NHRA Notes: Dixon Reacts To DNQ

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, February 18 2010
This season, Larry Dixon is off to a fast start in Top Fuel. (Photo courtesy of the NHRA)

This season, Larry Dixon is off to a fast start in Top Fuel. (Photo courtesy of the NHRA)

Larry Dixon’s DNQ in his debut for Al-Anabi Racing last February arguably cost him the 2009 NHRA Top Fuel world championship.

A two-time champion, Dixon fell two points short of Tony Schumacher at the conclusion of the six-race Countdown to 1. Dixon began erasing those memories Sunday, when he knocked off Schumacher in the semifinals en route to a final-round victory over Doug Kalitta in the 50th annual Kragen O’Reilly NHRA Winternationals at Pomona, Calif.

Dixon covered the 1,000-foot distance at Auto Club Raceway in 3.808-seconds and 316.60 mph to trailer Kalitta, the defending Winternationals champion, who ran 3.848-seconds and 310.05 mph. Earlier, Dixon eliminated Schumacher, the seven-time and reigning champion, in a rare dead-heat.

“Our car ran flawless all day,” said Dixon, who scored his fourth Winternationals victory and fifth overall at Pomona.  “In that semifinal with Tony Schumacher where we both ran the same ETs and the same speeds (3.836/317.05), I just got a little bit better jump off the line just to give us the opportunity to get in the final round and be able to win.”

Indeed, Dixon’s slightly quicker reaction time – 0.068-seconds to 0.085 – proved crucial. “It was definitely one unusual race,” said Schumacher, driver of the U.S. Army Dragster. “There aren’t many times you’ll see that happen. I just think it’s an example of how good both teams are.”

The Dixon-Schumacher dead heat marked only the third time in the history of Top Fuel, dating to 1970, two drivers posted the identical ET and speed. For those with short memories, it happened just last spring at Houston Raceway Park in Baytown between Schumacher and Morgan Lucas. Meanwhile, the only other time such a deadlock occurred was during the NHRA World Finals in 1972, according to drag racing historian Bob Frey. And while a dead heat has been recorded twice in Pro Stock, there never has been one run in Funny Car.

A native of Van Nuys, Calif., Dixon fully appreciated the significance of winning this season-opener.

“This race is as big as the Daytona 500, and the fact that it’s the 50th year of it and all the hype – they’re passing out gold-plated Wally’s – it’s all I could think about since the Monday after last year’s finals,” Dixon said. “A year ago when we came here, we had a lot of great talent in our team and a lot of capable equipment and Toyota’s support, but we weren’t a ‘team’ yet.  It just took some time for everybody to gel.  Now the team knows me and I know them, and I know the car.  We started getting our groove on in the summer and came on, but we fell just a couple of points short of winning the championship.  Now we’re getting it all together.”

Dixon earned only 10 points at Pomona one year ago. He exited the track Sunday with a series-leading 122 points and a 26-point lead over Kalitta after his sixth victory for the team co-owned by tuner Alan Johnson and His Highness Sheik Khalid Al Thani of Qatar. Dixon will roll into this weekend’s 26th annual NHRA Arizona Nationals at Firebird International Raceway in Chandler as the points-leader for the first time since the debut of Al-Anabi Racing last season.

The win also was significant to Dixon on a pair of personal levels. Dixon’s father, Larry Sr., won the Winternationals Top Fuel title in 1970, when Larry Jr. was 3-years-old. The Dixons are one of two father-son tandems to have won Winternationals Top Fuel titles, joining Connie and Scott Kalitta.

And the victory was the 49th of Dixon’s career, tying him for third place on the all-time NHRA Top Fuel list with legendary owner/driver Don “The Snake” Prudhomme. Dixon was hand-picked by Prudhomme to replace him upon his retirement from the cockpit after the 1994 season. Five-time champion Joe Amato retired with 52 wins and remains second on a list topped by Schumacher’s 61.

Capps emotionally crushed: Ron Capps’ final-round Funny Car loss to John Force computed to 15 thousandths -of-a -second, or approximately seven feet of frustration against his archrival.

Force, the No. 3 qualifier in his Castrol GTX High-Mileage Ford Mustang, recorded the quickest elapsed times of every round Sunday in former driver Mike Neff’s debut as co-crew chief with Austin Coil. Force beat Capps on a hole shot (0.057-second reaction time to Capps’ 0.073) on a pass of 4.124-seconds and 298.67 mph. Capps ran 4.123/305.08.

“It’s heartbreaking to not win the 50th Winternationals,” said Capps, a resident of Carlsbad, Calif. “Because starting the day off and going up to driver introductions and getting to chat with Grumpy Jenkins, Don Garlits and Dave McClelland was incredible. For a kid like me who grew up in the sport, it brings tears to your eyes, just seeing and talking to all the legends and heroes.”

