NHRA: Year’s biggest race, the U.S. Nationals, ready to roll


The biggest and most important drag race of the season takes place this weekend with the 61st annual renewal of the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway in suburban Indianapolis.

The five-day event has long been NHRA’s marquee race, drag racing’s equivalent to the Daytona 500, if you will.

How big is it?

“Indy isn’t like any other race,” said Funny Car driver and president of John Force Racing, Robert Hight. “In 2006 when I was in the final I kept trying to tell myself it was just another race but when I rolled through the water box my knees were knocking.

“This is the biggest race of the year with the most history. You have more fans that come to this race and you want to give them time for autographs and photos. I just try and get as much rest as possible and just enjoy the race.”

Added Pro Stock driver Shane Gray, who won his first U.S. Nationals title last year, “Winning Indy is big. It’s something most guys only ever dream of.”

Five-time NHRA Pro Stock champion and three time Indy winner Jeg Coughlin, who is running a limited schedule this season, says going to Indy never gets old.

“Just driving over there you start to get hyped,” said Coughlin, who lives near Columbus, Ohio. “It’s Indy. It’s the U.S. Nationals,” Coughlin said. “For drag racers, it doesn’t get any bigger than this. When I pull off Crawfordsville Road (in front of the track), my heart definitely picks up a few beats. I’m ready to go right now just thinking about it.”

More than 130,000 fans and nearly 900 drag racers from the professional and sportsman ranks are expected to roll through the gates over the five-day race weekend.

MORE: NHRA: All you need to know about the 61st U.S. Nationals

Several significant storylines are brewing, including:

Nine-time U.S. Nationals champ Tony Schumacher. (Photo courtesy NHRA)

* Making his 20th career appearance in the U.S. Nationals, defending and eight-time Top Fuel champion Tony Schumacher hopes to become the winningest driver overall in U.S. Nationals history. Schumacher is currently tied with retired Pro Stock champ Bob Glidden with nine wins each in Indianapolis.

Schumacher’s last win in the U.S. Nationals was 2012, but he’s reached the final round 11 times in the last 19 years.

Nicknamed “The Sarge,” Schumacher is also celebrating the anniversary of his 15-year primary sponsorship by the U.S. Army.

“I’ve been fortunate for the past 15 years to experience so many gifts because of the relationship we’ve had with the U.S. Army,” Schumacher said. “All the people we’ve met, the places I’ve been, knowing U.S. Army soldiers around the world are being radioed the outcome of what we are doing in the U.S. Army Dragster.

“The passion, the commitment and feeling of unity that comes along with it. It’s amazing to think back to where it all started and it was right here in Indy. We came out that first weekend and won the U.S. Nationals together. My first time winning it and we’ve been together for so many more incredible opportunities.”

Antron Brown is seeking his fourth overall win in this weekend’s U.S. Nationals. (Photo courtesy NHRA)

* As for the Top Fuel point standings, Schumacher continues to lead the series, holding a 53-point edge over teammate Antron Brown heading into this weekend. Brown is seeking his second career U.S. Nationals Top Fuel win, having done so previously in 2011. Brown also won at Indianapolis in Pro Stock Motorcycle in 2000 and 2004.

“I think what makes Indy so special is the history,” Brown said. “You go back to the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s and see how everybody comes from everywhere just to compete in this race. It’s the best of the best and it can absolutely make your season.

“It’s one of those deals where winning at Indy always sticks out. You know when it happened, how it happened, who you beat and what it took to get there. You can go down in history if you win this. Winning Indy is a big deal.”

Defending Indy Top Fuel winner Richie Crampton is third in the standings (253 points behind Schumacher), followed by Larry Dixon (-262), Doug Kalitta (-392) and Shawn Langdon (-397).

* The NHRA has designated this race as one that will offer 50 percent more points than in a typical race. In other words, whereas 150 points is the normal maximum amount of points a driver can earn in a race, this weekend a driver can earn as many as 208 points, which could cause some dramatic shifts in the point standings for all four major pro series: Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle.

John Force has won the U.S. Nationals four times, but not since 2002. (Photo courtesy NHRA)

* The winningest driver in NHRA history (143 wins), 16-time Funny Car champion John Force, has four career wins and three runner-up finishes in the U.S. Nationals, including last year’s second-place showing to first-time winner Alexis DeJoria. But, in a rare oddity, Force has not won at Indianapolis since 2002.

