MADISON — A pair of champions defending their titles and the record 136th career win by Funny Car legend John Force highlighted a sunny Sunday for the AAA Insurance NHRA Midwest Nationals at Gateway Motorsports Park.
Antron Brown knocked off Khalid al Balooshi in the Top Fuel finals for his second straight Gateway win and third in the last four years.
Meanwhile, Erica Enders-Stevens falls more in love with the track with each visit after posting her second straight Pro Stock victory at the track.
This time she took out Mike Edwards in the finals and continued her late-season turnaround as she moved into fourth in the point standings.
"I couldn't be more proud and I love St. Louis, I'm glad to be back," said Enders-Stevens, who has been racing at Gateway since 2001 and also signed one of her major sponsorship deals here in 2004. "It's a good place to be. This was a make-it or break-it weekend here in St. Louis"
It was race No. 3 in the six-race NHRA Countdown to the Championship and Matt Smith survived illness and dehydration that required intravenous fluid to win in Pro Stock Motorcycles.
It was Force's first win at Gateway since 2002 and the 15-time Funny Car champion also won here in 1996.
The victory over defending series champ Jack Beckman moved him to second place in the points standings, but the trip to Gateway allowed him to visit one of his favorite restaurants.
"I stayed out in Collinsville," said the 64-year-old Force, who owns 136 career wins during a 35-year-career. "I walked in a Steak 'n Shake with my wife and got a standing ovation. She goes 'Oh my God, we're clear out of town and they know you.' I said I used to park out there by the truck scales and sneak around the truck scales in the middle of the night.
"I lived in these little towns ... I grew up with these people and that's why I don't want to leave."
That was a reference to Force's self-styled "chasing corporate America" as he battles to find new sponsors for his family-based race team that includes daughters Courtney and Brittany and son-in-law Robert Hight.
Force's sponsorship deals with Ford and Castrol will expire after 2014. This was his second win of 2013 and he credited his wife, Laurie.
"Like my wife said, 'what you need to do is win, because winning fixes everything,'" Force said. "She got my head right his morning, that John Force needs to start winning races. I know how to do that. I ain't saying I'm gonna win a championship or win another race, but I'll be in a fight with these kids."
It was a perfect day for racing with clear skies and lots of sunshine as a crowd estimated at around 15,000 fans packed the grandstands along the drag strip. No official attendance figures are announced.
Brown also won at Gateway in 2012 and 2009 and covered the drag strip in 3.788 seconds on his winning pass Sunday with a speed of 323.97 mph.
Brown failed to qualify at Charlotte two weeks ago, but won the Top Fuel battle at Gateway. It was his third win this season and 40th of his career, moving him to sixth in the point standings as he tries to repeat his 2012 season championship.
"We've been working our tails off and there's no secret, we've been struggling a lot more than we'd hope to," said Brown, who knocked off teammate Tony Schumacher to reach the finals. "That's all we want is a shot to try to go out there and win that championship again this year. It's a dogfight out there right now."
It was Smith's first win at Gateway since 2007 and came on an emotional day. Besides being ill, his father Rickie Smith ran the final race of his career and finished second to Mike Castellana in the Pro Mod finals.
Smith admitted himself to the first-aid station Saturday night after his qualifying session.
"They told me last night 'You're not going to race tomorrow' and I said 'Look, I've gotta race,''' Smith said. "Luckily I got to race and we're standing here in the winner's circle. I was hurting pretty bad, I didn't have anything in me whatsoever."
Smith gained the points lead in his series for the first time this season with three races remaining.
"We've had a dominant bike this year," he said. "I feel like I've got the bike to beat and as long as we don't have problems. I think we'll be fine."
*Carterville's Luke Bogacki finished second behind Marlin Snyder in the Super Gas class, while Virden driver Chris Sullivan was second in Super Comp. The Super Stock winner was Bill Rowe of Eureka, Mo.