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Racing: 37th annual Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals; Smith breaks track speed record

Antron Brown (far lane) drove his Top Fuel dragster to top qualifying spot with a 3.789 and reaching 325.45 mph Friday, Aug. 17, of the 37th Annual NHRA Lucas Oil Nationals at Brainerd International Raceway. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch Gallery1 / 4
Robert Hight topped the funny car field Friday, Aug. 17, with a time of 3.971 reaching 326.95 mph after the second round of qualifying for the 37th Annual Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals at Brainerd International Raceway. Racing continues through Sunday with final eliminations. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch Gallery2 / 4
Matt Smith (far lane) runs in the second round of qualifying Friday, Aug. 17, at the NHRA Lucas Oil Nationals at Brainerd International Raceway. In round one qualifying, Smith set the BIR speed record running at 198.47 mph. Steve Kohls/ Brainerd Dispatch Gallery3 / 4
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Pro Stock Motorcycle driver Matt Smith set a track speed record, and Top Fuel driver Antron Brown clinched a spot in the Countdown to the Championship to highlight the opening day of racing on Friday, Aug. 17, at Brainerd International Raceway.

Funny Car

Defending Funny Car and two-time national champion Robert Hight stayed in the top spot through two rounds of qualifying as he looks to grab the second spot in the countdown with just two laps left.

Running at a speed of 326.95 mph, Hight notched a low ET of 3.971 seconds to gain six points as he chases Ron Capps for the No. 2 spot in the countdown.

"What a difference a year makes as we are almost .02 off what we did last year," Hight said of the first day of qualifying. "A lot of that is conditions, but to be honest with you, 3.971 run in the first pass, I was pretty happy. I thought if we screwed up in the night run that would put us in fifth, but nobody stepped up and we actually slowed down a little bit."

"We ran 326 mph and that was faster than the dragsters were running. And then 324 in the second run. We have a good combination right now where we can tweak it and pick it up or slow it down if we need to."

While times were a bit slower on Friday, Hight sees the possibility of faster runs as the weather cools down through the weekend.

"If you look at the weather forecast it is going to be cooler on Sunday so we should be able to run better on Sunday than in our runs today," Hight said. "It is all about consistency. You have a lot more confidence with your team and your car Sunday if you make four good qualifying runs. So the goal on Saturday is to be out ahead of everybody, but going down the track."

Hight's teammates John and Courtney Force had a tough first round, finishing in 15th and 16th place, but both had better passes in the second round to move up to the 13th and 14th spot.

One of the biggest moves was from Matt Hagan who ran an ET of 3.990 in round two to move up 11 spots from 13th to second place Hight.

Hight's goal is to continue to move up in the next two weeks so he and his teammate are in the first and second spots in the points standings.

"I don't think anyone is going to catch Courtney, but to be in second and have she and I be No. 1 and No. 2 that would be pretty stout," he said.

Top Fuel

Clay Millican ran a speed of 322.65 mph with an ET of 3.838 seconds top lead after the first round of Top Fuel qualifying.

Running in the right lane in the second round of qualifying, Brown got off to a 2.153 seconds in the first 330 feet, and he kept that momentum going on his way to a low ET of 3.789 running at a speed of 325.45 mph to grab the top qualifying spot.

With that run Brown was able to clinch a spot in the countdown and he has his team currently sitting in the sixth position in his Matco Tools Dragster.

He is also coming off a finals win two weeks ago in Seattle.

"We have been working hard for this and it is no secret that we went through our bumps and bruises," Brown said. "But that is why you go through the struggles is to have a day like this. Brainerd has been a good track for us where we have won in Top Fuel, and numerous times on the bike.This would be a great race for momentum building if we could just do well here and I think we could end up in the top three, but we just want to make two good laps tomorrow."

Part of the reason for the team' struggles early in the season was finding the right combination for the car to perform at a top level, and Brown feels his team is there now.

"We are finally settled in on our whole combination," Brown said. "We have been changing stuff but the bad part is that we started this whole transition that we have been doing, but didn't do the whole thing at once. We were making those changes between races so it took about a five-race span then we finally settled in and we have been building from there."

With the racing at Brainerd and then at Indianapolis in two weeks, Brown knows the time is now to perform at a high level.

"I am pumped because the countdown is just around the corner and that is when recess is out and playtime is over and I am pumped to get down to it," Brown said.

"You have to qualify well. Our goal is always to be in the top three so that you can set your ladder up the way you want it to be and tomorrow we want to go out and make some runs and get ready for race day."

Pro Stock

Pro Stock driver Erica Enders found herself in the fifth position after round one of qualifying, looking up at leader Chris McGaha.

Heading into the second round Enders and her team were dealing with another challenge, technology.

"Our racetrack computer which records all of our data was't working on the first run so we were kind of tuning by braille for the second run," Enders said. "We have some sort of a problem with the computer in our car, but it just goes to show that with people anything is possible. We did what we could with what we had and my team was great."

Enders had her experience, a great team, and history at Brainerd on her side as she made a second round pass of 6.609 seconds, running at 207.53 mph, to gain the top spot over McGaha after two rounds.

"It helps to get the (bonus) points as all of the points are going to matter at the end of the game," said Enders, who is in the third spot in the countdown. "We are really excited to be No. 1 even if it is just for Friday night. We will try to hang on to it tomorrow, but either way our car is running awesome, and I am driving a lot better."

"Our second run was awesome. The first run it was wheels up and it started to go to the right of the groove and get out of shape in fourth gear. I was trying to get it back in the groove, but we knew that we had room for improvement after that first run. My guys are awesome and they have been doing this for a lot of years."

Enders is looking for her first No. 1 qualifying spot in three years, and her history at Brainerd puts her in a good position for that, and also a finals win on elimination day.

"I have had some success here in Brainerd in the past," Enders said. "We have won here twice and we have qualified on the poll a number of times, and one of my best memories here was putting my name on the board in the No. 1 position the year that we won the championship."

Pro Stock Motorcycle

Friday's first round of qualifying may have not seemed like prime time for Pro Stock Motorcyle driver Matt Smith to get a No. 1 qualifying spot with a new bike, but he did just that.

Running on his Polaris Victory Magnum, Smith set the BIR track speed record at 198.47 mph, running an ET of 6.852 in the first round of qualifying and that would hold up in round two as he finished in front of Hector Arana Jr.

"I am feeling good," Smith said. "We just debuted a new bike body and we were low ET both sessions. The second run I had to get out of the throttle a little early, which is why my time was down. We probably should have gone 6.83 that round, but we have a really good crew."

Smith had confidence the new body would perform well based on what he had seen from other drivers.

"What I have seen out of the other two Lucas Oil motorbikes with that body work they have been fast every race and I knew we had big power," Smith said. "I knew when we got the body on that we would be fine, I just didn't know how good the first quarter-mile pass would be, and now we have two of them in. I think we can go fast, but we might wait to do that until Indy."

Sitting on the outside of the countdown in sixth, Smith could clinch a spot in the countdown with a win on Sunday.

For more photos of today's NHRA action, go to https://bit.ly/2Mo4Yre