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Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals Friday Notebook

Jack Beckman, Clay Millican, and Drew Skillman hold the provisional No. 1 qualifying positions at the Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals Presented by ProtectTheHarvest.com.
09 Feb 2018
NHRA National Dragster staff
Race coverage
Winternationals

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QUALIFYING ROUND RECAPS

skillman.jpgPRO STOCK Q1 (12:15 p.m.): Drew Skillman got his 2018 season off to a killer start, running a 6.569 to earn three bonus points with the best time of the first Pro Stock qualifying session. That’s a staggering .022 second better than the second-best racer of the session (that would be Greg Anderson). Erica Enders ran a 6.595 to earn one bonus point and round out the top three. There were a handful of cars that didn’t even get down the track, as Alex Laughlin, Deric Kramer, and Jason Line are among prominent drivers who squared the tires. Chris McGaha bounced back from a motor change to run the fourth-best time of the session (6.596). 

capps2.jpgFUNNY CAR Q1 (1:15 p.m.) Ron Capps and Robert Hight wrapped up the first Funny Car qualifying session of 2018 with spectacular numbers. Capps ran a 3.882, with Hight right behind him (3.889). Those were the only runs in the 3.80s, as Matt Hagan rounded out the top three with a 3.917. Those three were in another league, as Del Worsham’s 3.943 was the fourth-best run of the session and shows the disparity between the top three and the rest of the Funny Car category. Shawn Langdon made his first “official” run in a flopper, which can be deemed a success at 3.949.

antron.jpgTOP FUEL Q1 (1:40 p.m.): Former world champ Antron Brown fired off a shot in the opening session to let his intentions of regaining the crown be known, taking the provisional pole with a 3.717 that was almost a full hundredth quicker than championship runner-up Steve Torrence’s 3.726. Doug Kalitta was just a few ticks behind Torrence with a 3.729. Brittany Force’s title defense got off to a less-than=hoped-for start with an early shutoff pass of 6.853.

nobile.jpgPRO STOCK Q2 (2:58 p.m.): Vincent Nobile took a big step forward in his second official pass in his brand-new Jerry Haas-built Chevy Camaro. He’s now the No. 2 qualifier in the Pro Stock category on the back of a 6.586-second pass; he also made the second-best pass of the session. Drew Skillman continued his terrific day with the best pass of the session (6.585), earning another three bonus points. There are now five racers in the 6.50s (Skillman, Nobile, Greg Anderson, Chris McGaha, and Erica Enders) and only one who has yet to get down the track (Kenny Delco). Not a bad first day of action in Pomona.

beckman2.jpgFUNNY CAR Q2 (3:48 p.m.): Jack Beckman jumped up a whole tenth of a second in his second run of the day, earning the Infinite Hero Funny Car driver three points and making him the provisional No. 1 qualifier in the Funny Car category. He’s followed by Matt Hagan (3.877) and Ron Capps, who ran a 3.884 in the second session but stands on a 3.882 to be the No. 3 qualifier after the first day of NHRA Drag Racing of 2018. John Force suffered a massive explosion which took the body off his Peak Coolant Funny Car (which you can see below), and he currently holds the bump spot on the back of that 4.139-second pass.

Force exited the vehicle with assistance and walked to an ambulance on his own power. He was responsive and speaking with medical personnel and was transported to a local hospital as a precaution. 

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millican2.jpgTOP FUEL Q2 (4:05 p.m.): National record holder Clay Millican took over the No. 1 spot with a 3.694-second run in the Parts Plus/Great Clips dragster to lead qualifying at the midpoint. Tony Schumacher’s 3.732 was the second best pass of the round but ended up fifth behind first-session leader Antron Brown’s 3.717 and the 3.726 of Steve Torrence and 3.729 of Doug Kalitta, also recorded in the first session. Reigning series champ Brittany Force is a disappointing 13th after two aborted passes.

D_Skillman.JPGPro Stock low qualifier Drew Skillman: “Our first run was really good; the second run we spun the tires down low, but we had a lot more for them. I think everyone is way off. We made a run that we’re supposed to and they’ll catch up to us, Tomorrow is supposed to be a lot cooler and a lot faster. We’ll have to do our homework tonight.

“We only tested two days before we came here; the first day it seemed like I’d forgotten how to drive the car at all. I’ve still got a little rust to knock off. This sport is rhythm-based. It’s about having your routine and remembering what that routine was. I put my gloves on in the same order, turn the switches on the same way, so it’s just about remembering what that was. I’ve got that figured out and I’m comfortable.”

