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NHRA Notes: Worsham Leaves Kalitta

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, November 23 2016
NHRA driver Del Worsham is on the move.

NHRA driver Del Worsham is on the move.

Del Worsham, only the third driver to win NHRA world championships in Top Fuel and Funny Car, is returning to his racing roots. Worsham announced Tuesday he is leaving Kalitta Motorsports to rejoin father Chuck Worsham and his family-owned Funny Car team beginning in 2017.

“It was a hard decision to leave a championship-caliber team such as Kalitta Motorsports,” Worsham said in a statement from team headquarters in Ypsilanti, Mich. “However, there is so much unfinished business with my family’s team and I felt now is the time to do it. I am excited to see what the future holds.”

Worsham drove the DHL Toyota Camry to a seventh-place finish in the final 2016 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series point standings. The bright yellow car formerly was driven by the late Scott Kalitta, a two-time NHRA Top Fuel world champion and son of team-owner and drag racing icon Conrad “Connie” Kalitta. The NHRA Top Fuel world champion in 1994 and 1995, Scott Kalitta recorded 17 Top Fuel wins and one in Funny Car prior to a fatal crash at Englishtown, N.J., on June 21, 2008. At the time of his death at age 46, Scott was one of 14 drivers to have won national events in both NHRA nitro categories.

Worsham, a 46-year-old resident of Villa Park, Calif., finished seventh in the 2016 Countdown to the Championship Funny Car standings topped by first-time world champion Ron Capps, driver of the NAPA Auto Parts Dodge Charger R/T fielded by Don Schumacher Racing.

“I cannot thank Connie Kalitta enough for giving me a shot in Scott’s car, and helping me achieve one of my ultimate goals _ a Funny Car championship,” Worsham said. “I also want to thank (crew chief) Jim O. (Oberhofer), Jon O. (Oberhofer), Nicky Boninfante, the ‘YellaFellas’ and my Kalitta Motorsports teammates.

“I walked away from one of the best rides in 2011 after I won the Top Fuel championship, and I feel the same way now. The time is just right and I know this is the right decision for me and my family.”

Worsham won his Top Fuel title in 2011 driving for now-defunct Al-Anabi Racing, posting eight victories, three runnerup results and a 53-14 won/lost record. The following season Worsham served as crew chief for Alexis DeJoria’s rookie NHRA Funny Car season. In 2013, Worsham moved back into the cockpit as driver of the DHL Toyota Funny Car, posting a runnerup finish at Gainesville (Fla.) Raceway and a pole at Bristol Dragway en route to an eighth-place point finish.

Worsham returned to Victory Circle for the first time since 2009 during the Countdown race at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in 2014. He also posted a career-high three pole positions.

Worsham won four of six Countdown races and posted a 39-20 won/lost record in 2015 to outrun “Fast” Jack Beckman of DSR for the Funny Car world championship after entering the playoffs as the No. 4 seed. It marked the first Funny Car championship for Kalitta Motorsports, as Worsham joined “King of Speed” Kenny Bernstein and Gary Scelzi as the only drivers to win championships in Top Fuel and Funny Car.

From 2013 through 2016, Worsham claimed six victories, 10 additional final-round appearances, eight poles and 120 round-wins. 

Worsham was named NHRA Rookie of the Year in 1991, when at age 21 he became the youngest driver to win a Funny Car event. Worsham earned his most recent win with his family-based team in 2008.

“Del has been a big part of the Kalitta Motorsports family for many years and we are sad to see him go,” said Jim Oberhofer, who also serves as Vice President of Operations, Kalitta Motorsports. “He gave Connie his first Funny Car championship and has been a valuable asset for DHL, Toyota and our entire group of supporters. We wish him the best of success in his next endeavors.”

The new driver for the DHL Toyota Funny Car has been selected and will be announced at a later date.

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Elite Motorsports and Mopar have ended their Pro Stock partnership after disappointing seasons by multiple world champions Erica Enders and Jeg Coughlin Jr. Both drivers drove Mopar-backed Dodge Darts in 2016.

Additionally, Elite announced that crew chief Rickie Jones _ an integral part of Enders’ championship teams in 2014-15 in Chevrolet Camaros _ will step away from the sport to focus on his family in 2017. Jones is the son of veteran crew chief/chassis-builder Rick Jones.

“I want to thank everyone at Mopar and Dodge, from the top executives to the engineers on to the people helping us at the races for their hard work and dedication,” Richard Freeman, Elite Motorsports team-owner, said in a statement from Wynnewood, Okla . “My guys should be commended. They basically worked around the clock with pretty much zero days off for the entire season, busting their butts to try and give Erica and Jeggy competitive race cars. We look forward to a fresh start into 2017.”

Enders finished ninth in points during the 2016 Countdown to the Championship, never advancing to a final-round in 24 events. Coughlin, a five-time world champion and winner of 58 Pro Stock national events and 76 overall, placed 10th. Coughlin’s winless season was only the fifth during a career dating to his Pro Stock debut in 1997, when he became the first driver to win in four NHRA categories _ Pro Stock, Super Stock, Competition Eliminator and Super Gas.

“We thank the entire Elite Motorsports team, including owner Richard Freeman and drivers Erica Enders and Jeg Coughlin Jr., for serving as superb ambassadors of our brand,” said Pietro Gorlier, Head of Parts and Service (Mopar), FCA – Global. “The drivers and team handled themselves with professionalism and class, constantly working hard to break into the winner’s circle. We commend them for their dedication and never-quit attitude and wish the team, Erica and Jeg nothing but success in their future endeavors.

