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Menards NHRA Heartland Nationals Friday Notebook

19 May 2017
NHRA National Dragster staff
Race coverage
Topeka

Features | Preview | PhotosResults

QUALIFYING SESSION RECAPS

Robert HightFUNNY CAR Q1 (6:40 p.m.): Fans who sat through seven hours of rain were rewarded when Robert Hight made the fastest run in class history, 337.66 mph, en route the grabbing the No. 1 spot with a 3.826, the fourth quickest pass in Funny Car history. Hight’s jaw-dropping run is more than two mph faster than the stunning 335.57-mph pass laid down here last year (and duplicated earlier this year in Pomona) by Matt Hagan. Ron Capps’ 3.870 is the No. 2 run.

Steve TorrenceTOP FUEL Q1 (7:05 p.m.): Steve Torrence, hot off back-to-back wins in Charlotte and Atlanta, continues to roll. The Kilgore, Texas native posted the low elapsed time (3.682) in the first qualifying session, his lowest e.t. of the season. He was the only driver to land a time below 3.7 seconds as Brittany Force (3.73), Antron Brown (3.748) and Shawn Langdon (3.779) rounded out the top four. Rain delayed qualifying sessions, but it certainly didn't put a damper on them. 

Bo ButnerPRO STOCK Q1 (7:35 p.m.): Like Steve Torrence in Top Fuel, Pro Stock’s hottest pilot is atop the pack. Bo Butner, winner of two of the last three events on the tour (Houston and Atlanta) has the No. 1 qualifying spot after posting a 6.613. The man whom Butner beat to win that Houston title, Jeg Coughlin Jr., is No. 2 with a 6.616 to break up a KB Racing monopoly of the top of the qualifying sheets as Butner’s teammates, Greg Anderson (6.632) and Jason Line (6.635), round out the top four.

NOTE: The second session of all Mello Yello qualifying was cancelled due to impending weather.

FEATURES

Robert Hight
After a near-day-long rain delay, it didn’t take long for Heartland Park Topeka to live up to its billing as Robert Hight stunned just about everyone with a 337.66-mph blast in his Jimmy Prock-tuned Auto Club Camaro. The run was more than two mph faster than the incoming track/national record set by Matt Hagan at last year’s NHRA Heartland Nationals. Hagan duplicated that pass at the season-opening Circle K NHRA Winternationals earlier this year. 

Robert HightTo make the run even more impressive, Hight's speed is even faster than the 337.58-mph blast recorded on a quarter-mile run by Tony Pedregon at the 2005 event in Brainerd. Hight, whose career-best speed before that run was 334.82, recorded earlier this year in Gainesville, was suitably impressed.

“That’s pretty stout,” said the former world champ. “This thing pulled from the starting line to the finish line Unbelievable. Jimmy Prock and the whole team has been doing such a good job. We’ve been having big speeds and running quick, bit to put it all together, you really have to thank the Safety Safari – those guys worked their butts off today -- and this track for such a great surface. We couldn’t do it without that.”

The 3.826 e.t. also bettered Hight's quickest pass, 3.828, and is the fourth quickest ever, behind the two 3.822s run by Matt Hagan (Brainerd 2016 and Pomona 1 2017) and Jack Beckman's 3.825, recorded at last year's season finale.

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J.R. ToddJ.R. Todd and the DHL “yella fellas” have been scratching their heads over the performance of their Toyota and finally had enough and decided to reach back into the bag of tricks and resurrect the chassis in which Del Worsham won the world championship in 2015.

“We’ve just been having some bugs with our primary car and took it back to the shop and found some things wrong with it so we brought out the spare car,” said Todd, whose initial run Friday had to be aborted as he drifted to the wall. “I sit a little differently in it so we’re going to have to fine tune some things so I can keep the thing in the groove and not have to pedal it like an idiot out there.”

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Whenever the NHRA tour pulls into Kansas, there’s always talk of two things: the weather and the track. May is prime tornado season in the Sunflower State, and racers and fans were welcomed to Topeka a major rain, lightning, and hail storm Thursday night (thankfully, no twisters).

More rain is scheduled to descend Friday, but with the threat of rain comes cloud cover, which brings with it the cool track temperatures that make Heartland Park Topeka such a great performance track.

