Test is last major shakedown before season–opening race at Pomona
BY: SUSAN WADE
For a few racers, such as Top Fuel’s Clay Millican and Brittany Force and Pro Stock Motorcycle’s Angelle Sampey, the PRO Winter Warm-Up at Arizona’s Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park was a drill with new crew chiefs, new parts, and new crew members.
For others, most notably dragster rookie Jordan Vandergriff, it was an introduction to the NHRA professional ranks and gaining educational seat time.
But for reigning Top Fuel champion Steve Torrence and top two 2018 Funny Car finishers J.R. Todd and Robert Hight, the three-day preseason testing session just south of Phoenix was merely a continuation of high-performance displays.
Torrence, who had ditches to dig and pipe to lay back in East Texas, made maximum use of his brief weekend getaway from his family-owned Capco Contractors job. Same for his dad, company owner, and part-time drag-racing teammate Billy Torrence. They came to Chandler, Ariz., to see what might have changed in the two and a half months since the 2018 season ended and found out the answer was nothing.
Steve Torrence, who made history by sweeping the six Countdown to the Championship playoff victories, ran a 3.689-second elapsed time at 328.78 mph on the 1,000-foot course. That wouldn’t qualify as a top-10 E.T. on official clocks, but it’s just .061 of a second off Millican’s almost-year-old national record of 3.628. And it lasted as best through three days of tune-up testing. He had come in Wednesday and clocked a stout 3.72.
“I don’t know if we’re making any statements out here,” Torrence said Thursday. “We had a real good car all throughout the year last year, and we had an unbelievable car at the end of the year. We’re not really changing a whole bunch. We got what we needed today. I think this thing’s ready to go.”
Another bad omen for the rest of the Top Fuel field is that Steve Torrence came in, put on a clinic, and left Thursday. His work was finished – two days before nitro-class testing was completed.
Whenever his father feels like strapping into his own Capco Contractors Dragster, he’ll be prepared, too. Billy Torrence threw down a 3.731-second, 325.14-mph pass that held up as second-best of the weekend until Brittany Force posted her top effort of 3.700, 321.27 in the Advance Auto Parts Dragster.
Vandergriff raised eyebrows with his 3.738, 325.85 in team owner/uncle Bob Vandergriff’s DA Lubricants Dragster. That Friday run counted as his final licensing upgrade requirement. That run was fourth-best overall in Top Fuel, ahead of serious contender Mike Salinas (3.747, 296.24), who has fulltime input this year from tuning wizard Alan Johnson and multi-time championship crew chief Brian Husen.
The Kalitta Motorsports Top Fuel tandem of Doug Kalitta and Richie Crampton made use of the testing time. Together, they made 20 passes. Kalitta drove nine in his Mac Tools Dragster. Crampton made eight in his DHL / Toyota Dragster, then hopped into Kalitta’s car for three more.
Crampton raced in the offseason at Willowbank Raceway in his homeland of Australia. His car carries fresh livery in DHL, and Crampton said, “To be part of a great brand and be a teammate with the championship-winning DHL Funny Car with JR Todd is great. I think we’re already seeing some of the signs of that DHL magic carrying over to our dragster in testing.”
Three-time class champion Antron Brown was strong, too – less for his sixth-ranked 3.769, 293.73 performance than for the fact he was the lone Top Fuel representative for powerhouse Don Schumacher Racing. Eight-time series titlist Tony Schumacher, not listed so far on the NHRA’s entry list for the season-opener Feb. 8-10 at Pomona, Calif, was a predetermined no-show. DSR’s third dragster driver, Leah Pritchett, wasn’t at the testing opportunity, contrary to previous announcements she would be making some shakedown runs.
Matt Hagan was DSR’s lone Funny Car attendee, and he was fifth-quickest at 3.959, 319.22.
The Funny Car honors went to Robert Hight, who produced a 3.863-second 1,000-foot E.T. at 326.87 mph in the Auto Club Chevy Camaro.
The two-time class champion, eager to improve from his runner-up finish to JR Todd last November, recorded his best runs of the test session Friday. He and crew chiefs Jimmy Prock and Chris Cunningham opened the day with the 3.863 and followed with runs of 3.914, 323.35 and 3.909, 319.60. Hight has owned both the elapsed time and speed national records since 2017 (3.793 from Brainerd, Minn., and 339.87 from Sonoma, Calif.).
“We’re feeling really good after four days of testing,” Hight, president of John Force Racing, said. “Jimmy and Chris have this Auto Club Chevy figured out. We’re carrying over our momentum from last year. We were testing some things, but Friday was a really good day for us.”
Saturday was best for his boss. John Force ran the third-quickest time of 3.894 seconds at 331.61 mph – with help, he said from recently retired daughter Courtney Force.
Todd was No. 2 for the week with a top output in 14 total runs in the DHL Toyota Camry of 3.868, 324.36. Shawn Langdon, his Kalitta Motorsports teammate and driver of the Global Electronic Technology Camry, was fourth-best with his 3.905, 327.35. Langdon took to the racetrack 12 times.
Austin Prock, son of JFR championship Funny Car tuner Jimmy Prock, is expected to make his highly anticipated NHRA debut sometime this year, appears to be headed toward some laps this week in a dragster. He has his Funny Car license, but John Force said he isn’t sure whether he’ll give the younger Prock a Funny Car or Top Fuel car to race. A Chevrolet / JFR hauler arrived Saturday at Chandler. Robert Hight also remarked this week that “our goal is to put a fourth dragster out, or a fourth car which will be a dragster.”
Prock was at the test session Saturdfay, along with crew chiefs Jon Schaffer and Ronnie Thompson. And he said he’s be making laps in both the flopper and the dragster. Prock’s schedule will depend on what marketing partners JFR can find for him.
Force said, “They got locked in the snow in Indy and had to work overtime to get the bodies fitted and get the cars ready to go. We’re still out here looking for a sponsor, I’ve even called on one of the greatest Top Fuel and Funny Car drivers in history, Don Prudhomme, for help. Everybody is trying. We’ve got some leads, but we’re getting Prock some seat time and getting him used to the brand-new car that we built him. It’s all part of the NHRA rules.”
Prock said, “I’m excited to be out at testing and get some more laps under my belt. I know Force is working hard to get us a sponsor and get on us on the 2019 NHRA circuit, and I’m just trying to do my part and make sure I’m ready when the time comes. It’s hectic and stressful, but we’re having fun. Glad to be out here with Jon Schaffer and Ronnie Thompson, and I know Force and Robert [Hight] will be out here to support and make sure things run smooth, too.”
Top performances – Wild Horse Pass Raceway
Steve Torrence – 3.689, 328.78
Brittany Force – 3.7, 321.27
Billy Torrence – 3.731, 325.14
Jordan Vandergriff – 3.738, 325.85
Mike Salinas – 3.747, 296.24
Antron Brown – 3.769, 293.73
Doug Kalitta – 3.78, 289.07
Richie Crampton – 3.78, 275
Clay Millican – 3.81, 296.44
Scott Palmer – 3.921, 242.50
Greg Carrillo – 5.057, 142.94
Jim Maroney – 10.972, 46.22
Robert Hight – 3.863, 326.87
J.R. Todd – 3.868, 324.36
John Force – 3.894, 331.61
Shawn Langdon – 3.905, 327.35
Matt Hagan – 3.959, 319.22
Bob Tasca III – 3.972, 310.20
Jonnie Lindberg – 3.99, 309.56
Chad Green – 4.090, 252.80
Cruz Pedregon – 4.377, 200.11