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Vandergriff Decision Will Thin Top Fuel Fields

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, April 15 2016
Top Fuel driver Brittany Force lost a top competitor earlier this week.

Top Fuel driver Brittany Force lost a top competitor earlier this week.

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Brittany Force’s budding Top Fuel rivalry against Leah Pritchett temporarily has been shelved, the most prominent circumstance emanating from Bob Vandergriff Jr.’s decision to shutter his two-car team.

bugnhranotesBut of greater ongoing concern for Peter Clifford, NHRA president, will be the ability of the sanctioning body to consistently field full, 16-car qualified fields heading into the fifth race of the 24-event Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season.

Vandergriff shut down his team Tuesday, his unexpected retirement leaving recent first-time national event winner Pritchett and Dave Connolly as free agents, along with co-crew chiefs Mike Guger and Joe Barlam (Pritchett) and crew chief Jason McCulloch and assistant Ron Douglas (Connolly).

“That’s definitely tough for the entire sport,” Force said during a national teleconference on Wednesday. “I don’t know if I really feel like I’m in a place to comment on it, but we need those cars out there. We need…they’re great for the sport, and we want to keep growing the sport. I hope everything works out for both drivers, teams, everybody involved. I hope they all get something worked out because we need all of them out here.”

Pritchett posted her first NHRA Top Fuel victory in an historic all-female final against Force during the 32nd annual CARQUEST Auto Parts NHRA Nationals near Phoenix on Feb. 28. Pritchett vs. Force took place 34 years after Shirley Muldowney faced Lucille Lee in the first all-female Top Fuel final at the 1982 Springnationals at National Trail Raceway in Columbus, Ohio. Muldowney won that match en route to her third world championship.

Neither Force, 29, nor Pritchett, 27, was born when Muldowney and Lee squared-off for their

Dave Connolly has become a free agent.

Dave Connolly has become a free agent.

quarter-mile match. Pritchett vs. Force marked only the fourth time two women decided a professional class victory in the series. Angelle Sampey and Karen Stoffer have met twice in Pro Stock Motorcycle finals, most recently at Norwalk, Ohio, last season.

Force, meanwhile, broke into the win column for the first time at the 47th annual Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals in Florida on March 20, trailering Terry McMillen _ appearing in his first final _ to give Funny Car powerhouse John Force Racing its inaugural Top Fuel victory. Force, benefitting from her team’s offseason alliance with tuning guru Alan Johnson, also is leading the Top Fuel point standings for the first time.

NHRA certainly was counting on the friendly Pritchett-Force rivalry as a marketing tool with its fan base as well as new TV partner FOX Sports. The most recent two editions of National Dragster, official publication of the NHRA, featured cover stories on Pritchett accompanied by the headline “LADIES FIRST” and Force with the headline “A FORCE FIRST.” So much for that campaign.

Vandergriff, who retired as a Top Fuel driver after the 2014 season, said the recent death of BVR supporter and friend Josh Comstock prompted him to “seriously reevaluate my priorities in life.” Comstock, the chairman/CEO of C&J Energy Services, died in his sleep on March 11 at age 46. The founder of the Texas-based company in 1997, Comstock was Vandergriff’s primary sponsor for the past seven years. Connolly, who moved from Pro Stock to Top Fuel in 2015, has been driving the C&J Energy Services dragster.

The effect of BVR’s demise on future fields_ beginning with the seventh annual NHRA 4Wide Nationals at zMAX Dragway in Concord, N.C., April 22-24 _ figures to be significant. The Top Fuel ladder has failed to fill its 16-car maximum in two of four events this season. Race No. 2, the CARQUEST Auto Parts NHRA Nationals at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park in Chandler, Ariz., drew a field of 14 cars.

The tour’s most recent event, the 17th annual Denso Spark Plugs NHRA Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, drew 15 cars. The other two events _ the season-opening 56th annual Circle K Winternationals at Pomona (Calif.) Raceway and its East Coast counterpart, the Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla., each drew 16 cars…meaning all entries qualified for race day.

Pritchett was hired during the offseason to replace three-time Top Fuel world champion Larry Dixon, who finished fourth in the point standings in 2015. Connolly finished 10th in points and qualified for the six-event Countdown to the Championship playoffs last season after racing to three runnerup results.

But Dixon and Connolly combined to go 0-for-9 in Top Fuel finals in 2015, prompting Vandergriff’s decision to “go younger” with Pritchett _who was competing in her first full Top Fuel season after graduating from the Jr. Dragster, Pro Mod and Nostalgia Funny Car ranks.

Connolly is seventh in points and Pritchett is 10th following the Vegas race.

Asked to comment on BVR’s sudden exit, Johnson said, “Well, you know, other than that it’s unfortunate, I don’t know… I’m not privy to any details other than what we all read in the press release. It’s unfortunate.”

