Matt Smith Plunders Vegas for NHRA Championship

photos by Tim Hailey with reports from NHRA and others

In winning Pro Stock Motorcycle at the NHRA Toyota Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Matt Smith (above) joined John Force on the world champion’s podium to celebrate his second career title. He powered his Viper Motorcycle Company Buell to a final round run of 6.991 at 192.08 to beat Jerry Savoie, who went 7.050 at 190.19 on his Savoie’s Alligator Farm Suzuki. Smith, who has won the last three races, claimed his fourth win this season and 17th in his career en route to clinching the championship crown. His father, Rickie, also won the world championship in the NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series this season. “This team has been awesome,” Smith said. “What else can you ask for? With me winning the championship and dad winning the Pro Mod championship it’s been great. I don’t want to sound too confident, but we’ve almost been unstoppable. We’ve been to 10 finals since Epping and have six wins. Those are amazing number for our team.”

Smith, who qualified fourth, went 6.979 at 192.17 to start eliminations with a win against Andrew Hines, and followed it up with round wins against LE Tonglet and Shawn Gann to reach the final round. Smith, who won for the first time in Las Vegas, also won the world championship in 2007. “It’s pretty elite company to do that,” Smith said of his second championship title. “We pulled this off and it’s just great.”

The Hectors and Harleys were all out in round 1, with the Aranas particularly falling apart after a successful two days of qualifying. Hector Arana Sr. and Hector Jr. each had mechanical issues, and Adam Arana tripped the redlight as all three fell in the first round.

Hector Jr. was the first of the Arana Racing Buell riders to race, but after a long staging duel with L.E. Tonglet his bike did not get off the starting line. A sensor malfunctioned, causing the engine to rev down just as the Christmas Tree started. “I went wide open and the rpm jumped up,” he said. “But as soon as I was full wide-open, it was like I shut off the bike. It’s definitely not a good feeling in your stomach.”

Hector Sr. had to pull in the clutch early after his bike wouldn’t go into third gear. The No. 1 qualifier slowed to a pass of 9.885 seconds at 84.75 mph as Shawn Gann ran a winning 7.014 at 191.00 mph. “It just didn’t shift into third,” Hector Sr. said. “It hit the rev limiter, and once it hit the rev limiter I was hoping it would unload. I kept hitting the shifter but it wouldn’t shift. All I could do is pull in the clutch. It was over.”

Adam’s race was over quickly when he left .047-second too soon against Katie Sullivan. He admitted watching his older brother and father lose hard-luck races in front of him may have affected his preparation. “I didn’t want to lose,” Adam said. “I thought I saw the light but I don’t know. Stuff happens. This is hard and it bothers me. This one is about as tough a loss as I’ve had all year. I had a great qualifying position and the bike ran excellent. I just messed up on the Tree. We were having fun and were happy, and I was looking for a change in momentum. It didn’t happen and it stinks.”

John Force outran his daughter Courtney in the final round and claimed an NHRA-record 16th world championship in Funny Car. In winning his third straight race, John Force went 4.062 seconds at 310.63 mph in his Castrol GTX Ford Mustang to drive away from his daughter’s Traxxas Mustang, which finished in 4.085 at 319.22. It was Force’s fourth victory this season and 138th in his career. “I’d like to scream and say, ‘Gee, it was me,’ but the truth is (crew chief) Jimmy Prock and the team he’s got around him is unbelievable,” Force said. “It’s a team effort and if there’s anything that I’ve ever done right in my life, it’s been the team effort. That’s what I’m really proud of, holding together when it looked like we were falling apart.”

Force beat Gary Densham, Del Worsham and Alexis DeJoria to reach the final round. The win, his fourth in Las Vegas, also wrapped up an all-around memorable weekend for Force, who was the No. 1 qualifier, broke the track E.T. record and claimed yet another world championship in his storied career. “We’ve been having a lot of fun and I’m going to be around a while because I truly love it,” Force said. “Sometimes luck just gets on your side and we’ve been fortunate these past three races.”

