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NHRA Arizona Nationals Sunday Notebook

Courtney Force picked up her first Wally in nearly two years on an emotional day of eliminations, while Steve Torrence (Top Fuel) and Chris McGaha (Pro Stock) earned their first wins of the 2018 Mello Yello Drag Racing season.
24 Feb 2018
NHRA National Dragster staff
Race coverage

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carrillo2.jpgTOP FUEL ROUND ONE (11:30 a.m.): No. 1 qualifier Tony Schumacher’s day ended early in tire smoke, allowing Arizona’s own Greg Carrillo to score the first round win of his career, one of many that “the Sarge” has surrendered in his career. Carrillo and crew chief Glenn Mikres will get second-round lane choice against Antron Brown, who smoked the tires but got the win when Mike Salinas red-lighted against him. Leah Pritchett, winner of the last two Phoenix events, ran her unbeaten string to nine rounds.

Second-round pairings (lane choice listed first): Greg Carrillo vs. Antron Brown; Leah Pritchett vs. Scott Palmer; Steve Torrence vs. Blake Alexander; Brittany Force vs. Billy Torrence.

Billy Torrence, son of championship runner-up Steve, won a wild, tire-smoking, back-pedaling match with Doug Kalitta in round one. “It was terrifying,” he said. “It was shaking and rattling and smoking. I pedaled it and pedaled it and couldn’t see him and finally got there. Steve has been giving me a lot of instruction but I’m not sure that was what I’m supposed to do.” (animated gif)

richard.JPGFUNNY CAR ROUND 1 (12:06 p.m.): Richard Townsend got the first win of his young Nitro Funny Car career after No. 3 qualifier and former Funny Car world champion Jack Beckman suffered an explosion early in his run (gif below). That's music to the ears of the Nitroholic team. That was one of a few wild runs in the first round of qualifying, as Jonnie Lindberg won a pedalfest against Bob Tasca III and Tommy Johnson Jr. did the same against defending champion Robert Hight. Shawn Langdon also picked up the first win light of his Funny Car career in his second round. 

Second-round pairings (lane choice listed first): Matt Hagan vs. Courtney Force; Jonnie Lindberg vs. John Force; Shawn Langdon vs. Ron Capps; Tommy Johnson Jr. vs. Richard Townsend

drew.JPGPRO STOCK ROUND 1 (12:28 p.m.): Drew Skillman made a big jump up from his qualifying time (6.55) with a 6.536 time slip to best Matt Hartford in the first round. That stood up as the best time of the round and booked him a matchup with No. 1 qualifier Deric Kramer, who slowed considerably (6.676) against Alan Prusiensky after posting a 6.522 to grab his first career pole. Jeg Coughlin Jr. and Alex Laughlin both earned victories via holeshots, while Greg Anderson and Jason Line will faceoff in an all-teammate battle in the second round.

Second-round pairings (lane choice listed first): Drew Skillman vs. Deric Kramer; Greg Anderson vs. Jason Line; Chris McGaha vs. Erica Enders; Jeg Coughlin Jr. vs. Alex Laughlin

billy_0.jpgTOP FUEL ROUND 2 (1:40 p.m.): Billy Torrence backfired a blower in the lights (animated gif below) but defeated reigning world champ Brittany Force and will take on his son, Steve, in the semifinals after Steve-o bested Blake Alexander. On the other side of the ladder, Greg Carrillo continued his Cinderella effort, upsetting tire-smoking Antron Brown to advance to the semifinals while Scott Palmer ended Leah Pritchett’s two-year reign at this event.

Semifinal pairings (lane choice listed first): Scott Palmer vs. Greg Carrillo; Steve Torrence vs. Billy Torrence


courtney2.JPGFUNNY CAR 2 ROUND (2:28 p.m.): Courtney Force will get what equates to a bye run in the semifinals after defeating Matt Hagan in the second round because of an on-track incident between her dad, John Force, and Jonnie Lindberg. The two cards collided after the finish line, which John Force crossed first but lost control of the car due to a large blower explosion. Force was transported to a local hospital, while Lindberg exited his car under his own power. Shawn Langdon made the quickest pass (3.927) of the session and will get a shot at Tommy Johnson Jr. in a bid to race in his first final round as a Funny Car driver.

