The 2022 Edition of the Northern Nationals Stands Out in an
Awesome Weekend of Drag Racing!

Text by Mike Sopko Jr.
Photos by Mike Sopko Sr., Mike Sopko Jr., Michael K. Sopko

The first weekend in August always brings one of the premier events to the “Fastest Track in Michigan,” US 131 Motorsports Park.  Along with a taste of big show nitro the event mixes in some nostalgia ingredients along with jets to pack house. This year’s event again lived up to its billing.  Headlining the nostalgia portion of the evening was Jim Young’s AA/FD contingent, Extreme Top Fuel, sponsored by Custom Floaters.  With qualifying taking place on Friday evening, 10 nitro slingshots took to the track.  Extreme Top Fuel runs a unique qualifying set up in which teams do not qualify with their best run, but rather an average of their two best runs.  After Friday’s session was over Young took the top spot with a 5.702 average and a best of ET of 5.669 at 255.25 mph.  Rounding out the field were Tim Cullinan in the “Irish Car Bomb,” Dave Belock in the “Time Bandit,” Jason Greenwood, Dave Brown in the lone injected digger, Shawn Bowen in the “Violator”, and Mike Taylor.  Alternates included John Lorbiecki, who unfortunately experienced a devastating engine fire that ended his weekend after one pass, and Larry Gocha who took out the cones on his lone qualifying attempt.  Chris O’Reilly had made a 6.196 pass in Q1, but unfortunately broke in Q2 ending his weekend.  With nitro taking its toll on O’Reilly and Lorbiecki, Gocha was reinstated into the 8th spot.

First round took place with the sun nearly directly overhead on a warm and muggy, but dry, Saturday afternoon with ambient temperatures in the mid 80’s and track temps hovering around the upper 120’s.  First pair up positioned pole sitter and Extreme Top Fuel founder Jim Young against alternate Larry Gocha.  Gocha kept Young honest and made a strong pass in the right lane with a 5.96 while Young thundered to a 5.72 and the win.  Next, Jason Greenwood staged his silver shorty-bodied dragster against Dave Brown’s injected, “Beedy and Malloy” dragster.  If Greenwood would have slipped up Brown would have been right there to take him out, but unfortunately for Brown his 6.79 couldn’t keep up with Greenwood’s 6.07.  Mike Taylor next faced off with Tim Cullinan.  Cullinan’s motor expired before the finish line and Taylor drove through the traps at a stout 5.81 and a speed of 250 mph that would stand as top speed of the first round.  Up to this point all three winners had come out of the left lane, which happened to be the lane my son and I were shooting from.  If we were beginning to think we were having some superstitious impact on eliminations, the next pair ended that.  In the far lane was Michigander Shawn Bowen and in the near lane was Dave Belock.  Belock was the better qualified car as Bowen had struggled during his qualifying attempts.  However, Bowen was the lone car to make a third pass earlier in the day, and it seemed to solve their problems.  Bowen took the win with an early shut off 5.96 at just 196 mph to Belock’s 6.56. 

Semi-Finals came under the late evening sun as a capacity crowd had filled the grandstands and parking extended all the way down to the track entrance. The first pair saw Mike Taylor against Shawn Bowen. Bowen had the car loaded for bear as it launched with the wheels high in the air, but it also appeared to be the downfall for the car as it unloaded the tires and went up in smoke.  Bowen didn’t give up easily however and pedaled the car giving chase to Taylor.  In the end there wasn’t enough track left to catch him and Taylor took the win with another 5.80 elapsed time.  Next was the battle of Wisconsin as Greenwood and Young squared off.  Unfortunately for Greenwood, he had to lift and Young raced to the victory with a 5.73.  The win pitted Young against Taylor in the finals for bragging rights of the 2022 Northern Nationals AA/FD Eliminator. 

Under the lights Young staged his “Young Guns” dragster in the left lane against Taylor’s blue and silver shorty bodied dragster in the right.  Young left with the front wheels dancing and header flames licking at the night sky.  Shortly after half track Taylor had to get out of it and Young went on to the race win with a 5.71.

For another bit of nostalgia Joe Haas and Mark McElwee continued to tangle in their nostalgic Chevy bodied floppers.  They also arguably had the most exciting run of the day in their first pass on Saturday.  I was stationed on the top end for chute shots and watching the cars head for the traps through my view finder.  At about half track I noticed Haas’ nose move skyward.  I quickly snapped a shot before it came back down to earth. I kept my finger on the camera trigger as next McElwee had his hands full as his nitro-burning Chevy II darted hard to the right around 1000’ and took out the last set of timing blocks.  Both teams were able to make the necessary repairs and got the cars turned around to run under the lights.  At the hit of the throttle both drivers illuminated the starting line with big show-style flames.  Nearing half-track Haas’ “American Way tried to go airborne once again and he had to click it off.  Meanwhile McElwee was still on the gas, or should I say the nitro, and was chasing Haas down.  McElwee was also forced to lift, but his momentum carried around Haas for a 5.82 to 6.14 victory  Though both had to lift before the 1320’ stripe their early shut-off ET’s are an indication of just how stout these two funny cars. 

In addition to these funnies, John Lawson and Pete Dove also entertained the fans with their late-model bodied funny cars.  For Lawson, a Martin crowd favorite, this was his first time back to US 131 Motorsports Park since his devastating shop fire.  And for Dove this was his first time campaigning his “Back from the Ashes” car with its fuel coupe body instead of its Bantam altered shell. 

Other action from the Northern Nationals included the Larsen Motorsports jet dragster team and Jerry McCart in his triple jet-engined “Homewrecker” semi which wowed fans with their incredible fire-show and performance.  One of the loudest cheers of the evening came in response to the show put on by “Nitro Mike” Kunz and his wheelstanding PT Cruiser, that carried the front wheels well beyond the quarter-mile mark at over 100 mph.   There was also a stable of “big show” Top Fuelers present with Spencer Massey behind the wheel of Pat Dakin’s Commercial Fabrications dragster, Krista Baldwin in the Lucas Oil-McLeod Clutches leopard-print special, Gary Pritchett in the Lagana family “Nitro Ninja,” and Del Worsham driving the Worsham family fueler that delighted the fans with 300+ mph passes. 

Lastly, I want to take a moment to highlight the positives in drag racing over the August 5th-7th weekend.  At a time where fuel prices, supply shortages, lack of traction compound, and short fields seem to unfortunately be dominating the drag racing social media landscape, the August 5th-7th weekend was clearly a victory for the drag racing community.   On this weekend we had capacity crowds fill the stands at US 131 Motorsports Park and Summit Motorsports Park in Norwalk, Ohio despite fuel prices and hot-humid weather.  The NHRA Heritage Series was racing in Boise, Idaho, and after a three-year layoff racing returned to Route 66 Raceway, which boasted over 450 competitors at the Division 3 Regional event.  Prior to attending the Northern Nationals on Saturday, we attended the Route 66 Divisional on Friday.  While there I was asked what I thought about the current state of drag racing.  Again, it is easy to find the negatives as there are always going to be struggles and things that are simply out of our control.  However, take the weekend of the 5th-7th, as an example of how the drag racing community including racers, tracks, fans, and sponsors, inevitably rally, and overcome these obstacles.  Remember to always recognize the positives and thank those whose efforts allow us to find our own racing paradise at the dragstrip. The place where we can all escape for a little while and enjoy the sights and sounds of a sport that brings us all together! 

See you at the drags,

Mike Sopko Jr.

Mike Sopko Sr.