Fitzgerald USA NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals Sunday Notebook

17 Jun 2018
NHRA National Dragster staff
Race coverage

Ladders | Features | Photos | Results


ab1.jpgTOP FUEL ROUND 1 (12:25 p.m.): Antron Brown had low e.t. of the first round, a surprising 3.897 on an already-hot track to take down Richie Crampton. He’ll take on his good pal, Steve Torrence, for 33rd time in their careers; Torrence beat Shawn Reed but at the cost of a blown supercharger in the lights. Tony Schumacher also impressed with a 3.917 in beating Terry McMillen and will take on Pat Dakin, who upset the higher qualified machine of Dom Lagana.

Second-round pairings (lane choice first): Clay Millican vs. Mike Salinas; Doug Kalitta vs. Scott Palmer; Tony Schumacher vs. Pat Dakin; Antron Brown vs. Steve Torrence

tasca3.jpgFUNNY CAR ROUND 1 (12:55 p.m.): Bob Tasca III had the best run of the opening round with a 4.133 in his all-Mustang battle with fellow Ford campaigner Tim Wilkerson and will get to pick his lane against Cruz Pedregon in round two. The round’s marquee matchup pitted reigning event champ Ron Capps against 16-time world champ John Force, with Capps getting his 38th win in 94 tries against Force. Low qualifier Courtney Force also looked good with a 4.169 in beating Jonnie Lindberg.

Second-round pairings (lane choice first): Courtney Force vs. Tommy Johnson Jr.; Bob Tasca III vs. Cruz Pedregon; J.R. Todd vs. Jack Beckman; Ron Capps vs. Robert Hight

erica3.JPGPRO STOCK ROUND 1 (1:14 p.m.): A couple of red lights and an Erica Enders holeshot highlighted the first round of the doorslamming category. Enders was not her characteristically stellar self while hitting the tree against Jason Line, but she scored enough of an advantage to beat the Summit Chevy Camaro racer. Her former teammate, Drew Skillman, posted low elapsed time of the round with a 6.715 to beat Alan Prusiensky handily. He was tightly followed by Greg Anderson (6.716) and Jeg Coughlin Jr. (6.719), but the rest of the field has some work to do. 

Second-round pairings (lane choice first): Greg Anderson vs. Vincent Nobile; Jeg Coughlin Jr. vs. Chris McGaha; Drew Skillman vs. Erica Enders; Tanner Gray vs. Tim Freeman

salinas.jpgTOP FUEL ROUND 2 (2:10 p.m.): Mike Salinas ended Clay Millican’s Bristol Dragway winning streak at five rounds when he beat the up-in-smoke defending event champ to reach the semifinals, where he’ll take on Scott Palmer; both are looking for their first career wins. Tony Schumacher, who hasn’t won in more than a year, will take on the points leader, Steve Torrence, who won a tire-smoking battle with good pal Antron Brown for the seventh time in their last 10 meetings.

Semifinal pairings (lane choice first): Mike Salinas vs. Scott Palmer; Tony Schumacher vs. Steve Torrence

jrt.jpgFUNNY CAR ROUND 2 (2:35 p.m.): J.R. Todd, a two-time winner already this season, has reached the semifinals for the third time in the last four events, taking down Jack Beckman, who was second in points, with a 4.203. He’ll have lane choice when he takes on defending event champ Ron Capps, who beat Robert Hight with a 4.208, in the semifinals. Points leader Courtney Force, in pursuit of her fifth win this season, will pick her lane over Bob Tasca III, thanks to a 4.197, which was the quickest run of the round.

Semifinal pairings (lane choice first): Courtney Force vs. Bob Tasca III; J.R. Todd vs. Ron Capps

greg3_0.JPGPRO STOCK ROUND 2 (2:46 p.m.): Nobody went quicker than Greg Anderson in the second stanza of action, and the former world champion moved into the semifinals for the fourth time this year. He’s going to try to get to his second Pro Stock final of the season, but first he’ll need to get by Tanner Gray. Anderson gets to pick his lane against the second-year racer. There’s a chance we’ll see an all Gray Motorsports final as Drew Skillman took down Erica Enders with a 6.727 on the other side of the ladder. All he has to do is beat Jeg Coughlin Jr. to reach the final in Bristol.

