All photos courtesy NHRA/National Dragster

‘Big Daddy’ Don Garlits still chasing drag racing records, more innovation at 86

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At 86 years old, legendary drag racer “Big Daddy” Don Garlits has found the fountain of youth:

Batteries.

No, we’re not talking about batteries for a heart pacemaker or the kind you put in your TV remote control.

Rather, the most notable and innovative driver in drag racing history is still attacking the quarter-mile just like he did when he got into the sport more than six decades ago.

The difference for the Ocala, Florida, resident is rather than using nitromethane, which powers the Top Fuel dragsters he used to drive to countless wins and championships, Garlits is now piloting dragsters that are battery powered.

Or as many refer to them as “electric dragsters.”

Garlits has been working on electric dragsters for about four years now, and he’s just as competitive now as he was back in his hey-day.

“Big Daddy” Don Garlits is still going fast at the age of 86. Photo: NHRA/National Dragster.

He holds the world record for electric dragsters at 185.6 mph at 7.25 seconds. He actually has gone quicker – 7.05 seconds – but it was not recognized as a record.

Garlits has done all that with a former Top Fuel dragster that was converted to battery power. He calls it Swamp Rat 37, which continues the long line of innovations and technological advancements that Garlits has been know for his whole career.

“It’s all batteries now,” Garlits said when interviewed by MotorSportsTalk recently at Route 66 Raceway in suburban Chicago.

MORE: ‘Big Daddy’ Don Garlits, 82, sets yet another national drag racing speed/elapsed time record

The electric dragsters have definitely helped “Big Daddy” in many ways, but most notable is his look and demeanor. He could easily pass for early-to-mid 60s, and his drive and desire to be the best pioneer of the battery-powered cars is just like it was when he was racing in Top Fuel.

“I feel good, real good,” Garlits said. “Well, of course, developing the electric dragster has been a big part of that.

“A man doesn’t really go to seed, so to speak, until he has nothing to do. You’ve gotta have goals, no matter how old you are.

“It’s as important to exercise your mind as it is to exercise your body, because your mind can get stiff and out of whack, too.”

At an age where most individuals would be enjoying retirement to the fullest, Garlits refuses to retire. Instead, he keeps busy with a schedule that someone half his age would have a hard time keeping up with.

In addition to constant tinkering on his electric dragster – with the goal of becoming the first person to break the 200 mph barrier – he also spends every day (except when he’s traveling on business) at the Museum of Drag Racing in Ocala, which he founded in 1976.

And then there’s his latest project.

“Now I’m building Swamp Rat 38 that is designed around all that I’ve learned about electronic dragsters over the last four years,” Garlits said. “My goal is to reach 200 mph on batteries and to have a car that’s consistent and simple to operate so that a group of people can have dragsters and not cost a fortune to do it. It’s not very expensive.

“It’s going to take about 1,300 to 1,400 horsepower in about a 1,500 pound car. And I have the electric motor to do that.”

Garlits’ milestones in drag racing history are truly legendary. He was the first Top Fuel racer to break speed barriers of 170 mph, 180 mph, 200 mph, 240 mph, 250 mph and 270 mph – all in the quarter-mile – as well as was the first driver to exceed 200 mph in the one-eighth-mile.

Each of those milestones came because Garlits has spent his entire life tinkering, tweaking and strategizing. He got his mechanical curiosity from his father, an engineer for Westinghouse, who was on a team that invented a number of significant appliances, including the electric fan and the electric iron.

“That’s one reason I’ve gotten so excited about this electric dragster is because those genes are coming out,” Garlits said with a laugh.

“Big Daddy” Don Garlits back in the early stages of his drag racing career. Photo: NHRA/National Dragster.

But seriously, innovation and the desire to never give up and always strive to be the best has been Garlits’ mantra since he first started drag racing in the late 1950s.

“The biggest difference in drag racing today vs. my era in Top Fuel is definitely the cost,” Garlits said. “I’ll never forget when I showed up at Bakersfield (California) with my car, Swamp Rat 1, in 1959 for the U.S. Fuel and Gas championships, the first real big drag race in the world.

