Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals Saturday Notebook

Session recaps, notes, and photos from final qualifying at the Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals, race 15 of 24 on the 2017 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule.
29 Jul 2017
NHRA National Dragster staff
Race coverage
Sonoma Raceway

Features | Photos | Preview | Results

QUALIFYING SESSIONS RECAPS

scotty-pollacheck.jpgPRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE Q3 (2:04 p.m.): The two quickest of the third qualifying session took place in the first pairing of the Mickey Thompson Tires Pro Bike Battle when Hector Arana Jr. and Jerry Savoie ran respective times of 6.773 and 6.784. Arana lost the race because of a red-light start but still moved past LE Tonglet’s 6.783 from Friday to take over the No. 1 qualifying position. 

Scotty Pollacheck’s 6.791 was the third-quickest time to take the final bonus points. This was a career best for Pollacheck, whose previous best was a 6.817. Angie Smith also ran the quickest time of her career by a bunch with a solid 6.811. Her previous best was a 6.846.

There were several runs in the mid-to-high 190-mph range, with the fastest being Andrew Hines’ blast of 199.55 mph, the fifth best speed in Pro Stock Motorcycle history.

bo-butner.jpgPRO STOCK Q3 (2:22 p.m.): Drew Skillman improved on yesterday’s No. 1 qualifying time of 6.544 with a quicker 6.538 to hold on to the top position, and Bo Butner moved past Greg Anderson into second place with a 6.546. 

Anderson and Line both recorded identical times of 6.553, but Anderson was awarded the No. 3 spot with his top speed of the meet blast of 212.43. Line was right behind his KB Racing teammate with a 212.13.

shawn-reed.jpgTOP FUEL Q3 (2:45 p.m.): After watching the entire field of cars in front of them have issues on their runs and shut off early, Doug Kalitta and Leah Pritchett made a pair of 3.78-second passes to lead the third round of qualifying. Pritchett, the No. 1 qualifier thanks to her track-record 3.66 last night, had the quickest time with a 3.782, followed closely by Kalitta, who was .001-second behind her. The third-best time of the session was the 4.11 of Auto Club Road to the Future Award candidate Shawn Reed, who is returning to competition for the first time since Epping in early June.

jack-beckman.jpgFUNNY CAR Q3 (3:50 p.m.): Courtney and John Force paced a third round of qualifying that was plagued by a fair amount of tire smoke and oildowns. Running side by side, Courtney and John registered times of 3.91 and 3.92, respectively, earning three and two qualifying bonus points in the process. The only other driver to run in the threes on the sun-drenched track was Jack Beckman, who clocked a 3.98. The next-best run was the 4.00 of Ron Capps, who improved his position with the run but still is in the bottom half of the field.

matt-smith.jpgPRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE Q4 (5:25 p.m.): The final session of Pro Stock Motorcycle qualifying saw lots of action on both ends of the field. Matt Smith moved past Hector Arana Jr.’s pace-setting 6.773 with a 6.771 to end up as the event’s No. 1 qualifier, and Steve Johnson’s bump position clocking of 6.890 made this the quickest field in Pro Stock Motorcycle history, which broke the old mark of 6.902 that interestingly was set at this same event one year ago.

LE Tonglet rebounded from his third-round effort of 6.830 to claim the second-quickest run of the session while defeating Andrew Hines to move into the Mickey Thompson Tires Pro Bike Battle, and Jerry Savoie rounded out the top three with a 6.800, only to lose on a red-light start against Eddie Krawiec in the other Pro Bike Battle semifinal-round contest.

First-round pairings (lane choice first): Matt Smith vs. Steve Johnson; Hector Arana Jr. vs. Cory Reed; LE Tonglet vs. Freddie Camarena; Jerry Savoie vs. Angelle Sampey; Scotty Pollacheck vs. Andrew Hines; Angie Smith vs. Melissa Surber; Karen Stoffer vs. Joey Gladstone; Chip Ellis vs. Eddie Krawiec

drew-skillman-2.jpgPRO STOCK Q4: (5:45 p.m.): Drew Skillman had the quickest run for the third consecutive session with a 6.562 to earn a total of nine qualifying bonus points for the weekend. He was followed by Greg Anderson in the second spot with a 6.568, and Tanner Gray was third with a 6.570. 

