More Than Great Racing at this Year’s 64th NHRA Winternationals

Thursday night's Roland Leong celebration of life had styanding room only - Anne Proffit photo
Thursday night’s Roland Leong celebration of life had styanding room only – Anne Proffit photo

Last weekend’s 64th annual Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals, formerly the start of each Mission Foods NHRA Drag Racing Series season and currently relegated to the second stanza in a 20-verse racing campaign, had more to recommend it than the idea of a race named for one season, winter, being run the first weekend of spring.

For starters the #winternats allowed Mission to start its #2Fast2Tasty NHRA Challenge for this “regular” season, with semifinalists from three – four – classes run at the 55th Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals three weeks earlier to compete for dollars and Countdown to the Championship points, appearing for a second consecutive year.

In the sole round held late Saturday afternoon, Gatornationals semifinalists competed for points and money: Gatornationals winner Shawn Langdon of Kalitta Motorsports and four-time champ Steve Torrence’s Torrence Racing dragster won their rounds in Top Fuel, while Kalitta Motorsports’ J.R. Todd (in a Toyota GR Supra) picked up the win along with Austin Prock’s John Force Racing Chevrolet Camaro SS in Funny Car – that duo competed for the #gatornats title with Todd anchoring Team Kalitta’s first-ever double-up.

The winners in Pro Stock were Dallas Glenn and Erica Enders, who will be facing one another in the delayed Winternationals finals at Phoenix in two weeks. NHRA never did announce what happens with the money and points for this protracted race within the Pomona race; it’s insinuated points and money will be split among the survivors of that first round.

Ron Capps, Mike Dunn, Steve Gibbs spoke of Leong’s influence on drag racing – Anne Proffit photo

Even before the racing began for the pro ranks on Friday afternoon, a very special memorial took place at Lions Drag Strip Museum to honor the memory of the inimitable Hawaiian Roland Leong, who passed late last year. A huge crowd showed up Thursday evening for the memorial, which included tributes from the likes of Don Prudhomme, Ron Capps, Donnie Couch, Mike Dunn, Pat Galvin and Steve Gibbs. Funny Car’s 2012 champion, Jack Beckman officiated and kept the stories coming during this gathering. If there were ten empty chairs, that would be about it!

The Dunn family, together with driver Buddy Hull and wife Madi celebrated Jim Dunn’s 90th birthday Friday afternoon – Anne Proffit photo

Right after warming up their Funny Car on Friday afternoon, the family, crew and friends of team owner Jim Dunn gathered at the Jim Dunn Racing team’s pit area to celebrate team owner Dunn’s 90th birthday, which actually takes place on March 28. NHRA officials, including president Glen Cromwell, showed up to pay respects as Dunn accepted all tributes to his longevity. There were cupcakes, flyers and a large cake for the family and crew to enjoy, and later the team applauded new driver Buddy Hull placing the Mooneyes-backed Dodge Charger in the show.

Just before the racing began this week, it was announced that Mike Salinas, who finished fifth in the 2023 final standings, needed to step aside for medical reasons and that his daughter Jasmine, who had been expected to pilot a second Scrapper’s Racing dragster in Pomona for her debut dragster race, would take over her father’s seat in the Top Fuel car that set the first 300mph record in the eighth-mile last year at zMAX Dragway outside Charlotte, NC.

Jasmine Salinas is ready to run – a broken throttle cable stopped her on Sunday – Anne Proffit photos

While her first, Friday pass down the Pomona 1,000-foot dragstrip was a planned shut-off as she learned more about the car she’s driving as her dad’s substitute, Jasmine Salinas, the No. 11 qualifier, faced the tough job of racing reigning Top Fuel champion Doug Kalitta in the first round. As the 20th woman to race in this tough class, Salinas did her burnout but experienced issues when her throttle cable broke and handed the round win to Kalitta. “After experiencing the amount of support I’ve had this weekend, if this is how we’re starting out the season,” she said, “I can’t wait to see what happens next.”

 

Another driver just waiting for a new opportunity is mega-champion Tony Stewart, who made his second start in wife Leah’s Top Fuel dragster at Pomona. Wearing the 50th anniversary colors of his longtime supporter Mobil 1, Stewart qualified 13th and was forced to run his first round against four-time Top Fuel champ Steve Torrence.

Tony Stewart is making only his second Top Fuel start – Anne Proffit photo

“This was one of those weekends where anything that could go wrong, went wrong,” the NASCAR, INDYCAR, SRX, USAC champ said. ”We had some track issues on Friday- it was really hard to get down the racetrack. A lot of cars struggled. Saturday’s qualifying session was really the elephant in the room for us. We had a solid pass. But there was some kind of glitch in the timing and scoring system so NHEA had to, unfortunately throw our run out,” he explained. Unfortunately for “Smoke,” he did just that about 100 feet out on his first and only Sunday run. “I’m getting more and more comfortable and gaining more confidence; I wish I could have taken [the car] further through the day on Sunday.”

TSR Nitro’s Mobil 1 wrap was beautiful – Anne Proffit photo

What happens next is the third race of the year, taking place in just a week and a half from now on the re-re-renamed Firebird Motorsports Park (close to its original nomenclature) dragstrip with the Arizona NHRA Nationals. The Lucas Oil Winternationals will be completed in the third and final qualifying session on Saturday afternoon, while the second installment of Mission’s #2Fast2Tasty Mission Challenge begins on Friday and is set for completion on Saturday.

Justin Ashley, who managed to win three times last year in a single event last year at Bristol, won the rain-delayed NHRA New England Nationals, Mission’s #2Fast2Tasty NHRA Challenge and earned the Wally winner’s trophy in NHRA’s Thunder Valley Nationals. Ashley will have to get past the most successful dragster driver in NHRA’s long history, Tony Schumacher – but he’s banking on being the defending winner of the Phoenix race in 2023 to get his dragster back into the winner’s circle.

Most likely 16-time Funny Car champ John Force will have the fans on his side as he attempts to win a 17th title and another Arizona NHRA Nationals as well as a ninth Winternationals victory. Facing reigning Flopper champ Matt Hagan and a very steady Tony Stewart Racing nitro squad helmed by crew chief Dickie Venables, Force and crew chief Danny Hood will have their hands full in Phoenix. Force’s most recent victory came in 2022 at zMAX Dragway; to say he’s hungry is a vast understatement.

Last year it took nearly half the “regular” season for Erica Enders and her Elite Motorsports squad to center themselves and look like the current champions they were and champions-in-waiting they’d become. Enders and her large squad looked almost human last year; no such thin in 2024 as they’ve already won two races: the pre-season PRO Superstar Shootout at Bradenton and her Gatornationals victory. Dallas Glenn’s difficult 2023 season looks like a thing of the past – but can he beat Enders? Can anyone???

About Anne Proffit 1248 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 More Than Great Racing at this Year’s 64th NHRA Winternationals

  1. While attending the 2011 Winters I was able to get to the memorabilia ‘swap meet’ at the NHRA museum. I was way too early, but they let me in. I got to talk with Tom McEwen 🙁 and Roland 🙁 for a bit and as I excused myself to get some goodies before others arrived, Roland asked if he could join me…ME! Well, we looked at this and that, I asked his opinion on some things and generally just BSd about whatever. It was apparent he was enjoying himself as well. 🙂 I did get the jump on some stuff he agreed was special and wouldn’t have lasted long at all.
    What struck me the most was how very nice he was with me, how he was enjoying this simple, relaxed time with a fan, and how slight he was as I guess I’d never seen him next to anyone else before. It was a great unexpected treat indeed! Thank you and R.I.P Roland…and Tom.

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