Race Coverage: The Season-Opening 52nd Annual NHRA Gatornationals

Hart, Todd, Anderson And Matt Smith Pick Up Wins To Open 2021 NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series Season

Top Fuel Rookie Josh Hart won the season-opening 52nd annual AMALIE Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals at Gainesville Raceway on Sunday, powering to the victory in his first career NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series start.

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J.R. Todd (Funny Car), Greg Anderson (Pro Stock) and Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle) also won in their respective categories at the first race of the 2021 NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series season.

Hart, an Ocala, Fla. native, became the first driver to win in their first NHRA start since the late Darrell Russell did it 20 years ago to open the 2001 season, going 3.826-seconds at 323.66 mph in his 11,000-horsepower Burnyzz/Technet dragster to beat Shawn Langdon in the final round. Hart reached the final round thanks to victories against Clay Millican, three-time defending world champ Steve Torrence and Justin Ashley, staying in the low 3.80s in the second and third rounds. He was spectacular on the starting line in the final round and cruised to the historic win at his home track to become the 110th driver to win in Top Fuel.

“Never in a million years would I have thought this was going to happen,” Hart said. “I’ve wanted to do this for a really long time and to do it in Top Fuel is just amazing. (Crew chief) Ron Douglas gave me an amazing car and the guys have worked their butts off. It’s just amazing. That thing was a monster going down the track.”

Langdon’s 35th career final round included round wins against Doug Foley, Leah Pruett and Antron Brown.

In a wild Funny Car final round against Robert Hight, Todd earned his first win in nearly two years, 5.184 at 286.38 in his 11,000-horsepower DHL Toyota Camry. Both Todd and Hight smoked the tires early in the run, but Todd pedaled, recovered and went right down the track after that to win in Gainesville for the first time in his standout career and get his 19th career win. The Kalitta Motorsports driver beat Blake Alexander, Tim Wilkerson and Cruz Pedregon to reach the final round. His victory also snapped the 14-race Funny Car win streak for Don Schumacher Racing, giving the Kalitta team a strong start to 2021.

“It’s amazing to be among the legends who have won this race,” Todd said. “This is Don Garlits country down here in Gainesville. First off, I have to thank the legend Connie Kalitta for the opportunity to earn one of these trophies. Today was tough. No offense to all the other drivers out there, but in my opinion, Robert Hight is the best driver out here. That team sets the benchmark for the rest of us. Our DHL Toyota Camry went out there and blew the tires off and I thought, ‘Oh man, here we go.’ I just kind of rolled into the throttle, he never came by us and here we are holding another (Wally).”

Hight, making his first start in more than a year, ended up in his 81st career final round thanks to wins against Bob Bode, teammate John Force and Bob Tasca III.

Celebrating his 60th birthday, Pro Stock legend Greg Anderson picked up the ideal present, winning for the 95th time in the class by going 6.602 at 209.33 in his Race Star Wheels Chevrolet Camaro to beat Troy Coughlin Jr. in the final round. Anderson took out Cristian Cuadra, Alex Laughlin and Deric Kramer to reach the final round for the 159th time in his career. But after going winless in 2020, Anderson, a four-time world champ, was thrilled to pick up the victory against Coughlin. It also gave Anderson his fifth career victory at the Gatornationals.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve held one of those trophies, and I’ve said it a million times in my career, you always wonder if you’ll be able to do it again,” Anderson said. “I guess you’re not human if you don’t have doubts, and it’s a shame to have those thoughts, but I think it’s good in a way because it drives you to work harder every day. You just want to have that feeling again so bad. To finally get back to the winner’s circle a year and a half later, and to do it on my birthday, well that makes this a win that I’ll never forget.”

Coughlin, beginning his second year in Pro Stock, beat Aaron Stanfield, Fernando Cuadra Jr. and Mason McGaha to reach his second career final round.

It was an outstanding start to a title defense season for Pro Stock Motorcycle’s Matt Smith, as he made multiple runs of 200 mph or faster on his Denso Auto Parts/Stockseth/Matt Smith Racing EBR, including the final round when he went 6.785 at 200.65 to beat Ryan Oehler’s 6.869 at 196.53. It was Smith’s quickest run of the weekend and he topped 200 mph on every run in eliminations to win in Gainesville for a second straight year. He knocked off Jim Underdahl, Hector Arana Jr. and Steve Johnson to reach the final round, rolling to his 27th career win.

