J.R. Todd, Kalitta Motorsports Escape the Shadows of NHRA Juggernauts

Perception versus reality can be a tricky thing. But DHL Toyota Camry Funny Car driver J.R. Todd can distinguish between the two.

As the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series heads west this weekend for the Denso Spark Plugs Four-wide Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, points leader Todd has no confusion about, well . . . anything.

Like every other driver, he’s a bit out of his normal rhythm with the Camping World Drag Racing Series’ later-than-usual start to the season, then a month-long layoff before this second event, which will be the first of two four-wide spectacles in the next three stops on the tour. And with his Gatornationals victory at Gainesville, Fla., he already has debunked the theory that Don Schumacher Racing (DSR) is unstoppable in the class or that Funny Car traditionally is just a two-team tug-of-war between DSR and John Force Racing (JFR).

Todd, who ended DSR’s Funny Car winning streak at 14 races, said, “I feel like the media overlooks Kalitta Motorsports a lot compared to the other two big teams. We for sure didn’t have much to write home about last year, but we have a great team and we set the bar high for ourselves, which includes winning races and contending for championships.”

The 2018 champion brought Kalitta Motorsports its second Funny Car title in the past six years (Del Worsham earned the 2015 crown). Proof that the class is more balanced and that the Ypsilanti, Mich.-based team is on par with the “Big Two” is the fact that in that span, DSR, JFR, and Kalitta Motorsports each has two championships.

“I feel like the media overlooks Kalitta Motorsports a lot compared to the other two big teams.”

So Todd never felt as though he were an underdog.

“We always have the confidence that we’re the team to beat, or else we shouldn’t line up against the other teams out there,” he said.

At Las Vegas, Todd is the man to beat. He’s seeking his third consecutive victory at this four-wide edition of two annual visits here and the fifth straight four-wide triumph by a Toyota Funny Car driver. In addition to his Las Vegas Four-Wide victories in 2018 and 2019, Todd also won the 2018 fall race at Las Vegas.

“I have had success in Las Vegas because I think Todd and Jon O. (crew chiefs Smith and Oberhofer) have a good handle on their tune-up. We won this race the last time we were here, and it was a team effort. We had a good race car, and I was doing a decent job driving,” the 19-time overall winner said.

The perception is that being idle for a month and having to race four-wide, to boot, would rattle a driver. But Todd said he isn’t thinking that way at all.

“The big break after Gainesville for sure makes it harder to get into a rhythm, but all the teams are in the same boat. As a driver, I want to race as much as possible, so I’ll be happy once we start having consecutive races,” he said. “I am ready to get back to racing, especially coming off a win like the Gatornationals. You just want to get back to the track right away. I don’t care if it is four-wide or two-wide. It has been a long time between races, and I am excited to be heading back to a racetrack.”

Initially, Todd wasn’t all that keen on the four-wide format, but like Steve Torrence in Top Fuel, he had to kind of warm up to it because he turned out to be so effective at it.

“I can’t really knock four-wide because we have been successful at both events in Vegas and have run well in Charlotte [site of the other four-wide race], as well. After having over a year off from doing it, I’m sure everybody will be little cautious during the first qualifier, but after that I’m sure it will be back to business,” Todd said.

“Everyone is in the same boat, really,” he said. “I try and do the same thing and not worry about the fact there are a couple more race cars on the track. You want to get off the line quick and keep it straight. The Four-Wide Nationals does offer a different variable, which is cool. You have to pay more attention and really listen to your crew chief or crew guys when they are telling you who is in the other lanes. I know it will be interesting, for sure. We will have a lot of Funny Cars, and it has been a while since we raced.”

Even though DSR lost top-tier racers Jack Beckman and Tommy Johnson Jr. because of funding shortfalls, the organization still fields champions Ron Capps and Matt Hagan. At last November’s Finals, at Las Vegas, Hagan won the race and clinched his third championship. John Force Racing is back after a nine-race absence in 2020 because of pandemic-related financial concerns, and JFR president Robert Hight challenged Todd in the final round in March at Gainesville.

“Everybody out there in Funny Car is tough, but in my opinion, Robert Hight is the best driver in the category. And that team sets the benchmark for the rest of us. When you beat them in the final round, you feel like you really accomplished something,” Todd said.

Single-car team owners Cruz Pedregon, Bob Tasca III, and Tim Wilkerson are among those who won’t make it easy on Todd, either.

“Every year it seems like Funny Car gets more and more competitive,” Todd said. ”We lost two really good drivers last year, which you never want to see. But I feel like the class is still strong. Guys like Cruz are going to be stronger now (after acquiring Johnson’s crew in the offseason), and you have new guys. like Bobby Bode, who have a really bright future.”

In Top Fuel, points leader and rookie Josh Hart isn’t entered and is expected to return to action at the April 30-May 2 Atlanta race. But reigning champion Steve Torrence, like Todd, is going for his third four-wide victory here. He won in 2017 and 2018. Torrence has put his Capco Dragster in the finals at four of his last five appearances at The Strip. He swept the 2018 spring and fall events in 2018 en route to the first of his three championships. Mike Salinas, who won this event the last time it took place, in 2019, will not be on hand. He and his family are recovering from their bouts with coronavirus.

Four-time and current champion Erica Enders has dominated at Las Vegas in Pro Stock, winning six times in all (including twice at this spring event). She won in her most recent visit, last November 1. Husband-and-wife team Matt and Angie Smith hope to repeat their triumphant performances from last fall, when he secured his fourth series crown and she won the event.

The NHRA is billing the Denso Spark Plugs Four-Wide Nationals as a “sellout,” although the locally imposed fan limit of 10,000 per day represents about 40-50 percent of The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway’s full capacity. Even with strict protocols (face masks at all times, proper social distancing, digital tickets, cashless concession stands).

Last month’s estimated daily crowd for the facility’s NASCAR was 12,500, making the NHRA race the second-most-attended event in Southern Nevada since March 2020, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal newspaper.

Todd said the sizeable crowd at Gainesville gave him hope that “this is a sign of things to come so we can run all of the events on the Camping World schedule and we can get fans back in the stands, because they are the ones that make this happen.”

The event will open Friday for the pros with one qualifying session starting at 3:30 p.m. local time. Two qualifying rounds Saturday (1 and 3:30 p.m. locally) will determine the fields. Eliminations will begin at noon Sunday. Coverage will be on FS1 (7:30-9 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m.-noon Saturday, 8-11 p.m. Sunday, all times Eastern Time).

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