Pruett, Alexander, Hartford, Arana Jr. Score Norwalk NHRA Trophies

Arana Jr., Hartford, Alexander and Pruett celebrate their wins - NHRA photo
Arana Jr., Hartford, Alexander and Pruett celebrate their wins – NHRA photo

One thing about NHRA’s Camping World Drag Racing Series: you’ll never know who’s going to be the winner of any given race.

This past weekend’s Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals on the Bader family’s Norwalk, Ohio Summit Motorsports Park racetrack brought new winners. After qualifying on Friday and Saturday, together with the most recent edition of Mission Foods’ #2Fast2Tasty Challenge for Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle, close watchers of straight-line racing would not be shocked to see top qualifiers (Leah Pruett’s Tony Stewart Racing dragster for Top Fuel, Bob Tasca III’s Ford Mustang in Funny Car, Matt Hartford’s Camaro Pro Stock machine or Gaige Herrera’s Vance & Hines Suzuki Hayabusa3) in the Winner’s Circle.

Two of those four made it through four rounds of elimination on a sun-drenched and warm Sunday in northern Ohio. Pruett nabbed her first victory of 2023 and Matt Hartford punched his ticket for a sixth class victory and his second this year. For Pruett, who has been qualifying well this year but unable to turn on the most important win light, taking points away from Justin Ashley as she jumped into third place in the standings, behind only Ashley (-106) and four-time champion Steve Torrence, who’s 97 points behind Ashley, who won the last two tour contests.

Pruett has been a qualifying terror this year but hasn’t been able – until Norwalk – to close the deal with four stellar trips down the drag strip. Hot and humid conditions in upper Ohio – that are always tricky at this track – allowed Pruett to march through eliminations, as her team, led by crew chief Neal Strausbaugh, helped her defeat Kyle Wurtzel, Mike Salinas, Austin Prock and, finally Justin Ashley. While she “always loves coming into race day from the No. 1 qualifying position,” going into the final round her team found new issues. “And we had 30 minutes to address the problem.

Leah Pruett has been close all year – she finally closed the deal in Norwalk – NHRA photo

“Neal and the guys kinda rolled the dice and it worked great. It was a full team effort going against Justin Ashley. My favorite thing about racing,” she admitted, “is celebrating with the crew after a win. They worked so hard to give us a great car. I had a good feeling about today’s race.” Her team owner, husband Tony Stewart was equally effusive to her and the team he built, as Pruett took her second victory with the team. “For Leah to be low ET in qualifying and finish it off with the win today is spectacular,” he said. “I’m super proud of the fact that both of our teams made the final. It shows the depth of our program and how hard everyone works. We were really close to a double-up… “

Behind the three leaders, Brittany Force and her John Force Racing teammate Austin Prock are fourth and fifth, followed by Antron Brown, Mike Salinas, Josh Hart (all of whom own their teams), Kalitta Motorsports’ Doug Kalitta and Shawn Langdon.

There was some sort of magic in the air when Funny Car’s final round came to the fore. While No. 1 qualifier Bob Tasca III marched through the first and second rounds, he was shuttered by Jim Head Racing’s Blake Alexander and his Ford Mustang. The Head team has been through the wringer the past few years and Alexander might have wondered why he left the safety and security of Top Fuel to race in the Flopper class.

There wasn’t a dry eye in the house when Alexander defeated points leader and Tony Stewart Racing Funny Car three-time champion Matt Hagan on a hole shot, going 3.935/321.96 to Hagan’s 3.991/327.90. Alexander’s .028 reaction time was easily better than Hagan’s .067, giving the 35-year-old Alexander, from North Carolina, a .0955-sec margin of victory. Sunday’s win is Alexander’s third overall and first since 2018, when he scored two Top Fuel victories with Bob Vandergriff’s team. He became the 18th NHRA driver to win in both a dragster and a Funny Car.

Blake Alexander scored his first win in five years – and first in Funny Car – for Jim Head Racing – NHRA photo

“I haven’t won one of these in five years,” Alexander said. “I try hard because the people I compete against have made it so that you have to be better. If you don’t want to get better, you’re going to get beat out here. I tried to get better and I needed to get better once I started racing Funny Car,” he admitted. To get to the final round, Alexander defeated Tim Wilkerson’s Ford Mustang, Alexis DeJoria’s Toyota GR Supra and No. 1 qualifier Bob Tasca III. The standings now finds Hagan and his Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat in front by four points to Saturday’s Mission #2Fast2Tasty winner Ron Capps’s Toyota GR Supra, with Robert Hight’s Chevrolet Camaro SS third, Chad Green’s Mustang fourth, followed y DeJoria, Tasca III, Wilkerson, 16-time Funny Car champ John Force’s Camaro, J.R. Todd in Kalitta Motorsports’ Toyota GR Supra and Cruz Pedregon’s Dodge Charger Set Hellcat. There are 275 points separating first from tenth, but Alexander is now only 28 points behind 10th place.

