I’ve got a lot of take-aways from this weekend’s 54th annual NHRA Circle K Winternationals, held per tradition on the Auto Club Raceway at Pomona drag strip.
Just for starters, 64-year-old John Force really is 24, as he says, when he pulls on that helmet. What Force did this weekend reinforces the fact that a big sponsor needs to adopt this guy and his team for the next 10 years - at least. Let’s see now, how about running the table in Funny Car? Force and tuner Jimmy Prock - the Prock Rocket - have some crazy synergy. That team’s hooked up, no mistake about it.
Force started the cool weekend with a track E.T. record in initial qualifying Friday afternoon, putting his Ford Mustang atop the sheets at 3.983/317.72. In the night session - what was supposed to occur at 3:30 was pushed to dusk - he went for the national record at 3.966/324.12 in both E.T. and top speed categories. The only time Force didn’t make it down the 1000-foot track was Saturday’s first session or with his final chance to move the needle even farther, but the die was cast.
On Sunday Force was hungry: he devoured Paul Lee, Tommy Johnson Jr., Bob Tasca III and Matt Hagan, setting a second national record in the finals at 3.965/323/58 en route to his 139th Wally. As anyone that follows drag racing already knows, John Force Racing loses two lucrative partnerships at the end of the year as both Ford and Castrol are departing the professional side of the sport.
These pending occurrences mean that every time Force speaks, he mentions that he needs money to continue to race - will someone please give this guy some sponsorship so he can just move it along and work toward his 17th title? We just don’t want to hear it over 24 races, to be quite honest, but any marketing genius worth their retainers knows that having Force as a pitchman - as well as having daughters Courtney and Brittany to help out - means plenty of media attention. And results.
And another thing: this weekend Alexis DeJoria became the first NHRA female Funny Car driver to make a pass under four seconds. DeJoria’s team started coming together the middle of last year with Tommy DeLago doing the tuning. There have been quite a few changes to the car - noticeably a new paint scheme that replaces familiar Patron green with purple colors to celebrate Patron’s XO Cafe drink on her Toyota Camry Funny Car.
DeLago, who tuned Matt Hagan to the Funny Car title in 2011 came to Kalitta Motorsports and DeJoria last season from Don Schumacher Racing. As he told me, it takes a while to figure out a new car, new team and driver; it just doesn’t happen in a day or even half a season. And with Funny Car being such a very tight class, catching up to the perennial leaders isn’t the easiest thing in the world to do. It appears this team is on an upward swing and, with former DeJoria tuner and now teammate Del Worsham pointing the way, look for this lady to make strides in 2014.
Pro Stock is in a year of change. With four-time champion Greg Anderson out for at least six races due to heart surgery, KB Racing’s Summit Racing Chevrolet Camaro race cars are being wheeled by European champ Jimmy Alund and two-time NHRA champ Jason Line. Line won the Wally this weekend but Alund did a good job his first time out. While the Swede uses KB engines when he’s racing at home, the team, the cars, the tires and the tracks are somewhat different for him - despite a 2010 visit to these shores.
There were only 17 Pro Stock cars on the premises at Pomona, a low number for the professional manufacturer’s category. As I was told by several participants, the costs are really getting out of hand. One highly respected engine builder said he wouldn’t be surprised if the class went away in the next five years or so because of these escalating costs - winning is expensive after all - to be replaced by Pro Mod or a similar category.
That would be a darn shame because the Pro Stock cars have more technology to them than either Top Fuel or Funny Car - they just don’t sound as loud or look as crazy. Plus, without the advantage of flames at the hit, they’re not really as photogenic to the fans, who depart the stands when the factory hot rods come to the line. Those dearly departured miss a lot of close racing.
Some fans have told me they don’t like the ugly noses of the Pro Stock cars, something that could be cured by bringing Pro Stock into the 21st century, dumping carburetors and installing electronic fuel injection, which would make them relevant to the fans and introduce more manufacturers to the class. Toyota, which is now the official vehicle of NHRA, has expressed an interest in an injected Pro Stock class and while some competitors think it’ll add to the expense, after an initial investment the cost is negligible.
What’s up with Don Schumacher Racing, a powerhouse team operating from Brownsburg, IN? Two of three Top Fuel cars from DSR didn’t make it past the first round as seven-time champion Tony Schumacher fell to event winner Khalid alBalooshi and then 2012 titleholder Antron Brown couldn’t match Clay Millican. Only Spencer Massey made it to the semifinal round, ceding to eventual runner-up Doug Kalitta.
In Funny Car, perennial bridesmaid Ron Capps had two monumental experiences over the weekend: in the second qualifying session Capps had an explosion that ripped through his burst panel and extricated the body from the car. That was good for the highlight reels and Capps set the third best time in the process. In eliminations Capps was DQd in the second round when his NAPA Dodge Charger made an abrupt right turn into the wall as he tried to take out Tasca.
While World Finals winner Hagan made it all the way to the finals before being defeated by Force - turnabout is fair play as he beat the 16-time champ last fall - 2012 champ Jack Beckman was out in the first round after racing new teammate Tommy Johnson Jr. Johnson fell to Force in the second round, but seriously, only one car out of four making it to the semifinals? That’s not the Schumacher way.
Granted, Hagan removed two of the three John Force Racing entries en route to the finals; he put Del Worsham, the 2011 Top Fuel champ for Al-Anabi Racing, back on the trailer in the semis.
There’s an off weekend before NHRA returns to Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park in Chandler, AZ. Formerly known as Firebird, the track’s been renovated since changing promoters and it’ll be a new venue to the Top Fuel (Tony Schumacher defending), Funny Car (Ron Capps) and for Pro Stock, where Erica Enders-Stevens took her first 2013 victory. The newness of the track surface should make it interesting - just as the competition always does.