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NHRA Southern Nationals Powered by Mello Yello Saturday Notebook

Teams look to improve on their qualifying positions during the second day of action at the NHRA Southern Nationals Powered by Mello Yello. Follow along all day for the latest news, notes and quotes.
05 May 2018
NHRA National Dragster staff
Race coverage
Southern Nats

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QUALIFYING ROUND RECAPS

hector.JPGPRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE Q3 (11:22 a.m.): Hector Arana Jr. dropped a bomb on the Pro Stock Motorcycle field with a stunning 6.806, 198.76 to take over the top spot after three qualifying sessions. Arana Jr., who rode his Lucas Oil EBR to the sport’s first 200-mph run in Gainesville, has a massive five-hundredths advantage over the rest of the field with one session remaining. The Arana family swept the top two spots after Hector Sr. rode his Lucas Oil EBR to a 6.850, 196.47. The third-best run of the round went to Andrew Hines’ Harley-Davidson after a 6.864, 195.96. Matt Smith, who entered the day as the top qualifier after his 6.882 run on Friday, shut off early and did not improve. Smith has previously said he would sit out the final session in order to save parts. Scotty Pollacheck also missed out on a chance to improve on his earlier 6.904-second run. With one shot remaining, teammates Karen Stoffer and Jimmy Underdahl are not in the field and must run quicker than the current 7.004-second bump spot held by Kelly Clontz. . 

tanner2.JPGPRO STOCK Q3 (11:34 a.m.): The same cooler conditions that allowed the Pro Stock Motorcycles to make significant performance improvements resulted in a few shake ups in the running order in Pro Stock. Greg Anderson held on to the top spot, but had to make a significant improvement in order to do it. Anderson wheeled his Summit Chevy to a 6.586, 209.69, to edge Tanner Gray, who also made a dramatic improvement with a 6.594, 209.14. Gray, who admittedly struggled the last few races, barely edged his teammate Drew Skillman, who made the third-best run of the round with a 6.601, 209.10. At the other end of the field, reigning champ Bo Butner got off the bump spot with a 6.638, 208.94 in his Butner Auto Camaro. Butner, who made his debut in Atlanta three years ago, got down the track for the first time in three runs but remains in the bottom half of the field. He is currently No. 10 with one qualifying run remaining. Jeg Coughlin also made a solid run with a fourth-best 6.606, 209.07.

_AND9372.JPGTOP FUEL Q3 (12:17 p.m.): A whole heap of Top Fuel Dragsters improved on their Friday runs in the penultimate qualifying session, that includes Brittany Force, who jumped up from fourth to second with a 3.764-second pass. She didn’t take away the No. 1 position from Clay Millican, who stood on his pass from Friday night with a 3.758 (he ran a 3.78 in the third session), while Tony Schumacher (3.794) moved up to fourth with the third best run of the session. Audrey Worm won’t run on Saturday after a devastating explosion in the final session on Friday night.

NDE_0884.JPGFUNNY CAR Q3 (12:43 p.m.): Nobody ran quicker than Tommy Johnson Jr. in the third session of qualifying (3.968), but it wasn’t quite enough to bump Robert Hight off the top spot. Still, that earned the driver of the Make-A-Wish car three bonus points on the back of his second-straight solid pass. He was followed closely by Cruz Pedregon (3.987), who earned another pair of qualifying bonus points and John Force (3.988). There are now five cars in the 3-second range, and a whole bunch of cars moved within range in the third session of action. Jeff Diehl is currently qualified No. 16 with a 4.857, while Tim Wilkerson is holding down the quick half of the field with a 4.029.

johnson.JPGPRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE Q4 (3:13 p.m.): The 6.806 run that Hector Arana Jr. made in Q3 was not challenged during the final session and he will start from the pole for the 20th time in his career. As a final tune-up before Sunday’s first round, Arana Jr. rode his Lucas Oil EBR to a 6.918, 198.08. Arana’s father, Hector Sr., in the No. 2 spot, marking the first time since 2012 that the Arana’s have taken the top two spots in the field. The quickest runs of the round went to LE Tonglet (6.873), Eddie Krawiec (6.891), and Steve Johnson (6.897). The real drama came at the back of the pack where there was plenty of bumping to make the 16-bike show. Karen Stoffer bumped her way into the field at the expense of Kelly Clontz while Angie Smith and Ryan Oehler, also improved their positions. The four non-quickers were Jim Underdahl, Kelly Clontz, Mark Paquette, and Andie Rawlings.  

