QUALIFYING SESSIONS RECAP
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE Q1 (1:50 p.m.): Eddie Krawiec, who rarely qualifies lower than fourth in any field, led the first Pro Stock Motorcycle qualifying session of the season with a strong 6.791-second run on his Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson. The highly anticipated 200-mph mark did not fall, but Krawiec did set the speed bar in Q1 with a 198.17-mph effort. Veteran Hector Arana Sr. is close behind with a 6.811 on his Lucas Oil Buell and former champ LE Tonglet is also in the mix with a 6.817 in his first race as a member of Jerry Savoie’s White Alligator Racing Suzuki team.
PRO STOCK Q1 (2:04 p.m.): More than a year into the era of electronic fuel injection, Shane Gray recorded the sport’s first 6.4-second EFI Pro Stock run when he drove to a 6.493. Gray’s run was eventually bettered by provisional low qualifier Bo Butner, who duplicated his effort from testing earlier this week with a 6.477 in his KB Racing Camaro. Butner’s teammate, reigning Mello Yello Pro Stock champ Jason Line also made his quickest pass in over a year with a 6.497 for the No. 3 spot.
FUNNY CAR Q1 (2:45 p.m.): Reigning world champ Ron Capps took the early qualifying lead with the NAPA Auto Parts Dodge, posting a track-record 3.865, just a few ticks ahead of John Force’s 3.869. Robert Hight set the track speed record at 331.77 (faster even than the Top Fuel track speed record) for the No. 4 spot at 3.885, right behind Jack Beckman’s 3.880. Reigning Alcohol Funny Car champ Jonnie Lindberg’s first official pass in a nitro car was a sizzling 3.927 in Jim Head’s Toyota, good for the No. 7 spot.
TOP FUEL Q1 (3:05 p.m.): Rookie Troy Coughlin Jr. has the first Top Fuel qualifying lead of his young career after posting a 3.748 at 327.03 in the SealMaster dragster. The run was not without problems though as Coughlin’s car got wildly sideways during shutdown and only some quick wheelwork saved a potential incident (animated gif). Points leader Leah Pritchett, unbeaten this season in the first two races, put her Papa John's mount, also backed by FireAde at this event, into the No. 2 spot with a 3.768 at 325.69, the speed important as teammate Tony Schumacher matched her e.t. but at a slightly slower speed, 325.22. (Note: Pritchett's pass was later DQ'd for weight.)
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE Q2 (5:28 p.m.): Newlywed LE Tonglet, in his first event as a member of Jerry Savoie’s WAR team, made the quickest run of the second session with a 6.820 on his Nitro Fish Suzuki. Tonglet was a thousandth of a second off his earlier 6.819 and remains third in the field behind Eddie Krawiec and Hector Arana Sr. Hector Arana Jr. scored bonus points with a 6.828 on his Lucas Oil Buell and reigning champ Savoie was third quickest for the round with a 6.830.
Rookie Andie Rawlings had a scary moment in Q2 when she made contact with the left lane wall. Rawlings, who is riding a Suzuki for the Underdahl/Stoffer team was not injured in the incident. “That’s’ not the way I wanted to debut but here we are,” Rawlings said. “I knew it wasn’t going straight so I went to abort the run. I grabbed the clutch and tried to pull it back but it was too late.”
PRO STOCK Q2 (5:46 p.m.): Reigning Mello Yello Pro Stock champ Jason Line grabbed the top spot from his teammate Bo Butner by a thousandth of a second with a 6.476 in his Summit Racing Equipment Camaro. A total of five Pro Stock drivers ventured into the 6.4s in a robust second session including two-time champion Erica Enders and her Elite Motorsports teammate, Jeg Coughlin Jr. Butner also backed up his earlier 6.477 run with a 6.486.
FUNNY CAR Q2 (6:20 p.m.): Seven-time Gatornationals champ John Force is the qualifying leader at the midpoint after racing to a track-record 3.832, which tied for the fifth quickest pass on class history. The run bumped teammate Robert Hight’s 3.844 to No. 2 not long after Hight took the pole from Matt Hagan, who had run 3.854. Force also tied the new speed track record of 333.25 mph set earlier in the session by daughter Courtney on a 3.860 pass that has her qualified No. 4.