Second round pairings (lane choice first): Greg Anderson vs. Tanner Gray; Drew Skillman vs. Jeg Coughlin Jr.

Chad Green flipped his car after his parachutes failed to deploy during the second round of Pro Mod. Green exited his Chevy Camaro under his own power. 

shoe3.jpgTOP FUEL SEMIFINALS (3:55 p.m.): Tony Schumacher, winless in more than a year, will compete in his 150th career final, where he will face off with Mike Salinas, who reached his first final round in just his 25th start in a Top Fueler. Salinas, who will have lane choice, becomes the 159th different driver to appear in an NHRA Top Fuel final round. Schumacher defeated points leader Steve Torrence in what, amazingly, was their first head-to-head match in more than a season (2017 Atlanta) while Salinas stopped Scott Palmer from what would have been his second career final.

cappssun2.jpgFUNNY CAR SEMIFINALS (4 p.m.): Defending event champ Ron Capps will race in his second straight Bristol final and the 115th of his career after defeating J.R Todd in the semi’s with a 4.24. In the other lane in the final will be Bob Tasca III, making his first final-round appearance since the 2013 Seattle event. Tasca’s last victory came in Dallas in 2012, but he will have final-round lane choice over Capps thanks to his 4.21 victory over low qualifier Courtney Force.

jeg2.JPGPRO STOCK SEMIFINALS (4:04 p.m.): It took Jeg Coughlin Jr. a while to get back in a groove, but after winning a Pro Stock Wally for the first time in more than three years in Chicago, he’s got a chance at a second in Bristol. Drew Skillman turned on the red light against the former world champion, ending his chances of at the hit. It’ll be a rematch of the Chicago final as Coughlin will battle Greg Anderson, who crushed the tree with a .007 light to defeat Tanner Gray on a holeshot. Coughlin will have lane choice against Anderson thanks to a .013-second elapsed time advantage. 

TOP FUEL HARLEY FINAL (4:22 p.m.): Tii Tharpe collected his third win of the season and the fifth of his career, taking an easy win when Doug Vancil red-lighted.

SAM TECH FACTORY STOCK SHOWDOWN FINAL (4:30 p.m.): Joe Welch drove his Drag Pak Challenger, near lane, to an easy final-round victory when points leader Archie Kohn fouled in his COPO Camaro.    

LUCAS OIL DRAG RACING SERIES FINALS: In addition to the Mello Yello and E3 Spark Plugs Pro Mod action, racing also was contested in six Lucas Oil Series categories. Final-round results:

Super Stock
Scott Stillings vs. Ed Longhany

Eddie Longhany Jr. def. Joe Santangelo

Super Comp
Tyler Caheely def. Jacob Elrod

Super Gas
Steve Furr def. Ray Miller

Top Dragster
Aaron Stanfield def. Joe Fisher

Top Sportsman
Jeff Brooks def. Royce Freeman

E3 SPARK PLUGS PRO MOD FINAL (5:03 p.m.): Khalid alBalooshi and his nitrous-assisted Bahrain 1 Camaro, far lane, defeated Danny Rowe to collect the event win, 5.92 to 5.94. It was alBalooshi’s fourth Pro Mod win, and his first in nearly two years. He also won four NHRA Top Fuel titles.

PRO STOCK FINAL (5:09 p.m.): Jeg Coughlin Jr., near lane, won his 60th Pro Stock Wally by defeating Greg Anderson with a significantly better elapsed time. Coughlin ran a 6.709 to win for the second time this year and to pick up a Wally of some sort for the third event in a row. Anderson came up short, this time by .032 second, for the second time this year.

FUNNY CAR FINAL (5:15 p.m.): Defending event champ Ron Capps, near lane, scored his first win this season and the 59th of his career – 58 of which have come in Funny Car -- stopping Bob Tasca III in the final. 4.23 to 4.30. It’s Capps’ fifth win at Bristol Dragway. The victory is the 300th for team owner Don Schumacher.

