Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals Saturday Notebook

Leah Pritchett, Robert Hight, Tanner Gray, and Hector Arana Jr. all hung onto the No. 1 qualifying positions at the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals at Brainerd International Raceway.
19 Aug 2017
NHRA National Dragster staff
Race coverage
Brainerd Hero

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smith.jpgPRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE Q3 (12:50 p.m.): Matt Smith, who lost what he thought should have been low e.t. in Q2 due to a bad job of shifting, had the best run of the day’s first session with a 6.893 aboard his Victory Magnum and even though it didn’t improve on his Friday 6.88 it sets his bike up as the one to beat, especially after Friday leader Hector Arana Jr.’s bike bogged on its attempt. Scotty Pollacheck, third after Friday, remained right on Smith’s heels with the second best run of the round, a 6.926.

line.JPGPRO STOCK Q3 (1:15 p.m.): Jason Line grabbed three bonus points by running a 6.627-second pass in the final run of the session. The Minnesota native moved up to the No. 4 position, just behind Allen Johnson’s 6.622 from the second qualifying session. Tanner Gray (6.629) and Greg Anderson (6.641) rounded out the top three of the session, while the overall top three didn’t change. 14 of the 15 drivers on property got into the six-second range, with Dave River the only driver waiting to break the 6-second boundary. He ran a 7.013 and is in the No. 15 position.

millican2.jpgTOP FUEL Q3 (1:45 p.m.): Clay Millican laid down a monster run in the heat of the day, a 3.716 that, while it didn’t improve on his Friday best of 3.706, nonetheless got the attention of the field. Antron Brown (3.749) and Brittany Force (3.756) had the next closest passes. Leah Pritchett’s national-record 3.640, which should remain unassailable in Q4, continues to lead the field. 

tommyj.JPGFUNNY CAR Q3 (2:17 p.m.): Tommy Johnson Jr. (3.897) grabbed the three bonus points with the best time of the session, while Courtney Force (3.923), and Jack Beckman (3.931) rounded out the top three of the session. The Countdown to the Championship battle stayed hot as Alexis DeJoria, Jonnie Lindberg, and Del Worsham all improved on their previous qualifying times to move to the No. 10, 11, and 12 spots, respectively. Meanwhile the driver they’re chasing in the No. 10 spot in the Funny Car standings, Cruz Pedregon, failed to get down the track for the third-straight time and is on the outside of the field looking in. Bob Bode holds the bump spot with a 4.855 pass.

jerry.JPGPRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE Q4 (3:56 p.m.): Jerry Savoie had the best run of the session with a 6.882-second pass, which moved him to the No. 2 spot, but Hector Arana Jr. grabbed pole position for the first time since 2015. He also snagged a pair of bonus points by running the second-quickest time in the session with a 6.901-second pass, while Matt Smith earned one point with a 6.909 in the final session of the evening. He’ll race James Underdahl in the first round, thanks to Underdahl’s 7.109. He bumped out David Hope and Andie Rawlings. 

First-round matchups (lane choice first): Hector Arana Jr. vs. James Underdahl; Jerry Savoie vs. Mike Berry; Matt Smith vs. Fred Camarena; Scotty Pollacheck vs. Corey Reed; LE Tonglet vs. Steve Johnson; Eddie Krawiec vs. Joey Gladstone; Angie Smith vs. Karen Stoffer; Andrew Hines vs. Angelle Sampey.

anderson_0.jpgPRO STOCK Q4 (4:18 p.m.): Greg Anderson improved his time, but not his position, by posting the best time of the session. His 6.631-second pass booked him a date with Deric Kramer in the first round of Sunday’s eliminations by putting in the No. 6 slot of the 15-car field. Tanner Gray (6.64) had the second-best time of the session and held on for his third pole of the season, and second in as many races. The rookie of the year candidate will get a bye in the first round. Bo Butner (6.642) had the third-quickest time of the session and is qualified in the No. 2 position; he will race Dave River in the first round. 

