2022 NHRA U.S. NATIONALS - SPORTSMAN NOTEBOOK
FINAL NOTEBOOK - ENGELS POCKETS BIG MONEY, BO KNOWS SUPER GAS
MONEY TALKS - Doug Engels always knew how prestigious and lucrative the Dodge Power Brokers NHRA U.S. Nationals could be. Monday afternoon, as he beat Frankie Aragona Jr. in the final round of Competition Eliminator, he learned another valuable lesson.
Engels, who lives in Watertown, South Dakota, and races NHRA's Division 5, learned how much NHRA D4 racer Rodger Brogdon loves Competition Eliminator. Instead of pocketing just $5000 and contingencies for the monumental win, thanks to Rodger Brogdon and the Rooftec Comp Eliminator Bonus Fund, he can write $15,000 in the ledger.
"Roger's the best thing that ever happened to Comp Eliminator," Engels said. It's just unbelievable what that program has put up. You can't even explain it. A racer who loves a class so much that he's going to take that kind of money out of your pocket and pay these guys and not only Comp, he pays the other classes too."
But at Indy, it was his beloved Comp cars that took home the prize. Weeks before the event, Brogdon, who was entered for the event, revealed he'd pay $10,000 in bonus money to the winner, and if the driver was entered into the Rooftec D4 Comp Bonus fund, the amount would double.
Brogdon became ill the days before the event with a cold and opted to stay home in Tomball, Texas.
Engels, who entered the event as the No. 1 qualifier, and after securing a first-round bye run, battled through four more rounds, taking out Keith Mawhee, Michelle Costa, Mike DePalma, and Jason Coan to reach the final round.
With a broad smile, Engels admitted he already has plans for the generous cash.
"That means I can almost buy a couple more parts," Engels said. "Some fuel. When it costs $600 to fill up the truck before you leave home, money doesn't go far. This deal is so awesome. So is Rodger."
THE WINNERS - Monday's final results from the 68th annual Dodge Power Brokers NHRA U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis. The race is the 16th of 22 in the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series:
SUNDAY NOTEBOOK - STANFIELD LEADS THE PACK INTO MONDAY'S FINAL ELIMINATIONS
CHA-CHING - There are 25 Competition Eliminator entries still in line to win some bonus bucks. The Rooftec D4 Comp Eliminator Bonus program will extend from the confines of the South Central region and all the way to the revered NHRA U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis. The winner of the Indy Comp Eliminator title will gain an extra $10,000.bonus, If the winner is currently qualified for the 2022 Comp Eliminator Bonus Fund. the amount will double thanks to RoofTec and the D4 Comp Eliminator 2022 Bonus Fund and its Sponsors.
THE LEADER OF THE PACK - Aaron Stanfield and his Stanfield Racing Engines Chevy COPO Camaro secured the No. 1 qualifier spot and a first round victory today in the Constant Aviation Factory Stock Showdown class at the Dodge Power Brokers NHRA U.S. Nationals.
Stanfield, who was the runner-up at the 2021 U.S. Nationals, took over the No. 1 position during the final qualifying session on Saturday with a 7.740-second pass at 177.16 mph.
“I knew we had a little extra power in the Chevrolet coming into the race. We’d been working really hard in the shop. We’ve got some new SamTech guys on the team and that’s been helping us this year too. It’s definitely cool for them to get to come here and experience some success,” said Stanfield. “That first qualifying run through us for a loop, so naturally we had to back off a little bit the second run and that third run we just let it rip.”
Stanfield went on to defeat Kim Shirley and his Kim’s Autobody COPO Camaro in the first round. Stanfield would run a 7.798-second pass at 177.30 mph bettering Shirley’s 8.219 at 167.76. In the second round, Stanfield will face Lenny Lottig.
“This, the U.S. Nationals, it’s the race to win. It’s the most prestigious race on our schedule and it would be very special to get the win,” said Stanfield, who is also competing in Pro Stock and is qualified No. 6. “We were close to getting the job done last year. We just want to try to get it done in both cars this year.”
As the most recent winner, Bill Skillman and his Ray Skillman COPO Camaro still carry the $1,000 bounty thanks to the Constant Aviation Factory Stock Showdown Bounty Program. Skillman, who qualified No. 5 with a 7.831-second pass at 177.14 mph, won the first round over Lindsay Wheelock with a 7.775-second pass at 178.02 mph to Wheelock’s 10.182 at 138.20 after spinning the tires at the hit. In the second round, Skillman will race against defending event champion Jesse Alexandra.
The battle between Chevrolet COPO Camaros, Ford Cobra Jets and Dodge Challenger Drag Paks continues with the second round of eliminations at the Dodge Power Brokers NHRA U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park Monday at 11:50 a.m..
First Round Results:
No. 13 Lenny Lottig def. No. 12 Ricky Hord
No. 9 David Davies def. No. 16 Geoff Turk
No. 5 Bill Skillman def. No. 20 Dustin Wheelock
No. 3 Mark Pawuk def. No. 22 Richard Bierie
No. 4 Conner Statler def. No. 21 Don Belles
No. 2 David Barton def. No. 23 Jason Dietsch
No. 1 Aaron Stanfield def. No. 24 Kim Shirley
No. 6 Anthony Troyer def. No. 19 Lindsay Wheelock
No. 7 Doug Hamp def. No. 18 Alan Scruggs
No. 10 Dan Condon def. No. 15 Lee Hartman
No. 11 Warren Walcher def. No. 14 David Janac
No. 8 Jesse Alexandra def. No. 17 Scott Libersher
A GRAND OL' TIME - Even steady rain showers on Saturday afternoon at the Dodge Power Brokers NHRA U.S. Nationals couldn’t dampen the enthusiasm for the $120,000 Jeg’s All-Stars event. Under the lights, the program came to completion by crowning champions in all categories, from Top Alcohol Dragster to Super Street.
The NHRA’s Northeast Division [D1] also won its eighth overall title, finishing ahead of the Southeastern Division [D2]. D1, D2, and North Central Divisions [D3] are tied for most Jegs team titles.
