Female pro drag racers can reach NHRA milestone in this weekend’s Four-Wide Nationals

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It’s been nearly 38 years since legendary Top Fuel driver Shirley Muldowney (photo) made history by becoming the first female drag racer to win a National Hot Rod Association national event, June 13, 1976 in Columbus, Ohio.

With Alexis DeJoria’s second win of the season and Erica Enders-Stevens’ first win of 2014, both at the last NHRA event two weeks ago at Las Vegas, female drivers are only two wins away from reaching 100 in the sport’s history.

Achieving that milestone could come as early as this weekend’s NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Four-Wide Nationals at zMAX Dragway in Concord, N.C.

In total, 14 different women have won an NHRA national event. And with eight females entered in this weekend’s event across all four major pro classes – Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle – that historic mark could be reached in Sunday’s finals.

“To get the hundredth win for women, it would be amazing,” said Funny Car driver Courtney Force, daughter of 16-time NHRA Funny Car champ John Force. “(It’s) definitely going to be my goal at this point.

“If I had a picture-perfect world, honestly it would be me getting 99 and Brittany (Force) getting a hundred all in this weekend. Obviously, Top Fuel runs after us. That would be a picture-perfect world.

“I definitely hope Brittany gets on that list, too. To get the hundredth, it goes down in the history books. Your name is not going to be coming off that list. It would really be a proud moment if you can have your name next to 100.”

Heading into Friday’s first round of qualifying, Brittany Force and Leah Pritchett are entered in the Top Fuel category. Courtney Force and DeJoria are in the Funny Car class. Enders-Stevens is the only female in the Pro Stock ranks, and three other females will be competing in Pro Stock Motorcycle: Angie Smith, Katie Sullivan and Elvira Karlsson.

“It would be a wonderful accomplishment,” DeJoria said. “It would be great to go in the history books for something like that, for sure. If Erica (Enders-Stevens) gets it, I would be very happy for her. Same with Courtney, Brittany.

“I think we do support each other, but at the same time, we are racers at heart and very competitive. So we would love to get that for ourselves. If it goes to one of the other ones, I’d definitely be supporting that.”

Although retired since her “Last Pass Tour” in 2003, Muldowney has long been an inspiration for female drivers that followed her, including today’s ranks.

“Shirley certainly paved the way for all of the females who have followed in her footsteps,” Enders-Stevens said in an NHRA media release. “She is certainly a hero of mine, a legend in our sport. She’s an idol, she’s awesome.

“I looked up to her and to Angelle (Sampey) and Shelly Anderson Payne. Those were my heroes when I was a little kid going to the racetrack. My dad drove in the sportsman classes. I’d run around and get autographs.

“Those are my three favorite women and I’m sure I stood at the back of their pits more than they wanted to see me. She’s had a huge hand in us being able to accomplish the things we do now.”

Thanks to the great stats and PR folks at NHRA, here’s a brief history of female drivers who have competed in the sport, as well as a complete list of all female winners:

The following women (listed in alphabetical order by category) have competed in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series:

Top Fuel (18): Vivica Averstedt, Dannielle DePorter, Vicky Fanning, Gina Ferraro, Brittany Force, Rhonda Hartman-Smith, Lori Johns, Kim LaHaie, Lucille Lee, Shirley Muldowney, Shelly Payne (Anderson), Cristen Powell, Leah Pritchett, Sue Ransom, Joanne Reynolds, Rachelle Splatt, Melanie Troxel, Hillary Will.

Funny Car (14): Alexis DeJoria, Vicky Fanning, Courtney Force, Ashley Force Hood, Rodalyn Knox, Paula Martin, Shirley Muldowney, Paula Murphy, Cristen Powell, Leah Pritchett, Susie Spencer, Melanie Troxel, Della Woods, Carol Yenter.

Pro Stock (6): Erica Enders-Stevens, Grace Howell, Judy Lilly, Lucinda McFarlin, Shay Nicols, Shirley Shahan.