“I just have to go up there and race my lane,” said Smith, a four-time Pro Stock Motorcycle world champion. “This bike was on mean this weekend. We weren’t able to quite get the E.T. we needed, but this bike was running the speed.”

Oehler advanced to his third career final round thanks to round wins against Jerry Savoie, Karen Stoffer and Scotty Pollacheck.

Jose Gonzalez started Sunday by making the quickest run in E3 Spark Plugs NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series history and ended his day with a victory, beating Justin Bond in the final round of the opening race of the 2021 season at Gainesville Raceway.

The race, which was presented by Jerry Bickel Race Cars and FTI Performance, is the first of 12 events during the 2021 E3 Spark Plugs NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series presented by J&A Service season, and Gonzalez rolled to his third career win.

He went 5.720-seconds at 254.33 mph in his ProCharger-powered Q80 Racing/EGR Racing Camaro to beat Bond in the final round as Bond, who was the No. 1 qualifier, slowed to an 8.341 at 112.00. After qualifying third, Gonzalez eclipsed the record Bond set Saturday night, going an incredible 5.621 at 254.62 to win in the first round of eliminations against Jerico Balduf and make the quickest run in class history. He followed with round wins against Clint Satterfield and Khalid Al-Balooshi to reach the final round for the sixth time in his career, meeting Bond for the first time in eliminations.
car actually feels like I’ve been in it for almost a year driving it,” said Gonzalez, who didn’t race in 2020. “I was actually a bit scared with all the new rules that we have to shift, and I had never shifted (in) this car before. I’m just happy where we are being able to go to the finals (and) win at the very first race.”

Bond, who went a whopping 5.638 at 253.80 to qualify No. 1 for the first time in his ProCharger-powered JBS/Bahrain 1 Racing Camaro, beat Jim Whiteley, Jeffrey Barker and Jonathan Gray to reach his third career final round.

The E3 Spark Plugs NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series presented by J&A Service returns to action April 30-May 2 as part of the NHRA Southern Nationals at Atlanta Dragway.

Sunday’s final results from the 52nd annual Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals at Gainesville Raceway. The race is the first of 22 in the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series: 

Top Fuel — Josh Hart, 3.826 seconds, 323.66 mph def. Shawn Langdon, 4.244 seconds, 219.08 mph.

Funny Car — J.R. Todd, Toyota Camry, 5.184, 286.38 def. Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, 6.591, 144.41.

Pro Stock — Greg Anderson, Chevy Camaro, 6.602, 209.33 def. Troy Coughlin Jr., Ford Mustang, 15.385, 53.98.

Pro Stock Motorcycle — Matt Smith, EBR, 6.785, 200.65 def. Ryan Oehler, EBR, 6.869, 196.53.

Top Alcohol Dragster — Rachel Meyer, 5.227, 277.60 def. Jackie Fricke, 5.295, 277.09.

Top Alcohol Funny Car — Sean Bellemeur, Chevy Camaro, 5.524, 267.59 def. DJ Cox Jr., Camaro, 5.522, 265.06.

Competition Eliminator — Greg Kamplain, Spitzer, 6.967, 175.00 def. Richard Preiser, Bantam, 8.965, 145.83.

Super Stock — Sterling Simmons, Chevy Cavalier, 9.382, 140.01 def. Tyler Caheely, Chevy S-10, 9.219, 144.04.

Stock Eliminator — Jimmy Hidalgo Jr., Pontiac GTO, 10.844, 121.22 def. Randy Wilkes, Pontiac Firebird, 9.894, 130.08.

Super Comp — Ray Miller III, Dragster, 8.902, 177.11 def. Allan Ackles, Dragster, 8.897, 174.01.

Super Gas — Jonathan Anderson, Corvette, 9.924, 160.90 def. Larry Bernshausen, Chevy Vega Wagon, 9.898, 148.58.

