Four. First. Time. Winners.
Racing in Sonoma is never better than at the Denso NHRA Sonoma Nationals, and for the four NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series racers who won today, this track will forever hold a special place in their hearts.
After two days of qualifying where the balance of power seemed to favor Steve Johnson, Erica Enders, Robert Hight, and Leah Pruett—Joey Gladstone, Bob Tasca III, and Brittany Force outdid the competition and joined Erica Enders (who overcame 18 years of her own struggles here) to celebrate in the winner’s circle.
None of these winners had ever hoisted an NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series Wally in wine country. Now life is complete, and they are all in one of the most beautiful places on the NHRA circuit to celebrate that success before heading to Seattle next weekend.
Top Fuel Winner: Brittany Force
Sunday’s sessions began with a glimpse of what Brittany Force’s power and performance capabilities would be like today; Force astounded everyone with a 3.662 with her teammate Austin Prock in the other lane. Force said, “We’ve always struggled on the Western Swing.” Now she can put that struggle behind her.
Force grew up coming to this racetrack where she ran Super Comp and A Fuel. There’s not a celebration shot in the National Dragster archives showing a John Force Racing win where you don’t see her joining in on the celebration. Winning the Denso NHRA Sonoma Nationals marks Force’s fourth win of the season and the 15th of her career—and means her family gets to join her in the winner’s circle photos this time.
“We struggled a little bit in qualifying,” said Force, “and I am so impressed by the strength of my team. They are outstanding!” Force went on to credit crew chief David Grubnic who she said, “always wants more, and keeps pushing. When you push that hard you take risks to run that way and keep improving. I wanted to be able to come out here on race day and keep improving.”
Funny Car Winner: Bob Tasca III
“At some points during this season we looked kinda silly,” said Bob Tasca III. He said, “I got emails from fans that asked if we had forgotten how to race?”
That wasn’t going to work for Tasca, who said, “the only reason we are out here is to win a championship.” Not being able to run with the top of the pack when the conditions got good wasn’t something he could rationalize away. The Motorcraft team needed to find a combination that could run the number.
“So we’ve done a lot of testing,” said Tasca. “My good friend Tony Pedregon told me we, ‘always win the Monday Nationals,’ but we needed to be able to reproduce that performance on race day, too.” Tasca’s success came down to the wire. His first two qualifying sessions were soft. It wasn’t until the third and final shot that he ran well enough to get into the number four spot.
Tasca confessed that “coming into this race, we didn’t have a good handle on this setup, but Mike Neff said, ‘he was close.’”
On Saturday afternoon when the Funny Car ladder looked locked up, Team Tasca struck. “I’m not sure anyone has run that quick on a 118-degree track,” he said, “and you can’t win the championship if you can’t run an .87 in conditions like this.”
“This car showed the competition that when the track was 118 degrees, we were there. When it cooled down, we were there. When it warmed back up, we were there.”Tasca gives all the credit to his guys and to Ford Motor Company.
“There were runs today where you didn’t need Bob Tasca in the car, and that’s a testament to the car’s setup,” he said. Now that he’s been in three finals in a row, is the car really good enough to go all the way?
“Look, Robert [Hight} is the gold standard,” said Tasca, “I don’t think I’ve beat the guy in three years. Here, we had the upper hand, and Robert knew it.”
But in the final it wasn’t Hight that Tasca had to defeat, it was his boss, John Force.
“John Force is superhuman,” said Tasca. “If people understood how mentally and physically challenging driving a Funny Car is they would have some idea of what he’s capable of. It’s an honor to be able to race the greatest racer in the history of drag racing. In fact, the technique I use to launch I learned from John Force—I’m not going to tell you what it is, but it’s true.”
Pro Stock Winner: Erica Enders
Erica Enders, who publicly discussed how challenging Sonoma Raceway has been for her for nearly two decades, now moves one step closer to fully realizing her Pro Stock accomplishments and where she ranks amongst the greatest drivers the class has ever known.
She came into race day in the number-one spot, got revenge on Mason McGaha who beat her in Denver on a holeshot, got around her rival teammate Aaron Stanfield, blocked her nemesis Greg Anderson from achieving a milestone 100th win, and defeated an albatross that’s hung over her head at this track.
The Denso NHRA Sonoma Nationals marks her 39th win, her sixth this season, and keeps her number one in the points standings. It was an emotional and personal win for her. One that she reflected on every New Year’s Day when she identifies the areas of personal growth she is looking to achieve in the coming year.
“Today was excellent,” said Enders, “for 18 years this victory has evaded us somehow, some way. We’ve always wanted this goblet, this is so cool.” It’s not just this race, though, it’s her season.
“W.J. called me and said [after seeing the win on NHRA.tv], ‘you’re not supposed to chug the wine, you’re supposed to sip it,’ recounted Enders after a phone call with the Professor.”
“It’s definitely a pinch-me season. The way we lost last year was a motivation for me and my team. It’s been an honor to race alongside [Greg Anderson], and while he’s been a thorn in our side, we love the rivalry, and I know he does too. “
Pro Stock Motorcycle Winner: Joey Gladstone
Joey Gladstone can now share in the feeling of greatness of all the Pro Stock Motorcycle racers in the class who have hoisted a Wally. The 2022 Denso Sonoma Nationals isn’t just his first win in northern California, it’s also his first time in the NHRA winner’s circle.
The celebration came after defeating his engine supplier, Eddie Krawiec who has the same Vance & Hines Suzuki power in his motorcycle.
Coming into race day Gladstone had worked his way up to a number three qualifier. In round one he had a fluke engine issue that caused him to have to shut the engine down and restart it after pressing on some wires.
Shaken, but undeterred, he went on to outpower Katie Sullivan and Jerry Savoie, and out react Krawiec. Prior to today, Gladstone had been to the finals four times, but Sonoma’s Wally and its goblet of wine will always be remembered as his first.
“I never thought I’d see this day, no, that’s a lie,” said Gladstone. “I saw the light at the end of the tunnel and thought I could do this. I’ve dedicated 20 years of my life to this, and now I’ve accomplished it.”
“The race gods smiled on us in the first round, and I had to shut the bike off and shove some wires around and refire the bike. Some days you feel like you can’t lose and today was one of those days.”
“When I was 12 years old I went to my first National Event. I raced in my first drag race when I was 16, now I’m 31. This means more to me than you could ever imagine,” said Gladstone.
“I want to thank Jim and Annie Whiteley and Corey Reed for helping me realize my dreams.”
Gladstone is now two points out of the Pro Stock Motorcycle points lead, and now that he’s got the monkey off his back, could this mean the beginning of a new Pro Stock Motorcycle dynasty? We’ll see.