Final eliminations are under way Sunday at Gainesville Raceway for the 48th annual Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals. Champions will be crowned today in the four NHRA Mello Yello Series classes as well as in the J&A Pro Mod Series and Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series.
ELIMINATIONS ROUNDS RECAPS
TOP FUEL ROUND 1 (11:30 a.m.): Points leader Leah Pritchett ran her 2017 unbeaten streak to 9-0 on a solo after Scott Palmer had to be shut off on the starting line for a leak. Oddly enough, both Pritchett and defending event champ Brittany Force ran 3.716 on solo runs because Larry Dixon was shut off with an oil leak against Force. Pritchett will not have lane choice in round two as she faces Doug Kalitta, who had the quickest time of the round, 3.706, in beating Ike Maier. It was a quick round as Clay Millican’s 3.741 was the slowest winning run of the stanza.
Second-round pairings (lane choice first): Tony Schumacher vs. Clay Millican; Brittany Force vs. Steve Torrence; Doug Kalitta vs. Leah Pritchett; Antron Brown vs. Troy Coughlin Jr.
FUNNY CAR ROUND 1 (11:30 a.m.): Defending event champ Robert Hight picked the pockets of teammates John and Courtney Force, taking low e.t. and top speed of the meet, respectively, from them with a 3.828 at 334.82 mph, the fourth quickest and fourth fastest performances in class history, in defeating Bob Tasca III. The round’s biggest upset was Jim Campbell beating Courtney Force. It was the fourth straight event in which they raced in round one, and he’s won the last two, including two weeks ago in Phoenix. The round’s other highlight was a battle of nitro Funny Car rookies, with Jonnie Lindberg getting his first Pro round win after J.R. Todd smoked the tires.
Second-round pairings (lane choice first): John Force vs. Jack Beckman; Tommy Johnson Jr. vs. Jim Campbell; Robert Hight vs. Jonnie Lindberg; Ron Capps vs. Matt Hagan
PRO STOCK ROUND 1 (12:16 p.m.): Low qualifier Jason Line had low elapsed time of the first round in Pro Stock with a 6.481 on his bye run and KB teammates Greg Anderson and Bo Butner also advanced to round two. Rookie of the year candidate Tanner Gray advanced with a holeshot win against Drew Skillman and Chris McGaha also won with a slower elapsed time when he outlasted Vincent Nobile by .0008-second. Shane Gray topped Allen Johnson while Elite teamamtes Erica Enders and Jeg Coughlin Jr. also advanced to round two.
Second-round pairings (lane choice first): Jason Line vs. Tanner Gray; Greg Anderson vs. Jeg Coughlin Jr.; Bo Butner vs. Chris McGaha; Erica Enders vs. Shane Gray.
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE ROUND 1 (12:31 p.m.): It was an adventure for some riders, but ultimately the top four qualifiers and six of the top eight advanced in the opening round of Pro Stock Motorcycle. Andrew Hines had low E.T. of the round with a 6.764 on his Harley V-Rod and low qualifier Jerry Savoie also found the 6.7s in his win over Karen Stoffer, who broke. It was a tough round for the Lucas Oil Buell team. After qualifying in the top half of the field, Hector Arana Sr. fouled and Hector Jr. was shut off on the starting line against Matt Smith. Eddie Krawiec also had an adventure when his Harley-Davidson got close to the centerline. Krawiec was able to hold on and defeat Mike Berry with a 6.888.
Second-round pairings (lane choice first): Andrew Hines vs. Scotty Pollacheck; Jerry Savoie vs. Steve Johnson; Matt Smith vs. Eddie Krawiec; LE Tonglet vs. Joey Gladstone.
PRO MOD NATIONAL RECORD: Eric Latino reset the J&A Service Pro Mod Series national e.t. record in round two with his supercharged Camaro, running a 5.727 and breaking the 5.750 standard set at last by Jonathan Gray at last year’s Gatornationals. It was a good news-bad news run for Latino, as he set the record but lost the round to former world champ Troy Coughlin’s 5.758 on a holeshot.
“It’s a new car and we just haven’t been able to find the right clutch setting,” explained Latino. “I let my team down a little with my driving but overall the car’s a great package. The biggest change for us has been our new JRi shocks that got it running good. We’ve struggled a lot but now it’s running awesome.”
