QUALIFYING SESSION RECAPS
PRO STOCK Q1 (5:10 p.m.) Bo Butner led the Pro Stock field during the first round of qualifying with a 6.574 to eclipse Jason Line’s second best effort of 6.586. Jeg Coughlin Jr. rounded out the top three in the quest for bonus points with a 6.602. Chris McGaha had also recorded a 6.602 but Coughlin got the nod with a faster speed. Line is attempting to secure the No. 1 qualifying spot for the fifth time in as many races in 2017 and his streak actually goes back to another No. 1 effort at last year’s season-ending NHRA Finals. Line also had top speed of the session with a clocking of 211.21 mph. His teammate Greg Anderson was a distant seventh with a subpar time of 6.652.
FUNNY CAR Q1 (5:30 p.m.): Reigning Funny car champ Ron Capps seized the early qualifying lead with a 3.931 pass in the NAPA Auto Parts Dodge Charger, just one of two three-seconds run in a muggy session with 85-degree air temperature and near 120-degree track temps. Alexis DeJoria had the other three with a 3995 from the Tequila Patron Toyota while Cruz Pedregon got a rare bonus point with a 4.090 for the No. 3 spot on a run aborted when his Snap-On Toyota got near the centerline.
TOP FUEL Q1 (5:58 p.m.): Leah Pritchett got her groove back, finishing at the top of the heap with a 3.747-second pass at the end of the first Top Fuel qualifying session. If it holds up, it will be her best qualifying mark since her 3.658 mark in Phoenix, where she finished as the top qualifier; that was also her last win. Shawn Langdon and Bob Vandergriff Jr. made their returns to Top Fuel in the first pass of the day. Both made excellent runs down the track, posting elapsed times of 3.825 and 3.862 seconds, respectively, and finished fourth and fifth. Antron Brown took second with a 3.784 pass while Clay Millican notched a 3.800. The rest of the field struggled to make it down the track, while Troy Coughlin Jr. rolled the beams and Tony Schumacher broke just off the starting line.
PRO STOCK Q2 (7:40 p.m.) Jeg Coughlin Jr. took advantage of the ideal evening conditions during the second round of qualifying to set the pace for the Pro Stock contingent with a blistering 6.557 at 210.70 mph. Bo Butner, who had been No. 1 in the first session with a 6.574, improved to a 6.560 for the second position and Greg Anderson jumped from his clutch-slipping 6.652 in the first qualifying round to a third best clocking of 6.563. Anderson also had the best speed of the stanza at 211.10 mph, but failed to break the 212.66 mph track record set by Mike Edwards in 2013. A total of six drivers are now in the 6.5-second zone with Jason Line and Erica Enders posting respective times of 6.576 and 6.591.
FUNNY CAR Q2 (8:15 p.m.): Courtney Force, who reset the track record in Las Vegas two weeks ago, did it again in Houston, powering her Advance Auto Parts Camaro to a 3.851 to grab the lead halfway through qualifying. First-session leader Ron Capps (3.884), John Force (3.890), and Cruz Pedregon (a career-best 3.897) also all bettered the incoming track record of 3.899, set last year by Tim Wilkerson, in the prime nighttime qualifying session, which was shown live on FS1.
TOP FUEL Q2 (8:45 p.m.): Clay Millican set a new Royal Purple Raceway track record with an impressive 3.722 pass, surpassing the mark set by Steve Torrance in 2016. That put the Great Clips dragster drive at the top of the heap after the first day of racing. Antron Brown came just a thousandth of a second away from matching Millican in the final run of the session to move into second with a 3.723. They both bumpe Doug Kalitta, who posted a 3.731 in his second run of the day to move into third while Brittany Force slid into third with a 3.745 in her second session pass.
The last time Shawn Langdon got behind the wheel of a Top Fuel car was in the fall race in Pomona in 2016. He reached the semifinals of that race but insufficient funding kept him out of the first four races of the 2017 season. A new sponsor, Global Electronic Technology, and a new team, Kalitta Motorsports, has Langdon back in the game.
