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AAA Insurance NHRA Midwest Nationals Sunday Notebook

Steve Torrence won Top Fuel for the seventh time in 2018, while Robert Hight (Funny Car), Tanner Gray (Pro Stock) and Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle) all captured wins at Gateway Motorsports Park.
22 Sep 2018
NHRA National Dragster staff
Race coverage
St. Louis

Brackets | Features | Results | Photos


antron.JPGTOP FUEL ROUND 1 (11:26 a.m.): Nobody ran quicker than Antron Brown, who defeated Doug Kalitta in slightly more fiery fashion than he planned. His 3.728-second pass earned him lane choice over the No. 2 qualifier, Clay Millican, in a vital matchup with championship implications. Steve Torrence easily got past Bill Litton, but he has a second-round rematch with Mike Salinas. That’s because Salinas took down defending Top Fuel champion Brittany Force with a 3.758-second run. Leah Pritchett smoked the tires in the first round but advanced because Scott Palmer broke the throttle cable when he tried to fire the car. His pain was her gain – she’ll race Blake Alexander for the third time this season. 

Second-round pairings (lane choice first): Steve Torrence vs. Mike Salinas; Blake Alexander vs. Leah Pritchett; Antron Brown vs. Clay Millican; Pat Dakin vs. Tony Schumacher

tj.JPGFUNNY CAR ROUND 1 (11:50 a.m.): Tommy Johnson Jr. ran the quickest time lap of the first round, which may come as some consolation to Don Schumacher Racing’s Funny Car department since he’s the only driver to advance to the second round. Ron Capps, Jack Beckman and Matt Hagan all fell in the first round, while John Force Racing sent all three of its Funny Cars into the second stanza of racing. Bob Tasca III also advanced with a 3.999 on a holeshot, defeating Jonnie Lindberg by cutting a solid reaction time. Cruz Pedregon upset Capps on a holeshot with a 3.992-second pass, which could have huge Countdown implications. 

Second round pairings (lane choice first): Robert Hight vs. John Force; Tommy Johnson Jr. vs. Bob Tasca III; J.R. Todd vs. Cruz Pedregon; Courtney Force vs. Tim Wilkerson

jason_0.JPGPRO STOCK ROUND 1 (12:02 p.m.): The top eight qualifiers in Pro Stock all advanced to the quarterfinals and they also happen to be the top eight drivers in the Countdown to the Championship playoffs. Jason Line was the quickest with a 6.536 in his Summit Racing Chevy however Lines’ advantage over the rest of the field is slim since every other winner in the round ran 6.579 or quicker. Tanner Gray, Vincent Nobile, Drew Skillman, Bo Butner and low qualifier Jeg Coughlin all ran 6.54. The slowest winner of the round was four-time champ Greg Anderson, who was the first driver out, ran a 6.579 in his win over Deric Kramer, who shook the tires and shut off.

Round two pairings (lane choice first): Jeg Coughlin Jr. vs. Greg Anderson; Drew Skillman vs. Bo Butner; Tanner Gray vs. Erica Enders; Jason Line vs. Vincent Nobile

joey.JPGPRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE ROUND 1 (12:19 p.m.): Two huge upsets changed the dynamic of the points battle in Pro Stock Motorcycle after leaders Eddie Krawiec and Hector Arana Jr. were both ousted in the first round. Krawiec red-lighted by a thousandth of a second against Joey Gladstone’s Yellow Corn Buell while Arana Jr., fresh off a win in Reading, lost when his Lucas Oil EBR stalled on the starting line. Losses by Arana and Krawiec was good news for fellow contenders LE Tonglet, Andrew Hines, and Matt Smith, who each advanced. Tonglet made one of the best runs of the round with a 6.83 in his win over Jimmy Underdahl while Smith used a 6.88 to nip Scotty Pollacheck’s Suzuki. In another big upset, Angie Smith used a holeshot to take a 6.87 to 6.84 win over Steve Johnson’s Suzuki.

