One race down; 20 to go.
This weekend the NHRA’s Camping World Drag Racing Series alights at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park outside Phoenix, AZ for the final time. The track once known as Firebird is slated for demolition following this event, which encompasses three of four categories in Camping World competition. Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock will be in the pits and in the lanes, together with a grouping of Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series classes.
It’s sad to see another race track closing, after losing Houston last year, Atlanta and Englishtown several years ago. Those tracks were part and parcel of NHRA’s history and rise in popularity and participation. The 35th and final NHRA Arizona Nationals are set for Friday through Sunday in the Valley of the Sun, with a single late afternoon Friday qualifying and two time trials on Saturday.
The first round of Mission #2Fast2Tasty Challenge for Pro Stock, Funny Car and Top Fuel is set to take place directly following each class’ second qualifying session, with finals following each class’ second Saturday appearance on the race track. Mission just announced that Angelle Sampey, the most successful woman racer in straight-line competition, with three Pro Stock Motorcycle championships, is the company’s ambassador for this new challenge. She won’t be competing but Sampey will be talking up the added points/money challenge.
Top Fuel shows 16 entries for this final Arizona race, so everyone on the entry list gets to play on Sunday in eliminations. Of course, with 54th Amalie Motor Oils Gatornationals winner Mike Salinas looking to take a second straight and final Phoenix win, everyone else is gunning for the Scrappers Racing patriarch. Brittany Force will be looking to avenge her loss in Gainesville and get her championship hopes back on a winning pace, as is Justin Ashley, who came so close to winning last year’s title only to fall in the final two contests.
Those three will have to be looking over their shoulders at three-time Top Fuel titleholder Antron Brown – a three-time winner at this track – a surging Austin Prock, four-time champ and Gainesville runner-up Steve Torrence, Pep Boys Top Fuel Callout victor Josh Hart, the Kalitta Motorsports duo of Shawn Langdon and Doug Kalitta, perennial competitor Clay Millican, Buddy Hull (with new sponsorship from Go Lithium batteries), eight-time Top Fuel titleholder and five-time event winner Tony Schumacher, Rob Passey, third-generation driver Krista Baldwin, James Maroney and Tony Stewart Racing’s Leah Pruett.
As Ashley put it, “Every race is equally as important, but this one has added significance,” due to the closure of the facility, about 20 minutes from downtown Phoenix. Like every racer on-site this weekend, Ashley knows that it’s important to come off the trailer prepared. The current standings show Torrence in first by virtue of his better qualifying position in Florida, followed by Salinas, Kalitta in his new closed canopy dragster, Pruett, Force, Brown, Schumacher, Prock, Millican and Hart. The importance of being at the top of the standings this early isn’t trivial but, as Torrence says, “The only time it’s important to be the point leader is November.”
While Tony Stewart Racing’s Funny Car Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat racer Matt Hagan didn’t win here last year – that honor went to John Force Racing’s Robert Hight and his Chevrolet Camaro SS Funny Car – the Gainesville winner joins 15 others hoping to win this final race at Phoenix. Hagan is looking for his fourth win at this track, while Hight is hoping to earn his third victory in this desert locale. This duo, of course, will be trying to jump ahead of 2021-2022 Funny Car titleholder Ron Capps, who made his professional debut in Phoenix racing Top Fuel, way back in 1995. Capps, too is a three-time event winner in Phoenix, owns three No. 1 qualifiers and is a four-time runner-up. After a quarter-final result in Florida despite being a No. 1 qualifier, he’s hoping to bring the Phoenix chapter of NHRA racing to a positive close in his Toyota GR Supra.
Although Hagan won in Gainesville, he had to get past a surging J.R. Todd of Kalitta Motorsports, who had a tough 2022 developing the new Toyota GR Supra. It looks like the hard work of Jon Oberhofer and Todd Smith is paying off for the 2018 Funny Car champion. “Considering how last year went, it was a really good way to start the season. It’s always a bummer going to the final round but not winning, but I’ll take that for sure heading into Phoenix,” Todd said.
