In the last edition of National Dragster, I spent a lot of words detailing the impending excitement as the championship races in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series wound to a close in Las Vegas and Pomona. To say that the drama did not disappoint would be an understatement of massive proportion!
As hosts of the Sportsman Drag Racing Podcast, Jared Pennington and I often laugh that we deal in hyperbole. That said, I do not think it’s an understatement to say that the 2022 season brought the most dramatic conclusion to the NHRA Lucas Oil Series season that I’ve seen in my lifetime. Of the seven NHRA sportsman categories that we discuss regularly on our show (sorry TAD and TAFC: much deserved respect to Joey Severance and Doug Gordon, by the way), the national points lead changed hands (at least once) in EVERY category except one over the final three weeks of the season! No title was secure until the final divisional event of the season in Las Vegas was in the books, and 4 of the championships were ultimately decided in Pomona. Two of those were determined on Sunday, and one in the final round of the season!
Let’s start there. In my last column, I led off talking about the class in which I compete: Super Gas. The 9.90 category delivered one of (perhaps the) most memorable finishes to a season, ever. Coming into Pomona, the only hope that Bob Locke had to win the national championship was to do nothing less than WIN THE EVENT, and get some help (incoming leader Phil Unruh could clinch the title by winning round 4, regardless of Bob’s performance). Lo and behold, Unruh fell early, and Locke just kept winning. He staged for the final round Sunday afternoon – alongside 2020 national champion Brian Preszler, no less – for all the marbles. Win the round, and Locke would win not only his first national event, but also the national championship. Lose it, and he’d finish number 2.
9.904 seconds later, Locke capped one of the most clutch performances we’ve seen with another stellar run to earn the national championship. Making the story all the more Disney-esque, I mentioned that the victory marked Locke’s first national event win: it was his first national event final! A longtime Division 3 runner, Locke had rarely ventured outside of the North Central Division footprint prior to 2022. The fact that he found himself in Pomona, California to finish the season with a shot at a championship is both noteworthy and motivational to us all. The fact that he went out and won the race? On demand? It’s something that we’ve never seen before in the sportsman ranks, and we may not see again.
In fairness, we’ve seen CLUTCH performances to clinch an unlikely title. Joe Santangelo needed nothing less than a win the Las Vegas LODRS event in 2011 to rip the Stock championship from Jody Lang’s grasp. Jack Beckman (yea, that Jack Beckman) went on an unprecedented run at the final three events of the 2003 Super Comp season to surpass Gary Stinnett and win the Super Comp title that year. While Beckman needed to win rounds in Pomona to secure the championship following a clutch victory in Las Vegas, he didn’t have to win the NHRA Finals to win the title. Mark Grame came close in 2020: he needed to make the final round in Pomona to overtake Steve Williams for the Super Comp title that season. With a semi-final bye run hanging in the balance, Grame fell in the quarterfinals: one round short of the ultimate prize.
But to have the championship come down to the final round, at the final race? And in the process see a man transform himself from a relatively obscure Midwest racer into a full-on American folk hero? Well, that’s the stuff of legend.
As much as I like to play it up, I’m not doing Bob Locke’s story justice. To hear it all in his own words, check out Episode 301 of the Sportsman Drag Racing Podcast: Bob joined Jed and me to discuss his incredible run to the championship.
While Bob Locke’s title was the most thrilling of this championship season, it certainly was not the only intense battle that came down to the wire! Pete D’Agnolo and Greg Stanfield took turns trading haymakers throughout the final weeks of the Super Stock season. Stanfield took a slight lead into the Division 3 Doubleheader in St. Louis, where D’Agnolo drove to a clutch runner-up finish to claim the top spot. His stay atop the leaderboard lasted just a few weeks: Stanfield, the 5-time and reigning Super Stock champion, returned the favor in Las Vegas where he defeated D’Agnolo in round 4 and went on to a runner-up finish to regain the lead.
In his final opportunity of the season, D’Agnolo defeated fellow championship contender Ryan McClanahan (who had been racking up wins all season, and lurked just behind Stanfield and D’Agnolo with a shot at another title of his own) in a head-to-head matchup in round 4 of the Las Vegas Division 7 LODRS finale to retake the lead heading into Pomona.
To overtake D’Agnolo and claim a 6th championship, Stanfield had to win round 4 at the NHRA Finals. He methodically advanced through the opening three rounds of competition, to get to THE round: win and he’s the champ again, lose and he finishes number 2. Unlike Locke, Stanfield was unable to get the nod this time around, falling to a great run from Tim Seymour, and securing Pete D’Agnolo’s first national championship.
