NHRA stars eager to hit the pavement at the Gatornationals

Steve Torrence’s first win in Gainesville came a year ago and helped him to his third straight NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series world title. With the race back in its traditional spot, the Top Fuel star will look to start his 2021 season impressively at this weekend’s 52nd annual AMALIE Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals at historic Gainesville Raceway.

The race took place in September last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and Torrence delivered a strong showing, winning the race while sporting a Don Garlits throwback look in his Capco Contractors 11,000-horsepower dragster. With the historic nature of the race, Torrence is just as motivated for a repeat performance this weekend. 
“Everybody is on this team because they want to win and they want to do well,” Torrence said. “The more you do well, the more it motivates you. In this group, we consistently want to do better and accomplish more. We’re always pushing. That was instilled in me by my father and everyone on this team shares the same mindset.”

Torrence (Top Fuel), Ron Capps (Funny Car), Alex Laughlin (Pro Stock), and Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle) are defending winners of an event that will be televised on FOX Sports 1 (FS1) and FOX, including live finals coverage starting at 12 p.m. on Sunday, March 14 on FOX.

Torrence will again be the man to beat in a talent-filled Top Fuel class. He’s been nearly unstoppable the last three years, piling up 24 victories since 2018 and 32 since 2017. The team isn’t slowing down and remains dedicated to improving, in part because the competition is so stout. Torrence will face off with the likes of Doug Kalitta, Antron Brown, Leah Pruett, Brittany Force, Shawn Langdon, Clay Millican, and more, but Torrence has always been impressed with how his team has responded to challenges.

“To see how mentally tough they were and just the mental fortitude each one of the guys showed was impressive,” Torrence said. “This is a group that always battles and you can’t help but think what we’ve accomplished together. It’s been incredible, but we hold each other to a very high standard and that’s what motivates us.”

In Funny Car, a familiar and legendary face is back to open 2021, as 16-time world champ John Force is back in the seat of his 11,000-horsepower PEAK/BlueDEF PLATINUM Chevrolet Camaro in Gainesville. The John Force Racing team sat out the rest of the 2020 season during the COVID-19 pandemic, making it a much-anticipated return for the 151-time event winner. Force looked good in testing and is now eager to see how it translates for his team in Gainesville, which is the organization’s first race in more than a year.

“It feels good to be back in my car, back in the seat,” Force said. “BlueDEF PLATINUM looks good on the side and it’s comfortable, it’s home. We’re ready for this weekend, ready to get the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series season started. Testing went well, we were quick and fast and the new guys are figuring it out. I’ve got confidence in my crew chiefs, Danny Hood and Tim Fabrisi, and we’re all just excited to be back racing.”
There’s an obvious challenge right off the bat, as rival Don Schumacher Racing swept the entire season in the class. DSR has won the last 14 Funny Car races dating back to 2019 and will field two cars in 2021 with defending world champ Matt Hagan and Capps, who won in Gainesville last year. Both will try to extend that streak, but Force has other ideas, as does a loaded field that features the likes of Roberyt Hight J.R. Todd, Cruz Pedregon, Tim Wilkerson, Bob Tasca III, Paul Lee, and Alexis DeJoria.

Pro Stock’s Erica Enders will start 2021 aiming for a third straight championship and fifth overall. But a host of standouts will try to stop her, including defending Gainesville winner Alex Laughlin, Greg Anderson, Aaron Stanfield, Kyle Koretsky, and Troy Coughlin Jr.

Matt Smith impressed in Gainesville last year en route to the world title and he’ll look to repeat that to open his title defense. Trying to stop him will be top riders like Ryan Oehler, Jerry Savoie, Angelle Sampey, and Hector Arana Jr.

The event will also feature the opening race of the 2021 E3 Spark Plugs NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series season. The race is presented by Jerry Bickel Race Cars and FTI Performance, and the defending winner is Rickie Smith. The race also includes thrilling competition in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series, where future stars of the sport hone their skills, as well as the Factory Stock Showdown Drag Racing Series and the Top Fuel Harley Series. 
Additionally, the Southeast Nostalgia Pro Stock Group will bring vintage Pro Stock cars to Gainesville to entertain the fans, while a special Street Car Shootout between Tom Bailey and Rod Tschiggfrie, two of the best street car racers in the world, will take place during the weekend.
Camping World Drag Racing Series qualifying will feature one round at 4 p.m. ET on Friday, March 12, with the two final rounds slated for 12:05 p.m. and 4 p.m. on Saturday, March 13. Final eliminations are scheduled for 10 a.m. on Sunday, March 14. Television coverage includes qualifying action on FS1 at 3 p.m. ET on Saturday, March 13, and live eliminations beginning at 12 p.m. on Sunday, March 14 on the FOX national broadcast network.

Tickets are on sale now for the AMALIE Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals and may be purchased by visiting NHRA.com or calling 800-884-NHRA.

(Courtesy of NHRA Communications)

Adam Sinclair