John Force“We’ll watch the weather, but only God can predict the weather, not us – not even the weatherman,” said seven-time Topeka winner John Force. “We’ve got to get our mindset that we’re going to race, not to watch weather. You have to address it, depending on how many runs you think you’ll get. Do you put it in the show or do you put on a show? We’ll see where that takes us.”

"Topeka is kind of an anomaly, and because the air isn't very good, the track is a lot better than the power you have," said Tim Wilkerson. "We always laugh about the fact that you use the 'idiot's weatherman system' down there. You don't look at the forecast; you go to Topeka and you look around. We hit it good last year when we got there, but it's a really strange track to race on. NHRA is doing a great job prepping the track, though, and hopefully we can adapt to it within a few runs."

"Weather is a factor in Topeka and that's what makes winning there so special," said Jack Beckman, who was runner-up last year to his Don Schumacher Racing teammate Matt Hagan. "It's a very tough track to tame because the weather changes continually there. We don't know what it has in store for us this weekend."  

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Tony Schumacher
Much ado was made two weeks ago when Tony Schumacher, the winningest driver in Top Fuel history, runner-upped in Atlanta, falling one win light short of a victory that would have ended his improbable string of frustrations at the event, the only event on the tour that “the Sarge” has never won. As surprising as that drought is, his luck in Topeka has only been slight better, with just one victory in 27 tries. 

But that may be a good thing for the eight-time season champion.

The only time that Schumacher did win in Topeka, in 2010, when he defeated Cory McClenathan in the final, he didn’t win the season championship despite five other wins that season. Larry Dixon took the title that season, ending Schumacher’s unprecedented run of six straight championships.

Schumacher and the U.S. Army team have been to the final at four of the last five events, and they’re in second place, just 14 points behind DSR teammate Leah Pritchett.

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Steve TorrenceSteve Torrence won twice at Heartland Park back in 2005 as a Top Alcohol Dragster driver en route to a national championship, winning at both the track's national event as well as its divisional race. The Top Fuel driver hasn’t found the same success in Kansas in the seat of a nitro car, but after winning back-to-back races in Charlotte and Atlanta he looks to be in a good spot to bag his first win in the Sunflower State.

Torrence has won three times in the last 13 races, dating back to the start of last year’s Countdown. The only Top Fuel driver with a better record over that span is 2016’s champion, Antron Brown. That’s good company to be in for the Capco Contractor driver. Brown has four wins over that span. 

The Kilgore, Texas native is in third place entering the eighth race of the season. He’s advanced past the first round in every race this season and qualified in the top five in every race after the season-opener in Pomona. Torrence ran consistently in the 3.7s in Atlanta en route to the Wally and holds a 15-5 round win record. 

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Funny Car driver Robert Hight has a lot of history with Heartland Park. He got his start as a crew member with John Force Racing in Topeka back in 1995 and earned his Funny Car license at the Kansas track in 2004. Hight has a pair of wins in Topeka (2010, 11), too.

Now Hight, whose car has been one of the most competitive of the season, is looking to pick up his first victory of the season. He’s reached the semifinals in seven of his 12 races in Topeka and picked up John Force Racing’s 200th win back in 2011.

Robert HightHight is 8-4 in first-round matchups in the NHRA Heartland Nationals and he’s won his last six first-round matchups, dating back to the second race of the season in Phoenix.

“We’re ready to get the monkey off our back and get a win,” Hight said. “Topeka’s going to be a good place to do it. We’re right there. The car is running really good. I can’t wait.”

To do it, Hight might have to get by Ron Capps, who has proved to be something of a nemesis for the veteran in recent weeks. He’s lost to the NAPA driver in three-straight races, though that’s certainly a familiar feeling as Capps has ended up hoisting the Wally at the end of the last three contests. Hight has the best of the all-time matchup though. He holds a 31-26 edge over Capps. 

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Brian StewartBrian Stewart is making his 2017 debut at Heartland Park after last racing in St. Louis in 2016. He faced his "boss" on the race track, Tim Wilkerson, in the first round with Wilkerson getting the best of the matchup.

