QUALIFYING SESSION RECAPS
PRO STOCK Q3 (1:50 p.m.): The sleeping giant of Summit Racing woke up in the third qualifying session. Greg Anderson ran a 6.558 and was followed closely by Jason Line (6.565) and Bo Butner (6.57). Butner had led with a 6.613 after the first day of qualifying, but found himself in ninth place by the time he got his turn in Q3. Great weather conditions ended with 10 cars in the 6.5s, though it’ll take some doing to top the 6.515 second track record set by Erica Enders in 2015. She’s in the No. 4 slot. The second qualifying session was cancelled due to impending weather.
TOP FUEL Q3 (2:25): Another pair of Topeka records fell as Antron Brown made the quickest and fastest pass in Heartland Park history in the third qualifying session. His 3.671 pass moved him into the top qualifying spot, passing Steve Torrence who stays in the No. 2 slot with a 3.682. Brown also ran the fastest pass ever with a 333.16 mph mark. Leah Pritchett (3.687) and Tony Schumacher (3.697) round out the top four. Scott Palmer ran a career-best 3.78 pass, his first ever run in the 3.7 range, to move to No. 9. The entire top-half of the field ran in the 3.7s.
FUNNY CAR Q3 (3 p.m.): Matt Hagan capped a spectacular qualifying session filled with career bests by powering his Mopar-sponsored Charger to a 3.802 at 338.85, the quickest and fastest passes in class history and both ends of the NHRA national record. Seven pairs before that, Courtney Force, who ran an unofficial 3.804 in pre-season testing, had broken Hagan’s incoming record of 3.822 with a 3.815 in her Advance Auto Parts Chevy that for 20 minutes stood as the quickest ever but ended up No. 2.
PRO STOCK Q4 (4:45 p.m.): Bo Butner will don the green, No. 1 qualifier cap for the second race in a row as KB topped the field. Butner, the only two-time Pro Stock winner in 2017, posted a 6.54 pass to move up to the top slot where he leads teammates Jason Line (6.547) and Greg Anderson (6.558). Line improved, as did Jeg Coughlin Jr. in the fourth qualifying session. The former moved up to second and the latter slid into the No. 4 slot. Matt Hertford moved up to No. 5 and Tanner Gray improved to No. 6. Butner will face Mark Hogan in the first round of eliminations as the 14-car field took shape late Saturday afternoon at Heartland Park.
First-round pairings (lane choice listed first): Bo Butner vs. Mark Hogan; Jeg Coughlin vs. Deric Kramer; Matt Hartford vs. Allen Johnson; Jason Line vs. David River; Erica Enders vs. Vincent Nobile; Greg Anderson vs. Alan Prusiensky; Tanner Gray vs. Drew Skillman.
TOP FUEL Q4 (5:15 p.m.): Four of the top-10 elapsed times in history were recorded during qualifying as the Don Schumacher Racing stranglehold on Top Fuel struck back with a vengeance on Saturday. Tony Schumacher made the quickest run in Heartland Park history, posting a 3.66-second run. He’s followed closely by DSR teammates Leah Pritchett (3.667) and Antron Brown (3.671) while Brittany Force (3.674) and Steve Torrence (3.677) are closely behind. The entire top 10 of the Top Fuel field ran times in the 3.7s, with Scott Palmer’s 3.78 from Q3 holding up as the No. 10 spot. Pat Dakin will face Schumacher in the first race as the No. 16 qualifier. Force’s time and speed (332.43) are both career bests for the Monster Energy driver.
First-round pairings (lane choice listed first): Tony Schumacher vs. Pat Dakin; Leah Pritchett vs. Rob Passey; Antron Brown vs. Kebin Kinsley; Brittany Force vs. Luigi Novelli; Steve Torrence vs. Mike Salinas; Shawn Langdon vs. Troy Coughlin Jr.; Doug Kalitta vs. Scott Palmer; Clay Millican vs. Terry McMillen.
FUNNY CAR Q4 (6 p.m.): Two spectacular days of Funny Car qualifying yielded both ends of the national record, the three quickest and four fastest passes in class history, and Matt Hagan atop the pack with his dual-record 3.802, 338.85 pass from Q3; he ran “only” 3.806 at 335 mph in Q4. It ended up taking a 3.872 – a career-best run by part-time hero Brian Stewart – to make it into the quick half of the field.
