NHRA President Glen Cromwell really didn’t have a big picture or blueprint once coronavirus barged in by mid-March. Instead, he had a kaleidoscope. The slightest twist of circumstance gave his potential season a constantly changing pattern.
Somehow he and his drastically pared-down staff navigated the season, got lucky with an abrupt series-sponsor change at the start of its title stretch, and crowned champions in history-making fashion.
Here are the NHRA’s top 10 stories for a wild 2020:
With 49 career wins, Doug Kalitta continued his dubious distinction of being the NHRA’s most successful driver without a championship.
The Top Fuel veteran led the 2020 standings through the first six of 11 races and never fell below second place as he compiled a 21-9 race-day record and won two of his four final-round appearances. Despite his stellar performance, he finished second for the fifth time. This time he was 133 points off Torrence’s; last year he missed his chance by a mere three points.
Even Torrence said, “I’m a big Doug Kalitta fan. The amount of time that he’s spent out here, to come up short, not just one time, but so many times, it’s a mixed emotion for me. I’m happy for my team and myself, but I was saddened for Doug and that whole Mac Tools team. They fought so hard. They had a great car.”
The NHRA did not have a Countdown to the Championship for the first time in 12 years. It was the right decision, certainly, but it also proved the NHRA doesn’t need one.
That system whittled the title-eligible fields in each pro class to the top 10 in the standings following the U.S. Nationals, with a six-race runoff determining the champions. The purpose was to drum up excitement in the form of ticket sales and media coverage. No evidence exists that the Countdown yielded either of those results. Besides, the title chases this year had plenty of drama, down to the final day of the season.
Racers seemed to enjoy a return to how it used to be before 2007, with no Countdown and no points-and-a-half manipulation.
The NHRA completed 11 races. That’s less than half of the original 24-race schedule, but it’s more than anyone might have imagined, given the ever-shifting state and local restrictions. What’s more, it pulled off the feat in front of live audiences, which is something most sports were unable to do at every event.
The biggest loser was Bruton Smith and his Speedway Motorsports Inc., which contracts for six NHRA events each year (at Charlotte, Las Vegas, Sonoma, and Bristol) but was able to host just one: the Finals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in November.
Kudos to the State of Indiana and Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis, which took on four races altogether, three in addition to the U.S. Nationals.
John Force and his four-car team did not return when racing resumed in July. Although he vowed he would be back when the NHRA got the green light to race following the COVID-19 break, his entire organization sat out the remainder of the season.
That meant Funny Car champion Robert Hight had no chance to defend his title, 2019 Rookie of the Year Austin Prock’s development in Top Fuel was on ice, Brittany Force’s dragster wasn’t in the mix, and the boss himself wasn’t able to try to extend his NHRA-record victory total past 151 or series-title count to 17.
Whether slashed purses, the uncertainty of the schedule, sponsorship issues or all or a combination of those reasons drove Force’s decision, it’s clear his decision-making process was not for sharing. The most-talkative drag racer has remained mum. However, he has told NHRA officials he is planning to return in 2021.
Eight-time Top Fuel champion and class victories leader Tony Schumacher was AWOL all last season and for the first two pre-pandemic races after the U.S. Army deserted its 19-year agreement with his Top Fuel team.
In July, he came back for the first two Indianapolis races but wasn’t a factor at either. With a different sponsor (Sandvik Coromant), he found a six-race agreement; won the penultimate race, at Houston, for his 85th triumph; and finished ninth in the standings.
Schumacher is still is looking for a 2021 marketing partner.
The NHRA continued to lead all motorsports in diversity. While Erica Enders in Pro Stock is the only pro female to win a championship in 2020, Top Alcohol Dragster’s Megan Meyer Lingner won her second straight championship as NHRA women racers (in pro and sportsman levels combined) passed the 300-victory mark. Deb DiGenova (Super Gas) earned No. 300 Oct. 1 at Virginia Motorsports Park, and Julie Nataas (Top Alcohol Dragster) started on the next 100.
Three women won on the final day of the season – Enders, Angie Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle), and Meyer Lingner – to push the total to 304. Women competed in all categories this year, except Pro Mod (which has had women competitors in the past). Black, Hispanic, and Middle Eastern racers competed in the pro ranks, as well.
The NHRA filed a lawsuit against longtime series sponsor Coca-Cola in September for breach of contract.
The beverage giant, which has floated several of its lesser-known brands through NHRA entitlement since 2002, withheld its mid-year installment and informed the NHRA it no longer would serve as the series sponsor. It blamed the pandemic, but the NHRA’s lawsuit petition revealed that Coca-Cola had tried to break the contract as early as September 2019.
The NHRA reduced purses when it returned to action in July and made even deeper cuts following the U.S. Nationals Labor Day classic. Luckily for the NHRA, racers remained loyal, but they want to see payouts return to pre-pandemic levels.
Marcus Lemonis and his Camping World brand immediately jumped in to fill the series-sponsorship void Coca-Cola left.
After a remarkable public exchange through social media in late September, entrepreneur, philanthropist, and TV personality Lemonis struck a multiyear deal with the NHRA.
Erica Enders earned her fourth NHRA Pro Stock championship in seven seasons.
The Elite Performance racer became the most decorated woman in the series, surpassing the trailblazers she called her heroes: Top Fuel’s Shirley Muldowney and Pro Stock Motorcycle’s Angelle Sampey, who have three titles each.
The feisty Texan and 40-time winner (including 32 in the past four seasons) skipped the season opener at Pomona, Calif., but it didn’t make much of a difference.
He won four times in seven final rounds in his 10 appearances and built a 29-6 eliminations record to earn his third consecutive championship. The only other drivers to capture three consecutive title in Top Fuel are Joe Amato (1990-1992) and Tony Schumacher (2004-2009).
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