(Full photo coverage in galleries at the end of the article)
National Hot Rod Association drag racing is a straight-line sport but annually completes a harmonious circle by wrapping up the season at the same venue where it commenced, the historic Auto Club Raceway on the LA County Fairgrounds more commonly referred to simply as Pomona. A fitting location as the California southland is the birthplace of organized drag racing and the home of the NHRA Museum, a can’t miss stop while attending the four-day event.
In each of the premiere categories of Top Fuel and Funny Car, thirty-six different drivers scored points towards the championship with only driver Terry Haddock having competed in both types of machines. In Top Fuel, the championship battle was for second place with Clay Millican, Tony Schumacher and 2018 Factory Stock Champion Leah Pritchett each holding a mathematical chance to secure a spot. The number one position had been determined at the penultimate event in Las Vegas by Steve Torrence and the Capco Contractors team. Interest was still at a premium as everyone was wondering if the Texas-based team would accomplish an unprecedented sweep of the Countdown races.
Leah in the Don Schumacher owned MOPAR sponsored dragster dominated qualifying holding the top spot in each of the four sessions with a 3.631 elapsed time at over 332 MPH. Torrence earned the second qualifying spot with Millican forth and Tony Schumacher just making the top half of the ladder in eighth. On race day, Leah was in the second pair out in round one and surprisingly overpowered the track ending her day. Millican fell to Blake Alexander in round two, leaving Schumacher in position to secure the number two championship position. Torrence and Schumacher would meet in the final round and both desperately wanted to win the event as Schumacher’s eighteen-year sponsorship from the U.S. Army was at an end and Torrance had the countdown sweep within reach. As the sun began to set and the teams rolled their machines into position the anticipation was at a zenith. Schumacher ran a terrific 3.700 elapse time but Torrence accomplished a holeshot leave and a 3.702 E.T to win the race. Steve and the CAPCO Contractor’s team had won the championship, the race and every round of the countdown accomplishing something that may never be duplicated; to say they were a happy group at the trophy presentation would be an enormous understatement.
In Funny Car the championship was still to be determined as J.R. Todd arrived fresh off a win at Vegas and holding a seventy-four-point advantage over second spot Robert Hight. Ron Capps was third with a difficult but not impossible deficit of one hundred and sixty-five points. At this event points earned are worth 1.5 times the norm. The Capps Napa Auto Parts team could come from behind if the Kallita car of Todd suffered any early round missteps.
Tommy Johnson Jr. in the Make A Wish sponsored funny car held the top qualifying elapsed time through session three with the championship contenders languishing in mid-pack. After Q1 Hight and Capps were not even in the field but in the fourth session Capps and crew chief Rahn Tobler found the groove and stole the number one spot with a 3.84 elapsed time. Todd qualified fourth and Robert Hight fifth which meant if both survived round one, they would meet in a dramatic round two showdown. The drama ended early as the Auto Club of Southern California sponsored car with Hight at the controls smoked the tires hard in the opening round and lost, effectively ending the chase for the title and relieving J.R. Todd of any burdens other than trying to win the event. In the quarterfinals, it was Todd defeating Ron Capps and Tommy Johnson Jr. taking out Jack Beckman. The final round sentimental favorite had to be J.R. in the Connie and Scott Kallita DHL sponsored Toyota. J.R. had no trouble rising to the occasion recording a 3.87 E.T while winning his sixth event of the season, third event in the Countdowns, and the Funny Car Championship.
With the 2018 points chase completed, the movers and shakers in the nitro-fueled categories have a relaxing awards banquet to attend then all thoughts turn towards the 2019 season and another chance to determine who will be the best of the best. As in any competition, some will succeed, others will not but each will have had the same opportunity to prove their skill and determination on a national stage…just the way Wally Parks believed it should be.