NHRA Northwest Nationals Saturday Notebook

05 Aug 2017
NHRA National Dragster staff
Race coverage
Seattle

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QUALIFYING SESSIONS RECAPS

tanner.jpgPRO STOCK Q3 (2:25 p.m.): Red-hot Tanner Gray climbed past the field and into the No. 1 spot with a 6.565 as conditions improved significantly over Friday’s warmer and smokier conditions. Friday leader Bo Butner, who had dropped to fourth by the time he pulled up to run in the final pair of the session, fought back with a 6.570 but fell a few thousandths short of regaining the top spot. Erica Enders (6.575) and Drew Skillman (6.578) also made huge improvements over their Friday efforts.

pritchett.jpgTOP FUEL Q3 (2:51 p.m.): Leah Pritchett came out of the box with a hot, fresh 3.755-second pass to swoop to the top of the Top Fuel qualifying heap. That pulled her ahead of Steve Torrence and Antron Brown (3.796), the first of whom hazed the tires and the second of which improved on his time to move into the No. 3 qualifying slot with the second-best time of the session. Shawn Langdon had the third-best time of the session (3.797) and moved into the No. 4 slot. Doug Kalitta’s struggles continued, as the Mac Tools dragster pilot ran a 6.525 and remained No. 5. He hasn’t run better than a 4.658 this weekend.

hight2.jpgFUNNY CAR Q3 (3:18 p.m.): After grabbing the provisional No. 1 qualifying spot on Friday, Robert Hight said he wanted to use the Saturday sessions to set his Funny Car set up for Sunday. His 3.908-second pass, while not better than the 3.894 that has him at No. 1, was the best of the third session. Matt Hagan (3.930) and Alexis DeJoria (3.963) rounded out the top three of the third grouping; that moved them up to No. 2 and No. 4, respectively. Courtney Force hasn’t found her way out of the No. 14 spot; she ran a 5.118 in the third session.

skillman_0.jpgPRO STOCK Q4 (4:45 p.m.): Tanner Gray and his Q3 6.565 held onto the top spot to collect his second pole position of the season, though Drew Skillman gave him a run for his money with a 6.568, which gave him the No. 2 spot. Jason Line had the second-best pass of the final session with a 6.576 and Bo Butner was third with a 6.582.

First-round pairings (lane choice first): Tanner Gray vs. bye; Greg Anderson vs. Allen Johnson; Erica Enders vs. Matt Hartford; Jason Line vs. Vincent Nobile; Drew Skillman vs. Alan Prusiensky; Bo Butner vs. Steve Graham; Jeg Coughlin vs. Chris McGaha

brown.jpgTOP FUEL Q4 (5:14 p.m.): For just the second time this season, Antron Brown is the No. 1 qualifier. He grabbed it from Doug Kalitta with a 3.735-second pass from the No. 7 spot to move all the way to the top, getting him three bonus points in the process. Kalitta got a pair of bonus points while Clay Millican’s 3.766 moved him into the No. 4 slot and earned him a point. All but local racer Ron Smith got into the 3-second range despite tricky track conditions, and the quick half of the field all ran in the 3.7-second range. 

First-round pairings (lane choice first): Antron Brown vs. Ron Smith; Doug Kalitta vs. Terry Haddock; Leah Pritchett vs. Shawn Reed; Clay Millican vs. Scott Palmer; Brittany Force vs. Troy Buff; Tony Schumacher vs. Troy Coughlin Jr.; Steve Torrence vs. Terry McMillen; Shawn Langdon vs. Mike Salinas

courtney.jpgFUNNY CAR Q4 (5:38 p.m.): Courtney Force jumped up to the No. 4 slot with the second-best run of the final session, but her 3.943-second pass wasn’t enough to get by the blistering 3.883 run of teammate Robert Hight. Still, that run from Force was a comfort for a team that couldn’t get into the 3-second range all weekend before its first solid pull finally got the job done. Jack Beckman got the solo qualifying bonus point, while Hight finished the qualifying session with 11 of a possible 12. 

First-round pairings (lane choice first): Robert Hight vs. Jeff Diehl; John Force vs. J.R. Todd; Courtney Force vs. Cruz Pedregon; Jack Beckman vs. Del Worsham; Matt Hagan vs. Del Worsham; Alexis DeJoria vs. Jonnie Lindberg; Tommy Johnson Jr. vs. Jim Campbell; Ron Capps vs. Tim Wilkerson

FEATURES

mcmillen.JPGTerry McMillen is trying to get into the Countdown for the Championship for the first time in his career. He’s in an unusually comfortable position with three races to go until points reset following the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis. He’s in eighth place with a 98-point lead over 11th place Shawn Langdon.