“The total price of my car and the trailer it was on cost less than $1,000 to make. Nitro was $1.50 per gallon and it used less than a gallon per run. That’s all the cost there was. I ran a whole year on the same engine, same clutch, same tires, same everything. It was very inexpensive.

“That’s why drag racing appealed back then to so many youngsters because it was something they could dream about and actually do. Now, they’ve made this maybe as expensive as NASCAR and other types of racing.

The Swamp Rat that started it all for “Big Daddy” Don Garlits, Swamp Rat 1. Photo: Museum of Drag Racing.

“The biggest cost was the engine. It came out of a wrecking yard and out of a ’57 Chrysler. It cost $450 bucks. The chassis was out of a ’31 Chevrolet and I just used the side rails, that was $35. And then the rear end out of an old Ford was $10, and the transmission and front wheels, everything was out of wrecking yards – and you made it yourself.”

Electric dragsters today are among the least expensive vehicles in motorsports, Garlits said.

“It’s probably $150,000 to get to the track with the car and truck, but that’s the last of the big costs,” Garlits said. “It costs about 7 or 8 cents a run after that.

“That’s compared to some of the Top Fuel dragster runs today, where it can cost up to $25,000 per run. Nobody can afford that.”

Garlits was forced to retire from racing in 1992 – at the age of 60 – due to a detached retina in his eye. He made two brief comebacks in 1998 and again in 2003, attaining a personal best of 323 mph in 4.7 seconds (on a quarter-mile, before NHRA scaled back Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars to 1,000-foot lanes).

“Big Daddy” Don Garlits is the most notable and innovative driver in drag racing history. Photo: NHRA/National Dragster.

While Top Fuel dragsters are routinely hitting 330 mph and faster these days, Garlits demurs when asked if he’d like to pilot one of the current nitro dragsters.

“I wouldn’t jump into one of the 300-plus mph cars today, it’s too hard on your body,” he said. “You get hit with 8 Gs when you step on it and that’s instant, and that hurts you when you get up to my age.”

But, he adds with a caveat and another smile on his face, “Our bones and joints are not as good as they used to be – but I’d love it if I could.”

There are only a handful of electric dragsters in competition today, but Garlits is optimistic that current numbers will continue to grow. While electric drag racing is overseen by the National Electric Drag Racing Association, Garlits has had talks with the National Hot Rod Association about potential exhibition runs in the future.

But that’s just part of it.

Even though he’ll turn 87 in January, Garlits wants to get back to racing competitively in a structured series or league. It’s just a matter of having more cars out there.

“Oh yeah, I’d get right back in it,” he said emphatically. “That’s why I’m pioneering this, because I’m trying to get it going.

“Right now, there’s about four teams all fighting to reach 200 mph first, and there’s a couple of teams in Europe. We’re all taking different approaches and one of us is going to come up with the best idea, which is the most feasible, the least expensive and the one that gets the job done – and that’s the way the dragster will probably go.”

The biggest obstacle to electric dragsters continues to be consistency, particularly of the batteries that power them. Remember, these four-wheeled beasts do not run on conventional fuel, just the power produced by the batteries.

But Garlits is optimistic that further technical advances will soon come faster and more frequent, adding that “I’m in a totally different battery than what I started with. The technology in four years has leapfrogged.”

Another exmple of “Big Daddy” Don Garlits back during the most successful part of his lengthy drag racing career. Photo: NHRA/National Dragster.

In addition to trying to get the NHRA onboard when it comes to promoting and exhibiting electric dragsters, Garlits has also had discussions with noted innovator/entrepreneur Elon Musk and Tesla.

“The most important technology that I’m paying attention to and I’m trying to get them involved with my team is Tesla, because they have some nice induction motors that make 450 horsepower, and they’re small,” Garlits said. “I could put four of them in my car and I might be better off than one motor in my car. That would not only give me 1,800 horses, but also maybe 230 mph. I’m really trying to convince (Tesla to get involved with him).”

When asked what has been the greatest accomplishment of his career, Garlits is quick to answer.

“Building the revolutionary championship-winning rear-engine dragster,” he said. “There had been rear-engine dragsters, but they didn’t do well. This put the driver out-front of the motor where they were safer.”

