2018 NHRA WINTERNATIONALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
KALITTA, OBERHOFER TAKE FIRST STEP TOWARD ANOTHER TOP FUEL TITLE RUN - A number of factors played into Jim Oberhofer’s decision to give up a prestigious Vice-President title at Kalitta Motorsports.
Not the least of them is this yearning to give Doug Kalitta the NHRA Top Fuel championship he has come so close to seizing. He has 44 Wally trophies. He has raced in 92 final rounds. His victories total is fifth-best in class history. He earned the 1994 USAC Sprint Car championship. He has a lovely family in Ann Arbor, Mich., and a charter airlines business that keeps him busy nearly nonstop.
But four times he has slogged through a season, winning races and qualifying No. 1, and establishing a reputation that made Funny Car veteran Ron Capps declare that Kalitta is “pound for pound, the best race-car driver we have in the NHRA pit area, overall race-car driver.”
The bottom line is he doesn’t have a Top Fuel championship. Four times he has come close. Four times he has had to accept the runner-up label.
While Kalitta hasn’t complained, Oberhofer wants to tidy up unfinished business.
Together they took a satisfying first step Sunday at the Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals, as Kalitta defeated Tony Schumacher.
With a winning 3.779-second elapsed time at 324.28 mph on the Auto Club Raceway’s 1,000-foot course in his Mac Tools Dragster, Kalitta denied Schumacher his first victory since last March and denied Don Schumacher Racing (DSR) a double-nitro triumph.
DSR’s Matt Hagan edged Robert Hight to claim the Funny Car trophy, and Pro Stock’s Bo Butner outdueled his KB/Summit Racing teammate Jason Line to join them in the winners circle.
The engine on Schumacher’s Tony Schumacher dragster blew up on that final lap, and he finished with a 4.715-second elapsed time at 145.93 mph.
After winning the Winternationals for the second time, Kalitta said, “I still have to hop in my plane and fly home tonight. But it was a great victory for us.
“Today was one of those lucky days,” Kalitta – who detonated an engine in the first round and outlasted Clay Millican, who clocked the quickest pass in NHRA history Saturday night at 3.628 seconds – said. “Tony smoked the tires or whatever, and I was very pleased to see that. He’s a tough competitor.”
“To get the first win of the season and get that monkey off your back is huge. It was kind of a lucky day. Our Mac Tools/Toyota Dragster coasted across the finish line twice, but we were still getting the win light. It was one of those crazy days, and we went through a lot of parts, but we got it done. We don’t care how we win. As soon as the win light comes on, we’re moving on to the next round.”
He marveled at the carnage his team alone caused – and that’s in a day that saw three engine explosions and a serious accident that landed reigning class champion Brittany Force in the hospital overnight in the first round alone.
“We blew that thing up first round. It’s just incredible the amount of damage you can tear up in one day. Unfortunately, today was one of them for us,” Kalitta said. “It’s a good thing we’ve got a weekend off. I’m sure my guys will need that. We’re going to have to replace some of these parts. But Connie [his uncle and team owner, Connie Kalitta] has given us the resources. Thank God for Mac Tools and Toyota and all of our great sponsors.
"My guys have a lot of work to do to prepare for Phoenix. We blew up a lot of stuff today. They’ll be working right up until Phoenix to get everything fresh again,” he said. “But we’ll be ready. We’ll go there and see if we can qualify up front and try to get another win.
"I can’t give enough credit to the entire team. Not only my guys, but the Kalitta Air guys all pitched in and we needed them. It was a thrash to make to at least three of the four rounds. It was just a great team effort. We have the team and the people to get it done," Kalitta, who also won here in 2009, said.
The Mello Yello Drag Racing Series action shifts in two weeks to Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park near Phoenix for the Arizona Nationals.
As for Oberhofer’s move, Kalitta said, “That’s just his commitment to our team. He loves everything about all of our teams. It was the right thing to do. Tuning these cars is nothing to take lightly. A lot of guys have two or three guys trying to tune these things. It’s just nice to relieve him of some of the other stuff. We’ve got people who can take care of all the of the personnel stuff and the hospitality and all that goes into making sure everything’s right. Jim works so hard at trying to make everything right. It’s probably a relief just to concentrate on one thing. He’s put everybody in place, and we have the people who can do what needs to be done. He’s done a great job of it.
“I’m really proud of him and everything he’s done for all of our teams,” he said. “It’ll be a fun year. It should be an interesting year, for sure.”
Already he has recorded his 92nd career final round. And Sunday’s final-round appearance was his fourth in the past five events here, where the NHRA season begins and ends at this historic venue that’s referred to as “the cradle of drag racing.” Moreover, it was his third straight Winternationals final and his fourth final in the past five races.
"We love coming here to Pomona. It just has so much and growing up around Connie, this was a big deal. It’s just a great place to run,” Kalitta said. “With Connie and his legacy out here, it’s cool to get a win. You just think back in the ‘60s when those guys were running here – that’s the kind of history this place reminds me of every time I come. It’s a special place. I like coming here. The fans are great.”
Schumacher reached the final past Terry McMillen, Terry Haddock, and Antron Brown.
“That was a lot of fun – the whole day. It was a fun deal in every way, except for what happened at the end,” Schumacher said.
“The U.S. Army car is an awesome car. We should’ve won that but we broke a part. Generally speaking, we broke the whole rear end there. Fortunately, that stuff doesn’t happen very often, because we have the best-made parts in the business. That’s just an unfortunate one because we had a good car and they weren’t going to beat us – nobody was, not today. Still, we go on to Phoenix with absolute confidence in a great race car and a bunch of smiling U.S. Army boys.”
But Kalitta was smiling even more Sunday. Susan Wade
HAGAN SWEEPS WINTERNATIONALS FOR SECOND-STRAIGHT YEAR - The Winternationals.
It is one of the oldest and most prestigious events on the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series calendar. A win here can make your season and place you onto a who’s who list of drivers that have accomplished the feat in the 57 prior trips at the southern California track.
But winning back-to-back? That list is even shorter. And sweeping back-to-back events - taking home the Wally along with being fastest in qualifying - then you are talking about a rare few.
In fact, it hasn’t been since the late 70s that a nitro driver has swept the Winternationals with a No. 1 qualifier award and a win.
That is, until this weekend.
Matt Hagan became the first driver since Don Prudhomme in the 1976-77 season to accomplish the weekend sweep when he drove past defending Funny Car champion Robert Hight in a tremendous drag race to win the Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals presented by ProtectTheHarvest.com at Auto Club Raceway.
“To watch my guys come together and work like they did this weekend is pretty special. You can tell the extra prep they put in during the offseason. It’s not so much parts and pieces, it’s looking at those parts and pieces and putting your hands on them and putting in that little extra,” Hagan said. “I’m so proud of my team and I’m proud of this racecar that Don Schumacher owns. It’s a car that these guys have put together that I know can win on any given Sunday I go out there and that is a crazy feeling. There are a lot of guys that race out here that are just hoping to go some rounds and I know, every Sunday, I can win this race. It’s just a cool feeling.”
