Friday's lone qualifying session at the NHRA Midwest Nationals kicked off as the sun was setting over the St. Louis Gateway Arch, and with flames high and drivers eager to make the most of a positive shift in conditions, four stood out amongst their competitors. Doug Kalitta, Bob Tasca III, Erica Enders, and Gaige Herrera nabbed the provisional pole in their respective classes with impressive runs under the lights.
Top Fuel points leader Kalitta continued his strong run in the NHRA Countdown to the Championship at World Wide Technology Raceway and powered to the provisional No. 1 spot to close out Friday’s exciting session.
As one half of the final pair of the evening, Kalitta turned in a run of 3.70-second at 331 mph in his Mac Tools Toyota dragster. If it holds, the veteran would pick up his second No. 1 of the year and 53rd in his career. Seeking his first career world championship, Kalitta has won the first two playoff races this year and continued to gain momentum on Friday.
“Everybody is running really close, and we somehow snuck by them,” said Kalitta. “Hat's off to [crew chiefs] Alan Johnson and Brian Husen and all my guys; they're really working their tails off on this car, and it's definitely showing. Consistency is everything in this sport, and that was a nice A to B run for us. It was close, but we pulled it off.
“We're all hungry. I always love coming to St. Louis. Just a lot of great memories here and a great racing town. This is really a good start for us because the competition is tough, and everybody is running well. I just feel really fortunate to pull off the low qualifier so far.”
Mike Salinas took the second spot with a run of 3.71 at 329, and Antron Brown was right behind in third with a 3.71 at 331. Justin Ashley, Tony Schumacher, Leah Pruett, Clay Millican, and Shawn Langdon rounded out the top eight, while Buddy Hull and Terry Totten were on the outside looking in.
In Funny Car, Tasca delivered an epic blast to close out qualifying, going a spectacular 3.85 at 324 in his Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford Mustang. Coming off last weekend’s win in Charlotte and advancing to second in points, Tasca grabbed the qualifying points on Friday at World Wide Technology Raceway as one of only two drivers to dip into the 3.80s. With warm temperatures expected on Saturday, Tasca appears on track to earn his sixth No. 1 qualifier and the 15th of his career in a tremendous 2023 campaign. It would also be his second No. 1 in the playoffs if it holds, a week after Tasca made a career-best pass in Charlotte.
“We've been working on this all season long, starting in testing,” said Tasca. “We had to have the setup to go out here and run with the big teams when the conditions were good. We had flashes of that early in the season, worked on it when the conditions were good, and just seeing this car run really hard. Aaron Brooks, Todd Okuhara, they have a lot of confidence in the setup. They were trying to run .85 and the car ran .85.
“This wasn't a fluke, they told me keep it on the inside until about a half-track and then pull it back slowly. Normally you muscle a Funny Car, but in this example, you're really just finessing it. You can't be a one-trick pony. You have to be able to throw down when it's hot and be able to pull it back and still throw down when it's cool.”
Blake Alexander took the second spot with a run of 3.88 at 326, and John Force is third after going 3.91 at 325. Matt Hagan is No. 4, Bobby Bode is fifth, and Chad Green, Tim Wilkerson, and Terry Haddock round out the quick eight, while points leader Robert Hight is 13th and Cruz Pedregon is on the outside aiming to bump in on Saturday.
St. Louis has been a strong race for Pro Stock’s Erica Enders over the years, and that continued on Friday, as the defending world champion went to the No. 1 spot with a run of 6.54 at 209 in her Johnson’s Horsepowered Garage/Melling Performance Chevrolet Camaro. If it holds, Enders would earn her third straight No. 1 qualifier, fifth this season and the 34th in her career. She’s been nearly flawless in St. Louis and won the past four years at the track, giving her six overall. That’s the most in NHRA history at the facility and a seventh win this weekend – and 47th in her career – would also give her the most wins by a female in NHRA history.
“It definitely felt awesome,” said Enders. “I say this a lot, but I feed off of Mark Ingersoll, my crew chief. I really enjoy his confidence because it in turn gives me confidence. This place has always been amazing to me. To have the last four years in a row is pretty awesome. It's Mark's home track, and he wants to swing hard here. We're really excited.
“My sister and I have coined the phrase, everything changes in St. Louis. We'll just go ahead and hope that's going to be the outcome. When we went into the Countdown, we haven't won one yet, but I said three races in a row, in three weeks I'm going to know where I stand and maybe my stomach can relax a little bit. It's so fun coming here. I'm excited to have things change in St. Louis.”
Troy Coughlin Jr. took the second spot thanks to his pass of 6.55 at 208 and Greg Anderson, who won last weekend in Charlotte, is third after a 6.56 at 208. Points leader Matt Hartford’s 6.565 has him fourth, while Kyle Koretsky is No. 5, Aaron Stanfield is sixth, and Bo Butner and Fernando Cuadra Jr. seal up the top eight for now. Robert River and Deric Kramer have yet to break into the field and will have two shots on Saturday.
In Pro Stock Motorcycle, Herrera enjoyed another phenomenal Friday, this time putting together an impressive run of 6.71 at 201 aboard his Vance & Hines Mission Foods Suzuki. The run puts the points leader on track for a remarkable 11th No. 1 on the season. Herrera picked up his first career win in the Countdown to the Championship last weekend and, after moving back into the points lead, looks to keep rolling this weekend in St. Louis.
“I've been having fun all year, and all the little changes, they're out to get us as a team or me,” said Herrera. “Just to have that feeling, basically, Matt [Smith] is doing everything he can to try to knock us off the top. I think that makes us drive harder, push harder, and me as a rider, try to be more consistent. I had a .029 light there today and last weekend I had an average of .032. It makes me try harder and push harder, and the same for Andrew [Hines, crew chief]. He wants to give me the most consistent but fast motorcycle, so I think overall it just drives us to keep on pushing. I'm just excited to be a part of it. I'm very lucky to ride for them.”
Reigning world champion and defending event winner Smith, who trails Herrera by 52 points heading into the weekend, is currently second with a 6.76 at 201, and Herrera's teammate Eddie Krawiec is third with a 6.78 at 201. Hector Arana Jr. is No. 4, Jianna Evaristo is fifth, Chase Van Sant is No. 6, and Kelly Clontz and Steve Johnson are seventh and eighth, respectively.