NHRA Starts 2023 Season with Sizzling Gatornationals

Matt Hagan earned his second straight Gatornationals Funny Car win - both Tony Stewart Racing cars are bright green this year - Anne Proffit photo

 

Josh Hart won the Pep Boys Top Fuel Callout Saturday afternoon – Anne Proffit photo

The 54th annual Amalie Motor Oil Gatornationals at Gainesville Raceway began a 21-race romp for drivers and riders chasing championships on the NHRA’s Camping World Drag Racing Series the second weekend of March.

The newly minted season opener had plenty to offer fans following the four-month hiatus: surprise winners – and losers, blow-ups, changed teams, same-old teams, new cars, old cars, weather delays and more! Plus,  special announcements and the Pep Boys Top Fuel Callout made the weekend feel supersized. This year’s Callout, held on Saturday afternoon amidst dragster qualifying, produced a new $80,000 winner and caused the sold-out grandstands to erupt in cheers:  local celeb Josh Hart, the same guy who won his first-ever pro NHRA race – in his first-ever pro race – at this track pocketed that money and looked ahead to, perhaps, doubling up on Sunday.

Alas, that was not to be. Hart was gone after the first round. And after the second round, not a single reigning titleholder in Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock or Pro Stock Motorcycle was left in the staging lanes. Brittany Force, who earned her second Top Fuel title last November at Pomona and was the No. 1 qualifier in Gainesville, fell to event victor – and eighth-quickest qualifier Mike Salinas in the second round. Three-time and two-time consecutive champion Ron Capps, Funny Car’s No. 1 qualifier on Saturday, was felled by Alexis DeJoria who, like Capps drives a Toyota GR Supra flopper.

Erica Enders, the five-time titleholder, couldn’t even start the race on Sunday when her Chevrolet Camaro Pro Stock racecar failed to ignite in the first round, handing that victory to new teammate Jerry Tucker. And to top off the misfortunes of defending titleholders, six-time and reigning champ Matt Smith lost in the second round to his Suzuki teammate Jianna Evaristo, who continues her upwards swing in the Pro Stock Motorcycle ranks.

Late Friday afternoon brought seasonal rain and halted the second round of qualifying after the two Pro Stock classes had run and a single pair of Funny Car entries made it down the return road. The balance of the weekend was warm, mostly sunny and over by 3PM the first Daylight Savings Time afternoon, thanks to TV necessities. That meant an early start and had another huge crowd lined up in the staging lanes for trackside parking well before sunrise. 

As stated above, No. 1 qualifiers Force and Capps were gone by the end of the second round, but Pro Stock’s No.1, Troy Coughlin Jr., started his season brandishing both a yellow No. 1 qualifier hat and a blue winner’s chapeau. Elite Motorsports’ lead driver might have been gone without making a pass after qualifying second behind her teammate Coughlin, but the eight-car team had a great weekend as their third-generation racer beat second-gen driver Mason McGaha in the finals. In Pro Stock Motorcycle, the victory went to Gaige Herrera, newly-hired by Vance & Hines as teammate to four-time champ Eddie Krawiec.

Funny Car Full of Upsets

Matt Hagan earned his second straight Gatornationals Funny Car win – both Tony Stewart Racing cars are bright green this year – Anne Proffit photo

It was an interesting day of upsets: Tony Stewart Racing earned its second consecutive Gatornationals victory when three-time Funny Car champ Matt Hagan powered his Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat past former Gator Nats winner and 2017 champ J.R. Todd’s Kalitta Motorsports Toyota GR Supra in the final round in an anticlimactic run. The duo had identical reaction times but Todd ran into trouble late in the run, allowing the Virginia cattle farmer to earn his 44th victory in the Funny Car class and became the fourth-place all-time winner in this class. 

Hagan credited his Dickie Venables-led crew for the win as the team debuted a new chassis and revised engine pieces in the first race of the year. “It’s super special to win the Gatornationals again,” he said. “I tried my whole career to win here, and we just got the first one last year. Can’t say enough about Dickie and the crew today. It’s his birthday and this win is a present for him.” TSR Nitro’s Funny Car team is staffed by the same group as 2022; that kind of consistency is what wins races and titles.

Top Fuel Goes Topsy Turvy

Mike Salinas had a great run to win on Sunday from his No. 8 qualifying slot – Anne Proffit photo

Mike Salinas took home the glory for his Top Fuel team led by Rob Flynn, earning his eighth class victory as he became a Gainesville winner for the first time. Driving past four-time consecutive champion Steve Torrence in hid 16th final round appearance, Salinas punctuated his four-win 2022 season by starting off 2023 with a blue winner’s hat and Wall trophy. “I think we’re going to be really good all year long,” Salinas remarked, “but we’re fighting with the best in the world,” referencing the deep Top Fuel field. “The teams out here are no joke. You better bring your ‘A’ game every time, but everyone is beatable.”