Round two pairings (lane choice first): Chip Ellis vs. Angelle Sampey; Matt Smith vs. Joey Gladstone; Andrew Hines vs. Jerry Savoie; LE Tonglet vs. Angie Smith

NDB_2875.JPGTOP FUEL ROUND 2 (1:14 p.m.): It’s hard to imagine who breathed deeper after their second-round win: Clay Millican or Pat Dakin. When the Great Clips / Parts Plus Top Fuel Dragster fired up, it didn’t have any oil pressure. Following the world’s shortest Top Fuel burnout, the oil pressure came right back up and Millican got past Antron Brown to book a spot in the semifinals against Pat Dakin. Steve Torrence will get a shot at Leah Pritchett on the other side of the ladder after defeating a tire-smoking Mike Salinas. That should be a lot of fun, too. 

Semifinal pairings (lane choice first): Steve Torrence vs. Leah Pritchett; Clay Millican vs. Pat Dakin

wilk.JPGFUNNY CAR ROUND 2 (1:22 p.m.): Tommy Johnson Jr. continued to lead the way in terms of performance as the Make-A-Wish Funny Car laid down a 3.95-second pass to move into the semifinals. He’ll race Robert Hight with lane choice and a chance to move past teammate Ron Capps with a victory. On the other side of the ladder is a rematch of the Dodge NHRA Nationals final as Tim Wilkerson will battle J.R. Todd with lane choice. Wilk took down Courtney Force by running 4 seconds flat against the Advance Auto Parts Chevy Camaro. 

Semifinal pairings (lane choice first): Tommy Johnson Jr. vs. Robert Hight; Tim Wilkerson vs. J.R. Todd

drew_0.JPGPRO STOCK ROUND 2 (1:25 p.m.): Erica Enders threw a perfect .000 light at Tanner Gray but it wasn’t enough as the current points leader padded his total following a close 6.56 to 6.59 victory. Gray is joined in the semifinals by Drew Skillman, Jeg Coughlin Jr., and Vincent Nobile. Gray entered the event as the points leader with Nobile second, Skillman fifth, and Coughlin in the No. 6 spot. KB Racing teammates Bo Butner and Jason Line each succumbed to tire shake in their respective matches against Skillman and Nobile.

Semifinal round pairings (lane choice first): Drew Skillman vs. Jeg Coughlin Jr.; Tanner Gray vs. Vincent Nobile.

matt.JPGPRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE ROUND 2 (1:37 p.m.): Matt Smith is in a prime position to take over the points lead in Pro Stock Motorcycle after reaching the semifinals on his EBR-bodied entry. Smith rode to a 6.869 to defeat Joey Gladstone’s Buell in the quarterfinals. Smith won’t have lane choice, however after Chip Ellis rode to a 6.863 in his win over Angelle Sampey. On the other side of the latter, White Alligator Racing teammates Jerry Savoie and LE Tonglet will meet. Tonglet entered the weekend as the class’ fourth-ranked rider while Savoie, a two-time St. Louis champ, was sixth when the weekend began.

Semifinal round pairings (lane choice first): Chip Ellis vs. Matt Smith; LE Tonglet vs. Jerry Savoie

torrence2.JPGTOP FUEL SEMIFINALS (2:36 p.m.): Steve Torrence only slowed by a thousandth of a second in the semifinals, that’s going to get him into his second-straight final round, keep him in first place in Top Fuel and get him lane choice against Clay Millican. Torrence defeated Leah Pritchett handily despite getting off the starting line second by .005 second. Millican defeated Pat Dakin, who got off the throttle at about 300 feet, and ran a 3.857 to get a shot at his third final round of the season. He won’t have lane choice, which means he’ll likely be in the right lane for the third round in a row. 

hight4.JPGFUNNY CAR SEMIFINALS (2:41 p.m.): Tim Wilkerson got his revenge against J.R. Todd and raced into his second final of the season. That will have massive points implications, especially after Robert Hight took down Tommy Johnson Jr. with a 3.945-second pass. That will give the driver of the AAA Chevy Camaro lane choice over hometown racer Wilkerson in the final, for what that’s worth. More importantly: Hight is in first place heading into the final at Gateway Motorsports Park. Wilkerson enters the final in third place and is hungry to take as many points as possible to Dallas. 

tan.JPGPRO STOCK SEMIFINALS (2:44 p.m.): Tanner Gray reaffirmed his spot atop the Mello Yello Pro Stock standings with a clutch win over Reading winner Vincent Nobile’s Mountain View Camaro. Gray got off the starting line first by .03-second and held on for a 6.57 to 6.59 victory. Gray will take on Reading runner-up Drew Skillman in the final round. Skillman, who is also racing in the Stock Eliminator final, used a 6.58 to beat low qualifier Jeg Coughlin Jr., who shook the tires and slowed to a 6.778.