Of all the winners, Julie Nataas probably experienced the one victory people will be talking about for a while. She beat Joey Severance on both ends of the track with a winning 5.586 elapsed time.
“I stepped on the gas pedal and shook the tires,” Nataas said. "This is the JEGS Allstars. I wanted to do everything I could to win. So I pedaled it, and a second later, I had the body in my lap. This is weird. I hope we can fix it.”
Yes, you read that correctly. The body panels of her Randy Meyer Racing Top Alcohol Dragster came off her dragster during the course of the race.
“I think I saw the win light when I crossed the finish line because that’s when the body of my car kind of flew out of my cockpit,” Nataas explained. “But before that, I thought, ‘It’s over. I’m done because clearly, something is happening.”
“I wasn’t sure if I was going to go upside down or where.”
The Top Alcohol Funny Car division didn’t have as much mayhem but had plenty of excitement.
Kyle Smith picked up the Funny Car win, stopping DJ Cox, 5.507, 258.07 to 5.571, 241.63.
“I’m relieved,” Smith said. “Last year, we went to the final, and the driver didn’t do his job. I had a little pressure this year to win it for the team. They’ve got this PC Disposal, Mel Hamilton Ford Mustang flying, and we’re just looking to build on it the rest of the year.”
David Eaton drove his AA/P Bantam roadster to the Comp Eliminator title, stopping veteran Doug Engels. Although Engels was first off the starting line, it was Eaton who drove around for the win with a 6.799, -0.421 when Engles lifted early.
“I’m feeling awesome! This is quite an experience,” Eaton said. “What JEGS puts on here, giving back to the sportsman racers, it’s a thrill. It’s such a nice thing to have them do something like that. This is something I’ll never forget. I’ve been to this event a fair amount of times, but I’ve never won it. This is special.”
Division 2 Super Stock standout Mike Crutchfield showed off his driving skills, scoring another Jegs All-Stars title by stopping Pete Peery. It was over at the hit as Peery fouled.
“I’m feeling really well,” Crutchfield said. “I’ve been like 12 times to the All-Star race and won it a few times, but this one’s special. This is Indy. It’s a real special feeling.”
Of all the competitors, Stock racer Larry Deforrest scored the win over Darrick Ellam. Before the event, DeForrest never envisioned a win.
“I didn’t even know we’d qualified for the JEGS Allstars until I got a text from Todd Patterson congratulating me,” Deforrest said. “Now, to win it just feels amazing.”
Devin Isenhower stopped Jeff Cheney in a double-breakout Super Comp match, and for him, the monumental Super Comp final might be enough to keep him happy for a while.
“I honestly feel like I can now retire,” Isenhower said. “This is something that was lacking on my resume that I’ve been looking to get. This is my third time coming here, and now I could quit racing and be happy. I’m not sure that I will, but I could.”
Super Gas racer Rusty Cook used a perfect reaction time in his favor to score his third Jegs title by beating Rob Kropfield.
“It’s overwhelming. We were able to win this last year and to be able to come back as a blocker and win it again is just an overwhelming feeling. Praise God. Thank you to all of my sponsors - Ohio Crankshafts, Goodyear Tires, and Sunoco Fuels. This is incredible.”
John Dexter was also perfect, but at the stripe and that was enough to beat Keith Mayers in the Super Street final.
“This is the race I’ve wanted to win for so long,” Dexter said. “Just getting to win it is amazing. With everything, I’ve had to go through this week with breaking the motor yesterday. Everyone here helped me. Being from Arizona, I don’t know anyone here. The team really came together for Division 7. It’s just unbelievable.”
By five inches, Brandon Miller scored the Top Dragster crown by stopping Al Kenny, who broke out.
“It’s just an honor to be a part of this group,” Miller said. “It’s incredible. It’s so hard to win these races, and it dragged out all day long, so it’s tough to keep your head in the game. Everyone here is the best of the best, so to win this means a lot.”
Closing out the race-within-a-race, Robert Fortuna claimed the Top Sportsman crown after coming out on the better end of a double-breakout with Paul Mitsos.
“I’m excited! Thrilled!” Fortuna said. “This is a dream come true. It’s our first time here, and the last two years have been incredible. We’re having a ball!” - Bobby Bennett
SATURDAY NOTEBOOK -
In drag racing, you can never have too much data. Knowledge is king, and it helps in going rounds and winning races.
For AJ Berge, this 47-year-old from Long Island knows this all too well. He’s been modifying late-model HEMI engines for over a decade, and when he got tapped to step up expanding Don Schumacher Racing’s (DSR) Drag Pak program and work with five-time NHRA World Champion Kevin Helms, Berge jumped at the chance. Over a year into the program, the dividends have paid off for DSR as Berge and Helms have become the “Dynamic Duo” when it comes to getting these finicking Factory Stock Showdown Drag Paks down the strip on nine-inch slicks.
The results speak for themselves as DSR Drag Pak pilot Mark Pawuk won the NMCA season opener in Bradenton, but the weekend before that, he torched Gainesville Raceway with a jaw-dropping 7.608 ET at over 183 MPH and set a new Factory Stock Showdown record at the NHRA Gatornationals back in March.
Just recently, the DSR Drag Pak juggernaut motored through the NMCA All-American Nationals in Norwalk last weekend as AJ Berge drove his Whipple Superchargers/Security Dodge Power Broker Challenger Drag Pak to victory over Tripp Carter’s Cobra Jet Mustang. Wearing two hats as tuner and driver, Berge brings a lot to the table, and the fact he’s using his personal Drag Pak for a ‘rolling test lab’ to gather data and feed that information to DSR Drag Paks is an added bonus.
“Coming off a win from last weekend in the NMCA Holley EFI Factory Super Car class, driving my Drag Pak was awesome,” said AJ Berge. “Between Norwalk and Indy, we serviced the car and set it up to run in Competition Eliminator at the NHRA US National. Running my Drag Pak in Comp here at Indy provides valuable data that my fellow DSR co-crew chief Kevin Helms and I can decipher. It also gives us the opportunity to put our heads together and make the right calls on the three DSR Drag Paks competing in the NHRA Constant Aviation Factory Stock Showdown event this weekend. We did change direction a little bit from how the car was set-up at Norwalk in the tune and chassis, and my Drag Pak is less aggressive. But, for Indy, my car is identical to the DSR Drag Paks driven by Mark Pawuk, David Davies, and Warren Walcher.”
