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Winternationals begin NHRA racing season Thursday at Pomona

The event has three days of qualifying, followed by final eliminations on Sunday.

February 08, 2012|By Jim Peltz
  • Matt Hagan rolls through his prerace burnout before driving his DieHard Advanced Gold Dodge Charger to a 4.033-second pass en route to the No. 1 qualifying position in Funny Car racing last fall at the NHRA Finals at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona.
Matt Hagan rolls through his prerace burnout before driving his DieHard… (Marc Gewertz / NHRA / Associated…)

Drag racing's best return to Pomona this weekend to kick off their season with the NHRA Winternationals.

In the sport's two elite divisions, top fuel and funny car, the racing is expected to be just as close as when it ended at the same track, Auto Club Raceway, last November.

Titles in both classes in the National Hot Rod Assn.'s Full Throttle Series — in which the cars reach speeds of more than 300 mph in 1,000-foot races — were decided on the final day.

Del Worsham won the top-fuel championship for the Al-Anabi Racing team over Spencer Massey, and Matt Hagan of Don Schumacher Racing captured the funny car title over teammate Jack Beckman of Norco.

Worsham, who turns 42 on Saturday, afterward retired as a driver and was replaced by rookie Khalid alBalooshi, a native of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates who had been racing Al-Anabi dragsters in the NHRA's second-tier series and internationally.

Al-Anabi, owned by Sheikh Khalid Al Thani, a member of the ruling family of Qatar, also parted ways with three-time top-fuel champion Larry Dixon and replaced him with Shawn Langdon.

Don Schumacher's other top-fuel drivers include Antron Brown, who finished third in the championship standings last year with six wins, and his son Tony Schumacher, the seven-time champion who finished a disappointing fifth in the points after a winless season.

"Every driver knows at some point there's going to be adversity, and we had it last year," said Tony Schumacher, a Canoga Park native who reeled off six of his titles in consecutive years from 2004 through 2009. "We just have to do better this year."

In funny car, the team led by 15-time champion John Force, 62, is out to capture another title after seeing one slip away in 2011.

In addition to Force himself, John Force Racing of Yorba Linda includes 2009 funny car champion Robert Hight, Mike Neff and a rookie, Force's 23-year-old daughter, Courtney Force.

Hight and Neff each won five races last season, but they finished fourth and fifth, respectively, in the point standings.

"It really stung last year to not get the championship," Neff said, "so everyone's really motivated this year to try to get that back."

But they'll again have their hands full with Beckman and Cruz Pedregon of Torrance, who finished third in the funny car standings last season.

In the pro stock division, Jason Line of the Summit Racing team will open the defense of his 2011 title, which included six wins during the season.

"The Winternationals is one of the races you always look forward to, because it's the start of the new season and you can't wait to get back in the race car," Line said.

The event has three days of qualifying Thursday through Saturday, followed by final eliminations Sunday starting at 11 a.m.

james.peltz@latimes.com

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