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DI Roundtable: Van Wagnen, Buck, Hachat Dish On Stevie Fast TAFC Debut, Non-Indy Races & Massive Fall Schedule

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The DI Team is back with its latest DI Roundtable, as Nate Van Wagnen, Wes Buck and Josh Hachat dish on some of the major topics in drag racing. What do we make of Stevie Fast’s Top Alcohol Funny Car debut? Is there hope for a non-Indy NHRA race this fall? On a huge fall schedule, what should we have our eyes on? All of those questions and more are answered!

QUESTION: We had some big news last weekend with Stevie Fast making his Top Alcohol Funny Car debut, advancing to the final round in the process. Is this a precursor to a nitro career and how big would that be for the sport?

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NATE: I’m a big Top Alcohol Funny Car fan, so this was exciting news. I’ve was following along with Stevie’s efforts at St. Louis all weekend, and it seems like he’s getting the combination figured out pretty quickly. If he continues driving the Funny Car beyond this weekend, especially at the upcoming NHRA U.S. Nationals or another NHRA national event, it would be a huge boost for the class.

As far as this being a precursor to a nitro career, it’s certainly possible. Stars like Tim Wilkerson, Alexis DeJoria and Bob Tasca III ran TAFC before moving up to the big show. If we could see Stevie run a full season in TAFC next year – maybe as a two-car operation with Annie Whiteley – I could definitely see that as laying the groundwork for a future move up to a nitro car.

JOSH: The last time I talked to Jackson – right after he won the Magic 8 in his unstoppable RvW car – he hinted at a massive announcement. Well, driving a TAFC for the first time is a big deal, especially if this jump-starts something even bigger. As it is, driving a TAFC with Jim and Annie Whiteley – two of the absolute best people in the sport – was awesome to see. Jackson has proven to be a quick-learner no matter the car, class or series, so running well and advancing to the final round wasn’t a surprise.

Seeing him both TAFC and Pro Mod at the U.S. Nationals would be massive. These are the types of the storylines the sport needs, and I would hope everyone would do their best to get that publicity machine rolling. Let’s face it: Stevie “Fast” Jackson is a star in this sport, he most definitely has the “it” factor and we need to see him going as fast as possible.

One can dream of him running a nitro Funny Car or Top Fuel dragster and moonlighting in the RvW ranks as the sport’s biggest badass, and this is definitely a step in the right direction.

Kudos to Jackson for never standing pat with past achievements and always pushing the envelope, and kudos to the Whiteley family for recognizing that starpower and the impact he could have in TAFC.

WES: Stevie in a Top Alcohol Funny Car, in my opinion, just adds to the legend – it adds a chapter to his story. It’s cool, it’s old-school, it’s bad ass, and it proves that this group – Stevie, Jim Whiteley, the whole gang – are having fun. That’s crazy important. I can’t say it enough.

This sport is a grind, and if that fun fades even a little bit – it’ll blow your mind how quickly the tent folds up and the whole deal is canned. This is a group of guys that race hard and play hard. There’s room for both.

31-August, 2018, Brownsburg, Indiana USA.Stevie fast Jackson ..(c)2018, Shawn Crose.DRAG Illustrated.

QUESTION: The most recent NHRA race at Indy is the only NHRA race in August and last until the U.S. Nationals. Do you have a big takeaway from that event, or the MWDRS race in St. Louis?

NATE: I hate to say it, but Indy 3 was kind of just another race to me. Racing at Indy used to be a novelty, but now after three consecutive events there, it just doesn’t seem as special. And unlike the second Indy race, where there were a handful of major upsets to keep things interesting, this past race didn’t really have the “wow” factor for me. The pro winners – Steve Torrence, Ron Capps, Jeg Coughlin Jr. and Angelle Savoie – are some of the best to ever do it. They go to the starting line with the very best people and parts. We expect them to win.