TOP FUEL Q2 (7 p.m.): Tony Schumacher broke the Top Fuel track record, powering his U.S. Army dragster to a 3.682 to grab the No. 1 qualifying spot. Doug Kalitta had the top spot with a 3.698, but it lasted only one pair until Schumacher ran. World champ Antron Brown is third at 3.716, just ahead of defending event champ Brittany Force. Points leader Leah Pritchett is just No. 13 after losing her first round when her entry came up light at the scales and then smoked the tires on the second pass.
Friday Mello Yello recap: Schumacher, Force, Line, Krawiec lead opening-day qualifying in Gainesville
Leah Pritchett is trying to do what no other Top Fuel driver and team have done in class history by winning their third straight event to open the season. The Todd Okuhara-led squad already claimed one piece of history by becoming the first Top Fuel team to win the season’s first two races from the No. 1 qualifying spot and matched another mark, set by Gary Scelzi in 1997, just winning the opening duo, but she’s not letting all of the hype and history blind her to the task at hand.
“"I think it would be really easy to get ahead of ourselves and focus on a third win of the season and make it a three-peat - something we've never done before,” she said. “But honestly, we're going to go into it with the exact same mentality we had for Pomona, knowing we had a fast car from testing and continue to just take it round by round. We're going to be testing a couple of things, but trying not to lose our lead and leave in the No. 1 spot.
"What we did in the first two races wasn't a fluke. We want to prove that to ourselves and everyone else. We'll have the same routine [here] that we had at Pomona and Phoenix, We'll keep our noses to the grindstone and show we are worthy of what we have accomplished so far this year."
Clay Millican still is pursuing that first career win, and would love to get it at the Gatornationals, a race where he’s had good success the last four years.
Millican made it to the final round in 2013 and in 2016 he made it to the semifinals but was defeated by another guy looking for his first win, Terry McMillen. He admits both of these races were very memorable.
“In 2013 I raced Antron in the finals and I felt we had a good shot at winning,” he recalled. “Even though we were the runner-up, I was able to watch several good friends win in Sportsmen. And I don’t like to lose, it was hard to be mad after losing Terry in the semifinals last year. This was his first trip to the finals and he had struggled so many times at his sponsor’s race. When we got out of our cars he picked me up and was swinging me everywhere. It’s hard not to smile when he did that.”
Ebullient Englishman Smax Smith is back in action this weekend in Bob Leverich’s Top Fueler for the first of a number of events planned for this season, and will be on hand Monday when nostalgia dragster pilot Audrey Worm attempts to complete her licensing runs in anticipation of a concurrent limited campaign this season.
The team qualified at five of the six events in which Smith completed last season, no mean feat in the face of the tough, corporate-backed competition, but every race is a learning experience as they try to catch up. Having a second driver in Worm will only accelerate the process for the team.
“Anything that brings in money and experience to the team, I’m all for,” said Smith. “We love doing this so much we’ll do whatever it takes to keep it going. I don’t want to just be watching it on TV.”
The team unashamedly admits it plans its schedule around events with smaller car counts to improve its chance of qualifying, or of at least getting the guaranteed money paid to the top two non-qualifiers.
In Smith’s limited time in the car, his best is a 4.11, and they’re hoping to gain some more ground – and respect – by running in the threes this weekend.
“On the 4.11, which we ran last year in Reading, the engine was getting lean and we couldn’t make a full pass, but we’ve addressed that with the slide [valve],” said Smith. “We’re quietly confident that we have a 4.0 in the car and have an eye on the threes. Everyone knows how hard this is, and without money it’s even harder. We can’t even afford to send our fuel pump in to get flowed – that's $2,000-$3,000, because you probably want to rebuild it -- so we have to tune round it the best we can.”
Jim Campbell begins his third event for Jim Dunn Racing, not only still getting the feel for being a fulltime hired driver, but doing it at the hand of the man he jokingly but reverently calls his sensei, Funny Car legend Dunn.
Campbell, who competed at 12 events in a variety of cars in his rookie season last year, is not only learning about the requirements of driving for a team with major sponsors – the team is debuting its new 7-Eleven sponsorship at this event – but also soaking up Dunn’s vast 50-plus years of racing knowledge.
“I learn something every day, and I think I get yelled at every day,” he said with a grin. “Then again, I only have 62 runs in a Funny Car; he has 20,000, so I’m going to listen and learn, and there’s so much to learn.”
“The only way you can learn is to mistakes, and I’m going to yell at you when you do,” admitted Dunn. “Making a mistake once is OK, twice maybe … three times, we’ve got a problem.”
