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Auto Club NHRA Finals Saturday Notebook

10 Nov 2017
NHRA National Dragster staff
Race coverage
Pomona

Preview | Features | Results | Photos

QUALIFYING ROUNDS RECAPS

arana2.jpgPRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE Q3 (12:01 p.m.): There was plenty of room for improvement following Saturday’s third Pro Stock Motorcycle qualifying session. Championship leader Eddie Krawiec moved to the top of the field with a 6.781, 197.68 on his Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson. Teammate Andrew Hines also found the 6.7s with a 6.794, 197.13. Hector Arana Jr., riding the Lucas Oil team’s EBR entry, made perhaps the most impressive pass of the session with a 6.828-second run. Arana Jr. also set top speed of the event with a 198.15-mph run. The quickest Suzuki in the field is ridden by Scotty Pollacheck, who rode the Underdahl/Stoffer entry to a 6.839, 195.08.

line.jpgPRO STOCK Q3 (12:22 p.m.): Teammates Jason Line and Greg Anderson led the field during Saturday’s first Pro Stock qualifying round to earn four and three bonus points, respectively. Line made the best run of the round with a 6.546, 210.14 while Anderson, the current points leader, is second-best with a 6.556. Drew Skillman (6.558) and Tanner Gray (6.562) also earned bonus points during the round. In the running order, Anderson remains in the top spot followed by Line and Skillman. Championship contender Bo Butner, who ran a 6.570 in the third session, is currently the No. 7 seed in the quick field.

pritchett.jpgTOP FUEL Q3 (1:10 p.m.): Leah Pritchett grabbed four bonus points for the quickest run of the session – by a mile -- with a 3.674 in the Papa John’s dragster, a pass that moved her to the No. 3 spot behind Brittany Force (3.667) and Clay Millican (3.671). Pritchett’s DSR teammate Tony Schumacher, who came into the day not in the field, was second best with a 3.757 to lock into the field. Troy Buff surprised a lot of folks with a 3.796 in Bill Miller’s dragster while Scott Palmer grabbed the final bonus point with a 3.813 in the CatSpot machine. No. 2-qualified Millican did not make the session as the team dealt with motor plate issues in the pits while Force didn't make it to the finish line under power.

courtney4.jpgFUNNY CAR Q3 (1:45 p.m.): Courtney Force not only had the best run of the session, a 3.871 that matched her Friday best, but she helped teammate Robert Hight by taking away one bonus point from Ron Capps, who had the session’s second-best pass with a 3.897. Hight can use all of the help he can get as the points leader in not qualified after three of four sessions after repeated struggles with the Auto Club/Highway Patrol Camaro. Matt Hagan (3.933) and John Force (3.935) also earned bonus points. Jack Beckman (3.835) still leads the field.

krawiec2.jpgEddie Krawiec officially locked up his fourth NHRA Mello Yello championship following qualifying for the Auto Club NHRA Finals in Pomona. Krawiec ended the session with a 6.822, the third-best run of the session to make it official. Teammate Andrew Hines was the quickest rider of the round with a 6.814, 197.45 and Scotty Pollacheck was second-best with a 6.817, 195.17. The qualifying order did not chance much during the session. The Vance & Hines bikes maintained the top three spots with Krawiec, Hines, and Ellis leading the pack. The other drama came early in the session when reigning champ Jerry Savoie put his White Alligator Suzuki in the sand. Savoie had difficulty getting stopped following a 6.887-second run. His bike pitched widly from side-to-side but the veteran managed to keep it upright. “I told someone it’s a good thing I wrestle alligators for a living,” said Savoie. “It was pretty wild.”

