NHRA: Drag racers prepare to take a bite out of “Gators” this weekend

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After a nearly three-week hiatus, the National Hot Rod Association returns to action this weekend in Gainesville, Florida.

But this isn’t just any race. Oh no. This is the 47th annual Amalie Motor Oil Gatornationals, one of the most important and popular events on the 24-race NHRA national event schedule.

The three biggest races in the NHRA each year are the season opener and finale, both at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona (Calif.), as well as the big daddy of them all, the U.S. Nationals on Labor Day weekend.

Right behind that trio is the Gatornationals, at a track that historically has been among the top record-setting locales on the NHRA national tour, namely, Gainesville Raceway.

“As a kid growing up with a dad (John) that raced on weekends, sort of the track champion on the central coast of California in Santa Maria, the biggest races to us were obviously Pomona and of course the U.S. Nationals at Indy,” said veteran driver Ron Capps, who comes into this weekend atop the NHRA Funny Car point standings.

“But Gainesville was always the one I wanted to read about,” said Capps, who leads 16-time Funny Car champion and seven-time Gainesville winner John Force by 15 points. “It seemed so far away to a kid in California, just reading about the history of it, seeing the highlights with Darrell Gwynn and “Big Daddy” (Don Garlits) going at it. Those were some great moments.

“I finally got to go as a Top Fuel driver (in 1995 for Roger Primm), I felt like I was traveling across the world and then to win my first time in a Funny Car (in 2006 against John Force), words can’t describe what it was like to win a race that big. It’s sort of the Winternationals of the East Coast.”

Capps is the second-winningest driver in Funny Car history with 45 wins. When he was a kid, he could only dream about Gainesville. Now he returns as the defending champ from last year’s race there.

“There are just days you feel like you can’t be beat, and that was one of those days,” Capps said of last year’s win. “Then you realize at the end of the day when you take that last turnoff that you just won the Gatornationals for the third time. It’s usually not until the morning after when you wake up and realize it wasn’t a dream and you won the Gatornationals again.”

The suburban San Diego resident is enjoying one of the best starts to a season he’s ever enjoyed. He won the season opener at Pomona and was the No. 1 qualifier at Phoenix.

He hopes to continue his success, including earning his fourth win at Gainesville (2015, 2007 and 2006, plus a runner-up finish in 2000).

The Gatornationals is the third stop on the 24-race national tour, following the season opener at Pomona and three weeks ago in suburban Phoenix.

Capps isn’t the only driver looking forward to this weekend’s event.

“Gainesville, Indy and Pomona, they were always some of the biggest, and from the time I started going to the racetrack with my dad you knew those were one of the special ones,” said four-time Pro Stock champion Greg Anderson. “They were the ones you wanted to jump in the camper or car and go across country to see.

“The first time I won there (2004) it felt like it was something special, something bigger. I’m glad we have that and not everyone feels the same. Any win is great but the ones that happen at the major tracks, you’re darn right they feel special.”

Added Funny Car driver Robert Hight, “The Gatornationals is one of the most significant races of our whole series. In golf you have four ‘majors’ and the Gatornationals is definitely one of drag racing’s ‘majors’ as well.

“You look at the history and the names of the drivers that have won here. Every big time name like (Don) Garlits to (Kenny) Bernstein to (Don) Prudhomme that have multiple wins here. I would love to get No. 3 this year.”

Noted Pro Stock driver Chris McGaha: “It’d be a big deal to win in Gainesville. 2012 was my first time racing there and that’s when I made my debut with my own team. I almost ran the table until eliminations; we were really fast. If the U.S. Nationals is the top race to win, I would say winning the Gatornationals would be in the top three races to win. That’d be pretty neat to win.”

The “Gators,” as the event is unofficially nicknamed, also marks the start of the 16-race Pro Stock Motorcycle season, as well. And more than ready to get started is defending PSM champ Andrew Hines.

The Southern California native is seeking his third championship in a row and sixth overall in 2016. A big key would be to win Sunday’s final elimination.

But Hines, who is seeking his second career win at Gainesville, also comes into the new season with a milestone prominently in mind: becoming the first PSM rider to break the 200 mph barrier, which he firmly believes will happen this season.

“I think we’ll see that sitting on a scoreboard somewhere early in this year,” Hines said of the 200 mph mark. “It could be one session where you might see two, three, maybe even four motorcycles run over that 200 mph mark and it might just stack up on who goes out first that qualifying session.

“I know a lot of us motorcycle guys have been trying to get it the last couple years,” Hines said of 200 mph. “It’s just a matter of all the stars aligning correctly and finding that couple horsepower that we all need to push us to that next threshold.”

Hector Arana Jr. has come the closest to the fabled 200 mph mark, setting the national record last season at Charlotte (199.88 mph).

“I have a lot of big expectations for this year,” Arana Jr. said. “We’ve got a lot of great things going on.”