First-round pairings (lane choice listed first): Matt Hagan vs. Jack Wyatt; Courtney Force vs. Tim Wilkerson; Robert Hight vs. Dale Creasy; Jack Beckman vs. Chad Head; Tommy Johnson Jr. vs. Del Worsham; John Force vs. Bob Tasca; Ron Capps vs. Cruz Pedregon; Brian Stewart vs. J.R. Todd.
After Robert Hight snatched the national Funny Car speed record on Friday night at Heartland Park, the former record holder, Matt Hagan had about the reaction you’d expect.
“It makes you sick man, I didn’t want to see that,” said Hagan. I told (crew chief Dickie Venables), obviously, we wanted to get a baseline because of weather coming, so we ran an .88 and got down the track but I was like ‘open up some flows or something’ because it’s obviously sickening seeing someone steal your record, your gusto like that.”
Hagan had the last laugh, though. The Don Schumacher Racing driver sped down the track in 3.802 seconds at a blistering 338.85 mph to set a pair of national records to once again rule the Funny Car world. Winning is obviously at the top of Hagan’s mind, but pride matters, too.
“It was nice we had the conditions again this morning to come back and have a shot at it,” said Hagan. “There’s a lot of times you have the conditions and you can’t make it work so it was fast and it was loose out there.”
Great weather and a smooth track have made Heartland Park a haven for Funny Cars over the years, just ask John Force. But it takes more than good weather to set a national record; it takes a bunch of ingredients to come together perfectly for the kind of runs Hagan has managed to complete over the years.
“When it all comes together and you start winning races and win championships, that’s what really makes it so special,” said Hagan. “Stuff that you can’t buy, stuff that people can’t take away from you. Stuff that when you’re old and grey, and I’m getting grey on my sideburns, you’re sitting back on a rocking chair and remembering stuff. Cause when you turn four win lights on on Sunday it really makes those things special.”
The day’s first nitro qualifying session with packed with career-best passes – headlined of course by the national record passes of Matt Hagan and Antron Brown – but outside of those stunning numbers one of the biggest cheers went up for independent favorite Top Fuel racer Scott Palmer, who made his first 3.7-second pass with a 3.78 run.
Making the run all the more special for the team is that its primary benefactor, Tommy Thompson, was on hand to see it.
“It feels great, it’s been a great year doing our own thing, and just trying to be consistent; now we’re going to try run consistent .70s and move up,” said Palmer, whose previous best was 3.819. “We want to get off that tenth [points] spot because we knew Shawn Langdon is coming and we’re going to fight for it.
“That run was for [Tommy]. He’s a good-luck charm. He’s going to have to go every race now.”
No team has won more Top Fuel titles at Topeka than Kalitta Motorsports, which has earned 11 with four different drivers since 1993.
The late Scott Kalitta, left, a two-time national champion, reached the Heartland Park Topeka winner’s circle six times – three times each at the Spring and Fall events (the track hosted two events annually from 1993-97) -- and in 1995 won both events hosted here.
Defending event champ Doug Kalitta (2016 and 2006), center, and David Grubnic, right, both registered a pair of wins, while Hillary Will scored in 2008 while a member of Team Kalitta. Doug Kalitta also has a trio of runner-ups here.
Texan driver Kebin Kinsley makes his 2017 season debut at Heartland Park with a new car in tow. He ran three races a season ago and is racing in Topeka for the first time since 2015. Kinsley is driving Doug Kalitta’s backup car from a season ago.
“We’ve always wanted their tuneup, so we’re really excited about having everything exactly like they’ve got it,” said Kinsley. “It was a Murf (McKinney) car, it was originally Don Lampus’ car. It goes way back.”
Kinsley returns with a modern car and hopes to see immediate results in the house. He qualified but lost in the first round in his last appearance at the NHRA Heartland nationals.
“The front half is Schumacher’s but the back half was a Hadman,” said Kinsley. “The back only had 12 runs on it so it’s like a new car.”
Mike Salinas made his Top Fuel debut in the first qualifying session of the Menard’s NHRA Heartland Nationals presented by Minties after failing to make a qualifying run of the Denso Spark Plugs NHRA Nationals earlier in the season. With a 3.89 pass under his belt, Salinas is ready for a lot more.
“We’re probably going to run 10 to 12 this year,” said Salinas, who hopes to run full time next season. “I’m looking for a 200-acre ranch in Indy, because unlike the other guys I’m hoping to do something with it later.”