As in drag racing, or virtually any other racing venue, teamwork is critical in ensuring the success of any team. With Berge and Helms collaborating at all levels, they’ve become a force the competition takes very seriously when they’re paired up against one of the Dodges this pair of DSR tuners lay their hands on.
“I’m really happy on AJ’s win at Norwalk. Everyone ran really fast, and even though we had to face DSR Drag Pak teammates Pawuk and Walcher during eliminations, AJ turned on the win light in the final round against the Cobra Jet Mustang,” Kevin Helms said. “AJ’s driving has come a long way, and I’m really happy how he’s able to transition from a Pro to a Sportsman Tree between the classes. With AJ running his Drag Pak in Comp at Indy, it gets us ahead of the curve in gathering information for the DSR Drag Paks and will help determine what we can get away with regarding our setup and the changing track conditions we’ll face this weekend.”
Tuning three Drag Paks running one class and racing his own machine in a totally different category may present challenges for some, but for Berge and Helms, they’ll get it done with no issues. With the help of the crew, he’ll make a couple of keystrokes on the laptop, turn a few wrenches on the wheelie bars, and step on the loud pedal on his ‘Rolling Test Lab’! - David Hakim
FRIDAY NOTEBOOK - EVERYBODY JOINS THE PARTY IN QUALIFYING; COMELLA GOES BACK-TO-BACK
Joe Comella won last season’s Dodge Hemi Shootout, and although he should have been overjoyed, the perfectionist in him just didn’t let him go into overload elation.
This year, ditto.
From Thursday’s Q-2 session, Comella established himself as the driver to beat with an 8.421 elapsed at 158.80 miles per hour. And in Friday’s final round during the Dodge HEMI Shootout, he saved his best for last with an 8.407, 159.19 to beat a red-lighting Eldon Baum Jr.
“We wanted to come in this year and run the table and keep it smooth and relaxed and A-to-B every run,” Comella said. “Didn’t feel like last year’s [win] was a very representative year, even though it was really fast and we won.”
Comella has actually shown strong performance over the last three seasons. He was runner-up in the 2020 version of the event.
Winning this event always measures up as his greatest drag racing achievement, regardless of how much better he feels he could have performed.
“It was important for us to do this, this year, to repeat,” Comella said. “I tried to play it cool, like it was just okay, something I wanted to do, but really wanted to do it really bad.”
As much as he would like to commandeer momentum with his run of good fortunes, Comella understands with the volatility of the Super Stock/A H cars; momentum can be considered a mirage.
“With these cars, there’s always an element of throwing dice against the wall. I was very comfortable all week with the car. I felt like we had a handle on it. I felt like that before and then it won’t go down the track. So I was cautiously optimistic all week.”
Comella stopped Tony DePillo in the first round before stopping Rich Locker in the quarter-finals. The semi-final race where he beat multi-time winner Jimmy Daniels was a crowning achievement.
“I thoroughly enjoy racing him and the old man,” Comella said. “They are our friends, and there is nothing better than racing him. I absolutely love it, and I can’t say enough nice things about him. I think he’s a fantastic racer.”
First-time finalist Baum entered eliminations as the No. 8 qualifier and scored wins over Benny Kimberly, Doug Fazzolare, and Gary Wolkwitz.
LOOKS LIKE WE MADE IT - Joe Mozeris and his daughter, Kayla Mozeris, almost didn’t make it to the U.S. Nationals this week.
Technically, it was their rig that had some trouble making the trip. With Joe competing in the JEGS Allstars and Kayla making her Comp Eliminator debut, turning back was not an option. Their friend and crew member, Mark Donadio, left Phoenix with Dave Webb to drive the rig across the country last Sunday. They wanted to leave for Indy early so they would be able to park easily Tuesday. They ended up rolling into the pits early Thursday morning, thanks to a lot of determination and help from some very good friends.
“I told the guys that I wanted to leave earlier than we did last year,” Donadio said. “When we were about 100 miles into New Mexico, a tractor-trailer smashed into a school bus. So that cost us a 150-mile detour around the state, and during the detour, there was a train that stopped us for half an hour.”
Already a bit behind, Mark and Dave were not deterred. After all, they left early in anticipation of hold-ups. Then they hit Albuquerque, where construction was causing a major traffic jam and they opted to call it a night. Surely, they thought, Monday would be a better day.
Monday was uneventful — for a while.
But that evening, between Oklahoma City and Tulsa, the Ford 450 diesel truck that was towing the trailer lost power. They were able to limp to a truck stop going no more than 40 mph on the interstate. It was a little after 2 a.m., so they waited a few hours before calling Joe to inform him of their progress, or lack thereof.
“Joe told us to go get a scanner. We do all of that. The scanner says there are issues with the fuel pump. But we were able to clear the codes. The engine light goes off and we’re like, ‘Beautiful.’ We’re back in business,” Donadio said.
“We go a little way down the road, about 100 miles, and the same thing happens: The engine light comes on and kicks the codes back off. We are in trouble because we’re way late, and we wanted to be in Indy by Tuesday. Mind you, we’re going 40 mph on an interstate. I feel like I’m going to get blown off into the weeds.”
The duo was able to make it into Illinois before they came to a complete standstill. Joe and Kayla flew into Indianapolis on Tuesday, and immediately rented a car to drive down and meet Mark and Dave. They unhooked the trailer in a parking lot, and drove the truck to a local dealership — only to have the dealership say it couldn’t find an issue.
So they hooked back up and set off again, with Joe driving the truck. It only went about 50 miles this time before it once again lost power. Mind you, it’s now Wednesday, and the team was about three hours away from the track — with Comp Eliminator qualifying less than 24 hours away.
Joe put the call out on Facebook, asking if anyone could help them tow the trailer the rest of the way to the U.S. Nationals. Enter Dave Galipeau, who will forever bear the moniker “Savior” with the Mozeris crew.
