2019 NHRA NEW ENGLAND NATIONALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
TORRENCE CONTINUES DOMINATION WITH VICTORY AT NEW ENGLAND NATS - Top Fuel star Steve Torrence’s domination in the NHRA’s Mello Series continued Sunday at the New England Nationals.
The reigning world champion appeared in his eighth final round in a row and won for the seventh time.
Torrence clocked a 3.861-second elapsed time at 321.58 mph to edge Scott Palmer’s 4.014-second lap at 251.25 mph.
Torrence’s eight consecutive final-round appearances was second most in NHRA history behind eight-time Top Fuel world champion Tony Schumacher, who made it to 11 final rounds in a row in 2008.
This was Torrence’s 34th career Top Fuel win and seventh this season. He now has 26 victories in a three-year span, tying the record with Tony Schumacher.
“All the glory goes to God because as a driver you just get in these things and I have a really good team behind me,” Torrence said. “These are Top Fuel cars and they can humble you quicker than anything in the world. We struggled a little bit through qualifying and Hoagie (Richard Hogan, Torrence’s crew chief) goes on a whim, low ET (3.756) and top speed of the weekend (328.62 mph) (in first round). It’s truly just a testament to the work ethic that this Torrence racing team has and all the boys at Capco to keep us out here doing this. To get to race Scott Palmer in the final again, that guy has been my hero. He raced alcohol Funny Cars and kind of got me interested in it with my parents. It’s truly unreal and this has been an unbelievable season.”
Unlike most of Torrence’s wins this season, he was far from stellar in qualifying, coming in at No. 9 on the ladder with a best-effort of 4.170 seconds.
“We had a couple of self-inflicted issues on Friday and (Richard) Hoagie (Hogan, Torrence’s other co-crew chief) stuck with us and worked through it,” said co-crew chief Bobby Lagana Jr. “We were rooting for Scott to win because he’s family. Billy (Torrence, Steve’s father), I’m sorry to say that I love you to like a dad. All the boys at Capco, Steve is spectacular and the crew guys on this team, especially Hoagie, God Bless America.”
Torrence’s victory parade consisted of wins over Prock, Terry McMillen, Richie Crampton and Palmer, who was aiming to win his first career Wally in his career final-round appearance.
Torrence stretched his lead in the points standings to 479 points over second-place Doug Kalitta. Torrence’s elimination round record this season is 37-6.
“I really, really want Scott Palmer to win a race, but we want to win them all, too,” said Torrence. “That was a great final round. That’s a really good group of guys and to see the progress we’ve both made, it’s pretty neat and really special for us.
“Without being cocky and just being confident, you carry the mindset of you want to go everywhere and win. With doing that, you don’t treat anywhere any differently. This is a fun place to come to and it’s a pretty neat part of the country.” Tracy Renck
HAGAN ENDS SLUMP, WINS NEW ENGLAND NATIONALS - Things had not been going well for Matt Hagan in the Mopar Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat.
The two-time world champion out of the Don Schumacher Racing stable lost in the first round at three straight races – Topeka, Kan., Bristol, Tenn., and Norwalk, Ohio, and five of the past six NHRA Mello Yello Series events.
Hagan’s fortunes changed in a big way this weekend at the New England Nationals in Epping, N.H.
Hagan clocked a 4.014-second elapsed time at 322.81 mph to oust Shawn Langdon’s 4.046-second lap 317.49 mph in the finals to win in Epping for the third year in a row.
“I don’t know (how we did it), but I want to keep coming back to this race track, this place has shown me love,” said Hagan, who was sporting a new-look Fu Manchu moustache this weekend. “This comes down to my crew chief (Dickie Venables) and the confidence he has - it grows confidence in me and my guys. Our fans sitting through this heat and watching what we do is pretty awesome. We’re going to drink a little beer and a lot of Mello Yello with it. It feels good to win again.”
When asked if his moustache would stay, Hagan had the following response:
“I don’t think my wife will kiss me with it,” he said with a laugh.
This was Hagan’s 31st career NHRA national event win and second this season, with the other one coming in Phoenix, Ariz.
Hagan had quite the impressive victory binge Sunday, defeating world champions Jack Beckham and Ron Capps and Bob Tasca III, who won the last two events in a row, and then Langdon.
“About three little things,” said Dickie Venables, Hagan’s crew chief, when asked what the key to the turnaround was. “That’s the way these things are. A lot of people don’t realize that, but it wasn’t a mile off it was just like two or three little things. When it goes down the race track you learn about it. Matt did a great job all weekend and I’m proud of my guys. We’re back in the winner’s circle and I couldn’t be happier.”
Hagan qualified No. 6 with a 4.051-second elapsed time at 318.47 mph and then mowed through the competition.
“We went down the track in qualifying and that created a lot of confidence in our team,” said Hagan. “Rolling into race day, I knew we had a great car and I was confident in it.
“We kept lane choice every pass and that was big. I’m really excited we were able to get another win and we needed this to be our turning point this season. We needed to gather up some momentum and I feel like we’re making the right steps to move forward coming out of this race.”
Hagan improved his elimination round record to 16-11 this season. He has 351 round wins in his NHRA nitro Funny Car career, which began in 2008.
Hagan left Epping tied for seventh place in the points standings with Tasca.
“I’m really excited that we were able to pull down another win for MOPAR,” Hagan said. “We needed this race to be a turning point for our season, and now we have the Western Swing coming up and then Indy and the Countdown, and you want to have that momentum. With this new combination we have in our bellhousing, I feel like we’re making the right steps to move forward.” Tracy Renck
KALITTA NOT COUNTING POINTS, TORRENCE WANTS TO WIN ‘EM ALL – AND HE CAN, WILKERSON WANTS TO BE ‘BADASS AGAIN,’
KALITTA NOT PAYING ATTENTION TO POINTS – Two semifinal finishes in the past four races have Winternationals winner Doug Kalitta eager to earn another triumph this weekend, which would be his first at New England Dragway. That would atone for his narrow 2014 loss in the final round to Tony Schumacher, and it would give him some momentum going into the Western Swing and beyond.
