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Tonglet Has His Eyes On The Biggest Prize

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, September 25 2010

LE Tonglet and his NitroFish team have come alive in the NHRA's Pro Stock Motorcycle class. (NHRA photo)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Ennis, Texas – Back-to-back playoff wins and a sponsorship windfall have re-prioritized LE Tonglet’s NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle to-do list.

“We haven’t really talked about the Rookie of the Year Award since (winning) Indy, because we really want that championship,” said Tonglet, an improbable yet bona fide first-year contender for the 2010 PSM world title. “Now we’re in a hunt for it. Yeah, we’re going to give it our all with this Nitro Fish Suzuki.”

A third-generation racer, Louis Earl Tonglet IV has emerged during the last month as the primary threat to Andrew Hines’ bid for a fourth PSM championship. Hines finished the 11-race Pro Stock Bike “regular season” schedule first in points, six spots ahead of Tonglet heading into NHRA’s six-race Countdown to 1 postseason.

Tonglet since has knocked off Hines in the finals of the prestigious Mac Tools U.S. Nationals outside Indianapolis and the O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Carolina Nationals in Concord, N.C., to pull within 66 points of the leader and his factory Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson V-Rod. Tonglet’s pursuit is continuing this weekend during Round 3 of the Countdown, the 25th annual O’Reilly Super Start Batteries NHRA Fall Nationals at Texas Motorplex.

Tonglet stood fifth on the time sheet after the first two of four scheduled rounds of qualifications down the all-concrete quarter-mile at 6.999-seconds and 191.08 mph aboard his 1998 Suzuki GSXR. The event is the 20th of 23 on the Full Throttle Drag Racing Series schedule.

“To beat Andrew Hines and that Harley team, it takes so much,” said Tonglet, a rail-thin 20-year-old from Metairie, La. “And when you do it, it’s so nice to be able to outrun them. That’s a tough team over there – and that’s who we get our horsepower from. They sell us the horsepower to outrun them, and that’s just crazy. I can’t really explain it…it’s so nice to be able to beat them finally.”

Team Tonglet consists of LE’s father, Gary, and older brother, Gary Jr., or GT. The elder

LE Tonglet won the Wally in Indianapolis earlier this month. (Photo courtesy of the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series)

Tonglet is a former NHRA PSM racer while GT spent five seasons as a Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson rider.

“GT helps out a lot, to keep me calm,”  said LE, who has distanced himself from Pro Stock driver Shane Gray and Funny Car’s Jeff Diehl in the rookie race. “My dad does all the tuning stuff. He knows the clutch really good, and that’s probably 70 percent of it – my dad with the clutch and the tuning aspect. It’s just the three of us driving up here. That’s how it’s been all year.”

They began the season in March with one bike and motor and without sponsorship _ aiming at the modest goal of qualifying for the Pro Stock Bike opener during the Gatornationals at Gainesville (Fla.) Raceway.

“Yeah, my dad paid for everything,” LE said. “We started the year off, we were already in the hole because my dad bought a new exhaust pipe for the bike and we borrowed a set of carburetors. We were hoping to qualify at Gainesville so we could pay to get back home. Thankfully we qualified there (13th on the 16-bike ladder); we were able to make it home. But from that point on, the season just really turned upside down and it’s been an amazing year for us.”

Tonglet advanced to his first final in the season’s fourth event at Gateway International Raceway outside St. Louis in early May, when he lost to Michael Phillips. But LE recorded his first NHRA national event win just two stops later at Route 66 Raceway in Joliet, Ill., where he beat Steve Johnson. Tonglet went on to finish seventh in the regular-season standings, one round-win out of sixth.

“It’s hard to believe, my rookie year,” said Tonglet, who has been climbing aboard bikes since age 10. “I’ve been around this sport all my life. I grew up with Andrew, grew up with GT _ I grew up at the track. So I don’t think it’s a huge pressure on me. Just being a rookie, it’s weird, kind of, to me. But I don’t feel like a rookie. I feel like I’ve been doing it forever because my dad started me out riding when I was 14. So, it just feels all natural to me.”

LE made his professional debut in June 2006 in an All-Harley Drag Racing Association event at Summit Motorsports Park in Norwalk, Ohio, aboard a V-Rod Destroyer. Eight weeks later, Tonglet scored his first series victory in his fourth start at Bristol Dragway. In 2007, LE qualified No. 1 at 12 of 14 AHDRA races and won all but three, one of which was rained-out. In addition, he set new track records on the Destroyer at every venue he visited that season, which was capped by his first National Championship.

