Force, Hagan, Enders, and Arana Jr. Hit the Jackpot at Nevada Nationals in Vegas
Courtesy NHRA Images: Phil Hutchison
It isn’t an exaggeration to suggest that the NHRA Nevada Nationals in Las Vegas features some of the most dramatic side-by-side racing of the season. As the penultimate event in the 2022 Camping World NHRA Drag Racing Series, championships are front and center and Erica Enders became the first to officially clinch after winning her 10th Pro Stock race of the season. Enders was joined in the winner’s circle by championship hopefuls Brittany Force (Top Fuel), Matt Hagan (Funny Car) as well as Hector Arana Jr. in Pro Stock Motorcycle.
Wins don’t come much bigger than this for Force, whose final-round victory over Mike Salinas moved her into a slim points lead over incoming leader Justin Ashley, who was upset in round one. Force won the final on a holeshot, 3.705 to 3.702, for her fifth win of the season and a seven-point edge on Ashley heading to the season-concluding Auto Club NHRA Finals in Pomona.
It was Force’s first victory since defeating Salinas in the final round in Sonoma in late July, which also was the last time that Salinas reached the final after a strong start to the season in which he four times in the first 11 races. Force regained the points lead she had when she entered the Countdown, but had won just one round in each of the four preceding events in the Countdown to the Championship before breaking through in Las Vegas
“[Winning on a holeshot] is huge. It’s a give-it-back to my guys for all the times they’ve carried me, so it’s a thank you to them,” she said. “I give it up to every single one of my guys. They’re incredible. We feel good really to be in the best position, We dominated this weekend. We’ve struggled in the entire Countdown and we started to make ground last weekend and I screwed up, so coming in this weekend we really turned it around, It gives us a lot of confidence. We’ve you know this is our career-best season with five wins, and it’s been a little while since we’ve been in that winner’s circle, and we didn’t come close in the Countdown., so today was a big turnaround for our team.”
Force started her route to her 35th final round and her first since runner–upping at the U.S. Nationals with a first-round bye for the 15-car field courtesy of her ninth No. 1 qualifying performance of the season. She then won a crucial second-round race with fellow former world champ Antron Brown in a battle for second place that went her way when Brown’s Matco Tools dragster lost traction at half-track. She reached her seventh final of the season with a 3.712 to dispatch another former world champ, Tony Schumacher, who exploded the supercharger downtrack.
Salinas, winless since his victory in Norwalk in late June, took his Rob Flynn-tuned pep Boys dragster to the final, the 15th of his career, with victories over Leah Pruett, tire-smoking Clay Millican, and Austin Prock, who jumped out to a big lead before his engine turned into a flamethrower downtrack, allowing Salinas to power by for the win.
Hagan scored a crucial final-round win over points leader Robert Hight to keep his hopes of a fourth world championship alive, racing to victory with a 3.896 after Hight’s Auto Club Camaro smoked the tires early. It was Hagan’s fourth win of the season and 43rd overall, but his first since the Epping event in early June
It was Hagan’s quick reaction times more than crew chief Dickie Venables’ horsepower that got Hagan to his eighth final of the season as he won his first and semifinal rounds on holeshots. In round one, where his Dodge Power Brokers Charger labored with dropped cylinders, his starting line advantage over Steven Densham got him the win by just .003-second. After defeating Chad green in the second round, Hagan used another holeshot to defeat Bob Tasca III, also by .003-second, winning a tight 3.92 to 3.90 clash to reach his 79th career final round.
“My guys are making some real power with this Dodge Power Brokers car, and, you know, it’s running strong, man,” he said. “They put a great hot rod underneath me, and to come out here on Sunday, and win on two holeshots and get my team that little extra bump of what we needed to keep going, It’s hard to get those holeshots and sometimes you gotta be lucky, and sometimes you gotta be a little good.
“I don’t know what it is about these later races, we just always do well here and in Pomona as well. These are Dickie Venables type of conditions,m where we get the cooler weather, the tighter tracks where you make big power and lay it out. I feel the momentum building back. I feel like these are our type of races, our type of conditions, and Pomona, I have done really, really well. It’s such a historical place to be, they crowned champions there, and when you roll into Pomona, you know, history is going to be made.”
