2020 NHRA GATORNATIONALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
STEVE TORRENCE GRABS POINTS LEAD WITH FINAL-ROUND DEFEAT OF DAD AT GATORNATIONALS - Out West, in the Midwest, down South, against any challengers, against each other, after skipping events or buzzing through consecutive final-round appearances, the duo of two-time and reigning NHRA Top Fuel king Steve Torrence and dad Billy Torrence always seem to find a way to dominate. Together they had won exactly half of the previous six races in their Capco Dragsters before arriving at this weekend’s Amalie Oil Gatornationals.
Steve Torrence tipped the scales for a third championship in his favor Sunday by conquering Florida’s Gainesville Raceway at his dad’s expense. He used a 3.809-second elapsed time (curiously, his slowest of the day) at 322.11 mph on the 1,000-foot “Kenny Bernstein Way” course to top Billy Torrence’s 3.810, 320.74. (The finish wasn’t as close as it might look on paper, thanks to Dad’s sluggish 0.104 reaction time on the launch).
With that, Steve Torrence overtook season-long points leader Doug Kalitta after his semifinal victory over Leah Pruett, who’s third in the standings, only 33 points off the pace.
Torrence has a 22-point advantage over Kalitta as the series prepares for the Oct. 3-4 Mopar Express Lane Midwest Nationals at suburban St. Louis.
“We’ve got some good momentum. This is our seventh race, and we skipped the first race. So to be in the points lead, that’s just a testament to how hard [crew chief] Richard Hogan, [car chief] Bobby Lagana, and every one of these Capco Boys work,” he said. “And then for my dad to go to the final round, both of us are doing well. We’re leaving here No. 1 and No. 4 in points. We’ve just got to stay focused and concentrate on what the task at hand is – and that’s trying to win a championship.”
The Torrences repeated the spectacle of a father-son Top Fuel final round 26 years after Connie Kalitta beat son Scott in 1994. Kenny Bernstein (1998) and Brandon Bernstein (2003) also won the Top Fuel trophy this race five years apart. Another dad-son combo – Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle) and father Rickie Smith (Pro Modified) – shared the winners circle Sunday.
Steve Torrence took a 2-1 edge in head-to-head final-round races with his father but overall has won two-thirds of their match-ups (8-4).
Billy Torrence advanced to his second final of 2020 past Todd Paton, Shawn Langdon, and Terry McMillen, who set low E.T. of the meet in the first round at 3.747 seconds in the Amalie Oil Dragster at his sponsor’s title-sponsored race.
After winning, Steve Torrence hopped out of his car with re-created Swamp Rat 14 livery from “Big Daddy” Don Garlits’ heyday to accept his 39th Wally statue. And he paid tribute to the 88-year-old Florida favorite son and drag-racing legend: “Don, thank you for letting us have the opportunity to run your car, to come here and celebrate Don Garlits. All the history is Don Garlits. He’s a hero.”
Moments later, he connected with Garlits for a celebratory conversation.
“You can’t put it in words,” Torrence said of the experience, barely able to complete a sentence. “This is my hero right here. This is everybody out here’s hero. If it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t be here – he invented this stuff. To have the opportunity to come out and run the Swamp Rat 14 and have him here with us and the support . . . It was bad-ass to me years ago, when he would come by the pit and he knew my name. So now, to call him a friend and to be able to do this . . . I’ve never been to the final round in Gainesville, much less win the race, and to do it in his car, that’s icing on the cake for anything you want to do.
Torrence hadn’t reached the final round here before, and Gainesville Raceway was the only venue at which he had had a losing record (8-10 before this weekend.) But he changed that Sunday.
“We had a good day today,” he said. And he certainly did. He started the march to his third victory of the season by eliminated Tony Schumacher. Torrence evened the score at 18 victories apiece with the five-time and class-leading winner of the Gatornationals. Then he posted a 3.761, second-quickest time of the rain-interrupted day, in dismissing Doug Foley before coming back with a 3.772 to ward off Pruett.
“Every round was pretty tough,” Torrence said. “The round against Leah was really, really a momentous round. That was going to decide who leave here with the points. And then going into the final – I already had a little pressure, because I saw my dad win right in front of me and you want to get in that final with him . . . Any more pressure you add: You say, ‘Big Daddy is here. You’re running his car. You need to win the Gatornationals for Big,’ It was an unbelievable day.”
Torrence said he had no premonition that he would have such a successful day that checked off so many boxes on his wish list.
