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Friday News & Notes from the NHRA Arizona Nationals

News, notes, quotes, photos, and video from the opening day of the NHRA Arizona Nationals at Firebird Motorsports Park. Updated throughout the day.
05 Apr 2024
Posted by NHRA.com staff
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Well, here we are again, back at Firebird International Raceway/Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park/Firebird Motorsports Park. When last we left you in late-March 2023, we thought we'd seen the last of this iconic desert drag oasis, which sprouted to life in 1984 after the closing of Orange County International Raceway in Southern California (here's a brief primer I wrote about it back in 2018).

As an OCIR "pit rat," the creation of this place was momentous for us SoCal drag fans spoiled on year-round big-name match races, and its track took over that mantel. I'm not the only one glad to see it saved from closing, as some of the drivers saluted the place in their pre-race comments.

Cruz Pedregon: "It’s such a great fan base, and it's a good track. I'm glad they kept it going, revamped everything and they're keeping the track there because it's also a great market for Snap-on, our primary sponsor. Lots of interest there with the Snap-on franchisees and a lot of great support there for our hospitality program."

J.R. Todd: “I’m always glad to go back to Phoenix, especially when we thought we weren’t going back. It’s a place that’s been around a long time with some history to it, and they put a lot of people in that place. I haven’t won there but definitely want to, so I hope we can keep going there for years to come. You never want to lose a racetrack, so we’re happy to go back there.” 

Ron Capps: “Typically, heading to Phoenix during the race season would seem somewhat normal, but it's anything but that this year. The fans, the racers, everyone is ecstatic about having Firebird back on the NHRA schedule."

Shawn Langdon: “I’ve always enjoyed racing in Phoenix. I’ve raced there since my Jr. Dragster days in the late 1990s, so I have a lot of memories at that track. I enjoy going there; I love the area; it’s an awesome area with great golf courses, and I enjoy going to that track. I’m definitely happy we’re going back, and I hope we get to race there for a long time.”

Doug Kalitta: "We’re just super glad, really, that they’re keeping that track open because there was a little debate on that. It’s a cool place to run with a lot of history there, and I’ve had pretty good luck there." [one win, four runner-ups]

Camrie Caruso: “I’m super excited to head back to Phoenix. We won that race last year, so to be able to return to the track where I got my first Pro Stock win is going to be special on so many levels. At that time, we weren’t sure if we would be returning, so that definitely adds to the excitement level I’m experiencing. These fans are awesome, and I can’t wait to put on a great show for them."

Alexis DeJoria: “I’m so thrilled we’re returning to Firebird Motorsports Park after what we thought was going to be the final race there last year. This track has had some great success for our team. I won my first Funny Car race at Firebird 10 years ago, and last year, our team won the very first Mission #2Fast2Tasty Challenge there."


Pedregon's love affair with the track goes back to the 1980s, when he won his first of 43 national event victories while driving the Top Alcohol Dragster of Gary Turner at the 1988 Fallnationals here.

"It was in the fall of 1988. I remember like it was yesterday going into the final," he said. "It was dusk, and I was going up against Jay Payne, who I think was the No. 1 qualifier. We were kind of the underdog. And I remember it was a very close race. I got the jump at the start and won on a holeshot. It was like winning a championship or winning the Super Bowl for me, it meant everything to me to notch that first win there in Arizona."


Phoenix is also a semi-hometown race for Tony Stewart and Leah Pruett, who winter and enjoy water sports on Lake Havasu when they're escaping the cold climes of his Midwest base in Columbus, Ind.

“Pomona and Phoenix are both big races for us," said Stewart, who will make his third career start in Top Fuel. "Obviously, Pomona is really close to Redlands, Calif., where Leah grew up and was raised, so that’s definitely a home race for her. Having her family there to watch us run wasn’t necessarily more pressure, but you definitely want to perform well in front of your family. With both of us living in Lake Havasu City, Phoenix is definitely a home race for us, so to speak. It definitely means a lot to us, since we spend just as much time in Arizona as we do in Indiana. We have a lot of friends and fans in Lake Havasu that are going to the race, so we definitely want to perform well there as well.”


