Photos: Courtesy of the NHRA, Chrysler Corp/MOPAR
For drag racing fans, Florida’s NHRA annual Spring Break party, the Amalie Oil Gatornationals at the Auto-Plus Raceway in Gainesville is always a highlight of the race season. This year was no different as fans saw the new Pro Stock Dodge Dart hit its bulls-eye, witnessed a 180-degree turnaround in John Force Racing from qualifying to raceday, got to join in on another Kalitta Racing starting line mosh pit celebration and watched Pro Stock Motorcycle’s crown prince have the last laugh in victory lane.
That’s how the day went for Pro Stock’s Allen Johnson, Funny Car racer Robert Hight, Doug Kalitta in Top Fuel and Pro Stock Motorcyclist, Steve Johnson.
As one the major stops on the tour, the Gatornationals showed what makes it such a great event with all the miraculous showings in the Pro Stock category on Friday. 6.40 passes were the norm and due to the cooler air conditions, Erica Enders-Stevens became the fastest Pro Stock driver on the planet.
Previous in the week, MOPAR revealed the innovative new Dodge Dart Pro Stock car driven by 2012 champ, Allen Johnson, and defending 2013 NHRA champion Jeg Coughlin.
In the maiden race with his Dart, Johnson qualified No. 4 and recorded his fastest career run with a speed of 214.04 mph. He navigated a nail-biting route to the quarterfinals, tracking down rookie Jonathan Gray in the first session of eliminations after Gray recorded a near-perfect reaction time. Johnson used a 6.559 second /211.83 mph run to catch Gray (6.593/209.98) just past the 1,000 ft. mark.
Johnson’s Dart veered sharply left in the quarterfinals as he fought the machine down the strip. However, opponent Shane Gray encountered even more trouble on his way down the quarter-mile, and Johnson was able to reel in his ride for a winning 7.414/149.88 pass. He showed that the new Dodge was ready in the semis, unleashing a 6.569/211.79 to knock off top qualifier Dave Connolly (6.583/211.20).
Johnson claimed his second Gatornationals title in a row and his second consecutive win this season, racing to a final round performance of 6.566 at 211.73 mph. Runner-up Erica Enders-Stevens posted a faster, but losing, 6.551 at 211.96 in her Elite Motorsports Chevy Camaro.
“What a great job the Mopar engineers and everybody at Chrysler Group, Dodge and SRT did,” said a relieved Johnson after the win. “I just can’t say enough. For the last two weeks since the Phoenix win, it’s been nonstop. My guys haven’t had a day off. It says a tremendous amount about our crew, and the engineering efforts behind it (the Dart).
“Everything to do with the design of the Dart, the engineers took our input and really came up with a great car. To be able to do that (win in its first race) is a huge accomplishment.”
Enders-Stevens set the national speed record in Pro Stock on Friday with a 214.69 mph effort. She followed that with a solid showing during eliminations, defeating Robert Patrick, V Gaines and Vincent Nobile before falling to new Pro Stock points leader Johnson.
Dave Connolly, who earned the eighth low qualifier award of his career and his first since the Seattle race in 2008, recorded a very swift 6.476 at 213.98 mph to earn the lofty spot. On raceday, the 23-time Pro Stock winner kicked off eliminations with a decisive victory over Matt Hartford, 6.552 to 6.649, and advanced to the second round where he got the best of Jason Line with a quicker reaction time that he parlayed into a holeshot win.
After John Force Racing failed to find their ‘sweet spot’ in NHRA qualifying, they got their cake and ate it, too, on raceday!
In the Funny Car finals, the two least likely cars to win at the start of the day ended up in the finals, and it was two of the more familiar names in the category.
Robert Hight and John Force squared off in the Funny Car finals after the JFR duo qualified 10th (Hight) and 16th (Force), respectively and appeared completely lost going into eliminations.
“If you would have told me this morning that John and I would be in the final I don’t know if I would have taken that bet,” said Hight. “I know our teams work really hard and work well together but we were struggling. For both of us to get to the final round and do it on performance was awesome. My Auto Club team was great today. In the final I had some motivation. I wanted to lock up a spot in the Traxxas Shootout. We got our win and John is already in there so he didn’t need another win. We are trying to chase him down in the points. We picked up another round on him. This is a major win for us. The Gatornationals is the East Coast kick off. I have won this race twice and my crew chief has won this race before. We always carry Eric Medlen with us and today was a good day.”
The Hight Force match-up was the 40th all JFR Funny Car final and Hight’s win was the 227th Funny Car win for JFR.
