Top Fuel points leader Steve Torrence hasn’t had many hiccups in his breakaway season, but the talented Texan says he will have his mental game squared away today after red-lighting in the first round against Doug Kalitta last weekend in Sonoma. It was his first red-light since the 2013 Brainerd event and didn’t cost him his point lead –- and not much probably can –- but it still needs to be addressed.
“There’s no way to put lipstick on that one and making it look any better,” he said. “Sometimes you just make mistakes. It was a long Tree. I knew that when I hit the gas it was a crapshoot because I saw the light coming on as my foot was going down and maybe that I just caught it, that I met it coming on. I’ve driven these things long enough to just throw that out the window. The guys were super supportive and, in the end of he day we weren’t going to win that round anyway. We went .77 and Kalitta went .74; he was .060 on the Tree so I’d have had to been .030 or better to even have a shot.
“They say if you don’t red-light every now and then you’re not trying hard enough, but that don’t make you feel any better about it. The only good thing was I got to be strapped back into this thing five days later with a chance to redeem myself.”
He enters eliminations today as the No. 1 qualifier with a seven-round lead over Tony Schumacher and thinks he can hold onto the lead through the end of the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals, which offers a points-and-a-half windfall.
“With the way the points are at Indy, it makes it a very crucial event for us in trying to fend the guys off,” he said. “There’s still this race and Brainerd before we get there, so we could go in there with a better lead or close to breaking even, but I do feel confident that we can hold onto our lead. We’ll just see how the cards fall and what the Good Lord thinks.”
At one point this summer, after his back-to-back wins in Topeka and Chicago, Clay Millican was just 25 markers behind points leader Steve Torrence. The last half-dozen races have not been as kind to the Doug Stringer’s Great Clips/Parts Plus team, which now finds itself in third place, 143 back of Torrence but just six points behind second-place Tony Schumacher.
“Our goal – 100 percent – is to start the Countdown in second place,” said Millican. “That’s our plan, our mini championship. I don’t think we can get to first. I’m not saying we’re not chasing Stevie, but our goal is second.”
Millican’s downward trend began at the race after his Chicago victory, when he red-lighted in round one in Richmond, where Torrence won the event.
“Self inflicted injury,” he confessed. “I just screwed up. I knew I was hitting the pedal too soon. Your brain is going ‘it’s not time, it’s not time.’ That was only second red-light in 20 years in NHRA; I don’t think I had many more than that in IHRA, but it’s one that hurt us. In Norwalk we ran a supercharger one more round than we probably should have and got outrun by Leah [Pritchett]. Last week in Sonoma we smoked the tries when it shouldn’t have and we lost. Schumacher smoked the tires, too, and won his round.
“It’s like playing golf. It adds up. You miss a putt and you don’t think a lot about It until you’ve missed a few more by the end of the round.”
Millican’s cerebral crew chief, David Grubnic, eavesdropping on the conversation as he bustled about the trailer, put it this way: “It’s that last little 2 percent that represents 98 percent of our problems. I’ve been preaching this for the last two months. Attention to detail in everything. Everybody has 95 percent of the puzzle. We all have these long things [chassis] and we’ve all got wheels and tires and engines. That’s the 95 percent. The remaining five percent of the puzzle represents the difference between 10th or first. When you’re in the top 5, it boils down to 2 percent that separates No. 1 from No. 5.”
After Brainerd, the team will head to the Don Schumacher Racing shop to get their dragster front halved, then take part in the pre-Indy test (a rarity for a team that never tests), where they’ll also be doing tire testing for Goodyear.
“We’re excited about that,” he said. “Grubby makes dang sure he gets [Goodyear] what they need but it also gives us what we need. We’re not trying to go as fast as we can go, just making sure we can go.”
The Western Swing has only been swept once in Funny Car, when John Force did it 24 years ago, but his entire team is hoping for the next-best thing: a team sweep. With Force winning in Denver and Robert Hight scoring last weekend in Sonoma, there’s definitely a solid possibility they can pull it off again, as they did in 2014 when Hight won in Denver, Courtney Force scored in Sonoma, and the boss finished it off with a victory in Seattle.
In 2016, John Force won the first two legs but was upset in round one in Seattle by Tommy Johnson Jr. Force also came close in 2003 by winning in Denver and Seattle (when the middle event was reversed) but fell short of another sweep when he lost in the semifinals in Sonoma to Gary Scelzi. In 1996, two years after his initial sweep, Force won in Denver, was runner-up to Cruz Pedregon in Sonoma, and then won in Seattle.
Hight, who was a semifinalist in Denver, might have the best chance at completing the sweep. He’s the defending event champ and, as his team did last year, they’re finding their groove just in time for the stretch run of the regular season.
