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Saturday News and Notes from the Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals

News and Notes from the season-opening Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals, the first of 21 events on the 2024 Mission Foods NHRA Drag Racing Series. Updated throughout the day
09 Mar 2024
NHRA National Dragster staff
Race coverage



Even with a 3.88 yesterday, world champ Matt Hagan and crew chief Dickie Venables sit just fourth, not where you’d usually find their quick Tony Stewart Racing Dodge when the conditions are good.

"We have some things we really wanted to try and testing got cut short [by rain] on Tuesday and Wednesday, so we're a little behind,” said Venables. “We're a little aggravated because we're usually one of those cars at the top of the sheet. We've made a couple of little tweaks in combination, and you always start out backed up. We just had a lot of things to try."

One of the things we're trying is a new oil pump to get better lubrication of bearings. so we can run it harder without damage,

“You're always picking at the little things because there's not a lot of room for other big improvements since the laid-back headers. So it's kinda become a little like Pro Stock, looking for small gains, We didn’t used to even look at valvetrain weight but we do now.

“If you don’t keep trying new stuff, the competition will go by you. A lot of times we try stuff and we take two steps back before you can start improving, Whatever stuff we didn't get to try, now's the time to try it. because what really counts is when you get that right after Indy when we're back in these kinds of conditions.”


The 2024 season is a big one for Dave Richards, as he and his Versatran Funny Car team will run the full schedule for the first time, but their season has hardly started out as planned. They lost their first qualifying pass Friday when the throttle stop jammed after the burnout, then smoked the tires on their second hit.

It’s been a whirlwind offseason for the Florida team after their car was destroyed in a qualifying accident last fall in Dallas where Dale Creasy Jr., rear-ended Richards at speed. They had to get new bodies and a new chassis and get everything plumbed and ready.

The chassis and two of the new Toyota bodies came from Kalitta Motorsports’ J.R. Todd team, and they got another Toyota body from Alexis DeJoria. They got two of the bodies wrapped, then lost one to damage from a blower explosion during pre-season testing. Then they lost their hopes of pre-event testing at Gainesville Raceway on Tuesday and Wednesday due to rain.

“We're just working through it, just trying to find some momentum,” said Richards. “We only made five runs in testing and we lost three of them to an electrical problem that kept shutting off the engine, so we’re a little behind the curve right now.”


Shawn Langdon is obviously very pleased with the season so far, as new crew chief Brian Husen tuned him to a pair of runs Friday that were second-best each time to only Steve Torrence.

Husen brought over the tune-up that he and Alan Johnson had refined on teammate Doug Kalitta’s car, and it’s paying dividends. A new chassis, to replace the battle-tested one that Langdon referred to as his “museum piece” certainly isn’t hurting either.

“Right away, we’re making more consistent runs down the track, so you gotta love that,” he said. “I've worked with Brian in the past, 10 years ago [as part of the Al-Anabi team, with which he won the 2013 world championship] and he's been over with Doug the last couple of years, so it’s been pretty easy for me to adapt.”


Chase Van Sant won’t go so far as to say that he’s fully recovered from the injuries that he suffered in an on-track accident last year in Dallas but he’s “about as normal as I can be.”

To that end, Van Sant, the reigning NHRA Rookie of the Year award winner got back on his Trick Tools Suzuki for the first time in nearly six months and promptly qualified in the top half of the field with an eighth-best 6.89.

“I’m still a little tender in some spots, but overall, I feel really good, and my range of motion is good” said Van Sant, who finished No. 9 in the standings last season despite missing the last two events of the season. “I’ve made zero runs since the accident last season and I guess I was a bit unsettled before the first run but then I told myself, ‘I know how to do this.’

“Thankfully, I went to the finish line and everything was just fine in the shut down area. The bikes are about 20 pounds heavier than last year and you feel that, especially when it comes to braking. Fortunately, this is a really long track which is perfect.”

Van Sant’s team had a busy offseason as longtime crew chief Tim Kulungian purchased the White Alligator outfit from Jerry Savoie and they also added Chris Bostick as a second rider. Van Sant sees all of that as a positive.

“Tim is great at what he does and really, we just need to leave him alone and let him tune the bikes,” Van Sant said. “I’m really fortunate to be racing with him. I think we can have a lot of success together.”


Why isn’t Fernando Cuadra Sr. racing in the Pro Stock class this weekend? The Corral Boots team owner recently suffered a wrist injury that will require surgery, so he’ll be out of the car until April. In his absence, sons Fernando Jr., Cristian, and David are filling in and all three are qualified after one run.

