It wasn't the blazing ride into the sunset Shawn Langdon envisioned. With dusk settling on the Auto Club Raceway in Pomona on Saturday, the top-fuel drag racer smoked his tires on his final qualifying run of the NHRA Finals, sputtering down the 1,000-foot strip in 4.869 seconds, his worst pass of the meet.
But top challenger Antron Brown did the same thing in the lane next door, smoking his tires on a 6.083-second run, and that allowed Langdon to clinch his first top-fuel world championship and a $500,000 bonus at the track the 31-year-old Mira Loma native practically grew up at.
"It wasn't a spectacular run to win a championship, but it was the job we did prior to this that allowed us to win the title," said Langdon, who has won six events this year. "It didn't matter to me if I drove down the track backward. I wanted that first championship."
Langdon, who races for the Alan Johnson-led Al-Anabi Racing team, which is owned by Sheik Khalid bin Hamad al Thani of Qatar, built an insurmountable 104-point lead over Brown, the defending champion, in the Mello Yello Series entering Sunday's finals.
"Man, what a journey," Langdon said. "To do it here in Pomona … I don't think anything could have topped this."
Langdon was a Pomona track rat, tagging along with his father, Chad, who raced in the super-gas class, and collecting autographs of idols such as John Force, Don Prudhomme, Kenny Bernstein and Joe Amato.
"My mom and dad met at the track, and I was basically a kid in a stroller here," Langdon said. "You went to races on the weekends. It was a way of life."
By middle school, Langdon was behind the wheel of his own NHRA junior dragster, and he won his first national championship at age 14.
"I was also really into baseball and made some All-Star teams," Langdon said. "But when I won that first junior dragster championship, it was a feeling I never got in baseball. From then on, I put my focus into racing."
Langdon, a 2001 graduate of Jurupa Valley High, progressed from junior dragsters to super-comps to alcohol dragsters, and in 2009 he started driving 320-mph top-fuel cars.
It seemed fitting that Langdon's run to the 2013 championship began in Pomona, where he won the Winternationals in February, and ended there.
"It's weird to think back to where I started and where I'm at now," Langdon said. "Coming back to Pomona, where I grew up racing and watching my dad race, winning a championship, it's a crazy feeling, a great feeling. It's definitely a dream come true."
It was also a memorable Saturday for John Force, who set a funny car track record with a 3.995-second pass — the first-ever three-second run by a funny car at Pomona — on his final qualifying run to claim the 146th top seed of his career.
"It was a rocket shot," Force said. "The car didn't vibrate, it didn't move around. It was on a mission. I heard the guys yelling on the radio. I knew she ran in the threes, I just didn't know how good."
Force's run came on the heels of Matt Hagan's track-record 320.20-mph pass to claim the second seed in funny cars. Courtney Force vaulted from eighth to third seed with a 4.016-second pass at 319.07 mph. Brandon Bernstein earned the top seed in the top-fuel class with a 3.748-second pass at 325.37 mph.