One of the biggest surprises of the Pro Stock qualifying was the struggles of two-time Mello Yello champion Erica Enders, who had trouble off the line all weekend long and made it down the track on only one run with a sub-par 6.949. That put her 15th in the shortened field, and she will race No. 2 qualifier Bo Butner in Sunday’s first round of eliminations.
 
First-round pairings (lane choice first):
Drew Skillman vs. bye; Allen Johnson vs. Jeg Coughlin Jr.; Jason Line vs. Steve Graham; Tanner Gray vs. Alan Prusiensky; Bo Butner vs. Erica Enders; Chris McGaha vs. Deric Kramer; Greg Anderson vs. Tom Huggins; Vincent Nobile vs. Matt Hartford

mike-salinas.jpgTOP FUEL Q4 (5:55 p.m.): Independent campaigner Mike Salinas was the surprise pacesetter of the final round of Top Fuel qualifying, running a career-best 3.779 at 324.67 mph, also a career best. Points leader Steve Torrence had the next-best time of Q4, coming in at 3.784 seconds. The only other driver in the 3.7s was Shawn Langdon, who earned a single qualifying bonus point for his 3.793 effort.

Another driver who made a big improvement in the final session was Troy Coughlin Jr., who clocked a 3.824, bettering his 4.03 best from the first three sessions.

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

robert-hight-john-force.jpgFUNNY CAR Q4 (6:30 p.m.): The John Force Racing team wrapped up a strong overall qualifying effort with its another pacesetting run. This one came courtesy of John Force, who tallied the three extra points with a 3.848. Force’s daughter, Courtney, was quickest of two sessions this weekend, and low qualifier Robert Hight (pictured left with Force) was the leader of the other one. Hight also earned another bonus point in the final session, posting a 3.90 that ranked third behind Force and Tommy Johnson Jr., who came in at 3.896.

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


FEATURES

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Shawn Langdon is fighting for his playoff life right now, sitting in 11th spot 50 points out of the lead, so every run and every round has added importance for the former Top Fuel world champ. After a disappointing outing last weekend in Denver, where Langdon was a spectator after the first round, Langdon and his team got a shot in the arm last night when, as the first car downtrack, Langdon powered to a 3.722 that moved him from near the bottom of the order to the top of it at that moment. Though Langdon was eventually bumped down, his run remained in the top half of the field, giving him a good baseline for today and tomorrow.

“It’s been a while since I’ve run that hard in the middle of the track,” said Langdon, who has two wins here, one in Top Fuel and one in Super Gas. “It felt like the car was trying to drive away from me. Just hat’s off to the guys. They did an excellent job. We had a little issue after Q1 — we had a little issue in the warm up — but these guys have bene busting their asses, and it paid off there. My nephew told Connie Kalitta [before Q2] we had to go to the top.”

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The Stig is here @nhra @melloyello checking out my race Car @topgear_bbca @bbcamerica. I think he wants to drive

A post shared by Antron Brown (@antronbrowntf) on

Antron Brown has a special guest in his pits today: The Stig from the Top Gear television programs. Brown is co-host of the new Top Gear America, which premieres on Sunday.

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The sun-drenched track threw a lot of crew chiefs for a loop during the third round of qualifying with most having traction troubles and clicking off early. The two exceptions to the rule were Doug Kalitta and Leah Pritchett, who ran nearly identical 3.78s.

“Yeah, that was good,” said Kalitta, after his 3.783 that was the first full pull of the session. “I’m real proud of those guys. You know, this track is great, so we love coming here and just hoping to have a great day with this Mac Tools car. We have one more run, and we’ll just see how it goes.”

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It was at this race two years ago where Jimmy Prock, then crew chief for Jack Beckman, unleashed the performance barrage that completely shifted the landscape of Funny Car racing. Well, Prock and his “Prock Rocket” are back at it again this weekend. Last night, Prock tuned Robert Hight to a speed of 339.87 mph, just missing 340 mph. That run has everyone buzzing about that potential milestone.

“When we ran 338 a few weeks ago in Topeka, we had a couple runs where if you’d have run the first-half speed with the second half putting a couple runs together, these things will run 340 mph, and we knew they would do it,” said Hight, after his national-record run. “Man, it came so close tonight. It’s still the fastest ever in the history of the NHRA — that’s pretty cool. This thing was singing down there. It’s hard to explain to everybody, but it’s the coolest noise when you hear that nitro engine running up that kind of rpm. It’s just music to your ears. It’s amazing.