Semifinal matchups (lane choice listed first): Courtney Force vs. John Force; Shawn Langdon vs. Tommy Johnson Jr.

deric4.JPGPRO STOCK ROUND 2 (2:39 p.m.): Deric Kramer is going to the second non-Four Wide semifinal of his career and to the second in as many weeks. Oh, and he’ll be racing Jason Line again. This time he’ll be trying to get a win against his K.B. Racing stablemate to advance to his first ever Pro Stock final. Kramer made the best pass of the second round (6.542). On the other side of the bracket is someone who also hadn’t been to a non-Four Wide semifinal in a long time: Chris McGaha. The difference? McGaha has Pro Stock wins (including at the most recent Four Wide).

Semifinal pairings (lane choice listed first): Deric Kramer vs. Jason Line; Chris McGaha vs. Alex Laughlin

palmer2.jpgTOP FUEL SEMIFINALS (3:25 p.m.): Scott Palmer advanced to his first career Top Fuel final by beating upset-minded Greg Carrillo. Racing in just his second career semifinal, Palmer powered his Tommy Thompson Motorsports/CatSpot dragster to a 3.853. Palmer will surrender lane choice to Steve Torrence, who beat his father, Billy, in only their second head-to-head meeting. Steve took the win, 3.722 to 3.726 as he enters the final gunning for his 17th career Top Fuel Wally.

tj.JPGFUNNY CAR SEMIFINALS (3:36 p.m.): Tommy Johnson Jr. will look to continue the Don Schumacher Racing winning streak to four races after defeating Shawn Langdon with a clean 3.916-second run in the semifinals. He ended the 2017 season with a win at the Auto Club NHRA Finals in Pomona, which was bookended by wins by Matt Hagan in Las Vegas and the season-opening Winternationals in Pomona. He’ll be opposed by Courtney Force, who’s searching for her first victory since the 2016 Houston event. She had a bye run after her father’s on-track incident with Jonnie Lindberg in the second round. Johnson will have lane choice after Force made a 3.938-second run.

mcgaha2.JPGPRO STOCK SEMIFINALS (3:39 p.m.): Chris McGaha is back in a final round for the first time since he captured a Wally from the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals in 2017. His record is pretty darn good in his last two finals: He won them both. He’ll look to win his third in a row against Jason Line, who he lost to at this very track in the 2016 final. Line wants to earn his first Wally since the 2017 Dallas event, which only seems like a long time if you’re one of the most successful Pro Stock racers of all time. Oh, and Line will have lane choice thanks to his 6.552 e.t. compared to McGaha’s 6.562.

NHRA LUCAS OIL DRAG RACING SERIES FINAL-ROUND RESULTS: In addition to the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series action, racing was also contested in seven Sportsman categories. 

Super Stock
Justin Lamb def. Mike Cotten

Jody Lang (pictured above) def. Brian McClanahan

Super Comp
Trevor Harkema def. Glenn Kern

Super Gas
Todd Barton def. Val Torres Sr.

Super Street
Davied Kiesel def. Chris Borges

Top Dragster 
Paul Nero def. Rodger Comstock

Top Sportsman
Bryan Warr def. Bud Preuss

TOP FUEL HARLEY FINAL (4:35 p.m.): Tii Tharpe scored his third career win in Mickey Thompson Tires Top Fuel Harley competition, taking an easy victory after his team owner, defending series champ Jay Turner, broke.

PRO STOCK FINAL (4:39 p.m.): Chris McGaha, far lane, earned his sixth career Wally, his first in Phoenix, and took down Jason Line with a 6.529-second pass at 211.59 mph. That made him the 19th different Pro Stock winner at the NHRA Arizona Nationals and booked him his first win since his the 2017 NHRA Four-Wide Nationals back in late April.

