Anticipation turned to relief yesterday when the 2021 Camping World NHRA Drag Racing Series officially kicked off with the first day of professional qualifying for the Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals. A year after the global COVID-19 pandemic forced the postponement of the traditional East Coast season opener, the Gatornationals has returned to its traditional mid-March date and Gainesville fans were welcomed back with sunny skies and a pit area jammed with over 500 professional and sportsman race cars.
After one of three pro qualifying sessions, the names at the top of the list should be familiar as reigning world champions Steve Torrence and Erica Enders lead the way in Top Fuel and Pro Stock, respectively, while Ron Capps has the provisional pole in Funny Car and Angelle Sampey marked her return to the Suzuki brand with the quickest run of the day in Pro Stock Motorcycle.
Torrence, the defending Gainesville winner, began his pursuit of a fourth-straight championship with a 3.699 from his Capco dragster to pace the field. Torrence holds a sizable lead over the rest of the field as Doug Kalitta’s 3.746 is second-best while Brittany Force is the current No. 3 seed following a 3.747 in her Monster Energy dragster. The Top Fuel field features several fresh faces including Krista Baldwin, the granddaughter of drag racing pioneer Chris “the Greek” Karamesines along with Josh Hart, Artie Allen, and Mike Bucher, all of whom came to Top Fuel from the alcohol ranks. Hart’s performance was especially noteworthy as his first run as a professional was a 3.768 that is good for the No. 6 spot.
Six months after his win at the delayed 2020 Amalie Gatornationals, Ron Capps returned to Gainesville and has put his NAPA Dodge into the top spot in Funny Car with a solid 3.895-second run. Capps’ car is now tuned by Dean Antonelli and John Medlen following the retirement of longtime tuner Rahn Tobler. Alexis DeJoria and Tim Wilkerson also made a run at the top spot with runs of 3.914 and 3.917 respectively. Friday also marked the long-awaited return of John Force and teammate Robert Hight, who sat out the bulk of the 2020 season.
Enders began her pursuit of a fifth Pro Stock championship in the best way possible, with a very strong 6.528 that paces the quick 16-car field. Enders, who is chasing her first Gatornationals win, is also racing in Comp Eliminator and has advanced to the quarterfinal round on Saturday morning. As expected, the top Pro Stock cars are separated by just a couple of hundredths with Greg Anderson, Deric Kramer, and 1990 Gatornationals winner Kenny Delco occupying the top spots.
In 1999, Angelle Sampey earned the first of her three Gatornationals Pro Stock Motorcycle wins on a Suzuki and she’s returned to that brand this season aboard the new Vance & Hines/Mission Foods entry. Sampey was quickest on Friday with a 6.746 to edge reigning world champ and 2020 Gainesville winner Matt Smith ,who is second with a 6.768. Smith’s Denso EBR is also the fastest bike in the field with a 199.82 mph speed.
Saturday’s packed scheduled includes two more rounds of professional qualifying at noon and 4 p.m. as well as final qualifying rounds in Pro Mod, Top Fuel Harley, and the Factory Stock Showdown to go along with the continuation of eliminations in the Lucas Oil Series sportsman categories.
You can catch the action all weekend on the Fox network, Fox Sports 1, and NHRA.tv.
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Saturday, March 13, FS1 will televise qualifying coverage from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. (ET).
Sunday, March 14, FS1 will televise qualifying coverage from 11:00 a.m. to noon (ET)
Sunday, March 14, FOX TV will televise final eliminations live from noon to 3:00 p.m. (ET)
*NOTE: Daylight savings time officially begins at 2 a.m. on Sunday, March 14