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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With fierce racing, IndyCar found redemption and rebirth on the streets of downtown Detroit


DETROIT – A lap in the IndyCar Grand Prix had yet to be turned on the streets of Detroit, and race drivers were doing what they sometimes do best – expecting the worst of a new race course.

It was the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix, and some of the top drivers in the NTT IndyCar Series, including pole winner Alex Palou, were questioning the nine-turn, 1.645-mile street course in downtown Detroit. Even after he won the pole on Saturday, Palou had said the Indy cars were too big, the race course was too small, too tight and too bumpy for the series to put on a competitive race.

It was Sunday morning, five hours before the race, and the IndyCar morning warmup session just had ended. Penske Corp. president Bud Denker, the Detroit GP chairman, was talking to NBC Sports as the Indy cars were being wheeled back to the paddock following the warmup session.

Instead of his trademark smile and optimism, Denker was determined and stern. As Palou’s No. 10 Honda was being pulled by the team’s tire wagon into the paddock, Denker expressed his feelings.

“I’m really not happy with some of the comments that driver has been making,” Denker said.

Denker’s team had spent the better part of two years envisioning and developing a street course that could create a major racing event without shutting down the Detroit business community.

Jefferson Avenue, the main thoroughfare in the city’s business district, remained open thanks to some creative track design (because the race course crossed Jefferson over a bridge and also couldn’t impede the adjacent tunnel that was an international crossing to Windsor, Canada).

Alex Palou leads into Turn 1 on the start of the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix (USA TODAY Sports Images Network).

From an event standpoint, the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix was already electric with a vibe that brought tens of thousands daily to this revitalized urban center known as “Motor City.”

But would the actual race prove to be worthy?

Fast forward to Sunday late afternoon and – wouldn’t you know it – the winner of the race was its most vocal critic leading up to the green flag.

Alex Palou.

It was a chance for Denker and Palou to speak.

“Alex and I actually had a conversation after the race on the way to pit lane,” Denker told NBC Sports. “I congratulated him because he was a worthy champion, did a great job, great win, great run, pole qualifying also.

“His comment to me was, ‘This track proved very worthy.’

“I’ll take that from him.”

The race itself exceeded expectations. It may have been the best street race of the season on the NTT IndyCar Series schedule.

The racing was fierce, the competition phenomenal, and the restarts brought even the most jaded motorsports observers to their feet.

“Oh yeah, myself included,” Palou admitted to NBC Sports. “The event was amazing. The crowd we had was unbelievable. The energy was great. It was a really great race.”

Palou’s complaints entering the race were from his frustrations in finding a clean lap during qualification sims in practice and the actual qualifications on Saturday.

With 27 cars on a 1.645-mile street circuit, just do the math – it’s hard to get a gap.

But the race course proved to be a much better “race” track than a qualifying layout.

“Yes, 100 percent,” Palou said. “I like to go fast. I like to race. When you have traffic every single lap, you don’t like it that much, but for the race, it was great. It was a great event for the fans, for the teams and for the drivers.

“The energy we had here was amazing.”

The drivers’ worst fears never developed in the race. There were no blocked corners. No red flags. Plenty of passing zones.

Denker and his team could feel vindication and a strong sense of redemption.

“It is ironic,” Denker said of Palou winning the race. “I think a lot of the comments early on was because of the first practice. There was no rubber on the track. A new track for them. A lot of cars going into the runoff and stalling their cars in the runoff, not turning the cars around fast enough. I think a lot of perceptions were created in that first practice.

“Some of our turns look tight. Turn 1 for instance, the apex is 27 feet, much larger than some other tracks where it is tight. The issue going into the race was, are you going to have two cars block the entire track and then you have to go Red Flag.

“We never had that situation today where you had a car block the track, even in the tightest turns. We never had an issue where cars could not get around you.

“The corners were wide enough to support the fact that when you had an issue, cars could get around and continue moving around without having a red flag.”

Will Power enters Turn 3 during the Detroit Grand Prix (USA TODAY Sports Images Network).

