Next-to-last NHRA drag race has them angling for rookie awards.
Before his first season as an NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Top Fuel driver, Richie Crampton put together a list of goals. Crampton was not afraid to aim high and at the forefront of those goals was winning the Auto Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award, which annually recognizes the season’s top rookie performer.
The big hopes have brought out the best in Crampton, as he has already posted two victories, including winning the prestigious Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals and qualified for the Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship in his 10,000-horsepower GEICO/Lucas Oil dragster.
But Crampton, along with the rest of the rookie candidates who are eligible for the coveted award, is hoping to make a late push with only two events remaining in the 2014 season to raise his profile with the media voters who determine the winner. Next up is the penultimate race of the 2014 NHRA Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship, the 14th annual NHRA Toyota Nationals, Oct. 30-Nov. 2 at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
"From the beginning of the season, I really had my eyes set on trying to win the Road to the Future Award,” Crampton said. “I knew it wasn't going to be easy, but that was definitely the No. 1 priority. We wanted to finish well and contend for the championship, but as a rookie driver the rookie award was something I've been focused on trying to achieve. At the end of the year when the dust settles, I hope to be in the running for it."
Antron Brown (Top Fuel), John Force (Funny Car), Shane Gray (Pro Stock) and Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were last year’s winners of the popular event that will once again be televised nationally on ESPN2.
Crampton in 10th
Crampton, who is currently 10th in the Top Fuel points standings, would like to bolster his chances of earning the award by adding his name to the winner’s list at the NHRA Toyota Nationals, but he is also competing against a strong rookie class that includes the likes of Pro Stock talents Jonathan Gray, Jimmy Alund and Shane Tucker, as well as Pro Stock Motorcycle competitors Chaz Kennedy and Elvira Karlsson.
While all of the rookies have had shining moments this season, like Crampton, Gray has also made quite an impact in his first year. Gray, the brother of Pro Stock veteran and defending race winner Shane Gray, made his debut in Gainesville at the controls of his Gray Manufacturing Chevy Camaro and has steadily developed, posting runner-up finishes at both Bristol and Epping.
He held off multi-time world champion Greg Anderson to claim the final spot in the Countdown to the Championship and then started the NHRA playoffs by racing to his first career victory at the Pep Boys NHRA Carolina Nationals. Currently seventh in points, Gray also is eager for one more late push at the final two events of the season to leave a strong memory in the minds of the voters, more than 150 of the top motorsports journalists.
“We started out the year not really sure if we could even make the Countdown, and we went from making it to winning the first race,” Gray said. “Looking back, I think that going to the semis at Indy was a key moment. If we're going to have a shot at Rookie of the Year, we're going to have to have a good showing at these last two races. We know what we're up against but it's definitely doable. I've got the car to do it, and I've got the team to get it done. I've just got to make sure I get off the starting line first, and we'll see how it all shakes out at the end. I think it would just top it all off to go out big at the end of the season.”
Being a part of the championship pursuit with his brother Shane and teammate Dave Connolly has also made for an extremely enjoyable first season in the highly-competitive Pro Stock ranks.
"I've enjoyed learning to drive the racecar in all of the different scenarios that you're put in as you go from race to race,” Gray said. “These cars have their own little nuances and each racetrack is different, so the cars run different in different situations. That's all been part of the learning curve, and that's really what I've enjoyed most, learning how to drive one of these Pro Stock cars."
Crampton has been just as remarkable displaying his driving prowess in the loaded Top Fuel field. Taking over for Morgan Lucas in the driver’s seat of the GEICO/Lucas Oil dragster in 2014, Crampton has adjusted seamlessly and handled the pressure of driving a 300-mph dragster with outstanding resolve.
He won at Englishtown in just his ninth Top Fuel race, also becoming the 100th different driver to win in Top Fuel, and followed that with a memorable victory in Indianapolis at the world’s most prestigious drag race. That memory will undoubtedly last a lifetime, but Crampton wants to finish strong in the Countdown after getting off to a slow start in the Countdown’s first four races.
“The key for me learning quickly has been Morgan Lucas and (crew chief) Aaron Brooks helping to get me comfortable in the car right away,” Crampton said. “I really want to try and do well in these last two races because you never know what next year is going to bring. Finishing out the year well and bringing some confidence into next season would be huge. (But) to stand back and look at what I've been given the opportunity to do this year, all of that has been remarkable for me."
Brown, Schumacher could battle in Vegas
Brown, the 2012 world champ, is a two-time winner at Las Vegas but the driver in command in Top Fuel is seven-time world champion Tony Schumacher. After winning three of the first four races of the Countdown, Schumacher, an eight-time winner at The Strip, holds a 134-point lead over Doug Kalitta. Steve Torrence sits in third, reigning world champion Shawn Langdon is fourth in points while other Countdown competitors include Spencer Massey, reigning Auto Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award winner Brittany Force, Khalid alBalooshi and J.R. Todd.
Force locked up his 16th world championship when he defeated daughter Courtney Force in the final round at this event last season but he is chasing points leader Matt Hagan. Hagan, searching for his second world title, won in Reading to jump to first and holds a 36-point lead over John Force. Courtney Force is also a top contender for the championship, while other pre-race favorites in Funny Car include three-time season winner Alexis DeJoria, Tommy Johnson Jr., Robert Hight, Ron Capps, Tim Wilkerson, Del Worsham and three-time Las Vegas winner Cruz Pedregon.
In Pro Stock one of the most intense playoff battles is brewing between as many as five drivers. Jason Line leads the pack in his Summit Racing Equipment Chevy Camaro and is followed by history-chaser Erica Enders-Stevens, a four-time winner this season who is trying to become the first female to win an NHRA world championship title in Pro Stock. Dave Connolly, Gray and Allen Johnson are all within striking range of a championship, while Jonathan Gray, Jeg Coughlin, V Gaines and Chris McGaha round out the Countdown field.
Smith was victorious in Pro Stock Motorcycle last season en route to his second championship ring. But the 2014 season has belonged to Screamin’ Eagle Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson teammates Andrew Hines and Eddie Krawiec. Both have won this event three times and Hines holds a 25-point advantage over Krawiec. Hector Arana Jr. is in third and other marquee challengers in the two-wheel category are Steve Johnson, Angie Smith, Scotty Pollacheck, John Hall, Hector Arana Sr. Michael Ray, Jerry Savoie and Angelle Sampey.
The event will also feature thrilling competition in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series and one driver will be crowned world champion at the season finale in the NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series.
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 and sensory-filled motorsports attraction on the planet. This unique opportunity in motorsports gives fans direct access to the teams, allowing them to see firsthand the highly-skilled mechanics service their hot rods between rounds, and enjoy some cherished face time and get autographs from their favorite NHRA drivers.
Fans also will want to visit NHRA’s popular Nitro Alley and Manufacturers Midway, where sponsors and race vendors create a carnival atmosphere, with interactive displays, simulated competitions, merchandise, food and fun for the entire family.
Mello Yello Drag Racing Series qualifying begins Friday, Oct. 31, with sessions at 1 and 4 p.m. The final two qualifying sessions will take place Saturday, Nov. 1, at 1 and 4 p.m. Final eliminations are scheduled for 11 a.m. on Sunday, Nov. 2.
To purchase general-admission or reserved seats, call The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway at (800) 644-4444 or visit www.LVMS.com. For more information about the NHRA visit www.NHRA.com.