TOP FUEL FINAL (5:18 p.m.): Tony Schumacher, far lane, made it 301 wins for his dad, team owner Don, when he defeated an up-in-smoke Mike Salinas to collect his 84th career win. Schumacher’s last win came in Gainesville 2017, for more than a year ago.

J_Coughlin.JPGPRO STOCK WINNER JEG COUGHLIN JR.: "All the Sportsman racers and the bracket racers around the world know I'm very proud of (my Super Comp win in Richmond). A win here at the historic Thunder Valley means a lot. I've been coming here since the 1980s when it was in its old format with the old tower and everything, so this is great. We were really great from the time we unloaded and had a competitive car today. They were pulling their hair out today because the track was so hot today, but they had some great setups. The car felt totally different than it did in Virginia a week ago but it was all good with me because we were riding smooth down there. Wheelies and burnouts are fun.

"There are 15 or 16 other Pro Stockers out there right now that want to decapitate me, no question, and we'll be in Norwalk in a few days on our best behavior then. I've been blessed with some of the best crew chiefs, engine builders and car chiefs and we've got a lot of great things to show for it. The No. 1 thing for us is family, I work with my brothers back in Ohio and that means a lot to me." 

R_Capps.JPGFUNNY CAR WINNER RON CAPPS: “This is just such a great place. When you roll into certain places there’s just a feeling you get. When Bruton [Smith] rebuilt this track, you can’t find a finer facility and being in the winner’s circle at historic tracks like this just seem stand out a little more.

“It’s gotten a little tricky here over the last couple of years. I think it add character and it feels like you just had to earn it a little more. When I got in the [trailer] lounge yesterday, [crew chief Rahn] Tobler was so down on himself, it looked like someone just kicked his dog, because we hadn’t run good, and those are times you need to play cheerleader. I just reminded him that he was going to find it, that he’s been the bar the last few years under these conditions, the guy who would make other crew chiefs go home and retire. I knew he would find it and he did. He found a clutch-disc problem and away we went.”

T_Schumacher.JPGTOP FUEL WINNER TONY SCHUMACHER: “It took us a little whole to figure out the track prep because we spent 15 years developing clutches that would take stout racetracks and making a car go as fast as it can under stout conditions, then we tricked it when [NHRA] slowed them down a little bit. It’s difficult for guys who have had one mentality, of giving the car everything it can take to back it down. We had to have some time. Great teams get through the adversity, we figure it out.

“Throughout this weekend and last we knew we had a great car and that it was getting figured out, and that we were learning how to slip the clutch. We’ve got great minds in our camp. We had guys over from Leah [Pritchett’s] car helping out. Great teamwork. We had a game plan and went after it. What I like about Mike [Neff, crew chief] and Phil [Shuler] is that the car will do what they say it will, whether it’s fast or not, they have a handle on it. They understand what the racecar can do, and what the track will take.”


antron_0.jpgAntron Brown has never won in Bristol – and surprisingly, hasn’t won anywhere since Seattle of last year -- but he’d love to cross both of those items off his checklist this weekend.

He’s gotten close to winning in Bristol twice, in 2000 in Pro Stock Motorcycle, where he was runner behind Matt Hines at the non-points-earning Winston Showdown, and in 2011, where he fell frustratingly short against Larry Dixon in the Top Fuel final.

“I had Dixon beat and hit my parachute to early and lost by three-thousandths of a second,” he recalled painfully. “I cannot believe I did that because it was like, ‘I’ve got him, I’ve got … what am I doing?’ I killed myself over that. I want to win every race I go to, so to give one away like that was pretty painful.

“Last week [at the Virginia NHRA Nationals] was my fault I pushed the tree too hard and red-lighted [against Steve Torrence in the semi’s],” he said. “I would have the best run of that round. The team showed up for that round but the driver didn’t. I pushed it. I went out there to annihilate the Tree, and the Tree got the best of me and I just let these boys down. I just wanted it too bad and that’s when it bites you, when you try too hard.

