Herbert ready for 2003 season

Doug Herbert's goal remains the same - win NHRA Top Fuel title - and he believes this could be the year. It's a yearly happening, like the swallows returning to the Mission at San Juan Capistrano, Calif. Doug Herbert declares his No. 1...

Doug Herbert's goal remains the same - win NHRA Top Fuel title - and he believes this could be the year.

It's a yearly happening, like the swallows returning to the Mission at San Juan Capistrano, Calif. Doug Herbert declares his No. 1 goal before the beginning of each NHRA POWERade Series season and, to no one's surprise, it's winning the Top Fuel championship.

The statement isn't new, nor is it original. It is the sentiment of every driver in Herbert's category because they are really equal only once a year, and that's before the season opener. Herbert believes this is his season to challenge for the title and $400,000 payoff, and he has the statistics to prove it.

He also has a new crew chief in Ron Douglas, who, at 32, is one of the youngest in the nitromethane ranks, and a new tuning consultant, veteran Jim Brissette, who was Herbert's crew chief 10 years ago.

Herbert's Snap-on Top Fuel team might've finished seventh last year, but he enjoyed one of the finest late-season runs of his career. It marked the third time in four years - and the second in a row - that he was seventh, and he came within 21 points (1343-1333) of placing a career-topping sixth.

Other noteworthy accomplishments that bring confidence to Herbert and his crew include:

-- Earning his first top qualifying position at the fall Chicago race last year with his quickest elapsed time, 4.518 seconds, and following it two races later with his second No. 1, this time a 4.537 at the Las Vegas fall event. In between the two was a 4.595-second effort that put him No. 2;

-- Going the final 14 races without losing in the first round, another career first;

-- Accumulating 28 round wins to equal his best NHRA season;

-- Winning at Sonoma, Calif. for his seventh NHRA victory and placing second twice, at Atlanta and Columbus, Ohio; -- Outscoring all but the top three finishers over the final 12 races.

"We all feel real good about the new season," Herbert said in his typically enthusiastic style. "I'm excited about Ron Douglas being our new crew chief and being able to work with Brissette again. We definitely have a good combination and a good crew to make a run for the championship. We are probably in the best position we've been in to start a new season. We don't have to start the year testing new stuff.

"I think our team chemistry is better than it has been," Herbert continued. "We've added a few new crew members who are new only to my Snap-on team. They had worked with Paul Romine's IHRA dragster that I owned. Everyone at our Cherryville (N.C.) shop is excited, which is a good sign. If I'm the only one who's enthused, it's not going to do any good.

"Brissette will help everyone else work together better. All-in-all, it's going to be good."

The team opens pre-season testing at Firebird Raceway in Phoenix with runs Friday through Sunday. Plans call for Herbert to test the following weekend, Jan. 24-26, at Tucson, Ariz.

Douglas has been with Herbert since 1999 and has worked on all aspects of the racecar. He served as assistant crew chief last year and is looking forward to his first assignment running the team. Brissette, meanwhile, has been around the sport for more than 40 years and is well versed in the nuances of tuning the sensitive engine-clutch-fuel system combination.

Assistant crew chief Sam Shockley, John Bullard, Jeff McGuire, Jeremy Lopez and Nate Archambeault are wearing Snap-on colors after working on the IHRA dragster and join holdovers Joe O'Byrne and Ron Freeman.

After a slow start a year ago - losing in the first round at six of the first seven races - Herbert went to the finals at two the next five events. His August win at Sonoma, Calif. put him briefly into sixth place but he dropped one notch and stayed there during the remainder of the campaign. Overall, he won 28 rounds and lost 22.

Herbert made a decision to have tuning consultant Wes Cerny tune the car late in the schedule and the results were quite evident - three straight outings with elapsed times in the 4.5-second range; two firsts and one second in qualifying; and four semifinals in the final five races.

"We really wanted that sixth-place finish," Herbert recalled, "and we came close. We should be running in the top three or four all of 2003. I think we have the proven potential because we have a proven combination."

Another positive note is that Herbert has qualified for 50 straight NHRA races, also a personal best.

When he's not racing, Herbert, 32, is immersed in his Doug Herbert Performance Parts business that employs more than 50 people in Cherryville. On the personal side, Herbert now holds an Air Transport Pilot's license that qualifies him to fly his Lear 31 as the captain.

"It takes dedication to get that license," Herbert noted. "Not a lot of pilot-owners get that rating because it takes a lot of work. Hopefully our Snap-on team will be as dedicated to winning this year's Top Fuel championship."

In a Top Fuel career that began in 1991, Herbert became the second driver to exceed 300 mph (301.60 in 1993); was the first to run in the 4.8 seconds (4.880, Pomona, Calif., 1993); won a sponsor's $100,000 bonus by winning at Houston in 1993; won four times in six final rounds in 1999; won seven times in 15 NHRA final rounds; and won four IHRA season championships (1992, 1994-96) and 20 races in 29 finals.

-JlSherk-

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Series NHRA
Drivers Paul Romine , Doug Herbert