TORRENCE DELIVERS PROOF THAT HE STILL KNOWS HOW TO WIN IN TOP FUEL - Top Fuel racer Steve Torrence reassured everyone this entire Camping World Drag Racing Series season that he hadn’t fallen on his lips suddenly, that he and his Capco Contractors Dragster team simply were taking time to experiment with different parts and set-ups and approaches to prepare for When It Counts. 

But even he knew he had to provide some evidence – if only to convince himself that he would win again. 

Torrence could have had a baby sibling for his 16-month-old daughter Haven Charli in the time it took since his previous victory. Just like Bob Tasca III – with whom Torrence shared the winners circle at the Lucas Oil Nationals at Brainerd, Minn., Sunday – Torrence had won last November – nine months ago – in the series finale at Pomona, Calif. Both he and Tasca had planned to ride that momentum into at least a comfortable start to the 2022 season. But both of them have had to rely on their own expertise as veteran drivers and team leaders and on their tuners’ experience. 

Tasca got his Motorcraft/QuickLane Ford Mustang Funny Car program turned around on the Western Swing, but for Torrence, it took a few races longer. 

And Torrence wasn’t too proud Sunday after defeating Tony Schumacher in the final round Sunday for that first 2022 victory to admit that “It’s difficult,” even when he had “all the faith in the world in these Capco Boys.” 

He said, “We didn’t forget how to win, but dang, it sure felt like it. 

“We knew that if we kept putting ourselves in position that eventually we’d get another one of these little gold men to take back home to Kilgore (Texas),” Torrence said, referring to his latest trophy. It’s amazing.  You get used to winning and then you have a year like this one and it puts everything in perspective.  When you’ve had the success and the dominance that we’ve had, it’s difficult to not have that [feeling]. But you’ve just got to dig through it. When we don’t win and everybody’s asking us, ‘What’s wrong?’ and ‘What’s happened?’ it’s difficult. 

“It’s not easy to win out here. It’s hard, but there’s nobody I’d rather be fighting the battle with than these Capco boys.  They stuck with it and now it looks like maybe we’re peaking at just the right time,” he said.  

“Maybe we’re getting our crap together at the right time, because we’re charging for that No. 5 [championship]. I can’t wait to get into the Countdown and see if we can hurt some feelings.  It’s gonna be fun,” Torrence said. “That Capco Dragster, it’s coming. We’re marching.” 

Torrence traded places in the standings with Justin Ashley, moving into third place with his winning 3.866-second elapsed time at 322.04 mph on the 1,000-foot Brainerd International Raceway course. 

And he did it impressively, eliminating No. 2-ranked Mike Salinas for openers, then buddy Antron Brown as a move more desperate than vengeful for the Topeka result the week before, then his points-leader nemesis Brittany Force to advance to his fourth final of the season.  

With that, he trimmed semifinal finisher Force’s lead from 162 points to 130 with one more race remaining before the sanctioning body erases everyone’s achievements and separates the top 10 racers in 10-point increments (except the leader, who has a 20-point head start). 

“That is the car to beat,” Torrence said of Force’s Monster Energy Dragster. “They’ve not only kicked our butts but everybody else’s.” 

Mike Salinas still is second in the standings, but his first-round loss meant his margin increased from just 31 points off the pace to 94. 

Torrence’s 52nd overall victory tied him with retired five-time champion Joe Amato for fourth on the all-time Top Fuel victories leaderboard.  

Schumacher, though denied his 87th victory and second in three races, also gained ground in the standings. Despite some messy mechanical problems along the way, he beat the equally formidable lineup of Doug Kalitta, Josh Hart, and Justin Ashley and leapfrogged Kalitta into eighth place. 

Schumacher got the jump on the starting line and was ahead until late in the run. He drove the Okuma/Skag/Maynard Family Dragster to a 3.942-second elapsed time and 286.50-mph speed in his fifth meeting this year with Torrence. 

Torrence is a native Texan from Kilgore, and Schumacher a Chicago transplant to Austin. And Torrence quipped in the shutdown area Sunday as Schumacher congratulated him that “we came all the way as far north as we can get to have two Texas boys show up in the final. 

“I enjoy racing Tony the most. He makes you bring out you’re a Game every time. He’s a self-proclaimed machine, but he is the machine – he does the same thing time and time again. He’s good because he’s been in the situation so many times. He’s been in the money round. He’s been in the championship round and all of it. The more experience you get and the more comfortable you get, the better you do. I like to race him. I got my first win against him in 2012, in Atlanta.”     

 It was the ninth time Torrence had the upper hand in 11 final-round meetings with the eight-time champion. 

What this really was Sunday was a treat for the fans: not a pretty side-by-side display but another hard-fought battle to the end of the day between two of the most dominant drivers in Top Fuel history. The fact that both have overcome their share of struggles made the sub-four-second blast that much more enriching. For Torrence, it ended the second-longest victory drought of his pro career and gave him back-to-back success at Brainerd International Raceway. 

In only his fourth start this season, Billy Torrence dropped a quarterfinal bout with Force. But son Steve’s victory marked the third in the past four Brainerd races for Team Capco. Billy Torrence won here in 2018. In spite of his early exit Sunday, Billy Torrence recorded his 100th Top Fuel elimination-round victory with his opening-round defeat of Austin Prock.

The Camping World Drag Racing Series heads to Indianapolis for the Sept. 1-5 Dodge Power Brokers U.S. Nationals. 

The top 10 order became slightly scrambled Sunday. Josh Hart remains in fifth place, with Leah Pruett and Shawn Langdon tied for sixth. Schumacher is eighth and Kalitta nine. Antron Brown hangs onto the 10th spot, and he helped keep No. 11 Clay Millican at bay by beating him in the opening round Sunday. Prock’s loss keeps him out of the top 10, at least for now. He’s tied for 11th with Millican.   

The biggest twist in the calculations will come at Indianapolis. There, at the conclusion of the race, the sanctioning body will erase everyone’s achievements and separate the top 10 racers in 10-point increments (except the leader, who has a 20-point head start). 

The race also awards points and a half, both for qualifying bonus points, qualifying order, and eliminations results. At every other regular-season race, the winner earns 100 points, the runner-up 80, semifinal finisher 60, second-round finisher 40, and first-round finisher 20. At the U.S. Nationals, the structure is 150-120-90-60-30. So that could realign the standings before the 10-point spacing takes place. (The sanctioning body does the same at the Finals at Pomona, Calif., in November, throwing more drama into the mix.) 

The Countdown will begin with the Sept. 16-18 Pep Boys Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway at Reading, Pa.

TASCA KEEPS ROLLING, WINS BRAINERD FC CROWN - Veteran NHRA nitro Funny Car driver Bob Tasca III was well aware of the struggles his team had in the first nine races of the season.

However, Tasca kept believing his team would find its groove sooner rather than later.

Well, he was right.

Tasca advanced to five final rounds in six races, winning three of the last four, including Sunday at the Lucas Oil Nationals Friday in Brainerd, Minn.
Tasca clocked a 3.945-second elapsed time at 329.42 mph to edge Ron Capps’ 4.007-second elapsed time at 327.66 mph in the finals.

