Automakers Attracted To NHRA, Signaling Sanction’s Upward Arc

Steve Beahm, who bears the impossibly long job title of head of Parts and Service (Mopar) and Passenger Car Brands for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles – North America, offered a creative description of Don Schumacher Racing.

“Your fingers are different sizes, and they’re different lengths. That’s what makes a good team, and that’s what Don has in his racing team,” Beahm said.

Hand in hand with that interpretation is the robust participation in drag racing from Chevrolet, Ford, Mopar/Dodge and Toyota – each with its own special interests and sense of what brings the most return on its investment. It’s debatable which chicken-and-egg scenario has the sequence in the right order, but that variety either reflects the NHRA’s upward trajectory in a static motorsports landscape or is the cause of it.

Photo courtesy NHRA/National Dragster

With various NHRA classes waxing and waning in popularity and less-hyped-but-no-less-respected series such as the NMCA, NMRA, PDRA, and assorted regional outlaw and grassroots associations attracting recognized racers, the U.S.’ Big Three are well-represented.

But aside from the Ford-centric NMRA and the diverse NMCA getting a little more manufacturer-heavy with the Chevrolet Performance Challenge Series and Dodge/Mopar Hemi Shootout program, domestic automakers clearly are more deeply or increasingly invested in NHRA competition. Curiously, though, they’re not necessarily flocking to the same classes.

The COPO, even though that vehicle itself is not street legal, if you walk up and look at a COPO, it looks a whole lot like a Camaro SS that’s sitting in somebody’s showroom. And you can go buy that car. The visual of it is the same. There’s a lot of brand identity there for us, and that’s why we play. – Judy Kouba Dominick, Chevrolet Racing

What for decades defined the NHRA Pro Stock class was its keen rivalries among the domestic manufacturers. And the “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday” catchphrase rang true. What spectators saw on the dragstrip was identifiable in local dealership showrooms. The past decade or so has seen that recognizability fade in the factory hot rod category. Since Dodge/Mopar headliner Allen Johnson retired, no one except Alan Prusiensky (and for awhile Deric Kramer) has campaigned a Dodge. Rodger Brogdon announced earlier this month that he will drive a Chevy Camaro in a full-time program for Elite Performance but will move to a new RJ Race Cars-built Ford Mustang when it rolls out of the Galesburg, Ill., shop later this year. That will mark only the second Ford-bodied entry into the Pro Stock class since the Jim Cunningham team days … the other part-time competitor Charlie Westcott.

So the Pro Stock class – which took root in 1970 with eight Chrysler entries, five Chevrolet Camaros, and three Ford Mavericks composing the 16-car line-up – essentially is a Camaro class. And three-time champion Jason Line said of those zealous automaker wars, “I don’t think you’re ever going to see that. Those days have come and gone.”

Photo courtesy Chevrolet Performance

Fans still have their favorite makes and models today, but they simply don’t draw a connection with the racing bodies and what’s in their own driveways. That has been the criticism for many years now. And Mopar/Dodge’s Beahm picked up on that.

He said, “That’s a little bit why we got out of Pro Stock. We were in that class a long time.” However, he predicted that “that class is going to grow.” But for now, if he’s correct, it will do so without any attention from Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.

Instead, Beahm said he thinks the “right path” for Mopar and Dodge goes even beyond his company’s four-car Dodge Funny Car contingent of Don Schumacher Racing’s Jack Beckman, Ron Capps, Matt Hagan, and Tommy Johnson Jr. that has produced four series championships. What has him excited is the rising popularity of the SAM Tech Factory Stock Showdown class. DSR Top Fuel contender Leah Pritchett, in her Drag Pak Challenger, claimed the 2018 Factory Stock Showdown championship. She and teammate Mark Pawuk, a veteran Pro Stock racer, were a formidable duo all year.

What has Beahm – a 20-year bracket racer who has put his own racing career in mothballs – and his bosses at Auburn Hills, Mich., excited is the marketing magic in the Factory Stock Showdown.

Photo by Marc Gewertz/NHRA

“We think we’re on the right kind of class. What we like about the class is you can look at the car and say, ‘I can go buy that.’ You can drive it to the grocery store, drive it dropping your kids off, then actually go to the track and race. Now, you won’t run the 7s [seven-second elapsed times] they run, but we’ve got the 1320s that we’re just rolling out, and it’s meant for the grassroots racer. And you can see the cars side by side, and they almost look identical. They don’t have the same horsepower under the hood.  But that’s why we love that class. That’s why we’re getting behind it, both on the Mopar and Dodge sides. People can identify with the car and identify with our brands.”

