Antron Brown has memories of winning the 2013 Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals that will last a lifetime. But the 2012 Top Fuel world champion knows winning at the prestigious Auto-Plus Raceway at Gainesville for the first time a season ago doesn’t give him any more advantage heading into this year’s event.
As enjoyable as it may be to reminisce about the victory in Gainesville, Brown would rather create a new memory in his Matco Tools dragster at the tradition-rich race, which takes place March 13-16 and is the third of 24 races in the 2014 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series.
“It’s nice to have that Gatornationals Wally back home, but it won’t help me any when we roll to the starting line this year,” Brown said. “Our Matco guys have been hard at it getting things fixed, and now that we’ve won there, we want to do it again.”
Along with Brown, Johnny Gray (Funny Car), Allen Johnson (Pro Stock), and Hector Arana Jr. (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were last year’s winners of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series event that will once again be televised on ESPN2.
Brown has certainly watched last year’s race on more than one occasion, finally breaking through at the Gatornationals after finishing as the runner-up two previous times (once in Top Fuel and once in Pro Stock Motorcycle).
The win, which included knocking off Clay Millican in the final round, gained even more notoriety as it gave team owner Don Schumacher his 200th career victory.
“My best memory at this track was being able to give Don his 200th win,” Brown said. “That was very special. We knew someone would, and I’m glad it was me and our Matco team. I just feel incredibly blessed to be part of this whole organization.”
After sputtering through the middle portion of his championship defense a year ago, Brown and his team have found their groove, winning three of the past six events in Top Fuel dating back to the final four races of 2013.
Brown won two events in the Countdown to the Championship, and after a first-round slipup to start 2014 in Pomona, he was red-hot in Phoenix. There, he knocked off Doug Kalitta, defending world champion Shawn Langdon, and Brittany Force in the final round to gain the victory and take plenty of momentum to Gainesville.
“I didn’t look at who I was racing,” said Brown, who now has 42 career wins, 26 in Top Fuel. “None of these teams are out here to play games. School is in, and you better have your thinking caps on and be ready to go. It’s big any time you can leave with the Wally, but looking back it was really big to get past Doug, who was the No. 1 qualifier, and Shawn, who is the world champ. There’s no such thing as an easy final, and Brittany has been strong. She keeps getting better.”
But Brown and his team, led by co-crew chiefs Brian Corradi and Mark Oswald, have meshed together well in recent months, providing one strong run after another during eliminations. The win in Phoenix vaulted Brown to third in the points standings and gave him even more reassurance that his team will deliver when it matters most.
“I have a lot of confidence when we get to the later rounds on Sunday,” Brown said. “As the rounds go on, our team gets stronger and stronger. We have a great final-round kick all the time.”
It is certainly needed against a talented field that includes Langdon, who raced to his first world championship in 2013, and Kalitta, who is the points leader in his Mac Tools dragster after posting back-to-back No. 1 qualifying positions to start the season. Langdon’s Al-Anabi Racing teammate Khalid alBalooshi won the 2014 season-opening event in Pomona, and other top challengers in the class include Spencer Massey, four-time Gators winner Tony Schumacher, 2013 Automobile Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award winner Force, rising star Leah Pritchett, Amalie Motor Oil fan-favorite Terry McMillen, and 2014 rookie contender Richie Crampton.
But Brown will be as prepared for the Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals as any race during the 2014 season.
“Growing up on the East Coast, the Gatornationals was like our Winternationals,” Brown said. “It’s the first NHRA Mello Yello event that isn’t out West, so it’s kind of like the East Coast opener, and some of the greatest NHRA fans will finally get to smell nitro for the first time this year.”
In Funny Car, John Force wrote another chapter in his legendary career by claiming the 2013 title — his 16th Funny Car championship — and he is the early-season points leader in 2014 after winning in Pomona. Force is a seven-time Gatornationals winner, but Ron Capps and a host of others, including Force’s daughter Courtney; Alexis DeJoria, who won in Phoenix to claim her first career victory; Matt Hagan; and Robert Hight are other capable winners at the ultrafast facility.
The reigning Pro Stock champ, Jeg Coughlin Jr., will look for more success with Mopar teammate Allen Johnson, who was the most recent event winner in the class, and fellow Dodge driver V. Gaines currently holds the series points lead. The Mopar drivers are expected to be bolstered on the track by the much-anticipated debut of a new Dodge race car at the event. Winternationals winner and four-time Gatornationals champ Jason Line is seeking another early-season win at the controls of his Summit Racing Equipment Chevy Camaro, and Erica Enders-Stevens, Shane Gray, Vincent Nobile, and Dave Connolly always provide tough competition in the parity-filled 200-mph factory hot rod category.
The Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals marks the first of 16 events in the 2014 season for the Pro Stock Motorcycle category. Matt Smith enters the season as the defending champ, earning his second world title after winning four times in eight final-round appearances. Others to watch in the two-wheel category include three-time Gainesville winner Eddie Krawiec; Andrew Hines; Michael Ray; defending event champ Hector Arana Jr., who will be joined by his father, Hector Sr., and brother Adam; and newcomer Chaz Kennedy.
The NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series and the NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series, which is also making its 2014 season debut, will thrill the crowds during the weekend with intense competition on the track as well.
As always, fans will have the opportunity to interact with their favorite drivers as they’re granted an exclusive pit pass to the most powerful motorsports attraction on the planet. While visiting the pits, interactive NHRA Nitro Alley and the NHRA Manufacturers Midway, fans will also want to check out NHRA’s popular Hot Rod Junction presented by the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum that offers a spectacular display of many nostalgic dragsters, race cars, and hot rods on display, including vintage machines that were driven by “Big Daddy” Don Garlits, K.S. Pittman, “Big John” Mazmanian, Bruce Larson, among others. There will also be several NHRA Legends of Drag Racing autograph sessions, allowing fans the rare opportunity to meet drag racing stars of the past.
Mello Yello Series qualifying begins on Friday, March 14, with sessions at noon and 2:15 p.m. The final two qualifying sessions will take place Saturday, March 15, also at noon and 2:15 p.m. Final eliminations are scheduled to begin at 11 a.m. on Sunday, March 16.
To purchase general-admission or reserved seats, log on to www.NHRATix.com or call the NHRA Ticket Sales Center, 800-884-NHRA (6472). Middle school, high school, and college students can purchase tickets at 50 percent off with a special student discount ticket, which is available at the gate. General-admission tickets for children 12 and younger are free with any paid adult ticket.