Written by Susan Wade, Bobby Bennett; Photos by Roger Richards, Joel Gelfand.


DADDY IS BACK - John Force had something to prove and something to fix before his Castrol GTX-sponsored Funny Car turned a tire under power in 2012.

force john winner traxxasThe 15-time NHRA Funny Car series champion never lost his talent mojo but the package of car and performance was way off in left field and Force and his crew suffered through a season of confusion last year.

This season Force made sure everything was crystal clear. He was prepared to prove those who doubted him they were wrong.

“Things around me drive me,” Force said, while going into detail about performing while ensuring his daughters remain on the right track of learning fuel racing. Force admits he lost competitive focus while admittedly overfilling his girls with racing knowledge.

And then he began to get motivated when leading publications questioned his driving ability including CompetitionPlus.com, who left him out of their predicted top ten.

“That ticked me off,” Force admitted. “I thought for a moment they were probably right. Thank goodness for that. It motivated me.”

Before the predictions and criticism, Force began taking steps to right his ship.

Starting with the brain trust, he brought back familiar names, reestablished familiar game plans and immediately got down to the business of winning again. The end result was a seasoned guard dog with enough bite to fend off the young pups coming into his yard.

“The brain trust is probably the one thing I did right,” Force said. “I talked to Robert and we agreed we needed to get the people back where we needed them to be so we could all focus. Dean Antonelli and Ron Douglas ran my car last year and we struggled all year.”

Force blamed much of last year’s shortcomings on losing focus which in turn left his tuners confused at times.

“Instead of going out and testing on the Monday after the race with my car, we’d go out and test Courtney’s car with the restrictor plate and because of the difference in combination, it kept them confused. I made the decision to never do that again.”

Enter Dickie Venables. A short time later, a member of the OTB [Original Brain Trust], John Medlen, became available two weeks before the season began. Together they were assigned to the forthcoming Brittany Force dragster but also available if needed to help with the present program. In Pomona, Venables worked with the Robert Hight team while Medlen worked with Force.

“The thing that really mattered to me was to get right,” Force admitted. “People left. I didn’t have a car for John. Dickie left because he wasn’t in line to run a car. They had to go. I’m filling holes. Now I’m getting back. When I lost Eric Medlen, I felt my wreck was because I deserved it. I figured because I had screwed this thing up so bad I deserved to have my arms and legs broken. Losing Eric left a hole. When John left, and he was the lead of the Eric Medlen Project, I wonder how I could have screwed this up so bad. He walked in my shop two weeks ago and said he wanted to come home. I dedicated this trophy to the brain trust.”  

fc final quickhitsIn reality, Force deserved a trophy for his display of youthful exuberance.

Force was clearly sowing his oats as he left the much younger Mike Neff on the starting line, (.067 to .175 reactions) and never looked back all the way to the stripe with a 4.080-second elapsed time at 315.64 miles per hour. Neff ran low elapsed time of the weekend in losing with a 4.036.

“I went after him,” admitted Force. “He told me he got distracted … maybe my motor came up or something.”

Neff added, “I got distracted and it sounded to me like someone was revving their engine up and at first I thought, ‘Is John over there revving his engine up?’ And then I thought, ‘Am I revving the engine up?’ So I started to pull back off the throttle to make sure that I wasn’t revving the engine up when the tree came down and I was late. I’m not blaming it on John. I mean, he definitely used his John Force tactics on me out there, but that’s just something you have to be able to deal with.

“I’m happy for John. He hasn’t won in a while and to have two Castrol cars in the finals at the Winternationals is just a win-win situation. We knew that going up there (to the final round) so the pressure was off. One of the Force cars were going to win and that was really cool.”

Force entered eliminations as the No. 6 seed and defeated Alexis DeJoria, Tim Wilkerson and Gary Densham before beating Neff for his 15th career Pomona victory.

In winning the event, Force leaves Pomona with the point lead and automatically gained a berth in the Traxxas Shootout during the U.S. Nationals over the Labor Day weekend.

MASSEY WINS ALL DSR FINAL - Both Spencer Massey and Antron Brown took a back seat at Pomona's Auto Club Raceway last November on the last day of the NHRA Finals to Del Worsham.
 massey spencer winner traxxas
Massey missed out on the Top Fuel championship by a mere 58 points, and Brown finished third, 85 points off the pace. So the two Don Schumacher Racing drivers were more than motivated to get back to drag racing action.
They met in Sunday's final round, and No. 2 qualifier Massey won with a 3.750-second blast at 325.77 mph on the 1,000-foot course in the Prestone / FRAM Dragster. Brown gave him a decent chase at 3.794, 320.43 in the Matco Tools Dragster.
Although Massey is known for his lightning-fast starting-line reflexes, Brown had the edge with a .036-second reaction time against Massey's .049.
"After our finish last year -- coming in second place, coming up just a little short -- it makes you that much more hungry, that much more motivated, to want to win a championship," Massey said. "We've always wanted to win; I've always wanted to win. This winter we all sat around and focused, acted like it was not an off-season.
"We put that new race car together. We went out and tested. The car ran very well. We came here and it shows. It shows that these guys know what it takes to get a car down the racetrack," he said.
And for half the day, crew chiefs Todd Okuhara and Phil Shuler did it the old-fashioned way.
"After second round, we didn't have any data on the computer. And Phil and Todd tuned that thing like it was an old Top Fuel car from 1968 -- looked at the plugs, looked at the  bearings and tuned it up and it went a (4.)74 at 328 miles an hour. Todd and Phil have a handle on that ace car. They're very smart and knowledgeable, and it shows," Massey said.
"This is awesome to have a great start like this," he said. "This is my life dream and we're living it."
Massey said Sunday's performance was proof that the Don Schumacher Racing team has no orders, that its drivers race heads-up.
"We get up and race. We don't lay down. We race," he said. "We tune it up to win. We set it up to run the best it can run. Tony's been running great. Antron's been running great. We just had a little bit better a combination."
tf final quickhitsMassey, of Fort Worth, Texas, beat Steve Faria and Clay Millican before bombarding Tony Schumacher in their semifinal with the second-quickest and the fastest run in Top Fuel history. Massey set the track record with that Round 3 elapsed time of 3.745 seconds, and he owns the national speed record at 328.62 mph.
"We sat up there a little bit longer in the staging beams, waiting for Tony to turn on the pre-stage light. We sat there, burning about two gallons [of fuel] more. That's about 18 pounds on the front end that we lost. It carried the front end way out there. That's because we sat there for 20 seconds longer than we normally have. I knew I was going to be light on the front end, and I knew it was going to run a little bit better," Massey said.
"When I crossed the finish line and saw the 3.74, I couldn't believe it," he said. "When he got out of the car he asked if he really ran that number and said he was shocked to learn the scoreboard hadn't malfunctioned. "Not only that, it ran 328 miles an hour. That was unreal."
Massey will take that success next weekend to Phoenix, where, stunningly, he failed to qualify last October in the homestretch of the Countdown. That made the difference in his championship bid. He'll return as the points leader who wants to exorcise his Firebird International Raceway demons and keep his happy times rolling.     
"Coming off this win, we have the momentum. It'd be awesome to go back to back," Massey said after securing his seventh NHRA victory in 15 final rounds.
"We have a target on our backs. I'd love to have the bulls-eye on my back all year long," he said.
Brown, of Pittsboro, Ind., was the No. 4 qualifier. He defeated Cory McClenathan and the Morgan Lucas Racing duo of Brandon Bernstein then Lucas to reach the final round.
He was making his sixth final-round appearance in the past 11 NHRA races. In that span, he was 30-7 in eliminations, best in his class. It also was the third time he reached the final round in the past six events here.
“It all starts with team unity.  We have a lot of faith on this team and when we come to the track we’re always confident and we push hard and dig deep.  Dating back to last season, the whole Matco Tools Toyota team has been rising to the occasion and our car is running really good," Brown said.
"Pomona is where it starts and where it ends, and we always put our best foot forward here," he said. "We wanted that win today, but our teammates were really good in both the semifinals and finals. Not to take anything away from them, but it’s a long season and it’s not how you start. It is how you finish."
During preseason testing a continent away in South Florida last month, Massey complimented the Al-Anabi operation and team manager Alan Johnson, who won the past two Top Fuel series titles), saying, "He knows how to get a race car down the racetrack.  . . . Hey, let's change it up. Let's get the Prestone/FRAM car to win."
The Winternationals is just the first race of 23 this season, but Sunday evening Massey took that first step.

ANDERSON BACK IN TOP - It’s uncertain whether NHRA Pro Stock star Greg Anderson will recapture his 2010 world championship form.

anderson greg pomona win2At least for one event – the 2012 season-opening Winternationals – no one was better than Anderson.

Anderson beat Jeg Coughlin Sunday to claim the crown at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona.

Anderson clocked a 6.549-second elapsed time at 210.87 mph. Coughlin had 6.586-second lap in defeat.

“The outcome was great,” said Anderson, who pilots the Summit Racing entry. “If you want to be greedy I didn’t qualify where I needed to qualify. I like to qualify on the opposite side of the ladder as Jason (Line) and Ronnie (Humphrey). I ended up qualifying fifth, so I ended up having to race (Jason) in the semifinals. That is the only bummer of the weekend. It seemed like we had the two strongest cars (Sunday) and they had to tangle in the semifinals. You know what we are not going to cry over spilled milk. It meant an automatic berth in the finals for one of the Summit cars and we closed the door. We stopped that big yellow Mopar that came flying right back into the scene. He (Coughlin) came out swinging and he did a great job (Sunday).”

This was Anderson’s 71st career NHRA national event win and his 10th at Pomona. Bob Glidden leads Pomona’s Pro Stock career win list at 12, followed by Anderson. This was Anderson’s first victory since last year’s U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis.

On Sunday, Anderson defeated Larry Morgan, Allen Johnson, his teammate Line and Coughlin in his victory parade.

“It is going to be a fun year,” Anderson said. “Obviously, we are very proud of the product we brought out here (to Pomona), and the work that has gone into it over the winter the last three months. It looks like we have had at least as good, if not better, an offseason of development as everybody out there. We feel great, but it is going to be a battle royale, and to get that first one just feels wonderful. I’m the only one that can sit here and say you know what at least I know I’m going to win a race this year. It feels pretty darn good.”

Anderson knew he had his hands full in the finals against Coughlin who was returning to the Pro Stock class after sitting out last season.

“You are always aware of that (who is in the other lane),” Anderson said. “You try to tune it out, but I have never been that great at it. I realize who is in the other lane, and I know I need to find a way not to, but I probably have not been able to my whole career. So, you just go up there and do the best that you can and hopefully you do not juke yourself out. You just stay with the plan and I think I did a good job of that (Sunday). I didn’t get bent out of shape no matter who was in the other lane and I was consistent on the light. I wasn’t the quickest guy out there, but I was good for me and I’m proud and I’m happy. If I have a car that runs like it did (Sunday) and I can drive like that, I have a great shot of winning races.”

ps finals quick hitsAnderson and Line have a busy week ahead before competing in the Arizona Nationals Friday through Sunday at Firebird International Raceway.

“We are packing up and headed out (Sunday night) and we are going to Las Vegas to test for two days,” Anderson said. “We are not quite happy with the way we are going down the race track with our race cars. They are good, but we think we can be better. We didn’t get out over the winter at all. We didn’t go to Florida at all like we would normally do in the offseason. We made the decision to spend all of our time working in the shop, working on engines just preparing everything in the shop. I have always said that these races are won or lost in the shop. You have got to prepare a great product and you just get to the race track and it is just a case of executing. We did a good job of executing (Sunday), but I think we need a little more on-track testing. We are going to bounce back and go over to Vegas and run for two days and then run down to Phoenix. Phoenix has been a bit of a thorn in our side the last few years. We haven’t run that great there and we are still trying to crack the case there. It is a tough nut for us and I do not quite understand why. We are going to keep digging and try to figure that place out.”

beckman densham

beckman densham2 rThe before and after photos.IMG-20120212-00042Jack Beckman crossed the centerline for the first time in his career on Sunday during the quarter-final round of eliminations for Funny Cars at the O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Winternationals in Pomona, Ca. If it’s all the same to him he’d just as soon make this a once and only time.