“I remember that final round,” Force said of last year’s battle with DeJoria. “It was a close race and both teams were at the top of their games. I like my chances this year with a new young team. (Crew chief) Jon Schaffer has gotten better all year and he was pretty good when he started. This is the last regular season race and we are locked into the Countdown (to the Championship playoff) so we can be aggressive.”

After 30 years with Castrol Oil and over 20 years with Ford, Force comes Indy for the first time with a new sponsor (Peak Anti-Freeze) and car manufacturer (Chevrolet).

“This season we have had a lot of change and we are pulling together at the right time,” he said. “My team is young but they have a lot of energy and I get motivated by that energy. This is Indy, the biggest race of the year and I will be ready.”

Jack Beckman, who has won a series-high five races this season, leads the Funny Car standings heading into Indy. Defending series champ Matt Hagan is second (50 points back), followed by Tommy Johnson Jr. (-121), John Force (-195), Del Worsham (-242) and Ron Capps (-259).

* Several longtime stars in the sport are still in pursuit of their first-ever U.S. Nationals victory, including two-time Indy runner-up Doug Kalitta in Top Fuel; Funny Car drivers Ron Capps, Jack Beckman, Tony Pedregon and defending series champ Matt Hagan; and Allen Johnson in Pro Stock.

* The race-within-a-race Traxxas Nitro Shootout will be held Saturday (Top Fuel) and Sunday (Funny Car). The winners of each class earn a cool $100,000.

* In Pro Stock, defending series champ Erica Enders is back on top of the standings, leading Greg Anderson (16 points back), Chris McGaha (-137), Jason Line (-194) and Allen Johnson (-380).

* In Pro Stock Motorcycle, points leader Eddie Krawiec holds a 166-point lead over Hector Arana Jr., followed by defending series champ Andrew Hines (-177), Karen Stoffer (-301), James Underdahl (-332) and Gerald Savoie (-339).

* The U.S. Nationals is the last race before the NHRA begins the Countdown to the Championship, similar in concept to NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup.

* Defending champions of this event — all first-time winners at Indianapolis — are Richie Crampton (Top Fuel), Alexis DeJoria (Funny Car), Shane Gray (Pro Stock) and Eddie Krawiec (Pro Stock Motorcycle).

“I have won 28 races and three Mello Yello championships and the one race that I will forever remember was my 2014 Indy win,” Krawiec said. “As a pro racer we try to treat every race as the same but I have never been able to do that for Indy. The Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals is the race everyone wants to win.”

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IndyCar champion Will Power completes ‘Victory Lap’ at ceremony in Indianapolis

Will Power Victory Lap
Chris Owens/Penske Entertainment

INDIANAPOLIS – Will Power went on his “Victory Lap” last week to celebrate his second career championship as the 2022 NTT IndyCar Series champion.

It began with several media interviews in Monterey, California, the day after he won the championship with a third-place finish in the Sept. 11 Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey.

From there, it was off to Los Angeles for more interviews and personal appearances that included a VIP Tour at the Petersen Automotive Museum, several appearances on SiriusXM and lunch at The Ivy, where the Team Penske IndyCar Series driver was treated to Wagyu Beef.

“It was one of the best steaks I’ve ever had in my life,” Power told NBCSports.com.

From L.A. back to Power’s North Carolina home, near Team Penske’s home base of Mooresville, there was one stop left on Sept. 17 — the Victory Lap Celebration at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum, an invitation-only banquet where Power and his No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet crew at Team Penske were honored for the 2022 NTT IndyCar Series championship.

They didn’t even have to check into a hotel and spend another night on the road. Power and his team left on a Team Penske plane from the Statesville, N.C., airport at 4 p.m. ET Saturday to fly to Indianapolis. On arrival an hour later, a limo bus took the team to IMS.

Power led the 2022 season with five NTT P1 Awards for pole, earning the NTT P1 Award as the best qualifier of the season for the fifth time in his career. Power also made history with his 68th career pole, breaking the all-time mark held by the legendary Mario Andretti.

Power and Scott Dixon also became just two of only five drivers to complete every lap of every race in IndyCar Series history.

