Sheryl Johnson-Bernstein

NHRA

Decade In Review: What were the 10 best NHRA stories of the 2010s?

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As the decade comes to a close, it’s time to look back on everything that has happened in the last 10 years in NHRA drag racing.

In particular, we reflect on what we’ve chosen as the top 10 storylines of that decade, ranked in order of what we feel were the most significant stories, as well as several honorable mention entries.

Do you agree with our picks, or do you have other storylines in mind? If so, please leave us a comment.

Let’s get started:

1) Gimme a T for Texas, gimme a T for Tremendous: They like to do things bigger and better in Texas, and that’s what Lone Star State native Steve Torrence did in the 2018 season. Torrence dominated the Top Fuel ranks with a tremendous run from start to finish. Not only did he win nearly half (11) of the races in the 24-race season, the driver known for wearing a 10-gallon cowboy hat when he doesn’t have a race helmet on his head, became the first driver in NHRA history to win all six races in the Countdown to the Championship playoffs. And for an encore, he came back to win the championship again in 2019.

Brittany Force. (Photo: John Force Racing)

2) Girl power, personified: In 2017, a driver named Force won the championship. Only this time, it wasn’t John Force, it was daughter Brittany, who became only the second female driver in history to win an NHRA Top Fuel championship. Shirley Muldowney was the first to achieve that feat, winning three titles in her NHRA career (1977, 1980 and 1982). In addition to her Top Fuel crown in 2017, Brittany Force holds the current NHRA Top Fuel speed record for a 1,000-foot dragstrip (338.17 mph), set in Las Vegas early last month, as well as the elapsed time record (3.623 seconds), set in mid-September in Reading, Pennsylvania.

3) If the “Schu” fits, wear it … and then put the pedal to the metal: Tony “The Sarge” Schumacher won his eighth and most recent Top Fuel championship in 2014. Schumacher, who turns 50 on Christmas Day, also is the winningest driver in Top Fuel history with 84 career national event wins. But he was conspicuously absent from the NHRA national event tour in 2019 when he was unable to find sponsorship for the entire season after the U.S. Army ended its two-decade support of Schumacher’s dragster after the 2018 season. Unfortunately, unless things change sponsorship-wise in the next two months of the offseason, Schumacher may face a second season on the sidelines in 2020.

4) A Force-able win, followed by a divorce after 25 years: John Force extended his own record of Funny Car championships to 15 on Nov. 14, 2010 (he’d go on to win a 16th and his most recent title in 2013). What made Force’s No. 15 unique is he became the oldest NHRA champion in history (61 years old). And then, two days after winning that championship, crew chief Austin Coil resigned after being with Force for 25 years (since 1986).

John Force celebrates after winning a milestone 150th win of his career in Seattle on August 4, 2019. Photo: NHRA.

5) John Force avoids near-economic disaster: John Force had been synonymous with Castrol Oil for nearly three decades, and with Ford for over a decade. But those sponsorships both came to a crashing halt for Force and parent company John Force Racing at the end of the 2014 season, when both Castrol and Ford decided to take their sponsorship dollars in different directions. The move was near-disastrous to JFR, prompting Force to wonder if his organization would survive. He even considered retiring if it meant the rest of the organization – including daughters Brittany and Courtney and son-in-law Robert Hight – could keep racing. But after selling himself and his organization like he never has, Force was able to gain two new sponsors late to the game, Peak Antifreeze and Lubricants and Chevrolet, and was able to continue on when the 2015 season dawned. Fast-forward to today and Force enjoyed his best season in the last four in 2019, capturing two wins, including a milestone 150th victory.

Bill Simpson

6) Safety pioneer Bill Simpson played major role in keeping drag racing safe: Earlier this week on December 16, a dark pall came over the motorsports world when one of the most innovative safety equipment developers, Bill Simpson, passed away from a stroke at the age of 79. Among products Simpson was best known for was flame-retardant clothing that reached across all forms of international motorsports and ultimately saved countless lives. In drag racing in particular, Simpson developed one of the most significant safety systems ever devised for any form of racing: the parachute system to slow down Top Fuel and Funny Cars. Simpson started by using surplus military parachutes and adapting them to dragsters and floppers until he came up with his own version of stronger and more reliable parachutes built specifically for drag racing purposes.

7) Didn’t you used to be Courtney Force? Just two weeks before the 2019 NHRA season was slated to begin, Funny Car driver Courtney Force stunned her loyal fan base by announcing she was walking away from the sport. Force was careful not to say she was permanently retiring, preferring to say she was “stepping away” and “going on hiatus.” Force missed the entire 2019 season and it appears she will be missing 2020 and potentially even further beyond that, close friend Alexis DeJoria exclusively told NBC Sports last week. Ironically, DeJoria, who also went “on hiatus” after the 2017 season, will be returning in 2020 and both driving for and owning/operating her own Funny Car t

8) Three changes to NHRA presidency in 3 ½ seasons: After several months of an absence that was due to “personal and family reasons,” Tom Compton abruptly retired as just the third president in NHRA history on July 1, 2015. Compton’s tenure lasted 15 ½ years, having ascended to the NHRA’s presidency on Jan. 1, 2000. He shepherded the sport to new heights before the economic downturn hit the sport hard in 2007 and 2008. Compton’s successor, Peter Clifford, would only stay in his position for 2 ½ years before Glen Cromwell took over on Jan. 1, 2018.

