DI Roundtable: Biggest Moments From ‘The Big Go,’ Missing Monday at Indy, and Championship Predictions
In this week’s edition of the Drag Illustrated Roundtable, the DI team weighs in on the major happenings that made the 67th annual Dodge//SRT NHRA U.S. Nationals so special, as well as considering why NHRA forged ahead with eliminations after just one qualifying session for the pro classes rather pushing the race into its pre-COVID traditional Monday race day. The team – COO and Design & Production Director Mike Carpenter, Editor-in-Chief Nate Van Wagnen, and Senior Editor Josh Hachat – also make championship predictions as the NHRA Camping World Series enters the Countdown portion of the season.
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The NHRA U.S. Nationals was yet again packed with some big moments. What were your highlights from the event?
MIKE CARPENTER: As I said last week, the 2020 edition of the US Nationals felt like it would be tough to beat, but I think we had some memorable moments in 2021 as well. It seemed like the Saturday washout would put a damper on things, and it definitely shuffled the deck with only one pro qualifying session, but Sunday was a spectacular raceday. Tim Wilkerson’s first win in five years, Torrence’s continued dominance, and Erica’s back-to-back Indy wins. Not to mention that a nitrous car won in Pro Mod, and for the first time in recent memory, it wasn’t driven by Rickie Smith! And how about JR Todd’s legendary throttle blips to stage the car in the second round of eliminations after a clutch malfunction? That was after another epic chase-down pedal fest victory in the first round, which it seems like he is able to pull off with more frequency than anyone else.
NATE VAN WAGNEN: The pair of pedalfests in eliminations – the one between J.R. Todd and Jim Campbell in the first round of Funny Car as Mike mentioned and the one between Doug Kalitta and Billy Torrence in Top Fuel – were two of the most memorable moments of the weekend for me. I was watching on NHRA.tv and it was absolutely thrilling to see those nitro cars battle for the win. J.R.’s efforts to stage a wounded race car in the second round were very impressive as well.
But after the pro classes were finished on Sunday, the late rounds of the sportsman classes that were completed resulted in some pretty special stories too. NHRA.tv viewers were able to watch the sportsman winners get interviewed on the top end. Doug Gordon, who was a crew member on the late Blaine Johnson’s Top Alcohol Dragster when he won Indy in 1991, won in Top Alcohol Funny Car. The Super Street winner, Larry Paden, won in memory of his son, who raced in the NHRA Jr. Drag Racing League National Championships at Indy years ago. Another Northeast Division racer, Jackie Fricke, won in Top Alcohol Dragster after years of trying to win the prestigious race. My buddy Zach Sackman, who’s been going to the race since he was a young boy, picked up his second national event win in the family’s Top Dragster. All of these winners gave emotional interviews about how much this race means to them. It was really cool to see that.
JOSH HACHAT: It seems like the U.S. Nationals are always good for a thrilling pedalfest or two, and we were certainly treated to that this year. But there were so many things that stood out to me on Sunday, including the massive crowd that made their way to Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis.
There’s not much that gets me going more than epic crowd shots, and we saw plenty from Indy on championship Sunday, which is the way it should be. Ultimately, the moment that will stand above others is seeing Tim Wilkerson celebrate after winning for the first time in 114 – 114! – races in Funny Car. It had been more than five years since “Wilk” had won, which is wild considering Steve Torrence has won more than 40 races in that span.
But Wilkerson simply kept pushing forward and it was so cool to see him get rewarded for it in Indy. It had been a brutal summer for him with a massive explosion in Sonoma and then crashing into Cruz Pedregon in Topeka, but even with only one body remaining, Wilkerson kept the knobs turned all the way up and delivered in a major on Sunday. It was the classic underdog tale and it was a joy to see on Sunday.
I’d also be remiss without mentioning the nitro shootouts returning in 2022. Those have been sorely missed and though only Funny Car will be at Indy next year – with the Top Fuel shootout taking place in Gainesville – it’s a big step to making the U.S. Nationals as big as possible.
The Pro classes only got one qualifying session at the U.S. Nationals due to rain all day Saturday. Was that the right move, or would it have been better to run more qualifying sessions on Sunday and push eliminations back into the traditional Monday slot?
MIKE CARPENTER: There are a ton of factors that go into a decision like this, and several of them are probably out of NHRA’s control. The first thing that comes to mind is the TV schedule and the live TV window on the FOX broadcast network. That’s likely a non-negotiable slot that wouldn’t have been there on Monday. Besides that, the decision to run eliminations on Sunday is viewed as a cost-cutting measure for the teams, and asking them to stay over until Monday would negate those savings. If there had been NO qualifying it likely would have been a different story, but I think one shot is sufficient and when raceday rolls around, it’s time to race, not lead off with another qualifying session.
