POMONA — The National Hot Rod Association’s (NHRA) first race day of the 2018 season got off to an explosive start Sunday morning at the Auto Club Raceway in Pomona.
In the first round of final eliminations at the season-opening 58th annual Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals, three drivers held on as their engines blew up.
And in a weird twist, all three — Top Fuel racers Doug Kalitta and Antron Brown and Funny Car pilot and San Luis Obispo native Ron Capps — still managed to win the round.
But before all that, defending Mello Yello Top Fuel champion Brittany Force escaped serious injury in a spectacular crash.
At the race’s start, Force spun her tires. He right rear tire lifted off the ground, followed by the left rear tire getting airborne.
At that point, Force's car made a hard left, crossing the track where it slammed into the safety barrier, caromed back across the track, rolled on its side and slammed into the right side safety wall.
Force was alert and talking to her crew members after the crash. She was taken to a local hospital and held overnight as a precautionary measure.
“All our thoughts and prayers are with Brittany,” said Top Fuel racer Steve Torrence. “I’ve been there and it ain’t no fun. She’s a good friend and I hope she’s okay.”
Leah Pritchett’s day was over before it really began.
The parachute on Pritchett’s Top Fuel dragster ejected while she was doing her burnout, forcing her to pull out of the race.
“This has been a brutal first round,” said Funny Car racer Robert Hight. “What a way to start the season."
Things settled down the rest of the day with Doug Kalitta bringing home the season’s first Top Fuel race win, Matt Hagan posting back-to-back Winternationals Funny Car victories and defending Pro Stock series champion Bo Butner picking up where he left off when he won the title on this same Pomona track last November.
The big drama for Kalitta came in his first round matchup against teammate Richie Crampton.
Crampton smoked his tires at the start which seemed to open the door for an easy round win for Kalitta.
But Kalitta has his own troubles when his engine blew up just before the finish line.
“We made it about 800 feet (down the 1,000 foot track) when the engine blew,” said Kalitta.
But he’d built up enough speed to coast across the finish line in 4.121 seconds — a tenth of a second ahead of Crampton.
Kalitta drove past Scott Palmer and Clay Millican to set up a date with Tony Schumacher in the final round.
And in the finals, Kalitta had a flawless 3.779-second, 324.28 miles per hour run.
It was Schumacher’s turn to run into trouble. Halfway through the race, Schumacher’s engine exploded allowing Kalitta to cruise to an easy win.
“Today was one of those lucky days. We coasted across the finish line twice today and still got the round win,” said Kalitta. “When Tony smoked his tires in the final round, I was happy to see that. It was a great victory for me and my team today.”
Hagan was the class of the Funny Car field all weekend.
The No. 1 qualifier eliminated Jim Campbell and Cruz Pedregon on the way to a semifinal matchup against Central Coast favorite Ron Capps.
Capps actually crossed the finish line with the higher speed – 336.99 mph to Hagan’s 335.90 — but Hagan was quicker off the line and eliminated Capps with a 3.938 second pass to Capps’ 3.968.
It happened again in the finals against defending series champion Robert Hight.
Hagan won the race with a 3.823-second run against Hight’s 3.866 although at the finish line Hight was running at 336.99 mph to Hagan’s 335.90.
“It’s been a great day — a great weekend,” said Hagan. “These Funny Cars are just so humbling. You can feel like you’re on the top of the world and then the car cam rip your heart out but my crew really had that car dialed in all weekend.”
Bo Butner picked up right where he left off.
Butner won his first Mello Yello Pro Stock season championship in November at the Auto Club Finals on this same Pomona track.
On Sunday, he eliminated reigning NHRA Rookie of the Year Tanner Gray in the opening round, his own KB Racing teammate and four-time series champion Greg Anderson in the quarterfinal and two-time series champion Erica Enders-Stevens in the semis.
That set up an all-KB racing final round against three-time series champion Jason Line with Butner winning the closest race of the day, posting a 6.549-second/209.62 mph pass against Line’s 6.568/209.59.
“If I was a surfer, I’d say I was riding a good wave,” said Butner. “Things are just clicking. I feel confident in the car. Racing Jason in the final round was great. It’s a shame only one of us can turn on the winner’s light but I’m still living the dream.
The second stop of the NHRA’s 24-race season will be in Phoenix later in February.