- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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The National Hot Rod Association's yearlong celebration of its 60th anniversary kicks off in traditional fashion this weekend with the Kragen O'Reilly NHRA Winternationals in Pomona, Calif.
Auto Club Raceway at Pomona has hosted the NHRA opener since 1961, and that history will be feted throughout the weekend with a special tribute to drag racing legend Don "The Snake" Prudhomme.
Fans purchasing premium "Eliminator Club" tickets at Pomona will have the opportunity to walk the famous drag strip with Prudhomme as their tour guide. And all fans attending the Winternationals will have access to the Snake Pit, a collection of iconic cars from Prudhomme's legendary 40-year racing career.
The major on-track story this weekend involves the future of the NHRA and one of its most famous families. A major shake-up at John Force Racing resulted in tuner/driver Mike Neff returning to the cockpit after a year out of the car; the 44-year-old will serve as crew chief and driver of Force's Castrol GTX-sponsored Funny Car.
Neff is back in the saddle because two-time defending U.S. Nationals champion Ashley Force Hood and her husband, Dan, are expecting their first child this summer. She has moved into a managerial role during her pregnancy as president of John Force Entertainment. However, JFR will still run three Funny Cars, including entries for team owner Force and 2009 Funny Car champion Robert Hight.
To boost continuity and familiarity, Neff is working with the same crew he served as chief for in 2010 when they guided the elder Force to a record 15th Funny Car crown. Force, in turn, will work with the crew who manned daughter Ashley's car last year, led by chiefs Dean "Guido" Antonelli and Ron Douglas.
"Obviously, we need to get the driver up to speed as quick as possible," observed Neff, who as a three-time winner at Pomona as a driver is obviously familiar with the famous California dragway. "We're starting out with the same car and the same crew that we had when John won [at Pomona] last November. The only thing different is the driver."
"Neff showed me that he could do double duty two years ago," said Force. "That's how it used to be, back in the match race days. You did everything. You financed it, you tuned it, you drove it and then you drove the truck to the next race. Neff has that mentality, so if anybody can wear both hats, it's him."
In the Top Fuel division, Larry Dixon and Al-Anabi Racing are hoping to maintain the championship-winning form from 2010 that toppled Tony Schumacher from the top of the heap after six consecutive titles.
Dixon won 12 races last year and compiled a 29-1 record on the eight occasions when he was the fastest Top Fuel qualifier. After two years of running Al-Anabi's sole Top Fuel car, he'll enjoy the benefits of having a teammate this year in the form of Del Worsham.
"We had a good test in West Palm Beach last month, but it's still hard to win any race in consecutive years -- especially the first one," Dixon said. "We are looking forward into 2011 and not so much reminiscing on what happened last year. Having the No. 1 on our wing this year is a proud accomplishment, but it's not something I'm looking back on."
Greg Anderson returns to defend his Pro Stock crown, but in a new car. His championship-winning Pontiac was destroyed in a transporter fire on the way home from the season finale at Pomona last November.
"I consider everything this team has gone through over the last year as a wake-up call," Anderson said. "Personally, I've been reminded of what is truly important in life, and believe that going through this experience has made me a better man. I'd just like things to be a little quieter this year. So far, everything has gone pretty smoothly, so we're cautiously optimistic heading into Pomona."
After becoming the youngest pilot to ever secure an NHRA championship, 21-year-old LE Tonglet is hoping to avoid a sophomore slump in search of a second consecutive Pro Stock Motorcycle crown.
After scoring a U.S. Nationals win on a shoestring budget, Tonglet joined forces with the Nitro Fish Racing Team and was able to dramatically come from behind to defeat Andrew Hines in the NHRA's Countdown to 1 playoffs.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing and other motorsports for ESPN.com.