This past Sunday, KB Titan Racing reinforced their status as top dogs in Pro Stock, when Matt Hartford, the No. 1 qualifier in this class, earned victory over points leader Dallas Glenn. It was the Arizonan’s first victory of the year as his Camaro turned 6.624/207.02 to Glenn’s faltering, tire-hazing 17-second pass. To get there, the No. 1 qualifier beat Fernando Cuadra’s Mustang, Deric Kramer’s Camaro and Aaron Stanfield’s Camaro door slammer. Hartford has been close throughout the season and this victory brought him to second in points.

Matt Hartford has been close to a win and finally closed the deal in Norwalk – Anne Proffit photo

It’s the best year – so far – of this veteran’s career and his sixth season earning at least one win in this tough class. “It goes back to all those people back at the trailer and all the people who support us, for the engine program to the chassis builder,” Hartford explained. “We just have such a great group.” Hartford realized that by surrounding himself with “people who work harder than you, who are smarter than you, more motivated than you, you can be successful. That’s what I’ve tried to do and I think it starts showing when you let everybody focus on their job. At the end of the day,” he mused, “let the box score be what it may.”

He’s had a great car all year and blamed himself for the failure to connect until this past Sunday. While Glenn has a 162-point advantage over Hartford, the balance of the Pro Stock top 10 is comparatively close, with Deric Kramer third (-177), Troy Coughlin Jr. fourth, followed by Stanfield, Greg Anderson, reigning titleholder Erica Enders (who took a single round win on Sunday), Camrie Caruso, Cristian Cuadra and Bo Butner III. There’s a 353-point gap from first to tenth in this tough class.

This just in: Gaige Herrera can be beat. Steve Johnson did it two weeks ago in Bristol and Hector Arana Jr scored the win on Sunday in Ohio, earning the Wally winner’s trophy – and the Bader family’s ice cream cone scoop trophy – in Pro Stock Motorcycle. Riding the full season on his Buell, Arana qualified third in Norwalk, site of his father’s first victory in this class. In earning his 18th victory in the class and his first at Summit Motorsports Park, Arana Jr. used consistency throughout the race meeting. His 6.80-region passes down the quarter-mile helped him get past Wesley Wells’ Suzuki, the similar motorcycle of Angie Smith and the Suzuki of six-time champ Matt Smith.

Arana celebrates with both of his Norwalk trophies – NHRA photo

it all came down to Arana Jr.’s Buell against the five-pound-heavier Suzuki Hayabusa of Bristol winner Johnson. Arana had him from the starting beams to the finish lights, using a .034-sec reaction time to Johnson’s .074 – to turn 6.821/199.82 to Johnson’s faltering 6.943/176.63. While he made a small error on Saturday during the Mission #2Fast2Tasty Challenge, “We were able to learn from our mistake and come out today with a really fast, consistent bike,” he said. “That gives you all the confidence in the world as a rider, knowing you have a good bike beneath you. When you let the clutch out, it’s going to do what it’s supposed to do and go right down the track.”

Arana Jr. knows he’s got momentum as the tour takes a couple of weeks off before the vaunted Western Swing. “We’ve had a fast bike, and we’re been qualifying really well and running well,” he noted. As for Herrera, the Vance & Hines Suzuki Hayabusa3 rider, who qualified at the top of the order, the points leader was gone in the class’ quarterfinals against Jianna Evaristo in a very tight race. Now in second place behind Herrera, Arana has 189 points to make up, while Johnson is five points behind Arana. Vance & Hines’ Eddie Krawiec is fourth, followed by Matt and Angie Smith, Chase Van Sant’s WAR Suzuki, Evaristo, Marc Ingwersen’s Buell and Ryan Oehler’s Buell, which is 356 points behind Herrera.

Next up for all four Camping World categories is the last Dodge Power Brokers Mile-High Nationals at Bandimere Speedway in Morrison, Colorado, at the base of the Rocky Mountains west of Denver. This year the three Western Swing races are being moved around a bit, with Seattle’s round after Denver and Sonoma following. There is an opportunity for racers in Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock Motorcycle to sweep these three races, but Pro Stock is off for both the Seattle and Sonoma rounds.

About Anne Proffit 1224 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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