NHRA: Top five storylines to watch for in 2019


With the new NHRA season set to begin just over a month from now (Lucas Oil Winternationals, February 8-10 in Pomona, California), let’s kick off the new year with five of the top stories drag racing fans should watch for in 2019:

1. Can Steve Torrence get even better? The Texas native enjoyed one of the most dominating seasons in NHRA history in 2018. Not only did he win nearly half of the season’s races – 11 of 24, that is – he also became the first driver to ever win all six races in the Countdown to the Championship playoffs.

But at the age of just 36, the cancer and heart attack survivor may have only just scratched the surface of how good he not only truly is but also how much better he can become.

What’s more, Torrence achieved everything he did in 2018 in unique fashion, essentially going against the grain. While multi-car super teams like Don Schumacher Racing, John Force Racing and others are expected to be the best of the best, Torrence Family Racing is kind of like ZZ Top – a little old band from Texas that does things its way with one race car (although Steve’s father Billy got into the act part-time and even won his first NHRA national event in 2018, as well) and with a limited budget and personnel.

If anything, Torrence should be called David, because he slew all the Goliaths of the sport in 2018.

Unless his competitors suddenly find the same kind of magic that Torrence has, look for the Texas tornado to sweep through the 2019 season as well.

2. How will fans react to Pro Stock’s reduction? Back in the 1980s and 1990s, the Pro Stock class was right up there in terms of popularity with the kings of the sport, namely Top Fuel and Funny Car.

But it’s no secret that Pro Stock has seen a great deal of its popularity wane in recent years. Even worse, costs keep going up, causing several teams to either scale back or completely leave the sport. Plus, technological advances in the last couple of seasons, including elimination of the big hood scoops — very popular among fans — and introduction of Electronic Fuel Injection, have only added to soaring costs.

Heck, even the most recent NHRA Pro Stock champion – 2018 series champ Tanner Gray (at 19, the youngest pro champ in NHRA history) – will not be returning to the class in 2019 (Gray is off to pursue his racing dreams in NASCAR).

Now, come 2019, Pro Stock will be only a shell of what it was over the last 30 years. Shortly after the 2018 season ended, NHRA officials announced that Pro Stock’s schedule will be scaled back from a full complement of all 24 national events to just 18 races in 2019 (the NHRA originally wanted to cut that number to 16, but driver complaints saw the number for the so-called “sweet spot” become 18 races).

So, Pro Stock will join its counterpart, Pro Stock Motorcycle, in not running at every NHRA national event. PSM runs just 16 of the 24 NHRA national events.

Frankly, it’s hard to see NHRA’s logic that less will be more and help return the class to prominence and increase its popularity.

Rather, there is a strong possibility that if Pro Stock doesn’t see positive changes due to the schedule decrease, it could ultimately be shifted to even fewer races for 2020 and beyond – or perhaps be replaced in terms of popularity as a professional drag racing class by the increasingly popular Pro Modified class.

3. How many more seasons does John Force have in him? John Force has been the greatest drag racer in NHRA history for more than 30 years.

He’s accomplished and rewritten the record book countless times, including 16 Funny Car championships and 149 national event wins.

But there is one magic number that Force will hit this year that could potentially have many of his fans wonder how many more seasons he has left in him. That magic number: 70 – when he turns 70 years old on May 4, 2019.

Force has a longterm contract with primary sponsor Peak Antifreeze and Coolant, as well as existing contracts with several associate sponsors. But let’s face it, Force at 70 years old is not like Force at 40, 50 or even 60.

His 16th and most recent NHRA Funny Car championship came in 2013. More recently, he managed just one win in each of the 2017 (Gainesville) and 2018 (Denver) seasons. He also finished ninth in the 2018 season standings.

To his credit, Force rarely talks about retirement, and never has put a date on when he’d hang up his firesuit for the final time. His standard line is that he’ll keep racing as long as he feels productive and able to still win races.

Whether that means 72 or 75 or even 80 years old remains to be seen.

Heck, Force may want to become the oldest active drag racer ever – a distinction currently held by 84-year-old Top Fuel legend Chris Karamesines, who also has no plans of retiring anytime soon.

4. Will the next potential NHRA superstar be J.R. Todd? When J.R. Todd won the NHRA Funny Car championship this season, it helped elevate his status significantly.