The San Jose, Calif. native is getting help from Allen Johnson to get set up. Doug Kuch is tuning Salinas’ car and they’re hoping to get the little bugs worked out of the machine before handing it over to Johnson so the vet “has something to work with.”
“We’re looking forward to some good performance from this thing and that’s what we’re here for,” said Salinas.
Salinas is driving a car worked on by Brad Hadman. The Californian says it’s the last car worked on by Hadman before he retired.
“If everything works out this year we’ll be full time next year,” said Salinas. “In about two to three months once we figure this chassis problem out we’ll buy another chassis and start to work on another chassis and get another car for my daughter (Jasmine). I’ve got four daughters and they all want to run.”
Salinas said Bristol is the next race he plans to run.
Tony Schumacher ran the second-quickest Top Fuel pass ever and set a Heartland Park track record in the fourth qualifying session late Saturday afternoon. That made him the No. 1 qualifier, of course, but it also put some renewed confidence into the driver of the U.S. Army car after finishing runner-up in Atlanta yet again.
“That was an impressive race there, that just took guts,” said Schumacher. “That took two crew chiefs sitting together and saying, ‘I’ve got an idea, let’s try it.’ Sometimes when you have a 16-car field you can do that. We’re already qualified good and there’s no reason to go out there and try to run a mid-80. So, go out there and step on it and turn the knobs.”
Running well has its own rewards, of course. It means Schumacher gets to race the No. 16 qualifier on Sunday morning and he adds another one of those spiffy green caps to his collection. And let’s be honest, seeing three Don Schumacher cars finish ahead of trash-talking Steve Torrence probably felt good. But there’s a long-term benefit, too: data.
“These conditions are so few and far between that we don’t have a log book full of it, said Schumacher. The data is not there so it’s kinda nice to go out there and make a great run there because at the end of the year we’re gonna need it. These are the kind of conditions you see in Reading, Pennsylvania at the end of the year. So, this is what you need to try to win a championship.”
Schumacher didn’t make it down the track in his first qualifying run and the second session was wiped out. There were no such issues in Q3 or Q4. He ran a very solid 3.697 and the third session and the record-breaking 3.66 was unfurled in the final session of the day. Schumacher thinks he can take these conditions and turn those into something spectacular for Sunday.
“There are certain days that we see Friday night where conditions are great but it’s nothing like what we’re going to see on Sunday,” said Schumacher. “It looks like maybe it’ll be a few degrees warmer tomorrow but it should be pretty close. What we learned today we should be able to carry over to tomorrow and our car, when it heats up, it runs a little bit better.”
That’s bad news for the rest of the field.
Bob Tasca III’s first shot at the tempting Topeka track in prime conditions in Q1 Friday ended before it began after his Gary Crossley Ford-backed Mustang lurched past the staging beams as he was rolling in for Friday’s lone shot.
Funny Car drivers usually are able to stage the car just by letting off the hand brake and easing off the clutch pedal and letting the idling engine tug on the clutch, but when Tasca stepped off the left pedal, the car didn’t move.
For reasons still unknown to the team even before their first run Saturday, the engine rpm dropped 400 rpm as he was preparing to pull forward, and there simply wasn’t enough engine rpm to motivate the centrifugal clutch. Add in that the Topeka starting line has a slightly uphill slant, and it’s trouble. Not wanting to mess up qualifying mate Chad Head, Tasca tried to stage manually using the throttle pedal, not an easy feat as it requires a light touch to break the vacuum on the injector to barely open the butterflies but not so much as to, well, do what Tasca did.
“In my career, I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Tasca. “We’re not 100 percent sure what happened; the best thing we can figure is that we lost [an ignition] coil.”
The race is the third this season for Tasca, who has been solidly in the three-second zone in both Gainesville and Charlotte, and got back there again in his first run Friday with a career-best 3.915 blast.
The Force sisters, Brittany and Courtney, won’t soon forget the 2014 Topeka event where the siblings both qualified No. 1. Brittany led the Top Fuel field for the first time in her career with a 3.746 and reached the semifinals. Courtney qualified No. 1 in Funny Car with a track-record 4.00 and went on to win the race, beating Dale Creasy Jr., Jeff Arend, Tommy Johnson Jr. and Cruz Pedregon, and score the 100th victory by a female driver in NHRA Professional competition.
