NHRA at Bristol: The Whole Story

Ladies love Thunder Valley. So it seems, anyway, with Angelle Sampey taking the Pro Stock Motorcycle final over Karen Stoffer, Alexis Dejoria winning Funny Car, and—well, Mike Salinas is no lady, but his wife and daughters are all ladies indeed and an omnipresent part of his growing racing empire. And since the Bristol, Tennessee NHRA race is traditionally run on Fathers’ Day, it was fitting that one of the sport’s most visible dads shared the podium.

Angelle and Alexis hoist the hardware

This Bristol dragstrip is tricky. Two tunnels run beneath the track, creating bumps at about 200 feet and just before the eighth mile—also just before a shift point on Scotty Pollacheck’s Matt Smith Racing (MSR) Buell. The bump unloads the tire and lights Pollacheck’s shift light early, a lesson Scotty said he had to learn—had to consciously not punch the shift button at the bump but wait until his actual shift point.

Bristol also seems to have a narrow groove, a groove I’m told that is “to the left of the (normal) groove in the left lane, and to the left of the groove in the right.”

“Groove? What groove?” Stoffer said back at the White Alligator Racing trailer Sunday night.

A motley looking surface still yielded track record results in awesome weather.

At times, such as the post-rain Q2, the track surface looked ridiculously bad. Rarely has so much concrete been visible at an NHRA track, especially during the rotator era. Rickie Smith shook his head looking at the surface before that round.

Driver/rider descriptions of what they were dealing with reminded me of nothing less than late ‘90s Atco—minus the Ginsu guardrails, of course.

But good observation, along perhaps with actual data measurement from some of the fuel teams, and the ability to thread a bike through that groove delivered successful results. Such was the case when Stoffer was momentarily able to leap into P1 that second round.

Of all the Pro Stock Motorcycle teams that are at Bristol for the first time (The category competed in exhibition there in 1999 and 2000), the team with the deepest history at the track—albeit with nitrous and four wheels—would have to be MSR. Matt Smith’s Pro Mod racing dad Rickie has his name on the grandstand here, after all, as a Legend of Thunder Valley.

Rickie Smith is a Legend of Bristol Dragway

But even legends face defeat, and Pro Mod number one qualifier Rickie’s came in a puff of smoke at 1000 feet in round one. Matt—who led qualifying until he blew the tire off in Q3 and was passed by teammate Pollacheck—found his Waterloo in the semis against Stoffer when he blew his tire off similar to his Q3 pass. Matt stayed with it this time, of course, but to no avail.

Karen’s Q2 pass was very impressive, causing me to query WAR tuner Tim Kulungian if she finally had a 4V in her Suzuki TL1000. “Yes,” said Tim, who later pointed proudly to a 2V motor on the trailer that he thought was just as competitive.

Stoffer looked good in the final qualifying round also, prompting me to tell her in the raceday staging lanes that I thought this was going to be her day.

Lance Bonham

But her raceday nearly ended in round 1, which saw a rare, awkward launch by the veteran rider. Like .594 awkward, followed by a 7.16 at only 152.97 mph. Fortunately for Stoffer, opponent Lance Bonham porpoised his way to a 1.32 60 foot time on one of Blake Gann’s G2 Buells and she was able to drive around for the win.

Gary and Karen Stoffer

Unsure what had actually happened, I asked Karen’s husband Gary when they got back to the lanes for round 2. “Brain fart by the rider,” Gary grumbled.

Ron Tornow at the ready line for his first ever NHRA second round of eliminations.

E1 was wacky overall and Bonham would have been a most unusual of unusual round 2 competitors. Since he wasn’t, Ron “Rat” Tornow will have to take that honor. Ron benefitted from recent points leader Steve Johnson’s apparent inability to tune to the weekend’s changing conditions. Steve sat third after Friday’s hot, humid Q1 round but never made it down the track again after a cold front changed everything. “We can’t take enough power out of it,” said crew chief Ervin “Jock” Allen.

Are Jock and Angie discussing self-inflicted wounds?

“The only person making more U-turns than Tim (Kulungian) this weekend was Steve Johnson,” laughed one pit wag, referring to Kulungian’s difficulty navigating around town and Johnson turning his bike around after 100 feet.

The Rat, meanwhile, did his steady Ron Tornow thing, piloting his Victory Bagger straight down the track for a 6.98 win.

