COMMENTARY: SUSAN WADE - SOME NEW YEAR’S WISHES FROM COMPETITION PLUS
People make all sorts of New Year’s resolutions. After all, who doesn’t want to be young, beautiful, rich, and smart (or, as the Boy Scouts urge, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent)? Rather than offer any New Year’s resolutions, we at Competition Plus send out some New Year’s Wishes and New Year’s Hopes. Here’s what we’d like to see in 2017:
A receptive attitude from Corporate America as teams seek marketing partnerships
With the NHRA’s latest reports in December that the J&A Service Pro Mod Drag Racing Series enjoyed a whopping 319 percent increase in TV ratings above those in 2015 and the Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series viewership grew by 35 percent with FOX Sports, companies with compatible demographics should be excited. In more than 550 hours of Mello Yello Drag Racing Series programming (compared to 125 hours in 2015 on ESPN), the sport attracted 34.8 million total viewers. That’s 14.5 million more than the previous year. Race-day ratings increased 24 percent from 2015. Maybe most encouraging was that the series drew 47 percent more in 2016 than 2015 among the 18-49-year-old set. That reinforces President Peter Clifford’s assertion that NHRA audiences are trending younger.
Considering the NHRA boasts an intensely loyal fan base and that an investment in an NHRA professional team is considerably more cost-effective than a marketing partnership in a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series team, for example, the time should be ripe for an upswing in corporate interest.
Best wishes to Hector and Nicole (Nobile) Arana in their first full year as a married couple
A fulltime sponsor for Alan Johnson Racing
As far as Competition Plus knows, the much-sought tuner still is making his association with Torrence Racing and John Force Racing work to everyone’s satisfaction. But Morgan Lucas Racing shut down its two-car operation, rumors are that Shawn Langdon will be without a ride as Don Schumacher Racing pares back, Larry Dixon still is without a fulltime gig, Bob Vandergriff Racing bailed out last April, and speculation that Rapisarda Autosport International won’t return from Australia until late in the season. So the sometimes-lean Top Fuel class is getting even leaner. Johnson has put out feelers for sponsorship ever since Qatar’s Sheik Khalid Al-Thani blindsided him a couple of years ago and suddenly halted funding just before pre-season testing. Will someone recognize what Johnson has to offer and jump in the game?
A Countdown berth for Terry McMillen
If anybody loves NHRA drag racing, it’s this earnest Top Fuel owner-driver. Otherwise he would have quit in frustration. He got some love and luck last September, earning the fan-vote-inspired last spot in the Traxxas Top Fuel Shootout. But he missed the cut for the top-10 title-eligible field by a single point in his final chance, at Indianapolis. “I still believe that persistence outweighs resistance. Our dream didn’t die here today in Indy,” McMillen said at the U.S. Nationals. “We’re still a small team with a big dream. We’ll battle back, reset goals, and work the plan.” May he earn some extra points along the way and assure himself a place in his first Countdown.
Great pro starts for Troy Coughlin Jr. and Tanner Gray
They’re articulate, well-mannered, intelligent young men from respected racing families who are ready to make an impact in their respective new classes. Coughlin has competed in Jr. Dragster, Super Comp, Super Gas, and Pro Modified and as the newest driver at Kalitta Motorsports should make his first full passes at either the preseason test session near Phoenix in early February or maybe even at Pomona during the Winternationals. (Remember that Antron Brown was No. 1 qualifier in his first Top Fuel event. And Coughlin has that same ambition.) Gray, a newcomer to drag racing through circle-track ranks, seems to be a natural in a limited number of passes so far in dad Shane Gray’s Pro Stock Camaro. He has the right pedigree, with grandpa Johnny Gray as another one of his mentors. Moreover, he has Dave Connolly, a 26-time Pro Stock winner, as his crew chief. So Coughlin and Gray should be among the most exciting drivers to watch in 2017.
A better season for Elite Motorsports
Both Erica Enders and Jeg Coughlin were gracious during an uncharacteristically futile 2016 season. But she had the previous two Pro Stock championships, he five others before that. And they know how sweet that tastes, so 2016 surely left a sour taste in their mouths. They have another common quality: a positive outlook. Make that two: new Chevrolets. Third teammate Vincent Nobile had a Chevy engine, and it powered him to a victory in three final rounds and three top qualifiers.