Top Sportsman presented by Vortech Superchargers — Brandon Miller, Chevy Corvette, 7.091, 193.27 def. Derrick Brown, Chevy Camaro, 6.276, 225.75.

Pro Modified — Jose Gonzalez, Chevy Camaro, 5.720, 254.33 def. Justin Bond, Camaro, 8.341, 112.00.

Factory Stock Showdown — Aaron Stanfield, Chevy Camaro, 7.896, 173.45 def. Kevin Skinner, Ford Mustang, 13.734, 78.61.

Top Fuel Harley — Randal Andras, Weekend, 6.403, 213.30 def. Tii Tharpe, Dixie, 9.801, 90.90.

Pro Mod Racers Tangle In Violent, Fiery Crash

Pro Modified racers Brandon Pesz and Dustin Nesloney walked away from a violent and fiery two-car crash in the final session of qualifying Saturday evening at the Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals at Gainesville, Florida.

Pesz, who through the first four pairs of cars in the session had been bumped from No. 16 to fiver spots outside in the field into 21st, was fighting to punch his way back into the very quick Pro Modified field in his Larry Jeffers Race Cars-built supercharged Camaro when he drifted left out of the groove near the finish line, lost control, and shot across the racetrack in front of the charging Nesloney. The two made impact in a fiery exchange as Peszs’ machine turned onto its roof and slid to a stop in the shutdown area.

“That was a complete demonstration of how to drive like an idiot and take out two badass hot rods,” said a dejected Pesz. “It just got out of the groove. I had just got done telling Jeff [Jones] there’s a little bit of pollen by the walls, so if you get by the walls to lift. And I didn’t. I did totally exactly opposite of what I told him to do.”

TAD Racer Jasmine Salinas Involved In Blowover Crash

Jasmine Salinas, the daughter of Top Fuel competitor Mike Salinas, was uninjured in a high-speed crash during Top Alcohol Dragster qualifying Saturday morning at the Amalie Motor Oil Gatornationals at Gainesville Raceway in Florida Saturday.

Salinas, driving her 5.1-second, 280 mph nitro-burning Scrappers Racing A/Fuel Dragster, went airborne past the 1/8-mile mark and somersaulted over the guardrail, tumbling to a stop in the grass along the shutdown area. Salinas reportedly climbed from the dragster under her own power and was evaluated on the scene by medical personnel. 

Entering the ill-fated final session, Salinas was qualified atop the 18-car field with a 5.177 at 279.50 mph. Karen Stalba, who was in the opposing lane as Salinas crashed, overtook her with a last-ditch 5.172.

Steve Torrence, Capps, Anderson and Sampey Grab No. 1 Spots

Three-time and defending NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series world champ Steve Torrence maintained his top spot in Top Fuel on Saturda to qualify No. 1 at the season-opening 52nd annual AMALIE Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals at Gainesville Raceway.

Ron Capps (Funny Car), Greg Anderson (Pro Stock) and Angelle Sampey (Pro Stock Motorcycle) will also lead their respective categories into the first race of the 2021 NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series season.

Torrence qualified No. 1 for the 28th time in his career after his impressive run of 3.699-seconds at 324.90 mph in his 11,000-horsepower Capco Contractors dragster from Friday held up. After a string of three straight dominant seasons, Torrence appeared to keep his momentum going to open 2021. He will take on Joe Morrison to open eliminations, looking to repeat his Gainesville triumph from last season.

“We need to maintain our focus and concentration on going laps and going rounds because there’s a lot of people targeting us,” said Torrence, a 40-time event winner. “We’re going to have to step up. Brittany (Force) is back, some other people are back and it’s going to be a competitive field, just as it always is. Getting in these things, you get jacked up and that run (Friday) was stout. We made a good run this afternoon and we’re excited to stay on top. The yellow (No. 1 qualifier) hats are nice, but we’re trying to get some of those winner’s hats, so we’ll see what we can do.”

Steve’s father, Billy, moved to second in the final qualifying session with a run of 3.735 at 326.95, while Leah Pruett also made a big jump to close out Saturday, going 3.741 at 326.32 to qualify third.

