NORWALK, Ohio Extremely tough competition has been the buzzword in the nitro ranks this season, as Top Fuel and Funny Car drivers have pushed each other to higher levels of excellence on the dragstrip.
That commitment has also produced quite a bit of parity in both categories. Long gone are the days when seven-time world champ Tony Schumacher and 15-time world champ John Force can dominate a season with double-digit victories.
To date, six different winners have emerged in Top Fuel, while seven different winners have claimed Wally trophies in Funny Car. There are many others who have come oh-so-close to visiting victory lane as well.
Those drivers in the two 7,000-horsepower categories will lead the charge to try and break through to add their names to the season winner's list at the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals, July 5-8 at Summit Racing Equipment Motorsports Park. Del Worsham (Top Fuel), Mike Neff (Funny Car), Vincent Nobile (Pro Stock) and Eddie Krawiec (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were the 2011 winners of the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series event that will be televised on ESPN2 HD.
Last season's runner-up at this event, Spencer Massey, leads the Top Fuel class with three victories this season in his FRAM/Prestone dragster. Massey is currently third in the points standings, and has been the leader following several races this season. He knows every time he pulls to the line his focus has to be dialed in or he might not see the win light come on in his lane.
"The competition in Top Fuel this year is one of the toughest we've ever seen in the class," Massey said. "It seems like all of the drivers have stepped up their game."
Two-time winner Antron Brown, who is second in the points order and recently won in Chicago, says the class is rivaling NHRA's 200-mph factory hot rod class for the number of photo finishes.
"Right now, you look at Top Fuel and it's as tight as Pro Stock car," Brown said. "We're running neck and neck, winning by 12 inches or less at over 320 mph."
U.S. Army dragster driver Schumacher is very familiar with close finishes. He currently leads the standings with one victory and welcomes the increased competition. He enjoys when a battle for the championship goes down to the wire. Two of his titles came in that atmosphere. He is also pleased to be able to focus on a championship goal now that he's ended a pesky 32-race winless streak.
"I'm absolutely satisfied at the moment we're leading the points and that's where you want to be," said Schumacher, who won at Norwalk in 2007. "But, leading now is not the goal. We want to be the team that's standing on the top step of the podium on November 11th (the last day of the season). That's when we'll be totally satisfied."
Others to watch in Top Fuel include surprise performer Steve Torrence, who has claimed two wins in three final round appearances this season, two-time winner Morgan Lucas and Shawn Langdon, who appears to be a win waiting to happen behind the wheel of his Al-Anabi Racing dragster.
In Funny Car there have been some impressive streaks so far. Series leader Robert Hight raced to four consecutive victories early in the year in his Auto Club Ford Mustang. Then, not to be outdone, veteran driver Ron Capps reeled off six straight final round appearances in his NAPA Auto Parts Dodge Charger, winning twice.
Meanwhile, five other drivers have also found their way to the winner's circle, including Jack Beckman, Mike Neff, Johnny Gray, Jeff Arend and Force.
Capps has had the momentum for most of the second half of the regular season after an early April crew chief switcheroo with Beckman's team. Capps was teamed with Rahn Tobler and the two developed instant chemistry. They looked unstoppable in racing to victories at Atlanta and Bristol and made history by producing a jaw-dropping elapsed time of 3.964 seconds at Englishtown. A first round loss to rookie Alexis DeJoria at Chicago has slowed down the Capps fast break.
"Every streak comes to an end," Capps said. "We'll just have to start a new one at Norwalk."
Series points leader Hight, who has also been impressive during the season realizes that in order to secure a second world championship, he'll need to face Capps in some upcoming battles, and win. In head-to-head meetings in Atlanta and Topeka, Capps got the upper hand.
"What we have to do is stop Capps," Hight said. "He is like a little dog nipping at your heels. We have to get rid of that little thing."
While Hight and Capps have proved to be the leaders so far for the championship run, rookies DeJoria and Courtney Force have their own battle going for rookie of the year honors. Both ladies have advanced to final rounds, and Traxxas Ford Mustang driver Force is currently seventh in the points standings. DeJoria is 11th overall, a few points back of the elder Force, who is currently holding the 10th place spot for the Countdown. The 24-year-old Force nearly won her first race last weekend in Chicago, losing to Arend in the final round.
"I'm really proud of her," said Courtney's 15-time world championship winning father. "She's driving like a veteran."
One driver who really needs to make a major turnaround is defending Funny Car world champion Matt Hagan. With six first round losses and a DNQ, his best finish so far this season has been a handful of second round exits. With six races to go in the regular season Hagan knows the time is now to make a move.
"Now we have a big hill to climb without having any momentum," Hagan said. "We have to make something happen in the next race or two or any chance of repeating as the Funny Car champ will be over."
* SCHEDULE: NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series qualifying sessions are scheduled for 4 and 6:30 p.m. on Friday, July 6, and 11:40 a.m. and 2:15 p.m. on Saturday, July 7. Final eliminations will begin at 11 a.m. on Sunday, July 8.
* TICKETS: For tickets for the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals, please call Summit Racing Equipment Motorsports Park at (419) 668-5555 or log on to www.summitmotorsportspark.tix.com.
* ON TV: ESPN2 and ESPN2HD will televise 90 minutes of qualifying coverage at 6 p.m. (ET) on Saturday, July 7, and three hours of eliminations coverage at 8 p.m. (ET) on Sunday, July 8.
* LUCAS OIL SERIES: The Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals will feature competition in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series, where the future stars of the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series are born. Lucas Oil Series qualifying begins at 9 a.m. on July 5; eliminations begin at 8 a.m. on July 6 and continue through July 8.
* ON THE WEB: Get live timing, scoring, multimedia and the latest news updates from every NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series event on the Internet at www.nhra.com. Visit the official NHRA pages on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.
NHRA PRO MOD DRAG RACING SERIES PRESENTED BY PROCARE RX qualifying at 3:30 and 6 p.m.
NHRA PRO MOD DRAG RACING SERIES PRESENTED BY PROCARE RX qualifying at 10:30 a.m.; first round of eliminations at 1:40 p.m.
NHRA PRO MOD DRAG RACING SERIES PRESENTED BY PROCARE RX eliminations continue at approximately 2:30 p.m.