Even though Christmas is over, it’s not too late to have a wish list, is it? In this case, the list doesn’t involve gifts from Santa, but rather a few things we’d like to see when the 2024 NHRA Mission Foods Drag Racing Series season officially kicks off in Gainesville on March 10.
To be perfectly honest, we have no idea what’s coming in 2024, although all of the indicators point towards a remarkable season based largely on the momentum of a truly great year in 2023.
To that end, let’s hope at least a few of these things come to pass.
Another winner-take-all final round to close the season
Granted, it’s going to be more than 10 long and grueling months until the 2024 season champions are crowned at the In-N-Out Burger NHRA Finals in Pomona, but let’s start by wishing for another winner-take-all final round in one (or more) of the Pro classes. Last year, Doug Kalitta and Leah Pruett combined to produce one of the sport’s most thrilling moments when they met in the final race of the year to decide the Top Fuel title. Given a rare opportunity to make drag racing history, neither driver disappointed with two competitive reaction times and a side-by-side race for the ages that was ultimately won by Kalitta, easily the sport’s most overdue driver.
Is it asking for too much to have another moment like that? We certainly don’t think so. Given the parity that exists across (nearly) all of the four NHRA Pro classes, and the general nature of the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs, including the points-and-a-half in Pomona, there is a better than average chance of this one happening.
One more title run for John Force
Imagine being a baseball fan in the 1920s and 1930s and having had the opportunity to see Babe Ruth send a ball over the outfield fence at Yankee Stadium. That experience would be remembered for a lifetime, and years from now, NHRA fans will have the same fond memories when they say they were able to watch John Force race a 330-mph Funny Car.
Even as he approaches his 75th birthday, Force has proven that he can still get the job done, even against an increasingly talented field of rivals, many of whom weren’t born when he won his first NHRA event in Montreal in 1987.
Force knows that the one race he can’t win is the race against time, but he’s determined to hang on as long as he can. Last year, Force went to a pair of final rounds and finished a very respectable No. 7 in the standings. He occasionally murmurs the word retirement but has announced no firm plans to do so at this point. So, can we see the GOAT make just one more run at a 17th Funny Car championship?
A record Top Fuel bump and an all-three-second Funny Car field
When it comes to performance, the nitro classes haven’t exactly been stagnant, but performance gains are definitely tougher to come by when compared to the 1980s and 1990s when barriers were regularly broken.
The record Top Fuel bump remains 3.758, set by Dan Mercier at the 2022 Dodge Power Brokers NHRA U.S. Nationals. It’s not uncommon to see bump spots in the 3.7s, but the current record has stood for nearly a year and a half. Last year in Dallas, the Stampeed of Speed yielded a near-record field with Buddy Hull on the bump at 3.780, while the No. 15 qualifier was Josh Hart at 3.738. This year, we can expect to see not only more Top Fuel entries but more quality Top Fuel entries, which makes it extremely likely that the bump spot record will be broken, perhaps even as early as the season opener in Gainesville.
When it comes to Funny Car, the 4.005 bump spot record is held by Justin Schreifer, and it has stood since the 2019 Dodge Power Brokers NHRA U.S. Nationals. Last season, there were a couple of events with 4.0-second bump spots, including the season-ending In-N-Out Burger NHRA Finals in Pomona. At that event, there were 14 cars in the threes with four more running 4.06 or quicker, which would seem to indicate that an all-three-second field isn’t as far off as one might think.
A year of redemption
There’s a lot of racers would love a do-over on the 2023 season, but few more than Angie Smith, who was almost certainly cruising to a top-five finish in Pro Stock Motorcycle before her devastating accident in St. Louis. Even after suffering multiple broken bones, Smith was able to muster the courage to hop back on her Denso Buell and finish the season to secure her spot in the top 10. Smith had already been to a pair of finals and won 15 elimination rounds at the time of her accident. It’s almost a given that Smith exceeds those numbers in 2024.
Another driver who has every reason to seek redemption is Clay Millican, who went on an incredible roller-coaster ride in 2023. On the bright side, the Parts Plus team rewarded team owner Rick Ware with three wins last season in Chicago, Denver, and St. Louis. Only Justin Ashley won more races, yet Millican did not finish in the top 10 after ending the season with back-to-back round-one losses in Las Vegas and Pomona. That isn’t likely to happen again.
Let’s also talk about the father-son Pro Stock team of Chris and Mason McGaha, who have continued to soldier on against the multicar mega teams of Elite and KB Titan. The Harlow Sammons team combined to win just six rounds last season, and their lone highlight was Mason’s runner-up in Gainesville. Call it stubbornness or call it resilience, but there is a sense that the McGahas are going to figure out a way to be more competitive, and hopefully sooner rather than later. There’s nothing the Pro Stock class could use more than a third first-rate engine supplier.
