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Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals Friday Notebook

Antron Brown, Robert Hight, Erica Enders, and Matt Smith are the qualifying leaders after the opening day of the Lucas Oil NHRA National at Brainerd International Raceway.
17 Aug 2018
NHRA National Dragster staff
Race coverage
Brainerd Hero

Preview | Features | Results


IMG_4136.JPGPRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE Q1 (1:45 p.m.): Matt Smith wheeled his new EBR-bodied machine to the early qualifying lead with a 6.852 at a track-speed-record 198.47. Mr. 200, Hector Arana Jr., had the second-best pass, a 6.877 at 197 mph aboard his Lucas Oil EBR while two-time event champ Eddie Krawiec slid into the third spot with a 6.886. Sophomore rider Joey Gladstone also made a strong pass with a 6.929 on the Yellow Corn Suzuki.

DSC_0467.JPGPRO STOCK Q1 (2:05 p.m.): Chris McGaha sits in the No. 1 spot after the first of four qualifying sessions in Pro Stock with a 6.617, a half-hundredth ahead of the summer’s hottest driver, Jeg Coughlin Jr., who is ranked second with a 6.623. In a bit of a surprise, Alex Laughlin clocked a 6.625 in his Chevy-powered Dodge Dart hybrid on its first pass to earn the final bonus point. Dave Connolly, making his return to the driver’s seat after a three-season absence, ran 6.659 in the second Gray Motorsports Camaro and sits No. 12.

DSC_0547.JPGFUNNY CAR Q1 (2:45 p.m.): Tim Wilkerson, who’s fighting to earn a spot in the Countdown to the Championship top 10, moved to within a singe point of 10th-place Bob Tasca III with a 3.996 that was the second quickest pass of the session behind 2015 Brainerd champ Robert Hight’s 3.971. Seattle winner Ron Capps earned the final bonus point with a 4.031. In other Countdown news, Jack Beckman clinched his spot by making a qualifying run. Veteran privateer Dale Creasy Jr. exploded the supercharger on his qualifying run, destroying the car's body.

DSC_0715.JPGTOP FUEL Q1 (3:10 p.m.): Clay Millican, who already has seven No. 1 qualifying spots this season, zipped to the provisional lead in Q1 with a 3.838 in the Dave Grubnic-tuned Great Clips dragster. Denver winner Leah Pritchett, who also is the defending event champ here, is hot on his heels with a 3.841 while Billy Torrence, father of points leader Steve Torrence, grabbed the No. 3 spot with a 3.905 in his first start since the Chicago event in early June. Meanwhile, Antron Brown clinched his berth in the Countdown to the Championship field.

aranajr.jpgPRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE Q2 (4:30 p.m.): Hector Arana Jr., Eddie Krawiec, and Andrew Hines, all ran 6.899 but Arana‘s superior speed, 197.22 to the Harley riders’ 195-mph passes, earned him more bonus points but not as many as first-session leader Matt Smith, who again had the quickest run of the round, a 6.854 that was just .002-second slower than his field-leading opening lap. Krawiec got the one bonus point ahead of Hines as his Street Rod was slightly faster than his teammate.

DSC_0473.JPGPRO STOCK Q2 (4:50 p.m.): Former world champ Erica Enders, who has won this event twice, seized the qualifying lead halfway through time trials with a 6.609 from her Elite Camaro. First-session leader Chris McGaha charted a 6.613 for the second spot, getting the higher seed ahead of Alex Laughlin’s Dodge/Chevy hybrid, which also ran 6.613 but at a slower speed, 207.59 to McGaha’s 208.33. World champ Bo Butner sits fourth with a 6.614.

hight.JPGFUNNY CAR Q2 (5:25 p.m.): First-session leader Robert Hight again made the best run of the session with a 3.989, just a thousandth of a second quicker than Matt Hagan and his still-new Dodge Charger Hellcat, who ran 3.990 for the No. 2 spot. Jim Campbell made his quickest run since taking over the wheel of Jim Dunn’s car two seasons ago when he clocked a 4.014 for a rare bonus point. Fan favorite Bob Bode, who scored the biggest upset in Brainerd event history in 2010, drove his “new” ex-Tim Wilkerson Mustang to a wall-scraping 4.113, one of his career-best runs.

antron.JPGTOP FUEL Q2 (6:50 p.m.): Seattle winner Antron Brown picked up exactly one second from his abbreviated first attempt, going from 4.789 to 3.789 and right to the No. 1 qualifying spot. First-session leader Clay Millican was just a tick back from regaining the top spot with a 3.790. Countdown playoff hopeful Mike Salinas, who impressed in Seattle with a string of four 3.7-second passes spanning qualifying and the opening rounds of eliminations, put down another one with a 3.797. Part-timer Billy Torrence also raised eyebrows with a 3.823 for the No. 4 spot.

