NORWALK, Ohio --
While 2010 promises to be one of the most exciting seasons to date with a new format, all new classes and a tighter, much more entertaining show, the 2009 season still provided its share of tight point battles and thrilling races as the championships in Top Fuel, Pro Modified and Pro Stock all went down to the wire.
And when the dust finally settled on the season at the IHRA World Final at Rockingham Dragway in October three drivers emerged as the best of the best in 2009 - Del Cox Jr., Kenny Lang and John Montecalvo.
Cox produced the second straight Top Fuel title for a rookie as he held off veteran Bruce Litton over the final three races, while Lang won his second straight championship in as many years in Pro Modified. Montecalvo was able to finally clinch his very first championship in the tightest points battle of the year that wasn't decided until the final pass of the 2009 season.
All in all three drivers added their names to the history books and seven more are still awaiting their chance at IHRA glory when the sportsman drivers decide their champions at the inaugural Tournament of Champions at Rockingham Dragway in May.
To close out 2009 and welcome another thrilling season we will take a look back at the championship seasons for Cox, Lang and Montecalvo and look ahead at what is to come in 2010. So sit back, relax and enjoy a wonderful New Year's celebration as the IHRA relives the past 10 months on the Nitro Jam Tour.
At the conclusion of the Summit Racing Equipment Mardi Gras Nationals in early March, rookie Top Fuel driver Del Cox Jr., who qualified No. 1 and went to the semifinals, was asked to sum up his first weekend behind the wheel of Mitch King's dragster.
"It would be a dream come true to win an Ironman this year, especially for my grandpa," Cox added. "My grandpa is my main support behind my whole deal. If it wasn't for him I would never have been racing. When we were kids my whole family raced. We raced every weekend all around the country when we were in junior dragsters and it would be a dream to win one now."
A season and nine more races later, Cox had that dream, and many more, come true as he went on to hoist five of the coveted IHRA statuettes on his way to earning the biggest one of all, the trophy awarded to the 2009 Top Fuel champion.
For the second year in a row team owner and fellow competitor King was able to savor a successful championship run. In 2008, Cox's predecessor, good friend Spencer Massey, took the IHRA by storm, winning a national event his first time out at San Antonio just days after earning his Top Fuel license. Massey finished the season with five final-round appearances and four wins.
With Massey moving on to Don Prudhomme's team for 2009, it didn't take King too long find his new ace in the hole.
"I have known Spencer since we were kids and I met the whole team a year or two ago and started hanging out with them," Cox said. "One thing led to another and pretty soon I was driving for Mitch."
After winning a couple of divisional championships in both Top Sportsman and Top Dragster, Cox moved up to the Alcohol Dragster ranks before being tapped to drive Top Fuel.
Once there, he proceeded to carve out the same kind of season Massey had enjoyed the year before, taking it one step further by winning five events to Massey's four. Cox even took over where his friend left off, playing the role of rookie nemesis for 2007 champion Bruce Litton, who battled the 28-year-old self-proclaimed "surfer dude" down to the wire.
Following his semifinal finish at Baton Rouge, Cox began to build on the feelings of Deja vu many knowledgeable observers had experienced by taking the first win of his career one race later at North Carolina's Rockingham Dragway. Following another semifinal result at Dallas he took over the top spot in points, but a trip to the semifinals at Tulsa and a first-round defeat at Edmonton dropped him into second place.
He won again at Grand Bend, Ontario, in mid-July, however, and the momentum never waned from that point. He extended his streak to four with trips to the winners circle at Martin, Michigan, Epping, New Hampshire, and Budds Creek, Maryland, before heading back to North Carolina for the World Finals.
All Cox needed to do to lock up the championship was get in the show and he did just that by locking up the No. 2 qualifying spot. He then dispatched teammate Rhonda Hartman-Smith in the first round to officially secure the title.