“[340 mph] is a real barrier. With the restrictions and everything, rev limiters and all the different things that NHRA mandates, this 340, that’s kind of a magic number. To come 13-hundredths of a mph away, that’s pretty amazing. But when you can stand back and say, ‘The fastest run in NHRA history,’ that’s pretty awesome.”

Hight’s run comes on the heels of his victory in Denver, his first of 2017, and, naturally, with that win, the talk surrounding Hight entering this event centered on the potential of a Western Swing Sweep.

“We’re coming off a big win in Denver, and, you know, that’s all the fans talk about: sweeping the Swing,” said Hight. “This makes it a little more realistic when you can come out here, leaving mile high and coming out here and running this quick and this fast. We’ve got a good setup.”

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For all intents and purposes, reaction times do not matter when it comes to qualifying, but when a driver lines up against his or her teammate and/or a good friend, they often pay attention to that aspect of their passes a little more. If that’s the case with the father-daughter duo of John and Courtney Force, notch one in John’s column. When the duo lined up today during the third round of qualifying, Courtney got the better time slip, 3.91 to 3.92, but John’s win light was on because he left first.

“Sometimes the old man does his job,” said John, from the top end after the pass. “These old Chevrolets are starting to run. Of course, our good hot rod is coming. That’s Robert Hight in that Highway Patrol with Auto Club of Southern Cal. We’re OK. We’re learning the game again. It starts, and we’re just learning to go A to B, but the fans keep cheering, keep buying T-shirts, and we’ll keep drag racing. That’s NHRA Drag Racing, Mello Yello; that’s what it’s all about.”

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alexis-dejoria.gifThings got toasty for Alexis DeJoria at the end of her third qualifying pass when the engine in her Tequila Patron entry erupted in flames after the finish line. DeJoria got out of the car on her own, and the safety system and NHRA Safety Safari presented by AAA extinguished it quickly, limiting the damage.

“It was pretty clean, straight, but towards the end, it wasn’t quite feeling right,” said DeJoria, of the 4.12 run that preceded the fire. “I kind of felt it start to nose over. Didn’t hear anybody on the radio. I didn’t know if a cylinder had dropped or whatnot. By the top end, that was it. That was on fire, and I was kind of holding the brake because I didn’t see any trucks coming, and I was starting to roll backwards, and I didn’t want to run myself over by getting out too early. But all good. The safety systems went off. We’ll take ’er back, clean ’er off, and head back up for the next round.”

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Two-time NHRA Mello Yello Pro Stock champion Erica Enders will start off Saturday’s qualifying in the unenviable position of being last on the list after two episodes of severe tire shake kept her from making full runs on Friday.

“Our back-half numbers have been great,” said Enders, “but we’re really having trouble getting the car off the line. Even when we don’t have tire shake, our 60-foot times are way off, like 1-flat instead of the .970s where we should be. If you give up .03-second on the starting line, it grows to being .05 off at the finish. 

"I made 14 runs right after Denver between my car and Jeggie’s car to try to help the guys figure things out. So, it’s certainly not from a lack of trying.”

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Warren Johnson, the six-time NHRA Melo Yello Pro Stock champion, who helped tune Matt Hartford’s Camaro to a No. 11 qualifying effort of 6.614, stated that there still is a possibility that he might return to active competition in the factory hot rod category. 

“I’ve always raced to make a living, but I’m not going to spend any of my own money to race. I think that Bob Glidden, Bill Jenkins, and myself were the only ones who truly made their living at racing in Pro Stock. But if we could get a company that would be interested in sponsoring us, we’d jump right back in. 

“I’ve got two cars set up with fuel-injected engines and three tractor trailers sitting back at our shop. Doing the necessary R&D won’t be a problem because we have all the equipment that is needed, and it’s been paid for.”

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B_Butner.JPGIn addition to driving his KB Racing Team-powered Pro Stock Camaro this weekend, Bo Butner is also behind the wheel of the Skillman family’s FSS/C ’10 Mustang and so far has gone two rounds.

“Bill Skillman (Pro Stock driver Drew’s father) was going to drive it, but he had to stay home to tend to his wife, who was sick (she’s better now), and so he asked me to drive instead.

