NHRA Set For The U.S. Nats

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, September 2 2022

The NHRA’s big event is under way in Indiana.

NHRA’s 2022 “regular season” will conclude over Labor Day Weekend with a traffic jam in the pits at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park.

A total of 25 Top Fuel dragsters and 18 Funny Cars are scheduled to compete in the prestigious 68th annual Dodge Power Brokers NHRA U.S. Nationals beginning today. It’s the largest Top Fuel field for a point-paying race in the Camping World Drag Racing Series since 2013, headlining a count of more than 925 cars across NHRA’s professional and Sportsman classes.

“There’s a lot of cars that are really good and I like it,” said Steve Torrence, the four-time/reigning Top Fuel world champion. “It’s exciting to me to pull up to the staging lanes and see it full of Top Fuel cars and know that you’ve really got to work for it. This is the biggest race in our sport and to have that many cars, I look forward to it and I’m excited about it. There’s so much at stake. You can’t struggle to get in because so many cars are going to be battling it out.”

Torrence is chasing a second straight Indy victory after earning his first Wally trophy of the season at the most recent national event in Brainerd International Raceway in Minnesota. Remarkably, the win was Torrence’s first since prevailing last November at the 2021 season-ending Auto Club NHRA Finals in Pomona, Calif.

“We didn’t forget how to win but, dang, it sure felt like it,” said Torrence, driver of his family-owned Capco Contractors dragster. “I have all the confidence and faith in the world in this team because that car is always bad to the bone. Maybe we’re getting our stuff together at the right time because we’re charging for that (fifth world title).”

Torrence’s 52nd career win may wind up among his personally most satisfying, as he trailered fellow-Texan/eight-time world champ Tony Schumacher in a showdown between two of the most dominant drivers in Top Fuel history.

Torrence’s second straight win at BIR propelled him past Justin Ashley and into third place in driver points led by 2016 world champ Brittany Force of John Force Racing.

Torrence (Top Fuel), Tim Wilkerson (Funny Car), Erica Enders (Pro Stock) and Eddie Krawiec (Pro Stock Motorcycle) all scored event wins at IRP last summer. This edition will be carried on both the FOX broadcast network and Fox Sports 1 (FS1), including live eliminations coverage starting at noon (EDT) on Monday, Sept. 5, on FS1 and continuing at 2 p.m. on FOX.

“Everybody in this field is good and it’s going to be awesome,” said Mike Salinas, the team-owner/driver who trails Force by 94 points. “Everyone is going to bring your ‘A’ game. It’s great racing for all of us and I can’t wait.”

In addition to setting the professional fields for the Countdown to the Championship Playoffs, “The Big Go” will feature the Pep Boys NHRA All-Star Callout in both Top Fuel and Funny Car. Drivers in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series and FuelTech NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series presented by D-Wagon also will compete at IRP. The fastest Super Stock cars will challenge for a bonus purse during the Dodge HEMI Challenge as well.

Racing in the NHRA Top Fuel Harley Drag Racing Series is on the schedule along with the Constant Aviation NHRA Factory Stock Showdown category and Mountain Motor Pro Stock. And for the third consecutive year, Sportsman racers will face-off in the JEGS Allstars bonus event.

The U.S. Nats is the 16th of 22 races during the 2022 season. Top Fuelers Torrence, Salinas, Ashley and Force _ along with eight standouts in Funny Car _ will have the opportunity to bag two wins this weekend during the Pep Boys NHRA All-Star Callout. Coupled with the 25-car field in Top Fuel and five qualifying sessions, Ashley expects every 1,000-foot pass to be critical.

“I absolutely love it and I think it naturally brings out the best in you as a driver and as a team,” said Ashley, driver of the Phillips Connect Toyota dragster. “At the same time, the pressure is on to put your best foot forward. We’re trying to win the Callout, we’re trying to win the U.S. Nationals. You have to make sure you bring it each and every time, and I think we’ll see a really quick field and a lot of competitive racing.”

In Funny Car, Robert Hight is aiming to lock up the regular season championship by adding to his hefty 250-point lead over fellow three-time world champ Matt Hagan.

Third on the class all-time wins list behind team-owner/16-time world champ John Force (155) and two-time/reigning world champ Ron Capps (70), Hight is chasing win No. 60 during a career-best season. Hight is poised to become just the sixth Funny Car driver to win as many as seven races during a single season.

Included on his resumè are three U.S. Nats victories (2006, 2008 and 2013). Hight’s only No. 1 start was in 2009 when he lost in the final round to teammate Ashley Force Hood. But in doing so, he qualified for the Countdown in the 10th and final position. Hight would go on to win the first of his three championships, becoming the only driver in any category to prevail from a last-place start.

“The U.S. Nationals are a big deal. There’s a lot going on this weekend with the five qualifying runs and the Callout,” said Hight, driver of the Automobile Club of Southern California Chevrolet Camaro SS. “Most importantly, it’s the final race before the Countdown begins.

