Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, Calif., has barely settled down for its long winter's nap, but already a clatter has arisen with several National Hot Rod Association teams.
Champion drivers and tuners are playing musical chairs in the Funny Car class, one Top Fuel title contender is out of action in a situation that is as touchy as nitromethane, two Pro Stock champions have combined for a monster team and a scramble to fill in the blanks has begun at several top organizations.
The latest postseason news is a flurry of Funny Car changes at Kalitta Motorsports, including 2011 Top Fuel champion and longtime Funny Car competitor Del Worsham replacing Jeff Arend in the DHL Toyota Camry. Worsham spent the 2012 season as crew chief for Funny Car rookie-of-the-year contender Alexis DeJoria.
Among the moves are adding Tommy DeLago and Glen Huszar to tune DeJoria's Tequila Patrón Camry. The two former Don Schumacher Racing crew chiefs helped Matt Hagan earn the 2011 Funny Car championship and a runner-up finish to John Force the year before.
DSR has not named replacements for DeLago and Huszar, but it has plenty of talented and unheralded crew chief material, including John Collins and Terry Snyder, it can elevate.
Another Funny Car shake-up came from the Cruz Pedregon organization. Although the two-time Funny Car champion finished fourth in the standings and capped the season by winning the Nov. 11 Auto Club Finals for his 30th career victory, he dumped renowned tuner Lee Beard on Monday.
Both Pedregon and Beard have intense personalities and both joked about their reuniting for the first time since 1992, when Beard was team manager for Larry Minor's 1992 McDonald's team that brought Pedregon is first Funny Car title. It was a match made in a hockey scrum, but the two seemed to balance their personalities throughout his year.
But while Pedregon gave the standard "We just decided to go in a different direction with the team -- I wish Lee all of the best" remark, Beard wasn't mincing words.
"The only thing I can tell you about Cruz is his ego is way bigger than his talent," Beard said after the surprise sacking.
Pedregon said, "We are moving on and looking forward to the off-season, testing in January, and looking forward to building on our fourth-place finish. We are excited. We are going to move some guys around that I felt were the best fit for the team."
Top Fuel's Spencer Massey is out at DSR amid scandal-fueled rumors, and the team is mum about the reason he was fired.
Confidential, off-the-record consensus is that it has nothing to do with FRAM/Prestone abandoning its sponsorship of the No. 3-finishing team. We know more, but with no one willing to speak on the record, truth and consequences will have to remain private.
Massey, despite repeated efforts from several journalists to reach out to him, has refused to cooperate with the media. Although he promised to grant an interview to Bobby Bennett, publisher of Competition Plus, once DSR issued a press release, Massey simply e-mailed Bennett this statement: "I am grateful to have driven for such a great organization. Don Schumacher has the best of the best and it showed with our team the past few years. Todd, Phil and my entire crew gave me such a great race car. It was the best. I hope to find sponsorship so I can get back to racing in the 2013 Mello Yello Drag Racing circuit."
Whether it was H.R.-safe, P.C.-style public relations or a none-of-your-business nose-thumbing, DSR Vice-President Mike Lewis's response to a fair and professional inquiry about Massey's dismissal was a terse, rock-in-a-snowball "Hi Susan. I hope you had a great Thanksgiving and I wish you the best. Thanks."
Three-time Top Fuel champion Larry Dixon's name already has surfaced among rumor-insatiable drag-racing fans as a candidate for the seat of the Todd Okuhara/Phil Shuler-tuned dragster. Team owner Schumacher had promised mid-season he would field the dragster in 2013. Presumably with enough sponsorship money available, he will do that.
Dixon said Monday he has spoken with Schumacher but suggested that no one should expect an immediate Dixon-DSR agreement. Other drivers, including already-in-house Tommy Johnson Jr. and Cory McClenathan (who still has a ride with Australian business mogul Santo Rapisarda) are in the non-DSR-generated rumor mill, along with rising Pro Modified star Leah Pruett.
Said Dixon, "I spoke with Don earlier this year, and he made it clear that if sponsorship was brought, I would be in a position to explore options there (and elsewhere for that matter). Since then, I have been working on that. Until I have money, no sense wasting their time."
