NHRA: Pomona Top Fuel action will include full field, lots of new plotlines, drama
by Phil Burgess, NHRA.com
Projected 2009 Winternationals
The Top Fuel field that’s assembling for the upcoming Kragen O’Reilly NHRA Winternationals, Feb. 5-8 at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, will be deep in number and rich in drama and diversity as the “kings of the Sport” prepare to kick off the 2009 NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series season. In fact, based on entries received and discussions with teams, more Top Fuel cars will be at this year’s season opener than at last year’s lid-lifter.
There’s no doubt that the Top Fuel landscape will be much different than last year as the 2008 Winternationals- and world-championship-winning dynamic duo of driver Tony Schumacher and tuner Alan Johnson parted company after their record-breaking campaign and now will be adversaries in the fuel dragster ranks. Add to that a mix of returning top talent, new players, and local favorites, and it’s clear that the Pomona Top Fuel show will be a memorable one.
Schumacher will begin his bid for a sixth straight and seventh overall Top Fuel title with a new crew chief, Mike Green, and Johnson will begin his quest for a ninth Top Fuel championship with a new driver, former world champ Larry Dixon, and the all-new Al-Anabi Racing team.
“It was a great honor to drive for Alan and that entire team for the last five years,” said Schumacher, “but both of us have new challenges to look forward to this season, and I can’t wait to get out there.”
Dixon, who finished second in points last year, had driven for legend Don Prudhomme since his debut in 1995 but bought out the remainder of his contract with Snake Racing during the winter and joined Johnson’s Al-Anabi team. The team will be led by rookie crew chief Jason McCulloch, who worked as Johnson’s assistant during his entire tenure with the U.S. Army team, so there no doubt will be fireworks each time these two teams pair off.
All eyes also will fall on Spencer Massey, the former Top Alcohol Dragster pilot who will replace Dixon in the U.S. Smokeless dragster. Massey qualified in his NHRA debut last season in Dallas in another car but will be under the microscope in Pomona as driver for former Winternationals winner Prudhomme, and there’s also sure to be a grudge match whenever Dixon and Massey line up alongside one another.
Cory McClenathan, runner-up to Schumacher at last year’s Winternationals, may have lost Green and Neal Strasbaugh to his teammate, but the third-place Fram team will be tuned by capable DSR crew chiefs Phil Shuler and Todd Okuhara as Cory Mac seeks to win his long-sought first world title.
, who also has come tantalizingly close to winning the championship, also will have a new tuner in Rob Flynn, who replaces the recently retired Tim and Kim Richards as crew chief on the Budweiser dragster. Bernstein, who got married in the off-season, picked up Flynn and assistant crew chief Mike Guger from the Caterpillar team, with which they scored second- and sixth-place finishes the last two seasons.
Antron Brown, who in his Top Fuel debut at this race last year was the No. 1 qualifier, returns to Pomona to kick off his second season in a fuel dragster with hopes to add to the two victories he scored in his inmpressive rookie season last year despite recent changes to the team ownership.
This also could be the year that Morgan Lucas steps to the front of the field as his team has landed backing from insurance company GEICO to help his bid to make the playoffs. A new driver for a second Lucas-backed team will be announced shortly.
Clay Millican and car owners Mark and Lauren Pickens’ newly formed MPE Motorsports team will kick off their first full season of NHRA competition at the Winternationals.
“Everybody on the team is coming back for this season,” said Millican. “We have a great new shop to work in, but I can’t wait to leave it and go to the racetrack. Lance [Larsen, crew chief] went to Australia and helped a team a week after Pomona, and he came back with some new ideas about how to make our car quicker to 60 feet. Our numbers after that were near the top of the chart, so I’m looking forward to stepping on the gas.”
The father and son team of Allen and driver Joe Hartley also has committed to run the full 24-race schedule for their first time since entering the class in 2000. The Nebraska-based team, which twice has finished 17th in the standings while only running a dozen or so races, has shown its mettle by reaching a final round and grabbing a No. 1 qualifying berth, and the extra track time this year will only boost its stock.
Buff, a former Top Alcohol Dragster driver who switched to Top Fuel in 2006, will begin his second year behind the wheel of Miller’s dragster after a solid 14-race campaign last year that netted a 14th-place finish.
Chrisman, the son of drag racing legend Jack Chrisman who began his career in Top Alcohol Funny Car before moving to the fuel dragster ranks in 2003, ran eight races last year in the western U.S. with his independently financed machine and finished a respectable 18th.
Langlo is a Southern California Top Fuel veteran who began competing in the late 1960s with his and partner Jay Roach’s fan-popular Zip Code entry and has been a Winternationals staple for decades.
The Winternationals Top Fuel field also will have an international flavor as 2008 FIA world champ Andy Carter, who will be competing in Terry Haddock’s U.S.-based dragster, and Swiss racer Urs Erbacher, who competed at six races last year, both will try to make the field at the season opener.
David Baca, runner-up at the Winternationals in 2006, also is readying for his return to the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series. Baca, whose only action since the 2006 season was a two-race stint in the Matco Tools dragster at the final two races of 2007, will begin the 2009 season with his own team. Baca’s reorganized team will be headed by crew chief Rick Henkelman, who often challenged him on the Top Alcohol Funny Car circuit in Northern California in the 1980s, and car chief Jon Schaffer. Schaffer began wrenching for Baca at 15 years old and most recently was a part of Doug Herbert’s team.
“I’m pretty close to announcing a sponsor that could have us attending half the races or a little better, but we have to keep it under wraps at the moment,” said Baca. “We’re going to test in Phoenix and come out with a vengeance in Pomona.”
Kalitta Motorsports will celebrate 50 years of drag racing by team owner Connie Kalitta, and Connie’s nephew, Doug Kalitta, will be behind the wheel of the family’s dragster in Pomona. Doug, a 30-time tour winner, was runner-up at the 2004 Winternationals.
One of the newest entrants is Utah’s Mike Strasburg, a strong western states campaigner with his family-operated machine and he’ll be joined in battle by the strong Troy Buff-driven Bill Miller Engineering entry.
Southern California will be well-represented by a couple of local drivers, Steve Chrisman and Arley Langlo.