For reigning world champion Matt Smith, it marks the first opportunity to debut a new bike he hopes will yield similar results to a memorable 2013 campaign.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The first of 16 events for the Pro Stock Motorcycle category on the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing circuit is this weekend at the Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals at historic Auto-Plus Raceway at Gainesville.
For reigning world champion Matt Smith, it marks the first opportunity to debut a new bike he hopes will yield similar results to a memorable 2013 campaign that included four wins in eight final round appearances.
“We’re looking to be just as strong this year as we were a season ago,” said Smith, a two-time world champ in the class and rider of the Matt Smith Racing/Stockseth Racing Buell. “We’re going to do our best to carry it over. It’s real exciting to enter the season with that No. 1 on your bike. It puts a target on your back, but that’s what you like. I’m trying to defend my title. We’ve worked hard and prepared, and it should be a great event.”
While Smith was impressive in last year’s Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship, winning three of the six events and advancing to four final rounds, he will have a host of strong challengers in the two-wheel category, including three-time Gainesville winner Eddie Krawiec, Andrew Hines, Michael Ray, newcomer Chaz Kennedy and defending event champ Arana Jr., who will be joined by his father Hector Sr. and brother Adam.
After struggling early in the 2013 season, Krawiec and his Screamin’ Eagle Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson teammate Hines found their rhythm in the Countdown, combining to win the other three Countdown races. Krawiec, the 2012 world champ, believes the team carried that momentum over into 2014.
“Absolutely I think those wins really motivated us in the offseason,” said Krawiec, who won three straight in Gainesville from 2010-2012. “I think we've gotten a lot better over the winter, and we were able to work with the full combination of our new ideas. It appears that we have very consistent motorcycles, and we can now duplicate the setup from run to run, and really see the results of our tuning. I’m really itching to line up and pop the clutch on my V-Rod.”
“I am really excited to go racing,” Hines said. “As the season went along last year we found we had to change our perspective on tuning the new engine, and that came together in October. I think we took that momentum and positive attitude into the off-season. We've found some different ways to make horsepower, and we are feeling really motivated after testing this week. We are feeling good as a team.”
For the defending champ Arana Jr., it’s simply a matter of repeating his fabulous performance at the prestigious event from a year ago. In fact, Arana Jr. and his Lucas Oil Buell won the first three events of the season, something he wouldn’t mind repeating in 2014.
“I set some pretty high standards last season in Gainesville for myself,” said Arana Jr., who struggled in the Countdown and finished fourth in points. "I look to do the same again this year. It's a new season and I want to start it off like I did in 2013 with a win in Gainesville.
"Our goal as a team though is for one of us to win the race. Ultimately to have at least two of us end up in the finals would be ideal, and with all three of us being in the semifinals. We're going to try our best to qualify really well and hopefully end up first, second and third.”
“We worked hard to get ready,” Arana Sr. said. “We regrouped and learned some things from last year. Hopefully, we can stay consistent this year. We worked hard trying to find little things to make the bike go faster. That's what we focused on, the little things, so we can make fewer mistakes. Hopefully it will lead us to accomplish more at the races.”
Smith and his three-bike team includes John Hall, who won two races a season ago, and wife Angie. Winning the Gatornationals would be a dream come true for Smith, who was the No. 1 qualifier in 2013 but has yet to win in Gainesville. It would also represent the best possible way to start the defense of his world championship.
“Gainesville is definitely one of the premier events the bikes race at,” Smith said. “It’s one place I’ve always wanted to win. That’s always been a goal of mine. There’s going to be some strong competition, but my mindset is to go lay down some big numbers right off the bat and let everyone know I’m serious about defending this title.”
In Top Fuel, Shawn Langdon, who raced to his first world championship in 2013, and Doug Kalitta, who is the points leader in his Mac Tools dragster after posting back-to-back No. 1 qualifying positions to start the season, are two of many championship contenders. Langdon’s Al-Anabi Racing teammate Khalid alBalooshi won the 2014 season-opening event in Pomona while other top challengers in the class include Spencer Massey, Brown, four-time Gators winner Tony Schumacher, 2013 Automobile Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award winner Brittany Force, Leah Pritchett, Amalie Motor Oil fan-favorite Terry McMillen and 2014 rookie contender Richie Crampton.
The reigning Pro Stock champ, Jeg Coughlin, will look for more success with Mopar teammate Allen Johnson, who was the most recent event winner in the class, while fellow Dodge driver V Gaines currently holds the series points lead. Winternationals winner and four-time Gatornationals winner Jason Line and his Summit Racing Equipment Chevy Camaro are seeking another early season win, and Erica Enders-Stevens, Shane Gray, Vincent Nobile and Dave Connolly always provide tough competition in the parity-filled 200-mph factory hot rod category.
The NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series and the NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series, which also is making its 2014 season debut, will thrill the crowds as well during the weekend with intense competition on the track.
As always, fans will have the opportunity to interact with their favorite drivers as they’re granted an exclusive pit pass to the most powerful motorsports attraction on the planet. While visiting the pits, interactive NHRA Nitro Alley and the NHRA Manufacturers Midway, fans will also want to check out NHRA’s popular Hot Rod Junction presented by the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum that offers a spectacular display of many nostalgic dragsters, race cars and hot rods on display, including vintage machines that were driven by “Big Daddy” Don Garlits, K.S. Pittman, “Big John” Mazmanian, Bruce Larson, among others. There will also be several NHRA Legends of Drag Racing autograph sessions, allowing fans the rare opportunity to meet drag racing stars of the past.
Mello Yello Series qualifying begins on Friday, March 14, with sessions at noon and 2:15 p.m. The final two qualifying sessions will take place Saturday, March 15, also at noon and 2:15 p.m. Final eliminations are scheduled to begin at 11 a.m. on Sunday, March 16.