2021 NHRA U.S. NATIONALS - TOP FUEL NOTEBOOK
IN THE END, IT’S TORRENCE AGAIN WITH EIGHTH TOP FUEL TROPHY, COUNTDOWN MOMENTUM
They came with their hopes and dreams.
They came with their new dragsters and their tribute paint schemes.
They came with their new partnerships.
They came with their memories of this hallowed dragstrip.
And all the Top Fuel competitors left the Dodge SRT U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis Sunday knowing once again – for the eighth time in the season’s 13 completed races – that the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series Top Fuel spotlight still shone on Steve Torrence and his Capco Contractors Dragster team.
After defeating a lineup that started with fellow three-time series champion Antron Brown, included victory-hungry Greg Carrillo and his own father Billy Torrence, he easily dismissed relentless rival Brittany Force in the final round for his 48th overall victory and second at Lucas Oil Raceway.
“Every one of these wins is important, but this is Indy. This is the U.S. Nationals. It's the biggest race. It’s the pinnacle of racing in our sport,” Torrence said. “Everybody dreams of coming and winning Indy, and to have the opportunity to do it, to have these Capco Boys behind me, to give me the car that they have given me all day . . . It’s unbelievable to say you’ve won Indy – ever.”
Torrence actually has won here three times, counting his sportsman-era triumph in the Top Alcohol Dragster category.
But as the start of the Countdown to the Championship awaits – just five days from Sunday at Reading, Pa. – Torrence had a unique perspective on what to watch.
Meaning no disrespect either to himself or to Force – the two top-ranked drivers in the class – Torrence said this battle will be one between crew chiefs.
“We’re just drivers. This is a battle of Hogan [Capco tuner Richard] and Grubnic [Force’s crew chief Dave],” Torrence said. “Respect for Grubnic, respect for Brittany, because they're bad, bad dudes over there - bad, bad women, too. I’ve got a lot of respect for Grubnic, but I’ve got more confidence in Hogan.”
Although the Top Fuel Countdown class has plenty of capable competitors, a pattern is developing of Force dogging Torrence – and in qualifying, Torrence pursuing Force. Their side-by-side spectacle in Friday night’s qualifying run arguably was one of the more captivating moments of the event. They ran 3.6s and she dazzled with a 334.57-mph speed. Ultimately, she took her sixth straight No. 1 starting position and he posted his seventh overall No. 2 berth as they headed into eliminations at the tour’s oldest and most prestigious event.
Their final-round pairing Sunday was not as shiny. Torrence clocked a performance of 3.749 seconds at 324.44 mph, while Force lost traction immediately and damaged her engine and supercharger in the process of absorbing her fourth loss to him in final rounds. He’s 15-8 overall against her.
Nevertheless, Torrence has insisted that he and Force do not have “a rivalry.” But certainly their meetings are what Top Fuel fans are concentrating on down the homestretch. That played out in dramatic fashion this weekend, as their qualifying and eliminations efforts marked only the eighth time in the 67-year history of the U.S. Nationals that the Nos. 1 and 2 starters have met. And history was on Torrence’s side: No. 1 has won six of those eight times.
He knows not to discount her, especially after she has champion status, too, and – albeit fairly – earned hers at his expense in 2017.
His confidence in his Capco team, himself, and their established methods doesn’t have him too concerned. And that compliment about their qualifying display Friday was just a nice, little token.
“I don’t want to have a difference of how I drive on Friday as to how I drive on Sunday,” Torrence said. “If you practice the way you’re going to play or whatever it is, you’re always ready.”
Torrence is ready – and grateful.
“This was the 13th race, and we’ve been so blessed to win eight of ’em,” Torrence said. “But even if we didn’t win this race, we still would have had momentum.”
And he expressed gratitude to public servants: “Thank you to all the servicemen and women, first responders, the people that are out there protecting this country and keeping us able to do what we do. We appreciate you more than you know. Some people don't, but we damn sure do. Thank you.”
Drag-racing fans can thank Torrence for putting on a show the modern era hadn’t seen before he got his Capco operation established. Now it’s a question of whether the beat, and the beating, will go on.
SATURDAY TOP FUEL NOTEBOOK
INDIANAPOLIS FEELS FAMILIAR FOR TOP FUELERS ASHLEY, HULL; BUSY BALDWIN JUMPING INTO DEEP END OF DRAG-RACING POOL; INSPIRED LANGDON SURPRISES BOSS WITH TRIBUTE CAR
Coming to Indianapolis for this weekend’s Dodge SRT U.S. Nationals has been a bit of a weird experience for Top Fuel racer Justin Ashley.
The driver of the Smart Sanitizer Dragster powered by Strutmasters.com competed in the NHRA’s Labor Day classic at Lucas Oil Raceway for the first time last year. But it hardly packed the punch he might have imagined it would.
With the tour paring, postponing, and relocating races because of state and local COVID conditions and restrictions, Indiana welcomed the sport for four consecutive events here at Indianapolis in 2020. The U.S. Nationals was the fourth.
This time around, though, Ashley said, “It definitely feels like the U.S. Nationals is a big deal this year.”
He said, “The way last season played out was a little funky, with having three races at Indianapolis Raceway Park before the official U.S. Nationals. In a lot of ways, last year felt like another race in Indy. This year feels like a real stand alone, big-deal U.S. Nationals. Once you pull around the front of the staging lanes, roll under the walk-over bridge and see the packed grandstands, that is when you say to yourself ‘Wow! I am at Indy!’”
Rain chased away the brave fans who ignored weather forecasts and showed up Saturday, so the packed stands will have to wait for a day.
But Saturday’s showers didn’t dampen Ashley’s memory of that extra-special U.S. Nationals weekend last year. It brought him his first Top Fuel victory that Saturday night. Once again, rain was part of the Indianapolis equation, for the final round of the Summernationals had been washed out and rescheduled for the U.S. Nationals weekend.
So that was his introduction to this whole crazy, historic, event his father won in the Funny Car class in 2007. That gave him momentum for a successful race day, which ended with a semifinal appearance. He lost an epic pedal-fest to eventual winner Shawn Langdon.