First round pairings (lane choice first): Hector Arana Jr. vs. Ryan Oehler; Jerry Savoie vs. Steve Johnson; LE Tonglet vs. Angie Smith, Eddie Krawiec vs. Melissa Surber, Hector Arana Sr. vs. Karen Stoffer, Cory Reed vs. Scotty Pollacheck, Andrew Hines vs. Joey Gladstone, Matt Smtih vs. Angelle Sampey.

skillman.JPGPRO STOCK Q4 (3:52 p.m.): There were a few moves in the final Pro Stock session most notably by Drew Skillman, who wheeled his Gray Motorsports-powred Camaro to a 6.591, 209.52, the quickest pass of the session. Skillman moved to the No. 2 spot, behind pole-sitter Greg Anderson, who held on to the top spot with Friday’s 6.586 best. Chris McGaha also improved his spot with a 6.600, 209.36 in his Harlow Sammons Camaro to move from eighth to fourth in the running order. The final bonus point went to Las Vegas champ Vincent Nobile after a 6.604, 209.43 run. The field is typically close with the top eight drivers all separated by less than three-hundredths while current top ten contenders and 2018 finalists Deric Kramer, Erica Enders, and Bo Butner finished qualifying in the bottom half of the field.

First round pairings (lane choice first): Greg Anderson vs. Val Smeland, Jason Line vs. Deric Kramer, Chris McGaha vs. John Gaydosh, Vincent Nobile vs. Alan Pruisensky, Drew Skillman vs. Wally Stroupe, Alex Laughlin vs. Bo Butner, Tanner Gray vs. Kenny Delco, Jeg Coughlin Jr. vs Erica Enders.

torrence.JPGTOP FUEL Q4 (4:10 p.m.): After struggling all through qualifying, Steve Torrence made a run more representative of what the Capco Contractors team is capable of. Torrence ran a 3.787 to earn a pair of bonus points and leap up to the No. 3 qualifying position. That wasn’t enough to pass Brittany Force who stayed in the No. 2 position but improved with a 3.76. Leah Pritchett (3.788) earned the final bonus point, but nobody unseated Clay Millican, who puffed the tires midway through the run and stood on his run from Friday evening. Perhaps most intriguing of all the first-round matchups is another meeting between teammates Doug Kalitta and Richie Crampton, who race for the sixth time this year (including twice during the four-wide events).

First round pairings (lane choice first): Clay Millican vs. Audrey Worm; Brittany Force vs. Terry McMillen; Steve Torrence vs. Terry Haddock; Leah Pritchett vs. Pat Dakin; Tony Schumacher vs. Bill Litton; Doug Kalitta vs. Richie Crampton; Antron Brown vs. Blake Alexander; Scott Palmer vs. Blake Alexander.

courtney2.JPGFUNNY CAR Q4 (4:34 p.m.): Courtney Force grabbed her fourth No. 1 qualifier of the season on the back of a 3.932-second pass in the final qualifying session, meaning she also snagged three bonus points. That’s not a bad way to spend a Saturday afternoon, and the Advance Auto Parts team hopes it leads into another Wally on Sunday. Her teammate Robert Hight didn’t put forth a great pass in the final session but will follow her in the No. 2 position and her father, John Force, earned a pair of qualifying points with a 3.979 pass. Cruz Pedregon, the most recent winner on tour, got the final bonus point with a 4.009.

First round pairings (lane choice first):Courtney Force vs. Jeff Diehl; Robert Hight vs. Bob Tasca III; Tommy Johnson Jr. vs John Smith; Cruz Pedregon vs. Jim Campbell; John Force vs. Ron Capps; Jonnie Lindberg vs. Matt Hagan; J.R. Todd vs. Jack Beckman; Tim Wilkerson vs. Shawn Langdon.