“Well, I've said it twice, I'm going to say it three times, to do what we've done, the way we've done it,” Tasca said. “We haven't backed into any win. We've gone out and just performed at a very high level. It's incredible execution by the team. I mean every single person on the team.

“I don't want to even start to count the number of rounds we've gone in the last six races. But to do that, the team has to perform flawlessly. Mike (Neff) and Jon (Schaffer) have put a package together that is unlike anything that I've ever had in my driving career. Hot, cold, anywhere in between, they have an answer. When the team can perform flawlessly, it makes John and Mike's job a lot easier knowing that the car's set up right. Then as a driver, you're just going to do your job. You don't want to let your team down, leave on time. In this track for me all weekend, I was fighting the car down track. It was spinning, moving around. If you let it get out of the groove, it will smoke the tires. I think that's a lost art to some of the drivers out here, is what I call car control. Keeping that thing in the center of the groove is absolutely critical for making runs down a racetrack like we're on today.”

Tasca said the hot streak isn’t about him but about the people at Ford supporting him.

“We all work together as a team and I'm just so proud of them and all the people back at Ford that support us,” Tasca said. “It's a great run. Sitting in the trailer with Mike Neff before we made the final round, he's looking at the data we're testing here tomorrow. He's like, ‘There's a lot more I can do here.’ 

That's just how he thinks. Mike is always thinking How can we make it better? How can we make it more refined?

“We're peaking at a good time. But let me tell you something, there's a lot of unfinished business ahead of us. I think we moved into fourth in the points, there's three cars ahead of us, and there's a bunch of cars behind us, right? All chasing for that same trophy at the end of the year. But I just really am pleased where this car is.”

This was Tasca’s 12th career nitro Funny Car NHRA national event win and third this season.  He moved to fourth in the points standings behind Robert Hight, Matt Hagan, and Ron Capps.

“I think Saturday, the second run, I figured it was going to be really on my shoulders,” Tasca said. “Because that last run, I got a good look at that left wall and I had my arms crossed and I was probably a little late catching it. I know all day today I was on it. I was on the steering wheel, keeping it off. Because the left lane pulled to the left, and the right lane, you didn't know if it pulled left or right. It just was moving around.

“But yeah, no, it's top of mind. I think the number runs I have in the car it's just things start to slow down, and you can just anticipate what's about to happen. That's the easy part of driving, when you can get it off the start line and it's not smoking the tires and you're not pedaling the cars. They gave me a great race car this weekend and I'm just happy to be part of the win here.”

Tasca thought he had a chance to be the No. 1 qualifier on Saturday, but he ended up third behind Hagan and Hight.

“That was quite an emotional swing for me,” Tasca said. “(I) Got out of the car, number one qualifier, great run. Everyone's looking at Robert and he bumped me by a thou, and then I look over at the screen and everyone saying, ‘Robert.’ I said, "No, look at Hagan. He ran 84.

“I think that's just a testament of how competitive this class was. We were a little bit at a disadvantage because we actually slowed our car down before we made that run. Because there was some high 80s, there were some tire smokers. I know Mike was trying to run maybe 84 or better and he kind of pulled it back last minute. Then you saw Hagan go 84. The competitiveness in the field is truly extraordinary. Clearly, it gave us great confidence coming in today. I mean, we had a car that ran up and down the track in qualifying, but today was different. I think the biggest difference with today versus yesterday, even though the track temperature was a little similar, there was no cloud cover, so the track surface was different. It wasn't the same. It was a very tricky track. You saw a lot of cars smoke the tires.”

That’s where Neff and Schaffer came in.

‘We had to make... Mike and John made huge changes from Saturday night,” Tasca said. “If we had the Saturday night set up in it, that car wouldn't have gone by the tree, all four runs. It's just how in tune the crew chiefs are with the track and then reading the playing field. You see eight cars smoking the tires at the head. I mean, even as a driver at that point, my mindset's changing. From going on kill to okay, get ready, it's going to smoke the tires. You got to pedal the car. You got to recover the car. I'm thinking about that in the final round, I'm saying be ready.

“Obviously, fortunately, I didn't have to worry about it, but I think the average fan doesn't truly appreciate the number of... There are so many variables that go into making one of those cars go down the racetrack. It's truly extraordinary to see this level of competition, going over 330 miles an hour, and we're measuring the margin differences in the thousandths of a second. That's what makes NHRA drag racing so exciting for the fans, makes it a little bit grueling for us as the teams and the drivers. But we love it, and that's what makes these Wallys so special, because they are so hard to get.”
Tasca talked about the peaks and valleys he has gone through to get to this point in his career.

“The first chapter of my racing career, I got fired,” he said. In 2013, Ford pulled out and it didn't look too good for Bob Tasca and Tasca Racing. I remember being at the Detroit Auto Show, I'll never forget it. They were debuting the GT40 program. It was the year that they let all the Ford teams go out here. I saw all the champions on the wall. I'll never forget it. All the four champions were on the wall, and I wasn't on it.

“For whatever reason, that was a kind turning point for me because I could have packed it in. I mean, we got 16 dealerships, growing rapidly, I'm nonstop in between racing. I just said to myself, ‘I got to give it one more run. I got to figure out how to do this.’ Jim Farley came in and took over Ford Motor Company. The day that happened, there was a big smile on my face. Because I said, ‘We got a chance.’ Jim, if he's watching, he's a huge racing fan, loves what we are doing. He gave me that second chance. That's all that I was focused on is how do I build a championship caliber program? It starts with those two guys in the front trailer, Mike Neff, and Jon Schaffer. That was a big turning point for me, to get those two guys. Because they've done it, they know how to do it, then we had to get the guys behind us and then we just needed time. You don't just snap your fingers. You're seeing that with Doug Kalitta and AJ, those are two high million, highest caliber tuner drivers that you'll ever find. It just takes time. It's not instant pudding. To have a car and the position that we're in... Hey, listen, nobody can guarantee a championship, nobody. But you have to be in the running for it.”

Tasca said he received some vocal motivation from Cruz Pedregon when his struggles were mounting early in the season.

“I think my buddy Pedregon pissed me off there in Norwalk because we're going to that race.” Tasca said. He said, ‘Tasca, if you don't get your stuff  together, you're not going to be part of the conversation. You know that, right?’ I said, ‘I do know that, okay?’ He goes, ‘And don't talk to me about those Monday runs anymore.’ He goes, ‘Monday national champion.’ I love him like a brother, but he got into me a little bit. I think that was a big turning point for us at that race. 

“Mike and Jon started to get aggressive with this new setup and the rest is history. We have a lot of work ahead of us, we have a lot of work tomorrow actually. But we'll be ready, we'll be ready come the championship time. I believe that. No, the truth be told, if I couldn't buy the parts... If I were in a place where we were burning through things that I needed, I'd be worried. But we have all the parts and pieces. We have all the clutches that we need to finish out this year if I won every single round from Indy to Pomona. No, I'm not worried about it at all. I'm actually thrilled about the success we've had, and I think that's going to carry. Because remember one thing, the more runs you make, the more you learn. The more rounds you go, the more runs you make. It's a vicious cycle. As long as you can afford it, right? I know a lot of teams that they get in trouble, where they win, and they run out of things. As long as you have the parts and pieces, winning, there ain't nothing wrong with that.” Tracy Renck


RACERS COUNTING POINTS, PLANNING FOR PLAYOFFS - Camping World Drag Racing Series drivers recognize that the task at hand centers on this weekend’s Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals at Brainerd International Raceway. But that isn’t stopping them from talking about the following race, at Indianapolis, and the Countdown to the Championship that kicks off just after that. 

