Todd Makes History In Sonoma

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, July 31 2017

J.R. Todd celebrated his first NHRA Funny Car victory on Sunday in Sonoma. (Photo by Marc Gewertz/NHRA)


J.R. Todd checked-off a lengthy list of professional, personal and emotional “firsts” Sunday, when he won the Funny Car portion of the 30th annual Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals.

Todd’s Funny Car Wally trophy sent him into drag racing’s record book as the first African-American driver to win in the class. Todd also was the first African-American driver to win a Top Fuel race in Morrison, Colo., near Denver in 2006. He is the second driver in NHRA history to win at Sonoma Raceway in both Nitro categories, joining legend Don “The Snake” Prudhomme. 

In addition, Todd is the first former Junior Dragster competitor to win in Funny Car and the 16th driver in NHRA history to win in both Nitro classes.

“I was able to win here last year in Top Fuel and to be able to do it this year in a Funny Car is pretty special,” Todd said. “I love this track. This place is magical.”

Indeed, Todd earned the win via a wild 1,000-foot pass in 4.049-seconds at 323.27 mph in his DHL Toyota Camry that trailered Tim Wilkerson, who went up in smoke in his Levi, Ray & Shoup Ford Shelby Mustang.

Since scoring his breakthrough Top Fuel victory in 2006, Todd has seen African-American Antron Brown win three Top Fuel titles and rise to superstar status. Todd quickly addressed the social significance of his Funny Car victory.

“It’s cool. To me, it doesn’t matter if you’re black, white, purple, guy or girl, you go out there and race as hard as you can,” Todd said. “People don’t know what I look like when I’ve got the helmet on. It was cool when I did it in Denver and they told me about it after I won there. I had no idea. I was just happy to win my first Top Fuel event and I feel the same way now. I’m just happy to win a Funny Car event.

“I think we showed a lot of promise in Denver (last weekend) and gave us a lot of hope coming back to sea level.  We knew it was only a matter of time before the team started to get a handle on things and it would start going in the right direction. I was pretty excited last race. We had gone five or six races since we had last run a 3.9, and then to do it up on ‘The Mountain,’ it changed our mood and give us a lot of optimism coming here.

“We still have a lot of work to do to make this thing consistently competitive _ especially in qualifying. Hopefully, by the time the Countdown (playoff) rolls around we will be ready to get after it.”

Steve Torrence (Top Fuel) Tanner Gray (Pro Stock) and LE Tonglet (Pro Stock Motorcycle) also were victorious in their respective categories at the 15th of 24 events on the 2017 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule. 

The race was the second of three events on the NHRA’s annual summertime “Western Swing” that began last weekend with the 38th annual Mopar Mile-High NHRA Nationals at Bandimere Speedway in Morrison, Colo. After exiting the wine country of Northern California Sunday, “The Swing” will conclude with the 30th annual Northwest Nationals at Pacific Raceway in Kent, Wash., Aug. 4-6.

Following Sunday’s results, no driver will sweep “The Swing” this seasion. Brown, Robert Hight (Funny Car), Drew Skillman (Pro Stock) and Eddie Krawiec (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were class winners at Bandimere Speedway.

Todd defeated Kalitta Motorsports  teammate Alexis DeJoria in Round One and 16-time world champion John Force in the second round to set up one of the most amazing comebacks in NHRA history in the semifinals. After smoking the rear tires on his Camry at the start, Todd overcame a 1.27-second disadvantage to run down 2012 world champion “Fast” Jack Beckman of Don Schumacher Racing in a pedal-fest to advance to the final.

“We blew the tires off like that in Englishtown (N.J.) and I didn’t get back on the gas and some of our guys were pretty upset,” said Todd, whose Toyota is tuned by Jon Oberhofer and Todd Smith. “So I’m not lifting until I see him (Beckman) cross the finish line. He wasn’t really pulling away. He was out there, but then it quit and I’m thinking, ‘Man I hope I’ve got enough room to get by.’ And I got down there and it was, ‘Oh man, we got him!’ but it was pretty narrow.

“It was like bracket racing, where you’re sitting at the starting line spotting somebody and then you’ve got to run him down. That was our lucky round. I feel every race that you win, you’ve got to have one lucky round and we definitely burned it up there.”

Wilkerson eliminated two-time world champion Cruz Pedregon, No. 1 qualifier/2009 world champ Robert Hight of John Force Racing and teammate Courtney Force en route to his second final round appearance this season.