First-round matchups (lane choice first): Tanner Gray vs. Bye; Bo Butner vs. Dave River; Allen Johnson vs. Mark Hogan; Drew Skillman vs. Alan Prusiensky; Greg Anderson vs. Deric Kramer; Shane Gray vs. Vincent Nobile; Erica Enders vs. Jeg Coughlin Jr.

_NDB0279.JPGTOP FUEL Q4 (4:53 p.m.): It was a full .043 second behind Leah Pritchett’s No. 1 qualifying time (and, you know, the national record), but Doug Kalitta ran the best pass of the session with a 3.737 to get himself three qualifying bonus points. Right behind him? Tony Schumacher (3.779) and Steve Torrence (3.782). Kalitta stayed the No. 3 qualifier thanks to his 3.694-second pass from the second qualifying session, and he’ll face Terry Haddock in the first round, while Pritchett will take on Rob Passey. Brittany Force, the No. 2 qualifier, will face Steve Chrisman.

First-round matchups (lane choice first): Leah Pritchett vs. Rob Passey; Brittany Force vs. Steve Chrisman; Doug Kalitta vs. Terry Haddock; Tony Schumacher vs. Troy Coughlin Jr.; Clay Millican vs. Chris Karamesines; Steve Torrence vs. Luigi Novelli; Antron Brown vs. Shawn Langdon; Scott Palmer vs. Terry Millican. 

courtney.JPGFUNNY CAR Q4 (5:20 p.m.): Warm temperatures kept anyone from beating Robert Hight’s national record, but Courtney Force ran a 3.889 to snag those three bonus points as the best time of the final qualifying session. Tommy Johnson Jr. (3.907) and Jack Beckman (3.914) rounded out the top three, and John Force clinched his spot in the Countdown to the Championship. Cruz Pedregon snuck into the field with a 4.118, bumping Bob Bode out of the field, keeping his Countdown chances alive in the process. He’ll face Hight in the first round. 

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


364.jpgThe pits are still buzzing over Leah Pritchett’s jaw-dropping 3.64 from Friday night, a perfect confluence of weather, track conditions, driver, and tune-up that yielded the quickest run in the sport’s history.

“We’d been looking forward to that night session for a long time,” she said. “I think everyone has been. We all know that Brainerd – this track, the conditions you can get here, what NHRA does to the track – it can lay the groundwork for us to pull out the most power possible and that’s what this Papa John’s team did.”

Friday’s first run had been an impressive 3.67, but was marred by severe vibration – “I saw from one to four grooves; I thought the car was going to implode,” she said – from a tire issue, but gave crew chief Todd Okuhara an inkling of what lay out there, and the one-hour rain delay didn’t hurt either.

“Todd told me that with all of the changes they’d done at the last minute [after the rainout] that if it made it past two seconds we were fixin’ to get down, and it did.

“I had borderline watched Robert [Hight] make that great Funny Car run [a national record, first-in-the.70s 3.79] because I thought he might run the first 340-mph pass, but when he went that .79 I made sure I was strapped down extra tight in the car and made sure I staged as shallow as I could – Steve [Torrence] and I had a ‘flicker off’ staging to make sure we were both as shallow as possible.”

schumacher.JPGTony Schumacher is amid an unusually long dry spell. The winningest driver in Top Fuel history hasn’t been to the winner’s circle since Gainesville, the third race on the 2017 schedule. That 13-race drought is his longest since he went 25 races without a win between Chicago of 2015 and Denver of 2016.
“We’re in one of those rough stretches which happen in this sport, no matter who you are,” said Schumacher. “There’s not really a chance to catch the three drivers in front of us in the standings with just two events left in the regular season. But we need to work really hard to keep those folks behind us right where they are. We just have to do what we know how to do and try and try and head into the Countdown on a high note.” 