"It is just like anything, you put your boxing gloves on and you put your faith in your team and that is how we were able to overcome where we were earlier this year," Cox said. "It is unreal. This has been a dream of mine since I was eight years old and now to be here now is just incredible. I have to give it up for all these guys who have been working their butts off and for all of our sponsors. And of course there's crew chief Paul Smith, who is the brains behind the whole operation. Everyone here does an incredible job, and I'm proud to be associated with them."
Defending IHRA Pro Modified champion Kenny Lang put together a nearly perfect 10-race season en route to a second consecutive class championship.
Lang had barely a moment to relax all year long as his every move was countered by a man who cast a very large shadow. That man was class charter member Ed Hoover, who was dedicated to capturing the first championship of his 19-year Pro Mod career.
As the tour crossed North America, going from city to city, it was almost a foregone conclusion that Pro Mod would end up being the Kenny and Ed show before the lights went out. The two met five times in final rounds, with Lang taking the Ironman three times. Lang also took a first-round win and a semifinal victory over Hoover in 2009. In total, Lang made eight consecutive final round appearances during the season.
Coming into Rockingham for the World Finals, Hoover still had a slim chance to won the crown, but with qualifying restricted to a single pass by rain Hoover failed to make the field. With the door wide open, Lang wrapped up championship number two by taking the No. 1 qualifying spot and advancing to the semifinals on race day.
"It is great to be able to get back-to-back championships," Lang said from the winners circle. "Winning a championship is something that is so rare and we were able to accomplish it twice. When you look at the season like that - with all the things we accomplished, it really shows just how good this team performed. Pretty much everything went right all season long.
"Winning the championship last year was awesome and humbling, but to do it again is something very few people will ever duplicate. It really is incredible."
"It was great racing him all season long. It was a shame he didn't make the field at Rockingham, "Lang said. "We enjoyed racing him this year and he made it incredibly tough on us.
"It is nice obviously to lock up the championship. We wanted to come here and make sure we were in good shape to do it and qualify the car and if we did that then we knew we had it. When we made that pass I knew it was finally ours," Lang said.
"Four or five years ago, we wanted just to be contenders, Lang said. "The first year that we ran the whole season we were number ten in points, then we moved up to number six. We were number one last year and now again this year. I don't think it can get better than that. None of us do this for a living; we do it as a hobby, and it's all for fun," Lang said.
"This title belongs to all the guys on my crew and of course my sponsors. Without all of them, we couldn't have done any of this. Of course, my hat's off to Al Billes - a man who I think is the best tuner anywhere. He can adapt to any situation, and tune a car from anywhere, event thousands of miles away, just by asking questions on the phone. He's amazing, and I'm so lucky to have had him on my side. I want to thank Roger Burgess, too, for letting Al work with me over here, and of course for his sponsorship throughout the season. Roger is truly an awesome man, and I appreciate everything he's done for me and for Pro Mod drag racing in general.
"We've got a whole group of guys that really work well together, that's the most important thing, I want to thank my dad Danny, Rob Poirier, Jim Elliot, Malcolm Nickerson, and of course John Waldie, who was with us at every race," Lang said. "The cars that Tim McAmis builds, I think, are the very best, and this championship is a testament to that as well.
"I have to say a big 'thank you' also to my wonderful sponsors. I mentioned Roger Burgess and ProCare Rx, but there's also Castrol, NGK, Pepsi, Miller Welders, Safety-Kleen, the Sign Source, Prolific Group, and Jet Tools. They are such huge support for us, getting us through every race. This is for them as well."
In nearly 20 years of competitive drag racing, John Montecalvo has snatched defeat from the jaws of victory more times than he'd care to remember. During his career in Pro Stock, a disappointing string of circumstances, most not of his own doing, have relegated the Long Island, New York, paving contractor to five third-place finishes going back to 1999.
But it was far from an easy road to the top. In fact, the potential for another disheartening result constantly loomed over the veteran competitor as the season drew to a close.
As is so often the case in the ultra-competitive Pro Stock category, the battle for the title went right down to the last race of the year. Coming into Rockingham for the World Finals, there were three drivers vying for the crown.
