races, but the round win in those races was all she left the track with.
“Drag racing is a sport of ebbs and flows,” Pruett explained. “This is certainly not where we wanted to be at this point in the season, but the trick is to not let it get you down or get inside your own head. All of the biggest names in our industry have gone through spells where they’ve had their struggles, and they’ve always rebounded.