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NHRA To Kick Season Off In Gainesville

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, March 12 2021

Steve Torrence begins quest for another NHRA Top Fuel championship this weekend.

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

In Steve Torrence’s world, “March Madness” is a Bucket List box needing to be checked.

NHRA’s three-time/reigning Top Fuel world champion, Torrence has won 24 of his career 40 national event finals over the last three seasons. However, the native Texan remains winless in the month of March _ a stat he aims to change during this weekend’s 52nd annual Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals at Gainesville Raceway.

Torrence returns to the famed Florida facility for the 2021 NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series season-opener as defending winner of an event that was moved from March to September in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Torrence celebrated his Gators victory last Sept. 27 alongside Florida drag racing legend “Big Daddy” Don Garlits after wheeling a 330 mph hybrid modeled after “Swamp Rat 14” _ the Garlits-designed rear engine dragster that transformed Top Fuel during the 1971 season. Torrence beat eight-time world champion Tony Schumacher, Doug Foley, Leah Pruett and father/Capco Contractors teammate Billy Torrence to end 10 years of frustration in Florida’s biggest drag race.

All that’s left for Torrence and crew chief Richard Hogan is to win the Gator Nats on its traditional date. “I never had won at Gainesville before, never even been to a final, but racing ‘Big Daddy’s’ car we had magic and we finally got a win,” Torrence said. “There’s a history with Hogan and ‘Big,’ so we thought it would be something really cool. ‘Hoagie’ worked for Garlits for a long time and, before that, his dad (Charlie ‘The King’ Hogan) was one of ‘Big Daddy’s’ biggest rivals.”

In addition to Torrence, Ron Capps (Funny Car), Alex Laughlin (Pro Stock) and Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle) are defending winners of an event that will be televised on FOX Sports 1 (FS1) and FOX, including live finals coverage starting at 12 p.m. (EDT) on Sunday on the FOX broadcast network.

Joining Torrence as 2020 world champions last November in Pomona, Calif., were Matt Hagan (Funny Car), Erica Enders (Pro Stock) and Smith (Pro Stock Bike).

NHRA is celebrating its 70th anniversary in 2021, one year after honoring the 50th anniversary of the Pro Stock class. Special features along the tour will commemorate the latest milestone and honor NHRA’s history of competition and diversity. 

The Glendora, Calif.-based sanctioning body is anxious to rebound from a 2020 campaign that was particularly hard-hit by the pandemic. The originally announced 24-race tour was revised, realigned and reduced to 11 national events by season’s end. In addition to losing more than half of its original schedule and the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs to the pandemic, 16-time Funny Car world champion John “Brute” Force _ arguably drag racing’s marquee personality _ parked his four-car juggernaut (two in Funny Car/two in Top Fuel) once racing resumed in mid-July. 

NHRA management later imposed two reductions in prize money payouts in Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle. Meanwhile, a legal battle between the sanctioning body and corporate partner Coca-Cola resulted in Mello Yello’s exit as series title sponsor. The rebadged NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series was introduced mid-race at World Wide Technology Raceway in Madison, Ill., near St. Louis, in early October.

NHRA enters 2021 aligned with Camping World _ the nation’s largest retailer of recreational vehicles, RV accessories and RV-related services _ and an extended television partnership with FOX Sports. All national events will be aired exclusively on FOX Sports, with select events on the FOX broadcast network.

Pro Stock’s Enders will start the 2021 schedule as the first female in NHRA history to win four world titles. Ironically, her bid for a third consecutive championship will begin at one of the few facilities where the 29-time event winner hasn’t won in her Melling Performance/Elite Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro.

“It’s definitely a cool time,” Enders said. “I’m really excited to head to Gainesville. It’s a really prestigious race, right up there with Indy. I’ve been a runner-up at Gainesville three times and never won, so I’m hopeful to check that off my Bucket List. There’s no better time than now.”

After a longer-than-normal offseason, Enders made a series of strong test runs last week in Orlando, Fla. “We did absolutely zero offseason testing on the track, so I definitely felt good going (to Orlando) and being in a good spot,” Enders said. “We know our stuff works and we’ve got power. Again, Pro Stock is going to be a dogfight. There’s a lot of young blood in here.”

Smith’s PSM win in Gainesville last September accelerated his run to a fourth world title aboard his Denso/Stockseth/MSR EBR. Matt Smith Racing expanded to four bikes this offseason, with Smith, wife Angie, Scotty Pollacheck and John Hall now working together. Pollacheck, Matt Smith and Angie Smith all won in 2020.

“And we all went over 200 mph last year, so we’ve shown we know how to go fast, win races and compete for championships,” said Matt Smith, who has 26 career wins. “With four bikes, our goal is we all finish in the top-10, we all win races and hopefully one of us wins a championship. We race all-out and we just want to win, and that’s our mentality.”

Funny Car’s Hagan, a three-time/reigning world champ, is looking to extend Don Schumacher Racing’s string of 14 straight national event wins this weekend. 

I’m excited to get back out here for the 2021 Camping World season with a championship-caliber car to defend my title, and with fans back in the stands and everyone having a good time,” said Hagan, driver of the Mopar Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Redeye. “There are some tracks and some races that I haven’t won at yet and one that really sticks out in my mind is Gainesville. I’ve been to the finals but you still can’t just show up and expect to win. You have to have a plan of action to do that and with it being our kickoff race this year, I really want to win the Gatornationals.

