NHRA: Tanner Gray clinches Pro Stock crown, at 19 is youngest champ ever

Tanner Gray clinched the NHRA Pro Stock title Saturday. Photo and videos courtesy NHRA
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NHRA media release

POMONA, Calif – Just 19 years old and in only his second full-time season of competition, Pro Stock racer Tanner Gray became the youngest NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series world champion by qualifying Saturday at the season ending Auto Club NHRA Finals at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona.

During his championship season Gray notched seven victories including securing his first career win at the prestigious Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals win in Indianapolis. In the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Countdown to the Championship, Gray cemented his first crown with two wins and maintained the points lead throughout the entire playoffs.

“It has been a heck of a year,” said Gray, a New Mexico native. “It started out pretty slow and I wasn’t quite sure it would end up here. About midseason we were able to find something, and everything seemed like it started clicking from there. We did so much testing at the beginning of the season and it really paid off. It was like a light flipped and everything started coming together. We had a strong running going there for a little bit and came into the Countdown and executed on race day really well.”

In other racing, Leah Pritchett (Top Fuel), Ron Capps (Funny Car), Jeg Coughlin Jr. (Pro Stock) and Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were No. 1 qualifiers in their respective categories at the final race of the 2018 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season.

Pritchett remained atop of the Top Fuel category for all four qualifying sessions in her Mopar Dodge dragster at her hometown race. Her final qualifying run of 3.631-seconds at 332.84 mph secured her fourth No. 1 qualifier of the season and 11th of her career. Pritchett will square off against Bill Litton Sunday morning as she seeks to secure her third win of the season.

“The car is finally communicating in a proper way,” Pritchett said. “We found out our window is a lot bigger for making these fast passes. I’m most excited for Todd Okuhara (crew chief) because he finally has his race car back. For the history that has been laid on this track and for us to chase putting down our own history makes me feel like our team is on our way.”

Top Fuel world champion Steve Torrence is second with his pass of 3.661 at 330.96 in his Capco Contractors/Torrence Racing dragster and 2017 world champion Brittany Force is third overall.

Don Schumacher Racing swept the top three qualifying positions in Funny Car as Capps powered his NAPA Auto Parts Dodge Charger R/T to the top of the class with his fourth qualifying pass of 3.848 at 331.53. Teammates Jack Beckman and Tommy Johnson Jr. were second and third, respectively.

“The fans are going to be in for unbelievable racing tomorrow,” Capps stated. “It will be a nice warm Southern California day but it is going to be good track conditions and it won’t be messy or greasy. I can’t think of a better place to race.”

Capps will see Ray Martin in the first round of eliminations. Beckman’s speed of 330.96 at 3.867 in his Infinite Hero Dodge Charger R/T surpassed Johnson Jr.’s 326.40 at 3.867 during their side-by-side fourth qualifying run. Points leader J.R. Todd is qualified fourth and defending world champion and championship contender Robert Hight follows in fifth.

Pro Stock veteran Coughlin Jr. locked-in his sixth No. 1 qualifier of the season in his JEGS.com/Elite Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro with his final qualifying pass of 6.510 at 211.49. He will face-off against Kenny Delco during the first round of eliminations as he chases his fourth win of the season.

“Rickie Jones (crew chief) was going for it,” Coughlin Jr. stated. “From the time I let the clutch out this thing was just singing. It was singing through every one of the four gear changes and fifth gear was great and just hummed it down through there. I could tell by the tone on his voice on the radio that not only did we run well but kept the No. 1 qualifier.”

Jason Line moved up to the No. 2 spot during the final round of qualifying with his run of 6.529 at 212.06 in his Summit Racing Chevrolet Equipment and will see Vincent Nobile for the first round of eliminations. Erica Enders rounds out to the top three for qualifying and will start eliminations against Deric Kramer.

In Pro Stock Motorcycle, Matt Smith, the points leader, secured his fifth No. 1 qualifier of the season, 31st of his career and second during the Countdown to the Championship by racing his Elite Motorsports DENSO Auto Parts EBR to a 6.754 at 201.10.

“Our Q3 run was a phenomenal pass,” Smith said. “We did 60-foot well like we did in Q1 and Q2 but as everybody sees we have a real good tune-up, we have a lot of power, and the 201.10 is pretty hateful out here. We ran big speed at eighth mile, changed some gear ratios and made a nice pass.”

Smith will open eliminations against his wife, Angie Smith. Hector Arana Jr. is qualified second after a 6.781 at 197.57 on his Lucas Oil Racing TV EBR and he’ll line up against Freddie Camarena. Defending world champion Eddie Krawiec is in qualified third and in contention for his fifth world championship.

Eliminations begin at 11 a.m. PT/2 p.m. ET at the 54th annual Auto Club NHRA Finals. 