“You come in here and you try to be as confident as possible driving the car and just go do your job, because at the end of the day, I’m the only monkey who can get in that seat and I can make or break a whole lot of stuff. These guys give me an unbelievable race car. And you just try not to screw it up.”
Away from the racetrack, his entire team, as well as the drag-racing community, keeps a prayerful watch on seriously injured crew member Dom Lagana, who remains hospitalized at Indianapolis following a car accident.
“They told me before this round that Dom is kind of showing a little bit of good sign and he’s watching us [on the FOX TV / FS1 broadcast]. So we got one for ol’ Dom Lagana! Whoo!”
So the Torrence family prevailed Sunday . . . in sickness and in health. Susan Wade
CAPPS JOINS EXCLUSIVE FUNNY CAR FRATERNITY WITH GATORS WIN - Entering the pandemic-delayed Amalie Oil NHRA Gatornationals, only four drivers had won the event four times or more. Let the record reflect there's now a fifth driver joining the exclusive group -- Ron Capps, a fan of the sport since his childhood.
Capps, in winning the 66th national event of his career, and the second of the season, pulled himself into fourth place in championship points when he stopped Tim Wilkerson in the finals of the first NHRA national event staged outside of Indianapolis since the series resumed in July.
"To think about all these things that come along later that really make your ears perk up," said Capps, who was forced to change cars following a semifinal victory. "To be able to win four with the different crew chiefs I've had in the past is pretty wild.
"Honestly, these are the days when you roll in in the morning, you feel comfortable, you're confident as always but you're just not sure you've got the best car to go the full distance on Sunday. Maybe something here or there and we had to shut the car off after Q2 on Saturday night, so we didn't have a lot of just oozing confidence, but we've always got our own inner confidence. But these are those wins where you overcome that and then you have an explosion."
Capps showed his mettle as a diversified driver by bringing the wounded race car to a stop in a slide that resembled more of a dirt track car than a fire-breathing Funny Car. The performance caught the eye of at least one of his drag racing idols - Ed "The Ace" McCulloch, another four-time Gainesville winner.
"Getting a text from Ace after the semis, before the final, telling me how bitchin' that slide was at the other end to keep the car off the wall - that's beyond cool," Capps said.
The engine explosion following his semifinal victory over teammate Matt Hagan forced crew chief Rahn Tobler, who was celebrating his birthday Sunday, to pull out a spare car, one which had only been run at the Summit Motorsports Park Night of Fire last August at Norwalk, Ohio.
The replacement car was nearly identical to the trashed car, which split the body in two following the momentous race with Hagan. There was no warning as the devastation came when the NAPA Auto Parts-sponsored driver stepped off the throttle.
"Did a lot of damage and so I thought the chassis is okay, Tobler and I had a quick argument about it because I thought we could fix it quicker than switching out," Capps said.
The replacement Dodge had only one run on it, albeit a half-pass, in similar conditions and saved it for another day.
"We had about 40 minutes to get a car ready, and we had every Don Schumacher racing employee over here, other guys over here, we had team members from other teams and put a spare car together that went out there and made the first full run ever.," Capps said.
Capps was given a reminder of what he's known all along, Tobler knows his cars. He legged the unproven Funny Car to the stripe in rapid fashion in the final round, carding a 3.937 elapsed time at 323.12 miles per hour to edge Wilkerson's challenging 3.945, 325.92.
Capps extended the success of Don Schumacher Racing in Funny Car, a streak that dates back to last season, and effectively interjected himself into a championship cycle dominated by teammates Jack Beckman, Tommy Johnson Jr., and Hagan.
"Those guys, they bring out the best in me. Honest to God," Capps admitted. "I've always said we've got to go through our teammates to go to a championship, and my three teammates scare the crap out of me having to race them every time. It was a big round, not even thinking about the points. We needed to come in here and every team, all these PR people put these press releases out before the race coming in saying we're looking to make a run in the points and we need to turn around; they all had the same cliché, but it's an honest-to-god truth, we had to make points up.
"In order for us to make points, you don't wish bad on anybody but we had to have guys in front of us go out and that happened. Sometimes you got to do it on your own, and we were able to do against Hagan, who has him and Dickie who've had the best car here for a long time."
One thing for .certain, Capps understood that Wilkerson would make him work hard for whatever they could get.
