Smith Has Simple Plan For Winning Countdown

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, October 6 2018

Biker Matt Smith says the best way to win this year’s championship is to win races on his ‘Red Rocket’. (Photo courtesy of the NHRA)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

ENNIS, Texas – Matt Smith’s blueprint for securing the 2018 NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle world championship is as simple as 1-2-3 aboard a bike he affectionately has described as “hateful, mean and nasty.”

That’s a blunt way of stating that Matt Smith Racing has emerged as a bona fide title contender heading into the halfway point of NHRA’s six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs.

“I really think if somebody can win three races in the Countdown they’ll probably win the championship unless something crazy happens in the other races,” said Smith, NHRA world champ in 2007 and 2013. “Right now, we’re on par with what we did in 2013 and if we can keep going to final rounds and I keep doing my job, we’ll be fine. All in all, we’ve gone to two finals. In 2013, I went to (four) finals of the six races we ran and won the championship.”

Smith emerged as PSM provisional pole-sitter after Friday’s opening two rounds of time trials for the 33rd annual AAA Texas NHRA FallNationals at Texas Motorplex. Smith covered the traditional quarter-mile in 6.876-seconds at 197.65 mph during Round 1 aboard his Elite Motorsports Buell EBR. That lap held serve through Round 2, when the track temperature at 5:40 p.m. (CDT) was 114 degrees. Smith is trailed by Hector Arana Jr. at 6.882-seconds and 195.45 mph via his first-round pass aboard the Lucas Oil EBR.

“Conditions today were pretty hot but the track seemed good for how hot it was,” Smith said. “I tried something the second run and it didn’t like it. We’ve been working on power and found some power.”

Smith advanced into the final round of the first two playoff races of the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Countdown, winning at Gateway Motorsports Park in Madison, Ill., near St. Louis to take the point lead.

Clay Millican (Top Fuel), Tommy Johnson Jr. (Funny Car) and Jeg Coughlin Jr. (Pro Stock) also ended a day featuring summertime-like ambient temperatures in the 90s as provisional No. 1 qualifiers at former Funny Car driver Billy Meyer’s stadium-style facility.

Smith debuted a bike he also calls the “Red Rocket” at Brainerd International Raceway in Minnesota during the penultimate race of the regular season, the start of a string of three straight No. 1 qualifiers. That stretch included the playoff opener at Maple Grove Raceway in Reading, Pa., where Smith advanced to the final round and jumped to third in points. His final-round win against 2010 world champ LE Tonglet at Gateway gave Smith the point lead, one he aims to maintain for the next four races.

“The new bodywork has helped everything,” said Smith, a 45-year-old resident of King, N.C. “The biggest difference is the back end of the bike _ it allows the air to get out (with less resistance).

“When we left Gainesville (Raceway in Florida to open the 2018 PSM schedule) we were 17th in points and our goal was just try to get to the top-10 if we could. When this thing debuted in Brainerd, she is hateful. It helps to find a little power and we should be good the rest of the year. That’s my goal right now _ just keep going to finals, keep putting together round wins and collecting points.

“And we’re still looking for a major sponsor. To come out and run like this is a big testament to our team.” Angie Smith, Matt’s wife, is eighth on the ladder after a pass in 6.938-seconds at 193.02 mph aboard her Denso Spark Plugs Buell.

Matt Smith, who has two wins and three final-round appearances in 2018, began the weekend with a miniscule 21-point/one round of racing lead over Tonglet and his Nitro Fish Suzuki. Smith also has built a 41-point/two rounds of racing advantage over four-time/reigning world champ Eddie Krawiec aboard his Screamin’ Eagle Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson Street Rod. Tonglet ended the day fifth at 6.915-seconds and 194.83 mph while Krawiec remained third at 6.892-seconds and 195.25 mph.

A first career victory down The Plex’s all-concrete surface certainly would validate Smith’s ambitious game plan for that third title.

“I told people after Indy we’re going into the Countdown strong,” said Smith, who has tuned his bikes to 20 career wins in 48 final-round appearances. “They knew we’re here and I made the comment then that we can win three of the six races in the Countdown and run for this championship. We’ve dug down and worked on these motors. We’re going to do our best, try to stay focused and try to do our job. As long as we don’t have any parts failures, we’ll be good.”

In addition to being the halfway point of the Countdown, The Plex and Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex’s vibrant motorcycle market are playing host to the 13th of 16 races on the Pro Stock Bike schedule.

