Pro Stock Motorcycle’s Gaige Herrera clinched his first career NHRA world championship on Saturday at In-N-Out Burger Pomona Dragstrip, wrapping up his dominant title run to close out qualifying at the 58th annual In-N-Out Burger NHRA Finals.
Austin Prock (Top Fuel), Robert Hight (Funny Car) and Greg Anderson (Pro Stock) also qualified No. 1 at the 21st race of the 2023 NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series season, and the last of six races in the Countdown to the Championship playoffs.
Herrera extended his single-season class record by earning his 14th No. 1 qualifier thanks to a track-record run of 6.661s at 203.80mph on his Mission Foods/Vance & Hines Suzuki. He will try to pick up his 11th win of the season on Sunday, which would also set a single-season record in the class, but earned the bigger prize on Saturday by picking up a world championship for the first time.
It is the finishing touch on one of the most incredible seasons in Pro Stock Motorcycle history, as Herrera dominated from start to finish. He won the first three races of the season, added another three-race winning streak during the year and then has won the last four races during the Countdown to the Championship. Add in a multitude of track records, the quickest run in class history and a sweep of the Western Swing and Herrera enjoyed a simply spectacular season.
“This is very special, it doesn’t feel real to be honest,” Herrera said. “The amount of stuff we’ve accomplished this year and then wrapping it up getting the championship and then making a run like that the last qualifier, it’s been an incredible season. I’m living the dream. Last year I was just out here trying to have a little fun and to get the opportunity to ride for the legends that I grew up watching race and looked up to, to be able to race with them and accomplish what we have, it’s very surreal.
“Wrapping up the championship here in my hometown, this is something I’ll never forget, winning the championship in my first full season. There is a lot that has been accomplished this year, but this definitely tops it all. This is something I’ll always cherish and remember. You never can take anything for granted. The bike has been flawless all year. We set a lot of records and it just goes on and on. It’s crazy.”
Funny Car title contender Robert Hight powered to a massive run to close out qualifying under the lights in Pomona, going 3.844s at 331.61mph in his Automobile Club of Southern California/Cornwell Tools Chevrolet Camaro SS. It’s the seventh No. 1 of the season for the three-time world champ and the 84th in his career, and he also moved past Bob Tasca III into second place in the process. He’s just 12 points behind leader Matt Hagan – with Tasca only 17 points out of first – heading into what will be one of the most thrilling finishes in class history on Sunday.
For Hight, he’s eager for the opportunity to compete for a world championship, knowing full well it’s going to be a monumental battle against Hagan and Tasca – one that could come down to the final run of the year in a winner-take-all scenario. Hight and Hagan, who is the No. 5 qualifier could meet in the semifinals, while Tasca, who qualified sixth, is on the other side of the bracket.
“That’s big ,” Hight said. “Let’s say it comes down to Tasca and I, and we lose the same round, you want to go ahead of him in qualifying, so this was big for us today. I was a little nervous yesterday after screwing up the first run and then we had to make a safe run last night. We knew what we had to do but you have to execute, too. This is a tricky place, no matter what anybody tells you, this place is tricky. Two separately different lanes and when it’s good, it’s really good and you have to be aggressive and get after it. I’m really proud of the whole Auto Club team.
“It’s exactly what we needed to do and it might have a little effect going into Sunday. We’ve got a little momentum and we’re running well but we have to race smart tomorrow. Probably not going to sleep tonight, but at least we’re qualified.”
John Force qualified second with a 3.862s at 328.14mph and defending event winner Cruz Pedregon took third after a run of 3.865s at 330.15mph.
In Top Fuel, Austin Prock made a huge move to close out qualifying as he looks to close out the season with a win for a second straight year, taking the No. 1 spot with a run of 3.636s at 332.92mph in his Montana Brands/Rocky Mountain Twist dragster. It’s the second top qualifier this season for Prock and the third in his career as he made a career-best pass to close out the session. The run also gives him a strong opportunity to end his year on a high note – much like he did in 2022.
“I love it anytime I come here,” Prock said. “As a kid growing up, ditching school and flying out here to come watch my dad race and race for championships and Wallys, it was always a treat to me. It’s got a special place in my heart and it just seems like we’ve a little mojo going here. If we go to the final round tomorrow that’s five consecutive final rounds for me here in Pomona, so I hope I can make that a fact.
“Our focus every weekend is ‘Go for a Wally,’ and I feel like we finally have a race car that can do it. We’ve been picking at it slowly throughout the year and the last two or three races, the thing has really come around. The first run today, that was the first time we’ve smoked the tires in like eight runs. We just lowered the boom a little bit there and hopefully we can keep that up tomorrow. It would be huge to win the last race of the year here and get to enjoy it for a few months.”
Prock’s run bumped Torrence and his 3.641s at 335.65mph to second, with Antron Brown taking third with a 3.663s at 335.82mph. Torrence takes the points lead into Sunday, holding a 12-point advantage over Doug Kalitta, 39 points over Leah Pruett, 76 points over Mike Salinas and 88 points over Justin Ashley. Torrence and Pruett could potentially meet in the semifinals, while Kalitta, Ashley and Salinas are all on the other side of the bracket.
Pro Stock’s Greg Anderson couldn’t have asked for a better performance in qualifying as he looks to make a last-ditch attempt for a world championship, making the quickest run in all four sessions, including a 6.492s at 211.69mph in his HendrickCars.com Chevrolet Camaro to close out the day. It’s his third No. 1 spot this season and the 124th in his standout career.
But he’ll need a near-miracle to get past Erica Enders on championship Sunday in Pomona. He trails by 104 points and Enders simply needs to win in the opening round against Fernando Cuadra to clinch her sixth world championship. Cuadra would have to knock off Enders and Anderson would have to win the race to clinch a sixth title, but he was thrilled with how his team performed during qualifying. He also has a chance to pick up his 15th career win at In-N-Out Burger Pomona Dragstrip on Sunday.
“Super pumped with the job these guys have done this weekend,” Anderson said. “I love this racetrack, I love racing here. Just the atmosphere, it’s the perfect time to go down that racetrack and it’s a great feeling. The cars just love it and the drivers love it. You saw it today, a lot of great runs in the class and I had two of them. I’m extremely pleased with my race car this weekend. It’s made four as-close-to-perfect runs you can make and you don’t get that very often. It set the table to do the best job we can do tomorrow.
“We don’t have any clue how it’ll turn out, but I’ve got a great horse, I’ve got a great race car and if nothing else, I have a great chance to win. We’ll give it all we’ve got tomorrow and let the cards fall where they may.”
Kyle Koretsky qualified second with a 6.497s at 211.00mph and Enders’ 6.500s at 210.31mph puts her third heading into raceday.
Eliminations for the In-N-Out Burger NHRA Finals begin at 11 a.m. PT on Sunday at In-N-Out Burger Pomona Dragstrip.