“I do feel a comfort level coming back to Indianapolis, because I have raced here a number of times before and I have had race day experience at the U.S. Nationals,” Ashley said. “I have a better understanding of the emotions that are involved and that go into racing at Indy. I think that helps a little bit but nonetheless, racing at Indy last year was a great experience. It was a learning experience especially that pedal-fest in the semifinal round. That is in the past, and we are all about moving forward.
“I have spent a lot of time racing at tracks that are new since this is my first full-time season with a traditional schedule. This weekend [has had] a familiar feeling but also some added excitement. Besides winning a championship, winning Indy is the next best thing. You want to win the U.S. Nationals during your career,” Ashley said.
“We want to improve our position heading into the playoffs,” the No. 8-ranked driver in the standings said. “It is nice that we have already clinched a spot in the playoffs. Now we can just focus on racing the U.S. Nationals. We have no distractions and nothing else to worry about, except taking it one round at a time. It is going to be a full field. I think that is great for the sport and we are excited for the opportunity.”
HULL AT HOME HERE – Top Fuel rookie Buddy Hull grew up in the small Central Illinois burg of Jacksonville, so being here in the Midwest he certainly feels at home at Lucas Oil Raceway. And it’s no wonder – he has been coming here to watch drag racing for almost 40 years, back when it was known as Indianapolis Raceway Park.
This is his first time to compete in the NHRA’s marquee event, but, he said, “My first time coming here was in either ’86 or ’87. I came with my uncle. Since then, I've probably been at least another 15 times. For me, being from central Illinois, this is not necessarily a home track but very close. So to be able to race here and experience all this, it's incredible. That's the best way I can explain it.
“It sounds wild, but I'm treating it like another race. I'm treating it just like I would treat Norwalk or Epping or whatever. But, sometimes you step back and you take a look and actually realize you're here. It's pretty cool,” Hull said.
“I'll probably enjoy it more on Monday than I did Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, if that makes any sense at all,” he said with a laugh, “because I'm just focused. To me, it doesn't matter where I'm at, what track, I don't care. I'm going to do the same thing every time I go. You can't act one way at the U.S. Nationals and drive one way at the U.S. Nationals and drive a different way in St. Louis, Norwalk, or any other track. It's all the same.”
Hull, who drives Terry Haddock’s Vertex-sponsored dragster, is immersed in the business side of the sport.
“We do the best we can trying to show people that we can do it,” Hull, of Dallas, said. “Take some sponsors and keep us out here. I mean, the truth is, we can do a lot better. We just need more money, that's the thing. These cars are powered by money. The more money you have, the better you can do. That's just what it is.
“It's sad – and it's not sad. It's amazing the level of performance that we can get out of these cars. It's simply amazing. But what also is amazing is seeing the level of money it takes to get the performance out of them. So it's sad, and it's not sad,” he said.
“We've gotten to the point in this sport, to a certain extent, where we've reached the edge of, I think, some things,” Hull said. “The capabilities of the engine, I think, are getting close to the edge. Not the car, and not the mile per hour and not the E.T.s, but the engine. So that's why we're seeing parts failure like we see and people blowing up engines all the time and things like that – because we're at the edge. Connecting rods just can’t handle the power.
“We still have so much unused horsepower. There's a massive amount of unused horsepower. So what I mean by that is, these cars are making 11-12,000 horsepower, but we're not using all of it. We're not. We're not able to apply at all,” he said. “When you look at the fastest cars, Brittany Force, for example, the Capco guys, they're not using all the power they’re making. The clutch is designed to slip, which means there's no way – it's physically impossible on paper – to use all the power. And no one truly knows how much power we're actually using of the 10-11-12,000 that we’re making.”
For Hull, drag racing definitely is a family affair.
“I grew up at the racetrack. My great-uncle started racing in the ’50s and then he got my uncle and my dad hooked. So then I started going with my dad and my uncle when I was a kid. It just progressed. My dad and a few guys partnered on Top Alcohol Funny Car, and I was with those guys all the time when I was a kid. I met Tim Wilkerson, so we would go with Tim Wilkerson when he had a Top Alcohol Funny Car. I just kind of grew up around it,” he said. “My grandfather, my mom's dad, he's a hot rod guy. He has a bunch of ’33 and ’34 Fords, Cushman Scooters, Schwinn Balloon Tire bikes. He's an interesting guy just in general. So I had it from both sides.”
Hull is proud that with his bushy beard and powerlifter body build he cuts his own distinctive figure (literally and figuratively) in the sport: “It's funny because I’m just so atypical. My build is so atypical.”
It comes, at least partially, from competitive weightlifting.
“My dad was a truck driver. My dad worked out. My parents got divorced when I was young. So I found an outlet, which was working out. There was something about working out that that helped me psychologically get through things. I started working out heavily when I was like 11 or 12 years old, and I was super-good at it. I've always been muscular and strong, and I just love doing it,” Hull said. “It just happened to be something I was good at. Anyway, I started competing in powerlifting at a really young age, and I stuck with it, and I competed all the way up to the to the day I basically bought my first race car, which was in 2007. I was a competitive powerlifter for all those years and was a professional at it for a few years as well.”
He didn’t say he could lift his race car, but he certainly knows how to drive it.
ALL GROWN UP AT 300 MPH – Krista Baldwin can remember the carpets.
The 28-year-old Top Fuel rookie and third-generation driver – who happens to co-own her car and equipment with 90-year-old grandfather, Chris Karamesines – recalled her earliest memory. And naturally, it involved drag racing. After all, her father was Top Fuel racer Bobby Baldwin and her mother’s father was the legend known fondly to fans as “The Golden Greek.”
Baldwin said, “I remember when I was a kid that I can go to either pit. I could go hang out in my dad’s pit or I could go hang out in my grandpa’s pit, because I had different toys in different trailers. In my grandpa's trailer, it's like a short carpet. The wheels of my toy dragsters would glide across the carpet a lot easier than in my dad's trailer, because my dad’s carpet, or rug or whatever it was, was a little bit longer. So the wheels would get stuck. I still had the babies and the Barbies and all that kind of stuff, too. But I just remember rolling the dragsters on the ground. I remember the two different lounges on how different they were.”
She put the dolls and toy dragster away and is a race-car driver like her grandpa and dad, and she isn’t playing. The Pittsboro, Ind., resident, a graduate of Northern Arizona University has no time for that. Outside the race car, when she isn’t preparing herself to take the reins of the race team solely or serving as General Manager of Paul Lee’s Funny Car team, she works as Creative Director for McLeod Clutches and the other companies in Lee’s Wharton Automotive Group.
