2006 Nitro Preview
PUBLISHER'S NOTE - Throughout this week, we've summoned our beat reporters to provide our readers with a look into the 2006 season and some of the known news tidbits and some unknown. Join us throughout the week as we conclude with our seventh annual championship predictions.
In today's installment, lead race reporter and former Torco's CompetitionPlus.com editor Susan Wade takes a look at the Nitro classes and what thunders on the horizon.
No wrinkles here -- Stri-Vectin-SD is a luxurious anti-aging facial cream, and it's the sponsor for the Connie Kalitta-owned dragster that Dave Grubnic drives. And Grubnic, the 43-year-old Australian Top Fuel veteran, never has felt more youthful. His Jon Oberhofer-led crew appears to have pressed out any wrinkles in their operation, sending Grubnic down the quarter-mile at Firebird International Raceway near Phoenix last week with the top two runs of the weekend at 4.454 and 4.467 seconds. He's coming off his career-best finish -- fourth -- and a season that netted his first NHRA victory, Memorial Day weekend at Heartland Park Topeka. That final-round triumph over Larry Dixon came after five frustrating runner-up efforts in 2004. So this year, he has an excellent chance to push teammate Doug Kalitta out of his comfort zone in the Mac Tools Dragster.
Soldiering on -- With "Giving up is not an option" as a motto and the entire United States Army as inspiration, it's no wonder Tony Schumacher ended 2005 with Top Fuel single-season records for most consecutive victories (5), most consecutive elimination round-wins (20), most consecutive final rounds (7), most No. 1 qualifier awards (11) and the widest margin of victory for a Top Fuel championship (415 points). For that, he joins Pro Stock's Greg Anderson for the second straight year as NHRA candidates for Speed Channel's Driver of the Year award.
While it will be hard to repeat his performance of nine victories in 12 final-round appearances, Schumacher proved that he always has more to conquer. His dominating performance came after 10 victories, his fourth U.S. Nationals title, 60 elimination-round victories, and a 6-for-8 final-round record in the last 11 races of 2004.
As he and crew chief Alan Johnson, the five-star general of the unit, go for a third consecutive championship and fourth overall for Schumacher, he has a pair of impressive 4.4-second elapsed times in testing behind him. He clocked a 4.482 and 4.486 at Phoenix, finishing the weekend second only to Kalitta Motorsports' Dave Grubnic.
Not letting it slip away -- Doug Kalitta and crew chief Rahn Tobler forced Tony Schumacher to ratchet up his performance a notch last fall. By the Brainerd, Minnesota, race, the 16th of 23 events in the Powerade Series, the Mac Tools Dragster driver had claimed a person-best five single-season victories and was leading the points. But he red-lit against teammate Dave Grubnic in the second round of the next race, the U.S. Nationals, lost the lead, and never regained it. That red-light, he said, is his biggest regret of 2005, although he said he doesn't know if that was the turning point of his season. He said Schumacher & Company "got on a heck of a streak." So did Larry Dixon, who passed Kalitta and finished in second place 28 points ahead of him -- both of them far behind Schumacher. "I'll still take what we had last year," Kalitta said. "I've got a great team with Rahn. We're all committed to each race. We're definitely dedicated to winning." He said during testing near Phoenix that Goodyear's newest tire and his team's return to the five-disk clutch are the technical unknowns in the Mac Tools Dragster equation this year. "we came here and did what we were trying to do," he said. He finished both the Las Vegas test and Phoenix sessions with the third-quickest elapsed time, 4.553 seconds and an improved 4.490, respectively. The 1994 USAC National Sprint Car champion knows how to win. And so do team owner/uncle Connie Kalitta and Tobler, who has won five Top Fuel championships in several sanctioning bodies, including three with wife Shirley Muldowney at the wheel. They won't let Schumacher roll on untouched.
Strong Will -- With the blessing of Shirley Muldowney, the brain trust of Connie Kalitta and Jim Oberhofer, the financial support of Summit and team owner Ken Black, and a business-savvy approach, how could Hillary Will go wrong in her rookie season? Already she has impressed with her eagerness to listen and learn and her professional approach, not to mention her No. 1 Top Fuel performance at the first Las Vegas test session (4.483-second elapsed time at 324.83 mph) and No. 6 showing at Phoenix (4.568 E.T.). "I have along ways to go and I have a lot to learn," she said, adding that she's becoming more and more comfortable each day. And that should make some of her competitors a little more uncomfortable each day.
