By the Camping World Drag Racing Series finale last Nov. 1 at Las Vegas, everybody was ready to see a taxing 2020 go away. Absolutely nothing was settled or secure for 2021. But for Antron Brown, the final 3.759 seconds of the entire chaotic campaign signaled a triumph beyond a triumph.
That was the Top Fuel ace’s elapsed time in the final round of eliminations. He defeated Steve Torrence, the racer who earlier in the day had joined him in the three-time-champions club. That victory was about far more than getting the last word against his close friend on the last day of the schedule.
It broke a 42-race drought for Brown and put the exclamation point on his Brian Corradi- and Mark Oswald-led team’s demanding comeback. It was his first victory since August 2018, at Seattle (a victory which itself had ended a one-year winless streak). Moreover, it put Brown on the brink of becoming the third most successful Top Fuel driver in NHRA history as this weekend’s Gatornationals at Gainesville, Fla., open the 2021 season.
Brown has the chance at Gainesville to do more than score back-to-back victories for the first time since October 2016 (at Reading, Pa., and Dallas). His next victory will tie him with five-time Top Fuel champion Joe Amato at 52.
So the Matco Tools/Toyota/Sirius XM Dragster driver has a lot riding on this curious season-opener, which traditionally is third on the schedule and is billed as “the East Coast opener.”
That Las Vegas victory, Brown said, “was just getting the monkey off our back. It just felt like no matter what we did or how hard we worked, we kept seeing it getting closer, but we just couldn’t get to that final stage. By breaking through, we showed that we got back to the form that we used to be at. We know what we have to do in the future to work even harder and keeping pushing forward. We knew what we were looking for that entire time. We wanted it to come quicker in 2020, but it ended the season on the right note.”
He said it “affected us in different ways. It definitely motivated us and gave us something to look forward to in the upcoming 2021 season. It made us feel a lot better going into the offseason to put the work in. We’re looking forward to just going out there and executing – starting off the year where we finished off last year and just be very competitive and try to qualify in the top three each race. We’re looking forward in trying to bring wins home.”
Brown called the Gatornationals “always one of our elite races . . . our Daytona of drag racing.” A victory there, he said, “would be huge just to be mentioned in the same sentence with Joe Amato.” As a child, Brown tagged along with his dad and uncle at the races, most notably to Englishtown, N.J., near his hometown of Chesterfield, and there he used to play with cars under the grandstands and pretend one was the dragster of Amato, the sport’s legend from Eastern Pennsylvania.
“He was always a huge hero of mine. I remember growing up and he had the motto ‘Hang on, Sloopy, because here comes Joe.’ I remember him winning those back-to-back championships and being a dominant force in drag racing. He’s really a true legend of our sport. Just to be mentioned alongside of him is a great honor for me,” Brown said.
“Just to be on that list period, knowing where I’ve come from and where I’m at now. The way we fought through all the adversity as a team and went on to pull off that win at the end of last year feels like a real accomplishment,” he said. “You have to go through things like that to be amongst those great. They went through a lot of turmoil in their time, and I guess when you get that many wins, you’re going to go through some yourself. So I’m fortunate even to be mentioned with Joe, let alone to be able to come close to tying him.”
Brown has earned his 51 Top Fuel trophies since 2008, after winning 16 times in the Pro Stock Motorcycle class. He’s the only racer to make the switch from bikes to a 11,000-horsepower, 333-plus-mph dragster.
“(It) would be huge just to be mentioned in the same sentence with Joe Amato.”
Plenty of racers are eager to spoil Brown’s revival. They include Torrence, who’s gunning for a fourth consecutive title; 2017 champion Brittany Force, who proved she’s a contender again after a year’s absence with a best pass of 3.679 seconds at the preseason test session last weekend; and Mike Salinas, who finished seventh then sat out 2020 but roared back with a second-quickest 3.693-second E.T. (elapsed time) at the PRO Winter Warm-up at Jupiter, Fla.
Doug Kalitta, who certainly is weary of being labeled “the most successful driver without a title,” is eager to shake his six series runner-up finishes. The class also has at least three first-timers: Krista Baldwin, Mike Bucher, and Josh Hart.
Brown said he’s continuing to work toward taking Antron Brown Motorsports to independence but that the pandemic definitely has kept him under the Don Schumacher Racing umbrella for another year,
“COVID has slowed down the process. Covid has slowed down the entire world. It’s slowed us down, but it hasn’t stopped me from working toward my end goal, which is to have ownership one day,” he said. “When that time will be? Only the future knows. We’re really pressing forward, and, hopefully, we can reach that level sooner rather than later. But this year we’re going to be with DSR again, with Don at the helm of the ship. We’re just looking forward to pushing into 2021 and bringing home a championship for everybody – for Matco Tools, Toyota, SiriusXM, Global Electronic Technology, for Hangsterfers and all of our great sponsors that we have with us.”
In the Funny Car category, the Force team is returning for the first time since COVID-19 interrupted the 2020 season one year ago. Sixteen-time champion John Force and teammate/company president Robert Hight, the three-timer who never got much of a chance to enjoy his reign on the track in 2020, posted the top two elapsed times at preseason testing. Force led with a 3.860-second pass, and Hight was just six-thousandths of a second slower. They were the only ones coaxing a 3.86 from their cars, although current and three-time champ Matt Hagan was on their heels at 3.880 in his Don Schumacher Racing entry.
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