Circle K NHRA Winternationals Saturday Notebook

News, notes, photos, and analysis from the final day of qualifying at the Circle K NHRA Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona
11 Feb 2017
NHRA National Dragster staff
Race coverage

Qualifying sessions recaps | Features | Results

Top Fuel, Funny Car, and Pro Stock are scheduled for two qualifying sessions today, at 12:30 and 3:30 p.m., to set the field for Sunday’s final eliminations. Here’s a quick look at the scenarios in those classes:
TOP FUEL: The “Kings of the Sport” only got one of their two scheduled runs Friday due to late-afternoon rain. Doug Kalitta, who won the 2016 season-ending Auto Club NHRA Finals here two months ago, is the leading qualifier with a 3.697. The track record is 3.680, set last fall by Kalitta’s teammate, J.R. Todd. Fourteen cars made runs Friday.
FUNNY CAR: Two-time world champ Matt Hagan leads the flip-top field with a 3.840, with Courtney Force hot on his heels in second with a 3.849. The track record is 3.825 by Jack Beckman, set at last year’s Finals. Veteran Gary Densham is on the bump spot (5.82).
PRO STOCK: Greg Anderson, who won both of last year’s events at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona – the season-opening Circle K NHRA Winternationals and the year-ending Auto Club NHRA Finals – fronts the Pro Stock pack with a 6.557, just a few ticks ahead of his Summit Racing teammate, reigning world champ Jason Line. The 16-car field sports a bump spot of 7.511 heading into the final two qualifying sessions.

RainEvent update (8:30 a.m.): The start of Saturday action at the Circle K NHRA Winternationals has been delayed due to weather. Track drying is currently under way.

Update (10:55 a.m.): The sun is trying to crack its way through the clouds as track drying continues, but we're probably still a half hour from running.
Racing under way (11:35 a.m.): After a lengthy delay to dry the track following overnight and early-morning rain showers, Saturday racing kicked off with round three of Stock eliminator.


Jason LinePro Stock Q3 (1:25 p.m.): Jason Line paced a quick session in which several drivers improved from the times recorded in yesterday’s two passes. The reigning world champ wheeled his Summit entry to a 6.530 to grab the No. 1 spot heading into the fourth and final session later today. Line is followed by Vincent Nobile and Shane Gray, both of whom improved with 6.547-second passes. Nobile got the higher spot on the speed tiebreaker, 211.10 to 210.97. Incoming top qualifier Greg Anderson also improved on yesterday’s time, but his 6.549 was only good enough for the fourth spot. [Complete results]

Tom Huggins, who is making his first appearance in more than a decade, driving a Lazarus-built Dodge, went on a wild ride after his parachutes failed to deploy following his 6.88 pass in the third session. Huggins got onto the brakes hard in the shutdown area, trailing a cloud of tire smoke behind him. Unfortunately for Huggins, though he was able to slow his entry down a bit, he was unable to avoid going into the sand, and the trip into the kitty litter caused damage to the front of the brand-new car. Huggins, whose 6.88 wasn’t enough to put him in the field, is not expected to return for Q4. [animated gif]
“It’s tough to drive ’em, and it’s tough when the chutes don’t come out,” said an emotional Huggins from the top end. “The only thing I could do was get on the binders and drive it straight in. V. Gaines sold me a really nice car, and I tore it up, so I’m really sorry. I’m really sorry.”
Antron BrownTop Fuel Q3 (2 p.m.): Doug Kalitta began the session atop the Top Fuel qualifying sheet and ended up there, but it took a Herculean effort to make that happen. Antron Brown bettered Kalitta’s Friday-leading 3.697 with a 3.695, but Kalitta and the Mac Tools team raced back to No. 1 in the final pair of qualifying with a 3.686. Leah Pritchett jumped into the No. 3 spot with a 3.702 in the Papa John’s dragster, edging ahead of Brittany Force’s Friday 3.706. [Complete results]
John ForceFunny Car Q3 (2:50 p.m.): John Force was the star of the third round of qualifying, posting a 3.849 that moved him up to No. 2 in the order, behind Matt Hagan, who retained the top spot thanks to yesterday’s 3.840. The big story on Force’s run wasn’t the e.t., however. It was the speed. Force rocketed to a speed of 335.15 mph, the second-fastest run in history behind Hagan’s 335.57 from Topeka last season. The speed not only added Force’s name to the fastest runs list, but it also gave him the edge over daughter Courtney in the qualifying order because the father-daughter duo recorded identical times. Courtney’s speed was 330.23, relegating her to the third spot. While the Forces are near the top of the order, their teammate, Robert Hight, surprisingly is not. Hight has struggled in his special-edition Auto Club/California Highway Patrol Chevy, posting a best of 4.69 that has him on the bump entering the final session. [Complete results]
Bob Bode’s woes with his new body (read more about it in Friday’s notebook) continued when he made contact with the guardwall in the opposite lane following a 4.368-second pass in the third session. [animated gif]
Vincent NobilePro Stock Q4 (4:35 p.m.): The KB Racing duo of Jason Line and Greg Anderson had the two best times of the final round of qualifying and will lead the Pro Stock field into race day as the Nos. 1 and 2 qualifiers, respectively. Line bettered his earlier time, posting a 6.525 to earn his 50th career No. 1 start. Anderson matched Line’s 6.530 from the third session to finish No. 2, knocking Vincent Nobile, who did not better his 6.547 from Q3, down one spot to third. Nobile posted a 6.558 on his final attempt.

