SEASON RECAP: Mustangs Gearing Up For NHRA Title Run In ‘13
By Team Ford Racing Correspondent
The 2012 racing season may be over, but the NHRA’s silly season has just begun as teams begin to gear up for a new campaign and a new series sponsor.
Surprisingly caught up in the first round of dismissals following the season-ending awards banquet were former Rookie of the Year Spencer Massey, No. 3 in the Top Fuel driver standings, and veteran crew chief Lee Beard.
Nevertheless, despite Massey’s unexpected departure and veteran Funny Car crew chief Tommy Delago’s defection to Kalitta Racing, DSR sources said the team still would field four Dodge Funny Cars and three Top Fuel dragsters in 2013. That’s the same number of cars as in 2012.
Beard, who won the 1989 NHRA Top Fuel championship as crew chief to the late Gary Ormsby, was dismissed by driver and team owner Cruz Pedregon after just one season despite the fact that the two collaborated for a season-ending victory last month in the Auto Club Finals at Pomona, Calif.
Delago, who tuned driver Matt Hagan to the 2011 championship as well as to the first sub-4.00 second 1,000-foot time in Funny Car history, has taken over crew chief responsibilities on the Tequila Patron Toyota Funny Car that will continued to be driven by Alexis DeJoria.
He replaces veteran Del Worsham, the 2011 NHRA Top Fuel driving champion, who will move over one pit spot to drive the DHL Toyota in which Jeff Arend finished 10th in points for Kalitta Racing last year.
Arend, meanwhile, is among several former tour winners who could find themselves on the sideline next year when Mello Yello becomes the latest Coca-Cola brand to front drag racing’s primary series.
As for the season just past, Ford Racing placed five drivers in the Funny Car Top 10, more than any other manufacturer, got its first Top 10 finish in Pro Stock since 2003 and, for the second time, won the NHRA Manufacturers’ Cup that recognizes the car company whose current model year vehicles are most successful at all levels of the NHRA racing program.
Unfortunately, the Full Throttle Funny Car championship slipped away in the final two races as “Fast Jack” Beckman sped to his first pro title. Mike Neff led the Ford contingent, finishing third in the Castrol GTX Ford Mustang after being betrayed down the stretch by a $5 clutch part.
Significqantly, Larry Morgan’s 10th place finish in the Pro Stock standings represented a giant step forward in re-establishing the blue oval as a major player in a factory hot rod class it once dominated with drivers like Bob Glidden, “Dyno Don” Nicholson and Wayne Gapp.
Driving the Lucas Oil Ford Mustang, Morgan became the first Ford Pro Stock driver in nine years to crack the Top 10. The last to do so was the late Scott Geoffrion, who finished No. 10 in 2003 in a Escort ZX2.
Glidden won nine championships in a wide variety of Ford products including Pintos, Mustangs, Thunderbirds and Fairmonts. Nicholson was the 1977 champion in a Mustang II and Gapp, while he won no titles, finished second to Glidden in 1974 and 1975 in one of the most popular Ford Pro Stock cars ever – a four-door Maverick called “The Taxi.”
Despite its rich Pro Stock history, Ford hasn’t won on the NHRA tour since Glidden beat Jim Yates to claim the 1995 Summer Nationals title at Englishtown, N.J.
Morgan, who was runner-up at the 2011 Summit Nationals at Norwalk, Ohio, will try to put Ford back in the winners’ circle in 2013 as the marquee Mustang team among the factory hot rods, albeit not the only one. Veterans J.R. Carr and Frank Gugliotta put together representative efforts in a limited effort in 2012 and Jim Cunningham’s Mustang team showed improvement even after the departure of promising young talent Grace Howell.
As for the 2013 Funny Car outlook, it is bright even though there apparently will be few changes in equipment and personnel.
Bob Tasca III, who won a Countdown race even though he wasn’t in the chase to the championship, will be back at the controls of the Motorcraft/Quick Lane Shelby Mustang along with crew chiefs Chris Cunningham and Marc Denner and veteran Tim Wilkerson will return as both driver and crew chief on the Levi, Ray and Shoup Mustang that made an impressive late season run at the title.
"We chased gremlins all year," Tasca said. "We made a lot of positive moves too, and the win in Dallas was huge for us, but we just weren't nearly as consistant as we need to be. Consistency is what we're after."
