There will be many changes in the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series nitro pits next year. Some already announced; others coming piecemeal, now that the 2021 season has crowned its heavy-hitting nitro-powered champions: four-consecutive-time titleholder Steve Torrence in Top Fuel and Ron Capps, who earned his second Funny Car title, five years after his first.
Torrence Racing is working with Toyota next year, as the manufacturer divulged recently. At this time, we’ve been told Billy Torrence’s dragster won’t make the call for every one of Top Fuel’s 22 races, and some of his crew have already departed: specifically crew chief Jason McCulloch is supposed to be leaving for Kalitta Motorsports. That hiring hasn’t been announced but was talked about throughout the 2021 season closer, the Auto Club NHRA Finals at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona.
Antron Brown’s AB Motorsports has been in the works for nearly three years and was stymied by last year’s Coronavirus lockdown. It’s for sure in 2022, making Don Schumacher Racing’s hallowed halls a bit more quiet. Tony Stewart Racing announced the hiring of team owner Stewart’s wife Leah for its Top Fuel entry and three-time Funny Car champ Matt Hagan to drive their Funny Car. All three of these drivers have been stalwarts with DSR.
Tony Schumacher is returning to Top Fuel with the intent of earning a ninth title, one that would cement his standing in the category. But at this point, that’s it for Don Schumacher Racing and its gigantic facility in Brownsburg, IN, now that two-time and 2021 Funny Car champ Ron Capps posted his decision to leave the team that he’s been with for 17 years. Capps, as he noted on social media, joined DSR to race alongside his good buddy Gary Scelzi, who departed the team – and the sport – following the 2008 season. He thanked everyone involved during his time at DSR, but is leaving. He’ll announce his landing spot on December 9th during the Performance Racing Industry (PRI) show in Indianapolis.
The nitro ranks in NHRA will look very different next year, thanks to these moves and others that are occurring in back rooms around the country – but mostly in Brownsburg, where the bulk of NHRA nitro teams have their operations.
Brittany Force has said she’ll be back in 2022 to try and take down Steve Torrence from his throne. The second-generation racer and first in her family not to race a Funny Car, Top Fuel’s Force has shown the desire to succeed in this class, but has had difficulties performing on race day. Got to wonder what she’ll do to overcome these issues. Pomona was one of the few times Force wasn’t either the top or among the top qualifiers; she entered competition in 13th spot and fell in the first round to Billy Torrence, ending her championship hopes for 2021.
Justin Ashley is going for continuity, something that’s not in vogue in NHRA’s nitro camps right now. He’s retained Mike Green for a second year and is hoping to finish higher than this year’s fourth-place result in the Countdown to the Championship standings, one behind Mike Salinas who, apparently, is losing the crew chief services of Alan Johnson/Brian Husen in 2022. Salinas loves to race, evidenced by his Pro Mod appearances in addition to Top Fuel; will he return next year or sit this one out? If the latter it would be a major loss for the class and for the sport.
Drivers who show great promise and occasionally deliver in Top Fuel include Doug Kalitta and Shawn Langdon, both of whom are expected to continue with Kalitta Motorsports. It definitely wasn’t the year either one of them expected, and swapping out crew chiefs mid-season didn’t help Doug, who was 2nd in 2020’s championship. There were obvious issues but discerning how to change them isn’t a plug-and-play decision. Teams need time to work together in order to succeed. Here’s hoping Conrad Kalitta, team owner, has the patience to allow the two Top Fuel drivers and their 2022 teams to gel.
Alex Laughlin, moving from Pro Stock/Pro Mod to Top Fuel this year made some excellent runs as he learned the extreme differences between what he drove and what he’s driving, thanks to Scott Palmer’s decision to park himself in favor of Laughlin. It’ll take some massive money infusion to keep him in a dragster, and getting people to sign up, have their names on his dragster, as Laughlin did for the Auto Club Finals, isn’t always going to play out. Rookie of the Year candidate Josh Hart has firmed up his plans with crew chief Ron Douglas taking on a partnership role; this duo should be potent. Clay Millican is expected to continue with Stringer Performance and Mike Kloeber, but that’s not written in stone.
Now that both Hagan and Capps have departed Don Schumacher Racing, the class is in flux. As usual, it’ll take time for both of these stars to gel with their new teams, opening the door for other drivers to take over the class. With her strong finish to the season, including a win at Bristol in the Countdown and strong performances throughout that seven-race span, Alexis DeJoria could hoist the new Toyota Supra quickly into title contention. Both Toyota racers, Kalitta’s J.R. Todd, the 2018 class champion and DeJoria, will need some testing time to learn about the quirks of the new body style.
John Force Racing had its ups and downs, with 16-time Funny Car titleholder John Force deep into the Countdown before the final two races cut him out of contention and placed him fifth. Robert Hight and crew chief Jimmy Prock had a good year, but not as good as the old man did. It was great to see Force arrive at Capps’ celebration after the Finals were complete, to congratulate him. It’s not known whether Auto Club will continue with its support of both the team and the series; for the past few years rumors have swirled about their departure – which hasn’t happened – yet.
Bob Tasca III, who left the sport for a couple of years and then returned (with Ford Racing), secure in the knowledge that there is no cure for auto racing, specifically for nitro-powered auto racing, had a good season that saw the Rhode Island native earn three victories in the 20-race 2021 campaign. He was up at the start of the season, leading the standings for several events, but found issues in the middle. Tasca ended the year with victory in the Auto Club Finals and third place in the standings, giving him and his Mike Neff/Jon Shaffer-led team some momentum for next year’s slate of 22 races from February to November.
Two-time Funny Car champion Cruz Pedregon, too, was in the mix until the final race of the year, where he fell in the first round to Tim Wilkerson. The Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat racer rejuvenated his career with the addition of crew chief John Collins, who exited DSR when Tommy Johnson Jr.’s car was parked due to lack of funding. Pedregon’s Las Vegas victory placed him solidly in the Countdown mix behind only Capps and Hagan, quite an achievement for a single-car team.
For the first time in who knows how many years (actually since 1999), Jim Dunn Racing made the top 10 in points with driver Jim Campbell. The usually dour Dunn even smiled at the season finale – son Jon was, thankfully, more emotive over the team’s change of fortune – as their Dodge Charger found the sweet spot close to the team’s, and team owner’s, hometown. It will be interesting to see if they can keep on this trail, once Head Racing and Blake Alexander returns to competition.
The nitro ranks will be changed in 2022 and NHRA’s Silly Season is fully charged and roaring ahead, with announcements due to come as rapidly as eight cylinders on full song. So hang tight, tighten belts, place bets and wait, along with us, for all to be revealed.