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No Pressure For Dixon, Just Opportunity

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, November 13 2009
Larry Dixon lights up the night during qualifying at Las Vegas on Friday. (Photo courtesy the NHRA)

Larry Dixon could be on the verge of dethroning Tony Schumacher. (File photo courtesy the NHRA)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

His genuine appreciation of NHRA history has kept Larry Dixon grounded during a career highlighted by two Top Fuel world championships… and by dusk on Sunday, perhaps a third.

In a script worthy of soapnet.com, Dixon trails six-time and reigning Top Fuel champion Tony Schumacher by one point heading into Thursday’s opening round of qualifications for the 45th annual Auto Club NHRA Finals in Pomona, Calif. With only four rounds of points-paying time trials and four rounds of racing remaining in the Countdown to 1 – NHRA’s six-race playoff – Dixon assessed his place in drag racing history.

“One (championship) is more than I thought I’d ever get in my lifetime. To get two…lets you know you’re not a one-hit wonder,” said Dixon, who won his Top Fuel titles in 2002-03 while driving for NHRA icon Don “The Snake” Prudhomme. “Growing up, Don Garlits and Shirley Muldowney were the people I looked up to and they got three (Top Fuel) championships. I know I’m not at their level in terms of respect; that comes in time. But to match numbers with them, I’d be honored to be up there stat-wise.”

Dixon and Schumacher – who have combined to win the last seven Top Fuel titles and nine of the last 10 – have been inexorably linked since the season began at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona 10 months ago. Their natural rivalry was amped-up when tuner extraordinaire Alan Johnson left Don Schumacher Racing, “The Sarge” and his U.S. Army Dragster at season’s end to start Al-Anabi Racing with the backing of Sheikh Khalid bin Hamad Al-Thani of Qatar.

Schumacher and crew chief Mike Green more than matched wits with Dixon and crew chief Jason McCulloch until Round 5 of the Countdown in Las Vegas two weeks ago.  Schumacher carried a 47-point lead – slightly over two rounds of racing at 20 points per round – into the Las Vegas Nationals. Dixon, the No. 1 qualifier, advanced to the final before being eliminated by rookie Spencer Massey. Schumacher, meanwhile, was trailered after a second-round loss to DSR teammate Cory McClenathan, erasing all but one point (2,485-2,484) of Tony’s formerly comfortable lead.

McClenathan’s upset of his teammate left him only 48 points out of the lead in a belated bid for his first Top Fuel title. His 31 career victories make McClenathan, driver of the FRAM Tough Guard Dragster, the second-winningest driver in NHRA history to have not yet won a championship. And while Cory Mac looms as the sentimental favorite at age 46, the protagonists here are Schumacher and Dixon.

“To be honest, I thought we would be leaving…if you scripted it perfectly, we’d be going to Pomona a round back of Tony, because I thought we had to win the Vegas race and he‘d be in the final with us,” Dixon said. “So for us to make up two rounds and all but one point _ and it won’t be one point after we qualify _ it’s a great opportunity. I’m just very excited.

“This race is an opportunity to win a championship.  For all practical purposes, Tony and I are tied, and Cory’s right there, too.  So it’s really winner-take- all; whoever does better at this race is gonna win it.”

As it has since the Countdown began, qualifying will prove pivotal under a revised three-two-one scoring system. Three points are awarded to the No. 1 qualifier in each session; two points for the No. 2 qualifier in that session and one to the third-place driver. The maximum points available via time trials alone is 12 over the course of the weekend.

Schumacher’s recent stranglehold on Top Fuel _ a run that includes five titles in a row beginning in 2004 _ basically has overshadowed every competitor in NHRA’s premier division. But Dixon, 43, clearly is operating as a prime-timer. Dixon will end the season having never finished lower than eighth in points since launching his career with “Der Snake” in 1995. A native of Van Nuys, Calif., Dixon has won five races this season _ Gainesville, Fla.; Topeka, Kan.; Englishtown, N.J.; Norwalk, Ohio and Reading, Pa. Those five wins match his combined total for 2008 (two) and 2007 (three), when he finished second and third in points, respectively.

