Top Fuel driver Dixon races to promote nation of Qatar

Larry Dixon has hawked cigarettes and beer with his former Top Fuel dragsters.

“Yeah, I’ve been lucky to be able to represent some Fortune 500 companies in my career,” said the points leader heading into today’s final two rounds of qualifying for the NHRA Las Vegas Nationals at Las Vegas Motor Speedway’s dragstrip. “And now I race for a country.”

Dixon, 44, was hired to drive the Al-Anabi Racing Top Fuel dragster when Qatar’s Sheik Khalid Al Thani formed a professional team with noted crew chief Alan Johnson as team manager at the end of the 2008 season.

Al Thani’s dragster and the team’s Funny Car driven by Del Worsham promote Qatar, a country the size of Connecticut with a population of 1 million on the western shore of the Arabian Gulf.

“I’ve had people tell me it must be nice after being sponsored by very big companies and having to answer to them,” Dixon said. “This is a lot more than selling cigarettes or beer.”

A major newspaper in Qatar devoted four pages to the team after Dixon won this year’s prestigious U.S. Nationals on Labor Day weekend.

Al-Anabi means “go maroon” and honors the primary color of the Qatar flag. The team’s race cars carry decals of Qatar and U.S. flags.

Al Thani, 24, is a member of his country’s royal family. He rarely gives interviews but has said the purpose of the racing operation is to raise awareness of drag racing in Qatar. Next season, the team will switch its Funny Car program to a second Top Fuel team with Worsham driving a new dragster.

After finishing second in championship points a year ago, Dixon’s sophomore team has dominated in the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series by winning 12 of 21 event titles, including the Las Vegas event in April, when he took the points lead, which he has never relinquished.

Dixon, with crew chief Jason McCulloch, carries an 89-point lead over Cory McClenathan. Six-time reigning Top Fuel champion Tony Schumacher is third and an almost insurmountable 150 points behind Dixon heading into today’s final rounds of qualifying. Championship eliminations are Sunday.

Dixon, who won championships in the category in 2002 and 2003 driving for Don Prudhomme, is not focusing on stopping Schumacher, who earned the provisional pole Friday.

“I don’t think about stopping Tony,” said Dixon, who has a 59-9 record this year. “He’s definitely set the benchmark, and he’s not mathematically out of it. He’s still in the hunt, and I’m very aware of that.”

Dixon’s closest challenger, McClenathan, is Schumacher’s teammate at Don Schumacher Racing.

Johnson is going for his ninth Top Fuel championship. As a crew chief, he won three with Gary Scelzi and five with Schumacher.

Contact reporter Jeff Wolf at jwolf@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0247.

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