Hagan drove from the No. 1 position on Sunday to match-up with the other top driver from qualifying and the pair put on quite the show in the season’s first nitro final. With both drivers close throughout the weekend, Hight took a .021 head-start at the tree, but Hagan was around the defending champion by the 60-foot sensors and the pair remained welded together through the finish line.
But it was Hagan who flipped on the win light by the narrowest of margins, crossing the stripe with a 3.823-second pass at 335.90 mph in the Mopar Express Lane Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car. Hight also had big numbers finishing in the runner-up position, posting a 3.866 at 336.99 mph.
It was yet another tremendous drag race in a rivalry that has become one of the fiercest in the sport between champion drivers, champion owners, and champion crew chiefs Jimmy Prock and Dickie Venables.
“You have to run good against Jimmy Prock and that is all Dickie. Those two guys throw down. Everybody talks about fast and when it comes to Funny Car, those are the two guys,” Hagan said. “We go back-to-back on speed and ET and that is because we’ve got good, fast crew chiefs. But I’m sure Don (Schumacher) is grinning from his boat right now because we loaded up a Force car and turned the win light on. It’s a rivalry, a healthy rivalry for the sport. Not everybody wants to see handshaking and kissing on the top end. It’s competitive, but still respectful.”
Hagan added wins over Jim Campbell, Cruz Pedregon and Ron Capps to earn his first Wally of the season and the 27th of his career.
In the second round, Hagan had to overcome a massive deficit at the starting line to drive around a resurgent Pedregon, winning with a 3.954 to a 4.006, before eliminating Capps in a very close 3.938 to a 3.968 to punch his ticket to the final.
“I needed every millisecond in the race against Cruz. If he is that good, hats off to him, but he had a .010 light and I saw him poke his nose out there and I was like, ‘we might get our butts kicked here’ and then we just drove around him,” Hagan said. “It was just one of those deals that’s just racing. You have to be on your game and be good enough on the tree to get it done.
“Dickie just really has it dialed in right now. He isn’t messing with it too much, it is just gas and go. But these nitro cars are pretty finicky and walking a razorblade where you can fall off either edge. He isn’t up there scratching his head, he knows what he is doing and that gives me confidence as a driver knowing that I can do what I need to do. Three lights in the .50s today, that allows me to zone in and focus on the tree and what I need to do.”
Hight had wins over Jeff Diehl, J.R. Todd and Jack Beckman in finishing in the runner-up position.
With the win, Hagan opens the season with all the confidence in the world coming off of a tremendous test session last weekend and now a win in one of the biggest races of the year. Now the key is to keep the team performing at this high level for 23 more races.
“Confidence is a big thing, but these Funny Cars are just so humbling. You feel, sometimes, like you are on top of the world and you can’t do anything wrong, but then they can rip your heart out and run over it,” Hagan said. “I’ve been on both sides of it and I feel like keeping our team upbeat and confident and starting the year off on a positive note means a lot. We had a team meeting last night and I feel that we are working as a group. It is no different than any other sport - you have to work together. And at the end of the day, (Dickie) and Mike Knudsen have a gameplan and they are working hard to execute it. We have to do the same.” Larry Crum
BUTNER CONTINUES CHAMPIONSHIP FORM WITH WINTERNATIONALS WIN - What a difference a year can make.
Coming into the Winternationals in 2017, Bo Butner had still never won a race and wondered just what it would take to finally get over that hump.
One year later, Butner is the defending Pro Stock world champion with five wins under his belt.
No, make that six wins.
Butner picked right up where he left off in 2017, where he won the season finale at Pomona to clinch the Pro Stock championship, with a second-straight Pomona victory, defeating teammate Jason Line in the final to win the 58th annual Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals presented by ProtectTheHarvest.com at Auto Club Raceway.
“We’ve all grown and come a long way since then,” said Butner, who earned his sixth win in the last 21 races. “It definitely wasn’t my car's fault or my crew (that we hadn’t won), but they are clicking off now. If I was a surfer, I’d be riding a good wave. But those KB guys, what can you say? They are the best at what they do.”
Butner drove his Butner Auto 2018 Chevrolet Camaro through a gauntlet of seasoned vets ending with a matchup against KB Racing teammate Jason Line in the Summit Racing Equipment Chevrolet Camaro in the season’s first Pro Stock final. In that matchup, Butner got away first and never trailed, crossing the stripe with a 6.549-second pass at 209.62 mph. Line, in his 96th career Pro Stock final, finished with a 6.568 at 209.59 mph.
“We actually put a bandaid on a little motor issue I had and I even thought I might not even try to go up there (for the final). We all talked about it and they said go for it and it worked out for us,” Butner said. “We actually made our best run of the weekend. That says a lot for those guys. It is a shame only one of us can turn a win light on. But, again, I have to run them. Today I had to run two of them and they race fair. There is no lay down.”
Butner added wins over Erica Enders, Greg Anderson and Tanner Gray to reach his 12th career final, posting lights of .004, .031, .001 and .015 to help move him through the ladder.
“I don’t know what the difference in me is. I’m getting older,” Butner said with a laugh. “I went to a practice tree race that was held in Evansville about a month ago and I actually got to the final and I thought, I can hit the tree consistent. Right now it is just clicking and I feel great with the car and I have all of the confidence in our crew.”
Line added wins over Kenny Delco, Alex Laughlin and Deric Kramer as a new-look KB Racing team held three of the four spots in the semifinal round. With the addition of Kramer to the team already consisting of Butner, Line and Anderson, Butner feels it is only a matter of time before KB Racing sweeps the semifinal ladder.
“You will see a race where all four of us are up there, but it can all change tomorrow,” Butner said. “These guys are pros. For Deric, that is great to see. That’s probably as many rounds as he has won in a long time. He drove well and he’s going to be tough. With Deric we now have four awesome 2018 Camaros and we put that in perspective - if a win light comes on, it’s a win for Chevy, for Summit and for all of us.”
It is hard to believe how far Butner has come from a year ago, but now Butner begins the 2018 season with all of the momentum as he looks to build on back-to-back Pomona wins with, potentially, back-to-back championships.
“We have to go back and get to work. But that is eight rounds in a row for us here,” Butner said. “Pomona has always been good to me. I’ve been fortunate to go a lot of rounds here, but haven’t won this race. It was a cool atmosphere. It didn’t feel like the season had started, but once the rounds started clicking, we got in a groove.” Larry Crum
WELCH CAR PAYS TRIBUTE TO BEAL FAMILY; COUGHLIN RECOUNTS CONNECTION WITH OLYMPICS; SCHUMACHER APPRECIATES CANOPY, GREEN, NEW TUNING COMBO; PEDREGON CHASSIS SAGA ENDS WITH NO WINNER; WORSHAM HAS WEIRD Q4 EXPERIENCE; CAMPBELL GETS UNIQUE ‘TROPHY’; CHANDLER TRIBUTE GRACES COINS
WELCH’S FUNNY CAR HONORS BEALS – Brandon Welch said his grandmother cried like a baby.