"I said it a while back, watch out for Wilkerson, he's a guy that is always there and he will get hot in a heartbeat. He could run as good as anybody here," Capps explained. "He joked with me in the second round and came over my car before I got suited up, and he said, 'Hey, you and me in the final, huh, let's do this." Bobby Bennett
LAUGHLIN WINS GAINESVILLE PRO STOCK FINAL, BUT IT WASN’T PRETTY - As Pro Stock racer Alex Laughlin sees it, Gainesville owed him one. And through a twisted sense of reimbursement, fate delivered to him his fourth career NHRA victory at the Amalie Oil Gatornationals. But clearly, Laughlin had to work for it.
Laughlin left on final round opponent and Elite Motorsports associate Aaron Stanfield and won a double tire-shake-plagued battle, winning with an off-pace 7.068 elapsed time at 204.26.
“I kind of got robbed from the win here last year and that one was extra special because it was the 50th. I wanted it so bad and ended up hurting the motor on the burnout and Bo (Butner) was on a single to get the win,” Laughlin said. “I went over and told Aaron today, “Man, I really want you to win a Pro Stock race, just not this one.”
And he said, “Hey, man, I feel the same thing.”
“I said, 'Either way, it’s a good weekend for both of us.'”
Goodness was not exactly the way to describe the turmoil Laughlin experienced ramping up to and during the final run.
“My radio took a dump up there on the starting line and they were trying to fix it,” Laughlin recalled. “And I said, 'You know what, I got it, we’ll be fine.'”
“I was amped. I said I wasn’t going to be .00 but I said I was going to be close to it, and I was .12.”
The only advantage of Laughlin’s quicker reaction time was a quicker opportunity to deal with the two-wheel earthquake inside the cockpit of the Havoline-sponsored Camaro.
“It rattled its head off, let’s go with that,” Laughlin said. “My shift light, I swear was whipping from door to door. It was just shaking so hard and I pulled second gear and it took it. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. Then the shift light came on for third, fourth, fifth. I looked over, couldn’t see him and I had the win light on the wall spotted going down there. I’m like, ‘Come on, please. Come on, please. Please, come on.'
“And it went ‘bing’ and it lit up and I just went freaking nuts. It was weird because I didn’t even get to celebrate with my crew on the radio or anything because it didn’t work.”
The experience of driving through a tire-rattling experience came in handy for Laughlin, who rated an edge over his opponent in this unenviable experience.
“Aaron hasn’t been through it, I don’t recall, maybe he shook, and I’m just lucky that I’ve been racing for several years now,” Laughlin explained. “I’ve been through it a lot and just got lucky. Just did the best I could with the experience that I had, and it did took it and the win light came on and what a freaking weekend.”
Ironically, Laughlin’s first career Gatornationals victory came on the same weekend as he won his first national event at St. Louis back in 2016.
“More than anything, I just needed this,” Laughlin said. “This year just with how awful of the year it’s been. Sponsors have been pulling funding. It’s been tough. We’ve been scraping by. Had a completely brand-new crew this weekend that we shuffled around, and the right hand didn’t know what the left hand was doing, but we were just trying to find a routine, and we’ve got it and gosh dang it, it just paid off. I can’t believe it.” Bobby Bennett
RICKIE'S BOY FINALLY GETS HIS GATORS PRO STOCK BIKE WIN - Rickie's boy finally did it.
Since 2006, Matt Smith, the two-time Pro Stock Motorcycle champion and son of iconic doorslammer champion Rickie Smith, finally sealed the deal at the Amalie Oil NHRA Gatornationals. And he did so in impressive fashion, winning from the No. 1 qualifying position and beating Andrew Hines in the final round.
“I’ve just never been able to do it before,” Smith said. “I’ve watched my dad do it a couple of times and it means a lot to me to win it. I always wanted to win the Gatornationals and leave here with the points lead because it’s always the first race of the year and I’ve never been able to do that, but I can say I’ve done it now and I’m leaving here with the points lead.”
Smith also joined Rickie in the winner’s circle, as the elder Smith won the Pro Modified division. Honestly, Smith couldn’t have written a better script than the one which played out Sunday.
“Wire-to-wire, we did no different than we did last race, just a different rider,” Smith said. “I can’t say enough about Denso, Lucas Oil, Mark Stockseth, Greg Butcher Trucking, everybody that helps us, Strutmasters. We can’t do it without all these people. We’re not making a lot of money out here right now because of this pandemic, so all these sponsors, it’s awesome for them to stick on board with us and get through this.”
