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All About the Families

By Anne Proffit

If there was any question about the role of families in NHRA drag racing, it was easily answered at the series’ finale on the Auto Club Raceway at Pomona dragstrip. Whether related by blood or by friendship, families prevailed when the championship Wally trophies were handed out.

Even before the series encamped in Pomona, Steve Torrence earned his first Top Fuel championship, achieved during the Toyota NHRA Nationals two weeks earlier in Las Vegas. At that time, Torrence earned his tenth victory of the season and the dragster title. He credited his family, father Billy and mother Kay, along with the Richard Hogan- and Bobby Lagana Jr-led crew whose ear-splitting air horns punctured the victory celebration.

The CAPCO Contractors team is a family enterprise, started to assist Steve Torrence in his quest for this NHRA title. It’s fun for Steve, Billy and Kay, and serves to advertise their family business. As he racked up the wins throughout NHRA’s 18-contest “regular” season (Torrence had five victories leading to the Countdown) and then marauded through the six-race Countdown playoffs, winning them all, Torrence spoke solely of family, both his given and chosen family members.

As he beat eight-time Top Fuel champion Tony Schumacher, running his final race in U.S. Army livery, Torrence said, “He’s the best, and if you want to be the best you have to beat the best.” That he did. Of his six-race achievement, the 11-race season-long winner threw down the gauntlet: “We wanted too set that precedent. No one can beat us; they can only tie us and that’s a pretty cool stat.”

J.R. Todd, who started his racing career in Jr Dragsters at the age of 10, finally earned his first NHRA Mello Yello Funny Car championship at age 36, 26 years after his racing start. It took a phone call from Connie Kalitta in Todd’s difficult 2007 season, one where he lost best friend Eric Medlen to a fiery testing crash, asking him to take over the dragster then driven by David Grubnic, to change the journeyman’s trajectory.

Todd had stumbled from ride to ride before Kalitta called; he’s had a family home with Kalitta Motorsports ever since that fateful day, first running the dragster and then, when Del Worsham elected to return to his family Funny Car, taking over the 2015 champion’s seat in the DHL Toyota Camry. Like Worsham before him, Todd never forgets that he’s driving Scott Kalitta’s car and that it’s Kalitta’s “yella fellas” servicing his steed.

J.R.’s mom and dad were on-site to witness their son’s first-round assumption of champion, as was team owner and Top Fuel champion Connie Kalitta. After reigning champ and contender Robert Hight failed to make the finish line in his John Force Racing Chevrolet Camaro SS against Bob Tasca III’s Ford Mustang in the first Funny Car pairing, all Todd had to do was get down the track ahead of Jim Campbell, a feat he performed handily. At top end, the large trophy, black-and-gold jacket and white champion’s hat and medallion awaited.

“Seeing Robert smoke the tires was an instant relief,” Todd said. After driving half his life in nitro cars (he started in Top Fuel right after high school at 18), “All those tough times we went through are worth it now. It makes you respect this opportunity more and more. There were a lot of challenges along the way and a lot of times I felt like giving up. My parents were dedicated to me racing. This is the ultimate way to pay them back.”

There it is again: family. The Todd family and the Kalitta family were imminently successful on Sunday after entering the finale with a 74-point lead in the points-and-a-half finale. “I went over and thanked Connie after the first round. He just told me ‘good job’ and that’s all he’s got to tell me.” After going 21-3 in the Countdown he continued, “All those tough times we went through are worth it now. It makes you respect this opportunity more and more.”

Tanner Gray’s sophomore season in Pro Stock was no second-year slump. Despite equalling 2017 champ Bo Butner in his rookie season with five victories, Gray, a third-generation NHRA racer, didn’t have the consistency and maturity necessary to earn a title. This year he did, as the youngest champion in NHRA history at 19 years old accumulated eight victories on the year, and just like his championship compatriots in Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock Motorcycle, earned the winner’s trophy on Sunday to go with the championship laurels handed out a day earlier.

With his father Shane and grandfather Johnny looking on, Tanner Gray failed to put one foot outside the winner’s circle on Sunday. As his father aptly stated in Las Vegas, “We came here to win the championship for Tanner; he’s going back to his roots now.” And yes, Tanner Gray is packing up and going to circle-track racing, which is where he got his racing start. The Gray Motorsports shops will continue on, but without Tanner and his youthful ebullience.

On his 48th race day in professional NHRA competition, Tanner Gray noted, “We started pretty slow and I wasn’t quite sure we would be in this position. We were just able to find something and everything started clicking from there. We did so much testing and nothing seemed to be paying off… I couldn’t be more proud for the guys working on my car and everyone who contributed to this moment,” including his family members and crew chief Dave Connolly. “I wouldn’t be here without them.”

Gray’s three race wins in three Countdown contests would have been electrifying, had it not been for Torrence’s rampage through the six-race playoffs. Gray took over the lead in the Pro Stock class with a victory at the prestigious Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals and never looked back, helping Chevy to its 23rd NHRA manufacturers’ title as the Bow-Tie brand powered the Pro Stock champion for the past five years.

Matt Smith’s third NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle championship came five years after his second and 12 years from his first title. The North Carolina-bred racer, son to three-time Pro Mod champ and 218 runner-up Rickie Smith, travels with fellow racer and wife Angie Smith and their two dogs. Not only does he prepare their two motorcycles but he usually keeps a third - occasionally a fourth - customer motorcycle available.

Smith stood sixth after the end fo NHRA’s “regular” season, which for his class comprises 12 contests. The six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs saw Smith’s motorcycle come to life, although it wasn’t until after testing at Las Vegas that he felt comfortable with his chances for overall success.

At the top end on Sunday, Smith arrived with a win under his belt, beating four-time champ Eddie Krawiec in the winner-take-all finals; after the second, third and final rounds he’d also captured his third, fourth and fifth 200-mph trips through the timing lights on the weekend, along with winner’s lights. In a club that has three - of four possible - members, Smith has now shown he can run that fast under race-day conditions, with ultra-low humidity and mid-80s temps to his advantage.

Celebrating his 46th birthday on race day, Smith had to wait through each of Krawiec’s runs to see if the title would go to the finals, which it did. As the New Jersey Harley-Davidson rider came around the bend at top end, he kept smack-talking Smith in the hopes of making the other rider fail. It didn’t work and Smith’s EBR Buell motorcycle got the championship.

This past weekend - heck, this past NHRA season - all came down to families, given and chosen, working together for success. That each 2018 champion also won their season-finale race speaks loudly to the caliber of this year’s titleholders. They each - they all - came to the bat prepared to hit home runs. And that’s what they did.