Todd said he approached the final vs. veteran Wilkerson as a blank check. “I was just happy to be winning rounds and I wasn’t counting on anything for the final,” Todd said. “We made some changes in the pit area before the final to slow the car down so we wouldn’t blow the tires off like we did in the semis. When the track here gets to about 120 degrees or above, it’s hard to get a hold of.  So we just wanted to go down the track and not give it away. We backed if off pretty good and we did what we had to do. If he was going to out-run us then he’d be holding the trophy, but he had a problem and it just worked out for us. When it’s your day, it’s your day.”

Wilkerson traced his car’s hiccup to a broken air line off the throttle switch that signals every operational part of the car to start.

“It’s pneumatically controlled, but it’s electronic and has to see a signal to start,” Wilkerson said. “That hose was either knocked off before the run or when I stepped on the gas. We don’t know which. It started spinning about 60-feet out. It’s just another way to lose. There are a million ways to lose and one way to win, and we had plenty of lucky breaks today. The last one just went the other way.”
The win was particularly emotional for Todd, a close friend to Eric Medlen, the  Sonoma-area native and Funny Car driver who lost his life on March 23, 2007 from injuries suffered in a crash during testing at Gainesville (Fla.) Raceway.

“I’m pretty sure that Eric Medlen snuck in there and unhooked my hose off that thing for me,” Wilkerson mused.  “I know he loves J.R. Todd. He loves me, too _ I’m just not sure he loves me as much as he does J.R. I think that little scoundrel got in there and got me today. We miss ol’ Eric. I wasn’t happy that I didn’t win but I’m pretty happy for J.R., really. Him and Eric were real tight, and Eric’s mom (Mimi) is here, so I’m sure there will be some tears for them while they’re eating some ice cream (Medlen’s favorite confection).”

Sonoma Raceway is the track where Medlen, of John Force Racing, won one of his final races before his fatal crash. “It’s always special to come back with the history of Eric winning here, and we won here together in 2006,” Todd said.”They honor him every year. His mom came up to me (Saturday) with a picture from (artist) Kenny Youngblood just like she did last year, but this year it’s our DHL Toyota Funny Car. So I had that with me every round today and it worked out again. It’s pretty awesome to come back here and win in Funny Car because Eric was extremely passionate about Funny Cars. I think he’d be pretty happy about that.”

Team-wise, Todd tied team-owner and NHRA pioneer Conrad “Connie” Kalitta in the career victory column at 10. “It’s pretty awesome just to be listed with the boss,” said Todd, a 35-year-old resident of Lawrenceburg, Ind. “He’s a legend in the sport and he’s given so much and done a whole lot for everybody in drag racing. Without him, I wouldn’t be up here today. I can still remember when I got the call to come to Las Vegas and drive the Top Fuel car and I can’t thank him enough.”

Todd acknowledged his transition into Funny Car remains a work-in-progress.

“Funny Car is brutal. The last two years it’s just become such a competitive class,” Todd said. “From top to bottom, anybody can win from any position on Sunday. There are a lot of great drivers and teams and it is just cutthroat in qualifying. During my transition, I was pretty nervous going into the Funny Car. It’s a different driving style and like nothing I’ve ever had to do. You drive a Funny Car way different than you drive a dragster. If you were to steer a dragster like a Funny Car, you’d flip the thing over. It took me a while to get a handle on that and just get comfortable. Now I’m beyond comfortable _ I just want to win! 

“We haven’t been performing like we should and now here we are. It was trying my patience for a while; the team is used to winning and they won a championship with a great driver in Del Worsham (2015). I didn’t want to let them down. I feel like I’ve given away a lot of runs this year that I shouldn’t have. They stuck with me and here we are, it’s nice to pay them back.”

Todd sits ninths in points, with reigning champ Ron Capps of DSR first despite his opening-round exit. Two-time world champ Matt Hagan of DSR and teammate Beckman round out the top three. 

In Top Fuel, Torrence piloted his Capco Contractors/Torrence Racing dragster past Brown’s Matco Tools car in the final with a 1,000-foot pass in 3.784-seconds at 329.42 mph. The native of West Texas now has six victories this season and 14 in his career.

“It’s basically been just a dream season,” said Torrence, the class point-leader. “At the end of the day it’s just a testament to my guys. We will continue to do what we’ve done to get here.”

Torrence defeated Troy Coughlin Jr., Doug Kalitta and Brittany Force to reach the final. Brown wheeled his dragster past Troy Buff, Scott Palmer and Terry McMillen before facing Torrence and knocking off teammate Leah Pritchett for the No. 2 spot in the point standings. 

