NHRA: Some of the best memories that made 2015 season so memorable

(Photo courtesy NHRA)


With the 2015 NHRA season now in the books, it’s time to celebrate some of the great accomplishments and achievements that took place during the 24-race season.

Here are some of my favorite memories of the season, in no particular order.

After you’ve read through this, I’d welcome YOUR favorite memories of the 2015 NHRA season:

* Erica Enders was nothing short of amazing with her penchant for near-perfect reaction times. It was that prowess that not only helped her win several races, but also led to her winning her second consecutive Pro Stock championship. You go, girl!

* Antron Brown’s second Top Fuel championship in four years was a thing of beauty, especially with the way he began the six-race Countdown to the Championship with three straight wins. Through it all, Brown never lost his composure or became over-confident. He and his team were paragons of getting the job done in the trenches. Congrats to AB!

* We saw a change in the NHRA’s top office, as Tom Compton abruptly retired after 15 years. Long-time NHRA executive Peter Clifford was tabbed to replace Compton and has already made a number of strategic hires and continues to bring about change within the sanctioning body that will only make it stronger going forward. While I wish Tom well in retirement, I look forward to seeing the changes Peter makes to make the sport more visible and popular.

* NHRA announced that it was ending its more than decade-long relationship with ESPN one year early (contract was due to expire after the 2016 season) and would have all 23 races in 2016 televised by either Fox Sports or Fox Sports 1. That Fox will televise NHRA races in more reasonable time slots – rather than the previous penchant to televise late at night or the wee hours in the morning – should help in attracting new fans or bringing back old fans.

* At the age of 66, 16-time Funny Car champ John Force continues to amaze. Yes, he is not used to finishing seventh, or having just two wins all season, as he did in 2015. But given all the changeover Force and his four-team operation had to begin the season, particularly with the change from Ford to Chevy and Castrol to Peak, it was inevitable there would be growing pains. With continuity back and not having to spend time chasing sponsorship, look for John to have a significantly better season in 2016. And don’t rule out a 17th championship.

* After years of trying, Del Worsham finally captured his first career Funny Car championship this season. Any championship is a noteworthy accomplishment, but Worsham’s crown this year was historic. Adding to the Top Fuel title he won in 2011, Worsham joins retired veterans Kenny Bernstein and Gary Scelzi as the only drivers in NHRA history to win championships in both Top Fuel and Funny Car in their respective careers.

* What can you say about 32-year-old Andrew Hines other than he’s amazing? Hines also made history in 2015, winning a second straight Pro Stock Motorcycle championship, but more importantly, becoming the youngest driver in NHRA annals to earn five championships in a career.

* Speaking of Pro Stock Motorcycle, my hat’s off to Jerry Savoie. The 53-year-old Louisiana alligator farmer essentially took three decades off from racing to build up his thriving business. Once things were solid, he came back to play on the NHRA circuit and his performance this season was outstanding. He gave Hines a real run for the championship and almost pulled it off.

* Alan Johnson Racing was dealt a devastating blow when it had its season funding pulled by primary sponsor Al-Anabi Racing just a couple of weeks before the start of the 2015 campaign. To its credit, AJR soldiered on, including winning the season-opener at Pomona, California. The team essentially raced race-to-race from a financial standpoint, pulling together piecemeal sponsorships for each event. But the well ran dry at the most inopportune time, and AJR was forced to suspend operations at the start of the Countdown to the Championship. Driver Shawn Langdon was able to pick up a ride in the Countdown with Don Schumacher Racing, including winning Sunday’s season-ending race. That means Langdon bookended a very trying season with wins to start and end the 2015 campaign – and still managed to finish a very respectable sixth place in the final standings.

* The winningest driver in Top Fuel history, Tony Schumacher (78 wins), looked to earn his ninth championship, but it was not to be. Teammate Antron Brown was just too strong, and Schumacher ultimately finished second. Two bright spots in Top Fuel were Richie Crampton, who finished third, as well as the return to full-time racing of Larry Dixon, who finished fourth.