FUNNY CAR FINAL (4:47 p.m.): Courtney Force, far lane, laid down one heck of a run to scoop up her first Wally since the 2016 Houston final. She blasted off to a 3.834 at 337.17 mph to defeat Tommy Johnson Jr. for the ninth win of her career. It came after eight-straight final round defeats and an on-track incident involving her father just two rounds earlier, so this one was particularly emotional for the Advance Auto Parts racer. Johnson's team later discovered a broken piston that forced him to lift early.

TOP FUEL FINAL (4:50 p.m.): Steve Torrence , near lane, scored his 17th career Top Fuel win and ended quasi-teammate Scott Palmer’s bid for his first career win with a 3.729. Torrence took over the points lead with the win, roaring away from Palmer’s CatSpot dragster, which lost traction early in the run.

C_McGaha.JPGPro Stock winner Chris McGaha on what he takes more pride in during the final round: the 211 mph or the .009 reaction time: “The speed because it shows horsepower, and the .007 means I didn’t screw it up. So, there you go. When the crew chiefs and all that give you a good car, it’s kind of like a field goal kicker. They’re on the bench the whole time and then they have to come in and win the game, so you kinda feel like you have to come in and win the game. Just don’t mess it up cause you’re the last guy.”

You had a .009 earlier, a .007 in the final, maybe you’re not giving yourself enough credit.

“Maybe it was adrenaline in the final, Jason is over there and that’s one of the guys I come to race right there and you gotta bring your a-game to beat him.”

What does Adam Hornberger bring to your team as the crew chief?

“He’s more of a shock specialist and I’ve kind of relieved myself of crew chief duties, let him take it over, and it’s kind of working out good right now. I don’t think I had realized how overloaded I had made myself. Maybe that’s helping me drive better, I think I knew I always needed to drive better, but obviously I had overloaded myself a little bit.”

C_Force.JPGFunny Car winner Courtney Force: “It’s been a little overwhelming, I’m shocked I didn’t cry in my top-end interview. Coming from Pomona [where sister Brittany crashed] and try to get our heads on straight and focus and put that behind us, then Dad goes out and has a huge explosion in the lights [in the second round today]. I was glad to see that [Jonnie] Lindberg was OK, but then you have to switch your focus back to the car, and my dad and my crew chiefs are the ones who gave me confidence to get back in my car and battle it out all day. 

“My dad told me to go out there and kick their asses and I told him that was what I was going to do, so I’m very excited to bring him home the Wally. 

“We had a 40-minute turnaround for the semifinals and still were able to make a decent pass. We didn’t have lane choice for the final, weren’t even able to warm up the car, and it was nice for [Tommy Johnson Jr.] to wait for us. We were able to lay down a killer number. Thanks to my guys who gave me the confidence to get back in my car today. [Brian] Corradi and [Dan] Hood were incredible today to get us the No. 1 qualifying spot and then the Wally at the end of the weekend We’ve been looking for a win for a long time now; it feels like forever, and this one feels good. I know it will help my dad feel better.”

S_Torrence.JPGTop Fuel winner Steve Torrence: “It was a heck of a day. Anymore there’s not any easy rounds; even if a guy’s not quick, they go down every time, so there’s no margin for error.

“Racing my dad in the semifinals and then Scott Palmer in the final was awesome. The only way that [racing my dad] would have been better is if it had been the final; that was my toughest race of the day. He’d done well the couple rounds before and he’s getting more comfortable, which is going to be a problem because he’s going to be racing more this year. I know I’m going to have to race him some more. He did an unbelievable job; I’m really proud of him. That was a highlight of my career.

"Racing my dad was cool and then having Scott Palmer in the final with us was pretty awesome. He’s a third car in there with us. He has a lot of our parts and pieces and all of our information. We try to make sure he does as well as we can get him to do.”


carrillo.jpgHometown hero Greg Carrillo, appearing in just his second eliminations, pulled off a huge upset in round one when he beat No. 1 qualifier Tony Schumacher, who smoked the tires in the national speed record-holding U.S. Army dragster.

Carrillo’s upset is not all that stunning given Schumacher’s history of surrendering first round-wins to racers over his career. The list is long and varied: Cameron Ferre, Jenna Haddock, Mike Strasburg, Blake Alexander, Smax Smith, Alan Bradshaw, Rit Pustari, and Don Sosenka all lit their first career win lights against the sport’s most successful Top Fuel driver.

