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!

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Tom Blomqvist keeps eye on IndyCar during impressive rise: ‘ I would love to give it a go’


DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – In between two of his latest superstar-driver-in-waiting performances, Tom Blomqvist walked through the Daytona International Speedway garage in anonymity.

“Nobody knows who the (expletive) I am,” he said to a team member with a laugh (and without a trace of being miffed), evincing the cheeky humor of someone born in England, raised in New Zealand and also of Swedish descent.

The lack of recognition in the garage might have been because he was clad in a relatively nondescript shirt, hat and sunglasses instead of a colorful firesuit covered by sponsor logos. But he also was on the way to a Friday race eve media availability where his entrance was greeted by only one reporter (after a few minutes).

During a news conference a day earlier, he sat patiently on the dais while his Indy 500-winning teammates and car owner fielded nearly all the questions – even though Blomqvist had turned maybe the most impressive lap of the month to win the Rolex 24 at Daytona pole position in the debut of the Grand Touring Prototype category.

The Meyer Shank Racing driver still might lack the attention commensurate with his already world-class CV (which expanded Sunday with his second consecutive Rolex 24  victory for MSR), but Blomqvist, 29, clearly isn’t bothered by it.

He carries the quiet confidence of knowing his immense talent will ensure results that will make him impossible to ignore.

“To a degree, I guess, it’s definitely ramped up a lot for me,” Blomqvist told NBC Sports. “In America, I’m starting to get a lot more (attention). In the last year, I’ve quite often got a lot of maybe what you’d call the glory moments. It’s been fun. And within the paddock, there’s a lot of respect for me anyway. It’s been good.”

There have been several moments of acclaim since he joined MSR barely a year ago in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. In his first start for the team at last year’s Rolex 24, Blomqvist turned in a Herculean performance to position the No. 60 Acura for the victory (giving way to Helio Castroneves because he was too “cooked” to complete the last 74 minutes).

He was even better this year at Daytona.

He ripped off a monster “one and done” pole-winning lap to beat the clock in qualifying on the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course. During the race, Blomqvist was as dominant in his first stint as his last in the ARX-06 while taking the checkered flag. He set the mark for the fastest time on Lap 6 that no one topped over the final 755 laps.

The 10 fastest laps in the race belonged to Blomqvist, carrying over his speed from the 2022 when he won the Petit Le Mans season finale to clinch the premier prototype championship at Michelin Road Atlanta.

A year earlier at the same track, he had burst onto the radar of car owner Mike Shank, who was intrigued by Blomqvist’s results as a BMW factory driver in the Formula E and DTM series. In 2014, Blomqvist also finished between second in F3, between champion Esteban Ocon (now with Alpine’s F1 team) and Max Verstappen (who has won the past two Formula One championships).

“He did a lot of high-level stuff, and then kind of fell out of favor, or I don’t know what happened, but he was a free agent,” Shank said. “I started looking at his numbers, and I’m like, ‘We should test this guy. So I take him to Road Atlanta in the fall of ’21, and he got in the car and just slayed it.”

Within minutes, he had called co-owner Jim Meyer.

“I’ve got our guy,” Shank said. “This is our guy. There’s no question about it.

Honda Performance Development president David Salters hugs Tom Blomqvist after the Rolex 24 at Daytona pole (Mike Levitt/LAT/IMSA).

“Now what’s happened, though, and I think if you look back at the Rolex here last year (and) what he did, he’s a gold nugget. He reminds me a little bit when (Robert) Wickens came into IndyCar out of DTM (as a rookie in 2018).

“He truly believes he’s the fastest guy out there, and he proved it (at the Rolex 24).”

Said David Salters, president for Honda Performance Development: “We love Tom. He’s the real deal, isn’t he? Immensely talented, super smart, and on it.

The great thing about our teams, the strength in depth is tremendous. But if you look through the sports car racing now, that’s the standard you have to have. Tom, brilliant, Filipe (Albuquerque), brilliant. Ricky (Taylor). You can go through that list. They’re all superstars. Tom is awesome. His lap in qualifying quite frankly was unbelievable.”

Having conquered one of the world’s greatest endurance races twice with Acura, Blomqvist could be ticketed for the world’s biggest race next – the Indy 500 — with HPD’s primary brand.

He tested a Dallara-Honda for MSR last October at Sebring International Raceway, and while he plans to focus solely on IMSA this season, he remains very intrigued by IndyCar.

