NHRA - National Hot Rod Association

10 unforgettable alcohol racing moments from the 2023 season

There is no shortage of drama, excitement, and entertainment within the ranks of NHRA’s Top Alcohol Dragster and Top Alcohol Funny Car classes. Naturally, it’s hard to pick just 10 favorites from the 2023 NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series, but once again, we’ve managed to sift through an entire year’s worth of data to pick 10 of our favorites.
04 Dec 2023
Kevin McKenna, NHRA National Dragster Senior Editor
Bob McCosh

There is no shortage of drama, excitement, and entertainment within the ranks of NHRA’s Top Alcohol Dragster and Top Alcohol Funny Car classes. Naturally, it’s hard to pick just 10 favorites from the 2023 NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series, but once again, we’ve managed to sift through an entire year’s worth of data to pick 10 of our favorites.


There isn’t anyone who thought Madison Payne’s victory over Tony Stewart at the 2022 Las Vegas race was a fluke, but just in case, she returned this season to capture the sport’s biggest prize, the Dodge Power Brokers NHRA U.S. Nationals. Payne, the daughter of world champ Jay Payne and Shelly Anderson, and the granddaughter of Brad Anderson, struggled a bit early in the season behind the wheel of Duane Shields’ injected nitro dragster, but she found the right time to rebound. After qualifying No. 12, Payne rolled though eliminations with wins against Shawn Cowie, Karen Stalba, Megan Smith, and, in the final, Julie Nataas, who would go on to win the 2023 championship. Payne went on to a runner-up finish in Reading and finished the year as the No. 8 ranked driver in an increasingly difficult class.


After seven runner-up finishes and a lot of heartbreak, Bob McCosh finally scored his first national event win in Top Alcohol Funny car when he won the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals in Norwalk. McCosh went to the final round of the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals in Charlotte, where he barely finished second to Sean Bellemeur (5.453 to 5.467), so he had to know his day was coming. Nearly two months later in Norwalk, McCosh and his team finally put all the pieces together for their first national event win. Ironically, McCosh raced Bellemeur again in the final, and his .019 light was trumped by the three-time champ’s .008.  Bellemeur than slowed, and McCosh powered to a 5.478 to collect his long-awaited first title. Across all events, he finished the year with three wins in eight finals and will wear the No. 3 into the 2024 season.


Imagine running 5.324 and not qualifying for final eliminations. That’s exactly what happened to James Stevens at the Western regional event of the year at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The final regional event of the season produced a record eight-car field that stretched from Shawn Cowie’s 5.168 to Casey Grisel’s 5.298. The rest of the qualifiers included Jackie Fricke, Angelle Sampey, Taylor Vetter, Rich McPhillips Jr., Joey Severance, and Summer Richardson. The eight alternates who didn’t make the field would have made for a heck of a “B Main” with Stevens at 5.324 and Johnny Ahten at 5.525, in the No. 16 spot.


It would be hard to imagine any racer having a better weekend than Julie Nataas had in Dallas, where she and her Randy Meyer-owned OTG team won everything except for the Best Appearing Car. Nataas kicked off the weekend by winning her third straight JEGS Allstars title. In the final, she outran Mike Coughlin to claim the victory. Nataas continued rolling through Sunday’s final eliminations as she ran her winning streak to seven straight rounds with a 5.129 in the final to beat Kirk Wolf. Along the way, Nataas accomplished an even more meaningful feat when she clinched the 2023 NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series Top Alcohol Dragster title, joining two-time Top Alcohol Funny Car champ Jonnie Lindberg as the only European drivers to win NHRA titles.


Before the season even started, Doug Gordon knew this would be his last as a driver in Top Alcohol Funny Car, and he was determined to make the most of it. After winning the title last year, Gordon had high hopes, and he likely exceeded all of them with an amazing season that included eight wins in 11 final rounds. Gordon, who won national events in Pomona, Las Vegas, Seattle, Topeka, Brainerd, and Dallas, finished the year with a strong score of 803 points in his Beta Motorcycles Camaro, topping runner-up Sean Bellemeur by 37 points. Gordon also spent part of the season helping his daughter, Maddi, prepare for her 2024 debut as she looks to build on a lengthy family legacy.


