2014 Top Alcohol Preview
By Todd Veney/Pro Sportsman Association
When 2013 world champs Jim Whiteley and Frank Manzo peeled off their firesuits for the last time late last year at Pomona, the clouds parted for other Top Alcohol Dragster and Top Alcohol Funny Car racers. Whiteley walked away from Top Alcohol Dragster racing after winning back-to-back championships in 2012 and 2013, and Manzo retired from Top Alcohol Funny Car competition as the hands-down greatest driver in class history with eight straight championships and 17 in all, a record for any driver in any category.
So who'll win it all in 2014, the most wide-open season in years? The consensus picks are Chris Demke in Top Alcohol Dragster and Annie Whiteley in Top Alcohol Funny Car.
Demke, who finished second in both of Whiteley's championship years, likely would have been the favorite regardless of what happened at the 2014 season opener, but he dominated the Winternationals as much as anyone ever dominated any event, pounding out one 5.2 after another for a wire-to-wire victory and the early points lead. Demke, who earned his first Top 10 finish in 2004, has carried the number 2 in three of the past four years and has won at least one national event every year since his long overdue breakthrough at the 2010 Winternationals – two or more every year until last year, when only Whiteley scored more than once.
It's been four years since Bill Reichert, tied with Rick Santos for the most championships in Top Alcohol Dragster history (five), last won a title, but the class' most prolific active driver can never be counted out – especially now that NHRA decreed that A/Fuel teams are allowed an extra percent of nitro. He's been a Top 5 driver for 10 straight years and put up multiple national event victories every year from 2005 to 2012, so nothing he accomplishes this year could come as a surprise.
Joey Severance, who had a shot at what would have been his first championship right down to the final day of the 2011 season, is poised to have the best season of his career this year. Long established as one of the top leavers in the country, now he and father Joe Sr. have power from Whiteley's YNot Racing stable.
Mark Taliaferro has retained the services of master crew chief Norm Grimes, who led both Santos and Whiteley to multiple titles. The 1997 Mile-High Nationals champ, who has been competitive with both A/Fuel and blown-alcohol combinations since his return to racing in 2010, earned a pair of final-round appearances in 2011, and everything is in place for a career year in 2014.
Also expected to mix it up with the top cars in the country this year are Shawn Cowie, who came back from devastating injuries in a 2011 motorcycle accident to take storybook wins at Woodburn and Seattle, perennial contender Randy Meyer, and the converter car of third-ranked Brandon Booher, by far the class' most improved driver in 2013.
Top Alcohol Funny Car is even more wide-open than Top Alcohol Dragster. Just one active driver – Tony Bartone – has ever won the championship. Every other champion in the class' 34-year history has retired since winning the title: Manzo (1981, 1986, 1997-2003, 2006-2013), Bob Gottschalk (1982), Fred Mandoline (1983), Brad Anderson (1984-85, 1989), Pat Austin (1987-88, 1990-91), Bob Newberry (1992, 2005), Randy Anderson (1993-94), Joe Penland (1995), and Cy Chesterman (2004). Bartone, who won it in 1996, when he famously won 37 rounds in a row, since has finished second four times (1997, 1999, 2011, and 2012). He and crew chief Steve Boggs will miss the first few races of the season and start this spring with a new Murf McKinney-built Monte Carlo that will be replaced by a Camaro body as soon as one becomes available.
Another top contender does have championship experience – just not in Top Alcohol Funny Car. Jay Payne, the 1995 Top Alcohol Dragster champ, has made the Top 10 in each of the past 14 years – every year since he switched from dragsters to Funny Cars in 1999. He's come closer to a championship than anyone who hasn't won it, with second-place finishes in 2001, 2004, 2006, and 2007.
Annie Whiteley and crew chief Roger Bateman are considered by many – including Manzo himself – to be the title favorites for 2014. The wife of outgoing TA/D champ Jim Whiteley has put up back-to-back Top 5 finishes in her only two years in the class, claimed her first national event title last summer in Chicago, appeared in multiple national event finals in both 2012 and 2013, and in just 13 career starts in regional competition has made eight final-round appearances and won all eight.
Second-generation driver John Lombardo finished a career-high second last season and topped the standings as late as September. Now teamed with Rick Jackson, whose car, with Bartone at the wheel, finished second to Manzo the previous two years, Lombardo will be a factor right down to the end. Lombardo's crew chief, Jeff Lirones, recently joined forces with Steve Gasparrelli, a Top 10 player year after year and another who has finished as high as second in the national standings.
With five of 2013's top 12 drivers now tuned by a new crew chief, and now that Manzo has finally, mercifully, abdicated the throne, it could be Top Alcohol Funny Car's most interesting season in years.