It feels like they’re stacking up. It really does. Six races into the 2022 NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series Season, at least one or two races in for our sport’s most well-known eighth-mile series and sanctions, and with a few massively successful independent doorslammer events and a new-tradition-creating drag-and-drive event already behind us, the first five months of the year in racing feel quite deserving of our “these are the good ol’ days” mantra.
While we could certainly have a discussion revolving around the almost unbelievable number of big-time doorslammer events going on this past weekend and how it’s impacting participation at various venues, the real story is how strong the car count was at a slew of drag strips this past weekend despite all drawing from the same pool of talent and machinery. Along those same lines, I think there’s almost always room and/or reason to debate four-wide drag racing, but what a blessing are these places? The fact that the sport of drag racing even has a facility like zMax Dragway – the Bellagio of drag strips – with its towering…um…tower, four lanes of near perfect concrete, stadium-quality seating, luxurious suites and sprawling paved pits it should be a “pinch me” moment for any racer or race fan to see our sport on that stage. But I digress.
From Jim Halsey and Johnny Pluchino bouncing back from slow starts to the PDRA season at the Doorslammer Derby in Bowling Green to John Force securing his 155th win in Charlotte to the Northeast Outlaw Pro Mod Association (NEOPMA) kicking off its 30th (yes, thirtieth) season of continual operation and the successful completion of Peter Biondo’s beloved Spring Fling Bracket Race at Galot Motorsports Park, late April, early May was a real resume builder for all of us committed to straight-line motorsports. What’s that they say? If you can turn left (or right), you’re not driving fast enough?
Anyway, here’s our biggest takeaways, reactions and surprises from a wild weekend in drag racing.
CAN’T STOP, WON’T STOP
What more can be said about John Force at this point? The greatest drag racer in the history of the known universe continued his ongoing and seemingly never-ending effort to cement his legacy this past weekend during the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals at zMax Dragway. After securing the No. 1 qualifying position and setting both ends of the track record, Force, the defending event winner, earned his 155th career victory.
According to a report from the team, Force is now the winningest Funny Car driver in four-wide history and is second for most overall behind Steve Torrence (6) with his three wins. This is also now the 34th season in which Force has won at least one race. For anyone attempting to make the argument that the California-born truck-driver-turned-drag-racing-legend should retire, this past weekend didn’t help.
“It was a great weekend for all my sponsors. It was a great weekend for my team. Finally getting a win. This gave me confidence. I think that I can race. I turn 73 this week and I’m still out here winning races,” said Force who is now fourth in points. “Things just seem to happen where you’re destined to win. It was amazing. On some days, magical things just happen. Things went right and we were able to win the race. It was like it was destiny and it was a great weekend for my team. To finally get a win this year gives me a lot of confidence.”
If this is how he performs when he’s perhaps questioning himself ever so slightly, we can only imagine what the rest of 2022 is going to look like now that some real championship-level belief is forming within the walls of the PEAK / BlueDEF PLATINUM pit area.
DID YOU CATCH IT? TOP FUEL IS INSANE. ALL OF IT.
On a multitude of levels, Top Fuel drag racing is absolutely bananas this year. Everyone was saying it would be before the season with all these new teams and drivers transitioning into ownership roles, crew chiefs changing camps, but it’s not all that often that things – particularly sporting events and storylines – live up to the hype. Well, this time through they are.
For instance, what in the hell are Cameron Ferre and Spencer Massey doing in the final quad at zMax? Ferre nearly won the damn race (he finished runner-up). We didn’t even know Massey was planning to race and per Facebook – former DRAG ILLUSTRATED cover star Cameron Ferre’s involvement was a last minute decision (clearly, a good one).
Seeing folks in those meaningful racing moments that aren’t amongst the usual suspects is such a refreshing feeling, and has to be inspiring to up-and-comers and journeyman nitro racers around the world. We’ve seen this trend developing since the start of the season, and we’re hoping it doesn’t change anytime soon.
SALINAS STANDING TALL
Fresh faces and underdogs surely weren’t the only storylines to emerge from Concord.
