Written by Susan Wade, photos by Roger Richards
Justin Ashley, making just his seventh start, said he has been imagining this moment for his whole life – which would be about 25 years.
T.J. Zizzo would be fibbing if he said he hadn’t spent much of his 44 years working and planning to get to the final round of an NHRA Top Fuel race – something he predicted he could do days before the start of the event.
Both made it Sunday at the Lucas Oil Summernationals, but neither came away with a Wally trophy.
One of them will . . . eventually. The only catch is the winner will have to wait until Labor Day, a little more than six weeks from now.
Rain washed out the final rounds of eliminations at Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis just as teams were heading to the starting line for the final rounds.
“It’s definitely a little bit disappointing having to wait till Labor Day weekend, but we came together and agreed that it was the right decision. It was the rational decision to make,” Ashley said.
He said his Aaron Brooks-led crew “did an outstanding job today. This is so much more than just about me. It’s about these guys. It’s about our sponsors – StrutMasters, Menards Autoshocker, Kato – the list goes on and on. So we’ll be back for the U.S. Nationals. We’ll be able to run it then, and it is what it is. The circumstances are where they are. We can’t change them. So we’re looking forward to the opportunity.”
Zizzo, although he, too, was really looking forward to his first showdown in the so-called “Rust-Oleum Rocket,” was nonchalant about the sudden change of events.
He said it’s “still exciting. We still got a race to win. Mother Nature may have rained on our parade, but we still have a race to win. We’ll come to the U.S. Nationals. It’d be a pleasure to win the U.S. Nationals twice in one weekend.
“This whole deal is cool,” he said. “Dustin Davis, who owns that team that Justin Ashley drives for – cool guy, young guy – he was a fan of the sport. To be a fan of the sport and have a dream someday of doing something in this sport to own his own Top Fuel team is pretty badass. I saw him on Thursday. He was flipping on top of his trailer, put his awning up alongside us, my dad and I and our team. I didn’t even know he’s a team owner. I had no idea until he came up and introduced himself. So that’s all cool and both of us have an opportunity to win it at the U.S. Nationals and then win it again.”
Ashley’s Strutmasters.com Dragster crew was thrashing Sunday even as they were being summoned to the staging lanes for the final. A broken throttle cable had sent the team into a bit of a spin. The rain delay helped them sort out at least some of the problems, and they got the engine to fire up again. Despite the last-minute scramble, Ashley said he believed he had a strong car heading into the finals.
“We did. We felt really confident about our car,” Ashley, who hadn’t gone past Round 2 this year, said. “I think top to bottom, everyone from Davis Motorsports was doing an awesome job all day long. It was my job to just sit in the car and just drive. We felt really confident going to the finals, and there’s no reason that’s really [changing] between now and the U.S. Nationals.
“This was probably one of the most exciting days in drag racing I’ve ever had,” the young racer from New York’s Long Island, said. “To be able to reach a final in Top Fuel has been a dream of mine. I’ve seen it in my head over and over and over again, but to actually apply it and be able to do that is super awesome. A bummer we’re not going to have a chance to finish the deal, but I’m excited for us and I’m excited for T.J. T.J. Zizzo is a great guy. He’s got a great car and just looking forward to lining up against him in a few weeks.”
Same goes for Zizzo. In his first 80 races, 68 times he either missed the qualifying cut or lost in the first round as he learned the ropes at the sport’s most elite level. But he wouldn’t say he had a sure thing going, not even after defeating Terry Totten, Todd Paton, and 2018 U.S. Nationals winner Terry McMillen.
“You never have lightning in a bottle when you’re going up against competition like this. That’s a challenge and a half. Every round is a tough one,” Zizzo said. “But to be able to do what we did at the opportune moment to turn on three win lights was fantastic. It’s a good feeling. It was our goal coming here.
“One of the guys on our race team also works in our body shop [the family-owned business at Lincolnshire, Ill.] and we talked about it this week, because we had to work diligently on a Ferrari Pista, which is a badass car to get done. Finished it up on Thursday so we could be here on Friday and his goal was, ‘T.J., can we at least make it to the final round? That’s a goal of mine.’ Which we did. So all is good,” he said.