As the pandemic-shortened season winds down, as Smith sees it, there was no better time to make a statement than now. He's the first rider to pick up two wins in 2020.
“Andrew was in the finals last race against our teammate Scotty Pollacheck, and we beat them there and I held my end up and beat him here,” Smith said. “So right now, team MSR, we have the best team out here I think. We have the power to win this thing. We just got to keep everything together. Anything can happen at any time. But as far as just having the power right now, we have the power to win races and win this championship and that’s what we’re going after.”
Winning the NHRA U.S. Nationals and Gatornationals creates quite the tidal wave of momentum for Smith’s team.
“We’re pretty hateful,” Smith said. “We’ve got a good team right here. We’ve got to get Angie’s bike to run. Hers is running close to what ours is. It’s just not quite there. It’s just a little ticked off but if we can get her bike like mine, there’s no reason we can’t finish all three of us in those top five in points this year and that’s the goal. The goal is to win a championship but the other one is we all want to win a race and get everybody top five in the points. That’d be pretty awesome.” Bobby Bennett
MILLICAN, HAGAN LEAD NITRO FIELDS, LANGDON VAULTS INTO TOP FUEL CONTENDER ROLE, KALITTA CAN MAKE HISTORY, TODD SURGING IN ATTEMPT TO HALT DSR FUNNY CAR DOMINANCE, SWAMP RAT 14 BACK IN SPIRIT
FEATS OF CLAY – By a seven-thousandths of a second, Clay Millican aced out Billy Torrence for the Top Fuel class’ No. 1 qualifying position and eared a bye into the second round Sunday. Millican, driving the Parts Plus Dragster, will meet the winner of the Leah Pruett-Joe Morrison match-up.
Matt Hagan (Funny Car), Deric Kramer (Pro Stock), and Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were other No. 1 qualifiers.
For Millican, his class- quickest 3.821-seconds at 313.51 mph marked his second No. 1 position for the second time in four races and the 25th time in his career.
“That was pretty cool,” Millican said. “This is a big race, and we were proud to go No. 1. We’ve had the craziest racing gremlins on the car. We’ve qualified well and haven’t raced worth a darn [at Indianapolis]. I lost this race in the final round last year, and that one was my fault. So would I like to make up for it tomorrow? Absolutely.”
Millican is looking for his first victory of 2020 and his first at Gainesville.
HAGAN LEADS FUNNY CAR FIELD – For two-time Funny Car champion Matt Hagan, the difference in whether he earns his first Gatornationals trophy – and, moreover, a third championship – is a strong tune-up.
Crew chief Dickie Venables gave him a strong one Saturday that yielded a 3.975-second low elapsed time in the Mopar Dodge Charger Hellcat. He’ll lead the 15-car field into Sunday’s eliminations and has an automatic free pass into the quarterfinals.
“Our DSR team cars are tough – there’s just no way around it,” he said. “My teammates are good drivers, good leavers, they have good race cars, good tuners, and all of the same parts and pieces that we do, so it’ll come down to who will have the best tune-up/driver combo.
“I’ve won a championship with Dickie (2014), and my first in 2011,” Hagan said, “so I understand the pressure and what it takes to get there. Sometimes you just have to sit back and trust in your team and allow all of the hard work they’ve put in over the year and the winter to come to you. I’m just going to drive this Dodge Hellcat as best as I can and focus on putting on four win lights.”
Hagan is second in the standings with two victories and three top-qualifier positions. And he’s going after his first victory at the Gatornationals.
“I have never won Gainesville,” he said. “I’ve been to the final there, Jack Beckman beat me in 2018, so I really want to put a Gainesville Wally on the shelf. We definitely have the car to do that this year. Our Dodge Hellcat Redeye is really responding well to the adjustments Dickie has been making. I’ve got a really strong race car underneath me, my lights have been great, and I’ve been pretty shallow and making sure we keep lane choice.
“The package we’re creating this year has been great. We’ve won a few races. The points battle is always a dogfight, but especially this year with no points reset. Everything is coming down to these last few races, and it’s going to be a battle to the end,” Hagan said.
LOOK OUT FOR LANGDON – Although he has a Top Fuel crown from 2013 and three other Jr. Dragster and sportsman titles, Shawn Langdon wasn’t on anyone’s Top Fuel championship radar screen for much of this season. Through the first five of the six completed races, he hadn’t advanced past the second round.
