A final leg in NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series competition has arrived. The 35th Denso Sonoma NHRA Nationals take place this weekend at Sonoma Raceway, a track that features the attraction of wineries mere steps from the dragstrip itself.
The third race in a Western Swing that has already seen records fall at both Bandimere Speedway outside Denver, CO and Pacific Raceways in Kent, WA now offers Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock Motorcycle aficionados the opportunity to witness the excitement of new records, a possible sweep of the Swing and competition between racers who are hungry for wins, for points, for championships. Sonoma is the closer of the Western Swing for the first time since 2009 – and that was the most recent “sweep” of the swing by Top Fuel’s three-time champion Antron Brown.
At this writing, there are two “49ers” in NHRA who are hoping this trip to California will help them round out to 50 wins. Doug Kalitta of Kalitta Motorsports has been stuck on 49 Top Fuel wins for nearly three years, despite more than 100 final round appearances in his career. The Michigan-based multi-talented racer has been to the final round of both Western Swing races to date and while he’s pleased with his qualifying of late, “We just need another break or two to go our way on race day,” Kalitta explained.
In Pro Stock Motorcycle, three-time champ Eddie Krawiec, too, is stuck on 49 class victories. The Vance & Hines standout on a Suzuki Hayabusa3 went to the final round in Seattle last weekend against his new teammate, Gaige Herrera, who took the win to earn his fifth victory in seven contests held to date. Will Krawiec get another chance this weekend to earn No. 50 or will he languish on 49 for a while longer?
As seems to always be the case with NHRA’s Western Swing, entries are light for Top Fuel and Funny Car. There aren’t as many racers on the West Coast ready to mix it up with professionals that work the entire 21-race campaign, so expect to see 13 dragsters and, perhaps, 15 Funny Car entries on the grounds. Everyone in the Top 10 is accounted for, together with those regular season racers who are nipping at the chance to make the field for the Countdown to the Championship playoffs that begin after the next four races are done.
After handing Toyota its 200th NHRA national event victory in Seattle last weekend, four-time Top Fuel champ Steve Torrence recaptured the points lead by four ducats over fellow Toyota racer Justin Ashley; the two have swapped the points lead regularly over the past 11 contests on the 21-race tour. Winning for the first time in nearly 10 months, “I’d be lying if I told you [the winless streak] hasn’t been stressful. To drive one of these things successfully, you have to be confident and that’s hard to do when things aren’t going great. It’s not like we were lost, but we just couldn’t seem to put everything together at the same time – until Seattle,” he said.
Torrence and Ashley better watch their backs, because they’ll have to deal with defending Sonoma victor Brittany Force of John Force Racing, who is the reigning class champion. As she shatters track records from coast to coast, Force has had some issues getting down the track on race day. Her David Grubnic-led crew has the car set up to go fast but it’s up to Force to get the car from A to B. She did that exceptionally well in 2022 at Sonoma, setting and re-setting track records on race day as she swept to the win and, eventually to the championship. Joining her are the balance of the Top 10: Antron Brown, teammate Austin Prock, Josh Hart, Doug Kalitta Leah Pruett, Mike Salinas and Clay Millican. Aching to get into that hallowed group? Shawn Langdon and Tony Schumacher are joined this weekend by local racer Ron August Jr.
Funny Car has a couple more cars ready to rumble in the Wine Country. A first-round departure at Seattle by Denver winner Matt Hagan’s Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat of Tony Stewart Racing tightened the standings in this class, but he’s still got a 17-point advantage on reigning three-time champ Ron Capps and his Toyota GR Supra, a four-time victor at this track. Last year’s win went to Bob Tasca III, currently seventh in points. The Rhode Island native runs hot and cold – no matter who’s turning the knobs – but a repeat victory in Sonoma would help the Ford Mustang racer move up the charts.
In third place, Alexis DeJoria has raced in Sonoma eight times and gone to the semifinals on four of those occasions. Driving her DC Motorsports Toyota GR Supra, DeJoria calls Sonoma “an amazing facility… we’ve done really well there – minus getting a Wally.” Behind her lies Robert Hight, who owns the speed record for Funny Car at this track, coming close to 340mph back in the day when laid-back headers were allowed. Once again racing a Cornwell Tools Chevrolet Camaro SS, Hight knows “We’ve struggled a bit and had some bad luck, but hopefully this weekend we can break into the top three in points,” he said.