"I drove that same car at last year’s Division 7 points race and made it down to the final three cars. My intentions were not to do this sort of thing this year in order to focus 100 percent on my Pro Stocker, but now that we’ve won three races so far this year, I feel more comfortable about it.”

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Instead of competing with Junior Pippin’s Buell this weekend, Chip Ellis is riding a ’17 Victory owned by Matt Smith. “Junior is experiencing some health issues again,” said Ellis, “and so his stuff is parked. We didn’t run Denver, but Matt Smith offered me a ride on one of his bikes so that I could compete in the [Mickey Thompson Tires] Pro Bike Battle along with Sunday’s eliminations.

The team had to thrash to put the bike together, and they weren’t finished until just prior to the first round of qualifying. The bike bogged off the line in the first session, then had transmission issues in the second round, which relegated Ellis to the bump spot with a best of 6.968.

“It will be a fast bike once we get it to go down the track,” said Ellis. “We’ll be set up to go as fast as we can in the first round because I’ll be up against Eddie Krawiec."

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Angie Smith came to the Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals in 11th place, just one point behind the No. 10 rider, Steve Johnson (283 to 284 points), and is hoping to go enough rounds to get back into the elite group. 

“We’ve had some mechanical issues, like shifting problems with her bike”, said her husband and engine builder/tuner, Matt. “But they haven’t shown up this weekend, so that’s a positive sign.”

Following Friday’s two sessions Angie is currently right in the middle of the field with a No. 9 effort of 6.859, just .002-second off Karen Stoffer’s 6.857.

Matt himself is currently 15th, having bogged in the first round of qualifying and then suffering a broken transmission in the second stanza. 

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Pro Stock Motorcycle rider Karen Stoffer is competing this weekend with a carbureted bike for the first time in 10 years and is so far pleased with the results. 

“We had enjoyed success with fuel injection for a long time, but when there was a change in the specified fuel in 2016, we weren’t able to find out what kind of tune-up it wanted. We ran terrible in Denver, and that was the final straw," said Stoffer. "We had to work real hard to change over to carburetors in time for this event, but everything has worked out well."

Stoffer did, however, offer a note of caution. "We can’t get too overly excited just yet because Sonoma is a fast track, and that could be partly why we’re running good. But if we can make some good passes at hot tracks like Brainerd and St. Louis this year, then we’ll know that we’re really on the right track.”

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Top Dragster driver Dan Naylor took a wild ride during the second round of Top Dragster when his ’02 Undercover dragster hiked up the front wheels at the hit of the throttle.


PHOTOS

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After joining the rest of the Pro Stock Motorcycle field for a kids-only autograph session to kick off the day (above), the eight riders who make up the Mickey Thompson Tires Pro Bike Battle field, including points leader LE Tonglet, left, and Bike Battle No. 1 seed Eddie Krawiec, met fans at the Mickey Thompson booth in the Manufacturers Midway (below).
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Former Top Fuel and Funny Car world champion Del Worsham joined NHRA’s Alan Reinhart for NHRA Nitro School, which drew a large crowd of fans looking to learn more about the nitro-powered machines they would watch later in the day.

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Pro Stock racers Tanner Gray and Chris McGaha, Top Fuel fan favorite Clay Millican, and former Pro Stock Motorcycle world champ Angelle Sampey greeted fans and signed autographs at the Mello Yello Powerhouse.

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Prior to the start of the Mickey Thompson Tires Pro Bike Battle, the eight riders making up the bonus-event field were introduced alongside dignitaries from Mickey Thompson and NHRA.

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NHRA President Peter Clifford, left, and NHRA Senior Vice President-Racing Operations Graham Light, right, flank Pro Stock rookie Tanner Gray and his father, Shane, after presenting Tanner with a framed enlargement of the National Dragster that commemorated his first Pro Stock victory at the Las Vegas 1 national event. Clifford and Light also gave similar framed covers to this year’s other two first time Pro winners, Top Fuel’s Clay Millican and Pro Stock’s Bo Butner. All three covers were personally signed by Clifford and Light.