I will say it was very cool to see Troy Coughlin Jr. square off against his uncle Jeg in his first-ever Pro Stock final round. To make it that far in just his second NHRA Pro Stock start (third Pro Stock start when you consider the World Doorslammer Nationals) is impressive. It would be no surprise at all if TJ gets his first Pro Stock win before the season is over.

As for the MWDRS event at St. Louis, the other big takeaway aside from Stevie making it to the final in his TAFC debut was Joey Oksas taking over the seat in his father Scott’s twin-turbo ’67 Mustang and making it to the Pro Mod final round. He won a couple rounds on a holeshot and proved that he clearly has what it takes to handle the monster power in that Jeff Pierce-tuned machine. This is the same car that won the World Series of Pro Mod with Scott driving last year. I can’t wait to see what Joey can do in the car as he continues to get more laps under his belt.

JOSH: First off, I love the young talent that has been on display. From Justin Ashley advancing to a Top Fuel final to Johnny Pluchino winning in Mountain Motor Pro Stock to Troy Coughlin Jr. advancing to the final round in a loaded Pro Stock class, there’s really an impressive amount of young talent in drag racing. And Nate covered it perfectly with Joey Oksas’ sterling Pro Mod debut. Pro Stock is loaded with second-generation talent, and you’ve got a good amount of younger drivers in the nitro ranks, too. Whether that’s being focused on enough is another story, but I think it’s definitely there.

As for the NHRA’s most recent Indy race, the telling thing for me was just how many watched on FOX on an absolute loaded weekend. Nearly 900,000 watched live eliminations, while nearly 1.2 million watched qualifying (which aired Sunday morning on FS1) and eliminations on the same day.

That beat all motorsports minus NASCAR – a group that includes F1, Xfinity Series, NASCAR truck series – and also topped a large number of NBA games since its restart, EVERY MLS game in 2020, EVERY WNBA game, EVERY baseball game from the weekend, UFC prelims on ESPN and even a boxing event on FOX.

I mean, that’s a pretty staggering amount of events NHRA topped when it comes to viewership. That shouldn’t be taken lightly. I wondered in this space if NHRA would get buried this summer with every sport imaginable pushing back its schedule during the pandemic. Instead, NHRA has stood tall when it has been given the spotlight, and that is meaningful.

Having the likes of Ron Capps win in Funny Car – getting his first victory ever in Indy – makes for a great story, and it’s awesome to see it being rewarded against some pretty ample competition.

WES: It’s hard to follow you guys sometimes, honestly. As a big believer in drag racing’s next generation, I have to agree that it was super exciting to see Johnny Pluchino score a big win in the NHRA on hallowed grounds and continue his ascent to drag racing stardom. By the way…I called that.

TJ Coughlin going to the final in Pro Stock? To face his uncle and inarguably one of the best drag racers of all time? That was pretty special, and you could it from the way the teams reacted following their semifinal round wins. When they realized it was an all-JEGS final, they were turnt – and it was cool to see.

Those viewership numbers, again, in my opinion, should be on the front page of NHRA.com. Someone call Keith Haney and get a press release issued. I mean, come on! When you have major victories like that it’s basically our responsibility to share that news with the world. Do people know these things? I don’t think they do. Hell, I didn’t know that until I read it right here.

This is another thing that other sports do so much better than we drag racing types; they’re capable of shameless self-promotion. I know it can be uncomfortable for people, especially the good, ol’ boys and girls that occupy the sport of drag racing, but you have to get past that. I wrote an entire chapter about it in my book if you want to pick it up over at Amazon.com.

I will also say that I am not at all surprised to find that drag racing outperformed soccer. I’ve never been a big soccer guy. I’m actually really proud of this, and I think we should make shirts about it.

QUESTION: It’s a recurring theme, but things seem to change by the day. Will there be another non-Indy NHRA race in 2020?

NATE: There are rumors circulating that NHRA is planning to hold the rest of the season’s race elsewhere after the U.S. Nationals, but I still think that’s too optimistic. We’ve seen a couple more races get cancelled or postponed since the last roundtable. Things don’t seem to be improving. Most areas are reluctant to hold spectator events. If NHRA has a place willing to hold events that just happens to be minutes down the road from where most of the pro teams are located, I think it makes the most sense to weather this storm in that harbor.

