60th Annual Winternationals Kicks off 2020 NHRA Mello-Yello Season

Photos: Anne Proffit
60th Annual Winternationals
Photos: Anne Proffit

“There’s never an easy round out there.” That’s the statement of Doug Kalitta, driver of Kalitta Motorsports’ Mac Tools NHRA Mello Yello Top Fuel dragster, winner of the last two races held on the Auto Club Raceway dragstrip in Pomona, CA. Kalitta is looking for his third consecutive win on this track during the 60th annual Lucas Oil Winternationals and his third season-starting Wally winner’s trophy.

Winning is the goal of every racer on-site for the first race of the year. As entrants in Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock gather at the sport’s home track in the midst of wintertime, winning is the only thing on anyone’s mind. That, and stopping reigning champions Steve Torrence, Robert Hight and Erica Enders from picking up another title when they return to this venue next November.

It won’t be tough to beat Torrence this weekend in Pomona, as he’s withdrawn his entry, a decision that also means the withdrawal of Top Fuel’s Scott Palmer and The Surfer, Jeff Diehl’s Funny Car, as they rely on technical support from the Torrence Racing team. After Mike Salinas’ decision to skip the first four events of the 24-race season, that leaves 15 dragsters now that Palmer’s out.

“Due to untimely circumstances out of our control, it’s in the best interest of Torrence racing to not participate in this weekend’s season opener in Pomona, California,” Steve Torrence tweeted. “We cannot thank our fans enough for their continued support and understanding at this time.”

Kalitta in Pomona 2020
Photos: Anne Proffit

Of course there are rumors swirling about this decision but, as the entry list reveals, there are plenty of capable drivers to take up the slack, including Kalitta’s teammate Shawn Langdon, back in the Top Fuel ranks after two years driving a Funny Car for Kalitta Motorsports. Unfortunately, Tony Schumacher is still on the sidelines.

Now that she’s had a year working with former driver David Grubnic, Brittany Force’s John Force Racing team looks stout for the season. During the Las Vegas test last weekend, the Monster Energy dragster made half-track passes, with Force declaring, “We had a great time out in Vegas. It was really good to get the whole team together and get into the routine of things before heading to Pomona.”

Her teammate Austin Prock, coming off a stellar rookie season that saw the third-generation racer secure a victory in Seattle and five semifinal results. Prock earned the Auto Club Road to the Future rookie award and starts the year with the return of Mike Green as his crew chief together with newcomer Joe Barlam. In Las Vegas, they produced a 3.682-second pass at 333.08 mph that, while unofficial has the driver pumped for the season. “I hope we can carry that over into Pomona,” he said.

Antron Brown begins a rejuvenated year at Don Schumacher Racing, with his AB Motorsports team sprouting wings and with the return of Brian Corradi as crew chief. This duo, together with Mark Oswald, secured three championships together; Global Electronic Technology joins Matco Tools as partners. “It just feels good to have Brian Corradi back with our whole group. We’re ready to go into this first race with our heads down,” Brown said.

Teammate Leah Pruett has “an extra level of confidence going into this hometown race. This Mopar team,” she said, “led by Todd Okuhara and Neil Strausbaugh, had what we consider a successful test session in Vegas. Strategically testing new parts for performance and durability presented the results we were looking for; the team is undoubtedly capable of wining from the immediate start.”

Clay Milican 2020 NHRA
Photos: Anne Proffit

Clay Millican is sporting a new and bright look to his Straightline Performance rail for the 2020 24-race campaign as he begins his second season reunited with Mike Kloeber. Terry McMillan returns to right the issues he had in 2019, while newcomer Justin Ashley is looking to bolster his positive 2019 results and Cameron Ferre is likely happy he won’t have to deal with Torrence during this weekend’s race, as he did at the season finale. Add in Shawn Reed, Brandon Welch, Rob Passey, James Maroney and you’ve got a stout Top Fuel entry.

