Gray, Enders surprise Thursday field leaders in Pomona; Brown leads Top Fuel Johnny Gray in Funny Car and Erica Enders in Pro Stock are the surprise first-day low qualifiers at the Kragen O'Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Winternationals presented by Valvoline at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona. Antron Brown leads the Top Fuel field with one of four qualifying sessions in the books.
The event marks the kickoff of NHRA's 60th Anniversary season, which will feature a yearlong tribute to the sport's history and its legends. A special display honoring Don "the Snake" Prudhomme is a highlight in the pits this weekend as hordes of fans have descended upon the Snake Pit to look at a collection of some of his legendary race cars.
Cool weather that descended on Southern California this week undoubtedly helped performances as temperatures hovered in the mid-50-degree range with track temps in the low 90s. NHRA Full Throttle drivers will have three more qualifying passes this weekend, with another lone pass Friday and the final two sessions Saturday.
Brown, who won last season's final event in Pomona, showed that crew chiefs Brian Corradi and Mark Oswald didn't forget anything during the winter; his Matco Tools dragster leads the first-day Top Fuel field with a 3.804. One of three Don Schumacher Racing team drivers to record that elapsed time, Brown took the provisional pole with a 319.98-mph speed. He has 26 poles.
“All of our crew chiefs really work well together, and that’s really showing right now, and that’s what you really need if you want to beat that Al-Anabi team for that championship,” said Brown. “Our cars, a lot of people would like to say they’re the same. They look the same on the outside, but there are some differences because you can build four of the same cars, and I could drive every single one of them and have every single one of them be different. We all have our weight and balances, and we use each other for that, so we know if they’re pulling hard in this area and it stuck, we can go out there and pull hard.
“You’ve got so many good teams out here. Look at how many people ran the same e.t. Our field is definitely stacked this year. I mean, you’ve got the Al-Anabi guys and all three of our DSR teams, including Tony [Schumacher], Spencer [Massey], and myself, and the Kalittas, Morgan [Lucas], Shawn [Langdon], Brandon [Bernstein] — there are just so many cars. It’s going to be a heck of a battle this year. We just want to start the year off right. We struggled a little bit at the beginning of last year, and then we came on strong the last four races of last year. We’re still just riding off what we did at the end of last year, and we’re just coming here and taking it one round at a time and racing as strong as we can because we want to be there at the end for that championship.”
Brown's DSR stablemates, Fram/Prestone pilot Spencer Massey and Army ace Schumacher, are right behind him in team formation, also with 3.804s, but speeds of 319.90 and 316.36, respectively. Del Worsham, in his return to Top Fuel competition, sits in the No. 4 spot with a 3.814 in the Brian Husen-tuned Al-Anabi dragster.
Worsham's teammate, reigning event and world champ Larry Dixon, is No. 5 with 3.818, and Langdon (3.847), T.J. Zizzo (3.870), and Steve Torrence (3.871) round out the top eight.
Terry McMillen holds down the provisional No. 12 spot with a 4.030 in his Amalie/UNOH dragster.
Gray, making his return to the Funny Car class after a five-season absence, the last three of which he spent in Pro Stock, looked as if he never left after posting a field-leading 4.079 in the Service Central Racing Dodge out of the DSR stable. Gray, who has also competed in Top Alcohol Dragster and Top Alcohol Funny Car, has never been the No. 1 qualifier in any Pro class.
“There was nothing wrong with that deal,” said Gray. “You know, Don [Schumacher] put together a great team over there. I’ve got some great guys. Lee Beard, Rob Wendland, what can you say? All I have to do is get in there and pull the trigger and hang on. Lee and Don and Rob have provided me with a hot rod here. We’re going to ruin some people's days.
“The guys talked about it and said, ‘You’ve got to be careful. The track’s better than you think. We don’t want to go out there and shake. Let’s go out there and take a shot at it.’ Then they told me, ‘If it don’t go, pedal it twice, and then you better let out of it.’ The thing went right down Broadway, so here we are. It was a little down in the tires. I don’t have many laps since I came back, so I was probably a little ways behind the car and probably didn’t drive it the best, but, hey, we got it down there.”
Former NHRA world champ Cruz Pedregon, who closed the 2010 season as one of the class' top drivers despite failing to qualify for the Countdown playoffs, pushed his Snap-on Tools Toyota to the No. 2 spot with a 4.088, just ahead of reigning and 15-time NHRA champ John Force, who clocked a 4.093 in his Dean Antonelli-tuned Castrol GTX High Mileage Mustang. Force's teammate Robert Hight is the No. 4 qualifier in the Auto Club Mustang with a 4.097, and the third John Force Racing Ford, tuned and driven by Force's 2010 champion crew chief Mike Neff, sits fifth with a 4.103.
The top eight is rounded out by Brainerd champ Bob Bode (4.121), Southern California veteran Gary Densham (4.160), and Jim Head (4.161). Matt Hagan, the 2010 championship runner-up, struggled to a 4.36 in his DieHard Dodge and holds the provisional No. 12 spot.
Enders made her Pro Stock return to the Cagnazzi Racing fold a memorable one as she pushed her new ZaZa Energy Cobalt to a sterling 6.553 at 211.69 mph – both career bests – to pace the first-day fields. Five seasons ago, Enders made history as the first woman to qualify No. 1 in Pro Stock at the 2006 Topeka event, and if her time were to hold, it would be her second pole. Enders' speed is a track record, breaking the two-year-old mark of 211.63 held by Jason Line.
“That run was awesome,” said Enders. “My crew chief came on the radio and let me know what we had run. I had never officially run a 6.5 before — we had run it in testing — and I had never been 210, either, and he came on the radio, and he’s like, ‘Well, you skipped right over 210 and went 211.69.’ It’s just awesome. To be back with Victor Cagnazzi, I’m so excited. I haven’t stopped smiling [since rejoining Cagnazzi Racing]. To be back where I started with a team of that caliber and the type of people they are is awesome. I’m excited about the opportunity, and I think we have a lot to be optimistic about.
“I figured we better watch A.J. [Allen Johnson] because he ran real well in testing, as did the Summit cars. It kind of sunk in after A.J. ran [that my run might hold], and then we just crossed our fingers for Greg [Anderson] and Jason, and it held, and I was so excited.”
Ron Krisher, in his Valvoline Pontiac, is the No. 2 qualifier with a 6.562, a time matched by 2010 championship runner-up Greg Stanfield's Safety Sentry Pontiac, but Krisher earned the higher spot with a superior speed, 211.26 to 210.77. Johnson, who unofficially broke the 6.50-second barrier in testing this winter, is No. 4 with a 6.568 from his Mopar Dodge Avenger.
Reigning world champ Anderson holds down the No. 5 spot with his Summit Pontiac with a 6.565, but the remainder of the top eight includes a trio of surprises in Warren Johnson (6.571), son Kurt (6.572), and rookie Buddy Perkinson (6.593). Perkinson is driving the Cunningham Motorsports Mustang driven last year by Enders and tuned at this event by class legend Bob Glidden.
Larry Morgan's Lucas Oil Mustang holds down the provisional No. 12 spot with a 6.602.