2016 NHRA Season Begins With Lots Of Newness

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, February 13 2016
The new-look Pro Stock cars made their debut on Friday at the Circle K Winternationals in Pomona.

The new-look Pro Stock cars made their debut on Friday at the Circle K Winternationals in Pomona.

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

NHRA’s revised Pro Stock rules package gave Greg Anderson a new perspective on his “Factory Hot Rod” the first time he rolled into the staging lanes during preseason testing for the 2016 season.

“I said to myself, ‘Did they move the ‘Christmas Tree’ back 20 feet at the track? Is somebody playing a nhra logojoke on me?’^” the four-time world champion joked. “Then it hit me that I wasn’t looking around the hood scoop.’’

Removal of the iconic hood scoop from all Pro Stock cars is among multiple rules changes instituted by NHRA officials for the 2016 season, which began Friday with a pair of qualifying sessions for the 56th annual Circle K NHRA Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway.

Bo Butner (Pro Stock), Tony Schumacher (Top Fuel) and Robert Hight (Funny Car) raced to provisional qualifying leads at Pomona, Calif., site of the first of 24 events on the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule. Anderson stood fifth on the ladder, admittedly still adjusting to the new look and feel of his Summit Racing Equipment Chevrolet Camaro SS.

Other key rules changes include electronically-controlled throttle body fuel injection systems replacing traditional four-barrel carburetors, an NHRA-controlled 10,500 RPM rev limiter, a front-mounted air inlet and shortened wheelie bars. The package is designed to increase spectator appeal, make the class more relevant both visually to production Camaro and Dodge Darts as well as from a technology standpoint and reduce/control costs for race teams.

That combination of factors has resulted in a field of only 16 cars, meaning all entered will qualify for Sunday’s finals.

Removal of the hood scoop has significantly improved driver visibility. “It’s a completely different

Top Fuel ace Tony Schumacher got off to a hot start to the 2016 season on Friday.

Top Fuel ace Tony Schumacher got off to a hot start to the 2016 season on Friday.

viewpoint,” said Anderson, who has five Pro Stock career victories at the historic Pomona track. “Now we have to make sure we don’t see too much and it becomes a negative. You’ll have to train yourself to not be distracted.”

While that shouldn’t be an issue for long, other rules changes will present a steeper learning curve. During a preseason test at Bradenton, Fla., Anderson said drivability emerged as the biggest challenge.

“It’s tricky to operate the throttle,” Anderson said. “It’s really difficult to get them at that low, staging RPM. A lot of that will fall on the driver to get his car staged properly and do a proper burnout. If you can’t get the car to stage properly, it’s not going to matter what it runs like down the track. There probably will be a few drivers who are going to look a little silly for a while. It could hurt the ego of some of these drivers.”

Butner was quickest Friday in the new-look category, powering his Jim Butner Auto Chevy Camaro down the quarter-mile to a 6.606-second pass at 209.75 mph. Anderson’s best lap was 6.647-seconds at 209.43 mph.

“We kinda joked in the staging lanes earlier that the guy that will win this race is someone who can start the car, and stage every round,” said Butner, who is teaming with Anderson and two-time world champion Jason Line in the KB Racing program. “Everybody will slowly get better. The guys at the shop make the best power. I’ve driven a lot of EFI cars and just when you think you have a handle on it, it’ll shut off. You have to calm down and not get frustrated. These guys are the smartest guys out here and they’ll figure it out.”

Butner was followed in the qualifying order by teammate Line, a four-time Winternationals winner, who drove his Summit Racing Camaro to a 6.618-second lap at 209.95 mph. “It’ll get a lot better and be a lot closer in the next three races,” Butner said. “I’ll assume we’ll run a high 58 or a 57. None of us have made a perfect run so far.”

Roger Allen, Chevrolet Racing NHRA program manager, noted the manufacturer has extensive EFI experience in other racing series and has been a technical partner with NHRA during offseason engine development and dyno testing.