He said his quest for marketing partners continues, whether he latches on with an established team or starts his own.
"I am pretty far along with two companies on primary funding for '13, but [I'm] still not done yet. Hopefully in the next week or two. Hopefully," Dixon said, adding that he is "reviewing options at the moment."
At Kalitta Motorsports, Worsham, 42, brings a wealth of experience as the No. 8 driver on the NHRA's all-time Funny Car victories list at 25. He and his dad Chuck Worsham were Funny Car fixtures from 1991-2008 with their family-owned operation.
"I'm ready to get back in the seat," Worsham said. "It's only been a year, so maybe it won't take long to knock the rust off."
But it has been two seasons since he drove a Funny Car. Just the same, he said, "We see no reason why the DHL Toyota Camry won't be very competitive from the time we unload" at the season-opening Winternationals that kicks off the Mello Yello Drag Racing era Valentines' Day.
Even Arend, who drove for the Worshams in 2006 and said even after his dismissal that he considers Del Worsham and friend and "looks up to" him, said he expects the car to run just as well as it did for him and maybe better following late-season tweaking.
Worsham said, "This really continues to be a dream come true for me and my family. Connie and everyone at Kalitta Motorsports have been our friends for years, and to be able to continue racing with them is truly an honor. [The late] Scott [Kalitta] and I were good friends, and I'm humbled to be taking over the controls of his race car. The DHL Funny Car will always be Scott's car."
Nicky Boninfante and Jon Oberhofer will continue as co-crew chiefs for the DHL Funny Car.
On the Tequila Patrón side of the pit, DeLago said, "Glen [Huszar] and I are very excited about the opportunity of coming back to Kalitta Motorsports. Working for Connie is the best job in drag racing. He's a pioneer in the sport and a great guy to work for. He's always more than willing to try new things, and that's one of the things I admire most about him.
"Our goal for the 2013 season is not to change what was already put into place on the Patrón Funny Car, but be an addition and keep improving on what Del and the team have implemented this past year," he said. "And we look forward to being a part of a prominent and competitive team for years to come."
Team owner Connie Kalitta said he and Jim Oberhofer, who doubles as Kalitta Motorsports Vice-President of Operations and crew chief for Doug Kalitta's Mac Tools Dragster, orchestrated the changes.
"We're excited to have assembled this group to take our Funny Car program to the next level," Connie Kalitta said. "Jim and I have been talking about what to do to put our best foot forward for some time, and when these opportunities arose, I told him to make it happen. Everyone in our organization is very eager to get back out on the track again in 2013 and win races."
In the Pro Stock class, four-time champion Jeg Coughlin Jr. (left in the above photo) has become a teammate to newly crowned champion Allen Johnson with their Mopar-backed Dodge Avengers. Roy Johnson will continue to prepare the Hemi motors from his J&J Racing shop, and he'll continue to supply power for Mountain View Tire Avenger driver Vincent Nobile.
Coughlin said, "Allen and I were teammates this year under the Mopar umbrella, so it was a very natural progression to become actual teammates moving forward. Allen and his father Roy, along with the rest of the guys at J&J Racing, really put on a show this year and proved to everyone that Mopar can compete with and triumph against the best of the best in one of the toughest categories in racing. We're very excited about joining with them."
Johnson gave Mopar its first Pro Stock title since Darrell Alderman did it in 1994. And he did it with a class-best seven victories in 11 final rounds and a class-leading 10 No. 1 qualifying positions. Coughlin has four Pro Stock championships and one in sportsman-level Super Gas. He has 53 national-event victories.
The Mello Yello Drag Racing Series kicks off the 2013 season with the Feb. 14-17 Winternationals at Pomona, Calif.
In other drag racing news, Fight Hard MMA announced Tuesday it has bought the American Drag Racing League (ADRL) from Qatar's Sheikh Khalid Al-Thani. Fight Hard MMA President Jessica Nowling is the wife of ADRL co-founder and former president Kenny Nowling.