“I'm on adrenaline kick the whole race weekend. When I get home Sunday night or Monday morning I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I'm exhausted,’ because I'm going a million miles a minute. A thousand things are going through my head. But I wouldn't change it for the world, that's for sure,” Baldwin said.
“It's this unique situation that we put ourselves into. But in order for me to be successful at this, with the multiple hats I wear at the racetrack, I have to have really good time management, like really, really good time management. Make sure that my team on the Top Fuel car is good. Make sure Paul’s team on the Funny Car is good. Make sure the hospitality is running. I have my list of things to do every weekend. But every time you hit the gas, though, in one of these cars, it all goes away,” she said.
“It's definitely interesting,” Baldwin said. “But the way I look at it is as long as I keep my head down and I keep working and I just keep hustling the way that I do, eventually it's going to come out in the end, and my hard work is going to pay off in some way that will make me drive this Top Fuel car more times throughout the year.”
She said her work ethic comes from her father: “It goes back to, probably seeing my dad had his own Top Fuel car. I remember seeing him working every day up until he leaves for an event. I mean, shoot, I've only had eight short years with him. But I remember the hustle he to do to get that race car on the track.”
And she shows his enthusiasm, just like he did.
“When he gets to the racetrack, he's just so excited to be there. He's so excited to be with his friends and so excited to drive a Top Fuel car. That's what I had growing up. That's what I saw. I take what he did, and now I'm just trying to translate it into the skill set and the knowledge that I have. It's work, and it'll come.”
She’s excited every race to be around her racing team members, as well as her close friends.
Baldwin has a reliable core of crew members.
“We do have outside help, but we have outside help from a lot of people. I say, I have a lot of friends. No – Grandpa has a lot of friends out here. The cool part is a lot of friends help us make this car go down that racetrack. One big thing is that Dom Lagana took a lot of time to make this car right, in the sense of he pulled everything off the car and put it all back on the car. He just made sure everything was right for me to get in the car. Just that alone has increased our potential of consistency, and we have been very consistent since I've been driving. We have a lot of good friends that helped us tune this car. We couldn't get by without them. Now, a lot of the time they don't want to be mentioned. It’s a collaborative effort across our friends of drag racing.”
She said she has the same crew members at each race and that “it’s a mix between my grandpa's crew and my crew with Anthony Dicero and Jake Sanders. Then my grandpa brings in his crew, and we all work together, and we're all learning how each other services the motor or services just during rounds.
“It's a wonderful chaos,” Baldwin said. “We have so much fun now. Everything is so right. We all joke with each other. It's a really cool mood that me and my grandpa have put together this group of men and ladies. Katie Buttera is one of my crew ladies, and she's also my backup girl. She owns Apple Girl Art. She's the granddaughter of Little John Buttera.”
Putting up shiny elapsed times and speeds are fun, satisfying, desirable, and surely in Baldwin’s future. But for right now, she’s in her comfort zone.
“That's pretty cool that I get to do this with my best friends and my family. I mean, me and Katie, we're best friends, and we're both third-gen babies out here. So it's pretty fun. Our grandpas and her grandma and my grandpa were good friends. Our moms are friends, and then we're friends. So it's pretty fun,” she said.
One key person in Baldwin’s life is mom Paula Baldwin-Flanagan.
“Every time I go up to the line, she's scared. That’s just being a mom,” Baldwin said. “But she's so proud, and she tells me a lot. She’s like, ‘You’re doing it. You’re actually doing it. I'm so proud of how you hold yourself in different situations.’ It's not easy working with my grandpa, but she's like, ‘Just keep your head on your shoulders and just remember to make the smart decision, because you are the team owner with him. You have to realize that it's just you and him now.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, I know.’”
Team-owner status is growing on her, she said.
“It’s definitely taking that mentality into the race car. It's literally my right foot is connected to my wallet. So whenever I feel something go wrong with the car on a run, in three seconds I have to make that decision: ‘OK, do I battle it? Do I leg it out? What do I do?’ So I usually try to not throw caution to the wind and I make a good decision in the race car just because it is me and him. It’s me and him putting all our money into this. So I can't afford to blow up anything right now.
“But my mom is super, super proud. She loves it. She loves being a Top Fuel mom,” Baldwin said. “She and Jill Prock are best friends. They're having the time of their life, especially when Austin and I raced each other in Norwalk. It was pretty funny between our moms. We have this picture, Austin and I were standing there, staring at each other like, ‘You're going down.’ And our moms are on the other side of the picture, sitting there, ready to punch each other out. It’s a lot of fun. Lining up against Austin, lining up with someone that I know, that I'm friends with, that I hang out with normally, it's fun. I mean, it's so cool that we get to be in this little gang together, and we get to drive 330 miles an hour.”
Baldwin’s “gang” is reminiscent of the close-knit bunch of drag-racing friends – Ashley Force [Hood], Brandon Bernstein, Eric Medlen, Morgan Lucas, and JR Todd. They called their clique the “Gen2Cru,” occasionally the “Brat Pack,” styling themselves after Hollywood’s mid-century “Rat Pack” that included Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, and Sammy Davis Jr.
She said her group includes such racers as Justin Ashley, Jordan Vandergriff, and Ashley Sanford, among others. “Actually, almost every person that came from the alcohol ranks into Top Fuel has raced with me in my car at the Nitro University with Anthony Dicero. It's kind of funny that I was on the sidelines teaching them how to drive the A-fuel car and now we're competing together in the Top Fuel level,” she said.
She said she and Justin Ashley have “been friends ever since he came into the alcohol ranks. So to see him with his success has been really inspiring.” As for Vandergriff, she said, “I miss hanging out with Jordan [who’s in attendance this weekend at Indianapolis], especially since he moved away from Indy. But he'll come out in due time. He’ll find something.”
Meanwhile, Baldwin already is starting to find that ‘something’ she’s looking for.
‘BOUNTY HUNTER’-INSPIRED – “Mediocre” hardly is a word that should be associated with Shawn Langdon, but heading into this regular-season finale, that’s what his elimination-round record is: 12-12, .500, 50/50.