Brittany Force (Top Fuel), Robert Hight (Funny Car), Jason Line (Pro Stock) and Krawiec (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were last year’s winners of an event that will be televised on FOX Sports 1 (FS1) and FOX Sports 2 (FS2), including live final eliminations coverage on FS1 on Sunday. FS1 will air one hour of qualifying Sunday at 1 p.m. (EDT) and roll into three hours of live finals coverage at 2 p.m.

Millican ruled the day in Top Fuel in his pursuit of point-leader and native Texan Steve Torrence. Millican sits P1 after his 1,000-foot pass of 3.726-seconds at 328.54 mph from Round 2. Millican began the day trailing Torrence by 70-points/three rounds of racing but earned six points (to Torrence’s two) Friday while benefitting from crew chief David Grubnic’s tuning expertise. Millican’s Round 1 numbers were 3.846-seconds at 320.66 mph.

“I tried to slow it down but it didn’t listen,” Grubnic joked after Round 2.

”I know he did slow it down…I could tell by his hand movements, but not enough to run any quicker than that,” said Millican. “We have had a good idea of what the car will run, but that all went out the window when the Countdown started. Now he tells me, ‘Do the best you can to get those three bonus points.’ What David Grubnic is doing is unbelievable with such a little team.”

Two rounds of qualifying remain Saturday afternoon to set the professional fields. “If it’s hot again it’ll probably be safe,” Millican said of his lap. “The important thing is there were six bonus points (available) today and we got them. We need every point because those little points all add up.”

Torrence, winner of the opening two races of the Countdown, rallied into second after his best pass of 3.781-seconds at 328.14 mph in the Torrence Racing dragster. That was an improvement of 10 slots on the ladder after Round 1.

Reigning world champ/defending event-winner Brittany Force is third at 3.781-seconds and 326.71 mph in her Monster Energy dragster in a field of 19, including former tour regular Cory McClenathan in 17th.

Funny Car qualifying saw Johnson overhaul Don Schumacher Racing teammate/2012 world champ “Fast” Jack Beckman for the provisional pole via a second-round, 1,000-foot pass in 3.958-seconds at 323.66 mph. Despite the hotter track conditions in Round 2, Johnson led a pack of five drivers posting 3-second runs. Tim Wilkerson sits second after his pass of 3.958-seconds at 315.64 mph in the Levi, Ray & Shoup Ford Mustang. J.R Todd is third at 3.962-seconds and 320.05 mph in the DHL Toyota Camry fielded by Kalitta Motorsports.

“It cooled down but not a lot…so I stood on it and knew it was going to be pretty good,” said Johnson, seeking his first pole of the season in the Make-A-Wish Foundation Dodge Charger R/T. “It’s coming around at the right time of the year. We changed from a six-disc to a five-disc clutch and have so much more data with the five-disc. You can see the car I’ve had at the end of the last several seasons is coming back at the right time.”

Point-leader Robert Hight is sixth after his best pass of 4.013-seconds at 318.99 mph in his Chevrolet Camaro SS. John Force Racing reported that Hight underwent surgery on Wednesday, Sept. 26, for a left clavicle open reduction and internal fixation. Hight visited George Hatch of Keck Medical Center at USC’s Department of Orthopaedic Surgery on Thursday for an examination of his left shoulder and clavicle and was released to unrestricted activities. Hight will race the remainder of the season in defense of his title.

In Pro Stock, defending event-winner Line _ still winless in 2018 _ paced the field after the opening round. But Coughlin cranked out a quarter-mile lap in 6.599-seconds at 207.53 mph to move from sixth to P1 and relegate Line, a three-time world champ, to third after two rounds.

“It was pretty slick, a very efficient run,” said Coughlin, a five-time “Factory Hot Rod” world champ and driver of his Chevrolet Camaro SS. “I haven’t had a lot of time to debrief but it looked pretty sporty. I was very surprised to hear that .599 (at the top end); the car felt fantastic.

“The goal coming into the Countdown was to be more aggressive, cautiously aggressive, to get more small points (for qualifying 1-2-3).  We know what to expect (temp-wise) when we get here _ it’s hot. But it’s much better than the alternatives, like rain. This track has got teeth out there, one of the few that can handle that intense sun.” Jeggie is chasing his fourth pole of 2018.

Greg Anderson, a four-time world champ, is second at 6.660-seconds and 208.42 mph in his red Camaro. Line, who is Anderson’s Ken Black Racing teammate, follows at 6.601-seconds and 207.75 mph in the blue Summit Camaro. Point-leader Tanner Gray slipped from seventh after Round 1 to ninth in the late session after his pass of 6.621-seconds at 208.36 mph in the Valvoline/Gray Manufacturing Camaro.


