Photos By Mike Burghardt
Coming into the In-N-Out Burger NHRA, National Hot Rod Association, finals, two of the pro classes were nearly closed out, but the Top Fuel and Funny Car were four car battles for the championship. Racing was hosted at the Pomona Dragstrip earlier this month.
In Top Fuel, the sentimental crowd favorite was Doug Kalitta and his MAC Tools/Kalitta Air/Toyota team. For Kalitta, it had been a long span of 26 years, 587 races and six runner-up finishes, trying for a season championship. The Pomona track had not been too kind to him, as far as winning a championship. The toughest and most historic was in 2006. He came into the event leading the points by a very good margin, as Tony Schumacher needed to go two more elimination rounds and set a national elapse time record (worth 20 points at that time). If Kalitta won in the semi-final round, he was the champion. But Melanie Troxell beat him on a holeshot in the semis and he could only sit and watch Tony Schumacher go on and win the event and set the new national elapse time record, taking the championship away from Kalitta by a mere 14 points. This year, Kalitta and his team started out with the new canopy style dragster, but, in the first event of the countdown to the championship, Kalitta’s canopy car was damaged and they had to go back to the open cockpit car. From then on, they became very strong contenders. In the final race of the season, four drivers were in close contention. Four-time champion, Steve Torrence came in at the top, followed by Doug Kalitta, Leah Pruett and long shots Justin Ashley and Mike Salinas. In the semi-final round, it came down to Kalitta vs. Ashley (who was now out of the point battle) and Torrence (who was still on top of the point race) and Pruett (who could still be the champion if she won the event). To the surprise of many, Pruett left first (0.065 to 0.071) and drove away for the win, 3.717 at 331.04 mph to 3.765 at 318.69 mph. For Kalitta, taking on the driver with the best-in-class reaction time average was not going to be an easy task. Kalitta had suffered from such predicaments in Pomona before, coming out on the ‘agony of defeat’ side each time. But, this time, things would be different. Ashley got away first (0.043 to 0.055), but Kalitta got around him and collected the victory, 3.723 at 332.19 mph to 3.801 at 315.56 mph. Kalitta was going to the final against Pruett for all the marbles. Pruett had her fans (plus those new fans of her team owner and husband, Tony “Smoke” Stewart) and the important lane choice, given to the quicker car in the previous round. Kalitta had thousands of sentimental fans in the grandstands and an elite Top Fuel crew chief, Alan Johnson, on his side. Pruett had her crew chiefs (Neal Strausbaugh and Michael Domagala) preparing her dragster. The fans were on their feet as Kalitta got away first (0.047 to 0.064) and with the mystical championship tuning skills of Johnson, drove away to his first career championship, 3.673 at 334.98 mph to 3.720 at 326.16 mph and his long-awaited chance to celebrate the ‘thrill of victory.’
In Funny Car, it was also a very close battle between three drivers, Matt Hagan, Bob Tasca III and Robert Hight. The winner of the event would be the champion. Hagan came into the final event leading Tasca by 15 points and Hight by 17 points. Whichever driver won the event would be the 2023 NHRA Funny Car champion. For Hagan and Hight, it would be their fourth and for Tasca, his first. The tension levels for each driver were high. But for Tasca, defeat came early. Cruz Pedregon ended Tasca’s chances in the second round, 3.967 at 323.19 mph to (up in smoke) 5.483 at 142.48 mph. Then, in an amazing pedal fest, Blake Alexander raced past Hagan, 4.196 at 258.71 mph to 4.251 at 261.52. Hight had qualified on the pole, ran low elapse time of the event (3.844) and top speed (333.61 mph). All he needed to do was beat Chad Green and he would claim his fourth Funny Car championship title. But, less than four seconds later, those chances were dashed as Green took the win 3.971 at 322.11 mph to 4.216 at 246.39 mph, as Hight’s engine quit. For Hight, he went from the potential victory to the defeat in just the blink of an eye, but, for Hagan, he was beyond thrilled to get the win and his fourth season championship. Green then went on to defeat Tim Wilkerson for the In-N-Out Burger NHRA finals event Funny Car title. Ironically, Green’s crew chief (Daniel Wilkerson) is the son of Tim Wilkerson (driver and crew chief), creating a father-son tuning battle, won by the son.
In Pro Stock, Erica Enders once again made history, as she claimed her sixth career NHRA Pro Stock championship, tying her with Warren Johnson for second on the all-time list. The legend, Bob Glidden, has 10 titles. Enders clinched her sixth title, when she won her first round match up against Fernando Cuadra. Aaron Stanfield left first (0.031 to 0.048) to defeat Matt Hartford, 6.534 at 208.91 to (quicker) 6.519 at 210.14 mph, to claim the event title.In Pro Stock Motorcycle, Gaige Herrera clinched his first career championship during qualifying and simply dominated in eliminations for his 10th career event win, beating (for the seventh time this season) his teammate, Eddie Krawiec (who was going for his 50th career event win) in the final round, 6.721 at 201.46 mph to 6.796 at 199.52 mph. Just to show everyone he was human, Herrera ran his worst elapse time in the opening round (10.898 at 77.63 mph), but still claimed the win, as his opponent, Blaine Hale, fouled out. During the season, Herrera won nearly every round match up (qualifying and eliminations; winning 10 out of 14 events, tying Matt Hines for most wins in one season), achieving one of the most dominating performances seen in the history of the class.