And with Castroneves, 47, beginning a one-year deal with MSR’s IndyCar team, there could be an obvious opening in 2024.

“Obviously, it’s not in the cards this year,” Blomqvist told NBC Sports the day before the Rolex. “Yeah, I would love to give it a go. To be honest, I think that would be an amazing step for me in my career. I enjoy the sports car stuff so much. It’s been really good to me lately. I really enjoyed the style of racing.

“But I feel like IndyCar would be a step up for me and my career. It would be fantastic if I could get that opportunity. But yeah, I guess I have to keep pushing Mike or something to give me a shot. But obviously for now, the focus is here in the sports car stuff. It’s not really down to me at the end of the day. And I’ve got to do my job and then the people who pay the bills and make the decisions obviously have to decide if that’s something worth pursuing.

“But yeah, I’d love to give it a go, and I definitely would be up for it.”

Tom Blomqvist after winning the Rolex 24 at Daytona pole on the final qualifying lap (Mike Levitt/LAT/IMSA).

A transition from IMSA to IndyCar naturally would be easier than switching teams, but it also would be comfortable because Blomqvist already seems such a good fit at MSR.

It might have seemed an unusual pairing given his European-heavy background, but Blomqvist likes the Midwestern culture that’s been built at MSR. Based just outside Columbus, Ohio, the team’s shop has “no egos, and that just enables each and every one of to reach our potential.

“Obviously, with Honda, we obviously have some great resources, but we’re up against Porsche, BMW and some big heavy hitters in the motorsports world,” he said. “I wouldn’t say we’ve got a huge team compared to them, but we’ve obviously got a very capable team, and I think that’s what has been so impressive and really, really nice to see about the work that’s been done. No stone has been left unturned.”

Blomqvist still is living in Europe and planning to commute for the nine-race GTP schedule (which has a nearly two-month break after the Rolex 24 until the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring). But though he’s “got good friends in America, so I do have places to stay,” he seems open to being based more permanently near MSR in America.

“Let’s see what the future brings, and if that means me spending more time over here,” he said. “It’s a fantastic team. It’s a different environment to what I’m used to. It’s obviously now a hugely successful team, but it is a small team. It does feel like a very small family-operated team, which it is.

“I think Mike’s really just built this thing. It hasn’t happened overnight. Mike’s a great guy and put a lot of trust and faith in me, and I played a relatively good part in some of the success last year. I was able to reward him and give him my all every time I’m on track, and he respects that. But we are still a small team. In the grand scheme of things, we still are a really, really small team.”

Blomqvist said the BMW factory program would have two or three times the staffing of MSR – just on one of its two GTP cars.

“But it’s not the number of people that makes a difference, it’s the quality of people, and obviously Mike and HPD are a fantastic operation to go racing,” Blomqvist said. “We’re racers at heart.

“I’ve been part of some big outfits, and the European way of working is very, very different to how people go about racing in America. I’d say it’s more seat of your pants. A lot of emotion and kind of rides on that competitive spirt, competitive nature and on their personalities. It’s a lot more pure. It feels very pure. You want to win, so we go out and don’t cut corners on trying to win.”

Though it’s aligned with Liberty Media and has big-budget backing and support from Honda Performance Development, MSR also is much less corporate than most GTP teams.

A longtime and respected team owner who has built a sponsor portfolio, Shank also describes his maniacal dedication to success as “messed up,” and he’s known for dropping vulgarities into postrace interview with his blunt and self-deprecating sense of humor.

Meyer Shank Racing co-owner Mike Shank congratulates Tom Blomqvist on the Rolex 24 at Daytona pole position (Mike Levitt/LAT/IMSA).

With a more laid-back but sometimes just as biting demeanor, Blomqvist has become the team’s unquestioned leader behind the wheel

“I definitely feel a lot more immersed,” he said. “Within the team, I was a bit more of an unknown quantity the start of last year. Obviously after last season, the team trusts me a lot. And that gives me a lot of pleasure, pride and confidence. In this sport, confidence is a huge aspect of drivers’ psychology in a way. We’re in extremely high-pressure moments where my job is to perform under the pressure of these organizations and the brand as well.

“It’s just a good, healthy team to be a part of. It’s a high-pressure environment, but the team obviously have put a lot of faith in me, and I’ve been able to deliver for them on occasions.”

Rolex 24 starting lineup
Tom Blomqvist celebrates after winning the pole in the No. 60 Acura ARX-06 (Mike Levitt/LAT/IMSA).