Beckman leading in his race against Gary Densham had his Valvoline NextGEN Dodge Charger inexplicably make a turn right where he collected the cone with his front right corner and then had Densham tag the right rear. Both drivers straightened after the incident and came to a stop safely in the shutdown area.

Densham, a four-decade veteran of drag racing, immediately dismissed Beckman of any wrong-doing.

“It was close, I will say that,” Densham admitted. “This was not Jack’s fault, these things happen. These cars are fast and powerful.”

Unfortunately for Densham, his chassis is unique in that none of the other teams have a body which will fit on his chassis.

A visibly shaken Beckman was remorseful for the incident.

“I was thumping along, looking for the finish line, the clutch was locking up and it appeared home free, then it was in the other lane,” said Beckman as he watched the incident on an ESPN monitor. “I feel real bad. Your goal is to drive well and be safe in doing it. It was certainly NOT intentional. I don’t know what happened – maybe oil on the tires.

“That’s the first time I’ve ever done something like that. Maybe I’ll go and do some fiberglass work for Gary Densham.”

Beckman made a visit to Densham’s pits as well as members of the Clay Millican Parts Plus, who the help of racing tape, repaired the body for the second round.




tf final quickhits- Top qualifier Morgan Lucas beat Hot Rod Fuller with a 3.805-second pass in the GEICO / Lucas Oil Dragster to set up a rematch of the 2011 Winternationals final round. In the quarterfinals, he'll meet former teammate and longtime friend Shawn Langdon, who used a holeshot in his Al-Anabi Racing debut to advance past Steve Torrence.

- Tony Schumacher carried a Purple Heart on board his U.S. Army Dragster for his first-round victory in what he called "a monster match-up" against Doug Kalitta. Schumacher turned in one of only two 3.7-second elapsed times, a 3.790, to earn a second-round date with Bob Vandergriff.

- Spencer Massey set low E.T. of the weekend so far, taking his FRAM/Prestone Dragster on a 3.782-second ride down the Auto Club Raceway 1,000-foot course. He earned the honor by edging Lucas' 3.783 by one-thousandth of a second. Massey said winning has been "the only thing I thought about all winter. I know it's only the  Winternationals, but overall we want to win the championship."

- Antron Brown posted the top speed of the round and weekend so far, at 325.92 mph.

- Brandon Bernstein notched his first round-win for Morgan Lucas Racing, defeating Dave Grubnic.

- Although Morgan Lucas said he felt a gasket problem pushing him to the right at about 800 feet, he edged out former teammate Shawn Langdon in a close race. He won, 3.792, 323.12 to Langdon's 3.791, 319.45. "We got away with one there," Lucas said. "It's got a whole lot left in it," he said, adding that his goal is for the GEICO / Lucas Oil Dragster to "stay complete."
- Antron Brown cranked out a 3.771-second E.T. for top speed of the weekend -- and the a tie for 10th quickest in the Top Fuel class at 1,000 feet -- in a surprisingly easy victory over Brandon Bernstein. The MAV TV Dragster driver struck the tires early in the run. The Matco Tool Dragster driver said he has been hitting the gym back home in suburban Indianapolis because "all these guys are coming for us. The bar gets raised every time."  
- Tony Schumacher and Antron Brown exchanged congratulatory hugs at the top end of the track after Schumacher advanced against Bob Vandergriff  (3.790 to 3.815). If they make it out of the semifinals they could meet in the finals, but Schumacher denied they were discussing anything like that. "Neither one of us is stupid enough o jinx anything," the U.S. Army Dragster driver said. "We're just lovin' life too much today." That sounds like he swiped that quote from Spencer Massey, and Massey is Schumacher's next opponent. And Schumacher had to be hoping he will fare better than he did last year against Massey. He was 1-4 against Massey in eliminations last year.
-  Spencer Massey completed a string of winners with 3.7-second E,T.s in the second round. He said afterward that what helped him prepare to run this well at the start of the season was his choice to "spend most of my time with my race car and my team. I like to live and breathe this race car."  His 326.79-mph speed was best of the round.

- Spencer Massey stole the show against Tony Schumacher, cranking out the second-quickest E.T. in Top Fuel history at 3.745 seconds (also a track record) and rewriting the national speed record at 328.62 mph. Ironically, Massey swiped the mark from Schumacher, who had set the standard at 327.90 mph last September at Concord, N.C.'s zMAX Dragway. In another touch of irony, Massey was slightly slower than the 3.735-second blast that Del Worsham used to set the current national E.T. record -- and Worsham did that in the final round last fall at Reading, Pa., in a losing cause against Massey.
- Antron Brown made it an all-Don Schumacher Racing final round, knocking out No. 1 qualifier Morgan Lucas.

- The cause of top-qualifier Morgan Lucas's semifinal loss was a broken rear end in his GEICO / Lucas Oil Dragster. That was the second run he had made with that rear end.


- Spencer Massey topped Antron Brown in an all-Don Schumacher Racing final by driving his Phil Shuler/Todd Okuhara-tuned dragster to a 3.750-second pass to overtake an Antron Borwn holeshot and 3.794, 320.43.



fc final quickhits- Gary Densham began Funny Car eliminations with an upset victory over Jeff Arend, completing the early exit of all three Kalitta Motorsports entries.

- No. 10 Tim Wilkerson equaled Robert Hight's top-qualifying elapsed time of 4.068 seconds in eliminating tire-smoking No. 3 qualifier Johnny Gray. Wilkerson had some fire under the body of his Levi, Ray & Shoup Ford Mustang at the end of his run.

- No. 16 and final qualifier Todd Lesenko, making his first competitive pass under the Jim Dunn Racing banner, scored a major upset, knocking off No. 1 Robert Hight.

- Courtney Force said she "was numb the whole time" during her winning blast against Bob Tasca but said she's "having the time of my life. I was nervous going up there. I didn’t picture going this far on Sunday my first weekend. I had my fingers crossed for qualifying." She thanked crew chief Ron Douglas and assistant Scott Wiebel and all her sponsors, including primary partner Traxxas, saying "They're all making it happen for me."

- John Force joined his daughter in advancing to the quarterfinals, as he outlegged class rookie Alexis De Joria in a thrilling side-by-side race. Track announcer Alan Rinehart noticed afterward that Force was  "hugging all the female Funny Car drivers." Force recorded a 4.124-second E.T. at 313.44 mph to DeJoria's 4.141, 310.27. He said, "I don't know what happened to Robert," but he clearly was elated with No. 12-qualified daughter Courtney's upset victory over No. 5 Tasca. "I wanted Courtney to know that feeling [of success]. She got that feeling today."

- Reigning champion Matt Hagan knew he couldn't be at the crest of the wave all the time, but Don Schumacher Racing mate Ron Capps showed him at the Christmas Tree in the first round of the season that disappoint can come early. Capps was the higher-qualified driver, but only by one spot, as he was eighth and Hagan ninth.

- Tim Wilkerson wound up with low E.T. of the round, at 4.068 seconds. Mike Neff, who will face Courtney Force in the next round, was close behind at 4.077. Neff had top speed of the class in the opening round at 316.97 mph.

- Jack Beckman threw a scare into opponent Gary Densham and the Auto Club Raceway crowd, crossing the center line with his Valvoline NextGEN Dodge Charger, crushing a cone with the right front quadrant, and left Densham no choice but to rear-end him at the top end of the course.
Neither driver was injured, but Densham's low budget means no back-up bodies to switch to and a limited crew to help him make repairs in the short turnaround time for a semifinal meeting with old pal and former boss John Force. .
"It got pretty close. I hope we can fix it," Densham said, adding that he hoped his crew could "make it as pretty as it was." He said he has no spare body and that even if a competitor had one to offer, it wouldn't fit his uniquely designed chassis.
Densham didn't blame Beckman, though. "This was not Jack's fault. These things happen. These cars are fast and powerful," he said.
Beckman said he was baffled about why his car would lurch so hard to the right.
"I don't know what happened, maybe oil on the tires," he said. "That's the first time I've ever done something like that."
He said right away, "I feel real bad. Your goal is to drive well and be safe in doing it. It was certainly NOT intentional. Maybe I'll go and do some fiberglass work for Gary Densham."
Beckman explained the incident from his viewpoint: "I was thumping along, looking for the finish line. The clutch was locking up, and it appeared we were home free -- then it was in the other lane," he said. "If these things had a turn signal, I would've put it on. It has never made a move like that before."
Clay Millican's Top Fuel team pitched in to help rebuild Densham's torn-up car. Millican lost in the second round to Spencer Massey.

- Tim Wilkerson apologized profusely to his crew after kicking out the rods in the engine of the Levi, Ray & Shoup Mustang in the opening round. His hopes to make everything up to them will have to wait until the teams gets to Phoenix's Firebird International Raceway next weekend. He lost to John Force in the quarterfinals Sunday.
- As John Force awaited Gary Densham in the semifinals, he said he was proud of daughter Courtney and her 4.14-second pass in a losing effort to their teammate Mike Neff. Although he appears all weekend to have been slightly less frenzied about Courtney Force's pro debut than he was when daughter Ashley Force Hood competed in her first race, he said, "Nah -- I'm the same." He quickly changed the focus to himself, saying, "I have to get my mind back on this old man or they'll fire me."
- Mike Neff ended Courtney Force's fairy-tale weekend, even though she ran her best pass of the Winternationals (4.143, 313.88) against him. "She has done a fantastic job," Neff said. "I remember my first race -- it was very stressful. I want to congratulate her." As for himself, he said, "We'll try to keep on keeping on." Neff will go against Ron Capps in the semifinals.
- Capps used what he called crew chief Tim Richards' "out-of-the-box, completely different tune-up" he introduced this morning to halt upset-minded Todd Lesenko.  


- Gary Densham, his team, and their friends throughout the pits pulled off a monumental feat in fixing Densham's Funny Car and getting it back to the starting line against John Force. Evidently he was so eager to show his gratitude that he jumped off the line .02 of a second too early. Densham called his disqualifying move "just stupid" and dejectedly said, "My guys worked hard. My guys are the best there are, and that's all I can say."
- Force, energized to be reaching a final for the first time since the 2011 Denver race, said, "I'm pumped to be in the final. Do you know how long it's been?" The answer: Since last July.
- Wickedly consistent Mike Neff, in the Castrol GTX Ford Mustang, earned lane choice over boss and teammate John Force. His winning 4.074-second E.T. trumped Force's  4.141. Neff said he was "trying to make it run faster" and said, "I felt like I was on a slalom course. I felt fortunate to get by Ron [Capps, in the second round].

"I'm fortunate to run my boss in the final."


- John Force, racing in his first final since last year's NHRA Mile High Nationals, left first in the battle with teammate Mike Neff, scoring a .108 starting line advantage. The 15-time series champion remained out front the entire course en route to a 4.08, 315.64 win. Neff was no slouch in the performance deparment running a 4.036-second run at 316.82 in losing.


ps finals quick hits- Four-time Pro Stock champion Jeg Coughlin staged the only upset of the first round, beating Ronnie Humphrey on a holeshot. No. 14-qualified Coughlin, making his return to the class after a year's layoff to form his own team, ran a 6.581-second E.T. at 210.47 mph against Humphrey's quicker and faster 6.569, 211.99.
- Greg Anderson opened Pro Stock action with 6.539-second pass that was best of the round. It was just four-thousandth of a second slower than the 6.535 his teammate, reigning champion Jason Line, used to lead the field.
- Jason Line recorded top speed of the round, which happened to tie his top speed of qualifying: 212.46 mph.
- Erica Enders red-lit by seven-thousandths of a second against Allen Johnson, who almost had low E.T. of the round at 6.559 second.
- Others advancing to the quarterfinals were Shane Gray, Mike Edwards, Rodger Brogdon, and Vincent Nobile.

