Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals Friday Notebook

Qualifying sessions recaps, notes, photos, and more from the first day of qualifying at the Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals, race 15 of 24 on the 2017 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule.
28 Jul 2017
NHRA National Dragster staff
Race coverage
Sonoma Raceway

Features | Photos | Preview | Results

QUALIFYING SESSIONS RECAPS

hector-arana-jr.jpgPRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE Q1 (4:52 p.m.): Hector Arana Jr. stormed to the top of the Pro Stock Motorcycle qualifying during the first session with a 6.783, the only clocking in the 6.7-second zone. Also earning bonus points were Jerry Savoie, who was the second quickest with a 6.807, and the third position went to Scotty Pollacheck, who turned a 6.834. 

greg-anderson.jpgPRO STOCK Q1 (5:01 p.m.): The drivers of the KB Racing team came out swinging as they captured the first three spots in qualifying to sweep the bonus points. Greg Anderson led the way with a 6.564, followed closely by Jason Line at a 6.565 and current points leader Bo Butner with a 6.567. Four other drivers ran in the 6.5-second zone, and they were Tanner Gray (6.573), Chris McGaha (6.583), Allen Johnson (6.593), and Vincent Nobile (6.596).

courtney-force.jpgFUNNY CAR Q1 (5:40 p.m.): In what could easily be classified as one of the least surprising happenings in qualifying, Courtney Force, a six-time No. 1 starter already in 2017, is atop the order following the first of four sessions. Force recorded the lone 3.8-second pass of the session, coming in at 3.889 seconds to grab the provisional top spot. Force’s dad, John, is second entering the night session with a 3.902, followed by Matt Hagan, who clocked a 3.904. Hagan also posted a speed of 330.39 mph on the run, resetting his own Sonoma Raceway track record. The top three were the only drivers to dip into the threes with Jim Campbell having the next-best time at 4.01.

leah-pritchett.jpgTOP FUEL Q1 (6:20 p.m.): Leah Pritchett gained three valuable qualifying bonus points and earned the right to run at the end of tonight’s session, expected to be much cooler and quicker, when she powered to a 3.729 to nab the No. 1 spot after one session. The run was a hundredth and a half quicker than any other time posted in the session. Bristol winner Clay Millican finished the round second with a 3.744, followed by Doug Kalitta, who was another three-thousandths back. Tony Schumacher was the only other driver in the 3.7s, coming in at 3.769 seconds. In a bit of a surprise, Denver winner Antron Brown hazed the tires on his attempt and sits 12th, meaning the three-time and reigning world champ will be up early in Q2.

le-tonglet.jpgPRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE Q2 (7:35 p.m.); Four-time 2017 Pro Stock Motorcycle event winner LE Tonglet, who suffered a surprise second-round loss last weekend in Denver, showed that he is ready to resume his winning ways as he improved on his third-place 6.812 in the first session to jump all the way to No.  1 with a 6.783. His time matched Hector Arana Jr.’s similar run from the first stanza, but Tonglet got the nod with a 196.73 to 196.36 mph edge in speed. Tonglet’s teammate, Jerry Savoie, was second quickest in the session with a 6.788 to move up to No.  3, and Arana got the final bonus point with a 6.803. 

drew-skillman.jpgPRO STOCK Q2 (7:49 p.m.); Held to the No. 8 spot in the first session with a sub-par 6.607, Drew Skillman came back with a vengeance to leap all the way up to the pole position with a stellar 6.544. Following Skillman was Greg Anderson, who improved on his previous time of 6.565 with a 6.553, and the third-best time was the 6.564 recorded by Bo Butner. Not only did these drivers grab all of the bonus points, but they are also one-two-three in new qualifying order. 

