Tuesday, January 28, 2003
Championships keep coming
By Bill Stephens ESPN.com
Is it possible to win consecutive championships in the NHRA? Yes.
Is it tough to do? Certainly.
Is it a rarity? It depends on which class you're referring to.
There are 23 national events on the NHRA schedule, a maximum of 138 points available to any professional racer to collect at any of those events, and venues which can differ greatly based on their location, configuration and elevation. The four pro categories are furiously competitive, with teams chasing championships, prize money and enough success to secure and maintain the sponsorships that allow them to stay on the tour.
The pressure to win is relentless, which let alone makes the goal of winning a single championship tough enough. Winning a second consecutive crown is truly deserving of high praise.
In Top Fuel, there hasn't been a repeat champion since Gary Scelzi won the honors in 1997 and '98. Tony Schumacher was champion in 1999, Scelzi again in 2000, Kenny Bernstein in 2001 and Larry Dixon last year.
Prior to Scelzi's '97-'98 two-fer, you'd have to go back to 1994-95 when Scott Kalitta won back-to-back titles.
Joe Amato's three straight championships from 1990 to '92 give him the distinction of being the only Top Fuel driver in history to get the hat trick on his way to five career titles. And based on the parity that has emerged in the category, with drivers such as Dixon, Schumacher, Darrell Russell, Doug Kalitta, Doug Herbert, rookie Brandon Bernstein and the always dangerous Cory McClenathan, the prospect of another driver equaling Amato's numbers may be unlikely any time soon.
Angelle Savoie has won three consecutive Pro Stock Bike crowns.
The Pro Stock championship has really made the rounds over the past decade with Warren Johnson and Darrell Alderman becoming the category's most prolific champions since the retirement of 10-time champ Bob Glidden. Since 1989, Johnson has won six titles, Alderman has three, while Jim Yates and Jeg Coughlin Jr. have two each.
Although a remarkably competitive class, including a record number of different national event winners (15) in 2001 and almost as many in 2002 (13), the reigning champ, Coughlin, may be the driver most likely to embark on a Glidden-esque streak after dominating in last season's second half.
Angelle Savoie's three-in-a-row from 2000 to '02 matches Matt Hines' triple crown performance from 1997 to '99. While Pro Stock parity is undeniable, Pro Stock Bike parity is almost non-existent. In the 14 national events in which bikes raced in 2002, there were only five different winners -- Savoie (6), Hines (2), Craig Treble (4), Antron Brown (1) and Geno Scali (1).
Heading into 2003, sponsorship uncertainties may cast some doubt on Savoie's ability to run for her fourth title. However, should team owner George Bryce find the funding to run at their previous level of performance, Savoie would have to remain the favorite to score another championship.
Finally, the Funny Car class has been nothing short of a staggering string of consecutive titles for John Force. He's tallied 10 straight, 12 overall, and is leading a team which for the past two weeks has run sturdy numbers at tests in Phoenix and Tucson, Ariz. In short, Force has made the act of winning a title seem almost routine. But he'll be the first to deny it.
"We learned in 1992 that you can't get cocky," Force said. "We had a huge points lead over Cruz (Pedregon) and fell flat on our faces. Look who's out here now. Ol' Cruz is back, (Don) Schumacher's got three cars, (Don) Prudhomme's got two hungry kids, (Del) Worsham keeps giving me fits, and my own driver (Tony Pedregon) almost got around me last year. You can't take anything for granted 'cause if you do, someone will be glad to smarten you up."
Leave it to the man with more repeat championships than anyone in motorsports history to keep it real.
Bill Stephens is an NHRA reporter for ESPN and covers the NHRA for ESPN.com.