The season-opening event of the 2018 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series concluded Sunday at the 58th annual Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona.
Doug Vancil (Top Fuel Harley), Matt Hagan (Funny Car), Doug Kalitta (Top Fuel) and Bo Butner (Pro Stock) were victorious in their respective categories at the first of 24 events during the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series.
Vancil was dominant enough with wife Julie as his co-tuner, but now he’s added fellow badass Mike Romine to help twist the knobs. Mike’s probably helped Doug and Julie catch up on anything they might have missed out on in these many years they’ve not been racing.
Not that time on the sidelines shows at all. Vancil—like 2017 champ Jay Turner—is known for always getting down the track in a class that struggles to.
But still, starting the weekend at the top of the qualifying order, staying there through all rounds, then winning the race is impressive for anyone, much less a practical retiree. Doug beat Randal Andras, Beau Layne and Ricky House in final. No one came within a second of Vancil during eliminations.
Kalitta powered to the win with a run of 3.779 at 324.28 in his Mac Tools dragster to take down Tony Schumacher. After finishing as the runner-up at the 2017 Winternationals, Kalitta emerged victorious at the season-opening event for the second time in his career.
“I tip my hat to my guys because I couldn’t do it without him and it’s really special to get a win at a track with so much history,” Kalitta said. “We feel like we have the team in place to have a successful season but I’m really proud of Jim Oberhofer (crew chief) and what he has done for all of our teams.”
Kalitta qualified fifth and took down teammate Richie Crampton, Scott Palmer, and No. 1 qualifier Clay Millican en route to his 44th career win.
Tony Schumacher reached his first final round since Atlanta last season, after besting Terry McMillen, Terry Haddock, and Antron Brown. Schumacher faced his fellow U.S. Army representative Brown in the semifinal round. For the third round in a row, Schumacher ran the quickest pass of the session, setting off the win light with a 3.711.
“It was a great race,” said Brown. “I’m proud of all of our Matco Tools/U.S. Army/Toyota boys. We kept our heads down and we adapted to the situation. We made it up for that semifinal round. Hats off to Tony and all of his guys. They waited for us and we barely got up to the start line. They threw another great lap out there with a 71. We tried to step it up, but we just couldn’t get all the necessary changes that (crew chiefs) Brad Mason and Mark Oswald wanted to do. We got enough done that we were able to put up a solid lap and lost by 10 thou, but that’s drag racing. We’ll lick our wounds and go to the next race. With this being our first race out with our team and our new guys coming on board, we had a great performance this weekend and I couldn’t be more proud of what our guys did. Heading into the semifinals, it was a tight situation because they were trying to make up time after running long in the first round and then we were the last pair to go in the second round, but everyone kept their cool and the car ran flawlessly. Now we’ll go to Phoenix and hit it hard.”
In the final round, Schumacher found himself lined up next to rival Doug Kalitta. It was the veteran drivers’ 17th time meeting in the finals. Schumacher left first, but a mid-track explosion ended his chances at bringing home the Winternationals trophy for the third time in his career.
“That was a lot of fun – the whole day,” said Schumacher. “It was a fun deal in every way except for what happened at the end,” said the winningest Top Fuel driver in NHRA history.
“The U.S. Army car is an awesome car. We should’ve won that but we broke a part. Generally speaking, we broke the whole rear end, there. Fortunately, that stuff doesn’t happen very often because we have the best-made parts in the business. That’s just an unfortunate one because we had a good car and they weren’t going to beat us – nobody was, not today. Still, we go on to Phoenix with absolute confidence in a great racecar and a bunch of smiling U.S. Army boys.”
The new U.S. Army crew chief power duo of Mike Neff and Phil Shuler made their race day debut on Sunday at the NHRA Winternationals.
The defending Top Fuel event champion and Southern California native Leah Pritchett was looking for her second consecutive Winternationals win. As the No. 4 qualifier she was setup with lane choice versus Scott Palmer. Unfortunately for Pritchett, she never had the opportunity to race for the win when a mechanical malfunction caused her parachutes to deploy on the burnout. Pritchett drove down the track to the top end and watched as Palmer’s early tire-smoking effort advanced to round two
“We were definitely struggling this morning,” said Pritchett. “We thought we had it figured out last night but it looks like there were more major issues. We started it up four times and barely made it to the starting line, to be honest. I want to give big thanks to my guys working their tails off. They did everything they could to find the issue but it obviously reared its ugly head again, so we have some work to do. Ultimately, I have all the confidence in the world in Todd (Okuhara, crew chief), Scott (Okuhara, assistant crew chief) and the entire DSR/Mopar/U.S. Army team.”