Dunn has taught his fair share of students, including Kenji Okazaki, Frank Pedregon, and Tony Bartone, all of who won national events with him, and he also had an active hand in helping Ron Capps get his license in Don Prudhomme’s Funny Car.
“To drive one of these, you have to be part of the car, but everyone feels the car differently,” Dunn explained. “You may feel it with your hands or your ears or the car the car is vibrating – something that connects you to the car. I can only tell them how I did it and what my other drivers did. What I tell them might not be true for them, but they need to find out what works for them, because driving these cars needs to be automatic. You don’t have time to think.
“I used to be able to tell by the sound of the blower when it was going to come off. I can that to a driver 100 times but until they hear it, they won’t know that sound, but then they’ll know it. It’s an expensive lesson -- sometimes $100,000 – but sometimes that’s the only way you learn.”
Two-time and defending Alcohol Funny Car national champ Jonnie Lindberg is making his Professional debut this weekend in Jim Head’s Toyota. Lindberg, who licensed impressively with a 3.92 at the end of last season in a trio of passes in Tim Wilkerson’s car, didn’t get the chance to test Head’s car and hadn’t even sat in the car until it arrived this week at Gainesville Raceway. The car hasn’t even been started since Head’s son, Chad, drove the car at last year’s season finale in Pomona, but Lindberg is ready. “I was born ready,” he smiled.
Head, a notorious against-the grain thinker, has supreme confidence in his driver, so much so that he bypassed any testing opportunities and the first two events of the season, and in fact just returned Thursday from his traditional long trout-fishing vacation in New Zealand.
Chad also made his debut in Gainesville under similar circumstances in 2013, failed to make the show, then qualified No. 1 at the next event, in Charlotte.
“When Chad started driving my car, he’d only made some runs in a nostalgia Funny Car and had next to no staging or raceday experience; Jonnie is a two-time world champ and already knows all that stuff. It’s such a pleasure to be with an experienced kid -- don’t get me wrong, Chad did a fantastic job – that I’m really looking forward to it. I have a weak-suck tune-up compared to some of these guys out here, but I’m very optimistic.”
“All I told him was to relax, and don’t worry about cutting a light. Very shortly he’s going to be able to leave on all but two or three of these guys and pretty soon maybe more of them. “
Lindberg wasted to time proving Head’s faith accurate, posting a 3.927 that put him in the No. 7 spot after his first qualifying session.
Bob Tasca III is making his season debut and his first race since last year’s Chicago event, sporting backing from auto-buying app TrueCar, the first of seven planned events with sponsors that interact with his Rhode Island-based Ford dealership.
Tasca, who ran a 3.92 best last season, is confident that his Mustang, tuned by crew chief Tom Leskovan and Justin Davis (most recently car chief on Matt Hagan’s car) with help from Don Schumacher Racing’s Todd Okuhara and Eric Lane, can run with the regulars.
“This car will definitely run 3.80s; it’s got all of the best stuff on it from DSR,” he said. “We’ll get in two runs today and then be able to pick it up tomorrow.
“It’s good to be back, and I’d love to be back fulltime, and we’re working on it, but it’s a lot of money.”
There was a spirited debate in the Pro Stock pits on Thursday regarding the weather conditions in Gainesville and more specifically, the possibility that the Jason Line’s 6.455-second NHRA elapsed time record might be touched. Everyone on the KB team agreed that the Amalie Motor Oil Gatornationals would feature the sport’s first official fuel injected run, but not everyone thought that the national record was in danger.
“If all depends on the atmosphere; if it’s cool we can get there,” said Line. “If we ran in the morning when the Super Stock and Stock guys run, it would be more likely. I think that it’s going to be a little warmer when we run so I’m going to say no. We’ll get close, but it won’t get hit.”
Line’s prediction proved to be quite accurate, at least through the first session. Line’s teammate, Bo Butner, made the quickest run of the session with a 6.477, which is the quickest Pro Stock run since the 2015 season. Line and Shane Gray also ventured into the 6.4s for the first time since the introduction of EFI.
In the days before the start of the Gatornationals, most of the Pro Stock teams that were headed to Gainesville tested extensively at either South Georgia Motorsports Park or Bradenton Motorsports Park. Chris McGaha went to Bradenton and was rewarded with a 6.49-second time slip. He was .02-second off the pace set by KB driver Bo Butner, who turned in a 6.47-second run in his Butner Auto Sales Camaro. With similar air conditions, it’s not surprising that Q1 in Gainesville yielded similar results. Butner was able to duplicate his testing performance with a 6.477 while McGaha wasn’t far back with a solid 6.517 run in his Harlow Sammons Camaro.
