One down, 23 to go. Some are still exulting after the Lucas Oil Winternationals in Pomona; others are licking their wounds. Streaks end; streaks begin. There will be plenty of competition to watch over three days at the 35th Magic Dry Organic Absorbent NHRA Arizona Nationals – provided Friday’s showers disappear and cold temps don’t adversely affect Goodyear’s tires – and new faces to examine.
A full field of 16 Top Fuel cars are on the entry list for this race at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, a field that once again lacks the dragster of Don Schumacher Racing’s (DSR) Tony Schumacher, who last year set both E.T. and speed track records. To counterbalance Schumacher’s absence, there are new or nearly new combatants looking to take the eight-time champion’s luster for their own.
The first race of the year, at Pomona less than two weeks ago, introduced NHRA fans to Austin Prock, son of John Force Racing (JFR) crew chief Jimmy Prock. Prock won his first round of eliminations before falling to Mike Salinas in the quarter-finals. Cameron Ferre, 33 (who looks 17 to these eyes), piloted Terry Haddock’s dragster, and will again this weekend on the Wild Horse Pass dragstrip.
Fans of the sport will be introduced to Jordan Vandergriff at this track southeast of Phoenix as Vandergriff begins his first year of Top Fuel competition in the DA Lubricants rail formerly raced by Blake Alexander. Vandergriff, nephew of team owner Bob Vandergriff Jr. earned his Top Fuel license at Phoenix earlier this month. Alexander returns to Funny Car, his drag racing roots.
Everybody in Top Fuel will be chasing Pomona winner Doug Kalitta, who started last season by winning the opening salvo and then faded as the season progressed. The versatile Kalitta made five final round appearances in 2018 but only capitulated in the season opener. It’s a trend he hopes to change after becoming the first driver to knock off 2018 champ Steve Torrence since last year’s Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals.
This wasn’t the season starter newly crowned Funny Car champion J.R. Todd was looking for in his Kalitta Motorsports Toyota Camry. The champ qualified in the bottom half of the field in ninth and, with Monday’s tricky track conditions was out of the hunt after Round 1, losing to Bob Tasca III’s new Ford Mustang.
Sixteen Funny Car drivers will have their talons out for Todd again this weekend, in addition to 2018 class runner-up and Pomona race winner Robert Hight (his fourth at the venue’s season starter) in a John Force Racing Chevrolet Camaro SS. Hight shone at preseason testing and, in taking his 46th career win, claimed his 460th elimination round victory.
“We put the work in during the offseason and that showed at Pomona,” the JFR president said.
Todd has to contend with the four-car DSR camp, JFR’s Hight and John Force, the latter starting his year in a far less spectacular but way more competitive manner, racing to the semifinals where he lost to Hight. Blake Alexander returns to Funny Car in a 2017 Ford Mustang sponsored by Pronto Auto Service Center. This will be a 12-race season for Alexander, he said, in a team of his own and crew-chiefer by Dan Wilkerson, son of competitor Tim Wilkerson.
No sign of Jim Head Racing or driver Jonnie Lindberg again this weekend, but Terry Haddock (2018 Mustang), Phil Burkart Jr. (2014 Dodge) and Jim Campbell (2019 Charger) will be among the drivers looking to race their way into the field. Second year flopper racer Shawn Langdon in a Kalitta Camry and Tim Wilkerson in his 2017 Mustang are ready to challenge anyone on the premises.
The development of DSR’s new 2019 Dodge Hellcat SRT Funny Car started at Denver last year; all four drivers – Matt Hagan, Jack Beckman (runner-up at Pomona and a three-time winner here), Ron Capps and Tommy Johnson Jr. – appear to have come to grips with the new body style, as evidenced by their top-half qualifying in Pomona. Can they bring Don Schumacher his first Wally trophy of the year in Chandler, Arizona?
DSR’s Tommy Johnson Jr., driving the Make-A-Wish Terry Chandler Dodge Hellcat SRT celebrates 30 years of NHRA nitro racing this weekend, having debuted at the Arizona track in 1989 in a Top Fuel dragster. With a semifinal result in Pomona, Johnson is ready to race the Phoenix track after being the runner-up to Courtney Force in 2018. =
As a now 30-year nitro veteran and 17-race winner, “You can definitely see where being a veteran and having experience pays off,” he said. “It’s a long season and you can’t let the lows get you down or let the highs distract you. That comes from experience.”
Once again Pro Stock has enough drivers in the door-slammer category to make certain two are loaded up after the end of qualifying Saturday afternoon. There are 18 entries noted for this race and both the No. 1 qualifier, winner and the two DNQ (did not qualify) racers at Pomona are up for competition in the Valley of the Sun. Bo Butner is off to a raging start in the category after his short retirement, winning in Pomona from his No. 3 qualifying spot. The KB Racing 2017 Pro Stock champion is looking strong for the second race of the year.
Hopefully, No. 1 Pomona qualifier Rodger Brogdon got his “yips” out of the way after fouling out in his first round pass after time on the sidelines. The Elite Motorsports driver showed no rust until race day, when he anticipated the tree in his first round race against Val Smeland. KB Racing again shows strength in numbers, with Chevrolet Camaro race cars for Butner, runner-up Jason Line, Greg Anderson and Fernando Cuadra.
Elite Motorsports boasts five-time Pro Stock champ Jeg Coughlin Jr., two-time titleholder Erica Enders, Brogdon and Alex Laughlin, who last weekend won Lights Out X for radial tire racers. Laughlin will join Enders and Steve Matusek on the team’s Pro Mod squad, which has its first race at the 50th Amalie Motor Oil Gatornationals next month. Does his Georgia victory give Laughlin some momentum? At the very least it afforded the Texan extra track time, keeping him sharp for this weekend’s battles.
What everyone will be chasing is the weather this weekend. Rain is predicted for Thursday and Friday, which presents a green track for Saturday preparation if those two days are canceled. Nobody likes rain delays, and cold weather predicted for this weekend could make tuneups even more critical, as racing tires prefer to run at temps over 50 degrees. It’ll be the same for everybody and it’ll be tough. That’s what makes those Wally trophies awarded at the close of each race day that much more rewarding.