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JEGS Route 66 NHRA Nationals Friday Notebook

Steve Torrence reset both ends of the Route 66 Raceway track record, while Matt Hagan (Funny Car), Greg Anderson (Pro Stock), and Andrew Hines (Pro Stock Motorcycle) took the Friday poles at the JEGS Route 66 NHRA Nationals in Chicago.
01 Jun 2018
NHRA National Dragster staff
Race coverage
JEGS Route 66 NHRA Nationals

Preview| Features| Photos | Results

QUALIFYING ROUND RECAPS

hines.JPGPRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE Q1 (5:24 p.m.): The stiff breeze that helped keep the fans cool at Route 66 Raceway wreaked havoc on the Pro Stock Motorcycle class as several riders were forced to abort their Q1 qualifying runs. The riders affected included Karen Stoffer, Matt Smith, Cory Reed, and Angelle Sampey. The riders who were best able to adapt to the conditions were five-time champion Andrew Hines, who rode his Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson to a 6.862 to pick up three bonus points. Jerry Savoie also made a solid run with a 6.881 on his White Alligator Suzuki and Hector Arana Jr. was third-best after a 6.883. Arana Jr. also had top speed with a 195.05 best on his Lucas Oil EBR.

anderson.JPGPRO STOCK Q1 (5:45 p.m.): Determined to end his winless drought sooner rather than later, Greg Anderson started his weekend at Route 66 Raceway on a high note with a 6.554, 210.93 that was the quickest pass of the first qualifying session. Houston winner Matt Hartford continued his recent string of impressive performances with a 6.559, 209.95 run that was second-quickest while Erica Enders also picked up a bonus point after her 6.581, 209.69 finished as the third-quickest run of the round. A total of nine drivers ran in the 6.5s but current points leader Vincent Nobile was not one of them. Nobile, the only two-time winner in the class this season, shook the tires and shut off in his Mountain View Camaro.

courtney.JPGFUNNY CAR Q1 (6:34 p.m.): Courtney Force continues to dominate the Funny Car field, this time with a 3.966-second pass to take her Advance Auto Parts Chevy Camaro to the top of the qualifying sheet. She passed her father, John Force, with the last pass of the session and earn three qualifying bonus points. John ran a 3.971 and earned a pair of points while Bob Tasca III ran the only other 3-second pass of the session (3.988) to round out the top three. Robert Hight, the third John Force Racing entrant in Funny Car, is holding down the bump spot with an 8.255.  

clay.JPGTOP FUEL Q1 (7:05 p.m.): There’s no slowing down Clay Millican. The most recent winner on tour earned three bonus points by making the quickest run in the first session of qualifying, a 3.753-second hit that put him ahead of points leader Steve Torrence (3.768). Leah Pritchett (3.798) is currently the No. 3 qualifier and earned a single bonus point as a result. Local racer T.J. Zizzo started the session with a 3.8, getting his season off to a flying start, while Antron Brown (3.801) also made a fine pass to get his JEGS Route 66 NHRA Nationals started in style. 

NDE_4209.JPGPRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE Q2 (7:57 p.m.): Less wind made it easier for Pro Stock Motorcycle teams to navigate the Route 66 Raceway quarter-mile but surprisingly, there was not a lot of improvement, especially at the top of the qualifying order. Eddie Krawiec tied teammate Andrew Hines Q1 effort with a 6.862, but Hines maintained his hold on the top spot thanks to his slightly faster speed, 193.90 to 193.24. Jerry Savoie also made a sizable improvement with a 6.886,193.71 and Angie Smith picked up a bonus point after riding her Denso Buell to a 6.942, 190.59. With 19 bikes on the property there will be three riders who do not make Sunday’s rider introductions. Currently, three-time world champ Angelle Sampey is one of the rider who is not qualified.

_NDA1274.JPGPRO STOCK Q2 (8:16 p.m.): Another dominant performance by Greg Anderson highlighted the second round of Pro Stock qualifying with the four-time champion extending his lead over the rest of the field with a 6.546, 211.03 in his Summit Camaro. Anderson was a full hundredth quicker than Tanner Gray, who earned two bonus points, and moved into the No. 2 spot in the field, with his 6.556, 210.18 in his Gray Motorsports Camaro. Anderson’s teammate, Jason Line, was third-quickest of the round with a 6.560, 210.67. Matt Hartford, who was the provisional No. 2 qualifier after the first round, shook the tires and shut off so he wasn’t able to improve on his earlier 6.559, 209.95 run. Jeg Coughlin Jr. also moved into the top half of the field thanks to an improved 6.579, 209.07 in his JEGS.com Camaro.

