NHRA Heads to Charlotte for zMAX Dragway 4-Wide Nationals

Racing four-wide on a 1,000-foot track has always required an extra jab of confidence from drivers and crew chiefs in NHRA’s Mission Foods Drag Racing Series. This type of straight-line racing requires an added dose of concentration on starting line activities, and the best four-wide racers keep their eyes and their minds firmly on their own lane, nothing else.

As NHRA arrives in Charlotte, North Carolina for its second, and final four-wide competition of the 20-race 2024 season, drivers with momentum in the nitro classes are the most recent winners: Doug Kalitta and Bob Tasca III. Those two veterans won in the first four-across competition in Las Vegas, along with 2023 Top Fuel champion Doug Kalitta of Kalitta Motorsports earning his first Wally winner’s trophy of the 2024 season.

Kalitta’s Vegas success has shown the assignment changes, new chassis adoption are paying off for the team, which doubled up at the season opener in Gainesville, with Shawn Langdon winning Top Fuel and J.R. Todd taking Funny Car at the 55th Amalie Motor Oil Gatornationals. In the third race of the season, at Phoenix, Langdon earned his second win of the young season and Kalitta joined him as a 2024 winner just two weekends past.

Team Kalitta’s surging is due to many things, including crew chief rotation and promotion. Brian Husen, long known as the right hand of uber-tuner Alan Johnson, is now the crew chief in charge of Langdon’s operation, while Johnson continues to lead Kalitta’s Top Fuel team, with the returning Mac Savage as his assistant. . Todd retains Jon Oberhofer and Todd Smith, who have worked with him since the nitro talent’s 2018 Flopper championship.

Team owner Connie Kalitta, “Just turned 86 and he keeps a very close eye on Shawn’s car because he’s tuned that thing forever,” Doug Kalitta explained as he delineated the changes to all three cars. “So it was great to get a couple of wins with that car; he couldn’t be happier. Connie’s given us everything we could need with parts and people. Chad Head (Kalitta Motorsports general manager) – you gotta love that guy! He pours his soul into our three cars and the people with a passion for everything that goes on, from the starting line to the parts to everything else. He’ really a big part of what we have going on.”

Every team in motorsports – straight-line or otherwise – strives to achieve the kind of cohesiveness with their drivers and teams. And once gained, the camaraderie tends to stick around for a while. Tony Schumacher’s string of championships and, more recently Steve Torrence’s four straight titles are evidence that both the people and the parts are functioning in tandem. It appears to be this way in 2024 for Kalitta Motorsports, and the return of Mac Savage could be a major part of that: “We’ve won a lot of races with Mac Savage, and it’s real special to get a win with Mac back on my car, working with Alan,” Kalitta emphasized.

Doug Kalitta is optimistic about winning both 4-Wide contests this year – Anne Proffit photo

“We separated Alan and Brian – i think after 20 years they have made 10 championships and more than 100 race wins – so that was a little bit of a change for our team this year. Brian’s doing an incredible job on Shawn’s car; he’s working real close with Alan, and that was the goal. Try to get two good, solid-running cars that are exactly the same with two guys who communicate real well together. We’re trying to build on that; so far, I think it’s working,” Kalitta stressed.

Even with all their successes, Kalitta Motorsports can’t claim the Top Fuel points lead heading into this weekend’s contest at zMAX Dragway. That belongs to Justin Ashley, winner of the Lucas Oil Winternationals, initially held at In-N-Out Burger Pomona Dragstrip in California – Ashley secured that rained-out race’s title in Phoenix two weeks later. Ashley’s consistency gives him a 23-point lead over Shawn Langdon, with Steve Torrence 51 points back and Kalitta another 10 behind Torrence. Steve’s dad Billy is fifth, 102 points behind Ashley. The balance of the Top Fuel are rookie Tony Stewart, Tony Schumacher, Brittany Force, Antron Brown and Josh Hart.

Joining this group in Charlotte are Clay Millican, Dan Mercier, Mike Bucher, Shawn Reed, Doug Foley, Cody Krohn and Jasmine Salinas running Top Fuel, making for a 17-car field. Millican, in particular, has been on a roller-coaster ride with his Rick Ware Racing-backed dragster, and Jasmine Salinas is learning her craft, albeit without the assistance of father Mike, who is on the sidelines with medical issues. That’s thrown his daughter into a lion’s den, but she’s shown composure in all four of her previous outings and is learning quickly how to stage and race these dragsters.

Bob Tasca III enjoyed his Las Vegas success – and wants more! NHRA photo by Marc Gewertz

Everyone talks about momentum in racing. Bob Tasca III is planning to take advantage of the momentum from his first 2024 victory and his three holeshot wins on The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The Ford Mustang Funny Car racer performed the feat of winning all three of his Sunday quads just north of Sin City two weeks ago; the Rhode Island native feels right at home at zMAX Dragway, aka the “Bellagio of Dragstrips.” Tasca won the fall two-wide race at zMAX and would love to bookend his Vegas victory by sweeping the two 4-wide contests this year.

