10 Things To Watch For In The NHRA In 2021

With the start of the 2021 Camping World NHRA Drag Racing Series zooming up in less than two months, a lot of details are uncertain, thanks in part to continued coronavirus restrictions.

That right away crossed off one of the top-10 concerns: whether the NHRA would be able to carry out its originally announced 23-race schedule. The Arizona Nationals, set for April 23-25, bit the dust last week. Sanctioning body president Glen Cromwell said more than one other facility has inquired about hosting a replacement race but that nothing has been determined about how the NHRA will proceed.

The press release certainly didn’t say that Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park is out of the sport’s future for national events. However, it did hint that other, more ominous factors were at play in the decision. The statement said, “The ongoing COVID-19 restrictions due to the public health situation in the Phoenix area and the state of Arizona were taken into account by officials at NHRA and Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park in determining to not hold the event this year.”

And Mark Grado, general manager of the Chandler, Ariz., venue said, “We have enjoyed being host to the NHRA Arizona Nationals for the past 36 years. However, due to many circumstances beyond our control, including current COVID-19 restrictions, unfortunately, the event is not feasible for the 2021 season.” Clearly, that indicated that other issues kept the Arizona Nationals from being the fifth race of the season.

Pomona Raceway’s Future

The future of the historic quarter-mile at Pomona, Calif., site of the Winternationals and the Finals in the cradle of drag racing, also is unclear. Since last April, the racing surface there has served as a drive-through food pantry for pandemic-affected families. (The tony Sheraton Fairplex hotel in the complex has become a quarantine center, housing firefighters exposed in the line of work to coronavirus and individuals, including those experiencing homelessness, who had been exposed to the illness but were not sick enough to require hospitalization.) So whether racecars will return at much quicker and faster speeds still is a mystery, first of all because of California’s tight restrictions on sporting events and second because of persistent rumors (with no apparent published legal proof) that Los Angeles County is considering selling the Fairplex complex that houses Auto Club Raceway at Pomona.

Cromwell and Co. undoubtedly have their fingers crossed that the Arizona change will be the only one they’ll have to make this year.

Going Camping

The uncertainty surrounding the schedule is an unfortunate welcome to new sponsor Camping World and its CEO, Marcus Lemonis in their first full season together. Still, that shouldn’t hinder the positive impact the intelligent and energetic Lemonis can have on the 70-year-old NHRA.

Photo courtesy NHRA/National Dragster

It’s hard to say how much he can motivate executives to make some needed improvements in the NHRA culture – which has plenty of clear assets to work with. Judging from his behaviors in each episode of his CNBC program “The Profit” and his genuine curiosity he displays in his latest show, “Streets of Dreams,” not to mention his track record from his NASCAR involvement, Lemonis will approach this latest project with encouragement, business guidance, and maybe even a little tough love. If NHRA executives recognize what an engaged partner they have for the next couple of years or so and hopefully beyond that, they’ll deliver a stronger package for fans, racers, and sponsors. Watching that relationship grow will be as intriguing as seeing racers go down the dragstrip.

Dragzine’s remaining eight developments to monitor in 2021 mostly center on performance.

Tony Stewart The Drag Racer?

Talk of Tony Stewart entering competition in the Top Fuel class might be one of the juiciest off-season pastimes in awhile. Who in drag racing wouldn’t want modern motorsports’ most versatile and accomplished racer and established businessman to take an interest in the sport? Of course, Stewart took a more serious interest in drag racing because he took a serious interest in his Top Fuel-driving sweetheart, Leah Pruett, but oh well, who cares about details? Stewart attended the U.S. Nationals to hang out with then-fellow-U.S. Army-sponsored Tony Schumacher and got an up-close look at what goes into a 320 mph pass in less than four seconds. Stewart hasn’t announced his intention to drive a dragster with a specific team or plan, so we’ll see. He might be busy with the Superstar Racing Xperience (SRX) that he and Ray Evernham formed recently. That series has attracted such racing luminaries as Helio Castroneves, Bill Elliott, Ernie Francis Jr., Tony Kanaan, Bobby Labonte, Willy T. Ribbs, Paul Tracy, and Mark Webber.

