When the National Hot Rod Association introduced the Countdown to the Championship format five years ago, with a fair amount of disapproval, it was trying to bottle all the drama of its Full Throttle Drag Racing Series championships in the season finale at Auto Club Raceway. It has succeeded, but never as obviously and as memorably as at Sunday’s Auto Club Finals, where Jack Beckman won the Funny Car title by two points and Antron Brown claimed the Top Fuel championship by seven. Beckman, Brown, and Pro Stock veteran Allen Johnson earned their first NHRA pro crowns, leaving Pro Stock Motorcycle dominator and three-time king Eddie Krawiec the lone repeat champion on the podium. Brandon Bernstein (Top Fuel) and Cruz Pedregon (Funny Car) ended long winless streaks in winning the event. They shared the podium with Johnson and bike star Andrew Hines.
BROWN JOINS TOP FUEL ELITE - Call it baptism by fire — literally in the opening round of eliminations Sunday and figuratively all season long from his Don Schumacher Racing teammates. Antron Brown, a former Pro Stock Motorcycle contender, survived both to become the 2012 Top Fuel champion.
Only DSR teammates Tony Schumacher and Spencer Massey could take the title from Brown, the points leader. Brown faced Massey in the first round and lost. A fuel line broke in Brown’s Matco Tools Dragster, causing not only the defeat but a nasty cockpit fire that left him with superficial burns on his legs and hands. Massey lost in the quarterfinals, but Brown had to wait until the final round to see if he would earn his first championship or if Schumacher would earn an eighth and do it again in spectacular fashion. Brandon Bernstein beat Schumacher lost on a holeshot (meaning Schumacher’s elapsed time and speed were quicker and faster but that Bernstein got the jump on the starting line). And Brown had his first title in his fifth year of Top Fuel competition.
When you go through what we did today . . . there’s nothing you could do. I felt like a kid back in elementary school when it seemed like days were 30 hours instead of 24 hours. – Antron Brown
Waiting appeared to be harder on Brown than the burns he sustained. “When you go through what we did today . . . there’s nothing you could do. I felt like a kid back in elementary school when it seemed like days were 30 hours instead of 24 hours. You are looking at people race and there’s nothing you can do about it. I would have rather it been where we were 20 points apart and Tony and I could race for it in the final, instead of you depending on someone else to do what you want to do. You want to race for it,” he said.
Brown reacted to the media-hyped, drag-racing-trivial fact that he is considered the first black Top Fuel champion. “I never sat back and thought about it,” Brown said, but he said he’d be happy “if I can be an inspiration for other kids out there — not just African-Americans, just Americans period — give them somebody they can look up to that’s positive that actually never settled in life for things that people told them they may not ever achieve. Even some of my own family members told me that I could never be a professional racer. I even doubted myself that I would some day be a Top Fuel or Funny Car racer, because it just seemed to be so far out of reach.”
‘TORCHED’ - Antron Brown described the situation inside the Matco Tools Dragster cockpit during his first-round run Sunday. “It was definitely a surprise. We weren’t expecting that fire in the cockpit,” he said. “The flame was weird, because it didn’t come from back behind me. It came from down by my feet. It torched my feet and torched my legs then came up and torched my hands pretty good. The only parts that got singed were my palms where I steer the car and where I pull the brake. I had to hold onto the brake longer to get the car slowed down. The flames and fumes start taking your breath away. I didn’t want to go in panic mode, so I just stayed calm. Once I got the belts loose, I got out of the car as quick as I could. The Safety Safari was right there on point and hosed me down. I’m perfectly fine. By the grace of God, everything kept us right and tight. Hey man, everything happens for a reason. I just have a little burns on my hand.” He said one of his son Adler startled him by crying uncontrollably when he saw Brown had been hurt. “I never saw my son cry like that,” Brown said. Once Brown calmed him down, the little boy immediately asked, “Dad, when can I get my Jr. Dragster?”