“We dropped a close race in the final a few years ago in Epping, and we had a great race car that day,” the Mac Tools Dragster driver said of that 2014 performance that was part of a personal-best effort of nine final-round appearances. “I know we can run those numbers and show that kind of consistency again. We tested in Norwalk, and I am excited to get back to the track. We had a weekend off, which was nice, but now we are back to business.”
Kalitta entered this race ranked second in the standings, 404 points behind leader Steve Torrence.
“I am not worried about a points gap right now,” Kalitta said. “In fact, I am not really looking at the points. We are just working on getting as many round-wins as possible and the rest will sort itself out. The start of the Countdown is a great equalizer, but you still have to perform those last six races. We are looking at performing well in Epping and then the Western Swing.”
Kalitta carried the banner at Norwalk, Ohio, two weeks ago for new Kalitta Motorsports marketing partner Applied Imaging for one race. He said he was happy, though, to climb back into his familiar Mac Tools-adorned dragster this weekend. He’s also looking forward to doing something in it he’s familiar with: winning.
“We had a great weekend with Applied Imaging in Norwalk, and it was great to bring a new sponsor into NHRA drag racing,” he said. “I think they got a lot out of the weekend, and we are hoping to do more with them down the road. I am looking forward to getting back into this Mac Tools Dragster and hopefully parking it in the winners circle in Epping. We got to the final here early on after the track joined the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series. We have gone some rounds, but I would love to pick up a win at a new track, for sure."
Kalitta brought his two-year-old track speed record (331.69 mph from June 4, 2017) into this meet.
TORRENCE STILL GOING FULL THROTTLE – Cancer and heart-attack survivor Steve Torrence knows nothing is a sure thing in life or drag racing – not another championship, another Top Fuel victory, or even another day. So he isn’t putting a lot of stock into his 404-point lead over closest rival Doug Kalitta. On one hand, Torrence is aware that whatever his lead will be by the end of the U.S. Nationals six races away, it will be busted back to a fraction of what he achieved as the standings are spaced in 20-point increments. On the other hand, he isn’t coasting in to the Countdown and slipping into test mode.
“I know what some people are saying, but the truth is, we go out there to win every race. We’ve won six times this year. We’ve got six more races before they adjust the points, and we want to win all six,” he said.
The reigning Top Fuel champion from Kilgore, Texas, has won 12 of the past 18 races, including six of the seven most recent. His next victory, No. 34, will tie him with Cory McClenathan for No. 8 on the class’ all-time victories list. He is poised to become the first driver in the Countdown Era (since 2007) to claim the so-called “regular-season” championship for three consecutive years.
Always including his “Capco Boys” in his accolades, Torrence said, “That would be awesome. It would be just one more thing this group has been able to accomplish. It’s a heck of a legacy, and I’m just very blessed and proud to be part of it.”
Had a broken crankshaft not beset him in the final round at Bristol, Tenn., against Mike Salinas, Torrence might have been seeking his eighth straight victory rather than trying for the phenomenal-enough accomplishment of advancing to a final round for a personal-record eighth straight time. “That’s racing,” he said. “You can’t take anything for granted.”
CRAMPTON NEEDS A BREAK – For Richie Crampton, race day has caused a disconnect. He said, “We had an awesome race day at the Gatornationals. Since that race we have had a really good race car, and we just haven’t seen the results of a lot of hard work by some of the best guys in the business.” He has dropped out of contention in the first round six times since the Gatornationals and hasn’t gotten past the quarterfinals the other three times. “We seem to run well in qualifying and then get a tough match-up in the first round on race day or we struggle a little in qualifying and get a tough match-up because we might be starting from the bottom half. We aren’t getting any breaks,” Crampton said.
What better time to get a break or two than the first race with new marketing partner East Mountain Transport, a Port St. Lucie, Fla.-based company that specializes in heavy haul and over-dimensional cargo? The partnership, which extends through the remainder of this season, will be most visible on Crampton’s DHL Dragster but also will have branding on the Toyota Camry Funny Cars of JR Todd and Shawn Langdon and Doug Kalitta’s Mac Tools Dragster.
Crampton said, "I'm really excited to welcome East Mountain Transport on board with me and Kalitta Motorsports. I know everyone from me to Connie to all of our teams are looking forward to standing in the winners circle with our new partners soon."
“On behalf of East Mountain Transport’s staff of professionals, I am excited to announce our partnership with Kalitta Motorsports,” Karen LaMountain, president of East Mountain Transport, said. “EMT is proud of our association with a true team that represents its partners and the NHRA with professional operations, honor, and integrity. These are important values to our company’s brand. Kalitta Motorsports has a proven track record through hard work, dedication and a never-give-up attitude. The best do prevail.”
Crampton is ready to prevail. Ranked eighth in points, he said, “There is a little bit of a gap between No. 8 [himself] and No. 7 [Clay Millican] in the points I think but if you can get into the middle of the pack, there is a group of teams bunched up,. We can run with anyone, so really we are just going after whoever is in the next lane, no matter where they are in the Mello Yello points.” Within eight points of him as this race opened is Terry McMillen. And aggressive rookie Austin Prock is only 14 points behind him (six behind McMillen).
INSPIRED WILKERSON WANTS MORE BREATHING ROOM – Tim Wilkerson is ranked No. 9 in the Funny Car standings, but he’s not comfortable there. His goal is to be strong in the Countdown to the Championship, and to do that, he said, he can’t let No. 10 Shawn Langdon or the 11th- and 12th-ranked drivers, Cruz Pedregon and Terry Haddock, gain any ground on him.
"We're letting these guys get too close to us, and we've got to put some distance between us," Wilkerson said. "We need to be badass again [in the Countdown to the Championship] like we were last year, and we've got until Indy to get ready for that. We've had some good races where we just got beat, and we need that to not happen anymore."
