Story By: SCOTT SMITH / NHRA – SONOMA, CA – It has been a challenging year for three-time world champion Antron Brown, who is still seeking his first win of the 2018 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season. For a driver who has 65 career victories, including 49 in Top Fuel, that is usually not the case, but Brown still remains confident that big things are coming for his championship-caliber team.
A good place for the turnaround would be this weekend’s 31st annual Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals at Sonoma Raceway, as the Toyota-sponsored Brown looks to get on track in his 10,000-horsepower Matco Tools/U.S. Army dragster. Sitting sixth in Top Fuel points means the team is still right in the mix when it comes to competing for another championship, but Brown believes the early-season frustrations are paving the way for late-season success.
“We’re taking it one step at a time and we’re constantly getting better and better,” Brown said. “Our car has been running well, we just needed to be in the right spot at the right time. This entire Matco Tools/U.S. Army/Toyota team has just been working so hard together. Our team is coming together at the right time and by the time Indy comes up we’ll be hitting full swing. That’s our gameplan.”
Steve Torrence (Top Fuel), J.R. Todd (Funny Car), Tanner Gray (Pro Stock) and LE Tonglet (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were last year’s winners of the Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals. This year’s event will be televised on FOX, including live finals coverage starting at 4:00 p.m. (ET) on Sunday. It serves as the second stop on the NHRA’s famed three-race Western Swing and is the 15th of 24 events in a 2018 season that has certainly not gone as planned for the veteran standout Brown.
He posted his first runner-up of the season two events ago in Epping, giving the team some much-needed momentum, but the Western Swing started off with a disappointing first-round loss on Sunday in Denver. Still, Brown is focusing on the positives of a team that continues to work hard despite the struggles. Brown expects that type of mindset won’t change and that means a major payoff could come in the fast-approaching Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship.
“We’ve got a lot of things that are positive and we just need to keep focusing on that,” Brown said. “We’re getting better and other teams are seeing it. We just have to keep getting after it. We moved up to sixth and our focus is just to keep picking away at the gap to fifth. That’s our goal to try to get into the top five. Then we’d like to see if we can move up to fourth before the Countdown.”
To do that, Brown will have to get past the likes of points leader Steve Torrence, who knocked off Brown in Epping for his fifth win of 2018, Clay Millican, Denver winner and Don Schumacher Racing teammate Leah Pritchett, DSR’s Tony Schumacher, Doug Kalitta, Terry McMillen and defending world champ Brittany Force. But these are the types of challenges that Brown lives for and it has repeatedly brought out the best in him over the course of his career. Doing so again will be a challenge but Brown is up for the task, especially as he seeks his 50th Top Fuel win.
“I can tell you one thing, our team, we’ve just been making strides,” Brown said. “It’s a credit to our team where we’re just getting better and better every lap. We just need to go back and work on getting our car changed back over (from racing at an altitude of nearly 6,000 feet in Denver) and get ready for the Toyota Nats in Sonoma.”
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.
Tanner Gray has three wins in Pro Stock, but is chasing points leader Greg Anderson. Others to watch include Vincent Nobile, Chris McGaha and Jeg Coughlin, who all have two wins in 2018.
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.