The uniqueness of drag racing, particularly the NHRA’s Camping World Drag Racing Series, can’t be understated. Whoever leads the standings at the close of the regular season gets a 20-point advantage heading into the six-contest playoffs, but has to perform equally well over the half-dozen races that comprise the Countdown to the Championship.
There are opportunities galore among those that qualify for the Countdown, and similar chances to upset the apple cart for the racers who didn’t make that cut. This past weekend’s culmination of Texas Motorplex’s Stampede of Speed, the 37th NHRA FallNationals was a prime example of Yogi Berra’s theory that, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”
At the start of this Countdown, John Force Racing’s Brittany Force was the class of her Top Fuel field; the 2017 champion who owns the top 10 speed records in her class, led the series into Reading looking for her second championship. This weekend her David Grubnic and Mac Savage-tuned rail was heading for the trailer after the second round, despite again turning some monumental speeds.
Justin Ashley, in his third year of competition and, like Force a former Rookie of the Year, stretched his advantage over Force to 82 points with his Texas victory over No. 1 qualifier and Force’s teammate Austin Prock. Antron Brown got as far as the semifinals and is two points behind Force, while Steve Torrence’s bid for a fifth straight title got hammered when he fell to Shawn Langdon in the first round, leaving him in fourth place, having to make up 96 points.
There were other issues for those that were looking to move up the Top Fuel ladder, like Mike Salinas, whose first-round foul to Spencer Massey moved the Californian to fifth place (-118), while Josh Hart has quietly moved forward with his quarterfinal result in Texas (-147), as has Prock, up to seventh place and needing 160 points to match Ashley’s total. Kalitta Motorsports teammates Doug Kalitta and Langdon are eighth and ninth, Clay Millican is in 10th, with Leah Pruett and Tony Schumacher the final Countdown-eligible racers. The eight-time champ, Schumacher is now 273 points behind Ashley.
New Yorker Ashley, who has three final-round appearances in this six-race Countdown, used four sub-3.7-second laps to earn his victory. “It was really a great weekend,” he said. “Any time you can go out there and turn on four win-lights on race day, it is great. There are only two more races after this and we know the past history has shown that, if you win Dallas, you really put yourself in position to go after that championship.”
When the Stampede of Speed began, regular season points leader Robert Hight’s John Force Racing Camaro SS had a 46 point advantage on two-time champ Ron Capps. The reigning Funny Car titleholder took his Toyota GR Supra to the Winner’s Circle for a second straight year and now the new team owner/driver has a 10-point gap to Hight, whom he beat in the semis. Matt Hagan was Capps’ combatant in Sunday’s finals, which had been delayed by weather, and now Tony Stewart Racing’s Flopper runner has his Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat in third place, but lags by 78 points to Hight. The estimable John Force’s Camaro took him to the quarterfinals and left him in fourth place, albeit 137 points behind his company president.
Bob Tasca III and his Ford Mustang retain fifth place points but his gap, too, grew after his semifinal loss to Hagan; he is now 174 points in arrears. Tim Wilkerson has moved up to sixth place with his Mustang, while Alexis DeJoria is seventh and J.R. Todd is eighth, both racing Toyota GR Supra Floppers. Cruz Pedregon, Blake Alexander and Jim Campbell, in 11th are the remaining Countdown entries, but are in a different county from the leaders.
Capps’ road to the finals had him beating Jeff Diehl, John Force and Robert Hight to meet Hagan in the finals, where he squeaked out a win at 3.911/327.18 to the Virginian’s 3.923/331.32. After qualifying third, he landed three 3.8-sec runs down the 1,000-foot drag strip before the final round, his fifth in the last six races. Knowing that points-and-a-half are on offer at the season finale in Pomona Capps said, “If we can leave Vegas in the position we’re in right now, or even gain a little bit, that’d be huge. It’s shaping up to another year like last year. We never left the [championship] conversation.”
If Erica Enders doesn’t win her fifth championship in Pro Stock this year, it will be a total shock, as the Texan earned her ninth win of the 22-race 2022 season and her second in her home state, beating arch-rival and reigning Pro Stock champ Greg Anderson of KB Racing with a 6.537 pass at 209.63 mph to Anderson’s 6.547/208.74.
This result gives her the opportunity to win it all at Las Vegas in two weeks time, holding a 163-point advantage over Elite Motorsports teammate Aaron Stanfield, defeated by Anderson in the semis. Anderson remains in third place, while Elite’s Troy Coughlin Jr. is fourth, Kyle Koretsky holds fifth place points, and Matt Hartford, Dallas Glenn, Mason McGaha, Bo Butner and Camrie Caruso, the latter driver discovering the difficulties of running consistently in this class close out the top 10.
Enders entered race day as the No. 1 qualifier – for the fifth time this season – and won a $7,500 cash bonus from Texas Motorplex for her Friday night pass of 6.524-sec at 210.53 mph. “I’ve got the best crew that stands behind me. Coming in on Friday, we had high hopes for the weekend,” Enders admitted. “Going on to win the race today was icing on the cake.”
Making only his fifth race start in Pro Stock Motorcycle this season, Hector Arana Jr., the first rider to hit the 200mph mark at Gainesville in 2018, took his Buell to the Winner’s Circle on Sunday, leaving behind a trail of disappointed championship hopes for every rider he faced. He began by taking out the Matt Smith Racing Suzuki of Chip Ellis, then powering past the Buell of Angie Smith, who joined husband Matt on the trailer after both had issues against Arana Jr. In the final round, Arana faced former champ Jerry Savoie’s Suzuki and the duo had a good side-by-side run with Arana overcoming a slower reaction time to take the win, 6.833/196.35 to Savoie’s 6.890/193.03.
Despite his semifinal run, Matt Smith remains in first place with 51 points over Joey Gladstone’s Reed Motorsports Suzuki, followed by Savoie in third (-103), Steve Johnson fourth and 118 points back on his Suzuki, Angie Smith a point behind semifinalist Steve Johnson, while Eddie Krawiec and Angelle Sampey’s Vance & Hines Suzukis hold sixth and seventh place points respectively. Marc Ingwersen’s Buell is eighth, Karen Stoffer’s in ninth with her White Alligator Racing Suzuki out of the Savoie stables, and Ryan Oehler retains tenth-place points, one behind Stoffer but definitely out of championship contention.
Earning his firs win sine 2019, Arana – and his family – are in this sport for the love of it and it shows. “You’ve got to make the best of it,” he said. “We just have such a passion for it. It’s been so long, and we love being out here with all the fans, and to bring home a Wally, is the icing on the cake.”
In the nitro classes, this was another big weekend for Toyota, who doubled up with Ashley in Top Fuel and Capps’ Funny Car victorious. The upcoming two final races, with the NHRA Nevada Nationals on Halloween weekend and the Auto Club NHRA Finals two weeks later, set the stage for an exciting end to the 2022 season for all four Camping World categories.
NHRA’s FuelTech NHRA Pro Mod Series’ first-time champion was crowned at Texas as Kris Thorne earned the title on Saturday after the first two rounds of competition and then closed his impressive season with victory on Sunday in his ProCharger-powered Camaro. He earned his fourth win of the year with the quickest round of the weekend: 5.720-sec and 250.24 mph. “I would have never dreamed this,” Thorne said, “but I’ve got the best guys in the world. They bailed me out so many times and every time we rolled up to the beams, I tried to give it everything I had.”