“The Arizona crowd is behind us,” said the Glendale-based racer. “Tony Schumacher is a good competitor and has been a good friend for a lot of years, but we’re going to take them any way we can get them.”

Carrillo's good fortune continued in round two where he had lane choice and three-time world champ Antron Brown smoked the tires against his career-best 4.05.


Scott Palmer started out the season in ideal fashion: with a round win. Sure, it came with a little bit of luck as Leah Pritchett’s parachutes fell out at the starting line, but you won’t hear Palmer complaining about the fashion of the result. The win came on the back of Palmer debuting a six-disc clutch in his CatSpot Kitty Litter Top Fuel Dragster, capping a solid weekend for the independent team.

“It was our first race with a six-disc clutch and we ran a 3.79 and we did it pretty easily, too, so that’s what we wanted to do,” said Palmer. “We wanted to get in the .70s and learn a little more about it. It’s the same as (Steve) Torrence’s but it’s a new design. Billy (Torrence) is going to run it, he’s got one for his car. It looks like it’ll be better in the long run, but right now It’s the only one out there with this design. It’s going to work great, but we weren’t aggressive with it at all and we ran great.”

Palmer made the Countdown to the Championship for the first time in his career in 2017 and enjoyed a career season in every sense of the word. Funded by boat racer Tommy Thompson, Palmer won more rounds than he ever had in his career and finished in the top 10 for the first time. He ran career bests on a regular basis while slowly whittling down his tune-up.

“We’re trying to move the numbers down,” said Palmer. “We want to be a mid-3.70 car to a low .70 car. We want to run a .77 to a .71 all the time, where we ran a .82 or .83 to a .77 last year. We want to run five-hundredths quicker, basically, by Topeka. And that’s possible. E2 (in Pomona) was our best run of the weekend, and we only ran an .83 because we drove through the clutch early because we had something wrong. But our early numbers from 200 on were our best of the weekend.”

The racer attributes the team’s slow and steady approach to its success in 2017, and he sees no reason for it to change in 2018.

“We’re going to try to get into the show and try to race on Sunday,” said Palmer. “I think (the competition) is going to be tougher this year. You’ve got Alan Johnson tuning (Mike) Salinas. You’ve got Torrence’s guys tuning this thing, so it’s going to run faster, but we’re just trying not to beat ourselves. If we just step it up a little this year, we’re going to be good.”

2018_Mike_Neff.jpgBringing on a new crew chief can be a challenge, but the early returns for the addition of Mike Neff to the U.S. Army team of Tony Schumacher are promising. Schumacher reached the final round at the Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals presented by ProtectTheHarvest.com and praised the positive energy Neff brought to the team. 

“He’s really hands on with the guys on this U.S. Army team,” said Schumacher. “He spends quite a bit of time talking with each and every one of the guys getting their feedback. Looking for their thoughts and ideas on how to make our U.S. Army car faster. That really impressed me.” 

Schumacher has known Neff for a long time, dating back to when Neff worked on Gary Scelzi’s Funny Car. While this is Neff’s first time as a crew chief on a Top Fueler, Schumacher never showed any hesitation bringing Neff on board. That confidence appears contagious. 

“I talked with my crew guys and they really felt part of the decisions that were made,” said Schumacher. “(Neff) leads in his own way and he may not even know he possess that type of leadership skill. It’s a new component and helps the guys feel more invested in what the car does. We’ve got guys who are the best in the business and they have really gelled early this season.”

After back-to-back seasons finishing in eighth place, Schumacher said the team had begun to feel stagnant. That led to bringing Neff into the fold and the exit of longtime crew chief Mike Green. Assistant crew chief Phil Shuler remained on board and is an integral part of the team. There’s plenty of season left, but the first steps are promising ones. 

