The final Camping World NHRA Drag Racing Series event at Houston Raceway Park was already shaping up to be a historic event well before female racers Brittany Force, Camrie Caruso, and Karen Stoffer teamed up to lead the way in three of the four professional classes. They were joined by provisional Funny Car low qualifier Ron Capps.
For the last couple of seasons, Force has qualified No. 1 more often than any other NHRA pro and the 2017 world champ is on track for another pole position following a very competitive and entertaining qualifying session on Friday. Force wheeled her Monster Energy dragster to a 3.695 to edge Justin Ashley, who was close behind with a 3.697.
Force was the qualifying leader in Pomona and was second at the two most recent events in Gainesville and Las Vegas.
“That’s just huge for our team, to be able to put on a show for the fans is exciting for all of us,” said Force. “That [3.69] was our target, we were aiming for it. We could get bumped down tomorrow but our biggest concern was to make sure we got down the track. That’s always our plan.
“You know your best shot is the late Friday session,” Force said. “You have conditions where you can run well. It’s always possible that you might not make a run at all. We always debate that but we put a target down and we nailed it now we can really push and see what we can do in the heat of the day.”
The qualifying lead swapped hands multiple times in Top Fuel as each pair seemed to eclipse the performance of the previous duo. In the end, 11 drivers were in either the 3.6s or 3.7s including Austin Prock, who picked up a qualifying bonus point with a 3.701 in his Montana Brands/Rocky Mountain Twist dragster.
The rest of the top half in Top Fuel includes Antron Brown (3.704), Steve Torrence (3.704), Leah Pruett (3.791), Tony Schumacher (3.720), and Mike Salinas (3.722).
The top nine Funny Cars are in the threes led by reigning world champion Ron Capps, who wheeled his NAPA Dodge to a 3.864. Capps, who is coming off an impressive win at the Four-Wide race in Las Vegas, was just a thousandth of a second quicker than Robert Hight’s 3.865.
“This is what you want to do and hope you can do it,” said Capps. “When you hit the chutes, you can look up and just catch scoreboard and I saw a 3.86 and I was shaking my head. [John] Medlen and Guido [Dean Antonelli, crew chiefs] make me look way better than I am. We just have to enjoy it when it’s like this.
Right now, there are too many good cars,” Capps said. “I didn’t think an 86 would stand, not with [Hagan and Hight] coming up behind me. My first championship in 2016 was tough. We were coming off the angled headers. Last year’s championship was also tough because the field is so compacted with 13 Funny cars that can win. You go on these runs like this, winning rounds and winning races but you can’t get arrogant about it. Thankfully, I have people around me who won’t let that happen. You just take it as it comes.”
Cruz Pedregon has yet to appear in the final this season but he’s off to a good start in Houston with a 3.881 that has the Snap-on driver solidly in the No. 3 spot. Pedregon is just a thousandth of a second ahead of another driver in search of his first win of 2022, Bob Tasca III, who drove to a 3.882.
The other top-half qualifiers include Tim Wilkerson (3.887), Blake Alexander (3.911), Matt Hagan (3.926), and Alexis DeJoria (3.929). With just 15 Funny Car drivers, in the field, qualifying takes on an added importance as the low qualifier will get a bye run during Sunday’s opening round of eliminations.
In one of the most surprising developments of the still-young season, rookie Camrie Caruso leads the Pro Stock field after one run. Caruso, who has been impressive since her debut in Pomona, wheeled her Titan Engines-powered Camaro to a 6.547, which was the best run of the day.
Four races into her Pro Stock career, Caruso has qualified a best of No. 7 in both Phoenix and Gainesville. She enters the Phoenix event just outside the Top 10.
“It’s really exciting. I didn’t know what I ran until I got out of the car but it felt really smooth. I was not expecting it to be what it was. I hope it holds up. I’d really like to upset the apple cart but it’s going to be a tough one. Hopefully, we can even improve a little but we’ll see. I just have so much confidence in my car and my team. I’ve already learned that is so much to this [Pro Stock racing] and every little thing affects the outcome.”
Confidence doesn’t seem to be an issue for Caruso who predicted big things before she ever strapped herself into a Pro Stock car. She recalled an early meeting she had with now crew chief Jim Yates.
“When I first met Jim he told me my goals are too high,” Caruso said. “Before that run, I told him that I was ready to go No. 1 and he said, ‘How about we at least go down the racetrack.’
“I told Jim I wanted to win the championship and win races and he said in five years. I told him I won’t take that answer, but we’ll see. If we can’t aim for the championship, I don’t see a point of being out here.
Caruso is followed closely by four-time champion and recent Las Vegas winner Erica Enders. The Houston native powered to a 6.553 in her Melling Elite Camaro. Aaron Stanfield is also in contention for the top spot with a 6.557. Two years ago, Stanfield pulled off a memorable double in Houston when he won the Pro Stock and Factory Stock Showdown titles on the same day.
The top half of the Pro Stock field is incredibly tight with the first eight drivers separated by just .024-second. Deric Kramer (6.559), Kyle Koretsky (6.560), Greg Anderson (6.565), Dallas Glenn (6.568), and Mason McGaha (6.571) round out the top eight. Even the 16-car bump is solid with Shane Tucker holding down the final spot with a competitive 6.615 effort.
The early qualifying order in Houston for the Pro Stock Motorcycle class looks a lot like the finish at the season opener in Gainesville with Karen Stoffer and Angie Smith sitting No. 1 and No. 2. Stoffer, who demolished the record books in her Gainesville victory, made the best run of the day with a 6.776.
“Anytime I get to ride this Big St. Charles/Skillman Auto Suzuki I have a blast,” said Stoffer, who won her first NHRA event in Houston in 2004. “Tim [Kulungian, crew chief] does a great job and this bike is smooth and fast. I just ride it and whatever comes up on the scoreboard comes up. Angie and I are gonna throw down whenever we race and we’re definitely going to have fun.
“It seems like Gainesville was forever ago,” said Stoffer. “You wonder if you can continue that momentum but Angie and I both proved it could be done. Even with that long break, we have momentum and there is more out there. We have a lot of great competition and this time we’re getting our qualifying rounds so everyone is learning a lot. I hope it holds but do I think it will? I don’t know. We’ll see tomorrow.”
Smith, who ran a career-best 6.72 in on her Denso Buell in her Gainesville runner-up, is not far behind Stoffer with a 6.798 at over 199-mph. Smith earned two qualifying bonus points while Steve Johnson, the provisional No. 3 qualifier, also earned a point following a strong 6.804 on his MacRak Suzuki.
The top eight is rounded out by Joey Gladstone (6.833), Matt Smith (6.856), LE Tonglet (6.879), Marc Ingwersen (6.893), and Eddie Krawiec (6.899).