robert-hight.jpgFUNNY CAR Q2 (8:55 p.m.): Robert Hight left jaws on the floor when he wheeled his special-look California Highway Patrol/Auto Club entry to the third-quickest (3.807) and fastest (339.87 mph) run in history to jump to the top of the qualifying order after day one. Hight reset the national speed record by more than 1 mph with his stunning 339-mph shot. The second-best run of the session came in the lane next to Hight when Jack Beckman put a 3.854 on the boards. Those were the only 3.8s in a session where several top runners experienced troubles on their attempts. Tommy Johnson Jr. made a nice rebound from his crazy first-session pass with a 3.908 that was the third-best time of Q2.

doug-kalitta.jpgTOP FUEL Q2 (9:15 p.m.): Both ends of the Sonoma Raceway track record was reset during a quick and fast second session of dragster qualifying. Leah Pritchett took the e.t. mark and the No. 1 spot on the sheets with a 3.669 that had the potential to be even better because her engine backfired as she approached the stripe, slowing her to just 304.80 mph. Doug Kalitta earned the track speed record with his 331.28-mph speed on his 3.694 that has him ranked third after day one. Sandwiched between the two track record holders is Brittany Force, whose 3.689 places her second on the sheets heading into final qualifying.


FEATURES

T_Haddock.JPGTerry Haddock is still riding high after picking up a round-win last weekend in Denver, and, in addition to the boost in morale for him and his team, the victory against Shawn Langdon in round one on the mountain also has him adjusting strategy a bit today. Haddock and his team have been picking away at the tune-up on his Back the Blue dragster, and he feels like he is in a good place with it where the car will consistently go downtrack and run 3.9s, but 3.9s are not what he ultimately wants to be running. Today, Haddock plans to take the next step and move away from the conservative tune-up that has taken him consistently downtrack as of late and push the limits a bit.

“We’ve been really conservative, but I’m saying to hell with it. I want to have fun tonight,” said Haddock, who is aiming for a career-best run in the low- to mid-3.8s in the second session tonight.

Haddock will only be running his Top Fuel entry in Q2, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be taking it easy the rest of the weekend. Tim Gibbons is driving Haddock’s Funny Car, so that will keep him busy during the other sessions. Not only will Gibbons’ Funny Car passes help keep his license current, which is a primary goal for the nitro newcomer, but they are also going to serve as a bit of a test session for Haddock, who purchased a new flopper in the offseason and plans to bring it out himself later this year. The new entry has a lot of new components on it, including a new fuel system that Haddock is going to work with this weekend to get data for it.

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Scott Palmer is one of the drivers in the heated battle for the final spots in the top 10, entering this event ranked ninth, and though he didn’t gain any points in the first qualifying session, Palmer certainly showed he has potential to add to his overall tally this weekend when he made a strong 3.82-second pass that has him sitting in the top six entering Q2.

“That was stout,” said Palmer, who has run as quick 3.78 in his career. “We were trying for a mid-3.8. We thought it might accidentally do something like that. After our Denver run, 3.86 at 318, wow. Great weekend — it’s going to be bad-ass.”

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After seeing some strong numbers in the Funny Cars ahead of them, David Grubnic, crew chief for Clay Millican, decided to take a bit of a risk and push for a low-3.7. Though Grubnic himself admitted it was a risky decision, it paid off for the team because Millican was able to run right down the strip and turn in a time of 3.744, finishing Q1 as the No. 2 driver in the order.

“I’ll tell you what, that was a good lap,” said Millican. “ ‘Grubby’ told me before, ‘We’re just going to make sure it gets on down through there, and then we’ll tune ’er up tonight,’ so I’m really excited to see what the tune-up tonight is. That is a great way to start, no doubt about it. That was pretty quick, but there’s more out there.”

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It’s fair to say that no team worked as hard between last weekend’s event in Denver and this weekend’s race in Sonoma than that of Tim Wilkerson. It wasn’t by choice, of course, but the Levi, Ray & Shoup team was pushed into overdrive after Wilkerson suffered not one but two massive wheelstands at Bandimere Speedway that caused damage to both of the chassis the team had loaded on the trailer for the Western Swing.

