Extremely tough competition has been the buzzword in the nitro ranks this season, as Top Fuel and Funny Car drivers have pushed each other to higher levels of excellence on the dragstrip.
That commitment has also produced quite a bit of parity in both categories. Long gone are the days when seven-time world champ Tony Schumacher and 15-time world champ John Force can dominate a season with double-digit victories.
To date, six different winners have emerged in Top Fuel, and seven different winners have claimed Wallys in Funny Car. Many others have come oh-so-close to visiting the winner's circle as well.
Those drivers in the two 7,000-horsepower categories will lead the charge to try to break through to add their names to the season winners' list at the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals, July 5-8 at Summit Racing Equipment Motorsports Park. Del Worsham (Top Fuel), Mike Neff (Funny Car), Vincent Nobile (Pro Stock), and Eddie Krawiec (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were the 2011 winners of the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series event that will be televised on ESPN2HD.
Last season’s runner-up at this event, Spencer Massey, leads the Top Fuel class with three victories this season in his FRAM/Prestone dragster. Massey is third in the points standings and has been the leader following several races this season. He knows that every time he pulls to the line, his focus has to be dialed in or he might not see the win light come on in his lane.
“The competition in Top Fuel this year is one of the toughest we’ve ever seen in the class,” Massey said. “It seems like all of the drivers have stepped up their game.”
Two-time winner Antron Brown, who is second in the points order and recently won in Chicago, says the class is rivaling NHRA’s 200-mph factory hot rod class for the number of photo finishes.
“Right now, you look at Top Fuel and it’s as tight as Pro Stock car,” Brown said. “We’re running neck and neck, winning by 12 inches or less at over 320 mph.”
U.S. Army dragster driver Schumacher is very familiar with close finishes. He leads the standings with one victory and welcomes the increased competition. He enjoys when a battle for the championship goes down to the wire. Two of his titles came in that atmosphere. He is also pleased to be able to focus on a championship goal now that he has ended a pesky 32-race winless streak.
“I’m absolutely satisfied at the moment – we’re leading the points, and that’s where you want to be,” said Schumacher, who won in Norwalk in 2007. “But leading now is not the goal. We want to be the team that’s standing on the top step of the podium on Nov. 11 [the last day of the season]. That’s when we’ll be totally satisfied.”
Others to watch in Top Fuel include surprise performer Steve Torrence, who has claimed two wins in three final-round appearances this season, two-time winner Morgan Lucas, and Shawn Langdon, who appears to be a win waiting to happen behind the wheel of his Al-Anabi Racing dragster.
In Funny Car, there have been some impressive streaks. Series leader Robert Hight raced to four consecutive victories early in the year in his Auto Club Ford Mustang. Then, not to be outdone, veteran driver Ron Capps reeled off six straight final-round appearances in his NAPA Auto Parts Dodge Charger, winning twice.
Meanwhile, five other drivers have also found their way to the winner’s circle: Jack Beckman, Mike Neff, Johnny Gray, Jeff Arend, and John Force.
Capps has had the momentum for most of the second half of the regular season after an early April crew chief switcheroo with Beckman’s team. Capps was teamed with Rahn Tobler, and the two had instant chemistry. They looked unstoppable in racing to victories in Atlanta and Bristol and made history by producing a jaw-dropping elapsed time of 3.964 seconds in Englishtown. A first-round loss to rookie Alexis DeJoria in Chicago has slowed the Capps fast break.
“Every streak comes to an end,” Capps said. “We’ll just have to start a new one at Norwalk.”
Series points leader Hight, who has also been impressive during the season, realizes that to secure a second world championship, he’ll need to face Capps in some upcoming battles and win. In head-to-head meetings in Atlanta and Topeka, Capps got the upper hand.
“What we have to do is stop Capps,” Hight said. “He is like a little dog nipping at your heels. We have to get rid of that little thing.”
While Hight and Capps have proved to be the leaders for the championship run, rookies DeJoria and Courtney Force have their own battle going for rookie of the year honors. Both women have advanced to final rounds, and Traxxas Ford Mustang driver Force is seventh in the points standings. DeJoria is 11th, a few points back of the elder Force, who is holding the 10th-place spot for the Countdown. The 24-year-old Force nearly won her first race last weekend in Chicago, losing to Arend in the final round.
“I’m really proud of her,” said Courtney’s 15-time world-championship-winning father. “She’s driving like a veteran.”
One driver who really needs to make a major turnaround is defending Funny Car world champion Matt Hagan. With six first-round losses and a DNQ, his best finishes so far this season have been a handful of second-round exits. With six races to go in the regular season, Hagan knows that the time is now to make a move.
“Now we have a big hill to climb without having any momentum,” Hagan said. “We have to make something happen in the next race or two or any chance of repeating as the Funny Car champ will be over.”
* SCHEDULE: NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series qualifying sessions are scheduled for 4 and 6:30 p.m. on Friday, July 6, and 11:40 a.m. and 2:15 p.m. on Saturday, July 7. Final eliminations will begin at 11 a.m. on Sunday, July 8.
* TICKETS: For tickets for the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals, call Summit Racing Equipment Motorsports Park, 419-668-5555, or log on to www.summitmotorsportspark.tix.com.
* ON TV: ESPN2 and ESPN2HD will televise 90 minutes of qualifying coverage at 6 p.m. ET on Saturday, July 7, and three hours of eliminations coverage at 8 p.m. ET on Sunday, July 8.
* LUCAS OIL SERIES: The Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals will feature competition in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series, where some of the future stars of the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series are born. Lucas Oil Series qualifying begins at 9 a.m. on July 5; eliminations begin at 8 a.m. on July 6 and continue through July 8.
* PRO MOD SERIES PRESENTED BY PROCARE RX: NHRA’s popular Pro Mod touring series will make its sixth start of the 10-race 2012 season at the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals. The series features some of the world’s fastest and most unique doorslammer cars, with an eclectic mix of vintage and late-model body styles, in quarter-mile competition. Two of three scheduled rounds of qualifying will be held on Friday, July 6, at 3:30 and 6 p.m. The final round of qualifying is set for 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, July 7, followed by the first round of eliminations at 1:40 p.m. Eliminations will continue on Sunday, July 8, at approximately 2:30 p.m.