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Influx of new and returning nitro teams ready to hit the track this season

More than a dozen new and returning nitro teams will make their season debuts in 2019, bringing a crop off fresh faces and potential new fan favorites to the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series.
03 Apr 2019
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
News
New cars

Spurred by NHRA incentives for cost-cutting and sustainability and the prospect of fulfilling lifelong dreams, more than a dozen new and returning nitro teams will make their season debuts in 2019, bringing a crop off fresh faces and potential new fan favorites to the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series.

Already this season fans have witnessed the meteoric rise of Top Fuel rookies Austin Prock and Jordan Vandergriff, but those second-generation nitro pilots will be joined by fellow graduates from the Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series as well as crossovers from the NHRA Hot Rod Heritage Series and some returning nitro veterans. Here’s a look at what’s coming down the nitro pipeline.

TOP FUEL


Lee Callaway, a veteran of 22 years in the Alcohol Dragster class, will make his Top Fuel debut this season.The former Division 4 champion purchased a complete running car from Scott Palmer Racing and will be competing at a number of NHRA Mello Yello events with assistance from Palmer and Lagana Racing. Callaway expects to make his debut at the NHRA national event in either Topeka or Bristol, and also plans to attend NHRA Mello Yello events in Denver, Seattle, Dallas, and the fall Las Vegas race.

“Obviously running Top Fuel has always been a dream,” Callaway continued. “I mean, who doesn’t dream of that when you’re around it that long? It’s never really been feasible for me to do it competitively until now. Running my business takes a lot of my time these days, so I can only go to a few races a year. It just made more sense to run Top Fuel a few times a year with a nice car and operation than continue to chase the Top Alcohol deal.”

Callaway’s car will fly the colors of his collision repair shop, Callaway Collision as primary sponsor. His car will also receive help from Run-N-Hide Ranch. Callaway’s long-time crew chief Stacy McLemore will be making the jump with him.

Another Alcohol Dragster veteran, Florida’s Artie Allen, hopes to make his Top Fuel debut in either Charlotte or Atlanta in advance of a handful of races to kickstart his Mello Yello career.

Allen, who ran a supercharged alcohol combination for a decade before switching to A/Fuel configuration in 2007, has purchased a new Murf McKinney chassis and hired Aaron Brooks as his crew chief, and also is getting help and advice from nitro-racing veterans Del Worsham and Jeff Arend. Allen plans to upgrade his license April 12-13 at the Division 2 Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series event at Atlanta Dragway where his daughter, Sarah, will be competing in Jr. Dragster.

“I’m not really going to rush anything,” he said. “I’m one of those guys who want to learn how to run the car, not just jump in there. I want to know how it all works before I drive it. I don’t want to just be a driver. I’m more hands on.”

If all goes well in his debut events, Allen may expand his schedule to include more race including Bristol, Reading, Charlotte, and Dallas at the end of the season as his contracting business allows.

Brandon Welch, who competed in a number of events in 2016 and ’17 in Funny Car, will switch to Top Fuel this season. Welch, the grandson of Southern California Alcohol Funny Car legend Chuck Beal, along with another of Beal’s grandsons, Tyson Porlas, purchased the ex-J.R. Todd/Kalitta Racing dragster, which the Kalitta team fronthalved for them. They hope to be make their debut at the NHRA Sonoma Nationals in July.

“The switching costs between the two classes were pretty low because we were able to sell our Funny Car, but there are things we needed, like injectors and headers, that are different between the two classes,” said Welch. “My goal is to get my licensed crossgraded this summer and a run a couple of events later this year,” said Welch. “We’re working on sponsorships towards running more events in 2020.

“Once everything is ready, we’ll find a place to go, maybe as soon as May, to do the [crossgrade] licensing. Sonoma would be cool, and we also would like run Dallas, Las Vegas, and Pomona in the fall. I’d be happy with even a couple of those.”

Scott Graham, who tuned their Funny Car the last time it ran at the 2018 Winternationals, will assist again at events where he’s not serving as crew chief for fellow Top Fuel racer Pat Dakin.

Two-time Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals Alcohol Dragster champ Josh Hart licensed impressively in the Bob Vandergriff Racing dragster with a 3.79 following the Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals and is scheduled to make his debit alongside Jordan Vandergriff in Norwalk. Hart will run at least three events in the back half of the season in anticipation of a bigger schedule in 2020.

“Everything went really well; it went 3.79 even though I clicked it off at 900 feet,” he said. “I felt very comfortable. Bob Vandergriff and Ron Douglas were great to work with; I had no idea I could go that fast. They weren’t messing around; that was a race-winning tune-up, but they made me feel very comfortable. I’m looking forward to getting some more seat time in the car to get better acclimated.”

Hart may test again with the Vandergriff team following the Houston event to further that goal.

Another event-winnnig Alcohol Dragster racer, Justin Ashley and partner Dustin Davis will make his NHRA national event debut this fall in the Justin Ashley Racing/Davis Motorsports dragster. The team will run no more than four events to maintain Ashley’s rookie status for the 2020 season and the opportunity to compete for the Auto Club Road to the Future award as the season’s top rookie.

