Tradition went out the window a bit with the Gatornationals at Gainesville, Fla., as the NHRA opened its season in Florida over the weekend rather than at the traditional Winternationals at Pomona, Calif.
Blame it on COVID-19.
But the excitement meter was pegged just the same Sunday at Gainesville Raceway with Top Fuel winner Josh Hart making history and Funny Car’s JR Todd completing the so-called Grand Slam (Winternationals, Gatornationals, U.S. Nationals, and Finals).
Pro Stock’s Greg Anderson broke a drought to claim his 60th victory on his 60th birthday, and bike champ Matt Smith continued his dominance with a string of 200-mph passes. The warm weather helped.
An eye-opening mix of on-track and off-track patterns and results signaled that this will be a lively 2021 season.
New NHRA series sponsor Camping World will take its business relationship with the NHRA seriously.
Maybe an exhibition race between two 17-foot Coleman travel trailers with social media influencers Chris Young and Ian Baker lumbering down the quarter-mile belies the power, speed, and sensory overload of an NHRA drag race. But it does predict how much Marcus Lemonis, CEO of Camping World, recognizes the platform the NHRA offers.
Camping World plans to have a genuine presence in this industry that fits right in its target market. Moreover, the winning Coleman travel trailer went to a lucky fan from the grandstands. Then came a happy surprise for the fan cheering on the “losing” motorhome. The announcer declared, “At Camping World, there are no losers” and she, too, received the other camper. If life gives you Lemonis, make Lemonis-aid.
Camping World also appears to be a hands-on sponsor.
Antron Brown’s new marketing partnership with Sirius XM shows that corporate America is starting to take a closer look at the benefits of investing in NHRA drag racing.
And now, Joe Morrison, one of Brown’s newest competitors, has brought a touch of Hollywood back to drag racing with CForce Premium Artesan Water—a woman-owned business founded six years ago by Gena Norris and her husband, martial artist/actor/film producer Chuck Norris. (A portion of sales goes to Kickstart Kids, an in-school character-development program that uses karate to teach life-changing values and self-confidence to at-risk middle- and high-schoolers. The ambitious Morrison also has developed relationships with AmericanaGlobal.com, SpeedPro, RACE Software, Specialized Auto Craft, and DymePSI.
Justin Ashley is one of the few to keep adding sponsors, including GuardLab, The Daily Crave, and RISE Brewing Company. Kalitta Motorsports renewed deals with several additional corporations it secured in 2020, and added IDT, Outer Circle, and Ferguson Facilities Supply. The elite Vance & Hines bike team that Angelle Sampey fronts has Mission Foods as its new sponsor.
Josh Hart has brought in Technet to supplement his budget that his own business, Burnyzz. Alexis De Joria has her own new brand, Bandero Premium Tequila. Doug Foley (Top Fuel) and Ryan Oehler (bikes) have some sponsors new to the sport. They have discovered what Fatheadz Eyewear and eCar Mover and many other businesses small and large already have: the B2B and B2C opportunities in the NHRA market.
NHRA officials were coy and ultimately mum about what percentage of fans that local governments permitted in the grandstands. Whatever that was, the crowd appeared to be indistinguishable in number from pre-pandemic audiences.
Reliable estimates put the Friday crowd level at 35-40 percent, Saturday’s at nearly 90 percent, and Sunday’s near 75 percent. Per tradition, the crowd is permitted to stand behind the chain-link fence in front of the elevated grandstands on both sides of the track.
The railbirds were three-and four deep for almost the entire length of the track this weekend. If the NHRA were to insist they stay seated in the grandstands, the place would have looked packed. It’s hard to say what other locales might allow and all the factors that feed into crowd sizes. But the NHRA is off to a great start with the Gatornationals.
The tricky task for the NHRA is to find a way to keep the crowd engaged so they don’t head for the pits, food stands, or restrooms after the nitro classes perform.
The first glimpse the Saturday crowd at Gainesville Raceway got of Jasmine Salinas was of her Top Alcohol Dragster hiking its front end, flipping over, going airborne and sailing over the guard wall, and landing upside-down and in pieces.
She crawled out on her own power, spoke with medical personnel on site, was taken to the hospital. By the close of qualifying, she was standing at the starting line, watching her Pro Stock Motorcycle racer sister Jianna Salinas and Top Fuel driver dad Mike Salinas make their passes.
Jasmine said all she had for souvenirs from her experience were “a few bruises here and there.” She said, “I was trying to sneak out of the hospital early, but they kept making me go back to my room. But I’m just fine. I’m a little sore, but the Safety Safari people did an excellent job. All the safety equipment did its job. I was able to crawl out. I wanted to get right back in my car. I’m ready to go. I want to keep racing and show everybody I can still be out here running.”
Sister Jianna Salinas also escaped serious injury in 2019 at Joliet, Ill., after she fell from her bike near the end of her high-speed run during eliminations.
Don Schumacher Racing (DSR) was unable to extend its Funny Car dominance.
Ford evangelist Bob Tasca III single-handedly halted the 14-race streak for the DSR Dodge Charger Hellcats that that had held up since October 2019. DSR, the most successful NHRA team with 358 victories, has half of the ammo in its arsenal this year because Jack Beckman’s and Tommy Johnson Jr.’s teams lost funding.
Still, it put Ron Capps in the No. 1 starting position and reigning champion Matt Hagan in the top half of the order this past weekend. But Tasca edged Hagan in the opening round by .0001 seconds, or about one inch, and he easily defeated tire-smoking Capps, the racer to whom had has lost the most in his career (24 times). Payback hurts.
Not all the new professionals will need to get up to speed.
Debuting Top Fuel owner-driver Josh Hart became only the fourth racer in NHRA history to win in his first professional appearance and the first to do so in two decades. K.C. Spurlock (pictured) did it in a Funny Car at the 1990 Winternationals at Pomona, Calif., and Gary Scelzi followed suit in Top Fuel in 1997. Hart is the first to accomplish the feat since Darrell Russell won his maiden race 20 years ago (2001).
With guidance from crew chief Ron Douglas and his team members, Hart eliminated a daunting line-up . He faced and finished off six-time IHRA champion and always-dangerous Clay Millican, NHRA dominator Torrence, 2020 NHRA Rookie of the Year and lightning-quick leaver Justin Ashley, and finally 2013 Top Fuel champion Shawn Langdon.
“Ron Douglas is awesome. And the group of guys, they’ve done it all. That’s where the real magic happens,” Hart said. “Ron’s almost like the Babe Ruth of drag racing–he was almost calling his shot, which was kind of creepy, but he was doing it. It was awesome.”
Hart, who grew up in Indiana but settled a few years ago in Ocala, Fla., and established a sprawling, fast-expanding collectible-car enterprise that happens to be less than 10 miles from the shop and museum of drag-racing legend “Big Daddy” Don Garlits. Hart and Garlits have struck up a friendship, and Garlits has endorsed Hart, even signed his competition license and been a client at Hart’s business, Burnyzz. He was on hand last weekend to encourage and advise Hart. His reassurance, though vague, for the 35-year-old newcomer, was “Sometimes it’s just your day.”
And who can argue with “Big Daddy” Don Garlits?
A new action verb rolls out.
This verb isn’t in the dictionary. It isn’t even in the quirky drag-racing glossary. But after Josh Hart, pictured right, capped the Gatornationals pro action, his crew chief, Ron Douglas, pictured left, declared, “We ‘Spurlocked’ ’em.” He was referring to K.C. Spurlock, who also won in his first professional race.
It soon could become obsolete, because few ever do what Hart did.
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