Courtesy: Bob Wilber

The calendar may still indicate we're living in January, and throughout much of America the snow cover and frigid temperatures are showing no inclination of any abatement, but the first sign of springtime light at the end of a long dark winter tunnel is actually about to make itself evident. Ready or not, here comes the nitro!

Just as the annual migration of pitchers and catchers to sunny southern ball fields lets baseball fans know that spring is just around the corner, this weekend's arrival of colorful and fast flying Funny Cars in Nevada, including the red and blue Checker, Schuck's, Kragen teams, will be the alarm bell drag racing fans have been longing to hear. The 2005 NHRA POWERade season is about to begin.

When Team CSK puts its Monte Carlo Funny Cars on The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway this weekend, with drivers Del Worsham and Phil Burkart at the controls, the long marathon of a march that is to be the team's 2005 season will have taken its first step. Ten months from now, when the season concludes in Pomona, the 23-race campaign will have been run and the champions crowned. In between, the story lines are apt to meander and surprise as they always do but, for now, every team is tied for first.

For Worsham and Burkart, the 2004 season seems like ancient history while it also remains fresh in their memories and relevant to their futures. Worsham's second place finish marked a career high for the popular driver, and he heads into 2005 with but one goal in mind. Burkart's tenth place position was also a career best and he heads into '05 looking to climb the ladder into the upper echelons of the POWERade Top Ten. In unison, both drivers are looking to wrestle the POWERade Championship from the monopolistically firm grasp of John Force Racing.

"2004 was great, and we learned an awful lot about what it takes to really contend for the big prize," Worsham said. "We feel we're better positioned than ever, but we also know how humbling and difficult this sport can be. The five wins and the second place finish from last year can't help us now. We're starting with zero points and last year's accomplishments are history. We have to push forward, and try new things.

"We've made some adjustments to our cars, and we're very eager to get on the track and see how our off-season work pans out. You spend a couple of months in the shop, coming up with new ideas and creating some new parts and pieces, but you don't know what you have until you fire it up and take it down the track. Over the years, some of our ideas have found their way straight into the junk pile, and others have helped us win, so you never know. There's risk involved with trying new things, but we know all about the risk/reward equation and we know we have to take it."

Worsham's second place finish went a long way toward narrowing his list of 2005 goals, as there is now only one place left to go in terms of improvement. He'll spend the '05 season campaigning a car with the number "2" on its side, while he aims to be the first driver not affiliated with John Force Racing to grab the number "1" since Cruz Pedregon did the deed way back in 1992.

"John and his team have earned all of the number ones," Worsham said. "You don't win more than a decade's worth of championships by being lucky, you have to be great. But, logic tells me that someone, at some point, should be able to take the big trophy out of John's hands. I know John, and know how passionate and obsessive he is about winning every round, every race, and every championship. Taking it from him will be one of the greatest challenges in all of racing. To win this thing, you'll have to beat the very best. John is probably the best there ever was.

"Cruz won the championship back in 1992, and there are plenty of crew guys around now who were just little kids when that happened. There's a whole generation coming up that figures it's really called the John Force Championship. In 2005, there's a whole class full of us trying to take it away, and we hope the Checker, Schuck's, Kragen team can be in the middle of that fight."

Burkart will be heading for Las Vegas from his home in upstate New York, where he normally would be snowmobiling on hundreds of miles of groomed trails this time of year. Instead, he has spent the new year readying himself for his second full season behind the wheel of the blue CSK machine.

"Our blue team learned a lot last year, starting with the driver but definitely including everyone else," Burkart said. "We know where we need to improve, and we know where we have some strengths. If we can make some adjustments in the areas where we need to get better, and maintain or even improve on our strengths, we're going to win races. Our goal is to help Team CSK make some history. I've never been so ready to get back in the car and fire it up.

"I've been an avid snowmobile rider for many years, but this year the big snowfalls have mostly missed us and the sled hasn't left the garage. It's funny, because as soon as last season ended I just wanted to get right back to racing, whereas usually I'm really looking forward to winter and the snowmobile. I guess maybe Old Man Winter knew what I wanted, because he didn't even tempt me to get the sled out and ride. Now, it's racing season and I'm going nuts waiting for this weekend."

Burkart believes his own goals of improving on his two wins and tenth place finish will fit nicely with his boss's dream of ending the Force monopoly.

"I hear people throwing around a lot of names as the odds-on guy to unseat Force, and there's no doubt that some teams are throwing everything they have at it," Burkart said. "In some cases, it's an enormous amount of resources you're talking about and resources are critical, but there's more to it than money. If anyone looks at the contenders and doesn't see Del Worsham as the absolute front runner to move up, I don't think they've been paying attention.

"We work as one big team here, and the blue team will have to be a part of anything that happens. We have an enormous amount of responsibility to win, take out the competition, and make our dreams come true. We have to pull our weight, and help make it happen. We're here to do that, and it all begins this weekend."

This weekend, January 22nd and 23rd, marks the beginning. One week later, most of the NHRA professionals will head to Phoenix for a second weekend of spring training. Two weeks after that, on February 10th in Pomona, it will begin in earnest and the runs will count.

What a long strange trip it will no doubt be.

JOINING BURKART AND WORSHAM THIS WEEKEND: John Force, Robert Hight, Eric Medlen, Gary Scelzi, Ron Capps, Whit Bazemore, Tommy Johnson Jr., Bob Gilbertson, Mike Strasburg, David Baca, Ashley Force, Duane Shields.