PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE Q3 (3:15 p.m.): Given the significant improvement in conditions, it was no surprise to see most of the Pro Stock Motorcycle competitors improve upon yesterday’s best runs. Of the 21 riders who made runs, 16 of them made their best run of the weekend including Hector Arana Jr., who took over the top spot from Matt Smith with a 6.832, 196.96. Smith improved on yesterday’s run with a 6.832, but his speed was 196.62, slightly slower than Arana’s. There are now nine bikes in the 6.8s including Jerry Savoie, who had the third-best run of the round with a 6.830 and LE Tonglet, who was close behind at 6.832.
PRO STOCK Q3 (3:39 p.m.): There was an almost universal improvement in the Pro Stock class where 15 of 17 drivers improved upon yesterday’s best runs. Those who improved included Greg Anderson, who wheeled his Summit Chevy to the top spot with a 6.577. Anderson stole the top spot from teammate Bo Butner, who had earlier run 6.580. Drew Skillman also recorded his best effort with a 6.581 in his Gray Motorsports-powered Camaro. Tanner Gray, who started the session in the No. 1 spot, fell to fifth after slowing to a 6.602. Jason Line (6.585) and Chris McGaha (6.596) also found the 6.5-second zone.
TOP FUEL Q3 (4:30 p.m.): Two-thirds of the Don Schumacher Racing Top Fuel contingent figured out the track, as Leah Pritchett and Tony Schumacher were the only cars to post runs in the 3-second range in the third qualifying session. Pritchett (3.763) and Schumacher (3.758) finished No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, while Antron Brown took the No. 4 slot (4.187). Scott Palmer earned the single bonus point with a 4.176-second pass. Clay Millican will enter the final session outside the field of 16. Chris Karamesines holds the bump spot with a 4.69-second time.
FUNNY CAR Q3 (5:02 p.m.): The women of Funny Car laid down a couple of solid runs as most of the field hazed the tires in the penultimate flopper session. Courtney Force and Alexis DeJoria had the best runs of the third session, posting times of 3.921 and 3.996, respectively. They were the only drivers to get into the 3-second range. John Force took the single bonus point by hanging the third-best run of the session (4.009), while Jonnie Lindberg (4.012) and Tim Wilkerson (4.17) rounded out the top five of the session. Wilkerson’s run moved him into 14th and put Justin Schriefer into the hot seat. Bob Bode holds the bump spot with a time of 4.497.
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE Q4 (6:08 p.m.): On the last run of the day, LE Tonglet stole the top spot in Pro Stock Motorcycle from Hector Arana Jr. Tonglet wheeled his Nitro Fish Suzuki to a 6.806, 196.13 to earn the pole, holding off Arana’s 6.811. It was the fifth time in his career and second time this year that Tonglet will be the last rider introduced during pre-race ceremonies. Tonglet’s teammate, Jerry Savoie also made a very competitive pass with a 6.823 while Karen Stoffer was the surprise of the round with a 6.848 on her Suzuki. Mike Berry began the round outside of the 16-bike field but rallied with a 6.908 to secure a spot, bumping out Ryan Oehler, who had earlier run a 6.976 in his NHRA debut,
First round pairings (lane choice first): LE Tonglet vs. Cory Reed; Hector Arana Jr. vs. Angelle Sampey; Matt Smith vs. Eddie Krawiec; Jerry Savoie vs. Chip Ellis; Karen Stoffer vs. Andrew Hines; Steve Johnson vs. Mike Berry; Angie Smith vs. Melissa Surber; Scotty Pollacheck vs. Joey Gladstone
PRO STOCK Q4 (6:27 p.m.): There were a number of drivers who improved in the final Pro Stock qualifying session but the top spot did not change hands. For the 89th time in his career and second time this season, Greg Anderson will be the last driver introduced to the fans on Sunday morning. Anderson saved his best for last with a 6.564 to secure the pole, holding off Butner’s 6.574. Drew Skillman will start from the No. 3 spot while Jeg Coughlin Jr. stepped up to a 6.584 in his JEGS.com Camaro to claim the No. 4 position. Another driver who made a solid move in the final session is Vincent Nobile, who struggled early in the weekend, but was seventh-quickest with a 6.595, 209.85 in his Mountain View Camaro.