Enders promised “bigger and better things to come in 2017” after, in her words, “Me and my guys went down fighting." She said the 2016 “struggles we endured are a testament to what my team is made of. It's not always about the trophies. Yeah, we want to win races – that's what we get paid to do – but it's more about the chemistry and the camaraderie we share. It's something money can't buy. . . .It’s a big reason why people are envious of us. I’m so proud to be this team's driver. I am so blessed. Richard Freeman could have chosen anyone, and he chose me. And our puzzle is complete."
Coughlin said in retrospect, “Really, we had all the right technicians, engineers, cars, parts, et c. We just struggled making power with the new rules and the Mopar. The Chevy that Elite was running under the hood of the Mountain View Pro Stocker was fast. They had a couple No. 1 qualifying positions, made several finals, and pulled off a win in the second half of the season.”
So both Coughlin and Enders are inspired, so already they’re ahead of the game.
A healthy full season for Alexis De Joria
The feisty Funny Car driver missed (amazingly only) two races after suffering a broken pelvis at Sonoma, then had to sit out the season finale at Pomona because of a concussion from an accident at Las Vegas. Sitting around is not her thing. She wants to be in her Tequila Patrón Toyota Camry. And Kalitta Motorsports Vice-President Jim Oberhofer has shuffled personnel a bit, he said, “to give that team the shot in the arm it needs to get back to where we feel it can be – and that’s being a top-five car that can compete for the championship." Nicky Boninfante, and Tommy De Lago will get help from assistant crew chief/car chief David Boyer. Oberhofer said, "It gives Alexis confidence, as well. She’s an excellent driver, and she does a great job driving the car. I know Alexis is fired up about what the future holds for her team." Super-stoked, she’d say. Super-healthy would be nice so she could improve on her 10th-place finish.
Some better racing luck for Cruz Pedregon
The Snap-on Tools Toyota owner-driver scattered a mere six elimination-round victories throughout the 24-race season, along with 18 first-round losses. Surely he’ll fare better in 2017 after adding former Morgan Lucas Racing tuner and car designer Aaron Brooks as crew chief. Brooks has extensive Funny Car experience, so he’ll return to his roots. And Pedregon can resume his winning ways, provided he keeps all four wheels on the ground. Pedregon at once scared and thrilled the crowd at Las Vegas last fall, flying through the air at about 200 mph to advance in eliminations. He’s well-grounded, figuratively speaking, and he hopes to be well-grounded literally, as well.
An NHRA Top Fuel victory for Clay Millican
The popular former IHRA dominator has come close with eight runner-up efforts but none since the fall Las Vegas race in 2013, when he reached four final rounds. It’s time for something momentously terrific to happen for Millican and his hard-working Stringer Performance team.
A strong performance for Neal Strausbaugh in his crew chief debut
The low-key longtime assistant to Mike Green with the U.S. Army Top Fuel team is part of an intriguing new trio of tuners for Jack Beckman and his Infinite Hero team at Don Schumacher Racing. He has moved over to the Funny Car side and will share duties with John Medlen and 22-year John Force Racing veteran Dean “Guido” Antonelli. Call the “The Three Tuners.” By November, we might be calling them champions.
Earplugs for Doug Kalitta
As soon as Ron Capps clinched his first Funny Car championship, shedding his label as the most successful NHRA driver not to win a series title, the media at the Finals at Pomona last November tainted Doug Kalitta’s 42nd career victory by saying essentially, “Tag, you’re it.” Kalitta laughed it off, saying, “Yeah, I’m still on that list. I’m sure I’ll hear about it all year again.” Maybe no one will bring it up again. On second thought, if he just gets some earplugs, he won’t have to hear it.
Success in the Funny Car class for JR Todd
Just when Todd was cranking up a Top Fuel rivalry with teammate Doug Kalitta, Todd will switch to a Funny Car. Del Worsham left Kalitta Motorsports for familiar pastures, opting to race again with dad Chuck Worsham, his partner in grime for his first two decades of pro drag racing. Todd inherited the seat and turned over his dragster keys to Troy Coughlin Jr. "It’s about Scott Kalitta. It’s about how bad-ass of a driver he was, and how bad-ass of a person he was,” Oberhofer said. “I feel like JR has that same swagger that Scott had. So I think he’s going to do a great job." Todd will work with crew chiefs Jon Oberhofer and Todd Smith.
