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Cox, Salemi, Powers, A. Franklin, Al-Saber and Riddle Claim First No. 1 Spots of 2023 PDRA Season at East Coast Nationals

Tara Bowker photos

The Professional Drag Racers Association (PDRA) kicked off its 10th season with two of the quickest and tightest Pro Nitrous and Pro Boost fields in series history Friday night at the Summit Racing Equipment PDRA East Coast Nationals presented by FuelTech at GALOT Motorsports Park.

Home track hero Jay Cox fired off a 3.632-second pass at 207.11 MPH to claim the No. 1 spot in Switzer Dynamics Pro Nitrous, while Melanie Salemi recorded a 3.58 at 206.10 to qualify No. 1 in WS Construction Pro Boost presented by P2 Contracting and Ty-Drive for the second consecutive year at this race.

Chris Powers (Liberty’s Gears Extreme Pro Stock presented by AED Competition), Amber Franklin (M&M Transmission Pro 632), Meshal Al-Saber (Drag 965 Pro Nitrous Motorcycle), and Bill Riddle (Menscer Motorsports Pro Street presented by Afco) also earned No. 1 qualifier honors in the professional classes.

The low qualifiers in the sportsman classes are Buddy Perkinson in MagnaFuel Elite Top Sportsman presented by PAR Racing Engines, Pete Maduri in Laris Motorsports Insurance Elite Top Dragster, Eric Burnett in MagnaFuel Top Sportsman presented by Corbin’s RV, and Brian Maine in Laris Motorsports Top Dragster.

The Jr. Dragster classes also completed their two scheduled qualifying sessions for the day, with a final session set for Saturday morning. In Coolshirt Systems Pro Jr. Dragster presented by PRP, past world champion Brayden Davis is the provisional low qualifier with a 7.901. Davis is also making his debut in Pro Nitrous Motorcycle riding his father Travis’ championship-winning Timblin Chassis Hayabusa. Florida’s Victoria Beaner is leading Classic Graphix Top Jr. Dragster presented by PRP with a .003 reaction time in her ’20 Mike Bos dragster.


For the first time since the 2019 East Coast Nationals, nearby Smithfield’s Jay Cox will enter Pro Nitrous eliminations from the No. 1 spot. It’s been a long road back for Cox, who’s changed his engine and transmission combinations since that last low qualifier effort. He has his Musi-powered Butner Construction ’69 Camaro known as the “Pumpkin” right where he wants it, and that showed Friday when he recorded a 3.632 at 207.11 to lead the 18-car Pro Nitrous final qualifying sheet.

“It’s just great for everybody that’s behind me. I always believe in myself,” Cox said. “I struggled the last couple years. I made a huge change when we changed our motor program and went to Pat [Musi]. Hands down, cannot say enough good things about Pat. Marcus Butner and Butner Construction, they stuck with me. I sucked last year. I’ll be the first one to tell you. I kept telling all my guys, just stick with me. Let’s learn this thing and it’s going to be fast when it’s done.

“I’d like to have a good year this year for my guys, for Pat, for Rick and Rickie Jones, for all my crew guys, for Butner,” added Cox, who also thanked local sponsor Smithfield Collision. “They’ve spent a lot of money these last two years and I really haven’t produced like I have in the past. There’s no easy wins in this class. When you change something major like I did and it sets you back a number or two, you have to be on your A-game everywhere.”

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Four-time and reigning world champion Jim Halsey in his Fulton-powered “Daddy Shark” ’68 Camaro qualified No. 2 with a 3.645 at 205.22. Past Pro Nitrous world champion and overall Pro Mod icon “Tricky” Rickie Smith drove his Parkway Ford/Pee Dee Fleet ’22 Mustang to a 3.648 at 206.54 to end up third.


