Motorsports / News & Car Culture

Original NHRA Summit Racing Jr. Drag Racing League Competitor Returns to Where it All Began

The NHRA Summit Racing Jr. Drag Racing League celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, spotlighting a program that offers children from ages 5-17 the opportunity to race half-scale dragsters in a controlled environment and follow in the footsteps of many of the stars of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series.

Members of the Summit Racing-sponsored Jr. Drag Racing League use a five-horsepower, single-cylinder engine to propel half-scale versions of Top Fuel dragsters to speeds up to 85 miles-per-hour and as quick as 7.90 seconds in the eighth-mile, depending upon the age group. Just like the “big” cars, competitions at many of NHRA’s 130 member tracks across the United States and Canada are contested, and track championships are awarded based on points. Each year, the points leaders in each class are chosen to represent their track at the NHRA Jr. Drag Racing Western or Eastern Conference Finals.

It all began 25 years ago, when the first Jr. dragsters were built by Old Bridge Township Raceway Park founder Vince Napp. Comp Eliminator veteran John Caliendo purchased one of those first half-scale dragsters for his daughter, Jill. Napp’s son, David, was close friends with Jill, and the two fathers planned a race between their offspring as an exhibit in front of a packed house at the NHRA Summernationals.

David Napp, near lane, and Jill Caliendo (now McKenna) make the very first pass down the racetrack in half-scale dragsters in 1992. Their exhibition run was the start of what has become a full-fledged competitive series for children ages 5-17 who are members of the NHRA Summit Racing Jr. Drag Racing League. (Photo credit: NHRA)

Now a grown woman, drag racing is still an important part of Jill Caliendo McKenna’s world. She was in attendance at the 2017 Summernationals and was invited to speak to the crowd and walk the track with scores of current-day Summit Racing Jr. Drag Racing League competitors on Sunday morning.

“I grew up around this racetrack, and I know how much history has happened here,” said McKenna, who found her niche behind-the-scenes in racing, writing for various motorsports publications and working with racers, sponsors, and vendors associated with the sanctioning body.

“I was a typical, self-conscious teenager, so the thought of being the center of attention was mortifying. When my dad surprised me with the Jr. dragster and told me he wanted me to make a pass in front of everyone at Raceway Park, I didn’t want to do it. I had never driven anything. I didn’t have my driver’s license or even a learner’s permit, because the age to drive in New Jersey was 17. I said, ‘Nope, not in front of all those people. Not at the Summernationals.’ Luckily, I came to my senses, and it was an amazing experience.

“At this track, you have to be 18 years old to be on the starting line, so I’d never even been up there when cars were running. Here I was, 16-years-old, pulling up in front of the grandstands in a dragster. I remember looking up and seeing tons of people who were really just wondering what the heck this was. Later, I saw pictures of all these kids hanging on the fence. It was really something, and it all happened so fast. It was a blur.”

Jill McKenna, with a young Jr. Drag Racing League competitor, on Sunday morning at this year’s NHRA Summernationals
celebrating the 25th anniversary of the first Jr. dragster pass.

On Sunday at this season’s Englishtown event, McKenna and the Jr. competitors were joined by former Jr. racers who grew up to be competitive professional drivers in NHRA’s Mello Yello series, including Top Fuel drivers Shawn Langdon, Leah Pritchett, and Troy Coughlin Jr.; Funny Car driver J.R. Todd; Pro Stock drivers Vincent Nobile, Tanner Gray, and Erica Enders; and Pro Stock Motorcycle riders Melissa Surber and Cory Reed.

“I’ve never thought of myself as a pioneer, and people that know me will tell you that I jokingly refer to myself as the answer to a trivia question,” laughed McKenna. “But I never could have imagined what this would turn in to. Last year I had the opportunity to go to the Summit Racing NHRA Jr. Drag Racing League Eastern Finals, and now we’re seeing second generation Jr. racers. I couldn’t believe it, and seeing 700 kids trying to compete for those Wally [trophies] was just unreal. This is very special, and I’m honored to have been part of it in the beginning.”

McKenna on stage with many of the professional drivers who began their respective racing careers as Jr. Drag Racing League competitors. From left: McKenna, J.R. Todd, T.J. Coughlin, Tanner Gray, Vincent Nobile, Melissa Surber, Shawn Langdon, Courtney Enders-Lambert, and Erica Enders with NHRA announcer Joe Castello.
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One Comment

  1. Steve Loewen says:

    I was there to witness this and was so inspired that I bought a junior dragster within a month!

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