“What a year,” Power said as he was awarded his personal Astor Cup trophy (the second in his collection after the 2014 championship. “What a phenomenal year coming off one of my worst seasons personally. We came back with a vengeance.

“I want to thank Roger and Kathy Penske for everything they have done for me over the years. I wouldn’t be standing here and have the numbers I have without what Roger has done for me. I’m given a car every week that is capable of winning the pole, races, championships, and Indianapolis 500s. I’m so grateful for that.

“Also, to Greg Penske, you are there every week now at every event and I know we will be in good hands moving forward with the Penske Family.”

There are many on Power’s team and at home, that helped support Power throughout his career. None is bigger than Power’s wife, Liz, who told Power before the season that he would win the championship and break Andretti’s record.

“I must thank my wife. I’m so lucky to have a wife with that crystal ball that can tell me what is going to happen,” Power said. “I can’t think you enough, babe. I love you so much and you have been a big support to me my whole career. We’ve been together 17 years, and I’ve been in the series 17 years. She has been such a huge support to me. The mother of our child and she is a fantastic mother.

“She can’t tell the future. She just had faith in me.”

Liz Power’s premonition came true and that allowed Power and his No. 12 Dallara-Chevrolet team to celebrate Penske’s 17th IndyCar championship and 42nd title in the racing team’s history.

“The 12 crew this year, I’ve never had such a great group of guys,” Power said. “Trevor Lacasse (chief mechanic) is such a calm guy, but he does such a meticulous job on the preparation of the car. He is very, very good at keeping the whole crew happy. It feels as if there is no pressure on us. That’s a huge part in getting the most out of people. It was our first year together with you as a crew chief. What a great year to start our relationship.

“Dave Faustino (Power’s longtime engineer), we’ve worked together for 15 years. He’s almost like a wife to me, a partner … apart from sleeping together. We have a very good working relationship. Sorry Dave, I’m an awkward person and you are not.

“The things we have been through in our years together, it’s crazy that we continually improve and get better. We are standing on the podium after winning the championship and we are talking about the car, the race, and the tires. We weren’t talking about the championship.

“We never stop. The other boys were laughing at us, but I’m already thinking about next year.

“Ron Ruzewski (Team Penske IndyCar Managing Director and strategist) on the radio, always calm. He has actually made me a calm person. I rarely get upset on the radio anymore.”

Power also recognized the fans who helped boost attendance at many venues on the schedule this season as NBC Sports enjoyed its largest IndyCar audience yet.

“This series is growing,” Power said. “With open wheel racing now so popular because of Formula One, it’s really our time to push and put money behind it and go now and take IndyCar to another level because we have the best racing product in the world.

“I have to thank my teammates and (Team Penske president) Tim Cindric. I can’t tell you how hard we push each other. We are ultracompetitive and love each other and push each other hard, so thank you.”

Power won the championship by 16 points over hard-charging teammate Josef Newgarden, who finished second in the standings for the third year in a row.

“Overall, I’m filled with a lot of pride for our team and what we were able to do this year,” Newgarden said in his banquet address. “Any year that you step in the championship, you can easily see the challenges it presents everybody.

“It’s a very difficult challenge for the teams and drivers. To be a part of it, make it through it and for us at Team Penske, to topple it, is a very big deal. We’re all competitive.

“The tough thing about being in a championship fight, especially with teammates is we all want to be the best. That’s how it should be. We are competitive people and want to be the best. But it’s a team sport.

“Will, tremendous season, great, great job. I think the world of everybody on our team. It’s a big group. I’m so happy for all of you on the 12-car crew. There is so much we can take into next year.”

Six-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon was unable to attend the banquet because of the Goodwood Festival in England but sent congratulations to Power via a video message.

“I really want to congratulate Will Power,” Dixon said. “You drove a tremendous season this year. Even with some of the lows that you had, some of the mistakes with qualifying, you bounced back tremendously. I know how tough these championships are and to see you do it in the style that you did it in the last race of the season, massive congratulations.”

Power’s championship formula included one victory, nine podiums and 12 top-five finishes. Teammate Josef Newgarden was second in the championship with five wins but only six podiums.

Cindric saluted Power’s season in accepting the championship team owner award.

