SUSAN WADE: AS THE RUMOR MILL TURNS
Training an entirely new crew, reuniting a six-time Top Fuel champion with his crew chief, and shaking off legal challenges normally would make a single team the obvious story of the NHRA preseason.
“I thought we would be the weird ones,” managing partner Scott Gardner said of the Straightline Strategy Group (SSG) and its Clay Millican-headlined Top Fuel team.
Oh, no, Scott, you’re not even close, not this year.
This offseason has shaped up to be the most intriguing one in years, with so many question marks and last-minute plot twists from the sanctioning body itself just two weeks before the season-opening Lucas Oil Winternationals at Pomona, Calif.
Teams and individuals have been playing key information extremely close to their vests. For example:
* Where is David Grubnic going? He announced before the end of 2018 that he was leaving Stringer Performance, now SSG. That organization has completely changed direction with three new drivers in different categories, making it a conglomerate. Grubnic became tangled in a legal battle with his former team owner, reportedly about intellectual property. The team he allegedly was set to join (many surmise it is John Force Racing) reportedly waited to announce Grubnic’s hiring until he resolves the dispute.
* What’s going on with Brittany Force’s team? John Force Racing no longer has Alan Johnson, who guided Brittany Force to a Top Fuel championship. He and Brian Husen will be working solely with Mike Salinas. Salinas’ team was supposed to add Ashley Sanford, but that deal reportedly collapsed during the PRI Show in December. And JFR has not said anything publicly about who Brittany’s crew chief will be with Johnson and Husen gone. Moreover, the scuttlebutt is that she will have Advance Auto Parts replacing the departed Monster Energy as her sponsor.
* Will Courtney Force race this season? So-far-unconfirmed rumors that the younger Funny Car-driving Force will go on hiatus circulated more vigorously than who’s getting what for Christmas. Again, no announcement of any kind came from JFR about her situation. Fans and media alike heard Courtney is out of the seat and Austin Prock is in. But no one at JFR has said a peep officially about its plans for newcomer Prock and whether he has a sponsor. JFR has indicated it will participate in the preseason test session this next week at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, near Phoenix. So everyone will see then, for sure, who will join John Force and Robert Hight for 2019.
* Is Blake Alexander a quick-change artist? After a breakout season even in a limited run in 2018, Alexander surprised team owner Bob Vandergriff a couple of weeks ago, saying he was “going in a different direction” and leaving the operation. That left the team with only one of two rising stars: Top Fuel rookie Jordan Vandergriff. BVR since has added veteran drag racer and drag-boat champion Shawn Reed and A-Fuel driver Josh Hart. Alexander, according to rumors, was going to bring his self-acquired sponsors with him and take the seat that was supposed to go to Sanford. Then a rumor began to float around that Alexander was going to return to the Funny Car class and team with heretofore-independent Tim Wilkerson.
* Who will replace the U.S. Army as Tony Schumacher’s primary sponsor? This has been a topic of gossip since mid-2018. Stories flew about that either the Navy or the Marines would replace Schumacher’s 19-year Army sponsorship. Then came word during the offseason that DSR had no replacement at all for the eight-time champ’s dragster sponsorship. Rumors have surfaced again that the Marines are on board. But with most of Don Schumacher Racing (DSR) reportedly planning to skip the preseason test session at Chandler, Ariz., Jan. 30-Feb. 3, Tony Schumacher won’t be showing his hand until Pomona.
* Does Leah Pritchett worry about not being able to compete for a full season? In a December 17 Twitter post, the DSR racer – who earned the Factory Stock Showdown crown and finished fourth in Top Fuel – wrote, “Been internet quiet lately... mainly because no one wants to see me on the comp or on the phone all day racking my brain lol. Appreciating everyone that has supported us in 2018, and just trying to make sure we've got what we need to make all 24 races happen in 2019.”
* And what is the NHRA thinking in replacing fulltime official starter Mike Gittings with a revolving door of individuals?
We do know that Mike Green, who led the charge on Top Fuel canopy technology in the NHRA and orchestrated Tony Schumacher’s two most recent championships, has left DSR and gone to Bob Tasca’s Funny Car team to work with crew chief Eric Lane.
We do know that DSR crew chief Neal Strausbaugh, who worked closely with Green for several years, will move from Jack Beckman’s Funny Car to share tuning duties with Todd Okuhara for Leah Pritchett’s dragster.
We do know that SSG has acquired crew chief Jim Oberhofer and increased its footprint in the pits with Funny Car part-timer Paul Lee, Pro Stock’s Matt Hartford, No-Prep Kings/Street Outlaw racer Jeff Lutz, and Janette Thornley, who plans to move from her AMRA Pro Fuel Harley-Davidson into the NHRA Top Fuel Harley class – all with funding help from veteran marketer and former JFR grinder Steve Cole.
We do know that Jack Wyatt will be Millican’s car chief.
But, at the start of this week, we have a few more answers. That is, we have a few more answers that do little to dispel rumors or solve mysteries. But at least some folks have responded to inquiries.
JFR spokeswoman Sara Slaughter told Competition Plus Monday, “We will be releasing our driver, crew chief, and sponsor line-ups over the next week or so.”
Gardner shed some light Monday on the situation with Grubnic.
“Actually, everything has been settled [legally]. Any differences that Doug [Stringer] and Dave Grubnic had are now put to bed, and everybody has sort of gone their own way. That’s totally settled down,” he said.
He said to his knowledge, Grubnic is working at JFR.
“I understand he’s over there, but they haven’t released anything that said that,” Gardner said. “But I do understand that he’s there, from other people telling me that they’ve seen him there.”
JFR, which some say lost around 20 crew members since the 2018 season finale, remains mum about the number of cars it will field this year and who the drivers and crew members will be.
No one seems to be saying where Alexander will land. (That includes Alexander, who as of Monday afternoon had not replied to an inquiry.) But Kelly Wade, Wilkerson’s public-relations representative, told Competition Plus Monday, “Tim Wilkerson Racing has no announcement in the works regarding Blake Alexander.”
She said, “Tim Wilkerson will again race independently as the driver, team owner, and crew chief of the Levi, Ray & Shoup Ford Mustang. He will have a new Ford Mustang body early in the season.”
Tony Schumacher confirmed Monday to Competition Plus that he will not be testing at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park. As for his sponsor, he indicated he has nothing firm to share right now but said his prospect for a strong new marketing partner “looks good.”
DSR has released information this offseason in drips. It has made Strausbaugh’s switch to Funny Car public, and it has acknowledged a multiyear extension with longtime Ron Capps sponsor NAPA Auto Parts, as well as the fact Mopar/Pennzoil-sponsored Pritchett and Matt Hagan will test next week near Phoenix. But it has not revealed anything about personnel changes, other marketing agreements, or news about its other drivers.
Beyond saying it is going to try another system with the official starter position, the sanctioning body has not provided specifics about that significant change that it shocked with last weekend.
“it’s odd,” Gardner said.
Oh, Scott, so many things are at this moment.