HONORING THE 2010 NHRA CHAMPIONS
Attitude's CompetitionPlus.com has profiled the NHRA Full Throttle champions. Read about their championship battles and the ensuing elation in their accomplishments.
Larry Dixon, John Force, Greg Anderson and LE Tonglet tell their stories of winning the championship.
LARRY DIXON - TOP FUEL CHAMPION
For Larry Dixon, the first round at the recently completed Auto Club NHRA Finals was unlike any opening round he’d faced all season long.
Even though the race was just beginning, the opening round against Mike Strasburg was an opportunity to put an exclamation point on an incredible season.
Win the first round and he would be the 2010 NHRA Full Throttle Top Fuel champion.
“I’ve never had so much excitement for a first round win in my life,” Dixon said. “An awesome job for my team. It was just one round today but it was all of the good rounds we’ve had previous. The second rounds and the semi-finals. They have all added up to this point. It’s a credit to Alan Johnson, Sheikh Khalid, Jason McCulloch and the whole Al-Anabi team. This is for everybody who pitches in to make this happen. This is what we do it for.”
The 2010 championship is the third for Dixon. Previously he had won championships driving for Don Prudhomme and tuned by LaHaie.
“It was so long ago that I can’t remember,” Dixon said jokingly when asked how this title compared to his previous pair earned in 2002 and 2003.
This season’s crown will likely be one he’ll remember for a long time. He dominated both the regular season and playoff portions impressively. He won nine events during the regular season scoring an impressive 46 – 8 win loss record. After securing the point lead following the NHRA Midwest Nationals [St. Louis], he never relinquished the top spot.
Dixon carried a 14-2 win loss record into the final race of the season and needed only to win the first round to clinch his crown.
He was equally brutal in qualifying. Out of the 87 qualifying sessions, Dixon scored the top bonus point award [3 points] 33 times.
For Dixon, one of the more pleasing aspects of winning this title was seeing the joy from second-generation tuner Jason McCulloch, now a first-time championship crew chief.
“I am so proud of him,” Dixon said. “I told him when we were taking pictures, “this will be on your resume forever. You have a championship as a crew chief.”
Dixon continued, “I fully believe he’s got the best guy in the business teaching him with Alan.”
And Dixon didn’t have to look too far for an example of why McCulloch was going to rise to the occasion on race day. Saturday’s final qualifying session turned out to be a tire-smoker and as a result his sophomore tuner was at the track early Sunday morning preparing for battle.
“He was already preparing short blocks, camshafts and all of this kind of stuff,” Dixon said. “Motors were changed and preparations were made for race day. The right changes were made and the calls were right.”
After a week filled full of stories chronicling Tony Schumacher’s miracle finishes of the past, Dixon was not bothered in the least by the suggestions if his team slipped the seven-time champion was ready to pounce. Dixon had Alan Johnson, the catalyst in many of Top Fuel’s greatest championship runs in his corner.
“I know there’s a lot of talk about miracles but the guy who performed those is in my corner,” Dixon said. “He’s my cut man, he’s all of that. I watched him do that for many years with Blaine. I watched [Johnson’s brother] Blaine and Alan win their first race in Top Fuel against me in Pomona in 1995.”
If anyone knows what Johnson is capable of, it’s Dixon.
“We had the Slick 50 bonus on the line [back in 2001], after winning the Bud Shootout, the NHRA had a $50,000 bonus on the line. All of this money on the line and Blaine and Alan smoke down the track to a 4.68 to get low elapsed time and the win away from us. They took the Slick 50 bonus away and all of that.”
Blaine Johnson, a contender for the series championship, was killed in a 1996 racing accident. A year later Alan tuned Gary Scelzi to an improbable championship. Eight years later, Johnson tuned Schumacher to five consecutive championships.
Clearly Dixon feels blessed to be the driver of the Al-Anabi Top Fuel dragster. Getting to work with the Johnson family is a bonus.
“They’re such good people with such good hearts,” said Dixon, of the Johnson family. “They race. That’s what they do. I’m not so into myself that I don’t know if Blaine were still alive, he’d be driving this car. Blaine would be here talking to you guys. I’m just filling in for him.”
This season was one of redemption after losing the 2009 crown by a mere three points. Although, Dixon admits, the team raced just as hard in finishing runner-up as it did in winning the 2010 title.
“I don’t feel like we had anything to prove because you just race hard all the time,” Dixon said. “You race just as hard when you don’t qualify or lose in the first round. Everyone is out here racing for the same thing. It just clicked this year. There were a lot of races where we weren’t the best car but we just happened to be better on that particular run. I can think of a lot of rounds or final rounds where we weren’t the best car. One thing or another happened and we just managed to get the win light. They ended up adding up to enough points to win.”
JOHN FORCE - FUNNY CAR CHAMPION
It’s a good thing John Force has put his time in at the gym.