Tonglet repeated as AHDRA champion in 2008, posting four poles and winning five of a reduced 11-race schedule on his V-Rod Destroyer. Despite his family’s wealth of technical knowledge, LE went into this season with realistic expectations based primarily on a paper-thin budget.

“We were just hoping to qualify, like I said,” Tonglet recalled. “We’re going to Gainesville and my dad said, ‘Maybe we can steal a couple of rounds every now and then from the 16th spot.’ From that point on, we went to the finals at St. Louis and we had the passion to win. At Chicago, we had a bunch of luck on our side. We had really strong 60-foots (times) and were able to run it through the back with everybody. I guess everyone else was lost, but we were dead-on with our stuff. Thankfully, we won that race and it’s just been uphill since then.”

But Tonglet’s season nearly dead-ended in the PSM regular-season finale at Brainerd (Minn.) International Raceway in mid-August.

“At Brainerd, we put a different Vance & Hines head on the motor and that stepped it up a lot,” said LE, who qualified third but was trailered in the first round by Mike Berry. “It (the engine) broke first round. That was really the turning point when it broke, because we were done. And then Terry Vance and a few other people helped us out to get us to Indy. And after the performance at Indy (win), Kenny Koretsky saw us and said, ‘I want to help you guys out for the rest of the year.’ We got it all done right before Charlotte.”

Koretsky, a former Pro Stock driver, has owned the Nitro Fish line of edgy apparel since 2003. The company currently is a sponsor on former two-time Funny Car champion Tony Pedregon’s  Komatsu Chevy Impala. And Koretsky owns and sponsors the Nitro Fish Apparel Pontiac GXP driven by Greg Stanfield in Pro Stock.

Koretsky said GT Tonglet actually put a bug in his ear about his little brother a year ago.

“I was watching LE and knew he didn’t have money to go to the next race after Brainerd,” said Koretsky, referring to the U.S. Nats. “So a couple of friends of mine said, ‘Hey, you need to look into doing something with LE, otherwise this kid is going to quit racing. And we don’t need to lose him.’ And then Terry Vance said to me, ‘You need to try to do something with LE.’ After I heard it that many times I said let’s do something to help. We’ve financed him through the end of the year. So he has all the parts, all the pieces – anything he needs – through the end of the year. We’re working on getting him another engine right now.”

Koretsky – whose racing moniker was Captain Chaos – downplayed his philanthropic gesture. “They’re a nice family, they’re hard-workers,” Koretsky said of the Tonglets. “And I like to help the underdog. I’ve been the underdog for a lot of years. I was under-financed when I was younger and I never forget the people that helped me. So that’s why I decided to help him.

“I call him ‘my little boy in blue’…because everything’s (bike and racing leathers) in blue. Pretty cool.”

GT Tonglet, 27, is well-versed in the Vance & Hines operation.  “For five years I rode their Harley,” GT said. “I know what kind of effort they put into their program. I mean, we don’t nearly work as many hours as they do because we have normal 9-to-5 jobs. So whenever you can outrun the factory bikes in the finals at two races in a row, you can really pat yourself on the back because it’s a job well-done. We’ve lucked-out the last couple of races, and hopefully that luck can continue through the end of the year.”

GT, who finished a career-best second to Hines by 111 points in the 2005 PSM title chase, insisted LE has a legitimate shot at this championship.

“He’s proven that it’s definitely possible. That’s the deal,” said GT, who hopes funding from Koretsky or his corporate partners will allow him to return to the series fulltime in 2011. “LE’s got a good head on his shoulders, right now the bike’s really fast and now with funding from Kenny and Nitro Fish, who knows what the future is going to hold for us? We’re tuning away with what we have and the last couple of races have been good for us in this Countdown to 1 Championship. We’ll see how it goes.”

Two years removed from high school graduation, LE is living in the moment. Asked if racing would remain his profession, LE said, “I’d like to (think so) but this isn’t going to be forever. I’m going to try to get on the fire department back home.

“It’s hard to believe, you know? I would never have thought my rookie year I would win three races – two back-to-back. That’s more impressive to me than the Indy win, is winning two back-to-back. I wake up every morning and I see all the Wallys (winner’s trophies) on the thing, and it’s just unreal.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, September 25 2010
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