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U.S. Nationals Roundtable: DI Breaks Down The Biggest Race Of The Year

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When it comes to events, there’s nothing that can match the magnitude of the U.S. Nationals at Indy. It’s the race every driver wants to win, it can create lasting legacies and it can fuel world championship runs.

For an event this big, we asked Drag Illustrated’s Nate Wagnen and Josh Hachat about some of the pressing questions heading into another memorable weekend at the Big Go.

1. WHAT MAKES INDY SPECIAL FOR YOU?

NATE VAN WAGNEN: Growing up watching drag racing as a fan, I would always hear about how the U.S. Nationals is such a special race. It was the first out-of-state race I got to attend when I was 14 working on a Top Alcohol Dragster team and it definitely lived up to the hype. This race draws more racers than any other race and it brings out the best in teams. The pro classes are intense since everyone is settling Countdown spots, plus there’s a ton of incredible sportsman racing and special events going on. It’s really unlike any other race on the tour, despite what some might say.

JOSH HACHAT: Indy was always this mythical creature to me. I would hear about it over and over again, but usually reality isn’t quite as good as the stories. That’s not the case at Indy. Everything about it is big – even the week itself. If you’re on location it feels like you’ve already been through an entire race by Friday night – and the main event is just getting started. It’s just a massive behemoth of a race and scene, and that’s a cool feeling to be part of when you’re there.

Jack Beckman and Cruz Pedregon in the Traxxas Shootout

2. IN YOUR PERFECT U.S. NATIONALS WORLD, WHAT WOULD YOU DO TO MAKE THIS RACE EVEN BIGGER?

VAN WAGNEN: Night qualifying sessions for the nitro cars on all three days would be a great start. If NHRA could figure out a way to bring back the Winston No Bull Showdown (TF vs. FC), Indy would be the place to do it. Other than that, it’s hard to think of anything that would make this race bigger than it already is.

HACHAT: I’m taking it a step further, and asking for night eliminations on Sunday night (not Monday). Find a way to get a $100,000 nitro shootout on Saturday for both classes, run that under the lights, and then put on a heck of a show on Sunday afternoon and evening. This is the biggest race of the year – let’s make sure it feels like it in every single way.

3. AFTER TWO MONTHS OFF, WHAT ARE YOU EXPECTING FROM PRO MOD IN INDY? CAN STEVIE “FAST” JACKSON REPEAT?

VAN WAGNEN: Stevie will be one of the final four. He’s seeking redemption after going red in the first round at the World Series of Pro Mod, plus he seems to have this place figured out. As for the rest of the class, I’m sure the top-flight turbo cars will be as strong as ever. What I’m really looking forward to in Pro Mod is the exhibition passes with the ProCharger-boosted cars. We’ve seen what they can run in the quarter mile at various test sessions and other races, but they’ve yet to run at a true NHRA national event. I’m expecting runs in the mid-3.70s from those cars.

HACHAT: Like a lot of classes, the great unknown or the major surprise always seems to find their way into contention at Indy in Pro Mod. Stevie Fast is the obvious pick and he’s going to be determined to keep that fat points lead, but look for an unlikely contender to make some late-round noise this weekend. It always seems to happen at the U.S. Nationals, just don’t ask me to pick one. With another huge field, just qualifying will be an achievement –see Jackson last year – and it wouldn’t shock me if an underdog finds his way to the final round.

Jackson last year at Indy

4. WE HAVE 20 CARS OR MORE IN EVERY PRO CLASS. IS THAT A GOOD SIGN?

VAN WAGNEN: It’s definitely a good sign. The U.S. Nationals usually draws a handful of extra entries per class that only run a few races a year. It’s always fun to see those guys mix it up with the full-time touring teams, sometimes even playing the spoiler role (see Kebin Kinsley’s 2017 runner-up finish). But is it a sign of things to come for the entry lists at the rest of the races on the schedule this season? Probably not.

HACHAT: What we’re seeing is it’s become very much the norm for Pro Stock, which was by far the healthiest class in terms of participation on the Western Swing. There’s no sign of let-up looking at the Indy entry list, so maybe it spurs the powers at be to get Funny Car and Top Fuel back on that level where 20 participants are the norm. A sense of urgency in qualifying certainly makes for a better race weekend, especially at Indy when so many spoilers seem to have big weekends.

5. THIS RACE OFTEN SETS THE TONE FOR THE COUNTDOWN? WHAT DO YOU EXPECT TO SEE IN THE NITRO CLASSES?

VAN WAGNEN: In Top Fuel, it’s hard to imagine Steve Torrence going out any earlier than the final round. He’s basically owned the class for a year now and I don’t expect him to let up as he looks to defend his championship in the Countdown portion of the season. In Funny Car, I’m also thinking J.R. Todd will go deep into eliminations again after winning Indy the last two years. As for Pro Stock, this might be Erica Enders’ weekend. She’s coming off a runner-up finish at Brainerd and she’s won Indy before with her Elite Motorsports team. In Pro Stock Motorcycle, I’m sure one of the Harleys will add another Indy Wally to their Brownsburg shop’s trophy case.

Back-to-back Funny Car winner J.R. Todd

HACHAT: A few guys – Doug Kalitta, Antron Brown – are due for a Top Fuel win, and Indy would obviously be the ideal place for it. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Clay Millican pick up his first U.S. Nationals victory. That team has performed well all year and has done everything but win. But the race for the final spot in the Top 10 should be interesting, with Terry McMillen, Scott Palmer and Billy Torrence all battling it out. It’s good to see some playoff spots actually get decided at Indy.

I must admit, it would be pretty cool to see J.R. Todd make Funny Car history with a third straight win, but it’s been a rather rough summer for them. They could turn it around in grand fashion, but Funny Car is loaded 1-10. Tommy Johnson Jr. is kind of the one always lurking in the shadows, but he’s performed well all year and might be a good bet. After another Brainerd win, it would also be pretty fun to see Ron Capps conquer Indy for the first time.

I’m with Nate on Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle. With the bikes, until anyone can show Andrew Hines is human this year, I’m taking him in Indy. That performance has been otherworldly in 2019.

As for Pro Stock, Enders may be peaking at the perfect time. Now that they’ve got their engine issues sorted out, she could be throwing down the gauntlet at Indy and in the playoffs. Greg Anderson and Jeg Coughlin Jr. have always run well at the Big Go, and I’d be perfectly content seeing those longtime rivals duel it out in the finals, too.

Greg Anderson – Photo by Mark J. Rebilas

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