“This win was huge,” said a fired up Hight from the winner’s circle after losing to Alexis DeJoria in the last race at Phoenix. “That guy (Force) has 16 championships and he is the best out here. To add to that he is driving for my old team. There was some added pressure there and it is hard to go up there and get motivated and do your best job. You just have to focus. I wasn’t as focused in the first round and semis as I should have been. I was alright in the second round.”
“I got up for the final because I started to think about last year and not making the Traxxas Shootout. That was no fun to get to the US Nationals and not be running for the $100,000 prize at the Traxxas Shootout. We needed this win for the Auto Club. We got two finals in a row and now a win. This could not be a better start.”
Hight defeated Tony Pedregon, Bob Tasca III, Ron Capps and John Force in route to his 30th career event win which now ties him with the legend, Kenny Bernstein, for total Funny Car wins. He had low ET of the weekend with a 4.061 on Sunday.
Even John Force, the 16-time champ who has made hundreds of runs down Auto-Plus Raceway in Gainesville over the past three decades, was a little rushed during the final round when he went to stage against Robert Hight.
“I actually screwed up and drove up and put on my top light on the Christmas tree,” said Force. “It didn’t hurt me leaving or nothing but I was a little too quick and I didn’t want Robert to think I was trying to screw with him. What’s funny is Robert is president of John Force Racing and we are constantly in the boardrooms meeting with major companies fighting to get sponsors for next year, yet we hardly talk when we’re at the race track and that’s because we’re both going after that points lead.”
Going into the final round, John Force was determined to give Robert Hight a run for the money despite Hight’s quicker Mustang and lane choice. When the Christmas tree flashed green, both Mustangs had almost identical reaction times. Unfortunately for Force, the Castrol GTX Mustang hazed the tires at mid-track and Hight motored by him to get the win light.
Despite struggling in qualifying, crew chief Jimmy Prock and the team addressed several possible issues following the final session on Saturday and then tuned Force’s Mustang into a round-winning race car on Sunday. It was during the semi-finals that John Force would defeat his daughter Courtney in the Traxxas Ford Mustang.
Force barely made the field, qualifying No.16 for the fourth time in his illustrious career, but he’s never lost from that starting position in the first round and in 2014 he again hit the mark, taking out the No. 1 qualifier.
For the 91st time, Cruz Pedregon, the No. 1 Funny Car qualifier in Gainesville, raced John Force with the Yorba Linda, Californian again right on point beating Pedregon with a time 4.075 seconds, to the Cruzer’s elapsed time of 4.102 seconds.
Doug Kalitta gained revenge from Phoenix, defeating Antron Brown in the final with a performance of 3.830 seconds at 323.74 mph in his Mac Tools dragster. Brown’s Matco Tools dragster lost traction early in the run and finished in 5.106 at 147.50 mph.
Kalitta was happy to finally break into the winner’s circle. He posted a runner-up finish at the season-opener in Pomona and fell to Brown in the semifinals in the season’s second race two weeks ago in Arizona.
“We’ve been trying to get a win all year, and we’ve been right on the cusp,” said Kalitta of his 34th career victory and third at Gainesville. “We have great support amongst all four of our teams. It’s great that they can all get in there and celebrate on the starting line.”
Kalitta, who was the No. 1 qualifier at the first two events, started as the No. 4 seed here and outran Brittany Force, Kalitta Motorsports teammate David Grubnic and Steve Torrence before racing past Brown in the final. The Ypsilanti, Mich. native was pleased to get his long-time sponsor a victory over the rival company that sponsors Brown’s machine.
“The ‘tool car’ rounds are important,” said Kalitta, who increased his series points lead with the victory. “We knew there are a lot of distributors out there who are watching and paying attention. I feel very fortunate to get by those guys any time that we can. It seems like it goes back and forth. We’d like to get it a little more on the Mac Tools side than the Matco side, so we’ll see how it goes this year.”
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE
The affable Steve Johnson rocketed from the No. 7 qualifying position and ran through the field to secure his second career Gatornationals victory and first since 2005. Johnson powered his Racing Suzuki to a 6.912 at 191.32, defeating Scotty Pollacheck, who covered the distance in 7.093 at 191.32 on his Buell in his first Gatornationals final.
Before outrunning Pollacheck in the final, Johnson took out a tough trio in earlier rounds including Katie Sullivan, defending world champ Matt Smith and defending Gatornationals winner Hector Arana Jr.
“The fact that this is the first Suzuki win since 2011 shows that we’ve had a Buell epidemic, actually a V-Twin epidemic,” said Johnson of his sixth career victory. “Last year, I got to the final here and lost to Hector Arana Jr., and I felt like I should have won it. We’ve been close a few times, but we finally broke through. This time, Scotty was next to me, and then I saw him disappear.”
After three completed events, the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series continues with the SummitRacing.com NHRA Nationals on March 28-30 at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.