Pro Stock Motorcycle (16): Dawn Matthews Baugues, Connie Cohen, Vicki Farr, Lori Francis, Linda Jackson, Anne Hansen, Elvira Karlsson, Peggy Lewellyn, Dawn Minturn, Stephanie Reaves, Angelle Sampey, Angie Smith (McBride), Karen Stoffer, Katie Sullivan, Valerie Thompson, Holly Wallace

Female leaders in victories:

1. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle 41 (first at Reading 1996, last at Houston 2007)

2. Shirley Muldowney, Top Fuel 18 (first at Columbus 1976, last at Phoenix 1989)

3. Erica Enders-Stevens, Pro Stock 7 (first at Chicago 2012, last at Las Vegas 1 2014)

4. Karen Stoffer, Pro Stock Motorcycle 6 (first at Houston 2004, last at Denver 2011)

5. Melanie Troxel, Top Fuel-Funny Car 5 (first at Pomona 1 2006, TF, last at Bristol 2008, FC)

6. Shelly Payne, Top Fuel 4 (first at Reading 1993, last at Seattle 1996)

Lori Johns, Top Fuel 4 (first at Pomona 1 1990, last at Memphis 1991)

Ashley Force Hood, Funny Car 4 (first at Atlanta 2008, last at Indianapolis 2010)

9. Courtney Force, Funny Car 3 (first at Seattle 2012, last at Epping 2013)

10. Alexis DeJoria, Funny Car 2 (first at Phoenix 2014, last at Las Vegas 1 2014)

11. Lucille Lee, Top Fuel 1 (Atlanta 1982); Cristen Powell, Top Fuel 1 (Englishtown 1997); Peggy Llewellyn, Pro Stock Motorcycle 1 (Dallas 2007); Hillary Will, Top Fuel 1 (Topeka 2008).

Female pro series world champions:

Shirley Muldowney, Top Fuel – 3 (1977, 1980, 1982)

Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle – 3 (2000, 2001, 2002)

NHRA Mello Yello Series victories by female drivers:

1. Shirley Muldowney, Top Fuel, June 13, 1976, Columbus, Ohio

2. Shirley Muldowney, Top Fuel, Oct. 10, 1976, Ontario, Calif.

3. Shirley Muldowney, Top Fuel, June 12, 1977, Columbus, Ohio

4. Shirley Muldowney, Top Fuel, July 16, 1977, Englishtown, N.J.

5. Shirley Muldowney, Top Fuel, Aug. 7, 1977, Montreal

6. Shirley Muldowney, Top Fuel, Feb. 3, 1980, Pomona, Calif.

7. Shirley Muldowney, Top Fuel, June 8, 1980, Columbus, Ohio

8. Shirley Muldowney, Top Fuel, Sept. 21, 1980, Seattle

9. Shirley Muldowney, Top Fuel, Oct. 19, 1980, Ontario, Calif.

10. Shirley Muldowney, Top Fuel, March 15, 1981, Gainesville, Fla.

11. Shirley Muldowney, Top Fuel, April 26, 1981, Atlanta

12. Shirley Muldowney, Top Fuel, March 14, 1982, Gainesville, Fla.

13. Lucille Lee, Top Fuel, April 25, 1982, Atlanta

14. Shirley Muldowney, Top Fuel, June 13, 1982, Columbus, Ohio

15. Shirley Muldowney, Top Fuel, Aug. 22, 1982, Brainerd, Minn.

16. Shirley Muldowney, Top Fuel, Sept. 6, 1982, Indianapolis

17. Shirley Muldowney, Top Fuel, Feb. 13, 1983, Pomona, Calif.

18. Shirley Muldowney, Top Fuel, Oct. 16, 1983, Irvine, Calif.

19. Shirley Muldowney, Top Fuel, Oct. 15, 1989, Phoenix

20. Lori Johns, Top Fuel, Feb. 4, 1990, Pomona, Calif.

21. Lori Johns, Top Fuel, April 22, 1990, Atlanta

22. Lori Johns, Top Fuel, May 6, 1990, Memphis

23. Lori Johns, Top Fuel, May 5, 1991, Memphis

24. Shelly Anderson, Top Fuel, Sept. 19, 1993, Reading, Pa.

25. Shelly Anderson, Top Fuel, Feb. 6, 1994, Pomona, Calif.

26. Shelly Anderson, Top Fuel, May 5, 1996, Richmond, Va.

27. Shelly Anderson, Top Fuel, Aug. 4, 1996, Seattle

28. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, Sept. 15, 1996, Reading, Pa.