“Will, you took it to another level this year,” Cindric said. “You are the complete package. You completed every lap, had nine podiums, finished out of the top 10 just four times, broke Mario Andretti’s record, and you did it all without cussing at the officials on national TV.

“One complaint I do has is while most of us think you might be from another planet, you never told us your wife was a fortune teller.”

Cindric also honored the seasons of Penske drivers Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin, who won three times in his second full season (“You are one of only two full-time IndyCar drivers that has driven for us in the past 23 years that hasn’t won an Indy 500 or an IndyCar championship. Your time is coming.”).

Kyle Moyer was named team manager of the year (his fifth time and Penske’s sixth). Pennzoil presented Lacasse with the chief mechanic of the year for the first time, the sixth time for Team Penske. The No. 12 crew also won the Firestone Pit Performance Award for the most pit stop performance award points in 2022.

Power, Newgarden and McLaughlin delivered nine of Chevrolet’s series-leading 11 victories this season, helping Chevy win the Manufacturer Award for the seventh time since it returned to the series in 2012 and the first time since 2017. Jim Danahy, U.S. vice president, Competition Motorsports Engineering for Chevrolet, accepted the award on behalf of his team.

Christian Lundgaard was honored as the 2022 NTT IndyCar rookie of the year. Lundgaard, from Denmark, scored one podium, two top-five finishes and seven top-10s in the No. 30 Honda fielded by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. He edged David Malukas of Dale Coyne Racing with HMD by 18 points in the standings for first-year series drivers.

Christian Lundgaard (Chris Owens/Penske Entertainment)

“It’s been a tough season and looking at how it panned out, we struggled so much at the beginning of the season and how we were able to turn it around means so much to me and the team,” Lundgaard said. “It’s the one thing that you only get one shot at. I’m happy to have it.

“Being the first Dane at the Indy 500 certainly helps. Competing here for me is quite important and also special. To win this award and to be here in future years means so much to me. I have a chance to compete for wins and championships.

“This team gave me this opportunity at this track one year ago. We came back and got redemption. We got our first podium here. This year was 40 years ago that Bobby Rahal won the same award. It’s pretty special to keep it among the team.”

Sweden’s Linus Lundqvist was honored as Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires champion after a dominant season for HMD Motorsports with Dale Coyne Racing. Lundqvist won a series-high five races in the No. 26 HMD Motorsports with Dale Coyne Racing entry and clinched the Lights championship with a race to spare, ending with a 92-point advantage over Sting Ray Robb. HMD Motorsports with Dale Coyne Racing owners Henry and Daiva Malukas accepted the team championship.

“I’m very proud of that,” Lundqvist said. “It’s cool to see. We are starting to look to the future, and this might not be doing too bad. It’s been great. As most of you can guess with Henry and Daiva Malukas (team owners), it’s been an incredible journey. So much fun that we’ve had. To be on the grid this year was so much of a struggle for us. I didn’t even know I would be doing this until January.

“To be able to pull out the season that we had, I cannot thank this team enough. We will celebrate this for a long time. I’m so happy and proud about that.”

Outgoing IndyCar Director of Medical Affairs Dr. Geoffrey Billows also was honored as he is leaving that role while battling cancer.

“When I think of Dr. Billows, I think of two words,” IndyCar president Jay Frye said. “One is selfless and the other is tough. He’s gone through a lot these last couple of years, and he didn’t want anybody to know. He’s an amazing man, and we are very grateful for what you have done.”

Dr. Geoffrey Billows with IndyCar president Jay Frye (Chris Owens/Penske Entertainment)

Billows was presented with a framed checkered flag signed by all drivers in the series as well as other IndyCar officials and dignitaries.

“I was not expecting this at all,” Billows said. “This means so much for me to be part of this family for the past 30 years. I’ve been presented with opportunities I never thought I would ever have. I can’t tell you how much I love all of you guys and care for all of you guys.

“Thank you so much. I want to also thank my wife, Tammy, who has been a pillar of strength as I continue on this journey with cancer for the past two years as well. You will still see me as a consultant because I love this too much to quit altogether.”

When the evening concluded, Team Penske boarded a bus to the airport for the short return flight to Statesville. They were home by midnight.

Power’s Victory Lap was complete.

“The best thing about this is I get to sleep in my own bed tonight,” Power said.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500