Over the last few years, racers and race fans have seen some of the sport’s quickest and fastest runs at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park. Even though the track sits at 1,500 feet of altitude and can host some wild weather, it’s quickly gained respect. Tony Schumacher’s world-beating 335-mph speed Friday certainly didn’t hurt that rep.

jimo.jpg“If you just look at the track surface it doesn’t look much different, but when you race on it, you find out how good it is,” said Kalitta Motorsports crew chief Jim Oberhofer. “Even though it’s got a bit of altitude, there’s no water grains. [Water grains are a measurement of absolute humidity and a more accurate description of water vapor in the air than the more commonly-used relative humidity. As the old tuning saying goes, “You can’t burn water.”] 

“It’s very easy to make power here, but also very easy to get over center real quick and make too much power. You have to be careful on your blower overdrive and how much compression you run. Here we can see 15 water grains and ‘normal,’ might be 50-60. Places like Bristol, where it’s hot and muggy, it can be well over 100.

“You can get to some places like Pomona, where you get weird winds, and the water grains might vary 25 or 30 or more between when you leave the trailer and when you run. When you get more water grains, you need to add compression and/or nitro percentage, neither of which you can do in the staging lanes. Here, we don’t have that problem.”

When Rahn Tobler (above, right) switched the Ron Capps-driven NAPA Auto Parts Funny Car to the six-disc clutch over the offseason, it seemed significant. While many Funny Cars; heck, most Funny Cars already ran with a six-disc clutch, Tobler was a veteran crew chief who stuck with the five-disc for a long time. He proved over the last two years that a championship could be won with a five-disc (or at the very least, a hell of a lot of races).

So, after all this time, why switch?

“When I first started racing in 1971, we had two discs. Then we went to three, then to four, then to five, and now to six,” said Tobler. “And the reason we have always had to add a disc is because we overcame the capability of the clutch to handle the horsepower. When he started we had a 671 and now we have a 1471. We used to run a 10-gallon fuel pump, and now we run a 110-gallon fuel pump. As the engine powers have gone up, the clutch has been behind. I’m sure you’ve heard how a clutch will weld and that will cause the car to smoke the tires through the middle. When I went to work for Doug Kalitta in 2004 after Shirley (Muldowney) retired, they already had six discs. It was because of the power.”

“After the 2016 season, we did some things cam shaft wise, some other things that we felt we wanted to try in order to make more power. Well, we did. We went 288 mph to the 1/8th, we went the quickest and fastest we ever ran. I also saw where we would start to weld. And although it would go down the track, I could tell the writing was on the wall, that if we didn’t do something about it now, and I certainly told you that I have aspirations to make more power, it would cause problems later. That’s why we switched, because I saw things last year that told me we needed to. The times that we got away with running the five-disc last year, we may not get away with this year.”

ron.JPGAs the Funny Car category gets more competitive, Tobler saw the need to increase his performance while maintaining the trademark consistency that brought the NAPA team a championship in 2016. Capps won even more races in 2017 but came up short of winning back-to-back championships after bowing out early in a pair of Countdown to the Championship races. So far, Tobler is pleased with the progress the team has made with the new clutch setup.

“I think in general it’s going pretty well,” said Tobler. “I think we tested pretty well. We obviously did pretty well Friday in Pomona, but it’s not going to be an easy or quick process. There’s going to be things that we have to learn. We’ve changed it from Pomona to here trying to make it run better in the middle because that’s one of the things that I see with it that we’re behind the other guys.

“We’re as quick as anybody on those sheets to the 330 and we were in Pomona, we were yesterday on the first run. But it doesn’t run through the middle like it does for the other guys. It runs 281-282, we need to run 286-287. We made some changes to the clutch and first run yesterday, it didn’t get on the stops that we thought it would, but it was still second on the sheet to Courtney only. So, last night, we just got a little behind because it was a little cold and it shook. Overall, I think we’re ahead of where I thought we’d be at this point.”

Friday night was the first time in 18 runs that the NAPA car didn’t make it past the 60-foot mark, which is impressive no matter how you slice or dice it. Many of the Nitro cars struggled to make it down the track during preseason testing, but not the NAPA car. It’s easy to take Tobler and Capps’ success for granted; that just makes it more important not to. What they’re doing is special, and if they get the hang of the six-disc clutch quickly, they’ll be a force to be reckoned with. Again.

tj-chute.jpgWatching from the stands and trying to understand what a nitro car is doing can be confusing. Did the driver shut the car off early, or did the engine shut itself off? Why did the driver pull the parachute so early?

