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

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

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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. 

Rahal determined to regain winning touch in 2019 IndyCar season

Photo by Shawn Gritzmacher, INDYCAR
INDYCAR
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AUSTIN, Texas – Graham Rahal entered the room with a smile on his face and a chip on his shoulder.

It was IndyCar “Media Day” and Rahal wasn’t happy with the way last season went at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. He was less happy with the fact some aren’t considering him a serious threat in 2019. He playfully chided with one media outlet for failing to mention his team as one to watch in 2019.

“We use that as motivation to show everybody how we are viewed,” Rahal said. “We are here to win.”

Rahal just turned 30 in January but is entering his 13thseason in big-time Indy car racing. He entered the 2007 Champ Car Series season when he was just 17. He missed his high school prom because he was racing at Houston.

“That was the luckiest day of my life,” Rahal said. “I didn’t have to go to the prom. It doesn’t get any better than that.

“Plus, I got my second career podium that weekend.”

Rahal drove to victory in his very first race in the combined IndyCar Series in the 2008 Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. He was hailed as the “Poster Boy of Unification” and a future star. What followed was a seven-year drought before he captured his second-career win in a thrilling race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.

He won two races in 2015, one in 2016 and two in 2017. He was expected to contend for victories and possibly the championship last year but struggled through a disappointing season and finished eighth in the standings.

“I’m looking forward for chance this year,” Rahal said. “Last year was a tough one for me and for the team. I’m looking forward to what my new engineer, Allen McDonald, has done so far. He is an accomplished engineer and brings a different mindset to our program this year from what we had last year. He and (fellow engineer) Eddie Jones are very close friends and that will help us from the standpoint they are on the same page.

“We needed a bit of life brought back to the team.”

Rahal believes his challenges are to get everything in order before the season starts. The team has defined the areas where it was lacking in 2019. The team needed to improve in research and development after starting behind last season.

“I’m excited for what I see, and I know in the end it will all pay off,” Rahal said. “It’s just a matter of when.

“There is a lot to be excited about for us. We are in a great position as a team. We have great sponsorship and that will allow us to push forward and do the things we need to do.”

Rahal believes at 30, he has a long time ahead of him to win races and championships and maybe even the Indianapolis 500. In order to reach those goals, however, Rahal’s team needs to regain the competitive level he displayed prior to last year.

“We’ve been fortunate to win six times,” Rahal said. “A lot of people come into this sport and never win. I fully recognize there is no reason we can’t win a lot. I don’t care what anybody writes, what anybody thinks – I really feel that when it comes to race day, we perform better than 99 percent of the other people out there.

“As a team and for myself, we have to qualify better. If we can qualify better, we’ll be a thorn in everybody’s side. We know the rear of our cars just aren’t good enough. When we need to find that extra tenth or two, it’s just not there but absolutely, we want to win.

“I don’t come here year after year to just drive around. Our sponsors don’t invest in us year after year to not see us win. We feel that. But our cars aren’t good enough and we know that.”

Rahal believes the team has identified the problems with the setup of its car. It has a deep engineering staff but hasn’t had a chance to develop the damper program and other important areas that provide a competition setup.

Takuma Sato, the winner of the 101stIndianapolis 500 when he was with Andretti Autosport, scored the team’s only victory in 2018 with a win in the Portland Grand Prix. The two are back this year and have built a respect for each other.

“He’s a good guy,” Rahal said of Sato. “Other than Helio Castroneves, Takuma is probably the happiest man on the planet. He’s a great guy and fits in well with our organization. We pride ourselves on being a family and he fits in extremely well to that.

“We need to do a better job for him as a team. He won a race last year, but we can both do better to win with both cars.

“The Andretti cars are the best right now and the Penske cars will be good. We have a lot of space to close up on those two teams but hopefully, we can do it.”