_NDA1754.JPGFUNNY CAR Q2 (9:08 p.m.): Great weather offered prime conditions for Funny Cars and a host of teams stepped up in the final session on Friday. Among them was Topeka runner-up Matt Hagan, whose 3.917-second pass moved him into pole position after two sessions at the JEGS Route 66 NHRA Nationals. Ron Capps (3.921) and Jack Beckman (3.944) are the No. 2 and No. 3 qualifiers, moving past Courtney Force and scoring bonus points as a result. The entire quick half of the field (eight cars) is there on the back of 3-second runs, while Jonnie Lindberg is holding down the bump spot with a 5.64. 

stevesmall.jpgTOP FUEL Q2 (9:55 p.m.): Steve Torrence set both ends of the track record with a 3.677-second pass at 333.58 mph. That speed is the 10th fastest of all time and the e.t. moves the points leader into pole position after the first day of qualifying. Brittany Force moved into the No. 2 position with a 3.721 and Tony Schumacher took over the No. 3 spot with a 3.749. The quick half of the field all ran quicker than 3.8 and Kyle Wurtzel is holding down the bump spot with a 5.361. T.J. Zizzo moved up with a 3.771 run. 

A_Hines.jpgPro Stock Motorcycle low qualifier Andrew Hines: “This is strange. We tested last week in Indy and it was 95-degrees and 90-percent humidity; it was absolutely horrible. I told my guys I didn’t think I’d be complaining about being cold in Chicago this week. It’s not typical atmospheric conditions for Route 66 Raceway.
The motors like it better. I like it better but a little more difficult than what were’ used to 60-foot times last week at Indy. We’re happy all around and makes our guys more eager to come out tomorrow and try to pick off even quicker E.T.’s.

“We’re as close as we can get to Milwaukee with an NHRA drag race. Doing it for the factory Harley-Davidson means a lot to us. We’ll have some executives out here and it always nice to be in the backyard of Harley-Davidson and do really well. Hopefully Eddie [Krawiec] and I can hang on to the top two spots. Hopefully, we don’t have a crosswind tomorrow. If I had a hold of it today, you’d have seen a 6.83 pop up on the boards.”

G_Anderson.JPGPro Stock low qualifier Greg Anderson: “I think this [weather] caught us all a little off guard. We didn’t expect it to cool down like this. It was a neat change because every time stuff like this happens. When the temperature goes down and the humidity goes down it makes these Pro Stock cars come alive. We love that. You’ve got a great racetrack and you can crank the screws and give it everything you’ve got and run fast.

“I like this trace track. I haven’t had a ton of wins here, but I always run well here and I love coming here. I’m gonna fix that deal of not winning here enough and I’m gonna start with it this weekend. We’ve got a lot of racers in this class that can win and have won and I need to become one of them.”

M_Hagan.JPGFunny Car low qualifier Matt Hagan:  "It was a great run and something we can build off of. I felt like we kind of closed the gap on Courtney and some of the cars running great numbers coming out of Topeka. You give (crew chief) Dickie Venables enough time and he’ll make it happen. I’m very confident in the moves and the direction we’re making. This is just a great track out here. I’ve won some races and set some records here and the fans are just great." 

"I could see the wheels turning in Dickie’s mind and I was pulling myself in tight because I knew if we could get past the tree that we would make a good run. I think there’s been a lot of stuff we’ve had to change the last few races to get where we are right now, but it’s always difficult in a Funny Car no matter what the conditions are or what the track is. You’re always relying on so much stuff to go right when you get in one of these cars."

S_Torrence.jpgTop Fuel No. 1 qualifier Steve Torrence: "It kind of surprised me a little bit because I saw a lot of cars smoking the tires a little bit. I was just hoping we’d go 3.70 or something and be in the game. But with these conditions, you either go out there and smoke the tires or go low e.t. (Crew chief Richard Hogan) has done a really good job doing some different things in the bell housing and it’s really coming around. I think that surprised me to see the 3.67, but I was glad to see it. Chicago has always been pretty fast, and we were able to go through there and go 3.76 on the first lap and then build on it." 

