Erica Enders, Matt Smith To Start NHRA Title Defenses At Gainesville Raceway’s GatorNationals
Story By: NHRA – GAINESVILLE, FL – Erica Enders made more history a year ago by becoming the first female in NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series history to win four world titles. It was the second straight Pro Stock championship for Enders, who now has a goal to try and win three in a row and claim an impressive fifth world title.
A great start at this weekend’s 52nd annual AMALIE Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals at historic Gainesville Raceway would be ideal, especially considering it’s one of the few facilities where Enders, a 29-time event winner, hasn’t won in her Melling Performance/Elite Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro. Knowing the rich history the race has, it’s something she hopes to change.
“It’s definitely a cool time,” Enders said. “I’m really excited to head to Gainesville. It’s a really prestigious race, right up there with Indy. I’ve been a runner-up at Gainesville three times and never won, so I’m hopeful to check that off my bucket list. There’s no better time than now. We’ve got a great group and we’re going to give it our all. I’m excited about it.”
Steve Torrence (Top Fuel), Ron Capps (Funny Car), Alex Laughlin (Pro Stock), and Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle) are defending winners of an event that will be televised on FOX Sports 1 (FS1) and FOX, including live finals coverage starting at 12 p.m. on Sunday, March 14 on FOX.
After a longer than normal off-season, Enders is eager to get back to the track as well. She made a series of strong runs last week in Orlando leading up to the opener in Gainesville, which was her first time on track since clinching the championship in Las Vegas last November. But securing a first win in Gainesville won’t be easy, as a number of young stars are looking to knock Enders from the top spot in the class, including Troy Coughlin Jr., Kyle Koretsky, Fernando Cuadra Jr., Aaron Stanfield, last year’s winner event winner Laughlin and Mason McGaha, as well as veterans like Greg Anderson, Matt Hartford, Deric Kramer and Chris McGaha.
“We did absolutely zero off-season testing on the track, so I definitely felt good going (to Orlando) and being in a good spot,” Enders said. “We know our stuff works and we’ve got power. Again, Pro Stock is going to be a dogfight. There’s a lot of young blood in here.”
Matt Smith is also a defending world champion and he won in Gainesville last September, which helped spur his run to a fourth world title on his Denso/Stockseth/MSR EBR. Matt Smith Racing expanded to four bikes this off-season, with Smith, his wife, Angie, Scotty Pollacheck and John Hall working together as part of a standout team. Pollacheck, M. Smith and A. Smith all won in 2020, and M. Smith believes his team can keep that success going this year.
“We all won a race and we all went over 200 mph last year, so we’ve shown we know how to go fast, win races and compete for championships,” said M. Smith, who has 26 career wins. “With four bikes, our goal is we all finish in the top 10, we all win races and hopefully one of us wins a championship. We race all out and we just want to win, and that’s our mentality.”
M. Smith’s off-season consisted of refining the parts on the bikes with the hopes of being even more consistent. He knows the power is there, but things won’t be easy in a loaded class that also includes Angelle Sampey, Ryan Oehler, Hector Arana Jr. and Jerry Savoie. Smith, though, has always found success in Gainesville and loves being able to open the season there.
“This is one of my favorite tracks to come to and after working all winter long at home, it’s good to get back to the track,” Smith said. “We’re glad to see more and more fans at the track, and that’s what makes this sport so great. We can’t wait for the weekend.”
Top Fuel’s Torrence won in Gainesville for the first time in his career a year ago, using that momentum to roll to his third straight world title. He’ll be challenged this year by the likes of Antron Brown, Doug Kalitta, Leah Pruett, Brittany Force and Shawn Langdon.
Funny Car’s Matt Hagan starts his title defense in Gainesville, looking to extend Don Schumacher’s string of 14 straight wins. Teammate Capps is aiming for a big start as well, though top names like John Force, Robert Hight and J.R. Todd will look to stop them.
The event will also feature the opening race of the 2021 E3 Spark Plugs NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series season. The race is presented by Jerry Bickel Race Cars and FTI Performance, and the defending winner is Rickie Smith. The race also includes thrilling competition in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series, where future stars of the sport hone their skills, as well as the Factory Stock Showdown Drag Racing Series and the Top Fuel Harley Series.
Additionally, the Southeast Nostalgia Pro Stock Group will bring vintage Pro Stock cars to Gainesville to entertain the fans, while a special Street Car Shootout between Tom Bailey and Rod Tschiggfrie, two of the best street car racers in the world, will take place during the weekend.
NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series qualifying will feature one round at 4 p.m. ET on Friday, March 12, with the two final rounds slated for 12:05 p.m. and 4 p.m. on Saturday, March 13. Final eliminations are scheduled for 10 a.m. on Sunday, March 14. Television coverage includes qualifying action on FS1 at 3 p.m. ET on Saturday, March 13, and live eliminations beginning at 12 p.m. on Sunday, March 14 on the FOX national broadcast network.