NHRA New England Nationals Saturday Notebook

News, notes, photos, and more from the final day of qualifying at the NHRA New England Nationals at New England Dragway.
03 Jun 2017
NHRA National Dragster staff
Race coverage
New England Dragway

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Bo ButnerPRO STOCK Q3 (1:52 p.m.): Erica Enders entered the day as the provisional low qualifier with a 6.513 and she duplicated that effort to the thousandth of a second in Q3 to maintain her hold on the top spot. Enders remained No. 1 but there was plenty of shuffling in the pack after several drivers improved by a slight margin. Bo Butner moved into the second spot after driving to a 6.515 and Drew Skillman also made his best run of the weekend with a 6.525 that was good for a qualifying bonus point. With one session remaining, top eight qualifiers are separated by less than four-hundredths of a second.

Leah PritchettTOP FUEL Q3 (2:12 p.m.): The third session of Top Fuel provided a large amount of entertainment value for the packed house in Epping with eight drivers running 3.7-seconds or quicker. The leader of the pack was Leah Pritchett, who leapfrogged past Brittany Force to take over the top spot with a 3.673. The second-best run of the round went to Tony Schumacher, who managed to post a 3.721 even though he crossed the finish line with fire and smoke trailing behind his U.S. Army dragster. Terry McMillen also continued to impress with another career-best run. Millican’s 3.723 is currently good for the No. 4 spot. Surprisingly, Steve Torrence and Doug Kalitta, who normally have two of the most consistent cars in the field, both shut off early after smoking the tires on the starting line. Brittany Force also missed an opportunity to improve on yesterday’s 3.686 after she smoked the tires.

Robert HightFUNNY CAR Q3 (3:10 p.m.): Robert Hight moved to the head of the class when he blasted to a 3.822 at 334.65 mph, displacing teammate Courtney Force, who had troubles on her third attempt and stood on her 3.84 from yesterday. The biggest moves of the session came from former world champs Matt Hagan and Cruz Pedregon, who joined Hight as the only drivers to record 3.8s in the session. Hagan jumped from 13th to third after posting a 3.877 that was the second-best time of the round. Pedregon also moved up 10 spots, from 16th to sixth thanks to a 3.893. Surprisingly, Ron Capps continued to struggle, slowing to a 4.25, which is his best time of the three rounds thus far. The defending event and world champion sits 14th entering the final qualifying round.

Tanner GrayPRO STOCK Q4 (4:20 p.m.): Appearing in his ninth Pro Stock race, rookie Tanner Gray will start from the No. 1 spot for the first time after driving his Gray Manufacturing Technologies Camaro to a 6.501 in Q4. Gray, who earlier in the day ran 6.518, took over the top spot from Erica Enders, who finished No. 2 with a 6.513. With 14 cars in the field, Gray will be eligible for a bye run in the quarterfinals if he can defeat round one opponent Val Smeland tomorrow. Gray picked up three qualifying bonus points in Q4 while Drew Skillman posted a 6.517 to earn two points while Enders received the final bonus point. With two wins in his first eight events, Gray has already established himself as the early favorite for the Automobile Club of Southern California Road to the Future award honoring NHRA’s top rookie driver.

Round one pairings (lane choice first): Tanner Gray vs. Val Smeland; Erica Enders vs. Shane Tucker; Bo Butner vs. Alan Pruisensky; Drew Skillman vs. John Gaydosh; Greg Anderson vs. Kenny Delco; Jeg Coughlin vs. Vincent Nobile; Jason Line vs. Allen Johnson

Leah PritchettTOP FUEL Q4 (5:47 p.m.): There was a brief rain delay midway through the final Top Fuel session but that did little to dampen the enthusiasm of the fans in Epping. Brittany Force made the best run of the round with a 3.695 from her Monster Energy dragster. Force grabbed three bonus points but she didn’t run quick enough to knock rival Leah Pritchett from the top spot. Pritchett, wearing Dodge Demon colors this weekend, closed the session with a second-best 3.701 but her earlier 3.673 held for the top spot. Every driver in the top half of the field ran 3.731-seconds or quicker. After Force and Pritchett, eight-time world champ Tony Schumacher is the No. 3 seed with a 3.703.

