SEATTLE — What guy absolutely loves picking up the check at the restaurant?
Drag racer Larry Dixon does — at least when he’s treating Cory McClenathan, his closest rival in the Countdown for the National Hot Rod Ass’n Top Fuel crown.
The trouble is that McClenathan wants to pay the bill, too. What’s with these two?
Point-leader Dixon has two championships from his days with Don Prudhomme Racing and is going for a third in the Alan Johnson-managed Al-Anabi Dragster. McClenathan has maybe the best shot of his 20-year career in the Don Schumacher-stabled FRAM Dragster to win a championship.
Only two races remain — this weekend’s Las Vegas Nationals and the Auto Club Finals at Pomona, Calif., Nov. 11. Third-place Tony Schumacher is so far back at 154 points off Dixon’s pace that Dixon and McClenathan would have to fall off the face of the Earth for him to win a seventh-straight title.
With both Dixon and McClenathan hungry for a championship, they went to lunch with each other a couple of weeks ago. It might have been hard to swallow for McClenathan, who a few days beforehand had appeared on the verge of halting Dixon’s winning streak at Reading, Pa. But Dixon won the dramatic pedalfest to extend his lead to 89 points.
They’re longtime friends. Both teams are headquartered at Brownsburg, Ind., where Dixon also happens to own a couple of nearby buildings. He’s McClenathan’s landlord, for “Cory Mac” rents a space in which he stores his 1966 Nova.
Their spur-of-the-moment lunch date had its own competition.
Said McClenathan, “Larry paid the check, and he said, ‘You know, I probably made a little bit more bonus money than you did last weekend.’ And I remember laughing, thinking, ‘OK, you got me there.’ So as we were walking out, he said, ‘You know, we can probably do this a couple more times. I’m hoping to be able to pick up that check.’
“I said, ‘Well, I’ll be trying my hardest to make sure I get to pick up the check for those next two,’” McClenathan said. “We’ll see how it rolls when it comes down to it.”
Yes, we all want to see how it rolls.
Dixon has no sense of entitlement. He isn’t assuming he’ll end Schumacher’s reign.
“I think Cory would have something to say about that,” Dixon said. “Tony has been on a run for the past half dozen years. Everybody in Top Fuel has been trying to take him down a spot or two, and it hasn’t happened. But we are going to keep trying. We are going to give it our all in the next two [events.”
So is McClenathan.
“You know, 89 points is still not insurmountable,” McClenathan said. “It’s still a doable thing. Larry knows it’s not over by a long shot, and I’m certainly not going to give up any time soon.
“We are going to go in business as usual. We always like to leave it up to the cars, let the cars speak for themselves,” McClenathan said.
Dixon isn’t one for stirring the pot. He’s an unflappable pro, and it doesn’t matter who his opponent is in the next lane or who his lunch partner is across the table.
“For me I just try to keep my head down and just worry about the run in front of me,” Dixon said. “I need to just pay attention to what we are doing, just try and make every run as great a run as we can and hope that’s enough, keep it simple.”
Dixon gained the points lead with his final-round victory at Las Vegas in April against McClenathan and has dominated ever since. Dixon won’t catch Schumacher’s 2008 record for most victories in a single season (15), but so far he has won 12 races, leaving little for anyone else. Schumacher has grabbed five. McClenathan has won three races and has been among the top three all year.
“This is what we all live and dream for — an opportunity to race for not just race wins but championships,” Dixon said. “You try every week to do your best, and some weeks it works out and other weeks it doesn’t. But I can’t try any harder at these next two than I’ve been trying every week, every race, every year.”
McClenathan is especially proud of his Todd Okuhara- and Phil Shuler-led crew, for every member of the team came from Funny Car backgrounds.
“I look forward to sticking it out with these guys and trying to win championships with them, because I do think they have what it takes,” McClenathan said. “It’s all about the relationships with the drivers, the crew chiefs, and the guys that you surround yourself with. That’s really what it takes to go out and win championships. I certainly think we deserve to be here.”
And they deserve to have lunch with whomever they choose.
“Larry and I have been friends for 20 years,” McClenathan said.
He said they talked about their families and children.
“It didn’t completely revolve around our work, but,” McClenathan said, “we did get some funny looks from people who recognized us.”
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