By Briar Starr, NHRA Staff Writer
The 54th annual Gator Nationals took place on Sunday afternoon and not only was it the opening season for the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series, but the Gainesville Dragway also marked race 1 of 13 for the Pro Stock Motorcycle class.
Sunday featured an exciting day of action for all 16 riders and all had their own moments as well. Vance and Hines newcomer Gaige Herrera took home his first Pro Stock Motorcycle Wally at the end of the day. While Herrera celebrated his Gator Nationals victory in Gainesville, Florida, the other 15 riders were searching for just a little bit more and wondered what could’ve been. This week, Kickin’ The Tires catches up with the riders and sees what they had to say following their opening weekend.
Gaige Herrera – Won his first race over Angie Smith in the finals with a 6.706 at 202.15 mph. Earned first career No. 1 qualifier on Saturday.
“This is a dream,” Herrera said.“Vance & Hines is such an awesome team to work with. They help so much and it shows. I’m at a loss for words. I’m just out here having fun and I can’t believe I’m holding this Wally. To make this Vance & Hines team happy, it’s just an unbelievable feeling. To win out here and to do it in front of all these fans, it’s just amazing.”
Angie Smith – Posted third career runner-up finish and second consecutive Gainesville runner-up – Fell to Herrera by posting a 6.845 at 181.84 mph. “Going to the finals in Gainesville was a great way to start the season!” Smith said. “It wasn’t pretty. We have some little gremlins to work out and then we will have a consistently fast motorcycle.”
Jianna Evaristo – Finished third after going to the quarterfinals and falling to eventual race winner Herrera with a 6.883 at 193.21 mph.
“I’m very excited about our progress,” said Evaristo. “Our performance here is just the beginning.”
Chase Van Sant – Rookie rider made his debut and an impressive first outing by finishing fourth. Van Sant fell to Angie Smith in the semi-finals with a 6.962 at 189.75 mph.
“My debut weekend in PSM was more than I could have asked for,” Van Sant said. “The whole White Alligator Racing team was firing on all cylinders and it showed the whole weekend. We came out in qualifying and were second after day one and ended up third overall in a really tough field. The eliminations with a motor swap before the semi-finals and another issue against Angie (Smith) in the semis.” “But what the team pulled off getting the motor swapped and the bike to the line was remarkable. We all have a lot to be proud of and I think we are holding our heads high heading into Charlotte.”
Joey Gladstone – Gladstone made it to the quarterfinals before falling to Angie Smith. Unfortunately, Gladstone fouled -0.011 too soon before ever having a chance.
Eddie Krawiec – Krawiec squared off against his teammate and eventual race winner Gaige Herrera in the quarterfinals. Krawiec was unable to move on after going 6.814 at 199.94 mph.
“It’s great to be back running and 2023 looks like it’s going to be an exciting year,” Krawiec said about his weekend. “I don’t think this past weekend, we got to show how good my bikes are going to perform. We found a problem and got it fixed for round one and was the second fastest out of the round right behind Gaige. We will take that data and build off of it for Charlotte.”
Matt Smith – The defending Pro Stock Motorcycle champion had an uncharacteristic type of day by being knocked out in the quarterfinals. His development rider Jianna Evaristo eliminated Smith after Smith posted a 6.864 at 199.49 mph.
Ryan Oehler – Oehler grabbed a round victory over Chip Ellis in E1 and faced rookie Chase Van Sant. Unfortunately for Oehler, he was eliminated in E2 with a 6.915 at 195.79 mph.
Steve Johnson – Pro Stock Motorcycle veteran Steve Johnson had quite the crazy weekend at the Gator Nationals. Johnson was originally the No. 1 qualifier following two rounds of qualifying on Friday afternoon. However, as the weekend went on, the team owner/rider ended up qualifying second by posting a time of 6.746. This saw him have a first-round match with Joey Gladstone. Unfortunately for Johnson, he fouled too soon (-0.009) and was done for the day early on. Despite his early exit, Johnson had a lot to say after his early exit in the Gator Nationals.”