In addition to Capps, Hight, Hagan and Todd, the Funny Car contingent is stacked with Bob Tasca III’s Ford Mustang, 16-time champion – and eight-time Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park winner – John Force and his Camaro, two-time titleholder Cruz Pedregon’s Charger SRT Hellcat, Alexis DeJoria’s GR Supra, Tim Wilkerson and his Ford Mustang, Alex Laughlin in the USD Parts Jim Dunn Racing Charger, Paul Lee’s Charger, Terry Haddock’s Mustang, the Jim Head Ford Mustang for Blake Alexander, Gainesville semifinalist Chad Green in his Ford Mustang, Jim Campbell driving Jeff Diehl’s Camry and Bobby Bode III in his Mustang.
With a single race under their collective belts, the Funny Car contingent stack up with Hagan leading the points, Todd second, Green third and DeJoria fourth, thanks to their semifinal runs in the first race. Force, Capps, Tasca, Hight (who had a mechanical disfunction end his Florida race), Pedregon and Lee in the top 10. Wilkerson is tied with Lee but 11th, while Alexander is currently 12th. All this should change a bunch after three rounds of qualifying and four elimination runs on Sunday.
Can it really be 20 years since sisters Erica and Courtney Enders were the subjects of an original Disney movie, “Right On Track?” Apparently, time flies for both this duo and for their careers in Pro Stock NHRA racing. Since then, Erica has accumulated five champion’s white hats and big trophies, and the duo are still at every NHRA race where Pro Stock is competing. The film premiered on March 21, 2003 and prefaced the success Erica has enjoyed with Courtney at her side. “At the time, Right On Track felt like the peak of our careers,” Courtney admitted. “To have a movie made about your life when you’re still just a teenager is unheard of, but we had already accomplished so much. Fast forward 20 years and it’s still unbelievable to see the impact this movie had and still has on our sport.”
Erica Enders didn’t have the start to her march towards a sixth title that she’d hoped for, going out in the first round when mechanical difficulties stymied her Elite Motorsports Camaro and didn’t even allow her to compete Sunday at the Gatornationals. That allowed for shuffling of the standings in this class, which has 18 entries this weekend in Phoenix. In addition to Enders and fellow five-time champ Greg Anderson of KB Titan Racing, look for Gainesville winner Troy Coughlin Jr. and 2022 Phoenix winner Aaron Stanfield from Elite’s stables, Matt Hartford, Dallas Glenn, Camrie Caruso, Deric Kramer and Kyle Koretsky from KB Titan, Bo Butner III’s Camaro, Cristian Cuadra, Fernando Cuadra and Fernando Cuadra Jr., all racing Ford Mustangs, along with newcomer Jerry Tucker representing Elite Motorsports. Shane Tucker, Alan Prusiensky (Dodge Dart), Chris McGaha and son Mason McGaha, the latter runner-up in Gainesville complete the field. Unless noted, every driver is using a Camaro body.
The Pro Stock standings show Troy Coughlin Jr. as the leader, followed by Mason McGaha, Glenn, Anderson, Koretsky, Kramer, Hartford, Tucker, Enders and Butner rounding out the Pro Stock top 10. That’s a field that should be all shook up by the time eliminations are completed on Sunday afternoon. The final NHRA Arizona Nationals start at 11am on Sunday. This is a three-day event for both the Camping World and Lucas Oil Sportsman competitors. The latter classes include Competition Eliminator, Super Stock, Stock Eliminator, Super Comp, Super Gas, Top Sportsman and Top Dragster.
The weather report looks good, with nary a chance of rain in this desert. There should be plenty of sunshine and temps in the high 60s to low 70s, conditions that entice tuners to find just the right amount of horsepower to get down this track for the last time.
In addition to the standard activities, don’t forget to tune into FS1 to learn who won the first ever Mission #2Fast2Tasty competitions. In Pro Stock, we’ll get to initially see Coughlin Jr. meet Dallas Glenn, while the second rematch from Gainesville’s semifinal rounds pits Mason McGaha against Greg Anderson. In Funny Car, watch Gainesville winner Matt Hagan again race Alexis DeJoria, while runner-up J.R. Todd takes on Chad Green. Top Fuel’s two pairs are Gainesville winner Mike Salinas racing Leah Pruett, while Steve Torrence faces off against Doug Kalitta. The winners of these rounds will perform for points and money in the final qualifying session.
So……. What is the Story on one Track after another closing ? I would suspect Economics, in that the space needed for a Track is measured in large chunks of acreage, and a lot of Tracks that were out in the sticks when built are now on the edge of Downtown as Cities continue to grow outward. Real Estate Prices are very tempting these days, assuming you are the seller…