tong.JPGPRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE SEMIFINALS (2:49 p.m.): After losing the final round in Reading last week, Matt Smith will have a chance to pick up a crucial Countdown win thanks to a 6.879 to 6.901 win over Chip Ellis’ Harley-Davidson. Smith will take on LE Tonglet, who defeated his teammate, Jerry Savoie in an all-Suzuki battle. After the semi’s, Tonglet and Smith engaged in a bit of trash taking with Tonglet all but guaranteeing a win over Smith’s EBR, and what he called it’s “space shuttle bodywork”. Smith quickly replied that he planned to “go fishing” int he final against the Nitro Fish Suzuki.

Competition: David Rampy def. Allen Wilson
Super Stock: Greg Stanfield def. Brad Zaskowski
Stock: Drew Skillman def. Daryl Bureski
Super Comp: Rick Hughes def. Don Higgins
Super Gas: Tim Nicholson def. Mitch Withers
Top Dragster presented by Racing RVs.com: Afton Swanson def. Jennifer White
Top Sportsman presented by Racing RVs.com: Glen Butcher def. Bill Yates
SAM Tech NHRA Factory Stock Showdown: Leah Pritchett def. Stephen Bell

E3 SPARK PLUGS PRO MOD FINAL: Fresh off a win at the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals, Stevie “Fast” Jackson wheeled his Bahrain1 Camaro to a second straight win in the E3 Spark Plugs Pro Mod series. Jackson won the final round over Chad Green, who fouled. Jackson, racing his Shadow 2.0 drag radial car after crashing his primary Pro Mod car earlier this year, finished the rout with a 5.759, 250.88. With two events remaining, Jackson is in a position to challenge leader Mike Janis and Rickie Smith for the Pro Mod Series title.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE FINAL (3:44 p.m.): By the slimmest of margins, a scant .0006-second, Matt Smith claimed a crucial Countdown win aboard his EBR-bodied V-twin. In a rematch of the Chicago final, Smith left first against rival LE Tonglet, .008 to .018 and won on a small holeshot, 6.877 to 6.867. Smith also won the Chicago final and now has 20-wins in his career. Smith is now the points leader with four events remaining in the Countdown to the Champonship playoffs while Tonglet has moved from fourth to second in the standings.

PRO STOCK FINAL (3:47 p.m.): Tanner Gray entered the St. Louis race as the No. 1 seed in Pro Stock and padded his lead with his sixth win of the 2018 season. Gray left with an almost-perfect .004 reaction time and drove his Camaro to a 6.567 after opponent and teammate, Drew Skillman, shook the tires and slowed. Minutes earlier, Skillman had won the Stock Eliminator title in his Cobra Jet Mustang. Gray now has 11 wins in his two seasons in the Pro Stock class.

FUNNY CAR FINAL (3:48 p.m.): Robert Hight captured his third win of the season in spectacular fashion as the AAA Funny Car blew up in the lights. Hight ran a 4.036 to defeat Tim Wilkerson while the body lifted off the flopper. The driver was able to exit his car under his own power.

TOP FUEL FINAL (4:14 p.m.): Steve Torrence is now two-for-two in the Countdown for the Championship. That’s one more race than he won in the playoffs a year ago and just one fewer than he won all last season. Torrence defeated Clay Millican by .068 second after getting a .04 jump at the starting line and tightened his grasp on first place with the victory. 

S_Torrence.jpgTOP FUEL WINNER STEVE TORRENCE: This is going to be a hard-fought war and I couldn't have a better group of guys to fight it with. I feel like "Braveheart" out here and we're just chopping away at it, trying to kill everybody at it with Hoagie and Bobby. I put my faith in them and they give me a great race car every time and I try to not drop the ball. We were low e.t. of nearly every session and I'm very confident going forward. This is all we could have asked for to start the Countdown with back-to-back victories. Clay Millican and David Grubnic are going really hard right now, and you show you're bad when you're beating the baddest and we're doing that right now.

