Photo courtesy Toyota

NHRA: Del Worsham returns to family race team for some unfinished business

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After becoming only the third driver in NHRA history to win championships in both Top Fuel (2011) and Funny Car (2015), Del Worsham surprised the drag racing world at the end of last season.

Worsham left one of the sport’s top teams, Kalitta Motorsports, and a long-standing, full-season sponsorship with DHL.

The departure was amicable as Worsham chose to fulfill a long-held desire: to return to the family team he started with, Worsham-Fink Racing, where he’ll be reunited with his father and crew chief Chuck, while Del will handle the driving duties.

“There’s always been a little bit of a hole or a little bit of unfulfilledness,” Worsham told NBC Sports. “I really hadn’t did 100 percent of what I set out to do, and that was to try and win the championship with my dad.

“He and I built this team, we raced together for 18 years. … As time went on, I thought if I ever had the opportunity or the time ever came along, I’d give that opportunity another chance.

“At the end of 2016, the Kalitta’s came to me and said they were going to make some changes to the team, and my dad’s car has been running pretty well with Jim Campbell driving it. I thought, ‘You know what, if I’m ever going to do this, while he’s still able, in good health and he still wants to do it and is able to do it, and I can still drive and feel I can still contribute something as a driver, I should do it now.’

“If I wait any longer, either he’s going to get too old and not be able to do it, or I may get to the point where I don’t want to drive and do it and this would never happen.’

“It just seemed like a good time. It was a decision I just had to make. I don’t regret it at all. I feel good about it every day I come into work right now.”

(Photo courtesy NHRA)
(Photo courtesy NHRA)

The reunion between father and son in the family business comes full-circle this weekend in the annual preseason test for Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park in suburban Phoenix.

Approximately 30 NHRA teams are expected to be on hand from Thursday through Sunday to prepare their cars and set-ups for the season, which kicks off next weekend with the annual Winternationals in Pomona, California.

Del will be behind the wheel of the family’s Toyota Camry Funny Car, while father Chuck will be tuning the ride as they embark upon a journey to not only compete the entire 2017 NHRA season, but also to chase their biggest dream of winning a championship together.

It’s unfinished business, Del Worsham said.

“Absolutely. Whether we win the championship or not, at least I’m back out here working with him in that direction again.”

Admittedly, there will be challenges. First, the team has primary sponsorship for only the first six races of the 24-race NHRA season with Lucas Oil. It also has a number of associate sponsors that have signed on for the whole season.

Del Worsham unloads his Funny Car Thursday in Phoenix.
Del Worsham unloads his Funny Car Thursday in Phoenix. (Photo courtesy Toyota)

The key – in addition to being competitive on the drag strip, which Worsham is confident he, his car and his team will be – is to find additional primary sponsorship to run the full season, particularly the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs.

In addition to reuniting with his father, the younger Worsham will also have long-time family friend John Fink back in the fold. A successful businessman, Fink was a partner with Worsham and his father during much of their previous 18-year run of racing together.

Now, after nearly a decade apart, the three will join together again with headquarters in Southern California and a satellite shop in Auburn, Indiana.

Del began racing with his father in 1990 and continued for 18 years until 2008, when he went to drive for Alan Johnson and Al-Anabi Racing, ultimately winning the Top Fuel title in 2011.

But during the 18-year stint of father and son Worsham together, they put up some stout numbers. Del finished runner-up in Funny Car in 2004, and won 16 national events from 2001-2005.

While Chuck Worsham has kept the family team going on a part-time basis the last several years, this year will essentially be getting things back to where they used to be.

Del Worsham is eager to set down a baseline this weekend to see how competitive the team can be once again.

“We’re pretty much going to start off with the setup we have,” he said. “We may push it a little harder to see what it can run. But mostly, I’m just going to go there and just get some confidence we have a car that can qualify, we kind of know where we are, we have a team that can operate and we can do the turnaround in the time we need to do it in.

“And then, we pack it up from there and take it to Pomona and see where we are as far as competition goes, find out if our car is fast enough or not to win or if we’re even in the top 12 or 15. And then as the year goes on, we can adapt to what we need to do to make it more competitive or faster if it needs to be.”