H_Arana_Jr.jpgPro Stock Motorcycle low qualifier Hector Arana Jr.: “We know we have a fast motorcycle with great horsepower, but we’ve struggled lately to leave the starting line. On Monday, my dad [Hector Sr.] stayed behind in Charlotte and tested. He worked on some clutch combinations and we took that here. The data that he Data got, we put in our bikes and it took a few runs to get it dialed in. Come Q3, it came together. We had a great sixty [foot time] and my bike was under control. My dad gave me a big hug. I can’t describe the emotions. That’s a great honor and testament to my father and to [sponsor] Lucas Oil. This is actually my back-up motor but it is a really strong motor. All of our engines are really good.

“In Q4 we pushed the limit to see how aggressive we could get with the track. We spun the tire. We had to see how it was going to be for Sunday and how far we could push it. Now, I think we’re good to go. I am extremely confident. Between the numbers we’ve run and the big speeds, that’s all horsepower. When we got back to the trailer, we did our corrections and that run corrects [at sea level conditions] to a 6.68.”

G_Anderson.JPGPro Stock low qualifier Greg Anderson: “I think we had two different situations here. We went from bright sun on Friday to cloud cover all day. Today the track got really good and we made a lot of changes to the race car. We hit her on the nose and the car ran fast. We made a conscious decision [for Q4]. It was a lot warmer, so we backed it down. Then, we found the track was better than it was Q3. Lesson learned. I didn’t run as fast as I thought we could run but it was good knowledge. The bottom line is that I’ve got a fast and consistent race car. Thousandths can make the difference between No. 1 and No. 8. I’m just glad to get bonus points.

“I’m looking forward to tomorrow. I desperately need a great race day. I’ve learned a lot and I know what we have in a race car. I’m ready to do battle. If you look at the forecast we’re going back to sunshine so that will mean more changes but it should still be good out there. The more cars that have run and more prep the track has gotten better and better so we won’t lose a bunch. We just need to make a couple changes for the starting line and the first 50-feet. I think we know what we’ve been doing wrong the last few races.”

C_Millican.JPGTop Fuel low qualifier Clay Millican: “I told you last night I thought it would stay [No. 1] and it did but this was typical Atlanta and the weather changed and Brittany [Force] started knocking on our door. On the last run, I wanted to go down race track but Grubby [crew chief David Grubnic] has the final decision. He said, ‘I feel like we need to defend’. We were pushing it and not to run another 3.75. He wanted to go quicker. When it was all said and done we held in there and got the green [low qualifier] hat but we’re looking for a yellow [winner] hat tomorrow for sure.

“Our car has become very tunable and controllable. It wants to go fast all the time and we have to figure out how to slow it down. We started to get a handle on it Charlotte. I say we, but I have nothing to do with it. It’s Grubby who is getting a handle on it. On the last run we were pushing. Had it made it, it, it would have been impressive. We’ve got to the point where we’ve got a handle on runs other than the home run session. That makes me very excited. It’s a good sign for the months ahead of us until we get back to the cool weather.”

C_Force.JPGFunny Car low qualifier Courtney Force: “To be honest, I didn’t think we could improve after yesterday. Then, it cooled off and had the track had cloud cover and we laid down some big numbers. I’m really proud of our Advance Auto Parts team. We went up there in Q3 and it dropped a hole. I coasted to 312 [mph] and a 3.98. It felt good on the last run to get it fixed up and run on all 8 cylinders and go to the top spot. My sister, Ashley, will be here tomorrow and I hope to impress her and we can celebrate in the winner’s circle.

“On that [3.932 run] I was crossing the finish line and the chutes came out and I was slowing down and my crew chief, Brian Corradi came on the radio and in his best Forrest Gump voice told me that we went to the top spot. I loved hearing that. It’s important to get those bonus points. I love being on this team with my guys. They are so much fun. I also think that all of our JFR cars are coming around. Brittany and I were No. 1 a couple of races ago. I know we struggled at the start of the season. It also feels good watching dad [John] in his Peak car some have good runs. I hope we got all of them turned around.”

