The 2018 National Hot Rod Association season was definitely one for the record books with several defining milestones being set.
With the 2019 season just six weeks away (February 8-10 in Pomona, California), let’s take a look back at the top 10 stories of the 2018 campaign:
1. Steve Torrence wins first career Top Fuel championship. If the Texas native needs a new nickname, “The Dominator” would definitely fit the bill, given how he roared through the 2018 season. Torrence won 11 races (capturing every final round he appeared in during the season), nearly half of the 24-race NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule. That was just an appetizer, however. Torrence became the first driver in NHRA history to win all six races in the Countdown to the Championship playoffs – and it did so in, of course, dominating fashion. Torrence Racing is a family affair and Steve’s father, Billy, even got into the act, winning his first career NHRA Top Fuel race in Brainerd, Minnesota. In classy fashion, and even with all his own accomplishments, Steve said watching his dad win was the best moment of the entire season for him.
2. Champions end the season with a cherry on top. For the first time in NHRA history, all four pro champions wrapped up the season by also winning the final race of the season at Pomona, California: Steve Torrence (Top Fuel), J.R. Todd (Funny Car), Tanner Gray (Pro Stock) and Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle).
3. Most recent Pro Stock champs bid adieu. For the first time in history, the last two Pro Stock champions will not be returning to compete in the class in 2019, including defending Pro Stock champ Tanner Gray. 2017 Pro Stock champ Bo Butner announced he will exit Pro Stock and return to his NHRA Sportsman Racing roots for 2019, while Gray will leave NHRA racing entirely to pursue his long-held dream of racing in NASCAR. Gray became the youngest champion in NHRA history at 19 years and six months of age.
4. U.S. Army leaves NHRA, Don Schumacher Racing. The U.S. Army, which has been the primary sponsor for eight-time Top Fuel champion Tony “The Sarge” Schumacher for nearly two decades and also had an extensive support engagement with NHRA at national events, will not be back in 2019. The military service branch, long a fan favorite at those national events with things such as climbing walls and military drills, was also an associate sponsor for Schumacher’s teammates, three-time champ Antron Brown and Leah Pritchett. It’s unfortunate that the Army is leaving, as it brought a great deal of good will to the sport – and helped in recruiting new soldiers. There still is no word on who will replace the Army on Schumacher’s car, let alone Brown’s and Pritchett’s rides, as well.
5. Pro Stock loses one-quarter of a season. NHRA has tried for the last several years to increase the attention and popularity of the Pro Stock class through a variety of measures, including doing away with the monstrous hood scoops that the class was once known for, as well as adding electronic fuel injection and other technical changes. Unfortunately, fans still didn’t gravitate to the so-called “door slammers” like they used to in the 1980s and 1990s. Sadly, because costs have become so high, the NHRA decided at the end of the 2018 season that it will reduce the 2019 schedule from a full 24-race slate to just 18 races (after initially cutting back to 16 races before having second thoughts). While the reduction in number of races will arguably save teams some money, it’s feared that the reduction in the schedule will only further cut into the already waning popularity of the class.
6. The passing of Tom “Mongoose” McEwen. The sport lost one of its true legends on June 10 when Tom “Mongoose” McEwen passed away at the age of 81 due to complications from colon cancer surgery. Voted 16th on the NHRA’s 50 Top Drivers List back in 2001, McEwen was best known for his legendary partnership with Don “Snake” Prudhomme. Together, the pair became one of the greatest attractions the sport has ever seen, particularly when they were both sponsored by Mattel’s Hot Wheels toys. “Tom was like a brother to me,” Prudhomme told NBC Sports. “We fought, argued like hell, and we laughed like hell, like brothers. That was pretty much our whole 60 years together. That was always a cool thing, our relationship. We spoke on the phone every day for 60 years.” Prudhomme then added, “Every time my name, Snake, comes up, I’ll remember it because there’s a Mongoose that’s attached to it. We’re forever embedded in each other.”
Fellow drag racing legend Kenny Bernstein added about McEwen, telling NBC Sports, “The Mongoose was an icon in the sport.”
7. Robert Hight comes back from monster explosion and crash. Hight was in the running for his second consecutive NHRA Funny Car championship and third overall in 2018 when he suffered a horrendous motor explosion and resulting wicked crash into a retaining wall while crossing the finish line, while at the same time earning the win in the Countdown to the Championship event at Gateway Motorsports Park in suburban St. Louis. Hight suffered a broken left collarbone that would otherwise likely have sidelined most other drivers for several weeks. Instead, after quick surgery, Hight was back running – and winning at Dallas – less than two weeks later. Unfortunately, Hight’s dreams fell short, as he wound up second in the final season standings to first-time champ JR Todd in 2018.
8. For Clay Millican, it was second verse, better than the first. Millican enjoyed the best year of his Top Fuel career in 2018. Not only did he earn two of his three career national event wins, he finished a career-best third in the final standings. But one thing in particular stands out above everything else: after setting the Top Fuel national elapsed time record (3.631 seconds) late in the 2017 season, Millican kicked things off in even better fashion in the 2018 season-opening race at Pomona, California, re-setting the national record with a 3.628-second run.
9. Hector Arana Jr. makes Pro Stock Motorcycle history. The kings of two-wheel drag racing have been trying for close to a decade to break the magical 200 mph barrier. But it wasn’t until March 16, 2018, that someone actually did it, as Hector Arana Jr. laid down a perfect 200.23 mph run during qualifying at Gainesville (Florida) Raceway. It was a great way for Arana Jr. to kick off the PSM 16-race schedule, and he ultimately wound up finishing a career-best third in the final standings behind champion Matt Smith and second-ranked Eddie Krawiec.
10. Even at 69 years old, John Force still has it. After going more than one full year without a win, 16-time Funny Car champion John Force finally wound up back in the winner’s circle after capturing the 149th national event victory of his career in Denver in July. Force, who turned 69 on May 4, had a very rough start to the season, with two motor explosions in the season-opening race at Pomona, California, crashed into Jonnie Lindberg in Phoenix and then wrecked in Chicago. Force finished ninth in the final standings.
And a few others worth mentioning:
A. Pro Stock driver Chris McGaha was convinced some of his chief competitors were playing fast and loose with fuel systems. As a result, early in the season, McGaha convinced NHRA to allow him to purchase fuel for the entire class, to make sure there was no impropriety or performance-enhancing additives in the gas. While McGaha’s gas-buying initiative seemed to quiet fuel system cheating accusations, it didn’t totally end all cheating charges. At the Seattle race in early August, McGaha took the unusual and extremely rare step of filing formal protests against the cars of Elite Motorsports teammates Jeg Coughlin Jr. (a five-time Pro Stock champion) and two-time champ Erica Enders. McGaha alleged that the motors in both opponents’ cars were larger than rules allowed. After three hours of tearing down both motors, NHRA officials found they were within tolerance and overruled McGaha’s protest.
B. Coughlin Jr. had a strong comeback in 2018, finishing second to Tanner Gray. With Gray not returning to the NHRA ranks in 2019, Coughlin Jr. is an early favorite to potentially earn his sixth career Pro Stock crown.
C. Glen Cromwell became just the fifth president in NHRA history on January 1, 2018, succeeding Peter Clifford, who moved into a newly-created role as Chief Executive Officer of the sanctioning body. Overall, it was a relatively quiet first year in office for Cromwell.