2019 NHRA WINTERNATIONALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
NHRA LUCAS OIL WINTERNATIONALS
KALITTA KAYOS KING KONG IN TOP FUEL FINAL, MAKES HISTORY FOR HIMSELF - Steve Torrence is beatable.
Steve Torrence is human.
Steve Torrence’s magic-carpet ride is over. Perhaps it’ll just get steam-cleaned so it can soar again. But for now, it’s grounded.
Doug Kalitta is the boss – just like he was on this exact date one year ago.
Doug Kalitta is making history of his own, becoming the first driver in 16 years (since Larry Dixon in 2002-2003) to earn back-to-back victories in Top Fuel here at the NHRA season-opening Winternationals.
Doug Kalitta is reminding everyone with his 45th career victory and third at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, Calif., that he’s ready to ditch his label as four-time series runner-up with no crown.
He said, “Growing up, I remember coming out here years ago when Connie [team owner uncle Connie Kalitta] was driving. I always thought this was the coolest place going – and I still do. So to win back-to-back Winternationals is really something special. To have success here is more than you can imagine for me.”
In taking out surging drivers Scott Palmer and Terry McMillen, along with the top two qualifiers (son and dad Steve and Billy Torrence), Kalitta is flexing his muscles against all takers. His Mac Tools Dragster wasn’t going to be second at Pomona like it was in five other finals (2004, 2010, 2014, 2016, 2017). He was going to make this fifth final-round appearance in six visits to Southern California worth his trip across the country from Ann Arbor, Mich.
But for all he achieved in his 490th race, including three holeshot victories, Kalitta wasn’t bragging. He spoke as though he just had turned in the nice, tidy performance that gave him the No. 7 qualifying position.
"It was really nice just to go rounds today. In the Countdown to end last year, all we were getting is one or two rounds, so to start going rounds today really helped the team’s morale. It was just a battle all day. It worked out well, and we got the win," he said.
He didn’t speak of giant-killing. He actually behaved as though he were lucky to win and share the winners circle with Robert Hight (Funny Car) and Bo Butner (Pro Stock). And the final round indeed was a close one, with Kalitta having the edge by about only seven feet, or .0192 of a second.
“My car started smoking out there, and I thought for sure that Steve was going to drive away. But we hung in there, and the win light came on for our Mac Tools / Toyota Dragster. Steve and that Capco team are really good. We were real fortunate to get by them, and we’ll just keep at it. I’m really proud of all the guys working on my car. Our guys have been very meticulous during the off-season. Everyone has been very positive and have been working together really well. Everyone on the team wants to win and we were really hungry for this one. It was definitely a good day for us."
He was determined to make it the perfect day. That meant he had no intention of backing off the throttle.
“There was no lifting. I could see the finish line, so we just held onto it down there [at the top end]. It was either let it blow or get the win. There was nothing to gain by lifting,” Kalitta said.
“I was just expecting him to go by when we started smoking [the tires], but fortunately for us, he was having some type of problem over there. He’s had a heck of a streak and there’s no better place to get by him at than the Winternationals.”
As for being master of the holeshot this weekend, he sloughed off any self-congratulations: "It was just one of those things. You just keep your head down and hit that light. It’s part of the deal.”
His victory ended Torrence’s streak of consecutive round-wins at 27. Kalitta denied Torrence the distinction of equaling Tony Schumacher’s record seven straight tour victories.
In the previous 50 races, Torrence had won more often than any other four drivers combined. In those 50 starts, he had 20 victories, 14 more than Leah Pritchett and 15 more than the two drivers who immediately preceded him as champion, Brittany Force and Antron Brown. Moreover, he won 12 straight final rounds and last week set the bar for this season with a 3.689-second run at 328.78 mph during a short appearance preseason test at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, near Phoenix.
"Just to get that win gives us great momentum heading into the year," Kalitta said.
His next test will come in two weeks at the Arizona Nationals at the Chandler, Ariz., where he put nine runs on his dragster and loaned it to Kalitta Motorsports teammate Richie Crampton for another three shakedown passes.
"The track was good there and I’m sure it will be good going back and my guys will be pretty enthused to get back there with some momentum and we’ll just try to keep it going," Kalitta said. Susan Wade
PERFECT END TO A PERFECT WEEKEND FOR HIGHT WITH FUNNY CAR WIN AT POMONA - You couldn’t have scripted a better start to the 2019 NHRA season for Robert Hight.
Following a tumultuous offseason for John Force Racing, one filled with crew member turnover, sponsor changes and driver exits that left much of the team in disarray, the 2019 Winternationals is exactly the medicine this team needed.
Despite the distractions, the organization had a good week of testing coming into the weekend and turned that success into immediate results. Hight turned some of the quickest times of the weekend, grabbed the No. 1 qualifier and took the season-opening win Monday at the 59th annual Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals presented by ProtecttheHarvest.com at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona.
“To come out here and be the No. 1 qualifier and win the race, that is quite an accomplishment for this team. We tested well in Phoenix and then come here and didn’t miss a beat,” Hight said. “It was a great day. All that we went through during the winter with all of the change, the new partners, the new faces, all we were really looking to do during testing was to get Austin (Prock) a license and hopefully find something for Gainesville. And at the last hour something came through and this team put it all together.
“Everybody, from my team, to John’s team, to Brittany’s team, everybody helped to put this together and get us here. Everyone worked hard all winter and made it all pay off.”
Hight defeated Jack Beckman in Monday’s rain-delayed final in a tremendous drag race that gave Hight his fourth career Winternationals victory. The top two qualifiers from earlier in the weekend, the rivals were putting up their best times of the weekend on Monday leading to Hight’s win as the former champ drove the Auto Club of Southern California Chevrolet Camaro Funny Car to a 3.881-second pass at 329.75 mph to collect career win No. 46. Beckman had a 3.880 at 329.42 in earning the runner-up spot.
“I think you are going to see a lot of racing like that all year long. It is that close and competitive. You look at the Funny Car class and I think it is tougher this year than last year and that is really saying something,” Hight said. “Going up against Jack Beckman, you have to be on your game on the starting line and really get up. He is very, very good. But we were able to get it done today.”
Hight was solid throughout the afternoon Monday at his home track and in front of his sponsors, putting up some of his best times of the entire event. He had wins over Terry Haddock and Bob Tasca in the first two rounds, posting a weekend-best 3.856 at 331.61 in the second round to advance. In the semifinal, Hight faced team boss John Force in another great drag race with Hight taking the win on a 3.883 at 328.22 mph to Force’s 3.930 at 321.42 mph.
Beckman had wins over Tommy Johnson Jr., Cruz Pedregon and Phil Burkhart to start 2019 off strong after reaching only three finals all of last year.
“I think everybody could see today that there were a lot of cars running 80s and everybody is stacked up. It is not going to be easy. You have to be on your game all year long,” Hight said. “You have to be good on the starting line and have consistency with the car and, for us, I’ve never seen Jimmy Prock more confident. He is really happy with the way this thing is running and the way this team has come together. We had a lot of turnover on my team this year and to watch those guys that have been around mentor the young guys, was great. We were busting it today. We had to get the car turned around in a hurry and they performed flawlessly.”
With the win, Hight kicks off the new season on top after getting to the finals and falling short here one year ago. Now the team hopes to turn that early momentum into a fresh start, one that this team desperately needs after a long offseason.
“It has been a long winter with a lot of ups and downs,” Hight said. “But there are a lot of good people in our organization and that is how you get the wins. Everybody pulls together and does their jobs and that is what this is all about. This trophy is for all of JFR.” Larry Crum
BUTNER COLLECTS WINTERNATIONALS VICTORY JUST THREE MONTHS AFTER ANNOUNCING RETIREMENT - The last time Bo Butner raced at the famed Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, he was sure it would be his last in a Pro Stock machine.
Announcing he was leaving the sport just a few weeks shy of the NHRA season finale in 2018, Butner had plans to hang up his racing gloves and boots and sail off into the sunset with a championship, a handful of wins and a two-year stretch as one of the most dominant drivers in the garage area.
