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DI RETURN ROAD: NHRA Southern Nationals

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It is almost easy to forget about the significance of Leah Pritchett and Courtney Force winning the NHRA Southern Nationals on Sunday, if only because of the vast diversity present in the NHRA.

With people waxing poetic about Danica Patrick’s impact in the sport as she prepares for her last Indy 500, female success in the NHRA is simply just another regular race weekend, a fact that should very much be praised.

Courtney Force, Pritchett, Brittany Force and Erica Enders now have all won in 2018, continuing an impressive trend that’s been there for years when it comes to diversity in drag racing.

Females winning in both nitro classes on the same weekend is a rarity – Sunday marked just the second time in NHRA history – but overall success has become commonplace, especially for both Courtney Force and Pritchett.

Pritchett enjoyed the winner’s circle four times in 2017, including three of the first five races, but the real story on Sunday was her win ending a long winless streak for Don Schumacher Racing dragsters. Her victory in Brainerd last year had been the team’s last Top Fuel win, a seemingly inconceivable stretch of 13 races for a trio that includes Antron Brown and Tony Schumacher, who have combined for 11 world championships.

Brown and Schumacher’s struggles continued on Sunday, as both lost in the first round, but Pritchett was in a groove all weekend. She made seven three-second passes in eight runs over the race weekend, wrapping things up with a 3.874 at 322.42 mph in the final round against Blake Alexander.

Photo by Marc Gewertz/NHRA

“This win feels incredible,” Pritchett said. “It’s been a while, but I think a (win) drought is all relative. This FireAde/Mopar/U.S. Army/Papa John’s/Pennzoil team knows what it’s like to win and we still have that in our hearts and that’s what we grasp to. And, yes, we may have been the only Top Fuel car for DSR that advanced out of the first round today, but we felt the world of support from the entire organization knowing they were all behind us as we made our run to this win today.”

The victory for Force was significant, coming at the same track her sister, Ashley, picked up her first Funny Car win in 2008. That victory was the first for a female in the class and Courtney has since become the torchbearer, as her 10 career victories are the most for a female in Funny Car history.

Ashley was there on Sunday in Atlanta, making the moment even more special for the youngest of the three Force sisters.

“All day long I thought getting a win here would be so cool especially because Ashley is here with us,” Force said. “She doesn’t come to a ton of races so I am glad she can be here to celebrate with me and my team. I grew up watching Ashley and to see everything she has accomplished in the Funny Car category is great. She has been a mentor and I have always looked up to her. She has always been there to give me advice or anything I needed from my rookie season until now. It has been great to have her support and Brittany’s support. They are my best friends. It will be cool to be in the winner’s circle with them.”

Photo by Marc Gewertz/NHRA

It’s still early, but this is shaping up to be Courtney’s best season yet following her final-round pass of 4.046 at 313.73 edged out Matt Hagan. Her second win of 2018 gave her the points lead in the loaded class, going along with four No. 1 qualifiers. Adding Brian Corradi as co-crew chief with Dan Hood looks to be a dynamite move, but the battle for the No. 1 spot in Funny Car heading into the Countdown to the Championship will be hotly-contested all summer.

For now, though, it’s Force who is at the top, which is a big story only because it’s a regular story in drag racing.

CAN’T-MISS NEWS

RACING FAMILY MOURNS: Unfortunately, the weekend an Atlanta included a terrible tragedy, as Top Sportsman racer Randy Alexander was killed during a crash during the first round of eliminations on Saturday.

Alexander lost control of his car just passed the finish line, darting into the left lane of opponent Bob Mandell III, resulting in a high-speed collision.

This was the official statement from NHRA:

It is with heavy hearts that we report Randy Alexander of Harvest, Ala., passed away at a local hospital after sustaining injuries in an on-track incident at the NHRA Southern Nationals in Commerce, Ga.

NHRA and the entire racing community extend their deepest condolences and their prayers to the participant’s family and friends. We also ask that everyone respect the family’s privacy during this difficult time.

The news of Alexander’s passing certainly hit hard, with the racing family collectively offering their condolences.

Susan Wade also put together an excellent piece at Competition Plus on the emotional weekend for the Mandell family, and how they dedicated the win to Alexander. Mandell’s father, Bob Jr., was the next pair following the high-speed collision and eventually went on to win the race.

It’s definitely worth your time to read.

http://www.competitionplus.com/drag-racing/news/mandell-shares-emotions-of-dreadful-top-sportsman-crash

NOBILE TAKES ANOTHER STEP FORWARD: Pro Stock has been filled with impressive parity in 2018, with the first six events featuring six different winners. Vincent Nobile became the first to grab a second victory, taking the points lead in the process, when he went 6.599 at 209.72 to beat fellow 2018 winner Tanner Gray in the final round.

It also sent Nobile into the points lead, another sign of how far he has come since last season when his team sat out five races at the end of the year. Now, he’s a championship contender with a car that is running extremely well.

“I had the car to beat this weekend,” Nobile stated. “I know we didn’t qualify No. 1 but going back after each run and looking at the computer we know we could’ve been the fastest car each session. On race day we got it together and was the fastest car every session. All in all, it was a great day.”

The win total through seven races also matches what he did the past three seasons, and it all tells us Nobile is going to be in the title hunt until the end.

