Jonathan Gray may be a rookie on the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series circuit, but the Pro Stock driver is also well aware of the situation he is in heading into the second race of the three-week NHRA Western Swing.
By every account, Gray has had a banner rookie season, advancing to two final rounds. He is currently 10th in points despite not making his first start until the third race of the 2014 season, but longtime Pro Stock force Greg Anderson trails Gray by just 23 points.
Gray must either hold off the four-time world champion or continue his own climb up the standings to advance to the NHRA Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship in his first season, which makes this weekend’s 27th annual NHRA Sonoma Nationals at Sonoma Raceway that much more important.
“The pressure is building, there is no question about it,” Gray said. “You just have to deal with it accordingly and just try to keep things going. For us, we have to start qualifying better. This weekend, we'll be working on eliminating the things that have been holding us back with that, and hopefully we'll do better.”
Shawn Langdon (Top Fuel), Ron Capps (Funny Car), Vincent Nobile (Pro Stock), and Hector Arana Jr. (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were last year’s winners of the event, which will once again be televised nationally on ESPN and ESPN2. It is the 15th of 24 races during the 2014 season but just the 13th career Pro Stock race for Gray, who received his Pro Stock license just before Gainesville in March.
Since then, he has become an important cog in the three-car Gray Motorsports team that also features his brother Shane, who is seventh in points, and Dave Connolly, who is fifth in the standings. Getting all three cars into the Countdown to the Championship is the goal, and Gray has made the most of his first Pro Stock season in his Gray Manufacturing Chevy Camaro.
After experiencing the expected growing pains upon jumping into the ultra-competitive class, Gray advanced to back-to-back finals in Bristol and Epping, quickly proving he could compete with the elite Pro Stock talent. But after a first-round loss last weekend in the high-altitude conditions in Denver, Gray is ready for redemption in the Northern California wine country.
“I'm really looking forward to getting back to normal racing conditions,” Gray said. “The cars are faster, and it's just exciting. I've never raced in Sonoma myself, but I was there with my brother, Shane, when he was racing Comp Eliminator in 2009. That was the first and only time I've been to this particular track, and I'm excited to race there for the first time in the Gray Motorsports Camaro. It’s a really nice facility and, in my opinion, one of NHRA’s premier places to race."
Despite the first-round defeat in Denver, Gray, whose father, Johnny, retired from the Funny Car ranks after the 2013 season, was encouraged with his team’s performance. Led by crew chiefs Justin Elkes and Craig Hankinson, Gray’s team has improved its consistency, an important matter during a key stretch of the season.
“The good news is that it wasn't a bad run, and I’m pretty encouraged going to Sonoma,” Gray said. “(Last) weekend was the first time we've ever got this car to repeat like it did. It will be good to get to Sonoma next week, but (Denver) was a good weekend for us if you look at the bigger picture.”
Gray lost his first-round matchup to Nobile, who picked up his first win in Sonoma a year ago. Other top competition in the class includes reigning world champion Jeg Coughlin Jr.; Allen Johnson, who won last weekend in Denver; Jason Line; Chris McGaha; and V. Gaines.
Knowing what he has to do to stay in the top 10, Gray, a contender for the Automobile Club of Southern California Road the Future Award that is given to the top rookie each season, has also embraced the challenge heading into Sonoma.
“Before Denver, we were in a good position and had a little bit of a cushion heading up there, but we lost some of that now,” Gray said. “I think we're still OK, but we're going to have to go to Sonoma and go rounds, there is no question. We have to or we'll get knocked out."
Sonoma Raceway will also host the MiraMonte Records Pro Bike Battle, a specialty bonus event in Pro Stock Motorcycle. The event will take place on Saturday, July 26, and feature eight riders vying for the top prize.
As always, fans will have the opportunity to interact with their favorite drivers as they’re granted an exclusive pit pass to the most powerful and sensory-filled motorsports attraction on the planet. This unique opportunity in motorsports gives fans direct access to the teams, allowing them to see firsthand the highly-skilled mechanics service their hot rods between rounds, and enjoy some cherished face time and get autographs from their favorite NHRA drivers.
Fans also will want to visit NHRA’s popular Nitro Alley and Manufacturers Midway, where sponsors and race vendors create a carnival atmosphere with interactive displays, simulated competitions, merchandise, food, and fun for the entire family.
The event will also feature thrilling competition in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series.
NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series qualifying begins Friday, July 25, with sessions at 4:15 and 6:15 p.m. The final two qualifying sessions will take place Saturday, July 26, at 12:55 and 3:20 p.m. Final eliminations are scheduled for 11 a.m. on Sunday, July 27. The MiraMonte Records Pro Bike Battle will be held on Saturday, July 26, with rounds at 12:45, 3:15, and 4:40 p.m.
To purchase general-admission or reserved seats, call Sonoma Raceway at 800-870-RACE (7223) or visit www.racesonoma.com/tickets. Kids 12 and under are admitted free on the final day of qualifying, Saturday, July 26.