“It’s very important to me to reinforce our championship and get a new year started the right way. I’m 100 percent motivated to win that race. I’ve been there, I’ve tasted it, but I’ve just come up short.”

Meanwhile, DSR’s juggernaut will be matched against John Force Racing in its highly anticipated return to the series. Force shut down his operation last March at the start of the pandemic and opted to not return when the schedule resumed in mid-July.

The 21-time championship team will field three fulltime hot rods driven by “Brute” Force, Robert Hight and Brittany Force.

John Force will campaign his Chevrolet Camaro SS Funny Car with son-in-law Danny Hood as lead crew chief and Tim Fabrisi moving up to assistant crew chief from car chief. Both were key players in John’s historic 150th and 151st national event wins.

“Thank you to all of our sponsors and fans for sticking by us,” said Force, owner/CEO of John Force Racing. “I really realized how much I love this sport and I appreciate the chance to get back into my PEAK/BlueDEF Chevrolet. We’re excited to be back racing and to have all of our sponsors with us. I’m looking forward to working with Camping World and can’t wait to see where the sport goes with them on board.”

Hight, president of JFR and a three-time Funny Car world champion, will continue to drive the Auto Club of Southern California Camaro SS working with crew chiefs Jimmy Prock and Chris Cunningham.

“It was a long time off. I’m happy we didn’t forget how to do this,” Hight joked after three days of testing at the PRO Winter Warm-Up at Palm Beach (Fla.) International Raceway last week. “I’m really looking forward to getting back to going rounds and winning races with this Auto Club team.”

Crew chiefs David Grubnic and Mac Savage will continue to tune 2017 Top Fuel world champion Brittany Force’s Monster Energy/Flav-R-Pac dragster. The two sponsors will split the season as primary partners on Brittany’s national record-holding dragster. 

“We’ll be coming out swinging right out of the gate looking for our first win at the first race of the season,” Brittany said.

The Gator Nats also will feature the opening race of the 2021 E3 Spark Plugs NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series season. The race is presented by Jerry Bickel Race Cars and FTI Performance, and the defending winner is Rickie Smith. The schedule includes competition in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series as well as the Factory Stock Showdown Drag Racing Series and the Top Fuel Harley Series. 

Additionally, the Southeast Nostalgia Pro Stock Group will bring vintage Pro Stock cars to Gainesville, while a special Street Car Shootout between Tom Bailey and Rod Tschiggfrie, two of the best street car racers in the world, will take place during the weekend.

NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series qualifying is scheduled for one round at 4 p.m. (EST) on Friday, with the two rounds slated for 12:05 and 4 p.m. on Saturday. Final eliminations are scheduled for 10 a.m. (EDT) Sunday. Television coverage includes qualifying action on FS1 at 3 p.m. (EST) on Saturday and live eliminations beginning at noon (EDT) on Sunday via the FOX national broadcast network.

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2021 NHRA CAMPING WORLD DRAG RACING SERIES SCHEDULE

March 12-14 _ Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals, Gainesville, Fla.

March 26-28 _ NHRA Southern Nationals, Commerce, Ga.

April 9-11 _ Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals, Pomona, Calif.

April 16-18 _ Denso Spark Plugs NHRA Four-Wide Nationals, Las Vegas

May 14-16 _ NGK Spark Plugs NHRA Four-Wide Nationals, Concord, N.C.

May 21-23 _ Mopar Express Lane NHRA SpringNationals Presented by Pennzoil, Baytown, Texas

June 4-6 _ Virginia NHRA Nationals, Richmond, Va.

June 11-13 _ NHRA New England Nationals, Epping, N.H.

June 24-27 _ Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals, Norwalk, Ohio

July 16-18 _ Dodge Mile-High NHRA Nationals Presented by Pennzoil, Morrison, Colo.

July 23-25 _ NHRA Sonoma Nationals, Sonoma, Calif.

July 30-Aug. 1 _ Flav-R-Pac Northwest Nationals, Kent, Wash.

Aug. 13-15 _ Menards NHRA Heartland Nationals Presented by Pennzoil, Topeka, Kan.

Aug. 18-22 _ Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals, Brainerd, Minn.

NHRA CAMPING WORLD COUNTDOWN TO THE CHAMPIONSHIP

Sept. 10-12 _ NHRA Nationals, Reading, Pa.

Sept. 17-19 _ NTK NHRA Carolina Nationals, Concord, N.C.

Sept. 24-26 _ NHRA Midwest Nationals, Madison, Ill.

Oct. 7-10 _ NHRA FallNationals, Ennis, Texas

Oct. 29-31 _ Dodge NHRA Nationals Presented by Pennzoil, Las Vegas

Nov. 11-14 _ Auto Club NHRA Finals, Pomona, Calif.

 

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, March 12 2021
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  • Nicolas says:

    YAY I’m so looking forward to this season. It’s the first hint of normalcy to life after the earth shaking covid19 pandemic. I know it’s gonna be a great season and I am predicting a Father/Daughter John and Brittany Force to sweep the Top Fuel and Funny Car Championships this year!