The Gerber Collision & Glass Route 66 NHRA Nationals proved to be a very full, very entertaining affair for fans who had been waiting eagerly for the return of the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series. After a span of four years without drag racing at the impressive facility, Clay Millican (Top Fuel), Tim Wilkerson (Funny Car), Dallas Glenn (Pro Stock), and Gaige Herrera (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were the competitors who had all the right pieces in place to claim particularly unforgettable wins.
Millican's Parts Plus/Rick Ware Racing Top Fuel dragster made massive progress in Chicago after a tought start to the season. Prior to winning the event, he hadn't won a single round of racing in the 2023 season of NHRA's Camping World Drag Racing Series, but on Sunday at Route 66 Raceway, his tuner, team, car, and driver were all in sync.
In the first round of eliminations where many struggled on the warming, sun-drenched racetrack, Millican made haste to the finish line stripe with the third-quickest run of the round, a 3.732, to claim his first round win of the season and get the ball rolling. Opponent Shawn Langdon launched with a tidy .029-second reaction time, but his day ended in a rash of tire smoke.
Doug Kalitta's Mac Tools dragster had come to the event quick and fast, but Millican was better at the tree and smoother down the racetrack while Kalitta was up in smoke before reaching the 330-foot timer. His efficient pass against Kalitta gave him lane choice over Brittany Force in the semifinals, and with the powerful blows Force's crew chief, David Grubnic, is known to throw, Millican and crew chief Jim Oberfhofer knew they had to be on their game in every way.
Millican did his part and left the starting line first, .057 to a .082, and Oberhofer tuned the Parts Plus rail to a 3.778 at 329.58 mph to defeat a 3.881, 319.82. The victory gave him a ticket to the 19th final round of his NHRA career.
On the other side of the ladder, third-year competitor Josh Hart was eager to make more progress in the traditional two-wide format after going rounds at each of the last two races, both of which were four-wide. He survived a tire-smoking battle with Antron Brown in round one, then defeated Jacob McNeal in his Top Fuel debut, 3.793, 328.78 to 3.870, 317.27.
In the semifinals, Hart took on the role of heartbreaker as he claimed the win over hometown hero T.J. Zizzo. Hart's .043 reaction time was just .006 ahead of the Chicago-area native, but Zizzo's tire-smoking 11.446 was easy to beat with a 3.910 to earn a trip to the fifth final of his career.
The two closed out eliminations with a great side-by-side race. Millican left first, .049 to .052, and kept the lead for a 3.801 to 3.808 win.
"We've had so many changes," said Millican, now a four-time NHRA Top Fuel winner. "I'm so thankful for Doug and Whitney Stringer keeping us out there. Rick Ware wanted to go racing and bought our team and took over at the U.S. Nationals last year, and the next thing you know, it's new trailers, new racecars, new parts. You would think it would have been much easier, but it wasn't. We really struggled.
For Millican, the long-awaited win was particularly poignant. His most recent victory had been five years prior, and it happened at Route 66 Raceway, precisely 20 years after his very first race – which happened to be at the Chicago facility.
"Here we are, 25 years later, in the same place," said Millican. "That number 25 means something to me, and I almost lost it at the top end. I held it together, but what a day.
"But this is an awesome, unbelievable team, and I cannot wait to hand Rick and Lisa Ware that Wally. They've done so much to keep us out there. Jim O is a bad dude. He proved that today."
Wilkerson's win was also meaningful as it was his first since the fall race in Charlotte in 2021, and it came at the very facility where he earned the first Funny Car trophy of his career in 1999.
On a warm racing surface that had many befuddled, the driver of the SCAG Power Equipment LRS Ford got past a troubled Blake Alexander in round one, 3.980 to 4.139, and took lane choice into the next round over Alex Laughlin. He was .003-second quicker than Laughlin at the starting line and put down a 4.010 to defeat a 4.808. John Force had lane choice in the semifinals, but Wilkerson had a better read on the racetrack and went 4.012 to speed past Force, who overpowered the racing surface and went 9.670.
The victory over Force handed Wilkerson a ticket to the 51st final of his career as a nitro Funny Car driver, and meeting old friend and reigning world champion Ron Capps in the final set up a great race for the throngs of fans packed into the vast stadium-style grandstands at Route 66 Raceway.
It was Capps' third final of the season and 143rd of his career, and after he claimed the Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty NHRA Challenge victory early in the weekend, Wilkerson knew it would be a battle in their match. In their 10 previous final-round meetings, Capps had emerged victorious seven times. Fate shifted in Wilk's favor, however, in Chicago.
Capps was out of the gate first with a crisp .053 reaction to Wilkerson's .101, but at the halfway point on the racetrack, the parachutes on his NAPA Auto Parts Toyota GR Supra deployed, dragging him back. Wilkerson surged ahead to win on a 3.966 as Capps struggled to a 4.110.
