QUALIFYING ROUND RECAPS
PRO STOCK Q3 (1:54 p.m.): Greg Anderson shook the tires hard in his Summit Racing Camaro, which allowed someone else to grab the three bonus points available for the quickest run of the third qualifying round. With Anderson coasting to the finish line, defending event champ Erica Enders took the lead for the sesson with a 6.628, 212.49 in her Melling/Elite Camaro. Enders was followed closely by teammate Vincent Nobile, who drove to a 6.530, 211.43 in the Mountain View Chevy while Jeg Coughlin Jr. made it a clean sweep for the Elite team with a 6.547, 212.16 in his JEGS.com Camaro. Chris McGaha also ran a 6.547, but at a slightly slower 211.79 mph speed.
TOP FUEL Q3 (2:29 p.m.): Antron Brown did himself two favors by making the only 3-second run of the third Top Fuel session. First, he finally got himself off the bump spot with a 3.974-second hit. Second, he scored himself three bonus points. That’s about all the good news there is to bring from a session filled with tire smoke as crew chiefs struggled to tame a hot track. Things should get better in the fourth session after teams found the edge in the penultimate series of runs. For now, Audrey Worm is on the bump spot after she did not take a hit in the third session.
FUNNY CAR Q3 (2:36 p.m.): In front of a standing room only crowd, Ron Capps and his NAPA team overcame conditions that can best be described as tricky to make the quickest pass of Saturday’s third Funny Car session. Capps drove to a 4.099, 310.41 to earn three bonus points and edge Tim Wilkerson, who returned from last night’s engine explosion to record a 4.104, 308.35 in his Levi, Ray & Shoup Mustang. The final bonus point went to Robert Hight after his 4.109, 315.19 in his Auto Club Camaro. Matt Hagan, the provisional low qualifier, wasn’t able to crack the top three, but he did make a solid baseline run in advance of tomorrow’s final eliminations with a 4.112, 311.05.
PRO STOCK Q4: (4:28 p.m.): While the top spot remained the same and Greg Anderson secured the pole for the 101st time in his career, there was plenty of shuffling in the middle of the pack during the final Pro Stock qualifying session. The biggest mover was Drew Skillman who made the second-best run of the session with a 6.538, 211.59. Skillman not only banked three qualifying bonus points, but also changed the qualifying order to avoid a possible round one matchup against teammate and engine supplier Tanner Gray. Defending event champ Erica Enders swept the top spot in both Saturday sessions with a 6.521, 211.63 in her Elite/Melling Camaro. The final bonus point went to Gray, who posted a 6.540, 212.69.
First-round pairings (lane choice first): Greg Anderson vs. Val Smeland; Erica Enders vs. Alan Prusiensky; Vincent Nobile vs. John Gaydosh; Drew Skillman vs. Fernando Cuadra; Tanner Gray vs. Kenny Delco; Alex Laughlin vs. Jason Line; Bo Butner vs. Matt Hartford; Jeg Coughlin Jr. vs. Chris McGaha
TOP FUEL Q4 (5:10 p.m.): Steve Torrence didn’t move up the ladder in the final session, but his 3.849-second pull did earn him three bonus points. He was tightly followed by Terry McMillen, who made a 3.857-second hit to get into the top half of the field. A fellow heavy-hitter, Antron Brown, was not so lucky. He ended up down in the No. 12 position and will race Clay Millican in a big-time matchup. Audrey Worm will face No. 1 qualifier Leah Pritchett for the second time in her career as Pritchett hung on for her second pole position of the season.
First-round pairings (lane choice first): Leah Pritchett vs. Audrey Worm; Tony Schumacher vs. Jim Maroney; Steve Torrence vs. Dan Mercier; Brittany Force vs. Mike Salinas; Clay Millican vs. Antron Brown; Dom Lagana vs. Shawn Reed; Scott Palmer vs. Richie Crampton; Terry McMillen vs. Doug Kalitta
FUNNY CAR Q4 (5:22 p.m.): The four Don Schumacher Racing Funny Cars put on a show in the final qualifying session with DSR drivers Matt Hagan, Tommy Johnson Jr., Ron Capps, and Jack Beckman making the four quickest runs of the season. Hagan was best with a 4.027, 318.47 to lock down his third low qualifier of the season and 33rd of his career. Johnson followed with a 4.036, 317.49 while Capps also picked up a bonus point with a 4.040, 319.67. Beckman was just two-thousandths behind with a 4.402, 317.87 in his Infinite Hero Dodge. For the first time this year, points leader Courtney Force failed to qualify in the top half of the field. Force is the No. 13 seed, which means a round one match-up against Capps’ NAPA Dodge.
