2020 NHRA WINTERNATIONALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK

 

 

       

 

KALITTA KEEPS HIS POMONA STREAKS ALIVE WITH TOP FUEL VICTORY OVER PROCK - On a Sunday evening when the Academy Awards ceremony played out down the freeway at Los Angeles, one of the best original scripts played out at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, as Top Fuel’s Doug Kalitta took honors for Best Male Performer in a Dramatic Role.

He blasted to a historic third consecutive victory at the Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals with a 3.698-second elapsed time at 330.23 mph. He won both the Winternationals and Finals here last year en route to a fourth No. 2 finish in the final standings.

“This has been a great day. It was definitely an interesting day. There was a lot of close racing today. You’ve got people up their trying to tear the tree down on you, so it makes you a little bit nervous. It worked out really well for us. I’m just so proud of my Mac Tools Toyota guys. They busted their tails today. We tore up a few parts, but it was all good.

“I was kind of all over the place with driving that thing this weekend,” he said of his Mac Tools Toyota Dragster. “Finally gathered it up a little bit today. It was a fun day. I was behind the game today, but we pulled it off. It’s going to be a tough season. It’s going to be a lot of fun. Can’t wait to try for the championship. That’s what it’s all about.

“The 60th here is pretty special. We had Connie on my side [behind the car as it rolled to the starting line] and Don Prudhomme on the other side [supporting protégé Prock]. What a great day,” Kalitta said. “My guys busted their tails on this thing. I couldn’t be more proud of the effort everybody put in at the shop to work on this thing all winter long.

“It’s hard to believe. I love this place and it will probably sink in tomorrow,” he said. “Anytime you can win here it’s just extra special. It’s great to start and end here.”  

He said he wishes he could explain why he’s so successful at his Southern California racetrack that’s thousands of miles from his home near Ann Arbor, Mich.: “I wish I could pinpoint that. I just have a lot of great people behind me. On race day, we have all the Toyota and TRD support staff out here helping us with whatever track conditions we’re looking at. They give us a lot of great feedback. Really, our success comes from the entire team. I wish I could take credit for it. It’s a place with a lot of history, and it’s very special to me.”

Kalitta’s 48th victory came in his fifth straight final-round appearance and ninth overall at this storied venue and extended his elimination-round streak here to 12.

The plot for this 60th edition of the Winternationals wove Kalitta’s journey to becoming the only driver ever to win this season-opener three straight times with uncle and team owner Connie Kalitta’s 60 years of racing on this same track and shaping the sport of drag racing.

“I started working for him right when I got out of high school, so it’s been quite a while,” the winner said. “He’s provided me with a lot of great opportunities. I loved everything he was doing, and he was happy to have someone who wanted to learn about airplanes and race cars. I don’t come out on the weekend and try to tune anything and Connie’s still in there tuning. That’s what he enjoys doing. It keeps his passion going – and Shawn Langdon’s car [for which Connie Kalitta is crew chief] has been running good. It’s going to be a car that’s tough to beat. I’m just real proud that Connie’s still out here doing what he’s doing.

“To win the 60th Winternationals is pretty special.  Connie was here at the first one, and he’s here with us and I couldn’t be happier for him. He’s created an amazing legacy out here. I’m just glad this is one of our better tracks.”  

The distinction of Best Performer in a Supporting Role went to Austin Prock. Seeking the second victory of his young career, the sophomore dragster driver at John Force Racing lost traction early on the 1,000-foot California course in his Montana Brand / Rocky Mountain Twist Dragster and crossed the finish line at 10.939, 80.31.

“Austin’s going to do big things. He’s a great driver and he’s killer on the tree,” Kalitta said of his 694th-round victim. “It’s going to be an interesting year with all these younger drivers that are hungrier than heck. These guys are trying to kill the tree. We’re just going to keep at it.

“It’s going to be a great year. Everyone out here just keeps stepping up their game. You can see it in the performances of these cars. It’s going to be a tough year, but I’m really looking forward to it,” he said. “My guys are all hungry and just real glad that we were able to get one of the Kalitta Motorsports cars into the winners circle today and get the season kicked off right. Winning the first race takes a lot of pressure off. Now that we’ve got that win behind us, we can just try to build on it.

Kalitta said, “I have to give all the credit to my crew chiefs, Rob [Flynn] and Troy [Fasching] and everyone that works on my car. The thing that I’m really excited about this year is that I have all of my same guys back in place from last year. We had some great momentum going toward the end of last year [when he swept both Pomona races]. We’ve got the team together, and they’re doing a great job. We are hungry. We’re all trying to win a championship, and my guys are all working hard to pull it off. We just want to win.”

From a corporate standpoint, the victory was an outstanding moment.

“We have Fifth Third Bank as a new sponsor this weekend and Mobil 1 and NGK and obviously the MAC Tools distributors. I couldn’t be prouder to be out here with Connie and getting a win,” Kalitta said.   

He beat a quartet of next-generation racers (Brandon Welch, Justin Ashley, Brittany Force, and Austin Prock) to join Jack Beckman (Funny Car) and Jeg Coughlin (Pro Stock) in the winners circle.

Prock’s teammate, Monster Energy Dragster driver Brittany Force, exited in the semifinal round, but her performances were among the best of the weekend. She was the No. 1 qualifier with a 3.657-second elapsed time and top qualifying speed of 334.32 mph. She used the third-quickest speed in history – 336.23 mph – to defeat Clay Millican in the second round. Force has the national speed record at 338.17 (set last November at Las Vegas). So as of Sunday, she owns two of the top three speeds. (Tony Schumacher has the second-fastest time, 336.57, from 2018, at Phoenix.)

The Mello Yello Drag Racing Series will shift to Chandler, Ariz., for the Feb. 21-23 Arizona Nationals at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park. (Susan Wade)

BECKMAN TAKES FIRST WINTERNATIONALS TITLE, WINS BACK-TO-BACK AT POMONA - Just three months ago, Jack Beckman entered the season finale at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona on a lifetime losing streak in nitro at one of the sports crown jewel motorsports facilities.

On Sunday, Beckman became a back-to-back Pomona champion.

Beckman knocked off John Force in his third-straight final at the legendary southern California facility, overcoming a small starting line disadvantage to cruise to his 31st career Funny Car win and first at the Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals presented by ProtectTheHarvest.com.

“When you look at your trophy case, they are all the same size. But when you look at that 2015 Indy one, it shines a little brighter because of what happened that weekend. We’ve got the last Funny Car trophy from Englishtown. Certain ones just stand out,” Beckman said. “But to get a Winternationals trophy in nitro, my first two trophies were at the Winternationals in Super Comp. Now I have two in three months.

“It is my home track. I have probably spent more time down on that starting line than anybody else. I feel comfortable here. I have a lot of friends and family out here today and it is the perfect storm. I had never won a nitro title at Pomona up until November of last year and now I’ve got two in a row. It is beyond magical. I’ve said it before, you don’t know if your last win is your last win. I am going to go out on a limb and say this ain’t our last win.”

Nerves were high in the final as a small drizzle put the competition on hold, leaving the drivers to sit and wait in the staging lanes. But after a small delay, Beckman pulled to the line and got the job done.