Robert Hight Vegas 2020
Photos: Anne Proffit

Robert Hight can’t wait for the season to get started after earning his third championship in Funny Car for John Force Racing last November. The 51-race winner has 68 No. 1 qualifiers on his resume, After three days of testing in Las Vegas, the champion recorded the fastest two Funny Car passes of the first two days at 3.844 (330.12) and 3.829 (334.40). “It felt really good to be back in the driver’s seat and has me excited about the 2020 season,” Hight said.

He’ll have plenty of drivers nipping at his rear tires, including runner-up Jack Beckman the 2012 champ driving for Don Schumacher Racing (DSR). With a slight eight-point lag in 2019, local racer Beckman is anxious to improve from his previous season results. Beckman won the season finale and was the 2016 No. 1 qualifier at this race.

The 60th Winternationals marks Beckman’s 325th professional event and for Beckman, “The Winterantionals holds a special place in my heart. When I was a 10-year-old, I had a paper route and on Sunday mornings, my brother and I would deliver our route and then head out to the Winternationals to watch eliminations.I have so many great memories from Pomona, including my first national event win in Super Comp (1998). I have yet to win the Winternationals in nitro, but coming off the NHRA Finals win, I feel we have as good a shot as anyone.”

There are 18 entries in the Flopper class, now that Diehl has withdrawn, including the returning Alexis DeJoria, who had a learning test session last weekend in Arizona, getting the rust out and learning to work with her new car and Del Worsham/Nicky Boninfante-led team. There were some technical issues as well for the team to work through, but DeJoria is primed and ready for the season to begin.

Ageless John Force, who picked up his 151st Funny Car victory at the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals is now seeking his 17th national championship in the class and, after a successful 2019 is invigorated to meet that challenge. The 70-year-old hasn’t lost his love for speed and had a good deal of consistency in his testing passes. In addition to Beckman, he’ll have to deal with perennial competitors Matt Hagan and Ron Capps from DSR, the latter one of Force’s regular combatants.

Also returning are Tommy Johnson Jr., Cruz Pedrergon, Paul Lee, Bob Bode Jr., a single Kalitta Motorsports entry for 2018 champ J.R. Todd, Terry Haddock, second-generation racer Steven Densham and James Campbell.

Nothing like celebrating the 50th anniversary season of Pro Stock with five champions in the house, including reigning three-time champ Erica Enders, who did her tune-up on the Bradenton, Florida dragstrip prior to arriving in Pomona. She scored the 150th NHRA victory for a woman in professional competition last year at Las Vegas and kept her cool when former champ Greg Anderson tried to take her out in the finals last November by qualifying poorly and meeting her in the first round. It didn’t work.

The other Pro Stock champions racing this weekend are Enders’ Elite Motorsports teammate Jeg Coughlin Jr., Summit Racing’s 2017 titleholder Bo Butner, Jason Line, who is hanging up his helmet at the close of the 2020 season, and Anderson.

Additionally, Matt Hartford, who came close to earning his first title, Chris McGaha, whose son starts his Pro Stock career in Gainesville, Elite’s Alex Laughlin, the 2019 U.S. Nationals winner, three-time winner Deric Kramer, Kenny Delco and Val Smeland are back for the 50th anniversary year. Add in the returning Alan Prusiensky, newcomer Aaron Stanfield, Joey Grose, Tom Huggins, Steve Graham, three Cuadra entries from Fernando, Fernando Jr and Cristian, and newcomer Martin Robertson, and you end up with a 21-car entry to start the year.

The weather always comes into play in Pomona and this year is no different. In 2019, the Winternationals concluded on Monday, rather than Sunday and, although Friday and Saturday are forecast to be clear and carry moderate temperatures, the Sunday and Monday forecasts call for cool, temps and a 40-percent chance of showers, starting Sunday afternoon (hopefully after the final rounds).

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About Anne Proffit 554 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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