"I’ve notoriously not had much success before last year and I’ve always had a good car but last year we got the monkey off our back. We’re still not back to where we were in terms of consistency but we’re taking steps in the right direction. You gotta swing for the fence when you’re racing really quick guys like Clay Millican. This is a place where you gotta step on it and we did that today."

Friday recap: Steve Torrence sets both ends of track record in Chicago. 

FEATURES

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Whether it’s the departure of longtime crew chief Brian Corradi, the new prep track implemented by NHRA or run of the mill gremlins, one thing’s for certain: Things haven’t quite been the same for Antron Brown and the Matco Tools / U.S. Army Top Fuel Dragster team this season. After averaging a 3.75 elapsed time last year, the squad has slowed to a 3.78 through the first eight races of 2018.

“We’ve battled some adversity and it’s time to step up,” said Brown. “We’ve been having a really difficult time the past few races hurting the engines, tearing stuff up and blowing things up, which is something we haven’t dealt with in the past. That’s something we hoped to have addressed and figured out last week while testing in Indy.”

The team, still led by longtime crew chief Mark Oswald and newly promoted Brad Mason, tested at Lucas Oil Raceway ahead of Memorial Day to try to work out some of the kinks in the car. Time will tell if that proves successful.

“Our car has been running well and we’ve qualified well but, every time we go to step up, we had something mechanical go wrong,” Brown said. “The team led by Mark and Brad has been working really hard and you are going to see a really competitive Matco Tools/U.S. Army car when we roll out there in Chicago. The more runs we get with the combination that we are running now, the better we will be.”

Despite being off a few hundredths in elapsed time, Brown remains in eighth place in the Top Fuel standings. Even that is misleading because of how tightly bunched the dragsters are beyond points leader Steve Torrence. So, all that’s to say Brown can get right back in the swing of things if he starts getting down the track a little more consistently. Right now, he’s making passes quicker than 3.9 seconds about 42 percent of the time, which is about average in the class. That’s well off the pace for Brown.

It’s become stylish to downplay the regular season but do so at your own peril. These points matter, too.

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Clay Millican earned his second career win at the Menards NHRA Heartland Nationals just two weeks ago thanks to the type of consistency the Tennessee native has sought all season long. That’s great news for the Great Clips / Parts Plus team, led by crew chief David Grubnic. The former driver turned tuner helped the dragster to four-straight clean passes en route to victory in Topeka, moving Millican 95 points behind Steve Torrence.

“All the work Grubby has put in is starting to pay off,” said Millican. “He’s really started to fine tune his model, which is what he calls it. He’s starting to get a really good handle on it.”

Millican drives the quickest car in drag racing by two standards. The dragster set the national record for elapsed time in Pomona with a 3.628 hit and he has the quickest average e.t. with a 3.747 mark. That’s great, but consistency has been a problem for the team all season. It wasn’t in Topeka, and if that trend continues moving forward, there could be more Wallys lying ahead.

“My confidence is at an all-time high because what really made Topeka show how good our car is right now is that we did it in really good conditions on Sunday night,” said Millican. “Then to come back on Monday in totally different conditions than we had run all weekend and to run better than anybody, that was unbelievable.”

It might not compare to the pure emotion of his first win in Bristol, but Millican’s second win in Topeka certainly stands as his most impressive. Four great passes coming over two days put Millican in a great position. Now, he’s back two weeks later to see if he and the rest of the team can do it all over again.

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Terry McMillen hasn’t added a second Wally to his trophy case just yet, but he’s gotten dangerously close in recent weeks. The winner of the fall Las Vegas event runnered up at the Menards NHRA Heartland Nationals just two weeks ago and enters Chicago in sixth place. McMillen is just 47 points behind fifth place driver Leah Pritchett and is will clear of 11th place 10 races until the Countdown begins. 

“We’ve been really fortunate right now that we’ve been to three final rounds and we want to continue to move up the ladder in points and to be in the top 10 during the last six races of the year,” he said. “I think the other thing we want to do is keeping picking up wins. We want to get more consistent and get down the track and pick up e.t. while we’re doing it.”

The racer credits that to the consistency of his crew, which has now been together for a couple of years. That’s given crew chief Rob Wendland more time to work on putting together a better tune-up into the Amalie Motor Oil Top Fuel Dragster. 