Twenty-five drivers attempted to qualify for the 16-car Pro Boost field. By the end of the third qualifying session, Melanie Salemi was the No. 1 qualifier with a 3.58 at 206.10, and Kenny Lang sat on the bump spot with a 3.644 at 205.51 to make up the quickest Pro Boost field in series history. Salemi, driver of Eddie Whelan’s screw-blown Al-Lee Installations ’19 Camaro tuned by her husband, Jon, and brother-in-law Jim, earned her seventh No. 1 qualifier award.

Salemi set the current Pro Boost elapsed-time record to qualify No. 1 at last year’s East Coast Nationals. The team switched from their roots-blown engine combination to a screw blower setup for this season as they seek their first world championship in the class.

“This validates absolutely 100 percent everything that we did over the winter,” Salemi said. “We took all the information that we had from the roots blower stuff, Jon crossed it over to the screw blower stuff, and we dynoed, we dynoed, we dynoed, and we dynoed again. I know we struggled when we were in Florida at the World Series of Pro Mod, but at the end of the day we had our crap together and we were able to win the second-chance race.

“But when we were going there we had the mentality that we were going there to test for PDRA because PDRA is going to be our main focus this year,” Salemi continued. “We won’t be switching combinations. We won’t be switching weights. We will just be running this car the way that it needs to be for PDRA if we go anywhere else. Our main focus this year is winning a championship. We’re putting everything that we have into that.”

Next to Salemi in the final session, Travis “the Carolina Kid” Harvey threw down a 3.589 at 208.20 in the ProCharged GALOT Motorsports ’69 Camaro to slide into the No. 2 spot. Johnny Camp qualified third in his ProCharger-boosted “Hells Bells” ’69 Camaro with a 3.59 at 207.27.

Outside the 16-car field, four of the nine non-qualified drivers dipped into the mid-3.60-second range.


Chris Powers has had a handful of successful weekends at GALOT Motorsports Park, including Extreme Pro Stock wins at the last two East Coast Nationals. On Saturday, he’ll try to defend his event title from the No. 1 spot in his Chuck Samuel-tuned Sonny’s Racing Engines ’21 Camaro. The past world champion ran a 4.05 at 177.35 in the final session to take the top spot.

“We’ve gotta thank Kelly [Ward, daughter of the late Sonny Leonard] because if it wasn’t for her keeping the doors open at Sonny’s, we would not have the power we have today to do it,” said Powers, who also gets support from ATI Performance. “I have to thank her and her husband and her mom. This is all them. They did all this to give us the best power. I can’t thank them enough.

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“That was a little bit of a soft hit,” Powers added. “We were figuring we probably could’ve went a .03 or a .04 there, but we’re super stoked about running a .05. We’re happy to get on the pole with Sonny’s. They deserve it. They worked their tails off for us all winter on this stuff. We’re really happy.”

Jacksonville, North Carolina’s Elijah Morton drove his Allen-powered Morton Brothers Motorsports ’19 Mustang to a 4.056 at 177.53 to qualify No. 2. Another North Carolina-based driver, Statesville’s Tommy Lee, took the Stellar Marine ’20 Camaro to the third spot with a 4.072 at 177.04, rounding out the top three of a 17-car order.

 PRO 632

Amber Franklin’s first Pro 632 world championship defense season is off to a strong start in her Musi-powered “OG Jungle Rat” ’69 Camaro. She posted an impressive 4.14 off the trailer in testing, then made the quickest pass of qualifying, a 4.16 at 170.19, to claim her second low qualifier award.

“We worked really hard over the winter. Pat Musi Racing Engines, Switzer Dynamics, and a whole bunch of people made a lot of things happen,” said Franklin, also thanking Red Line Oil, Jerry Bickel Race Cars, Hoosier Racing Tires, M&M Transmission, parents Tommy and Judy, tuner Jeff Pierce, and her team. “We’re still working and we still want to improve and back up the championship. It feels good to come into the first race and keep that momentum. We just want to stay consistent. If I can do my job, hopefully we can take it to the winner’s circle.”

