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Troxel’s Career Gets A Funny Bounce Back

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, September 17 2010

Melanie Troxel going for victories. (Photo courtesy of the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Concord, N.C. – Melanie Troxel is a woman on a mission. The Funny Car driver may not be in the ranks of the Countdown to One, but that hasn’t reduced her resolve.

“Logic says that the better cars are the ones that make the Countdown and that have been running well all season,” she said of her chances in this weekend’s O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Nationals. “But they’re having to think about things. We’re just going out for the win.”

The sensation of the 2006 season when she became the first driver to appear in five consecutive championship finals while driving a Top Fuel rail, Troxel is on her way back to running regularly in the nitro ranks. In her second season of piloting Pro Modifieds for the team of Roger Burgess, a limited Funny Car schedule with sponsorship from In-N-Out was added. The team’s fall appearance at the Zmax Dragway is in preparation for a full Funny Car schedule in next year’s Full Throttle Series.

Despite winning two of her first races in the Top Fuel division for Don Schumacher Racing during a breakout 2006 season, Troxel’s sponsorship went away. She had an option to stay with one of drag racing’s most successful teams, but elected to leave. It’s been a difficult career path for Troxel, who turned 38 in August, since setting the sport’s quickest (4.458 seconds) and fastest passes (332.51 mph) in one of Schumacher’s machines.

“I don’t have any regrets about the decisions I’ve made,” said Troxel, who remains characteristically upbeat and optimistic. “Don Schumacher runs very competitive race cars. The older I get the more I’ve learned to appreciate the rest of the picture. Having the right chemistry is important and I didn’t feel I had that there.”

Two more Top Fuel wins for Morgan Lucas followed in 2007. In 2008, Troxel switched to Funny Cars with the ill-fated team of Mike Ashley, sold to Burgess before the season even started. Troxel won one event, but failed to qualify in four of the first six races of the season. She just missed becoming the first female driver to score an NHRA Funny Car win, earning a victory two events after Ashley Force Hood took that honor. After the newly organized team had teething troubles, Troxel missed the Countdown again, having missed the first one in 2007 when only eight drivers were included.

Then came 2009, when Troxel ran only selected Pro Mod races – still an exhibition category at that time – for R2B2. It was her first hiatus from dragsters or nitro machines since launching her career in a Top Alcohol Dragster fourteen years ago. Along the way, she quietly divorced fellow driver Tommy Johnson Jr., whom she married in December of 2003.

Now Troxel, a self-described adrenaline junkie who got started while working for her father’s team, is on a hectic, challenging and sometimes literally bumpy track. But getting back to the pro classes is not necessarily the number one goal. “Driving a competitive car is my number one priority,” she said. “Working with the right people is the next goal.”

Troxel drives two classes on weekends when the Funny Car is in action, making for a hectic back-and-forth schedule on race weekends. Although the Pro Mods could be viewed as the odd cars or the “funny cars” of the current era with their monster motors and street-like specs, there’s not much in common with the Funny Cars.

A Pro Mod is more like a motorized pogo stick than a car. “The Pro Mod carries 2500 to 3000 horsepower and the Funny Car has 7500 to 8,000,” said Troxel. “So you’d think the Funny Car would be harder to drive. But the Pro Mod has a short wheel base with a suspension. On a good run you don’t really know you have a suspension. But if you have a problem, the suspension amplifies it. The window is much, much smaller.

“In the Funny Car I really can just get a feel for the car and go by my instincts,” continued Troxel, who has made one final-round appearance in Pro Mod in Houston this year. “I can get away with anything I want to do. With the Pro Mod, you have to ask yourself what’s the agenda? You really don’t want to start steering these things. On any weekened after at least one run afterwards I say to myself,  ‘If I had stayed with that a little longer I would have crashed.’”

Although she smoked her tires in her first qualifying run, Troxel likes her chances in the Funny Car in Charlotte. It would not be unprecedented for her to win one of the Countdown races, which she did in 2007. Coming into this year’s Countdown, Troxel scored a first-round win at the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals with newly added tuner Richard Hogan. Her won/loss record for the season is 4-10.

“What hinders us is not running every weekend,” said Troxel. “That’s what holds us back.” Next year, In-N-Out will be back as a major sponsor for eight races on the Funny Car and for 10 races as an associate sponsor. That leaves four races with no commitment in addition to the 10 missing a major sponsor. But team owner Burgess has committed the full budget.

Part of the deal with R2B2 is helping Burgess promote Pro Mod, which includes three race weekends in Europe, two at the Santa Pod Raceway in England and one at Hockenheim in Germany, where she was the winner. Troxel was at Santa Pod last weekend, but after being the top qualifier her Camaro broke prior to the semifinals. “I think the feeling (for the European races) to me is a little bit like when I was coming up through the sportsman ranks,” she said.

The fans are appreciative and friendly in Europe, but the drag strips are not like the perfectly smooth FIA-sanctioned road racing circuits. “Instead of tuning the car for the track to go fast you have to figure out how to get over the bumps,” said Troxel, who’s had plenty of practice recently getting over a rough patch in her career.

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, September 17 2010
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