There was a time when Doug Kalitta and his NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series Kalitta Motorsports Top Fuel team started each season with a bang. They’d perform well in the initial competitions of the year and the pits would be abuzz: is this the year Air Doug gets his first championship? We’d all hope for the best and be resigned to the facts that yes, as the long campaign went on its way, the air went out of that balloon and Kalitta, once again, failed to take the dragster title.
This year has been a different one for Kalitta Motorsports and for Doug Kalitta. At the start of the year, the team introduced a canopy car for their lead driver, one that pretty much approximated the cockpits he’s accustomed to when he flies. Kalitta seemed comfortable in the car, but he still had the problem of not getting through to the finals of most races – until recently. A tire issue took the canopy car back to the team’s Ypsilanti, MI headquarters for repairs and relegated the driver to his backup at Reading. Now, with wins in the first two – of six – Countdown to the Championship playoffs, Kalitta has a hot hand. He’s got momentum on his side as the third consecutive contest looms at World Wide Technology Raceway (WWTR) outside St. Louis, MO.
There’s a lot to be said for momentum. Justin Ashley had it throughout the regular season and came into the playoffs ready to control his destiny. Steve Torrence didn’t have it at the start of the year but started posting better and better results as the 21-race season unfolded. He came into the playoffs in a near dead heat with Ashley and is looking for his third straight win at this track. Quietly, Leah Pruett has been racking up points, posting results and maintaining a stand near the sharp end of both starting grids and eliminations results, as has three-time champ Antron Brown. But none of them is operating – right now – on the same level as Kalitta in the Top Fuel ranks. That fact, alone, makes it crucial to watch what happens at this weekend’s 27th NHRA Midwest Nationals.
With 18 Top Fuel dragsters on the grounds at WWTR, including the full leadership contingent: Kalitta, Torrence, Ashley Pruett, Brown, Brittany Force, Mike Salinas, Austin Prock, Shawn Langdon, Tony Schumacher, Clay Millican and Josh Hart, there’s Lex Joon, T.J. Zizzo, Buddy Hull, Kyle Wurtzel, Spencer Massey, Terry Totten and Cody Krohn to contend with. Hart, who won the first race he entered in his rookie season, has been having a tough year and lacking the consistency he needs to move up the food chain, while Krohn is driving Larry Dixon’s rail this weekend. Zizzo, who only competes when he can afford to do so, has Rahn Tobler turning the knobs for him in St. Louis, as he did at both Chicago and Indianapolis.
The situation is similar in Funny Car, where Bob Tasca III, who’s known to be a streaky driver in his Ford Mustang, is having an upswing in competitiveness when it’s important. For this season, he’s got Todd Okuhara turning the knobs on his Flopper and is currently just 25 points out of the lead after winning in Charlotte last weekend and gaining a semifinal result in the first playoff race in Reading. Going rounds is what matters, particularly when there are only six races in which to crown a Camping World season titleholder. In most cases, that occurs on the final day at the last race of the year in Pomona.
Taking advantage of issues for former points leader Ron Capps and his Toyota GR Supra, gone in the first round at Charlotte – a race he won a year earlier en route to a third Funny Car championship – and fending off current points leader Robert Hight of John Force Racing, whose Chevrolet Camaro SS blew up big time in Friday night qualifying, in the final round Tasca left last weekend’s race in second place, just 25 behind Hight. Capps dropped to third and needs to make up 69 points, tied with his former Don Schumacher Racing teammate Matt Hagan of Tony Stewart Racing, driving a Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat.
Hight and Capps were the winner and runner-up, respectively, at the NHRA Midwest Nationals in 2022; Capps is a four-time winner and twice a finalist at this Gateway track; Hight has secured the winner’s trophy three times in St. Louis and has qualified No. 1 five times. This weekend Hight returns to the familiar AAA colors on his Chevy Camaro SS.
Thanks to his runner-up slot at Reading, Chad Green and his Mustang are fifth, followed by the Toyota GR Supra of Alexis DeJoria, Tim Wilkerson’s Mustang, J.R. Todd’s Supra, the inimitable John Force’s Camaro, Alex Laughlin, who gave Big Jim Dunn a round win in Charlotte and Cruz Pedregon. These 11 drivers are joined by Jack Wyatt’s Charger, Terry Haddock’s, Dave Richards’ and Blake Alexander’s Mustangs, Dale Creasy Jr.’s Stratus, firefighter Chris King returning with his rebuilt Dodge Charger’s engine and Bobby Bode III in the family Mustang. There are plenty of spoilers on this list; will they upset the standings?