First-round pairings (lane choice first): Greg Anderson vs. Val Smeland; Bo Butner vs. Mark Hogan; Drew Skillman vs. Shane Tucker; Jeg Coughlin Jr. vs. Kenny Delco; Jason Line vs. Alan Prusiensky; Tanner Gray vs. Alex Laughlin; Vincent Nobile vs. Allen Johnson; Chris McGaha vs. Erica Enders.
TOP FUEL Q4 (7:54 p.m.): Leah Pritchett came up with the best run of the final session (3.723), but it wasn’t enough to claim the No. 1 qualifying spot. That still belongs to Brittany Force, whose 3.711 from the second session stood up to give her the green cap for the second year in a row in Chicago. That Friday success didn’t carry over to Saturday as she had an explosive run to the finish line. Clay Millican managed to pull himself into the field with the second-best run of the fourth session (3.739); that got him into the No. 3 slot. Steve Torrence is the No. 4 qualifier and had the third best run of the session.
First round pairings (lane choice first): Brittany Force vs. Luigi Novelli; Leah Pritchett vs. Troy Coughlin Jr.; Clay Millican vs. Kyle Wurtzel; Steve Torrence vs. Scott Palmer; Tony Schumacher vs. Blake Alexander; Shawn Langdon vs. Terry McMillen; Antron Brown vs. Doug Kalitta; T.J. Zizzo vs. Pat Dakin.
FUNNY CAR Q4 (8:28 p.m.): Robert Hight didn’t have a good run on Saturday, but he did hang onto his No. 1 qualifying spot thanks to his 3.851-second run on Friday. The best run in the final qualifying session belonged to Jonnie Lindberg (3.935); the Swedish driver will cherish those three bonus points as he chases a spot in the Countdown for the Championship. His 3.935 pass got him into the No. 8 slot and a meeting with defending champion Ron Capps in the first round. Tim Wilkerson, who’s working with a new chassis, had the second-best run of the session and the only other run in the 3-second range.
First round matchups (lane choice first): Robert Hight vs. Jim Campbell; Jack Beckman vs. Bob Bode; Courtney Force vs. J.R. Todd; Matt Hagan vs. Del Worsham; Tommy Johnson Jr. vs. Cruz Pedregon; Alexis DeJoria vs. John Force; Brian Stewart vs. Tim Wilkerson; Jonnie Lindberg vs. Ron Capps.
It’s not easy building a winning Top Fuel program. Okay, it’s not easy building a winning program in any class, obviously. So, what Scott Palmer and his team has done this season has been very impressive. The job isn’t done, but the Tommy Thompson sponsored crew is inching closer to their goal of qualifying for the Countdown to the Championship.
Palmer is tied with Troy Coughlin Jr. in ninth place with another Kalitta Motorsports driver, Shawn Langdon, 108 points behind. That’s not a ton of breathing room, but Palmer can take a bit of solace knowing how well his car has run this season. That all goes back to the program he and his team have built.
“We will get more aggressive when we need to, but right now we weigh our options,” said Palmer, who ran his first 3.7 this season. “What would be the best option we have for being competitive to be in this Countdown? Right now, being consistent is. I think that will pay off. That and keeping our parts fresh.”
As the Countdown gets closer, Palmer wants to get a little more aggressive during night sessions in order to improve his qualifying spot. He feels his team can do that now they have a better handle on the dragster. The advantage of qualifying in the top half of the field vs. the bottom half could equal an extra round win, which would pay huge dividends.
“Right now, we’ve been qualifying 10th or 11th, somewhere around there,” said Palmer. “If you get someone in that No. 4 or 5 spot, you get a fast car. The bottom line is that you got someone who, even if it’s just a mental thing, they ran faster than you and they know it.”
Palmer has done an excellent job of not beating himself this season. The team doesn’t smoke the tires much and has fared well against opponents he’s competing with for a Countdown spot. He directs a lot of the credit Steve Torrence’s Capco Contractors team.