T_Gray.JPGPRO STOCK WINNER TANNER GRAY: “Throughout qualifying we didn’t run as well as we thought we should have. We made some nice runs but never got aggressive enough. Today, we got our heads on straight. We fought back. That [semifinal] round against Vincent [Nobile] was huge. I feel like all of us did a good job of taking it round by round and not really thinking big picture too much. We just focused on what we had to do. I was super proud of everyone on our team. Everything is coming together and it’s really neat to see. The only think I do over there is driver so it’s really gratifying to see the work these guys put in pay off.

Coming into today I had the same mindset that I had last year. Last year in Charlotte, even though I won, I felt like I was racing scared. I felt like I was racing scared in Reading, too. you just can’t do that. You have to lay it all on the line when you’re in the Countdown and if it works out in your favor it works and if not you know you gave it your best. I felt like it showed as far as my reaction times go. I was consistent and I’m pretty proud of that. I’m super happy to be here and really excited to see what the rest of the year holds. End of the year I’m going to be proud of what we accomplished.

M_Smith.jpgPRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE WINNER MATT SMITH: “We started the year on a Suzuki and it fell apart. I had to pull my bike out in Charlotte qualified well and went to semifinals there. Sometimes that [adversity] makes you work harder.

We hurt our good motor Friday night and me and Angie stayed up all night fixing it. Sitting up there, we watched Hector [Jr.] not leave the starting line and then Eddie red-lighted and I thought ‘wow, both of those guys are out.’ Just stay focused, cut a light and see if you can win the first round. We won that and then we won the second round and they told me I had the points lead after that. I had Chip [Ellis] in the semi’s. Harley has brought him out as a blocker. They have three bikes out here trying to whip up on us. We’re gonna do our best. As long as we don’t have any points battles we’ll be fine. Then, I had LE in the final and that was a tight race. My motor is hurt. We limped it thought today and got by. I told people after Indy. We’re going into the Countdown strong. They know we’re here. We can win three of the six Countdown races and win this championship. So far we’ve been to two finals. That’s my goal. Just keep going to final rounds.”




Tony Schumacher runnered up at the Dodge NHRA Nationals and moved into second place in the Top Fuel standings as a result. He followed up that performance with a stellar run of qualifying with the help of crew chief Mike Neff. The U.S. Army Top Fuel Dragster made four-straight 3.70 passes and is qualified No. 6 with a matchup against Richie Crampton in the first round. 

“The last qualifying run was a big one for this U.S. Army Racing team,” said Schumacher. “We have been extremely slow. We were five one-hundredths off and we can’t win a race that way. We made some big changes on that last run and it was an awesome, awesome run. We are heading the right direction. Tomorrow is a long day. No one is safe. I understand there are some cars running better than we are, but this is the beginning. This is when we get the best.”

Those cars he’s referring to, at least chiefly, are the ones driven by Steve Torrence and Clay Millican. Schumacher fell to Torrence in the final in Reading and watched both Torrence and Millican make 3.60 runs at Gateway Motorsports Park. Those have come at a premium this year, something Schumacher is well aware of. 

With that said, Schumacher’s average e.t. is right behind Torrence (3.789 to 3.793) and the U.S. Army dragster is one of the most consistent in the category. If Schumacher hasn’t put up the big numbers during the hero sessions, the team has at least avoided stubbing its toe. That’s a recipe for success in the Countdown. 

The loss to Torrence in Reading was a setback, but there’s still time to bounce back. That starts Sunday at Gateway Motorsports Park. 

There’s a lot of competition for most consistent Top Fuel Dragster at the AAA Insurance NHRA Midwest Nationals, but Leah Pritchett threw her hat into the ring with four-straight 3-second passes. She qualified fifth with a 3.718 and averaged a 3.781, booking her a meeting with Scott Palmer in the first round. 

“Coming into St. Louis, we made some very large wholesale changes,” said Pritchett. “We have stayed committed to them and it’s very pleasing to see the car cooperating to the changes. We went out in Q4 to run a 3.71 and that’s exactly what we did. Picking up six one-hundredths when it counts. We’re just chipping away at it. 

“This is really exciting for the fans and the sport that we’re putting these fast numbers down when we really need to. Tomorrow is race day. We know the car is cooperating. We’ve opened up our tuning window and I can’t wait to get after it tomorrow. This is when you step up for the Countdown.”