- The four semifinalists represent 11 Pro Stock championships. Greg Anderson and Jeg Coughlin each has four, Jason Line has two, and Mike Edwards has one.  
- Mike Edwards parlayed an .002-second reaction time to a victory over Rodger Brogdon. The Oklahoman beat the Texan, 6.575 to 6.658. Edwards, who was afraid he might miss this race because off-season back treatments kept him form driving his hauler, said he's happy to have been able to show up. "We're having fun here and trying to make the most of it," the Penhal / K&N / Intertstate Batteries Pontiac driver said.
- Jason Line equaled his No. 1 qualifier E.T. (6.534 seconds) and had the fastest speed of the round (212.13).


- Mike Edwards ruined his chances for a trip to the final round, fouling out with a red light. He had a 6.590-second, 209.36-mph effort, and Coughlin ran a slower 6.615, 209.30. But Coughlin advanced.
- Greg Anderson saved his best pass of the day for KB / Summit Racing teammate Jason Line: a  6.545-second, 211.03-mph effort. Line made it a fantastic drag race with a 6.547-second run at a faster 211.83 mph.


Jeg Coughlin Jr. was impressive in his first final round since stepping out of Pro Stock at the end of the 2010 season but his performance wasn't enough to fend off the 2010 series champion Greg Anderson. Coughlin was quicker on the line, .017 to .027, but at the finish line Anderson was the superior one. Anderson won with a 6.549, 210.87 beating Coughlin's 6.586, 209.62.

a d v e r t i s e m e n t

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STILL THE ONE - The defending O’Reilly Auto Parts Winternationals champion Morgan Lucas will bring his magic into eliminations day thanks to a personal best run during the third session which repelled the challenge of Spencer Massey. Saturday’s fourth and final session was canceled due to rain.

lucas morgan"Our confidence is higher now than even when we went to the finals last year," said Lucas. "We didn't even get into the show last year until Saturday, and we were hoping the rain would quit that morning. We got rain today, and lost the final qualifying session, but we're on top so we're extremely happy."

Lucas secured the first pole position of the day thanks to 3.783 second pass at 325.06 mph pass. The No. 1 qualifier marked the fifth of his career.

"I can’t take any credit for that run," Lucas said. "I just hit the gas and try to keep it as straight as I can. They've given me the best possible racecar they could give me. It's well put together and consistent – it's everything a driver could ask for."

Lucas was the only Top Fuel car to run in the 3.70s this weekend.

"It felt really good going down the track, so I did look at the scoreboard," Lucas said. "I was so elated, I couldn’t get out of the car fast enough. I mean 325 mph would have been a good speed to run to the quarter-mile.

"We anticipated it would run a 3.79, because we didn't know what the track was going to be like. It's such an exciting day for the whole team."

THE OMINOUS CLOUDS OPEN UP – With the first pair of Pro Stockers awaiting their final qualifying session, the skies opened and rain fell ended qualifying and establishing the fields.

In Top Fuel, Troy Buff was the odd man out of the 17 entries in attendance.

Funny Car was a tough pill to swallow for Cruz Pedregon, who along with Jim Head, Jack Wyatt and James Day missed the cut without a final qualifying attempt.

The rain proved to be a blessing for Grace Howell who qualified for her first NHRA Full Throttle Pro Stock event while Warren Johnson and Steve Kent failed to crack the 7.486 bump spot.

NO DRAGSTER FOR HIGHT, WELL MAYBE-SORTA – Robert Hight loves racing his Funny Car which is why he couldn’t fathom the idea of running a dragster.

“I like Funny Cars, but I wouldn’t rule out a dragster … especially if I could go out and do what Del Worsham did last year in winning a championship in his first year,” Hight admitted. “I do have Jimmy Prock and he does have dragster experience. In the foreseeable future I see a Funny Car.”

Don’t think for a moment Hight isn’t aware of tuner Jimmy Prock’s past exploits with a fuel dragster as crew chief for Cory McClenathan and Joe Amato.

“I bet it was an overwhelming experience for those guys,” Hight said. “He didn’t get that name ‘Prock Rocket’ for nothing. He and Cory McClenathan came so close to winning a championship. He was a lot like Alan Johnson, you knew they were going to be at the top of the list.”

So what does Prock think about the prospect of tuning the long, skinny cars?

“I guess I could learn … haven’t done it in a while,” Prock said. “Who knows? It might be easier.”

ESPN3.COM NOT IN THE CARDS FOR 2012 - Many drag racing fans fell in love with ESPN3.com’s uninterrupted coverage of select events last season. This year they might want to seek a new love interest at least for the time being.

A source close to the situation has confirmed ESPN3.com’s broadcasting of NHRA Full Throttle events will not be offered this season. Reportedly the NHRA was notified via email of this news from a network representative.

The coverage will still appear on WatchESPN.com, but not in the same manner it has appeared on ESPN3.com over the last two seasons. WatchESPN.com is a simulcast of the television show.

The ESPN3.com feed was an ESPN initiative and first introduced two years ago prior to the broadcast at select events. Last season the entire Countdown was broadcast on the online venue.

ESPN incurred the cost of the streaming online and given the option to continue the broadcasts, a source within the NHRA confirmed the sanctioning body elected to pass on funding this year’s show at this time.

austin mikeMike Austin, from Medford, Ore., was checked and released by NHRA emergency services officials after his dragster went out of control and crashed during the first round of Top Alcohol Dragster eliminations at the O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Winternationals in Pomona, Ca. After being checked out by NHRA Safety Safari members, Austin emerged and walked from the car [below] under his own power. He was then examined and released by on-site medical officials. Ace photographer Mark Rebilas captured this incredible image.austin mike2

HEAT IN THE RAIN - Then the rains came.

hight robertRobert Hight, who had been unable to make it from start to finish under power for two days in Funny Car qualifying at the O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Winternationals, scored in a big way during Saturday’s lone qualifying session.

NHRA officials, after getting in one session under ominous clouds, pulled the plug on Saturday qualifying when rain began to fall steady prior to the fourth and final session of the event.

In the third qualifying session Hight thundered to the thousand-foot mark with a 4.06 second pass to score his 40th pole position since becoming a nitro racer in 2005.

For the first two days of the event, Hight and his crew were admittedly in a funk.

“Yesterday was not a good feeling.” Hight said of missing the cut on Friday. “We left West Palm Beach with the quickest and fastest run in testing. Some might think that is not a big deal but all those other guys were trying to run that hard and that quick too. To have that happen and your hopes are so high you are ready to get the season started.

“Last year we ended up not winning the championship but we won the most races. You are ready to get out here and redeem yourself. For the first two runs to go the way they did, yeah it was a letdown. You still have to do your job and my team pulled together. Looking back it was a little gutsy but we got it done.”

Hight understands the unpredictability of drag racing, especially in the nitro ranks.

“It is amazing how things can change so fast. Don Garlits said it best; 'you are only as good as your last run,'” explained Hight. “We came into today not qualified and we ended up going to the No. 1 spot. We lost a run the first session here, it broke the blower drive shaft. Everyone has been telling me at least it didn’t happen on Sunday. I look at it that why couldn’t it have happened on the last run of testing when it really didn’t matter,” said Hight. “We put that behind us. It was weak the next run. We had big, big decisions today. The temperature dropped and the track got even better. We have to really get after this thing so it doesn’t shake. When you do that you risk smoking the tires.

 “It was funny this morning I told John (Force) I would be happy with a 4.05. He looked at me like I had two heads. No one had even come close to that but that was the only way we were going to make it down the track. I would have liked to have gotten another run out there tonight. Jimmy looked at the run and he thinks we could have run better.”

The only person happier than Hight was Michelle Pettipas from Hesperia, Calif. She won a washer and dryer compliments of the "Win with Force" BrandSource contest because of Hight’s performance.

The second happiest was a close tie between Hight and his father-in-law/boss John Force, who is by Hight’s accounts, a terrible off-season person.

“What is great is all four of our Mustangs are qualified. It is so good to be back here with the fans. You start going nuts over the winter. Being in the shop too long is not a good thing, especially for John. He is not much fun in the winter time. It is a lot better being out here with the fans. It is good to get another No. 1 and see if we can win this race for Auto Club and Ford and all our sponsors.

“It is good for the sponsors to be No. 1. Trust me this is not a race I would want to not qualify at. We are in front of the Auto Club at their home track. Jimmy calls it laying an egg. We did not want to lay an egg here.”


Jason Line, the defending NHRA Pro Stock series champion, will head into eliminations at the O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Winternationals as the top qualifying line jason2seed.

Line ran a 6.535-second elapsed time at 212.53 to overtake Mike Edwards atop the qualifying list during the third session. The fourth and final session was canceled due to rain.

“We made a better run today and we still have more,” said Line. “It’s always tough at the first race of the year and especially when you haven’t tested. We’ve changed the way we’ve done things in the past years. We’re very green but still managed to get the job done. We’re kind of picking up where we left off at last year.”

Pro Stock is largely a class where strategy is the key to success, Line confirmed that he will likely have his new Chevrolet Camaro at the NHRA Summit Southern Nationals in May. Until then, he’s planning to wring every ounce of performance out of the “tired” Pontiac GXP that he and his KB Racing team can.

“We’re excited to park the Pontiac, and it’s been a good car, but it is time to move on,” explained Line. “The Camaro will require an adaptation period. The cars will be different aero wise and will take some runs to adjust to. We’re saving our funds to test when we get those cars.”

Does the muscle car aspect of the Camaro excite him?

“When we have a Challenger, a Camaro and a Mustang racing in Pro Stock like it used to be and like it should be, I think it can be more exciting not just for us, but for every Pro Stock fan,” said Line.

Line races first time Pro Stock qualifier Grace Howell in the first round of eliminations.

day james oilDAY IS DONE - James Day was shut off after his burnout for a slight oil leak. After a 35-minute clean-up, racing resumed. (Roger Richards)day james oil2

Jason Line, the defending NHRA Pro Stock series champion, will head into eliminations at the O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Winternationals as the top qualifying line jason2seed.

Line ran a 6.535-second elapsed time at 212.53 to overtake Mike Edwards atop the qualifying list during the third session. The fourth and final session was canceled due to rain.

“We made a better run today and we still have more,” said Line. “It’s always tough at the first race of the year and especially when you haven’t tested. We’ve changed the way we’ve done things in the past years. We’re very green but still managed to get the job done. We’re kind of picking up where we left off at last year.”

Pro Stock is largely a class where strategy is the key to success, Line confirmed that he will likely have his new Chevrolet Camaro at the NHRA Summit Southern Nationals in May. Until then, he’s planning to wring every ounce of performance out of the “tired” Pontiac GXP that he and his KB Racing team can.

“We’re excited to park the Pontiac, and it’s been a good car, but it is time to move on,” explained Line. “The Camaro will require an adaptation period. The cars will be different aero wise and will take some runs to adjust to. We’re saving our funds to test when we get those cars.”

Does the muscle car aspect of the Camaro excite him?

“When we have a Challenger, a Camaro and a Mustang racing in Pro Stock like it used to be and like it should be, I think it can be more exciting not just for us, but for every Pro Stock fan,” said Line.

