Story By: SCOTT SMITH / NHRA – POMONA, CA – Jack Beckman remembers the incredible emotions he felt claiming his first Funny Car world title seven years ago in Pomona.
He returns to the historic facility for this weekend’s 55th annual Auto Club NHRA Finals at historic Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, hopeful he can enjoy another magical weekend at the final race of the Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship playoffs. But he’s not the only former world champ after the ultimate prize.
The race for the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series world title in Funny Car features plenty of thrilling storylines, including the fact that all four major contenders are championship tested. Two-time world champ Robert Hight is the current leader, holding a 46-point lead on Beckman, a 56-point advantage on two-time champ Matt Hagan and a 72-point cushion on 16-time champ and teammate John Force. Three of the four (Hight, Beckman, Force) are southern California natives, while they have also combined for 26 wins at Pomona.
That’s a list that doesn’t include Beckman, who hopes his first career win at Pomona in his 11,000-horsepower Infinite Hero Foundation Dodge SRT Hellcat paves the way for a second world title. With the points-and-a-half scenario in play at Pomona, Beckman knows anything can happen.
“I think right now we’re clearly a front-runner to contend for the championship, not just in our points position, but in our performance lately,” Beckman said. “If we get another opportunity like we had in Vegas where we are paired up with Hight early, we get a chance to control our own destiny. If we win the race and Robert is not in the final next to us, we win the championship. So, our goal right now is to maximize qualifying points, execute perfectly on race day, and hope that the ladder falls in such a way that we pair up with Robert before the final round.”
Steve Torrence (Top Fuel), J.R. Todd (Funny Car), Tanner Gray (Pro Stock) and Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were last year’s winners of the race that will be televised on FOX Sports 1 (FS1), including live finals coverage starting at 4:00 p.m. (ET) on Sunday, Nov. 17. It is the final race in the Countdown to the Championship playoffs the last of 24 races in the 2019 season. The scintillating, down-to-the-wire Funny Car duel is one of the top storylines of the finale in Pomona, and Hight will look to wrap up his stellar 2019 season in style in his Auto Club of Southern California Chevrolet Camaro SS.
He’s led the bulk of the season, winning six races, and the memory of losing the title on the final day of the season last year is still fresh in his mind. Winning a second title in three years would erase that sour feeling, and Hight welcomes the chance to duke it out with three world champs.
“You’ve got to embrace this,” Hight said. “I believe we’re going to qualify well, make good runs in qualifying, try to get some points, and try to set ourselves up for the best possible scenario on Sunday. I’ve got three champions right behind me. All of them have won championships and they’re breathing down my neck. That right there is some pressure. You have to be up for it and we all have to perform. The car has to perform, I’ve got to perform, but we just need to keep doing what we’ve done all season long. You can’t change what got you here.”
Force has been as consistent as anyone in the loaded class this year, but he’s looking for his first win in the playoffs. He’ll need that, plus an early sputter from Hight to claim a 17th world title in his PEAK Chevrolet Camaro. Nobody is heading to Pomona feeling better than Hagan, who has powered his way to two straight playoff wins in Dallas and Las Vegas. Seemingly an afterthought in the title picture after a slow start in the playoffs, Hagan suddenly finds himself in the thick of things.
It’s been an impressive turnaround for Hagan and his team down the stretch, but it may take a third straight win in his MOPAR Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Widebody to keep things interesting. It’s a different scenario from his first two world championships, but Hagan has enjoyed the journey heading to what is shaping up to be a must-see finale.
“I’m in a very different position than I was in 2011 and 2014, but no matter the season or situation, there will always be some sort of adversity you need to overcome in order to win it,” Hagan said. “Obviously, when you go into Pomona in first, that’s a great feeling, but unless you have a huge points lead, you really can’t breathe easy until you’re standing on the stage holding the big trophy, especially now with it being points-and-a-half. I’m just happy we’re in the position where we’re still in the running and have a legitimate shot at coming out on top.”
It’s shaping up to be a thrilling duel in Top Fuel, as defending world champ S. Torrence holds a slim 16-point lead on 2017 world champ Brittany Force, who won in Las Vegas. Doug Kalitta is 55 points and still in contention as the veteran is after his first career world title.
Erica Enders closed out her first Pro Stock world title in 2014 with a final-round win in Pomona, and she takes a 92-point lead into the finale this year. She’ll try to close out a third championship, but Jeg Coughlin Jr. is after a miracle finish in Pomona.
Andrew Hines will look to finish off his sixth world title in Pro Stock Motorcycle in Pomona. He currently holds a 115-point lead on Jerry Savoie, a two-time playoff winner in 2019. Eddie Krawiec and defending world champ Matt Smith are one and two points behind Savoie, respectively.
The Auto Club NHRA Finals will also feature thrilling competition in the Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series, where the future stars of the sport earn their racing stripes. And the 28 best E.T. bracket racers in the country will be competing for the Summit E.T. Finals World Championship. Fan favorite wheelstander “Nitro Mike” will be making his Pomona debut in his P.T. Cruiser Wheelstander throughout the weekend.
NHRA fans can take part in the Mello Yello Walking Tour to see the cars and teams hard at work in the pits. Fans can also attend Pro Stock Motorcycle School and Nitro School to learn how the cars operate and reach their thrilling speeds. Auto Club Raceway at Pomona will also host a Mello Yello autograph session and allow fans to meet their favorite drivers as well as the Sealmaster Track Walk hosted by NHRA announcer Joe Castello. Another can’t-miss experience is the winner’s circle celebration on Sunday after racing concludes. NHRA fans are invited to congratulate the winners of the event as they celebrate their victories.
As always, fans can interact with their favorite drivers as they’re granted an exclusive pit pass to the most powerful and sensory-filled motorsports attraction on the planet. This unique opportunity gives fans direct access to the teams, allowing them to see firsthand the highly-skilled mechanics service their hot rods between rounds, and get autographs from their favorite NHRA drivers.
Fans also will want to visit NHRA’s popular Nitro Alley and Manufacturers Midway, where sponsors and race vendors create a carnival atmosphere, with interactive displays, simulated competitions, merchandise, food and fun for the entire family. Hot Rod Junction will feature nostalgia favorites as well as the Heritage Series world champions.
Mello Yello Drag Racing Series qualifying will feature two rounds at 12:00 p.m. and 2:15 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 15, and the final two rounds of qualifying on Saturday, Nov. 16, at 12:15 p.m. and 2:45 p.m. Final eliminations are scheduled for 11 a.m. on Sunday, Nov. 17.