Rumor Mill

2017 NHRA WINTERNATIONALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK

 

 

       

 

SUNDAY

PRITCHETT, PAPA JOHN’S PIZZA DRAGSTER SIZZLING HOT IN TOP FUEL - Leah Pritchett, in the piping-hot Papa John’s Pizza Dragster, served up delicious defiance Sunday at the Circle K NHRA Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, Calif.

In earning her second career victory, Pritchett, 28, who grew up in nearby Redlands and began her drag- racing journey at this racetrack at age eight in a Jr. Dragster, proved that perseverance pays off.

She (along with the entire two-car team) was abandoned last April when former team owner Bob Vandergriff abruptly shut down his operation. It was a plunging low, for it came right after she had claimed her first victory, at Phoenix.

But Pritchett slogged through that initial jolt, as well as the mood swings that come with cold-calling and networking alike in searching for marketing partners to keep going. She cobbled together a full slate of national events last season. She landed a deal with elite Don Schumacher Racing - and a Countdown to the championship berth. She improved from 10th to seventh in the final standings. And she secured funding from Papa John’s Pizza for this year.

She savored the taste of triumph Sunday, running away from final-round opponent Doug Kalitta, who immediately lost traction in his Mac Tools Dragster and crossed the finish line in 7.630 seconds at  103.85 mph.0'

Pritchett’s winning 3.711 elapsed time at 324.98 mph on the 1,000-foot course helped her make some history. She became the 40th Winternationals winner but only the fifth female (following Shirley Muldowney, Shelly Anderson, Lori Johns, and Melanie Troxel). She headlined a trio of top qualifiers who all wound up in the winners circle, marking the first time since the July 2015 event at Sonoma, Calif., that has happened. She shared the podium with DSR colleague Matt Hagan (Funny Car) and Jason Line (Pro Stock).

“This is the best thing that’s ever happened to me professionally. The last 10 days make up for the first part of last year,” Pritchett said.

The stretch includes testing at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, near Phoenix, where she turned in four of the top five performances of the preseason warm-up and unofficially made the quickest run in NHRA history at 3.654 seconds in the Todd Okuhara-Joe Barlam-prepared dragster.  

Pritchett also hadn’t forgotten she fouled out at this race last year, and she said, “I have waited all last year to redeem myself.”

This, she said, is the best situation she could imagine.

“We have the perfect group of people and a car that is reacting. Sometimes you tell a car what to do . . .  and it wants to be a stubborn child. Not this thing. This thing is a straight-A, ‘perfect-kid in school’ kind of [car] and we’re taking full advantage of it.,” Pritchett said.

She will return to Chandler, Ariz., for the Feb. 24-26 NHRA Arizona Nationals as the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series tour continues. (Susan Wade)

HAGAN KICKS OFF SEASON WITH HUGE WINTERNATIONALS VICTORY - Sometimes, you just have to keep moving forward.

After a turbulent and extremely emotional offseason for two-time Funny Car champion Matt Hagan following the unexpected passing of his brother back in January, the only medicine that could possibly ease the soul and make the world right again is the one that comes from stomping the gas of a nitro-powered Funny Car.

So that is exactly what Hagan set out to do this weekend.

With a heavy heart, Hagan returned to the seat of the Mopar Express Lane Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car and dominated the weekend with the quickest pass of the weekend and an exciting, albeit sometimes lucky, round of eliminations as Hagan drove to his 23rd career victory and second at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona at the 57th annual Circle K Winternationals.

“This is a really special race for me. "A lot of stuff happened over the offseason with losing my brother and just to come out motivated has been awesome,” Hagan said. My lights have been great. The car is running great. We just have a real powerhouse team right now. And I have to say thank you to Don Schumacher. There are a line of drivers that would sit in that car and take my job tomorrow. I just try to do a good job for him and, right now, we have a great team around us.”

Hagan helped secure an all-Don Schumacher Racing winner’s circle with a win over Courtney Force in the final, as teammate Leah Pritchett joined him in the championship celebration from the Top Fuel side.

In a testy final between two teams that made waves throughout the weekend through the back-and-forth banter between the two team patriarchs, Hagan bested JFR’s Courtney Force in a close and extremely exciting final round.

After getting to the line late and almost facing disqualification, Hagan fired first, completed his burnout and awaited the same from Force. When the light flashed green, Hagan held a narrow advantage at the hit and held that advantage throughout in taking the win with a 3.875-second pass at 330.07 mph. Force, in the Advance Auto Parts Chevy Camaro, had a 3.901 at 326.95 mph.

“We were a little behind in our warm-up. We had a brand new guy strapping me in and we were just a little rough around the edges,” Hagan said. “But it is coming around. I have much respect for Courtney, that she waited for us. We would have done the same thing. It was very sportsmanlike of them to wait and we appreciate that.

“During the run, I could hear her right beside me. I couldn’t see the win light because of the sun, so I was just trying over the radio, ‘did we win, did we win.’ As soon as I hit the chutes, I saw her nose pop out in front of me so I knew it was really close. When I heard my guys screaming and yelling over the radio, I’m thinking we must have got it.

“Anytime we can put those Forces on the trailer, that is what we need to do. We are here to win and Don expects us to win. I am excited. I am pumped up. It is a very special win for me following an emotional offseason and it is good to put the mouthpiece in and get it done.”

Hagan’s road to the final included a pair of wins over his Don Schumacher teammates as Hagan bested Ron Capps and Jack Beckman to reach his 43rd final round. In round two Beckman gave the eventual winner all he had in an extremely close race with Hagan turning on the win light with a 3.882 to a 3.893, while Capps gave away the semifinal round with a huge red light.

To add to the excitement, in the semifinal round, Hagan’s solo pass proved a bit more tumultuous than he would have hoped as he dropped a cylinder just past the 330-foot mark and came dangerously close to the centerline. After close inspection, NHRA determined that Hagan did not cross.

“I had a little luck today. Both Jeff Diehl and Capps red-lighted on me, but I guess I’d rather be lucky than good any day,” Hagan said. “In the semifinal, we smoked the tires and put a couple of cylinders out and really washed over there hard and it was all I could do to reel it back in and not cross the centerline. You can only do so much and the steering wheel will only turn so far, and even when you’ve got it turned all the way across, the car still has to wash and momentum has to come that way and sometimes you just have to ride it out.

“But that’s what makes life fun. That is why you saddle up everytime. It is just a neat feeling to crawl in a car where you never know what’s going to happen. I think that’s what makes these cars so exciting. In a Funny Car, there is something new every lap.”

And Hagan’s path to victory wasn’t his alone. While any driver will be quick to plug his or her crew as the reason for their success, in the case of Hagan, it was the teamwork of a crew just coming together that truly made the difference on Sunday.

“It’s a cool feeling to hear (my team) get excited. I wish sometimes I could trade with them and see their excitement,” Hagan said. “Those are the guys who have really worked all day long. I’ve got a nice lounge to sit in, but those guys are out there all day long. You look at their shirts and they are drenched in sweat. They are busting their butt.

“But you have to put it in perspective. You have a couple of guys who almost can’t get through the service because they have never had to work that hard yet where we are trading some guys around. One guy is cramping up and another guy is jumping in there to do his service and you look at that and see that those guys are really killing it. I have a lot of respect for that.”

Through that team effort, Hagan starts off the season with a win and the points lead with 23 more races to go.

“This is the first race of the year and you say, ok, that is great. But there is a long season ahead of us,” Hagan said. “We just have to keep some of this momentum going and we will be fine.” (Larry Crum)

LINE COLLECTS FIFTH WINTERNATIONALS WIN IN ALL-SUMMIT RACING FINAL - The more things change, the more they stay the same.

And if Sunday was any indication of the year ahead, the racers of NHRA’s Pro Stock class could once again be in for a long season.

Despite sizeable gains made by many of the teams during the offseason, the dynamic duo of Jason Line and Greg Anderson - who dominated much of the 2016 season - looked like they haven’t missed a beat, qualifying one-two and reaching the finals together for the 35th time in their careers as the defending series champion Line took the win at the 57th annual Circle K Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona.

With the win, Line ties Warren Johnson with five career Winternationals victories and extended his own series-best streak of 14 consecutive years with at least one win. It was also Line’s sixth Pomona final in the last seven races at the southern California track.

“It is a good way to start the season,” Line said. “I am not really into stats, but that is a cool stat. My dad is into stats. He keeps on me to make sure I win Pomona, make sure I keep the streak going. It’s a cool thing. Anytime you can come to Pomona and win it’s a cool thing. I am very excited, very happy and a little bit relieved. Just a great day for the KB Racing Summit cars.”

Line looked unbeatable much of the weekend, taking the number one spot before cutting up the field with near-flawless accuracy. In the final, Line and Anderson met for the 11th time in the last 25 races, with the defending champion leading from start to finish to collect his 46th career victory.

In the championship tilt, Line got the jump on his teammate with a .005 reaction time and never trailed en route to a 6.568-second pass at 211.10 mph. Anderson had a 6.579 at 211.56 in the runner-up effort.

“It looks like we wasted a perfectly good light on him,” Line said with a laugh. “You know you have to be close to perfect or else you aren’t going to beat him. I know how much power he has because he has the same stuff I have. Whoever lets your foot out first, that’s your winner. It really puts a lot of pressure on the driver, but today I was able to do a good job and get it done. I was really hoping this was the year Greg passes Warren for wins, but not enough to let him win.”