“Now, I’m kind of glad we’re not running it [the final round] tomorrow, because I got a Bentley to finish tomorrow for a customer and I don’t want to piss him off. And there’s a lot of other things going on in my life at the body shop that are truly as important as this race car,” Zizzo said. “We run a very successful body shop. One of our team members said, ‘Man, I never know what I’m going to see in your body shop.’ So for me to be able to be at the body shop tomorrow conducting business is great. So we look forward to the U.S. Nationals.”
With Ashley and Zizzo in Top Fuel’s final round – and Jason Scruggs and Chad Green duking it out in the Pro Modified final – this race was the first in 23 years that featured first-time finalists going against one another. The last to square off in their career-first finals were Cristen Powell and the late Bruce Sarver in the May 1997 Top Fuel final at Englishtown, N.J. Powell, an 18-year-old high-school senior at the time, won.
Sunday’s first two rounds had long-range implications. The dominating Torrences beat up on each other in the opening round, with last week’s winner Billy taking out reigning class champion son Steve. They entered the event with Steve in second place, thanks to his Phoenix victory and a 6-1 round record, and Billy in third place, just nine points behind him.
But Leah Pruett, who lurked one point behind Billy Torrence in the standings at the start of the weekend, eliminated him in Sunday’s quarterfinals (before she bowed out against Ashley). For Torrence Racing, winners at 35 of the past 75 races, it marked their shortest day since both lost in the first round last September in a Countdown to the Championship event at Reading, Pa.
“You don’t race on paper,” Steve Torrence said. “No matter what, you’ve still got to go out and do the job. And we didn’t do the job today. It’s not what we wanted for [wife] Natalie’s birthday, but that’s racing. We’ll have to regroup and see what happens.”
In the quarterfinals, Ashley denied points leader Doug Kalitta the chance to advance to his fifth consecutive final round.
“That was just racing. A second-round loss, that’s one of those deals that you just hope doesn’t happen,” Kalitta said. “We had a pretty strong run in going A to B. We were right there. Overall, it was good having [new sponsor] Osborn on the car with us this weekend. I love running this place. We’ll just keep our heads down and move on to the next one.
“We will leave with the points lead, no matter what. But it would have been great to get two more round-wins today. You want to put as many rounds on the guys behind you as possible. The Torrences are back there, and there are other cars, too,” he said.
Kalitta simply left looking forward to returning here. “We will be back in Indy in a couple weeks. There is a lot of history and we have won rounds. This weekend we were with Osborn and we’ll be back with Mac Tools in a couple weeks. Rob and Troy have a great handle on this tune-up, and I have a lot of confidence,” Kalitta said. “We are going to just try and qualifying as best we can and win as many rounds as possible.”
No. 1 qualifier Clay Millican had a rough Sunday from the start. He said, “A gremlin bit us in the booty” after losing in the first round to No. 16 Todd Paton.
Paton earned only his second career round-win, more than four years after he beat Brittany Force at Epping, N.H. He was driving Funny Car racer Terry Haddock’s dragster.
“Literally the car cut off and then when I hit the throttle, it didn’t rev up. It didn’t do anything correctly,” Millican said of the Parts Plus Dragster. “Obviously, the thing ran great in qualifying. Something electrically went weird with the car. When I finished doing the burnout, we have a load button that resets the timing and resets the clutch. The car actually cut off, like it went dead. The moment I touched the button, the car went dead. When I let off the button it started right back up, which is very scary. They’re in there now trying to figure it out. But we have a bug somewhere. Not sure yet what it is, but we have a gremlin. It was not happy.”
But Millican said he’ll be back here Aug. 8-9 for the third Indianapolis race that was added Thursday to the ever-changing Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule.
“Absolutely ready for it. We’re very disappointed today. When you qualify No. 1, like, on paper you’re supposed to win it. It doesn’t always work that way,” Millican said. “And I had even said to a lot of people, ‘You can count on Terry Haddock’s car just going down the racetrack, and we just need to go down the racetrack – and we should be able to outrun him.’ But we didn’t properly go down the racetrack. So he kicked our butt, and hats off to those guys. They work hard, and it’s awesome to have them out here. Just a little frustrating not knowing that something was wrong going up. That’s the thing, with as many electronics that our on these cars now, it’s always something that’s out there that can bite you and it got us, whatever it is.”
The early-August NHRA Indy Nationals is a replacement for the Dodge Mile-High Nationals that was set for that weekend at Denver. Both the Denver and Brainerd, Minn., events have been postponed because of state and local public-health restrictions.