The fastest motorsport on Earth, the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series, returns to zMAX Dragway, Sept. 12-14, for the first race of the 2014 Countdown to the Championship playoffs at the seventh annual Pep Boys NHRA Carolina Nationals.
The top 10 in Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle points will all compete for NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series world championships in their respective categories over the next three months. Spanning six races, the Countdown to the Championship will separate the contenders from the pretenders as four drivers are headed for the ultimate glory while every other contender is sent into the offseason wondering what might have been.
The Countdown is where John Force became unstoppable last season in winning his 16th career world championship, beating Matt Hagan in a Funny Car battle that went down to the wire. It's where Antron Brown, the first African-American driver to win a major U.S. motorsports championship, claimed his first career Top Fuel championship in 2012 when the title was decided on the last day of the season-ending event in Pomona.
Morgan Lucas (Top Fuel), Robert Hight (Funny Car), Jeg Coughlin (Pro Stock) and Andrew Hines (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were last year's winners of the Pep Boys NHRA Carolina Nationals, a race that will once again be televised nationally on ESPN2.
zMAX Dragway, the Bellagio of drag strips on the NHRA circuit, has provided its fair share of 10,000-horsepower excitement over the past seven years. The only dragstrip built in a four-lane configuration, zMAX Dragway features a different challenge for the stars of the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series during their two visits to North Carolina. April's NHRA Four-Wide Nationals creates new excitement as four nitro-burning monsters rocket 1,000 feet in the only four-lane drag race in the world. Charlotte's fall race always returns to traditional two-lane drag racing, but the added pressure of getting a good start during the Countdown playoffs adds to the excitement that surrounds the weekend.
Lucas secured the Wally last season in Top Fuel, but he stepped out of his ride at the end of 2013 with crewman Richie Crampton taking the controls. Crampton piloted the GEICO dragster to a victory at Englishtown and Indianapolis earlier this season and he looks confident heading into the playoffs.
Doug Kalitta and Antron Brown have been battling all season long for the points lead and both will be wanting a quick start in Charlotte. Kalitta's Mac Tools dragster has never won at zMAX Dragway, but the Ypsilanti, Mich., native has been strong this season winning two races in nine final round appearances. Brown, the 2012 Top Fuel world champ, won this race in 2011 and will be looking to repeat that feat this year. Brown has earned five victories this season in his Matco Tools dragster, including the four-wide event at zMAX Dragway.
Spencer Massey leads active Top Fuel drivers with victories at the track, but his two wins came during the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals. Defending world champ Shawn Langdon could use this race as a springboard to a second consecutive title. Langdon, driver of the Al-Anabi Racing dragster, won this event in 2012. Tony Schumacher's U.S. Army dragster has been a title contender so far this season and he has a win at the inaugural running of the NHRA Carolina Nationals in 2008. Others to watch in the Top Fuel field include reigning Auto Club of Southern California Road the Future Award winner Brittany Force, rising star J.R. Todd and category veteran Steve Torrence.
In Funny Car, Hight took home the victory last season and he will enter Charlotte ready for a run at a second world championship title. Hight led the points standings for most of the regular season and his Auto Club Ford Mustang team has proved time and time again to be a tough contender. Hight has four wins at the facility including three in the last five events held at zMAX. His 2009 victory here catapulted him to his first career Mello Yello championship just five races later.
Funny Car legend John Force has only one win in Charlotte at the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals, but he's always been clutch when the Countdown begins. Force's Castrol GTX High Mileage Ford Mustang took home the championship last season and Force will be ready to add to his legacy with a 17th career title.
The 2011 world champ, Matt Hagan, has two wins at Charlotte in 2011 and 2013, with his 2011 victory coming at this race. Hagan went round for round with eventual champion Force for most of the playoffs last year and a win at the opening Countdown race could help ease the sting of last season's defeat. Ron Capps, Courtney Force, three-time season winner Alexis DeJoria, Bristol winner Tommy Johnson Jr. and former Indy winner Del Worsham are a few of the other Funny Car competitors who are expected to challenge for the victory.
In Pro Stock, Coughlin drove his JEGS.com/Mopar Dodge Dart to the win at this event last season and that catapulted the Pro Stock driver to his fifth career championship. Coughlin, who has victories at Atlanta and Englishtown this season, will be one of many contenders in what could shape up as the most competitive Pro Stock championship battle ever.
Erica Enders-Stevens is ready to prove her championship credentials and her Elite Motorsports Chevy Camaro will try to send a message to start the playoffs. Past world champ Allen Johnson has been hot in pursuit of Enders-Stevens during the regular season and he will be a major contender during the last six races. Two-time world champ Jason Line, who became the series points leader by advancing to the semis at Brainerd, Chicago winner Vincent Nobile, Epping winner Dave Connolly, Shane Gray, two-time runner-up Jonathan Gray and Chris McGaha are just a few of the drivers who will be looking for victory in the 200-mph factory hot rod class.
Hines, the class of the Pro Stock Motorcycle field in 2014, opened the 2012 and 2013 Countdown playoff runs with a win and his performance this season shows he is primed to start this season off with a third straight Countdown-opening win. Hines, rider of the Screamin' Eagle Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson, is a three-time world champ.
Hines' teammate Eddie Krawiec has also been a top contender in 2014 and he has a win at this event in 2011. Hector Arana and Hector Arana Jr. have both performed well this season and would love to get off to a good start in the Countdown. Reigning world champ and North Carolina native Matt Smith, 2008 Charlotte winner Steve Johnson, Epping winner Angie Smith and Michael Ray will all try to tame zMAX Dragway on their two-wheeled machines.
As always, fans will have the opportunity to interact with their favorite drivers as they're granted an exclusive pit pass to the most powerful and sensory-filled motorsports attraction on the planet. This unique opportunity in motorsports gives fans direct access to the teams, allowing them to see firsthand the highly-skilled mechanics service their hot rods between rounds, and enjoy some cherished face time and get autographs from their favorite NHRA drivers.
Fans also will want to visit NHRA's popular Nitro Alley and Manufacturers Midway, where sponsors and race vendors create a carnival atmosphere with interactive displays, simulated competitions, merchandise, food and fun for the entire family.
The event will also feature thrilling competition in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series and NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series.
Mello Yello Drag Racing Series qualifying begins Friday, Sept. 12, with sessions at 12:45 and 3:00 p.m. The final two qualifying sessions will take place Saturday, Sept. 13, at 1:00 and 3:00 p.m. Final eliminations are scheduled for 12 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 14.
To purchase general-admission or reserved seats, call zMAX Dragway at (800) 455-FANS or visit www.zmaxdragway.com. For more information about the NHRA visit www.NHRA.com.