NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals Friday Notebook

16 Jun 2017
NHRA National Dragster staff
Race coverage
NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals

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QUALIFYING ROUND RECAPS

Bo ButnerPRO STOCK Q1 (5:30 p.m.): Bo Butner, low qualifier at three of the last four races, is off to another quick start with the best run of the opening session. Butner, whose 55 qualifying-session bonus points is tops in the class, clocked a 6.700 in his Butner Auto Sales Camaro. Jeg Coughlin Jr. and Butner’s teammate, Greg Anderson, both ran 6.711 but Coughlin got the No. 2 spot based on his superior speed, 205.79 to 205.22.

Tommy Johnson Jr.FUNNY CAR Q1 (5:55 p.m.): Tommy Johnson Jr. grabbed the top spot in a first Funny Car session where half the field struggled to make it down the track. Nobody managed to bust an elapsed time in the three-second range and Johnson Jr. snagged the No. 1 slot with a 4.05; but the Make a Wish car driver can bank those three points. Perhaps even more importantly, Jonnie Lindberg’s 4.063 put him in the No. 2 spot and J.R. Todd’s 4.067 left him in the No. 3 slot after the first round of qualifying. As temperatures drop and the humidity starts to break, expect to see some of these four and five-second times improve. 

Clay MillicanTOP FUEL Q1 (6:30 p.m.): Tennessee native Clay Millican captured the top spot and three bonus points with a 3.833-second run. He was one of three drivers to get into the three-second range, as Leah Pritchett (3.842) and Don Schumacher Racing teammate Tony Schumacher (3.869) rounded out the top three. Two drivers in the 17-car field, Terry Haddock and Chris Karamesines, sat out the first round of qualifying. Millican’s run is still a hundredth away from Schumacher’s 3.745-second track record, set back in 2015, but it’s also a far cry from the all-4-second Funny Car session we witnessed just 15 minutes earlier. Expect those times to improve as the sun drops.

Jeg CoughlinPRO STOCK Q2 (7:55 p.m.): It took until the final run of the session, but both Jeg Coughlin Jr. and Bo Butner broke into the 6.6-second range and the black-and-yellow Pro Stock machine powered by Elite Motorsports went to the top of the heap. Coughlin Jr. ran a 6.694 to slip by Butner, who finished the first day of qualifying in the No. 2 position (6.697) while Coughlin Jr.’s Elite teammate Erica Enders moved into third with a 6.704. It wasn’t a great start to Father’s Day weekend for the Grays as Tanner Gray made only one run down the track, a 19.819 in the first session, while his dad Shane ran a 7.19 and a 10.532. Tanner slipped through the starting beam in the second session. 

Tim WilkersonFUNNY CAR Q2 (8:30 p.m.): Tim Wilkerson, who switched to his backup this weekend after recent struggles, proved that a wise move as he took his Levi, Ray & Shoup Ford to the top spot with a 3.895 pass. Robert Hight moved into the No. 2 hole with a 3.918, just ahead of teammate Courtney Force’s 3.952. Points leader Ron Capps had a tough day as the driver of the NAPA Auto Parts Dodge finished the day in the No. 14 spot.

Doug KalittaTOP FUEL Q2 (8:55 p.m.): Cooler temperatures helped bring better times as Doug Kalitta posted a 3.781-second pass to shoot to the top spot in Top Fuel as the only pilot in the 3.7s after the first day of qualifying. Steve Torrence (3.802) and Leah Pritchett (3.817) rounded out the top three as both improved on their times from the first qualifying session, unseating Tennessee native Clay Millican in the process. The top half of the field finished with times in the 3-second range, with Kyle Wurtzel running a 3.955 in his first race of the season and Pat Dakin notching a 3.869. 

Friday recap: Kalitta, Wilkerson, and Jeg Coughlin Jr. top qualifying after first day of qualifying

FEATURES

Clay MillicanWhen the NHRA Mello Yello Series comes annually to Tennessee, Top Fuel star Clay Millican is always the focus of attention. He hails from Drummonds, Tenn. –- where a sign at the city limits proudly proclaims that it is, indeed, the home of Top Fuel champion Clay Millican -- about 500 miles west of Bristol Dragway, but close enough for him to still be the hometown favorite every time the Thunder Valley Nationals roars to life.