NOTE: Defending winners from the 2015 Gatornationals are Spencer Massey (Top Fuel), Capps (Funny Car), Anderson (Pro Stock) and Karen Stoffer (Pro Stock Motorcycle).

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AMALIE MOTOR OIL NHRA GATORNATIONALS FACT SHEET (courtesy NHRA)

WHAT: 47th annual Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals, the third of 24 events in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series. Drivers in four categories – Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle – earn points leading to 2016 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series world championships. Competition also will be featured in the NHRA Lucas Oil Series and the NHRA J&A Service Pro Mod Series.

WHERE: Gainesville Raceway, Gainesville, Fla. The track is located on 11211 North County Road 225 in Gainesville.

WHEN: Thursday through Sunday, March 17-20

SCHEDULE:        

THURSDAY, March 17 – LUCAS OIL SERIES qualifying

FRIDAY, March 18 – LUCAS OIL SERIES eliminations

NHRA J&A SERVICE PRO MOD SERIES qualifying at noon and 3:30 p.m.

MELLO YELLO SERIES qualifying at 12:45 and 4:15 p.m.

SATURDAY, March 19 – LUCAS OIL SERIES eliminations

NHRA J&A SERVICE PRO MOD SERIES qualifying at 2 p.m. Round 1 of eliminations at 5:15 p.m.

MELLO YELLO SERIES qualifying at noon and 3:15 p.m.

SUNDAY, March 20 – Pre-race ceremonies, 10 a.m.

MELLO YELLO SERIES eliminations begin at 11 a.m.

 

TELEVISION:      

Friday, March 18, FOX Sports 1 (FS1) will televise one hour of qualifying highlights at 9 p.m. (ET).

Saturday, March 19, FS1 will televise one hour of qualifying highlights at 6:30 p.m. (ET).

Sunday, March 20, FS1 will televise three hours of live finals coverage at 1 p.m. (ET).

 

2015 EVENT WINNERS: Spencer Massey, Top Fuel; Ron Capps, Funny Car; Greg Anderson, Pro Stock; Karen Stoffer, Pro Stock Motorcycle.

MOST VICTORIES: Warren Johnson, 9, PS; John Force, 7, FC; Don Prudhomme, 5, FC; Joe Amato, 4, TF; Kenny Bernstein, 4, FC/TF; Larry Dixon, 4, TF; Don Garlits, 4, TF; Jason Line, 4, PS; Ed McCulloch, 4, FC; Tony Schumacher, 4, TF; Dave Schultz, 4, PSM; Terry Vance, 4, PSM.

 

TRACK RECORDS:            

Top Fuel – 3.743 seconds by Morgan Lucas, March ’12; 329.02 mph by Spencer Massey, March ’15.

Funny Car – 4.022 seconds by Cruz Pedregon, March ’15; 317.12 mph by Robert Hight, March ’12.

Pro Stock – 6.473 seconds by Mike Edwards, March ’12; 214.69 mph by Erica Enders, March ’14.

PS Motorcycle – 6.750 seconds by Eddie Krawiec, March ’12; 199.26 mph by Krawiec, March ’11.

 

NATIONAL RECORDS:

Top Fuel – 3.680 sec. by Antron Brown, Aug. ’15, Brainerd, Minn.; 332.75 mph by Spencer Massey, Aug. ’15, Brainerd, Minn.

Funny Car – 3.884 sec. by Jack Beckman, Nov. ’15, Pomona, Calif. and 331.45 mph by Matt Hagan, Nov. ’15, Pomona, Calif.

Pro Stock – 6.455 sec. by Jason Line, March ’15, Charlotte, N.C. and 215.55 mph by Erica Enders, May ‘14, Englishtown N.J.

PS Motorcycle – 6.728 sec. by Andrew Hines, Oct. ’12, Reading, Pa.; 199.88 mph by Hector Arana Jr., March ’15, Charlotte, N.C.

 

TICKETS: For tickets call (800) 884-NHRA (6472). Tickets also available online at www.NHRA.com/tickets.

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NHRA MELLO YELLO DRAG RACING SERIES WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP POINTS STANDINGS

Point standings (top 10) following the second of 24 events in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series:

Top Fuel:  1.  Doug Kalitta, 171; 2.  Steve Torrence, 163; 3.  Brittany Force, 133; 4.  Clay Millican, 131; 5. Leah Pritchett, 129; 6.  Antron Brown, 110; 7.  Richie Crampton, 109; 8.  J.R. Todd, 105; 9.  Tony Schumacher, 98; 10.  Terry McMillen, 97.

Funny Car:  1.  Ron Capps, 183; 2.  John Force, 168; 3.  Robert Hight, 158; 4.  Del Worsham, 154; 5.  Tim Wilkerson, 147; 6.  Courtney Force, 141; 7.  Jack Beckman, 121; 8.  Alexis DeJoria, 87; 9.  Chad Head, 86; 10.  Tommy Johnson Jr., 85.

