race reports

NHRA Pros at Joliet, Illinois

Hight, Coughlin, Smith garner first wins of season


Results compiled by Kay Burk

Photos by Ron Lewis, Chicago Jon Hoffman and Scott Bessee

During qualifying John Force once again provided extra excitement. 


Three of the four winners at the JEGS NHRA Route 66 Nationals got their first wins of the 2018 season: Robert Hight, Jeg Coughlin Jr. and Matt Smith. Clay Millican picked up his second win in a row.



Clay Millican (far lane) gets the Top fuel win over Leah Pritchett. 


Clay Millican piloted his Parts Plus/Great Clips dragster to 3.894-second pass at 289.32 mph to secure his third career win. He defeated Pat Dakin, Scott Palmer, Doug Kalitta and Leah Pritchett in the final round for his first career victory at Route 66 Raceway, the facility where Millican made his first career NHRA Top Fuel start in 1998.

Two wins in a row for Clay Millican. 


Millican moved to second in points behind No. 1 qualifier Steve Torrence, who was upset in the first round. Pritchett, who beat teammate Antron Brown, Kyle Wurtzel and Blake Anderson, climbed to third in the standings after her second final round appearance of 2018.

After a record-breaking 3.677/333.58 performance in qualifying, Steve Torrence was upset in the first round at Chicago when his Capco contractors Top Fuel dragster inexplicably lost traction against sixteenth qualifier Luigi Novelli.  


“I felt it start to spin the tire,” Torrence said, “and it was one of the ‘oh, no’ moments when you’re out front just waiting for the other guy to drive around you – and he did. It’s frustrating ‘cause these Capco guys gave me a great car. Not the way we expected it to go, I can tell you that.”

Despite the loss, Torrence retained the Mello Yello point lead.


Steve’s father, Billy Torrence, driving the second Capco dragster for the fifth time this season, upset eight-time series champion Tony Schumacher in the first round before losing in round two to Blake Alexander.

Doug Kalitta 


The qualifying portion did not go as the Mac Tools group would have liked as Doug Kalitta made just one clean pass, a 3.786 second run on Friday evening. However, that run was good enough for another top half starting spot and a first round draw of Terry McMillen.


Kalitta got the slight advantage on McMillen on the starting line. The Mac Tools ride continued to struggle down track, but McMillen had bigger issues to deliver a first round win to Kalitta. In the second round, Kalitta again had problems, but his opponent, Luigi Novelli, again suffered bigger woes to move the Mac Tools machine to the semifinals.


In the semifinals, Kalitta faced Clay Millican. Kalitta moved first, but Millican was able to get around the Mac Tools driver. However, Millican's chutes deployed before the finish line. Kalitta closed considerably but came up five thousandths short at the stripe.




Reigning and two-time Funny Car world champion Robert Hight earned his 42nd career win, first of the season and first at Route 66 Raceway. Hight defeated 2016 Funny Car world champion Ron Capps in the finals with a 4.073-second pass at 310.63 mph. It is the 14th consecutive year that Hight has won at least one race making him the only professional racer to win an event every year of his career. It also marks the 21st different event where he has celebrated a victory.

Robert Hight’s team celebrates their first time in the winner’s circle this year. 


“I always thought Chicago might have my number because this is my fourteenth time racing here and I have never won this race. I have been in a couple finals and John Force has kicked my ass a couple times. I finally got it done today in Chicago. That is big because as a driver you want to win at every venue you go to. There is not a better place than Chicago. I can’t believe this place is 20 years old. I remember rolling in here as a crew guy and thinking look at how amazing this stadium is. This is one of the top spots in the country.”


The victory lands Hight solidly third in points behind only Courtney Force and Jack Beckman and ahead of event No. 1 qualifier Matt Hagan.


Coming into Sunday, three-time JEGS Route 66 NHRA Nationals winner John Force was optimistic and motivated to come out and win for the 149th time in his career. As the No. 6 qualifier Force had lane choice in the first round over Tim Wilkerson but he was also in a back-up PEAK Coolant and Motor Oil Chevrolet Camaro. His primary race car was destroyed in an on-track incident during the final qualifying session. The winningest driver was banged up but focused on going rounds on Sunday.

During qualifying Force’s car exploded into flames and went right into the wall (lead photo), where he bounced off the wall several times while continuing down track.


“It was tough physically, but I had a goal,” said Force. “I want to turn this PEAK car around here in their hometown of Chicago. I was really excited. I was qualified sixth. And then I got in trouble last night and I totaled the car, but we bounced back today. I thought I could win this race but we didn’t get it done. I went a couple rounds but my car ran good every round. Even though it’s just one race, I’m moved it back in the Top 10. We’ve still got nine races to go and my car is starting to act like a race car.


“When I crashed I hurt myself. I got bummed up in the shoulders,” said Force. “I hit the wall really hard like three times.”


