SONOMA, Calif. – When compared to his impressive 2011 season and his championship 2012 campaign, the current NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season may seem like a minor letdown for Top Fuel superstar Antron Brown.
After winning twice early in the year, Brown and his Matco Tools team have fallen on difficult times, losing in the first round at four of the past five events, including last weekend in Denver.
But you will hear nothing negative from the upbeat and always energetic Brown, who is sensing a swift turnaround just in time for the NHRA’s Countdown to the Championship.
In fact, Brown thinks it could happen this weekend as he heads to Sonoma Raceway, July 26-28 for the NHRA Sonoma Nationals. He is the defending champion at the event and Brown has his sights set on a repeat affair in his 8,000-horsepower Matco Tools dragster.
Johnny Gray (Funny Car), Allen Johnson (Pro Stock) and Eddie Krawiec (Pro Stock Motorcycle) are the other defending winners of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series event, the second of three consecutive weekends of racing known on the circuit as the Western Swing. The race will be televised on ESPN HD (qualifying Saturday, 7 p.m. ET) and ESPN2 HD (eliminations, Sunday, 8 p.m. ET).
As for Brown, there’s not much on the NHRA scene that gets him as excited as heading to Sonoma, and he hopes those good vibes translate to other strong performance to officially end his team’s recent mishaps.
“The fans that come to the track are die-hard NHRA race fans,” Brown said. “Just the aura around it, you can feel the energy at the track. It gets you amped up and pumped up, and that really sets the tone the minute you walk in the gate.
“When we go to a place like Sonoma, it’s a place where we can really make some power and I think that’s going to be a big awakening for our Matco Tools team. We’ve been growing each and every race. We haven’t had the run we’ve wanted lately, but we’re smart enough to know that there’s going to be growing pains. We just have to keep staying focused and our goal in the next few races is to get into that race mode. I think we’re real close to being there.”
A vast number of changes to Brown’s dragster, and particularly the clutch discs, have led to some recent bumps in the road, including a first-round loss to Top Fuel points leader Shawn Langdon last weekend in Denver and an opening-round defeat the race prior in Norwalk to eventual winner Khalid alBalooshi.
But Brown’s performance in recent weeks has improved despite the losses and he’s been impressed with the strides the team has made in the midst of a grueling stretch that includes seven races over eight weeks. It doesn’t allow for vast changes or ample time for adjustments, but as Brown indicated, making the western trek to from the high-altitude challenges of Denver to Sonoma might be the perfect remedy for the team.
“To go from Denver to Sonoma, it’s a big change, but we like that,” Brown said. “We’ve done well there and it’s a record-setting type track. When you get to Sonoma, it’s like you’re letting the animal out of the cage and the car is ready to go into beast mode. That’s the cool thing and it’s a really, really high-level race track. The car definitely goes into a totally different mode in Sonoma.”
Like every team going from Denver to Sonoma, Brown and his Matco Tools group will have to completely overhaul the car. But that’s a challenge Brown has always enjoyed, and it has brought out some of the best performances in his career.
He swept the Western Swing in 2009, and although that won’t happen in 2013, Brown certainly feels good about where things are headed as crunch time approaches.
“Last year and the year prior, we had great years of racing but we pretty much had the same stuff in our car,” Brown said. “This year, we’re just going through the clutch-disc blues, but it’s a good time that we’re going through it now because we don’t want to miss any P’s and Q’s when we get to the Countdown (to the Championship).”
Brown is also chasing a host of top stars in Top Fuel, including Langdon, seven-time world champion Tony Schumacher, a two-time Sonoma winner, and Spencer Massey, who is the track record holder and picked up his third win of the season in Denver. Other challengers include five-time Sonoma winner Doug Kalitta, Bob Vandergriff, Clay Millican, Morgan Lucas and alBalooshi.
In Funny Car, 2011 world champion Matt Hagan is back in championship form as the series points leader, but the Virginia cattle rancher has yet to visit the winner’s circle in Wine Country and he has plenty of tough competition bearing down on him. That includes two-time world champ Cruz Pedregon, who won last weekend in Denver and has three victories in 2013, and Gray, who has picked up a class-best four victories in 2013. Other pre-race favorites include seven-time Sonoma winner John Force, 2008 winner Hight, three-time winner Ron Capps, two-time winner in 2013 Courtney Force and defending world champion Jack Beckman.
In Pro Stock, reigning world champ Johnson will be looking to repeat while his new teammate, Jeg Coughlin, returns to Sonoma in pursuit of his third win there. Johnson is also red-hot, picking up his fourth victory of the season last weekend in Denver. Meanwhile, Mike Edwards hopes to build on his No. 1 spot in the points and bring home his first career win at Sonoma. Former Sonoma champs including Jason Line and Greg Anderson as well as notable young guns Vincent Nobile and Shane Gray will provide plenty of competition, giving fans plenty of thrilling side-by-side racing in the process.
Series points leader Hector Arana Jr. is a three-time winner this season in Pro Stock Motorcycle, but he will have plenty of challengers in the two-wheel category including defending world champ Krawiec, two-time Sonoma winner Andrew Hines, rising star Scotty Pollacheck, 2009 champ Hector Arana Sr. and recent winners Michael Ray, Shawn Gann and John Hall.
Set amid the beautiful rolling hills and vineyards just north of San Francisco, Sonoma Raceway is already one of the most popular ‘destination’ races for NHRA fans from around the country so this year’s race – featuring family-fun festivities throughout the weekend, and the annual Eric Medlen Ice Cream Social on Sunday – will truly be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for NHRA fans.
Sonoma Raceway will also host the fan-favorite Sunday morning Starting Line Party featuring many of NHRA’s leading ladies. Fans with Starting Line Party passes will have the opportunity to meet some of their favorite drivers, get autographs and celebrate during pre-race festivities down on the starting line. Party packages start at $77 and include a reserved seat, VIP track access pass for pre-race Q&A, track walk and all-day access to Thunder Alley. For more details, contact Sonoma Raceway.
Another unique experience offered to fans during the NHRA Sonoma Nationals is the Don Schumacher Racing Fan Hospitality Package. The DSR Hospitality Package includes a seat in the Main Grandstand for Friday, July 26th, access to DSR hospitality area Friday, a chef prepared meal, DSR driver appearances and autograph opportunities as well as the chance to see how the crew of a Top Fuel dragster or nitro Funny Car tune and rebuild their machines between rounds. Packages are available while supplies last.
As always, every ticket purchased for the NHRA Sonoma Nationals is a pit pass, which offers an extraordinary look behind the scenes in the world of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series as race teams service their high-horsepower machines between rounds. Fans also will want to check out NHRA Nitro Alley and the popular NHRA Manufacturers Midway. In addition, fans should definitely plan to visit the Blast on the Grass, a celebration of American muscle cars, which features many classic machines in the popular car show set in turn 11 of the facility. There will also be some exhibition racing featured during the NHRA Sonoma Nationals with two Jet Dragsters and eight Pro Mod cars scheduled to make runs.
Mello Yello Series qualifying begins on Friday, July 26 with the first session at 4:15 p.m., followed by another session at 7:15 p.m. The final two qualifying sessions will take place Saturday, July 27, at 12:15 and 2:15 p.m. Final eliminations are scheduled for 11 a.m. on Sunday, July 28.