The erratic performance of the Army team has led to a handful of upsets on Sundays. Looking at the win-loss record of Schumacher shows some of the usual suspects, like Leah Pritchett (three losses) and Steve Torrence (two losses). It also shows a pair of losses to underdogs like Scott Palmer (two), and single defeats to Blake Alexander and Smax Smith. 

It doesn’t much matter to Schumacher who’s in the other car: He just wants the team to get its act together before the Countdown to the Championship begins. That starts with the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals. He made a pair of solid passes on Friday (3.754, 3.695). That’s a fine start.

After Friday’s night’s hero session, few nitro tuners held out any hope of bettering their passes under Saturday’s hotter and sunnier conditions, so a number of teams went into test mode for the third qualifying session, a not-unusual occurrence, especially as teams become locked into the top 20 and start looking ahead to refining tune-ups for the Countdown.

millican3.jpgIt worked out pretty good for Clay Millican and tuner Dave Grubnic and Tommy Johnson Jr. and crew chief John Collins in Funny Car as both had the best runs of their respective third sessions, and but substantial margins. Millican’s 3.716 was more than four-hundredths better that Antron Brown’s next-best 3.749 while Johnson’s 3.897 was convincingly better than the next best flopper run, Courtney Force’s 3.923.

“It’s something Grubby’s been working for on a while, so that’s pretty cool,” said Millican, who’s entertaining guests from one of his major sponsors, Minneapolis-based Great Clips. “This place is always fast and that was a heckuva great lap. We’ve got a lot of folks here from Great Clips so we’re just trying to show off.”

Grubnic was a little more subdued. “We’re just testing a different combination today,” he offered. “We’ll call that an anomaly until we can do it again.”

“I kinda feel like Clay Millican,” Johnson admitted. “John told me that we were going to do some testing before this run and he didn’t know what was going to happen. When they told me on the radio it had run 3.89 at 331 [mph] I was surprised. I think Clay and I have got something going on. If we can put four of those together tomorrow we’ll have a good day.”

capps.JPGRon Capps will take part in his 500th NHRA Drag Racing event this weekend, and his 482nd in Funny Car. The veteran competed in 18 Top Fuel contests, earning one win, before making the switch to the flopper category. He’s certainly enjoyed success in Funny Car, particularly over the past two seasons. 

"Wow, that's a lot," he said. "That makes me feel older than having Caden old enough to back me up."

Capps is referring to his 16-year-old son, who backed up the veteran driver during a match race in Norwalk last weekend. That was one of two special moments for the team, as crew chief Rahn Tobler was honored by the Summit Racing Motorsports Park owner Bill Bader Jr. prior to the race. 

"Bill said he wanted to recognize what Tobler has accomplished in the last four decades with different teams, different drivers and different rules," Capps said. "He said that Rahn has transcended those decades and always has been on the top of his game.”

Now the team will look to turn around what has been unusually poor performance after the Western Swing yielded just one round win. Brainerd might be just the place for Capps to get back on track; he’s won in Minnesota five times, most recently in 2014. That wrapped up a string of three-straight Wallys at Brainerd International Raceway.

hight.JPGIt took 3.793 seconds for Robert Hight to rewrite Funny Car history. It took him just fractions of a second longer to know he did it. 

“I did see the 3.79 on the scoreboard, because we shut off at 1,000 feet,” said Hight. “I got the chutes out, and then I glanced up at the scoreboard. It’s just something you dream about, there’s so many things that have to happen for it to happen. We’ve been on runs before where you thought, well if we had just finished it, it would have gone, but to be the first, well that’s history.”

Brainerd International Raceway is no stranger to history. The Minnesota faithful saw the first 3.8 second run, courtesy of Matt Hagan, back in 2015. It might be longer than two years before the record is lowered another tenth of a second, but Hight is already thinking about the future. 

“This is a big milestone, it’s going to be a long time before we go in the 3.60s,” said Hight. “To be a part of a milestone... I’ve been on John’s teams when he’s cracked milestones, but never done it as a driver.”