Don’t take that to mean McMillen is comfortable. Given the nmber of close calls the pilot of the Amalie Oil Extermigator dragster has had over the years, he has no reason to be. While tis might be nervous time for McMillen, he’s also has reason to be confident: His crew, his dragster, and the driver in the cockpit have been excellent this season. 

“It’s gonna feel anxious because it’s something I’ve tried so long to get to,” said McMillen on trying to get into the Countdown. “We just gotta stay doing what we’re doing. Can’t try to outguess ourselves.”

McMillen missed the dance by one point last season, and eight points back in 2011. In between that the margins widened, but the Amalie crew has found something this season that has helped them get a leg up on the pair of Kalitta Motorsports dragsters chasing them. 

The numbers paint a better story this year than in year’s past for McMillen. The car gets down the race track a little better than 50 percent of the time on Sunday, and when it does it averages a 3.82. That’ll get the job done often enough; and it has this season.

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scottpalmer.JPGWith just three races to go, Scott Palmer is as close as he’s ever been to tasting the sweet air of the Countdown to the Championship. He holds a 75-point advantage over 11th place Shawn Langdon and a 47-point lead over 10th place Troy Coughlin Jr. That’s a good place to be given the way Palmer’s car is running. 

“We just gotta keep treading water here,” said Palmer. “It’s like, what are we, Coughlin has to go two rounds further than us, Langdon has to go four or five, that’s better than being on the other side.”

Palmer is qualified No. 11 after the first two sessions, while Coughlin Jr. is No. 7 and Langdon is No. 6. He’d face Langdon in the first round if that holds after Saturday’s pair of runs. That would be a huge matchup for both drivers, but Palmer hopes to continue to improve on his times to get into the quick half of the field. 

That’s been the goal during the home stretch of the season for the CatSpot Kitty Litter team. It’s not a squad looking to make hero runs during cool sessions, but now that Palmer knows they can make clean, consistent runs, they’re more concerned about qualifying well to get more favorable matchups on Sunday. 

“Our goal was to get the car to run mid to low 3.80s and not do anything stupid,” said Palmer. “Usually if they know you’re out here, you did something stupid. Now we’ve got what we wanted.”

Well, almost. We’ll see if they’ve got what they wanted on Sunday night in Indianapolis. 

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S_Torrence.JPGA common misconception is that Steve Torrence has received tuning help from Alan Johnson during the 2017 season. That’s not the case. Johnson has been focused on helping the Monster Energy team of Brittany Force this year, so when giving credit for the success of the Capco squad, make sure it’s headed to the right place. 

“We shared some information the first of the year, and now we’re not sharing any information or anything either,” said Torrence. “It’s all the one-eyed bandit (co-crew chief Richard Hogan).”

It’s also fellow co-crew chief Bobby Lagana. That dynamic duo has paired up to help Torrence into the Top Fuel points lead entering race No. 16. That’s the latest in a season the Texan has held onto the lead by a whole bunch. He’s the No. 1 qualifier two passes into the NHRA Northwest Nationals, and Lagana and Hogan will try to tune him to his third pole of the season.

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It’s been a rough Western Swing for Tim Wilkerson. Back-to-back wheelstands at the Mopar Mile-High Nationals damaged two chassis, forcing his team to scramble together a new car for the Sonoma event. That hard work and dedication seemed to be paying off as he reached the semifinals where a locked-up fuel pump burned up his engine, but at least he made the final. Then more disaster struck when a airline fitting came off the back of the throttle pedal, neutering the car’s performance.

"We broke an airline off the throttle switch that tells every operational part of the car to start. It's pneumatically controlled, but it's electronic and has to see a signal to start," said Wilkerson. "That hose was either knocked off before the run or when I stepped on the gas. We don't know which. It started spinning about 60 feet out. It's just another way to lose. There are a million ways to lose and one way to win, and we had plenty of lucky breaks today. The last one just went the other way."

wilk-fire.gifThings got a little worse for Wilkerson on his Q3 pass in Seattle where his Levi, Ray & Shoup Shelby lit up after an apparent fuel leak began spraying air a few hundred feet into the run. Wilkerson got the car stopped without drama but the well-tired team will have some work to do in the pits.

