2022 NHRA LUCAS OIL DRAG RACING SERIES WILL BE ONE TO REMEMBER
To write a preview of the 2022 NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series is a pretty daunting task. Not only are there nine dynamic and interesting categories to cover, but each of these categories represents endless possibilities for how the season will unfold. There's not enough time or server space to capture all of the intricacies that go into creating the wonderful, complex and competitive world of the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series, so consider this a summary - a snapshot, if you will, of a few themes we recognize.
There is one certainty for this season: it's going to be entertaining. You won't want to take your eyes off the action that is already heating up as we see new cars, fan favorites, and updated programs take to tracks around the country. In a sport where anything CAN happen, anything WILL happen.
As we spoke to racers around the country, a few common themes were mentioned across all categories. As much as we would like for the COVID-19 pandemic to be a thing of the past, it's still impacting our daily lives in different ways. Many teams are struggling to get parts due to supply chain issues. No amount of preparation or planning can make up for missing parts. As the season heats up and the inevitable breakdown or blow-up occurs, it may cause a big ripple effect for the season.
Many, if not all, NHRA divisions will host at least one "doubleheader" event, meaning that two events will take place over four days - the first on a Thursday and Friday with the second on Saturday and Sunday. This trend certainly impacts teams in both positive and negative ways. Holding two events back-to-back saves on travel time and expenses for racers, not to mention the allure of potentially bringing two Wallys home on Sunday evening. The flipside, however, is that drivers and teams have to come to these events prepared for the wear and tear their cars will take over this intense four-day period. And if a team is having an "off" weekend, it may affect them doubly.
One of the most notable changes in championship points impacts the alcohol categories. Teams will now be able to compete in an event without claiming it for points. What does this mean? It means that drivers and crew chiefs can compete at an event to gain more data and fine-tune their programs. It also means that teams may be able to block competitors from gaining points at particular events. For drivers like Sean Bellemeur, it means he can race with his father at a few events without worrying about his partnership with Bartone Brothers Racing. This will certainly add to the excitement and drama in alcohol racing as more cars come into the mix and strategy increases in complexity.
TOP ALCOHOL DRAGSTER
Some may say that the Meyer sisters have dominated this category in recent years, and for good reason. Megan Meyer clinched the championship in 2019 and 2020; Rachel Meyer followed the family trend winning her first championship in 2021. It looks like Rachel is about to follow in her sister's footsteps once again, as she plans to take some time off from racing this year.
"As of now, I'm not on the schedule for this year," said R. Meyer. "I may do a few events just depending on how things go."
There are a slew of competitors ready to work for that number one spot, including second-place finisher Jackie Fricke. Fricke and R. Meyer battled it out in 2021, even donning boxing gloves during the Halloween event in Las Vegas to play up their friendly competition for the fans. Fricke has been working tirelessly during the offseason in order to be fully prepared for 2022.
"Every weekend, we've been at the race shop working," said Fricke. John (Finke, her crew chief, and owner) has left no stone unturned… I'm super lucky to be on a team like this. John is willing to take the time and money, and effort to rent a track and test. That's the whole reason we've gotten faster over the last three or four years."
That testing is certainly going to be helpful going into this season. NHRA increased fuel temperature minimums by 10 degrees for injected dragsters, which will be a big challenge for those in the category who choose to run an injected engine rather than a blower car. It will be interesting to see how this impacts parody within this competitive category.
Additional competitors who are likely going to be in the mix vying for the national championship include Julie Nataas and Shawn Cowie, both of whom finished with more than 600 points last season. Fans will also want to keep an eye on the rest of the 2021 Top Ten: Karen Stalba, Jasmine Salinas, Matthew Cummings, Duane Shields, Joey Severance, and Rich McPhillips Jr.
TOP ALCOHOL FUNNY CAR
With arguably some of the hardest-working teams in the sport, Top Alcohol Funny Car is beyond competitive, yet Sean Bellemeur and his team found their way to a championship three times in the past four years. To say they are a force to be reckoned with feels like an understatement. But if other teams in the category have anything to say about it, a reckoning is on its way. Bellemeur and defending champion Doug Gordon battled it out all season long. If competition drives performance, then 2022 will be a year to remember.
The reigning champ is ready for competition this year, expecting more seat time thanks to the rule change about claiming events. He's got a new car in the works, and his team has been in constant communication.
"For Bartone Brothers Racing, it's full steam ahead," said Bellemeur. "The expectation is to put this thing on repeat and do it again. We firmly believe that most races are won before you ever leave the pit. If that holds true, then it's good news for us."