First-round pairings (lane choice first): Matt Hagan vs. Terry Haddock; Jack Beckman vs. Jeff Diehl; Shawn Langdon vs. Jim Campbell; Ron Capps vs. Courtney Force; Robert Hight vs. Bob Tasca III; John Force vs. Jonnie Lindberg; J.R. Todd vs. Tim Wilkerson; Tommy Johnson Jr. vs. Cruz Pedregon
PRO STOCK LOW QUALIFIER GREG ANDERSON: “Low E.T. meant everything yesterday. We were the Kings out there. The car made sweet runs. Today, we struggled with the sun on the track. It was definitely a learning experience. We get another shot tomorrow and we have to learn what to do differently when sun is on the track. With the air quality, we should be able to run faster, and we were slower. We obviously turned the wrong screws. We’ll learn from those mistakes and go forward. We must do the right things tomorrow. The weather will be hotter tomorrow, so we’ll need to change again. When the track temp changes, you have to change. Fortunately, we have good data from today’s two runs. Even though we went backwards it was a good learning experience. We just know what we can’t do. I feel a little bad that we underachieved but as long as we get it right it will all be good.
“We’ve struggled all year with our sixty-foot times and that was the case here as well. On Sunday, we’re gonna have a serious issue if we don’t make some changes. I just hope that pays dividends. We run after the fuel cars which presents a whole different scenario. Fortunately, I get to not only choose my lane, but also which pair I’ll be in. I can pretty much guarantee that I’ll be seventh or eighth pair out. That’s the advantage.”
FUNNY CAR LOW QUALIFIER MATT HAGAN: “Obviously we have a great race car. It’s running on eight cylinders and Dickie [Venables, crew chief] has a great handle on our tune-up. As a driver, I can focus on my lights and not worry about whether or not the car is going to go down the track. I’ve been saying all year and as long as you make a good run in Q1 you set yourself up for a better run in Q2 and that’s what we did. We made a great run last night and that gave us something to work off of. We were able to see what we have to do.
“Dickie is the best. You give him a run or two to figure things out and he’s pretty deadly. If you miss the set-up on Q1, you’re behind the whole weekend. We didn’t allow that to happen this time and that’s a big reason why I’m standing up here tonight. You just hope that carries over to tomorrow and we can go out and turn on some win lights.”
TOP FUEL LOW QUALIFIER LEAH PRITCHETT: Saturday is really practice for Sunday. So during Q3 we tried some stuff and we practiced during Q4, got the results we wanted and now we’re set up the way we want to be for Sunday. We’ve got the momentum that we want. It’s up to us to keep doing it and I’ve got all the faith and the confidence in my team.
The car is doing what we tell it do, finally, and that’s a testament to (crew chief) Todd Okuhara. This weekend we’ve solved some mysteries with the car. It feels good for both Top Fuel and Funny Car to be top of the charts and get that pole for Mopar because they put that power behind us.
Clay Millican won back-to-back races not so long ago. One of those races, in Chicago, kicked off the four-race swing that just concluded in Norwalk. Since then, the Tennessean hasn’t made it past the second round. He just lost a close race to Leah Pritchett in Norwalk, but Millican ran a 3.81 a round after blistering the field with a 3.75.
“We shouldn’t have slowed down that much, which drives (crew chief Dave Grubnic) batty,” said Millican.
Grubnic has since identified the problem that led to that slowdown, but that doesn’t get Millican those rounds back. Despite three-straight races of early exits, Millican remains in second place with Steve Torrence in striking distance. Perhaps most importantly, his confidence in his car hasn’t dissipated.
“It’s two races in a row that I felt like we had the best car,” said Millican. “It’s not even that we qualified No. 1 at both races so much. If you look at Bristol and the run that we made there where we were just really ahead of everybody.”