We knew coming into Pomona that the Top Sportsman title was likely to provide a tremendous storyline: FIVE drivers entered the NHRA Finals with a chance to win the national championship. Buoyed by a clutch final round performance in Las Vegas, Texas-based Lance Abbott led the way coming into Pomona, and would ultimately leave as both the event and national champion, but the title wasn’t decided until Sunday afternoon! By the time he advanced to the semi-final round, Abbott had eliminated Don Meziere, Ed Olpin, and Richard Okerman from championship contention. He would take on Olpin in that semi-final matchup (at that point, even with an event victory, Olpin could not overtake Abbott for the title). On the opposite side of the ladder sat Abbott’s fellow Division 4 runner Vince Hoda, who made the journey to Pomona all the way from Mississippi in pursuit of the national title. If Abbott were to fall in the semi-final round, it would crack the door open for Hoda to win the national championship with an event victory.
Abbott left little to chance, laying down a .006 package in that decisive semi-final round to secure his first national championship. We then got a rare 1 vs. 2 NHRA Finals final round featuring Abbott and Hoda. Fittingly, Abbott got the nod, capping an epic 2-week run that saw him amass a 10-1 round record under the immense pressure of racing for a national title. Like Bob Locke, the dramatic Pomona win marked Abbott’s first national event final and victory!
A three-way battle for the Stock World Championship between racers from every corner of the country; Jimmy Hidalgo, Jr., Brad Burton, and Joe Santangelo, was whittled to 2 coming into the Pomona season finale. Hidalgo clung to a slight lead after Burton was unable to win round 4 at the Vegas LODRS (a win light there would have made him the leader coming into Pomona). The drama started in qualifying, as both drivers raced to the top of the 65-car (and therefore bye-run laden field). Burton, who had to advance past round 4 to overtake the lead, qualified on the pole to secure a round 1 bye run. Hidalgo, meanwhile, snagged the number 3-spot to position himself on a potential round 3 bye run. By qualifying in the manner that they did, both drivers were also in position for the rare double-bye: if either advanced to the semi-final round, he would earn another bye into the final. Quick logic would tell you that if they’re both in line for the semi-final bye, they’d have to meet up prior to that round…
The way it all played out, if both Burton and Hidalgo could manage to win their first 4 rounds, we’d have an incredible and unique situation: The two would meet in round 5 of the NHRA Finals head-to-head, for a winner-take-all round to determine the world championship!
And it nearly came to fruition. The duo lined up back-to-back in round 4, and Hidalgo earned the win to advance to round 5. In the next pair Burton, who would technically take the lead with a round 4 win light (although with Hidalgo waiting in the next round, it would be round 5 that ultimately decided the championship), fell opposite west coast hitter Chris Hall to seal Hidalgo’s overdue first national title. As if the championship wasn’t enough, Hidalgo went on to win the event, not in Stock, but in Super Stock; joining Locke and Abbott in hoisting the NHRA Finals event Wally in addition to the national championship trophy.
While the Super Comp chase was settled prior to Pomona, the drama was no less intense! Coming into the Las Vegas LODRS the week prior to the World Finals, Austin Williams held what looked to be a relatively comfortable lead in pursuit of his 3rd national championship. The two main contenders were Jim Glenn and John Labbous, Jr. To claim the title, Glenn would need to win round 5, and Labbous could only claim the championship with an event win (assuming that Glenn did not win round 5). As the competition wound toward a close, Williams could not have liked his position: BOTH Glenn and Labbous advanced to the 5th and quarterfinal round of competition. When Glenn turned on the win light that round (with his fourth consecutive 9.05 run on the altitude-adjusted 9.05 index), he clinched his first national title. For good measure, Labbous advanced to the final round himself (both racers ultimately lost to Jerron Settles). Glenn’s clutch semi-final appearance supplemented the massive national event score that he had accumulated early in the season (following back-to-back final rounds at the first two national events of 2022, Glenn also raced to the final in Seattle) and catapulted him to the championship.
Similar to Glenn, Ryan Priddy sewed up the Competition Eliminator title prior to Pomona. And similar to Glenn, Priddy needed a clutch performance of his own to earn the championship. Greg Kamplain surrendered the lead he’d clung to for most of the season in mid-October when David Eaton won his last event of the season at the Orlando Division 2 LODRS. A day later, Priddy had to win in Bakersfield to claim the lead, and he did just that. Several racers came to Las Vegas with an outside shot to unseat Priddy, but none were able to do so and the Mountain View team driver earned his first title, avenging the heartbreaking 2nd place Top Sportsman finish of his teammate Paul Mitsos in 2021. Priddy nearly put a cherry on top of his storybook season in Pomona, where he came up just .014-of-a-second short in an epic season-ending final round battle with Allen Wilson.
The least dramatic sportsman chase came in Top Dragster. Why? Because Jeremy Hancock posted the highest score in the 8 years since T/D became a national championship class. Buoyed by three LODRS wins in addition to a Carolina Nationals victory, Hancock posted a 622 point score, outdistancing former Super Comp champ Alan Kenny by 45 points (Hancock was nearly 100 points ahead of third place finisher Aaron Stanfield).
In all, eight sportsman champions graced the Lucas Oil stage for the first time the Monday after Pomona. It marked the first time since 2013 that we saw first time champions in every non-alcohol Lucas Oil Series category.