“What other big team would do like what Steve Torrence has done and help us to this extent,” said Palmer. “We have Capco on our car, and we don’t have it there just because we bought a sticker.”
He’s quick to point out that the information flows one way: The Capco dragster isn’t taking data from Palmer and company. He just does his best to make sure they’re not a hindrance to the Kilgore, Tex. native. So far so good on that front; Torrence has racked up Wally’s this season and doesn’t appear to be slowing down.
Of course, it’s one thing to get help and it’s another to apply it properly. Palmer and crew chief Ashley Fye have put together a program that’s on the verge of getting into the Countdown. Given how dominant teams like Don Schumacher Racing and Kalitta Motorsports have become, it’s impressive to see any independent team rise up; especially this quickly.
The battle for those 10 spots is far from over, but Palmer likes where he’s at. He’ll be a lot happier if he can drag himself out of that No. 11 qualifying spot.
Top Fuel rookie Blake Alexander set a career-best during the night session on Friday, but he did so with a cylinder out and hopes to reset that mark on Saturday. The conditions will give him the chance to better his 3.882-second pass.
“We’ll try to do better today,” said Alexander. “It was okay. We weren’t trying to set the world on fire or anything. I think a lot of guys kind of went for it.”
It’s just Alexander’s second race in a Top Fuel dragster and he’s doing so for Del Worsham. All the rookie’s experience previously came in a Funny Car. They’re very different animals, particularly when it comes to steering, and Alexander tries to manage that based on his grip.
“It takes a lot different touch on the car,” said Alexander. “I put my fingers on top of the wheel so I’m not holding it with a death grip, strong hands and everything, just kind of lock my arms a little bit like it’s a bicycle.”
His first race was back at the NHRA Summernationals in New Jersey. He qualified at the bottom of the 14-car Top Fuel field with a 5.729-second pass and faced Antron Brown in the first round. He set a career-best 3.992 against Brown but lost the matchup. He’ll look to better that if he qualifies in Chicago. He’s currently in the No. 10 qualifying spot.
Night sessions are a great opportunity for drivers to throw down, and the Fallen Patriots NHRA Route 66 Nationals gives drivers two shots to do just that. Friday’s session was a bit of a mixed bag in that regard as drivers like Steve Torrence, Doug Kalitta and Antron Brown swung big and came up empty as the track cooled down.
Brown says that’s just about business as usual in Chicago, particularly for cars that run later as the track starts to dry up. He’s excited for a second crack at one of his favorite tracks tonight.
“Today’s going to be a lot cooler, so it’s going to be a lot different whereas our first run today is going to be more like our run last night,” said Brown. “By the time we get going, after all the Funny Cars run, we had a couple oil downs, they didn’t prep the track the same way and re-glue it… the track starts to get dry. And when it gets dry, it starts to get dusty, and the track is just not glued down anymore. So, we’re trying to run a 3.60, and when it gets like that, you’re just not going to run that anymore.”
That’s something that’s unique to Friday sessions because Funny Car runs first. On Saturday, the Top Fuel cars will run first (National Dragster editor Phil Burgess likes to say “Funny Car Friday” and “Skinny Car Saturday”) so we might see those more aggressive tune-ups work. Brown is qualified No. 5 thanks to his 3.766 run in the first session.
Del Worsham fell in the first round at the final three races of a rigorous four-race stretch, but a solid test session in Norwalk following that event and a week off before Chicago has the veteran and his team reinvigorated heading into the second half of the 2017 season.
“We made big improvements staying after in Norwalk and we all felt good about it,” Worsham said. “Coming back, you can definitely see a change in everyone’s attitude. Luckily, we’ve all hung in there and everybody is excited to be (in Chicago). We’ve got a chance of making the Countdown and that’s something we would love to do. Hopefully with the rest and some of the added performance we found in Norwalk, we can put ourselves in a good position.”
He enters Saturday in the No. 12 spot with a 3.975 to his name. Worsham is behind fellow Countdown contenders Cruz Pedregon and Jonnie Lindberg with a pair of qualifying sessions to go. He came into Chicago in 11th place, five points behind Pedregon.
