NHRA - National Hot Rod Association


Five things we learned at the Gerber Collision & Glass Route 66 NHRA Nationals

After a too-long respite, we were thrilled to return to Route 66 Raceway for the Gerber Collision & Glass Route 66 NHRA Nationals presented by Peak Performance. Here are a handful of takeaways from Chicago.
22 May 2023
Kelly Wade
Race coverage
Five things we learned


Four years is a long time to wait for anything, and the 1,447 days between Pro cars going down the track at Route 66 Raceway had Chicago-area race fans positively greedy for the pungent aroma of nitro and burned rubber. Eager to ignite their deprived senses, race fans packed into the stadium-style grandstands and made an absolute madhouse of the pits. Now that they've gotten another good whiff, these drag racing-hungry fans will be looking for another dose sooner rather than later.


OK, they aren't that old — they're just seasoned. Chicago winners Clay Millican and Tim Wilkerson have been around the drag racing block a time or two, particularly in the Windy City, and both came into the event with experience navigating Route 66 Raceway. Millican made his first start in Chicago 25 years ago, so his Top Fuel victory this time around came in his 25th anniversary season as a drag racer on the very grounds where it all began (by the way, he also won here in 2018 on his 20th anniversary). 

Wilkerson, too, has a strong tie to Route 66 Raceway — it's where he earned the first nitro Funny Car win of his career (1999). Clay "Stomp on that loud pedal" Millican and Wilk have been fan favorites for a long while, and seeing them celebrate in Chicago just felt right. 


The world has changed an awful lot since hot rodding on dry lake beds in sunny California was the new thing. Racing has always been driven by adventurous humans afflicted with a deep desire for horsepower, speed, and triumph, but the sport has evolved, shifted shape, and branched out over time. Through its inevitable evolution, though, one thing keeps turning out to be true: each next generation wants to come out and play. Not only are they here for it, they're capable, threatening, and downright invested in "beating the best to be the best," as Pro Stock points leader Dallas Glenn said after selecting reigning world champion Erica Enders as his first-round opponent for the NHRA Pro Stock All-Star Callout. 

Although Glenn jumped the gun and fouled out in the Callout, he reset the Chicago track record for elapsed time and came back on Sunday to win the main event. Pro Stock Motorcycle's Gaige Herrera's youthful demeanor belies his abilities as a rider, and with solid footing — and a perfect record in NHRA competition thus far – he's not only fun to watch, he's also setting an example for the next-next gen. 


The first round of Top Fuel was an unexpectedly wild affair, and veteran crew chiefs were digging into their playbooks with thinking caps strapped tight to their chins. Record-setting runs in qualifying were only the first part of a two-part series; Sunday's racing surface was toasty and very, very tricky. Few made it down the track, and the level of befuddlement was compelling — only two of the eight top-half qualifiers advanced. Well-established teams and crew chiefs with vast experience overpowered the racetrack, and their perplexity was an unintentional gift to their lower-qualified and less-experienced challengers. 

For Chicago-area native T.J. Zizzo, the troubles of No. 1 qualifier Mike Salinas (round one) and Leah Pruett (round two) paved the way to the semifinals, elevating his status from local racer to hometown hero. Jacob McNeal made his debut in Scott Palmer's Top Fuel dragster at the event, and although his first-round opponent had a ginormous advantage heading into Sunday, experience did not equate to victory. No. 4 qualifier Justin Ashley claimed the Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty NHRA Challenge title on Saturday, but he didn't have the right answers for success on Sunday, but McNeal and company did. 


Folks around Chicago may have inadvertently seen one or two of the quickest street cars in the world parked at the local diner or cruising to the market around the time of the event. Those cars don't exactly appear docile, but to the general public, real race cars aren't generally seen in the wild. Fans wise enough to grab tickets to the Route 66 NHRA Nationals got to see what those cars are truly capable of in the Peak Street Car Shootout drag and drive exhibition. 

Tom Bailey, the creator of the famed Sick Week drag and drive event, brought the quickest street car in the world to Chicago – his 5.77-second Camaro implanted with 526 cubic inches and big ol' turbos, and Hot Rod Garage cohost Alex Taylor brought out her worn and weathered, full chassis '55 Chevy 210, not long after literally blowing the doors off during testing. The twin-turbo-equipped shoebox Chevy, powered by a 509-cid big block showed a complete recovery and led the field with a 7.08 pass at 212 mph. Bailey and Taylor were just two of a generous handful of drag and drive competitors who cruised to Route 66 Raceway to throw down. Like those who participate in the NHRA Street Legal program, fun was had, and then they drove home.