The owner-driver-tuner of his own Ford Mustang has that drive in overdrive. He is eager to master the dragstrip even more, after he marred his Levi, Ray & Shoup 40th anniversary Mustang body in a crunch against the guard wall at Route 66 Raceway in early June. Taking the sentiment out of the picture, he is inspired by the way fellow Ford racer Bob Tasca has won the most recent two events (at Bristol, Tenn., then Norwalk, Ohio). After all, 10 of his 20 career victories have come in a Ford.
"We've got our new Ford Mustang body back, and hopefully we can learn something from Bob Tasca. He's doing a good job with that body now, and they seem to have figured out how to run it, where to put the spoilers, and all that,” he said. “We're excited about getting this bringing this 40th anniversary Levi, Ray & Shoup Ford Mustang body back out, now that we've got her all fixed up. And hopefully this weekend we'll have something to show for all the work that's gone into it."
Wilkerson came close to crossing off “a victory at Epping” from his to-do list last year, but Matt Hagan defeated him in the final round. New England Dragway is one of only five racetracks on the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series tour where the Team Summit driver from Springfield, Ill., hasn’t won. The others are Brainerd, Bristol, Pomona, and Richmond. He hasn’t won yet this season, but he’s a three-time finalist (Gainesville, Las Vegas, Atlanta). He was top qualifier at Las Vegas. Wilkerson was the only single-car Funny Car driver to finish in the top 10 last year.
NITRO FIELDS NOT FULL, FERRE A MODERN-DAY TOMMY IVO, TASCA TROIKA BLENDS WELL AS BOSS GOES FOR THREE STRAIGHT, PEDREGON SCORES NEW MARKETING PARTNER, HADDOCK RETURNS TO NORTHEAST A WISER RACER
NITRO FIELDS NOT FULL – The Top Fuel class had just 14 entrants for the New England Nationals, and the Funny Car class had only 15.
Antron Brown is the lone Don Schumacher Racing organization representative in the dragster class, although all four DSR Funny Cars are out in force. Eight-time Top Fuel champion Tony Schumacher – a two-time Epping winner – still is seeking funding. And since the beginning of this season, this race has been an open event on Leah Pritchett’s schedule. The No. 6-ranked Top Fuel driver is unfunded for this race and will not compete. She will return to the track at the next event on the NHRA schedule, the Dodge Mile-High NHRA Nationals presented by Pennzoil.
Pritchett – who owns the New England Dragway elapsed-time record at 3.673 seconds from June 3, 2017 – said, “There’s never any good time for bad news, but unfortunately, our Top Fuel team will not be racing in Epping this weekend. We started the year knowing we could potentially miss a small handful of races due to a shortage of funds, but through the hard work of so many, we haven’t missed one yet until now. We're a championship- contending team, and as much as it pains us to have to sit this one out, we know it is a necessary decision as we prepare to hit the Western Swing hard with everything we’ve got. We appreciate everyone’s continued support and look forward more than ever to returning to racing in Denver and continuing the points battle.”
Lex Joon isn’t in the points battle, but he’s in the same boat as Schumacher and Pritchett. He and crew chief wife Gerda were proud of their small-budgeted team making four consecutive races and winning a round at Bristol, Tenn. But they knew they couldn’t afford to let their adrenaline from all that make the think recklessly with their finances. Lex Joon said Tuesday afternoon from their Brownsburg, Ind.-based shop that “we didn’t accomplish what we needed in funds to make the trip up north. It’s not only about the running and travel costs, because that might have been doable, but we are in the process to upgrade our racing equipment – which doesn’t leave room in the expenses category to make a trip like this. As you all know we #NeverQuit. We will be back at the track stronger and faster with the power to make all of you cheerful and proud.”
No. 5 racer Mike Salinas, of California’s Bay Area, opted out of this event.
In the Funny Car class, each of the top 12 drivers is here. But not entered are regulars and semi-regulars Blake Alexander, Jonnie Lindberg, Paul Lee, Bob Bode, Phil Burkart, Gary Densham, Dale Creasy, and Jeff Arend. The top qualifier will earn a bye run in the first round of eliminations.
None of that’s a signal of doom and gloom for the nitro classes. The Top Fuel class alone has a handful of new shoes waiting to get on track in the near future: Brandon Welch, Justin Ashley, Ashley Sanford, Jasmine Salinas, and possibly Jianna Salinas, Matt Sackman, Corey Michalek, Artie Allen, and Jndia Erbacher and, one day, Julie Nataas.
FROM HOLLYWOOD TO HORSEPOWER – Top Fuel driver Cameron Ferré certainly isn’t the first drag racer to have a role in the movies or in television programs. “TV Tommy” Ivo and his protégé, Don Prudhomme, and Prudhomme’s protégé, Ron Capps have had their flings with filmmaking. “Heart Like A Wheel” showcased Shirley Muldowney’s groundbreaking career. But Ferre, like Ivo, was exposed to the Hollywood and entertainment industry as a youngster.
To help bankroll his racing experience, which started with Jr. Dragsters and progressed through the Super Comp, nitro nostalgia Funny Car, and Top Alcohol Dragster classes up to Top Fuel, he was an actor. His credits include the role of Pudge in the 1998 film “Jack Frost” that starred Michael Keaton and Kelly Preston and as a World War II re-enactor in “Saints and Soldiers” (2003). He also appeared in commercials. So he’s a bit of a modern-day Ivo, and he has the creative ideas and energy to match the legend’s.
Ferré, who will turn 34 years old July 24, still is a member of the Screen Actors Guild but said, “I really enjoy acting, but honestly, my main focus is racing and my family right now. Not saying I would never go back to it. I am always up for new opportunities that come my way, but I looked at acting as a means to get my start in pursuing racing.”
