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Mello Yello NHRA season starts in Pomona

February 15, 2013

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Brandon Bernstein set the pace on Thursday at Pomona (Anne Proffit photo)

The Mello Yello era in NHRA drag racing started today on the Auto Club Raceway at Pomona dragstrip – the series’ ancestral home where it begins and ends each season. On a gloriously gorgeous So Cal day, last year’s World Finals winner Brandon Bernstein led a 19-car Top Fuel field, veteran and part-timer Gary Densham was quickest of 17 entries in Funny Car while V Gaines’ Dodge led the Pro Stock contingent – while reigning champ Allen Johnson was last of 19 racers.

It was that kind of a day.

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Don Schumacher enters 3 Top Fuel and 4 Funny Cars in NHRA Mello Yello drag racing (Anne Proffit photo)

We arrived early this morning for a press conference featuring Don Schumacher and Spencer Massey, the former a 7-car team owner whose brigade captured both Top Fuel and Funny Car titles in 2012; the latter one of his three Top Fuel drivers, who finished third last year behind Antron Brown and Tony Schumacher.

Massey exhibited immature behavior at the NHRA’s black-tie banquet last year, bringing a soft cooler of beer and becoming a wee bit obnoxious after consuming them (or whatever else?). Schumacher was not at the banquet because his 96-year-old mother died that morning; first things first.

Cutting to the chase, Massey said he behaved like an idiot, Schumacher said he didn’t want to break up the team he’d sworn he’d save after primary sponsor Fram/Prestone got out of the sport (and there’s a question for another day – why leave when you’ve got a built-in audience?) last summer. So Schumacher gave the driver a second chance and he’s quite a bit chastened and grateful.
ImageSpencer Massey is grateful to have his ride (Anne Proffit photo)

That press conference ended at 9:30 so it was out to the pits to see what was chilling. Not much as it turned out, because professional qualifying didn’t start until 2PM. I did find Larry Dixon, returning to Top Fuel competition after spending last year mostly on the sidelines. The 2010 and three-time champ hooked up with Rapisarda Autosport International, an Aussie-based Top Fuel team that ran Cory McClenathan last year.

Lee Beard, who worked with Cruz Pedregon’s Funny Car team (winning at Pomona in November), also joined Rapisarda. It’s the first time these two have worked together and Dixon is impressed, particularly with Beard’s organizational skills. Dixon intimated that their skill sets bonded nicely and it showed today, when they were able to get down the left side of the track in under 4 seconds when many who raced all last year couldn’t.

NHRA held a press conference in the middle of the pits before qualifying began on Thursday, bringing in dignitaries like president Tom Compton, a Coca Cola Co. rep and the sports marketing guy from O’Reilly Auto Parts, the naming sponsor of this race. The also brought out three of 2012’s champions – all first-timers – Antron Brown (Top Fuel), Jack Beckman (Funny Car) and Pro Stock ace Allen Johnson. Also on the dais were 15-time Funny Car titleholder John Force, his daughters Courtney (starting her second Funny Car season) and Brittany (Top Fuel rookie – a first for this team).

They were joined by last year’s Funny Car runner-up Ron Capps, who holds that distinction for the fourth time in his career. Capps keeps insisting not winning a championship won’t make or break him, but to come within two points and lose to teammate Beckman? I bet even doing sound work for the Super Bowl (hopefully a side job) didn’t assuage Capps’ disappointment. Del Worsham, the 2011 Top Fuel champ who’s returning to the driver’s seat after a year-long hiatus where he tuned last year’s rookie contender Alexis DeJoria also came to this conference – that welcomed and included fans on-hand.

Once this was done it was time to go racing, finally. The big drama in Pro Stock was a few drivers’ inability to make it down the track, including new teammates Jeg Coughlin and Allen Johnson. There were quite a few stoppages in Funny Car for oil-downs and similar fates. Among those having problems – particularly in the left lane – were 2009 champ Robert Hight, Jeff Arend and John Force.
ImageBrake problems on a dragster? Yep, that was Brittany Force’s problem on Thursday at Pomona (Anne Proffit photo)
Everyone on-site was waiting for Brittany Force’s debut – gonna have to wait longer. The second-to-youngest Force daughter did a proper burnout but experienced a brake issue and realized she was going to have a problem. Force never got the chance to go down the track and has to wait until Friday to get her first licks in. Both lanes created problems for the rails, as Massey, Shawn Langdon, Doug Kalitta, Bob Vandergriff and David Grubnic didn’t make the 12-car cutoff. As it was only 10 drivers made it into the 3’s, the final one being Dixon.

So another day at the racetrack is done. It took 1:15 to get back ho me to Long Beach and I’m whipped. But ready for another snag at it tomorrow – just like the racers. I’m just glad NHRA’s season is starting up again – it brings out the primal beast in me.

By Anne Proffit

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