DI RETURN ROAD: NHRA Summit Nationals
It’s hard to imagine that barely 30 races into his career and at just 30 years old Blake Alexander wasn’t sure if he wouldn’t get an opportunity to race again.
So that in mind, it is easy to understand why Alexander was emotional in the moments following his first career NHRA victory on Sunday in Norwalk. It came in Top Fuel, where he was making just his eighth career start, becoming the 105th different winner in the class, and it was validation of something he knew was possible.
“I got a little emotional because I’ve tried to do this my whole life and come close, lost sponsors and thought I was never going to drive the car again,” Alexander said. “(I’ve) basically just have gone through everything to climb back to the top, so it felt good.”
It’s a thrilling, feel-good story for Alexander, who had often been left soured by one potential opportunity after another gone awry.
It had tested Alexander’s resolve, but working with team owner and former Top Fuel standout Bob Vandergriff has been a revelation for the young standout in 2018.
He made the switch to Top Fuel in 2017, competing in four races before joining Vandergriff’s team in 2018. The team had made impressive statements in its first three appearances, winning at least one round each time and advancing to a final round in Atlanta.
It’s a veteran team with strong talent and Alexander has already beaten a host of championship names in 2018. Simply put, it’s not a fluke they are competing at this level. Alexander ran 3.70s twice to beat Tony Schumacher and Leah Pritchett, who bested him in Atlanta, before knocking off Terry McMillen in the final round in Norwalk.
He’s become the latest single-car force, joining the likes of Clay Millican, McMillen, Mike Salinas, who went to the final round in Bristol, and Scott Palmer. You could even argue Steve Torrence, the current points leader, belongs on that list, as well as defending champ Brittany Force, all of which makes for an exciting time in the class.
But this weekend belonged to Alexander. Now let’s hope it is the start of an even bigger opportunity with Vandergriff.
“I have a great team owner, Bob Vandergriff, who took a chance on me and it felt good to reward him,” Alexander said. “(In Norwalk), we never got ahead of ourselves, never thought about the next steps. I think when I was in the final in Atlanta, I was picturing winning more than I was ready to take hold of the opportunity and be the person who won the race. I think we have a really great crew that’s opportunistic and I really appreciate everything they do.”
HAGAN GETS BACK ON TRACK, KEEPS COURTNEY AT BAY, MOMENTARILY: Matt Hagan prevented Funny Car points leader Courtney Force from her fifth victory of the year, also earning his first win since the opener in Pomona.
Force’s lead stretched to nearly 300 points over her nearest competitor after another solid weekend, but Hagan was relieved to get back on track. It has been a topsy-turvy year for the two-time Funny Car world champion, starting with the win at the season-opener and then his, ahem, feelings about the new track conditions.
The team struggled to adjust, but made one good pass after another in Norwalk, showing signs Hagan could compete for another championship.
He had the luxury of testing the new Mopar body on Monday, just hours after the win, which means things are suddenly looking up for Hagan.
“We just had a good solid car all weekend,” Hagan said. “We qualified well and went down the race track pretty much every lap. It’s been a while since we turned on four win lights but it’s a nitro funny car; you never know what you’re going to get.”
Could DSR be trending upward again in Funny Car? That’s two straight for the super-team and Sunday’s victory over the points leader in Force had to feel like a huge step in the right direction.
IT’S TANNER TIME: There’s a pretty impressive list of drivers who don’t have a Pro Stock win this season. It includes Drew Skillman, who won four times last year, Jason Line, a two-time world champion, and four-time world champ Greg Anderson.
After Norwalk, Tanner Gray now has three wins and the points lead. Gray continues to impress in his second season, as NHRA’s top rookie from a year ago continues to show remarkable progress.
He knocked off Erica Enders in the final round for the second time this season, doing so in Norwalk thanks to a .008 reaction time that leveled Enders on the starting line.
“This was definitely a huge accomplishment,” Gray said. “We struggled a lot at the beginning of the season. We did a lot of testing and couldn’t really see where that hard work was because the results weren’t showing. It feels good to have finally turned a corner and see where all of the hard work has paid off.”
KRAWIEC BACK ON TOP: When Eddie Krawiec has been good this season in Pro Stock Motorcycle, he’s been really good.
He was really good in Norwalk, topping Jerry Savoie in the final round to win for the third time in 2018. The odd thing is it gave him just a five-point lead over teammate Andrew Hines, who has done everything but win a race this year.
Krawiec has that part handled, with the triumph in Norwalk giving him eight wins in the last 13 races in Pro Stock Motorcycle.
“It was a good one for me,” Krawiec stated. “It’s been a good weekend for us. It was a struggle early on trying to dance through the rain drops. We were trying to get a handle on a new track and understand what it is we need to do. We were able to get it done and get our bike in the winner’s circle.”
MAKE THAT THREE FOR RICKIE: Rickie Smith continues to be on an entirely different level in NHRA Pro Mod, winning for the third time this season. Take into consideration just how difficult that is with 30-car fields of decorated talent, yet Smith continues to find his way into the winner’s circle thanks to consistent passes and great performances on the starting line.
Runner-up Jeremy Ray will get his day in the sun for sure, and he’s come on strong this year, but Smith grabbed the points lead back from Mike Janis in Norwalk, leaving him, once again, the odds-on favorite to claim his fourth world championship in the class.
“This win just goes to show you the depth on our team,” Smith stated. “We’ve got a really good team if I can just keep on going and not screw up.”