Ron Capps (Photo: NHRA)

9) A tip of the Capps to his first Funny Car crown: After nearly two decades of trying, Ron Capps finally won his first Funny Car championship in 2016. In his nearly quarter-century NHRA career, Capps has earned 63 Funny Car wins, second only to John Force’s 151, and one Top Fuel win. Ironically, even though Top Fuel is supposed to be the NHRA’s fastest and quickest class, Capps holds the all-time overall speed record for all nitro classes of 339.28 mph, set this past October at Reading, Pennsylvania.

10. From Disney stardom to drag racing stardom: Just over a decade after her and younger sister Courtney had their racing lives turned into a Disney Original Movie – “Right On Track” – Erica Enders became the first female driver to win a NHRA Pro Stock championship in 2014. But she didn’t stop there: she also won the Pro Stock title in 2015 and again in 2019, giving her three championships in the last six seasons. Enders also became the first female to ever win a Pro Stock race in 2012.

OTHER HIGH POINTS:

* So long ESPN, hello FS1: In 2016, FoxSports 1 took over for ESPN in televising NHRA races. The contract enters the fifth and final year of the current deal in 2020.

* Nice guys do finish first – and more than once: In 2012, one of the nicest drivers in the sport, Antron Brown, became the first African-American driver to win a NHRA Top Fuel championship. He would go on to win the Top Fuel crown three times in five years: 2012, 2015 and 2016.

* And then there were three: In 2015, Del Worsham became only the third driver in NHRA history to win both Top Fuel and Funny Car championships in their career. The other two drivers were Kenny Bernstein and Gary Scelzi.

* Patience and Persistence should be his middle names: After struggling for a decade to find or keep full-time rides, JR Todd finally reached the pinnacle of the sport and his own career, capturing the 2018 NHRA Funny Car championship for both himself and Kalitta Motorsports. Todd dominated much of the season, with six wins, two runner-up finishes and six semifinal showings. Even though he fell backward to finish seventh in 2019 (earning just one win, plus three runner-up and two other semifinal finishes), the suburban Indianapolis native is ready for a big rebound in 2020.

Bernstein on his record-setting 300-plus mph run in 1992 in Gainesville, Fla. Photo: NHRA/National Dragster

* The King calls it quits for the fourth and final time: Kenny Bernstein, the first Funny Car driver to break the 300-mph barrier, announced he was retiring from the sport on Nov. 15, 2011. In most instances, that wouldn’t be a major deal. But for Bernstein, nicknamed “The Bud King” for his more than 30-year sponsorship by Budweiser, “The King of Beers,” retirement really was a big deal because it was the FOURTH time he had retired from the sport. He initially retired as a driver after the 2002 season, only to come back midway through the 2003 campaign when son Brandon, who had succeeded his father behind the wheel of their Top Fuel dragster, broke his back. Kenny retired as a driver for the second time after his son returned for the 2004 season, but then the elder Bernstein once again returned behind the wheel of a Funny Car in 2007. He retired as a driver for the third time after the 2007 season, but would continue owning the team through 2011, when he totally liquidated everything and retired completely from the sport that he had loved and took part in for more than 40 years. These days, the 75-year-old Bernstein and wife Sheryl Johnson-Bernstein spend six months each year in Colorado and the other six months in Southern California. Bernstein won six championships in his driving career, including being the first of only three drivers to win championships in both Top Fuel and Funny Car. He ended his career with 69 national event wins: 39 in Top Fuel and 30 in Funny Car. He earned four straight Funny Car championships from 1985-88 and two Top Fuel titles (1996 and 2001).

UPDATE: Since this story was first published, we received several emails from readers and felt compelled to add one more item that we didn’t include originally:

* Can’t you speak English(town) anymore? One of the greatest tracks on the NHRA national event circuit abruptly closed up shop on January 17, 2018, just three weeks before the NHRA season was about to begin, leaving the sanctioning body to scramble to fill E-town’s slot on the schedule. While wildly popular with drag racing fans, Englishtown had become a thorn in the sides of residents who lived nearby due to the loud noise and heavy traffic it generated. Because the track was landlocked and couldn’t expand its facility footprint, there was little it could do to appease residents — even though the track was in existence far longer than those who had moved in the area in recent years. The landlocked element also contributed to several driver deaths, the most noteworthy being Scott Kalitta, who died in a June 21, 2008 crash there when his car sailed through the sand pit and almost left the facility border. Also sadly, just two years away from celebrating its 50th anniversary of hosting the NHRA, the track shut down for good. It’s a track that will long be remembered by diehard drag racing fans and drivers alike.

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