Galipeau drove from Tennessee and met the group Wednesday evening. They caravaned to the track, parking in the pits a little after midnight Thursday. The team sleeps in the trailer, so they had to unload everything in those late/early hours.
“So we get to bed about 3:30,” Donadio said. “We laugh and talk and piss and moan until about four in the morning. We all go to sleep. At 7, somebody’s starting a car and we’re up and at it again. So here we are. We’ve got to get the truck to the dealership so it’s ready to go home at the end of the race. We’re probably going to go to Skillman’s. We spoke to Ray Skillman, and he says, ‘Yeah, we’ll get the guys on it.’”
With all of those travel woes behind them, the drivers and crew are ready to focus on racing and hope that all of their efforts to get here pay off.
ALWAYS BE PREPARED - After winning the regional event in Epping, N.H. last week, D.J. Cox is feeling good about his chances in Indy. That’s a big deal for him, as the U.S. Nationals haven’t always been kind to the Top Alcohol Funny Car driver.
“My first time racing in Indy was in 2013 for the Jr. Dragster national championship,” Cox recalled. “I was 13 years old. I still remember, Leonard Gorman beat me in the third round. It seems like ever since then, this is just the race we struggle at. I’m not sure why.
“It was nice last weekend to get back on track before coming to Indy. Historically, we did not do very well at this race and the JEGS Allstar race in general, so this year, we’re determined to try to get some round wins.”
The team spent the day Thursday swapping engines while still riding high from the win last weekend. They plan to take that momentum and turn on some win lights at the “Big Go.”
“The car ran really well last weekend, so we’re going to put a new engine in it and try it out,” Cox said. “We’e a little tired, but I feel like we’re going to go out there with all of our best stuff and hopefully be successful.”
Some may wonder why they would swap engines when their current motor was performing so well. But this is Indy, where anything can and will happen. So Cox and his crew are taking extra measures to be as prepared as possible.
“At Indy, sometimes between rounds can get really tight. You don’t get a big turnaround,” he said. “And right now we need to have one under the bench that is timed and ready to go. If you hurt something, you need one you can throw in there in a hurt. We’re taking a perfectly good engine that won the race last weekend out and shoving it under the bench. So if we need it, we can throw it back in and be ready to go. We probably won’t need it, but if it’s not ready, we will for sure need it. That's the way it works.”
FIRST TIMER - This is the first time for Mike Balch to compete in an NHRA event, and he picked the world’s biggest drag race to make his debut.
The Top Fuel Harley rider is confident about this week, and eager to make his mark on the sport. He’s been racing motorcycles for years and has quite a few achievements under his belt. Last year, he won the All Harley Drag Racing Association national championship as a rookie.
Going from a 150-inch Nitro Funny Bike to a 196-inch Top Fuel Harley has been an adjustment, and Balch is enjoying the challenge.
“I tested this bike in Bowling Green, Ky., and it felt really good,” said Balch. “Red (Ray, team owner) has a good chassis. He sets it up really well. I feel extremely comfortable with the whole pit crew that’s around me. I feel comfortable enough to put my life in their hands and go down the racetrack.”
Balch has vivid memories of his first trip down the strip aboard a Top Fuel Harley.
“It’s like getting shot out of a cannon. The 60-foot times on my old bike were around 1.14 seconds. This is going to be around 1.12, 1.08, something like that, on a good pass,” he said. “The big thing is going to be when this thing shifts gears at about 600 feet down the track. That’s when it’s going to really start pulling and chugging. It’s going to make probably a little bit of a move that I’m going to have to be ready for. I have to be sure to stay in front of the action.”
Balch is very proud of his hometown, Palmerton, Penn., and vice-versa. Many of the area’s businesses and residents are supporting him this weekend, with good reason. Since 2016, Balch has hosted and coordinated an annual free community Thanksgiving dinner that feeds around 400 people.
“A bunch of my sponsors help fund the dinner,” said Balch. “It's done at the church. But if people don't want to sit in the church, we do curbside pickup. I don’t care if you call and say you need meals for eight people, take them home. We’ll have a line of people outside just for pickup. The whole town comes together. We cook it all that day and serve it all that day. It’s always a little stress thing going into it, but it always works out perfectly.”
THINGS ARE COMING AROUND - Top Alcohol Dragster standout Julie Nataas didn’t love the way the season started, but she’s hopeful about how things are going now.
“We struggled a little bit with the car and making sure I got down the race track the first half of the year,” Nataas said. “Now it feels like we got our racecar back. So things are starting to turn around.”
Indeed they are. Nataas won the Menards NHRA Nationals in Topeka, Kan. a few weeks ago, and she boasts some of the best reaction times in the ultra-competitive Top Alcohol Dragster category.
“The Topeka win was huge for us. We were like, ‘Oh, my gosh. Finally, we did it.’ We did win the Dallas regional in May, so I guess maybe that was the actual beginning of the turnaround. We took a little bit of a break over the summer until we went to Topeka,” she said.
Nataas is running the same car she did last year, giving her a level of comfort that only comes from familiarity.
“This car I’m very very comfortable in. Randy (Meyer, team owner) asked me if I wanted something different and I said no. So the car and I couldn’t be better at this point. I want to be comfortable and confident in there so that helps out a lot.”
The talented driver recently moved to the Indianapolis area which gives her yet another layer of familiarity and an even greater appreciation for the U.S. Nationals.
“Now that this is home, it’s weird and really cool,” said Nataas. “It’s the ‘Big Go.’ There are so many people. I have my family here. And we have the JEGS Allstars, which we won last year. So this weekend we may get to win the JEGS Allstars and the Big Go. It’s huge!”
RACING FOR A REPEAT - Although she’s coming into the U.S. Nationals having already clinched the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series Eastern Region championship, Top Alcohol Dragster driver Jackie Fricke says her season has been filled with ups and downs.
“The rule change presented a little bit of a problem,” said Fricke. “It took us a minute to get used to it. The change definitely slowed the A-Fuel cars down tremendously. You can see it across the board.”
