BUSINESS, RACING GO HAND-IN-HAND FOR ASHLEY – Justin Ashley’s plan for his second season in the Top Fuel ranks calls for 12 races, with the possibility of two more.

“We’ll start at Pomona, then we'll go to Phoenix and Gainesville to kind of try and get ourselves into a rhythm by doing the first three races of the year. We would love to do all 24 and compete for a championship just like all the teams out here, but it's going to take some time and we're going to continue to work together on the business side of things and as a group and we'll get to that point. But right now 12 to 14 races is where we're going to be at for this year,” the 24-year-old New Yorker said.

And that’s a mind set that distinguishes Justin Ashley from the pack. His passion is tempered with a strong sense of business.

Moreover, he seems to be finding companies that are genuine marketing partners, good fits for his brand.

“Yes, that's a big deal,” Ashley said. “I kind of look at sponsorship a little differently. I don't look at it so much a sponsorship like, ‘Here's a check, put my name on the side of the car, go run your program.’ I don't look at it that way. I look at it more of like a marketing partnership. When we bring companies on board, our top priority is to make sure that they get their return on investment. So we always want to provide more value to them than they provide for us. Now, that's easier said than done. But we work hand-in-hand with the companies that we’re involved with to try and make sure that they're getting so much significant return that they're thrilled from the dollars-and-cents side of things but they're also thrilled from the emotional investment of it and being a part of the team.”

He’s a natural at it, this second-generation driver whose father, Mike, excelled both on the track and off when it came to wooing sponsors.

“That I can say I got from my dad. He's been a tremendous help throughout this whole process, because when I first started this process just like anyone else, I’m trying to learn how this whole thing works. So he's been a tremendous resource for me to be able to lean on and give me a lot of business and guidance and advice,” Ashley said.

“The big thing for me is we want to be out here. We want to be racing. That's the end goal, and then we work backwards from there,” he said. “And we know that getting companies involved is something that we have to do. So I try and absorb and take in as much information to make that as much a possibility as I can.”

So far he has Strutmasters.com, Biocide Systems’ Auto Shocker, and newest partner King Engine Bearings.

But he hasn’t done it all by himself.

“Going into the off-season we knew that one of the areas that we wanted to improve on was the parts of the car, because we know that our performance is directly correlated to the parts that we use. So we got into conversation with Ron Sledge [Performance and Technical Manager ] and King Bearings and we’re fortunate they helped us out and [decided to] hop on board for this year. So we're going to be running King Bearings throughout this whole year, and this is their first foray into creating bearings for Top Fuel dragsters. So it's really an exciting time for them as a company. They are continuing to evolve and grow, and we feel like we're kind of in that same space, where we're evolving and growing as a team. So we think it's a really good fit - it’s a great fit,” Ashley said.

“And thankfully we had a mutual connection, Rich Bailey, who is my Director of Business Development. He handles all my marketing. He linked the two of us together and when we kind of got to talking about where we are as companies and where we are as programs, we said, ‘Wow, this is a perfect fit.’ I knew from speaking with Ron Sledge from King and from speaking with Rich Bailey that the sportsman bearings that they made were of the highest quality. They were great,” the former Top Sportsman and Top Alcohol Dragster racer said.

“So we knew that the Top Fuel bearings they were going to make were great and of top quality, so we're excited to test them out,” Ashley said. “We tested them out last year at Pomona, and it went so smoothly and we're so happy with how they look. So we're happy to hop on board with them for this year.”

He called Bailey “unbelievable” and said, “Richie works day in and day out. He really does.”

Ashley entered only three races last season but was impressive in all three. In his debut at Charlotte last October, he qualified 12th and reached the semifinals. He started 14th at both Las Vegas and Pomona in November and lost in the first round at Las Vegas and exited in the second round at the season finale. And he’s ready for more Mello Yello Drag Racing Series action.

“I'm very excited. I am. I'm looking forward to the season. It was a short offseason, but for me it felt longer than it actually was. Anytime you have to get out of the seat and wait a few months to get back in, you start getting a little bit antsy. But these last few months have been good for us, because it allowed us to evolve and take that next step as a program,” Ashley said. “And me personally, as an individual, I spent a lot of that time making sure mentally and physically I'm in good shape and making sure that we help our existing partners to expand upon what we have already and trying to bring in new marketing partners.”

Of course, he’s also busy starring in his own online home-renovating series, “Fix, Flip, Fuel.”

He said, “That keeps me super busy. Thankfully, I have a lot of really good people that I work with that allow me to come here and race and they take care of all that. They help me with it. But some of these houses are just unreal. Some of the stuff that you see, it's just crazy. But by the time it’s all said and done, they look nice and pretty and brand-new.”

SECRET WEAPON IN SECOND TITLE HUNT? – JR Todd makes no bones about it. After enjoying a season as the reigning Funny Car champion, he was disappointed to finish seventh last November. He was the third driver on the racetrack this past Thursday as the PRO preseason testing kicked off. He had a few aspects of the 2020 campaign he was curious about – “You never know what it's going to be like . . . different car, a couple different crew guys, cold track . . .” Whatever the question marks were, it was clear he was eager to get started.

The DHL Toyota Camry driver for Kalitta Motorsports was third-quickest among Funny Car testers that first day with a 3.95-second, 287-mph pass that even was a planned shutoff. In Friday’s session, he was fourth at 3.883 – in a bunch after leader Robert Hight who all ran in the 3.8-second range. But he knows testing simply is testing.

“We have the same goal we start every season off with: looking for another shot at the championship like we won with the DHL Toyota in 2018,” Todd said.

Although clearly he wanted to repeat as champion after finding himself locked into another struggle with Hight, Todd has it in perspective.

“We knew it was going to be tough to go out there and repeat what we did in 2018. It didn't live up to our expectations, whether it's teams taking shots at you and making it stick or breaks not falling your way. It could have been worse. But definitely not what we wanted,” he said.

“We didn’t have the season we were hoping for last year, but we’ve regrouped. We have some new crew guys this year and we’ve added some key associate sponsors on board. Things are looking up,” he said, “and we’re hoping on hitting the ground running in Pomona. 

“The pressure is off this year to win a championship. We’ll go out there and hunt down Robert now. With the changes in the Countdown or what have you, it's a long season,” Todd said. “You need to win races early to put yourself in a good position going into the Countdown and then get hot at the right time of the year.”

Todd won’t have any Funny Car partner on the track this time around. Shawn Langdon has moved back to a dragster, gunning for a second Top Fuel champion to match the one he earned in 2013. Todd indicated he isn’t worried about soloing in the Funny Car category this time, largely because of the effective support from Toyota and his dragster teammates at Kalitta Motorsports.

“There are pros and cons of multi-car teams,” he said. I think for us, with Toyota and TRD’s support and their focus on our DHL Toyota Camry, that’s a good thing for us. I don’t think it will hinder our performance being a one-car Funny Car team. We have two great dragster teams here at Kalitta Motorsports that we work really well with.”

He said his, crew chief Jon Oberhofer’s, and the organization’s relationship with TRD and Toyota is “great. We have a TRD-support center parked right next to us at every race. The information they provide us, whether it’s track conditions or different ideas on things we can try with the body and chassis, is great. I don’t think there’s any other manufacturer that provides support like that to the other teams out here. I’m really looking forward to this season. We have some things in the works with Toyota and TRD for 2021, so I expect to be testing some new things later this season.”

He didn’t specify what those are, but he was specific about his desire to win the Winternationals this year.

“With the 60th anniversary of the Winternationals this year, it’s a big race where everyone wants to get a win under their belt,” Todd said. “I’ve been fortunate to win the Winternationals in dragsters, so if I could add my name to that list to win in both nitro classes, that would be pretty special. You always want to start the season off with good momentum. It’s a long season, but if we can come out of Pomona with a win, it will set the bar high for us.”