To reach the finals, Salinas punched his card against Justin Ashley, Brittany Force and Leah Pruett. For his part, Torrence looked like the Torrence of old after a less-than-satisfying 2022 campaign, when he knocked out Scott Palmer, Tony Schumacher and Doug Kalitta. That latter race saw Kalitta, driving a closed canopy cockpit for the first time in his career, set the track ET record in the first round against journeyman Spencer Massey, when he turned 3.646-seconds (333.82mph) on the 1,000-foot drag strip. Kalitta’s comfort level was greatly enhanced by the canopy car, which is much like the cockpit of an airplane, and Kalitta is an accomplished pilot who flies the crew to and from the tracks in either a single turbo-prop or one of two jets.

Troy Coughlin Jr. earned his third Pro Stock Wally in front of both his father and grandfather – Anne Proffit photo
Doug Kalitta’s new closed cockpit dragster suits the pilot well – Anne Proffit photo

Pro Stock Power Moves

Scoring his third career victory in Pro Stock after finally earning his first two Wally winner’s trophies in 2022, Coughlin Jr.and his Elite Motorsports Chevy Camaro beat Larry Morgan, Deric Kramer and Dallas Glenn – all Camaro racers – to reach the finals against McGaha after qualifying first in class. Having both his grandfather, Jeg Coughlin Sr and his father Troy Coughlin Sr on the grounds made the victory even more special. “To win with my grandfather here today is pretty surreal,” he said. “He’s the man who pretty much started it all for us, as far as drag racing goes. This morning I was thinking, ‘The chief’s coming today,’ and it fired me up. It’s an honor to have him here,” the gracious victor stated.

To reach the final round, McGaha defeated Fernando Cuadra, Kyle Koretsky and five-time champion Greg Anderson as proud father Chris McGaha looked on, after losing his first round match-up with Koretsky. Still looking for his first victory in the class, McGaha has matured after a couple of seasons and appears primed to visit the Winner’s Circle in 2023. As he marched past class winners, his consistency helped the youngster to his second final-round appearance. On the other side of the fence, 2022 Rookie of the Year Camrie Caruso, now working with Greg Anderson’s KB Titan Racing outfit, was gone after a first round battle teammate and fellow Rookie of the Year Dallas Glenn, who looked far better than he did in 2022, his sophomore season.

Hiring Gaige Herrera was a smart move by Vance & Hines – he turned four 200mph-plus laps on Sunday to win his first race for the team – Anne Proffit photo

Pro Stock Motorcycle Magic

Herrera’s magic Pro Stock Motorcycle race weekend made Terry Vance and Andrew Hines look exceptionally smart in hiring the young rider for its new Suzuki Hayabusa3 entry. Herrera, who joined the class last year at the U.S. Nationals, didn’t put a wheel wrong all three days and, on race day kept putting up 200-plus mph rides down the quarter-mile track throughout eliminations after earning his first No. 1 yellow hat. He dispensed with Ron Tornow’s Buell, teammate Eddie Krawiec, Jianna Evaristo’s Matt Smith Racing (MSR) Suzuki and Angie Smith’s MSR Buell en route to wearing his first blue winner’s cap, making the fastest run of each round. Smith defeated John Hall’s WAR Suzuki Joey Gladstone’s Reed Motorsports Suzuki and rookie Chase Van Zant’s Suzuki, only to be defeated by the fastest Suzuki on the grounds.

As he donned that cap and grabbed his Wally winner’s trophy, Herrera looked stunned at the magnitude of his accomplishments for the weekend. “This is a dream,” he said. “Vance & Hines is such an awesome team to work with. They help so much and it shows. I’m at a loss for words. I’m just out here having fun and I can’t believe I’m holding this Wally. To make this Vance & Hines team happy, it’s just an unbelievable feeling. To win out here and to do it front of all these fans, it’s just amazing.”

Chase Van Sant had a great first time riding for White Alligator Racing, until he was matched against Angie Smith – Anne Proffit photo

Van Sant’s run to the semifinals was excellent as well. In his first professional NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle race, riding a White Alligator Racing (WAR) Suzuki, the young rider was consistent and fast enough to earn the No. 3 slot in qualifying. He had a solo run in the first round when Richard Gadson was unable to make the all, then beat a strong Ryan Oehler (Buell) in the quarterfinals before falling to Angie Smith in the semifinals. If he’s able to be consistent throughout the season, that could help him to rookie honors at the close of the year. 

