Phoenix Wrap: NHRA’s Women Racers Know How To Win Races

The NHRA’s women know how to close the deal.
While the NASCAR media and national media embarrassed themselves, fawning shamelessly on Daytona 500 polesitter and ultimate also-ran Danica Patrick for more than a week, they missed what was happening out West in a major motorsports series that for decades has needed no diversity program.
The day Patrick took the pole position for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season opener, NHRA Funny Car driver Courtney Force won the Winternationals, the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series kickoff at Pomona, Calif., from the No. 1 qualifying position. Furthermore, she set low elapsed time of the meet and punctuated her final-round pass with a 317.12-mph speed.

Image courtesy NHRA/National Dragster

Then the day Patrick’s performance couldn’t measure up to her hype — race day on NASCAR’s biggest stage — drag racing’s Erica Enders-Stevens beat top qualifier Mike Edwards in the final round of the Arizona Nationals at Firebird International Raceway to win the Pro Stock trophy.
Joining Enders in Sunday’s Arizona Nationals winners circle were Tony Schumacher (Top Fuel) and Ron Capps (Funny Car).
So while NASCAR is 0-1 with its female-on-parade program, the NHRA has women winners in back-to-back events — with no attention from the mainstream media that’s beginning not to seem so terribly mainstream anymore.
For example, the media missed, too, that both Force and Enders-Stevens had won before, including the day last August when they shared the winners circle at Seattle. This year’s victories were No. 2 for Force and No. 5 for Enders-Stevens. (Never mind the media being ignorant that the NHRA has had females recording 90 No. 1 qualifying positions, 92 victories by female racers, and two three-time female pro champions — as well as five pro championships among three Hispanic racers.)

They also missed perhaps the most salient quote of the season. John Force, the 15-time NHRA Funny Car champion, who has put his three youngest daughters in race cars and has his eldest daughter serving his operation as CFO for years, acknowledged Patrick’s accomplishment. But he put it, and the media nonsense, in perspective by telling veteran journalist Michael Knight of the Arizona Republic newspaper, “I get that Danica got the pole is a big deal, but it is not like she delivered the baby Jesus.”

Image courtesy NHRA/National Dragster

SCHUMACHER WINS WITH ‘COWBOY STUFF’ – Tony Schumacher described his ugly, tire-smoking final-round duel against Morgan Lucas by saying, “It was pedal, pedal, lift, pedal, straighten the car out, do it again. I loved it. It’s cowboy stuff. I enjoy that kind of race more than the record-setting ones we’ve had over the years. That still proves you have to put a driver in these cars and drive these things. When you go out and win ugly like that, it’s just fun – crazy, but fun. The fans got their money’s worth on that run.”
ANOTHER FINAL FOR CAPPS – Funny Car winner Ron Capps said he and crew chief Rahn Tobler are “starting to feel like we’re getting into the same rhythm that we were in last year when we went to six finals in a row. Capps beat buddy Matt Hagan in the NAPA Dodge driver’s second final of the season. Capps lost to Courtney Force in the season opener at Pomona. “I think that both Rahn and I built up some confidence in each other at Pomona, and now here.”
PRO STOCK WINNER – Erica Enders-Stevens used a superior reaction time in the final round to defeat Mike Edwards, the top qualifier at both races this year. “My crew chief, Dave Connolly, reminded me that every time that Jimmie Johnson wins, we win,” she said. “And he told me that Jimmie won the Daytona 500 prior to the final. So we’re going to be cheering for Jimmie all year.”
POINTS LEADERS -Tony Schumacher took control of the Top Fuel points, passing Shawn Langdon. Ron Capps also took advantage of the early leader’s first-round misfortune and knocked Courtney Force from the No. 1 spot. Vincent Nobile held onto the Pro Stock lead by 16 points over Phoenix winner Erica Enders-Stevens.

EDWARDS RUNNING STRONG – In setting the Pro Stock bar at 6.498 seconds and 213.13 mph in his I Am Second / Interstate Batteries Camaro in Friday’s first session, Mike Edwards broke his own year-old track records. He improved the speed mark to 213.77 in his second-round victory over Winternationals winner Vincent Nobile.  Jason Line still owns both ends of the national record at 6.477, 214.35. However, Edwards is in third place in the standings, behind Nobile and Sunday winner Erica Enders-Stevens, while Line is sixth. Edwards has qualified No. 1 at both events this season.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, CONNIE  – Kalitta Motorsports owner Connie Kalitta celebrated his 75th birthday Sunday. And nephew Doug Kalitta and teammate Dave Grubnic wanted to deliver a Top Fuel victory for a gift to him. Doug Kalitta, driving the Mac Tools Dragtser, set he track elapsed-time record at 3.733 seconds in qualifying No. 1. His 329.02-mph speed was the track’s fastest ever, until eventual winner Tony Schumacher clocked a 329.91-mph effort in the quarterfinals Sunday. Kalitta bowed out in the opening round, victim of a holeshot upset. Grubnic, in the Optima Batteries entry, qualified fourth and won his first test but lost to runner-up Morgan Lucas in the quarterfinals.
At a pot-luck luncheon in his honor Thursday in the hangar of the team’s Kalitta Air headquarters at Willow Run Airport at Ypsilanti, Mich., Doug Kalitta talked his uncle into donning a festive hat decorated like a birthday cake. The team also hung a life-size banner of the boss in the Kalitta Motorsports pit. Fans were encouraged to have their photo taken with the image of the drag racing legend wearing a cone-shaped party hat. But Tony Schumacher ultimately got to do the celebrating Sunday.