Kelly Clontz’s smile adorned the Jumbotron a couple of times during her best NHRA weekend ever.

Kelly Clontz qualified in the top half of the field for the first time ever and was paired with her rookie year rival Ryan Oehler for E1. Kelly came out on top for her third second round appearance, starting at the hit with Ryan’s .200 snoozebulb. “I double-clutched and sucked balls,” said Oehler. “That’s what I get for being sober last night.”

Has fatherhood changed both Oehler and Joey Gladstone? Ryan admitted that he and fellow party hound Gladstone were “In bed (not together….I assume) at like 10.”

The sun was out but the guns weren’t when it came time for Ryan Oehler to cut a light in round 1

Oehler and his team are clawing back from their Dallas DNQ, so anything was an improvement for the two-time race winner. Gladstone’s bike just never seemed to have the stones this weekend, qualifying ninth and losing to Eddie Krawiec in round 1. “Tested a new clutch that’s way off,” Gladstone’s tuner Cecil Towner reported about their weekend.

Eddie Krawiec in E1 against Joey Gladstone

Krawiec is one who struggled to find and maintain Bristol’s groove, with his bike drifting to the wall in the left lane during one of his qualifying passes. But he and his V&H V-Twin seemed to show up on raceday, ousting number one qualifier Pollacheck in E2 from the right lane. But in the left lane against teammate Sampey in the semi, Krawiec had a replay of the trip towards the wall and backed out as Angelle streaked her way to the final.

Angelle had a moment during one round in qualifying, faltering at launch, then taking off awkwardly and coming to a stop at about 100 feet with her bike’s transmission locked up. She ended up 13th in the order.

But like Krawiec’s V-Twin, Angelle’s V&H 4V Suzuki showed up on raceday—enough so that she took out fourth place qualifying teammate Andrew Hines in round 1. Andrew, by the way, gave me a detailed explanation of the tune-up problem that caused Angelle’s qualifying mishap, but I’ve totally forgot what it was. Sue me.

Chris Bostick

In E2 Angelle faced Chris Bostick and his George Babor-built, Monster 4V Suzuki, Mike Mullaney-built Hayabusa. Bostick was definitely having a good weekend, sitting second on Friday and finishing fifth in the qualifying order with a 6.91. His raceday ended with an -.015 redlight against Angelle in round 2.

Then came the semi win against Krawiec that pitted her against Stoffer in the final. Angelle nailed an .010 to Karen’s .029 and even Stoffer’s low ET of the event 6.760 couldn’t catch Angelle in a great race.

Angelle’s .010 put her out first and she stayed there.

It gave Sampey her 45th career victory and second this season, as she pulled within 25 points of Matt Smith. Smith also holds a 56-point lead against Steve Johnson heading to the final two events.

“I’ve been out here for so long, I’ve really learned to appreciate everything I get now,” Sampey said. “When I win a race, the emotions are 100 percent genuine because it’s a task to get it done. To get four round wins is really tough and it means so much to me. I love this sport so much and this team just works so hard. This mission was to catch back up in the points race and we made it happen. It was a fantastic day and it would be great to get the No. 1 back on the motorcycle.”

Here’s Angelle’s winning press conference, followed by Mike Salinas:

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE results

ROUND ONE — Chris Bostick, Suzuki, 6.994, 188.46 def. Charles Poskey, Suzuki, 7.117, no speed; Eddie Krawiec, Buell, 6.895, 196.93 def. Joey Gladstone, Suzuki, 6.998, 189.98; Kelly Clontz, Suzuki, 7.006, 186.36 def. Ryan Oehler, 8.503, 113.31; Ron Tornow, 6.984, 187.83 def. Steve Johnson, Suzuki, 13.777, 58.06; Angelle Sampey, Suzuki, 6.821, 195.62 def. Andrew Hines, Buell, 6.887, 195.70; Scotty Pollacheck, 6.894, 197.71 was unopposed; Matt Smith, 6.853, 199.08 def. Angie Smith, broken finger – No Show; Karen Stoffer, Suzuki, 7.160, 152.97 def. Lance Bonham, Buell, 7.778, 175.62;

MSR racer Charlie Poskey

QUARTERFINALS — Stoffer, 6.834, 195.14 def. Tornow, 7.054, 187.29; Krawiec, 6.844, 199.29 def. Pollacheck, 6.895, 198.23; M. Smith, 6.843, 198.20 def. Clontz, 6.965, 190.78; Sampey, 7.075, 154.33 def. Bostick, Foul – Red Light;

SEMIFINALS — Sampey, 6.814, 194.18 def. Krawiec, 7.964, 119.21; Stoffer, 6.785, 196.87 def. M. Smith, 6.895, 196.99;

FINAL — Sampey, 6.773, 196.85 def. Stoffer, 6.760, 197.83.