Tuner Todd Okuhara talked about the strategy for the team all season: Get ready for the Countdown. Pritchett scored a win at the NHRA Southern Nationals Powered by Mello Yello, but the real goal was to be ready for the playoffs. Based on her performance this weekend, it appears she’s there. 

Pritchett entered Gateway Motorsports Park in fourth place needing 101 points to catch Steve Torrence. A win just outside of St. Louis would do a lot of good for the Don Schumacher Racing driver. 

Mike Salinas threw the rods out of his Scrappers Racing Top Fuel Dragster motor in the process of defeating Brittany Force in the first round but fear not: He’ll have no problem returning for his second-round matchup against Steve Torrence. 

“We’ve got another 11 motors in the trailer, we’re good to go,” said Salinas. “That’s a tough matchup, and really they’re all tough now. It’s a tough deal out there and it only gets tougher from here. If you get out of the first round, you’re fine. Get through the second round, you’re a superhero.” 

Salinas made it to the second round to start his first Countdown to the Championship but fell to Torrence by .003 second. The dragster is moving in the right direction, averaging 3.819 seconds and a success percentage of 50 percent following qualifying. That’s only a couple hundredths behind Torrence, whose success percentage is 68.8 percent. 

The win over Force kept Salinas in seventh place, a win against Torrence would move the San Jose, Calif. native into sixth after Doug Kalitta lost to Antron Brown in the first round. All that after Salinas snuck into the Countdown on the final day of the regular season at the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals. One thing’s for sure: No matter the result, Salinas will be hungry for more. 

Robert Hight earned his third No. 1 qualifier of the season with a stout 3.844-second pass, the quickest since NHRA implemented new track preparation following the NHRA SpringNationals. He will start from the pole and race Dale Creasy at the AAA Insurance NHRA Midwest Nationals while trying to make up ground on Funny Car leader J.R. Todd.

“Jimmy is always pushing. Jimmy loves conditions like this. This is where he excels,” said Hight. “My Camaro went down the track all four runs in qualifying. That gives you confidence on race day. Everybody is bunched up. This championship is going to be a fight right down to Pomona and I just hope that I am in it.”

That consistency is a step in the right direction for Hight, who now has a success percentage of 60.2. That means the AAA Funny Car is getting down the track quicker than 4.19 seconds slightly better than 60 percent of the time, which is better than the class average of 52.3 percent. Hight also leads the class with an e.t. average of 3.995 seconds. 

“Jimmy is happy,” he said. “You can just tell when he is searching and trying to find a set up you can see he has a different demeanor. We are not there right now. He has confidence. He doesn’t go to the box a lot. You hear him and (co-crew chief) Chris (Cunningham) on the radio and they have a set-up and a game plan which is working. If I wouldn’t have screwed it up last week we had a great shot at winning that race. Tomorrow I have to focus on my driving and doing my best because I have a great race car.”

Hight turned on the red light during the Dodge NHRA Nationals, costing him a shot at moving up the standings. That was his first foul start of the season in 46 attempts. He still leads the Funny Car field with a reaction time average of .069 second. That’s a recipe for success as the defending champ searches for his third title. 

Matt Hagan has not had the season he wanted yet. There’s still time to turn that around, but back-to-back races qualified in the bottom half of the field isn’t exactly what the Mopar Funny Car team dreamed up. The numbers tell one story – Hagan’s average e.t. is 4.018 seconds and he’s getting down the track 62.5 percent of the time -- but they’re trending in the wrong direction.

Hagan now drives the sixth-quickest Funny Car in the field, behind teammate Ron Capps and Tommy Johnson Jr. The Mopar Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat is a thousandth quicker than Jack Beckman, but slightly less consistent. A year ago, Hagan and crew chief Dickie Venables took advantage of killer conditions at Gateway Motorsports Park like they’ve done many times in the past. That’s proved more difficult under new track prep conditions. 

“This is a car, and a team, that’s become accustomed to swinging for the fences,” said Hagan. “Everything on this car, from the six-disc clutch to the blower, everything was tuned up to get it to go as quick as possible. So, we’ve really struggled to pull it back without pulling it back too much. It’s just not gone the way we want it to so far.” 

Hagan hasn’t let that get in the way of his driving. He’s averaging a .070 reaction time, fourth best in the Funny Car field and remains one of the best at making moves down track. If the Mopar team solves the track prep, it remains a threat for a championship. Hagan has his work cut out for him: he faces Tim Wilkerson in the first round. 

