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NHRA – What a season

November 16, 2012


Champions Allen Johnson, Jack Beckman, Antron Brown and Eddie Krawiec gather around a champion’s Wally trophy – Anne Proffit photo

After 23 races, the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series crowned its champions in Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock; the Pro Stock Motorcycle championship amounted to 16 contests.

The Auto Club World Finals on the Auto Club Raceway at Pomona dragstrip had more than enough pathos to keep anyone on-site enthralled to the last pass down the 1000-foot pavement. It took the final run of the day to anoint Antron Brown as titleholder in the Top Fuel category, when Brandon Bernstein – just – beat Tony Schumacher to the timing lights.

That Schumacher was in the running at the end of the year should come as no surprise, but he had to win this race to take the title after a fuel line separated on Brown’s rail in the first round of Sunday eliminations. It was a freak occurrence, but opened the title to Schumacher and to Brown’s third teammate Spencer Massey. The latter driver was gone after the quarter-finals but Schumacher appeared to be making another one of his patented drives until Bernstein ended his own year-plus-long slump and claimed victory with his new team, Morgan Lucas Racing.

Six-time race winner Brown became a first-time champion in Pomona, winning by a scant seven points from two-time race winner Schumacher, with four-race-winner Massey third, Shawn Langdon fourth and Bernstein fifth. One interesting stat here: the only member of the Top Fuel Top 10 not to win a race this year was Doug Kalitta, whose consistency got him into the Countdown to the Championship and left him sixth in the standings once all racing was done.

The suspense didn’t last past the quarter-finals in Funny Car, when Ron Capps, the perennial class bridesmaid fell to eventual race runner-up Courtney Force. It was another heartbreak for Capps, who came into the race meeting four points behind his teammate and (now) first-time champion Jack Beckman. Although Beckman fell to race winner Cruz Pedregon in the quarters, he had two points (two points!) in hand over Capps, who had five race wins to Beckman’s three.

Beckman celebrated his first championship with his team once the round was done; the veteran enjoyed taking the title on Veterans Day and, as a cancer survivor and father of two – living within 30 minutes of a track where he’s been a driving instructor – was still having trouble believing the good fortune he made for himself. “You think about this and you dream about this,” Beckman said. “We would have loved to have won it head-to-head (against his teammate Capps) but the trophy is going to shine just as well no matter what.”

Allen Johnson needed only to qualify for the Finals to take his title, which he did quite handily, leading the first session but falling to teammates Greg Anderson and later Jason Line in qualifying when then reigning champ set new track records for speed and ET in the third go-round. On Sunday, though, when it all mattered, nobody could stop Allen Johnson from doubling up with his first title and yet another race win, his seventh for the year.

In fact, the only guy to claim a repeat title was Eddie Krawiec, whose Harley-Davidson from Vance & Hines was nearly omnipotent all year; Krawiec had nine wins to teammate Andrew Hines’ six; only Michael Ray messed up the V&H Screamin’ Eagle domination with a single Buell win for Matt Smith Racing. To say their season was boring would sum it up for everyone else in the Pro Stock Motorcycle community.

Yeah, the Buell motorcycles were quick but the four-valve H-D engine humiliated them on Sundays. The father-son duo of Hector Arana and Hector Arana Jr were third and fourth on the year and Suzuki stalwart Karen Stoffer – losing sponsor Geico after this race – was fifth, her best season-long result. The only other Suzuki rider to break into the Top 10 was LE Tonglet, who missed a few races and never looked strong until later in the season.

What did I get from all this?

Absolute joy for Antron Brown, who came into the NHRA on the back of a Suzuki Pro Stock Motorcycle. He ran with Mark Peiser and had tutelage from Steve Tartaglia while at Don Schumacher Racing. When he went to David Powers Motorsports to drive in Top Fuel, Brown had Lee Beard to assist him in the transition.

And since that outfit folded, he’s been with DSR (again) and with the Real Mark (Oswald) and Brian (Corradi) Show – those guys are monster tuners! LA readers know about radio’s Mark & Brian show – but these guys are the real deal. I can’t imagine how difficult it was for Brown, burnt on the hands withthe fuel line’s rupture and its subsequent fire came into the cockpit, to watch three more rounds before knowing his fate. I can’t imagine what it was like for his wonderful crew.

Once Bernstein claimed the win light, Brown and his family were inundated with well wishes from nearly everyone in the paddock. Even Don Schumacher, who admitted he’d always prefer to see his son Tony win, said that the Matco Tools team earned their championship this year. They gutted it out.

I’ve often remarked that a monkey could tune Jack Beckman – he’s that good – but to have his car and crew taken away in the spring and given to Capps – well, that had to be tough for this tough guy. Don Schumacher hired Todd Smith, who had most recently worked with Snake Racing and Donnie Bender, tuning Spencer Massey in Top Fuel – before Snake closed the shop.

Funny Cars and Top Fuel cars may run the same engine in different places on the race car, but they are extremely different animals. The rail is just that – a long, forgiving missile. The Funny Car’s shorter wheelbase and body makes it extremely difficult to harness 8000 horsepower. Smith didn’t miss a beat, assisted by the wonderfully capable Terry Snyder, who’d been working with Capps’ group when Tim Richards was crew chief.

And Allen Johnson? HIs father Roy had a massive heart attack at Phoenix in the second 2007 race (that season was a tough one for NHRA – we lost Eric Medlen, founder Wally Parks and nearly lost John Force). Roy Johnson came back and the team continued its course, but it wasn’t until this season, when they added a few new crew members, including former driver Jim Yates, that the whole operation began to jell.

The J&J team learned how to win – man, did they learn how to win! And it was the “little points”, the ones gained for positions 1-3 in each qualifying session, that made the difference. Johnson was hounded to the final race by Jason Line and four-time 2012 winner Erica Enders, the first woman to win in the very technical Pro Stock category. I’ve got to admit this is my favorite part of NHRA drag racing because the secrets in Pro Stock are greater than the sum of the other three categories’ secrets! it’s the most competitive group running the quarter-mile.

The season is done, the banquet enjoyed and the champions cheered in NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing. When the teams return to Pomona next February, they’ll have an entirely different name for the series, as sponsor Coca-Cola is putting its Mello Yello brand front-and-center. One thing won’t change, though and that’s the desire and commitment of the racers.

Will 2013 be Capps year – finally? Can Enders become the first Pro Stock female champion? Can Schumacher take his eighth title or will it be Massey’s turn? Or Langdon’s? Or someone else? When the Harley-Davidson loses its four-valve engine to a two-valve design, will parity return to that category? It doesn’t look like there will be many Suzuki entries in 2013 – if any – but it sure would be nice to see someone other than those two Harley riders claim the spoils once more.

All in all, it’s been a fabulous year. Congratulations to my friends Antron, Jack, Allen and Eddie on their accomplishments. Way to go, guys!

By Anne Proffit

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One Comment
  1. Hey A, I can’t seem to “follow” you Do you know why? me

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