Del Worsham, at 20 years old, at his first NHRA pro race with his father in 1990. (Photo courtesy NHRA)
Del Worsham, at 20 years old, at his first NHRA pro race with his father in 1990. (Photo courtesy NHRA)

There’s no question that Worsham, who turns 47 on Feb. 11, knows how to go fast and win. He has 39 victories and 66 final round appearances in his NHRA Top Fuel and Funny Car career. His career best speed in Funny Car is 332.67 mph, while his quickest elapsed time in a NHRA national event is 3.832 seconds.

While getting the family livery into winning form in 2017 is key, Worsham is definitely up for the challenge. Given his long success as a driver and his father’s expertise as a tuner, thoughts of potentially pulling off an upset win at Pomona next weekend in the team’s reunion is something that is definitely on Worsham’s mind.

“That would be amazing,” he said of winning at Pomona. “I don’t know what I’d do. I don’t think I’ve ever won at the Winternationals. I’ve runner-upped there multiple times. It would be something else I could check off my list. I wouldn’t believe that would be a plateau of any sort. I would say that would set the bar for where I would expect to finish the year.”

While he could have stayed with Kalitta Motorsports, Worsham knew this was the right time to make his leap of faith.

“I’m very determined,” he said. “When you decide mid-to-late November that you’re going to make a career-changing move like I did, and you know that every corporation’s (sponsorship) budget is already set for 2017 and there’s not a whole lot of funds out there, then you start digging away.

“I spend six to eight hours every day on the phone and emailing, trying to put funding together for the car. And then I go to the shop and work with my dad and the team. I’ve worked as hard at this as I’ve probably worked at anything in the last 30 years.

“It reminds me of (the mid-1990s) an awful lot. The only difference between now and then is people take my calls now, where back then it was hard for anybody to take my call.”

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2006 MotoGP champion Nicky Hayden dies at 35

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2006 MotoGP champion and American World Superbike Championship rider Nicky Hayden has died at the age of 35 from injuries sustained in a road accident last week.

Hayden was struck by a car while out cycling in the Rimini region of Italy, leaving him in a critical condition after suffering trauma to his chest and head, the latter resulting in serious brain damage.

On Monday, the Maurizio Bufalini Hospital in Cesena confirmed through a medical bulletin that Hayden had died as a result of his injuries.

“It is with great sadness that Red Bull Honda World Superbike Team has to announce that Nicky Hayden has succumbed to injuries suffered during an incident while riding his bicycle last Wednesday,” Hayden’s WSBK team said in a subsequent statement.

“Nicky passed away at 19:09 CEST this evening at Maurizio Bufalini Hospital in Cesena, Italy. His fiancée Jackie, mother Rose and brother Tommy were at his side.”

“On behalf of the whole Hayden family and Nicky’s fiancée Jackie I would like to thank everyone for their messages of support – it has been a great comfort to us all knowing that Nicky has touched so many people’s lives in such a positive way,” Tommy Hayden said.

“Although this is obviously a sad time, we would like everyone to remember Nicky at his happiest – riding a motorcycle.

“He dreamed as a kid of being a pro rider and not only achieved that but also managed to reach the pinnacle of his chosen sport in becoming World Champion. We are all so proud of that.

“Apart from these ‘public’ memories, we will also have many great and happy memories of Nicky at home in Kentucky, in the heart of the family. We will all miss him terribly.

“It is also important for us to thank all the hospital staff for their incredible support – they have been very kind. With the further support of the authorities in the coming days we hope to have Nicky home soon.”

Known as the ‘Kentucky Kid’, Hayden made his way up the American motorcycle racing ladder around the turn of the millennium, culminating with victory in the AMA Superbike championship in 2002.

Hayden moved into MotoGP, the world’s premier class of motorcycle racing, for 2003 with Honda, and finished his rookie season fifth in the championship.

Hayden scored his first win in 2005 before taking the championship one year later, picking up two victories on the way as he edged out Valentino Rossi in a final-race showdown.

Remaining with Honda until the end of 2008, Hayden then moved to Ducati where he spent five seasons, recording a best championship finish of seventh in 2010.