image courtesy John Force Racing

OH, ‘CHUTE – Parachutes obviously are on a Top Fuel dragster to help the driver. But they didn’t do Brittany Force any favors Sunday. She had a decent chance to notch her first round-win this rookie season in the Castrol Edge Dragster, but a safety-designed timer somehow deployed the ‘chutes prematurely and allowed an already strong-running Dave Grubnic to zip past her. But for Force, who has a degree in English and teaching certification, she learned a lesson in pedaling the car when both drivers smoked the tires.

“That first round was the first time I stepped on it and had to pedal it,” she said. “It was a good experience for me, since I had never done that before. That is not something you can test. I stepped on the gas twice and it got a little close to the wall, so I lifted. We think my chutes came out because of the five-second timer. That slowed us down,  but it was a good experience for me,” Force said. “It’s is a lot more challenging to pedal this Top Fuel dragster than my A/Fuel dragster. It was easier to keep my A/Fuel dragster under control. This one surprised me, but I was able to handle it. I just need a little more practice and I’ll be fine.”
FIRST ROUND-WIN – Dote Racing Dragster driver Leah Pruett, a Top Fuel rookie despite several years of winning performances in Nostalgia Funny Car and Pro Modified,  scored her first elimination round-win in a dragster. She advanced past Winternationals champion Shawn Langdon. Antron Brown beat her in round two.
 COURTNEY FORCE STUMBLES – Top Winternationals Funny Car qualifier and winner Courtney Force smoked the tires of her Traxxas Ford Mustang against Todd Lesenko in the first round Sunday and slipped to second in the standings. She trails Sunday winner Ron Capps, her final-round conquest the week before, by 45 points.

Image courtesy NHRA/National Dragster

LIKE A PHOENIX, IN PHOENIX – Antron Brown shook off the frightening and destructive accident at Pomona just five days before and, in a brand-new, untested replacement Matco Tools Dragster and took Friday’s provisional No. 1 qualifying position in Top Fuel (at 3.765 / 314.83). Doug Kalitta knocked him down to No. 2 in Saturday’s final qualifying session. So, in a sense, Brown was like the phoenix, rising from the ashes — in Phoenix, no less ironically.

Image courtesy NHRA/National Dragster

UNCLE JEG HELPS OUT – For the first time since 2009, four-time Pro Stock champion Jeg Coughlin worked directly with Troy Coughlin Jr., tuning a ’57 Corvette roadster that the family’s third-generation racer drove in the Super Gas class. Troy Jr., an accomplished E.T. bracket driver, missed out on his third national-event victory. He already has two in the Super Comp class, and one came at Las Vegas the previous time Uncle Jeg was his crew chief. The younger Coughlin lost in the opening round. Jeg Coughlin fared slightly better, reaching the Pro Stock semifinal round.
KNOW WHEN TO HOLD ‘EM — AND FOLD ‘EM — Johnny Gray led the Funny Car field for the second straight year, bringing a sentimental touch this time with his playing-card-festooned Pitch Energy Dodge Charger that he and his sister have sponsored as a tribute to their late father, John R. Gray. After getting his fourth overall low-qualifier spot, Gray squandered an 5.636-second pass that would have beaten struggling No. 16 qualifier Robert Hight and would have been completely unspectacular if he hadn’t grazed the wall downtrack. His run was disqualified and Hight advanced to the quarterfinals.  
ARIZONA SPORTSMAN WINNERS SHINE – Hometown favorite Kevin Kleineweber drove his Lumina to victory in the Super Street class and Arizona residents Harry Doolittle (Wickenburg) in Super Stock and Chuck Hawk (Tucson) in Top Dragster helped lead the list of sportsman winners. Others were Zack Torres (Stock), Jack DeRencin (Buena Park), Brad Pierce (Super Gas), and J.R. Lobner (Top Sportsman).

About the author

Susan Wade

Celebrating her 45th year in sports journalism, Susan Wade has emerged as one of the leading drag-racing writers with 20 seasons at the racetrack. She was the first non-NASCAR recipient of the prestigious Russ Catlin Award and has covered the sport for the Chicago Tribune, Newark Star-Ledger, St. Petersburg Times, and Seattle Times. Growing up in Indianapolis, motorsports is part of her DNA. She contributes to Power Automedia as a freelancer writer.
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