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Friday News and Notes from the Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals

Friday News and Notes from the season-opening Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals, the first of 21 events on the 2024 Mission Foods NHRA Drag Racing Series. Updated throughout the day
08 Mar 2024
NHRA National Dragster staff
Race coverage


The 2024 Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals officially kicked off on Thursday with qualifying and time trial runs for competitors in the Lucas Oil NHRA Sportsman series as well as the Right Trailers Top Dragster and Top Sportsman categories.

After one round of qualifying in Top Alcohol Dragster and Top Alcohol Funny Car, Joe Maynard and Sean Bellemeur are the low qualiifers. Maynard, in his first national event in an injected nitro dragster, posted a 5.228 while past world champ Bellemeur wheeled the Bartone Bros. Camaro to a 5.470 for the top spot in Top Alcohol Funny Car.

Additional low qualifiers include Monty Bogan (Comp), Jay Storey (Super Stock), Ralph Porpora (Stock), Kameron Wright (Top Sportsman), and Larry Strickland (Top Dragster).

Final eliminations began Friday morning as the massive field of more than 500 total entries is whittled down to 14 individual champions that will be crowned on Sunday.


On Wednesday, Ocala, Fla.-based Top Fuel driver and 2021 NHRA Gatornationals Top Fuel winner Josh Hart hosted his annual Gatornationals FanFest at Burnyzz Speed Shop in Ocala, Fla.

The well-attended event was free for fans and featured a car show, live music, food trucks, and a large driver autograph session that featured many of the top NHRA pro racers. Proceeds from the event are donated to Racers For Christ.

“This [Gatornationals] is one of the most historic motorsports events in the country, and we are excited to have it in our backyard and celebrate with everyone from Ocala and around central Florida,” said Hart. “I want to thank everyone at Burnyzz Speed Shop for supporting this great event.”



On Thursday evening the annual International Drag Racing Hall of Fame induction ceremony was held at the Hilton University of Florida Conference Center. The 2024 inductees included Pat Austin, Walt Austin, Walt Barbin, Joe Gibbs, Pamela Hardy, Garth Hogan, Scott Kalitta, Rickie Smith, and Gary Southern. The Pat Garlits Memorial Award was presented to Rosalee and Terry Noble while the Founders Award went to former National Dragster editor Bill Holland.


Cruz Pedregon has been coming to the Gatornationals for years, winning in in Top Alcohol Dragster in 1989 and again in Funny Car in 1998, but there’s always been this little fear in the back of his mind.

“I was born and raised in Southern California, so I’ve never really been around alligators or knew much about them other than that there was once one on the racetrack,” he said. “They spotted the gator and showed it to everyone. There were pictures of it, and that scared the heck out of me. We get out of the car at the finish line and I’m thinking man, I’ve got to start looking around here because I don’t want one of these gators sneaking up on me.”
“I remember one time the throttle hung open on the car, this was back in ’08 one of our championship years, and I remember thinking I’m going to go for a ride and I’m going to wind up in water because there was a body of water at the finish line, way beyond the catch net area. I’m thinking to myself, if I survive this and I make it to the end then I’m going to be in this water, trying to swim out of there and dodging gators. So that scared the heck out of me because like I said, I’ve never really been around gators being from California, that was something that was not even in the equation.”


Austin Prock is ready to saddle up for his official Funny car debut in the John Force racing Cornwell Tools Camaro as he fills in for medically-sidelined teammate Robert Hight. He and his tuning father, Jimmy,  made a dozen and a half runs in south Florida in the weeks before the Gtornationals, all valuable seat experience for the former Top Fuel pilot.

We made 17 runs, and seven of them didn't go past the Christmas Tree. and three other ones smoked the tires, so I’ve got a lot to learn,” he said. “These things are tough to drive and a lot of scenarios that I haven't been in yet.”

Those scenarios include trying to recover tire-smoking or -shaking racecar to win a round, something for which he was adept in the dragster but will have to learn anew in the Funny Car.

“It's gonna be down to the point of learning how to time it, but once you do it, it almost becomes like a routine time deal, but where the dragster can get on the throttle more aggressively and sooner because it's so long, you can’t do that with a Funny Car I really have to be patient and let it settle. I need to let myself breathe a little and if I do that, I'll be fine. This car runs so good, I don’t want to be the weak link.”


Steve and Natalie Torrence, who welcomed their first child, daughter Charli Haven, in 2021, are expecting their second child, another girl, in June. 