Line added wins over Bo Butner, Tanner Gray and Val Smeland to reach his 93rd career final.

Both Gray and Butner gave Line fits, with Gray leading their matchup until just past half-track and both drivers running comparable times to the eventual winner.

While the KB Racing team once again ruled the day when it mattered most, there continued to be incremental gains made by many of the teams as the gap continues to shrink in the new era of Pro Stock racing.

“There is always a little bit of self doubt (coming into the season). You know what everybody else did in the offseason, and for us it was more about refinement than coming up with an actual recipe, and to be able to qualify one and two and finish one-two and have three cars in the semis is a big deal,” Line said. “There is no guarantee it is going to keep going. They want to win as bad as we do and they are going to be tough, no question.

“Pretty soon, it is going to be more like it was the last few years. But with the package the way that it is, you only have so much latitude to work. So whoever does the best job tuning is going to be your fastest car. It is going to be a challenge.”

Despite the continued performance gains by the other teams, it was still Line and Anderson left standing at the end, and Line will take that any day of the week - even if the challenge of facing his teammate isn’t always the easiest.

“He’s tough to beat. If there is one person I don’t want to race in the final round, it is him,” Line said. “He wants to win more than any person I have met in my entire life. Sometimes he gets hammered on a little bit for that, but there is nothing wrong with that. It’s a great thing. If I’m hiring a racecar driver, he’s my guy.

“We enjoy racing each other. If we both get to the final, KB and Summit win, but each one of us still wants to win. Our guys take pride in the car they work on winning the race and so do we.” (Larry Crum)

SATURDAY - McMILLEN SEES IMPROVEMENT; FORCES FIGHT FOR SPOTS AFTER LEADER HAGAN; ENGINE EXPLOSIONS, WALL SLAPS, SAND-SURFING MARK SATURDAY QUALIFYING

TOP FUEL

LUCKY NO. 7 – Terry McMillen used a 3.734-second elapsed time in his Rob Wendland-tuned, Don Schumacher Racing-built Amalie Oil Dragster to score a seventh-place start. In what surely will be a tongue-tangler for public-address announcer Alan Rinehart in Sunday’s first round, McMillen and Clay Millican will face off against each other. This start is McMillen’s best since last June at Englishtown, N.J., when he also was seventh in the order.  
HADDOCK , BUFF BLOW UP ENGINES – Terry Haddock’s Saturday qualifying began with a huge engine explosion and oildown in the third overall session.

Then Troy Buff was on a run that ultimately put him in the No. 9 starting position, but he rode out a 3.795-second career-best blast that ended in a blast, literally. His engine blew right at the finish line, and the BME/Okuma Dragster team owner Bill Miller took exception to the track announcer’s use of the word “pyrotechnics.”

Miller scolded, “You call that pyrotechnics? That was about $3,000 of my money! Pyrotechnics is like the Fourth of July. That was a pain in my ass!”

REED VERSUS COUGHLIN – Shawn Reed, in his second Top Fuel season, qualified 11th and will take on class rookie Troy Coughlin Jr.0

BUSY CHASING MONEY – Shawn Langdon, sidelined without adequate funding but still on the payroll at Don Schumacher Racing, said he turned down offers from various friends to drive in the sportsman ranks at his home track here. “I’m very focused on getting back in the seat of the Top Fuel dragster at Don Schumacher Racing. I want to give 100 percent focus to that,” he said.
 

FUNNY CAR

PEDREGON OVERCOMING OPENING-DAY GLITCHES – The one driver who had some of the highest hopes had one of the most frustrating times during the first day of the 2017 season. Funny Car owner-driver Cruz Pedregon rolled onto the property buoyed by hiring Aaron Brooks, the tuner he regards as the pick of the off-season “free-agent” litter. But they  encountered a couple of speed bumps Friday.  

In the opening session, Pedregon made a burnout, but he couldn’t kick his Snap-on Tools Toyota into reverse. So he rolled on down the track, and Jeff Diehl had to wait for his solo pass. (Although Diehl’s car took a jag to the left and he got out of the throttle, he still ended up with the 12th-place spot and later ended up 13th, tentatively.)

Pedregon’s luck wasn’t much better in the second session. His car spun the tires and he finished the day last among the 18 entrants.

Despite the first-day glitches, the two-time champion stands by his car and what he thinks of its potential.  

Pedregon said it doesn’t matter whether a crew and car come from a one-car, two-car, or three-car operation. What matters most, he said, is “How well did your guys prepare the car during those long winter months. Time will tell. I told Aaron this, and I meant every bit of it . . . I’ve been around cars – the McDonald’s cars that Larry Minor owned, the Joe Gibbs cars that we raced under the McDonald’s banner, and all the cars in between, my championship car in ’08 with [crew chief Rahn] Tobler . . . This car is the best prepared car and the car that has been scrutinized. It’s the lightest car. It’s like in the Formula One category.

“This car is a brand-new car, through and through. You’ll notice subtle changes – like, the injector, you won’t see the familiar four-blade; you’ll see the three-blade that he’s familiar with. You won’t see the dual wheelie bar; you’ll see the single wheelie bar. When I say I changed things, we didn’t just change the clutch and the motor. Oh, no – we’ve changed how the way the bodies are mounted, where they’re mounted, how the wings are mounted, the height of the wing. It’ll still be a red Snap-on car, but it’ll be so different,” he said. “We changed the front end a little bit, so the car will handle different, even the steering. You would have to try real hard to [name] one widget or one thing on the car we didn’t change: the throttle-pedal position, the throttle cable, everything. There is nothing we did not change.”

And that, he said, “is the way a car should be built -  not the way I had at the Finals.”

Brooks didn’t join the team until December 27, after a trip to Germany. “He didn’t get going until after about a month after Pomona. We had already put our deal together. But physically we had to do a lot after Christmas. These guys are working 16-hour days for weeks and we barely made it [to the Phoenix test session]. That’s what professional people do,” Pedregon said.

“Aaron knows how to do things only one way, and that’s right,” he said. “I would sum up Aaron in one word: professional. He’s a pro, and I appreciate that. If I know one thing, I know what it takes. Everything he’s learned he’s bringing to the party now, all the experiences balled into one. He spent the dragster years running 3.60s, which is hard to do.”

Lately, Pedregon said, so many troubles have plagued his car that his tuning expertise didn’t make the difference. He said, “The knobs got turned the right way, in my opinion. But there were so many bugs that were wrong with the car that the knob-turning became kind of irrelevant.”

He said Brooks is looking forward to the next Funny Car performance challenge, asking, “OK, what’s the performance envelope with the Funny Car?” Pedregon said, “He exploited that in Top Fuel. I’m sure he’s going to do it here. He’s got the car. And I’m happy for Snap-on and Toyota and all the sponsors who stuck with me.”

The team has five core mechanics and a few who have joined this winter from the former Lucas Oil Dragster team.

“We’re all going to ride this wave together. Everybody’s in it together,” Pedregon said. “I think the biggest thing for me is figuring out what I can do with all this time on my hands. I’m not going to sit back in the lounge and play checkers. I’m going to be asking, ‘What else do we need?’ or ‘Do we need to make this better?’ But this is good – I feel like I’ve earned this.”

Playfully he reminded that “Juan Mota,” his alter-ego crew chief, still is lurking: “Juan Mota is just laying in the weeds. Juan Mota is always there. He’s always there.”

He’ll be watching, no doubt, when No. 9 Pedregon takes on No. 8 Jack Beckman.

SHE’S BACK – Alexis DeJoria, plagued in the second half of 2016 first by a broken pelvis at Sonoma, then a concussion at Las Vegas, was thrilled to be back on the track in her Tequila Patron Toyota Camry. “Man, I’ve missed this so much,” she said. De Joria, the No. 7 qualifier, will race No. 10 Tommy Johnson Jr. in the opening round of eliminations.  


 

Tim Wilkerson

TODD, WILKERSON READY TO RACE –DHL Toyota Camry driver JR Todd said late Saturday that he hoped his team will  have “all of the bugs worked out before we go racing tomorrow." His 3.936-second elapsed time at 329.42 mph from the first session Friday held up as his best of the weekend. It also is his career-best in a Funny Car after switching in the offseason from a Top Fuel dragster. He qualified 11th and will try to take out Tim Wilkerson in Round 1.

Wilkerson, too, hopes nothing goofy will happen to him, either, like it did Saturday in the last qualifying go.

The and the Levi, Ray, and Shoup Ford Shelby Mustang craned out a Unfortunately, Wilkerson had trouble with the racing surface.
 
"After we did the burnout and backed up, I saw four or five guys on the starting line with mops running around, so I got on the radio and asked if we were leaking. Of course, our guys crawled all over the thing and could see we were dry as a bone," Wilkerson said. "The starter saw that we were dry and let us run, and the car pulled the tires loose about 60-feet – like it ran through some oil."

JR Todd

He invited the NHRA tech department officials to follow him to his pit area after the stunted pass and check the car over, and they confirmed that it was dry and had not left any liquid on the racetrack.
 
"I'm not chastising anyone, and I'm sure it was just spray from the headers of somebody that was ahead of us," Wilkerson said. "It's a bad deal, but I don't know if it had any bearing on our run. It just pulled the tires loose, which is kind of strange.
 