“I think we’re peaking at just the right time,” he said. “We’re coming up to showtime and we know we’ve got a good race car. There are a lot of cars every week that can win, but we can’t afford to focus on what everyone else is doing. All we can control is what we do. For JFR, the key is to keep working as a team toward the common goal, which is another Funny Car championship. When you work together, the learning curve is way less for everyone.”
It seems like a long time ago, but there was a period where Tim Wilkerson was unbeatable in Seattle. Wilk won three consecutive Northwest Nationals from 2009-2011 – beating a trio of past and future world champs in Tony Pedregon, Ron Capps, and Jack Beckman in the final rounds – and would love to add a fourth Seattle victory this weekend to supercharge his bid to make the top 10 and compete in the Countdown to the Championship playoffs.
Wilkerson enters eliminations in the No. 11 position, just 28 points out of the top 10, chasing Bob Tasca III and, above him, Shawn Langdon. Wilkerson hasn’t been in the top 10 since the season opener, where a second-round finish ranked him sixth. He slipped as far as 14th at one point but a runner-up in Epping got him to 12th, and a round win in Denver got to No. 11.
The good news for Wilkerson is that he could race Tasca in round two, if both win their first-round races, Wilekrson against Richard Townsend and Tasca against J.R. Todd.
“We gotta make it to second round before we can start thinking about that,” said Wilkerson. “There are no gimmes. These cars are all running well, and you’ve got to beat them all. Townsend is no pushover, they proved that they can run good. We just need to run our race, worry about our lane, and then whoever is tin the next round is who we’re running.
“Everything is coming around with our car and our parts after we figured out what we’d been doing wrong procedurally in Epping,” he said. “The way the points are right now, I know I have to win rounds. When it comes down to it, if we’re ninth or 10th in the Countdown it will be stupendous. But if not, it sure won’t be from a lack of trying. I’ve got a good group of kids, and our problems are behind us because we’ve knuckled down and fixed them.”
Even though he races out of the KB Racing stable that boasts world champions Greg Anderson, Jason Line, and Bo Butner, Fernando Cuadra, competing in just the fourth race after a 14-year layoff, may not be a household name, but that certainly will change in the future.
Cuadra should soon be joined in the class by his sons, Fernando Jr. and Christian, as well as Julio Rodriguez, a championship engine builder and racer in Mexico’s Pro Stock equivalent. He’s collecting cars, including Line’s 2011 championship car, a Mustang, and the ex-Erica Enders Dart, though all will have KB Chevy power. Additionally, Cuadra’s fourth son, David, is going to be working through the Top Sportsman ranks will an eventual eye on Pro Stock as well.
“We have a lot of plans, a lot of things going on,” he said. “The whole thing for them is to learn the procedures. Top Sportsman is a good transition for them and then we’ll get them from using a transbrake and an automatic to a standard [manual transmission.”
The Seattle event marks just the fourth event for Cuadra himself, and it’s been a mixed bag of reaction times, with some killer lights and some red-lights as he gets accustomed to Pro Stock power again.
“We’ve changed clutch pedals and linkage to get used to the clutch,” he said. “When you rev up the engine the clutch pushes back your foot, so first I was red-lighting, Then I was pushing harder [to hold the pedal down] and then I was late. These are all tricks that I didn’t know.
“I can cut the light consistently my way but then I affect the clutch. The guys told me, ‘Sit down and show me what you do,’ and they said No, no, no, no; you can’t do it that way.’ So I’ve been learning.”
Color Greg Anderson impressed.
“He can leave, he can drive, and I’m not lying, he did a better job of shifting the last couple of races than the team cans that have been racing all year long,” he said. “We could take a lesson from Fernando. He’s having fun, he’s paying attention, and he’s doing the job. He’s going to be a force to be reckoned with.”
Cuadra, who funds his racing through his Corral Boots company, is also using racing as a proving ground for his footwear. Various members of the KB team are trying either shark- or ostrich-skin models as well as soles meant to handle oil and gasoline.
Tanner Gray may not be leading the points in Pro Stock, but he’s still leading the way in Pro Stock in ways beyond his wins (tied for the season lead with three) and front-running reaction times. Gray worked with multi-discipline motorsports hero Max Papis and his Max Papis Innovations company to design a Pro Stock-specific steering wheel, and, in what has to be a coup for the youngster, his latest convert is six-time world champ Greg Anderson, who began using the new wheel in Denver,
“I didn’t necessarily decide I needed a new steering wheel, but I saw this one and it definitely looked like something that work better and be more comfortable,” said Anderson. “It’s lighter weight, it’s a stronger piece, and it’s aesthetically good looking – so maybe for the in-car camera it upped my image a little bit.
“I don’t know that it changed my driving at all, but it’s definitely more comfortable to the feel because we’ve just been using a generic racing steering wheel. This one is targeted towards what we do in a Pro Stock car, the feel of it, the buttons we use. It’s exactly what we needed. Tanner did a good job.
“It’s beautiful. You have to get up on the wheel once in a while and then and it’s great to have a good one to get up on.”