Toyota’s New Jr Dragster is “Supra”

Toyota made an important announcement during the weekend when it revealed the GR Supra for NHRA’s Summit Racing Jr. Drag Racing League. This additional class in Jr. Dragster will be an option to get kids involved in the sport at a young age. The new car, called the Jr. Roadster, was made in support of the sanctioning organization, together with Half Scale and Antron Brown, who has been a supporter of the class by fielding Jr. Dragster cars for his own kids. The full-scale GR Supra, of course, was revealed in November of 2021 and won the Funny Car title last year with new Toyota racer Ron Capps. 

 

Toyota’s new NHRA Jr Dragster Roadster made its first appearance in Gainesville – Toyota photo

This Toyota alternative to the open cockpit Jr Dragster has a shorter wheelbase compared to the traditional dragster. As Paul Doleshal, group manager for Toyota Racing said, “It can ideally fit in the bed of a [Toyota] Tundra and taken to the racetrack. Our TRD (Toyota Racing Development) engineers worked closely with Antron Brown to ensure that the new Jr. Roadster is ready for a class of its own. We hope that our other OEM partners in NHRA will design their own bodies for the cars and we can see them all competing very soon.” Launched in 1992, Jr. Dragster gets young racers ready to assume greater horsepower entries by prepping them for the rigors of competition.

FuelTech Pro Mod Series

In NHRA’s FuelTech Pro Mod Series presented by Type A Motorsports, Justin Bond opened the 10-race season with a fourth career win in his Bahrain 1 Racing Chevrolet Camaro, beating J.R. Gray’s Camaro in the final round. His 5.732-second quarter-mile romp at 250.74mph easily distanced Gray’s 7.070 at 144.18, came after beating Dwayne Wolfe, Doug Winters and reigning titleholder Kris Thorne en route to the final round. In the Flexjet Factory Stock Showdown, Joe Welch and his Joe Welch Dodge Drag Park picked up the win, defeating NO. 1 qualifier and his Janac Brothers Chevrolet COPO Camaro, setting a new speed record at185.18 mph (&.639-sec) to defeat Stanfield after the No. 1 qualifier shut off early.   

As teams and drivers departed Gainesville, the pecking order in NHRA Camping World Drag Racing’s four pro classes were different from the group that ended last November. In Top Fuel, Mike Salinas, Steve Torrence, Doug Kalitta, Leah Pruett, Brittany Force, Antron Brown, a tied Austin Prock and Tony Schumacher, Clay Millican and Josh Hart comprise the top ten. Hagan leads the Funny Car competitors, followed by Todd, Chad Green, Alexis DeJoria, John Force, Ron Capps, Bob Tasca III, Robert Hight, Cruz Pedregon and a three-way tie for tenth place between Blake Alexander, Paul Lee and Tim Wilkerson.

Coughlin Jr., of course leads Pro Stock, with Mason McGaha, Dallas Glenn, Greg Anderson, Kyle Koretsky, Deric Kramer, Matt Hartford and Jerry Tucker tied for seventh, Erica Enders and Bo Butner and Aaron Stanfield tied for tenth. In Pro Stock Motorcycle: Gaige Herrera leads Angie Smith, Chase Van Sant, Jianna Evaristo, Matt Smith, a tied Eddie Krawiec and Ryan Oehler, Joey Gladstone, Steve Johnson and Chip Ellis.

Will these standings change once teams depart the NHRA Arizona Finals for the last time? The final race at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park outside Phoenix, AZ are scheduled for March 24-26 of this year, before the venerable track, once known as Firebird Raceway is closed for good.

 

About Anne Proffit 1222 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.

2 Comments on NHRA Starts 2023 Season with Sizzling Gatornationals

  1. Thanks for this excellent article. I went to the Gatornationals for forty five years in a row. It was great to see the overflow crowds. I remember seeing Race sold out signs on the way to the track. I know Indy has a big hype, but when you look at the crowds, there are many more people in the stands at Gainesville than in Indy. I really miss the AA/SS Hemis of the sixties. It was so much fun watching them not just pick the wheels up but carry them till it was time to pound another gear. Long live Drag Racing and NHRA.

  2. One thing you left ot was the fact that nhra was squeezing the competitors for time ,was the Mike Salinas team did not have time to warm their car before the final. A true testament to just how good this group truly is Congrats to all the “Scrappers”

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