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DI Roundtable: Van Wagnen, Buck & Hachat On NHRA Restart, Pro Mod Stealing The Show & The PDRA

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After back-to-back NHRA races in Indy, we can officially say we’ve got professional racing back on every level. This past weekend, we saw the impressive return of NHRA Pro Mod, while the PDRA returns to action this weekend and the NHRA is already making plans to come back to Indy in early August.

It’s a lot of moving pieces and a lot to digest, and the DI team is here to break it all down, discussing the plus and minuses of the NHRA restart, whether the Pro Mod class stole the show and what to expect from the PDRA this weekend in Virginia.

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QUESTION: We’re through the official restart with the back-to-back NHRA weekends in Indy. What’s your big takeaway? What was good, what was bad and what needs fixed?

NATE: The best news to come out of the weekend was that NHRA racing is back, period. Going into race two, rumors were swirling that NHRA was going to cancel the rest of the season after the race. While we’re certainly not out of the woods, it’s fairly safe to say that rumor won’t come to pass. NHRA added yet another race at Indy to replace Denver in early August, and the final rounds from Indy 2 are set to be completed at the U.S. Nationals. If nothing else changes, I think we can reasonably expect those next two Indy races to happen, plus maybe a couple more if places like Atlanta, Bristol or Charlotte aren’t able to hold their events.

I would say the daily event schedule could use some tweaking. On TV especially, nitro cars just don’t look nearly as impressive running two tenths off their potential in the heat of the day compared to a cool night session. If the goal is to look good on TV – and with 25% max capacity in the grandstands, isn’t it the TV audience we’re trying to appeal to? – shouldn’t the nitro cars be running in the evening when they’re at their flame-throwing best? I think so.

JOSH: Let’s get the obvious out of the way: it was darn good to have racing back on this level. The second Indy event drew nearly 1 million viewers live on FOX, and that was with rain at the end. In all, the weekend drew more than 2 million viewers including qualifying and re-airs, which bodes well for the sport with another FOX date looming at Indy here in a couple weeks.

So, that was definitely good, as is NHRA’s desire to keep trying to chug along during all this madness. We’ve seen adjustments, more Indy races and, most importantly, just a sheer willingness to try to put together some semblance of a season. It keeps my hopes up that we’re going to see fans in the stands at different locations at some point this fall, which again, that’s a definite good thing. There will likely be more adjustments, but NHRA has worked hard to make this possible.

Like Nate said, there’s an obvious change that needs fixed and that’s a move to night racing or at least night qualifying. But as we’ve seen, it seems those pleas have gone on deaf ears and it’s doubtful that changes. Nitro cars should be running under the lights, that should seem obvious, but it hasn’t happened yet and it’s led to shoddy action during qualifying. I’m a big fan of the two-day races, but neither qualifying day has been satisfying during these back-to-back Indy weekends. Eliminations has been a different story, mostly due to some lucky weather breaks – before the rain came on Sunday – and earlier starts, but there’s a simple solution out there to make these qualifying sessions go better.

WES: Can’t argue with either of these guys. We’ve beat on this night racing situation here quite a bit in these roundtables and it’s something, personally, I feel painfully strong about. So, I have to ask…what’s the argument in the other direction? I liken myself an open-minded individual, so I’d love to hear any sort of compelling case for our collective penchant for heat-of-the-day racing with these modified two-day races in Indy. Anyone? The viewership numbers – specifically for “Indy 2” – were exceptional, in my opinion. Honestly, find myself proud-as-punch that something like TWO MILLION PEOPLE caught some drag racing action this past weekend. If that’s not a good indication for our sport, I don’t really know what is – and it’s not all that surprising when you consider how well automotive/racing content performs on other networks.

As pointed out by my esteemed colleagues here, I do believe we need to be make sure we’re putting our best foot forward here, and if we’re leaning on the efforts of a multitude of nitro newcomers and regional race teams…why not at least give them favorable, forgiving conditions to work with?  Beyond that…I’ll simply echo the sentiment of Nate, Josh and a world of drag racers and fans in saying that it’s great to see our sport’s major league back in action.

QUESTION: It seemed like Pro Mod stole the show last weekend: 4 different power adders for the 4 semifinalists, great side-by-side racing. Do you agree with that?

NATE: I absolutely agree with that. After the nitro cars had spotty qualifying sessions and some predictable results on Sunday, Pro Mod came in and laid down consistent passes and some fantastic racing. I think a lot of people – myself included – were wondering to see if the ProCharger cars would either run away from the rest of the pack or suffer in the heat, but they were right in the mix all weekend. Nitrous, roots blown and centrifugal blown all ran 5.83 in the semis, and the turbo car left standing (Kris Thorne) ran 5.85. That’s pretty solid parity, especially for the first race of their official NHRA Pro Mod season.