Worsham struggled mightily through the first half of the regular season, but started to see his performance come around through the last handful of races. That’s helped him climb within striking distance of a Countdown spot. That’s happened at the same time as Pedregon and Alexis DeJoria have seen their performance come around. It’s now or never for Worsham to make a move if he’s going to qualify.
Robert Hight got off to another great start by setting both ends of the track record on Friday night. Even then, the driver of the AAA car feels the track has more to give.
“That wasn’t a perfect run for us,” Hight said. “It was slow early, and then it didn’t lock the clutch up. The motor was away from it, screaming. If you get that thing where it’s supposed to lock up, this thing will run real fast – and a lot quicker. Good news is we get another night session so we get another crack at it.”
So, we might see another slugfest in a category that has given us more than a few this season. No, it might not live up to the incredible home run derby we witnessed in Topeka between Hight and Matt Hagan (nor does it have to), but Hight has been quite the crowd pleaser this year.
“It’s exciting. The fans look for those big numbers, and we’re trying to go harder.”
If Hight can hold on to the No. 1 spot, it will be the third time in his career he’s done so in Chicago. He also earned the green cap back in 2005 and 2010. The John Force Racing Funny Cars have made a habit of snagging records this year.
“I called it yesterday at the press conference that track records were going to fall,” Hight said. “This is a great racing surface. But a lot of it is the advancement of Funny Car over the last two years. There’s hardly a race track that we go to where we don’t set records."
We get another night session tonight. Let’s see if more records go tumbling.
After the first day of Funny Car qualifying, Tim Wilkerson finds himself in an unfamiliar position: out of the top 16. The Illinois native got his first ever nitro win at the Chicago event, but after two sessions he was on the outside looking in.
With two sessions to go, the ever-consistent Wilkerson has time to jump back in, of course. But it was surprising to see the veteran put in runs of 4.932 and 6.342 seconds and sit behind Justin Schriefer after the first couple of sessions, particularly given how good the conditions were.
Wilkerson qualified No. 11 in Norwalk, a big step down from grabbing the No. 1 hat in Bristol the race prior. The veteran is in eighth, 99 points ahead of 11th place driver Del Worsham. That’s probably safe – probably – but missing out of the field would make Wilkerson vulnerable as drivers like Cruz Pedregon, Alexis DeJoria, J.R. Todd and Jonnie Lindberg battle to get into the Countdown.
Update: Wilkerson hopped into the field, at least temporarily, with a 4.17-second pass in the third qualifying session. Let's see if that holds up.
Tanner Gray has had so much success during the first 12 races of his career that its sometimes easy to forget that he’s an 18-year old who graduated high school less than a month ago. With two wins and three final rounds, Gray has already accomplished more than most rookies do in a full season. Gray doesn’t lack for confidence, but he’s also willing to give credit where it’s due. After running a 6.591 on Friday night, he made it a point to acknowledge his crew, which is led by veteran Pro Stock racer Dave Connolly.
“Dave wanted us to test, so we tested after Norwalk and I feel like we have a better handle on the car,” said Gray. “We also got a good handle on my clutch linkage, because I feel like I’d gotten off track there for a bit [in reaction times]. Testing definitely paid off. I have great horsepower and the guys back in engine shop give us the best of everything. As a rookie coming in, I couldn’t ask for a better group of guys. They are very understanding when I make a mistake. The have my back and make my job very easy.
Understandably, the Gray team considered skipping the Chicago race following the death of Tanner’s aunt, Terry Chandler, but they elected to come to the event because they know that’s exactly what she would have wanted them to do.
Jason Line opened qualifying with a respectable 6.614 on Friday night and he begins the day in the top half of the Pro Stock field. Line was ranked as low as No. 7 during the recent four-race Eastern Swing, but appears to working his way back to his early-season pace where he qualified No. 1 at the first four events of the season.
“The big challenge in Chicago is really always the weather; you just never know what you’re going to get no matter what the weatherman says. It’s a great facility and a nice racetrack, but the weather is a big variable there, for sure.”