Ironically, it was an incident on March 8, 1970 at fabled Lions Dragway in Long Beach, California, one of the worst of Garlits’ career, when the transmission on Swamp Rat 13 exploded, ultimately costing Garlits part of his right foot, as well as saw a spectator also injured.

 

But a lot of good came out of the incident, as well. While recuperating in a nearby hospital, Garlits came up with the rear-engine dragster, which revolutionized the sport.

“They had killed, I think it was six people in about a two-to-three year people prior to my big accident in Long Beach,” he said. “And they haven’t killed six since in the last 47 years.

“I’m also very proud of the Drag Racing Museum, where I’ve captured the history of the sport all the way back to the 40s’ and have all these artifacts before they became collectibles.

“Everybody laughed at me when I started the Museum in 1976 because you could go to a guy’s garage and he’d give you all that stuff, they were just trying to get rid of it, and today it’s worth a fortune. We don’t sell anything and we’ve got it there for future generations as a non-profit, so my family isn’t going to be selling anything. It’s there for America.”

And right there smack dab in the middle of all of it is the man and the legend, Big Daddy.

When asked what his life is like these days, given everything that keeps him busy, he looks straight at the questioner, broadly smiles and says matter-of-factly, “I’m having more fun right now than I ever had in my entire life, if you can believe that.”

Yes, Don, we can believe it. And with you leading the charge, that 200 mph barrier will soon be broken.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

NHRA Texas winners: B. Torrence, Hagan, Anderson, Savoie

Photo and videos courtesy NHRA
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Defending NHRA Top Fuel champion Steve Torrence is a proud Texan who hates to lose. But if there’s one person Torrence likely doesn’t mind seeing win if he can’t reach the winner’s circle – particularly if it’s on home turf – it’s father Billy.

Steve was cheering his father on as the latter boosted his own championship hopes Sunday by winning the Top Fuel category in the final eliminations of the 34th annual AAA Texas NHRA FallNationals in the Dallas suburb of Ennis, Texas.

Billy Torrence (3.775 seconds at 319.67 mph) defeated Jordan Vandergriff (4.299 seconds, 246.03 mph in his first career final round) for his fourth win of the season, including his second win in the first four races of the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs. With the fifth Top Fuel triumph of his career, the elder Torrence moved into fourth in the Top Fuel standings, just 71 points behind his son with two races remaining in the Countdown.

Even though Billy’s son lost in the opening round Sunday, he still leads the Top Fuel standings, holding a 33-point lead over second-ranked Doug Kalitta and a 46-point lead over third-ranked and the weekend’s No. 1 qualifier, Brittany Force.

Sunday marked the third consecutive win in this year’s playoffs for the father-son combo and their second straight triumph at Dallas (Steve won there last year as part of an unprecedented sweep of the six-race Countdown en route to the championship).

It’s home turf and we love to race here,” Billy Torrence said after visiting the winner’s circle. “We’ve raced here our whole career and we have a lot of fans here. There’s no better place to race than Dallas, Texas, and we did have the best car today.

It has been very humbling, and we’ve been very blessed and fortunate to have the success we’ve had. We’ve got a great group of guys on both cars and our success is just a testament to the work these guys do. I think that we’re probably the second-best car in the country, with Steve having the best. We’ve had a stellar season.”

In Funny Car: Matt Hagan (3.909 seconds at 327.59 mph) roared to his third win of the season – as well as his third at the Motorplex – and the 32nd victory of his career, defeating Bob Tasca (3.928 seconds at 323.12 mph). Hagan also moved up to fourth in the standings.

We had a great race car today,” Hagan said. “Qualifying was pretty tough, but to turn on four win lights was pretty huge. (Tasca) is a great driver and those guys are good, so I’m glad things turned out the way they did.

We’re just trying to keep some momentum going, keep doing our job and control what we can control. It was a pretty special weekend. We’ve just got to keep digging and keep working. I love this sport and it’s been a big part of my life for 10 years. I knew (crew chief Dickie Venables) was tuned in and you could see he was confident, and that builds confidence in me.”

Robert Hight continues to lead the Funny Car standings, followed by Jack Beckman (70 points back) and No. 1 qualifier John Force (74 points back).