He has a good example right in his own pit. Doug Kalitta won the 2019 Winternationals and went on to win the U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis and the Finals at Pomona to come within three points of claiming the Top Fuel championship. Kalitta won the 2018 Winternationals and that year recorded five final-round appearances and a perennial berth in the Countdown. Todd himself won the 2007 Winternationals and scored two victories in the inaugural Countdown and finished seventh.

He spoke about the effects Kalitta Motorsports’ new partners might have on the entire organization’s performance this season. Could some of them give Todd a secret weapon?

“It’s great, because the products they supply to us are exclusive to Kalitta Motorsports,” Todd said. “Getting NGK on board is huge. They’ve been around the sport for a long time and have a great history.  Mobil 1 has already put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into making sure this product was right. We did some testing with it last season, and they perfected it. It’s a great product and exclusive to our team, so I think that could be crucial for us in the performance area. We’ve seen the benefits of their oil by not tearing up parts with issues we’ve had in the past.

“When you look at things like that in the long run, it’s going to save our teams money and gives the crew chiefs a bit of advantage where they can stand on the tune-up a little harder because they know the oil is going to hold up to whatever they’re giving it,” he said. “That can make hundredths- or thousandths-of-a -second difference at the finish line. Little things like that can mean a lot and go a long way in this sport.” 

HIGHT HAPPY BUT STILL LOOKING OVER SHOULDER - After Robert Hight captured his first championship in 2009, he slogged through seven Funny Car seasons, watching a parade of rivals – John Force twice, Matt Hagan twice, Jack Beckman, Del Worsham, and Ron Capps – earn the title. Then he claimed his second in 2017 (a banner year for John Force Racing, with Brittany Force emerging as the Top Fuel champ). And he didn’t have to wait as long to repeat. After coming out second in a hard-fought Countdown battle with JR Todd in 2018, Hight triumphed again last November. That put him in an elite class with John Force, Don Prudhomme, Kenny Bernstein, and the late Raymond Beadle – racers with three or more Funny Car championships.

This past season, he nosed out Jack Beckman by eight points in their duel that came down to the last day of competition. And by then, he was glad to have a bit of a breather.

He said he enjoyed, at least for awhile, the notion of being at the top of the heap again.

“It's good. It’s been a good winter,” the Auto Club Chevy Camaro driver said. “That was a stressful last race of the year, with it all going down to one run to win or lose a championship. So, once that was over it was just this relief lifted off my shoulders like you can't even believe. It was good and I enjoyed the winter as a champ and a lot of media things. But truthfully, you got to get back to work and try to stay on top. That's the main goal, and you can't get complacent. You got to work hard, and coming out here [Thursday at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway] and making two really strong runs shows that these guys [his Jimmy Prock-led crew] worked hard and we're ready to defend.”

He said he honestly doesn’t anticipate anything ever in drag racing will be smooth sailing.

“No, probably not. With a Countdown format, it's always going to be a nail-biter, but for one run, I've never had a pressure situation like that. And I'm not sure I like that, because basically it comes down to what you did at Pomona, not what you did the rest of the year. And we won six races. We led the points all year long. We had a great car, but anything could have happened on that semifinal run and we weren't the champs,” Hight said. “So it's good for the fans, good for excitement and drama, but the players that are involved, it’s a pressure cooker.

“I feel that we finished with probably the best four-car team that we've ever had last year,” he said. “And we need to carry that momentum and start with that. I feel that we're going to have really good cars that are going to contend for the championship all year long. I'm excited about the lineup we have, the drivers, the crews, the crew chiefs. This is the best group we've ever had.”

But teammate and boss John Force will be going for his unprecedented 17th crown. Hagan and veteran Cruz Pedregon want to join that elite Three-Or-More Club. Beckman, Capps, and Todd all want to be known as multiple-time champions. Bob Tasca has been ramping up And five-time winner and fearless racer Alexis De Joria is back in the class after a two-year layoff. So Hight has his work cut out for him once again. And he knows it.

He knows De Joria, who owns her team along with tuner Worsham and has savvy Nicky Boninfante sharing the shot-calling with Worsham, will be a dangerous opponent. But, perhaps in wearing his John Force Racing President hat for a moment, he said during this past week’s testing session, “She’s a good driver. Del’s a good tuner. Good to see her back. Really just shows her love of the sport and couldn't stay away. I can see that, and I really respect her for that. She can do a lot of things in her life, whatever she wants to do. She chooses NHRA drag racing, and that's my kind of girl.”

On the sponsorship front, his offseason, he said, has “been very busy. Advance Auto Parts left, and we had to replace that. We got Monster and Flav-R-Pac, and we've increased some other ones. It’s a good productive winter, and it's so nice to be back at the track.”

While Hight is heavily involved in acquiring and securing marketing partners for the team that includes Brittany Force and Austin Prock in the Top Fuel class, he doesn’t have to shoulder that burden. He said, “Don Prudhomme’s a big part of it. John got Monster. It's a team effort.”

Frank Tiegs, who owns Montana Brand, Rocky Mountain Twist, and Flav-R-Pac, has expanded his involvement with JFR. He’ll continue to support Austin Prock’s dragster and will share top billing on Brittany Force’s car with Monster Energy. She’ll race with the Flav-R-Pac livery at 10 events this year.

Hight said Tiegs “just loves drag racing, and Prudhomme got him to step up and buy 10 races on Brittany's car.”

TRANSITIONING TOP FUEL - Before this past Thursday, Shawn Langdon hadn’t even sat in a Top Fuel dragster since the end of the 2017 season.

"We got everything kind of adjusted and got the warm-up going. So everything seemed good,” he said just before hitting The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in the DHL Dragster at the outset of PRO-sponsored preseason testing.

Knowing how much success he had enjoyed in a Top Fuel car, first with Morgan Lucas Racing, then in a championship run with Alan Johnson Racing, a stint at DSR, and finally with Kalitta Motorsports, someone told him he will enjoy being back in a dragster. “I think you're going to be happy boy” was the prediction.

“We'll find out. I don't know. I'm excited. I'll drive whatever. I'm just excited to have an opportunity to work with Connie [team owner Kalitta] again and work with the DHL group,” Langdon said. “It’s the beginning of the year, so it doesn't matter what car you drive, whenever you hit the gas for the first time it's always going to seem like a blur and take you a couple runs to get reacclimated. But I'll probably have those first couple runs to get reacclimated into a dragster. We’ll hit the gas and find out.”

He stood on the gas, all right, clocking a 3.770-second elapsed time his second time out Thursday, and that put him second only to first-day leader Antron Brown (3.746 seconds, 315.71 mph). His car showed consistency Friday with a 3.786. And by the Saturday wrap-up, Langdon had topped the drivers testing at Las Vegas, registering a 3.685-second E.T. at 325.77 mph. He followed that with a 3.691.

So he was, indeed, a happy boy. Langdon told Competition Plus editor Bobby Bennett after Saturday’s performance, "To come out and run a 3.685, and a 3.691, you cannot help but feel really good. We came out in the first two days and made planned shut-off runs, and still the incrementals showed we could make the runs we did today.”

He said Connie Kalitta was satisfied with Langdon’s first runs in the car and “hopped on his plane and flew back home" to Ypsilanti, Mich.

Langdon said he enjoys his relationship with the super-confident drag-racing pioneer Kalitta and talked about how the opportunity to return to the Top Fuel class came about: “It was an opportunity that presented itself with Connie Kalitta wanting to go to three cars. They asked me if I wanted to go back to drive for him again in the dragster and it was ‘Absolutely.’ I raced with him in 2017. We had a great year and ended on a great note, with two runner-up finishes and a semifinal [appearance] in the final three races. So it’s good to be back racing with the DHL Toyota team. I’m excited for this year.”

Although he acknowledged he would have liked to have won more races in the Funny Car ranks, Langdon said he was happy to have two Funny Car trophies.

“I’ve always had the nature that whatever car I get in, I want to be competitive,” he said. “I don’t come out here to race and not win. So whatever I get in, I try to give 100 percent every time. I just try to be a part of a team that’s going to be a championship contender, and we were able to have two great years in Funny Car and got two wins out of it.