“I think it’s 148 points (behind 10th place racer Scott Palmer). It’s early enough that it’s still in our control,” said Langdon. I think we’ll be okay, it’s more right now getting used to everything, this is my test session.”
Langdon has one final appearance at Royal Purple Raceway (2012) and plenty of time to fight his way into the Countdown. He’s driven plenty of Sportsman cars to stay fresh and feels he holds his destiny in his hands.
“I’m four races behind as a driver, but I’ve been out doing bracket racing just to keep sharp on the tree,” said Langdon. We just need a couple runs under our belt, but by Sunday I think we will show them what we’ve got.
After tricky track conditions made qualifying difficult for nitro cars in Las Vegas, Langdon hopes things go a bit more smoothly in Houston.
“This place can get like that too,” said Langdon. “If it rains here because it’s really high barometer. The track can get good when it’s cold, but when it rains and the track starts peeling the rubber up the starting line can get really bare.”
A 16-car field takes a little bit of the pressure off Langdon in his first race back in action. While the former Top Fuel world champ will certainly be out there looking to put good times on the board, he doesn’t need to worry about throwing great times on the board to make it to Sunday.
“I’m more just wanting to get the first couple runs out of the way and wanting to get the right mindset,” said Langdon. “Right now I’ve got so many things I’m thinking about… once you’ve got the butterflies out of your stomach you can get in the right place.”
With back-to-back-to-back races coming up, Top Fuel driver Brittany Force sees an opportunity to get something going. Force wants as much seat time as she can get and three weekends in a row spent behind the wheel of her Monster Energy Top Fueler seems like a terrific way to get it.
“I’m definitely excited to get to Houston,” Force said. “For me, I like races that are back-to-back, right in a row. It’s less time out of the seat, and you’re right back in it a few days later. I’m more comfortable that way. I’m excited that Houston kicks that off, and then we go three in a row. We’ll go to Charlotte Four-Wide, where we won last year, and Atlanta after that. I’m anxious to get there and get on a roll, especially coming out of Vegas.”
Force got off to a good start in Las Vegas, qualifying in the No. 4 slot, but lost to rival Leah Pritchett for the second time this season. She also fell to Pritchett in Phoenix after qualifying in the No. 4 spot; Force has qualified No. 4 in three races this season.
The 2013 Rookie of the Year has made some significant adjustments to the car, including tweaks to the clutch, cockpit and seat. Force feels the team has a solid baseline from which to grow upon as an important stretch begins.
“We made some adjustments in the seat and we can leave it where it’s at and I know it’s going to make things better,” Force said. “Now, it’s just getting comfortable with the new setup we have for me and moving forward with it so I can only get better from here.”
Force is looking for her first final appearance in Houston.
After more than two years away from the track, Bob Vandergriff is back in action. Driving the Valvoline dragster, the veteran driver made only two test runs at Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis prior to the NHRA SpringNationals and feels already comfortable back in the driver’s seat.
“Instead of wasting money going down the race track we decided to just shut it down,” said Vandergriff. “It was really good.”
Vandergriff will run in Atlanta and Denver but hasn’t committed to other races just yet. Future success, along with other factors, will dictate how many events the veteran participates in. He’s also not opposed to allowing another driver to slip into the seat.
“I’ve got some deals with some other drivers,” said Vandergriff. “I’m not married to driving it myself.”
He had last raced himself in 2014 and retired from racing altogether after the Denso Spark Plugs NHRA Nationals in 2016, citing wanting to spend more time with his family. Vandergriff said he’s enjoyed spending more time with his family over the past year, including watch his son play baseball and weekly "date nights" with his wife, things that he's missed over the years he's been racing.
“I was at home for Labor Day for the first time in 22 years,” said Vandergriff. “It’s been cool to be home for that and it’s something you don’t really realize until you’re there for that.”
