The 2023 NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series season will go into the history books as one of the most memorable in the history of the sport. Here’s one insider’s Top 23 Moments of 2023.
It’s Doug Kalitta … finally!
Having seen Doug Kalitta race since his debut at the 1998 Winternationals through 26 seasons and 587 events, it was great to see his story come full circle after six championship runner-ups. He also collected his equally long-overdue 50th career win and brought another Top Fuel championship to Connie Kalitta to add to the pair won by his late son, Scott. The fact that Kalitta clinched the championship in a dramatic winner-take-all final with Leah Pruett and that he won in with crew chief Alan Johnson – who broke his heart in 2006 with “The Run” – only made it more compelling.
Funny Car’s battle royale
I was on the NHRA Insider podcast on Saturday of the In-N-Out Burger NHRA Finals and mentioned to Brian Lohnes and Tony Pedregon that I believed that the three current-day championships accrued by Matt Hagan, Robert Hight, and Ron Capps might be more impressive than the four won by Don Prudhomme in the '70s and Bernstein in the ‘80s just because of the cut-throat nature of the class that didn’t exist to that extent decades ago. The era of three- and four-year streaks is over. Hagan is now the next to join “the Snake” and the “Bud King” as a four-time titlist, and it was great to see Bob Tasca III become a true championship contender. I wish it all didn’t end up like it did in Pomona, but what a great season.
All Hail EE
Erica Enders is now a six-time Pro Stock world champion, tying her with “the Professor," Warren Johnson, with both behind only the late, great Bob Glidden’s 10 titles. W.J. surely won’t win a seventh, while Enders almost assuredly will, and depending on how long she chooses to stay in the sport, 10 is not out of reach either. Her victory in Dallas, which made her motorsports’ winningest female, was long in coming but almost without doubt, and I was honored to be there to see it.
The rebirth of Angelle Sampey
Enders stole the crown from Angelle Sampey, who had been the motorsports’ winningest female since passing Shirley Muldowney in the summer of 2001, and just when we thought Enders might hold it forever because of Sampey’s absence in Pro Stock Motorcycle, the belle of the bayou resurrected herself and her career in Top Alcohol Dragster with the help of longtime bosom buddy Antron Brown. She immediately went to the semifinal in her national event debut and was runner-up at the Las Vegas regional event. A national event win can’t be too far in the future, so she can again challenge Enders’ reign as queen of all motorsports.
The Incredible Mr. Herrera
NHRA National Dragster Senior Editor Kevin McKenna joked with me on Sunday of the Finals how he wished that Gaige Herrera’s otherworldly 11-win championship season would have been an even dozen wins so we could have loaded up a “12-Gaige” headline, but there’s no doubt that the talented two wheeler still blasted the field this season with a 50-4 win-loss record, a class-record 11 wins, and one runner-up, plus 14 No. 1 qualifying spots in 15 races. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Had he not run six races last year, he’d be the most hands-down NHRA Rookie of the Year in NHRA history.
A couple of Mission statements
When we first heard that Mission Foods was coming onboard this year with the #2Fast2Tasty NHRA Challenge that brought previous-race semifinal rematches, bonus points, and cool cash to Saturday qualifying, we were all a little puzzled how it would all work out, but it went together like chips and salsa and became a source of major contention and excitement among teams. Ron Capps said earlier this year that every time he reached a semifinal this year, he was excited because he knew he’d be in the next Challenge.
The success and acceptance of that program must have resonated with our friends at Mission, too, who signed on to become the title sponsor of NHRA's premier series starting next year, ensuring NHRA and its fans incredible exposure and marketing possibilities for the future.
Speaking of tasty sponsors, the all-in dedication of In-N-Out Burger this season was a delight to Double-Double fans like me who grew up salivating every time we drove by the iconic golden arrow and crossed palm trees and smelled the unmistakable aroma. The company has a deep history in drag racing, from company founder Harry Snyder’s part ownership of iconic Irwindale Raceway to early sponsorship involvement with Bill Schultz’s Over the Hill Gang nitro cars in the 1970s and race cars fielded by Harry’s late son, Guy, and his daughter, current owner Lynsi Snyder-Ellingson, but this year they added sponsorship of the historic Pomona quarter-mile, rechristened In-N-Out Burger Pomona Dragstrip, and the season-ending In-N-Out Burger NHRA Finals. Fans ate it up … literally.