The 2013 Top Fuel champion said he understands that’s part of racing and is continuing to work out what bugs have been plaguing his DHL Toyota Dragster. And he has some special inspiration as the regular season draws to a close.
“We’re looking at how to make our team better and how to be able to get a better race car, because obviously we're not satisfied with having an even record like that,” Langdon said. “We feel like we have a better team than that. We've kind of run through some troubles this year and tested a few things and tried some things. And certain things didn't work out. But that's how the racing world goes. It's a big circle, and sometimes you're on top and sometimes you're not. And you just got to keep working and keep digging and keep trying hard to get back on top. And that's kind of where we're at right now.
“We've had some races this year that have been close. We've lost some races from some of the safety devices shutting the car off, preventing engine damage. We've lost a hundred different ways,” he said. “But it's just racing, and it's part of it. It's just a matter of getting everything right, getting engine combination, get everything happy where you're not hurting parts or blowing things up. But we had very good test session after Brainerd that we feel very confident with heading into [eliminations at] Indy and heading into the Countdown.
“From a competitive standpoint,” Langdon said, “obviously you show up prepared to win every week. And I would love nothing more to be able to go out there on a dominant run and go out there and win multiple races in a row and contend for a championship and everything. But, then again, on the flip side of it, in this day and age, we’re very fortunate and lucky to have a job. You kind of pick and choose your battles a little bit on what's really important. The most important thing is that I have a job and I work for a great man like Connie Kalitta. I have a great team behind me, great crew guys on the team. We have fun racing.”
To make the effort a little more special, the team pulled a surprise and unveiled “Bounty Hunter” tribute livery to celebrate Kalitta Motorsports boss Connie Kalitta.
The retro design celebrates the first car to break the 200-mph barrier at an NHRA national event while qualifying at Indianapolis Raceway Park in 1964 – and the first major win of Connie’s career, the 1964 Smokers Fuel & Gas Championship at Bakersfield, Calif., when he defeated Don Garlits in the final round.
“We wanted to do something special at the U.S. Nationals to celebrate Connie and what better way than to run this tribute Bounty Hunter Top Fuel dragster,” said Chad Head, Kalitta Motorsports General Manager. “We have to thank DHL, Kalitta Air and all our sponsors for supporting this effort and working to give this race car a truly retro look. Connie is an amazing driver, crew chief, team owner and person. This is just a small gesture to celebrate one of his historic race cars.”
CHASING INDY – Brittany Force said she has “heard people say 100 times: You’ve got to win Indy. That’s the one thing every driver wants to do. You can’t retire until you do that.”
She said, “I’ve been chasing the Indy win. It’s the big one. It has all the momentum behind it. We haven’t had luck here in the past. But we’re hoping to turn things around and end up in that winners circle.”
After zipping to the top of the Top Fuel leaderboard Friday night, Force realized that it hadn’t occurred to her to discuss the nuances of this racetrack and this event with her older sister, Ashley Force Hood, who won the Funny Car trophy here in back-to-back appearances (2009-2010).
Maybe I will talk to her, get some advice from her . . . How do you win the biggest race? How do you pull up here and look at the grandstands packed with people, just knowing what this race is, the heart of it, and keep your game face on and win the thing?
She doesn’t have to ask her sister how she should feel – she has a strong sense of that.
“We’re in a very good place. We’re No. 2 in points. Our goal coming into this season was to be [in the] top three when this Countdown took off. We hit our objective, and we’re right where we want to be.
“We’re hoping to win this race and get us even closer to [leader Steve] Torrence. Then everything resets,” she said, referring to the NHRA system that bunches up the top 10 drivers in 10-point increments and allows the leader a 20-point margin over the No. 2 seed.
“It’s been a long season, and we’ve put a lot of hard work into this season to get to that No. 2 spot. Now it starts all over. That excites me as a driver. We’re at the beginning of this Countdown. We want to chase it down. We want a No. 1 on our car.”
But first things first. A victory Sunday would be only the second for her this season but a first for her at Indianapolis.
PROUD TO BE CRAZY – Call Top Fuel racer Joe Morrison self-aware. He said, “They say this sport is not for ‘normal people.’ I’m proud to fall into that other category.”
FRIDAY TOP FUEL NOTEBOOK
FORCE EDGES NEMESIS IN THRILLING 3.6 SIDE-BY-SIDE, JOON OUTRUNS THE POLICE, MORRISON BUSINESS-MINDED, TORRENCES BRING OWN MOTIVATIONS TO U.S. NATIONALS, LANGDON AND PRUETT LOVE DOUBLING DOWN
Brittany Force and her nemesis Steve Torrence surely under the Lucas Oil Raceway lights Friday night changed the minds of anyone who has thought that the NHRA’s “Indy,” the U.S. Nationals, “The Big Go” has lost some of its luster.
Together they put on an epic show on the 1,000-foot course to close nitro qualifying on the opening day of the Dodge SRT U.S. Nationals.
And Force kept her iron grip on Top Fuel qualifying superiority, claiming the provisional top spot with a 3.684-second elapsed time at a class-best 334.57-mph speed in the Monster Energy Dragster.
In the opposite lane, Torrence clocked 3.688 seconds at 329.50 mph with his Capco Contractors Dragster.
“We want everything we can get. We came out with a plan,” she said. She said registering a 3.68-second E.T. was the target, “and we hit our mark.”
Force is seeking her sixth consecutive No. 1 qualifying position and eighth overall in 13 races this season.
“That says a lot about this team. We want No. 1 qualifiers. We also want to win on race day. It’s every driver’s dream. We had some luck in Topeka a few weeks back, but we want to do it here, at the biggest race of the season.
“I’ve been coming here since I was a baby. Love this place, and we want to get the win here,” she said.
The 2017 Top Fuel champion shared tentative top-qualifying honors with her Funny Car-driving dad, John Force, with whom she shared the winners circle at Topeka recently.
Doug Kalitta, who was atop the leaderboard until the final pairing, was third with a 3.751-second effort.
And the provisional Nos. 3-6 racers – Kalitta, Josh Hart, Leah Pruett, and Billy Torrence – were separated overnight by a mere five-thousandths of a second.
Two more qualifying sessions are scheduled for Saturday, setting the fields for Sunday’s eliminations.