Round one pairings (lane choice first): Leah Pritchett vs. bye; Brittany Force vs. Steve Chrisman; Tony Schumacher vs. Smax Smith; Antron Brown vs. Shawn Reed; Terry McMillen vs. Scott Palmer; Shawn Langdon vs. Dom Lagana; Clay Millican vs. Troy Coughlin Jr.; Steve Torrence vs. Doug Kalitta

Robert HightFUNNY CAR Q4 (6:10 p.m.): No one was able to better Robert Hight’s 3.82 from earlier today, so he will start race day from the No. 1 spot for the 50th time in his career. Ron Capps, who entered the final session down in the 14th slot, had the best run of the final session, powering to a 3.863 that moved him up to third for race day. Matt Hagan (3.874) and Tim Wilkerson (3.901) also earned bonus points for the final qualifying round.

Round one pairings (lane choice first): Robert Hight vs. Mike Smith; Courtney Force vs. Jim Campbell; Ron Capps vs. Jeff Diehl; Matt Hagan vs. John Force; Jack Beckman vs. Del Worsham; Bob Tasca III vs. Alexis DeJoria; Cruz Pedregon vs. Tim Wilkerson; J.R. Todd vs. Tommy Johnson Jr.


Dom Lagana
Dom Lagana
enters the final day of qualifying in Epping as the No. 7 qualifier in Top Fuel after a solid 3.806 on Friday in his Nitro Ninja dragster, which is sporting signage from Cat Spot this weekend. Lagana, a native New Yorker, has plenty of experience racing in Epping, and he thought he was headed for a career-best last night, but like many other nitro racers, he overpowered the track.

“Last night, we ran after that little rain shower and when they ran the jet dryer, that gave it a little blast of heat, which was awesome. I thought we could run a 3.76 or better but we didn’t get enough wheel speed and the clutch locked up and that ended that.

“This track is prepped the same way that most NHRA tracks are so that’s not an issue, but I know the air here,” Lagana said. “Last night, the conditions were almost as good as they were in Topeka. These aren’t really the conditions I want to race in but we can hold out own. I’d prefer that it was a little warmer and a little more humid. That helps bring the field together.”


Steve Torrence
When Steve Torrence smoked the tires during Friday’s nighttime session, he wondered if he hadn’t blown his only chance to qualify in the No. 1 spot with his Capco Contractors dragster. Earlier on Friday, Torrence ran a 3.750, and he now expects to run quicker on Saturday, given the cool temperatures and overcast skies.

“It’s out there,” Torrence said. “We just have to go get it. Last night, I think we were going to run 3.67 or better but it just didn’t stick. I’m not the guy who makes all the predictions but I think we should be better than that.”

Torrence has already been to four finals this year and collected two wins. He’s also one of just four drivers, along with DSR teammates Antron Brown, Leah Pritchett, and Tony Schumacher, without a first round loss.

“We’re right were we want to be,” said Torrence. “We had a bad break in Topeka when the car pushed a head gasket out but otherwise we’ve had things go out way.  We just need to keep on doing what we’ve been doing.”


Shawn Langdon
Shawn Langdon
has done the arithmetic and to him it’s pretty simple; he’s currently five rounds out of a spot in the Countdown to the Championship and there are ten races left in the regular season, counting the NHRA New England Nationals.

“It’s pretty easy to figure out,” said Langdon. “I just need to win some rounds and we’ll be just fine. I hated to miss the first four races; we dug a big hole but we’re working our way out of it.”

Langdon has made steady progress behind the wheel of his Global Electronic Technology dragster in the last five events, and he took another step forward during qualifying this weekend with a solid 3.724. Langdon knows he’s going to need those sort of performances since his main rivals for the top ten spot, Scott Palmer and Terry McMillen, have both made dramatic improvements to their performance this season.

“Terry McMillen’s car is mean right now,” said Langdon. “He definitely concerns me and hell, so does Palmer. We had some little problems at the first couple of races. Little things that held us back and prevented us from showing our full potential. Now, I think we’ve worked through most of them and I think we’re going to be better off going forward. That [3.72 run] was really nice. It popped a bit near the finish line but thankfully we didn’t oil the track. It was a great way to tune-up for tomorrow.”


J.R. Todd
After admittedly struggling through the early part of the season, J.R. Todd has turned a bit of a corner here, putting up a pair of competitive 3.9s on his first two passes yesterday and ending Friday ranked in the top five. The turn in fortunes and the added confidence it is giving Todd and his team comes primarily from a car swap. Todd and his teamed rolled the new entry — Bounty Hunter No. 3 — off the trailer yesterday and sent it down the track for the very first time in Q1. That run was a 3.92 that was later bettered to a 3.90. Though the car had no previous runs on it, Todd had a high level of confidence entering qualifying here with it.