As the No. 1 qualifier in Vegas, Dixon defeated Morgan Lucas, Doug Kalitta and McClenathan before losing to Massey – ironically, the driver who replaced him at Prudhomme Racing. Dixon – who failed to qualify for the season-opening Kragen O’Reilly NHRA Winternationals at Pomona in February – has been on-pole nine times this season, including each of the last five Countdown races. He never has scored more poles in a season in his career, eclipsing his previous best of seven in 2002.

Furthermore, Dixon has been No. 1 qualifier more than any other driver in Top Fuel or Funny Car this season, and 40 times during his career.

“I don’t really feel pressure; it’s more of an opportunity because I don’t have anything to lose,” said Dixon, whose five wins this season have been scored in nine final-round appearances. “I think anybody in my position would love to have wrapped it up early, but that’s not the case. Looking back at my two championships, it didn’t take the full season for our team back then, but there’s 24 events on the slate this time. For us to have an opportunity to win it, it’ll take the 24th race so that’s how it lays out; we’ll do our best to finish the job this weekend.”

Dixon is a four-time winner at Auto Club Raceway, drag racing’s West Coast mecca, including 2008, ’03, ’02 and 1998. Last November, Dixon qualified No. 2 en route to defeating Clay Millican, Doug Herbert, McClenathan and “Hot Rod” Fuller in his final victory for Prudhomme.

That performance made his DNQ in the Al-Anabi Racing Dragster in February, his ballyhooed debut with Johnson and McCulloch, all the more confounding. Having competed against Johnson-tuned cars for years, Dixon pretty much knew what to expect from his hands-on owner.

“You could go back to his (Johnson’s) years with Tony and Gary Scelzi and his brother, Blaine,” said Dixon, the latter a reference to Alan’s late sibling. “I raced in 1995 against Alan and Blaine in the finals at The Finals…and they set low ET of the meet for Blaine’s first Top Fuel win. Alan’s been doing this for a long time and knows how to do this. Having a guy like that in our corner…I have a lot of confidence in the team that surrounds me.”

However, Dixon said he did not know what to expect that day from “The Sheikh,” whose start-up team includes the Funny Car driven by Del Worsham. Al Thani’s stated goal is to promote the domestic and international awareness of motorsports in the wealthy nation of Qatar. So out of the box, Dixon DNQs.

“We got this brand new team, go into the first race and the car goes out and shakes the tires and that broke the ignition,” Dixon recounted. “I’m dead in the water and we don’t qualify. But the Sheikh said, ‘Don’t worry about it, we got 23 more races to show ‘em what we got. You guys will be fine.’ He said,’You forget I own Pro Mods, and that stuff happens all the time.’ He moved on. Wasn’t any George (or Hank) Steinbrenner tantrums or ranting. He gets it, and I have a lot respect for him.”

At 23, The Sheikh is nearly half Dixon’s age…and as Larry noted, a man who is not content with quenching his need for speed vicariously.

“He races a Pro Mod car…he’s got his own thing going,” said Dixon, adding that the start of the drag racing season in Qatar may preclude The Sheikh from attending the season-finale in Southern California.  “I’m waiting to see if he shows up. What I like about him is he’s young and well-educated and done his due-diligence on everything. Before I met him, he knew stuff about me I forgot. He knew so much about me that impressed me…and I said, ‘If he knew all that stuff going back to high school and racing in the streets and still wanted to hire me, it must be OK.’

“Having the opportunity with Alan and His Highness Skeikh Khalid…he’s the one putting it all out there, putting this team together to do something great. I’m really thankful for the opportunity. There’s not a lot of jobs out there. Having an opportunity to make a living doing what you like to do and being with a great team they’ve put together…I feel very honored to be a part of it.”

