Four racers won for the first time in their careers at the Sonoma Raceway last weekend at the Denso NHRA Sonoma Nationals.
Brittany Force won Top Fuel, Bob Tasca III won Funny Car, Erica Enders won Pro Stock, and Joey Gladstone won Pro Stock Motorcycle, making two women winners out of four total in a male-dominated sport.
In the Top Fuel category, Force won against Bay Area native Mike Salinas. Force, the daughter of racing legend John Force who competed in the Funny Car race, accelerated to the finish line at 335.48 mph with a 3.709 elapsed time, beating Salinas’s time of 3.741 at a speed of 320.05 mph.
The win was Force’s fourth of the season and 15th of her career.
“We’ve always struggled on the Western Swing so you pull in and it’s tough to leave that behind when you haven’t done well in the past,” Force said about her first win at Sonoma. “Sonoma has always been on my bucket list. It’s almost a home track for me, I grew up at this racetrack watching my dad.”
Top Fuel has the quickest accelerating racing cars in the world and is the fastest sanctioned category of drag racing.
Photos by Ray Saint Germain/Bay City News
Leah Pruett, who won the category in Denver last weekend, was knocked out in the second eliminations round by Shawn Langdon.
The Sonoma Nationals is the second of the three consecutive race weekends as part of the NHRA Western Swing, which began in Denver and ends in Seattle. Racers aim to “sweep the swing,” by winning all three races in the Denver, Sonoma, and Seattle series.
Force’s win in Sonoma following Pruett’s win in Denver means that sweeping the swing is no longer possible in the Top Fuel category. In fact, no racer who won in Denver in the four major categories won again in Sonoma this weekend.
In the Funny Car category, John Force entered his 263rd race final after beating Alexis DeJoria but lost in the finals to Tasca, who raced to the finish line at 325.61 mph with a 3.911 E.T. compared to John Force’s speed of 326.48 mph and slower time of 3.998.
This was Tasca’s 10th career win and first win at Sonoma.
“John Force is superhuman, let’s just put that on record,” Tasca said after the race. “There’s nobody out here I want to race more than John. How often do you get any athlete in any sport [getting] to go toe to toe with the greatest of all time?”
Funny Cars have the same horsepower as Top Fuel cars, but the latter are faster because of their lighter, narrower bodies. Funny Cars — called so because someone thought they looked funny in the 1960s — have carbon fiber bodies instead of conventional chassis.
Before the runoff against Force, Tasca beat Robert Hight in the semi-finals. Three-time world champion Hight, who has won five times this year, hoped to be victorious at all three West Coast races after winning in Denver, but came up short at his home track in Sonoma.
In the Pro Stock race, Enders won for the first time at Sonoma in her 18 years of racing, even though her motor failed right at the end of the race. Enders had an .018 reaction time compared to Anderson’s .049 reaction time to start the race. Matt Hartford, who had his first win of the season in Denver last weekend, was knocked out in the first elimination round.
“It’s really exciting for me to be able to win this weekend. Just shy of the finish line down there my motor let go, and it just went flat,” Enders said, dedicating the race to her grandfather who passed away a few weeks ago. “This one means a lot for a lot of different reasons.”
In the Pro Stock Motorcycle category, Joey Gladstone raced to victory at 200.68 mph with a 3.709 E.T. for the first time in his career, leaving Ed Krawiec in second place at 199.67 mph with a time of 6.758. Krawiec was quicker but Gladstone was faster on the starting line with a .026 reaction time, holding off Krawiec. Denver winner Matt Smith was knocked out in the first round of eliminations.
“My dad drag raced cars ever since I was born. I grew up at the racetrack,” Gladstone said about the significance of his first-ever victory. “I started drag racing when I was 16 with this goal in mind and it’s taken 15 years. Fifteen years of my life totally dedicated to getting here.”
Next weekend, the racers take on the final leg of the Western Swing in Seattle before returning to the East Coast.
Longtime fans were thrilled to watch cars and motorcycles thunder across the track and feel the vibrations from the powerful engines.
Ronnie Bunker, a mechanic from Sacramento and a self-proclaimed “car guy,” says he has attended the Sonoma Nationals every year for the past two decades.
“Everything they do, I do on a daily basis,” Bunker said. “These fuel cars just rattle you. No other motor sport can make you feel the ways that these engines do,” he said, adding that working on a pit crew for a season of racing is at the top of his bucket list.
Kimberly Smith of Santa Rosa has also attended the Sonoma Nationals for over 20 years and consider the racetrack an important place for her family. She remembers attending the NHRA Sonoma Nationals when she was pregnant with her son, who is now working at Sonoma Raceway full-time.
“Inside the womb he was kicking like crazy when the cars drove past,” said Smith. “He loved it then and loved it after he came out. It’s like a full circle moment for our family.”
Young fans and first-timers were also glad to be in the crowd. Oakland residents Nick Caputo, 15, and Evan Andrews, 15, came out with friends to watch the races. Andrews has been to the raceway before to watch Formula 1 races with family, while this was Caputo’s first time watching motorsports.
“We’re not rooting for anyone in particular,” said Andrews. “It is just really fun to come out, feel the vibrations and see the cars.”
“I like the sound,” said Caputo after watching the first few races. “It rushes through your whole body. I definitely want to come back next year.”
Planning is already underway for the 2023 NHRA Sonoma Nationals. Jill Gregory, Sonoma Raceway executive vice president and general manager, encouraged fans in the packed stands to renew their tickets for 2023 and return next year.