And, of course, the self-proclaimed “good ol’ country boy” would love nothing more than to get his long-awaited first NHRA event win in his homestate.

“There probably wouldn’t be a cooler place for me to win than in Tennessee for sure,” he said. “It would be just awesome to win in my home state. I love the area. I mean I’m a Tennessee boy but the mountain side is different from the river side where I live.”

Millican has come close to winning the event, scoring a runner-up during a spectacular three-event run of final rounds way back in 2004, but has yet to cash in here or anywhere else.

“We raced in a final there against [Tony] Schumacher. I smoked the tires early, he smoked them late. It was another event in our streak of three straight NHRA finals in a row,” recalled Millican. “At the time, you think you’re going to get that first win soon.”

Maybe even this weekend.

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Shawn Langdon got a late start to the Top Fuel season, but he’s still got a chance to win the NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals for the third time in four years. The Kalitta Motorsports driver won in 2016 and 2014; if he wins in 2017 he’ll have more Top Fuel wins in Bristol than anyone not named Tony Schumacher and Doug Kalitta.

Shawn Langdon“Bristol can be tricky due to hot temperatures and humidity, but there are some tracks that just click with you and Bristol is one of those tracks that I enjoy going too,” said Kalitta. It is a beautiful place with a unique setting going into the mountains. The sound and the echo is extremely cool for the fans.”

Langdon is still looking for his first win of the season, and he could use it as the Countdown approaches. The Global Technology driver is currently in 11th place behind Scott Palmer. He needs to make up 103 points with eight races to go. 

He’s posted a 4-6 record and reached one semifinal since joining the fray. That’s helped him move up the ladder at a steady clip, but a win this weekend could move Landon up a whole lot quicker. 

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Kyle Wurtzel
The old joke is that the only way to make a small fortune in racing is to start with large fortune, but as a financial planner (or, as his business website reads, “wealth management advisor”) by trade, it’s not much of a joke for Kyle Wurtzel, who calls himself a hobbyist racer but nonetheless is able to annually find a way to compete in drag racing’s top class at three to four events a year.

Wurtzel, who made a spectacular debut at the 2014 St, Louis event, where he not only qualified but won a round, is making his 2017 debut this weekend, his first event since last year’s St. Louis race, but the Peru, Ill., driver feels excited and prepared for the season ahead financed again by Mike Wojciechowski, who owns Chicago-based Xtreme Edge, a demolitions company, that is bannered on the flanks of Wurtzel’s car, which is tuned by Mike Golfarth.

“It’s our first race in eight months, but we’re excited to get back out there,” said Wurtzel, whose career resume spans just eight races over the previous three seasons, seven of which he has qualified for. “We’ve got the ‘all-in-one’ valve [which controls numerous fuel-system related settings] so we’ll probably just make some short shots today to check everything out and then get after it tomorrow.”

Wurtzel’s car, which has carried him to a best run of 3.85, has an interesting lineage. He bought the Brad Hadman-built car from Bruce Litton, who bought it from Kenny Bernstein, who won the 2001 championship in the car. It, of course, has been front- and back-halved and updated for 2017 specs and will make appearance later this season in Chicago, Indy, and St. Louis.

Wurtzel gets a lot of ribbing for being a financial planner who pretty much burns money in a nitro engine and should know better, but has his own retort.

“I tell people that my grandfather was the oldest male member of our family, and he only made it to 68, so I don’t have to save much for my retirement,” he said with a laugh.

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Terry Haddock is competing in Top Fuel in Bristol, but the Texan hopes to unveil what he calls the nicest Funny Car he’s ever owned at some point during the upcoming Western Swing. 

“What we’ve done is waited until we’ve got everything that everybody else has on that car,” said Haddock. “It’s the nicest stuff I’ve ever owned. We’ve had a little help from somebody and I don’t want to go out and not run fast.”

Terry Haddock

Haddock plans to run the flopper, an old Force car, in a match race in the coming weeks. From there, expect to see Haddock in his preferred class in either Sonoma, Seattle or Denver; and enjoy seeing him in a dragster while it lasts. 

This is Haddock’s seventh race of the season. He’s still looking for his first round win; his best qualifying position of the season is 13th. That came in Atlanta and Pomona. 


