QUALIFYING SESSIONS RECAPS
PRO STOCK Q1 (5:01 p.m.): Fresh off his second win of the season in Topeka, rookie Tanner Gray stormed to the early lead in qualifying for the New England Nationals with a 6.518 in his Gray Manufacturing Technologies Camaro. Gray, the leading contender for the Auto Club Road to the Future award, edged Summit Racing teammates Greg Anderson and Jason Line, who also earned bonus points with runs of 6.526 and 6.534 respectively. One of the most impressive runs of the session came from Allen Johnson, who wheeled his Marathon Petroleum Dodge to a 6.562 for the No. 7 spot.
FUNNY CAR Q1 (5:55 p.m.): Courtney Force stole the headlines during the first round of qualifying and did so for multiple reasons. Not only did she reset the New England Dragway track e.t. record with a 3.842 that has her No. 1 after one session, but Force also made the highlight reels for a massive explosion at the finish line that was reminiscent of the big boomer Jack Beckman suffered here last year. Force was able to get out of the car under her own power, but her Advance Auto Parts entry was significantly damaged in the explosion and subsequent collision with the wall, forcing the current polesitter to go to her back-up car for the rest of the weekend. Force’s teammate Robert Hight is second after posting a 3.849 at 336.74 mph, a new track speed record. Jack Beckman, J.R. Todd, Tommy Johnson Jr., Tim Wilkerson, Del Worsham, and Alexis DeJoria round out the quick eight.
TOP FUEL Q1 (6:09 p.m.): After track records were set in Funny Car, Top Fuel racers found the going a bit tougher during Q1 in Epping. Points leader Leah Pritchett drove her new-look Dodge Demon Top Fuel car to a 3.747 for the top spot while Steve Torrence was just a few thousandths of a second behind with a 3.750. The final qualifying bonus point went to Dom Lagana after his 3.806 run. Scott Palmer, Terry McMillen, and Troy Coughlin Jr. also found the three-second zone. The rest of the field struggled to get down the track with shut off runs by Shawn Langdon, Brittany Force, Tony Schumacher, Antron Brown, and Doug Kalitta.
PRO STOCK Q2 (7:15 p.m.): Two-time world champ Erica Enders returned to the top of the pack in Pro Stock after Friday’s two runs following a strong 6.513 in her Elite Motorsports Camaro. Enders shut off early during her first run of the day, but returned at twilight to make the best run of the day. Enders nudged Tanner Gray from the top spot, but the rookie had to be pleased by back-to-back runs of 6.518 and 6.520 in his Gray Motorsports Camaro. Bo Butner is also solidly qualified after a 6.519 in his Butner Auto entry.
FUNNY CAR Q2 (7:55 p.m.): No one was able to better Courtney Force’s 3.84 from the first session, so she will enter Saturday as the provisional No. 1 qualifier. Force returned for the second session but experienced troubles on the burnout when her car went to the right and tapped the wall. Force shut off the car and got out while Jack Beckman made his pass. Force’s crew then pushed her car off the track. Bob Tasca III had the best run of the session with a career-best 3.892. The run, Tasca’s first in the 3.8s, did come at a cost, however. As Tasca approached the end of the track, his engine suffered a small fire [animated gif]. J.R. Todd (3.900) and Alexis DeJoria (3.923) also earned bonus points for that session.
TOP FUEL Q2 (8:25 p.m.): Brittany Force ended the day in the top spot after running a track record 3.686, 331.36 in her Monster Energy Top Fuel dragster. Force edged rival and points leader Leah Pritchett, who wheeled her special edition Dodge Demon dragster to a 3.696 for the second spot. The surprise of the day came from Terry McMillen, who carded a career-best 3.730 in his Amalie Oil entry for the No. 3 spot. If he can hold on, it will be the best starting spot of McMillen’s career. Doug Kalitta also made a solid run in the second session with a 3.732 that holds down the provisional No. 4 spot while Antron Brown is fifth following a 3.744. Brown’s run would almost certainly have been quicker had his parachute not deployed well before the finish line.
Lately, every Funny Car crew chief has reason to envy Ron Capps’ tuner, Rahn Tobler, but that list extends to Rob Wendland, the crew chief on Terry McMillen’s Amalie Oil Top Fuel dragster.