Besides, the Marketing Manager at Racepak said, “Acting and booking jobs is a lot harder than people think. You don’t just sign up to be in a movie. It takes lots of training and auditions, etc. With all I have going on currently, I think I’ll stick to racing. I’m still in the Screen Actors Guild union, so I can always go back if the opportunity presents itself.”
Ferré still gets to be in front of a camera in addition to appearances on the sport’s FOX-TV broadcasts at the races. He “stars” in videos for Racepak and said, “Of course, I really enjoy doing it. I do little projects for sponsors aside from Racepak now but would always love to do more of that. I always thought it would be really cool to be the host of a car-related show, like Bruno Massel does, or something like that. The camera and the red REC light does not scare me at all, so I’m always up for it if the right opportunity comes along. Until then ill strive for those top-end interviews on FS1.”
His acting career, he said, “meant a lot to me. I will always be extremely grateful, for it as it helped me gain the means needed to go racing. But at the end of the day, racing is where I wanted to be. I look back on it now and am proud of the fact that I was able to accomplish what I did at a young age. I feel like it was so long ago when I did it all, but it for sure also taught me a lot about life and growing up. It’s a very cutthroat business, and it allowed me to grew up pretty fast and take rejection well. Haha. There are many people that dream of being actors like I dream of being a full time Top Fuel racer and never get the chance. So to be able to be in the movies and commercials I was in, I will forever be grateful for it.”
PROCK: ‘WALLY IN SIGHT’ – Consistency has been the key goal all year for rookie Austin Prock, and he and his Montana Brand / Rocky Mountain Twist Dragster team have seen it recently – in qualifying. Prock and crew chiefs Mike Green and Ronnie Thompson want that to happen on race day, though, and it bugged them at Norwalk, Ohio, that for the second straight event, they dropped out of eliminations in the first round. So they stayed at Norwalk to test.
“That early exit in Norwalk was tough,” Prock said. “We were fourth-best of that session and had a good light, so it was hard to go out in the first round again. But we decided to stay and get some testing in. We made four passes and picked up early numbers and ran quicker than we have been, so I think things are looking good. Mike Green and Ronnie Thompson tried a few different ways of doing things, and we learned a lot. I think our team as a whole is as strong as it has ever been.” He said they took last weekend “to regroup” so that he’s “back and ready for the next one.”
Each driver in the four-team Kalitta Motorsports contingent (Doug Kalitta, Richie Crampton, JR Todd, Shawn Langdon) has won this season already, and eventually the John Force Racing quartet (which includes the boss, Robert Hight, and Brittany Force) would match that. Hight and Brittany Force already have won this year. But if Prock should earn his first Top Fuel trophy this weekend, he would join that Force group of New Hampshire winners. (The same for Hight in the Funny Car class.)
Prock said this could be the time. “I think we have a Wally in sight. I’m confident in this team, and it would be great to get our first win here behind the Forces. We’ll see what we can accomplish.”
A NO-BRAINER? – Two-time series champion Cruz Pedregon has partnered for the rest of the season with Origin Labs, showcasing the Jocko Discipline GO brand energy drink.
Its target audience is those looking to work harder, push past their comfort zones, and thrive in the grind, while staying focused and increasing cognitive stamina. The company takes great pride in both its Origin USA clothing line, which is completely manufactured in the U.S., and its nutritional supplement line that is all-natural with no artificial sweeteners, flavors, or preservatives.
One of a dozen-plus Origin Labs products, GO is billed as “a powerful Nootropic Energy drink. “Nootropic” refers to a drug used to enhance memory or other cognitive functions. It uses key nutrients and brain-boosting ingredients to limit the need for excessive caffeine. GO is advertised as “all-natural” and says it uses only natural flavors and sugar-free Monk fruit for sweetness.
Origin USA CEO Brian Littlefield said, "Most people would call Origin Labs a nutritional company, but we are actually a performance-driven technology company. Our delivery platform just happens to be nutrition. We are engineers, designers, and, most importantly, free thinkers and, just like in racing, we strive to be on the forefront to reach our next goal.
"Origin is thrilled to be joining forces with a legend of the sport and future Hall of Famer Cruz Pedregon. Cruz and his team embody the work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit required to pursue the American Dream we so deeply cherish. We couldn't think of a better partnership,” he said.
Caleb Cox, team manager of Cruz Pedregon Racing, said, “"We’re very excited to have Origin Labs, a subsidiary of Origin USA, join our team for the rest of the season. Origin is a great American company that proves through resilience and hard work that you can achieve what you set your mind to. Pushing through the fog is not an easy path. Living in a world that is vying for your attention and in an age where you’re bombarded with information, your greatest asset is your mind. It’s time to have discipline … It’s time to GO!”
In an effort to crack the Countdown lineup before the demanding three-race Western Swing accounts for half of the remaining regular-season events, Pedregon and his Glen Huszar-led Snap-on Dodge team have, according to the boss, been working late in the shop over the break getting things in perfect condition.” Pedregon said, “We look forward to seeing it all pay off and the team staying around to work late on Sunday.”
Huszar said, “We took time in the shop to get the car in the best shape possible. We really focused on making sure the fuel and oil systems are running smoothly, and we’re confident this will make the difference for us in Epping.”
Besides, it’s a trip Pedregon said he enjoys making. “I’ve always liked the track in Epping,” he said. “I feel like everything is really going to click for us this weekend.”
DREAM COMES FULL CIRCLE TO NORTHEAST – Terry Haddock has worked out of a gas station in New Jersey, a machine shop in Southern California, and his own space in Seattle in the past and has settled in Temple, Texas, operating Lone Star Aluminum Block Repair. But he’s back home in the Northeast this weekend. The Hackettstown, N.J. native said he remembers watching drag racing on TV and setting his sights on driving a nitro-powered car. “Of course, when you’re 10, you have a lot of dreams that never amount to much,” he said. “But I held on to that dream.”