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It’s been since the Las Vegas event in early April, where he went to the semifinals, since NHRA fans have seen Funny Car veteran Gary Densham on the tour and although the Southern California favorite has kept busy racing with son Steven and his Nostalgia Funny Car, he’s been eager to get back to running his own hot rod as he has since the early 1970s.

densham2.jpgDensham has actually been in the Northwest with his family, including wife Joanne, for several weeks in advance of the Northwest Nationals, running four events with Steven’s Nostalgia car then climbing into his own car for a match race in Edmonton last weekend against Bill Litton’s Top Fueler. All was going well until last week when a misstep outside a restaurant caused Joanne to fall, breaking her shoulder, twisting her ankle, and opening a gash on her forehead the required several stitches to repair.

Densham’s itinerary has been reduced significantly after the loss of longtime backer Lawson Rock, a partnership that allowed him to run eight or so events per season. He’s also still struggling to overcome the effects of his Winternationals crash two seasons ago. He bought new equipment and has gone through a steep learning curve that impacted the consistency of his car, which was a consistent qualifier, as he failed to qualify at the final two events last season.

“I had to upgrade my stuff because none of the smart guys in the pits – guys like Jimmy Prock – could help me because my stuff was so outdated. So I got some newer stuff, some new widgets. Problem is, when they build a new widget, everyone is different and takes a different thing to make it run -- pray to the north star, turn around three times, then bend over and kiss your butt – but everyone’s been running these new widgets so long they forget to tell me that part and I end up wasting a lot of runs trying to figure it out for myself.”

It’s tough, but we’re still out here doing this. I still love it; I just can’t do it as often as I’d like to right now.”

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funny-car-semifinal.gifThe video of J.R. Todd’s thrilling come-from-behind win over Jack Beckman in the second round of action last weekend in Sonoma is burning up NHRA’s Facebook page. Beckman’s Infinite Hero Dodge jumped out to a sizeable lead over Todd’s tire-smoking Toyota before Beckman’s mount went dead in the water, allowing Todd time to recover and eke past him at the finish line. Just as impressively, Beckman knew immediately what the problem was and correctly told the NHRA on FOX audience what cost him the race.

All of the nitro burners are required to run a pressure sensor in the oil pan, set to go off at 9 psi, which is an indication that something has happened in the engine and that it’s heading towards a problem. Typical causes include burned pistons that are allowed cylinder pressure to get past the pistons and into the crankcase.

If the pan pressure exceeds the threshold, it simply closes the injector throttle blades via an air-controlled shear. It’s a less intrusive stopgap than the Leahy safety system, which shuts off all major functions.

“If the safety system shuts the engine off, it closes the fuel levers and pulls the parachutes, too; if it’s the pan switch I just lose throttle,” explained Beckman. “It was too early in the run for my crew to have used their remote shutoff, so because I only lost throttle – my foot was still floored on the pedal but the throttle blades were closed—I knew instantly what it was, but I’ll tell you, it’s the most frustrating feeling in the world.”

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tommy.JPGJ.R. Todd pulled off a remarkable feat in Seattle: Becoming one of the first drivers to defend a title in Top Fuel by winning in Funny Car. Tommy Johnson Jr. heads to Seattle as the 2015 winner in Funny Car after winning in a dragster way back in 1993. 

"I don't know what it is about Seattle, but I always seem to do well there. I come in relaxed because of the confidence from our past success. You just seem to do better when you're relaxed and with no distractions and not trying too hard."

Johnson Jr. has come close to picking up his first Wally since race No. 4 in Las Vegas, runnering up twice in the last three contests. He’s posted an 11-5 round record at the past five events and seems poised to break out with just three races to go until points reset for the Countdown. 

"We're getting close to the Countdown and we're focused on making sure we're in the top-five for that. Right now we're solid in the top-five and would like to make a move and maybe gain a couple more spots."

The driver of the Make-A-Wish car has advanced past the first round in seven-straight races after a four-race stretch of first-round defeats that began after grabbing his only Wally of the year. His overall round record is 23-14. 

Qualifying started out well for TJ. He’s up in the No. 2 spot with a 3.93-second pass, just behind Robert Hight. Given the warm forecast due for today, that just might stick.

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Drag races in the Nitro classes start and finish in fewer than 4 seconds. In those seconds, a lot goes through a driver’s head beyond watching the tree turn green and pounding the gas: especially if something goes wrong. Knowing when to shut the car off, and when to stay in a race, is crucial for a driver.