And then stepped in good ol’ mom.
“My mother made the decision for me,” Butner said with a laugh. “I was ready to go. I am getting ready to have a grandkid in April and wanted to be around home more. Then, at Pomona at the finals, my mom who loves being around the fans, was like, ‘I think we need to keep doing this.’ She just turned 82 and wants to come to some races. That and my son being able to run our dealership. That was big for us. So here we are, we are going to try to do this again.”
So, three months after announcing his retirement, Butner showed up at the season opening Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals presented by ProtecttheHarvest.com at the very same track where he planned to hang it all up and did the unthinkable - winning the whole thing.
Butner defeated Jason Line in an all-KB Racing final to earn his eighth career victory behind the wheel of the Jim Butner’s Auto Chevrolet Camaro, racing to a 6.522-second pass at 211.59 mph to repeat as Winternationals champion. Line ran into issues during his run ending in a smoky 7.160 at 148.58 mph.
“We had good hits this morning and that gave me lane choice. My car liked both lanes and they were all questioning why I took the right lane, but we just felt good in that lane,” Butner said. “The car would have been a very good Top Sportsman car today. It was very deadly. We were just blessed today and I am glad to be back.”
Butner had a solid afternoon during Monday’s rain-delayed final day of eliminations, defeating Alan Prusiensky, Chris McGaha and Erica Enders on his way to his 21st career final. Line had wins over Fernando Cuadra, Steve Graham and Alex Laughlin.
Butner’s semifinal matchup with Enders proved his toughest of the afternoon as a rare misstep at the tree by the Elite Motorsports driver allowed Butner to take the advantage and the win with a 6.518 at 211.53 mph to Enders’ 6.527 at 211.93 mph.
“I think she made a decent run, but when you miss (the tree) you miss it, and I can guarantee she knew it,” Butner said. “She is a great driver, just like Jason and everybody we ran today. She just missed the tree. And when it is your time it is your time. I definitely felt like we had the best car all four rounds today. This is the most competitive class and that is one reason why I came back.”
But it was still the win that almost never happened. And while Butner certainly had his reasons to step away from the sport, he was thrilled that his decision to come back paid off so quickly.
“The lord blessed us. This is the same car, same team. There are a few new guys, but the old guys are still here and everybody showed up this weekend and made this happen,” Butner said. “We were really struggling in qualifying. We were all struggling with this racetrack and somebody made a decision and the safety safari guys and the guys upstairs made this a great track. My car was great in both lanes, so hats off to those guys. They did their job so we could have a good race.”
Butner was also racing on Monday with a heavy heart, having lost his brother just two weeks prior to the season opener.
“I lost my brother two weeks ago and I was contemplating if I should even be out west. I talked to his family about it and this win is for them and my family,” Butner said. “It is tough. It still feels like he is just on vacation, but he was with us today and he is up there with my father.”
With the win, Butner has now won the season-opening Winternationals two years in a row, but he hopes this year turns out a litter better than the last. After winning in Pomona last year, Butner didn’t win again for another eight months when he collected another Wally at Las Vegas.
“You always want your first win to come earlier and the earlier the better,” Butner said. “Because I can say that, ‘now I have a win in 2019.’ But at the same time, it would be horrible if this is the only race I win. It actually felt that way last year. We didn’t have a bad car, we just didn’t have the luck. This year I feel like we have a great car and a great team and we are very excited to keep going.
“We are going to try to win them all. This KB team is just as strong as ever and will only get better.” Larry Crum
PROCK EXCELS IN TRICKY DEBUT, TORRENCES MAKE IT OUT OF ROUND 1 TOGETHER, BROWN’S SUPER RUN FOR NAUGHT, SMITH HONORED FOR THIRD PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE TITLE, PRITCHETT TOASTS SPARKLING ICE
PROCK OPENS CAREER WITH ROUND WIN AGAINST CHAMP – Austin Prock’s Top Fuel defeat of John Force Racing teammate Brittany Force was the third upset in the first six pairings of the season. It was a coup for Prock, for he not only won his first elimination round, but he did it against the 2017 class champion Sunday at the Lucas Oil Winternationals at Pomona, Calif.
“That was awesome: first-ever time, first round of eliminations. To get to pedal it and get the job done, that was pretty sweet,” he said.
He credited the successful pedal job to “growing up in circle track, getting a feel for the car.”
His debut was extra dramatic, because his parachutes didn’t come out at the end of the run. But Prock did a masterful job of bringing the car to a halt on the pavement, keeping it from sailing into the pea-gravel trap.
One of the most thrilled onlookers was NHRA legend Don “The Snake” Prudhomme, who helped develop proteges Larry Dixon and Spencer Massey. Prudhomme has taken an interest in Prock’s career, so much so that he helped line up 11th-hour sponsorship for Prock through Montana / Rocky Mountain Twist.
Prudhomme said, “I saw someone who’s a rookie that looked like a veteran today. He went out there and pedaled the car, and it stayed nice and straight. That’s the first time he’s had to pedal the car, and that’s a tough thing to do.” He said working with young drivers and following Prock’s progress “is a lot of fun. It pumps me up a lot. I enjoy it.”
TALE OF TWO TORRENCES – Both Torrences advanced to the quarterfinals. Top qualifier Steve Torrence received a bye after eliminating Steve Faria, and Billy Torrence’s ugly 4.103-second elapsed time was enough to dismiss Cameron Ferre’s 7.368 in Terry Haddock’s dragster. Billy Torrence will have to face Doug Kalitta, who turned his first-pairing draw into his best run of the weekend in the Mac Tools Dragster at an outstanding 3.707 on a cold racetrack. Troy Fasching, Kalitta’s crew chief, said he thought the run “was kind of a crapshoot.” It came up sevens.
BROWN’S 3.733 RESULTS IN LOSS – Antron Brown ran a 3.733-second, 329.26-mph first-round pass in the Matco Tools Dragster – and left the starting line first (.047 seconds to .050) but lost to Don Schumacher Racing colleague Leah Pritchett. She covered the 1,000-foot course in the Sparkling Ice Dragster at 3.707 at 325.61 mph. Brown’s time would have beaten three other Round 1 victors: Terry McMillen, Billy Torrence, and Austin Prock.
AND THERE THERE WAS ONE [PAIR] – The lengthy rain delay began with the last Top Fuel pairing of Clay Millican and Mike Salinas ready to roll through the water box.
SMITH HONORED FOR MOTORCYCLE TITLE – Matt Smith traveled across the country from his home at King Mountain, N.C., to receive his jacket and ring for his third Pro Stock Motorcycle series championship. Coca-Cola representative Al Rondon made the presentation.
PRITCHETT SPARKLING IN ROUND 1 – Leah Pritchett’s opening-round victory came at a perfect time. She’s seeking more funding to ensure she can compete in all 24 Mello Yello Series events this year. And the hard-working creative marketer had a fun toast in her pit Saturday morning with her fans, celebrating her longtime partnership with Sparkling Ice.
The Talking Rain-owned carbonated beverage brand has been associated with Pritchett since her early days of Top Fuel competition with Dote Racing.
Her DSR-owned dragster is wrapped with a bright shade of pink. But she, her fans, and Sparkling Ice prefer to call the fun color “Black Raspberry,” to match one of Sparkling Ice’s array of zero-calorie, zero-sugar beverage made with antioxidants and vitamins.
“It’s pretty incredible to kick off our 2019 season with one of – if not THE – longest-running partnership that I’ve had. Sparkling Ice is amazing to grow with. We’re in our fifth year of professional drag racing together in Top Fuel,” Pritchett said.
“What I love about a partnership is you learn from each other and you grow together. They do things that nobody else has done. And the amount of support has been great, because they didn’t start out really knowing a whole bunch about drag racing, but they identified with the fans. Everybody is a consumer, but they loved the enthusiasm of the fans,” she said.