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SUNDAY’S FIRST ROUND PAIRINGS:

TOP FUEL: 1. Leah Pritchett, 3.631 seconds, 332.84 mph vs. 16. Bill Litton, 3.985, 270.43; 2. Steve Torrence, 3.661, 330.96 vs. 15. Cameron Ferre, 3.929, 287.41; 3. Brittany Force, 3.667, 333.58 vs. 14. Shawn Reed, 3.807, 323.12; 4. Clay Millican, 3.681, 325.14 vs. 13. Terry McMillen, 3.792, 324.05; 5. Blake Alexander, 3.692, 331.45 vs. 12. Mike Salinas, 3.762, 294.50; 6. Antron Brown, 3.704, 329.50 vs. 11. Doug Kalitta, 3.740, 319.29; 7. Billy Torrence, 3.711, 328.86 vs. 10. Richie Crampton, 3.726, 325.22; 8. Tony Schumacher, 3.722, 329.75 vs. 9. Scott Palmer, 3.726, 326.95. Did Not Qualify: 17. Audrey Worm, 4.005, 254.47.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Ron Capps, Dodge Charger, 3.848, 331.53 vs. 16. Ray Martin, Toyota Camry, 4.183, 259.31; 2. Jack Beckman, Charger, 3.867, 330.96 vs. 15. Jeff Arend, Chevy Monte Carlo, 4.116, 303.37; 3. Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 3.867, 326.40 vs. 14. Cruz Pedregon, Camry, 4.065, 300.20; 4. J.R. Todd, Camry, 3.897, 327.82 vs. 13. Jim Campbell, Charger, 4.000, 309.70; 5. Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, 3.915, 327.98 vs. 12. Bob Tasca III, Ford Mustang, 3.991, 320.20; 6. Courtney Force, Camaro, 3.920, 313.58 vs. 11. Bob Bode, Mustang, 3.981, 318.24; 7. Tim Wilkerson, Mustang, 3.931, 321.81 vs. 10. John Force, Camaro, 3.975, 320.36; 8. Matt Hagan, Charger, 3.946, 323.50 vs. 9. Shawn Langdon, Camry, 3.950, 320.97. Did Not Qualify: 17. Terry Haddock, 4.253, 260.56; 18. Jonnie Lindberg, 4.452, 286.01; 19. Jeff Diehl, 4.632, 190.35.

PRO STOCK: 1. Jeg Coughlin, Chevy Camaro, 6.510, 211.49 vs. 16. Kenny Delco, Camaro, 6.597, 209.36; 2. Jason Line, Camaro, 6.529, 212.06 vs. 15. Vincent Nobile, Camaro, 6.584, 209.95; 3. Erica Enders, Camaro, 6.530, 211.39 vs. 14. Deric Kramer, Camaro, 6.570, 210.50; 4. Drew Skillman, Camaro, 6.532, 211.16 vs. 13. Alan Prusiensky, Dodge Dart, 6.569, 209.49; 5. Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.533, 211.66 vs. 12. Fernando Cuadra, Camaro, 6.568, 209.85; 6. Tanner Gray, Camaro, 6.534, 211.33 vs. 11. Shane Gray, Camaro, 6.564, 210.08; 7. Alex Laughlin, Camaro, 6.541, 210.87 vs. 10. Chris McGaha, Camaro, 6.560, 211.89; 8. Matt Hartford, Camaro, 6.543, 211.20 vs. 9. Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.553, 211.39. Did Not Qualify: 17. Steve Graham, 6.622, 210.05; 18. Val Smeland, 6.640, 207.43; 19. Tom Huggins, 6.713, 207.24; 20. Joey Grose, 6.738, 196.36.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Matt Smith, EBR, 6.754, 201.10 vs. 16. Angie Smith, Buell, 6.969, 192.60; 2. Hector Arana Jr, EBR, 6.781, 197.57 vs. 15. Freddie Camarena, Suzuki, 6.953, 194.86; 3. Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 6.789, 198.38 vs. 14. Karen Stoffer, Suzuki, 6.952, 191.40; 4. Andrew Hines, Harley-Davidson, 6.826, 196.16 vs. 13. Steve Johnson, Suzuki, 6.898, 191.29; 5. LE Tonglet, Suzuki, 6.828, 196.39 vs. 12. Ryan Oehler, Buell, 6.893, 196.64; 6. Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, 6.835, 195.93 vs. 11. Joey Gladstone, Buell, 6.880, 196.30; 7. Angelle Sampey, Buell, 6.838, 194.88 vs. 10. Scotty Pollacheck, Suzuki, 6.879, 194.66; 8. Hector Arana, EBR, 6.862, 197.48 vs. 9. Chip Ellis, Harley-Davidson, 6.862, 193.79. Did Not Qualify: 17. Kelly Clontz, 6.972, 192.85; 18. Katie Sullivan, 6.978, 193.99; 19. Melissa Surber, 7.052, 187.57; 20. Maurice Allen, 7.070, 185.10; 21. Anthony Vanetti, 7.074, 188.94. 