J_Beckman.jpgFunny Car low qualifier Jack Beckman: "I was interviewed a couple of times during the offseason, and I was tooting our horn about how we weren't going to make any wholesale changes on our tune-up and that I felt super confident unloading our car. Then we showed up in Phoenix for preseason testing and we went 0-7 the first three days. So, we took an extra day at testing and the guys worked through the Super Bowl to get the car ready and I think this is the payoff for the extra day of work. 

"We were the second-quickest car in the left lane after the first session, and that plus $5 gets you a medium cup of coffee, right? But the nice thing is with that data, they gave it a little more of everything. We had a pretty good 60-foot time, but it was a little soft towards the middle, and I think it was a by-product of Phoenix. The good thing about a solid run is that it's something to built on." 

C_Millican.JPGTop Fuel low qualifier Clay Millican: “I’m just glad that I got to drive the car all the way to the finish line. We made 15 runs in testing and didn’t get to the finish line under power. I was so ready to lift off the throttle that I was like, ‘Hey, I’m going right down the racetrack here.’ Our trouble spot is usually 150-250 feet, so once we got to 250 feet I knew we were off and running. It sure was nice to pull the parachutes. I didn’t expect us to run 3.69 because we had not made a full run before that I expected him to go 3.75 or so.

“It’s a great start; typical ‘Grubby’ [crew chief David Grubnic]. He doesn’t play, When it goes down the racetrack, it usually goes pretty good. We’ve already got the national record, but is already looking for more. I don’t think that run will hold up through qualifying because it it’s going to be cooler [Saturday], but I also believe in Grubby enough that I think we’ll go quicker as well.”

Friday recap: Beckman, Millican, Skillman lead first day of qualifying at Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals.

FEATURES

tony732.JPGTony Schumacher isn’t used to finishing outside the top five. So, back-to-back eighth-place finishes necessitated a change. That came in the form of Mike Neff coming on board and long-time crew chief Mike Green leaving the team. It’s Neff’s first time as a Top Fuel crew chief, having spent the last few seasons at John Force Racing, but Schumacher sees that fresh perspective as an exciting possibility rather than something to be concerned about.

“He’s never worked on a Top Fuel car before but it’s going to be exciting, a little fresh blood, a little insight in some different areas we might have overlooked,” said the former champion. “When you get a guy from Funny Car over to Top Fuel, it’s just a whole, new game. It might take a little time, it might not, but I’m excited to be a part of it.”

A clutch-disc problem cost the U.S. Army team valuable round wins in 2017, but the team also struggled to catch up as title contenders took big steps forwards. Some of those threats came from within the Don Schumacher Racing camp (Leah Pritchett, Antron Brown) while others came from outside the Brownburg, Ind. shop (Steve Torrence).

tony400.JPGWhile Schumacher was right in the thick of things early in the season, surging to a win in Gainesville and racing to a final one race later, by midseason it looked like the class had passed the legend by. The team kept chipping away at the tune-up, but as The Machine noted – this sport makes comebacks difficult, even with the Countdown to the Championship format.

“When we decided to bring Neff on board, I struggled a bit with that because I didn’t want it to look like we were just giving up,” Schumacher said. “What we’re doing is bringing in someone new with fresh eyes to a team that still has Green and still has Phil (Shuler, assistant crew chief) as part of our camp, and let him bring his insight. You know, someone who’s done Funny Cars, a heavier car, it’s just different, to have someone that’s an outsider come to Top Fuel car and say, ‘OK, let’s see what you’ve got.’ I think it’s pretty brilliant.”

That optimistic approach is expected, of course. DSR wouldn’t bring Neff on board if it didn’t think he can tune the dragster (and his credentials speak for themselves). Crossing classes has proven tricky in the past, though perhaps the learning curve will be shallow given the amount of help (and data) at Neff’s disposal at DSR. It doesn’t hurt that one of the best drivers in the sport is in the cockpit.

A lot of eyeballs will be on the starting line the first time Schumacher pulls up in his new-look U.S. Army dragster. Testing went well for the team, but now the real deal is here. Pressure won’t be an issue, but that doesn’t make the task at hand any easier.

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millican.jpgEven though Clay Millican and crew chief Dave Grubnic didn’t light up the scoreboards with big numbers in testing last week in Phoenix with Doug Stringer’s Parts Plus/Great Clips dragster, that’s not so say that their outing wasn’t a success. 

The team, which traditionally has run a Brad Hadman chassis (Millican has run a Hadman chassis in 18 of his previous 20 seasons in the class), switched to Don Schumacher Racing pipe this year after Hadman retired. Grubnic spent most of testing learning the characteristics of the new frame, which features a significantly shorter footbox than they previous have run.