And why not? Karen Beal – a/k/a “KB” – never had had her name on any of husband Chuck Beal’s alcohol or nitro Funny Cars. But she’s featured on her grandson’s Monte Carlo Funny Car that pays tribute to her and her late husband. Beal passed away July 13, 2017, in San Diego following complications of a heart procedure.
“I’ve got her name on the car,” Welch said. “She always used to give Chuck a hard time about it. For some reason he never put in on there, so I’m putting it on there.”
The message on the rear of the car reads, “Special Thanks, KB.” Accompanying it is the quote, “God love her, and so do I.” Welch said that’s “something he always used to say when he’d hang up from talking to her.
“I was more excited about that than anything on this car,” Welch said. “It’s pretty cool to do that for her, just because when he was off racing umpteen weekends a year, she raised two daughters. And then I came along when her daughters were grown, and she helped raise me. I was at home with her a lot of times. It’s pretty cool to do that for her.”00
Adorning the car is a mural with photos of Beal, one in the winners circle years ago and one of him in later years, against a backdrop of a Coronado Island beach.
Welch said “KB” loves the racing scene and always showed pride in Chuck’s success in the NHRA alcohol ranks: “She thought because Chuck was so successful, especially in the alcohol days, there was a lot of pride that ‘Hey – we’re making this sacrifice as a family. We’re living in the same house we bought 30 years ago and we’re giving every last penny to these race cars. We’d better be proud of what we’re doing.
“And so she really liked it. She liked the community at the races, and she went as often as she could. But when it came to putting diapers on babies and putting food on the table, she did that. And I think there’s a bigger story there about racing wives are as important as the, or husbands for that matter, as the racers that are out here. It takes a village to run a race car,” Welch said.
Welch called Beal “a very joyful guy.” And what he is doing for his grandfather’s legacy is competing in the so-called “Bealmobile” for the third limited campaign in four years.
“This is the exact body,” Welch said, showing off the replica of his grandfather’s mid-1980s Camaro. “We sent the designer a picture of this car and just said, ‘Clone it’. We got as many color pictures as we could. We said, ‘We need to find roughly what these shades were and let’s clone that car. I don’t want to modernize it. I don’t want to do anything [different]. I just want to clone it’. I think he did a great job.”
Ontario, Calif.-based Gatorwraps designed it and produced the wrap. Mark Lueck, a painter whose portfolio includes many of Don “The Snake” Prudhomme’s iconic cars throughout the years. He pinstriped some lines, scripted the message to KB, and lettered the BealMobile logo.
“The color really pops in the sun, too,” Welch said, admiring the artwork. “I’m excited to see some on track photos of it.”
Other than having some trouble with the pan pressure shutoff switch not tripping, Welch said he Friday he was ready to go. He was unqualified, at the bottom of the 19-car field, at the end of the first qualifying day. He moved up a spot when Gary Densham slipped onto the Funny Car card behind him in 20th place. But Welch ended his weekend with a DNQ, in 20th place.
Welch, a securities broker, worked on the car with his grandfather since age 15, and Beal was proud to see his grandson kick-start his driving career in 2015. And like Beal, Welch knows all too well how hard it is to balance racing with a family and primary job.
“It’s always a scramble,” he said. “I got a promotion, and part of the promotion was I needed to work in Vegas. I’m actually working four days a week in Las Vegas right now. I’m living in San Diego. The race car’s in San Diego. I got twin daughters and a wife in San Diego, so it’s been a total juggling act. The guys have really stepped up, and then I’ve really just been on the phone ordering parts and coordinating all of this.
“But it’s great,” he said. “It’s a big purpose that’s bigger than yourself. You know, you’ve got a team of guys. That’s really hard to do. It’s like it’s a reason to get out of bed in the morning and work a little harder.
“You talk to any racer who’s been doing this long enough,” he said, “and you know they could always have lived in a bigger house and had a bigger pile of money – but not nearly as much fun.”
OLYMPICS SPECIAL FOR COUGHLIN – The distance, by coincidence, was a quarter-mile. Jeg Coughlin had traveled 1,320 feet many, many times, but this trip was different. He was on foot, carrying the Olympic torch through his hometown of Columbus, Ohio, as part of the relay preceding the Winter Games at Salt Lake City. In later years he competed against NASCAR stars in the Bo-Dyn Bobsled Challenge to raise critical funding for the U.S. Bobsled team. In 2010, he was a guest of Team USA at the Winter Games at Vancouver.
So with the kickoff of the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, opening this same weekend as the Lucas Oil Winternationals at Pomona, Coughlin reminisced.
"Most kids grow up dreaming about the Olympics and feeling that incredible admiration for our athletes," he said. "I certainly feel that way to this day, so it's been a dream come true to get involved with our Olympic heroes in a small way. I can't wait for the Games to begin and cheer Team USA on to many medals.”
Coughlin has his share of hardware. He’s a 76-time NHRA national-event winner. But he has a special affection for the Olympics and its athletes.
"Carrying the torch -- for a quarter-mile, by chance -- through the streets of Columbus back in 2002 really got it going for me,” he said. “We then got involved with Geoff Bodine's charity fundraiser for a number of years and actually got to race bobsleds against our NASCAR counterparts to raise money to help in the design of better sleds for our athletes. Since then I've had the great honor of attending the Vancouver Olympics and watching our men and women do their thing up close, and we've also hosted many of our Olympians at the drag races. It's been a wonderful relationship."
CANOPY PROVES ITS WORTH – Don Schumacher Racing’s Tony Schumacher, an unapologetically ardent supporter of the optional enclosed cockpit on Top Fuel dragsters, said during the final qualifying session Saturday that he was thrilled his U.S. Army Dragster has one.
He was in the opposite lane Saturday afternoon when Terry McMillen’s Amalie Oil Dragster had an engine explosion and scattered shrapnel. It was a startling disappointment for McMillen and team, for they had earned a tentative spot in the top half of the order (at No. 8).
“I don’t know what blew apart on McMillen’s car, but I was happy I was in a canopy, man,” Schumacher said. “I saw parts flying. A long time ago, we were in those open cars and parts would land in our laps. I was thankful for what my dad [team owner Don Schumacher] and Mike Green and all the guys at DSR put into that car for safety.”
Ironically, the two drivers will race each other in Sunday’s first round.
SCHUMACHER READY TO ROCK WITH NEFF – U.S. Army Dragster driver Tony Schumacher still has the highest respect for former crew chief Mike Green – and the highest hopes for that same kind of success with new tuner Mike Neff.
“Mike Green and the entire Army team, we had a lot of success over the years. We had a lot of great years. The last two weren’t as spectacular as we had hoped. I think, myself, even Mike Green, the Army, we just expected better results and we had to make a change,” Schumacher said.
“Mike is an incredibly capable guy, a fantastic crew chief, a great team leader, and everything about him is good. But we had to make a change. We needed to see results, and we were running out of time for that,” he said.
