NHRA: Brown, Worsham make it 2 in row in Countdown

(Photo courtesy NHRA)
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Antron Brown and Del Worsham are threatening to make it a runaway in the Nitro classes of the NHRA’s Countdown to the Championship.

Both drivers won their second consecutive race in the six-race Countdown in Sunday’s eliminations of the AAA Insurance Midwest Nationals at Gateway Motorsports Park in Madison, Ill.

Brown (3.721 seconds at 325.92 mph) earned his fourth consecutive Top Fuel win at Gateway, his sixth win of the 2015 season and his 37th career win (53rd overall, including his prior tenure as a Pro Stock Motorcycle rider), defeating Dave Connolly (3.753 seconds at 328.94 mph) in the final round.

“There are two words: truly blessed,” Brown said afterward. “When [track owner] Curt Francois and [general manager] Chris Blair brought this track back [in 2011], they brought it back better than ever. You can put a slew of runs together that are quick and fast, because you’re not worried about the track not being there.”

Brown now holds a stout 77 point lead over teammate Tony Schumacher in the Top Fuel standings. But he also knows big leads can be precarious.

“We have to keep marching right now,” Brown said. “We had a 200-point lead in 2012 and almost lost the championship at the end. We’re off to an incredible start (in the Countdown).”

In Funny Car, Worsham had one of the better weekends of his lengthy drag racing career. Worsham (3.964 seconds at 320.13 mph) defeated defending Funny Car champ and No. 1 qualifier Matt Hagan (3.983 at 324.20) in the final round, earning the victory in spectacular fashion when the engine on his Toyota exploded as he crossed the finish line. Worsham was uninjured in the mishap.

“It made a hard dart to the right, I had full input on the wheel to the left, and it went ‘ka-boom’ right before I got to the finish line,” Worsham said. “It blew up, the dash came up, and fire went back there. Luckily, in today’s racing, the chutes deployed themselves and slowed it down right away.

“In my 25 years of racing, I don’t know if I’ve ever driven a Funny Car that made that many good runs. The team assembling it, the tune-up, and what [team owner] Connie Kalitta has given us here has been unreal. When I came back to Funny Car racing [in 2012], this is the dream I had.”

In addition, the Southern California native lowered the NHRA national Funny Car elapsed time record (3.899 seconds during Saturday’s qualifying), which is an automatic 20-point bonus in the standings.

Worsham now leads No. 2-ranked Hagan by 90 points heading into the third race and the midpoint of the Countdown, next weekend’s Keystone Nationals in Reading, Pa.

In Pro Stock, rookie Drew Skillman (6.529 seconds at 211.63 mph) earned his first career win, defeating teammate and defending champ Erica Enders (lost traction).

“This is my fourth time to the finals and I knew that Erica has been insane on the Tree,” said Skillman. “A little luck came our way and we got it done this weekend.

“I lost the first three finals but I don’t know how you can get frustrated when you get to a pro category for the first time and have the kind of year we’re having. This is not normal. I’m just very excited to win this today. I have a great team.”

Despite the loss, Enders increased her lead in the Pro Stock standings to 113 points over No. 2 ranked Greg Anderson.

Lastly, in Pro Stock Motorcycle, Hector Arana Jr. (6.680 seconds at 196.50 mph) earned his second win of the season, defeating his father, Hector Arana (6.932 at 195.03), in the final round.

“This has been a great week; I don’t know if I could ask for anything more,” the younger Arana said. “On Monday, I pulled the trigger and asked my beautiful girlfriend [Nicole Nobile] to marry me and to get this win is just icing on the cake.

“I tell you what, that is a bittersweet win. I watched my dad win in the semis and I said to myself, ‘I have to win’ so we can see which one of us can take home the Wally (winner’s trophy). I want to see him win and of course he wants to see me win, but at the same time I want to beat him. We also needed this to move forward in the points.”

Arana Jr. is now second in the standings, just 34 points behind points leader and defending season champ Andrew Hines.

FINAL FINISHING ORDER:

TOP FUEL: 1.  Antron Brown; 2.  Dave Connolly; 3.  Billy Torrence; 4.  Brittany Force; 5.  Steve Torrence; 6.  Shawn Langdon; 7.  Doug Kalitta; 8.  Tony Schumacher; 9.  Larry Dixon; 10.  Clay Millican; 11.  Wayne Newby; 12.  Terry McMillen; 13.  Kyle Wurtzel; 14.  J.R. Todd; 15.  Richie Crampton; 16.  Troy Buff.

