Heading into the opening race of the NHRA Countdown to the Championship, this weekend’s 38th annual Pep Boys NHRA Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway, Funny Car standout Ron Capps knows the challenge that awaits.
The back-to-back world champ leads the loaded Funny Car field heading into Reading, and he’s also feeling great thanks to back-to-back wins to end the regular season. That includes a second straight U.S. Nationals victory, but Capps is fully aware that doesn’t make things any easier in the six-race sprint to a world championship.
He leads Matt Hagan by just 24 points and with a host of incredible standouts in the field, Capps will have his work cut out for him in his 11,000-horsepower NAPA Auto Parts Toyota GR Supra. But those are also the moments the 76-time event winner seems to live for, especially this time of year.
“Legitimately, the class feels tougher than last year,” Capps said. “It’s incredible how many cars have a shot going forward. You’re going to have to throw down at this track. It’s a very fine line with the conditions we’re going to see. I’m excited to get there and get these juices flowing to start the Countdown. We’ve got a great hot rod and that’s a good thing for me as a driver, but it’s time for me to focus. I love this playoff time of the year. You’ve got to step up now and if you don’t, you’re going to be behind.”
Austin Prock (Top Fuel), Robert Hight (Funny Car), Erica Enders (Pro Stock) and Joey Gladstone (Pro Stock Motorcycle) won last year’s race in Reading, which will again be broadcast on the FOX broadcast network and Fox Sports 1 (FS1), including eliminations coverage starting at either 2 p.m. or 4:30 p.m. ET on Sunday on FOX. It is the first of six playoff races, and the 16th of 21 races during the 2023 NHRA season and Capps, already a three-time world champion, is seeking a third straight world title.
Of course, a quick start in Reading would be beneficial. Capps holds the track record at the fan-favorite facility, going 3.837-seconds at a whopping 339.28 mph in 2019, but he’s also only won at the track once (2017). He’s ready to change that and put up big numbers at a track known for its awe-inspiring performances.
Capps, though, isn’t the only one capable of putting up huge numbers at Maple Grove Raceway, as the championship contenders in Funny Car include the likes of defending event winner Robert Hight, Hagan, seven-time race winner John Force, Cruz Pedregon, J.R. Todd, who opens fifth in points, Bob Tasca III, Alexis DeJoria, Chad Green and Tim Wilkerson. But everyone is chasing Capps at the moment and he loves what his team has done this year. He won in both Brainerd and Indy heading into the Countdown to the Championship, and won’t budge easily from the top spot.
“We’re doing something extra special and it’s been fun. It’s fun to wake up and show up in the pit area talking about our strategy and figuring out what we’re going to do,” Capps said. “I live off that and it’s great. It’s probably been the toughest field I’ve ever been in with all these good cars, but I feel like we’ve been consistently good, no matter the conditions. You’re going to have to pack a big lunch to beat the NAPA car. This Countdown is going to be tough, no doubt, but we’ll see how it all plays out.”
Top Fuel’s Justin Ashley takes the points lead into Maple Grove Raceway, but he’s being hunted by a host of contenders, including Steve Torrence, a four-time world champ, Antron Brown, defending world champ Brittany Force and Leah Pruett.
In Pro Stock, Enders will look to defend her event win and start the chase for her sixth championship on a winning note. She currently trails points leader Dallas Glenn, who has four wins this season, by 32 points, with Indy winner Matt Hartford just 25 points back. Other standouts include Troy Coughlin Jr., Aaron Stanfield and Greg Anderson.
Pro Stock Motorcycle’s Gaige Herrera enjoyed a dominant regular season, winning six times, but opens the playoffs with just a 29-point advantage over Indy winner and defending world champ Matt Smith. The rest of the talented field includes Hector Arana Jr., Angie Smith, Eddie Krawiec, rookie Chase Van Sant and Steve Johnson.
The event also will feature thrilling competition in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series, as well as action from the Flexjet NHRA Factory Stock Showdown category and the Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Pro Stock group. After nitro qualifying, fans can enjoy a thrilling show from “NitroMike” and his “Walking Tall” P.T. Cruiser Wheelstander.
Fans are invited to the Nitro Alley Stage all weekend, which will help create a festive atmosphere leading into Nitro Alley. The Nitro Alley Stage will be the main entertainment hub in the pits when the Camping World Drag Racing Series competitors are not on the track, hosting Nitro School, meet and greets and much more. As always, fans get a pit pass to the most powerful and sensory-filled motorsports attraction on the planet. Fans can see their favorite teams in action and servicing their hot rods between rounds, get autographs from their favorite NHRA drivers, and more. They can also visit NHRA’s Manufacturers Midway, where sponsors and race vendors create an exciting atmosphere that includes interactive displays, merchandise, food, and fun.
Race fans at Maple Grove Raceway can enjoy the special pre-race ceremonies that introduce and celebrate each of the drivers racing for the prestigious Wally on Sunday and includes the fan favorite SealMaster Track Walk. The final can’t-miss experience of any NHRA event is the winner’s circle celebration on Sunday after racing concludes, where fans are invited to congratulate the Pep Boys NHRA Nationals event winners.
NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series qualifying will feature two rounds at 2 and 5 p.m. ET on Friday, Sept. 15 and the final two rounds of qualifying on Saturday, Sept. 16 at 12:30 and 3:30 p.m. Final eliminations are scheduled for 10:30 a.m. ET on Sunday, Sept. 17. Television coverage includes qualifying action on FS1 at 10:30 p.m. ET on Friday, 12:30 p.m. on Sunday on FS1, and then eliminations on FOX at 2 or 4:30 p.m. ET Sunday, depending on local listings.
To purchase tickets to the Pep Boys NHRA Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway, fans can visit www.maplegroveraceway.com. All children 12 and under are admitted free in the general admission area with a paid adult. For more information on the NHRA, please visit www.nhra.com.