In Pro Stock: Greg Anderson (6.609 seconds at 209.75 mph) defeated longtime rival Jeg Coughlin Jr. (6.610 seconds at 207.56 mph) to earn his third win of the season, fifth of his career at the Motorplex and 94th of his overall Pro Stock career.

It was the 102nd time Anderson and Coughlin, who qualified No. 1 for the weekend, have met each other in a race, including the 21st time in the final round.

We’ve had so many titanic clashes with so much on the line, and I knew it would be close,” said Anderson, who is seventh in points. “It’s a total team effort and that’s what it takes to win a national event in Pro Stock right now. You’ve got to have perfection every time out there.

We made a lot of changes this week and we hit on it. It showed it on Saturday and I knew coming into today we had a chance. Now it’s a matter of if I can drive the car well enough. I can’t tell you who’s going to win this thing because everybody right now can beat everybody else.”

Erica Enders held on to her lead in the category, but saw the margin over second-ranked Matt Hartford drop to only 28 points. Coughlin is third (-65 points) and Anderson is seventh (-99 points).

In Pro Stock Motorcycle: Jerry “Alligator Farmer” Savoie (6.881 seconds at 195.90 mph) took a big step towards potentially earning his second PSM championship in the last three seasons, defeating three-time champion Eddie Krawiec (6.901 seconds at 195.62 mph).

It was Savoie’s third win of the season and 12th of his career. It’s also his second win in the first four playoff races and fifth straight appearance in the final round at the Motorplex. He’s now third in the PSM standings, 94 points behind five-time champion Andrew Hines.

It was a great day and we knew we had a good bike coming in,” Savoie said. “We said if we held our composure we could win this thing. For the most part, tracks favor certain riders and we’ve been blessed here. It’s a great place and today was great.

Bottom line, I want a championship just as bad as anybody else, so whoever is in my way I’m going to do everything I can to try and beat them. I felt good and we’ve got a great team. To me, this win gives you more hope and means a lot. This gives you that window of opportunity where you could win a championship again.”

NOTES: Only two races remain this season: Las Vegas in two weeks (Oct. 31 – Nov. 3) and Pomona, California four weeks from now (Nov. 14 – 17).

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FINAL FINISHING ORDER

TOP FUEL: 1. Billy Torrence; 2. Jordan Vandergriff; 3. Brittany Force; 4. Austin Prock; 5. Leah Pritchett; 6. Antron Brown; 7. Shawn Reed; 8. Lee Callaway; 9. Steve Torrence; 10. Terry McMillen; 11. Doug Kalitta; 12. Kebin Kinsley; 13. Mike Salinas; 14. Cameron Ferre; 15. Clay Millican; 16. Richie Crampton.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Matt Hagan; 2. Bob Tasca III; 3. John Force; 4. Robert Hight; 5. Tommy Johnson Jr.; 6. J.R. Todd; 7. Jack Beckman; 8. Shawn Langdon; 9. Tim Wilkerson; 10. Ron Capps; 11. Paul Lee; 12. Blake Alexander; 13. Cruz Pedregon; 14. Jim Campbell; 15. Jeff Arend; 16. Jonnie Lindberg.

PRO STOCK: 1. Greg Anderson; 2. Jeg Coughlin; 3. Deric Kramer; 4. Matt Hartford; 5. Erica Enders; 6. Chris McGaha; 7. Aaron Stanfield; 8. Bo Butner; 9. Jason Line; 10. Fernando Cuadra Jr.; 11. Val Smeland; 12. Kenny Delco; 13. Shane Tucker; 14. Fernando Cuadra; 15. Alex Laughlin; 16. Richie Stevens.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Jerry Savoie; 2. Eddie Krawiec; 3. Angelle Sampey; 4. Andrew Hines; 5. Steve Johnson; 6. Karen Stoffer; 7. Scotty Pollacheck; 8. Matt Smith; 9. Hector Arana; 10. Ryan Oehler; 11. Angie Smith; 12. Hector Arana Jr; 13. Kelly Clontz; 14. Michael Ray; 15. Jianna Salinas.