PREVIEW

The Pro Stock Motorcycle racers will take center stage today with the Mickey Thompson Tires Pro Bike Battle being staged in conjunction with the final rounds of qualifying. Last year’s finalists Eddie Krawiec and Andrew Hines are the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds, respectively. Also taking part in the bonus event are points leader LE Tonglet, reigning world champion Jerry Savoie, Hector Arana Jr., former world champs Angelle Sampey and Matt Smith, and Chip Ellis.

In addition to running for the $7,500 top prize, the eight riders — along with the other competitors in all four NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series categories — will be trying to make competitive qualifying runs today to move up in the order and/or get their tune-ups dialed in for tomorrow’s eliminations. Last night, the nitro cars put on a great show with track records in both Top Fuel and Funny Car and a new national speed record courtesy of Robert Hight in Funny Car. This morning conditions are cooler with a bit of the Northern California marine layer that is expected to burn off. Depending on when or if that happens, there could be the potential of some improvements today, though most expect the top spots to remain untouched.

L_Pritchett.jpgLeah Pritchett is halfway to her fifth No. 1 start of the season and second straight after she reset the Sonoma Raceway Top Fuel e.t. record last night with a 3.669 from her Papa John’s entry. The run had the potential to be quicker because Pritchett’s engine let go in the lights, evidenced by the 304.80 mph speed that accompanied it.

Pritchett is followed on the sheets by Brittany Force and Doug Kalitta, who upped the Sonoma speed record with his 331.28-mph clocking on his Friday night pass. Denver winner Antron Brown, Tony Schumacher, points leader Steve Torrence, Shawn Langdon, and Clay Millican round out the top half.

R_Hight.JPGRobert Hight was the star of Friday night qualifying, wheeling his Auto Club entry, which is sporting the special CHP scheme again this weekend, to a stunning speed of 339.87 mph to reset the national record by more than 1 mph. Hight’s e.t. on the pass was 3.807, the third-quickest time in history to give him the provisional No. 1 spot entering today.

Jack Beckman sits second after a 3.85, and Hight’s teammate Courtney Force ranks third thanks to a 3.88. John Force, Matt Hagan, Tommy Johnson Jr., Alexis DeJoria, and Tim Wilkerson are the other drivers in the quick eight.

Among the drivers looking to improve their lot today is reigning world champion Ron Capps, who started with a solid 4.03 in the first session but, like many others, blew the tires off in the second session. Capps sits 13th entering today’s final two qualifiers. Rookie runner Jonnie Lindberg is also looking for a much-better Saturday after having troubles on both runs Friday and posting a best of 8.67 that has him 16th.

D_Skillman.JPGThe goal for the Pro Stock racers will be attempting to surpass the pace-setting 6.544 time set by No. 1 qualifier Drew Skillman. Among those who were the closest to Skillman in the qualifying order were Greg Anderson (6.553), Bo Butner (6.564), and Jason Line (6.565).

There are also several drivers in the bottom half of the field who hope to improve their positions in preparation for Sunday’s eliminations. Erica Enders certainly has the most room for improvement after her two shut-off runs netted a best of only 15.877. Her teammate Jeg Coughlin Jr. would also like to surpass his ninth-best time of 6.598.

Pro Stock newcomer Steve Graham produced a solid 6.679 on his first run with his Chris McGaha-powered ’14 Camaro and hopes to get in a pair of smooth runs to get ready for his first shot at side-by-side competition on Sunday.

L_Tonglet.JPGThe challenge for the Pro Stock Motorcycle contingent will be an attempt to rein in Friday’s No. 1 qualifier LE Tonglet, who has already won four races so far in 2017. Hector Arana Jr. actually matched Tonglet’s 6.783 time but was relegated to the No. 2 spot because of a slower top-end speed.

Tonglet’s teammate and team owner, Jerry Savoie, was third with a 6.788, rounding out the select group of riders who recorded times in the 6.7-second zone. Fourth-place Scotty Pollacheck (6.804) also has a shot at the top spot.

Denver winner Eddie Krawiec showed that his win at the mile-high Bandimere Speedway was no fluke as he recorded a best of 6.837 for the fifth position, and his teammate, Andrew Hines, would like to improve upon his No. 12 effort of 6.918.

With 21 bikes on hand, Scott Bottorff, Charlie Sullivan, Lance Bonham, James Surber, and Andie Rawlings are on the outside looking in and will be aiming to surpass Chip Ellis’ current bump position time of 6.968.