NHRA - National Hot Rod Association

Kalitta, Hagan, Enders, Herrera top fields on a fast opening day at Charlotte

Doug Kalitta, Matt Hagan, Erica Enders, and Gaige Herrera are the No. 1 qualifiers after the opening day of the Betway NHRA Carolina Nationals at zMAX Dragway.
22 Sep 2023
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
Race coverage
Matt Hagan

Doug Kalitta, Matt Hagan, Erica Enders, and Gaige Herrera are the No. 1 qualifiers after the opening day of the Betway NHRA Carolina Nationals at zMAX Dragway.

Kalitta continued the momentum of his milestone 50th career win last weakened in Reading by seizing the provisional No, 1 spot with a dazzling 3.665 in his Mac Tools entry. Kalitta was the No. 1 qualifier earlier this year in Phoenix, has now made five straight 3.6-second runs counting his winning effort in Reading.

"The driveshaft [reading] has been nice and smooth, so it's not just on the verge of shaking, or smoking,” he said. “It's hooked up and going so it's pretty exciting for sure for me, But drag racing is an incredibly humbling sport. It's just one round at a time as far as I'm concerned but hopefully between now and the end of the year and just hoping to keep this this operation rolling.

"With conditions like tonight and the track's good, in perfect condition. I'm proud of my guys. They're making me look good for sure. Obviously, the competition, everybody's running good. So we’re just fortunate enough to get a provisional here for tonight and hopefully, it'll hold up through tomorrow.”

Reigning world champ Brittany Force sits more than two-hundredths back with a 3.686 while Justin Ashley, who started the Countdown playoffs as the top speed, had a get-better 3.698 for the No. 3 spot.

Resurgent eight-time world champ Tony Schumacher, who ended a seven-race skein of first-round losses in Reading where he reached the semifinals, is ranked a career-high fifth with a 3.700 in the Scag Power Equipment dragster. 

Antron Brown (3.703), Leah Pruett (3.709), Josh Hart (3.723), and Mike Salinas (3.727) round out the top eight qualifiers.

Hagan, who made the historic first three-second Funny Car run here in 2011, blistered the zMAX course with a track-record 3.825, the quickest Funny Car pass of the year and one of the few in that region since the class ran a flurry of low 3.8-second passes under different rules in 2017. The pass broke John Force’s old mark of 3.850 seconds set in April of 2022;

“It's just incredible because I know I have a crew chief and a car that we can go out here and lay down these numbers, and that's what's exciting to me and very blessed,” said Hagan, whose Dickie Venables-tuned Tony Stewart Racing Dodge Charger is running the colors of Johnson’s Horsepowered Garage this weekend. “There’s a lot of guys out here that are just gonna go down the racetrack and be tickled to death with that, but I know we have the opportunity every time I'm strapped to that car, knowing that we can crush record.

“Being No. 1, it's huge. If that sticks as No. 1, we get a bye in the first round [for the 15-car field]. So anytime we get to go up there and make a test run on race day, that's big. That's one less round you have to worry about. I hate doing that because I want to race -- that's just not my mentality – but it’s great for the scheme of things and the goals and what we're trying to do.”

Reigning world champ Ron Capps is a distant second with a 3.885 with Reading runner--up Chad Green right on his bumper with a 3.887.

Tim Wilkerson (3.900), Paul Lee (3.901), Force (3.915), J.R. Todd (3.931), and Cruz Pedregon (3.937) round out the quick eight and the roster of three-second performers on the day.

Robert Hight, who took over the points lead from Capps with his victory in Reading, exploded the supercharger in a huge ball of fire just off the starting line and coasted his Cornwell Tools Chevy to a stop not far downtrack.

Enders, who has qualified her Johnson’s Horsepowered Garage/Elite Performance Camaro in the top four spots over the last seven races – uncuffing three No. 1 spots -- sits atop the Pro Stock pack again after Friday’s lone qualifying session with a 6.509 to easily lead the pack and give her three qualifying “baby” bonus points as she attempts to chase down points leader Matt Hartford.

"I can go back to our 2015 championship where we accumulated the most baby points of anybody and it definitely played out for our championship,” she said. “So they're important and I'd be lying if I tell you I'm not counting them all.

"The whole season started off really crappy for us, as everybody knows, and we all just kept our heads down and went to work, and we said, 'It's not going to matter until the final six,’ and here we are, and we're running really well again, so we're absolutely thankful for that. “

Camrie Caruso sits No. 2 in her Tequila Comisario Camaro with a 6.525 that led the session until Enders made her run in the final pair. Enders’ teammates, Aaron Stanfield and Bo Butner, slotted Nos. 3 and 4 with respective runs of 6.533 and 6.535. Greg Anderson also clocked a 6.635 but is sixth thanks to Butner’s better speed. 

Troy Coughlin Jr. (6.540), Reading runner-up Kyle Koretsky (6.541), and points leader and Reading and Indy winner Hartford (6.548) round out the top half of the field.

After losing the top seed in the Countdown to the Championship with an early exit last weekend in Reading, Herrera and the Vance & Hines/Mission Foods Suzuki struck back with a vengeance in the first Pro Stock Motorcycle qualifying session with a 6.731 that was more than seven-hundredths of a second quicker than his closest pursuer on a run that was way far from perfect.

"Honestly, that was kind of a scary road for me, "Herrera admitted. "In third gear, it kind of washed out the front end a little to the point where I actually thought about lifting. But luckily, it came back. I basically had the handlebars full lock trying to get the bike to stand straight back up and I actually over-revved third gear a little bit because I was more concerned about keeping the bike upright.

"So we're happy with that, especially after a little mishap in Reading was spinning the tire. We're happy to get that weight off our shoulders because you never want to leave a track second-guessing yourself as far as what happened because we're really couldn't put a pinpoint on what caused it. So we're happy with that and looking forward to two more qualifiers."

Veteran rider Chip Ellis, riding as a blocker for the Matt Smith Racing team and runner-up last weekend to new points leader and team boss Matt Smith, gave up his fast black Buell to Smith’s wife Angie, climbed aboard her pink Buell, and immediately raced to the No. 2 spot with a 6.817.

Herrera’s teammate, Eddie Krawiec, sits third with a 6.825 just ahead of surging Jianna Evaristo and the Scrappers Suzuki at 6.835. Angie Smith (6.864), Chase Van Sant (6.866), Hector Arana Jr (6.895), and Kelly Clontz (6.911) round out the quick eight. Van Sant’s run was fine until the finish line as his Trick Tools mount kept pulling to the right in the shutdown area until it brushed the guardwall. Van Sant kept it upright and was not hurt.

Matt Smith had to abort his run after drifting towards the centerline and sits unqualified with an 8.37.