NHRA - National Hot Rod Association

Analysis: Where 2023’s title contenders can improve in 2024. Part 4: PS Motorcycle

Gaige Herrera ran away and hid from the Pro Stock Motorcycle field en route to a dominating championship season. Many talented riders finished behind him in his whirlwind season; here's a look at their issues and what they can do to address them.
09 Jan 2024
Brian Lohnes, NHRA on FOX announcer

When it comes to the most unforgiving categories in NHRA Drag Racing, Pro Stock Motorcycle is virtually unassailable. The machines have the lowest horsepower among Professional categories, they require more physical acumen than any other category to maximize performance, and they also react with a quickness nearly nothing else can match. We’re going to look at the five strongest contenders from 2023 and see where more success could be gained in 2024.

As we all know, Gaige Herrera ran away from the field like a rocket-powered freight train with no brakes in 2023, but that doesn’t mean analysis and improvement shouldn’t be the focus of all who were chasing him, especially those who have won championships before and aim to unseat him in this new season. In reality, the best piece of advice for all the competitors could be, “Steal Herrera’s truck and hide it at the bottom of the Grand Canyon,” but as enticing as that would be, Herrera will be back and slingin’ again in 2024. Now, let’s get to it. 

Eddie Krawiec: Second Place 

The Stumbling Block: Teammate had one of the greatest single seasons ever

The Fix: Keep swinging, change nothing 

Eddie Krawiec had a season that would be the envy of the majority of people who have ever competed in the Pro Stock Motorcycle category: five finals, four semifinals, not a single first-round loss all year, and he only qualified outside of the top half once. He still lost the championship by more than a full race. 

There are times when you simply have to know and understand that you are doing the best you can do, which is better than every other person but one, and stay with it. Vance and Hines would seemingly be self-defeating if they interrupted Krawiec’s program. He wants his 50th victory as bad as anyone, and the fact that the last five races were a semifinal and then four straight runner-ups shows that he still has the ability and want to do it, but it wasn’t happening against a man who re-wrote the book last year. 

Krawiec’s .055 reaction-time average is not a sign of a guy who is sluggish on the Tree, it is a sign of a very savvy racer who approaches each round with his opponent sized up. You can see his pattern. In early rounds, he is typically at a performance advantage and does not press the Tree too hard, but he does snug it up as the race days go on. 

We’ll see what 2024 brings. 

Hector Arana Jr: Third Place 

The Stumbling Block: Three first-round losses and three late-round red-lights 

The Fix: A little nip and tuck makes a very good thing even better

Perhaps the thing that Gaige Herrera overshadowed the most in 2023 was the full-time return of Hector Arana Jr. to competition. Arana was his normal aggressive self on the starting line, resulting in a .036 season average on the Tree. It also brought him three red-light losses, and they came in reasonably critical situations. Two finals and a semifinal went the other way because of being too quick to leave. 

On the flip side of the coin are three early-round losses which came when the motorcycle’s performance fell of incrementally, indicating a tire spin situation through the first 60 feet. 

In the event the team can, like Eddie Krawiec, completely eliminate the first-round losses, they’d absolutely be able to scrap with the top players in the class. If we look at 2023 with those canceled out, they could have passed Krawiec for a second-place finish. 

Matt Smith: Fourth Place 

The Stumbling Block: Sorting a new program round by round at the races 

The Fix: Return to a familiar and proven platform

In so many ways, we saw the best of Matt Smith in 2023. He won back-to-back races, the Dodge Power Brokers NHRA U.S. Nationals and the Pep Boys NHRA Nationals in Reading, on the way to a fourth-place finish. How do you see the best out of a multi-champion when he finishes fourth? We saw just how awesome a racer he is. 

Whether it was next-level strategy, tricks, changing motorcycles at times, or simply sorting out a brand-new mechanical platform to him, the guy worked harder than maybe anyone else has in drag racing to finish fourth. 

There’s really no point in analyzing the performance of his machine in 2023 because he is no longer going to be on it. The entire MSR operation will be on V-Twin Buell motorcycles again rather than a single Buell and multiple Suzuki riders. 

