It’s been nearly five months since the NHRA’s Camping World Drag Racing Series turned a wheel in anger, even longer for the FuelTech Pro Mod Drag Racing Series presented by Type A Motorsports and the FlexJet NHRA Factory Stock Showdown.
The wait is over this weekend when those series’, including Lucas Oil sportsmen classes, converge on Gainesville Raceway for the 54th Amalie Motor Oil Gatornationals to start their campaigns. Lucas Oil classes have been racing for at least a few weeks but the professionals have had to wait as the NHRA decided to shake up its schedule of 21 races for the nitro (and pro stock) classes and start their campaigns in Florida, rather than at the traditional Winternationals in California.
A multitude of special events accompany this four-day celebration of straight-line speed – including the second annual Pep Boys NHRA Top Fuel Callout, which had to be postponed until last year’s U.S. Nationals after nasty weather scotched all but one qualifying session and the traditional four rounds of eliminations at the Gators. It wasn’t what anyone wanted, but we still have no control over the weather, which this year looks to be a heck of a lot more cooperative.
Pro Mod will also have a special award at the Gators, when the FTI Pro Mod Showdown takes place during qualifying and the first round of eliminations on Friday and Saturday. The driver with the best reaction time and elapsed time average over the three qualifying rounds and the first round of eliminations will win a $7,500 prize from FTI Performance.
Sixteen Top Fuel drivers will be looking to topple 2022 Top Fuel champion Brittany Force starting this weekend, but with a returning crew from last year led by David Grubnic and Mac Savage, Force looks to take her John Force Racing rail to the top of the timing sheets where she’s become the low ET leader in her class. After making the fastest run in Top Fuel history (338.94) and shattering many track records, Force is keen to kick off this season with two wins: one in the Callout and the other on race day.
After winning five races last year, Force is looking to continue her quick and dominating activities around the country. The two-time champion shattered 15 records in 2022 and is primed to do more. “There’s going to be pressure going into day one,” she acknowledged. This track is where she earned her first career Top Fuel victory in 2016 and where she owns both ends of the Gainesville track records.
Of course, she’s got a pack of teams and drivers keen to take away her proclivity to successful runs at this – and every – NHRA track. She’s got to deal with her teammate Austin Prock, who won the season finale in Pomona and locked himself into this weekend’s Top Fuel Pep Boys Callout. There’s also four-time consecutive world champ Steve Torrence, three-time champ Antron Brown, eight-time champ Tony Schumacher, perennial bridesmaid Doug Kalitta, 2013 champ Shawn Langdon, Clay Millican, Mike Salinas, Justin Ashley, Josh Hart and Leah Pruett to run down.
Kalitta Motorsports is looking into using a canopy closure for Doug Kalitta’s dragster, which retains sponsorship with Mac Tools and RevChem this year. The team tested its car with canopy in February and is testing this week as it makes the decision of whether – or not – to continue using that closure for the full, 21-race season. “The canopy was good,” Kalitta admitted. “Visibility is good, it’s quiet, which is one of the things lot of people say. We’re trying to make it work better for our team, and we’ll have an opportunity to try it out again on Wednesday, right before the first race.”
Scott Palmer returns to Top Fuel competition this weekend, along with Jacob Opatmy, Doug Foley, Spencer Massey and Keith Murt. There are a total of 17 entries in the dragster class, and last year’s winner isn’t on the entry lists we’ve seen, meaning Tripp Tatum won’t be back to defend his first series victory. That’s a shame.
Last year’s Funny Car Gatornationals winner, Matt Hagan gave team owner Tony Stewart his first NHRA factory in the team’s third start, driving the squad’s Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat flopper. That was a good start for TSR Nitro but the team, and Hagan, were unable to run down 2021 champ Ron Capps, who earned his second straight title with his new, self-owned team and with new manufacturer partner Toyota. Capps’ achievement marked the first back-to-back championship in the class since John Force did it 20 years earlier.
Capps, starting his new team after making the announcement in December of 2021 at the Performance Racing Industry (PRI) show, had to buy cars, trucks, equipment before the start of last year’s campaign. He said it would be a lot smoother in 2023 after a full year. Capps was, at the start of the year, jettisoned by former marketing partner Dodge and was able to align with Toyota. As it happened, coming in late like he did, the champ was able to give Toyota its first and only wins with the new GR Supra race car body. Even though J.R. Todd of Kalitta Motorsports and DC Motorsports’ Alexis DeJoria did the testing, it was Capps who brought home the bacon, as he kept both Toyota and his primary sponsor, NAPA Auto Parts rewarded through the season.
It was all the little moments that took Capps to his second straight title, like beating both Robert Hight (John Force Racing Chevrolet Camaro SS) and Hagan at Texas Motorplex – for the second straight time – despite the challenges of both racing and handling the business side of his team. Winning the title by a scant three points over Hight, in the final round of the season got to the driver: “What we pulled off was an amazing thing last year, having old school historic racers as crew chiefs helped us excel. Those guys are all racers,” he said of crew chiefs Dean “Guido” Antonelli and John Medlen. With Medlen retired, of course, things might change.
The Funny Car entry for this race is light, with 16 teams and drivers on the list. That means, of course, everyone gets to run on Sunday. There have been changes to the field, with Alex Laughlin taking over iconic Jim Dunn’s Flopper and Tim Wilkerson joining The Maynard Family Racing clan with his Ford Mustang racer. The veteran and fan favorite, Wilkerson is looking forward to racing with support from SCAG Power Equipment, long-time supporters Levi, Ray and Shoup, along with CTS Custom Trailers. Is this the year Wilk breaks through to the title?