“I try to race smart,” said Wendland. “I try to race like Rahn Tobler. He has the mentality of, ‘I’m going to put up a number that I’m comfortable with and if you can’t beat it, more power to you.’ We have a solid 3.7 car and that’s the number I try to put on the board. We really try not to beat ourselves. Our goal this year was to qualify a little better so we didn’t have to run the really fast cars in the first round and we’ve been able to do a bit of that. We’ve also managed to cut down on our parts failures. That was maybe the biggest thing on our to-do list.”
McMillen has won four rounds so far this season, including his semifinal finish at the Four-Wide Nationals in Charlotte. He is eighth after the first eight events of the season but down the stretch, he’s going to have to hold off Troy Coughlin Jr., Shawn Langdon, and Scott Palmer.
“If you look at our qualifying, we’ve been anywhere from sixth to tenth at most races and that gives you a fighting chance,” Wendland noted. “Of course, we qualified sixth in Atlanta and had to run Leah [Pritchett] in the first round and she threw a 3.69 at us. Now, teams know they have to take us seriously. We can run 3.7s just about anywhere and if I really had to push it, I think we could run 3.71 or 3.72. And that’s with a car that is still a bit overweight. Our speed is great, we just miss a little E.T. in the first part of the track.”
McMillen kicked off qualifying in Epping with a respectable 3.835 at just 283.43 mph.
Steve Chrisman, the driver of the CP Carillo entry, is a long way from his home in Anaheim, California but he has fond memories of his first trip to New England Dragway, nearly a half-century ago.
“The only other time I’ve been here was in 1969,” Chrisman recalled. “I came here with my father [NHRA Hall of Famer Jack Chrisman] when he was racing a Funny Car in the Coca-Cola Cavalcade of Stars. We came here and races with Stone, Woods & Cook, Fred Goeske, Kelly Chadwick and just about anyone else who was a big name back then. I was just a teenager but it was a lot of fun and this place really hasn’t changed a lot. It’s got guardwalls and scoreboards and lights but it still has a that sort of nostalgia ‘feel’ to it.”
After more than 350 runs on his old Parts Plus/Great Clips dragster, Clay Millican and crew chief David Grubnic figured it was time for some new pipe so they’ve debuted a new race car this weekend. Like almost anyone else, Millican is happy to have a new set of wheels, but he’s not expecting to have much difficulty transitioning to the new pipe.
“Our old car had been back-halved several times but it was getting pretty long in the tooth,” said Millican. “This car was sitting in our shop and we’re anticipating some new chassis specs for next year so we thought, ‘Why not go ahead and start using it?’ Both of these cars were built by Hadman and they’re almost in sequence so I hope they behave the same way. I don’t think there will be much difference in weight or anything else. I’m hoping that everything that Grubby learned with our old car will transition to this new one.”
Millican is generally aware of his place in the sport but he honestly can’t remember how many races he won at New England Dragway during his IHRA days. Should he win this weekend, the popular Pro says that won’t be an issue.
“Oh, if we pull this off and win this weekend, I can promise you I’ll never forget it,” he laughed. “I don’t think anyone else will, either. It would be quite a celebration.”
Antron Brown was on a run that almost certainly would have been in the 3.6s but he slowed to a 3.744 at just 309-mph after his parachute deployed at half-track.
“The Matco car was on a run,” said an overly excited Brown. “I knew it was scooting. It was up on the tire and it felt incredible. Then I got to half-track and it pulled back. It felt like the whole car lifted up off the ground. I thought, ‘Why am I slowing down?’ It didn’t feel like it had a hole out. I finally lifted. Once I realized what it was, I thought, you’ve got to be kidding me. That just tells you what this car is capable of. If NHRA wants to slow us down, that’s the way to do it. Just make us drag the parachute across the finish line.”
Despite the mishap, Brown ended the day as the No. 5 qualifier in the field behind Brittany Force, Leah Pritchett, Terry McMillen, and Doug Kalitta.
If you believe in patterns, then the John Force Racing team is the odds-on favorite to win the Funny Car Wally this weekend. Sure, Ron Capps, who has been on fire as of late with four-straight wins, is the defending champion, but every odd year the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series has been in Epping, a JFR driver was the one hoisting the Wally at weekend’s end. Courtney Force defeated her dad, John, to win the inaugural event in 2013. John then came back won the 2015 title, besting Tommy Johnson Jr. in the final.
Though the JFR trio has only accounted for one win this season (John in Gainesville), the three cars have performed well all year, giving them winning potential. That potential has been shown primarily in qualifying, where Courtney has qualified fourth or better at every race, including four straight No. 1s from Las Vegas through Atlanta. Her average starting position through the first eight events is 1.88. John has been in the top half at seven of the eight with an average start of 4.88, and though Hight has been a little less consistent in qualifying, his average start is No. 6.