FUNNY CAR: 1.  Del Worsham; 2.  Matt Hagan; 3.  Cruz Pedregon; 4.  Ron Capps; 5.  Tim Wilkerson; 6.  John Force; 7.  Alexis DeJoria; 8.  Jack Beckman; 9.  Brian Stewart; 10.  John Hale; 11.  Tommy Johnson Jr.; 12.  Tony Pedregon; 13.  Courtney Force; 14.  John Bojec; 15.  Robert Hight; 16.  Chad Head.

PRO STOCK: 1.  Drew Skillman; 2.  Erica Enders; 3.  Bo Butner; 4.  Allen Johnson; 5.  Greg Anderson; 6.  Vincent Nobile; 7.  Deric Kramer; 8.  Larry Morgan; 9.  Jason Line; 10.  Shane Gray; 11.  V. Gaines; 12.  Mark Hogan; 13.  Alex Laughlin; 14.  Jonathan Gray; 15.  Aaron Strong; 16.  Chris McGaha.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1.  Hector Arana Jr; 2.  Hector Arana; 3.  Steve Johnson; 4.  Chip Ellis; 5.  Jerry Savoie; 6.  Andrew Hines; 7.  Karen Stoffer; 8.  Chaz Kennedy; 9.  Mike Berry; 10.  Matt Smith; 11.  Eddie Krawiec; 12.  Adam Arana; 13.  Angie Smith; 14.  Brian Pretzel; 15.  Jim Underdahl; 16.  Scotty Pollacheck.

FINAL ROUND RESULTS:

Top Fuel: Antron Brown, 3.721 seconds, 325.92 mph  def. Dave Connolly, 3.753 seconds, 328.94 mph.

Funny Car: Del Worsham, Toyota Camry, 3.964, 320.13  def. Matt Hagan, Dodge Charger, 3.983, 324.20.

Pro Stock: Drew Skillman, Chevy Camaro, 6.529, 211.63  def. Erica Enders, Camaro, 17.947, 46.65.

Pro Stock Motorcycle: Hector Arana Jr, Buell, 6.860, 196.50  def. Hector Arana, Buell, 6.932, 195.03.

FINAL ROUND-BY-ROUND RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: ROUND ONE — Dave Connolly, 3.739, 329.34 def. J.R. Todd, 3.952, 250.00; Tony Schumacher, 3.762, 326.56 def. Clay Millican, 3.763, 321.27; Brittany Force, 3.746, 327.11 def. Troy Buff, 5.899, 107.73; Steve Torrence, 3.756, 324.67 def. Kyle Wurtzel, 3.870, 308.21; Antron Brown, 3.767, 322.19 def. Terry McMillen, 3.846, 322.58; Billy Torrence, 3.746, 329.91 def. Larry Dixon, 3.753, 329.02; Doug Kalitta, 3.777, 328.06 def. Wayne Newby, 3.777, 323.43; Shawn Langdon, 3.753, 329.26 def. Richie Crampton, 4.228, 226.92;

QUARTERFINALS — Brown, 3.727, 324.28 def. Langdon, 3.759, 326.87; Force, 3.773, 325.85 def. Kalitta, 3.762, 323.58; Connolly, 3.724, 329.75 def. S. Torrence, 3.741, 329.42; B. Torrence, 3.739, 328.86 def. Schumacher, 3.762, 321.12;

SEMIFINALS — Brown, 3.733, 322.88 def. B. Torrence, 3.761, 327.11; Connolly, 3.764, 329.99 def. Force, 4.309, 219.15;

FINAL — Brown, 3.721, 325.92 def. Connolly, 3.753, 328.94.

FUNNY CAR: ROUND ONE — Ron Capps, Dodge Charger, 4.002, 320.74 def. John Hale, Charger, 4.199, 300.26; Jack Beckman, Charger, 5.308, 135.96 def. John Bojec, Toyota Solara, foul; Del Worsham, Toyota Camry, 3.945, 325.69 def. Tony Pedregon, Camry, 4.884, 184.19; Matt Hagan, Charger, 3.955, 325.22 def. Brian Stewart, Ford Mustang, 4.132, 303.71; Alexis DeJoria, Camry, 3.966, 292.77 def. Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 4.332, 211.49; Cruz Pedregon, Camry, 4.025, 267.32 def. Chad Head, Camry, 6.863, 90.67; Tim Wilkerson, Mustang, 3.983, 323.12 def. Courtney Force, Chevy Camaro, 5.263, 187.23; John Force, Camaro, 4.670, 172.85 def. Robert Hight, Camaro, 6.440, 103.15;

QUARTERFINALS — C. Pedregon, 3.992, 311.13 def. Beckman, 11.469, 77.16; Hagan, 3.979, 323.97 def. J. Force, 4.014, 323.43; Worsham, 3.956, 324.36 def. Wilkerson, 3.974, 323.04; Capps, 3.949, 324.67 def. DeJoria, 7.810, 87.23;

SEMIFINALS — Worsham, 3.952, 326.40 def. C. Pedregon, 13.070, 60.74; Hagan, no time def. Capps, DQ;

FINAL — Worsham, 3.964, 320.13 def. Hagan, 3.983, 324.20.