Force was No. 1 qualifier, won the race and clinched the championship. “I wanted to prove I could still race. (Wife) Laurie (Force) has been the best thing for me. She said. ‘If you would quit sitting on the end of the bed whining about what is going on. If you get out there and just win then winning fixes everything.’ That just got my head right. Go win that is what you are paid to do. I am good. I am tough enough. I am young enough to race and nobody loves it more than me. I am the sixteen time champ!,” said Force.

Antron Brown, the defending world champion in Top Fuel, moved to second in the points standings by powering his Matco Tools dragster to a run of 3.782 at 324.51 in the final round against Clay Millican, who went 3.822 at 322.50 in his Parts Plus dragster. Brown claimed his fourth victory this season and 25th in his career, and trails points leader Shawn Langdon by 102 points heading into the final event. “We struggled in the middle of this year, but what I’m proud of the most is the way we just kept our heads down and never gave up,” Brown said. “We just put our head down and worked harder. We just kept on digging.”

Langdon, who was the No. 1 qualifier, lost to Millican in the semifinals but still holds a commanding lead in the points race in his Al-Anabi Racing dragster. Brown, who beat Bob Vandergriff, Tony Schumacher and Brandon Bernstein to reach the final round, knows it will take something special at the final event in Pomona to earn a second straight championship.

“It’s not over until it’s over,” Brown said. “We’re going to give it everything we’ve got. We’re going to try and go for those qualifying points and qualify in the top half. Our team knows that we’ve been losing some crucial qualifying points and in Pomona that’s what we’ve got to go for, and we’ve got to take it one round at a time and give it everything we’ve got.”

Pro Stock’s Shane Gray picked up his first win in more than two years and third of his career with a holeshot victory against V. Gaines. Gray, who moved to fourth in points, posted a winning time of 6.699 at 206.89 in his Gray Motorsports Chevy Camaro, and his quicker .032 reaction time overcame Gaines’ quicker, but losing Kendall Oil Dodge Avenger, which finished in 6.698 at 207.46. “The team needed a day like this,” Gray said. “I got a big boost of confidence today and it’s amazing what winning will do. It lets you know that you are still capable of doing this and anytime you can win a round on a holeshot I think you’ve done something special.”

Jeg Coughlin extended his points lead in Pro Stock by advancing to the semifinals before falling to Gaines. He now holds a 71-point lead over second-place Jason Line. Mike Edwards is 80 points back in third, while Gray trails Coughlin by 84 points.

“I’m looking forward to Pomona now,” Gray said. “I think we’ll be even tougher now. These cars are getting more and more difficult to run and the driver is so important now. The Countdown escalates everyone’s performance two notches.”

Troy Coughlin picked up his second win of the 2013 season in the NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series at the NHRA Toyota Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The race is the final in 2013 for NHRA’s popular 250-mph doorslammer touring series. Coughlin, the 2012 world champion in the class, also earned his fourth career NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series victory by taking his turbo-powered Chevy Corvette past Danny Rowe in the final round with a run of 5.913 seconds at 248.34 mph. Rowe and his supercharged Agave Underground Tequila Camaro went 5.975 at 242.63 in the championship round.

It topped off a strong display in eliminations for Coughlin, who finished second in the points standings. After qualifying No. 2 with a 5.922 at 245.99, Coughlin claimed a victory in the first round over Dan Stevenson by going 5.918 at 245.72 on Saturday. Coughlin’s Sunday started with a weekend-best pass of 5.889 at 246.75 to move into the semifinals, where he knocked off Mike Knowles with a run of 5.902 at 247.29.

Rickie Smith claimed his first NHRA Pro Mod Series world championship, having clinched the world title heading into the event at Las Vegas, where he promptly unretired!

The NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series will conclude its 2013 season Nov. 7-10 with the Auto Club NHRA Finals at historic Auto Club Raceway at Pomona in Southern California.