A fast start to the 2020 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season doesn’t necessarily mean late-season success and a world championship, but Jack Beckman isn’t about to turn down what his team has accomplished thus far. Now, the former Funny Car world champ will try to keep that scorching start going at this weekend’s 51st annual AMALIE Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals.
Beckman won the iconic race at Gainesville Raceway for the first time in 2018, and he’ll have a great opportunity to do it again this year. He’s been red-hot in his 11,000-horsepower Infinite Hero Foundation Dodge Charger SRT, winning the opening race in Pomona and following it with a runner-up in Phoenix. While it doesn’t automatically predict future success, Beckman does note the huge boost his team has received.
“It’s an awesome feeling, and every team and every driver aspires to be in that position,” Beckman said. “When you’ve got a great hotrod, you drive better, and when you go more rounds, you get more data. You’re going to learn more about your car under race conditions. When someone hands you a trophy, you’ve earned it in this class. It’s that satisfaction that with all that work you and your team have put in, there’s a payoff. And once you taste victory, nobody minds working a little harder.”
Richie Crampton (Top Fuel), Robert Hight (Funny Car), Bo Butner (Pro Stock) and Andrew Hines (Pro Stock Motorcycle) are defending winners of an event that will be televised on FOX Sports 1 (FS1), including finals coverage on Sunday, March 15 at 9:30 p.m. (ET). It is the third of 24 races during the 2020 season and the action will start early with the thrilling NHRA Prime Time during the second qualifying session on Friday.
Beckman’s early-season success is just a continuation of a strong finish to close out 2019. He finished second overall behind reigning world champ Robert Hight, winning twice in the Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship and advancing to three finals. That momentum has continued this year, qualifying second in Pomona en route to a commanding performance and grinding his way to the finals in Phoenix.
“This year has just been a continuation of last year,” said Beckman, who has 31 career wins. “A lot of times you take the car back in the off-season, take it apart and for whatever reason it doesn’t have the same magic. But we’ve had that and I was confident we could do well at the Winternationals. While we thoroughly earned that trophy, Phoenix was equally important. Even though we weren’t at our best, we showed we could still get wins and that’s big.”
It’s proven Beckman and his team, led by crew chiefs John Medlen and Dean Antonelli, can win in any way possible. That will be crucial as the points leader heads to Gainesville, looking to repeat his 2018 victory. To do that, he’ll have to get past the likes of Hight, Phoenix winner and Don Schumacher Racing teammate Tommy Johnson Jr., Ron Capps, Matt Hagan, John Force, Alexis DeJoria, Bob Tasca III, Tim Wilkerson, Cruz Pedregon and 2018 world champ J.R. Todd, but Beckman, knowing the history of the prestigious race, promises to be locked in.
“The longer a race has been on the NHRA tour, the more history and great moments it’s going to have, and it’s no secret I’m a historian of the sport,” Beckman said. “Gainesville and the Winternationals are so similar because they’re both he season-openers for that part of the United States. There’s big gaps on both sides of the schedule for Gainesville, so you want to do well. It’s such a special race and, afterwards, you want to be able to ruminate that you were able to close the deal in Gainesville.”
Doug Kalitta has enjoyed early success in Top Fuel in 2020, winning in Pomona, but he’ll be challenged by the likes of back-to-back world champ Steve Torrence, who won in Phoenix, Brittany Force, Antron Brown, Clay Millican and Terry McMillen.
Butner claimed his first Gatornationals win in Pro Stock a year ago, but 2020 has belonged to rival team Elite Motorsports thus far. Jeg Coughlin Jr. won the opener, while reigning world champ Erica Enders grabbed the victory in Phoenix. The NHRA is also celebrating the 50th anniversary of Pro Stock in 2020, Class legends Larry Morgan and Tony Christian will be honored during the race.
Pro Stock Motorcycle makes its annual debut at the race, and Hines is the defending race winner. He won his sixth world title, but will be challenged by Eddie Krawiec, Matt Smith, Hector Arana Jr., Jerry Savoie and Angelle Sampey.
The event is also the season-opening race for the E3 Spark Plugs NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series. The race is presented by FuelTech, and the defending winner is Todd Tutterow, who knocked off reigning world champ Stevie “Fast” Jackson in the final round. The races also feature thrilling competition in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series, where future stars of the sport hone their skills, as well as the first race of the 2020 SAMTech.edu Factory Stock Showdown Drag Racing Series season.
After Nitro qualifying on Friday, fans can watch “The Quartermaster” Mustang Jet Funny Car driven by David Douthit. Jet cars are thrust driven propelled by jet engines with exciting pre-run flame shows.
For the first time, Tom Bailey and Rod Tschiggfrie will participate in an NHRA Street Car Showdown, making several passes throughout the weekend. Fans won’t want to miss the fastest street car versus the quickest street car showdown.
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 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.
NHRA fans can take part in the NHRA 101 walking tour to see the cars and teams hard at work in the pits. Fans can also attend Pro Stock School and Nitro School to learn how the cars operate and reach their thrilling speeds. Gainesville Raceway will also host a Mello Yello autograph session and allow fans to meet their favorite drivers as well as the Sealmaster Track Walk hosted by NHRA announcer Joe Castello. Another can’t-miss experience is the winner’s circle celebration on Sunday after racing concludes. New for 2020, the winner’s circle will be moved to the track surface, allowing fans a more intimate and up-close experience to help celebrate the event winners.
While enjoying the Gatornationals, fans who renew their tickets on-site will receive a FREE NHRA Legend mini replica helmet, commemorating NHRA’s historic 70th anniversary in 2021.
Mello Yello Drag Racing Series qualifying will feature two rounds at 2:30 and 5:30 p.m. on Friday, March 13 and the final two rounds of qualifying on Saturday, March 14 at 12:45 and 3:30 p.m. Final eliminations are scheduled for 11 a.m. on Sunday, March 15.
To purchase general-admission or reserved seats, call (800) 884-NHRA (6472) or visit www.NHRA.com/tickets. Kids 12 and under are free in general admission areas with a paid adult. For more information about the NHRA visit www.NHRA.com.