Del and Connie Worsham have moved twice since, but years ago when they bought a home in Chino Hills, California, east of Los Angeles, the new neighborhood was abuzz.
That age-old game of “telephone” converted “A race car driver IS moving in!” into “Dale Earnhardt is moving in!” Worsham said he figured folks would be disappointed when they came to the neighborhood cookout and realized they had “Del” instead of “Dale.”
Worsham could ride back through those familiar streets now, with confetti raining and parents pointing with pride, telling their children, “He’s a champion – a two-time National Hot Rod Association champion!” They also could tell their children he did something remarkable not even seven-time NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt ever did. Worsham won titles in two different kinds of race cars. And, Worsham definitely would be the king of the block-party barbecue.
He drove behind, around, and finally, through, record-setting rival Jack Beckman to claim the NHRA Funny Car title that goes with his 2011 Top Fuel championship. His victory at Pomona in the season finale capped a stunning Countdown surge. He won three of the first four playoff races, and the sixth and final one.
Worsham joins Kenny Bernstein and Gary Scelzi as the only racers to win championships in both nitro-powered classes. Like Scelzi, Worsham had a special mission to fulfill. For Scelzi, it was racing in memory of Blaine Johnson, who was killed in a qualifying crash at Indianapolis in 1996. For Worsham, it was carrying on the legacy of two-time Top Fuel champion, Scott Kalitta, who died in a 2008 Funny Car qualifying accident at Englishtown, New Jersey – in a Solara version of the DHL Toyota Camry that carried Worsham to the title.
It is Scott’s car, whether he’s driving it or not. I was the one driving it, but it’s Scott’s car. We’ll never forget that. – Del Worsham
Like buddy Jeff Arend before him, Worsham understood the race car was a rolling – a screaming, 320-plus-mph, 10,000-horsepower – memorial to the racer eight-time Top Fuel champion Tony Schumacher described as “a gladiator.” Worsham delivered the best anybody could to team owner Connie Kalitta, Scott’s father.
The new champion said he “felt a very big sense of accomplishment, and I felt like maybe in some way that could bring some kind of healing or closure to the Kalitta family and Scott Kalitta, because when Connie decided to keep this car going, it was in the memory of his son. We basically attained the highest goal we could, and that would be to win a championship for Connie and his family.”
He said amid the post-race hoopla that he was planning to tell Kalitta that “he earned this. He’s the one who put up the money and the team and the facility and gave us all the parts and pieces to make this possible. And this is absolutely his championship.”
Kalitta did not make the trip to Pomona, California to witness Worsham’s feat, but he caught up with Worsham afterward.
“Connie called me up, and he was in a great mood. He was excited, and the biggest thing he told me was, ‘You would you have made Scott proud.” And that was enough of a conversation for me. He thought of his son, and he knew that we were all thinking of him. So I think we accomplished the goal of carrying on Scott’s memory and finishing what he started to do back in 2006,” Worsham said, referring to the year Scott Kalitta “un-retired” and came back to nitro racing.
[Connie] called me up, and he was in a great mood. He was excited, and the biggest thing he told me was, ‘You would you have made Scott proud.” – Del Worsham
“For a couple of months [my life] had been stress-filled. Ever since Maple Grove [at Reading, Pennsylvania, in Race No. 4 of the Countdown], the event where we had that big lead and lost it all in one day there, it’s definitely been an emotional roller coaster,” he said. That final race day, he said, “We were definitely keeping track of points and watching where we were, and I knew at all times where we were and what the stakes were. So it was pressure. It was a lot of tension.”
He hid in the hauler lounge throughout the day and listened to the Beastie Boys. Then he went out and “Made Some Noise” of his own, neutralizing the wild 3.8-second, record-rewriting Beckman and Ron Capps had engaged in during the quarterfinals.
After eliminating Beckman from the race and title contention in their head-to-head, winner-take-all semifinal meeting, Worsham said he was “feeling relief once we had won the semifinal round race, but we still have the final round, so I didn’t want to relax or forget the task at hand, which is still to win the race. So, we had to stay focused there for another hour and a half, but I felt relieved.”
The tension vanished, but the euphoria faded quickly, too.
“Come Monday morning, I was already out at the track helping out with my dad’s car,” Worsham said.
He might have won championships with Alan Johnson and Connie Kalitta, but the man who molded Worsham into a winner was father, Chuck Worsham. Together they had a dream. Together they raced and worked on their cars and shared the joys and jolts of drag racing. Together they inched out onto that scary limb, expanding their team and sponsorship searches. Together they even caught the attention of fast-food giant McDonald’s, who used the likeness of their Checker-Schuck’s-Kragen Funny Car in 2000 for a Happy Meal treat promotion. They were a team, along with Chuck’s mother Elaine, a forward-thinking octogenarian who wasn’t afraid to give advice about their operation, or the NHRA’s, for that matter. For Worsham, even with a Top Fuel crown, was incomplete without a Funny Car one.
Said Worsham, “I knew at five years old I wanted to be a Funny Car driver. My dad had a local Alcohol Funny Car, but he wasn’t a driver. He had a partner, and things just kind of transpired where I was able to drive the thing just by doing a lot of work and showing a lot of interest. Basically, I put my entire life into it, and my dad saw that with his partner and gave me a shot to drive it.”
So, it was no surprise that he was rolling up his sleeves the day after earning his Funny Car championship, working alongside his dad.
“We have licensing for drivers that we wanted to upgrade, and I already put it on the books and you have to do what you say,” he said from Bakersfield, California, two days after the awards ceremony at which he accepted his trophy and a $500,000 payout on behalf of Kalitta Motorsports. He was ready to make some runs with a potential driver. “And we are going to run through Sunday,” he said. He figured the impact of earning a Funny Car title might soak in, finally, the Monday before Thanksgiving.
Working as crew chief for Alexis DeJoria the year following his Top Fuel championship prepared him for his 2015 Funny Car run, he said.
“I think it did. It’s not big things, it’s just little things, like when you’re backing up from the burnout, you try and pay attention, getting the car lined up. So I maybe got complacent through the years, backing up fast and not paying attention as much as I should have. Helping Alexis and working with her, I rethought and refocused on some of those things,” Worsham said. “Also, the importance of just every run. If you lose a run somewhere during the weekend, that may have been the run that could have qualified you or positioned you, or had something to do with it.” He said he learned to “really focus and pay attention and make sure we get everything out of every run we possibly can.”
While he said he regards his approach to a Funny Car championship as “unconventional,” he got a chance to learn the Kalitta Motorsports culture.
In 2011, when I quit at the end of the year, I didn’t get a chance the next season to drive the car with the No. 1 on the side of it. – Del Worsham
His goal for 2016 is to stay put.
“Really, what I want to do is drive that Toyota Camry with the No. 1 on it,” Worsham said. “In 2011, when I quit at the end of the year, I didn’t get a chance the next season to drive the car with the No. 1 on the side of it. So, next year I’m going to go out and enjoy that and know that we were the champions and try and win a second one.”
He said it with the conviction of Dale Earnhardt.