“What’s happened is that the crew has been putting the car absolutely flawlessly every single time, that’s allowing Rob to spend more time on the computer and try more things,” said McMillen. “Those decisions are paying off and that starts with the crew. He doesn’t have to be down there running boot camp every single time because he can trust them to do things the right way.”

McMillen is looking to get into the top half of the field during the first two hits during Friday qualifying when conditions are prime. 

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Winning back to back races is impressive but doing so in the dominant fashion Courtney Force has is something else. That’s especially true considering how even the racing has been in the Funny Car category so far this season. Not so much in Atlanta nor Topeka when Force looked dominant both in terms of driving and tune-up.

Co-crew chiefs Brian Corradi and Danny Hood have the Advance Auto Parts Chevy Camaro fired on all cylinders down the strip and Force is doing a masterful job muscling it to the other end. She currently owns the second-quickest car in the class (3.917) and one of the most consistent, something that’s been difficult to come by as the Funny Car category has struggled to adapt to new track prep procedures.

Jack Beckman currently holds the elapsed time lead (3.915) but Force’s Camaro is a bit more consistent than Beckman’s Charger, for what it’s worth. The top Funny Cars in the category are bunched up mighty tight, with Robert Hight (3.919) and Matt Hagan (3.923) all having worth claims to the “quickest car” title. So, the point is it’s anyone’s race when those cars line up on Sunday – which is great news if you’re a fan of close racing.

“The competition level has never been higher and you have to be at the top of your game throughout qualifying and especially on race day,” said Force. “That’s what has made NHRA so great, how close these races are won and lost. I have learned a lot from my teammates and the support I get from my Advance Auto Parts team is incredible. They really push me to go out there and try my hardest on every pass."

So far, so good for Force. She leads the Funny Car points standings and is chasing her third win in a row. Capturing it would mark the first such achievement of her career.

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Tim Wilkerson earned his first Funny Car win at Route 66 Raceway in 1999, something he still remembers fondly for several reasons. First, well, it was his first. Second, anyone other than John Force or Tony Pedregon scoring a win in 1999 was a big accomplishment. Third, Wilkerson defeated Force in the final to score that first Wally at one of the finest venues in NHRA Drag Racing.

“We were real lucky to beat him that day, and it was really a lot of fun,” said Wilkerson. “We were so excited. I will never forget Force coming up to me and saying, 'I told [crew chief, Austin] Coil, remember when it was fun to win?' It was a great day, and one we'd sure like to repeat."

Wilkerson got his 2018 season off on the wrong foot, losing in the first round in three of the first four races of the season. He also made just one 3-second pass during that stretch, which qualified him No. 6 at the season-opening Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals. The veteran tuner/driver’s performance picked up starting at the NHRA SpringNationals in Houston, though. He’s qualified in or around the top half of the field at each of the four events starting in Houston and won three rounds.

A first-round loss to Matt Hagan in Chicago has Wilkerson back out in 11th place and out of the Countdown to the Championship for now, but it seems he’s on the right track. His percentage of 3-second runs still ranks amongst the lowest in the Funny Car category, but it’s trending in the right direction. That bodes well as Wilkerson heads to one of his favorite tracks.

Chicago is real close to home, and we'll have a ton of LRS people there,” said Wilkerson. “It was the site of my first fuel win ever, so I'm always excited about going to Chicago. NHRA has been prepping the track differently this year, and hopefully we can figure out how to make our car run well with it there. We'll have a lot of friends there, and we'd like to show them something in Chicago."

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Bob Bode is back at the drag strip for the first time since the Denso Spark Plugs NHRA Four-Wide Nationals in Las Vegas, a four-race break, and he has a lot of new stuff on his Funny Car. That’s a break he needed to regroup after a trying end to the 2017 season. The independent racer feels his team is on better footing now and can move in the right direction. 

“We have lots of new parts, so hopefully they work,” said Bode. “You never know, but maybe the car will like it. We haven’t been running that good, so hopefully we’re on a better track.”

This is a hometown race for the Illinois native, who resides in Barrington and made 10 appearances during the 2017 season. He has already raced twice this season, including stops in Pomona and Las Vegas. 