First-round pairings (lane choice first): Eddie Krawiec vs. Lance Bonham; Andrew Hines vs. Ryan Oehler; Chip Ellis vs. Katie Sullivan; Scotty Pollacheck vs. Fred Camarena; Hector Arana Jr. vs. Matt Smith; LE Tonglet vs. Karen Stoffer; Joey Gladstone vs. Angie Smith; Steve Johnson vs. Jerry Savoie.

butner2.jpgPRO STOCK Q4 (3:17 p.m.): The final round of Pro Stock qualifying featured only a few surprises but it was critical to the points battle as contender Bo Butner made the second-best run of the round with a 6.559 to move to the No. 5 spot. Butner could potentially race low qualifier and teammate Greg Anderson in the semifinal round with a possibility of winning the championship. Jason Line, who is also still in the running for the championship, made the best run of the session with a 6.541 and Drew Skillman (6.561) and Anderson (6.563) also earned bonus points. 

First-round pairings (lane choice first): Greg Anderson vs. Alen Prusiensky; Jason Line vs. Deric Kramer; Drew Skillman vs. Kenny Delco; Jeg Coughlin Jr. vs. Matt Hartford; Bo Butner vs. Shane Gray; Tanner Gray vs. Alex Laughlin; Erica Enders vs. Allen Johnson; Chris McGaha vs. Brian Self.

brittany3_0.jpgTOP FUEL Q4 (4:10 p.m.): Brittany Force put a bunch more points into her ledger as she continues to chase points leader Steve Torrence, but it didn't change the scenario. Force now trails Torrence by nine points heading into Sunday meaning she’ll still have to go one round further than him to take the lead. Her 3.698 was low for the round (matching the run made by Clay Millican but at a faster speed) and worth four points and she stayed in the No. 1 spot for 10 points. Torrence, on the other hand, had to shut off after experiencing brake problems on the line for the second time this season. Torrence finished in the No. 5 qualifying spot, meaning they could race in the semifinals in a winner-take-all bout.  Las Vegas champ Terry McMillen was outside the field when he pulled up but bullied his way into the field with a 3.75 for the No. 9 spot.

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

hight2_0.jpgFUNNY CAR Q4 (4:35 p.m.): Points leader Robert Hight kept his championship hopes alive by qualifying for the field on his final pass, going from outside to the No. 15 spot with a gutty driving job after the car lost traction downtrack. For a while it looked like Hight might draw teammate Courtney Force in round one, but Tim Wilkerson made a half-tenth improvement, blasting to a 3.863 to jump to No. 2. Incoming qualifying leader Jack Beckman again had the quickest car of the round, running a 3.859 to back up his Friday field-leading pass of 3.835. The championship battle between Hight remains the same, with Capps needing to go one round further than Hight to take the title.

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

FEATURES

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Brittany Force has been around the championship-winning game since she was in preschool, watching her famous father, John, collect the first of what is now a record 16 NHRA championships, and the middle daughter – and the first and only one to run in Top Fuel – has a shot at her own championship, nd she’s playing the game cooly. She came into the event trailing only points leader Steve Torrence points, and her No. 1 qualifying effort in Q2 cut that lead to 17 points entering the final day of qualifying.

“There’s a lot of pressure,” she admitted. “We’re right there and we know we can lock in and take [the championship] or it could slip through our fingers. You have to have your mind in the right place and for me it’s just taking it one run at a time.”

After an aborted 6.61 pass on her first run, the Alan Johnson- and Brian Husen-tuned Monster machine powered to a track-record 3.667 to earn the provisional pole. The run was her second quickest of the season, surpassed only by her 3.664 during eliminations in St. Louis.

“We put Q1 behind and I knew we’d get it figured out and make a decent run in Q2, but to jump up to the No. 1 spot was huge for us,” she said. “It’s not just a confidence builder for me, but for the whole team. It pushes us forward and just gives us more momentum.”

Force says she also was able to put behind her the final-round red-light two weeks ago in Las Vegas, a deep-stage-related mistake that cost her the chance to come into the event tied in points with Torrence.

“I screwed it up for our team and it was all me, but I threw it away the second I got out of the car,” she said. “I knew what I did wrong – sometimes you red-light and you don’t know why it happened – but I knew exactly what I did wrong. You have to put it behind you, and move on, because you can’t carry that into Pomona.”

