In the smoky, greasy world of big-league American drag racing, the Al-Anabi Racing team stood apart.
Funded by a speed-loving prince from the ruling family of the oil-rich Persian Gulf nation of Qatar, the team’s shiny dragsters and its crews’ crisp uniforms featured striking maroon, gold and silver colors that bespoke their deep-pocketed commitment to winning.
And win they did. After the prince, Sheik Khalid Al Thani, formed a team in 2008 with famed drag-racing crew chief Alan Johnson, his team won championships in top fuel — the most elite class of dragsters — in 2010, 2011 and 2013 with three different drivers. Also in 2013, Al Thani signed a five-year contract extension with Johnson.
But a month ago, Al Thani and his estimated $10 million-plus of annual sponsorship money for the two-car team suddenly vanished without public explanation. Johnson issued a statement saying Al Thani had “terminated funding” and the move was “completely unexpected.”
Neither Johnson nor Al Thani gave a reason for the pullout, and Johnson and his team members declined interviews. It’s not known whether the recent plunge in oil prices played a role in the decision; Qatar is a member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).
Regardless, the setback came just four weeks before the National Hot Rod Assn. season opener, with this weekend’s Circle K Winternationals in Pomona, where top-fuel cars scream down the dragstrip at 320 mph in about four seconds.
“We had no idea that was coming,” NHRA President Tom Compton said about the sheik’s exit, adding neither Al Thani nor other Qatar representatives have contacted him since pulling out.
“In previous conversations, there was never any indication this was coming down,” Compton said.
The defending top-fuel winner of the Winternationals, Khalid alBalooshi of Dubai, was one of the two Al-Anabi drivers; the other was 2013 champion Shawn Langdon of Mira Loma, Calif.
But after the sheik’s pullout, alBalooshi left the team. Johnson and Langdon have regrouped into a one-car team that’s entered in this year’s Winternationals while scrambling to find new sponsors so they can keep racing all season. “We are in discussions with multiple entities about sponsoring our race team,” Johnson said in a statement last week.
It costs roughly $5 million a year to operate a top-fuel team at the NHRA’s premier level, called the Mello Yello Series. The preeminent driver in top fuel is U.S. Army-sponsored Tony Schumacher, who won a record eighth title last year and whose crew chief formerly was Johnson until Johnson left for Al-Anabi.
“Honestly I was bummed” about Al Thani’s pullout, Schumacher told reporters last week.
“I’ve been there when you find out something last-minute is changing,” Schumacher said, adding that he had not talked to Johnson about what happened. “It’s not good for the sport. Not only do we need more cars but we can’t in any way afford to lose any of them.”
In a sport with roots in the Southern California car culture, and in which many corporate backers are makers of cars, motor oils and other auto accessories, Al Thani was a novel source of fresh cash and energy for NHRA drag racing.
It so happens that drag racing is popular in Qatar and some other parts of the Middle East — there’s an Arabian Drag Racing League — and Al Thani, who is in his late 20s, has been a fan since he was a teenager.
Al Thani, once dubbed the sport’s “patron sheik” by The Wall Street Journal, formed his NHRA team partly to raise awareness of drag racing and other motorsports in Qatar, a country slightly smaller than Connecticut. Al-Anabi means “Go Team Maroon!”
The Al-Anabi team had roughly 25 to 30 employees based in Brownsburg, Ind., but with Johnson cutting his team to one car, some were forced to find jobs elsewhere. One, assistant crew chief Ronnie Thompson, was hired by legendary drag racer John Force to work on the top-fuel car driven by Force’s daughter Brittany.
Force predicted Johnson would rebound despite losing Qatar’s backing. “He’ll put it back together,” Force said. “He’s a racer like me. We need Alan Johnson and his drivers.”
As a first step, “our plan is to do everything we can to repeat as Winternationals champions and get Alan Johnson Racing’s next chapter off to a great start,” Langdon said in the team’s pre-race notes.
The Winternationals opens with qualifying time trials at Auto Club Raceway on Friday and Saturday, followed by final eliminations Sunday that determine the event winners.
Follow Jim Peltz on Twitter @PeltzLATimes