It’s Big-Jump Time for Top Fueler al Balooshi
By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
Three years ago, when it was first suggested to Khalid alBalooshi that he should be sitting in a Top Fuel dragster in the NHRA by good friend and team-owner His Highness Sheik Khalid al Thani, it all ended with a laugh. The second time that suggestion was made, it ended with alBalooshi making a Top Fuel test pass at 324 mph.
The hope, of course, is that 324 mph run during testing in West Palm Beach, Fla. earlier this year is just the beginning. The beginning of a long, successful career at Al-Anabi Racing in the NHRA.
A career that launches this weekend at the O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Winternationals in Pomona, Calif.
“Excited? Yes, yes, yes. I’m very excited to come to race in one of the big Top Fuel teams,” alBalooshi said during a telephone conversation on Tuesday.
He will be racing for, perhaps, the best Top Fuel when the Winternationals go green. Al-Anabi cars have won the last two season championships. The first, with Larry Dixon in the Al-Anabi silver car. Last season, the Al-Anabi gold car won it all with Del Worsham in the seat.
That seat, surprisingly surrendered by highly popular Del Worsham – who decided to trade wheel for wrench – just days after the season-ending Pomona event, is the one alBalooshi will be in in 2012.
Apparently, the pressures of racing are not confined to drivers hailing from the Western Hemisphere.
“Del, he finished the season No. 1 in the points,” alBalooshi said. “I’m a little nervous. But not about, oh, I’m going to drive and this and that, but from where to where I’ve jumped. To the world of Top Fuel and the top spot.
“He (Worsham) finished No. 1 in the points, with a good team, and Alan Johnson (the super successful team manager), I’m not jumping to a nobody team in Top Fuel, you know?”
The 32-year-old alBalooshi is a native of Dubai, in the United Arab Emerates. That is, he’s from a place that is about as far from Pomona as you can get. But the path he took to the NHRA’s season-opening event is not as foreign as one might think.
He grew up liking and following what might be the most American of all motor sports, drag racing. His driving career took fairly normal routes as he worked his way up the ladder system.
In 2008, he drove a Pro Mod car in the Emirates Motor Club. He won four races. In 2009, he won the American Drag Racing League Pro Mod championship. In 2010, alBalooshi won the Arabian Drag Racing League Pro Mod championship in Qatar, the home nation of his team owner, His Highness Sheik Khalid Al Thani.
Last year, alBalooshi raced in the NHRA Get Screened America Pro Mod series, winning races in Gainesville and Las Vegas. He won the championship in the series and also, the Pro Mod championship in Arabian Drag Racing League.
He was a spectator when Worsham won the 2011 championship. It was not long after the last of the confetti flew and the last of the champagne was sprayed that he was approached by Sheik Khalid.
“He told me, ‘Del, he won the championship, he’s going to retire , he will be a crew chief, Balooshi, you are going to drive one of my Top Fuel cars.’ He said, ‘Balooshi, now you are ready to jump to the Top Fuel.’ I tell him, you think so. He said, ‘yes, Balooshi, go out and try it. I think you can do it.’
“After that, I worked with Chad Head (director of racing operations at Al-Anabi) and Alan Johnson. I took four or five runs and he (Sheik Khalid) told me, ‘Balooshi, you can do it.’ ”
Over his career, alBalooshi has won 158 races.
But none in anything close to the 8,000 horsepower NHRA Full Throttle SeriesTop Fuel cars, and none against the kind of competition he will face this weekend in Pomona.
Oh, the Pro Mods were fast – 240 mph-plus on the strip. And powerful – 3,000 hp. But baby, alBalooshi said, there was no mistaking Pro Mod for Top Fuel when he was first strapped into the latter for test runs.
“The cars run much faster than what I was doing before,” he said. “Much faster, you know? Before, the car after you leave (the starting line), you don’t feel faster and faster and faster. In Top Fuel, soon as the cars leave, you let off the clutch and you feel faster and faster and faster to the finish line.”
alBalooshi knows that not all his challenges will come at 300 mph, and last less than 4 seconds. He’s an outsider to the sport, and, he is racing for a team which is owned by a foreigner.
He will mix with American fans this week in Southern California for the first time. But, he has mixed with his new peers already and says he has been made to feel most welcome.
“Everybody who’s talked to me said good job and Balooshi you can do it and this and that and everybody is nice about what I’m going to do,” alBalooshi said.
The nitro cars will fire on Thursday afternoon at Pomona for the 52nd running of the Winternationals. Not long after that, alBalooshi and the a worldwide collection of witnesses will find out exactly what he will do in the fastest race cars in the world.
At a bare minimum, his boss thinks he’ll do well.
– Jim Pedley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.orgOne Comment