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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MRTI: Chris Griffis Test Sunday times and notebook

Thompson (90, Exclusive) and Hoogenboom (78, BN) in Pro Mazda. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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The two-day Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy Test concluded on Sunday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.

Combined times after the two days of running are below, with Nico Jamin (Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires) and Oliver Askew (Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires) remaining on top from Saturday to Sunday, and Darren Keane (Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda) supplanting Andres Gutierrez at the head of that field.

Previous notebooks are linked here (Friday, Saturday), with additional Sunday notes to follow.

COMBINED TIMES

INDY LIGHTS (Best Session)Full Results

Jamin. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

1. 5-Nico Jamin, Belardi Auto Racing, 1:15.7173 (Session 2)
2. 98-Colton Herta, Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing, 1:15.7808 (Session 8)
3. 23-Victor Franzoni, Juncos Racing, 1:15.7953 (Session 8)
4. 3-Pato O’Ward, Team Pelfrey, 1:16.0900 (Session 5)
5. 4-Rinus Veekay, Belardi Auto Racing, 1:16.1419 (Session 5)
6. 31-Carlos Cunha, Juncos Racing, 1:16.1585 (Session 8)
7. 31-Nicolas Dapero, Juncos Racing, 1:16.2491 (Session 4)
8. 48-Ryan Norman, Andretti Autosport, 1:16.3285 (Session 4)
9. 27-Anthony Martin, Andretti Autosport, 1:16.5185 (Session 4)
10. 2-TJ Fischer, Team Pelfrey, 1:16.8124 (Session 5)
11. 21-Heamin Choi, Juncos Racing, 1:18.1931 (Session 5)

PRO MAZDA (Best Session); Full Results 

Askew. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

1. 8-Oliver Askew, Cape Motorsports, 1:19.8142 (Session 5)
2. 79-David Malukas, BN Racing, 1:19.9394 (Session 5)
3. 90-Parker Thompson, Exclusive Autosport, 1:19.9815 (Session 5)
4. 1-Carlos Cunha, Juncos Racing, 1:20.0236 (Session 2)
5. 3-Robert Megennis, Juncos Racing, 1:20.1268 (Session 4)
6. 81-Kaylen Frederick, Team Pelfrey, 1:20.1928 (Session 5)
7. 18-Calvin Ming, Pabst Racing, 1:20.2141 (Session 5)
8. 2-Sting Ray Robb, Juncos Racing, 1:20.6289 (Session 5)
9. 91-Nikita Lastochkin, Exclusive Autosport, 1:20.7001 (Session 2)
10. 80-Kris Wright, Team Pelfrey, 1:20.9930 (Session 4)
11. 82-Aaron Telitz, Team Pelfrey, 1:21.2144 (Session 8)
12. 78-Leonard Hoogenboom, BN Racing, 1:21.3713 (Session 8)

USF2000 (Best Session); Full Results

Keane ended head of queue in USF2000. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

1. 36-Darren Keane, Newman Wachs Racing, 1:25.1424 (Session 5)
2. 22-Andres Gutierrez, Pabst Racing, 1:25.5618 (Session 3)
3. 27-Callan O’Keefe, BN Racing, 1:25.6295 (Session 2)
4. 21-Hunter McElrea, Pabst Racing, 1:25.7021 (Session 5)
5. 31-Rasmus Lindh, Team BENIK, 1:25.7791 (Session 5)
6. 81-Jacob Loomis, Team Pelfrey, 1:25.8514 (Session 5)
7. 90-Parker Thompson, Exclusive Autosport, 1:25.8743 (Session 2)
8. 23-Lucas Kohl, Pabst Racing, 1:25.9792 (Session 6)
9. 37-David Osborne, Newman Wachs Racing, 1:25.9996 (Session 8)
10. 20-Aaron Telitz, RJB Motorsports, 1:26.0042 (Session 6)
11. 80-Michael D’Orlando, Team Pelfrey, 1:26.2295 (Session 8)
12. 37-Jake Craig, Newman Wachs Racing, 1:26.2452 (Session 4)
13. 25-Elliott Finlayson, BN Racing, 1:26.3668 (Session 8)
14. 32-Jaden Conwright, Team BENIK, 1:26.4557 (Session 2)
15. 38-Max Peichel, Newman Wachs Racing, 1:26.5058 (Session 2)
16. 33-Myles Rowe, John Cummiskey Racing, 1:26.6004 (Session 8)
17. 90-Justin Gordon, Exclusive Autosport, 1:26.6460 (Session 5)
18. 82-David Osborne, Team Pelfrey, 1:26.6824 (Session 2)
19. 34-Sabre Cook, John Cummiskey Racing, 1:26.9362 (Session 6)
20. 38-Oscar DeLuzuriaga, Newman Wachs Racing, 1:27.7455 (Session 8)
21. 92-Justin Gordon, Exclusive Autosport, 1:27.7750 (Session 3)
22. 24-Zoey Edenholm, BN Racing, 1:28.5449 (Session 8)
23. 93-Jayson Clunie, Exclusive Autosport, No Time