Brittany Force escaped serious injury after a racing incident in the first round of Sunday’s eliminations at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona. Force’s Monster Energy dragster went out of control during the pass, made contact with the guard wall and came to rest past the finish line. She was responsive, speaking with medical personnel, and was transported to a local hospital for evaluation. Force suffered no major internal injuries but does have some bruising of the lungs. A CT Scan was negative and the MRI showed subtle findings likely from previous injuries. She was admitted overnight for observation simply as a precaution.
Much like her father’s explosion on Friday evening, Force’s Simpson safety gear, including her Steilo Helmet, R3 head and neck restraint, fire suit, neck collar and belts, kept her conscious and securely strapped into the driver’s seat.
“You look at how these cars evolved over 40-50 years. We made a lot of changes after the loss of Eric (Medlen, former JFR driver who lost his life in a 2007 testing accident). A lot came out of that. Building better chassis, safer. Want to thank Simpson safety for building helmets, equipment and everything to keep our drivers safe. The car giving way when it hit the wall head on allowed it to take the impact and fold up (as it was designed to do),” John Force said. “I want to thank Schumacher Racing for creating the canopy (over the driver’s seat). When the car was upside down, you know that protects the drier’s head. Want to personally thank Don Schumacher for his investment (in the canopy program). Very important. Thanks, Don. Safety Safari was right on top of it, as always, that’s why they’re the best in the business. Finally, John Medlen, was one of the first to come to me, and want to know if she was okay. I didn’t have an answer at the time. But he’s lived it. He knows what all of us go through: owners, friends, parents and sponsors. End of the day, we keep addressing it to get it better.”
Force was released from the hospital Monday after a precautionary overnight stay. She shows no lingering effects from injury except for some upper body soreness and will continue to recuperate at home.
Matt Hagan took home the Funny Car victory with a 3.823-second pass at 335.90 mph in his Mopar Express Lane Dodge Charger R/T to defeat defending world champion Robert Hight in the final round. Hagan defends his Winternationals crown after winning the season-opening event last season en route to a four-win campaign, as he now increases his career win total to 27.
“Keeping our team upbeat, confident and starting the year up on a positive note is good for our team to set goals, no matter how hard they may be to obtain,” Hagan said. “Everything was clicking this weekend and even more than the parts and pieces it’s about having the right guys to use what we have. So far we’ve done it well.
“I’m really just proud of them, but I’m proud to crawl in that race car that Don Schumacher owns. It’s a car that these guys have put together, that I know I can win in any give Sunday. That’s a crazy feeling. Every Sunday you know you can win the race. It’s a cool feeling.”
By winning the Winternationals for the second consecutive year from the top seed, Hagan achieved a feat that no other driver has been able to accomplish since Don Prudhomme won the first race of the season from the No. 1 spot in 1976 and 1977.
Hagan’s Sunday victory was the 27th of his career and his third Winternationals win in the past four years. Hagan and his Dickie Venables-led team will look to pick up another back-to-back win when they return to Phoenix in two weeks, the next stop on the NHRA tour as the defending event champions.
After qualifying in the top position, Hagan took down Jim Campbell, Cruz Pedregon, and Ron Capps on the road to victory. Carlsbad’s Capps put up a good fight versus Hagan, but ultimately his teammate was able to power to the win with a 3.938 versus Capps’ 3.968-sec pass.
“It was an eventful day on Sunday,” said Capps. “We unloaded at qualifying, coming from testing with a new clutch and Tobler not having a lot of data, it was a pretty darn good way to start. Then that big explosion first round. The guys, man, I can’t even believe we got it back together. There was as much work putting that car back together after that big explosion as they had during the offseason. We almost had to put a new car together so to get back up there and win that first round, and get into the semis. We knew we were up against a good car being my teammate in Hagan with Dickie. But it was a great comeback for Tobler to go back up there and not beat ourselves and go down the track like we did. I’m very happy about the car already and wish we could have gone farther but good job by the NAPA Auto Care guys.”
Hight qualified second and defeated Jeff Diehl, J.R. Todd and Jack Beckman as he recorded his 24th career runner-up finish. “I’m bummed that we didn’t get the win. Close race. We know there’s more left in it. From testing and how we ran, we’re still learning some of these new clutch discs. Good news is two of the four rounds today we were low ET and very consistent,” Hight said. “If you look back a year ago how we started the season to this year it’s night and day. This is going to be a good year. I’m super excited about the way it started. It’s like we picked up where we left off at Pomona (November 2017). Once I won the championship, I learned how to relax. I did that today and I drove really well. I like where this is going.”