He comes into Saturday as the No. 5 qualifier with a 3.778-second pass to his name. That’s just .003 second behind Brittany Force and puts him in a great position to set up for race day.
Mike Salinas feels he’s on the verge of a breakthrough. Yes, he reached his first career final round in relatively short order, but that doesn’t bring much satisfaction to one of the most competitive racers in Top Fuel.
“We’ve got a chassis problem we’re trying to solve. We’ll get it,” said Salinas, who got out of the throttle when a promising run got sideways during Q2. “We had a little problem and it’s been acting up, so we’re trying a few different things to see if it’ll work.”
The Scrappers Racing team, tuned by Alan Johnson and crew chiefed by Doug Kuch, will throw a couple different ideas at the problem during the third and fourth qualifying sessions. The chassis is relatively new and comes from Morgan Lucas Racing. There was an adjustment process when Salinas first slid into the new pipe, but the San Jose native says this is a new problem resulting in changes the team made to the chassis.
“We made some adjustments to it and we want to make it work our way,” said Salinas. “We’re close, we’re real close to it. We’re being patient and it’s frustrating but we’re being patient with it. Richie (Crampton) and a whole bunch of guys are helping us work with it. They have a great product and we want to enhance it. It’s good, but I have to make it our good.”
Crampton is both a racer for Kalitta Motorsports and a welder at MLR, which is why he’s involved in this process. Salinas is a heavy tinkerer, so the chassis isn’t the only thing he’s messing around with – and he’s not the only racer who’s doing this.
“I don’t want to leave everything the way it is,” said Salinas. “If you’re going to run with these guys and beat the best of the best you can’t just buy the stuff off the shelf. You have to reengineer and change things. We’re headed in the right direction, that’s what I can tell you.”
There’s no sense of frustration around Terry McMillen’s camp despite failing to seal the deal three times in final rounds this season. The driver of the Amalie Motor Oil Top Fueler came close against Blake Alexander at the last stop on the NHRA Drag Racing tour but came up short to the second-year Top Fuel driver. Despite his three runner-up finishes, McMillen is in sixth place – which explains his chipper mood.
“We’ve been trying to do some testing in between racing and we almost got caught with our pants down in Norwalk because when they cancelled that last session (due to weather) we were qualified No. 15,” said McMillen. “Had they not cancelled it, we were going to go back to our old run package in order to make it work.”
McMillen and crew chief Rob Wendland are very happy with the current setup of their dragster, so now they’re working on getting alternate setups put together. That should come in handy when the Countdown to the Championship comes around.
“We were trying to get some additional information so that when we go on the Western Swing and get later into the Fall we’ll have some other stuff to lean on,” said McMillen. “The car is going down the track well and it’s not doing a lot of foolish stuff and that’s really the gameplan.”
McMillen sits in the middle of the pack through two sessions on the back of a 3.872-second pass. There’s likely room to improve on that despite warm conditions on Saturday. Even if he only matches that, these are prime practice sessions for race day.
The NAPA Auto Parts Funny Car team crew chiefed by Rahn Tobler switched to the five-disc clutch ahead of the four-race swing that concluded in Norwalk and so far, the results are good. That is, as far as Tobler is concerned.
“We have consistency and we have predictability and it’ll do what we ask it to do most of the time,” said Tobler. “That’s what we want and that’s what we’ve seen. We’re just taking it week by week right now and we’re putting up with a lot of things. We’re putting up with track prep, 130-140 track temperatures, which I think we handled very well in Bristol and in Richmond.”
2016 Funny Car champion Ron Capps picked up his first win of the season in Bristol, which came as a bit of a morale booster to a team that has become accustomed to winning over the past two seasons. For someone like Tobler, seeing all the pieces come together is satisfying – but there have been road blocks even with the switch back to the old clutch package.
“In between all of this we introduced a clutch disc that it did not like very much in Bristol, so we took it out and it’s been down the track pretty much every time ever since.
“The discs we had in Richmond in (the third qualifying session) ran well but then it smoked the tires in (the first elimination session) and then we went to Bristol and it wasn’t going down the track, so that’s when we made the (clutch disc change). We’ve had about three or four of those (discs) in the nine years that I’ve been here and it’s just one of those things where sometimes the disc doesn’t want to cooperate. Other than that, I think we’ve done okay.”
