For the first time in two years, the Camping World NHRA drag racing series returns to Sonoma Raceway — and sea level — this weekend after coming down from a Rocky Mountain high in the thin air of Denver.
For crew chiefs and drivers, the stark contrast between the two is like coming back to earth after riding in a billionaire’s space shuttle.
Engines gasp for air at 5,800 feet elevation, which makes creating 10,000 horsepower as tough as a marathon runner’s last mile. Crew chiefs and drivers struggle to find the extra thousandths of a second to beat the car in the other lane without the engine wheezing and coughing up pistons and other parts like a pipe bomb.
By contrast, oxygen makes horsepower. But the return to Sonoma creates different challenges as drivers and crews try to harness the horsepower and find traction for a clean run down 1,000 feet of asphalt.
The constantly changing environment is what makes the Western Swing, which began in Denver last week and ends in Pomona next week, one of the most challenging sections of the NHRA tour.
That the races run on consecutive weekends, giving teams no down time to recover, makes the swing even tougher. Imagine an NBA team trying to win three consecutive road games, back-to-back-to-back.
Only eight drivers and teams have ever swept the Western Swing and it’s been 10 years since the last one did, Antron Brown in 2009. The odds are always long, but two drivers who won at Denver have taken that first step toward a sweep.
“We conquered the mountain,” Steve Torrence posted on Twitter after winning Top Fuel honors last Sunday.
But the three-time Top Fuel champion has conquered most of the competition all year, winning five times in eight races in 2021 — with Denver being his 45th career win.
Keeping the winning within the family, one of the few others to claim a Wally trophy in Top Fuel this year is Billy Torrence, Steve’s father, who won the most recent Top Fuel race at Sonoma Raceway in 2019.
So far, the Torrence family dominance has shut out perennial top runners in the category — including Brittany Force, who ripped off a 3.171-second run (326 mph) to be fast qualifier at Denver, and three-time champion Brown, who has struggled to find consistency in his last year with Don Schumacher Racing before starting his own team next year.
A potential dark horse at the Sonoma Nationals is newcomer Joey Haas, who made it to the final round in Denver against Torrence in a borrowed car. Haas won his first round with a solid 3.98-second run and coasted through two more rounds when cars in the other lane failed with mechanical problems.
Nonetheless, he ran a respectable 4.1 seconds in the final against Torrence in a David vs. Goliath-like mismatch.
“It’s indescribable," said Haas. “We’re a small team. We get here on a limited budget. I couldn’t do this without (car owner) Terry Totten giving me the opportunity to drive, and my crew — they come from everywhere. They pay their own way to get here.”
Matt Smith, a four-time champion in Pro Stock Motorcycle, has been just as dominant on two wheels as Torrence has been on four.
“We went wire to wire in Denver,” said Smith, who was also fastest qualifier and claimed his third win of the year.
Both Smith and Torrence, not coincidentally, lead the championship point standings for their classes.
One of the most competitive and unpredictable classes coming into the Sonoma Nationals weekend is Funny Car, which has produced six winners in eight races. Only Bob Tasca III and the ironman of drag racing, John Force, have a pair of wins each.
Funny Car has had surprise winners this year — such as Cruz Pedregon, whose victory in Norwalk, Ohio in late June was his first in three years.
“It’s the biggest win of my career because of what we had to go through to get here,” an emotional Pedregon, a two-time Funny Car champion, said at the time.
That included losing his co-crew chief, Eric Lane, who was hit and killed by a car while walking back from a restaurant last October, and the growing pains after re-constructing his race team.
And Matt Hagen gave the powerhouse Don Schumacher Racing team— which won every Funny Car event last year — only its second win of 2021 at Denver, while perennial winners such as Ron Capps have been shut out so far this year.
The NHRA Sonoma Nationals weekend begins with the always popular and spectacular Friday night qualifying, beginning with Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycles at 6:30 p.m and the flame-spouting Top Fuel and Funny Car qualifications at 8:05 p.m. The final two rounds of qualifying are on Saturday, at noon and 3 p.m.
Final eliminations are scheduled for 11 a.m. Sunday. Television coverage includes qualifying action on FS1 at 11 a.m. Saturday and at noon Sunday, followed by final eliminations action at 1 p.m. Sunday.
Two women, two wheels, 25 years of drag racing
Brown, who is Black, was inspired to become a racer while watching his father and uncle race on drag strips.
“Our sport has always been diverse,” he contended in a recent interview, based on first-hand experience.