“I just want to race. If that means racing a Funny Car, perfect. If that means racing a dragster, perfect. I like racing. To me, it doesn’t matter what I race. I just enjoy having an opportunity to compete and compete for wins and a championship,” Langdon said. “It would be nice, maybe one day in the future, to go back and maybe get a championship in Funny Car, but I’m very pleased to be back working with Connie, Kurt Elliott and the whole DHL team.”

And just for the record, he said what he can take away from Funny Car an apply it racing in Top Fuel is absolutely nothing: “A Funny Car is just so different than a dragster. Really, the only thing I learned in Funny Car that I can apply to Top Fuel is how to deep stage.” He laughed the laugh of a happy boy.




WELCH CHARGING AHEAD – Brandon Welch took care of the hard part first. The former Funny Car racer has acquired sponsors for his first season in a dragster, beginning with new-to-drag-racing Better Diesel. All he needed to do at this weekend’s test session at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway was earn his Top Fuel license.

He laughed. “Yeah, no pressure,” he said. “I’m having fever dreams about getting my license, because we just set up a fully sponsored race the week after my last chance to get my license – but no pressure.

He regarded this PRO-sponsored preseason event that’s wound down Saturday as his last chance – at least before the season kickoff next weekend at Pomona, Calif. But he was optimistic he could complete the procedure in the freshly branded Better Diesel Dragster that he and cousin Tyson Porlas own together.

“God forbid if it doesn't work, we'll find another time to run the car and we'll get it done,” Welch said on the first day.

He didn’t have to worry – he had it all wrapped up before lunch Saturday.

By virtue of a 4.4-second elapsed time at 285 mph Thursday and a 4.238-second run Saturday morning, Welch achieved a nearly lifelong goal.

“I feel amazing! Unreal to be licensed in Top Fuel and Funny Car at the same time. This is beyond my childhood dreams,” Welch said Saturday after his accomplishment.

Both full passes, he said, “required me to pedal through tire shake. Good practice for Sundays. This car will run a lot better when the track isn’t so unforgiving and we can just run A to B.” 

Welch came to this testing session with a head start on his licensing procedure. Veteran Top Fuel racer Pat Dakin gave Welch’s dragster a strong shakedown on this same dragstrip last November, qualifying it 15th in the field for the Dodge NHRA Nationals with a 3.848-second elapsed time. Dakin lost in the first round. But he made an impressive showing, considering that making the field wasn’t the team’s goal at all that weekend. It was merely to prep the car for Welch’s first-ever test passes in the dragster – an any dragster.

So the car was ready that Monday following the race. Welch’s task was to make one ambiguously labeled “moderate” pass, followed by two full passes.

“We got the moderate run done, but we had trouble with the track that Monday following Vegas,” he said. “It shook really bad in one run, and it carried the front wheels and moved me to the wall another run, so I had to lift on that. We didn't blow it up, but we hurt the engine enough that we couldn't use it again. We had a problem with the bearings and camshaft, and it was hurt.

“We went through two motors at that race, and I couldn't get all the parts to put my other motors together in time for Vegas. So that was a lesson hard learned, and I made sure we had four motors in the trailer for this weekend,” Welch said. “And we always go to every race with four motors and eight racks of pistons and eight clutch packs and all that, because we just we just can't have parts be our issue. There's too much invested in this and too much we have going for our sponsors to allow lack of preparation with parts to keep us from running the car.”

It’s all logical – and all really expensive.

“That was the trick. As we left Vegas [last fall], I built a big long list of parts I had to buy,” Welch said, “and even the little stuff for these race cars is expensive. So it all adds up to a big number. My credit card was getting worn out for this. It’s part of nitro racing, though. It's kind of silly to be a nitro team owner and complain about costs, because it is what it is. It costs what it costs.

“What's interesting is, I've noticed, this sport is a different world because nobody really talks about price,” he said. “You need something, you order it and then you get the bill and whatever the price is, the price is. So sometimes people respond kind of funny when I ask, ‘What does that cost?’ And I don't know how many I want to order yet, because I need to know how much they cost. Something that you think would be a couple hundred dollars might be 12-hundred dollars. You just don't know until you ask, and a lot of the websites don't have a price on there and the catalogs don't have the price on there. And everyone might get a different price, depending on who you are, so that happens, too. It's always a little bit of detective work to figure out how much something is going to cost before you actually pay for it. We all want to stretch the money we raise as far as possible and do as much racing as possible for the money raised. Even if we were sitting on $2 million dollars, we'd still be watching how much we're spending, because you want to stretch that $2 million dollars out.”

Welch debuted the first of several sponsors this week at Las Vegas and said he plans to announce more as his part-time season unfolds.

“We’re introducing Better Diesel to NHRA drag racing – brand-new sponsor to the sport,” he said. “They make a fuel additive for big rigs and diesel pick-up trucks and make the engines produce less soot and thus give the engines longer life and more power – and the filters last a lot longer. Better Diesel makes a great product for truckers and for people who own heavy-duty diesel pickups. There's a lot of those in NHRA fandom. So they're joining us. They're really excited about our story and the family tie that we have with my cousin and me.”

Welch and Porlas are grandsons of the late Funny Car pioneer Chuck Beal. They worked for about half of their lives on their granddad’s race cars before Welch took over the seat here at Las Vegas in 2015. After Beal’s passing in July 2017, they decided for a variety of reasons to switch to the Top Fuel class. That’s why Welch has been seeking his crossover license.

“We have six races planned. We’ll be introducing a couple more primary sponsors along the way. But we're kicking it off with Better Diesel. We've got the first half of the year covered, and we're in negotiations on the second half of the year. And the six could grow beyond, so it just all depends on how these deals come through,” Welch said.

When he said “the first half of the year,” he is referring to the races he has selected, not the first half of the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule.

His plan is to start competing at Pomona, Las Vegas, and Sonoma. That, he said, would constitute his “first half of the year.” Then, he said, “potentially we can keep going to Seattle and then Las Vegas and Pomona again. Then we have interest in people running Dallas and a couple of the other races. Maybe Indy. It all just depends on funding.”

Welch said his strategy is to stagger his sponsorship announcements so no one gets lost or overshadowed by another.

“I wanted to make sure to announce Better Diesel because our races are so far apart. We’ll announce when we're going to be at a race and who the sponsor is. So I think that's a fair way to do it. Everybody gets a little bit of publicity because we're not running 18 races or even 12 races,” he said. “My thought is it's a little bit newsworthy that we're going to be there and then who's supporting us and all that. So it allows us also to modify our plans as the year goes on depending on how all of our conversations go.”



SUPER BOWL DUTY AGAIN – In less than a week, Funny Car racer Ron Capps’ emotions have gone from disappointed to elated with a series of cross-country events that string from his home at Carlsbad, Calif., through Las Vegas and Amarillo, Texas, and finally Miami. This past Tuesday his NAPA Dodge hauler – which contained two Funny Cars, his helmet, brand-new firesuits, and all his Don Schumacher Racing team’s tools and equipment – experienced a severely damaging fire. It occurred near Amarillo, Texas, on the way to testing at Las Vegas. It was unsettling to try to learn the extent of the loss, what the team was doing to recover from it, and how it will affect his start to the 2020 season next weekend at Pomona, Calif., at the Lucas Oil Winternationals. And Capps had to appear Friday at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for a DSR photo shoot and commercial filming.

But his week got better. He and brother Jon Capps, who lives at Las Vegas and competes occasionally in th e Funny Car class, flew Saturday morning to Miami for Sunday’s Super Bowl LIV, where they’ll work the sidelines carrying parabolic microphones (“sound dishes”) during the NFL championship game between their beloved San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs. Ron Capps also performed that job – his first such gig with Bay Area radio station KNBR – at the Superdome at New Orleans at the 2013 Super Bowl. (Capps reminded that that was the Super Bowl at which the power went out, “and the big joke was that I pulled the cord so our team could catch up - which they almost did.”) He has helped KNBR at 49ers games, including once with daughter Taylor. This time he’ll share the privilege with his brother, who works as a motion-picture stunt driver and recently performed in scenes for “Ford v Ferrari” and most recently “Fast and Furious 9.” The invitation came once again from KNBR producer Mike Hohler.

