NHRA Funny Car champion J.R. Todd hoping to come up big in Texas
Veteran racer finds that it’s a long way to the top
For J.R. Todd, it was a thrilling moment that Sunday in September 2008, when he knocked off Tony Schumacher in the final round of NHRA Top Fuel action at the Texas Motorplex.
But, like so many other peaks in the young driver’s career, that pinnacle was followed by a rather steep plunge.
As Todd revisits Ennis, Texas, just south of Dallas, for this weekend’s AAA Texas FallNationals, he does so as the reigning Funny Car champion — and hoping the rest of his season and career go only uphill.
At age 18, he got his first stunning setback when team owner Bruce Litton’s shop caught fire and Litton had to abandon his second dragster as he returned to the dragstrip. Todd hooked on with Dexter Tuttle’s operation in 2006 and earned his first professional victory, but by 2007, sponsorship had vanished. Morgan Lucas Racing picked up Todd.
And despite that day at Dallas when he halted Schumacher’s still-standing record of consecutive round-wins at 31, Todd found himself once again without money to race by the end of 2009. He even went overseas, to Qatar, to race, but what sounded promising turned out like the other prospects.
That Dallas feat marked virtually the last time Todd would run a full schedule. He went nearly five years before he got a bolt-out-of-the-blue phone call from NHRA team owner Connie Kalitta in 2014. It came while he and his parents were at a sports bar, watching March Madness college basketball after a day of shopping for a used car.
Kalitta had fired driver Dave Grubnic in the middle of the Las Vegas race and summoned Todd to fly out immediately from Indianapolis and qualify the car – which he did. And Todd has soared in both nitro classes ever since.
But Todd sat out 2010 and 2011, and Bob Vandergriff Racing hired him in 2012 to compete at selected races. Three years into that assignment, Todd said he realized that his momentum had stalled and that Vandergriff had budgeted a small stipend for Todd because, Todd, said, “he basically was doing me a favor.”
He said, “The most races we ever hit in a season was six, just because he couldn’t come up with the funding to run that team fulltime. There was talk of him getting out of the car and putting me in it. But you can’t wait around for something like that to happen. I ran through all the money I had saved up, which wasn’t a lot.” And he knew he couldn’t afford to attend races and not have a revenue stream.
“It’s tough,” he said, looking back, “because if you’re not out here for a period of time, people will forget about you. That’s the frustrating part. Our sport is kind of driven now on people bringing sponsorship to teams or this person’s really marketable. So you might get a driving job based on that, not based on talent. It did bug the crap out of me. I was like, ‘Man, just give me a shot. I think I could get the job done.’ It definitely wears on your patience.”
He said it also caused “a lot of sleepless nights,” because “it had been so long since I’d won, and you don’t know if you’re ever going to get that opportunity again. Everywhere I’ve been up until (that) point in my career, it seems like we never really had the stability with the teams that I felt like, ‘I’m going to be here awhile.’ It was always sponsorship issues, and that’s the tough thing about our sport: If you don’t come from deep pockets or are able to bring some sponsorship to the table, it can be hard to get a ride out here.”
So Todd had been struggling for some time. He said, “It was like, ‘Man, I’m going to have to find a way to make some income but still keep my face out here.’ I always told myself I’d try to find a way to work (in the sport), whether it’s with a safety-equipment manufacturer, something like that. That way I could stay out here and stay visible with all the teams and let them know I’m still wanting to drive.”
Everyone not only knows he still wants to drive, but they know he can — in just about any car he climbs into, including ride-swap race cars of all kinds in his spare time. But right now, he’s focused on moving up from sixth place in the Funny Car standings. He’s a single point behind Bob Tasca III, who traded places with him at the previous event last weekend at Charlotte. But he’s 144 points off leader Robert Hight’s pace.
And Todd would love nothing more than to battle with Hight in a rematch of last season’s title chase. That’s in spite of his admission that “that battle we had last year, that’s the hardest thing I’ve been through in my racing career. I was pretty stressed. After he crashed and then had surgery for a broken collarbone and came back and won (at Dallas last fall), that proves how much of a badass he is. I have the most respect for him.”
But he has a different but equally fierce respect for his own DHL Toyota Camry team that has helped him reach the semifinals or finals at eight of the past nine Countdown races, dating back to last September. In that span, he has advanced to six final rounds — six of the past nine in the playoffs.
Team owner Kalitta had that hunch Todd could do it. And Todd said he’s grateful he finally found that used car he had been looking for all along.
“Luckily for me, I got hired here just because the owner thought I could get the job done,” Todd said.
And he’s hoping he can prove that again at Dallas.