Tim Wilkerson already moved into a tie with a Courtney Force by advancing to the semifinals for the second-straight event on the Mello Yello NHRA Drag Racing tour. He’s attempting to do even better than that by defeating J.R. Todd for the second time in his Funny Car career and reach the final for the second time this season. 

Winning in St. Louis could put Wilkerson at the top of the standings if Robert Hight falls to Tommy Johnson Jr. on the other side of the ladder, but no matter how you slice or dice the points, this has been an excellent race for the Funny Car veteran. It’s coming off a season-long progression for the Levi, Ray and Shoup team that has the Funny Car averaging runs of 4.039 seconds. 

That’s still below average in the class (4.026), but it’s a vast improvement in terms of consistency. Wilkerson gets down the race track 55.7 percent of the time after spending most of the season below 50 percent. He’s not quite at the top of the pack (60 percent and above seems to be where the “elite members” reside) but the car owned and tuned by Wilkerson (with a lot of help from Richard Hartman) is peaking at the right time. 

There’s still work to be done, and getting by Todd has been difficult for Wilk all year – whether there’s any magic or voodoo in it has yet to be determined by our resident witch doctor. Banking another 20-40 points at Gateway Motorsports Park would put the team right on track for its first ever Funny Car championship. There’s still a long way to go, but so far, so good for the team that feels like it could. 

Charlie Westcott doesn’t measure his success against other drivers, only against his own standards and to that end, he’s pleased with the recent progress of his Ford-powered Pro Stock Mustang. Westcott is the only driver in Pro Stock who is still developing a Ford engine and his busy schedule makes him a part-time racer, at best. Still, he was pleased to run a personal best 6.733 at 205.36 mph. Westcott is qualified 13th and has a round one race against two-time world champion Erica Enders.

“We’ve made gains and we’re making better runs,” said Westcott, who earned fame as a multi-time winner of the Mopar Hemi Challenge event at Indy. “My whole goal when we started this was to get within a tenth of the leaders and we’re not quite there yet, but we’re a lot closer than we were. For me, the biggest issue is the EFI tuning. I really didn’t have much experience with that and I’m sure we’re leaving a lot on the table.”

Westcott admits that he’s been accepted by almost every member of the Pro Stock community, many of whom have offered valuable advice and tuning assistance. He singled out two-time world champ Jim Yates as someone who has helped him with chassis tuning.

“You can learn a lot about an engine by making dyno pulls, but that means nothing when you get the engine in the car and get the car to the track,” said Westcott. “You’ve got to make runs to learn anything and I don’t get to do that too often. I went to Indy knowing I probably wouldn’t qualify but I did get to make five runs. I also got to make four runs here and they’ve been four of the best runs I’ve made. I’m happy to qualify because I get a little money and I also get to make another run under race conditions. That helps with every area from engine, clutch and chassis tuning and also my driving. I still don’t have many runs in one of these cars so I’ve also got a lot to learn.”

A 6.568 for Kenny Delco represents not only his best run of the season, but also a big step up for the veteran driver, who won his lone Pro Stock event in 1990. Delco qualified 12th in the tough field, but is only .05-.06 second behind the pace set by the lead cars. That’s a credit to engine builder Frank Iaconio, who won the first 500-cid Pro Stock event at the 1982 Winternationals.

“Every now and then we can still bust one off,” said Delco. “We just haven’t done that in a while. I don’t want this to come out the wrong way but that .56 was a good run, but we should have run quicker. I hit the [rev-limiter] chip and it was far from perfect. Frank’s engines peak at 10,300 rpm [below the mandated 10,500 rpm limit] and it’s easy to hit the chip. The car was still pulling but you lose a hundredth or two.

“This is basically the same stuff we ran at Indy, although we’ve been playing round with different manifolds and camshafts,” Delco said. “The numbers aren’t really relevant but the important thing is that when we ran that 6.56, is was the best corrected run we’ve made with this car. That’s a little bit of progress. We weren’t even going to come to this race until last Monday. It was a last second decision.”