Still, it is Johnson _ an eight-time NHRA Top Fuel championship crew chief _ and McCulloch who have collaborated on the tuneups that have blasted Dixon down the NHRA’s 1,000-foot strips over the last 10 months. The NHRA only began officially recognizing 1,000-foot performances this season, and Dixon’s best ET at that distance is 3.783-seconds set at Richmond, Va. His top speed at 1,000-feet is 318.99 mph at Memphis, Tenn.

“I feel great because I have Alan Johnson and Jason McCulloch on my side, and with their record at Pomona, I’m excited about the weekend,” said Dixon, who is making his third Countdown appearance in as many years. “I don’t know what Alan’s and Jason’s game plans are, but right now, I’m not thinking any further than Thursday’s qualifying round.  I want to do the best we can possibly do there, and then move my focus to Friday.  After Friday, I’ll think about Saturday and then Sunday.  We have eight possible runs this weekend and if we compete in all eight of them, we should be in pretty good shape.”

Schumacher knows that feeling. He won 49 Top Fuel national events with Johnson calling the shots, including 15 last year, when they conspired to beat Dixon by 258 points for the championship. In 2005, Schumacher dissed-and-dismissed Dixon by 415 points, the largest Top Fuel margin in Full Throttle Drag Racing Series history.

“The pressure is always big, but our car has always been one that’s performed the best under pressure,” said Schumacher, 39, whose hometown is Canoga Park, Calif. “So I enjoy it. I kind of look forward to that pressure.  And all my friends, 2,500 people texted me (after the Vegas loss) and said, ‘Wow, Cory beat you and now it’s one point; you love that stuff.’ No, I don’t. Uh-uh.  I’d rather have showed up here with it closed up.  I want it known right now that if Dixon doesn’t show up and lets me and Cory and battle it out, I’m fine with that.  We’re all clear on that.

“But it’s been fun.  We’ve had five wins this year.  He’s had five wins this year.  Separated on our teams, he got my whole team from last year and five championships’ worth of my guys, and we’re one point (apart) coming into the last race.  You couldn’t have written that in a better script.  NHRA couldn’t have asked for anything more.”

Dixon noted that from the get-go, fans and media have been anticipating a season-ending pairing of Schumacher vs. Dixon with the title on the starting line.

“I don’t think that far ahead at the beginning of the season,” Dixon joked, “but all the people who were talking about it were right. Here it is. And Cory Mac would like to pull the carpet out from both of us, and he still can. Tony’s a great driver, and all that. I’m sure he’s disappointed (by the Vegas loss) and I’m sure he’ll do things so that doesn’t happen again this weekend.

“I think that what he’s done (since 2004)…the only driver that wouldn’t dream of what Tony has done is John Force, who won 10 years in a row in Funny Car. I think there’s probably admiration that people can do those kinds of things. I don’t know. I’m not really worried about him. I’m worrying about myself and our team and making sure we do everything we can performance-wise to peak this weekend.”

Meanwhile, Dixon’s 48 career victories place him third on the NHRA’s all-time list. Five-time champion Joe Amato is in second place with 52 victories, while Schumacher tops the list with 61 wins.  Dixon is tied with four-time Pro Stock champion Jeg Coughlin Jr. for ninth-place on the NHRA’s all-time career victories list; in turn, both trail eighth-place Prudhomme by one win.

The significance, then, of a single victory by dusk on Sunday and a third championship has added to Dixon’s appreciation of his place in NHRA history.

“It would mean a lot…and justify having the opportunity to roll into the track on Sunday morning with a chance to not only win the race but also the championship,” Dixon said. “That’s what any driver would want. To be in that position is why I wanted to be a part of this. I knew this was a great opportunity and very unique partnership with Alan and His Highness and I wanted to be part of that.

“I’m thrilled to be in this position; this is what we do. It’s an exciting time, and I can’t wait to get started.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, November 13 2009
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