SCHUMACHER-DIXON RIVALRY HAS POTENTIAL TO BE ONE FOR THE AGES POMONA, Calif. - The popularity of NHRA Championship Drag Racing has been framed throughout the years by dynamic on-track rivalries that have kept fans on the edge of their ...
SCHUMACHER-DIXON RIVALRY HAS POTENTIAL TO BE ONE FOR THE AGES
POMONA, Calif. - The popularity of NHRA Championship Drag Racing has been framed throughout the years by dynamic on-track rivalries that have kept fans on the edge of their seats.
Though there have been many great rivalries in the one-on-one world of this high-speed, side-by-side, performance-driven sport, several instantly come to mind:
* Don "the Snake" Prudhomme vs. Tom "the Mongoose" McEwen in Funny Car
* Don Garlits vs. Shirley Muldowney in Top Fuel
* Bob Glidden vs. Lee Shepherd in Pro Stock
* John Force vs. Cruz Pedregon in Funny Car
Just mentioning the four pairings above brings immediate goosebumps and vivid memories to longtime drag racing fans. Whenever those racers met on the track, fans were guaranteed a dramatic, compelling race, most often with very high stakes on the line.
In 2009, all of the elements are in place for another great rivalry to develop and join that legendary list.
At center stage will be six-time and defending Top Fuel world champion Tony Schumacher and two-time Top Fuel world champion Larry Dixon. They are two of the winningest drivers in their category. They are regarded as two of the best drivers in the history of the sport. They are both frequently listed in the NHRA record book.
And, bottom line, they are both hungry for more.
The twist in this much-anticipated season-long showdown is that Schumacher's longtime crew chief, Alan Johnson, is now in Dixon's corner. The much-heralded tuning wizard, who led Schumacher to five consecutive titles, has formed his own two-car team with financial backing from a sheik from Qatar. He picked Dixon to drive the Top Fuel dragster.
Now the stage is set: U.S. Army dragster vs. Al-Anabi Racing dragster.
One team wants to prove it can continue Johnson's dominating tradition as a from-scratch start-up; the other wants to prove it can keep its winning streak alive no matter who is at the helm making the tuning decisions.
The two could meet for the first time in their quest to win the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series Countdown to the Championship at the 49th annual Kragen O'Reilly NHRA Winternationals, Feb. 5-8, at historic Auto Club Raceway at Pomona in Southern California. The $1.8 million race, which will be televised on ESPN2 and ESPN2HD, is the first of 24 in the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series season.
Schumacher dominated last season by winning 15 races in 18 finals and being named Driver of the Year for all motorsports in North America. He will be joined by veteran tuner Mike Green as he sets out to win his seventh world title and defend his Winternationals victory in his U.S. Army dragster.
Dixon, who won his crowns in dominating fashion in 2002 and 2003 while at Don Prudhomme Racing and finished second in points last year after winning the last race of the season, will have longtime friend Jason McCulloch as his crew chief and many of Schumacher's former crew members tuning his 7,000-horsepower Alan Johnson Al-Anabi Racing dragster.
If what transpired in preseason testing during the last few weeks in Phoenix and West Palm Beach, Fla., is any indication, this could get really good. Both teams produced similar results, powering to strong 1,000-foot performances of 3.8 seconds at more than 315 mph.
Dixon, who is trying to regain the championship, is excited about the challenge of the season and knows that to get that title back, he has to beat the defending champ.
"He's still got the No. 1 on his wing," Dixon said. "Anytime that you race him, you've got to bring your A game. So for me, you know, I try to fire everything I can at him and whoever else we're running, for that matter. I think time will tell whether there is a rivalry or not. You've got to race each other every week to create a rivalry."
Schumacher's motto last year as he approached many longstanding records each week was to have the focus and ability to rise to the occasion and understand the opportunity and make the most of those "moments," as he called them.
He expects many great moments this season with Dixon in the other lane.
"I'm fortunate that they put Dixon in that car because it's going to be just a huge motivation to beat those guys and have fun," Schumacher said. "It ain't the trophy; it's what it takes to get it. We'll have to dig really deep, and we'll have to work as a team to beat those guys because they are outstanding. I think we have a collection of crew chiefs and an awesome facility and group of people that my dad (team owner Don Schumacher) has put together. So I see no reason why we can't go out there and give it an absolute fantastic run for a Full Throttle Series championship.
"We're not going to be the only ones battling in the championship, but it will be great," Schumacher added.
Dixon agrees, noting that several teams showed potential during testing and that the championship run won't be a two-horse affair.
"There are a lot of teams out there that you've got to look out for," Dixon said. "Antron Brown made the quickest run in testing the other day. Then, you've got the same thing with Brandon (Bernstein). He ran 323 miles an hour. There are quite a few cars. And then the Kalitta team, which hadn't done any testing with the dragster yet, they're going to be a strong team as well. You've just got to go out there and try to perform against everybody. But obviously having Alan Johnson in your corner, I feel pretty confident about that."
While Schumacher isn't taking any of the other teams for granted either, as a sports fan himself, he hopes a friendly grudge match naturally develops between him and Dixon and that the two combine to produce memorable epic showdowns that will become a part of drag racing lore.
"I think the hope is that we'll get to battle constantly," Schumacher said. "That's why you watch the Super Bowl. You watch the two teams that have made it the furthest. And Larry Dixon and I have won championships. We're not going to have to fake it or go out and pick on each other or poke each other in the chest; it's going to be good. Larry and I don't play games. We stage our cars, and we race. We've never held each other up or done anything wrong. It's really who has the best tune^^up and car at that moment. I can't wait to get it started. I hope it comes down to me and Larry in the finals of the first race and it gets people on their feet. And everything riding on that moment will make me and Larry do our jobs just a little better than we normally would."
SCHEDULE: Pro qualifying sessions are scheduled for 2 p.m. on Feb. 5-6 and at 11:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. on Feb. 7. Final eliminations begin at 11 a.m. on Sunday, Feb. 8.
TICKETS: Tickets are available for the Kragen O'Reilly NHRA Winternationals. Call NHRA at (800) 884-NHRA (6472) or visit nhra.com or ticketmaster.com.
ON TV: ESPN2 and ESPN2HD will televise two hours of qualifying highlights at 10 p.m. (ET) on Saturday, Feb. 7. ESPN2 and ESPN2HD will televise NHRA Race Day, a 30-minute pre-race show, at 11:30 a.m. (ET) on Sunday, Feb. 8. ESPN2 and ESPN2HD will televise three hours and 30 minutes of eliminations coverage beginning at 6:30 p.m. (ET) on Sunday, Feb. 8.
LUCAS OIL SERIES: The Kragen O'Reilly NHRA Winternationals also will feature competition in six categories in the NHRA Lucas Oil Series, where the future stars of the NHRA Full Throttle Series earn their racing stripes. Lucas Oil Series qualifying begins at 8:15 a.m. on Feb. 5. Lucas Oil Series eliminations begin at 8:15 a.m. on Feb. 6.