In Pro Stock, rookie Gray drove to victory with a quarter-mile pass in 6.572-seconds at 210.05 mph in his Gray Motorsports Valvoline Chevrolet Camaro to defeat point-leader Bo Butner in the final. Gray scored his third victory of the season and fourth final-round appearance. 

“I’m proud of my guys,” Gray said. “This is the best I’ve seen them run the car. We’ve got to go back and keep working, though. If I can go into the Countdown in the top three, then you have a legitimate chance of winning the championship. That’s what my focus is now.”

Gray qualified fifth and battled past Alan Prusiensky, three-time/reigning world champion Jason Line and No. 1 qualifier Drew Skillman. Butner qualified second and took down two-time world champion Erica Enders, Chris McGaha and Greg Anderson, a four-time world champ and Ken Butler Racing teammate.  Gray remained third in the standings, while Butner is first following his runnerup result. 

Tonglet finished atop the Pro Stock Motorcycle field with a quarter-mile pass in 6.783-seconds at 197.02 mph aboard his Nitro Fish Racing Suzuki to narrowly defeat two-time world champ Matt Smith and his Vcotry in the final. After securing his first Mickey Thompson Tires Pro Bike Battle win on Saturday, Tonglet notched his fifth national event victory of the season and 15th of his career. 

Earlier, Tonglet defeated Fred Camarena, Angie Smith and Hector Arana Jr. Smith powered past Steve Johnson, three-time world champion Eddie Krawiec and reigning world champ Jerry Savoie before facing Tonglet.  “It’s a big benefit to win the Battle the day before, which builds your confidence going into Sunday,” said Tonglet, the 2010 world champion. “I could hear him (Smith) the whole way and knew it was close. I wanted to look over very badly, but I just stayed tucked in and just stared at the win light and it lit _ which was exciting.”

Tonglet remains the point-leader while Krawiec held onto the second spot aboard his Sceamin’ Eagle Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson Street Rod. 


Final finishing order (1-16) at the 30th annual Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway.  The race is the 15th of 24 events in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series:

Top Fuel _1.  Steve Torrence; 2.  Antron Brown; 3.  Brittany Force; 4.  Terry McMillen; 5.  Scott Palmer; 6. Leah Pritchett; 7.  Shawn Langdon; 8.  Doug Kalitta; 9.  Troy Buff; 10.  Terry Haddock; 11.  Steven Chrisman; 12.  Troy Coughlin Jr.; 13.  Tony Schumacher; 14.  Shawn Reed; 15.  Clay Millican; 16. Mike Salinas.

Funny Car _ 1.  J.R. Todd; 2.  Tim Wilkerson; 3.  Courtney Force; 4.  Jack Beckman; 5.  John Force; 6.  Del Worsham; 7.  Robert Hight; 8.  Tommy Johnson Jr.; 9.  Ron Capps; 10.  Alexis DeJoria; 11.  Cruz Pedregon; 12.  Jim Campbell; 13.  Jeff Diehl; 14.  Jonnie Lindberg; 15.  Matt Hagan; 16.  Tim Gibbons. 

Pro Stock _ 1.  Tanner Gray; 2.  Bo Butner; 3.  Greg Anderson; 4.  Drew Skillman; 5.  Chris McGaha; 6.  Jason Line; 7.  Jeg Coughlin Jr.; 8.  Vincent Nobile; 9.  Erica Enders; 10.  Matt Hartford; 11.  Steve Graham; 12.  Alan Prusiensky; 13.  Tom Huggins; 14.  Deric Kramer; 15.  Allen Johnson. 

Pro Stock Motorcycle _1.  LE Tonglet; 2.  Matt Smith; 3.  Hector Arana Jr.; 4.  Jerry Savoie; 5.  Karen Stoffer; 6. Andrew Hines; 7.  Angie Smith; 8.  Eddie Krawiec; 9.  Scotty Pollacheck; 10.  Chip Ellis; 11. Angelle Sampey; 12.  Joey Gladstone; 13.  Steve Johnson; 14.  Freddie Camarena; 15.  Cory Reed; 16. Melissa Surber. 

Sunday’s final results from the 30th annual Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals at Sonoma Raceway: 

Top Fuel _ Steve Torrence, 3.784-seconds, 329.42 mph  def. Antron Brown, 3.974-seconds, 281.83 mph.

Funny Car _ J.R. Todd, Toyota Camry, 4.049, 323.27  def. Tim Wilkerson, Ford Mustang, 6.823, 100.26.

Pro Stock _Tanner Gray, Chevy Camaro, 6.572, 210.05  def. Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.577, 210.93.

Pro Stock Motorcycle _ LE Tonglet, Suzuki, 6.783, 197.02  def. Matt Smith, Victory, 6.790, 196.67.

