NHRA season preview: Larry Dixon’s predictions
Three-time Top Fuel champion and Motorsport.com’s new columnist Larry Dixon runs us through the NHRA’s top runners and riders and what we can expect to see in 2016, starting with Pomona's Winternationals this weekend.
Don Schumacher Racing looks as strong as ever. DSR drivers finished 1-3-7 in the championship two years ago, 1-2-6 last year… There’s no reason they can’t go 1-2-3, is there?
Well, certainly there’s no reason why Antron Brown, Tony Schumacher and Shawn Langdon can’t all finish in the top five. The playoffs, the Countdown to the Championship, throw a curve ball. You can have a couple of good races in the final five or a couple of bad ones, and it can juggle the positions up or down real fast. But as far as funding, driver quality, crew chief quality is concerned, if they’re not top five at the end of the season, heads will roll there! They want for nothing; we can expect top quality from all three.
If you talk about cars that can threaten DSR, you’d have to look at Brittany Force. John Force Racing has brought in Alan Johnson Engineering to provide that equipment, and that alliance has shown immediate results in preseason testing. There’s a team that has everything now – in Alan, they have the Phil Jackson of the NHRA overseeing it. I’m sure Alan Johnson doesn’t come cheap, so to switch over to all Johnson equipment when Force has his own manufacturing plant shows major commitment to make this team a success, meaning John Force, like Don Schumacher, will expect results not a year from now, but right now!
And is Brittany ready to be a contender, if the equipment and personnel around her are right?
When I went from Don Prudhomme to join Alan’s team, it took about seven months to really get in the groove. But with the Countdown not happening until after Labor Day Weekend, Brittany’s got 18 races to sort things so I think she could be a contender, even though right now she hasn’t yet won a race. She got a couple of final rounds, and scored a couple of poles. So she’ll finish the regular season in the Top 10 which will put her in the playoffs, and if she gets on a run, she should be in the hunt, yes.
Kalitta Motorsports has to be contenders with Doug Kalitta and J.R. Todd?
Well, they’re very up or very down. When J.R. got in that car a year-and-a-half ago, in the regular season they just snuck into the Top 10. And then ran like gangbusters in the Countdown and finished up second in the points. So I though they’d really challenge in 2015, and it just didn’t happen. But they’ve made a lot of changes this winter, brought in Rob Flynn to help with tuning decisions, new crew too, so they’re definitely trying to improve. And as for Doug, he’s a more than capable driver; give him the horse and he’ll ride it. Again though, they need to time their string of good races with the playoffs.
Richie Crampton looked pretty strong last year for Morgan Lucas Racing, like he’d really built on the couple of wins he got in his rookie year.
Yeah, a great sophomore season for Richie – won five races, finished third in the standings. He certainly beat me up a couple of times along the way! And his crew chief Aaron Brooks, when conditions permit it, can give you a car that can run a world-beating ET [elapsed time]. Richie will run the full season, Morgan will again be part-time.
What’s the outlook for your previous employers Bob Vandergriff Racing?
Dave Connolly is using a Morgan Lucas chassis, Leah Pritchett is using a Hadman chassis. And I see no reason why Pritchett's car couldn’t finish first or second in points. Putting that team together at the end of 2014 and then running with Mike Guger as crew chief, I felt the team was progressing really well. So I hope they do great things this year. And Jason McCulloch is crew chief on Dave’s car, and their pre-season testing went really well. Their hard parts come from DSR, so it really serves as a satellite team. Another team that wants for nothing.
Steve Torrence is another driver who runs the full season, while his teammate, his dad Billy, runs a partial season, and Alan Johnson still has an alliance with that team so that’s almost allowing the single-car Force team and the single-car Torrence team to more or less work together. Like Brittany, Steve ran well in testing, so it’s just a matter of hitting things right when it matters. Torrence has won championships in the Sportsman ranks and Alcohol Dragsters, so he knows how to be the closer.
Terry McMillen, Clay Millican, Troy Buff – all capable of winning on their day, right?
Absolutely, and Clay has six championships on the IHRA side. He just needs to put four good runs together on a Sunday. Buff is a guy who will keep you honest. He’s the kinda guy who might not make the greatest run but he’ll always be competitive, so if you slip up, he’ll beat you.
Del Worsham and Kalitta Motorsports took down all those DSR stars and JFR stars last year. Can they defend the title successfully?
Well, if they can do it once, they then know how to do it. They had an absolute clutch playoff performance last year, didn’t they? Not winning any of the regular season events – then winning four of the final six! Absolutely earned it, because he had Schumacher cars 2-3-4 behind him in the final points. I think having won a championship before [Top Fuel in 2011] – and his engineers having done the same – they all knew what to worry about and what not to worry about at the crucial point. They turned the right knobs at the right times, and they were not going to be denied. It was fun to watch and impressive to watch.
So they can do it again, but I also expect Don Schumacher’s team to come out swinging.
And that means it’s time to ask that question we ask each season: Is this finally going to be Ron Capps’ year? 44 Funny Car wins, second highest in Funny Car history, four-time a championship runner-up…
Just because he hasn’t won the title or our biggest race, the US Nationals, doesn’t mean he can ever be discounted. He could win both this year and no one would be surprised. Just like all those years when Dale Earnhardt failed to win the Daytona 500 – you’d be smart to never bet against him finally doing it. So I’m assuming he’s going to challenge for it like he usually does; he’s great and he drives for DSR.
Matt Hagan – nice guy, great driver – and I think last year was his first year that was just OK. Normally he’s fighting for the championship, or he’s absolutely nowhere.
