Although Steve Torrence won the 16th annual Toyota Nationals Top Fuel division on the strip at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, it was Antron Brown who was awarded the ultimate prize of his third championship in the last five years. John Force once again proved that age is just a number, winning for the 147th time of his illustrious career. Shane Gray’s Pro Stock win was very significant, as he decided last week to withdraw from his racing seat and turn over his ride to his son, Tanner, next year. Pro Stock Motorcycle has a near three-way tie for their championship with Jerry Savoie winning on Sunday, putting the Harley-Davidson team into a tie with Savoie only three points away.
Steve Torrence added an exclamation point to an already spectacular season Sunday, with a flawless performance that propelled his Capco Contractors Top Fuel dragster to a statement win in the Toyota Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
A final round victory over J.R. Todd pushed the 33-year-old Texan past Doug Kalitta and into second place in points behind Antron Brown who, by advancing to the semifinals, clinched his second straight Mello Yello championship and third in five years.
“The goal always is to win the championship,” Torrence said, “but if you can’t do that, then you want to finish as high as you can. Second place would be huge but it’s way too early to celebrate. There’s one more race (Auto Club of Southern California Finals at Pomona, Calif.) and our plan is to go win that one, too.”
It’s been a banner season for Torrence, who already has set personal single season records for final rounds (8), No. 1 starts (8) and rounds won (34). Significantly, Sunday’s win also enabled him to even his career record in the Top Fuel division at 153-153.
Those are remarkable numbers, especially when one considers the fact that he was only 24-46 with no final round appearances when he decided in 2012 to form his own team. Since doing so, he has won eight times and finished in the Top 10 every season.
“We made a really good first (qualifying) run and that gave (crew chief Richard) Hogan a baseline. He made great calls on Sunday. We were quickest in every round but the second. The only guy who could screw it up was me. I wasn’t about to do that today,” Torrence remarked.
He beat Richie Crampton, Doug Kalitta by a margin of victory of .002-thousandths of a second, and Leah Pritchett to meet J R Todd in the finals. He used a .041-light to distance himself from Todd, who wasn’t about to give up in a true side-by-side race with Torrence, getting to the line first with a time of 3.734 seconds, 328.81 mph to Todd’s time of 3.762 seconds, 321.96 mph to score for the eighth time in his career.
Torrence’s Sunday performance was particularly impressive considering the fact that the cancer survivor never before had gone beyond the second round at the Toyota Nationals. Apparently, his Vegas luck finally has changed.
“It’s pretty gratifying to be a family race team out here running against the big dogs,” said the 2005 NHRA champion in the Top Alcohol Dragster division. “Our goal when we formed this team in 2012 was to compete for the championship. The only thing left now is to come back and win the championship.”
Antron Brown became the first driver in the Top Fuel category to score back-to-back championships since 2009, clinching his third title in just five years. With his win, Torrence leaped into second place by 11 points over Doug Kalitta.
“Steve (Torrence) won that one, but we got it done,” said the 2016 Top Fuel champion. “Brian, Mark and our whole team have worked so hard. I’m just privileged to drive that racecar for Don Schumacher Racing because Don makes it happen.
“This sport goes way back in my life, and my wife knows we do everything together; it’s a family sport and that’s what it’s all about. My whole family – my dad, my uncle, my grandma, everybody – they instilled this in me at a young age: Work hard and you can make great things happen. Put great people around you. Moreover, I’ve been blessed to have every single one of these things happen.
“Every championship is hard to win. You don’t go into the Countdown expecting to win a race; you just go in saying I hope we can win some rounds. If you can win 14 to 16 rounds, that’s what wins the Countdown. You just need to be steady and let everything flow like water. You can never think about how close you are to a championship, just stay focused on every round. Once you win a race, you erase that and move on to the next.”
The invincible John Force keeps rolling along, and in Las Vegas, he won his second NHRA Countdown race at the expense of daughter, Courtney. He now is in the top five of the Countdown.
“They told me all I had to do was win this race and I had a shot at (Ron) Capps; then I found out at the top end that wasn’t the case. I want a recount,” joked Force.
In a classic final round, John Force pulled up beside his youngest daughter for the fifth time in a final round. The pair of Forces had split the previous four races and on Sunday, it was the elder Force to take the rubber-match win.
He ran his best time of the day, pushing the Chevy Funny Car to a time of 3.884 seconds, 327.19 mph to Courtney’s nearly identical effort of 3.905 seconds, 325.85 mph.
“I never like defeating my daughter, but we got two wins in the Countdown, but we were just a little bit late,” said Force. “It is pretty exciting to see the stands that packed. We have sold out crowds and our TV with FOX is really hopping. I have young kids running this PEAK Chevrolet led by (crew chief) Jon Schaffer. We are building a young group for the future. I am just glad we gave the fans a good show. She left on me. I rolled deep on her and she still got the jump on me. I am excited to be in the hunt with these kids.”
John Force continues to work to make himself a better driver. The 67 year-old former truck driver from Yorba Linda, Calif., defeated four drivers today whose average age was 36, three decades younger than Force.
“I am learning what I can do at my age. The real truth is I am learning and studying that there is a whole future out there. I am doing the things I need to do to make myself better. I have learned some real tricks,” explained Force in the pressroom.
