Dixon Making Bid To Return To Top Of Top Fuel
By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
Count drag racer Larry Dixon Jr. among the “car guys” soaking up all things automobilia during the 42nd annual Barrett-Jackson Collector Car Auction.
“Just looking,” Dixon said via cell phone while rolling onto the grounds of WestWorld of Scottsdale, Ariz., for last Friday’s bidding activities. For the record, Dixon was “just looking” for precious metal with permission from his wife, Allison.
“Everything’s here…it’s a spectacle,” Dixon said. “You could never assemble the quality you see here in any car show. It’s just incredible…race cars and anything and everything. For the most part I like the ‘60s Muscle Cars, what I grew up on. And then there’s some of the customs, the whole ’50s style. Those are the kind of cars that interest me.
“And I’m definitely partial to Chevrolet because I grew up in a Chevy family. My dad’s Top Fuel car was Chevy- powered in the 1970s.” In fact, Larry Dixon Sr. won Top Fuel Eliminator honors at the 1970 NHRA Winternationals with 4-year-old Larry Jr. a wide-eyed spectator.
Last winter, Dixon attended B-J as a suddenly unemployed three-time NHRA Top Fuel world champion, following his 2011 season-ending release from Al-Anabi Racing. That B-J trip was the start of an aggressive networking and marketing/sponsorship campaign that produced a late-season, three-race deal to drive the Dote Racing Top Fuel dragster.
Dixon’s due diligence returned a major dividend last week, when he signed-on with Rapisarda Autosport International for a limited 2013 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Top Fuel schedule working with famed tuner Lee Beard. Rapisarda Autosport International is led by Australian crane mogul Santo Rapisarda and sons Santo Jr. and Santino (Tino). As part of the deal, Dixon’s schedule also will include races in the ANDRA Australia Drag Racing Series once the NHRA season is completed.
“At the moment it’s (his contract) this year and we’ll see how it goes,” said Dixon, 46. “Santo Rapisarda is very
well-established and his crane business can afford him to go racing. He’s committed to 12 to 18 (NHRA) races. He hired myself, he hired Lee Beard and it’s our responsibility to pick up the slack as far as filling-in the inventory to run the rest of the races. I feel very comfortable I can make that happen, especially with somebody like Lee to assemble the car and the team. Santo has given Lee the ability to update the team’s equipment to 2013 standards.”
Dixon said Beard met with the elder Rapisarda in Australia during the holidays. Once he agreed to join the organization, Beard called Dixon on Jan. 10 with the offer to race on two continents. In North America, Dixon, Beard and the Brothers Rapisarda will operate out of a shop in Brownsburg, Ind., down the street from John Force Racing and Morgan Lucas.
Despite his extended hiatus in 2012, Dixon remains the second-winningest Top Fuel driver in NHRA history with 62 national event victories and world championships in 2002 and 2003 in cars owned by mentor/NHRA icon Don “The Snake” Prudhomme and in 2010 with Al-Anabi Racing.
Beard, a three-time NHRA world champion crew chief and team manager in the nitro ranks, will serve as director of operations for RAI. Beard, 59, is the only NHRA crew chief to have won national events with 11 different drivers, as well as the 1992 Funny Car world championship with Cruz Pedregon.
Beard’s duties will include the tutoring of Santo Jr. and brother Tino as co-crew chiefs on Dixon’s dragster. “Santo wants his sons to learn how to run a Top Fuel team,” Dixon said. “Lee’s title is director of operations and part of the deal is organizing the team and showing them the ropes and learning the cars _ not just turning knobs but hiring people and all of that. He’s working with Tino and Santo Jr. for that ability for years to come.”
Because of the team’s late launch and the resulting logistics, Dixon said RAI’s abbreviated schedule probably will not include the season-opening 53rd annual O’Reilly Auto Parts Winternationals at Pomona (Calif.) Raceway from Feb. 14-17.
“We just started ordering parts last Thursday _ cylinder heads and clutches and blowers,” said Dixon, a native of Van Nuys, Calif., now residing in Avon, Ind. “We’re so late into the offseason ordering but we’re in line. We’ll be on the track and racing by Gainesville (Fla., for Race No. 3 March 14-17) and if the equipment comes in before Pomona, we will go to Pomona and Phoenix (Feb. 22-24). But Gainesville, absolutely. Lee’s the kind of guy who doesn’t want to just show up at an event. He wants to compete for round wins and race wins. I like his way of thinking. Every team I’ve been a part of, that’s how we rolled.”
Dixon began his Top Fuel career in dramatic fashion in 1995, driving the machine vacated by “Der Snake” after the 1994 season to wins in the prestigious U.S. Nationals, Budweiser Shootout and Rookie of the Year crowns. Dixon since has passed NHRA superstars “Big Daddy” Don Garlits, Shirley Muldowney, Joe Amato and Kenny Bernstein in Top Fuel wins. Dixon has qualified No. 1 at 51 national events and reached 108 final rounds, winning a record 12-of-12 during his 2010 championship season at Al-Anabi.