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doug.JPGDoug Kalitta did not have the regular season he hoped for. He went winless through the 18 races that make up the pre-Countdown to the Championship portion of the calendar, despite reaching five finals. Kalitta enters the final race of the season with a 1.39 round-win per race mark, which is almost exactly his average (1.37) in his 20th Top Fuel season. 

Despite that, Kalitta finds himself with a shot at winning his first championship thanks to what has been his best-ever Countdown. Through five races, he has 10 round wins. He had seven entering the final race of the season in 2016, which he won, giving him 11 round wins to match his best playoff performance. So, if Kalitta can go at least two rounds this weekend he can wrap up his best Countdown of his career. 

Of course, that doesn’t guarantee him a title. He has the most work to do of any of the three Top Fuel contenders. Kalitta is 84 points behind Steve Torrence and trails Brittany Force by 64 tallies. His fate is decidedly not in his hands at the Auto Club NHRA Finals, so going out and winning the race and hoping for the best is the most he can do at this point. 

The driver of the Mac Tools dragster has been to the final round in Pomona seven times, including both the Fall and Spring event. He can get a maximum of 191 points thanks to the points-and-a-half system in place at the final race of the season, which will of course help Torrence and Force should they go rounds on raceday. 

At the very least, Kalitta should nab a top-five finish for the fifth-straight year. After a less-than-stellar start to the year, the Mac Tools team can wrap up the year on a high note. 

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No matter how prepared you think you are for getting behind the wheel of a Funny Car, there’s just no way to prepare you for getting behind the wheel and throwing your foot to the floor. Shawn Langdon knew that before hopping into Alexis DeJoria’s flopper to complete his licensing runs, but he wasn’t quite sure in which ways that would manifest. 

“There’s a little misconception. All the Funny Car drivers preach is how much you gotta steer these things and you gotta manhandle the car,” Langdon said. “So, I get in it, and I’m thinking, ‘alright I gotta bow up and drive this sucker.’ So, I get out there and the first couple runs, I can’t even get it to 300 feet. And they’re like, ‘yeah, you’re oversteering it.’  And I said, ‘I thought you have to steer the Funny Car a lot.’ They said, ‘yeah, down track, but you’re driving it like it’s a dragster early.’” 

That’s part of the learning, or unlearning process, as Langdon switches from a Top Fuel driver to a Funny Car driver. He’ll be taking the Global Electronic Technology colors to the flopper field next season, but wanted to get some passes in a Funny Car before the 2017 season wrapped up. 

“The hardest part about driving a dragster is the first 80 feet, and then when it locks up, which is about half track,” said Langdon. “If you can get the thing straight by 100 feet, you should be good. Then, just drive accordingly and hopefully it doesn’t make a big move. Just hold it there. In Funny Car, you almost have to have the thing pointed correctly to account for what it’s going to do on the launch, because it’s going to want to go left because of the torque of the thing.”

It’s not uncommon for drivers to have the steering wheel cocked to the side to account for the torque Langdon is referring to. He didn’t want to change too much of the car’s setup because DeJoria is driving the Funny Car in Pomona this weekend, but it wouldn’t be surprising if he gets the wheel set a certain way when it becomes his car during the 2018 season. While what he needs most is seat time, he is getting a little advice from teammate J.R. Todd, who made the switch from dragster to Funny Car this year.

“I like what J.R. is doing, because he’s telling me stuff -- but not too much stuff, so I can learn on my own,” said Langdon. “When people come to me for help, I don’t want them to ask me generic questions, because that’s not how you learn stuff. I want to give you subtle hints so you can figure stuff on your own. I just need seat time. I need laps to learn how the car works.”

He doesn’t want those laps to be light, either. When he talked to his future crew chiefs, Nicky Boninfante and Tommy Delago, he said he wanted to go all out right from the get go.  

“I said, ‘I want you to set a record lap in it,’” said Langdon. “If I hit the gas right now and it lights up 3.79 on the scoreboard or it says 4.00, I won’t know the difference. Show me what it can do. I want to know. Give me all its got. The first run, it was probably going a 3.85 before it smoked the tires, but I was steering a lot. So, I know what it’s got, and I’m not scared of the speed or anything. It’s just getting to know the input steering.” 