Feast or famine, yeah. He did really well at the start of last year, didn’t look like anyone was going to touch him. But for whatever reason they didn’t have that same mojo during the Countdown. But Dickie Venables, his crew chief, has won championships with John Force’s team and Tony Pedregon’s team and obviously Matt has won the Funny Car title twice. This car is one of the strongest entries in the class. They just need to hit the sweet spot in the fall.
DSR has four Funny Cars – Capps, Hagan, Jack Beckman, Tommy Johnson – and they’re all capable of winning the title. In fact, Tommy Johnson has finished top three for the past couple years and he may have had the best test sessions this winter. His crew chief John Collins was on my crew in 2002 and 2003 when I won my first two championships, so he knows how to win, and how to play it smart. And Tommy himself is a really good driver.
John Force was quite subdued at the GM event in Detroit, surrounded by champions and. unusually, he wasn’t one of them. Will JFR be back to full strength.
I think their problems were personnel-related in 2015, because Jimmy Prock, Austin Coil, Bernie Federley and John Medlen were all missing from the Force braintrust, to use one of John’s own words. The responsibility of all three cars fell on Mike Neff, and he didn’t have anyone to bounce ideas off. Their vulnerability showed because those guys who left didn’t leave the sport; suddenly JFR was having to race against them. That’s a tough deal, because we saw what a difference Prock and Medlen made to Jack Beckman at DSR. I think he won more races in one season than he’d ever won before in his career!
Now, with Alan Johnson helping on the Top Fuel side for Brittany, he has a lot of knowledge with nitro engines, he’s someone who Neff will be able to interact with. And now Austin Coil is back in a consulting role. It’s like when The Eagles broke up in 1979 – they said they’d only reunite when hell froze over, and when they did reunite for that tour in 1995, it was called Hell Freezes Over…
There’s a crew chief change for Courtney – they let Ron Douglas go late last year, and it’s now Danny Hood (Ashley Force’s husband) and he’ll be assisted by Ronnie Thompson, who was on Brittany’s dragster last year. And Courtney’s car picked up performance in the off-season – she had a good test. So I think they’re starting to get their mojo back, after Courtney failed to make the Countdown playoffs last year.
You don’t keep the Force team down long, and so when they bounce back, you’ve just gotta hope you’re as prepared as you can be!
So there you have nine cars – two Kalitta, three Force, four Schumacher – all more than capable of winning the championship. Independent teams like Cruz Pedregon, Tim Wilkerson and so on – they’ve proven they can win races, and if you can win races and do the whole season, then you can win championships. Cruz has won championships, so he has a very good idea of what it takes on the engineering side and the driving side, and he feels very optimistic he can challenge for the title.
How big are the changes to Pro Stock this year with the switch from carburetors to fuel injection?
Huge. No more hood scoops is the obvious difference in aesthetics. But it goes deeper than that. Anything you took for granted before you can't take for granted now. I honestly think this has leveled the playing field because you don’t know how this rule change will affect each team. Some team that struggled to make the Top 10 last year could come out and win the event because they hit the sweet spot.
Listen to the drivers talking about doing the burnout and staging the car with EFI and the different fuel mapping, and it’s a curve ball. I think you’re going to see upsets that you wouldn’t have even considered two months ago. I saw the same thing happen Pro Stock Motorcycles when they brought in EFI.
You’re talking about technology – you might say caveman technology – that the cars have had since this class was formed in 1970. And now it’s thrown away. Now, with electronic fuel injection, you have throttle sensors so when you go to roll on the throttle, it’s being controlled electronically not by vacuum, so the load on the engine is different. For an entire run, our cars operate on wide-open throttle for the entire run, but when you’re doing the burnout beforehand, you’re using partial throttle, and when you’re staging, you’re on wide-open throttle but on a rev limiter.
Well even the best people in the business have never operated like that before, so it’s funny to hear a guy like Jason Line [2 x champion] or Greg Anderson [4 x] talk about their excitement at actually managing to complete a burnout! It’s such a basic procedure that it should come naturally, but right now, it’s not going to because the techniques have had to change so much. And that of course is taking your thinking power from the actual run…
Also new is that the rev limiter chip is set at 10,500rpm, so all that work that teams did to make the engines rev higher is gone. Now the emphasis has switched to getting the engines up to that rev limiter as fast as possible.
So which Pro Stock teams are in best position to overcome these new technical challenges?
Well for drivers like Erica Enders and Jeg Coughlin at Elite Motorsports, they’re hired guns, they drive the cars and that’s all they have to worry about. But at Summit Racing, Jason Line and Greg Anderson drive the cars and are also very involved in the setup and the tune-up of the car. If they have to put a lot of time and effort into the that side of it, I can see how that would take away from time spent on driving the car.
My point is, [reigning and two-time champion] Erica is going to be on her game at the startline – she just needs to focus on cutting the light, hitting her shift points and making the run.
Elite Motorsports have got their options covered. It’s amazing to me that Erica and Jeg will be running the Dodge Dart, and Vincent Nobile and Drew Skillman will be in Chevy Camaros. Now it’s already a big deal seeing the champ switch to Dodge, because that is a complete engine change – Pro Stock uses production blocks with part numbers on them. And the bodies are very different too; what applies to a GM car doesn’t necessarily work on a Dodge.
So for Elite to be able to compare notes between two Dodges and two Chevys puts them in a strong place, you’d think. But there’s another way of looking at it – will they have so much data and information coming in that they confuse themselves? Time will tell.
But that’s true of the whole field – Time will tell. All we know is that there's a lot to look forward to in all three classes, and there are a lot of unknowns. When people asked me, “How did preseason testing go?” I'd tell them: “I’ll let you know Sunday night at Pomona when we see who’s in Winner’s Circle.” Well, we’re almost at that point.
Winternationals kick off the 2016 NHRA season
Courtney Force enters 2016 season with high hopes