All of the cars have safety shutoff devices for when certain internal engine pressure exceed a threshold, which automatically shuts things down and throws out the parachute, but lately teams have taken it a step further with automated parachute releases connected to a speed sensor.

Tommy Johnson Jr.’s Make-A-Wish Charger will deploy the parachute at speeds between 283 and 290 mph, depending on the track and conditions, which means that the deployment begins well before the finish line, often around the 700-foot mark.

“You will not believe how long it takes for the ‘chutes to fully deploy,” said Johnson. “It can start to come out at 700 feet but not be fully open until just past the finish line. It takes time for the springs to deploy the chutes and them to unfold before they fully hit. It doesn’t hurt e.t. or speed at all.”

Tim Wilkerson hopes the final day of racing goes better than two days of qualifying. After a head-scratching Friday in which his Levi, Ray & Shoup Shelby acted most curiously, smoking the tires when it shouldn’t have, he discovered the problem: a bent chassis.

“It wore a lot of clutch and I thought, that's really weird. It shouldn't have done that,” he said of his second pass Friday, prompting him to go through the car with a fine-tooth comb, only to discover that the bottom frame rails on the chassis were bowed in.

Wilkerson pressed his spare chassis -– last run by son Daniel at the Dallas event last fall -– into service, but his first run Saturday was of no help: He never got to the starting line. As soon as the crew turned on the air bottle that activates many of the car’s systems prior to startup, the parachutes deployed. The crew quickly repacked them but the car wouldn’t fire. Wilk was forced to throw in the towel for the run.

Q4 was better, marginally. After diagnosing a faulty command module they returned for the final qualifying pass, which was aborted when the car made a move.
"The thing was trucking along pretty good, but I just got it out of the groove," said Wilkerson. “It was running pretty good though, so I'm halfway optimistic about [Sunday]. I'm not disgruntled at all. It's too bad the thing malfunctioned that one run, but I wouldn’t want to race me [Sunday].”

larsen.jpgVeteran crew chief Lance Larsen, right, got his new student, former nostalgia Funny Car racer Richard Townsend, qualified for his first event after just missing in their debut at the Winternationals.

For Larsen, who wrenched Jeb Allen to the 1981 NHRA Top Fuel championship and most recently worked with David Grubnic on Clay Millican’s dragster, it’s a new line of work.

“They had absolutely nothing last year in Sonoma, so we’ve acquired everything since then,” he said. “There’s the pain of starting up and once you get over that, you can start working. We’ve got a few issues that I’m trying to catch up with, but we went 4.09 in testing, so I feel good about our progress.

The Townsend team won’t head east to Gainesville, but Larsen will be there as a guest of Allen, who’s being inducted into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame.

Later this year, while the Townsend team runs just the Topeka and Sonoma events this summer, Larsen will help A/Fuel Dragster driver Dan Mercier get his feet wet in a Terry McMillen-prepared dragster. Mercier and his Montreal-based team will compete in Atlanta, Richmond, and Epping.

“If I continue to help people like this and get them running good, eventually if someone needs someone, they’ll think about me,” he said. “Plus I need the money.”

Outside of a slim chance that they’ll run the Las Vegas four-wide event, in addition to the Topeka and Sonoma events the Townsend team will return to compete at the final three events of the season. If they are able to pick up any sponsorship help, they may run more events.

candles2.jpgTinker, driver, candlestick maker? Sure, that’s Tommy Johnson Jr.

In addition to wheeling the Make-A-Wish Dodge Charger for Don Schumacher Racing, T.J. has taken on an interesting hobby: candle making.

