The 34th annual Menards NHRA Nationals at Heartland Motorsports Park will forever be burned into memory for all in attendance. For some, it was a resurgence, for others, a time to celebrate history in the best way possible. Here are five takeaways from the event.
THEY AREN'T DONE YET
Defending and five-time Pro Stock champion Erica Enders and Greg Anderson, also a five-time champ and the most winning driver in the history of the sport, didn't have the start to the season that they would have liked, but their respective performances in recent races and meeting in the final round at Heartland Motorsports Park sends a message to the young guns who have been running the show so far this year: they aren't ready to pass the torch. Enders made up massive ground with her victory in Bristol and now in Topeka, coming from outside of the points by a significant margin to No. 5 in the matter of a few short races. Anderson reached the final round in Topeka for the first time this year and left the event No. 6 in the Pro Stock standings, powering through eliminations with the quickest car on the property in all but the last round. If you're going to get hot in the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series, there is no better time to do it than during the Countdown to the Championship, and there are only two races remaining before the playoffs begin.
When Bob Tasca III won the rain-delayed New England Nationals in June, he spoke passionately about the chemistry within his team and how crucial it was to the success that he was experiencing. After winning Topeka, he spoke about it again – chemistry matters. Aaron Brooks and Todd Okuhara lead the charge, and the team fought through a series of odd occurrences to claim their second trophy of the season and set low elapsed time and top speed of the event along the way. Their BG3 Ford Mustang presented a new challenge with each warm-up, from a fuel leak to an engine diaper that just did not want to stay put. Tasca went on to explain that in each of the first three rounds of eliminations, the safety box silenced the engine as cylinders began to drop. But looking at the incrementals, it was clear that they had fire in their hands. "The car was trying to run ridiculous e.t.'s," said Tasca, who knew that if the car was running on all eight, they'd have a real shot to beat final-round opponent Matt Hagan. At the end of the day, with trophy in hand, Tasca expressed his pleasure at being able to run exceptionally quick and fast in various conditions. "Year-to-date, we're one of the quickest qualifying cars on hot tracks, cold tracks, and everything in between. This team has a different attitude than any I've been around, and this car can go to any race and win."
MR. 300 NO LONGER HAS UNFINISHED BUSINESS IN TOPEKA
Jim Epler etched his name in history at the Topeka event in 1993 when he made the first 300 mph run in a Funny Car. For Epler, though, the run was cool, but it wasn't cool enough. He wanted the elapsed time to go with it. At the time, the bigger target was a 4-second e.t., so he left Heartland Motorsports Park feeling as though he'd been shorted. Now the executive vice president at Phillips Connect, Epler is closely associated with Justin Ashley, who flies the colors of Phillips Connect on the side of his 11,000-horsepower Top Fuel dragster and is leading the points with six wins in seven final rounds – plus a whole mess of Mission #2Fast2Tasty NHRA Challenge points that will be awarded when the Countdown to the Championship kicks off at Maple Grove Raceway this fall. In Topeka, Ashley – whose father, Mike Ashley, won the race in Funny Car in 2007 – finished business for Epler as he raced down the track with a Mr. 300 design on the front wing of dragster and turned on the win light with a run of 3.702, 323.58.
TOP ALCOHOL DRAGSTER CAN BE ABSOLUTELY MAD
Drag racing, man. You just never know what's going to happen, right? That was shown pair after pair in the first round of Top Alcohol Dragster. Five-time champion and general dominator Joey Severance; defending event champ and five-time national event winner Julie Nataas; multi-time division champion and eight-time national event winner Jackie Fricke; three-time national event winner and second generation badass Top Alcohol driver Rich McPhillips Jr.; and defending Central Region champion and four-time national event winner Matt Cummings were all ousted in the first round. The round-one slaying of the dragons opened the door for a new story to be written, particularly for young Hunter Green, who surged forward with victories over Bob Button, Shawn Cowie, and Mike Lewis before claiming victory over Shane Conway in the final to claim his first trophy. Entering the final, both second-generation racers were looking for their first national event win. Conway was hoping to snag a bit of the Topeka magic that his dad, five-time Topeka winner Tom Conway, had captured in the 80s and 90s, but Green got to score the second win for his family – his father, Chad, won Pro Mod in 2020.
THE HEARTLAND LOVES DRAG RACING, NO MATTER WHAT
As temperatures soared towards 100 degrees Fahrenheit and air thick with humidity lay like an unwanted blanket across Heartland Motorsports Park during qualifying, the word on the street (or in the pits, anyway) was that this year's rendition of the Menards NHRA Nationals was the most uncomfortable ever. Whether the statement was called up due to short memory or actual fact has yet to be proven, but the weather-related discomfort didn't seem to matter much to the fans. They braved truly oppressive heat and humidity to come see drag racing, and they stayed until the end as pesky rain all day Sunday pushed eliminations well into Sunday evening. While the event was labeled the last for Heartland Motorsports Park, those devoted fans won't have to go without as the new Flying H Dragstrip, just outside of Kansas City, Mo., is scheduled to be completed at the end of this year. Topeka will always hold special memories, but folks in the Heartland will be soon treated to a brand new, premier facility, and new memories will be made.