BECKMAN GUTS OUT FUNNY CAR TITLE - Beckman sloughed off all the adversity of the season — most related to the well-publicized Don Schumacher Racing crew swap with Ron Capps in April – but found some more at the Auto Club Finals. He entered the race with a four-point lead on Capps, so naturally every turn of events promised to be dramatic. During the opening day of qualifying his engine exploded and shattered the body into thousands of pieces. He was unhurt but the crew worked to prep the car. He rebounded the next day to take the provisional No. 1 qualifying position. But Capps, who hadn’t made the cut the first two days and was barely on the grid with one more qualifying session to go, rocketed to the No. 1 spot with the track record that held up as quickest of the meet. That set the stage for Sunday’s showdown. Courtney Force beat Capps in the semifinal round, handing the championship to Beckman by two points.
Beckman was sitting behind him, waiting to run against Cruz Pedregon, and he decided, “I can’t celebrate now. We have to go up there and win.” But, he said later with a guilty laugh, “We didn’t, and I’m not really all that upset about it, to be honest with you.” Pedregon won the semifinal and the event, but Beckman had the bigger prize, a $500,000 payout for Don Schumacher Racing.
After the April shake-up, Beckman said, “I knew we would be OK. I didn’t know we would be champions.”
He had to adjust to new crew chief Smith, who hadn’t worked on a Funny Car before. He said he quickly learned “that man is bad-ass.”
Character is an important thing, win or lose. Before I even took my helmet off, I ran over and gave [Capps] a hug. You don’t want to gloat. I felt bad for him, because I’d feel terrible if the situation were turned. – Jack Beckman
Beckman had the privilege, but also the emotional complication, of having his former and currently Capps’ crew chief Rahn Tobler (who he said was “beyond a gentleman”), assistant crew chief John Collins (who he called “brilliant”), and the NAPA crew (who he said “are all great friends of mine”) take an active part in his progress this season.
When the changes occurred, true to DSR corporate culture, the NAPA gang “built us an identical car and babysat us for a couple of races,” Beckman said. “I never could root against the NAPA team.
“Character is an important thing, win or lose. Before I even took my helmet off, I ran over and gave [Capps] a hug. You don’t want to gloat. I felt bad for him, because I’d feel terrible if the situation were turned. There really wasn’t anything to say. It’s going to take me awhile to get my head around this [situation] in a positive way.”
JOHNSON SCRATCHES 17-YEAR ITCH - Traveling 2,200 miles or so from Greeneville, Tenn., was worth the trip for Allen Johnson, who added the race victory to his first Pro Stock championship in 17 years of trying. The Team Mopar/J&J Racing Dodge Avenger driver defeated Vincent Nobile to record his career-best seventh victory in one season and his first at Pomona.
“Our team is so awesome, and the Mopar Dodge Avenger has just performed flawlessly,” Johnson said. It’s been 17 long years — a lot of work, a lot of money, a lot of sweat. To finally realize this dream is unexplainable. We did it on our own. Like from an infant to an adult, that’s what this is like. We learned how to win. Everything has been an emotional deal, because you’re doing it with your dad. That’s why I’m doing this, to give him the opportunity to be successful.”
It’s been 17 long years — a lot of work, a lot of money, a lot of sweat. To finally realize this dream is unexplainable. – Allen Johnson
Johnson said what has kept him going for 17 years are “determination and my father (who is his engine builder). He wanted to do this all his life, and my whole focus was winning this with him. A lot of hard work and determination went into winning this. We had a dominating performance in this Countdown, won a championship and ended with a win. What more can we do? That has added just a little more emotion to it.”
KRAWIEC REPEATS CHAMPIONSHIP - Eddie Krawiec, the points leader since May, scored a repeat title following qualifying to bring bosses Terry Vance and Byron Hines a sixth Pro Stock Motorcycle championship in nine years for the Screamin’ Eagle Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson team. Krawiec won nine times in 11 final rounds for his third overall series crown. “This is a dream season. It’s tough to win one race out here, let alone win nine. I’m very grateful for the position I’m in. I’ve got an awesome team with awesome people behind me.”