Even though he knew a switch was inevitable, Schumacher said at first he resisted not Neff himself but the notion.
“Drag racing is a special sport. You have to run well and beat the cars you’re supposed to beat, and the ones you’re not supposed to beat, you need to beat them half the time to win a championship. We had a difficult time trying to find that kind of success,” Schumacher said. “We didn’t beat enough of the cars we were supposed to beat, and we didn’t beat the guys who are difficult to beat. We just didn’t have the right timing. So, you have to make changes. You can’t just sit there and be stagnant.
“We’re a hard-working team and we’re great under adversity. We’ve won more championships digging out of these holes and figuring out how to win anyway. When we decided to bring Mike Neff on board, I struggled a bit with that,” he said, “because I didn’t want it to look like we were just giving up.”
The eight-time Top Fuel champion said, “What we’re doing is bringing in someone new with fresh eyes to a team that still has Mike Green and still has Phil [assistant crew chief Shuler] as part of our camp and let him bring his insight.
“You know, someone who’s done Funny Cars, a heavier car, it’s just different, to have someone that’s an outsider come to Top Fuel car and say, ‘OK, let’s see what you’ve got.’ I think it’s pretty brilliant. I’m looking forward to working with Mike. He’s a great guy, and he’s super calm. He’s won championships. We’ll take that knowledge and see what we can do.”
Schumacher said he’s “not concerned at all” that Neff never has worked on a Top Fuel program: “Guys who have never tuned with their hands completely in it, sometimes they get great thoughts because they are operating outside the box. We get trapped in this little box, sometimes, looking and working on the same things, seeing the same parts and pieces. I think there’s where the shakeups come. We brought in a guy who’s worked in this company before. The pool is fairly small to choose from for qualified crew chiefs who’ve won championships and know what they’re doing.
“Mike Neff had been with DSR for a long time. He went over to Force’s and has come back. He’s never worked on a Top Fuel car before, but it’s going to be exciting: a little fresh blood, a little insight in some different areas we might have overlooked,” he said. “When you get a guy from Funny Car over to Top Fuel, it’s just a whole new game. It might take a little time. It might not. But I’m excited to be a part of it.
“Mike and Phil are doing a great job,” Schumacher said. “We didn’t qualify as well as we wanted to. But the car is excellent. I trust in them, and I look forward to the race tomorrow.”
Schumacher qualified eighth and will face No. 7 Terry McMillen in the opening round of eliminations Sunday. (The ladder won’t follow the normal pairings pattern, because the Top Fuel field is two entries short. This is the second straight year the headliner class isn’t full at the Winternationals.)
In the first seven races of last season, Schumacher won at Gainesville as part of four event final appearances. But after that, the program stumbled with six first-round losses and nine quarterfinal exits.
“We had a big clutch-disc issue,” he said. “When you run out of discs and you’ve got to make a change, sometimes you just can’t get it back. We made a few changes to the car and the chassis and little things like that, and we just couldn’t get the car go quicker than the other guy. That was the problem. These drag races, unlike other forms of motorsports around the world, we don’t have 500 laps to make it up, and it’s simply amazing how people step up against our car. People run extremely well against us, and I like that. I enjoy it. But what happened to us last year cost us a lot of rounds.
AN ARMY OF THREE – Leah Pritchett, Antron Brown, and Tony Schumacher all have qualified in the top half of the field. Pritchett is fourth, Brown sixth, and Schumacher eighth. And despite each wanting to mow down all other competitors, Brown and Schumacher have welcomed Pritchett to the U.S. Army fold.
Brown said Pritchett “has the attitude and the heart of an Army soldier,” Brown said. “She’s resilient. She has the work ethic and the desire – all the Army traits to be able to go out there and do battle on the track. She never quits, never gives up, never says, ‘I can’t,’ just, ‘I will.’ I’m looking forward to having another great Army teammate to go out there and do battle with out there.”
Schumacher said she “has been a great DSR teammate, and now she is going to strengthen our Army Racing lineup overall. She and that team proved their speed right out of the box. And she showed up at the track each weekend as one of the cars to beat. Off the track, she brings great marketing capabilities as one of the more colorful spokespeople in this sport. It’s a win-win for everybody involved.”
OF MICE, MEN, AND FUNNY CAR OWNERS – No matter how carefully an action is planned, something may still go wrong with it. Just ask Cruz Pedregon.
Pedregon had the plan laid out at the end of the season to purchase a new Funny Car chassis from Don Schumacher Racing. He learned the hard way that one size does not fit all in the world of Funny Car.
"We’re obviously rivals, but he’s a great man," Pedregon said. "He’s making his equipment available to purchase for an independent team like mine, which is great and a win-win for everybody."
Pedregon made a call to Schumacher after a trying 2017 season with a simple request, "Don, I want to buy one of your chassis, and he said, ‘Sure, no problem."
It just so happened that Schumacher had a chassis on the jig.
Of course, the timeline for Pedregon was to have the car yesterday.
"With some hesitation, he said, ‘Well, the one on there is the Make-A-Wish chassis, but we can make it available to you,’" Pedregon said.
The chassis was in the latter stages of completion.
Therein lies the rub. The Make-A-Wish team had already stripped their Funny Car in preparation for the chassis.
"That’s a lot of work," Pedregon confirmed. "So I have a few friends on that team, and they were not happy about it. So I felt bad for them, but at the same time, Don offered that chassis to me."
Pedregon took delivery of the chassis and once they had it in the shop, realized there was a major issue. All of the Schumacher Funny Car bodies are Dodge Chargers, and of course, Pedregon runs Toyota.
"About two weeks into January we decided to pull the plug on it because the cage was different, in a different location, and we couldn’t get our Toyota Camry to fit on it properly," Pedregon confirmed. "We had to abort the mission there and put it aside and save it for another day because it’s sitting there without a roll cage."
Pedregon said that their next chassis would require some adjustments.
"In the meantime, here we are, these guys, the Make-A-Wish guys, had to build their car all over again," Pedregon said.
And the irony of the story? The chassis didn't even see the race track in Pomona for either team.
"In a perfect world, had we anticipated everything, we probably could have just said, ‘Hey, let's make sure everything’s right,’" Pedregon said. "But until we knew what we had and measured everything, they all look alike, the chassis.
"In the end, nobody wins. That’s it," he said. – Bobby Bennett
WEIRDNESS STRIKES WORSHAM – Del Worsham qualified in the tentative No. 4 position in the Funny Car order Friday with his first pass of the weekend but opted out of Q2 because in servicing the Lucas Oil / C2C Industries Toyota Camry afterward, he and the crew discovered that “there were a few little things that didn’t make sense to me. We made the call to think it through, work on it, put in some new parts, and wait until tomorrow,” he said. What he called “a better-safe-than-sorry sort of deal” cost him just three spots, leaving him in the top half of the field overnight.
Saturday came with much cooler temperatures – and tire shake in his first pass. Then Worsham experienced more problems in the final qualifying opportunity of the day. Despite that, he claimed the No. 11 position and will line up against No. 6 Tim Wilkerson in the opening round of runoffs Sunday morning.