Fricke is referencing the rule change that NHRA introduced at the beginning of the 2022 season, increasing fuel temperature minimums by 10 degrees for injected dragsters, which posed a challenge for those in the category who choose to run an injected engine rather than a supercharged entry.
“We’ve had our own struggles as well,” she continued. “We towed all the way out to Phoenix, and the coil wire eyelet broke in the first round. There have just been some dumb things. And then we had some clutch issues in Topeka and Brainerd. I’ve never been to a race where I didn’t get down the track one time, but in Brainerd, I didn’t go five feet.”
Coming from that letdown, Fricke attended the NHRA regional event in Epping, N.H., where she dominated the ladder and walked away with the Wally. Now she feels confident about the U.S. Nationals and the JEGS Allstars.
“I feel like now we have our car back, which is exciting. It’s September and we’ve already clinched the region championship, so that’s pretty awesome,” she said. “I’m trying not to lose sight of that fact. We have five national events left to claim. John (Finke, crew chief) lets me be the team strategist on what we’re going to do in terms of waiving a race, so that’s worked out pretty good.”
Fricke and Finke have an excellent working relationship that she credits for her success. She won the U.S. Nationals last year and is excited to defend her title.
“Indy is different than every other race,” the New Jersey resident said. “My eyes are welling up right now because to be coming into this race as the Indy defending champion is just unreal. It’s almost like an out-of-body experience. We won Indy. I don’t care what anybody says, there is something magical about Indy.”
THURSDAY NOTEBOOK - CLASS ELIMINATION AMPS UP THE INDY EXPERIENCE
AT THE TOP OF THE LEADERBOARD - Steve Comella will lead the Dodge Hemi Shootout field headed into Friday's elite showdown of 1968 Mopar muscle known as the Dodge Hemi Shootout, a race-within-a-race at the 2022 Dodge Power Brokers U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis.
Comella surpassed Wednesday's leader Jim Pancake for the top spot during Thursday's two qualifying sessions, amping up his performance in consecutive sessions and ending with an 8.421, 158.80 best. Pancake ended the day second quickest with an 8.491, followed by the only other car in the 8.4-second range, James Daniels, with an 8.492.
Competition Eliminator got in two sessions, and by the end of Thursday's qualifying, the H/Econo Altered '32 Bantam of Matt Forbes had overtaken Doug Engel's Dragster atop the largest field (48 entries) assembled at an NHRA Lucas Oil Series event this year.
Forbes heads into the final session with an 8.908, -.652 best, slightly ahead of Engels' -.638, 7.362 performance. The Factory Stock/Super Modified 2021 Challenger of A.J. Berge is third with a -.626, 7.864,
Ernie Neal remained at the top of the ladder in Super Stock qualifying. Still, he added an extra level of success in winning his 14th career NHRA Class Eliminations crown by driving his Super Stock P/Automatic entry to victory in the final round of the Automatic Transmission Combo bracket by beating the GT/CA entry of Jason DeForrest. When a class has only one entrant, instead of a bye run for a single, these cars are combined for an overall category.
Brian Seaburg remained atop the Stock Eliminator qualifying list and, just like Neal, drove away with a class eliminations title. Seaburg's Comet beat "Captain" Jack McCarthy's laboring Chevy wagon for the U/Stock Automatic title.
The fast bracket divisions of Top Dragster and Top Sportsman hit the track for the first time.
Thomas Bayer (6.104) set the pace for the dragsters, while Lester Johnson's '55 Chevy was tops among the doorslammers with a 6.131.
There are 56 entries remaining in Super Gas after a brutal first round of eliminations that took out several of the usual champions. Brian Shockley's 9.901 with the best of the first round.
THE BIG DANCE AT THE BIG GO - The prestigious Dodge HEMI® Challenge returns for a 21st edition of the fan-favorite specialty race starting Friday at Noon.
Paul Rossi, renowned Mopar drag racer, engine builder, development engineer, team owner and innovator, has been named grand marshal as acknowledgement of his contributions in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s to the development of high-performance products in the Dodge family, which includes building and driving a 1970 Challenger R/T powered by a 440 Six Pack, backed by Direct Connection when the performance brand first launched in 1974, that dominated the Super Stock class for years. Rossi is excited to be called up to lead the parade of iconic HEMI muscle cars along Indianapolis’ fabled return road for this year’s event.
“I’m so honored to be called upon as grand marshal,” said Rossi, who campaigned one of the original Hurst-built ’68 HEMI (B029) Barracuda Super Stock cars. “I completely understand the appeal of the Dodge HEMI Challenge. There’s nostalgia there and fans like to see them going fast. It’s just fantastic to have a category that calls these classic muscle cars back out of the garage. I really love that.
“I had an original HEMI ‘Cuda and took it to the Super Stock (SS/AA) 1975 NHRA World Finals (Ontario, California) and while I finished runner-up, I was the last standing Mopar and fastest HEMI in the country. I guess I’m now the face of the Direct Connection old guard. I’m happy to see the brand continue with this new generation of clean performance and happy to have Dodge still value their history with the HEMI Challenge and continue to build their legend at the event. My first U.S. Nationals was in 1963 aboard a brand new Plymouth Ramcharger A/FX (Factory Experimental class similar to the Factory Stock Showdown), the first Mopar to enter the class, and coming here to Indy was just the biggest thrill. As a competitor or a fan, it still has that appeal.”
The racing legend, who in addition to his many successes in NHRA also won multiple IMSA championships and Pike’s Peak endurance races, will join Direct Connection spokesperson Chuck Spieser for a question-and-answer session with performance enthusiasts on Saturday, Sept. 3, at 3:30 p.m. at the Dodge//SRT and Mopar exhibit in the NHRA’s Manufacturers' Midway.
This year’s Dodge HEMI Challenge victor will be awarded $15,000 and a new-look, custom-made Dodge HEMI Challenge trophy created by Tom Patsis of Cold Hard Art, a local Brownsburg, Indiana-based artist, former NHRA welder-fabricator and winner of the 2021 Netflix competition series “Metal Shop Masters.”
IT’S WHAT WE DO -- While Bill and Mary Ann Jackson are quick to say that they haven’t been to EVERY U.S. Nationals since Mary Ann won class here in 1964, they don’t recall missing any, either. They’ve been drag racing for about 60 years and they wouldn’t have it any other way.
