By Lee Elder
CLERMONT, Ind. (Sept. 2, 2018) – Tanner Gray posted the fastest Pro Stock qualifying time during the first session of qualifying for the Chevrolet Performance US Nationals Friday night and then watched for two days as every car in the category tried and failed to best his time.
Gray will start Monday’s eliminations rounds from the top qualifier spot at Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis.
Indy’s traditionally hot, muggy Labor Day Weekend weather produced 125-degree track temperatures for Q3 and 120 degrees for Q4 on Sunday. Large, puffy clouds filled the skies and frequently shaded the track surface. The conditions challenged the teams to find grip, especially for the nitro cars. The same conditions are expected for Monday’s elimination rounds but on Sunday those conditions were Tanner Gray’s friends as they helped him keep his top spot on the ladder.
Gray’s best pass was 6.603 seconds and 208.68 mph.
“It feels really good,” Gray said. “We’ve struggled with qualifying all year. It’s pretty good to come to Indy, of all places, and be able to unload off the trailer like that.”
The other top qualifiers in the NHRA’s Mello Yello Drag Racing Series professional categories were Matt Smith (in Pro Stock Motorcycle), J.R. Todd (Funny Car) and Mike Salinas (Top Fuel).
“I’m looking forward to racing tomorrow,” Gray said. “It’s going to be a tough day, it’ll be hot. … It’s going to be an all-out brawl. Whoever wins will definitely deserve it.”
The tricky conditions have made car control very important for the drivers. Gray, who races on dirt tracks near his home in North Carolina when he isn’t drag racing, is used to tricky conditions.
“Down track there seems to be a little something on the left side,” Gray said. “Some of the Mountain Motor guys have talked to me, expressed their displeasure with it. I just feel comfortable with it, it doesn’t bother me. It’s not something that’s in my head when I go up there. Once it happens, I make small corrections and let the car do what it has to do.”
Smith’s best lap, 6.814 seconds and 199.14 mph, came Sunday evening, with the track temperature at about 120 degrees. Typically, the Friday night session yields the fastest laps but Smith said a weather change actually helped the motorcycle riders.
“All weekend we had a lot of water in the air,” Smith said. “That kind of hinders us more than anything. But I did notice (for Q5 on Sunday) that we had a little tailwind going on.”
Salinas collected his first ceremonial green cap for being the top qualifier and said the experience, “Has been pretty pleasurable.”
Salinas’ best lap, 3.756 seconds and 321.04 mph, was turned on Friday.
“Just being here, my first race at Indy, it’s kind of surreal to be number one,” Salinas said.
Todd became just the 19th NHRA driver to qualify first in both Top Fuel and Funny Car with his pass of 3.910 seconds and 325.45 mph.
He admitted, “It was getting a little stressful, coming up here (to the Media Center) every day and wondering if that number one would hold up.”
Todd said Sunday’s qualifying sessions helped his team prepare for Sunday, when the ambient and track conditions are expected to be the same.
The professional drivers who failed to make the field for the 64th US Nationals included: (In Pro Stock Motorcycle) Angie Smith, Kelly Clontz, Ron Tornow, Odolph Daniels, Andie Rawlings and Wendell Daniels; (Pro Stock) Alan Prusiensky, Val Smeland, Shane Tucker and Charlie Westcott; (Funny Car) Terry Haddock and Justin Schriefer; (Top Fuel) Kebin Kinsley, Lex Joon and Chris Karamesines.
NOTES: The NHRA paused during Sunday’s qualifying activities in order to honor the late Tom ‘Mongoose’ McEwen. The Corvette McEwen raced and won with at the US Nationals in 1978 was towed down the track. McEwen died earlier this year. … Pro Stock racer Drew Skillman is not expected to run the full season in 2019, if he races at all. … The Mountain Motors Pro Stock racing series was part of the US Nationals and pit side rumors suggest the series could somehow be part of the NHRA Pro Stock series by 2020.