“Still, Virginia definitely was our breakout race for us. We didn’t qualify where we wanted to, but we made great strides each and every round and our car went down the track, every lap except for one.”


Current Kalitta Motorsport drivers have enjoyed quite a bit of success at Bristol Raceway. Team owner Connie Kalitta reached the final of the 1965 Springnationals but was defeated there by Maynard Rupp. When NHRA returned to Bristol –- home of the NHRA Springnationals from 1965 through 1967 –- in 2011, Doug Kalitta was the first Top Fuel winner, besting Tony Schumacher in the final round, denying Schumacher what would have been just his sixth career win (today he has 83). 

Since then, Doug Kalitta has won the event twice more – back to back in 2005-06 – and has been runner-up three more times, twice to Schumacher (2009 and 2012) and most recently in 2014, when he fell to current Funny Car teammate Shawn Langdon, who then was then the defending world champ while driving in Top Fuel for the Al-Anabi team.

Richie Crampton, Kalitta’s current Top Fuel teammate, also has an event win here, in 2015, where he beat Larry Dixon while driving for Morgan Lucas Racing.


capps-sun.jpgWhen Ron Capps won the Thunder Valley Nationals last year on Father’s Day, he sent the trophy to his dad, who showed it off like the proud father he is.

“He started Facebook page for the Wally and took it up and down the central [California] coast where I grew up – San Luis Obispo, Paso Robles, all those towns – showing it all the old-school racers and people who had been an influence on me and helped me in my career. “he said. “I don’t give them out a whole lot because they’re so hard to get and such a cool thing to admire. You forget that not everyone has had the chance to hold one. I’m spoiled because I’ve gotten a lot of these and you sometime stake them for granted.”

If he’s fortunate enough to win again this weekend, the trophy is going to team owner Don Schumacher.

“We’ve had a rough start to the season as a team, by our standards anyway,” he said. “Don is used to getting on the plane for the ride home with at least one Wally and sometimes two. He gives us everything we need, so we want to win for him. I’ve driven for him for 13 years which is a long time in motorsports, and he’s been like a dad to me. He’s got seven kids with his drivers, but I’d like to be the favorite son this weekend.”


terry.JPGTerry McMillen did not run well during qualifying at Bristol Dragway. He enters Sunday as the No. 15 qualifier and will race Tony Schumacher in the first round as a result. His best run, a 4.724, is one of a pair of 4.70s the Indianan laid down during qualifying. He and crew chief Rob Wendland have, like many teams, struggled with the racing surface. 

“We always run the clutch really hard,” said McMillen. That usually shows up in the early numbers of the track, where McMillen has been solid this weekend. “What’s happening is when we get down there it’s just dumping the clutch.” 

To translate: Once McMillen gets past half-track, the dragster is going silent and coasting to the finish line. That’s a problem many teams are having, but it’s more concerning for McMillen that he hasn’t made a clean run yet. 

He thinks Wendland has found the problem, but McMillen will have his hands full in the first round against Schumacher. The Sarge qualified on the back of a 3.83 and only stubbed his toe in the first round of qualifying. Since then, he’s at least kept pace with the rest of the pack. It’s going to be a wild Sunday, but McMillen just hopes it’s a long one. 


Today is Father’s Day, and Tommy Johnson Jr. knows all about winning on Father’s Day. His first career win, which came in Alcohol Funny Car, occurred on Father’s Day 1988 at the Springnationals in Columbus, Ohio, and he’s won three more times since then on Father’s Day, in Englishtown in 2007 and here in Bristol twice, in 2014 and 2016

Today is also his father’s birthday, so it’s a double celebration for his dad, and one’s he’d love to acknowledge with a win.

“I told him that would be good with me; ‘I didn’t really get you anything, so I’ll get you a trophy.’ “

Like their Don Schumacher Racing teammates in the NAPA camp, the Make-A-Wish crew, led by John Collins, has reverted to the five-disc clutch they only began racing recently.