Vandergriff captured a win in Houston in 2013, defeating Shawn Langdon. It’s one of three wins for the veteran racer. He began racing Top Fuel in 1994.
The car is sponsored by Valvoline but also bears a #ChadTough inscription on the side of the car. The message references Chad Carr, the four-year-old grandson of former University Michigan football head coach Lloyd Carr. Chad passed away in 2015 after being diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor.
“We decided if we were gonna do this we were gonna do something good,” said Vandergriff. “Just trying to raise awareness and get some donations.”
You can find more information by visiting chadtough.org.
With seven victories, John Force is the winningest driver in track history, but the 16-time world champ and 148-time national event winner hasn’t visited the winner’s circle at Royal Purple Raceway since 2002, when he won the race en route to the world championship. In fact, all seven of Force’s Houston wins – which also came 1990, 1991,1993, 1996, and both 1999 events -- have coming during a championship-winning campaign
History may be on Force’s side as he broke an even longer event drought earlier this year, breaking a 16-year dry spell with his score at the Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals in mid-March. Six of the seven times that Force won the Gatornationals, it helped propel him to the season championship, so he’s hoping the SpringNationals follows suit,
In addition to his seven victories, Force also has 10 No. 1 qualifiers in Houston, including nine in this event, but with a chance of rain in the forecast for both Friday and Saturday, Force is not alone in watching the skies.
“We’re still watching the weather,” he said. “This is a great race track to make record runs when the conditions are right, and our race cars are moving in that direction. We know you can run big numbers.”
The Funny Car teams of Tommy Johnson Jr. and Jack Beckman are racing with heavy hearts for the second straight weekend as team benefactor Terry Chandler, whose personal funding of both teams allows them to promote awareness of the Make A Wish and Infinite Hero programs, is recovering after a recent surgery to remove a tumor from her brain.
"Terry is the biggest race fan I know,” said Johnson. “We miss her out of at the track but we all want her to get to get better so that she can get back out here with us.”
Beckman thinks an event win would be good medicine for one of the most beloved members of the NHRA community.
"It's not like you ever need any extra motivation or incentive to win a race,” he said. “It's not like you don't try your hardest every single time you go out there. But for our team, it's a bit bittersweet. This is going to be the second race in a row where Terry isn't going to be standing on the starting line. I know it must be tearing her apart to not be able up there with her teams when her cars run. There's nothing that can make that better until the day when she's back out her on the starting line than to send her a trophy."
They say that everyone remembers their first win, and every trip back to Royal Purple Raceway revives that memory for Robert Hight, who scored his first career Funny Car victory at this event in his rookie campaign of 2005. As was the case with Pro Stock rookie Tanner Gray two weeks ago in Las Vegas, Hight’s breakthrough win came in just his fourth start.
“You don’t forget that place and that day,” said Hight. “It was the greatest day ever for me, getting to be successful at what you’ve dreamed of doing. It’s one thing to get to do it, but to be successful at something you love, that’s pretty awesome.
“It seemed like that day took forever,” he reminisced. “We were No. 1 qualifier, and every round was a big race that I had. I had to race John [Force in the semifinals] and then had to race Cruz [Pedregon] in the final. I’ll never forget Houston. Once you’ve got your first win, then you know you can do it. There’s always an element of doubt until you actually get the first one. But once you’ve got that, you know you can.”
Del Worsham is one of only two drivers (Mike Dunn being the other) to win this event in both Funny Car and Top Fuel, winning in his flopper in 2001 and 2008 – beating John and Ashley Force, respectively, in the final rounds -- and in Top Fuel in 2011 in the Al-Anabi dragster en route to the season championship.
Worsham is coming off a disappointing first-round exit in Las Vegas, but was among a number of teams who stayed and tested Monday at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in anticipation of the three-week span of racing that begins in Houston,
“For the last two weeks we’ve been working hard at basically just preparing ourselves for these three races in a row, “he said. “it’s a lot of racing. We’re still working on our new body. It’s at the point now where it’s just about ready to go on the track, so we may run the 2018 Camry at the Four-Wide [Nationals, next week in Charlotte].”