Johnson speaks from the experience of having to downsize and eventually close his championship-winning team last season after losing his primary backer and being forced to hustle-up sponsorship to run a partially-funded schedule with 2013 world champ Shawn Langdon. Acknowledged as one of the most innovative crew chiefs in the sport, Johnson now is working as tuning consultant for Force and Steve Torrence in Top Fuel. The two teams have created an informal strategic alliance with Johnson in a bid to improve on-track performance and consistency.

Force became the sixth driver to claim a first career victory with Johnson’s assistance. The others were Blaine Johnson, Alan’s late brother; former Top Fuel and Funny Car world champion Gary Scelzi, Bruce Sarver, Langdon and Khalid alBalooshi. Johnson has 11 NHRA Mello Yello Top Fuel world titles to his name, and 15 overall, with five different drivers.

“I think probably my brother’s first win was…that was obviously the most gratifying one of all of them,” Johnson said during the teleconference. “But I think a close second to that would be Brittany because she’s got so much passion for it, and she’s been out here for three years, been in a number of finals, just haven’t got it done. To see her finally break through and get a win was very gratifying, and I’m just happy for her and her family that she was able to get it done.

“And as far as going on and doing well and winning championships, that’s why we’re here. That’s why we do this. That’s why I do it is to get out there and mix it up and get some wins, and to have the drivers be able to experience that, that just adds a whole element of fun to it, as well.”

Johnson confirmed that he is continuing to pursue sponsorship in an effort to return to the series as team-owner of Alan Johnson Racing. Away from the track, Johnson owns and operates Alan Johnson Performance Engineering in Santa Maria, Calif., which specializes in building engine components for automobile, motorcycle and boat racing teams.

“Well, we’re confidently working to that end,” said Johnson, who tuned Tony Schumacher to five of his eight Top Fuel world titles at Don Schumacher Racing. “Our marketing team is still out there, and we’re entertaining people as we speak. Hopefully our goal is to still have our team back out there in 2017. Yeah, this (consultancy effort) is…this just keeps us ‘out there.’ It keeps my involvement in the sport fresh, so hopefully if everything goes our way, we’ll have three teams out there next year.”

Funny Car driver Alexis DeJoria _ another of the NHRA’s very marketable women personalities _ scored her fourth career victory at Vegas at the expense of Kalitta Motorsports teammate Del Worsham, the reigning world champion. DeJoria posted her first victory since 2014 and joined Pritchett and Force as the third female to earn a Wally Trophy this season.

“Any time any teams back out, it’s upsetting for the sport,” said DeJoria, driver of the Tequila Patron Toyota Camry. “I don’t like to see anybody not be able to drive. Very upset for my friend Leah. She just got that win. I mean, she’s an incredible driver, and she finally gets a full-time gig, and unfortunately they most suddenly closed the doors on her. I have a lot of faith that she’s a hustler and she’ll find another ride, I’m sure. But it’s very upsetting for Dave Connolly and for the whole organization.”

Television viewership of the Denso Spark Plugs NHRA Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway delivered 1,292,000 viewers on Sunday’s (April 3) finals show alone, making it the most-watched NHRA event in 14 years. The broadcast on FOX Sports 1, which featured live coverage of the semifinals and finals, more than doubled last year’s telecast on ESPN2.

“The viewership numbers from Sunday in Las Vegas are very encouraging,” Peter Clifford, NHRA president, said in a statement. “FOX Sports has proven to be a great partner to showcase the power, performance and personalities of NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing, with an ability to help maximize our audience by giving NHRA solid air times and including us as a key component within blocks of motorsports programming. The NHRA community is beyond thrilled with all of the early season viewership numbers.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, April 15 2016
One Comment

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  • Victor Seay says:

    Top fuel has become boring. The cars all look the same other than graphics to make them a Toyota, Chevrolet or a Dodge. they only run a 1000 ft. who came up with that ? Its always been 1/8 or 1/4 and someone just comes up with 1000′. Walley Parks would roll over in his grave. I understand the safety factor but if someone is scared tell them to run a slower class ! Speaking about slower classes, you should replace the pro-stock class with pro-mods. The pro-stocks are also a little boring as well. NHRA must receive money from the auto industries to continue running this class. NHRA is becoming more and more like like nascar with the rules in this class and other classes. Pro- Mod is the only reason I will even go to an NHRA event anymore ! Your problem with attendance is once some one has been a few times its just entertainment but the thrill is gone. Pro-Mods in the PDRA run faster in the 1/8 than pro-stocks in the 1/4 and that’s a thrill ! 60 ‘ is as fast as Top Fuel in the 80’s hope this gives you all a little something to chew on. Victor Seay an NHRA member.