Line has just one win this season, but historically, he’s got three wins in six finals at Route 66 Raceway. That makes the Chicago track one of his strongest.
“We have some good momentum as a team, and all three of our KB Racing Camaros ran really well in Norwalk,” said Line. I think we learned a few things, like always, and that certainly contributes to the momentum.”
It’s not often that a father and son can agree, but in the case of Vincent Nobile and his father, John, they concur that the Mountain View team has been lost over the last few races with their Elite-powered Pro Stock Camaro. Nobile struggled in the first three runs in Chicago, but a different tune-up resulted in a promising 6.595, 209.85 during the final session.
“We’ve been pretty lost; that’s pretty obvious,” said the elder Nobile, who works alongside team owner Nick Mitsos as a tuning consultant. “We’ve been chasing our tail for the last few races but we’re trying real hard to get it figured out. For that run [Q4] we put something in the car that seemed to work.”
“That certainly was an improvement,” added Vincent while studying the time slip. “We changed everything in the car because we’ve been scratching our heads. We tried a different set up for tomorrow and now I think we’ve got a race car that we can work with.”
Nobile won the Chicago event in 2014 when he defeated former teammate Jason Line in the final round. His last win came at last year’s Reading event.
Matt Smith described his Polaris Victory Magnum as “pretty mean” after his strong 6.829 qualifying effort last night but that doesn’t begin to tell the story for the two-time world champion. Smith debuted the new Polaris/Victory engine and body combination earlier this year and struggled at the first few races. Smith’s frustration culminated with an embarrassing DNQ last month in Englishtown. Smith went to work and addressed a lot of the mechanical issues that had been plaguing him and he was rewarded in Norwalk with a No. 1 qualifying effort and a runner-up finish.
“Even though we didn’t qualify in Englishtown, I knew we had very good power; we’ve had that all year,” said Smith. “I was so upset after that [DNQ] that I was ready to sell everything for pennies on the dollar. I was over it. Then, we started to take a look at it and we made a few changes and it turned the corner.
“The last two races have been awesome,” Smith said. “It was good to be No. 1 in Norwalk but I wanted to come here and prove that it wasn’t a fluke. I want people to know we’re here to stay.”
Smith’s first run in Chicago, a 6.836, was impressive and his second, the aforementioned 6.829 was off the charts. Heading into Saturday, he has the field covered by more than five-hundredths of a second. Smith cites several factors for his improved performance and at least one of them is a partnership with Elite Performance. The Elite team reportedly helped Smith built the bottom end of his V-twin engines in a manner that improved durability and performance.
“I was surprised that no one ran a 6.84 or .85 last night,” said Smith. “Junior [Hector Arana Jr.] ran almost 195-mph so I know he has good power. This track is very good. You can throw almost everything at it. The biggest challenge is keeping the bike from bogging. If you can get past that, you’re going to make some good runs. I’m in contract negotiations with Victory for our 2018 program and I need to show them what we’re capable of.
“We’re off to a good start this weekend but I also need to mention Terry Chandler,” said Smith, referring to the popular Funny Car team sponsor who passed away last week. “She was a fantastic person and we’re going to miss her a lot.”
In the third race with their new Harley-Davidson Street Rod bikes, teammates Eddie Krawiec and Andrew Hines are still attempting to find the sweet spot for their combination. After Friday’s two runs, Krawiec is ranked No. 9 with a 6.945 and Hines is No. 10 with a 6.951 best.
“We’ve done a lot of work on these bikes since the last race in Norwalk,” said Krawiec. “My bike has some new chassis parts on it and we’re just trying to get a handle on them. We knew that it was going to be a different deal with these new bikes but I’m not sure we knew how different it would be.”
Krawiec and Hines have both noted that the new bikes are not only more aerodynamic than their predecessors but the chassis also produces more traction. The end result is the need for an entirely different clutch and chassis set-up.
“We know it’s not a power issue; we have the same power we’ve always had so I’m not worried about that,” said Krawiec. “We just need to get the chassis sorted out. It’s out there. Matt Smith ran a 6.82 and that proves it can be done. I think we can run right with him but we need to hit the set-up.