“I’m always a couple of hundredths behind the leaders so that’s not a surprise to me,” said McGaha, who entered the Gainesville race as the class’ tenth-ranked driver after the first two events of the season. “We had some things we wanted to test and some of them worked and some didn’t. We did learn a few things to I guess we could call it a success. On Q1, the track [rubber] was a little thin out there and a few drivers had problems getting down the track. Thankfully, we weren’t one of them. We got some good data to work with.”
After reaching the final round two weeks ago in Phoenix, Drew Skillman came into Gainesville with high hopes for another solid run. A soild 6.547-second run in the first round provided a solid baseline for the rest of the weekend.
“That was an ugly run,” Skillman said. “It bogged and then went to the right and I did a horrible job of bringing it back. It was out there in the marbles spinning the tires and it still ran a 6.54. It could have been a .49. In fact, we probably could have run quicker than that if I’d done everything right.”
Although Skillman reached the final round in Phoenix, he has qualified in the bottom half of the field at each of the first two events. That’s a problem that his Skillman Auto Group team would love to rectify and with Gray Motorsports horsepower under the hood, Skillman believes he should be a top-half qualifier at every event.
“It’s all a matter of making consistent runs but more importantly, you’ve got to make them in the right qualifying sessions and that has been a bit of an issue for us lately but we’re working on it.”
For the second time in the last three years, Matt Smith is debuting an entirely new combination in the Pro Stock Motorcycle class. Smith is riding the first of the new Polaris Magnum bikes this weekend and it is powered by a new V-twin engine that was developed by S&S Cycles. The Liberty Racing team with riders Angelle Sampey and Cory Reed, are also using the new Polaris body and engine combination. Smith’s wife, Angie, is racing a Buell V-twin this season. In a pre-season test session at Bradenton Motorsports Park, Smith made several runs, and eventually settled in with a best of 6.81.
“We made a few runs and the bike kept going left, but we finally realized that it was just the crosswind,” said Smith. “On the last day, we made a nice run and the bike ran 6.81 and the data from that run showed we could have run 6.77 or 6.78. That was good enough for me. To be perfectly honest, if we’re not in the top four by the end of qualifying this weekend, I’m going to be disappointed.”
Smith took time this winter to address the reliability issues that often plagued him last year. Specifically, he worked on the bike’s six-speed gearbox. Despite his best efforts, Smith wasn’t able to get down the track on the first qualifying run of the year, slowing to a 7.17.
“I think we got that [transmission] issue fixed late last year,” Smith said. “We made a few changes so the transmission doesn’t pop out of gear and I don’t think we had an issue at all during the Countdown last season. As for today’s run, I’m still not sure what that was but we’ll work on it and get it fixed. This bike is going to be good. That much I’m sure of.”
After a bit of uncertainty this winter, Scotty Pollacheck has landed on his feet. The five-time runner-up will pursue his first career win aboard Greg Underdahl’s Suzuki after Underdahl’s son, Jimmy, elected to take the year off in order to devote more time to his family and career.
“After last year, I wasn’t really sure what I was going to do or if I even wanted to keep doing this,” said Pollacheck. “Towards the end of the year, Greg mentioned that Jimmy was going to take the year off and we started talking and we put a deal together. In 2010, Greg gave me my first chance to race a Pro Stock bike when I leased his Suzuki so I guess I’ve come full-circle.”
A new rider isn’t the only change to the Underdahl bike this season. Greg has elected to return to Lectron carburetors after struggling with a fuel injection system for the last two years. The new combination will be similar to the one used by championship contender LE Tonglet.
Team owners Gary Stoffer and Greg Underdahl have four bikes running out of their trailer this weekend which makes their pit area look like a crowded and hectic place. In addition to Stoffer’s wife, Karen, the team is also fielding Suzuki entries for Scotty Pollacheck, rookies of the year contender Joey Gladstone, and Andie Rawlings, who is making her first start in the class.
“It’s a bit of a circus here but we have plenty of help and everyone knows their role,” said Stoffer who is primarily responsible for tuning his wife’s bike. “The advantage is that we should get plenty of data from each session but of course, that depends on each bike getting down the race track and we didn’t do a great job of that in Q1.”
