NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals Sunday Notebook

18 Jun 2017
NHRA National Dragster staff
Race coverage
Bristol

Preview | Features | Photos | Results

ELIMINATIONS ROUNDS RECAPS

Mike SalinasTOP FUEL ROUND ONE (12:25 p.m.): Mike Salinas powered his way past Kebin Kinsley to a first-round victory on a holeshot with a 3.855-second pass that was the second quickest pass of the round, behind only Kinsley. Salinas' run was .005-second slower than Kinsley’s pass, but he got off the line .047-second sooner than the Texan to grab the second round win of his career. He’ll have lane choice against No. 1 qualifier Steve Torrence in the second round. Scott Palmer and Shawn Langdon picked up key round wins in their battle for the final spot in the Countdown, but the win was costly for Langdon, who received his second oildown penalty of the event (25 total). [Detailed Results]

Second-round pairings (lane-choice listed first): Mike Salinas vs. Steve Torrence; Brittany Force vs. Clay Millican; Antron Brown vs. Shawn Langdon; Scott Palmer vs. Leah Pritchett

Robert HightFUNNY CAR ROUND ONE (12: 55 p.m.): Robert Hight made the only three-second pass of the first round, a stout 3.985 in defeating Jeff Diehl. The next best runs were a pair of 4.10s, by Ron Capps in defeating Alexis DeJoria, and Tommy Johnson Jr., who took down Jonnie Lindberg. All three John Force Racing entries and all four Don Schumacher machines reached the second round. Low qualifier Tim Wilkerson is the eighth quarterfinalist. [Detailed results]

Second-round pairings (lane choice first): Tommy Johnson Jr. vs. Tim Wilkerson; Courtney Force vs. Jack Beckman; Robert Hight vs. Ron Capps; John Force vs. Matt Hagan

John Force
John Force had a scare in round one, crossing the centerline after the finish line after beating Del Worsham. The two exchanged some heated words at the other end after the pass. (animated gif)

Tanner GrayPRO STOCK ROUND ONE (1:15 p.m.): In a Father’s Day delight, rookie Tanner Gray will face his father, Shane, in the second round of Pro Stock. Tanner defeated Greg Anderson with a 6736 while Shane beat Anderson’s KB Racing teammate, Jason Line, with a 6.745. It's the first time in three years that both Anderson and Line have lost in the first round in the same race. Bo Butner, the other KB Racing driver, beat Wally Stroupe in round one and will receive a bye into the semifinals. [Detailed results]

Second-round pairings (lane choice first): Jeg Coughlin Jr. vs. Alex Laughlin; Tanner Gray vs. Shane Gray; Bo Butner vs. bye; Erica Enders vs. Vincent Nobile

Clay MillicanTOP FUEL ROUND TWO (2:20 p.m.): Steve Torrence ended up with a solo run when Mike Salinas’ dragster was shut off on the starting line in the second round. That didn’t stop him from posting low e.t. of the session (4 .000). He’ll get Tennessee native Clay Millican in the semifinals as Millican looks to win his first-ever NHRA race. Scott Palmer missed out on an opportunity to keep up with points rival Shawn Langdon by turning on the red light against Leah Pritchett. He posted a 3.935-second pass but left .241-second early; to make matters worse, Pritchett got down the track in a scintillating 7.094 seconds to give up lane choice to Langdon in the semifinals. [Detailed results]

Semifinal pairings (lane choice first): Steve Torrence vs. Clay Millican; Shawn Langdon vs. Leah Pritchett.

Tommy Johnson Jr.FUNNY CAR ROUND TWO (2:35 p.m.): Tommy Johnson Jr., who has won this event two of the last three years, reached the semifinals by taking down low qualifier Tim Wilkerson with low e.t. of the round, 4.083, and will be joined in the semifinals by his three Don Schumacher Racing teammates -- Jack Beckman, Ron Capps, and Matt Hagan – assuring that DSR will win Funny Car for the 10th time in 11 events this season. [Detailed results]

Semifinal pairings (lane choice first): Tommy Johnson Jr. vs. Jack Beckman; Ron Capps vs. Matt Hagan