 

FEATURES

terry.JPGTerry McMillen has had a solid three-race swing so far. He’s reached back-to-back final rounds in both Houston and Charlotte, runnering up at the NHRA SpringNationals and finishing third at the NGK Spark Plugs NHRA Four-Wide Nationals in Charlotte. He owns six round wins this season and five of them came in the last two races. That puts him in prime position to keep things rolling in Atlanta.

“The car is running really well and we’re gelling right now,” said McMillen. “We’re getting to some final rounds and it’s really just been everything I’ve dreamed about since I was a little kid. You have to believe that next win is right around the corner. The more final rounds you appear in, the better your odds are. When you look at the big picture, we know we’ll be a player in the Countdown to the Championship.”

McMillen has had some success at Atlanta Dragway before. He earned his first win in Las Vegas just last season, but he’s reached a final in Atlanta before and is hoping to get that second win under his belt at the NHRA Southern Nationals Powered by Mello Yello.

“I don’t want to count my chickens before they’re hatched, but when it’s been very warm here in the past we’ve been to the final,” he said. “I think (crew chief) Rob (Wendland) knows how to adapt in these situations and that we’ll be able to do that again. All I have to do is steer it straight once it gets off the line.”

Qualifying was a bit of a struggle for most of the Nitro teams on Friday, and for Terry it was no exception. He’s currently qualified No. 12, which might sound familiar to die-hard McMillen fans.

“We’d like to be in the top eight, and certainly in the top five, but we’ve also gone to the final from the 12th spot,” he said. “So, while you’d like to be in the best position as possible, the track will be the best it’s ever been on race day, so if everyone is on their a-game we have as good a chance as anyone.”

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Blake Alexander made a perfectly fine run on Friday night (3.884), but it wasn’t all it could be and the part-time racer who now resides in Charlotte knows it. Still, it put him in the top half of the field and if that holds it would be for the second time in his Top Fuel career (third time overall).

“We’ll try to run in the high 3.70s on the first one and see if we can improve on the second run,” said Alexander. “We were a little too aggressive on that first run, and I think we kind of figured out that everyone else knew something that we didn’t So, we backed it down a bunch for that second run and I think it showed that maybe we backed it down a little too much. Still, we’re qualified sixth, so we don’t have too much to complain about.”

With a little bit of cloud cover on Saturday, there’s a chance Alexander can move up. There’s no guarantee he can take a stab at the No. 1 pass made by Clay Millican (3.758), as he and the rest of the top four cars got a shot with the best conditions on Friday night.

“Those last four cars got to race about an hour after everyone else, so they got a pretty big advantage. So, they cheated. Uh, just kidding. You know, I can’t complain. It’s all good.”

Don’t give him a hard time on Twitter. He was just kidding. Promise. You can see Alexander and the rest of the Pronto Auto Services team in Chicago for the Jegs Route 66 NHRA Nationals.

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pritchett.JPGA couple of numbers can tell you a part of the story for Leah Pritchett heading into Saturday qualifying at the NHRA Southern Nationals Powered by Mello Yello. Those numbers are two and two; okay, so those are the same numbers twice, so how about two and four. Okay, we’ll cut to the chase. Pritchett earned four qualifying bonus points by running the second-best time in both sessions on Friday.

That’s impressive on two levels. It’s impressive on its face, of course, but it’s also solid because the FireAde/U.S. Army team didn’t have any driveshaft data from its first qualifying run.

“That is an extremely important factor when you’re preparing for the next round,” said Pritchett. “I know we had a little bit more (data) after seeing Clay (Millican) post that number right in front of us. There is something to be said about those final words from Todd Okuhara when he sticks his head in there. He knows how to navigate this Atlanta track and we’re doing a good job navigating this comeback pretty well.”

Pritchett has enjoyed better performance over the past couple weeks but is winless since Brainerd of last season. Still, the team feels its headed in the right direction and is only a few hundredths behind current No. 1 qualifier Clay Millican after the first day of action. She’s chasing her first victory at Atlanta Dragway, but first, Pritchett is looking to take over pole position.