“Right after the [San Francisco-]Green Bay game and they clinched the NFC championship, I saw my phone light up with his name, and I thought to myself, ‘No way’. I picked it up and he said, ‘Hey man, if you can get to Miami, do you want to work the sidelines?’ So going to go work the sidelines again with what should be a great game.

“Hopefully they win this time. I've been so excited not wanting to jinx them,” he said of the 49ers. “It's going to be fun and [fun] to have my brother - it's his 50th birthday on Tuesday. So this was sort of a birthday present, as well. He's going to work the other sideline.”

Capps said, “The last time, Tommy Delago did it with me. He’s a longtime 49ers fan, big-time 49ers fan. So my brother and I are going to get to do that. My brother grew up a 49ers fan like I did, and obviously we watched Kansas City all season long and how good they were. So this is a great match-up. It’s going to be a great game.”

He said he’s as focused when he holds the parabolic microphone as he is when he drives the Funny Car: “I take my job seriously when I go there. I get close to the line of scrimmage and even when they're play comes toward the sideline, I stay as long as I can until it looks dangerous.”

His first NFL sideline gig came after the NHRA had raced at Las Vegas and the 49ers were set to play a Monday Night Football game at Phoenix.

“It was the last game of the season. So Tommy D and I bought a [airplane ticket]. I think I won [the race] here,” Capps said. “The next day we flew there. [Hohler] asked us if we want to do it and we said, ‘Hell, yeah, a Monday night game.’

“Landed that afternoon, went in, and got to hang out down on the field for pregame. Then kind of learned everything about the mic that he taught us and what you have to do, where to try to be, and the no-nos – because you got to run where the line of scrimmage is. The big thing is around the bench. You got to make sure you hang that thing away. They'll come after you if they think any of you are accidentally listening in. So you just got to make sure you aim it and be careful. And you got to run. This thing is huge, and you got it all strapped to you. That Monday night game we learned a lot, and then we did Super Bowl. We'd already done it once so we kind of knew it. Then my daughter Taylor did it with me in a Rams game around two or three years ago. And she's tiny. So she got to be down on the field,” he said.

Because he doesn’t have a car to drive at the moment, Capps said Friday that it was “going to be strange” not to participate in the test session this year along with his DSR mates. Capps didn’t have the chance to test last year, so he had been eager for this opportunity.

“I’m a little jealous,” he said. “Everybody's getting to make runs here. I'm going to watch, in total jealousy, watch some of my teammates make runs here. Matt Hagan said I could jump in his car, but I don't think I could see over the dash in his car.

He said, “Last year we didn't test and we went to Pomona. Testing is great for the teams and the crew chiefs, because there's things to learn about new equipment. But it's also really good for us drivers. You got to remember we're strapping back into 11,000 horsepower. These are the most unbelievable cars on the planet Earth, and when you've been out of the car, unlike the season, even when you have a couple weeks in between races you get back on a Friday in a qualifying run and it still shocks you. This is my 26th year. It's still a shock of what these cars put you through, g-forces and all that. So to have the three months off . . .

“And last year, I just remember I was more nervous than I've been in a long time, because here we are . . . we’re at Pomona . . . it's the Winternationals. You have four qualifying runs if the weather is good and it's easy to step on the gas and it's one of the shortest shutdowns that there is,” Capps said. “So there's a lot of things going on if you don't get the test when you show up at Pomona. It's the very first run I'm going to make in the car. It definitely made me nervous last year. I think I’m probably going to be that way this year on top of everything else.

“The good thing: I was a crew member coming up, and I've always bragged on my guys like every driver does. Everybody feels like their crew guys are the best – and they should. But there's many times we put a new car together, even go a step further, we put the car upside down the net in Indianapolis. We pulled the car out that had never been run. It was put together and we went right back up there and went quicker with the backup car that had never been run and I went to the finish line on my very first lap on a brand new car put together by my guys in the shop over the winter,” Capps said. “So sometimes you'll do that and it'll be a couple days later and you think to yourself, ‘Wow, that's incredible. Jump in a bunch of pieces of iron and bolts and nuts and something put together by a crew like that and go out there and go 330-something miles per hour and not even think twice about it.’

“So the good thing is we had the back-up car. I know that that car should be all right. We don't know about the main car. The body is junk. We just don't know what the heat did to that chassis. So the good thing is [crew chief Rahn] Tobler and the guys are going to go to L.A., park the rigs next to each other, pull everything out, and basically rebuild a brand new car,” he said. “I've been through this. I know the meticulous way that Tobler is, so I feel OK. Everything's going to be heightened. It would be great to have a storybook ending in Pomona. Have all that happen and be standing there on Sunday night holding the Wally. That would be the utmost. But right now, the job is just to get qualified.”

Another positive from the situation, something Capps said “was cool,” was that he “got text messages from Clay Millican, Del Worsham, the list goes on of people asking if they could help, and that’s pretty cool, people that you battle against to call and want to know Tobler's number to call him and see if he needs anything.

“I was at home, and Tobler called me at 4:30 in the morning at home when he got the word from 4:30 East Coast time from the guys when the accident happened.,” he said. “He was at the shop when I woke up in California and kind of broke the news to me. Everybody dropped what they were doing in the fab shop. Everybody at DSR, our front office, they pulled Tony Schumacher's old Army rig inside the shop and started doing on the back and unloading everything out of that truck. Dustin Heim, our assistant crew chief, and another guy jumped in that and drove straight down to Amarillo with that rig all through the night to get it there and start swapping things out.”

Roads were snow-coated and icy.

Capps said, “That's one of the reasons they couldn't get it off the highway. It had  been snowing, and it was icy. But Dustin and I talked to Tyler, who drives one of the rigs, and he said that local fire department was out there so quick it was unbelievable. So they saved a lot of that. So the first responders were on top of it. They're going to be working all week. It's going to smell bad. I've got to get my new helmet. Everything's got smoke damage. But it's a Funny Car, so we're used to having smoked helmets. Brand-new uniforms, all the stuff that was in there, even up front in my closet, is pretty bad.

“Our main car is on top. Those two cars were built over the wintertime from scratch. One of them we ran already, but it was taken apart and front-halved, so it's brand-new, basically started from scratch. So both cars that these guys have been working on all winter long to make perfect – and then this happens. So it's great to have NAPA Auto Parts and having 6,000 stores with local NAPA Auto Parts in Amarillo, and that was just amazing how many people reached out.”

NOT PUPPY DOGS – Tommy Johnson Jr. knows that testing is not really an indicator of how his season will go. Nevertheless, the driver of the M.D. Anderson Dodge Charger for Don Schumacher Racing said Thursday’s work here at Las Vegas was “probably the best first day of testing we've ever had.” He said despite the “usual first-day issues here and there,” his team was “overall really successful. Made a couple nice runs and things went really well. So pretty positive that it went that good for a first day.”

But he’s not naïve. He said, “You can come out and set the world record in testing, but the season can be horrible. So it's irrelevant. Mostly testing is for the guys. We've got a couple new guys on the team that's never done this before. I said yesterday, I think the testing is more for them than it is for us, and it is, to a point. Just as a driver, the first run is always a little nervous: ‘Do I remember how to do this?’ And once you get in there and the thing fires up it's like, ‘Oh, yeah, we got this.’ I can tell you that as the day went along, the third and fourth runs were much more comfortable and more normal and just relaxed and back in the rhythm,” he said. “So it's almost knocking some rust off and getting back to the routine.”

Even though he has driven and excelled for more than 30 years now in both nitro classes, he said that wave of uncertainty still washes over him.

“Yeah, of course,” Johnson said. “These things aren't puppy dogs. They’re beasts.”