Since that race, eight NHRA female racers have joined to push that number to 130 wins, with Force contributing four more of those victories. Erica Enders has the most (13), followed by Courtney and Leah Pritchett (four each), Brittany Force (three), Alexis DeJoria and Karen Stoffer (two each), one each from Angelle Sampey and Angie Smith.
Jack Beckman hopes history repeats itself in 2017. The Norco, Calif. native is the last Funny Car driver out of Don Schumacher Racing without a Wally to his name, but he has some history at Heartland Park. Beckman picked up the first win of his 2012 World Championship campaign in Topeka.
"Topeka has been very pivotal for me," Beckman said. "In 2012, it was the first race I won (that year) and it put us on the path to eventually win the championship," said Beckman. "This year our results haven't quite met our expectations," he said. "We've been making changes to the car, we've been listening to the car and we've been making it a more consistent car.”
Beckman reached the semi’s in Houston and the final in Charlotte, losing to Ron Capps in both of those races. He lost to Tim Wilkerson in the second round in Atlanta.
"We got good data on it in Atlanta two weeks ago and made it to the second round. We're still not where we need to be but we're getting a lot closer.”
After race after race of frustration, Del Worsham will debut a "new" car at Heartland Park, recylcing an old favorite, the chassis he used for just a few runs while racing for the Al-Anabi team in 2009. The driver made sure to note not a single nut, bolt nor rod came from the car that gave him nothing but headaches.
“We were sucking pretty bad in that other car,” said Worsham on the change. “I think that other car hates me. Just nothing we seemed to do work so this way… There’s not a single part on this car that came from that car.”
The old car is still in the Sunflower State confines, sitting up at the top of Worsham’s trailer, just in case. He’s hoping that won’t be necessary. The veteran has only one round win this year, in his first elimination race of the season. He’s lost seven-straight rounds since. He's also debuting the newest Toyota Camry body, which is currently unpainted.
“I wish there some magic to it,” said Worsham of his new, all-black car.
He’s looking for his first final appearance in Topeka. Maybe a new car will be the ticket he’s been looking for. Worsham reached back-to-back finals in 2016 when he won in Brainerd and then finished second in Indianapolis.
Jack Wyatt makes his 2017 debut after last racing in St. Louis in 2016. The Funny Car veteran also raced in Topeka last season, failing to qualify in both contests he participated in. Wyatt is hoping to make the cut in the 17-car field this time around despite facing an uphill battle against stiff competition on a powerful track.
“We ran pretty good here last year but we really just needed that one more run,” said Wyatt. “We skipped that Friday night run last year and we really should have made it.”
Wyatt didn’t make the first qualifying run on Friday night, citing the cold weather. His older Funny Car can’t make quite the power necessary to compete with the more powerful competition, but if he can get into the field the sunny weather on tap for Sunday bodes well for Wyatt.
“With a race track like this they’re stuck so hard it takes so much power it’s hard to run ‘em for guys like us,” said Wyatt. “My throttle pedal is stuck to my wallet and I can only do so much.”
Heartland Park is known for record-setting times and speeds; you only need to look back as far as Robert Hight’s Friday night run for proof of that. For a driver like Wyatt, who is the last current fuel racing still running a non-setback blower, it’s all about getting from Point A to Point B and hoping that’s good enough with a solid car.
“If we can get down the race track and get into the show then it’s anybody’s game tomorrow,” said Wyatt. “That’s what our game plan is to go a-to-b without tearing anything off. All the stuff we have on these cars now for a bunch of guys that only do this part time it’s tough to get all the stuff off and put it back on and get back out there in time (for the next qualifying session).”
Alan Prusienky is trying to live his dream of running the full NHRA tour with his independent Pro Stock operation – he’s already at 18 straight events, dating back to his 2016 debut in Chicago – but the going sometimes gets tough for the New Jersey-based racer, who builds and maintains his own engines through his ARC Race Engines shop.
The team has been racing with just one engine – the one in the framerails of his Dodge Dart – since the Houston event, and wounded the engine on the dyno just the Monday before this event. He was able to get it repaired in time to make the event, but his Friday night run was the first run on the freshened piece.
“These engines are so temperamental that any one thing goes wrong and you can lose the whole engine right there on the dyno,” he explained. “It’s frustrating because when that happens you’re just repairing instead of moving forward and learning things.