Mike Salinas, who had his new marketing partner Pep Boys’ CEO on hand for the weekend, knocked down his second win of the season in Charlotte and looks like a legit championship contender as we head into summer despite the departure of tuning duo of Alan Johnson and Brian Husen. Veteran crew chief Rob Flynn took the reins in their absence and is delivering in spades for the Scrappers Racing team with help from newly appointed car chief and Scrappers “OG” Arron Cave. Salinas’ Pep Boys-backed dragster stayed locked into the bottom 3.70s and was good enough to get the job done at zMax, which seems to be the theme of four-wide: survive and advance.
WAITING ON A WIN
Adding to the insanity was Steve Torrence again going out early. He lost in the opening stanza on Sunday, which, again, when you win as much as these cats, is, unfortunately, big news. He won this race in ‘17, ‘18, ‘19 and ‘21 (there wasn’t one in ‘20). That’s the last four in a row. The last thing we want to do is pile on, and we’re sure as hell not concerned, but considering the devastatingly dominant force that Torrence and his Capco Boys have been for the last several years it’s hard not to be somewhat upended at the team’s slow start to the season. That said, this particular drag racing aficionado wouldn’t be at all surprised to see him win the next six races in a row.
Considering all the success enjoyed by Justin Ashley in his relatively new Top Fuel career, the New Yorker earned his first career pole qualifying position over the weekend and provided yet another reminder that the super-team era, at least in pro-level nitro racing, is over and no longer a prerequisite for success at this level.
Who couldn’t be happy for Chesterland, Ohio’s Mike McIntire Jr. – especially if you saw his dad’s interview on the jumbotron after he won in the first round of Funny Car eliminations. McIntire put the family’s “McAttack” fuel flopper into the 14th spot in the field with a 4.34-second 1,000-feet lap, and made it to the third and final quad during the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals.
How about that Pro Mod final? If the craziness of four-wide drag racing could be summed up by a singular round of racing…this would be it. Truthfully, even a couple days removed from the incident, it’s difficult to wrap my head around the calamity. FuelTech NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series presented by D-Wagon enjoyed a good bit of positivity and enthusiasm in Charlotte after back-to-back title-rights and presenting sponsorship announcements circulated in the days leading up to the race. That momentum continued throughout the event after word of a “very productive” meeting between a newly-formed Pro Mod racer union of sorts and NHRA brass. A spectacular final round would certainly have been a fitting end to the weekend, but it wasn’t meant to be. Series newcomer and accomplished tractor puller Stan Shelton rolled through the beams inadvertently, backed up and made another attempt to pre-stage – likely getting mixed up on which of the blue sets of LEDs he was working with. The ensuing delay saw “Tricky” Rickie Smith leave before the Christmas Tree activated along with Shelton (kinda) while Kris Thorne and Lyle Barnett waited for the ambers to flash. It was a costly wait for Barnett (sources confirmed a fully-cooked transmission), but served as an opportunity for Thorne, who despite a .320-second reaction time scored his second-straight win in the freshly-funded series with a 5.795-second, 252.14 mph effort.
STIRRING THE POT
We’re not sure who’s next on the list for Steve Johnson to square off with in a war of words and we recognize and respect that the famously high energy rider’s outspoken nature isn’t for everyone, but it’s hard to argue that the rivalry with reigning champion Matt Smith (that he seems to have reignited after his most recent win in Houston a couple weeks ago) has more people talking about NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle than any other in recent history. The veteran racer is saying what he thinks and, honestly, he’s been backing it up on the drag strip. He set the track record in Charlotte and won his second race in a row. He’s as polarizing a character as exists in the sport, but he’s smashing people right now, and we’re here for it.
STRAIGHT TO THE FINALS
It was huge news last week that defending NHRA Funny Car world champion Ron Capps was making the move to a Toyota GR Supra and joining the brand in an official capacity. Social media melted down, fans reacted, and the newfound team-owner-and-driver delivered for the Ellipses (that’s what Toyota calls their logo/symbol. Cool, right?).
It was a big deal to make the move, but it was an even bigger deal to put the blue-and-yellow Supra in the money round from the jump. Capps & Co. surely scored some brownie points from the TRD camp in Charlotte, and we’re hoping that pays dividends for one of our sport’s most significant ambassadors of all time. Also, if you’re paying close attention, you might appreciate knowing that our sources report the Supra body with its rear wing configuration is significantly faster than other bodies on the market and could see Capps posting up world record speeds in short order.
