This weekend’s 50th annual Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals could turn out to be one of the biggest races of the 24-contest 2019 Mello Yello season. There’s been a year-long buildup to this event, remediation of the track surface and entries are coming from far and wide to be able to say they were there, whether qualified to run eliminations on Sunday or not.
Of course everyone wants to be part of the festivities, including legends of the sport that are converging to this college town in order to support and challenge their peers with the “Unfinished Business” exhibition race that pits former NHRA stars against one another.
The Gatornationals mark the first race for NHRA’s Pro Stock Motorcycle class and boasts 23 entries; every Mello Yello class has at least 16 entrants, while the E3 Spark Plugs Pro Mod category boasts 29 cars vying for the 16 elimination spots and Factory Stock Showdown boasts 32 competitors this weekend as these three classes start their race seasons.
Last year’s Wally winner’s trophies were earned by Kalitta Motorsports’ Richie Crampton in Top Fuel, Don Schumacher Racing’s Jack Beckman’s Infinite Hero Funny Car, Tanner Gray in Pro Stock and Eddie Krawiec’s Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson for Pro Stock Motorcycle. Of that quartet, only Tanner Gray won’t be back to defend, having left this type of racing.
The pressing question right now in Top Fuel is simple: can 2018 champ Steve Torrence regain his mojo after not advancing past the first round of eliminations in the first two races? With 18 cars on the grounds, two drivers won’t make the field and, in a race that often has surprise victors, it’s anyone’s game. The two youngest and newest dragster drivers, Austin Prock (John Force Racing) and Jordan Vandegriff (Bob Vandergriff Racing) will be looking to advance their standings after two round wins each (Austin survived round one twice; Jordan went to the semis at Phoenix).
The Greek, Chris Karamasines is back for competition, as is T.J. Zizzo, who sports a golden Rust-Oleum dragster in honor of this race’s golden year. There’s still no sign of Tony Schumacher, the eight-time NHRA Top Fuel champion, but his father Don Schumacher gained recognition, earlier this week as a member of the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in Daytona Beach. Schumacher’s driver Leah Pritchett is looking to defend her Factory Stock Showdown 2018 championship.
There’s a full field of 16 Funny Car racers looking to take home the 50th Gatornationals Wally this weekend, but none more eager than the legend, John Force who is hoping to gain his 150th winner’s trophy in the class with his Chevrolet Camaro SS. Force hasn’t seen the ultimate win light since Denver last year. He’s hungry, but will have to get past his son-in-law and president of John Force Racing Robert Hight, who definitely has a hot hand.
The four-car Don Schumacher Racing team might have something to show Force and Hight after Matt Hagan secured the first victory for the team’s 2019 Dodge Hellcat SRT in Phoenix. It was appropriate he’d be first to take the win; Hagan was first to race that machine at Denver in 2018. Jack Beckman, who introduced his team leader at the Hall of Fame induction, is the reigning champ of this race. Ron Capps and Tommy Johnson Jar have been threats everywhere they race. Bob Tasca III will have company in the Ford Mustang camp with veteran Tim Wilkerson and part-timer Dave Richards wheeling blue oval Mustang race cars.
Five-time Pro Stock champion Jeg Coughlin Jr., who finished second to Tanner Gray last year, has a new car and throwback livery (his father Jeg’s 1972-75 colors) to show off this weekend. After winning in Phoenix a few weeks ago, Coughlin appears to have momentum on his side, but he’ll have to deal with his Elite Motorsports teammates, two-time champ Erica Enders and Alex Laughlin, the latter duo also contesting Pro Mod for Elite this year.
Shane Tucker rejoins the field after sitting out Phoenix when he failed to qualify in Pomona, while Alan Prusiensky (Dodge) and Jeffrey Isbell (Ford) are the sole non-Chevrolet racers in Pro Stock this weekend. There are 17 cars on the entry list, so one driver will fail to make the field. The parity in Pro Stock means anyone’s got a chance to win, and with several engine builders committed to this class, competition should be as tight as it always is.
Matt Smith knows it’s tough to repeat in Pro Stock Motorcycle. He’s never done it – and he’s never won at the Gatornationals – so the King, North Carolina EBR rider is looking to change those stats. It won’t be easy as there are 23 motorcycles entered for this 50th annual race and quite a few champions in the field. After all, three-time titleholder Angelle Sampey is here along with her Harley-Davidson teammates, Krawiec and Andrew Hines who, between them, have nearly 10 titles.
The class’ first 200-mph run was achieved at this season-opening race by Hector Arana Jr last year, while his champion father Hector rejoins the class for another season. There are eight women in the field including newcomer Jianna Salinas, daughter of Top Fuel racer Mike Salinas. The field is pretty well split between EBR (Buell) and Suzuki, along with the three Harley-Davidson racers.
Sportsman action begins on Thursday, while Mello Yello qualifying starts Friday. Heat greets all racers Thursday and Friday but a massive-cool off will make the Saturday-Sunday part of the program different from the event’s start. There’s also the possibility of rain in the forecast, along with mid-60s temps on Sunday, which could throw a wrench into the proceedings.