Hagan was the first Funny Car driver to run in the 3.9-second range, when he made a 3.995-second pass in Charlotte in 2011. With the 3.7-second barrier broken, the next wall to be broken down is the 340-mph plateau. Hight came close in Sonoma when he hit 339.87 mph, but was 2 mph off the mark during his record-breaking run on Friday.

johnforce.JPGIt’s been 10 years since John Force won at Brainerd International Raceway, but the 16-time world champion boasts a lot of success in Minnesota. He has won 11 times in Brainerd, and has been cooking in his Camaro this weekend, perhaps in part thanks to a new combination. 

“We’re going to be running a whole new combination here that we’ve been working on for months,” said Force. “It’s going to come together, and when it does, John Force will be there. We’re hoping to start at Brainerd. That’s what we plan on doing, going for the win.”

His first three passes bode well, as they’re all in the 3-second range (3.963, 3.852, 3.95) and he’s currently qualified No. 3. Force currently sits behind teammate Robert Hight and Matt Hagan, another driver who has made three-straight 3-second passes. 

Hagan, Tommy Johnson Jr., and rookie Jonnie Lindberg join Force as drivers who can claim that level of consistency. All four have been remarkably consistent through the first three rounds of Funny Car qualifying, though Hagan has had the best pass so far with a 3.809-second pass. Johnson Jr. is standing on a 3.88, while Lindberg is qualified No. 12 with a 3.97.

tanner_0.JPGTanner Gray grabbed the provisional No. 1 qualifying position after posting a 6.607-second pass during the second session Friday. If he holds onto that spot, it would be his third green hat of the season, and second in as many races. 

“We just made a conservative run in Q1 to make sure we got some data, not wanting to make the same mistake Drew (Skillman) did and it kinda paid off,” said Gray. “That sets us up real good for sessions like (the second).”

That mistake Gray referred to is Skillman running a 11.965 in the first session. Skillman is Gray’s teammate, which means the two share data. So, Gray’s successful run in the first session likely helped Skillman power to a 6.628-second pass in the second. Both cars share data, and power, but it also took a bit of driving from Gray to keep the car steady in Q2 as his Camaro started to get loose at halftrack. 

“It took me back to the ole dirt racing days,” said Gray. “It was pretty far left, and I started driving it back in, and the ass-end of it started washing around. I had a lot of fun driving it.”

He holds a hundredth of a second advantage over points-leader Bo Butner at the top of the qualifying order through two sessions. Gray also grabbed four bonus points as he looks to move up the table against veteran racer Greg Anderson. The rookie sits in third place and trails Anderson by seven points after Friday’s action.

Allen Johnson is coming off a first-round victory over Greg Anderson in Seattle, and added a little more swagger to his step by running a pair of solid passes on Friday (6.658, 6.633) that put him at No. 5 in the qualifying order. That’s a familiar spot for Johnson, who was No. 5 after the first day of qualifying at last year’s Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals.

His run in the second qualifying session earned him one bonus point, which will help with his fight to stay in the top 10. He’s being chased by Alan Prusiensky, who trails him by 80 points with two races to go. 

“Being No. 10 in the points with two races left before the Countdown, I definitely think there's a target on our backs,” Johnson said. “There are a few racers not in right now that want to be in just as bad as I do so we just gotta do our best out there and it’ll all fall the way it’s supposed to.”

That win over Anderson in Seattle helped, both in terms of points and in getting his Dodge Dart right. 

“I think that round win over Greg [Anderson] in Seattle gave us some momentum,” he added. “I think we’re close to finding another hundredth or two on the car so I think we can go to Brainerd and really be in the mix with the top dogs.”

Forget Tanner Gray’s bid to be the No. 1 qualifier, his dad, Shane Gray, got the biggest cheers from the Brainerd International Raceway faithful after performing one of the most spectacular burnouts we’ve seen this year. The reason behind it? Breaking in some new tires for his family.

