A strong contingent of Mopar and Dodge//SRT entries in both National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) Sportsman and Pro Classes have descended upon Lucas Oil Raceway near Indianapolis, Indiana, and are ready to take part in the oldest and most prestigious of drag-racing events, the 66th annual U.S. Nationals. First contested in 1955 and affectionately known as “the Big Go,” the Labor Day weekend staple is expected to be an exciting and memorable one on many fronts.
In his first Funny Car race at the 1970 U.S. Nationals, Don Schumacher, owner of Don Schumacher Racing (DSR), earned his first win at the prestigious event. Now, Fifty years later, at this same venue, he and his team are on the cusp of winning their 350th national event. In fact, DSR is guaranteed to reach that milestone as Matt Hagan and Jack Beckman are set to battle it out in their Dodge Charger SRT Hellcats in the rescheduled (rain-delayed) Indy 2 final round during the third Funny Car qualifying session on Saturday afternoon.
Also of note at this weekend’s event is the rare and unusual chance for three HEMI-powered DSR drivers to come away with two Wally trophies. Hagan and Beckman, who will face off in Saturday’s Funny Car final (Q3), will have another opportunity to vie for victory in Sunday’s eliminations rounds, while Leah Pruett will be competing in both Top Fuel and Factory Stock Showdown for her opportunity to double-up on trophy hardware.
However, before the Nitro Class participants even roll out to the staging lanes for the DENSO Spark Plugs NHRA U.S. Nationals on Friday evening, the spotlight shines on the largest gathering of sportsman racers of the season, nearly 900 on the entry list, for the first two days of competition. Mopar and Dodge//SRT continue to underscore their commitment to sportsman racing, all while embracing their drag-racing roots and the historic nature of the U.S. Nationals, by once again lending support to the Dodge HEMI® Challenge, something the FCA brands have done annually since its inaugural event in 2001.
The 2020 edition of the Dodge HEMI Challenge, a head-to-head competition between vintage 1968 HEMI-powered Dodge Darts and Plymouth Barracudas, kicked off with two rounds of qualifying on Thursday, Sept. 3. The fleet of Darts and ‘Cudas competed for coveted spots on the eliminations ladder in the ever-popular annual dedicated Super Stock/A-HEMI (SS/AH) event.
Stephen Yantus earned the No.1 qualifier position aboard his ‘68 Cuda with an 8.477 second (158.50 mph) hour pass. Meanwhile, four-time defending winner Jimmy Daniels earned the No.2 spot with his ‘68 Dart with an 8.541 second (155.94 mph) effort as he works to extend his consecutive win streak of 18-0 round wins while eyeing a possible unprecedented fifth consecutive title.
Four rounds of eliminations will be contested on Friday, with the final Dodge HEMI Challenge showdown scheduled just prior to Nitro evening qualifying. There will also be a parade of participating Darts and Barracudas down Indy’s fabled return road, led by a special guest of honor Herb “Mr. 4 Speed” McCandless, aboard his own original 1968 Super Stock HEMI Dart in celebration of the classic muscle cars that contributed to Mopar and Dodge brands’ legendary reputation and success at the drag strip.
The DSR quartet of Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Funny Cars will then get ready to take their first qualifying passes of the weekend while looking to maintain their top-four positions atop the championship points battle. With the elimination of the Countdown to the Championship playoffs due to the pandemic and a reduced schedule, every point earned and every round of racing is crucial.
Points leader Tommy Johnson Jr., who has 11 round wins and a Wally under his belt this year, would like to add a first U.S. Nationals win to pad that lead, while Beckman, the 2015 national event winner, is hot on his heels in second place with a win of his own and 11 round wins as well.
Ranked third in the Funny Car standings with one win this season, Hagan is back behind the wheel of the “Demon-possessed” Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Redeye-themed race car for a third consecutive event. The fierce-looking red, black, and chrome paint scheme are in tribute to the unveiling of the new 797-horsepower Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Redeye, the most powerful and fastest mass-produced sedan in the world.
“This is a huge weekend for us going into this U.S. Nationals,” says Hagan, who was No. 1 qualifier five times at the U.S. Nationals (2010, 2013-2014, 2016-2017), with a coveted victory earned in 2016 and a runner-up finish in 2018. “We’ve got two races in one, so we really want to start the weekend off well. As far as points go, we need to win this race because we’re right there on (Jack) Beckman’s heels (in the points). This could be a big weekend, especially with the chance to come away with two wins in one weekend.”
Coming into this weekend fourth in points with a Wally earned at the Dodge NHRA Indy Nationals presented by Pennzoil, Ron Capps, while bolstered by his first win at the Indianapolis drag strip at the previous event, is focused on securing his first U.S. Nationals trophy for what could be his 66th career victory at the 66th edition of the world’s most famous drag race.
In Top Fuel competition, DSR’s Pruett is ranked third in the category and looks to continue to make some gains aboard her Mopar Dodge SRT Hellcat Redeye Top Fuel Dragster.
“It only makes sense to have our most fierce paint scheme yet make its encore appearance at the largest race of the year, the U.S. Nats,” says Pruett, who has taken that same Redeye dragster to two semi-finals appearances prior to this weekend. “The fans have absolutely loved this Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Redeye, both the race car and the street version, and we love giving the fans what they want, especially during these times. But what we really need right now is a win and we have the car, the team, and the consistency for that. We know where we left room for improvement on the table at the last Indy race, and we have a solution for it. I believe that Friday night qualifying is going to set the tone for the weekend and we have a strong setup sheet for that.”
Pruett has two chances to go for a win as she will also go to battle in the Factory Stock Showdown Series, which boasts a 32-car qualifying field this weekend.
“My most favorite memory of the U.S. Nationals actually comes from the Factory Stock category,” says Pruett. “It’s from when I won in my Mopar Dodge Challenger Drag Pak in 2018.”
That year, she and teammate Mark Pawuk had a hard-fought showdown in an all-DSR Dodge Challenger Mopar Drag Pak final elimination, from which she emerged victorious for the first of three consecutive wins on her way to her championship title. Pawuk followed up that runner-up effort with a No. 1 qualifier position at last year’s event.
Fans who can’t make it to the 2020 Denso Spark Plugs NHRA U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway in person can catch all the action online via NHRA.TV and its subscription-based, video-on-demand coverage of live racing action throughout the weekend.
Qualifying highlights will be presented on FS1 this Saturday, September 5th from 2 to 4 p.m. and 10 p.m. to 12:00 a.m. (EDT). NHRA elimination rounds coverage will begin at 11 a.m. Sunday, September 6th on FS1, then moves to the FOX national network from 1 to 4 p.m. (EDT), which will include LIVE final round action.
NHRA Championship Points Standings
Following the Dodge NHRA Indy Nationals Presented by Pennzoil:
FUNNY CAR (season wins in parentheses)
- Tommy Johnson Jr. (Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat) – 416 (1)
- Jack Beckman (Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat) – 403 (1)
- Matt Hagan (Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat) – 388 (1)
- Ron Capps (Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat) – 314 (1)
- Bob Tasca III – 298
- J.R. Todd – 292
- Tim Wilkerson – 270
- Alexis DeJoria – 217
- Paul Lee – 193
- Cruz Pedregon – 202
TOP FUEL (season wins in parentheses)
- Doug Kalitta – 436 (1)
- Steve Torrance – 353 (2)
- Leah Pruett (Mopar Dodge//SRT) – 347
- Billy Torrance – 290 (1)
- Justin Ashley – 278
- Terry McMillen – 273
- Antron Brown – 263
- Clay Millican – 240
- Shawn Langdon – 214
- Brittany Force – 153