The first of 16 events for the Pro Stock Motorcycle category on the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series circuit is this weekend at the Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals at historic Auto-Plus Raceway at Gainesville.
For reigning world champion Matt Smith, it marks the first opportunity to debut a new bike he hopes will yield similar results to a memorable 2013 campaign that included four wins in eight final-round appearances.
“We’re looking to be just as strong this year as we were a season ago,” said Smith, a two-time world champ in the class and rider of the Matt Smith Racing/Stockseth Racing Buell. “We’re going to do our best to carry it over. It’s real exciting to enter the season with that No. 1 on your bike. It puts a target on your back, but that’s what you like. I’m trying to defend my title. We’ve worked hard and prepared, and it should be a great event.”
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 once again be televised on ESPN2.
While Smith was impressive in last year’s Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship, winning three of the six events and advancing to four final rounds, he will have a host of strong challengers in the two-wheel category, including three-time Gainesville winner Eddie Krawiec, Andrew Hines, Michael Ray, newcomer Chaz Kennedy, and defending event champ Arana Jr., who will be joined by his father Hector Sr. and brother Adam.
After struggling early in the 2013 season, Krawiec and his Screamin’ Eagle Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson teammate Hines found their rhythm in the Countdown, combining to win the other three Countdown races. Krawiec, the 2012 world champ, believes the team carried that momentum over into 2014.
“Absolutely, I think those wins really motivated us in the off-season,” said Krawiec, who won three straight in Gainesville from 2010-2012. “I think we've gotten a lot better over the winter, and we were able to work with the full combination of our new ideas. It appears that we have very consistent motorcycles, and we can now duplicate the setup from run to run and really see the results of our tuning. I’m really itching to lineup and pop the clutch on my V-Rod.”
Hines, whose first career win came at Gainesville in 2004 and also marked the first victory for the Harley-Davidson program, agreed with his teammate, and both appear ready to kick off the year in style.
“I am really excited to go racing,” Hines said. “As the season went along last year, we found we had to change our perspective on tuning the new engine, and that came together in October. I think we took that momentum and positive attitude into the off-season. We've found some different ways to make horsepower, and we are feeling really motivated after testing this week. We are feeling good as a team.”
For the defending champ Arana Jr., it’s simply a matter of repeating his fabulous performance at the prestigious event from a year ago. In fact, Arana Jr. and his Lucas Oil Buell won the first three events of the season, something he wouldn’t mind repeating in 2014.
“I set some pretty high standards last season in Gainesville for myself,” said Arana Jr., who struggled in the Countdown and finished fourth in points. "I look to do the same again this year. It's a new season, and I want to start it off like I did in 2013, with a win in Gainesville.
"Our goal as a team, though, is for one of us to win the race. Ultimately, to have at least two of us end up in the finals would be ideal and with all three of us being in the semifinals. We're going to try our best to qualify really well and hopefully end up first, second, and third.”
The Arana family, from left, Adam, Hector Sr. and Hector Jr.
Arana Sr. finished fifth in the points standings in 2013 on his Lucas Oil Products Buell, but the three-bike team didn’t have quite the finish everyone wanted in the Countdown. That kept everyone motivated throughout the winter, making the team eager to start 2014 strong.
“We worked hard to get ready,” Arana Sr. said. “We regrouped and learned some things from last year. Hopefully we can stay consistent this year. We worked hard trying to find little things to make the bike go faster. That's what we focused on, the little things, so we can make fewer mistakes. Hopefully it will lead us to accomplish more at the races.”
Smith and his three-bike team includes John Hall, who won two races a season ago, and wife Angie. Winning the Gatornationals would be a dream come true for Smith, who was the No. 1 qualifier in 2013 but has yet to win in Gainesville. It would also represent the best possible way to start the defense of his world championship.
“Gainesville is definitely one of the premier events the bikes race at,” Smith said. “It’s one place I’ve always wanted to win. That’s always been a goal of mine. There’s going to be some strong competition, but my mindset is to go lay down some big numbers right off the bat and let everyone know I’m serious about defending this title.”
NHRA Mello Yello Series 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 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.