“This Auto Club Chevy team has worked hard all season _ that’s what’s gotten us to the points lead. Doing well at ‘The Big Go’ will carry over to the Countdown, where the points reset and we really have to be on it. It’s going to be a long weekend; hopefully we can make it worth it and come out with a win or even two.”

Meanwhile, Bob Tasca III is looking to continue his personal version of Funny Car summer. Tasca scored his second straight win and third in the past four national events at Brainerd. Tasca was the only driver in both nitro categories to make clean runs on every 1,000-foot pass on race day, finishing the final with a lap in 3.945-seconds at 329.42 mph in his Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford Mustang against Capps.

Erica Enders has dominated Pro Stock at the U.S. Nationals of late, winning the past two races. The four-time world champ also has been setting the pace in the Factory Hot Rod class this season with six victories en route to a huge point lead over runnerup Aaron Stanfield. A third consecutive event victory would move Erica into impressive company, and also mark her fourth career Indy win.

“It’s hard to explain the meaning of Indy to someone on the outside,” said Enders, driver of the Melling Performance/Elite Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro SS. “But it is everything. It’s the Super Bowl of drag racing. The U.S. Nationals is the last regular-season race and it’s worth points-and-a-half. Team Elite is in a great position…and I’m more ready than ever.”

A fifth world title would tie Enders with arch-rival/reigning world champ Greg Anderson of Ken Black Racing. Incredibly, Anderson is still seeking his first win of the season _ and milestone 100th of his career.

The next Pro Stock Motorcycle win for Eddie Krawiec will be his landmark 50th. A four-time PSM world champion, Krawiec has finished as runnerup at the two most recent races aboard his Vance & Hines Suzuki. Both of those defeats were against point-leader Joey Gladstone.

“I’m right there and I feel like I’ve got a really good motorcycle,” said Krawiec, a three-time winner at IRP. “You just need things to roll your way. There’s a lot of great motorcycles in the class, but Indy is the race you want to win. To have three wins at Indy, it’s just cool to say I’m a world champion and I’ve won Indy.”

Krawiec has vaulted four spots in the standings over the past two races, evidence of an increased comfort level aboard his new Suzuki _ one of 22 Pro Stock Bikes entered this weekend.

“I’m starting to come into my own with my Suzuki program and I’m really starting to understand what the bike wants and where it wants to be,” said Krawiec, a former factory Harley-Davidson rider with Vance & Hines. “It probably took me about five runs to get acclimated, but in this class getting acclimated is just not good enough.

“Anytime you change bikes, you have to learn, and it takes time. You can never perfect it, but you want to be able to get it right without thinking about it and we’re getting closer to that. We’re getting better and better at where the bike needs to be.”

Professional qualifying is scheduled to begin with one round at 6:30 p.m. (EDT) this evening, two rounds of qualifying on Saturday, Sept. 3, at 1:15 and 5:00 p.m. and the final two rounds on Sunday, Sept. 4, at noon and 3:30 p.m. Final eliminations are scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. on Labor Day Monday, Sept. 5.

Semifinals of the Pep Boys NHRA All-Star Top Fuel Callout take place on Saturday at 2:40 p.m., with the final round at 6:25 p.m. On Sunday, the Pep Boys NHRA All-Star Funny Car Callout will begin with the opening round at 1:20 p.m., the semifinals at 2:45 p.m. and the final at 4:55 p.m.

Television coverage will include competition on Fox Sports 1 from 1-3 p.m. on Sunday followed by the Pep Boys NHRA All-Star Funny Car Callout from 4-5:30 p.m. Qualifying will continue from 5:30-7 p.m. on Sunday, also on FS1. On Monday, live coverage from eliminations will begin at noon on FS1 and continue on FOX from 2-5 p.m.

First-year NHRA team-owner Tony Stewart will head from the IRP pits to the FOX broadcast booth to join Brian Lohnes and Tony Pedregon for Monday’s eliminations. Stewart added NHRA team-owner to his Hall of Fame resumè this season with the debut of Tony Stewart Racing. The two-car nitro team features three-time Funny Car world champ Matt Hagan and Top Fuel star (and wife) Leah Pruett, as the teammates have combined for four wins during the 2022 season.

Stewart, a three-time NASCAR Cup Series champion, will add his candid insight to the coverage.

“It’s a great opportunity to have a motorsports icon and a new NHRA owner like Tony to join the NHRA on FOX broadcast during the U.S. Nationals,” said NHRA Vice President of Broadcast Steve Reintjes. “Tony is passionate about the NHRA, and he brings his experience from his recent role as an analyst during select NASCAR on FOX events to the NHRA broadcast booth. It’s a natural fit for Indy, our highest-profile NHRA event.”