“I’m just trying to get some tires broke in for Tanner and my dad for Indy, and having a little fun doing it,” said Shane.

That’s because Shane, Tanner, and Jonny Gray will all be racing at the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals. Bringing three generations out to the race track means three cars worth of tires, so Shane’s getting creative when it comes to breaking in as many sets as possible before “The Big Go” in two weeks. 

While Shane’s method might be the most exciting, it’s certainly not typical. These tires, pictured below, sitting on top of Jeg Coughlin Jr’s trailer are being cured in a more traditional method, baking in the sun. Pro Stock racers often stockpile scores of tires in warehouses, allowing them to age before putting them on their machines. 

The Grays don’t have the luxury of time. Shane is making his first appearance on the NHRA circuit since Bristol, and while he still technically has a shot at making the Countdown to the Championship, remains focused on Tanner’s bid for a title. For those curious, Shane would need to practically win in both Brainerd and Indy while Allen Johnson (who’s currently in 10th place) would need to badly stumble. 

It’s not impossible, but it’s not very likely either. For now, we’ll just enjoy Shane’s massive burnouts.

_NDB0388.JPGHector Arana Jr. hasn’t grabbed pole position since Norwalk in 2015, but he’s got the bike to do it. It’s just a matter of holding off the stiff competition in a very good Pro Stock Motorcycle class. He’s qualified No. 2 in three-straight races: behind LE Tonglet, Eddie Krawiec, and Matt Smith. 

“The bike is running well, it just seems like there’s always somebody that just gets right by us, so hopefully this is the weekend where that turns around,” said Arana Jr. “We feel pretty confident that we’ve still got room to improve on that run.”

That’s a sentiment much of the class likely agrees with.  Only 10 of the 18 bikes got into the 6-second range, while riders like LE Tonglet and Jerry Savoie are currently in the bottom-half of the field. Arana Jr. and Matt Smith are the only riders who posted 6.8-second times. 

Arana Jr. has the advantage of a good run to build on, while others will play catchup in the third qualifying session. He’s looking for his first win since St. Louis in 2015; the Lucas rider has runnered up three times since then, and twice this season. 

underdahl.jpgOne of Minnesota’s two-wheeled-racing favorite sons returned to battle this weekend as Jimmy Underdahl joined the successful team being run by his father, Greg, and Gary Stoffer, a powerhouse operation that this season has Karen Stoffer, Scotty Pollacheck, and Joey Gladstone all solidly in the Top 10 in points.

The younger Underdahl, a perennial threat and two-time finalist, has sat out the season to date, tending to a new house, family, and his day job, but agreed to come back to help dial in the team’s newest bike, the Poison Dart ridden by veteran Joe DeSantis, who has retired from riding but remains with the team as part of the crew.

The bike that Underdahl is riding will become a leased bike for the team, which is working hard to bring new riders into the sport. At this race, Andie Rawlings is riding one of their other machines.

Despite not having raced since last year’s season finale, Underdahl – whose former bike is being ridden this year by Pollacheck – rode comfortably into the field on his first two passes.

“I haven’t ridden anything since Pomona last year, and it’s not easy, I’ll tell you that,” he said. “You learn something new every time you ride one of the things, and this is a new chassis from what I’m used to riding. It was a little nerve-racking, but we got the first couple of laps down.”

Underdahl will return to fulltime riding in 2018 on a bike identical to his last one, which was built by the Vance & Hines chassis shop.

stoffer.jpgAfter more than a decade of riding the razor-end of Suzuki Pro Stock Motorcycle technology with fuel injection, Karen Stoffer’s Big St. Charles Suzuki has reverted back to a carbureted setup that mirrors the other Suzukis in their camp ridden by Scotty Pollacheck and Joey Gladstone.

“We don’t have a dyno or the budget to test and R&D, so we switched it back,” said Stoffer, an eight-time national event winner. “We finally decided we needed to go old school and get back to what we really knew. We also get more data that we can share with the other bikes on our team and we can benefit from their data. We know we can’t compete with the multi-million-dollar operations like Jerry [Savoie] or the Harleys, but we can run with them and race on Sunday.”