“We’ve got confidence in the fab shop,” said Todd. “This is the third car off of the Bounty Hunter chassis jig, so they’ve had two cars to get all the bugs worked out. Once you get the first car done, you know what to do and what not to do. This thing went together nice and smooth and drove good last night. Hopefully, it runs even better today. This thing definitely showed some good promise to where I think it made our tune-up window bigger than what it was, so that gives confidence to Jon O. [Oberhofer], Todd [Smith], and all the guys to where we can work on running better. We’ve been at least a tenth behind the top cars out here, but I think we’re gaining on them and moving in the right direction.”

So why the swap in cars? In addition to trying to gain in performance, the team found a problem with the car they ran to start the season.

“We struggled the first part of the year, just with a chassis that was kind of tweaked, and we didn’t realize it until we went to front-half it,” said Todd. “I’m glad we caught it when we did, and it’s nice to unload a brand-new car and get results.”


Robert Hight
Robert Hight
moved to the top of the pack with a track-record 3.822, but as good as his run was, Hight said afterward he felt like there was actually the potential to run even better.

“That was a great run. I’ll tell you what, there’s more out there, and you know Jimmy Prock; he’ll be swinging for the fence,” said Hight. “This next session [Q4] is going to be exciting.”

Hight’s crew chief, Prock agreed, saying, “The track might be a little tighter the next run, so we’ll see what we can do. The starting line the first car length or two is a little tricky. We made some adjustments for it, and it seemed to like it.”


Cruz Pedregon
Cruz Pedregon
made one of the biggest moves of the third round of qualifying, jumping up 10 spots in the order to sixth. Pedregon posted a 3.89 on the pass, which was a marked improvement from yesterday when he struggled and recorded a best of 8.05.

“That’s a good starting point for the Snap-on car for today,” said Pedregon. “It’s been knocking on the door to run those numbers. We had not the greatest luck yesterday. We had the steering wheel come off [in Q1], but that’s a nice recovery. For Aaron Brooks and everybody working hard on the Snap-on Toyota, we’re close guys. We’ll get it.”


Matt Hagan
Matt Hagan
has a car capable of setting a national record (after all, he did just that in Topeka), but sometimes when a car is capable of big runs and conditions are there to do so, it can sometimes bite a team trying to push the limits. That’s what happened yesterday to Hagan, who didn’t make a full run on either Friday attempt.

“We were really pushing hard yesterday because the conditions were there to try and run another record,” said Hagan, who rebounded well in Q3, posting a 3.87. “It was a little different today, so let’s get down the racetrack and have data to work off of and be ready for race day tomorrow.”


Kenny Delco
Kenny Delco
returned to the NHRA Mello Yello tour for the first time since Gainesville and while his Chevy Camaro entry might look the same from the outside, it’s much different under the hood.

“We’ve got a whole new combination that we’re trying this weekend,” said Delco, who uses engines supplied by fellow Pro Stock veteran Frank Iaconio. “So far, it seems to be better. It definitely makes more power event if it didn’t show in E.T.  We know that we need to step up in order to be competitive. Our old stuff was good, but we need to be better.”

Delco entered Saturday’s qualifying rounds in the No. 10 spot with a 6.594, just eight-hundredths off the pace set by provisional low qualifier Erica Enders.

“On the first run, I might have been able to run quicker but I shut if off at 1,000-feet,” said Delco. “That was the first run on this engine and I didn’t want to take a chance on burning it up. We wanted to get the data and make sure we had the right [EFI map] in it. It was on a nice run but I did something stupid and pulled the chute early so that affected the data we got. Still, I think we’ll run quicker today.”

Comp racer Val Smeland has also rejoined the tour this weekend as a teammate to Delco. Smeland also shut off early on his only run with a 6.788 at just 192.74 mph.


Allen Johnson
Allen Johnson
is nothing if not determined. The 2012 NHRA Pro Stock champ finally won his first round of the season two weeks ago in Topeka and he’s mired in 11th place in the Mello Yello standings. Still, Johnson continues to fight the fight as a single car operation and the only full-time Dodge on the tour. Lately, Johnson’s fortunes have improved dramatically and he’s continuing that trend in Epping with a 6.551 on Friday that is solidly in the middle of the field.

“At least we’re back in the ball park,” said Johnson. “Actually, we’ve been better at the last three races. We stumbled on something that was holding us back and it’s better now.”

When asked where the gains came from, Johnson wasn’t willing to offer up much more than, “the engine.”

Honestly, we have a lot of different things we’re working on,” Johnson said. “We’ve got another new engine that we’re trying today [Saturday] and we’ll see how that works. I’m close enough to the leaders now that I can race and if I can pick up another hundredth or two I should be in good shape. Hopefully we get there this summer.


