With four victories and three more races to check off his bucket list, Funny Car veteran Johnny Gray is eager to race to a victory during the upcoming 29th annual Auto-Plus NHRA Nationals, Oct. 3-6, at scenic Maple Grove Raceway before he hangs up his helmet to end his career as a full-time competitor in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series.
With the Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship in full force and drivers looking to gain ground, Gray knows there is no time to mess around. And the successful businessman from New Mexico is keeping the pressure on in the playoffs at the picturesque Pennsylvania track at the 22nd of 24 events in the 2013 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series and the fourth of six races in the Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship.
Last season, Khalid alBalooshi (Top Fuel), Mike Neff (Funny Car), V. Gaines (Pro Stock), and Eddie Krawiec (Pro Stock Motorcycle) earned victories at the event that will again be televised on ESPN2HD.
With a runner-up finish at Maple Grove last season, Gray believes a win at the scenic track is in the cards for his Pitch Energy Dodge Charger team, which sits in the eighth spot with four season victories. But Gray knows how difficult it can be to win a race in the super-competitive Funny Car class, where his primary rivals change every race weekend.
Gray has gotten off to a slow start in the playoffs: He lost a close first-round match against John Force in Charlotte, advanced to the second round in Dallas, and lost another first-round race last weekend in St. Louis. During that stretch, Gray has dropped from a starting point of third to eighth. He is 149 points back of series leader Matt Hagan with three Countdown events remaining.
"It's looking like we may not be able to win the championship as we had hoped, but the Pitch Energy team is going to close out this year giving it everything we've got," Gray said. "This is a great group of guys, and we've got more fight left in us. Believe me."
Gray, who plans to retire from full-time driving at the end of this season, is keeping himself in contention to earn more race victories and finish his last run in a full 24-race season the right way.
“I am committed to help my guys finish as high up as we possibly can, and they’re committed to giving me the best car possible,” Gray said. “We have a badass car and a badass team, and we’re going to have a lot of fun. Then after that, I’m going fishing.”
When Gray pulls up to Maple Grove Raceway’s gates, getting a win in his 8,000-horsepower Funny Car won’t be the only thing he is focused on. The veteran driver is also giving back in a special way through the Countdown for a Cure fundraiser benefiting Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation Thursday, Oct. 3, at the Classic Harley-Davidson shop in Reading. Gray also teamed with the Darrell Gwynn Foundation to give a wheelchair to a person in need at the Reading event.
“I absolutely would like to win at Reading,” Gray said. “I would love to win there because we're going to have all the Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation people out there, the Darrell Gwynn Foundation folks. We're going to have the Alex's Lemonade Stand body on the Funny Car. It would be great to win for all the little kids who are going to be there. If we could do that and have a bunch of these kids in the winner's circle for a picture, that would be cool.”
Gray says his involvement with Alex’s Lemonade Stand has been one of the best parts of his racing program.
“It's very, very rewarding to hang out with these kids,” Gray said. “They are so brave. It's a love-hate deal. I love to go to the hospitals and visit with the kids, but I hate that life puts people in that situation. But life is real. If I can go in and make some family or some child feel a little bit better for just a little while, I've had a great day.”
Gray's teammate Hagan is the series points leader and holds a six-point advantage over the 64-year-old Force, a six-time Reading winner, who scored in dramatic fashion last weekend in St. Louis. Defending world champ Jack Beckman, runner-up to Force in St. Louis, and red-hot Robert Hight, who has gobbled up 12 eliminations round-wins in the last four races, are also firmly positioned in the title mix. Snap-on Tools driver Cruz Pedregon, veteran driver Ron Capps, and last season's top rookie Courtney Force could factor into the title conversation with strong end-of-the-season performances.
In Top Fuel, five-time season winner Shawn Langdon holds the series lead over Doug Kalitta and Spencer Massey. Antron Brown got back in the Countdown mix by winning in St. Louis, and he defeated Reading defending winner alBalooshi in a close final round. Other contenders in Top Fuel include Charlotte playoff winner Morgan Lucas and seven-time world champ Tony Schumacher, a four-time winner at Maple Grove.
This season’s best in Pro Stock has been six-time 2013 winner Mike Edwards, but the Interstate Batteries/I Am Second Chevy Camaro driver has yet to claim a win at Maple Grove; his best outings there have resulted in two runner-up finishes. Former Maple Grove champs Jeg Coughlin Jr. and Jason Line are close behind in second and third and have some momentum after their final-round performances in early Countdown races. Defending world champion Allen Johnson, St. Louis winner Erica Enders-Stevens, two-time event champ Greg Anderson, and reigning race winner Gaines will be among those to watch in Reading.
Matt Smith took over the Pro Stock Motorcycle points lead for the first time this season with his win in St. Louis, and he leads Hector Arana Sr. and Hector Arana Jr., who are tied for second place, by 75 points. Smith, who won in Reading in 2008, is trying to win his second world championship title. In addition to the Aranas, he will be challenged by Michael Ray, Scotty Pollacheck, John Hall, and defending world champ Krawiec.
The NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series will also thrill the crowds during the weekend with intense competition on the track.
As always, every ticket purchased for the Auto-Plus NHRA Nationals is a pit pass, which offers an extraordinary look behind the scenes in the world of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series. This unique opportunity in motorsports gives fans direct access to the teams, allowing them to see firsthand the highly skilled mechanics service their race machines between rounds and enjoy cherished face time with their favorite NHRA drivers.
Fans will also want to check out NHRA Nitro Alley and the popular NHRA Manufacturers Midway, where sponsors and race vendors create a carnival atmosphere, with interactive displays, simulated competitions, merchandise, food, and freebies. Fans will also want to take advantage of Championship Sunday in the fun fanzone featuring driver introductions and a special Track Walk at 9:30 a.m. It’s free to all Sunday ticket holders.
Auto-Plus NHRA Nationals qualifying opens Friday, Oct. 4, with sessions at 1:15 and 4:15 p.m. The final two qualifying sessions will take place Saturday, Oct. 5, at 11:15 a.m. and 3 p.m. Final eliminations are scheduled for 11 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 6.
For tickets and other great ticket offers for the Auto-Plus NHRA Nationals, call Maple Grove Raceway, 610-856-9200, or log on to www.maplegroveraceway.com.