"We made two [good] runs out of four, and the track was really tricky that last run. Not too many people were able to get down there very well. As soon as the track temperature gets below 80, it's pretty difficult to contend with, and we tried to hit it pretty hard,” he said.

“I'm not disappointed with the weekend so far. We're teaching our new guys how to work on the car, and they're doing good. The car is running well and not really hurting anything,” No. 6 seed Wilkerson said. “Tomorrow, we'll just go up there and race the racetrack. Hopefully, with any luck, we can make the car go down the track again and get into the next round.”

MISSED THE CUT – Jeff Arend, driving Steve Pleuger’s 2012 Impala, and Gary Densham, who had to sit out last year’s race because of a car-destroying trip into the top-end catch-fence, failed to qualify. Jeff Diehl, in his 2011 Toyota Solara, took the bump spot at 4.564 seconds and will square off against Matt Hagan Sunday morning.

FUNNY CAR WARM-UP? – Jonnie Lindberg, scheduled to drive Jim Head’s Funny Car at selected races this year, took over the seat of Jay Payne’s Top Alcohol Funny Car this weekend after the NHRA placed Payne’s TAFC license on indefinite probation, citing numerous on-track incidents. Lindberg advanced to Round 2 of eliminations Saturday past Chris Marshall. Lindberg is seeking a third consecutive TAFC victory at this event.

BODE BANGS BARRIER – Bob Bode qualified 13th for the privilege of racing current Funny Car champion and 2016 Winternationals winner Ron Capps in Sunday’s first round of eliminations. And even Bode isn’t superstitious, he arrived at that berth with plenty of bad luck.

He began the season with a tardy arrival at the starting line. Finally, he performed a burnout, and when he backed up and the crew was ready to lower the body, it came loose in the back. The crew scrambled to fix that but could not, so Bode had to cut off the engine and miss a chance to qualify – a chance that looked like it might be the last of the day with rain threatening. In one bit of positive luck, the class was able to get in most of a second session before the showers arrived.

He recorded a 4.142-second, 285.29-mph pass to claim the tentative No. 6 position. But the effort came with an engine-smoking ending that capped a fight to keep the car from crossing the center line.

His next time out was no better. It was worse. Apparently with damaged steering, his car cruised across the centerline and hit the wall in front of Jack Beckman, who had slowed considerably with his own mechanical problems. No one was injured.

Safely in the field, Bode opted out of his last chance to improve.

ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE – Robert Hight’s Funny Car ran over some debris on the racetrack during the last qualifying session Saturday that left one of its Goodyear slicks with a sizeable gash and, ultimately, a flat. But this car got plenty of roadside assistance – not only was the Safety Safari on hand, but his Auto Club of Southern California Chevy Camaro also has a California Highway Patrol paint scheme and logo this weekend.

After all that – and the memory of a 2016 season with only one victory and an eighth-place finish – the 2009 champion said he’s eager for the first race day of 2017. As the No. 5 qualifier, he has to line up against No. 12 Del Worsham in the first round.

“Cannot wait to get going again,” Hight said, adding that “2016 wasn’t my best year, and this Auto Club team needs to go out and redeem themselves. We’re a better team than No. 8 – which is what’s on the side of our car. We have a lot to prove this year.

“I cannot wait for Sunday morning of the Winternationals,” the 37-time winner said. “It’s race day – it’s finally here. Everybody starts with the same points, and with any luck, you win that race and you’re the new points leader. That’s the goal.”

“We have a great team: Jon Schaffer and Jason McCullough over here helping Mike Neff, and we’ve got some new guys who are gung-ho. The attitudes are just unbelievable. Everybody together so well in testing, and it was just so much fun to be with a team like this,” Hight said. “When we start running well and winning races, it’s only going to get better. We can go win Pomona. We’ve done it several times [three], and I believe we’ve got the car to do it.”

After the mishap in qualifying, the crew replaced the flat tire before the car returned to the pit area.

“Maybe we were so embarrassing the first three runs to the Highway Patrol that they put one of those strips across the track, because we had a flat tire,” Hight said jokingly.

The CHP-copycat race car made its debut this past Wednesday at a media gathering. The paint scheme will appear on the body of Hight’s Camaro again at the Finals here in November.

It helped kick off the new NHRA Salutes First Responders program.

“To get to run a CHP car is pretty cool,” Hight said. “It fits the theme that NHRA put together. When I told Tom McKernan from Auto Club, he was so excited about it because the CHP and Auto Club do a lot of things together. When Pomona is over, I’m definitely going to have the world’s fastest Highway Patrol car.”

The black-and-white Chevrolet is designed to look like a CHP cruiser and will help bring awareness to California’s Move Over law.

The Move Over law, passed in 2007 and amended in 2009 to include tow trucks and construction vehicles, requires drivers to move over a lane to the left when safe to do so and/or slow down if they see a stationary emergency vehicle displaying flashing lights.  

 “It’s very cool that NHRA is saluting the first responders,” Hight said. “It just fits in Auto Club’s wheelhouse because they really get behind the CHP. I look at the service providers at Auto Club as first responders. When somebody’s having a problem, they call the AAA agents, who get the techs out to the customer. That’s a first responder. They’re helping Auto Club members, just like the CHP, ambulance, and fire departments.”

The NHRA Salutes First Responders program will highlight police, fire, medical and recovery services, and the military during this year’s 24 races.

“Pomona is probably one of my favorite races,” Hight said. “Everything is new. You get to go out and see everybody’s new paint jobs. A lot of fans come out to see what everyone has new for the year. It’s just exciting, and everybody can’t wait to get going. It’s been too long of a winter. You know Pomona is fast, and you can go out there and set records. For me, it’s special because it’s Auto Club Raceway at Pomona. We’re going to show off for our sponsors. We’ve got a new program with Auto Club that all the fans need to come out and see at the midway. Joey Logano and I did some filming, and it’s going to be a lot of fun. The fans are going to be in for quite a treat.”

John Force

FORCES DUKE IT OUT FOR NOS. 2-3 SPOTS – After Courtney Force registered the top three elapsed times during the Nitro Spring Training testing event last weekend at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park near Phoenix, she figured she and her Advance Auto Parts Chevrolet Camaro team were settling into a rhythm. During a test pass, she clocked a 3.804-second E.T., unofficially the quickest in Funny Car history. And she seems to be correct.

She was third in the lineup Saturday after closing Friday as the provisional No. 2 qualifier. But her dad, John Force, matched her 3.849-second performance Saturday and bumped her to No. 3 with a faster speed. He topped her 330.23 mph with his 335.15. Both trailed leader Matt Hagan, who equaled his own national E.T. and speed records.

“My dad got around us with that 335 mph, but it’s really cool that we’re running so close to each other, and (teammate) Robert (Hight) is right behind,” Courtney Force said. JFR represented well, taking three of the top five places Saturday.

Still, Hagan denied a John Force Racing driver the top spot, and JFR had claimed the honor for four of the previous five Winternationals.

Courtney Force

Before Hagan made his final qualifying pass, John Force was giddy with his feat, which at least temporarily gave him the track speed record.

With his 335.15-mph blast, John Force clocked the second-fastest speed in NHRA Funny Car history. Only Matt Hagan, at Topeka last May and again here Saturday night, was speedier, at 335.57 mph. Force’s blast shattered Jack Beckman’s three-month-old track record of 332.84. It lasted only until Hagan made his run.

The 16-time champion and 147-time winner enjoyed the moment to the maximum. The PEAK Chevy Camaro driver, Force went from zero to outrageous in three seconds. He bounced from remarks about his extended sponsorship to his harem of crew chiefs, rival mega-team owner Don Schumacher, and first responders (honorees in a season-long NHRA initiative).

“Peak signed me for life! Peter Clifford [NHRA president] thought he’d get rid of me! But they’re going to let me drive as long as I want, which is pretty cool. Of course, at my age, I might last another week or two,” he said, just warming up. “I’ve got more crew chiefs. It’s like having a bunch of wives. This is expensive! . . . Schumacher and me, one of these days we’re actually going to become friends. He don’t know it, but we’re going to be .  . . . God bless America. Don’t ever forget the armed services, the firemen, the first responders. Don’t get aggravated at ‘em. Love ‘em. I fell over there, and a guy was trying to give me mouth-to-mouth. I said, ‘Can I get one of the cute ones?’ He said no.”

When Force relinquished the microphone, announcer Brian Lohnes quipped, “The Funny Car went 335. His jaw just went 337.”

“I’m looking forward to race day, the first one on the 2017 season,” Courtney Force said. “I’m really excited to hopefully put on a good show for the Advance Auto Parts team, and the Chevy Camaro is obviously running pretty solid. We going to try to keep it consistent through race day. ”She’ll start against Jim Campbell in his debut with Jim Dunn Racing. She has defeated him three times, all first-round encounters.

John Force will face No. 15 qualifier Phil Burkart Jr. in Round 1.

BURKART TACKLES FIRST OF SIX RACES – Veteran driver and capable mechanic Phil Burkart Jr. is back in the Dodge Charger he raced last fall at Las Vegas for Robert and Lisa Schwab, of Australia.

Schwab called the operation “a new team with big dreams” and said, “At this point we are figuring out how to compete at this level, so selecting a veteran driver like Phil really helps us tune the car. He’s very steady and methodical in the driver’s seat, so that removes many of the variables we deal with run after run.”

Terry Manzer and Schwab tune the car for Burkart, who has driven during the years for such teams as John Force Racing and Del Worsham Racing and has won four Funny Car trophies in nine final-round appearances.

