Like many things this year, the top shelf of drag racing was forced to delay the start of their season due to an invisible virus. While both drivers and fans would have to show some serious patience for the explosive 2021 National Hot Rod Association to begin, and it was worth the wait. As this racing series top teams and drivers would roll into Gainesville Raceway for this season’s kickoff race – the AMALIE Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals – it would only be three drivers who would race away with the victory. Beginning with first time Top Fuel driver, Florida’s very own Josh Hart. This former U.S. Nationals Top Alcohol Dragster champion joined a short list of drivers who have won in their professional debut after defeating Shawn Langdon in Sunday’s final round. Hart would not be the only driver to make history in Gainesville. While this would not be his first series victory, Kalitta Motorsports’ own J.R. Todd earned his own historic title after driving to his first career Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals victory when he took down three-time champ Robert Hight in Sunday’s final Funny Car round. While celebrating his 60th birthday in Gainesville, Greg Anderson also made history at this weekend’s Gatornationals as he began to pave the way for becoming Pro Stock’s all-time wins leader after claiming his 95th career title at the Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals.
Although Steve Torrence would be all the rage at last year’s Gatornationals, a new star was born this season. In his Top Fuel debut, NHRA’s newest first-time pro winner began his opening weekend with consistent 3.8-second runs throughout eliminations against competitors like Clay Millican, Rookie of the Year Justin Ashley and even three-time world champion and last year’s Gatornationals Top Fuel champion Steve Torrence before taking on Shawn Langdon in Sunday’s final round.
While Langdon would also take down challenges from Doug Foley, Leah Pruett and even topped Antron Brown’s Matco Tools dragster in the semifinals with a 3.821, it was the newest Top Fuel superstar that would end Langdon’s hopes to drive his Kalitta Motorsports/DHL dragster to a season opening victory.
As Langdon would pull up to the start line for Sunday’s final, it was not exactly nerves that ended his weekend with a runner-up finish. Instead, the Kalitta Motorsports driver would knock the tires loose, which slowed his pass to a 4.244-second effort against the Top Fuel rookie’s 3.826-second victory.
“Never in a million years would I have thought this was going to happen,” said Hart. “I have wanted to do this for a very long time and thanks to my crew chief Ron Douglas, I had an amazing car. It was a monster going down the track.”
While one Kalitta Motorsports driver failed to earn a victory at this weekend’s AMALIE Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals, another would make history with his first 2021 season victory. Former NHRA Funny Car champion, J.R. Todd won his 19th career nitro title after taking down Blake Alexander, Tim Wilkerson, and Cruz Pedregon after making three clean 3.9-second runs in Sunday’s elimination rounds.
Although moving onto a driver who was sidelined for an entire season in Sunday’s final round would seem like an easy victory, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, both Todd and Robert Hight would smoke the tires at the hit of the throttle, but Todd was able to recover more quickly to wheel his Kalitta Motorsports/DHL Toyota to a 5.184 for the victory and the early points lead in what promises to be an extremely competitive season in the Camping World NHRA Funny Car class.
“It is amazing to be among the legends to have won this race,” said Todd. “This is Big Daddy Don Garlits country down here, which almost makes me want to become a Florida resident. I have to thank Connie for giving me this opportunity and no offense to anyone else in Funny Car, but Robert Hight is the best out here. That team sets the benchmark for the rest of us. I was surprised when it blew the tires off. I just kind of rolled into the throttle but he never came by and we got another one of these gold men.”
After rolling into Florida to celebrate his 60th birthday, four-time world champion Greg Anderson was hoping to earn a victory, but for this to actually happen was the best news that he could have received. The Pro Stock driver that everyone is calling The Boss now has 95 career wins in the factory hot rod class, putting him just two behind Warren Johnson for the class all-time lead, after taking down Alex Laughlin’s Speed Society Camaro in the quarterfinals and running a consistent 6.555-second run to drive to the final with a narrow 6.56 to 6.58 win against Deric Kramer’s Camaro, which also uses engines from KB Racing.
Driving up to the line in Sunday’s final, Anderson turned on the win light in the final round against Troy Coughlin Jr. with a 6.602, 209.33 run after Coughlin shook the tires off the starting line and had to lift off the throttle. For Anderson, the win also breaks a long dry spell that dates back to the 2019 Dallas race.
“Thanks to everyone who works on this great race team,” said Anderson. “We came here with Race Star Wheels on the car this weekend and I think they made the car faster. This is a match made in heaven. Finally, it’s great to get back to victory lane in Gainesville.”
The return to the 2021 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season continues at the Mopar Express Lane Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals, in Pomona, CA, on April 9-11, 2021. Stay tuned to RacingJunk.com for all of the continued return to NHRA racing coverage!
Check out a gallery of images from the weekend here: GALLERY: NHRA Camping World Gatornationals Season Opener