In the semifinals, the Infinite Hero team chose the lane for their man Jack Beckman versus Robert Hight. Beckman, who was looking for his first Pomona Funny Car event win, stood on the gas and immediately went up in smoke, ending his opportunity to race for the first Funny Car Wally of 2018.
“I’m frustrated right now and everybody on the team is as well because we can’t find a smoking gun,” said Fast Jack. “The moment we started the car up, it was shredding the blower belt. That’s okay, we’ll just go through everything with a fine-toothed comb. I only live 30 miles away and I don’t want to have two weeks off. I want to pack my bags and fly to Phoenix tomorrow because I think we have one of the best cars there is out here. Once we dive in and eliminate these little bugs, we’re going to start reeling off race wins.”
John Force smoked the tires on his PEAK Coolant and Motor Oil Chevrolet Camaro SS Funny Car at about 800 feet during the first round. He crossed the finish line with a 4.465 at 202.76 losing to J.R. Todd’s 3.997 at 323.58.
“The PEAK Chevrolet has been struggling, but my other cars are all fast. I’m just gonna fix it,” Force said. “Right now we’ve got a lot of work to do. We’ve sent a team all the way to Indy to get another car for me and another for Brittany. Phoenix, here we come.”
The Advance Auto Parts Chevrolet Camaro SS Funny Car driven by Courtney Force had a pedal-fest against first round opponent Jonnie Lindberg after watching her sister being transported to the hospital. Lindberg’s car crossed the finish line first with a 4.433 at 262.54 bettering Force’s 4.52 5 at 241.71.
“It’s never easy (to watch a teammate, especially my sister, go through something like that). These cars are unpredictable. I had to get back out there for myself, mentally, and really for my sponsors Advance Auto Parts, for the Chevrolet team, for Peak, for Monster Energy, and for Auto Club of Southern California. We go out there and our job is to win. These cars, anything can happen in them. They are a whole different animal to drive. You try to pedal it and these things want to turn sideways. They don’t pedal like they used to. I gave it my all. I wanted to get that win. My crew chief told me just go out there and drive it with heart and there’s going to be another race next weekend.”
In Pro Stock, Butner took home the victory after driving to a 6.549 at 209.62 run in his Jim Butner’s Auto Chevy Camaro to take down teammate Jason Line in the final round. He locked in his sixth career victory as he attempts to defend his Pro Stock world championship this season.
“Both my crew and my car have been running smooth recently, and we are just trying to keep riding that wave,” Butner said. “I feel great in this car and I have all the confidence in the world in my crew.”
Butner entered Sunday sixth in qualifying before taking down Tanner Gray, Greg Anderson, and Erica Enders as his 2018 title defense started in victorious fashion.
The 2018 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season continues with the NHRA Arizona Nationals at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park Feb. 23-25.
Sunday’s final results from the 58th annual Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals presented by ProtectTheHarvest.com at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona. The race is the first of 24 in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series:
Top Fuel Harley — Doug Vancil, Harley, 6.333, 220.01 def. Rickey House, Harley, 10.322, 89.15.
Top Fuel — Doug Kalitta, 3.779 seconds, 324.28 mph def. Tony Schumacher, 4.715 seconds, 145.93 mph.
Funny Car — Matt Hagan, Dodge Charger, 3.823, 335.90 def. Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, 3.866, 336.99.
Pro Stock — Bo Butner, Chevy Camaro, 6.549, 209.62 def. Jason Line, Camaro, 6.568, 209.59.
Top Alcohol Dragster — Shawn Cowie, 5.333, 277.03 def. Garrett Bateman, 15.835, 55.97.
Top Alcohol Funny Car — Shane Westerfield, Chevy Camaro, 5.425, 269.67 def. Ulf Leanders, Camaro, 5.508, 268.33.
Competition Eliminator — Dan Fletcher, Chevy Cobalt, 8.344, 132.86 def. Clint Neff, Roadster, Foul – Red Light.
Super Stock — Kyle Rizzoli, Chevy Camaro, 9.579, 133.55 def. Adam Emmer, Olds Cutlass, 10.120, 125.89.
Stock Eliminator — Larry Gilley, Dodge Dart, 10.627, 121.27 def. Ryan Mangus, Chevy Camaro, 10.664, 122.73.
Super Comp — Gabriel Torres, Dragster, 8.922, 165.46 def. Val Torres Jr., Dragster, 8.941, 176.26.
Super Gas — Kevin McClelland, ’27-T Ford, 9.924, 149.22 def. Phil Unruh, Chevy Cobalt, 9.899, 159.29.
Top Dragster presented by RacingRVs.com — Steve Will, Dragster, 6.043, 234.13 def. Kyle Seipel, Dragster, 6.862, 197.74.