“Pro Stock has had pretty much the same rules since the mid-1980s, so from Chevrolet’s perspective we’re excited about the new rules package,” said Allen, who saw Chevrolet drivers win 22 of 24 national events in 2015. “For the teams, it’s a good learning exercise.”

Anderson, who won four events and placed second in the 2015 Pro Stock standings, is confident he and Line again will contend for spots in the six-race Countdown to the Championship. Line won the opener at Pomona last February.

“The bottom line is somebody is going to gain an advantage with this changeover,” Anderson said. “There are a lot of things you can do, and I believe that I have a very deep team here that can respond quicker than some of the other teams and gain an advantage. That’s been our goal the entire winter, and we’ve worked extremely hard with the hope that we could gain an advantage at least to start the season.

“The class isn’t going to be as tight as last year with all these rule changes. Somebody is going to be out ahead of the group, and that needs to be us. The cars are not going to be as fast as the end of last year to start the season, but it doesn’t matter. It’s all relative to how everyone else is doing. If you’re quicker than everyone else, it’s a win-win deal. As the season goes along, everyone will learn a lot more and we’ll have to maintain that advantage as long as you can.”

Other top Pro Stock qualifiers included third-place Chris McGaha, who clocked 6.641-seconds at 208.62 mph in his Harley Sammons of Odessa Camaro. Five-time world champion Jeg Coughlin Jr. sits fourth in his Magneti Marelli/Elite/JEGS.com Dodge Dart with a 6.645-second pass at 208.55 mph while two-time/reigning world champ Erica Enders currently is ninth in the debut of her Mopar Performance/Elite Motorsports Dart at 6.660/208.68.

In Top Fuel, eight-time world champion Schumacher was quickest with a 1,000-foot pass in 3.722-seconds at 323.66 mph in his U.S. Army dragster.

“The second run was a good run,” said Schumacher, a two-time winner of the tradition-rich Winternationals. “We got the No. 1 spot and earned a few points and I’m proud of the guys. It’s a good start. I’m excited and my crew chief (Mike Green) is excited. I’ve been blessed to drive a race car for a living. I think we’ll go faster.”

Schumacher edged Clay Millican for the top spot late in the second round. Millican was second with a 3.746-second pass at 324.36 mph while Richie Crampton sits third in his Lucas Oil dragster at 3.748/322.65. Brittany Force led after the first session with a 3.753-second pass at 319.98 mph in her Monster Energy dragster.

Schumacher, who posted a 3.68-second run during last weekend’s NHRA Nitro Spring Training at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park in Chandler, Ariz., near Phoenix, had one of the quickest and most consistent cars during the four-day preseason test.

“We tested and ran in the 60s,” Schumacher said. “We had different conditions there and it’s warmer here, so we have to make adjustments. Our guys worked hard in the two-month offseason. We had to make a change. We had to change substantial stuff in our clutch. We’ve got really smart guys. We have a core group of crew chiefs that do a great job. Now we have to see if it will carry over in all three (Don Schumacher Racing Top Fuel) teams.”

Hight powered his Auto Club Chevy Camaro SS to a 1,000-foot performance of 3.942-seconds at 322.19 mph to take the qualifying lead in Funny Car. A three-time Winternationals winner, Hight was pleased with effort right off the trailer.

“If you don’t get down the track on the first run you’re usually behind the 8-ball the whole weekend,” said Hight, the 2009 world champion for John Force Racing. “The whole Funny Car ballgame has changed in the last year. If you looked at Funny Car last year, this 94 I ran would’ve been a national record. As drivers, tuners and teams you have to adapt to that. You see all these teams running 80s last year.

“We weren’t competitive with the (Jack) Beckmans and (Del) Worshams. At the end of the season last year we didn’t even have a chance to win the championship and that’s uncharted waters for us.”

Hight and the entire JFR team is riding a surge of momentum entering this weekend after a strong preseason showing.

“In testing last weekend in Phoenix we showed that we are back in the game,” Hight said. “I’m excited with testing and coming in here you know now that it’s not a fluke. We went in there and started knocking off 60-foot times. We put it all together and started running 80s. To come out here and run 94 the first run I’m really impressed by (crew chief) Mike Neff and these guys. Not a better place to do it than right here in front of my sponsor.”