Now, Langdon just needs time behind the wheel. 

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mcmillen.jpgAs the sport’s newest first-time Top Fuel winner, Terry McMillen is still soaking in the glory and adulation of his fans, friends, and peers after winning his first Top Fuel Wally two weeks ago in Las Vegas. McMillen, a runner-up earlier in the year in Seattle, clinched the win on Brittany Force’s final-round red-light.

“It took me until last Tuesday just top answer the text messages,” he said. “The first night, after we got through with the winner’s circle, there were 251. I answered about 100 of them and then when I woke up the next morning I had like 386. They never stopped coming in. And then there’s all the emails. I answered all the business ones and I’m working on all of the fan ones. It’s just been overwhelming. I can’t even explain it.”

His peers, too, have been congratulatory and happy for his long-overdue success.

“I saw some photos from the starting-line celebration and it looked like 200 people up there -– just a wall of people. Our shirts are bright green and they stand out, but I couldn’t even see them for all the people that swarmed them. Brittany even came over later that night to congratulate me, which I thought was great because that round meant a lot to her.

“I’m just so happy for Amalie. They’ve been with us for 17 years and it’s great to finally give Harry [Barkett, Amalie CEO] that trophy – only for a night though,” he said with a grin. “And it’s good for the sport to see a ‘little guy’ like me get it done. It gives hope to all the other guys like me – Terry Haddock, Scott Palmer, guys like that – it gives everyone hope that you can win against these big teams.”

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Courtney Force gave everyone a start in the opening qualifying session Friday when her special-edition Taylor Swift/reputation album Camaro took a hard left just off the starting line, crossed the centerline, then ended up on two wheels back in her own lane. She masterfully brought the car under control, avoiding (ahem) damaging her reputation.

Force and crew chief Danny Hood bounced back with a 3.87 in Q2 to end up second on the qualifying sheets behind only Jack Beckman.

“It was a wild first run, in which we stayed on the throttle a little too long and got loose, dropped all four holes on the left side, took Taylor for a wild ride and showed fans both sides of the racecar,” Force said. “But we got it fixed up for Q2 and took the top spot momentarily before ending in P2. It’s a great start to the weekend for the Advance Auto Parts team.”

Force made it to her fifth final round this season in the most recent race, the NHRA Toyota Nationals in Las Vegas two weeks ago that kept her in third place in the standings but still looking for her first win of the season.

“I think everyone going into the final race wants to get that win,” Force said. “Obviously, we’ve been right there, been in multiple final rounds. We’ve had a consistent race car all year, but have yet to get in the winner’s circle. But at least we’ve made a lot of great strides this entire year, learned a lot, and found that consistency that we were kind of missing last year. We would love to finish off the season on a high note and take home that win. “ (photo credit: Bob Johnson)

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Matt Hagan is used to racing under pressure at the Auto Club NHRA Finals, winning championships here in 2011 and 2014 and finishing second in 2010 and 2013 in dramatic points shootouts on the final day of the season. He’s not in the title fight this year -– he’s fifth with a chance to get as high as third –- but the Mopar driver is riding a high after winning the NHRA Toyota Nationals two weeks earlier in Las Vegas.

Hagan started the season strong here in Pomona with a win at the Winternationals and was in first place through the year’s first five events and was in second most of the season. He entered the Countdown in third place, but was in the midst of a slump, losing in the first rounds in Brainerd and Indy – the final two events of the regular season – and then lost in the opening stanza again in Charlotte, the opening event of the Countdown.

“We got in a little bit of a rut earlier this season, and we had to work hard and focus and dig ourselves back out,” he admitted. “It’s a testament to [crew chief] Dickie Venables and the crew of what they can do and how fast they can bounce back. We had some pretty bad first-round losses earlier in the Countdown and you lose hope sometimes, but then you gotta get your pom-poms out, man, and make sure everybody is up and going. I’m so blessed to have Dickie on our team; I’d take him every day, even on his bad days.”