Super Stock _ Jody Lang, Chevy Malibu, 10.688, 123.20  def. Justin Lamb, Chevy Cobalt, 8.622, 155.52. 

Stock Eliminator _ Brian McClanahan, Chevy Camaro, 9.871, 129.54  def. Dwayne Scheitlin, Dodge Challenger, 10.116, 129.27.

Super Comp _ Val Torres Jr., Dragster, 8.919, 176.84  def. Ryan McClanahan, Dragster, 8.920, 182.85.

Super Gas _ Evan Kowalski, Chevy Corvette, 9.941, 160.14  def. Chris Cannon, Corvette, 9.903, 160.44.

Super Street _ Chris Borges, Chevy Chevelle, 10.921, 137.06  def. Matt Blodgett, Chevy Vega, 10.898, 133.03.

Top Dragster presented by RacingRVs.com _ Paul Nero, Dragster, 6.708, 199.32  def. Jeff Havens, Dragster, 6.736, 197.68.

Top Sportsman presented by RacingRVs.com _ Bart Smith, Chevy Monte Carlo, 8.240, 124.11  def. Keith White, Ford Ranger, Foul/Red Light.

Final round-by-round results from the 30th annual Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals:


ROUND ONE _ Terry McMillen, 3.785, 323.74 def. Clay Millican, 10.446, 79.43; Shawn Langdon, 3.763, 323.66 def. Mike Salinas, Foul/Red Light; Scott Palmer, 3.871, 312.57 def. Tony Schumacher, 8.417, 79.45; Leah Pritchett, 3.749, 326.95 def. Terry Haddock, 3.910, 303.91; Brittany Force, 3.705, 331.61 def. Steven Chrisman, 4.220, 226.66; Doug Kalitta, 3.751, 330.07 def. Shawn Reed, 8.466, 79.16; Antron Brown, 3.763, 327.19 def. Troy Buff, Foul/Red Light; Steve Torrence, 3.750, 327.59 def. Troy Coughlin Jr., 4.401, 208.97; 

QUARTERFINALS _ Brown, 3.783, 326.24 def. Palmer, 3.839, 324.98; Torrence, 3.760, 327.90 def. Kalitta, 7.030, 106.28; McMillen, 3.783, 322.50 def. Pritchett, 3.897, 314.09; Force, 4.071, 264.75 def. Langdon, 4.110, 271.46;

SEMIFINALS _ Brown, 3.792, 325.37 def. McMillen, 8.547, 92.74; Torrence, 3.753, 329.02 def. Force, 3.882, 315.27;

FINAL _ Torrence, 3.784, 329.42 def. Brown, 3.974, 281.83.


ROUND ONE _ Jack Beckman, Dodge Charger, 3.919, 329.02 def. Jonnie Lindberg, Toyota Camry, 10.747, 101.94; Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, 3.853, 335.23 def. Tim Gibbons, Chevy Impala, Broke; John Force, Camaro, 3.884, 330.88 def. Jeff Diehl, Toyota Solara, 4.168, 287.60; Courtney Force, Camaro, 3.901, 331.69 def. Jim Campbell, Charger, 4.022, 313.37; Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 3.905, 332.02 def. Ron Capps, Charger, 3.941, 328.86; Del Worsham, Camry, 5.142, 210.87 def. Matt Hagan, Charger, 10.951, 62.37; J.R. Todd, Camry, 3.953, 326.08 def. Alexis DeJoria, Camry, 3.950, 309.84; Tim Wilkerson, Ford Mustang, 3.943, 327.11 def. Cruz Pedregon, Camry, 4.000, 307.44;

QUARTERFINALS _ C. Force, 6.038, 219.54 def. Johnson Jr., 7.044, 135.02; Wilkerson, 4.316, 245.40 def. Hight, 4.999, 157.83; Todd, 3.973, 324.90 def. J. Force, 4.030, 323.50; Beckman, 4.009, 277.43 def. Worsham, 4.800, 184.67;

SEMIFINALS _ Wilkerson, 4.085, 287.05 def. C. Force, 5.044, 161.85; Todd, 5.741, 283.73 def.Beckman, 5.920, 118.43; 

FINAL _ Todd, 4.049, 323.27 def. Wilkerson, 6.823, 100.26.


