2022 NHRA Auto Club World Finals One for the History Books

Cruz Pedregon, Austin Prock, Greg Anderson and Angie Smith celebrate race wins on Sunday afternoon
Cruz Pedregon, Austin Prock, Greg Anderson and Angie Smith celebrate race wins on Sunday afternoon

NHRA’s season-closing Auto Club World Finals, held at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, California, had all the excitement a race fan could handle, as the Camping World Drag Racing Series crowned three champions and celebrated four race winners after a 22-contest campaign that went coast-to-coast with excitement.

None of this year’s NHRA champions brought home a race win, but each of them showed their mettle on a cool, sunny Sunday where fiery blowups were the norm, rather than an unusual happenstance. 

John Force Racing Top Fuel third-generation driver Austin Prock earned his second victory in the Countdown to the Championship six-race playoffs, knocking off Shawn Langdon, Leah Pruett, teammate and 2022 Top Fuel champion Brittany Force before ultimately beating three-time champion Antron Brown with a rousing 3.641-second blast at 336.23 mph in the final round. With his victory, Prock over third place in the championship behind Brittany Force and Brown, relegating Justin Ashley, who was gone after the first round, to fourth place. 

That first round of eliminations was something else: not only was Ashley gone after losing to Brown, but so was Mike Salinas, who lost to Krista Baldwin, while four-time Top Fuel titleholder Steve Torrence lost to journeyman Ron August Jr., In the second round, Josh Hart defeated Baldwin, while Brown dispensed August, Force beat Clay Millican and Prock put Pruett’s rail back in the hauler after she’d had a major, fire-filled blowup in the first round of competition. In the semifinals, Brown defeated Hart while Prock defeated his teammate, newly crowned champion Force.

Prock’s victory on Sunday afternoon marked the close of competition for one of his crew chiefs, Rahn Tobler. Able to go out on his own terms with this win, Tobler helped his driver get centered and perform as well as he knew he could. “I’ve had a blast working with him,” Prock said. “He’s an absolute legend in the sport and to go out like he did tonight speaks volumes about what he’s done for the sport. That was the quickest run he’s ever made in [his] history, and it was his last one. We were the quickest side-by-side run [in Top Fuel history] in the semifinals against Brittany. I still get butterflies when I watch him roll into the staging beams. He’s accomplished so much in the sport, and he believes in me to drive his race car. He came out of retirement to come work with me and that means a lot. It gives me a lot of confidence and I’m glad we went out on top with him.”

Rahn Tobler closed out his exemplary career in the best way – with victory in Top Fuel by John Force Racing’s Austin Prock

Brittany wasn’t the only Force making news over the weekend. While she laid down her own 3.641-sec pass at 338.94 on Friday evening to set both ends of the historic Pomona track’s records for speed and time in her class, it was her father John’s big boom on Sunday in the quarterfinals that had everyone, including John, talking. With his Chevrolet Camaro SS body thrown high in the air and the balance of his Funny Car spewing flames where none were intended, the 16-time champ emerged from his convertible unhurt physically but again debating internally whether to stay or go in this sport.

In that round, Force was defeated by two-time champ Cruz Pedregon, who went on to win the race against Ron Capps, putting up a 3.839-sec pass at 335.65mph to beat Capps’ 3.850/333.16. Capps proved that starting one’s own team doesn’t block you from winning a second consecutive championship. Becoming the first driver in his class to win back-to-back titles in 20 years (the last one to accomplish this feat was, you guessed it, John Force), Capps set the class afire without extra flames on Saturday night when he took the No. 1 position at 3.837-sec sat a track record speed of 337.33 mph in his Toyota GR Supra. And who was on Force’s back-to-back title-holding team? None other than Dean “Guido” Antonelli, Capps’ co-crew chief with John Medlen, who worked with son Eric at Force’s during that era.

Capps’ competition in class evaporated when Bob Tasca III dispensed with then-points leader Robert Hight in the second round. Matt Hagan, who had been third in points leading up to Sunday’s eliminations, suffered two blow-ups, one on Saturday and the other on Sunday, so it’s easy to say his try for a fourth title went up in flames. Capps’ thank-you to Tasca gave him a win by inches in the semifinals, allowing him to try for that third title. He had to “not cross the centerline” in order to secure his championship; both he and many others found that necessity a bit on the unusual side.

The victory on Sunday went to Pedregon and his Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat, his only victory in 2022, a year when he and his John Collins-led crew were close but no cigar until the last race of the year. Putting together four 3.84-sec rounds on Sunday, “This weekend feels surreal to me,” Pedregon said. “I’ve had some really great cars I’ve been fortunate to drive in my career, but this car is the best race car I’ve ever driven – by a long shot! It says a lot for the team.” One trick in his book was adding Lee Beard as a consultant, but he still noted, “I have to shout out (crew chief) John Collins and the team, who have been with me for two years now, and give them the credit. What Lee brought to the table fit what we were already doing. It all came together,” he admitted.

Greg Anderson relinquished his champion’s white cap in Pro Stock at Las Vegas two weeks ago, when Erica Enders became the second straight five-time titleholder in the door-slammer class. But he did beat her in Sunday’s finals, earning his 101st national event win on the same day KB Racing team owner Ken Black announced his retirement from drag racing. Anderson is taking over management of the team that he and Black started 20 years ago. “It’s been a heck of a ride with Ken, [wife] Judy and the entire Black family,” Anderson said. “They’ve made all my hopes and dreams and wishes come true. I couldn’t do it without Ken Black; he absolutely made it happen.”

Lost in the news about Black’s retirement from the sport – bet he comes back to visit on occasion – and Enders’ run to the finals was her teammate Troy Coughlin Jr.’s big move to take his first pole of the season at 6.508/210.80 with his Camaro. This result on Saturday neatly joined his pair of victories in this tough class in 2022. And the news that Johnson’s Horsepowered Garbage is extending its agreement with Elite Motorsports, Bo Butner and Erica Enders, ending the Melting sponsorship and placing Johnson’s name on both the five-time champ and the 2017 titleholder. Anderson’s win gave him second place in the standings, followed by Elite’s Aaron Stanfield and with Coughlin Jr. fourth.

Angelle Sampey, who wasn’t in the title hunt for Pro Stock Motorcycle at this season finale, earned her sixth No. 1 position of the year on her Vance & Hines Suzuki on the same day teammate and three-time class champ Eddie Krawiec failed to make the 16-motorcycle field for the first time in his 15 years of competition. Yes, that was strange, What wasn’t strange was Matt Smith’s sixth championship in the class that he’s dominated on his Buell motorcycle the past several years, notching his third consecutive title. 

Still, Matt Smith and his Buell were gone in the semifinals, one round after Sampey and Marc Ingwersen (Buell) fouled out of competition. That was one round longer than Hector Arana Jr. and his Buell motorcycle, who won the past two motorcycle contests; he was gone in the first round to championship runner-up Joey Gladstone, who made it to the finals before Angie Smith earned the win in a close, holeshot race (6.749/199.55 to Gladstone’s 6.739/199.67. Angie Smith and her Buell have now won two of the last three season finale races: “I did my job and I won it on a holeshot. I think I’d rather win on a holeshot over anything. It’s nice to outrun people, but winning on a holeshot is pretty epic,” she said.

The 2022 NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series is now done, and the awards will be handed out Monday evening at Pechanga casino/hotel in Temecula, about an hour’s drive south of Pomona. No doubt more championship stories will be told by the time the evening is complete, but no one can take away anything from race winners Austin Prock, Cruz Pedregon, Greg Anderson and Angie Smith.

About Anne Proffit 1140 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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