Line races first time Pro Stock qualifier Grace Howell in the first round of eliminations.

John Medlen and Dickie Venables opened the season wearing the familiar uniforms of John Force Racing. Venables left in medlen venablesDavid Hakim Photo2004 to join Tony Pedregon as crew chief on a new team and in 2010, Medlen left in pursuit of a crew chief job and ended up at Don Schumacher Racing.

This weekend is a family reunion of sorts for the seasoned tuners.

Medlen, most recently employed with Roger Burgess’ R2B2 Racing, was a casualty of the team’s operation closing last month. His role has been defined as research and development director for the forthcoming Top Fuel team and he’ll contribute wherever needed.

“I’m just excited to be involved with all of the cars, if it has four wheels and burns nitro, I am all for it,” said Medlen, who is assigned to John Force’s Funny Car this weekend.

Medlen said he and Force have remained in touch over the years but when Burgess closed the nitro operation concluded, “I figured I ought to look for a job. I went by the shop and talked to Guido [Dean Antonelli], Robert [Hight] and Ford and we put together a good program and I’m thrilled to death.”

Venables walked away from JFR to pursue a dream of tuning a Funny Car and together, he and departing driver Pedregon won a Funny Car crown.

“It sure feels like coming home,” said Venables, who will serve as crew chief for the forthcoming Brittany Force Top Fuel dragster. This weekend he’s assigned to the Robert Hight team.

“I’m glad John gave me the opportunity to come back. It’s been up and down for me the last few seasons. It feels good to come back and know I have a position here. I hope this is it for me. I’d be happy to stay here until I retire.”

Team owner John Force had an extra pep in his step with the reintroduction of Venables and Medlen to the braintrust.

“I’m happy to have them back, never wanted them to leave,” said Force. To me this is just like family. The moons are lined up and I feel really good about this. When I lose someone it’s as if you have a hole in you that cannot be filled.”

Venables and Medlen’s first assignment during the weekend was to fill the holes.

Jeff Arend was more than pleased with his team’s eighth place finish in last season’s Countdown to the Championship. And as arend jeff2great as the accomplishment was, it created a large dilemma for 2012. Each year from this point will require a career best effort from the team going forward.

“It was a big honor for us -- that is for sure,” Arend said. “The Funny Car had never been in the top ten and neither had I.”

Arend said the addition of the Alexis DeJoria team to the Team Kalitta roster will help his team gain data quicker and faster than ever.

“When you get into a situation such as this where there’s a lot of potential, you can sometimes get greedy. We’re shooting for a top five this season. But it’s going to be tough, there’s a lot of good Funny Cars out there.”

Just four days into the 2012 season, Arend is seeing the benefits of having a Funny Car teammate to draw data from.

“We tested at Palm Beach International Raceway in December and Del tried some things and we tried some things and came back a month later and tested some more,” Arend said. “We ran well in the heat of the day. We still don’t have that 4.0 performance in the heat but now we are learning quicker and quicker and this is one of the benefits.”

Arend confirmed both he and DeJoria plan to test again right after Gainesville. Heavily involved in the test will be defending NHRA Top Fuel series champion turned crew chief Del Worsham, DeJoria’s tuner.
Arend has history with Worsham having driven for him in 2007 as part of the two car Funny Car operation.

“I was real excited when I heard he was going to be part of Team Kalitta,” Arend said. “Combine that with working with Connie Kalitta and they have the best of the best. I remember what Del used to do with the budget he had, and while he didn’t have the resources, Kalitta Motorsports has the stuff for us to test and do what needs to be done to win. Dale is a very innovative guy and we’re not going to be hurting for anything.”

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kelley larry

kelley scottScott Kelley, who runs a factory-backed Scion, in Super Stock was instrumental in bringing the SS/VX classification into Super Stock. His father, who raced VW's in the 1960s, races in the class.SOMEONE CALL THE EXTERMINATOR - Auto Club Raceway at Pomona was infested with bugs this weekend.

Blame it on Scott Kelley, a Super Stock racer from Anaheim, Ca.

Kelley was the one who lobbied for them to be in Pomona.

These bugs are not of the insect kind, more like the 'Herbie The Love Bug' type.

Kelley was instrumental in the formation of a new classification within Super Stock labeled as Super Stock/VX, a new initiative aimed at bringing in air-cooled Volkswagen Bugs of the 50s and 60s.

“I got the ball rolling with the NHRA to get these kinds of cars in,” Kelley said. “The air-cooled cars have a long history with the NHRA. They kind of wrote this combination out in the early 1980s and they just haven’t had a place to run over here on the NHRA. We put something together with the NHRA and it took off.”

A major inspiration for Kelley was his dad Larry Kelley, who first introduced him to drag racing but was forced out after an accident and a wife who was more concerned about his well-being. Because of the NHRA’s new SS/VX classification, Larry, who raced VW’s early in his career was able to rekindle the racing passion with his son.

prothero markMark Prothero raced like a giant killer in qualifying by landing in the No. 2 spot overall and the quickest of the SS/VX cars this weekend.“When I was younger, I had bought a VW to hop up for the street,” Kelley explained. “He was willing to help under one stipulation – I had to race it on the strip. That was a no-brainer and eventually he got one to tinker with and this provided the perfect opportunity for us to race together.”

The SS/VX class, at 12 pounds per cubic inch of displacement, is a throwback to the old days of Modified eliminator where this style of car would have run in L/Gas alongside of screaming small block Corvette Stingrays and big block Mustangs. Now these VW’s, the original import drag racers, or by today’s standards, sport compacts, line up alongside of today’s musclecars. The might be outmatched in a heads-up competition but on the index-system, they are mighty as the revered Hemi-powered SS/AH entries.

Mark Prothero provides the proof with his 135-cid, 1957 VW. He ran a -1.074 under the index to lead early qualifying with a 10.526 elapsed time before dropping to second in the final session.

“We’re the underdogs,” proclaimed Prothero. “We’re the little guys alongside of these Camaros and Hemi cars. I grew up driving these cars in high school and it’s something I loved. I am totally excited about this opportunity.”

Ron Fleming is one of those former Modified racers who found his competitive fix racing on the various VW series before the NHRA introduced SS/VX. His current VW has run as quick as 9.9 seconds outside of NHRA competition.”

fleming ronThe last time Ron Fleming raced Pomona was 39 years ago. SS/VX brought him back out.“I’m a 39 year rookie … the last time I raced here was 1973,” said Fleming. “I was racing I/Gas with a Volkswagen. This is my 45th year of racing VWs. This is the SS/AH equivalent for VWs. This is all about having the opportunity to race Pomona again. We haven’t done so well but we’re having a good time doing it.”

Greg Tims is a second-generation VW racer and ended qualifying as the 36th quickest in qualifying. His dad raced in the old Modified eliminator.

“When they announced this class, I jumped right into it,” said Tims. “Sometimes I look over and see the Camaros and we can barely hear our own engines. It’s just a lot of phone to go head-to-head with the big boys.”

DOWN, SET, NITRO - Danny White, a past Super Bowl quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys, said he knew Dan Pastorini, the only NFL player to drive a Top Fuel dragster in NHRA white dannycompetition. He learned on Friday during a press conference at the O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Winternationals that Pastorini had driven a nitro-burning dragster.

“More power to him,” White said, smiling. “Not me …”

White is taken aback by the entire drag racing experience as a guest of Top Fuel driver Steve Torrence, who is working together with White  in the development stages of a Health and Wellness supplement company.

“I wouldn’t even come close to getting in that little compartment he drives in,” White continued. “The mental part of me would love to do it. But I’d likely wake up the next morning feeling like I used to on Monday after a football game. I’m sure you get rattled around in those three seconds.”

Watching the adrenalin of nitro racing on the strip and the thrashing in the pits admittedly provided flashbacks to his days of pigskin competition.

“I’m standing there watching six guys working on this car, and I look at all the preparation to getting Steve and this car on the same page … weeks and months of work … and it’s all of these people for three seconds,” explained White. “It’s like playing a football game in one play. You compress all of that energy and all of that pressure into that three seconds. I’m already overloaded with information.”

Drag racing adrenalin and NFL adrenalin are two different monsters, just ask White.

“I sit there and watch him sitting there like he’s going for a walk,” said White describing Torrence’s demeanor before a run. “I can’t believe it. Before a football game, I was a raving lunatic. I didn’t want anyone around me, nobody near me. Maybe he’s just done it so much that he’s used to it. What he does in three seconds is just incredible.”

What kind of driver would White be?

“The aggressive kind,” he said. “I was always the kind of player who took chances. I threw too many interceptions because I took too many chances. I would be that kind of driver.”

Torrence added, “The John Force kind of driver. The wide-open and upside down, in the sand, kind of driver. But he’d get the job done.”

And sometimes White ended up that way while in the NFL.

DOWN, SET, HUH? - Danny White and his exchange with a member of the media proved to be quite the entertainment during the press conference.

Instead of being the interview subject, White became the interviewer.

WHITE: "Why do they leave on green?"

REPORTER: "It's a throwback to street racing. You leave the intersection on the green light."

WHITE: "Then why have the amber lights? Why not leave on just green?

REPORTER: "Why do you say down, set before saying hike?"

WHITE: "It's to prepare your linemen when to leave."

REPORTER: "The amber lights are your down, set and your right foot represents your linemen."

ONE UPMANSHIP - Bob Tasca III ran really quick on Thursday evening and for a while was a lock for the provisional No. 1 during first day Funny Car qualifying tasca bobat the O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Winternationals. Then came Jack Beckman who snatched it away.

On Friday Tasca was prepared.

Tasca covered the Pomona Raceway race course in 4.109 seconds at 309.34 mph to stake his claim heading into the final day of qualifying. If the run holds, it will be the third No.1 qualifying spot of his career.

Having the ability to reach down deep is something Tasca has been preparing for since December.

“It wasn't really much of an off-season for us,” said Tasca. “We tested a week in December, another week plus in January - so we've got probably 50 runs in that Motorcraft/Quick Lane car. We were disappointed how we finished the season last year; so we dug deep this off-season, made some great runs in testing and it's always nice to translate that into a race day tune-up.

“Cunningham and the guys made a great call with that 15. Truthfully coming in this morning we thought we'd see some 0's out there, maybe 07's or 06's because we'd be at the back of the pack in this session. That's one of the advantages of running good in  first session - you get to see everyone else. The track clearly didn't come around as much as we thought it would. It was a degree or two cooler than our first session, but that 10, clearly based on what everyone else ran, was pretty impressive.”

Saturday’s forecast calls for the coolest conditions the event has seen to this point and for Tasca, he’s waiting with a monster combination.

“We're expecting much quicker runs tomorrow,” said Tasca. “I think they are saying 65 degrees, or 70 degrees. These race cars have plenty of power. It is all about applying that power. When the track temperature comes down you can apply more power. No way that 10 holds up, we'll have to go quicker to be back here tomorrow.”

And he’ll no doubt have his eye on that Beckman fella, as well as a dozen others.

hight robertPast NHRA series champion Robert Hight believes the pressure associated with winning the 2012 NHRA Funny Car championship will be overwhelming. He likens the pressure to trying to flow 50 gallons of water through a half-inch funnel in less than four seconds.The pressure of winning the 2012 NHRA Funny Car championship will be overwhelming. Just ask any of the full-time drivers vying for this season’s crown.

Trying to jam 50 gallons of fuel through a half-inch funnel in four seconds might be a close description believes 2009 series champion Robert Hight.

“It’s going to be anybody’s game,” said Hight, who was CompetitionPlus.com preseason pick to win the title. “The reality of this season’s championship chase is the title could come down to six cars on the final day.”

And for Hight, he wants to be the lead dog in the pack.

