It's raceday at the NHRA Arizona Nationals at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, and we're ready to crown event champions at the second event of the 2017 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season. Low qualifiers Leah Pritchett (Top Fuel), Tommy Johnson Jr. (Funny Car), and Jason Line (Pro Stock) will lead their respective fields into battle. Stay tuned throughout the day as the expert staff of NHRA National Dragster bring you eliminations recaps, news, and notes from the first round through the finals.
ELIMINATIONS ROUNDS RECAPS
TOP FUEL ROUND 1 (11: a.m.): After struggling in qualifying Friday, Brittany Force and the Monster team were the stars of the opening round with a 3.676, low e.t. of the round and a career-best-matching run for last year’s event runner-up. Tony Schumacher (3.684) and low qualifier Leah Pritchett (3.694) also ran in the .60s. The round had a pair of upsets, with Shawn Reed scoring his first round win, defeating Doug Kalitta, and Scott Palmer taking down Kalitta’s teammate, Troy Coughlin Jr. (Complete results)
Second-round pairings (lane choice first): Leah Pritchett vs. Clay Millican; Steve Torrence vs. Shawn Reed; Brittany Force vs. Antron Brown; Tony Schumacher vs. Scott Palmer.
Terry Haddock gave it his all in battling Tony Schumacher in round one, but lost the round and an engine in one of the opening stanza's wilder moments. (animated gif)
FUNNY CAR ROUND 1 (12:05 p.m.): A couple of career-best runs and a pair of upsets highlighted a quick and, at times, wild opening round of Funny Car. Tim Wilkerson and J.R. Todd both set personal bests for e.t. with respective runs of 3.844 and 3.887. Interestingly, Wilkerson’s time isn’t enough to give him lane choice in the second round because his next opponent, Matt Hagan, had the best e.t. of the round, 3.839. Also advancing out of the opening round were underdogs Jim Campbell, who bested a tire-smoking Courtney Force, and Gary Densham, who got a freebie when Jack Beckman had troubles on his burnout and could not make a run. (Complete results)
Second-round pairings (lane choice first): Tommy Johnson Jr. vs. Robert Hight; Matt Hagan vs. Tim Wilkerson; J.R. Todd vs. Jim Campbell; Ron Capps vs. Gary Densham
PRO STOCK ROUND 1 (12:25 p.m.): Though all three KB Racing cars — Jason Line, Greg Anderson, and Bo Butner — advanced out of the first round, they did not have low e.t. of it. That honor instead went to Jeg Coughlin Jr., who clocked a 6.535 en route to victory over Allen Johnson in the opener. Line and Anderson had the next-best runs with respective times of 6.540 and 6.544. The lone bottom-half car to advance out of round one was No. 9 Drew Skillman. (Complete results)
Second-round pairings (lane choice first): Jason Line vs. Drew Skillman; Jeg Coughlin Jr. vs. Vincent Nobile; Greg Anderson vs. Shane Gray; Bo Butner vs. Tanner Gray
TOP FUEL ROUND 2 (1:15 p.m.): After her strong 3.69 was “just” the third quickest winning round e.t. of round one, low qualifier Leah Pritchett and the Papa John’s team returned to the front of the performance pack with a 3.692 that put away Clay Millican. Teammate Tony Schumacher was right on her heels with a 3.697 to best Scott Palmer. Brittany Force kept alive the possibility of a final-round rematch with Pritchett after taking down Antron Brown with a 3.701. The fourth semifinalist is Shawn Reed, a former drag boat racer who won his second career final round by trailering Steve Torrence. (Complete results)
Semifinal pairings (lane choice first): Leah Pritchett vs. Shawn Reed; Tony Schumacher vs. Brittany Force.
