The National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) crowned its champions on Sunday night following the 51st annual Auto Club Finals at Pomona, held on the Auto Club Raceway at Pomona dragstrip.
On a cool, occasionally rainy and windy afternoon of racing, records were broken - as were hearts - as eras ended and new ones began.
While Antron Brown (Top Fuel - Matco Tools/Army Don Schumacher Racing dragster) and Erica Enders-Stevens (Pro Stock - Elite Motorsports’ Chevrolet Camaro) secured their championships in the penultimate race on Halloween weekend at Las Vegas, two truly tight title fights continued to the last of 24 races in the season.
Would Funny Car belong to 2011 Top Fuel champ Del Worsham in his Toyota Camry or to 2012 Funny Car titleholder Jack Beckman’s Dodge Charger R/T? It looked to be a fight to the finish - and nearly was. Beckman’s teammate Tommy Johnson Jr was in the mix as well, albeit 96 points back as the day began, where Beckman lagged Worsham - the hottest hand in the six-race Countdown to the Championship battle - by 36 points.
Worsham hangs on to Funny Car title
With the weather change from warmer Friday and Saturday qualifications, this was a day when records could fall - and indeed they did. Beckman, Johnson Jr and fellow Don Schumacher Racing driver Ron Capps, the No. 1 qualifier, all lowered the national ET during the first couple of rounds, with Beckman securing the mark at 3.884 seconds in his second-round romp over Cruz Pedregon. That brought up a semifinal meeting between Worsham and Beckman, who had closed the gap to 16 points - for a winner-take-all race down the 1,000-foot dragstrip.
The day - and the year - belonged to Worsham, whose 3.928-sec pass easily outdistanced Beckman’s 4.088 and left the Infinite Hero Dodge Charger R/T in second place by the time the day was done. “I am not going to tell you this was like any other race,” Worsham said afterwards, “because it wasn’t. I know the points are the same as the first round at Charlotte,” which began the six-race Countdown to the Championship, “but the circumstances here were much greater.” In the Countdown, Del Worsham won four of the six races!
The DHL Toyota Camry still bears the name of the late Scott Kalitta and Worsham understands the gravity of driving for Scott’s father Connie Kalitta and the whole four-car Kalitta team of two dragsters and two Funny Car entries. “We are racing for Scott, Connie and the entire Kalitta Motorsports family,” who traditionally hold a mosh pit at the start line when they are victorious (it was a huge one last night!). “It felt like it was 25 years ago and I was making my first run; it is an amazing feeling,” Worsham exclaimed after taking the title.
With Beckman disposed, Worsham went into the finals against Johnson Jr and doubled up in the process, winning the race along with his second title, his fourth race at Pomona, and becoming only the third driver in NHRA’s illustrious history to win championships in both Top Fuel and Funny Car. He joins Kenny Bernstein and Gary Scelzi in achieving this accomplishment.
Hines earns another Pro Stock Motorcycle crown
In Pro Stock Motorcycle, the battle was equally furious between the Harley-Davidson Screamin’ Eagle V-Rods of reigning champ Andrew Hines, his teammate Eddie Krawiec and upstart Jerry Savoie’s Suzuki. As race day began, Hines led the threesome with Savoie nipping at his heels and holding the No. 1 position in the field of 16 riders, 38 in arrears. Krawiec was third, 83 behind his teammate.
Hines produced a fifth championship - and second consecutive - on Sunday night when he beat Hector Arana Jr in the quarterfinals, and as Krawiec disposed of Savoie, who had a mechanical problem with his motorcycle in the same round. The two Vance & Hines H-D riders would meet in the semi’s, with Krawiec emerging the victor and he would take the race win against Matt Smith’s Buell as the skies dimmed to evening.
As he became NHRA’s youngest five-time titleholder at 32, Hines gave full credit to the Vance & Hines team. “My outstanding Harley-Davidson team did a great job of keeping me focused and keeping the pressure off me this weekend. Having five championships is pretty awesome,” he said as his son Declan played with the champion’s hat, his father’s race bike and anything else he could find.
“Each one of my championships has been a unique experience. This is a really competitive class right now and we struggled in the middle of the season,” Hines admitted. “This is our team’s reward for all the late nights and hard work it took to get us back out front. This Harley team rises to the occasion every time.” Hines and brother Matt are the architects of the current Screamin’ Eagle motorcycle, so he’s had quite a few late nights of his own.
In Top Fuel, with the title already decided, the finals came down to 2015 champ Antron Brown against his newest teammate, local California driver Shawn Langdon. Langdon started the season with Alan Johnson Racing, but that squad closed its doors for the season - but hopefully not forever - after the regular season ended at Indianapolis Labor Day weekend. Johnson allowed rival Don Schumacher Racing, who needed a driver for their Red Fuel dragster following the dismissal of Spencer Massey, to put Langdon in the car.
That put Langdon in a very unusual situation, coming to the season finale with a different team than he started the year working with. The result, though, was the same. The 2013 Top Fuel champ bookended his year by winning the first and last races of the season, beating Brown to the stripe in a true drag race. Langdon ran 3.715 to Brown’s 3.732, coming from 11th in the field of 16 to vanquish the No. 1 qualifier and newest champion.
It took a while for Langdon to get comfortable in the closed canopy dragster campaigned by DSR; it’s unlike anything he’d ever driven before now. Starting with the DSR team as it entered the Countdown in Charlotte, he had to learn an entirely new car and engine combination, get comfortable with his new crew led by Phil Shuler and Todd Okuhara - and drive competitively. He certainly found his way in Pomona, close to where he grew up in Mira Loma. “I love this track,” Langdon said after earning his 11th career win in Top Fuel. “It has always had a special place in my heart… I was always out here watching my heroes race.”
The carbureted Pro Stock era ended on Sunday evening as the factory hot rods convert to electronic fuel injection for the 2016 season.
The final win using carburetors went to Allen Johnson’s Dodge Dart as NHRA’s 2012 category champion beat the Chevrolet Camaro of Vincent Nobile in the finals. All day long, Johnson used a better reaction time on the “Christmas” tree to win his rounds - including the finals - never quite hitting the setup spot on his Johnson & Johnson Magneti Marelli/Mopar Dodge; rather, he used his ability to work the tree to perfection.
“We struggled during the Countdown,” Johnson explained. In the six-race playoff, he rarely won more than a round or two at each race, but there was a reason. “Right before the final tonight, we discovered that a torsion bar was bent. We fixed that and the car went straight down the track.”
It’s not certain whether Johnson will be back in 2016; his father and engine wizard Roy Johnson had back surgery this fall and, as he told me in Las Vegas, “I’ve lived my dream for 20 years; it’s time for Allen to live his dream.” The Dodge Dart wore a “thank you” wrap dedicated to Mopar, who have backed this operation for all of those 20 years.
Celebrations went on into the evening after this season finale and the NHRA family gathers in Hollywood Monday night to toast its champions. There’s not that much time before the new season begins at Pomona - less than 90 days - and everyone in the paddock is already hard at work trying to find new ways to topple this year’s four champions.