Six months later than anticipated, NHRA’s pro racers have returned to historic Gainesville Raceway to take care of unfinished business at the 51st annual Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals. Following Saturday’s two qualifying runs, Clay Millican, Matt Hagan, Deric Kramer, and Matt Smith have qualified in the top spot in their respective Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock, and Pro Stock Motorcycle categories.
Millican’s Mike Kloeber-tuned dragster dropped cylinders during Saturday’s second session but that wasn’t enough to prevent the Parts Plus team from securing the top spot for the second time in the last four races. Millican ran a 3.821, backing up his earlier 3.842, and has now worn the green low qualifier hat 25 times in his career. With 15 cars in the field, Millican’s reward for the pole is a bye run on Sunday morning.
Millican’s last session heroics knocked Billy Torrence from the top spot although he came close to regaining the lead with a 3.838 in his Capco Contractors dragster. Torrence, who found the winner’s circle earlier this season at the first Indy event and also has a semifinal in Phoenix, was ranked third following his victory but has recently slipped to No. 5 following his round-one loss at the U.S. Nationals. He will face Todd Paton in round one.
“That was pretty cool,” Millican said. “This is a big race and we were proud to go No. 1. We’ve had the craziest racing gremlins on the car. We’ve qualified well and haven’t raced worth a darn (at Indy). I lost this race in the final round last year, and that one was my fault. So, would I like to make up for it tomorrow? Absolutely.”
Antron Brown was also impressive late in the day when he drove to a third-best 3.831. It’s been well documented that Brown is winless since the 2018 Seattle event, but his Matco Tools team recently appears headed in the right direction with several strong qualifying performances.
Steve Torrence made a strong impression with the fans when arrived in Gainesville with a new wrap on his Capco Contractors dragster that honors “Big Daddy” Don Garlits and his Swamp Rat 14 dragster. The reigning world champion is qualified No. 4 with a 3.867
Perhaps the most surprising development of the day came in Q2 when eight-time world champion Tony Schumacher was unable to make the run in his Sandvik/Okuma dragster. Schumacher’s team, led by Mike Green, attempted to swap a blower pulley in the water box, shortly before their designated start time. The swap did not appear to go smoothly so Schumacher was unable to make the run and finished well down the qualifying order. Schumacher will face reigning champion Steve Torrence in one of the most anticipated matchups of the opening round.
Hagan, battling for what could be his third Funny Car title, was the only driver in the threes after a 3.975 in his Mopar Dodge R/T. Hagan will also benefit from a bye run as he looks to close ground on points leader Jack Beckman. Hagan’s last-minute heroics took the spotlight away from Tim Wilkerson who was the top qualifier after Saturday’s first run.
“Our race car is running great," said Hagan. "This Dodge Hellcat Redeye Funny Car is running strong. It runs like a Hellcat, but drives like a (Chrysler) 300C. Dickie (Venables) is doing such a great job putting a tuen-up in this car. What a great race car I have underneath me. It’s one of the more fun seasons I’ve had. The car is just so smooth. It shows the caliber of guys we have to take so much time off and all the adversity with Covid19 and to come back out here and put together a great race car. We’ve been No. 1 qualifier several times and won a few times also. We have a real car that can compete for the next five races and do big things. I’m extremely excited. I think this might be the first time I’ve ever had a bye run and I just can’t say enough about this team who makes it all happen.”
Wilkerson, who’s 20-career nitro wins include the 2010 Gatornationals, drove his Levi, Ray & Shoup Mustang to a 4.003 on Q1. After a pair of semifinal finishes, Wilkerson will be looking to make the final for the first time this season.
Hagan leads the field, but his advantage over the rest of the class is slight. In addition to Wilkerson, Bob Tasca III and Ron Capps are also solidly in the top half with runs of 4.020 and 4.025, respectively. Tasca made one of the better runs of the second session with a 4.060 at just 277-mph, indicating an early shut off.
Alexis DeJoria also bears watching after she made the second-best pass of Q2 with a 4.088 in her RoKit/ABK Beer Toyota. DeJoria opened the season with a semifinal finish but has recently dropped to eighth place in the tough Funny Car title chase. DeJoria will be paired with Jim Campbell’s Cattleman’s Cut entry in round one.
Kramer, who was the third-quickest qualifier at Indy, stole the top spot from Erica Enders in the final session with a 6.602 pass from his American Ethanol Camaro. Enders had earlier run 6.608 and held on to the lead until the final pair, where Kramer took the lead for the fifth time in his career. Kramer entered the Gatornationals as the No. 10 ranked driver in the class and will have an excellent opportunity to improve on Sunday when he’s paired with Bob Benza, who will be seeking the second win light of his pro career and his first since the 1998 Richmond race.
“It’s no secret that our 2020 hasn’t been great so this is a really big boost for our American Ethanol team,” Kramer said. “I feel like we turned a corner at the U.S. Nationals a few weeks ago and it’s all coming together this weekend, but we need to keep our eyes on the prize. We’ve got one mission for raceday and that’s to come home with the win.”
Enders took over the points lead following her win at the Denso Spark Plugs NHRA U.S. Nationals and the three-time champion has been competitive in Gainesville with runs of 6.608 and 6.621 from her Melling/Elite Camaro. Enders is leading the points thanks to a strong 13-3 record in elimination rounds. Enders’ “reward” for her qualifying effort will be a tough opening round match-up with he teammate, rookie Troy Coughlin Jr.
With 21 Pro Stock cars on the grounds, just making the field could be considered a major achievement. Benza ended on the bump in the tightly compacted field with a 6.667, and the non-qualifiers include Alan Prusiensky, Fernando Cuadra Sr., Richie Stevens, Wally Stroupe, and Val Smeland.
Smith’s Denso EBR has been arguably the best bike in the Pro Stock Motorcycle class this season and he reasserted that claim with back-to-back runs of 6.820 and 6.819 to claim the top spot for the third time this year and 40th time in his career. Smith, who hasn’t been ranked lower than third at any race this year, begins his quest for win No. 25 with a round one win against Kelly Clontz’s Suzuki.
The quickest Harley-Davidson in the field belongs to Angelle Sampey after the three-time world champion rode her FXDR to a 6.858. Sampey leads teammate Eddie Krawiec, who is looking for his first win since 2018. Krawiec has had considerable success in Gainesville with five wins since 2010.
Smiths’ teammate, Indy winner Scotty Pollacheck, had a few anxious moments after his Strutmasters.com EBR broke in Q1 but the current points leader returned in the afternoon session with an impressive 6.872 that fell into the third spot. Pollacehck went to 12 final rounds before his breakthrough win at Indy including the 2014 Gatornationals, where he lost to Steve Johnson.
The Gainesville field also includes veteran Hector Arana Sr., who is making his first start of the season. Arana, who won the Gatornationals in 2009, the same season he was crowned world champion, rode his Lucas Oil EBR to a 6.942 for the No. 13 spot, drawing Pollacheck in Sunday’s opening round.
Prior to the end of Saturday’s qualifying rounds, NHRA officials announced that the start time for Sunday’s final eliminations would be moved up one hour to 10 a.m. EDT.