“For me, being able to be the face of the brand is something that makes me very proud, to be part of such a successful company. And they add a whole bunch of flavor to our team and to the sport,” Pritchett said. She said the non-endemic (read: non-automotive) marketing partner “is what this sport needs and the fans enjoy.”
Sparkling Ice is a company that pays attention to detail, she said: “Everything, from the way the car looks to the giveaways to the fans, they care so much that everybody has a great time, because that’s what their product stands for.”
She said, “To start off 2019 with them is a continuation of a fantastic relationship. I can’t wait to run this car again. More important, I can’t wait to sit in the winners circle with them.”
Pritchett will drink a Black Raspberry – or Pomegranate Blueberry or Chery Limeade or one of the rainbow of flavors Sparkling Ice offers – to that.
SCHUMACHER SEEKING BEST FIT IN A NEW MARKETING PARTNER, AUSTIN PROCK TO START HIS FIRST RACE DAY AGAINST HIS OLD CAR, VANCE DONATES $1 MILLION TO B.R.A.K.E.S., BROWN READY TO RETURN TO WINNING WAYS
SCHUMACHER OPENS UP ABOUT HIS SITUATION – Tony Schumacher, the eight-time NHRA Top Fuel champion, certainly isn’t enjoying his involuntary break from the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series. He isn’t satisfied that he’s sitting out at this weekend’s Lucas Oil Winternationals at Pomona, Calif., and watching his qualifying streak (second in the NHRA pro ranks) end at 366 races.
However, he said his desire to find the right sponsor – one that will be a perfect fit for him and Don Schumacher Racing, like the U.S. Army was for the past 19 years – is greater than his craving to make more passes in a Top Fuel dragster.
“The business-to-business [aspect] is the most important part of it. It’s the reason I’m here. I don’t get to just send a car down the racetrack. I’m not here to show off. What we do is make businesses grow. That’s why these companies are here. We help Matco recruit people. We help them get people in those trucks and on the road. We help NAPA sell stuff and grow their business. Then we work with them together. So whoever steps in and does this contract will be privy to Shell and Dodge and Mopar and NAPA and Matco. It just takes somebody who says, ‘I never thought of it that way. I thought it was just about racing.’ We’re on the track, literally, for six minutes a year – it’s the fastest sport in the world. But the build-up is what it’s about, the business part of it. That’s what we’re all about,” he said of the Don Schumacher Racing mission.
Some observers have been puzzled that his father and boss of the NHRA’s largest team doesn’t brand the car himself. Don Schumacher, a racer at his peak in the 1970s, has made it clear that he returned to the sport in the late 1990s because he wanted to make sure his son had safe equipment. Today both the driver and DSR are operating at an elite level, one that’s about giving and facilitating and not simply taking money. And that, the champion said, is why they’re seeking the right marketing partner.
And for them, it’s not about the son raiding his father’s wallet.
Tony Schumacher said, “I’ve had lots of people say, ‘Why don’t you put Schumacher on the race car?’ That’s not what it’s about. It’s not about sending a car down the racetrack. It’s about the partnership. Bringing a car out here and sending it down the track will just show everyone that ‘Eh – he’ll do it. He’ll be fine.’ We want to help people who haven’t been here get here. It’s good for the whole sport.”
Being associated with the U.S. Army for 19 years was an abundant and genuine blessing for Schumacher, but it also came with automatic limitations.
“For 19 years with the Army, we were unavailable,” he said. “Through those 19 years, many, many people came up and said, ‘Hey, we want to be on that car.’ And they couldn’t. The Army had specific restrictions on what was allowed.”
He had a message Saturday for those interested: “It’s a great car, an assembled machine, ready to go out and win Pomona, Phoenix, and the rest of them. And the people out there that have thought about racing, now’s the time. We are available.”
“The Yankees don’t come up for sale every day,” Schumacher said. “We’ve heard all too often, ‘the fiscal year . . . We want to do this, but . . .’ Well, let me explain how this works. When the Yankees pop up for sale, you may not have the budget set aside for the Yankees popping up – but you find it, because it’s not coming around for a long time. What’s going to happen is somebody’s going to pick up that team,” Schumacher said. “And whoever does it is going to get me for five years or longer. They’re not going to do a one- or two-year deal. This business-to-business deal that we do at DSR is second to none. If you want that opportunity, now is the time.”
When rumors and speculation turned to reality and no Tony Schumacher at the Winternationals, a sense of alarm arose – not just for Tony Schumacher but for DSR and the entire sport. The buzz became something along the lines of “What’s going to happen with DSR? Is Don going to leave the sport? If he leaves the sport, the whole NHRA is going to collapse.” Tony Schumacher had to assume the role of comforter, a reassuring leader in time of crisis. His nickname for almost two decades had been “The Sarge,” but he had to step up to be a general.
“Last year we had a bunch of sellout races. Viewership is up. This is not a panic thing. It literally just takes time,” he said. “It’s not a cheap sport. And I hope we’re not just going to randomly take whatever’s thrown at us. I like to pick the right thing. It’s important that the next thing, the next partnership, wants to be here. I want somebody I can be a team with.”
And he said he can’t wait to work again with his crew, which is in limbo for the moment.
Schumacher said, “I believe they would come back immediately, I would think. The ones I’ve talked to are, like, ‘We’re not trying to go anywhere. We want to be right here.’ We need to get a deal before we lose some of the best guys that have ever been assembled in a team. We can’t just sit around and keep them from doing what they love to do. No one’s going to sit around and not work. But I believe they’re a very, very loyal team. They stuck with us through the last two months of knowing we don’t have the Army anymore. And they still were there. Love ’em. Love the guys. Really enjoyed working with them. The guys worked incredibly hard to make the car better than it was last year. They worked too hard to go and work somewhere else and have to race against the car they prepared. I’m hoping we can find us a deal soon.
“We have to get somebody out there who says, ‘We’re committed. We’re going to do this,’ And then we can grab those guys [again]. There’s no right answer, he said. “We’re all walking this line of ‘We don’t want to do this [sit out]’ but ‘Got to find a deal.’”
Mike Neff and Phil Shuler, co-crew chiefs for Schumacher, are at Auto Club Raceway this weekend, available for consultation with the active DSR teams.
Schumacher took it upon himself last week to dismiss rumors that he would retire. He said Saturday, “You don’t want people to start to think that. I’m going to be doing this for a long, long time. I love what I do. I love that part of it. People say, ‘You could do some media. Why don’t you do that?’ I love that, and in the future, I’ll maybe do some TV stuff. But right now, I drive the car as well as I’ve ever driven the car. We finished No. 2 to a guy [Steve Torrence] who had a phenomenal year, a Schumacher-style year, and guy [Clay Millican] who had a fantastic year.”
He mentioned that he’d like for a new marketing partner to emerge “hopefully in the next week or two.” But in no way did he hint a deal is imminent or imply that he’s a week or two – or a race or two – away from being back on the track. Even months ago, Schumacher laughed and predicted that when an agreement is reached, his father would announce it before he tells him.
In the meantime, Schumacher, who last was sidelined with a DNQ at Topeka in 2003, is staying positive.
“I’ve got three beautiful, healthy kids. There’s bigger things out there. I don’t want to sit for a minute, not because of the money. It’s because this is my life and passion,” he said. “And I don’t want to miss a moment of it.”
How many more moments he might miss is the question.
SPRAY THE DAMN TRACK - Funny Car No. 1 qualifier Robert Hight didn't mince words in his Saturday evening press conference at the NHRA Winternationals.
"Spray the damn track," Hight said.
Hight said incremental timings in his Q-3 qualifying attempt would have likely resulted in a low 3.83 or 3.84-second run, but the combination of a bump in the track and lack of glue resulted in an aborted run.
"The numbers to the 330 were really good," Hight explained. "But we hit the bump and not a lot of spray out there. It came loose. These tracks aren't going to get fixed. One way to mask some of these problems is through glue."