Montecalvo started the weekend 33 points ahead of Frank Gugliotta and 63 points ahead of defending champion Pete Berner. Obviously, with the fight this close one wrong move could bring a sudden end to the season for any one of these racers.
Montecalvo got off to a strong start, taking the No.1 qualifying spot when rain shortened the preliminary action to a single session. The rain returned to knock out Friday night's show, and then to add to the misery, heavy dew forced cancellation of Saturday's night session as well. Ultimately, with the track distance shortened to eighth-mile, Pro Stock was set to go into eliminations nearly 48 hours after their solitary run down the track.
Sunday morning Montecalvo opened his title quest with a bye run in the first round. Now all he needed to do was take the win light in his quarterfinal match-up with Ned Katuran to claim the biggest prize of his career.
His trademark red, white, and blue Chevrolet stumbled off the line, however, allowing Katuran to cruise to the win and set waves of Deja vu rolling over Montecalvo.
As the fatal moments neared Montecalvo waited in his pits, claiming he would jump off the tower if he lost and not wanting to celebrate in front of Gugliotta's team if he won.
Out on the track, Gugliotta lined up beside Bob Bertsch for the all-important run. In the end, a holeshot victory by Bertsch brought all the drama to a head.
"I was sitting in the trailer, not even paying attention to whether Frank was running or not," Montecalvo said. "Next thing you know we heard a scream and our guys rushed into the trailer to tell us we won. I didn't believe them at first. I know I asked them four times if they were sure. It's just unbelievable that this finally happened. We've come close so many times. All our hard work and years of chasing this thing finally paid off."
Amazingly, Montecalvo claimed his crown without ever having crossed the finish line first all season. Consistency, four runner-up finishes, and three top qualifying efforts were enough to take him over the top. Montecalvo's best previous championship finish was third, which he notched in 2008, 2004, 2003, 2002, and 1999.
"This championship is as much for my crew as for myself," Montecalvo said. "Lois Anne is always by my side. Tommy, William, Bobby and Herb - I couldn't have done it without them. They have worked hard for this day. I also have got a lot of racing friends up in the sky and every time I race I pray to them to keep me safe and successful and I truly believe they were looking over me today.
"One of the best things about this is that I'll now be able to defend my championship on IHRA turf. With the new Mountain Motor Pro Stock Association we will be back racing with the IHRA again next year. I couldn't be happier with the chance to wear our number one next year and be able to race in the place we've known as home for so many years.
"This championship means more than I can truly express in words."
Despite all of the incredible point races in 2009 the moment that will be most remembered from the past year is the IHRA's announcement of a brand new format for the 2010 season and beyond.
The announcement also included a list of new professional classes and special shootouts that will make the events even more exciting for both the average spectator and the diehard race fan. While most of the professional classes IHRA fans have come to know and love will make appearances at select events, the core of the show will revolve around nitro-burning machines including Top Fuel dragsters, Pro Fuel dragsters and Prostalgia Nitro Funny Cars.
Each event will also feature an assortment of drag racing entertainment vehicles including side-by-side jet trucks, wheelstanders, jet motorcycles and much more. Recently the IHRA also announced the inclusion of its two quickest and fastest sportsman classes - Top Sportsman and Top Dragster - at all Nitro Jam events in 2010.
On top of the format changes the IHRA also announced a revamped schedule that includes stops at world-class facilities Palm Beach International Raceway and Virginia Motorsports, a new stop out west at Rocky Mountain Raceways in Salt Lake City and an assortment of tracks that have become regular fixtures on the Nitro Jam Tour.
While the recent announcements promise a new and more modern Nitro Jam than longtime fans are accustomed to, the reality is that the new changes promise to make the show more entertaining with more to see and do than ever before crammed into a much tighter window making a day at the races more accessible than ever before.
And with the first Nitro Jam event of the year less than a month away 2010 promises to be one of the most exciting and talked about seasons in IHRA history. Don't miss your chance to witness history at a Nitro Jam event near you and say you were there to witness the birth of what promises to be the future of drag racing entertainment.