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5 Things We Learned in Bristol

From heated rivalries at full boil to poignant moments with drag racing legends, the 23rd annual Super Grip NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals had it all. Here are five things we learned this weekend in Bristol.
10 Jun 2024
Kelly Wade
Feature

From heated rivalries at full boil to poignant moments with drag racing legends, the 23rd annual Super Grip NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals had it all. Here are five things we learned this weekend in Bristol.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE IS PEAK DRAMA

It's always been an intense category, especially below the surface, but the tension brewing in Pro Stock Motorcycle has been particularly rich as of late. While defending series champion Gaige Herrera has largely continued his reign of terror, he's also shown a time or two that he is, in fact, human. He showed that at Bristol Dragway last year when he went red in the final next to Steve Johnson.

Six-time champ Matt Smith took umbrage with Herrera's domination and channeled the heated emotion into steadily improving his program, particularly in the first 60 feet of the track. In Bristol, those efforts were paying off in a big way as he raced to low e.t. in every round of qualifying to claim the pole aboard his Denso Buell. The most significant moment of Smith's outstanding qualifying performance was the first round of the Mission #2Fast2Tasty NHRA Challenge. With Herrera in the other lane, Smith reset both ends of the Bristol Dragway track record, clocking Bristol's first 200-mph Pro Stock Motorcycle pass in the process. Smith went on to win his first #2Fast2Tasty competition.

Herrera was having a tough weekend and qualified fifth — his least favorable start since making his debut with Vance & Hines ahead of the 2023 season. The young rider had stacks of evidence against him by the time Sunday morning rolled around, including a first-round meeting with the guy who got the nod when he went red last year: Johnson. But he pulled up and threw down a .012-second reaction time on his RevZilla/Mission Suzuki, complemented by a 6.813 that was .006-second off Smith's low e.t. pass a few pairs later.

The two were again low and second best the next round on opposite sides of the ladder, and then came the semi's, where they had the opportunity to run each other once again. Herrera's .024 launch over Smith's .043 came in handy as the two raced down the strip to illuminate the scoreboard with nearly identical numbers. Herrera won on a holeshot – 6.825, 198.12 to 6.824, 198.82 – and went on to win the race in an exciting final round with developing rider Jianna Evaristo (who, by the way, runs Scrappers Racing out of the Matt Smith Racing stable).

The semi's were a story of their own, and Herrera's victory was a historic capper as he passed Pro Stock Motorcycle legend Dave Schultz for the most consecutive wins in Pro Stock Motorcycle history.

So, what did we learn? You really want to watch Pro Stock Motorcycle. Especially now.

TONY SCHUMACHER'S STILL GOT IT

It had been a really long time for eight-time Top Fuel world champion Tony Schumacher, but he made his way back to the winner's circle in Bristol with a strong performance in his Michael Waltrip Brewing Co./Leatherwood Distillery dragster after a runner-up finish two weeks ago in Epping. The win was the 87th of Schumacher's career and his first since Seattle in 2022, and it happened at team owner Joe Maynard's home track with Michael Waltrip's brewery also nearby. Schumacher, who was inducted as a Legend of Thunder Valley last year, is the first of the prestigious bunch to win Bristol after the inclusion. The win was special.

In post-race interviews, many winners choose to set their trophy next to them or let their PR person hold it while they speak with the press, but Schumacher held the iconic trophy on his lap with a comfortable, familiar grip. While his race recap was captivating, the moment he acknowledged his team was most compelling.

"I love being here, I love what I get to do, and I truly respect each and every win," he said. "I never get tired of the winner's circle photos. As one of the elderly drivers, the ones doing this a long time, every time we put a trophy on the shelf, we show we can still do it. You have to work through and dig deep, because every single one of these Wallys is more difficult to earn than the one before it. There are four or five of my guys that have never won one, and I can't wait to get out there because they are going to enjoy holding this Wally like they've never enjoyed a day before."

NEVER COUNT ON THE FORECAST

While professional meteorologists and wannabe weathermen and weatherwomen stated loudly that racing would not happen on Sunday at Bristol Dragway, Mother Nature snubbed her nose and played a few tricks. Racing was pushed up from noon to a 10 a.m. start time to try to beat the predicted rain, and threatening gray skies prevailed in dreary contrast to the sunshine and blue skies of the previous two days. It never did rain, though. Even a dramatic oildown and extended clean-up early in the day couldn't mess with Mother Nature's plans to show drag racing a little love. The NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series racers were troopers and ran to completion on Saturday late into the night, and on Sunday, every class concluded with a winner. Thanks, Ma.

JASMINE SALINAS IS RISING TO THE OCCASION

Jasmine Salinas had big shoes to fill when she stepped into her father's Scrappers Racing Top Fuel dragster as he attended to a medical situation earlier this year. She knew that making her debut in the class was going to come eventually, but no one knew her transition from Top Alcohol Dragster would come so abruptly ahead of the NHRA Arizona Nationals.

Impressively, it's only taken the young driver a handful of races to get her bearings. Bristol was a huge step in the right direction as Salinas put up her best qualifying effort to date to start from the No. 5 position. In the opening round of qualifying, her Rob Flynn/Arron Cave-led team sent her to the second quickest pass of the session for a pair of bonus points. The team took full advantage of the Friday night conditions, and Salinas moved up to a career-best No. 5 in the lineup. In the heat of the day on Saturday, she claimed three more bonus points as the quickest of Q3, and she finished on another solid run. It seems a bit unfair that she qualified No. 5 and drew Tony Schumacher for the first round – he was the No. 12 qualifier – but she gave him quite a run with her best of the weekend.

"I'm getting more comfortable with each lap," said Salinas, whose previous best qualifying position was ninth. "I think we're on track now."

LEGENDS ARE FOREVER IN THUNDER VALLEY

Drag racing pioneer and trailblazer Shirley Muldowney joined a prestigious group when she was officially inducted as the 21st member of the Legends of Thunder Valley. Muldowney's name joins an elite group of racers on the permanent signage high above the Bristol Dragway grandstands in a glorious display, and on Sunday morning, she was emotional as she accepted the honor in front of a crowd of lifelong fans. The names of past Legends of Thunder Valley inductees are overwhelmingly appropriate. Muldowney joins both Don and Tony Schumacher, Don Prudhomme, Warren Johnson, and a slate of other historic figures whose impact has been felt, specifically, in Bristol.

Twelve hours after Muldowney was honored, the last cars had long gone down the track, and a gentle rain had moved in just as the sun was just dipping behind the lush hills surrounding the dragstrip. While most everyone had shipped out, there were a few left behind, tying up the weekend. Several of those stragglers are said to have observed the most winning driver in the history of drag racing walk out in front of the illustrious Bristol Dragway tower and stop just before the water box, hands in pockets, signature white ball cap in place. John Force is said to have stood in the mist with his face turned to the Legends of Thunder Valley names high above, still and thoughtful for more than a casual moment.

What Force was thinking at that moment, we may never truly know. But it's pretty cool to imagine that he was just soaking it in, seeing his name on that board as the 2016 inductee amongst the other pioneers and legends, thinking about the past and the future all at once.