After beating Bob Bode to win his 15th career series championship, Force exited the Full Throttle Experience vehicle only halfway through his championship parade up the return road. He ran as fast as he could and took a giant leap into the Pomona Fairplex fence much to the delight of the race fans crowded on the other side. It was drag racing’s Lambeau Leap but for Force it was a sign that God can even shine on a broken-down driver.
He flung his hat off into the stands and began running. And, he ran with photographers doing their very best to keep pace. He never looked back.
“My doctors who gave me my arms and legs back … I’m 40 again!" Force, 61, exclaimed as he addressed the Sunday race crowd at the Auto Club NHRA Finals. “I’m still ugly, but I’m 40.”
Then Force paused as he panted like a dog that had just chased his daughter’s cats up a tree.
“At the end of the day,” he resumed. “The sponsors, the family, my wife, my children, all were behind me when I said I was useless. With no arms and legs, I can’t move. They’d say, ‘Aw quit whining and go, they’d tell me.”
Then Force, looked over at Henry Ford III, and presented him with the championship trophy.
“John Force has been a hero of mine and I have followed his career for a number of years,” remarked Ford. “He took a little bit of a hit back in Reading, Pa., and fell behind in the points, but to see him come back and win the championship here at Pomona has been unbelievable. He is a great guy and what an honor it is to be part of his team and to be here for the championship.”
Force came into race day at Pomona needing the combination of a Tasca win over Hagan and two round wins. When Tasca outran Hagan in the first round, the ball was put squarely into Force’s court.
“That was a crushing blow for Ford and we have a concept that we are one big team,” Force admitted, speaking of Tasca's win over Hagan.
That was no figure of speech as Force reportedly helped Tasca’s team with their Sunday morning tune-up for the crucial match with Hagan.
He didn’t help psych his pseudo Ford teammate Tasca or mentally prepare him for Sunday’s crucial battle.
“I really didn’t because he knows the game,” Force said. “He told me that he would give him all that he could. I just told him, ‘If you don’t get him, we just don’t get him. You can’t put the pressure on yourself.”
Force then said, “I just told him to do the best he could. He’s a Ford guy and we took the One Ford approach.”
Force entered the season on the heels of a major personnel gamble. He parked the fourth Funny Car driven by Mike Neff and moved the past championship crew chief into his stable alongside his long time tuning brain trust - Austin Coil and Bernie Fedderly.
The end result was a win at the first race in 2010. For a good portion of the 2010 season, it looked as if the Force momentum was unstoppable.
Then he stumbled in Reading in the fourth race of the six-race Countdown.
Force laments the fact the championship had to come down to this much pressure. He readily admits fault for allowing Hagan in the running for the championship. Except for a two race span in June, Force led the championship battle from the start of the regular season until the fourth race in the Countdown.
The uncharacteristic NHRA Toyo Tires Nationals weekend saw Force’s team grenade multiple bodies in both qualifying and elimination rounds. And as for Force himself, a broken reverser on the burnout left him a dead duck and his championship hopes lame.
“We had it [point lead] going into Reading and lost it there. We opened the door to that kid.”
All of a sudden, it didn’t matter that Force had won four out of seven races in the regular season, amassing enough of a point lead to earn the top seed.
The seemingly ageless Force, conjured every ounce of experience but in the end, it helped very little. Force found a foe in Hagan who was essentially nearly unshakeable.
“I lived the days back when winning the Big Bud Shootout in 1986 meant getting an extra transmission when everyone else had 12 spares,” Force explained. “Experience always plays a part in drag racing but Hagen is pretty cool. Staring at him is like staring down a bull. He looked at me and I can read someone pretty good. A lot of drivers I’ve raced had shaky knees, not that kid. He’d look me in the eye like he was about to ask, 'You ready? Let’s go up there and dance.'
“Today we walked away with a championship. I needed this championship to come back. I needed to show that I can still do this job.”
Best of all, he showed them himself he could run again.
GREG ANDERSON - PRO STOCK CHAMPION
While the tears weren’t flowing freely you could tell the emotions were getting the best of Greg Anderson.
It was 11 months earlier that his life had been turned upside down by situations beyond his control. First there was team owner Ken Black’s severe stroke and not long after that a fire damaged his home. Then there was the reality Mike Edwards had totally dominated his Summit Racing Equipment team into submission and showed no signs of slowing down for the 2010 season.
A lesser man would have folded under the extreme pressure. Anderson almost did.
Yet, something wouldn’t let him.
“This has certainly been the most trying season, yet the most rewarding,” Anderson said Saturday afternoon after clinching his fourth career NHRA Pro Stock series championship. “I’ll certainly never forget this one. We’ve had to scratch, scrape and claw our way back to respectability. Have chances to win races again. We had to cope to find a way to accept our team leader Ken Black wasn’t here with us.”
