After a longer than expected off-season, engines finally came to life in the 2021 Camping World NHRA Drag Racing series as processional competitors took to the track for the opening day of qualifying for the Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals. Six months ago, NHRA hosted the 2020 edition of the Gatornationals which was postponed from its traditional March date due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Friday’s schedule was packed beginning with the start of sportsman eliminations, followed by two rounds of qualifying for the Top Alcohol classes, and the opening round of qualifying for competitors in Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock, Pro Stock Motorcycle, Pro Mod, Top Fuel Harley, and Factory Stock Showdown.
Steve Torrence began his charge towards a fourth straight Camping World NHRA Top Fuel title with an impressive 3.699 from his Capco Contractors dragster. Torrence, who qualified No. 1 three times in 10 races last season and 27 times in his career, leads a stacked field that includes his biggest rival, Doug Kalitta, who is second after posting a 3.746 in his Mac Tools dragster. Kalitta’s teammate, Shawn Langdon, was also impressive after a 3.749 in his DHL dragster that is good for No. 4.
Brittany Force, making her return to the sport after a one-year absence, finished the day as the No. 3 qualifier thanks to a very competitive 3.747 from her David Grubnic-tuned Monster Energy dragster. Perhaps the most impressive run of the session came from rookie Josh Hart. The Ocala, Fla., native was the first Top Fuel driver down the track and set a strong early pace with a 3.768 that stands as the sixth-best time of the day. Hart’s dragster is tuned by veteran Ron Douglas.
The last time he raced at Gainesville Raceway six months ago, Ron Capps left with the Wally after beating Tim Wilkerson in the final round. Since then, Capps and the NAPA Auto Parts team have undergone a lot of changes, primarily the loss of longtime crew chief Rahn Tobler, who retired. Replaced by the duo of Dean Antonelli and John Medlen, Capps did not skip a beat with a solid 3.895 to open the new season. Capps is followed by Alexis DeJoria, who drove her RoKIT/Bandero Tequila Toyota to a 3.914. DeJoria’s team, led by Del Worsham and Nicky Boninfante, was one of the most active during pre-season testing with several tests in Bakersfield, South Florida, and the Wednesday test held at Gainesville Raceway.
Tim Wilkerson, a runner-up to Capps at the most recent Gainesville event, also made a solid opening run with a 3.917 in his Levi, Ray & Shoup Mustang. J.R. Todd, Cruz Pedregon, Robert Hight and Chad Green also found the three-second zone during Friday’s twilight nitro qualifying session.
Enders, the winner of the final event of the 2020 season in Las Vegas and the world championship, picked up right where she left off with a 6.528 in her Elite/Melling Camaro that is currently good for the top spot. Enders was a tick quicker than fellow four-time world champ Greg Anderson, who posted a 6.536. Anderson, a winner last year in Dallas, has 94 NHRA victories, second only to Warren Johnson’s 96.
The first Pro Stock session of the season did not disappoint in terms of competitiveness or consistency with the top half of the field tightly packed into a minuscule .027-second window with Deric Kramer, Kenny Delco, Troy Coughlin Jr., Kyle Koretsky, Chris McGaha, and Alex Laughlin all in the mix.
After a single run, there are three distinctly different bikes occupying the top three spots in the Pro Stock Motorcycle class. Three-time world champion Angelle Sampey rode the new Vance & Hines/Mission Foods Suzuki to a 6.746, one of the best runs of her long career, to secure the provisional pole. Sampey’s bike is equipped with the new Vance & Hines four-valve cylinder head. The bike is also being tuned by her teammates, Andrew Hines and Eddie Krawiec, who are sitting out this event but have combined for eight Gatornationals victories since 2004.
Reigning world champ Matt Smith is second on his Denso EBR with a 6.768. Smith also has the top speed of the event at 199.82 mph. The Lucas Oil EBR of Hector Arana Jr. also kicked off the season with a very competitive effort, a 6.817, which is the third quickest on day one. Arana Jr., the first rider in the class to run over 200 mph, was among the fastest bikes with a 198.32 top speed. The current bump spot is John Hall’s off-pace 7.40 with 13 riders currently in the six-second zone.
A week after winning the Doorslammer Nationals event in Orlando, Khalid alBalooshi continued his rampage through the Pro Mod class with a strong performance from his ProCharger-equipped Bahrain1 Camaro. alBalooshi drove to a 5.668, 255.63 to take the provisional pole for the class, which has 26 entries competing for just 16 available qualifying spots. Second is Jose Gonzales, who debuted a new ProCharger-equipped Camaro with a 5.726 best. During the test session held on Tuesday and Wednesday, Jose De Leon filled in for Gonzales, making more than a dozen runs on the new chassis.