BAYTOWN, Texas - Some of the most intriguing bench-racing during the NHRA off-season revolved around the possibility of John Force winning a 10th NHRA Winston championship and surpassing Bob Glidden's record win mark of 85 in the process. There was also talk of a Top Fuel championship repeat for young Tony Schumacher. Others pondered the thought of the continued domination in Pro Stock by five-time champion Warren Johnson.
For many, there was another heated debate concerning the 2000 season: How long would the relationship between Jim Dunn and Al Hofmann exist? So far, the duo has answered the critics who said the relationship would last about as long as one of Hofmann's patented smoky burnouts.
Dunn, who has employed several drivers in the past two seasons, has a reputation for being a no-nonsense kind of guy who wants things done one way. The independent Hofmann has been quite outspoken during his driving career, which has never included driving for a team owner. He's always been his own boss. Instead of a flamable combustion, the two personalities have seemed to blend nicely. So nice that the Mooneyes Pontiac Firebird is considered among the favorites to win the 13th annual O'Reilly Nationals presented by Pennzoil, April 13-16, at Houston Raceway Park.
Hofmann is a two-time winner of the $1.8 million race, the fifth of 23 events in the $45 million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series.
After considering several drivers for the job late last season, Dunn finally chose Hofmann.
In return, Hofmann gave up his longtime seat in his self-owned Firebird to have the opportunity to drive for the legendary team owner. Hofmann, 42, from Umatilla, Fla., said his decision wasn't about financial concerns, but more about winning races and championships. "It's not the money," Hofmann said.
"It's the confidence I have in Jim and his tuning. It's nice to come to a race and not have to worry about qualifying. It's nice when you can focus on winning the race. This is a situation I've been looking for since '95. The crew chief is so important. About 90 percent of the reason why these cars make it down the racetrack is because of the crew chief."
During the last two years, Dunn has tuned his cars to three victories, including last season's spectacular victory at the U.S. Nationals. Frank Pedregon was Dunn's driver during each of those victories. Hofmann, who last won at Memphis, Tenn. in 1998, is ready to return to a season like he had in 1995, when he won five times and finished second in the Winston point standings.
"We go into every event thinking we can win," Hofmann said. "We have confidence. We've had a little bit of a slow start for a variety of reasons. We'll pick it up here and start being the team we know we can be. Between Jim and I, we've been out here a long time. This is Jim's 50th anniversary in this sport and it's a real honor for me to be driving for him."
Meanwhile, Hofmann will try to distance himself from his former car, now owned by wife Helen, tuned by veteran Ron Swearingen and driven by Cristen Powell. His focus is centered around one goal.
"I'm trying to stay out of it completely for the most part," Hofmann said. "Ron has took over the tuning and he does an excellent job. He'll get it to come around before too long. Once they get it together, I'm certain the car will be running 4.90s pretty consistenty and become competitive."
When it does, it will join the rest of the cars in the category that are capable of winning races. Hofmann says there's more parity now thanks to rules enforced by the NHRA during the off-season. Among the new rules include a strict 90-percent nitromethane rule for Top Fuel and Funny Car teams; posted monetary fines and point deductions for teams that leak oil onto the racing surface during competition; and reduced the amount of time teams have to service their cars between elimination rounds from 90 to 75 minutes. So far the results of the new rules have been excellent, as Sunday eliminations at the first three events have finished in record time.
"I think the 90 percent rule was long overdue," Hofmann said. "It's pretty rough on the guys that were running the big percentages before. They have a big adjustment to make. The best part is that there's not as much parts breakage and as a result there's less down time. The competition is so much tighter now."
So tight, in fact, that there's a leader other than John Force atop the Winston point standings. Several other drivers have shown promise in some of the closest side-by-side racing the category has ever seen. "Jerry Toliver is leading the points and John is in second. I think it's going to be tough on Force all year. I don't think anyone can get comfortable with their position in the points standings. I see a lot of teams moving around a lot all season. It's going to be a long year and we've got a lot of races to run."