Two of the four NHRA Mello Yello Championships wrapped up at Sunday’s Toyota NHRA Nationals, drag racing’s penultimate event at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, with newly crowned champions, John Force and Matt Smith claiming race wins in front of the standing room only crowd on The Strip.
Antron Brown whittled on Shawn Langdon’s Top Fuel status winning the dragster finale and Jeg Coughlin stretched his lead in Pro Stock while contender, Shane Gray won the race.
John Force celebrated his “Sweet 16” party at the NHRA Toyota Nationals on The Strip at Las Vegas clinching his 16th Mello Yello Funny Car championship by blowing out the candles and dashing the hopes of all his competitors in grand style by additionally winning the race locking in this milestone affair.
He extended his legacy by capping off his championship day with not just another win, No. 138, but had to go through his own JFR team having to defeat his daughter Courtney for the first time in the final round.
He now has won championships with every major sponsor of the NHRA from Winston to POWERade to Full Throtte and now Mello Yello adding to his championship ring collection.
“I wanted to prove I could still race,” said a jubilant Force. “(Wife) Laurie (Force) has been the best thing for me. She said. ‘If you would quit sitting on the end of the bed whining about what is going on. If you get out there and just win then winning fixes everything.’ That just got my head right. Go win that is what you are paid to do. I am good. I am tough enough. I am young enough to race and nobody loves it more than me. I am the sixteen time champ!”
It was Force’s third win in a row and fourth final in a row. The last time Force won three in row was 2005 and it was the 15th time Force has achieved this feat. As the No. 1 qualifier Force had to outrun Gary Densham, Del Worsham, Alexis DeJoria and then Courtney Force in the final.
Force’s dream day was almost interrupted in the semi-final race as DeJoria’s Patron Tequila Toyota Funny Car smoked the tires and then Force’s Castrol GTX Ford Mustang lost traction. Force backpedaled his funny car numerous times sashaying down the right lane but still receiving the win light with a time of 5.865 seconds.
“I didn’t see her run,” said Force, who lost lane choice to daughter Courtney in the finals. “Alexis must have gone up in smoke early. As much trouble as I was in only running five seconds, I almost hit the wall twice. It was like me and Cruz (Pedregon) in 1992 except then I hit the wall three times. There I was going sideways. I was hitting it (the throttle) again and then I was off it and then I would hit is again. I am thinking she is out there. You don’t want to think about it. If you look over you might drive over and she will run over you. She must have gone up on smoke bad and it took too much time to recover it. The biggest thing is she is just a great kid. What is cool is she is the future with my daughter and these young drivers.”
In the final, Force and his crew chief, Jimmy Prock-tuned Mustang blasted straight down the their lane with a winning elapsed time of 4.062 second to Courtney’s equally impressive 4.085 seconds, although in the a losing effort.
“I read an article this morning about being humble but after a day like today, I would like to say it was me,” said a joking Force in the Las Vegas media center. “Jimmy Prock is unbelievable. The team he has around him is awesome. I used to race against his dad, Tom, who ran the Tom and Jerry Funny Car and the Detroit Tiger. He and Danny DeGennaro got the job done. Look at how those cars run side by side.”
“If there is anything I have done right is putting together this team effort. We pulled together when it looked like we were falling apart. I have great companies with me and they allow me do this. We won them a championship. We got a Mello Yello championship but next year I am going to try and win again. We are strong with Auto Club with Robert (Hight) and Traxxas with Courtney. My luck just turned around in a year when I needed it to sell corporate America. I remember Dale Earnhardt used to say ‘I’ll do the winning and you marketing guys sell me.’ I never had the nerve to say that but that guy was a winner so he could do it. I have had luck on my side the last three races.”
Daughter, Courtney reached her seventh career final round and Las Vegas has definitely been good luck for the 25-year old driver.
“It’s pretty cool to say that the last time we were here in the spring we were No. 2 qualifier and got a runner-up finish as well. Our Traxxas team is good here at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and I think we’ve done a pretty good job of showing that. We had a great race car all weekend. Ron Douglas and Dan Hood gave me a great Traxxas Ford Mustang Funny Car to drive and, you know what, I’m happy with what we accomplished today,” said the attractive Force.
Pro Stock Motorcycle
Winning the Las Vegas Pro Stock Motorcycle race, Matt Smith joined Force on the world champion’s podium to celebrate his second career title. He powered his Viper Motorcycle Company Buell to a final round run of 6.991 at 192.08 to beat Jerry Savoie.
Smith has won the last three races, claimed his fourth win this season at LVMS and 17th in his career en route to clinching the championship crown. His father, Rickie, also won the world championship in the NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series this season.