We're in full Sportsman racing mode until we run the Legends Funny Cars at 3 p.m. local, followed by the first appearance by Pro Mods here, then the day's lone pro session, which is also the opening round of the Mission #2Fast2Tasty NHRA Challenge from Pomona.

Sportsman categories in competition this weekend are Super Stock, Stock, Super Comp, Super Gas, Super Street, Right Trailers Top Dragster, and Right Trailers Top Sportsman (no alcohol or Comp).


Clay Millican's promising outing at the Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals was ended by oiling problems the team discovered in the pits before round two following a first-round blower backfire after he scored a rare round-win over Antron Brown, who was 31-6 against him lifetime (including 2-0 in final rounds).

"We had a couple of different scenarios happen in Pomona," Millican shared. "We had a qualifying scenario where there was a broken wire in the clutch controller, which was broken inside of heat-shrink tube, so that's not the easiest thing to find, and it would occasionally work when you tested it in the pit. So, that was definitely a pull-your-hair-out moment, and then we had an oiling issue where the top of the engine was not seeing oil when we were going up there for the second round. We thought, 'Yeah, this is not going to be good if we run this thing,' which sucks because Antron's had my number so bad for so long. It's like 'Yes!' and then we didn't get to go to the next round. That was a real bummer, but we should have all of that fixed for this weekend."


As has been well-documented this week, Ron Capps is celebrating the 30th anniversary of his first Pro start, which came at this event in 1995. I asked him last week what advice 2024 Ron Capps would give to 1995 Ron Capps.

"It's funny to look back and try to tell yourself don't do this and don't do that, because I think those moments, even the mistake, define me as well," he said. "I was very, very lucky. It was a few races later in Seattle that I approached Ed 'the Ace' McCulloch for advice. Nobody in my crew had ever driven, and I needed to seek advice from somebody that I thought could maybe help me down the road. Most people said, 'That's not a guy you want to go just talk to. That's not a guy who's got the personality that you want to go up and approach,' but he took me under his wing. As soon as I walked up, he put his arm around me. I think he made me a drink and sat me down. I'll never forget that, and he later became my crew chief and mentor.

"So, looking back, I would just tell myself to stay on course. Keep your ears open and your mouth shut. If you're talking, your ears are not open and listening. So, that was the biggest, greatest advice I ever got. And, boy, I've had a heck of a lot of great people around me to listen to throughout the years. A lot of people come into the sport, and they've mouthed off, they've not made good friends, and they have not listened, and a lot of times they don't last long. Also, being a crewmember [before becoming a driver] was probably the biggest thing that helped me; understanding the mechanics part of it, and how hard it is to work on these things. I think the empathy for our crew guys and how hard they work and how much travel they go through probably all helped me as well."


3:45 p.m.: After several hours of downtime for some track prep, the plan is now to run the Legends Nostalgia Funny Cars at 4 p.m., followed, by the first qualifying session for the three Mission Food Series cars.


It may be just Buddy Hull's third race in Funny Car, but the Texas strongman has bonded with the Jim Dunn Racing squad and knows his role as a hired gun after being an owner/driver in Top Fuel.

"It’s my job as a driver keep the car in the middle of the lane," he summarized. "May the best driver and the best car win. A lot of times fans don’t fully grasp the concept that this is a racing team. The driver has the duty of driving the car the correct way; the cylinder head guy must make sure the heads are put together and bolted on the car correctly; the supercharger guy has to ensure the blower is fresh and it makes the boost it needs to make. And then 'Big Jim' is making sure the right tune-up is made on the car. It is a full team effort, from end to end. And from an outside perspective, fans don't always realize the magnitude of how each single person on a team really impacts the race car. Everybody on the team matters.”