REVITALIZED JOON READY TO RESUME ACTION – There sat Top Fuel owner-driver Lex Joon in the police car, lights flashing, law officers surrounding him, the odds not in his favor.
He wasn’t in the back seat. He was at the wheel, strapped in for a friendly little go down the Lucas Oil Raceway against one of the delegates from the Indiana Sheriffs Association in early August as they took to the dragstrip during their annual convention.
“They were racing each other. They had four cop cars and they were racing each other, and there was one winner. And then they came to me and they asked me if I want to run a race against the winner,” Joon said as he prepped for the Dodge SRT NHRA U.S. Nationals which began Friday. “I said, ‘Sure. That's fun.’
“They gave me the slowest car. Then they asked if it’s OK that somebody would drive with me, one lady cop. ‘Sure.’ More weight in the car. We were like, ‘OK, well, where do we go with this?’ That guy already made six runs or so with that car. It was the first time I was sitting in a police car. Lights on and everything on. So I told her, ‘Are you ready?’ ‘Yeah, I'm ready.’ ‘OK, let's do this.’ You know what? I won the race,” Joon said proudly.
He didn’t get any Camping World Drag Racing Series points for his accomplishment. He didn’t earn any money to beef up his single-car Top Fuel operation. What he received was reassurance – that his method of preparation for a race is effective, that he can buck the probabilities, that as a European Top Fuel champion and many races across Western Europe before pursuing his American Dream with wife Gerda he still has the knack for winning.
“I also proved to myself, yeah, you're growing older, but I know I got the skills to do this. I know how to do this,” Joon said. “I made a plan. That's what I like to do. I like planning. OK, let's see if this is going to work. It might work. Let's go. I'm not just going to walk in there and butcher myself. It was this close on the finish line,” he said, pinching his index finger and thumb together to describe his narrow victory margin.
He felt again the thrill of winning, even if it wasn’t in his 11,000-horsepower Hot Wheels Americana Series Premium Car Care Products Dragster. He’s ready to show off his decades of experience in the nitro world, has been since he literally left everything behind in The Netherlands to seek success in the United States.
The resolve is palpable in this voice. So is the frustration.
Lex Joon said he knows he is up to the task of being competitive in the NHRA’s Top Fuel class, of being a threat at each race, of winning. That is what he came here to do. He has learned from what might be considered missteps and reaffirmed responsibility for the nuts-and-bolts operation of the team – his team. And he’s more forceful and uncompromising than ever to take back total control of his operation from top to bottom. After all, he and Gerda jumped through strict U.S. government immigration hoops for a couple of years to establish themselves, slogged through the wrong jumbles of crew members and sponsors, displayed far too much patience and allowed too much leeway to people who didn’t appreciate their sacrifices and cherished dreams. They’re the ones who are driving a truck on hauls throughout the Midwest and managing an auto-parts store, working 50-60 hours a week – just to see $6,000 fly away in less than five seconds with each pass in the dragster (not counting crew salaries and logistical expenses).
“I've done it. I've won races. I've won championships and records. I did it all. And I did it from 18 years old,” Joon said. “And I always had to do with myself. Nobody ever was helping me. So, you know, if you have to do it again and with Gerda on my side, I'm sure we will get it done.”
He said, “I know I can make a difference here. I know we can do this. I know a lot of people think we don't. I know we can do this. So do I need to prove it to myself? Maybe, although I know I can do it.” Without naming names, he said he has been known to help some high-profile crew chiefs solve their own nagging issues.
Joon did hire Jeff Edwards, a seasoned local crewhand, as his car chief for this race.
“He's got a lot of experience. He will be my eyes out there to see if everything goes the way it should. I know he can do it. He will be an addition to the team, and that's what I'm looking for. I'm looking for a car chief. That's really important right now. That car needs to be put together the way I need to have it put together every time and not all the B.S. around it. If you see something go wrong on the racetrack, nine out of 10 [times], it’s because somebody made a mistake on the crew. The B.S. about parts failures, forget about it. It's always somebody made a mistake,” Joon said.
“Rob Flynn [of Kalitta Motorsports] is counseling us. When I got a certain question, I can call him and he will answer the question, or he will check for me and he will answer the question. That's cool,” he said.
So with a bit of new help, Lex and Gerda Joon are launching a new effort, one that’s more carefully orchestrated than ever before.
“Now it's going to happen, and I'm going to prove to the world we are not just here to try to qualify a car or just run a 4.0. I'm not here for that. I can do better than so many out there. I know it. But it's about me and Gerda and Gerda and me. I don't do ourselves right, and that's the problem.”
He said he feels he, in the past, has sold himself short.
“A hundred percent – and to Gerda,” Joon said. “But the problem is a circle, because if this is going to work out, [if] you’re successful, you don't want to give up, because you want to keep going. So there is no stopping. I've been through some things, I already should have lost my life three times. Really. The fact that I survived . . . the people that were part of that were like, ‘This should not have happened. You should have been done.’ So that's another thing. I believe when your ticket is up, it’s up. Now, I don't live like an idiot and run in the street without looking. But yeah, there is something out there. If I still see how much energy I have. That's another reason I say age is just a number.”
Besides, he said, “I was racing in classes in Europe that were way higher than I should run in. I run them and I still want to win them. I won most of them. There is nobody from Europe that came into the U.S. that has been successful. When I said I'm going to do it, they told me, ‘Eh, forget about it. It's not going to happen.’ So many already tried this. Who as a seasoned team that came out of the world somewhere has been successful here in the USA? When I left Europe [in 2013], I said, ‘I'm going to do this.’ Maybe that's another reason why it needs to happen. When you are good at something, I don't feel it's right just to walk away from it because it's not working at that moment. I'm not a quitter. We have God-given talents. That's what I believe. Where they take you, they take you.”
And they have taken Lex and Gerda Joon to the point they won’t accept – or place – hurdles in their way. And their dragster was a huge hurdle. Joon’s last appearance came at this race a year ago, and it wasn’t pretty. In the final qualifying session, his engine grenade. And that pegged his frustration meter.
“it makes no sense to point fingers,” Joon said. Ultimately, he said, the buck stops with him. “I'm the owner, and I'm the guy that's running the business. I need to understand what's going on, what's happening, why things are not working out, because if your car doesn't make it to the finish line, then it's also more difficult to find partners.” The messiness compounds in falling-domino fashion.