“This team has been awesome,” Smith said who also won the world championship in 2007. “What else can you ask for? With me winning the championship and dad winning the Pro Mod championship it’s been great. I don’t want to sound too confident, but we’ve almost been unstoppable. We’ve been to 10 finals since Epping and have six wins. Those are amazing numbers for our team.”
“It’s pretty elite company to do that,” Smith said of his second championship title. “We pulled this off and it’s just great.”
Antron Brown won the Vegas Top Fuel title by denying Clay Millican for the ninth time of a NHRA Wally Trophy.
Being in second place in the Mello Yello Top Fuel points tally trailing leader, Shawn Langdon by 102, the defending champ knows it’s basically over, but isn’t ready to quit. The next race at Pomona will give Brown a little glimmer of hope.
“Going to Pomona, we’ll stick with our usual mindset that it’s never done until the last race of the year,” he said. “We’re going to give it all we’ve got. We’ll try and get all the qualifying points we can, qualify in the top half of the field, take it one round at a time and see where we end up.
“This just couldn’t have been a better weekend at Las Vegas, and we just have to keep doing what we’ve been doing and see if we can win this championship.”
Brown qualified sixth but was dominant through Sunday’s four rounds of eliminations by winning with times of 3.790 seconds (323.19 mph), 3.808 (323.58), 3.788 (326.16) and 3.782 (324.51) in the championship round against Clay Millican.
“We’ve been hoping and praying, and the Good Lord has been blessing us – we’ve had the jars out and he sure is filling them right now, so anything is possible,” said Brown, who won his fourth title of the season and the 41st of his career.
“Mark (Oswald), Brian (Corradi) and all of our Matco boys have been working so hard.”
The Top Fuel points leader, Langdon, went out in the semi-final round against Millican hazing the tires at the midpoint of the track.
“The The Al-Anabi team did a great job preparing the car for this weekend in Las Vegas,” smiled Langdon. “We had a very strong car for qualifying and on race day, but we happened to smoke the tires in the semifinals. We were just trying to make a similar run to what we had been doing in the earlier rounds, but the track just warmed up a little bit and got us. We still have a good lead heading into the last race of the season so we are excited to get to Pomona in two weeks to finish the season.”
Shane Gray weathered a winless streak that spanned 60 national events. Five times this season, the relentless team had been to the final round and come up just short. Their luck changed on Sunday, however, at the NHRA Toyota Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway when Gray ended the drought and drove his Justin Elkes-tuned Gray Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro to victory.
“The team needed a day like this so bad – and sheesh, so did I,” said Gray, who was the No. 4 qualifier in Las Vegas. ”I’ve let the guys down a couple times this year in the final round, so this was a big boost of confidence. It’s amazing what winning will do. It certainly lets you know that you’re still capable of doing it, anyway. I’m looking forward to going to Pomona because I think I’ll be a little tougher there than I was here.”
The Pro Stock title lead was strengthened for Jeg Coughlin as he came into Vegas with a 45-point edge over Mike Edwards, but he leaves The Strip with a 71-point lead on new second-place driver, Jason Line.
“We knew if we could get another round or two in here, we’d be in good shape, but we just didn’t make it happen, unfortunately,” Coughlin said. ”Execution is key, and we just didn’t execute today. The team did a hell of a job. We had a great race car and one of the fastest cars all day long.”
The normally impeccable Coughlin didn’t have his best day in the driver’s seat, but he still almost drove the Dodge Avenger to the final round. In the semifinals against V Gaines, Coughlin’s car spun the tires, but he reeled it in and continued to chase Gaines.
“That semifinal round, I let the clutch out, and it just took the tire off,” Coughlin said. ”It wanted to wash around through first gear, through second gear, even into third gear. Man, I was cracking the whip on that thing as hard as I could to get it down there in front of V. I knew it was close. I could hear him, I could see him, but obviously, it just wasn’t meant to be.”
Coughlin’s pass was 6.700 seconds at 206.23 mph, coming up about 5 feet short of Gaines’ 6.698-seconds run at 207.56 mph.
Coughlin still has work to do in the season-finale in Pomona, Calif., in two weeks.
“We’ll regroup and will have a week off to get all our eggs put back in one basket,” Coughlin said. ”We’ll prepare as well as we can and go to one of our favorite tracks on the tour, and that’s Pomona.”
NHRA’s season-ending race, the Auto Club of Southern California NHRA Finals begins on Thursday, November 7 with one professional round of qualifying followed by one on Friday with two on Saturday, with eliminations on Sunday, November 10, at 11 a.m. PST.
Photos: Courtesy of NHRA