Erica EndersPRO STOCK ROUND TWO (2:45 p.m.): Erica Enders gets her fourth shot of the season against Bo Butner in the semifinals; and this time, she gets lane after posting a 6.761-second pass. That’s significant after Butner seemed to own that indication for most of the weekend. Enders is 1-2 against Butner this season, including their most recent meeting in the semifinals in Epping; you might remember that as the race Enders found the winner’s circle for the first time in a long time. Tanner Gray got the best of his dad on Father’s Day and as a reward will race rival Alex Laughlin for the first time since their post-race scuffle in Houston. There’s plenty of intrigue in store in the Pro Stock semifinals in Thunder Valley. [Detailed results]

Semifinal pairings (lane-choice listed first): Tanner Gray vs. Alex Laughlin; Bo Butner vs. Erica Enders

Clay MillicanTOP FUEL SEMIFINALS (4:40 p.m.): Clay Millican has a shot to bring home a Wally for the first time in his career and he can do it in his home state. The Great Clips and Parts Plus driver took down Steve Torrence in the semifinals with a 319.90 mph and 3.812-second pass to beat the Texan by .137-second. He’ll meet Leah Pritchett in the final round, who knocked off rival Shawn Langdon down the track by a .075-second margin. Millican has finished as the runner up in eight Top Fuel finals and looks to avoid finishing in second for a ninth time in his home state of Tennessee. This is his 11th final round appearance. [Detailed results]

Jack BeckmanFUNNY CAR SEMIFINALS (4:45 p.m.): Jack Beckman, winner last weekend in Englishtown, reached his second straight final round when he bested teammate and defending event champ Tommy Johnson Jr. in their matchup. For the second straight time, Beckman's final-round opponent will be his Don Schumacher Racing teammate, Ron Capps, who defeated Matt Hagan, the other DSR driver in the semi’s. Beckman will have lane choice based on his 4.00 to 4.04 performance advantage. [Detailed results]

WEATHER DELAY (4:50 p.m.): Rain once again has put a hold on action prior to the Pro Stock semifinals. Racing resumed at 5:03 p.m.

Alex LaughlinPRO STOCK SEMIFINALS (5:05 p.m.): Alex Laughlin advanced to his third career Pro Stock final in a bit of an upset as three-time season winner Tanner Gray red-lighted by .001-second. Laughlin will seek to become the eighth different winner in 11 events so far this season when he takes on two-time season winner Bo Butner in the final. Butner has lane choice based on his 6.73 semifinal pass against Laughlin’s 6.76. In all of 2016, there were just nine different winners.

TFH final
TOP FUEL HARLEY FINAL (5:08 p.m.):
Tii Tharpe, far lane, took down teammate and Top Fuel Harley points leader Jay Turner while throwing down a 205.01 mph run in the process. He rattled off a 6.549-second pass on the nitro-burning bike to capture his second Wally of the season.

Pro Mod final
PRO FINAL FINAL (5:20 p.m.):
In the first all-turbocharged final round of the J&A Service Pro Mod Series, former season champ Troy Coughlin, near lane, defeated Shane Molinari to collect his 14th career win, 10 of which have come in Pro Mod.

SPORTSMAN FINALS (5:25 p.m.): Final-round results for the Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series classes at Bristol Dragway:

Super Stock
Marty Rinehart Jr. def. Greg Stanfield

Stock
Jimmy Hidalgo Jr. def. John Leach

Super Comp
David Morris def. John Labbous

Super Gas
Steve Furr def. Jacob Elrod

Top Dragster
Aaron Stanfield def. Angela Travis

Top Sportsman
Clayton Roberts def. Jeffrey Barker

PS final
PRO STOCK FINAL (5:55 p.m.):
Alex Laughlin, near lane, saved his best run for last and scored his second career win when he defeated highly-favored Bo Butner. Laughlin, whose first career win last year in Butner also came in the final round at Butner’s expense, cut a perfect .000 reaction time and also outran Butner, 6.71 to 6.72, to collect the win.

FC final
FUNNY CAR FINAL (6 p.m.):
After struggling throughout qualifying, Ron Capps, near lane, completed a great comeback by collecting his fifth win of the season, avenging last weekend’s final-round loss to Jack Beckman, beating his teammate on a 4.054 to 4.040 holeshot.