M_Smith.jpgPRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE LOW QUALIFIER MATT SMITH: "What I’ve seen out of the other two EBR bikes this year, they’ve been fast every race. I knew we had big power and the body we were running was putting us at a disadvantage. So, I knew we were going to be fine, I just didn’t know how good we were going to be. Those were the first two quarter-mile passes we made on the bike and I think we can go faster on it. We might not do that consistently until the Countdown starts in Reading, but it’s a good start. 

"I think tomorrow we’ve got a shot to go 6.82-83 at 199 mph. I don’t think we can break 200 because of the altitude, but hopefully we’re the next ones to do it whether it be in Reading or Indy. We had the quickest time and speed last here – we usually run really well at this track."

E_Enders.JPGPRO STOCK LOW QUALIFIER ERICA ENDERS: "We’re really excited to be No. 1, even though we can’t lock it in until tomorrow. I’ve been driving a lot better, too, and that’s encouraging. Our Racepak computer which records all our data didn’t work on our first run, so we were actually kind of ‘tuning by braille,’ as my crew chief calls it. My computer didn’t work that run either, so we have some kind of problem with it, but it just shows with people anything is possible. 

"All our crew chiefs work together, but it doesn’t help because it’s not the same data that my car gets. So, we watch a ton of footage and then go by what they see when I leave the starting line. That’s kind of the most crucial thing as far as wheel speed is concerned. Then it’s me hitting me that 1-2 gear change, it’s getting the front end up, all those things. They did a lot of watching and I did a lot of explaining about what I was feeling in the car."

R_Hight.JPGFUNNY CAR LOW QUALIFIER ROBERT HIGHT: "That 3.97 first run, I was pretty happy with. But I also thought if we screwed up tonight it would only be fifth. But for some reason, nobody stepped up tonight and we actually slowed down tonight. Jimmy said we needed more power, so maybe we underestimated the race track and it ate up the changes we made to it. It’s important to stay ahead of the race track and obviously we didn’t do that. 

"Unfortunately, if you look at the weather forecast it should be cooler on Sunday, so we should be able to run better on race day than we even ran today. You’ll have some confidence on Sunday if you have four consistent runs and just get down the track. So, that’s really our goal for tomorrow is to get down the track and to get some more bonus points. If we can get six more qualifying points that would be huge for us."

A_Brown.JPGTOP FUEL LOW QUALIFIER ANTRON BROWN: "We’ve been working hard for this. It’s no secret that we’ve gone through our bumps and bruises, but you go through struggles, so you can get to days like this. I know I’ve won in Brainerd in Top Fuel once before, but I think I’ve one here in bike something like five times. This will be a great race for momentum building if we can just do well here. So far, we’re No. 1 but tomorrow is another day. I’m charged up, got plenty of energy, and we’re working hard. 

"We’re finally settled in on our combination where before we were changing things one at a time race by race. My crew chiefs Mark Oswald and Brad Mason were saying we should have changed everything at once. We changed five or six different things, but we changed them one race at a time. So, it took us like a five-race span to finally get settled in on it."


Richie Crampton currently holds a loose grip on ninth place with 660 points and two races to go before the Countdown to the Championship begins. The racer is also coming up on his one-year anniversary with Kalitta Motorsports. He joined the organization at the 2017 Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis when Troy Coughlin Jr. gave up his seat. 

Crampton is 41 points clear of 11th place racer Mike Salinas and while he has a car that can win (see: the Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals), his dragster has been anything but consistent. That makes this weekend’s event, and the upcoming Indy event contentious ones for Crampton. With that said, the Australian feels confident his team can lock things up with a great weekend in Brainerd. 

“We’re better than it may appear,” said Crampton. “In Seattle we got picked off in a good race. We just gotta knuckle down and run our race and we’ll be fine.”

The biggest problem for the DHL / Kalitta Air team has been consistency. The average Top Fueler gets down the track quicker than 4 seconds 51.5 percent of the time. That’s a fair bit better than the 45.8 percent mark made by Crampton this season, especially given the 3.846-second average elapsed time registered by the dragster (the class average is 3.822). 

“It shouldn’t be an issue (for a driver), but at the end of the day it can be,” he said. “It helps when the car gets down the race track every time, but we all know that doesn’t happen with a 10,000-horsepower machine. We’re definitely looking for better consistency during qualifying and going into race day. I think that’s something we’ve improved on the last few races and it’s something we’re coming up on this weekend.”


Scott Palmer sits in 10th place with a 30-point lead over Mike Salinas with two races remaining to lock in his second-straight Countdown to the Championship appearance. He’s racing with the best equipment he’s ever possessed and is enjoying a career season. Despite that, Palmer finds himself in an even more tenuous playoff position than he did a season ago. 

