It’s two down and four to go as NHRA’s Camping World Drag Racing Series chugs towards the close of its six-race Countdown to the Championship that culminates this November in Pomona, CA. The first two rounds of playoff competition brought victories to drivers and riders eligible for those white hats, big trophies and, yeah, money at the end of this 22-race battle, but the fields are still ripe for picking and this third race in a row gives competitors the opportunity to move up and the chance to secure their standing in each highly competitive class.
“Every round is a final round,” is what Antron Brown, a five-time winner at this weekend’s venue, who’s driving a pink rail during October, said after winning his third race of the season and his first win in the playoffs for six years. The comment is indicative of NHRA’s level of competition in 2022 and, while the quantity of entries may ebb and flow, the quality just seems to get higher and higher with each succeeding weekend of competition.
The Pep Boys NHRA Nationals race at Maple Grove Raceway near Reading, PA threw many off their predictive results when Austin Prock earned his second career national event win in Top Fuel. On the same weekend Joey Gladstone secured his first Countdown victory in a year where he’s made three trips to the Winner’s Circle, his first three on the national Pro Stock Motorcycle tour. While Robert Hight took his seventh victory of the year in Funny Car at Reading and Erica Enders did the same in Pro Stock, both of them hitched to Chevrolet’s Camaro race cars, the other two winners might have surprised a naysayer or twenty.
NHRA’s second of three in a row came last weekend on zMAX Dragway’s two-lane strip outside Charlotte, where results in both nitro classes echoed those of the Dodge Power Brokers NHRA U.S. Nationals. Brown earned the Top Fuel win as he works towards a fourth championship and his first as a team owner/driver at AB Motorsports. Ron Capps and his newly-formed eponymous Ron Capps Motorsports team hauled their Toyota GR Supra Funny Car to the flopper title at zMAX. With Pro Stock on the grounds, the Wally went to Elite Motorsports’ Aaron Stanfield, but points leader and teammate Erica Enders kept her hold on the class despite exiting in the semifinal round.
Teams are now ensconced in the greater St. Louis area for this weekend’s 26th NHRA Midwest Nationals at World Wide Technology Raceway (WWTR), all of them hoping the current Category 4 hurricane Ian doesn’t decide to head that direction or, if it does, that it’s gone by Friday. 150mph winds are nothing to scoff at, but the hurricane force of 20 Top Fuel competitors could be close. With zMAX runner-up Justin Ashley taking control of the points standings with 43 points on technical partner Brown, and with regular season winner Brittany Force unable to harness the power of her John Force Racing dragster and falling 52 points behind the New Yorker, yes, there are changes.
Mike Salinas is now 54 points behind Ashley, while Steve Torrence’s “Drive for Five” isn’t looking quite as good as it did when he was working towards his fourth straight dragster title in 2021. Two early losses have the Texan 105 points in arrears, but the 52-race winner is still hoping to make it up. “I”m going to go out this weekend and try and make it 53 – and we’ll go on from there,” he said.
Kalitta Motorsports’ Doug Kalitta looked impressive in qualifying last weekend, but has 132 points to make up, while Josh Hart is just a single point behind the veteran in his dragster. John Force Racing’s Prock is eighth (-143), while Clay Millican has a 147-point deficit. The balance of the 12 Countdown-eligible racers are Tony Stewart Racing’s Leah Pruett (-178), Kalitta Motorsports’ Shawn Langdon (-188) and Tony Schumacher, who needs to make up 208 points. Schumacher’s Maynard Family Racing team announced SCAG Power Equipment would be their primary partner for the next three years; a bright new Wally winner’s trophy this Sunday would seal that deal.
There are 20 Top Fuel entries this weekend at WWTR outside St. Louis, including Billy Torrence, Lex Joon, Buddy Hull, Kyle Wurtzel, Cameron Ferre, Doug Foley, Jacob Opatmy and Scott Palmer. The latter driver allowed extreme sports standout Travis Pastrana the opportunity to test one of his dragsters ,occasionally wheeled by Alex Laughlin at zMAX on Monday. By all accounts – and not unexpected – Pastrana acquitted himself well behind the wheel of an 11,000-horsepower rocket ship. No doubt he’ll want a second opportunity.
Once again Funny Car is light in terms of entry numbers, but every racer in the pits belongs in the field. With his fourth victory of this season and consistency throughout the regular season and this Countdown, reigning Funny Car champion Ron Capps is nipping at seven-race-winner Robert Hight’s rear Goodyear gumballs. Hight’s success in the first part of the year, combined with his Reading victory, allowed the three-time champ to take his John Force Racing Chevrolet Camaro SS to the top of the standings, but now Capps’ Toyota GR Supra is only 27 points back, or the blink of an eye. Tony Stewart Racing’s Matt Hagan has wheeled his Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat to third place, 60 points behind Hight, while 16-time champ John Force, who claimed his 165th No. 1 qualifier at a track he clearly enjoys, zMAX Dragway, holds fourth place in his Camaro, 74 points behind his company president.
It takes time for teams to meld, and Bob Tasca III has shown the strength of his squad, led by Mike Neff and Jon Shaffer, racking up wins and points to have their Ford Mustang racer in fifth place, needing to make up 104 points. Last weekend’s runner-up, Alexis DeJoria holds sixth place (-129) in her Toyota GR Supra, followed by the similar machine of 2018 titleholder J.R. Todd, driving for Kalitta Motorsports and needing to make up 150 points.
