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Five things we learned at the Pep Boys NHRA Nationals

The first race of the 2023 NHRA Countdown to the Championship was one that left no stone unturned. Quick times! Big speed! Changing of the guard! Upsets! Rain! Yep, we had it all at Maple Grove Raceway's 38th annual Pep Boys NHRA Nationals, but we've narrowed down five attention-worthy notes.
18 Sep 2023
Kelly Wade
Five things we learned at the Pep Boys NHRA Nationals


Doug Kalitta may be the most patient man in drag racing. His even temperament has been put to the test for nearly three years as he has worked and waited for win No. 50. His 49th came in St. Louis in October of 2020, and since then, Kalitta has been to the final round four times and come up dry. That's 60 – SIXTY – races between wins. The agony!

But Kalitta has remained steady all the while, never wavering from the task at hand and seldom faltering behind the wheel. He's had his share of misfortune and rounds that coulda/shoulda gone his way, but he has continued to show up and race like a champion contender, weekend after weekend, since making his debut at the Winternationals in 1998. The race in Reading was the 582nd in a respected career that has seen him finish No. 2 in the world six times. Kalitta is the most veteran of all currently competing Top Fuel drivers, and possibly the most tested when it comes to nearly accomplishing the greatest goal of all and then seeing it slip away at the last moment, sometimes in the most extraordinary and unexpected circumstances (see: The Run). 

Victory in Reading moved him up to No. 3 in the Countdown to the Championship. It's early yet, but he could well be in the conversation when it comes down to the wire – and if so, we'll have a chance to see if Kalitta's patience pays off, once again. 


There really hasn't been much doubt that Lucas Oil/Talladega Light-backed Kyle "Kid Chaos" Koretsky can drive the heck out of a Pro Stock car, but weirdly, not a lot of people are talking about that. The final at Maple Grove Raceway came not long after his runner-up in Brainerd, where he was .017, .030, .025, and .023 on the Tree in eliminations. In Indy, his second-round defeat of very talented multiclass racer and champion Aaron Stanfield came by way of holeshot and a .003-second reaction time, and in Reading, Koretsky again got the best of Stanfield on a holeshot in the second round, this time with an .018 to his opponent's .057. He was .008 to defeat Troy Coughlin Jr. in the semifinals, and he was a ridiculous .003 in the final next to Matt Hartford, who was a respectable .012 at the hit and simply outran him. 

In no way should this be taken as a cut to any other driver – especially Stanfield, who rebounded from the loss in Reading by winning the Factory Stock Showdown (FSS) title that same day. He's leading the FSS points and is No. 6 in the Pro Stock standings. Clearly, that "kid" is no slouch behind the wheel, either. 


Success in drag racing demands multi-faceted skill (car or motorcycle, tuning, parts and pieces, driver or rider) peppered with a bit of well-timed luck. But there can also be another productive facet: strategy, whether it's working the ladder to line up against the just-right opponent or, as was the case at Maple Grove, bringing in an additional teammate at the most critical moment. Some don't appreciate this strategy, while others admire the ability to determine what needs to be done – within the rules – and masterfully execute a strategic plan. 

Whether it's appreciated or not, six-time world champ and Denso campaigner Matt Smith played a strategic game in Reading, and it paid off. Holding the U.S. Nationals trophy in the press room after the shocking Indy win, Smith had said to the media that he had a plan for the Countdown, and it included bringing in a blocker. When pressed, he confessed that the additional rider was to be veteran racer Chip Ellis. He hasn't been full time on the tour for a while, but Ellis is a bad dude – the former AMA Prostar champion (x2) made his NHRA debut in Indy in 2004 and won Las Vegas that very fall. He's been a championship contender six times and finished as high as third with seven Wallys earned in 16 final rounds. 

No one could have anticipated Gaige Herrera's second-round exit that paved the way to victory for the Matt Smith Racing team, though, and Smith couldn't have drawn the final results up any better. Ellis knocked out Eddie Krawiec (No. 4 in the standings entering the event) and Hector Arana Jr. (No. 3) on the way to the final, where an awkwardly long red-light handed Smith the win – and the points lead – for the first time this season. Had that light not been glowing scarlet, chances are good that Ellis could have won an eighth trophy. The only bike quicker than his MSR Buell in eliminations was the Vance & Hines Mission Suzuki wheeled by Herrera. After his win this weekend, Smith 'fessed up to another strategic move: He plans to put wife Angie on that very quick motorcycle at the next race.


OK, so, this is not news. But this season's rendition of the event served as a reminder of just how much fun drag racing can be – despite wet weather and extended conclusions. The stands were packed full, and on Saturday, Maple Grove Raceway hosted a sellout crowd (NHRA's seventh so far this year). 

Spectators are enthusiastic and insanely loyal in the Northeast, particularly in regard to Pro Stock, and they jammed into the bleachers and were 10 deep on the fences to watch their favorite classes run. Their collective enthusiasm elevated to a roar as they got to see some of the quickest and fastest racing so far this year. Gaige Herrera's brilliant 6.672 at 203 mph reset both ends of the Maple Grove Raceway track record, Erica Enders' 6.494 was the quickest in Pro Stock this season, and Doug Kalitta's very quick Mac Tools dragster was part of some of the quickest side-by-side racing seen. 


The points lead changed hands in every Professional category this weekend. Justin Ashley entered the event in the top spot, where he's been quite comfortable for much of the season, but Steve Torrence is leaving Reading as the leader in Top Fuel. Ashley is No. 2. Reigning world champion Ron Capps ended the regular season at the top of the Funny Car standings, but Robert Hight's win put him in the lead and bumped Capps down to second. Pro Stock's Dallas Glenn forfeited the long-held points lead with a very early exit, and Matt Hartford was happy to take it. Glenn is now No. 4. Most notably, for the first time this season, first place in Pro Stock Motorcycle belongs to someone other than Gaige Herrera. Matt Smith now sits atop the pack – and he's gunning for a record seventh world title. This is an appropriate time to tell you to stay tuned.