“I’m honored Robert and Lisa trust me with their car,” Burkart said. “It’s certainly fun to be back out there racing again, knowing we have at least a partial schedule of events to run. Robert’s a really good guy trying to make a go of it, and he has good equipment.”

Plans call for competing at Phoenix, Las Vegas, Topeka, Epping, and Englishtown with additional sponsorship from Burkart Automotive.
 

PRO STOCK

HUGGINS PLOWS INTO SAND – The anguish was evident in Tom Huggins’ voice and on his face before he bowed his head in disappointment. Returning to the Pro Stock class was an item on the Santa Paula, Calif., resident’s bucket list.

But his adventure turned into a salvage effort when during the early Saturday qualifying session his parachutes failed to deploy and the year-old Dodge Dart he purchased from V Gaines slammed about three car lengths into the sand at the end of the track. He had clocked a 202.03-mph speed at the finish line.

(He said he never had recorded a 200-mph pass but finally crossed that off his to-do list last week during preseason testing at Las Vegas.)

“It’s tough to drive ‘em, and it’s tough when the ‘chutes don’t come out. What I need to do is get on the blinders and drive it straight,” he said, trying to mask his sadness with humor. But he couldn’t do that for long.

“V Gaines sold me a really nice car, and I tore it up,” Huggins said. “I’m really sorry. I’m very sorry.”

He had said hours before qualifying began Friday that Gaines “gave us a good deal, a good package. The last thing he said was ‘Take good care of it.’ ”

Because of the accident, he was the lone entrant to miss the cut in the 16-car field.

The Hot Rod Heritage Series veteran, who finished sixth last year in the A-Gas category and has decades of experience in the Comp Eliminator and Super Stock classes, had been super-excited to race the Pro Stock car.

“It was something I wanted to do really bad, real bad,” Huggins said. “I’ve been pretty successful at some of the other venues. We went to NHRA Hot Rod Heritage Series racing. The guys over there are extremely tough. I really enjoyed it, but I wanted to go faster.

“I’m a pretty happy guy,” the 68-year-old racer said. “This is the twilight of my years. This is something I’ve wanted to do all my life. We’re doing it for the love of it.”

Wife Sharon told him, “It’s a good deal. You want to do it.  You’re not getting any younger. Let’s do it.”

He said Seattle-area racer Aaron Strong inspired him.

“I don’t even know Aaron Strong. But he tried and he did it. He did it! And at Indianapolis [where the rained-out Seattle final was completed]! How cool is that?!” Huggins said. “He doesn’t even know how many people he inspired. He was a sportsman Comp racer, and there are a lot of good, good, good Comp racers who have moved on. V Gaines was Comp racer and Rodger Brogdon and Chris McGaha.

“For years we had a Super Stock and Comp car,” he said, sharing that he realized the parts and pieces are the same. “Comp was getting so expensive. Pretty soon you could see that we might as well do this,” he said.

He hired experienced tuner Jeff Perley on a part-time basis and said, “That was a good choice. He certainly helped us.”

The plan at the start of the year was to attend both Pomona races, both Las Vegas events, and the Sonoma race.

“I was here in 1970, when Bill Jenkins pulled that white Camaro around this corner to race Ronnie Sox in the final in the first Pro Stock race,” Huggins reminisced before Friday racing. “And it’s been an inspiration ever since. They were in cars – and I had a car – and if you closed your eyes enough [to dream], maybe you could have one, too. And I got one. I wouldn’t want to race either one of them today.”  

PRUSINESKY STILL PUSHING TOWARD TOP – Alan Prusiensky, the ARC Race Engines Dodge Dart owner-driver from Rockaway, N.J., said even before he stopped at Phoenix for preseason testing that he has “made some big improvement on the dyno” and is eager to see that translated into stronger elapsed times in his first fulltime season.

“We’re in the field, but we want to be better than 15th qualifier, 16th qualifier,” he said after opening day saw him run 13th, then settle overnight for 15th. “It’s still hard, but we still should be five-hundredths off the best pass. And we’re closer to like nine, 10 off the fastest pass. So we’re hoping to be closer today.”

He got his wish, barely. He’ll begin eliminations from the No. 14 spot, facing fellow Northeasterner Vincent Nobile in the first round of runoffs.

Prusiensky operates with two motors.

“We purchased one from Elite last year at the end of the season,” he said. “And we built a copy of it, or however you want to say it. And that’s what we have in the car right now, the motor that we put together. Elite’s is underneath the bench. So, they’re both about the same. We want to see how this one runs and kind of get a feel for it. Last year we ran that engine, and this one’s pretty close. So we’re hoping that we can make them both better. Right now, we’re frustrated a little bit after yesterday. Testing we ran good.”

Friday’s passes cased him some worry. “I didn’t sleep much last night,” he said.

“I think we have the power to do it. We’re just missing something. And that’s what’s frustrating. Our other motors were good, but these are so much better on the dyno, but they really don’t show up on the track. It’s just frustrating,” Prusiensky said. “We worked hard over the winter. It hasn’t showed up on the race track yet. We made OK runs yesterday, but we felt we should be a lot closer. So that’s what we’re banging our heads on the wall for so many times. You want to get right back out there [after Friday’s passes] and make another run 10 seconds later to see what’s going on. Every run is so precious to us.”

Testing on the way to Pomona at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park at Chandler, Ariz., actually raised more questions than it answered.  

“We put 10-11 passes on it in Phoenix, and we felt like we left there and we didn’t learn enough,” Prusiensky said. “We never test, so we learned. Now the next time we do test will be a lot better. It’s odd to say. We’re racers, but we know how to race at a national event and that type of track, and you think that you go to a test session it’s going to be similar. It’s totally different. The car didn’t work at all, and then yesterday, two passes right down the track, straight down the center. Didn’t have to steer it, nothing. Get to Phoenix, the track has got so much bite it was driving me to the guardrail every pass. Making chassis adjustments, making shock adjustments, just to get to the point that we can get it to go down the track. And then already it was time to get in the trailer and come here.”

He said he wasn’t unsettled rolling up to the starting line here.

“I knew we could go right down the track here with no problem. So we’ve got a lot to learn still. There’s years and years that we’re behind these guys. They all went through all the learning curves,”Prusiensky said. “But we want to be a contender. That’s how I am. I’ve always known that I could come to any race and win. So coming here to Pro Stock for the past three years and knowing you’re going to lose because these guys are so much faster is frustrating. But it’s just part of racing Pro Stock.”

The class’ mandated switch to EFI didn’t have him upset, like it did so many of his colleagues.

“You know, for us it really isn’t that big of a deal,” Prusiensky said. “We only had one set of carburetors. They may have ten sets of carburetors. So now I feel it’s better for us, because everybody has the same throttle body, everybody has the same computer, everybody has the same RPM. So for us, I’m OK with it, and I do the tuning myself anyway, so I didn’t have to hire anybody. So, I enjoy it. I never really complained about it. The other teams, I know they had to change a lot of engines. We have one or two engines. They have a lot more to change.”

He lives and works in New Jersey, and car builder Jerry Haas keeps the car in his Missouri shop.

“Most of the time really, the car doesn’t come back to our shop. Just the engines come back to our shop. Jerry Haas drives the truck and trailer, so it ends up staying in Missouri and never came back over the winter. The car stayed in Missouri,” Prusiensky said. “It was just easier to get back here [to Pomona] after being here in November than to bring it back all the way to Jersey and then come all the way back to Phoenix to test. It’s just too much.

Fellow Pro Stock racer Kenny Delco transported Prusiensky’s motor to the track for him.

“So he stops by, a midnight drop-off on the side of the highway, a motor transfer from truck to trailer, and then he was on his way to Phoenix. That happened in Marlboro, New Jersey, someplace on [Highway] 79 in New Jersey. We help each other. I think he helps me more than I help him, but you know, everybody out here’s a big help. The Elite team, Allen Johnson . . . for a little guy like me, I really appreciate all them guys helping me out.”

Prusiensky has driven Top Sportsman cars, all kinds of cars, he said. “But really, previous to Pro Stock, Top Sportsman for five years. And I always felt every time I went in the gate that I had a good shot to win,” he said. “And my first national event, I ended up in the final at the Four-Wide, so I mean, that’s been proven. So, it’s just frustrating coming here. You work over the winter, you’ve got more power, and then you make a run and it’s still in the same spot you were last year. It’s humbling. I want to get the motor out of the car, fly it back to New Jersey, put it on the dyno, test it again, put it back in the car. But the track is what matters – the dyno doesn’t matter.”

DELCO CELEBRATES 30TH ANNIVERSARY – Kenny Delco sells envelopes for a living, and during the weekends he pushes the envelope. The East Setauket, N.Y., resident, who works for Cenveo Envelope Group, started racing in Pro Stock in 1986, so he’s kicking off his 30th year in drag racing.

Delco had two semifinal finishes, at Atlanta & Englishtown, in his 13 appearances last year. With the renowned Frank Iaconio building his engines and Jim and Jamie Yates tuning the year-old Camaro, he’ll start his 2017 quest from the No. 15 position. He’ll meet No. 2 qualifier Greg Anderson in the first round.