'[Tim’s son Danny Wilkerson] tunes the car but he went to his dad after we got him the first round and said now what,” said Stewart. “And Tim said, ‘get out of my pit,” and basically chased us out of there. He actually chased us out of there and said, ‘you figure it out.’

Stewart, who competed in Pro stock in the 1980s and is one of the few guys who can lay claim to having raced both Bob Glidden and John Force, plans to run in at least five races this season, including Topeka. He’ll race in Brainerd, Chicago, Dallas and St. Louis with Indianapolis as a possible sixth. That’s in addition to a pair of match races he’ll run on the side. 

“I said what are you thinking (about running Indy), and Tim said ‘Why wouldn’t you,?” said Stewart.

Stewart, who last year in Brainerd recorded his first three-second pass, is part of a 17-car field in Funny Car. 

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Erica EndersDon’t look now, Pro Stock racers, but that’s Erica Enders charging hard at your quarterpanel.

After a forgettable 2016 season in which the two-time season champ not only went winless but qualified in the top half of the field just four times, she’s put her Elite Performance in the top half of the show five times already this season and reached her first final two weeks ago in Atlanta, her first final-round appearance since she won the fall Las Vegas event at the end of the 2015 season. 

The Atlanta runner-up, which included holeshot wins over 2017 event winners Jason Line and Tanner Gray, was good medicine for her soul, especially after frustrating losses in Houston (a red-light) and Charlotte (timed out). 

"Since the beginning of my driving career, I've always taken pride in what I do behind the wheel," Enders said. "In Houston and Charlotte, two weekends in a row, I gave away two races because of what I did, nothing else. It was very hard to go back to the pits and look at the guys who had worked so hard to give me a car that would have easily won those races. In reality, they were nothing but supportive. That's one of the many reasons this team is so awesome."

"Atlanta made me feel like I turned the page on what had happened the previous two races," she added. "I felt like I put it behind me and taking two of those three round wins on holeshots gave me some measure of redemption.

Enders has one career win in Topeka, in 2015, where she beat arch-rival Greg Anderson for the Wally.

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After seven-runner ups it looked like Pro Stock driver Bo Butner may never get that elusive first pro win. So, it seems only fitting after he finally grabbed his first Pro Stock victory in Houston he became the first Pro Stock driver to win two races in the 2017 season after winning again in Atlanta.

Bo Butner“Last year I had a lot of close races and it was a thousandth the wrong way here and there,” said Butner. Now it’s going our way. It happens in Stock, everything. I hadn’t won in nothing, not in Stock, anything. It was driving me nuts.”

Butner had the best e.t. after the first qualifying session in Topeka and while the coin flips going his way may have something to do with it, don’t count out the driver’s talent. He’s got a well-tuned car and has managed to find the groove in recent weeks. That’s helped him climb the standings as the Countdown approaches ever quicker. 

"We're very fortunate that being up in points you can be in the back of the group," said Butner. "The first couple of cars, you could kind of hear them lose traction in high gear. Greg (Anderson) and I both heard that and were like 'here we go.' We probably all missed it, every car out there, but we'll be a lot better tomorrow."

That wasn't a problem for Butner, who hit a 6.613 second pass to lead the group. He was trailed by Jeg Coughlin Jr.'s 6.616.  
 

PHOTOS

Troy Coughlin
Troy Coughlin Jr.'s crew unloaded their SealMaster dragster in the morning beneath cloudy skies, but it would be hours before they ran it.
Rain
Rain began falling around 11 a.m. and racing did not resume until after 6 p.m.
Tony Schumacher
Tony Schumacher took advantage of the downtime to allow a young fan to check out the cockpit of his Army dragster.
Matt Hartford
To celebrate its first half-century achievement, Kansas City, Mo.-based Weld Racing unveiled a new 50th anniversary logo that is riding at this event on the hood of Matt Hartford’s Camaro Pro Stocker.
Brittany Force
Brittany Force's Monster Energy team worked on her chassis extensively between races and was rewarded with a 3.730 in the first session, the second best run at the time.
Jimmy Prock
Jimmy Prock, left, and co-crew chief Mike Cunningham had their poker faces on, expressions that quickly desolved into smiles after their driver, Robert Hight, made the fastest pass in Funny Car history in Q1 at 337.66 mph.