And sometimes that dream seemed like a nightmare – like in Memphis in 2000. His qualifying fire aired again and again on a Discovery Channel program, and You Tube perpetuated it. Suddenly Haddock became the drag-racing version of Slovenian Vinko Bogataj, the ABC Wide World of Sports “agony of defeat” poster boy repeatedly shown wiping out on the takeoff ramp at the 1970 World Ski Flying Championships.
Haddock was stuck inside his car, struggling to free himself from his safety belts before he could climb through the escape hatch. He had to remove his driving gloves to yank off the harness because its Velcro release had melted. The sweat on his face had boiled inside his helmet. He spent hospital time with severe burns to his face and hands but told himself, "I ain't got it bad at all. I saw all these little kids in the hospital who had been burned."
Just the same, when racers talk about sacrifice and about pain, Haddock knows the hard way what he's talking about. Struggling to make a field or advance past the first round is no struggle in comparison.
In that case and others that delivered less severe health consequences but no less setbacks financially, Haddock knew he was in equipment he shouldn’t have been driving. “When I got started, there was no one here to teach me. I wanted it so bad that I did so many dumb things to keep racing. I thought that was what you needed to do,” he said.
He’s past that way of thinking, he said, and he makes sure to look out for those driving his equipment, such as Top Fuel rookie Cameron Ferré. But he still jokes, “I’m too stupid to quit.”
“He’s out there doing it. There’s a lot of people who talk about it, and Terry’s a guy who’s out there doing it. I give him major props for that,” Ferré said. “If Terry had the amount of money as he does heart, he’d be John Force 10 times over.”
It’s unfair that many fans aren’t aware that Haddock is the 2008 International Hot Rod Association Nitro Funny Car champion. And it’s unfair that because of those early days that Haddock sometimes is haunted by a past reputation. For example, many fans also don’t know that he went at least one full season without a single oildown.
But something positive came from that Memphis 2000 accident. It seemingly wouldn’t go away, but it prompted his estranged family to come to him. They hadn’t approved of his career decision, but they happened to tune into the television broadcast of that race and saw the footage like so many others on their living-room screens. They made peace with him and his racing decision once they learned that he was in desperate physical shape at the time.
“I have every black eye you can get in this sport,” Haddock said. But he hasn’t let any of it stop him.
"The more people told us we couldn’t do this, the harder we tried," Haddock said. "Inside that Funny Car is the most peaceful place in the world. I know it’s where I was meant to be."
Now he’s a mentor, most recently to Ferré. When he began belting Ferré into the cockpit of his dragster, he would tell the young man from Southern California that no matter what happens, no matter where he qualifies, no matter how he runs on race day, that he is having – living – the experience many folks in the grandstand and thousands of fans watching on TV, like he did as a grade-schooler, only can fantasize about. Together the veteran and class newcomer decided that was pretty doggone cool.
Haddock still fights the fight to hold down expenses. (“One thing about Texas is it still gives an opportunity to own part of the dream,” he said. “I couldn’t afford a place in Seattle or New Jersey. In Texas, we all have a shot at the dream.”) He still battles to improve his qualifying record and elimination record. And he still is looking for just a career eighth race-day round-win after 265 tries.
Haddock told Ferré that he can tell himself he’s one of only about 50 people on the planet driving this world’s-fastest-accelerating vehicle for a three-or-four-second blast at almost 335 mph. “And when you think about it,” Ferré said, “that’s pretty cool. We may not win every round, but we’re out here doing it.”
Has he “made it”? Haddock would say no. However, he did get a little hero-worship. He came to a Summernationals at Englishtown, N.J., a few years ago and stopped for a bite of breakfast and a cup of coffee at a Dunkin’ Donuts shop not far from the track. Unbeknown to him, an article about him and an accompanying photo was published that morning in the Newark Star-Ledger. As Haddock awaited his order at the counter, a diner with a newspaper spread across his table called out to him and motioned for him to come and take a look. “Hey, Buddy – is this you?!” When Haddock saw what the other customer saw, his eyes got as big as chocolate-iced yeast doughnuts.
Finally he was getting noticed for something sweet.
FATHER-SON CHAT – Current Funny Car champion JR Todd and his father, Mario Todd, sat down for a rather fond conversation published this week on The Players’ Tribute, a new multimedia platform that former New York Yankees great Derek Jeter has established. The two racers – Mario Todd was a flat-track motorcycle standout – shared some memories and paid respect to each other.
“Growing up, I feel like I was pretty much born and raised at the track, watching you race. You’re one of the most famous guys in town,” the younger Todd told his dad about his early recollections from Lawrenceburg, Ind. “Everybody knew about your racing. To me, I thought that was cool, how popular you were all throughout town.”
Mario Todd responded, “It kind of went from you being my son to me being your dad. You became the famous one in the town and in the family.” His son insisted, “He’s still the famous one.”
JR Todd technically is Mario Luther Todd Jr. And he once explained to Competition Plus that his name isn’t “J.R.,” which appears to stand for a first and middle name but rather JR, for Junior, but just pronounced with that Southern Indiana slur to make it sound like the word “jar.” So it defies grammar. JR Todd defied all the odds.
His father said a couple of times in the interview that he remembers his little boy toddling around the racetrack and always feared he might be hurt. Evidently that’s why – in the son’s words – a “perfectly good, brand-new dirt bike just sat in the garage” when he was about 10 years old. He said that every now and again he would go to the garage, sit on the bike, and maybe be so bold as to start it. “I was never allowed to go ride it.”
Mario Todd laughed, knowing the joke was on himself. He said, “Your mom [Kim Todd], she was in favor of letting your ride it. I was just scared to death you were going to hurt yourself.” Then he asked his son if he remembered the first time he learned to drive.
The Kalitta Motorsports DHL Toyota Camry driver answered, “Well, I started racing Jr. Dragsters when I was 10, so by the time you’re old enough to get a learner’s permit, you pretty much know the fundamentals of driving.”