First-round pairings (lane choice first): Jason Line vs. Val Smeland, Greg Anderson vs. Kenny Delco, Vincent Nobile vs. Alan Prusiensky, Shane Gray vs. Allen Johnson, Bo Butner vs. Drew Skillman, Erica Enders vs. Matt Hartford, Jeg Coughlin Jr. vs. Deric Kramer, and Chris McGaha vs. Tanner Gray

Leah PritchettTop Fuel Q4 (5:05 p.m.): Leah Pritchett was the star of pre-season testing last weekend in Phoenix, and she finished qualifying as the star once again after powering her Papa John’s dragster to a career-best 3.672. Doug Kalitta, the incoming qualifying leader, ran his third straight 3.6-second pass, a 3.693, but it wasn’t enough to retake the No. 1 spot, which earns the polesitter a first-round bye in the 15-car field.
First-round pairings (lane choice first): Leah Pritchett vs. bye; Doug Kalitta vs. Steve Faria; Antron Brown vs. Steve Chrisman; Brittany Force vs. Terry Haddock; Tony Schumacher vs. Scott Palmer; Troy Coughlin Jr. vs. Shawn Reed ; Terry McMillen vs. Clay Millican; and Steve Torrence vs. Troy Buff
Matt HaganFunny Car Q4 (6:10 p.m.): Matt Hagan tied both the quickest and fastest runs in NHRA history, wheeling his Mopar Express Lane Dodge to a 3.822 at 335.57 mph en route to the No. 1 starting spot. Hagan is followed by the Forces, John and Courtney, who previously recorded 3.849-second passes but both shook the tires early on their final attempts. The third John Force Racing entry, Robert Hight, made the biggest move of the final session, going from 16th to fifth thanks to a 3.853 that ranked as the second-best time of the round. While Hight’s run went well, it wasn’t without its faults, specifically after the pass when he experienced a flat tire.

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



Jeg Sr.Troy Coughlin Jr. has a very interested onlooker as he makes his rookie debut in the Kalitta Motorsports SealMaster dragster: grandfather Jeg Coughlin Sr., who joined Troy Coughlin Sr. in taking the trip west for the youngster’s debut.
Until Troy Jr.’s run Friday, Jeg Sr. was the last Coughlin to run a Top Fueler at an NHRA event, competing at his final event at the 1980 Mile-High Nationals in Denver.
“T.J. and I have been so close all of his life; we’ve talked at least once a week since he was 3 years old,” said the proud grandpa. “When he decided he wanted to run Top Fuel, we were all really excited and looked at all of our options, and when Connie [Kalitta] came along and said he’d like to do a deal with us, it was fabulous, because I’ve known him for 40 years.
“I ran 250 mph and didn’t think anyone could do any better than that and he’s run 84 mph faster than me in 300 feet less,” he said. “It’s really exciting.”

Clay Millican

Even veteran drivers get the yips now and then, as evidenced by Clay Millican’s throttle double-step at the start of his second qualifying pass. Despite a -.162 red-light start and a potentially disrupted clutch flow, the Parts Plus/Great Clips still ran 3.815 to improve on Friday’s tire smoker.

