SNOHOMISH, Wash. — Former NHRA executive Graham Light asked once, “Why is it that every time you show up to a race, something weird happens?”
Something weird definitely happens at every race — and not always in a negative way. The abnormal is just normal.
So here are seven things in NHRA we didn’t see coming this year:
Top Fuel rookie Josh Hart, 38, of Ocala, Fla., opened the season in surprising fashion. He won the Gatornationals, becoming only the fourth person in the sport’s history to win in his first professional appearance. Hart is the first to do it since Top Fuel’s Darrell Russell 20 years ago in Pomona, Calif.
The others were K.C. Spurlock in Funny Car in 1990 and Gary Scelzi in Top Fuel in 1997.
Then, Hart, in just his eighth race, won the Countdown event at zMAX Dragway in September. One event later, at World Wide Technology Raceway, he eliminated the Nos. 1 and 3 ranked drivers and helped Steve Torrence regain the point lead.
Hart barely missed qualifying for the Countdown because several of his crew members were ill this summer and he skipped two races until the team could race together.
“I told you we’re going to make this championship interesting,” Hart said. “We’re going to race for it, to upset the championship as much as we can.”
Hart is expected to race full time next year.
Pro Stock Is Hip
Many predicted the demise of the Pro Stock class just two or three years ago, but with the rise of young — and winning — drivers aged 19 to 32 — Troy Coughlin Jr., Cristian Cuadra, Fernando Cuadra Jr., Dallas Glenn, Kyle Koretsky, Mason McGaha and Aaron Stanfield — the 51-year-old category is vibrant once again.
COVID Hangs On
The sanctioning body canceled three events because of COVID-19-related issues. Dropped from the schedule were events at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park in Arizona, Virginia Motorsports Park and Pacific Raceways near Seattle.
All are set to return next year.
The virus hit several racers, including the reigning and three-time Funny Car champion Matt Hagan. Tommy Johnson Jr. substituted for Hagan, winning at Pennsylvania’s Maple Grove Raceway.
That raised speculation about a possible co-championship. Hagan returned at the following race and finished the Countdown.
After early runner-up finishes at The Strip at Las Vegas and Houston Raceway Park, Doug Kalitta ran into a slump of eight first-round losses in 11 races that cost longtime crew chief Rob Flynn his job.
That, along with his 10th and final Countdown seeding, was totally uncharacteristic for the 49-time winner, who is among the top-five racers in Top Fuel history and has been series runner-up six times.
Steve Johnson, 60, has made the most of his 34th season racing in the Pro Stock Motorcycle class. Perhaps spurred by a spat with four-time champion Matt Smith, who said some competitors are professionals and some are “hobby racers,” Johnson dug in and for the first time in his career formed a brain trust and studied clutches and all elements of his motorcycle.
And Johnson no longer was just a quirky, hilarious and passionate ambassador for drag racing. He was the point leader for the first time in his career, thanks to two victories at zMAX Dragway and one at Maple Grove Raceway. It marked only the third time in his career that he had won as many as two races in one season.
“You can always learn, even when you’ve been racing for more than five years. It really just boils down to the process,” Johnson said. He faced a setback in September when his crew chief, Jock Ervin, suffered an accidentally self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Go It Alone
Fewer cars. At one point, Don Schumacher Racing had seven, John Force Racing four and Kalitta Motorsports three.
Top Fuel racer Billy Torrence put it best: “These megateams, it’s become tougher for them to survive. Don Schumacher, he’s not done, but he’s of a diminished capacity. Force, too.”
But he wasn’t spreading doom. He said that likely will lead to the rise of more “mom-and-pop” teams, which will bring more participation.
Winter In August
The postponed traditional season-opener filled the slot opened by the Seattle cancellation. But really? It was just weird, with nasty-hot weather and light crowds at the storied Auto Club Raceway at Pomona.