Beckman produced a 3.837-second pass at 333.33 mph in his Infinite Hero Dodge Charger Funny Car for Don Schumacher Racing, nosing just ahead of Force’s 3.897 at 332.34 mph. The win stopped Force short of earning his eighth Winternationals title as the 16-time champion reached his 11th final round at the NHRA season opener, but first since 2014.

“To beat John Force in the final, that makes for a pretty cool weekend. That Infinite Hero team is just on mean and our car has been amazing,” Beckman said. “There are so many tough people in Funny Car right now. The DSR cars are tough. Robert Hight has always been right there. J.R. Todd, there are a lot of tough cars out there. But there is nothing like beating John Force in the final round. I say that with the ultimate level of respect for that man.

“It is like striking out Babe Ruth. He is the man. He is the standard. But it is pretty cool once in a while to remind him that he is not the only one who can run good.”

Battling a cold throughout much of the weekend, Beckman admitted that he wasn’t entirely sure who won in that final round. Ready to return to his hauler and rest following a grueling afternoon, Beckman immediately perked up upon finding out that he had, in fact, won the race moments later

“I go down there, pull the parachutes, tug on the brake and I saw my win light come on. But nobody is on the radio saying ‘hey we got it done.’” Beckman said. “(Force’s) car shoots out in front of mine, but I am usually real quick on the chute, so ours slows down quick, but that doubt starts creeping up. Was that a win light? Maybe I didn’t see it. So I got on the radio three times, ‘did we win?’ Nothing.

“So they are pushing me off the track and I am preparing myself just in case I saw something that wasn’t there and we didn’t win. I felt like crap, but when they pushed me into the winner’s area, I suddenly felt much better.”

Beckman credits a lot of his success on Sunday to the strong finish the team enjoyed at the end of 2019, along with an offseason eye surgery that made a big difference in his reaction times.

“The reaction times for me have been better all weekend long and I attribute that to just getting my vision checked out,” Beckman said. “I had eye surgery a year-and-a-half ago to get rid of all of the floaters and they literally drained all of the fluid out and my eyesight took a dive after that. I am sensitive about my eyes. I don’t want to do anything that I don’t have to, but it was getting to the point that it was affecting my driving and, let me tell you, a hundredth on the starting line is almost five feet at the finish line. If you can help those guys out on the runs where our car isn’t the quickest and they can help me out the rest of the time, we are going to be tough to get around.

“That makes me feel more confident. Good performance comes from confidence, confidence creates good performances and I just hope it snowballs for us.”

Qualifying second behind the strength of crew chiefs Dean Antonelli and John Medlen, the 2012 world champion eliminated Steven Densham, Ron Capps and Alexis DeJoria on his way to his 64th career nitro final. And each pass produced their own miniature drama.

In round one, Beckman had a small fire at the top end following an eventful pass, but lucked into the second round when Densham’s tires let loose at the hit. “The car goes out there and shakes, but that is the benefit of qualifying second,” Beckman pointed out. “I didn’t know where Steven was. I didn’t see him, but I am not about to turn and look over my shoulder so I pedal the car and it recovers. So Guido says later, ‘did you hear me say shut off?’ If I did I would have, trust me. So it pushed a head gasket out and we had a small fire. It turned out it really wasn’t that big a deal. We didn’t put any oil on the track, it wasn’t that much damage. When you have a great team, even on the short turnarounds, you get that stuff done.”

In round two Beckman saw his DSR teammate go up in flames as Capps lost a cylinder and had a major explosion after the 330-foot lights. In the semifinals, Beckman finally saw it all come together with a strong 3.843 at 332.92 to eliminate DeJoria and end her comeback bid after taking time off from the sport.

Force reached his 256th final with wins over Bob Bode, Tommy Johnson Jr. and No. 1 qualifier Matt Hagan.

With his win on Sunday, Beckman became the 30th different Funny Car winner in Winternationals history and moved into a tie with Del Worsham for eighth overall in the class in wins with 31.

“We were top two every run in qualifying and, except for the first round, we were low ET or second low every single round,” Beckman said. “Our car was just absolutely amazing. And as a driver you don’t want to limp your way into the winner’s circle, you want to be dominant and it was awesome for us.”

Following a tremendous finish to 2019 that saw Beckman finish second in the championship with two wins in the Countdown, a strong test session in Las Vegas one week ago only adds to the confidence that this year carries into the rest of 2020.

“Frankly I fumbled it last year. If I hadn’t screwed up a couple of times in the Countdown, there is a likelihood we would have been world champs. That’s not taking anything away from Robert Hight, but that is some baggage I will carry with me,” Beckman said. “But we tested well and feel really confident right now. There are a lot of teams that go (to testing) and practice. What they do is they go burn parts and try to run quick.

“We tried five different clutch discs, a different set of exhaust valves, spare injectors, spare supercharger, spark intake manifold, we tried new wheels on the back of it, tried running sticker tires. We treated it like, let's cross all these off the list and see what works for us.

“We didn’t use much of it here, but that is the stuff that, down the road this year, is going to make us a championship contender.” Larry Crum

COUGHLIN KICKS OFF FAREWELL TOUR WITH PERFECT WEEKEND IN POMONA - Talk about kicking off your retirement tour in style.

After announcing that the 2020 season would be his last in NHRA Pro Stock competition on Saturday, Jeg Coughlin proceeded to dominate the season opener with a weekend of perfection. Coughlin had low elapsed time in every qualifying session and then proceeded to do the same on Sunday, sweeping his way to a win at the 60th annual Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals presented by ProtectTheHarvest.com at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona.

“It was quite a weekend. Rickie Jones and Richard Freeman and the whole Elite team just did a fantastic job over the winter,” Coughlin said. “We tested one time, made three runs and then turned the wheel over to Troy (Coughlin) Jr. who made 21 runs over the next four days. Today’s race was outstanding. I can’t recall in my 20+ years in Pro Stock where I was low for each and every one of the eight sessions and won the race. That is quite a testament to the team and hopefully it is something we can hold onto for a little bit.”

Coughlin kicked off the season - the 50th for the Pro Stock category - with a win over rival Jason Line. Line, who also announced that this season would be his last over the weekend, had a small starting line advantage, but Coughlin drove around him in the JEGS.com Chevrolet Camaro and powered his way to a 6.522-second pass at 210.80 mph to earn the Wally. Line followed him across the stripe with a 6.565 at 209.56 mph in the Summit Racing Equipment Chevy in the first final between the two drivers since 2014.

“I was the second pair in the semifinals and, naturally, I was rooting for Erica (Enders) to light the win light and I could tell from the crew in front of me that it didn’t work out well for us there,” Coughlin said. “Then I started to think how climactic it would be with Jason and I in the first final of the year and both of us announcing we were stepping away from behind the wheel.

“In the final round, when I let the clutch out the car accelerated, lifted the front end up and when I put it in second gear, I said to myself, ‘if this thing makes it to the other end, he better have a whole hell of a lot of horsepower because he ain’t coming around this one.’ Fortunately, that is the way it played out. The celebration started about 1,400 feet by the time the win light really hit me. I was already fired up when I got to the finish line because I knew it was a good run.”