“We have new rods, pistons, clutch and better blower stuff,” said Bode. “We’re going to go 800 feet and see how it likes it. We have new heads, this is basically a brand new car in the blower area. We have stage seven heads, we had been running sixes. If we’re smiling later on, you’ll know that it worked.”

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Greg Anderson has two wins in Chicago in 2011 and 2016 but he’s also go six runner-up finishes including his memorable 2012 final against first-time winner Erica Enders, so he can’t help but think about the ones that got away. Anderson has been a beast this year in qualifying with four poles in eight races in his Summit Camaro, but on race day he’s not only winless, but has yet to reach a final round.

There have been seven different winners in the first eight Pro Stock races of the season, and Anderson would be happy to move that number to eight with a third win in Chicago.

“[Route 66 Raceway] was the one track we couldn't crack, and there wasn't any excuse or any kind of reason,” said Anderson. “It's a beautiful racetrack, and we've always run well there – we just weren't able to close the deal. We finally got the monkey off our back there a few years back, and we have no worries going there anymore. We go there positive every year, and we love to race on great racetracks like they have there at Route 66 Raceway. It's one of the top five in the country, and it's just a neat, neat feeling when you go to Chicago to race.”

The fact that the Route 66 Nationals is now sponsored JEGS, a rival mail order company to Summit, has not gone unnoticed by Anderson and his KB Racing teammates.

“This year it's a little different,” Anderson said. “We don't have Summit Racing or Chevrolet on the wall, but that gives us a little more motivation, and it makes it a little more gratifying when you can take a little of the spotlight away from the other guy. It certainly adds to the one of the reasons we're excited to get there. We've got all the right parts and all the right people with our Summit Racing team, and we're ready.”

Ironically, Anderson has not won an event yet he is second in the points standings behind Mountian View Racing driver Vincent Nobile. Anderson has been racing Pro Stock long enough to know that counting points in early June is nearly an exercise in futility.  

“It's definitely too early to think about the championship, and quite honestly, I don't know that anybody in the class could fully consider themselves a favorite right now,” Anderson said. “There are so many good running cars, and the field is wide open. Things could change tremendously by the time we get to the playoffs. We're still in building mode right now, and the key is to peak at the right time. That doesn't mean you can be a slacker the rest of the year, we haven't been, but we have made some mistakes and haven't been able to close the deal on Sunday. We've got to get better at that before we get to the playoffs. There would be no better place to start our upward swing than Chicago this weekend.”

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Following his rare first-round loss in Topeka, reigning Mello Yello champ Bo Butner slipped from second to fifth in the Pro Stock standings and he’s determined not to lose sight of the lead pack. Butner’s season began with a win in Pomona and a pair of runner-up finishes in Gainesville and Las Vegas, so he knows the potential is there. Butner’s focus heading into Chicago is improving his qualifying position. He’s been the No. 10 seed in three of the last four races and that has been the root of most of his problems.

“That’s absolutely the problem; we need to make better runs in qualifying which usually means making a good run in the best [qualifying] session,” said Butner. “Obviously, we haven’t done that lately and we need to start fixing that this weekend.”

As a die-hard sportsman racer, Butner is also looking forward to this weekend’s annual JEGS Allstars event, a special race that features 80 of the top Lucas Oil Series drivers from across the country. Butner has qualified for the JEGS Allstars on several occasions and has been a runner-up twice.

“This weekend is the Sportsman racer's mecca,” said Butner. “It's the Allstars race, and everybody wants to be part of it. I've never won it but it's the coolest deal. Sportsman racers are the backbone of drag racing, and this is a great way to spotlight them.
 
“We want to do really well in our Pro Stock car, and we get wrapped up in our racing any weekend, but in Chicago we always try to rush up there and watch what's happening with the Sportsman racers, too,” Butner said. “I remember being part of the Allstars and hurrying back up there to watch Pro Stock thinking, that would be a dream come true. We're definitely living our dream, but we never forget where we came from. We'll be cheering for Division 3 to win, our home division, and we know they'll be cheering for us to win, too. It's a really special weekend.”

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Competing at an event that banners the family name as a title right sponsor, and features the popular JEGS Allstars competition, it goes without saying that Jeg Coughlin Jr. would love to end his three-year winless drought in Pro Stock this weekend. The five-time champion has been close several times this season, and feels it’s just a matter of time before his luck improves.