“I gathered my team together for a meeting and I wanted to emphasize that we cannot let any detail slip through our fingers. Look at Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart last year. It’s very much possible at the end of the year this battle could come down to a dead heat. All it took for him to win the championship would have been to pass one more car.

“That could be the case here … every qualifying point. Every bonus point they give you. We can’t let anything slip through our fingers.”

Hight referenced the 2011 NASCAR Championship in which Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards finished in a tie. Stewart won the tiebreaker based on more wins in the season. Last season, as many as five drivers entered the NHRA AAA Finals with a mathematical chance to win the championship.

In the end, Matt Hagan was the last man standing with a semi-final loss by Cruz Pedregon.

“I think the prospect of defending a championship is going to be extremely tough,” admitted Hagan. “We have a great race car and while we were running great at West Palm, everyone else was too. No one has fallen off, if anything they’ve all gotten better.”

Hagan understands the No. 1 designation on his car might serve as a bullseye for the competition. This toughest competition might be the assassin next door in the form of a teammate.

hagan matt pomonaMatt Hagan wouldn't have his championship defense season any different than the pressure cooker it is now.“You’re always thinking of the Force cars,” admitted Hagan. “But then you look over and you have Johnny Gray running fast out of the box, Jack Beckman ran his career best and then Ron Capps is very tough. What’s scary is you look at the potential of my car and my teammates have the same stuff we are. It’s as if we are trying to see who can put the Rubik’s Cube together the best.”

Championship talk aside, Jeff Arend, who drove the Kalitta Motorsports Funny Car to a team high No. 8 points finish, is just looking at the proposition of reaching the Countdown to the Championship.

“I think just to get into the top ten is going to be a huge accomplishment,” said Arend. “This year the class has picked up three more full-time touring cars. You’re looking at about 16 full time cars and the part-time hitters like Jim Head. I think what you’re seeing is the shaping up of one of the Funny Car class’ toughest seasons ever.”

The NHRA introduced their playoff format four years ago to manufacture championship excitement. Hight believes the class will have enough drama of its own without having to reset the points.

“I don’t think that they [NHRA] have needed a Countdown yet in Funny Car ever since they have started it,” Hight contends. “The championships would have gone down to the wire. In years past that might have been the case with John [Force] winning his championships. He had the title sewn up with three races to go. That’s not going to happen anymore. These cars are too close and reaction time is more important than ever. A hundredth of a second here and there and you’re a winner or loser. It’s just that simple.”

RIDING THE WAVE - Morgan Lucas was born in Southern Indiana, and even though he spent his formative years in Southern California he isn't a surfer dude. But he demonstrated lucas morganFriday that he knows something about surfing -- and how he finds a comparison to drag racing.
With two more qualifying sessions for the season-opening Winternationals on tap Saturday at Pomona, Calif.'s Auto Club Raceway, Lucas remains in Top Fuel's provisional No. 1 spot. So far his 3.832-second pass from Thursday is quickest among the 18 best.
But he said he's not reading too much into his early-season success.
"Because of what happened in '09 for us . . . having what looked like a great year . . . I know we didn't finish where we wanted to but it was still a pretty decent season  . . .  we could have easily had another bad year that year, too. I know what it's like to have something good and lose it," Lucas said.
"So for us to be able to have something good right now, I think it's like riding waves," he said. "You have to ride it while it's at the top but be able to paddle back when it goes to the bottom."
Lucas, in his unpretentious, almost self-critical, manner, said following Friday's session, "I'm as shocked as anybody. It's such consistent conditions for us that we actually went out there with the same race car. It dropped a cylinder downtrack. It looked like it was on pace to run an .82. I have to sing the praises of the guys. They're doing an excellent job.
"We've adopted the motto 'If it's not perfect, it's not right.' That's kind of the way we have to approach things this year," he said.
If he can hold onto that No. 1 position, it would be the fifth of his career, first here, and first at this event.
"The team as a whole is building onto something really good right now. It would be nice to compete with the big two and put our name in the hat for racing notoriety," Lucas said.
"The hope for our team is you don't want to count us out. We're trying to . . . put ourselves in a position to win some races this year." Shooting for a top-five finish also is on the to-do list.
"I really like this car, and I really like going fast in this car right now. Any chance we get to go out there and just pour the coals on it, I'm all about it," Lucas said.
But he didn't wait for a turn of circumstance to ground him. He reined in his own enthusiasm.
"We're going to have to crawl before we walk. The thing is if you stat acting like you're running good, that's when God usually brings you back a peg or two," he said.
He said he's "trying to keep everything in perspective and trying to appreciate and respect what good things happen for us and keep our heads from getting too big."
Seventeen other Top Fuel drivers will try to help him with that Saturday.

THE COOLDOWN IS COMING - Mike Edwards is on pace to repeat what he did at Pomona, Calif., last November in the NHRA Finals -- lead the Pro Stock field.
 edwards mike
The 2009 champion kept his Penhall/K&N/Interstate Batteries Pontiac GXP atop the order Friday at the season-starting Winternationals with the 6.545-second elapsed time he registered in Thursday's opening session.
Jason Line raised eyebrows with a 212.19-mph speed on the Auto Club Raceway quarter-mile that eclipsed Edwards' 211.86 from Thursday and Ronnie Humphrey's 211.96 from Friday's lone session. But Edwards remained the leader with two more sessions scheduled for predicted cooler temperatures Saturday.
"We absolutely have the ability" to hold onto the lead, Edwards said. 'We've just got to go out there and do it."
Some of the field made gains Friday, and Edwards talked like he knows he has a handful of rivals who might be able to knock him out of earning his 41st career top-qualifier honor, his second at the Winternationals, and his fifth at this track.
Edwards was the only racer in the 6.54 range Thursday, but Humphrey and Allen Johnson joined him Saturday with identical E.T.s at 6.548 seconds. Line jumped from 12th place to fourth, and teammate Greg Anderson improved from eighth to round out the top five. And with a turn for the cooler, the field could be scrambled even further Saturday.
"These engines love cooler temperatures. They breathe that cool air and they like it," Edwards said. "It should be really good tomorrow. I think both sessions should be pretty good tomorrow. So if you miss it in the first one, you could possibly improve in the second session.
"Tomorrow's probably going to be the shot for us," he said. "Tomorrow, with what they're talking about weather-wise, everybody's needs to step up."
He said racing with one session per day, compared to the normal two-day, two-per-day qualifying format, is a change-up from the routine at most other Full Throttle Drag Racing Series events. But because it is the season opener, he said it might be a perfect opportunity to "regroup if you are behind coming into the season."
That might be the case this year for Edwards, who focused on treating the osteoarthritis in his back and recuperating from that treatment rather than fuss over his car.
Even so, he said, "I'd rather take two days and get it over with."
What he's hoping for by the end of the weekend is a sense of how he stacks up against the competition.
"Basically you just want to see how competitive you really are compared to the other  teams. I feel like we're still plenty competitive, just going to have to make a few adjustments. We're racing the same car we did last year. I feel real comfortable with our car.
"We tried some things tonight [Friday], but they obviously didn’t work very good. So we can take them and throw them out the window," Edwards said.
The E.T. from Thursday he kept -- and that was good enough for another day.

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LAST YEAR WAS LAST YEAR - Winning the 2011 Winternationals last February might as well have happened a hundred years ago, as far as National Hot Rod Association Top Fuel racer lucas morganMorgan Lucas is concerned.
When he jumped out of the gate Thursday at the 2012 season opener at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, Calif., with a 3.832-second elapsed time that earned him the provisional top qualifying position, he acted as though performing well here was a novel occurrence.
"To be honest with you, the win last year is so far out of my mind it's not even funny," Lucas said after besting No. 2 Tony Schumacher (who posted top speed at 320.58 mph) by six-thousandths of a second.
"I know a lot of people want to know [how good it feels to come back and run well here again] when you're the defending champion. But I think when you win as many races as guys like Tony Schumacher or Del Worsham or Larry Dixon, that becomes one of those things that people don't ask [about] a lot," he said.
"Last year was such a bad year toward the middle and ending of the year that for us it's more so more so trying to get the car down the racetrack. I didn't even think we were trying to run that fast on that session ," Lucas said. "We just hit it right."
If it holds up as quickest, the GEICO/Lucas Oil Dragster driver will have his fifth No. 1 spot of his career, first at this venue, and first at this event. However, he wasn't counting on that.
"I know it's just the first pass of the year, but we're all really excited to get this GEICO Dragster down the racetrack and hopefully get some more stuff to build off of and continue progress throughout the season," he said.
He called his mood optimistic yet "very guarded," saying, "In past years I've been very optimistic coming into the beginning of the season. I've learned not to get my hopes too far up and try to be a realist about it and just kind of try to take good when it comes at you and be able to keep you head up when the bad's hanging around, too."
New crew leaders Aaron Brooks and Rod Centorbi, he said, present a balanced strategy and "more of a modern spin instead of the old-school approach to it."
Said Lucas, "Aaron's really aggressive, and Rod's really sound when it comes to putting the car together. They work great together, and they're a lot of fun to work with.  Our core group worked well as a unit but when you bring guys in who has a more advanced maintenance program . . . it really opens your eyes to some of the areas you were missing out on, a lot of things that maybe created some inconsistencies or maybe caused a hindrance toward performance."
They appear to have solved some of those problems, for new teammate Brandon Bernstein put the MAV TV Dragster in the No. 5 slot Thursday, behind Nos. 3 and 4 Shawn Langdon and Steve Torrence, respectively.
Steve Faria is the only one of Thursday's Top Fuel drivers not to crack the field of 16 so far.

 I HAVE A JOB AND A CAR WITH GPS - Jack Beckman admits he’s pleased his Valvoline NextGEN Dodge Charger remembered the way to work. In his words, he’s really beckman jack thurs pomonaglad to have this job.

His drive to the workplace took only 4.199 seconds at 308.14 miles per hour during first day Funny Car qualifying at the NHRA O’Reilly Auto Parts Winternationals in Pomona, Ca.

Beckman drove an unproven race car to a personal best [4.039] a month ago during testing at Palm Beach International Raceway. His foremost hope was that the Rahn Tobler-tuned car could produce a modicum of the same magic.

“Brand new pipe and I only ran it for the first time in Palm Beach,” Beckman admitted. “They should work but the crew chiefs have input in our chassis shop so we’ll try a few things different to see if we can get them to respond. This one did exactly what we wanted it to do. It remains to be seen if we’ll stay on top with the gamut of conditions we’ll likely face.  I’m so satisfied to start off this way.”

Beckman is just pleased to start another drag racing season for Don Schumacher Racing, the team he’s driven for exclusively since 2006 when he replaced Whit Bazemore. A cloud of uncertainty surrounded Beckman in the offseason as whether there would be funding for a full season in 2012.

“I still have a job,” Beckman said. “There was a lot of uncertainty going into this season. Don had to move Aaron’s over to Matt’s car and it’s fully funded so I am in the same boat he was in last November waiting for Aaron’s to come aboard. It’s tough being a nitro racer because you’re expected to help find funding. I totally understand that.

“When people say it’s not fair [because] there’s so many talented drivers  out there I say, ‘two words – Larry Dixon, three world championships and one of the best out there and now he’s going to have to find a program that works for him. It’s difficult.”

“I’m really, really grateful knowing I have a job driving a car I know can win races so I can return here [Pomona] to contend for a championship.”

The PBIR test, Beckman believes, set the stage for a strong Pomona showing.

“We had a great test session in Florida [Palm Beach International Raceway] but not just for the times we ran but for the things we ran on the car and got data from,” said Beckman. “It gives you a lot of optimism but you never know once you tow that car 2500 miles if it forgot all of that stuff.

“Rahn and John actually set up the car pretty conservative for the run. I’m kind of a fly on the wall and listen when they discuss blower overdrive percentage and for the first run I realized, ‘hey, were going up there pretty conservative.”