29. Cristen Powell, Top Fuel, May 18, 1997, Englishtown, N.J.

30. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, Sept. 28, 1997, Topeka, Kan.

31. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, May 17, 1998, Englishtown, N.J.

32. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, Sept. 20, 1998, Reading, Pa.

33. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, Oct. 11, 1998, Memphis

34. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, March 21, 1999, Gainesville, Fla.

35. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, May 16, 1999, Atlanta

36. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, May 25, 1999, Englishtown, N.J.

37. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, June 27, 1999, St. Louis

38. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, Oct. 10, 1999, Memphis

39. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, April 9, 2000, Las Vegas

40. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, May 7, 2000, Atlanta

41. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, June 18, 2000, Columbus, Ohio

42. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, July 16, 2000, Denver

43. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, Sept. 9, 2000, Englishtown, N.J.

44. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, March 25, 2001, Houston

45. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, June 17, 2001, Columbus, Ohio

46. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, July 8, 2001, Pomona, Calif.

47. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, July 22, 2001, Denver

48. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, Sept. 3, 2001, Indianapolis

49. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, Oct. 7, 2001, Reading, Pa.

50. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, Nov. 11, 2001, Pomona, Calif.

51. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, May 5, 2002, Atlanta

52. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, June 2, 2002, Chicago

53. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, June 30, 2002, St. Louis

54. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, Sept. 2, 2002, Indianapolis

55. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, Sept. 16, 2002, Reading, Pa.

56. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, Oct. 27, 2002, Las Vegas

57. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, March 16, 2003, Gainesville, Fla.

58. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, April 13, 2003, Houston

59. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, June 1, 2003, Chicago

60. Karen Stoffer, Pro Stock Motorcycle, April 18, 2004, Houston

61. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, May 16, 2004, Atlanta

62. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, Aug. 1, 2004, Sonoma, Calif.

63. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, Oct. 10, 2004, Reading, Pa.

64. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, Nov. 14, 2004, Pomona, Calif.

65. Karen Stoffer, Pro Stock Motorcycle, April 10, 2005, Houston

66. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, June 26, 2005, St. Louis

67. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, Sept. 18, 2005, Reading, Pa.

68. Melanie Troxel, Top Fuel, Feb. 12, 2006, Pomona, Calif.

69. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, March 19, 2006, Gainesville, Fla.

70. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, April 2, 2006, Houston

71. Melanie Troxel, Top Fuel, April 9, 2006, Las Vegas

72. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, May 21, 2006, Columbus, Ohio