So he inspected the car thoroughly and discovered a handful of obvious problems.
“When we got this car ready, it threw me a couple of curveballs,” he said. “We had a problem with the MSD grid. We found problems in the clutch. We found problems in the fuel system. We found problems in management systems. So it took a lot of time, and we all worked it out. So I'm pretty excited to be here right now, because I know the car is in good shape. And now it's about getting it back on the track.”
The process was second nature to him: “I always had to figure it out, because when you’re racing there's nobody there. You’ve got no parts. You need to make it work. You need to know how things are working. I figured it all out, and I did this again here. I know what to look for and I know what to do. I know all the mechanics on this race car. I know how it needs to work together. I know when it's dropping a cylinder, what to look for. I know when the clutch is not right. I know what to look for. I know which way to go to get it right.”
And he has taken a firmer approach with crew members: “You want to be here. If you want to be here, this is what's going to happen.”
“When things go bad, it's like ‘Holy cow,’ but when you've got it going again, it's fixed, and it's all good, then it's like, ‘Yeah, I still know how to do this.’ If that car is not working, I go back [and get to the root of the problem]. But that's what I've done my whole life. And I don't give up. We never quit,” he said.
“One of the things I see,” Joon said, is “I seem to help a lot of people with what we do. I get a lot of fan mail. I get a lot of messages. I get a lot of people telling me, ‘We count on you.’ And that's something that's given by God. So I need to do it. Now, I'm not the type of guy that’s in church every week, but I do believe that what's happening here in your head, if you believe you can do something, it will happen. If you think, ‘Well, I don't know,’ it won't. If you tell yourself, ‘Listen, this is what we're going to deal with. We’re going to make it happen. We will survive,’ your chance to come out of it OK is so much better than when you say, ‘I'm going to give up.’ If you give up, it’s over.”
So he knows his hopes are on his own shoulders. And he’s content with that.
“Now it’s on me. I'm probably John Force: I will never stop racing. There are a couple of those guys out there, right? Jim Dunn. They never give up. They don't stop. Just because the next one might be the run. The next race might be the race. The next phone call might be that opportunity you are looking for. You need to believe in that.”
Joon is hoping to break into the field in Saturday qualifying.
STRATEGIC PLANNING – Joe Morrison, fresh from his 3.28-second, 259-mph eighth-mile blast at Keystone Raceway Park’s Night of Fire at New Alexandria in Western Pennsylvania, is back on the Camping World Series tour for the first time since the June race at Norwalk, Ohio. And he has a new – and well-known – crew chief for his Right2Breathe Dragster.
Lance Larsen joined the Leverich Racing Top Fuel team as its tuner for the remainder of the year. Team owner Gary Leverich said he started speaking with Larsen at Norwalk and convinced Larsen he could help them get back to basics.
“I feel like I have learned more in the past few weeks than I have in the last two years,” Leverich said. “He will be working with me and the entire team, passing along 50-plus years of experience to all of us.”
And that’s from an operation that patriarch Bob Leverich started in 1959, one that has been competing in Top Fuel since October 2015.
They’re thrilled to have Larsen aboard. “To say that we’re exciting to have Lance join our team would be a huge understatement,” Gary Leverich said.
Morrison – who also competed at Gainesville, Atlanta, Charlotte, and Epping – said his expectations at the start of the schedule fizzled a bit by summer: “We entered the 2021 season with huge expectations, but it’s safe to say that we’re all a bit frustrated with our on-track performance. We’ve had a lot of help from exceptional people, but for whatever reason, it’s been difficult to put it all together into representative runs.” As evidence, Morrison’s best elapsed time has been 4.034 seconds and his top speed 297.77 mph, disappointments both.
Larsen said, “This team has a lot of heart and most importantly a willingness to learn and grow. I felt that if I could help a struggling team, it would be a benefit to the sport as a whole.” He said he saw his first job was to simplify their procedures, which he said should improve the team’s on-track performance. He pored over the dragster with Gary Leverich and Morrison, and together they made some structural adjustments to components that propelled Morrison to his outstanding showing at Keystone Raceway Aug. 21.
Now Morrison, who is licensed in nine categories has a spring in his step as he anticipates taking on three consecutive races – this weekend’s U.S. Nationals, the Countdown opener at Reading, and Charlotte, then Dallas and Bristol. He said if he can find some more funding, the team would like to race at Las Vegas and Pomona.
“My goal is to run fulltime,” Morrison said, conceding that “I’m a long way off from that, funding-wise, unfortunately. But I’m working at it.”
He has proved that by bringing in a handful of new-to-drag-racing marketing partners since he debuted at this event a year ago.
Morrison, who said he crafted his B2B model by applying the lessons he learned from Kalitta Motorsports’ Bob Lawson and some tips from retired sportsman ace Megan Meyer Lingner, said he has been using his BNI connections to spread the drag-racing gospel. BNI is a networking program that allows only one person per business category. “Everyone works together to see how they can grow everybody’s businesses. I’m introducing my existing partners to other partners. I’m looking to bring in partners that are good fits strategically for the other partners we already have on board. I’m trying to go about it so we can deliver results. Then I’m trying to build a portfolio of businesses that will all benefit not only from working with my team but will benefit from working with each other.”
That, Morrison said, is designed “to strengthen the ask when we do begin to have serious conversations after a cold call or introduction through networking. There’s my ‘magic sauce,’ if you want to call it that.”
He said he an the Leveriches have been a perfect fit.
“My whole life, I’ve had to race on a budget. Even racing my altered – and I had a whole lot of success with it – I always had the idea that if I break it, I’m going to be parked for awhile,” he said. “So I have to make sure I do the preventive maintenance properly and we do everything we can to run clean and not hurt the car. So I’m used to being a semi-conservative driver. It’s a long-time family operation, and racing, for me, was about racing with family. I raced with my dad. And Sunday, my youngest daughter, Lilly, is turning 13. She’s bringing a couple of her best friends, so it’s a family outing at the racetrack.”
Most of all, Morrison said he is grateful that “the Leveriches gave me the opportunity to race. Every other team says, ‘Bring us the dollars and we’ll put you in the seat.’ The Leveriches said, ‘Can you bring the dollars?’ ‘Yes.’ They said, ‘OK – let’s do this.’ They had the faith in me to give me opportunities. So I see it as a good fit. I want to do my best to bring value to the team, and I’d like to get them some recognition for the heart and soul they’ve put into it.
