race reports

NHRA pros at Norwalk, Ohio

Alexander gets first Top Fuel win; Courtney extends points lead


Results compiled by Kay Burk

Photos by Ron Lewis

Driving for team owner Bob Vandergriff, Blake Alexander became the 105th different Top Fuel winner in NHRA history Sunday afternoon, June 24, at the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals at Summit Motorsports Park. Matt Hagan (Funny Car), Tanner Gray (Pro Stock) and Eddie Krawiec (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were also winners in their respective categories at the 12th of 24 events on the 2018 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule.

Rain forced both the Friday and Saturday qualifying sessions to be shortened, giving the teams only one or two runs on the new all-concrete track before eliminations began.




Blake Alexander’s 4.011-second pass at 297.81 mph in his Pronto Auto Service dragster took down Terry McMillen and secured his first Top Fuel career victory.


“It felt really good,” Alexander stated. “I got a little emotional because I’ve tried to do this my whole life. I’ve come close but have lost sponsors, thought I was never going to drive the car again, and basically we have gone through everything to climb back to the top.”

Alexander started Sunday eliminations by knocking off three-time world champion Antron Brown in one of the closest races of the day, with Alexander’s 3.802 at 319.75 defeating Brown’s 3.808 at 326.71. The former Jr. Dragster driver used a sizable holeshot advantage and a 3.798 at 330.15 to defeat eight-time world champion Tony Schumacher’s 3.779 at 330.31. In the semifinals, Alexander beat Leah Pritchett, the third Don Schumacher Racing driver he would face in eliminations, with a 3.799 at 329.91 to advance to the final round.


Alexander met up with No. 15 qualifier Terry McMillen in the final round, marking just the second time in Top Fuel history that the No. 12 and No. 15 qualifiers faced off in the final round. Alexander overcame McMillen’s slight starting-line advantage and streaked to a 4.011 at 297.81 over McMillen’s 4.155 at 289.20.


Alexander became the latest Top Fuel driver to win for Brownsburg, Ind.-based Bob Vandergriff Racing. Vandergriff won three races as a driver before retiring from the driver’s seat at the end of the 2014 season. Alexander won in just his second Top Fuel final and third final overall.

McMillen defeated defending NHRA Champion Brittany Force (far lane) in round one of eliminations, Richie Crampton in round two and points leader Steve Torrence in the semi-finals.


The Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals marked the fourth final round appearance in 12 races for Terry McMillen and his AMALIEⓇ Motor Oil XTERMIGATORⓇ Top Fuel team. In the final round, McMillen faced Blake Alexander and led the race to about half track before the car started hazing the tires. Alexander was able to drive around McMillen to score his first NHRA victory.


“We may never win another race,” McMillen said. “But if we keep winning rounds and keep getting to the finals, we have a chance to win the Championship.”


Consistency is something McMillen and his crew chief Rob Wendland have been concentrating on this season. “We have to be consistent and get down the track competitively,” McMillen added. “You can’t take any of these teams out here lightly, it’s a tough field. At the same time we have to constantly work on improving. We tried some new things in Bristol and it just didn’t work out. With the rain here, it was tough to try anything different, so we went back to our proven set-up on Sunday.”

Clay Millican set the Top Fuel track speed record on Saturday with a 3.750 at 332.67 mph and took the No. 1 qualifier spot for the sixth time this season. He ran 3.759/332.26 to defeat Dom Lagana’s 3.837/323.89, but then lost to Leah Pritchett.

In the first round Pritchett’s 3.794/328.94 got past Doug Kalitta’s 3.805/321.73 and then Pritchett ran 3.788/327.74 to Millican’s 3.817/327.03. Blake Alexander ended her day with a 3.799/329.91 to her 4.185/254.28.

Sometimes you find beauty in unexpected places.




Mopar Express Lane Dodge Charger R/T driver Matt Hagan, seeking a bit of redemption after first-round exits in the previous two events, began Norwalk eliminations with back-to-back battles against DSR teammates.


First up was Tommy Johnson Jr., with Hagan’s quick reflexes helping to score a close holeshot win by an ultra-thin margin of less than one-thousandth of a second. Hagan was again first off of the starting line in an all-Mopar Dodge quarterfinals fight, pulling away to defeat Jack Beckman with a 4.010-second at 322.27-mph pass.


The two-time world champion led from start to finish stripe in the semifinals, reeling off a 3.981 E.T. to defeat J.R. Todd and earn all-important lane choice against No. 1 qualifier Courtney Force in his fourth final round of the season and 51st of his career.


Hagan saved his best reaction time for the money round, a 0.033-second mark that gave him a jump over Force that he would never relinquish, recording a winning 4.094-second at 288.21-mph pass to his opponent’s losing 4.220 at 227.54-mph effort.

The Hagan team finally is getting a handle on the set-up, but reportedly will soon be getting a new Mopar body.


“Super proud of my guys,” said Hagan, who picked up a win earlier in the year at the season-opening event in Pomona. “These cats have been working hard and we’ve obviously had a track prep change that we needed to adapt to and it took (crew chief) Dickie (Venables) a few runs to get there, but that’s why I love him and I’m glad he’s in my corner. He always figures it out.”


Sunday’s victory was Hagan’s second of the season, 28th of his career and first-ever at Norwalk.

For the fifth time this season Courtney Force and her Advance Auto Parts team raced their way into the finals, and for the first time this season, they were the runners-up. Force defeated her father John Force in the semifinals after he defeated Robert Hight in the second round.


Courtney maintains a stronghold on the Funny Car points standings after reaching the 28th final round of her career and third in four years at the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals. Ms. Force has 1,038 points at the half-way spot in the season with Jack Beckman and Matt Hagan tied for second with 788.


