With Good Karma At Play, Worsham Enjoying Work In A Special Way

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Del Worsham is living the “good life.”

For some, that means ditching a job and jet-setting to five-star resorts.

For Worsham this month, it was driving an 18-wheeler with two surprisingly delicate racecars loaded inside for 35-plus hours straight, from Los Angeles to Gainesville, Florida – through the deserts and scrublands of California, Arizona, New Mexico and West Texas, across the Louisiana bayous, through scenic but monotonous stretches of Mississippi, Alabama, and the Florida Panhandle. Sometimes it was daylight, sometimes pitch-black, and always without conversation, as dad/relief driver Chuck Worsham snoozed before his turn at the wheel.

But it was like the old times. And that’s exactly what the two-time NHRA champion wanted.

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Photo courtesy NHRA/National Dragster

Del Worsham left the well-funded Kalitta team with the 2015 Funny Car championship in hand, a bookend to his 2011 Top Fuel title that never had been an aspiration, really. He walked away from the comfort of knowing he had plenty of people and parts to keep him on the track competitively. He gave that up for uncertain finances but a certain bond, a certain mission that he and his father could share that performance dream.

And if it brings back memories of driving the hauler as it criss-crosses the country, all the more gratifying it is for him.

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Del’s departure from Kalitta Motorsports allowed him to return to racing alongside his father Chuck, with whom he competed with for the better part of two decades in Funny Car. Photo courtesy NHRA/National Dragster

“I thought it’d be fun for him and me to drive to Gainesville like we used to,” the independent-by-choice Funny Car driver said. “Plus, if I sent one truck driver out there, it’d take him four or five days. My dad and I, we did it in 36 hours. We tested Monday in Gainesville, and we drive straight back. We left at 6 o’clock [Monday night] and we were home before 6 a.m. [Wednesday].”

It’s part of the plan to extend the days in which they earned 22 victories and nearly 340 elimination round-wins in almost 400 events together before their team broke up at the close of the 2008 season (with an uncharacteristic three DNQs in the final four races). That journey wasn’t easy, either, with fire, injury, funding woes, and a few crashes. But after three races into the reunion tour, Del Worsham has 39 victories, is on the verge of 560 round-wins, and has 555 races worth of experience. So that means they missed 168 races together, and they’re determined to be a team again, no matter what that means.

Worsham said he always had a sense that the NHRA is a family affair.

“I’ve known it all along, right from the beginning. I raced with my dad all along, then I went over and raced with Nicky Boninfante and his dad when I was 20 years old and raced with them for a half-season until my dad got our car back on track again. I was with my dad for 12 years. Then I went over to Alan Johnson’s, and he raced with his brother, his dad, and his mom and sister. And the Kalittas – I’ve pretty much been around fathers and sons pretty much the whole time. [In the case of the other families,] the son had lost the father or the other way around, I’ve raced with family teams the whole time,” he said.

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During his tenure with the Kalitta organization, Worsham captured the 2015 NHRA Funny Car title, his first in the class and second overall. Photo courtesy NHRA/National Dragster

Since he came on the scene in 1990, already recognized in the drag-racing community, as a mechanical prodigy since his teenage years, Worsham has befriended many racers. They include fellow competitors Alexis DeJoria and Robert Hight, as well as Top Fuel rookie Troy Coughlin Jr. With a sense of positive karma returning to him, Worsham has the moral and manpower support of everyone in the pits and financial help from small businesses to large as he parlays his pairing with his father back to the good old days.

I get help from a lot of people out there. So if I ever can help somebody, I try to, especially teams that are up and coming or independent teams that need help. I help as much as I can.

“In the beginning and even to this day, I get help from a lot of people out there,” Worsham said. “So if I ever can help somebody, I try to, especially teams that are up and coming or independent teams that need help. I help as much as I can.