Coughlin’s JEGS.com Pro Stock Camaro is one of five JEGS-backed vehicles in action this weekend. The team also includes brother, Mike, in Top Dragster, nephew Troy Jr., in Top Alcohol Dragster, and niece, Paige, In Super Comp. Coughlin’s wife, Samantha, is also racing the team’s JEGS.com dragster in the Super Comp class.

“We've got a busy weekend ahead, for sure,” Coughlin said. “I'm always excited to get behind the wheel of my JEGS.com/Elite Performance Chevrolet Camaro and this race will be extra special as we've taken on title sponsorship of the event itself and of course the JEGS Allstars race as well. It's a huge occasion for all of us at JEGS. We've got lots of family racing, plus we expect to have a good number of our 400-plus JEGS associates making the trip up from Delaware, Ohio, to support the races.”
 
“It would be fantastic to break through and get our first win in quite a while. We've been knocking on the door of a race win for our JEGS car lately and we've seen lots of our Elite Motorsports teammates winning races. I firmly believe we'll challenge for the No. 1 qualifier spot and be in contention for the Pro Stock trophy come Sunday.”

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Top Fuel racers Tony Schumacher and Chris Karamesines aren’t the only Illinois natives who are looking for success at this weekend’s JEGS Route 66 Nationals. Pro Stock Motorcycle rookie Ryan Oehler grew up in Barrington, Ill., and made his first pass at Route 66 Raceway as a 16-year old driving his street legal Camaro SS.
 
“My first time up there was with a buddy,” Oehler recalled. “I did a big burnout all the way up to the starting line. The starter comes up and taps on my window. I roll it down, and he looks at me and says ‘Son, you are not John Force. If you do this again, you’re out of here.’”
 
Since that auspicious debut, Oehler, now 34, won two American Motorcycle Racing Association [AMRA] Pro Modified championships, and he’s established himself as one of the rising stars of the Pro Stock Motorcycle class with his six-second Buell V-twin. He’s committed to racing in all 16 events this season and he’s already one of the leading contenders for the Automobile Club of Southern California Road to the Future award.

“We know we’re competitive, and we know we can put better numbers up than we have been,” said Oehler, whose bike is tuned by his father, Brad, with the help of crewman Alexander Tutt. “We’ve had some very bad 60-foot times, so if we put our quickest short numbers together with our quickest back-half, we’ve got a very fast bike.
 
“As far as my riding, I’m feeling more confident every time I go out. For us it’s always just showing up and doing a little bit better, and I think that we’re doing that. I got my first ever top 10 bonus check after Charlotte, so that was cool.”
 

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After a trying 2017 season, Cory Reed’s goal of putting both of his Team Liberty Buell entries into the top ten in the Pro Stock Motorcycle standings is quickly becoming a reality. Entering the JEGS Route 66 NHRA Nationals, Reed is ninth while teammate Angelle Sampey is fifth.

The key to the team’s resurgence has been the arrival of veteran Pro Stock racer Larry Morgan, who was hired to build the team’s 160-cid V-twin engines. Two-time Pro Stock champion Jim Yates has also been added as a consultant. Recently, Reed and Sampey also switched from Victory to Buell bodies, a change that yielded immediate dividends.
 
“We’re starting to feel more like a team,” Reed said. “I think everybody is happier since we switched over to the Buell body and our performance has definitely picked up; it was a good move for our team overall. We made a lot of new changes and it seems like everyone on the team is happy with those changes and it’s already starting to pay off for us; our operation feels more like a package than ever now.”
 
“Since the last race in Atlanta, I’ve been in Ohio at Larry Morgan’s shop and we’ve gone through the whole bike and Ken [Johnson, co-crew chief] has been able to do the same with Angelle’s bike back at our shop in Cordele [Ga.]. Our Team Liberty Racing group is only getting started and I think the future is bright.”

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Steve Johnson is nothing if not resilient. When his partnership with Jerry Savoie’s White Alligator team dissolved after just one race, Johnson went back to his roots. Racing without a major sponsor, he parked his massive 18-wheeler and arrived in Charlotte with a small borrowed trailer and a pick-up truck. Johnson is still using his undersized rig but there appears to be light at the end of the tunnel regarding his sponsorship issues. For this weekend’s JEGS Route 66 NHRA Nationals, Johnson has inked a deal with MacRak, a Joliet-based company that repairs commercial racking systems. MacRak owners Shawn and Pam MacDonald are longtime drag racing fans who live just three miles from Route 66 Raceway.

