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Five Takeaways From ‘No Prep Kings’ at Empire Dragway

The fourth event of the Street Outlaws: No Prep Kings season saw the start of the points championship battle at Empire Dragway in Leicester, New York. After weather pushed the event back a day, Justin Swanstrom walked out with both $30,000 and the Season 7 points lead. 

For Swanstrom, it was the fifth Invitational victory in his NPK career, and the first in his brand new 1969 Camaro called “Bad Blood.” It also places him fourth in all-time wins, trailing only Ryan Martin, Kye Kelley, and Lizzy Musi.

As the points battle heats up heading into this weekend’s race at Flying H Dragstrip in Odessa, Missouri, here’s a look at my five major takeaways from No Prep Kings in New York.

Justin Swanstrom Wins When it Counts

Justin Swanstrom has admittedly gotten off to a slow start this season, fighting various issues with his new car that continually caused it to go left. But after three races and multiple test sessions, Swanstrom and his team stepped up when it mattered most, winning the first points event of the year.

“We struggled with this car at the beginning of the year, and finally started getting it [together] at the last race,” Swanstrom said in his post-race interview. “I tested three days this week just trying to get ready for this deal here, and we proved [it]. We won the finals and now we’re number one in points starting off.”    

Swanstrom kicked things off by defeating James “Birdman” Finney in Saturday night’s qualification round, putting him in the winner’s bracket for Sunday. After getting by rising NPK star Jimmy Taylor in the first round, Swanstrom faced one of the toughest three-round stretches I’ve seen in a while. Wins against Murder Nova and Robin Roberts propelled Swanstrom into the finals against his good friend, Lizzy Musi. Both cars got a little loose on the top end, but remained door-to-door the entire 1/8 mile, with Justin claiming the victory.

“Dad and I talked today,” Swanstrom said after driving his car back up the track to the starting line. “There was a couple times that I was trying to go faster, and he told me we needed to slow it down ‘cause the track was hot. He made great judgment (calls) all day. I knew going against Lizzy it was going to be a good race. It did get a little squirrelly down there on the other end, so I threw the ‘chutes, but I’m happy with it.”

Swanstrom also joined some elite company with the win. According to “Stat Guy” Chris LeCloux, Swanstrom and Ryan Martin are the only drivers in NPK history with an Invitational victory in every season they’ve competed. Martin has competed in all seven seasons, while Swanstrom joined the field in season four.  

Scott Taylor Struggles Again, Wins Again

More than any other driver, Scott Taylor has experienced the full pendulum swing of highs and lows this season over the course of the first four events. 

At all four races, Taylor fell in the qualification round of eliminations, placing him in the “Loser’s Bracket.” Those are certainly not the results I, nor anyone else, expect to see from the long-time veteran. He made the most of the situation at Empire Dragway, however, winning the $5,000 second-chance race.

Taylor has now made three second-chance finals this year, winning two of them. That’s allowed him to pocket $15,000 in winnings and place him ninth in points. Regardless, Taylor isn’t comfortable with where he’s currently at, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he makes some huge strides over the next few weeks.   

“We are definitely not where we want to be,” Taylor posted on social media. “Although I’m happy that we won the 2nd chance race and picked up $5k, we won’t rest until we are back to being a front runner in the main event.” 

Paige Coughlin’s Display of Sportsmanship

Paige Coughlin caught a potential lucky break during Sunday’s opening round when her opponent, Lizzy Musi, had issues after pulling into the water box. Typically, a team will have two minutes to try and make repairs, or face a disqualification. Coughlin, however, made the decision to allow Musi and her team extra time to diagnose and fix the problem. 

After removing the front clip on her nitrous-powered Camaro multiple times to work on the car, Musi’s team finally resolved the issue and the two women lined up. In a close side-by-side battle, Musi took the win. It was a tough break for Coughlin, but ultimately still an easy decision to wait on her opponent.  

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“We had an awesome drag race,” said Coughlin. “That’s what we came here to do, show these fans a drag race! Yes, it was tough not turning on the win light, but I think good sportsmanship is more important. Pat [Musi] and my dad (Troy Coughlin Sr.) go way back, and they taught their daughters how to show good sportsmanship. I told her, ‘Now you need to win the damn thing!’”

Musi nearly did, settling for a runner-up finish. Coughlin, meanwhile, will regroup heading into the next race, and determine whether she can afford to let more guaranteed wins slip by as the season progresses.

“We are running for points now,” Coughlin said. “The first few races have taught me a lot and moving forward, I won’t always be the nice guy. There is a two-minute rule and I’m not scared to utilize that. You have to be tough out here because we are racing for a championship.”

Lizzy’s Cancer Battle

Unfortunately, Lizzy Musi’s final-round appearance at Empire Dragway will be her last for at least the next few events. Musi announced that she will be traveling to Germany on May 26 for two weeks to try a special cancer treatment. 

A little over a year ago, Musi revealed that she had been diagnosed with triple negative stage 4 breast cancer that had also moved to her lymph nodes and liver. Since then, she’s continued to battle, with racing giving her a distraction from the daily rigors of fighting the disease.

Obviously her health is far more important than NPK, and I feel like I speak on behalf of the entire drag racing community when I say that we are all praying that this new treatment will help her achieve a full recovery.      

Returning Faces, New Place

The Invitational car count at Empire Dragway improved slightly over the previous weekend, increasing from 18 drivers to 22. That’s still well below normal, but more help is on the way as NPK makes its inaugural visit to Flying H Dragstrip May 24-25 in Odessa, Missouri, just outside Kansas City.

After missing last weekend’s event in New York due to a scheduling conflict with NHRA, Alex Laughlin will return in KC. Likewise, Kallee Mills will return this week after taking the last couple of events off. 

In addition, two breakout stars from last year – Nate Sayler and Clay Cole – have both confirmed they will make their season 7 debut at Flying H. While the competition has already been fierce this season (four different winners in four events), I expect these two will quickly ratchet things up another notch. Larry Larson had hoped to debut his brand new ’66 Chevy II this weekend as well, and while anything is possible, it appears likely that fans will have to wait just a little bit longer to see the five-time Drag Week champ in action.  

This story was originally published on May 21, 2024. Drag Illustrated

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Since 2005, DI has informed, inspired and educated drag racers from every walk of the racing life - weekend warrior and street/strip enthusiasts to pro-level doorslammer and Top Fuel racers. From award-winning writing and photography to binge-worthy videos to electric live events, DI meets hundreds of thousands of racers where they live, creating the moments that create conversations.