4 p.m.: The first pair of Legends Funny cars fired, did their burnouts, and... it started to sprinkle. We're on hold again but not done.

A revised qualifying order for the Pros will be announced soon.

4:34 p.m.: Sprinkles have moved north and we're back to racing.


Bobby Cottrell ran 4.690 to lead the Legends Funny Cars by a ton after their first session, with Geoff Monise second at 4.779 and Derrick Moreira third at 4.908. Drew Austin, driving the Ford-powered Pro/Max Mustang tuned by his father, four-time Top Alcohol Funny Car world champ Pat, had to lift early in his pass. Pat won this event six times including in 1992, when he won in both Top Fuel and Top Alcohol Funny Car.



The opening qualifying session for Funny Car was also the first round of the Winternationals Mission #2Fast2Tasty NHRA Challenge. 

J.R. Todd avenged his Winternationals loss to Matt Hagan, beating the world champ, 3.923 to 3.996. and ending Hagan’s bid for a three-win weekend while John Force, who will take on Hagan in tomorrow afternoon’s rain-delayed Winternationals final, kept his triple-play hopes alive with a 3.901 to beat tire-smoking Ron Capps.

The top three qualifiers from the session were not part of the Mission Challenge as Austin Prock raced the Cornwell Tools Chevy to a 3.840, well ahead of Bob Tasca III’s 3.876 and Paul Lee’s 3.889.

Force’s 3.901 has him fourth with Todd fifth at 3.923 followed by Blake Alexander at 3.927, Chad Green at 3.941, and Hagan rounding out the quick eight with the session’s final three-second pass at 3.996.



Due to unseasonable weather conditions, the Safety Safari spent additional time working on the track and track prep. Based on those weather conditions, Friday’s Pro Stock and Pro Mod qualifying sessions were postponed to Saturday. Both classes will make three qualifying attempts on Saturday, with Pro Stock running at its scheduled 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. times. The Pro Stock #2Fast2Tasty Mission Challenge will take place during those sessions. The final qualifier in Pro Stock is slated for 3:30 p.m., where the finals of the NHRA Winternationals will also take place.
Pro Mod will run at 11 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and 4:15 p.m.
Top Fuel and Funny Car will make their two scheduled qualifying attempts at NOONand 2:30 p.m. The finals of the Mission #2Fast2Tasty Challenge takes place during that first opening session, with the finals of the NHRA Winternationals taking place during the last session.



Travis Shumake, whose late father, Funny Car ace Tripp, made the maiden voyage down this track some 40 years ago, opened the Top Fuel session with his first official pass alongside good friend Jasmine Salinas, who is making her second start after her Winternationals debut. Shumake had planned an early shutoff but this one ended way early and he coasted to a 8.69 while Salinas is the early qualifying leader at 3.89. That run lasts only a few pairs at the top before Krista Baldwin, as promised, runs her first 3.7-second pass, a 3.755 to take over the lead,

World champ Doug Kalitta, flying the colors of SealMaster this weekend, seizes the No. 1 spot with a 3.69 but it costs him a blower and injector with a finish-line backfire, but he doesn’t hold it long either as Steve Torrence rips to a 3.678.

As it was in Funny Car, the final two pairs in Top Fuel were also the Winternationals Mission Challenge semifinals. Tony Schumacher defeated Billy Torrence, just as he did in Pomona, and will get a chance to win three races this weekend, but Justin Ashley, who will oppose Schumacher in tomorrow’s late-afternoon Winternationals Top Fuel final, lost his bid for a three-race weekend after Brittany Force drove around his holeshot to a powerful 3.689 to 3.902 victory.

Steve Torrence ends the day No. 1 with his 3.678 with Force No. 2 at 3.689 and Kalitta third at 3.697. Behind them are Antron Brown (3.738), Schumacher (3.755), Baldwin (3.755), Shawn Langdon (3.790), and Salinas (3.893).