Coughlin raced to his 64th career Pro Stock victory with wins over Joey Grose, Chris McGaha and Kenny Delco. In all three matchups Coughlin simply outran his competition with Elite Motorsports power, posting the quickest elapsed time in each session and never trailing with passes of 6.542, 6.546 and 6.535 to advance to his 112th Pro Stock final.

Line reached the final with wins over Alex Laughlin, Fernando Cuadra Jr. and Erica Enders.

“It was a very special weekend without question,” Coughlin said. “It is ironic how everything played out from Friday all the way through to today. We are definitely going to ingrain this in our memory bank. As racers fortunate to win a lot of rounds, win a lot of races, win a lot of championships, we are very guilty of not living in the moment. This one is going to stick for a while and bring some excitement and joy.”

Coughlin was especially reflective of making his final start at the famed Winternationals, celebrating the races 60th event during the same season that Pro Stock began its 50th season in NHRA competition.

“I think the history and the heritage here is unmatched,” Coughlin said. “With NHRA right down in Glendora, it is just neat for a kid growing up reading National Dragster every week and later in life racing down these NHRA tracks in many, many classes, it is pretty cool. Pomona has always been special. It feels like my second home.”

Now Coughlin shifts his focus to the rest of 2020 as he looks to add one final championship to his collection during his final full season in NHRA Pro Stock competition.

“We are looking to have a fun year, not only for the reason of Breaking Barriers Tour 2020. With this Elite team, if you are not having a good time, you missed one heck of a chance,” Coughlin said. “We are looking to have a great year. I have some awesome teammates and one of us is going to be making noise each and every week.” Larry Crum

SATURDAY NOTEBOOK
 

SUNDAY’S ELIMINATIONS MOVED AHEAD ONE HOUR, ONE HURT TASCA CREW MEMBER ALREADY BACK AT WORK, VANCE DONATES $1 MILLION TO NHRA LAUNCH INITIATIVE, JEG AND AUTO CLUB RACEWAY HAVE HAD GREAT RELATIONSHIP, MILLICAN HAS LITTLE-KNOWN FUN FACTS ON HIS RESUME
 

EARLY BIRD BEATS THE RAIN - The NHRA understands Mother Nature is an adversary it cannot beat.  

With the threat of rain forecast to hit Sunday afternoon at the Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals at Pomona, Calif., race officials have opted to move competition ahead by an hour.  

Top Fuel will hit the track for the first round of eliminations at 10 a.m. (PST), followed by Funny Car and Pro Stock.  

INJURED TASCA CREW MEMBERS TO MAKE FULL RECOVERY – Kyle Mullins, one of two Bob Tasca Racing crew members injured last weekend at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park near Phoenix, is here at Auto Club Raceway, back at work building the rack and bolting heads onto the Funny Car.

The other, Jim Underco, is home following a hospital stay to treat – in Tasca’s words – “second-degree burns over a good part of his side and back.” Tasca said it’s “obviously very painful and he's fighting through it. He's more worried about coming back out here than he is trying to get himself better.

Mullins, he said, “got a cut on the lip and a cut over his eye, but he didn't miss a day of work.

“I have so much respect for these crew guys, and the dedication and the hard work that goes into these cars. I say these things [Funny Cars] are a combination of a great white shark, a gorilla, and a lion all wrapped up in one – and every once in a while you get bit. We're just fortunate it wasn't worse than what it was.

“These guys are warriors,” Tasca said. “They’re tough guys, and it was just a very freak incident and we're very fortunate that both guys will make a full recovery. Kyle's back and Jim will be back before you know it.”

He said Underco wasn’t stranded in Arizona while the rest of the team moved on to Pomona for the start of the season: “His mom and dad flew in, and he wasn't alone. We were with him when we were there. His mom and dad came in, and Jim will be just fine.”

Tasca called the mishap “a very freak starting-line incident” and said, “It was just a clearance issue on the body. As the body came down, it hit the throttle. Tony Pedregon had it happen in Indy, a very similar event. But like I said, very freak. I’ve raced my whole career with similar clearances and never had an issue. So it was just the way the body came down and it was on a certain angle where it just clipped the throttle. We're very fortunate it wasn't worse than what it was.”

The team owner dispelled rumors that he had considered not competing here because he was upset about the incident at testing. “That was never true,” Tasca said. “Not for one second of one minute did we not think of coming here.”

JOBS! JOBS! JOBS! – NHRA Launch Motorsports Careers is a new initiative designed to connect those with a passion for working in motorsports with individuals and companies in the racing industry who have career opportunities to offer.  

Pro Stock Motorcycle legend Terry Vance and the Vance Family Foundation – donors of $1 million a year ago at the event to Doug Herbert’s B.R.A.K.E.S. teen driving program – endorsed the NHRA Launch Motorsports Careers platform with a $1 million donation Saturday just before nitro qualifying.

“I've been involved in a lot of nice things since I started my foundation, and I was thinking I wanted to do something in our sport,” Vance, co-owner of the Pro Stock Motorcycle powerhouse team Vance & Hines, said. “I owe so much to the sport I can't even begin to tell you.

“Look at [Funny Car champion] Robert Hight and [Funny Car crew chief] Mike Neff and all the guys that have come through the sport that had to know somebody in order to make it happen. If you don't know anybody, you're kind of out. I know what that feels like, and it is a lousy place to be. I want NHRA Launch Motorsports Careers to help kids not feel that way. If that happens and then there's a corporate sponsor comes along, it takes this thing into the stratosphere, I'd be the happiest guy in the world.”

Jobs will range from crew member positions to team public-relations managers to seasonal track operational work.

The portal may be found at nhra.com/launch.  

Public-address announcer Alan Reinhart said, “We’re not just talking about guys that turn wrenches or guys that are machinists. There are going to be social-media opportunities. There are going to be art-director opportunities. I used to challenge the kids when we're doing the Y.E.S. [Youth and Educations Services] Program earlier: ‘Name me a position that I can't find for you [in the industry]. The reality is, here at the racetrack, there literally are everything from artists to paramedics to truck drivers. So whatever it is that you're doing you can probably find some kind of an application for it in motorsports, if you are so inclined. And it's not just racing. If you own an auto shop out there, and you want to bring a youngster in and give them an opportunity then [email protected] is the email address. Send your posting, we’ll get it up. And if you're looking for a job it’s NHRA.com/launch.”

Vance said, “We're not trying to play CEOs with Launch. We're trying to get people that want to make motorsports their career. That's what Launch is all about. So they can log on, and they'll actually be able to talk to somebody to talk about their resume and where they might fit the best and what their intentions are. So, you know, we’re really kind of worried that it might just get inundated with people looking for positions and want to make sure there's enough jobs that match so we want to make sure that the Summits and the Jegses and all the guys in our industries – all the aftermarket guys, Vance & Hines, Schumachers, all those guys –  get their listings on Launch so that kids can find their place.”

Spearheading the NHRA Launch Motorsports Careers program is NHRA senior manager for marketing and research Mike Rau, who said, “Our goal is to jump-start that passion in students and help open the door to careers within our field.”  

Vance said he can remember when he was young and seeking a job but had no direction.

