With the playoffs on the horizon, action heated up at the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals as the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series tour made its annual stop at rustic Brainerd Int’l Raceway. Here are five things we learned.
STEVE TORRENCE WAS NEVER AS FAR OFF AS WE WERE LED TO BELIEVE
About that so-called slump that Steve Torrence and the Capco team have been in this year? It was never really as bad as it may have seemed. Yes, it took 15 races for Torrence to get his first win, but in the meantime, he racked up 24 round-wins and at no point this season was he ranked lower than No. 4 in the Camping World standings. That’s a record that most of his rivals would gladly trade for.
Torrence did, however, admit that he’d had multiple discussions about returning to last year’s combination in an effort to duplicate the formula of success that led to four titles. Ultimately, he decided it was a bad decision and elected to stay the course. Now, it seems like a moot point.
“I don’t question my guys,” Torrence said during his media center interview. “They got us here. I’ve had the same guys together for all four championships, and I’m not about to tell them that what they’re doing isn’t working. What sort of a message would that send? I have complete faith in them, and when the Countdown [to the Championship] starts, we’re going to be right there.”
BOB TASCA III WILL BE A HANDFUL IN THE COUNTDOWN
Any talk of peaking too soon falls on deaf ears when it comes to Bob Tasca III and his current streak of three wins in the last four races. Tasca understands the often-streaky nature of NHRA nitro racing, but he has every reason to believe that he’ll continue on his current trajectory and be a contender not only at the upcoming Dodge Power Brokers NHRA U.S. Nationals, but also the all-important six-race playoffs that follow.
When Tasca returned to the sport four yeas ago, he was determined to build a winning team, and while it may have taken longer than he expected, he’s currently satisfied with the results, especially after five final rounds in the last six events, including both warm and cool weather races.
“If you remember a while back, I got fired,” Tasca said. “In 2013, Ford pulled out, and it didn’t look too good for Tasca Racing. They were debuting their GT40 [endurance racing] program, and they let all of us go. I remember being at Ford headquarters and seeing a wall with all the champions on it, and I wasn’t on there. That was disappointing. I could have packed it in, but we stuck with it. Ford gave me a second chance. Getting Mike Neff and Jon Shafer was a big turning point, but you don’t just snap your fingers and see results. You see that right now with Doug Kalitta and Alan Johnson. It takes time. It’s not instant pudding. No one can guarantee a championship, but we’ve got a shot at it.”
NHRA PRO MOD RACERS ARE A ROWDY BUNCH
To suggest that the Brainerd event was a wild race for the FuelTech NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series presented by D-Wagon would be a wee bit of an understatement. There was drama, controversy, a pair of familiar winners, and enough trash talking to last an entire season.
Rickie Smith won the race and closed the gap on incoming points leader Kris Thorne. On Saturday, Thorne scored a win of his own when he won the top prize in the inaugural D-Wagon Pro Mod Shootout, but that event wasn’t without its share of controversy. Before the race, the Pro Mod drivers in Brainerd decided to add some fun to the event by using a random draw to determine the pairings for each round. That decision seemed fine with everyone but Smith, who elected to sit out and forfeit his shot at the sizable bonus money involved. That move obviously didn’t with well with his competitors, many of whom took to social media to provide their take on the situations.
On the track, there was a flurry of 5.7-second runs and a lot of great side-by-side races, and the Pro Mod class proved to be a big hit with the large and enthusiastic crowd in Brainerd.
While Smith missed out on a chance to pad his wallet, he moved to within 25 points of Thorne as the series heads into the homestretch. Smith has threatened to retire almost every year for more than a decade, and he finally insists that he’s serious this time. Weather or not that turns out to be the case, there is no arguing that Pro Mod racing is far more entertaining when “Trickie Rickie” is around.
THERE IS STILL A PLACE IN NHRA FOR THE LITTLE GUY (OR GIRL)
Think the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series is all about mega teams and high-dollar sponsorships? Guess again. The Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals featured some standout performances by some of nitro racing’s most dedicated independents. First up is the always bubbly Krista Baldwin, who struggled during Friday’s opening qualifying sessions but finished the week with a career-best (by a lot) 3.811 at 319.52. Baldwin has been racing a Top Fuel car for a little more than a year, and she’s not looked out of place a single day.
And then there is Bobby Bode, who was formally introduced to NHRA fans earlier this year in Houston when he nearly beat Matt Hagan in the NHRA SpringNationals finals. Bode defeated two-time world champ Cruz Pedregon in round one and had an excellent shot to beat Ron Capps in the quarterfinals. Bode’s team had an issue in the pits and barely made it to the starting line and then couldn’t make the run as Capps smoked the tires. As frustrating as it is, there is a feeling that Bode is ticketed for stardom in the Funny Car class.
Finally, how about Dale Creasy Jr. A veteran who has pulled off many upsets over the years, he nearly bagged another one when he ran a career-best 3.967 in round one against Bob Tasca III. Creasy would have won at least half of the round-one matchups with his performance but came out on the short end with of Tasca’s dominant 3.891.
THE BRAINERD FANS ARE IN A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN
There are enthusiastic fans at every stop on the NHRA Camping World tour, but there is something wonderfully different about the crew that inhabits Brainerd Int’l Raceway each August. The Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals are famous for a lot of things, but none more prominent than the Brainerd "Zoo," the massive 200-acre campground that surrounds the facility. "The Zoo" is home to all sort of debauchery, including a nonstop parade of homemade vehicles that include everything from rolling bar stools to pirate ships. There is also a massive fireworks display on Saturday night that rivals even the well-know Norwal experience. This year, attendance in "the Zoo" was bolstered by the reappearance of a large contingent of Canadian fans, who have been largely absent the last two years due to COVID-19 restrictions.
In some ways, Ron Capps has become the defacto Mayor of the Zoo, because the campground appears to have more than its fair share of fans that support the NAPA team. Then again, every Pro and Sportsman driver is welcomed in "the Zoo" with open arms, as NHRA continues to be the leader in fan interaction among major motorsports.