How do you stop Larry Dixon and the Al-Anabi/Alan Johnson Racing team? If other Top Fuel teams knew, Dixon wouldn't have won more than half of the races last year, but as the 2011 NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing season looms, some vanquished rivals see his grasp on the class loosening.
“They just had one of those years,” says Tony Schumacher, who's had a few of “those” years himself. “Alan Johnson's a great crew chief and Dixon did a hell of a job – that's undisputed – but you have to get the breaks, and they got excellent breaks right when they really needed them.”
Outscoring everyone in both the regular season and the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs, Dixon compiled the best final-round record in drag racing history (12-0). Schumacher, who, in 2008, enjoyed the only better season in Top Fuel history (15 wins, 18 finals), won six races this year and Cory McClenathan three. Perennial contenders Doug Kalitta and Antron Brown each won one. Nobody else won any.
“I always said I wanted to drive until I was 50, but if I were turning 50 this year, would I really give all this up?” asks Dixon, 44. “Kinda doubt it. This is what people dream about all their lives. Last year was a hundred-year-storm kind of a season.”
So what will Schumacher, dethroned last year after a six-year reign atop the NHRA standings, do differently to wrest that championship back? “Nothing,” says The Sarge. “They didn't run faster than we did last year, so it's not like I'm afraid to race them. I look forward to it. I think a lot of different people can win it this year – not just me and Dixon.”
Brown concurs. “The fields are getting closer, and a whole bunch of different people are going to win this year,” he predicts. “It's going to be a free-for-all. I think a lot of people lost to Al-Anabi when they could have beat them because they screwed up right when Dixon smoked the tires. People let them dictate how they race. It's that persona the team has, like you're just not going to beat them.”
Is Dixon in other drivers' heads, like Jimmie Johnson is said to be in NASCAR drivers' heads? Brown thinks so. “You have to race him like you race every other competitor, but people don't,” he says. “They go up there against Dixon and drop their pants. They get all wicked up, try to be Superman, put some Hail Mary setup in the car that makes it down the track twice in 10 tries, and press too hard. Tony knows what I'm talking about – he had that same advantage for six years. When he won 15 races that one year, five or six times he probably shouldn't even have been in the final, but he got handed a few free rounds along the way because people were afraid of him and changed the way they raced.
“You get greedy. I know – we had the car to beat last year at Topeka, and I red-lighted while Dixon smoked the tires because I was trying to annihilate him instead of just beat him.”
“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.