Dad said he figured this semi-nomadic life JR – and the family – live today isn’t much different than when he was racing the Jr. Dragster circuit. He said, “One week we were in Puerto Rico. The next week, we’re, like, in Texas. So it seemed a way of life even when you were 10 years old. And your racing allowed your mom and [me] to do a lot of things – [for example,] travel to the Middle East.” They were present when Todd won a couple of 2010 Pro Extreme races in Arabian Drag Racing League action at Doha, Qatar.
Conceded JR Todd, “We were able to win when you and Mom were there. That was special.”
Marveled Mario Todd, “How many times do you see a camel in the back of a Toyota pick-up truck?”
Then the elder Todd said, “I think we’ve grown tighter, because of you letting us share your life. It’s kind of neat, being at the track, getting to hang out with everybody.”
The Funny Car king said, “You have no idea – when you’re not out here, everybody’s worried there’s something wrong: Why aren’t you guys at the race? You guys have way more fans out here than I do.” He’s said it’s satisfying “to win [and] share the winner circle with you and win a championship. That’s the only way I could ever pay you and Mom back for everything you did to get me to this point in my career.”
The love and pride are mutual. Mario Todd said, “I’m glad you never gave up. And for you to persevere, proud of you. JR Todd responded, “You guys have always been there through the highs and lows. You always told me to stay positive and stick with it and things will for work out. And they did, for sure.”
He dad agreed: “They did work out. I’m 100 percent behind you. Anytime you want to give this up, I’m 110 percent behind you.”
He informed his dad – and, consequently his competitors – “I’m not giving up anytime soon.”
TASCA TRIO TOILS TOGETHER – With his eye on this “backyard race,” Hope, Rhode Island, legacy auto dealer Bob Tasca III knew he needed some technical guidance as early as May. So he turned to Don Schumacher, with whom he has an alliance. That’s when Mike Neff, who’s on the Don Schumacher Racing payroll still while Tony Schumacher’s Top Fuel dragster he tuned with Phil Shuler sits idle without sponsorship, began helping Tasca.
Tasca had highly capable leadership in Eric Lane, who was key to Robert Hight’s first Funny Car series title for John Force Racing (JFR) in 2009 and Ron Capps’ 2016 crown for DSR. In a “player trade” that’s nontraditional in drag racing, he sent Mike Green to JFR for Force crew chief Jon Schaffer. The change, he said, was “based on the long-term goal, and that goal is to win races and win the championship with this Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford Mustang. I didn’t feel like the setup that I had was capable of doing that at any point this season.”
Now he does. He broke his seven-year winless streak at Bristol, Tenn., and only seven days later, he had another Wally trophy in hand at Norwalk, Ohio. He’s going for his third victory in a row this weekend – and a championship for himself his team, and for Ford.
Tasca said he was thrilled with the chance to work with Neff, that it fulfilled a longtime wish: “I’ve always wanted to race with this guy. My whole career I’ve wanted to race with Mike Neff. I just knew we had this chemistry. And to bring him in our trailer with Schaffer and Lane, it has been exciting for me. Mike Neff has changed the whole attitude inside our trailer. He has helped me pick up my game. He has definitely helped our team pick up our game. He just looks at me in the eye with, like a fire.”
He surprised even NHRA insiders by gushing about Neff in his post-victory interviews at Bristol, Tenn. (where he earned the first of back-to-back victories). Tasca labeled Neff “the chief consultant/engineer of the chiefs. What can I tell you? He’s the man. He’s the man in my trailer. What he says goes. What’s interesting is the chemistry. I think you see it on (Top Fuel dominator) Steve Torrence’s team. It’s not just Mike Neff. Mike Neff can’t win anything out here without a team. I see Schaffer and Eric bouncing things off of him. At the end of the day, you’ve got to have a boss. Somebody has to say, ‘That’s what we’re going to do.’ And Neff has been that voice in our trailer right now. And it has obviously worked. It has worked maybe better than some people have thought. But I really thought it was going to work the day that we pulled this trade off with John Force. That was a big trade we made.”
Tasca reiterated that he has “the utmost respect for Schaffer and Lane.” Moreover, he said, “They have the utmost respect for Neff. That’s why it works. If they had egos and they were working against one another, it doesn’t work. Mike and Jon raced together for many years. Eric has been in that Force Machine back in the day with those guys, and it just works.”
In a conversation with Joe Castello of WFO Radio in the Norwalk, Ohio, winners circle, Lane was candid and keyed up. “One of the coolest things I’ve been exposed to is Jon Schaffer and Neff. Jon Schaffer has come in. It’s just unbelievable, his attitude – and my attitude towards him and his attitude towards me. And then Zippy [Neff] . . . He comes in and gives us his opinion and does his deal. We all get along. We all do our jobs because at the end of the weekend, we want to win races.
“I’m not going to lie to you – I’m wasn’t the greatest at tuning the race car, obviously,” Lane said. “We needed to make some changes. Bob wanted to do some things, change some things. My goal in life is to win races. If it takes three of us to do it, we’ll take three. If it takes six of us, Bob is going to give us what we need to do this. I appreciate Bob. I appreciate Jon Schaffer. I appreciate Don Schumacher. And I appreciate Zippy.”
Schaffer has his own eye on the six-race playoff. “It’s about winning races, but it’s also about the Countdown. I’m counting the points every time qualify or every round we make. The biggest thing to me is being locked in the Countdown before Indy. Wins are great, but I’m looking at the big picture. As long as we get this thing [car] ready for the Countdown, that’s all that matters.”
Neff told Castello, “All I’m trying to instill in [Tasca] is that we’re confident. We don’t care who’s in the other lane. We’ve raced everybody out here. We race our own race. That’s what I’m trying to stress. We’re going to go up there and do what we have to do, and nothing else matters. Don’t let the other guys psych you out. That’s the message.”