It also proved that in an actual competition, the teams and drivers in IndyCar can figure out how to adapt and put on a good race.

“We saw them figure it out in the Indy NXT race on Saturday,” Denker said. “It was a great race. We saw so many IndyCar drivers go off into the runoff on Friday that there were concerns. Many of them were stalling their cars and couldn’t get them spun around.

“That led to, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re going to have caution after caution after caution because we aren’t going to be able to get our cars stopped to make a turn, or slowed down to make a turn, and the runoff will happen continuously.’ “Guess what? We had seven cautions for 32 laps and very few of those were for a stalled car in the runoff. It was for a mistake on the race track made by a driver.

“We proved the thoughts that came out on Friday, we proved them very, very wrong in the race on Sunday.”

Fans watch from the Franklin Garage parking deck near the GM Renaissance Center as safety workers attended to David Malukas after he hit the wall out of Turn 9 during the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix (USA TODAY Sports Images Network).

As the president of the Penske Corp., Denker is a man who understands business and decorum. He is one of Roger Penske’s most valued executives, practically his right-hand man.

The impeccably dressed Denker is never rattled, and he backs up his style with substance.

IndyCar racing, however, is a highly competitive game and in the heat of battle, the energy level tends to increase.

That is why Denker was more emphatic than usual once the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix had concluded.

“Eighteen months ago, it was an idea that Michael Montri had after the success of the Nashville Grand Prix and what it did for that city,” Denker said. “The businesses coming together, the community coming together and the city just glowing.

“We came back in August of 2021 and asked if that could ever happen in downtown Detroit and off Belle Isle. We found a great circuit that was worthy of that, that wouldn’t compromise business or the international tunnel in the middle of our race track. That was a dream at the time.

“It’s a cliché, but dreams really came true this weekend. We saw the success of great racing, competitive racing, safe racing and very importantly, fans that we haven’t seen came out in a very diverse way and enjoy this sport.”

It was certainly a major weekend for Detroit as the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix was the lead story on seemingly every TV newscast in the city. The business community of the city flourished – something that didn’t happen when the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix was held 4 miles up Jefferson at Belle Isle Park from 1992-2022.

“One hundred percent,” Denker agreed. “The fact of the matter is most of the people that come to our race are within a four-county area. Just like Indianapolis, one state for them.

“I think the fact is Belle Isle you came down, you parked in the same parking deck where the sponsors parked that had been there for 13 years, get in a bus, come back, get in their car, they go home.

“Here you had to park somewhere. You had to come downtown. Took the People Mover, the Q Line, all these different places and you came downtown. That was the difference for us.

“Belle Isle in my mind, it’s 50 miles away from Detroit in some respects because we didn’t see the benefit the city would get. We saw the benefit this time because of how busy it was. You saw it. You were staying here at a hotel somewhere and saw it.

“We know we made a big impact on the city. Why? Because the hotels were all filled up. They weren’t filled up when Belle Isle was there.”

Already on its way to have a dramatic economic impact to Detroit, on Sunday, the competitive level of IndyCar was on full display.

“The facts are there were 189 on-track passes at Detroit, 142 of them were for position,” Denker said proudly. “At St. Pete, great race this year, 170 on-track passes versus Detroit’s 189 and 128 for position versus Detroit’s 142.

“Long Beach, great race this year, had the same for position passes as Detroit had. I think we had a pretty good race.”

Although Palou won the race, it was Team Penske’s Will Power that put on the show. He was a master on the restarts, going full throttle into the end of the long straightaway, pulling out from behind Palou and taking the lead by diving to the inside in the turn.

That move worked throughout the race until the final restart, when Palou was able to protect the inside line and make Power go to the outside.

The Team Penske driver (whose race weekend highlight was hanging out with Flavor Flav) was unable to use the high line and then proceeded to get into a street fight with Scott Dixon and others for second place in the closing laps.