TF final
TOP FUEL FINAL (6:05 p.m.):
It took 11 tries, but Clay Millican, far lane, is going to dance with a Wally in the winner’s circle. The Tennessee native rolled down the Thunder Valley track to a 3.825-second pass to take down Leah Pritchett to finally bring home the trophy. It was a long time coming, but there’s no better place for Millican to capture his first win than at home. 

FEATURES

Steve TorrenceThe media never gets tired of asking him about it, but Steve Torrence good-naturedly continues to answer questions and make quips about his lop-sided record against good friend Antron Brown. 

After climbing from his Capco Contractors dragster after beating Brown in the Summernationals final last week, just his second victory in their 24 meetings, Torrence good-naturedly proclaimed, “That’s only one-in-a-row!

“It’s not really a rivalry, it’s just him beating the crap out of me,” he expanded Friday during a pre-race press conference. “[Before last week’s final] people kept reminding me how many times he’d beaten me, and I was in the car thinking, ‘Man, I’ve only beaten him once.’ Now I say I’ve beaten him twice.’

“Honestly though, that was a big one. If we’re going to win the championship, we know we’re going to have to beat that guy more than once every couple years. He’s bad ass. That team is bad ass – but so is this one. That’s the guy I least want to race, knowing my success ratio against him, but it’s not in my head anymore. I’ve got a car that can win.”

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Antron BrownBristol Dragway is the only track on the NHRA tour where Antron Brown has not won an event title, but the reigning world champ says he doesn’t let that get into his head.
 
"I don't even think about that," he said. “It’s been one of those tracks where we really want to win, for sure, and cross it off the bucket list, but we treat this race like any other. We want to win them all. We learned a lot about our hot weather tune-up last weekend in Englishtown and that's helping us this weekend in Bristol. All we're focused on is one round at time and attacking the racetrack each lap."

Brown’s lone appearance in the final round at Bristol came in 2011, when he lost a close race against three-time Top Fuel champion Larry Dixon. 
 
As he looks forward to a hot day of final eliminations in Bristol, Brown, runner-up last weekend in the steamy conditions of Englishtown, is feeling confident.

“I’m feeling very good with the way we ran in Englishtown,” he said. “We’ve been going rounds, which tells you how strong this team is right now. We only have two wins right now, but we should have a lot more, but the finals didn’t go our way. The key is we’re going rounds and that’s what wins championships. We’ll just keep doing what we’re doing and let the results speak for themselves.”

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Mike Salinas
When Mike Salinas pulls up in his rig, you’d be forgiven for thinking the Scrappers Racing crew does this full time. It’s one of the best-looking rigs in the pit area, sporting an orange and black paint job and a slick logo, and his Top Fuel dragster is shinier than Elmer Fudd’s head. 

Not yet. Salinas, who first made his appearance on tour a little more than five years ago, plans to compete in about a dozen races this season in preparation of going full time in 2018. His dedication to doing things right isn’t just evident in the passionate way he speaks about it; and make no doubt, Salinas is passionate about doing things right. It’s plainly evident in the way the man and his crew goes about his business. 

Salinas rattled off a career best 3.856, 316.75 to qualify No. 9 on a tricky Bristol Dragway track. He’s racing with the best parts available and gets tuning help from Alan Johnson. Salinas learned his lesson from the early days: if he was going to do compete in Top Fuel, he was going to do things right. 

Mike Salinas“I want to do it at a higher level, whatever it’s going to take it’s going to take,” said Salinas. “I’m getting too old to be messing around.”

Salinas plans to run 10-12 races this season. He competed in Topeka and in addition to Bristol intends to compete in Norwalk, the Western Swing (Seattle, Sonoma and Denver) and Indianapolis. Beyond that, Salinas will test the car in Phoenix during the offseason until he gets it running the way he wants it. Once 2018 rolls around, the San Jose native wants his dragster to be competitive. 

“I’m not here to just qualify,” said Salinas. “I want to run really hard at every event. … If I give all the guys all the tools and give him all the stuff that he needs to do his job, and I do my job, we’re going to win. And I’m here to win.”