“We need to perform, because I don’t have a legacy name,” Morrison said. “And that’s not a knock on anybody. I don’t begrudge anyone a family history in racing. I celebrate it. I love that, but I don’t have a legacy name. I’m not a young up-and-coming driver. If we don’t perform, I’m going to be ignored. If I’m ignored, I won’t be able to continue to bring sponsors in. If I don’t bring sponsors in, I have no future in this sport. So I’m trying to do that, all while connecting with fans who love the sport as much as we do. We ARE fans. There is no difference between me and the average fan in the grandstands, except I’m lucky enough to have a shot to drive.
“We love throttle whacks. We love putting kids in the seat and giving them the experience I never had. I would have done anything to sit in a Top Fuel car when I was eight or 10 years old,” Morrison said. “If we can perform and if we can put fans first, I think we actually have a shot at some longevity in the sport.”
DOUBLING DOWN – Kalitta Motorsports’ Shawn Langdon and Don Schumacher Racing’s Leah Pruett, both of whom compete in the NHRA’s Top Fuel class, have been drag-racing rivals since their Jr. Dragster days in Southern California.
And each will be trying this weekend at the Dodge SRT U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis to become the first at this Camping World Drag Racing Series classic to earn trophies in two different categories.
Langdon is competing in the Top Fuel and sportsman-level Super Comp classes. For the sixth time this year, Pruett will add Factory Stock Showdown driving duties to those she has every national event in Top Fuel.
Through Friday’s action, he has qualified No. 9 and advanced to the third round of eliminations in Super Comp. He took the provisional No. 16 position in Top Fuel.
“I just enjoy racing in general. I’m quite a bit more hands-on on the sportsman side of things, which is kind of my roots,” Langdon said. “I enjoy racing Super Comp and doing some bracket racing,” Langdon said.
“They’re just two different styles of racing,” he said of the pro and sportsman brands of drag racing.
The DHL Toyota Dragster driver figured he has about as many passes in a sportsman or bracket car this year so far as he does in an 11,000-horsepower dragster.
“Pretty close,” Langdon said. “A lot of times, when you go bracket racing, they allow you to double enter. A lot of the bracket races will be from three to five days of racing. So it’s not uncommon to after the weekend of racing get 30-plus runs.
He couldn’t begin to predict how many non-Top Fuel races he has run in this already crazy-busy 2021, not without consulting the schedule posted in his office. He indicated it might be easier to count the weekends he has been out of some kind of race car.
“I’ve basically raced almost – between working with my nephew [Caden Casner, of Southern California], doing his Jr. Dragster races, and my bracket racing, and the Top Fuel racing, I’ve maybe had one or two off weekends,” Langdon said, admitting that “doing everything, I get pretty exhausted quite a bit.
“I guess it’s my style of living, he said. “Usually, I’ll get back from a race and my downtime is working in my garage on my bracket car. That’s my downtime to relax. Throughout the year, you go race to race. I take it kind of each week at a time. Just kind of depending on how the NHRA schedule falls, I try to fit in bracket races on the off-weekends and try to fit in my nephew’s Jr. schedule, as well.”
Langdon indicated he has a special purpose for dashing from one pit to another this weekend.
“That will keep me busy. I like running the extra class, because with only one nighttime pro session on Friday, I can get my mind into race mode all day running my Super Comp dragster,” he said. “I think it makes me a better racer, because I am thinking about driving better, having good reaction times. And I am focusing on all the small details. Keeping your mind active and focused is a big deal when you have a race as important as the U.S. Nationals.”
Langdon has two Top Fuel victories here at Lucas Oil Raceway, including last year’s U.S. Nationals. He also won this event in the Super Gas class.
“Getting the win last year was big with Connie Kalitta as my crew chief. I really wanted to get a win with him and the DHL team,” he said. “It is the last race of the regular season, and teams are trying to get into the Countdown or get ready for the playoffs. So there is a lot of attention on this race.”
One of Pruett’s longtime goals has been to win two races on the same day, and she has been coming close. She has driven her Dodge Mopar Drag Pak to back-to-back final-round appearances at the two most recent Factory Stock Showdown events (at Denver and Topeka). She was runner-up at this race in the stock car last year.
She said, “I always conceptualize winning Indy as a ‘snowglobe.' We all see what it looks like from the outside, yet want to be inside. We’ve heard stories of how magical it is inside that globe from those that have visited by way of a win and see the prestige that goes with it. Some call this place the winners circle but for this Dodge team, it is our globe. The more years I race Indy, the less I become infatuated with having a name tied to the prestigious race win and more obsessed with our journey, memories, and character-building through the challenges of obtaining such a goal.
“My perspective may be somewhat unconventional,” Pruett said, “but it is because I was fortunate enough to experience the Indy ‘snowglobe’ of prestige when the Mopar Drag Pak FSS team won the U.S. Nationals in 2018. Some of my highest-ranked memories are of that win, because it was tough and ultimately the pinnacle of races to accomplish a win.”
Pruett will start Saturday Top Fuel qualifying from the No. 5 spot in the order. She’s ninth in FSS after one qualifying session but ranked third in the class standings.
NO. 1 SEED GUARANTEED NOTHING – Steve Torrence’s lead over closest Top Fuel challenger Brittany Force is so enormous (383 points) entering this event that he could sit out the entire weekend and still claim the so-called regular-season championship. He locked in that distinction several weeks ago. This 67th edition of the NHRA’s oldest and most renowned race will finalize the fields for the 14th Countdown to the Championship.
Torrence was the points leader at the start of the Countdown in 2017, 2018, and 2019. (The NHRA suspended the playoff system last year because of pandemic-related scheduling irregularities. Doug Kalitta led the standings after the U.S. Nationals last year. Torrence took control at the September 2020 Gainesville Gatornationals and never let go of the points lead through the Finals at Las Vegas.).
However, being the No. 1-seeded racer to kick off the Countdown hasn’t been a guarantee. Former Top Fuel driver “Hot Rod” Fuller or six-time series runner-up Doug Kalitta or Funny Car’s single-car shaman Tim Wilkerson can attest to that – they were in command at the beginning of past Countdowns but couldn’t parlay that into a first title.