TOP FUEL ROUND 2 (1:25 p.m.): Three-time Gatornationals champ Doug Kalitta ended Leah Pritchett’s 2017 unbeaten streak, beating the points leader on a holeshot, 3.754 to 3.738 – the margin of victory was just .0007-second. Tony Schumacher had low e.t. of the round with a 3.751 in beating Clay Millican while Steve Torrence ran 3.759 in ending Brittany Force’s hopes for a repeat win. Rookie Troy Coughlin Jr. put a scare into everyone when he lost the handle on the SealMaster dragster and smacked the wall in a losing effort to Antron Brown (animated gif).
Semifinal pairings (lane choice first): Tony Schumacher vs. Steve Torrence; Doug Kalitta vs. Antron Brown.
FUNNY CAR ROUND 2 (1:35 p.m.): Class rookie Jonnie Lindberg pulled a major upset. defeating low e.t. runner Robert Hight, who smoked the tires at the hit, moving the two-time Alcohol Funny Car champ to the semifinals at his debut event. Matt Hagan ran his unbeaten streak to 10 straight rounds but needed some luck after smoking the tires at midtrack. In a wild reversal of their race in Pomona, Ron Capps unexpectedly crossed the centerline in front of him (animated gif).
Semifinal pairings (lane choice first): John Force vs. Tommy Johnson Jr.; Jonnie Lindberg vs. Matt Hagan.
PRO STOCK ROUND 2 (1:46 p.m.): The Summit team is guaranteed to have one of their cars in the final round for the third-straight race to start the season with reigning champ Jason Line set to face teammate Greg Anderson in the semifinals. Line, the winner of the Pomona season-opener, defeated Tanner Gray, who fouled. Anderson, the Phoenix champ, won his sixth-straight round with a 6.565 after Jeg Coughlin Jr. shook the tires. The other half of the semi’s will feature Shane Gray and Chris McGaha. Gray stopped two-time champ Erica Enders, who shook the tires, and McGaha outran Bo Butner, 6.540 to 6.578.
Semifinal pairings (lane choice first): Jason Line vs. Greg Anderson; Shane Gray vs. Chris McGaha
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE ROUND 2 (1:55 p.m.): Harley-Davidson teammates Andrew Hines and Eddie Krawiec are on pace for a possible all-V-Rod final round after solid wins in the second round of Pro Stock Motorcycle. Krawiec overcame his handling issues in the first round to post a 6.791 in his win over Matt Smith’s Polaris entry and Hines outran Scotty Pollacheck with a6.827. The round featured a huge upset when reigning Mello Yello champ Jerry Savoie lost to Steve Johnson on a big holeshot, 6.863 to a 6.803. Rookie Joey Gladstone also made it to his first semifinal with a narrow 6.839 to 6.839 win over LE Tonglet.
Semifinal pairings (lane choice first): Eddie Krawiec vs. Joey Gladstone; Andrew Hines vs. Steve Johnson
TOP FUEL SEMIFINALS (2:40 p.m.): Don Schumacher Racing teammates Tony Schumacher and Antron Brown will face off in the final round, with Schumacher holding lane choice based on his narrow 3.715 to 3.719 winning edge over Brown. Schumacher bested Steve Torrence and Brown took out Kalitta, earning each driver his first final-round appearance of the season. Schumacher has four previous Gatornationals win, Brown one. A victory by Schumacher would make his the winningest Top Fuel driver in event history.
FUNNY CAR SEMIFINALS (2:50 p.m.): The Funny Car final will pit the class’ most experienced driver, John Force, who has 711 career starts, against its least experienced driver, Jonnie Lindberg, who has reached the final round in his debut in the class in Jim Head’s Toyota. Lindberg, a two-time Alcohol Funny Car champ, had made three runs in a nitro-burning Funny Car prior to this event – none of them in Head’s car – but will have lane choice against Force thanks to a 3.948 to 3.955 semifinal performance advantage.
PRO STOCK SEMIFINALS (2:53 p.m.): Greg Anderson will take on his North Caroline neighbor Shane Gray in the Pro Stock final. Anderson reached his 141st career final round by defeating Summit Racing teammate and reigning world champ Jason Line in the semifinals. Anderson, seeking his 88th career victory, won on a slight holeshot, 6.543 to 6.542. Anderson also defeated Matt Hartford and Jeg Coughlin in eliminaitons. Gray, who has five career wins in 14 final rounds, including the 2016 fall Las Vegas event, earned his way to the final by stopping Allen Johnson, Erica Enders and Chris McGaha. Gray won the semifinal bout with an off-pace 7.116 after both drivers shook the tires. Anderson will have lane choice in the final.
