People say they want to drive for Alan Johnson, but do they really? Do they really want the pressure that comes with driving for the man acknowledged as the master of modern Top Fuel racing, at the wheel of the Al-Anabi Racing machine that everybody thinks should win?
Del Worsham does. “Alan demands perfection from his employees,” Worsham says. “In return, he gives you perfection. He doesn't have any doubts about his abilities – why would he? – and he's almost never wrong. Does it put pressure on me as a driver? Absolutely. He's so prepared that, most of the time, whether we win or lose comes down to the driver.”
All Worsham has done this year, his first full season in Top Fuel after 20 years in Funny Cars, is get to three finals in his first five starts, win all three, and reach at least the semifinals at all five. “I didn't think three wins was out of the question,” he says. “I just thought it would happen later in the year, after we'd all gotten better at our jobs.”
Worsham won Gainesville in a photo-finish final against seven-time Top Fuel champ Tony Schumacher, 3.85sec to 3.86. At Charlotte, he took down Al-Anabi teammate Larry Dixon, Shawn Langdon, and Spencer Massey in the four-wide final. And in Houston, it was Dixon, defending event and series champ, in another classic, 3.88 to 3.90. Every one was close; Gainesville and Charlotte were decided by just 0.004sec, Houston by just 0.019sec.
In just a few dozen runs, Worsham has made driving a dragster – which requires a much gentler touch than a Funny Car, which has to be manhandled from one end of the track to the other – look effortless.
“Del doesn't need help with anything,” says first-year crew chief, Brian Husen, who has made the transition from assistant crew chief to crew chief as seamlessly as Worsham has moved from Funny Cars to dragsters. “It took Del one run to figure out you can't overdrive one of these things. Since then, he's kept the car in the middle of the groove as well as anybody I've ever seen.”
“I work hard at it,” Worsham says. “This is not the easiest car in the world to drive, and Schumacher and Dixon are the only ones who know what I'm talking about, because they've driven for Alan. It requires a lot of effort on my part, and maybe it always will. Maybe the car's so fast that this will never be second nature to me. It's fast, man – really fast. I'm still not used to it. I'm still learning every time.
“This is nothing like when I raced Top Fuel in the mid-'90s. I don't remember a dragster feeling this much faster than a Funny Car did, but it sure does now. I mean, there's no comparison. No way did I ever pay this much attention just to keeping the car in the groove back then. I just steered it down there, hopped back in the Funny Car six minutes later, and drove that right down there, too, no problem. I'd never try to do that that now; I'll never drive a dragster and a Funny Car at the same race again – it would be too easy to lose what I've learned.”
Of course, Worsham has shot to the top of the class sooner than anyone could have expected, not strictly because of natural ability, but also because of the experience and expertise of his Al-Anabi teammates. He's driving the same car Dixon drove to 12 victories and the championship last year, and his crew – the same group that worked on his Funny Car for the past two years – has received invaluable input from Dixon's team. The only difference is Husen, who was assistant crew chief on Dixon's car last year and worked with McCulloch and that team for the past eight years, most of them as a member of Schumacher's U.S. Army organization.
“Look at what those guys accomplished,” Worsham says. “How many titles did they win? Seven of the last eight? And the one they lost [to Schumacher's new team, in 2009], was by two points and came down to the second-to-last round of the year. Larry's team knows what Alan expects. They've helped our guys a lot, and Brian has picked this stuff up quickly, quicker than I ever would have thought.
“Brian can say he doesn't tune it, but he's responsible for how this car runs, for having every little thing exactly the way Alan wants it,” adds Worsham. “That takes a lot of discipline. You wouldn't believe the things this team checks after every run. I've been around this sport for a long time and, trust me, nobody does all the things we do to make sure everything is exactly the same from run to run. It's not just money; it's effort. When I was running my old car with my dad, I thought I was paying attention to everything, doing everything I could do, but I see now that I wasn't. If I had been, I'd have won a lot more races.”
Worsham has won as many times in the first five events of the 2011 Full Throttle tour as he did in two full years in the Al-Anabi Toyota Funny Car. He has already raced just about every big name in Top Fuel – and beaten them all. “I've had to learn how to race new people – Dixon, Schumacher, Massey, Brown, Kalitta, Lucas, and Langdon – and every time, it's been a good, fair race. With these guys, there are no games up there on the starting line, no drama.”
Worsham not only has had to reacquaint himself with the altogether different challenges of driving a dragster, he's also had to do it knowing everybody thinks he's in the car to beat. After just five races, he'd opened up a 95-point lead in the Full Throttle standings. The guy in second place? Dixon, his teammate, who isn't here to take a back seat to anybody.
“Larry is our toughest competition,” Worsham says. “He's everybody's toughest competition – he's the defending champ. People are looking at my team right now because we're the ones in the points lead, but leading the points is not something I ever think about. It's early.”
Reality set in at the next two races, Atlanta and Topeka. Worsham ran a 3.87 in Atlanta, only to be upset in the first round by Langdon's 3.85. In Topeka, he smoked the tires in round two and lost to Bob Vandergriff Jr., who had lost in the first round at 17 of the previous 18 races.
But nobody's panicking. If Worsham's not in the lead when the points get reset after the U.S. Nationals, there's no reason to think he won't be right up there. Soon enough, the Countdown will be here and, with it, a whole new kind of pressure. Maintain the lead, and you're still the one everybody's gunning for. Lose it, and they all want to know what happened.
“Any time you're in the faster car, there's going to be more pressure on you,” Worsham says. “It's all in how you handle it. Alan's awfully quiet. It's not like he puts any pressure on you. He doesn't have to say anything. It's understood: ‘I hired you to do a job – do it.' He's knows he's the best, so you'd better be the best, too. And Alan's not the kind of guy you want to disappoint.”
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, check out the July 2011 issue of RACER magazine. CLICK HERE to subscribe.