Cadillac confirms WEC driver lineup with Chip Ganassi Racing that will race Le Mans in 2023

Cadillac Ganassi Le Mans
Cadillac Racing
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Cadillac and Chip Ganassi Racing announced their driver lineup for a 2023 entry in the FIA World Endurance Championship, the sports car series that includes the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

The Cadillac V-LMDh entry will be driven by Earl Bamber and Alex Lynn, who were teamed on the No. 02 Cadillac that competed in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship DPi class this season and won the Twelve Hours of Sebring. The third driver will be Richard Westbrook, who will return to Ganassi after helping the team to a GT class win at Le Mans in 2018.

The team also will compete in the Rolex 24 at Daytona in the rebranded Grand Touring Prototype premier category, which is designed for crossover between the top prototypes in IMSA and WEC. Ganassi will field a second entry at Daytona with its No. 01 Cadillac that will compete full time in IMSA with Sebastien Bourdais and Renger van der Zande.

A Ganassi spokesman said the team hopes to run its second entry in the 2023 24 Hours of Le Mans but only its WEC team is confirmed (an AOC invitation would be required for the IMSA team). The team also is exploring options but currently plans to have the WEC’s team base of operations in Indianapolis.

Ganassi is the first American-based prototype team to confirm its entry in the 2023 24 Hours of Le Mans. It’s expected that Team Penske, which raced this year’s Le Mans with a full-time WEC entry in LMP2, also will race Le Mans with Porsche’s new LMDh car that is set for IMSA, but the manufacturer has yet to confirm its driver and team lineup.

Next year will mark the return of Cadillac to Le Mans for the first time since 2002.

Before joining Ganassi last year, Lynn made 28 WEC starts since 2016, winning the LMGTE Pro class at Le Mans in 2020.

“I’m absolutely thrilled to continue with Cadillac and Chip Ganassi Racing,” Lynn said in a release. “It’s a huge honor to drive for Chip in any capacity but certainly on a full factory sports car program, it’s seriously cool. Cadillac has so much heritage as a luxury North American sports car brand, so to be able to represent them is a huge privilege. I’ve had a lot of fun in my first year doing it and to continue that onto the World Endurance Championship stage is fantastic.

“For me, returning to WEC is sort of what I’ve always known and it’s a bit like going into my wheelhouse. This year in IMSA was a bit different with getting to know all-new circuits and a new style of racing so 2023 will be filled with a bit more of what I’m used to with more of a European focus. I think what’s significant about WEC is without a doubt Le Mans. As a sports car race, Le Mans is the crown jewel and everything that we want to win. To be able to take Chip Ganassi Racing and Cadillac back to Le Mans to fight for overall honors is a huge honor and that’s something that I’m going to work tirelessly to make sure we achieve.”

Bamber won the Le Mans overall in 2015 and ’17 with Porsche teams and also was a 2019 GTLM champion in IMSA.

“I am really happy to continue at Chip Ganassi Racing and Cadillac,” Bamber said in a release. “I’ve loved my first season in DPi and now to continue over into the LMDh era and WEC is super exciting. Looking forward to fighting for a world championship and another Le Mans victory.

“The World Endurance Championships gives us the opportunity to race at the world’s biggest race, which is Le Mans, the crown jewel of sports car racing. I’ve been lucky enough to win it before and it’s obviously a huge goal for Cadillac and everyone at Chip Ganassi Racing. To have that goal in sight is really exciting. It’s been great to have Alex as a teammate in 2022. We’ve been able to learn and grow together in the DPi, and we have a really good partnership going into WEC. We know each other really well and believe adding Richard will be a seamless transition.”

Said Westbrook: “After four really good years at Chip Ganassi Racing, I’ve got so many friends there and I’ve always dreamt to come back one day. It just worked so well between 2016 and 2019, and I’m delighted we found a route to come together again. I can’t wait, it’s an exciting era in sports car racing right now.

“I feel like I know Alex and Earl really well. I did Le Mans with Alex in 2020 and I’ve known him for years. It feels like I’m going back with an ex-teammate and exactly the same with Earl. Although I’ve never shared a car with Earl, we’ve always done the same sort of racing be it in WEC or in IMSA. We’ve had lots of battles, including this year in our dueling Cadillacs. We’ve always gotten along quite well, and I can say we’re going to have a great year together.”

The seven-race WEC season, which also includes a stop at Spa, will begin March 17 with the 1,000 Miles of Sebring at Sebring International Raceway in Florida.