When legendary team owner Connie Kalitta asked Todd to drive for him, Kalitta saw something in the young driver from Indianapolis that meant success could potentially be in the offing. Having been in the sport for more than a half-century, Kalitta has been an exceptional judge of talent, and Todd paid back Kalitta’s faith in him by winning this year’s championship.

Don’t think Todd’s 2018 title will be a one-and-done achievement. On the contrary. Todd laid down the gauntlet to some of Funny Car’s best – guys like John Force, Robert Hight, Ron Capps and many more – and beat them all at their own game.

Having just turned 37 on December 16, Todd is just starting to get into the prime of his drag racing career. That’s good for him – and no so good for his competitors, as Todd has the potential to win several more Funny Crown titles in the coming years.

5. Will 2019 be big comeback seasons for Pro Stock drivers and K.B. Racing/Summit Racing teammates Greg Anderson and Jason Line? To say that 2018 was difficult for Anderson and Line is an understatement.

These are two guys who normally are in the thick of things for the championship each and every season. But not so in 2018.

Anderson has won four Pro Stock championships (most recently 2010) and 91 national event wins. He finished second in the Pro Stock rankings for three consecutive seasons (2015-2017) before dropping to a seventh-place finish in 2018, with just one race win.

Line, a three-time Pro Stock champ (most recently 2016) and winner of 50 national events, also had a difficult season in 2018, finishing fifth in the standings and also earning just one race win.

Both Anderson and Line certainly have the potential to roar back and challenge for yet another championship in 2019. However, the reduction of the number of races from 24 to only 18 for the Pro Stock class means more pressure on both drivers, not to mention all of their rivals in the class.

They’ll also have 2017 Pro Stock champ Bo Butner on the team this coming season. Butner had announced at the end of 2018 that he was “retiring” from Pro Stock and shifting back to his drag racing roots in Sportsman racing.

But a few weeks after that decision, and additional discussion with his family, Butner decided to accept KB Racing’s invitation and will be back full-time in the Pro Stock wars in 2019.

With Gray leaving Pro Stock, Anderson’s and Line’s title chances — not to mention Butner potentially going for a second championship as well — should go up exponentially.

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Will Power says IndyCar field toughest in world: ‘F1’s a joke as far as competition’


DETROIT – With the 2023 Formula One season turning into a Red Bull runaway, Will Power believes the NTT IndyCar Series deserves respect as the world’s most difficult single-seater racing series.

“It’s so tough, an amazing field, the toughest field in the world, and people need to know it, especially compared to Formula One,” the defending IndyCar champion told NBC Sports during a media luncheon a few days ahead of Sunday’s Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix. “Formula One’s a joke as far as competition, but not as far as drivers. They have amazing drivers. And I feel sorry for them that they don’t get to experience the satisfaction we do with our racing because that is the top level of open-wheel motorsport.

“I think Formula One would be so much better if they had a formula like IndyCar. I love the technology and the manufacturer side of it. I think that’s awesome. But from a spectator watching, man, how cool would it be if everyone had a Red Bull (car)?”

INDYCAR IN DETROITEntry list, schedule, TV info for this weekend

It probably would look a lot different than this season, which has been dominated by two-time defending F1 champion Max Verstappen.

The Dutchman won Sunday’s Spanish Grand Prix from the pole position by 24 seconds over seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton. It’s the fifth victory in seven races for Verstappen, whose 40 career wins are one shy of tying late three-time champion Aryton Senna.

Along with being a virtual lock to tie Senna’s mark for titles, Verstappen is poised to break his own record for single-season victories (15) that he set last year.

“You simply know Max is going to win every race if something doesn’t go wrong,” Power said. “Imagine being a guy coming out as a rookie, and you probably could win a race. It would be really cool to see. But you know that would never happen with the politics over there.”

Verstappen’s F1 dominance has been a stark contrast to IndyCar, where Josef Newgarden just became the first repeat winner through six races this season with his Indy 500 victory.

Team Penske (with Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin), Chip Ganassi Racing (with Palou and Marcus Ericsson) and Andretti Autosport (with Kyle Kirkwood) each have visited victory lane in 2023. Arrow McLaren (which has past winners Pato O’Ward, Alexander Rossi and Felix Rosenqvist) is certain to join them at some point.

Meanwhile, Verstappen and teammate Sergio Perez (two wins) have won every F1 race this season with the two Red Bull cars combining to lead more than 95% of the laps.

The primary differences are in the rulesets for each series.

