Nitro time again!
The National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) begins its 2014 season this coming weekend on the Auto Club Raceway at Pomona dragstrip that hosts the beginning and end of each season. As with every other racing series, everyone starts with a goose egg: no points, no bragging rights – well, except for returning champions – and plenty of desire to win race-day Wally trophies and the season-long huge gold Mello Yello Drag Racing Series cylinder hoisted last year by Shawn Langdon (Top Fuel), John Force in Funny Car, Pro Stock’s Jeg Coughlin and Matt Smith in Pro Stock Motorcycle.
All but the drag bikes will be on hand to compete at Fairplex, which is what the huge enclave is known as to locals in the Los Angeles area. There have been changes in the ranks here and there, as movement always takes place over the off-season. The march of crew chief/tuners is ongoing but in some cases, the continuity will bode well for those looking to repeat championships and close finishes.
Last year’s Top Fuel champion Shawn Langdon is back for a second stab at a professional title, working with Al-Anabi Racing for a third consecutive season. He’ll have to face competition from the three-car Don Schumacher Racing (DSR) stables (2012 champ Antron Brown, seven-time titleholder Tony Schumacher and Spencer Massey), from Kalitta Motorsports and the balance of a strong field. Langdon, from Mira Loma has been drag racing since childhood in the Southern California area and this is back-home-again week for him.
The same local flavor applies to 16-time Funny Car titleholder John Force, who lives in nearby Yorba Linda and had his shops in the area until a few years ago, when he relocated to Brownsburg, Indiana, where nearly every nitro-burning car is prepared. Force is facing a difficult season as he says farewell to car maker Ford and long-time sponsor Castrol. He’s hoping to give his two venerable partners another title after 24 races – six in the Countdown to the Championship playoff – are complete.
Force faces battles from the four-driver Schumacher camp (2012 champ Jack Beckman, perennial runner-up Ron Capps, 2011 titleholder Matt Hagan and Tommy Johnson Jr), from Cruz and Tony Pedregon, Del Worsham and Alexis DeJoria at Kalitta’s paddock, from his daughter Courtney, entering her third season and son-in-law Robert Hight, the 2009 champ.
Many of the larger teams, including DSR, Force’s outfit and Morgan Lucas Racing are building their own cars. Schumacher’s been doing this a long time and makes most of its engine parts, as well, while Force recently began building chassis to go with its BOSS 500 Ford engines. While Al-Anabi Racing’s team manager Alan Johnson has an engine-building concern in California and uses much of what he sells, the others keep much of their wares close to home. Alan Johnson is known for selling what he uses after developing parts with his team.
Pro Stock is, as usual, all shook up. While Jeg Coughlin will be back with the J&J Dodge Avenger he used to earn his fifth championship, partnering 2012 champ Allen Johnson, the rest of the field is jumbled. Greg Anderson has to take time off for surgery and will be MIA for at least three months, leaving Jason Line as the top contender from KB Racing.
The class’ sole woman winner, Erica Enders-Stevens has departed Cagnazzi Racing for Elite Motorsports, which took the 2013 finale with first-time winner Rickie Jones. Young gun Vincent Nobile gave up his Dodge roots to run a Camaro with support from KB. Mike Edwards, who looked like he was going to take his second title last year, sold his equipment so it’s no telling when or where we’ll see him again. Edwards laid blame for his late-season collapse on his own shoulders. That takes a real man, doesn’t it?
At this point, the weather forecasters are calling for seasonable, clear skies, but they’ve been wrong before. No doubt all the teams encamping from the midwest will be wicked happy to see the California sunshine as much as they’ll be yearning to get on the racetrack. NHRA decided to shorten the proceeding this week for the opening race; it’s usually a four-day meeting but this year will be on for three days, like nearly every other event on the calendar.
Some things are guaranteed – there will be ground-shaking excitement on the racetrack, intrigue in the paddock and three happy Wally-holding winners come Sunday night.
Words and Photos By Anne Proffit