55th Gatornationals a Great Season Opener

Tony Stewart is learing the straight-line ropes - Anne Proffit photo

It’s easy to talk about winners of races, but in order to get to the finish line, winners have to win. Aside from stating the obvious, how they get there is the important thing and how foes are vanquished each time a car or motorcycle goes down the track.

Results of Sunday’s 55th annual Amalie Motor Oil Gatornationals, the season starter of the Mission Foods NHRA Drag Racing Series showed the No. 1 qualifier in Top Fuel, Shawn Langdon earning the win for Kalitta Motorsports, just after his Funny Car teammate, J.R. Todd, who qualified sixth, had some luck on his side as he made his way through the racing ladder. Nothing wrong with luck when it goes your way, as it did for Todd, particularly in the second round when his opponent, Ron Capps fouled at the starting line.

Ron Capps fouled after J.R. Todd two-stepped at the line – Anne Proffit photo

Capps was looking for a fifth win at this track, one that would have tied him with mentor and former team owner Don Prudhomme. Capps, the No. 3 qualifier reacted to Todd’s double-step by turning on the red light in his Toyota GR Supra and allowed Todd to advance to the semifinals. It was an unusual faux pas for Capps, who considered the foul “heartbreaking because we had such a great race car,” he said. “I heard his car and reacted.”

After the mosh pit that always surrounds a Kalitta Motorsports NHRA victory, everyone in the pits was surrounding Brian Husen, who debuted as Shawn Langdon’s crew chief at this race. They did work together at the PRO Superstar Shootout, but this was their first NHRA points-paying race together. Husen has been Alan Johnson’s assistant since the two were working at Al-Anabi Racing, when Langdon won Top Fuel for the team, so the duo do have history together. Taking on crew chief duties, Husen made it count and showed that he’s ready for prime time. And then some!

Brian Husen’s debut as crew chief was a winning one – Anne Proffit photo

This weekend marked the start of Tony Stewart’s newest career as a driver. A man who has won in race cars as diverse as NASCAR Cup Series sedans, Indy Racing League open-wheel rockets, USAC Midgets and Sprint cars, SRX modified closed-wheel cars, Stewart strapped himself into a 13,000-horsepower dragster this weekend for the first time as a professional drag racer, having done a season of Top Alcohol Dragster and not really expecting to move up.

Stewart and wife Leah Pruett are attempting to produce a next generation of racers by starting their family, which is taking Pruett out of the seat she used to finish the 2023 NHRA season in third place with two wins to her credit. Her husband is taking over the seat for her this year and is considered a rookie in the Mission Foods series because he hasn’t drag-raced as a professional driver until now. Last year Stewart was a rookie in the Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series, his first straight-line competition – ever!

Tony Stewart had a good Top Fuel debut – Anne Proffit photo

Unfortunately, meeting stellar dragster driver Justin Ashley in a tight first round bout made for an early departure for Tony Stewart. He did manage to produce four strong qualifying runs – only Top Fuel was able to perform its two Saturday sessions before the skies erupted as night fell – and he produced the best reaction time (RT) in class of 0.021 seconds in his first-round matchup. Stewart’s best qualifying effort was a commendable 3.729 seconds; he was not able to do any testing prior to the race, making the qualifying results and his stout RT against Ashley as the No. 9 qualifier even more commendable.

“As a rookie in Top Fuel, I hope I gained the respect of the other competitors in the class. I feel I was consistent with my starting line procedures and I’m extremely pleased with my first Top Fuel weekend, even with the first-round loss today,” the man known as “Smoke” explained. “I feel we showed a solid performance with the car and myself. There is zero shame in my eyes, even losing to Justin. Seven other guys went home after the first round, too,” Stewart said after pedaling through tire shake, no easy task for a driver unaccustomed to these powerful race cars.

Speaking of reaction times, John Hall produced a perfect RT in a revelatory weekend, in which he rode a Buell with Matt Smith Racing after racing a WAR Suzuki last year. During the second, Friday round of qualifying, in near perfect conditions, Hall had a reaction time of .000 racing against reigning champion Gaige Herrera. It helped him to No. 8 qualifier, and the Connecticut resident went as far as the semifinals, when he was matched up again with Herrera. While both ran 200+ lap times down the quarter mile, Herrera’s 204.54 was the second-quickest Pro Stock Motorcycle lap in NHRA history.