“I’m hoping with the stuff we learned in Vegas and the testing we did on Monday out there, that we made progress and that we’ve got a car that’s consistent in going down the race track,” he added. “We’ll work on making it fast after we’ve got a car that we know what it’s going to do.
Worsham currently sits in 13th place in the points, only seven points behind former teammate Alexis DeJoria.
Erica Enders has definitely benefitted Elite Motorsports’ return to campaigning Chevrolet Camaros as she has qualified as high as third during the first four races of the season. But during that span Enders has recorded only four round wins and admitted that the team still has room for improvement with their performance. “Right now, we’re about .03-second off in our 60-foot times,” said ‘Enders,” and that gets bigger as our car goes down the track. We did a lot of testing for two weeks straight before this event, and I am confident that we’ll be able to get to where we need to be.”
The NHRA SpringNationals is a hometown event for Enders, and she won the event in 2014 and 2015. It’s always fun to race in front of my hometown fans,” she said, “and we hope to give them something to cheer about.
With his return to Pro Stock competition this year, Gas Monkey Energy Drink racer Alex Laughlin will be doing double duty as he will continue to race his Top Alcohol Dragster. “I had a chance to run both cars last fall in Dallas and Las Vegas and it’s a bunch of work but also a lot of fun,” said Laughlin. “I mean you don’t even wear the same kind of firesuit so it seems like half the time I’m finding a place to get changed, but the days fly by so fast.”
Laughlin said that he has very little difficulty in driving the two types of cars. “The surroundings in each car are so different that there’s very little chance of getting confused. It’s pretty easy to keep the respective routines separated. We tested for two days in Noble, Oklahoma and we hope to be in pretty good shape.”
This year Laughlin will be running engines obtained from Elite Motorsports.
“This team is amazing and I’m very excited to be teammates with Erica Enders, Jeg Coughlin Jr. and Vincent, Nobile. They are really three drivers that I admire.”
Laughlin scored his first career victory with his win in St. Louis last year and came close to qualifying for the NHRA Mello Yello Countdown.
When NHRA Rookie of the Year contender Tanner Gray scored his first career victory in just his fourth race at the Denso Spark Plug NHRA Nationals, his father Shane said he was “pleasantly surprised, but not totally shocked,” Shane said. “He’s been driving circle track cars since he was 12, and that’s given him a lot of experience. Add to that the car we have, the crew chief (Dave Connolly), and the quality of the team, and you have a recipe for a real ass-whupping.”
Tanner said that the circle track racing helped him in two critical areas: throttle control for the burnouts and maintaining control of the car during the run. “You have to be real delicate with the circle track cars and the way the slide in the turns, and my dad used to put an inflated balloon underneath my foot to teach me about throttle control. And my past experience made me feel very comfortable in the Pro Stocker right from the start.”
The NHRA SpringNationals will mark the first time that Tanner will be representing Gray Motorsports by himself with Shane sitting out this event. Said Shane, “Earlier last year I hadn’t planned on running at all, but with the decision to have Tanner race this year, I decided to run several events to be here and help him out.”
With Deric Kramer not attending the NHRA SpringNationals because he is competing in a fencing tournament, Pro Stock veteran Richie Stevens was asked to take his place in the cockpit for the weekend.
“It’s one that I can easily drive to [from his home state of Louisiana] and it’s also [his wife] Erica’s home race as well, so it kind of works out for me too because a lot of my family and friends can come out to it too,” said Stevens.
One of the elements that makes the driver switch easy is the fact that Stevens and Kramer are approximately the same weight and height, which means minimal modifications, if any, for getting the car set up for Stevens. This will be the first event for Stevens since he took Kramer’s place in Colorado last July. “Deric plans to have two cars in Denver this year,” said Stevens, and he’s asked me to drive his second car there as well.
