Del Worsham has ‘unfinished business’: NHRA Funny Car title

Del Worsham (Gary Nastase photo)

While he failed to leave Chicago with his fifth career win at Route 66 Raceway this weekend, Del Worsham is still in very good standing.

Worsham, who lost in the second round of Sunday’s final eliminations of the Lucas Oil Route 66 Nationals in suburban Joliet, Il., is tied for third with Jack Beckman in the NHRA Funny Car standings.

Defending Funny Car champ Matt Hagan remains No. 1, followed by Ron Capps and then the Worsham/Beckman tandem.

With five races to go to NHRA’s Countdown to the Championship playoffs, Worsham should be able to make the six-race event on points alone.

But winning at least one race in the next five coming up would essentially lock himself into the Countdown with a guaranteed berth.

“The season’s been great,” Worsham told’s MotorSportsTalk. “I really couldn’t ask for anything more other than maybe a win. We haven’t got a win yet.

“But if you look at every single race and qualifying and the way we race, we race hard and have qualified well and made great runs.

“Somewhere along the way, someone’s popped up with a national event record run or close to it, or we’ve had one bad run at the wrong time. But all-in-all, I’d give this season an ‘A’ thus far, aside from not having a win at this point.

“I just hope we keep on the path we’re on. I think we’re on a pretty good path here, but I’d really like to get that win.”

In addition to hopefully earning a win, Worsham also has his eyes on capturing the $100,000 first prize for the upcoming Traxxas Shootout, which will be held during the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis on the Labor Day weekend.

A win before Indy would guarantee him a berth in the Shootout. But even if he remains the top scoring winless driver over the next four races, Worsham likely will still make the Shootout.

“I’d like to be part of the Traxxas Shootout that’s coming up in Indy,” Worsham said. “I’ve doubled up before and won the NHRA Showdown and U.S. Nationals at Indy (2005), so I know what it’s like to win both.

“It’d be nice to win a race for our sponsors, our team, for morale, kind of take an extra step forward. But if we don’t, either way, I think our car runs well enough. If things work out just right, our DHL Toyota Camry can race for the championship.”

It’s been an interesting road for Worsham, who won the 2011 NHRA Top Fuel championship for Al-Anabi Racing, and then promptly stepped out of his dragster to become crew chief for Funny Car driver Alexis DeJoria.

That change of scenery lasted just one season before he became teammates with DeJoria at Kalitta Racing, piloting the DHL Funny Car.

“I never retired,” Worsham said. “All I did was I said I was taking some time off. I was looking at different opportunities and for a new job. But I also was tired. I had been doing this for 23, 24 years at that point.

“We had just won the championship and Alexis was coming along and she wanted a crew chief, and that was something I really thought I needed to do at that point.

“I had a new job, a new outlook, a different perspective, I was excited about it. I just needed a year off from driving. I really did. I didn’t even know if I’d ever drive again.

“I remember backing up on my final burnout in the last round at Pomona at the end of the 2011 season in the dragster against Tony Schumacher. I had already won the championship. I thought to myself, ‘You know, this could be the last time I ever look at racing from this point of view ever again, and I was good with that.

“I had a great elapsed time, won the race and then things came around and I had the chance to drive this car. It all made sense.”

Funny Cars are where Worsham made the biggest impact in his career, with 26 of his 34 total wins (the other eight are in Top Fuel) coming in the so-called “flopper” class.

If he wins a Funny Car championship, Worsham would become only the third driver in NHRA history to win championships in both Top Fuel and Funny Car (others are Kenny Bernstein and Gary Scelzi).

“I came back to driving because I had a little bit of unfinished business, in that I never won a Funny Car championship,” Worsham said. “I feel that things now are a lot more equal, maybe equal talent and money and crews, and I would love to have a shot at it.”

“Just winning a Funny Car title would be great. I’m not going to say if I don’t win it, it’s going to ruin my career or harm me in any way. I just want to come to Pomona (Calif.), let it come down to the final race of the year and have a shot at it like I did in Top Fuel. I think that would be really exciting, and that’s my goal.”

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The Thermal Club wants an IndyCar race, and series executives liked its initial impact at test


THERMAL, Calif. – Many teams in the NTT IndyCar Series questioned the relevancy of having a two-day preseason test at The Thermal Club.