Hight’s teammate, Courtney Force, was second in her Traxxas Camaro SS with numbers of 3.945/322.88 while reigning world champion Worsham was third in his DHL Toyota Camry fielded by Kalitta Motorsports with a 3.950-second pass at 323.04 mph. DSR’s Beckman, who won seven times and set the national record four times in a runnerup point finish last season, was fourth overall in his Infinite Hero Foundation Dodge Charger R/T, posting a best of 3.959/308.07.

Qualifying continues Saturday with two afternoon sessions. Sunday’s eliminations are scheduled for 11 a.m.  FOX Sports 1 will air Saturday’s time trials on tape-delay Sunday at 1 a.m. (EST). Sunday’s eliminations and finals will air live on the network at 5 p.m. (EST).

Friday’s qualifying results after the first two of four rounds of time trials for the 56th annual Circle K NHRA Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, first of 24 events in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series. Qualifying will continue Saturday for Sunday’s final eliminations.

Top Fuel _ 1. Tony Schumacher, 3.722-seconds, 323.66 mph; 2. Clay Millican, 3.746, 324.36; 3. Richie Crampton, 3.748, 322.65; 4. Steve Torrence, 3.750, 326.24; 5. Brittany Force, 3.753, 319.98; 6. Antron Brown, 3.782, 315.05; 7. Dave Connolly, 3.791, 291.32; 8. Shawn Langdon, 3.798, 319.98; 9. Leah Pritchett, 3.804, 314.46; 10. Morgan Lucas, 3.806, 318.39; 11. Doug Kalitta, 3.817, 321.27; 12. Terry McMillen, 3.844, 313.00.

Not Qualified _ 13. Troy Buff, 3.921, 306.05; 14. J.R. Todd, 4.655, 163.29; 15. Steve Faria, 6.014, 104.54; 16. Scott Palmer, 8.001, 82.32.

Funny Car _ 1. Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, 3.942, 322.19; 2. Courtney Force, Camaro, 3.945, 326.87; 3. Del Worsham, Toyota Camry, 3.950, 323.04; 4. Jack Beckman, Dodge Charger, 3.959, 308.07; 5. Ron Capps, Charger, 3.971, 322.58; 6. John Force, Camaro, 4.017, 314.83; 7. Matt Hagan, Charger, 4.028, 313.22; 8. Alexis DeJoria, Camry, 4.029, 316.97; 9. Tim Wilkerson, Ford Mustang, 4.041, 312.93; 10. Chad Head, Camry, 4.047, 310.34; 11. Gary Densham, Charger, 4.092, 307.79; 12. Cruz Pedregon, Camry, 4.124, 281.07.

Not Qualified _ 13. Bob Bode, 4.133, 283.37; 14. James Campbell, 4.348, 220.76; 15. Tommy Johnson Jr., 4.496, 187.96; 16. John Hale, 5.318, 155.79; 17. Terry Haddock, 9.317, 86.61.

Pro Stock _ 1. Bo Butner, Chevy Camaro, 6.606, 209.75; 2. Jason Line, Camaro, 6.618, 209.95; 3. Chris McGaha, Camaro, 6.641, 208.62; 4. Jeg Coughlin Jr., Dodge Dart, 6.645, 208.55; 5. Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.647, 209.43; 6. Drew Skillman, Camaro, 6.651, 208.68; 7. Allen Johnson, Dart, 6.653, 208.33; 8. Shane Gray, Camaro, 6.660, 208.68; 9. Erica Enders, Dart, 6.669, 208.62; 10. Joey Grose, Camaro, 6.684, 207.88; 11. Alex Laughlin, Camaro, 6.684, 207.59; 12. Deric Kramer, Dart, 6.686, 207.75.

Not Qualified _ 13. V. Gaines, 6.689, 207.11; 14. Matt Hartford, 6.702, 206.61; 15. Aaron Strong, 6.721, 206.29; 16. Vincent Nobile, 16.748, 51.88.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, February 13 2016
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