Only one of the 17 drivers who attempted to qualify in the final session made it to the finish line under power. Jack Beckman ran a 3.900, 330.23 to climb from No. 11 to second quickest of the event.
Hight secured his 61st No. 1 qualifier while coasting to an 8.028 elapsed time at only 84.52 miles per hour.
"You saw lots of good dragster runs," Hight said. "The Funny Cars we need a little better track prep. When you run at the back when [NHRA] is spraying 50/50, there's not much glue left there. Gotta do a better job because what it is all about is putting on a show for the fans.
"That's what we need to be doing a better job of." - Bobby Bennett
PROCK’S ORDER FROM FANS: KICK HER ‘BLANK’ – Austin Prock used to be a crew member for 2017 Top Fuel champion Brittany Force. For about four seconds Sunday morning, he’ll be her enemy.
Prock, the most celebrated new driver in the NHRA Top Fuel class since Antron Brown switched from the bikes in 2008, will make his first start Sunday. As the No. 11 qualifier, the 23-year-old John Force Racing driver of the Rocky Mountain Twist Dragster will line up in against the No. 4 starter.
He said he didn’t know at first he was racing Force. He found out from fans.
“I was actually up in the stands watching with my good friend Dominic Scelzi [during] the Funny Car session, and a couple of fans starting yelling at me. They’re like, ‘You see who you have tomorrow? Kick her blank.’ I’m like, ‘What are you guys talking about?’ I didn’t see the ladder yet. The only good outcome out of this is we’re going to have a JFR car in second round. So I’ve just got to take the positive out of it. We’re going to give it our best shot, and I’m sure they’re going to give it their best shot and we’ll see who wins,” he said.
“I feel good. I don’t think this weekend could have gone much better,” Prock said. “The circumstances that we got put in, this deal coming together last minute, having to find guys, me being new at it, my crew chiefs being new at it, they all did a great job. We all came together, worked together very well. And I think we’re going to be a competitor tomorrow.”
His father, Jimmy Prock, is crew chief for JFR Funny Car racer Robert Hight. But the younger Prock said his dad didn’t give him much advice.
“My dad, he’s pretty straightforward. He usually just tells me, ‘Don’t screw it up.’ So that’s about as simple as it can get, and he’s right on the money,” the 23-year-old said. “I feel like I’ve done a pretty good job this weekend. Very few mistakes. I made a mistake on the warm up today. We had to change reversers, but it was something the crew chiefs have never seen. And it was just one of those situations that it’s going to get thrown at you and you’ve got to be able to overcome it and get the job done still.”
His grandfather is Tom Prock, the former racer and crew chief.
“Grandpa, he’s excited. I wish he could have been out here this weekend,” Austin Prock said. “I got his number on the side of the dragster, 374. That’s the number he used when he started funny car. So that means a lot to me and I’m sure it means a lot to him also. He’s proud of me, though. He’s going to be in Gainesville, and I can’t wait to have him out there.”
The rookie said he hasn’t experienced any jitters yet, and it was clear when he did a little ribbing already of the reigning and seemingly unstoppable champion, Steve Torrence. They ran side by side Friday in the second of four total qualifying chances.
“We got out at the end [of the racetrack],” Torrence said. “Austin looks over at me and he goes, ‘I’m coming for you.’ I said, ‘Wait a minute – you’ve made two passes so far.’” They compared reaction times, and Prock, indeed, had launched first off the starting line. Prock repeated his only-half-mocking warning.
“I was just messing around with Steve,” Prock said, grinning. “We’re all family out here. It’s nice to throw a jab at your buddy every now and then. He’s probably going to leave a lot more on me than I am on him. But for my second run out there, to leave on him, that was pretty damn cool for myself.”
VANCE DONATES $1 MILLION TO HERBERT’S CHARITY – Former drag racer Doug Herbert was set to test his NHRA Top Fuel car at Phoenix a decade ago and received a phone call that shattered his world. He learned sons Jon and James were in an auto accident attributed to reckless and distracted driving, an accident that proved fatal for both young boys.
Herbert started piecing his life back together by discovering a way to honor his sons while trying to spare other parents the pain of such an incident. He established a 501(c)3 charity to teach defensive driving skills to teens and consulted with the boys’ classmates, who suggested the name B.R.A.K.E.S.. The acronym stands for Be Responsible and Keep Everyone Safe.
The program grew and allowed Herbert to conduct B.R.A.K.E.S. seminars throughout the nation.
Terry Vance, the NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle pioneer who’ll be one of the celebrated legends this March at the Gatornationals at Gainesville, Fla., sent his children to Herbert’s clinic and was so impressed he donated $1 million to B.R.A.K.E.S. in a starting-line ceremony Saturday during qualifying.
Vance’s sons are among the more than 35,000 teens who have taken the course. Statistics show that B.R.A.K.E.S. graduates are 64 percent less likely to become involved in an auto accident.
“We’re making them safe and more responsible on the roads,” Herbert said. “When Wally Parks started [the NHRA], it was dedicated to safety, taking them off the streets and giving them a safe place to race. And what we do at B.R.A.K.E.S. goes along with that.”
Vance, co-owner of Vance & Hines, said, “When the accident happened with Doug’s kids, I didn’t want to talk to Doug because I felt so bad I was afraid I might start crying in front of him. So time went by and he got his program going. I was so proud of what he had done and how he recovered. It was really more important than racing. It was a testament to who Doug is. So I brought my boys to the program, and it was a grand slam. They loved it.
“I actually brought them back out, and I brought their baseball team in a bus to go through the program, as well,” he said. “It has been a great experience, and all the kids loved it. They learned a lot.
“I learned more about B.R.A.K.E.S. and what they were trying to accomplish. So I wanted to do something bigger. That’s why we’re here today.”
On hand to support Vance and Herbert Saturday were Pro Stock Motorcycle racers Matt Smith, Angie Smith, Angelle Sampey, Steve Johnson, and his own two racers from the Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson team, Andrew Hines and Eddie Krawiec. Also showing solidarity were Jack Beckman and Clay Millican.
BROWN EMBARKING ON BETTER SEASON, HE HOPES – Don Schumacher Racing’s Antron Brown dominated Top Fuel from 2009 through 2016, winning three championships and winning more than twice as many races during that time as any other driver.
In 2017, Brown won four more races by the mid-August race at Brainerd and appeared to be on his way to a third straight title. But since that time, Brown and DSR have struggled. He won just once last year (at Seattle), while all three DSR dragster teams combined won just four times.
He dug in and worked through a crew re-shuffle in 2018 and is eager to return to his winning pattern, starting here tomorrow.
“We really want a win. We’ve been the runner-up and we’ve lost in the semis, but we’ve never won the Winternationals. It’s one of the most prestigious races we run, and it would be huge to win here. It’s the way we want to start off and let everyone know we’re there,” the driver of the Matco Tools Dragster said.
In the larger sense, he said, “We all look for a championship. That’s what we’re focused on. Last year we learned a lot of stuff. It was a good thing that we were competitive all year and we raced at a high level. This year, we’re looking to improve upon that and go back to the way that we used to be. We are looking to give Torrence Racing a run for the championship. We want to be able to go out and compete for our fourth title. Our main focus is to be in a good position heading into the Countdown to give us a chance to bring it home.”
This season, every crew person has the same duties as they did in 2018.
“We’re going to pick up where we left off at the end of the year when our Matco Tools Toyota dragster was making good passes and going A to B in every run. Now we’re just picking at it to make it better. Our main focus now is to get back into the swing so [at] Pomona we can start things off right. These Matco Toyota boys have put the work in during the off-season, getting the car right. I’ve been working out hard and gotten myself physically right. I’m coming in with no aches or pains and in some of the best shape I’ve ever come into a season in. We’re poised and eager to go out there and compete.”
His first match-up of the season will be against his DSR colleague Leah Pritchett. He qualified third, Pritchett 12th.