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE SEMIFINALS (3:01 p.m.): For the 21st time, Harley-Davidson teammates Andrew Hines and Eddie Krawiec will meet in the final round of a Pro Stock Motorcycle race. Hines, who holds a slight 11-10 advantage, defeated Steve Johnson in the semifinals. Johnson grabbed a big lead at the start but his Suzuki encountered a mechanical issue and slowed allowing Hines to take the win with a 6.79. Hines also stopped Angelle Sampey and Scotty Pollacheck earlier in the day. Krawiec will have lane choice in the final after his 6.76 held on to defeat rookie Joey Gladsone’s 6.86. Krawiec’s path to the final included wins against Mike Berry and Matt Smith.
PRO MOD FINAL (3:18 p.m.): One of the wildest events in the history of the J&A Services NHRA Pro Mod series ended with Steven Whiteley claiming his first career victory. Whiteley, near lane, drove his supercharged Cadillac to a 5.791 for the win after Mike Castellana shook the tires and slowed in his AAP Camaro. Whiteley came from the No. 5 qualifying spot to reach the final round after wins over Todd Tutterow, Mike Janis, and two-time series champ Troy Coughlin. Castellana, making his first appearance in a supercharged car, qualified No. 15 in the record field and stopped Sidnei Frigo, Kevin Rivenbark, and Danny Rowe to make the final.
LUCAS OIL SPORTSMAN FINALS (3:20 p.m.): David Rampy (pictured) earned his 93rd career win when he stopped Wes Leopold Jr. in the Gainesville Comp final. Rampy, who scored his first win in 1983 in Super Stock, took the title after Leopold fouled. Annie Whiteley, joined her son, Pro Mod winner Steven, in the winner’s circle after claiming a victory in Top Alcohol Funny Car. Whiteley won on a single run after Dan Pomponio was unable to return. Joining Rampy and Whiteley in the winner’s circle were rookie Justin Ashley (Top Alcohol Dragster), Fred Allen (Super Stock), Terry Nagel (Stock), and past national champions Jacob Elrod (Super Comp), Sherman Adcock Jr. (Super Gas), and Jeffrey Barker (Top Sportsman presented by Racing RVs). David Barton also successfully defended his title in the School of Automotive Machinists and Technology NHRA Factory Stock Showdown. Barton drove his COPO Camaro past the Cobra Jet Mustang of Chuck Watson in the final.
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE FINAL ROUND: Eddie Krawiec, far lane, won for the 37th time in his career and the fifth at Gainesville Raceway when he defeated teammate Andrew Hines in an all-Harley-Davidson final round. Krawiec rode to a 6.763 to hold off Hines, who grabbed a lead at the start but fell behind to a 6.802. Krawiec has now appeared in 64 final rounds.
PRO STOCK FINAL ROUND: Shane Gray, near lane, became the third-different Pro Stock winner in the first three events of the season when he defeated four-time champion Greg Anderson in the final round. After an even start, Gray, the No. 6 qualifier in his Gray Manufacturing Technologies Camaro, drove to a 6.535 for the win over Anderson’s 6.560. Gray has now won six Pro Stock events in 14 final round appearances. Anderson has appeared in all three final rounds this season with one win and two runner-up finishes.
FUNNY CAR FINAL ROUND: John Force, near lane, collected his eighth career Gatornationals Funny Car victory, defeating rookie Jonnie Lindberg in the final, 3.92 to 3.97. The victory is the 148th of his hall of fame career and the round win is the 2,500th collected by John Force Racing Funny Car drivers over the years, more than half of which (1,269) were collected by the man himself.
TOP FUEL FINAL ROUND: Tony Schumacher, far lane became the winningest Top Fuel driver in Gatornationals history, collecting his fifth title by defeating teammate Antron Brown in the final, 3.70 to 3.76. It was Schumacher’s first Gators crown since he beat Brown in the 2010 final.
SUNDAY ELIMINATIONS RECAP: Schumacher, Force, Gray, Krawiec score at Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals
Don Garlits has been retired from fulltime active competition for nearly three decades, yet the famous Floridian is still tied for most Top Fuel wins at his homestate event. It’s a fact well known to today’s Top Fuel pilots, who still revere him and revel in being mentioned in the same sentence.
Garlits won the Gators four times (1972, ’77, ’78, and ’86), a total matched by both Tony Schumacher and Larry Dixon (as well as retired Joe Amato) while Doug Kalitta has three wins. To exceed or even tie the legendary “Swamp Rat” is any category is always a major feat, but to do it at his hometown event would be almost in a class by itself.
