Story By: SCOTT SMITH / NHRA – GAINESVILLE, FL – Racing at Gainesville Raceway, the site of this weekend’s AMALIE Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals has always been a big deal for three-time Pro Stock Motorcycle world champion Angelle Sampey and this year is no different.
In addition to it being the first race of the Pro Stock Motorcycle year, Sampey will begin her second season with Team Liberty Racing, hoping to improve on last year’s 13th-place finish in points on her PSE/Team Liberty Racing Victory Magnum Motorcycle. With three career wins at the legendary facility and a strong off-season with a team that now has a year under its belts, Sampey has big expectations this weekend.
“This is where I started, literally, and I have to have more runs on this track than any track,” said Sampey, whose 42 wins are the most for a female in NHRA history. “All my training was done there and I really appreciate the fans there. It’s always a great showing for Pro Stock Motorcycle fans and we’re really excited. It would be huge if we went out there and had a big showing because the guys have been working so hard.”
Tony Schumacher (Top Fuel), John Force (Funny Car), Shane Gray (Pro Stock) and Eddie Krawiec (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were last year’s winners of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series event that will be televised on FOX Sports 1, including finals coverage on Sunday, March 18 at 7 p.m. (ET). It is the first of 16 races in Pro Stock Motorcycle and Sampey, who is second all-time in PSM wins, believes she and teammate Cory Reed, NHRA’s top rookie in 2016, can have a major impact.
The first-year team struggled on the track a year ago, as neither advanced to the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Countdown to the Championship, but Sampey saw significant growth in other respects. With those growing pains behind them, Sampey is confident the team has turned the corner starting the 2018 campaign.
“We’ve made big strides forward,” Sampey said. “It’s such a huge task putting a new team together, it was amazing how well we did considering we started with absolutely nothing. To me we had a fantastic season, all things considered. We paid our dues and that was something we needed to do. It makes the struggles so worth it when you start doing well. This year, 100 percent of our focus is getting these engines to go really fast and I feel like we have the stuff to do that. We have a lot of potential this year.”
Sampey and the team has enlisted the help of crew chief Derrel Mullis, who will work with Ken Johnson, as well as Larry Morgan, but she’ll also have to ward off a talented and deep Pro Stock Motorcycle field in Gainesville. It includes back-to-back event winner and defending world champion Krawiec, as well as the likes of Andrew Hines, 2016 world champ Jerry Savoie, Matt Smith, a two-time world champ, Scotty Pollacheck, Hector Arana Jr., LE Tonglet, Karen Stoffer and Angie Smith.
But with her first career start in Pro Stock Motorcycle coming in 1996, Sampey remains proud of how strong and diverse the class continues to be.
“The level of competition is so high right now, you have to be completely ready to get qualified these days,” Sampey said. “Because the level competition is so good, it makes just qualifying hard. Qualifying is so big now and that’s going to be key in Gainesville. We’re going to show up there to win and qualifying is the first step to doing that.”
Schumacher seeks his first Top Fuel win in 2018 against Pomona winner Doug Kalitta, points leader Steve Torrence, who won in Phoenix, and reigning champ Brittany Force.
John Force is after his first Funny Car win in a year against daughter and Phoenix winner Courtney Force, Pomona winner Matt Hagan and world champ Robert Hight.
Pro Stock points leader Jason Line has two straight finals appearances in 2018 against Pomona winner and defending champ Bo Butner, and Phoenix winner Chris McGaha.
The event is the season-opening race for the E3 Spark Plugs NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series presented by J&A Service. It also features thrilling competition in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series, as well as the Mickey Thompson Tires NHRA Top Fuel Harley Drag Racing Series. Following nitro qualifying, a jet car operated by Douthit Motor Sports, with David Douthit running the “Black Pearl” Jet Dragster, will thrill the fans at the Gatornationals. Jet cars are thrust driven vehicles propelled by jet engines.
As always, fans can interact with their favorite drivers with an exclusive pit pass to the most powerful and sensory-filled motorsports attraction on the planet. This gives fans direct access to the teams, allowing them to see firsthand the highly-skilled mechanics service their hot rods between rounds, and get autographs from their favorite NHRA drivers. Fans can also 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.
Mello Yello Drag Racing Series qualifying will feature two rounds at 1:15 and 5:00 p.m. on Friday, March 16 and the final two rounds of qualifying on Saturday, March 17 at 12:00 and 3:00 p.m. Final eliminations are scheduled for 11 a.m. on Sunday, March 18.