“After this one, maybe we’ll get a boy to go along with the girls,” he said. “I saw on the news the other day that there’s only a 13% chance of parents having three girls in a row, so maybe we’ll be in that 87%."

If not, maybe Torrence can be ready to be the next John Force, whose three daughters, Ashley, Brittany, and Courtney, have all followed him into the nitro ranks.”


A recent Dragster Insider column about the NHRA-NASCAR partnership on a Florida event called the “Winter Nationals” in 1960 caught the attention of Steve Torrence’s world championship tuner Richard Hogan, whose father, Charlie, was the king of Florida drag racing in the 1950s and early 1960s before Don Garlits supplanted him as the Sunshine State’s hero.

The proud son brought some of his dad’s many trophies with him to Gainesville to show off, with many of them dating to the early 1960s and many of them trophies from when NASCAR hosted a drag racing division of its own.

Charlie Hogan was so good and well-renowned that he was given the nickname “King Hogan,” and Garlits still remembers well the first time he was ever able to beat Hogan. That’s how big a deal he was.

Interestingly, Richard went to work for his father’s main rival and was with Garlits during some of his most exciting years, including opening the drag racing museum in Ocala, Fla., and was part of Garlits’ crew when “Big Daddy” famously won the 1984 U.S. Nationals. Hogan worked on an doff with Garlits throughout the 1980s, including toiling on both Garlits ill-fated Swamp Rat 27 sidewinder and also the revolutionary bit also unsuccessful turbine-engine car.

“When I first met Garlits, he encouraged me to be a crewmember rather than a driver,” remembers Hogan. “He said there was way more money to be made as a crewman than as an owner, and he was right. I used to get 10% of everything he made, and he’d get paid $10,000 just to show up at a match race, so I’d get $1,000 right off the top, then $700-800 more of the purse when we won the race, which was almost always.”



Pro Stock Motorcycle: To no one’s surprise, reigning world champion Gaige Herrera posted the quickest elapsed time of the opening Pro Stock Motorcycle session. Herrera rode his RevZilla/Vance & Hines Suzuki to a 6.774, 198.35 to pace the 16-bike field.

Herrera, winner of a class record 11 events last season, leads six-time world champion Matt Smith, who returned to his Denso Buell and posted a 6.811 at 199.85, the fastest run of the round. John Hall, riding a Buell for the Matt Smith team, finished third with a 6.865.  

The opening session also featured the return of LE Tonglet, who is riding a Vance & Hines Suzuki backed by Maple Grove Raceway and Nitro Fish, as well as 2009 world champ Hector Arana Sr., who is competing in his first event since the 2020 season.

Pro Stock: Even though there has been just one qualifying session, the Pro Stock field is already shaping up to be extremely competitive. Cristian Cuadra currently leads the way with a 6.552 in his Corral Boots entry but his advantage over the rest of the field is very slim.

Reigning world champ Erica Enders is No. 2 at 6.564, followed by Dallas Glenn with a 6.566, and Matt Hartford at 6.567. Deric Kramer ran a 6.598 for the No. 10 spot and he’s just .04-second off the lead.

There are 23 Pro Stock cars vying for just 16 spots and the field includes several notable newcomers including Kelley Murphy, Sienna Wildgust, and Brandon Foster.

REVISED: The Q1 runs of Eric Latino, Sienna Wildgust, and Greg Anderson were disqualified for fuel.

Funny Car: Austin Prock continued his hot hand in his new role as the driver of the John Force Racing Cornwell Tools Camaro, grabbing the No. 1 spot in Q1 with a 3.869, just a thousandth of a second ahead of Bob Tasca III’s 3.870. Eight drivers ran in the threes on their opening assault on the Gainesville Raceway course, with Ron Capps, Cruz Pedregon, world champ Matt Hagan, Alexis DeJoria, John Force, and Blake Alexander all covering the 1,000-foot distance in less than four seconds.

As it was in Pro Stock, the Funny Car session started with three relative newbies with Prock and Buddy Hull both making their official Funny Car debuts and Daniel Wilkerson starting his first full season.

Top Fuel: Four-time world champ Steve Torrence led the opening session with a 3.729, well ahead of second-ranked Shawn Langdon and new crew chief Brian Husem, who posted a 3.755. Mike Salinas (3.759) and Billy Torrence (3.782) rounded out the top four.

Tony Stewart’s first official lap in Top Fuel was dogged by a dropped cylinder that slowed him to a 3.905 that has him ranked 11th.