“Every car has personalities in the tubing, so I spent Phoenix making a lot of runs trying to get a feeling for the personality,” said Grubnic. “It wanted to run fast, but it just wouldn’t keep doing it. For me, when I get a taste of something, I always think that we can achieve the result. You just have to solve the problem. Don’t slow it down; keep this 60 foot but let’s get it past that point, so that’s what we’re working on, Sometimes you to have to take a steps backwards to take a few forward.”

“We didn’t really plan on any full runs,” added Millican, who did manage an early shutoff 3.79 on Wednesday, the opening day but never went much past 660 on nearly a dozen runs that followed. “Typical Grubby; he had a lot of spaceship stuff on there that he’s been wanting to try. We definitely learned some things; they might not show up right away, but for sure by the end of the year you’ll see it.

“We hope this year will be a flip-flop of last year. We tested awesome last year and we sucked here. We sucked in testing this year so I hope we’ll be awesome here.”

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reed.jpgAs if returning to the NHRA Drag Racing tour full time in 2018, Richie Crampton and his wife Stephanie had their second child, a boy named Reed James Crampton, on Feb. 5 at 2:49 a.m. They also have a daughter named Emma.

The Top Fuel pilot joined Kalitta Motorsports at the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis last season to replace Troy Coughlin Jr., who resigned his position after 17 races in the seat. Crampton performed admirably in those final seven races, reaching one final round and posting a 5-7 round record. That helped earn him a chance at a full-pull in 2018.

“I am really excited to be able to have a full time ride with a team that is the caliber of Kalitta Motorsports,” said Crampton.

Of course, his credentials speak for themselves. Crampton has finished in the top 10 in all three of his full-time seasons and placed as high as third while with Morgan Lucas Racing. The chassis builder still works in the MLR shop during the week.

Despite that success, he hasn’t had much to speak of in Pomona. He has one No. 1 qualifier (back in 2014), but has never reached a final at Auto Club Raceway. That’s something Crampton will look to change at the season opening Winternationals.

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When Cruz Pedregon made the Countdown to the Championship last season, he did so narrowly, calling himself “the happiest 10th place driver in the world.” He knows getting back into the Countdown this season will be difficult in a stacked Funny Car category. After a full offseason with crew chief Aaron Brooks and new assistant crew chief Glen Huszar, Pedregon feels the foundation of his team is stronger.

“Glen has been a natural, he fits in personality-wise and brings a wealth of experience, we’re real pleased,” said Pedregon. “We couldn’t sign him fast enough. He got here last year, and he was here in Vegas and Pomona on a trial basis and it was a no brainer.”

The team didn’t race well during the Auto Club NHRA Finals to wrap up the season, but a solid race in Las Vegas two weeks prior, followed by a great test session, gave the team something to build on. Or, something to hope to build on, when the Snap-On Toyota Camry showed up to Phoenix testing a week ago.

“We were starting with what we finished the year with,” said Pedregon. “We felt it was more of an accident that we didn’t have the greatest last race. That’s not where we were as a team. We ran a 3.88 in Vegas in Monday testing, so we’re going to keep refining that setup. That’s really what’s kept us optimistic and focused, is that we feel like we’re on the right track. It’s just a matter of adjusting what we have now. That’s the biggest thing now.”

The team is back running the six-disc clutch after messing around with the five-disc clutch a bit last year. That seems permanent. There are some new members on the crew this year that Pedregon says bring a positive energy to the pit. After a bit of a tumultuous year, the veteran racer is hoping time will help bring everything together.

“I’ve often said what you need with a team is time,” he said. “More money would make us all feel better, but time together is one of the critical components, so having the time in the offseason has really been good for us. So, having a true offseason, not piecemealed or that kind of thing has been good.

“We didn’t end on a high note, but that made us realize that just because we have the ingredients… it doesn’t mean anything. What we did in testing, what we did in testing, that was connecting all the dots. We only made six runs; I don’t know what the competition ran, but I assume they were in the double digits. Certainly, the speed was an indication that we’re where we need to be.”

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Two-time Funny Car champ Matt Hagan and crew chief Dickie Venables entered the season opener full of enthusiasm and eager to get started after a great four days of testing in Phoenix with their sleek, new black Mopar/Dodge SRT Charger,

“Overall, we were very pleased,” said Hagan. “We rolled out and went 3.85 on one car and .84 on another and 332 with the new rules. Dickie kept all the cylinders lit, so we’re good.

“It went so good that we ran out of stuff to test, Thai’s never happened before. It’s usually how are we going to get this thing down the racetrack. It went so good. We had bellhousing stuff, electronic stuff, a new car, and it all went good.