The NHRA has completed 13 Countdowns (with none in pandemic-marred 2020), and the top-seeded driver has become the class champion 21 times out of a possible 52 times across the pro landscape. So fewer than half of the regular-season champions have capitalized on the opportunity. In other words, the regular-season champion has failed to become the series champion 31 times in 52 chances.
Even No. 2 seeds have claimed titles only six times (out of a possible 52 times).
Pro Stock Motorcycle’s Eddie Krawiec (2008) and L.E. Tonglet (2010) and Funny Car’s Matt Hagan (2014) all earned championships after entering the Countdown in seventh place.
Brittany Force (Top Fuel, 2017) and Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle, 2018) stormed to titles from the No. 6 position in the standings.
Robert Hight, in the Funny Car class, is the only racer to come back from as far as 10th. He did it in 2009, forever giving back-marker drivers hope. The NHRA recalculates points after this Indianapolis event and bunches up the Countdown-qualified drivers, separating them by 10-point increments (with the top driver having a 20-point advantage that can erode in an instant. That’s what enabled Hight to earn the first of his three championships. He won the first two 2009 playoff races (at Charlotte and Dallas) and immediately was in control.
So the odds are fickle when it comes to Countdown seeding that emerges from the U.S. Nationals.
Six different No. 1-ranked Top Fuel racers (for a total of eight times) have gone on to take the championship in the Countdown era: Tony Schumacher (2008), Larry Dixon (2010), Del Worsham (2011), Antron Brown (2012, 2016), Shawn Langdon (2013), and Steve Torrence (2018, 2019).
Other top-seeded drivers who have won championships are (by class):
Funny Car – John Force (2010), Ron Capps (2016), Robert Hight (2019) – three drivers, three times
Pro Stock – Allen Johnson (2012), Erica Enders (2015), Jason Line (2016), Bo Butner (2017), Tanner Gray (2018) – five different drivers, five times
Pro Stock Motorcycle – Matt Smith (2007), Eddie Krawiec (2011, 2012), Andrew Hines (2014, 2019) – three different drivers, five times
NO LETTING OFF THE GAS – Capco Contractors Dragster ace Steve Torrence has a monstrous 383-point advantage over Monster Energy Dragster driver Brittany Force, his closest rival in the Top Fuel standings. So even if she or someone else piled up the maximum number of points available in a single race – even this weekend, where the rewards are one-and-a-half times the normal rate – that would amount to only 202 points.
Torrence could “mail it in.” But that’s not his style.
“We try to win every race,” he said, “and it’s a strategy that seems to have worked out OK. We don’t hold back anything for the playoffs. Pretty much what you see every week is what you’re going to get. I’m very blessed to be racing at a very high level with my family and some of my best friends in a sport full of great people.
“We race for fun. We have goals, and when you can achieve those goals as a team, there’s nothing better than that. It’s still fun out here,” Torrence said. “We work hard, but when the work’s over, we play pretty hard, too.”
He said, “This is Indy. And if you can’t get up for this race, you’re probably in the wrong sport. Winning here in 2017 with these guys [his ‘Capco Boys’] was awesome. For a drag racer, there’s no better feeling than winning Indy except, maybe, winning it again.”
The Kilgore, Texas, racer is closing in on 50 pro victories. He’s at 47, thanks to winning seven of the 12 completed races this season. That includes his winning performance two weeks ago at Brainerd, Minn., where he concluded his quest to win at every venue on the tour. He has not started a race from farther back than the No. 4 qualifying spot, and he is the only driver to have earned at least one qualifying bonus point at every race.
Torrence is trying to become just the seventh driver to win four consecutive pro titles (following Don Prudhomme, Bob Glidden, Lee Shepherd, Kenny Bernstein, John Force, and Tony Schumacher).
WANTS TO MAKE IT OFFICIAL – Billy Torrence has “won Indy” – but he kind of hasn’t.
Same goes for fellow Top Fuel driver Justin Ashley and Funny Car’s Ron Capps. Each has won at Indianapolis but not at the U.S. Nationals, the Big Go, which traditionally is the only Camping World Drag Racing Series event at Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis each year.
However, last year was anything but conventional. Because of varying state public-health restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic – and more open policies in auto-racing-savvy Indiana – several races were canceled and three were added at Indianapolis. Ashley won the second of the four events at this facility (which was interrupted by rain in July and finished during the U.S. Nationals in September). Capps recorded his first Indianapolis victory in the third July event here.
Drag-racing traditionalists consider “winning Indy” to mean winning the U.S. Nationals. And that Billy Torrence hasn’t done.
What he has done is pretty remarkable.
Billy Torrence has built a 84-58 elimination-round record in his 65 pro races. He has qualified for every one of those 65 events.
He won the E3 Spark Plugs Nationals on this racetrack last July, defeating Doug Kalitta in the final round. Overall, he has brought home to Kilgore, Texas, seven Wally trophies.
Torrence, the 63-year-old founder and CEO of Capco Contractors Inc., races whenever the family’s oil-and-gas pipeline construction business permits. But he still insists that he is competing by invitation only (from wife and team owner Kay Torrence) and likes to say, “I’m just out here trying not to be the weak link.”
He hardly is a weak link. He grew up drag racing in East Texas and has quality experience at the Lucas Oil Series sportsman level. Torrence won the South Central Division Super Comp championship in 1998, has a pair of NHRA national event victories in the Super Comp class, and earlier this summer won at the divisional level at Topeka.
This weekend he’s back in the Top Fuel lineup after opting out of four of the past five events.
When Torrence took a break from Top Fuel action, he dropped from third place to ninth.
TRIVIA TIDBIT – The U.S. Nationals has returned to Indianapolis for the 67th time – but not the 67th consecutive time. This marks the 61st time at Lucas Oil Raceway (formerly known as Indianapolis Raceway Park and, for a brief period, O’Reilly Raceway). This is the original national event, and when it began in 1955 at Great Bend, Kan., it was called simply “The Nationals.” In 1956, the race moved to Kansas City, Mo., for a year. For three years (1957-59), it took place at Oklahoma City. Detroit was the host for two years, and finally the race received a permanent home in 1961 at Indianapolis, about five miles west on Crawfordsville Road from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.