Who Will Win the the Valley of the Sun as the NHRA Heads to Phoenix?

Doug Kalitta at the NHRA Mello Yello season opener in Pomona.
Doug Kalitta Pomona1 2020
Doug Kalitta at the NHRA Mello Yello season opener in Pomona.

Everybody wants to be a winner. That’s why we race. Before every single one of NHRA’s Mello Yello Drag Racing Series 24 events (18 in Pro Stock; 16 for Pro Stock Motorcycle), either the series or the public relations professionals for each team say that so-and-so is looking towards victory at XYZ event upcoming.

Well, duh! Otherwise why bother, right?

We learned a lot at the season opening Lucas Oil Winternationals. It doesn’t matter if someone boycotts because they don’t like the playing field – the show will go on. Weather forecasts keep fans away from the track, as evidenced by the dearth of Sunday’s attendees – this despite the fact that the racing started an hour early to accommodate forecasts and rain held off until much later in the night.

It doesn’t matter if you take a couple of years off from competition as did Alexis DeJoria, who ended up racing to the semifinals in her return. Doug Kalitta pretty much owns Auto Club Raceway at Pomona and do Jack Beckman and Jeg Coughlin Jr. Kalitta earned his third straight Winternationals victory and his third consecutive victory at that track – all three winners were repeats from the November World Finals results, a series first.

Alexis DeJoria
Alexis DeJoria

Now it’s on to race No. 2 at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, southeast of Phoenix, AZ. The NHRA Arizona Nationals will offer 17 Top Fuel entries, up from the 13 dragsters who competed at Pomona. The entry list is highlighted by 2018-2019 TF champion Steve Torrence’s return, along with his father Billy, Scott Palmer (who relies on the Torrence Racing team’s brain trust to help tune his car) and Doug Foley, returning after a 10-year absence.

While we’re all excited to see if Kalitta can run the table here as he did in Pomona, we’re also looking to see if Antron Brown’s reconstituted team can bring it home. Having Brian Corradi back in the fold has given the always ebullient Brown an even better outlook on life; now it’s got to transfer to the track, something the Don Schumacher Racing team worked hard to effect. They didn’t get it done in California, going out in the first round to Shawn Reed after qualifying ninth; can they do it here?

And what’s with Leah Pruett, widely thought to be a championship contender after some great showings in her first few years with DSR? It seems like she and Todd Okuhara haven’t hit a sweet spot for ages. Pruett’s got a winning resume at this track; hopefully she can turn up the wick and nail up a fine result on Sunday.

Clay Millican’s single-car entry was awesome in 2018 when he had David Grubnic turning the knobs; the duo of Millican and Mike Kloeber showed signs of brilliance last year – notably at the 50th Amalie Motor Oil Gatornationals, but fought to gain consistency the rest of the campaign.

John Force Racing’s Brittany Force and Austin Prock both had good showings in Pomona, with the 2019 Auto Club Road to the Future (rookie) award winner going to the finals against Kalitta. Force rewrote the Pomona track record, earned No. 1 and raced to the semifinals, where Kalitta’s holeshot took her down for the rest of the day. Both of these drivers should be mighty strong at Phoenix, where Force will debut new sponsor Flav-R-Pac’s bright yellow colors.

Funny Car’s Jack Beckman hasn’t come down off the high of earning a Wally winner’s trophy at both the finals and season-starter. The Californian’s Don Schumacher Racing Infinite Hero Foundation team, financed by Doug Chandler in honor of his late wife Terry, has found its stride with the complementary tuning of Dean Antonelli and John Medlen, both ex-John Force Racing.

Everyone will have to contend with that team’s president, Robert Hight, along with 16-time Funny Car champ John Force, both of whom showed exceptionally well as the season began. Force made it to the finals in his Chevrolet Camaro SS, where he lost to Beckman, while Hight was out after the quarterfinals, shaking the tires against DeJoria’s Toyota Camry, who had her own difficulties in getting the win light, but still drove her car from A to B.

The effects of losing two Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat chassis, a pile of engines and an entire truck had their results with Ron Capps. The team has had to regroup, built their current car in the parking lot of their hotel (thankfully there was a big box hardware store next door) and kept a stiff upper lip through all the issues. Capps fell to teammate Beckman in the second round;consider that an achievement, considering the issues his team had to overcome simply to race in the first contest of the year.

There are 16 entries for Funny Car – at press time – highlighted by the return of Blake Alexander in Jim Head’s Ford Mustang and Jeff Diehl’s entry in a 2019 Toyota Camry, following his sit-out at Pomona due to the absence of the Torrence Racing team, on whom they, too, rely for technical assistance.

Jeg Coughlin Jr. has stated that this is his last year, announcing his intention prior to the second day’s qualifying in Pomona. Still, he and Jason Line – who has also announced he’s done racing in the category after the season ends in Pomona – met in the final round at that race. It was almost comedic to see two racers who plan to retire from Pro Stock racing, battling for all the glory. Bet we’ll see a lot of that this year.

Chris McGaha at Pomona 2020
Chris McGaha at the 2020 NHRA season opener in Pomona.

It’ll likely be a battle between the engine tuners at Elite Motorsports (Erica Enders and Coughlin Jr. are the primary racers) and KB Racing, who build cars and engines for the Summit Racing trio and for other customers. But still, the “little guys” can win, racers like Chris McGaha and Steve Graham have shown as much in this near Chevy Camaro-only class. It’s been said many times that NHRA seems to promote Chevrolet in Pro Stock – and the late Bob Glidden would likely agree – but these days Chevy’s got the best car, so that’s what people want to race. There are 19 entries planned for Pro Stock, with a pair of Ford Mustangs and a single Dodge Dart breaking up the Chevy monopoly. Expect to see all the racers who towed out to Pomona on hand for the second contest of the year.

It seems to rain a lot outside Phoenix, especially when NHRA is in town. While we’re expecting mostly clear days on Friday and Sunday, Saturday could be a washout. Sunday should be a gorgeous late-winter day with mild temps and bright skies, exactly what everyone wants for their race day.

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About Anne Proffit 540 Articles
Anne Proffit traces her love of racing - in particular drag racing - to her childhood days in Philadelphia, where Atco Dragway, Englishtown and Maple Grove Raceway were destinations just made for her. As a diversion, she was the first editor of IMSA’s Arrow newsletter, and now writes about and photographs sports cars, Indy cars, Formula 1, MotoGP, NASCAR, Formula Drift, Red Bull Global Rallycross - in addition to her first love of NHRA drag racing. A specialty is a particular admiration for the people that build and tune drag racing engines.

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