Capps is averaging a 4.03-second elapsed time this season, which is a little bit quicker than the 4.045 average enjoyed by the class. What Tobler is looking for more than quick times is consistency, which is what brought the NAPA team to the brink of a second-straight championship in 2017. The team is near the top of the pack in that category, too. Capps gets down the track 65.7 percent of the time, well above the 53.5 percent class average.
Perhaps most importantly: The team expects to get better.
During Friday’s second Funny Car qualifying session, Bob Tasca’s run was thrown out due to a timing malfunction. Despite the miscue, Tasca and crew chief Eric Lane are convinced that they would have run a 3.93 or 3.94 and challenged Matt Hagan for the top spot in the field.
“There is no doubt about it, we were going to run a low 3.90,” said Tasca. “We ran 277-mph to the eighth mile which is the same as Hagan ran. We can look at all our data and tell what the car ran. I think everyone out here knows it, too.”
Tasca admitted that Saturday’s bright sunshine will probably not allow for three-second performances, but he still believes he can make a solid qualifying run and set the team up for a long stay during Sunday’s final eliminations.
“Today, we want to run a low 4.0; hopefully on both runs and get ready for Sunday,” Tasca said. “The last ten races we’ve been getting better and better. We had a bolt break in Norwalk and that caused a clutch malfunction but the car is solid. We’ve been qualifying well and we’ve got a consistent car on Sunday. For a new team I’d say we’re right where we need to be. I think that over the next four or five races you’ll also see us step up a bit more, which should put us in a good spot going into he Countdown. That’s when it all really counts.”
After his runner-up finish in Bristol, Capps moved into the top ten for the first time this season and he intends to stay there even though he’s being chased by competitive drivers including Cruz Pedregon and Jonnie Lindberg.
“We got here and now its up to us to stay here,” Tasca said. “I don’t see that being a problem since I know we are a much better team now than we were when we started this season. We’ve come a long way in a short time and I’m really excited to see what the rest of the season will bring.”
Anyone who has ever raced a nitro car has learned to expect to deal with part breakage but Tim Wilkerson prides himself on running a clean operation so he’s at a loss to explain why his Levi, Ray & Shoup Mustang has lately had a habit of wounding engines. On Friday night, Wilkerson had barely left the starting line when he broke a rod bolt resulting in an explosion and fire. During Saturday’s third session, Wilkerson ran a 4.10, the second best run of the round, but he also experienced extensive damage.
“I need to find the guy with the Tim Wilkerson [Voodoo] doll and have a talk with him,” said Wilkerson. “I just don’t know why I look dumb all of a sudden. I know it’s a bid odd to say but with this new track prep, our cars are running longer. We used to shut off between 4.0 and 4.1-seconds into the run and now we’re running to 4.3-seconds. That two tenths doesn’t’ seem like much but that’s the time when these engines are vulnerable. I’m just at a loss to explain why things go bad for no reason. We take them apart and it doesn’t always tell us what the problem is. If that was the case, it would be easy to fix.”
When it comes to diagnosing his issues, Wilkerson is lucky to be one of the most popular and respected racers in the sport. To that end, he’s had an endless list of fellow racers and crew chiefs who are willing to help him.
“We’ve had almost everyone over here and they have all provided input and shared their experiences,” said Wilkerson. “Guido [Dean Antonelli, co-crew chief for Jack Beckman] has been a big help. We talked about some of the problems he’s had over the years. I also spent some time with David Grubnic [crew chief for Clay Millican]. They have run great but they’ve also had some of the same problems we’re having. Last night and today, I had two different problems. IT wasn’t the same thing. It’s just really frustrating for us because in 2016, I could get this car to run 3.8s almost everywhere and we’d take it apart and it looked like it was brand new.”
In order to better prepare for Sunday’s final eliminations, Wilkerson has elected to sit out the fourth session.
“We’re leaving it in the pits but don’t worry about me,” he said. “I’m not giving up. I’m way too stubborn for that.”
