NHRA ended its 2016 season last weekend in Pomona in spectacular fashion, awarding championship and race-winning Wally trophies to victors in the Mello Yello Series. Anne Proffit reflects.
It was time to anoint new champions, starting Saturday night with Ron Capps, who ended a 20-year drought by earning his first Funny Car title. The winner of 50 NHRA races, Californian Capps was a popular victor and fans stayed at his pit area and celebrated with the team well after an hour-long official photo session.
Capps was overjoyed to complete this hegira at NHRA’s ancestral home and on an Auto Club Raceway at Pomona dragstrip named for NHRA founder Wally Parks. Surrounded by friends and family from throughout the Southland, Capps earned “baby points” by being top qualifier in the first session, yet would fall to fifth once qualifying was complete.
Still, that qualifying record was enough to guarantee Capps the championship he’d yearned for, after being runner-up four times prior to this year. In Sunday eliminations, Capps easily beat Chad Head in the first round, yet fell to runner-up and 16-time titleholder John Force in Round 2 when his competitor recorded a hole-shot victory.
It wasn’t the ending Capps’ Don Schumacher Racing NAPA Dodge Charger R/T team was looking for, but Capps was still floored by the end of his long wait for title glory.
“It hasn’t sunk in yet,” he said. “I almost gave up winning a championship, and just focused on winning races.” After earning his 50th NHRA win - in the series 50th anniversary of Funny Car competition - and becoming the second-best in that category behind Force, Capps was elated to “pass some people I really looked up to in the sport. That’s mind-boggling to me.”
Teammate Tommy Johnson Jr., driving the Make-A-Wish Dodge Charger R/T beat Force in the finals late Sunday afternoon for his third win of the season, leapfrogging fellow Don Schumacher Racing driver (and two-time champ) Matt Hagan to finish second in the standings for the first time in a career that has seen this driver earn a total of 15 Wally trophies.
While disappointed not to win the championship, Johnson Jr. noted, “We came here third and wanted to get back to second [place]. We knew we could get that. You want to finish strong and show that you’re here to contend - the guys just did a great job.” His John Collins-led squad tested after the penultimate race in Las Vegas two weeks earlier and “knew we had a great racecar coming in here. We ran really well all weekend, and I gave it everything I had.”
Top Fuel’s title was decided in Las Vegas, where Antron Brown earned his second consecutive championship, his third overall. Brown raced to the semifinals in Pomona, where he fell to No. 1 qualifier JR Todd, who then met teammate Doug Kalitta in the Top Fuel finals late Sunday afternoon. The Kalitta Motorsports duo had a fine race, and Kalitta earned his first Finals victory with a holeshot (.063 R/T to Todd’s .112).
“I’ve been trying to win this last race for a long time,” Kalitta said. “The history here for me, growing up watching [uncle] Connie [Kalitta] race over the years and to be able to win today was huge for me and for everybody on the team.”
The Pro Stock championship and race battle went down to KB Racing’s Jason Line and Greg Anderson and their Summit Racing Chevrolet Camaros. With all the changes wrought to Pro Stock from 2015 to this year, only this duo, along with teammate Bo Butner, had the new EFI (electronic fuel injection) rules and the maximum 10,500 rpm figured out when NHRA initially encamped in Pomona last February.
Between them, Line and Anderson amassed 13 victories in the first 13 races, only to see their competitors catch up through the second half of the 24-race season. By the time the 18-race regular season ended, they each had seven victories but Line had a better runner-up total and qualifying points than his teammate and thus went into the Countdown as top seed.
In the six-race Countdown, Line won the first race in Charlotte but Anderson kept him honest and, despite losing the championship after the semifinals at Pomona, Anderson would win the battle and the season finale; Line took the war.
“It has been an incredible season and I can’t believe I didn’t actually mess it up,” Line laughed. “It is such an honor to be up here; we have had a great car all year. If it had ended any other way, I would have been disappointed.”
Anderson was disappointed, however, despite the Pomona win.