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When Del Worsham clicked off his Toyota early on his second qualifying pass, most people figured it as either a planned shutoff or that something had gone wrong mechanically.

Wrong on both accounts.

“I had 100 percent loss of vision; I think my head sock came down over my eyes,” he explained a little sheepishly of the fire-resistant covering that drivers wear beneath their helmets. “It was my fault. We were rushing up there because we had been working on [the team’s Blake Alexander-driven Top Fueler] and got up to the line a little late. I put my helmet on and the sock came down and I was trying to jam it back up inside with my fingers. When the car shook, it came down, I’m not making any excuses. It all just went black. I was going to shut off anyway because the car was heading out of the groove. The whole year’s been that way for us.”

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cruz.jpgOn the opening day of qualifying Friday, Cruz Pedregon announced a three-year renewal with primary partner Snap-on that will carry them at least until 2020, which will be Snap-on’s 100th anniversary but also the tool company’s 10th season with the two-time world champion’s operation. Snap-on has been on various Pedregon-driven cars off and on since his first championship season in 1992.

“Honestly, we’ve had a handshake deal on this for a year, but it’s nice to let everyone officially know it,” he said. “It’s been an up-and-down year for us but I believe in Aaron [Brooks, crew chief] and I’ve brought on Glen Huszar for a couple of races and who we hope to hire as an assistant for Aaron for next season. Aaron doesn’t really have a right=hand guy right now and I think we suffer because of it. We think Glen can fill that void for us. I feel good about what’s ahead for us.”

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The last time Drew Skillman raced at Auto Club Pomona Raceway, he qualified No. 12 at the season-opening Winternationals and lost in the first round of eliminations. Nine months later, Skillman is far more competitive with his Gray Motorsports-powered Camaro. After Friday’s two runs, he is qualified in the No. 2 spot with a 6.555 and he’s got the fastest Pro Stock speed of the event with a 211.69 mph charge. During the season, Skillman has won four events, been runner-up in two more, and he’s been the top qualifier at two races.

“We are far more competitive now than we were at the start of the year,” said Skillman. “I can’t even say that it’s been one area. Our team has just jelled. We’ve just steadily worked on our car and it’s gradually come around. It started to turn the corner in Chicago. My driving; that’s sort of a different story. I’ve been up and down this year but lately it’s been better. When the car is good, it makes the driver look good. This really is a team sport and when your team is working together, it does a lot for your confidence as a driver.”

As for his 6.555 pass on Friday, Skillman gave all the credit to the “big power” provided by the Gray Motorsports engine-building team. Since Norwalk, Skillman has qualified in the top half of the field at every event and he’s been in the top five 12 times in 23 events. 

“That’s a tribute to the Grays,” said Skillman. “They make big power right now. We sort of went back to the basics this year and did less of that trick of the week stuff. That has been the difference. This is rocket science but sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s smart to take one step back and remember the basics.”

Looking forward, Skillman had previously been on the fence about racing in a full season in 2018, but he’s not all-but committed to making a run at the Mello Yello championship next season. He also plans do race in more events in Super Stock and Stock with the team’s Cobra Jet entries. Skillman raced in Stock in Pomona but fouled by nine-thousandths of a second in round one.

“The way I look at it, this is a perfect opportunity,” he said. “I don’t have kids yet and we’ve got a great car so this is a really good time for me to take one good honest shot at the No. 1 spot. I might not be in this position again.”

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As a part-time fill in driver, Brian “Lump” Self probably hasn’t gotten the credit he deserves. Self, a crew chief for the Elite team, got an opportunity to drive when the Mountain View team decided to park their Camaro after Charlotte. The car was purchased by Elite owner Richard Freeman, who gave Self a chance to drive in Pro Stock for the first time. In four races since his debut in Reading, Lump has qualified solidly in each event and has reached the semifinals twice, in St. Louis and Dallas.

“I used to race in Pro Stock Truck and I’ve made a few runs in testing so it wasn’t totally new to me,” said Self, who also previously raced in Comp Eliminator. “I will say this; it is very different to go from testing at an empty track to pulling around the corner at a place like Pomona and seeing the stands full of all the people. That takes some getting used to.”

