NHRA Drag Racing Makes Its Long-Awaited Return At Indianapolis

After the longest hiatus in NHRA drag racing competition — a full 139 days — since the 1964-65 offseason as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series returned to action at the Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis with the E3 Spark Plugs NHRA Nationals this weekend. The series, as promised, welcomed a limited number of invite-only spectators, marking the first major sporting event in the state of Indiana with a live audience since the pandemic wreaked havoc on the sports world in mid-March. The event, the first of two back-to-back national events to be held at Indianapolis, kickstarts what is an aggressive resumption of racing, with 15 races scheduled through November.

The E3 Spark Plugs NHRA Nationals was a unique event in every way: beyond it the first national event ever held at Indianapolis other than the U.S. Nationals, two days of pre-race testing was conducted followed by just two sessions of qualifying. The majority of the traditional Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series eliminators were not present, with the exception of Top Dragster and Top Sportsman, both of which were not competing for national or divisional points. As well, the JEGS Super Quick Series, a staple of bracket racing in the midwest, participated in an NHRA national event for the first time in its long history. Adding to that, face coverings, social distancing, temperature-taking, and the unmistakable absence of John Force Racing’s four nitro teams.

The NHRA and Lucas Oil Raceway adhered to strict health guidelines to cope with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, limiting the number of spectators in attendance as well as fan-to-driver interaction.

In the end, the long wait and the hurdles of social distancing and other health protocols were well worth it for anxious racers, fans, and those watching on at home — but none moreso than Billy Torrence, Matt Hagan, Jason Line, and first-time winner Ryan Oehler, who kicked off the NHRA’s return in the most positive of fashion.

The elder Torrence, in a repeat of last year’s U.S. Nationals final, evened the score at Indy with a 3.80 to 3.85 defeat of points leader Doug Kalitta. Torrence had defeated Terry Totten, T.J. Zizzo, and son and reigning series champion Steve Torrence, on his path the final.

“To come out here and be able to compete at this level, it’s always gratifying,” Torrence said. “These boys worked so hard to give me a competitive car. If you can’t have fun doing this, you can’t have fun doing anything. For the people that come out here to put these events on and for all the people trying to keep all of us safe and all, just thank you. We (also) need to thank the good Lord for us being out here as a family and being able to enjoy the freedoms to come out here and drag race.”

In Funny Car, Hagan scored his first win of the 2020 season with a defeat of teammate Tommy Johnson, Jr.Hagan was never headed in his Mopar Dodge, blasting to a 4.32-second victory that ended with a brief fire under the body. Johnson had qualified atop the field and set low e.t. at 3.89, but slowed in the finale.

“It was a big change going from super cool conditions, and being able to run really hard, and then watching (crew chief) Dickie Venables make the adjustments when it’s a 140-degree race track, and different things like that,” said Hagan of the differing weather conditions on race day. “Really proud of Dickie, (assistant crew chief) Mike Knudsen, Alex Conway, and all my guys that are wrenching on the car to make these adjustments.

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“My guys put a great race car underneath me,” added Hagan. “We kept lane choice all day long and to be able to make those calls, and to go out there and run hard in this heat, is really telling. Tommy Johnson, he really had the car to beat this weekend. He rolled out of the box really strong. That whole team over there, they’re going to be tough for us all year long. I’m just really proud and excited to be a part of NHRA that’s bringing it out here with the fans. We’re back out here, and we’ve got this race underneath us to show people that we can do this, and do it right. People are taking the necessary precautions and making sure we’re staying safe. It’s just really nice to be back into drag racing and to be able to hold up the Wally again.”

Line extended his win streak to 17 seasons in what is his final year behind the wheel in Pro Stock, edging Jeg Coughlin in a close 6.64 to 6.65 contest in a battle between the Nos. 1 and 2 qualifiers. Line had paced the field in qualifying and recorded low elapsed time in three of the four rounds on raceday.

“This one is special,” said Line. “Every one of these wins means a lot, but this being my last year, and I really wanted to keep the streak going. My dad [Lawrence Line] is big on stats. He’s been keeping track and reminds me about it every time he can – I’ve won one every year since I started racing full time in 2004. Now, no matter what happens the rest of this year, we’ve done that. I’m pretty happy.”

Photo courtesy NHRA/National Dragster

Perhaps no one left Indianapolis with a bigger smile, however, than Oehler, who earned his first career professional victory in his first-ever final round. Oehler bounced Marc Ingwerson, Scotty Pollacheck, and Hector Arana, Jr. in earlier rounds to earn his date with Matt Smith in the final. Oehler was a confident .010 on the tree and was never headed, sailing to a 6.97 as Smith slowed and coasted.

“We’ve been hunting for this for a long time,” Oehler said. “This has been my dad’s dream and we just keep working every day. When we pulled up to the line, I knew it was going to try to pull me through the beams. I waited to go on the two-step until that very last second and when it dropped, I knew we had a good light. Just to have it all come together for my dad, my mom, my wife, my team, I love it all.”

Zack Sackman powered to victory in Top Dragster over reigning champion Danny Nelson, running dead-on his 6.20 dial in the final. John Steldt defeated Chris Osborn for the Top Sportsman ‘Wally’, and Tony Pranger collected the Super Quick Series crown.

Bruno Massel jumped out of the FOX broadcasting booth to make the first of what is anticipated to be six races this season in Pro Stock driving a Mark Stockseth-backed Camaro out of the Elite Motorsports camp.

Every driver, crew person, and spectator through the gate got their temperature checked.

Eight-time Top Fuel champion Tony Schumacher, sidelined since the 2018 season, returned to the venue at which he’s won a record 10 times for the first of two races. Schumacher qualified 7th but fell in round one to teammate Leah Pruett.

T.J. Zizzo qualified a career-high 5th in Top Fuel and lost a close race to Billy Torrence in round two.

Pro Stock Motorcycle riders, who were unable to start their 2020 campaign as scheduled when the Gainesville race was postponed in March, had not competed since last November.

Top Fuel veteran Cory McClenathan returned to Don Schumacher Racing for a two-race stint with Nordic Boats backing. Cory Mac retired after a brief schedule last year, but couldn’t turn the opportunity to win one last race with a top-tier operation. McClenathan qualified 12th but broke on the starting line against Zizzo in round one.

Indiana native Kyle Wurtzel ended his weekend with a bang, blowing the supercharger off his dragster in fiery fashion in the first qualifier.

Jonnie Lindberg stepped into the seat of Bob Tasca’s Ford/Quick Lane Mustang for the weekend after Tasca received a positive test for the coronavirus.

Local fans caught a glimpse of the closed testing sessions held on Thursday and Friday as a tune-up after the long hiatus.

About the author

Andrew Wolf

Andrew has been involved in motorsports from a very young age. Over the years, he has photographed several major auto racing events, sports, news journalism, portraiture, and everything in between. After working with the Power Automedia staff for some time on a freelance basis, Andrew joined the team in 2010.
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