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Status quo prevails in NHRA’s season like no other

Updated November 2, 2020 - 9:51 am

In the end, an NHRA season like no other produced a set of champions that looked like many others.

A deadly pandemic led to 16 races and the Countdown for the Championship playoff series being canceled.

It put the legendary 16-time Funny Car champion John Force and his multiple race teams on the sidelines with budget problems and forced the sanctioning body to bring in a new title sponsor to salvage an abbreviated 11-race season.

It caused the sport to shut down for nearly five months and relegated spectators to watching on TV or in greatly reduced numbers at the track when it returned.

But it could not prevent the cream from rising to the top in the Dodge Finals at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on what finally was a bright and sunny Sunday afternoon for drag racing in more ways than one.

Steve Torrence, Matt Hagan, Erica Enders and Matt Smith were crowned season champions in front of a COVID-limited crowd estimated at 3,000 after the traditional championship weekend was moved from Pomona, California, to Las Vegas.

Each had been to the victory podium multiple times.

One had to beat his father to get there.

Pipe runners rejoice

“We’re a couple of hillbilly pipe runners (oil and gas) from Texas, and to be out there and do this is unreal,” Torrence said after clinching his third consecutive Top Fuel title in the first round of eliminations and easily holding off hard-luck Doug Kalitta and his father, Billy Torrence, in season points.

Kalitta, now a six-time runner-up, had only a slim chance to overhaul Torrence and his familiar Capco Contractors dragster when the day began but was beaten in the first round by Justin Ashley.

“Doug Kalitta is the fiercest competitor out here and … you want to kick yourself in the butt for robbing those guys of doing it,” Torrence said before losing the race win to his pal Antron Brown, the three-time Top Fuel champ, on a holeshot (slower elapsed time, faster reaction time).

Hagan locked up his third Funny Car championship during Sunday’s semifinals and punctuated it with Incredible Hulk-type roars on the winner’s stage.

“I just can’t say how proud I am of each and every one of my guys,” said the husky Hagan, who beat teammate Ron Capps in the final, giving Don Schumacher Racing a Funny Car season sweep. “They bust their damn (behind) every day and then I try to drive the wheels of this thing.”

It was 18th NHRA championship and 357th national event victory for the DSR juggernaut, by far the most successful team in the sport’s history, and the Brown-Hagan Nitro Class double was the team’s 67th.

“Love my team, love my guys, love everybody that allows us to do this,” a breathless Hagan said. “And I also love our NHRA fans. They support our sponsors (and) that allows us to get this adrenaline going at 300 mph.”

Enders’ end game

The Pro Stock title chase also ended early when Enders won her first-round match and her closest pursuers, the retiring duo of Jeg Coughlin Jr. and Jason Line, lost theirs. It was the second straight championship for Enders and her fourth overall, making her the most decorated female racer in NHRA history.

She spent most of her on-track interview thanking myriad team and family members and those behind the scenes who made it possible during “the most difficult year we’ve ever seen.” And then she won the race, too, when Kyle Koretsky red-lighted in the final.

Smith rounded out the pro class championship winners, clinching the Pro Stock Motorcycle championship when fellow four-time champ Eddie Krawiec lost in the second round. Steve Johnson defeated Smith in the semifinals but was beaten by another Smith, Matt’s wife Angie, for the race win.

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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