Photo courtesy NHRA

NHRA: As 2017 season begins, will it be able to top 2016 for excitement and drama?

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As the 24-race 2017 NHRA national event season kicks off this weekend at the Circle K Winternationals in Pomona, California, it’s going to be hard to write a better script than how the 2016 season ultimately played out.

When the final race ended in November, we saw two three-time champions emerge across the sport’s four pro categories: Top Fuel pilot Antron Brown (won three titles in the last five seasons, including the last two) and Pro Stock winner Jason Line.

But it was the two first-time champs in Funny Car and Pro Stock Motorcycle that stole the show.

After trying for 20 years and finishing runner-up several times over the years, Ron Capps finally broke through with his first career Funny Car championship.

It was one of the best feel-good stories the NHRA has seen in years – only to see yet another great feel-good story emerge at the same time in the person of first-time Pro Stock Motorcycle champion Jerry Savoie.

Savoie could wind up going down in NHRA history as having one of the most unique paths to a championship of any driver or rider.

First off, Savoie was an aspiring motorcycle drag racer in his teens and early 20s, only to abruptly end racing at the age of 23 when he began to raise a family and grow his business.

And what a unique business it is: Savoie is an alligator “farmer” that oversees a herd of 60,000 gators in the Louisiana bayou.

After nearly 30 years away from racing, Savoie began his comeback of sorts in 2011 and finally reached the pinnacle of his sport last season in dramatic fashion.

After trailing the points leaders for the first 23 races, Savoie roared to win the championship in the season’s final race, holding off multiple championship winners such as Andrew Hines, Eddie Krawiec and Angelle Sampey (who used to babysit for Savoie’s children before beginning her own racing career).

But 2016 is gone and it’s time to focus on 2017.

Where do we start? How about five questions or things to watch in 2017 for each of the top four pro classes: Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle?

Here goes:

Top Fuel:

  • Can Antron Brown make it three championships in a row and four in the last six seasons?
  • After coming so close to his first championship, can Doug Kalitta finally do so in 2017?
  • Can the winningest driver in Top Fuel history, eight-time champion Tony Schumacher, win his ninth title (and first since 2009)?
  • After overcoming adversity in 2016, including losing her ride early in the season (only to bounce back and catch on with Don Schumacher Racing), could this be the breakout season for Leah Pritchett?
  • And what about Brittany Force, who had a breakout season in 2016? Can she do even better and be a bonafide championship contender?

Funny Car:

  • 16-time champ and the winningest driver in drag racing history, John Force, turns 68 in May. He came close to another championship in 2016, but fell short in the playoffs. Can he capture title No. 17 in 2017?
  • Can former two-time champion Cruz Pedregon bounce back from the worst season of his career and become a championship contender again?
  • Courtney Force struggled in last season’s playoffs. Can she finally earn her first championship in 2017?
  • Tommy Johnson Jr. had an outstanding season in 2016. Can he keep it going in 2017?
  • After more than 20 years of trying, Ron Capps finally earned his first Funny Car championship in 2016. Can Capps do it again in 2017?

Pro Stock:

  • After winning a combined 15 races and back-to-back championships in 2014 and 2015, Erica Enders failed to win even one race in 2016 and was all but eliminated from the championship after failing to qualify for the first of the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs. Her team goes back to Chevrolet power after one year with Dodge/Mopar. Will that be the ticket to return to the prominence and domination of 2014-15?
  • Will KB Racing continue to dominate Pro Stock like it did in 2016 with series champion Jason Line and teammate Greg Anderson, who combined to win 16 of the season’s 24 races?
  • Shane Gray finished third in 2016 and then promptly turned over the keys to son Tanner for 2017. How will the younger Gray fare?
  • Four drivers appear to be ready for breakout seasons in 2017: Drew Skillman, Vincent Nobile, Chris McGaha and Bo Butner. Which one breaks through?
  • Enders’ Elite Motorsports teammate, Jeg Coughlin, is a five-time Pro Stock champion. But in his return to full-time racing last season, Coughlin struggled just as much as Enders, finishing 10th in the standings. With Elite’s return to Chevrolet after a one-year stint with Dodge/Mopar, will Coughlin be able to get his game back to the way it used to?

