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Big Performances Highlight Two NHRA Countdown Events
Capturing the first two races in the Countdown to the Championship, it was Doug Kalitta topping the field in Top Fuel. He nailed down the win in both the countdown opener at Maple Grove Raceway in Pennsylvania and at zMax Raceway in North Carolina. Photo By Jeff Burghardt

The NHRA Countdown to the Championship has begun, with the completion of the first of three “Back-to-Back-to- Back” events over a three-week period. Things got off to a rough start, weather wise, as the first event had to be concluded on a Monday. This was all due to inclement, rainy weather in Pennsylvania, around the Maple Grove Raceway. The Pep Boys NHRA Nationals was held at the famed Maple Grove Raceway track.

The second event was just completed at zMax Raceway in Concord, North Carolina. This event is the betway NHRA Carolina Nationals. The Carolina event was almost in jeopardy, as a hurricane was due to hit land in the area. Fortunately, it was downgraded to a tropical storm and, though it forced one rain delay, Mother Nature cooperated and the event was completed on time. The racers faced various track and weather conditions that had serious effects on how the cars could be tuned and performed. These varied from very optimal conditions to very hard to work with, challenging the crew chiefs.

In Top Fuel, Doug Kalitta had the highs and lows, with the lows actually being beneficial. His regular canopy cock pit style dragster was running well at the first event. Then on the last qualifying attempt, the right rear tire suddenly exploded as he started to slow from the run. The tire explosion took out the rear wing and did some damage to the chassis, but Kalitta did a great job of avoiding possible worse damage. Having the parachute deployed just before the tire let go, helped in the situation. High was the fact that it was a good qualifying run, overall. Low, it took out his number one car. High, his back-up car ran better than his primary car, which they sent back to the shop for repairs. With this non-canopy car, Kalitta had the best and most consistent running car in the class. And the real high was finally getting that 50th career win, at Maple Grove after nearly two years without a win. He set low elapse time at 3.685 and top speed of the event at 336.99 mph on his way to the victory. In the final, he defeated Steve Torrence, 3.662 at 336.99 mph to 3.695 at 332.34 mph, leaving first and driving away. In Carolina, Kalitta qualified number one and marched into the final. He would defeat Mike Salinas, the first driver in NHRA history to go 300 mph in just 660 feet (1/8th of a mile), 3.696 at 333.49 mph to 3.718-328.46 mph. The win in Carolina put Kalitta on top of the season championship point race and was the 51st of his career.

In Funny Car, Robert Hight took the win in Maple Grove, taking out Chad Green in the final, 3.854 at 330.39 mph to 3.928at 327.27 mph. Along the way, Hight took out Jim Campbell, Matt Hagan (winning by a mere 0.0001 seconds) and Ron Capps. At Carolina, things were a lot different. Instead of qualifying third as in the first event, with Bob Tasca III taking the top qualifying spot, Hight qualified number one and Tasca was number three. In addition, there were many competitive upsets in the opening elimination round, taking out John Force and Ron Capps and JR Todd. Robert Hight also went to the final round again, but not before he blew up his car in qualifying. In the final, Tasca III took out Hight for the win, getting away first (0.050 to 0.091) with a 3.933 to 329.26 mph to (quicker) 3.932 to 326.95 mph holeshot performance.

In Pro Stock at both events, Erica Enders had the car to beat and ran nearly 0.015 seconds quicker than all others in the class. But races are not won on paper, rather on the track. She had the quickest and fastest car at both events to not win either event. In fact, she could not get past the semifinal round at either event and it was due to little driver errors, each time. Matt Hartford took advantage at the Pep Boys Nationals in Maple Grove advancing to the final round, where he took out Kyle Koretsky with a 6.532 at 208.91 mph. The win put him at the top of the season standings. At the second event, Carolina Nationals, Enders pretty much dominated again, until the semifinal round. She did take out Matt Hartford in the second round, but another driver error ended her day against Greg Anderson. Anderson would then advance to the final round, where he defeated Dallas Glen, 6.554 at 209.23 mph to 6.590 at 206.73 mph for his 102nd career victory. It also put Anderson and Glen back in better competitive position to chase the championship. Enders now sits second, four points behind Matt Hartford in the championship battle.

The Pro Stock Motorcycle class has been almost completely dominated by Gaige Herrea and his Mission Foods/Vance and Hines Suzuki. But some minor errors at Indy and the Pep Boys Nationals were making him vulnerable. Matt Smith had a plan to catch him. He hired a third rider (Chip Ellis) to ride his third motorcycle as a blocker to help take out opponents. The plan worked very well, as the veteran Ellis took out several key players and advanced to the final round. Matt Smith also advanced to the finals, while Gaige Herrera went out in the second round to (Mike Salinas’ daughter) Jianna Evaristo (whose motorcycle was being tuned by Matt Smith), due to an error in his normal tire burnout routine. His tire did not get warm enough for the condition and spun on the launch, costing him the performance needed. In the final, Ellis, who normally has real good reaction times, had a sub-par 0.400-second reaction time, literally handing the race to Smith. In the second event (Carolina Nationals), the earlier Ellis miscue did come back to haunt Smith. The Vance and Hines team came out with vengeance, with both their motorcycles running better than all the others. Herrera was nearly dead on perfect. His motorcycle was about 0.02-seconds quicker than almost everyone else and his reaction times caused all his opponents, except Matt Smith to foul out in their efforts to defeat him. In the second round, Smith and Herrera matched up and it wasn’t even close. They left almost together, then Herrera rode away to 6.747 at 200.71 mph win, as Smith shut off early, when he realized he had basically no chance.

The biggest news to rock the NHRA involved Mike Salinas, who became the first racer to achieve 300 mph at the 1/8-mile (660-foot mark). He went 300.8 mph at this point in the run, which netted him a 1000-foot elapse time of 3.647 at 338.00 mph. This is also garnered him the top qualifier spot for eliminations and he collected the $30,000 award for being the first racer to accomplish this feat. As far as speed performance barriers, this was one of them. The next one is 340 mph for the 1000-foot distance. Several racers have come close, including Brittany Force several times, Antron Brown and Doug Kalitta. Force holds eight of the 10 top speed records in the class. Robert Hight holds the top speed at 339.87 mph, set at Sonoma Raceway several years ago, in his Funny Car, before rule changes were implemented to slow the cars down for safety.

The third event of six in the countdown will be at the “Gateway to the West” across from the Gateway Arch in St Louis.

Bob Tasca qualified first in Funny Car action at Pennsylvania in the opening race in the Countdown to the Championship but did not make it to the final. He then qualified third at the second event staged at North Carolina’s zMax Raceway and claimed the victory over Robert Hight. Photo By Jeff Burghardt