The team owners, drivers and engineers believed the 17-turn, 3.067-mile race course that winds and twists its way through a gated private community (about 45 minutes southeast of Palm Springs) had no relevance to any track on the 17-race schedule.

To the leaders of IndyCar, however, there was plenty of relevance to hosting its “Spring Training” at a sort of motorsports country club that caters to extremely wealthy residents who also are automotive enthusiasts.

“Both with our stakeholders and the media that covers IndyCar, we wanted them to know that we are going to do things differently,” Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports from the private VIP viewing area that overlooks the long straights and twisting turns of the course. “This is going to be a year when we expect our growth to go to a whole new level.

“What better way to send that message than to be at a place we have never been that is exceptional?

“The quality of this place; the facilities are off the charts. The customer service, the welcoming feeling you get from the staff here. The track itself is fast. The drivers are having a great time on it.

FRIDAY SPEEDSThird session l Fourth session l Combined

‘AN AMAZING PLACE’: IndyCar and its big plans for Thermal

“It really sent a message to our other promoters and our drivers and team owners that something is up. We want fans around the country and the sports industry to know that something is going on with IndyCar this year.”

The Thermal Club is a concept driven by Tim Rogers, who made his fortune by supplying gasoline to 7-Eleven stores in 36 states. He wanted to create a private community that mixed multimillion-dollar homes and luxury villas with a high-speed race course.

The two-day IndyCar “Spring Training” was the most ambitious motorsports project yet for The Thermal Club.

Rogers wants it to be the first step in a long-term goal for the community.

“Our endgame is we want to host an IndyCar Series race at The Thermal Club one day,” Rogers told NBC Sports as IndyCar hit the track again Friday morning. “This was a good trial to see how the facility can handle it and if the facility works for them.”

Felix Rosenqvist makes laps in the No. 6 Arrow McLaren Dallara-Chevrolet during the first day of NTT IndyCar Series testing (Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images).

The two-day test was closed to the general public. It was open only to credentialed news media, members of the Thermal Club and a limited number of their guests.

With the spectacular backdrop of the Coachella Valley that is rimmed with snow-capped mountains, The Thermal Club could provide a great setting for an NBC telecast of an IndyCar Series race (and possibly line up a big sponsor for a return on its investment with a larger than normal audience during a ripe time such as the first weekend of February).

NASCAR is using that same model Sunday at the Los Angeles Coliseum by hosting the Busch Light Clash. The National Football League’s AFC and NFC Championship games were last weekend and next Sunday is the Super Bowl.

“That could work, but we have room where we could separate the public and the private members area, too,” Rogers said. “We could accommodate 4,000 or so of the general public.

“This would be a premium event for a premium crowd.”

Rogers’ dream of The Thermal Club began 11 years ago. He will talk to IndyCar about a return for Spring Training next year with hopes of getting a date on the schedule for 2025.

“Whatever fits,” Rogers said.

Miles and Penske Entertainment, the owners of IndyCar, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the Indianapolis 500, realize Rogers has an ambitious dream of getting a race on the schedule.

Miles, however, isn’t ready to indicate that a race at Thermal is part of IndyCar’s future (though drivers seem open to the concept).

“Tim and everybody at The Thermal Club have done a phenomenal job of being hosts here for this test,” Miles said. “Everybody is very happy we are here, and I expect we will find a way to continue to be here. Whether that means a race and when is really a bridge we aren’t ready to cross yet.

“We really like opening the championship season each year in St. Petersburg, Florida. We’ll have to see. But it’s a great way to start the season in this way, and right now, we are happy to be here.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Defending IndyCar champion Will Power takes laps at The Thermal Club during the first day of the track’s first test (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

On track, it was a successful two-day test session with 27 car/driver combinations that will compete in IndyCar in 2023. It’s the largest field for IndyCar since the 1990s. There were a few spins here and there but no major incidents across 2,560 laps.

Kyle Kirkwood led the final session Friday while getting acquainted with his new No. 27 team at Andretti Autosport. Kirkwood has replaced Alexander Rossi at Andretti, whom Kirkwood drove for in Indy Lights.