CONCENTRATING ON QUALIFYING – Three stinking, lousy points stood between Doug Kalitta and his first championship at the end of last season. They’re three stinking, lousy points that the Mac Tools Toyota Dragster driver probably could have earned easily during qualifying. And he’s well aware that those bonus points that are up for grabs four times a race, 24 times a year is a key to avoid winding up second in the final standings for an NHRA-record fifth time in his career that’s studded with 47 victories.

“Qualifying is one of the things that we’re going to be focusing on this year,” Kalitta said. “Usually on race day, we’re consistently good, so qualifying a little bit better will help us be there at the end again this year. The points you gain in qualifying can make a big difference in the point standings.

“We’re just hoping to be running up front the whole season. We need to start off strong,” he said.

And he has started strong the past two seasons, for certain. He won both the 2019 Winternationals and Finals, book-ending an outstanding season that saw him surpass the 500-race mark (he’s at 513) and zoom in on 700 elimination round-wins (his career record is 690-459).

“We’ll try to go back to Pomona,” Kalitta said as he prepares a bid for a third straight Winternationals trophy, “and pick up where we left off. We’ve been testing well here in spring training in Vegas. I think the addition of NGK and Mobil 1 should be a big plus, as well. We’re really looking forward to having them aboard this year.

“I’m excited to get to Pomona. I love going to Pomona. It’s a place that has always been special and it’s been very good to us,” he said. “To me, the cool thing about Pomona is the history of the place. I’ve seen so many of the greats race there, and I love the museum. I hope the fans take some time to visit there. Personally, I grew up watching Connie there over the years, and it was just the coolest place to race. Hopefully, we can keep running well there.”

And who could stop Kalitta? If you take his word for it, a ton of competitors could. He said, “It’s going to be a really strong field again this year. All of the top teams from last year are back. With Shawn [Kalitta Motorsports colleague Langdon] moving back to Top Fuel, we’re adding another world champion. I think our Toyota teammate Antron Brown is going to be right back in the hunt, especially with [crew chief] Brian Corradi back with them. Plus you have all the young kids who came up last year, like Austin Prock and Jordan Vandergriff.  There’s never an easy round out there.”

That’s true, but Kalitta has reached four consecutive Winternationals finals. He was runner-up in 2016 (to Steve Torrence) and 2017 (to Leah Pruett).

“I’ve been very fortunate over the years. I’m really proud of what this Mac Tools Toyota team has accomplished, especially last year. The car was running good throughout the year.,” Kalitta said. “I think what benefits us the most is simply that we have the ability to stay consistent. We don’t seem to have many long stretches where we struggle, and that allows us to enter the Countdown in a good position to challenge for a title. This team is something special, and I’m looking forward to the coming season. 

Ron Lewis Photo

BROWN OPTIMISTIC – Antron Brown has registered some pretty amazing statistics, but one of the more surprising ones might be that he never has won the season-opener at Pomona, Calif.,

“We’ve always done well at Pomona. We qualify and run well there. We’ve had the car to beat there,” Brown said, “yet we’ve still never won the Winternationals. We won the NHRA Finals there a couple of times. It would be awesome to start the year off right there. First you’ve got to qualify, then we can focus on race day and just going rounds.

The three-time Top Fuel champion from the Don Schumacher Racing organization, will enter the 2020 season with 50 Top Fuel victories. He’s two behind five-time champ Joe Amato for third on the all-time class list. Brown also earned 16 Pro Stock Motorcycle trophies.

With this visit to Las Vegas, Brown and the Matco Tools/Global Electronic Technology Toyota Dragster team “have been knocking some of the cobwebs out during spring training. It feels really good to have [crew chief] Brian Corradi back [from a two-year stint at John Force Racing] and have the whole family back in sync. It feels like a family reunion,” Brown said. “Our main focus has been to come out here and have fun and just keep growing every run and learn something. With everything going on with our Matco Tools Global Electronic Technology Toyota dragster, it’s amazing unison. We have some great partners who have come on board.

“We’re just ready to get back to racing. The key thing is we’ve been able to get off the line in every run we’re making down the track. We’re starting to get consistent, and that’s the key. Do we have things we need to work on? Absolutely. We just have to keep on working to get better and better. But before you can make it better, you have to get down the track every time.  I’m just happy to get back after it. I can’t wait to get out to Pomona,” he said.

“Our goal is to compete at a high-level and go after a championship. Winning a championship is always No. 1 on our list. We’ve learned a lot over the last few years that we can implement into our new package to move forward and be better,” Brown said. “It’s OK to struggle, but you have to learn from it to move forward. One of the great things we have going forward is that TRD and Toyota will be a crucial and vital part of this. They’ve helped me establish a lot of things, and they’ve been my road map. To lean on them from both the team standpoint as a partner, but also from the technology standpoint where they step up more and more each and every year has been a blessing. I can’t thank them enough. TRD brings a lot of new ideas and parts and pieces. It’s like Christmas every time at the race track with them. I’ve been incredibly fortunate that Toyota and Matco Tools have both been with me all these years, from our start in Top Fuel racing.”

When Brown mentioned “everything going on with” his team, a huge part of what he was referring to is the formation of Antron Brown Motorsports, or AB Motorsports. He has begun the transition, with mentoring from boss Don Schumacher, to sole ownership of his own team. It all remains under the DSR umbrella.

“It’s another chapter in this racing team and we’re all doing it together,” Brown said of his developing venture. “They’ve been very gracious at Don Schumacher Racing for all these years with what Don has established. One thing I’ve learned from him is that you always need to keep excelling and keep on reaching to climb to the next level. Getting Brian Corradi back was a part of it and a big step in going forward as a team. We’re working on owning this whole operation, while continuing as a subsidiary of DSR and being able to buy the parts and pieces from DSR, as well as having them handle the hospitality. We’ll still be a family, except we’ll be able to make our own decisions going forward, while still having DSR in the background to help us along the way. To have all of this come together, I’m just pinching myself. It’s a dream come true.  I think we have all of the right people in place, so I’m not going to have to be juggling too much. I’m not going to micromanage. I’m going to let them do what they do and I can focus on driving and keeping our partners happy. Everything else will take care of itself.”



SCHUMACHER GUIDING BROWN – Antron Brown’s move toward owning his own Top Fuel team has gathered a lot of interest, as well as questions about the structure of his deal and what it means for Don Schumacher Racing this year and in the future.  The current owner of the Matco Tools Dragster team, Don Schumacher, clarified some of the mystery while watching five of his teams in preseason testing at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

“It’s a work in progress, and we’ll see how it progresses and transitions. It’s my team at this point, and I’m running the team and everybody works for DSR. All of that is still in place,” Schumacher said. “He has formed Antron Brown Motorsports, and I support that and am trying to help him work in that direction. His goals are beyond having just one Top Fuel car.”

News of Brown’s bold step triggered speculation about the future of DSR. But Schumacher put that to rest: “I would not be here if I did not have a passion for this sport and love for this sport. I’m not looking to exit and go anywhere. And if I could assist every one of my employees to better themselves and take another step in life, at this point in my life, that’s what I’m here to try to do. I will be involved with Antron Brown Motorsports for however long he does that. I will be part of that organization ongoing. I have no interest in stepping away and thinking I’m going to put my feet up on a lounge chair. That isn’t me. I can’t do that. That is not any reason that this is in the works. It’s a goal that Antron has that if I can assist him and help him accomplish it the right way, it’ll be great. But I won’t let him stub his toe. He’ll have my total assistance in any way I can help.”  

Schumacher said he is supportive of Brown’s initiative and is sharing his business insight with the ambitious three-time Top Fuel champion and former Pro Stock Motorcycle title contender.

“We’ll see how it goes forward. Owning and running a business is a lot more than a lot of people realize, [more than] just sitting and looking at an Excel spreadsheet. There are just some realities you have to deal with,” the multi-car team owner said. “Everyone has goals, and if I can assist him in accomplishing his goal, I’m there to do that. You always want your employees and team members to better themselves.