There were quite a few returnees in the two-wheeled class: both Angie Smith (Buell) and Kelly Clontz (Suzuki) are fully recovered from their late-season 2023 injuries and Smith, who wasn’t qualified until her third attempt, raced as far as the semifinals before falling to eventual winner Herrera. Clontz, too, had qualifying trials and didn’t make it out of the first round against Richard Gadson on the second Vance & Hines Suzuki. While he didn’t make the show last weekend, 2008 champ Hector Arana is back on a Buell as his son’s teammate. He looked good but simply wasn’t quick enough to make eliminations.

LE Tonglet showed little rust in his return – Anne Proffit photo

2010 champion LE Tonglet is back in the Pro Stock Motorcycle game, thanks to sponsorship from Kenny Koretsky, whose son Kyle is only racing part-time this year in Pro Stock. Despite not having any practice time, Louisiana firefighter Tonglet qualified third and earned his first 200+ lap in the first and third rounds. Unfortunately, the Suzuki Hayabusa (leased from Vance & Hines) fell to Matt Smith’s Buell in the semifinals, as the winning rider went to his 76th final round against Herrera. Both motorcycles in that race ran over 200mph; six-time champ Smith attained a 15-foot margin of .0523 sec over Tonglet.

Herrera is showing signs of getting below one second in 60-foot increments, as most of his times to that marker were at or below .038-seconds throughout eliminations. Now that many riders have hit 200mph, that’s the next goal for the two-wheel class, a sub-one-second 60-foot time. With six-time Pro Stock Motorcycle champ Andrew Hines and four-time champ Eddie Krawiec overseeing Herrera’s Suzuki Haybusa3, it’s a matter of when, not if Herrera breaks through reach 60 feet in less than a second.

Austin Prock made the finals in his first Funny Car race – Anne Proffit photo

After winning $250,000 in his Funny Car debut last month at the non-points-paying (but rich!) PRO Superstar Shootout, John Force Racing’s Austin Prock showed he belongs in this tough-to-drive class by earning the No. 1 in his Chevrolet Camaro SS and making his way to the finals against Todd. Unfortunately, the tune wasn’t right in the final round and Prock had to pedal as Todd roared past him to earn his first victory since Pomona last July. Prock, who has driven at this track in a JFR dragster knows what a difference his new ride can be.

“This is not easy to drive a Funny Car on,” he recounted. “I had my hands full for the weekend and I definitely have some learning to do, but I’m trying to catch on as quick as I can. And, hopefully, Pomona will treat us a little bit better?” The third generation “Prock Rocket” has capable crew chiefs: his father Jimmy and assistant, brother Thomas. He’s subbing for Robert Hight, who is on medical leave, but can always get some info about the class from team owner John Force, who owns 155 victories and 16 championships in the Funny Car class.

“For a kid being in a dragster for a couple of years, he’s been around pressure his whole life,” Force said of Prock, who drove the dragster for three seasons. “Pressure never bothers him. With Funny Car,” Force allowed, “he’s picked up on it really quick and made a lot of test runs. We’re very proud of him. the kid (Prock is 28) didn’t get the win but he got the job done.”

Angelle Sampey and Antron Brown talk strategy – Anne Proffit photo

While Tony Stewart exited Top Alcohol Dragster, there were two new faces in that class: three-time Pro Stock Motorcycle champion Angelle Sampey made her debut in this class after a warm-up close to her Louisiana home a few weeks ago. She made it as far as the second round of eliminations but lost to another new driver, Joe C. Maynard, part of the JCM Family Racing team, making his debut in this class as well. Sampey was pleased with her debut and said, “My reaction times were .050 and .046, and I’m very proud of that. I know our car will only get better, and I want to be sure I do, too!”

Maynard would go on to win the race after disposing of Daniel Dietrich, Sampey, Jacqueline Fricke and Jeffrey Veale. In his first season driving in Top Alcohol Dragster, Maynard qualified fourth and won both Saturday bouts and continued his domination on Sunday. “I didn’t even realize I had won until I made it to the top end,” he said. “This run in the finals was ‘lucky 13.’ That was only the 13th pass I had ever made in one of these cars, and now I’m holding two of these trophies,” after winning the “Baby Gators” at Gainesville after that event was postponed due to weather. Maynard locked up his first winner’s trophy on Friday and his second on Sunday.

Joe C. Maynard hoists both of his winner’s trophies – courtesy JCM FAmily Racing

The Mission Foods NHRA Drag Racing Series returns to Pomona next weekend for the 64th Lucas Oil Winternationals on the In-N-Out Pomona Dragstrip. The event will be held March 22-24.

About Anne Proffit 1245 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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