NHRA’s first race of 2019’s six-contest Countdown to the Championship crowned four Mello Yello Drag Racing Series winners during the 35th Mopar Express Lane NHRA Nationals on Maple Grove Raceway’s dragstrip this past Sunday, but there were many other stories to this race weekend. And there were plenty of eyebrow-raising upsets during Sunday’s four rounds of eliminations.
Take, for instance, the fact that neither Top Fuel champion Steve Torrence nor his father Billy made it out of the first round. That’s an anomaly we’ve not seen in years. Steve was felled by Clay Millican; Mike Salinas put Billy’s rail back in the hauler. The fastest and speediest drag racer on earth, new record-holder Brittany Force, was unable to race in the semifinals when a fuel leak prevented her from facing eventual winner Richie Crampton.
The points standings in Top Fuel show race runner-up Doug Kalitta holding first-place points, followed by B. Force, Steve Torrence, Antron Brown, Crampton, Mike Salinas, rookie Austin Prock, Leah Pritchett, Clay Millican and Billy Torrence in first through 10th place. Only Millican’s Stringer Performance team is a single-car entity throughout the 24-race season.
First round action in Funny Car saw Bob Tasca III fall to John Smith, the No. 15 qualifier beating No. 2. In the second round, 18-race points leader Robert Hight went up in smoke, allowing eventual race winner Jack Beckman to advance. The semifinals in this class saw yet another John Force-Ron Capps match-up, with Force continuing to show his mastery over the second-most-successful Flopper racer of all time.
As a result Beckman, driving one of four Don Schumacher Racing’s Dodge Charger SRT Hellcats, owns the Funny Car points lead, followed by J. Force and Hight’s Chevrolet Camaro SS’s, Capps, Tommy Johnson Jr. and Matt Hagan’s SRT Hellcats, reigning titleholder J.R. Todd in a Kalitta Motorsports Toyota Camry, Tasca III’s and Tim Wilkerson’s Ford Shelby Mustangs and Shawn Langdon in the second Kalitta Camry.
The all-Chevy Camaro Pro Stock Countdown challengers witnessed an all-KB Racing final round, with customer Fernando Cuadra testing eventual winner Jason Line in a heads-up battle. Cuadra had the far better light but Line drove around him in the finals. Among the upsets in this class were Greg Anderson leaving competition in the first round (defeated by Matt Hartford).
Hartford took out the surging Alex Laughlin in the second round, while Cuadra upset two-time champ Erica Enders. Line removed “regular season” points leader and four-time winner Bo Butner to advance to the semifinals, where Cuadra again was a giant-killer, beating a red-lighting Jeg Coughlin Jr. The Mexican driver was fortunate even with his final round loss, when Line allowed him to hoist Line’s newly-won Wally winner’s trophy at the top end of the track.
This first race leaves Line in the lead, followed by Butner, Laughlin, Enders, Hartford, Coughlin, Deric Kramer, Anderson, Chris McGaha and Val Smeland, the latter fouling out in the first round after qualifying in 15th place after four attempts.
Jerry Savoie is making the V-Twin Pro Stock Motorcycle racers look bad – and the alligator farmer from Cut-Off, La. has no problem with that. After winning his second Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals two weeks earlier, Savoie again out-rode his competition on an EFI-fitted Suzuki. There were no upsets in the fist round, but Matt Smith used a holeshot on his EBR to beat No. 1 qualifier Angelle Sampey’s Harley-Davidson in the second round.
Sampey, new to the Vance & Hines H-D team this year, explained she’s no longer “scared of the bike,” a machine far more brutal than others the three-time champ has ridden. She was joined on the sidelines by teammates Eddie Krawiec (who lost to Suzuki rider Karen Stoffer) and former points leader and seven-race winner Andrew Hines, beaten (again) by Savoie. Although Suzuki engine problems stopped Steve Johnson from being a Countdown factor in 2019, Pro Stock Motorcycle’s “elder statesman” was a truly dejected guy after losing in the final round to Savoie.
After this weekend of upsets, Savoie leads the points from Hines, while Matt Smith (EBR), Krawiec, Stoffer, Hector Arana Jr. (EBR), Sampey, Angie Smith, Ryan Oehler and Hector Arana. The final three in the standings, riding EBR motorcycles, all exited in the first round, pretty much throwing out their championship hopes, although there’s five more opportunities to move upward in the standings.
The next race takes place Sept. 27-29 on the World Wide Technology Raceway dragstrip at Gateway, just outside St. Louis.