NHRA U.S. Nationals: J.R. Todd chasing Funny Car history at Indianapolis

J.R. Todd is eighth in the NHRA Mello Yello Series Funny Car standings heading into the extended race weekend at Indianapolis.

More than a quarter of a century has flown by since J.R. Todd and his Junior Dragster gang came up from Lawrenceburg, Indiana, camped out on Indianapolis’ west side and ran amok Labor Day weekend at the U.S. Nationals.

This weekend, Todd, the reigning Funny Car champion and driver of the DHL Toyota Camry, starts his quest to become the first in class history to win drag racing’s marquee event in three consecutive years.

Top Fuel great Don Garlits was the first to win what’s now the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals three straight times (1984, ’85, 86). Pro Stock icon Bob Glidden, of Whiteland, Ind., was mirroring Garlits in 1985, ’86, ’87, and ’88, with four in a row among his nine titles at his backyard race.

Tony Schumacher, with Top Fuel triumphs from 2006-09, is the latest racer to claim four straight trophies here.

To win a third consecutive U.S. Nationals Wally statue would add to the personal lore for Todd.

“We’d take our bicycles and raise hell and run around the track like we owned the place because we raced here every week in Junior Dragsters. So we thought we did rule the place,” Todd said. “We’d go around and get as many handout cards as we could, get autographs, and just had a lot of fun in those days. I remember the year I won Jr. Dragsters there. I think it was ’93, my first year, just getting autographs from guys like Kenny Bernstein and John Force in the staging lanes and back in the pit area, getting to meet Ace (Ed “The Ace” McCulloch), Cruz (Pedregon). My mom (Kim Todd) has pictures of all that, so looking back at those pictures, it’s pretty cool to see that.”

“If you’re that age and you hear a Funny Car or a Top Fuel car for the first time, it’s like any fan out here – you’re hooked. By then I was racing Juniors, so racing at the U.S. Nationals was always the goal, to race Top Fuel someday. You never think it’s going to happen when you’re a kid. It’s like a kid wanting to play in the NFL when he’s playing Pee Wee football. It’s a pipe dream. But it worked out.”

By the end of the weekend, Todd indeed could rule Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis again.

And he’s smart enough to recognize that his peers are plenty talented, with a few Indianapolis trophies of their own. John Force, buoyed by his recent 150th victory at Seattle, is a four-time U.S. Nationals winner, and points leader Robert Hight has three victories at Lucas Oil Raceway. Also in the field with Todd are three-time Indianapolis winner Cruz Pedregon (1992, ’94, ’95) and one-time victors Jack Beckman (2015), Gary Densham (2004), Matt Hagan (2016), and Tim Wilkerson (2003). Shawn Langdon, Todd’s Kalitta Motorsports Funny Car colleague in the Global Electronic Technology entry, won in 2013 but did so in a dragster (also on his way to a series crown).

At Indianapolis, Todd came as close as the semifinals in a Top Fuel dragster, but to score at this storied racetrack as an anything-but-confident Funny Car rookie still amazes Todd. He didn’t feel entitled to win once, let alone two times in a row.

“Man, the first time ever racing at the U.S. Nationals, when I drove Bruce Litton’s (Top Fuel) car in the IHRA, that was something I always wanted to do, race Indy. We could never put a deal together to make it happen,” he said. “So I finally got the chance to run Indy and said, ‘Man, this is a dream come true.’ Now you want to win the thing, but it’s the hardest race of the year to win. After all the years of trying and trying in Top Fuel –  I got somewhat close in Top Fuel in the Sealmaster car – semifinals … I came up a little short … it takes it out of you. You just get bummed because you don’t get that many chances to go that far on race day. So to do it in Funny Car in my first year, that was a dream come true.”

Todd has had ride-sharing experiences and is familiar with a variety of motorsports forms, but he says he isn’t interested in pursuing anything besides drag racing: “Not for a living. I love trying other things, especially dirt-track stuff. Everybody asks, ‘What would you do, sprint car or late model?’ I say, ‘No. I would love to get seat time in those things, but I’m not going to trade what I’m doing for that. This is it.”

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