Worsham’s Q4 attempt was wacky from the start. He rolled through the water box and stopped inexplicably. His crew pushed him back into the water box, and he rolled through it again – and stopped again. He blipped the throttle and did an abbreviated burnout. After the launch, the car swerved toward the centerline, and Worsham gave up the pass.
“I rolled it through and tried to squeeze on the throttle for the burnout and it was stuck. It wouldn’t move,” Worsham said. “They pushed me back, and it happened the same way again. I wanted to try to make the run, so I stabbed at it pretty hard with my foot and whatever was hanging it up let it go.
“It was all just crazy, and it wasn’t running all that great,” he said. “When it started heading for the centerline, I lifted. I hope I didn’t hurt the motor by blipping it like that, but we’ll see. We get a clean sheet of paper tomorrow, so hopefully we can come up with a good story to tell.”
That one was a wild enough one.
TEAMMATES MEET IN ROUND 1 – With the short Top Fuel field, teammates Doug Kalitta and Richie Crampton have to face off in the first round of eliminations. That’s not how it normally would play out for the Nos. 5 and 10 qualifiers.
Kalitta put his Mac Tools Dragster in the fifth-quickest slot, and he said the 3.703-second, 330.23-mph effort was “solid.” He said, “We didn't want to race Richie in the first round. We know what the Kalitta Air car is capable of.”
Crampton, who became a father for the second time a week ago, will bid for his first victory since the Dallas 2015 race from the 10th position in the Kalitta Air Dragster. And he wasn’t jazzed about his first-round draw, either – or his bottom-half start.
“I think we are a little better than what our qualifying result would show,” Crampton said. “Unfortunately, we have to race Doug, but I know it will still be a great drag race. Bright side of that is we know a Kalitta machine will be in the second round, which is good for all of our partners: Mac Tools, Kalitta Air, DHL, Toyota, WIX Filters and Red Line Oil.”
CAMPBELL ‘EARNS’ HOUR GLASS – The most popular item in the Funny Car pits Saturday was a foot-tall hour glass.
Competition Plus contributing photographers Mike and Jeff Burghardt ignited the buzz as a joke on driver Jim Campbell. The incident that precipitated it dates back to the fall Charlotte race last year.
Campbell, who’s driving the MoonEyes / 7-Eleven Dodge for Jim Dunn Racing, is a close friend of Jack Beckman. The two met in the first round of eliminations, with Campbell the underdog at No. 13 and Beckman the No. 4 qualifier. Campbell appeared to hand the victory to Beckman with a horribly sluggish .423-second reaction time. But Beckman’s car darted toward the center line, so he got off the gas. Campbell blew past him to earn the round-win by about five feet, or .0165 seconds.
The father-son tandem decided to commemorate Campbell’s unlikely feat – and dispense some driving advice. On the base of the hour glass, they scribbled, “When the sand runs out, you’re late!” Beckman, too, “coached” Campbell, writing his own instructions to Campbell on the hour glass: “You need to leave on the first yellow.”
Beckman had one parting shot at his buddy. He said to the Burghardts, “Tell Jim congratulations on his first trophy.”
Campbell broke out into laughter when he received the hour glass – and to everyone’s surprise and delight, Big Jim Dunn found the jab at his driver hilarious. Dunn even took the hour glass, showing it off to others.
“It’s the hottest thing in the pits,” Campbell said later in the day.
“The whole thing is [about] having fun at the racetrack,” Mike Burghardt said.
CHANDLER REMEMBERED ON CHALLENGE COINS – Since 2014, every time Jack Beckman has strapped into his Infinite Hero Foundation Dodge Funny Car, he has carried challenge coins with him.
The coins are a commemorative fundraising tool for the Infinite Hero Foundation, an organization that combats the most difficult front-line issues facing returning military heroes and their families. After each pass, Beckman signs the coins with the name of the event venue, elapsed time, and speed from the run. The coins are available to those who have made a $100 donation and have contributed to the nearly $450,000 raised for the Infinite Hero Foundation through the NHRA program.
Beckman debuted the official 2018 challenge coin design this weekend. This year’s coin honors the beloved NHRA mainstay and dedicated philanthropist, the late Terry Chandler.
One side of the 1.28-ounce zinc challenge coin features the purple and white Infinite Hero logo. The other side features Chandler’s initials, “T.C.”
“The letters T and C are Terry’s initials, but they also stand for ‘true compassion,’ which Terry embodied,” Laurie Baker, executive director of the Infinite Hero Foundation, said. “Each year the design has changed. Terry started the ‘giving car’ program, and we’re considering this year’s coin to be the ‘giving coin.’ The giving coin represents her spirit.”
A longtime member of the Don Schumacher Racing family, Chandler established the ‘giving car’ program in 2014. Chandler opted to fund the Funny Car that Tommy Johnson Jr. drives personally and use the race car as a platform to promote awareness for a great cause, the Make-A-Wish organization.
During the 2014 season, Chandler's desire to give back grew even more, and she began funding a second team at DSR with 2012 Funny Car world championship driver Jack Beckman behind the wheel. The branding for the race car was dedicated to another organization that touched Chandler's heart, the Infinite Hero Foundation.
Through Chandler’s giving car program, the two organizations have benefitted from on-track activities, fundraising assistance, and increased awareness through exposure to millions of television viewers and Mello Yello series spectators 24 weekends a year.
In early 2017, Chandler was diagnosed with advanced brain cancer. Sadly, the adored starting line fixture, who was presented with the NHRA Blaine Johnson Award in 2015 for her dedication to helping others, lost her valiant fight against the disease later that summer.
Chandler’s husband, Doug Chandler, knew how passionate she was about her giving car program, and pledged to continue to fund it through 2020.
“We’re so grateful to the Chandler family. Now we’re approaching year five, and the half-million-dollar mark, and that’s because of what Terry started,” Baker said, adding, “She was an incredibly passionate person who inspired so many, not just inspiring them to donate by purchasing a coin, but she inspired them to share their own stories and experiences.”
For Beckman, the 2018 Terry Chandler-tribute challenge coin is bittersweet.
“The last thing I would have thought four years ago when Terry made the commitment to brand our car with Infinite Hero to help out injured veterans is that we’d be doing a challenge coin as a memorial for her. I mean, it rips my heart out,” said the 2012 Funny Car champion and former U.S. Air Force sergeant.
“Thanks to Doug, Terry’s husband, and his recognition of how much this program meant to her, and his deciding to move forward with it as well as the Make-A-Wish program, Terry’s legacy gets to live on with all of the NHRA fans, soldiers and Wish Kids. We can still change lives for the better, and I think every time you do that it’s hard not to smile,” Beckman said. “Thinking about Terry is tough for me, because it hurts. It hurts deep, but this is something that lets her live on with all of us, and I love that.”