“The level of competition at this year’s Gatornationals was really stout,” Johnson said. “Competitors and team owners competing in the NHRA Camping World Series for many years have developed a vast array of resources. Excellent depth with technicians/crew, sponsors, public relations, and team facilities. But because this is a business, it all starts with a great budget. For many years, only a few pro stock motorcycle teams have had those kinds of resources.”
“Now I believe there are about 15 teams racing at a very high level of competition and commitment. In my opinion, The class has worked for many years to get to the level we’re at right now. It’s the most amount of strength and diversity of resources that I’ve seen in over 35 years of racing. It’s my opinion that NHRA Drag racing and especially pro stock motorcycle drag racing in the camping World Series is on another growth spurt. Phone calls/emails/texts from team owns in other classes along with riders and fan interest drives more of my perspective and opinion.”
Kelly Clontz – Clontz qualified 13th after four rounds of qualifying and had a first-round match-up with defending champion Matt Smith. The 6-year rider was able to get out of the gate first over Smith with a 0.071 reaction time over Smith’s 0.088 reaction time. However, despite running her career best in qualifying with a 6.824 at 196.36 mph, she fell 14 feet short of eliminating Matt Smith. Clontz was out in E1 after going 6.844 seconds compared to Smith’s 6.780.
Hector Arana Jr – Arana Jr returns to PSM this year under a full-time ride after doing limited starts in 2022. For Arana Jr, the Gator Nationals weekend is probably a weekend the veteran rider would like to forget as 2023 rolls on. Arana Jr fell in the first round to Eddie Krawiec with a 6.858 at 198.17 mph.
John Hall – Hall qualified 10th on the run sheet Saturday with a 6.819 and was paired up with Angie Smith in Round one. Hall fouled too soon (-0.002) and winded up 12h at the end of the day.
Marc Ingwersen – Ingwersen posted a time of 6.824 in qualifying and found himself 12th on the speed charts. He had had a first-round match with Jianna Evaristo. Ingwersen was unsuccessful in moving on after he fell with a 6.920 at 196.33 mph
Ron Tornow – Known as “The Rat”, Tornow qualified in the 16th position, last in the field with a 6.922, and had a tough task ahead of him in E1 as he was up against No. 1 qualifier Herrera. Tornow was quick after the Christmas tree went green and had a holeshot of 0.025 compared to Herrera’s 0.045. Sadly, as Tornow went down the track, his bike started to bottom out just a bit and this allowed his opponent to run him back down. Tornow fell with a 7.161 at 191.51 mph.
“It was a week full of emotions,” Tornow said. “We had our share of highs and lows as we tried to sort out the new body, the new motor, and the new rear tire. With only two half-track passes prior to the Gator Nationals, we knew it wouldn’t be easy to make it into the top 16. With a little luck on our side, we managed to stay on the bump through the last two qualifying sessions and were able to race on Sunday.”
“The bad news was that we had to race the No. 1 qualifier (Gaige Herrera) in the first round. We gave it our best shot and when the tree came down, we were the first one off the starting line. The advantage was short-lived as Gaige had a killer run and passed us before we got to the 100 feet mark. We’re still happy that we were able to make it to the season opener. The fans were great and the track was great, as well as the weather. We are optimistic that we can improve our performance. So we are looking forward to the next PSM event in Charlotte, NC at the end of April. Our goal is a top-10 finish this year!”
Chip Ellis – The Mockville, North Carolina native finished 15th in the running order. Ellis was slated to race against Ryan Oehler in E1. Unfortunately for the North Carolina native, his bike broke at the staging lanes, and was unable to race.
“Unfortunately, we had a fuel pump failure in the first round today,” Ellis said. “I felt very confident going into today’s race. The MSR (Matt Smith Racing) team gave me a really fast motorcycle. I want to say thank you to the team and the rest of the MSR team. I had a great week with my race family. Thank you to everyone that supports our efforts.
Richard Gadson – Gadson was 14th on the qualifying order and became the 212th rider to qualify for a Pro Stock Motorcycle race, and made his second start this past weekend. However, Gadson decided not to run in the first round and finished 16th.