Anderson admitted there was a time when he wondered if Black would ever come back. However, when Black returned, he was greeted with a team chock full of emotion and momentum.
“He makes us feel almost invincible,” admitted Anderson. “It’s a great feeling with him being back out here. When you get your head right, that’s me and my team, Ken has helped us to do that. Here we are champions again. You couldn’t have bet me any amount of money in the world earlier this season that it would have turned out this way. My team never gave up hope.”
Anderson entered the Countdown to 1 as the fifth seeded driver. He experienced moderate success during the regular season but clearly his championship defining run came in the final six events. He scored final rounds in four of the six events, winning three times. He was a three-time finalist in the regular season.
“Just putting a smile on Ken Black’s face was worth it,” Anderson said. “We probably tried to hard early in the season to win and pressed too hard. We just couldn’t get it right. We wanted to make him proud of us somehow. Somehow I knew that would help in his recovery. He finally had to get us calmed down and let us know he was going to be okay. We needed to go back to the track and learn how to have fun again. We needed to stop worrying about winning races to put a smile on his face. Once we did that, we were able to go out and win again.”
The most pivotal win was his mid-season victory at his sponsor’s hometown race in Norwalk, Ohio. This was the event where Anderson first admitted he battled confidence issues.
However, possibly the most meaningful might have been two weeks prior to clinching his championship when Black made his first appearance at the drag strip since his December 2009 stroke. Not only did Anderson beat teammate Line in the final round, he also overtook Edwards for the championship lead. Once in his grasp, Anderson would not relinquish his grip on the top spot.
“I don’t think it was a fluke, the way we performed at the last five races,” Anderson said. “It’s not because crazy things happened and we got lucky. I think we earned it. I know Mike Edwards was dominant for two years straight. He made a few small mistakes and we were able to capitalize on it. I feel bad for him. My team performed great. They didn’t hand it to us. We took it.”
LE TONGLET - PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE CHAMPION
Even though he's not old enough to legally drink the champagne, that didn't stop L.E. Tonglet for going after the ceremonial stuff.
On a weekend where the NHRA crowned both the youngest and oldest champion in series history, Tonglet was all too happy to be the former and not the latter.
At 20 years old, Tonglet clinched the Pro Stock Motorcycle crown after winning his second round race against Steve Johnson making his the youngest professional champion in NHRA history. A round earlier Johnson had gotten around Andrew Hines when the No. 1 seeded rider fouled.
“We’ve been on a roll since Indy and this is huge,” Tonglet said, after missing a perfectly good opportunity to red-light with a .007 reaction in the green.
Tonglet was the series’ 2010 Cinderella story by limping into the Countdown on last minute funds provided by Kenny Koretsky. From there, the second-generation rider resembled a big-bucks juggernaut as he carried an undefeated record past the middle part of the Countdown. His first round loss in the Countdown came at the NHRA Toyo Tires Nationals in Reading, Pa., when he lost to Hines in the final round.
The run of good fortunes carried Tonglet from his entry point seventh seeding into second after winning the first race of the Countdown in Indianapolis. The amazing part of Tonglet's season is that he never led the NHRA points until he clinched the championship.
“The way the year started, we just didn’t think this was possible,” Tonglet said. “Each race we competed in, my dad caught the [racing] bug a little more. I can’t thank Kenny Koretsky and Nitrofish enough for the spare motor.”
The spare motor and the extra funding from Koretsky essentially kept the Tonglet clan afloat in the nip and tuck world of Pro Stock Motorcycle racing.
“If we didn’t have the extra motor for Vegas, we would have been done,” Tonglet admitted. “The engine worked really well in Vegas and we kept it in for this race [in Pomona] and it ran awesome until I red-light.”
Tonglet’s championship marks the third time in NHRA history that a rookie professional racer has won a title. His predecessors were Frank Hawley  and Gary Scelzi .
“Each win we were able to grab 20 points on Andrew,” said Tonglet. “Yes, we made it to five straight final rounds, but we raced him in four of them. It’s really hard to gain ground on someone when that’s how it works. It’s better for the fans, stressful for us. But we stuck close to our goal of keeping to within 40 points of him headed into race day.”
It didn't take Tonglet long to realize he’d won the battle of his life. However, for the 135-pound Tonglet, clearly the biggest battle on Sunday in Pomona was in carrying the actual championship trophy. It’s a good thing his sponsor Kenny Koretsky was nearby. Tonglet was nearly buckling under the weight.
“I couldn’t find my scooter, so I caught a ride to the top end,” Koretsky said. “I get there and he hands me the trophy, said it’s too heavy for him. He can’t lift weights because he can’t get any heavier. The muscle makes him heavier and he’s gotta be like a horse jockey. I ended up holding the trophy all the way.”
Such an assignment didn’t bother Koretsky in the least.
He’d bet on the long-shot horse and won.
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