● The NHRA Nationals at Brainerd (Minn.) International Raceway serves as the 15th event on the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series’ 22-race calendar. Tony Stewart Racing (TSR) brings its two fulltime entries – one in Top Fuel for 10-time event winner Leah Pruett and one in Funny Car for three-time Funny Car champion Matt Hagan – to the penultimate race of the regular season before the Countdown to the Championship begins Sept. 15-18 with the Pep Boys NHRA Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway in Mohnton, Pennsylvania.
● After the 16th and final regular-season event on Sept. 5 with the Dodge Power Brokers U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis Raceway Park, the top-10 drivers in the standings in each of the four professional categories of the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series – Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle – qualify for the Countdown to the Championship. The top-10 drivers in each class then compete in the final, six-race playoffs to vie for the title. Coming into Brainerd, Pruett is sixth in the Top Fuel championship standings, 396 points behind leader Brittany Force with a 119-point margin over 11th-place Clay Millican. Hagan, meanwhile, is second in the Funny Car championship standings, 237 points behind leader Robert Hight with an insurmountable 625-point advantage over 11th-place Chad Green to already secure a spot in the Countdown.
● Mopar 85th Anniversary will be featured on Pruett’s Top Fuel dragster and on Hagan’s Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Funny Car this weekend at Brainerd. A simple combination of the words MOtor and PARts, Mopar offers exceptional service, parts and customer care. Born in 1937 as the name of a line of antifreeze products, Mopar has evolved over 85 years to represent both complete vehicle care and authentic performance for owners and enthusiasts worldwide. Mopar made its mark in the 1960s during the muscle-car era with performance parts to enhance speed and handling for both on-road and racing use. Later, Mopar expanded to include technical service and customer support and, today, integrates service, parts and customer-care operations in order to enhance customer and dealer support worldwide. Complete information on Mopar is available at www.mopar.com.
● Pruett first joined forces with Dodge//SRT and Mopar in 2016, while Dodge//SRT and Mopar have supported Hagan since his rookie season in 2009. However, TSR’s ties to Mopar go back even further. Its roots are in sprint car racing, with Mopar powering multiple TSR entries in USAC and the World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series from 2001 through 2007. Seven of TSR’s 27 open-wheel championships were won with Mopar.
● The NHRA Nationals will serve as Pruett’s 186th career Top Fuel start and her seventh at Brainerd. For Hagan, this will be his 308th career Funny Car start and his 13th at Brainerd.
● Pruett has two career wins at Brainerd. Her first victory came in 2017 (3.682 ET at 328.06 mph) when she defeated Antron Brown (4.001 ET at 246.35 mph). Pruett won again in 2019 when her run of 3.732 ET at 321.04 mph bested Mike Salinas (4.066 ET at 235.72 mph). She also has one No. 1 qualifier at the event, which came in 2017 (3.640 ET at 331.53 mph).
● Pruett is the track record holder for time at Brainerd with 3.640 ET, a mark she established on Aug. 18, 2017 en route to one of her two victories at the track. The NHRA Nationals at Brainerd is one of four events Pruett has won twice, along with the NHRA Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, California, the NHRA Arizona Nationals in Chandler, and the Dodge Power Brokers Mile-High Nationals at Bandimere Speedway in Morrison, Colorado.
● Hagan enters Brainerd as the defending champion of the NHRA Nationals. His run of 3.923 ET at 327.98 mph defeated Cruz Pedregon (3.935 ET at 324.83 mph) in last year’s event. Hagan also has three No. 1 qualifiers at Brainerd, which came in 2011 (4.101 ET at 303.57 mph), 2016 (3.822 ET at 333.82 mph) and 2019 (3.890 ET at 328.46 mph).
● DYK? Brainerd International Raceway (BIR) was formed in 1968 when George Montgomery carved a three-mile racetrack through a wooded area on the south side of North Long Lake. In the early years, the track quickly developed its reputation as a world-class motorsports facility, attracting drag racing, road racing and in true Minnesota fashion, snocross. The track would go on to host the Trans-Am Series and motorcycle riders in the AMA Superbike Championships. BIR’s first drag race was in 1969 and by the third year, the event attracted 22,000 fans. In 1982, BIR made significant facility improvements ahead of the NorthStar Nationals, which eventually became the NHRA Nationals, the largest annual sports event in the Upper Midwest. Attracting over 100,000 fans for the weekend, BIR is a favorite stop for the NHRA and fans alike because it’s the only track on the NHRA circuit with onsite camping – The Zoo.