PRO STOCK: ROUND ONE — Allen Johnson, Dodge Dart, 6.559, 211.00 def. Shane Gray, Chevy Camaro, foul; Larry Morgan, Camaro, 6.554, 211.59 def. Jason Line, Camaro, 6.526, 211.63; Vincent Nobile, Camaro, 6.577, 210.24 def. Chris McGaha, Camaro, 8.654, 109.87; Deric Kramer, Dart, 6.569, 207.69 def. Jonathan Gray, Camaro, 6.822, 168.60; Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.543, 211.39 def. Aaron Strong, Camaro, 7.014, 155.87; Drew Skillman, Camaro, 6.530, 211.43 def. V. Gaines, Dart, 6.664, 185.05; Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.528, 212.03 def. Mark Hogan, Pontiac GXP, 6.681, 206.92; Erica Enders, Camaro, 6.586, 210.87 def. Alex Laughlin, Camaro, 6.819, 200.23;

QUARTERFINALS — Enders, 6.520, 211.66 def. Nobile, 6.561, 210.31; Butner, 6.543, 210.67 def. Morgan, 6.604, 209.39; Skillman, 6.525, 211.39 def. Kramer, foul; Johnson, 6.558, 211.26 def. Anderson, 6.533, 211.49;

SEMIFINALS — Skillman, 6.528, 211.79 def. Johnson, foul; Enders, 6.524, 212.06 def. Butner, 6.520, 212.43;

FINAL — Skillman, 6.529, 211.63 def. Enders, 17.947, 46.65.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: ROUND ONE — Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, 6.980, 193.82 def. Scotty Pollacheck, Buell, 7.136, 185.64; Chip Ellis, Buell, 6.897, 193.54 def. Angie Smith, foul; Karen Stoffer, Suzuki, 6.919, 194.41 def. Adam Arana, Buell, 7.009, 191.59; Hector Arana, Buell, 6.907, 194.38 def. Mike Berry, Buell, 6.915, 192.00; Andrew Hines, Harley-Davidson, 6.858, 195.19 def. Brian Pretzel, Buell, foul; Steve Johnson, Suzuki, 6.867, 194.21 def. Matt Smith, foul; Chaz Kennedy, Buell, 6.974, 191.89 def. Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 6.938, 193.99; Hector Arana Jr, Buell, 6.870, 196.42 def. Jim Underdahl, Suzuki, 7.098, 174.28;

QUARTERFINALS — H. Arana, 6.876, 195.22 def. Savoie, 6.866, 194.30; Ellis, 6.886, 193.49 def. Kennedy, 6.966, 190.97; Johnson, 6.919, 194.58 def. Stoffer, foul; Arana Jr, 6.872, 195.73 def. Hines, 6.882, 194.91;

SEMIFINALS — H. Arana, 6.889, 195.00 def. Ellis, 6.925, 193.16; Arana Jr, 6.881, 196.30 def. Johnson, 6.902, 195.42;

FINAL — Arana Jr, 6.860, 196.50 def. H. Arana, 6.932, 195.03.

UPDATED STANDINGS:

Top Fuel: 1.  Antron Brown, 2,320; 2.  Tony Schumacher, 2,243; 3.  Larry Dixon, 2,161; 4.  Brittany Force, 2,157; 5.  J.R. Todd, 2,149; 6.  Doug Kalitta, 2,139; 7.  Richie Crampton, 2,133; 8.  (tie) Dave Connolly, 2,127; Steve Torrence, 2,127; 10.  Shawn Langdon, 2,126.

Funny Car: 1.  Del Worsham, 2,327; 2.  Matt Hagan, 2,237; 3.  Tommy Johnson Jr., 2,211; 4.  Jack Beckman, 2,208; 5.  John Force, 2,178; 6.  Ron Capps, 2,177; 7.  Alexis DeJoria, 2,123; 8.  Cruz Pedregon, 2,116; 9.  Tim Wilkerson, 2,107; 10.  Robert Hight, 2,099.

