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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Three-time F1 champion Niki Lauda dies at 70

AP Photo/Luca Bruno, File
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BERLIN (AP) Three-time Formula One world champion Niki Lauda, who won two of his titles after a horrific crash that left him with serious burns and went on to become a prominent figure in the aviation industry, has died. He was 70.

The Austria Press Agency reported that Lauda’s family said in a statement he “passed away peacefully” on Monday. Walter Klepetko, a doctor who performed a lung transplant on Lauda last year, said Tuesday: “Niki Lauda has died. I have to confirm that.”

Lauda won the F1 drivers’ championship in 1975 and 1977 with Ferrari and again in 1984 with McLaren.

In 1976, he was badly burned when he crashed during the German Grand Prix but made an astonishingly fast return to racing just six weeks later.

Lauda remained closely involved with the Formula One circuit after retiring as a driver in 1985, and in recent years served as the non-executive chairman of the Mercedes team.

Born on Feb. 22, 1949 into a wealthy Vienna industrial family, Nikolaus Andreas Lauda was expected to follow his father’s footsteps into the paper-manufacturing industry, but instead concentrated his business talents and determination on his dreams of becoming a racing driver.

Lauda financed his early career with the help of a string of loans, working his way through the ranks of Formula 3 and Formula 2. He made his Formula 1 debut for the March team at the 1971 Austrian Grand Prix and picked up his first points in 1973 with a fifth-place finish for BRM in Belgium.

Lauda joined Ferrari in 1974, winning a Grand Prix for the first time that year in Spain and his first drivers’ title with five victories the following season.

Facing tough competition from McLaren’s James Hunt, he appeared on course to defend his title in 1976 when he crashed at the Nuerburgring during the German Grand Prix. Several drivers stopped to help pull him from the burning car, but the accident would scar him for life. The baseball cap Lauda almost always wore in public became a personal trademark.

“The main damage, I think to myself, was lung damage from inhaling all the flames and fumes while I was sitting in the car for about 50 seconds,” he recalled nearly a decade later. “It was something like 800 degrees.”

Lauda fell into a coma for a time. He said that “for three or four days it was touch and go.”

“Then my lungs recovered and I got my skin grafts done, then basically there was nothing left,” he added. “I was really lucky in a way that I didn’t do any (other) damage to myself. So the real question was then will I be able to drive again, because certainly it was not easy to come back after a race like that.”

Lauda made his comeback just six weeks after the crash, finishing fourth at Monza after overcoming his initial fears.

He recalled “shaking with fear” as he changed into second gear on the first day of practice and thinking, “I can’t drive.”

The next day, Lauda said he “started very slowly trying to get all the feelings back, especially the confidence that I’m capable of driving these cars again.” The result, he said, boosted his confidence and after four or five races “I had basically overcome the problem of having an accident and everything went back to normal.”

He won his second championship in 1977 before switching to Brabham and then retiring in 1979 to concentrate on setting up his airline, Lauda Air, declaring that he “didn’t want to drive around in circles anymore.”

Lauda came out of retirement in 1982 after a big-money offer from McLaren, reportedly about $3 million a year.

He finished fifth his first year back and 10th in 1983, but came back to win five races and edge out teammate Alain Prost for his third title in 1984. He retired for good the following year, saying he needed more time to devote to his airline business.

Initially a charter airline, Lauda Air expanded in the 1980s to offer flights to Asia and Australia. In May 1991, a Lauda Air Boeing 767 crashed in Thailand after one of its engine thrust reversers accidentally deployed during a climb, killing all 213 passengers and 10 crew.

Lauda occasionally took the controls of the airline’s jets himself over the years. In 1997, longtime rival Austrian Airlines took a minority stake and in 2000, with the company making losses, he resigned as board chairman after an external audit criticized a lack of internal financial control over business conducted in foreign currency. Austrian Airlines later took full control.

Lauda founded a new airline, Niki, in 2003. Germany’s Air Berlin took a minority stake and later full control of that airline, which Lauda bought back in early 2018 after it fell victim to its parent’s financial woes.

He partnered with budget carrier Ryanair on Niki’s successor, LaudaMotion.

On the Formula One circuit, Lauda later formed a close bond with Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton, who joined the team in 2013. He often backed Hamilton in public and provided advice and counsel to the British driver.

Lauda also intervened as a Mercedes mediator when Hamilton and his former Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg feuded, argued and traded barbs as they fought for the title between 2014-16

Lauda twice underwent kidney transplants, receiving an organ donated by his brother in 1997 and, when that stopped functioning well, a kidney donated by his girlfriend in 2005.

In August 2018, he underwent a lung transplant that the Vienna General Hospital said was made necessary by a “serious lung illness.” It didn’t give details.

Lauda is survived by his second wife, Birgit, and their twin children Max and Mia. He had two adult sons, Lukas and Mathias, from his first marriage.