Friday’s provisional qualifying results after the first two of four rounds of time trials for the 33rd annual AAA Texas NHRA FallNationals at Texas Motorplex in Ennis, 21st of 24 events in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series and Round 3 of the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs. Qualifying will continue Saturday for Sunday’s eliminations:

Top Fuel _1. Clay Millican, 3.726-seconds, 328.54 mph; 2. Steve Torrence, 3.781, 328.14; 3. Brittany Force, 3.781, 326.71; 4. Blake Alexander, 3.797, 325.69; 5. Terry McMillen, 3.800, 321.12; 6. Leah Pritchett, 3.808, 324.51; 7. Antron Brown, 3.817, 321.27; 8. Scott Palmer, 3.854, 321.65; 9. Doug Kalitta, 3.862, 316.38; 10. Tony Schumacher, 3.873, 311.99; 11. Shawn Reed, 3.882, 283.01; 12. Kebin Kinsley, 3.883, 317.19; 13. Billy Torrence, 3.921, 283.13; 14. Richie Crampton, 3.942, 303.71; 15. Bill Litton, 4.076, 235.47; 16. Terry Brian, 4.121, 237.75.

Not Qualified _ 17. Cory McClenathan, 4.186, 268.22; 18. Mike Salinas, 4.220, 205.66; 19. Terry Totten, 4.683, 170.30.

Funny Car _ 1. Tommy Johnson Jr., Dodge Charger, 3.958, 323.66; 2. Tim Wilkerson, Ford Mustang, 3.958, 315.64; 3. J.R. Todd, Toyota Camry, 3.962, 320.05; 4. Bob Tasca III, Mustang, 3.981, 319.82; 5. Jack Beckman, Charger, 3.986, 312.57; 6. Ron Capps, Charger, 4.012, 317.05; 7. Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, 4.013, 318.99; 8. John Force, Camaro, 4.045, 319.67; 9. Shawn Langdon, Camry, 4.047, 317.05; 10. Jim Campbell, Charger, 4.051, 310.63; 11. Courtney Force, Camaro, 4.080, 266.58; 12.Jeff Diehl, Camry, 4.140, 257.38; 13. Cruz Pedregon, Camry, 4.557, 181.57; 14. Matt Hagan, Charger, 4.867, 160.73; 15. Todd Simpson, Charger, 6.011, 121.84; 16. John Hale, Chevy Impala, 8.161, 75.13.

Pro Stock_ 1. Jeg Coughlin Jr., Chevy Camaro, 6.599, 207.53; 2. Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.600, 208.42; 3. Jason Line, Camaro, 6.601, 207.75; 4. Vincent Nobile, Camaro, 6.609, 208.10; 5. Alex Laughlin, Dodge Dart, 6.613, 206.48; 6. Drew Skillman, Camaro, 6.615, 208.55; 7. Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.615, 208.04; 8. Erica Enders, Camaro, 6.615, 207.75; 9. Tanner Gray, Camaro, 6.621, 208.36; 10. Deric Kramer, Camaro, 6.623, 208.49; 11. Chris McGaha, Camaro, 6.626, 208.52; 12. Matt Hartford, Camaro, 6.627, 206.86; 13. Fernando Cuadra, Camaro, 6.647, 207.66; 14. Kenny Delco, Camaro, 6.661, 207.59; 15. Alan Prusiensky, Dodge Dart, 6.666, 205.41; 16. Val Smeland, Camaro, 6.753, 205.98.

Not Qualified _ 17. Shane Tucker, 6.824, 202.61; 18. Robert River, 6.927, 198.79.

Pro Stock Motorcycle _1. Matt Smith, EBR, 6.876, 197.65; 2. Hector Arana Jr., EBR, 6.882, 195.45; 3. Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 6.892, 195.25; 4. Angelle Sampey, Buell, 6.906, 194.86; 5. LE Tonglet, Suzuki, 6.915, 194.83; 6. Steve Johnson, Suzuki, 6.922, 194.41; 7. Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, 6.930, 195.22; 8. Angie Smith, Buell, 6.938, 193.02; 9. Ryan Oehler, Buell, 6.938, 189.84; 10. Joey Gladstone, Buell, 6.943, 193.65; 11. Hector Arana, EBR, 6.946, 195.45; 12. Andrew Hines, Harley-Davidson, 6.950, 194.97; 13. Scotty Pollacheck, Suzuki, 6.950, 193.93; 14. Kelly Clontz, Suzuki, 6.982, 191.95; 15. Karen Stoffer, Suzuki, 7.066, 188.07; 16. Anthony Vanetti, Buell, 7.855, 182.85.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, October 6 2018
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