“They told me the surgery will be painful, but its not going to be as painful as not racing. I’m sure of that,” said Cuadra. “I hate to miss a race, but the boys will be good. They’re in good hands.”

Cuadra has April 26 circled on his calendar for several good reasons. First, it’s his 65th birthday and it’s also the birthday of twin sons, Cristian and David. That date also marks the day that Cuadra will transfer full ownership of Corral boots to his three sons. It also happens to be Friday, the first day of qualifying for the Four Wide event in Charlotte and Cuadra plans to race alongside all three of his sons.

“I will still be a consultant and I’m going to stay busy traveling and giving lectures and things like that, but the boys will run the business. I don’t ask for anything but a good cup of coffee. They’ve all worked hard and they deserve it. The company is in good hands.”


Perfect .000 reaction times are rare, even among NHRA’s many gifted Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series sportsman competitors, but those who manage a “trip zip” light will have an added bonus to remember their achievements as NHRA has introduced a special coin to commemorate the occasion. In order to win a coin, a racer must have a .000 reaction time on a winning run during eliminations. It didn’t take long for the first coin to be handed out as former world champ Ray Miller III hit the number in his round two win over David Morris.


All things considered, 17-year old Sienna Wildgust felt she “did pretty well” in her first official day in the tough NHRA Pro Stock class. Wildgust on track to become one of NHRA’s youngest professional drivers, recorded a best of 6.62 in her KB Titan-powered Camaro, just a couple of hundredths off the current 6.60 bump spot.

“I wasn’t really nervous; I’d say I was more excited,” said Wildgust. “I made maybe 40 or 50 runs this winter when I got my license, but only about five of them were to the finish line. This was the first time I’ve raced in front of a big crowd but I just tried to block all that out and do my job. It wasn’t perfect, but it’s something we can build on.”

Wildgust’s father, Scott, is also working hard to put his Smokie’s Garage Camaro into the Pro Mod field. He’s currently on the bump with a very competitive 5.812.


Sharp-eyed race fans may have noticed in the entry list and live timing that Funny Car world champ Matt Hagan is rocking the No. 14 "vanity number" again — a tribute to team owner Tony Stewart’s long-running relationship with that number — on his Dodge Charger instead of the big ol’ No. 1 he earned last season.

Well, no world champ in the right mind would not put the No. 1 on, right? Hagan found a clever solution, combining the 1 and the 14 to both salute Stewart and showcase Hagan’s fourth championship.

“I didn't want to give up Tony's number because someone else might try to scoop it up but also wanted to run 1 on the car, so I was like, ‘Let's keep 14 but let's make the one real big, then the four with the x on it. It worked out pretty good, I think.”

Stewart, by the way, is also rocking No. 14 on his Top Fueler.


Rain that was forecast to hit later in the afternoon swooped in early, bringing racing to a halt during Q3 of Pro Mod. With a lengthy delay of more than three hours, NHRA has decided that the first thing down the track once it’s dry will be the first round of the Pep Boys Top Fuel Callout. The callouts were made earlier today to set the first-round matchups.


Pep Boys NHRA Top Fuel All-Star Callout round one and Q3 of Professional qualifying

Shawn Langdon and Antron Brown, the two drivers no one called out for the opening round of the Pep Boys NHRA Top Fuel All-Star Callout, opened up the special race’s first round with an upset as Langdon, currently the No. 2 qualifier for the Gatornationals, had his engine go sour at midtrack and Brown scooted into the semifinals with a 3.91 that’s sure not to be the low e.t. that affords that driver the lone callout for the semifinals.

Or not? Mike Salinas and Justin Ashley go off next with both having less than stellar runs. As he did in last year’s first round, Salinas beats engine-ailing Ashley, but his 4.19 is surely nothing to write home about.

2023 world champ Doug Kalitta and 2022 world champ Brittany Force locked horns and this one goes to Force’s Monster Energy car with a monster run of 3.79, just a tick off the 3.78 best she registered Friday. 

Force, who was runner-up to Steve Torrence in the first Callout event in 2022 and who had the semifinal callout in last year’s bash, loses that right this year to Torrence, who pounds out a relentless 3.70 to defeat defending Callout champ Josh Hart. Torrence then called out Brown for the next round. Salinas will face Force in a match up of the runners-up from the first two Callout events.

