NHRA Northwest Nationals Friday Notebook

Steve Torrence, Robert Hight and Bo Butner lead qualifying after the first day of action at the NHRA Northwest Nationals,
04 Aug 2017
NHRA National Dragster staff
Race coverage
Seattle Hero

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QUALIFYING SESSIONS RECAPS

skillman.jpgPRO STOCK Q1 (3 p.m.): Drew Skillman, winner of two of the last three races, put his Skillman Auto Group Camaro at the top of the field after one session with a 6.612, a number matched by Sonoma winner Tanner Gray. Skillman’s superior speed, 209.09 to 208.75, earned Skillman the provisional pole. Three-time Seattle winner Jason Line was not far behind with a 6.615 and points leader Bo Butner finished fourth with a 6.622.

force.jpgFUNNY CAR Q1 (3:28 p.m.): John Force broke into the 3-second range first with a 3.971-second pass, but that didn’t open the floodgates for the rest of the Funny Car category. The 16-car field, 15 of which made passes in the first session, struggled to satisfy a tricky Pacific Raceways track on a warm afternoon. So, while Force grabbed the three bonus points with a solid run, teammate Robert Hight’s 4.008 was good enough to get him two points, and Tommy Johnson Jr. got him the solo point. Everyone but Gary Densham (6.327) got into the 4-second range, with Jonnie Lindberg’s 4.559 coming in at No. 14. 

brittany.JPGTOP FUEL Q1 (3:53 p.m.): The dragsters found more success getting down the track than the Funny Cars, hitting the 3-second zone six times with Brittany Force topping the list with a 3.798 pass. That run got in front of Shawn Langdon’s 3.845 and Mike Salinas’ session-opening 3.846. There was still a fair share of tire smoke, though, as Terry McMillen, Clay Millican, and local favorite Ron Smith all hazed the tires very early. Troy Buff and Tony Schumacher’s identical 3.862-second runs rounded out the top five of the first session, while Antron Brown got into the 3-second range with a 3.984.  

butner2.jpgPRO STOCK Q2 (5:45 p.m.): Points leader Bo Butner grabbed the No. 1 spot by nearly two-hundredths of second, smashing out a 6.584 to take the lead halfway through qualifying. First-session leader Drew Skillman improved on his 6.612 with s 6.603 but slid to second. Erica Enders picked up nearly two-hundredths of a second to jump to No. 3 with a 6.614, just a thousandth ahead of Jason Line. Allen Johnson also made a huge improvement, making the leap from a 6.646 to a 6.617 and sits sixth.

hight.jpgFUNNY CAR Q2 (6:25 p.m.): Robert Hight came out in the last pair and dropped a hammer on the flopper field with a 3.894-second pass. That moved him to the top of the field and helped him snatch the provisional No. 1 qualifier spot. He was one of six 3-second passes in the second qualifying session, joining the 3-second run made by his boss (John Force) from the first session. Tommy Johnson Jr. (3.930) and Alexis DeJoria (3.973) rounded out the quick three of the session. It’s Johnson Jr. in the No. 2 spot and Force in the No. 3 position after the first two rounds.

torrence.jpgTOP FUEL Q2 (7:01 p.m.): Bobby Lagana, the co-crew chief of Steve Torrence’s Top Fuel Dragster, said flat out they missed it in the first session. There was no such problem in the second as the Capco Boys went to the top with a 3.791-second pass, getting by the 3.798 of Brittany Force. Tony Schumacher (3.802) and Antron Brown (3.813) rounded out the top three of the session, while Force and Schumacher sit in the No. 2 and No. 3 slots overall after day one of qualifying. Neither Clay Millican nor Doug Kalitta could solve the Seattle track, and sit in No. 14 and No. 15 through two passes. 

FEATURES

shoe.jpgTony Schumacher came into Topeka, the race that marks the midway point of the regular season, in second place with a 35-point lead on Steve Torrence. Now, with just three races to go until the Countdown to the Championship begins, Schumacher has won five rounds in eight races and finds himself in fourth place with a 73-point lead over Brittany Force.

“I can’t give the most detailed answer on this, but something is definitely wrong,” said Schumacher. “What we have is not a simple adjustment thing, but they’ll fix it. Every time we go through this, we change something and it goes down the racetrack. Something just isn’t right. I can’t even guess at it because right now the crew chiefs can’t even guess at it.”

It hasn’t just been an inconsistent race car that has plagued Schumacher, but a combination of bad luck, and dropping rounds the former world champion knows he should win. In this tricky stretch, he’s lost to rookie Blake Alexander, drivers fighting for their Countdown lives like Scott Palmer (twice), and Smax Smith. 

“I think the best thing I can do is be at the top of my game in the cockpit,” said Schumacher. “That would give our engineers Mike Green and Phil Shuler even more confidence as we head to Brainerd and Indy. We understand what it’s like to get there, how big those moments are and how good you’re going to have to be in those moments.”