FUNNY CAR ROUND 2 (1:35 p.m.): Jim Campbell’s Cinderella run continues. The sophomore driver got around J.R. Todd, who suffered a mechanical issue and could not make a run, to advance to the semifinals, where he is surrounded by a trio of Don Schumacher Racing entries. Campbell faces reigning world champion Ron Capps in the semifinals, and Capps has lane choice after he put a 3.856 on the scoreboards; that was low e.t. of the round. On the other side of the ladder Pomona champ Matt Hagan earned a semifinal match with teammate Tommy Johnson Jr. after narrowly edging Tim Wilkerson in a great 3.88 to 3.87 match. Hagan won by .004-second on a holeshot that was bolstered by his .071 to .087 reaction-time edge. (Complete results)
Semifinal pairings (lane choice first): Tommy Johnson Jr. vs. Matt Hagan; Ron Capps vs. Jim Campbell
PRO STOCK ROUND 2 (1:45 p.m.): Tanner Gray earned a spot in the first semifinal of his career when he bested Bo Butner to open the second round of competition. Gray is joined in the final four by Greg Anderson, who defeated Gray’s dad, Shane, on a holeshot; Drew Skillman, who used a .022 to .059 lead at the Tree to defeat Pomona champ Jason Line on a holeshot; and Jeg Coughlin, who outran fellow Elite Motorsports runner Vincent Nobile. (Complete results)
Semifinal pairings (lane choice first): Jeg Coughlin Jr. vs. Drew Skillman; Greg Anderson vs. Tanner Gray
TOP FUEL SEMIFINALS (2:30 p.m.): It’ll be a rematch of the 2016 Top Fuel final as both Brittany Force and defending event champ and low qualifier Leah Pritchett collected semifinal victories over Tony Schumacher and Shawn Reed, respectively. Force will have lane choice as she seeks to turn the tables on last year’s result, running her second straight 3.70 to beat cylinder-dropping Schumacher while Pritchett posted a 3.729 to end longshot Reed’s career day. (Complete results)
FUNNY CAR SEMIFINALS (2:45 p.m.): It will be an all-Don Schumacher Racing final round featuring reigning world champion Ron Capps and Pomona winner and points leader Matt Hagan. Capps bested upset-minded Jim Campbell in the semifinals, clocking a 3.88 to the troubled 4.89 of Campbell. Hagan got around another DSR car, Tommy Johnson Jr., in a great 3.86 to 3.88 match. That 3.86 pass gives Hagan lane choice for the final round. (Complete results)
PRO STOCK SEMIFINALS (2:50 p.m.): Greg Anderson and Drew Skillman are the final two racers standing after they scored respective wins against Tanner Gray and Jeg Coughlin Jr. Gray got a slight jump at the Tree, but Anderson was able to go around him by the time they reached the 60-foot clocks and win in a 6.56 to 6.59 contest. That run gives Anderson lane choice in the final round against Skillman, who, for the second straight round, used a better light to get the win. Skillman go a .020-second edge over Coughlin on the starting line and turned the advantage into a 6.582 to 6.581 win against the former world champion. (Complete results)
LUCAS OIL SPORTSMAN FINALS (3:30 p.m.): Aaron Kinard (pictured) stopped a red-hot Ed Olpin to claim the Super Gas Wally during the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series portion of the NHRA Arizona Nationals. Olpin, who doubled up two weeks ago at the season opener, red-lighted, giving the automatic win to Kinard, who proved he would have been tough to beat anyway with a .014 light and .009-over 9.90. Joining Kinard in the winner’s circle were George Stassi (Super Stock), Kyle Rizzoli (Stock), Val Torres Sr. (Super Comp), Grant Durie (Top Dragster), and Mike Ferderer (Top Sportsman).
TOP FUEL HARLEY FINAL (3:40 p.m.): Rickey House won a wild final-round match against No. 1 qualifier Bob Malloy to claim the trophy in Top Fuel Harley. Malloy, near lane, red-lighted, seemingly ending the contest, but House’s entry shot towards the centerline, and he was hanging off the side, trying to keep it in his lane. House was able to keep his Harley in his lane and won with an 8.80.
PRO STOCK FINAL (3:45 p.m.): Greg Anderson, far lane, kept his round-win record perfect against Drew Skillman, outrunning Skillman, 6.54 to 6.56, to claim his 87th career Wally. Skillman, as he did the previous two rounds, had the advantage on the starting line, but the .005-second advantage he nabbed wasn’t enough to carry him to victory. Anderson made up the difference by 60 feet and continued to pull away all the way downtrack, turning on the win light for the seventh time in seven meetings with Skillman. This is Anderson’s second win at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park; his only other victory here came in 2003.
FUNNY CAR FINAL (3:55 p.m.): Matt Hagan, far lane, extended his points lead and kept his record perfect in 2017 when he stopped Don Schumacher Racing teammate Ron Capps in the final round. Hagan left the starting line first, .057 to .075, and never looked back, outrunning the reigning world champ, 3.87 to 3.88, to turn on the win light. In addition to his final-round 3.87, Hagan also posted 3.83, 3.88, and 3.86 pass during eliminations, making him the first driver to ever record all 3.8s en route to victory. Capps also posted all 3.8s during eliminations.
This is the 24th win for Hagan, tying him with Jack Beckman for ninth on the Funny Car wins list. It is his second victory at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park; Hagan’s first came two years ago.
TOP FUEL FINAL (3:58 p.m.): The sequel to the final-round of the 2016 Top Fuel NHRA Arizona Nationals finale ended exactly as the original, with Leah Pritchett, near lane, beating Brittany Force on a holeshot. Last year it was 3.775 to 3.774, this year 3.705 to 3.704. In both cases, the finish was not as close as the e.t.s would indicate as Pritchett got off to a better than two-hundredths headstart on both occasions. The win is her second straight on the heels of her Winternationals win. It's the first time that a Top Fuel driver has won both of the season's first two races since Gary Scelzi in 1997.