“I think the most intimidating time in my life was when I was looking for a job and not knowing exactly how to manage, who to talk to. Launch is going to solve that problem for the guys that are looking for a job in the motorsports industry,” he said. “I’m really excited. NHRA’s got a great staff, and they got a really good plan on how to lay it out.”

The inspiration for this program – the man behind the first step in this evolution – is Funny Car legend Gary Densham, who began what’s known as the Y.E.S. (Youth and Education Services) Program in the 1980s.

The now-retired auto-shop teacher at Gahr High School at Cerritos, Calif., said that at the time “we were losing all the local racetracks – Riverdale, Lions, Orange County. I was teaching school over at Gahr High School, and I went to [NHRA founder] Wally Parks and I said the sport’s going to dry up if we don't keep young people interested. He said, ‘Let's put it together.’

“I think it's a great program that NHRA put together with Andrew Hines and Vance & Hines and all those guys,” Densham said. “It gives an opportunity for young men and women who want to get in this sport, whether it be just as a weekend passion or full-time employment. We're lucky enough that we built this sport into what it is now where you can actually be a well-paid crew member for a Force or a Schumacher team and make it a career or if you just follow your passion and you do it part-time.”

DO TELL – A glance back at the 2007 IHRA Media Guide revealed some intriguing facts about Top Fuel racer Clay Millican. The year before, he was featured on the cover of the phone book in his hometown of Drummonds, Tenn., just north of Memphis. Don’t laugh – in 2007, Drummonds had about 5,700 residents, so the phone book had to be at least the size of a coloring book.

And just so you know, Bo Butner, Millican’s first race car was a replica of the General Lee from “The Dukes of Hazard.”

And who knew that Millican’s pastime before he began drag racing was barefoot water skiing? That’s water skiing without the use of . . . water skis. Ouch.

One of Millican’s favorite rock groups at the time was one some might remember: The White Stripes. Millican always talks about “stomping on the loud pedal” of his dragster. But apparently The White Stripes used what in the music industry is called a “whammy pedal.” It’s a digital-effects foot-controlled pedal designed for guitars to achieve pitch-shifting. And the group scored on pop charts with its 2007 album titled “Icky Thump.” Let’s hope Millican has no drag-racing counterpart for that.

JEG & POMONA: PEAS & CARROTS – Ever since he wrapped up the Super Gas championship here at Pomona in 1992, Jeg Coughlin has warmed up to the Winternationals and this venue at the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds.  

And now Coughlin has announced he is stepping back from fulltime Pro Stock competition. But this place has continued to deliver great news – even from his Pro Stock victory in last November’s Final on into 2020 and the No. 1 qualifying position this weekend.

The five-time Pro Stock champion has won seven times in 14 final-round appearances at Auto Club Raceway. He won the Winternationals in 1999 and 2000 (and the season-ending Auto Club Finals in 1995, 2005, 2007, and 2019. He also won the special 50th anniversary event in July 2001 as part of NHRA's golden anniversary celebration.) He made his first Pro Stock start at the 1998 Winternationals and advanced to the final round. His first Winternationals trophy came the following year, against brother older Troy Coughlin.

In 19 Winternationals appearances, Jeg Coughlin has qualified in the top half of the field 13 times. He was aiming Saturday for his surprising first No. 1 start, He has qualified a best of second place three times (2000, 2008, 2010). Of his 27 round-wins at the Winternationals, seven have come via a starting line holeshot. (With 105 career holeshot victories, he is the all-time leader among NHRA pro racers.) Overall, he has a 27-16 record in Pro Stock competition at the Winternationals, and in 40 career appearances at Auto Club Pomona Raceway in all events, Jeg Jr. has a round win-record of 67-33 in Pro Stock competition. Moreover, he was runner-up in the Super Stock class at the 1995 Winternationals.

So it’s no wonder Coughlin said, "For as far back as I can remember, Pomona has always been a favorite race for me. I can remember as a kid talking about this particular race with my brothers over bowls of cereal at the kitchen table, just dreaming we could be out in the California sun at the Winternationals.  

"Both races we have in Pomona are marque events on the NHRA schedule, with the magical part of the Winternationals being that it signals the start of a new season. It's 'go' time and that's why fans from around the world fly into this event. Every driver and team have big dreams right now,” he said, “and we are certainly no exception."

The driver of the JEGS.com Elite Motorsports Chevy Camaro said, “Of course, things are always changing in Pro Stock, and I'm sure our competitors used every bit of the off-season to get their own programs running at peak levels. So we'll take nothing for granted. Our engine guys at Elite Performance kept our dynos humming all winter long also, and we did manage to get quite a bit of on-track testing done, as well. So we'll be stepping up ourselves."

Coughlin came closest to keeping Elite Motorsports teammate Erica Enders from earning her third championship; the 82-time winner finished second to her by just 21 points. It marked the second straight year he's been the championship runner-up and his 19th top-10 showing.

BUTNER BUSY THIS WEEKEND – Men love gold and diamonds, too. And Bo Butner said he’s “ready to get back out there and celebrate 50 years of Pro Stock.” The Golden Anniversary of the class, he said, finds it in “strong” shape, he said.  Of course, Butner wouldn’t mind in this Winternationals Diamond Anniversary weekend also to add his 12th Pro Stock victory to all the memories at Pomona.

“The class is strong, and our crew and the KB Racing guys have been working very hard this off-season. We're coming into 2020 with a lot of cool things, including our partnership with Strutmasters on our Chevy Camaro,” Butner said. “I look for this to be a great season. We've won the Winternationals the last two years [both times defeating Summit Racing teammate Jason Line in the final], and we've had two great years. We didn't win the championship, but we had the opportunity to, so we can't complain. This year, I'm sure we'll be right there in the mix again. Our goal is to put our Strutmasters.com Chevy Camaro in the winners circle.”

The No. 3-ranked driver in 2019 is no stranger to the winners circle at Pomona, with five victories in eight final rounds.

This year he also is racing this weekend in the Top Sportsman class for the first time, behind the wheel of Factory Stock Showdown partner Jack Hodge's Cobra Jet Mustang. He qualified 10th and started eliminations Saturday by beating Florentino Martin. But Phil Miller stopped Butner by a mere 0.0017 seconds, about five inches, in Round 2 on a holeshot.

In Pro Stock, Butner will start from the fifth slot and will meet No. 12 Steve Graham in the opening round of runoffs.

Butner, of Floyds Knobs, Ind., drives the Strutmasters.com/Jim Butner Auto Group Camaro that also is backed by Summit Racing, Nitro Fish, and Speed Dawg. He’s a decorated sportsman racer with national-event trophies in five different Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series categories (Comp, Super Stock, Stock, Super Street, Super Gas). He earned the Comp Eliminator championship in 2006 and has four Division 3 season crowns.

PRUSIENSKY BACK IN CAR – Slightly less than four months ago, a continent away, Alan Prusiensky was holed up in his bedroom at Rockaway, N.J., recovering from a fracture of his L-5 vertebra in the lower lumbar spine. The pain was miserable, but making him more miserable was the realization that he wasn’t able to work on – or worse yet, drive – his precious Pro Stock race car. A violent accident Oct. 11 at zMAX Dragway at Concord, N.C., during the Countdown robbed him of his two favorite things. “The only thing I love doing more than working on the engine is driving the car,” he said. And he had hoped to push his rehabilitation extra-hard so he could get back in the car and compete at the Finals here last November. He had the venue right but the timing and the race wrong.