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FINAL RESULTS

TOP FUEL: Billy Torrence, 3.775 seconds, 319.67 mph def. Jordan Vandergriff, 4.299 seconds, 246.03 mph.

FUNNY CAR: Matt Hagan, Dodge Charger, 3.909, 327.59 def. Bob Tasca III, Ford Mustang, 3.928, 323.12.

PRO STOCK: Greg Anderson, Chevy Camaro, 6.609, 209.75 def. Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.610, 207.56.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, 6.881, 195.90 def. Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 6.901, 195.62.

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FINAL ROUND-BY-ROUND RESULTS

TOP FUEL: ROUND ONE — Jordan Vandergriff, 3.746, 321.12 def. Clay Millican, 4.099, 219.72; Austin Prock, 3.688, 334.40 def. Doug Kalitta, 3.812, 316.15; Lee Callaway, 3.794, 313.66 def. Mike Salinas, 3.856, 318.69; Brittany Force, 3.694, 330.31 def. Cameron Ferre, 3.984, 269.19; Leah Pritchett, 3.724, 324.12 def. Kebin Kinsley, 3.822, 263.51; Billy Torrence, 3.733, 327.35 def. Terry McMillen, 3.756, 325.77; Shawn Reed, 3.728, 327.51 def. Steve Torrence, 3.733, 319.52; Antron Brown, 3.743, 329.58 def. Richie Crampton, 4.330, 186.61; QUARTERFINALS — Vandergriff, 3.753, 322.73 def. Callaway, 9.885, 82.51; B. Torrence, 3.767, 325.69 def. Reed, 4.861, 154.60; Prock, 3.742, 330.39 def. Pritchett, 3.964, 250.55; Force, 3.815, 319.60 def. Brown, 4.113, 230.72; SEMIFINALS — B. Torrence, 3.747, 328.38 def. Force, 3.793, 318.32; Vandergriff, 3.824, 316.97 def. Prock, 3.864, 294.95; FINAL — B. Torrence, 3.775, 319.67 def. Vandergriff, 4.299, 246.03.

FUNNY CAR: ROUND ONE — Jack Beckman, Dodge Charger, 3.896, 328.86 def. Ron Capps, Charger, 3.955, 326.79; Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, 3.908, 327.03 def. Jim Campbell, Charger, 4.375, 219.54; John Force, Camaro, 3.926, 328.14 def. Jeff Arend, Ford Mustang, 7.353, 96.26; J.R. Todd, Toyota Camry, 3.911, 327.19 def. Cruz Pedregon, Charger, 4.342, 209.20; Bob Tasca III, Mustang, 3.873, 327.19 def. Jonnie Lindberg, Mustang, 15.205, 57.93; Matt Hagan, Charger, 3.903, 329.58 def. Blake Alexander, Mustang, 4.007, 280.19; Shawn Langdon, Camry, 3.925, 325.85 def. Tim Wilkerson, Mustang, 3.908, 323.97; Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 3.932, 324.05 def. Paul Lee, Charger, 3.957, 323.97; QUARTERFINALS — Hight, 3.937, 326.40 def. Langdon, 3.964, 321.35; Hagan, 3.903, 329.18 def. Todd, 3.937, 325.85; Tasca III, 3.938, 324.20 def. Beckman, 3.951, 322.42; Force, 3.937, 327.98 def. Johnson Jr., 3.919, 320.20; SEMIFINALS — Hagan, 3.900, 329.83 def. Hight, Foul – Red Light; Tasca III, 3.920, 323.89 def. Force, 3.951, 327.98; FINAL — Hagan, 3.909, 327.59 def. Tasca III, 3.928, 323.12.