Bernstein no dumb blond -- Don't let the flashy David Bowie-blond look fool you. Brandon Bernstein is hip and daring, but he's no gimmicky guy. He and the Budweiser/Lucas Oil Dragster operation are the real deal. In his fourth year, he could be the most dangerous. While Tony Schumacher and Doug Kalitta were gobbling up most of the Top Fuel victories the last few years, Bernstein swiped eight, including three in his rookie season that ended after only eight races. With crew chief Tim Richards calling the shots, his wife Kim Richards servicing the car as part of a veteran crew, six-time champion and businessman extraordinaire father Kenny Bernstein advising and presiding, Brandon Bernstein has the best Budweiser bucks can buy. And in preseason testing, he has proven that Budweiser's contract extension through 2009 (which makes the 30-year partnership the longest consecutive major team sponsorship in motorsports history) was a smart move. Bernstein ran the fastest speed (326.08 mph) and second-quickest elapsed time (4.510 seconds) at Las Vegas, then was No. 1 Friday and among the top five overall with a 4.549-second E.T. at Phoenix (where he has won twice).
New everything -- Cory McClenathan has a lot to remember as he heads to Pomona. Let's see . . . He needs to get straight all the names of the new crew members. He's doing well with crew chief Wes Cerny, his longtime confidant, and Cerny's assistant, Tony Shortall, who has worked for such luminaries as Don Garlits, Jim Dunn, Rod Fuller, and Cruz Pedregon. "We had some things go really well for us in the off-season, and I think hiring the right personnel is one of them," McClenathan said. And the veteran needs to remember that the Air Hog is no longer bringing home the bacon -- he's driving the FRAM Boost Dragster this season. If he needs something from the Carrier Boyz Racing shop, he has to go to the so-called "Nitro Alley" in Brownsburg, Indiana, now instead of to Bristol, Tennessee. He has new associate sponsors, including Jeg's. And he has his health back. So will the hard-working McClenathan, who has been series runner-up four times and has 13 top-10 finishes in the last 15 years, finally going to seize the championship in 2006? Maybe so, if Cerny's vision translates to reality: "I'm looking forward to good results. I think we have a lot of good things underway. We will be pushing the envelope when it comes to tuning the car – pushing it as hard as we can to take whatever the track will allow. It sounds easy, but that doesn't mean it is."
Fuller: 'I'm chomping at the bit' -- Rod Fuller hardly could stand to watch in his hometown of Las Vegas, as his Top Fuel colleagues ran theirs cars in the Nitro Blast-Off that signaled the start of the 2006 pre-season testing. He wanted to be out there in his Valvoline/David Powers Homes Dragster with the rest of them. So when he got the chance to slide behind the wheel again at Phoenix the following week, Fuller ran the fourth-quickest time of the weekend -- 4.503 seconds at 328.78 mph -- that happened to be the third-best of the day that Sunday. With aggressive crew chief Lee Beard on board at the start of the season and a lighter, brand-new Brad Hadman-built car that he calls "a lot more driver-friendly," Fuller said he thinks he is capable of knocking off champion Tony Schumacher this season. He beat him in Memphis last August to earn his first NHRA victory. "Some people might think I'm crazy," he said, "but my goal is to the win the championship."
Eager to go -- Clay Millican, drag-racing's version of the Energizer Bunny, somehow exists on junk food and the thrill of competition. He's eager to tackle a full NHRA schedule and get his first victory in that sanctioning body, while pursuing a sixth consecutive IHRA championship. In the midst of a marathon that covered more than 8,200 miles last fall, criss-crossing the country five times in three weeks to race, Millican said he and his loyal crew knew they "really, really had to turn dumb to not win it again" in IHRA. Dumb they're not, with Millican driving, Mike Kloeber and Lance Larsen doing the tuning, and owner Kenny "Captain Chaos" Koretsky guiding the operation.
They have extra incentive to win the 11 IHRA races: a substantial purse increase. Top Fuel teams in the Hooters Drag Racing Series will battle for an extra $225,500 in payouts, an increase of $20,500 per event. Thanks to Evan Knoll and Torco Race Fuels, each participating team will receive free car and driver entry, along with eight free crew tickets. A driver may earn the increased amount only if he runs the final Saturday-night qualifying session. Otherwise, he can expect the 2005 earnings. But Millican should have no problem complying. He wants to return to the series in which he won the first five races of 2005, then four of the remaining five.
Todd trying -- J.R. Todd finished sixth in IHRA Top Fuel competition in 2001, running a limited schedule. So look out if the Lawrenceburg, Indiana, native, gets his foot in the door at NHRA this year. He posted the class' low elapsed times of both the Friday and Saturday sessions at Las Vegas in late January. But the Menard's Dragster driver had a few difficulties as he tried to update his license. His 4.631-second effort at 277.94 mph fulfilled the elapsed-time portion of the NHRA's requirements. But in Saturday's early run at Las Vegas -- a respectable 5.075/196.87 -- he hurt the motor And having worked on Bob Gilbertson's and Frankie Pedregon's Funny Cars as well as Bruce Litton's dragster, Todd said he knew the disappointment the Jimmy Walsh-led crew felt. "It bothered me. I was bummed out. This is a brand-new car. But the more laps I get, the more comfortable I'll feel. We're all learning." The last time Todd raced a dragster was 2002, when he ran a pair of match races with Litton. Last August at Indianapolis, he took a spurt in Gilbertson's Funny Car.
