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15 Takeaways From the Final NHRA Spring Nationals in Houston

In case you missed it, the NHRA Spring Nationals at Houston Raceway Park absolutely, positively lived up to the hype surrounding what appears to be drag racing’s major league series’ last visit to Baytown, Texas. 

It was an event already steeped in emotion – the closing of a door, the end of a chapter – but the #SpringNats managed to take the dial and turn it to 11 (12, 13, 14 maybe?). From the first-ever all-female Pro Stock final round to Matt Smith swapping bikes (legally) prior to the Pro Stock Motorcycle final and seemingly everything in between, the fifth stop on the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series tour had the racing community buzzing from start-to-finish. If it wasn’t controversy in the shutdown area, it was controversy in the pits. If it wasn’t a race car hitting the wall, it was a helmet hitting the ground.

As big of a bummer as is the news that NHRA most likely will not return to Houston Raceway Park – a reality that many, many racers, including drag racing newcomer Tony Stewart, vocally opposed and bemoaned – it’s our opinion here at DRAG ILLUSTRATED that the 2022 running of the Spring Nationals will be fondly remembered by essentially everyone that cares about the sport. It’s never been too hard for racers to get excited about a trip to Houston, honestly. Sure, it’s a haul for anyone other than the local racer base (who certainly showed up and showed out this year), but the opportunity to race at or near sea-level is typically always welcome – except for the sportsman racers who typically spend their days leading up to the Spring Nationals praying it doesn’t rain (if you know, you know). 

For clarification purposes, we’ll repeat what has been said a lot in recent weeks, and that’s that Houston Raceway Park is not closing its doors forever. They already have a 2023 schedule published, and while it’s likely a safe bet that HRP won’t be around forever – its immediate future seems relatively secure. 

Alright, let’s get into it…

JR TODD HAS THE BEST LOOKING FUNNY CAR ON THE PLANET

Listen, there’s plenty of good-looking cars out here right now, but at a time when almost everything seems to be some combination of black, white and red – it sure is nice to see a whole lot of yellow thrown into the mix. Maybe this isn’t a hot take or an exceptionally hard-hitting opinion, but for what it’s worth – that DHL Toyota Supra is one good-looking son of a gun. Let’s get Steve and Billy Torrence together with Mike Salinas and make one of them throw some purple on those Top Fuelers, or some flames or something. I’m here for Salinas to make that dragster of his match those sweet long-nose Peterbilts pulling his trailers. 

LANE CHOICE MATTERS

For all the effort and energy that tracks put into making each lane equal (and rightfully so), it seems hard to argue that having one lane favored over the other makes for some exceptionally exciting drag racing. If you were listening to announcer Alan Reinhart (email him at announcer@nhra.com if you didn’t know) on the public address system, you could have easily turned hearing the phrase “lane swap” into a drinking game, and it’d have gotten ugly quickly. By all accounts, the spectator-side lane (left lane, if you’re looking down the track) was the favored pathway come race day, and it added a lot of drama and anticipation to each and every matchup throughout the day. 

PEDAL FESTS ARE AWESOME

You know you’ve become jaded and desensitized to the mechanical marvel that is a Top Fuel dragster or Funny Car cracking off one 320-plus mph run after another when you get giddy about tires smokin’ and throttle pedals being beaten into submission. We love to see ‘em side-by-side, seemingly welded together as they go through the traps, but who doesn’t love an opportunity to showcase their driving chops when things don’t go as planned? And God knows we surely love to bear witness. The first-round matchup between rivals Shawn Langdon and Leah Pruett in Top Fuel was one of the most fun-to-watch of the weekend and both cars posted trap speeds more akin to Top Sportsman. Pruett nabbed a small hole shot off the starting line, but both rails were up in smoke early. Langdon’s ‘chutes came out amidst the chaos and he drug them all the way down the 1,000-feet racing surface and took the win with a 4.774-second, 197.48 mph performance over Pruett’s 4.973/201.04 effort. No records set; no 10-feet-long header flames, and it was still one of the most compelling races of the day. If that’s not a reminder that a 3.6-second, nearly 340 mph run isn’t the only way to provide on-track action that’s worth the price of admission…we don’t know what is. 

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NOT AT ALL THRILLED

What can you say about our pro racer base right now and their willingness to talk on camera? Mere moments after Funny Car superstar Alex DeJoria pancaked her beautiful Bandero Tequila/ROKiT-branded Toyota Funny Car into the concrete retaining wall at Houston Raceway Park, NHRA on FOX had cameras in her face and Amanda Busick a microphone. A tough moment, obviously, for everyone involved, but what a proud moment for pro-level drag racing. These are the uncomfortable moments that have to be captured, have to be talked about and, oftentimes, have to be addressed publicly. Alexis DeJoria is a drag racer of the highest caliber, competing at the sport’s highest levels, and if she has an incident such as the one she was able to walk away from in Texas – we believe she’s going to have to be willing and able to talk about it. And the Southern California native delivered in spades. Sure, she was distraught and emotional (who wouldn’t be?) and we’re sure we weren’t the only people that felt bad about her having to talk about the situation so quickly after the fact, but this is the big leagues, right? Facing the music (a press room full of reporters or a cameraman and on-air personality) is par for the course and has produced an entire world worth of memorable moments. “We talkin’ ‘bout practice?” Remember? Getting to see how personal that Alexis DeJoria took that moment and how bad she felt about it, in our opinion, is a victory for everyone involved. That’s how people get to know who she is, and while we never want to see any machinery damaged or destroyed, we’re thankful for moments where we learn about our sport’s heroes and heroettes. 