JOSH: It was sure good to see the class out there and the standouts in Pro Mod didn’t miss a single beat, even during some treacherous conditions. I talked about Saturday being rough for nitro qualifying, which made Pro Mod look really strong by contrast. They easily carried the day during those two sessions, making numerous side-by-side passes in some nasty, nasty heat. It wasn’t rotate-the-earth numbers, but going 5.80s in that heat was super impressive, as nearly ever car made it down the track. That’s a major victory on a day like that, and a far cry from what we saw for most of nitro qualifying.

Sunday was pure joy and the perfect scenario as the semifinals included all four power adders with Jason Scruggs (blower), Thorne (turbo), Clint Satterfield (ProCharger) and Chad Green (nitrous), who earned the “badass award” by ALSO competing in Funny Car last weekend. That parity was awesome to see and again contributed to some stellar side-by-side runs. To have Green and Scruggs, a doorslammer legend, meet up in the final was great icing on top. It had been since early March since we last saw quarter-mile Pro Mod racing, but it didn’t take long to see why it’s arguably still the most thrilling class out there.

WES: The E3 Spark Plugs NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series absolutely stole the show in Indy, and it wasn’t even close. Admittedly, I’m not a dyed-in-the-wool nitro fan, but I do have a ton of respect and admiration for those guys/gals and the mega-fans of nitro racing. Regardless, you’d be lying if you said the opening round of qualifying for Top Fuel and Funny Car in Indy weren’t painful to watch. One aborted, tire-smoking run after another, cars laboring through the traps obviously hurt – it was tough to see and kind of heartbreaking in some regards (knowing what many of those teams went through and the money they spent to be there).

Pro Mod, however, delivered the goods with what seemed like one five-second, 250mph blast after another – many side-by-side, featuring cars of different makes, models, eras and engine combinations. I don’t know how else to say it – NHRA Pro Mod is the best thing going in drag racing right now. There’s no debate to be had. I understand there are purists that would argue it isn’t what it once was with the adoption of torque converters, automatic shifters, two-steps, etc., but this brand of drag racing is literally lightning in a bottle. How many more boxes can we tick, people?

Cars that look like cars driven by courageous, often blue-collar drivers that have the authority to drive ‘em like they stole ‘em (‘cause they own them). These are cars that come in a multitude of new and nostalgia body styles, feature a wide and growing number of engine combinations and power adders and embrace technology at seemingly every turn. I see so much potential in Pro Mod. So much. It’s exciting and painful at the same time. If I’m high up at NHRA, I see Pro Mod as a brand of drag racing that could carry the torch. It’s time NHRA fully embrace what they have with these outlaw doorslammers. I didn’t need any more evidence to support my beliefs here, but I surely got some in Indy.

QUESTION: It was a huge weekend for T.J. Zizzo and Justin Ashley on an upset-filled weekend. How big is it – especially in the nitro classes – to have a pair of first-time finalists in Top Fuel? Is it a nod to this 2-day setup?

NATE: This is the absolute best outcome that could’ve come out of NHRA’s insistence to run two qualifying sessions in the heat of the day before starting eliminations early the next morning. Some of the bigger teams didn’t have a chance to get the bugs worked out before eliminations started, and the smaller, lower budget teams like Zizzo and Ashley took advantage by making good, clean laps all day on Sunday.

A final round like this is a huge deal for the class, and especially for the fans who’ve grown tired of watching the same drivers from three or four mega-teams fight for the Wally. Here we’ve got two independent, part-time drivers with two different backgrounds. T.J., who’s developed a large fan base in his decade-plus of racing in NHRA Top Fuel, is going to the final in his 80th race. On the other hand, Justin has been to just five races before Indy 2. If he wins, he’ll join his father, Mike Ashley, as an Indy nitro class winner. It’s exciting to have these two guys in the final, and I can’t wait to see who gets the win.

JOSH: This was absolutely great to see, and furthers my belief that two-day events are a smart choice in so many ways. Zizzo raved about that schedule update before the NHRA restart happened, noting how many different ways it helps single-car and part-time teams. He’s come out guns blazing and to meet Ashley, a promising rookie, in the final round, it gives a lot of team hope. Smaller, independent teams have to know there’s a recipe or path to success in Top Fuel in Funny Car against these mega-car teams, or otherwise what’s the point in even racing?

Zizzo and Ashley proved that aspect is still alive and well in TF, and again, the one day of qualifying helps in that respect. With the likes of reigning rookie of the year Austin Prock – still on the sidelines as JFR has yet to make an appearance in this restart – Jordan Vandergriff and Ashley, we’ve got a nice crop of young talent in Top Fuel as well, and that’s never a bad thing.

