Plenty to look forward to in 2013
Two former champs end their one-year hiatus to try to win again. A rookie named Force (yes, another daughter) takes a new path. A few other women could contend for a title. A Top Fuel standout tries to overcome offseason controversy. And a once dominant team tries to regain its glory.
How's that for some interesting storylines as the NHRA embarks on the 2013 season? The show begins this weekend with the Winternationals at Pomona (Friday-Sunday on ESPN, ESPN3 and WatchESPN).
Three first-time champs in 2013 -- Antron Brown in Top Fuel, Jack Beckman in Funny Car and Allen Johnson in Pro Stock -- try to repeat, which is becoming progressively tougher in this era of competition.
But my focus today is on five other things that will bring plenty of attention this season. Take a look:
Worsham and Dixon are back
Del Worsham won the Top Fuel crown in 2011, hung up his helmet and worked as a crew chief in 2012, but returns to the driver's seat this year. So does his former teammate, three-time Top Fuel champ Larry Dixon, who's racing a partial schedule.
Worsham, 42, also is going back to Funny Car, where he spent most of his career. He replaces Jeff Arend at Kalitta Motorsports in the DHL Toyota for NHRA legend Connie Kalitta.
"This really is a dream come true for me and my family," Worsham said. "Connie and everyone at Kalitta Motorsports have been our friends for years. To be able to continue racing with them is truly an honor. Scott [Kalitta] and I were good friends, and I'm humbled to be taking over the controls of his race car. The DHL Funny Car will always be Scott's car."
Scott Kalitta, Connie's son and a two-time Top Fuel champ, died in a crash in 2008.
Worsham spent last year guiding Alexis DeJoria through her rookie season in Funny Car. Now he's her teammate.
"I'm ready to get back in the seat," Worsham said. It's only been a year, so maybe it won't take long to knock the rust off."
He would love to join Kenny Bernstein and Gary Scelzi as the only drivers to win championships in both nitro categories. That's a monumental task on a team that finished 10th in the 2012 standings.
Arend moves to Jim Dunn's Funny Car, so it will be interesting to see how Worsham and Arend do against each other this season.
Dixon, 46, is teaming with veteran crew chief Lee Beard on a new Top Fuel team with Australian investors. Pomona will be the first time the dragster gets on the track.
"You have to be realistic in your expectations at this point, but I'm cautiously optimistic," Dixon said. "I think we have what it takes to win, but we don't have any time slips to show it."
Another Force offspring goes nitro
These John Force daughters are everywhere. Welcome Brittany Force, who joins younger sister Courtney (the NHRA Rookie of the Year last season) in the pro ranks this year.
But Brittany, 26, is doing something no other member of the Force family has done -- she's racing a Top Fuel dragster.
"We're on uncharted ground here," said 15-time Funny Car champ John Force. "We have so much to prove and so much to learn. Brittany's been training in that car for a year now. She's looking to qualify at every event and, hopefully, get a win."
Brittany's new Castrol Edge dragster was one of the fastest at testing in Palm Beach, Fla., last month, blasting down the track in 3.79 seconds and at 322 mph.
But that's testing. Now she's goes up against the best of the best -- Brown, Tony Schumacher, Morgan Lucas, Brandon Bernstein, Steve Torrence, et al.
"I'm going to race against the some of the guys I grew up watching," Brittany said. "I'm proud of what my sisters [Ashley Force Hood and Courtney Force] have done, but I'm going down my own path and I have my own goals."
Robert Hight, the 2010 Funny Car champ, Brittany's brother-in-law and the president of John Force Racing, is the guiding force (no pun intended) behind Brittany's move to Top Fuel. She's an experienced racer, having spent parts of six seasons in Super Comp and Alcohol dragsters.
"I have no doubt at all she can get the job done," Hight said of Brittany. "And I don't see any reason why she can't make the Countdown [the 10-car, six-race NHRA playoff]. I don't want to put pressure on her, but I believe that team is capable of doing it."
Massey was out, now he's back in
Without question, Spencer Massey's return to Don Schumacher Racing is the most unusual and controversial story of the offseason.
Massey was released from DSR in November after reportedly making derogatory comments about Brown during the NHRA awards banquet. But Massey was back on Feb. 2 when Schumacher announced he would fund the third dragster out of his own pocket with sponsorship from his electric company.
Massey, 30, was third in the Top Fuel standings last season and the runner-up in 2011, going to the final event both years with a shot at the title. But DSR lost Fram/Prestone as the car's sponsor at the end of 2012.
Schumacher released a statement in November about Massey's departure, saying: "I have decided to go a different direction."
So was Massey let go in November over sponsorship issues or controversy over his actions at the banquet?
Brown, the first African-American to win a major auto racing championship, came to Massey's defense on a conference call two weeks ago, saying Massey apologized over the incident.
"Things got a little out of control [at the awards ceremony] where alcohol was involved," Brown said. "I spoke to [Massey] the day after. I have no idea what was said or what was done or what happened. At the end of the day, we're professionals in front of everybody, and that's what he was apologizing about."
Brown also insisted sponsorship was the only issue.
"If FRAM and Prestone were still here today, Spencer would be driving that car," Brown said. "I'll put my bottom dollar on it."
That statement came three days before DSR announced Massey would return in the third dragster.
Massey hasn't spoken publicly about what happened in November. That probably will change this weekend with reporters at Pomona looking for answers.
Watch out for the other ladies
Women racing and winning in the NHRA is nothing new, dating back to Shirley Muldowney's three Top Fuel titles that came more than 30 years ago.
Even so, this could become a special year for women in drag racing. Both Courtney Force in Funny Car and Erica Enders-Stevens in Pro Stock could contend for the championship this year.
"I think our team exceeded our expectations last year," said Courtney, who won at Seattle and finished fifth in the standings. "It definitely built our confidence. Now we have a different perspective. We want to do better than fifth and try to tackle the championship."
So does Enders-Stevens. The newlywed (she married long-time boyfriend Richie Stevens in December) won four races last year, becoming the first woman in history to win any Pro Stock event.
Alan Johnson's boys could step up
One of the big surprises of 2012 was how poorly both the Al Anabi Racing dragsters ran the year after winning back-to-back titles with Dixon and Worsham.
Johnson, who guides the Al Anabi operation, is widely viewed as the best tuner in NHRA history. But Dixon and Worsham were gone in 2012 and the team struggled with drivers Shawn Langdon and rookie Khalid alBalooshi.
However, there were strong indications toward the end of 2012 that Johnson's guys were coming around, winning two of the six Countdown races -- Langdon at Charlotte in September and alBalooshi at Reading, Pa., in October.
Langdon ran the fastest speed in NHRA history (since the switch to 1,000 feet) at Reading with a pass at 334.15 mph. He also was the top qualifier in three of the six playoff races, ending the year fifth in the standings.
Johnson will find an edge, so expect to see his dragsters return as contenders this year.
Pomona could tell us a lot about what's to come with Worsham and Dixon's return, the female contenders, Massey's rebound and Al Anabi's turnaround.
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