“It was exactly the right call. If we had tried to step up and run a 4.09, we might have smoked the tires. Even if we weren’t No. 1, to just get down the track quickly during that first session only sets you up for a good session. It’s almost like everyone has a deep sigh of relief. That should keep us qualified and now let’s go out and practice.”   

edwards mike thurs pomona2MIRACLES AND MIKE - Mike Edwards is glad miracles happen in life because without a miraculous intervention, he might not have run until three races into the season.

Edwards was cleared by doctors last Thursday to drive a car but was not cleared by wife Lisa to drive the team’s hauler to Las Vegas for testing. Lisa had seen Mike suffer through a 2011 season where pain associated with osteoarthritis, a degenerative disease of the lower back, was so much so that at times he had to be helped from the car.

A last minute offer of truck driver changed the game plan. The soft-spoken Edwards kept his plight within the team.

“Driving the truck was not an option, as Lisa has told me my truck driving days were over,” Edwards confirmed. “I really didn’t have a truck driver and my good friend Kip Rhoton [K&N display trailer driver] just happened to call me out of the blue about a week ago and I told him what was going on. He called me back within an hour and let me know he had my situation solved.”

Edwards drove his Penhall-sponsored Pontiac with a renewed vigor en route to the top spot in Pro Stock qualifying for the O’Reilly Auto Parts Winternationals on Thursday recording a 6.545 second elapsed time at 211.86 miles per hour. His run edged Ronnie Humphrey, who was second with a 6.561, 211.39.

Edwards, a devout Christian, immediately credited God for making a way.

“I guess He still wants me out here,” Edwards added. “We really didn’t expect to be out here for the first two events but it all worked out. The Lord works in mysterious ways.”

Mark Holbrook, who normally drives the Tire Kingdom display trailer, wasn’t scheduled until the NHRA Gatornationals to drive the company’s rig and immediately volunteered to be Edwards’ truck driver. Edwards said once the word got out of his plight, he received a score of offers from willing volunteers.

Thursday’s run was proof that he needed to be in Pomona.

“It was an awesome run and I am so proud of my guys,” said Edwards. “We had the objective just to go out there and finish like we did last year. We had the car set up like we ran it last year. It ran just like we expected it to.

“This is a great start to the season. I am so proud of my guys and this is a good day. This is something great to build on and I just thank the Lord.”

MORE TESTING IS THE KEY - The best way to elevate an underperforming race engine is to hit the track for testing. That’s the path Shane Gray has taken for gray shanethe 2012 NHRA Full Throttle season.

While many of his factory hot rod brethren have one or two test sessions in the bank since the last time the tour was in Pomona back in November, Gray has four. He tested last week in Las Vegas.

"We had the race motor in for the last two runs we made, and I think it went pretty okay," said Gray, who embarked on an in-house race engine program prior to the 2010 season.

"Our engine program has struggled in certain areas, and that is something that just takes time. But we have made progress in the horsepower department, and we've been working hard on durability issues. The car is really good, and I think we can go to Pomona and qualify decent – we just need to see how we stack up against what everybody else has done this winter."

UNQUALIFIED – Five 2011 Funny Car Countdowners failed to make the cut in the first day. Those on the outside include Ron Capps, Jeff Arend, Mike Neff, Tim Wilkerson and Robert Hight, who sheared a blower shaft on the burnout.

“I don’t know why it happened but Jimmy Prock and the guys are looking into it," said Hight. "If it had to happen I am glad it was Thursday and not on Sunday morning. We have three more shots this weekend and I am still extremely confident in our capabilities,” said Hight.

THE DEBATE RAGES ON - The hot button topic in NHRA is whether the sanction body’s competition/rules committee will approve the innovative fully-enclosed vandergriff bobTop Fuel racer Bob Vandergriff Jr. believes the decision to enclose the cockpit will be left optional to the teams.canopy Tony Schumacher used in testing last month at Palm (Fla.) International Raceway.

Glen Gray, NHRA’s Vice President, Technical Operations, confirmed to Competition Plus last Thursday, Tony Schumacher’s Top Fuel dragster can’t be equipped with its innovative fully-enclosed canopy at the season’s first two races, the Winternationals, which are taking place this weekend, and the Arizona Nationals (Feb. 17-19).

Brad Hadman, a renowned chassis and car builder, believes NHRA would be making the Top Fuel dragster more dangerous for drivers because the fully-enclosed canopy adds about 25 pounds to a dragster’s weight.

“What NHRA is refusing to look at is these cars keep getting heavier and heavier,” Hadman said in an interview with Competition Plus. “They (NHRA) keep saying we are stressing the tire. Well, what stresses the tire? Weight. You are moving more mass faster than you ever have. So now they want to put 25 more pounds on it. It is insane to me. I think the safety issue of putting more weight on the car is greater than covering up the driver with a canopy. These cars are accelerating quicker to the eighth-mile than they ever have and they are what 200 pounds heavier than they were three or four years ago. The weight of that canopy is that much more mass that you have to move and it could push that tire over the edge and they chunk and you start blowing tires again.”

Veteran Top Fuel driver/team owner Bob Vandergriff, Jr. doesn’t agree with Hadman’s line of thinking.

“Last year, we were running a 2,400-pound (dragster) and we were 80 pounds over the weight limit at most races,” Vandergriff said. “I did not have any problems chunking tires or slowing the car down or any of that kind of stuff people are concerned about adding the weight will bring. So, I’m not sure that is a legitimate concern. It is going to be interesting to see how that shakes out and the comments that are made at Pomona (the Winternationals) all about it. It is going to be interesting to see how NHRA handles it and how teams handle it. You have some preconceived notions already about how the scenarios are going to go down and it is going to be interesting to see how it plays out.”

Vandergriff admitted he spent a lot of time this offseason trying to find ways to reduce the weight of his new Hadman-built dragster. The 6-foot, 205-pound Vandergriff even took steps to get leaner and more fit himself.

enclosed cockpitSchumacher's enclosed cockpit dragster will sit idle while the NHRA approves the design. It was on display in Pomona.“We went through every possible way to make sure we put this car together to make it as lightest as possible and I have changed my whole workout program and diet program to where I have lost almost 15 pounds over the winter,” Vandergriff said. “So, now we have our car down where it is closer to the weight limit.”

Vandergriff said the NHRA minimum weight limit for a 2012 Top Fuel dragster is 2,320 pounds.

“When we tested down in Palm Beach (in January) we were at 2,335 and 2,340,” Vandergriff said. “So, we have got down to where we are 15 or 20 pounds over the weight limit, which we are pretty happy about. The downside of the canopy is that we have spent all that money on the car, and I spent all that time on myself, and then we are going to put 25 more pounds on it. The advantage that some of the other teams have that have small drivers is that some of them had to add weight to the car. So, instead of bolting on a big giant weight bar all over the place, why not put 25 pounds worth of a canopy on there that may be a safety feature, and also helps you get to the minimum weight. That is great for them, but if you are not in the position where you are on the weight limit already, they have another advantage once again if we have to put this canopy on because now I’m going to be 45 or 50 pounds over where they are just adding enough weight to get back to the weight limit. That’s something that will have to be add
ressed as well.”

One concern is whether the NHRA, if it approves the fully-enclosed canopy, would mandate all teams to use it.

“Going through this approval process right now, this first phase of it, if it was approved, we wouldn’t mandate it for the rest of the teams,” Gray said last week. “For the near term it would not be mandated, but we would have to re-evaluate that and think about it in the future.”

Vandergriff isn’t sure NHRA could mandate the canopy.

“I think that is going to be a choice thing,” Vandergriff said. “(Don) Garlits had it on there (in the 1980s) and no one else did. I can see where if it is a safety feature they (NHRA) can recommend it, but I’m not sure they can mandate it because it is kind of choice of what kind of car you want to run. I’m not sure, maybe it evolves into something that becomes mandatory, but I do not think they can mandate it right off the bat.”

The exact cost of the canopy is not known yet, but that would not detour Vandergriff from using one.

“I do not think the cost is an issue,” Vandergriff said. “If it is $25,000 you just have to reallocate something in your budget. To say I do not want to protect myself for $25,000, that’s probably not the good answer. We waste $25,000 on other things that can be eliminated probably easily to incorporate that (the canopy) into our program. It would be a stupid excuse to say I do not want to save my life for $25,000 or protect me and make me better.”

force courtneyTHE FATHER-DAUGHTER DANCE - Headed into Friday Funny Car qualifying at the O'Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Winternationals, a father and his daughter will get to run at the back of the qualifying order thanks to a strong first day showing by both.  Courtney Force  posted a solid time of 4.21 seconds at 303.16 mph and held on to the provisional No. 1 position for three of pairs of Funny Cars before ultimately slipping to No. 6 one spot behind her 15-time Funny Car champion father John Force’s 4.192 second, 302.89 mph pass.

“My first run was very exciting. It was very nerve-racking. It is something I have been thinking about for such a long time. I think my dad was a little more nervous than me. I definitely had some butterflies and I just went up there knowing I didn’t have anything to lose. This was the dream that I was getting to live,” said the 23 year-old rookie. “I just wanted to go out there and do the best that I could as a driver. I wanted to take everything I learned from last year and take it to the race track. I am still a new driver and I am still learning every time I get in the car.”

“I am very comfortable knowing that my car can get down the race track. I have a great team behind me with (co-crew chiefs) Ron Douglas and Scott Wible. I am very confident going into Friday. We are working hard as a team and we are doing the best we can,” added the Cal State Fullerton graduate.

Going into Friday’s qualifying session Courtney will be paired up with her father based on the NHRA qualifying order. When the youngest Force was told about this prospect her immediate response was a quick laugh and a comment about the NHRA’s broadcast partner.

“I bet ESPN is happy about that,” joked Force.

Knowing that racing side by side will continue to be a learning experience Courtney was happy to be making a lap beside her teammate. During the Florida test sessions she made a number of laps side by side but tomorrow will be for real.

force john“It is a little different when you are running with someone else in the other lane. You want your routine to be OK. You don’t want to be too slow or too fast. There are a bunch of little things that I am still working on as a new driver,” said Force. “Testing by myself last season made it harder to figure out how my routine was coming together. I learned a lot in Florida when we were testing and it is going to be fun to run beside my dad. I couldn’t have asked for a better match up. That is amazing it worked out like that. I am really excited and we’ll have a lot of fun with it.”

The elder Force was doubly satisfied as his rookie daughter got in the field and he opened the event with a strong showing.

“It is really good to watch my guys all working together. It is great to have John Medlen and Dickie Venables back. They are both learning our processes again. We have a lot of new people over here and everybody worked really well together on the first day. We didn’t do anything spectacular. My Castrol GTX HIGH MILEAGE Mustang went down the race track with a 4.19. Courtney had some first day jitters but so did I,” said the five-time Winternationals champion. “She went A to B just like Ashley did. She kept her nose clean. It got a little loose at about 800 feet but she drove it and kept it off the wall. She got it to the lights and I think she is No. 6 in the show right now. I am so proud of her because I know the pressure is on her. I love seeing the women like Courtney and (rookie of the year candidate) Alexis (De Joria) getting into the show. That is big for our sport. I am not just talking about my kid but it is big for our whole sport. Women will put fans in the stands.”

“I have my new leg and the doctors have me fixed up and I have a new sponsor with Traxxas. I also am excited for all my sponsors from Castrol to Auto Club, Ford, Mac Tools and BrandSource. We also added Freightliner and we are getting the season started right. It is so important to have a new sponsor join the team. It was good to see the Traxxas Mustang go A to B since they are investing in that program. We have two more days and three more runs so a lot can happen. It was a real good start. I am excited about the year.”