Brainerd is one of four NHRA events you’ve won twice. You’re also the current track record holder for time. What makes Brainerd so successful for you?
“The success that my name is attached to for that track really has everything to do with the team I was with. That was that team’s success. What made us successful was we, at that point in time, were really good on capitalizing on going fast. We were eager to really take advantage of pristine conditions and gain on the field and we were a strong team. How that translates to our Mopar 85th Anniversary car is we’ve worked really hard all year to baseline so that we can go rounds. We haven’t had an opportunity to really improve ET (elapsed time) performance because we’ve been in the hot conditions. If Brainerd looks to be as pristine as it usually is, we’re in a position that we’ve never been in to turn up the wick. We’ve just been lighting the fire and getting nice and toasty and warm and now we’re going to add some nitromethane to our fire and Brainerd is that excellent surface, incredible air at times, and is the recipe. That’s what I look forward to the most. We’ll be able to move into a different tier as a team for performance, and that’s something we haven’t been able to do yet.”
What is your favorite memory from Brainerd?
“There are a lot of memories to be had at Brainerd. I cannot pick just one particular memory. However, knowing and appreciating when you’re on a good streak, that’s what I remember – being on top and setting track records. Being the No. 1 qualifier and turning that into race wins. It’s a part of the country I’m not from and didn’t have a big fan base. The success I’ve had there has kind of made me the people’s champion. Some of my favorite memories off the track up there would be our Yeti friend that dressed up and joined us in the winner’s circle and the bigger-than-life helmet that’s five feet big that they made for our team that looked like our car. You can’t beat the enthusiasm of the fans and the spirit. Brainerd gets the spirit award and they know how to celebrate. We’d love to be able to do that again.”
Two races remain before the Countdown to the Championship. Where do you want to be to start the Countdown?
“The top goal is to be in a healthy position within the Countdown. If I put it into tiers, one would be to get solid in the Countdown. Two would be a race win and three would be a U.S. Nationals win. Closely enough, Neal (Strausbaugh, crew chief) and I have runnered-up together at the U.S. Nationals and we have some U.S. Nationals winners on the team. If I had to pick one, it would be win the U.S. Nationals because that checks off all three of those goals.”
You’re the defending winner at Brainerd, What would it mean to win back-to-back Wallys?
“Brainerd has always shown me some love. We run well there and the fans are amazing. All in all, I know we have some great data rolling into Brainerd and I feel like my guys turned the car around in Topeka and we’re moving in the right direction. We need to put on a win for this Mopar 85th Anniversary Funny Car and I feel like we can do that.”
What is your favorite memory from Brainerd?
“Winning Brainerd is great, but there’s nothing like being able to set records there. There’s no better feeling to be strapped to a fast racecar knowing you’re going to go up there and the conditions are right to make a really incredible run. It’s awesome when your crew chief and guys rise to the occasion and you set a world record. Those are the memories I have from Brainerd. It gives you chill bumps.”
How nice is it to already be locked into the Countdown?
“It’s always important to be clinched into the Countdown. We always battle and there were some years we barely made it. I didn’t make it one year in my career and it was a heartbreaker. We just needed to beat Tim Wilkerson in the semifinals and we didn’t do it. If you don’t make it, you can win all the races in the Countdown and they don’t matter. It’s important to be clinched in and put that behind you to focus on your setup to turn on more win lights. This is one of the most humbling sports I’ve ever been involved with and I’ve played stick-and-ball sports my entire life. This car will throw you a bone and kick you in the behind and you’ll be wondering what changed. There are so many moving parts and pieces, so there’s always something changing, along with the variables of the racetrack. It makes it that much more special when you do get it right. When you turn on four win lights on Sunday, you know you really accomplished something.”