NHRA’s Nitro-Burning Beasts Head To Pomona

Fifteen-time NHRA Funny Car champion John Force launches off the starting line during preseason testing earlier this month at Florida’s Palm Beach Int’l Raceway. (Rhonda McCole Photo)
Fifteen-time NHRA Funny Car champion John Force launches off the starting line during preseason testing earlier this month at Florida’s Palm Beach Int’l Raceway. (Rhonda McCole Photo)

POMONA, Calif. — No telling exactly what Mike Green, crew chief for Tony Schumacher’s U.S. Army Dragster, was fishing for in the alligator-stocked canal that surrounds Florida’s Palm Beach Int’l Raceway.

With Schumacher posting a string of 3.7-second elapsed times during preseason testing, Green had time to sneak off with his fishing pole for a few minutes.

What Green really is casting for this year is an eighth National Hot Rod Ass’n championship for Schumacher that would extend the driver’s Top Fuel record. Schumacher saluted the black-and-gold rail as “flawless.” However, he is just one of a handful of hungry contenders who aim to make newly crowned champion Larry Dixon’s third title his last for awhile.

While the steady, unflappable Dixon quietly ran stunning 3.7s in his Al-Anabi dragster then leaving PBIR before the public fanfare started, his challengers strutted their strength. In the test-and-tune sessions before this weekend’s season-opening Kragen O’Reilly Winternationals here at Auto Club Raceway, Schumacher’s teammates, Antron Brown and Spencer Massey, threw their helmets in the ring.

Brown, whose previous visit here at the November season finale ended in the winner’s circle, registered the quickest Top Fuel time of the PRO Winter Warm-up: 3.765 seconds (at 322.80 mph).

“We really got used to the power combination,” the Matco Tools Dragster driver said. “We’re getting used to our clutch program, getting the car dialed in where we’re comfortable with it. It’s showing. We’ve built off where we finished the season. We’re just going to keep stepping up.

“It’s going to be some stiff competition,” Brown said. “The Top Fuel class is definitely going to be a top-notch class.”

Massey, the 2008 IHRA champion and 2009 NHRA Rookie of the Year who sat out last season when Don Prudhomme Racing parked its car, inherited the Fram/Prestone dragster from Cory McClenathan at DSR.

In the off-season he cranked out his own noteworthy 3.7-second performances and drew praise from Phil Shuler, his crew chief along with Todd Okuhara.

“I can sit back and drive it just like I’m driving down the freeway,” Massey said. “That’s how comfortable I am in this race car. We’re ready to go to Pomona right now — today.”

Terry McMillen was kid-in-a-candy-store happy with his brand-new Murf McKinney car at PBIR, setting a career-best e.t. The Hoosier Thunder Motorsports owner/driver barely missed the Countdown last season, so he’s determined to get his Amalie Oil/University of Northwestern Ohio dragster firmly in the field of 10 for the final six races.

Dom Lagana, the underdog overachiever at Las Vegas last Halloween with a final-round appearance, could strike again. Brother Bobby Lagana broke in his Service Central dragster (that will have Lucas Oil sponsorship also this year) in late January with a repeat sweep of the IHRA Nitro Jam season opener at PBIR.

Dickie Venables is quickly getting re-acclimated to a dragster after years tuning Funny Cars, and that means positive news for Morgan Lucas. With crew chief John Stewart shaking some of the bugs out of the Lucas Oil/Speedco dragster, Shawn Langdon is looking for at least a top-three finish.

Del Worsham returns to a dragster for the first time since 1993. The Al-Anabi driver will be Dixon’s Top Fuel teammate, a first for the reigning champ.

A pair of Steves — Torrence and Chrisman — will be upset-minded. So will Doug Foley.

Torrence, in the Capco Construction/ Tuttle Racing dragster, finished eighth last year, but said he’s eyeing a top-five showing this season. Chrisman, 56, whose father Jack and cousin Art are drag-racing legends, has a sponsor for the first time in his career in Kenny Kerensky.

Foley, formidable but not yet full time, will compete through the late-July Denver race, then see how his funding looks.

And no one could be more overdue than Brandon Bernstein in the Copart dragster.