As one of the most accomplished students of the great history of NHRA Championship Drag Racing, Ron Capps gets goose bumps just thinking about returning to Kansas to compete in a professional drag race.
Due to the flat landscape and its central proximity to the rest of the country, in 1955, Kansas served as the official host for NHRA’s first “national event,” on an airstrip near the town of Great Bend. It was simply called The Nationals, and with that event, hot rodding enthusiasts across the U.S. could test their machines against the best of the best.
That race evolved into what is today the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis, but Kansas has solidified its place in NHRA Drag Racing history. Heartland Park Topeka has hosted NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series events since 1989 and in some seasons hosted two per year. Today, the track is regarded as one of the fastest on the circuit, and every year, drivers get to return and pay homage to the sport’s roots.
“What is so special to me is just going to Kansas to race where it really all started,” Capps said. “I’m a West Coast guy, but the first NHRA national event 57 years ago was held here in Kansas at Great Bend. Now, Heartland Park Topeka is a long way from what it was like at Great Bend, but the spirit of competition is still there.”
Capps’ competitive spirit is at an all-time high as the NAPA Auto Parts Dodge Charger driver is riding a wave of momentum from his first victory of the season two weeks ago at Atlanta Dragway. After Capps failed to qualify for the Las Vegas event in April, team owner Don Schumacher made a change to Capps’ team, reassigning veteran crew chief Rahn Tobler to the job. Since then, the team has produced great results and has advanced to three consecutive final rounds, ultimately winning in Atlanta.
Capps is ready to keep his hot streak going at the Dollar General NHRA Summernationals, May 18-20 at Heartland Park Topeka. Spencer Massey (Top Fuel), Robert Hight (Funny Car), and Shane Gray (Pro Stock) are the defending winners of the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series event that will be televised on ESPN2HD.
“This is such a great team, and right from the get-go in Charlotte, the first run reminded me how fun it can be to race again,” Capps said. “When Don [Schumacher, team owner] made the move and put me with Rahn [Tobler] and John Collins, I’m telling you, it was just unbelievable. It is so much fun to get in the car and know it’s going to be a hot rod.”
With the win, Capps moved into a tie for second place in the points standings with Mike Neff, who failed to qualify for the race in Atlanta after winning in Houston. The series leader, Hight, has won the last two events at HPT and will be trying for a three-peat in his Auto Club Ford Mustang. Earlier this season, Hight won four consecutive races to open up a big lead on the rest of the top 10 drivers in the category.
Though Hight has dominated at the Kansas track in recent years, Capps has had quite a bit of success himself at Heartland Park: He claimed wins there in 1998, 2006, and 2009 and posted a runner-up finish to John Force in 2000.
“We won for the first time there in 1998, beating Al Hofmann, but it wasn’t until eight years later when we won again,” Capps said. “We have been able to celebrate there three times, so I like the track.”
Other Funny Car drivers who have had success at Heartland Park include Force, who has won there nine times, and two-time world champ Cruz Pedregon, a four-time winner at HPT. The only other active driver in the 7,000-horsepower category who has won there is Tony Pedregon, a three-time winner. Others to watch include defending world champ Matt Hagan, who is trying to get into the top 10 in the standings after a slow start to the season, Jack Beckman, Johnny Gray, Bob Tasca III, and high-profile rookies Courtney Force and Alexis DeJoria.
In Top Fuel, most of the story centers around seven-time world champ Tony Schumacher, who is in a 30-race winless drought that dates back to October 2010. He hasn’t won in 11 straight final-round appearances, including four this season, but all is not lost as he comes into the event as the series points leader in his famed U.S. Army dragster. Schumacher’s lone win at HPT came in 2010. The Top Fuel drivers who have been winning all of the races this season include three-time winner Spencer Massey and two-time winner Morgan Lucas. Antron Brown and Steve Torrence have also visited the winner’s circle. Several past HPT winners in the field would like to make a repeat performance, including two-time winner Brandon Bernstein, David Grubnic, Doug Kalitta, and Hillary Will.
Greg Anderson has been leading the way in Pro Stock with three victories and holds the series lead over teammate Jason Line, the defending world champ, who is also a winner this year. Team Mopar’s Allen Johnson, Mike Edwards, Vincent Nobile, Erica Enders, and Larry Morgan are among the top contenders in the 200-mph category.
* SCHEDULE: NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series qualifying sessions are scheduled for 4:30 and 7 p.m. on Friday, May 18, and noon and 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, May 19. Final eliminations will begin at 11 a.m. on Sunday, May 20.
* TICKETS: For tickets for the Dollar General NHRA Summernationals, call Heartland Park Topeka, 785-43-RACES (72237), or log on to HPT.com.
* ON TV: ESPN2 and ESPN2HD will televise two hours of qualifying coverage at 5 p.m. ET on Saturday, May 19. ESPN2 and ESPN2HD will televise three hours of eliminations coverage at 7 p.m. ET on Sunday, May 20.