— #NHRA (@NHRA) June 26, 2018
YOUNG GUNS BATTLE IT OUT IN TAD: Megan Meyer and Troy Coughlin Jr. represent the future of the sport, but the young standouts are doing just fine in the present, too. They met in the Top Alcohol Dragster final in Norwalk, with Meyer slipping past Coughlin in a great side-by-side race to keep her impressive season going. She’s got two national event wins in 2018, and hopefully this Meyer-Coughlin matchup is something we can continue to enjoy in the future.
Nitro Career Coming Soon
Well, it became official on Monday: Austin Prock is now licensed to drive a Funny Car. Exciting to see where this goes.
Officially a licensed Nitro Funny Car Driver! 4.02 out the box to get it done 😎🏁 pic.twitter.com/f5gtOdjhp8
— Austin Prock (@ProckRocket_FC) June 25, 2018
Monday Nats Continued
Of course, Prock wasn’t the only one working hard on Monday.
Hagan debuted a new Mopar body testing the day after his win, and you get a good glimpse of it here – for about a split-second.
—MOPAR MONDAY—Seemed like a legit place to catch @shoeracing teammate @matthagan_fc make the first ever full pull in the brand new @officialmopar Nitro Funny Car body and setup today… #thisismopar #theyaintmessing #questformorespeed #mightaswellhave3Dglasseson #itscomingatya #andthatwasconservative #stillearthquaking #bettertightenthatbowtietho
Others participating included the Kalitta Motorsports team, and a slew of others. With the season officially at the halfway point, it’s become even more important to get locked in on a summer set-up with the Countdown to the Championship quickly approaching (how is that even possible?).
— J.R. Todd (@JRTodd373) June 25, 2018
Drag Illustrated Live Episode 104
Make sure you check out Episode 104 of Drag Illustrated Live, which featured Pro Mod racer Chad Green, Bandimere Speeway’s Sporty Bandimere and more! Always a great listen!
Another Track Record For Millican
The weekend didn’t finish how Clay Millican wanted, losing in the second round to Leah Pritchett, but the good news was another impressive run and another track record thanks to his 3.75 at 332.67.
Welch Goes Back-to-Back
Joe Welch has been dominant in the Factory Stock Showdown recently, winning his second straight race with his final-round win against former Pro Stock star Mark Pawuk in Norwalk.
Joe Welch goes back-to-back in @SAMTechEDU Factory Stock Showdown!
— #NHRA (@NHRA) June 27, 2018
Congrats, Norwalk Winners!
— Blake Alexander (@BLAKE_FC) June 25, 2018
— Matt Hagan (@MattHagan_FC) June 24, 2018
— #NHRA (@NHRA) June 25, 2018
— #NHRA (@NHRA) June 25, 2018
— Rickie Smith Racing (@RickieSmith43) June 25, 2018
Brittany Force is nominated for an ESPY for Best Driver and you can vote now! Tell all your friends. Let’s get a win for NHRA driver for the first time in this category!
I’m so excited to be nominated as Best Driver with my @monsterenergy team after our 2017 @nhra championship season!!! Help me become the first female & the first @nhra driver to win this award! Vote here 👉🏼 https://t.co/KBwdNSarQZ pic.twitter.com/fpPwEJkXpk
— BrittanyForce (@BrittanyForce) June 25, 2018
RIP Joe Sherk
The motorsports PR world lost a great one with the passing of Joe Sherk, who was revered by all and had a lasting effect on his clients and friends. He had a tremendous impact on the sport, showed so many the ropes and did it all with kindness and a smile. Joe will definitely be missed.
RIP Joe Sherk, knew him a long time, class person, always friendly, you will be missed
— Lewis Bloom (@lewisbloomNHRA) June 25, 2018
— J.R. Todd (@JRTodd373) June 25, 2018
— Ron Capps (@RonCapps28) June 24, 2018
Joe Sherk was a legendary drag racing publicist who represented Don Prudhomme, @RonCapps28, Ed McCullough, Warren Johnson, @ClayMillican and @JRTodd373, among others. But Joe was also my best friend. He died last night after a long fight with Alzheimer’s. This is a hard day. pic.twitter.com/oWVWlAv93l
— (((Greg Halling))) (@ghalling) June 24, 2018
Saturday summed up in one tweet and GIF.
UPDATE: @NHRA and @NorwalkRaceFans officials are working on drying the track. Going to do everything they can to get the track dry and ready for Q4. Rain delay No. 5 for those of you keeping score at home. #NorwalkNats pic.twitter.com/jbjKP17k93
— Don Schumacher Racing (@shoeracing) June 24, 2018
But this is pretty darn cool. Some amazing, dedicated fans all weekend.
— JohnProcida (@JPT3636) June 23, 2018
So this is how Jeg Coughlin celebrates his birthday. Consider us jealous.
— Scott Woodruff (@S1320pr) June 23, 2018
Young Fans Love Racing
This was pretty enjoyable to see. These two young fans had something special for Courtney Force. Meanwhile, she also had her soccer ball signed by every driver imagineable this weekend.
— Michael Bartos (@MichaelBartos3) June 23, 2018
Without question, Saturday was one of the strangest days I’ve ever endured covering racing. A brief rain shower, drying the track, followed by a brief downpour. Rinse and repeat for a total of six different rain delays. Wild doesn’t begin to describe it. But the fans stuck around for all of it and showed up in droves despite the iffy weather. And kudos to the NHRA Safety Safari for doing yeoman’s work to constantly get the track ready again, while the Bader family in Norwalk continue to set the standard for how a race should be run and marketed.
A well-deserved NHRA break before Epping and the Western Swing, but the PDRA roars back to life this weekend at Virginia Motorsports Park, which is simply thriving in an awesome way these days.