HARDY, HEATH STARTERS AT THIS RACE – NHRA divisional starters Brad Hardy and Ron Heath are sharing the official starter duties this weekend. Hardy is the Division 7 starter and a longtime member of the certification team. Heath represents New England Dragway. They’re the first ones tapped in the NHRA’s new program of rotating the starters.
DRIVERS AS STARS IS THEME OF NHRA’S NEW TV INITIATIVE, YOUNG PROCK MAKES TWO STRONG RUNS, SCHUMACHER MISSED, LANGDON ON CUSP OF HISTORY
“We were held back for years and years. As much as we love Wally Parks and all he did, he was way behind the curve. He believed that the cars were the stars. He said that – I’m not making this up. The cars can’t be the stars. People are the stars. NASCAR recognized that right off, and the cars became insignificant. It was Richard Petty. It was all these guys and all of the personalities. I for years tried to get them to do that, and they laughed at me. But we got behind 20 years. . . .
Notice the cars. You go in my museum and you see every car’s got ‘Don Garlits Wynns Charger’ or ‘Don Garlits Kendall’ or whatever. It’s always got ‘Don Garlits’ up there. The cars today aren’t like that. They have auto parts or Budweiser or some big sponsor’s name. And the driver’s name is real tiny, and you’ve got to look for it. Well, the average person watching the race isn’t looking for it. It’s got to be thrown in their face. So these guys are not getting their proper recognition. They’re trading their chance for getting recognized by the general public for the sponsorship money. In my day, the sponsors wanted to be associated with me. They didn’t want to be by themselves. I [asked someone], ‘Do the sponsors not want that today?’ He said, ‘All they care about is exposure on TV.’ That’s too bad, because it isn’t good for the sport. You notice Ashley Force wrote hers pretty big on the roof of her Funny Car. You don’t miss it.” Don Garlits, in a 2006 interview with 1320 TV
It appears the cars no longer will be the stars.
Signaling a bit of a departure from traditional NHRA thinking, sanctioning body President Glen Cromwell told Competition Plus Thursday of a seismic shift in marketing.
Cromwell revealed the NHRA plans to launch an aggressive media initiative, promising to promote the drivers through a variety of viewing platforms rather than highlighting the sport’s richly diverse hot rods.
The goal, he said, is to maximize the number of individuals who watch the in-house-produced FOX / FS1 NHRA broadcasts, to drive traffic to the weekend race-coverage broadcasts. “More eyeballs” is the operative phrase these days for Ken Adelson, the NHRA’s chief content officer and executive producer of the telecasts.
Cromwell said that during the offseason the NHRA “readjusted” Adelson’s creative direction.
“He’s going to be tasked with what we call ‘secondary programming.’ We’re going to proactively look for programming -whether it’s through the Discovery Channel, Hulu, Netflix, Amazon Prime, or a whole list of platforms. It’s to push the personalities of the drivers. We have so many diverse personalities. And we believe there are platforms out there who would love to do stories and hear the back-stories of these racers. FOX has been a game-changer since 2016. But we have to build the personalities. So we’re going to look at opportunities. That can help grow the personalities.
“We think that can help grow our base that will come to FOX and FS1,” he said. “If we can get people to watch on a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday and learn more about our drivers, they’ll be more intrigued to watch our Friday, Saturday, and Sunday shows. So you really have to build on that. You can’t sit and wait for that to happen. We can sit here and say, ‘The personalities are a big piece of it,’ But you’ve got to go sell them. We can’t sit and wait for people to come to us. We’re going to proactively sell these drivers and these stories.”
Cromwell underscored that the purpose of these broadcasting projects is not to overshadow the current weekend FOX and FS 1 NHRA broadcasts, but rather to supplement them and to drive a larger audience FOX’s way.
“We have a unique sport,” he said. “The cars are different [from each other]. There are people who really enjoy the different styles of cars. For me to say the cars are not the stars could be taken out of context. I think there are fans who like the diversity of the cars. That’s important. The drivers, the personalities, have to be the focus.”
He said he and other NHRA executives met Thursday with “a big company in L.A.” to discuss opportunities.
Cromwell used the early 2000s reality show “Driving Force” as an example of one type of non-race program that the NHRA might pursue.
“Look at ‘Driving Force’ and what that did. It was on for a short time, but it really helped John Force and Laurie and the girls [Ashley, Brittany, and Courtney]. There was minimal drag racing [footage] in that show. It was about John and the family. But it made people intrigued about who they are and then they would tune in to ESPN to see who they were,” Cromwell said.
So to some people, the cars still might be the stars. But the personalities will be the brighter ones in the drag-racing galaxy.
NEW SEAT FOR SCHUMACHER – Tony Schumacher had a new seat Friday – not one in the cockpit of a dragster but rather one in the public-address announcer’s booth in the tower. Clearly, that wasn’t his first choice of jobs at the Winternationals, but his dragster is park until he can finalize a sponsorship agreement.
He said it was “my pleasure” to drive the U.S. Army Dragster since the 2000 U.S. Nationals. However, he added, “We’re not ready to race yet. For now we’re going to sit it out.”
The eight-time Top Fuel champion praised his Don Schumacher Racing crew and said, “The car is flawless. My guys have worked so hard. They wanted to run this race so bad.”
Schumacher said, “I can get through this. I’ve faced adversity many times.”
On-track rival Steve Torrence, who relegated Schumacher to No. 2 in the final standings here last November, said he missed the man who has eight times more championships than he does: “He’s the most dominating, most bad-ass driver, and he’s not out here – and we’re missing him.”
PROCK HAS SUPER START TO CAREER – Austin Prock’s first competitive pass in Top Fuel competition produced a straight and fast 3.784-second elapsed time at 323.04 mph. And dad Jimmy Prock, who stuck around after tuning Robert Hight to a tentative top-half run in the Funny Car class, said, “Proud of him. This is what he lives for. The opportunity he has got, not too many people get a chance to do this. That’s really cool.”
It was a solo pass. In the second qualifying session, he lined up against freshly crowned champion Steve Torrence, Prock posted a 3.771, 326.63. He was eighth in the order overnight.
After his initial pass, Prock said, “Ronnie Thompson and Jon Schaffer [his crew chiefs] did an unbelievable job. That was the first run in the .70s for us. We’re going to keep picking at it, and hopefully we can keep improving.”
He was able to race at the Winternationals because of a fortuitous conversation Don “The Snake” Prudhomme had with an old buddy at the recent Barrett-Jackson Auction at Scottsdale, Ariz.
“We started talking drag racing,” Prudhomme said of his reconnection. “I told him Force needed a sponsor. He said, ‘Hell, I’ll sponsor him!’
“The kid is dynamite,” the Top Fuel an Funny Car legend said. “I like rookie kids. I just enjoy being around rookies and watching them build themselves up.”
Prock said his early-season opportunity “is all because of the Snake. He stuck his neck out for me and got it [a sponsorship deal] done. I owe him the world.”
John Force Racing President Robert Hight provided some background about how Prock ended up in the Top Fuel class rather than the Funny Car class, filling Courtney Force’s seat.
Hight said the decision had nothing to do with a scarcity of entrants in the Top Fuel category.
“No,” Hight said. “We decided early in the off-season that we were going to. First off, we didn’t know if we were going to run four cars. We had to find funding. But we also know that eventually we’ll find funding, so it made more sense for us to have two Funny Cars and two dragsters. Funny Cars can work together; dragsters can work together.
“You know, we had talked about moving [crew chief] Brian Corradi over to Brittany’s car when Alan [Johnson] left, but Brian wanted to stay in Funny Car. That’s why he came over here: he wanted to be a Funny Car crew chief. And John’s car needed to run better, so Brian and Jimmy [Prock], they are really good buddies and they work very closely together. So that was a good team, didn’t want to break that up. I feel our Funny Cars are very strong with those two individuals working together. [Top Fuel crew chief] Dave Grubnic was available. We got him, and we still had Ronnie Thompson and Jon Schaffer, who are very, very bright individuals,” Hight said and we just figured that that could be a good team over there. But you need two dragsters sharing data and working together. So it just made more sense to have two and two.