2024 will not be a season for Matt Smith to win because of others’ problems. He plans to BE the problem.

Jiana Evaristo: Fifth Place

The Stumbling Block: Swap an all-or-nothing 2023 to a consistent, steady 2024

The Fix: More Performance on a familiar platform of motorcycle 

Evaristo had the most successful season of her career in 2023. She had a very stout .035 reaction-time average, she left on her opponents 60% of the time, and she powered to four semifinal finishes. On the flip side, she had nine first-round losses and only two second-round losses. As her motorcycle averaged an 8.6 qualifying position, we can start to put some pieces together. 

She was faced with the classic problem of anyone who qualifies in the middle of the field a lot. That’s the issue of being matched up against the closest-performing competitor in the field in round one. Across any class we look at, there is a direct correlation to the No. 8 and 9 qualifying positions and a high frequency of first-round losses. 

Much like Matt Smith, Evaristo will be back on a V-Twin motorcycle this season and, with it, will be back on a faster horse that should help her avoid a lot of middle-pack qualifying. 

If that happens, look for her to keep that poise that saw her leaving first in 2023 but combine it with the more favorable qualifying average and the round-wins will come with a lot, and we mean a lot, more regularity. 

Steve Johnson: Sixth Place 

The Stumbling Block: Needing more starting-line snap and raw power 

The Fix: Lock back into the championship-level approach of 2021 and 2022

Steve Johnson’s performance chart from 2023 would look like the readout from a seismograph following an earthquake. He won Bristol and then nearly won the next race in Norwalk. After that, he never made it past the second round again until the final race of the season in Pomona. If we try to pinpoint the reason why, we’re left with a couple of answers. There were holeshot losses but most tellingly there was a motorcycle that was just not making the kind of steam needed to run up front. 

In the 10 races after Norwalk, Johnson only qualified in the top half four times. He was 10th or higher five times. Fighting out of those positions in the first round, especially in Pro Stock Motorcycle among all the classes, is very, very hard. Even the best leavers in the class cannot make a habit out of winning early rounds from that position. 

Johnson’s 7.234 average elimination elapsed time is the second slowest of the top 10, ahead of 10th-place finisher Kelly Klontz’s 7.368. 

Long story short, if Johnson can get back to the starting-line consistency of 2021 and 2022 as well as the run-finishing consistency of those two years, he is the kind of guy who can and will make life difficult for anyone battling for a top-three spot. 

Quick Notes:

Marc Ingwersen: Seventh Place

Marc Ingwersen is one of the most fun guys to watch in this class. He is a knife-edge starting-line guy every round. It resulted in seven red-light starts in 2023 but also a ton of near-perfect lights. He was 3-0 in the holeshot category and a recognized threat. All the man needs is horsepower. 

Angie Smith: Eighth Place 

We know the unfortunate turn that Angie Smith’s season took in St. Louis. Had she not crashed, she was on pace for one of the best, if not the best, seasons of her career. Multiple runner-up finishes, semifinals, and solid qualifying marked the front half of the year. Her bravery in coming back from the crash to keep a top 10 position was jaw-dropping. With her whole team back on Buell motorcycles, expect her to be in attack mode to start 2024.

Chase Van Sant: Ninth Place

The 2023 NHRA Rookie of the Year earned that spot, despite a steep drop in his points position at the end of the season. Van Sant averaged a .016 reaction time in 2023, he went to back-to-back semifinal rounds in Charlotte and St. Louis, and was in full command of a top-five position. He then suffered a default first-round loss in Dallas during which he injured his knee in qualifying. This injury prevented his participation in the final two events of the year, landing him ninth in 2023. A little more horsepower and a little more aggression in the early incremental numbers and this guy will find the winner’s circle in 2024. 

Over the course of piling through the 2023 information for these stories, some interesting things always come to light. The depth of drag racing is a great fascination and always will be. Over the course of the different eras of the sport, some people succeeded because they had a better mousetrap, but in the modern era, the traps are all virtually identical. It is the management of power and the driver or rider’s ability to corral it that defines drag racing champions in 2024.