The pilot of the Army Car lost to teammate Leah Pritchett on a holeshot in the semi’s of the Mopar Mile-High NHRA Nationals to start the Western Swing, and smoked the tires against Palmer in the first round of the Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals. He’s had success in Seattle before, winning four times in the Emerald City before (most recently in 2008). A win here would be extra special for Schumacher, who’s one away from tying Joe Amato for the all-time Seattle lead.

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torrence3.jpgSteve Torrence came into the year with solid, if not spectacular, reaction times. He averaged a .0731 light, which put him behind a handful of regulars on tour, including friend and frequent final-round opponent Antron Brown. 

That has changed in 2017. The Texan now leads the class at the tree with an average light of .0612. But Torrence is quick to point out it has more to do with the car than it does with him stomping on the gas sooner.  

“The car reacts better,” said Torrence. “(The reaction time) is not always indicative of what the driver does. That was the problem I had last year, and I finally had enough video proof. Antron and I were hitting the gas at the same frame, and I’d go .070 and he’d go .040.”

Torrence says that all comes down to the clutch. So once the team, led by co-crew chiefs Richard Hogan and Bobby Lagana, got that problem sorted out, his reaction times improved. The Texan’s confidence in the cockpit, fueled by having a killer dragster, has helped him get the most out of his machine. 

“Now I’m more confident when I go up there every time, so I’m like ‘I’ve got this.’”

That’s helped him climb into first place.

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reed.jpgTop Fuel rookie Shawn Reed, who lives just 20 minutes away in Lake Tapps, Wash., is playing drag racing’s equivalent of home game this weekend, with all the comforts – i.e., sleeping in your own bed – it provides, as well as all of the hassles, like getting tickets for family and friends.

“My phone’s been blowing up with one this like this,” he said, reading from a text. “ ‘What are the chances I can get down on the starting line when you run?’ I must have 50 like that. Friends, family, old racing buddies, everyone wants to come out. I’ve got a five-bedroom house and it’s full. People everywhere, people sleeping on the floor. It’s crazy.”

Interestingly enough, Reed will making his first passes down a dragstrip that he’s lived near all his life.

“I always had nice cars growing but I never took them out to the dragstrip,” he said. “They were too pretty to get dirty.”

Reed is again driving the Paton family entry for the father-son team of Barry and Todd, making his seventh appearance of his rookie season. He  will sit out until the tour comes to Dallas later this year in the homestate of primary sponsor Hughes Oilfield Transportation, and then round out his season in Las Vegas and Pomona.
 

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After reaching the semifinals in Sonoma, Courtney Force hopes to get her first win of 2017 in Seattle. The driver of the Advance Auto Parts Camaro got her first career win in 2012 at Pacific Raceways and in the following five years has become the winningest woman in Funny Car history. 

“I am really excited about our performance last weekend,” Force said. “I feel good about coming out of the middle part of the Western Swing by going a few rounds and picking up some more points.”

Force had a great car in the first round to beat Jim Campbell, running a 3.901 pass to cruise into the second round. It took a fair amount of pedaling to get the job done against Tommy Johnson Jr., as Force did a great job feathering the throttle to get the car to hook back up with the track after both cars went up into smoke to start the contest.

She wasn’t quite as fortunate in the semi’s against Tim Wilkerson. Force went up in smoke shortly after the 300-foot mark, allowing Wilk to reach the final for the first time in a long time. So, while it was the first time in the semi’s for Force since Englishtown (a five-race drought), it came with only one clean run. 

Still, it ended a three-race stretch where Force had either lost in the first round or not qualified at all. Her qualifying numbers in the past three races have been scarily consistent (3.880, 3.889, 3.889), but, as has been the case all season, the AAP team hasn’t been able to turn that into Sunday success. 

She’s made it down the track quicker than 4.5 seconds on 19 of her 29 runs (65.52 percent success rate). That’s below the 70.14 percent class average. When she does get down the lane, she’s quicker (3.983 average e.t. compared to 4.045 class average); but that needs to happen with more regularity. Force hopes to improve upon that in Seattle.  

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hagan.jpgHeading into the Western Swing, Ron Capps had suffered just one first-round loss – to rookie Jonnie Lindberg way back at the Las Vegas event – but has gone winless the two events. Fortunately for the defending series champ, his closest challenger, DSR teammate Matt Hagan hasn’t been able to take advantage, as he has just one round win the last two events,

"Just a rough couple of weekends," said Hagan, the two-time world champion who trails Capps by 183 points. "The Western Swing has not been treating us kindly

After a very tough, two-blowup weekend in Denver, Hagan’s car lost to Del Worsham in round one last week in Seattle after his Mopar-backed Charger developed a fuel leak after the burnout and he smoked the tires. Worsham also smoked the tires, too, but further downtrack.