Capps’ 3.895 at 329.02 in his 11,000-horsepower NAPA Auto Parts Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat from Friday gave him the No. 1 qualifier for the 26th time in his career. It’s a solid start for Capps, who will race Jim Campbell to begin eliminations. Don Schumacher Racing’s 14-race winning streak in Funny Car is also on the line and Capps, a 66-time event winner, hopes to extend that streak on Sunday in Gainesville.

“I’m just a small link and I just didn’t want to mess up,” said Capps, who has three wins at the historic facility. “I’ve got my first Camping World hat (for a No. 1 qualifier) and it’s great. It’s been fun and we’re excited, but tomorrow is raceday. We’ve got a great crowd here, and I’m feeling good and I don’t want the dream to end, so hopefully we can finish the job on Sunday.”

Alexis DeJoria qualified second thanks to her pass of 3.914 at 324.28 and Tim Wilkerson took third on the strength of his 3.917 at 326.32.

Greg Anderson and Erica Enders battled for the top position in Pro Stock, and the two four-time world champs swapped spots on Saturday, with Anderson going 6.525 at 211.36 in his Race Star Wheels/Summit Racing Chevrolet Camaro. It gives the veteran his 107th career No. 1 qualifier and plenty of momentum heading into raceday, where he will meet Fernando Cuadra Jr. in the opening round. After going winless in 2020, Anderson, a 94-time event winner, looks to start 2021 on a good note and win in Gainesville for the fifth time.

“It feels great,” Anderson said. “It’s been a long five months with no racing and that drives us crazy. This is what it’s all about, racing at the Gatornationals, and so far my car has just been flawless. We got the spot we wanted and we’re going to come out tomorrow – on my birthday – and see if we can get a blue (winner’s) Camping World hat.”

Enders, the defending and back-to-back world champ, finished in the second spot thanks to her 6.528 at 210.77 and Matt Hartford jumped to third in the final qualifying session after going 6.532 at 209.62.

A terrific opening weekend got even better for Angelle Sampey in Pro Stock Motorcycle, as she improved on her run from Friday with a pass of 6.742 at 200.00 on her Mission Foods/Vance & Hines Suzuki. It gave the three-time world champion her 52nd career No. 1 qualifier and Sampey will open eliminations against Michael Phillips. Sampey’s fastest career run also sent her into the Denso Auto Parts 200 mph club, a significant achievement on her new four-valve Suzuki.

“It is amazing to feel the love and support from everyone at Vance & Hines,” said Sampey, who has three career Gatornationals victories. “I’ve always been on a mission and it feels like mission accomplished already. But there’s still so much more ahead this weekend with this Suzuki four-valve that Vance & Hines developed. I’m just the lucky rider who gets to be on this bike and I’m loving it. I’m still learning the motorcycle and it’s been a struggle at times, but I’m still going.”

Defending world champ Matt Smith qualified second with a 6.768 at 199.82, and he went a weekend-best 200.74 in the final qualifying session. Joey Gladstone took the third spot after going 6.783 at 198.50.

