Relive the round-by-round excitement of the Circle K NHRA Winternationals with recaps, features, and photos.
The quest for the 2017 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series world championships officially begins today at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona. It is the first race day of the 2017 season, and drivers in Top Fuel, Funny Car, and Pro Stock will be fighting for the first Wallys of the season and the valuable points that come along with round-wins. In addition to earning a Wally and the early points lead, the winners in Top Fuel and Funny Car will also grab the first spots in the NHRA Traxxas Nitro Shootout at the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals.
Follow the day’s action in our notebook, which will be updated with round recaps, notes, and photos throughout eliminations day at the Circle K NHRA Winternationals.
ELIMINATION ROUNDS RECAPS
TOP FUEL E1 (11:30 a.m.): Doug Kalitta continued his flurry of 3.6-second passes, following a trio in qualifying with a 3.696 that was low e.t in round one and defeated Steve Faria. Low qualifier Leah Pritchett (3.707 on her bye run) and Tony Schumacher (3.709 in beating Scott Palmer) were right on his heels, but all eight winners ran quicker than 3.751 in their victories. Rookie Troy Coughlin Jr. scored the first round win of his Pro career, running 3.728 in besting Shawn Reed. [Complete results]
Second-round pairings (lane choice first): Leah Pritchett vs. Steve Torrence; Tony Schumacher vs. Brittany Force; Doug Kalitta vs. Terry McMillen; Troy Coughlin Jr. vs. Antron Brown.
FUNNY CAR E1 (12:05 p.m.): The Don Schumacher Racing trio of Jack Beckman, Ron Capps, and Matt Hagan paced the first round of competition for the 2017 season. Beckman was best of the bunch with a 3.86 that give shim lane choice in round two over Hagan, whose 3.885 was .005-second slower than the time of reigning world champion Capps. Also among the winners of the opening round were Del Worsham, who upset higher-qualified Robert Hight, and J.R. Todd, who collected the first round-win of his Funny Car career with a victory over Tim Wilkerson. [Complete results]
Second-round pairings (lane choice first): Jack Beckman vs. Matt Hagan, Ron Capps vs. Del Worsham, John Force vs. Tommy Johnson Jr., and J.R. Todd vs. Courtney Force
PRO STOCK E1 (12:25 p.m.): No surprise to many, KB Racing paced the opening round. Reigning world champion and low qualifier Jason Line had the best run of the round, posting a 6.533. Greg Anderson was next-best with a 6.549, followed by Bo Butner’s 6.550. Vincent Nobile was the quickest of the non-KB cars, clocking a 6.556 with his Mountain View entry. Rookie Tanner Gray had a successful first round of competition, defeating Chris McGaha in the first pair down the track. [Complete results]
Second-round pairings (lane choice first): Jason Line vs. Tanner Gray, Bo Butner vs. Shane Gray, Greg Anderson vs. Jeg Coughlin Jr., and Vincent Nobile vs. Erica Enders
TOP FUEL E2 (1:15 p.m): Don Schumacher Racing entries comprise three-fourths of the semifinal pairings after another quick round of racing, but it’s the fourth member of that quartet -- Doug Kalitta – who again had low e.t. of the round, powering the Mac Tools dragster to his fifth straight 3.6-second clocking, a 3.687 to defeat Terry McMillen. Tony Schumacher was the quickest of the DSR trio with a 3.697 in besting tire-smoking Brittany Force and will have lane choice over Leah Pritchett (3.707) while Kalitta will pick his round over Antron Brown, who beat rookie Troy Coughlin Jr. on a holeshot, 3.73 to 3.72. [Complete results]
Semifinal pairings (lane choice first): Tony Schumacher vs. Leah Pritchett; Doug Kalitta vs. Antron Brown
FUNNY CAR E2 (1:35 p.m.): We are guaranteed to have a Don Schumacher Racing vs. John Force Racing showdown in the final after two DSR cars advanced on one side of the ladder and two JFR cars advanced on the other side. Matt Hagan won a thrilling 3.8 to 3.8 battle with teammate Jack Beckman to earn a spot in the semifinals, where he faces Ron Capps. Hagan has lane choice thanks to his 3.882 that was the quickest time of the round. On the other side of things, it will be a father-daughter battle with John and Courtney Force squaring off. John has lane choice thanks to a 3.884. [Complete results]
Semifinal pairings (lane choice first): Matt Hagan vs. Ron Capps and John Force vs. Courtney Force