Top Sportsman presented by RacingRVs.com — Paul Mitsos, Dodge Stratus, 7.098, 191.21 def. Don Meziere, Chevy Cobalt, Foul – Red Light.
Final round-by-round results from the 58th annual Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals presented by ProtectTheHarvest.com at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, the first of 24 events in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series:
ROUND ONE — Tony Schumacher, 3.696, 332.18 def. Terry McMillen, 3.752, 328.06; Scott Palmer, 6.489, 117.35 def. Leah Pritchett, Broke; Clay Millican, 3.709, 332.10 def. Steven Chrisman, 4.258, 210.80; Terry Haddock, No Time Recorded def. Brittany Force, Foul – Centerline; Steve Torrence, 3.717, 333.00 def. Steve Faria, 4.667, 166.29; Doug Kalitta, 4.121, 217.56 def. Richie Crampton, 4.234, no speed; Antron Brown, 4.333, 183.22 def. Mike Salinas, 9.881, 82.53;
QUARTERFINALS — Schumacher, 3.717, 331.85 def. Haddock, 9.851, 84.16; Millican, 9.978, 74.77 was unopposed; Kalitta, 3.760, 329.18 def. Palmer, 3.832, 323.27; Brown, 3.758, 330.07 def. Torrence, Foul – Red Light;
SEMIFINALS — Schumacher, 3.711, 331.45 def. Brown, 3.737, 330.72; Kalitta, 3.866, 307.58 def. Millican, 4.860, 145.02;
FINAL — Kalitta, 3.779, 324.28 def. Schumacher, 4.715, 145.93.
ROUND ONE — Ron Capps, Dodge Charger, 4.833, 167.53 def. Shawn Langdon, Toyota Camry, 10.060, 79.68; Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, 3.865, 325.30 def. Jeff Diehl, Camry, Foul – Red Light; Matt Hagan, Charger, 3.902, 331.53 def. Jim Campbell, Charger, 4.387, 213.77; Jack Beckman, Charger, 3.907, 333.00 def. Bob Tasca III, Ford Mustang, 4.016, 324.12; Jonnie Lindberg, Camry, 4.433, 262.54 def. Courtney Force, Camaro, 4.525, 241.71; Tim Wilkerson, Mustang, 4.036, 304.12 def. Del Worsham, Camry, 4.751, 191.95; J.R. Todd, Camry, 3.997, 323.58 def. John Force, Camaro, 4.465, 202.76; Cruz Pedregon, Camry, 4.363, 246.17 def. Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 4.504, 267.69;
QUARTERFINALS — Beckman, 3.901, 330.23 def. Wilkerson, 4.253, 220.51; Hight, 3.937, 329.10 def. Todd, 3.969, 324.36; Hagan, 3.954, 329.34 def. Pedregon, 4.006, 322.11; Capps, 4.001, 324.75 def. Lindberg, Foul – Red Light;
SEMIFINALS — Hight, 3.899, 329.10 def. Beckman, Broke; Hagan, 3.938, 330.07 def. Capps, 3.968, 320.81;
FINAL — Hagan, 3.823, 335.90 def. Hight, 3.866, 336.99.
ROUND ONE — Deric Kramer, Chevy Camaro, 6.565, 210.50 def. Chris McGaha, Camaro, 6.584, 210.73; Erica Enders, Camaro, 6.592, 209.79 def. Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.595, 209.17; Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.557, 210.21 def. Tanner Gray, Camaro, 12.982, 71.74; Alex Laughlin, Camaro, 6.572, 210.21 def. Steve Graham, Camaro, 6.677, 208.81; Jason Line, Camaro, 6.546, 209.88 def. Kenny Delco, Camaro, 6.617, 209.20; Drew Skillman, Camaro, 6.568, 211.06 def. Joey Grose, Camaro, 6.752, 206.32; Vincent Nobile, Camaro, 6.585, 210.18 def. Alan Prusiensky, Dodge Dart, Foul – Centerline; Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.561, 211.23 def. Val Smeland, Camaro, 6.716, 206.35;
QUARTERFINALS — Enders, 6.592, 209.49 def. Skillman, Foul – Red Light; Kramer, 6.586, 209.69 def. Nobile, 6.598, 210.14; Butner, 6.568, 210.05 def. Anderson, 6.622, 210.54; Line, 6.588, 208.42 def. Laughlin, Foul – Red Light;
SEMIFINALS — Line, 16.795, 101.77 def. Kramer, Foul – Red Light; Butner, 6.592, 209.52 def. Enders, Foul – Red Light;
FINAL — Butner, 6.549, 209.62 def. Line, 6.568, 209.59.
story by Tim Hailey, NHRA and team reports, photos by NHRA and Sandra Alberti.