“It’s harder to find funding for a third Funny Car. You run into each more, we race each other,” Hight said. “It needed to be split up. So that was our goal. We never looked at the entry list and said, ‘Oh boy, we’ve got to get Austin to Pomona.’ That was never the case.”
He said, “We were not coming to Pomona unless funding came through, and it came through. So at the last minute . . . We’ve been working night and day, trying to get everything organized and coordinated, and it’s here. Don Prudhomme helped tremendously to put this together.
“This gentleman is very wealthy. He owns a lot of companies and loves cars, loves racing. In fact, he was a former bracket racer when he was younger. So it was really a good deal. So you know when somebody tells you they will come up with the money and it’s a week away, actually less than a week away, Saturday night I got the call, then you do whatever it takes to make it happen,” Hight said.
GEN4 PROCK READY TO ROCK – Austin Prock, the only first-time starter in this year’s NHRA professional ranks, is not as new to drag racing as some might think. The 23-year-old Top Fuel rookie represents the fourth generation of his family to excel in motorsports. “Excel” might sound odd, considering he hasn’t completed his first competitive elimination round. To excel means to accomplish something extraordinary – and he has, despite making his first laps in the Montana Brand / Rocky Mountain Twist Dragster less than a week ago.
Prock has owned a Funny Car license since last summer. But he earned his Super Comp license at Frank Hawley’s Drag Racing School, and with guidance from Anthony Dicero, he has the credentials to compete in the Top Alcohol Dragster class. But he’ll start the year in a brand-new John Force Racing chassis as teammate to 2017 class champion Brittany Force, the driver for whom he used to prepare superchargers. Jon Schaffer and Ronnie Thompson are his crew chiefs.
He completed his licensing pass in a dragster earlier this week at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park at Chandler, Ariz.
“Obviously, it was a good thing we made the trip out to testing, even if we did arrive late and have to put in overtime to be ready,” Prock said. “Everyone did their part to have us ready for Pomona. [John] Force and Robert [Hight] worked the sponsorship side, and I got more laps under my belt.”
His first attempt at the suburban Phoenix racetrack resulted in tire smoke immediately. However, Prock followed that with a few eighth-mile passes this past Saturday and Sunday.
“Jon and Ronnie are happy with what learned at testing. It will be a great season. Our main goal is to have fun and the results will come. We’re just grateful to be a part of this 2019 Mello Yello Series,” Prock said.
“I’m very excited,” said the son of championship crew chief Jimmy Prock, grandson of driving pioneer and crew chief Tom Prock, and great grandson of midget racer / race-car builder / champ-car riding mechanic Jim Prock. “I’m ready to get my professional drag racing career started with Montana Brand / Rocky Mountain Twist. I know it’s going to be a lot of hard work but I’m confident.
“I don’t have a lot of nerves. I’m not really that nervous. I’ve got John Force, Don Prudhomme, and all of JFR in my corner, that believe in me. I’m going to have fun while I’m out here,” Austin Prock said. “I get to be out with my family, continue the family trade and represent a legendary team. What more could I ask for?”
Like Robert Hight and Eric Medlen before him, Prock worked as a crew member. He began as a member of Courtney Force’s Advance Auto Parts Chevy Camaro Funny Car team, then worked on superchargers for Brittany Force’s Top Fuel team.
He was prepared to drive in either nitro class. Both 11,000-horsepower race cars are new to him, but Prock said he learned quickly that “the dragster is quite a bit different than the Funny Car. The dragster accelerates a lot quicker. When I tested, I was able to keep it right down the groove. And the guys seemed confident about what I was able to do. I’m excited to get going this weekend.”
After all, he started driving a race car at age 10. He earned his first victory before his 12th birthday, and in 2012, he was named the National Pavement Midget Rookie of the Year. The following year, Prock was the Bob Tattersall Hard Charger of the Year honoree. In 2014, his first year racing a full schedule, Prock was the STARS National Pavement Midget Champion after winning four races. He moved on the next year to Dirt Sprint Cars and won in his seventh start. He finished his circle-track career with 27 victories and 84 top-five finishes in 139 races.
AIN’T BROKE, AIN’T FIXING IT – Provisional No. 1 qualifier Steve Torrence’s testing appearance at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park last weekend might have looked rather cavalier. The Kilgore, Texas, native breezed into the Chandler, Ariz., facility and registered a stout 3.72 Wednesday. He stuck around and ripped off a 3.689-second elapsed time at 328.78 mph on the 1,000-foot course Thursday. For comparison, it wouldn’t qualify officially as a top-10 E.T., but it’s just .061 of a second off Clay Millican’s year-old national record of 3.628. His 3.689 lasted as best through three days of tune-up testing.
And then he was gone. He put on a clinic and left town while his rivals switched out parts and pieces and drilled new crew members. Torrence, who had ditches to dig and pipe to lay back in East Texas, made maximum use of his brief weekend getaway from his family-owned Capco Contractors job. So had his father, Billy Torrence, who clocked a 3.731-second, 325.14-mph pass that held up as second-best of the weekend until Brittany Force posted her top test-session effort Saturday of 3.700, 321.27 in the Advance Auto Parts Dragster.
“I don’t know if we’re making any statements out here,” Torrence said Thursday. “We had a real good car all throughout the year last year, and we had an unbelievable car at the end of the year. We’re not really changing a whole bunch. We got what we needed today. I think this thing’s ready to go.”
“To go do what we did at testing, that just bolsters our confidence,” Torrence said. “It’s humbling to be in the position we’re in and to think about the success we’ve had, but we’re not close to being done yet.” As for his approach, he said he and his Richard Hogan- / Bobby Lagana-led crew are “going to be real simple about it. They key is to go out and win rounds, and if you’re able to do that four times, that’s a race. That’s how we’ve approached it the last two years, and we’re going to keep that same approach.”
Torrence, who dominated – swept – the six-race Countdown in unprecedented style, said, “We don’t have the same point to prove as last year, but it’s the same drive and maybe more, just for different reasons. The performance the last couple years speaks for itself, but we want to keep driving that home. We’ve gotten to the top, established the fact that we deserve to be there, and we’re going to do everything we can to stay there. It’s business as usual for us, and that’s the way we’re going to approach it.”
In his last appearance at Pomona, he was ensuring himself the Top Fuel championship. an unprecedented run to his first world title. He’s the only racer since the Countdown began in 2007 who has won every playoff race. Eleven of his 27 races came last season.
“I think we can maintain that focus,” Torrence said, despite bringing a 24-round winning streak into the Winternationals. “We had the same focus and drive we had in 2018 as we did in 2017. We just channeled it and got used to working at a more intense level. We’ve been able to operate at such a high level for so many races – I think we’re accustomed to doing that. You see the way guys like Tony [Schumacher] and Antron [Brown] operate. They’re used to being battle-ready. That’s how we want to be.”
PALMER GOING ON OFFENSE – Scott Palmer said he’s ready to “get aggressive” and “live out on that ragged edge” this season. No more playing defense, he said. It’s all about offense for the Magic Dry/Marck Dragster owner-driver.
"It's time to get aggressive," he said. "Last year we learned how to run low 3.7s, but then we got a little conservative and tried to protect our position in the points. The deal is you really can't do that and expect big things. You have to run 3.7s to win races, and that requires swinging for the fences at the right moments in qualifying and all day long on race day. I've decided we're going to live out on that ragged edge a lot more this year.”
Qualifying higher on the ladder is key to the strategy. "If there was one thing I wish we'd done better last year it would have been to qualify higher on the ladder every race. There are just all kinds of benefits to being in the top half of the field, and we weren't there enough,” Palmer said. “No more being conservative and trying to hold a spot in the points. We want to pour it all on and see how we do. We have four new crew members, two veterans, and a couple of rookies, including one of the hardest working women I've ever been around. I was really proud of the way everyone worked together in testing, and I think we've got the strongest group I've ever been around.