An end to the parade back and forth down Northfield Drive in Brownsburg, Ind.
The migration between the John Force Racing and Don Schumacher Racing shops is getting silly. We don’t have all the facts about what goes on behind closed doors at either place. And we don’t take sides. But in our defense, we’re having a hard time remembering who is working where. Help us out by staying put for awhile.
Another shot at driving gigs for Richie Crampton and Larry Dixon and Shawn Langdon
Dixon and Langdon are champions, and Crampton was heading in that direction. They have earned the chance to keep racing.
A large bottle of aspirin for Graham Light
The NHRA’s Senior Vice-President of Racing Operations likely will need it. That would have been a great stocking stuffer.
Something to keep Antron Brown and his team from getting bored
Three-time champion Brown outdid himself in 2016. He said those “remarkable” feats surprised even himself because he didn’t think it was possible for him and his Matco Tools team to do better than it did in 2015. As of the day he repeated his championship, at Las Vegas this past fall, Brown had three championships in five years. And he and the Brian Corradi- / Mark Oswald-led team have earned 30 victories in 47 final rounds. Brown has won about 40 percent of his elimination rounds in 119 events and 45 Top Fuel wins in 212 starts. Since Brown switched from the Pro Stock Motorcycle class to Top Fuel in 2008, no nitro-class driver has won more event titles. Brown has matched career-bests for victories (seven) and final rounds (11). During that stretch, he has earned more Wally trophies than the next two Top Fuel racers combined. Brown has averaged six Top Fuel victories a season. Only one other racer has earned as many in any one year – he won seven in his 2013 championship season. With even fewer opponents in 2017, it would be a shame for Brown ever to get bored.
So in order to make things more challenging for Brown, maybe once in a while he should give his opponents a head start at the Christmas Tree. Or maybe he should have his three children sit behind him on every run and ask, “Can we stop and get a hamburger?” and “Are we there yet?” and “Look, Daddy – there’s a pterodactyl!”
Brown’s opponents need to work to find an edge against him if they want to be competitive. As Brandon Bernstein once remarked, “Give a brother a break.”
Some common sense for a few fans who blow statements out of proportion
Stop it, people – and you know who you are.
In this age of whiny political-correctness (although it’s unclear who decided what’s “politically correct”), too many times a remark or written word triggers self-righteous and unjustified protest. For example, someone complained that an NHRA announcer went too far in talking about Antron Brown and his quest for a sweep of the Western Swing. The announcer, who certainly meant no disrespect, referred to “a brother with a broom.” The complainer called the NHRA, urging the dismissal of the announcer and accusing the announcer of stirring up images of slavery. Honestly. Stop it.
Later this past fall, another incident arose that involved Brown. It came after Brown defeated Brittany Force in the final round at Reading and told the media, “I couldn’t see nothin’. It was pitch white.” His visor was completely fogged in the damp night air. The headline read: ‘BLIND’ BROWN PULLS OFF HOLESHOT VICTORY FOR SECOND OF COUNTDOWN. Somebody complained that Competition Plus was mocking blind and vision-impaired individuals. That wasn’t true. How stupid. Stop it.
(WRITER’S NOTE: In the interest of fairness in journalism, as Bob Frey would say . . . I was the one who covered the Brown victory at Reading, and I wrote the offending headline. It’s unfortunate someone misinterpreted plain English. Nowhere did anyone mock the blind. I never would do that. Antron Brown said he couldn’t see. Just for the record . . . When I was a young reporter, I suffered burns in both eyes. The wonderful doctors at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway treated me, and I have terrific eyesight and no lasting damage. And I am thankful to God for that every single day. So I don’t take the blessing of vision lightly. People just need to stop and use some common sense, which evidently isn’t all that common anymore.)
Down off the soapbox, we have a few more quick wishes for 2017:
At least one more victory for Dan Fletcher but seven more in all so he can break Frank Manzo’s record
More money for Justin Shearer (“Big Chief”) so he can come out with his Pro Mod car and bring his legion of fans
Safe racing for everybody
Happy New Year!