“That being said, testing and racing are two different things. This is a whole new ballgame, but Dickie seems to have a handle on it. The car is running good and clean, so it’s time to put your mouthpiece in and hold the [heck] on.”

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beckman.jpgAt the end of preseason testing, Jack Beckman and the Infinite Hero team, with crew chiefs John Medlen, Dean Antonelli, and Neal Strasbaugh were awarded the “most improved team” of testing award. Never mind that it was the team that bestowed the award upon itself; they still left Phoenix thrilled heading to Pomona.

“The problem with getting the award is that you really have to suck at the beginning,” said Beckman. “We went 0-for-1 on Wednesday, 0-for-3 on Thursday, and 0-for-3 on Friday, then we figured out what was wrong. Which turned out to be relayted to the clutch discs. You have to listen to what the car is telling you; the problem was the car was speaking French and we weren’t.

“Once we got it figured out, the car went 3.91, 3.95, 3.99, and 3.93 on Saturday, unloaded our brand-new car on Sunday and went 3.97 and 3.98.”

The team will open the season with last year’s car through at least the Phoenix event before introducing the new chassis. They’ll test the new iron again after the Phoenix event and then make a decision going forward.

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diehl.jpgJeff Diehl had a busy offseason, and it wasn’t just “the Surfer” chasing tasty waves all around the world.

After years of being self-funding, this past winter was his first serious foray into the sponsorship world, work he hopes will pay off soon.

“I spent the offseason chasing money,” he said. “I opened a lot of doors and I learned a lot and I actually have something going that that I’m working on.”

Diehl also hired veteran Johnny West as his fulltime crew chief, and one of West’s first moves was to put in a six-disc clutch. Later the team will add the “all-in-one” valve that controls so many of the fuel and clutch systems of the top teams. Tommy Thompson, who funds Scott Palmer’s Top Fueler through his CatSpot brand, is helping Diehl out with parts this season.

Whether he lands a big deal or not, fans can expect to see Diehl and wife Leeza and the majority of events, as they did last year.

“Sure, why not?” he said. “It’s just a matter that the car has to perform better to keep me interested, which is why Johnny is here. Our performance really fell off at the end of last year in the can [bellhousing/clutch] and I think if I would have had Johnny there he would have paid for himself right there.”

Diehl will debut a new-to-him chassis later this year, the pipe that Matt Hagan rode to the championship in 2014 (since fronthalved at DSR) and three Toyota Camry bodies, one of which was used by Del Worsham in his 2015 championship campaign

“Now we just have to turn me into a champion,” he grinned.

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line.jpgWhen the KB Racing Camaros left Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park for Auto Club Raceway, their times weren’t quite up to par with those run by Elite Motorsports. While Erica Enders, Jeg Coughlin Jr. and company were routinely in the 6.50s, Jason Line, Greg Anderson, Bo Butner, and Deric Kramer were more consistently a tenth behind.

Of course, when it comes to testing, it’s not all about the numbers on the scoreboard. Unless it is. Right, it’s confusing. The best thing to do is ask the team (and hope they’re honest). Line is a pretty straight shooter, and when asked if they were “working on stuff” more-so than “worrying about numbers on the scoreboard” he answered in the affirmative.

So, while the runs posted by the Elite team are definitely encouraging (heck, Enders ran one of her top 20 times from the EFI era), don’t come into the Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals thinking the KB Racing team is dead in the water. These guys are just too darn good at what they do for that to be the case.

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There’s going to a whole lot of new for Alex Laughlin this year, beginning with a hot, new-look paint scheme featuring Hot Wheels Americana Series Car Care products on his Chevy Camaro and a new crew chief in veteran Mark Ingersoll. Race fans around the country also will see Laughlin in a supercharged, radial-tire Corvette and a supercharged Barracuda Pro Mod car at events around the country.

After this weekend’s Winternationals he’ll head to South Georgia Motorsports park for the famed Lights Out event, then head back west to Phoenix for the NHRA Arizona Nationals.

“I’m spreading myself thin and I may not be able to do this forever,” he said. “Maybe I will. I’d love to. Right now though I’m just focusing on this race.”

Even though it’s a new look for the first five races -– Laughlin will go through nine different wraps this season –- the car is familiar; it’s the same Camaro in which he won his first national event in St, Louis in 2016.

Unlike his Elite Racing teammates Erica Enders and Jeg Coughlin Jr., who run cars built by their crew chiefs, Rick and Rickie Jones, Laughlin and Vincent Nobile, whose Brian Self-tuned MountainView Tires Camaro is the fourth Elite machine, were both built by Jerry Haas, meaning that each pair of cars can still share data,

“We didn’t think chassis to chassis would be that big, but it is,” Laughlin said. “Everyone always says, ‘It’s just tubing,’ and that’s not always the case. We were very happy with the way testing went for us. I’m really looking forward to this season.”

