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Friday News & Notes from the Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals

News, notes, quotes, photos, and video from the opening day of the Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals at In-N-Out Burger Pomona Dragstrip. Updated throughout the day.
22 Mar 2024
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
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The Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals will be Act II for several drivers looking to adjust to new scenarios in their racing career following the season opener two weeks ago in Gainesville.

Tony Stewart acquitted himself well in his Top Fuel debut, cutting the best reaction time of eliminations, a dazzling .021, in round one, where he also did a great pedaling job, showing that he could be a handful this season.

“I’m extremely pleased with my first Top Fuel weekend even with the first-round loss,” he said. "I cut an .021 light against the best leaver in the Top Fuel division, Justin Ashley, and beat him off the line. I felt the tires start to shake, and I pedaled the throttle. I got back into the pedal as quickly as I could. But Justin just nipped me at the line. 

“I don’t have a false sense of security after five runs. I’m elated with how things went. There is zero shame in my eyes, even losing to Justin. Seven other guys went home after the first round, too. I’m a rookie in Top Fuel, and I hope I gained the respect of the other competitors in the class.”

Stewart will be running a special gold and black 50th anniversary Mobil 1 paint scheme in Pomona.

Austin Prock made a spectacular debut in his first race in Funny Car, qualifying No. 1 and reaching the final round before falling to J.R. Todd.

“There should be nothing to hang our heads about,” Prock said. “We all are competitors. It definitely is frustrating not to get the job done. We had an outstanding car all weekend. I mean, we were almost flawless. I’m just really proud of the team. This thing was flying. And this place is not easy to drive a Funny Car on. I had my hands full for the weekend, and I definitely have some learning to do, but I'm trying to catch on as quick as I can. And hopefully, Pomona will treat us a little bit better.”

Another former Top Fuel pilot, Buddy Hull, also made his Funny Car debut in the Jim Dunn Racing entry, and even though they fell in round one, the former powerlifter is easily carrying the weight.

“To be honest with you, I feel more at home and more comfortable in that Funny Car after eight or nine runs than I ever did in my Top Fuel car. It's where I belong,” said Hull. “I feel like I belong in this Funny Car, and specifically on this team, which is why I know we’re going to continue to get better. I’m exactly where I should be.”

“Everything that I do in the car is monitored, everything from the brake handle to the throttle pedal. We’re collecting data all the time, and I’m continuing to get better. Big Jim Dunn has plans on adjusting the car, and we will continue to tune it up. He feels very confident in my abilities. I've shown him that I can handle the race car, and that makes us both super excited moving forward.”

Hull and the Jim Dunn team will be flying their traditional Mooneyes paint scheme in Pomona.

Dave Richards and the Versatran/BlueBird Funny Car team, making the first start of what will be their first full season on the tour, didn’t make the show in Gainesville after mechanical gremlins — including a stuck throttle stop — on the first three qualifying runs and then losing their last shot due to rain.

"It was a tough couple of days,” he admitted. “We're working hard, we're learning. I wouldn't want to be out here with any other team. These guys really have been giving it their all. The qualifying results don't reflect that. I know it's going to take a lot more, more time, more reps on track, but we're in it for the long haul. We've got a whole season. That's almost a relief. So, we'll keep at it, and pretty soon, we'll be getting the results."

Like Richards, Daniel Wilkerson was making the first start of his first full season as he replaces his father, Tim, who is now tuning the Scag Power Equipment Ford. “D. Wilk” qualified for the field and ran a 3.92 in a losing first-round effort against Matt Hagan and a run that was the third quickest of the round and would have beaten all but two competitors. 

"Not the result this Scag Ford Mustang team wanted in the first round. It's a tough pill to swallow going home after a 3.927 run that would have beaten nearly anybody else in the field,” Wilkerson said. “At least it was a solid run, and we made progress. We'll just keep building on that."


Last night, before the nitro thunder began today at the Winternationals, the drag racing community came together at the Lions Dragstrip Museum to celebrate the life of legendary tuner and car owner Roland Leong, who passed away in December.

More than 500 people packed the venue, with a mix of old and new stars of the sport, including several of Leong’s former drivers: Mike Dunn, Johnny West, and Rick Johnson. If there was a living West Coast drag racer from the 1970s and ‘80s who wasn’t there, that list would be pretty short. John Force was there. So was Richard Tharp, who flew in from Texas. Linda Vaughn? Check. Ed Iskenderian? You bet. Marvin Graham. Carl Olson. Too many to include here for sure, but it was a half-of-fame audience for a hall-of-fame guy.

