NHRA - National Hot Rod Association

5 things we learned in Chicago

We learned a lot in Chicago because it was loaded with extra features and easily one of the most dramatic events of the season, but here are five things that stood out.
20 May 2024
Kevin McKenna, NHRA National Dragster Senior Editor
TJ Zizzo

We learned a lot in Chicago because it was loaded with extra features and easily one of the most dramatic events of the season, but here are five things that stood out.


We actually knew this a few years ago when he went to his first national event final round in Indianapolis, but if there’s anyone who thinks part-time Top Fuel competitor T.J. Zizzo can’t compete with the best in the class, they are mistaken. Zizzo didn’t just qualify No. 1 at his home track in Chicago, he set the pace during every session, which speaks volumes about the abilities of his Rust-Oleum team, which features an all-volunteer crew but benefits from the wisdom of highly respected crew chief Rahn Tobler. Through it all, Zizzo remains humble as he patiently waits for his first victory. When (not if) it happens, Zizzo can expect a reception similar to the one Dale Earnhardt received when he finally won the Daytona 500 in 1998.


A Top Fuel crew chief once famously noted that he “wouldn’t get out the electric chair to ride a Top Fuel Motorcycle,” and it’s a safe bet that sentiment is shared by many. Let’s face it, Top Fuel Motorcycles are loud. They are fast, and those who ride them display a level of bravery that is off the charts. That being said, the debut of the new Pingel Top Fuel Motorcycle class was a huge hit at Route 66 Raceway with a full field of nitro-burning two-wheelers who put on a great show. That includes class icon Larry “Spiderman” McBride, who qualified No. 1 with a 4.81 at more than 236 mph (1,000 feet) and eventual winner Dave Vantine, who won the class’ first Wally since 1984. The class will also be contested in Richmond, Brainerd, and the fall Charlotte event.


Nearly five months after his passing, legendary racer and team owner Don Schumacher’s presence is still felt throughout the NHRA Mission Foods Drag Racing Series and nowhere is that more evident than his home track, Route 66 Raceway. The weekend began with a memorable Celebration of Life that attracted a who’s who of the sport, including a huge roster of Schumacher’s former drivers, who each took time to share their experiences at DSR.

Scuhmacher’s son, Tony, ran a special tribute paint scheme on his dragster with the blessing of the JCM team, and it proved to be a huge hit with the Chicago crowd.

Fittingly, Sunday’s two nitro winners were Antron Brown and Matt Hagan, who are both DSR alumni. Following their wins, both Brown and Hagan spoke of the influence Schumacher had on their carers and both agreed that they’d likely not combined for seven world titles if not for his support.


On Sunday, the talk of the NASCAR community was the brawl between Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Kyle Busch following the Allstar event at North Wilkesboro Speedway. Nothing of the sort happened in Chicago, and hopefully never will, but it’s also hard to ignore the simmering caldron of emotion that is stewing within the Pro Stock class. It’s easy to understand because the class is mostly dominated by the rival Elite and KB Titan teams, and with just one championship available, it’s inevitable that one team will be satisfied and one will be bitterly disappointed when this season is over. It’s just that simple.

The latest round of “us and them” came during the opening round when world champ Erica Enders suffered a painful holeshot loss at the hands of John DeFlorian, who was driving a second Total Seal Camaro for Matt Hartford. Enders, who typically dishes out far more punishment on the starting line than she receives, acknowledged that her car crept forward, contributing to her uncharacteristic .064 light. Afterwards, the six-time champ didn’t hold back. “Matt Hartford likes to chirp a little bit, but as we like to say at Elite Motorsports, ‘What are your credentials?’ ”

For his part, eventual race winner Dallas Glenn, a staple of the KB Titan team, wasn’t about to even dip his toe in the water, noting, “I don’t say too much. I prefer to let my car do the talking.”


Gaige Herrera previously qualified No. 1 in 16 of the last 17 Pro Stock Motorcycle events, and that string was broken in Chicago by Matt Smith, who put his Denso Buell into the top spot with a strong 6.70 on Friday. Smith continues to chip away at Herrera’s dominance, and he’s clearly making progress, but on Sunday, it was still Herrera and the Vance & Hines team holding the Wally. Herrera set low e.t. of the race on Sunday with a 6.69 and then stopped rising star Chase Van Sant in the final round, collecting his 14th career victory.

More importantly, Herrera also tied class icon Dave Schultz by winning his eighth straight event. Herrera is no fool, and he understands that his current time at the top won’t last forever, but he’s also enjoying the ride while it lasts. If nothing else, Smith was able to show the rest of the class that the time for a new winner might be coming sooner rather than later.