Following the second wheelstand, on Sunday, Wilkerson’s team sprung into action, formulating a plan to get a new chassis for this weekend and beyond. Half the team left Denver and headed to Indiana to pick up a new chassis from Murf McKinney, while the other half went west to get the other needed equipment to Sonoma. McKinney was already working on front-halving a chassis prior to the wheelstands, but he upped the timetable on prepping it, and the team was able to pick it up on Tuesday and head to Sonoma. Originally, the team had expected to pick it up Wednesday, and that put into question its ability to make all qualifying sessions. However, the extra day allowed Wilkerson’s group to get to Sonoma Raceway and begin prepping for qualifying ahead of schedule, and he is expected to make it up for all sessions.

“Everyone really pulled together,” said Wilkerson. “We’re a team, and even though we were disappointed with what happened, we regrouped. Hopefully we can win some rounds these last two races of the Western Swing. We’ll see how things go, but we aren’t going to miss a qualifying session if we can help it.”

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Though not as big of a change as with Tim Wilkerson’s car, there is also a bit of difference on Cruz Pedregon’s entry this weekend vs. what fans saw in Denver. Pedregon has a new body on his car, using El Jefe, aka The Boss, for this weekend instead of El Guapo, which was on the car in Denver. Anyone who tuned into the Bandimere Speedway event may recall that the last trip down the track for El Guapo there will remember that Pedregon’s final run downtrack, in the semifinals, ended with Pedregon going in the sand. Though not an ideal ending to any run, the trip into the top-end trap did not cause significant damage to the body.

“We have El Guapo resting, and we brought El Jefe out — that’s The Boss, translated Spanish to English,” said Pedregon. “You know, that was about as smooth of an entry into the sand trap as you can have, so that was not a factor. We had a little bit of damage on the front, but it hurt our feelings more than anything. We were more bummed that we lost the round by a little bit to Robert [Hight]. We got rushed that round and didn’t do all the things we wanted to do to the setup and got fendered out there, but it was a good weekend for us.”

That good weekend couldn’t have come at a better time. Pedregon is clinging to the No. 10 spot in a heated battle for a spot in the Countdown to the Championship playoffs. Including this weekend, there are only four events before the Countdown field is set, meaning round-wins are crucial.

“We have the 10th spot, and we don’t want to be on the teeter-totter going into Indy if we can help it, so we’d like to, obviously, get ourselves moved up a little higher in the Countdown so we’re not doing a nail-biter thing like we’ve done before,” said Pedregon. “But it’s coming together. Aaron [Brooks, crew chief] is doing a great job, and the whole team have put in the time, and we all licked our wounds, and we’ve all dusted ourselves off, and we’re back fighting again. It’s all good again over here with our group.”

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Jim Campbell, who enjoyed one of his best outings of the season last weekend in Denver when he drove to the semifinals, carried his strong performance over here to Sonoma, where he was among the quickest four cars of the first qualifying session. Campbell drove “Big Jim” Dunn’s entry to a 4.01 that stood as the quickest time of the session until John Force came along and blew everyone away with a 3.90 (later bettered by Force’s daughter Courtney).

“I love it here,” said Campbell. “We ran good on the mountain. It’s great to be down here in Sonoma. The 7-Eleven/Oberto car is running really good. Jim Dunn’s got a good handle on it. My crew’s doing a great job, and I’m looking forward to a good weekend and racing for that 10th position.”

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Tommy Johnson Jr. went on a wild ride during the first round of qualifying when his Make-A-Wish Dodge Charger R/T lost control and made contact with the right retaining wall midway through his first run of the weekend. Johnson, who was uninjured in the incident, said before the crazy moment that “everything was fine. It was making an OK run down there.”

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Allen Johnson had the misfortune of having his 10-year Pro Stock final-round appearance streak at the Mopar Mile-High NHRA Nationals end when he lost a close 6.995 to 6.995 decision to eventual runner-up Bo Butner in the first round, and the loss was attributed to a punctured rear tire that was discovered prior to the opening stanza.

