You want surprises? You want shocks? You want strange coincidences, quirky facts and figures? The Mello Yello Drag Racing Series has had them all – and we're just four races into a 24-race season. Annie Proffit reports.
Drag racing is all about records – setting them and breaking them. One after another after another. This year’s Mello Yello Drag Racing Series of NHRA pro competition is shaking up to be a 24-race romp, bursting with new records.
Four races have been held thus far and there have been four different winners in each of the nitro classes. In Top Fuel we’ve seen Steve Torrence, Leah Pritchett, Brittany Force and Sunday’s victor in Las Vegas, reigning champion Antron Brown take the plaudits. And two of those – Pritchett and Force – had never previously raised a Wally trophy.
In Funny Car, Ron Capps (who failed to qualify for the latest race), Tim Wilkerson and Robert Hight were joined last Sunday as 2016 winners by Alexis DeJoria, who hadn’t won since since 2014.
DeJoria’s win gave NHRA another new statistic to add to a list of superlatives: the Patron Toyota Camry and its driver became the third consecutive female victor, after Pritchett and Force won their classes at Phoenix and Gainesville, respectively.
And with four races down, the Traxxas Nitro Pro Shootout grid in both Top Fuel and Funny Car is half-filled, as each winner this year gets an automatic invitation. Will there be four more additions by the time eight races have run? The Traxxas races, held during NHRA’s premier Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals each Labor Day, is a big, $100,000 payday for each winner.
Top Fuel rarities
Top Fuel winner Antron Brown talked about the competitiveness in his category, stating, “You have to bring your ‘A’ game for every single round in this class.” And his point was proven as he went up against the largely unheralded Troy Buff in the Bill Miller Engineering (BME) dragster in who raced Brown beams to beams in the final round.
Brown had struggled in the first three events but found his metier in Sin City on Sunday as he clocked four unwavering rounds between 3.82 and 3.84 seconds on the 1,000-foot dragstrip – “like a bracket car,” as he put it. This was the two-time Top Fuel champ’s 55th pro victory – tying Kenny Bernstein for fourth all-time – and 39th in the TF class. He rode in Pro Stock Motorcycle before going to four wheels in 2008.
Buff’s first trip to the finals in Top Fuel was another big surprise, just one race after a similarly stellar shock result by Terry McMillen in his sponsor Amalie Oil’s Gatornationals.
But Vegas held yet more surprises, beyond Buff’s first final round appearance. Journeyman Steve Chrisman knocked out a tire-smoking No. 1 qualifier Steve Torrence, eight-time champ Tony Schumacher continued a tough season, out in the first round as well.
And how about this little (golden) nugget? Brown’s win was Don Schumacher Racing team’s first Top Fuel victory of 2016.
Funny Car fascination
It may be time for NHRA to stop designating every year (or so it seems) the “year of the woman”. It’s very exciting that three women have consecutively won in their categories, but after Erica Enders-Stevens’ last two record-breaking seasons in Pro Stock, maybe it’s time to just talk about competitors as racers first. The current door-slammer titleholder, John Force’s racing daughters Brittany and Courtney, Pritchett, Karen Stoffer, Angelle Sampey, and the balance of the female brigade have proven time and again that they race on an equal footing with the guys.
DeJoria’s victory came against Kalitta Motorsports teammate and reigning Funny Car champion Del Worsham, who happened to be her mentor as she moved from the sportsman Top Alcohol Funny Car to Funny Car. It was the first side-by-side race for the Kalitta team in a Final round, so there was a guaranteed big ol’ emotional mosh pit on either side of the tree.
Along with first-race winner Capps’ DNS in Funny Car, surprises reigned at The Strip, as Jim Campbell knocked out Phoenix victor Tim Wilkerson and forced a meeting with tuner Chuck Worsham’s son Del, who defeated him. Jack Beckman, after breaking yet another track record in qualifying, fell to a consistently surging Chad Head in the second round.
Pro Stock more predictable
Just about the only place where there’s been a dominant team this year is in Pro Stock. After his KB Summit Racing team “whined the most when the [Pro Stock] rules changes came out, obviously it has benefitted us!” admitted this week’s winner Jason Line.
He and teammate Greg Anderson have between them won all four races and Anderson took the K&N Pro Stock Challenge on Saturday when Line oiled the track and couldn’t race his teammate for the win and the $50,000 that goes with it.
Pro Stock has finally shaken the carburetor in favor of EFI, sleeker bodies without upper nose intakes and has a mandated rev limit of 10,000 rpm. And like Line recalled, he and Anderson were among the loudest naysayers when those rules were announced, yet have adapted best. “It has been a fun ride,” Line admitted on Sunday evening, Wally clenched in hand and yellow winner’s cap atop his head.
Not all was happy in the pits in Vegas last weekend. There was naturally a pall cast over all NHRA members less than a week removed from the death of chief starter Mark Lyle.
Lyle was only NHRA’s third starter in its history, and his calm demeanor, pitch-in attitude and personable and smiling approach to all had a positive effect on everyone from racers to spectators alike. Naturally therefore, his absence was felt throughout the race meeting. “This race is special, because it is for Mark Lyle,” said Top Fuel winner Brown, and promptly donated his winner trophy to the Lyle family.
There’s a couple of weeks’ wait before all four NHRA categories convene for the one-of-a-kind Four-Wide Nationals at zMax Dragway, next door to Charlotte Motor Speedway. That’s when Pro Stock Motorcycle again tries to beat down the 200mph barrier, when Top Fuel and Funny Car competitors attempt to add their names to the record books, and everyone in Pro Stock goes back to the drawing boards, looking for the right trick to beat the Summit boys while racing four across.
The Four-Wides always provide excitement, but it’s going to be tough to top what’s already transpired on four drag strips this year.