His time of 1 minute, 38.827 seconds (111.721 mph) around the 3.067-mile road course was the fastest of the fourth and final session. But the fastest speed over two days was defending Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson of Chip Ganassi Racing in the Friday morning session (1:38.4228, 112.182 mph in the No. 8 Honda).

Callum Ilott of Juncos Hollinger Racing was second in the final session at 1:38.8404 (111.707 mph) in the No. 77 Chevrolet. Rookie Marcus Armstrong of New Zealand was third at 1:38.8049 (111.707 mph) in the No. 11 Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing. Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing was fourth at 1:38.8718 (111.672 mph) in the No. 10. Defending NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske rounded out the top five at 1:38.9341 (111.602 mph) in the No. 12 Chevrolet.

Ericsson was the fastest in combined times followed by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Christian Lundgaard at 1:38.5682 in the No. 45 Honda, Kirkwood, Ilott and Armstrong. Positions 3-5 speeds were from the final practice session on Friday.

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
With members’ houses in the background, Romain Grosjean navigates the turns of The Thermal Club in his No. 28 Dallara-Honda (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

Drivers didn’t know what to expect before hitting the track. After the two-day test was over, NBC Sports asked several drivers what they learned from The Thermal Club.

“I think it’s a first-class facility, no doubt,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden of Team Penske said. “I think the entire facility here at Thermal really rolled out the red carpet for us. They did a tremendous job.

“It was a fairly flawless test, I would say, for two days. I think the great thing about this was we had a two-day test, which was fantastic. You got to have this warmup; this preseason build. That was the biggest positive for me, is that we were here, we were running cars. It was a great facility to do it at.

IndyCar Thermal Club test
Josef Newgarden said his No. 2 team (which has a new lead engineer) used The Thermal Club test as an opportunity for building cohesion (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).
Indycar Series Test - Day 2
Josef Newgarden (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

“I think the track was a lot more fun than we anticipated. It was challenging, definitely technical. I don’t know how relevant it is. For us, it wasn’t really relevant to anywhere we’re going, but that’s OK.”

But even though the track has no sector particularly similar to any road or street course on the schedule, there still were benefits.

“In a lot of ways, it is relevant,” Newgarden said. “For us it was relevant for building the team up, trying to work in a competitive environment, be competitive together. That’s everything. So regardless of is the setup going to apply to a certain track or another, (it) doesn’t really matter.

“For us, it was applying the principles of how we’re going to work together. From that standpoint, it was very productive for everybody. Raceability-wise, it’s hard to say. It was chewing tires up. Big drop-off from run one to two. I think from a race standpoint, that would be quite positive. You’d have big tire deg here.

“You’d have to do more work on runoff areas if we wanted to race here, but it’s possible. I don’t think it would take much effort to do the things to run an actual race.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Will Power (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images)

Kirkwood found speed in his Andretti Autosport machine, but he used the test to create a smooth working relationship with his new crew.

“I wouldn’t say that we found something here that is going to translate to anywhere, right?” the 2021 Indy Lights champion said. “This is a very unique track, although it was a lot of fun to drive, and it kind of surprised me in the amount of grip that it actually produced.

“It was quite a bit faster than what we expected.”

Many of the NTT IndyCar Series teams will test later this month at Sebring, Florida, as they prepare for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to kick off the season March 5.

“It’s a very nice facility, a nice area, it’s pretty cool to have two days of testing here with a lot of high-profile people,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske told NBC Sports. “It’s a very technical, tough track.

“It’s pretty good.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 2
IndyCar drivers turns laps on the second day of testing at The Thermal Club, which is nestled in the Coachella Valley that is ringed by mountains in Southern California (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

The Thermal Club received rave reviews, welcomed IndyCar and provided exposure to the movers and shakers of the business community that own the luxury villas and homes in this ultra-rich community.

Could it be a venue of the future for a series that sells lifestyle as much as on-track competition?

“This is a fantastic facility and the circuit is a fast circuit,” team owner Bobby Rahal told NBC Sports. “It’s pretty exciting to watch the cars run around here. I think it would be attractive to people.

“I’ll leave that up to Mark Miles and (IndyCar President) Jay Frye and everybody else whether we have a race here, but why not?

“It’s a great place.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500