Ashley, Hight, Caruso Claim Final Arizona NHRA Nationals Victories

The 35th annual and likely final race on the Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park drag strip outside Phoenix AZ had enough twists and turns to be declared a road course. The Arizona NHRA Nationals was filled with surprises, from the initial qualifying results to the premier Mission #2Fast2Tasty Challenge to final qualifying and on to four rounds of eliminations. There really were competitions to satisfy those who follow legendary teams to those that root for the underdog.

Featuring three days of relentless competition on a tough-to-tame surface, the Arizona NHRA Nationals had something for everyone. Doug Kalitta, who is definitely showing more comfort and competitiveness in his newly enclosed canopy Top Fuel dragster prepped by Kalitta Motorsports, was the quickest qualifier in class on Friday’s single session, joined by Jim Head Racing’s Blake Alexander, driving the Funny Car team’s Ford Mustang, while second-generation Elite Motorsports driver Cristian Cuadra claimed his first Pro Stock No. 1 on Friday, also driving a Ford Mustang.

As rubber went down on the track, the expected emergence of different No. 1s was quelled. A sell-out crowd packed both sides of the sun-drenched grandstands and gathered at the fences to watch both two sessions of qualifying and the Mission race-within-a-race competition. They weren’t disappointed. The bonus event, in particular, held after both qualifying sessions for Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock allowed semifinalists (and winners) from the 54th Amalie Motor Oil Gatornationals to race again for points and money.

Alexis DeJoria’s start to the 2023 Funny Car season is looking strong – Anne Proffit photo

The winners of the inaugural Mission #2Fast2Tasty Challenge were Kalitta, who beat Gatornationals winner Mike Salinas in the Top Fuel bonus event, as he also picked up his first No. 1 of the nascent season. In Funny Car, it was Alexis DeJoria’s Toyota GR Supra that finished ahead of Gatornationals runner-up J.R. Todd and his Kalitta-prepped Toyota GR Supra, at the track where she earned her first NHRA Funny Car National event win in 2014. Gatornationals winner Troy Coughlin Jr. earned the Pro Stock nod by beating five-time champ Greg Anderson. Both drive Chevrolet Camaro Pro Stock entries.

Even as Kalitta kept his No. 1 qualifier in Top Fuel while pocketing both money and Countdown to the Championship bonus points, the No. 1 nod in Funny Car went to Bob Tasca III, who took his Todd Okuhara and Aaron Brooks-tuned Ford Mustang to the No. 1 position, as DeJoria was second-quickest and Alexander was third. Cuadra retained his first-ever No. 1 in Pro Stock, thanks to his quick and fast Friday lap of this aging track. Cuadra is the first Mexican driver to earn a No. 1 position in NHRA history.

Cristian Cuadra earned his first Pro Stock No. 1 in Phoenix - Anne Proffit photo
Cristian Cuadra earned his first Pro Stock No. 1 in Phoenix – Anne Proffit photo

Of course, on race day everything changed.

The track remained tricky but there were several teams that were able to overcome the situation and were poised to get a good result. The winners didn’t look good in the first race at Gainesville, but sure came back to show their worthiness in the Valley of the Sun. As rumors spread around the pits that maybe, just maybe this wasn’t going to be the final event on the track formerly known as Firebird International Raceway, Camrie Caruso, who left her family-owned team where she earned Rookie of the Year in 2022 to join KB Titan Racing, the off-shoot of Ken Black’s KB Racing team, secured her first NHRA Pro Stock National event win on Sunday in her Chevrolet Camaro.

Caruso, who took her first round win at the track last season, only qualified No. 8 but outran every competitor she faced. First it was Deric Kramer’s Camaro, who was slow at the start and hazed his tires early on. She next faced No. 1 qualifier Cristian Cuadra, who timed out after Caruso double-bulbed and then had severe tire shake as she wobbled to the win. In the semifinals, Caruso had a straight-up race against Matt Hartford’s Camaro and secured her victory with a far quicker reaction time; even so the margin of victory was a scant .0186. In the finals, it was KB Titan against Elite Motorsports – not an unusual occurrence – and Caruso’s better reaction time helped her win another tight race against the Camaro of 2017 Pro Stock champ Bo Butner III.

Camrie Caruso earned her first Pro Stock win in her 21st race - Auto Imagery photo
Camrie Caruso earned her first Pro Stock win in her 21st race – Auto Imagery photo

This was Caruso’s 21st career Pro Stock race and she’s only the second woman to win a Pro Stock national event, behind only Erica Enders on an exclusive list. “It was a great day of racing,” Caruso said afterwards. “And I’m just thankful and blessed to have the team and the partners that have supported me. I have to thank my mom and dad and Papa for all their support, too.” Caruso reached her first final round in 2022 in only her fifth race (at Houston’s final race) but had issues throughout the season as she learned her craft. “My crew chef Dave Connolly has had a great track record with younger drivers and new drivers in the class. Going into PRI in December, we were nervous about how everything was going to go down with the team merger, and they’ve been behind us ever since. It’s been way better than I could have imagined.” It helps that she has teammates like Greg Anderson, Dallas Glenn and Kyle Koretsky to lean on for info as she cotinues to learn her craft.

