Legendary Dodge Hemi celebrates 50th anniversary, eyes 2014 championships in NHRA

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Like fine wine, some things just get better with age. And such is the case with Dodge’s legendary Hemi engine, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2014.

Who can forget the highly popular “Got a Hemi?” ad campaign from 2007? If you don’t remember it, or want to be entertained again, watch it below.

While Dodge pulled out of NASCAR after winning the 2012 Sprint Cup championship, the Hemi is still quite popular in street cars (including the Charger and Challenger) and pickup trucks.

The iconic 426 cubic inch Hemi will be a significant player in the National Hot Rod Association’s professional ranks as the drag racing season begins this weekend in Pomona, Calif.

Jeg Coughlin Jr. and Allen Johnson will be flying the Hemi colors after respectively earning back-to-back Pro Stock championships for the Mopar brand in 2012 and 2013.

“We are really jacked up,” said Coughlin, driver of the JEGS.com Mopar Dodge. “We’re ready to start the fight, and for sure it’s going to be a fight, just like every season. We’re looking at the Winternationals as Step 1 of the many steps it will take to win our sixth Pro Stock championship.”

Coughlin’s and Johnson’s cars will be the only Hemi-powered rides in the Pro Stock class, both tuned by master tuner Roy Johnson.

“We’re down to two cars now, so the focus will be even more intense, which should be good all the way around,” Coughlin said. “It’s our job now to go out there and win them a third straight (Hemi-powered Pro Stock) title.”

Added Allen Johnson, who finished second to Coughlin last season, “Mopar is celebrating 50 years of the Hemi and we aim to add some more Wallys (race win trophies) and battle hard for another Championship as our contribution to the festivities. We’re focused and excited and ready to go. Ideally we’ll be shooting to finish 1-2 again but it would be nice to do it in reverse order this time.”

In Funny Car, the Hemi will be looking to pick up where it left off last season, with Matt Hagan and Jack Beckman both back in pursuit of their second career FC championships after finishing second and third, respectively, in 2013.

There will be four Hemi-powered cars in the Funny Car ranks, all owned by the largest and most successful team in drag racing today, Don Schumacher Racing.

“2013 was a great year of us and we finished really strong with a win at Pomona in the end,” said Hagan, who although winning the most races last season (five), fell short of beating John Force, who won his 16th championship. “We won more than anyone in the class, but it’s just the way the cards fell in the Countdown (to the Championship).”

Other Funny Car pilots that will have Hemi power under the hood include Ron Capps, who will be celebrating his 20th season in NHRA’s pro ranks and hopes to finally win his first national championship after finishing runner-up in four prior seasons.

The season will also mark the return to fulltime racing and also driving a Hemi by nine-time national event winner Tommy Johnson Jr., who will replace Johnny Gray, who won four races last season.

Fans will play a big part of the year-long Hemi anniversary, as Dodge will display a historical heritage wall at all national events, telling the five-decade story of the Hemi. There will also be Hemi-branded merchandise to purchase for fans, and gifts to win, as well.

For those who may think the Hemi isn’t as relevant in racing as it was when it first made its celebrated debut in 1964, think again. Four world championship titles in various forms of motorsports have been earned with a Hemi under the hood in the last three years.

For those of you who may be a bit young to remember the earth-shattering noise the Hemi made when it burst upon the racing scene in 1964, it was built to do one thing and one thing only: win races. It didn’t make a difference if it was in stock car racing ranks (using the so-called “Circuit” or “Track” versions) or in drag racing (using the “Acceleration” or “Drag” versions), the Hemi was designed to go faster than its counterparts from General Motors and Ford.

It was fast – and successful – literally right out of the box, winning the 1964 Daytona 500 with Richard Petty behind the wheel, just weeks before legendary “Big Daddy” Don Garlits became the first racer to break the 200-mph drag racing quarter-mile barrier with a Hemi in his Top Fuel dragster (201.34 mph at 7.78 seconds). Garlits would also kick off a run of eight career victories at the Super Bowl of drag racing, the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis that same season.

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NHRA shocker: Englishtown ceases drag racing operations, including NHRA Summernationals, effective immediately

Photo courtesy NHRA
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If put in baseball terms, Wednesday morning’s news from the NHRA is comparable to Yankee Stadium closing down for good.

One of the most popular and longest-running race tracks on the NHRA national event circuit — Old Bridge Township Raceway Park in Englishtown, New Jersey — announced in a statement that “it will no longer host any drag racing events at its facility, effective immediately. This includes the 49th Annual NHRA Summernationals, scheduled to take place this June.”

This is massive — and terrible news — for NHRA fans, particularly those on the East Coast, as the track more commonly known simply as “Englishtown” has long been a destination point for fans in the New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland area for decades. That not only includes NHRA national events, but also local bracket racing at the track.

Few details on the decision to stop all drag racing events are known. However, the track has long struggled being landlocked and unable to expand its runoff area for cars that have problems stopping under their own power. That is especially problematic for Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars, which are the most powerful cars in the sport and, due to the 10,000 horsepower they produce, often need longer stopping distances.

NHRA Funny Car driver Scott Kalitta was killed in a crash at Old Bridge Raceway on June 21, 2008, when his car was unable to stop in the runoff area and collided with a portable crane past the runoff area.

NHRA spokesperson Jessica Hatcher told NBC Sports in an email Wednesday morning that the sanctioning body will not look to find a replacement venue for Englishtown on the 2018 racing schedule.

As a result, the 2018 Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule will shrink from 24 to 23 going forward with Englishtown’s departure.

” ‘Stunned’ is the perfect word to describe how we are all feeling right now,” Hatcher said. “For 2018, we are focusing on the remaining 23 events and do not foresee any additional changes to the schedule.”

New NHRA president Glen Cromwell said in a media release, “NHRA drag racing events have been held at the track in Englishtown for almost 50 years. The Summernationals have played an important part of our heritage and we hope that fans in the area will try to make it to another of our events.

“Our focus remains on making the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series a memorable experience for our fans, racers, sponsors, partners and tracks.”

The nearest venues to Englishtown that will host NHRA events this season are Maple Grove Raceway outside Reading, Pennsylvania (105 miles west of Englishtown) and New England Dragway in Epping, New Hampshire (310 miles northeast).

The Napp family, which owns Old Bridge Township Raceway Park, issued a statement that the facility will remain open and continue business as usual going forward — with the exception of eliminating all drag racing events, both national and local.

“Old Bridge Township Raceway Park, the Napp family owned and operated business announced today a reorganization of the company’s business operations,” the statement said. “To achieve this goal, Raceway Park will no longer conduct quarter mile or eighth mile drag racing events effective immediately.

“Raceway Park will retain and use the ‘stadium’ portion of the facility including the VIP hospitality tower and grandstands and continue most of its operations including the spring and fall auto swap meets, numerous car shows, both motocross racing and practice, kart racing, as well as drifting, a full schedule of road course activities, mud runs, monster truck shows, musical concerts, & festival events and more. The long standing Old Bridge Township Airport, owned and operated by Raceway Park will also continue to operate as normal.”

From a driver’s perspective, veteran NHRA racer Shawn Langdon, who is switching from a long career in Top Fuel to Funny Car this season for Kalitta Motorsports, won in Top Fuel at Englishtown in 2013 and laments the decision to drop drag racing there.

“It really caught me by surprise because I had not heard a thing about that,” Langdon said. “It’s unfortunate because that place has such rich history and so many great things have come out of that race in the past. It was a track that meant a lot to the Kalitta family and with Scott. They always wanted to win one for Scott. We’d have loved to have the opportunity to go back to the track and win that race for Scott.”