Mary Ann only recently stepped away from driving, but Bill, 83, still competes in Super Gas and Super Comp in cars named "Scratcher."
They are excited to be competing at the “Big Go” once again. It’s a favorite event for the Ohio-based couple. In their long history with the U.S. Nationals, a few key moments stand out in their
minds. Mary Ann recalls winning class here in 1964.
“At that time, there weren't very many women driving,” said Mary Ann. “They made a big fuss over it, and to me, I was just a driver. I've always been just a driver. Just a drag racer.”
Bill won class in 1968, and Mary Ann got runner-up in Super Gas in 1991. The pinnacle moment for their racing program came in 2005 when Bill captured the U.S. Nationals Super Gas trophy.
“The guy I was racing in the finals said, ‘I suppose you want the right lane,’ because I’d just won in the right lane,” Bill recalls. “But when Mary Ann was in the finals in ‘91 she went red in that lane. So I told him, ‘No. You’re doing good in that lane. You just stay there.’ I knew that if there was a red light in this round, it would be in the right lane.”
Call it a premonition or just pure coincidence, but sure enough, Bill’s competitor went red and handed Bill the win.
“I’ll never forget that,” said Bill. “That was a thrill.”
“They’re all good memories when you’re out here,” added Mary Ann. “You meet all the friends that you haven’t seen for years from other parts of the country. We used to race from coast to coast and made a lot of friends. That’s the important thing with drag racing, all the friends you make.”
“Mary Ann is the best footbrake driver I’ve ever seen,” Bill said. "I wish they had a class for that. She was really good. She ran Hemis for years.”
“My Hemi days were good days,” she replied. “They’ve all been good, really. When I red-lighted in the finals at Indy, I thought the sun wasn’t going to come up on Tuesday. But those are the ups and downs of racing. This is what we do. This is what we've always
done for going on 60 years, so I don't know what else we would do. It’s a family thing.”
THE PATH TO SUCCESS IS RARELY SMOOTH - Super Comp driver Michael Holcombe is incredibly glad to be here competing in the JEGS Allstars at the U.S. Nationals, considering what it took for him to get here.
His path was far from smooth. In fact, the Division 4 driver had to overcome some major obstacles to accomplish all that he has over the past year.
In 2019, Holcombe blew up a motor. He and his wife spent everything they had on a new motor, but it never ran quite right. He continued trying new combinations, and finally felt like things were coming together. He was in the top 10 in the Division 4
Super Comp points standings, a feat he previously thought to be nearly impossible.
Thinking his luck had finally changed, he felt like the 2020 season was coming together for him, despite all of the chaos due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But, as the saying goes, life happened.
“We went to a division points meet in San Antonio. There’s a real short shutdown there,” Holcombe recalled. “I made one test pass and had a good run. On the second pass, the caliper bolt had backed out of the brakes. I didn’t know that.
"I had brakes when I staged the car. I crossed the finish line and no brakes. The car was already in neutral and was shut off. By the time I reached for the parachute and figured out what was going on, I was looking at the sand trap. I went through the sand and some barrels into a chain-link fence. I was suspended several feet above the ground.”
The car was destroyed. Holcombe and his wife, RayTay, reached out to the builder, Vince Roberts at Ray Alan Race Cars.
“I got ahold of him and told him what was wrong with the chassis. He said, ‘Man, we might be able to fix it, but I don't know,'" Michael Holcombe said. "So he worked out a deal with me and we built a brand-new car using as much as we could from the wrecked car. They really worked with me and we got a new car put together.”
Holcombe was determined to reach his goal of finishing in the top 10 in the division. He took everything he could from his car and put it in a borrowed car while his was being reconstructed. His determination paid off and he finished in the top five in Division 4.
With his repaired car, Holcombe made a solid performance in 2021, finishing ninth in the division. They had the motor rebuilt over the off-season, and in 2022, things began to click. He did well in the first two divisional points meets and then, at the NHRA SpringNationals in Houston, Holcombe won his first national event.
“My family's been racing for 30 years and has never won a national event. We’ve been runner-up, but that’s it," he said. "And then, of course, that was the last national event at Houston Raceway Park, so that was great.”
Holcombe started going rounds at every event he attended. He clinched a spot in the JEGS Allstars, and realized that he might have a shot at being in the top 10 nationally.
“That’s something I never thought I'd be able to achieve,” said Holcombe. “So I went to the Dallas doubleheader. I went four rounds in one race. We went to Tulsa, I went three rounds. Then we went all the way to Topeka for the double divisional. And I went to the semis in the first race. So then we realized, ‘Hey, we have to chase this deal.’”
This year's U.S. Nationals is Holcombe's first appearance in the event since he competed in Junior Dragster.
Interestingly, around the time that Holcombe started finding more success on the track, he also found a relic from his family’s racing
“We found my grandpa's old dragster that we sold 20 years ago. A guy about two hours away had it sitting in a barn. It’s his original, 1970-something dragster," he said. "My grandpa redid it in 1990 and it has all the same electronics and everything.”
Everything is coming together for the La Porte, Texas resident, including his confidence behind the wheel.
“After the wreck, I was really nervous. I was shaking," he said. "I even had this car built with a second set of bricks just in case that ever happens again.”
SUPER STOCK STANDOUT - Life is good for Wyatt Wagner. He’s leading the Super Stock points in Division 5 and competing in the JEGS Allstars this weekend.
“I think this is our best year so far,” said Wagner, who started driving Junior Dragsters when he was just eight years old. “It started off pretty strong. We had a win in Brainerd and a win at the Topeka doubleheader. We went to the semis in Denver. So we've been
able to string together some late-round finishes consecutively. We were the runner-up at the national event in Brainerd last week. So this is kind of our halfway point in the season.”
Not too shabby for someone who’s only been competing in the ultra-competitive category for five years.
“Our goal right now is just to keep going rounds and try to put up the best score possible. I'm not really too worried about the points right now. You hear all the time, that if you just win rounds, the points will take care of themselves. I try to focus on that and not pay too much attention to the points. I just want to take it round by round and put
together good races.”