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After a tough start to the season, John Force is doing what he’s always done: getting back up with some help from his friends. The immense amount of talent employed at John Force Racing meant the slump of the 16-time champion wouldn’t last forever, and his runner-up in Charlotte breathed some life back into the racer after he failed to qualify just one race before.

“We are getting a tune up now. We are getting a tune up on this PEAK Coolant and Motor Oil Chevrolet Camaro and that means (Brian) Corradi, (Dan) Hood and (Jimmy) Prock can focus 100% on their own cars. Now that my Camaro is going to the other end, we can tune it,” Force said. “We have a lot of work to do. I want to thank the fans they have been so supportive in Houston and Charlotte. They have told me they know we are struggling but they still support us. That means everything.”

The performance of Force’s car still leaves much to be desired, but it’s finally moving in the right direction. While Courtney Force and Robert Hight have been on the straight and narrow all season, John has experienced engine explosions and erratic performance in his Peak Funny Car. There’s no such thing as a Funny Car that’s easy to handle, but the current iteration at least seems manageable.  

“What I went through in the first four or five races nobody should have to go through,” Force said. “I have never seen that much carnage. We are digging our way through it. They always say if it doesn’t kill you it will make you stronger. Well it didn’t kill me, and I am a lot tougher. I really do love the fact that I will never take qualifying for granted again and I will never take getting to a final for granted again.”

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After winning back-to-back races in Las Vegas and Houston, J.R. Todd left the NGK Spark Plugs NHRA Four-Wide Nationals in Charlotte feeling like the DHL Toyota Funny Car team left a little something on the table. It was a tough weekend for many Nitro teams, but given the Kalitta Motorsports team’s success so far, it’s easy to see his point of view.

“I definitely feel like we had a car that could have won in Charlotte, but just didn’t have a car that was backed down enough given the conditions,” said Todd. “The track just wasn’t as good as what the weather was. That’s pretty frustrating given that we had a car that could win the race.”

Even still, Todd’s car, tuned by Jon Oberhofer and Todd Smith, is one of the most consistent in the category. It still could stand to pick up a little elapsed time, but in a class where consistency means almost everything, he’s feeling confident at the NHRA Southern Nationals Powered by Mello Yello.

“I definitely feel my confidence is up as a driver when we’re going down the track a lot,” he said. “We definitely struggled in Charlotte, but we made it down the first round. We’ll see how the track is this weekend and adjust for it. But when the car is going down the track, that’s all you can ask for as a driver.

He’s now just 63 points out of first place thanks to a pair of victories on the season. A good weekend in Atlanta could get him all the way to the top of the class.

“My expectations are to come in here and to get down the track the best I can and to hit the tree the best I can and get ready for Sunday.”

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Cruz Pedregon won his first race in four years at the NGK Spark Plugs NHRA Four-Wide Nationals and he doesn’t plan on slowing down now. The Snap-On Tools Funny Car driver is the current No. 2 qualifier and feels confident behind the wheel of Toyota Camry.

“I feel like we can keep this car steady and keep winning races,” said Pedregon. Last week was really a confidence builder for us. The tracks have been great, and I love the personalities of the different tracks. One has a couple bumps, another has more grip in one spot than the other. That forces the teams to continue to adjust. You can’t set it and forget it. Those are the teams that continue to win.”

The team owner and driver hasn’t had much time to sit back and soak up the win given the quick turnaround between Charlotte and the NHRA Southern Nationals Powered by Mello Yello. Still, he allowed himself some time to reflect on the win.

“It’s been very gratifying for one,” said Pedregon. “You can have a great race and not win, but winning adds credibility, I guess, but it just feels good. For me, for my money, we’re right where we should be. Getting a win six races in is great, getting the monkey off our back takes the pressure off us. I’m really happy for the guys and for our team. Not only did Aaron and I have a trying year last year, but we brought on a guy that helps us a bunch in Glen Huszar. For these guys to be in the winner’s circle after some trying times says a lot about our guys.”