Ashley upgraded to a Top Fuel license in June 2017 in Antron Brown’s Don Schumacher Racing dragster, running an impressive 3.78 at 314 mph on just his third pass, and the team has purchased that same chassis for Ashley’s debut in the class. The team will be based out of Davis’ shop in Rancho Cordova, Calif. 

“I feel pretty confident, but this is a new challenge for me,” said Ashley, son of former Funny Car racer Mike Ashley. “I think that the A/Fuel car does a pretty good job of preparing you for what to expect, but obviously a Top Fueler it’s totally different car than anything out there. There’s certainly going to be a learning curve, and I expect that, which is why I’m looking forward to spending the time testing and getting some more laps; the more laps I make, the more comfortable I’ll feel. I expect to go out and be successful with this team, but I know it’s going to take some time for me to get used to certain things in the car, like feeling when it’s spinning or shaking the tires or when a run is going good or not going good." 

Doug Foley, who last competed in Top Fuel in 2011 and has been competing in the Alcohol Dragster class the last couple of years, has his eyes on a return to Top Fuel later this season.

“We have our A/Fuel car up for sale and plan to start talking to some of the current nitro teams and see if we can form some sort of relationship with one of them,” said Foley, who lives in Mooresville, N.C. “We’ve got a lot of work to do, and we have to sell the car, but in a perfect world we’d be ready to run for the Indy test session [in late August] and run some of the fall events.

“I sold my racing school last year and have been helping my kids with their racing careers,” said Foley, who ran partial Top Fuel schedules from 2005 through 2011 with a high of 14 events in 2007. “I’ve been building houses the last couple of years and business has been great, so all of that led me to start thinking about coming back to Top Fuel. I felt like we always ran well in Top Fuel before and that’s what I’m looking for again this time. The quality still has to be there. That’s the only way I’m interested in going.”

Ron August also will make his return to Top Fuel this year. August, who competed in 10 events in 2009-11, hopes to renew his license at the Division 7 Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series event at Sonoma Raceway the week before that track’s national event. If all goes well, he’ll enter the Sonoma event and also run at the fall events in Las Vegas and Pomona.

August, who competed in Alcohol Funny Car for six years before switching to Top Fuel, also has competed in the NHRA Hot Rod heritage Series’ Nostalgia Top Fuel class to keep his driving skills sharp.

“I bought this car from Doug Foley about five years ago and have been working on getting it ready,” he said. “I had to put everything on hold for a while due to some family matters, but we just flew someone out from [chassis builder Murf McKinney’s shop] to make sure everything was up to date with the chassis. 

Tony Shortall and John Stewart will wrench the car, which will have the latest six-disc clutch parts and Stage 7 cylinder heads. Bobby Lagana Jr. also has had a big hand in helping get the car ready.

FUNNY CAR

Paul Lee will make his return to the cockpit of a nitro Funny Car, more than two years after surviving a near-fatal heart attack. The former national event winner in the Alcohol Funny Car ranks had competed in the nitro class for nearly a decade and had just debuted a new three-second Toyota Camry at the final events of 2016 before he was struck down. 

Lee has fought his way back physically and is ready to return to the dragstrip, where he has teamed with Jim Oberhofer, Donnie Bender, and the Straightline Strategy Group to campaign a new car this season, beginning at the Atlanta event. The team rented a stall at the Don Schumacher Racing shop to prepare the car, which will run at least 11 events this season. The car, sponsored by Lee's clutch company, McLeod, will make test runs after the upcoming four-wide event in Charlotte before making its official debut at the Arby's NHRA Southern Nationals in Atlanta.


Three-time NHRA Hot Rod Heritage Series Nostalgia Funny Car champion Jason Rupert will move up to the Funny Car ranks in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series later this year. Rupert reached three national event finals in the Top Alcohol Funny Car class before finding his greatest successes in the Nostalgia Funny Car ranks, becoming the first driver to exceed 260 mph in 2012 and winning the most recent Nightfire Nationals and California Hot Rod Reunion mainstay events.
 
Last year, Rupert acquired the Funny Car operation previously owned by the late Steve Plueger. His team has been going through the parts and pieces of the complete operation while making updates. Rupert is mounting a Ford Mustang body to the chassis that was built by Grant Downing and front-halved by Plueger. Kenny Youngblood and Ultimate Design will conspire on the livery. The engine combination is being upgraded with blowers and cylinder heads from Don Schumacher Racing and a High Speed Motorsports manifold.
 
“This is something I’ve always wanted to do,” said Rupert. “I’d see racers putting on their gas masks and helmets when I was a kid sitting in the tow car at Orange County [International Raceway], and I wanted to drive Funny Cars ever since. It seems like the right time to go for it. Steve gave me a lot of input and encouragement.”
 
After a date is set for initial testing to upgrade Rupert’s competition license, the team plans to compete at NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series events on the West Coast later this season.
 
“It’s going to be a whole new challenge,” said Rupert. “Fortunately, we have good friends out there who want to help in the learning curve and get us pointed in the right direction. We’re not going to cut any corners making sure the car is ready every time we go to the track. Nostalgia racing has been really good to us, but I can’t wait to move on to the next chapter.”
 
