SONOMA — His Excellency Sheikh Khalid bin Hamad Al Thani came to Sonoma Raceway dressed casually on Friday: black, jersey-style polo shirt (decorated with the number 3, the word "Qatar" and a representation of the Qatari flag), blue jeans, sandals and sunglasses. He is, after all, just 26 years old.
Sheikh Khalid had no entourage at Sonoma Nationals qualifying. He would have been nearly invisible were it not for his high-profile friends. Legendary NHRA team owner Don Schumacher came over to pay his respects and joke with the Qatari prince. Driver/owner John Force did the same, and a little later returned to introduce his daughter, Funny Car driver and pin-up glamor girl Courtney Force.
In his fifth year as an NHRA team owner, Sheikh Khalid is part of drag racing's inner circle. And yet his team, Al-Anabi Racing, remains a bit exotic. Most Top Fuel dragsters are emblazoned with names like Matco Tools and Lucas Oil. The cars driven by Shawn Langdon and Khalid alBalooshi have "Qatar" painted across their rear wings.
"We must be the only team to offer eight different types of tea in the garage area," said Rob Goodman, the organization's director of media relations.
Growing up in a nation whose sporting passions tend to lean toward thoroughbred racing and soccer — Qatar will host the 2022 World Cup — Sheikh Khalid became obsessed with motorsports at a young age. He sponsored teams and even drove some Pro Modified cars here.
"Till his dad told him he couldn't do that anymore," said Alan Johnson, who serves as Al-Anabi team manager and has been instrumental in its growth.
The father, former Qatari emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, handed control of the nation to his son, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, in June, a rare Middle Eastern transfer of power that didn't involve a death or a coup. That move basically left younger son Sheikh Khalid, the Al-Anabi owner, as first in line to the throne.
Qatar sits on vast reserves of petroleum and natural gas, and Sheikh Khalid has no shortage of wealth or autonomy. He has made it his goal to increase Qatar's international profile through drag racing. The push began in earnest in 2009 when the sheikh invested an estimated $10 million in Al-Anabi, which roughly translates to "Go Team Maroon!"
Sheikh Khalid didn't simply dump money into his racing program. He lured Johnson, one of the top crew chiefs in the business, away from Don Schumacher Racing. At the time the sheikh hired him, Johnson had helped Tony Schumacher win the previous five Top Fuel championships.
Al-Anabi hasn't mounted that sort of track dominance, but Johnson, who also owns an engine-parts manufacturing plant in Santa Maria, has overseen two Top Fuel titles — Larry Dixon in 2010 and Del Worsham in 2011. And Langdon enters today's Sonoma Nationals leading the point standings.
Sheikh Khalid's five-year commitment to Al-Anabi is nearly up, but Johnson said there are "ongoing discussions" to renew for another five years.
He and his benefactor aren't able to meet face-to-face often. This was Sheikh Khalid's first visit to an NHRA event in 2013. Johnson traveled to Qatar once. More often they meet in London, sort of a midway point.
When around the team, Sheikh Khalid is known for his easygoing style. He jokes with crew members and relishes the nuts and bolts of tuning cars. He brought his 4-year-old daughter to Sonoma Raceway. She rode a scooter around Al-Anabi's garage and hospitality area.