PRO STOCK E2 (1:45 p.m.): It will be Erica Enders vs. the KB Racing trio to decide who will win the first Wally of the season. Enders defeated the fellow Elite-powered entry of Vincent Nobile to earn a spot in the final four. She is joined by reigning world champ Jason Line, who again had the quickest time of the round with a 6.558, Greg Anderson and Bo Butner. [Complete results]
Semifinal pairings (lane choice first): Jason Line vs. Bo Butner and Greg Anderson vs. Erica Enders
TOP ALCOHOL FUNNY CAR SEMIFINALS (2:15 p.m.): D.J. Cox went on a wild ride during his semifinal match against Shane Westerfield. When Cox, who was in the left lane, hit the throttle on Tony Bartone’s flopper, his car made a sharp turn to the right, sending him towards the centerline. After crossing the centerline, Cox’s car swung around and was headed straight for the wall in his original lane. Cox was able to pull the car back around and moving more downtrack, but the back end continued to sashay, and it ultimately hit the guardwall. Westerfield, meanwhile, made a clean 5.45 to advance to the final against reigning national champ Jonnie Lindberg, who is driving for Jay Payne this weekend. [animated gif]
TOP FUEL SEMIFINALS (2:35 p.m.): Leah Pritchett will have lane choice in the final round when she takes on Doug Kalitta after each ran in the 3.6-second zone in their semifinal conquests. Pritchett delivered her Papa John's dragster to the finale, just the third of her young Top Fuel career, by outrunning Tony Schumacher with a 3.687 while Kalitta reached his 88th career final round by stopping the man who beat him for last year's world championship, Antron Brown, with a 3.698. Kalitta, winner of the Auto Club NHRA Finals, has now won seven straight rounds at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona.
FUNNY CAR SEMIFINALS (2:50 p.m.): The first Funny Car Wally and NHRA Traxxas Nitro Shootout spot of the 2017 season will go to either Courtney Force or Matt Hagan. Force defeated father John in a great 3.87 to 3.88 semifinal bout to earn a spot in the final round and lane choice for that title round. Hagan’s path to the final was much more wild. First, teammate Ron Capps went red, seemingly handing the match to Hagan. However, Hagan’s entry lost cylinders midway through the pass, and that shot him to the centerline. Hagan got extremely close to crossing the centerline and being disqualified, but after a close review by trackside officials, it was determined that while Hagan touched the centerline, he did not cross it, so he advanced to the final. [animated gif]
PRO STOCK SEMIFINALS (2:55 p.m.): It’s a bit of déjà vu in Pro Stock at the Circle K NHRA Winternationals because Greg Anderson and Jason Line are again the final two racers standing at the season opener. Anderson won the intramural battle last year, but Line has a good chance to exact a little revenge on his teammate because Line has had the quickest car of every round of competition. Line posted a 6.55 in his win against fellow-KB Racing entry Bo Butner in the semifinals, while Anderson ran 6.57 to defeat Erica Enders.
TOP FUEL HARLEY FINAL: Jay Turner, near lane, became the first Top Fuel Harley winner of the season, clinching the title on Rickey House’s final-round red-light. Turner zipped to a 6.276 at 218.23 mph while House invalidated a 6.698 pass with a -.028 foul start.
PRO STOCK FINAL (3:40 p.m.): Last season, Greg Anderson defeated Jason Line to win the Circle K NHRA Winternationals and take the early points lead. One year later, Line, near lane, was able to exact a little revenge, topping his teammate to win his fifth Winternationals Wally. Line had the best car of race day, pacing every round of competition, including a 6.56 in the final. That strong run paired with a killer .005 light proved too much for Anderson, who finished second with a .056-initiated 6.57. Line’s season-opening win extends Line’s streak of winning at least one race each season to 14 consecutive years, the longest streak of any competitor among the three full-time Pro classes. This was Line’s 46th Pro Stock victory and 48th overall.
FUNNY CAR FINAL (3:50 p.m.): Matt Hagan, far lane, earned the first Wally of the season and is the first driver to make the NHRA Traxxas Nitro Shootout field after besting Courtney Force in the final. Hagan got off the starting line first in the Don Schumacher Racing vs. John Force Racing bout and never trailed, crossing the finish line with a 3.87 to the 3.90 of Force. This is the 23rd win of Hagan’s career and his second at the Winternationals.
