Larry Dixon ready for return to Houston

BAYTOWN, Texas - While much of the early season Top Fuel buzz has been centered around the ongoing feud between defending NHRA Winston champion Tony Schumacher and two-time title winner Gary Scelzi, another driver quietly anchors the spot as ...

BAYTOWN, Texas - While much of the early season Top Fuel buzz has been centered around the ongoing feud between defending NHRA Winston champion Tony Schumacher and two-time title winner Gary Scelzi, another driver quietly anchors the spot as third-best of the season.

With the attention turned in another direction, Larry Dixon is proving at every event that his Miller Lite dragster has got what it takes to run with any of the 6,000 horsepower goliaths in the category. Dixon, currently third in the Winston point standings, has put together two semifinal appearances and a second round effort in the opening three events, and sits 102 points behind leader Schumacher.

Dixon hopes to improve his points position with a successful performance at the 13th annual O'Reilly Nationals presented by Pennzoil, April 13-16, at Houston Raceway Park. The $1.7 million race is the fifth of 23 events in the $45 million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series.

If Dixon's dual-performance at either Houston event in 1999 is any indication, his opponents need to look out. Dixon, 34, drove his Miller Lite dragster to a milestone 4.486-second run here last April, then returned in October to win the event.

"I'm really excited about going to Houston, especially with Dick LaHaie (crew chief)," Dixon said. "He put together a pretty good record at Houston last year. That makes you feel really good about going back. Also, I did pretty well there last year, too. Hopefully we can keep our success streak in tact this year."

While Dixon was breaking the 4.50-second barrier at this event last year, LaHaie was celebrating a victory and $100,000 bonus from Winston, while tuning Doug Herbert's Snap-on Tools dragster. After Don Prudhomme reorganized the team midseason, Dixon and LaHaie combined to win here last fall.

Dixon says the key to success at Houston is consistency, above all. He says you've got to be quick to make the show, but once in, you have to slightly alter the gameplan.

"Houston has demonstrated that it's the quickest track we go to," Dixon said. "You can pretty much load it up and throw anything at it in qualifying. On race day you have to focus on making the car go down the track in the heat of the day. Teams get in trouble there when they go to the starting line on Sunday and think it's Friday night."

Dixon experienced that firsthand here last spring when he set the national record, but lost in the second round to Schumacher. Scelzi drove his Team Winston dragster to another national record run (4.480 seconds) in the fall, but came up short in the final to Dixon.

"Scelzi and (Alan) Johnson ran really fast here in October and took away the record, but we won the race," Dixon said. "It was just like us in the spring - we had the milestone run, but Herbert won the race. Going quick is a lot of fun, but I'd rather win the race if given the choice."

Dixon says his team's key to success this season has been LaHaie's consistent tuneup.

"LaHaie is really good at keeping the car calmed down," Dixon said. "He makes sure it gets down the racetrack. I can remember losing a lot in the past by smoking the tires and overpowering the track. At least this year when we've lost races they've been close at the finish. His tuneup puts more of the race outcome in my hands and that's fine with me. I have to really focus on cutting a good light and driving the car through the finish. It makes racing a lot of fun when that's the situation."

Dixon points out that neither Schumacher nor Scelzi had any turnover during the off-season. He says that's why they're off to a little better start. During the off-season, NHRA introduced new rules for Top Fuel and Funny Car teams, including a strict 90-percent nitromethane rule; monetary fines and point deductions for teams that leak oil onto the racing surface during competition; and a reduction in 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 finished in record time.

"I love the pace on Sunday," Dixon said. "The adrenaline never quits flowing throughout the day. You make that first round run and there's no time to rest. It makes it more of a chess match between the crew chiefs. I think it's also a lot safer. In the past I've lost races because of oil and debris on the track. This year the track has been pretty clean for the most part because guys take a little more care to make sure they avoid the fines and point penalties."

Like most of his fellow competitors, Dixon is confident that the rules aren't going to eliminate the performance on track.

"I'm confident that it's still going to take 4.50s to win races," Dixon said. "There are so many knobs and buttons that crew chiefs can push on these cars, it's just a matter of time before they find the right combination. There's compression ratios and ignition timing and a lot of other areas that we are looking at. Before long, we'll be right back running the same big numbers. In fact, I think the cars will be quicker and faster when it's all said and done."

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Series NHRA
Drivers Doug Herbert , Larry Dixon , Tony Schumacher , Gary Scelzi , Don Prudhomme , Dick LaHaie