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Tricky Tipster: Gauging greatness at the Golden Gators

Tricky Tipster’s picks to click at the historic 50th anniversary Amalie Motor Oil Gatornationals include Steve Torrence, Robert Hight, Bo Butner, Matt Smith, and Rick Hord.
14 Mar 2019
NHRA National Dragster staff

With all five classes in action for the historic 50th annual Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals, it’s time for Tricky Tipster, NHRA’s resident odds-maker, to get serious about picking favorites. Those who figure to have the best shot at hoisting the special edition gold Wally trophies include Steve Torrence (Top Fuel), Robert Hight (Funny Car), Bo Butner (Pro Stock), Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle), and Rick Hord (Pro Mod).



Steve Torrence
Capco Contractors

Oddly enough, the reigning Mello Yello champ has never won in Gainesville. In fact, he’s never been to the final round of this event. That won’t stop us from making him the favorite because this is still the team to beat in Top Fuel, even after a tough outing in Phoenix.
Odds: 3-1

Terry McMillen
Amalie Motor Oil

After wheeling his race car to 3.6-second runs at the first two events of the year, he’s heading into his sponsor’s event with a perfect shot to score what would almost certainly be the biggest win of his career. Yes, it would be an even bigger deal than last year’s Indy triumph.
Odds: 4-1

Doug Kalitta
Mac Tools

He’s got three wins here and there is a lot of family history in Gainesville including the memorable Connie vs. Scott final from 1994. There is a sense that the Kalitta Top Fuel teams have turned the corner after a rough 2018. A win here would only help validate that point.
Odds: 6-1

Leah Pritchett

Off to a solid start in Top Fuel with a runner-up finish in Phoenix. Now, she’ll have a chance to double-up with the first event in the SAM Tech.edu Factory Stock Showdown. This is someone who likes to be busy so pulling double-duty will likely be a benefit.
Odds: 7-1

Mike Salinas
Scrappers Racing

Winning at least one race this year seems almost a given thanks to the talent pool currently assembled in the Scrappers camp. No reason to think this event couldn’t mark the first of many victories for the San Jose-based team.
Odds: 8-1

Antron Brown
Matco Tools

It’s now been 21 years since the world was introduced to AB when he made his Pro Stock Motorcycle debut at the 1998 Gatornationals. Three championships and 66 professional wins later, he’s still going strong. He’s only won this event once (2013) but coming off a semifinal in Phoenix, he’s earned a spot among the favorites.
Odds: 10-1

Austin Prock
Montana Brand

His first month as an NHRA pro has been exciting to say the least but he’s handled all of it without breaking a sweat. One of the best parts of 2019 might be tracking his budding rivalry with fellow nitro rookie Jordan Vandergriff. Would it be too much to as for them to meet in their first final round?
Odds: 12-1

Jordan Vandergriff
DA Lubricants

National Dragster’s recent cover subject makes Tricky Tipster for the first time following a semifinal finish in his Phoenix debut. It’s probably a bit early to start heaping too much praise on the first-year pro, but there certainly seems like a lot of reason for optimism in the Vandergriff camp.
Odds: 14-1


Robert Hight
Auto Club Chevy

With three Gainesville wins in the last seven years this is the team to beat right now but the spread between the top eight Tipster picks is miniscule at best. A Pomona win to start the season also helps shift the tide in favor of the Auto Club team.
Odds: 3-1

Matt Hagan
Mopar Express Lane Dodge

Opened the season with a frustrating round one loss in Pomona and then quickly got back on track with a convincing victory in Phoenix. Have to think that the Hagan we saw in Phoenix is the one we’ll see more of this season. Again, this is a tight field, but at this point he’s a tick better than most.
Odds: 4-1

J.R. Todd
DHL Toyota

A broken wire did him in against Hagan in the Phoenix final. Otherwise, the reigning champ had a decent shot to get his first win of the new season. As noted earlier, the Kalitta team has a great record of success in Gainesville but they lack a Funny Car victory. Now would be a good time to change that.
Odds: 5-1

Jack Beckman
Infinite Hero Dodge

The list of Funny Car drivers who have won back-to-back Gainesville titles is impressive. Force, Prudhomme, McCulloch, Hawley, Capps, and Bernstein. Who wouldn’t want to join that group? Only one driver can this year, and his name is Jack Beckman.
Odds: 6-1

Tommy Johnson Jr.
Make-A-Wish Dodge

Phoenix was an expensive trip for the Make-A-Wish team with the main source of frustration being a broken axle that cost them a body and possibly a chassis. That isn’t likely to affect their performance in Gainesville, though. Looking at the positive, they’ve qualified in the top four in the first two races this year.
Odds: 8-1