Funny Car’s winner should look familiar: John Force Racing’s Robert Hight secured his third overall and second straight win in his Chevrolet Camaro SS after finishing the first race of the season with a quarterfinal result. Hight raced from the ninth position on Sunday, having to meet boss John Force in the first round. Force had the better reaction time but Hight launched hard and was hooked up as the boss hazed his tires. In the quarters, Hight overcame a better start by No. 1 qualifier Tasca’s Mustang to claim a .0217-second margin of victory. He did the same thing in the semifinal round against Ford Mustang racer Chad Green – who’s having an excellent 2023 start with Daniel Wilkerson tuning his flopper – by earning another close win (.0184 MOV). It all came down to beating the reigning champ in the finals, and Hight was up to it, as Ron Capps smoked ‘em right from the starting bulbs in his Toyota GR Supra.

In Flav-R-Pac colors for only the 2nd time, Robert Hight earned his 62nd Funny Car victory - Auto Imagery photo
In Flav-R-Pac colors for only the 2nd time, Robert Hight earned his 62nd Funny Car victory – Auto Imagery photo

Earning his 62nd class win, the three-time champion brought victory to a newly-reconfigured team, where crew chief Jimmy Prock is joined by older son Thomas and Nate Hildahl, a longtime crew member. The trio tuned his flopper to perfection. In his 97th final round appearance Hight, who lost the title to Capps by a scant three points, won this battle. “This whole Funny Car field is stacked from top to bottom, and to win one of these races, you’re going to have to go through four heavy hitters,” Hight remarked. “You just never give up and when you have Jimmy Prock as your crew chief, you just know that you’re one run away from fixing this thing and getting back to where you need to be.”

Prock, as anyone who’s watched Hight race since Prock became his crew chief, is always aggressive in his tune-ups, reluctant to give any other driver a chance to succeed. “He wants low E.T. every round and we had that today; we had four rounds where we were low E.T. That’s Jimmy Prock-style racing and it makes my job easy. I just gotta go up there, stay in the gas and keep it in my lane,” Hight said. “I just love coming here. The fans are great and to see this crowd we had for three days, that really pumps you up as a driver. They’re back in the pits with you and that’s just what makes NHRA drag racing so awesome.”

In Gainesville, Justin Ashley looked way more human than he has for a long time in Top Fuel competition. He made up for that at Phoenix, earning his sixth winner’s blue hat and Wally trophy. To earn the victory Ashley, the No. 7 qualifier did something no other dragster driver has done. This race has not, until Sunday, been won by the No. 7 seed, but Ashley performed a textbook class in driving past the best. His first-round victory against eight-time champion Tony Schumacher came as Ashley grabbed the starting line advantage and Schumacher exited in tire smoke. Ashley then took out No. 2 qualifier Mike Salinas with a tiny .0435 margin of victory and vanquished four-time champion Steve Torrence despite not having lane choice. Again, it was a slight .0384 MOV.

Justin Ashley's Phoenix victory is his sixth in Top Fuel - Auto Imagery photo
Justin Ashley’s Phoenix victory is his sixth in Top Fuel – Auto Imagery photo

Kalitta was out after the second round to his teammate Shawn Langdon, the 2013 Top Fuel titleholder, who ended up being runner-up to Ashley in the final round. Ashley had the starting line advantage and never trailed, making his quickest pass of the weekend to take the victory lap. Again, the margin of victory was slight, at .0574 seconds. 

“You’re only as good as the team you surround yourself with,” Ashley said after the final round. “We’re a resilient group and it was an incredible raceday. The fans were fantastic all weekend long, but I knew we had to go through a gauntlet of opponents. A win like this sets the tone for the year, because it builds momentum – and every point mattered,” Ashley stated. With a slew of changes to his car dictated by crew chiefs Mike Green and Tommy DeLago over the off-season, Ashley had to amend his normal routine to accommodate their changes. “We knew, coming into the weekend that we had to make the right choices. We were in a good position to go rounds,” after working on the car during the three qualifying sessions. “You have to have four perfect rounds of racing just give yourself a chance to win – I am just proud of my team and grateful that we collected this win.”

Ashley, Hight and Caruso won’t have much time to exult in their victories as the next race looms at the end of the week in NHRA’s ancestral home in Pomona, CA, which is now named In-N-Out Pomona Raceway. Ashley is the defending winner of the Lucas Oil Winternationals and is hoping to notch another win at the historic track during the 63rd running of the race. Hight, too, is a defending winner of this race in Funny Car, while last year’s Winternationals victor, Erica Enders, is having a tough two-race drought, having failed to race beyond the first round in the two previous events.

About Anne Proffit 1298 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.

1 Comment on Ashley, Hight, Caruso Claim Final Arizona NHRA Nationals Victories

  1. Looks like drag racing is coming to an end in the Phoenix area at the benefit of greedy land developers, first it was Speedworld and now this. We have to wonder will this event move to Tucson or will they be next ?

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