Self’s success as a driver hasn’t stopped the Elite crew from giving him a bit of good natured ribbing from time to time.

“He thinks he’s a star now,” quipped fellow crew chief Mark Ingersoll. “When he first got in that car he said, ‘Just let me drive. I’ll break in tires and do some R&D work.’ Now, he wants all the good stuff. He wants to win races but honestly, I think he can do it.”

“The bottom line is that I’m having fun right now and it’s been a longtime dream to race in Pro Stock so I got to check that off my list,” said Self. “Hopefully, I get to run a bit next year, too.”

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Bo Butner is handling the drama of his first professional points chase with the same dry wit and sense of humor that has made him a fan favorite. When someone suggested that he’s intentionally trying to qualify in the middle of the pack in order to catch teammate Greg Anderson in the early rounds, Butner didn’t hesitate for long.

“We’re not that smart,” Butner said. “We just haven’t made a good run yet. That’s about all I can say about it. I’m pretty much going to qualify wherever I qualify and try to win the race tomorrow. If that’s not enough so be it. I’m not really too concerned about the little [qualifying] points because it won’t matter. I still need to win two more rounds than Greg no matter what happens. We just need to figure out what’s wrong with my car.”

Jason Line, teammate to Anderson and Butner, has a completely different outlook on the points battle. Line is still mathematically eligible to win the championship and he’s not about to give up hope of defending his 2016 title.

“I’ve got this all figured out,” he said. “Greg is going to lose in the first round, I’m going to beat Bo in the second and then win the race and then I’ll go to the banquet on Monday and apologize for it. Actually, I might not even go to the banquet because I’ll be busy hiding my head in shame. I have to be honest, I’m sort of a lazy winner. Once I accomplish a goal, it takes me a while to set another one. Bo is different because this is his first-time racing for a Pro Stock championship and Greg is the opposite of me; he lives and dies for this. I’m motivated, but not to that level.”

Seriously, I won’t give up until it’s over but the really important thing is that one of our [KB Racing] engines is going to win the championship and it looks like we’ll finish 1-2-3 in the points.

 

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savoie.jpgAfter winning the championship last season, Jerry Savoie fully expected to be in contention for the Mello Yello Pro Stock Motorcycle title again this season but he’s struggled during the Countdown and entered the Pomona race as the No. 6 ranked rider in the class. Savoie entered the Countdown as the No. 4 seed but early losses in Reading, St. Louis, and Las Vegas have crippled his chances.

“We’ve had a gremlin in our bike and we just can’t find it,” said Savoie. “We know it’s electrical but those are the worst kind because sometimes they come and go and it’s hard to find them. We’ve changed all the wiring, the ignition coils, the injectors, and almost everything else and we still haven’t found it. I think we’ve got it handled now. It’s all a part of racing, but it’s very frustrating.”

Despite his struggles, Savoie is not at all disappointed with the performance of his White Alligator team this season, between himself and teammate LE Tonglet, they’ve won eight races and appeared in 12 final rounds.

“We’ve had a good season; I’ve got no complaints,” Savoie said. “We get good horsepower from Vance & Hines and Tim [Kulungian, crew chief] is the best in the business. He’s been great this season working on two bikes. If Eddie [Krawiec] hadn’t gone crazy and won all these races in the Countdown, I think we’d both be in the hunt for a championship. When you have one trailer that has won half the races, you can’t complain too much.”

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It’s been a long road back for Katie Sullivan after her promising career was derailed by an ongoing medical issue. Sullivan have been sidelined for the last two years after being diagnosed with Vertigo. She returned two weeks ago in Las Vegas aboard her family-owned Suzuki and it making her second start this weekend in Pomona.

“I can’t even put into words what it’s like to be back on the bike,” Sullivan said. “There was a time when I wondered if I’d ever ride again. I was diagnosed with Vertigo but it’s more complicated than that. I went to more than ten doctors until I finally found one that looked at my sinuses and said, ‘Here’s the problem, your sinus openings are too small.’ That might not sound like a big deal but it affected my balance, my breathing, and my coordination; basically everything you need to race a Pro Stock Motorcycle. I also had an issue with my tonsils that needed to be fixed. I was running a fever and I had a lot of days when I was dizzy or disoriented or just didn’t feel good but I’m 100-percent better now.”