In the first round, Ms. Force defeated first time opponent John Smith with an impressive 3.994-second pass, the second quickest of the session. She then ended two-time world champion Shawn Langdon’s day in the second round with the quickest pass of the day at 3.971-second before having to face-off against her father and 16-time world champion John Force in the semifinals. Courtney defeated John with a 4.007-second pass at 323.58 mph, bettering his 4.053 at 321.27. Courtney is now 13-15 against her legendary father but 4-0 against him this season.


On Sunday, Courtney used a .044 reaction time with 4.007-second time and to beat her dad’s .055 reaction time with his 4.053 effort.


“She’s doing her job for Advance Auto Parts and for Chevy,” John said, “but I want to do mine, too.”

Two-time and reigning series champion Robert Hight bowed out in the second round citing the need for “a few more runs” before he and his Auto Club of Southern California crew are completely at ease with a return to last year’s engine combination.


“We were running bigger cylinder heads, a different camshaft and a different supercharger to start the year because we were trying to go faster and set records,” Hight said. “(Crew chief) Jimmy (Prock) decided to go back to what we ran last year, the same stuff Courtney’s running right now, because with the NHRA’s new track prep, we just can’t run as hard as we want to."

At Norwalk Bob Tasca lost in the first round to J.R. Todd after his Mustang had problems on the starting line. It lost a cylinder after the launch and Tasca shut her off.



Tanner Gray was able to take down two-time world champion Erica Enders in the final round for his eighth career victory and third of the season. His 6.615 at 209.62 in his Gray Motorsports Valvoline Chevrolet Camaro made him the only Pro Stock competitor to reach the winner’s circle three times in 2018. The win moved him into the Pro Stock points lead and bumped Greg Anderson, who lost in the first round to Drew Skillman, to second.


“This was definitely a huge accomplishment,” Gray said. “We struggled a lot at the beginning of the season. We did a lot of testing and couldn’t really see where that hard work was because the results weren’t showing. It feels good to have finally turned a corner and see where all of the hard work has paid off.”


He took down Chris McGaha (6.608/209.04 to 6.648/208.55), Matt Hartford (who had severe tire shake) and Drew Skillman (who red-lighted) to bring home the win.


“We (Erica Enders and I) bring the best out of each other,’ Gray said, who seems less in-your-face in his sophomore year of racing. “My guys have given me a really good race car. It’s a testament to them to have only one (qualifying) run and dominate out here like this.”


It was the second final-round match between Gray and Erica Enders in the past three weeks with Enders certainly looking for revenge for her defeat in Virginia. But it was not to be.


The elite Motorsports Camaros have started to come around this season with teammate Jeg Coughlin Jr. getting a first-round win over Charlie Westcott Jr. (6.588/208.88 to 6.848/201.85) before meeting Enders, who took the win 6.637/207.56 to 6.737/207.50. Coughlin was the low qualifier in Pro Stock, his first of the year.


"We made some changes within the camp a handful of races ago that are working out very well," Coughlin said. "We changed the chassis and it was like a light switch as far as the car being more predictable. The first three or four races we knew we had a fast race car and things were turning our way. Then we got to Chicago and everything finally fell into place.”

Enders got the first-round win over Alex Laughlin (6.632/208.26 to 6.614/208.78), then got past Coughlin, and 2017 champ Bo Butner (6.636/207.59 to 6.651/208.42) to get into the final.


Enders now has four runner-up finishes on the year along with a victory in Charlotte, as her five final rounds are the most in the class in 2018.


Making a rare Pro Stock appearance was Hemi Challenge standout Charlie Westcott Jr. Unfortunately, Westcott’s Mustang was the first-round victim of Jeg Coughlin Jr.



Eddie Krawiec secured his third Pro Stock Motorcycle victory at Summit Motorsports Park with his pass of 6.923 at 195.05 on his Screamin’ Eagle Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson to defeat Jerry Savoie’s 7.071/175.39.


“It was a good one for me,” Krawiec stated. “It’s been a good weekend for us. It was a struggle early on trying to dance through the rain drops. We were trying to get a handle on a new track and understand what it is we need to do. We were able to get it done and get our bike in the winner's circle.”

Jerry Savoie


Savoie has two final round appearances on the season with a victory at Charlotte earlier in the year. At Norwalk his day began when Hector Arana Sr. red-lighted, then Savoie’s Suzuki turned in a 6.922/193.35 to defeat the Harley of Andrew Hines (6.991/192.25).


In the semifinal his 7.187/155.10 took out Angie Smith’s 7.627/128.07. Both had troubled runs. Smith was in the lead, but her Buell shut down as she neared the finish line and she had to coast. Savoie’s bike started belching smoke and slowed, but kept momentum to take the win. An engine thrash was necessary before the final round.

After two events where she did not qualify, Angelle Sampey (near lane) made the field at Norwalk. She first got a win over Joey Gladstone (6.903/193.29 to 7.066/189.71), but then lost to Krawiec (6.889/193.46 to 6.922/193.35). Matt Smith (far lane) led the Pro Stock Motorcycle qualifying at 6.866 seconds at 195.39 mph. He lost in the first round to Jim Underdahl (6.926/193.32 to 6.899/195.48).


“We weren’t planning on running this bike this year,” Smith said. “We pulled it out at Charlotte; it’s been a top-three bike ever since. We’ve even won a race. I can’t say enough to my guys since we weren’t planning on this.”


Matt’s wife, Angie Smith, made it to the semifinal round, getting a 6.932/192.17 win over Steve Johnson’s 6.993/190.19 and a 6.972/191.10 to 7.080/188.73 win over Underdahl (to avenge Matt’s loss) before falling to Savoie.  



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