All of these runs also counted as the teams’ third qualifying pass, with the rest of Top Fuel following on their heels.

Torrence's run ends up the best of the round, keeping alive his streak of maximum bonus points, while his dad, Billy, was second-quickest at 3.779 and Force third.

Funny Car: After making his first career three-second pass Friday, Terry Haddock added another sub-four in Q3 with a 3.996, making everyone believe Friday wasn’t a one-shot fluke.

Bob Tasca III fired a monster shot with a 3.85 at 338.09, which tied for the 10th fastest speed in history, but the e.t. didn’t move Tasca’s PPG Ford any higher on the qualifying sheet after his Friday 3.829. Tasca did get three bonus points for the session’s best run, ending Austin Prock’s two-session domination of that honor. Prock fired off a 3.682 for two bonus points while Ron Capps’ 3.885 was the third quickest, as he had been in each of the first two sessions.


Erica Enders strengthened her stranglehold on the top spot in Pro Stock with a 6.549, which was the quickest run of Saturday’s opening round. Enders added three bonus points to her early season tally and also improved on yesterday’s 6.550 best in her JHG Camaro.

Cristian Cuadra remained in the No. 2 spot with a consistent 6.552 while Troy Coughlin Jr. also grabbed a qualifying bonus point with a 6.563.

As strong as Enders appears, she is just .043-second quicker than Elite teammate Kelly Murphy, who holds down the current bump spot with a 6.592 in his Pro Stock debut.


Top Fuel Callout semifinals: Mike Salinas looked to have a comfortable lead on late-leaving Brittany Force until the Scrappers car started spinning the tires at halftrack, allowing her to steam into her second Callout final with a 3.785.

No Top Fuel driver has won the Callout more than once, and that stat will continue as Antron Brown defeated 2022 Callout champ Steve Torrence, leaving on the four-time world champ and winning 3.761 to 3.765.


Gaige Herrera had the quickest run of the third Pro Stock Motorcycle qualifying session with a 6.746 but his advantage over the rest of the field is slipping. Herrera banked three more qualifying bonus points but also watched as rival Matt Smith ran 6.766 at over 202 mph on his Denso Buell. LE Tonglet also ventured into the 6.7s with a 6.771 on his Maple Grove Raceway/Nitro Fish entry.

There was a lot of bumping in the third session of Pro Stock Motorcycle as the bump spot plummeted from a 7.43 to a respectable 7.09. After encountering problems on both of Friday’s runs, Angie Smith got into the field with a strong 6.809 on her Denso Buell. Chase Van Sant also made an impressive run with a 6.825 aboard his Trick Tools Suzuki.

Jianna Evaristo had a tense moment in the shut down area when her Scrappers Buell encountered a flat tire in the shut down area at the conclusion of a 6.965 run. Evaristo, last year's No. 5 finisher, brought the bike to a safe stop and is solidly qualified in the field.

Professional qualifying session 4

Top Fuel: After fighting a series of gremlins through the first three sessions, Justin Ashley and the new-to-him Scag Power Equipment entry went from the bump spot and a 3.89 to the top four with a 3.719, but 3.71s came cheap as Tony Schumacher, Billy Torrence, and Doug Kalitta also grabbed that e.t., and all quicker than Ashley, who ended up eighth.

It was Shawn Langdon, though, who grabbed the No. 1 qualifying spot, the 20th of his career, with a 3.682 that knocked three-session leader Steve Torrence from the top spot.

Tony Stewart will start ninth in his Top Fuel debut and will probably be in the first pair out when he faces Ashley after a 3.725 best. Cody Krohn ended up on the bump spot with a 3.850 that he ran in Q3 and smartly followed up with a 3.861 in Q4.


Top Fuel Callout final: Britanny Force entered the final session and the Callout final qualified just No. 14 for the Gatornationals field and Antron Brown was in 15th, but AB jumped up to No. 4 with a stout 3.709 that earned him and the Matco Tools crew the $80,000 payday. Force was in the hunt until the engine on her Monster machine burst into flames at the finish line.


Qualifying for the 55th annual Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals ended abruptly when an early evening rain shower hit Gainesville Raceway moments after Antron Brown defeated Brittany Force in the final of the Pep Boys Allstar Callout.

The fields are set in Funny Car, Pro Stock, and Pro Stock Motorcycle where Austin Prock, Erica Enders, and Gaige Herrera are the low qualifiers. Round one of eliminations is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. on Sunday morning.