The NHRA Auto Club Finals

May 10th, 2011

The final race of the season, fittingly held not far from the movie capital of the world, had all of the elements of a great Hollywood script.

Set up:  All four of the Pro plus Top Alcohol Dragster and Funny Cars and a couple of the Sportsman categories had yet to be decided prior to this race.

Conflict: Could John Force, down but still clinging to the ropes, rally to knock out his powerful young adversary, Matt Hagen, and win another World Championship?

Could Larry Dixon clinch his third championship? Would the reigning “King of Top Fuel,” Tony Schumacher, stage some last minute heroics as he did in 2006 against Doug Kalitta and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat?

It wasn’t until the last gasp of the season that Antron Brown was able to savor a victory. Brown’s final round opponent was holeshot ace Shawn Langdon.

Could LE Tonglet, that “kid” in Pro Stock Bike, racing with much more heart than money, continue his late season charge and come from behind to defeat Andrew Hine’s highly funded H-D juggernaut? And on a lesser note, could Greg Anderson, who was beset with all sorts of woes throughout the year, including Ken Black’s stroke, qualify and take the Pro Stock title or would some sick twist of fate deprive him of his rightful crown?

Resolution: Hagen looked to have a lock on the Funny Car championship with a two-round lead over Force. In the history of this category only one driver, Shirl Greer, had ever overcome such an obstacle to win the championship, and that was more than 35 years ago.

John Force closed out his year on a winning note, defeating Jeff Arend for his sixth victory of the season.

Hagen lost control of his destiny following round one against Bob Tasca III.  He engaged in what some might say was an ill-advised staging duel with the Ford pilot. Matt left first and led most of the race until just into the lights, when his engine expired, and watched Tasca blast by for the win. Did that extra time at the line have anything to do with his motor problems? Those nitro engines have very short fuses.

Now, it was up to Force, who needed two round wins. He took out old teammate Gary Densham in the first round. Next, he faced Brainerd winner Bob Bode. Bob showed he’d be no pushover by defeating Matt Hagen’s Schumacher Racing teammate Jack Beckman on a holeshot in his first match-up.  Force met the challenge, as he’d done 14 times prior, defeating Bode and securing his 15th world championship.  But John still had work to do.  He defeated Melanie Troxel in the semis and faced off against Connie Kalitta’s entry, Jeff Arend, in the finals. The DHL driver delivered defeat to Paul Lee, Ashley Force-Hood and Bob Tasca III on his route to face Force. He left on the newly crowned champ, but in a close encounter, Force prevailed.

“Top Fuel Tony” Schumacher looked to be setting the stage for yet another last second miracle. He qualified #1 with a run strong enough to serve as a national record back up.

Would Dixon and Team Johnson fold under pressure? The dramatic conclusion came quickly Sunday. In round one, Larry made fast work of Mike Strausburg, thus dethroning The King and clinching yet another championship for him and Johnson.

Now, could Dixon like Force score a double?  Shawn Langdon stole that dream away in the semis by whipping yet another holeshot on the newly crowned champ.

Langdon went on to meet Antron Brown for the race championship.  Enroute to the finals, Brown added more pain to Schumacher by defeating him in the second round. In a secondary plot line, Antron, a leading man in 2009, hadn’t won a single event this year, in spite of appearing in six final rounds. And Langdon, who’d been showing signs of brilliance all year, had no wins. At the end, both had nearly identical reaction times, but Shawn wisped the tires and Antron took the victory.

LE Tonglet roared into Pomona on the heels of four wins in five finals, including Indy, and yet was two rounds behind Andrew Hines—his chances looked bleak. It was Hines’ championship to lose. Like Hagen, he faltered in the first round, red-lighting against Steve Johnson. Now, could that boy from the bayous cash in? He defeated Matt Guidera, and then for the Golden Wally he faced Hines’ nemesis, Steve Smith. In little more than six seconds later he snagged that very special Wally.

Could LE get a second scoop on his ice cream cone? Eddie Krawiec deprived him of that treat; actually, he did it to himself. In the semis, he threw away a better elapsed time, fouling out against Eddie. Yet another red light, this time by 2009 world champ Hector Arana, handed Krawiec the Finals win.

The Pro Stock drama was not nearly as exciting compared to the rest. All Greg Anderson needed to do was qualify and that he did, netting him yet another championship, but it was all hair on his lollypop after that.

A sweet subplot developed next. Jeg Coughlin Jr., in what appears to be the end to his pro career, dumped Anderson in the first round on his way to the finals. On the other side rookie Shane Grey parlayed a couple of holeshots, including one on gunslinger Dave Connolly, to go up against Jeggy in the final. Gray nailed the tree and held on for the win, his first pro victory. We may have witnessed a changing of the guard.

We laughed, we cried—the Auto Club Finals was the feel-good hit of the year.

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