Pro Stock Motorcycle:

  • Jerry Savoie had one of the most inspiring seasons – and stories – that NHRA has seen in the last 20 to 30 years. Will Savoie once again roar to win a second consecutive championship?
  • What happened to former champs Andrew Hines and teammate Eddie Krawiec last season? How is it they couldn’t hold off Savoie? Will they bounce back this year and battle each other for the title once again?
  • In her first full-time season back after a long hiatus, Angelle Sampey showed she hasn’t forgotten how to ride, finishing fourth in the championship battle. Could Sampey return to championship form again in 2016?
  • Veteran rider Chip Ellis had one of the best seasons of his career in 2016, finishing fifth in the PSM standings. Can Ellis have a similar – if not better – season in 2017?
  • Veteran Steve Johnson, one of the most popular riders on the circuit, failed to make the Countdown in 2016. Can Johnson reach back in 2017 and give fellow riders like Hines, Krawiec, Sampey and Savoie a run for their money?

Follow @JerryBonkowski

MRTI: Chris Griffis Test Sunday times and notebook

Thompson (90, Exclusive) and Hoogenboom (78, BN) in Pro Mazda. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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The two-day Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy Test concluded on Sunday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.

Combined times after the two days of running are below, with Nico Jamin (Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires) and Oliver Askew (Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires) remaining on top from Saturday to Sunday, and Darren Keane (Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda) supplanting Andres Gutierrez at the head of that field.

Previous notebooks are linked here (Friday, Saturday), with additional Sunday notes to follow.

COMBINED TIMES

INDY LIGHTS (Best Session)Full Results

Jamin. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

1. 5-Nico Jamin, Belardi Auto Racing, 1:15.7173 (Session 2)
2. 98-Colton Herta, Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing, 1:15.7808 (Session 8)
3. 23-Victor Franzoni, Juncos Racing, 1:15.7953 (Session 8)
4. 3-Pato O’Ward, Team Pelfrey, 1:16.0900 (Session 5)
5. 4-Rinus Veekay, Belardi Auto Racing, 1:16.1419 (Session 5)
6. 31-Carlos Cunha, Juncos Racing, 1:16.1585 (Session 8)
7. 31-Nicolas Dapero, Juncos Racing, 1:16.2491 (Session 4)
8. 48-Ryan Norman, Andretti Autosport, 1:16.3285 (Session 4)
9. 27-Anthony Martin, Andretti Autosport, 1:16.5185 (Session 4)
10. 2-TJ Fischer, Team Pelfrey, 1:16.8124 (Session 5)
11. 21-Heamin Choi, Juncos Racing, 1:18.1931 (Session 5)

PRO MAZDA (Best Session); Full Results 

Askew. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

1. 8-Oliver Askew, Cape Motorsports, 1:19.8142 (Session 5)
2. 79-David Malukas, BN Racing, 1:19.9394 (Session 5)
3. 90-Parker Thompson, Exclusive Autosport, 1:19.9815 (Session 5)
4. 1-Carlos Cunha, Juncos Racing, 1:20.0236 (Session 2)
5. 3-Robert Megennis, Juncos Racing, 1:20.1268 (Session 4)
6. 81-Kaylen Frederick, Team Pelfrey, 1:20.1928 (Session 5)
7. 18-Calvin Ming, Pabst Racing, 1:20.2141 (Session 5)
8. 2-Sting Ray Robb, Juncos Racing, 1:20.6289 (Session 5)
9. 91-Nikita Lastochkin, Exclusive Autosport, 1:20.7001 (Session 2)
10. 80-Kris Wright, Team Pelfrey, 1:20.9930 (Session 4)
11. 82-Aaron Telitz, Team Pelfrey, 1:21.2144 (Session 8)
12. 78-Leonard Hoogenboom, BN Racing, 1:21.3713 (Session 8)

USF2000 (Best Session); Full Results

Keane ended head of queue in USF2000. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

