“It's not just Dixon,” says Brandon Bernstein, who came within one round of winning the championship in 2007, the first year of the Countdown format. “Look at the whole Don Schumacher Racing team, especially now that they have Spencer Massey over there [replacing 20-year veteran Cory Mac in the FRAM car]. He's a leaver; he'll win them some races. Our team has a good shot at the championship, too. We just need to be more consistent. Going out in the first round, then going to the final the next time out…you can't win a championship that way. You have to be in the semifinals or the finals every weekend.”
Dixon reached the semis about three-quarters of the time last year and lost in the nerve-racking first round of eliminations just twice. Schumacher went 22-1 in the opening rounds but probably lost the title with his 10 second-round losses, including costly defeats in that round at half of the six Countdown events.
“I had the second-best run of the first round a lot of times, but in round two, I'd be up against the guy with low e.t., and he'd have lane choice and beat me by a few thousandths,” says Schumacher, who eked out the championship over Dixon by two points in 2009, the first year of the Al-Anabi team. “Dixon won all the close ones last year. I've done that before, and it doesn't last forever. We really don't have to change what we've been doing too much. We couldn't have tried any harder or have made better calls. We hauled ass and kept it all together to the end, but didn't get the kind of breaks you need. I lost the ones that could have gone either way, and Larry's team won them. Just look at the final at Reading – their timing was impeccable.”
So was Dixon. He smoked the tires in the Houston, Las Vegas, and Reading finals and had the good luck to do so right when his opponents – Brown in Houston, McClenathan in Las Vegas, and McClenathan again in Reading – happened to lose traction, too. But Dixon was the one who turned eminently losable matches into wins, masterfully backpedaling the throttle for the best possible e.t. all three times.
Off the starting line, Dixon was solid, never red-lighting in 73 rounds of competition and winning and losing a few on holeshots. “I'm still not where I want to be on my reaction times,” he says. “I cost us three rounds this year. I was fourth in reaction-time average [.076sec], but I only left first 44 percent of the time because everybody's always firing their best shot every time they race this car. I get it. But it's hard to drive like you have nothing to lose, because you do. This is the best car out there. You know you have something and you want to take care of it, and it does change things a little bit.”
Facing the pressure of driving the car to beat every weekend, Dixon came through for a career-high 62 round-wins, and there's no reason to think Al-Anabi's combination is going to slow down in 2011. “It's a constant evolution,” he says. “The setup we started with in 2009 is long gone; the chassis is about the only thing left. The motor, the clutch, the supercharger…they all evolve, constantly. It's not like you have a whole slew of parts; it's each part getting rubbed on all the time.”
“It's all in the clutch, always has been,” says Bernstein, son of former Top Fuel and Funny Car world champion Kenny Bernstein. “A lot of guys talk about heads, blowers, every other part of the car, but, bottom line, how good your car runs all comes down to what you do inside that bellhousing, how you apply the clutch. The team that does that the best is going to win this championship, and it could be us.”
Nobody's betting against Dixon, but the 2011 Top Fuel champion could be one of many different people. “Who knows who it will be?” says Schumacher. “But I can guarantee you one thing: we'll be in the battle. Over the years, it's come down to me and Scelzi, me and Kalitta, me and ‘Hot Rod' Fuller, me and Dixon. There've been a lot of people, but we're always in it to the end, and we're going to be in it again this year.”
For Schumacher and Dixon, who have won every championship and every U.S. Nationals title for the past nine years, as with the New York Yankees in baseball or the Los Angeles Lakers in basketball, anything less than winning it all doesn't cut it anymore. “Once you've won a championship, that's where you set your standards,” Dixon says. “At this point, it's a championship or nothing.”
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, check out the February 2011 issue of RACER magazine. CLICK HERE to subscribe.