SMELAND ANCHORS FIELD – Val Smeland, a machine operator at a cement company and one of three Long Islanders (along with Kenny Delco and Vincent Nobile) to make the long haul to California, claimed the No. 16 and final spot. His life didn’t get any easier – he has to face top qualifier Jason Line when Pro Stock eliminations begin Sunday.

McGAHA QUALIFIES MID-PACK – Chris McGaha started out the year last in Pro Stock qualifying in his brand-new Harlow Sammons Camaro but improved to eighth for the final three sessions. Referring to that first run, he invented a new verb Friday night following his second-session pass. He degraded his initial effort, saying he “assed it up.”

But everything turned out well for the privateer (who no longer builds engines for other clients) who said, “I’m one little old single car over here by myself.”

He said the off-season and three-day testing at Chandler, Ariz., earlier in the week “went pretty good. Well, I thought it went good until I seen some other guys run. We did make some good runs [Wednesday], a .57. We get to do so much on the dyno. We have basically a whole other test session.”

The EFI era for the Pro Stock class is in its second year, and McGaha said, “t’s still a manifold deal and an engine deal.” The trick, he said, is “I wouldn’t say figure out what it wants, because you can kind of tell what it wants. Now it’s just trying to get there.”

The field, he said, “is going to be very stacked.”

He’ll meet rookie Tanner Gray in the opening round of eliminations.

Tanner Gray

TANNER GRAY, TROY COUGHLIN JR. OFFICIALLY FRIENDS – Teenager Tanner Gray said back at the Dallas race last fall that he has no idea what his chances will be of winning the Auto Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award that recognizes the NHRA’s top rookie. He said he would be competing with Troy Coughlin Jr., so the Top Fuel driver would pose some stiff competition.

He said he hadn’t met Coughlin, 26, but wanted to because “he’s pretty cool.”

The feeling was mutual.

“I’ll have to reach out to him, but heck, I feel the same way,” Coughlin said. “That’s a pretty tall mountain to climb. They do a good job over there [at Gray Motorsports].”

The two finally met Friday in a chance conversation in the pits at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, several hours before they made their first qualifying passes in the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series.  

Coughlin is the son of Pro Modified champion Troy Coughlin Sr., nephew of five-time Pro Stock king Jeg Coughlin Jr., and grandson of JEGS High Performance founder and former racer Jeg Coughlin Sr. (and cousin of NASCAR Camping World Truck Series rising star Cody Coughlin). Gray’s dad is Pro Stock competitor Shane Gray, and his grandfather is retired multi-class veteran Johnny Gray.

Troy Coughlin Jr.

On the track Saturday at the Circle K NHRA Winternationals at Pomona, Calif., the two third-generation rookies qualified in style.

Gray, 17, will start ninth in Sunday’s eliminations in Pro Stock, thanks to a quarter-mile run of 6.578 seconds in a 211.10 mph that on opening day was the fastest in the class. Coughlin was sixth in Top Fuel (3.730, 323.89 on the 1,000-foot course).

Perhaps more surprising was Coughlin’s gesture toward Gray.

The SealMaster Toyota Dragster driver said of the year-end rookie honor, “Personally, I really hope he wins. That would be really cool if he won Rookie of the Year, because that would be a neat story. Somebody else will pop in [to the mix of candidates], I’m sure.  I hope he does well and wins it, because that would look good for our sport, to be 18 [and celebrated for the best newcomer in all pro classes]. I remember being that young and racing, and I was lucky enough to win my first national event at 19. I remember that feeling and there’s nothing like it. I can relate to that sort of thing.”

Maybe the NHRA doesn’t have enough young adults in their age bracket for them to form another goup similar to the so called “Gen2Crew” that Brandon Bernstein, Eric Medlen, Ashley Force, Morgan Lucas, and JR Todd fashioned years ago. That group sometimes referred to themselves as the “Brat Pack,” a name that was a knockoff of the 1960s “Rat Pack” that included Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and Frank Sinatra.

“That’s cool,” Coughlin said. “That’s what it’s all about: racing and competing and trying your very best. There’s more of a message to it than the general public thinks.”

"I was actually pretty nervous for the first round of qualifying just because I've never been at a national event before as a driver," Gray, who’ll face Chris McGaha in Round 1 Sunday, said. "I've never done anything like this before so there is definitely a learning curve. But we tested a lot, and I already feel good in the car. I think I'm over 50 passes now, so I'm getting there.

"Everyone's been telling me my mom [Amber Gray] has been way more nervous than me. I think she just really wants me to do well and be safe at the same time. Hopefully she'll start to relax as the season goes along," he said.

After aborting his final qualifying pass because of a minor mechanical issue, Gray said, “We need to make slightly better runs. We're struggling a bit with the car and the track but Dave [crew chief Connolly] knows what we've got to do and I know what I've got to do in the driver's seat. We'll get it figured out.   

"I know I've got to go up there and be in the teens and .20s on the Christmas Tree. I was looking at the (timing) sheets and everybody is doing pretty good on their reaction times. Most of the top guys have been between the teens and the .30s, so if I can go up there and be in the teens or .20s, I know Dave's going to give me a race car that can win,” he said.

"I'm excited to line up and go against someone in a real race and see how we do. I'm going to remember this for a long time so I want to take it all in."

FRIDAY NOTEBOOK - COUGHLIN HAS STRONG START, WORSHAMS KICK OFF RETRO ERA, ANDERSON NO. 1 OVERNIGHT IN PRO STOCK

TOP FUEL

‘UNBOTHERABLE’ COUGHLIN ADJUSTING – Troy Coughlin Jr. caught the attention of everyone watching last Friday’s preseason test session, when he flirted with the Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park wall in a couple of his first complete passes in a dragster.

Nonchalantly describing himself with his newly coined term “unbotherable,” he explained how he felt to be riding out the run that looked a little scary to everyone else.

“Just made some runs and just kind of getting used to the way the car runs and pulls and just the way it acts in certain circumstances,” he said so calmly it would be hard to believe his blood pressure rose even a point.

He figured out quickly how to adjust to the SealMaster / Toyota Dragster. In his first pass in competition, the 26-year-old class rookie claimed the No. 4 slot in the tentative lineup with a straight and strong 3.730-second elapsed time at 322.81 mph.

“He can’t start out much better than that,” proud crew chief Rob Flynn said, who called Coughlin’s pass “as straight as an arrow.”

His car is the one in which JR Todd, now a Funny Car driver, set the track E.T. record last November at 3.680 seconds.

His Kalitta Motorsports teammate Doug Kalitta led the field in Q1 at 3.697, 325.69. He is the overnight leader, as rain denied the class a second run Friday. Steady showers are in the forecast for Saturday, making the final two qualifying attempts iffy. Eliminations are scheduled for Sunday.

Coughlin, an accomplished sportsman and bracket racer, most recently competed in the wild and unpredictable Pro Modified class.

“It’s just different. It’s a lot different,” he said of a Top Fuel dragster. “It’s humbling. You have to respect what’s behind you 100 percent.

“Sometimes it drives you. Sometimes you have to drive it before it drives you. It’s just a world of difference,” Coughlin said. “We’re getting adjusted. You’ve just got to keep making laps and feeling it out. It’s a big change.

“The Pro Mod car, the rate of correction and where on the track you made your most moves are different. In the Pro Mod car, you would move the wheel early, get it settled by half-track and you were smooth sailing. Once you got to 660 [feet] in the Pro Mod car, if you were in the groove – even if you weren’t all the way in the groove – you were going to be fine,” he said.

“This car just takes a little bit more driving,” Coughlin said. “It just takes a little bit more feeling. And it just takes a little bit more feeling, and it takes a little bit more tenacity. That’s what we’re working on.”      

NOTHING NEW, REALLY – Steve Torrence wants to start this season the way he started last year’s (with a victory at the Winternationals) – and the way he ended it (with back-to-back finals and a triumph at Las Vegas). To do that, he and crew chief Richard Hogan have changed . . . virtually nothing with the Capco Contractors Dragster.

“Other than a few little tweaks, it’s basically the same car we ran in the Countdown,” Torrence said.  “The guys at Morgan Lucas Racing front-halved it for us after Indy, so it’s not like it’s worn out.  We’ve ordered another one but this is the best car I’ve ever had, by far, and it’s still got a lot of racing in it.”

Hogan said the team concentrated on “just clutch stuff” at last week’s preseason testing at Phoenix. “This is the same car from last year, same everything. One new crew guy. Real small changes. We didn’t have a lot of room for changes to start the season. Maybe later in the year. But to start the season we just wanted to [continue] how we ended.

“Every race we go to we’re going to try to be low E.T. and win the thing. And whatever happens at the end happens at the end. Pre-planning for the end maybe works out; maybe it doesn’t. We really didn’t do anything wrong at the end [of 2016]. We just didn’t have any good luck whatsoever. Actually, all along, our luck was pretty marginal,” he said. “I don’t really try and look at it as start or finish – just kind of go-go-go and however it works out is how it’s going to work out.”

Torrence’s 2016 success included eight No. 1 starts, eight final round appearances, and an NHRA national record of 3.671 seconds. He never was worse than sixth in points in a 2016 season. And Torrence scored two his three victories at Pomona and Las Vegas, venues at which he previously had a combined 0-for-26 record.

He said he was “testing some clutch applications” at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park. “We’ve always had trouble getting off the line at Phoenix, so to run sixty-nine [a 3.691-second elapsed time] was pretty impressive, especially since Hogan had it set up pretty soft.”