“I was doing a school program with kids at the Phoenix race and I was working out of Chris McGaha’s trailer,” said Johnson. “After we were done, I walked out of the pit area and met Shawn MacDonald. He asked me if my bike was still white [and unsponsored] and I told him it was. Since then we’ve worked to put a deal together. They’re going to have over 100 of their employees out here on Saturday.”

Johnson is one of the few individuals in any class who has raced in all of the previous NHRA events at Route 66 Raceway, at least the ones that feature the Pro Stock Motorcycle class. He rates the stadium-sized facility as one of the best on the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing tour.

“I really love the traction and super smooth racing surface here,” said Johnson. “We have had some great runs there.  I remember being in the finals a few years back and thinking how cool it would be to win near such a historic sports city. It might be a little corny, but I’m proud to celebrate 20 years of NHRA here in Joliet. As a team owner I have an idea of the challenges business owners go through to stay afloat. This weekend our role increases because beyond trying to win the event, we also want to support our sponsor, MacRak.

PHOTOS

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Clay Millican and his assistant driver pose for a photo before racing on Friday. 

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Rahn Tobler does some pre-race tuning. 

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Courtney Force (left) and Brittany Force (right) pose in their matching Advance Auto Parts fire suits with their matching Advance Auto Parts race cars in the background. There's a lot of AAP going on in this photo. 

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An old school JEGS car was on hand to celebrate the JEGS Route 66 NHRA Nationals in Chicago. 

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Richie Crampton attended to his DHL / Kalitta Air Top Fueler ahead of racing on Friday.
 

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Pat Dakin and Chris "The Greek" Karamesines pose for a photo before The Greek's first appearance of the season.

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Fans packed the midway at the JEGS Route 66 NHRA Nationals ahead of Friday qualifying. 

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Chicago favorite TJ Zizzo took a moment to relax during busy pre-race action. 

PREVIEW

The Mello Yello NHRA Drag Racing season is a third of the way through as the tour moves to the JEGS Route 66 NHRA Nationals just outside of Chicago. Fans and drivers alike can start looking at the standings in earnest to see who’s safely inside the Countdown to the Championship bubble and who has some work to do to make the playoffs before the final six races of the season are upon us. These four drivers are likely thinking about chasing down pole position.

C_Millican.JPGClay Millican earned his second career win at the Menards NHRA Heartland Nationals, solidifying the Great Clips / Parts Plus team as a championship contender. Millican is now just 95 points behind Top Fuel leader Steve Torrence, who has back-to-back semifinal appearances, entering the Chicago event. That gives the Tennessee native a chance, albeit a slim one, to take over the points lead for the first time in a long time. Right now, he and crew chief Dave Grubnic are likely thinking about keeping their race car as consistent as it was in Topeka.

C_Force.JPGMeanwhile, Courtney Force and the dueling banjos of Brian Corradi and Dan Hood look like absolute rock stars. The Advance Auto Parts Chevy Camaro owns back-to-back wins, three on the season, and crushed Matt Hagan and Robert Hight en route to the Topeka Wally. Those snide comments about green hats are so 2017. Force has never won in Chicago (not that those stats ever mean anything), and she’s never won three races in a row. At this rate, it kind of feels like she’ll mess around and pick up some more little gold men just because.

E_Enders.JPGPro Stock is much more wide open, but if you’re not talking about Erica Enders, there’s something wrong with you. She’s one of, if not the best driver in the class and her car is mercifully on point for the first time in years. That’s a combination that makes the two-time champ look a lot like a pending three-time champ. That’s a damn good thing for the class, unless you’re one of the suckers who has to line up against her this weekend. Her reaction times are great, her shifting is great and she’s as hungry as she’s ever been. Godspeed.

E_Krawiec.jpgPro Stock Motorcycle is back on track for the first time in two events, and Eddie Krawiec is already looking for his third Wally of the season. It’s not exactly same as it ever was for the Harley-Davidson team, but it’s close. The dynamic duo of Andrew Hines and Krawiec is frightening for all comers, particularly because the two haven’t been up to their own standards this year and have still won two out of three races. It’s still early, but if someone has any super amazing, secret powers, now wouldn’t be a terrible time to use them.