Coins are available to those who make a donation of $100 or more to the Infinite Hero Foundation. Donations can be made at the Infinite Hero Foundation Funny Car pit during all 24 NHRA national events. Coins are available on a first come, first served basis. – Don Schumacher Racing
FRIDAY NOTEBOOK - A FAST AND FRIGHTENING DAY IN POMONA
FORCE BACK AT TRACK AFTER BLOW-UP, HOSPITAL TRIP – John Force underwent a CT scan of his head, neck, chest, and abdomen and was completely cleared and released from the hospital in less than two hours following his car-destroying engine explosion during Friday qualifying.
He returned to the racetrack late Friday and consulted with his crew, who already was at work, preparing the back-up car for the final two qualifying sessions Saturday. Force anchors the provisional 16-car lineup with a 4.139-second, 265.38-mph performance.
“I’ve got a young team with Jon Schaffer and Jason McCulloch. I’ve had some hiccups. We struggled at testing, but everyone is working to get it right,” Force said. “That run just showed you the proof that these race cars, my PEAK Chevrolet Camaro, are built to protect the driver. Anytime I can walk away from an explosion, I know these cars at John Force Racing and all our Simpson safety gear are doing their job.
“I’ll be out tomorrow,” he said. “The doctor cleared me, and I’m ready to race and entertain these fans. Ready to start winning – that’s what PEAK pays me to do.”
The accident Friday occurred at about 800 feet down the 1,000-feet course, when he was traveling about 265 mph. Announcer Brian Lohnes said the body “came apart like it was a china vase.”
Four days before the Friday incident, Force addressed his 2017 issues, which involved a pivotal evolution in the exhaust headers, and remarked “how much better these headers are because of NHRA’s rules.” The NHRA reset the layback angle of headers from 32 degrees to a minimum of 40 degrees. Accompanying rev limiter adjustments now start retarding the ignition 150 rpm quicker than last year’s setting did.
However, Force said he had wanted all that talk from 2017 – about his crossing the center line and fellow racers criticizing and second-guessing him – “to go away.” He said he has “fixed” the problems and even reassured that his eyesight was “perfect.”
It’s just a tough stretch for the 16-time champion. Friday’s incident appears to be completely unrelated to the headers discussion.
But for the record, Force said last season’s problems came from the fact a driver, in his opinion, has to react much differently than he did before. If a car wriggled out of the groove, they “always recovered,” he said.
“What you could do years ago ain’t the same. You only cross the center line a few times a year. This time four times, probably more than ever in a season. I went back to a couple of drivers who had talked to me about it – [Matt] Hagan, Cruz [Pedregon], [Del] Worsham, [Tim] Wilkerson – and I said, ‘I ain’t arguin’. You ain’t wrong.’ I said, ‘It got over there. And where I’ve always been able to get it back, because of the way these cars are running quicker and faster, and when they get over there, you need more room to get back.’ You get out of it [the throttle] a lot quicker.
“I didn’t want to hurt anybody. So I do listen. I ain’t too old to listen. I ain’t too stubborn to listen. Oh, I’m stubborn, but not when it comes to jeopardizing myself or another racer that I love – all these kids I love, whether they want to believe it or not,” Force said. “I said, ‘Time to re-evaluate it.’ You live in this role continually, and you never get out of it. And one day something’s right there in front of you and it’s obvious something’s wrong. And I fixed it.
“I came back one night, mad: ‘Everybody got on me.’ Not everybody, but a few . . . what you’re doing and they were upset over it, like ‘Force is going to go until he runs into somebody’ is what they’re thinking. And I was mad.” Wife Laurie told him, “Well, you ought to look at this one picture.”
“Well,” he said, “I looked at the picture, and it was a wake-up call. I was on the gas. It looked like I had driven clear into the other lane on the gas. Well, you know I didn’t. It was the angle of the picture. The point was I was still too far. So what I realized is you do that again you might run into somebody and hurt somebody or crash the car. Is it worth the win? Yeah – everything’s worth the win – but not when it comes to hurtin’ somebody. Let him go ahead and take the win. I don’t like that. That ain’t called driving on the edge. That’s different. That’s called edge extreme, way too far. I was way too far.
“I’ve driven it a million times, and you come over and you go, ‘Oh, man, I can make it!’ And then right there at the end I made it or you’re too far and you recover. But I had a couple of runs where it didn’t recover and it went on over. And sometimes it will go over. It happens to people every day. OK? But in my case, when you’ve got a guy neck-to-neck in the other lane, what you’ve got to re-evaluate is when you used to say you can always save it and now and then you don’t. But when I see a number of runs where I thought I could save it and I couldn’t, I re-evaluated it. And I get off the gas earlier. It’s that simple.
Force said, “I drive a race car on the edge. I drive to win, every round. But I did cross the center line a few times, and I was addressed by some drivers and I was addressed by NHRA, Graham Light. And I evaluated it. I looked at it.
“We fight. In the end, we’re racers with families. I don’t dislike anybody. I just keep workin’. And I ain’t never too old to learn. Hagan came to me and said, ‘I respect you for your driving. You’ve won all these championships. But if you want my opinion . . . A lot of people are talking, and they want me to talk, and I don’t want to talk to nobody. I want to talk to you. And I look at guy who’s a champion and I listen to him. So we’re good,” he said. “That was last year’s story. This was something we wanted to go away.”
TORRENCE HOLSTERED FOR NEXT DUEL – Steve Torrence showed up at preseason testing at Phoenix and this weekend at Pomona with longer hair, and he said not to read anything into that.
“We’ve been so busy that I just haven’t had a chance to get a haircut. No, really, that’s all it is. We’ve been bidding jobs six days a week,” the Capco Contractors Dragster driver said, referring to the Kilgore, Texas-based family pipeline construction and maintenance business. “It looks like it’s going to be one of those fly-in-on-Thursday, fly-out-on-Sunday seasons, but that’s good. That means we’re laying pipe.”
Torrence also is sporting a handlebar mustache and bit of a scowl that make him look like gunslinger Wyatt Earp, and that probably is fitting. That probably is something symbolic. An avid hunter who knows how to handle firearms, Torrence is loaded for another Shootout at the NHRA Corral. He finished 81 points short of the championship at this venue three months ago, and finishing second in the final Top Fuel standings was about as acceptable to him as finishing second in a gun duel.
So he’s beginning his “justice tour” in a Morgan Lucas Racing-built dragster that’s a replica of the one in which he won a category-best eight races last season. It’s also just like the one which crashed at the Texas Motorplex last October and triggered a disappointing spiral through the final two 2017 events. His posse – with Richard Hogan and Bobby Lagana sharing tuning decisions – happens to the same again this year.
“We only know one way to race,” Torrence, who’s aiming for a second Winternationals victory in three years, said. “We’re still just going to go out and try to win every round. It’s not possible, I know, but that’s still how we’re going to go at it.”
He said, "We had a really good car last year, but there’s no doubt we struggled after the wreck in Dallas. We were able to spend the off-season massaging all the parts and pieces and going over everything with a fine-tooth comb, just trying to get back to where we were. We were trying a few things at testing but nothing that would deviate very much from our tune-up. A couple of shutoff runs (in testing) probably would have been mid-60s, so we feel like we’re right where we ought be.”