But after testing his car – owned by eCarMover and sponsored by Top Coat – at Bakersfield along the way to Pomona, Prusiensky is feeling much better and ready to roll.  “His back is doing well,” Christine Prusiensky, his wife and co-owner of the team, said.

He was unqualified Friday after two passes, with two more to go before the field was set for Sunday’s eliminations. His best, a 6.684-second pass, fell just short of making the field. He was 17th at the end of qualifying, as Joey Grose claimed the bump spot (No. 16) at a slightly quicker 6.640 seconds.

Depending on how he feels, physically and emotionally, in the aftermath of this outing, he’ll inch closer to a decision about his future.

One thing he isn’t trying to do is race all 13 Pro Stock events in the calendar just to get a “hardship,” or “charity” entry into the Countdown if he doesn’t land in the top 10 in the standings by the end of the U.S. Nationals this Labor Day weekend.

“I feel that you should earn your points and not get in for showing up,” Prusiensky said.

LINE MAKING THE MOST OF SEASON – Three-time Pro Stock champion Jason Line is embarking on his “Finish Line Tour” and promised himself that he is “going to make the most of it in every way I can.”

"This is the start of the Finish Line Tour, and I'm really looking forward to it. I'm going to take a different approach this year and really try to enjoy the moment and the people,” he said. “The people are, without question, one of the best parts of the sport, and I've been surrounded by a lot of great folks throughout my career. Some of the fans, you know you only see them at specific racetracks, so it'll be fun to see them again. I love this class and always have, and hopefully in the future I'll be able to do a better job at helping KB Racing and Team Summit win more races, just in a different – and better – way. I'm excited about this year, and hopefully, we'll be able to bring home more trophies for Summit Racing and [team owner] Ken Black."

 

 
EYE ON THE FUTURE – Chris McGaha said his off-season was full of what he called “some much-needed maintenance” but said, “Our main focus was on laying the foundation of our two-car team with the addition of [son] Mason this season. He has a brand-new Chevy Camaro that will debut later this year. Mason’s main focus is to finish his senior year of high school and then come out and race several national events this summer.”

 

The Harlow Sammons Racing team owner from Odessa, Texas, tested in Florida before coming to California. So he literally has been from one end of the country to another to prepare for the Winternationals.

“We continue to squeeze every bit of horsepower that we can out of our engine program to gain a competitive advantage. My head is down and focused on our program with the overall goal of bringing more trophies back to Texas this season.”

He and his father, Lester McGaha, will share crew chief responsibilities.

Chris McGaha is making his 159th event. However, his eye is on his son’s first race.

“With the addition of Mason later this season,” he said, “running a multicar team should get interesting.”

Aaron Stanfield said he sets his goal exceptionally high. And his 2020 plan is ambitious, for sure. He has his sights set on earning not just one championship . . .not just two championships . . . but three championships. The son of former Pro Stock and Pro Stock Truck racer Greg Stanfield is competing in the Pro Stock, Factory Stock Showdown and Top Dragster categories.

He has five Wally trophies in two categories (Super Stock and Top Dragster) and licenses in six (including Factory Stock, Super Comp, and Stock).

Stanfield has decided to park his Super Stock Camaro this season while chasing titles in the three other classes. He raced last season with Elite Motorsports at the start of the Countdown.

“This is something I’ve dreamed about since I was a little kid and my dad was racing a Pro Stock car,” he told NHRA.com. “It’s something I would go to sleep as a kid and dream about.”

He said his dad is “very excited, too. He’s always been there for me to help me accomplish whatever I choose I want to go after, and that’s something great about my dad. He never pushes anything upon me. He’ll let me make my own decisions.”

FRIDAY - SEVERAL KEY RACERS OPT NOT TO ‘TAKE IT OUT TO POMONA,’ FUNNY CAR RACERS CAPPS, DE JORIA BACK IN GROOVE, WE FOUND A NITRO RACER WHO LIKES THE NEW COUNTDOWN ALLOWANCES
 

Gonna save all my money and buy a GTO
Get a helmet and a roll bar and I'll be ready to go
Take it out to Pomona and let 'em know, yeah yeah
That I'm the coolest thing around. Little buddy, gonna shut you down
When I turn it on, wind it up, blow it out, GTO . . .

Things have changed since Ronny and The Daytonas sang that in 1964.

A number of NHRA racers aren’t going to take it out to Pomona this weekend for the 60th Winternationals, including two-time and current Top Fuel champion Steve Torrence and his part-time teammate and father, Billy Torrence.

Because of his tight friendship – as well as racing data- and technology-sharing – alignment with the Capco / Torrence operation, Top Fuel owner-driver Scott Palmer went with the “If Steve’s not going, I’m not going” reasoning. Same for privateer Funny Car boss Jeff Diehl.

“Due to untimely circumstances beyond our control,” Torrence said in an online message earlier in the week, “it’s in the best interest of Torrence Racing to not participate in this weekend’s season opener in Pomona, California. We cannot thank our fans enough for their continued support and understanding at this time.”

That vague explanation means Torrence won’t be on hand at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, Calif., to receive his championship jacket and ring Sunday in pre-race ceremonies.

The NHRA responded with a message from Jessica Hatcher, NHRA’s senior director of public relations and communications: “It’s unfortunate that the Capco teams will not be attending the 2020 Winternationals. All NHRA teams may elect whether or not to compete in any given event and we are excited to see everyone who is joining us to kick off the season at the 60th annual Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals. We are focused on creating a great experience for everyone in Pomona this week. We will honor Steve’s championship with a ring and trophy presentation when we can recognize and celebrate his achievements with him in person.”

So the Winternationals is missing three of the top seven Top Fuel finishers from 2019.

And, curiously, it is missing Palmer, one of the racers who missed the Countdown cut last September but raced all 18 regular-season events. He is regarded as one of the key drivers for whom the new Countdown expansion rule was established. But Palmer could perform well and still make the Countdown if he shows well enough to make the top 10.

Palmer wrote on a social-media website, “Not sure if everyone realizes how much the Capco team and Torrence family helps smaller teams out there. The Torrence family and team personally wired and plumbed our new car and worked with Rick Ducusin ,Will [Rodgers] , Alex [Stapleton], Eddie [Reed], and [Steve] Warwick to finish and test this new car for us. Here at SPR and also JDR we don’t feel comfortable going to Pomona running without them there for advice and support, so we will start the season here in Phoenix in a few weeks.”

Diehl also posted on a social-media site, “We are sorry, but JDR will not be able to make it to the Pomona race this week. With the new car, body, etc., we are just not ready. On top of this we get a lot of help from the Laganas (Bobby & Dom) and the Capco & SPR [Scott Palmer Racing] teams/families – with them not going to this race makes it even harder on us. We are shooting for the Phoenix race, and we’re sure we will be all set by then. We just can’t do this to ourselves, our crew, sponsors, and fans, to come out there and not be ready and be a hot mess.  . . . See you all at Phoenix.”