Right now, the strategy filters through this annual northern Minnesota event. And some intriguing match-ups are set for the first round of runoffs Sunday in the Top Fuel and Funny Car classes. 

In the Top Fuel class, Austin Prock is 10 points out of the top 10 (behind No. 10-ranked Antron Brown) and has a first-round meeting with Billy Torrence. But Prock also will be keeping eye on the Brown-Clay Millican race, because No. 11-ranked Millican represents one of the obstacles Prock needs to clear if he is to make it into the top 10 and qualify for the Countdown on his own merit and not by simply having attended every race and made the minimum two qualifying passes. 

Ironically, that inclusive ruling is sometimes called “The Billy Torrence Rule,” because it’s a reaction the fact that Torrence proved more than once that a driver can skip races and still qualify for the Countdown and even land among the top five in the final standings. So the sanctioning body gave a break to the racers who attend every event on the schedule. And here Prock must face Billy Torrence himself in his effort not to use “The Billy Torrence Rule.”  (By the way, Torrence is no fan of the Countdown at all, referring to it as the “Loser Appreciation Program,” because drivers’ points are wiped out after the U.S. Nationals and replaced with a rather socialistic point scale to manipulate the competition to make it closer.)

Prock, who drives the Montana Brand / Rocky Mountain Twist Dragster, didn’t say simply that he’d like to have a good race day (which, incidentally, will be his 27th birthday). He said Saturday afternoon, “We made four consecutive competitive runs with no parts damage. We have all four runs to look at for tomorrow, and that’s the best position to be in. It's been a great weekend so far, and I would love to have a great points day tomorrow.” 

Third-place Justin Ashley is slightly more than 100 points in back of No. 2 Salinas, and he’ll have to eliminate his buddy Krista Baldwin if he’s to make up significant ground. Ashley and Baldwin have been friends and business associates since the days they made the transition from Nitro University to the Top Fuel class. 

But friends are for off the racetrack. Ashley said, “You start every season with one goal, and that is to win the Top Fuel championship. We picked up a win in the first race of the year and have continually improved our performance throughout the season. Going into Brainerd No. 3 in the point standings with a legitimate shot at gaining ground over the final two races of the regular season is a huge testament to the success of our program. Now that we are locked into the Countdown, we can simply focus on taking it one round at a time in Brainerd. 

Leah Pruett is sixth in the standings, Shawn Langdon seventh, and she has an 18-point advantage as they meet in Round 1 – in a rematch of the Denver final, which she won. (Her edge was 17 points entering the race, but she earned a single qualifying bonus point Friday night.)  

Another key pairing with playoff-seeding implications is the one between No. 2-ranked Mike Salinas and No. 4 Steve Torrence. 

The classic Tony Schumacher-Doug Kalitta race might resurrect those seemingly long-ago rivalries. But Schumacher has the chance to move up in the standings if he were to defeat Kalitta (who celebrated his 58th birthday Saturday) and reach the semifinal, as well.  

“This is one of those races that really, really matters, because Indy is next and that’s points-and-a-half,” Schumacher said. “So you need to be in the best position possible heading into Indy – because let me tell you, every point matters when you get into the playoffs. 

“Getting moved up a few spots to start the Countdown does matter. I’ve won championships and I’ve lost championships by less than one round. So don’t kid yourself into thinking that where you start the Countdown doesn’t matter.” 

Before the Countdown was established, Schumacher earned the 2006 championship by a mere 14 points over Doug Kalitta. Then, in the Countdown Era, Schumacher defeated Rod Fuller by 19 points to earn the title, and in 2009, he relegated Larry Dixon to runner-up by two points. On the flip side, Schumacher lost in 2012 to Antron Brown by seven points. That’s why he isn’t nonchalant about grabbing as many points as he can. 

On the Funny Car side of the Countdown, Robert Hight’s current lead isn’t really in jeopardy. But the monster match-up involves his teammate and boss, John Force, who’ll line up against Ron Capps in the first round. That sounds more like a final-round match, but they’re qualified fourth (Capps) and 13th (Force). 

Capps, ranked No. 3 in the standings, is trying to hold off No. 4 Force. Entering this event, they were separated by just six points. So the stakes are high Sunday when they square off against each other for the eighth time in 15 races this season. (They met in the first three races, and Sunday morning they will have raced one another three times in four events.) 

Jim Dunn Racing driver Jim Campbell, who expressed no qualms last year about participating in the Countdown via “The Billy Torrence Rule,” is qualified in the top 10 at the moment. He has a tough opponent in Round 1 in JR Todd, the No. 6-ranked racer who’s trying to pass No. 5 Bob Tasca while keeping No. 7 Cruz Pedregon at bay. 

Chad Green isn’t eligible to invoke the inclusion rule, as he hasn’t entered every race. So he’s going to try to beat quasi-teammate Tim Wilkerson in the first round Sunday and leapfrog No. 10 Campbell for that last Funny Car Countdown berth. But Wilkerson is No. 9 and wants to hold onto his spot. 

Blake Alexander is 22 points out of 10th place. If he could get past Alexis De Joria, he could move up. However, anyone who knows De Joria knows Alexander has a fight on his hands. Alexander’s boss, Jim Head, has said before that he’s not interested in the Countdown, but making the top 10 could give his marketing-partnership a boost, especially if the young shoe gets hot in the playoffs.  

Meanwhile, De Joria, the 2017 winner here, has her own plan. 

She said, “Our Bandero Toyota Supra team is currently sitting eighth in points but we’re only six points behind Cruz [Pedregon], and less than two rounds behind our Toyota teammate, JR Todd, who’s in sixth. The goal is to start the Countdown ranked as high as possible, so we need a good showing this weekend to put some more points on the board and put us in striking distance.” What’s more, she emboldened by her recent victory at the Night of Fire showcase at Norwalk, Ohio – and by the fact that she and her team are rested and ready for race day (“I’ve been in Brainerd since Tuesday and got to spend a much-needed rest-and-relaxation day with my team out on the lake”). On her side, too, is her history here. 

“Brainerd has been kind to me over the years. We won the race in 2017, and in 2014, I was actually the first Funny Car pilot to clock a sub-four-second run at BIR. We know that when the conditions are right, this track can hold big numbers, so hopefully the weather will hold up this weekend and we’ll be able to put on a good show for the fans,” De Joria said. 

Hight, who had to settle for the No. 2 starting slot this weekend when Matt Hagan swept in and took charge in Q4 Saturday, said, “It’s been a great weekend so far for this Auto Club Chevy team. These guys have been doing a great job, four really good runs down the racetrack. That last session, it just goes to show you how competitive this Funny Car class is this year. We know if we want to win another championship, we have to win at least two or three more races, and I really think today is proof of that. We have to stay consistent and keep it going, starting tomorrow in the first round.” He’ll take on Steven Densham. 