After Friday’s season-opening session, Torrence was qualified . . . ahem . . . No. 2, with a 3.726-second elapsed time at 326.40 mph.
HIGHT EYES ASTERISK IN RECORD BOOK – The one accomplishment that gave Robert Hight confidence as this season kicked off was how he and his Auto Club of Southern California Camaro team pursued the 2017 Funny Car championship and muscled it away from dominator Ron Capps.
“We were fighting the reigning champion, Ron Capps. The guy was amazing, winning eight races throughout the season. We had our hands full,” Hight said. “There was so much more pressure. We all got through it. We did what we had to when the chips were down. We came through when the pressure was the highest. That gives me a lot of confidence coming into this season.”
Hight – along with 2017 Top Fuel champion Brittany Force and boss John Force, the 16-time titlist – received Crossed Flag Awards from Chevrolet at the automaker's recent Detroit Dealers Auto Show Kick-Off Breakfast. And this past weekend, during testing at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park near Phoenix, Hight placed the No.1 decal on his car.
“Adding this No. 1 is big but it is also a target on our backs,” Hight said “We worked really hard to get this No. 1, and my goal and everyone’s goal on this Auto Club Chevrolet team is to start the season strong and lead the points the whole season. We have a great team of three Funny Cars here at John Force Racing, and I am ready to get the season started. I [couldn’t] wait to get back here and get back with the fans. We got to meet some fans over the off-season at different functions, but it is not the same as being at an NHRA national event.”
The time for savoring his second championship is dissolving into time to mount a defense of it. And Hight, an expert marksman away from the racetrack, has his sights set on repeating that title.
“Winning two championships in a row will be tough,” he said, “but that would be the coolest thing, because no one has gone back to back since John Force.” Force ruled the class from 1993-2002 – a full decade – and was champion also in 1990-91, 2004, 2006, 2010, and 2013.
“It would be a pretty bold prediction to say we are going to win the championship again,” Hight said, “but I definitely want to be in the hunt. My goal is really to be good from start to finish. We want to win a lot of races. And we want to be able to say we would be the champion whether there was a playoff. I think that is possible. We have a good combination that we can start the year with and carry it on. We have tested some new things over the winter. Seriously, I like our combination, and we have a good handle on things.”
PRITCHETT – GARY – EYES FUNNY CAR RIDE – Drag-racing fans, especially throughout last season, have enjoyed the story line about Top Fuel ace Leah Pritchett being married to the man who preps the critical clutches for her chief rival, Steve Torrence. But Gary Pritchett someday could end up racing his wife. Actually, it’s more likely he would be trying with her to score a double championship, for her in a dragster and himself in a Funny Car.
Gary Pritchett has been involved in Top Fuel racing for 11 seasons, and with Torrence’s Capco Contractors Dragster team for seven years. One of his biggest joys was helping Torrence earn his first pro victory, in 2012 at Atlanta. (It wasn’t that long ago, but it was when the Top Fuel class included fulltime drivers Khalid al-Balooshi, Brandon Bernstein, Dave Grubnic, Shawn Langdon, Morgan Lucas, Spencer Massey, Cory McClenathan, JR Todd, Bob Vandergriff, and Hillary Will.)
His hands, literally, are in a Top Fuel dragster, but his heart is in Funny Car. He has a Top Fuel license, and he would drive a dragster if he has the chance, but he said, “I’ve always wanted to do a Funny Car. Actually, I wouldn’t choose. If the opportunity came, I’m not going to pick. I’d drive either one. I’m really pursuing it. Oh yeah. That’s the reason I’ve been out here since I was 19 in fuel racing.”
And he came close to his longtime dream during the offseason. A deal that would have put him on the track this season didn’t materialize. But Pritchett said he’s patient.
“A lot of rumors were going around. There was a rumor about a certain food company [as his sponsor], and that was nothing ever really going to happen. If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be,” he said. “It’s going to happen one day. I want to drive a nitro Funny Car. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. I will one day. Got to have money. Got to find sponsors.
“I still race all the time with [IHRA Funny Car icon] Bunny Burkett,” he said of his godmother. “I’m going home this Easter Sunday and racing at Waynesboro, Virginia, East Side Speedway. We do that every year. It’s like a little family tradition. She always hides a little Easter basket for me. It’s something we do. I ran Jonnie Lindberg’s Alcohol car at that one event, just trying to stay out there. With this, it’s so busy you don’t really have time. That’s the biggest thing.”
Finding funding is particularly tough, considering he’s pursuing it on his own.
Pritchett said he loves his job with the Top Fuel car, and he loves his teammates. That’s why he took it as hard as Torrence when the gritty Texan finished second in the final standings, 81 points behind Brittany Force. (“In Pomona we lost it,” he said of the championship. “Somebody else won it, and it was there for the taking. In 2016, we finished third, in 2017 we finished second, now 2018 might be [the year we’re] meant to finish No. 1.”)
So if he’s successful, such an opportunity would be bittersweet for Pritchett.
“I love it here, you know? If I can’t drive one [a fuel car] I want to work on them. I get the same feeling when the win light comes on, when you’re on the team with a bunch of guys you love and work with. Like, these guys I’ve worked with for like four years solid. The newest guy might have a minimum of 10 years on this team. We like to do burnouts. We like to do golf cart wheelies. We do a lot of fun stuff. The Lagana brothers [Bobby and Dom] are brothers to me. Dom lives with Leah and me when we’re home at the shop. So, we’re all pretty close.
“That’s why for me to leave this team, it would have to be a driving opportunity,” Pritchett said.
He said he might start his driving career in a dragster. “Maybe one day I’ll drive the Ninja [the Laganas’ Nitro Ninja Dragster] at a race or something. You never know.” That could pit him against his wife, making them the first married couple since John “Bode” Smith and wife Rhonda Hartman-Smith to square off against one another in the Top Fuel class. That’s not his goal, though. And for right now, his job and his focus is to help Torrence steamroll through the Top Fuel class at the most opportune time this season.
“We’ve got something to prove this year,” Pritchett said.
‘SURFIN’ JACK’ BECKMAN – Jeff Diehl is NHRA’s “Surfer Dude.” But fellow Californian Jack Beckman has tackled the waves . . . um, well, tested them . . . OK, took his chances. Beckman has surfed since he was 16 years old. He even accompanied the master once.
“I don’t know that I’m a surfer, but I get out and paddle in the waves, yeah,” the man known in NHRA circles as “Fast Jack” said.
“I’ve surfed with Jeff Diehl. It was two feet that day. We couldn’t find any surf. The difference between Jeff Diehl and I, I’ll paddle out in eight-foot surf and say a prayer. Jeff will paddle out in 20-foot surf and go bonzai. He surfs a lot of big stuff. I’m not going out on that big of a day. No way,” Beckman said.
“My son’s been out a couple times, and I push him on a boogie board. But the ocean can be really intimidating,” he said, admitting that he, too, has a healthy respect for it.