However, with his victory at the previous event, the NHRA’s marquee Denso U.S. Nationals, the DHL / Kalitta Air / Toyota Dragster driver is poised to make a move this weekend.
Langdon is sixth in the standings, but he entered this delayed edition of the Amalie Oil Gatornationals within a single point of the top five. He trails No. 5 Billy Torrence by one point, is only two rounds of racing (40 points) behind No. 4 Justin Ashley and has a 102-point gap to make up on third-place Steve Torrence.
“We are for sure in this championship hunt," Langdon said. “I have a lot of confidence after winning the U.S. Nationals, for sure.”
It isn’t lost on him, either, that his Kalitta Motorsports entry has won the past two Gatornationals, with Richie Crampton behind the wheel both times.
“I would like to keep that streak alive,” Langdon said.
If Langdon can give the Kalitta team can its third Gainesville Raceway victory in a row and score back-to-back “majors” triumphs, it’s possible he could be less than 100 points from the lead and less than two rounds out of second place. (He started this event just 112 behind second-place Leah Pruett and 102 behind No. 3 Steve Torrence.)
“The Gatornationals is another 'major' for our sport. That track has a lot of history, and to be able to go back-to-back with a U.S. Nationals win and then a Gatornationals win would be something no one has ever done before," Langdon said.
Moreover, Langdon has extra confidence that his early-season troubles – dropping cylinders – are resolved. Pre-U.S. Nationals testing paid off: He started No. 1 at Indianapolis after executing a planned shutdown during Saturday qualifying that would have been the fastest of the weekend, then he ran the second-quickest pass on race day en route to the victory.
“I have been getting more comfortable in the DHL Dragster every run. This race car has a ton of power, and we just need to pull it all together again this weekend. We picked up that big win in Indy, and that shows you how strong this race car is,” he said.
His own expertise has helped as he has been reacquainting himself with a Top Fuel dragster. This is his first season back in the class after spending two years learning to drive – and win in – a Funny Car Toyota Camry.
More than 25 years ago, in 1994, Langdon’s team owner and crew chief, Connie Kalitta, made history at the Gatornationals, winning the first father-son final round against son Scott. For his only victory in this East Coast classic. Doug Kalitta, the driver Langdon is chasing down for the 2020 title, owns the other two of Kalitta Motorsports’ six victories here.
“Racing for Connie is a real honor,” Langdon – a 17-time nitro-ranks winner who’s seeking his first Gatornationals trophy – said. “He has done it all in drag racing. It is really cool to get back to the hauler after a great run and see a big smile on his face. This whole DHL team is a great group from top to bottom. Getting that win two weeks ago was great, but we want to contend for this championship.
"We are chasing our teammate Doug Kalitta,” he said, “and if we can't get the championship, we definitely want him to win. This DHL dragster has won the last two Gatornationals, so we have a ton of good data. I would love to win another championship, with Connie Kalitta as my crew chief. I think we can keep stacking up round wins and see where we are at the end of the season.”
Langdon is anticipating his 260th overall start (215th in Top Fuel) and is approaching his 300th round-win (he’s at 293).
KALITTA FLIRTS WITH HISTORY – Season-long points leader Doug Kalitta, driver of the Mac Tools/Toyota Dragster, has won here three times (2014, 2005, 2000). He’s hoping to have the magic again this weekend as he seeks to extend his advantage over No. 2 Leah Pruett and No. 3 Steve Torrence.
And if he can earn that fourth Gatornationals victory – the third consecutive for Kalitta Motorsports on this NHRA-owned racetrack – he’ll join a distinguished list of elite winners. Drag-racing legends “Big Daddy” Don Garlits, whose museum and operations are located just down the highway at Ocala, and Joe Amato have won four times, as has legend-in-the-making Larry Dixon. Tony Schumacher is a five-time winner here.
“You want to win the big races of the season,” Kalitta said. “We got our first Indy win last year, and that was a big boost. We won again at the Winternationals. And to possibly get another Gatornationals win and join those four-time winners would be an amazing accomplishment. Getting wins at the Gatornationals or Pomona or Indy definitely makes for great memories.”
He said, “The DHL Top Fuel dragster that Connie [Kalitta] tunes has won the last two Gators. So we would love to see an all-Kalitta Motorsports final round [against Shawn Langdon]. There is so much history here for our team, and I just get pumped up racing here. We have had a lot of success and I want to keep that positive momentum going. I am really glad we were able to keep this race on the schedule because there is so much history here.”
