Dixon ready to defend Bristol crown

By Jeff Birchfield
STAR Staff
jbirchfield@starhq.com

   BRISTOL -- When Larry Dixon comes to Bristol Dragway this month, the memories of last season will still be fresh in his mind.
   The defending NHRA Top Fuel champion saw Bristol as one of his sweetest victories of 2002 after being disqualified the previous year for an early start.
   "Last year for me, I don't want to say it was revenge, but in 2001 we had the car to beat," said Dixon. "I went red on one of the runs and kind of gave the race away. To come back last year and have the car perform so phenomenal, it was nice to get it done."
   Dixon was on a tear in 2002, winning nine races including seven of the first ten NHRA events. He also set a Top Fuel record making 14 final round appearances in 23 races.
   It was the culmination of a two-year stretch, where Dixon, the 1995 NHRA Rookie of the Year, went from being one of the rising stars on the NHRA Powerade tour to the man to beat. Fifteen of his twenty-five career wins in drag racing's elite division has come over the past two seasons.
   During that time, Dick LaHaie, himself a former Top Fuel champion driver has served as Dixon's crew chief. Last season, Dixon led all the NHRA major series with a winning percentage of .814 or a record of 57-13 in single round races.
   "A lot of credit goes to Dick LaHaie," said Dixon. "When he came on board in 1999, it took us a year or so to jell and get things going. We just go out there and try to race hard every week. We try to get more points than everyone else and last year, we were rewarded by becoming the champs."
   Besides the Thunder Valley Nationals race in 2001, the season championship that year was another prize that got away, when Kenny Bernstein finished better than Dixon in the final event of the season at Pomona, Calif. to clinch the title.
   "It went toward Kenny, but they had a little better car that season," said Dixon. "They won more races and their car ran a little better. That put fire under all of us to try to get it done. We came back last season and set all those records. We had the better car last season and I thought I did a better job as a driver.
   "To be honest with you, I was enjoying the moment last season. I know that kind of stuff doesn't happen. There's been years where I've had trouble qualifying. To go and have a season like that, I had a ball. It was the most fun I've ever had."
   Dixon also boasts being the top qualifier on 19 separate occasions, including Bristol last season. The North Hollywood, Calif. native has a certain fondness for Thunder Valley as he has been coming to the drag strip since a little boy watching his father race.
   "My dad raced here in the late seventies," recalled the second-generation racer. "I used to come here on our summer vacations from school. I was thrilled to get the opportunity to come here and race on the NHRA tour. When they made it a points paying event, I got really excited about that.
   "For a facility, I hate to rank them, but it would have to be in one of the top two or three we race at. Bruton Smith and his company pour in the money for a showcase for the fans to see a good race and a good facility for the cars to perform on. You can't ask for anything more."
   Larry, 36, is surrounded by winners and legends. His Funny Car teammate Ron Capps won Bristol's Thunder Valley Nationals in 2001, while the man behind Larry's efforts is one of the sport's all-time greats.
   His car owner is none other than the legendary Don "The Snake" Prudhomme, whom forged a timeless rivalry in drag racing circles against Tom "The Mongoose" McEwen.
   "Being a kid and growing up in drag racing, you looked for any kind of drag racing toys that you could get," said Dixon, who now lives in Avon, Indiana. "I had those Hot Wheels cars with the Snake and the Mongoose and all that. Then they had the Revell deal for the model. That was really cool. Snake and Don Garlits were my two heroes."
   He owes most of his love for going fast down the quarter-mile to a source closer to home, his father Larry, Sr..
   "I tell people I don't know any better," said the younger Dixon about getting hooked on speed. "I grew up in this environment and have been around this since I was four years old. Kids want to grow up to be doctors or astronauts or whatever.
   "I always wanted to drive Top Fuel cars. Finally getting the opportunity to do it and win races and win the championship is all that I've ever wanted out of life. I'm getting to live my dream."