On Sunday, a bit stiff and sore, the 16-time champion turned in a 4.059/318.77 to get past Tim Wilkerson’s 4.670/175.68 in the first round in a rather strange state of affairs. Wilkerson lost his roof hatch backing up from his burnout but that didn’t stop him, Force was in front for about sixty feet, but Wilkerson got around him until striking the tires about 500 feet and making a move to the wall. Wilkerson slowed to gain control and Force pulled away for the win.


Force then bested Jack Beckman, 4.208/303.09 to 4.451/241.11. His Chevrolet put a cylinder out, but Beckman had to let off the throttle after striking the tires. Force crossed the centerline in his semifinal against Capps.




Six-time world champion Jeg Coughlin Jr. couldn't have picked a better place to break a four-year winless drought than the first pro event ever sponsored by JEGS, the high-performance part company his father started 58 years ago.


Coughlin had a stellar day behind the wheel of his JEGS.com/Elite Performance Chevrolet Camaro, posting an impressive string of super-quick reaction times in all four elimination rounds to help turn on the win lights he needed, and his team took care of the rest, giving him the quickest racecar of every pro session.


"Rick and Ricky Jones (crew chiefs) gave me a rocket this weekend. We found a little problem with the racecar Friday night and actually the KB Racing guys helped us out with some parts so we give them kudos. I had a rocket come Saturday. I was third best in Q3 and second best in Q4 and then we led the pack all day today. It's just fantastic.”


The last time Coughlin won a Pro Stock race was in 2014 at Old Bridge Township Raceway Park in New Jersey. This victory is the 77th of his career and the 59th in Pro Stock, a mark that places him fourth on the all-time class list. He moves into 10th place on the points list.


Coughlin opened with a 6.562 at 210.50 mph to dismiss Elite teammate Alex Laughlin's 6.577 at 210.18 mph, a race that was actually over early when Coughlin left .028 seconds ahead of his friend.


His closest tilt of the day came in Round 2 when another Elite teammate, Matt Hartford, ran a 6.573 at 210.05 mph to Coughlin's 6.567 at 210.57 mph, but another quick start gave Coughlin the win by a slightly more comfortable .016 seconds.


It was more of the same in the semifinals when Coughlin used a .016-second head start on Tanner Gray, who didn't have enough on either end, with Coughlin's 6.574 at 210.67 mph beating Gray's 6.592 at 210.73 mph.

Perhaps knowing he needed a miracle launch to upset Coughlin's run, four-time champ Greg Anderson jumped the Christmas Tree by a massive -.038 seconds in the final, gift-wrapping the victory for Coughlin. 


Anderson, who earned his 98th No. 1 qualifier award in Chicago, left Route 66 Raceway with low elapsed time of the event and a narrow miss of the 91st NHRA Wally trophy of his career. His performance gave him the Pro Stock points lead, moving ahead of Vincent Nobile.


In the first round of eliminations, Anderson had a .028-second reaction time and paired it with a 6.579-second pass at 210.93 mph to defeat Dave River's 6.897, 197.59. For round two, Anderson came up against KB Racing-powered Deric Kramer. Anderson had lane choice over his teammate, but the difference was actually made at the starting line when Anderson launched with a .010 light to Kramer's .055. At the top end, the win light flashed in Anderson's lane, despite a slower 6.618, 210.54 to his friendly opponent's 6.595, 210.01.


Vincent Nobile had lane choice over Anderson in the semifinals, but Anderson's clean 6.604, 209.85 made the difference over his challenger's tire-chattering 12.390.


"We were flawless in qualifying, but our Achilles heel still seems to be struggling with racetrack management on Sunday," said Anderson. "The new track prep deal is definitely throwing a wrench into our plan, but the bottom line is that we have to find a happier setup for Sunday. We had cloud-cover through both days of qualifying and then full-jam sun today, and it made the difference for us. The total package is there, we're just not making the right moves on Sunday.”



Matt Smith (far lane) got his first 2018 race win.


Two-time world champion Matt Smith earned his first victory of 2018 and 19th of his career with a run of 6.816 at 195.87 on his Victory Magnum in the final round. Smith bested Steve Johnson, Jim Underdahl, points leader and No. 1 qualifier Andrew Hines, and LE Tonglet in the final round to lock down his first career victory at Route 66 Raceway. Smith also moved to sixth in the points standings.


“We always run good here in Chicago and I knew we had a good bike,” Smith said. “We were the quickest bike every round and that’s just a testament to my crew. I’m just very excited. We were just trying to win a race and this was big for us.”

Angie Smith defeated Joey Gladstone 6.821/196.99 to 6.916/192.22, but lost to Hector Arana Jr. in the second round.

Arana Jr. ran 199.02 mpg in his first-round defeat of Marc Ingwersen and then made another 200-mph pass (200.89) against Angie Smith. 

Matt Smith celebrates with wife, Angie Smith, and the rest of the team. 




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