“It would be a record that I wouldn’t forget for a long, long time,” said Schumacher, the No. 1 qualifier, prior to the start of eliminations. “As a kid, the Gatornationals was always one of the biggest races for my father. Here we are today with a great chance.”
Steve Torrence had a couple of interesting early-round matchups, taking on Shawn Reed and Brittany Force, both of whom – like he – benefit from the parts and expertise of tuner Alan Johnson.
The race with Reed was especially interesting for its oilfield connect. Reed’s Paton family-owned dragster is sponsored by Hughes Oilfield Transportation, which moves oil rigs around Texas, while Torrence’s car is sponsored by his family company, Capco Contractors, which does oil pipeline construction.
Torrence beat Reed with a 3.74 and defending event champ Force with a 3.75 to reach his first semifinal of the season.
“We haven’t had the type of start to the season that we wanted, but it’s the true definition of a team to overcome diversity,” said Torrence. “My Capco boys have stuck it out and they know what to do, and we have a bunch of buys at home that are rootin’ for us, and we’re going to keep going.”
Clay Millican still is pursuing his first career NHRA 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 those 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.”
Millican got off to a good start, beating Terry McMillen in round one but lost a close round-two race to Tony Schumacher, 3.75 to 3.77.
The Gatornationals holds a very special place in Antron Brown’s heart. It was the first event he ever entered – in 1998, while competing in Pro Stock Motorcycle -- and also the site of his first No. 1 qualifying start, in 2001, also aboard his two-wheeler. After switching to Top Fuel, he earned his first Gainesville final-round appearance in 2010 and his first (and still only) win at the epic event in 2013.
Tommy Johnson Jr. and crew chief John Collins might not be making big news with low 3.8-second runs, but they’re killing them with consistency. In the 12 runs that comprised the NHRA Arizona Nationals (seven) and Gainesville qualifying and the first round (five), the Make-A-Wish Dodge had run in the 3.80s on 11 occasions. The lone miss came in Q3 in Gainesville, where a mechanical malfunction caused the car to smoke the tires.
"We may not be the quickest this weekend, but with our consistency, they're all going to have to outrun us," Johnson said.
Johnson is hoping for a quicker start that last year, when he finished a career-high second in points. Johnson didn’t score his first of three season wins until Bristol, the 13th race on the calendar.
"We tend to come alive later in the year, around Epping or so, but this season, I think we've started on a high note. It would definitely be nice to get a win at the beginning of the season."
Matt Hagan entered eliminations looking for a slice of Funny Car history. Only two Funny Car drivers – he and the legendary Don “the Snake” Prudhomme – have ever started a season with two consecutive wins, and no one has every kicked off a campaign with three straight. Both drivers accomplished the feat twice, Prudhomme in 1975 and ’76 and Hagan in 2015 and this season.
Hagan and the Mopar Express Lane team led by crew chief Dickie Venables and assistant Michael Knudsen went 10-0 in round wins this season with event titles in Pomona and Phoenix and two rounds in Gainesville before losing to Jonnie Linberg in the semifinals.
"It's a pretty cool deal to start the season off like this," said Hagan. "We got us a hot rod right now. The car is strong, Dickie is putting a good car underneath me. I'm just feeling it right now -- we all are. The car is just going down the racetrack every lap. It's a great feeling to crawl in the car with the confidence that you're going to run strong.
"We're carrying this high right now but you also have to be prepared for the other side of it, too. I think we're mentally focused, so we're just living it up and loving it right now but we know that things are going to get tough and guys are going to try to catch up.”
A victory at the Gatornationals is always welcome, but for John Force it’s traditionally been a sign of good things to come. He’s won the event a class-record seven times – including five straight between 1992 and 1996 – and won the championship in six of those seasons. It’s been awhile since Force was last in winner’s circle as a driver in Gainesville – way back in 2001 -- but he's halfway to another one this year.
Del Worsham entered the event as part of a pretty good trivia question. He’s one of just two drivers to have won the Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals in both Top Fuel and Funny Car, having won the fuel dragster crown in 2011 and the Funny Car Wally in 2004, the latter in his first stint with the family-owned team he’s rejoined this season.
The other driver to pull of the nitro double is Kenny Bernstein, who won the event in Funny Car three times (1984, ’85, and ’88) with his Budweiser King entries and added a Top Fuel win in 1998.
Worsham's hopes for a third Gatornationals win ended in round one when he smoked the tires against John Force.
There isn’t an event that goes by when Bo Butner isn’t asked multiple times, “When are you going to win your first Pro Stock race?” some drivers might get tired of answering the query, but not the easy-going Butner.