WES: Wow. I feel like I kind of shortchanged the positives that could be associated with the two-shots-under-the-sun qualifying format based on Nate and Josh’s incredibly insightful thoughts above. One of the issues that I’ve seen facing these nitro categories over the last several years has been – an intangible but real issue, in my opinion – the death of what I would call the “nitro dream”. The dream existed for decades and it fueled the arrival and following successful careers of many of our sports most notable stars – John Force, Ron Capps, Don Schumacher, etc. In recent years, I feel that dream has largely been extinguished – unintentionally, of course – by the creation and on-going, seemingly insurmountable success of multi-car teams with big league budgets and manpower.

If this change in format opens the door for some fresh blood or, perhaps, serves to reignite the passion in a sidelined nitro racer’s belly, well, I’m all for it. Sometimes all it takes is someone proving that it can be done – that success in Top Fuel or Funny Car can be had, even on a limited level, with a single-car, modest-budget fueler. TJ Zizzo and Justin Ashley are certainly doing a service for the sport of drag racing right now. God Bless ‘em.

QUESTION: The PDRA returns this weekend. First things first: Can Tommy Franklin extend his run of terror? What other storylines are you watching?

NATE: Tommy Franklin is racing at his home track, which he also happens to own, so I know he’s going to pull out all the stops in an attempt to win his third straight race in Pro Nitrous. Tommy doesn’t test here nearly as much as most people would believe, but I don’t know if there’s anyone else in the field with more laps down this track. I think this weekend is going to be about getting down the racetrack, and that’s one thing Tommy and his Musi-powered “Jungle Rat” are very good at.

As far as other storylines, I’m really interested to see what’s going to happen in Pro Boost. The roots blowers and centrifugal superchargers are tied with one win apiece so far, but I think the ProCharger cars might start to run away with it starting here. In Extreme Pro Stock, I’m a little concerned about car count. World champions John Montecalvo (2019) and Steven Boone (2018) both announced they’re sitting out this race. The unofficial count on the PDRA Extreme Pro Stock Facebook group (via Rob Bealko’s estimate) puts the car count right at eight. We won’t have Pro Nitrous Motorcycle at this race, as the group of racers collectively decided to sit out the race in memory of class veteran T.T. Jones, who passed away last week.

JOSH: I’m all for a dominant reign of terror in any sport and any class. The sport – and this goes for every sport – is always better when there’s a dynasty on the table or a dominant team in play. It’s easy to root for, easy to root against and makes for much more compelling storylines. In the case of Franklin, he’s been perfect in Pro Nitrous and he’s eager to win another world title, but he’s got so many great challengers in the class. That makes it fun. He’s been dominant so far, but there’s a selection of big names who are eager to take him out.

Like Nate said, things look light for Extreme Pro Stock, and it remains a class that seems to be forever spinning its wheels. It’s unfortunate, but the class – whether it’s racing quarter-mile in NHRA or eighth-mile in PDRA – needs to start to find its direction again. With that in mind, Pro Boost and Pro Nitrous remain remarkably strong. Put the spotlight on them, make it as big as can be and, in my opinion, that’s all you need to keep the PDRA growing and in the headlines.

WES: Personally, I think PDRA is one of the best kept secrets in drag racing. I love what they do, what they represent and I think the racers within their various doorslammer-centric categories do a tremendous amount to keep the economic engine of drag racing running strong. Specific to Virginia this weekend, I’m paying attention to car counts, honestly. We’re in the throes of a global pandemic that is wreaking havoc on almost everything in our lives – including the sport of drag racing. Virginia Motorsports Park is a track that has worked extremely hard over the course of the last few months to first re-open, and then hold events with limited fans. I’m anxious to see how their efforts are rewarded. We’re bound to see some racers on the sidelines or MIA this weekend due to the ramifications of interstate travel at this point in time.

I never thought I’d type such a phrase, but it is a reality here in July 2020 and I think it’s going to hurt participation in a few of these top-tier categories in PDRA. I’m also just paying attention – as a whole – to PDRA Pro Boost. ProChargers have been around for what seems like forever in the street high performance world, but only relatively recently have they become “the hot choice” in pro-level drag racing and I find it super, super interesting. It’s interesting in that typically the “new combo” in Pro Mod drag racing is something that sees at least a few seasons in a development phase full of bugs, struggles and almost-gonna-quit problems. I know there have been some growing pains for this combo behind-the-scenes, but very few of them have turned up in actual competition.

At WOOOSTOCK earlier this year, the Carolina Xtreme Pro Mod Show was dominated by centrifugal blower cars. Last season – first race out with the new combo on radials – Kevin Rivenbark crushed everyone at Donald Long’s Sweet 16. At our own DRAG ILLUSTRATED World Doorslammer Nationals back in March it looked like Justin Bond’s brand-new ProCharger-equipped Bahrain 1 Racing Camaro was going to cut through the field like butter. In Indy last week, ProChargers looked painfully strong. It’s fun to see one of these clearly soon-to-be-commonplace engine combos establish their foothold.

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