“That’s why I won’t go out on big days. You get pounded out there.”
TOWNSEND DEBUT GOES WELL - Before he made his first Funny Car pass in competition, class newcomer Rich Townsend called his Nitroholic Racing Toyota a “very happy car, very happy car, very pleasant to drive.” The Camry wasn’t perfect, but it produced a 4.242-second pass – not as quick as two of his three test passes at Phoenix last week - at 258.91 mph. That was good enough for the early No. 13 spot. So following his first run, the Oakdale, Calif., native could take pride in seeing his name ahead of John Force’s and Tommy Johnson Jr.’s on the time sheet.
Townsend made a few passes at Bakersfield to get acclimated to his former Tony Pedregon car, then went next door to Arizona and ran a 4.09-second elapsed time in its first appearance off the trailer at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park. He also clocked a 4.13 and a 4.30 – “but both of those passes had a hole out,” he said. He said that was a positive sign because “we didn’t hurt any parts, just scuffed a few pistons and so forth.”
So naturally before qualifying for the Lucas Oil Winternationals started, it’s no wonder Townsend said, “You know, I can’t wait just to go out there and hit the gas and get rid of the butterflies. It’s not so much about driving the car, it’s more just all the hype and everybody else is around, the fans and stuff. We have a pretty decent following with our Nitroholic, and they’re just ecstatic to see us out here.”
Word that Townsend, a successful Nostalgia Funny Car builder and racer, would race in the Funny Car class emerged last August. But Townsend said, “Actually, for a big show car, it came together pretty quick. We’ve been on it about six, seven months here. But with Lance Larsen being involved with this, the transition came very quickly. And he’s done a great job in assembling the right parts, the pieces, getting the crew in shape, helping me learn how to drive. We have really high expectations for myself and the car.”
Steering ability, he said, seems to be the biggest difference between his Nostalgia car and the Funny Car.
“The only thing that’s kind of new to me from our Nostalgia car is the fact that when this thing puts a cylinder out, you can have as much steering wheel as you want in it, and the nose of the car doesn’t point, the whole car just slides sideways because of that force being relieved on one side. So it’s something new, but I’m pretty good at catching it quick here,” Townsend said.
“The Nostalgia car’s kind of fun to drive, because you can drive it all around the track a little bit. This thing is accelerating so fast and [has] so much power, once it kind of moves, it gets out of the groove,” he said. “If you lose it, basically for a team like us, I can’t afford to tear it up or hurt it. We got to abort, which is the smart thing to do, anyway. Nobody needs to be a hero out here.”
Townsend said he and business partner Dustin Davis “have enough in the coffers to go to six to eight races, but we have had quite a few marketing partners that are interested, so if we can kind of keep going forward, maybe we can get some people that would want to step up for a couple different races. We’ll see. We’re very fortunate: we have a very good volunteer crew. A lot of them have day jobs, so that kind of makes it a little tough, too. But they all want to be here. The camaraderie is great. We’re very family-oriented. You see all the kids here, the dogs, everything. So, that means a lot to me.”
CAPPS, TOBLER IN TOP FUEL ONE DAY? – At political rallies, crowds chant, “Four more years!” Rahn Tobler isn’t chanting it, exactly. But according to his driver, Ron Capps, the decorated crew chief has toyed with the idea of retiring in four more years. However, Capps has other plans – for himself and for Tobler.
Capps spent his first year and a half in the NHRA pro ranks in the Top Fuel class, driving Roger Primm’s dragster. He has said before, “I’d love to end my career where I started, in Top Fuel,” and he repeated it this past week. Moreover, Capps said, “I haven’t been able to ever line up in a dragster with Tony [Schumacher] or Antron [Brown] or Doug Kalitta, and I’ve always wanted to. I’ve always begged Doug to come try and drive a Funny Car. I love racing Doug, on dirt and anytime we’ve gone racing. Pound for pound, the best race-car driver we have in the NHRA pit area, overall race-car driver, is Doug Kalitta. So anyway, Top Fuel, I’d love to go race.
“Tobler was just talking about retiring. Four years, that’s his plan right now,” Capps said. He said his crew chief will “hang out in Huntington Beach [Calif.], where they have a house, when he retires, and I said, ‘No, we’re going to have three years of Funny Car and then we’re going to run Top Fuel together and we’re going to win some more races, because I want to go back to Top Fuel.’ So I’m working on Tobler not retiring in four years.”
Capps would like to make a bigger splash in a dragster than he did in his 1996 debut.
Of his NHRA premiere, he said, “We started in ’96 and just went until Roger sort of ran out of the money that he put up, that he was going to. We worked on trying to get a sponsor, and it just didn’t happen. So Sonoma was our last race, and then I got that call from Prudhomme when he knew we were parking it.
“It was a hell of a rookie year. If Dixon hadn’t had his rookie year that year, there’s no doubt our team would have a Rookie of the Year. But still, to have a final round at our first race back east, lost to Cory [McClenathan]. Then to win Seattle, it was a good, consistent car.”
Often longtime drag-racers and crew members can’t shake the habit and come out of retirement.
“I know. Hopefully,” Capps said with a grin.
LANGDON SHAKES NERVES - Shawn Langdon lay in his bed Thursday night, picturing over and over and over how his first competitive pass in an NHRA Funny Car would go. The experienced former Top Fuel driver was anxious, but he shouldn’t have been. He was near his Mira Loma, Calif., home, and he would be racing in front of friends and family at a venue where he has been successful at a number of levels.
After clocking a 3.949-second elapsed time at 328.06 mph in Friday qualifying that gave him first the tentative No. 4 spot then No. 9, Langdon was relieved.
“Feels good to get that first one out of the way. Man, I was nervous. There was just so much going through my head before the first run,” the Global Electronic Technology Toyota Camry driver said. “Last night, I was laying in bed and probably envisioned about 200 runs in my head. You only get one first run, and you don't want to screw it up.
“Fortunately, it was a good run,” he said. “We were in the top five and we really weren't trying to press on it.” He said crew chiefs Tommy DeLago and Nicky Boninfante “were just trying to give me a tune-up that would go down the track. I think now that we have the first run out of the way, we get a lot of the nervousness out. Now we can go racing.”
However, Langdon said tension has its merits: “It helps your cause a bit when you're nervous.”
But he said, being at Pomona gives him “that I'm-at-home feel.” Langdon said, “There's no better place to make my first Funny Car run than Pomona. This is where I grew up. I have my most race wins here. It's where I got my start. Pomona is where all my friends and family are. There's a great fan-base around here. A lot of fans came around and offered really cool words of encouragement and gave me good-luck charms and all that kind of cool stuff this morning.”
“Every run is a learning process. You just take it one run at a time because you're not going to learn to drive these cars overnight. We just had a crash course on it. We had licensing last year and then testing at the beginning of the year, so I'm just in the learning process while racing,” Langdon said. “I just have to learn from my mistakes, and hopefully I don't make too many mistakes. If I can keep my mistakes to a minimum, I feel like we've got a great shot to win races.”