That’s the same argument Judy Kouba Dominick, Chevrolet Racing’s trackside communications representative, makes for the Bowtie Brigade: “The COPO [Camaro], even though that vehicle itself is not street legal, if you walk up and look at a COPO, it looks a whole lot like a Camaro SS that’s sitting in somebody’s showroom. And you can go buy that car. The visual of it is the same. There’s a lot of brand identity there for us, and that’s why we play.”

Photo courtesy FCA North America

Chevrolet has a big stake throughout all levels of the NHRA, whose star she said is rising. She said Chevy might have a limited presence in Funny Car, but it has the premier driver: “We are fortunate enough to be partnered with John Force Racing. Even if you don’t know drag racing, you do know John Force.

“Chevrolet has a great commitment to NHRA,” Dominick said. “We will try to work with them to make the sport even better. But you see the trajectory of NHRA just continue to go up. It’s a constant rise. It’s not a ‘blown-out-of-the-cannon and then how do you sustain that?’ They continue to build it, and they build it at a rate that’s consumable.”

Unlike Beahm, she said Pro Stock is a valuable commodity for her manufacturer. “We have some longstanding partnerships in Pro Stock. I don’t see that changing,” Dominick said.

[Kalitta Motorsports] built me a Funny Car to bring to the TRD office in North Carolina. So now I can take engineers out and show them different parts and pieces. We get to show them what we’re working on and what we’re looking to work on for future development. – Skugger Labbe, Toyota Racing

Some drivers are coming back to the Pro Stock class now that the NHRA has pared its schedule from 24 races to 18. Even so, Beahm isn’t budging on his position, at least not yet.

“We’d have to look at it. Right now, our commitment is on the Factory Stock Showdown. The classes are close enough, in my point of view, that I would hate not to have a championship-caliber [presence], trying to split my resources [with] Pro Stock. But we would be interested in looking at it. The NHRA has talked with us. We understand what they want. We’re trying to talk to our fans and make the best investment we can, because we have limited resources. So we’ll put it in places we feel like we’re going to get the most return,” Beahm said.

The schedule trim for the Pro Stock class isn’t all that unusual. The Pro Stock Motorcycle class competes at just 16 events, and the E3 Spark Plugs NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series presented by J&A Service appears at only 12 of the Mello Yello Series stops. But outspoken owner-driver Chris McGaha said, “The COPO motors, Drag Pak, all that … they need to put those motors in these cars. If they want to try to change it for the better and get the factories back involved, that’s the only step they can take right now.”

Photo by Richard H. Shute/Gary Nastase for Chevy Racing

Meanwhile, the NHRA Funny Car division is showing the diversity that once was Pro Stock’s claim to fame. When the season finale began last November, the top four racers still in the hunt represented four different automakers. Eventual champion J.R. Todd carried the Toyota banner in his Kalitta Motorsports Camry. Hot on his heels was Camaro driver Robert Hight. Hoping to give Dodge another Funny Car title was Ron Capps, and Tim Wilkerson was in fourth place with his Ford Mustang. Tommy Johnson Jr. slipped into the No. 3 spot in the final standings with his Dodge. So it was a balanced performance by all four manufacturers.

Ultimately, Chevrolet took the NHRA Manufacturers Cup at the year-end awards ceremony at Hollywood, Calif., for the second straight year, fourth time in five years, and for a record-extending 23rd time since 1966. The honor goes to the automobile manufacturer whose current-year models earn the most points for qualifying and category victories at NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series national events and Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series divisional events. Points are awarded to entries in Funny Car, Pro Stock, Super Stock, Stock Eliminator, and Factory Stock Showdown classes. In 2018, points that Camaro and COPO Camaro drivers more than tripled those of the closest manufacturers.

Matt Hagan’s latest-generation 2019 Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Funny Car alongside a production Dodge Charger. Photo courtesy FCA North America

Ford is making an effort to regain a foothold in the Funny Car class, offering a sneak peek this past October at the SEMA Show at Las Vegas at the new Mustang body that will be the first it has developed since the 2009 season.

Veteran Ford Performance aerodynamicist Bernie Marcus said, “We started with this project in October 2017. Design begins with the use of computational fluid dynamics (CFD), which then turns into building parts to wind-tunnel test on a scale model of the car. Once all those parts are verified, we produce a full-size model.”