* “Fast Jack” Beckman did everything he could to try and earn his second Funny Car championship in four years. He gave eventual champ Del Worsham a strong battle during the Countdown, but ultimately finished second to Worsham. Perhaps the biggest highlight of Beckman’s seven-win season was how he swept through the U.S. Nationals.

* It was also good to see Tommy Johnson Jr., make a huge comeback, finishing third in the final standings. On the flip side, one of the sport’s rising stars, Courtney Force, had somewhat of an off year, failing to qualify for the Countdown (still managed to finish 11th).

* In Pro Stock, it was good to see the resurgence of veteran drivers including Greg Anderson and Larry Morgan, as well as the upstart performance of young drivers such as Chris McGaha and Drew Skillman (finished fourth and fifth, respectively).

* In Pro Stock Motorcycle, we also saw strong performances throughout the season from several drivers, most notably Karen Stoffer, Chip Ellis, Matt Smith, Eddie Krawiec and Hector Arana Jr.

There were so many more highlights during the 2015 season that, as is usual, one season is now over – and it’s less than three months before the new season begins.

There will be off-season testing, rule changes, team personnel changes and looking back at what worked – and what didn’t – for every team this past season, and how to make things even better in 2016.

I don’t know about you, but the off-season has already been too long (just one day). I’m ready to go racing again. Let’s hope the season-opener at Pomona comes quick!

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Strong rebounds for Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi amid some disappointments in the Indy 500


INDIANAPOLIS – Alex Palou had not turned a wheel wrong the entire Month of May at the Indy 500 until Rinus VeeKay turned a wheel into the Chip Ganassi Racing pole-sitter leaving pit road on Lap 94.

“There is nothing I could have done there,” Palou told NBC Sports. “It’s OK, when it is my fault or the team’s fault because everybody makes mistakes. But when there is nothing, you could have done differently there, it feels bad and feels bad for the team.”

Marcus Ericsson was a master at utilizing the “Tail of the Dragon” move that breaks the draft of the car behind him in the closing laps to win last year’s Indianapolis 500. On Sunday, however, the last of three red flags in the final 16 laps of the race had the popular driver from Sweden breathing fire after Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden beat him at his own game on the final lap to win the Indianapolis 500.

Despite the two disappointments, team owner Chip Ganassi was seen on pit road fist-bumping a member on his four-car team in this year’s Indianapolis 500 after his drivers finished second, fourth, sixth and seventh in the tightly contested race.

Those are pretty good results, but at the Indianapolis 500, there is just one winner and 32 losers.

“There is only one winner, but it was a hell of a show,” three-time Indianapolis 500 winner and Chip Ganassi Racing consultant Dario Franchitti told NBC Sports. “Alex was very fast, and he got absolutely caught out in somebody else’s wreck. There was nothing he could have done, but he and the 10 car, great recovery.

“Great recovery by all four cars because at half distance, we were not looking very good.”

After 92 laps, the first caution flew for Sting Ray Robb of Dale Coyne Racing hitting the Turn 1 wall.

During pit stops on Lap 94, Palou had left his stall when the second-place car driven by VeeKay ran into him, putting Palou’s Honda into the wall. The car sustained a damaged front wing, but the Chip Ganassi crew was able to get him back in the race on the lead lap but in 28th position.

Palou ultimately would fight his way to a fourth-place finish in a race the popular Spaniard could have won. His displeasure with VeeKay, whom he sarcastically called “a legend” on his team radio after the incident, was evident.

“The benefit of being on pole is you can drive straight and avoid crashes, and he was able to crash us on the side on pit lane, which is pretty tough to do, but he managed it,” Palou told NBC Sports. “Hopefully next year we are not beside him. Hopefully, next year we have a little better luck.”

Palou started on the pole and led 36 laps, just three fewer than race leader Pato O’Ward of Arrow McLaren Racing.

“We started really well, was managing the fuel as we wanted, our car was pretty good,” Palou said. “Our car wasn’t great, we dropped to P4 or P5, but we still had some good stuff.