Winless through the first half of the season with arguably the best car in the class underneath him, Greg Anderson can’t help but ponder the possibility that he could win his fifth Mello Yello Pro Stock championship without the benefit of a national event victory. Although unlikely, Anderson could join a short list of racers that includes Rob Bruins, the 1979 Top Fuel champ and Eddie Krawiec, who won his first Pro Stock Motorcycle title in 2009 without winning a race.
Should that happen, would Anderson be unhappy with the result?
“Yeah, I think I would be,” he laughed. “I come to win. There is no question. It doesn’t seem to matter who you really talk to. The points are what’s important and that championship is important, and I guess it is but I’ve always felt the other way. I live for the day. I live for the weekend. I live for that race. To go to win that race and to worry about the next one some other time. That’s what we do. We go to win the race. That’s what puts the smile on the drivers’ face, the crew chief’s face and the guys at the shop’s faces. That’s what helps morale and helps you have a better product when you get to the next race. We’re not going to settle for anything less. Would it be a hole? I’d take the trophy and the check but yeah, it definitely would be a hole.”
Anderson has 12 more shots to win a race including this weekend’s Epping event. He’s already got two runner-up finishes and three semifinals, so it’s just a matter of getting past the late rounds, which is increasingly difficult given the current state of Pro Stock, with at least a dozen drivers capable of winning any given event. Anderson has been around long enough to remember the days when drivers like Bob Glidden and Warren Johnson won half the races in a given season. At the most dominant point in his career, the 2004 season, Anderson won 15 of 23 races and compiled a record 76-8 record in elimination rounds. Anderson understands, perhaps as much as anyone that those days are long gone.
“Today, there are so many good cars and so many good drivers that you can’t let up in any round,” Anderson said. For us, the bottom line is that on Sunday we have to execute like we do in qualifying,” Anderson said. “We are a deep race team. We’ve raced for a lot of years and we’ve won a lot or races and championships We know what to do. We just haven’t been doing it right this year but we’re going to get it right. Maybe this weekend will be the weekend. We just need to stop making the mistakes we’ve made all year.”
In 2003 and 2004, Fernando Cuadra was well on his way to establishing himself in the Pro Stock class. The Mexico-based businessman did not qualify for his first 29 races but finally cracked the field at the 2004 Las Vegas event and defeated former world champ Mike Edwards to score his first round win. After the 2004 season, disaster struck when a tsunami wiped out Cuadra’s business, Corral Boots. He has spent the last decade rebuilding his business. Cuadra's current business, Corral Boots, employs 5,600 people and his boots are popular with celebrities including Taylor Swift. Secure in his success, Cuadra made his return in Epping driving a Camaro leased from the KB team.
“It was a promise with my sons, that if we had a chance to recuperate the business and everything went well, and they would go to college, then I would start racing with them,” said Cuadra. “We did start racing last year in Monterey, Mexico; Top Sportman. They got very successful towards the end of the season, and this year, one of them are No. 2 in the points. All three of them drive and they each have ex-Pro Stock cars. One from Allen Johnson, one from Mike Edwards, and one from Jason Line. The agreement was, if they do well and were good kids, which they are – what can I say, they are my sons – then we would continue into Pro Stock. We'd been doing some approaches, and we got into a conversation [with KB Racing]. They gave me the opportunity to be here, and voila. We would like to continue to [Pomona].
“This year, it happens to be my 40th year as an entrepreneur, my 25th year as a pilot, and 14 years since the tsunami destroyed my business. I also became a 59-year-old and was born in 1959. There are a lot of coincidences with this year.”
On Friday, Cuadra struggled on his first run but made a competitive 6.627 run on his second. He is driving the same KB Racing Camaro that Rodger Brogdon drove in Houston and KB crew chief Tim Freeman has wheeled at times this season. The car is also the same Camaro that Sweden’s Jimmy Alund drove to the win at the 2014 Charlotte Four-Wide event.
“I licensed in the car 72 hours ago [as of Friday],” Cuadra said. “The adrenaline, you don't have a clue. The people you are around with, they are super professionals. Top. It pushed me a lot to try to make it better. I don't know how I'll qualify, but probably with a decent number. But we did it good with three rounds [licensing]. They were happy, they told me. Also, to be able to drive one of their cars with their power, it doesn't happen very often.”