“We have so much more data on the five-disc,” he explained. “We only started running the six-disc at the Finals last year. We don’t know changes to make to make it do what we want it to do; this we know exactly what to do.

“As a driver I loved the six-disc because it makes the car run as smooth as a glass; the five disc is violent and jerky. It’s a huge difference. We switched back in Richmond last weekend and on the first run we made I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I remember this.’ It’s a lot harder to drive but we feel a lot more comfortable with it on tricky tracks.


medlen.jpgJohn Medlen has been around nitro racing long enough to remember when the data recorder had just 12 channels and the results were printed out on a narrow sheet of thermal paper. You wanted to compare one run against another, you layered the printouts and held them up to a light. Today’s crew chiefs typically get 80 or more data points per run, tracking everything from clutch wear to front-suspension travel, all collated by a computer program that displays on a computer screen to be overlaid, compared, and contrasted with any other run in their history.

Medlen, today one third of the tuning triumvirate –- along with Dean Antonelli and Neal Strausbaugh -- on the Jack Beckman-driven Infinite Hero Dodge, has been tuning nitro cars for nearly four decades and says that there’s still something to be learned on every run, even for a veteran like him.

“ ‘Jungle’ Jim Liberman used to say it –- and Austin Coil would quote him on it –- ‘If you’re too careful, you’re never going to learn anything by accident,’ and there’s some truth to that.

“I remember one time when I was tuning Tony [Pedregon, in 2003, during their shared time t John Force Racing], and got to the end of the year at Las Vegas where we needed to win the race to win the championship, Friday night we go up there and we were low [qualifier] by three- our four hundredths. When we got back to the pits, we found that the [ignition] retard box didn’t work so it had full lead the whole way. Coil told me, ‘That’ a lucky shot; it’ll never do that again,’ he told me I would have to be insane to do it again, but that if we did he would cover for me with the boss [Force], so we tried it again and it did the same thing within a thousandth. We ran it that way for a year and a half. We didn’t understand why it worked at the time and one day it stopped working, but for a while it was really something.

“I was reminded of this last weekend in Richmond, which was this last race that Eric [Medlen, his late son] won [in 2006], and he asked if we could try that again. By that time, we’d had a tire change and some other changes but we tried it anyway, and, again, we were low by three- to four-hundredths and we won the race. We learned a lot from that, including how to run the clutch.

“Unfortunately, even today, nothing is so crystal clear that you can look at one run and know that you need to do this, this, and this and it will be perfect. There are too many variables, like track prep to get that kind of answer. Whatever it is that’s unpredictable is what’s going to bite you.”


Deric Kramer got back on track at the Fitzgerald USA NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals after taking a planned week off during the Virginia NHRA Nationals. The racer, enjoying a breakout season, never intended to compete at all 24 events and will likely miss the New England NHRA Nationals in July, too. 

“It was nice having a weekend off for once, and it was also my birthday weekend,” said Kramer. “People kept asking me what I wanted to do, and I just told them, ‘nothing.’ I wanted to sit at home and not do anything because I don’t get to do that very often.”

Enter this weekend where Kramer is qualified No. 7 and meets Chris McGaha in the first round. Kramer earned his first Pro Stock Wally during the Menards NHRA Heartland Nationals, but his Chevy Camaro is still very much a work in progress. With an average elapsed time of 6.599 (class average is 6.596) there’s room to get quicker, but Kramer is focused on consistency. 

“I’m really happy with where the car is performance wise,” said Kramer. “We definitely want to be a little more consistent than where we are. We joked the last time out that we either qualify No. 1 or we qualify No. 8. We don’t really have a lot of experience in between those two and we’d like to try to work on that a little bit and consistently be a top four car."

He's a lot closer to No. 8 than No. 1 this weekend, but with a car that can help him get his second national event win. Three-straight runs in the low 6.70s ought to give Kramer the confidence he needs to do his thing on race day. 

“Having a lot of power makes it so that I don’t feel I absolutely have to be perfect every single time,” he said. “That takes a little pressure off of me as a driver and that’s good. It’s hard to race that way all the time with all that pressure on you. Knowing the car can bail you out once in a while is good.”