"Doing the burnout I was trying to talk to the guys [about the fuel leak] over the radio with one hand and back it up one-handed,” he said. “I don't know if we really ended up staged where we needed to be. I probably should have slapped [the throttle] knowing that he clicked it off in two seconds. But when you smoke the tires at the hit like that you just kind of feel like it's over. The end result is we didn't turn the win light on, and It is what it is, man.”

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capps.jpgDespite his still-sizeable lead, Ron Capps is not taking his team's mini slump lightly

 "Winning rounds at Seattle is big," Capps said. "I can't stress how important this race has always been because it's the first time you kind of get a glimpse of the what the Countdown will look like.The Countdown doesn't seem so far away, not too many races left before the it starts. When you get to Seattle you start to see it on the horizon
 
Capps and the NAPA team, which at one point this year won four consecutive event titles, is in an uncommon position after losing in opening rounds at Denver and Sonoma, Calif., the first two stops of the three-week Western Swing that concludes at Seattle.
 
The NAPA team had the quickest car in the first round at Denver and one of the quickest at Sonoma where Don Schumacher Racing teammate Tommy Johnson Jr. used a career-best speed to overcome Capps.
 
"At Denver, we had the quickest car in the first round, and I lost on a holeshot, so we had a great race car there, and we made a great run,” said Capps. “We've got a great race car. But even if you've got a great race car, anything can happen. Again, we need to just put ourselves in better positions qualifying."
 
At Sonoma, Capps qualified just No. 12, one of his worst starts of the year; they’ve only in the top half of the field once in the last five races.
 
"The first thing Tobler will tell you is we've got to qualify better. The good thing is we've earned a big points lead and we can afford to give up a round or two trying to get better. We are still striving to win the regular season. We've got to stay focused.”

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enders.jpgAfter a runner-up in Chicago and a semifinal finish in Denver, Erica Enders and the Elite Motorsports team were rolling until hitting a speed bump last weekend in Sonoma. Their Melling Performance Camaro struggled in qualifying, ranking just No. 15 with an off-pace 6.94, and drew points leader Bo Butner in round one and, despite a massive all-night pit thrash in search of the gremlin, they went down to defeat Sunday morning

The silver lining was that the car was 6.56 in in the loss, meaning that the team did find what they were looking for.

"That was definitely a huge step in the right direction considering we basically got zero data from four really off-pace qualifying passes," she said. "Had we made that run right there in the fourth qualifying session we would have positioned ourselves much differently on the ladder and the  turnout could have been the winner's circle but as my team owner [Richard Freeman] says, 'If crickets had pistols, the birds wouldn't mess with them.'

"No one usually cares about the 'woulda, shoulda, coulda,' but in this case I do because, in my opinion, I have the smartest guys in the business working on my car. We have literally been stumped for a handful of races but what just happened is a huge step in the right direction and definitely gives us some hope. Now we have something to work with. The main thing is we want to be up and running at the top of the charts by the time the Countdown starts. We've got three more races so we'll get this Melling Performance Chevrolet Camaro tuned up by then and give it hell from there."

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kb.jpgSummit Pro Stock teammates Jason Line and Greg Anderson both have three wins and two runner-ups on their Seattle scorecard, but the KB Racing stablemates, both Minnesota natives, have more in common than that when it comes to loving the annual Northwest stop. For them, it’s all about the venue.

“I think the best part about this race is the location, right in the middle of all these trees,” said Line, who last win here came in 2014, where he beat Anderson in the final. “I remember coming here [in the early 1990s] with my brother Lance, another friend who raced, and my Stocker. We always wanted to come here – Pacific Raceways looked like such a cool place, so pretty and picturesque on the cover of National Dragster. We finally made the trek and drove from Minnesota to Seattle. It was quite a trip, and I still think it's one of the coolest places to race."

"The really cool thing about Seattle is that it brings back memories of racing in Minnesota,” said Anderson, who hasn’t won here since 2010. “It's always a good feeling to get to go someplace that reminds you of home. For as enjoyable as it is to be in such a beautiful place, Seattle has its fair share of challenges. It's the last leg of the swing, everyone is tired – mentally, if not physically – but you really have to hold it together, hang in there, and gut it out.”

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raft.jpgSo, what do Pro Stock drivers do when they’ve got short drive from Sonoma to Seattle and a day to unwind? They go water-water rafting in Oregon.

Elite Motorsports team owner Richard Freeman put together the outing, which also included Pro Stock points leader Bo Butner and engine customer Alex Laughlin.

“It was a lot of fun and we brought everyone home alive,” joked Butner. “Alex fell out; or maybe we pushed him out. But I’ll tell you, that water was cold, like 55 degrees, and you’ve got to ride with one leg in the boat and one leg in the water.