Salinas pointed to the father of Steve Torrence, Billy Torrence, as an example to follow. 

“Until I saw him do what he did, I was very disappointed in the way I competed,” he said. “I just couldn’t figure it out. I saw Billy do it, he came out and ran fast the first time out and if he can do it, we can do it.”

Salinas grabbed a round win against Morgan Lucas in the Fall Pomona race back in 2012. He’ll look to add another win to his tally against Kebin Kinsley in the first round in Bristol.

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Tim Wilkerson
Funny Car low qualifier Tim Wilkerson is one of the drivers who also serves as his own crew chief, and with the experienced and capable Richard Hartman at his side, he’s still having fun because he’s got a plan.

“I get up there with 25 things on my mind, but Richard and I have three scenarios that we have all built up,” he explains. “We get up there and we’ll talk about the racetrack. Even when I’m strapped in my car we’re still talking about it. He’ll be if-ing and but-ing that, we decided on which file we’ll run, which clutch setting. Hell, you watch us and we’ll be changing it right up until we start the car.”

Even though his son, Daniel, is a licensed Funny Car driver, Wilk is not ready to give up the seat fulltime yet.

“[Matco Top Fuel crew chief] Brian Corradi is a good friend of mine and he’s always up my butt about my driving, and telling me how much better my car would be if I weren’t driving it – that sounds rude but I know what he means; it’s really hard being a crew chief when you’re driving it at the same time – but I’m not ready yet. It’s exciting. It’s really fun to be able to do. I really enjoy that part of it. If you don’t see me smiling, I won’t be out here anymore.”

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Jonnie LindbergToday, Jonnie Lindberg turns his focus on his first-round matchup against Tommy Johnson Jr. But Saturday highlighted the busy summer of the Swedish rookie as the Funny Car driver worked on tuning three cars across two continents while also piloting the Jim Head owned flopper in a pair of qualifying sessions. 

“I have two Pro Mod cars I’m tuning [in Sweden],” said Lindberg. “They email me the Race Pak files and I email back timing graphs and fuel system files and they just plug it in.”

Lindberg has plenty of familiarity with the cars and tracks in question from his time racing in Sweden. The two drivers in question, Åke Persson and Jan Ericsson, were having solid weekends as of Saturday. Lindberg is also helping tuning Jay Payne’s Alcohol Funny Car at the Division 5 NHRA Lucas Oil Series event in Denver. As the crow flies, that’s 4,804 miles between Tierp, Sweden, and Denver, Colo. 

“I already knew one of the cars pretty well. One of my old clutch guys, Peter, he’d tell me the track is like, this is how hot it is. I’m pretty familiar with the track.”

The former Top Alcohol Funny Car champion also has heaps of experience tuning on the same weekend he’s racing. So, heading to the Timing Tower to take advantage of the NHRA Wi-Fi during downtime to help some buddies is business as usual for Lindberg. And it only gets busier for the Swede after Norwalk.

Lindberg flies back to Sweden to tune the pair of cars following the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals in Norwalk, then heads back to Chicago for the next national event. He’ll get a week off before then Western Swing before heading back to Sweden for his brother Johan's wedding. That’s the same Johan Lindberg that pilots Jonnie’s old Top Alcohol Funny Car, which Jonnie tuned to victory at the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals earlier this year. Then Jonnie hits the road again to Brainerd for the Lucas Oil Nationals. 

When he’s not helping tune cars for his fellow countrymen, Lindberg also does plays translator when ordering parts. That’s a big boost for Swedish racers who are looking to order parts from the United States but don’t speak much English. 

“I sell a lot of parts to guys overseas,” said Lindberg. “Cause when you’re not doing it full time, I know what you need. A lot of guys back home they don’t speak English very well, so they can call me and talk the same language and I can tell them what parts they need; because if they call somebody else they can easily get the wrong parts.”

On Sunday, Lindberg’s attention turns back to the Countdown. He entered Thunder Valley 21 points out of 10th place, two spots behind Del Worsham. The rookie also needs to pass Cruz Pedregon to get into the playoffs. It’s going to be tight the rest of the way as Lindberg’s busy summer continues. The standings are one area he’d probably like to get some breathing room in.