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Matt Hagan
A lot of talk at this event always centers around Tennessee titans Clay Millican and Allen Johnson, who call the Volunteer State their home, but it’s also pretty much a “home game” for Matt Hagan, whose cattle ranch is just two hours north up Interstate 81, just across the border in Christiansburg, Va.
 
"Bristol is always a fun but busy race for me," Hagan said. "My phone blows up all week with people wanting to come out and watch us and that's really a cool feeling, having that support. We just hope we can pull down a win for them like we did in 2015."

Hagan and crew chief Dickie Venables come into the event looking to rebound after a disappointing second-round loss in the super-heated conditions of Englishtown last week.

"We're just learning still a little bit how to play with this super-hot condition,” he acknowledged. “But we haven't seen conditions like this since Denver last year. All in all, we went down the racetrack a few times and I feel like we're building some confidence in these hot weather conditions.
 
"But it's brutal for everybody. You're sitting in the racecar and you can't keep the sweat out of your eyes and you're trying to focus and Dickie's up there trying to make the right calls on the racetrack. You're trying to apply as much power to the racetrack as you can and it's just hard to do, especially with a fast racecar.”

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Back-to-back first round exits have John Force down from third place all the way to seventh. The Funny Car legend is still trying to regain the fine form he found back in Gainesville when he picked up his only win of the season, way back in race No. 3. 

“I’m getting beat up on that race track,” Force said. “But they beat me up 40 years ago and then I beat them up. They beat me up the first 10 years, and I dominated for 20, and now I’m getting my butt kicked. That’s what makes it exciting.”

John Force
Force has four career victories in Bristol, the most of any Funny Car driver. His last win in Thunder Valley came back in 2013 against rival Cruz Pedregon. Those two met up again in Englishtown a week ago with Pedregon getting the better of Force. 

“I know where I came from,” Force said, “and I’ll get back in the fight sooner or later.”

Force put together a string of consistent runs in the second, third and fourth qualifying sessions in Englishtown but had to pedal his way to the finish line in the first round of eliminations. That’s been the story for Force in May and June as runs in the three-second range have been tough to come by. 

The best time of his career in Bristol, a 3.956, would be very welcome right now for Force. That would be Force’s best run since his second qualifying run in Topeka. Before that? You’d have to go back to the Four Wide in Charlotte to find a better time on Force’s resume. There’s no time like the present to turn things around.bug

Jim Campbell started out the season well. He reached the semifinals in Phoenix and made it to the second round the following week at the Gatornationals. Since then, the driver for Jim Dunn racing hasn’t won a round and has slid from ninth place to 13th. 

Jim CampbellHe takes some of the blame for that, including trying to time the tree in Topeka. But troubles with the machine go beyond the driver as competition for the bottom-three spots in Funny Car remain up for grabs as the Countdown approaches. 

“It’s a Funny Car, so some days it works and some days it doesn’t,” said Campbell. “We just need to win a couple rounds and I’m getting better on the lights. … One minute the car runs really well and the next minute it doesn’t.”

Campbell sits 25 points out of 10th place behind Del Worsham, which shows how tight the Funny Car standings are. Only 100 points separate J.R. Todd in eighth place and Campbell in 13th place. With eight races to go until the playoffs begin, now would be a great time for the Jim Dunn Racing driver to get on the right track.

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Erica EndersShaking off a disappointing early loss last weekend in Englishtown and still on a season high after her breakthrough win in Epping a fortnight ago, Erica Enders couldn’t wait to get to Bristol Dragway.

 

After all, victories at the NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals in 2014 and 2015 contributed to her championships those two seasons. She also has a pair of runner-ups at the event (2011 and 2013) and was the No. 1 qualifier at the 2015 event,

"Bristol is my favorite track on tour and I'm not saying that because we are [racing] there this weekend, it just is," Enders said. "I've had a lot of success there in the past and we are looking to carry our momentum from our win in Epping on through to Bristol and just do the best we can.

"You know it will probably be hot and tricky, so it will definitely be a survival-of-the-fittest type weekend,” she said. “It's okay because, like I always say, I'll put my money on us every time."

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What better way to celebrate your first win than with an 89th win? Okay, so it doesn’t quite roll off the tongue, but after Greg Anderson picked up win No. 88 in Englishtown a week ago he has a chance to get win No. 89 close to him at a special location: Thunder Valley, the spot he got win No. 1. 