Pro Stock Motorcycle points

  1. Matt Smith, 2,451; 2. Angelle Sampey, 2,426; 3. Steve Johnson, 2,395; 4. Eddie Krawiec, 2,340; 5. Scotty Pollacheck, 2,291; 6. Karen Stoffer, 2,250; 7. Joey Gladstone, 2,235; 8. Angie Smith, 2,225; 9. Andrew Hines, 2,177; 10. Ryan Oehler, 2,150.
Steve Torrence (far lane) smokes ’em at the hit while Mike Salinas blazes to the Top Fuel win.

Salinas picked up his second straight Top Fuel victory at Bristol, once again beating points leader Steve Torrence in the final round. Torrence ran into issues right off the starting line and Salinas’ run of 3.845 at 245.05 in his Scrappers Racing dragster was enough to give him his third career victory. He knocked off Antron Brown, Clay Millican and championship hopeful (and Friday qualifying leader) Brittany “Eye Focused” Force to reach the final round for the third straight time at Thunder Valley, staying fourth in Top Fuel points.

Mike’s ladies getting photobombed by bomb photographer Mark Rebilas

“It’s a great facility and I’m glad they welcome us here,” Salinas said. “This track loves me. I met so many nice people over the years here. We’ve got a great team, and all the parts and pieces, and I think I threw away 3-4 races at the beginning of the year trying to get my routine down. It’s hard when you’re running with all these guys, but I got a lot of help and I’ve made some big improvements. These guys in this class, they’re awesome. They cut good lights I found something that works perfectly for me and I think we’re getting there. I just try to race my lane and that’s it.”

Torrence, the three-time defending world champ and No. 1 qualifier, reached the final round for the 12th time this season and 74th in his career thanks to round wins against Cameron Ferre and Justin Ashley. By advancing to the championship round, Torrence also opened up a 73-point lead on Force heading to the last two races.

TOP FUEL results

ROUND ONE — Clay Millican, 3.840, 327.90 def. Josh Hart, 13.886, 24.26; Spencer Massey, 3.745, 328.46 def. Leah Pruett, 7.565, 81.47; Brittany Force, No Time Recorded def. Lex Joon, 20.583, 660.14; Mike Salinas, 3.672, 334.32 def. Antron Brown, 4.381, 189.47; Billy Torrence, 4.120, 201.34 def. Doug Kalitta, 5.236, 133.63; Steve Torrence, 3.729, 328.38 def. Cameron Ferre, 4.438, 176.81; Justin Ashley, 3.690, 334.48 def. Shawn Langdon, 3.739, 327.43;

QUARTERFINALS — Force, 3.671, 332.10 def. Massey, 3.777, 320.13; S. Torrence, 3.680, 333.00 was unopposed; Ashley, 3.708, 333.33 def. B. Torrence, 3.705, 327.27; Salinas, 3.707, 326.63 def. Millican, 3.740, 329.26;

SEMIFINALS — Salinas, 3.698, 330.55 def. Force, 8.209, 79.25; S. Torrence, 3.677, 331.69 def. Ashley, 3.691, 334.15;

FINAL — Salinas, 3.854, 245.05 def. S. Torrence, 10.316, 81.57.

Top Fuel points

  1. Steve Torrence, 2,575; 2. Brittany Force, 2,502; 3. Justin Ashley, 2,428; 4. Mike Salinas, 2,425; 5. Billy Torrence, 2,357; 6. Leah Pruett, 2,291; 7. Clay Millican, 2,265; 8. Antron Brown, 2,252; 9. Shawn Langdon, 2,228; 10. Doug Kalitta, 2,180.
Alexis Dejoria burns out for the Funny Car final with JR Todd

DeJoria powered to her first Funny Car win in more than four years, also qualifying No. 1 for the first time since 2016. Her Bandero Premium Tequila ROKiT Toyota Camry went 3.921-seconds at 327.66 mph in the final round to beat former Kalitta teammate J.R. Todd, who went 3.939 at 326.22 in an all-Toyota Camry championship round.