While F1 teams virtually have complete autonomy to build their high-tech cars from scratch, IndyCar has what is known as a spec series in which the cars have a large degree of standardization.

IndyCar teams all use the Dallara DW12 chassis, which is in its 12th season. The development of the car largely has been maximized, helping put a greater emphasis on driver skill as a differentiator (as well as other human resources such as whip-smart strategists and engineers).

Alex Palou, who will start from the pole position at Detroit, harbors F1 aspirations as a McLaren test driver, but the Spaniard prefers IndyCar for competitiveness because talent can be such a determinant in results.

“Racing-wise, that’s the best you can get,” Palou said a few days before winning the pole for the 107th Indy 500 last month. “That’s pure racing, having chances to win each weekend.”

Of course, F1 is the world’s most popular series, and the 2021 IndyCar champion believes its appeal doesn’t necessarily stem from being competitive.

Though the ’21 championship battle between Hamilton and Verstappen was epic, F1 has grown its audience in recent years with the help of the “Drive To Survive” docuseries on Netflix that has showcased their stars’ personalities along with the cutthroat decisions of its team principals (IndyCar started its own docuseries this year).

“I don’t think the beauty of F1 is the race itself,” Palou said. “I’d say the beauty is more the development that they have and everything around the races, and that they go different places. But when we talk about pure spectacle, you cannot get better than (IndyCar).

“You can feel it as a driver here when you first come and jump in a car. When I was in Dale Coyne (Racing), we got a podium my rookie year. It wasn’t the best team, but we were able to achieve one of the best cars at Road America (where he finished third in 2020). It’s not that I was driving a slow car. I was driving a really fast car. I think we can see that across all the teams and the drivers.”

Team Penske’s Scott McLaughlin, who will start second at Detroit, is in his third season of IndyCar after winning three championships in Supercars.

The New Zealander said recently that IndyCar has been “the most enjoyment I’ve ever had in my career. I had a lot of fun in Supercars, but there were still things like different uprights, engines, all that stuff. (IndyCar) is spec. Really the only things you can change are dampers and the engine differences between Honda and Chevy.

“I have a blast,” McLaughlin said. “Trying to extract pace and winning in this series is better than I’ve ever felt ever. I’m surprised by how satisfied it feels to win an IndyCar race. It’s better than how it ever has felt in my career. I’ve always liked winning, but it’s so satisfying to win here. That’s why it’s so cool. There are no bad drivers. You have to have a perfect day.”

Qualifying might be the best example of the series’ competitiveness tightness. The spread for the Fast Six final round of qualifying on Detroit’s new nine-turn, 1.645-mile downtown layout was nearly eight 10ths of a second – which qualifies as an eternity these days.

Last month, the GMR Grand Prix on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course produced a spread of 0.2971 seconds from first to sixth – the fourth-closest Fast Six in IndyCar history since the format was adopted in 2008. Three of the seven closest Fast Six fields have happened this season (with the Grand Prix of Long Beach ranking sixth and the Alabama Grand Prix in seventh).

While the technical ingenuity and innovation might be limited when compared to F1, there’s no arguing that more IndyCar drivers and teams have a chance to win.

“The parity’s great, and no one has an advantage, basically,” Power said. “The two engine manufacturers (Honda and Chevrolet) are always flipping back and forth as they develop, but we’re talking like tenths of a second over a lap. There’s not a bad driver in the field, and there are 20 people all capable of being in the Fast Six every week. Maybe more. It’s incredibly competitive. There isn’t a more competitive series in the world. I’m sure of that.

“If you want the ultimate driver’s series, this is it I’m from a big team that would benefit massively from opening the rules up, but I don’t think (IndyCar officials) should. I think this should always be about the team and driver getting the most out of a piece of equipment that everyone has a chance to do so. That’s the ultimate driver series. Who wants to win a championship when you’re just given the best car? It’s just ridiculous.”

Power believes the talented Verstappen still would be the F1 champion if the equipment were spec, but he also thinks there would be more challengers.

“There’s got to be a bunch of those guys that must just be frustrated,” Power said. “Think about Lewis Hamilton, George Russell, Lando Norris, (Fernando) Alonso. Those are some great drivers that don’t get a chance to even win. They’re just extracting the most out of the piece of equipment they have.

“All I can say is if everyone had a Red Bull car, there’s no way that Max would win every race. There are so many guys who would be winning races. It’d just be similar to (IndyCar) and different every week, which it should be that way for the top level of the sport.”