Getting a win anywhere would have been big for the Snap-On team, but winning at a four-wide meant a lot to Pedregon, who had never taken home a win at the specialty event.

“I also love that we did it at the four-wide, because that’s a specialty race I had never won at before, so that was really cool,” said Pedregon.
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In his brief career in Pro Stock, NHRA fans have quickly learned that Tanner Gray wears his heart on his sleeve and that passion occasionally manifests itself in emotional outbursts. Gray, who recently turned 19, admits that he’s done a few regrettable things out of frustration such as throwing his helmet, but as a general rule, he feels no need to apologize.

“I hear all the talk about being a spoiled kid but in some ways I take that as a compliment,” Gray said. “This is my job and I take it seriously. I don’t think I’m much different than anyone else in that regard. It doesn’t matter what you do for a living; if you are making mistakes and not doing your job, it’s not fun and you get frustrated. I think most people can relate to that. I do take this seriously and I get frustrated at times. Its even worse when you’re not winning. If my car is hauling ass and I make a driving mistake, that’s one thing because as a driver, I know I can fix that. The really frustrating part is when the car isn’t right and we just don’t know what to do to make it right. That’s what’s hard for me to take.”

At times during the 2018 season, Gray has found himself in that very spot. Through the first six events of the season, he’s qualified better than seventh just once and not counting his win in Gainesville, he’s got just three more round wins to show for it. After two qualifying runs in Atlanta, things are looking up for the Gray Motorsports team since Tanner enters Saturday’s qualifying as the third-ranked driver in the class with a 6.602, 207.94 best. He’s just .01-second off the pace set by Greg Anderson.

“On our first run we missed the clutch tune-up and it blew the tires off,” said Gray. “We also changed engines for Q2 and made a much better run. I think we should be able to run a bit quicker in Q3. It would be great if we can move up or at least stay where we are. Hopefully, we’ve got a lot of our issues behind us.”

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To suggest that Friday’s two Pro Stock qualifying runs were not kind to world champ Bo Butner would be an understatement. After two aborted runs, Butner sits in the No. 16 spot heading into Saturday’s two sessions. While he fully expects to improve upon his 7.753 best, Butner couldn’t help but wonder what might happen if he were to stay on the bump spot.

“For one, you can’t win a race from the No. 16 spot unless you qualify No. 16 first,” Butner joked. “I know that hasn’t been done too many times [13 total]. That would be something. I also told Greg [Anderson, teammate] that I was going to stay down there so one of us would win a round tomorrow. I don’t think he liked hearing that.”

Turning serious for a moment, Butner acknowledged that the team’s Friday struggles were nothing more than his Darrell Herron-led crew missing the set-up with regard to track conditions on both runs.

“We missed it badly on both runs,” Butner said. “On the first run, the track wasn’t what we had hoped it would be and we just spun the tires. No big deal, a lot of teams did the same thing. We really thought we were going to run better on the second run but I was first out and that’s not a good spot to be in. Some guys might be okay with it, but we rarely make a good run when we’re first out. The good news is that we’ve got some cloud cover this [Saturday] morning so conditions will be different and we’ve got a whole different set-up in the car. This might also be the best session of the weekend so I don’t see any reason why we can’t jump right up there and get into the top half of the field. Anymore, it doesn’t really matter where you qualify. All of us run pretty close so there’s not a big difference between No. 1 and No. 12.”

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Nothing can change a game plan like success and that’s the dilemma that Deric Kramer currently finds himself in. When Kramer and his father, David, signed an engine leasing agreement with the KB team for 2018, they expected to take their new American Ethanol Camaro to about 15 events. In the first six events, Kramer has qualified No. 1 for the first time, been a runner-up in Las Vegas, and doubled his career win total. As a result, his schedule has expanded to about 21 of the 24 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series events.  

“It’s always subject to change but for now I think we’re going everywhere but Bristol, Richmond, and Epping,” said the Denver-based Kramer. “One of those races is on top of the Division 5 [Lucas Oil Series] race in Denver and my dad is going to run his [Comp Eliminator] dragster. Of course, if I win a race between now and then he might be racing Denver on his own. We didn’t have a good showing in Charlotte but overall I’m really happy with where we are. We’ve gotten everything we could have asked for from the KB guys and then some. I feel like we’re capable of winning any race we go to and that’s about all you can ask for in this class.”

The KB team supplies engines to Kramer and is there to offer any necessary technical assistance but when it comes to tuning that car, that is the responsibility of Kramer and his crew chief, Michael Hiner. In their first visit to Atlanta Dragway, they’ve quickly adapted with a seventh-best 6.620 on Friday.

“We got into some bumps on both runs and it was right on the gear change so I revved it to 10,800 so basically we made a bad run,” said Kramer. “The thing was bouncing off the limiter. We can fix that by changing transmission ratios so we should be good for the rest of qualifying. This is all part of the learning curve. We’ve never been to some of these tracks so we don’t have the data that other teams do. We’re okay with that. A big part of our plan this year was to see if we were really as good as we hoped we were. I can’t tell you how many times in the past I put my car into high gear and watched the other guy drive right by me. That’s not happening anymore. We’ve made some good runs and I’m not at all disappointed with my driving. We do get help from KB, but not so much in tuning. We want to do our own thing. Otherwise, that would defeat the whole purpose of being out here.”
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Melissa Surber didn’t run all the events in 2017 and she missed the season-opener in Gainesville so when she arrived in Charlotte last weekend for the Four-Wide Nationals she naturally expected to be a little rusty. What Surber did not expect was to miss the field and not make a full run in all four qualifying attempts. Surber and her father, James, elected to stay in Charlotte on Monday and test, and that proved to be a wise decision.

“We had some electrical problems where the bike kept shutting off on every run,” said Surber. “The bike would run fine in the pits but it wouldn’t go down the track at all. It was so frustrating. We stayed on Monday and found the problem and fixed it. That was $500 well spent.”

With a renewed enthusiasm, Surber arrived in Atlanta and finished the first day in the 14th spot after a pair of respectable six-second runs including a best of 6.981, 187.52 on her S&S Buell, which is tuned by Lon Moyer.

“We got down the track twice, which was our main goal, and we didn’t run half-bad,” Surber said. “Now, we need to see if we can move up a couple of spots today. We know we’ve got the power to run quite a bit better. We just need to work on the tune-up.”

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Cory Reed has made numerous changes to his Liberty Racing Pro Stock Motorcycle team since last season including the addition of engine builder Larry Morgan and tuner Jim Yates, who both came from the Pro Stock car class. The team also made a big change at the last event in Charlotte when they abandoned their Victory Magnum bodies and returned to the more conventional S&S Buell bodies. The change yielded immediate dividends with Reed nearly matching his career best. While she’s yet to match Redd’s performance, teammate Angelle Sampey could not be more pleased with the change.

“I’m so happy to be back on a Buell; I can’t even tell you,” said Sampey. “I just didn’t fit very well on the Victory. I’m just too little to ride that bike and be comfortable. I never felt comfortable on that bike even though we managed to have a few good races last year. This is a much better fit. My crew chief, Derrel Mullis, has been the biggest help. I’ve worked with some really great people in my career but Derrel might be the first one who really listens to me and takes my input seriously. I’m so impressed by the way we work together. Instead of ‘just deal with it’ he tells me ‘let’s see what we can do to fix that.’ It’s very smart and he’s gone the extra mile to make my bike comfortable to ride. He’s always thinking and analyzing. For example, he built me a new seat that holds me in place firmly. We worked on it and made adjustments to get it right. I couldn’t be happier with that. We just need to get my bike to run a bit quicker.”

While Reed has been quick enough to challenge for the top spot at the last two races, Sampey is still struggling to make the top half of the field but a big part of that can be traced to the team’s engine program which is still a work in progress. Engine builder Morgan recently admitted that he’d barely had time to dyno the team’s S&S V-twin engines.