Wagner is especially looking forward to being a part of the JEGS Allstars this year.
“It's pretty neat to be able to race against the eight other top racers across the country, especially people from the far West Coast and the East Coast,” said the Kansas City native. “So I’m pretty pumped up. I kind of feel like the young kid out of the group. Most of the other competitors are older than me. But it’s cool to be able to race in front
of that many people and get that kind of exposure. It’s cool that JEGS puts this on every year.”
A LITTLE SUPERSTITIOUS - Competition Eliminator driver Ryan Priddy is excited about his chances this year at the NHRA U.S. Nationals. He’s got four Wallys to his name this season. Two were earned at national events in Las Vegas and Seattle. He also won the divisional meet in Las Vegas, and just last week he picked up his fourth piece of
hardware at the divisional meet in Billings, Mont.
The driver of the Mountain View Performance A/AA Chevrolet may be sitting second in the national points standings, but his focus is on fun.
“Here's the motto I always tell everybody, ‘Whatever happens, happens,’” said Priddy. “Win, lose or draw, we always have fun. So if it's meant to be, it's meant to be. That's the way I look at it.”
While Priddy is experiencing a stellar year, it didn’t begin that
“Believe it or not, the year actually started out a little iffy. We had a new car and totally new engine combination," he said. "We tested in Bakersfield to begin the year and it actually went pretty good. Then we went to Pomona, and it seems like when we get on a really good
racetrack, the car likes to just get out of control and shake the tires really bad. Vegas was a little easier because we were at altitude, so we had less power. That was when we started to really turn the corner.”
The win in Las Vegas was Priddy’s first national event win of his
career. Car owner Nick Mitsos predicted it.
“What's funny is, Nick told me last year, when we put this car deal together, ‘You're going to get your first National event win in the Comp car.’ And he was right. Then we stayed the next weekend for the points race and we just kept it rolling.”
Nick and his wife, Irene, are like family to Priddy. He’s been working for them since 2010 and helped them with their Pro Stock operation. He was eager for the opportunity to compete for them in Comp Eliminator and the talented driver isn’t taking anything for granted.
“I try to treat every race the same and I have some superstitions,” said Priddy. “I just like to have the same routine at all times, no different. When I get dressed. I get in the car a certain way, put the bottom belts on, and then I always put my left glove on first. And we kind of look for purple when we are going to a race. That’s been Irene’s thing for
years. When we see purple it’s a good sign.”
ROLLER COASTER OF A YEAR - Frank Aragona Jr. has had a roller coaster of a year.
The skilled Competition Eliminator pilot has won numerous NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series titles, including multiple world championships. This season, with three runner-up finishes and one win, but there’s far more to the story behind the statistics.
In December of 2021, Frank (“Frankie” to his friends) was diagnosed with a very rare form of cancer called angiosarcoma.
“I went through a very rigorous routine of chemo starting in January,” said Frank. “They were really fast because I'm with Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York. They operated in April and they took the tumor out. The operation went well. I was cleared (of cancer) by the
end of April, and then I wanted to go to a race.”
Frank’s doctor made him take some time to heal from the surgery, but as soon as he got the green light, he was at the track and ready for competition.
“That's my happy place, so that's where I want to be -- just get in the car and forget about everything. It took three runner-up finishes before I got to win one. I’ve won a lot of divisionals. I’ve been very fortunate. I had won 40 already. That win was my 41st, and it felt like the first one all over again. I was happy to get another trophy after
everything I went through. It was pretty emotional.”
Unfortunately, Frank recently received some more bad news.
“The cancer came back, so probably going to have to do more chemo treatment and stuff. It's spread to different places. It’s early, in the beginning. I got to go for more testing in two weeks and see where it is and everything.”
He's tackling this most recent challenge with the same focus and drive he brings to his racing.
“I want to try and prolong my life to be around for my wife and kids so we can see our kids get on their own two feet. They're young; they’re 14 and 16. I’ve just got to do what the doctors tell me and keep fighting.”
WEDNESDAY NOTEBOOK - THE WORLD IS GETTING BACK TO NORMAL WITH A SIX-DAY NHRA U.S. NATIONALS
WEDNESDAY'S LEADERS - Super Stock and Stock took center stage at the Dodge Power Brokers NHRA U.S. Nationals for the first day of qualifying.
Ernie Neal jumped out to an early lead in Super Stock and maintained the top spot throughout three sessions by running a 10.967 elapsed time, which is 1.1690 seconds under the Super Stock/P Automatic index.
Dan Jacobs is second with a 9.331, -1.419 against the GT/K index, while Lincoln Morehead is third with a 9.642, -1.358. There are 141 entries in competition this weekend.
Brian Seaburg set the pace for the Stockers with his 302-inch Ford-powered Mercury Comet by running a 13.332-second elapsed time to run -1.518 under the 14.85 index.
Slipping into second was Jim Marshall, whose K/Stock Automatic '78 Camaro was -1.454 under the index. Glenn Briglio was third with a 10.999, -1/301 under the I/Stock Automatic standard. A total of 58 out of 158 entries were a second under their index. Reigning Stock world champion Jerry Emmons was 23rd with one session to go.
Super Stock and Stock will begin class eliminations at 8 a.m. Thursday.
Super Comp (144 entries) and Super Gas (112 entries) racers made time-trial runs.
READY FOR REDEMPTION - Shelby Williams has redemption on her mind this year. At the U.S. Nationals in 2021, her Stock Eliminator Camaro exited in the first round of eliminations. The young driver has another year of experience under her belt, and she’s ready to go rounds.
“The season has been good so far,” said Williams. “We’ve been racing a lot. Topeka was my last race. I went red in the first round there, so I’m ready to go rounds this weekend.”
Shelby and her father, Steve Williams, are running three cars between them this week, but she is focused on her program and has her goals aligned. The talented up-and- comer is especially focused on class eliminations. She changed up her combination this week from D/SA to E/SA.
