Sports

Larry Dixon returns to the top ranks of Top Fuel

When one of the stars of the National Hot Rod Association leaves the sport — it usually has to do with the lack of sponsorship dollars — the loss is felt throughout professional drag racing.

It would be as if one of the “Super Friends” left the Justice League of America.

And in the NHRA, Larry Dixon isn’t your normal Green Lantern or The Flash. He is one of the giants, a Batman or Superman.

Dixon is a three-time Top Fuel world points champion. His 62 NHRA national event victories rank No. 7 all-time. His 668 elimination-round wins rank No. 5. And he holds the speed record for all professional classes: 332.51 mph.

Yet for the past three seasons before 2015, he was a mere footnote as a part-time driver for low-budget teams. He raced in 21 NHRA events, not once reaching the finals.

But fortunes can rise as quickly as they fall in drag racing. Dixon was snatched up as the No. 1 driver by car owner Bob Vandergriff Jr., who paired him with Top Fuel newcomer Dave Connolly in a two-car team.

With five runner-up finishes, Dixon, 48, is back in his usual position — near the Top Fuel points lead. He is third in the class behind leader Tony Schumacher.

“Being back full time, first and foremost, it makes me thankful,” said Dixon, a California native who lives in Avon, Indiana.

“I feel fortunate to have another shot at this. Bob has given me great equipment and a great team, and we get to go out there and race. And we are keeping (other racers) honest. We have not won yet, but we are a team that can win.”

It wasn’t that long ago — 2010 — when Dixon was the king of the class. He won 12 times in 2010 en route to capturing the Top Fuel points crown for the Qatar/Al-Anabi Racing team.

Two years later, he was out of a driving job. And he wasn’t bitter about it.

“I took an opposite spin on it,” Dixon said. “I spent as much time with my family as I could. I mean, I tried to be out there to hustle business, whether it was to drive or bring funding to a team, too. But I did a lot of family stuff I would not have done if I was still racing on tour.”

What did he do?

For starters, he became a soccer dad for his preteen daughter, Alanna.

“She did travel soccer … and I got to do things that civilians got to do,” he said with a chuckle.

And he got to follow his oldest son, Donovan, who is entering high school in the fall, and plans on playing basketball.

At the end of last season, Vandergriff signed Dixon as a part-time racer. And when Vandergriff stepped away from driving to become a full-time owner, Dixon became his top racer in Top Fuel.

Dixon is also serving in a different role: mentor. Connolly, who won 23 national events in Pro Stock — including three last season — jumped over to the nitro-fueled class.

“A lot of the things you have to learn from the seat of your pants,” said Dixon, who spent 14 seasons driving for Don Prudhomme Racing. “But the things I talk to Dave about, it all brings me back to my rookie year (in 1995).

“If I can help him, it helps our team. And the more good runs we both make, the better prepared we are going to be.”

Dixon has been close to ending his 88-race winless streak. He reached the finals in Las Vegas as the 15th seed, but lost to Richie Crampton, who also beat him for event titles in Topeka, Kansas, and Bristol, Tennessee.

Dixon has lost to Schumacher twice in the finals — in Epping, New Hampshire, and Chicago.

Now Dixon returns to Kent for the Northwest Nationals, which was one of the earliest national events he attended as a youth to work for his father, Larry Sr., who also competed in Top Fuel.

Dixon won the Northwest Nationals in 2003 over Doug Kalitta.

“I’ve got a lot of great memories being up there with dad, working on ‘Snake’s’ (Prudhomme’s) Funny Car when we set the national record. I love the place,” Dixon said. “(Wins) will come. … The way the season is going, I would be disappointed if we did not win. Given where we are in the points, we are doing something right.”

NATIONAL HOT ROAD ASSOCIATION

What: 28th annual NHRA Northwest Nationals.

When: Friday-Sunday

Where: Pacific Raceways, Kent.

Schedule: Friday — Sportsman qualifying starts at 9:15 a.m., with pro qualifying sessions at 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. Saturday — Sportsman elimination rounds start at 9:15 a.m., with pro qualifying sessions at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. Sunday — First round of pro elimination rounds start at 11 a.m.

Defending event champions: Top Fuel — Doug Kalitta. Funny Car — John Force. Pro Stock — Jason Line.

2015 points leaders: Top Fuel — Tony Schumacher (1,206 points). Funny Car — Matt Hagan (1,142). Pro Stock — Greg Anderson (1,263).

Skinny: The Seattle area is very much “The Sarge’s” country in drag racing. Schumacher has won four times at Pacific Raceways, one short of Joe Amato’s record for Top Fuel victories. And every time he lines up here, he is the favorite. Last year, he was the top qualifier, but was upended by teammate Antron Brown in the semifinals. … Larry Dixon holds the national speed record in Top Fuel (332.51 mph in June) and is aiming for his first win since 2011. He has made it to five finals this season.

The legend of Force continues to grow. He won his eighth Northwest Nationals title in Funny Car last season by ending Gary Densham’s improbable run. But Force will try to end Jack Beckman’s bid for a “western swing” sweep this weekend. Beckman won in Denver, and last week in Sonoma, California — and has five wins in 2015. If Beckman can pull it off, he would become the first Funny Car racer since Force in 1994 to do it.

Never count out the Summit Racing team of Line and Anderson in Pro Stock. Line won for the third time in Kent by ousting Anderson in the finals last season. Anderson also has three victories at Pacific Raceways. No other active driver has one.

Tickets: Daily admission is $15-$46 on Friday, $22-$60 on Saturday and Sunday. Weekend passes are from $118-$144.

Website: nhra.com

todd.milles@thenewstribune.com

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