“When I decided to do this thing – and it was awful late to go out and sign a major sponsor – I started getting a whole bunch of little sponsors, people to help me out,” he said, naming Walery’s Pizza, of Salem, Ore., and a returning associate sponsor. “I found out how much interest there was. [Longtime business partner] John Fink came on board. Then when Lucas Oil came on, it just made it that much better.”

It was another father-son operation – an empire – that has given him a push-start this season with a six-race sponsorship. Forrest and Charlotte Lucas, living patron saints to sportsman racers, also raced with their son, Morgan Lucas, in the sportsman and pro ranks.

Toyota/TRD, Carillo, WSM Auctioneers, Mac Tools, AAP, Mahle-Clevite, ARP Fasteners, BMRS, Bullet Cams, and Woody’s Custom Headers are among those who stepped up with resources for this year. Three other marketing partners – Boninfante Friction, Hi-tech Finishing, and C2C (machine shop in Chino/Ontario, California) –  “it’s amazing,” he said – “came from father and son: they remember racing with their dad and they wanted their son to be involved. Both Hi-Tech Finishing and C2C were based on father-son relationships. Same with the Boninfantes.”

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Photo by Ron Lewis

Moreover, the Kalittas have promised to treat Worsham as if he’s still under the awning.

“Anything I need, anytime, whether it’s parts or technical or manpower, they welcome me to anything they have. And I really appreciate it,” Worsham said. “The John Force team [also a Lucas Oil marketing partner] has the same thing going. And Don Schumacher, when I spoke to him at the PRI Show, he said the same thing: ‘Anything you need, you just come and get it.’ ”

When I decided to do this thing – and it was awful late to go out and sign a major sponsor – I started getting a whole bunch of little sponsors, people to help me out.

Non-flashy but present on Worsham’s Funny Car are the initials “KH.” Drag racing folks know that stands for Qatar’s Sheikh Khalid bin Hamad Al Thani. The racer and former funder of Alan Johnson Racing’s Al-Anabi teams still has an extraordinarily muted presence in the sport, but Worsham downplayed that.

“The Sheikh is a great friend of mine. I go there [to Doha, Qatar] once a year and I spend at least a week with him every year. Mostly I go for friendship, just to hang out with him. It’s a nice vacation. He’s a good friend. I hang out. I mess around with his cars a little bit, which is fun. He helps me in a lot of different ways. He’s a good friend to have,” Worsham said.

(Worsham put the unfortunate Al-Anabi exit from Top Fuel in perspective: “The sponsorship was up after five years. He got a sixth year. The country didn’t want to do a seventh year. He tried as hard as he could to keep it going for those guys, but we all knew when we signed up there that it was a five-year sponsorship. The fact it went six really surprised me. I think they [the team] were a little bit bummed that they waited so late to tell them. They thought they were good. But when a country like that makes a decision, there’s really not much you can do. What were they going to do about it? There wasn’t a whole lot they could do.”)

As for the two powerhouse team owners, Force and Schumacher, pledging their help, Worsham said, “One thing they have to have is, both Force and Schumacher need people to race. They do a good job making sure they take care of some of the teams out there that they know are underfunded or need help. I think both of those guys do a pretty good job of that.”

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Worsham spent part of his offseason in Qatar with the Al Anabi Performance camp, taking in the Arabian Pro Series competition. Photo courtesy Arabian Drag Racing League

Tim Wilkerson, a longtime independent who has risen to the elite tier in the Funny Car class with his Levi, Ray & Shoup-funded operation, continues to be considered an underdog who’s underfunded. But Wilkerson has insisted he isn’t underfunded; he says he just doesn’t have a huge surplus. And that’s the zone Worsham expects to be in eventually with this father-son team. It’s the level he’s working daily to achieve.

“So far we’ve gotten everything we need to get started and get this thing up and rolling,” he said, despite not be in a position to be “throwing massive amounts of money at it.”

