Story By: SCOTT SMITH / NHRA – BRISTOL, TN – A frustrating 2018 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season has a chance to get a whole lot better on Father’s Day weekend for Alex Laughlin at this weekend’s 18th annual Fitzgerald USA NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals at Bristol Dragway.
Laughlin is the defending Pro Stock winner of the fan-favorite event, hoping those good vibes of sharing the winner’s circle with his father can be recreated again this year. It would be a nice reversal of fortune for Laughlin in his Fitzgerald USA/Gas Monkey Garage Chevrolet Camaro, as the team is looking to end a streak of four straight first-round losses heading into Thunder Valley.
“Bristol is my favorite track, for sure, and being that we won here last year so it definitely makes you feel good going back,” said Laughlin, who is currently 11th in Pro Stock points. “Fitzgerald USA is my primary sponsor for the race and the event, and it’s a hometown deal for them, so there’s definitely a little more pressure. But Bristol is such a cool track and having it on Father’s Day weekend is great. My dad is as much into this as I am and loves it as much as I do.”
Clay Millican (Top Fuel), Ron Capps (Funny Car) and Laughlin (Pro Stock) were last year’s winners of an event that will be televised on FOX Sports 1, including final eliminations coverage starting at 7:30 p.m. (ET) on Sunday, June 17. It is the 11th of 24 events in 2018 and Laughlin is looking to break out of a slump in the midst of a rigorous stretch of four straight races.
After an early-season semifinal finish in Phoenix, not much has gone Laughlin’s way as the two-time event winner currently sits 86 points behind veteran Jason Line for the 10th and final spot in the Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship. Laughlin knows he still has time to get in the championship mix, but the team has to make some significant strides starting in Bristol. They started by making major changes to the car, and Laughlin hopes it pays off this weekend.
“It’s been frustrating, and we’re making some big changes and doing whatever it takes to get the car back on track,” Laughlin said. “I’ve never been able to hang my name on that board at Indy (for qualifying for the Countdown to the Championship). That’s something I was really looking forward to this season. It’s not looking great now, but if we can make some strides there’s still enough time to get in. But bottom line, we’re ready to do whatever it takes to get back on track.”
If Laughlin can recreate his magic from Bristol a year ago, a weekend that included a perfect .000 reaction time in the final-round win against defending world champion Bo Butner, he would become the ninth different Pro Stock winner this season. Laughlin had hoped that first victory of 2018 would have already come by now, but he will have a great opportunity at Bristol Dragway, though first-rate competition will come from the likes of points leader Greg Anderson, who is also after his first win of 2018, Erica Enders, Jeg Coughlin Jr., two-time season winners Vincent Nobile and Tanner Gray, Drew Skillman, Chris McGaha and Deric Kramer.
“I know at some point our luck has to change, but literally everything that possibly could go wrong has,” Laughlin said. “If we can go out and qualify well right off the bat, that would give all of us some confidence. It’s big to regain some confidence, too. But we’ve got some of the best guys in the business helping and I’m confident it will come around.”
Clay Millican grabbed his first career NHRA Top Fuel win at Bristol a year ago, and now hopes for a third win in 2018. He’ll try to keep pace with points leader Steve Torrence, who has four wins this year. Other stars include Leah Pritchett, defending world champ Brittany Force and Doug Kalitta.
Funny Car points leader Courtney Force now has four wins in 2018 and will be after her first in Bristol. She will try to hold off the likes of defending world champ Robert Hight, Jack Beckman, 2016 world champ Ron Capps, J.R. Todd, who has two wins in 2018, and Matt Hagan.
The E3 Spark Plugs NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series presented by J&A Service makes the sixth of 12 stops during its 2018 season in Bristol. The event also features thrilling competition in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series, showcasing the future stars of the sport, as well as the Mickey Thompson Tires NHRA Top Fuel Harley Drag Racing Series.
Those in attendance will have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to interact with some of the biggest names in drag racing during the NHRA Legends Tour. This will feature meet-and-greets, autograph sessions, and a variety of other activities. Legends scheduled to attend the Fitzgerald USA NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals include Shirley Muldowney, Roy Johnson and Allen Johnson.
As always, fans can 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 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 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.
Mello Yello Drag Racing Series qualifying will feature two rounds at 4:30 and 7:30 p.m. on Friday, June 15 and the final two rounds of qualifying on Saturday, June 16, at 1 and 3:30 p.m. Final eliminations are scheduled for noon on Sunday, June 17.