Greg Anderson really needed his win in Charlotte last week; it’s his home race, his sponsor’s home race and, well, he hadn’t seen the Winner’s Circle since the 2022 season. Having achieved his 102nd Pro Stock victory, Anderson is revived and ready to hit again. As the leader of KB Titan Racing, he’s overseen the transition of the team once ruled by the now-retired Ken Black into KB Titan, helping to make it a true competitor to Elite Motorsports, who earned the door slammer title with Erica Enders in 2022. With Anderson, Dallas Glenn, Matt Hartford, Kyle Koretsky, Deric Kramer and Camrie Caruso tallying round- and race-wins for Titan, this is one of two blockbuster teams that are going at one another for season-long honors this year.
Pro Stock, too, boasts 18 cars on the grounds, with eight of them coming from Elite Motorsports. In addition to Enders, the team boasts Aaron Stanfield, Troy Coughlin Jr., Bo Butner III, Cristian, Fernando and Fernando Cuadra Jr., along with rookie Jerry Tucker. David Cuadra will join this party as a full-time Pro Stock driver in 2024, the team has advised. Additional drivers looking to shake up the standings outside St. Louis include Chris and Mason McGaha, Eric Latino and Robert River. Only the Cuadra family are racing Mustang bodies while the balance of this field uses the Chevy Camaro body and engine.
Despite not making the finals last weekend, Hartford continues to lead the standings, albeit by a meager four points from Enders, while Glenn is 15 back, followed by Anderson and Troy Coughlin Jr. in fifth, 64 behind the Arizonan. Aaron Stanfield, Deric Kramer, Kyle Koretsky, Camrie Caruso and Cristian Cuadra complete the top 10, with Cuadra needing to find 146 points in his quest to move up the ladder. While 16 drivers are eligible for the Countdown’s prizes by virtue of competing all season long, the latter six: Butner, Fernando Cuadra Jr., Jerry Tucker, Chris and Mason McGaha, together with Fernando Cuadra Sr. are definitely out of the hunt – at this time.
Things returned to “normal” – at least for 2023 – in Pro Stock Motorcycle last weekend, as Gaige Herrera took his seventh victory on the year, riding a Vance & Hines Suzuki Hayabusa3 to a too-easy victory over the Buell of Hector Arana Jr., who fouled at the lights. It’s been an issue for Arana during this year and one he needs to confront if he wants his first championship to happen soon. While definitely one of the quickest and fastest riders in this class, errors have kept the New York resident from making his way to the top.
There are 15 motorcycles on the grounds for this race, marking the return of Cory Reed, who joins Reed Motorsports Suzuki teammate Joey Gladstone and also the Buell of Ryan Oehler, who hasn’t been on the tour for the first two playoff contests due to surgery.
Herrera has a 52-point lead over six-time, reigning champ Matt Smith’s Suzuki, while Arana is just two points behind Smith. From there, the amount of points to be made up goes into the triple digits, with fourth-placed Eddie Krawiec, Herrera’s Vance & Hines teammate behind by 104, Angie Smith’s Buell needing 133 points, rookie Chase Van Sant of White Alligator Racing (WAR) in sixth place on his Suzuki, 160 points behind Herrera, with the Suzuki bikes of Jianna Evaristo and Steve Johnson, the Buell of Marc Ingwersen and Kelly Clontz’ Suzuki tenth in the playoff running, 220 points back. Chris Bostick (Suzuki) and Oehler are considered contenders, albeit 262 and 314 points behind Herrera, respectively.
This weekend’s formula for racing is similar to that of last week, with three qualifying sessions on tap, one on Friday evening and two for Saturday, with eliminations set to start at 11AM central on Sunday. It may be autumn, but summer-like heat will continue in the midwest this weekend, with temps in the high 80s to low 90s currently predicted. Rain is supposed to stay away from the St. Louis area, but prognosticators have been pretty darn wrong lately when forecasting around NHRA races.