The weather tried to cooperate during this past weekend’s 38th annual Pep Boys NHRA Nationals, held on the rejuvenated Maple Grove Raceway outside Reading, PA. There was supposed to be some sunshine on Sunday, but it sure didn’t last long enough to complete the first of six races in NHRA’s Camping World Drag Racing Series Countdown to the Championship.
Only the first pair of semifinalists in Top Fuel made their runs before the rains came, forcing all activities to be completed Monday morning. In a three-week span where there are races each weekend to begin the six-race Countdown, this situation created difficulties for those still in the running once quarterfinal match-ups had been completed.
But never mind, the skies cleared and Doug Kalitta finally won his 50th NHRA Top Fuel race, nearly three years after earning his 49th. Kalitta achieved this milestone using his backup dragster, after losing a tire during Saturday’s final qualifying that pretty much destroyed the rear of his enclosed cockpit car, forcing him back to the open dragster with which he’d competed until this year. Kalitta has said he feels more comfortable in the newer car, but the older one is the machine that gave him the win that had eluded the driver for way too long.
In his 110th final round appearance, Kalitta blasted a 3.662-second pass at 336.99 mph to beat four-time NHRA Top Fuel champ Steve Torrence’s 3.695-second run at 332.34 mph. While the result placed Torrence into the catbird seat following former points leader Justin Ashley’s second round departure at the hands of eight-time TF champ Tony Schumacher, it also elevated Kalitta to third place in the standings; he’d been well farther down the laundry list prior to this weekend’s successful run.
“This is huge,” Kalitta said. “To get that monkey off my back and get that 50th win, now we can concentrate on the next five [playoff] races. Getting this victory, that’s been big on my list. It was a great job for my team and I’m real proud of their effort. To run like that (all through final eliminations) and go in the 60s in the final, it shows their talent. I couldn’t be happier. I love running here and my guys worked their tails off. It never hurts to have a thrash and I’m just really proud of this team.”
With Kalitta’s victory, the points standings were all shook up, as Torrence leads Ashley by seven points, with Kalitta third, Tony Stewart Racing’s Leah Pruett fourth, Antron Brown fifth, followed by reigning titleholder Brittany Force, Mike Salinas, Austin Prock, Tony Schumacher and Clay Millican.
In Funny Car, Robert Hight took his John Force Racing Chevrolet Camaro SS to the Winners Circle when he defeated the Ford Mustang of Chad Green in the finals, with a 3.854-second blast at 330.39 mph to Green’s 3.928/327.27. This was Hight’s 100th final round appearance and he earned his 64th Wally winner’s trophy in the effort, taking his third win of the season. To reach the final round against Green, Hight beat Jim Campbell, Matt Hagan and Ron Capps, elevating himself to the points lead in the process.
“You can look back to last year when we were leading the points coming into the Countdown,” Hight reminded. “We won this race but we didn’t get [the championship] done in the end. We’re going to celebrate today. We’re going to have a blast but we’ve got a lot of work to do. This team’s coming into their own right at the right time… we’re going to have some fun tonight, but we’re going to get our act together and we’re going to win Charlotte and celebrate the points lead,” he warned.
With this win, Hight has three points on Capps, who came into the Countdown as the points leader with his Toyota GR Supra. Bob Tasca III, who took his Ford Mustang to the No. 1 qualifying slot in Reading, yet fell to Green in the semifinals, is third, followed by Tony Stewart Racing’s Matt Hagan in the team’s Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat, Green, Alexis DeJoria’s Toyota GR Supra, the Kalitta Motorsports GR Supra of J.R. Todd, Tim Wilkerson’s Mustang, John Force’s Camaro and Cruz Pedregon’s Charger.
Is this Matt Hartford’s year? It’s beginning to look that way after the veteran secured his second win of the season (the first time he’d accomplished the feat) at Indy. Winning Pro Stock at Reading gave the Arizona racer his third victory of 2023, second straight and kept him firmly atop the door slammer standings. It wasn’t easy for Hartford, who had an appendectomy the Thursday after Indy and struggled throughout qualifying.
Hartford and his KB Titan-resourced team recovered when it mattered in eliminations, both Sunday and Monday as he defeated KB Titan squadmates Greg Anderson, a five-time Pro Stock champ, reigning Rookie of the Year Camrie Caruso before knocking off reigning five-time champ Erica Enders of Elite Motorsports in the semifinals. To defeat Maple Grove co-owner Kyle Koretsky in the final round, Hartford etched a run of 6.532 seconds at 208.91 mph over Koretsky’s slowing 7.133/208.26.
Capturing his third win of the season, his second-consecutive and eighth of his career, Hartford remarked, “You get your appendix out and seven days later, you’re in a race car. The car wouldn’t run and we had all kinds of electrical issues,” he said. “The last week and a half has not been fun until today. Our team had to work harder this weekend than they have in years and they really pulled together. Things went our way and we had a really good day today. There’s 20 win lights left in the year and if I just keep doing my job and keep my head on straight, I think we walk out of here with a white (championship) hat after five more races.”
Hartford leads Enders, who was the No. 1 qualifier for this race by 30 points, with her teammate Troy Coughlin Jr. third, former points leader Dallas Glenn of KB Titan fourth and Koretsky fifth. Behind them are Elite’s Aaron Stanfield, Deric Kramer of KB Titan, Anderson, Caruso and Elite’s Cristian Cuadra, the sole driver in this Top 10 to race a Ford Mustang body.
Matt Smith knows the drill: get your Pro Stock Motorcycle rig working well by the time you get to Indy for the close of the “regular” season at the 69th U.S. Nationals and keep on plugging from there. The six-time two-wheel champion earned his first victory of the season at Indy and took his second at Reading on Monday morning, defeating his part-time teammate Chip Ellis in the process.
To earn his 38th career National victory, Smith – riding his Suzuki – defeated Chris Bostick (Suzuki), Marc Ingwersen’s Buell and his Suzuki teammate Jianna Evaristo, who earned her first 200mph lap on Saturday and was the rider to defeat former points leader Gaige Herrera’s Vance & Hines Suzuki Hayabusa in the second round of eliminations in Sunday’s quarterfinals. Meeting Ellis in the final round, “Today was exciting. We’ve won races on Monday before and we pulled it off today. All in all, we had a great weekend. Personally, my bike still isn’t the bike I need out there to win a seventh championship,” which would be a class record.
“”We just have to get my bike better. My bike isn’t 60-footing the way it needs to. We know we have really good power, even though we qualified fourth, but we’re still way behind,” he revealed. Smith has won six championships, “Because we play our cards right and we’re smart, and we do what we need to do. We brought a fourth bike (to this race) and that was our goal. When you don’t have the best stuff, you have to bring other stuff in to try to learn. That’s why we brought that bike to Reading, and Chip knocked out some people that we needed to knock out!”
Ellis has raced a team bike for Matt Smith Racing occasionally during the regular season and qualified second for this race. He took out the Suzukis of Cory Reed and Eddie Krawiec before defeating Hector Arana Jr.’s Buell to reach the final round. With five races to go, Smith leads Herrera by 17 points, with Arana Jr., Eddie Krawiec (still waiting to take his 50th win), Angie Smith, Evaristo, Steve Johnson’s Suzuki, Ingwersen, Chase Van Sant and Kelly Clontz’s Suzukis in the standings.
The NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series has less than four days to recover and get ready for the second race in the six-contest Countdown to the Championship playoffs. The 15th annual betway NHRA Carolina Nationals at zMAX Dragway in Charlotte, N are scheduled for September 22-24.