The last time Antron Brown played Pomona, he wound up in a sand trap, which would have been fine if he'd been driving a ball at the Mountain Meadows Golf Course across the street and not a 320-mph dragster at the Auto Club Raceway.
Brown, 37, has had two crashes in 16 years on the National Hot Rod Assn. circuit. One came last February at the Winternationals in Pomona, where his 8,000-horsepower top-fuel engine exploded as he crossed the finish line ahead of David Grubnic.
Brown's car careened into Grubnic's lane, flipped upside down and disintegrated as it drifted down the strip, coming to rest in the safety sand trap at the end of the track. The Chesterfield, N.J., native walked away with sore knees and a headache, a miracle he attributed to his new enclosed cockpit canopy, a safety feature many drivers decline because it adds 40 to 60 pounds to their cars.
"Normally, people don't walk away from an accident like that," Brown said before Thursday's qualifying rounds for the Auto Club NHRA Finals, his first race at Pomona since his harrowing crash. "But we tested our canopy, and it passed with flying colors. No debris, no fire got to me."
Brown, who became the first African American to win a major U.S. auto racing championship when he won the top-fuel Mello Yello title in 2012, entered the final event of 2013 trailing heavy favorite Shawn Langdon by 102 points.
He had a smooth, clean run Thursday, covering 1,000 feet in 3.787 seconds, the second-fastest qualifying time behind Langdon's 3.772.
"It's a longshot to win the title, but we're going to give it everything we've got," Brown said. "It's not over until it's over, because anything can happen."
The worst nearly happened the last time Brown raced at Pomona, but he has wiped that crash out of his hard drive.
"You can't take it with you into the next race, because it's going to affect you, and you're not going to drive the way you should," Brown said. "I had a thousand runs where everything went right. I had one bad one. Why is that one bad one going to affect way you drive all your other ones? You have to have that mind-set to move on. If you don't, it will mess you up."
Norco's Jack Beckman, who won the 2012 funny car title, but hasn't won a race in 2013, had Thursday's top funny car qualifying time of 4.077 seconds, just ahead of Robert Hight (4.096), John Force (4.105) and Courtney Force (4.115), all of Yorba Linda. John Force, 64, has already clinched this season's funny car points title, the 16th of his career.