Racers had gathered here at the traditional March date, but the coronavirus crisis forced the NHRA to suspend the season immediately. When action resumed in July, Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis (another NHRA-owned facility), began hosting four straight events.
“I am looking forward to getting back to Gainesville. It seems like a long time ago when we were trying to run this race the first time,” Kalitta said. “We had some good runs in Indianapolis, but we are excited to get to a new venue. We have run well here, and this Mac Tools team will be ready to go.”
Kalitta, the 1992 USAC Sprint Car king, has made his first NHRA Top Fuel championship a quest for the past two decades. And, just like in other years, the Michigan native and airline owner has started strong. Now the key is finishing strong.
“We were excited with the start to the season, and I am glad we have held on to the point lead,” he said. “We want to get that early-season momentum back. I have a great team, and I really like our chances heading into the Gatornationals.”
Already in 2020, Kalitta has achieved a major career milestone: topping the 700-round-win plateau. Such a distinction in the Top Fuel class belongs only to him and Tony Schumacher.
“I have had a great career, and I am looking forward to a lot more round-wins,” Kalitta said. “The key to our success, I think has been the stability of our team and our sponsors, like Mac Tools. So many of those wins have come in the Mac Tools Top Fuel Dragster, and I am very proud to represent them, as well as Toyota, SealMaster, DHL, and new sponsors like Mobil 1, NGK Spark Plugs, Fifth Third Bank, Osborn, and Ozium,” added Kalitta.
This is Kalitta’s 520th race. He has 704 round-wins, 48 victories, and 50 top-qualifying positions. The Winternationals and Finals at Pomona, Calif., as well as the U.S. Nationals and Gatornationals, are considered today’s “major” events. And Kalitta is seeking his fourth victory in the last five NHRA “Big 4” races. He won the 2019 U.S. Nationals, the 2019 NHRA Finals and the 2020 Winternationals.
Kalitta qualified sixth and will face off against Terry McMillen in the first round of eliminations Sunday.
SWAMP RAT 14 REDUX – Steve Torrence knew his decidedly different-looking Capco Dragster likely would zip down the dragstrip for less than eight seconds altogether Saturday. But 18 months ago, before the start of the 2019 Gatornationals, his team decided it would honor Florida native and drag-racing icon “Big Daddy” Don Garlits with a replication of one of his memorable innovations. After meticulous planning and building and perfecting, drag-racing fans saw the modern likeness of the famed “Swamp Rat 14.”
The Real McCoy sits in the Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing at nearby Ocala, Fla. It’s the creation that Garlits engineered, fabricated, and debuted in 1971 to prevent accidents such as the one he just had experienced that had injured him severely. Within two years, the rear-engine dragster, not the first but certainly the most successful and sustainable, ushered out the front-engine era. And it represented a quantum leap in safety and technology.
Torrence’s version, the result of a labor of love that incorporated Capco team crew chief Richard Hogan and even popular South Florida native Darrell Gwynn. Richard Hogan’s father, Charlie “The King” Hogan, was one of Garlits’ early rivals in the sport and one he credits with pushing him to be his best. So the connections were there.
The idea for the project took root when Capco Dragster crew members were enjoying a private tour of the museum in March 2019, with Garlits and Richard Hogan as their celebrity guides.
“We were just looking at the cars, and we thought it would be great to do a throwback car,” Bobby Lagana Jr., Hogan’s right-hand man on the Torrence race car, said.
“There’s a longstanding history with Hogan and ‘Big,’ so we thought it would be something really cool to honor the guy,” Torrence said of the 88-year-old Garlits.
But where would one start to select which Garlits car to reproduce? Everyone in the circle of influence had an opinion. Hogan insisted that Top Fuel rival Darrell Gwynn, himself a back-to-back Gatornationals winner (1989, 1990), make the final decision. So Swamp Rat 14 it was, and the team got to work.
Garlits got his first look at the finished product in March. The team brought the car to the museum just days before the suspension of racing because of coronavirus. And Garlits pronounced it “just beautiful” and said, “It looked exactly like Swamp Rat 14. The layout of the decals was exactly right. The job they did on the decals like Wynn’s Charger and Lee Eliminators and the way they scaled everything was amazing.”