Dixon remains guarded about his portion of the “mutual agreement” to separate from Al-Anabi in December 2011, shortly after teammate and newly crowned Top Fuel world champion Del Worsham abruptly retired to become a Funny Car crew chief.
“They have the drivers they wanted and I wish them the best,” said Dixon, referring to team-owner His Highness Sheik Khalid Al Thani of Qatar and team manager Alan Johnson. “That’s pretty much it. There’s not a whole lot more I can offer you on that side of things. I’m moving forward. I’m excited about 2013 and not belly-aching about 2012.
“When all that went down it was so late into the offseason that I knew there wasn’t going to be an opportunity of landing any ride (for 2012). I didn’t belly-ache about it. I started working with sponsors and marketing partners _ websites, Facebook, twitter _ all of that was new to me, and going to the races and working with (NHRA announcer) Bob Frey and on the ESPN2 shows. I got to do everything but compete and it was great for me. I got to see what NHRA has to offer during a weekend event. I think I’m in a better position to sell our sport now. I went to all the playoff races (six Countdown to the Championship events) and it was exciting. I got to cheer for it and not have any sour grapes about not being in it.
“But if you’re not racing as a competitor, you’re thinking about next season. To see the Top Fuel championship decided in the final race between (eventual champion) Antron Brown and (Don Schumacher Racing teammate) Tony Schumacher…it was great racing. If you can’t tell, I’m a fan of the sport.”
When the season ended in November, Dixon said he traded text messages with Top Fuel team-owner Don Schumacher following the release of Spencer Massey over his embarrassing conduct during the annual NHRA awards banquet. Despite finishing third in the final Countdown standings, Massey’s team went into the offseason without a sponsor following FRAM/Prestone’s mid-June announcement that it would exit the series at the end of 2012.
“That car needs funding to run it,” Dixon said, “and if I don’t have the funding to run that car I’m not of value to Don. I also talked to Don earlier in the season and he made it clear that ride was available _ but it was sponsor-generated. I understand that car is shut down, so there’s not a team in place at the moment and if somebody came up with a sponsor, they could go race.
“My effort over the last 12 months was securing the funding to go racing. It’s not easy when you see a team like DSR shutting down a team that was top-three in points. And Don Prudhomme and Kenny Bernstein also closed up their businesses. It’s not easy but not impossible either. I’m going to keep at it. I think we have a great product to sell in our sport, and like so many other things it’s just getting with the right company. That’s what I’m working on 24/7. At the moment, I’m bringing a lot of skill (to RAI) but no money.”
Dixon said he expects to run a six-race schedule in Australia, and fully enjoy life in the fast lane Down Under. “Their season starts in October-November and runs through April or May, and then they get their winter,” Dixon said. “Lee will be crew chief, but right now we’re concentrating all our efforts on the NHRA program.
“This opportunity to join the Rapisarda team and work with Lee for the first time is very exciting for me. I think, like Lee, I can bring the Rapisarda organization solid background and race experience that can give the team strong performances. I want to thank Santo and his family for this opportunity.”
Beard has led drivers to 65 No. 1 qualifying positions in Top Fuel and Funny Car and 54 wins, his latest during the 2012 NHRA Finals at Pomona. In addition, Beard and Dale Armstrong are the only tuners in NHRA history to have had their drivers and cars join the exclusive 4-second and 300-MPH clubs in both Top Fuel and Funny Car, capture a series championship and be named Crew Chief of the Year and Person of the Year by “Car Craft” magazine.
“I see a lot of potential with the Rapisarda Autosport International team,” said Beard, who scored the first of his three world championships with the late Gary Ormsby in Top Fuel in 1989. “I’m anxious to work with Larry after all of our years as competitors. He’s one of the greatest Top Fuel drivers ever.”
Rapisarda Autosport International is dedicated to the memory of Louie Rapisarda _ son of Santo and brother of Santo Jr. and Santino _ who lost his life in 1990 in a Top Fuel accident at Willowbank Raceway in Queensland, Australia. The organization is based in Sydney, Australia, as well as Brownsburg, Ind. Rapisarda International is a five-time ANDRA Series championship-winning team.
“We are extremely pleased to have the talents of Larry Dixon and Lee Beard joining Rapisarda Autosport International for 2013,” Santo Rapisarda said. “Both Larry and Lee have some of the greatest resumes in NHRA drag racing history. Although they have never teamed up together before, we believe their leadership and competitiveness will lead us to victory lane this year.”
– John Sturbin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.orgNo Comment