The 2014 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season has not started exactly as Funny Car standout Ron Capps had hoped.
But if there was ever an event to spark a turnaround, the Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals at Auto-Plus Raceway at Gainesville would likely be one of the top choices for the perennial championship contender. The tradition-rich race takes place March 13-16 and is the third of 24 races in the 2014 season.
As for many drivers, the Gatornationals is a special event for Capps, who scored back-to-back victories (2006-07) at the historic facility.
“It’s definitely what we consider one of our big three races,” Capps said. “It’s such a big race and one of those events where I never thought I would get a trophy. To finally win there and then win again was awesome. It’s definitely one of the most fun places to win a race.”
Antron Brown (Top Fuel), 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 again be televised on ESPN2.
A return to the winner’s circle in Gainesville would provide the momentum shift that Capps is looking for after a frustrating February with his 8,000-horsepower NAPA Auto Parts Dodge Charger.
Capps emerged uninjured after a spectacular engine explosion at the season-opening race in Pomona, a run that garnered a significant number of national headlines. At the most recent event in Phoenix, Capps suffered a first-round loss to Bob Tasca III, a far cry from the victory he celebrated at the same track in 2013.
But with his wealth of experience, Capps and his talented team, led by crew chief Rahn Tobler, aren't sweating the slow start. Capps remains encouraged by how hard the team has worked through the adversity of the first two races, and he knows a swift turnaround isn’t far off.
“Even within our team, we know we have a car that can win and run the low e.t. in any round,” Capps said. “So that’s good in the sense that not a lot of drivers can be this comfortable and know their car can run well.
“I’ve learned a lot in my career of being around the more experienced owners and drivers that you just don’t panic after a slow start. Maybe five or 10 years ago, I might have panicked, but I’ve learned to keep chugging away and not panic. I have the great luxury of knowing we’re going to see success pretty soon.”
Tobler and Capps’ team has also worked closely with Don Schumacher Racing teammate Tommy Johnson Jr. and his Make-A-Wish Funny Car early in the season. They have gathered valuable information as Johnson returned to full-time driving in the NHRA for the first time since 2008 and posted three round-wins in a solid start to his 2014 campaign.
Capps believes the payoff from that will come later in the year with the data that the team has already gained, again making him a viable championship contender. Of course, Capps continues to chase that elusive first world title, with the primary target heading into Gainesville being 16-time Funny Car world champ John Force.
Force wrote another chapter in his legendary career by claiming the 2013 title, and he is the early-season points leader in 2014 after winning in Pomona. Force is a seven-time Gatornationals winner, but Capps and a host of others, including Force's daughter Courtney; Alexis DeJoria, who won in Phoenix to claim her first victory; Matt Hagan; and Robert Hight are other capable winners at the ultrafast facility.
For Capps, staying composed at the legendary venue is something he always has to be aware of throughout the weekend.
“It’s the first race that we have a lot of our NAPA people there, and you always want to do well in front of them,” Capps said. “You can try and say it’s just another race, but nothing really prepares you for that drive to the track on Friday morning because you almost forget how big of an event it is.
“By the time you get to the gate, your hair is standing up, and it’s like an automatic motivator. This is a big race, and it’s always special to win at a place like Gainesville.”
The NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series and the NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series, which is making its 2014 season debut, also will thrill the crowds during the weekend with intense competition on the track.
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 NHRA Manufacturers Midway, fans will also want to check out NHRA’s popular Hot Rod Junction presented by the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum, which offers a spectacular display of many nostalgic dragsters, race cars, and hot rods, including vintage machines that were driven by “Big Daddy” Don Garlits, K.S. Pittman, “Big John” Mazmanian, and 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.
Pro qualifying begins 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. Sunday, March 16.
To purchase general-admission or reserved seats, log on to NHRATix.com or call the NHRA Ticket Sales Center, 800-884-NHRA (6472). General-admission tickets for children 12 and younger are free with any paid adult ticket.