Capps + ‘Snake’ = Indy magic
As someone who grew up playing with Hot Wheels and idolizing Don Prudhomme, Ron Capps’ decision to create a Hot Wheels/Prudhomme tribute car for the Dodge Power Brokers NHRA U.S. Nationals set my heart aflutter. Capps’ major sponsors, including NAPA Auto Parts and Toyota, gleefully allowed him to reduce their signage on the car to salute “the Snake,” who gave Capps one of the biggest breaks of his career by hiring him in 1997. The fact that they went out and won the U.S. Nationals is the stuff that usually only gets written about in fanciful screenplays.
‘Smoke’ gets in our eyes, and hearts
Look, we all knew that Tony “Smoke” Stewart could drive, right? We’ve seen him dominate in so many forms of motorsports that require endurance, fender rubbing, and next-lap chances, but in the world of “blink and you lose” drag racing, we figured he’d have met his match. Of course, he almost won in his debut last year in Las Vegas, but then he comes out this year and seriously challenges for the world championship with two national event wins, two runner-ups, and two regional wins, and another runner-up? Unbelievable.
The fact that Stewart is not only a competitor in NHRA but also a huge fan and worldwide ambassador through the major media platforms that he graces has put NHRA on the map of many who might not otherwise know us, and the fact that Tony Stewart Racing’s nitro division won its first championship this season with Matt Hagan in Funny Car and fell just a round short of Stewart’s wife, Leah Pruett, adding a second in Top Fuel, makes him a true gift to the sport.
Doug Gordon goes out in style
When Doug Gordon announced at the end of last year’s second championship season that he would retire at the end of this season, it was a bit of a sad moment for me, a longtime Top Alcohol Funny Car fan, because it meant the end of a great rivalry with fellow multitime champ Sean Bellemeur and because I genuinely like the guy and love his whole family story, with daughter Maddi replacing him next year, just as he replaced his own father. So, what did he do this year? He goes out and wins six races, including in Brainerd, where he suffered a devastating crash last year, and wins the championship in walk-off style.
Massel makes Comp history
The only Sportsman class I love more than Alcohol Funny Car is Comp eliminator, with its rich tradition of innovative cars and talented drivers working within the constricted framework of the Competition Index Control system. It’s a tricky game to master. Through decades of covering the class and interviewing the winners, I’ve made great friends with many of its champions along the way, including guys like Coleman Roddy, Bill Maropulos, David Nickens, Vinny Barone, Craig Bourgeois, the recently departed Frank Aragona Jr., and the great David Rampy. Rampy may have more national event Wallys in the class, but Bruno Massel Jr. is the first four-time champion in the class’ 60-year history, breaking the tie he held with Maropulos, Rampy, and Aragona. Massel’s innovative turbocharged machines, which previously earned him championships in 2009, ’12, and ‘21, exemplify the very nature of the class.
Julie’s Dallas Jewel
Julie Nataas won the Top Alcohol Dragster championship – not only her first but the fourth in five years for the Randy Meyer Racing umbrella – and outlasted the aforementioned Tony Stewart to do it. The crown jewel of her great season came at the Texas NHRA FallNationals, where she not only won the prestigious JEGS Allstars competition for the third straight year but also won the event in the process of clinching the championship.
Factory X to the lanes
It was great to see the Factory X presented by Holley class finally make it to the dragstrip after a couple of years on the drawing board. The innovative supercharged and manually shifted machines caught the imagination of hot rodders everywhere with their street-car looks and fast performance, and while the versatile and talented Greg Stanfield dominated the racing, former Pro Stock world champion Allen Johnson put the exclamation point on the class’ debut season with its first 200-mph pass.
That Stanfield kid does it again
Greg Stanfield’s talents didn’t fall far from the Christmas Tree as his son, Aaron, has quickly become recognized as one of the sport’s all-time great doorslammer drivers. He won his third Flexjet NHRA Factory Stock Showdown championship this season and added three more Pro Stock event wins to boost his career win total to 24 in just eight seasons.
The Return of Jeg
Speaking of all-time great doorslammer drivers, “the Natural,” Jeg Coughlin Jr., made a well-received if only brief return to Pro Stock competition, breaking in Erica Enders’ next-year Camaro in Las Vegas and Pomona. Coughlin, the only driver to win in seven NHRA classes, showed he hadn’t lost much since his last Pro Stock foray at the 2020 season finale. It was a joy to see him doing his magic once again and I hope that these two races only whetted his appetite for a full return. "I'm definitely open to making a full-time return, but a lot of things would have to align for that to happen," he told our Kelly Wade in Las Vegas.