And no one is counting out Bob Tasca III, the No. 3 starter Sunday and opponent of Dale Creasy. 

As early as the Topeka race last weekend, Tasca was talking about the Countdown. Actually, he had it on his mind even before the Western Swing began – and before the Norwalk race that preceded it. He and FOX TV analyst/ former Funny car driver Tony Pedregon are the best of friends, and Pedregon gave Tasca a warning just before the Norwalk event. He told Tasca, who was mired in eighth place in the standings at the time, “You realize something? If you don’t get your s--- together, you ain’t going to be in the conversation.” 

Tasca said he understood that, as well, and Pedregon added, “The next few races are going to be a big deal.” 

They have been for Tasca. He said, “Four final rounds in the last five [races], two wins, two No. 1 qualifiers . . . I think we got our s--- in gear.” 

And in the final round against Force, the cagey 16-time champion ordered a lane swap at the last second. Tasca said, “Old Force, he pulled a little whoop-de-doop on us. He had us in the left lane, then he put us in the right lane at the last minute.” He said he told co-crew chief Jon Schaffer not to worry about lane assignment: “We’ll still kick his ass.” And Tasca did. 

So as race day at Brainerd unfolds Sunday and the U.S. Nationals cements the Countdown lineup, emotions are rich and motivations are strong. 

TAFC RACER GORDON CRASHES  - Veteran Top Alcohol Funny Car racer Doug Gordon was able to exit his Beta Motorcycles/Lucas Oil Camaro on his own power following his scary wall-banging accident during the first round of eliminations Saturday.

After conceding the rubber match to Shane Westerfield in their 29th meeting, Gordon’s Chevy crossed the center line in the wake of clocking a 247.52-mph speed. Just past the finish line, his car got out of shape, tipped over onto its side, skated on the side of its nose, and smashed hard into the opposite-lane (left) wall. The car jumped on top of the wall, nearly upside down, and slid for a few feet, and came to a halt with a tire hung on the barrier.

NHRA medical-team personnel examined Gordon on the site.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, CANOPY – The modern cockpit canopy is 10 years old this weekend. 

The bolt-on ballistic polycarbonate driver protection which Don Schumacher Racing designed and engineered with help from Aerodine Composites debuted at this race in 2012. And it remains optional – and for some teams, questionable. 

While some still aren’t convinced they would be safer with the canopy and others would argue that the device (particularly the latest edition) is an aerodynamic enhancement more than a life-saving component, others have said they wouldn’t race without it. 

The concept of a canopy didn’t originate with Don Schumacher Racing. Don Garlits had experimented with his own version of one back in the early 1990s, but he referred to his as a “Pro Glass” and “Plexiglas” canopy. And this current one, which adds about 30 pounds to a dragster (something “Big Daddy” most likely wouldn’t have enjoyed), is not a resurrection of Garlits’ shield/canopy. The bulletproof DSR design is built with Kevlar and carbon fiber, is inspired by F-16 fighter jet technology, and is considerably thicker. It also comes with side protection, the ability to open from both the inside and outside, a fire-suppression system, and a fresh-air system similar to those used in Funny Cars. 

Eight-time champion Tony Schumacher, the driver for whom the original canopy project was begun, naturally remains the biggest proponent. He said the canopy “is bulletproof. Parts are bouncing down the track. When Kenny Bernstein crashed [Round 2, October 1999, Memphis] and Scelzi crashed [Qualifying Session 1, June 2000, Joliet, Illinois] and their stuff was going in every direction over my car, I’d have killed to have [the canopy] on. Now I have an almost false sense of security, because it’s still a fast car. But it’s nice to keep that stuff out of your cockpit. 

“When Scelzi crashed against me, his nose came around and my blower belt came off or he’s in my cockpit. When Bernstein crashed, his mags were bouncing over my tire. And I’ve hit two birds. [The canopy] is to divert that. It’s not for speed. It’s not for decoration. It’s for safety,” Schumacher said. 

Even if privately, some drivers and crew chiefs challenge his assertion. 

One who spoke on the record was Richard Hogan, crew chief for Steve Torrence. Their Capco Dragster team never has used the canopy. But Hogan said he isn’t persuaded that the canopy isn’t an aerodynamic asset. He said of the latest version of the canopy that’s noticeably wider and flatter, “There’s not supposed to be, but there’s probably an aero advantage, because they let them change the design and they haven’t really policed it. At some point, you might have to run a canopy just because it hasn’t been policed properly. With the original version, I don’t think there was an advantage, but there is with the newer version.” 

Besides, Hogan said, a switch to one now, even if Torrence wanted that, would be too pricey: “We just never pursued it, because we’d have to change everything. We have five cars we’d have to retrofit... and the extra weight... It’d be a lot of work. And it’d probably cost $20,000 a car.”

Mike Green, now tuner for Justin Ashley’s Phillips Connect/Vita C Dragster, orchestrated the project starting in 2010, when he was crew chief for Tony Schumacher’s U.S. Army Dragster. And he still contends that the canopy gives the driver “a slight performance disadvantage because of the weight,” which he estimates has come down to “20 or 30 pounds” of additional weight on the car. 

“We made the initial one and took it to West Palm Beach, and it weighed, like, 100 pounds,” Green said. “But we put it on the car and Tony got in it and drove it and he said, ‘I like it.’ That was the first thing—if he didn’t like it, we were never going to do it. But he said, ‘I like it,’ so then we went to building a more competitive one, and it has just evolved, evolved, evolved. 

“It took a couple of years to get a competitive one [as lightweight as possible]. Then it took another year for the NHRA to let us run it. It was a year of aero testing and a lot of stuff to convince—I don’t necessarily think it was the NHRA but the rest of the competitors—that it wasn’t an advantage,” he said. 

After all, his motive for bringing the innovative boat-racing design to Don Schumacher’s attention was safety. Green said his interest turned from a “Hmm, this is interesting” mentality to one of “We ought to do something” following the 2010 racing death of Top Alcohol Dragster driver Mark Niver at Seattle. He said he thought, “If there’s anything we can do to make [the sport] safer, we need to probably do it. So that started the whole process.” 

Antron Brown certainly is qualified to speak to the effectiveness of the canopy after massive crashes in 2013 and 2014, and he vouched for it. 

Following his second-round accident at the 2013 Winternationals – when his engine exploded at the end of a 308-mph pass, the car broke apart in fiery fury, and he ended up on his side in the sand – Brown said, “The windshield is five-eighths-of-an-inch thick. Nothing got to me. When I hit the sand trap, I saw stones flying all over the place, but I didn't get dusty. Nothing got into me. It really, really did its job. Thank God that canopy is on our car, because when we hit that sand trap it really kept everything away from me and the fire away from me. I don't know what would've happened if we would've had [the traditional, open-cockpit] set-up on the front of the car. 

The following May, at Atlanta, the three-time champion testified that the canopy protected him as advertised following a similar-looking wreck in Friday night qualifying. 