Hayden rekindled his partnership with Honda in 2014, racing with the satellite Aspar team for two seasons before then enjoying two one-off run-outs in 2016, a year in which he was focused on commitments in the World Superbike Championship.

Hayden took his first WSBK victory in Malaysia last year, finishing fifth in the final standings, and was 10 races into the 2017 campaign prior to the cycling accident.

Dixon, Franchitti OK after robbing at gunpoint at Indy Taco Bell

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INDIANAPOLIS – According to an Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department police report, Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti were robbed at gunpoint at an Indianapolis Taco Bell on Sunday night.

A team spokesperson confirmed the incident to NBC Sports and that both drivers – Dixon, the leading active driver in the Verizon IndyCar Series and Franchitti, a four-time series champion and three-time Indianapolis 500 winner – were OK, but would decline comment.

Dixon, who won the pole for next Sunday’s 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, and Franchitti were at a Taco Bell, located at 3502 W. 16th St., around 10 p.m. on Sunday night.

According to FOX 59 in Indianapolis, which reported the story via reporter Russ McQuaid and online, here, Dixon and Franchitti were in the drive-through lane there – being robbed before the suspects allegedly fled, and were arrested as of Monday morning.

“The victims stated 2 (black males) robbed them at gunpoint and fled north on Berwick (Avenue) on foot,” the police report stated.

Dixon, who along with wife Emma and their two daughters, Poppy and Tilly were present in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway press conference earlier Sunday afternoon, live in Indianapolis.

Dixon’s teammate, Tony Kanaan, spoke to Indianapolis TV stations WTHR (Indianapolis NBC affiliate) and WISH-TV on Monday morning from IMS. Video of that is linked below via the Indianapolis Star’s Brody Miller.

Kanaan led off the interview saying, “I was supposed to be with them. I’m from Brazil, so I’m a little bit more accustomed to this stuff (laughter). I’m glad they’re OK, and now I can make fun of them.”

Scott Dixon didn’t post anything on Twitter about his pole run on Sunday until earlier this morning. This report would seem to indicate that he had bigger things on his mind.

Chip Ganassi, meanwhile added in a joke about Taco Bell sponsorship.

Button: Monaco return feels ‘slightly surreal’

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Jenson Button hasn’t yet sat or tested the McLaren Honda he’ll be racing this weekend. But when you’re a past Formula 1 World Champion and Monaco Grand Prix winner (Sunday, 7:30 a.m. ET, NBC), as Button is, you should be able to adapt pretty quickly.

Button, who won both titles during the 2009 season, will make his first and thus far only planned start of 2017 this weekend as stand-in for Fernando Alonso, who’s hogged the headlines and embraced the challenge of his maiden run in the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

With Monaco offering a good chance to score points for McLaren – it’s not power-dependent – Button is keeping expectations low up front as he prepares for his comeback.

“It feels slightly surreal to be back in the cockpit for the Monaco Grand Prix. When the call came from Eric there was no hesitation – it’s a totally unique situation and a great opportunity. I’m looking forward to stepping back behind the wheel for one of the most crazy, unpredictable and exciting races of the year,” he said in the team’s advance release.

“Monaco is truly unique as a track, and requires a lot of work to fine-tune the car and optimize the set-up for the narrow layout. It’s always a challenge – a huge challenge, for any driver – but a really exciting challenge, and has always been up there in my favorite races of the year.”

Button said he’s focused and prepared for the drive, for what will be his 306th career Grand Prix start – one which would draw him level with Michael Schumacher for second on Formula 1’s all-time start list. Button’s old teammate, Rubens Barrichello, holds that mark with 322 starts in 326 Grand Prix weekends.

“Although I haven’t turned a wheel on track yet in the MCL32, I feel well prepared,” he said.

“I know the track well, of course, and I’ve done quite a bit of work in the McLaren simulator already. I’m still fit, and I’ve been training probably more than ever, because I’ve had the time to focus on my triathlon preparation and competitions.

“I’m looking forward to working with the team again, and, as I’ll be on the other side of the garage this time around, I’ll do my best to look after the car for Fernando!”

