It was a big step for Kalitta Racing’s Top Fuel driver, J.R. Todd, when he got the call to drive last year. Celebrating that event in 2015, Todd took an even bigger step off the world-renowned Stratosphere in Las Vegas, dropping 1,149 feet to mark his first year with Kalitta Racing.
It’s been a challenging season so far, but Todd is used to battling the odds and coming out ahead. He’s not afraid to take risks. His Red Line Oil dragster has earned him two No. 1 qualifiers (Charlotte, Las Vegas) in 2015, but only one semi-final appearance, placing him tenth in the Mello Yello points. So what does he have to do to reverse his recent run of bad luck?
“That’s the million dollar question,” said a smiling Todd. “The luck hasn’t been going our way the last couple of races. We definitely have a good running car. We struggled the first three races of the season and stayed after Gainesville and ran on Monday. We found out what our problem was and since then our performance of the car has picked up. We still need to work on our consistency, though. We’ve been qualifying really well at the last handful of events.
“In Vegas, I felt that I let that one get away from us. I got outrun in the semi-finals by Richie Crampton, but I should have had a way better reaction time than what I did. If I would have had a light that I’m definitely capable of cutting we would have gotten by him and onto the finals and who knows, maybe we would have won the event. Looking back on that the race in Houston, that was a tough matchup with (Steve) Torrence. I knew they would step up and they did. It seems like every time we run each other, it’s a close race and it’s a matter of just thousandths. (.0037-ten thousandths) We just need to get those rounds going to start going our way then I think we will be in good shape.”
Nowadays, it appears more teams are finding ways to run in the 3.70-range regularly and that level of opposition is making it more difficult than ever for this Hoosier.
“That’s the thing. The competition is so stout right now,” said Todd. “It’s going to be tough just to make the Top 10 in the Countdown. We need to get rolling on racing, get some round wins under our belt and…build up a nice cushion going into Indy and then Charlotte. It would be nice to start the Countdown in the top five as opposed to tenth, where we started last year. You already put yourself in a hole trying to catch those guys in front of us. I’m sure we can rebound from this first round loss (at Houston) and start clicking off some round wins. It would be even better to get some race wins under our belt before the Countdown starts.”
After witnessing Top Fuel teammate Doug Kalitta win his first race of the season in Houston, it was even more of a pleasure seeing his team succeed against eight time champion Tony Schumacher in the finals. It’s long been known among the nitro teams that the rivalry between the Kalitta team and Schumacher remains intact. Crew chief Jim Oberhofer even went on record to express his pleasure in beating Schumacher in Texas.
“After seeing what JimO said on TV, he had the guts to stand up for himself and for the rest of us and speak his mind,” said Todd. “So many people go out there who don’t speak their mind when you give them a chance. We don’t have to be all buddy-buddy out there. That’s what competition is all about with our rivalries. I don’t play into that game much. I just want to beat everybody I line up against.”
Being that headstrong requires a ‘take no prisoners’ attitude and rivalries or not, it’s not easy to keep up with this strong determination. Besides, unlike other teams, Kalitta Racing celebrates with a mosh-pit style party on the starting line, so you know they’re tough enough to go into the championship chase. After making the Top 10 last year after missing the first three races, Todd was undefeated in any first round in the Countdown. That gave him a great launch platform, but he knew Schumacher’s dominance was strong coming out of the gate.
“It’s all about winning rounds in the Countdown,” said Todd. “There were a lot of guys going out there winning races and winning rounds and then going to the next race and losing first round. That’s something you really can’t afford to do, especially in the later races in the Countdown. What hurt us last year was the Charlotte race being postponed and moving it to the Dallas race. It became a one lane racetrack and we lost lane choice going in the Charlotte make up and that kind of played into Tony’s hands. He was stuck in that left lane all weekend long. He got back-to-back wins and that was huge start he had ahead of all of us. We just need to put a stop to that and race each round like we did last year. We just have got to stop him earlier is going to be the key.
“Not to mention there’s a handful of other guys out there that are running just as well that are capable of winning, especially our teammate. Days of domination are showing that’s over with six different winners now to start the season. That just doesn’t happen. It’s been nearly 15 years since that happened. It just shows how competitive the class is now and shows lots of parody. The cars…I wouldn’t say they’re equal, but are still pretty evenly matched. It all comes down to the driver getting the job done at the starting line now.”
With the starting line growing more and more important with a better reaction time, Todd has ways he can sharpen his reaction time and that skill comes from the intense pressure the driver puts on himself mixed with his years of racing experience.
“I try to practice on a tree and have a setup in the lounge at the track,” said Todd. “It’s more mental before making a run. I have a cockpit setup in my garage with a full-size tree. That may help, but I feel it’s more mental if anything. The best practice is getting in the car and train that way. There’s nothing that compares to that.”
After finishing in the runner-up position last year in the Top Fuel points, Todd has all the best equipment, team, and race cars surrounding him with the support of a great Kalitta Racing team. Now, it’s all about proving it on the track. That championship is foremost on everyone’s mind.
“That’s definitely the goal for this season,” Todd said. “But like I said, it’s going to be extremely tough with the competition the way it is. We surprised a lot of people going from tenth to second in the Countdown and there’s only one more spot to go and that’s up to No. 1. We’re going to have to win some races along the way but anything can happen. Once that Countdown comes down, you have to be in it to win it and I hope we’re there.”