“The restarts were great because we have this long straightaway,” Denker said. “We started the restart between coming out of Turn 1. Those that got a good jump, like Will Power did on Alex Palou on the second-to-last restart, could make a good pass. Those that had push-to-passes left later on could make a good pass.

“The fact we had this seven-eighths of a mile straightaway where the restarts were coming into was a great place to start the race versus an area not as long. We had the benefit of having a straightway as long as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and speeds that were just unbelievable going down through this track.

The view down the nearly 1-mile Jefferson Avenue straightaway that separates Turn 2 and Turn 3 (USA TODAY Sports Images Network).

“I thought the restarts were great because of the positions Kyle Novak (IndyCar Race Director) and his team made for that.

“The other thing was the dual pit lane. This was really interesting because it hasn’t been done before to have 13 cars pitted on one side and 14 cars pitting on the other side and have six lanes merging to one in 315 feet. How is that going to happen?

“This time, because of the yellows, we never had a situation with 27 cars coming in at the same time. It was sporadic. That issue we thought would happen to create a calamity on pit lane never happened.”

Two of the Arrow McLaren drivers got into their own shoving match on the track with Felix Rosenqvist getting the best of Alexander Rossi for third place.

But none of the Chevrolet drivers were able to catch Palou at the end as the No. 10 Honda took the checkered flag.

“When you have Chevrolet as the backdrop, and them being the key partner and sponsor of this thing, you want to keep them happy,” Denker said. “They also know competition drives this sport. We saw some great action. Will Power made a great move late, some great action there. The competition between the Arrow McLaren cars were unbelievable the last 10 laps. Will Power made a great pass of Alexander Rossi to get position to take over second place. I loved the competition.

“We saw some passes late between Turns 8 and 9 and Turns 1 and 2 that I don’t think anybody thought would happen. This turned into a very, very competitive race track.

“Once this track rubbered up, the drivers said this track was very worthy.

Indy 500 winner Joef Newgarden enters the Turn 3 hairpin during the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix (USA Today Sports Images Network).

“It’s a new place. They have to learn new things. There are some bumps in certain corners. Guess what? We’ll fix those things.

“No one got to test here because we couldn’t close the roads down a week ahead of time or a month ahead of time or two days ahead of time. I got some feedback from drivers who did simulation. I ground some track areas they wanted fixed. I put new pavement in Turn 3 to drivers right because of feedback.

“I got no feedback to repaving drivers left. If I had, I would have repaved that, also. It shows that I will make those changes because I made those changes to driver right, but I never got that feedback.

“It goes both ways. Provide me the feedback, I’ll make those changes. But now that we’ve had the race, we have a lot more opportunity to make changes based off of what actually happened.”

There were accolades and plaudits from some of IndyCar’s most accomplished drivers afterwards, including six-time NTT IndyCar Series champion and 2008 Indianapolis 500 winner Scott Dixon.

“It was wild,” Dixon said. “I had a lot of fun. The car was super difficult. The track was difficult. It had a lot of character. It was interesting but very difficult on the restarts.

“These things aren’t meant to be easy. I had a lot of fun, just frustrated with how my day went and not getting the most out of a really good car.”

From both an event and race standpoint, team owner Dale Coyne believed it was a blockbuster.

“This is a really big event,” Coyne said. “We’ve brought Long Beach to a major city like Detroit. This is the type of event that we should be doing in IndyCar.

“I would rather be in Detroit than in Milwaukee. Events like this one in Detroit are IndyCar’s future. Milwaukee is IndyCar’s past.”

While that comment may not resonate with some of IndyCar’s older fan base who long for the days of The Milwaukee Mile as the first race after the Indianapolis 500, that distinction has belonged to Detroit since it returned to the IndyCar schedule in 2012.

Now that it’s back on the streets of downtown Detroit for the first time since 1991, Denker predicts even bigger events to come for the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix.

“Our city was showcased to the world in ways that people had probably never thought,” Denker said proudly. “The riverfront, you couldn’t tell if you were in San Diego, or even Monaco, these boats that were out there harbored. We couldn’t be more proud of our team.

“We are already planning for next year.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500