NHRA’s Camping World Drag Racing Series is nearing its halfway point in a 22-race season for its Top Fuel and Funny Car nitro categories (both Pro Stock and pro Stock Motorcycle have 19 and 15 races respectively). That midway mark will occur in mid-July when the tour encamps at Bandimere Speedway outside Denver, Colorado.
Appropriately, there are some teams and drivers riding high as they head for Bandimere Mountain; others not so much. With new teams and affiliations for the 2022 campaign, predictions were a head-scratcher before the season started at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, California.
In the past you could always bet on those with stability, because momentum is a great thing in motorsports. Making changes year upon year always means a period of adjustment and it’s important to have any issues well in hand before the NHRA season hits its stride and races towards the end of the regular season at the Dodge Power Brokers NHRA U.S. Nationals over the Labor Day weekend.
This year it’s apparent stability isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Look, for instance, at Top Fuel. Mike Salinas finished third in the 2021 season standings behind four-time and reigning champion Steve Torrence and 2017 champion Brittany Force. Right now those standings are in reverse order: Salinas, Force, Torrence. Steve hasn’t won since the World Finals last November, but both Brittany and Mike have visited the Winner’s Circle.
Salinas lost the services of Alan Johnson and Brian Husen at the close of the 2021 season. They went to Kalitta Motorsports, looking to turn that squad around, while Salinas hired Rob Flynn, who’d been jettisoned from Kalitta’s team. Both Kalitta dragster drivers are in the top 10 at this point, but they’re there tenuously. Langdon, a runner-up at Bristol holds seventh place; Doug Kalitta is ninth.
While expectations always run high for Torrence, the Kalitta gang and Ms Force, Salinas’ ascension is not unexpected. He was reaching his stride when the 2021 campaign ended and he picked up where he left off this year Same for Justin Ashley’s team, with the steady hand of Mike Green assisted by Tommy DeLago, who helped Matt Hagan to his first Funny Car title. And the return of Austin Prock, who’s being co-tuned by Joe Barlam and Rahn Tobler will pay off soon. He’s working towards win No. 2 after sitting out most of 2020 and only running a single race in 2021 as relief for Clay Millican.
Antron Brown started his own team this year after having to wait a bit due to the pandemic. He’s not having a break-out year, even with his crew intact after leaving the Don Schumacher Racing haven, but they’ve been mid-pack all year long – much as they were in 2021. And Tony Schumacher’s return, after being out of full-time competition since the Army played taps to the Schumacher team, hasn’t gone the way either Todd Okuhara or Schumacher intended. Both drivers are there, but they’re not where they want to be. Neither is Leah Pruett, who continues to do pretty well in qualifying but hasn’t done the deed on race day, now racing for husband Tony Stewart’s eponymous team.
Things are a bit different in Funny Car. Yes, the top five positions are occupied by current or former champions: Robert Hight, (Chevrolet Camaro SS) Matt Hagan (Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat), Ron Capps (Toyota GR Supra), John Force’s Camaro and Cruz Pedregon in his Charger. Between them, this quintet have 26 NHRA titles, which should make the balance of the top 10 quiver. This group just seems to have their heads down and their eyes forward. Hight has four wins in 10 tries so far this year. Despite going to a new team, Tony Stewart Racing, Hagan’s already recorded three wins; reigning titleholder Capps has two victories in 10 the events with his own, self-named team.
Granted, all three of these drivers are working with the same crews they had in 2021 and that kind of continuity is usually good in motorsports. Hight has the estimable Jimmy Prock and Chris Cunningham on the dials; Hagan retains Dickie Venables and Capps is working with Dean “Guido” Antonelli and John Medlen, who helped him to his second title in 2021 while racing with Don Schumacher Racing. Schumacher lightened his load to field only his son, Tony, and three Factory Stock Showdown Dodges in 2022.
The venerable John Force notched his 155th Funny Car victory on May 1st when he won the Circle K NHRA Four-Wide Nationals at zMAX Dragway outside Charlotte. The 16-time champion has looked stout all year, thanks in part to his son-in-law Danny Hood’s tuning capabilities and definitely hasn’t lost his ability to psyche out the competition. Neither has Pedregon, still looking for a first 2022 victory with tuner John Collins, but the California native has been in the mix every single race weekend.
Behind these five are Ford Mustang stalwart Bob Tasca III, the runner-up at Norwalk last week, 2018 champ J.R. Todd of Kalitta Motorsports and fellow Toyota GR Supra racer Alexis DeJoria, who is definitely having a good year and should be in the mix once the playoffs begin at Reading this September, perennial near-titleholder Tim Wilkerson and Chad Green, whose Ford Mustang is affiliated with Wilkerson’s outfit. On the other hand, who knew Bobby Bode III had the chops to drive to a runner-up spot this year? Yeah, he’s in 14th place but he’s also not doing every single race… watch this kid!
Last year was Greg Anderson’s in Pro Stock, but this year everybody is, once again, chasing four-time champ Erica Enders. In the nearly all-Chevrolet-Camaro class, Enders has been a marauder all year, picking up her fifth victory at Norwalk, race No. 10, and looking pretty much unstoppable. OTOH, Anderson, now a five-time champion in this class, picked up his 99th win at the Finals last November and is still looking for No. 100. In the Elite Motorsports vs KB Racing challenge, it looks like Elite has things covered with Enders leading teammate Aaron Stanfield, but behind them are KB Racing’s Kyle Koretsky, Dallas Glenn and Anderson. Heavy hitters all.
The only other surprise in Pro Stock – at least for those that don’t always pay attention to Lucas Oil sportsman competition, is the ascendancy of rookie Camrie Caruso, who is getting the better of most of the boys in this class and pretty much marching towards the Rookie of the Year title that’s decided in the closing stages of the season. She has been consistent, quick and a good learner in the class. Her qualifying accomplishments – getting her first No. 1 in her fifth race and rarely being in the bottom half (only once so far) – show that’s talent, right there. Caruso’s independent entry is putting many others to shame.
NHRA has been tinkering with Pro Stock Motorcycle ever since it welcomed the four-valve Suzuki engine last year. Weight’s been gained for the Suzuki but they still have the ability to race hard, strong and quickly when the stakes are high. In fact, the elder statesman of this class, Steve Johnson is leading the standings on his Suzuki, followed by Vance & Hines’ Angelle Sampey, Karen Stoffer and Joey Gladstone. All riding Suzuki four-valve motorcycles.
The Smiths, Angie and Matt, the latter a reigning, five-time champion in this class, hold down the fifth and sixth places on their Buell and Suzuki, respectively, followed by the Suzuki motorcycles of Eddie Krawiec and Jerry Savoie, Marc Ingwersen’s Buell and Jim Underdahl’s Suzuki. Savoie, who won the title in 2016, had to revert to a two-valve engine when his power-maker decided not to, yet still won in Bristol for the first time in three years. Savoie contemplated retirement last year before realizing there’s no cure for racing. It is good to see younger riders like Gladstone showing promise; he went to the finals at Norwalk before being clipped by Sampey in the money round, but he’ll get that Wally trophy soon.
The Western Swing is up next for NHRA’s Camping World series: Denver, Sonoma, Seattle. It’s a brutal three weeks of racing, driving to the next one, racing, driving to the next one, racing once again. Good thing NHRA didn’t schedule any events between Norwalk and Bandimere. Everyone needs to prepare for this tough, tough threesome of races, whether at altitude or close to sea level. It’s time to get those cars and bikes in gear for the stampede to the U.S. Nationals and a place in the Countdown to the Championship.