Johnson's engine builder and father, Roy, said, “We didn’t think we could patch it up because the hole was too big, so we had to swap for a new pair of slicks. The problem with that, though, was that the tires didn’t have enough break-in runs on them, and that’s really an important factor for these type of cars. So we knew we were going to be slow when we came up there, and we got beat.”

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Steve Graham, who has raced in Comp for the past 10 years, most recently with a C/A ’09 Pontiac GXP, will be making his Pro Stock debut this weekend with a '14 Camaro that he purchased from Shane Tucker. Graham, who has run a personal best of 7.03 at 197 mph, will be making his first full passes in the car with an engine from Chris McGaha.

Said Graham, “I made my licensing runs with this car and another engine. We’ve just made burnouts so far with the McGaha engine, and our goals are to make some smooth A-to-B runs so that I can learn how to drive one of these things.” 

Although Graham had to shut off after encountering tire shake in the first round of qualifying, he came back to record a full pass in the second session, recording a 6.679 at 209.26 mph.

“This was the first time I’ve made a full pass with McGaha power, and I couldn’t believe how hard the car pulled in high gear. The finish line just rushed up to me. That was almost four-tenths quicker than I’d run before, and I could feel the difference in every part of the run.”

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After the KB Racing team of Greg Anderson, Jason Line, and Bo Butner qualified one-two-three with respective times of 6.564, 6.565, and 6.567, Line said, “In terms of making three runs that were really close to each other, that’s probably the best we’ve ever done as a team, being separated by a total of just .003-second.”

But Line said that the close grouping was more of an accident than design. "Both Greg and I shifted into second before the shift light came on, and that’s because we were still in the driving rhythm from last weekend’s race in Denver, where the higher altitude causes the engines to accelerate slower. We were just reacting to muscle memory.”

Still, Line was very pleased with the results of the session, saying, “We got each car off to a good start with solid runs, which gives us a strong data base to work from. None of our cars are behind the eight ball.”

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Former Pro Stock Motorcycle rider Charlie Sullivan, the father of current campaigner Katie, will be returning to two-wheel competition for the first time since 2013.

“Katie has been riding bikes since she was little, and we raced together for four events during 2012 and 2013,” said the elder Sullivan. "She rode until last year when she came down with a virus, which has kept her from riding for the most part. She tried to run in Atlanta and the second Las Vegas races, but got dizzy each time that she got on the bike and so she had to withdraw. She did manage to run here last year but isn’t ready to ride as of yet. It was her wish that I ride at this race, and when she is recovered enough to ride again, we’ll both be competing together."

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After the Harley-Davidson duo of Eddie Krawiec and Andrew Hines debuted their Street Rod bikes in Englishtown, they had only four round-wins between the two of them going into the Denver event. But after Krawiec qualified No. 1 and won the event at the mile-high facility, the two feel that they are now on to something.

“We had to switch to the new Street Rods because Harley-Davidson doesn’t manufacture V-rods anymore,” said Krawiec. “And everything about the Street Rod was different, especially the chassis. We had to come up with a whole new way of running the bikes to make them competitive. But what we did in Denver indicates that we’re finally moving in the right direction, and we look forward to running under this weekend’s more favorable conditions.”

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Making his first appearance of the 2017 season is popular veteran Fred Camarena, who landed in the No. 13 position in the first qualifying session with a 6.947. This was the first time that Camarena has competed since racing at the Auto Club NHRA Finals last November.

“We’ve spent the first part of the year building a new bike with a new WAR chassis that we got from Jerry Savoie,” said Camarena. “It took a while to get it down, partly from finances but also because we had to hand make some custom parts, which takes time.”

Camarena said that he was very pleased with his initial qualifying effort. “That was only the eighth run on the bike. It gives us a solid baseline to work from and puts us in a position to improve some more.”