“When I saw Cruz (who had an enormous wheel stand in the first round) I was screaming, ‘That’s Jungle Jim!’ It freaked me out because that was how Jungle drove all the time. He was fearless. That is where drag racing came from. We are special, and I really believe that when it comes to motorsports. What we all do in drag racing, from Super Comp to Top Fuel, we do it for the passion and the love,” said Force.
In the championship news, Ron Capps enters Pomona with an 86-point lead; all he has to do is qualify for the race and make it to the line for first round, and finally Capps can claim his first Funny Car championship.
“Just another incredible job by Tobler and this NAPA Know How team this weekend,” said Capps, who qualified fourth at Las Vegas racing to another semi-final finish. “I always brag about Tobler, but he adjusted to so many changes to the conditions over the weekend to make our Dodge one of the quickest in every qualifying session and we advanced to another semi.
“It’s all about how this team has done all year – not what I’ve done. It’s down to one more race and we have a lot of things left to do. But we’re closer. This is by far the best chance we’ve had going into Pomona. It would only be appropriate for this DSR team to win the championship, because this team already has had a championship year.”
The most spectacular race of the day came in the first round of eliminations, when Cruz Pedregon defeated Robert Hight with airborne aerobatics, running a time of 4.233 seconds at a speed of 218.55 – and that was his wheelie bar clicking clocks. Pedregon’s front end picked up and he literally sailed through the timing lights, finally landing safely, but he was unable to make the next round against Capps.
It was a fitting moment for the veteran Shane Gray, driving off into the sunset, as he is handing over the keys of the Gray Motorsports Pro Stock car to his son, Tanner, for 2017 and beyond.
“I’ve always wanted to drive the car back to the pits,” Gray said. “It was a great weekend. I think I’ve been to nine semis this year and I haven’t won since the U.S. Nationals in 2014, so it’s a great day.
“I’ve got one more race to run and then my son’s getting in the car. I can’t think of a better time to win, and maybe we can go to Pomona and double-up. Awesome day.”
Gray has been knocking at the door all season, especially after regrouping with his team and engine program early in the year. His nine semifinal appearances came in the last 15 races, and in the last 6 races, he’s won once and reached four semis.
Gray has moved all the way to third in the points standings, behind only KB Racing’s Jason Line and Greg Anderson.
“I think we have caught up,” Gray said. “If you ever think you’ve figured it out, you’re in trouble. I think we have caught up to where (KB Racing was), some days. Some days we haven’t and some days they haven’t. This stuff is like a roller coaster.”
Gray qualified No. 4 in Vegas – the sixth consecutive race he’s been fourth or better – and dispatched No. 13 qualifier Deric Kramer in the first round. Gray faced No. 5 qualifier Bo Butner in the second round, and the two were within .001 seconds of each other on the Christmas Tree, with Gray’s pass of 6.702 seconds at 205.19 mph barely holding off Butner’s 6.721-second pass at 205.26 mph.
Greg Anderson has seven victories this season, but Gray knocked him out with a .021-second reaction time and pass of 6.717 seconds at 205.22 mph. Anderson trailed all the way with a .057 light and pass of 6.730 seconds at 206.10 mph.
Gray faced teammate Drew Skillman in the final – and left first again with a 021 light. Skillman soon slowed with tire shake as Gray sped to his fifth career victory with a run of 6.719 seconds at 204.76 mph.
Gray will race in the season-finale in two weeks at Pomona, Calif., before turning the seat over to Tanner.
“I’m really looking forward to it,” Shane Gray said. “My dad used to tell me, ‘You know, it’s more gratifying for me to watch you do good than it is for me to do good,’ and I always kinda wondered, ‘Yeah, right.’ But I’m in my mid-40s now and I understand the concept of it now.
“There are a lot of cool things in life that you take for granted when you are younger, but when you get a little bit of age on you, you appreciate them. I think I’ll be just fine.”
A couple hours after Gray won the NHRA Toyota Nationals on Sunday at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, he fired up the Chevrolet Camaro and drove it out of the winner’s circle and back to the pit area.
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE
Jerry Savoie just took a big bite out of the championship and has things really stirred up in the Pro Stock Motorcycle category with a tie for lead and the Alligator man himself only three points from his first title.
Savoie rode his Suzuki to a time of 6.915 seconds at a speed of 194.13 mph to defeat Andrew Hines in the Pro Stock Motorcycle final round for his second win of the season sixth of his career and first in Vegas.
“To do what we did here, we’ve been working hard,” Savoie said. “Tim (Kulungian) went back to the shop and looked at a bunch of notes, and got on a dyno and an engine we had back home and did some work. It’s like football and anything else; the harder you work, the better you get. It all came together this weekend. No. 1 qualifier every round and we got a fast motorcycle. It’s going to be very, very interesting when we get to Pomona.”
Savoie defeated Scott Pollacheck, LE Tonglet, and Matt Smith in the early rounds and is now three points behind Harley-Davidson teammates Hines and Eddie Krawiec, who are tied for the points lead.
The final race of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series 2016 season, The Auto Club NHRA Finals, will be Nov. 10-13 in Pomona, Calif.