John Force
Peak Chevy

Sooner or later, the 16-time champ is going to bag career win No. 150. Why not do it at the biggest and most anticipated event of the season? When it comes to Gainesville, he’s won eight times in 13 final rounds so there is a long history of success here. One more win would be very fitting.
Odds: 10-1

Bob Tasca III
Motorcraft Quick Lane Ford

How many remember the 2009 Gatornationals where he defeated his buddy Tony Pedregon to win the first of his four nitro victories? There will almost certainly be more Wally’s in BTIII’s future and the next one might just come this weekend. This is definitely an improved team over 2018.
Odds: 13-1

Ron Capps
NAPA Dodge

Describe Ron Capps’ first two events in one word. How about luckless? Or maybe jinxed? The point is that the NAPA team has started the season with just one round win and that is meaningless when it comes to their potential. Fortunes change quickly in the Funny Car class which likely means a rebound is fast approaching. Perhaps even this week.
Odds: 15-1


Bo Butner
Butner Auto Camaro

If not for a close loss to Deric Kramer in the second round in Phoenix, he might well be perfect on the young season. Qualifying results have also been spot on with a No. 3 and a No. 1 at the first two events. Much like the nitro classes, the top eight drivers are extremely close, but he rates a very slim edge right now.
Odds: 4-1

Jeg Coughlin Jr.
JEGS.com/Elite Camaro

Last week’s Phoenix win was a thing of beauty with four runs between 6.541 and 6.568. He’s quick and consistent and it’s entirely possible that he picks up his first Gainesville win since the 2008 season.
Odds: 5-1

Erica Enders
Melling/Elite Camaro

Given the level of competition, there is no shame in opening the season with back-to-back semifinals but to be honest, the Elite team and the two-time champ expect more from themselves. She’s had enough race car to win at the first two events so it’s just a matter of time before the rest comes together.
Odds: 6-1

Jason Line
Summit Racing Equipment Camaro

With a record that includes four wins in seven final rounds, it’s obvious that he loves racing in Gainesville. He’s also had a freaky fast race car at the first two events. Also, worth noting that he won here three-straight years (2009-11).
Odds: 7-1

Matt Hartford
Total Seal Camaro

His runner-up finish in Phoenix was far from a fluke. He qualified No. 4 so his car was solid and two holeshot wins on Sunday speak volumes about his driving ability. No reason to think he can’t be around late on Sunday much more often this year.
Odds: 9-1

Alex Laughlin
Laughlin Motorsports Camaro

Already this year he’s won a kart race, a radial tire race, and finished licensing in Pro Mod. He’s also talking $25,000 grudge races against the Street Outlaws crowd. Somewhere along the line, he’ll find the time to make a run at the Gainesville Pro Stock title. He’s off to a good start with a quarterfinal and a semifinal so far.
Odds: 10-1

Deric Kramer
American Ethanol Camaro

Quickly bounced back from frustrating Pomona loss with a semifinal in Phoenix. With KB power under the hood he figures to be in contention for many wins this season, including this one.  
Odds: 12-1

Chris McGaha
Harlow Sammons Camaro

It’s so hard to handicap this team. A couple of bad races and then, boom. They go out and make it to the final. It’s fair to point out that when the Harlow Sammons team is hitting on all eight, they’re capable of running the table. In other words, don’t be surprised to see them win here.
Odds: 14-1


Matt Smith
Denso EBR

Even if he parked his Pomona winning EBR after the final round in Pomona and didn’t touch it again until Q1 in Gainesville, he’d be the runaway favorite and we all know that’s unlikely. The reigning and now three-time champion was dominant at the end of the season and there is no reason to think he won’t be in a similar spot now. One thing is for sure, he won’t be repeating last year’s embarrassing DNQ.
Odds: 3-2

Eddie Krawiec
Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson

Six times in the last nine years he’s left Gainesville Raceway with the Wally and the points lead. Since his first win here in 2010, he’s got an unreal record of 29-3 in elimination rounds. Oh, and he’s also pretty sore about losing the 2018 championship by less than a round so he’ll likely begin retribution early. New Jersey folks generally don’t like their revenge served cold.
Odds: 4-1

Hector Arana Jr.
Lucas Oil EBR

Everyone will long remember what he did last year Gainesville with the first official 200-mph Pro Stock Motorcycle pass. There is not a lot that anyone could do to surpass that milestone, but a win here would be a good start. He was in the hunt for the championship throughout most of the Countdown last year and figures to be just as strong this time around.
Odds: 6-1