“For 2017, we will continue our relationship with Don Schumacher Racing in both NHRA Funny Car, which has culminated in four championships in six years, and also in Top Fuel. And we will expand our presence in the NHRA Sportsman ranks.”

Coughlin claimed his “Factory Hot Rod” world championships in 2000, 2002, 2007, 2008 and 2013. “We really wanted to light up the scoreboards this year with our Magneti Marelli offered by Mopar/JEGS.com Dodge Dart but we couldn’t quite get it running where it needed to be,” said Coughlin, a 46-year-old resident of Delaware, Ohio. “Like Richard, I salute everyone at Mopar and thank them for the effort. We wish them well in 2017 and beyond.”

Enders echoed Coughlin’s remarks, nothing the pair spent the entire season chasing a winning combination. Enders reached the semifinals for only the third time during 2016 at the recent season-ending 52nd annual Auto Club NHRA Finals in Pomona, Calif. “Hopefully, we can start writing a new chapter and everyone will move forward into a better situation, including Team Mopar,” Enders said. “We wish them nothing but the best because they’ve been great partners.”

Switching manufacturers and a slew of significant rules changes to the Pro Stock class combined to wreak havoc with the Elite team, but Enders said she learned a lot about herself and her team in 2016.

“The struggles we endured are a testament to what my team is made of,” said Enders, a 33-year-old resident of New Orleans. “It’s not always about the trophies. Yeah, we want to win races, that’s what we get paid to do, but it’s more about the chemistry and the camaraderie we share. It’s something money can’t buy, that’s why it’s so coveted and it’s a big reason why people are envious of us. I’m so proud to be this team’s driver. I am so blessed. Richard Freeman could have chosen anyone, and he chose me and our puzzle is complete.”

Jones, 29, helped guide Enders to 15 race wins and the 2014-15 championships in her first two seasons with Elite Motorsports. Enders, in fact, replaced Jones as driver at Elite Motorsports _ after Jones won the 2013 season-finale at Pomona.

Jones will continue to work at RJ Race Cars and Quarter-Max Chassis and Racing Components in Galesburg, Ill., the companies he and his father own.  RJ Race Cars builds the chassis Elite Motorsports uses in NHRA, as well as several other cars for a variety of customers. Jones also pointed to a recent surge in demand for Street Rods and other custom work.

Freeman said the team has no need to hire a replacement for Jones, as existing crew chiefs Rick Jones, Mark Ingersoll and Brian “Lump” Self will lead the three-car team in 2017.

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Victory truly has its rewards for Pro Stock Motorcycle rider Matt Smith. Victory Motorcycles management has announced its return to the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series in 2017, with the manufacturer again partnering with two-time world champion Matt Smith and Matt Smith Racing.

Smith earned his first victory of the season and the first for the Victory Gunner when three-time world champion Angelle Sampey red-lighted aboard her Precision Service Equipment/Star Racing Buell in the final round of the 52nd annual Auto Club NHRA Finals at Pomona on Nov. 13. A division of Polaris Industries Inc., based in Medina, Minn., Victory is the first all-new American-made motorcycle from a major corporation in nearly 60 years. Victory joined the NHRA series in 2015 with a two-bike team featuring Smith and wife Angie.

“It means a lot to me that Victory is coming back,” said Matt Smith, a 44-year-old resident of King, N.C. “We’ve been developing a new motor for the last several months, and we’re doing new bodywork for the 2017 season. We should be even better next year.”

The victory at Pomona snapped a three-year losing streak for Smith, who last won at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in October 2013. Smith clinched his second Pro Stock Motorcycle championship by winning the race that day. He also won the title in 2007.

 Matt Smith has made the Countdown to the Championship in each of the last two years aboard a Victory machine. He has two No. 1 qualifiers and one win in four final-round appearances while developing the new Gunner engine/chassis/body combination. Smith finished sixth in the 2016 Countdown playoffs won by first-time world champion Jerry Savoie aboard his Savoie’s Alligator Farm Suzuki.

“The partnership has been good,” Smith said of Victory. “We’ve struggled some. We all know we’ve had an aerodynamic disadvantage for the last two years, but we’re moving in the right direction to try and make the bike more aerodynamic with the new body we’re going to come out with. Hopefully, that will give us the edge we need to put Victory in the winner’s circle on a regular basis.

“Closing-out 2016 with a big victory for Victory at the last race of the year really gives us a bunch of positive momentum heading into the offseason. There’s a lot of work to be done and the Gatornationals will be here (in mid-March) before you know it, but we’re all extra-energized now with this latest Wally trophy on the mantle.”

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Greg Anderson closed-out 2016 with a Pro Stock victory at the season-ending event at Pomona, where Ken Black Racing teammate Jason Line clinched his third world championship. But Anderson, a four-time world champ, went into the offseason clutching his milestone 86th career Wally trophy _ one more than 10-time world champion and all-time runnerup Bob Glidden on the Pro Stock wins list.

Warren Johnson, Anderson’s former boss and a six-time world champion, leads the Pro Stock class with 97 victories. Anderson’s total moved him into third on the all-time list behind 16-time Funny Car world champion John Force with 147 wins and Johnson, “The Professor of Pro Stock.” Anderson bagged his 11th victory at historic Auto Club Raceway at Pomona to fall three points short of his fifth championship.

“It came down to the final race of the year,” said Anderson, a 55-year-old resident of Charlotte, N.C., and driver of the Summit Racing Equipment Chevrolet Camaro. “Jason is the world champion and I won the race. What a dream! To break Bob Glidden’s record is obviously fantastic. That’s something I never considered, could think about or imagine. Now that it’s happened, it’s just unreal.”

 

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, November 23 2016
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