 

PREVIEW

After taking a week off to recharge, racing returns to the Midwest as drivers look to improve their position as the Countdown to the Championship approaches. The Menards NHRA Heartlands Nationals presented by Minties wraps up the May schedule and gives racers one last chance to catch their breath before the real gauntlet begins in June. 

Ron CappsSome, like Funny Car driver Ron Capps, might not want a break. The California native has won three-straight races and is looking to become the first Funny Car racer since Robert Hight in 2012 to make it four in a row. Only five drivers have won four straight (John Force, Cruz Pedregon, Kenny Bernstein, and Don Prudhomme being the others), and just Force and Pedregon have won five in a row. This is the first time in Capps’ career that he’s won three straight.

Excellent tuning by crew chief Rahn Tobler, fine driving by Capps, and a little bit of luck has helped get the NAPA Auto Parts car to first place in the Funny Car standings. Capps started his streak in Houston by toppling Hight in a wild race, continued at the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals, and reached three in Atlanta. 

There’s no better place than Topeka to reach such a milestone in a Funny Car. The track is known as a haven for the fiberglass machines. It’s home to the first four-second and 300-mph passes in the category and still holds the national record for speed (335.57 mph by Matt Hagan set last year). If Mother Nature cooperates, expect to see some impressive numbers light up the scoreboard.

Steve TorrenceTop Fuel's Steve Torrence is riding a nice wave of momentum after winning his second-straight Wally of the season in Atlanta. It’s the first time in his career he’s earned back-to-back victories, and the Texan has climbed his way into third place in the points. It might be too early to pay much mind to the standings, but it’s notable that someone has finally broken up the Don Schumacher Racing bloc that had formed in the Top Fuel top three.

Running consistently in the 3.7s has helped get Torrence there. He lost to Leah Pritchett on a holeshot in the NHRA SpringNationals final, but Torrence has posted an elapsed time in the 3.7s dating back to the first round in Houston (11 total rounds). That type of consistency will take you places over the course of a long season. 

Bo ButnerSpeaking of consistent, how about Bo Butner? Long gone is the question of how long it would take the Pro Stock driver to get that first win; in its place is a new one: how many Wallys will Butner end up with this season? Butner became the first in the class to win two Wallys this season and in so doing moved into second place, just one point behind Greg Anderson. 

Chalk it up to solid driving and a well-tuned car. Butner isn’t known for beating drivers at the Tree -- he lost to Tanner Gray in Las Vegas on a holeshot -- but his car is running very well, and he keeps it in the groove. He’s qualified in the top three four times this season, including No. 1 in Atlanta, more evidence of a car that’s doing exactly what he wants it to do. 

It’s too early for any of these drivers to get comfortable, particularly with other drivers in their classes running so well. Leah Pritchett continues to drive a very well-tuned machine in Top Fuel, Hagan isn’t going anywhere in Funny Car, and Pro Stock continues to be one of the most competitive classes in NHRA. The season is just getting heated up. 

NATIONAL RECORDS:
Top Fuel 

3.658 by Leah Pritchett, Feb. ‘17, Phoenix; 
332.75 mph by Spencer Massey, Aug. ’15, Brainerd, Minn.

Funny Car
3.822 by Matt Hagan, Aug. ’16, Brainerd, Minn.
335.57 mph by Hagan, May ’16, Topeka, Kan.

Pro Stock
6.455 by Jason Line, March ’15, Charlotte, N.C.
215.55 mph by Erica Enders, May ’14, Englishtown N.J.

2016 EVENT WINNERS:
Doug Kalitta, Top Fuel; Matt Hagan, Funny Car; Jason Line, Pro Stock.

MOST VICTORIES:
John Force, 9, FC; Scott Kalitta, 6, TF; Warren Johnson, 5, PS, Cruz Pedregon, 4, FC; Greg Anderson, 4, PS.

TRACK RECORDS: 
Top Fuel

3.676 seconds by Brittany Force, May ‘16
331.85 mph by Doug Kalitta, May ’16.

Funny Car
3.862 seconds by Matt Hagan, May ‘16
335.57 mph by Hagan, May ’16.

Pro Stock
6.515 seconds by Erica Enders, May ’15
211.43 mph by Enders, May ’15.