NOT SO UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL THIS YEAR – In years past, ESPN2 cameras have had free reign over the starting line at NHRA Full Throttle events. Not so this season, according to sources. Reportedly insurance limitations for the network have limited access to the restrict area locations of the strip.

wilkerson timHE COULD HAVE ROLLED THE WINDOWS DOWN - Tim Wilkerson knew the air system on his Levi, Ray & Shoup Shelby Mustang had malfunctioned as soon as his team began the process of firing the car for their first qualifying run. With no air system to control the clutch, the ignition timing, and other mechanisms, the fate of this particular run was sealed from that moment, but Wilkerson took the light and left the line anyway, gaining some valuable data through the first 60 feet. His early shut off 7.761 was well outside the top 12 and therefore does not count as a valid time.

OVERCOMING THE PAIN - The pain almost became unbearable for Mike Edwards.

edwards mikeEdwards, the 2010 NHRA Pro Stock champion, admitted today he raced for the last few seasons with osteoarthritis, a degenerative disease of the lower back, and at the end of last season the conditioned had worsened to the point he considered relinquishing his driving role.

"The pain that I experienced last year was so severe there were times I could just barely get in the car to make a run. I cannot explain how much pain I was in during the 2011 season and it just reached the point of frustration," he said. "It was at that level where I couldn't really focus on anything but the pain. Everything I did was so uncomfortable and driving the car seemed to take it to a different level, where I was almost reluctant to let my foot of the clutch."

Over the offseason, Edwards underwent a German developed treatment referred to as Regenokine while in New York. The customized program of injections, dietary change, supplementation, and exercise optimization helped to aleviate some or all the pain. Edwards joined stick an ball athletes such as PGA legend Fred Couples and NBA superstar Kobe Bryant as those who have gone through the same program.

"I had tried steroid shots in my back, pain blockers, visited pain management specialist but nothing seem to take the pain away,” Edwards explained. “After much research we came across this treatment that was being conducted in Germany. Its success rate was high. NY Spine had just started offering the treatment late last year."

Edwards admitted his first treatment on December 12 provided almost instantaneous improvement. Two months later he confirmed he’s still pain free. Doctors gave clearance to drive again last month.  

"The first thing the doctor told me was I if I wanted to continue racing I was not going to drive the truck between events, like I have done my entire career," Edwards added. "So, I have relinquished those duties and continue to do a few other things at the track that they want me to control."

The pain-free experience made a world of difference when Edwards began testing last week in Las Vegas.

"With 2011 fresh in my head and the pain, I was a bit nervous that first time I launched, but I was able to get out of the car and felt real good," he said. "After making 4-5 laps it was still good, and don't have the severe pain that I once had. My back is a little stiff, but if I continue with the therapy the doctor thinks that it will get better with time."

Edwards’ best 6.62 was near the top of the list of test runs for the event.

"Heading into Pomona, I have a different feeling on the year," Edwards said. "I'm looking forward to a great season. We have a great group of guys, incredible sponsors, and hopefully a fast hot rod."

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TORRENT OF ACTIVITY FOR TORRENCE - Steve Torrence sat out 11 races between the Atlanta and Dallas events last year, working earnestly to build his own Top Fuel team with crew chief Richard Hogan. After a first-round loss at Dallas, the Torrence Racing/Capco Contractors Inc. team skipped the Reading race. Then Torrence struggled with flu and dehydration at Phoenix to qualify and reach the semifinals. An early exit at Las Vegas was his most recent chance in competition, because a controversial call involving the California Department of Transportation caused him to miss the Finals at Pomona.
So Torrence has had an eventful past few months, which happily included a productive testing session in late January in Florida.
"We wanted to concentrate on getting the new guys working well together under racetrack conditions," Torrence said. "Richard had the car running well, and overall, everything went fairly well. I have confidence in the car, Richard, and the crew. We started slowly but things got better with each run, and we were able to collect a lot of data during testing. It felt good. I was glad to be back in the car. It had been a while since I was in it."
The Kilgore, Texas, native said he's ready for this fourth race since splitting from Dexter Tuttle.
The Brownsburg, Ind.-headquartered team has "been working night and day since we started this team to get where we are, and we're still working as hard as we can. We want to be on par with the Alan Johnsons and Don Schumachers of NHRA racing, so we need to work as hard as they do," Torrence said.
BROWN MEANS BUSINESS - Antron Brown was the lone Top Fuel racer -- and NHRA professional racer -- in 2011 to win three consecutive races (Brainerd, Indianapolis, Charlotte). So it might disappoint many of his rivals to hear him say, "There hasn't been a lot of change. That's a bonus for us." Brian Corradi and Mark Oswald again will lead the Matco Tools/Aaron's Dream Machine Dragster crew.
"We're just looking forward to burning up the Goodyears," Brown said, feisty, maybe, from all the delicious Cajun cooking he ate during the holidays in Louisiana. Seriously, he said, "I took a lot of time off the past few weeks to get myself rejuvenated. I'm ready, I'm hungry. We want to get off to a really good start."
He has started working with a new personal trainer since late-January testing in Florida, saying, "I want a new exercise regimen for the whole year and a game plan that will having me peaking for when the Countdown for the Championship starts up. I'm in the same shape I was in at the end of last year, but I have to get stronger as my car gets stronger. I want to do whatever I can to push us over the edge and bring that championship home."
One thing that should help him is a new car, maybe as early as the Gatornationals.
"We should have new cars by the third or fourth race of the year," Brown said.
NEXT! - If the Al-Anabi Racing team that earned the last two Top Fuel titles gets a so-called "three-peat" in 2012, it will come with a new driver -- one who never has won a race in this category. Fourth-year driver Shawn Langdon and rookie Khalid al Balooshi have joined the team after Larry Dixon parted company and reigning champion Del Worsham retired from driving to serve as crew chief for Funny Car newcomer Alexis De Joria.
Langdon, a native of nearby Mira Loma, Calif., came close to winning his first Top Fuel victory with a Winternationals runner-up finish to then-teammate Morgan Lucas, also has one other runner-up finish at Pomona (2010 Finals). AlBalooshi, who won the 2011 NHRA Pro Mod Series title, is a native of Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
ANSWERING THE BELL - Bob Vandergriff was a guest of Josh Comstock, his primary Top Fuel sponsor, when the President and CEO of C&J Energy Services rang the Opening Bell at the New York Stock Exchange Jan. 6. "It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences that you hope to attend someday," the racer said. But Vandergriff is set to answer the bell for Round 1 of the Full Throttle Drag Racing series season this weekend at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona. And he'll race with continued associate sponsorship from Caterpillar. Houston-based C&J -- an independent provider of premium hydraulic fracturing, coiled tubing, and pressure pumping services -- leads the way for the 2011 Dallas  winner.
ENERGIZED - Tony Schumacher enjoyed quiet time with wife Cara and noisy time with children Anthony, Michael, and Jacqueline in the off-season. But he skipped one ritual. "What we haven't had to do is polish our trophies," he said with a laugh. "It was a rough year."
It's well documented that Schumacher didn't win a single race in 2011, although he drove the U.S. Army Dragster to an enviable seven finals, nine top speeds of the event, five low E.T.s of the meet, and only three first-round losses. "Looking back, we did a heck of a job," Schumacher said. "We had some amazing runs, ran fast. We got beat on some close races."
He said crew chief Mike Green and the crew have worked hours that seemed more like Western Swing labor than off-season prep work -- and for that, he's eager to win for the first time since the fall Las Vegas race in 2010.
"Those guys came up with some great things. We tested very well. Hopefully we get a chance to use all the stuff we developed," Schumacher said. He's hoping the day will come soon that the NHRA will approve the revolutionary cockpit canopy Green initiated and Schumacher and teammate Antron Brown have tested.
And Schumacher promised he is "going to go out and win. All the drivers know at some point there's going to be adversity, and we had it last year. We had to get through it. A lot of teams probably would have gone out and fired a lot of guys. That's not how we act. Me and Mike get along so good. The nine guys that build the car are phenomenal in developing and working.
"We just had to look back on it and say, 'Tough breaks, lost four thousandths of a second, had some amazing battles,' " he said. "The teams we raced against did a heck of a job when we raced against them. All in all we performed very well. We just have to do better this year. We're not used to getting beat. Something we'll have to get through, except not let it happen again."


HOW MANY WINNERS? - During the second half of the 2011 Full Throttle Drag Racing Series schedule, for nine events from the Denver race through the Phoenix race,  the Funny Car class had a different winner at each. They were John Force (Denver), Ron Capps (Sonoma), Tim Wilkerson (Seattle), Johnny Gray (Brainerd), Mike Neff (Indianapolis), Matt Hagan (Charlotte), Cruz Pedregon (Dallas), Robert Hight (Reading), and Jack Beckman (Phoenix).
STREAKING - John Force Racing won six straight events last year, from Topeka (with Robert Hight) through Denver (John Force). That included three Wally trophies for Mike Neff.     
EARNING HIS KEEP - Like Tim Wilkerson and Mike Neff and his own brother Tony, Cruz Pedregon has had a dozen things on his mind at once at any given race. Making business decisions, tuning the car, and driving it has its rewards and pitfalls. Cruz Pedregon said he has experienced both.
"It was tough. I'd get in the car. I was joking with guys like Tim Wilkerson and Mike Neff," Pedregon said. "I'm thinking: 'Did I open that flow enough? Should I change the timing map? Is that air pressure right for these conditions? Did I put the wing right?' There's so many things."
Although he shared the recognition, Pedregon said he did have an extra sense of pride in wearing so many hats and seeing it pay off with a No. 3 finish. "No doubt about it. We all like that. There's ego involved," he said. "But I did it out of necessity. I didn't have a budget to go out and hire a crew. Even if I had the budget, a lot of these guys that are really good, they're not going to leave their team. They shouldn't. They should be loyal.
I did it out of necessity. I thought, If I'm going to go down, I'm going to go down swinging."
He shared the limelight, saying, "I did have good guys, [including] Danny [De Gennaro], who moved onto John Force's team. He did a good job. I was surrounded by good guys. I'm not taking all the credit."
But clearly he relishes a situation in which the driver is a key factor in the equation.
"If I go out there, I feel like I can put in the effort that it takes," he said. "You have to have the driver contribution and the car contribution. It's a combination of the two that equate to wins and losses. The driver should matter. He's like the quarterback, the trigger man. The fans look for the driver. So you should have to earn your keep in that seat."

WHAT'S ON YOUR LIST THIS YEAR, RACHEL? - Before the final race of the past season, Matt promised his wife he would buy her a dressage horse if he won the championship. He kept his word.
With another season ready to begin, it's unclear what Rachel Hagan might have at the top of her wish list. But her husband has the same thing as his top priority this year as he did a year ago.
"When we came to Pomona for the Winternationals last year, we felt like we had a lot to prove, and we still do have a lot to prove," he said." I've only have one NHRA championship, not 15."
Hagan has an easy answer to the question: How are you going to keep him down on the farm now that he has won an NHRA Funny Car championship? But he was back in Christiansburg, Va., with his cattle all winter and again after testing until he had to leave this week for California.
Hagan and DSR colleague Ron Capps each made only seven passes in three testing days, fewest among the organization's drivers, in South Florida last month. Hagan's best performance in that span was a 4.093-second elapsed time and a 313.22-mph speed in the Aaron's Dream Machine Dodge Charger.

PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT - As soon as the 2011 Full Throttle Drag Racing season came to a close Robert Hight and his Auto Club Ford Mustang team raced to The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway to get a jump start on 2012. They took the lessons learned in Vegas into the shop hight robertfor the winter and at the 2nd annual PRO Winter Warm-Ups in Palm Beach, Florida they recorded the quickest ET, (4.034 seconds) and fastest speed (316.67 mph) of any of the Funny Car teams in attendance.