Capps, who qualified ninth, defeated Jim Head, Cruz Pedregon and Bob Tasca III en route to facing Brut Force, a 14-time Funny Car champion.  “There’s a reason Force has all those championship trophies,” said Capps, driver of the NAPA Auto Parts Dodge Charger fielded by Don Schumacher Racing.  “He knows how to get up to race. We’ve had some great battles in the past and I thought this was going to be another one and I was going to be holding the trophy.”

As it is, Capps is 27 points behind Force after the first of 23 national events.

“I’ve said it time and time again. It doesn’t matter where we qualify,” Capps said. “Ace (crew chief Ed McCulloch) comes Sunday morning to race. And not only that, the guys that he trains on the team did an incredible job, especially after breaking a rear end (after defeating Pedregon). A lot of teams probably wouldn’t have made it back up for the next round and our guys changed everything on the car, including the rear end, and had it back up there before anybody else in the staging lanes. We are so proud of those NAPA guys who did that all in under 35 minutes.”

Hight one-and-done: Reigning Funny Car champion Robert Hight’s Sunday started with another round of ceremonies, and ended unceremoniously early.

Hight, the No. 1 qualifier and two-time Winternationals winner, was ambushed in the first-round by No. 16 qualifier Cruz Pedregon. In just over an hour’s time, Hight was handed his Full Throttle Drag Racing Series champion’s jacket and ring…and was promptly dispatched via a tire-smoking run that saw him cross the center line and earn an immediate disqualification. Pedregon, a two-time champion, ran 4.330-seconds and 251.81 mph.

“(Crew chief) Jimmy Prock is still baffled that we smoked the tires,” said Hight, driver of the Auto Club Ford Mustang fielded by John Force Racing. “Even after looking at the data. The tires weren’t hot. I had it perfectly lined up in the center of the groove. I knew I left on it. I saw the amber. It felt awesome. I pedaled it and got back on it and it hooked. When it does that usually it goes. I stayed in it and then all of a sudden it turned sideways so I lifted. When it does that the tires really start spinning. They slow down and then they really speed up and it shoots you. Unfortunately, it shot me across the center line and I couldn’t bring it back.

“We’re still learning this clutch package. It is not like last year when we were struggling to figure it out. We just have to fine-tune this Mustang to get it to react the way we need it to. We’ll get it.”

Hight also suggested that the 50th anniversary celebration of the Winternationals added to the weekend’s distractions as he began defense of his championship. Hight is ninth in points with 43 after the first of 23 races.

“I wasn’t around the fans all winter,” said Hight, a resident of Yorba Linda, Calif. “You get back to the racetrack and everywhere you go everybody is calling for you. They don’t call me ‘Robert’ anymore, they’re saying, ‘Hey champ!’ and that is cool.

“It (was) a crazy, crazy weekend. I’m back at my home track after winning the championship. I got my ring and my champion’s jacket. There were just lots of things going on. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I am not complaining. But it’ll be nice to get to a more normal race weekend.”

Beckman’s team gelling: “Fast” Jack Beckman advanced to the Funny Car semifinals before losing to – who else – longtime antagonist and eventual champion John Force. Beckman, driver of the Valvoline/Mail Terminal Services Dodge Charger, trailed Force by a tick at the launch but soon struck the tires as Force cruised to the victory with a 4.125-second and 305.56 mph run. Beckman crossed the line in 5.658/132.02.

“We’ve made 18 runs together as a team,” Beckman said of his revamped group, including new crew chief Rahn Tobler. “It’s a major change for Rahn to adapt to the parts and pieces that we had, and then for assistant John Collins to fit in with Rahn’s philosophy on this. It’s hard to complain. Losing is never easy in this sport, but we’re leaving in fourth place and we look like we’ve been chipping away at this tune-up. We knew we had to step it up.

“We had an ignition issue before the semis. That’s the cool thing about this sport. When everything is going perfect it’s easy to be good. It’s when a wrench gets thrown into the works and you watch how the team adapts to that and then takes that poker face back up for the next round that tells a lot. We were the last car into the lane for the semis, and everybody still did their jobs perfectly up there.

“Unfortunately, the old John Force looks like he’s back. They had lane-choice, they had a bad hot rod, and we couldn’t take a weak tune-up up there.“

Anderson still chasing Edwards: Three-time Pro Stock champion Greg Anderson’s bid to deliver an opening-day message to reigning champ Mike Edwards ended when the rivals met in the final. Edwards, the No. 1 qualifier, closed the deal with a quarter-mile pass in 6.577-seconds and 210.47 mph while Anderson ran 6.618/209.62.

“Although we’re certainly happy to have made it to the final, we’re a little puzzled as to why our car slowed down so much in the final,” said Anderson, driver of the Summit Racing Pontiac GXP. “As the day went along, and the track got hot and greasy, we had gone into somewhat of a conservative mode, making changes to the car to just survive.  Doing that, we made it to the final.

