While others left Pacific Raceways grumbling and befuddled, drag racers Del Worsham and Alexis DeJoria raised their “Wally” trophies high last year after winning National Hot Rod Association titles at Northwest Nationals.
The triumph at the tricky Kent track was one of many highlights for Worsham, who went on to win the Top Fuel circuit championship – his first points crown.
And DeJoria, who had already announced she was joining the professional ranks, captured her first NHRA national event in alcohol Funny Car.
Today, for the start of the 25th Northwest Nationals, both return – but in entirely different situations.
DeJoria is one of the nitro Funny Car drivers for Kalitta Motorsports – and Worsham is her crew chief.
The timing of the switch might seem a little odd for Worsham, one of the sport’s best drivers, who finally experienced the ultimate vindication by throttling the likes of Tony Schumacher, Antron Brown and even former Al-Anabi teammate Larry Dixon with eight race victories and the points title.
But Worsham had been thinking about getting out of the cockpit for a while. Long gone are the days when he became the youngest driver to win a Funny Car event in 1991 – at age 21. He’s now 42, and family has become a higher priority. And tuning a Funny Car full time had always been the next step in his career.
“His desire for the mechanical side of things has amazed me,” said Jim Oberhofer, vice president of operations for Kalitta Motorsports and crew chief for Top Fuel driver Doug Kalitta.
“He has always been an excellent driver ... and he reminds me of the late Scott Kalitta (killed in 2008 race crash) that way – a great driver with a good understanding of the race car.
“Even when Del was with Al-Anabi, he was always over at our trailer ... and seeing how he could help with the Funny Car. He is always thinking. He just doesn’t like following anything. He likes to create his own path.”
With two years remaining on his Al-Anabi contract, Worsham left the team at the end of last season. Within days, he was hired at DeJoria’s first professional crew chief.
DeJoria, daughter of billionaire John Paul DeJoria, who co-founded such companies as Paul Mitchell hair products, Patrn Spirits Tequila and the House of Blues nightclub chain, is the biggest benefactor of the move.
She inherited a first-rate tuner, a world-class driver and one of the shrewd businessmen of the sport – all in one hire.
“He has been ... a mentor, a crew chief and a confidant,” Alexis DeJoria said. “I can tell him things, and I can trust him with everything. It is great to bounce things off him because it is tough being a rookie ... and he has been through all of this.”
DeJoria’s victory last year in Seattle was significant in that if she had not won on the national level, she said she likely would have run in both alcohol and nitro Funny Car classes this season.
Fortunately all she has to focus on is the professional class, crowded with the multicar empires of John Force and Don Schumacher.
But after a midseason surge – including racing her Patrn Tequila Chevy Camry to a Funny Car finals at Bristol, Tenn., in June, losing to veteran Ron Capps – she is a rookie of the year candidate. Sitting in 13th in the points standings, she has an outside shot of making the “Countdown” playoffs.
“It’s going to take a little bit of time to build up for the long run, and get the experience where we can compete with (the Force and Schumacher teams),” Oberhofer said. “Del has certainly accelerated that learning curve.”
Even though DeJoria, 34, has quickly become one of NHRA’s high-profile personalities, the pressure to win immediately isn’t suffocating. The long haul is what’s most important.
“We are trying to get as much information as possible. We have never been to these tracks (as a team). Del is a new crew chief ... so to have the success we have had is pretty awesome,” DeJoria said.
“But to taste a final, it is all you think about. Now I want to qualify in the top half of the field. And we want to win the damn race.”
25th NHRA NORTHWEST NATIONALS
When: Today through Sunday
Where: Pacific Raceways, Kent
Directions: From Interstate 5, take exit 142A (Auburn exit) and go 10 miles east on state Route 18. Follow signs to track
2011 event champions: Del Worsham (Top Fuel), Tim Wilkerson (Funny Car) and Jason Line (Pro Stock)
2012 points leaders: Antron Brown and Spencer Massey (1,174 points) in Top Fuel; Robert Hight (1,112) in Funny Car; and Allen Johnson (1,234) in Pro Stock
Skinny: The demanding and sometimes agonizing “western swing” (Denver; Sonoma, Calif.; and Seattle) hits its final leg this week – with history on the line. Brown and Johnson have a chance to become the first duo to sweep the three-race stretch. And Brown, who accomplished this feat in 2009, also could become the first NHRA driver to sweep it twice. Five of the seven racers who have won all the “western swing” stops in one season hail from Top Fuel. ... Wilkerson has his own bit of history in mind this week – becoming the first driver to win at this event in four consecutive seasons. But since last year’s triumph over Jack Beckman in Funny Car, Wilkerson has only been back to the finals once – at Norwalk, Ohio, in early July, losing to Mike Neff. ... Worsham retired at the end of last season, and will not be defending this week. He is now the crew chief for Funny Car rookie Alexis DeJoria. ... Funny Car’s John Force still has the most career professional wins at Pacific Raceways (seven).
Schedule: Today – Sportsman qualifying starts at 9:15 a.m., with professional qualifying at 2 p.m. and 4:30 p.m.; Saturday – Sportsman qualifying starts at 9:15 a.m., with pro qualifying at noon and 3 p.m.; Sunday – Eliminations start at 11 a.m.
Tickets: Three-day passes are $118 for general admission, $144 for reserved seating. Single-day tickets are $41-$46 for today, $49-$61 Saturday and $49-$62 Sunday (and junior tickets range from $10-$22).
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