Pro Stock: 1.  Erica Enders, 2,331; 2.  Greg Anderson, 2,218; 3.  Allen Johnson, 2,195; 4.  Drew Skillman, 2,171; 5.  Larry Morgan, 2,167; 6.  Chris McGaha, 2,162; 7.  Vincent Nobile, 2,155; 8.  Jason Line, 2,125; 9.  Shane Gray, 2,117; 10.  Jonathan Gray, 2,066.

Pro Stock Motorcycle: 1.  Andrew Hines, 2,259; 2.  Hector Arana Jr, 2,225; 3.  Eddie Krawiec, 2,208; 4.  Jerry Savoie, 2,205; 5.  Matt Smith, 2,167; 6.  Karen Stoffer, 2,146; 7.  Hector Arana, 2,135; 8.  Chip Ellis, 2,131; 9.  Jim Underdahl, 2,094; 10.  Scotty Pollacheck, 2,041.

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The Thermal Club wants an IndyCar race, and series executives liked its initial impact at test

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THERMAL, Calif. – Many teams in the NTT IndyCar Series questioned the relevancy of having a two-day preseason test at The Thermal Club.

The team owners, drivers and engineers believed the 17-turn, 3.067-mile race course that winds and twists its way through a gated private community (about 45 minutes southeast of Palm Springs) had no relevance to any track on the 17-race schedule.

To the leaders of IndyCar, however, there was plenty of relevance to hosting its “Spring Training” at a sort of motorsports country club that caters to extremely wealthy residents who also are automotive enthusiasts.

“Both with our stakeholders and the media that covers IndyCar, we wanted them to know that we are going to do things differently,” Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports from the private VIP viewing area that overlooks the long straights and twisting turns of the course. “This is going to be a year when we expect our growth to go to a whole new level.

“What better way to send that message than to be at a place we have never been that is exceptional?

“The quality of this place; the facilities are off the charts. The customer service, the welcoming feeling you get from the staff here. The track itself is fast. The drivers are having a great time on it.

FRIDAY SPEEDSThird session l Fourth session l Combined

‘AN AMAZING PLACE’: IndyCar and its big plans for Thermal

“It really sent a message to our other promoters and our drivers and team owners that something is up. We want fans around the country and the sports industry to know that something is going on with IndyCar this year.”

The Thermal Club is a concept driven by Tim Rogers, who made his fortune by supplying gasoline to 7-Eleven stores in 36 states. He wanted to create a private community that mixed multimillion-dollar homes and luxury villas with a high-speed race course.

The two-day IndyCar “Spring Training” was the most ambitious motorsports project yet for The Thermal Club.

Rogers wants it to be the first step in a long-term goal for the community.

“Our endgame is we want to host an IndyCar Series race at The Thermal Club one day,” Rogers told NBC Sports as IndyCar hit the track again Friday morning. “This was a good trial to see how the facility can handle it and if the facility works for them.”

Felix Rosenqvist makes laps in the No. 6 Arrow McLaren Dallara-Chevrolet during the first day of NTT IndyCar Series testing (Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images).

The two-day test was closed to the general public. It was open only to credentialed news media, members of the Thermal Club and a limited number of their guests.

With the spectacular backdrop of the Coachella Valley that is rimmed with snow-capped mountains, The Thermal Club could provide a great setting for an NBC telecast of an IndyCar Series race (and possibly line up a big sponsor for a return on its investment with a larger than normal audience during a ripe time such as the first weekend of February).

NASCAR is using that same model Sunday at the Los Angeles Coliseum by hosting the Busch Light Clash. The National Football League’s AFC and NFC Championship games were last weekend and next Sunday is the Super Bowl.

“That could work, but we have room where we could separate the public and the private members area, too,” Rogers said. “We could accommodate 4,000 or so of the general public.

“This would be a premium event for a premium crowd.”


Rogers’ dream of The Thermal Club began 11 years ago. He will talk to IndyCar about a return for Spring Training next year with hopes of getting a date on the schedule for 2025.

“Whatever fits,” Rogers said.

Miles and Penske Entertainment, the owners of IndyCar, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the Indianapolis 500, realize Rogers has an ambitious dream of getting a race on the schedule.

Miles, however, isn’t ready to indicate that a race at Thermal is part of IndyCar’s future (though drivers seem open to the concept).

“Tim and everybody at The Thermal Club have done a phenomenal job of being hosts here for this test,” Miles said. “Everybody is very happy we are here, and I expect we will find a way to continue to be here. Whether that means a race and when is really a bridge we aren’t ready to cross yet.

“We really like opening the championship season each year in St. Petersburg, Florida. We’ll have to see. But it’s a great way to start the season in this way, and right now, we are happy to be here.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Defending IndyCar champion Will Power takes laps at The Thermal Club during the first day of the track’s first test (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

On track, it was a successful two-day test session with 27 car/driver combinations that will compete in IndyCar in 2023. It’s the largest field for IndyCar since the 1990s. There were a few spins here and there but no major incidents across 2,560 laps.