Another beneficiary of the canopy is Leah Pruett. She escaped unhurt from her wicked airborne accident at St. Louis in October 2020. Still shaken, she expressed her thanks for the canopy. 

“Obviously, they work very well, and they have success with them,” Scrappers Racing crew chief Rob Flynn said. 

His team-owner/driver, Mike Salinas, doesn’t race with a canopy affixed to his dragster. Flynn said, “All the teams I’ve worked with, it’s just not something they ran. It’s never been a [topic of] discussion. I think it’s a personal preference. It seems good either way. If you talk to Antron, he’ll tell you stories where parts would have hit him if he didn’t have the canopy. So that’s a wonderful thing. But other people, if it’s not what they choose to do, then that’s fine also.” 

That’s why the canopy isn’t mandatory. And that doesn’t bother Green, who stands by the device that he spearheaded, with cooperation from his then-assistant Neal Strausbaugh, and Joe Veyette in 2010, in partnership with Aerodine Composites’ Craig McCarthy. 

Green said, “A canopy dragster is safer than a non-canopy dragster.” But he shrugged and said, “When they first saw it, some people said, ‘I don’t want to drive that,’ and that’s the way they’ve been. It’s a personal choice. If they feel more comfortable driving without it, then that’s what they’re going to do. It’s nothing we planned on having every car do. We just wanted to have a safer car for Tony Schumacher. That’s what we set out to do.”

Team owner-driver Josh Hart doesn’t use the cockpit canopy on his R+L Carriers Dragster, but he said he’d like to make a test pass in a canopy car. 

“I’ve heard they’re a lot quieter and [the ones who swear by the canopy] say they feel a lot safer. In Leah’s case, I’d say everything in that incident helped. I’d love to try one. I’m open. That’d be awesome,” he said. 

For now, at least, Hart prefers the open cockpit. He said, “Based on what little experience I have with it, they say you can [find added performance] a little bit more through the middle [of the run without the canopy] because the car’s not as rigid. Brittany Force kind of makes that an anomaly, because she uses a canopy and she throws down at every racetrack. Maybe that was a rumor at the beginning of the canopy’s life.” 

Hart said he keeps thinking about Brown’s crash, “where he was upside down or up against the wall. That’d be relatively scary. Then you’re kind of stuck until everybody gets to you, whereas we’ve got a little bit better chance of getting out with an open cockpit. But let’s be honest: If something happened at 330 miles an hour, all bets are off, anyway.” 

And so it goes. Tony Schumacher has heard all of the objections, and he is unwavering in his arguments for it. 

“I don’t care if it looks ugly. The fact is I feel safer. It’s the smartest thing you can put on a car until we figure out something smarter,” Schumacher said.

“People say, ‘What if you’re on fire?’ IF my car is on fire and IF I’m knocked out and IF Safety Safari takes the weekend off and IF my fire bottles don’t work, I might get hot. This car goes 330 mph. I put on a firesuit. I get in a roll cage, and I wear a seat belt, because it’s a very fast race car and there’s a risk. I understand that. I’ve broken cars in half, and I don’t want to be on fire, but I trust in my safety equipment. It’s so much better than it used to be.” 

Green said in retrospect, “We didn’t have a big budget, but we did fire tests. Especially when we were developing this, there were way more people getting burned from fire coming in the cockpit from the engine. We have to run a fire system. I wish every dragster had a fire system, because the fuel line goes right between your legs and the engine’s full of oil and the driver can get on fire. I really think it makes sense for all dragsters to have one.” It’s not mandatory for open-cockpit cars. 

“I think it was a good thing,” Green said, “definitely a worthwhile project.” 

HEY, IS THAT? - Apparently drag racing had an interesting spectator walking the pits at Brainerd International Raceway. (Mark Rebilas Photo)
YOU GO GIRL - Why is third-generation drag racer Krista Baldwin smiling more than usual? In today's third qualifying session, she ran 313.07, her fastest speed of the season. 

MORE HAPPY NEWS THAN NOT FOR HART - Josh Hart, owner-driver of the R+L Carriers Dragster, had been seeing progress in his program.  And he said before qualifying opened Friday that he wanted “to come off the hauler and start posting quick runs. The cooler temperatures will be more favorable in Brainerd for sure. We want to come out strong and keep the pressure on the other teams to keep up with us.” 

It didn’t exactly go like that. 

Instead, Hart ended up making what he called “the walk of shame.” His car was pushed from the starting line in the first qualifying session. He didn’t get to make his first-ever run on the BIR dragstrip because of a problem with the safety tether, he said. He rebounded later Friday afternoon with a 3.746-second pass that shot him to the top of the order for a few minutes. He ended up seventh overnight. 

“We had our first failure ever in my career and had to do the walk of shame there because of a safety tether,” Hart said late Friday. “So, these safety systems are awesome. I trust it, so just had to look forward, and I'm glad that we were able to go .74. I mean, hopefully it sticks, but right now, I just want to go A to B. I mean, so very grateful.” 

The news got even better Saturday for the Ocala, Fla., businessman. He finished Saturday’s first qualifying session, the third of four, in second place, a mere seven-thousandths of a second slower than Brittany Force. In making his 3.668-second run at 332.34 mph, Hart recorded his career-best elapsed time and speed. (His previous bests were 3.696 seconds last year at Bristol, Tenn., and 332.10 mph at Phoenix this February.) 

“We spent a few races chasing some gremlins and we are still a young team overall,” he said. “My crew chief, Ron Douglas, who is also my business partner, and I have worked together to really keep everyone positive and moving in the right direction. This is a team sport, and I might be the one hitting the throttle. But there are 10 guys on the starting line that contributed to every win light this R+L Carriers Top Fuel dragster turns on.” 

“We want to compete and win against the best of the best, which is why we are racing in the Camping World NHRA Drag Racing Series,” Hart said. “Every race we feel like we have a race car that can qualify at the top of the field and win the race on Sunday. We have come close this season, and I know we can get the job done. This sport is very unforgiving, and you can get behind the eight ball pretty quickly. We are moving the right direction.” 

Hart will face No. 15 qualifier Scott Farley in the opening round of Sunday’s eliminations, which are scheduled to start at 11 a.m., local time (Central Time).



VIKINGS INSPIRING – It’s no secret that Snap-on Dodge Charger owner-driver Cruz Pedregon is a Las Vegas Raiders fan. But after a visit to the Minnesota Vikings training camp at Eagan, Minn., Thursday, and a conversation with defensive end Danielle Hunter, the two-time Funny Car champion has found an NFC team to cheer for in hopes of a Super Bowl match-up with his AFC Raiders.

More importantly, Pedregon said he was rejuvenated by watching the Vikings prepare for their season – just as he is getting ready for the Camping World Drag Racing Series’ Countdown to the Championship that begins in four weeks.

