Five things we learned in Gainesville
The 2023 Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals will long be remembered as one of NHRA’s most successful and most memorable events. Naturally, the season opener also provided a lot of valuable lessons but somehow, we’ve narrowed that down to five points that we learned last weekend at Gainesville Raceway.
THE GAINESVILLE CROWDS ARE MASSIVE
Okay, so we’ve actually known this since the early days of the event in the 1970s but this year was something special. On Friday, the track was packed to near capacity in spite of a rain shower that forced the cancellation of the second nitro qualifying session. By 8 a.m. on Saturday, the line of traffic that extended for miles in both directions told the story of an event that was destined for the record books. By mid-afternoon, NHRA officials had announced that Saturday was officially a sell-out and that Sunday’s advance ticket sales were trending in that direction. The Gatornationals fans are enthusiastic and there are a lot of them, and they also got to witness a hell of a drag race which means the vast majority of them will be back next year.
GAIGE HERRERA IS A STAR ON THE RISE
Pro Stock Motorcycle team owners Terry Vance and Byron Hines know a thing or two about picking winners and it appears they’ve got another future champion on their hands in Gaige Herrera. A veteran of the no-bar class, Herrera made his debut last season aboard a Suzuki owned by Gary Stoffer. He qualified for the final four races of the season and that was apparently enough to make him the front-runner when the V&H team began their search for a rider. Herrera was impressive in pre-season testing with a best of 6.69 on the team’s new Gen III Suzuki Hayabusa, but his Gainesville performance was out of this world. Herrera earned max points by qualifying No. 1 and winning the race. He was the only rider in the 6.6s with a 6.685 best and also topped 200-mph on several occasions. Herrera’s reaction times were also consistent, including a best of .023 on race day. While he’s not eligible to be the Rookie of the Year because of the six races he attended last season, Herrera is the early favorite to capture the championship.
JOSH HART BEGAN THE 2023 SEASON IN THE BEST WAY POSSIBLE
Josh Hart won the 2021 Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals in his first start as a pro and from that point forward, he looked to be one of Top Fuel’s most promising young starts. By and large, Hart has delivered on that promise with his Ron Douglas-led team but a winless 2022 season and a seventh-place finish clearly didn’t set well with the Ocala, Fla., based team. If there were any doubters, Hart answered them quickly by winning Saturday’s Pep Boys Allstar Callout event and in the process, he banked a nice $80,000 payday. Hart topped Austin Prock, Brittany Force, and Sunday’s winner Mike Salinas with consistent mid 3.7-second run in his R+L Carriers dragster. While his weekend ended early on Sunday with a holeshot loss to eight-time champ Tony Schumacher, it’s clear that Hart should be a threat going forward and NHRA fans likely haven’t seen the last of him in a winner’s circle.
TOP ALCOHOL DRAGSTER CLASS CONTINUES TO IMPRESS
Yes, we know the arrival of NASCAR Hall of Famer Tony Stewart has focused a lot of attention on the Top Alcohol Dragster class but with or without “Smoke” the TAD class puts on a hell of a show. We’ve got a long way to go before we crown a champion but at this moment, the early favorite is Norwegian native Julie Nataas. One week after driving her Randy Meyer-tuned OTG dragster to a win at the Baby Gators Lucas Oil Series Eastern Regional event, Nataas ran her win streak to seven-straight rounds in Gainesville with a thrilling final round victory over impressive rookie Cody Krohn. To be honest, Nataas was not the favorite heading into the final round. Krohn qualified in the top spot with his Samsel Racing entry and never ran slower that 5.19 before the final. Krohn held a nearly seven-hundredth advantage heading into the final but Meyer was able to pull a rabbit out of his hat with a 5.147 that was not only good enough to cover Krohn’s 5.21, but also held for low elapsed time of the event. The Top Alcohol Dragster class is going to provide a lot of exciting moments like this one, and Nataas and Krohn will likely be involved in more of them.
KALITTA MOTORSPORTS REVIVAL IS UNDERWAY
The three-car Kalitta Motorsports team featuring Doug Kalitta, Shawn Langdon, and J.R. Todd has been winless for more than a season but all indications are that streak will end very shortly. After a truly forgettable 2022 season, the Ypsilanti, Mich., squad came out swinging in Gainesville with several solid performances highlight by Todd’s runner-up finish in Funny Car. Todd not only got to the final, but he was able to trade punches with the best cars in the class with solid 3.8-second performances. Had he not banged the supercharger, Todd likely would have beaten Matt Hagan in the final round as he was ahead at half-track The mood should also be improved in the Kalitta Top Fuel pit area as Doug Kalitta went to the semifinals while Langdon made the quickest losing run of the first round with a 3.704. Doug, who’s Mac Tools dragster was fitted with a canopy for the first time, made a statement in round one with a 3.646 that was the quickest run of the event and also career-best. Tuner Alan Johnson promised a better season for Team Kalitta this year and so far, he’s delivering.