And It wasn’t just drivers, as a large number of recent and current crew chiefs were also on hand, including fellow Hawaiian Todd Okuhara, one of many people whom Roland helped along the way, plus tuning luminaries such as Mark Oswald and Dean “Guido” Antonelli. 

Emceed by “Fast Jack” Beckman, the affair had a number of wonderful guest speakers including Larry Reyes (via video), Ron Capps, for whom Leong crew-chiefed on lifelong friend Don Prudhomme’s car in 1997, Dunn, Pat Galvin, Donnie Couch, Steve Gibbs, Leong’s daughters Lani and Rolanda, and, of course, “the Snake” himself, who met Leong back in the early 1960s and with whom he formed a lifelong bond.

Prudhomme, long known for being the epitome of cool, was choked up and moved to tears as he spoke of his longtime pal, and the years they raced together,  calling them "the best times of my life," and all of the success that they enjoyed. It was a very touching moment on a very touching night celebrating one of our best, and a racer whose contributions have long resounded in the sport, from giving Prudhomme one of his biggest breaks, to the 20 drivers he hired (and fired) over the years, and all of the people whose careers and lives were better for being touched by “the Hawaiian.” (Auto Imagery photos)

For those unable to make it to the sold-out affair, the Lions Museum staff will post a video of the evening on its YouTube page in the coming days.


Twenty-one Funny Cars are entered for this weekend's event,  making it the largest Funny Car field for the Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals since 2014. Among the fresh entrants are crowd favorite Alex Miladinovich, former Nostalgia Funny Car racers Jason Rupert and Chris Morel, SoCal mainstay Gary and Steve Densham (Steven driving), Jeff "the Surfer" Diehl, and more,

With 17 Top Fuelers also on the grounds, the nitro car count is at more than 40 entries,


The Winternationals is always like a homecoming for the sport's GOAT, 16-time Funny Car world champ John Force, and wins in Pomona seem to mean so much more to him than at any other track.

“Pomona is personal to me,” said Force. “My love for Pomona goes back to the ‘60s, when I was driving a truck. I went out and looked through the fence to watch the starting line and watch the people racing. Then in 1974-75, I started running the local tracks. But Pomona was the big ball field. That was our Dodger Stadium, that's where we wanted to be. And now, here I am. So, coming home to it, there’s a lot of memories, I won a lot of races and won championships. You walked away from some bad crashes, but it's just personal. I'm looking for another win, and I'm going to try to get it done here. Every race counts, but I'm excited to be back home and be racing with family.”


The Legends Nitro Funny Cars presented by Modern Warriors series will make its season debut this weekend, and there are some extra bonus bucks on the line. The CHE Precision Performance Award will offer $2,000 to the competitor with the quickest average elapsed time through qualifying and the first round of eliminations. The Revchem Composites #LegendsofSpeed Award will offer a $2,000 bonus to the competitor with a greatest average mile-per-hour clocking during each of the qualifying sessions and first round of eliminations, and $1,000 is on the line from CMR Racing for the No. 1 qualifier.

Vying for claim to each of the three bonus programs at In-N-Out Burger Pomona Dragstrip will be returning Legends Nitro Series champion Cottrell in Bucky Austin’s ’69 Camaro, Monise in “Quarter Pounder,” Jeff Arend in “Problem Child,” Tim Boychuk in “Happy Hour,” Kamaka Pocock in “California Hustler,” Nathan Sitko in “Bubble Up,” Derrick Moreira in “Nitro Junkies,” Ryan Horan in “Infinity Plumbing Designs,” Jon Capps in “Speed Sport,” Mike Peck in “Instigator,” and Don Knoblauch in “Atomic Punk.”

Although he's now based in Brownsburg, Ind., Pomona also was long the hometrack of Cruz Pedregon, who owns the distinction of having competed at the track in four of the sport's quickest classes: Top Fuel, Funny Car, Top Alcohol Dragster, and Top Alcohol Funny Car. Fellow former world champ Gary Scelzi also owns those bragging rights, but not many others.

"I remember winning the ‘89 Winternationals in an Alcohol Dragster, then came back the very next year and won the 1990 Winternationals in an Alcohol Funny Car," Pedregon recalled. "It's one of the few tracks I've competed in all four different categories."


Camrie Caruso's Gatornationals debut with new sponsor Aqua Prop was a frustrating outing as the former NHRA Rookie of the Year failed to make the cut at Gainesville Raceway, and the team immediately went testing to try to solve its woes.

“We went testing at Darlington [S.C.], and it went well," she reported. "We worked on a lot of new stuff, and we made a lot of good runs. We loaded up knowing that we are definitely in a better spot now. That’s a really good feeling, just knowing that we’ve tested and have a much better handle on the car. We always perform well in Pomona, so I’m looking forward to getting out there and making some good, solid runs."

Caruso made her Pro Stock debut at the 2022 Winternationals, and at last year's event, she earned her second Pro Stock No. 1 qualifier and went to the semifinals before falling to eventual winner Dallas Glenn.


Mike Coughlin is the current runaway leader in Top Alcohol Dragster with a 5.232, almost a full tenth ahead of former world champ Chris Demke's 5.330. Hunter Jones leads Top Alcohol Funny Car at 5.539 with  Annie Whiteley second at 5.562. Maddi Gordon, making her national event debut, didn't make it down the track in the family's world championship-winning Beta Motorcycles Camaro, smartly shutting off after the car hooked toward the centerline. Local favorite Jeff Arend topped the first session of Legends Funny Cars with a 4.759, just a tick ahead of perennial frontrunner Bobby Cottrell's 4.760.


A very special celebration took place in the pits before Q1 as the drag racing community got together to honor legendary tuner "Big Jim" Dunn in advance of his 90th birthday next week, 75 of those years have been spent in drag racing. Dunn still tunes the team's Funny Car, driven this year by former Top Fuel racer Buddy Hull.

Dunn is very high on his new driver, citing his awareness of what the car is doing and being able to learn from but put away bad runs. "I told him that once or twice a year I blow up an engine, too, and I just throw that memory away in the trash can," said Dunn. "Buddy can do the same thing with runs and move on. I'm telling you, in a couple of more races he's going to be so good of a driver, he's going to be better than the car, and I'm going to have to spend some money to keep up with him."


Every team that rolled to the starting line for Q1 of Mission Foods Drag Racing Series qualifying had one eye on the scoreboard and the other on tomorrow, which could be weather-challenging with a dire forecast jeopardizing maybe one or both of Saturday’s sessions. Everyone wanted to make this run count, just in case.

“We definitely had to back it down to make sure we got down the track,” said Matt Hartford, who had the early qualifying lead in Pro Stock at 6.568 until the final run of the session. “We had to chip it down [rpm limiter], take some transmission out of it, and play with the tires just to make sure.”

As she did in Gainesville, six-time world champ Erica Enders sits in the No. 1 spot at 6.556 on a wild sashaying pass. Hartford ended up No. 2.

Jerry Tucker is on the bump at 6.670. Former rookie of the year Camrie Caruso and 2024 ROY hopeful Seinna Wildgust, both of whom failed to qualify in Gainesville, are in the show right now, in the No. 8 and 14 spots, respectively.

Deric Kramer had the worst of all experiences, never making it to the starting line as his Get Biofuel Camaro twice lost fire before the team threw in the towel without turning a tire in anger.


A crazy Q1 of Funny Car ended with Daniel Wilkerson atop the field and perhaps ready to get his first career No. 1 qualifying effort after a 4.014 pass in the Scag Power Equipment Mustang as many others tried but all failed to better that number in a possible make-or-break session.

The desperation to get in a good run was evident as both John Force and Alexis DeJoria tried to save problem-plagued runs and cost themselves valid e.t.s. Force crossed the centerline and DeJoria tagged the wall with the left-rear fender. Because they did take the Tree they will go on the qualifying sheets ahead of a trio of drivers who never even got to the Tree, but all of them, including Force and DeJoria, are outside the quick 16.

Hard-luck Alex Miladinovich, making his return to Funny Car two years after a car-destroying crash here, lost fire in mid-burnout and didn’t get a run. Fellow former Nostalgia Funny Car racer Chris Morel had problems backing up from his burnout and was shut down before he could stage as problems persisted. Incredibly, the same fate befell Jim Campbell a few pairs later.


For the longest time, David Grubnic looked like the smartest man in Pomona as Brittany Force had the only Top Fueler to make it down the track until the final two pairs, where Billy and Steve Torrence raced past her 3.783 with respective runs of 3.745 and 3.750.

Gatornationals champ Shawn Langdon had a good run going until the blower backfired, slowing him to a 3.788 at just 318 mph, good for the No. 4 spot.

Jasmine Salinas, making her first official Top Fuel run subbing for her dad, clocked an early-shutoff 4.27 and sits in the No. 7 position.