By Adam Carabine
Photos Courtesy: NHRA
SONOMA, Calif. – It was the perfect weekend for drag racing in northern California, as the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series made their annual visit to Sonoma Raceway. There was no shortage of excitement as each of the top four national touring series took to the drag strip. In the end, four drivers each earned their first career victories at Sonoma.
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLES
Angelle Sampey was the number-one qualifier with a track record – 6.700 – which actually ended up being the fastest motorcycle e.t. of the entire weekend. She said of the run, “I told myself from the burnout to the starting line, I kept repeating, trust your team, trust your equipment, everything’s going to be fine.” Sampey was the one to beat, and actually ran a 6.696 in the semi-finals, but jumped the gun on the tree, invalidating her time.
Joey Gladstone, who qualified 3rd, won the day, earning his first career victory. The picture of consistency, his motorcycle runs were all in the 6.70s, and he defeated Eddie Krawiec in the final round. “I’ve never won an NHRA race, but I’ve won a few other races. Some days it just feels like you can’t lose, and today felt a lot like that. This is pretty surreal.”
PRO STOCK CARS
18-year veteran Erica Enders had a decent first qualifying run, but it was only good enough for 8th in the field. Troy Coughlin Jr. was the provisional number-one qualifier after Friday night qualifying under the lights. However, Enders came back with a vengeance on Saturday to post a 6.506 and earn the number-one qualifier. On Saturday she said, “It’s always good to qualify on the pole. The other two that we have so far this season, we’ve carried it all the way through Sunday, and got it done, so hopefully the trend continues.”
Her wish came true on Sunday, as she defeated teammate Fernando Cuadra Jr. in the first round. She then exacted some revenge on Mason McGaha who beat her last week in Denver, and was able to cruise to the final round after Aaron Stanfield had issues in the semi-finals. Her fiercest rival, Greg Anderson, was her opponent in the finals. She famously beat Anderson 10 years ago when she became the first woman to win in NHRA Pro Stock. Anderson was hoping to earn his 100th win on Sunday, but Erica denied him, running a 6.574 en route to her first ever victory at Sonoma. On Anderson, she said, “No matter who comes into this class, he will always be the baddest dude in my career lifespan. He’s always been the guy to beat. To be able to race next to him is a huge honour, there’s massive respect there, but at the same time I want to stomp his throat, (laughs).”
The undisputed legend of Funny Car, John Force, initially put up disappointing qualifying runs on Friday and Saturday. The 16-time NHRA Funny Car Champion wound up qualifying 15th out of a field of 16. The star in qualifying was current points leader Robert Hight. He posted a 3.825 Friday night which wound up staying the best time all weekend, and earned him the number-one qualifier. Chasing his 6th win on the season, and his 3rd in a row, he said, “Everything’s clicking right now. It keeps you rolling, we’re not going to put pressure on ourselves. In drag racing, you’re only as good as your last run. You’ve got to stay positive and just roll with what’s going.”
Bob Tasca III qualified 4th, but had the car to beat on Sunday, and he took Hight out in the semi-finals. Despite a poor qualifying showing, John Force was strong all day Sunday, making his way to the finals, where he ultimately lost to Bob Tasca III. This was Tasca’s first win ever at Sonoma. On beating Force in the finals, he said, “John Force is superhuman. Let’s just put that on record. He’s 73 years old. The guy is a legend. I wouldn’t be here, sitting at this stage, if it weren’t for John Force. There’s nobody out here I want to race more than John. To win against him in the finals […], it’s pretty special.”
TOP FUEL DRAGSTER
Leah Pruett, of Tony Stewart Motorsports, was the darling of the field heading into Sunday. She won last weekend in Denver, and carried that momentum forward to Sonoma where she posted a 3.689 to earn her first number-one qualifier of the year. “We’re finding our stride and we’re able to show that – that’s the exciting part. We feel validated. We feel like our work has been validated and that’s what we expected eventually in the season.”
While Pruett easily beat Jim Maroney in the first round, she ultimately lost in the second round to Shawn Langdon. Brittany Force only had one qualifying run faster than 4 seconds, but it was enough to earn her the 5th qualifying spot. She pointed to the things she was able to learn in all three qualifying runs, despite them not all being great times, “We only got down there one out of the three runs. The other two were still good runs, even though we didn’t make solid passes down there, we knew how far we could push, so we still learned from it.”
What started as an underachieving qualifying run turned into a record-breaking Sunday for Force. In the first round, she defeated Austin Prock, setting track records for both e.t. (3.662) and top speed (336.07mph). She immediately beat her own top speed record in the 2nd round against Steve Torrence, going 0.42 mph faster. The 3rd round saw her topping that speed record yet again, with a 337.75 mph while beating Shawn Langdon. She may not have posted a new record in the final against points leader Mike Salinas, but that didn’t stop her from crossing the finish line first, earning her the win – also her first ever at Sonoma. “We’ve always struggled on the western swing. Sonoma’s always been on my bucket list. It’s almost a home track for me, I grew up at this race track watching my dad. To run outstanding all day long, I’m so proud of this entire team.”