ROUND ONE _ Jeg Coughlin Jr., Chevy Camaro, 6.949, 207.75 def. Allen Johnson, Dodge Dart, 11.545, 91.74; Chris McGaha, Camaro, 6.572, 210.87 def. Deric Kramer, Dart, 9.248, 100.63; Vincent Nobile, Camaro, 6.581, 211.33 def. Matt Hartford, Camaro, 6.622, 209.14; Tanner Gray, Camaro, 6.556, 211.99 def. Alan Prusiensky, Dart, 6.709, 208.07; Drew Skillman, Camaro, 6.554, 210.77 was unopposed; Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.546, 212.06 def. Tom Huggins, Dart, 6.730, 206.99; Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.549, 212.03 def. Erica Enders, Camaro, 6.567, 212.13; Jason Line, Camaro, 6.568, 211.96 def. Steve Graham, Camaro, 6.644, 210.14;

QUARTERFINALS _ Gray, 6.571, 211.76 def. Line, 6.601, 210.80; Skillman, 6.581, 210.93 def. Coughlin, 6.613, 210.54; Butner, 6.565, 211.36 def. McGaha, 6.580, 210.41; Anderson, 6.568, 211.63 def. Nobile, 6.674, 210.31;

SEMIFINALS _ Gray, 6.581, 210.21 def. Skillman, 14.730, 57.18; Butner, 6.572, 211.39 def. Anderson, 12.623, 70.13;

FINAL _ Gray, 6.572, 210.05 def. Butner, 6.577, 210.93.


ROUND ONE _ Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, 6.752, 198.99 def. Angelle Sampey, Victory, 6.839, 194.46; Karen Stoffer, Suzuki, 6.844, 197.25 def. Joey Gladstone, Suzuki, 6.846, 196.87; LE Tonglet, Suzuki, 6.771, 198.06 def. Freddie Camarena, Suzuki, 6.936, 195.68; Angie Smith, Buell, 6.799, 196.30 def. Melissa Surber, Buell, Foul/Red Light; Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 6.830, 197.16 def. Chip Ellis, Victory, 6.817, 197.33; Andrew Hines, Harley-Davidson, 6.775, 199.20 def. Scotty Pollacheck, Suzuki, 6.796, 196.82; Hector Arana Jr., Buell, 6.749, 199.52 def. Cory Reed, Victory, 6.974, 186.10; Matt Smith, Victory, 6.800, 199.88 def. Steve Johnson, Suzuki, 6.935, 196.22; 

QUARTERFINALS _ Savoie, 6.795, 198.35 def. Hines, 6.846, 198.73; M. Smith, 6.854, 199.20 def. Krawiec, 6.886, 196.30; Tonglet, 6.780, 198.76 def. A. Smith, 6.848, 196.04; Arana Jr., 6.797, 198.23 def. Stoffer, 6.841, 195.56;

SEMIFINALS _ M. Smith, 6.819, 197.71 def. Savoie, 6.817, 197.19; Tonglet, 6.796, 197.65 def. Arana Jr., 6.800, 198.20;

FINAL _Tonglet, 6.783, 197.02 def. M. Smith, 6.790, 196.67.

Point standings (top-10) after the 30th annual Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals at Sonoma Raceway:

Top Fuel _1.  Steve Torrence, 1,369; 2.  Antron Brown, 1,294; 3.  Leah Pritchett, 1,250; 4.  Tony Schumacher, 1,008; 5.  Brittany Force, 935; 6.  Doug Kalitta, 933; 7.  Clay Millican, 861; 8.  Terry McMillen, 598; 9.  Scott Palmer, 575; 10.  Troy Coughlin Jr., 528.

Funny Car _ 1.  Ron Capps, 1,276; 2.  Matt Hagan, 1,093; 3.  Jack Beckman, 1,049; 4.  Robert Hight, 1,035; 5. Tommy Johnson Jr., 982; 6.  Courtney Force, 874; 7.  John Force, 821; 8.  Tim Wilkerson, 727; 9. J.R. Todd, 724; 10.  Cruz Pedregon, 570.

Pro Stock _1.  Bo Butner, 1,341; 2.  Greg Anderson, 1,150; 3.  Tanner Gray, 1,091; 4.  Jason Line, 988; 5. Jeg Coughlin Jr., 940; 6.  Drew Skillman, 910; 7.  Erica Enders, 894; 8.  Vincent Nobile, 835; 9. Chris McGaha, 593; 10.  Allen Johnson, 547.

Pro Stock Motorcycle _1.  LE Tonglet, 780; 2.  Eddie Krawiec, 636; 3.  Hector Arana Jr., 567; 4.  Jerry Savoie, 535; 5. Matt Smith, 499; 6.  Scotty Pollacheck, 490; 7.  Andrew Hines, 455; 8.  Joey Gladstone, 395; 9. Karen Stoffer, 376; 10.  Angie Smith, 337.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, July 31 2017
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