There's an unspoken rule in Top Fuel: Whoever drives Alan Johnson's car is the favorite to win the championship. In the mid 1990s, it was Johnson's late brother, Blaine. In the late '90s, it was Gary Scelzi. For five straight years in the middle of the past decade, it was Tony Schumacher. Now it's 2002 and '03 TF champion Larry Dixon, who is dominating Top Fuel in 2010 as thoroughly as any of his predecessors ever did and even more than legend “Big Daddy” Don Garlits did in the '60s, '70s and '80s.
“You know a year like this is possible, but how could you ever think you're really going to win this much?” asks Dixon, who at the time of writing, had won more times this year than all other Top Fuel drivers combined. “To have somebody of Alan's caliber in your corner, what more could you want? He's one of the best ever…Wait a minute: he's the best ever, obviously. Look at the numbers. If you add up all of Scelzi's wins and championships, all of Tony's, what we've done in the last year and a half, and what his brother did, nobody's close.”
Blaine Johnson was killed in 1996 in a qualifying crash at the U.S. Nationals, while on a track-record run that stood for years after his death. It was just his third season in Top Fuel, and he was running away with the championship.
“Blaine was going to be champ in '96,” says Dixon, who finished fourth that year. “Everybody knew it. How many races would they have won if they'd been teamed up all this time? Think of how many titles they'd have by now. I still look at this like I'm filling in for Blaine. If he was still around, Gary never would have had that ride, Alan wouldn't have tuned Tony's car, and I wouldn't have this job. Period.”
Says Johnson: “I've had a lot of great drivers, and Larry's right in there – he's always struck me as a good driver, and I picked him for a reason – but I still think my brother was the best.
“Every once in a while,” Johnson continues, “I do wonder how many races he would have won by now, but it's not something I dwell on.”
Why would he? There's too much going on right now. Johnson never stops, never leaves “good enough” alone. He's never been afraid to turn his back on a tune-up that was working – or even dominating – to try something that, in the long run, may end up being even better. Most crew chiefs wouldn't have the nerve.
“I've always been that way,” Johnson says. “You have to be. When I started racing Top Fuel in 1994, I didn't know anything about it. I didn't understand how all the parts worked together, what made the clutch do what it did, how to make power with nitro, how to get the engine to rev up, how to use different fuel levels to control the engine. And it's one thing to know how to tune an engine and a clutch; it's another thing to know how to race, how to win. It's never one thing. It's everything. Some of the little details probably don't seem that important, but they all add up. You have to think of the car as one gigantic system.”
No one would have blamed Johnson if he'd run this Al-Anabi team, formed in the 2008-'09 off-season, exactly the way he ran the Don Schumacher Racing U.S. Army team in 2008, when Tony Schumacher won 15 times. Now that single-season record, once thought to be unbreakable, may not last two years. Dixon had the same number of wins through the first 15 events of this year (eight) as Schumacher had in '08, and has even more round wins (47-44).
Johnson says: “We had a great car in '08, obviously, but when we started this deal last year, we developed a whole new package and put people in key positions.”
Jason McCulloch, son of driver-turned-tuner Ed “the Ace” McCulloch and Johnson's assistant crew chief at DSR, was named crew chief, while Brian Husen was promoted to assistant crew chief.
“It's almost as rewarding for me to see those guys learn all that they've learned as it would be if I was doing it myself,” Johnson says. “My passion is making a car run well – always has been. If we'd just maintained the status quo, we'd still be running what Schumacher's car ran in '08. The only way to make a car faster is to look at different ways of doing the same things, and I always look at the performance of any car as an ongoing process.”
Dixon noticed a difference the first time he ever made a run in a Johnson car.
“It was an animal,” he recalls, “a lot harder to drive than anything I'd driven in the past. I've made a few 3.77, 3.78 runs [for his only previous employer, Don “the Snake” Prudhomme], and on some of them it was almost like I could have let go of the wheel and it wouldn't have mattered – the car was driving itself.
“Not this thing. This car feels looser. It's a handful. It's violent. Sometimes, to be honest, I'm glad when the finish line arrives! I've never had to work so hard just to drive a car down the track.
“Last year, I felt a lot more pressure than I do right now. There were a lot of unanswered questions for me, and it took me a little while to get comfortable.”
It sure didn't look that way. Dixon won five times in 2009 and was in contention for the championship until the penultimate round of the Finals. Ultimately, he fell just two points short of Schumacher, who took his seventh title.
“Yeah, it was disappointing to be that close to a championship and not get it done,” confesses Johnson, “but that was a good car that Tony had. After 15 wins the year before, they'd have had to work pretty hard to screw it up, and they didn't. We had our opportunities down the stretch, and they beat us. But coming within a couple of points of the championship with a brand-new team was almost a victory in itself.”
This year, Dixon is running away with it, but the points get reset for the Countdown to 1 playoffs (the final six races), and his lead will go from hundreds of points to just 30. Schumacher, Cory McClenathan (the only other drivers to have won a race all year) and their Don Schumacher Racing teammate, Antron Brown, a six-time runner-up this season, will be right back within striking distance.
“Everything has progressed pretty much the way we wanted it to, but it would be a little premature to predict anything right now,” Johnson says. “We're not even into the Countdown, so everything could change. You never know what's going to happen, but when you get right down to it, you probably have to say that it's going to be us and the Schumacher cars.
“Antron's team could catch alight – he's probably a little overdue at this point. Tony can handle the pressure – we all know that because he's been there. I can tell you this: At the end of the year, it's all going to come down to driving. It always does.”
PROGRESS IN FUNNY CAR, TOO
Del Worsham's fight has been harder, but he's catching up
Across the Al-Anabi Racing compound, the Funny Car team hasn't been as dominant as the Top Fuel half of the team, but there is hope on the horizon.
“I'm actually feeling pretty good about things right now,” says driver Del Worsham, who had three victories last year but went winless through the first two-thirds of 2010. “We still have until the Countdown starts at Indy to get this thing dialed in.”
“We're close,” Alan Johnson says, “probably closer than people think. We started this whole deal from scratch 18 months ago, and it takes time. We've made some good runs and won a few races, but we've made huge changes. We're still in the midst of all that, but it's starting to pay off.”
Over a three-race stretch just before midseason, Worsham reached at least the semifinals each time and just missed the win at Englishtown, N.J., falling to Bob Tasca III in the final.
Says Worsham: “I'm confident that we'll be in the Countdown, and all that really matters is what you do over the final six races of the year. I still think we stand a pretty good chance to make a run at this championship.”
“We'd like to be closer to the top, obviously,” states Johnson. “We'd like to have a couple of wins and be at least a couple of spots higher in the standings. But we're only about 10 or 15 runs away from having this car where it can be in the top three anywhere we go.”