For the most part, the 2014 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series was like the music industry: the resurgence of some golden oldies coupled with a few new kids on the block.
Of the four major professional categories – Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle – three of the eventual 2014 champions had waited a long time to regain the No. 1 spot at the top of their respective classes.
In Top Fuel, Tony Schumacher won a record eighth championship, but it was his first since 2009.
In Pro Stock Motorcycle, Andrew Hines earned his fourth championship, but it took him eight years (last previous crown came in 2006) to finally, as he put it following the season-ending race at Pomona, “to write 4x beside my name.”
And in Funny Car, Matt Hagan held off a hard-charging John Force to earn his second career championship (the other came in 2011).
As for the new kids on the block, the biggest and best was Erica Enders-Stevens, who became the first female season champion in NHRA Pro Stock history.
Enders-Stevens won the championship despite missing three races in the middle third of the season due to lack of funding to make the traditional three-race West Coast swing (Denver, Sonoma and Seattle).
It was a big risk and gamble to take, given how tight the points were in Pro Stock all season, but Enders-Stevens persevered and held on to take the title.
Enders-Stevens becomes the third woman to ever win an NHRA national championship; the others were Shirley Muldowney (Top Fuel) and PSM Angelle Sampey (Pro Stock Motorcycle).
Let’s look at some of the key highlights across all four pro classes in 2014:
* Schumacher and Hagan led a Don Schumacher Racing juggernaut with their respective championships, meaning DSR took two of the four biggest crowns.
* J.R. Todd returned to driving in Top Fuel in a most unconventional way. Team owner Connie Kalitta tabbed Todd to replace Australian driver David Grubnic in the middle of an early April race weekend in Las Vegas. Todd would go on to pay big dividends for Kalitta, finishing second to Schumacher for the dragster championship.
* Three-time Top Fuel champ Larry Dixon, who started the season without a ride despite his lofty career credentials, returned on a part-time basis for Bob Vandergriff Jr. Then at season’s end, Vandergriff announced he would be stepping out of his race car and would be replaced full-time by Dixon for 2015.
* In what is believed to be the first time in NHRA history, there were four different winners at the sport’s biggest race of the season, the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis on Labor Day weekend. Australian Richie Crampton won in Top Fuel, Alexis DeJoria won in Top Fuel, Shane Gray won in Pro Stock and Eddie Krawiec won in Pro Stock Motorcycle.
* Speaking of DeJoria, she had a breakout season with three wins, three No. 1 qualifiers and broke the four-second barrier three times. Unfortunately, she struggled during the six-race Countdown to the Championship, finishing seventh.
* John Force, who turned 65 in May, failed to repeat as Funny Car champ, losing by 43 points to Hagan. If Force had beaten Hagan, it would have been a record 17th title for him.
* Force’s daughter, Courtney, earned the 100th national pro event victory by a female driver on May 25 at Heartland Park in Topeka, Kansas. Courtney Force recently became engaged to IndyCar driver Graham Rahal.
* Tommy Johnson Jr. returned to full-time Funny Car racing after a several-year hiatus. Johnson didn’t have much rust to shake off, becoming very competitive right from the start and ultimately finishing a lofty third-place in the final season standings.
* In one of the most stunning bits of news in the Funny Car ranks in a long time, veteran John Force crew chief Jimmy Prock abruptly resigned with two races left in the season (after being asked for his resignation by Force). Two days later, Prock joined rival Don Schumacher Racing. But there was even more to the story. John Medlen, who replaced Prock for the last two races, announced last week that he has joined DSR, as well. Prock will serve as crew chief and Medlen assistant crew chief for Jack Beckman’s Funny Car in 2015.
* Cruz Pedregon made the quickest run in Funny Car history on May 31 at Englishtown, N.J., covering the 1,000-foot track in 3.959 seconds (at 310.48 mph).
* The sport lost several notables to death including former drag racer and team owner Raymond Beadle, championship-winning crew chief Dale Armstrong and former NHRA PR chief Denny Darnell, among others.
* Four-time Pro Stock champ Greg Anderson shocked the sport when, just days before the season-opening race in early February, announced he would miss the first six races due to heart surgery. Anderson eventually returned to the national tour early after recovering from surgery, but finished 11th for the season.
* In Pro Stock Motorcycle, while teammates Hines and Krawiec dominated, Hector Arana Jr. had a breakout season, finishing third and with the promise of being even better in 2015.
* Angie Smith, appearing in her first-ever final round appearance, upset former Pro Stock Motorcycle champ – and her husband – Matt Smith to win the race June 22 at Epping, N.H. It marked the first time a husband and wife have ever raced each other in the final round of any pro category.
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