“It would definitely be nice to sweep (the four-wide races) and we’re definitely going to try,” Tasca said. “Nobody is going to try harder than us. Last week was a big moment and you have to rise to the occasion. We’ve got a good car and a great team, but this is tough to do! It’s really hard to win an NHRA race when you’re racing against one car in the finals, but do you know how hard it is to win when you’re racing three people in the finals? It is, by far, the hardest race to win.”

Tasca has had a roller-coaster season and we’re only four races into the 2024 campaign. While he’s qualified well with his Ford Mustang, earning the No. 2 spot twice so far, first-round departures in both Pomona and Phoenix, against Paul Lee and Alexis DeJoria, respectively, dropped the team to sixth before winning in Las Vegas. Now back in third place, Tasca says he is “thrilled about the state of the sport. And Ford is committed to drag racing… that’s very exciting. We’re four races in a 20-race season, so we’ve got a lot more action we’re going to show fans this season.”

With Todd Okuhara and Aaron Brooks tabulating the numbers, third-placed Tasca (-90) will try to usurp points leader Austin Prock, driving the John Force Racing Chevrolet Camaro SS, J.R. Todd’s Kalitta Toyota GR Supra (-48), while fending off fourth place Matt Hagan’s Tony Stewart Racing Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat (-106) and John Force’s Camaro in fifth place, 113 points behind his teammate. Prock is substituting for Robert Hight, with Jimmy and Thomas Prock tuning their son/brother’s race car. The balance of the top 10 are Ron Capps and Alexis DeJoria with their Toyota GR Supras, Chad Green’s Mustang, Paul Lee’s Charger and Daniel Wilkerson, driving his Ford Mustang and sitting 218 points from first place.

Dave Richards is learning the nuances of Funny Car – Anne Proffit photo

There’s a group of six racers joining the top 10 drivers in Funny Car, making this a full field with no one – at this reading – in danger of not making Sunday eliminations. Two-time champ Cruz Pedregon – in his Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat –  is hoping to get his campaign back on-track this week, while Dave Richards, who is in his first full year of competition, is bringing his Toyota to the show, and John Smith has his Charger. Look for Blake Alexander in Jim Head’s Mustang, Buddy Hull driving Jim Dunn’s Charger, while Jim Campbell’s independent run in an older Chevy Flopper is glad he’ll be able to make this field and race in at least one quad.

Kalitta and Tasca III weren’t the only drivers thrilled with their Las Vegas results. After returning to full-time action at the start of this season, Jeg Coughlin Jr earned his first 2024 Wally trophy during the 4-Wide Las Vegas race, showing that he’s managed to remove any rust build-up from not being full-time in Pro Stock for a couple of seasons. Coughlin Jr. returned to the class at Las Vegas last fall with Elite Motorsports, and is now a teammate to six-time reigning champ Erica Enders, Aaron Stanfield, cousin Troy Coughlin Jr., David, Cristian, Fernando and Fernando Cuadra Jr., as well as Jerry Tucker.

Fernando Cuadra (lower right) is joined by sons Fernando Jr. (lower left), Cristian and David as he makes his final NHRA Pro Stock run at zMAX – courtesy Elite Motorsports

Just before teams settled into the zMAX pits, Elite announced this particular race is designated as Fernando Cuadra’s final professional Pro Stock race. Cuadra chose this weekend because his 65th birthday occurs April 26, the same day his wins, Cristian and David celebrate their 25th birthdays. Not only will the senior Cuadra hang up his helmet this weekend, he’s also retiring from running the family’s conglomerate of leather goods companies that includes Corral Boots, Cuadra and Colombia Impex. Those brands are synonymous with the Cuadra Boys in NHRA drag racing.

“It’s all perfect timing,” Fernando Cuadra Sr said. “With the businesses, it’s in the by-laws. it’s no surprise. We’ve been preparing and my boys will be taking over,” the responsibility of running 34 factories and the conglomerate’s 12,000 employees, together with worldwide partnerships. “Ech of the boys will have equal say in the company; they will have to unanimously agree on decisions. They’ve been involved for a long time and this is just the next step.”