Capps and Wilkerson will have to contend with Robert Hight’s Chevy Camaro SS from John Force Racing, 16-time champ John Force’s Camaro, Hagan in TSR Nitro’s Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat, Bob Tasca III’s Ford Mustang, Pomona finale winner Cruz Pedregon’s Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat, DeJoria and Todd’s GR Supra race cars, Paul Lee’s reconstituted team’s Charger, Terry Haddock’s Mustang, Dave Richards in a Mustang, John Smith’s Dodge, Blake Alexander returning in Jim Head’s Ford and Pro Mod standout Chad Green, who is again racing a Mustang in affiliation with Wilkerson.
It’s a 21 car field for Pro Stock’s season starter, with a pair of five-time champions at the head of the class. While Erica Enders wasn’t able to win the Drag Illustrated World Series of Pro Mod last weekend in the Mountain Motor Pro Stock class, she – and the balance of her Elite Motorsports teammates, tested at Bradenton after that race in the hopes of honing their setups before heading up I-75 for Gainesville on Thursday.
Elite is fielding eight Chevrolet Camaros and Ford Mustangs in Pro Stock this season, including reigning, five-time Pro Stock world champion Erica Enders, Aaron Stanfield (3rd in 2022), Troy Coughlin Jr. (4th), Bo Butner III (2017 champ who finished 9th last year), Cristian Cuadra (8th), his father Fernando (14th) and brother Fernando Jr. (13th). They are being joined by rookie Jerry Tucker for the 2023 Pro Stock season. Enders still hasn’t won in Gainesville, but is certain that winning the first race of the season “will begin the hard work of defending this title.”
Of course she’ll have to go through fellow five-time champ Greg Anderson and the reconstituted KB Titan Racing, which is now in Anderson’s care and keeping. The Wisconsin native has partners in Dallas Glenn, Kyle Koretsky and 2022 Rookie of the Year Camrie Caruso, who joined the team in the off-season and kept her partnerships in the process. Her goals haven’t changed: “I want to win races, get NO. 1 qualifiers and contend for the championship,” she said.
Others to watch in this class include Australian Shane Tucker, Deric Kramer, both in Camaros, Alan Prusiensky’s Dodge Dart, Val Smeland, Larry Morgan in Camaros, Chris and Mason McGaha’s Camaros. This field is deep, well-entrenched and looking to topple the biggest team in drag racing at the moment, Elite Motorsports.
Another tough field of racers are ready to line up in Pro Stock Motorcycle, all of them chasing six-time champion Matt Smith, who is moving back to a Suzuki after winning his titles on a Buell. He attempted to race the Suzuki last year, but couldn’t get it to his liking. With the newly approved Hayabusa3 bodywork, the change might stick in 2023. This year’s entries are mostly Suzuki-based, with only a few Buell/EBR motorcycles for Matt’s wife Angie (the season finale winner, who was 3rd in the season-long standings), Marc Ingwersen, Ryan Oehler, Chip Ellis, Hector Arana Jr., Ron Tornow and Lance Bonham.
There are two female riders who won’t be in the water box this year: three-time champion Angelle Sampey and Karen Stoffer aren’t racing in 2023. Sampey’s seat at Vance & Hines Racing has been allotted to Gaige Herrera, who came to the class at the U.S. Nationals and showed sufficient value for V&H to select him as four-time champion Eddie Krawiec’s teammate. Stoffer announced her retirement earlier in the season and her White Alligator Racing (WAR) spot has been assumed by John Hall. Jerry Savoie is sitting out much of the season and Chase Van Sant is taking over the reins of the WAR Suzuki. Van Sant has tested well leading into this race; it’ll be fun to watch him progress in this very competitive class.
Reed Motorsports returns with Joey Gladstone, who shadowed Smith and took 2nd place in the final points tally, and the team also has Suzuki Hayabusa motorcycles for Michael Phillips and his nephew Malcolm Phillips Jr. Lone wolf and veteran Steve Johnson is riding his Suzuki Hayabusa again in 2023. An improved Jianna Evaristo returns to Matt Smith Racing on her Suzuki, while Chris Bostick and Kelly Clontz are both riding Suzuki bikes again this year. Although he only ran a few races in 2022, Hector Arana Jr. has secured sufficient backing to contest the entire season in 2023, while Richard Gadson joins the fray on a Kosman with Suzuki power.
Many Pro Mod racers were in Bradenton last weekend, tuning up as they attempted to win the six-figure race. Some racers sat out that competition to keep their heads in the game for these 54th annual Gatornationals. There is a 19-car entry, led by reigning titleholder Kristopher Thorne, but not including Stevie “Fast” Jackson (recovering from surgery) and Rickie Smith, who was at the WSOPM last weekend. That duo finished second and third in last year’s standings.
The only precipitation forecast for this weekend at Gainesville is for scattered or isolated thunderstorms on Friday afternoon and evening. The chances, for once, are less than 50 percent, which should make the sunshine forecast for both Saturday and Sunday welcome. We’re looking at highs surrounding the 80-degree mark with lows in the 50s. That could be great racing weather to start the NHRA season. And it’s about time!