And the Ford team used the same initial development process – but scored a major advancement as the project continued. It bypassed the full-size prototype model phase. That means the first full-size car built will be the very one that’s on the racetrack.

Scale model of Mustang Funny Car. It will be Ford’s first racecar to skip the prototype phase, being fully built and tested as a scaled-down model before a final, full-scale product is made. Photo courtesy Ford Racing

Marcus said, “The plan is to race this car, with this body, in 2019. At the close of the NHRA’s 2018 season, he said, “all that remains is finishing the full-size body and receiving NHRA approval. Then we’ll have time in the off-season to conduct testing before next season.”

Time is running out, for the 2019 campaign opens Feb. 7-10 with the Lucas Oil Winternationals at Pomona, Calif. But that breakthrough, with the emphasis on scale models and CFD development, brings tremendous cost-cutting implications for production cars.

Mark Rushbrook, global director of Ford Performance Motorsports, said this Mustang Funny Car “is a great example of the kind of breakthroughs we strive for with our racing products. Just as with our simulator technology at the Ford Performance Technical Center, learning to effectively and efficiently develop vehicles without the need for multiple, full-size prototypes will significantly affect how future Ford vehicles are brought to production.”

The new Mustang Funny Car body mold was cut in a 10-day process in Michigan last October, with approval from NHRA and initial placement of the first body scheduled in the weeks ahead.  First on-track testing is scheduled to begin in January at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park the week before the season-opener.

We think we’re on the right kind of class (Factory Stock Showdown]. What we like about the class is you can look at the car and say, ‘I can go buy that.’ You can drive it to the grocery store, drive it dropping your kids off, then actually go to the track and race. – Steve Beahm, head of Parts and Service (Mopar) and Passenger Car Brands for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles – North America

Crashing the “all-America” party in Funny Car is Toyota, which opened its billion-plus-dollar North American corporate campus at Plano, Texas, a northeast suburb of Dallas, in July 2017. (The company said that reaffirms its longstanding commitment to the United States. And Toyota North America CEO Jim Lentz said during the celebration of this major step, “We appreciate the support from President [Donald] Trump of our continued commitment to investing in the U.S. and sustaining American jobs.”)

In an even more significant move that benefited the NHRA in general and J.R. Todd in particular was Toyota Racing Development’s hiring of renowned NASCAR tuner Slugger Labbe. He came to an NHRA race as a guest of Top Fuel driver Hot Rod Fuller and tuner Rob Flynn. Today he works with finding more performance for Toyota drag racing drivers and their counterparts in the NASCAR Truck Series.

Ford’s 2018 Mustang Cobra Jet for Factory Stock Showdown and Stock/Super Stock competition. Photo courtesy Ford Racing

“I support the teams, providing them with anything they may need in terms of database programs and anything we can do: improve the parts and pieces, improve the chassis,” Labbe said. “With the teams racing, seemingly, every week, we try to do some things for them in research and development. We do a lot of measuring of the tracks and conditions we race in. I’m looking months down the road, while the teams are racing day to day. So when they do have the opportunity to test, we’ll have parts and pieces ready for them to test. It’s a neat job.

“Andy Graves at TRD [which usually brings four representatives to each NHRA race] called and asked me if I’d be interested in taking over this account for TRD and supporting the Toyota drag racing program with different innovations and different thoughts,” he said. “I try to bring some of the NASCAR mentality that I’ve been used to for the last 33 years, as well as bring some of the technology and mindset over to the NHRA. We’ve done a lot of cool things with our NHRA teams to try to get better and put even more speed into the race cars. The Funny Car side has been really fun,” Labbe said.

Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) in use to simulate and test the interaction of air with the surface of the new 2019 Mopar Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat NHRA Funny Car. Image courtesy FCA North America

The Kalitta Motorsports team, he said , “built me a Funny Car to bring to the TRD office in North Carolina. So now I can take engineers out and show them different parts and pieces. We get to show them what we’re working on and what we’re looking to work on for future development. Things like that are really cool. We’re buying into what the teams are doing, and they’re buying into what we’re doing. We’re just trying to get them to Victory Circle as fast as we can.”

It’s called “Winners Circle” in the straight-line sport, but no matter. For Todd it meant a champions podium experience for Toyota. And for the NHRA, it just means a healthy outlook with successes spread across the board.

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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