Pedregon, in northern Minnesota for this weekend’s Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals at Brainerd International Raceway,

"I had a lot of people on social like, ‘Oh, Cruz is a Raiders guy.’ I am. But I'm also an NFL fan. I think, for me, they're on the NFC side, so I don't really have an NFC team I really root for. But guess what? It is now officially the Minnesota Vikings on the NFC side,” he said. “They could meet up. That'd be a heck of a Super Bowl, the Vikings and the Raiders. They could meet up. It could come down to that. Hopefully they'll have a good season. I know the Raiders will be right there. But it was a super-fun event. I had a good time.”

He said, “It got me all pumped up, man, to be able to go up there and see how another team prepares. Those guys were out there hitting, preparing. To be able to watch all these athletes prepare for their season with super fun for me pumps me up for our for our weekend this weekend here up here at Brainerd.

“I got pretty pumped up just from being there and seeing all those guys prepare for the season. They're working on their craft, just like we all do, whether it's prepping the car or getting the reps and making test runs and all the runs we make. I was telling some of the guys, this is, I believe, our sixth or seventh straight weekend of racing, because we did Norwalk [Night Under Fire]. So for us, there's a lot of repetition, and we're getting into the season like some of them,” Pedregon said. “And so we're pumped up. We're ready to go.”

Pedregon said Hunter “was super-cool,” and he said it was “super-cool” to be pleasantly surprised “to find out that he's a NHRA fan. He’s a racer himself, does a little bit of amateur racing on the side.”

According to an ESPN’s Courtney Cronin, the Jamaica-born Hunter occasionally competes here at Brainerd International Raceway in his Nissan GT-R Nismo, a machine that carries a price tag of more than $200,000. He received driving instruction for racing at high speeds and, she said, “careening around corners the way he bends around tackles.” 

Hunter shares his racing passion with Vikings linebacker teammate Eric Kendricks, who is one of Bridgestone’s NFL Athlete Ambassadors and has a Fox-body Mustang 5.0, a Dodge Viper, and a Porsche GT3 RS in his garage.

Pedregon, who admits to being a bit particular when it comes to keeping his race shop tidy, said he was impressed with the Twin Cities Orthopedics (TCO) Performance Center, where the Vikings train.

His first impression upon walking into the facility was “Wow,” he said. “It was a major wow factor for me. On a scale from one to 10, I was expecting about a five on a scale from one to 10. I saw a 10. That thing, they're buttoned up, is the word term I like to use. Everything was manicured. You can tell the ownership and management are on the right track. They definitely invest in that team, that's for sure. Everything looked neat and tidy and organized. That's a good thing. I'm a proponent of that myself, just looking at everything. But yeah, it had the wow factor for sure. They weren't lacking anything, as far as I could see.”

He said he also was impressed with Hunter and how the two-time Pro Bowler takes care of his body.

“I was told by several guys he's their top defensive player. When I was standing there talking to him, you could tell he put some time in on that body of his, and he's dedicated to his craft because you talk about . . . I don't use this term ever, cut or chiseled. Now, that guy was chiseled, head to toe, man. Really good attitude, positive guy. I was very impressed by him. But you could tell that guy puts in the time,” Pedregon said.

“I know there's probably going to be a handful of those guys that aren't even going to make the team. So they're out there fighting for their playoff football lives. Yeah, it's definitely like anything in sports, whether it's racing . . . that's athletics more than racing. But their race car, their clutch combination, is all in their body and their skill set. They bring their body and mind to the party and see how it fares. So they definitely have to take care of it.”

Pedregon said he made one keen observation, one regarding safety: "The other thing they had for safety – and I'd never seen it before live . . . I've seen it lately, just watching the NFL – but they have these extra pads on their helmets to protect their heads, which I think is a good thing, like extra padding. You could tell [that], like any sport, they're advancing to making it safer. There's still an element of danger there, but it was good to see that. But they were out there full-tilt.”

In the past few years, the NFL community has increased its awareness of the long-term effects of concussions and its attendant CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) that causes loss of brain function. And Pedregon said he has wondered about a possible parallel to the dangers of head trauma in drag racing.

“Believe it or not, I've thought about that,” he said. “What my experience has been, and it's something that I do think about from time to time, I did a tire test for Firestone when I was driving Alcohol Funny Cars back when I drove for a team named Miner Brothers out of Northern California. I remember the tires were very soft, and I did probably 35 or 40 runs at Houston over two days. I had such severe tire shake that I don't know about CTE, but it sure gave me neck complications that I still I think exist to this day. Now, I don't know enough about it to know if that gets into the CTE category.

“I read a thing about where – Brett Favre talked about it – where you see a light and you see . . . I don't know that it's that severe, but I know it's probably not a good thing over time. But I think the alcohol cars, at least from my experience, nitro cars don't shake near as bad because they usually will smoke the tires. But alcohol cars, man, I remember I had some real doozies back in the day,” Pedregon said. “But I sure hope not for everybody's sake, that's for sure, that drive these cars over a period of time. But I don't know enough about it to even suggest that or not.

“But I do think about it, believe me. But I think about those. I think about “Big Daddy” Don Garlits. I think about Don “The Snake” Prudhomme. Those guys walk around. They still look in pretty good health to me,” he said. “Yeah, it probably has its nitro fumes and this, that, and the other. Probably has its challenges as far as health-wise. But man, those guys look pretty healthy to me, especially when you see them walking around interacting. Heck, Garlits is still racing. Prudhomme's racing off-road cars. So makes me feel a little bit better. Let's put it that way.”

Pedregon is concentrating on today’s concerns, and they center on the upcoming Countdown. Like the Vikings and all of the NFL teams, drag racers want to be at peak performance for the playoffs. And Pedregon said he’s encouraged heading into his most effective time of the year.

“Yeah, we weren't our best earlier in the season. We've had some stinkers, for sure. But I feel like we're heading into the time of the season we ran well last year, and I think the tracks we're going to. I'm feeling good about how things are shaping up. We have a new car. We're starting to get that dialed in. So yeah, our playoff's similar to football. That's when you want to be at your best.

"I had a great conversation with the team after Topeka about our plans for Brainerd,” he said. “We had one of the best cars [here] last year, so we’re going back to our notes and looking at everything that got us to the finals in 2021. Weather and temperature should be very similar to last year, so I'm confident that we'll get the Snap-on Tools Dodge turned around.

We have definitely dropped off a bit, but this is a new car and it's going to take some time to get the bugs worked out. It has some differences from the previous car, like even the seatbelts are updated. Not only from the mechanical standpoint, but even driving the car. We have a prototype steering to help it drive better, but it's just different from what I'm used to. We're coming up to the time of year where we're going to have to really buckle down here. We've got Brainerd and then we've got the biggest race of the year in Indy with the Dodge Power Brokers U.S. Nationals coming up. Overall, it’s a good learning curve for us. I'm confident we'll get things sorted out and be ready for the Countdown.”

DRAMA BY DENSHAM – Pro qualifying started Friday with a near-bang.

In the first pairing, Funny Car racer Steven Densham barely missed making contact with Dale Creasy. Right after his launch in the right lane, Densham’s Midwest Factory Finishes Ford Mustang shook the tires, crossed the center line at about a 90-degree angle, and dipped in behind Creasy’s TekPak / Beaver Shredding Dodge.

No one was hurt, but Densham received no elapsed time, while Creasy was 12th in the provisional line-up with a 5.746-second elapsed time.