“I did all I could today,” he remarked after the win. “The only thing I can kick stones about is that I didn’t do a great job of qualifying on Friday; I lost three points to Jason and those three points are a big three points.
“Sometimes you make a mistake and I did on Friday. It cost me and that was the decider.”
It’s often said you have to lose a championship in order to figure out how to win one. Jerry Savoie did just that in 2015 when he fouled out at Las Vegas, pretty much throwing away a Pro Stock Motorcycle title. The 57-year-old alligator farmer from Cut Off, Louisiana always told his family he’d quit racing once he earned his first Wally trophy. Didn’t happen and, coming into this Pomona decider, Savoie and his WAR Racing team found their Suzuki TL1000 entry just three points behind the reigning Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson Screamin’ Eagles of five-time champ Andrew Hines and three-time champ Eddie Krawiec.
Savoie never led the points over Pro Stock Motorcycle’s 16 races, but when both Harley-Davidson riders failed to advance beyond the quarter-finals, and Savoie did, the title was his.
“To only dream of winning one race and to come out here and put a deal together with the support of Vance & Hines [who provide the Suzuki’s engines] and my crew, and to win the championship is amazing,” Savoie said. “I went to church this morning and the word was ‘encouragement’ and to get encouraged from the people that inspire you. I want to thank everybody, especially the fans. Without these guys, this would not be possible; you make our dreams come true and those guys are my family.”
WAR will be a two-motorcycle team next year when 2010 champ LE Tonglet joins the squad.
Savoie fell to three-time champion Angelle Sampey’s Buell in the semifinals and, in the finals, she allowed Matt Smith to pick up his first victory in three years and the first win for his Victory Motorcycle brand and team, when she left the starting line too early, causing a foul. Smith, a two-time champ has been developing the Victory motorcycle the past few years and realized he had to give up the wins to make the motorcycle attain the consistency it needed to be successful.
He said: “We haven’t had the best season in the world. We’ve had a fast bike but we’ve had a lot of electrical problems and transmission issues. We finally solved that about four races ago and it was good for us to run as good as we have.
“To give Victory their first win is huge. I’m so glad I was able to get it done for them. We have big plans for next year.”
There were many notable stories beyond the race- and championship-winning tales. Every one of the four pro categories was over-subscribed, with a whopping 23 entries motorcycles vied for spots in the Auto Club NHRA Finals fields. Jack Beckman set a new track record (3.825 seconds) in Funny Car. Alexis DeJoria’s sub Jeff Arend achieved a round win in the first round of eliminations.
On the less positive side, this race marked the end of the Morgan Lucas Racing team, which leaves two Top Fuel rails on the sidelines and there was no glorious send-off: Morgan Lucas fell to Brown in the first round while full-season driver Richie Crampton was defeated by Todd in Round 2.
Although they won the Manufacturer’s Trophy, thanks primarily to the contributions of Don Schumacher Racing’s four Funny Car entries and the single Top Fuel dragster of Leah Pritchett, Mopar is not returning to the Pro Stock category in 2018, putting its door-slammer emphasis in the Sportsman ranks. The Elite Motorsports group with two-time Pro Stock champion Erica Enders-Stevens and five-time category champ Jeg Coughlin Jr. will thus return to the Chevrolet ranks.
Capps’ title marked Mopar’s sixth championship in six years overall, including two Pro Stock championships for Enders-Stevens and one for Coughlin Jr., and a title with Allen Johnson, who gave Mopar its sole PS victory in 2016.
The NHRA held its banquet on Monday evening and anointed its champions. In addition, it gave a Lifetime Achievement Award, something it doesn’t do every single year, to Connie Kalitta, whose Top Fuel drivers ended the year second (Doug Kalitta) and fourth (Todd). Kalitta’s Funny Car teams were seventh (2015 champion Del Worsham) and Alexis DeJoria took tenth, missing four races due to injury.
The racing season may be over now for NHRA but there’s little time to prepare for the upcoming 2017 campaign, which begins in Pomona the weekend of February 9-12.