PHOTOS

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In addition to the great on-track action, there are a lot of great off-track activities for fans at Sonoma Raceway, including the Blast on the Grass Car Show that features hot rods, muscle cars, rat rods, and exotics.

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A large crowd of fans packed Sonoma Raceway for the opening day of the Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals.

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Nitro world champions Ron Capps and Tony Schumacher took a break for a selfie before answering questions from Sonoma Raceway officials and fans in the Sunoco Victory Lane before the first round of qualifying.

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Members of the Toyota Racing team greeted fans and signed autographs at the Toyota display before hitting the track for qualifying.

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Things got a little toasty for Terry McMillen when the engine on his Amalie Xtermigator let go shortly after launch in the first qualifying session.

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Team Boddie Racing certainly made its presence known during its time run today, thanks in large part to Monti Fitzgerald, who amazed the crowd when his entry went into a massive wheelstand at launch, then bounced back up and down a couple more times before making contact with the wall.

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Prior to the final round of nitro qualifying, fans were treated to a little bit of nostalgia when a cacklefest was held in front of the main grandstands.

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The history-making day of the first two rounds of qualifying at the Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals was capped off with the thunder and fury of a pair of jet cars making a side-by-side run.


PREVIEW

After dealing with the high-altitude conditions of Denver last weekend, the teams in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series will face the polar opposite this weekend as the tour moves to the sea-level conditions in Sonoma. Antron Brown (Top Fuel), Robert Hight (Funny Car), Drew Skillman (Pro Stock), and Eddie Krawiec (Pro Stock Motorcycle enter the Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals with the hot hands after they were victorious at Bandimere Speedway. Naturally, the buzz of Western Swing Sweep surrounds the four Denver champs, who will look to keep hopes of winning the three races in three weeks on the West Coast alive with victories here this weekend.

Antron BrownThree-time and reigning Top Fuel world champion Antron Brown is the last driver who swept the Swing, doing so in 2009. Brown, who came close to repeating the feat in 2012 when he won in Denver and Sonoma before coming up short in Seattle, will try to keep his Sweep hopes alive with another win at Sonoma Raceway, where he is a four-time victor. Brown will face many challenges along the way, however, as the Top Fuel category, like the other Pro classes, has been very competitive this season with six different drivers making it to the winner’s circle.

Steve Torrence has been the early leader, scoring five times and sitting atop the points standings, but he is being chased by Leah Pritchett, a three-time winner this season; Brown; Tony Schumacher, who has one win and three runner-up finishes through the first part of the season; and a host of other competitors who have proven more than capable of stepping up at any time and contending for wins.

The focus isn’t only on the top of the standings but also at the bottom of the top 10, where a battle is brewing for the final spots in the Countdown to the Championship playoffs. Including this event, there are only four more events remaining in the regular season, so every qualifying point and every round-win is crucial for those trying to make the playoffs. Shawn Langdon is currently on the outside looking in, but he is within 100 points of Nos. 8 through 10, Terry McMillen, Scott Palmer, and Troy Coughlin Jr.

Robert HightAfter watching the Don Schumacher Racing team dominate the Funny Car contingent for the first-half of the season, John Force Racing got a definite boost when Robert Hight took home the Wally in Denver. It was the second Funny Car win of the season for JFR, which also was in the winner’s circle with John Force in Gainesville.

Though JFR got a shot in last weekend, everyone is still chasing the Schumacher team, which holds four of the top five points position and has accounted for 12 wins in the first 14 events. Ron Capps still holds a commanding lead in the standings, but he enters Sonoma with a little less momentum after a first-round exit on the mountain. Everyone expects a quick rebound for the reigning world champion, particularly when you factor in Capps’ record at Sonoma Raceway, where he has four wins. Capps’ teammates, Matt Hagan, Jack Beckman, and Tommy Johnson Jr., are certainly among the favorites this weekend as well.