DeJoria knocked off Paul Lee and Robert Hight to reach the final round, making a weekend-best pass of 3.904 at 327.74 in the semifinals, rolling to her sixth career victory a round later.

“Round one always makes me want to throw up in my helmet,” said DeJoria. “It’s the worst round for me. It’s not nerves, I just want to get past first round. After that, it gets better. We got the win and I’ll just leave it at that. Then we got the bye in round two which was a gift this week. We just haven’t had much luck.”

After outrunning Hight in the semifinals with the quickest Funny Car run of the day, 3.904 seconds, DeJoria had lane choice over Todd, but she knew it would be a tough race. Todd had defeated his own monster list of opponents that included two points leaders, Matt Hagan and Ron Capps, as well as 16-time Funny Car champion John Force.

“Just to make it to the semis and the finals was a huge deal,” said Dejoria. “I was just happy to make it to another final and have it be against another Toyota Funny Car. Even though I’m not teammates with J.R. anymore, all of those guys are always going to be teammates to me. We’re Toyota cars and we’re friends and I was just there a long time. I love racing him and I think that’s why I have such good lights (.002!) against him.

“I was hungry and I know that feeling. I was just happy to be there and I believed I was going to win. It’s one of the biggest wins of my career. Coming back after two years off, getting to work with my mentor and friend (Del Worsham), being able to do this, it’s huge. It’s just been a roller-coaster and it takes a toll on you.

“It’s very humbling, but I was just ready to win. I was calm and just excited, and when I’m in that headspace I do my best. This is definitely one of my favorite tracks and it’s just beautiful here. I just love it.”

JR Todd closing the injectors as his car turns toward the photographer in qualifying.

Despite not winning, Todd made up major ground in advancing to the finals for the fifth time this season and 40th time in his career. He knocked off defending world champ Matt Hagan, John Force and points leader Ron Capps en route to the final round. He jumped to third in points and pulled to within 83 points of Capps with two races remaining in the 2021 season. Capps’ lead over Hagan is just one point.

FUNNY CAR results

ROUND ONE — Bob Tasca III, Ford Mustang, 4.016, 288.77 def. Tim Wilkerson, Mustang, 6.522, 103.46; Alexis DeJoria, Toyota Camry, 4.030, 269.83 def. Paul Lee, Dodge Charger, 8.033, 87.70; John Force, Chevy Camaro, 3.997, 272.12 def. Jim Campbell, Charger, 8.069, 77.10; Ron Capps, Charger, 3.945, 328.38 def. Blake Alexander, Mustang, 7.575, 78.95; J.R. Todd, Camry, 3.924, 324.90 def. Matt Hagan, Charger, 3.958, 326.16; Robert Hight, Camaro, 3.940, 328.46 def. Cory Lee, Mustang, 7.391, 96.08;

Cruz Pedregon, Charger, 3.964, 294.11 def. Dave Richards, Mustang, 4.023, 311.63;

QUARTERFINALS — DeJoria, 3.931, 321.04 was unopposed; Capps, 3.919, 329.83 def. Pedregon, 3.920, 326.63; Hight, 3.920, 329.34 def. Tasca III, 4.338, 220.55; Todd, 3.916, 328.78 def. Force, 4.118, 324.59;

SEMIFINALS — DeJoria, 3.904, 327.74 def. Hight, 3.934, 329.10; Todd, 3.921, 327.82 def. Capps, Foul – Centerline;

FINAL — DeJoria, 3.921, 327.66 def. Todd, 3.939, 326.32.

Funny Car points

  1. Ron Capps, 2,490; 2. Matt Hagan, 2,489; 3. J.R. Todd, 2,407; 4. (tie) John Force, 2,389; Cruz Pedregon, 2,389; 6. Bob Tasca III, 2,343; 7. Robert Hight, 2,337; 8. Alexis DeJoria, 2,319; 9. Tim Wilkerson, 2,249; 10. Blake Alexander, 2,184.
JR Gray (near lane) and Jose Gonzalez in the Pro Mod final.

Jose Gonzalez clinched his first career E3 Spark Plugs NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series presented by J&A Service world championship. The event was the 10th of 11 events during the 2021 E3 Spark Plugs NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series season.

It’s been a dominant 2021 season for Gonzalez, who clinched the world title by advancing to the final round in Bristol. He drove to five wins this season in his ProCharger-powered Q80 Camaro, advancing to six final rounds in all. Gonzalez suffered an early-season crash at zMAX Dragway in Charlotte, but rebounded in dominant fashion, winning three straight races at one point and clinching the world championship a race before the final event of the season.