TOP FUEL FINAL (3:55 p.m.): Leah Pritchett became the 40th Winternationals Top Fuel champ and joined Shirley Muldowney, Shelly Anderson, Lori Johns, and Melanie Troxel as female Top Fuel winners of the season opener when she defeated tire-smoking Doug Kalitta for the victory. Pritchett’s 3.711 winner also helped complete a hat trick of low qualifier winners as fellow polesitters Matt Hagan (Funny Car) and Jason Line (Pro Stock) also won; that’s the first time it’s ever happened at the Winternationals. With Hagan’s win, it also marked Don Schumacher Racing’s first double win at the season opener. DSR now has 61 career double victories.
LUCAS OIL FINALS (5 p.m.): Ed Olpin became the 21st driver in NHRA history to double up at a national event, scoring wins in Super Gas and Top Sportsman. It was the 34th overall double ever recorded. Olpin first turned on the win light in Super Gas, using a .009 light and 9.886 to defeat Robert Naber’s further-under 9.882. Olpin then completed the double when he bested Jeff Gillette in the Top Sportsman title round. Olpin and Gillette cut identical .013 lights and were side by side all the way downtrack, crossing the stripe just .001-second apart in a 6.97 (6.96 dial) to 6.93 (6.92) contest.
In the alcohol categories, Joey Severance and Shane Westerfield came out on top. Two-time, defending Top Alcohol Dragster national champion Severance began his title defense on a high note, defeating Garrett Bateman in that class’ final, 5.21 to 5.48. Westerfield got the automatic nod in the Top Alcohol Funny Car final when reigning, two-time national champ Jonnie Lindberg went red by .002-second. That proved to be a lucky break for Westerfield, whose car had troubles downtrack and slowed to a 6.65. In other action, Doug Lambeck used a perfect .000 light to Clint Neff in Comp, Justin Lamb bested Timothy Fletcher in Super Stock, Jerry Emmons defeated Justin Jerome to win Stock, Steve Williams got around Dave Alves to win his second straight Winternationals Super Comp Wally, and Mike Coughlin won Top Dragster, defeating Andy Spiegel in the final.
Troy Coughlin Jr. earned his first round win in his first start, beating Shawn Reed in round one with a career-best 3.72 and even though he lost in round two on a painful holeshot to reigning world champ Antron Brown, he has impressed crew chief Rob Flynn, who’s tuning the car solo this weekend with phone-in input from team owner Connie Kalitta.
“He’s still learning how to drive the car, but he’s doing a great job,” said Flynn. “Most other cars in drag racing leave hard and then the acceleration tapers off as you go down the track, but not these fuel cars. They may look easy to drive, but they’re not. You really have to stay on top of what the car is doing. The guys who are good at this make it look easy, but they’re really hard to drive well.”
Coughlin had never staged next to another driver until the second qualifying session (he had a solo in Q1) but ran alongside teammate Doug Kalitta in Q3 and Tony Schumacher in Q4 – pretty good company. Despite the pressure of his first raceday start, he was a cool character.
“When that [engine] is idling behind you, all that stuff goes out the window, and then you enjoy the run," he said. "I’m learning with every run, and win or lose I learn something either way.”
Veteran Top Fuel owner finally cracked into the 3.7-second zone in Saturday night qualifying when his longtime driver, Troy Buff, chauffeured the black BME dragster to a 3.795. The run, which bettered their previous best of 3.81, would have been even quicker, perhaps a mid-3.70, had not an intake pushrod tip broken off just before the 800-foot mark, leading to a costly engine explosion that took a bit of the luster off of the long-sought achievement.
“That was about a $30,000 pushrod,” said Miller. “When the engine is running along at that speed and you break a pushrod, suddenly you have a seven-cylinder engine. The blower is still putting out enough air for eight so the other remaining players get 10 pounds more boost. Because each of the cylinders have a fixed fuel volume and suddenly are getting 15 percent more air, they go dead lean and start to detonate and it blows the rods out of it.”
The team, which early last year reached its first final round – a runner-up behind Antron Brown at the Denso Spark Plugs NHRA Nationals in Las Vegas – saw their hopes for more progress evaporate in tire spin in round one.