In addition to the strong showing in qualifying, the JFR team has also recorded the best time of eliminations on several occasions, including the most recent race in Topeka when Courtney’s 3.821 was the best time of the four rounds.
“It’s nice that we’ve had a fast and quick race car, to set for a time a national record and be one of the few to run over 338 mph — it definitely feels good — but we have to learn from that and be more consistent,” Courtney said. “We’ve got to start going rounds. Our biggest struggle is not having that e.t. on Sundays. It’s a corner we’re turning now, but my team is finding time and speed out of this race car, and it’s only a matter of time before we get into that winner’s circle.”
Somewhat lost in the excitement created by Courtney Force’s engine explosion was the strong showing by her teammate Robert Hight, who continued his recent performance surge with another impressive pass that had him sitting right behind his teammate after Q1. Hight clocked a 3.849 at 336.74 mph. The speed, which was the sixth fastest in history, reset the New England Dragway track record.
“These Chevys, they’re coming around, and we’re going to turn it around this weekend,” said Hight “We’re going to see some wins.”
After sitting out three events to deal with family matters, Alexis DeJoria returned to competition here, and her first run down the dragstrip in more than a month was a solid one, coming in at 3.941 seconds. The pass was good enough to place DeJoria in the quick eight heading into the second session.
“That felt really good,” said DeJoria. “It shredded the blower belt. It kind of looks like Spanish moss hanging off the body of the car. It’s a really good start to this weekend. I had some time off, so it’s really nice to get a full, solid pass in and put something together for the next round. Hopefully, we’ll just tune it up, and it will be nice like that one was. These cars are just incredible, and I really missed being in that seat, so it’s nice to be back.”
Years ago, Warren Johnson earned the nickname “Professor of Pro Stock” largely because the six-time champ understands the mechanics of factory hot rod class at a doctorate level. Erica Enders doesn’t build engines, design cylinder heads, or operate a dyno, but the two-time champion does take a similar scholastic approach to her reaction times. Enders’ Elite Motorsports Camaro features multiple adjustments that allow her to fine tune her staging procedure, and her reaction times, to within a few thousandths of a second.
“As a driver, that [reaction time] is my responsibility,” said Enders. “It’s up to me to get the car off the starting line on time and I take a lot of pride in that. I get upset when I don’t get the job done and we spend a lot of time working on that aspect of our program.”
In Pro Stock, like every other class, staging in precisely the same spot is crucial to both consistent reaction times and elapsed times. Using a clutch pedal, throttle, and a line-lock, it takes a deft touch to avoid over-staging or sliding the front tires into the starting line beams.
“I can usually fine-tune my lights by making a few adjustments to the car,” Enders said. “A lot of it comes down to just feeling comfortable and not over-thinking it. You just see the light and react to it. It’s not really that simple but basically, it is. This is something I’ve worked on for a long time; it’s taken 12 years to get it right.”
If NHRA had a long-distance award, Shane Tucker would certainly win it this weekend. Tucker arrived in Epping after a long day of travel from his native Australia on Wednesday, two days before returning to the seat of his Auzmat Architectural Pro Stock Camaro.
“It was around 11,000 miles total,” said Tucker. “I flew from Brisbane to Los Angeles to Boston. It was one 13-hour flight and another six-hour flight. It was pretty brutal, mate. Of course, Epping is as far away from Los Angeles as you can get and still be in the U.S. I was pretty tired yesterday but I’m feeling pretty good right now. Any time I get to race my car I’m feeling pretty good.”
Tucker, who welcomed sponsors Mega Fuels and Americana Pro to his team for the Epping race, plans on competing in the next five events including the races in Englishtown, Bristol, Norwalk, and Chicago.
Tucker last raced in Atlanta where he dropped a first round race against five-time champion Jeg Coughlin Jr. Tucker rattled the tires on his first run in Epping, and will enter Q2 as the 13th ranked driver in the field.
“Five races in a row is great for us,” Tucker said. “There were times when we raced in Australia when we only ran five races in a year. It’s good to get that much seat time. I just hope we have enough parts to get through them all. We should be okay because everything is fresh right now.”
A loud boom and the unmistakable rattling of metal got Drew Skillman’s attention after his RJ Race Cars Camaro snapped a driveshaft in two during Friday’s first qualifying run. Skillman managed to get the car stopped without further incident, but he was clearly not happy to lose what might otherwise have been a respectable run.
