Solid runs by the Don Schumacher Racing (DSR) contingent of Mopar and Dodge//SRT-supported race cars marked the start of the 2021 National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) Camping World Drag Racing Series season at the 52nd annual Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals at historic Gainesville Raceway.
In Funny Car competition, No. 1 qualifier and three-time NHRA Gatornationals winner Ron Capps took his DSR Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat for a 3.923-second elapsed time run at 323.74 mph to earn the opening round win over No. 16 qualifier Jim Campbell, who went up in tire smoke. For his quarterfinal match-up against Bob Tasca, Capps gave up lane choice which proved to be key, as traction was an issue in his lane, and hampered his progress resulting in an early exit from the competition.
2020 NHRA Funny Car World Champion Matt Hagan took his DSR Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Redeye into race day as the eighth seed and seeking his first coveted win at the Gatornationals, one of the few places left at which he has not yet earned a Wally trophy. The opening round of the new season saw him paired with No. 9 seed Bob Tasca, against whom Hagan drove his HEMI-powered Funny Car to his best run of the weekend with a 0.072-second reaction time and 3.922-second pass at 329.67 mph in a very close battle. However, while Hagan had a slim starting line advantage his opponent’s 0.074-second reaction time and 3.920-second/330.47-mph pass provided the first upset of the year by the slimmest 0.0001-second margin of victory at the stripe to send the DSR driver home early.
Without a DSR entry advancing to the final round of eliminations for the first time in nearly a year and a half, the team’s NHRA record streak of 14 consecutive Funny Car wins (dating back to October 2019) comes to an end.
In Top Fuel, DSR pilot Leah Pruett was also looking to score her first Gatornationals event win from the No. 3 qualifier position on the eliminations ladder, earned aboard her red, black, and chrome Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Redeye dragster. Her opening-round run of 3.787 seconds at 314.09 mph gave her the win over rookie Mike Bucher, who lost traction early. Pruett had the early advantage in her quarterfinals battle against Shawn Langdon but saw her opponent make the pass when her nitro-fueled machine dropped a cylinder and some oil to send the team home earlier than they had hoped.
Despite the early exit, Pruett put in a lot of track time throughout the weekend as she pulled double duty by running in both the Pro and Sportsman categories, as she will at seven more events this season.
In Factory Stock Showdown (FSS) competition, Pruett took her 2021 Dodge Challenger Mopar Drag Pak for its first official eliminations drive as a No. 13 qualifier against the No. 4 seed John Cerbone. Pruett drove the new-generation Drag Pak to her quickest career run in FSS competition with a stout 7.806-second pass at 177.44 mph, bettering her previous personal records of 7.852 seconds set at Gainesville in 2019 and best speed of 173.94 mph posted at Charlotte that same year.
Unfortunately, while her new ride was faster on the track than her opponent’s, Pruett fell just short of turning on the first win-light of the season as her 0.073-second reaction time was overshadowed by her competitor’s 0.002-second start to give him the holeshot victory with a slower 7.808 seconds/174.80 mph pass. Pruett’s next chance to take the new HEMI-powered Drag Pak for a quick drive in FSS competition will be at the Mopar Express Lane NHRA SpringNationals presented by Pennzoil in Houston from May 21st to the 23rd.
Pruett’s teammate, Mark Pawuk, came into race day at the Gatornationals as the 11th seed after steady improvement in his Empaco Equipment Mopar Drag Pak performance through each qualifying session. In the opening round of FSS eliminations, the team’s hard work paid off as Pawuk drove his HEMI-powered Drag Pak to their quickest run of the weekend with 7.855 seconds at 174.26 mph pass. He followed that up with an 8.038 seconds/ 170.17 mph lap in his round 2 win over No. 3 seed Gardner Stone, who left prematurely.
Pawuk was matched up with No. 2 qualifier Aaron Stanfield for the semifinal round but saw his day shortened by a red-light start. Pawuk now looks forward to taking delivery of one of the new-generation Dodge Challenger Mopar Drag Paks at an upcoming FSS series race in the next few months.