“They called us to the lanes for the final at 4:20, so we figured the track hadn’t changed much and made a few adjustments to compensate. Unfortunately, we sat there for an hour, during which conditions changed and we ended up with the wrong setup.  Having said that, Mike went through the same situation and got it right, so it tells us we have to get better, and we will.”

Anderson also admitted his disappointment was magnified by a desire to do well for team-owner Ken Black, who missed the race while recovering from a stroke suffered in December. “I really wanted to bring a trophy to Ken, and would have liked to put a smile on his face after everything he’s gone through,” Anderson said. “I guess we’ll just have to wait a week and see if we can get it done in Phoenix. For all he has done for us, it’s the least we can do.”

Morgan’s Mustang impresses: Larry Morgan’s run into the Pro Stock semifinals at Pomona in the debut of his Lucas Oil Ford Mustang has fans of the “Blue Oval” buzzing.

“Jamie Allison (director of Ford North America) is so excited he’s coming to Phoenix,” Morgan said. “It was about the best start I could have had. Just very, very good for everyone involved, from Lucas Oil to Ford to my guys at the track and back at the shop.  We’re barely scratching the surface here, so to get a semifinal finish was huge.”

Morgan defeated the Chevrolet Cobalt of four-time champion Jeg Coughlin Jr. in the first round and Ronnie Humphrey’s Pontiac GXP in the second before falling to three-time champ Greg Anderson in the semis. Anderson ran 6.632-seconds and 209.10 mph in his GXP to Morgan’s 6.681/208.20.

Unfortunately, Morgan damaged his primary 500 cubic-inch Ford engine at Auto Club Raceway and had to repair the bullet before shipping it overnight to Chandler, Ariz.

“We hurt the motor in Pomona, sent it home, hurt it on the dyno again, so we’ve been thrashing since the race ended,” said Morgan, who was still working at his shop Wednesday night. “It’s tough when you’ve only got a few days before you have to head back on the road, but we’ll get it done. We’ve all been putting in a lot of extra hours this week, and this whole offseason, really, but you get a burst of energy after the kind of success we had in Pomona. There are plenty of smiles around the shop.”

Bernstein lookin’ good in blue: Brandon Bernstein’s Top Fuel debut in new primary sponsor Copart’s shocking blue paint scheme was an artistic success at Pomona, from trendy graphics package to the team’s tailored crew uniforms.

Bernstein was eliminated from Sunday’s  Winternationals in the quarterfinals by eventual event-winner Larry Dixon, who posted a winning pass of 3.854-seconds at 316.82 mph to Brandon’s 3.929/309.34. Still, team-owner Kenny Bernstein and his son are expecting to rebound during the NHRA Arizona Nationals this weekend.

Both Kenny Bernstein, a six-time NHRA champion, and Brandon won their first Top Fuel events at Firebird International Raceway in Chandler. Brandon notched his first career victory as a rookie in 2003 in only his second outing.  Brandon repeated the win in 2004 and was runnerup last year.

“We’ve had three final-round appearances at Firebird,” Brandon said, “and having won at this track in the past gives you a bit more confidence going into race weekend. “In January, we had our choice of going to Firebird for preseason testing or a non-national event track in Florida.  We chose Firebird because we felt we could compile some usable data for this year’s Arizona Nationals.”

For the record, Kenny Bernstein scored his first Funny Car victory at FIR in 1986. Kenny was a five-time finalist at the Phoenix event, having also scored victories in 1991 and ’96 in Top Fuel.  He was runner-up in 1997 and ’99 driving the Budweiser King Top Fuel Dragster _ on a team that was well-dressed in red.

“Repeat offenders” rule: Seven professional drivers have won the season-opening NHRA Winternationals and Arizona Nationals – second stop on the Full Throttle Series since 1990 – in the same season.

Funny Car ace Ron Capps completed the repeat last season. Meanwhile, Funny Car icon John Force, who also performed the feat in 1997, will attempt to become only the second driver in NHRA history to accomplish the task twice this weekend. Three-time Pro Stock champion Darrell Alderman went back-to-back in 1991 and 1995. The other back-to-back Pomona/Chandler winners: Jerry Eckman (Pro Stock), 1992; Jim Yates (Pro Stock), 1996; Gary Scelzi (Top Fuel), 1997 and Jeg Coughlin Jr. (Pro Stock) in 2000.

Quote du jour: “I don’t see myself going to the races. I don’t think it’s real healthy. This thing gets into you pretty deep. I wish there was a detox place for nitro, where they could hook you up to a machine and get the nitro out of your system so that you don’t care about it anymore. But I do, and if I wake up one day and see the sport and the economy going in the right direction, I’d come back even if I was 80 because I still dig it.”

– Don “The Snake” Prudhomme, on his self-imposed retirement from NHRA

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

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, February 18 2010
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