The challenge of staying at the top of the field in the NHRA J&A Service Pro Mod Drag Racing Series has only gotten more difficult for Rickie Smith. The talent level is at an all-time high and the class continues to show impressive depth at every race.
But that challenge has also been a driving force for Smith’s recent run of success. The longtime standout has put together three world championships in the past four years, holding off Troy Coughlin’s hot finish to claim the 2016 NHRA J&A Service Pro Mod Drag Racing Series title.
The challenge to add another world title may be even greater heading into the 2017 season opener as part of this weekend’s AMALIE Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals at Gainesville Raceway, but Smith hopes it brings out the best of him in his IDG Chevrolet Camaro one more time.
“It’s a challenge,” said Smith, who won the Pro Mod season-opener in Gainesville in 2016 en route to the championship. “When you’re young, you’re trying to beat the older guys and now I’m the old guy trying to beat all these younger guys. But I love the challenge and I don’t like to lose. It’s always been that way. I love working and trying to get better.”
The highly-anticipated NHRA J&A Service Pro Mod series debut, presented by Jerry Bickel Race Cars, in Gainesville will feature nearly 30 cars as the first of what is now a 12-race schedule after expanding from 10 races in 2016. Trying to keep Smith from a fourth title in five years are a host of talented challengers, including Coughlin, a two-time world champion in the class, 2011 world champion Khalid alBalooshi, Bob Rahaim, Danny Rowe, Mike Castellana, Steve Matusek, Mike Janis, former Pro Stock standout Larry Morgan, Stevie Jackson, who will make his NHRA Pro Mod debut, and Michael Biehle.
Coughlin was a force to be reckoned with to finish 2016, qualifying first at the prestigious Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals in his JEGS.com Chevrolet Corvette and then winning in St. Louis and Las Vegas. It gave him three wins last year after none in his championship season in 2015 and he feels that momentum will carry over to 2017.
“We are ready to roll,” Coughlin said. “The off-season was more of a chance for us to look the car over from front to back and just make sure everything was in good working order. We really came across a very manageable tune-up at Indy last year and Steve (Petty, crew chief) has just been fine-tuning it from there. Obviously, we ended the year on a very strong run so we feel confident.”
In all, the class featured seven different winners at the first eight races, while the 2015 season included a different winner at every event. That showcases the parity and depth in a class where runs in the 5.70s at more than 250 mph will be the norm in 2017, but all roads will still go through Smith. Navigating a difficult field over 12 races won’t be easy, but Smith will continue to try to utilize two keys that have helped him thus far in his standout career.
“You have to stay prepared for everything and you can’t make little mistakes,” said Smith, who has 10 career NHRA J&A Service Pro Mod Drag Racing Series wins. “In a class like this, those little mistakes can cost you round wins, and those can come back to haunt you. Staying prepared and not making those mistakes have contributed to a lot of our success. We just keep trying to improve a little at a time and keep getting better, an hopefully we can be the fastest nitrous car out there.”
Featuring the world’s fastest and most unique doorslammer race cars, the NHRA J&A Service Pro Mod Drag Racing Series offers something for every kind of hot-rodding enthusiast. The class is highlighted by historic muscle cars, like ’67 Mustangs, ’68 Firebirds and ’69 Camaros, as well as a variety of late model American muscle cars. With more than 3,000 horsepower, the suspended door pro mod cars travel the quarter-mile in less than six seconds at speeds exceeding 250 mph.
NHRA J&A Service Pro Mod Drag Racing Series qualifying begins Friday, March 17 with qualifying sessions at 12:00 p.m. and 3:30 p.m., continuing with the final qualifying session on Saturday, March 18 at 1:45 p.m. Round one of eliminations is later on Saturday at 4:15 p.m. and continues on Sunday, March 19 at 12:45 p.m.
To purchase general-admission or reserved seats, call (800) 884-NHRA (6472) or visit www.NHRA.com/tickets. Kids 12 and under are free in general admission areas with a paid adult. For more information about the NHRA visit www.NHRA.com.
NHRA J&A SERVICE PRO MOD SERIES FACT SHEET:
AMALIE MOTOR OIL NHRA GATORNATIONALS
WHAT: 48th annual Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals, the first of 10 events in the NHRA J&A Service Pro Mod Series. The race will also showcase the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series and NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series.
WHERE: Gainesville Raceway, Gainesville, Fla. The track is located on 11211 North County Road 225 in Gainesville.
COURSE: Championship drag strip; Track elevation is 167 feet above sea level; Track direction is west to east.
WHEN: Thursday through Sunday, March 17-19
FRIDAY, March 17 – NHRA J&A SERVICE PRO MOD SERIES qualifying at noon and 3:30 p.m.
SATURDAY, March 18 – NHRA J&A SERVICE PRO MOD SERIES qualifying at 1:45 p.m. Round 1 of eliminations at 4:15 p.m.
SUNDAY, March 19 – Pre-race ceremonies, 10 a.m.; NHRA J&A SERVICE PRO MOD SERIES eliminations at 12:45 p.m.
PAST WINNERS: Rickie Smith, 2016, Bob Rahaim, 2015; Mike Castellana, 2014; Von Smith, 2013; Rickie Smith, 2012; Khalid alBalooshi, 2011; Kenny Lang, 2010
TRACK RECORDS: 5.809 seconds by Jay Payne, March ’10; 256.26 mph by Troy Coughlin, March ’12.
NATIONAL RECORDS: 5.772 sec. and 258.71 mph by Melanie Troxel, June. ’11
TICKETS: For tickets call (800) 884-NHRA (6472). Tickets also available online at www.NHRA.com/tickets