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2017AG1_MG_2463.JPGChris McGaha had a very solid test session, running a 6.586 and a 6.580 at Wild Horse Motorsports Park outside of Phoenix. That’s the good news. The bad news? He had to switch motors before the first qualifying session at the Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals Presented by ProtectTheHarvest.com. Here’s how that conversation went:

National Dragster, trying to say something nice: Seems like testing went really for you guys!

McGaha: It did! Until we got here and already had to switch a motor.

So, what’s wrong?

“I don’t know, the other one doesn’t have any oil pressure. Or, at least not very much oil pressure anyway,” said McGaha.

What’s the confidence level the new one will provide the same results?

“It’ll be close. The other one was an experiment anyway,” said McGaha. “We might try to fix the other one, we think we know what’s wrong with it.”

So, stay tuned. The motor McGaha runs today might be different than the one he runs tomorrow. We’ll keep you posted.

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PHOTOS

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The new NHRA Welcome Center made its debut at the Winternationals, Fans can stop by to pick up information about the event or sign up to take a pit-area tour,

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NHRA Tech officials gave cars a thorough going-ever during pre-race inspection. Tanner Gray’s new-look Pro Stocker went under the body template to which all Pro Stock cars must adhere.

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Robert Hight’s Auto Club Camaro also was scrutinized by officials, who refer to spec sheets (below) to make sure all measurements (height, width, etc.) are by the rulebook.
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Sportsman competitors, who got their first crack at the Pomona track Thursday, returned for more action today, including early eliminations rounds in some classes.

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Comp racer Scotty McClay found the Pomona traction much to his liking.

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Vintage cars are on display at the Hot Rod Junction in the pits. All manner of early iron, from roadsters to dragsters and Funny Cars, are on hand.

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Fuel Altered fans will rejoice at seeing some of those wild pieces both in the Hot Rod Junction and on the track, (Below) Fuel altered veterans Randy Bradford, Ron Hope, Rich Guasco, and Dave Hough.
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John Force's new Peak Camaro Funny Car body ended up in pieces after a blower explosion during the second qualifying session,

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A mini-Cacklefest on the return road helped get fans in a  nostalgic mood.

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Doug Vancill, aboard the new Vance & Hines entry, was the first-day leader in the Mickey Thompson Tires Top Fuel Harley class.

PREVIEW

After nearly three months off, the Mello Yello NHRA Drag Racing Series returns with the Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals Presented by ProtectTheHarvest.com. Leah Pritchett (Top Fuel), Matt Hagan (Funny Car), and Jason Line (Pro Stock) kicked off the 2017 season with victories in Pomona and will try to start the 2018 season the same way against a bevy of tough challengers. New champions and revitalized challengers in new places are on hand as great weather is expected at one of the NHRA’s most historic venues.

B_Force.JPGBrittany Force brought home her first career championship as the crescendo of an incredible Countdown to the Championship. The Monster Energy driver won three times in the Countdown to bring her season total to four, and career total to seven. Force edged out Steve Torrence, who won eight times in 2017, and will once again challenge for the Top Fuel crown along with Antron Brown and Doug Kalitta. Tony Schumacher is looking to bounce back this season with new crew chief Mike Neff in tow, while Leah Pritchett hopes to build on a breakout season.

R_Hight.JPGFunny Car veteran Robert Hight brought home his second title and helped complete a double for John Force Racing. He also enjoyed a stellar Countdown and edged 2016 champion Ron Capps for the championship. Hight and crew chief Jimmy Prock began to heat up during the Western Swing and never cooled off. Capps, along with crew chief Rahn Tobler, are back with a newly installed six-disc clutch and will factor in again this season. It’s likely the rest of the Don Schumacher Racing stable will be contenders as well after a stellar test session in Phoenix (particularly by Matt Hagan).

B_Butner.JPGBo Butner broke through for his first-career Pro Stock victory in Atlanta early in 2017, and for good measure went on to win the world championship. He beat rookie Tanner Gray in the final race of the season (his first win of the season against the rookie) to clinch the title against teammate Greg Anderson, who ended up in second place. Butner’s teammates (Anderson, 2016 champion Jason Line, and new teammate Deric Kramer) will be factors the championship chase, as will the Elite Motorsports contingent of Erica Enders, Jeg Coughlin Jr., Vincent Nobile, and Alex Laughlin. Don’t count out reigning rookie of the year Gray, who was a force to be reckoned with in 2017.