Kyle Kirkwood led the final session Friday while getting acquainted with his new No. 27 team at Andretti Autosport. Kirkwood has replaced Alexander Rossi at Andretti, whom Kirkwood drove for in Indy Lights.

His time of 1 minute, 38.827 seconds (111.721 mph) around the 3.067-mile road course was the fastest of the fourth and final session. But the fastest speed over two days was defending Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson of Chip Ganassi Racing in the Friday morning session (1:38.4228, 112.182 mph in the No. 8 Honda).

Callum Ilott of Juncos Hollinger Racing was second in the final session at 1:38.8404 (111.707 mph) in the No. 77 Chevrolet. Rookie Marcus Armstrong of New Zealand was third at 1:38.8049 (111.707 mph) in the No. 11 Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing. Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing was fourth at 1:38.8718 (111.672 mph) in the No. 10. Defending NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske rounded out the top five at 1:38.9341 (111.602 mph) in the No. 12 Chevrolet.

Ericsson was the fastest in combined times followed by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Christian Lundgaard at 1:38.5682 in the No. 45 Honda, Kirkwood, Ilott and Armstrong. Positions 3-5 speeds were from the final practice session on Friday.

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
With members’ houses in the background, Romain Grosjean navigates the turns of The Thermal Club in his No. 28 Dallara-Honda (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

Drivers didn’t know what to expect before hitting the track. After the two-day test was over, NBC Sports asked several drivers what they learned from The Thermal Club.

“I think it’s a first-class facility, no doubt,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden of Team Penske said. “I think the entire facility here at Thermal really rolled out the red carpet for us. They did a tremendous job.

“It was a fairly flawless test, I would say, for two days. I think the great thing about this was we had a two-day test, which was fantastic. You got to have this warmup; this preseason build. That was the biggest positive for me, is that we were here, we were running cars. It was a great facility to do it at.

IndyCar Thermal Club test
Josef Newgarden said his No. 2 team (which has a new lead engineer) used The Thermal Club test as an opportunity for building cohesion (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).
Indycar Series Test - Day 2
Josef Newgarden (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

“I think the track was a lot more fun than we anticipated. It was challenging, definitely technical. I don’t know how relevant it is. For us, it wasn’t really relevant to anywhere we’re going, but that’s OK.”

But even though the track has no sector particularly similar to any road or street course on the schedule, there still were benefits.

“In a lot of ways, it is relevant,” Newgarden said. “For us it was relevant for building the team up, trying to work in a competitive environment, be competitive together. That’s everything. So regardless of is the setup going to apply to a certain track or another, (it) doesn’t really matter.

“For us, it was applying the principles of how we’re going to work together. From that standpoint, it was very productive for everybody. Raceability-wise, it’s hard to say. It was chewing tires up. Big drop-off from run one to two. I think from a race standpoint, that would be quite positive. You’d have big tire deg here.

“You’d have to do more work on runoff areas if we wanted to race here, but it’s possible. I don’t think it would take much effort to do the things to run an actual race.”


Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Will Power (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images)

Kirkwood found speed in his Andretti Autosport machine, but he used the test to create a smooth working relationship with his new crew.

“I wouldn’t say that we found something here that is going to translate to anywhere, right?” the 2021 Indy Lights champion said. “This is a very unique track, although it was a lot of fun to drive, and it kind of surprised me in the amount of grip that it actually produced.

“It was quite a bit faster than what we expected.”

Many of the NTT IndyCar Series teams will test later this month at Sebring, Florida, as they prepare for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to kick off the season March 5.

“It’s a very nice facility, a nice area, it’s pretty cool to have two days of testing here with a lot of high-profile people,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske told NBC Sports. “It’s a very technical, tough track.

“It’s pretty good.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 2
IndyCar drivers turns laps on the second day of testing at The Thermal Club, which is nestled in the Coachella Valley that is ringed by mountains in Southern California (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

The Thermal Club received rave reviews, welcomed IndyCar and provided exposure to the movers and shakers of the business community that own the luxury villas and homes in this ultra-rich community.

Could it be a venue of the future for a series that sells lifestyle as much as on-track competition?

“This is a fantastic facility and the circuit is a fast circuit,” team owner Bobby Rahal told NBC Sports. “It’s pretty exciting to watch the cars run around here. I think it would be attractive to people.

“I’ll leave that up to Mark Miles and (IndyCar President) Jay Frye and everybody else whether we have a race here, but why not?

“It’s a great place.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500