Sidelined eight-time champion Tony Schumacher understands that Torrence doesn’t have the same sponsor obligations that he and other racers have. But he was a bit mystified that a champion would want to pass up a chance to get in the race car.

“If I was racing – and I plan on being back real soon – I would want him [Torrence] there. I’ve always said the best wins were against the toughest people. I’d want him there because he is the champ. You want to go out and beat the champ,” Schumacher said.

“The guy’s got two great race cars, and he’s not willing to go. Me, I’m sitting here looking for a ride, and I’d drive anything. I enjoyed it from the moment I started to the moment I took a little pause. I never would dream of skipping [an event]. Heck, I tried to drive with a broken leg [in 2001, while mending from a serious multiple-injury accident at Memphis].

“It’s our choice to race, and they [the NHRA] provide us with the safest drag-racing facilities and the biggest payout that drag-racing offers. We’re all lucky to be driving these cars,” he said. “It’s a beautiful piece of art and the most powerful machine in the world. It’s a gift to be part of that world. We don’t have to show up, but when we’re allowed to, man, it’s the greatest show on Earth,” Schumacher said.

An item in the Competition Plus Rumor Mill just before pre-season testing suggested that one multi-car team might shave a race or two from the schedule to ease expenditures at some point in the season. Evidently it isn’t Kalitta Motorsports.

Top Fuel racer Shawn Langdon said, “We have every intention to go to all the races throughout the year. The schedule is tough, with the four in a row including the Western swing and then going to Epping right after Brainard. But right now we have every intentions to do it. I feel bad schedule-wise that they put Epping right after Brainerd, but we owe it to the Epping fans. That's one of the best fan bases that we go to throughout the course of the season. So we owe it to them to go to Epping, but I have heard a few teams that are going to skip a couple races due to the nature of the schedule. But right now, we have every intention to go to all the races.

FAMILY AFFAIR – The last time San Diego native Brandon Welch staged a race car in NHRA action was at the 2018 Winternationals, and he was driving the Beal Racing Funny Car that paid tribute to his late grandfather, Chuck Beal. This time, Welch is in a Top Fuel dragster that he and cousin Tyson Porlas own. Scott Graham, longtime crew chief for Pat Dakin, will call the tuning shots for Welch while continuing to tune Dakin’s car at races back east.

Primary sponsor Better Diesel FBC, a proprietary fuel-borne catalyst formula that improves fuel efficiency in all diesel engines, has family connections, too. Britt Beal Sr., Chuck Beal’s nephew, co-founded the company. I’m excited to introduce our product to NHRA fans, many of whom own diesel pickups or drive transport trucks over the road for a living.”

Welch has had his Top Fuel license for less than a week. He completed the necessary licensing runs last Saturday morning at Las Vegas. “The Winternationals may be our first race in Top Fuel, but this is a team with experience that expects to compete. We built a first-class car starting with a Kalitta Motorsports chassis, and we brought in veteran tuner Scott Graham to call the shots,” Welch said.

His first run was more dramatic than he had anticipated. His Better Diesel Dragster pushed out a head gasket and then the engine let go with a fireball. It cost him five points for the mess on the track. Still, he was tentatively in the top half of the field at No. 8 with a 3.841-second, 272.17-mph effort. He slid to ninth after his second pass.  

“Ran a really good 3.84, sounds like, but at about 800 to 900 hundred feet, I just felt a boom pushing me forward in the seat. And clearly at the end, you're like, ‘Oh, I see a couple of rods riding out the side of the engine.’ So it’s not how I wanted to start. But a 3.84 is a good number to get a baseline to get us on the board. We're ready for tomorrow.

“We have enough parts. We have good parts. We have a lot of parts. So we came prepared to fix this thing and keep going,” Welch said. “Better Diesel gives us a good car, and we just want to keep going and then show up to the next round and show we're not here for ‘one run and done.’ We're going to put out a good number.”

PROCK PROVEN – Austin Prock came here to Pomona a year ago as an untested Top Fuel racer. This time, he’s the 2019 recipient of the Auto Club of Southern California Road To The Future Award, recognized as the sport’s top rookie among all classes. He’s a proven race winner, with his victory at Seattle last August. And he’s as confident as ever after leading the second of three testing days at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Prock’s 3.682-second pass last Friday was his career-quickest (although it wasn’t official). Coupled with his 333.08-mph speed, the Montana Brand / Rocky Mountain Twist Dragster driver looked like he will make good on his prediction that “this team is going to be a contender all year.”

He said, “We learned a lot at preseason testing. There’s a lot of things that we wanted to try and things that [crew chief] Mike Green had been putting on his checklist since he’s been here. So it was nice to get that all ironed out. We learned what was good and what didn’t help us much. But we had a really strong race car on the second day. What we did at testing, I hope we can carry that over into Pomona. If we just keep picking at it and everyone keeps their heads down and works hard, we should be able to run right at the top of the charts this weekend.”

New to John Force Racing and Prock’s team is tuner Joe Barlam, who most recently worked at Bob Vandergriff Racing.

WHAT DOES HE KNOW THAT WE DON’T? – Tony Schumacher met with a potential sponsor Friday here at Pomona. As to whether this means he’ll return to the cockpit, he said, “We’ll see. We’ll get something.” Asked for the umpteenth time “Do you honestly think you’ll be back in a race car, competing, this year?” Schumacher said, “Yep, I do.”

NO PLACE LIKE HOME – Shawn Langdon, making the transition from the Funny Car class back to Top Fuel, is back home in another sense. The DHL Dragster driver is at his home track, where he began racing in the Jr. Dragster program. Langdon lives at Danville, Ind., but he grew up at Mira Loma, Calif., about 20 miles east of Pomona. So his performances at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona in 2013 and 2015 – when he won both the Winternationals and Finals – were extra-special.

“It’s exciting to get back there and get the season started. Pomona is a home race for me, so it’s always neat to go back and race in front of my family and friends at a place where I grew up watching my heroes. It’s also the first race of the season, so it’s exciting just to get the season going. It’s good to have enjoyed the success we’ve had there. That’s what you strive for. Some tracks you go to you seem to find the winners circle, and some tracks it seems like you’re always looking for early flights out on Sunday. Fortunately, Pomona is one of those tracks for me where I seem to have great success.”

 

LOOKING FOR HER FIRST WINTERNATIONALS WIN – Brittany Force, back in the familiar Monster Energy Dragster that took her to the 2017 championship, worked on the early part of her runs. She made a series of half-track passes and said she was glad to re-establish a routine. Force owns the class national records for elapsed time (3.623 seconds) and speed (338.17 mph) but doesn’t have a Wally from this race. “I’ve never won at the Winternationals,” she said, “so I’m hoping we can change that this year.”

 

FROM RACER TO RACK GUY – Jordan Vandergriff showed an abundance of promise in his 2019 rookie season, although he competed in just eight regular-season races and three Countdown events. He reached the final round at Dallas after semifinal showings at Phoenix, Atlanta, and Denver. Perhaps maybe more impressive is the fact Vandergriff ranked fifth in National Dragster magazine’s Top Fuel power rankings that calculate averages of a handful of performance factors, including elapsed time, speed, and reaction times.