73. Karen Stoffer, Pro Stock Motorcycle, Oct. 1, 2006, Richmond, Va.

74. Karen Stoffer, Pro Stock Motorcycle, March 18, 2007, Gainesville, Fla.

75. Angelle Sampey, Pro Stock Motorcycle, April 1, 2007, Houston

76. Karen Stoffer, Pro Stock Motorcycle, April 29, 2007, Atlanta

77. Melanie Troxel, Top Fuel, May 6, 2007, St. Louis

78. Melanie Troxel, Top Fuel, Sept. 16, 2007, Memphis

79. Peggy Llewellyn, Pro Stock Motorcycle, Sept. 23, 2007, Dallas

80. Ashley Force Hood, Funny Car, April 27, 2008, Atlanta

81. Melanie Troxel, Funny Car, May 18, 2008, Bristol, Tenn.

82. Hillary Will, Top Fuel, June 1, 2008, Topeka, Kan.

83. Ashley Force Hood, Funny Car, March 29, 2009, Houston

84. Ashley Force Hood, Funny Car, Sept. 7, 2009, Indianapolis

85. Ashley Force Hood, Funny Car, Sept. 6, 2010, Indianapolis

86. Karen Stoffer, Pro Stock Motorcycle, July 24, 2011, Denver

87. Erica Enders-Stevens, Pro Stock, July 1, 2012, Chicago

88. Erica Enders-Stevens, Pro Stock, Aug. 5, 2012, Seattle

89. Courtney Force, Funny Car, Aug. 5, 2012, Seattle

90. Erica Enders-Stevens, Pro Stock, Aug. 19, 2012, Brainerd, Minn.

91. Erica Enders-Stevens, Pro Stock, Sept. 30, 2012, St. Louis

92. Courtney Force, Funny Car, Feb. 17, 2013, Pomona, Calif.

93. Erica Enders-Stevens, Pro Stock, Feb. 24, 2013, Phoenix

94. Courtney Force, Funny Car, June 23, 2013, Epping, N.H.

95. Erica Enders-Stevens, Pro Stock, Sept. 29, 2013, St. Louis

96. Alexis DeJoria, Funny Car, Feb. 23, 2014, Phoenix

97. Alexis DeJoria, Funny Car, March 30, 2014, Las Vegas

98. Erica Enders-Stevens, Pro Stock, March 30, 2014, Las Vegas

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Maverick Vinales takes Qatar MotoGP pole as qualifying is rained off

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Maverick Viñales will make his Yamaha MotoGP debut from pole position after qualifying at Qatar’s Losail International Circuit was rained off on Saturday evening.

Viñales claimed his maiden MotoGP race win last year with Suzuki, prompting a move to Yamaha in place of three-time champion Jorge Lorenzo, who made a switch to Ducati.

After impressing throughout pre-season testing, Viñales laid down an early marker in Qatar by setting the pace in practice.

His performances would prove key as rain on Saturday in Qatar forced officials to cancel qualifying, leading them to combine the times from practice to form the grid.

Viñales’ time of 1:54.316 from FP1 handed him his first MotoGP pole by half a second from Suzuki replacement Andrea Iannone, while defending world champion Marc Marquez will start third for Honda.

2015 and 2016 Moto2 champion Johann Zarco will make his MotoGP debut from fourth on the grid, with Ducati’s Andrea Dovizioso fifth ahead of Scott Redding.

Nine-time world champion Valentino Rossi will begin his search for a 10th title from P10 on the grid, two places ahead of perennial rival Lorenzo, whose Ducati debut will come from P12.

Sauber super-sub Giovinazzi stars in maiden F1 qualifying, takes 16th

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Sauber’s last-minute substitute Antonio Giovinazzi turned in one of the performances of Formula 1 qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix on Saturday by claiming 16th on the grid for his maiden grand prix.

Ferrari youngster Giovinazzi was drafted in by Sauber for FP3 and qualifying after Pascal Wehrlein was deemed unfit amid ongoing issues with his back following a crash at the Race of Champions in January that left him with a minor injury.

Giovinazzi was notified on Friday night that he would be replacing Wehrlein for the remainder of the weekend, but did not find out until Saturday morning as he had already gone to bed.

Despite getting less than an hour of track running in which to get to grips with the tricky Albert Park circuit, Giovinazzi starred in qualifying to finish 16th, narrowly missing out on a Q2 berth and ending up just a couple of tenths off experienced teammate Marcus Ericsson.

“That is a special day for me kicking off my first Formula 1 grand prix weekend,” Giovinazzi said after the session.

“I am really happy with my performance today, I was just a few tenths away from Q2.

“It will be a long race tomorrow; a lot can happen here in Melbourne. I will do my best to put in my maximum performance.”

The call from Sauber capped off a rollercoaster five months for Giovinazzi that started with a bitter defeat in the GP2 title race to Red Bull youngster Pierre Gasly at the end of November in Abu Dhabi.

Giovinazzi was then contacted by Ferrari and offered a deal to become its reserve driver for 2017, leading to a private test in its 2015-spec car at Fiorano.

