Worsham's switch has been seamless
"Yeah, I'm a little surprised "
Del Worsham leans in as he talks, putting his elbows up on a table in the hospitality area alongside his maroon and gold Al-Anabi Racing team transporter. Inside the big rig up ahead are engineers poring over data, from spark plug burn patterns to inbound weather patterns.
Over his shoulder, a team of mechanics are thrashing, tearing apart and rebuilding the 7,000-horsepower engine that launches his NHRA Top Fuel dragster. You'd never know from the calmness in his 41-year-old eyes that just moments earlier, he'd ridden that nitro-breathing monster at more than 318 mph, covering the 1,000 feet of Charlotte's zMax Dragway in 3.848 seconds.
Heck, he's not even sweating.
This is the same temperate attitude that Worsham has maintained throughout the first four races of 2011, a time that was supposed to be a marked by a ridiculously steep learning curve. Instead he's run through the challenge with an ease that has left his opponents feeling uneasy. He's 4-for-4 in making semifinals. He already has two wins and is approaching May with a commanding early lead in the NHRA Top Fuel points standings.
It's been a great season by any measure, even by the standards of his Al-Anabi teammate, defending Top Fuel champion Larry Dixon. But it's been a phenomenal season if you take into account that before January he hadn't made a live competition run in a Top Fuel machine since Bill Clinton was still president and "Toy Story" was tops at the box office.
The first "Toy Story."
During the years in between he made his trade in the Funny Car corner of Nitro Alley, a vehicle with a roof, body and twitchier controls. When someone makes the transition from that full-bodied ride to the stretched, winged, open-air Top Fuel dragster, there is supposed to be a transition period. Not instant success.
"OK," Worsham says with a sly grin, reacting to a quick rundown of his 2011 stats, unknowingly 48 hours from his second win of the season. "Maybe I'm a lot surprised."
The rise of Del
"Surprised? I'm not surprised."
Alan Johnson speaks the words the day after Worsham's Charlotte victory. The team manager is back at his shop, Alan Johnson Performance Engineering in Santa Maria, Calif., while the dragsters of Worsham and Dixon are being unloaded at the Brownsburg, Ind., race shop for Al-Anabi Racing. The cars that finished 1-2 at the 4-Wide Nationals were already being prepped for the next event in Houston, two weeks away.
"Everyone knows that Del is fast," Johnson says. "You don't win 25 races in your career and give John Force multiple runs for his money without talent. And everyone should know that we have good equipment here with this team, and good people. Really, the surprise should have been if Del hadn't been fast early."
Running fast early has been a bit of a Del Worsham tradition. He made his NHRA pro debut at the end of the 1990 season at the tender age of 20. The following spring, just two months after his 21st birthday, he won his first Wally at Atlanta, becoming the youngest Funny Car winner in NHRA history.
He won two races that year, but it would be nearly a decade before he earned No. 3. For three years, he split time between Funny Car and Top Fuel, all along sticking with his family's race team, their patience paying off when they became title contenders throughout the century's first decade.
But by 2008, the Worshams' family-owned team was limping. It had won just one race in three years. Longtime sponsor Checker Schuck's Kragen was getting out of the sport and without their funding the Worshams couldn't keep going past the end of the season.
He'd heard a rumor that Johnson, one of the most highly-regarded wrench men in drag racing history, was leaving the super team of Schumacher Racing and starting his own team with a big-time backer. A few conversations later, the deal was done. And what an unusual deal it was.
Return to contention
Worsham would pilot a Funny Car and two-time Top Fuel champ Dixon would be behind the wheel of a dragster. Johnson would run the team. And the owner would be His Highness Sheikh Khalid Al-Thani, a member of the ruling family of Qatar.
"He's great," Worsham says of his boss, who keeps homes in Qatar and California and makes it out to the drag strip several times each year. "He's a real drag racer and a real fan. He knew who Alan was, that he'd been a champion everywhere he went, and he's been all-in since Day 1."
So the first time I got back in [a Top Fuel dragster] to test I looked up and was like, 'Whoa, I can see everything!' In that Funny Car, which I had driven pretty much my whole career, it's all about that little window straight ahead. It's like watching a TV across the room. With Top Fuel it's like a wraparound screen.” -- Del Worsham
In 2009, Worsham won three Funny Car events for Al-Anabi and made the NHRA's Countdown to the Championship playoffs. He praised his team, but also admitted that he missed running the family operation.
Those around him politely disagreed and still do. They believe that being free of the burden of team ownership has returned some pop to his throttle.
That same year, Dixon won five races and finished second in points in Top Fuel. In 2010, Dixon won an amazing 12 events and won his third Top Fuel title. Meanwhile, Worsham struggled. "When the cars were fast, our luck was lousy," he said. "When our luck was good, the cars weren't what they should have been."
In the middle of it all, the call came from Qatar. Sheikh Khalid had an idea. For 2011 he wanted to park the Funny Car team and field two Top Fuel rides. And when His Highness calls and makes a suggestion, no one pauses to question it.
"It was totally his idea," Worsham says. "On paper it makes a lot of sense. You get a lot more bang for your buck putting the money into the same types of cars and crews and research. At first I was a little up in the air about it, but he gave us enough time to get ready. Not just at the shop, but also to get my head on right."
Raising the roof
Step one of Worsham's head adjustment was getting used to nothing actually being over his head.
"I ran Top Fuel cars early in my career, but not since 1995," he says. "That's a long time. So the first time I got back in one to test I looked up and was like, 'Whoa, I can see everything!' In that Funny Car, which I had driven pretty much my whole career, it's all about that little window straight ahead. It's like watching a TV across the room. With Top Fuel it's like a wraparound screen."
Though the horsepower and speeds are similar between the two, the exposure to the elements and the change in the noise is striking.
"Because it's open-cockpit the sensation of speed is much greater in a Top Fuel car," says Kenny Bernstein, who won 30 races in Funny Car and 39 in Top Fuel. "The wind is hitting you in the face, your head is being buffeted around, and it just feels like you're holding on."
"The biggest difference to me was the sound," says Ron Capps, who started in Top Fuel, where he won one event, and then moved to Funny Cars, where he's won 30. "In a Funny Car that engine is in your lap, in your face, and tucked under that big body with you. The noise and the vibration feels greater. In Top Fuel it's behind you, it's not as loud, but that makes it kind of sneak up on you. Like bam it's pushing you down the strip."
For Worsham, it wasn't like riding a bike, but it was close. He got up to speed quickly, thanks in no small part to the championship notes shared by Dixon's team. But after only four races, Worsham has already developed his own style and feel for the ride.
"In the beginning we could pretty much run the same setup and package for both guys," Johnson says. "But now Del already has his own likes and dislikes and they aren't really similar to what Larry likes. That's hard on a team, but it's a sign that Del has really gotten comfortable in a Top Fuel car."
Nothing Funny about it yet
Though no one can argue with the results so far, it's not hard to get both Worsham and Johnson to admit that they would like to get back into the Funny Car business at some point.
They both feel like they have unfinished business in the full-bodied division. Johnson owns 13 NHRA National championships, but none in Funny Car. Worsham, despite all of his success, still has a bitter taste in his mouth for his near-misses, especially 2004, when he finished second to Force.
"We still have the equipment to do it," Johnson says. "But you can't argue with the success that we've had so far. Now it's up to me and our team to keep Del going. Sure, we both want a Funny Car championship at some point. But winning a Top Fuel title with Del would be pretty cool."
Adds Worsham: "Me as a Top Fuel champion? That would surprise some people, wouldn't it?"
Some people, yes. But you get the feeling it wouldn't surprise Worsham in the least.
Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.