Story By: SCOTT SMITH / NHRA – SONOMA, CA – Looking for more consistent performances heading into the 2018 Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship, Tanner Gray is returning to a track where he can deliver one for a second straight season.
The Pro Stock rising star won at Sonoma Raceway in his rookie season, something he hopes to repeat at this weekend’s 31st annual Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals.
It was one of five wins Gray earned a year ago, and he is on track to match or top that during the 2018 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season. The 19-year-old standout has three victories in his Valvoline/Nova Services Chevrolet Camaro this season and momentarily held the points lead in the class, but Gray, who was named NHRA’s top rookie in 2017, is far from satisfied.
“I’m looking forward to going back to Sonoma and it’s a place where I feel really comfortable,” said Gray, who is currently second in Pro Stock points. “I’m definitely looking forward to racing there and try to do what we did there last year. I love where it’s located and it’s just an awesome facility. But we’ve been struggling with staying consistent with the race car. We need to do a little better job with that, so I’m looking forward to this weekend and keep trying to get more consistent.”
Steve Torrence (Top Fuel), J.R. Todd (Funny Car), Gray (Pro Stock) and LE Tonglet (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were last year’s winners of a race that will be televised on FOX, including live finals coverage starting at 4:00 p.m. (ET) on Sunday. It serves as the second of three stops on the NHRA’s famed Western Swing and is the 15th of 24 events in 2018.
The first 14 races of the season have provided plenty of highlights for Gray, including two wins in June that put him in the points lead, but as a driver with championship aspirations there are areas where he hopes to see improvement on the Western Swing. Following his win in Norwalk, Gray fell in the first round at the next race and he lost in the second round last weekend in Denver. Those are bumps he hopes to avoid the rest of this season, starting this weekend in Sonoma.
“We’ve won three times but we want to have a car that’s capable of winning every race and that’s kind of where we’ve struggled,” Gray said. “At times we’ve had a good car, put it all together and won. It’s a matter of working out all the bugs and getting more consistent. I think we definitely can. Everyone on this team works together great and we’re more than capable of winning a championship. But it’s going to come down to who’s going to be the most consistent.”
Following Sonoma, only three races remain before the Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship, so Gray knows the importance of doing well in this stretch. A year ago, Gray knocked off eventual world champion Bo Butner in the finals, and Gray will have to contend with the likes of points leader and Denver winner Greg Anderson, Erica Enders, Chris McGaha, Vincent Nobile and teammate Drew Skillman this weekend. But Gray has been impressive behind the wheel in his young career and that’s something he hopes continues this season.
“I have to do my part to the best of my ability as well and I have to be consistent on my part, too,” said Gray, who already has 11 final round appearances in his career. “There’s 8-9 other guys who are capable of winning the championship, so it’s going to come down to who’s got the most consistent car and driver combination. It’s important to be consistent the whole year and put yourself in the best position you can, so we’re looking forward to this weekend.”
Steve Torrence has five wins and the Top Fuel points lead, and hopes to add another Sonoma win against Denver winner Leah Pritchett, Clay Millican and defending world champ Brittany Force.
J.R. Todd’s first career Funny Car win came last year in Sonoma, and he’ll look to repeat against the likes of points leader Courtney Force, Denver winner John Force and Matt Hagan.
Pro Stock Motorcycle’s LE Tonglet had a banner weekend in Sonoma a year ago, posting his second straight win and also winning the NHRA Mickey Thompson Tires Pro Bike Battle. He’ll look to repeat both against points leader Andrew Hines, Eddie Krawiec and Matt Smith. The NHRA Mickey Thompson Tires Pro Bike Battle pits eight of the top riders in a must-see race-within-a-race.
The event features thrilling competition in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series as well. After Nitro qualifying, fans can watch the spectacular El Arabe Racing jet car driven by Juan Cantu. Jet cars are thrust driven propelled by jet engines with pre-run flame shows.
Those in attendance will also have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to interact with some of the biggest names in drag racing during the NHRA Legends Tour. This includes meet-and-greets, autograph sessions, and a variety of other activities. Legends scheduled to attend the Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals include Ed “Ace” McCulloch, Jim Dunn, Jeb Allen and more.
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 4:15 and 7:00 p.m. on Friday, July 27 and the final two rounds of qualifying on Saturday, July 28 at 1:10 and 4:20 p.m. Final eliminations are scheduled for 11 a.m. on Sunday, July 29.