Kramer and McGaha made runs .004 second apart in the final qualifying session. This should be a good one. 

Drew Skillman made a run to the semifinals at the Virginia NHRA Nationals and hopes to become the ninth Pro Stock winner on the season at the Fitzgerald USA NHRA Nationals. That starts with a first-round matchup against Alan Prusiensky. The only run Skillman’s Chevy Camaro truly struggled on was the third, though he was only eighth quickest in the final session. 

“We finally made some decent runs,” said Skillman. “This car ahs been better than what it’s shown. We had some engine trouble in Richmond, but I probably should have been in the final round. I don’t know if I would have had anything for Erica, but it was good to see Tanner seal that deal for the team. We have the car and we have the power to get it done.”

A strong 2017 for Skillman unraveled during the Countdown to the Championship. He enters race day in seventh place, but only 119 points behind Greg Anderson for the points lead. It took about half a season for the Indianan to hit his stride in 2017, and if this year follows the same script it might be time for a breakout. 

Getting through four rounds in Bristol takes something a little different than in Richmond, as a tricky surface posed problems for teams all through qualifying. For Pro Stock, it presents an interesting challenge. 

“High gear is on the bump here, so the (shift light) will come on and you’re not there yet (on the RPM reading) so you kinda gotta guess,” said Skillman. “So, the motor might be flaring and turning on that light and you can get a false reading.”

Just another reminder that there’s nothing easy about driving a Pro Stock car. 

After a completer rewiring of his Fitzgerald USA Pro Stocker, Alex Laughlin, wait for it, thinks they’ve found the problem. That electrical problem plagued the team for the past several races, sending Laughlin from an early-season contender to 11th place. Sitting outside of a Countdown spot at this stage of the season isn’t where the racer wants to be, but on Sunday he’s got an event title to worry about. 

“That was it,” Laughlin said, possibly more relieved than happy. “Whatever the bug was, it looks like we got it when we totally rewired the car. Now I can just focus on driving.”

Laughlin got into the field as the No. 5 qualified car and will race Time Freeman in the first round. He made a pair of solid runs on Friday but failed to get down the track on either of his passes Saturday. Many teams were trying to find the edge in the 60-foot area, and it appears Laughlin found it twice. 

After four straight first-round losses, getting into the quarterfinals would be a big positive for Laughlin. His last round win came at the NGK Spark Plugs NHRA Four-Wide Nationals in Charlotte and he’s still looking for his first final appearance of the year. 

In spite of those struggles, Laughlin is only 86 points behind teammate Jeg Coughlin Jr. to try to get into the final Countdown to the Championship spot. That starts with at least one round win, and preferably a whole lot more, in Bristol. 


Doughnuts for Dad, courtesy of Krispy Kreme, served coffee and donuts to dads and others to help celebrate Father’s Day.

The SealMaster Track Walk allowed fans to traverse the actual racing surface of the famed Thunder Valley track.

The U.S. Army Golden Knights showed off their precision parachute skills for the second straight day prior to the start of eliminations.

Deric Kramer, who scored his first career Pro Stock win earlier this year in Topeka, is sharing the dad with his dad, David.

Top Fuel’s Terry McMillen celebrated Father's Day by walking onto the stage during pre-race introductions with son Cam.

Greg Anderson was saluted for claiming his 100th career No. 1 position in Pro Stock; he’s one of only four drivers to reach that milestone.

Top Fuel’s Leah Pritchett, one of many Women of Power who are role models for kids, was greeted by a young fan

Bristol Dragway general manager Jerry Caldwell welcomed Mark Oswald to the Legends of Thunder Valley fraternity.

Erica Enders sent a Father's Day message to her dad, Gregg, on the back window of her Camaro Pro Stocker.

The event champs, from left, Tony Schumacher, Jeg Coughlin Jr., and Ron Capps celebrated their victories together.


Here are the first-round matchups and ladders for Sunday's eliminations.