In an emotional victory Sunday, the 58-year-old California racer scored his second career Top Fuel win in the NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals at Bristol Dragway. He tearfully dedicated the win to his father, Mike Sr., who is suffering from dementia.
Salinas rocketed down the dragstrip with an elapsed time of 3.836 seconds and 325.69 mph in the final round to defeat defending champion Torrence, who was going for his sixth straight victory.
View the Day 3 photo gallery from the Thunder Valley Nationals
The challenge wasn’t just for the driver. Salinas’ team had to make an engine change on his dragster after the semifinal round.
“Before this last run, we start the car up and smoke was coming out the valve headers,” Salinas said. “We had to do a motor swap in 17 minutes. We fired the motor up and took care of business. It was surreal while it was happening.”
With legendary engine maker Alan Johnson tuning his car, Salinas made a clean pass to hand Torrence his first loss in over two months. Salinas beat Scott Palmer and three-time NHRA world champion Antron Brown before taking down three-time Thunder Valley Nationals winner Doug Kalitta in the semifinals.
“I had never won against Antron, I had never won against Steve,” Salinas said. “To get past Antron was great and then to go against Doug, his lights are amazing. It was big to beat Scott Palmer in the first round, too, but those three guys, they will be the guys to beat for the championship.”
Torrence dispatched of Pat Dakin in the opening round, 2017 Bristol winner Clay Millican in the quarterfinals and Dom Lagana, Torrence’s teammate, in the semifinal round.
Torrence appeared ready to continue his domination of the class but came up short with a 3.892-second run at 287.60 mph.
“My guys did a great job of getting us down that right lane with a chance to win,” he said. “We’ll reload and get ready for the next one.”
He sees Salinas’ team, which won earlier this season in Las Vegas, as a major challenger in his bid to repeat as champion.
“That’s a really good race team,” Torrence said. “They’re gonna win a lot of races and make it real interesting once we get to the playoffs.”
Lex Joon, the No. 15 qualifier in Top Fuel, eliminated No. 2 qualifier Leah Pritchett in an opening- round matchup.
Joon, a champion drag racer from Europe, moved from the Netherlands in 2013 with the mission to form a premier NHRA team. He scored the Round 1 win after Pritchett’s dragster broke loose early and got sideways during the run. Remarkably, she maintained control of the car although her day was done.
Two races later, Lagana beat fan favorite Brittany Force during their first-round matchup. Force’s car lost traction late in the run, while Lagana powered down the track in 3.820 seconds at 321.65 mph.
Sgt. Steve Hinkle was remembered during pre-race ceremonies Sunday.
Hinkle was fatally shot on a call in February. He served 27 years with the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office. His family was given a special coin, and members of the Sheriff’s Office joined them on stage to be acknowledged by the crowd.