A lot of eyes will also be on Tim Wilkerson this weekend after his wild Denver weekend that included a pair of wheelstands that damaged both chassis on his trailer. After a lot of hard work this week both on his team’s part and that of chassis builder Murf McKinney, Wilk has a new mount and is ready to do battle here. That is important because Wilkerson is near the bottom of the top 10 with just four races remaining in the regular season. Wilkerson, J.R. Todd, and Cruz Pedregon are eighth through 10th entering this weekend, but there are some very talented drivers within striking distance below the top 10 just waiting for one or all of them to slip and open the door. Among those trying to break the top 10 are rookie Jonnie Lindberg, former Top Fuel and Funny Car world champion Del Worsham, and Alexis DeJoria.

Drew SkillmanPro Stock has been the category with the highest level of parity so far in 2017, with a total of nine different winners in the first 14 races. But Drew Skillman, the latest campaigner to reach the winner’s circle with his victory in Chicago and also won the next event in Denver, appears to have the most momentum. With Sonoma Raceway’s sea-level conditions providing lots of good air, Skillman hopes to take his Elite Performance horsepower to another victory in the second leg of the Western Swing.

Skillman is part of the Gray Motorsports team, which has been engaging in a season-long battle with KB Racing for Pro Stock supremacy. The KB operation has six victories this year, led by points leader Bo Butner’s three triumphs, followed by two wins for Greg Anderson and one for Jason Line. The Gray team has tallied five victories with rookie-of-the-year favorite Tanner Gray matching Skillman’s total of two and Tanner’s father, Shane, scoring one.

Also expected to be heard from is the Elite Performance team with two-time world champion Erica Enders scoring a win in Epping and a long-overdue Jeg Coughlin Jr. looking for his first victory since the 2014 Englishtown event.

Eddie KrawiecThis weekend’s race in Sonoma is season highlight for the two-wheel contingent as the Mickey Thompson Tires Pro Bike Battle will be staged on Saturday in addition to Sunday’s eliminations. LE Tonglet, who is the dominant Mello Yello Drag Racing Series points leader with four wins in the first six races is the heavy favorite. But with Eddie Krawiec taking top honors one week ago in Denver, he and his Harley-Davidson teammate Andrew Hines may have emerged as solid contenders as this was the first win for the new Harley-Davidson Street Rod that the team introduced this year.

An issue that Krawiec, who moved up to second place with his win, and Hines are facing is how well their new bikes will run in sea-level conditions after Krawiec’s triumph in the mile-high altitude of Denver.

Other contenders who have a shot at reaching the winner’s circle on both days include third-place Hector Arana Jr. and fourth-place Scotty Pollacheck, who each will be looking for their first wins of the season. Englishtown winner and Tonglet’s teammate Jerry Savoie, who is fifth, is also expected to contend.

MOST VICTORIES: 
John Force, 8, FC; Doug Kalitta, 5, TF; Greg Anderson, 5, PS; Antron Brown, 4, TF; Ron Capps, 4, FC; Darrell Alderman, 3, PS; Warren Johnson, 3, PS; Jason Line, 3, PS; Jim Yates, 3, PS; Eddie Krawiec, 3, PSM.

TRACK RECORDS:
Top Fuel - 3.671 sec. by Steve Torrence, July ‘16; 331.04 mph by Torrence, July ‘16.
Funny Car - 3.868 sec. by Del Worsham, July ‘16; 330.15 mph by Matt Hagan, July ‘16.
Pro Stock - 6.499 sec. by Chris McGaha, July ’15; 213.00 mph by Shane Gray, July ‘15.
PS Motorcycle - 6.730 sec. by Angelle Sampey, July ’16; 199.76 mph by Sampey, July ‘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 sec. and 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.
PS Motorcycle - 6.728 sec. by Andrew Hines, Oct. ‘12, Reading, Pa.; 199.88 mph by Hector Arana Jr., March ‘15, Charlotte, N.C.