Driver/owner Tim Wilkerson’s Mustang (-162), driver/owner Cruz Pedregon’s Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat (-178), which will run pink livery for the month of October and the Jim Dunn Racing Dodge Charger of Jim Campbell (-229) round out the top 10. Jim Head Racing’s Blake Alexander is also eligible for the championship but has a 251-point lag to make up. Terry Haddock’s Mustang, Dale Creasy Jr’s Camaro, Chad Green’s Mustang and Bobby Bode III’s Mustang will be looking to shake up the standings.
Everyone entered in this weekend’s Midwest Nationals Pro Stock class will race on Sunday; there are 16 entries in the door-slammer class. Trading wins in the first two Countdown races, Erica Enders and Aaron Stanfield are the leaders of this pack, with zMAX Dragway winner Stanfield looking to make up 64 points on his exceptional teammate, while Elite Motorsports’ third Chevy Camaro car, for Troy Coughlin Jr. holds a 97-point deficit.
In fourth place is the five-time champ Greg Anderson, needing 109 points to vanquish the points leader in his KB Racing Camaro, with teammates Kyle Koretsky (-122) fifth and Dallas Glenn (-150) in sixth place overall. Denver winner Matt Hartford’s Camaro has seventh place points, just two behind Glenn, while the gap widens with Mason McGaha in eighth place, 219 points back. It’s been a character-building Countdown for rookie Camrie Caruso, who has raced well with her Camaro, powered by Titan Racing Engines, but the win lights just haven’t been there for her. Still she likes “back-to-back races; it keeps everyone on the team in the groove and focused,” as she enters this third playoff race, 227 points behind Enders and one ahead of tenth placed Bo Butner, the 2017 Pro Stock champ.
There are 15 drivers qualified for this class’ championship and fully eight of them are affiliated with Elite Motorsports. That includes the three-car Cuadra family’s entries, With Fernando Cuadra Jr.’s Ford Mustang in 11th place (-248), brother Cristian Cuadra’s Mustang 12th and needing to make up 258 points, and patriarch Fernando Cuadra Sr, who’s driving a Camaro and holds 15th place points, 300 behind team leader Enders. Deric Kramer, affiliated with KB is in 13th place (-269) and Chris McGaha is 14th, 289 points behind the leader. Kenny Delco joins this deep field in St. Louis with his KD Racing Camaro.
It seems ages since Pro Stock Motorcycle has raced, but the two-wheeled set has only had one weekend off. This compelling battle between four-valve and two-valve Suzukis, racing against V-Twin Buell motorcycles has changed complexion throughout the season. Right now, based on his finish in the regular season, where he earned his first class victories and his win in Reading, Reed Motorsports’ Joey Gladstone is atop the standings on his Suzuki Hayabusa, but five-time champ Matt Smith’s Buell is only 29 points behind, a number easy to make up with a misstep by Gladstone.
Steve Johnson is third on his Suzuki with a 42-point lag, followed by Angie Smith’s Buell (-49) and three-time class champ Angelle Sampey’s Suzuki in fifth (-78). Marc Ingwersen is having a career season on his Buell and currently holds sixth place, 89 points behind Gladstone, while four-time class champ Eddie Krawiec is in seventh place, needing to make up 90 points. Louisiana alligator farmer Jerry Savoie, the 2016 class champ riding a Suzuki is in eighth place, 104 points back, while teammate Karen Stoffer, who claims this is her final full-time year (say it ain’t so) has ridden her Suzuki to ninth place, needing 116 points. Ryan Oehler is the final championship-eligible rider and needs to find 137 points if he wants to take his Buell to the championship dance.
There are 15 riders and their motorcycles on the grounds at Madison, Illinois, site of this racetrack, which was once called Gateway in deference to the St. Louis arch. Jianna Evaristo has benefited from Matt Smith’s mentorship on her Suzuki and is showing good form, while Ron Tornow has his ex-Smith Victory bike in the staging lanes. Newcomers Malcolm Phillips Jr., riding a Suzuki, is the nephew of Michael Phillips and Gaige Herrera is riding Jimmy Underdahl’s Suzuki for the third time this season.
In addition to all four Camping World classes, Pro Mod holds its ninth and penultimate race at WWTR, while Lucas Oil classes Competition Eliminator, Super Stock, Stock Eliminator, Super Comp, Super Gas and Top Dragster start their competition on Friday morning. The FuelTech Pro Mod class has 14 entries, led by last weekend’s winner, two-time champ Stevie “Fast” Jackson, 2021 champ Jose Gonzalez and legendary racer Rickie Smith. The field is made up, primarily of Camaro race cars, with Doug Winters’ Chevelle and Stan Shelton’s Ford being the outliers.
The website weather.com is anticipating a nice weekend ahead for the NHRA’s Camping World competitors, with mid-70s temps during daylight hours and sunny skies. As has become customary in NHRA racing since the COVID pandemic began, there will be three qualifying sessions Friday and Saturday and four rounds of eliminations on Sunday. “Friday Night on Fire” begins at 6PM to start the weekend off properly – and there’s a Tim Dugger post-race concert to entertain fans after racing is complete. On Saturday, qualifying starts at 1:30PM for the second opportunity while final qualifying is set to get underway at 4:30PM. Eliminations are set to start Sunday morning at 10:30AM. All times are central. FS1 and FS2 will handle all television activities, along with NHRA.TV.
By Anne Proffit