It was 16 years ago a fresh-faced Anderson took down Jim Yates by .005-second to bring home his first Wally and now the Pro Stock veteran looks to add another to his ever-growing collection. He has two wins in Bristol, the second came against Summit Racing teammate Jason Line back in 2004. Line got revenge for that defeat in 2016. 

Greg Anderson and Jason Line
"Bristol is only three hours from home for us, and that means you get home Sunday night and sleep in your own bed – hopefully with a Wally to snuggle up to,” said Anderson. It's just a cool race at a beautiful facility.”

After winning in Englishtown, Anderson feels he’s got momentum on his side. That victory snapped a seven-race drought and gave him his second Wally of the season. He’s now one of three drivers with multiple victories in the 2017 campaign. 

"Coming off a win like we had in Englishtown gives you momentum. It puts a smile on your face, and that momentum and confidence is worth a lot to me," said Anderson. "After you go through a seven-race drought, you start to lose confidence, and then it gets even more difficult to win. You need that confidence, and I have that back now.”

That win also puts Anderson into second in points, right behind teammate Bo Butner. Rookie Tanner Gray lurks behind Anderson with teammate Line in fifth place. Depending on how things shake out in Thunder Valley, Anderson can leave Bristol with more than a Wally; he can leave with sole possession of first place.

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Allen Johnson has been the No. 1 qualifier in Bristol three times (2010, ’11 and ’12) but the Pro Stock driver has never hoisted a Wally at the Tennessee track. He’s looking to change that this weekend at what’s essentially his hometown track while trying to climb the leaderboard in the process.

Allen Johnson“I love this race because this is where we get to sort of give back to all of our friends and our employees that allow us to race like we do,” Johnson said. “We have a lot of employees that have a suite and it’s always fun coming here. My dad has raced in the area since the 1960’s and it’s nice to be gelling as we head into this race. We’ve got a shot to win it for the first time.”

Johnson enters the race in 11th place, just behind Shane Gray. Gray has raced a partial schedule this season but plans to compete in the NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals alongside his son, Tanner. That means picking up points this weekend is critical for Johnson as he looks to get into the Countdown. 

The Pro Stock racer has one runner-up finish in Bristol, back in 2012, and enters Thunder Valley with a little momentum on his side. Johnson got his first round win of the season in Topeka and picked up his second in Englishtown to improve his round record to 2-10. He qualified No. 6 in Bristol last year; that would be his second best slot of the season, two spots below his No. 4 qualifying seed in New Jersey a week ago.

“We’re in the ballpark now,” he said. “It’s just a matter of a few breaks coming our way but I’m tickled to death that the car is running good. We’re just a little bit out of practice on raceday but if I can get my left foot off the clutch faster and tune it back up, they better watch out for our Marathon Petroleum team.” 

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John Gaydosh upset Tanner Gray in the first round of the NHRA Summernationals but a damaged motor kept him from facing Vincent Nobile in the second stanza. It nearly prevented him from racing in the Thunder Valley Nationals a week later, too. 

“I’ve probably had an hour sleep in the last 72 hours,” Gaydosh said. “I started working the minute we pulled out of the pits in Englishtown. I started ordering parts and making arrangements to get everything fixed in time for Bristol.”

John Gaydosh
The motor had dropped a valve, broke a piston and destroyed the cylinder among other things. Gaydosh could only watch the second round from the sidelines and start planning for the next race. 

“If it wasn’t for my friends, I would not be here,” said Gaydosh. “Kenny Delco and Alan Prusiensky offered help right away. Alan let me come to his house at 11 at night to get working on the motor. We may be competitors on the track, but us small independent teams stick together and we are there for each other.”

Thanks to a little help from Delco, Prusiensky and his wife Tina, who Gaydosh is celebrating his 23rd wedding anniversary with this weekend, the Pro Stock driver will get to compete this weekend. 