“But I have to warn Antron, which I have, this isn’t an easy business. It’s a very difficult business, and you can lull yourself into believing ‘Oh, yeah, this much income is coming in.’ But nothing comes in [from] the end of Pomona, the last race, until Pomona the next race, and you have a payroll and-and-and-and. These expenditures go on. And yeah, your sponsors will start to send you money in January and February, but you spend a lot more than is coming in. It’s not as easy as you can make it look on an Excel spreadsheet. It’s easy to lull yourself into an unrealistic expectation,” he said.

“If you don’t have the financial wherewithal to deal with everything, it’ll come apart real quick. And as I’ve told Antron, the last thing I will do is assist him to get into a business that’ll disrupt him sending his kids to college. All of those things are a lot more important, family-wise, than this.”

Schumacher didn’t reveal a timetable for the transition to be completed but said, “Everybody would like to have everything happen yesterday. And all I could tell him was ‘Slow down. Slow down. Take it easy. There’s a lot of time ahead of us. Let’s just work on it step by step. You have to be careful. Learn your way through it, and we’ll go from there.’

“Antron’s a very creative individual who’s very energized and loved by everybody. He’s very successful in putting things together. He got into the motorcycle racing industry and got out. There’s not a business that’s easy. I don’t care what business it is.”

Schumacher knows. In addition to building Schumacher Electric into a global powerhouse and operating drag-racing’s largest and most successful team, he also has owned a jewelry store in Los Angeles, among other endeavors. He said, “I’ve had my finger into a lot of things, from night clubs to raising emus and selling off mated pairs of emus. I’ve done a lot of different things in my life, but my foundation really has been Schumacher Electric and Motorsports. And I’ve kept the motorsports to a narrow area to where it’s strictly drag racing. I’ve had opportunities to go off in other directions, but there’s only one of me and I can concentrate and immerse myself in only so much.”

As for Brown, he said, “I’m here to help Antron and hopefully nurture him through this and it be the right thing and the right decisions get made along the way.”

Surrounded by the bright lights and myriad distractions of Las Vegas, Brown and Schumacher spent until about 10 p.m. Wednesday evening working on this project. According to Schumacher, they were “just kind of going over things – because we need to. He needs to understand. We can set a budget for 2020, but then you have to be concerned about all these other things. And if you make a profit, you have to pay taxes on it. There’s a lot of challenges to everything.”

Schumacher said so far, none of his other drivers has spoken with him about a desire to branch off on his or her own, like Brown has done. If they did, he said, he “would have to tell every one of them, ‘Go slow with this.’ It’s hard to say if any of them or every one of them wants to come forward and say, ‘Hey, I’d love to do this also.’ I haven’t had a conversation with anyone else about it.’”

So, to Schumacher’s knowledge, Brown’s decision hasn’t lit a fire under any of his DSR colleagues. “There maybe all kinds of fires going on,” he said, “but I haven’t had to deal with any of them as of yet.”      

TWO TASCA CREW MEMBERS HURT AT PHOENIX – Tasca Racing spokeswoman Lachelle Laney confirmed late Friday afternoon that two of the team’s crew members were injured during a starting-line mishap during a private preseason testing session at White Horse Pass Motorsports Park, near Phoenix. The mechanics are being evaluated, she said, but that according to team owner-driver Bob Tasca III, the injuries appear to be minor. The cause of the incident, Laney said, is under review. Competition Plus will have more news as it becomes available.

OH MY GOODNESS - In what might be the only moment where something didn't work as planned for defending Funny Car champion Robert Hight, the puddle of oil underneath the AAA Chevrolet Camaro Funny Car told the story. 

"It's a new oil pump we're running and it's two sections and basically one of the sections came apart, and it's something that we're learning as we go here," Hight said.."Nobody made a mistake. It just something that we're learning as we go and we've got to fix. We won't ever let that happen again. We didn't have a single oil down last year where the rods come out, so knock on wood. But I felt bad for everybody today when we oiled the track and slowed down the show.

NO CHAOS FOR PROCK – Top Fuel racer Austin Prock said it feels satisfying to join his teammates in the full three days of PRO-sponsored preseason testing this year. Last year, he received full-season funding from Montana Brand and Rocky Mountain Twist literally a few days before the season began. The rig with his new dragster arrived from the Brownsburg, Ind., shop after his John Force Racing team had finished its preseason paces. This year he has the luxury of time and preparation and a sense of calm.

“It's nice. It was nice to have an off-season with an entire crew and just kind of iron everything out,” Prock said. “Get it as well-prepared as we can make it and that should show on the racetrack out here. We should be more consistent and we’re definitely looking to make quicker and faster runs on a more consistent basis. So towards the end of the year we made some nice runs. In Dallas, we set the track mile-an-hour record, and I think I had low E.T. on race day in first round. So just looking for more of that. And I'm really proud of this team and excited to work with them again.

“We definitely set the bar pretty high for us last year,” the 2019 NHRA Rookie of the Year said. “Even right out of the gate in Pomona, winning on that pedalfest and kind of set the [expectation] for the year. So we obviously always want to improve. That's how you win races and championships is constantly improving and I think we're going to make some big strides this year.

“We can definitely be better than we were and maybe get up in that top half of the Countdown and fight for that championship.”

LEE’S  SPONSORS ARE LONGTIME FRIENDS – Some might wonder how part-time Funny Car owner-driver Paul Lee of Stringer Motorsports landed the high-profile Global Electronic Technology sponsorship that partnered with Shawn Langdon last season at Kalitta Motorsports and is teaming with the newly established Antron Brown Motorsports at Don Schumacher Racing.

It wasn’t much of a surprise for Lee. He is a longtime client of the service that Steve and Samantha Bryson own.

“We’ve known Steve and Samantha Bryson for many years. We use their credit-card processing in both of my companies. We were one of the first ones that came on board with them when they first entered racing, and their service and prices have been excellent,” Lee – who owns both McLeod Clutches and transmission firm FTI – said. “So it's just a good business move for us to use Global. Everybody should definitely look into that if they own a business, because it is a better service and price.”

In addition to being a crackerjack advertiser and brand ambassador, Lee is a pretty doggone good race-car driver, too.

“We made three runs yesterday [Thursday]. The first two went really well. The third one, it was a little cold: 62-degree track. And it shook really hard.” Friday morning he said, “We're going back out there today. We're going to do a half-track run on the first one, and if Jim O. [crew chief Jim Oberhofer] likes everything he sees in the engine, then we'll go out there and make a full run this afternoon.”

Apparently Oberhofer didn’t think the car was ready for a full-track pass.

“But everything is going good so far,” Lee said. “The guys are servicing the car like they've never left. So everything's been going pretty smooth. Pretty happy.”

He said he didn’t feel he had a much rust to shake off.

“It hasn't been that long. It's only been two months. So it's not that long. So not really,” he said, allowing that some of his competitors might feel that way “because they're racing fulltime and they're doing it every week. I haven't raced fulltime in many years. So I guess maybe if I raced every week, it might be different. But I only get to race about once a month, anyway.”

He said he plans “so far” to compete at 15 events this season.

Lee’s operation, he said, is “a satellite car” -with technology sharing – for Don Schumacher Racing. “We're actually in his shop. That's where we keep our stuff. It’s actually in the DSR facility [at Brownsburg, Ind., a deviation from his custom of keeping the car near his home in Southern California]. So it's great working there. All the guys at DSR are a big help. So it's been a big help for us.”

PEDREGON SHAKES, READY TO ROLL – Funny Car owner-driver Cruz Pedregon experienced tire shake in his lone run Friday at the private test session at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park at Chandler, Ariz.  The two-time champion said he plans to take his Snap-on Tools down the dragstrip south of Phoenix four times Saturday.

"Took it slow today,” he said. “Just making sure that everything is right. I think there’s a really good combination between crew chiefs Eric Lane and Nick Casertano. The guys haven’t been around a live car in a couple of months so everyone’s a little rusty.

“We have better parts, better pieces all around, which is changing our tune-up just a little bit. But we’re figuring it out slowly but surely,” Pedregon said late Friday.   

