NHRA - National Hot Rod Association

Hight, Salinas, Butner and Herrera are No. 1 qualifiers on Friday in Chicago

Expectations were high entering this weekend's event at Route 66 Raceway, and after four years away, racers and crew chiefs were eager to make their mark early at the Gerber Collision & Glass Route 66 NHRA Nationals presented by PEAK Performance. The first day did not disappoint as Robert Hight (Funny Car), Mike Salinas (Top Fuel), Bo Butner (Pro Stock) and Gaige Herrera (Pro Stock Motorcycle) claimed the top spots.
19 May 2023
Kelly Wade
Race coverage
Robert Hight

Expectations were high entering this weekend's event at Route 66 Raceway, and after four years away from the magnificent, stadium-style facility, racers and crew chiefs were eager to make their mark early. Friday qualifying at the Gerber Collision & Glass Route 66 NHRA Nationals presented by PEAK Performance did not disappoint, and at the conclusion of an intense evening session, track records had been reset and Robert Hight (Funny Car), Mike Salinas (Top Fuel), Bo Butner (Pro Stock) and Gaige Herrera (Pro Stock Motorcycle) stood at the top of their respective fields. 

Flying the Cornwell Tools color for the first time this season, Hight made a deep impression on the competition as he blazed down the all-concrete dragstrip to a brilliant 3.831-second pass at a blistering 335.07 mph that reset both ends of the Route 66 Raceway track record. Hight, in the hunt for the 78th No. 1 of his career, has claimed three previous poles in Chicago. 

"That surprised me," said Hight. "Jimmy [Prock, crew chief] and the guys were talking about trying to run .87 or .88, which is what we ran in the final at Charlotte. We figured it would be a good baseline to get us qualified and start the weekend, but this surprised him, too. He kept saying in Charlotte, 'There is so much more in this thing, if it would just run from the 60 [foot timer] to the 330 and not fall in a hole, it'll pick up three-hundredths.' Sure enough, it did."

"What's amazing is to come back to a racetrack we haven't raced on in this many years and run like this – it's pretty impressive, and it goes out to NHRA for whipping this place into shape and getting it ready for us to race."

Cruz Pedregon put up a respectable 3.889 to position himself in the No. 2 spot, and J.R. Todd made a much-improved 3.906 pass to show the heavy testing efforts of team Kalitta and situate himself for the night as the third-quickest. John Force, Tim Wilkerson, Terry Haddock, Matt Hagan, and Chad Green round out the top eight. Blake Alexander's troubled 11.716 is the bump, and Justin Schriefer and Bob Tasca III are on the outside looking in with two passes tomorrow to break into the field.

Salinas, whose most recent low qualifier award came at Bristol Dragway last summer, reeled off a killer 3.686-second pass at 333.41 mph in his Gerber Collision & Glass Top Fuel dragster to move into the top spot. Although his powerful time didn't break either end of the Route 66 Raceway track records, he sees much promise for tomorrow.

"That was really good," said Salinas, who has 11 previous No. 1 qualifier awards. "We did a lot of work the last few weeks, because we weren't happy with Vegas. We knew we had a great car, but we had a malfunction, and that was unacceptable. The next race, the driver didn't show up and made mistakes, and I just can't let that happen again. 

"The run we just ran there, we did it three times in testing this week in Indy. We know we have a great car, we just have to close it out and run good tomorrow. It's a new day, and I think there will be some good runs. The track is really tight, and you can run fast here. It's going to be interesting."

Austin Prock was not far behind Salinas with a 3.694 to land the No. 2 spot, and their two dragsters were the only ones to break into the 3.6s. Justin Ashley, No. 3 for now, topped a string of 3.7-second passes to round out the top eight. Rejuvenated Kalitta Motorsports drivers Doug Kalitta and Shawn Langdon are sitting No. 4 and No. 6, respectively, with Spencer Massey between them. Leah Pruett and Jacob McNeal round out the top eight, while Chicago-native Tony Schumacher holds down the bump spot on a 6.117. Reigning Top Fuel champion Brittany Force is sitting on the outside after she was unable to make it down the track in the single allotted session on Friday, as is Clay Millican, Buddy Hull, Lex Joon, and Kyle Wurtzel. 

For Butner, the highlight of the 2022 season was nabbing the pole at Maple Grove Raceway in his Johnson's Horsepowered Garage Chevrolet Camaro, but he hasn't been able to replicate the feat since. His fortune appeared to change on Friday in Chicago, however, as he powered heartily to a 6.522, 208.94 to reset the track record for elapsed time and scoot right into the top spot. If it holds, the No. 1 will be the 12th of Butner's career.  

"We missed this track, and I'm excited to be back at one of my favorite places," said Butner, who has raced at the facility as a Lucas Oil Series Sportsman competitor for many years. "We didn't miss a beat and got the track record that first shot, so we're very happy. The Elite team worked very hard testing this week, and that was a great run. It's so close, the whole field, but we got just a little bit of a gap, and I'm proud to have it."

In a turn of events, Elite Motorsports took over the top spots on Friday in Chicago, with Cristian Cuadra No. 2, Aaron Stanfield No. 3, and Fernando Cuadra Jr. No. 4. KB Titan Racing's Dallas Glenn, the incoming points leader, was one-thousandth behind Cuadra Jr. with a 6.538 for the No. 5 position, followed by Greg Anderson, Erica Enders, and Camrie Caruso. Shane Tucker, for the first time this season, is on the inside of the field for the time being on a 6.729. Robert River, Chris McGaha, and Troy Coughlin Jr. were unable to make clean passes and will need to do so on Saturday if they wish to race on Sunday. 

The name at the top of the sheet on Friday in Pro Stock Motorcycle came as a surprise to no one, as Herrera and his Vance & Hines Mission Foods Suzuki had top honors in qualifying and won the first two events for the class this season. 

Herrera tore down the quarter-mile and lit the scoreboards with a 6.677, 202.45 to etch his name into Route 66 Raceway history as the quickest and fastest the facility has yet to see. 

"I've been here many times to watch, but this was my first pass, ever, down this track," said Herrera, who resides just an hour away from Route 66 Raceway and was surrounded by friends and family for the first day of the event. "This is awesome for me and for the whole Vance & Hines Mission Suzuki team. I have all the confidence in the world in this whole team, especially Andrew. He's a six-time champion for a reason, and he's got a handle on that bike. I have the easy part."

While Herrera was the only Pro Stock Motorcycle to break into the 6.60s, Chip Ellis wasn't far behind. He clocked a 6.756 to land No. 2, and Hector Arana Jr. was just .003-second behind. Matt and Angie Smith, .002 apart with 6.798 and 6.800 runs, respectively, currently sit No. 4 and No. 5. Chase Van Sant is sixth, Marc Ingwersen seventh, and Kelly Clontz eighth heading into the final day of qualifying. Wesley Wells had a bucking bronco in the Pro Stock Motorcycle session and is on the bump with a 10.537, while Jianna Evaristo and Ryan Oehler are on the outside. 

Herrera is set to participate in the Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty NHRA Challenge on Saturday, where he will square off with Evaristo. On the other side of the ladder, Angie Smith will race Van Sant. 

In the Funny Car #2Fast2Tasty NHRA Challenge, Hagan will race Haddock, and Capps will race Tasca. 

The Top Fuel #2Fast2Tasty race will pit Justin Ashley against Brown and Prock against Force.