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Fans in Atlanta will likely see Matt Smith and his Victory Gunner just once on Saturday since the provisional low qualifier plans to run Q3 and then park his bike for the rest of the day. Smith views the move as a necessity since his recent break-up with partner Joe Riccardi has left the two-time world champ without funding to run the full season. Smith and Riccardi had an ugly and much publicized divorce last week at the Charlotte event, and as a result, Smith had to quickly abandon his plan to race a Suzuki this season and return to last year’s Victory bike. That move has left him scrambling for both funding, and parts.

“I had just one good engine in Charlotte, so I went home last week and built another one for this weekend,” said Smith, who enters Saturday in the top spot after a 6.882 run. “I still don’t have the parts I need to be comfortable so I only ran one session yesterday, and I plan to only run one today. I figure that the first run will be the quickest so I’m going to try that. I really don’t think I’ll get bumped too far down. I’m trying to be smart about the way I race but I also need points. I didn’t qualify in Gainesville so I’m playing catch-up.”

Smith admitted that he’s had extensive talks with a few potential backers for the remainder of the season but nothing concrete has materialized yet. He is committed to attending all 16 Pro Stock Motorcycle races with his wife, Angie, who is backed by Denso Spark Plugs. Making one run on Saturday will allow Smith more time to work on Angie’s V-twin Buell. Angie Smith finished Friday as the No. 13 seed with a 6.971.

PHOTOS

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Line 'em up and run 'em down.
 

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NHRA announcer Alan Reinhart and Top Fuel racer Richie Crampton led Nitro School on Saturday morning.

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Leah Pritchett signs the shirt of a fan prior to qualifying on Saturday. 

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Fans pack the midways at the NHRA Southern Nationals Powered by Mello Yello on Saturday.

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You're never too young to grab an autograph from your favorite racer. 

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Matt Smith gets into ready position before the third qualifying session.

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Fans filled the stands at the NHRA Southern Nationals Powered by Mello Yello.

PREVIEW

It’s fair to say the second session of qualifying went significantly better for all teams on Friday than the first one. Not a single Nitro team went faster than 300 mph during the first session, something thankfully rectified during the second, while the Pro Stock teams found some extra horsepower during the cooler night time runs.

C_Millican.JPGThat worked out just fine for Clay Millican, who picked up the track record with a speed of 331.12 mph. He is also the provisional No. 1 qualifier after the first day of qualifying, and it’s going to be tough to knock him off that perch given both sessions on Saturday are during the heat of the day. It should be more favorable than Friday afternoon if the weather holds, but it’s not going to be quite what we saw on Friday night. Still, a handful of Top Fuel teams have room to improve and you can bet Millican’s crew chief David Grubnic will be hammering out that race day set up.

R_Hight.JPGAnother cool-weather hero, Robert Hight, jumped to the top with a little help from crew chief Jimmy Prock. His 3.952 was one of four 3-second runs on Friday, joined by recent race-winner Cruz Pedregon, Tommy Johnson Jr. and teammate Courtney Force. There were a handful of racers who got close, but if anyone has an advantage heading into Saturday, it’s that foursome. Hight has qualified No. 1 once this year but has yet to get into the winner’s circle. I’ll let you guess which one of those he’d like to accomplish this weekend.

G_Anderson.JPGGreg Anderson has plenty of green hats and he’s chasing another one this weekend. Like Hight, the driver of the red Summit Chevy is more interested in getting to the winner’s circle. He’s yet to get there this season despite having one of the best running cars in the category during both qualifying and eliminations. What he really needs is a little bit of luck on Sunday. That’s a worry for Sunday, though. On Saturday, all he can do is try to get yet another pole. Things are tight at the top yet again as he has a .008 second lead on No. 2 qualifier Vincent Nobile.

M_Smith.jpgThat’s just as true in Pro Stock Motorcycle, where Matt Smith (6.882) leads qualifying by just .002 second. He sat out the second qualifying session and it nearly bit him. Eddie Krawiec came very close to passing him in that final session, as did Cory Reed (6.889), but Smith stayed on the perch. That’s good news for the rider of the Victory Magnum bike, who’s trying to take it easy on parts this weekend. One thing is for sure: He’s got a great bike when he’s on it and it should be a terrific elimination show.