Rupert maintains the support of longtime sponsors Lucas Oil, TMS Titanium, and CP-Carrillo.


Nostalgia Funny Car racer Alex Miladinovich also will move from the NHRA Hot Rod Heritage Series onto the big stage later this season. The 32-year-old father of two from of Orange, Calif., will upgrade his license April 13-14 at Auto Club Famoso Raceway and hopes to debut before summer.

“I accomplished the goals I set out to reach in my nostalgia car, and it’s always been a goal of mine – much like everyone else -- to run a ‘big-show’ car,” he said. “I can’t compete with the big teams dollar for dollar right now, but we’d like to qualify and give them a run. I’m going to put every ounce of energy I have into this.”

Miladinovich will carry his popular Hot For Teacher brand to the Mello Yello Series; the car was named in honor of his wife, Marcie, who is an elementary school teacher with a masters in child development and also is his back-up girl. 

Miladinovich has three Toyota bodies, purchased from Richard Townsend and Kalitta Racing, but hopes to switch to a Mustang that also follows his Nostalgia Funny Car history. Nitro veteran Kevin Poynter is his crew chief.

Miladinovich, who has received help and guidance from Del Worsham and several of his Nostalgia Funny Car peers, built the new chassis in his at-home fab shop with lessons learned from local legend Steve Plueger. Although the Sonoma event in July is closest to his Southern California base, he may travel east to make his debut, possibly in Atlanta.


Another Nostalgia Funny Car driver, 32-year-old Reno, Nev.-based Chris “Cowboy” Morel plans to make his debut this summer at the NHRA Sonoma Nationals. With the assistance of Aaron Brooks, Morel is putting together an ex-Ron Capps/Don Schumacher Racing Charger to run a handful of events this season. Morel also will carry his nostalgia brand forward, renaming his Little City Cuda (a reference to Reno’s nickname as “The Biggest Little City in the World”) to Little City Charger to reflect the new body style, which again will be adorned in a green scheme. Murf McKinney has updated the chassis on the car in anticipation of upcoming licensing runs which also will likely take place at Sonoma Raceway.

“Our goal is to run the two West Coast Western Swing events – Sonoma and Seattle – and then probably the fall Las Vegas event,” he said. “Next year our plan is to run both Pomonas, both Las Vegas events, Phoenix, Sonoma, Seattle, and maybe in Texas. Other than the body and chassis, everything else we have is brand new.”


Mike McIntire also will move from the nostalgia circuit to the “big show” this year after buying the ex-Paul Lee/Kalitta Motorsports Toyota. The 35-year-old racer from Chesterland, Ohio, who’s driven the family-owned McAttack Nostalgia Funny Car since 2014, plans to license in May and hopes to make his debut this summer at his homestate event in Norwalk. The busy Aaron Brooks will serve as crew chief for a get-acquainted four-race schedule this season.

“You could probably say we’re as scared as we are excited because it’s a pretty big step, but we’re looking forward to it,” he said, “Bobby and Dom Lagana have been helping us a ton with parts and advice as have Chad [Head] and Nicky [Boninfante] over at Kalitta. They all got us going in the right direction. Everyone has helped out so much; it’s just surreal how helpful everyone has been.”

In addition to the Norwalk event, the team also plans to compete in Reading, St. Louis, and Charlotte, and if they can add some marketing partners, even more events in 2020.

Frank Pedregon, who made his return to the Funny Car class at the Winternationals after a 12-year absence, will return in Sonoma in the Worsham Family Toyota and will run four more additional events after that and more next season.

Pedregon had planned to compete at the Denso Spark Plugs NHRA Four-Wide Nationals in Las Vegas but suffered a broken leg in a highway accident two weeks ago that sidelined him after an impressive 4.01 lap at the Winternationals.

“I can’t say enough about Del and Chuck Worsham,” said Pedregon. “Del is an amazing friend and mentor to me and a great teacher. Anyone who learns from him, even me, has such an advantage. He not only helped me renew my license but gives you all of the tips to look for. These Funny Cars have changed a lot since I last drove, with the lighter bodies and the laid-back headers they have a tendency to dance the front end a little bit, and sure enough that’s what happened. I’m eager to get back into the car in Sonoma.”

After the Sonoma event, the team will also compete in Seattle, Indy, and the fall events in Las Vegas and Pomona in anticipation of an expanded schedule in 2020.

Tim Gibbons, who last competed at the 2017 Auto Club NHRA Finals, will make his return to the dragstrip in Sonoma driving a second Terry Haddock Funny Car. The duo expects to also compete in Seattle, Indy, Las Vegas, and Pomona.

“Terry bought two John Force Racing chassis and just got a Mustang body from Bob Tasca, and has Johnny West over there with him,” said Gibbons, who is based in Redding, Calif. “I’ve worked with both Johnny and Terry before, so I’m looking forward to reuniting with them. My ultimate goal, of course, is to own my own team, which is my plan for next year. We’re talking to some sponsors and have a couple of new businesses under way that will keep us busy.”