But because his sponsor left the sport after the 2019 season, Vandergriff is out of the seat and supporting Shawn Reed, and maybe Josh Hart later in the year. Rather than blasting down the track at more than 320 mph in 3.7 seconds, he’s servicing pistons on Shawn Reed’s dragster at Bob Vandergriff Racing.

“I am a BVR employee. It does not matter who is driving. If a BVR car is there, I am there working,” the soon-to-be-25-year-old said. And he said he knew this weekend would be difficult. “It’s going to be tough Vandergriff said before the race started. “Obviously, I would rather be competing, but I will do what needs to be done to help my team win. Right now, I’m the rack guy and will continue to do that.”

GOOD NEWS, BAD NEWS – At his third race as an independent Top Fuel owner-driver, Jim Maroney opted not to make a run in the first qualifying session Friday. But he clocked a 4.035-second elapsed time at 294.43 mph to claim the No. 10 position in the order. The downside is that he will lose five points for an oildown.

“It was our first hit of the weekend, and we went up there with the intentions of repeating what we did here last fall. Actually, the car did just that, but we also had a fluke deal. We burned-up a couple of pistons and pushed the end-seals out, so we had some oil down [on the track],” Maroney said. “Other than that, looking at the computer, the car really repeated what it did last fall when we ran a 3.90. We just hope to improve on it tomorrow.”

He’ll have two more chances Saturday.

“I want to apologize to my fellow competitors for the oildown and the time it took to clean-up,” he said.

During the off-season, Maroney shuffled some personnel and added some associate sponsors.

“With our tuner from last year, Eric Lane, going to Cruz Pedregon, we made some crew changes with the team. We have been sorting out some internal personnel roles, but I think we have a strong team,” he said.

“Our goal is to build on what we learned at the finals last year,” the Gilbert, Ariz., racer said. “At this point, the 3.90s we ran in Pomona last year is what we hope we can build on and improve upon. Honestly, the goal for Pomona is really to build upon our baseline and be ready for our home track in Phoenix so we can run better than we have to date.”

Maroney was productive on the business front.

“During the off-season, we worked hard to form partnerships with some great companies. We are excited with our new partnerships with King Bearings, Total Seal Piston Rings, Diamond Pistons, and CP Carrillo. They’re dynamic companies and I look forward to a long relationship with all of them,” he said.  

Those new sponsors join existing partners Torco Oils, Western Washington Cornwell Tools, Dixxon Flannel Co, and Firehouse Subs.

ESOTERIC RECORD FOR BECKMAN – Funny Car racer Jack Beckman set a rather obscure record at the Finals last November. It wasn’t low elapsed time or top speed. It wasn’t a track or national mark. He wasn’t the No. 1 qualifier. Curiously, Beckman earned it long after his victory over newly crowned champion Robert Hight – two hours and 45 minutes afterward.

That’s how long it took to have his turn in the winners circle.

“I've never waited 2 hours and 45 minutes to go to a winner's circle before. Never,” the Infinite Hero Dodge Charger driver with 30 victories said. “They did all the champion winners circles. We pushed our car back to the pits - didn't know if they were going to do a winners circle. Two hours and 45 minutes later – and it was well worth every second of the way, I'm fine with it.”

 

THE GRIPES OF WRATH? –  Tim Wilkerson isn’t angry, but he is frustrated by a dearth of Funny Car victories for his Levi, Ray & Shoup Ford Mustang team. The owner-driver-crew chief from Springfield, Ill., hasn’t won in 91 races, not since the spring Charlotte event in 2016. And Wilkerson likened himself to Dust-Bowl-doomed Depression Era landowners showcased in John Steinbeck’s novel “The Grapes of Wrath.” He said, “This drought has gone on too long – I feel like an Oklahoma farmer in the 1930s.”

“We've been kind of stagnant lately, so this year I'm looking forward to getting the crown for once instead of getting beat in the finals. That's my biggest goal,” Wilkerson said. “We have a brand, spanking-new car from Murf McKinney and another new Ford body now, so we're really prepared. The challenge will be staying consistent.

"We had the opportunity to go testing last week in Vegas, and that gave us the chance to work through a lot of new parts and figure things out,” he said.

His first day there didn’t get off to a happy start. Wilkerson indicated he and the Richard Hartman-led crew had a lot of work in front of them to sort out everything. So the Levi, Ray & Shoup folks had their heads down, grinding away, the whole test session. And evidently they pinpointed and fixed what was ailing the new car.

“I have a good group, and everybody is focused. That really showed at the test in Vegas,” Wilkerson said. “We've got a few new guys, so we're a little slow yet. But that'll come around. They're doing really well.”

Wilkerson, who’s celebrating his 25th year of competing in the Funny Car class, is the lone privateer and one of just two racing the new Ford Mustang body.

Among his marketing partners at this season kickoff is California Pest Management.

He has won 20 times but never at the Winternationals, although he was runner-up to Ron Capps here in 1998.

“I'm looking forward to this year,” Wilkerson said, “and just so proud to have all my sponsors back – including Dick Levi and Levi, Ray & Shoup; Summit Racing; and Curry's Transportation Services. It means a lot to us to have the support of Ford Performance again this year, and hopefully we can put a smile on all their faces on a bunch of Sundays."

PRECIOUS MEMORIES – If only Jack Beckman can put his DSR-owned Infinite Hero Dodge Charger into the winners circle here at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, his relationship with the fabled racetrack will be complete.

 “I’m sure every driver looks forward to the Winternationals, but for me, it holds a special place in my heart,” Beckman said. “I grew up in the area. When I was a 10-year-old, I had a paper route, and on Sunday mornings, my brother and I would wake up early, fold our newspapers, deliver our route, and then pack up and head out to the Winternationals to watch eliminations.

“When I was in the Air Force,” he said, “I was stationed 1,500 miles away, but I couldn’t wait to get my copy of National Dragster and get the report of the season-opener.

“The day I got back from the Air Force, I unloaded all of my stuff at my mom’s house, and my buddies and I went right to Pomona to watch qualifying. That was in 1988. I just have so many great memories from there, including my first national-event win in Super Comp in 1998. I have yet to win the Winternationals in nitro, but coming off the NHRA Finals win, I feel we have as good a shot as anyone in Funny Car, so I can’t wait.”

CHANGES SPELL IMPROVEMENT FOR CRUZ – Lots of changes have gone on at Cruz Pedregon Racing during the off-season, and the two-time champion appears ready to take advantage of them. He has missed the Countdown cut in three of the past four years, so he’s ready to fare higher in the standings so he doesn’t have to stress out about a top-10 berth or depend on the new charity rule that awards a playoff spot to him if he attends all regular-season races.

Helping him will be co-crew chiefs Eric Lane and Nick Casertano and new crew member Trace Cole, who is specializing in tires and the body.

"We have everything in really great shape, and we're looking at starting the 2020 NHRA season off right with the majority of our team returning. We have such a good chemistry going," Pedregon said. “With such a solid team in place, we've been hard at work on our equipment. Eric has been focused on improving our blower technology, and we're adding a new chassis this season that will be our primary car."