“That was a driver malfunction,” said a chagrined Millican. "You just have to forget those things. I screwed up. Thank God it was in qualifying and it went down the track anyway. That’s something I’m happy to get out of my system today instead of Sunday.”
And then, in a mea culpa to crew chief David Grubnic, he hollered, “Sorry, ‘Grubby!’ ”


Terry McMillen
Terry McMillen and the Amalie Motor Oil Extermi-Gator crew didn’t have time to test their new machine, but the brand-new piece, fresh out of the Don Schumacher Racing chassis jig, didn’t look bad on its maiden voyage, a 3.82, Friday.
“For a lot of people, that was Q1,” said crew chief Rob Wendland. “For us, that was T1 – Test one. I’m proud of my guys. We started it up for the first time in the pits and nothing leaked. Just a great job.”
McMillen said the run could have been even better had it not wore the clutch so much early in the run. Their first run Friday, with a new clutch pack, yielded instant shake and smoke, but their final run of the day would have made even an alligator smile: a career-best 3.734, almost three-hundredths better than his previous best of 3.762.


Jeff Arend

While other teams are chasing big runs and race wins this weekend, you could call the Circle K NHRA Winternationals a test session of sorts for the Steve Plueger team with driver Jeff Arend. Sure, the group would welcome a round-win (or more), but the primary focus is sorting out all the parts and pieces on the Funny Car and getting them right. According to Arend, things on that front have been progressing well. With work in the pits and a couple of runs down the track, the team has sorted out several things on the car, from nitro percentage to internal engine parts. Though they admittedly still have work to do, Arend and the crew feel good about the progress they are making so far and hope to have a solid-running car that consistently goes downtrack soon.


Tim Wilkerson

Tim Wilkerson may not have a teammate to lean on for more data and tune-up assistance, but if the start of his 2017 campaign is any indication, that’s not slowing him down by any means. Wilkerson was the star of the abbreviated second qualifying session Friday, wheeling his new-look Levi, Ray & Shoup entry to a 3.857, a career-best that placed him third entering today’s two sessions. Though it was quicker than Wilkerson had ever gone, he said after the pass he fully expected his car to run like that.

“We were behind schedule at Phoenix, and I was over-center, trying to get past the racetrack, but that [3.85 is] what it should run," said Wilkerson. "Man, it ought to run that fast. I don’t know if I can run with the rest of them, run an .80-flat like [Courtney Force] did, but we’re going to try our best to keep up with these guys this year. We’re going to make it interesting. We’re going to make ’em mad as best we can.”

On his first run of Saturday, Wilkerson posted a 3.93 at just 306.40 and slipped to fifth in the order heading into Q4.


Cruz Pedregon

After a disastrous first day, during which he could not back up from the burnout in Q1 and smoked the tires on his second attempt, Cruz Pedregon showed progress during the first round of qualifying today, running a career-best 3.906 that moved him from 18th all the way up to sixth.

“I’ve never run quicker than a 3.92, and that 3.90 was violent,” said Pedregon. “It’s been a while, but for Aaron Brooks and the team that we’ve put together this year on this Snap-on Toyota, we think we’ve got something special here. It’s going to take a while to sort through things, but that’s a nice run, backed down. Yesterday, we were trying to send this thing to Glendora, but I think we backed it down. This is a long year, and we’re going to get better every time. It feels good to set a career milestone like that after so many years.”

Added crew chief Brooks, “We’ve been a little behind the 8-ball. We changed a lot of stuff over the winter, and we’re just trying to play catch-up. The quickest I ever went in a Funny Car before was 4.03 10 years ago, so it’s good for me.”


John ForceJohn Force made the second-fastest run in NHRA history (335.15 mph) during the third round of qualifying, but in typical John Force fashion, that fast run was only a tiny fraction of the interview he gave following the pass.

“Well, ol’ Prock’s Rocket, she’s gonna get faster, but I thought they were cheering me because they love me, not because she was fast,” said Force about the run. “We put the band back together. There was a hole in me, and some people are just my family, and that’s where I want to be, with my family, and I lost a few, but in the big turnaround in life, they’ll all come home someday. That’s what I want. I’m excited. Jimmy Prock’s doing a great job.”