When Wehrlein was declared unfit for the first pre-season test in Barcelona, Giovinazzi was drafted in by Sauber for two days’ worth of running, preparing him for the shock call-up in Melbourne.

Giovinazzi will become the first Italian driver to start a race since Jarno Trulli and Vitantonio Liuzzi on Sunday, the pair making their final F1 appearances at the 2011 Brazilian Grand Prix for Caterham and HRT respectively.

A lasting legacy: Eric Medlen’s death spurred NHRA safety gains

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) John Medlen remembers his son’s final seconds like they were his first steps.

Eric Medlen inched his dragster to the starting line and waited for the signal. John, also his son’s crew chief, made a couple of routine checks, looked in Eric’s eyes, gave him a thumbs-up and pounded on the hood twice.

“Neither one of us realized he had a little less than three seconds to live,” John said.

Ten years after Eric’s fatal practice run at Gainesville Raceway, home to one of professional drag racing’s premier events, John is still dealing with the demons that come from burying a child. Eric’s death became a defining moment for NHRA, mostly because of the way John reacted to it and the safety changes he fought for.

“Eric would not want anybody here on this earth that’s left to be burdened to the point where you can’t live your life because of his death,” he said. “… I hear his spirit tell me all the time, `Keep going, Dad. Make these cars safe. Keep somebody else from having these kinds of issues.”‘

Eric grew up around racing in Oakdale, California. His father placed his bassinet on a workbench in his garage, and he spent hours at drag strips. Even the school bus dropped him off in front of dad’s race shop.

John Medlen has left John Force Racing to join rival Don Schumacher Racing. (Photo courtesy John Force Racing)

John steered his son toward other pursuits, and to an extent, that worked. Eric was a champion calf-roper in high school, then a mechanical engineering major in college.

But the track always beckoned. The man nicknamed “Duff” spent eight years working as a John Force Racing crewmember before the team gave him his big break as a driver in 2004.

“I tried to talk him out of it, but he wasn’t going to have it,” John said. “If it had wheels, he was going to race it. Go karts, sprint cars, it didn’t matter what it was.”

Eric won six times in 72 starts in the National Hot Rod Association and finished in the top five in points in each of his three years at the pro level. His death shocked the series, even if everyone associated with it knew the perils.

Drag racing has always been one of the most dangerous forms of motorsports, whether it’s on backroads, city streets or professional strips. It became increasingly popular in the 1950s: Bigger engines, lighter cars, faster speeds – and increased risk.

Eric reached the top level, where nitromethane-powered dragsters race in side-by-side lanes and routinely top 300 mph in less than five seconds.

“You know what can happen. Everybody in the industry knows what can happen,” John said. “But we’ve never seen an injury like Eric’s before.”

On March 19, 2007, a day after the NHRA’s Gatornationals, Eric and his Force teammates stuck around to test at the historic track, a common move that allows teams to acquire valuable data while reducing travel costs.

As Eric, 33, pulled to the starting line, everything seemed normal. He released the trans brake, allowing his Funny Car to lunge down the track with the G-forces of a fighter jet. And in the blink of an eye, Eric endured a violent, mid-strip tire shake that snapped the chassis, caused his car to slide out of control and forced his head to whip side to side about 150 times. Goodyear later said something apparently punctured the tire at high speed, causing it to lose pressure and start jerking the entire car with more than 40,000 pounds of force.

John rushed to the crumpled car as it came to a stop against a concrete retaining wall, found Eric unconscious in the cockpit and started yelling at him to breathe. John could tell the wreck was bad. Then he saw a paramedic shine a flashlight into Eric’s eyes, turn to a colleague with a look of desperation and try again.

“I’ll never forget,” John said. “She threw that flashlight into the corner of the ambulance. You could tell this was serious.”

Eric’s head swelled so much because of a traumatic brain injury that he was hardly recognizable in his hospital bed. Doctors worked around the clock trying to relieve pressure and improve blood flow to his brain.

Despite the aggressive treatment, Eric’s body lost the ability to manage its salt and water levels.

