WADE: NHRA: Hitting The Highlights

Susan Wade

SEATTLE — The emergence of twenty-something racers Austin Prock and Jordan Vandergriff in Top Fuel has energized NHRA drag racing.

And a shortened schedule for the Pro Stock class turned out to be popular among the majority of drivers and played well with the NHRA’s plan to rotate classes at different venues within the 24-race Mello Yello Drag Racing Series.

Here are some more of the year’s highlights:

– Young drivers Brandon Welch, Matt Sackman and Corey Michalek are licensed and eager to debut in the Top Fuel class, while Cameron Ferré and Ashley Sanford want to keep racing.

They just need money at a time when sponsorship is harder than ever to secure.

Journeyman Top Fueler Luigi Novelli has been drag racing for more than a half-century, starting with a ’53 Ford A-Gasser in 1962. He has seen a thing or two, and he said this new era of high-budget sponsorship has “made it impossible” for teams to compete on a level playing field — or in some cases to compete at all. He called that new era “the beginning of the end.”

The sanctioning body has provided lip service to cutting costs, but so far no one has found the right formula to keep the fields full in Top Fuel, the sport’s headliner class.

Part-time owner/driver and fan favorite T.J. Zizzo performs admirably when he can afford to enter a race, but a full-time schedule is simply cost-prohibitive.

“When we choose to go to an event, it costs us $100,000. That’s no exaggeration,” he said. “Here’s the problem with the sport: It’s hard-pressed to be worth $100,000 of exposure for the weekend. I’m going into boardrooms and asking for a minimum of $100,000 — and that’s a challenge.”

And the sport has more T.J. Zizzos than it does deep-pocketed Connie Kalittas.

Terry McMillen, 65, is a team owner/driver who claims to see immense potential for the sport — if it can learn to embrace new ways of thinking, fresh marketing concepts and input from the younger generation and from smaller-budgeted teams.

Innovative ideas, he contends, will attract more potential sponsors and more fans. “We’ve got to start testing the waters because doing the same old thing is not moving the needle,” McMillen said.

– Eight championships and 84 victories, the most ever in the Top Fuel class, haven’t been enough to entice anyone to step in and replace the U.S. Army as Tony Schumacher’s sponsor.

Steve Torrence, who has compiled a résumé about as impressive as Schumacher’s, says the class isn’t complete without Schumacher. Rookie Vandergriff said, “Before my career’s over, I want to run Tony Schumacher. I grew up watching him beat everybody and I want to beat him at least once. He needs to be out here.”

– Funny Car’s Ron Capps reeled off the second-fastest speed in drag-racing history Sept. 13 at Pennsylvania’s Maple Grove Raceway. Fans were thrilled, but the NHRA wasn’t. And within a week, officials had informed Top Fuel and Funny Car teams not to be surprised if a new tech mandate comes soon.

Robert Hight made everyone in the sport anticipate a 340 mph Funny Car pass when he clocked a 339.87 mph speed in July 2017 at California’s Sonoma Raceway. He did it again at Maple Grove that year at 339.02 mph. Hight’s 339.87 mph speed trumps Tony Schumacher’s 336.57 best in Top Fuel.

It’s uncertain how the NHRA will proceed. John Force Racing crew chief Mike Green called Capps’ pass “a big, weird one-off run.”

Fellow racer Jack Beckman said it would be best to wait and see if somebody else matches that speed.

Matt Hagan, yet another DSR driver, said fans will get bored with seeing the same numbers and can’t imagine “no opportunities to break barriers.”

The question is whether the sanctioning body will devise a compromise.

– In a jumble of emotions, John Force, at 70, recorded his 150th victory at Seattle’s Pacific Raceway. He popped from the cockpit of his Funny Car and gave a wild, rambling, f-bomb-peppered speech.

Then he made an unscripted run up the track, veering off to the grandstands, clumsily climbing and falling over a chain-link fence and limping toward the fans, who pulled him up into the seats to celebrate with them.

It was as startling, awkward and scary as it was marvelous.

Two races later, Force won the U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis and tearfully confronted his racing future and his own mortality. It was vintage Force, wild and unpredictable — another classic moment.

– The fact part-time Top Fuel competitor Billy Torrence qualified for the Countdown to the Championship has racers rethinking their strategies. Son Steve Torrence, who still isn’t a fan of the six-race format despite winning every single Countdown race in 2018, cut to the chase: “How’s it going to look if my dad goes out and wins the championship and he raced 16 of the 24 races?”

After Billy Torrence defeated his son during the second playoff race at Gateway, that became a genuine possibility. It also supported Steve Torrence’s theory that the Countdown provides “zero incentive to go out and race all of the races and try to do well.” He said, “Ultimately, all you have to do is skate into the top 10 and race really hard for six.”