“On the pit stop, the 21 (VeeKay) managed to clip us. Nothing we could have done there. It was not my team’s fault or my fault.

“We had to drop to the end. I’m happy we made it back to P4. We needed 50 more laps to make it happen, but it could have been a lot worse after that contact.

“I learned a lot, running up front at the beginning and in mid-pack and then the back. I learned a lot.

“It feels amazing when you win it and not so good when things go wrong. We were a bit lucky with so many restarts at the end to make it back to P4 so I’m happy with that.”

Palou said the front wing had to be changed and the toe-in was a bit off, but he still had a fast car.

In fact, his Honda was the best car at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway all month. His pole-winning four lap average speed of 234.217 miles per hour around the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway was a record for this fabled race.

Palou looked good throughout the race, before he had to scratch and claw and race his way back to the top-five after he restarted 28th.

In the Indianapolis 500, however, the best car doesn’t always win.

“It’s two years in a row that we were leading the race at the beginning and had to drop to last,” Palou said. “Maybe next year, we will start in the middle of the field and go on to win the race.

“I know he didn’t do it on purpose. It’s better to let that pass someday.”

Palou said the wild racing at the end was because the downforce package used in Sunday’s race means the drivers have to be aggressive. The front two cars can battle for the victory, but cars back in fourth or fifth place can’t help determine the outcome of the race.

That is when the “Tail of the Dragon” comes into the play.

Franchitti helped celebrate Ericsson’s win in 2022 with his “Tail of the Dragon” zigzag move – something he never had to do in any of his three Indianapolis 500 victories because they all finished under caution.

In 2023, however, IndyCar Race Control wants to make every attempt to finish the race under green, without going past the scheduled distance like NASCAR’s overtime rule.

Instead of extra laps, they stop the race with a red flag, to create a potential green-flag finish condition.

“You do what you have to do to win within the rules, and it’s within the rules, so you do it,” Franchitti said. “The race is 200 laps and there is a balance.

“Marcus did a great job on that restart and so did Josef. It was just the timing of who was where and that was it.

“If you knew it was going to go red, you would have hung back on the lap before.

“Brilliant job by the whole Ganassi organization because it wasn’t looking very good at half-distance.

“Full marks to Josef Newgarden and Team Penske.”

Franchitti is highly impressed by how well Ericsson works with CGR engineer Brad Goldberg and how close this combination came to winning the Indianapolis 500 two-years-in-a-row.

It would have been the first back-to-back Indy 500 winner since Helio Castroneves in 2001 and 2002.

“Oh, he’s a badass,” Franchitti said Ericsson. “He proved it last year. He is so calm all day. What more do you need? As a driver, he’s fast and so calm.”

Ericsson is typically in good spirits and jovial.

He was stern and direct on pit road after the race.

“I did everything right, I did an awesome restart, caught Josef off-guard and pulled away,” Ericsson said on pit lane. “It’s hard to pull away a full lap and he got me back.

“I’m mostly disappointed with the way he ended. I don’t think it was fair and safe to do that restart straight out of the pits on cold tires for everyone.

“To me, it was not a good way to end that race.

“Congrats to Josef. He didn’t do anything wrong. He is a worthy champion, but it shouldn’t have ended like that.”

Palou also didn’t understand the last restart, which was a one-start showdown.

“I know that we want to finish under green,” Palou said. “Maybe the last restart I did, I didn’t understand. It didn’t benefit the CGR team.

“I’m not very supportive of the last one, but anyway.”

Dixon called the red flags “a bit sketchy.”

“The red flags have become a theme to the end of the race, but sometimes they can catch you out,” Dixon said. “I know Marcus is frustrated with it.

“All we ask for is consistency. I think they will do better next time.

“It’s a tough race. People will do anything they can to win it and with how these reds fall, you have to be in the right place at the right time. The problem is when they throw a Red or don’t throw a Red dictates how the race will end.

“It’s a bloody hard race to win. Congrats to Josef Newgarden and to Team Penske.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500