Racing remains west of the Mississippi River as the NHRA descends upon Houston for the NHRA SpringNationals at Royal Purple Raceway. Three Pro drivers got their first wins of the season in Las Vegas, and rookie Tanner Gray picked up his first win of his career, as Don Schumacher Racing continued its dominance in the early goings of the season.
Tricky track conditions were the story at the Denso Spark Plugs NHRA Nationals at The Strip in Vegas, and drivers hope more favorable conditions will resume in Houston. Matt Hagan (Funny Car) and Leah Pritchett (Top Fuel) went a combined 16-0 in Pomona and Phoenix to open the season before going a combined 6-4 in races in Gainesville and Las Vegas. Look for them to try to regain early-season form in the Lone Star State.
Doug Kalitta (Top Fuel) is very fond of Royal Purple Raceway. He won his second-straight race in Houston in 2016 and is looking to complete the hat trick this weekend. Kalitta has three total wins at the track; his first came back in 2003. A fourth win would make him the winningest Top Fuel driver in track history.
While there’s been plenty of familiarity in the winner’s circle in Top Fuel, the story has been vastly different in Funny Car. Ron Capps was the last repeat winner in Funny Car back in 2006 and 2007; since then there have been nine different winners. Courtney Force picked up the Wally in Houston in 2016.
The Kalitta team will have a little more data to work with this weekend as they added a new driver to the roster following the Las Vegas race. Shawn Langdon joined Kalitta Motorsports in a Global Electronic Technology car as the third Top Fuel driver, along with Kalitta and Troy Coughlin Jr. The team has combined for a 9-8 record this season.
Langdon isn’t the only new face on the Top Fuel circuit this weekend. Bob Vandergriff returns to the nitro class in a Valvoline sponsored car for at least three events. He plans to race in Atlanta and Denver, but says those plans could expand.
With the two powerhouse teams of Pro Stock – KB Racing and Gray Motorsports – each having won two of the first four races of 2017, the event will be the scene of a possible rubber match for bragging rights. Jason Line and Greg Anderson got things rolling by scoring the year’s first two wins at Pomona and Phoenix, but Shane Gray came through with a win in Gainesville, followed by his son rookie Tanner Gray’s victory in Las Vegas.
Another familiar face is Richie Stevens Jr., who is filling in for Deric Kramer while Kramer takes part in a fencing tournament over the weekend. It’s a hometown race for Stevens Jr., who has won six races and raced Kramer’s second car in Denver in 2016.
Erica Enders, spouse of Stevens Jr., hopes to return to the good run of form she enjoyed when she won in Houston in 2015. The Pro Stock driver lost in the first round in 2016 but, now driving the car she won a title in, feels she’s got her mojo back.
The 2017 J&A Service Pro Mod series returns for the second race of the season after kicking off in Gainesville. Steven Whiteley enters Houston with a 23-point lead.
Here's a look at the current NHRA national records:
3.658 sec. by Leah Pritchett, Feb. ‘17, Phoenix;
332.75 mph by Spencer Massey, Aug. ’15, Brainerd, Minn.
3.822 by Matt Hagan, Aug. ’16, Brainerd, Minn.
335.57 mph by Hagan, May ’16, Topeka, Kan.
6.455 sec. 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; Courtney Force, Funny Car; Greg Anderson, Pro Stock.
John Force, 7, FC; Warren Johnson, 6, PS; Jeg Coughlin, 4, PS; Tony Pedregon, 4, FC; Greg Anderson, 3,
PS; Kenny Bernstein, 3, TF; Ron Capps, 3, FC; Larry Dixon, 3, TF; Mike Edwards, 3, PS; Bob Glidden, 3, PS;
Cruz Pedregon, 3, FC.
3.724 seconds by Steve Torrence, April ‘16
330.07 mph by Spencer Massey, April ’15
3.899 seconds by Tim Wilkerson, April ‘16
328.06 mph by Del Worsham, April ’16
6.519 seconds by Jason Line, April ’15
212.66 mph by Mike Edwards, April ’13