Chad Green, Seattle winner Tim Wilkerson and Tasca III are on the entry list with their Ford Mustangs, as is No. 1 Seattle qualifier and 16-time champ John Force’s Camaro, Seattle runner-up J.R. Todd’s GR Supra and the Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat of two-time champ Cruz Pedregon. Joining them are hell-raiser Alex Laughlin in Jim Dunn’s flopper, a returning Paul Lee (with Denso sponsorship), Blake Alexander in Jim Head’s Mustang, local racer Tim Gibbons and Southern California’s Jason Rupert in a Mustang.
One of the biggest attractions this weekend in Sonoma comes from the two-wheeled set, as Pro Stock Motorcycle finally has its own All-Star Callout, one that features eight riders in the top 10. They are Gaige Herrera (Vance & Hines Suzuki Hayabusa3), Hector Arana Jr (Buell), Eddie Krawiec (V&H Suzuki Hayabusa3), Matt Smith (Suzuki), Angie Smith (Buell), Steve Johnson (Suzuki), Chase Van Sant (Suzuki) and Marc Ingwersen’s Buell. Angie Smith feels certain this Callout will end up being between Vance & Hines and her Matt Smith Racing team, which would stand to reason, considering the number of championships each squad has earned.
Still, as No. 1 seed Herrera notes, “This is more personal than you think.” There will be a ton of trash talk before the Callout choices take place on Friday evening after the motorcycles have run their first two qualifying sessions. That sequence doesn’t sit well with Angie Smith who thinks each of these eight riders will be examining the runs of their competitors, from reaction times to 60-foot results to the full, 1320-foot runs on the Sonoma Raceway strip. “I think we should choose before we run,” she said. After all, that’s how it’s done in the nitro classes. Her husband, the reigning and six-time class champion expects “a lot of trash talking for whoever calls me out – I’ve got a lot of tricks in my bag,” Matt Smith said.
Arana who, along with Steve Johnson are the only two riders to win a Pro Stock Motorcycle race this year not named Gaige Herrera, believes that choosing his opponent will be tough because everyone in the class in running well. “We’ll have to see how everything goes on Friday. In this class there’s always friction and there are always teams you want to beat,” he said. “There’s an opportunity to throw drama into it,” said three-time champ Eddie Krawiec of Vance & Hines, who noted his teammate Herrera “has the upper hand at this minute!”
Veteran Steve Johnson thinks he’ll be the first to be called out, and his recent results might be the cause of that. While he’s been running okay with his Suzuki four-valve machine, he knows he is capable of bogging down with a pass in the 9s at 140mph. Johnson said, “Rivalries are essential to our sport and our class is the hardest to navigate down the track, because we’re out in the open, using our bodies as part of the momentum of getting down the track.” Because he’s in ninth place, Marc Ingwersen was surprised he made the cut, fully expecting Jianna Evaristo’s Suzuki to be in the mix. “I’m honored to be part of this and it’s going to be tough, be a lot of fun, exciting for the fans,” he said. Ingwersen is operating with a single engine for his Buell this season. “We’ve been doing R&D, testing things but we don’t have the equipment a lot of people do.”
The sole rookie in this show is Chase Van Sant, who joined the Camping World series this season, riding with WAR Racing on a Suzuki. As a rookie he doesn’t really know what to expect from this Callout but he realizes there’s a lot of fast motorcycles in the class. “Hopefully there are some upsets? Our team has been quick at Sonoma in the past, but in this rookie year, I’ve struggled with my lights and my 60-foot times. I’ve got to compose myself on the starting line,” he said. “It’s an intimidating class to get into, but I’ve been a fan for so long, to get this opportunity has been great. We’re hoping we’ve got some parts issues sorted out and we can run a single engine for the entire weekend.”
Herrera, as usual, had little to say in advance of this show within the big show, but he knows who he plans to call out in the first round as the top seed, but is not about to tell anyone yet. We’ll have to wait until Friday night lights.
There are 17 motorcycles on the entry list and that group includes all on the top 10 list, in addition to Karen Stoffer’s second run of the year on a 2-valve Suzuki, Ryan Oehler’s Buell, Evaristo’s Suzuki, Chris Bostick and Freddy Camarena’s Suzukis, Scott Bottorff on a Gann Buell, John Hall’s WAR Suzuki, Kelly Clontz’s Suzuki and Lance Bonham on a Buell.
There are a traditional four qualifying sessions – two for Friday, a pair on Saturday – in addition to the Pro Stock Motorcycle Callout sessions on Saturday. Look for warm skies during the day and partly cloudy conditions for Saturday and Sunday after a mainly sunny Friday. Temps will increase daily yet are expected to stay in the 80s throughout. Friday evening’s runs should be exciting for racers and fans alike as the temps drop the moment sunshine exits the surrounding hills. That’s when the low ETs could fracture any track – or even national – records.
By Anne Proffit