Ready for another terrific start -- Tommy Johnson Jr., the Skoal Chevy driver for Don Prudhomme's Snake Racing, said he didn't get in as many preseason passes as he would have liked because of Goodyear's new tire. But what he and crew chief Mike Green saw in their 24 total runs made them happy enough to bag the Last Chance session at Las Vegas and head for Southern California and the Auto Club Raceway at Pomona. The defending Winternationals champion said, "I'm more confident going into Pomona this year than I was last year, and it turned out pretty well then. I don't see any reason why we can't repeat and start the season on a good note. The car is capable of winning races and running really good numbers."
In his only full pass at Firebird Raceway, Johnson ran a 4.719 seconds at 328.47 mph. His 4.757 at the Nitro Blast-Off at Las Vegas was sixth-best (behind the three John Force Racing entries and the Schumacher Racing trio of Gary Scelzi and Ron Capps). Green said he "thinks Johnson is driving "a little better race car" than he did at the Finals last November, when he missed a final-round appearance by just three-hundredths of a second. That was the car in which he set career-best numbers: 4.698-second elapsed time and 331.45 mph. "There aren't any major changes to the car or team. We just have to keep it going and come out strong like we did last season," Johnson said.
Pomona paramount -- The season-opening Winternationals could be a knot of drama for Tony Pedregon. The last time he raced there, he zapped former boss John Force's last chance to win the closest championship in Funny Car history on his way to winning the event. That was his own personal satisfaction after setting the Pomona track elapsed-time record as No. 1 qualifier at the 2005 Winternationals, then dropping out in the second round.
He said last November that he had some unfinished business there. No doubt he feels he has some unfinished business in general. Said Pedregon, "The goal our first year was just to survive it without going broke." Last year, he added confidence and some more consistency. This season is the one in which he and cagey crew chief Dickie Venables promise to be aggressive. With everybody's eyes on reigning champion Gary Scelzi and 13-time titlist John Force and his struggle to regain the crown, Tony Pedregon and his Q Racing Chevy Monte Carlo could steal plenty of the attention as he goes for a second championship in four years -- starting with his home event.
but more powerful, weapons -- John Force kind of pooh-poohed
the flurry of 4.6-second elapsed times he ran in preseason testing at
Las Vegas and Phoenix, saying, "Running a couple of 4.60s doesn't
mean we're going to win the championship back." He ran more than
a couple of 4.6s in his Castrol GTX Ford Mustang -- 4.673, 4.692 and 4.698
at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and a 4.678 at Firebird International
Raceway in Chandler, Arizona. That 4.673 at Las Vegas and 4.678 the following
week represent the second- and third-quickest runs in class history. The
Funny Car master was right when he said, "The [Schumacher] Dodges
still are right there, right where we expected them to be. Tommy Johnson
Jr. ran 4.75, so it's going to be another fight." This time Force
will bring a much more potent weapon with him -- his aerodynamically improved
body. Make that two -- a more focused mindset. He knows his Next Generation
drivers -- earnest Eric Medlen, son-in-law Robert Hight, and daughters
Ashley, Brittany, and Courtney -- are safely on their way and have a strong
foundation. It's time to focus on himself again. That's dangerous enough,
without Force's declaration at Las Vegas that he has "found the fountain
New is crew chief Brian Corradi. "Last year, when he worked for Frank Pedregon on a team that wasc limited financially and in resources, he showed how good he can be," Bazemore said. "It's a refreshing change, actually, to have him here. He's a younger guy, very hungry, very eager to make his mark on the sport. He's got an opportunity that he hasn't had before. And for me it means that I have a crew chief who is, No. 1, very hungry and eager to prove himself and, No. 2, who has the ability to go out and run low E.T. and hopefully contend for lots of wins."
Hmmm . . . Sounds like what Gary Scelzi said about Mike Neff before they
made Funny Car history together.
Smokey Start - Mike Ashley has had enough of the smoke and the shakes in the pre-season. The second-year Funny Car driver who graduated from Pro Modified has had more than his fair share of battles with the new Goodyear tire. In five events during the 2005 season, Ashley qualified in four. Three of those four were record-setting events.
Ashley will once again run with Del Worsham's gang with backing coming from Evan Knoll's SKULL GEAR.