JOHNSON JR. REMEMBERS ANDRETTI – News rippled through the drag-racing community Thursday that John Andretti, the popular IndyCar and NASCAR racer, passed away Thursday at age 56 after a long, courageous battle with colon cancer. Many fans remember seeing Andretti – son of Aldo Andretti, Mario’s twin brother – driving the Taco Bell Dragster that San Francisco Giants player Jack Clark owned and Andy Woods tuned. None of today’s racers remember Andretti and those days more so than Funny Car racer Tommy Johnson Jr.

“Yeah, getting to race against him when he came to the NHRA, it kind of struck up a friendship,” Johnson said this week as he prepared to make test passes at Las Vegas Motor Speedway before the season begins next weekend.

“So we remained friends after that, and any time I saw him it was like old long-lost buddies. He came out to Charlotte the year before last. He came to visit. Made sure he stopped by and brought his son [Jarett] and introduced me,” Johnson Jr. said. “Racing him one time in competition kind of seemed that we built a lifelong friendship together.

“My dad [longtime sportsman racer and author of the book “The True Story of How I Survived Absolute Terminal Cancer”] had tried to help him along the way and kind of kept progress on him to see how he was doing. He got a hold of us and talked to my dad, and so we were well aware of the situation. So it was sad to see what happened to him,” he said.

Johnson Jr. called Andretti “a fighter” and said, “I think half the battle of cancer is a mental attitude, and a racer always has a pretty strong competitive mental attitude. So we knew he would do well for a while.”

Coincidentally, Johnson Jr.’s Funny Car carries the M.D. Anderson Cancer Research Hospital’s banner this year. And like Johnson Jr. and his DSR colleagues, Andretti supported Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis.

Penske Entertainment Corp. President & CEO Mark Miles, on behalf of INDYCAR and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, said, “John Andretti's skills behind the wheel of any kind of race car were admired by his millions of fans around the world, and he always returned that loyalty and kindness to become one of the most popular drivers of his generation. But John's true mission was helping others, whether through his countless hours of charity work, especially with Riley Children's Hospital in Indianapolis, or by the colon-screening campaign he started in April 2017 after he was diagnosed with cancer. John's positive attitude and selflessness throughout his brave fight inspired all of us and will be a legacy that will continue forever. We extend our deepest condolences to his wife, Nancy, their three children and the entire Andretti family."

Andretti Autosport, which his cousin Michael Andretti owns, issued this statement Thursday: “It's with the heaviest of hearts we share that John Andretti has today lost his battle with cancer. John was a loving husband and father, a devoted son and a trusted cousin. He was a philanthropist, an advocate for the sport, a dedicated teammate, a driven competitor, and most importantly a dear friend.  

“Through Race4Riley, John spent decades dedicating his time and fundraising attention to Riley Hospital for Children. When first diagnosed with colon cancer in 2017, John vowed to fight back and use his voice to help spread the word of prevention and early detection. He fought hard and stole back days the disease vowed to take away. He helped countless others undergo proper screening, and in doing so, saved lives.  

“We will forever carry with us John’s genuine spirit of helping others first and himself second. Our prayers today are with Nancy, Jarett, Olivia and Amelia, with our entire family, and with fans worldwide.

“We urge all our followers to, please, #CheckIt4Andretti.”

Andretti drove for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing in the 2009 Indianapolis 500 in an association with his longtime marketing partner, Window World, and Richard Petty Motorsports. Team owner Dennis Reinbold said Friday, “John’s passing is very difficult to comprehend right now, as he has been a close friend for many years. John was so upbeat and so strong throughout his cancer battle, demonstrating great strength, spirit, and compassion as he did throughout my entire friendship and working relationship with him. I first met John back in 1984 through our mutual BMW association and knew of his passion to race in the Indy 500. On behalf of our whole Dreyer & Reinbold Racing team, I want to extend my condolences and prayers to Nancy, Jarett, Olivia, Amelia, and the entire Andretti family during this challenging time. John was a standard bearer for the city of Indianapolis with his tireless effort to raise funds for Riley Hospital for Children. His legacy in Indy and the motorsports world will continue for decades to come. Godspeed, my friend.”

The family will receive friends Monday, February 3, from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. followed by Eulogy and Prayer Service beginning at 7 p.m. at St. Mark Catholic Church at Huntersville, NC.  

A Mass of Christian Burial will be Thursday, February 6, at 1 p.m., at Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral Catholic Church in downtown Indianapolis. The family will receive friends from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. prior to the Mass at the church. Private burial will follow the service.

In lieu of flowers, gifts can be made to: 

Window World Cares 
118 Shaver Street
North Wilkesboro, NC 28659 

Riley’s Children’s Foundation 
30 S. Meridian Street, Ste 200
Indianapolis, IN 46024 

Andretti drove and won at the highest levels of North American motorsports in championship cars, stock cars, and sports cars. He also competed in top-level drag racing and short-track open-wheel racing. His career included 12 starts in the Indianapolis 500 and 11 starts in the Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

But his tireless, selfless work on behalf of various charities, even after his cancer diagnosis became public in April 2017, earned him even more respect and loyalty from a legion of worldwide admirers than his significant talent behind the wheel.

Andretti’s son, Jarett, said, "We lost a husband, father and friend. My dad was my mentor, my best friend, and I will forever miss him. His memory will live on through his charitable work with Race4Riley and the movement he started with #CheckIt4Andretti. The outpouring of support we have received has been unbelievable. Dad touched so many people over his career and I am thankful for every message.”



SALINAS TEAM TO SIT OUT FIRST FOUR EVENTS – Top Fuel owner-driver Mike Salinas delivered a bit of a surprise this week. His Scrappers Racing team, which includes Jasmine Salinas in Top Alcohol Dragster and Jianna Salinas in Pro Stock Motorcycle, will skip the first four races of the 2020 Mello Yello Drag Racing Series.

Citing business commitments involving his San Jose, Calif.-based companies, Mike Salinas said he will make his debut this season at the April 17-19 Mopar Express Lane NHRA SpringNationals at Baytown, Texas, near Houston.

His daughters would have started the season in March at the Gatornationals at Gainesville, Fla. But the entire Scrappers Racing fleet remains at the Brownsburg, Ind., shop, preparing for the start of their seasons at Houston Raceway Park.

“Going to the races with my family is fun,” Mike Salinas said. “But we had some success in 2019 and look forward to big things in 2020. But as a businessman, I need to take care of things in San Jose before we get swept up in the racing. It takes a clear mind to step into those cars and race, so we’re going to get our business and race teams in order, then come out strong together.”

The patriarch of the self-funded family team said his decision didn’t come without considerable consideration. He said he is planning to test his Top Fuel dragster before that Houston race but hasn’t finalized any details.

Jasmine Salinas will compete in her Top Alcohol Dragster in Division III this season, participating in all regional events and national events at which her class is scheduled to race. Sister Jianna Salinas will enter the remaining Pro Stock Motorcycle races through the Finals, which she won last November at Pomona, Calif.

“We thank our wonderful fans for their support and understanding of why we made this decision. Scrappers Racing will be out there this year and we are excited to put on an awesome show for everyone,” Mike Salinas said.

Mike Salinas omitted three races (Atlanta, Topeka, and Epping, N.H.) last season and started the Countdown as the No. 5 seed. He finished seventh in the final standings.

HAULER FIRE STARTED WITH PUNCTURED TIRE – Team owner Don Schumacher was on hand all day Thursday at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, catching up with his drivers and crews, but the one driver he didn’t see on the opening day of testing was NAPA Dodge driver Ron Capps and the Rahn Tobler-led team. Capps reportedly is expected to be at the track here Friday, but the reason he’s not taking advantage of the PRO-hosted preseason is the hauler fire the crew encountered near Amarillo, Texas, on the way here earlier this week.

Schumacher explained the cause of the fire.

“Both inner tires on the left rear [of the 18-wheeler] got punctured by something. And the rear one, the tire came apart and the steel cords in it were whipping around and created a spark, caught that tire on fire. By the time they pulled over, the outer tire, which was still inflated, was on fire also. They got out of the truck to try to put the fire out with extinguishers and the outer tire exploded,” he said.