Andrew Hines
Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson

Speaking of riders who might have a chip on their shoulder, this is exhibit A. He went winless for the first time in 14 seasons last year and that isn’t going to happen again this time around. An early-season victory would be most welcome in the Vance & Hines camp.
Odds: 7-1

Jerry Savoie
White Alligator Suzuki

He says he isn’t going to run all 16 Pro Stock Motorcycle events and, unfortunately, we believe him. That being said, he’s going to be a factor at whatever events he chooses to compete in and that includes this one. The Suzuki teams struggled a bit last year, but the WAR squad was the lone exception. They combined for five wins and there should be more on the horizon.
Odds: 8-1

Scotty Pollacheck
Quality Tire EBR

Back for a second tour with Matt Smith Racing and riding one of the swoopy EBR bikes figures to be just the ticket to get NHRA’s most overdue pro his long-awaited first victory. Given the fact that he’s more than paid his dues in the class, it would be fitting to see the first win come at an historic event like the 50th Gatornationals. The post-race celebration would make the Torrence team blush.
Odds: 10-1

Angelle Sampey
Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson

One hundred years ago, Babe Ruth was traded from the Red Sox to their arch rival NY Yankees. Angelle Sampey’s move to the Harley-Davidson team might not be quite as significant, but it is a big, big deal in the Pro Stock Motorcycle class. For sure, there will be an adjustment period for the three-time champion but there is a lot of potential here and, she doesn’t lack the motivation to prove those who doubted her wrong.
Odds: 12-1

Karen Stoffer
White Alligator Suzuki

Speaking of faces in unfamiliar places, how about Karen Stoffer riding one of Jerry Savoie’s White Alligator bikes? She’ll be on the same Suzuki that LE Tonglet rode to four wins last season. Oh, and she’s also a two-time winner of the Gainesville event. Much like Sampey’s move to the Harley team, this one would also seem to have a mountain of potential up to and including a run at the championship.
Odds: 15-1


Rick Hord
Maximum Effort Corvette

Okay, maybe it’s a little risky to give him the top spot here because he’s won just one NHRA Pro Mod event but when it comes to having the quickest and fastest car in the class, he’s certainly in the conversation. He’s also a Florida native and his 5.681, 258.67 blast from the Fall Charlotte race last year remains one of the most impressive runs in the class. Basically, he deserves top billing.
Odds: 4-1

Rickie Smith
Bahrain1 Mustang

So, the man who waged war against turbo cars for more than a decade has finally capitulated and joined the hairdryer movement. Not only that, but he’s got turbo specialist Steve Petty on board this season. Also, no surprise that the new team has already run in the 5.7s during pre-season testing. Trickie Rickie once said he’d embarrass the field if he ever got his hands on a turbo car. This will be his big chance to prove it once and for all. The entertainment value in this class is limitless.
Odds: 5-1

Mike Castellana
AAP Camaro

Not to rub salt in an old wound but these guys went winless last season and lost a heartbreaking late-season battle for the championship. Not that they needed any extra motivation, but there will be plenty. This is also officially the quickest car in the class with a 5.67 time slip. Expect to see some fireworks from the AAP camp this season.
Odds: 6-1

Mike Janis
AAP/Janis Superchargers Camaro

The reigning NHRA E3 Pro Mod series champion will have his hands full when it comes to a title defense. The good news is that this car is perhaps the best in the class when it comes to qualifying. In 12 races last season, he was only outside the top half twice and never lower than 13th. With about 30 cars trying to grab one of just 16 spots, that is an extremely important element.
Odds: 8-1

Stevie Jackson
Bahrain1 Camaro

Debuted a new car and immediately made the final round of the Orlando test session a couple of weeks ago and looked really good in the process with a number of 5.7-second runs. He’s also one of the best drivers in the class, and a big fan favorite.
Odds: 10-1

Jose Gonzales
Q80 Corvette

He only ran eight events last year, his first season of NHRA Pro Mod racing, but came through with a win, a runner-up and a pair of semifinals. He also qualified fourth or better on five occasions which gives a slight hint at the strength of the turbocharged Q80 entry. That’s not a bad start and also a hint of what’s to come.
Odds: 11-1

Jeremy Ray
J4 Corvette

Made quite an impression last year including a big win in Dallas. This car is quick and consistent, and the driver does a solid job on the starting line. That’s a decent recipe for long-term success in what has become one of drag racing’s most competitive classes.
Odds: 12-1

Chad Green
Bond Coat Camaro

Don’t put the nitrous combination out to pasture just yet. With Pat Musi and Dean Marinis turning the wrenches, this figures to be the best of the bunch. He had a tough season in 2018 with two crashes yet still flirted with a wins on several occasions.
Odds: 14-1