“Someone sent my parents a wine bottle with a candle in it, my fiancée (Amy Ladd) said ‘We should make one of those.’ So we made some, like 20 of them, and people really liked them, so I decided I could make them and sell them,” he said. “I sold 226 of them between Thanksgiving and Christmas. She does the pouring and molding I do the cutting and polishing of the glass. Liquor bottles are big sellers, so are Starbucks bottles. I bet I’ve made 600 of them. I’ve even made them out of pistons. I sell them online in an Etsy store. I can make 10-12 a day

“I’ve taken a little grief over it from some of the race guys. They kind of give me a look and ask, ‘You sell candles?’ I just say, Yeah, I do. Five minutes later, they’ll come back and ask if I’ll make one for their girlfriend,” he laughed.

Johnson also runs a parts business that sells consumables – chemicals, tape, zip ties, rags, paper towels, spark plugs, nut washers, and bolts, gaskets -- to a lot of teams in the pits. 

“I sell a lot of spark plugs; every one of these cars uses 16 per run,” he noted.

Alex Laughlin is making a full Pro Stock tour in 2018, but that’s not stopping him from keeping a very busy schedule on weekend’s away from the NHRA Drag Racing tour. While he’s at the NHRA Arizona Nationals this weekend, Laughlin took part in the Lights Out 9, hailed as one of the biggest small-tire races of the year.

“That race, I didn’t know what to expect,” said Laughlin. “We go out there, and the structure is very limited. So instead of calling classes at a time to run, it’s kind of a free for all so the staging lanes are a huge traffic jam. So, when you leave the pit, you might make a run in about a two hour. There are people rolling through the staging lanes with motor homes with beer in their hands and they just came to party.”

The blue Corvette Laughlin brought out to the track is absolutely phenomenal to look at, but it also doesn’t have many runs on it. You can read between the lines there: Laughlin doesn’t have a ton of experience driving this particular car, though he certainly has a wealth of experience driving all sorts of wheeled vehicles.

“I hadn’t even shifted that car out of low gear when I got it out there,” Laughlin said. “That car was about 40 pounds lighter than it had been originally. So, we put wheelie bars on it just to be safe because I didn’t want to chance blowing it over and I didn’t want to take a chance going 200 mph. It went 4.15 on the first pass, then 4.02 and then 3.86 during qualifying at 200 mph.”

Laughlin ended up qualifying No. 9 in a 52-car field, which he deemed a huge success. Things didn’t go so well in the first round. He red-lit by .019 second against a car he had covered by three-quarters of a second, which was a frustrating way to end a great weekend.

“I rolled in, and that car is not as easy to handle on the starting line because the blower motor is tolling so hard,” Laughlin said. “So, staging it, I’m holding the brake pedal so, so hard. I rolled in just a touch deep and I was .019 red. It was about 1 a.m., they were crashing cars right and left, I was a little nervous because I wasn’t totally comfortable in the car yet… I lost first round, so that sucked, but qualifying was a huge success. I can’t complain.”

It’s all good experience for the racer, no matter what car it comes in. This weekend, he’s back in the familiar Hot Wheels Car Care Products Chevy Camaro. This will probably not be the last car change he makes this season. Don’t worry, Laughlin’s used to it at this point.

hartford.JPGIf you watched Matt Hartford run Friday or Saturday, you may have noticed the swarm of Elite Performance crew members surrounding his Total Seal Piston Rings Chevy Camaro. No, members of Erica Ender, Jeg Coughlin, Alex Laughlin and Vincent Nobile’s teams weren’t just hanging around because they were really interested in Hartford’s pass. He’s now getting power from Elite after leasing an engine from Gray Motorsports at the end of last season.

“There wasn’t any real reason one way or another,” Hartford said of the switch. “The Grays, their engine deal was really good, and we were really happy with them, and we made a deal with (Elite owner) Richard Freeman over the winter to go over to his engine program. We bought a truck and trailer from him, we just kinda put a bigger package together versus staying where we were with Gray. We could go back to Gray in a heartbeat, our car is still set up to run their power if we wanted to, we decided we’d try the Elite stuff because their program looked really good for this year.”

Hartford, a New Mexico native, will run about 10 races this year. Next on the docket is the Denso Spark Plugs NHRA Four-Wide Nationals in Las Vegas, another short trek. He’ll hit both Vegas races, and the season-ender in Pomona – with a few events mixed in the middle. Hartford made a solid pass to open his season and is currently qualified 10th.