TONY STEWART STEADY DOING IT BIG
The newest power player in drag racing, NASCAR Hall of Famer Tony Stewart, continued to do big things in a new space, hosting 350-plus employees and family members from Stewart-Haas Racing with his drivers Matt Hagan and wife Leah Pruett. Pruett pointed to team manager Kelly Antonelli as the driving force behind the multi-day program, but also noted that it was a relatively unique experience for Stewart – especially the essentially all-access nature of the pits at a professional level drag race.
HOW ABOUT AMBER FREAKING FRANKLIN?
Having had something of a front row seat to second-generation racer Amber Franklin’s ascension from Jr. Dragsters to Top Dragster and now Pro 632 (a low four-second doorslammer heads up eliminator), it’s hard to imagine a scenario where this young woman doesn’t have a long and meaningful career in professional drag racing – especially if you consider how quickly it’s happened.
The Virginia-based racer and daughter of PDRA Pro Nitrous titan Tommy Franklin, who along with his wife, Judy, owns the series, as well as Virginia Motorsports Park, made her debut in Pro 632 late in 2021 and positioned herself as a contender immediately. Just two races into the Professional Drag Racers Association season she found herself in the winner’s circle and championship contention. Incredibly, she was paired against dear friend and fellow up-and-coming female racer Lexi Tanner, adding another dimension to what has been an absolutely incredible year for women in drag racing.
MORE ON TEAM TANNER
From what we understand, Lexi Tanner, the aforementioned other-half of the first-ever all-female PDRA Pro 632 final, had to drive back to Indianapolis (an easy three-and-a-half hours from the track) to take a final exam on Saturday morning. She ran into car troubles on the way and had to take two different Ubers to get back to the track in time for first round eliminations. The young lady literally met her car in the staging lanes and proceeded to take it to the finals. Impressive.
In other Tanner-related news, her older brother Preston, a DRAG ILLUSTRATED 30 Under 30 alum, also made it to his first pro-level final in Pro Boost competition. The brother-and-sister duo won PDRA Jr. Dragster championships together in 2015.
JIMMY WINLIGHTS BACK AT IT
Momentarily, like…for a week or two…Jim Halsey looked human. The Maryland-based owner-operator of Cecil County Dragway started his 2022 PDRA Pro Nitrous campaign with a first-round exit at the season-opening East Coast Nationals, which was headline news – especially for a racer who closed out last season having won five of eight races. Halsey and team, including longtime girlfriend Cathy, close friend and crew chief Eric Davis, Michael McMillan, and nitrous super tuner Brandon Switzer, as well as his wife, Melissa, performed a complete teardown of their ‘68 Camaro and spent a couple days testing since their last outing in North Carolina and it showed. The nitrous racing legend admitted the team gained some knowledge throughout the course of the weekend that’ll show later in the season and have “Daddy Shark” back in its sweet spot.
JOHNNY PLUCHINO IS, TOO
“Swaggy P” was back in the winner’s circle where he’s most comfortable again this past weekend in Bowling Green. The Extreme Pro Stock young gun already has one strap to his name and proved that he’s not going to let anyone hold onto that No. 1 decal for long.
Pluchino, who qualified second amongst an increasingly strong field of XPS cars, met up with top qualifier J.R. Carr in the final. The New York-based driver left first in his trademark orange-and-black Ford Mustang (.015) and never looked back, taking the win with a 4.086-second elapsed time to best Carr’s 4.087.
PRO MOD IS STRONG. FIGHT ME.
Despite a slew of crossover-capable cars being spread across three events this past weekend in North Carolina (NHRA), Kentucky (PDRA) and Maryland, the overall show of strength by the brand of racing was genuinely impressive. Sixty-three cars ranging from screw- and roots-type supercharged, twin turbocharged, nitrous oxide injected and centrifugal supercharged doorslammers numbered 15 in Charlotte, 12 and 15 in Pro Nitrous and Pro Boost and 21 for the Northeast Outlaw Pro Mod season opener at MIR.
SHOUTOUT NEOPMA! THREE DECADES STRONG!
Is it as hard for you to believe John Mazzorana’s Northeast Outlaw Pro Mod Association is celebrating its 30th season of continual operation this year? Makes a guy look at Pro Mod through even thicker rose-colored glasses than we do already, right? It also makes a guy feel old.
Congratulations to John, his team, family, sponsors, fans and racers on what is an almost unimaginably challenging three decades of doing the Lord’s work and spreading the gospel of drag racing.
Read more about NEOPMA’s season-opener here.