Karen Stoffer, who won Gainesville titles in 2007 and 2015, spun the rear tire in Q1 as soon as she dumped the clutch and was out of power before the bike went 100-feet. On the second run, she managed a respectable 7.00. According to Gary, managing wheel speed is even more difficult than usual given the premium conditions in Gainesville. The Pro Stock Motorcycles make significantly more horsepower than usual which makes them tough to tame.
“I’m making adjustments that I’ve never made before,” Gary said. “For the second run, I lowered the starting line rpm by 400 and took some timing out in low gear. I was looking to make the bike bog rather than blow the tire away so I have some data to tune with. We’ve got the power to run 6.8s, we just need to figure out how to get it to the ground.”
The pits at Gainesville Raceway were packed with Florida fans checking out all of the cars and stars at the traditional East Coast opener.
The event is the first of the season for Pro Stock Motorcycles, so the bikes, including Chip Ellis’ Buell, were put through rigid tech inspection by NHRA’s Bob Blackwell.
A large display of vintage race cars in the Hot Rod Junction in the pits provide a fantasyland for car lovers
Among the vehicles on display are numerous racecars.
Barbara Hamilton, a female barrier breaker in NHRA competition in the 1960s, is on hand with her Willys.
Florida legend “Big Daddy” Don Garlits welcomed fans to his display in the pits.
NHRA legends Tom Hoover, Herm Petersen, and Jim Walther took part in an autograph session.
The Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals, the traditional East Coast opener for the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series, is race No. 3 on the calendar but No. 1 in the hearts of many as one of NHRA's "majors" that always looks good on a winning resume.
Leah Pritchett (Top Fuel) and Matt Hagan (Funny Car) both enter the event unbeaten after winning the season's first two events, in Pomona and Phoenix, though neither has previously won this event.
Also unbeaten -- at least on a team basis -- is the KB Racing Pro Stock duo of Jason Line and Greg Anderson, who split the season's first two races and have begun the season in the same dominant fashion that carried the duo to a combined 13 straight wins to start last season.
The event also marks the season debut for both the Pro Stock Motorcycle and Pro Mod classes, where Jerry Savoie and Rickie smith are the defending season champs.
With cool temperatures forecast for the weekend and an event tradition of record-breaking performances, the conditions could be ripe not only for national records but also a little bit of history, with the possibility of the first 3.7-second Funny Car pass and the first 200-mph Pro Stock Motorcycle run.
Here's a look at the current NHRA national records:
3.658 sec. by Leah Pritchett, Feb. '17, Sonoma, Calif.
332.75 mph by Spencer Massey, Aug. ’15, Brainerd, Minn.
3.822 by Matt Hagan, Aug. ’16, Brainerd, Minn.
335.57 mph by Hagan, May ’16, Topeka, Kan.
6.455 sec. by Jason Line, March ’15, Charlotte, N.C.
215.55 mph by Erica Enders, May ’14, Englishtown N.J.
Pro Stock Motorcycle
6.728 sec. by Andrew Hines, Oct. ’12, Reading, Pa.;
199.88 mph by Hector Arana Jr., March ’15, Charlotte, N.C.
EVENT FACT SHEET
2016 EVENT WINNERS: Brittany Force, Top Fuel; Robert Hight, Funny Car; Greg Anderson, Pro Stock; Eddie Krawiec, Pro Stock Motorcycle.
MOST VICTORIES: Warren Johnson, 9, PS; John Force, 7, FC; Don Prudhomme, 5, Greg Anderson 5 PS, FC; Joe Amato, 4, TF; Kenny Bernstein, 4, FC/TF; Larry Dixon, 4, TF; Don Garlits, 4, TF; Eddie Krawiec, 4, PSM; Jason Line, 4, PS; Ed McCulloch, 4, FC; Tony Schumacher, 4, TF; Dave Schultz, 4, PSM; Terry Vance, 4, PSM.
3.698 seconds by Richie Crampton, March ’16
329.02 mph by Spencer Massey, March ‘15
3.879 seconds by Jack Beckman, March ’16
329.26 mph by Beckman, March ’16
6.473 seconds by Mike Edwards, March ’12
214.69 mph by Erica Enders, March ’14
Pro Stock Motorcycle
6.750 seconds by Eddie Krawiec, March ’12
199.26 mph by Krawiec, March ’11