The sold-out season opener for the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA)—as well as the weekend’s sold-out NASCAR Cup race at Phoenix—suggests that motorsports may be making a major comeback after the COVID-induced coma.
Florida has been on a hot streak as of late, too. The NHRA race at Gainesville Raceway is bracketed by a sold-out Daytona 500, the biggest crowd ever at IMSA’s Rolex 24 sports car race in Daytona, a crowd of about 150,000 for the IndyCar race in St. Petersburg, and strong advance ticket sales for this weekend’s Mobil 1 Twelve Hours at Sebring.
“The crowd was incredible,” said Matt Hagan, Funny Car winner at the Amalie Motor Oil Gatornationals. Hagan also won the historic Florida drag race in 2022.
This year, Hagan eliminated J.R. Todd in a close final round. “We were just running strong, and to come out and win the first race of the season, it’s just amazing,” said Hagan, who also took sole ownership of the title as fourth-winningest driver in Funny Car history (breaking the tie between him and Tony Pedregon) with the win. His Tony Stewart Racing group seems to be in mid-season form already. “I’m just in awe of our team right now.”
Top Fuel was won by Mike Salinas, a California businessman who runs a recycling center when he’s not cresting 300-miles-per-hour in a dragster. Salinas and his race team, appropriately called the Scrappers, had to march past some tough competition, including Top Fuel champion Brittany Force, and 10-time NHRA winner (and wife of NASCAR driver turned NHRA team owner Tony Stewart) Leah Pruett.
“You appreciate wins like these because they’re so hard to come by,” Salinas said in the post-race news conference. Tough, indeed. Salinas had to beat four-time champion Steve Torrence in the finals.
Troy Coughlin, Jr. won in Pro Stock, besting Mason McGaha in the final round. The moment was special for Coughlin because he was finally able to win while his grandfather, founder of the now-massive Jeg’s Speed Shop, was at the track.
The biggest surprise of the weekend, though, was the motorcycle winner Gaige Herrera. Herrera laid down a 202.15-mile-per-hour win on his Vance & Hines Suzuki to beat Angie Smith and earn his first career NHRA victory. It was also Herrera’s first-ever race with Vance & Hines. In his maiden voyage with the new team, he qualified first and set the track speed record, as well.
The 29-year-old seemed downright stunned by his success. “This is like a dream,” Herrera said. “I’m at a loss for words. I’m just out here having fun and I can’t believe I’m holding this Wally,” tightly gripping the golden NHRA trophy. “To win in front of all these fans, it’s just amazing.”
For the next stop on the NHRA season schedule, teams will travel to Phoenix, Arizona. Wild Horse Motorsports Pass hosts the event March 24-26. Will we see another sold-out crowd in the Valley of the Sun?