Stoffer, whose two semifinal appearances this season (Englishtown, Chicago) have carried her to ninth place, has about a two-round edge on 10th place Angie Smith and three rounds on 11th-ranked Steve Johnson with two races to go until the Countdown fields are set in Indy.


Minnesota race fans have flooded Brainerd Int'l Raceways to check out the final day of qualifying.

The crowded pits are evidence of the event's continued popularity in this region.

Del Worsham joined NHRA's Alan Reinhart to teach some fuel-racing basics to fans in the popular Nitro School session in the pits.

Drew Skillman, Pro Stock's hottest pilot, took part in the traditional Mello Yello autograph session, where he was joined by fellow drivers Cory Reed, Shawn Langdon, and Tommy Johnson Jr.

The top end can be an emotional place as drivers mull over their results. For some, like Steve Johnson, who slowed from a pair of earlier six-second passes to a 7.03, well ...

And then there's Hector Arana Jr., who earned his first No. 1 qualifying position since the 2015 Norwalk event.


How do you write a sequel to an incredible movie? That’s the question racers will try to answer during the second day of racing at the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals at Brainerd International Raceway hot on the heels of two national records being broken during Friday qualifying. Both Leah Pritchett and Robert Hight smashed the elapsed time records in Top Fuel and Funny Car, respectively, wowing fans who waited through a handful of rain delays. 

L_Pritchett.jpgBoy, was the patience of those fans rewarded. Pritchett broke her own record, set in Phoenix in February this year, with a blistering 3.64-second pass. She also set the record for quickest eighth mile (2.077) and quarter-mile (2.92) elapsed times in the process. 

Pritchett left every other Top Fuel Dragster lying in her wake. The closest e.t. to the pilot of the Papa John’s dragster is Brittany Force’s 3.685; that .045-second difference hardly touches Pritchett’s. If this is what crew chief Todd Okuhara and the rest of the team can pull out of their sleeves during the Countdown, the rest of the field better look out. 

R_Hight.JPGMere minutes earlier, Hight and crew chief Jimmy Prock did something equally impressive: Break the 3.7-second barrier. After both Hight and Matt Hagan came painfully close in Topeka, Kan. in May, the “Prock Rocket” and Hight got it done in Brainerd by running a 3.793-second pass in the second session. That broke Hagan’s record of 3.802.

With Nitro qualifying starting at 1:30 p.m., two hours earlier than Friday, track temperatures will likely be much warmer. That will make cracking those national records difficult; which means knocking Pritchett and Hight off their provisional No. 1 qualifying spots even tougher than usual. 

T_Gray.jpgTalented Pro Stock rookie Tanner Gray, who already has two low qualifying berths in the first 16 events of his debut season, paces the pack into Saturday’s final two qualifying sessions after posting a 6.607 Friday, a solid hundredth in front of points leader Bo Butner. Allen Johnson’s Dodge impressed with a Q2 blast of 6.622 to chase the field-leading Chevys, continuing an upward trend that began at the last tour stop in Seattle. Defending event champ Drew Skillman, the hottest driver of the summer, sits fourth with a 6.628.

H_Arana_Jr.JPGHector Arana Jr., a two-time runner-up at this event – his sponsor’s event – in halfway to his first No. 1 qualifying berth in more than two years after riding his Lucas Oil Buell to a 6.879. Pro Stock Motorcycle parity was easily evident Friday as former world champ Matt Smith was just a hundredth back with a 6.884 on his Victory Polaris, Scott Pollacheck slid into third with his Suzuki (6.908) with Harley-Davidson riders Eddie Krawiec and Andrew Hines fourth and fifth at 6.939 and 6.946, followed by Smith’s wife, Angie, who rode her Buell to a 6.947 for sixth.