PHOTOS

Leah Pritchett
Bristol fans were on hand early in the day to watch the cars, like Leah Pritchett’s multi-race-winning Papa John’s dragster, being unloaded from their trailers.
Alexis DeJoria
Alexis DeJoria and her Kalitta Motorsports teammate Troy Coughlin Jr. signed autographs for fans.
Matt Hagan
Local Funny Car favorite Matt Hagan also greeted fans young and old in his pit area.
PC
J.R. Todd, Steve Torrence, and Shawn Langdon were among the drivers who met the media in a series of press conferences early Friday.
Doug Herbert
Bristol Dragway general manager Jerry Caldwell welcomed Top Fuel veteran Doug Herbert to the Legends of Thunder Valley, an allstarlist whose names are enshrined atop the main grandstand. Others in the club include Don Schumacher, Don Garlits, Sox & Martin, NHRA founder Wally Parks, and many more.
Jet
David Douthit brought the day to a fiery conclusion with a a 234-mph exhibition pass in his Black Pearl Nova jet Funny Car.
fireworks
A fireworks display sent fans out to their cars under a bright pyrotechnic glare.

PREVIEW

After heat made life difficult for drivers at the Summernationals in New Jersey, weather again looks to be a factor at the NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals in Bristol, Tenn., as the forecast calls for the other kind of thunder and lightning this weekend. As the third race of the Eastern Swing gets going, drivers and crew chiefs will look to tame the humidity of Bristol while trying to stay ahead of the rain. 


Tony Schumacher

Taming Thunder Valley has rarely been a problem for Tony Schumacher, who has more Wallys with “Bristol” on them than anyone. His five titles from Thunder Valley give him confidence he can get back in the winner’s circle for the first time since Gainesville. He’s reached three finals since then, but Schumacher will be the first to tell you there’s no trophy handed out for second place. His car ran well in Englishtown, a track he hasn't had much success in historically. The Army Car averaged a 3.842 elapsed time following an aborted first qualifying run. If he can bring that type of run to Bristol, look out. 


Courtney Force

Looking for a driver to beat a Don Schumacher Racing driver in Funny Car? It just might be Courtney Force. She came darn close to beating Matt Hagan in Epping, falling in the final round by just .05-second, and reached the semi’s in Englishtown. Her average elapsed time on non-aborted runs this season is 3.905 seconds and that fiery explosion at the New England Nationals hasn’t seemed to slow her down any. It's been more than a year since her last win, and it's going to be tough to slow the momentum of the DSR brigade. The Hagan-Jack Beckman-Ron Capps trio has won every race except for Gainesville, where Courtney's father John Force picked up the Wally, but Courtney has the car, and the ability, to get it done. 


Erica Enders

The first year of the fuel-injected era was just the second Bristol Pro Stock final of the last six to not feature Erica Enders. Sure, she lost to Jeg Coughlin Jr. in the first round of the Summernationals a week ago; but after the display she put on in Epping, would it surprise anyone to see her race right back to another final? Enders picked up back-to-back Wallys in Bristol in 2015 and 2014 and runnered-up in Tennessee in 2013 and 2011 during Mike Edwards four-in-a-row run. Her car is running consistently again, and her clutch foot is as good as it has ever been. Now she's back at a track she's found plenty of success at. That could mean bad news for the rest of the field. 

2016 EVENT WINNERS
Shawn Langdon, Top Fuel; Tommy Johnson Jr., Funny Car; Jason Line, Pro Stock.

MOST VICTORIES:
Tony Schumacher, 5, TF; Mike Edwards, 4, PS; John Force, 4, FC; Doug Kalitta, 3, TF; Ron Capps, 3, FC.

TRACK RECORDS:
Top Fuel 

3.745 sec. by Tony Schumacher, June ’15; 
331.04 mph by Larry Dixon, June ’15

Funny Car
3.884 sec. by Ron Capps, June ’16; 
329.42 mph by Del Worsham, June ‘16

Pro Stock
6.621 sec. by Shane Gray, June ’14; 
209.26 mph by Bo Butner, June ‘16

NATIONAL RECORDS
Top Fuel

3.658 sec. by Leah Pritchett, Feb. ‘17, Phoenix;
333.66 mph by Brittany Force, May '17, Topeka, Kan.

Funny Car
3.802 by Matt Hagan, May ’17, Topeka, Kan.;
338.85 mph by Matt Hagan, May ’17, Topeka, Kan.

Pro Stock 
6.455 sec. by Jason Line, March ’15, Charlotte, N.C.;  
215.55 mph by Erica Enders, May ’14, Englishtown N.J.