Angie Smith is nothing if not honest. Smith, the wife, of two-time champion Matt Smith, admitted that her mood is often influenced by the performance of her Buell-bodied S&S V-twin. Oftentimes, Smith is frustrated, but this year, she’s had a lot to smile about thanks to a dramatic improvement in on-track results. Smith was in a particularly good mood following Q2 when she made one of the best runs of the round with a 6.864, 194.32.
I’ve been really grumpy to be around,” said Smith. “My husband is No. 1 and I just want to go really fast. Sometimes it’s difficult to get along with me, but I just want to win. I really have to thank my team. I can’t do this without every single one of them.”
Smith’s improved performance can be traced directly to her switch back to the S&S Buell package. Last year, she rode the Victory Gunner, and was admittedly uncomfortable with that bike’s aerodynamics, especially the lack of a front fairing. On more than one run, Smith nearly lost her grip on the handlebars because her arms were exposed to 190-mph winds at speed.
“Going back to this bike is exactly what I needed,” she said. “I’m just so much more comfortable on the Buell. Now, I can go up there with a clear head and focus on riding and hitting all my shift points and not be worried about if the bike was going to go straight or if I was going to have a problem with it. My confidence is as good as it’s ever been.”
After a thrilling night of qualifying, there is another full day of action on tap at the Fallen Patriots NHRA Route 66 Nationals. There will be two more professional qualifying sessions where provisional low qualifiers Brittany Force (Top Fuel), Robert Hight (Funny Car), Tanner Gray (Pro Stock) and Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle) will attempt to secure their spots at the top of the field. Another highlight of Saturday’s program is the JEGS Allstars race where 80 of NHRA’s best Lucas Oil Series sportsman drivers will battle for individual and team honors.
Force didn’t get down the track on Friday’s first session but her team made the necessary adjustments for the nighttime qualifier and the Monster Energy dragster rocketed to the top of the charts with a 3.711 to re-set the Route 66 Raceway track elapsed time record. Force holds a healthy advantage over Chicago native Tony Schumacher, who is second with a 3.758. Shawn Langdon, trying desperately to make the make it into the top ten, stands third with a 3.759 in his Global Electronic Technology dragster.
So far, there are 13 Top Fuel drivers who have earned three-second time slips but two drivers who have yet to breech that barrier are Doug Kalitta and Bristol winner Clay Millican.
The top spot in Funny Car changed hands several times until Hight lowered the boom with a 3.851 in his Auto Club Camaro. Hight, the leader after Q1 with a 3.917, also set the Route 66 Raceway track speed record at 334.73 mph. Fresh off his win in Norwalk two weeks ago, Jack Beckman moved into the No. 2 spot with a 3.856 and Courtney Force made sure that she won’t have to suffer a second-straight DNQ with a 3.880 in her Advance Auto Camaro. All told, there are 12 Funny Car drivers in the threes with several more sure to follow today. Tim Wilkerson is the lone driver who is currently outside the field after smoking the tires twice yesterday.
Rookie of the year favorite Gray is on pace to qualify No. 1 in Pro Stock for the second time this season if he can outlast the competition during today’s two sessions. Gray wheeled his Camaro to a 6.591, 208.84 to hold off Norwalk champ Greg Anderson, who is close behind with a 6.600. Drew Skillman, the leader after Q1, has settled into the No. 3 spot with a 6.605 best and the top eight qualifiers are all tightly bunched between Gray and Allen Johnson’s 6.638.
Smith led all four sessions in Norwalk with his Polaris Victory Magnum and he’s half way to a qualifying sweep again in Chicago. Smith rode to a 6.836 in the first session and then improved to a 6.829 in the second to put a hammerlock on the top spot. Scotty Pollacheck is second, but his 6.883 is well behind Smith’s pace. Past Chicago winner Hector Arana Jr. is also in the mix with a third-best 6.884. There are 21 motorcycles attempting to get into just 16 spots which will make today’s qualifying battle an intense affair. There are also a record six female racers trying to qualify this weekend.