Torrence was the most consistent Top Fuel driver in the series last year.  He had the best average starting position and began qualifying this Friday with a class-leading streak (dating back to 2015) of 32 races in which he has qualified eighth or better.

SHULER SHUFFLED – Phil Shuler has a new assignment at Don Schumacher Racing. He’s reunited with U.S. Army Dragster crew chief Mike Green. They worked together at DSR from 2003 to 2006 on Funny Cars of drivers Ron Capps and Tommy Johnson Jr. Most recently he and Todd Okuhara helped Shawn Langdon earn three victories in 2016 (and before that they were co-crew chiefs on the same dragster driven by Spencer Massey).

“I think it’s a great addition. Phil brings us a fresh perspective,” Schumacher said. “It’s a change for our team, but I expect us to hit the ground running. I’m looking forward to good things.”

He said, “The first thing I told Phil when he moved over here is there should be no holding back when it comes to tuning the car for me, because I will drive it like nobody else out there.”

No one had to tell Shuler that. Since his days with Scotty Cannon, Shuler never has been timid. He won; be it when he tunes his RJ Race Cars-built radial beast, the “Shadow 2.0” Camaro, for equally aggressive “Stevie Fast” Jackson to drive at such showcases as this month’s Lights Out 8.  Shuler will show – in the favorite words of promoter extraordinaire Donald “Duck” Long – no mercy.   

GOLDEN GOAL – Doug Kalitta’s uncle and team owner Connie Kalitta earned the first of his 10 victories at this race 50 years ago, in 1967. With final-round appearances at both Pomona events last year – as runner-up at the Winternationals in February and winner of the Finals in November – the Mac Tools Dragster driver has a strong shot again.

“We had a great test with this Mac Tools Toyota Top Fuel machine and Pomona was great to us last season. [We’re] really focused on making each race count, and we cannot wait to get back to racing.” Kalitta was second in the standings last fall, 130 behind Antron Brown. He’s on pace to become only the ninth NHRA racer to reach the 600 elimination-round-win plateau this season. The 42-time winner from Ann Arbor, Mich., has 589 round-wins (10th all-time).

ONE CAR SHORT – The class has just 15 entries, one short of a full field for race day. Absent are champions Larry Dixon and Shawn Langdon because of funding shortfalls and seven-time winner Richie Crampton, whose Morgan Lucas Racing team folded last November. No. 4 finisher JR Todd switched to the Funny Car class.

In 2014, the class also included Dave Grubnic, who is Clay Millican’s crew chief now; Bob Vandergriff, who retired and later shut down his team, taking Dave Connolly out of the Top Fuel mix; and Sidnei Frigo and Khalid al-Balooshi, who compete in Pro Modified. Brandon Bernstein left the class after 2013 and is General Manager at Alan Johnson Racing, which is temporarily sidelined. T.J. Zizzo has entered before but has to watch his pennies and competes at selected races. Spencer Massey is gone from the class.

Nevertheless, no one questions that Top Fuel still has top-notch quality if not quantity.

“I don’t think that’s an issue. Maybe it is. Maybe there will be more people coming out and giving things a try because you have a better chance of qualifying. Maybe you’ll get more cars than you thought you were going to get. I don’t know,” eight-time champion Tony Schumacher said.

“Some of those other guys will pop up. Those guys aren’t easy to beat,” he said, “because you’re expected to beat them. So you back it down a little bit, and these cars are not meant to be backed down. They’re meant to run as fast as they can run. Any backing down and they go through tire shake, and that’s brutal.”

Clay Millican wasn’t too worried about the short field, either. After all, this season-opening race drew barely 16 entrants last year and only 17 in 2015. Several races this past year had short fields.

Said Millican, “I don’t know what will happen there. If you look at drag racing history, it goes in cycles. There are cycles where there’s an abundance of Funny Cars. Then the Funny Cars dwindle down because the field gets too tough. Then it becomes the dragsters. It goes back and forth. This has happened over and over and over again. When it looks like to somebody that’s maybe thinking about starting a team, it’s like ‘Hey - it’s not a full field - or it’s a light field, we could put a car together and go qualify.’ That’s what you’ll see happen.”   

MANY SKILLS IN ARMY OF ONE – For anyone wondering about the U.S. Army Dragster’s new paint scheme . . . It recognizes 29 specialties of expertise in the Army. The 29 insignias unique to each branch of expertise is woven into the overall scheme, representing the way each branch brings its expertise to the fabric of the U.S. Army. Driver Tony Schumacher called it “one of the neatest paint schemes and themes we’ve had in all my years with the Army team.” Just as he said, “We know our team has one job each year, and that is to go out and compete for the championship,” the Army combines various skill sets to perform its duties, too.

“It’s a wonderful design, and it tells a great story in the way the insignias are woven into the overall design. It represents the framework made by the way those 29 branches come together to power the most capable force in the world. It’s teamwork in the ultimate sense.”

NEW, IMPROVED SCOTT PALMER – Scott Palmer recorded his career-best elapsed time and speed in the opening qualifying session Friday open his first fulltime season with a tentative No. 7 berth in the order.

“This is huge. That was just great,” his crew chief and girlfriend, Ashley Fye, said after Palmer registered a 3.853-second, 321.50-mph pass. She expressed her gratitude for all of the individuals who have contributed to that personal milestone.

“We have taken so many positive strides to improve,” she said.

The Torrence team – particularly crew members Bobby and Dom Lagana, Hogan, and Gary Pritchett – has aided Palmer with parts and advice and a literal helping hand or two.

Palmer, trying to be respectful of the preseason testing agenda that Steve Torrence had for himself and his Capco Contractors Dragster, made only a couple of runs on the Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park course. (At Phoenix, according to Bobby Lagana, the car had a maintenance issue, and Palmer’s second run was “fine,” Hogan said.)

“Scott’s car has some extra funding now, and we’re helping him get organized,” Hogan said. “They’ll be able to run better, just because they have better parts. He should be able to go and run respectable.” Hogan was right.

That was no surprise to Graham Light, the NHRA senior vice-president of racing operations. He knows Palmer also has been working with the sanctioning body’s tech consultant Rich Schreckengost, affectionately known to drivers and colleagues as “Rich Schreck.”

 Light, who described Palmer as “a very conscientious, great guy,” said, “He went to work. He got the Laganas’ help. He’s made a tremendous turnaround. And it’s not solely us. He had the desire to turn it around. He wanted to be out here fulltime. And he worked very hard at it. But he also was smart enough to realize, ‘I need a little bit of assistance and another set of eyes watching.’ Our guys have worked with him over the years. Now, through [improved performance], he’s been able to get enough sponsorship and support and he’s going to run the whole series with us this year. Those are the sort of success stories we need.”

Building engines for Palmer is his fellow Oklahoman, Tulsa’s Tom Conway, the two-time NHRA national Top Alcohol Dragster champion and multiple NHRA divisional champion.

Palmer also own the Liquid Voodoo Top Fuel hydroplane that he and Fye campaign on the Lucas Oil Drag Boat Racing Series. They used to service it, but they’ll be too busy this year, tending to their car. Tommy Thompson, their partner who races a 200-mph boat and has others competing in various LDBRS classes, will oversee the boat. Thompson owns Cat Spot (organic kitty litter), a primary sponsor on Palmer’s dragster along with longtime marketing partner Marck Recycling, of Cassville, Mo., where Palmer and Fye live.

“Tommy Thompson wanted us to run the whole year with the car. In turn, he’s going to take our boat and run it under his umbrella,” Fye said. “We’ll go to the boat races if we can, but there are several that overlap. It’s still our boat. Tommy is not a sponsor – he’s a part of our team. We’re doing it together.”

Fye said, “It’ll be an interesting year. That boat is going to haul ass – mark my words. It’s going to be fast. We have to make things even [with the performance of the car].”  

TEAMMATE FOR BRITTANY FORCE? – John Force said he is planning to field a second dragster. “I’m looking to build another team. I’m pitching to sponsors, seven days a week. I’m going to get me a Top Fueler. I’ve got to get another dragster,” he said.       

CRAMPTON TO DRIVE AT SYDNEY – Seven-time NHRA Top Fuel winner Richie Crampton will be back in a dragster – in Australia.

Lamattina Top Fuel Racing has hired the Adelaide-born racer to drive the Fuchs Lubricants Dragster at the May 5-7 Nitro Thunder event at Sydney Dragway.

Team owner Phil Lamattina said, “You don’t get opportunities to put drivers of Richie’s caliber in your race car very often, so when he became available, we grabbed the opportunity with both hands.

“Australia’s Top Fuel competition is tough. We’re up against outstanding teams, like Rapisarda Autosport International, and signing an international star like Richie Crampton means Sydney Dragway’s race fans are in for one fantastic show,” Lamattina said.

For Crampton, it’s a chance to compete in a Top Fuel dragster in Australia for the first time.

“I have wanted to race back on Aussie soil for quite some time,” Crampton – who visited the nitro pits Friday with former boss Morgan Lucas – said. “And to now have that chance and drive the LTFR dragster for the Lamattina family is quite an honor. Lamattina Top Fuel Racing is a world-class team with world-class equipment, and while we’re up against some very strong opposition, we’ll be going all out to achieve a great result at Sydney.  

Crampton, best known in NHRA circles as the seven-year clutch specialist at Morgan Lucas Racing who earned the driving job when Lucas stepped aside, had a rich history before that. He saw his drag-racing dream progress through his own grassroots driving experience in Australia, as well as stints working for the legendary Graeme Cowin and Don Schumacher.