Sunday event recap: Pritchett, Hagan repeat Pomona wins in Phoenix; Anderson scores in Pro Stock
Even though he and crew chief Rob Wendland have never run better, cranking out 3.7-second passes seemingly at will, Terry McMillen still has no luck when it comes to racing Brittany Force, as he did in round one. His 3.760 was the quickest losing run of the round, and no match for her low-of-the-round 3.676.
The two had raced each other 11 times previously, with Force winning the last 10 meetings, including beating McMillen in the Gatornationals final round last season. They raced in the second round at this race last year in 2016, with Force again winning en route to the final round. The only time McMillen has beaten her was the first time they raced, in round one of the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals in his rookie season in 2013.
"We're sort of still in test mode," said McMillen. "I think that's making some people nervous. We're still tweaking the tune-up and working on the new clutch pack and it's real close. I don't think we're going to sneak up on anyone this year - anyone that's paying attention anyway. I think for years we've tried to run with the 'big dogs.' We're taking a different approach. Now they're going to have to run from the gator and the gator is getting quicker."
The six-deep crowd outside Scott Palmer’s pit area after his first-round upset of Troy Coughlin Jr. was not just there to cheer on the popular underdog; they knew what was coming. Palmer is the only nitro racer who still does old-school “throttle whacks” during the pre-run warm-up in the pits, and adds one for every round win.
“They know that I’m going to do two this time,” said Palmer with a grin. “That’s a good way to start the season.”
Palmer, who recorded just two round wins last year – in Houston and Sonoma – is already seeing the benefits of his association with Tommy Thompson that is allowing him to run the full season for the first time.
“I’d be thrilled to get to do four today,” he said.
Unfortunately for Palmer, his day ended in the next round against Tony Schumacher, but the fan base continued to grow even if the win (and throttle whack) total didn’t.
For all of the success that he enjoyed on Firebird Lake during his championship-winning drag boat days it’s fitting that Shawn Reed’s first asphalt victory also came at the dragstrip on the same grounds. Reed upset No. 5 qualifier Doug Kalitta, coming from behind with the Paton family/Hughes Oilfield Transportation dragster after the Mac Tools dragster lost traction downtrack.
“I was behind him and just about ready to lift when I saw him start to smoke,” said Reed. “I stayed in it and hurt it a bit, but got the win.
“This is special, special,” said an emotional Reed. “I’ve watched Doug Kalitta and Kalitta team so much and they’ve won a lot, so to beat them is special.”
Damage to the cylinder head and worries about other internal woes led crew chief John Stewart to call for an engine change, which the team accomplished efficiently, then went up and added another huge coup, beating Steve Torrence to reach the semifinals.
After a couple of big upsets in Top Fuel to kick off race day, the trend carried over to Funny Car, in which Jim Campbell ousted No. 2 qualifier Courtney Force in the third pair of floppers. Campbell, who struggled to go downtrack in qualifying, made a less-than-perfect pass, clocking a 4.18, but it was more than enough to defeat Force, who smoked the tires early and slowed to a 6.36.
“Our clutch was giving us a problem,” noted team owner and tuner Jim Dunn, of the struggles in qualifying. “It still is, but we’re closer. When you’re lucky, you win. When you’re not, you lose.”
Campbell, not surprisingly, was thrilled to turn on the win light, just the second round-win of his still-young career.
“I am so excited,” said Campbell. “Courtney and I have lined up the last three races in round one. The first two didn’t go so well, but we finally got one. She’s an awesome racer with a great team over there, but my team rocks.”
Campbell added another round-win to his tally when he got around J.R. Todd in the second stanza. Todd’s car had a problem with the air system, and all he could do was stage his car and hope Campbell crossed an outer boundary and disqualified himself. Though Campbell did have issues with his car making a wheelstand at mid-track, he kept his USD-adorned entry in his lane and advanced with a 4.84.
Another upset of the opening round was Gary Densham getting the win against Jack Beckman. Densham was the benefactor of a problem with Beckman’s car on the burnout. Beckman felt a vibration in his Infinite Hero Dodge and pulled off to the side, then shut the car off and climbed out, giving Densham a single run. Densham’s hazed the hides early and made a move towards the wall, but Densham reined it in and coasted to a winning 6.71. Though it’s not the ideal way to win a round, part-time runner Densham, whose last turned on a win light in 2014, said a round-win is a round-win.
“I feel sorry for Jack and those guys,” said Densham. “I know they’re in it for the long term, for the championship, and it’s a bad way for them to have to lose. My team is working hard, and we’ll take any rounds that we can get. We need all the practice runs we can get and all the money we can put in the bank.”