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ForcesAfter years of spending Father’s Day away from his family, John Force now gets to spend the day with daughters Courtney and Brittany on the track. It might not be conventional; well, except to other fathers in the NHRA, like Shane Gray, Troy Coughlin, Hector Arana and many others who have children who also race. 

“In my early days, I spent a lot of Father’s Days on the road,” John Force said. “Couldn’t get home to them, and I didn’t have the money – I was driving the 18-wheeler. To be with kids that I’ve missed so much and to race with them, life’s good for me.”

That sentiment is shared by his daughters, Brittany and Courtney. 

“Being able to race against my dad on Father’s Day weekend is something that I really look forward to,” Courtney said. “Hopefully, we can give him Sunday off – that’s always the goal coming out to Bristol, to give dad the day off for Father’s Day. We’ll see what we can do.”

That sentiment is tongue and cheek, and if Courtney wants to beat her dad she’ll have to do it in the final round. There’s no doubt that’s a situation everyone at John Force Racing can get behind at this point in the season with Courtney looking for her first win and everyone in Funny Car hoping someone outside of Don Schumacher Racing takes home a Wally.

“I don’t feel bad – he’s got plenty of Wallys, so he’s fine,” Force said. “Honestly, he’s taught me everything I know in a Funny Car, and I have fun when I’m in the lane next to him competing against him. I try to mess with him, but literally nothing breaks that guy down. I can’t screw him up, even if I try. We have fun with it.”

Top Fuel driver Brittany doesn’t get to face off against her dad, of course, but the Father’s Day race is still special for the Monster Energy car driver. 

“Racing in Bristol on Father’s Day is always special,” Brittany Force said. “It always happens to land on that weekend, and Courtney and I do the Track Walk with our dad, which is something fun before race day.”

The trio took part in the annual tradition and then took part in driver introductions before heading back to the pits to fire up their Nitro cars. There’s nothing like Father’s Day in the NHRA.

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Shane GrayThere's been a lot of talk about the battles for the top 10 positions in Top Fuel and Funny Car, but the war raging in Pro Stock is no less intense and no less close.

Shane Gray currently holds the No. 10 position, just one round ahead of Allen Johnson and Alan Prisiensky is just a round and a half behind Johnson. The rub here is that the senior Gray has been running a limited schedule and indicated Saturday that he migh tnot be running a whole lot of events between here and the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals, the last event of the regular season that sets the 10-car field for the Countdown to the Championship playoffs. Gray is expected to run Indy, along with his son, rookie Tanner, and his father, Johnny Gray, making for a three-car powerhouse.

If Shane does not run of the six events between Bristol and Indy, he'll undoubtedly fall from the top 10, and it's hard to see that happening.

Despite skipping the last four events (including this one) Chris McGaha still holds the No. 9 spot and is just 40 points ahead of Gray. He's expected to return to the tour this summer.

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Jeg Coughlin
It’s been a while since Pro Stock low qualifier Jeg Coughlin Jr. visited the Pro Stock winner’s circle, claiming his last title more than three years ago in Englishtown, and a lot longer since he’s reached the promised land in Bristol.

Coughlin won the non-points Winston Showdown in 1999 and then won the Thunder Valley Nationals in 2007, but has been winless in Bristol since.

Coughlin’s last NHRA national event win of any kind was a spectacular one as he doubled up at the 2016 SPORTSnationals in Columbus, Ohio, where he scored in both Stock and Super Gas. This season, Coughlin has come close in Pro Stock, with runner-ups in Houston and Topeka, a far cry from an incredibly tough 2016 season where he won just 10 rounds in 24 events and reached the semifinals just once.

"It's been a great season, such a relief after the struggles of 2016," Coughlin said. "Across four race teams, the Elite Motorsports crew is just so strong and it's rewarding for me to see them smiling. Getting low qualifier is a feather in their caps, an indicator that all the hard work they're putting in is 
all worthwhile.”