QUOTE OF THE WEEKEND

“I think I’m the luckiest guy out here. I got a good driver. He got me through that one. He saved my ass. And my boys got this thing together – no leaks. We don’t look like dumbasses up here. So, I’m proud of everybody. Thank you, guys.”
– Daniel Wilkerson, Chad Green Racing crew chief

ERICA, MEET CAMRIE. CAMRIE, MEET ERICA.

There was a tense moment in the shutdown area following Saturday night’s final round of professional qualifying when Pro Stock living legend Erica Enders and newcomer Camrie Caruso squared off. Both drivers made solid runs, neither improving, but in the shutdown area connected in a way that had the sport of drag racing absolutely buzzing. Caruso came to a complete stop on the race track, apparently as instructed by a member of the NHRA Safety Safari, and when Enders, who was behind her, steered to avoid hitting her opponent’s Camaro and take the turnoff her still-blossomed parachutes (blown by the wind) caught the decklid wing of Caruso’s car and abruptly stopped Enders’.

Cameras and hot mics caught some of the following interaction, but only bits and pieces of what was clearly an uncomfortable exchange between the drivers, who both – quite impressively – spoke on the matter with NHRA on FOX’s Amanda Busick. The two seemed to patch things up almost immediately and move on, but the stage has absolutely been set for a rivalry between one of drag racing’s most beloved and successful competitors in Erica Enders and one of its fast-rising stars in Camrie Caruso. We’re here for it. 

MORE TONY STEWART, PLEASE

During the extended-cut version of the NHRA Spring Nationals broadcast available to those of us who subscribe to NHRA.tv, Tony Stewart gave a freaking barnburner of an interview that we here at DRAG ILLUSTRATED have been replaying ever since. He spoke of the fans and facility in Houston, shared his excitement about securing his team’s second professional win with Matt Hagan and the Dodge Power Brokers Funny Car, what the win meant to he and his crew chief Dickie Venables following the loss of his father (a Houston-area native) late last year and, lastly, his appreciation for the passion demonstrated by Bobby Bode Jr. when he launched his helmet at the ground climbing out of his Funny Car chassis after the engine exploded in his lap and disintegrated its carbon fiber body in the final elimination round. 

“Bobby Bode, I’m going to buy him a brand new helmet,” said Stewart, speaking to NHRA’s Joe Castello. “He threw his helmet and they’ll take the sticker out – that certification sticker out. So, he’s gonna have to get a new helmet and I am personally going to buy him a new helmet because I want guys like him that are that passionate about wanting to win races, that’s the kind of guys I want in my race cars. So, I’m going to buy that kid a new helmet. I can appreciate a kid like him. That kid has done an awesome job, that whole team has done a great job all weekend. We watched that kid every session go down through there and make solid laps, and that passion – that’s the kind of guy I like. I like hanging out with people like that. I like that kid. I like to see that passion. That kid is going to win some races.”

BIKE SWAP

We’re still sorting through some of the details of this whole situation, but the gist of it is that Matt Smith was in the Pro Stock Motorcycle final against Steve Johnson. Talk about a clash of the titans, right?!?! Smith’s Suzuki suffered engine damage in the semis and per the rules he had the option to bring out (once a weekend) to bring out a back-up bike. Feeling he didn’t have a legit chance to win on his Suzuki, and also knowing he didn’t have the parts to repair it, he chose to bring out his Buell – the one he won the championship on in 2021. 

It appeared a winning strategy off the starting line (Smith left ever-so-slightly first), but was trailing by the time the bikes crossed the Christmas tree and never was able to close the gap on Johnson who posted a 6.720-second, 199.91 mph lap for the win – his 10th all-time and first of 2022. 

AUTHENTIC ENTHUSIASM

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Speaking of Pro Stock Motorcycle, did you catch Steve Johnson’s big-end interview after he took out Matt Smith in the final? No? We got you. 

DOUBLE E VS. DOUBLE C

Are we really this lucky? Really? As soon as the smoke cleared and we realized that right behind Camrie Caruso in the Pro Stock top spot was Erica Enders in second, we started to salivate at the mere thought of these two meeting in the final round. But, we knew, these races aren’t run on paper. Just imagine, though! Could we really have an all-female final round the same weekend as one of the finalist’s first No. 1 qualifying effort? The same weekend as the other female finalist, who happens to be one of the best to ever drive a race car and a four-time world champion, is competing at the final NHRA race ever to be contested at her hometown track? 

With the number of top flight cars and drivers in Pro Stock right now, it seemed highly unlikely we could get so lucky, but… It happened. Sure ‘nuff. 