After four days with no improvement, the decision was made to take Eric off life support.

He died immediately.

“People were mourning, people were hurt, people were dying inside,” said team owner John Force, who stayed at the hospital with Eric’s family. “But they also were already thinking about moving ahead. They weren’t going to let this happen again.”

Force’s cars skipped the next race, and he canceled the reality TV show “Driving Force,” which focused on him and his three drag-racing daughters.

“We’re not going back to making movies,” Force said. “We’re going to learn how to build race cars.”

Eric’s father led the charge, meeting with NHRA executives, competitors, industry experts and even military and NASA engineers. They studied metal energy, seatbelts, tires, padding.

“As long as I’m on this earth, I’m not going to have Eric give his life in vain,” John said. “We’re the ones here that can make all that count for him and for his memory.”

Changes came quickly.

There were tighter tolerances for chromoly tubing used to build chassis. There were wider roll cages. There was thicker padding surrounding drivers’ helmets. There were now seven seat belt attachment points, keeping drivers more tightly harnessed for added stability and support.

John Medlen, 66, works for Don Schumacher Racing now. Returning to Gainesville every year is the hardest part of his life. Sights, sounds, smells, all come rushing back like the crash was a day – not a decade – ago. He welcomes questions about Eric’s triumphs and tragedy, mostly because they help remind him about the son he lost, the life they lived together and the reason he still works to make the series safer.

“It’s very difficult, but you have to do it,” John said. “You’ve got to face your adversaries and deal with the demons. They’re not going away.”

There have been a few NHRA deaths since Eric’s – Scott Kalitta (2008), Neal Parker (2010) and Mark Niver (2010) – but none of those were caused by tire shake.

Six months after Eric’s death, Force endured a similar tire shake during a race in Texas. The violent crash broke his left ankle, left wrist and several fingers and put a deep cut on his right knee. Force was airlifted to a nearby hospital, where he spent weeks before leaving in a wheelchair.

But the 16-time champion avoided any head trauma, which he attributed to the NHRA safety modifications put in place following Eric’s accident.

Force responded by erecting life-size statues of Eric at his team facility in Indiana, and at his corporate headquarters in California. He created museums to house Eric’s race cars.

He sees the impact they have on everyone, even his 5-year-old grandson.

“He pointed at the statue and goes, `What is that, Grandpa?'” Force recounted. “And I said, `That’s Eric Medlen. That’s the guy that saved your Grandpa’s life and I ain’t never forgetting that.”

More AP auto racing: http://www.racing.ap.org

Grosjean: ‘Unbelievable’ to score Haas’ best F1 qualifying result in Australia

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Romain Grosjean hailed Haas’ Formula 1 qualifying performance in Australia as “unbelievable” after picking up its best Saturday result since joining the grid.

NASCAR team co-owner Gene Haas took his eponymous operation into F1 last year, with Grosjean leading its charge through its debut campaign.

Haas enters its sophomore year in 2017 looking to build on its eighth-place finish in the constructors’ championship, and made a strong start in Australia on Saturday.

While new driver Kevin Magnussen dropped out in Q1 following an error on his hot lap, Grosjean was able to take Haas into Q3 before securing sixth place on the grid for Sunday’s season-opener.

The result marks Haas’ best qualifying result to date in F1, beating Grosjean’s run to P7 ahead of the Brazilian Grand Prix last November.

“It was quite an unbelievable qualifying session for us. It’s a shame that we didn’t get Kevin there, but the car is looking good, even better than what we’ve seen recently,” Grosjean said after the session.

“We’ve made some good progress over the weekend. There’s a lot more we can understand and analyze but, generally, it’s a great start for us.

“It’s always good to start with a strong qualifying session. It tells you that if you keep improving the car, you could be in a good place very soon. If that’s our baseline, and you can fight between sixth and 10th position, where it’s so tight, it would be great to be there most of the time and enjoy some good times.

“Tomorrow’s start is a big unknown. We’ve been practicing and some have been good, others not so much. Hopefully, we’ll get the first one right tomorrow.”

The Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from midnight ET.