In a dream scenario few ever live, Del Worsham truly went out on top – not just winning the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series Top Fuel championship in the final year of his career, but winning the last race of the season to clinch it. By an invisible 0.004sec, he edged nemesis Spencer Massey in the Top Fuel semis at the NHRA Finals in Pomona, Calif., then slammed the door on 21 years of driving by defeating seven-time NHRA champion Tony Schumacher in the final.
“We won the championship, won the race, and it's like a fairy tale,” Worsham says, “but, it seems, whoever drives for Alan Johnson lives this dream every year.”
They do. Johnson has won three Top Fuel championships in four years, and each with a different driver – Schumacher in 2008, Larry Dixon in 2010, and now Worsham. No one but Dixon or Schumacher had won a title since 2001 (Dixon in 2002-'03 and 2010, Schumacher from 2004-'09), but this year Dixon scored race wins just twice and Schumacher, for the first time in 10 years, didn't win at all.
Instead, drivers who weren't even competing in Top Fuel a year ago – Massey, who was stuck on the sidelines, out of a ride, and Worsham, who was wrapping up his 20th season in Funny Car (RIGHT) – went at each other until the penultimate round of the 22-event, 92-round Full Throttle season. Worsham's .050 reaction time was a few thousandths of a second short of Massey's but enough, by two feet, to deliver the win of a lifetime.
“The whole way, I never saw him,” Massey would say. “The nose of his car never popped out there at any point, but when I looked for my win light, it never came on.”
It flashed in Worsham's lane, but Worsham never saw it. He thought he'd lost, and a sense of dread washed over him as he rolled silently through the shutdown area, thinking he'd fallen short and hoping it hadn't just come on a holeshot.
There's no “next year” for Worsham. He's not driving again, and every run he made at the Finals could have been his last. Whispered since before the event, but never publicly announced, was the fact that Worsham was retiring from driving to be the crew chief on rookie Alexis DeJoria's Tequila Patron Toyota Funny Car. He rounded the corner after that fateful semifinal race thinking that he'd launch a new career having never won a championship as a driver, but then the media descended upon him before he could get out of the car, and he knew the glorious truth.
“There were just so many emotions as I was coasting down there, thinking I lost,” Worsham says. “Never in 21 years have I been through anything like this. All that pressure. I've had some pretty tense situations over the years, like the final round of the U.S. Nationals, but that was the most. I've lived my whole life out here, and it all came down to that one run, the second-to-last one of the year. It's not like my whole career was on the line, but that's one run and, when it's over, I'd either won a championship in my career or I never would.”
In a performance befitting a winner-take-all race, Massey ran quicker than anyone had all day, 3.808, but Worsham outdid him with a 3.800. Schumacher did the exact same thing in the final with a 3.799, but Worsham got him too with a 3.796.
“You've really got to hand it to Del,” Johnson says. “He really stepped up. All those years as a driver and he's never won a championship or even been in that position where it all comes down to one run, but he made it happen. We gave him the car, and he did it.”
Worsham made it happen all year, starting with a first career NHRA Top Fuel win in just the second race of the season, the Gatornationals. He went on to win eight times, more than he ever did in a single season in his Funny Car days and more than anyone in either Top Fuel or Funny Car this year.
“With a team like this, I knew I'd be in a position to do this, but there's no telling how you're gonna do. This is something I set out to do decades ago, and it's finally accomplished.”
So why walk away from it all? “It wasn't easy to come to this decision, and there's no one thing that made me do it,” Worsham says. “Driving for somebody like Alan takes all your concentration. He gives you the best car you're ever gonna have, and he expects a lot.”
Worsham never did get as comfortable behind the wheel of a twitchy dragster as he had become after 20 long years in brutish Funny Cars, and he battled to overcome what he felt was a driving slump late in the year. It reached its nadir halfway through the Countdown, at the Reading event in October, where he made by far the greatest run in the history of 1,000-foot racing, 3.73sec, but lost to Massey's holeshot 3.77 in the most bitter defeat of his career.
Consecutive quarterfinal losses at the previous two races, Charlotte and Dallas, already had Worsham's championship bid on the ropes as the number of races dwindled. “Going into the Countdown, I felt pretty good about it all,” Worsham says, “but then we stumbled so bad. It was a mess.” Then Massey miraculously and catastrophically failed to qualify at Phoenix, Worsham's crew chief, Brian Husen, boldly brought out a brand-new car, and Worsham swept the last two races of the season, beating Massey at both.
In an even closer race than either of the last two rounds at Pomona would be, Worsham survived another must-win two weeks earlier in the Las Vegas final, winning by just 0.001sec over Massey. “That was the second-most-tense round I've ever had,” Worsham says, “and we never would have gotten into position for Pomona if we hadn't won Las Vegas first.”
By then, the word was getting out: Del was doing the unthinkable and walking away from the best ride in drag racing. Absolutely no one could believe it the first time they heard it, not even his family when he began mulling the idea this summer. “You'd think your wife would be glad you're not gonna drive anymore, but they were shocked by it,” says Worsham, who has twin daughters. “This didn't just hit me one day. About the time we got into the Countdown, I told Alan this might be it for me. I realized I was spending as much time thinking about tuning as I was thinking about driving.”
It's not like he was forced out. “This is the best racecar I've ever driven and I know someone's gonna be getting a really great team next year, but this was my decision, 100 percent,” Worsham says. He heads upstairs to the crew chief's lounge with 33 career NHRA national event victories – 25 in Funny Car and the eight last year in Top Fuel – one of 15 drivers to have won in both Top Fuel and Funny Car and one of just five who ever led the standings in both classes at any point in their career.
“Del could have done this as long as he wanted to,” Johnson says.Surprisingly, he doesn't want to.
“I've driven for a long time,” Worsham says. “I just want to do this when it's not my last option, because it was the only thing I could have done. I'm young enough that if I miss driving bad enough, I can still go back to it if I want to. I was pretty comfortable with my decision before, but after we won the championship I knew this was right.”
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