“I’m flattered that they even think I’m capable of winning one of these,” Butner laughed. “I know I have a great car and we should be winning. It just takes time. I do feel like its coming. I feel like my driving is better now than it was when I first started racing in Pro Stock. It’s just a matter of time.”
Butner defeated John Gaydosh in the opening round in Gainesville. He cut a .053 light and ran a 6.495 after Gaydosh fouled. Butner cut another .059 light in the second round but he got off the starting line ahead of Chris McGaha’s .068. McGaha had the quicker car, though and turned on the win light.
“I wasn’t trying to cut a .50 light in either of those rounds; believe me,” said Butner. “I really wanted to be in the .30s but you can’t really back off in one of these cars. That’s’ one of the things I had to learn in the last two years. So far this year, we’ve been really consistent. I also didn’t make the run I wanted to make. We ran 6.49 in the first round but it should have run quicker. I’m not sure why we fell off so much in the second. I certainly wasn’t counting on that.”
Elite Motorsports team owner Richard Freeman was visibly upset after both of his Pro Stock drivers, Erica Enders and Jeg Coughlin Jr., lost in the second round due to tire shake issues, but after a trying 2016 season, he’s got plenty of reason to be optimistic.
“We got behind the eight-ball last year thanks to the new [fuel injection] rules and the switch [to a Dodge],” said Freeman. “Now, we’re back to an all-GM team and its coming together. Along with Carl Foltz of CFE, We spent a lot of time this winter working on our stuff. We did a lot of R&D with intake manifolds and cylinder heads. I honestly think we’ve got a tick more power than even the KB guys. We just need to get our cars sorted out.”
Both of the Elite cars were built by RJ Race Cars. Coughlin’s JEGS.com Camaro is brand new while Enders is driving the three-year old Camaro that carried her to her most recent Pro Stock title in 2015.
“The bottom line is that it’s all coming together for us,” Freeman said. “We try not to think about last year too much. We’ve got a lot to look forward to this year. We’re going to be just fine.”
Freeman also expressed a lot of optimism about the two COPO Camaro entries that the Elite team is fielding in the SAM Tech Factory Stock Showdown. Enders is driving one car while engine builder Todd Patterson is wheeling the other. Both cars are backed by Omaha Track.
“I love the Showdown,” said Freeman. “We’re really excited to be a part of it. Both of those cars are new and we really didn’t know what to expect from them when we came down here. They both qualified for the [eight-car] show so we’re pretty happy about that.”
Eddie Krawiec described his first-round win over Mike Berry as “ugly” but that doesn’t begin to describe what could have been a disaster. Krawiec’s Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson drifted toward the centerline and it took just about all of his vast experience to keep it upright.
“I was leaning pretty hard and when you do that, the front tire washes out and starts to skid,” said Krawiec. “These bikes tend to do that once in a while. It’s a scary deal but you have to stay with it. If you roll off the throttle, the bike will stand up and at that point, it might dart left or right and then you’ve got a real problem.”
All things considered, Krawiec wasn’t too disappointed with his 6.888-elapsed time since he figures he scrubbed off at least a tenth of a second.
“If we make it run straight, it will go a 6.75 or .76,” Krawiec said. “We’ll make a small axle changed and then make sure we’re lined up straight at the start and go from there.”
Krawiec’s second run yielded a much better 6.793 that was good enough to beat two-time Mello Yello champ Matt Smith.
Three of the four riders who reached the semifinals in Pro Stock Motorcycle; Eddie Krawiec, Andrew Hines, and Steve Johnson, have combined to win seven of the last 13 Gainesville openers. Krawiec is a four time winner, Johnson has two wins at Gainesville Raceway and Hines is the 2004 champ. Hines also made the sport’s first six-second Pro Stock Motorcycle pass in Gainesville in 2005. And then there is rookie Joey Gladstone, who’s full NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle résumé includes just two round wins, both of them in today’s final eliminations.
“I know I have a lot to learn but I know I have a good opportunity here,” said Gladstone, who is signed for a full-season aboard Joe Riccardi’s San Marino Excavating Suzuki. The bike is powered by a Vance & Hines engine and Riccardi tunes the bike with the help of Gary Stoffer and Greg Underdahl. “When you look at the rookie of the year deal, you see Troy Coughlin Jr. and Tanner Gray. It’s about as tough as it gets. Just to be in there with those guys is a major deal.”
Eventual Alcohol Funny Car winner Annie Whiteley narrowly avoided disaster in Sunday’s second round of eliminations as Andy Bohl crossed the centerline just behind her (animated gif).