Pedregon also has a new paint scheme, helmet, and firesuit that pays tribute to a very special year for primary sponsor Snap-on. "We've had a close partnership with Snap-on for 25 years, and to be a quarter-century part of this 100-year-strong company is something we want to celebrate and showcase at the tracks around the country where the very best tools are critical to what we do. Before races, I'm proud to ride along with Snap-on franchisees where I get to meet their customers and talk about two of my favorite subjects – tools and drag racing. It's a partnership that goes deeper than a paint scheme. It's about decades of getting to be with the makers and fixers among us who've made this country and our sport great."

Pedregon introduced the sport and his own California Charger Nostalgia Funny Car to fans in Saudi Arabia during an off-season trip there to the Riyadh Car Show. He also got to spend time with his daughter, Ryah. She’ll attend several races this year to cheer for her father.

De JORIA RETURNS TO SPORT AT VENUE WHERE CAREER BEGAN – Alexis DeJoria has traveled the world and said she is settling into Texas Hill Country life near Austin.

“It definitely put things in perspective, slowed my pace down a little bit,” she said. California, L.A. in particular, can be hectic and stressful. And nothing takes 20 minutes anymore. What used to be 20 minutes in the car is an hour.” What Texas offers, she said, are “Southern charm and down-to-Earth, good people.” She said she has gotten acclimated to the different type of heat there and looks forward to her time there.”

But this return to the sport for her is special – and the fact it’s in her native Southern California makes it even more so.

Her 4.048-second, 284.93-mph pass in the first qualifying session was a gratifying but tentative No. 7 in the order. (She also claimed the distinction of recording the season’s first pro oildown and a five-point penalty.)

“The first race of the year is the Winternationals at Pomona, and being from Los Angeles originally, that’s my home track. Going back to that track is big. I have so many family and friends that come out and I love all the fans,” De Joria said. “It’s a place where I was able to run the first sub-four second pass by a female and I was able to get a No. 1 qualifier there, which was a dream come true.  It’s exciting. You have to be on your game, even in the first race, because that’s what sets everything off.

“The first time I ever went to Auto Club Raceway in Pomona was the first time I saw nitro Funny Cars in person. I was 16 years old and that’s when I fell in love with the sport and the nitro ranks. I knew on that day, that I was going to be piloting one of these cars at some point,” she said.

CAPPS BACK IN GROOVE – Ron Capps did some on-camera work for Competition Plus TV during the preseason testing session last weekend at Las Vegas. While his interviewing skills were fantastic, he was supposed to be there, driving his NAPA Auto Parts Dodge Charger. Capps was especially pleased because he hadn’t gotten that chance to get some hot laps in before these Winternationals last year. As it turned out, Capps didn’t get to make any passes after all, for his cars and hauler never made it farther from Don Schumacher’s Brownsburg, Ind., shop than Amarillo, Texas. The trailer’s left rear tires caught fire, and the blaze spread, damaging the cars and equipment inside. The entire DSR crew sped into action, brought another stocked rig and car across the country, and then thrashed in borrowed space here in California for nearly a week.

So, just like in February 2019, his first time of the year in the seat of his Funny Car was during the class’ first qualifying session. He said that sensation of driving the race car again, even though he had driven in mid-November, was “very difficult.” He managed no better than an 8.540-second elapsed time at 83.02 mph for 13th place.

Capps said, “This is my 26th year driving. I was probably as nervous as I've been in a long time. Last year we did the same thing. I just felt like a rookie. I just want to go down the track for all the hard work these NAPA Auto Care Center guys have done. So we got a lot of really cool local people, AMC framing, that I met in the RV lot where we’re parked, that are on the car. It's really cool to roll into town with the history that is going on. How many years at Pomona to have local people that come out here as kids and now they want to be on a car like ours. So for Don and Dodge and Pennzoil and all that, we’ll go back up. I think we'll be alright. It was nice to just get the cobwebs out, but it was especially for me. So we'll see what happens in Q2.”

What happened in Q2 brought a sigh of relief. Capps improved five spots in the order with a 3.947, 324.12 showing.

TRIBUTE TO KOBE – Funny Car owner-driver Bob Bode’s wife, Alice Bode, always brings a touch of drag-racing nostalgia to every event as the classic “back-up girl,” wearing go-go boots and sharp-looking outfits. As the Winternationals kicked off Friday, Alice Bode wore a Los Angeles Lakers Kobe Bryant uniform. The tribute clothing honored the former National Basketball Association star who was killed in a Jan. 26 helicopter crash near Calabasas, Calif., about 60 miles from Auto Club Raceway, along with his daughter Gianna and seven others.

 

CAMPBELL LIKES COUNTDOWN EXPANSION – Jim Campbell, of Jim Dunn Racing, is one of the few racers who has expressed excitement for the NHRA’s new Countdown expansion. The Cattleman’s Cut Dodge Charger driver pronounced it “absolutely awesome” and told Competition Plus contributor Anthony Caruso of The Capital Sports Report, “I think it’s going to be good for the sport. I’m excited because in my career, this is the first Countdown that I’ll ever make. That’s why it’s exciting for me.”

He said he plans to race at every one of the 18 events in the so-called regular season and make at least two qualifying passes at each. With that, he would meet the playoff-qualifying prerequisites for a driver not making the top 10 in his/her class. Campbell competed at all 24 races last season.

“It’s nice for the team, as it takes a little bit of the pressure off,” Campbell told Caruso. “But, at the same time, it’s a Catch-22, because we want to be able to fight for it, like we previously did at the U.S. Nationals. All of us knew we had to win in order to get in. I defeated Matt Hagan in Round 1 and Cruz won his – and he was just ahead of me. It’s nice that we know that we’re going to be a part of the playoffs, but at the same time, we want to be in the Top 10 at the start of the playoffs.

“I think, they were trying to be like NASCAR, but we don’t have big enough fields as NASCAR. So that makes it very hard, and even NASCAR starts out with a 20-car field [for their playoffs]. It’s only fair to the touring cars that maybe if you’re 11th and you miss the Countdown in the top 10, you may work your way into the top 10 [by the end of the year]. It’s great when you try to go out and get sponsors, as well as good with sportsmanship. It gives you more incentive to swing for the fences in those six races.”

ROOKIE FARES WELL – In his first professional national-event pass, Alex Miladinovich grabbed the provisional No. 12 position in the Funny Car class with a 7.359-second, 91.61-mph. He ended the day in the No. 14 spot overnight in his Hot Teacher Toyota Camry. He shut the engine off early in the run and coasted to the finish line. In his second run, Miladinovich was bumped down to 14th provisionally at an improved 4.554, 246.71. Crew chief Kevin Poynter and Miladinovich tested at Bakersfield before this season-opener. Poynter worked on Eric Medlen’s Funny Car at John Force Racing, then has served with the Top Fuel operation David Baca, Doug Herbert, and Lex Joon.

 

TODD TRYING TO MATCH SNAKE – Kalitta Motorsports’ JR Todd, fifth provisionally in the Funny Car qualifying order with the DHL Toyota Camry, won the 2007 Winternationals in a Top Fuel dragster. If he were to win this weekend, he would become only the second driver to win this historic race in both nitro classes. So far, Don Prudhomme is the only one who has done that. Todd has split his 18 victories – nine in Top Fuel, nine in Funny Car.