Bellemeur reports that all of their crew members are returning in 2022, and he says his team owner (Tony Bartone) and crew chief (Steve Boggs) could not be more excited about the upcoming season.
"We know that it gets tougher when there's a target on your back. And there's a target on our back again," said Bellemeur, referring to the Number One decal that will be proudly displayed on his car this season, indicating his top place position in 2021.
Among those eyeing that target will be some of the toughest competition in the sport, including the aforementioned Gordon. Several powerful teams emerge as Jonnie Lindberg will again be tuning for Brian Hough, and Shane Westerfield will return behind the wheel of the funny car owned and tuned by Rick Jackson. Kyle Smith, DJ Cox, and Kris Hool are also expected to make quite a showing this season. Others who finished in the 2021 Top Ten include Robert McCosh Jr., Nicholas Januik, and Brian Gawlik.
Affectionately labeled "Complicated Eliminator" by those who know it best, this category is one of intensity. Drivers must harness every fraction of their driving ability and unleash it only at the precise moment it's needed. Creating a winning combination takes time, testing, and more than a bit of determination. For 2021 national champion Bruno Massel Jr., harnessing the power of his six-cylinder Toyota 2JZ, took all of the above to land him the Competition Eliminator championship for the third time in his career. Looking forward to 2022, he plans to spend more time with family and less time defending his championship, which should be music to the ears of other Comp drivers. Massel thinks this will be an exciting year thanks to improved parody in this category with seemingly endless competition combinations.
"I think we are seeing better parity in Comp than we've seen in quite a while," said Massel. "It's going to come down to how drivers use their index and how they protect it."
One of the most impactful moves for this category comes from NHRA's Division 4, where Comp racer and Pro Stock driver Rodger Brogdon has established the Rooftec-Owens Corning Competition Eliminator 2022 Bonus Fund with at least $225,000 of extra prize money up for grabs. This program has had success in previous years, bringing more Competition Eliminator action to Division 4. It will likely impact competition in all other divisions as this fund will influence where and when drivers compete. It may also make drivers more willing to hit their indexes dramatically, possibly causing permanent index changes.
Three-time Competition Eliminator world champion Frank Aragona Jr. sees the Division 4 Bonus Fund bringing an interesting change to the category.
"That Division 4 money is shaking things up a little bit," said Aragona. "The guys who are going to go down and chase that money in Division 4, that mixes things up a bit because you're kind of stuck for racing those races. For the championship, it's going to be the guy who has the best strategy and the right situation to win."
Those expected to bring the strategy, motivation, time, and preparation it takes to win include 2021 runner-up David Billingsley as well as Aragona, who is fully prepared to tackle the season. Greg Kamplain, Cody Lane, Doug Engels, Peter D'Agnolo, Joe Mozeris, and a host of others are expected to see quite a few win lights when Competition Eliminator takes to the lanes.
Super Stock takes a lot of tuning and driving skills.
Super Stock drivers see their cars as much more than just a vehicle. These cars have a life and personality all their own. It's this partnership between car and driver that creates success. Greg Stanfield proved the importance of that relationship when he won his fifth national championship more than 25 years after he won his fourth, driving the same '87 Chevy Camaro.
Stanfield says that he's not planning to make a run for the championship in 2022.
"We're just going to start out the year and see how things go," said Stanfield. "We're not setting out to run for a title… We will run a few national events and just kind of see where it goes. I'm racing now just for the fun of it."
In terms of who may have a chance at the championship this year, the possibilities are many. Ricky Decker, Jimmy DeFrank, and Justin Lamb are expected to have good showings. Joseph Santangelo is also doing a great job in multiple categories.
With almost 1000 unique competitors at national events in 2021, Stock is anything but standard. The only thing higher than the wheelstands are the stakes. 2021 champion Jerry Emmons understands those stakes all too well. The championship was up for grabs all season long, coming down to the final event in Pomona.
This year, Emmons says his team is focused on proper preparation and proper practice. While they don't plan to freshen their motors until about the middle of the year, he believes many of the changes they've made in the off-season will have a meaningful impact.
"We've been spending a lot of time working on our starting line program and going over our cars, making sure that they are the best that they can be," said Emmons. "They are better than what they were last year, even though we haven't freshened the motors. Just going over them and taking care of some of the little things that should have been taken care of a long time ago."
Car counts will likely continue to rise in this category, and we will see more late-model cars in the Stock staging lanes. As more fans tune into NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing, more drivers are attracted to the sport as well. While the competition will is expected to be fierce this season, Emmons says anyone who commits to the kind of schedule it takes to win a championship will have a shot.
