Prior to the season-opening Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals, teams in Top Fuel, Funny Car, and the FlexJet Factory Stock Showdown took part in a multi-part test. Here is a full report on Wednesday’s action.
On Friday morning, the 2023 Camping World NHRA Drag Racing Series will kick off with the 54th annual Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals so it’s fitting that most NHRA nitro teams took advantage of a rare opportunity on Wednesday to test at historic Gainesville Raceway. More than 20 NHRA pro teams made at least one run. By design, most were early shut-offs, but there were some impressive numbers clocked by a few teams.
In Top Fuel, Antron Brown posted a 3.72 in his Matco Tools dragster while Justin Ashley, Leah Pruett, Brittany Force, Tony Schumacher, and the Kalitta Motorsports entries of Shawn Langdon and Doug Kalitta also found the 3.7s which is another sign of the parity that currently exists in modern-day nitro racing. Pruett was impressive with a pair of 3.75-second runs in her bright green Dodge Power Brokers dragster.
One team that figures to draw a lot of attention this season is the Rick Ware Racing entry with driver Clay Millican. Ware, well known for his ownership of team in other forms of Motorsports including NASCAR and IMSA, has helped provide the resources necessary for the team to be competitive at all 21 NHRA events this season. Millican made a couple of early shut off runs in his new look Parts Plus dragster on Wednesday.
“I’m telling you, I am like a little kid at Christmas right now,” said Millican. “This car is brand new, every nut and bolt and I’m not sure I’ve ever had that before. The only thing that isn’t new is the 57-year old driver. We’ve made nine runs now. Today was not the greatest day but two weeks ago it went down the race track on every run. Two weeks ago, it was amazing. Typically, when you get a new car with all new electronics there is something that isn’t right. That didn’t’ happen here. Everything worked. The last run I made a couple weeks ago I ran 3.68 at 330. Today’s runs were both planned shut offs.”
Millican admits that one other thing that has changed at Rick Ware Racing is expectations. While he finished No. 8 last year, he did not win a race so the general feeling is that there is a big room for improvement even though the competition in Top Fuel is as stiff as it’s ever been.
I’m an pumped up about it,” said Millican. “We did well last year. I finished No. 8. It’s not that good but look at some of the cars that finished behind us and it becomes even more impressive. Our expectations are obviously way higher. Hopefully what we did late last year carries over and we’re not trying to come from the back of the pack.”
In Funny Car, J.R. Todd has plenty of reason for optimism after running 3.883 and 3.908 in his DHL Toyota.Todd and his Kalitta Motorsports Top Fuel teammates were some of the most active participants in Wednesday’s test. Much like Millican, they are attempting to rebound from a winless 2022 campaign. Just two years ago, Todd won the Gatornationals, beating Robert Hight in the final round.
Paul Lee is also full of optimism ahead of Friday’s opening qualifying sessions after a very competitive 3.95 in his McLeod Clutches entry. Lee recently made the switch to a six disc clutch set-up which he maintains is necessary to compete given the current NHRA national event track prep.
“Our first run was a 3.95 at 321 mph and we were trying to run a little quicker on the second run and it smoked the tires but we learned a lot,” said Lee. “We know what we’re looking for and we’ll be ready for Friday. We were running the 5-disc for last four years but the NHRA track prep is killer right now and the 5-disc just won’t hold. When the track is that sticky, something has to give and it’s usually the clutch. We held out as long as we could but really the 6 disc is the way to go. John Force Racing helped us out by selling us a 6-disc set-up and giving us a baseline tune-up. We’re not out here just to have a little fun. I’m building a program for the future.”
Surprisingly, one driver who chose not to test on Wednesday is Ron Capps, the reigning Funny Car champ. Capps made three runs on Tuesday, and all of them were 3.93 seconds. Capps and crew chief Dean Antonelli decided that they’d gathered all the information they needed, so they elected to park their NAPA Toyota until Friday.
“We were trying to run 3.93 on all three runs, but we know why, and Guido [Antonelli] felt really comfortable with what we learned,” said Capps. “We had some clutch parts that we wanted to test so that was the changes we made between each run. On the last run, we thought that car was going to run 3.87 and the early numbers looked good so we’re in pretty good shape.”
In addition to the NHRA nitro burners, racers in the FlexJet Factory Stock Showdown also made plenty of runs on Wednesday although the bulk of them were early shut offs. There are 25 Factory Stock cars entered this weekend which helps explain why almost every team was looking to gather as much data as possible as they search for even the tiniest edge over their competitors.
Tomorrow at Gainesville Raceway, the Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series will hit the track for the first day of qualifying at the 54th annual Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals.