For the first time since late the Arizona Nationals in late February, NHRA Mello Yello series pros hit the track at Lucas Oil Raceway Indianapolis for a full day of testing ahead of this the long-awaited return to action at this weekend’s E3 Spark Plugs NHRA Nationals. For many pros, particularly nitro drivers, Thursday’s test runs at Lucas Oil Raceway represented their first on-track action since eliminations for the Phoenix race on Feb. 22. That’s 137 days for those keeping score.
Most drivers, particularly those with multiple years of experience, wouldn’t admit to feeling rusty even after long periods of inactivity, but for the drivers who made runs on Thursday, just having the chance to get back in a race car (or bike) for the first time in months was a welcome opportunity.
Billy Torrence, who raced to a semifinal finish in his most recent outing in Phoenix, was the first driver to take on the Lucas Oil Raceway and his Capco Contractors dragster responded with a solid half-track effort. Phoenix winner Steve Torrence also made an abbreviated run in his Capco entry and produced the day’s quickest run with a 3.96 at just 254-mph.
The E3 Spark Plugs NHRA Nationals features a solid field of competitors in all four professional classes including Top Fuel, where the Capco dragsters are joined by the Kalitta Motorsports entries of Doug Kalitta and Shawn Langdon, who each made runs on Thursday. Doug Foley, Justin Ashley also made runs on Thursday.
While some drivers have been sidelined for the last few months, Langdon is not one of them. The former two-time Super Comp champ has logged a lot of miles in his bracket dragster, racing at several big-money E.T. events across the country. From a driving perspective, high stakes bracket racing might be the most mentally challenging form of drag racing competition since drivers need to be almost perfect on the starting line and while judging the finish line.
“I’ve made 132 runs in my dragster since we left Gainesville,” said Langdon, who enjoyed success in his travels across the Eastern half of the U.S., earning enough to cover his entry fees and travel expenses while putting a few extra dollars in his pocket. “For me, this was sort of status quo since I generally try to go race something during my off weekends. I’ve just had more off weekends lately than I care to. Still, my mindset every year is to be out there almost every weekend. I’m not the type to sit at home.”
Langdon and his DHL team, ranked eighth in the Top Fuel standings after the first two events in Pomona and Phoenix, plan to make one or two runs during the test session on Thursday and Friday before attacking Saturday’s two official qualifying sessions.
“I think we’re just going to make a couple of runs to get acclimated again,” said Langdon. “We haven’t made any real changes since Phoenix so we’re just going to try and adapt to the conditions and go from there. I’m happy to be back.”
Likewise, there are 18 Funny Cars on the pre-entry list for the Indy event including the Motorcraft Ford Mustang that is normally driven by Bob Tasca III. Last week, Tasca announced that he’d tested positive for COVID-19 and that he’d miss the first Indy race. Tasca’s choice for a fill-in driver is Swedish native and two-time Top Alcohol Funny Car champion Jonnie Lindberg, who now operates his own chassis and fabrication shop just a chip shot from the gates of Lucas Oil Raceway. Lindberg made two half-track runs in Tasca’s car on Thursday under the watchful eye of crew chief Mike Neff.
“One week ago, I got a text from Bob asking me if I’d drive his car and then I got another one the next day from Mike Neff to confirm everything,” said Lindberg, who spent the last three seasons driving Jim Head’s car with four final-round appearances. “Then, on Monday, I went to the Tasca shop to pour a seat and now I’m here. This is not how I wanted to get back in a nitro car but I’m happy to help Bob out any way I can. Thankfully, we’re about the same size so we didn’t have to make too many adjustments. He’s a little taller than me but I can still fit in the car just fine and I’m even wearing his firesuit.”
While Lindberg and Tasca are similar in stature, the procedure that the Motorcraft team uses to run their car is quite a bit different than what Lindberg is used to. To that end, he’s listened to the advice of Neff and the rest of the team and had few problems during Thursday’s abbreviated runs.
“The warm-up is different and the burnout and back up are different and almost everything else about the way they run this car but that’s okay, I can adapt quickly,” Lindberg said. Lindberg also knows he’ll have the opportunity to help Tasca earn points as a replacement driver. “I’m honored that Bob would pick me, but I also feel some pressure to perform because I want to deliver for these guys. If I can help him move up a couple of spots in the points, I’m happy to do that.”
A handful of Pro Stock drivers made runs on Thursday including newcomer Troy Coughlin Jr., and NHRA Fox Sports television commentator Bruno Massel. Coughlin is making his official NHRA Pro Stock debut while two-time Comp champ Massel is making his first runs in a Pro Stock car since the season-ending Auto Club NHRA Finals in 2013. Both drivers performed admirably with a pair of early shut off efforts.
“This is not only the first time I’ve driven a Pro Stock car since 2013, but it’s also the first time I’ve driven one with fuel injection,” said Massel, who is driving the same Elite Camaro that Troy Coughlin Jr. drove to several 6.4-second runs in Orlando earlier this season. “I’ve been 6.3s in my Comp dragster but I really just need to get a feel for the throttle and the clutch in one of these cars. This is a great opportunity, and I’m grateful to [Elite team owner] Richard Freeman. I want to make the most of it.”
And then there are the Pro Stock Motorcycle riders, many of whom haven’t donned a set of leathers or dumped a clutch lever since last year’s Auto Club NHRA Finals, nearly nine months ago. Most will recall the Pro Stock Motorcycle class was set for their traditional season debut in March at Gainesville Raceway when the season was halted.
Three-time world champion Angelle Sampey was able to make a few test runs aboard her Harley-Davidson FXDR during a test session in early March, but more recently, she’s been counting the days until NHRA’s return. Most of the 16 riders that are scheduled to compete this weekend made at least one attempt on Thursday, with all the Vance & Hines Harley’s making two runs each.
“This morning, my daughter, Ava, asked me if I was excited to be back racing and I told her that I don’t think I’d ever been so excited to be back at a race track,” said Sampey. “I’ll take the heat and the humidity and everything else. I just want to race. A few weeks ago, I was training and hurt myself in the gym. I bruised my tail bone and I was afraid that if it didn’t heal completely, I might not be able to ride because you need to be able to stay in the seat. Thankfully, I’m back to normal and I’m doing my three-a-day workouts twice a week. I’m in the best shape I’ve been in, maybe my whole life. I really want to have a good year.”