Green, Alexander, and Laughlin impress in Funny Car
It wasn’t only Bob Tasca III who had a great season in Funny Car as Chad Green, Blake Alexander, and Alex Laughlin all had commendable seasons. Green became a sudden force in the class with Daniel Wilkerson tuning and went to three finals, capped by his win at the NHRA Finals and finished an amazing fifth in the standings. Alexander had a sometimes up-and-down season in Jim Head’s car, but the Funny Car diehard finally added a Funny Car win to his earlier pair of Top Fuel victories to become just the 18th driver to score in both nitro classes. Laughlin, better known for years as a Pro Stock driver, transitioned to Top Fuel almost on a whim three years ago then accepted the vacant spot in the Jim Dunn Funny Car this season. Despite no fuel-coupe experience, the versatile wheelman learned along the way and got better as the season progressed and ultimately logged a 10th-place finish for the Dunn team, bringing its legendary owner/tuner “Big Jim” Dunn back into the Top 10 limelight.
There were several lowlights to go with all of the Funny Car highlights, including a pair of two-car get-togethers more usually seen on the NASCAR circuit. The first was a collision between John Force and J.R. Todd at the Winternationals that set the Todd/Kalitta team back so far that Todd suffered his first Funny Car DNQ in 129 starts at the next event in Las Vegas and his first DNQ period since the 2013 U.S. Nationals, where he was still competing in Top Fuel on a part-time basis.
The second fender bender came in Dallas when two teams that could least afford it got together during qualifying after Dale Creasy Jr. lost the handle and crossed the centerline right into the path of rampaging Dave Richards for a high-speed rear-ender reminiscent of the infamous Ron Correnti-Dave Uyehara get-together at the 1986 World Finals.
Although only feelings and race-car parts were hurt, we could go another 37 years before another one, thank you very much.
Keeping track of tracks
It was with misty eyes that we said goodbye (apparently) to Bandimere Speedway, the home of the NHRA Mile-High Nationals since the late 1970s, which is set to close at year’s end. While I won't miss being out of breath after climbing the stairs to the pit area, I’ll miss the great Bandimere family and the legacy they carved from the side of a mountain. On the plus side, we’re going back to both Phoenix and Richmond next year, two tracks we weren’t sure we’d ever see again, and are watching eagerly the construction of Flying H Dragstrip ahead of its 2024 debut in the Kansas City area.
Can’t keep a good woman down, Parts 1 and 2
Angie Smith’s frightening top-end tumble in St. Louis took our breath away and jaws dropped when we got to Las Vegas and heard she was going to make a qualifying run to earn points to keep her in the Top 10. She got medical clearance from NHRA’s Dr. Phil Surface to do a burnout and a launch, then repeated It in Pomona with an even longer pass.
Crazily, Smith had a first-round bye in Pomona because fast-rising Kelly Clontz came off of her bike during qualifying and was banged up enough not to be able to make it to the line, but was game enough to return with a bandaged hand to take part in the pre-race ceremony.
Double your pleasure in Bristol
It had been nine years since NHRA fans got double the racing for their money, but when the NHRA New England Nationals got rained out without firing a shot in eliminations on both Sunday and the makeup day on Monday, NHRA officials made the brave move to complete it the following weekend in conjunction with the Thunder Valley Nationals in Bristol. The postponed NHRA New England Nationals action took place on Friday and Saturday as part of Bristol qualifying, and we ran Bristol eliminations on Sunday. Fans also saw the Mission #2Fast2Tasty NHRA Challenge in all four classes on Saturday, making for a monster weekend highlighted by Top Fuel’s Justin Ashley, who won both national events.
Cuadra quad: It’s a family affair
It’s not an uncommon sight to see family members run alongside one another on the dragstrip, be they parents and kids or siblings, but the Cuadra family took it to a whole other level at the Circle K NHRA Four-Wide Nationals in Charlotte. With third son David joining Cristian and Fernando Jr. in Pro Stock at the event, the sons lined up alongside their father, Fernando Sr., for a four-wide family reunion in qualifying. Cristian “won” the qualifying heat ahead of his father and brothers Fernando Jr. and David, but Fernando Jr. had the last laugh as he reached the final round, where he finished fourth.
300 mph to the eighth!
It took more than a year from its announcement to get a winner in the “Phillips Connect 300 at the 1/8” program, a special club designed to honor the first 10 drivers in either Top Fuel or Funny Car to reach the 300-mph milestone in the eighth-mile, but Mike Salinas got the job done at the fall event in Charlotte when he charged to a speed of 300.80 mph in just 660 feet of the zMAX Dragway course, some 31 years after it took Kenny Bernstein a full quarter-mile to run 300 mph at the 1992 Gatornationals. Salinas received a $30,000 bonus from Phillips for the feat.
I probably could have easily made this a top 50 list, but those are the nearly two-dozen memorable moments I enjoyed during the 2023 season, and with the drama already building for 2024, I have little doubt that 24 won’t be enough next season.