“It started to move, and then all of a sudden, I'm facing the wall,” Densham, a schoolteacher from San Diego, said. “So it's like, ‘Oh, boy, I better turn right now.’ But for the most part, my team is doing a good job. But, I mean, Dad is the only one at home pretty much working on it. So as a part-time team, it makes it a little bit difficult to make sure everything is ready and everything else like that. But we got really good guys. We’ll get it fixed. For Far West Traders and Midwest Factory Finishes, we're here for them, and they support us as a small team. So we try to get everything done, and we'll be back. We'll fix it.”

Densham said he wasn’t sure right away what caused the mishap. But he said, “We think a little bit of oil might've got pushed out through a valve covering in the head. I think it blew the backside of the fuel rail off and allowed the oil to come through there and got on the tires. So that's what I'm thinking.”

FOR TORRENCE, NO WINS, NO WORRIES – Top Fuel contender Steve Torrence, still seeking his first victory in this fourth straight reign of the Top Fuel class, has no intention of playing defense in his Capco Contractors Dragster.

“Tony and AB [Antron Brown] have won the last two races, and there are at least a half-dozen others who legitimately could win this thing,” the 2021Brainerd Top Fuel winner said of the championship.

“But these Capco boys are still ‘bad to the bone’ and I wouldn’t swap places with anyone out there.  All I can tell everyone is if you want the title, you better bring your ‘A game’ ‘cause we’re gonna bring ours,” Torrence said.

The Kilgore, Texas, native reached his 79th final round last Sunday at Topeka but lost to close friend Antron Brown.

“It has been frustrating.  When you’re used to winning 10, 11 races a year, to be shut out for this long, you know, is agonizing,” Torrence said. “But we knew we needed to take a big step to stay competitive. It’s just taken a little longer than we wanted to get a handle on things and to get the driver and the race car both doing what they’re supposed to at the same time. [Last Sunday’s performance] was a big step forward, and I can’t feel too bad since my brother [Brown] won his first race as a team owner.

“I think we can still pick up a couple positions [in the standings during these final two races of the regular season], especially with extra points at Indy,” he said. At the Labor Day Dodge U.S. Nationals, the sanctioning body awards one-and-a-half times as many points as at any other event in the regular season], and Torrence reiterated, “I still have all the faith in the world in these Capco Boys.”

Dad Billy Torrence is making his fourth appearance of the season. He posted a 3.762-second elapsed time off the trailer that was just two-thousandths of a tick slower than provisional No. 1 qualifier Austin Prock’s time (3.760).

PROCK’S PROGRAM PROGRESSING – Austin Prock, who’ll celebrate his 27th birthday on race day, just might be seeing his luck turn for the better.

The last time fans heard from the Montana Brand / RMT Dragster driver from the John Force Racing organization, he was apologizing at Topeka in the opening round for the latest in a string of engine explosions: "I'm lucky to have good teachers in my corner. My dad definitely gives me the right attitude. He told me before the run [that] I have to believe in myself. And he told me to go up there and run a .040 light, and that's what I did. Unfortunately, I have a lot of practice riding these things [engine detonations] out when it's blown up and spilled oil out of it, but I tried to get stopped as soon as possible. Really want to apologize to the fans sitting up there in the stands, thanks for coming out in this heat. I hope you enjoy the show. Sorry we couldn't put on a very good one for you."

He didn’t have to apologize to anyone Friday in the first qualifying session. He took command of the field with a 3.760-second pass at 326.79 mph. That was enough to knock Billy Torrence from the tentative No. 1 position by two-thousandths of a second and fend off Mac Tools Dragster driver Doug Kalitta, who was third early Friday with a 3.810-seond elapsed time.

“After a few tough weekends, I'm really looking forward to Brainerd,” Prock said before the event kicked off. “We have hit the reset button in our pits and are going to conditions we are most familiar with. The brain trust at JFR have been putting their heads together to make the Montana Brand / Rocky Mountain Twist Dragster a real threat this week, and I believe it's going to pay off. I'm going to be on my game and drive with heart like I know how to do. And we are going to see how we fare. We have all the parts of the puzzle to end up with a Wally. We owe it to our crew that has been busting their tails week after week and would love to celebrate in a big way this weekend.”

MILESTONES AWAITING HIGHT – Robert Hight is on the verge of adding a few more accomplishments to his resumé.

His next victory in the Auto Club of Southern California Chevy Camaro will be his 60th overall.

“I want the 60th,” Hight said, “but I know it’s going to take win number 62 or 63 to really get the job done [earn the championship]. We’re on track, and we just need to get keep at it.”

Fifty-three also is a significant number for the Funny Car points leader this weekend. He’ll turn 53 Saturday, when he hopes to secure his fourth top starting spot of the year and 75th in all.  

The next victory also will be Hight’s seventh of the season, and it will make him only the sixth Funny Car driver to win as many as seven races in a single season. Boss John Force has done so on seven different occasions. Others – all of whom have done it just once – are Don Prudhomme, Kenny Bernstein, Ron Capps, and Jack Beckman.

Of course, Hight is trying to become just the fourth driver to win as many as four NHRA Funny Car championships. If he can hold onto his lead through the next eight races (or lead after least the eighth one), he’ll join Force, Kenny Bernstein, and Don Prudhomme.

“This Auto Club team is staying strong. We know the competition is touch out here. One weekend can change a lot,” Hight said. “We’ve stayed consistent, and we know we need a couple more wins to win the championship this year. I haven’t won much in Brainerd [just in 2015], so I think I’m due to visit the winners circle here this weekend.”

CAPPS LISTS BIR’S STRENGTHS – This Lucas Oil Nationals is the one race that drivers anticipate with excitement, Ron Capps said:  “It’s that time of the year. Most of us racers, me for sure, have always grabbed the red pen and circled the Brainerd race on the schedule.”

Now that he’s here, Capps started his Friday activities at Brainerd by cruising the Zoo, the facility’s famous (or infamous) campground, in search of the best campground set-up. Campers were encouraged to bring their most creative ideas to showcase their BIR spirit. The winner of the contest earned a Dometic Patrol 20 cooler and drinkware, thanks to Dometic Outdoor, as well as some NAPA team swag

“The Zoo is always fun, and the whole atmosphere surrounding the racetrack is just a blast,” Capps said.

The Carlsbad, Calif., owner-driver of the NAPA Auto Car Toyota Supra said, “There are quite a few reasons in particular why I love going to Brainerd. My wife’s family is from that area, so it’s nice to be able to get to race where you’re surrounded by family. And I’ve been lucky enough to win that race quite a few times and have them join us in the winners circle.”

Capps has won here six times (in 1998, 2001, 2012-2014, and 2019) and has been runner-up three times (in 1997, 2009, and 2011).

However, Capps acknowledged something few have: “One thing that I think that gets lost when you talk about Brainerd is how good this facility and the track surface is, and how quick teams can run there.”

He was excited about the opportunity to have four qualifying sessions, a rarity since 2019. That, coupled with overcast conditions [which turned into rainy delays] that have been a stark departure from the molten conditions at Seattle and Topeka, heightened his excitement for this weekend.