So, if there’s anything that can make that job a little bit easier for a driver, well, who wouldn’t want it? Insert the starting line shutoff button. A small, black box that a lot of teams use, including the Jim Dunn Oberto Funny Car crew; that’s in part because they’ve got a relatively new driver in Jim Campbell behind the wheel.

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“I can see things before (the driver) feels it,” said car chief Jon Dunn. “If a cylinder is out, I can click it off a lot quicker than he can feel it. I can see it instantly. I mean, is he gonna feel it? Especially early in the run it’s really hard. When you get out there a way (dropping a cylinder) will make you change lanes, but at the hit they don’t know.”

Before you think the “little black box” is akin to training wheels for new drivers, know that this device is used by the big teams like Kalitta Motorsports and Don Schumacher Racing, too. And it’s done for much the same reason Dunn said: crew members on the starting line can see cylinders out (and other problems) before the driver can feel them. 

injectorblades.JPGThe device closes the injector blades by breaking a pin in the injector linkage. Once activated, the driver can have the pedal pushed to the floor to no avail. That can lead to a few confusing moments before the pilot figures out what happened.  

Killing a run before a little problem becomes a big problem saves parts, something that every team values. For a one-car team like Dunn’s, it’s vital. Just remember next time you give credit to the driver for knowing to shut off a run early, it might be one of the crew members on the starting line who deserves it. Well, them and a little black box.

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WJ.jpgWarren Johnson, still Pro Stock’s winningest driver with 97 career victories, and his son, 40-time event winner Kurt, have been on the Western Swing with engine customer Matt Hartford, trying to help the former Sport Compact world champ continue his progression in the ranks of fuel-injected Pro Stock.

“It’s been a little frustrating,” he admits. “They’ve never had this kind of power before, so sometimes they’re a little at a loss with what to do with it, so we figured we’d come and be hands on.

“The challenge for a lot of these guys is that the cars lost about 80 horsepower right off the bat because, according to the SAE charts, for every 10 degrees of manifold temperature change you lose about 20.3 horsepower, and we’re about 40 degrees warmer,” he explained of the changeover from carburetors to fuel injectors that happened at the start of the 2016 season. Picking up air from the front spoiler inlet, where the air is warmer because it’s closer to the ground, is one of the culprits. The plusses to the new setup is engine life that’s more than triple of the carbureted units.

Johnson was a longtime advocate of bringing fuel injection to Pro Stock, dating back to 1989, but has yet to compete in the new fuel injection era that began last season. W.J. has not ruled out every competing again, but it will have to be on someone else’s nickel.

“I made my money in racing; I’m not going to spend it in racing,” he said.

Johnson says he figures that he can field a winning car for about $500,000-600,000 a year, less than a fourth of what some of today’s teams spend because of his ability to do so much work in-house and with a small team at the track.

Johnson also plans to spend some time later this year testing engines in his and Kurt’s car at Atlanta Dragway. Both cars are converted to the fuel-injection configuration, and he figures he can learn a lot more under those conditions that will help Hartford and, if they do return, he and his son.

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jegcoughlinjr.jpgJeg Coughlin Jr. is a very accomplished racer who has done just about everything there is to do in NHRA Drag Racing. So, going more than three years without a Pro Stock win (Englishtown 2014), particularly given the direction his program was going at the start of the year, is very surprising. Still, the veteran remains as cool and calm as can be. 

“We all wish we had a rewind for Lord knows how many reasons, but it’s all about in our case, in my case … if we’re not gonna screw anything up, let’s not screw up the last six races,” Coughlin said. “The first eight races we were very, very good. And we know we’re not gonna be great, but we shouldn’t be as sloppy as we’ve been.” 

Coughlin Jr. hasn’t gotten past the second round since Englishtown, where he lost to Vincent Nobile in the semifinals. His last final round came against Tanner Gray in Topeka, the aforementioned eighth race, and Coughlin Jr. gave it away by red lighting. 

That sloppiness is what the Elite Motorsports team can’t afford. Even if the power isn’t where other squads are at, to be competitive the cars need to be close to allow drivers like Coughlin Jr. and Erica Enders to use their left feet to win rounds. That hasn’t been the case as of late. 

Despite not winning a race this year, “The Natural” is in fifth place and could chase down a championship if things turn around by the time the Countdown begins after Indy. Jeggy isn’t counting his chickens before they hatch, and time is becoming a bit of a factor, but it’s never smart to count out a Coughlin.

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After capturing his third win of the season, Tanner Gray can say he’s got a stranglehold on the Auto Club Road to the Future Award. It’s not over yet; you can be sure fellow rookies Joey Gladstone, Jonnie Lindberg, and Shawn Reed have something to say about it, but it’s been a dream season for Gray so far.  