Doug Kalitta And the Elusive Championship  

Everyone loves an underdog. Doug Kalitta isn’t an underdog at all, but the Top Fuel veteran needs some luck to break his series runner-up finish jinx. Fans are hoping he can leave behind those five outstanding but unfulfilling performances and earn the crown to complement his 1994 USAC Sprint Car championship.

Where Oh Where Is John Force?

John Force has told the NHRA he plans to return after sitting out the final nine events of 2020, but he still hasn’t been chatty with the media about what his team will look like. Will 2019 and three-time overall Funny Car champion Robert Hight come back with him? Top Fuel’s Austin Prock said just before his Chili Bowl performance that he plans to get back to action in March, and presumably that will be with John Force Racing. If so, he won’t have Mike Green as his tuner, for the crew chief went to greener pastures with Justin Ashley’s team. And will Brittany Force seek a second Top Fuel title? We haven’t heard any reports of her going back to a teaching job.

A Slimmed Down Don Schumacher Racing

Seeing how Don Schumacher Racing (DSR), the sport’s most successful team with 358 victories, will proceed should be entertaining. After sweeping all 11 Funny Car class trophies in 2020 to extend a streak that’s at 14 as the March 12-14 season-opener at Gainesville, Fla., approaches, DSR has lost Jack Beckman and Tommy Johnson Jr. because of funding. No sponsor is on the horizon for Top Fuel’s Tony Schumacher, either. Antron Brown has agreed to spend one more season with DSR before becoming independent with his own team. Leah Pruett apparently has adequate funding as she tries to improve from a hard-fought fourth-place finish in 2020. Reigning and three-time Funny Car champion Matt Hagan knows he’ll have Alexis De Joria, Bob Tasca, J.R. Todd, and Tim Wilkerson, among others, hunting him down.

Tony Schumacher – Get Comfortable And Stay A While?

What a boost the sport would get if 85-time winner Tony Schumacher can resurrect his record-setting Top Fuel career full-time after a brief jump-start in 2020 from an idle 2019. Many times he has referred to the privilege of driving a racecar as “a gift.” Any potential sponsors out there still in the Christmas spirit or ready to give the class’ most successful driver an early Valentine’s present?

Erica & Steve Chase Championship History

Photo courtesy NHRA/National Dragster

Erica Enders has a new goal. She can tie retired teammate Jeg Coughlin’s mark of five Pro Stock championships with a third consecutive. And she has the drive, the team, and the resources to do it. Is championship No. 4 in the cards for Top Fuel king Steve Torrence? He could become only the second in class history to score four in a row and join Tony Schumacher and Joe Amato in earning more than three Top Fuel titles.

Vance & Hines On Suzuki’s?

Vance & Hines’ financial support from Harley-Davidson will be missing, but the team isn’t likely to go away. But Andrew Hines and Eddie Krawiec have not disclosed – because they might not know all the details yet – whether they’ll use up some of their Harley inventory or switch to Suzuki Pro Stock Motorcycles for possibly only sporadic appearances. How this will level the playing field is what many in the class are eager to find out.

A Return To Championship Form For Greg Anderson?

Will Greg Anderson return to Pro Stock dominance, giving nemesis Erica Enders an even more intense run for her money? He could, now that teammate Jason Line and tough longtime rival Jeg Coughlin have stepped from their driver’s seats and Bo Butner has his eye on other series, including the Southern Sportsman Showdown he founded with Line and Dave Connolly. Or will one of the young newcomers (Aaron Stanfield, Kyle Koretsky, Bobby Bode, Mason McGaha, Troy Coughlin Jr., Robert River, or Cristian Cuadra, and David Cuadra) have a breakout season?

For right now, those 10 storylines will be plenty entertaining. With the Countdown to the Championship barging back into the picture after a welcome absence last year, purses still lingering below the poverty level, and the usual No. 2 washtub full of unforeseen twists, 2021 will be another unique NHRA season.

About the author

Susan Wade

Celebrating her 45th year in sports journalism, Susan Wade has emerged as one of the leading drag-racing writers with 20 seasons at the racetrack. She was the first non-NASCAR recipient of the prestigious Russ Catlin Award and has covered the sport for the Chicago Tribune, Newark Star-Ledger, St. Petersburg Times, and Seattle Times. Growing up in Indianapolis, motorsports is part of her DNA. She contributes to Power Automedia as a freelancer writer.
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