“We had to put another engine is it and no two engines are exactly the same, no matter how hard you try,” said Miller. “This one made an extra 200 rpm at the step of the throttle and 150 rpm more a little further down, so when the clutch came in that created more clamp load and it spun the tires. Coulda, woulda, shoulda. Still, it’s good to know that the things I did over the winter worked out and we can run .70s now. I won’t be going home beating myself up because the tune-up was fine.”
Expect to see the BME dragster at about half of the events this year; they’ve run 11 events the last three seasons.
Doug Kalitta is closing in fast on his milestone 600th round win, and the three he collected this weekend moved him to 592. Kalitta’s first round win came at the second event of his rookie season, in Phoenix in1998, when he beat Eddie Hill.
Kalitta has reached his win total in 442 events, thanks to 88 final-round appearances (42 wins, 46 runner-ups), 76 semifinal finishes, and 135 quarterfinal finishes. (Kalitta technically has raced in 91 final rounds, but three of them were in the finals of the Four-Wide Nationals where he did not finish in the top two of his quad.)
Kalitta fell just short of his bid for a second Winternationals title, having previously won the event in 2009. Kalitta’s uncle, Connie, won Top Fuel at the event in 1967 and his late cousin, Scott, won it in 2005.
A day before she actually won the Winternatiomals, Top Fuel low qualifier Leah Pritchett was already swooning just to be the No. 1 qualifier.
“There couldn’t be a bigger roster of better things than to have the entire world watching us at what I consider to be one of the most prestigious races in the world,” she said. “It’s not just my home track but the first place I ever went down the dragstrip. A win here would probably rank above a U.S. Nationals [win].
Pritchett, whose Todd Okuhara-tuned dragster shocked everyone with a 3.654 in testing, didn’t reach that number in Pomona, but the 3.672 that put her in the No. 1 spot was just shy of Steve Torrence’s national record 3.671 set last year in Sonoma.
“I wasn’t too excited about the 3.65 in Phoenix because that was testing, let’s do it when it counts, and we did it,” she said. “We were only one thousandth of a second from the quickest run ever, and we’ve still got 23 races to go after that. We don’t have a whole lot of parts that no one else has, and everyone is right on our heels. If you’re off at the Tree you’re going to get waxed. So we just have to be super meticulous in everything we do.”
Though they hope to one day be a thorn in the side of the higher-funded, multi-car teams, Del Worsham and his dad, Chuck, know they have some work still to do to up the performance and be a consistently quick car. Entering today’s first round, they knew if opponent Robert Hight made a perfect 3.8-second run like he did in qualifying, they likely would not have a chance. So, instead of focusing on that, the Worsham team instead decided to tune for the conditions and what they thought they could run down the track. The end result ended up being a round-win thanks to a 4.008 that finished ahead of Hight’s troubled 4.31. Hight was ahead for much of the run, but a mechanical problem near the eighth-mile mark slowed him, allowing Worsham, to drive around him and win.
“Oh man, what a way for my son and I to start it again,” said Chuck. “It looked like that race was over. I don’t know what happened to him, but we kind of took the conservative approach because we couldn’t beat him if he ran 3.82 or anything, so it all turned out.”
Unfortunately for Worsham, he was unable to repeat the feat in the second round, smoking the tires against defending world champion Ron Capps, who powered to a 3.89 victory.
J.R. Todd’s foray into the world of Funny Cars got off to a great start with the former Top Fuel shoe knocking off a tire-smoking Tim Wilkerson in the first round. Todd posted career-best numbers on the run, 3.902 at 330.72 mph, and though he did get the “W,” Todd admits he is still adjusting to his new ride and the more squirrelly nature of it.
“I’ve got to give all the credit to Jon O. [Oberhofer] and Todd [Smith] and the yella fellas. That DHL Camry is a handful, and I’m still a little behind the Funny Car,” said Todd,who came up short against Courtney Force in the second round. “I’m used to driving a dragster and just finesse those things, where you’ve got to manhandle one of these, and going through the finish line with the wheel completely cocked over at 330 mph, that’s an E-ticket ride right there. I don’t even know what to say. I’m having fun driving this thing, and hopefully we can do it three more times today.”