After announcing his return last week, LE Tonglet had planned to test his new Vance & Hines-powered Maple Grove Raceway Suzuki on Wednesday in Gainesville but that plan was scuttled when the test session was canceled. As a result, Tonglet entered Q1 with exactly zero runs on his new Suzuki. That might be a concern for some riders, but not Tonglet, who has never looked uncomfortable on a six-second motorcycle.

“I’m not worried. If it goes straight and shifts the first few gears, it will go to the finish line,” said Tonglet, who has raced sporadically the last few years but plans on a full season in 2024 with the help of longtime back Kenny Koretsky. “We should be just fine.”

Not surprisingly, Tonglet made a full run and landed in the No. 4 spot with a 6.874, behind Gaige Herrera, Matt Smith, and John Hall.  


One of the big off-season questions revolving around newly-crowned Top Fuel world champ Doug Kalitta was whether the team would bring back the canopy-style car they ran for much of the season or the open-cockpit car with which they won three of the last six races and the world championship.

“We’re not running the canopy this year,” Kalitta confirmed. “I actually kind of like the canopy, but it's a little heavier. As far as my guys were concerned, after we made the switch back to our other car last year, things kind of started coming together a little bit better for us, but even though they’re convinced that the canopy car would have been fine,  but I'm kind of relieved that we tested those waters and discovered what works.”


The first event of the season in the Congruity NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series presented by LearnEV+ has attracted a massive field of 26 entries which means that 10 cars will not qualify for final eliminations. One driver who shouldn’t have to worry about missing the field is former series champ Justin Bond, who rocketed to the top of the charts in Q1 with a 5.710 in his Bahrain1 Camaro. Bond has a solid five hundredths on the rest of the field as Dwayne Wolfe is second with a 5.767. The current bump spot is held by Doug Winters at 5.954. Included among the current nonqualifiers are Khalid alBalooshi, Jason Scruggs, and Sidnei Frigo.



Pro Stock Motorcycle: Gaige Herrera held on to the top spot in Pro Stock Motorcycle after two of four qualifying sessions with a 6.752, improving upon his 6.774 run from earlier in the day. Herrera, who is the defending event champion and reigning world champ, qualified No. 1 at every event last season except for Denver.

At times last year, Herrera had a huge advantage over the rest of the field but that’s not the case here as six-time world champ Matt Smith is second after a 6.784 on his Denso Buell. Steve Johnson, a past Gainesville winner, also made an impressive run with a third-best 6.804 on his Suzuki.

LE Tonglet and new Vance & Hines factory rider Richard Gadson are also within striking distance of the leaders with runs of 6.814 and 6.817, respectively.

Pro Stock: Predictably, the Pro Stock field tightened considerably as the 23 cars that are battling for 16 available spots continued to jockey for positions. Erica Enders moved to the top spot with a solid 6.550 run from her JHG Camaro to nudge her Elite teammate Cristian Cuadra to the No. 2 spot with a 6.552. Dallas Glenn is also in the mix with a 6.556 from his RAD Torque Systems entry while Greg Anderson (6.561), Troy Coughlin Jr. (6.563), and Jeg Coughlin Jr. (6.567) make up the top six.

Funny Car: Austin Prock, whose 3.869 led after Q1, saw that run bettered by four-hundredths by Bob Tasca III’s 3.829 at 337.75 mph, then turned right around in the next pair and took the No. 1 spot back with a 3.820, the 10th quickest run in NHRA Funny Car history. Prock has three previous No. 1s in Top Fuel.

Terry Haddock, who’s probably made more 4.0-second passes than any other full-time Funny car driver, finally got his long-awaited first three-second pass with a 3.989. He got close last year with a 4.004 in Reading. Counting Haddock, 11 cars qualified in the threes on opening day.

Local favorite Dave Richards sits on the outside looking in after a pair of troubled efforts in the Versatran entry that will make the full tour for the first time this season. Richards lost his first run when he couldn’t return after the burnout and then smoked the tires on his second hit,

Top Fuel: World champ Doug Kalitta, who didn’t make it down the track in Q1, blasted to a 3.723 to temporarily grab the No. 1 spot with a run that crew chief Alan Johnson admitted was detuned to give them a full pass before Saturday’s Pep Boys All-Star Callout, but the number didn’t hold as Steve Torrence ran 3..690 to reclaim the No. 1 spot and take it away from Shawn Langdon, whose 3.697 had also surpassed Kalitta’s run.

Tony Stewart looked good on what undoubtedly was his first night run in Top Fueler, clocking a 3.739. he sits 11th in the field.