“Three is definitely more than I expected,” said Gray, who has gotten his wins as often with his clutch foot as with the power under the hood of his Pro Stock machine. 

Whether Gray goes on to become the 2017 rookie of the year or not, he’ll have the distinction of the most wins by a new driver in recent memory; but where does it stack up to winners of the Auto Club Road to the Future Award? It turns out you don’t have to go back too far to find someone with a more impressive resume, and he’s having a great 2017, too. 

L.E. Tonglet doubled up in Sonoma by winning the NHRA title and the Mickey Thompson Tires Pro Bike Battle. He also burst onto the scene in 2010 by winning a whopping five times and snatching the Pro Stock Motorcycle title. That’s the high watermark for Gray to shoot for this season: getting (at least) two more wins, and the Pro Stock title. Good luck.

In his own class, he can look at “The Natural,” Jeg Coughlin Jr. The driver of the yellow and black car won four times as a rookie in 1998, but, as was often the case during that time, fell short of bringing home the title thanks to Warren Johnson’s nine event wins that year. It doesn’t take an active imagination to see Gray hoisting at least one more Wally this year.  

Go back a little further and you can find one more rookie who accomplished the same feat as Tonglet: win five times and the trophy, too. Gary Scelzi grabbed five Wallys and the Top Fuel title as a rookie in 1997, an impressive accomplishment when you consider the drivers he had to take down. Scelzi beat Joe Amato, Kenny Bernstein, Tony Schumacher, and Larry Dixon; light work for a rookie, right?

Gray can boast beating points leader Bo Butner twice and Coughlin Jr. So, it’s not quite the murderer’s row of Scelzi, but to get to a title he’ll likely have to even up his record against defending world champion Jason Line (he’s 4-2 against the driver of the blue Summit car), and get past veteran driver Greg Anderson. He’s shown he’s got the ability, and the power, to get the job done. The kid’s not going anywhere.

PHOTOS

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Sportsman entries of all sizes and shapes are taking part in the Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series portion of the event.

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Pacific Raceways was jammed with fans eager to take in the dramatic action of the day's final two qualifying sessions.

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With its scenic and rustic look, the track is a popular destination for race fans.

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Stars of the series took part in the traditional Mello Yello autograph session. Tony Schumacher, Doug Kalitta, J.R. Todd, and Allen Johnson welcomed fans and signed autographs.

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Funny Car star Del Worsham and NHRA's Alan Reinhart taught some fuel-racing basics to a large crowd in the popular Nitro School session in the pits.

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Leah Pritchett flashed a satisfied smile after taking her Papa John's dragster to the No. 1 spot in Top Fuel in Q3. Although she ultimately lost the top position, she'll start Sunday from the No. 3 spot.

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Robert Hight grabbed the No. 1 qualifying spot in Funny Car and had the quickest car in three of the four qualifying sessions. It's Hight's fourth No. 1 of the season and third in the last four events.

PREVIEW

S_Torrence.JPGThe runaway train that is Steve Torrence continued thundering down the track towards the end of the regular season as the Capco dragster, winner last weekend in Sonoma, sits on the pole after two sessions with a 3.791 that edged out Brittany Force by a thousandth of a second for the Friday headlines. World champs Tony Schumacher and Antron Brown were not far behind, and impressive performances by independents Mike Salinas (3,826 for No. 5) and Terry McMillen (3.861 for No. 8) will keep things interesting through today’s final two sessions.

R_Hight.JPGRobert Hight, who also was the low qualifier at week ago in Sonoma where he ran a sport’s-best 339 mph, again front the Funny Car field with his Auto Club Camaro, racking up the only 3.8-second pass in the class, a 3.894, to lead the opening day. Despite the heat of the day and a very warm track, seven drivers still found the three-second zone, and even though Tommy Johnson Jr.’s 3.930 is well back of Hight’s pole-winning shot, there should be some jockeying among the top of the field by day’s end.

B_Butner.JPGIt should come as no surprise that the tour’s last three winners – Bo Butner, Drew Skillman, and Tanner Gray – top the Pro Stock pack. The trio of power players is led by points leader Butner, whose 6.584 was almost two-hundredths ahead of second-ranked Skillman’s 6.603. Gray, winner last weekend in Sonoma, is another hundredth back, at 6.612 and the first of four drivers to qualify with a 6.61 elapsed time. With better conditions expected today, Butner’s run may well not survive the final two sessions.