"Testing actually went really well,” he said. “We never ran it all the way down the track, because we didn't feel the need to push our parts like that, but the incremental times were all very encouraging, showing mid to low 3.7s."
KALITTA AIMING BIG IN 19TH YEAR WITH MAC TOOLS – Doug Kalitta is seeking back-to-back Winternationals victories and his third overall, as well as his fifth top-qualifying position at this 59th season-opener. And he’ll have the backing of 19-year sponsor Mac Tools as he aims for that first Top Fuel series championship. The Michigan-based cargo / passenger / air-ambulance airline owner said he’s ready for liftoff of the 2019 season.
“It’s been a short off-season, that’s for sure. Business has been busy, and my kids’ soccer schedule has kept us moving, so time flew by,” he said. “It was definitely great to be back behind the wheel in testing [last weekend at Chandler, Ariz.]. I’m looking for big things this year for our Mac Tools team. The guys have worked hard, and we are looking for that repeat Wally this weekend.”
Kalitta is zooming in on his 500th start. This will be No. 490 for the driver with 652 round-wins (ninth all-time), 44 victories (fifth all-time in Top Fuel); 96 final-round appearances; and 49 No.1 qualifying positions (tied for 14th all-time).
Tony Merritt, marketing director and head of global sponsorships and activations for Mac Tools, said of the sponsorship extension with Team Kalitta, “Mac Tools is proud to continue our long-lasting relationship with Team Kalitta and our driver, Doug Kalitta. We've been fortunate enough to evolve together over the last 18 years and continue to build a program that strengthens our business through marketing and business-to-business channels. Our partnership has provided our Mac Tools Distributors a unique way to gain market share, as well as a team to root for on the track. We cannot thank [team owner] Connie Kalitta, Doug Kalitta, and this hard-working team enough. We are looking forward to our best year yet."
LOTS OF CHANCES FOR LANGDON TO MAKE HISTORY – If Shawn Langdon follows Kalitta Motorsports teammate JR Todd’s path and earns a Funny Car championship in just his second year after switching from Top Fuel, he also will mimic his newest crew chief, Del Worsham.
Langdon would join the exclusive group that Worsham entered in 2015, when he added a Funny Car title to his 2011 Top Fuel championship. Kenny Bernstein and Gary Scelzi are the only others to accomplish the feat.
Actually, if Langdon meets his 2019 goals, he would make a couple of other statements. He would establish the Kalitta organization as a Funny Car powerhouse, giving it a third crown in five years. But he also would distinguish himself as a racer on the legendary level of Jeg Coughlin.
He already is Coughlin-esque. Consider that Coughlin has six NHRA championships (1992 Super Gas and five in Pro Stock) and is the lone racer to win in seven classes. The versatile Ohioan is the first to win in four classes in the same season (1997 – Pro Stock, Super Stock, Super Gas, Comp), with Dan Fletcher following suit. Langdon has been a champion since his career started. He was the 14 and Under Jr. Dragster class champion in 1997. Ten years later he won the first of back-to-back Super Comp titles. He added the 2013 Top Fuel crown to his portfolio.
The Global Electronic Technology Toyota Camry driver has competed in eight categories, including Super Comp, Super Gas, Stock, and Super Stock, like Coughlin. He also has raced in Top Fuel, Funny Car, Top Alcohol Dragster, and Jr. Dragster. So he’s as versatile as Coughlin. In 2008, Langdon ran in Super Comp, Super Gas, and Top Alcohol Dragster.
However, his accomplishments and the prospect of becoming a double-nitro champion don’t seem impossible but overwhelm him just the same.
“I’m not sure how to respond to that. I get very humbled by some of the names that my stats get put in with,” Langdon said. “When my name gets compared to guys like Del Worsham, Gary Scelzi and Kenny Bernstein, I still think of myself as a little kid and have to pinch myself. It’s an elite category, and I’m very proud to have my name potentially mentioned with them. I really don’t even think about something like that. I come out to win races and win championships. When it’s all over, we can look back at we’ve done.”
As that little kid, Langdon said, he “grew up getting Del’s autograph. I was always a fan of Del, because he was a younger kid coming in and he worked for everything he got. He excelled in what he did. He was a great driver, but he was always a little bit of an underdog – and I think it played into his favor. Del is one of the best out here, not only from a driver standpoint, but also from a crew chief perspective. You could see that last year when he’d come out and make runs in [the family-owned] car, doing it under-budget fashion, but he’d still go rounds. He makes the most of what he’s got. We have a great opportunity with Global Electronic Technology coming back and having all the tools in place at Kalitta Motorsports and great technical partners like Toyota and TRD.”
Worsham said he has faith in Langdon and the crew that includes co-tuner Nicky Boninfante and believes they can win races and championships.
“JR Todd won a championship last year, and all that information is available to us. We’ll use that information to our advantage,” Worsham said. “I’d like to think that we can – that’s the reason I’m here: to, hopefully, put ourselves into position to win a world championship.” He said, “We’re lucky to have Shawn. He’s a championship-level driver. He’s proven it by winning multiple championships. He replaced me at Al-Anabi and went out and won a championship there. He has the credentials, and he’s a proven winner.”
And Boninfante said Langdon is a much-improved Funny Car driver today: “You can see that Shawn is much more comfortable. When we started here last year, Shawn had only made four previous runs when he got his Funny Car license. These cars are just different animals. You have to steer a Funny Car different than you do a dragster. It’s a lot more finesse. You have to be thinking ahead with the Funny Car and anticipate what’s going to happen. Shawn’s been able to do all this.”
He shares Worsham’s confidence. “I think we saw that with the DHL team last year. In 2017, JR was new to the Funny Car and they had a number of new guys on the team. And while the team won a few races, it was a hit-and-miss operation with a lot of learning. I think we’re in the same boat. Last year was a learning year for all of us. This year, with the addition of Del, I think the Global Electronic Technology Toyota has a serious shot of building momentum and racing for a championship at the end of the season.”
For Langdon, the learning curve still is there, but it isn’t as steep. “It feels quite a bit different,” he said. Obviously, having a year under my belt gives me a better understanding of how these cars react. We’re taking baby steps early and adjusting to some of the changes we made in the off-season. I feel great. I’m ready to go, and I’m really excited about this season.”
He said he had tried to prepare himself for the transition, asking questions of several drivers who had made the move. Even so, he said, “at the end of the year, it had been an even bigger adjustment than I had ever thought it was going to be. It was a MAJOR learning curve. Even with a year under my belt, I’m still learning. The Funny Car was like nothing I’ve ever driven before. There’s no other car that reacts the same way this does. There’s really nothing to compare it to. You basically have to take something from each run you in make in a Funny Car and then start over again.”
The team chemistry blends well. Langdon said, “I feel great with this group. Nicky Boninfante does a great job. His past success speaks for itself, and now we have a year under our belts together. The addition of Del is monumental for this team because of what he brings to the table. He fully understands these cars and can help each individual crew guy to be better in their area. He and Nicky have a great relationship and work really well together. They have won a title together. I think for me, one of the huge plusses is the fact that Del is a championship driver and there are a lot of things that I can talk to him about. We speak that driver language to one another where I come in and say certain things that a lot of people don’t really understand but I can walk right in and tell Del about and he understands exactly what I’m saying and he can tell me how to improve.
“I think we have the total package,” he said. “Now we have to work together and learn from each other and progress.”
Langdon is seeking his first Funny Car victory at Pomona, the renowned racetrack located 20 miles to the west of his hometown of Mira Loma, Calif. It’s also a venue at which he twice captured both Top Fuel races in the same season (2013, 2015) – the latter time winning for two different teams (Alan John Racing and Don Schumacher Racing).
“I love Pomona. I always enjoy going back,” Langdon, who lives in Avon, Ind., said. “I grew going to the track to watch my heroes and trying to get autographs. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a lot of success on the track [here], winning in Jr. Dragsters and in the sportsman classes and winning four times in Top Fuel. It’s also where we clinched the Top Fuel championship. To start the season off with a win [here] would be monumental for this team.”