NHRA crew chief Phil Shuler has joined Tony Schumacher’s Top Fuel team fielded by Maynard Family Racing in an official capacity. Shuler will work with JCM crew chief Todd Okuhara and assistant crew chief Marc Denner fulltime as co-crew chief alongside Okuhara.

“The addition of Phil to our team became a must-do as I watched the brain trust of Todd, Phil and Marc work with Tony and our crew to attain the victory in Seattle,” said team-owner Joe Maynard, referring to Schumacher’s Western Swing victory last month at Pacific Raceways in Kent, Wash.

As a tuning duo, Okuhara and Shuler have a long history in the nitro ranks. They worked together from 2003 to 2006 at Don “The Snake” Prudhomme’s operation before joining Don Schumacher Racing in 2006, where they collaborated on cars driven by Jack Beckman, Gary Scelzi, Jerry Toliver, Cory McClenathan and Spencer Massey through 2016.

Ahead of the 2017 season, Okuhara was named crew chief on Leah Pruett’s machine, and Shuler joined the U.S. Army team where he served as assistant crew chief of the Schumacher-driven dragster. Shuler’s tenure on the Army car marked his first time working with the winningest Top Fuel driver in NHRA history, and he was an integral part of the team’s second-place finish in 2018.
“After the 2019 season, I stepped away from nitro racing to work on Pro Mods, but I’m happy to be back out on the NHRA circuit fulltime again and reunite with Todd and Tony,” said Shuler, who has served in a variety of “chief” roles the last 20 years. “Todd and I have a long history together, and Tony and I worked together for a few years on the Army car. This is my first time working with Marc Denner, and I think our group has found a good balance as far as how we all complement each other.

“For me, being away from fuel racing for two years allowed me to look at things differently. You learn things from other forms of racing such as Pro Modifieds, Drag Radial and Outlaw cars that applies to nitro racing.”

For Schumacher _ an 86-time national event winner gearing up to run for a ninth Top Fuel world championship _ the addition of Shuler rounds-out his tuning lineup.

“They just work well together, plain and simple,” Schumacher said of the Okuhara/Shuler combination. “On their own, they’re both great but when they are able to collaborate, they’re even better. It’s clear our team has been making big strides as of late, and I feel good about the direction we’re headed in.”

Schumacher has vaulted from 12th in points to eighth since the Western Swing event at Sonoma, Calif., placing the Texan in the title hunt conversation. “We have the capability to run right up there with the top-ranked cars in the category,” said Schumacher, who rolls into this weekend’s U.S. Nationals as a 10-time event winner. “I feel good about our abilities to keep this momentum rolling into the Countdown.”

Point standings (top-10) heading into the 68th annual Dodge Power Brokers NHRA U.S. Nationals:

Top Fuel _1. Brittany Force, 1,206; 2. Mike Salinas, 1,112; 3. Steve Torrence, 1,076; 4. Justin Ashley, 1,070; 5. Josh Hart, 797; 6. (tie) Shawn Langdon, 761; Leah Pruett, 761; 8. Tony Schumacher, 703; 9. Doug Kalitta, 692; 10. Antron Brown, 668.

Funny Car _1. Robert Hight, 1,411; 2. Matt Hagan, 1,161; 3. Ron Capps, 1,105; 4. Bob Tasca III, 1,043; 5. John Force, 1,033; 6. J.R. Todd, 789; 7. Alexis DeJoria, 775; 8. Cruz Pedregon, 752; 9. Tim Wilkerson, 645; 10. Chad Green, 524.

Pro Stock _1. Erica Enders, 1,156; 2. Aaron Stanfield, 1,030; 3. Kyle Koretsky, 798; 4. Greg Anderson, 781; 5. Troy Coughlin Jr., 696; 6. Dallas Glenn, 668; 7. Mason McGaha, 604; 8. Camrie Caruso, 570; 9. Matt Hartford, 553; 10. Bo Butner, 528.

Pro Stock Motorcycle _1. Joey Gladstone, 724; 2. Angelle Sampey, 660; 3. Eddie Krawiec, 628; 4. Steve Johnson, 621; 5. Matt Smith, 615; 6. Angie Smith, 577; 7. Jerry Savoie, 541; 8. Karen Stoffer, 534; 9. Marc Ingwersen, 378; 10. Ryan Oehler, 298.

Editor’s Note: John Sturbin is a Texas-based journalist specializing in motorsports. During a near 30-year career with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, he won the Bloys Britt Award for top motorsports story of the year (1991) as judged by The Associated Press; received the National Hot Rod Association’s Media Award (1995) and several in-house Star-Telegram honors. He also was inaugural recipient of the Texas Motor Speedway Excellence in Journalism Award (2009). His list of freelance clients includes Texas Motor Speedway, the Dallas Morning News, New York Newsday, Rome (N.Y.) Daily Sentinel, Corpus Christi (Texas) Caller Times, NASCAR Wire Service, Ford Racing and Used Car Dealer magazine).

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, September 2 2022
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