There will be some new faces on the 2019 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series tour as well as some familiar faces in new places as the season rolls along. The Top Fuel class will benefit from the graduation of a number of drivers from the Top Alcohol Dragster ranks while Funny Car will be bolstered by the return of a couple of former drivers and some new blood.
Jordan Vandergriff, nephew of national-event-winning Top Fuel driver/team owner Bob Vandergriff Jr., will make his debut in the team’s DA Lubricants dragster at the Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals. The younger Vandergriff competed in seven events in his rookie campaign in Top Alcohol Dragster last season and is expected to compete at about 15 events during the season.
Vandergriff will be joined on the circuit by a second Bob Vandergriff Racing dragster, which will be shared by Shawn Reed and Josh Hart. Reed, who has been racing in Top Fuel since 2015, joins the BVR camp after leaving Paton Racing during the offseason. Reed reached his first career final round at last year’s Gatornationals. Hart is a three-time event winner in the Alcohol Dragster wins, including back-to-back wins at the prestigious Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals in 2017 and 2018.
Texas veteran Lee Callaway will also make the leap to the Mello Yello ranks after more than 20 years in the Top Alcohol ranks. Callaway has purchased a complete car from Top 10 Top Fuel finisher Scott Palmer and will also receive tuning guidance from the Palmer team.
He’s certainly not a new driver, but former Sportsman standout Billy Torrence, father of reigning Top Fuel champ Steve Torrence, reportedly will run 16-18 events this season in the second Capco Contractors dragster. The senior Torrence, who scored his first career Top Fuel win last year in Bristol, competed at 11 events last year, so the 2019 campaign represents a marked increase.
Jim Maroney, who impressed during a five-race rookie season in Terry Haddock's dragster, has partnered with Texas-based drag boat racer Kim Davidson and hopes to run 12-15 events, mostly in the Western U.S., this season. The new partners purchased the ex-Hennen Motorports dragster, driven by Kebin Kinsley to a U.S. Nationals runner-up in 2017, and had the Brad Hadman-built car updated by Morgan Lucas Racing. Newcomer Chris Crudele will serve as crew chief.
Former FIA Top Fuel world champ Lex Joon plans to return to the tour this season after a several-year absence. Initial plans for the Dutchman include an eight-race campaign with the goal of running a full season contingent upon sponsorship.
Jasmine Salinas, daughter of Top Fuel contender Mike, will license for Top Fuel later this season after earning some more experience in the Top Alcohol Dragster class. Salinas’ other daughter, Jianna, recently earned her Pro Stock Motorcycle license and plans to make her national event debut this season.
John Force Racing development driver Austin Prock is also expected to make his nitro debut later this season. Prock earned his nitro Funny Car license last year and will be getting his Top Fuel dragster license in 2019, and could end up in either class depending on sponsorship and other factors.
Blake Alexander, who cut his racing teeth in the Funny Car class before competing in Top Fuel the last two seasons, will return to his nitro roots after purchasing a complete Funny Car operation. Alexander, who shined last season with his first two career national event victories while racing in Top Fuel, will have the tuning assistance of perennial championship challenger Tim Wilkerson and Wilkerson’s son, Daniel, as his crew chief.
Paul Lee, a former national event winner in the Alcohol Funny Car class, will resume his promising nitro Funny Car career as part of the Straightline Strategy Group operation. Lee competed in the final two events of the 2016 season and recorded his first three-second pass but suffered a near-fatal December heart attack that threatened to end his driving career. Lee has made a complete recovery and will return to battle with veteran Jim Oberhofer as his crew chief.
Jason Rupert, a standout in the Nostalgia Funny Car class of NHRA’s Hot Rod Heritage Series, has purchased the completion operation of the late Steve Plueger and plans to make licensing runs in April to upgrade to a “big show” Mello Yello Funny Car license and compete at West Coast events. The team has purchased parts from both John Force Racing and Don Schumacher Racing and has receive valuable input from veteran nitro tuners Todd Okuhara and Eric Lane.