Pro Stock:  1.  Jason Line, 227; 2.  Greg Anderson, 209; 3.  Bo Butner, 171; 4.  Drew Skillman, 131; 5.  Chris McGaha, 129; 6.  Jeg Coughlin, 106; 7.  Allen Johnson, 87; 8.  Vincent Nobile, 86; 9.  Deric Kramer, 83; 10.  Alex Laughlin, 66.

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Mario Andretti says Colton Herta could be next American star in F1

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Mario Andretti’s last Formula One victory is also the last by an American driver in more than 42 years on the international open-wheel road racing series.

If you had told Andretti that while he was celebrating on the Grand Prix of the Netherlands podium on Aug. 27, 1978 at the Vandzoort circuit, he wouldn’t have believed it.

“Absolutely not,” Andretti told Kyle Petty during the most recent “Coffee With Kyle” episode (video above). “It’s a shame. Somehow we have so much talent here, and either there’s no invitation or something there. But I think it’s time to give some of this young talent that, in my opinion, is absolutely capable.”

The Dutch GP was the last of Andretti’s 12 victories in F1 and came during his championship season. No one since has come close to matching his success in F1.

Mario Andretti drives his Lotus-Ford to victory in the 1978 Grand Prix of the Netherlands (Bernard Cahier/Getty Images).

Andretti’s son, Michael, took a full-time ride with McLaren in 1993 but left with three races remaining in a season marred by crashes and mechanical problems.

Scott Speed was the last American to run a full F1 season in 2006, and Alexander Rossi made the most recent F1 start by a U.S. driver in 2015. Rossi has said he has no desire to return to racing in Europe after winning the 2016 Indianapolis 500 and becoming an IndyCar championship contender.

But Mario Andretti believes Andretti Autosport has another rising star with F1-caliber ability.

“Colton Herta is one that comes to mind,” Mario Andretti said. “As a young lad, his dad sent him to Europe, he was doing Formula 3, and he knows most of the circuits there. He’s trained. He’s showed in his rookie season and won some premium races at COTA (and Laguna Seca), beat two of the very best Indy has to offer (in) Will Power and Scott Dixon.

“This is one kid I’d love to see him get a break over there to fly the U.S. colors again.”

Herta, 20, seems interested in exploring an F1 leap over the next few years. After winning Sept. 13 at Mid-Ohio from the pole position (his third career victory in the NTT IndyCar Series), the No. 88 Dallara-Honda driver is ranked fourth in the standings in his sophomore year and regarded as one of the series’ top prospects.

Herta recently told RACER.com “I’d love to give Formula 1 a crack” but said he also would be happy driving in IndyCar and IMSA.

A naturalized U.S. citizen who told Petty about spending several years with his family in an Italian refugee camp before coming to America, Mario Andretti said F1 brought an enormous sense of patriotic pride.

“Formula One is like the Olympics in a sense,” he said. “You’re in a different country, a different continent. When you earn that highest step of the podium, they play your national anthem. That’s when you take nothing for granted. You feel like I’m representing my country, and the proudest moments are those.

“I’d just like to see some other American drivers experience that. It’s time.”

Mario Andretti with four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton before the Nov. 22, 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images).

During the “Coffee With Kyle” conversation, Andretti also discussed:

–His versatility as a winner in IndyCar, sports cars, NASCAR and Formula One;

–His 1967 Daytona 500 victory and how he enjoyed racing with crew chief Jake Elder at the famed Holman-Moody team;

Mario Andretti Colton Herta
Mario Andretti and Kyle Petty saluted “The King” by wearing their Richard Petty-style hats during the latest “Coffee With Kyle” (NBCSN).

–Why he delayed his entry to F1 for a few years because of his earnings power in IndyCar. “I always say I’d race for free, but at the same time, you’re thinking of family and the future,” he said. “It was in the back of your mind that you can’t give up the earning power of IndyCar. That kept me from going full time in Formula One, but I always said that sometime in my career, I’d have to devote a period to Formula One.”

–On what it was like racing in an era when driver deaths were more prevalent. “If you’re going to do this, you’re not going to dwell on those negatives,” Andretti said. “There’s no way. You knew it was present. Especially in the ‘60s at the beginning of the season at the drivers meetings, you couldn’t help but look around and say, ‘I wonder who is not going to be here at the end of the season.’ We’d lose four to five guys. In ’64, we lost six guys.

“It’s something if you dwell on that, you’re going to take on a different profession. It’s a desire and love to want to drive that overcame all that and then the confidence it’s not going to happen to me. And then you pray.”

Watch the full “Coffee With Kyle” episode in the video above or by clicking here.

Mario Andretti looks on before the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on May 26, 2019 (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).