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MOTOR RACING

Key changes in NHRA this season

Top fuel teams, including defending champion Tony Schumacher's, will be adjusting to new personnel.

February 05, 2009|Jim Peltz

As drag racing picks up where it left off last year, in Pomona, the focus is on some key personnel changes in the National Hot Rod Assn.'s fastest class -- top fuel.

The NHRA's premier level -- which includes the top fuel, funny car, pro stock and pro motorcycle divisions -- is now called the Full Throttle Series after the energy drink's parent, Coca-Cola, switched its drag racing sponsorship from its Powerade drink.

The series opens today through Sunday with the Kragen O'Reilly Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, where the 2008 season ended in November.

Tony Schumacher extended his domination of the 300-mph top-fuel division last season by winning his fifth consecutive championship and sixth overall for the team owned by his father, Don Schumacher Racing.

Known as "the Sarge" because his dragster is sponsored by the Army, Tony Schumacher also is the defending top-fuel winner at the Winternationals.

But his bid to win a seventh title has a new wrinkle: Alan Johnson, the savvy crew chief who guided Schumacher through his remarkable streak since 2003, left to form a team.

So Schumacher returns to Pomona with a new crew chief, Mike Green, who formerly was crew chief for Cory McClenathan, another top-fuel driver in Don Schumacher's stable.

"It was an amazing run," Tony Schumacher said of his former team. "And all teams end at some point, all great combinations and groups of people end. But that doesn't mean the winning ends. I look forward to the challenge."

Johnson formed a team with Sheik Khalid bin Hamad al Thani, a member of Qatar's ruling family, and recruited driver Larry Dixon from another top NHRA team, Don Prudhomme Racing. Spencer Massey, in turn, takes over Dixon's ride at Prudhomme.

That shift came after Dixon, the 2002 and 2003 top-fuel champion and a Van Nuys native, won the Auto Club NHRA Finals at Pomona in November when he defeated Rod Fuller with a pass of 3.833 seconds at 300.93 mph.

"It could take us a while to jell as a team, but everyone on this team has won at least one championship in previous ventures, so I'd like to think we can hit the ground running," Dixon said.

Fuller, meanwhile, became a casualty of the economic recession along with Hillary Will, who finished fourth in the top-fuel standings last year. Both drivers said in January that they didn't expect to compete in Pomona this week because of financial problems with their teams or sponsors.

Dixon's winning run at Pomona in November was on a temporarily reduced race distance of 1,000 feet, compared with the NHRA's traditional drag-strip length of a quarter of a mile, or 1,320 feet.

The Glendora-based sanctioning body took the unprecedented step of shortening races in top fuel and funny cars after veteran Scott Kalitta was killed June 21 in a race in Englishtown, N.J., when his funny car exploded.

His accident, which followed other serious crashes in the previous two years, convinced the NHRA and many of its drivers that the dragsters' former speeds of 330 mph or higher were too fast.

So the NHRA temporarily cut race distances while it studies other ways to slow the cars. Now the question is whether those alternatives will be implemented soon, or whether the NHRA instead leaves the 1,000-foot races in place for all of 2009.

The NHRA hasn't said what it plans, but it probably will have to make a decision because the series' championship point system had awarded bonus points if drivers set elapsed-time records at races. That system was suspended under the 1,000-foot rule and no such points are currently being awarded.

In funny cars, Cruz Pedregon returns to Pomona after an emotion-packed day in November when he won the Finals and the funny car title for 2008.

He narrowly won the championship over Tim Wilkerson, Jack Beckman and Robert Hight, the John Force Racing driver who is the defending funny car winner of the Winternationals.

The irrepressible Force also is back to head his Yorba Linda-based team of drivers. The 14-time funny car champion, 59, recovered from serious injuries in a racing crash in September 2007 to finish seventh in points last year, just behind his daughter Ashley.

Pedregon also won the title in 1992 and his brother Tony won the championship in 2003 and 2007, so they're hoping one of them will earn the third consecutive funny car title for the Pedregon household this week.

Jeg Couglin Jr. of Delaware, Ohio, returns to defend his title in the pro stock class -- he has won consecutive championships and four overall -- while Eddie Krawiec of Englishtown, N.J., is the reigning champion in pro stock motorcycles.

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james.peltz@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

THE FIVE TO WATCH IN 2009

Tony Schumacher: Now that he has parted ways with crew chief Alan Johnson, can Schumacher win a sixth consecutive top-fuel title this season, or win at all? Johnson formed a new team, so "the Sarge" has a new crew chief in Mike Green and will start by defending his victory in the Winternationals in Pomona this weekend.

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