Alex Laughlin doesn’t build engines and he doesn’t tune his Pro Stock Camaro so he’s well aware that as a driver, his biggest responsibility is to cut good lights, hit his shift points on time, and keep the car in the groove. Laughlin has been solid this year on two of those fronts but he’s not afraid to admit that his lights could use a little work. Laughlin has lost in the first round at the last six events and three of those have come in the most painful way possible; via a starting line holeshot.
“It hurts because anytime you don’t do your job, you feel like you let the whole team down,” said Laughlin. “It just shows you how much this class has changed, or should I say evolved. You used to be good with a .03 or .04 light and now, you’ve got to be .00 because that’s what all the good drivers are doing and the cars are too close. My lights have not been bad; consistent .030s but that’s not good enough. I used to just set my clutch pedal at the start of the weekend and whatever I got was what I got. Now, I need to be more like Erica [Enders] or Tanner [Gray] and make an adjustment every round if that’s what it needs. I know the old saying is we wins as a team and lose as a team but the truth is that when you get beat on a holeshot, it’s all about the driver. It’s on me and I don’t feel good about it. I hate to be on the phone Monday with my sponsors and have them say, ‘Hey, I see you lost on a holeshot.’ That’s the worst.”
After some early struggles this year, Laughlin has been more consistent in qualifying with his Elite-powered Camaro. He’s been ranked in the top half of the field at the last three events and he was the No. 2 seed earlier this season in Gainesville. That provides a bit of relief since it generally means a round one match against a slower opponent. A solid qualifying run also helps improve Laughlin’s confidence.
“We made two good runs yesterday [in Epping] so I’m hoping that sets us up for a little success on Sunday,” Laughlin said. “I really think that I just need to get a break and get to the semifinals or a final round and we’ll snap out of this and have a good Western Swing. I’m not about to give up on this season. I know I’m the only Elite driver that hasn’t won a race this season and that hurts, but at the same time, I’d rather hit my stride at the last six races than the first six.”
Fans check out old-school rides at the NHRA New England Nationals.
Defending Funny Car world champion Robert Hight joined NHRA announcer Alan Reinhart for Nitro School ahead of Saturday qualifying.
Bob Tasca III, Richie Crampton and Erica Enders were among the racers who signed autographs for fans at the Mello Yello Powerhouse.
Fans packed the stands to sell out the NHRA New England Nationals on Saturday.
Top Fuel Harley racer Billy Jack straps in for a ride.
Teams took advantage of incredible weather conditions in the second qualifying session Friday to post spectacular numbers. It’ll be a challenge to better the times up top Saturday, so many teams will turn their eyes towards putting together a solid race day set up.
Leah Pritchett didn’t quite make the pass she wanted in the first session. But the Mopar Top Fueler was one of the best in the class to 60 and 330 feet, and crew chief Todd Okuhara took that information and turned it into something truly spectacular during the second session. Pritchett ran a 3.742, only .002 second better than teammate Tony Schumacher, but a full hundredth of a second superior to Steve Torrence. If she holds onto the No. 1 position, it will be her first since Houston.
This would be the third No. 1 of the season for Matt Hagan, who powered his Sandvik Coromant Funny Car to the provisional pole in the second session. He belted a 3.932, a solid two-hundredths of a second better than teammate Jack Beckman. That tune-up, thrown into the box by crew chief Dickie Venables, puts the team into a great position heading into Saturday. Six Funny Cars made 3-second runs on Friday, and while it would be a surprise to see more join them Saturday, stranger things have happened.
Greg Anderson has qualified in the top spot in Pro Stock 100 times in his career including seven events this season and after his performance on Friday in Epping, he is on pace to do it again. Anderson topped the charts on both runs on Friday including a best of 6.517 in his Summit Camaro. He is a hundredth of a second quicker than No. 2 seed Vincent Nobile but with improved weather conditions on Saturday, Anderson is aware that he might need to improve in order to maintain his hold on the top spot. After two runs, the top eight cars int the field have all run 6.54 or quicker including Anderson’s biggest rivals, Elite drivers Erica Enders, who posted a 6.535 and Jeg Coughlin Jr., who ran a best of 6.548.