NATE VAN WAGNEN: Mike pretty much nailed it here. There are a few pro drivers that didn’t qualify – like Clay Millican and Mike Salinas – that would probably disagree, but I think NHRA handled this situation pretty well. The only way they could’ve improved it would have been to run two qualifying sessions on Friday, but that would’ve been a hard schedule move to execute at such a large event. There are some teams that probably disagreed with it, and maybe some fans that didn’t get a chance to see as much racing as they wanted to see, but there were some benefits. The lone qualifying sessions resulted in some unique first-round matchups, and the race was completed in a timely manner on Sunday. For the crews and the Safety Safari team that had to head to Maple Grove Raceway for the next stop on tour this weekend, a “Monday Nationals” completion of the event would’ve been a real challenge.
JOSH HACHAT: Like Mike and Nate have mentioned, I’m not sure what else could have been done. It’s one of those cases where it was just a completely unlucky situation. You could have argued for a second qualifier on Friday, but the race battled weather that day as well and there’s only so much time in a day. They tried like crazy to get anything in on Saturday, but that’s simply how it goes sometimes when you’re battling Mother Nature. With national television broadcasting live, you can’t add an entire day to an event on the fly, so pushing eliminations back to Monday with so little notice is a complete non-starter. (As a brief aside, I’m all for eliminations at the U.S. Nationals on Sunday instead of Monday. I think it makes for a tighter, better show, but that’s just me.) In this day of three qualifiers, it puts a premium on making solid runs every time you’re on the track. We’ve seen those Friday sessions, where teams only get one crack instead of two, be a struggle for a lot of teams, but being great right off the trailer is going to be pivotal in the playoffs.
Steve Torrence, Ron Capps, Greg Anderson and Matt Smith lead points to open playoffs. How many end up as champions?
MIKE CARPENTER: This is tough as they’re all running very well right now and throughout the season. I’m going to go with a 50/50 bet on the guys on that list ending up as champions. Two will, two won’t. Torrence is on another level right now and anything less than a championship would have to be viewed as a major upset. And Matt Smith has to be viewed as the favorite in Pro Stock Motorcycle. Funny Car has been much more competitive this year with the return of John Force Racing, and Tasca and JR Todd have been running well all year. I think that one is going down to the wire, as is Pro Stock. Greg Anderson has had the car to beat since they turned the first tire in Gainesville (at our own CTECH World Doorslammer Nationals in Orlando), but don’t look now: here comes Erica Enders fresh off another Indy win ready to make a championship run. She has a “clutch gene” (pun intended) that is second-to-none and I think it will come down to a battle between these two future Hall of Famers.
NATE VAN WAGNEN: All four of those guys are proven champions, and it wouldn’t surprise anyone to see them all add another title in a couple months. But I don’t think any of them are a sure bet, mainly because of the Countdown format. Steve Torrence and the Capco boys are absolutely rolling, but Brittany Force and the Monster Energy team have been serious challengers lately. The Funny Car points lead has shuffled back and forth between multiple drivers, and I see that continuing through the Countdown. Greg Anderson was my championship pick for most of the season, but Erica Enders and the Elite team seem to do some of their best work when they’re coming from behind. If Matt Smith keeps up the performance that kept him in the points lead for most of the season, he can certainly win another title. But if the Vance & Hines bikes of Eddie Krawiec and Angelle Sampey carry over their momentum from Indy, Smith might be in trouble.
JOSH HACHAT: A couple months ago, I believed Torrence and Smith were locks in Top Fuel and Pro Stock Motorcycle, respectively. I’m pretty confident in those picks, especially Torrence, who continues to set an incredible bar. With seven races for the nitro classes in the Countdown, I don’t think there’s anyone who can touch him over the long haul and it wouldn’t surprise me if he wins four playoff races. I’ll count Smith’s struggles in Indy as a brief hiccup, as he’s proven throughout the course of the year his bike is the top one in the class. So, I’ll say with pretty strong confidence that two will stay atop when the World Finals are done.
That’s not to say Capps and Anderson can’t do it, but things are a little more fuzzy there. I can certainly see Pro Stock coming down to Anderson and Enders and the storyline is fascinating: Who will be the first to reach five world championships? Enders has been the dominant force the last seven years, claiming four titles, while Anderson is nearing 100 wins in the class and his first world title since 2010. Of course, if either slip up, young guns like Aaron Stanfield, Dallas Glenn and Kyle Koretsky could be ready to take a massive leap forward.
I’m probably most excited to see how Funny Car plays out. The points lead has changed at the past five races, which means this is coming down to the wire, without a doubt. A second world title would be huge for Capps, but John Force is right there and what a story would that be. Can Hagan recover from COVID in time to make a title run? There’s just so many cool storylines in a loaded field that also includes Bob Tasca, J.R. Todd and Robert Hight, and it’s where I think the most exciting championship battle will take place.