PRO STOCK: ROUND ONE — Aaron Stanfield, Chevy Camaro, 6.609, 208.91 def. Kenny Delco, Camaro, 6.635, 208.68; Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.597, 208.78 def. Jason Line, Camaro, 6.590, 208.88; Chris McGaha, Camaro, 7.964, 125.90 def. Fernando Cuadra, Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Matt Hartford, Camaro, 6.602, 207.59 def. Fernando Cuadra Jr., Camaro, 6.615, 208.17; Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.617, 208.14 def. Shane Tucker, Camaro, 6.638, 207.85; Deric Kramer, Camaro, 6.577, 209.56 def. Val Smeland, Camaro, 6.618, 208.55; Erica Enders, Camaro, 6.579, 210.11 def. Alex Laughlin, Camaro, 7.820, 127.56; Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.573, 209.49 def. Richie Stevens, Dodge Dart, Broke; QUARTERFINALS — Hartford, 6.625, 208.23 def. Butner, 6.656, 208.42; Anderson, 6.596, 210.05 def. Enders, 6.604, 210.54; Kramer, 6.611, 209.17 def. McGaha, 6.630, 208.75; Coughlin, 6.620, 208.23 def. Stanfield, 6.630, 208.46; SEMIFINALS — Coughlin, 6.609, 207.37 def. Hartford, 6.656, 207.43; Anderson, 6.628, 206.76 def. Kramer, 6.627, 208.30; FINAL — Anderson, 6.609, 209.75 def. Coughlin, 6.610, 207.56.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: ROUND ONE — Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 6.912, 195.34 def. Ryan Oehler, 6.901, 196.33; Karen Stoffer, Suzuki, 6.863, 196.67 def. Angie Smith, 6.910, 195.65; Andrew Hines, Harley-Davidson, 6.885, 194.46 def. Hector Arana Jr, 6.933, 193.52; Angelle Sampey, Harley-Davidson, 6.903, 190.89 def. Hector Arana, Foul – Red Light; Scotty Pollacheck, 6.898, 194.21 def. Kelly Clontz, Suzuki, 6.955, 192.08; Steve Johnson, Suzuki, 6.849, 194.21 def. Michael Ray, 7.209, 155.76; Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, 6.827, 196.10 def. Jianna Salinas, Suzuki, 8.231, 104.03; Matt Smith, 6.837, 197.33 was unopposed; QUARTERFINALS — Sampey, 6.914, 193.93 def. Pollacheck, 6.918, 194.16; Hines, 6.921, 194.58 def. Johnson, 6.889, 194.35; Krawiec, 6.899, 195.76 def. M. Smith, 6.935, 196.24; Savoie, 6.857, 196.44 def. Stoffer, 6.900, 196.07; SEMIFINALS — Krawiec, 6.957, 195.48 def. Sampey, 6.989, 190.35; Savoie, 6.877, 195.76 def. Hines, 6.991, 191.51; FINAL — Savoie, 6.881, 195.90 def. Krawiec, 6.901, 195.62.

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UPDATED POINT STANDINGS

TOP FUEL: 1. Steve Torrence, 2,394; 2. Doug Kalitta, 2,361; 3. Brittany Force, 2,348; 4. Billy Torrence, 2,323; 5. Leah Pritchett, 2,290; 6. Austin Prock, 2,278; 7. Mike Salinas, 2,266; 8. Antron Brown, 2,247; 9. Richie Crampton, 2,228; 10. Clay Millican, 2,210.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Robert Hight, 2,437; 2. Jack Beckman, 2,367; 3. John Force, 2,363; 4. Matt Hagan, 2,325; 5. Bob Tasca III, 2,315; 6. Ron Capps, 2,302; 7. J.R. Todd, 2,274; 8. Tommy Johnson Jr., 2,243; 9. Shawn Langdon, 2,239; 10. Tim Wilkerson, 2,188.

PRO STOCK: 1. Erica Enders, 2,395; 2. Matt Hartford, 2,367; 3. Jeg Coughlin, 2,330; 4. Jason Line, 2,327; 5. Deric Kramer, 2,323; 6. Bo Butner, 2,321; 7. Greg Anderson, 2,296; 8. Alex Laughlin, 2,239; 9. Chris McGaha, 2,217; 10. Val Smeland, 2,124.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Andrew Hines, 2,464; 2. Karen Stoffer, 2,383; 3. Jerry Savoie, 2,370; 4. Eddie Krawiec, 2,365; 5. Matt Smith, 2,297; 6. Hector Arana Jr, 2,274; 7. Angelle Sampey, 2,248; 8. Angie Smith, 2,181; 9. Ryan Oehler, 2,159; 10. Hector Arana, 2,128.

Follow @JerryBonkowski