Palmer has 10 round wins, twice as many as he did at this point a season ago. The problem for Palmer is Salinas; and that’s not a problem for fans of NHRA Drag Racing. The San Jose racer began racing full time this season and has 10 round wins this year. The biggest difference is the one race Salinas took off (Chicago) for family reasons. 

Salinas defeated Palmer in the first round in Seattle at the last stop on tour and reached the semifinals for the third time in 2018. That made things much closer in the Countdown battle, but the possibility they’ll meet again in the next two races gives Palmer some confidence. 

“I like that we control our own destiny,” he said. “What’s not going to happen this year is Kalitta isn’t going to have one of their drivers give up his seat before the U.S. Nationals, so we’re going to have to earn our spot. We just have to do our job and I think we’ll be okay.”

Palmer’s referring to Troy Coughlin Jr. giving up his seat following the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals a season ago – that made the CatSpot racer’s life a lot easier. It’s also unlikely to happen with Coughlin’s replacement, Richie Crampton, who’s currently 11 points ahead of Palmer. That’s certainly within striking distance of both Crampton and Salinas. 

Palmer (3.907) made the fourth best run of the first session, while Crampton (5.024) is qualified 11th and Salinas (4.557) is qualified eighth. There’s plenty to improve on for nearly every Top Fueler that has run thus far, but Palmer at least has a baseline to work with. That’s something, for now. 

Cruz Pedregon has a new crew chief on staff this weekend after firing Aaron Brooks following the CatSpot NHRA Northwest Nationals in Seattle. Pedregon hired Tommy DeLago the Wednesday following the Seattle event with hopes the title-winning tuner can help get the Snap-On Funny Car pointed in the right direction. 

DeLago most recently worked full time at Kalitta Motorsports on Shawn Langdon’s Funny Car and was the crew chief for Matt Hagan when the team won the 2011 championship. DeLago worked with Glen Huszar, who has been with Pedregon since midway through 2017, while with Hagan and Alexis DeJoria. That familiarity factored into Pedregon’s decision making progress – so did his championship experience. 

“They’ve won a championship together and that speaks for itself,” said Pedregon. “I’ve known Tommy for a long time, and this business is close, you know. One of my friends, Ed McCulloch, who I raced with in my first years as a pro, kinda took me under his wing. Ed and Tommy had worked together before and Ed is a quality guy and some of that I’m sure has rubbed off on Tommy. 

And I’m really big on Tommy because he has Funny Car experience. Nothing against Dragsters, but they’re a totally different animals in more way than one. The only thing the same is that we run the same engines. So, that’s something I took into consideration. And heck, he was available. There just aren’t that many of those guys on the sidelines. When you have that ring on your finger and you were turning the knobs, that means something to me. That’s like a Super Bowl ring, and there aren’t too many of those guys on the sidelines.”

Both Pedregon and DeLago emphasized that there weren’t drastic changes to be made on the Funny Car with only two races remaining before Countdown spots lock in. Pedregon is currently on the outside looking in, but he also has a race win under his belt – that means DeLago has something to work with. Now it’s a matter of whether there’s enough time to make the move necessary to get the Snap-On Tools team back in business. 


daveycutout.jpgDave Connolly is racing NHRA Pro Stock for the first time since 2014, though he went on to race in Top Fuel in 2015 and 2016 before taking over crew chief duties on Tanner Gray’s Chevy Camaro in 2017. The crew chief, now driver again for a weekend, has a pair of wins at Brainerd Internationals Raceway (2004, 06) and could earn his third this weekend.

“It’s been awhile,” said Connolly. “I tested Drew’s car and Shane’s car in 2016 right around Bristol so it’s been more than two years. It was kind of a last-minute deal for sure, so we’re just going to try to go a-to-b on the first run. There’s no reason this car can’t run decent, middle of the pack for sure.”

If Connolly fails to do that, it wouldn’t be so bad to help his teammate/driver, Gray, earn win No. 5 this season. All the while, he’ll pick up some valuable data that should help Gray and Gray Motorsports teammate Drew Skillman. That all comes with the bonus of getting behind a Pro Stock wheel for the first time in competition in nearly five years. 

“It’s one of those deals too where there’s extra stuff we want to run in it, too,” he said. “It’s easier to validate stuff at a national event than it is when you’re just out testing. In part because the track is prepped and because you have other cars that you can compare yourself to.”

Connolly isn’t putting much pressure on himself in the seat, and for good reason. The team is planning on making minimal runs this weekend and Connolly is hoping to get as comfortable as possible as quickly as possible. 

“Hopefully it’s like riding a bicycle and I don’t fall off too much on that first run, do anything stupid, you know,” he said. “I’m not going to worry too much about it.” 

For what it’s worth, Connolly was top-five in reaction time in a Top Fueler in 2016 (in an admittedly small sample size). That might be something worth watching during qualifying all the way to eliminations. 