KRAWIEC HAS TO WORK: This wasn’t the type of win Eddie Krawiec had been used to dating back to a dominant run that started in Indy last year. In Atlanta, Krawiec felt a step behind early in the weekend, qualifying fifth while Hector Arana Jr. was the clear front-runner. But when it mattered, Krawiec and his team delivered once again, beating Arana Jr. in the semifinals and then Scotty Pollacheck in the final round, denying Pollacheck his first career victory in the class. Krawiec now has seven victories in the past 10 events dating back to the U.S. Nationals, an incredible run of dominance in a class that has a tremendous amount of depth.

“This track has been very challenging for us this weekend,” Krawiec said. “I really had a better bike than what I showed Friday and Saturday because I was not making the proper chassis adjustments to get the bike down the track. We’re going to learn and continue to get better. That’s what we need to do.” 

DOMINANT D’APRILE: Tommy D’Aprile and his team are building something special in 2018 and the second PDRA event of the season, the PDRA North-South Shootout, only furthered that notion.

The popular Pro Boost driver tore through a strong field at Maryland International Raceway, ripping off one impressive run after another. He had two runs in the 3.60s in his Roots-blown ’69 Camaro, including an awesome 3.66 at 203.31 to beat Chuck Ulsch in the final round. With two No. 1 qualifiers already, D’Aprile’s Camaro has been outstanding and he lauds the work of his team, led by tuner/car owner Al Billes.

“This win was all about teamwork,” said D’Aprile, the No. 1 qualifier for the second time this season. “This team is amazing. If I had an unlimited budget and I could go anywhere and pick my team, I couldn’t pick it any better than this.”

Tara Bowker photo

WEATHERFORD BREAKS THROUGH: Randy Weatherford’s Pro Nitrous win was one of the feel-good stories of the PDRA weekend, along with Steven Boone grabbing the win in Extreme Pro Stock.

The victory for the veteran Weatherford was a long time coming and his first in PDRA competition, going 3.882 at 163.57 to beat John Hall in the final round. The real story was the runs leading up to the final rounds, as Weatherford qualified No. 1 and posted two passes in the 3.60s during eliminations.

“It’s been a long struggle to get to this point,” said Weatherford, a past champion in various regional series. “The car was always real good. All the parts and pieces worked right. I had a good program last year, I just couldn’t put it together right. This year I’ve got a better program together. I’ve always said clutch cars are faster and I think the scoreboards showed it.”

Tara Bowker photo

FURTHER VIEWING

That Winning Feeling
Courtney Force takes us behind-the-scenes for a little top-end reaction after her Funny Car win.

Drag Illustrated Live Episode
Wes Buck delivered another great episode last week, talking with Charlotte Funny Car winner Cruz Pedregon and Pro Mod standout Jim Whiteley. The Pedregon interview is well worth the listen, as the Cruzer wasn’t afraid to speak his mind.

What Tough Track?
Clay Millican was impressive in qualifying No. 1 in Top Fuel, going 331.12 mph to break the track speed record.

Alexander Nearly Grabs First
Blake Alexander had a weekend to remember in Top Fuel, advancing to the final round before going red against Pritchett. Still, there was plenty to be proud of for the young driver, beating Antron Brown, Brittany Force and Steve Torrence along the way. Let’s hope it’s the start of something big for Alexander, who continues to work tirelessly in hopes of living out his full-time nitro dreams in NHRA.

ON SOCIAL

Congrats, Atlanta Winners!

No Prep Champ!
It was another strong weekend for Pedregon, who advanced to the semifinals after winning in Funny Car in Charlotte. He posted a number of consistent runs, adding a little tongue-in-cheek humor along the way.

Sign Here, Please!
Well that’s an interesting place to get an autograph.

Nitro Wins Draw Attention
As we mentioned above, the wins by Pritchett and Force drew some big-time coverage from the AP and veteran motorsports writer Jenna Fryer, as well as NASCAR standout Clint Bowyer, who seems to tweet about NHRA racing almost as much as his own sport. Definitely cool to see.

Winner’s Circle Wish!
What a cool weekend for Make-A-Wish kid Luci Toman, who hung out with Make-A-Wish Funny Car driver Tommy Johnson Jr. all weekend and got to eat pizza with Pritchett. But she also got to spend it in the winner’s circle, joining Pritchett and her team in the celebration. No doubt about it, that’s something Pritchett and Luci will always remember.

“She is a true inspiration and it was great having her with me all weekend. We both got our dreams to come true this weekend,” Pritchett said.

New Technology
For the first time, NHRA utilized a free-flying drone as a camera angle during its Sunday broadcast. I haven’t seen much in the way of reactions, but it’s certainly a great idea. Anything to bring the look and feel of being at a live race to the television audience is a good thing.

Can We Race Someone Else, Please?
I mean, this is a little nuts. For the sixth time this season, Kalitta Motorsports teammates Richie Crampton and Doug Kalitta met in the first round this season. I’m now Lewis Bloom, but that has to be some sort of record through seven races.

FINAL THOUGHTS

These types of weekends are never easy, and we certainly offer our thoughts and prayers to the Alexander family during an incredibly difficult time.

But it is wonderful to always see the racing family come together in any tough moment, further displaying the amazing people who are involved in this great sport.

That type of camaraderie in tragedy, and Alexander’s own passion for the sport helps make finishing the weekend possible. Looking at the positives, it certainly was an enjoyable weekend of racing in Atlanta and at MIR for the PDRA race.

NHRA has a week off before Topeka and then one more week off before four straight races. This Funny Car race – both for the top and 10th spot – will be continue to be tremendous and the Pro Mod class also returns in Topeka. Talk to you then!

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