To earn that compliment, the team tackled numerous challenges, from specification discrepancies to decals. The real Swamp Rat 14 had a wheelbase of only 215 inches, but Torrence’s dragster stretches to 300 inches. Everything had to be scaled accordingly, and graphic designer Roderick Burke physically recreated more than 30 percent of the decals, because so many of the companies involved in the 1970s no longer exist. One of the cool features – which actually serves no purpose – is the tachometer mounted on the cowl just as it was in 1971.
“We kept saying we could make some kind of carbon piece to make it look like that tachometer,” Lagana said, “but ‘Hoagie’ was 100-percent adamant that we had to do more than that. So we [did] some research and found an original one on eBay [that] we mounted on the body and wrapped with a little American flag like Big Daddy had.”
It received Garlits’ approval. He said, “The tachometer on the cowl was really cool. I used to use that to monitor the engine on the burnout.”
More than 34 years have passed since Garlits beat the late Dick La Haie to win for the fourth and final time here at Gainesville Raceway. Will he get to share a winners-circle celebration with Torrence? It’s hard to say – the Gatornationals is one of the few events that has stymied Torrence throughout his career. Although Torrence has won 30 races in the past four seasons, including two of the six completed this year, Torrence never has started from the No. 1 spot, nor has he reached the final round at this event. It’s the lone dragstrip on which the 37-year-old Texan has a losing record (8-10).
The entry for No. 6-ranked Billy Torrence carries the team’s traditional colors this weekend as he seeks his seventh victory in the past three years and his second this season.
‘OUTRAGEOUSLY CLOSE’ – Thanks to her runner-up finish Labor Day weekend at the Denso U.S. Nationals, the fourth straight race at Indianapolis, Leah Pruett lurks in second place. She also has three semifinal appearances and in the six previous races, the Don Schumacher Racing driver of the Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Redeye Dragster has a No. 2 qualifying position and three No. 3 starts.
And here’s how she explained her strategy with only this race and four others on the schedule: "The championship math is simple. We are basically in what some would call ‘Countdown weather' without a Countdown. We are aware of our position: two-and-a-half rounds (50 points) behind Doug (Kalitta) and with Steve Torrence half of a round (10 points) behind us. But that is not our focus. They and the other strong competitors are not our focus. Qualifying low, heightening our adaptability, and staying focused on our hot rod is what we believe will yield us the results we want."
As for a change of venue, Pruett said, "Indy is great, and we’re all very fortunate to have been able to run there as many times as we did, but traveling and seeing our various fan groups across the country is something I’ve truly missed. We traditionally have not had a great deal of racing success at the Gatornationals, which brings me to my favorite overall Gainesville memory, which was setting the stock Dodge Demon record on a cool late evening with the talented SRT team back in 2017. Now I hope to create our very best memory there yet, by putting the Hellcat Redeye in the winners circle – something I feel we are outrageously close to doing.”
Pruett qualified mid-pack at No. 8 and will face No. 9 Joe Morrison in the opening round of eliminations.
She’s racing the Dodge Challenger Mopar Drag Pak in the Factory Stock Showdown class, too.
‘DON’T COUNT THE YELLA FELLAS OUT’ – While Don Schumacher Racing’s four-racer-strong Funny Car delegation has ruled the standings this season, Kalitta Motorsports’ JR Todd has made an impressive rush from 10th place to fourth. With that, he has rekindled his prospects for a second championship in three years in the DHL Toyota Camry.
Back-to-back runner-up finishes at the two most recent races at Indianapolis have him pointed in the right direction, and he’s a definite threat to interrupt DSR’s streak of nine victories. (The only other time in the series’ history that a team swept 10 consecutive race victories in a single category was during the 2017 season, with the same lineup of current DSR Dodge drivers.)
“We were making improvements once we got back to racing [in July, when he had a semifinal finish at the first of four Indianapolis events and improved to sixth place]. And the past two events we have been right there for our first win of the season,” Todd said.
He narrowly missed winning his third U.S. Nationals in four years, but since the sport returned to the racetrack in July, Todd has compiled a 9-4 win-loss record.
“My crew chiefs, Todd [Smith] and Jon [Oberhofer], are making adjustments, and we are really making good runs. One of the many things this team has going for it is we have a lot of confidence in each other. We have been through the ups and downs together, so we are staying positive. I think we still have a shot at this championship,” he said.
"I look at these last few races as races we can definitely get on a roll and win out. We did that over the last races of the 2018 season and got the Funny Car championship. We will have a handful of races to go and it won't be easy, but this DHL Toyota Camry Funny Car has been to finals and we just need to get that last win light. I don't want to let any opportunities slip away,” Todd said, “and we are still in this championship battle. Don't count the Yella Fellas out."