“Nobody was injured. We’ll see how things are,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of rigs go down the road for a lot of years. This is the first time we’ve had an incident like this. It’s just one of those things that happened.

“We had another rig sitting at the shop [at Brownsburg, Ind.]. It wasn’t wrapped or anything. We unloaded parts out of it. It headed to Texas to pick up all of the parts and the pieces out of that trailer. That trailer [the damaged one] will stay there until the insurance company takes a look at things and figures things out. The new rig will come to California and they’ll unload everything, clean, and sort,” Schumacher said. “Everything’s covered in soot. Everything just looks like ‘eeeh.’

“I don’t know what the insurance company will determine about the trailer,” he said.

Inside were two NAPA-branded cars. “We lost one Funny Car body,” the team owner said. “How much heat got to the chassis we don’t know at this point, how much heat got to tires. All of that will be analyzed, once they get to California and unload it and start to go through everything.”

Tobler contacted some folks who might have space for the NAPA team to function before the Winternationals that begin the season in one week.

“I’m sure everything will work out,” Schumacher said. “There were other racers who contacted me and said, ‘Hey, we have a shop here. If you need anything, bring it on over. It’s wide open, whatever you need.’ The racing industry is a great family that’s always there to try to assist each other. Chad Head [vice-president of operations at Kalitta Motorsports got hold of me and said, ‘Hey – you need a tractor-trailer? We’ve got ‘em sitting right here. No problem.’ And other people have reached out to me also. We had another rig at the shop that we just sent down the road. All of the competitors out here are staunch beat-you-up [opponents] when you come to the starting line. But pretty much any other time, they’re there to help you.”       

DEJORIA-WORSHAM TEAM READY TO ROKiT – One of the newly formed teams that has generated a buzz in the offseason took its place on the track among its peers, but the Alexis De Joria – Del Worsham team was not making its first passes of the offseason.

They had tested initially at Bakersfield, Calif., then in Arizona at Tucson.

“The first one was for her. The second one was for us,” Worsham said. “This one’s for the whole team.”

The ROKiT / ABK Beer Toyota Camry – which clocked a 4.18-second elapsed time as the best of three passes Thursday – got a thumbs-up from De Joria before she ever went down the racetrack this week.

“I love the color combo,” she said of the red, black, and white paint scheme. “I think it’s a really strong, fierce color.  I’m excited – it already looks fast!” She characterized its look as “angry,” as in angry with passion, and said, “Very much like my soul.”

Her soul is at home, on the dragstrip and with co-team-owner Worsham and his co-crew-chief, Nicky Boninfante.

“I have so much respect for Del and Nicky. I have developed a very good rapport , a good relationship, with them. It feels like family,” she said.

The team officially is DC Racing, which borrows an initial from each partners: “D” for De Joria and “C” for Charles, which is Worsham’s middle name. Its primary home will be in a shop at Concord, N.C., just behind zMAX Dragway that’s home to two national events. They chose the location because Boninfante wanted to be close to his family. “The other half of the time,” De Joria said, the car will stay at the Worsham Family Racing shop at Orange, Calif., near Los Angeles.

Worsham said the first two (private) test sessions were not representative of anything: “You can’t really judge your performance on a track that’s not prepped – like NHRA-prepped – or when there are no other cars there to judge yourself against.” Then again, he said, “Neither is Phoenix” or any number of places racers test.

For example, he said, “You go to Phoenix right now. It’s not anything like the race. First off, there is no rubber on it [before the simultaneous PRO session started]. And then you get only [nitro] cars on it. So there’s only Goodyear rubber on it. It’s not being mixed up with Mickey Thompson and Hoosier and all the different stuff. And there’s hardly any cars on it. You don’t get the surface you race on, no matter what. It’s not really the same, anyway.

“Even at the Indy test session [in August, circa 2003] . . . I remember going to the Indy test session and making one run and running low E.T. of the whole test session, then coming back and qualifying 16th. So you really have to take those things for what they are,” Worsham said. “A lot of times, it’s just running though your parts and running through your drivers and making sure you’re prepared for the situations that are coming. Every day’s a new day. We know that. Track prep’s one thing. The amount of cars on the track is another thing. And then there’s the weather. You don’t know, really, what you’re going to get.

“That’s where your really great tuners seem to rise up – your Alan Johnsons and your Austin Coils – because they adapt to every situation they’re in, no matter what it is,” he said.

Worsham said, “We’re not [coming to Las Vegas] just to check parts. We’ve done that. We’re not coming just to make sure Alexis is up to speed. We’ve done that. Now we’re here mainly to see how fast it will go. If the track’s up to it, let’s just see if it can put up the numbers that we need to win and compare it to the other cars that are here. That’s the only way you really know.”

The Bakersfield test, Worsham said, was to observe De Joria’s driving and getting her comfortable after her two-year hiatus.

She said despite the layoff, “I feel pretty confident. It’s been two years. So that first test session that we did back in November, that was more shakedown runs, trying to see if there was any dust that had settled on me – which there really wasn’t, to my surprise. We just gelled, and it was fine. It happened to be good weather in November. We went there with a partial 2020 team. Del put it together and got us a crew. We just went out there and made a bunch of runs.

“This last test session in Tucson,” she said, “was with the actual team and the car and the truck together.”

All in all, Worsham said before the Las Vegas test session, “Really, we accomplished quite a bit. We accomplished enough without putting big numbers on the board right now. We had to run through new blowers and new heads and all the new stuff we bought. We ran into some problems, so I’m glad we were able to address them right away. We did what needed to be done where if we had to go to Pomona tomorrow because of weather or any other issue, I feel comfortable going to Pomona right now. It doesn’t really matter. We did the things we really had to accomplish.”

He did say that “as the season goes on, we’re going to build a couple more new cars.”

‘IT WAS ME’ – In his first pass of 2020, the supercharger on Doug Kalitta’s Mac Tools Dragster backfired. It was spectacular-looking, but that wasn’t exactly how he had hoped to start the year. And he knew exactly who to blame for the mishap.

But, as Jimmy Buffett sang in in his hit song “Margaritaville,” Kalitta could join in: “It’s my own damn fault.”

“Yeah, just kind of screwed up up there. One of those deals,” the 2019 Top Fuel runner-up to Steve Torrence said. “Double-stepped. So it was me.

“I just wasn't comfortable. It was just one of those deals that everything is new: new seat, helmet, everything. It was just kind of all out of sorts, for whatever reason,” he said.

His performance improved, though, and he closed the day with a 3.841-second elapsed time that was third-quickest Thursday among dragsters showing. That came with a 251.58-mph speed. 

The car is the same one he excelled with in 2019, but, he said, “Just a different seat insert, different suit, different helmet – and it just wasn't real comfortable in that suit, either. So I just got to work through these. That's why we're here to test and obviously try to get comfortable in your car.”

Naturally, it was better that the issues arose in testing rather than at next week’s season-opener at Pomona, Calif. – which Kalitta won last February. He also won the Finals there at Auto Club Raceway last November.

“Yeah, we’ve had good luck there,” he said with a smile.

In Kalitta’s second run Thursday, he said, “we just shut it off.” It was a planned shutoff.

And he changed his firesuit.

“I went back to my old suit,” he said as he worked on his seat insert in the pits. “I’m trying to get this seat a little more comfortable, because it's just tight and it's one of those deals that sometimes you have to work on making a little more comfortable. So that's why we're doing what we're doing here.”

The reason he got a new seat for his cockpit was that, in his words, “My other insert was really thin and kind of just real busted up and just old. It had been a while since I changed out the insert. They did a nice job on this one, though. So I'll get it tweaked around and it'll be good.”

NEW SET-UP FOR TORRENCE AT PHOENIX – In Thursday’s first day of a separate test session at Phoenix, two-time Top Fuel champion Steve Torrence said, “We had a successful day of testing. [Crew chief Richard] Hogan is trying a new set-up to accommodate the new NHRA rule changes for 2020. The weather was beautiful, and we’re looking forward to another productive day tomorrow.”