WADE: The Role Of Drag Racing’s Big Three

Susan Wade

SEATTLE — John Force’s failure to make the Funny Car field during the April NHRA weekend at Royal Purple Raceway in Baytown, Texas, marked the first time the 16-time champion missed the cut in more than 10 years.

It ended a streak of 221 race-day appearances, dating back to 2008, although he still owns the record for the longest qualifying streak at 395 events (1988-April 2007).

What that speed bump in his career did is give fans a glimpse of what a Funny Car field looks like without him. And once again it raises the issue of what drag racing would do without not only Force, but also without fellow team owners Don Schumacher and Connie Kalitta.

Schumacher has three Top Fuel dragsters and four Funny Cars. Force fields three Funny Car teams and one Top Fuel car. Kalitta owns two Top Fuel and two Funny Car entries. That accounts for six dragsters and nine Funny Cars — arguably way out of balance for a healthy sport.

Oddly, it’s a blessing. The three teams are supplying much of the on-track show. NHRA officials need to work at finding new participants. NHRA drag racing spends an inordinate amount of time looking backward, waxing nostalgicly, more than any other sport. But it’s becoming critical that it needs to direct most of its energy to looking forward.
It’s not that the news isn’t encouraging. Fans are seeing new faces in the winner’s circle and toward the top of the performance lists.

For example, Steve Torrence, Doug Kalitta, Clay Millican and Leah Pritchett aren’t newcomers to the Top Fuel class. But they are contenders and each of the four is once again making a strong case for a first-time championship. The same applies in Funny Car for Courtney Force, J.R. Todd, Tommy Johnson Jr., Jonnie Lindberg and Tim Wilkerson. The Pro Stock class has Deric Kramer, Tanner Gray, Drew Skillman, Vincent Nobile and Alex Laughlin ready to break in to the champions club.

On-track performance has seen some fresh achievers, too. Pro Stock racer Matt Hartford was a first-time winner at Royal Purple Raceway. Scott Palmer (Top Fuel), Shawn Reed (Top Fuel), and Kramer (Pro Stock) all made their first final-round appearances through the first five races. Terry McMillen, who has morphed from Top Fuel underdog to threat, was runner-up at Houston.

The potential is there for fresh headlines, new champions and additional personalities. Krista Baldwin, daughter of the late Top Fuel driver Bobby Baldwin and granddaughter of legend Chris Karamesines (who is in his 80s and still races), made her Top Fuel debut at zMAX Dragway in late April. Her Bob Vandergriff Racing teammate is Jordan Vandergriff, nephew of the team owner. Baldwin has been Jordan Vandergriff’s mentor in the sportsman-level Top Alcohol Dragster category. He made his pro debut  in March at the Gatornationals.

Mike Salinas in Top Fuel and Scotty Pollacheck in Pro Stock Motorcycle are on the verge of breakout performances.

Blake Alexander has popped up from time to time in the Funny Car class. Top Fuel surprise U.S. Nationals runner-up Kebin Kinsley keeps plugging away, as do Kyle Wurtzel and Audrey (Worm) Grant. Troy Coughlin Jr. will likely return to the pro ranks one day soon. Cory Reed, Joey Gladstone, Melissa Surber, Kelly Clontz, Jimmy Underdahl and Brian Pretzel are poised to become top Pro Stock Motorcycle  racers.

Most of them, though, are not blessed with endless dollars to pay for spare parts, lots of crew members and comfortable travel accommodations. They aren’t in the John Force-Don Schumacher-Connie Kalitta stratus.

Costs must stabilize or decrease. The NHRA has needed to increase purses for years. If they need more revenue to do that, then they can work harder to make that happen. Fans are buying tickets — the sanctioning body has announced several “sellout crowds” (whatever that officially might mean at a motorsports event). Fans are buying “All Access” membership to follow real-time, or streaming, coverage online.

And an increasing FOX Sports TV audience is supporting events from home. Fans are doing their part. Teams are sacrificing and contributing to keep the show going. At some point the Force-Schumacher-Kalitta triumvirate will need some help.

When John Force Racing saw the boss detonate a Funny Car body during qualifying and get carted to the hospital during the season opener in Pomona, Calif., and Brittany Force destroy a Top Fuel dragster to kick off eliminations the same weekend and land in the same medical center, Robert Hight came through for the team by advancing to the Funny Car final round.

In Phoenix, when John Force blew up another car and again wound up in the hospital, Courtney Force saved the day for JFR by winning. And that was in just the first two races this year. When John Force failed to qualify at Royal Purple Raceway, Brittany Force stepped up and won the Top Fuel trophy.

But they can’t be expected to burst forward and save their team — or the NHRA — every time.