NOTES

Old USF2000 teammates Jamin and Telitz share a high-five. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • Several drivers pulled double duty between series, namely Parker Thompson (Exclusive Autosport in Pro Mazda and USF2000), Carlos Cunha (Juncos Racing in Indy Lights and Pro Mazda) and Aaron Telitz (Team Pelfrey in Pro Mazda, RJB Motorsports in USF2000). Telitz (above) added a run in Pro Mazda in Team Pelfrey’s No. 82 car; the Wisconsinite has done a lot of the series’ testing for the new Pro Mazda Tatuus PM-18, and had hoped to run all three series. We’ll have more meanwhile on Thompson and Exclusive’s double in the days to come; the Michael Duncalfe-led team out of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan was one of three new Pro Mazda teams adding those cars to USF2000 efforts (Pabst Racing, BN Racing) this week.
  • There were a handful of drivers that changed cars or teams for Sunday’s second day of the test, primarily in USF2000. While Keane ran both days at Newman Wachs, the Brian Halahan-managed team ran David Osborne and Oscar DeLuzuriaga in the Nos. 37 and 38 cars, taking over from Jake Craig and Max Peichel. Osborne switched from Team Pelfrey, where he ran Saturday, and where Jacob Loomis ran Sunday. Justin Gordon ran a second Exclusive Autosport chassis, switching to the No. 90 on Sunday after running the No. 92 Saturday.
  • The PM-18 best lap set by Askew is more than three seconds faster than the series’ official track record (Pato O’Ward in 2016, at 1:22.8800, 105.941 mph). Askew’s best time of 1:19.8142 averages 110.010 mph around the 2.439-mile circuit. Neither the Indy Lights nor USF2000 cars eclipsed the existing lap records in those categories.
  • Drivers largely extolled the PM-18’s outright pace and potential with the horsepower upgrade, in what is a significant step forward for the series. “Following prototype testing of the new PM-18, I believed that we had a special race car and this weekend’s testing confirms that,” said Dan Andersen, Owner and CEO of Andersen Promotions. “Based on team and driver comments, this is a fantastic race car and I am very pleased with what Tatuus, Elite Engines and my team have assembled. It fits perfectly in between the USF-17 and the IL-15 in terms of lap times and, more importantly, it takes what a driver learns in the first step and introduces higher HP, higher grip and higher aero. This will be a great training car for years to come, and seeing our program now with three excellent and well-designed cars is very satisfying to me.”
  • Keane, one of the few veterans (relatively speaking) within USF2000 was plugged in this weekend as the only driver outside Pabst Racing to threaten the top of the timesheets. “It’s a good boost in confidence for me heading into next year. I am really happy with how everything is going with the team. They are a great group of guys and it’s just really good to see us improving and being where we want to be,” he said.
  • Rinus Veekay hailed the Indy Lights Dallara IL-15 Mazda this weekend in his first test there, although the talented Dutch teenager may well focus on Pro Mazda next season and shoot to win that championship, and continue his battle with Askew established in USF2000. “The car is very nice, quick,” noted VeeKay. “You can really feel the downforce and it was a pleasure to drive.”
Veekay. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

The MRTI is done with official running for the year, but the $200,000 MRTI Scholarship Shootout remains in December at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, the former Firebird Raceway, outside Phoenix. The winner of that will get a ticket into USF2000 for the 2018 season.

Full MRTI spring training will take place at Homestead-Miami Speedway in February 2018, with undoubtedly a bevy of driver and team announcements to come over the following months.