Sullivan didn’t get a chance to test before her return in Las Vegas but she managed to qualify solidly for that field. So far in Pomona, she’s 12th quickest with a 6.967-seocnd pass. Sullivan is one of 14 qualifiers in the six-second zone. Unlike most Suzuki entries which use Vance & Hines power, her bike is powered by an engine from road race veteran and fellow competitor Rhett Lougheed.

“We’ve got a good bike,” she said. “We’ve had this engine for a while and before I got sick, I qualified as high as No. 5 with it. We’re not quick enough to run with the really fast bikes but we can hold our own. After everything I’ve been through, I’m just really happy to be riding a motorcycle again. Hopefully I got to do a lot more of it next year.”

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arana4.jpgHector Arana Jr. started the weekend on his venerable Lucas Oil Buell but he quickly switched to the team’s EBR-bodied entry after wounding an engine in Q1. Arana was rewarded for that decision with a 6.828 run in Q3. Arana also took advantage of the EBR team’s apparent aerodynamic advantages with a 198.15 mph charge, the fastest speed of the event so far.

“I might have made my last run on the Buell for now, maybe forever,” said Arana. “That was one of the best runs we’ve ever made. At least it corrected to one of our best. I’ve only made four runs on this bike; two here and two in Indy, but I’m feeling pretty comfortable. It’s a good bike and it’s only going to get better. It’s fast and I’m going to ride it at all the races next year. I feel really comfortable on it and I feel like I can get tucked in and out of the wind.”

“It also helps that we’ve got good power,” Arana said. “My dad [Hector Sr.] built this engine and we never even had a chance to get it on the dyno. We didn’t test it or anything. We just put it in the bike and rolled out here for the second run on Friday. This [6.828 run] is only the second pass on the engine.”

Crew chief Jim Yates, who joined the team at the start of the season, it also pleased with the progress of the EBR bike. Yates, a two-time Pro Stock champ, has taken time this year to learn the different nuances of NHRA’s two-wheel class and he’s managed to add his own perspective to a veteran team.

“I’ve done a lot of watching and a lot of learning this year,” said Yates. “I do have some definite ideas on how things should be done and they don’t always match what Hector [Sr.] is thinking. We’ve worked together and most times we find that we’re on the same page. The big thing is that we’ve got good power now and that fixes a lot. We didn’t have a chance to win the championship this year but there is a still a race to be won and that would be a great way to end the season.”

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The final Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series Sportsman championship was clinched Saturday morning when second-generation racer John Labbous Jr. locked up the Super Gas title. Labbous officially clinched the title when his closest rival, Chris Cannon, was defeated by Larry Bradshaw. Cannon needed to win the round in order to pass Labbous but came up short when his 9.896 breakout lost to Bradshaw’s 9.907. Labbous cannot earn points at this event, but he remains in competition after three rounds of eliminations. Labbous finished the season with 648 points in Super Gas while Cannon is just three-points back with 645.

“It’s been about the most stressful day of my life,” said Labbous. “I’m just glad it’s over. I won some races early in the season and put up a nice score and in June I had people telling me congratulations on winning the championship. I knew better. I know it’s never over until it’s over and thankfully it’s finally over.”

Driving for team owner Anthony Bertozzi, Labbous scored four wins in Super Gas this season to go along with two runner-up finishes. The highlight of his season came at the Four-Wide Nationals in Charlotte when he joined a short list of drivers who have doubled-up at a national event with wins in Super Gas and Super Comp. Labbous’ father, John Sr., is one of the founding fathers of E.T. bracket racing and a 2016 inductee into the Southeast Division Hall of Fame.

 

PHOTOS

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The Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum presented by AAA hosted the annual Night of Champions Friday evening. Hosted by Jack Beckman and featuring former NHRA Mello Yello champs Matt Hagan, Tony Schumacher, Ron Capps, and Shawn Langdon.