“I was pretty hot down there,” Skillman said. “The driveshaft broke clean in two pieces which means it probably was rubbing against something and it just turned it like a lathe. It tore up the rear end and the mailbox [transmission tunnel] and dented some of the carbon fiber in the interior. We had to do a little welding but otherwise, it wasn’t too bad. It snapped 6.2 seconds into the run so it was going to be a nice pass. It makes a hell of a racket when that happens.”
For Skillman, the news wasn’t all bad. His crew got the car repaired in time for Q2 and he returned later in the day to run a 6.531 that was good for the No. 5 spot in the field.
“Thankfully, we didn’t miss the second run or I’d have been really mad,” Skillman said. “I’m also pretty happy that it happened today instead of the first round on Sunday. Hopefully, that’s the extent of our bad luck for a while. We’ve got four races in the next four weeks. We don’t need to be going through a bunch of parts.”
The busy, summer season officially kicks off this weekend at the NHRA New England Nationals in Epping, the first of four-straight events across the eastern part of the United States, and with so many races in a row and the number of events before the start of the Countdown to the Championship playoffs ticking away, finding success in June could help set the tone for teams for the remainder of the 2017 season. Last year, it was at this point in the season when Ron Capps found his championship form and carried the mojo from wins here and in Englishtown and Norwalk to his first No. 1 finish. Others are hoping to possibly tap into the same kind of magic and set themselves up for a potential title run starting this weekend and carrying through the next eight weeks when there are seven events scheduled.
Right now, the hottest driver in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series is Capps, who is coming off of four-straight wins in Houston, Charlotte, Atlanta, and Topeka. The dominance Capps and his Rahn Tobler-led team is showing now is very much reminiscent of his run from this event on last season, and Capps will try to keep that going this weekend and defend his Funny Car win from last year. Who has the potential to derail Capps’ hot streak? Capps’ own Don Schumacher Racing teammates, Matt Hagan, Jack Beckman, and Tommy Johnson Jr., are always threats, as are the John Force Racing trio of John and Courtney Force and Robert Hight. In fact, the only drivers other than Capps to win in the previous four years here and are John and Courtney Force, who scored in 2015 and 2013, respectively.
This season, Top Fuel has been pretty much a four-driver contest with points leader Leah Pritchett, Antron Brown, Tony Schumacher, and Steve Torrence accounting for all of the wins and the majority of the runner-up finishes. While those four will aim to continue that trend, there are several high-profile drivers who could really use a good weekend here and over the next few weeks if they’d like to disrupt things and become contenders. Noticeably absent from the winner’s circle so far this year are veteran Doug Kalitta and Brittany Force, both of whom made a final early in the season. Shawn Langdon, who started the season late, is also looking for his first win of 2017 and the valuable points that would help with his quest to make the top 10.
Pro Stock has been one of the more competitive classes this season with six different winners in the first eight races, and with former world champs Jeg Coughlin Jr. and Erica Enders winless so far, there is a good chance to bring that total up to seven different drivers by weekend’s end, especially considering both have been in at least one final thus far and have qualified well. Greg Anderson won the last two events here, but he and teammate Jason Line have been noticeably absent from the late rounds as of late and are looking for a rebound this weekend. Allen Johnson has had a miserable start to the 2017 season, winning just one round in the first eight events, but if there was ever a place for a turnaround (other than Denver, of course), this may be it. Johnson won the inaugural event here in 2013 and was the runner-up to Anderson the last two years.
3.658 seconds by Leah Pritchett, Feb. ’17, Phoenix
333.66 mph by Brittany Force, May '17, Topeka, Kan.
3.802 seconds by Matt Hagan, May ’17, Topeka, Kan.
338.85 mph by Hagan, May ’17, Topeka, Kan.
6.455 seconds by Jason Line, March ’15, Charlotte, N.C.
215.55 mph by Erica Enders, May ’14, Englishtown N.J.
2016 EVENT WINNERS:
Antron Brown, Top Fuel; Ron Capps, Funny Car; Greg Anderson, Pro Stock.
Tony Schumacher, 2, TF; Ron Capps, 2, FC; Greg Anderson, 2, PS.
3.701 seconds by Antron Brown, June ’16
329.26 mph by Doug Kalitta, June ’16
3.865 seconds by Ron Capps, June ’16
330.63 mph Tim Wilkerson, June ’16
6.485 seconds by Shane Gray, June ’14
214.72 mph by Greg Anderson, June ’15