If Funny Car was a bracket class, Tommy Johnson Jr. would have been golden today. After running a 3.93 on his final qualifying attempt, Johnson put two more 3.93s on the scoreboards today. The problem, however, is most other cars were running in the 3.8s, so while the first-round 3.93 was enough to move Johnson past Alexis DeJoria, who was slowed by a mechanical malfunction, in the first round, the one in round two was not enough to better John Force, who posted a 3.88.
“We’ve got to take the governor off of this Make-A-Wish car,” Johnson joked. “It won’t go faster than a .93, but the guys are doing a great job with this back-up car this weekend. I’m really proud. We keep making progress every round. We’re kind of the unknown quantity, so look out. Let’s see what we can do.”
Though they are still working on getting the combination just right, one thing became clear during Pro Stock eliminations today: the Elite Motorsports team is back on track and ready to compete. All three Elite-powered entries made it out of the first round with runs ranging from 6.55 to 6.57, and two-time world champion Erica Enders was the only non-KB Racing entry to advance out of the second round.
“We’re just trying to learn this whole deal over again,” said Enders’ crew chief, Rick Jones. “The Elite guys have been working their butts off over the winter. We’ve got three really good cars and really good drivers, so I think we have a good chance.”
Added Enders, after her second-round win, “We’re really excited. I’m not sure how many times we got out of the second round last year, but it wasn’t many, so I’m so proud of my Elite Motorsports group. They’re absolutely incredible and never cease to amaze me.”
It’s fair to say that Tanner Gray’s first race in a Pro Stock car was a successful. The 17-year-old high school student qualified well, made three good, competitive qualifying passes (the fourth was slowed when the transmission broke), and he won a round, defeating Chris McGaha in the first round. However, though he is happy overall with the first outing, Gray, in true competitive fashion, can’t help but want more, particularly because he came extremely close to defeating No. 1 qualifier Jason Line in round two. Gray got the jump at the Tree, .026 to .066, and that was nearly enough to pull the upset of the reigning world champion. Line just edged Gray at the finish line by .006-second in the 6.55 to 6.60 contest.
“Obviously, we would have liked to have done better,” said Gray. “I feel like I missed the Tree second round. I hadn’t been that bad all week. It was just a lot of little things that went wrong there, and I guess we missed it by six-thou. I guess that’s how it goes. We’ll go to Phoenix and try to run good there. We’re switching cars. We didn’t really like the way that car was acting, so I’m going to get in my dad’s car, and my dad’s going to get in that car, and we’re going to go from there.
“I’ve always kind of said there’s no point in coming to the racetrack if you’re not there to win. I’m not very easily pleased with a round-win or anything like that, but, all in all, it wasn’t a bad weekend. There’s definitely some stuff that I have to improve on, that we as a group have to get better.”
Bo Butner’s quest for his first Pro Stock win will have to wait another week, and he has a familiar foe to thank for that. In a repeat of the season opener last year, Butner was derailed by fellow KB Racing-powered driver Jason Line in the semi’s, coming up short in a competitive 6.55 to 6.56 match. Though he definitely would have liked to have gotten by Line and had the chance to vie for his first Pro Wally, Butner was not hanging his head by any means following the loss.
“This is probably our best weekend that we’ve ever had,” said Butner. “This car was every bit as fast as [Line’s] throughout the day. It was just one of those races where if either one of us had been in the other pair we both would be in the final. It was good. This is just race one, so we’ll have to see if it continues, but I think we’ll be fine.”
The SealMaster Track Walk kicked off Sunday's action, allowing fans to walk on the hallowed dragstrip at Auto Club Dragway at Pomona.
During the pre-race ceremony, NHRA President Peter Clifford, left, and Lucas Oil's Tom Bogner presented championship rings and jackets to some of last year's Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series champions. On hand for the presentation were Jimmy DeFrank (Super Stock), Jonnie Lindberg (Alcohol Funny Car), and Joey Severance (Alcohol Dragster).
Clifford and Mello Yello's Al Rondon also dispensed some rewards to last year's Mello Yello Drag Racing Series champs: Antron Brown (Top Fuel), Ron Capps (Funny Car), Jason Line (Pro Stock), and Jerry Savoie (Pro Stock Motorcycle).
One of NHRA's initiatives this season is a year-long salute to first responders. Several local first responders were honored by NHRA during the pre-race ceremony.