“We’re not scared to race with just one motor – we did it a lot last year – but if we can get through this race we’ll be OK because we’re headed back east,” he said, with the next two events, in Epping, N.H., and Englishtown, N.J., on home turf. “We’ll be able to replenish our motor supply and keep going, I really want to be able to say I ran the whole schedule once; I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to – or want to – do it again, but we’re committed this season.
Prusiensky and crew chief Gary Chomiski have been battling a piston-scuffing issue in the No. 5 cylinder, a problem that was evident in his round one loss in Atlanta where his blue Dodge was trailing engine smoke off the line.
Deric Kramer has a problem that doesn’t usually pop up in the Pro Stock class: he’s thrown rods twice this week. He threw the first while testing in Tulsa and then threw another during the only qualifying run on Friday night.
“We went testing before the race and threw a rod and immediately came out here and 2.5 seconds into the burnout threw another rod,” said Kramer.
The team figured the first rod was past its prime anyway, but once the second rod was thrown it was decided there might be a bigger problem. After replacing the rod again, they hope they’ve seen the last of whatever bugs are in the engine.
“It’s a parts failure, we don’t if it’s the piston or the rod or what it is,” said Dave Kramer, Deric’s dad. “These are the new style blocks. We went back to the old-style blocks that we’ve run for years. This one we broke yesterday was brand new.”
Kramer last raced in Charlotte and in Las Vegas before that. Richie Stevens Jr. drove his car in Houston and the American Ethanol machine sports a piece of tape that reads “your name here” on the spot where Stevens’ name lies. NHRA hasn’t seen the last of Stevens this season, he’s expected to drive Kramer’s second car in Denver.
“It’s basically drop him in and drive, we don’t have to change the car or anything,” said Kramer. “He’s about two inches shorter than me and about five pounds apart.”
Stevens won't be the only part of the extended Kramer crew in Denver. Dave will drive his Comp dragster in the Mile High city and Deric will drive his COPO Camaro, making for a four-car Kramer crew at the Mopar Mile-High NHRA Nationals.
It’s a relatively short 450-mile ride from his home base in Dubuque, Iowa, to Heartland Park Topeka for Mark Hogan and it would have been easy to make his season debut here instead of two weeks ago in Atlanta.
The good news is that he got the gremlins out of the way in Atlanta, where a non-functioning shift light had him shifting by the seat of the pants – and not entirely on time, as he readily confesses – but they got the problem ironed out in time for today’s two runs.
Hogan knows that he can’t run with the big dogs of the class – his Pontiac GXP was formerly owned by Rodger Brogdon and although his engines come from the KB Racing horsepower emporium, they’re not even the same style of engines that Greg Anderson, Jason Line, and Bo Butner have beneath their hoods; in fact, it’s the combination that the KB team ran with carburetors way back in 2006 – but that doesn’t keep the veteran racer from dreaming.
“We’d love to be able to rent a current engine from them, but that’s just not financially possible,” said Hogan, “but now we got our shift light problems worked out we can start gathering some better data. We’re going to run Norwalk, Chicago, Brainerd, probably St. Louis, so we’ll just keep plugging along doing our thing.”
Top Fuel Harley rider Frank Capone Jr. took a wild ride in Saturday’s first qualifying session, taking out the top-end timing blocks and swerving in front of qualifying mate Julian Seeman.
Qualifying resumes on Saturday at Heartland Park with the worst of the bad weather likely behind us. That didn’t keep Steve Torrence from lighting up the scoreboard with a 3.682 pass to put him at the front of the Top Fuel field, just a little behind Leah Pritchett’s 3.658 national record set in Phoenix earlier this season.
John Force Racing driver Robert Hight set the Funny Car speed record (337.66 mph) and came ever so close to making the quickest pass in class history. He ran a 3.826, just off the 3.822 necessary to set both marks in the class. Hight feels he needs to do better than a 3.826 to be the No. 1 qualifier at the end of Saturday’s pair of qualifying runs. Watch for records to be broken as cool weather and cloud cover makes for ideal racing conditions.
The cool weather helps Pro Stock, but the humidity doesn’t do the cars nor their drivers any favors. Still, there doesn’t seem to be anything or anyone that can cool off Bo Butner right now. He’s at the top of the field right now after running a 6.613, three-thousandths of a second better than No. 2 qualifier Jeg Coughlin Jr.