"Justin Lamb is a given. Jimmy Hidalgo Jr. is a great choice. Joseph Santangelo is always going to be there. Kyle Rizoli is one who I would watch out for," Emmons said. "Those guys are always going to be the ones who are knocking on the door. But really anyone who commits to a schedule and actually attends enough races has a chance because that's how tough our sport is. Everyone has a legitimate shot."
Additionally, Jeff Taylor is looking for his 50th national event win, so he will definitely be one to watch as the season unfolds. Emmons is keeping his eye on Brett Candies and Brad Plourd as well.
Consistency is the game's name in the competitive world of Super Comp. It was consistency and experience that put Christopher Dodd in the champion position for the second year in a row. He is ready to defend his championship title once again in 2022.
"My plan for this season is the same as every year," said Dodd. "I always schedule enough races to run for points. The goal is always to win a championship, but I don't get caught up thinking about it. I go racing to have fun, try to turn on win lights, and win as many races as I can."
Dodds and his competitors have been busy in the off-season preparing to tackle their race to the championship with vigor. Many teams took stock of their previous season and methodically outlined changes to make to their programs. In many ways, the off-season takes as much work for these talented teams as when they are at the track.
When it comes to any speculation about what drivers may find themselves in the hunt for the championship this year, Dodds is the first to admit the competition is hefty.
"Super Comp is an extremely tough class, full of talented drivers," said Dodd. "Obviously, the racers that seem to finish in the top ten, year after year, are at the top of the list of racers to watch. But there is a long list of competitors that are capable of getting on a roll and putting together great seasons."
In Super Gas, where the cars are almost as fun to see off the track as they are on track, thanks to some of the most dynamic and intricate paint jobs in the series, to top the stellar season that 2021 champion Luke Bogacki accomplished will not be an easy feat. He finished the 2021 season with the fifth-highest points total ever recorded (724)! 2022 will bring the heat as a host of competitors aim to break newly Moser-sponsored driver Bogacki's hot streak. Rob Kropfeld, John Labbous Jr., and Austin Williams all broke 600 points last season, so we can expect them to be hot on the championship trail.
What will it take to win in 2022? Bogacki doesn't think we are likely to see a repeat of his runaway season because there's so much depth and parity in the category.
"There was a time that you could look at it and say that there were about ten people who had a legit chance at winning a championship," said Bogacki. "Now, there are probably more than 100 racers who are talented enough. The only distinguishing factor is how many racers actually have the means and desire to go to the six national and eight divisional events necessary to really make a run at it." Super Gas runner-up Austin Williams believes we will begin to see more Super Gas cars hit the 175 MPH mark this season. However, he cautions that speed can be a double-edged sword in this bracket racing category.
"It can be an advantage to be fast, but it can also be a disadvantage if you're too fast," said Williams. "I think you can see some of the slower guys end up showing more results."
While this category is wide open in terms of who may be on top this season, both Bogacki and Williams will be keeping a close eye on Labbous, Kropfield, and Mike Sawyer, among others.
With some of the fastest speeds of any bracket racing class in the series, Top Dragster presented by Vortech Superchargers is ferocious. Competitors require nerves of steel and laser focus. 2021 champion Blake Peavler came into the season with not a single career win to his name, and yet he ended the year in the top spot.
As with most of the categories in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series, the COVID-19 pandemic directly affected car counts in Top Dragster. Expectations are that 2022 will see a return of full fields, and that means more intensity during qualifying.
"I hope the category can grow a little more," said Peavler. "The last couple years with covid, we haven't really had full fields. I hope we can get back to full fields and make qualifying fun again, seeing the fast cars really turn it up."
With full fields on the horizon, Top Dragster will be a category to watch closely this year to see who might emerge victorious. Peavler will have to fight hard to defend his title against some tough competitors, including Danny Nelson, Ross Laris, and Jeff Strickland.
In Top Sportsman presented by Vortech Superchargers, these fast-paced, powerful bracket cars are a favorite among fans and drivers due to the ferocity of on-track competition. The fight for the championship is demanding and, at times, downright grueling. Just ask Jimmy Lewis. After a slow start to the year, he amassed four wins in just three months to clinch his first national championship. However, Lewis plans to keep things a bit closer to home this year if he can help it.
"I did a lot of traveling at the end of the year that I'm hoping I don't have to do again," said Lewis. "We're freshening the engine right now, and everything else on the car is fresh. We're going to run more races at the beginning and middle of the season, so hopefully, we can stay close to home."
Paul Mitsos, Darian Boesch, and Ed Olpin had great finishes in 2021, and they are expected to bring the heat this year. Full fields are expected for Top Sportsman racers across the country, so at this point, it truly is anyone's game.