Defending event champion Alan Drinkwater in his naturally aspirated, Kaase-powered ’04 Escort was the provisional No. 1 qualifier going into the final qualifying session with his 4.198 at 169.74, which slipped to No. 2. A third standout young driver in the class, Lexi Tanner, posted a 4.208 at 167.41 in her nitrous-fed “Thunder” ’15 Camaro to end up No. 3.


Kuwait’s Meshal Al-Saber rocketed to the top of the Pro Nitrous Motorcycle qualifying order with his 3.991 at 176.93 aboard the Q80 Racing/McCoy Motorsports ’20 Suzuki in the final session. It’s Al-Saber’s second time leading the field into eliminations.

“I’m from the Middle East and I flew 15 hours to come over for this race,” said Al-Saber, who thanked Q80 Racing and B.M.R.C. “Our team has been working hard. Brad McCoy is the tuner and does the engines. He’s working hard. Today, going 4.05 and then a 3.99, I’m very happy about that. Qualifying No. 1 gives me the push to make the whole season.”

Al-Saber had some heavy hitters chasing him down for the top spot. Multi-time world champion Eric McKinney took the No. 2 spot on his McKinney Motorsports entry with a 4.037 at 173.94. Chris Garner-Jones, the 2021 world champion, qualified third with a 4.051 at 172.96 on his T.T. Jones Racing Hayabusa.


Bill Riddle left the rain-shortened 2022 PDRA World Finals with a consistent 3-second Pro Street car, his roots-blown Corrigan Race Fuel ’89 Camaro, but without the chance to fully capitalize on his performance in the final round. So far, he’s picked up where he left off, as he qualified No. 1 on top of the 15-car qualifying order with a 3.968 at 187.89, with an eye on a season-opening win on Saturday.

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“From last year, we basically just freshened it up and then went to one of those [World Finals] tuneups and it repeated,” said Riddle, who thanked sponsors like Corrigan Race Fuel, Mickey Thompson, SSI Superchargers, and Motorsports Unlimited, as well as his wife and team. “I was happy with it. Race day can’t get here soon enough. It was a long winter.”

Young gun Ty Kasper, who won two races in a breakout 2022 season, was the only other driver to dip into the 3-second zone with his 3.993 at 186.51 in his twin-turbocharged Victus Sports ’05 Mustang to qualify No. 2. Back-to-back world champion Tim Essick qualified third in his ProCharged “Brown Sugar” ’18 Mustang with a 4.032 at 187.26.


Nitrous cars led the way in Elite Top Sportsman as past world champion Buddy Perkinson claimed the No. 1 spot in his Musi-powered LAT Racing Oils ’69 Camaro with a 3.771 at 195.85, the lone driver in the 3.70s. Ohio’s Glenn Butcher came close with his 3.806 at 195.93 in his Albert-powered ’69 Camaro to qualify second. Another Ohioan, Chris “Nitrous” Nyerges, took the third spot in Dr. Gary Schween’s Buck-powered ’17 Corvette with a 3.811 at 198.47.

Charlestown, Indiana’s Eric Burnett was a couple numbers short of making the 16-car Elite field, but his 4.014 at 189.84 in his ’17 Corvette gave him the No. 1 spot in the regular Top Sportsman field.


Past Elite Top Dragster world champion Pete Maduri is starting his season with a No. 1 qualifying effort in the Bauer family’s Dynabrade ’15 Chrome-Worx dragster on the strength of a 3.719 at 198.88. Two North Carolina drivers follow in the second and third spots. Michael White is second with a 3.749 at 192.44, and past world champion Steve Furr is third with a 3.775 at 192.91 in his Right Trailers ’13 American dragster.

By one hundredth of a second, Brian Maine missed the Elite field with his 4.067 at 177.93, but he took the No. 1 spot in the regular Top Dragster field by an eight-hundredths margin.

Saturday’s on-track activities at the Summit Racing Equipment PDRA East Coast Nationals presented by FuelTech are scheduled to begin with Jr. Dragster final qualifying at 9:30 a.m. Pre-race ceremonies and pro eliminations will kick off at 3 p.m.

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