It didn’t take long for Jeg Coughlin jr. to regain his winning Pro Stock ways – Anne Proffit photo

Elite has to deal with their traditional competitors, KB Titan Racing, and while Enders leads the points standings, KB’s Dallas Glenn is just 18 points behind her, with Greg Anderson, like Jeg Coughlin Jr. a five-time titleholder in Pro Stock is third, lagging by a mere 38 points. Coughlin Jr. is fourth (-65) while Brandon Foster of KB Titan holds fifth place points, 163 behind Enders. The balance of Pro Stock’s top 10 consists of Elite’s Jerry Tucker, Cristian Cuadra, Aaron Stanfield, David Cuadra and Troy Coughlin Jr. The monstrous 23-car entry includes the full top-10 racers, together with Matt Hartford and Camrie Caruso of KB, although Caruso’s condition might not allow her to race, KB’s Brandon Foster, Larry Morgan, the return of Dave Connolly, Deric Kramer, rookie Sienna Wildgust, Kenny Delco, Brandon Miller, Eric Latino, along with Chris and Mason McGaha.

There’s been no two-wheel competition since NHRA’s Mission Foods series left the wilds of central Florida in early March, but Pro Stock Motorcycle is returning to action this weekend and is competing in the final 4-wide competition of the season, with 19 racers vying for spots in eliminations. The six-week hiatus for the two-wheeled set allowed many to do some updates to their equipment and, of course, some testing. Matt Smith Racing, in particular, noted it would be going to Darlington prior to competing, as six-time zMAX Pro Stock Motorcycle champ Matt Smith looks for a third hometown win. “We won the first ever four-wide race in Charlotte,” Matt Smith reminded. “Our goal is to try to win the four-wide this weekend. We need to get back to winning races and give Gaige [Herrera] a run for his money. Hopefully, one of our Denso bikes or our Scrappers Racing bike can win this weekend.”

Six-time Pro Stock Motorcycle champ Matt Smith is ready to put his Buell back in the Winner’s Circle – Anne Proffit photo

Beating Herrera, the reigning Pro Stock Motorcycle champion and his Vance and Hines Motorsports team is no easy task. With Richard Gadson as Herrera’s teammate, the V&H contingent, which sells parts to fellow Suzuki runners, is usually in a class of its own. Smith, along with the balance of the top 10 after a single race, hope to change that. To effect success, “We’ve done a lot of testing since Gainesville. Testing, testing, testing,” Matt Smith stated. “We’ve done some dyno work, but the main thing is we’ve just tested a lot, working on our 60-foot times and our 330-foot times. We’ve found some stuff and I think we should be better,” he said.

After a single race, won by Herrera, Matt Smith on his Buell is in second place, 24 points back, while 2010 titleholder (as a rookie) LE Tonglet IV needs to make up 50 points in third on his Suzuki. Angie Smith is fourth (-53) on her Buell, with veteran Steve Johnson, riding his Suzuki is fifth, 71 points behind Herrera. John Hall’s Buell took him to sixth, Gadson’s Suzuki holds seventh, while Marc Ingwersen (Buell), Chase Van Sant (Suzuki) and Hector Arana jr. completes the top 10, 95 behind Herrera on his Buell.

Joining this group are Jianna Evaristo (Buell), Kelly Clontz’s Suzuki, Chris Bostick’s Suzuki, 2009 champ Hector Arana’s Buell, Eiji Kawakami on a second Bostick Motorsports Suzuki, Ron Tornow’s EBR, Joey Gladstone returning on his Suzuki, Ryan Oehler and Mark Paquette’s Buells.

This is the first time the Mission #2Fast2Tasty Challenge takes place at zMAX Dragway, which will make Saturday’s activities that much more compelling. In Pro Stock Motorcycle, the first quad belongs to Matt Smith, Le Tonglet, Marc Ingwersen and Richard Gadson. The other ladder is comprised of Herrera, John Hall, Angie Smith and Steve Johnson. Pro Stock’s pair of quads includes Jerry Tucker, Brandon Foster, Dallas Glenn and Eric Latino. Look for Erica Enders, Jeg Coughlin Jr., Greg Anderson and David Cuadra in the other quad. The Top Fuel Mission Challenge features Tony Stewart, Justin Ashley, Clay Millican and Antron Brown in one quad, with Doug Kalitta, Steve Torrence, Brittany Force and Josh Hart the second foursome. Funny Car Mission Challenge quads see Tasca III taking on Austin Prock, Alexis DeJoria and Chad Green, while three-time champ Ron Capps squares off against four-time champ Matt Hagan, J.R. Todd and Paul Lee. The winners of this race within the race can double-up on Sunday if they prevail on both days.

Lucas Oil Sportsman fans will enjoy seeing Top Alcohol Dragster and Funny Car, Competition Eliminator, Super Stock, Stock Eliminator, Super Comp, Super Gas, Super Street, Top Sportsman, Mountain Motor Pro Stock, Top Dragster and Factory X on the zMAX dragstrip throughout the weekend, which is looking good, weather-wise. The current forecast calls for temps in the mid- to high-70s with partly cloudy conditions throughout to challenge the capabilities of crew chiefs. FS1 will be showing the race on tape delay this Sunday at 6PM ET.

About Anne Proffit 1269 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.

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