JOSH: Well, like I predicted, I feel differently about this than I did a week ago. Ask me again tomorrow, and I’ll probably have a different answer – like I would if we then asked the day after that. Weird times, man.

But my answer today (Tuesday, August 18), is that, yes, I suddenly feel better about a potential non-Indy race in 2020. I don’t really have anything concrete to support that reasoning. Maybe I just woke up on the right side of the bed. Maybe it was staying away from the toxic news headlines continually dominating social media, but my spirits are a little bit higher than last week.

I fully expect to see a great U.S. Nationals, followed by some more NHRA racing. Again, let’s see a fall race at Indy, a trip to Bristol (which will again have fans at its NASCAR race in September), a couple trips to Texas, one to Topeka and a late-fall race at Gainesville. Tell me we couldn’t have some fun with that. Just don’t ask me again next week because my opinion might be different.

WES: The point of this is to drive discussion and conversation, so I’ll just come out with it… My sources have led me to believe that NHRA will attempt 6 more races, including the NHRA U.S. Nationals in Indy. After that they’ll shoot for two in Texas, one in Topeka and two in Florida to close out the season.

I’ll follow that up by saying that I find it extremely optimistic. Personally, I’m not looking beyond Sunday in Indy. I think it’ll be fantastic news if they’re able to get that race off, have it produce big numbers on television, and keep everyone safe/healthy. I don’t feel great about anything after that. I’m not saying it won’t happen, but I’m not banking on it.

QUESTION: We’re gearing up for a big fall, with a lot of big races across the drag radial, PDRA, Pro Mod, bracket race scene. What do you have your eyes on heading into that stretch? What should we be excited about?

NATE: It really is going to be a jam-packed fall across the board. You’ve got a stretch of multiple weekends in a row where you can race for more than $100k on the big-money bracket racing scene. Duck X Productions is having a double-header two-week swing of drag radial races at South Georgia. Virginia Motorsports Park has the Shakedown Nationals coming up in September, then PDRA has a pair of races in October to close out its season. And that’s just scratching the surface. It’s going to be hard to keep up with it all, but I’m looking forward to it.

I’m hoping to make it to the Shakedown to see Pro Mods and Radial vs. the World stars battle it out. From the outside, that was one of the best independent events last year, and I’m sure it will be a great show again this year.

JOSH: With the potential of some more NHRA racing, I’m also excited for what the rest of the drag racing world has to offer. The bracket racing scene will be nuts, with six straight weekends of racing with more than $100,000 on the line, including the Great American Guaranteed Million in Memphis. After all the changes that group had to endure and with Memphis looking like a particularly troubling area/COVID-19 hotspot at the moment, let’s hope we see that race come to fruition.

And I’m with Nate. I think they might have caught magic in a bottle at the Shakedown last year in Virginia with the RvW vs. Pro Mod format, so I’m interested to see what happens with that. And back-to-back weekend at SGMP could be really big, too. After enduring some rough moments this spring, there’s the potential for a big fall and that is great to see for the sport.

WES: I think that Shakedown race is the one I’ve got circled on my calendar. I really like Virginia Motorsports Park, to be honest, and I’m looking forward to going there when the forecast doesn’t include 100-degree temperatures (hopefully). I think it’ll be fun to see all the radial guys and Pro Mod guys get after it.

That’s a concept that I’ve been a big believer in for awhile, and while I’m not sure I fully understand how they go about it for this event – with rules, weights, lanes, etc. – I just think it’s cool.

I’m also genuinely looking forward to Donald Long’s 10 Days of Duck at South Georgia Motorsports Park. There’s going to be a lot of radial racing going on, a lot of record-setting I’d imagine, and an environment and timeframe that I believe is a lock for general wild-and-craziness that I’d just as soon not miss. I don’t know if I have all 10 days in me, but I’m pretty serious about being there during eliminations for both races.

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