For the Illinois-native, victory came in front of a large crowd of SCAG supporters and friends and family.
"To be this close to home; I have so many people out there, so this is very exciting," said Wilkerson. "I didn't have the best car – Capps had a better car than I did all day long – but it worked out better for us in the finals. I did a lot better job tuning than I did driving, but I was consistent, and that's what we needed to be able to win this race because the track was tricky."
The Pro Stock points leader just kept right on truckin' at the Route 66 NHRA Nationals, picking up win No. 3 in his fourth final round of the season, just six races in. Driving the RAD Torque Systems Chevrolet Camaro out of the KB Titan Racing stable, Glenn was sharp at the tree in the first round and recorded the quickest winning elapsed time of the round to defeat Chris McGaha, 6.537 to 6.582. The quickest time clocked in eliminations belonged to the defending and five-time Pro Stock champion, Erica Enders, who forfeited the win light on a holeshot to Elite Motorsports teammate Aaron Stanfield.
Holeshots were the theme of the day for two of the most successful currently competing Pro Stock drivers, as Glenn utilized one of his own to eliminate the most winning driver in the class – and Glenn's boss – Greg Anderson. Glenn's .023 and 6.576 got the job done over Anderson's .060 and 6.554. It was not an easy victory for Glenn, however.
"I came up for round two against Greg, and when I left, the car wanted to leave – and then it did not," said Glenn. "It took a hard left, and that's when my day got kind of wacky. But I managed to drive through it and hold him off. Then the crew chiefs made a lot of changes for the third round; they basically turned the Pro Stock car into a Super Stocker for the size of the wheelstands it was doing."
Glenn, an accomplished Sportsman racer, handled the unique changes with deft skill, powering to a 6.563, 210.05 to defeat a tire-chattering first-time semifinalist Jerry Tucker to gain entry to the final, where he was matched with Deric Kramer. Charlotte winner Kramer, who sent Mason McGaha and Cristian Cuadra home empty-handed in the first two rounds in Chicago, made his way to a second consecutive final round by defeating Stanfield in a compelling semifinal round. Kramer was .041 at the tree to Stanfield's .044, and the two powered down the track together. Kramer won by just a hundredth of a second, 6.567 to 6.574.
The KB Titan teammates met in the final round, and Glenn had lane choice. It came in handy as Kramer shook the tires hard and had to shut off. Glenn sailed straight down the track and won on a 6.562.
"I'm feeling great right now," said Glenn, who now has a 168-point lead over second-place Matt Hartford. "I'm worn out – it's a lot of work when you go to a final. But I'm definitely enjoying every bit of this. This day started out how I wanted it to, just go up there, stay relaxed and make nice, smooth, clean runs. Rob Downing, Dave Connolly, and Nate VanWassenhove [crew chiefs] did a great job making sure this car got down four clean runs today. Even though I didn't do the best job driving in my last two runs, it was good enough to get the job done."
Herrera continued his dominance of the Pro Stock Motorcycle class in Chicago, and thus far, he's scooped up all of the hardware and hats up for grabs in 2023. After earning the low qualifier award and then reeling in the Mission Foods #2Fast2Tasty title at Route 66 Raceway, he made it a full sweep by winning the main event.
Opponent Ron Tornow left before the tree was activated in round one, but in the second round, Marc Ingwersen was taking no chances and left the starting line with a cool .009 launch. Herrera was right there with a .019 and a very capable motorcycle, and he powered his Vance & Hines Mission Food Suzuki to a 6.725 to snuff out his challenger's 6.940.
That win light set up a semifinal meeting with Vance & Hines teammate Eddie Krawiec, and again, his opponent was not taking him lightly. Krawiec clocked a .008 reaction time to a .016, but Herrera's monster 6.708 was triumphant over a 6.776. Satisfyingly for the Vance & Hines team, the scoreboards each showed 200 mph passes.
The final round pitted Herrera against veteran racer Chip Ellis and the DENSO/Matt Smith Racing Buell. Ellis advanced over red-lighting Chris Chase Van Sant in the first two rounds, then got a ticket to his eight final with a 6.817 to 6.825 victory over Hector Arana Jr.
In the final, Herrera was second to launch, .041 to .029, but his motorcycle made up for it, carrying him to a 6.717 at 201.25 to defeat a 6.791, 200.26.
"All day, my bike has been a bracket bike," said Herrera, who now has a 169 point lead over Krawiec. "It was on point all weekend, and it means a lot to win here with friends and family out here with me. That's one you don't forget. But I have a really good team behind me, and this goes out to all of them.
"Getting to race Eddie third round was definitely a tough one, and then in the final with Chip – I grew up looking up to Chip Ellis. That was definitely a really special one to me. I've said all year, I'm living the dream. I really am."