The Coughlin family is known as a close-knit (and large) family, and that’s definitely on his mind on Father’s Day,
 
"No matter what happens with me or my brother Troy, who already won his first-round race in Pro Mod and is on to the quarterfinals, as well as his son and my nephew T.J. (Troy Jr.) racing in Top Fuel, it'll be memorable Father's Day. It's a special weekend for all fathers and as children ourselves it's a chance to be thankful to our fathers. It's a proud day as a parent and I would love nothing more than to bring home another big win on such a special day."

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Tanner Gray
There may not be any easy matchups in Pro Stock, but there are certainly some drivers you’d rather not face in the first round. So, when Greg Anderson and Jason Line qualified No. 4 and No. 5 and drew Tanner and Shane Gray, respectively, they knew they were in for a battle. 

“First round will be interesting,” said Anderson. “You have to beat them all somewhere. Those guys over there usually run very fast, so it's not an ideal draw, but if you want to win a race, you have to beat the toughest. It doesn't matter who you start with.”

Neither of the Grays performed well in qualifying, but Anderson isn’t taking the burgeoning team lightly. Tanner sits in third place, just 39 points behind Anderson, and has shown what he’s capable of this season. They’re 2-2 against each other this season. 

“They struggled in qualifying, but we know better than that,” Anderson said. “We know what they can run like. We expect they'll be fast tomorrow, so we better get ours right and we better get up on the wheel."

Tanner qualified with a 6.778 and made only one clean run down the track. He made only two passes, and one of the two was in double digits. Shane had a little more success, qualifying No. 10 with a 6.757 pass. It’s always fun to see a couple of heavyweights face off in the first round.

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Tanner Gray
Father’s Day is the big holiday this weekend, which is certainly a special occasion for Tanner Gray and his dad Shane. But Sunday marked another special moment in the life of the Pro Stock rookie: his high school graduation. Yes, the North Carolina native has one more Wally than high school diplomas. 

Gray walked out in his cap and gown during driver introductions, which also means we can’t call the 18-year-old a student of anything but Pro Stock anymore. He’s certainly learned quickly. The rookie entered Bristol in third place behind Bo Butner and Greg Anderson. 

His reaction times have been among the best in the class on elimination day (.023 excluding a pair of red lights). He’s struggled at the tree in recent races and slipped through the beams in his second qualifying run while trying to work on his time.

“There were a lot of adjustments [to the clutch] and I think we kind of got lost with it,” said Gray. “If you look back at the stats in Pomona I was in in the double-o’s and the teens and I just kind of progressively got to where I was in the mid-teen to the 20s. When I would kill it, I would hit in the double-o’s.”

After averaging a .018-second reaction time in seven elimination runs in May, Gray’s average has slowed to a .036 in five runs in June. Of course, it’s worth noting those are small sample sizes and even Erica Enders has off days. Gray’s fully aware of that. 

“I guess you can always miss it,” said Gray. “In Englishtown, I was awful.”

Maybe now that the stress of school has gone out the window, those reaction times will improve, too. 

PHOTOS

donuts
As part of its annual Father’s Day celebration, Bristol Dragway employees distributed coffee and donuts to fans prior to the start of the day’s action.
Track Walk
A Father’s Day Sealmaster Track Walk was also on the docket as famous racing fathers such as John Force, Robert Hight, Roy Johnson, and Terry McMillen and their kids led fans on a Sunday stroll down the Bristol Dragway strip.
Robert Hight
Hight and daughter Autumn were welcomed during the pre-race ceremony.
Terry McMillen
Terry McMillen and son Cameron -- the latter sporting an Amalie-friendly mohawk -- took part in the Track Walk.
Tanner Gray
Tanner Gray, whose high-school class graduated today, got his diploma on stage in Bristol. We’re not sure that grandpa Johnny approved of the traditional graduate’s cap being perched atop his baseball cap.
John Force
John Force and Del Worsham got a little too close for comfort in round one, where Force crossed the centerline into Worsham’s lane past the finish line.
Winners
Even Funny Car winner Ron Capps knew that the big story of the day was not his fifth win of the season, but the first in NHRA competiton for Top Fuel winner and homestate favorite Clay Millican.
Winners
Your event champions: Clay Millican, Ron Capps, and Alex Laughlin!

 

PREVIEW

It's race day at the Thunder Valley Nationals. Following are the first-round pairings:

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