NHRA Champions Set For New Season

Shawn Langdon during testing at Palm Beach (Fla.) Int'l Raceway. (Rhonda McCole photo)
Shawn Langdon during testing at Palm Beach (Fla.) Int'l Raceway. (Rhonda McCole photo)
Shawn Langdon during testing at Palm Beach (Fla.) Int’l Raceway. (Rhonda McCole photo)

GLENDORA, Calif. — The 2013 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series world champions earned a deserved off-season break, but for Shawn Langdon (Top Fuel), John Force (Funny Car) and Jeg Coughlin (Pro Stock), the new season couldn’t come soon enough.

The three champions will kick off their title defense at the 54th annual Circle K NHRA Winternationals Feb. 6-9 at the famed Auto Club Raceway at Pomona.

Langdon, a Mira Loma, Calif. Native, won his first Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Top Fuel world championship last season and started it in style, winning the season opening event at his home track. Ending 2013 with seven victories, four runner-up finishes, seven No. 1 qualifying positions and 54 round wins, the former Junior Dragster champion returns in his new-look Al-Anabi Racing dragster and plans a similar attack to the 2014 season.

“We’re just very excited to get back out there and get running again,” Langdon said. “We feel very confident; the whole Al-Anabi team has done a lot of homework in the off season. We went testing last week and had a successful test session. I don’t think there are going to be too many things that we want to change. We just kind of want to stay in the same attack mode as we have in the last two years.”

2012 Top Fuel world champion Antron Brown will lead the field chasing to knock Langdon from the top. Brown, the first African-American to win a major auto racing championship, finished second last season in his Matco Tools dragster and is ready to return to championship form. His Don Schumacher Racing teammate Tony Schumacher will be tough competition again, having won seven world championships.

Doug Kalitta, Steve Torrence, Bob Vandergriff, Brittany Force and newcomer Richie Crampton, who replaces Morgan Lucas in the GEICO/Lucas Oil dragster, is in the running for the Automobile Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award, NHRA’s top rookie of the year, and figures to be a player in Top Fuel.

The top of the point standings is a familiar spot for Force. Collecting his 16th Mello Yello Funny Car world championship title and first since 2010, Force knows how to get the job done. With four wins, four runner-up finishes and 54 round wins, the 64-year-old is ready for 2014 and felt the whole John Force Racing team had a productive offseason.

“We evaluate over the winter,” Force said. “If we’ve lost any people, especially key people, clutch men, engine builders, we evaluate the crew chiefs, if anybody’s leaving, we go through a lot just to make sure that we’re stable in our approach. If you don’t focus, if you take winning for granted, you go back to the same process and mindset you had last year and go after it.”

Force will have tough competition as he tries for number 17. 2011 Funny Car world champion Matt Hagan, who finished second last year with five wins and five runner-up finishes, figures to be a major candidate to win the 2014 title.

Other top Funny Car challengers include Hagan’s DSR teammates, Jack Beckman, Ron Capps and Tommy Johnson who returns to the series in the Make-A-Wish Dodge Charger R/T. Force’s daughter Courtney won the event last season and Robert Hight has two wins at the season opening event. Kalitta Motorsports Funny Car entries, Del Worsham and Alexis DeJoria, tested well last weekend in South Florida and figure to add to the challenging competition.

A familiar face returned to the top of the standings in Pro Stock last season with Coughlin taking his fifth world championship. Coughlin, who secured four wins and four runner-up finishes in the season, was pleased with his 2013 season and pointed out that the team was able to celebrate accordingly.

“I think when we pulled out of Pomona we definitely were very excited and coming off the heels of quite a celebration,” Coughlin said about the famed racing grounds outside Los Angeles. “Then we carried that over into Monday night’s festivities at the Mello Yello NHRA championship banquet. So we’ve celebrated in grand style. We couldn’t have been happier to bring home the second championship in a row for Mopar and for J&J Horsepower with Allen and Roy Johnson. So that was probably the pinnacle of it.”