The common thread amongst humans in 2020 has been a sense of uncertainty in a world where one can no longer anticipate what’s going to happen next. The emotions accompanying this truth vary wildly, and for many, exhaustion and dread have replaced optimism. For a select few, though, awful circumstances have served to spur them forward. Such is the case for Top Alcohol Funny Car’s Sean Bellemeur, team owner Tony Bartone, tuner Steve Boggs, and every member of the crew on the fiercely bonded Bartone Brothers Racing team.
The 2019 season had not been easy; the target on Bellemeur’s back was pinned firmly to his firesuit after his successful 2018 championship charge, and in August, he was crushed by the loss of longtime friend Tom Shelar. Although devasted, Bellemeur and the team pulled together and stayed the course to secure a second-consecutive championship.
At the end of the season, Bellemeur stated that the plan for 2020 was to go after a third straight season victory. Only Frank Manzo, a legend in the Top Alcohol Funny Car ranks, had previously accomplished the feat – but Bellemeur was confident that the well-equipped, finely tuned group would have a respectable chance.
“Our team is as strong as it can be,” he said last December. “Tony Bartone provides us with the personnel and equipment to get the job done, Steve Boggs has a handle on the racetracks and conditions, and I’m comfortable in the car. I don’t see any reason for us to change what we’re doing, but you can feel people breathing down the back of your neck, and I expect more of that. Doug Gordon has a new car coming, and there will be a few new cars coming out.”
The nod to fellow Californian Gordon proved prophetic, but there were many months of battle waged before the NHRA championship was determined.
The 2020 season began normally. However, the picture quickly shifted for everyone, including the ‘Killer Bs’ – Bellemeur, Boggs, Bartone, and ‘the boys,’ as aptly christened in print by National Dragster editor Phil Burgess.
Bartone Brothers Racing showed no inkling of potential derailment as they stormed into the year. A hard charge evolved as necessary, though, to thoughtfully and gratefully navigating a schedule that changed shape as COVID-19 wreaked havoc on the world.
The team logged a runner up at the divisional event in Gainesville, and from there they wrung the season of every last drop of opportunity to race, winning division events at Texas Motorplex and New England Dragway, then going two-for-two with victories in the newly reformatted Summit Racing Mid-West Drag Racing Series presented by J&A Service.
Between those two MWDRS trophies, tragedy struck the team as longtime crew member and friend Charlie Kominski succumbed to cancer. With heavy hearts yet resolute in spirit, Bellemeur and the team were able to honor their fallen friend with an emotional victory, and they fully intended to keep winning for Charlie.
Back in NHRA competition and deeply embroiled in the war for the championship, Bellemeur was a finalist at the Columbus divisional and then was struck by an impactful first-round loss at the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis. He and his team stood right back up, though, and went back-to-back in national event title rounds.
The team claimed the Gatornationals trophy and then fell to Gordon in an intense Dallas final, setting up a curious situation for the Mopar Express Lane SpringNationals the following weekend.
Gordon posted a shocking first-round loss at Houston Raceway Park on Saturday, giving Bellemeur room to make a critical move. The Bartone Brothers team had earned the pole with a brilliant Boggs-blessed 5.422-second pass at 270.86 mph, and their low elapsed time/top speed 5.459, 269.40 in round one over Aryan Rochon set them up for a single into the semifinals.
Bellemeur would need the round win there over Chris Marshall to keep hope alive for a third consecutive championship, but high-level enthusiasm shifted to dread and finally disappointment on the starting line as a broken rotor in the mag rendered their race car inoperable.
The 2020 Top Alcohol Funny Car championship went to Gordon, but Bellemeur was unwilling to stay down for long. The next race on the schedule was the NHRA Finals in Las Vegas, and as luck would have it, Gordon and Bellemeur drew one another in the semifinals.
Bellemeur launched first with a characteristic .027-second reaction time, and he cashed it in for a win light as his 5.510, 260.21 knocked out Gordon’s 5.494, 262.49 on a holeshot.
After the semis, Bellemeur was more than pleased – not just to have won the round, but to have had a good race with Gordon. It wasn’t quite redemption for what happened in Houston, but it appeared to be somewhat soothing.
“The Gordons are the best there is,” said Bellemeur to reporter Amanda Busick for the NHRA on FOX telecast. “I don’t mind losing to them, but I would have preferred to go down swinging [for the championship]. I didn’t even get a fight.”
Noting that his Hussey Performance Chevrolet Camaro had emitted a puff of smoke nearing the finish line stripe in his match with Gordon, Bellemeur exclaimed before returning to the pits, “We had this thing on wreck.”
He and the team were successful in patching up their racecar before the final, and Bellemeur repeated his semifinals success story in the last act with a .028 at the starting line to turn a 5.500, 266.06 into a holeshot win over Bob McCosh’s .058 and 5.499, 266.64.
With Bellemeur’s 20th national event trophy in hand, the team wasn’t finished for the season. They went on to the Las Vegas divisional, the last Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series event of the year, and locked down one more trophy.
“We lost the heart and soul of our team when we lost Charlie,” said Bellemeur. “He was such an integral part of this team. He could never be replaced, but we go on in his memory, and we’ll remember what he taught us.”
Lead photo and Mid-West Drag Racing Series results courtesy MWPMS/E3xtreme/Damon Steinke