Tanner Gray
Tanner Gray
called his shot before Q4 when he said he was going to run a 6.50 and take over the No. 1 qualifying spot in Pro Stock and he did just that with a 6.501 that helped him claim the pole for the first time in his brief career.

“We were not going to back down,” said Gray. “I knew we could run a .50. It was just a matter of going out and doing it. I made a mistake in Q3 when the car shook the tires. I should have driven through it but for some reason I clutched it.

“That was probably the best run I’ve made in a Pro Stock car,” Gray said. “It was was close to perfect as it gets. I was 10,500 [rpm] across all the shift points. And I even had a .009 light. I thought I might have touched the rev limiter in low gear but it couldn’t have been too bad. I could tell it was a good run but I didn’t know how good until I got back to the trailer and saw our [computer] graph.”

Gray will be paired with former Comp driver Val Smeland in round one and if he can win that bout, he’ll receive a bye run into the semfiinals.

“That bye run on Sunday is huge,” Gray said. “If we can get there it will do us a lot of good as far as the points go.”


The NHRA New England Nationals is one of just two events to feature snowmobiles running in an exhibition.
Nitro School
Before qualifying began today, fans got the opportunity to learn more about the nitro cars at NHRA Nitro School, which was hosted by NHRA’s Alan Reinhart and Funny Car driver Robert Hight.
Mello Yello autograph session
The morning also featured an autograph session in the Mello Yello Powerhouse featuring, from right, Ron Capps, Antron Brown, Shane Tucker, and Tanner Gray.
Nostalgia Funny Cars
Fans were treated to exhibition passes by Nostalgia Funny Cars in between NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series qualifying rounds.
Steve Torrence and Antron Brown
A brief rain shower delayed the final round of qualifying part way through the Top Fuel portion. Among the drivers who had to wait out Mother Nature were good friends Steve Torrence, left, and Antron Brown.


After a wild and quick opening day that featured new track records in both Top Fuel and Funny Car and a big boomer from Courtney Force on her No. 1 run (click here for details and video), the drivers of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series hit the track for two more runs today to set the fields for tomorrow’s eliminations. Racers and fans were greeted with overcast skies and cooler temperatures this morning, which has most excited about the performance potential.

Brittany ForceYesterday, Brittany Force reset both ends of the New England Dragway track record with her 3.686 at 331.36 mph, but many in the pits don’t expect that to hold up with the cloud cover. Points leader Leah Pritchett enters the day in second thanks to a 3.69. Those two passes were the only 3.6s, and they are the first ever recorded in Epping. Terry McMillen is in the No. 3 slot after a career-best 3.730 last night. A couple of surprises on the Top Fuel sheets entering today are Tony Schumacher and Clay Millican, who finished Friday in the 11th and 15th positions, respectively. Schumacher is a two-time winner here, scoring in 2014 and 2015.

Courtney ForceCourtney Force was the talk of the opening day of the NHRA New England Nationals after she blew up her Advance Auto Parts entry on a track-record run of 3.842 in the opening session. Force was uninjured in the incident, but the engine explosion and contact with the wall after it destroyed her primary car. Force’s team pulled the back-up car out, and she returned for the second session, but a brake issue ended her second attempt on the burnout. Force remained No. 1 in the order but will look to rebound from an overall challenging Friday. Force is one of four drivers who dipped in the 3.8s yesterday. Her teammate Robert Hight is second with a 3.849, followed by Jack Beckman (3.878) and Bob Tasca III (3.892). With the clouds and cooler temps, the number of 3.8 players is expected to rise today. A couple of drivers who should join the ranks of the 3.8-second are Ron Capps and Matt Hagan, both of whom had unexpected off days yesterday. The DSR duo are 12th (Capps) and 13th (Hagan) entering today’s final rounds.

Erica EndersErica Enders enters Saturday atop the Pro Stock sheets, seeking her first No. 1 start since the fall Las Vegas event in 2015. The top three — Enders, Tanner Gray, and Bo Butner —are tightly bunched with all three clocking 6.51s. Greg Anderson, Drew Skillman, Jeg Coughlin Jr., Jason Line, and Allen Johnson round out the quick eight after two of four sessions.

With three ladies leading the fields, there is the potential for history this weekend. Though there have been two women to qualify No. 1 at the same event, there have never been three female No. 1 starters at the same race.

The final two qualifying sessions are slated for 1:30 and 4 p.m.