Hight is planning on using that confidence and momentum as he begins his Winternationals title defense this weekend at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona. The success in Florida of his Auto Club Ford Mustang Funny Car has Hight riding high into Pomona.

“It gives you a lot of confidence. It was good to finally get back in the race car after a long winter and everybody here at John Force Racing is super-motivated to get this championship back. We won half the races last year but it still wasn’t good enough to get the job done and win the championship,” said Hight, the three-time Winternationals winner. “What I’m really most pleased about is how consistent we were when it was race conditions and we were up against other drivers. My Ford Mustang went down the track every run and it was respectable and quick. When you say domination, we made some good runs, but it was only a few thousandths quicker than one of the other competitors out there. We can’t let our guard down and we have to continue working hard.”

“A lot of new things coming with the addition of people like John Medlen, Ron Armstrong, and Dickie Venables. This was all very important, to get these people here, especially because we have a fourth team. When we had a fourth team before, we had some of these guys, but John really believed and felt that it was important to tool up and get enough people on staff to make up for this fourth team, and it wouldn’t be a distraction. I believe that’s definitely the case. All four of our Ford Mustangs are ready to go.”

Hight won a category and career high five races in 2011 but was denied a second Full Throttle Funny Car championship finishing 4th in the points. If history is any indication then 2012 could be another championship season. In 2008 Hight finished 4th in the Full Throttle points standings and the following season he went on to win his first NHRA Funny Car world championship.

LOOK OUT - It wasn't clear whether Robert Hight was wearing his "President of John Force Racing" hat or his brother-in-law hat or his competitor hat when he said of the team's newest driver, 'If Courtney's like her dad, look out.' " He meant it as a compliment, linking the rookie to the 15-time champion.
"She’s got a lot of drive, she’s really excited about it, and she’s great for the sport. The fans love her," Hight said. "There’re subtle differences between her and Ashley. Ashley’s a little quieter; Courtney is more outgoing, more like John. We know what Ashley did. She did a great job winning races."
As for a fourth JFR car on the track, he said, "We've had four Funny Cars before, and we learned some things from that. We've staffed up, got more people on board, have four really strong teams. That team over there with Ron Douglas and Scott Wible [Courtney Force's crew], that's a tough team. We really focused on trying to make all four of our Funny Cars the same this year. We'll be able to help each other, work together better, collect data. That’s the goal. It doesn't mean still that from time to time we won’t have one team trying something else, but if it proves out to work, we're definitely on board to get all four teams with everything it takes to win this championship."
A VOTE FROM NEFF - For the fifth time in nine years, a John Force Racing driver will be vying for the Automobile Club of Southern California's Road to the Future Award that recognizes the NHRA's top-performing rookie.  Eric Medlen lost out to Jason Line in 2004, but Robert Hight (2005), Ashley Force [Hood] (2007), and Mike Neff (2008) were recipients.
"I remember it wasn't long ago when I was just starting to drive," Neff said, "and I can remember that excitement and nervousness and all of the things bundled into that."
As for Courtney Force, he said, "I know what she’s going through, and it is an exciting time, as much as it is scary. Another car here will be great. Everybody really missed [her sister] Ashley when she left. She was a big part. We all liked watching her race. Now that she’s doing motherhood for awhile, it’ll be exciting to have Courtney come out and see how she does, because Ashley did a really great job. I’m sure Courtney will, also."
IT'S NOT ALL ABOUT ME - With several fresh faces in the JFR shop from last season (including John Medlen, Dickie Venables, Danny DiGennaro, Scott Wible, and Ron Armstrong), Mike Neff knows he has plenty of helping hands and contributing consultants if he gets frazzled at all this year. However, Neff indicated he isn't counting on everybody to stop and concentrate on his Castrol Ford Mustang. "There will be more going on, also. There will be an extra car and just a lot of stuff happening at John Force Racing. Those guys will be a help," Neff said, but he knows they'll have three other cars to assist.
DOG WAGGING TAIL - Johnny Gray, driver of the DSR-owned Service Central Dodge Charger, was going to make sure the tail doesn't wag the dog. He didn't have to go too far to test his Funny Car this January -- just about 20 miles from his home in Jupiter, Fla. But it was necessary.
"This gets you back up to speed," Gray said of the warm-up, which saw him record a best run of 4.084 seconds, 312.06mph in a five-day effort. "When you don't drive these cars for a few weeks, you get behind. The car starts running you down the racetrack.
"You come out and make a few runs and you get your brain back up to speed and get everything back in focus," he said. "Your brain starts keeping up with your car."
He and crew chief Rob Wendland, the dynamic duo who missed the Funny Car Countdown but made folks wonder why not, had runner-up finishes at three consecutive playoff races. Theirs was the only Funny Car that reached the semifinal round in five of the six Countdown races. Had Gray made the Countdown field of 10, he would have finished the year ranked second.
"We sure would like to start off this year the way we finished last year," Gray said. "I really like my team. It's just fun to be around the guys." Surely it'll be even more fun in the winners circle.
TICKET CENTRAL - Especially for Southern California residents -- such as the John Force Racing gang, Kalitta Motorsports' Jeff Arend, DSR's Jack Beckman and Ron Capps, and Top Fuel's Shawn Langdon --  the start of the season means lots of friends and family to cheer you on. It also means lots of ticket requests. Same goes for Cruz and Tony Pedregon, who live in the Indianapolis area now but whose roots are in the Los Angeles suburbs.
"There's a lot of distractions out there," Cruz Pedregon said. "There's always distractions with family and tickets. It's like we're all in the ticket business when racing comes along. You all know how that goes. It's one of those things.
"You have to do the job," he said, "put the distractions either before or after the race. It's no more or less. Anybody tells you there's no distractions, they're lying to you."
WE DON'T NEED NO STINKING TESTING - As a racer, one place Greg Anderson truly enjoys being is behind the wheel of his race-winning Summit Racing Pro Stock Pontiac.  However, for the first time the team’s approach to this year’s off-season preparations has precluded the normal test anderson gregsessions, with the four-time champion last piloting his car almost three months ago during the final race of the 2011 season.

Therefore, as the straight-line set prepares to kick off the 2012 Full Throttle Drag Racing season with this weekend’s NHRA Winternationals in Pomona, CA, it is understandable that the KB Racing pilot would be anxiously looking forward to returning to the cockpit of his 1,400-horsepower hot rod.

“I am so ready to get back in my Summit Racing Pontiac,” said Anderson.  “This is the first time that I can remember that I didn’t go somewhere testing during the off-season, so when we rolled into Las Vegas this past weekend for a quick two-day test, it was the first time I had gotten behind the wheel since the Finals in Pomona last November, making it the longest layoff I’ve ever had.

“Still, I have a ton of confidence in my guys so we should be fresh with everything ready to go when qualifying starts on Thursday.  It’s taken a lot of hard work by everyone on this KB Racing team, but  I think we will be in great shape this weekend in Pomona. That’s why I’m itching to get behind the wheel and back in the groove – so I can see what everything we did this winter will get us, and how we stack up against our competition.”

Even though his four wins at the season-opening event trail only Hall of Famers Bob Glidden and Warren Johnson for the most in Pro Stock history, the Minnesota native admits he still approaches the first race of the year with a little trepidation.

“Every year in Pomona, it’s the same thing,” explained Anderson.  “You show up scared to death about what the other teams have done, knowing everybody has worked hard and tested extensively during the off-season to get ready.  This year, for the first time, we were not a part of any of those tests to see where everyone stacks up, so it adds an extra question mark that won’t be answered until qualifying is over.

“Certainly it’s an anxious time, but it’s one we look forward to every year, because we have a lot of confidence in the work we’ve done and the progress we believe we have made.  As a result, we think we should be in good standing when compared to the other racers. But until we get there and make a few qualifying runs, we’re a little nervous.”

REUNION - Shane Gray, who finished ninth in the standings last season, doesn't race as a teammate to his father anymore. But he still owns the Service Central Pro Stock Pontiac GXP -- and the team's in-house engine research-and-development shop at Denver, N.C. And Johnny Gray, driver of Don Schumacher Racing's Service Central Dodge Charger Funny Car, spent some time helping his son test for several days at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
A couple of weeks before that, Shane Gray tested at Bradenton, Fla., and established a baseline for new crew chief Justin Elkes, who sharpened his skills working with Pro Stock champions Greg Anderson and Jason Line and Pro Modified champ-turned-Top Fuel racer Khalid al Balooshi.
Along with Pro Stock's Kurt and Warren Johnson, the Grays are among the few father-and-son combos competing in NHRA's three major professional categories. And for the Grays, they hope the good things that happen in Las Vegas don't just stay in Las Vegas.
NOT MISSING A BEAT? - One thing has been a bit unfamiliar  for returning racer Jeg Coughlin, the four-time class champion. He began this campaign with all-new  . . . everything.
"We started J & R Racing Engines back in April time frame, down in Mooresville, North Carolina. Roy Simmons and Nick Ferri, both well-known names in the Pro Stock world, head up the engine development side. Later we partnered with the Chrysler Corporation, Dodge and Mopar branding in particular, started assembling a team," he said.
"When we went to our first test session a few weeks back, we went with a new transporter, a new car, a new engine, new parts. Everything was brand-new. It was probably the first time in my career that's ever taken place, " Coughlin said.
However, something really familiar surfaced with this Coughlin group.
"Everything went really well in testing," he said after hitting the track for the first time in South Florida and before planning his final warm-up for Pomona at Las Vegas. "We accomplished quite a bit in just two days at Palm Beach."
Will it be his turn again to rule the Pro Stock field?
"Pro Stock seems to go in phases where some teams dominate. We certainly had our run since 2000, where we've won a couple of championships. KB has one a handful with Jason and Greg -- and Mike Edwards, as well. There's a lot of extremely good teams out there right now, [including] the Johnson family. The list goes on and on," Coughlin said.
"I think our goal with putting this team together is everyone on this team has been a world champion at one point in time in their career. There's a lot of experience, a lot of respect for one another that we've been able to assemble," he said.
"We're looking to hit the ground pretty darn hard and compete for round wins and race wins right up front. We're certainly looking to build our program. By the looks of our numbers that we ran in Palm Beach, it looks like we're going to be pretty close coming right out of the chute, which is pretty exciting. I know Nick and Roy with this new Hemi powerplant is all new to them. I think we're going to come out pretty strong and certainly improve from there."
RECOVERING  AND READY - Allen Johnson, recovering from arm surgery last November, stood and watched Richie Stevens test his Team Mopar / J&J Dodge Avenger as late as last month. And though it might have been odd not being in the car himself, it had to be satisfying to see the car run a 6.46-second E.T. -- surprising everyone just like he had done the previous January at Bradenton, Fla.
"It was absolutely a picture-perfect run," Johnson told WFO's Joe Castello in a recent interview. "I've watched a lot of cars. But it's real different watching your entire crew work, doing what they do when you're in the car. It was very beneficial."
Johnson will be back in the car at the Winternationals, but he'll still be wearing a brace -- on the outside of his fire suit, to protect his arm from any jolts from shifting or from any banging and impact. The sore arm is the one he uses to shift the gears, so he'll rely more on his shoulder and hand to do the work, he said.
With new co-crew chief Jim Yates to help Mark Ingersoll, Johnson said he thinks his team will "level the playing field with the crew chiefs and level the playing field with the cars -- and hopefully my work on the simulator all winter proves out to where the drivers is as strong as anybody out there.
"I feel like where we've been lacking the last few years, while we've been in the top tier in power, is consistency. We just could not get the car consistent," he said.
But the Greenville, Tenn., veteran racer is well-armed, literally and figuratively, to embark on a successful season.

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