After a nearly perfect day of racing, J.R. Todd, Matt Hagan, Ron Krisher, and Eddie Krawiec finished the opening day of the 22nd annual Fram Autolite NHRA Nationals in Sonoma as the provisional low qualifiers in Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock, and Pro Stock Motorcycle.
Long before the first Professional qualifying session kicked off at 4 p.m. local time, fans had already packed the main grandstand at Infineon Raceway, which is one of the most picturesque facilities on the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series tour. The crowd watched one of the best qualifying days of the year as premium conditions produced competitive runs with a minimal amount of tire smoke.
Todd, who is filling in on an interim basis behind the wheel of the Mach 1 dragster for Northern California native David Baca, is currently pacing the Top Fuel field with a 4.811. Todd, in just his third start of the season, ran five-thousandths quicker than Larry Dixon, who is second with a 4.816.
"It surprised the hell out of me," said Todd. "I'm a little bit surprised that it held up. I figured that Dixon, Schumacher, or Brown would run 80-flat or maybe dip into the 3.70s. I'm looking forward to race day now."
Cory McClenathan made a strong showing for his sponsor Fram with a 3.831 that is currently third, while Top Fuel points leader Antron Brown remains in the thick of the battle after driving the Matco Tools dragster to a 3.844 for the fourth spot. Brown is looking to sweep all three races of the annual Western Swing that also includes the events in Denver and Seattle.
Other top-half qualifiers include Spencer Massey, Shawn Langdon, Morgan Lucas, and defending event winner Tony Schumacher, who posted a 3.880 in the U.S. Army dragster. Joe Hartley is currently the last driver seeded into the field with a 12th-best 3.981.
Hagan made the best run of his career and one of the best Funny Car runs of the season with a 4.068 in his Shelor Motor Mile Dodge that currently leads the pack. Hagan, who opened with a competitive 4.21, made a dramatic improvement later in the afternoon to edge Mike Neff by just a thousandth of a second.
“That was great run on a great track," said Hagan, who is one of the leading contenders for the Automobile Club of Southern California Road to the Future award. “The fans here got a great show. Don [Schumacher, team owner] puts all the right stuff underneath us and that allows us to make runs like that. Being a rookie, it’s nice to know I can come out here and do that. We really needed something to come together for us. Our morale has been down a bit lately but this really helps turn it around. We’ve had a lot of missed opportunities lately but this is a big positive, and we just need to keep it going.”
Hagan, Neff, and Ashley Force Hood, who ran 4.099, were the only drivers in the 4.0s, but 4.1-second runs were plentiful as Seattle champ Tim Wilkerson, Bob Tasca III, Jack Beckman, Del Worsham, and John Force all ran 4.13 or quicker to fill the first eight spots.
Robert Hight, the top qualifier after the first session, had a brief fire in his Auto Club Mustang on Friday night and did not improve on his previous best of 4.18. Points leader Ron Capps also ran into trouble as he was unable to make the second run after he shut his NAPA Dodge off on the starting line, missing what likely was a great opportunity to improve his position. Hight is currently 10th while Capps ended the day out of the top 12. Capps, however, did clinch his spot in the Countdown to 1 playoffs.
Krisher is on pace for his 16th career low qualifier award after wheeling his Valvoline Cobalt to a track record 6.573 during Friday’s afternoon session.
“The [NHRA Safety Safari] helped us out by working on the track and sweeping off the dust,” said Krisher, who was also the top qualifier in Englishtown. “I didn’t get to look at computer but I think we had the right amount of clutch or close to it. We made some big changes on the car race day in Seattle and they appear to be working out.
"Mike [Edwards] helped us out with a bar change and it really picked the car up in 60-feet. We have more left but we probably won’t see it tomorrow because there will be water in the air and these Pro Stock cars don’t like that at all. I might stay No. 1, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Greg [Anderson], Jason [Line], and Edwards are awfully fast, but if I stay No. 1, it might help make up for that red-light in Denver. I can’t put that behind me yet.”
Early leaders Mike Edwards and Jason Line were the last pair down the track Friday evening and put on a great show with matching 6.574 elapsed times that are good for the second and third spots, respectively. Edwards, the winner of the most recent event in Seattle, ran a 209.82-mph speed to grab the second spot while Line, who was celebrating his 40th birthday, is third with a 209.52 speed.
In order to make the top half of the Pro Stock field, a driver needed to be able to run in the 6.5s. In addition to Krisher, Edwards, and Line, Johnny Gray, Allen Johnson, Greg Anderson, Jeg Coughlin, and Kurt Johnson are also solidly in the field. Rodger Brogdon currently sits on the 12-car bump with a 6.634.
Krawiec, who has been to the final round of the last six Pro Stock Motorcycle events, opened with a 7.07 in the first session and then improved by a tenth with a 6.973 for the provisional top spot.
“With that headwind, there was definitely some e.t. left on table, but I think I made one of the best runs of the session,” said Krawiec. “I didn’t have to correct much. This whole class is about making really perfect runs and that’s what we’ve been doing lately. It’s great to come here in Sonoma and be No. 1 for now. Sonoma has always been a great place for me; I came here the first time and went to the final and then got to the semi’s last year. I just need to give it my best shot and hopefully round-wins will follow on Sunday. It doesn’t really matter where you qualify.”
An early-morning tailwind changed directions producing a stiff headwind that affected the performance of the Pro Stock Motorcycle class as a whole, but Krawiec was able to adapt. After shutting off during the first run, Krawiec’s teammate, Andrew Hines, also adapted well with a 6.986 for the second spot. Gainesville champ Hector Arana put his Lucas Oil Buell into the mix with a 7.00, while Karen Stoffer made the best run by a Suzuki with a 7.01 aboard her GEICO Powersports entry.
Michael Phillips, who has qualified well at the last several events, is currently seeded fifth after running a 7.06 aboard his Dam Sports Suzuki. Steve Johnson currently occupies the 12th spot after running a 7.13 on Friday afternoon. There are 21 bikes fighting for the 16 available spots, and those not yet qualified include rookies Bailey Whitaker, Katie Sullivan, Jim Surber, Keith Van Buren, and Rhett Lougheed, who is making his first start in NHRA competition.