“We didn’t test, we didn’t turn a tire since Pomona last year and we went out here and were eighth in the first session, ran a 6.57,” said Hartford. “Then we just got out of the groove in the second session. I think if we’d run straight we’d have ran a 6.55. We’ve got enough power to go to the pole, we know that, we just have to do a good job on the setup and I have to do a good job driving.”

Both Alex Laughlin and Vincent Nobile are receiving the same power in nearly identical Jerry Haas-built cars. Laughlin sat in pole position after the first day of qualifying, while Nobile grabbed the pole at the season-opener in Pomona.

“There’s no doubt that I’m a big fan of the Haas car, and you can really make anything work,” said Hartford. “An RJ car works, a Hass car works, hell you can bring out an old Don Ness car and it’ll work.”

Jason Line is, as yet, unimpressed with his team’s performance this weekend. He summed up the first day of qualifying in one word for the four Chevy Camaros fielded by K.B. Racing: “Crappy.”

The 2016 champ isn’t one for long explanations, nor for mincing words. While Line entered Saturday qualified No. 4, just behind Greg Anderson, he’s not satisfied. Deric Kramer wrapped up Friday seventh and Bo Butner was ninth. Those aren’t the numbers that Line cares about, of course. He’s looking at the process behind them – and the numbers that put three K.B. cars in the semi’s in Pomona.

“We’re definitely not where we need to be,” said Line. “We struggled to get ahold of the race track yesterday, so we need to get better there. Hopefully we’ll get better today. It’s just the whole way down the race track. I don’t think we’re the only ones, I think everyone is struggling a little bit.”

Qualifying was a similar story for the K.B. contingent. Anderson ended up third and Line fourth, but both racers were a good three-hundredths of a second behind No. 1 qualifier Vincent Nobile. Butner and Kramer were sixth and eighth, respectively, and more than a hundredth and three-hundredths behind their teammates.

“The end result wasn’t bad, but I’d give it a C,” said Line of the season-opening contest. “The process was lousy, especially with four cars. Certainly, we can do better. It’s going to take us a little while, but it’s a challenge to run that many cars. We got them all to run pretty well, but not as fast as we would have liked. Certainly, we want it to be a little smoother than that going forward.”

It’s only the second race of the year, and there’s plenty of time for performance to improve.


Prior to pre-race ceremony, fans got to take a stroll down the Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park racing surface during the popular SealMaster Track Walk, which was led by Greg Anderson and Bo Butner.

Deric Kramer and the American Ethanol team were introduced after capturing their first No. 1 qualifying berth in Pro Stock Saturday.

The honorable Lt. Governor, Robert Stone, offered a traditional prayer and song prior to the start of eliminations. Joining him on stage with NHRA’s Alan Reinhart were Ms. Connie Nelson, president of the board for Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, and WHPMP General Manager Erin Berry.

Some Sportsman racing also took place before round one of the nitro cars. Reigning NHRA Super Stock world champ Justin Lamb found plenty of traction and advanced to the fourth round of eliminations.

NHRA and Wild Horse Pass officials proudly announced that Sunday was a complete sellout as fans from across the region packed the track.

Billy Torrence, left, and Doug Kalitta engaged in a wildm tire-smoking first-round battle. Torrence took the win and advanced to the semifinals.

John Force and Jonnie Lindberg were involved in a wild second-round incident in Funny Car. Force suffered a massive blower explosion, crossed the centerline and hit the guardwall, then collided with Lindberg. [Story]

Chris McGaha defeated Jason Line to win the event, his first since the Four-Wide Nationals last April.

Courtney Force scored an emotional win, here first in almost two years, to cap an emotional weekend for the family.

Steve Torrence, right, was congratulated by the guy he beat in the Top Fuel final, Steve Torrence, after Torrence denied him his first career win.

Event winners Steve Torrence, Courtney Force, and Chris McGaha celebrated their wins amidst flying confetti.


Here are the brackets and first-round pairings for the professional classes.