BERNSTEIN DOUBLES HIS PLEASURE - Brandon Bernstein’s Top Fuel event victory was his first in 70 events. His previous triumph came at Richmond, Va., in 2009. He said “there’s a lot of joy” in helping his close buddy Brown. “It was nice to play spoiler and get those guys a championship,” Bernstein said. It also was nice to be employed. “I didn’t have a driving job at all at this time last year,” he said. “Over the winter Morgan (team owner Lucas) gave me the opportunity, and it’s been a great year. It’s a really good team and I’m proud to be a part of it.”
PEDREGON SHINES IN FINAL ROUND - Funny Car race winner Cruz Pedregon said his final-round victory over Courtney Force and her dad’s well-funded John Force Racing organization was encouragement for the dwindling independent teams. “It’s good to know the independent guy still has a say in this deal. We’ve probably left five or six races on the table this year and we put it together this weekend. We placed third overall last year, and after winning today, we finished fourth this year and I think we’ve proved we belong with the top teams. We’re a smaller independent team, but with the way we finished, I think we can build on this and be one of the favorites heading into next season. We’ve always had a fast car. The new Toyota Camry body really had a big effect in a good way this season. Toyota created a body that’s as good as any in the field.”
NOW HINES IS HAPPY - Pro Stock Motorcycle’s Andrew Hines spoke throughout qualifying that he wanted nothing more than to prolong Harley-Davidson teammate Eddie Krawiec’s imminent championship as long as possible. He said, furthermore, he would be happy finally if he could win the race and keep Krawiec from taking that honor, too. He got his wish, topping Krawiec in the final. It was Hines’ sixth race in 11 finals this season, and it marked back-to-back victories at this event.
SCHUMACHER KNOWS THE PAIN - “It’s like a stab in the heart when things don’t go right. It’s got that much drama to it,” Top Fuel champion Antron Brown said, knowing how his DSR teammate and seven-time champion Tony Schumacher had to be feeling Sunday night. Schumacher and his U.S. Army Dragster always had struck fear in the competition — at least respect — for the way they had blasted to victories and championships in improbable situations. But the magic vanished against Brandon Bernstein. But like the U.S. Army soldiers he represents, Schumacher was stoic. He said Brown “is going to be a great champion.” He added, “There’s no good way to lose. It’s tough to get beat like that. Hat’s off to Brandon and his team. It’s been a long time since they have won a race.” Team owner Don Schumacher said, “Don’t sell that Army team short. Tony has risen to these occasions. They just missed it by a little bit.”
BY ‘THAT MUCH’ . . . AGAIN - Gary Scelzi aced out Ron Capps for the 2005 Funny Car championship by eight points, but the two-point deficit against new champion Jack Beckman was the closest margin in class history. And Capps has tried to find a positive spin for what happened to him Sunday to leave him series runner-up for the fourth time in his career. “It’s been one of those seasons. It’s been an emotional roller coaster,” Capps said. “We changed crews, and I got hooked up with Rahn Tobler. The unfortunate part is we had such a great record-setting year, six final rounds in a row, and then to set the quickest run in [Funny Car] history in Englishtown. I just felt like it was almost, you know, it’d be a bummer if we couldn’t end it with a championship finally. It hurts a lot, but it’s encouraging we have Rahn and all our crew guys coming back for next year, at least.”
He said he was absorbing the news well enough until his 16-year-old daughter, Taylor, ran to him at the end of the track when he got out of his NAPA Dodge. “I was OK until my daughter was emotional. She came over and hugged me. She was crying so she made me start crying. I was fine until then. What are you gonna do? Your little girl’s bawling, so I’m bawling.
“The hard part is you can sit in the off-season and you look back to find where you could have gained those two points,” Capps said. “Things like that will eat you alive if you let it. I’ll just try to look forward. I know we’ve got a great team. We’re going to come out swinging in 2013.”