As for the John Force Racing effort, the only thing known for sure is that it will for the first time include a Top Fuel dragster powered by the BOSS 500 Ford engine the team developed in a collaboration with Ford Racing. The car will be driven by the Force family’s accredited schoolteacher, 26-year-old Brittany Force who, after graduating from Cal State-Fullerton and earning her teacher’s certificate, has opted to spend a little more time in the family business while pondering her other career options.
Other than that, though, little is written in stone at JFR. Sponsorship for the dragster, as well as the makeup of the crew, won’t be announced until the team’s annual January press conference.
On the Funny Car side, JFR is taking three Mustangs to an early pre-Christmas test session in West Palm Beach, Fla. – Force’s Castrol GTX HIGH MILEAGE Ford, Robert Hight’s Auto Club Ford and 2012 Rookie-of-the-Year Courtney Force’s Traxxas Ford along with the aforementioned dragster.
The overall goal, according to Force Racing sources, is to replicate the Mike Neff set-up in each of the other cars in hopes of improving on this year’s 3-5-7-9 finish. Neff, who in 2010 was the crew chief on Force’s title-winning Mustang, apparently will manage the early test for the team as a whole.
The main focus, however, will be Force’s green-and-white Mustang. Although the 63-year-old icon won the season-opening Winternationals at Pomona, Calif., and took home the $100,000 bonus as winner of the inaugural Traxxas Nitro Shootout for Funny Cars, he never really was a threat to win a title that has been his 15 times and, for the second straight year, finished ninth in the final standings.
“Our goal every year is to win the championship,” Force said of a season that, by JFR standards -- and despite 10 victories, was disappointing. “We always evaluate. We look at what was right and what was wrong and try to evolve. Ford pays us to win and we haven’t won the last two years. Well, we’ve won a lot of races (22, in fact) but we let the championship get away at the end. We need to fix that and get Ford, Castrol, AAA, Traxxas and BrandSource back on top where they belong.”
While Force was frustrated, his youngest daughter was not. In fact, she was perhaps the season’s most pleasant surprise, taking her black-and-red Mustang to four finals, twice starting it from the front of the pack and earning a breakthrough victory in the O’Reilly Northwest Nationals at Seattle, where she beat 2011 champion Hagan in the final round.
“We made it into the No. 5 spot in the point standings and I really couldn’t be happier,” said Courtney. “We had an amazing season. I had a great race car (and) a great team. I’m so happy to have had them with me and I’m really looking forward to next season.”
Crucial to Courtney’s Rookie-of-the-Year season was the development of crew chief Ron Douglas as one of the tour’s most capable tuners. His car -- and Neff’s Castrol GTX Mustang -- were, day-in-and-day-out, the most consistent of the Fords from the start of the season to the finish.
The same could not be said for Hight’s Auto Club Mustang which again endured a Jekyll-and-Hyde kind of campaign, winning four straight races to start the season and then failing to advance beyond the second round in the last 14 events. The former Rookie of the Year and series champion (2009) finished a disappointing seventh in points after leading the way for 12 straight races in the middle of the season.
“We’ll do a lot of testing this off-season,” Hight said. “I have faith that my crew chief, Jimmy Prock, and this team will figure it out. The Winternationals is right around the corner and we’ll be ready.”
As for Neff, his season came down to a broken hydraulic fitting in the clutch assembly in a crucial second-round showdown with eventual champion Beckman at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. That caused the clutch timers to activate prematurely and, for all intents and purposes, ended Ford hopes of a 12th championship in the last 17 seasons.
“Losing that round was devastating,” admitted Neff, a two-time former world championship-winning crew chief. “You hate to lose a championship that way. It was just a mechanical failure at the worst possible time but I’m really proud of our season. We finished third in one of the toughest Funny Car (fields) ever.
“My guys were great all season and I couldn’t be prouder of the car they gave me. In the past three seasons, we won more rounds and more races than anybody else (but) this Countdown is tricky. You have to get hot at the right time.”
One who did just that was Wilkerson, who in mid-season seemed to be out of the hunt for a top-10 berth. Nevertheless, after adopting a “nothing to lose” mantra, the veteran took his Ford to the final round at the sport’s biggest race (the U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis), got the 10th and final starting spot and actually made the biggest move of any Funny Car driver in the Countdown before finishing eighth.
“This team never quit,” Wilkerson said. “The odds were pretty enormous we weren't going to be in the playoffs but we managed to do it anyway. The odds were pretty good that we'd run the No. 10 on the car for a third straight year. We'll have an 8 on it next season. I'm proud of my guys and we're going to work our butts off over the winter to make sure we come out swinging in Pomona next February."