“It’s been true since the days when Shirley Muldowney was winning championships,” he added of the first woman to be licensed to drive a Top Fuel Dragster and who went on to win three national championships (1977, 1980, 1982).
Many women have followed her burnout down the strip, including high-profile drivers such as Brittany Force in Top Fuel and two-time Pro Stock champion Erica Enders.
Fourteen years after Muldowney won her last title, Karen Stoffer and Angelle Sampey began their drag racing careers — not on four wheels, but on two. They are still racing Pro Stock Motorcycles 25 years later, capable of covering a quarter mile in six seconds at speeds of 190-plus mph.
The two women celebrated their Silver Anniversary in the sport last weekend in Denver, where each drove in her first race.
“I was so young and so naïve,” recalled Sampey, who has gone on to win three national championships and 43 races, even after taking time off to start a family. “I didn’t think at all about the risks involved. I didn’t understand anything about sponsorships or how to interact with the fans.
“I wasn’t afraid of anything back then. I came here thinking that I was going to win the race. I was raised with the mentality that if you wanted to get me to do something, just tell me I couldn’t and there were a lot of people who didn’t think that I belonged on a Pro Stock Motorcycle. I wanted to prove them wrong.”
By the time Stoffer and husband-crew chief Gary made that debut in Denver, she had already established solid credentials as a Sportsman Motorcycle champion. She didn’t qualify in her debut and didn’t run another race until 2002 but has become one of the most respected riders over the last two decades, claiming nine national event wins.
Stoffer also never expected to be racing for a quarter-century, but she takes good care of herself physically and mentally, and her solid credentials led to her current ride as a teammate to NHRA Pro Stock champion Jerry Savoie.
“I never thought I’d be here now. It just sort of happened,” said Stoffer. “Of course, I would like to win a championship, but honestly, I just wanted to be known as a skilled rider that could be trusted. I’ve worked hard at that during my whole career and I’d like to think it helped lead to where I am now, racing with Jerry.”
Since Stoffer and Sampey made their debut in NHRA, 22 women have raced in the class.
“That’s the beauty of NHRA — it is so diverse,” said Stoffer. “Women [Pro Stock Motorcycle] racers have become so common, I don’t really think about it. But if Angelle or I helped inspire someone male or female to pursue their dreams, that’s a great thing.”
Fan fun this weekend at Sonoma
Friday will feature an exhibition of Sonoma Raceway’s Top the Cops program, where Bay Area law enforcement officials drag race in their squad cars against area high school students. It will be followed by a Sonoma-special “Cacklefest.” For the sixth year, a collection of nostalgia dragsters will light up the sky and fire up their engines in front of the Main Grandstand prior to Nitro qualifying under the lights.
These dragsters and many more will be on display throughout the weekend in the 11th Nostalgia Get-Together, which will feature more than 30 vintage racing machines and hot rods in the main paddock garage. Entry to the Nostalgia Get-Together is free with admission into the raceway.
Fans can take a Pre-Race Track Walk on Sunday morning, followed by a special pre-race Q&A session at 10 a.m.
Following final eliminations Sunday, race fans are welcome onto the drag strip to celebrate with the NHRA Sonoma Nationals champions in a new Winner’s Circle in front of the main grandstand, with access to everyone. Before leaving the track, fans are also invited to join in a Sonoma Raceway tradition, the Eric Medlen Ice Cream Social, and are encouraged make a donation to the Sonoma chapter of Speedway Children’s Charities.
The ice cream social honors the memory of Medlen, a native of Oakdale who succumbed to injuries sustained from a testing accident in 2007. “You can’t be sad when you’re eating ice cream,” Medlen was known to say.
For more information or to purchase tickets to the NHRA Sonoma Nationals, follow @RaceSonoma on Twitter, visit sonomaraceway.com or call 800-870-7223.
Coughlin dedicates NHRA Sonoma Nationals to late friend Seipel
Pro Stock driver Troy Coughlin Jr. has dedicated this weekend’s Sonoma Nationals to close friend Kyle “Big Nasty” Seipel, who succeeded his mother as Sonoma Raceway’s drag racing manager three years ago and who passed away last month at the age of 50 after a long battle with cancer.
"He did so much for the sport as a driver, a crew chief, a track manager and an event organizer that his contributions set him apart from others,” said Coughlin. “We lost a great person and his impact is sorely missed.”
Quite the opposite of his racing nickname, Seipel was universally respected and loved by drag racers — especially those competing at the sportsman and bracket racing level. Seipel and fellow sportsman superstar Peter Biondo created the wildly-popular "Fling" series of high-dollar bracket races, which have exploded in popularity since their inception.
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