NHRA’s #USNATS brings Wide-Open Grids to Indy

It’s the “Big Go” – the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals brings the best drag racers from around the world to earn titles at the largest drag race of the year. That this weekend’s contest is the 65th such gathering, well, that means more crowds in the pits – even before fans make it through the gates.

As the National Hot Rod Association makes its annual treks throughout the United States, there are times when it’s tough to assemble a full field of Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle combatants. Not here. Everyone vies for a spot in the 16-vehicle elimination fields on Labor Day Monday. Not everyone makes it.

Top Fuel has an immense 21-car entry on the list, including all the racers vying for spots in the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs that commence at Reading, Penn. following this event. But there are many who come here simply for the glory of racing at Indy and they could spoil the dreams of racers vying for those playoffs.

With Steve Torrence, Brittany Force, Doug Kalitta, Clay Millican, Antron Brown, Mike Salinas and Leah Pritchett ready for Countdown action, Austin Prock, Richie Crapton and last year’s #USNATS winner Terry McMillen are hoping to keep the final playoff spots to themselves. While these NHRA Top 10 Top Fuel racers will be in the house, there are other racers simply glad to be on the grounds at Lucas Oil Raceway outside Indianapolis.

Some of those include Pat Dakin, who nearly stole a Wally winners trophy at Norwalk earlier this year, and Jordan Vandergriff, who is running a compact schedule in his rookie season. T.J. Zizzo makes the trip from his Chicago area workshop to compete in this race most every year, as do Luigi Novelli and ageless Chris Karamesines.

Billy Torrence, who has earned two Wally trophies in 2019 is on the entry list, as are Shawn Reed, Lex Joon and Wayne Newby, the latter driving for Rapisarda Racing. Newby recently earned the Australian Top Fuel crown and has been testing in anticipation of ruining the hopes of some NHRA regulars.

The Big Go’s Funny Car entry list shows a 19-car onslaught for those 16 enviable drivers who make the Monday eliminations during the 65th U.S. Nationals. In addition to those already qualified for the Countdown, which includes the two-member John Force Racing duo of Robert Hight and John Force in their Chevrolet Camaros, the four-car Don Schumacher Racing squad are ready for action.

Jack Beckman, Ron Capps, Matt Hagan and Tommy Johnson Jr have qualified their Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat floppers for the Countdown, as has 2018 champ J.R. Todd and his Kalitta Motorsports teammate Shawn Langdon in their Toyota Camry race cars. Bob Tasca III, a two-time winner in his Ford Shelby Mustang this year, earlier joined the playoff lineup. That leaves one spot available and Tim Wilkerson is hoping to nab it, despite teething issues with his new Ford Shelby Mustang’s consistency.

The “others” hoping too make the show include Anchorage, Alaska’s Ray Martin in a Camry, Cruz Pedregon’s Charger, Paul Lee in a Charger, Terry Haddock’s Mustang, Phil Burkart Jr’s Dodge, Bob Bode Jr in a Mustang, Jim Campbell’s Jim Dunn Racing Charger, Jonnie Lindberg driving Jim Head’s Ford Mustang and Justin Schriefer in a Charger.

At this writing it looks like 21 Pro Stock cars, primarily the preferred Chevrolet Camaro race car, will encamp for this long weekend, led by 2017 champ Bo Butner, who after attempting to retire from the class is now looking to reclaim his title two years later. He’ll have to put up with his formidable KB Racing teammates, Greg Anderson and Jason Line, both more recent winners than he.

There’s also the Elite Motorsports group of Erica Enders, Jeg Coughlin Jr. and Alex Laughlin to contend with as they’ve all qualified for the NHRA’s 6-race Countdown to the Championship. Although he hasn’t qualified, team owner Richard Freeman is making another appearance in the car originally assigned to Rodger Brogdon; the latter hasn’t been seen since before the Western Swing in July.

Independents – and winners – Deric Kramer, Chris McGaha and Matt Hartford will attempt to move up the Countdown ladder, which will be set in stone once Monday eliminations are complete. Kenny Delco is hoping to keep 10th spot in the Countdown, with teammate Val Smeland one of the few that can usurp his place.

There are some other Pro Stock cars on the grounds this weekend. Full-time entrant Alan Prusiensky is bringing his ex-Allen Johnson Dart, while Jeremy Martorella has a Dart entered, as well. The Cuadra family from Mexico will be well-represented, with patriarch Fernando Cuadra driving a Camaro (and in 11th at the moment), Fernando Jr. in a Camaro and Cristian Cuadra racing a Ford Mustang. Robert River is bringing a vintage Chevy Cobalt to Lucas Oil Raceway, while Steve Graham and Baron Stroupe complete the Chevy Camaro invasion, together with Australian Shane Tucker, back for another try at the #USNATS with his Camaro.

With a 20-bike entry for the Pro Stock Motorcycle category, some riders hoping to make the 10-rider Countdown to the Championship playoffs could get left out once this race is over. At this point, there are still six spots available in the Countdown field: only two of the three Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson Screamin’ Eagle riders, Andrew Hines and Eddie Krawiec have made the field, as has 2018 PSM champ Matt Smith and first-to-200mph Hector Arana Jr., who accomplished that feat at the 2018 Gatornationals. Both Smith and Arana Jr. ride EBR Buell motorcycles.

The other riders currently in the top 10 – Karen Stoffer (Suzuki), Angie Smith, Ryan Oehler, Hector Arana (all on EBR Buell), Angelle Sampey from the Vance & Hines Harley camp and Jerry Savoie (Suzuki) hope to keep their spots and, perhaps, move up on the grid.

Hoping to move out the riders just mentioned are Scotty Pollacheck and Joey Gladstone, Kelly Clontz and Cory Reed – all riding EBR Buell except for Clontz, on a Suzuki – while the returning veteran Steve Johnson (Suzuki) is just glad to have his engine back together and be in the NHRA pits again. There will be more Suzuki racers than normal at Indy this year, including Johnson, Jianna Salinas, Clontz, Andrea Rawlings and Chris Bostick. The EBR Buell camp includes Marc Ingwersen, Cory Reed, while Michael Ray Jr. will try to qualify the 2017 Victory motorcycle.

Predicting conditions for the middle of Indiana on Labor Day weekend is usually problematic, but this year, for once, it doesn’t look like rain will be in the forecast. Subject to change, of course. Temps forecast are moderate and the highest percentage for precipitation looks like 20%, possible for Friday through Sunday. Smart attendees will always bring their foul weather gear just so make sure they’re prepared. It would be wise to bring a sweater and sunscreen as well.

About Anne Proffit 463 Articles
Anne Proffit traces her love of racing - in particular drag racing - to her childhood days in Philadelphia, where Atco Dragway, Englishtown and Maple Grove Raceway were destinations just made for her. As a diversion, she was the first editor of IMSA’s Arrow newsletter, and now writes about and photographs sports cars, Indy cars, Formula 1, MotoGP, NASCAR, Formula Drift, Red Bull Global Rallycross - in addition to her first love of NHRA drag racing. A specialty is a particular admiration for the people that build and tune drag racing engines.

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