Sunday’s first-round pairings for eliminations for the 52nd annual Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals at Gainesville Raceway, the first of 22 events in the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series. Pairings based on results in qualifying, which ended Saturday. DNQs listed below pairings.
Top Fuel — 1. Steve Torrence, 3.699 seconds, 324.90 mph vs. 16. Joe Morrison, 4.294, 224.06; 2. Billy Torrence, 3.735, 326.95 vs. 15. Scott Palmer, 4.110, 264.49; 3. Leah Pruett, 3.741, 326.32 vs. 14. Mike Bucher, 4.029, 301.00; 4. Doug Kalitta, 3.746, 307.37 vs. 13. Arthur Allen, 3.915, 299.20; 5. Brittany Force, 3.747, 330.47 vs. 12. Justin Ashley, 3.873, 319.60; 6. Shawn Langdon, 3.749, 323.89 vs. 11. Doug Foley, 3.849, 322.11; 7. Mike Salinas, 3.767, 324.36 vs. 10. Antron Brown, 3.809, 316.75; 8. Josh Hart, 3.768, 324.44 vs. 9. Clay Millican, 3.787, 317.94.
Did Not Qualify: 17. Krista Baldwin, 4.503, 181.81; 18. Todd Paton, broke.
Funny Car — 1. Ron Capps, Dodge Charger, 3.895, 329.02 vs. 16. Jim Campbell, Charger, 4.204, 299.13; 2. Alexis DeJoria, Toyota Camry, 3.914, 324.28 vs. 15. John Smith, Charger, 4.181, 256.70; 3. Tim Wilkerson, Ford Mustang, 3.917, 326.32 vs. 14. Dave Richards, Mustang, 4.091, 292.14; 4. Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, 3.931, 330.15 vs. 13. Bobby Bode, Mustang, 4.075, 263.98; 5. John Force, Camaro, 3.934, 323.66 vs. 12. Paul Lee, Charger, 4.033, 306.19; 6. J.R. Todd, Camry, 3.955, 325.61 vs. 11. Blake Alexander, Mustang, 4.007, 316.23; 7. Cruz Pedregon, Charger, 3.971, 322.50 vs. 10. Chad Green, Mustang, 3.998, 310.70; 8. Matt Hagan, Charger, 3.974, 325.30 vs. 9. Bob Tasca III, Mustang, 3.986, 323.19.
Did Not Qualify: 17. Terry Haddock, 4.228, 244.47; 18. Mike McIntire, 4.587, 188.94.
Pro Stock — 1. Greg Anderson, Chevy Camaro, 6.525, 211.36 vs. 16. Cristian Cuadra, Ford Mustang, 6.583, 208.97; 2. Erica Enders, Camaro, 6.528, 210.77 vs. 15. Fernando Cuadra Jr., Mustang, 6.581, 209.65; 3. Matt Hartford, Camaro, 6.532, 209.62 vs. 14. Bob Benza, Camaro, 6.570, 210.01; 4. Deric Kramer, Camaro, 6.540, 210.08 vs. 13. Val Smeland, Camaro, 6.570, 210.05; 5. Kyle Koretsky, Camaro, 6.543, 210.57 vs. 12. Dallas Glenn, Camaro, 6.563, 209.92; 6. Kenny Delco, Camaro, 6.543, 210.11 vs. 11. Mason McGaha, Camaro, 6.558, 208.59; 7. Troy Coughlin Jr., Mustang, 6.543, 209.85 vs. 10. Aaron Stanfield, Camaro, 6.557, 209.72; 8. Chris McGaha, Camaro, 6.549, 210.83 vs. 9. Alex Laughlin, Camaro, 6.555, 209.72.
Did Not Qualify: 17. Richie Stevens, 6.598, 209.59; 18. Fernando Cuadra, 6.620, 208.75; 19. Alan Prusiensky, 6.674, 206.48; 20. John Callahan, 7.982, 190.70; 21. John Gaydosh Jr, 11.117, 162.63.
Pro Stock Motorcycle — 1. Angelle Sampey, Suzuki, 6.742, 200.00 vs. 16. Michael Phillips, Suzuki, 6.924, 194.72; 2. Matt Smith, EBR, 6.768, 199.82 vs. 15. Jim Underdahl, Suzuki, 6.912, 194.21; 3. Joey Gladstone, Suzuki, 6.783, 198.50 vs. 14. Chris Bostick, Suzuki, 6.906, 194.66; 4. Ryan Oehler, EBR, 6.811, 198.70 vs. 13. Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, 6.879, 193.74; 5. Karen Stoffer, Suzuki, 6.814, 196.24 vs. 12. Kelly Clontz, Suzuki, 6.875, 194.32; 6. Steve Johnson, Suzuki, 6.816, 198.20 vs. 11. John Hall, Buell, 6.874, 197.31; 7. Hector Arana Jr, EBR, 6.817, 198.32 vs. 10. Angie Smith, EBR, 6.842, 199.43; 8. Scotty Pollacheck, EBR, 6.827, 198.79 vs. 9. Cory Reed, Suzuki, 6.839, 198.61.
Did Not Qualify: 17. Marc Ingwersen, 6.925, 195.08; 18. Jianna Salinas, 6.974, 189.42; 19. Pablo Gonzalez, 7.033, 190.54; 20. David Barron, 7.039, 189.07; 21. Lance Bonham, 7.053, 188.49.

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