Joey Gladstone sits 36 points out of 10th place in 14th. That’s ground the second-year Pro Stock Motorcycle rider can make up in the final two races of the season, but he must pass three experienced riders and 2016 Auto Club Road to the Future Award winner Cory Reed to do so. He made up ground during the Western Swing (only two races for the two-wheel riders), accruing 22 points and one spot.
He’ll have to do better than that over the course of the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals and the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis to make the Countdown to the Championship for the first time in his career. The good news for Gladstone is that his bike performed significantly better at the Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals than it had previously this season. 

“I feel confident,” said Gladstone. “We just have to keep that momentum going forward. The fire’s back, you know? I feel like making up that gap is doable. I wish we were doing that earlier and not now. Nobody wants it to come down to this, but I feel like we can do it and we will do it. I just need to keep my head on straight and stay consistent.” 

Still, getting by Angelle Sampey, Jim Underdahl, Steve Johnson and Reed will be no picnic. It all starts with making a strong pass in qualifying. That’s something Gladstone knows he’s capable of doing after getting into the field in the No. 5 position in Sonoma. That was the first time he qualified in the top half of the field since the season opener. Repeating that feat, and picking up another round win, will go a long way towards getting him in Countdown position. 

“When you have a motorcycle that you’re confident in, it makes your job much easier,” said Gladstone. “If you have a bottom pack bike, you go out there and it’s like ‘what’s the point.’ But when you have a good machine underneath you it helps you concentrate on what you need to do.”

Matt Smith debuted the second EBR-bodied Pro Stock Motorcycle during the first session of qualifying to great results on Friday. His 6.852-second blast set the track-speed record (198.47 mph) and put him at the top of the qualifying sheet. After making a series of 1/8th mile hits in Darlington a week ago, Smith entered the session hoping to get down the track. 

“It’s not painted, but we got it to make three little 1/8th mile hits in Darlington and we’ll see what it can do,” said Smith. “The track was really hot and for what was going on, the track was fine, but we couldn’t get it to go down the track. I’m hoping we can go the full distance with it to be honest. It’ll take us a race or two to get it right but starting with the Countdown I think we’ll be fine.”

Based on the performance from the first session, it seems like Smith may be fine even sooner than the Countdown-opening race at the Dodge NHRA Nationals in Reading. The EBR may only be one-run old, but it proved right away why Smith made the move to purchase the bike with the help of Elite Motorsports. 

It’s currently unpainted, something Smith hopes will change in the coming races. Expect the bike to be red – and a championship contender – in the coming weeks. It might take a couple of races for Smith to unlock the full potential of the body style that Hector Arana Jr. has already taken to 200 mph, and the winner’s circle, but once he does… Smith will be a contender yet again. 


The Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals marks the penultimate spot for racers to earn points ahead of the Countdown to the Championship. It comes at Brainerd International Raceway, a track known in recent years for incredible performance. The forecast calls for great conditions, making this weekend a special one for crew chiefs and drivers with playoff hopes on the line. 

S_Torrence.jpgSteve Torrence only needs worry about locking up his first Top Fuel victory at BIR. The Texan earned an Alcohol Dragster victory in Minnesota back in 2005 but has yet to claim a Wally in his current class. He’s also on the verge of clinching the top seed in Top Fuel for the second-straight year as Torrence enters the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals with a 161-point lead over Tony Schumacher. Even a solid showing in Brainerd would clinch the top spot for Torrence. 

C_Force.JPGThe same is true for Courtney Force, who leads 2016 Funny Car world champion and CatSpot NHRA Northwest Nationals winner Ron Capps by 154 markers. Force’s last win came at the Virginia NHRA Nationals, the 10th event on the schedule, but her performance has remained spectacular throughout the balance of the season. The Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals mark the 17th event and Capps, Robert Hight and Matt Hagan have made up some ground while winning five of the last six races.

T_Gray.JPGTanner Gray captured his Pro Stock-best fourth win of the season in Seattle to move within 42 points of Greg Anderson, making these last two regular season races a real battle for the No. 1 seed. It also makes the 2018 season oddly reminiscent of the 2017 campaign. Gray won last year’s rendition of the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals and ended up as the No. 2 seed before fading down the stretch. This year feels different – the sophomore racer seems poised for a run at a championship and, in the short term, at the No. 1 seed. 

A_Hines.jpgAt this point it seems more a matter of which Harley-Davidson rider will grab the No. 1 seed than if current points leader Andrew Hines or Eddie Krawiec will end up on top. LE Tonglet remains within striking distance at 78 points behind Hines but has serious work to do if he wants to snag pole position when the Chevrolet U.S. Nationals conclude. Getting back to the final round for the second-straight season in Brainerd would help – winning this time around would help even more.