“We went through a lot this year,” Gonzalez said. “Since our mishap in Charlotte, we started running really good. The effort of this whole team, they deserve it all. They’ve done a tremendous job and they’re the ones who have to get the car ready. I just have to get in it, so I’m probably doing the easy part right now. For me, I could never believe I’m doing this. I was just glad that we could win a couple of races. A championship is way over what I would have wanted.”

In racing action on Sunday at Bristol Dragway, rookie J.R. Gray capped off his impressive weekend by racing to his first career NHRA Pro Mod victory. He went a strong 5.699-seconds at 250.64 mph in his blown Gray Construction Camaro in the final round to beat Gonzalez, who left the starting line too soon.

Gray advanced to his first career final round on Sunday on the strength of wins against No. 1 qualifier Rickie Smith and Mike Salinas, who also won on Sunday in Top Fuel. Gray went 5.699 at 251.53 in his first-round victory against Smith and then tied his career-best pass with another outstanding performance in the final round to cap off his memorable day in Thunder Valley.

“This is so surreal and amazing,” said Gray, who was the No. 14 qualifier. “I can’t even put into words what this means. We’ve been facing adversity all year, but this team kept digging and digging, and we haven’t stopped. There’s so many people who have been involved in this and I just want to thank everyone.”

Gonzalez reached the final round with round wins against Lyle Barnett, Khalid Al-Balooshi and Stevie “Fast” Jackson, who had won the two previous world championships in the class before Gonzalez took control in 2021.

PRO MODIFIED results

ROUND ONE — Steve Jackson, Chevy Camaro, 5.779, 247.93 def. Justin Bond, Camaro, 8.769, 103.04; Khalid alBalooshi, Camaro, 5.776, 250.51 def. Eric Latino, Camaro, 12.441, 91.41; Brandon Snider, Camaro, 5.773, 249.07 def. Doug Winters, Chevy Chevelle, 7.537, 127.81; Mike Salinas, Camaro, 5.742, 248.75 def. Dwayne Wolfe, Camaro, Broke – No Show; Mike Castellana, Camaro, 5.752, 248.02 def. Jeffery Barker, Toyota Camry, 11.054, 78.63; Jose Gonzalez, Camaro, 5.735, 250.18 def. Lyle Barnett, Camaro, 5.932, 220.48; JR Gray, Camaro, 5.699, 251.53 def. Rickie Smith, Camaro, 6.260, 178.19;

QUARTERFINALS — Gray, No Time Recorded was unopposed; Salinas, 5.738, 249.49 def. Castellana, Foul – Red Light; Jackson, 5.749, 249.63 def. Snider, 5.759, 249.86; Gonzalez, 5.717, 250.51 def. alBalooshi, 5.774, 250.97;

SEMIFINALS — Gray, 5.719, 250.41 def. Salinas, 5.758, 249.26; Gonzalez, 5.727, 250.09 def. Jackson, 5.734, 250.18;

FINAL — Gray, 5.699, 250.64 def. Gonzalez, Foul – Red Light.

Pro Modified points

  1. Jose Gonzalez, 838; 2. Brandon Snider, 658; 3. Steve Jackson, 643; 4. Justin Bond, 641; 5. JR Gray, 495; 6. Jeffery Barker, 411; 7. Doug Winters, 398; 8. Mike Castellana, 376; 9. Khalid alBalooshi, 368; 10. Lyle Barnett, 360.

Super Stock — Greg Stanfield, Chevy Camaro, 9.872, 131.91 def. Jeff Dona, Pontiac Firebird, 9.684, 139.33.

Stock Eliminator — Brett Candies, Ford Mustang, 9.147, 142.85 def. Mark Lewis, Chevy Camaro, 10.777, 115.89.

Super Comp — Jack Sepanek, Dragster, 8.930, 178.87 def. Adam Gerber, Dragster, 8.973, 152.73.

Super Gas — Jacob Elrod, Chevy Corvette, 10.039, 150.87 def. Tim Powell, Corvette, 11.361, 93.34.

Top Dragster presented by Vortech Superchargers — Chad Taylor, Dragster, 7.088, 186.90 def. Steve Furr, Dragster, Broke.

story by Tim Hailey and NHRA; photos by Hailey

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