From there, the interview took several detours. Here are a few of the memorable quips and quotes:

“I’m excited. Peak signed me for life. Peter Clifford thought he’d get rid of me. They’re going to let me drive as long as I want. That’s pretty cool. Of course, at my age I might last another week or two, but I’m loving it.”

“Boy, I’ve got more crew chiefs. Man, that’s like having a bunch of wives. This is expensive, but I’ve only got one wife, and I love her.”

“[Don] Schumacher and me one of these days, we’re actually going to be friends. He don’t know it, but we’re going to be.”

“Don’t forget our first responders. Don’t get aggravated; love ’em. They’re trying to save us. I fell over down there, and the guy was trying to give me mouth to mouth. I said, ‘Can I get one of the cute ones?’ He said, ‘No.’ ” 

Kenny Delco

Pro Stock fans who feel like they may be seeing double this weekend need not adjust their eyes — there are, indeed, two Camaros racing out of the Kenny Delco trailer and painted almost identically. One, of course, is being wheeled by Delco. The second is being piloted by Val Smeland. When asked about the two-car effort this weekend, Delco quipped, “I needed someone to drive out with me.

“He was going to drive out, and I said, ‘Well, we might as well as put the car in. We’ve got a big trailer now.’ I had a couple of spare motors. He bought the car from me. We’ll do these races, and then I might take him to a couple of more, and he’ll bring his trailer just so he can carry more stuff.”

Though both are qualified, Delco and Smeland are definitely not where they would ideally like to be. Entering the final session, Delco sits 15th with a 6.65, and Smeland is right behind him on the bump with a 6.84. Part of the struggles can be attributed to the team having to play catch-up after troubles during testing in Phoenix.

“We ran good at the end of last year, but we’re stinking this year. I don’t know what happened. It’s just tune-up. We’ll get it. We went out to Phoenix, and a fuel line broke and went on fire, so we had to rewire it. We went out there for a couple days of testing and wound up with a couple of days of rewiring between.”



Alan Prusiensky, who made an impressive 12-race campaign last season with his ARC Race Engines Dart that he debuted in Chicago and ran the balance of the season, will run the entire 24-race schedule this season.
“I figured I needed to do this at least once,” he said with a laugh. “I’m not sure I’ll be able to do it again, but I wanted to give it a try. It’s a lot of work, and it’s mostly all on me.”
Prusiensky builds his own engines – a bit of a throwback these days – and even though he has an Elite powerplant in his trailer as a backup, he’s determined to make his own stuff work. The 2016 campaign was a learning process, and he found out how easy it is to get lost. His first two runs Friday, off-pace 6.66s, reminded him of that.
“We went back to Square One on our first run today,” he admitted. “It was like Chicago all over again. No cylinder offsets, no timing offsets, nothing – just a basic map. It’s so easy to get lost; you start adding things and taking things away on your map. With the power we have, there’s no way it should have only run a .66. That’s how we knew we were in trouble.”
Their Q3 run netted them an improved 6.63, even on what Prusiensky considered a bad run. He thinks there’s no reason he can’t run a 6.59, which will get them in the ballpark. He finished qualifying in the No. 14 spot.

Erica Enders

Erica Enders is back in familiar surroundings, and she couldn’t be any happier.

“She’s my favorite car on the whole planet,” said Enders. “That’s the car we won the 2014 championship with, and we dug ’er out of the mothballs and brought her back out here. She’s awesome. She’s competitive, and my guys have done a really great job. I mean, to jump back into this program and to be where we’re at after today is pretty exciting. I have a smile on my face, and I’m ready for Sunday.”

Based on Enders’ four runs in qualifying, it is clear she is ready to compete not only tomorrow but for the rest of the season. Enders was among the four quickest cars in Q1 with a 6.58, and was her 6.56 third-quickest of the second session. Today, Enders ran a pair of 6.55s. She faces Matt Hartford in the first round.


The pit area at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona was packed with race fans taking in the exciting action from the season opener.


The Mello Yello autograph session was a world champions exclusive with Jerry Savoie, Jason Line, Ron Capps, and Antron Brown greeting fans at the Mello Yello Powerhouse.

Nitro School

Auto Club Funny Car driver Robert Hight and NHRA's Alan Reinhart taught Nitro School to a crowd of interested race fans, showing them the ins and outs of what it takes to run a Top Fuel or Funny Car machine.