"It was definitely a wild deal," Enders agreed. "I'm an adrenaline junkie but I had never whitewater rafted before. I was a little nervous about it ahead of time but anything this team does together, we always end up having a blast. It was a lot of good fun with some great friends.
 
"You need these times to get business and racing off of your mind, even if it's just for a day, and focus on the family side of this crazy sport. It was another great team-building experience, something we were blessed to do together. All-in-all, a really cool experience."

PHOTOS

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Bo Butner launched with the wheels up en route to claiming the No. 1 spot in Pro Stock. If he hangs on, it would be his fourth pole of the season. 

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Vintage dragsters from the Northwest took part in a Cacklefest to close out the day. Funny Car driver Jack Beckman featured in the festivities.

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Jay Turner, who will lock up the Mickey Thompson Tires Top Fuel Harley championship this weekend, rides down the track Friday evening. 

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The Oberto car made its 2017 debut at the NHRA Northwest Nationals as Jim Campbell piloted the Funny Car to the No. 12 spot. 

PREVIEW

The Western Swing wraps up at the NHRA Northwest Nationals without the possibility of a sweep in sight. Instead, look for a handful of drivers to lock up spots in the Countdown to the Championship and more still near the bottom of the table to improve their chances of making the dance at Pacific Raceways, just east of the Emerald City. 

Last year, the race was concluded two weeks late thanks to uncooperative weather. That’s a situation racers, fans, and media members alike hope to avoid this time around. Scorching temperatures await drivers after leaving behind the relatively mild climate of the Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals, where J.R. Todd earned his first Funny Car win and Steve Torrence continued his rampage of the Top Fuel category. 

S_Torrence.JPGTorrence came up short in the Seattle final a season ago to Antron Brown, but the winner of the 2012 rendition of the Seattle race has begun to even up the lopsided rivalry. The Texan has defeated the back-to-back Top Fuel champion in their previous three final-round matchups. That comes after Brown took down Torrence in their first five final-round meetings.  

The overall record remains lopsided, but Torrence has had the better of the recent battles and enters Seattle as the points leader and the driver to beat in Top Fuel. He has a career-high six Wallys this season, and is showing no signs of slowing down. Brown remains close behind (75 points), as does Leah Pritchett (119) with three races to go before the Countdown begins. 

R_Capps.JPGIt’s not quite as tight in the Funny Car category, where defending Seattle winner Capps enters with a commanding 183-point lead despite losing in the first round in back-to-back races for the first time in two years. The Seattle event is where Capps kicked off his championship campaign in earnest in 2016, winning the last of his Wallys of his title-winning season. 

He went into the Countdown as the No. 1 seed and then posted a 13-6 round record during the postseason to earn his first title. Capps will try to build similar momentum leaving the Emerald City in 2017. 

That may start with better qualifying. While Capps has won from the bottom half of the field before, he spoke about his desire to start qualifying higher following his defeat in Sonoma. The team has qualified in the quick half of the field just once in the past five races.

T_Gray.jpgBarring something catastrophic, Bo Butner has locked up the top spot in Pro Stock as the Countdown gets ever closer. His 191-point lead on Greg Anderson looks mighty safe considering the Indiana driver has lost in the first round just once this year: at the Four-Wide. He’s pursued by the classes most recent winner, Tanner Gray, in addition to his teammates, Anderson and Line.

About the runaway favorite for the Auto Club Road to the Future: just how big a threat to Butner will he be when the Countdown begins? He’s locked into a spot, and could very well get past Anderson into the No. 2 seed. He can beat people with his left foot, or with performance (like he beat Butner in Sonoma). That’s a very scary prospect for the Pro Stock field. 

Given the expected weather conditions, don’t expect any record-breaking runs at Pacific Raceways: but this deep in the season, there should be plenty of drama. Shawn Langdon and Troy Coughlin Jr. might be teammates at Kalitta Motorsports, but only 28 points separate them at the bottom of the Top Fuel field with a spot in the Countdown on the line. That could be very interesting. 

In Funny Car, there are 73 points between 10th place Cruz Pedregon and 14th place Alexis DeJoria. There are even fewer (29) between Pedregon and 13th place Del Worsham. Every round win matters now; shoot, drivers are counting qualifying bonus points this deep into the season. With pressure mounting, it’s time to see who’s got what it takes to get into the Countdown. 

TRACK RECORDS

Top Fuel

3.685 sec. by Antron Brown, Aug. ‘16; 330.47 mph by Steve Torrence, Aug. ‘16

Funny Car

3.832 sec. by Del Worsham, Aug. ’16; 334.15 mph by Jack Beckman, Aug. ‘16

Pro Stock

6.488 sec. and 213.40 mph by Chris McGaha, Aug. ‘15