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The pits at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona are packed with fans who have come out to witness the drama of the season finale.

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In addition to all of the action on the track, the pits are also hosting the Hot Rod Junction, fillied with vintage street and race machinery.

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Funny Car championship contender Robert Hight and NHRA’s Alan Reinhart taught some fuel-racing basics to eager fans at the popular Nitro School.

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Rookie of the year finalist Jonnie Lindberg and championship contenders Eddie Krawiec and Greg Anderson were among those taking part in the traditional Mello Yello autograph session.

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Brittany Force is in pursuit of her first Mello Yello championship and entered Saturday as the No 1 qualifier in Top Fuel.

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Dodge-backed NHRA drivers Allen Johnson, Jim Campbell, Leah Pritchett, Tommy Johnson Jr., Ron Capps, Matt Hagan, and Jack Beckman got together to bid farewell to retiring Mopar Motorsports Manager Dale Aldo.

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Patriarch John Paul DeJoria and members and other members of Alexis DeJoria's family had a front-row seat for the retiring Funny Car driver's third qualifying pass.

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Jerry Savoie, who will relinquish the champion's No. 1 plate to Eddie Krawiec, stuck a toe into the sand at "the beach," the top-end sand trap, on his final qualifying pass.

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Robert Hight, left, almost lost his chance for a second Funny Car championship. He came into the final session not qualified and it took a tire-smoking, blower-banging pass to get him in the hunt heading into Sunday.

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By successfully qualifying for the Pro Stock Motorcycle field, Eddie Krawiec locked up his fourth NHRA Mello Yello championship.

PREVIEW

The final qualifying session of the 2017 season begins with two of the four points leaders in pole position. This is the last chance for drivers to grab bonus points at the Auto Club NHRA Finals before raceday, where champions will be officially crowned in all four professional classes. Qualifying begins at noon PT, beginning with Pro Stock Motorcycle.

B_Force.JPGBrittany Force set a track record with a 3.667-second pass. That broke a record set by rival Leah Pritchett, and helped her move a little bit closer to points-leader Steve Torrence. That narrowing won’t make much difference as it relates to her points chase, as each round win will be worth 30 points on Sunday. She can make up a maximum of 15 points on Torrence today, if she earns all eight session bonus points, stays No. 1, and Torrence qualifies No. 16. All Force is focused on right now is making good laps today to get her car set up for raceday.

J_Beckman.jpgJack Beckman doesn’t have a chance at winning a Funny Car championship, but he can win his third race of the season while potentially helping teammate Ron Capps. It seems the Infinite Hero team has found something recently. He qualified No. 1 in Las Vegas for the first time this season, showing that the team can do damage in cool weather after excelling in hot conditions earlier in the year. The driver quipped that he wished there were six more races left in the season, but he can still do damage in the final contest of the year.

G_Anderson.JPGOne driver who isn’t looking for a silver lining is Greg Anderson. He’s hunting his first championship since 2010, and if he keeps driving like he did on Friday, he’ll get it. Anderson snagged all eight bonus points during the first day of qualifying to extend his lead over Bo Butner to 48 points. The driver of the red Summit Chevy has been the No. 1 qualifier at two of the last three races and won both of those events. He needs to go one round deeper than Butner and Line to earn another Pro Stock championship, but first he’ll try to grab his sixth green hat of the season.

C_Ellis.JPGPro Stock Motorcycle offers the true wildcard of the weekend. Chip Ellis, riding a Harley-Davidson Street Rod (only the fifth racer to do so), snagged the No. 1 seed with his first pass on the bike. He got right back to the top with his second run. If he manages to hold onto the catbird seat, it will be his first green hat since he was the No. 1 qualifier in Chicago in 2015. The rider, who is rocking his Junior Pippin Racing leathers in honor of his friend, is riding a brand-new Street Rod that looks capable of winning the entire event. That’s something to keep an eye out for as all three Harley-Davidson bikes are in the top slots.