He has his eye on his first Gatornationals trophy.
“There is so much history at the Gatornationals [that] you just want to get a win here to add to your resume,” Todd said. “I think you look at the drivers who are Hall of Famers or legendary drivers and they all have at least one win at the Gatornationals. I want to add my name to this list.”
The 2018 NHRA Funny Car champ said race day at Gainesville “will be a lot of fun if you have a couple good qualifying passes in your back pocket. All the Kalitta Motorsports teams will be working together. Even though I [drive] the only Funny Car, there is a lot of collaboration over here.”
Before qualifying, he said, “We just need to put our heads down and come out with good runs on Saturday.” He did that, earning the No. 7 starting berth. He’ll line up against No. 10 Tommy Johnson Jr. in Round 1.
This is the first East Coast race of the year, and Todd said it has been “good to get to a new track. I liked racing in Indy because it was convenient but getting to the East Coast is cool. We have a ton of fans out here, and they have been waiting a long time to see some drag racing. I want to put on a good show with this DHL Toyota Camry.”
CAPPS GETTING PUSHY? – Ron Capps says he and his NAPA Dodge Charger Funny Car team are “pushing it” as the significantly shortened season starts to wind down.
“I think with the NAPA team, you’re going to see more of what you saw at the last two Indy races, and that is, pushing it. We’re going to push it quite a bit more than we would have before,” he said. “We won Indy 3, which was great, and we made up a lot of points there. Qualifying No. 1 during the first session of the U.S. Nationals, and then every other session we gathered those qualifying bonus points. We were one of the top three cars during every run, and I think that’s what you’re going to see at these last five races because really, it’s like a mini Countdown, and that’s how you have to approach it. Our [Don Schumacher Racing] teammates and JR Todd are ahead of us, but it doesn’t matter. When a world championship is on the line, we know we’re going to have to defeat the best cars, anyway. I’m looking forward to this championship chase, because I think you’re going to see a different mentality from [crew chief] Rahn Tobler and our NAPA team – and a little more aggressiveness.”
He's fifth in the standings, and he – sarcastically – can thank his DSR mates for that. They have ended his race days at five of the six completed events this year.
Capps has three victories at the Gatornationals: back-to-back triumphs in 2006-2007 and again in 2015. He’ll begin his quest for No. 4 from the No. 4 position.
“We have a great streak going with the DSR Dodge Funny Cars, but one of the things I love about Don Schumacher is that you’d never know it,” Capps said. “He is throttle down, and when you talk to him, you’d think that we haven’t won a race in two years, and I don’t mean that in a negative way. I mean it as in he wants you to go up there and just absolutely crush your competition. And that’s what we’re trying to do. He’s ultra-competitive.”
PRESSURE STARTING TO MOUNT – Tommy Johnson Jr. said he’s starting to feel the pressure in his chase for a first Funny Car championship, in his last chance with the Doug Chnalder-funded M.D. Anderson Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat.
“The points battle has come down to three of us from the same team, and the pressure is on. We know what the remaining schedule is going to be. We know how many races are left to gain as many points as we can,” Johnson said.
“The U.S. Nationals didn’t go the way we had planned. We had some unfortunate parts damage first round that cost us the win and really hurt us with points. We had been looking so good.”
Indeed, he had. He had jumped from sixth place after the season-opener to the points lead by the fifth race of the year and enters this race day with an 11-5 record. But he lost that points lead and finds himself third in the standings, 22 points behind second-place Matt Hagan.
“Gainesville isn’t necessarily a must-win, but it’s a ‘must do really well’ weekend and we need to get a lot of good points so we can come out of there and still be in the race with my teammates. They’re going to be tough. I know what kind of competition they are, and what they have, and we’ll have to bring our best,” Johnson said.
First, Johnson needs to get past first-round opponent JR Todd, the man immediately behind him in the standings who would love nothing more than to leapfrog Johnson Sunday as the series heads to St. Louis for the Oct. 2-4 Mopar Express Lane Midwest Nationals. Todd, the No. 7 starter, has lane choice over No. 10 Johnson in a key match-up with title implications.
Looking at the bigger picture, Johnson said, “It’s just like any other year: when it comes down to crunch time, you have to be on your game. And hopefully, we’ve got all of our bad luck and misfortune out of the way and we can make a real run at it these last five and see what we can do.”