Hagan, who led the points for six races in midseason, now sits two points behind second-place Ron Capps and 83 behind Hight. Hight’s lead over Capps is 81. Capps came into the event just 10 points behind Hight, but Hight’s dominating qualifying effort and long run Sunday boosted his lead to a more comfortable lead with just the season finale left.
Hight qualified his Jimmy Prock- and Chris Cunningham-tuned entry No. 1 for the sixth time this season then raced past Jeff Arend, Alexis DeJoria, and J.R. Todd with a blitz of high-3.8-second passes to reach his 96th career final and his 12th of the season.
A round after she officially clinched the 2022 Camping World NHRA Pro Stock championship, Erica Enders finished the job by beating teammate Troy Coughlin in a thrilling side-by-side final round. Enders claimed her tenth win of the season by driving her Melling/Elite Camaro to a 6.640 to best Coughlin’s 6.668.
“This whole season has been a dream come true for our whole team,” said Enders. “This season, like every season, we set out to win races and win a championship and we did just that. We spent the whole season with a No. 2 on the car and that didn’t set well with any of us. It lit a fire under our team to become champs again.”
Enders knew coming into Las Vegas that barring something miraculous, she’d be crowned the Pro Stock champion, but she left no doubt with another dominating performance that included a 6.579 in qualifying to claim the top spot. Enders didn’t let up during eliminations as she battled her way past Kenny Delco, Dallas Glenn, and Kyle Koretsky to reach the final. She officially wrapped up the title with her semifinal win over Koretsky and then fulfilled another goal by winning her tenth race of the season.
“I’m not sure what it was but I felt different today,” Enders said. “I guess you have a big lead so you’re supposed to lock it up. Once we won the semifinals, it changed. I had a peaceful feeling going into the final and was able to do my normal deal.”
Coughlin, who won his first two Pro Stock events this season in Seattle and Topeka, moved to within 20 points of second place Aaron Stanfield thanks to a day that included victories against Camrie Caruso, Deric Kramer, and Cristian Cuadra.
Not that anyone thought it was a fluke, but Hector Arana Jr. backed up his recent win in Dallas with a second-straight victory in Las Vegas. Arana Jr. has raced just a few times this season, but he’s made a positive impact each time he’s raced his Buell V-twin, which is tuned by his father, 2009 world champ Hector Sr. Arana accomplished a rare feat when came from the No. 15 qualifying spot to the final where he beat low qualifier Matt Smith on a holeshot, 6.686 to 6.682. Arana’s tough road to the final included wins against Vance & Hines teammates Angelle Sampey and Eddie Krawiec as well as Angie Smith in the semifinals.
“It was a fight just to get here,” said Arana Jr. “Dallas was supposed to be out last race. We didn’t have the funding to keep going but we got a deal with Steve Bryson and GETTRX and that made it possible to get to the last two races. Honestly, we weren’t prepared. We had to go home and rebuild engines after Dallas and then we had trouble on the road and had to borrow a motor home.
“I struggled a little in qualifying, but we had a back-up plan for race day. I did win a couple of races on holeshots but you’ve got to have the pace to get there and we had that. I have a lot of confidence right now. Can’t wait to go to Pomona and keep going. We did have a long layoff so I might have been a little rusty before Dallas but we found our groove pretty quickly. We’ve been out here a long time so I knew what we needed to do to get results. I took out both the Vance & Hines bikes and both Smith [Matt Smith Racing] bikes and that’s never easy. Now, our mission is to get the funding we need to come back next year.”
The news wasn’t all by for Matt Smith, who has not officially wrapped up his sixth NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle title, but it’s looking very promising after he rode his Denso Buell to the final round. Smith dominated until the final round and will now carry a sizable 104-point lead into the season-ending Auto Club Finals in Pomona meaning he needs to simply qualify and win the first two rounds of eliminations to secure the title.
Smith set the Las Vegas track record twice in qualifying, first on Friday with a 6.798 and then again on Saturday at 6.785 to win the pole for the first time in his career. Smith settled into a comfortable groove on race day with a string of 6.8-second runs in his wins against Katie Justice, Chip Ellis, and Jerry Savoie.