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NHRA Begins Western Swing

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, July 9 2009
Larry Dixon (NHRA Photo)

Larry Dixon (NHRA Photo)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Top Fuel star Larry Dixon says sweeping the NHRA’s Western Swing of mid-summer races is a lot like lacing up a pair of adidas Supernova Glide running shoes in anticipation of 26 miles, 385 yards…times three.

“It’s definitely an accomplishment, probably like winning the Boston Marathon or something,” said Dixon, who swept the national events in Morrison, Colo., Kent, Wash., and Sonoma, Calif., in 2003. “It’s just something that’s very hard to do because of the varying conditions.”

The Western Swing kicks off with the 30th annual Mopar Mile-High NHRA Nationals Friday through Sunday at scenic Bandimere Speedway, just west of Denver. Tony Schumacher (Top Fuel), Tim Wilkerson (Funny Car), Greg Anderson (Pro Stock) and Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle) are defending champions of the National Hot Rod Association Full Throttle Drag Racing Series event, the 13th of 24 races on the schedule.

Teams will travel approximately 2,115 miles during the 21-day stretch with the idea of logging a combined maximum of 6 miles (4.5 miles for Top Fuel and Funny Car) down all three racetracks. In between those 1,000-foot or quarter-mile runs, teams will be pushed to service their vehicles in 75 minutes or less.

Each venue presents unique circumstances, beginning with the extreme altitude, lack of oxygen and summertime heat outside Denver.

“It’s a lot of work on the teams, and the crew chiefs; it’s a lot just in the preparation for the event,” said Dixon, driver of the Alan Johnson Al-Anabi Racing Dragster. “The elevation changes, the track surface changes…you start out at Denver where you’re a mile-high in elevation and you finish off in Sonoma where you’re right at sea level. So it’s definitely challenging for the teams and being fortunate enough to have won all three, I just feel lucky to be a part of that deal. And obviously we are going to go out there and try and do it again.”

Alan Johnson Al-Anabi Racing is a first-year partnership between world championship tuner Alan Johnson and His Highness Sheikh Khalid Bin Hamad Al Thani, competing in Top Fuel with Dixon and in Funny Car with Del Worsham. Al Thani is seeking to raise the domestic and international awareness of motorsports in the nation of Qatar via this unique partnership.

Dixon pulled off his sweep six years ago while working for legendary driver/owner Don “The Snake” Prudhomme in a car tuned by Dick LaHaie. Dixon has won three of the last four races and four overall to move into second place in the Top Fuel standings, 53 points behind leader Antron Brown and his Matco Tools Dragster. Schumacher, a six-time Top Fuel champion in the U.S. Army Dragster, is third and only three points behind Dixon.

Only six professional drivers have swept The Western Swing, which has been a part of the NHRA circuit since 1989. Top Fuel legend Joe Amato did it in 1991 and was followed by Funny Car icon John Force in 1994. Top Fuel’s Cory McClenathan did it in 1997 and Dixon accomplished the feat in ‘03. Greg Anderson became the first Pro Stock driver to do so in 2004, and last year Schumacher capped a record-breaking season by holding a broom in the winner’s circle at Infineon Raceway.

“You know, the team I’m hooked up with now, most of those guys were part of Tony Schumacher’s 2008 (Western Swing) sweep,” said Dixon, who has advanced to at least the semifinals in seven of 12 races this season, including the last four. “It was good times and you just, you know, it’s there and it’s out in front of you and that’s what we are all going to try and do starting this week.”

Dixon was the No. 3 qualifier last year at Bandimere Speedway , where he defeated Steve Torrence and Morgan Lucas before losing to Schumacher in the semifinals.  Dixon won the 2001 and ’03 races at Bandimere.

Once teams exit Colorado, they are off to two races closer to sea level: the NHRA Northwest Nationals at Pacific Raceways in Kent, Wash., near Seattle and the FRAM-Autolite NHRA Nationals at Infineon Raceway in California’s San Francisco Bay Area.

“Having won at all of these (Swing) races, I have good memories from each of them,” said Dixon, a 42-year-old native of Van Nuys, Calif., living in Avon, Ind.  “They’re fun races to win for different reasons.  With the elevation at Denver, it’s hard to make good power and have good downforce because the air is so thin.  We’ve raced there before when the air is corrected to what you’d find at 10,000 feet so that makes it tough to make power and build downforce.

“Seattle has always had challenging track conditions, so winning there is a great accomplishment. Winning at Sonoma is fun because of being in California again…just being on the West Coast. A lot of friends and family show up for that race, and being able to win in front of family and friends is always great.”

Dixon enters this weekend’s race riding the momentum of his recent win at the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals in Norwalk, Ohio, on June 28. He was the No. 1 qualifier and defeated Steve Chrisman, Clay Millican, Brown and Brandon Bernstein on his way to victory. Dixon also won at Gainesville, Fla., Topeka, Kan., and Englishtown, N.J., earlier this season.

After failing to qualify for the season-opening Kragen O’Reilly NHRA Winternationals,Dixon has rebounded with wins in three of four races. The four wins have pushed his career total to 47, ninth on the all-time NHRA list and within two of former boss Prudhomme’s 49. Dixon’s total is third on the NHRA’s all-time Top Fuel winner’s list, trailing Schumacher’s 59 victories and Amato’s 52.

Dixon’s two winningest seasons were his championship campaigns of 2002 and 2003 with Snake Racing; Larry won nine races in 2002 and eight in 2003. At the exact halfway point of this season he has four wins. Asked if he was perhaps ahead of any projected win pace with owner Johnson – an eight-time NHRA Top Fuel championship crew chief – Dixon was diplomatic.

“You try and just go into every event and try and do well,” said Dixon, the 1995 NHRA Rookie of the Year. “And obviously going into (the 2009 season-opener in) Pomona, we laid a big egg and didn’t even qualify for it. You know, just going to the next event and qualifying was a celebration. But getting four wins out of the first 12 races we have run so far…and everybody is in a little different position, me just being in a different team, Jason McCulloch, he’s a crew chief now, all of the guys on the team…Alan Johnson back being a team owner again. It’s a lot.

“From where we were when we left Bristol in May, these last four events have been really nice; a very stark contrast.  I am not too caught up on streaks or anything like that; I’m just enjoying the moment.  What we’re doing right now is exactly what Jason talked about after we left Bristol to go to Atlanta and test for two days.  He said we would make a bunch of runs and we’d ‘Get our groove on.  You’re going to start driving the car well, and we’re going to start making the right calls. We’re going to make a bunch of runs and go from there.’  The more information they get, the more chances they have to make better calls. Collectively, that’s exactly what has happened, and Jason made the call back in May.

“Every racer will look back on all of the races you didn’t win and know that you gave some away. But to still be able to go the first half of the season and win four out of the 12, I think it speaks a lot of what our team has done just to start out from nothing to get to where we are right now.”

ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will televise two hours of qualifying coverage at 10 p.m. (ET) on Saturday, July 11. On Sunday, July 12, ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will feature NHRA Race Day, a 30-minute pre-race show, at 11 a.m. (ET), and three hours of eliminations coverage at 7 p.m. (ET).

- John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, July 9 2009
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