Winternationals kick off the 2016 NHRA season

The 24-race 2016 edition of the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series starts at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona this weekend. Anne Proffit highlights the favorites and the off-season changes.

Winternationals kick off the 2016 NHRA season
2015 Funny Car champion Del Worsham
Antron Brown
General Motors U.S. Vice President Performance Vehicles and Motorsports Jim Campbell with John Force
Ron Capps
Antron Brown
Elite Motorsports' MOPAR Dodge Dart Pro Stocks of Erica Enders-Stevens and Jeg Coughlin Jr.
Tim Wilkerson
Courtney Force
Larry Dixon and Doug Kalitta
Courtney Force, Fiance of Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing
Doug Kalitta
Jeg Coughlin
Tony Schumacher
Funny Car winner Robert Hight
Robert Hight
Morgan Lucas

This race follows three days of nitro testing at the site of race No. 2, on the Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park near Phoenix, Arizona last week. While some of the usual suspects were atop the scoring pylon for the test, one never really knows what lurks in the hauler offices where tuners ply their tricks – or whether teams were testing new components and/or team members.

So rather than rehash what occurred in testing, let’s look ahead at some of the pertinent stories for the season ahead.

Funny Car

The 18-car Funny Car field is led by returning champion Del Worsham, only the third driver to earn both Top Fuel and Funny Car titles in NHRA’s long history. He comes into this 56th Circle K Winternationals as one of six drivers using an AJ500 engine, his engine components supplied for the most part by Alan Johnson Performance Engineering.

Worsham’s Kalitta Motorsports has used Alan Johnson power for a long time, realizing that Johnson customarily runs what he sells. Others using AJ500 power include Tim Wilkerson in a 2016 Mustang, Toyota driver Cruz Pedregon, James Campbell running for Chuck Worsham (car nomenclature unknown at this time), Del Worsham’s teammate Alexis DeJoria and Chad Head.

Those six will face the four-car Don Schumacher Racing squad that uses DSM500 engine power. Don Schumacher Manufacturing has become a primarily in-house operation, with only tuning differences between the Dodge Charger R/Ts of last year’s runner-up Jack Beckman, Tommy Johnson Jr., Ron Capps and Matt Hagan. Veteran Jim Dunn is also using a Dodge Charger this season, albeit with BAE (Brad Anderson) power.

Worsham, of course, brought home the bacon for Toyota last year and the brand had quite a year in NHRA as its name is also on Top Fuel champion Antron Brown’s dragster. Worsham is joined in the Toyota Funny Car camp by two-time champ Cruz Pedregon, Bob Bode, Jeff Diehl, Head, Terry Haddock and DeJoria.

The latter driver’s Tequila Patron flopper, when she qualifies for the Winternationals, will mark her stature as the first female Funny Car driver to amass 100 starts in this classification of drag racing. That’s a braggable record… but there are no points for that or any other record this year.

John Force Racing (JFR) and its trio of Funny Car drivers – John Force, Robert Hight and Courtney Force – comprise the top Chevrolet Camaro squadron, all three using JFR500 engines. One recently hidden asset available to Force’s group this year is the expertise of Austin Coil, the guy who tuned John Force to 15 of his 16 championships. The duo had a falling-out after sealing the 15th title together but they’ve patched things up and Coil is consulting with the team again in 2016. Will it help? Time will tell but it certainly can’t help Force’s cause.

Top Fuel

There are 16 dragsters on the entry list for Top Fuel competition this weekend. Three of them come from Don Schumacher Racing (DSR), including reigning and two-time champion Antron Brown. He’s joined by eight-time title-winner Tony Schumacher and 2013 champ Shawn Langdon, who used to work with Alan Johnson Racing but came to DSR after his team’s finances forced Johnson to close shop.

Langdon is staying with DSR this year, but his former tuner, Brian Husen is now working with Brittany Force’s team, as is Alan Johnson, who consults for JFR and Steve Torrence Racing. That may sound like a conflict of interest but Johnson manages to balance relationships like a proper Swami.

Doug Kalitta and J.R. Todd are both racing in Top Fuel for Kalitta Motorsports, while Dave Connolly has a new teammate in Pritchett at Bob Vandergriff Racing. Vandegriff’s team is using a chassis from Morgan Lucas Racing, as of course will Morgan Lucas Racing duo Richie Crampton and Lucas. Steve Torrence uses a Lucas dragster as well, with his AJ500 power.

The balance of the Top Fuel field are Terry McMillen, returning with a DSR chassis and AJ498 power, Clay Millican, Troy Buff for Bill Miller Engineering, Steve Faria and Scott Palmer. It’s a field deep in quality, if not quantity.

Pro Stock

The biggest news in the NHRA paddock is coming from Pro Stock, where new car bodies arrive without bulbous air intakes, as the field switches from carburetors to fuel injection. It goes deeper than that, however, and the completely revised EFI-fed 500-cubic-inch naturally aspirated engines and shorter wheelie-bar setups are the technical talk. Pro Stock racers have been testing this week before heading to Pomona.

With two-time and reigning Pro Stock champion Erica Enders-Stevens moving from a winning Chevrolet Camaro package to a Dodge Dart and acquiring a new Dodge teammate in five-time champion Jeg Coughlin Jr., there are many question marks for a team that was nine-times dominant in her camp alone. Last year’s Auto Club Road to the Future-winning rookie teammate Drew Skillman - who stays with the Camaro along with Vincent Nobile - earned a single victory in 2015 to give the team double-digit wins.

During Pro Stock testing, there have been boasts of good times only a few tenths off last year’s marks, despite the newness of the equipment. But it really doesn’t matter. What’s important occurs when the ‘Christmas Tree’ lights descend for the first time on Friday, at about 12:30 in the afternoon.

At this time there are 16 entries and four come from the Elite Motorsports camp: Enders-Stevens, Coughlin Jr., Skillman and Nobile. Greg Anderson and Jason Line compete for Summit Racing with their Chevrolet Camaros, while Allen Johnson returns in a Dodge Dart, albeit without Mopar sponsorship. Johnson lined up backing from Marathon Oil and has a beautiful blue and white paint scheme to show off on his car.

Three-time 2015 race winner Chris McGaha continues with a Camaro, while Alex Laughlin lines up in a Gas Monkey Camaro. V Gaines and Derick Kramer both have Darts, while the balance of the field – Bo Butner, Matt Hartford, Aaron Strong, Joey Grose and Shane Gray – all compete in Camaros.

Notable by his absence is Larry Morgan, who won two races last year; his FireAde sponsorship went to Top Fuel’s Leah Pritchett, racing for Bob Vandergriff this year.

At this time and always subject to change, the weather will look like summer in February as temperatures are expected to be in the 80s throughout the Friday-Sunday race meeting. NHRA kicks off its latest season of racing with new looks and technology for Pro Stock, new affiliations in Funny Car and Top Fuel, and a new broadcast partner in FOX.

All in all, this Valentine weekend has a sweetheart feel to it for racers and race-goers alike and should jumpstart the NHRA season in fine style.

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