McLaren Honda racing director Eric Boullier, who has been in Indianapolis with Alonso this week, said Button is up to the task.

“In the famous Monaco paddock, we welcome the return of Jenson, who we are all looking forward to working with again, and who is already doing a sterling job deputizing for Fernando, having already completed stints in our simulator in preparation,” he said.

Button’s story has, of course, generated some discussion. Mark Webber didn’t rate it a particularly big deal while Romain Grosjean said he does not expect Button to struggle.

Coverage for the Monaco Grand Prix begins on Thursday with free practice one coverage online at 4 a.m. ET, then free practice two live on NBCSN at 8 a.m. ET.

After Indy qualifying, Dixon unofficially moves into points lead

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INDIANAPOLIS – Points are not officially awarded for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil until after the race is completed next Sunday.

But as the Verizon IndyCar Series awards qualifying points for all 33 positions, the standings are different now today than they were 24-plus hours ago.

Pole position for Scott Dixon netted him 42 points in the No. 9 NTT Data Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing. Dixon was second in points with 181, 10 behind Simon Pagenaud in the No. 1 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet at 191, heading into Indianapolis 500 practice, qualifying and the race.

But with Pagenaud having a frustrating qualifying – he only will start 23rd, scoring only 11 qualifying points – he now falls 21 points behind Dixon as Dixon netted 31 points. The unofficial margin is 21 points as Dixon now goes to 223, with Pagenaud also crossing the 200-point threshold at 202.

The respective good qualifying efforts from Andretti Autosport and tough ones for Team Penske have shifted their points totals.

Given how many points are available for the Indianapolis 500, via both qualifying and the race, it’s important to track how this progresses.

Here is how the points look now, after qualifying (unofficial as INDYCAR will add in the qualifying points next week).

It’s ranked by position, driver, total points, qualifying points and points/position entering qualifying:

FULL-TIME ENTRIES/DRIVERS

1. 9-Scott Dixon, 223 (42, 181/2nd, +1)
2. 1-Simon Pagenaud, 202 (11, 191/1st, -1)
3. 12-Will Power, 171 (26, 145/5th, +2)
4. 2-Josef Newgarden, 164 (12, 152/3rd, -1)
5. 3-Helio Castroneves, 164 (15, 149/4th, -1)
6. 5-James Hinchcliffe, 154 (17, 137/6th, No Change)
7. 28-Ryan Hunter-Reay, 141 (24, 117/8th, +1)
8. 98-Alexander Rossi, 137 (38, 99/9th, +1)
9. 18-Sebastien Bourdais, 136 (Did Not Qualify, -2)
10. 26-Takuma Sato, 133 (36, 97/10th, No Change)
11. 10-Tony Kanaan, 127 (30, 97/11th, No Change)
12. 21-JR Hildebrand, 119 (32, 87th/14th, +2)
13. 19-Ed Jones, 115 (23, 92/12th, -1)
14. 15-Graham Rahal, 107 (20, 87/13th, -1)
15. 8-Max Chilton, 103 (19, 84/15th, No Change)
16. 7-Mikhail Aleshin, 100 (21, 79/17th, +1)
17. 27-Marco Andretti, 99 (28, 71/18th, +1)
18. 14-Carlos Munoz, 93 (10, 83/16th, -2)
19. 83-Charlie Kimball, 88 (18, 70/19th, No Change)
20. 4-Conor Daly, 78 (8, 70/20th, No Change)
21. 11-Spencer Pigot, 71 (66 ECR, 5 Juncos)
22. 20-Ed Carpenter, 66 (40, 26/22nd, No Change)

PART-TIME ENTRIES/DRIVERS

23. 22-Juan Pablo Montoya, 36
24. 29-Fernando Alonso, 34
25. 16-Oriol Servia, 22
26. 77-Jay Howard, 14
27. 40-Zach Veach, 13 (11 ECR, 2 Foyt)
28. 24-Sage Karam, 13
29. 88-Gabby Chaves, 9
30. 50-Jack Harvey, 7
31. 63-Pippa Mann, 6
32. 44-Buddy Lazier, 4
33. 17-Sebastian Saavedra, 3
34. 18-James Davison, 1