The NHRA Midwest Nationals, the third race in the 2023 Countdown to the Championship playoffs, brought plenty of surprises for all. Here are five takeaways from the St. Louis event – get 'em while they're hot.
CLAY MILLICAN CAN'T LOSE IN ILLINOIS
Who remembers Chicago? Clay Millican sure does, and now he won't forget St. Louis, either. Well, wait a minute. Most racing folks talk about this race taking place in St. Louis, but World Wide Technology Raceway isn't actually in St. Louis at all – it's across the river from The Gateway Arch in Madison, Ill. That means that in 2023, Millican has been perfect in the great state of Illinois with wins at both Route 66 Raceway in Joliet (nope, not actually Chicago) and the NHRA Midwest Nationals in Madison.
ONCE A DRAG RACER
This past July, it was announced that 2012 Pro Stock champion Allen Johnson would be making a return to drag racing – but not in the class one might expect. Geoff Turk asked A.J. to come drive his new Factory X Dodge Challenger entry, and to anyone with a little grasp on drag racing's history and future, that news hit the ears just right. Johnson has been a Mopar guy forever, and Turk was the first to crack the sevens in Factory Stock in his original Blackbird Dodge Challenger. The trio of Turk, A.J., and a super-cool Dodge made sense, and that was proven in St. Louis. Driving Turk's BlackbirdX Dodge Challenger, Johnson set the record for speed and made the first Factory X pass to exceed 200 mph. Johnson qualified No. 1 on a 7.046 that nearly touched the record for elapsed time, currently owned by Greg Stanfield and his Rod Shop Chevrolet Camaro. When A.J. clocked a 202.55-mph pass during qualifying at the NHRA Midwest Nationals, he not only set the mph record, but he also claimed the $10,000 bonus as the first entrant in the Jesel 200 MPH Club. Oh yeah, and he won the event. He's baaaack.
UNHATCHED CHICKENS CANNOT BE COUNTED
The nitro classes have been shaken up in the Countdown, but in Pro Stock, the whole world was upside down at World Wide Technology Raceway. That was good for some and dreadful for others, but for those outside of the inner factory hot rod circle with no personal investment, it was dizzily exciting to watch. Fun stuff: After a really, really tough season, Chris McGaha and son Mason haven't seen a lot of second rounds. In fact, Chris had only advanced from round one once, and after reaching the final at the season opener, Mason hadn't seen a single win light. In Charlotte last week, the team brought back Brian "Lump" Self to see if their former crew chief could help them right the ship. Whether the cars improved or morale simply began to shift (or both) can't be pinpointed in just two races, but something was clearly working as both Chris and Mason defeated their first-round opponents on holeshots. Chris was .006 at the Tree, and Mason was .007.
Now for the not-so-fun stuff. Heading into the event and most certainly after qualifying concluded, Erica Enders was the favorite to win. All signs pointed to "probably gonnna do it:" Enders had qualified at the top in the first three races of the Countdown, so odds were favorable that she was inching toward a win (and a milestone as the most winning female in drag racing). She's also won in St. Louis six times (more than anyone else) and in each of the last four seasons. It is possible that no one was more floored than Greg Anderson when he cut a .002 light in the semifinals and she rattled the tires next to him. Enders, who had taken over the points lead earlier in the day, wasn't the only one upset, though – incoming points leader Matt Hartford and Dallas Glenn, the winner of the regular season, were both out in the first round. Anderson, who climbed to just over a round out of first, said in his post-race interview, "These next three races are going to be a bare-knuckled brawl." Undoubtedly so.
COMPASSION CROSSES CLASSES
When championship contender Angie Smith wrecked on her Denso-backed Pro Stock Motorcycle in Saturday qualifying, there was not a soul on-property or following the race on NHRA.tv that didn't go on high alert awaiting news that she was OK. Although she will have a long road to recovery, Smith has already started the process and is now back at home and on the mend. The uprising of support within the drag racing community stretched across all classes – get-well messages were posted on the back windows of race cars, and messages of support were splashed across social media. Ultimately, it was the TSR Nitro team that helped Smith make it back home to North Carolina with ease – Tony Stewart, wife Leah Pruett, teammate Matt Hagan and his family, and a few other key individuals arranged private, expedited travel for Smith as soon as she was released and ready.
AGE IS JUST A NUMBER
Typically, drivers have had a generous amount of life experience before they step into the cockpit of an 11,000-horsepower race car, but Cody Krohn is 19 years old and has the face of someone even younger. "The Kid" has done a ton of work to make his dreams come true, though, even before he's old enough to buy a beer. Krohn made his Top Fuel debut at the NHRA Midwest Nationals with the support of Rio Energy and JBS Equipment, and he studied hard to get there. His drag racing journey began under the mentorship of his dad, veteran racer Rich Krohn, and carried on with Frank Hawley and Frank Hawley's Drag Racing School. Krohn licensed in five classes before obtaining his Top Fuel license in Larry Dixon's dragster this past February, and he's reached three final rounds in Top Alcohol Dragster this year. The Kid made the field with a nice 3.81, 319 to show that he can, in fact, hang with the big dogs – if not in the bar, at least on the racetrack.