Healthy chance: Ron Capps is sick of being sick. Last fall, he was throwing up because of nerves. As his preseason schedule wound down, he was becoming dehydrated because of the flu. And he had spent much of the offseason being heartsick about losing the championship to teammate Gary Scelzi by a lousy eight points. Enough. Capps said he knows Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers wouldn't have whined about a sore muscle, and he has been inspired to toughness by crew chief Ed "Ace" McCulloch and his successful fight against cancer. So no matter what, he knows he must drive that Brut Dodge like he doesn't want to finish second for the fourth time in his career. And he has the power to do it. At both Las Vegas and Phoenix, he was in the top five (4.724/317.12 at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, 4.773/315.34 at Firebird International Raceway). He and Scelzi are sure to feed off each other's competitiveness -- and memories. Or, as teammate Whit Bazemore, put it, "They're a major force to reckon with. If you want to win a drag race, you're probably going to have to go through one of those guys."
When's it Worhsam's turn? If a driver got points for trying hard and overcoming obstacles and persevering, Del Worsham would have been champion several years ago. Last year he was frustrated at about every turn -- except at Englishtown, where he ended his 12-race winless drought, and Indianapolis, where he dominated in both the event and the Skoal Showdown for a $225,000 weekend. This year the key for him could be two words: useable data. Checker, Schuck's, Kragen teammate Phil Burkart will return to a Monte Carlo after using a Toyota Celica body. That is ugly news for the rest of the field. Worsham described his organization's 2005 system as "apples and oranges." No more fruit salad. He's ready for steak -- well, a stake in the championship chase. Burkart said he's happy to help with the new all-Chevy lineup: "Del was running huge speeds with his in 2005, running over 330 mph and setting some track records with it, so we know it works and we know it's a good, solid platform. We have a pair of brand new ones in the shop, and plan to add a couple more new bodies as the 2006 season unfolds."
that serious about his hobby . . . : Cruz Pedregon was miffed.
"I did better than my results show." He wasn't talking about
his 10th-place finish in the Powerade standings last year. He was referring
to his showing in the annual Chili Bowl midget race at Tulsa last month.
" I felt like I was prepared. My driving was 100 percent better.
But I had an oil leak and my engine stalled in a heat race That cost me,"
he said. But he's going back for more, and he's planning to run several
races as time permits this year. "It's my hobby, and I take it seriously,"
Pedregon said. Imagine how deep is his desire to put the Advance Auto
Parts Chevy Monte Carlo at the head of the Funny Car pack. That's his
job. "I'm optimistic. Everybody says that," he conceded, "but
every single person [on the crew] is back. And I feel like we're going
to be as strong as ever. " He was runner-up at Houston and top qualifier
with low elapsed time of the meet at both Englishtown, New Jersey, and
the fall Joliet, Illinois, race.
Pro Mod champion-turned-nitro Funny Car competitor Mike Ashley and teammate Worsham match-raced at Rockingham, North Carolina, in November, and Knoll said he wanted to capitalize on their popular reception.
Atchison had this to say:
"The fuel cars will bring a lot more fans to the track, obviously. There are a lot of people who want to see nitro Funny Cars. I don't think the spectator counts will increase at the Canadian events, because they traditionally sell those races out anyway. But the fact remains that these cars will draw more fans, even though most of the big name drivers from the NHRA – Force, Scelzi and so on, won't be there.
"As I said, unless the IHRA decides to put all of their eggs in one basket I don't see the fuel cars hindering our class. We're a good compliment to them, after all. Even though the cars look similar, we don't run close enough to the fuel cars to confuse the issue with the fans. And we run quicker and faster than the Pro Mod and Pro Stock cars to stand out from those classes. We're in our own element.
"It’s important that the IHRA advertise and promote us properly. They need to put us in the right slot so that our performance looks good. If they run us right behind the fuel Funny Cars, then it will kill our appeal. We used to kick off eliminations, for example, and I don't think that would be a bad idea to go back to that. IHRA really pushes Pro Mod, and they should have them run just before the fuel cars. Pro Stock carries its own show because the cars are usually within a thousandth of a second from No. 1 to No. 16.
"The NHRA has run both alcohol and fuel Funny Cars for years, and they have had good success. A number of racers have made names for themselves in the alcohol ranks – guys like Bob Newberry, Frank Manzo and Pat Austin, to name a few. And most of them are still racing alcohol because it’s a viable class.
"The bottom line is that if the IHRA promotes us properly and plays it smart when it comes to structuring their racing program we should be fine. In my opinion the programs compliment each other. Adding fuel Funny Cars to the IHRA was a good decision – it just enhances an already good program and gives the fans even more value for their money."
How many NHRA competitors will take advantage of that is unknown, but the IHRA should have more than few takers with a payout structure that mirrors its Top Fuel increases. A national-event victory will be worth $23,000 and the series championship $150,000 -- both decidedly less than NHRA's scale but tempting nonetheless. - Brian Wood
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