He has one nagging bit of unfinished business.
“Last year was the first time in probably 20 years when I didn’t win a race in any car. So for me, that was a tough pill to swallow,” Langdon said. “It just makes me more motivated, probably more motivated than I’ve ever been. It would mean a lot to get a win for myself in Pomona, but that’s not really what it’s about.
“I really want to win a race for Steve and Samantha Bryson of Global Electronic Technology, who have helped give us all the tools we need to compete; for Kalitta Motorsports, who provides me the opportunity to compete with a top-level team; for Toyota and TRD, which have been instrumental in progressing a lot of the technology with our team. It’s a huge benefit to what we do – and, really, all of the companies that have supported us.”
Worsham got the last word, though. He said if he can help Langdon to a Funny Car championship, “I’ll still have one up on him, winning a championship in both Top Fuel and Funny Car – and one as a crew chief!”
HAPPY 20TH ANNIVERSARY! – Drag-racing fans lamented the end of the longtime Kenny Bernstein-Budweiser partnership and most recently the dissolution of Tony Schumacher’s relationship with the U.S. Army. But still going strong and entering their 20th drag-racing season are Funny Car owner-driver-tuner Tim Wilkerson and Dick Levi and his Levi, Ray & Shoup information technology solutions firm.
“I have a tremendous sense of pride that we’ve had such a good partnership with Dick Levi for so long,” 20-time winner Wilkerson said. “He is a very successful business man, and we’ve been fortunate that he’s not just a fan of drag racing but he’s also a fan of this team. We’ve had a good relationship over the years, and we sure appreciate everything he’s done for us. It means a lot to us to have that big LRS on the side of our car.”
Wilkerson had an impressive Countdown last fall, entering 10th in the standings and jumping to fifth (best among the Fords) – and as high as third along the way. He opened the six-race playoffs with two final-round appearances and qualified in the top half of the field at each race.
“Our basic off-season was just trying to make sure that the way our Levi, Ray, and Shoup Ford Mustang performed the last six races of 2018 is the way it performs when we get to Pomona,” Wilkerson said. “We think we can make that happen, but at the same time, I’m sure everybody else was doing the same thing these past few months.
“We had such a great 2016, and then we had a series of small tragedies,” he said. “It seems like we haven’t been able to fully bounce back and get to the winners circle again, but a lot of that has to do with the competition. It’s really hard to beat all that technology and advancement that those multi-car teams seem have in the bank on you. Other than that, we just haven’t done a good job in the finals, and we used to be so good there. That’s going to be one of my focal points this year, making sure every round is precise and we aren’t making mistakes. I’m a little mad at myself about that.”
Maybe driving one of the newest Ford Mustangs later this season will improve his performance. “I'm proud to be included with Bob Tasca in the Ford Performance program beginning this year. We've been running a Ford body since 2009, and we earned 10 of our 20 wins with the Mustang. I'm real excited about getting a chance to not only be involved with Ford again but also to run the newest Ford Mustang body. Our involvement with Ford Performance will allow us to have support similar to what a multi-car team has. The input of Ford Performance and their engineers will definitely be an asset to our program,” Wilkerson said.
‘HELLCAT ON WHEELS’ SEEKS THIRD STRAIGHT OPENING TRIUMPH – Two-time Funny Car champion Matt Hagan showed up at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona in a rather greedy mood. He wants to become only the second in his class and third in all of the pro ranks to win three consecutive Winternationals events. (Don Prudhomme did so in Funny Car from 1975-78, and Pro Stock’s Greg Anderson followed in 2006-08.) And Hagan wants bragging rights for recording the first victory for the Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Funny Car.
Hagan, who drives the Mopar Express Lane entry for Don Schumacher Racing, enters his second decade of carrying the Mopar banner.
“The odds of winning any race out here are extremely high with the competition we have,” he said, “but it feels good, knowing we are the only ones heading there with a chance to win three straight. I hope I didn’t jinx myself talking about winning three in a row. Seriously though, we are gunning for it. We want to be the first one to turn on four win lights with the Hellcat. I feel like we are going to come out strong and have a real opportunity to do it.”
The Hellcat body debuted last July.
Hagan, winner also of the 2015 Winternationals, will have Dodge/Mopar as his primary sponsor in 12 events this year. With the strong factory backing, he hopes to improve from his eight-place finish last season despite winning three races.
“Teamwork is everything,” he said. “I’ve won two championships. Finished runner-up twice. Won a bunch of races. And it’s because of the people I’ve surrounded myself with. I’ve been around good people, and we are all motivated and driven. That starts at the top with Don [Schumacher] and the last decade with Mopar. We are all goal-oriented and driven. It’s a new season ahead of us, and we’re all ready to get after it.”
McGAHA MAKES OFF-SEASON CHANGES – Chris McGaha hasn’t won a Pro Stock elimination round since last July’s Dodge Mile-High Nationals at Denver.
“Stupid stuff happened, and we experienced a huge disconnect in the team,” the nine-year class veteran from Odessa, Texas, said.
So he made some changes, and now, rather than being perturbed like he was for at least the last half of the 2018 season, he’s optimistic once again.
In Cruz Pedregon fashion, McGaha dismissed his crew chief and opted to act as his own tuner. So Adam Hornberger is out.
“My father has always said when a football team performs poorly and the team is not clicking, it’s time to part ways with the head coach. In this case, Adam was the head coach.”
McGaha said he didn’t spend much time second-guessing himself. He was too industrious.
“We were extremely busy this off-season. We decided to invest last August in our overall racing program by adding Gary Hettler and his cylinder-head program to our performance shop. This new addition, alongside our current engine R&D program, made for a very productive off-season,” he said.
McGaha had his 2017 Chevy Camaro – the “Silver Bullet” – going through the paces this past week at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, near Phoenix. And he said before Winternationals action began, “I am very happy with the progress that we have made from our off-season efforts and looking forward to showcasing them on the track come Friday. I am optimistic, and think we made the right calls to change our track performance around.”
LOOK OUT – Jeg Coughlin has been Pro Stock runner-up in the final standings three times in his decorated career: in 1998 and 1999 (his first two full seasons) and last year. After his 1999 performance, Coughlin returned and claimed the first of his five class championships with 10 victories in 14 final-round appearances and a 62-13 race-day record.
Calling himself “fully rested” and “the best prepared we have been for the start of a new year,” the JEGS.com Elite Performance Chevy Camaro driver is hoping he can do that again.
"We had a top-running car at the end of last season,” he said, referring to his move from sixth place to second in the playoffs with a final-round effort at Dallas. “And the team just made a bunch of enhancements on what we were doing then. Now it's time to see where we stack up."
No one will be surprised if Coughlin, who also earned the Super Gas crown in 1992, adds to his total of 80 national-event victories (61 in Pro Stock, 19 in various sportsman classes).
"I'm excited for the season and anxious to see if we can capitalize on the huge momentum we built in last year's Countdown," he said.
He said he “gathered lots of data” on his way from his home at Delaware, Ohio, to Pomona. He tested in what he called “three very different scenarios” – in Oklahoma; Bradenton, Fla.; and Chandler, Ariz.
He arrived well before the opening bell for this 59th edition of the Winternationals and said Wednesday, "We've already rolled through the gates here at Pomona. And looking at those snow-capped mountains behind the track, it certainly appears the Winternationals will live up to its name. It's very brisk outside, and that should have a big impact on the racing. This is the first time it's been this chilly here in a long time. We should be very quick."
Coughlin has won here six times: at the 1999, 2005, and 2007 Winternationals; the 1999 and 2000 NHRA Finals; and the one-off NHRA 50th-anniversary event in 2001. "Certainly, this has been a good racetrack for us," he said. "That's exciting, for sure, and it gives you another touch of confidence. We're ready. The time off was definitely needed and appreciated, but now it's time to get back to racing.”