The 51st Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals may be the third race of a 24-contest campaign, but many consider it the true start of the drag racing season. Why, you ask? Well, the initial two races for Mello Yello professionals are the Winternationals and Arizona Nationals, comprised of Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Top Fuel Harley-Davidson, while the Gators bring the whole family together, including Pro Stock Motorcycle and Pro Mod.
Couple that with the start of Spring Break and you’ve got a full field of racers and fans, along with a plethora of NHRA Lucas Oil Sportsman amateur competitors taking over the whole of Gainesville Raceway. It’s a happening, for sure, and one that likely won’t be daunted by any COVID-19 fears.
At this time, Doug Kalitta, winner of the last three races at Pomona and the points leader coming into Gainesville in Top Fuel, is looking forward to the coming event, even as Steve Torrence, winner of the past two TF championships, showed why he’s so strong in Phoenix, his first race of the year. While Torrence took the yellow hat at Phoenix he, like everyone else has to prove himself in four qualifying sessions and four rounds in Gainesville.
Still, the quickest and fastest dragster driver in NHRA history can’t be underestimated. Brittany Force, the 2017 Top Fuel champion has blasted her way to continual track and national records. If she and tuner/crew chief David Grubnic can keep that Monster Energy projectile in the groove, there’s no place like the spot where she earned her first TF victory in 2016. “That first win is something you’ll never forget; it was a big one for me,” Force said. “My confidence level is at a different place than last season at this time,” when Grubnic and co-crew chief Mac Savage were new to her.
There will be no defending dragster champion at this race as two-time consecutive winner Richie Crampton is out of the game – for now anyway – leaving the 17 entered Top Fuel field to start a new streak. Will it be one of the top three: Kalitta, Torrence, Force or will some other racer break through to end their dominance?
Two years ago, Don Schumacher Racing’s Jack Beckman brought home an emotional win at the Gatornationals for co-crew chief John Medlen, whose son Eric Medlen died at this track while testing his John Force Racing Funny Car. The driver of the Infinite Hero Foundation Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat bookended the 2019-2020 season at Pomona by winning both the series finale and starter, while he was runner-up in Phoenix this year (to teammate Tommy JohnsonJr.), giving the 2012 flopper champ the points lead heading into the Gators.
Of course, Beckman and the balance of this 17-car Funny Car entries have to contend with reigning titleholder Robert Hight of John Force Racing. Hight, in an Auto Club of Southern California Chevrolet Camaro SS won his title by only eight points over Beckman, but there’s always something to be said for momentum and, at this point, Beckman’s got a ton of that, coupled with that sweet memory of bringing his co-crew chief Medlen and one of Eric Medlen’s best friends, co-crew chief Dean “Guido” Antonelli the 2018 Gators win.
“When you’ve got a great hot rod, you drive better. And when you go more rounds, you get more data,” Beckman explained. “You’re going to learn more about your car under race conditions and, when someone hands you a trophy you’ve earned it in this class. It’s that satisfaction that, with all the work you and your team have put in, there’s a payoff. Once you taste victory,” he said, “nobody minds working a little harder.”
Last year in Pro Stock, it was 2017 champ Bo Butner who pushed all the right buttons on his KB Racing Chevy Camaro at the Gators. Butner was the early season dominator in Pro Stock’s 49th season. Now, for the class’ 50th year and celebrating his family’s 60th year in business, it’s five-time PS champ Jeg Coughlin Jr. plowing through rounds to take hold of the class, which has an 18-race season again this year.
Coughlin, who won last weekend’s Drag Illustrated Doorslammer Nationals in Orlando and who, like Kalitta and Beckman bookended the finish and start to 2019-2020 with Pomona wins, has the hottest hand in his final year of full-time Pro Stock competition. A two-time winner at the Gatornationals and a four-time runner-up, Coughlin’s momentum has only one serious roadblock and that is his teammate Erica Enders, who won the second race of the year in Phoenix.
While KB Racing’s Jason Line and Greg Anderson, along with Butner are always a threat from Christmas Tree to timing beams at the end of the quarter-mile, Coughlin’s got momentum and the calmness of knowing, no matter what, this is his final year of full-time Pro Stock competition. He’ll be hard to beat. Both Coughlin Jr. and Line have announced that 2020 is their final year in the class; it would not be a surprise to either one of them taking home the big championship trophy this year.
But first they’ll have to contend with a 19-car entry that includes many racers who tuned-up for this race in Orlando last weekend. Second-generation racer Kyle Koretsky will make his maiden start and Vincent Nobile returns in an Elite Motorsports Camaro.
Pro Stock Motorcycle’s Andrew Hines returns to the track that hosted the start of his sixth championship season in 2019, owning the title achieved in Pomona in the most unlikely fashion and hoping to repeat again this year for a seventh time. Hines’ Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson Screamin’ Eagle team of Hines, Eddie Krawiec and Angelle Sampey is a powerhouse, to be sure, but there’s always the Gator man, Jerry Savoie waiting to bite a piece of the action.
Savoie, who had an easy opportunity to snatch a second titler at Pomona last November, found his Suzuki powerless at the Christmas Tree and gave away the final round to freshman Suzuki rider Jianna Salinas, who had a hard time getting down the track throughout her first season of competition. She won’t be on-hand for the season starter, as the entire Salinas family is sitting out the first four races of the season, but there’s a stout field of 22 motorcycles vying for the coveted 16 elimination slots.
If forecasts are correct, it’ll be a hot weekend in Gainesville for NHRA competition, with nary a scent of rain predicted. That’ll separate the hot-wether specialists from the rest of the fields as we see who starts the second half-century of Gatornationals racing on top.