With Funny Car championships under his belt at both DSR and JFR, Neff has the credentials to say Tasca’s organization has tremendous potential. “There’s everything you need here to win it all. The money’s here. You’ve got Ford – I’m a Ford guy, personally. You’ve got a lot of energy. You’ve got the will, the drive. That’s all you need. A one-car team can win it all. You don’t need five cars to win a championship,” Neff said. “I really like what he’s got going on here. It’s exciting. It’s fun. It’s refreshing. It’s been a lot of fun the last couple of weeks.”
Lane said, “It’s unbelievable. My guys have been doing an amazing job. I truly believe in my heart that it’s all because of them. They do a good job every day. We’ve been working until 12:30-1 o’clock in the morning, just trying to get our tune-up correct. They don’t bitch. They don’t complain. They just keep pushing.”
So does Tasca, who revels in the fact Ford returned to professional drag racing. He said, “They came back, and I just dreamed of being able to give them a hot rod like we have. And when you’ve got the names of Neff and Schaffer and Lane up in that trailer and the guys that bolt that thing together, I always knew if I could get the right car together under me, we could do great things.”
And Tasca is fully prepared to keep on doing great things, knowing it would be only fitting that he proves it at this home-area event.
TASCA, FORD TEAM USE Y.E.S. PROGRAM – Bob Tasca II has been planning tirelessly to improve his Funny Car team to championship-contender status. At the same time, he has directed much of his attention to beefing up the numbers of automotive technicians on behalf of the Ford Motor Company’s Customer Service Division and its Motorcraft and Quick Lane brands. During the 2018-’19 school year, more than 25,000 students from 725 schools around the country had the chance to get a head start on their careers as Ford/Lincoln technicians at NHRA’s Youth & Education Services (YES) programs. And at 16 events this year (a step up from six in last year’s exploratory “go”), Tasca delivered a message at each Y.E.S. session, and the students got the opportunity to meet with representatives from local Ford dealerships to discuss employment opportunities – as well as enjoyed watching the mechanics’ handiwork in action on the dragstrip for qualifying sessions.
High-school students interested in becoming Ford automotive technicians can start out in the Automotive Student Service Educational Training (ASSET) program. ASSET, the only program with a paid internship, allows them to earn while they learn, and it features a structured path to a career. Students alternate six to eight weeks in the classroom and six to eight weeks with a Ford or Lincoln dealer during a two-year stretch, earning an Associate’s Degree by the close of the curriculum. Tasca said, “ASSET gives entry-level technicians a major learning curve boost as they prepare to enter the workforce. These courses give them the confidence they need to succeed.”
The Y.E.S. program at Route 66 Raceway at Joliet, Ill., for the June Mello Yello Drag Racing Series event marked the final installment for the current school year. Following a summer vacation for both students and the Y.E.S. program, the opportunity will start again at the at Indianapolis in September at the U.S. Nationals.
‘YOU’RE A GRAND OL’ CAR . . .’ – Ron Capps' NAPA Batteries Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat features a patriotic paint scheme to support the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, for NAPA Auto Parts is celebrating Military Month. The longtime Don Schumacher Racing marketing partner continues to be a committed partner of the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund (IFHF), which serves United States military personnel experiencing Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS). Throughout July, NAPA will make a donation to the fund for every purchase of select products. NAPA customers also will receive a $25 mail-in rebate with the purchase of any NAPA automotive battery during July.
“We are once again bringing a very special paint scheme to Epping. It helps raise awareness for the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, an extraordinary organization that raises a lot of money for returning veterans,” Capps said. “Our NAPA Batteries Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat is a beautiful car, I get to wear a special firesuit, and I’m excited about trying to get in the winners circle this weekend.”
Just coming to this northernmost stop on the tour makes Capps excited. “New England Dragway has such an old-school vibe, and the fact that this place is always a sell-out every time we’re there tells you we needed to race there. I’m so happy NHRA put us back in that area and added that race to the circuit, because the fans in that area were starved for their NHRA races.”
He said, “We’ve been lucky enough to win Epping a couple of times. In 2016, we set a track record, were No. 1 qualifier, and won the race. A clean sweep like that is rare but also memorable. Winning there twice has been great, but the fans are what stand out the most to me there. They’re so loyal.”
LANGDON LIKES EPPING, HIS OWN CHANCES – Last season at Epping, Shawn Langdon was the only semifinalists to post three straight 300-mph passes in the opening rounds of eliminations. And if his performance during a tough stretch of four events in as many weeks is a harbinger, the driver of the Global Electronic Technology Toyota Camry might do well again here this weekend.
During the route through Chicago, Topeka, Bristol, and Norwalk, Langdon stayed in the top 10 (at No. 10), qualified No. 2 at Bristol, Tenn., for his best start of the season, and was No. 4 at Joliet, Ill. The Charlotte winner said, “The last two races, we had a great race car and we went rounds. But going rounds isn’t what we are looking for ultimately. We are working towards a tune-up and race-day performance that wins races.” Langdon has recorded three first-round exits and three quarterfinal finishes since winning at zMAX Dragway in four-wide format.
He said, “This weekend in Epping will be a key race for us and all the teams. We have had a week off to refresh a few parts, and after this we have an off-week, and then we start the Western Swing. I love this part of the season, because we are in a groove, and I think the team is really clicking. You can never get too much time in one of these Funny Cars. You walk up to it in the staging lanes and see the Global Electronic Technology logo and ‘The Fastest Name in Credit Card Processing’ on the side, and you know you are about to go over 300 mph. That is the coolest feeling. We are ready, for sure.”
Langdon was so eager to race again that he competed in the SFG 500 at U.S. 131 Motorsports Park at Martin, Mich., “to keep my skills sharp and have some fun. This Funny Car class is so tough you have to constantly stay on top of your game.”
This weekend he’ll try to become just the fifth Funny Car driver to win an NHRA national event at New England Dragway, which he said “is a cool place to race. There is a lot of history in the New England area. We ran pretty well there last year, and I think we figured a few things out on this Global Electronic Technology Camry Funny Car during the month of June.”