1. 36-Darren Keane, Newman Wachs Racing, 1:25.1424 (Session 5)
2. 22-Andres Gutierrez, Pabst Racing, 1:25.5618 (Session 3)
3. 27-Callan O’Keefe, BN Racing, 1:25.6295 (Session 2)
4. 21-Hunter McElrea, Pabst Racing, 1:25.7021 (Session 5)
5. 31-Rasmus Lindh, Team BENIK, 1:25.7791 (Session 5)
6. 81-Jacob Loomis, Team Pelfrey, 1:25.8514 (Session 5)
7. 90-Parker Thompson, Exclusive Autosport, 1:25.8743 (Session 2)
8. 23-Lucas Kohl, Pabst Racing, 1:25.9792 (Session 6)
9. 37-David Osborne, Newman Wachs Racing, 1:25.9996 (Session 8)
10. 20-Aaron Telitz, RJB Motorsports, 1:26.0042 (Session 6)
11. 80-Michael D’Orlando, Team Pelfrey, 1:26.2295 (Session 8)
12. 37-Jake Craig, Newman Wachs Racing, 1:26.2452 (Session 4)
13. 25-Elliott Finlayson, BN Racing, 1:26.3668 (Session 8)
14. 32-Jaden Conwright, Team BENIK, 1:26.4557 (Session 2)
15. 38-Max Peichel, Newman Wachs Racing, 1:26.5058 (Session 2)
16. 33-Myles Rowe, John Cummiskey Racing, 1:26.6004 (Session 8)
17. 90-Justin Gordon, Exclusive Autosport, 1:26.6460 (Session 5)
18. 82-David Osborne, Team Pelfrey, 1:26.6824 (Session 2)
19. 34-Sabre Cook, John Cummiskey Racing, 1:26.9362 (Session 6)
20. 38-Oscar DeLuzuriaga, Newman Wachs Racing, 1:27.7455 (Session 8)
21. 92-Justin Gordon, Exclusive Autosport, 1:27.7750 (Session 3)
22. 24-Zoey Edenholm, BN Racing, 1:28.5449 (Session 8)
23. 93-Jayson Clunie, Exclusive Autosport, No Time

NOTES

Old USF2000 teammates Jamin and Telitz share a high-five. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • Several drivers pulled double duty between series, namely Parker Thompson (Exclusive Autosport in Pro Mazda and USF2000), Carlos Cunha (Juncos Racing in Indy Lights and Pro Mazda) and Aaron Telitz (Team Pelfrey in Pro Mazda, RJB Motorsports in USF2000). Telitz (above) added a run in Pro Mazda in Team Pelfrey’s No. 82 car; the Wisconsinite has done a lot of the series’ testing for the new Pro Mazda Tatuus PM-18, and had hoped to run all three series. We’ll have more meanwhile on Thompson and Exclusive’s double in the days to come; the Michael Duncalfe-led team out of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan was one of three new Pro Mazda teams adding those cars to USF2000 efforts (Pabst Racing, BN Racing) this week.
  • There were a handful of drivers that changed cars or teams for Sunday’s second day of the test, primarily in USF2000. While Keane ran both days at Newman Wachs, the Brian Halahan-managed team ran David Osborne and Oscar DeLuzuriaga in the Nos. 37 and 38 cars, taking over from Jake Craig and Max Peichel. Osborne switched from Team Pelfrey, where he ran Saturday, and where Jacob Loomis ran Sunday. Justin Gordon ran a second Exclusive Autosport chassis, switching to the No. 90 on Sunday after running the No. 92 Saturday.
  • The PM-18 best lap set by Askew is more than three seconds faster than the series’ official track record (Pato O’Ward in 2016, at 1:22.8800, 105.941 mph). Askew’s best time of 1:19.8142 averages 110.010 mph around the 2.439-mile circuit. Neither the Indy Lights nor USF2000 cars eclipsed the existing lap records in those categories.
  • Drivers largely extolled the PM-18’s outright pace and potential with the horsepower upgrade, in what is a significant step forward for the series. “Following prototype testing of the new PM-18, I believed that we had a special race car and this weekend’s testing confirms that,” said Dan Andersen, Owner and CEO of Andersen Promotions. “Based on team and driver comments, this is a fantastic race car and I am very pleased with what Tatuus, Elite Engines and my team have assembled. It fits perfectly in between the USF-17 and the IL-15 in terms of lap times and, more importantly, it takes what a driver learns in the first step and introduces higher HP, higher grip and higher aero. This will be a great training car for years to come, and seeing our program now with three excellent and well-designed cars is very satisfying to me.”
  • Keane, one of the few veterans (relatively speaking) within USF2000 was plugged in this weekend as the only driver outside Pabst Racing to threaten the top of the timesheets. “It’s a good boost in confidence for me heading into next year. I am really happy with how everything is going with the team. They are a great group of guys and it’s just really good to see us improving and being where we want to be,” he said.
  • Rinus Veekay hailed the Indy Lights Dallara IL-15 Mazda this weekend in his first test there, although the talented Dutch teenager may well focus on Pro Mazda next season and shoot to win that championship, and continue his battle with Askew established in USF2000. “The car is very nice, quick,” noted VeeKay. “You can really feel the downforce and it was a pleasure to drive.”
Veekay. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

The MRTI is done with official running for the year, but the $200,000 MRTI Scholarship Shootout remains in December at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, the former Firebird Raceway, outside Phoenix. The winner of that will get a ticket into USF2000 for the 2018 season.

Full MRTI spring training will take place at Homestead-Miami Speedway in February 2018, with undoubtedly a bevy of driver and team announcements to come over the following months.