Though Densham’s second-round run was better than the first, his 3.944 at 320.20 mph wasn’t quite enough to carry him forward because reigning world champion Ron Capps powered to a 3.856 that was low e.t. of the round.
Jack Beckman’s misfortunes can be traced to a never-before-seen problem in the clutch that not only cost him the round-win but also caused a lot of damage that will force the team to stay over and test tomorrow.
“You know the 1,001 ways to lose? That’s 1,002. Never had this happen,” said Beckman. “Our clutch has eight different studs on it. It broke three of them on the burnout, came around, started to tear the cross shaft off of the clutch pedal. All I felt was it was like you were scraping tin on the ground. You can kind of feel the sensation, so I pulled over, motioned for our back-up guy, Tom, to raise the body. I’m just hoping that we got something rubbing there. Once I felt it vibrating, I knew it wasn’t going to get any better, and I just shut the thing off. It just destroyed our clutch. We’re going to have to stay tomorrow, put our back-up clutch in it, and make sure we’re OK for Gainesville."
If there was a hard-luck award being handed out this weekend, Tim Wilkerson would be a prime candidate for it. Wilkerson made a career-best run in the opening round, 3.844, and the time was the second-best recorded during the round. The problem? Wilkerson was paired with Matt Hagan for round two, and Hagan had the best time of the opener at 3.839.
“That should be a rule: If you run your career best no matter what the other guy did, you should get lane choice. I don’t care if it’s a 5-flat,” Wilkerson said with a laugh. “We’re excited. I told my boys yesterday, ‘I haven’t been able to get this thing to run on eight holes. If we get it to run on eight holes, it will run 3.83, 3.84.’ It showed it can.”
Added Richard Hartman, who helps Wilkerson with tuning on the Levi, Ray & Shoup entry, “We needed that round-win real bad. We messed up so bad, we were just dumb really at Pomona, and the LRS group’s better than that. We got our act together and made some quality passes this weekend.”
Wilkerson’s bid for a second straight win at this event came to an end against Hagan when he was edged by .004-second at the stripe, losing despite having a better e.t. Hagan turned on the win light with his .071-initiated 3.88, while Wilkerson’s .087-triggered 3.87 came up short.
Though the work continues to find the right tune-up for Drew Skillman’s entry, it appears his team is making progress. In the first round today, Skillman ran a 6.55 that was on-par with many of the other entries and easily moved him around the higher-qualified Chris McGaha, who slowed to a 6.60 after a killer .003 light.
“My guys have made a great effort these past two weeks,” said Skillman. “We were really lost at the beginning of the season. My team has done a fantastic job setting this car back up. We went a 6.55 out there, that’s fantastic.”
Skillman was then able to pull a major upset in the second round, using his left foot to get the better of reigning world champion and No. 1 qualifier Jason Line. Skillman cut a .022 light in the match, then posted a 6.57 to defeat the quicker 6.56 of Line. Skillman then did it again in the semifinals, beating Jeg Coughlin Jr. on a slight holeshot.
Rookie runner Tanner Gray continues to impress in just his second event. The third-generation driver qualified No. 3 in the field here, and he has added two more round-wins to his tally, advancing to the semifinals after defeating Deric Kramer and Bo Butner in the first two rounds. Though still new to the class and still learning, Gray’s cool-under-pressure demeanor has impressed many, including crew chief Dave Connolly, a former driver in the class.
“He’s doing an awesome job,” said Connolly. “The kid’s got veins of ice. He keeps his composure.”
Gray’s weekend ended in the semifinals, and he certainly wanted more from the weekend — he has said on multiple occasions if you are not at an event to win then what’s the point — but was satisfied with the effort of his team and the progress they all are making.
“We swapped cars this weekend, and I think it’s just going to take a few more laps to get it where we want it,” said Gray. “I think the car swap was definitely what we needed, though. Dave definitely works better on this car for whatever reason, and it hasn’t seemed to affect my reaction times, so I’m happy with it. All in all, it was a good weekend. Obviously, I want to win and can’t really be happy with a third or fourth or something like that.
“I think we’re going to try and stop and test in between races, and we’ll try to learn some stuff there. I need to fix some things with me. I made a mistake this morning [when I accidentally double-bulbed while staging in round one] that I kind of felt bad about. That kind of just got away from me there. I think when you test, you learn more and more about yourself, and they learn more and more about the car. All in all, it was a good weekend, though, and I can’t thank everybody enough.”
A handful of drivers have hit milestones this weekend. This was the 100th career race for Chris McGaha. The opening round was the 800th round of competition for Allen Johnson (pictured), who, unfortunately for him, was unable to advance to No. 801. Drew Skillman will hit 100 career rounds when he lines up for his semifinal match with Jeg Coughlin Jr.