By the way, Pro Stock ace Jeg Coughlin finished in the semifinals of the SFG 500 in his JEGS.com Chevy II wagon at the in Saturday's $525,000-to-win main event that attracted more than 700 bracket racers. "What an incredible event," Coughlin said. He said he was "pretty much exhausted” after the marathon event – “but personally very, very proud to have made it through nine rounds of some of the toughest racing ever to finish in the semifinals. It was very satisfying to be a part of what, as far as I know, was the largest single payout in drag racing history.
“With so many cars entered, just the first round each day would take six hours or so. With buy-backs, the second rounds weren't much shorter, and you go from there. It made for very long days and very short nights every day of the event. I know I started the $525K race at 8:30 a.m. Saturday and made my last pass in the semifinals around 4:30 a.m. Sunday."
WHO WANTS 150TH MORE? – The John Force Watch is back on. Alluding to his semifinal finish at Norwalk two weeks ago, John Force said he had a “good weekend.” However, he knows the fans are getting stirred up, antsy to see his milestone 150th victory – probably more so than he is. He conceded that he “didn’t get it done,” and he means a victory in general, not necessarily pumped up for the certain extra fuss. “My hot rod is good, and it’s coming around. I’m learning every day with this PEAK team, and I’m excited about it,” he said.
Force is lurking in second place in the Funny Car standings. As for the moment drag-racing fans seem to be waiting for, he said, “I know 150 will happen soon, and after this weekend off we had, it might even come [this weekend]. We’ll see. All the John Force Racing teams are ready to [race at] Epping.”
And why not? In 2015, Force defeated Tommy Johnson Jr. in the final. At New England Dragway’s inaugural NHRA event in 2013, Force was the No. 1 qualifier and finished runner-up to daughter Courtney Force. Daughter Brittany Force also won at this venue in Top Fuel.
“This is a special race for me,” he said, “because I’ve won here and Brittany and Courtney have also won here. It just makes it special for all of us. I’m also excited to be racing for Peak and showing off their High Mileage Motor Oil on my hot rod. It will be a good weekend. We’ll put on a good show for the fans and our sponsors.”
HUNGRY FOR MORE – Points leader Robert Hight has had a phenomenal start to his Funny Car season. He has four victories, six final-round appearances in 11 races, and six No. 1 starting positions. At Gainesville, Fla., in March, Hight became the first driver since Kenny Bernstein in 1987 to earn consecutive No. 1 qualifying positions in the first three races. At Atlanta Dragway less than two months later, he claimed his fifth No. 1 start, becoming the first driver since 1987 to take the top spot in five of the first seven races. But the John Force Racing driver of the AAA Chevy Camaro said he isn’t satisfied with his accomplishments.
“We left Norwalk in the points lead, but what we really wanted was to leave in that winner’s circle,” Hight said, referring to the most recent race on the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule. “We weren’t able to get it done but it was the first race day round in the new car, so I know we’ll get it figured out,” said Hight. “We just had a weekend off and we’ve had time to regroup, so I’m confident heading into this race. My AAA team and Jimmy Prock and Chris Cunningham, they’ve put in work this last week, and they’re feeling good with the car, so we’ll see what we can get done.”
Hight hasn’t won at New England Dragway, but two years ago he set both ends of with and elapsed time of 3.822 seconds and 336.74-mph speed.
“I’ve had some time off to recharge, and I’m ready to get back in the driver’s seat and go some rounds on race day in this new AAA car we have,” said Hight. “I’ve never won in Epping, and it would be really cool to get it done somewhere I haven’t won before.”
CREATIVE BACK-WINDOW APPROACH – The sanction body has been celebrating its legends this year and last, remarking many times about Tom McEwen’s Hot Wheels match made at Mattel and Kenny Bernstein’s daring move to display his car at the Anheuser-Busch plant before going inside to talk Budweiser-branding business. It’s a whole new era now – and Paul Weiss, part owner of the iconic New Englander Funny Car, has learned to take advantage of it.
In mid-June, he launched his Back Window Sponsorship Program again for this weekend’s race, saying, “It has become a big hit for fans who want to support an underdog team.” Weiss hawked, “For $100, you get your name on the back window of the Funny Car, meet the team, get close to the Funny Car and even a hot dog and soda. lol …If you like the underdogs in racing, this is your chance to help a David against the Goliaths. Helping our cause of getting the car to the races also gives you a chance to be involved with a nitro Funny Car in the NHRA Mello Yello Series, whether you are going to Epping or not. The back window gets air time on FOX Television. . . . We have very reasonable rates for a small business who wants to be on the side of a nitro Funny Car. Ask for more info. If you cannot buy a spot and want to help, please buy a tee shirt for $25, free shipping. Share this on your Facebook timeline and go and ‘like’ Paul Weiss Racing page. You can send to my PayPal account at [email protected] or mail me a check, Message me for my address.”
The New Englander is an iconic car on both sides of the border. It recently ran at the Canadian Nitro Nationals before a packed house at Toronto Motorsports Park at Cayuga, Ontario.
Mike Smith has driven Rhea Goodrich’s and Paul Weiss’ New Englander Funny Car for seven years (starting at the 2011 Englishtown, N.J., event), and Goodrich has been involved in the sport for more than 40 years. He started drag racing in 1977 with a Chevy Monza he fielded with Bob Simmons. Goodrich, who won his first trophy in a B Altered, is a mechanical engineer who spent his career in the aerospace industry for Pratt. As a high-schooler, Goodrich actually built an Altered, using tubing from swing sets and anything sturdy he could find. Just out of college, he turned his efforts to his Aquarius Dodge Challenger.
However, Goodrich said his biggest thrill throughout all those years of racing comes every day: “putting the car together and seeing it work the way you want it to.” During the wintertime, he passes along that work ethic as he donates his time as an engineering mentor at Xavier High School in his hometown of Middletown, Conn.