A tremendous rookie season has only pushed Pro Stock driver Tanner Gray to raise the bar even higher for the 2018 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season, which is why a strong start to the year is important for the rising star.
It didn’t happen at the season-opener in Pomona, where Gray fell in the first round to eventual winner and defending world champion Bo Butner. That hasn’t dampened Gray’s spirits heading to this weekend’s NHRA Arizona Nationals at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, where the 18-year-old talent looks to make an early-season impact in his Valvoline/Nova Services Chevrolet Camaro.
“I feel very good going into Phoenix,” said Gray, who was named NHRA’s top rookie in 2017, earning NHRA’s Auto Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award after winning five races. “We think we fixed our problem from Pomona, had some tune up issues. It's crazy how tough it is to get these things running right, I feel like we are still constantly learning about the fuel injection stuff but we got it fixed and, all in all, I feel confident going into this weekend.”
Leah Pritchett (Top Fuel), Matt Hagan (Funny Car) and Greg Anderson (Pro Stock) were last year’s winners of a race that will be televised nationally on Fox Sports 1 (FS1), including finals coverage starting at 6:30 p.m. EST on Sunday, Feb. 25. The race is the second of 24 during the 2018 NHRA campaign and a big 2017 only has Gray anxious for more this season.
He went to seven final rounds, earning four No. 1 qualifiers and won the opening race of the Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship, jumping into the points lead at that moment. Some late-season stumbles dropped him to fourth overall, but it still ended up being a promising rookie year. It brings added attention and maybe some extra pressure, but Gray is ready to accomplish more.
“It was definitely a great start,” Gray said. “My expectations for this year are the same as I had last year – to win. I try to take it race by race and not get too far ahead of myself. I feel like if I can go to each race focused on winning that race then I'll be a lot better off. I try not to think about the championship too much, we just gotta take it race by race and see where the chips fall.”
Gray’s first career Pro Stock win came in his fourth career start, with the early success paying major dividends the rest of the year. Knowing full well what a win can do for the team’s momentum, Gray is eager to have a strong result in Phoenix. He’ll have to get by the likes of Butner and his KB Racing teammates Anderson and Jason Line, who each have two wins in Phoenix, two-time world champ Erica Enders, two-time event winner Jeg Coughlin, Alex Laughlin, Deric Kramer and teammate Drew Skillman. But Gray learned a great deal during those high-pressure situations a year ago, something that will likely benefit him throughout the 2018 season.
“Every race is important to me,” Gray said. “I mean, obviously it's not to the magnitude of a Countdown race when you're running for a championship, but every race matters and every point matters. Drag racing is so close and every single point you can get will benefit you at some point throughout the season.”
Hagan won the first two races of 2017 in Funny Car, and hopes to repeat that after a win in Pomona against defending world champion Robert Hight and 2016 world champ Ron Capps.
The event also features thrilling competition in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series, where future stars of the sport hone their skills and the 2018 Mickey Thompson Tires Top Fuel Harley Drag Racing Series. Following nitro qualifying during the weekend five jet cars thrill the fans during the NHRA Arizona Nationals. Taking to the track will be jet cars operated by Segal Motorsports with Shelly Segal running the ‘FireStarter’, AA Motorsports with Scott Arriaga running ‘Wicked Sinsation’ jet Dragster, and Tim Smith running the ‘American Freedom Fighter’ jet dragster. The Lucas Oil will showcase their two ‘Muy Caliente’ during the race. Known for their exciting pre-run flame shows and after burner pops, jet cars are thrust driven vehicles propelled by jet engines.
Mello Yello Drag Racing Series qualifying will feature two rounds at 1:30 and 4 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 23 and the final two rounds of qualifying on Saturday, Feb. 24, also at 1:30 and 4 p.m. Final eliminations are scheduled for 11 a.m. on Sunday, Feb. 25.
To purchase general-admission or reserved seats, call (800) 884-NHRA (6472) or visit www.NHRA.com/tickets. Kids 12 and under are free in general admission areas with a paid adult. To honor the Salute to First Responders, military and first responders can save 20 percent on general admission tickets at the gate.