Worsham beat Hight in the first round of the season-opener at Pomona, and hasn’t won a round since. But it’s a little too early for much of pattern of performance to develop for anyone.

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The car that Worsham is driving to begin the 2017 campaign is one of the chassis that he and his father built while Del was driving for Al-Anabi Racing in 2009. Photo courtesy NHRA/National Dragster

He said he encountered “a huge mechanical problem at Gainesville” that, in retrospect, he said he thinks started during Saturday qualifying at Phoenix. “You can’t take things back or get do-overs. But boy, I sure wish I had one right now,” he said.

With the Denso Spark Plugs Nationals coming up in a week at Las Vegas, Worsham might want to avoid the casinos, considering one of his major hunches wasn’t quite on target.

He has three cars, all Toyota Camrys. The one he’s using at the moment is the last CSK car he drove.

“This car was built about 10 years ago. “It’s the same car Jim Campbell drove last year and Paul Lee drove the year before. Todd Lesenko drove it in ’13, and Jon Capps – a whole bunch of people have driven it. I chose to use it instead of a new car, which has some runs on it already and it appears is going to be at least as fast. But we have more data on it, and I thought in the beginning it probably would be better off to use this one because there wouldn’t be any surprises or any glitches,” Worsham said. “But little did I know, we ran into a problem with this car. Hopefully it’s fixed now.

This car was built about 10 years ago. “It’s the same car Jim Campbell drove last year and Paul Lee drove the year before. Todd Lesenko drove it in ’13, and Jon Capps – a whole bunch of people have driven it.

He has two cars prepped for action, but the third one, he said, “is just sitting in the shop. I bought back the Al-Anabi cars we built for Sheik Khalid and Alan Johnson. Back in 2009, we [he and Chuck Worsham] built them three new cars. We only ran one of them. So there were still two new cars. I ended up buying the two new cars back from Alan.

“We actually bought those back last year, before this thing even happened. I just thought, ‘You know, those cars will get us through our career, no matter what we do, whether my dad just races or something ever happens with him and me. It all just kind of worked out pretty well.”

Worsham never really specified if he intended to play out his career with this father-son team or whether the plan was to do it until Chuck Worsham chooses to retire. Was this reunion planned for just this one year?

“I couldn’t tell you right now,” Del said. “I’m just taking it this year right now.

“I decided it would be cool to go back and spend the year racing with my dad again. No. 1, I wasn’t real excited about the way it all came to an end, the way it all finished up in 2008,” he said. “It was an option year in the contract and O’Reilly bought them that year. And O’Reilly’s just didn’t renew the sponsorship.”

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Worsham celebrating his 2015 championship at the Auto Club World Finals in Pomona. Photo courtesy NHRA/National Dragster

Not that he looks at it this way, but Worsham got some measure of revenge, winning the O’Reilly Spring Nationals at Houston in Top Fuel in 2011, the year he won his dragster championship. At that same race in 2014, back in a Funny Car, he was top qualifier with low elapsed time of the meet. In 2015, he won the Funny Car series crown.

Nevertheless, he said, “I thought we deserved another chance to go out and try to do a little bit better.”

I decided it would be cool to go back and spend the year racing with my dad again.

Today a third generation of Worshams is getting involved. But it’s not a father-son situation. It might be turning into a grandfather-dad-daughter organization one day. Del and Connie Worsham’s 15-year-old daughter Kate, who along with twin Maddie, has raced in the NHRAs Jr. Dragster program, likes to visit the family race shop and has taken an interest in some of the mechanics of running a race car.

“She understands the clutch a little bit, and she understands why the car sometimes ‘smokes the tires.’ She asks questions and tries to relate to what’s going on. Maddie loves the social side of it,” he said.

And he said he’s hopeful about the future, that the notion of “getting the band back together” has some staying power.

“Whether this ends up being our last season or last few years together or not, who knows?” Worsham said. “But I don’t think it will be.”

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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