A year ago, no one, not even Angelle Sampey, saw this one coming. Sampey faced an uncertain future after she was released from the Vance & Hines Pro Stock Motorcycle team following a turbulent 2022 season. She remained highly visible as a brand ambassador for Mission Foods and then at midseason, seemingly out of nowhere, longtime friend and fellow two-wheel alumni Antron Brown came forward with a lifeline, offering her a chance to race in the Top Alcohol Dragster class with a future eye towards Top Fuel. Sampey had admittedly never driven anything with four wheels down a dragstrip other than a rental car, but she quickly adapted to her new surroundings. She ran four events, qualified for all of them, and went to the final of the Las Vegas regional event. In 2024, there’s a strong chance she adds to her total of 46 career victories.


It’s not that uncommon for a father and son or father and daughter to share the winner’s circle on the same day in NHRA competition. The Force family has done it, and so have the Bernsteins, Smiths, Biondos, Stanfields, Connollys, and Fletchers to name a few. The latest to join that club is the father-son duo of Chad and Hunter Green, who collected the Funny Car and the Top Alcohol Dragster titles at the recently completed In-N-Out Burger NHRA Finals. Hunter previously won his first national event  in Topeka and then bagged a second in Pomona by beating Kim Parker in the final round. Green then watched as his father completed a longtime quest by driving to the Funny Car title over Tim Wilkerson. Adding further irony, Green’s Bond Coat Mustang is tuned by Wilkerson’s son, Daniel, adding another layer to the father-son dynamic.


By his own count, Tony Stewart has driven more than 25 different types of race cars, and he’s been a winner in nearly all of them. That being said, the NASCAR Hall of Famer admitted that when it came to drag racing, he was sailing in uncharted waters. Stewart made a quick transition to drag racing when he reached the final round of the fall Las Vegas event in 2022, and he continued to improve this season to the point where he was able to challenge for the championship. Driving the McPhillips famiy’s dragster with backing from Mobil 1, Stewart claimed his first drag racing victory at the spring Las Vegas race under the four-wide format. By the end of the season, Stewart had scored three more wins, including the Pep Boys NHRA Nationals in Reading. He finished the season as the class’ No. 2 ranked driver, behind Julie Nataas.


Hands down, the best race of the year in the Top Alcohol Dragster class was the final round of the Circle K NHRA Four-Wide Nationals in Charlotte, where Mike Coughlin bagged the win on a rare triple holeshot. In the final quad, Coughlin had his hands full with Julie Nataas, Tony Stewart, and impressive rookie Cody Krohn. None of the four drivers did a bad job on the starting line, but Coughlin gained a noticeable advantage with a .014 light. At the finish line, Coughlin’s 5.302 held off the quicker runs of Stewart (5.260), Nataas (5.269), and Krohn (5.283). The margin of victory from first to fourth place was just .015 second, and to top it off, all four drivers were in excess of 272-mph.


Sean Bellemeur and the Bartone Bros. Killer B's team came up a bit short in their quest to win a fourth Top Alcohol Funny Car title, but it wasn’t for lack of effort, and their 2023 season was, in many ways, one of their best. Although he finished second to Doug Gordon, Bellemeur won nine races, including five national events. At midseason, Bellemeur went to five straight finals and won three times. Later in the year, he made a valiant effort to track down Gordon. Beginning at the Dodge Power Brokers NHRA U.S. Nationals, Bellemeur went to the final round in six of event events, earning five wins, including Indy. He finished the season with back-to-back wins at the Las Vegas Regional and national event, and the In-N-Out Burger NHRA Finals, winning 11 consecutive rounds.