Finally, there are those who surprisingly went winless in 2023, including Brittany Force, Josh Hart, Tony, Schumacher, Shawn Langdon, John Force, Alexis DeJoria, Cruz Pedregon, the Cuadra family, Eddie Krawiec, and Angie Smith. Think they’ll all go winless again this season? Not a chance. One or more of them will find the winner’s circle, and the whole sport will be better for it.
An epic rookie of the year battle
This one is all but a given as the roster of newcomers who appear committed to the 2024 season includes at least a half-dozen potential candidates. For starters, there is Tony Stewart, who is scheduled to make his Top Fuel debut in Gainesville after a very successful 2023 run in the Top Alcohol Dragster class. The NASCAR Hall of Famer isn’t exactly a traditional “rookie,” but as a first-year NHRA Pro, he’ll fit the criteria for selection and will no doubt be the favorite.
Joining Stewart in the NHRA Rookie of the Year pool should be European Top Fuel champ Ida Zetterstrom, Jasmine Salinas, who is making the move from TAD to Top Fuel, Travis Shumake, Jacob McNeil, Pro Stock newcomer Sienna Wildgust, and (possibly) Richard Gadson in Pro Stock Motorcycle. There also might be still-to-be-announced surprise or two thrown into the mix before the season starts.
Yes, Stewart will begin the season as the odds-on favorite to win the NHRA Rookie of the Year title, but it won’t be handed to him. He’ll have plenty of competition throughout the season.
Parity, parity, and more parity
Last year, there were eight different winners in both Top Fuel and Funny Car in a 21-race season, and believe it or not, those numbers could go up, not down in the coming season. As we just noted, there were a number of established NHRA Pros who did not win a race last year, and many of them are overdue to visit the winner’s circle again. While Justin Ashley and Matt Hagan were each able to win six events last season, that’s a bit of an anomaly as even the best teams do well to win three or four times.
Things aren’t much different in the Pro Stock class as there were also eight different winners in an 18-race season. This year, the Pro Stock teams will return to a 21-race schedule, affording more opportunities for a variety of winners. In Pro Stock Motorcycle, the parity question isn’t as easily answered as Gaige Herrera won 11 of 15 events, leaving few opportunities for anyone else. For the record, Matt Smith won two races while Steve Johnson and Hector Arana Jr. each won one. It seems unlikely that Herrera can win at the same pace next season, which is good news for everyone else in the two-wheel class who are anxious to visit the winner’s circle again.
The notion that “anyone who qualifies can win” isn’t just some slick marketing slogan; it’s a very real possibility across the board at NHRA events, and it’s what keeps most teams, especially the part-time teams, coming back week after week.
Another “overdue” first-time champion
Now that Doug Kalitta’s 26-year win drought has officially ended, who is next in line to win their first professional championship? There are many names on the list, but a few that stand out are Clay Millican, Bob Tasca III, Matt Hartford, Aaron Stanfield, Troy Coughlin Jr., Hector Arana Jr., Angie Smith, and Steve Johnson.
None of the aforementioned racers is a rookie, and they’ve all paid their dues to varying degrees against the toughest competition that the sport has to offer. Few things are more exciting than the crowning of a first-time champion, particularly one who has come close on multiple occasions and/or experienced the pain and heartbreak of a near miss.
Millican remains an interesting candidate because he previously won six titles in the IHRA series, so he is quite familiar with the rigors and pressure that goes with a title fight. The Rick Ware team won three races last year and honestly needs just a bit more consistency to challenge for the top spot.
And then there is Tasca, who could easily have won the title last year had just a few things gone his way in the Countdown. There is absolutely no reason to think the Motorcraft Quick Lane team won’t be in the hunt for this Mission Foods Funny Car title.
In Pro Stock, it gets a bit more complicated since Erica Enders, Greg Anderson, and returning vet Jeg Coughlin Jr. have combined to win 16 titles in the last 22 seasons, which leaves little room for anyone else. That being said, Stanfield, Hartford, and Troy Coughlin Jr. would each appear to have what it takes to become a first-time champ, but it won’t be easy.
Finally, it remains to be seen what, if anything, can be done to slow Gaige Herrera in Pro Stock Motorcycle. If the Vance & Hines rider is half as good as he was last season, he’s still the overwhelming favorite to win the title, but should Herrera falter, Hector Arana Jr. is one rider who could pick up the pieces and join his father, Hector Sr., as an NHRA champ.