And certainly not the least of the enticements is the realization that with cooler track temperatures, this racing surface, Capps said, “can surely hold big power.” He said, “That excites me with our NAPA AutoCare team, and Guido and Medlen [crew chiefs Dean Antonelli and John Medlen]. It’s so fun to drive our NAPA hot rod because we can throw down at any given time, especially when the conditions are this good. And I think we are as consistent as anyone when the conditions heat up. We could see both of that show up in Brainerd this weekend, and I’m very much looking forward to this race.”

Already a winning team owner two times over this year (Las Vegas, Bristol), Capps is third in the standings, 89 points behind No. 2-ranked Matt Hagan and looking to lock in his berth in the Countdown.

LOTS ON LINE FOR FORCE – If Top Fuel points leader Brittany Force can keep her position through this race and the next, at Indianapolis, she will become the first driver other than Steve Torrence to win the regular-season championship since 2016.

The Monster Energy Dragster driver is coming off an uncharacteristic first-round loss at Topeka. It was just her second opening-round defeat this year (since the March Gatornationals at Gainesville, Fla.). She was extra-happy to rebound at Brainerd.

“We've had success at Brainerd International Raceway in the past with track records, a No. 1 qualifier, and a win. We have two races until the Countdown begins, and this weekend we are making sure we'll be ready when it all kicks off.”

Force celebrated her lone victory here 2016. Three years later, she was No. 1 qualifier. And last August, she set the track speed record at 334.90 mph.

GOODYEAR SAYS TIRES CAN HANDLE 340 MPH – Robert Hight used this Brainerd International Raceway 1,000-foot course to set the national-record elapsed time at 3.793 seconds in 2017 – the same race at which he set the track speed record at 338.00 mph.

Hight happens to have six of the top 10 speeds, including the fastest in the sport’s history – a 339.87 from that same year, at Sonoma, Calif.

The fastest a Top Fuel dragster has gone is 338.17 mph, by Hight’s John Force Racing colleague, Brittany Force. She recorded that in 2019 at Las Vegas. And she happens to own nine of the top 10 speeds in Top Fuel history. Her 338-flat at Las Vegas this spring ranks as No. 2 on the dragsters’ all-time performance chart, while that same clocking is only 10th-best in the Funny Car class.

And Funny Car’s Ron Capps challenged for the fastest-ever with a 339.28 from the 2019 event at Reading, Pa.’s Maple Grove Raceway.

It all points to quicker and faster elapsed times and speeds, causing many to wonder how fast is too fast and whether the huge rear Goodyear slicks can handle the 340-mph speeds that some racers are predicting could happen during this year’s Countdown to the Championship.

One entity is not concerned at all – Goodyear.

Goodyear representatives Todd Rogers and Bill Bedont said the current tire technology can handle the performance gains.

“We don’t really have any concerns the way things stand now,” Bedont, Goodyear’s lead engineer for drag and sport racing said. “We have two race engineers who go to the track every [race]. We haven’t seen anything so far that has any red flags on our end. We monitor that week to week, and we talk to NHRA constantly. We test every year, throughout the year, multiple times.

“We also have a couple variations of this tire on the shelf that we feel comfortable rolling out if we needed to,” he said. “But we’re comfortable with what we have right now. We’ve been running this tire since 2015.”

Rogers, sales account manager, agreed.

“We really don’t have any concerns with where we are right now with the speeds. We’re comfortable with what we see. At Sonoma, with Brittany [Force] going 337 a couple of runs, her tires looked great.” He said a pair of here tires from Sonoma ran at the next race, at Seattle.

Moreover, Bedont and Rogers said that has a new-compound tire in reserve but doesn’t feel any need to haul it out right now.

“We’ve done testing. We’re always testing. Every season we try to come out with another development of the tire, whether we change sidewall construction for tread compound, trying to stiffen up the tire, make it more robust,” Bedont said. “We tested last January. So we have another tire sitting on the shelf, but there’s no reason to introduce it now. Teams have inventories of tires. No need to make a change now.”

Rogers said, “We have no plans to change it, but we always want to be learning, because everything constantly changes. Whether it’s clutch disc or whatever these crew chiefs are doing, they’re pretty smart guys.”

So this eight-year-old edition of the slicks is holding up just fine, they said.

But at what point would Goodyear engineers become concerned?

“I don’t know. We’re not there yet,” Rogers said.

Bedont said, “We are not worried about it. We have the technology to stay ahead of where they are. And we work very closely with the teams. We monitor every tire that comes down the track. We follow sequence numbers. We track the life of the tire so that if there are any issues we can go back to the teams and work with the teams or work with NHRA to see if somebody’s doing something different.”

Make that two entities unconcerned. The drivers certainly aren’t fretting about it. It’s in their nature to want to go quicker and faster.

“They’re wired that way,” Bedont said.

Capps said that when the Countdown starts in September at Maple Grove Raceway, it’s possible someone in the nitro ranks will break the 340-mph barrier.

“You might see 340 this year when we get to Maple Grove [a facility known for its mineshaft conditions] and places like that. I’ve got confidence in Goodyear. I don’t see an issue there. We can’t go much faster,” Capps said. “They’ll do something to keep [speeds] down, I’m sure. I don’t have an issue with worrying about the tire.”

Same for Hight.

“We don’t have any tire issues,” the Funny Car points leader said. “Goodyear gives us a great tire. We’re putting more runs on tires now than we ever have in the past – ever. As a driver, I feel very, very confident and safe in one of these cars.”

Tire capability isn’t the hot topic among crew chiefs, Capps said.

“From what I’ve gathered, talking to crew chiefs, it’s not tires – it’s shutdown [room] to stop the cars,” he said. “It’s not just the short shutdowns at some of these tracks. There’s a lot more [factors] that adds to it, especially with the weight of the cars. It’ll take another few years and the crew chiefs will figure out a way around it.”

Hight knows that, too: “I commend NHRA – and trust me, I want to go as quick and fast as I can. It’s what this sport’s always been about, being quicker and faster, setting records. That’s the goal. That’s what you work for.” On the other hand, he said, “They also have made it where it’s really, really close, good racing. It’s a lot of fun, and the fans that sit in the stands are treated to some really close side-by-side racing. I’m not knocking their rules at all.”

As soon as the speeds started looking like those of a runaway truck, the “NHRA changed the rules – made us stand our headers up and gave us a different rev limiter. And we haven’t even come close to that since,” Hight said.

Hight even predicted, “I don’t think you’re going to see dragsters go 339 with the rev limiter the way it is. I mean, it’s pure physics. RPM is a function of speed, and when you have a rev limiter that’s taking timing out the way it’s doing, a dragster’s on the rev limiter at half-track, at the eighth-mile. I don’t think you’re going to see 339 miles an hour.”

Of course, winners on the dragstrip are determined by elapsed time rather than speed. But speed still is what makes the crowd go wild. Maybe it’s just the number everyone can relate to more. As far as Goodyear is concerned right now, the Dave Grubnics, Mike Greens, Dean Antonellis, and Jimmy Procks can bring it on.   The tires can take it.