With Dad Alan as the team owner and crew chief, Crampton raced the family's 1958 Holden (which he said "kind of looked like a '55 Chevy Nomad") at Adelaide and nearby dragstrips from his late teens to early 20s.

"We primarily raced that in the supercharged outlaw category. I had a huge amount of fun, and I learned a lot about driving short-wheelbased race cars,” Crampton said. “It taught me a lot about trying to drive and what to do when the thing was getting loose or spinning the tires. That car only ran in the mid-seven seconds at about 170 miles per hour. But for me, in my late teens, that was still a pretty awesome, fun race car for me to get to drive."
 

FUNNY CAR
 

‘IT’S DIFFERENT NOW – DEL’S BACK’ – It’s like old times – like “the good old days” that, peculiarly, are more about the future – for Chuck and Del Worsham. The “Worsham and Fink” name is on the body once again.

John Fink is part of the deal, like before, when the father-son duo started on their drag-racing journey together at this track in November 1990, debuting at the Finals. Del Worsham, plenty smart as a mechanic and a student of the sport at age 19, said his first side-by-side pass was against Ed “The Ace” McCulloch and that he just hoped to go straight down the track and not go into the other lane and collide with the racing legend.

He’s well beyond that. He is the go-to guy in the pits. Together he and his father have helped a handful of racers earn their licenses. Del has been mentor to such current competitors as Alexis De Joria and Troy Coughlin Jr. He has earned the respect of his colleagues. As proof, Chad Head was in the pits, affixing body panels onto the Top Fuel dragster that Del Worsham owns and Steve Chrisman is driving this weekend – just to help out. Morgan Lucas and Richie Crampton, neither driving in NHRA’s Mello Yello Drag Racing Series this year, visited the Worsham pits Friday – just to hang out.

So they’re popular, this reunited tandem.

“We know everybody at Pomona. This is our home track, so we’re saying hello to 30,000 people this weekend,”  Chuck Worsham said.

He hasn’t gone anywhere, but he said, “It’s different now. Del’s back. Everybody wants to say hi, which is good.”

They’re also quick and competitive.

Del Worsham rolled off the hauler today and ran a 4.043-second elapsed time at 298.80 mph. With a flood of 3.9s and 3.8s, that might not sound overly impressive. But it was quick enough to land the provisional No. 5 berth overnight.

And with primary backing from Lucas Oil and a few other associate sponsors but a relatively modest budget, the Worshams are fortunate to have a choice of Funny Cars.        

The older car isn’t any different than it was when Chuck Worsham has had other drivers behind the wheel. But he noticed one major difference with son Del in the cockpit: “He’s more experienced than the other guys. So we don’t have to worry about smoking the tires or having it over-rev. He’s the professionals’ professional driver. So you can run the car harder and not worry about having big problems.”

The older car, Chuck Worsham said, “is a 2008 edition – we didn’t run it much for six or eight years, just ran it three or four times a year. We ran it a little more the last couple of years, but it’s still a good car. We put in a driveshaft to make the engine and driveline perfect again and remounted the whole car – through the engine and all the way to the back and rest the whole engine frame on it.”

He has reinforcements.

“We’ve got a brand-new car [in the hauler]. This is the one that ran all the three-second runs [with Jim Campbell driving] last year [and used to license several racers]. So we thought we’d start with this one and work our way into the other one in a race or two.”

The ’16 Toyota Camry is the one Del Worsham drove to victory last year at the World Series of Drag Racing at Memphis.

A few of his veteran crew-hands are turning wrenches, including Cory Lee, Jimbo Ermalovich, and Todd Blakely.

“We’re here to try to win now, I’ll tell you that much,” Chuck Worsham said.

Said Del Worsham, “We’re going to go through some growing pains. We basically started what might have been a year-long preparation in November. We had success here – finishing second in Funny Car in 2004 – and we won as many as five races in a season, but our goal this year is to race all 24 races and earn a spot in the Countdown.”  

They have been involved with nostalgia cars. This isn’t a nostalgia operation, but the nostalgia certainly is palpable.   

“This is a throwback team,” Del Worsham said. “When I look around the shop, most of the guys who are here right now have worked with me at some point through my career, through the last 20-something years. I’m back with my dad, and we haven’t moved back into our big shop yet. We had people lease our property from us, so as of February 1st we can’t get our big shop back.

“So we’re still working out of this little shop, and it reminds me of our garage back from when I was kid. It’s crammed, it’s tight spaces, but everybody is there, and everybody is smiling, and we’re getting the work done,” he said. “And when we get back from Pomona we’ll move back into the big shop, but for right now. it reminds me an awful lot like the early 1990s.”

Del Worsham left the team after the 2008 season and then went on to become just the third driver in NHRA history to win both the Top Fuel (2011) and Funny Car (2015) championships. He is one of just four drivers ever to win at Pomona in both Funny Cars and Top Fuel, joining Don Prudhomme, Kenny Bernstein, and Gary Scelzi.  

But at the close of last season, Worsham left Kalitta Motorsports to rejoin his family-owned team, Worsham Racing.

“Del brought it up,” Chuck Worsham said of the reunion. “He took a major pay cut to do this, you know. Big time – hundreds of thousands of dollars a year less. So he really wants to do this. I was a little surprised. But he said, ‘There’s more than money out here. We’ve still got some things to do.’ It’s sinking in now, because we’re actually out here. He’s always been with us when we were racing the car before. The Kalitta team was only 100 yards away. He was always over here anyway. Now it’s a little more exciting.”

The Worshams had a short testing session last week.

“Testing went well. We went into testing with a couple of goals that we needed to do, and we did those in one day as planned, and got back to work for Pomona,” Del said.

Said Chuck, “Lucas had a brand-new blend of oil they wanted us to try. All we did in Phoenix was test the oil. We ran every run perfectly with it. We weren’t trying to run fast. We were just trying to make sure the oil was good, and it was real good.”

The team is progressing extraordinarily well, considering how few weeks they’ve had to prepare.

“I think a lot of our success is going to come from preparation, and we didn’t have a whole lot of time,” Del Worsham said. “But we did what we had to do and got the answers to what we needed to know, and we’re back in the shop working. We’re further ahead than where I thought we would be. I made this decision in mid-November, and I knew we had to race in a couple of months. Most corporations had already set their budgets, and I knew finding a sponsor who was going to invest in our team was going to be tough. For being the first weekend of February, we’re ahead of where I thought we would be.”  

Worsham was runner-up at the Winternationals three times, twice to John Force in 1993 and 2002, and then to Ron Capps last season.

CAPPS A LITTLE SHINIER? – Maybe it was the time of day and the position of the sun or maybe it was just the way Ron Capps stood and cocked his head slightly. But the Arizona sunshine last weekend seemed to generate a shininess to the reigning Funny Car champion. His trademark megawatt smile glowed a little more. But overall, Capps had the same demeanor and approachability he always had long before his long-awaited 2016 series title.

“It does feel different. It feels good,” he said as the aces of the class gathered at the Nitro Spring Training at Chandler, Ariz., for the first time since last November, when Capps was crowned.

He didn’t have a ready answer for why.

“I don’t know,” he mused, lost for a split-second in thought. “I don’t know.”

But the veteran racer didn’t hesitate to give a hearty “Yes!” to the notion it’s because he didn’t have to answer the stupid questions about whether he ever would win a championship.  

The adage “The more things change, the more they stay the same” applies.

"Every time I go to the starting line I know that we sort of have a target on our back with the performance that our team has always put on the racetrack,” the there-time Winternationals winner said.

“It's funny how you spend the offseason always finding out where you can be better from the previous season. This year was no different,” Capps said. “It was great to win a world championship, and it's another feather in the cap for [crew chief] Rahn Tobler and the crew guys. But we still did the same thing in the off-season. We sat down and figured out how we can be better here, how we can be better there, and Tobler implemented it all winter long. Hopefully we'll start off the season in Pomona like we did last year with a win and go on to have a good season."

“I’ve never had to sit down and think about what motivates me,” he said. “I just hate losing, that’s the best way to put it. You have this mountain everyone has a goal of climbing, and last year we got three-fourths to the top and we just started charging to the top. That just motivated us for this year. I know I don’t have a problem motivating myself. And seeing Tobler, I know winning last year motivated him.

“For us, it’s a matter of winning races,” Capps said. “It’s going to be a lot of fun. The season is a grind, but it’s worth it. It’s great for us because I walk in the pits and know I’m hopping in one of the most prepared race cars there is, and I know we have a good chance to go low E.T. and win the race. We’re all trying to outdo each other at DSR, so obviously that raises the bar for everyone.”

The NAPA Dodge team tried a few new features during preseason testing last weekend at Phoenix, including a new chassis, and Capps still ran a string of 3.80s.

Overall, though, the car didn’t see many changes, Capps said: “We put a new clutch in it. Tobler worked real hard strengthening all the steering components, even more so than last year. We have a new car, but a lot of [changes] are [in] the clutch area. We didn’t change a whole lot other than that.”

The team experimented with an eight-stand clutch, which performed well in Capps’ runs of 3.85 and 3.86 last Friday. “We still have the five-disc in it, and we’re going to stay with it.”  