“We’re going to be competing in class eliminations (Thursday). We want to take that seriously and give it our best shot. ... So hopefully we can have some fun and go rounds in class. The car is a bit heavier, but the air was really good this morning. I ran a 10.75 and everything is going smooth. Last year didn’t go so well for me. I had a heads up first round and my car died when I decked it, so I’m hoping to have some redemption this year.”
AIN’T NO HELMET LIKE A WEST COAST HELMET - Sportsman standout Justin Lamb is debuting a new helmet at the U.S. Nationals this weekend.
The only problem is, it’s so nice he’s hesitant to actually use it. And that’s understandable when you see it. This helmet is truly a work of art. Impact sponsors a helmet for Lamb each year. This year, he really was of a mind to do something special, so he enlisted the talents of Jeff Devey.
“My buddy Jeff Devy doesn’t typically like painting helmets so I had to sweet talk him into taking this on,” said Lamb. “I told him I wanted a kind of Southern California low-rider paint style, with the heavy metallic flake and detailing.”
For the lace detailing down the middle of the helmet, Devey took actual lace and laid it over to get the desired effect. The sides are adorned with intricate striping, but the real showstopper is on the back, where Lamb wanted to feature three of his favorite rappers: Eazy-E, Biggie Smalls and Tupac.
“Jeff is so freaking talented. He always does this incredible hand striping. He does everything freehand, no templates. He had a picture of these three rappers taped to the top of the helmet and he painted them on the bottom, by hand, with a paintbrush.”
ONE ROUND AT A TIME - Jimmy DeFrank loves coming to the U.S. Nationals, and he enters the sport's biggest event sixth in national points in his Super Stock Cobalt.
For Indy, he decided to pull out his Stock eliminator Camaro and run both cars. He’s also participating in the JEGS Allstars this weekend in his Super Stock machine.
“I usually prefer driving just one car, but for Indy we brought two,” said DeFrank. “My dad’s here and a couple of our good friends are with us. It’s like our vacation. This is probably our favorite race of the year.”
DeFrank handles the added pressure of racing two vehicles in stride.
“I don’t even think about it, really. I just take one race a day at a time, one round at a time. So today we’re just worried about trying to make good runs in qualifying. We won’t even think past today.”
Eliminations in Stock and Super Stock actually begin prior to the JEGS Allstars competition, so DeFrank really doesn’t know exactly what the week has in store for him. But one thing’s for sure, he and his father, Jim, will have a really good time no matter what comes to pass. He’s not worried about his points standing, either.
“I don't really think about it or look at the points too much," Jimmy DeFrank said. "We just literally go one round at a time. It's too overwhelming to think past, like, one race. Then I feel like I’m not focused on the current race that we're at if I look at the other races.”
DeFrank adopted this philosophy based on years of experience.
“Racing seems like it’s harder every year,” DeFrank replied. “So it’s nice just to focus on one round at a time, one race at a time. Then, if something goes well, it will add up by the end of the year.”
DeFrank operates California Car Covers and enjoys coming to the “Big Go” each year to see customers and friends.
“The best thing about the U.S. Nationals is that we get to see people from all over the country. And it’s a long race with extra days from Wednesday to Monday," he said. "The class racing also makes it pretty special. It’s the biggest race of the year for Super Stock and Stock class racing. It’s just something we really love. It means a lot to us to get to come here.”
INDY ENERGY - Brenda Grubbs and her husband Bill have been on the road since the Topeka national event Aug. 12-14. They’ve been living the life that many racers dream about; i.e., traveling the country, going from race to race. They are loving their experience, even when it’s thrown some unexpected curveballs their way.
“We hurt a motor in Topeka in Super Stock,” said Brenda. “We had to spend our entire anniversary swapping out motors because we were on the road, and wouldn’t be able to go home and swap it out.”
Brenda competed at the U.S. Nationals for the first time last year, and she’s excited to experience it again, with most of the Covid restrictions lifted. Her beautiful twin '69 Camaros are primed and ready for competition in Stock and Super Stock this weekend.
“It’s a little stressful right now," she said. "Obviously, there's some anxiety because there's going to be a ton of fast cars. You’re trying to qualify and then maybe you’re qualified but you’re not really in a safe spot. So it’s fun, but a little stressful.”
The multi-time NHRA national-event winner and former IHRA world champion grew up in the world of drag racing, but it was Bill who convinced her to get a racecar.
“He kept after me and finally I agreed on the condition that he would let me drive," she said. "And we’ve never looked back.”
Brenda’s father gave them their first Stock Eliminator engine which Brenda debuted in Orlando in 1999. Like most sportsman racers, they’ve built their racing program up throughout the years.
For Bill, Brenda, and their adorable Golden Retriever, Charlie, drag racing is life.
“What we enjoy about racing is it's a passion that we share together. We’ve been very fortunate to have made friendships all over the country, and we've been very blessed to have some success in racing," she said. "We're fortunate that we've got more competitive cars than we’ve ever had before due to our Lance Line motors.”
The real star of the show in the Grubbs pit is Charlie. He loves the races, and it shows through the smile on his face. He’s clearly loving this time on the road with his humans, and to end the road trip at the biggest drag race in the world, is icing on the cake.
“It's a very prestigious race,” Brenda said. “There are 150-plus trying to qualify for 128 spots. I mean, you don't see those types of car counts anywhere anymore. You don't get an opportunity to race seven rounds and have to qualify, so it's just the experience. All classes are there, the JEGS Allstars are there, and they have the Hemi Shootout.
"Energy is probably a good way to describe it, too. At the end of the day, what's the worst that can happen if you don't qualify? You've still been part of a neat experience for class racing. I mean, this is what class racing is really all about. And it's still an opportunity for me to spend time with my husband and my puppy. We're certainly enjoying this trip.”
While Brenda is the driver, she’s quick to note that she and her husband are partners in everything regarding their racing operation, which is sponsored by National Parts Depot.
“He's a pretty freaking good husband. He puts so much time, effort and energy into maintaining two amazing race cars for his wife to drive," She said. "Anytime I've ever accepted an award or really been interviewed, I make it a point to say it's not about Brenda Grubbs. It's about Bill and Brenda Grubbs because it's a team, and I would not do this without him -- nor would I want to do it without him.”