Caruso worked her way through Fernado Cuadra, Bo Butner and reigning champion Greg Anderson en route to the Spring Nationals final against Enders. For her part Enders had to defeat Christian Cuadra, Matt Hartford and Kyle Koretsky. 

As the two cars rolled out from under the tower and toward the water box at Houston Raceway Park for the last time, it seemed things couldn’t get any better. Then the Goodyears on the back of young Caruso’s Camaro failed to spin. Too far out of the water, perhaps? The fresh-faced driver backed up and tried again – with the slicks plenty wet. Same. Transmission deadheaded. Most Pro Stock drivers start their burnout in third gear (Erica Enders starts hers in second) and almost immediately shift into fourth, then fifth gear as they come out of the water. Caruso was starting her burnout, attempting to shift and as sometimes happens (not often) the transmission didn’t go into the next gear. 

So, let’s just imagine that you’re a female in your early twenties and you’re racing a fellow female driver that you’ve idolized since you started racing in the first final round of professional drag racing competition you’ve ever competed in. Now, let’s add that you’re driving one of the most complicated and nuanced drag racing vehicles on the planet. Let’s also include that you’ve never had any trouble doing a burnout, but now, on the biggest stage of your entire career – a career that’s about three-months-old – you’re having a helluva time doing one at no fault of your own. 

Yeah. Maybe take a few and read that again. That’s exactly the situation Camrie Caruso found herself in on Sunday, April 24th, 2022 at or around 6:01 PM EST. 

How’d she handle it? Well, she put a .030-light on Erica Enders (.053) and busted off a pretty impressive 6.624-second, 209.26 mph blast in her Sand Haulers of America-sponsored Chevy Camaro Pro Stocker. Unfortunately for the Denver, North Carolina-based rookie driver, Enders had negated her slight starting line advantage before they broke the 330’ beams and posted up a race-winning 6.568-second, 210.24 mph effort to secure the final Pro Stock victory at her hometown Houston Raceway Park – immediately reminding us that she’s not ready to pass the baton quite yet. 

Not sure what more we could possibly ask for. 

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VAPOR TRAILS FOR THE WIN

As Brittany Force and her Monster Energy Drink Top Fueler streaked towards the finish line, vapor trails became visible coming off the rear wing. As if the weekend needed a more poetic, spectacular finish…the wing on Justin Ashley’s Top Fueler quickly followed. 

BRITTANY FORCE IS A WINNER

We’ve made a big point out of CC vs. EE in an all-female Pro Stock final, but our sport’s female presence extends well beyond doorslammers. How about Brittany Force in the final? The second-generation Force is really coming into her own in 2022 and used a holeshot (.041) to get the win over Justin Ashley, which is pretty damn impressive for her. She’s really put in the work recently and spoke quite candidly in the media center in Houston about there being no worse feeling than letting down your team as a driver. This is also the first time she’s ever had back-to-back wins. And, frankly, it feels like she’s entered a whole new chapter in her career – on the starting line, on the microphone, everything, everywhere. She’s really come out of her shell the last two races – less guarded, a few cuss words here and there, etc. Top Fuel continues to deliver in 2022, and the class has really turned into a three-horse race with Brittany, Justin Ashley and Steve Torrence. 

STEVE-O STILL WINLESS

No wins in 5 races. We know people that have gone all the races without a win (we’re them), but when you’re talking about Steve freaking Torrence, a.k.a. Champ, Champ, Champ, Champ (we actually call him that around here) it’s headline news when you don’t win. People panic. It’s definitely shocking that he’s gone a whole 5 races without crushing everyone into the ground, but he has been pretty consistent – semis or better everywhere. The team is trying a bunch of new things – some working, some not – but he feels confident it will be there when he needs it. Plus, he’s won the last four four-wide races in Charlotte (that’s a lot to write, let alone say), so we’re under the distinct impression that he’s confident headed out East. We’re fully expecting him to “remind us” at zMAX Dragway. 

HOW ‘BOUT THOSE EMMONS BOYS? HOW ‘BOUT ALL THESE HOUSTON LOCALS?

Harvey Emmons III and Jerry Emmons score the double-up in Super Stock and Stock at the last national event in Houston? Are you serious? 

And that’s not all. Beyond Enders and Emmons, Michael Holcombe took the win in Super Comp, Keith Purvis in Super Gas, Chris LeBlanc in Super Street and Chris Arnold in Top Sportsman. Is this some sort of sign? Feels like the racing gods were talking to us in Houston this past weekend with nobody ready to accept this as the final NHRA Spring Nationals at HRP, but if this is the end – what a way to finish.

BOBBY BODE JR. IS OUR HERO

This University of Arizona student experienced his first career Funny Car final round at the ripe old age of 20. According to his dad, Bob, the young man “makes the calls” on the family’s fuel coupe himself, with help from Tim Wilkerson. It’s massively impressive and when those technical skills and/or experience are paired with the passion and fiery competitiveness he demonstrated following his final round loss to Matt Hagan, as well as the massive engine explosion he suffered during the race, well, he’s got our attention. He should have yours.

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