Heading into the first round of eliminations at the AAA Insurance NHRA Midwest Nationals, Angelle Sampey is hoping that the third time is the charm. Sampey, the No. 9 qualifier after her impressive 6.871 effort in Saturday’s final qualifying session, is slated to race recent Reading winner Hector Arana Jr. Sampey has raced Arana Jr. twice this season, in Sonoma and Brainerd, and both of them have been blowout losses. Competing in her 234th event as a pro, Sampey is hoping this time it sill be different.

“You can’t take Hector lightly,” Sampey said. “He’s going to bring his best and I plan on doing the same. I’ve got a little bit of redemption to get after my mishap in Reading last weekend in the first round, but I know I’ve got the power to turn on that win light. If I do my job as a rider, we really could go rounds.”

Sampey lost a close battle to Angie Smith in the opening round of the Countdown last week in Reading so she’s mired in tenth place in the points standings. While a run at a fourth Mello Yello series championship is almost certainly out of the question, she’s optimistic about her chances to improve during the last five races of the season.

“Honestly, I’m not even thinking about a championship or even points for that matter,” Sampey said. “I just want to put together a few round wins on this Liberty bike. It’s no secret that both Cory [Reed, teammate] and I have struggled this year but we’ve made a lot of progress. Larry Morgan [engine builder] has really helped turn our program around, especially when it comes to reliability. Now, he’s working hard at finding horsepower. We’re really not that far off.”

Sampey also benefitted from some kind words from her new teammate, Joey Gladstone, who has replaced team owner Reed for the balance of the 2018 season. Gladstone also qualified on the last session with a 6.896.

“When you are on a team with someone like Angelle Sampey, you learn to never give up,” Gladstone said at the top end after making it into the field in the 13th spot. “We don’t like to get into the field in such dramatic fashion, but I’m so blessed right now. I can’t thank this team enough for everything.”

LE Tonglet ran a 6.812 to qualify No. 3 in the stout Pro Stock Motorcycle field but he’s not exactly thrilled to be five-hundredths behind the pace set by qualifying leader Chip Ellis and the Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson team. Tonglet trails both Ellis and his teammate Andrew Hines, who ran a 6.782. He’s also wary of Matt Smith, who has been the top qualifier at several events recently with his EBR-bodied V-twin.

“I made a good run; for a Suzuki,” said Tonglet. “I mean it was a good run but that’s about all we’ve got. I couldn’t run 6.76. Matt [Smith] said that he was going to step up so I’m sure he’s got another three or four hundredths. If that’s not sandbagging, I don’t know what is. I know those [EBR] bodies are good but you can’t run 199-mph without some serious horsepower, too. I’m just saying it’s not a fair fight right now.”

Despite his objections, Tonglet remains one of the riders that no one wants to face on race day. The 2010 world champ enters eliminations in St. Louis with a 22-8 win loss record this season and he’s got just two round one losses on his record. Fourth in the Mello Yello standings, the Nitro Fish rider is very much in contention for his second title.

The oft-used drag racing term “crew chief by committee” perfectly defines Steve Johnson’s Pro Stock Motorcycle operation these days. Johnson has always received tuning help from people within the Pro Stock Motorcycle community, specifically the Vance & Hines team that supplies his inline four-cylinder engines. Lately, Johnson has accepted help from other sources, and while he doesn’t want to name them specifically, one of them is Pro Stock racer Chris McGaha, who has spent his share of time at Johnson’s trailer lately.

“I like to call it an advisory committee,” said Johnson. “I seriously can’t name all the people who’ve helped me because I’m sure I’d leave someone out but it’s about eight people. Each one has their own particular area of expertise. I like to say that the most valuable tuning tool I have is my cell phone. I have a lot of people I can call at anytime and they’re all valuable resources. My biggest concern on any given weekend is having enough bandwith to stay in touch with everyone.”

Throughout his career, Johnson has often noted that the time he spends marketing his team has taken away from the competitive aspects of his Suzuki. More recently, he’s changed his mindset in an effort to get back to the winner’s circle for the first time since the 2014 season-opener in Gainesville.

“I just want to win so badly,” said Johnson. “I’ve really tried to focus on things that make this bike more competitive. Of course, all the advisory committee members in the world won’t help you get the clutch out on time. That’s still my responsibility.”

UPDATE: Johnson lost in the first round on a holeshot when his 6.849 lost to Angie Smith's 6.879 by just .002-second.


Focused on a championship. 

Race day ready.

All in a line for JEGS.com.

The Countdown is on. 


Roll it in.