THOUGHTFUL HAGAN NEWLY MOTIVATED – The sudden loss Jan. 8 of younger brother Kyle, 33 – within a month of his 82-year-old grandfather’s passing – has prompted two-time Funny Car champion Matt Hagan to rethink his career.

Hagan said 2017 “is going to be a big year, I think, for all of us, especially here at DSR. I have a lot of goals that I've set for myself. With my brother passing, I think that it put some stuff in perspective for me, treating every day and every lap and every race as it could be your last.

“He was 33 years old, and he's gone. Somehow that stuff hits home. You've got to take life and really realize how special every moment is.

“So I think that when I'm crawling into the race car this year,” Hagan said, “I'm not going to take anything for granted and not just go through the motions. I never really do that – it just means a lot more to me now, knowing that it can be gone tomorrow."

He has added motivation to win a third crown for manufacturer and sponsor Mopar, which is marking its 80th birthday this year.

“That’s 80 years of horsepower. It's pretty cool that everybody's so brand-loyal and supported the cause and allowed Mopar to be out here and be able to demonstrate the horsepower like they do on the racetrack. Eighty years, that's pretty awesome,” the Mopar Express Lane Dodge Charger driver said. “I think that we have to have a big year for them. We've got to go out here and win a bunch of races and win this championship and make it all happen."

NOT HERE FOR FIFTH – Tommy Johnson Jr., who was second in the final 2016 standings and third in each of the previous two years, served notice to the rest of the class: “I didn’t come here for fifth.”

He said, “I think we've learned from each season, and we'll take what we've learned and apply it and hopefully move up one more spot.

"I think we've shown over the past three years we're very consistent. We've steadily improved, and I hope to stay on that track,” the Make-A-Wish Dodge driver said. “It isn't like we have to go a long ways now. We were just one position out of a championship. To be third and a second, it shows the strength of the team and how methodical they are.”

Johnson, who won the most recent race, the 2016 Finals at this racetrack, said before the event began that he was feeling confident because "not a lot has changed on our team. We're bringing back the same combination we ran at the Finals so we should roll out of the trailer and be competitive right from the get-go."

He applauded crew chief John Collins and assistant Rip Reynolds saying, "The team has been very consistent and has been on the verge of pulling it off. I think if a few things go your way at the right times and if we keep doing what we've been doing, I think we can do it. The guys did such a good job last season. To finish third for two years and then second last year, really shows the direction John and the guys are going.

“You hope every year is the year. You just do your best and hope it works out. Certainly, we have a good shot at it,” Johnson said.

His testing at Phoenix produced mixed results. "We had some good and some bad at testing," Johnson said. "Overall, it was a good test session. We learned a lot. We weren't trying to run the quickest numbers. We were just trying to get down the track and test parts. I think we did that very well. The only setback was the wheelstand [Friday] and damaging the chassis, but it didn't faze the guys. We got back to work and it's like they never missed a beat."

WELCH TO DEBUT LATER, LOOKING AHEAD – Team owner Chuck Beal and driver Brandon Welch, his grandson, aren’t entered at this race, although it is close to their San Diego home.

“We are in the process of making some performance upgrades to the race car and plan to make our debut later this spring,” Welch said. “We are going to run three to six races this year.  We are selecting our races based upon car count and proximity to Southern California.  We're eyeing Houston as our first race, but that is still to be determined.

“I'm working to be first in line for 2018 marketing budgets, so we're going to keep our schedule limited for this year and get a big head start for next year,” he said. 

BECKMAN NOT FAZED - What Jack Beckman encountered last Thursday at preseason testing was nothing new, really. He had practically an entirely new crew, except for Matt Archer and one of his crew chiefs, John Medlen (who left this winter and came back in the span of a few days). But such chaos had hit his pit before. Boss Don Schumacher flip-flopped his crew with that of Ron Capps. That happened after Race No. 4 in 2012, but by the time Race No. 24 came around, Beckman was the NHRA Funny Car champion. He has had at least nine or 10 different crew chiefs. So he’s adaptable, if nothing else.

Gone from his Infinite Hero Foundation Dodge Charger team is Jimmy Prock, who tuned Beckman to six No. 1 starts and two victories in five final rounds, four track elapsed-time records, and six speed marks last year. Together they produced the best pass of Beckman’s career three months ago at Pomona in the season finale, when he recorded the second quickest Funny Car run ever (3.825 seconds).With Prock’s guidance, Beckman clocked his best speed (334.15 mph) last August at Seattle.

Joining Medlen this year are Neal Strausbaugh, who spent seven years working alongside fellow DSR crew chief Mike Green with the U.S. Army Dragster and Dean “Guido” Antonelli, long a key executive at John Force Racing.

“What impressed me at testing was how well our three crew chiefs bounce things off each other, how the crew continually got more efficient after each run, and how, overall, we had one of the best test sessions of any team there. We had a fantastic test session,” Beckman said. “It exceeded all of our expectations.”

He made three runs in the 3.8-second range, four in the 3.90s, and a 4.03-second run in which he shut off the engine at half-track.

“I'm pleased as punch. Honest to goodness,” he said, “I can’t wait for the season to get started."

Beckman is seeking his first victory at Pomona but has been the No. 1 qualifier at the past two races here.

STILL LOVES GUIDO – John Force saw Dean “Guido” Antonelli last Thursday evening at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, near Phoenix, after the day’s testing work was done. And he called out to the crew chief who was his trusted employee for about two decades and general manager when he departed in the offseason to Don Schumacher Racing. “Guido!” I yelled. He came over the [car] window. I said, ‘I miss ya, man. You know I love ya!’ I called him Sunday. Kelly [Antonelli’s wife and manager of the JFR facility at Brownsburg, Ind.] said, ‘John, he gets more calls now than he used to.’ I said, ‘I’m sorry I called him.’ But I just wanted to talk to him about things, not about business, just is he OK? And I asked him some questions about how to turn my hospitality trailer around: Can I back it in backwards? He ran all of that.” Force said his aim for his operation to “be whole again.” He said, “Whole means when you wake up and everything’s right.”
 

PRO STOCK
 

JOHNSON RELAXED– In the past 15 months, Allen Johnson’s emotions have swung from thrilled (winning the 2015 Finals) to anxious (uncertain about sponsorship and the advent of EFI) to elated again (securing sponsorship from Marathon Oil) to a little frustrated (learning the new and costly system) to encouraged (getting a handle on it) to aggravated (at falling from fourth to eighth as the Countdown played out).

Despite a disappointing first day of testing this Monday at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, the Marathon Petroleum Dodge Dart owner-driver said he and his Adam Hornberger-led crew is optimistic.

“I’m much more relaxed than this time last year,” Johnson said. “I think we’ll start out this year a lot better than we did last year.” He left Pomona tied for seventh place.

He likes to refer to Pro Stock competition as “a knock-out, drag-out with everyone on race day,” but this time he said it’s “because everyone’s got a good handle on the fuel-injection now.”

TRIED AND TRUE – Two-time Pro Stock series champion Erica Enders already knew it, for she had been through tough times before in her Pro Stock career. “It's easy to be all happy when you're winning, but the true measure of people comes when times are tough,” she said. Enders said she found out Richard Freeman’s Elite Motorsports team – her team – was not unbeatable but it was unbreakable.  “It was a character-building year, and it showed me there is zero ego on this team. We're tough,” she said. “It was a challenging year but what we went through made us stronger," Enders said. "What we went through would have torn a lot of teams apart but it didn't hurt us at all. Yeah, we were upset we weren't performing well but we still joked around, still had fun, and we smiled through it all.”

But she’s driving the same Chevy Camaro in which she won 15 races and back-to-back championships. She’s ready to shake off a winless season that left her ninth in the final standings.

Enders has a great start so far. She started strong at fourth in Q1 and stepped up to No. 3 provisionally, as the class got in its second run before the rain blanketed the area.

"We are so anxious to get back on track, to be at the races with a car and combination we know can put us in the winners circle," Enders said. "It's really all you ever want as a driver and as a race team: the chance to win. We have that again. This year is going to be great, because I already know what we're capable of, and so does everyone else. At the same time, I learned we don't need win lights and trophies to be fulfilled. Being a family, having each other's backs no matter what, being together through it all, that's what matters."

ANDERSON ON TOP AGAIN – Stop if you’ve heard this before . . . KB / Summit Racing’s Greg Anderson took the tentative top spot in the Pro Stock class Friday with a 6.557-second, 210.06-mph performance.

However, he pooh-pooed the notion that he was starting 2017 right where he left off last November.

“If it was only that easy. It sounds good, but obviously you saw after the first run, there’s a dozen cars out there that can run low E.T.,” he said.

“I predicted it. It is true, “Anderson said. “It will change tomorrow. There will be cars that pick up and run better. So, it’s going to be a different landscape this year, without a doubt. All I can say is I told you so. That’s the way it’s going to be.

“I wish it wasn’t,” he said. “We’ve done our best job to try and make sure it isn’t that way, but unfortunately it looks like it’s going to be that way. Going to be some great racing this year, and all that means is we’re going to have to do better jobs as drivers. We’re going to have to do better jobs as crew chiefs. We won’t have that performance advantage we did before.

“And I didn’t. I didn’t run any more speed than anybody else did. And that obviously kind of translates to the engine performance. We just got off the starting line a little bit better, had a better 60-foot [time]. So, crew chief did a better job than the others did today, and that’s why I got the pole. That can certainly change tomorrow.”

 

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