Photos courtesy Torrence Motorsports

Steve Torrence can clinch first NHRA Top Fuel championship this weekend

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Steve Torrence won 8 of 24 races (a .333 winning percentage) last year in the NHRA Top Fuel ranks, four more than his closest rival, Brittany Force.

But due to her success in last year’s six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs, Force ultimately went on to win the championship while Torrence was relegated to second place.

That taught Torrence a very valuable lesson, one that still leaves a sour taste in his mouth to this day whenever he talks about it.

That’s why in 2018, Torrence has upped his game. He enters this weekend’s NHRA Toyota Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway – the second-to-last race of the season – having won 9 of the first 22 races (a .410 winning percentage), including being the first driver in NHRA Top Fuel or Funny Car history to win the first four races in the Countdown.

Steve Torrence is potentially on his way this weekend to winning his first NHRA Top Fuel championship.

Now, the 35-year-old Torrence is poised to seal the deal and win the championship that evaded him last season – and with one race to boot. The Longview, Texas native currently leads the Top Fuel ranks by 169 points over closest rival, Clay Millican.

Given that 191 points will be available for the taking at the season-ending NHRA Auto Club Finals in two weeks (Nov. 8-11) in Pomona, California, if Torrence can leave Las Vegas Sunday with a 192-point lead, he’ll clinch his first career Top Fuel championship and second NHRA crown of his career (he won the Top Alcohol Dragster title in 2005).

“Honestly, I thought about it a whole lot last year when we had the run we had, we won 8 races out of 24, and the next-best car won just four and then we ended up losing the championship at the final race,” Torrence told NBC Sports. “I let that get in my head a little bit last year, it distracted me from what we needed to do and I think it distracted the team.

“This year, we’ve been able to put that out of our mind. None of that matters until Sunday afternoon at Pomona. You still have to go out and race. Yeah, there’s a championship at stake, but you still have to win races.

“We’re there to win rounds and races. If you quit looking at the big picture and just look at what you have to do each round, the rest of that stuff handles itself.”

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While he concedes “we definitely have the momentum” heading into Las Vegas, Torrence is staying true to his one round and one race at a time mantra.

“At the end of the day, you have to stay focused on what you’ve got to do,” he said.

McMillan has proven to be a strong competitor, but he only has two wins to Torrence’s nine – with the potential Torrence could reach 10 wins Sunday and potentially 11 wins at Pomona. If that were to happen, Torrence would wrap up the championship with a .458 national event winning average in 2018.

“We’ve had some rounds that went our way when we needed them to, but we’ve also been where we needed to be, had the car where it needed to be and I’ve risen to the occasion when I needed to,” he said humbly yet firmly. “I’m not going to say we just went out and dominated, but we’ve had the stuff we needed to have, when we needed to have it.

“You just keep the same mentality we’ve had. I’m not worried about what Clay (Millican) or the next guy is doing. That’s been a recipe for success for us, just focus on what we’ve got to do. If you can win all six (playoff races), you don’t have to worry about counting points.”

Team Torrence.

After racing for others early on in his career, he formed Torrence Motorsports at the end of 2011 and went full-time the following season. He’s been a staple in the Top Fuel ranks ever since.

“Six years ago, I just wanted to win a race, one race,” Torrence said. “If I could win a race, I would have accomplished my goal.

“Now, I’m 25 wins into this deal now. If I can win one championship, that’ll be the icing on the cake. If we can pull it off, it’s going to be unbelievable. You just set small goals, work towards them and then you can get those bigger ones accomplished.”

After virtually every one of his 25 wins to date, one of the things Torrence has become known for is immediately thanking crew chief Richard Hogan and the rest of the team – Steve likes to call them his family – for its efforts.

“Some of these guys have been with me since Day One,” he said. “The continuity between all these guys and how they work together, I’d put them against anybody. I think they’re not paralleled out there at all.”

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Which dovetails into the second part of the “family” equation for Torrence. His father, Billy, is a long-time drag racer, primarily in the Sportsman ranks.

“My dad taught me how to race,” Steve Torrence said. “I grew up going to the races with him and just learning to work on cars, all the stuff we do and being able to be submersed in all that. That’s just what you naturally gravitate toward. Whatever your dad does, if you get to do it together and do it for fun, that’s what you enjoy doing.”

The Torrence boys, Steve, left, and dad Billy.

When Steve son moved into Top Fuel, it didn’t take long before Billy wanted to join his son not just at the racetrack, but also ON the racetrack.

Usually, it’s the other way around, where a son follows a father. But in this case, it was father following his son.

Said Steve, “When I got to Top Fuel, I told him, ‘Man, you need to get in my car and make a pass. There’s nothing like it.’”

Steve obviously did a good selling job, as Billy has since gone on to begin his own Top Fuel racing tenure, albeit on a part-time basis.

“It was a fun, enjoyable steep learning curve that he didn’t have a whole lot of time to learn,” Steve Torrence said of his father’s first few Top Fuel efforts. “He didn’t have the luxury that I did to get out there and really get his feet wet.

“We just trialed him by fire and said, ‘Here it is, drive it!”

Father and son have faced each other twice to date in Top Fuel competition, with Steve winning both times. But Steve admits he worries about the day his father potentially lights the win light first against him.

“One of my best friends and most fierce competitors is Antron (three-time Top Fuel champ Antron Brown),” the younger Torrence said. “Racing my old man is going to be like racing Antron because I don’t need to remind you I live across the street from my dad and work with him every day.”

Then, Steve adds with a hearty laugh, “In the event he were to beat me, it would not be good for me. I’d have to deal with all the people that would talk crap to me – and him. I’m not going to let that happen. I’ll cut his tire or drain his fuel first. I’ll do whatever I’ve got to do.”

Steve, Mama Kay and Billy Torrence.

The other part of the high-speed Torrence family business is Steve’s mother, Kay, more affectionately known as “Mama Kay.”

“She runs the show,” Steve Torrence said of his mother. “She’s the biggest cheerleader, she motivates all the guys, keeps everyone’s mind right, she’s a big support group for everybody.

“She sends out daily Bible verses to everybody. She keeps us all in-check and makes sure we’re doing the right thing. She’s having just an unbelievable time.

“I don’t know if I’m right or wrong, but I’m going to attribute a lot of our success to her being there and just keeping the morale of all the guys good.”

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Growing up, Torrence idolized former Top Fuel and Funny Car champ Kenny Bernstein – also a Texas native.

It was Bernstein’s drive for perfection and running a first-class operation that Torrence has patterned his own racing operation after.

“It wasn’t just what Kenny accomplished but the way he ran his show, the appearance and the professionalism of everything he did,” Torrence said. “As far as I’m concerned, he’s ‘the man’ and always ran the best operation out there. He’s kind of set the bar.”

Now, Steve Torrence is on the precipice of joining Bernstein as a NHRA Top Fuel champion. While he’s not conceding anything, he knows what has to be done.

“The job is to go win the race,” Steve Torrence said. “I’m seeing articles about what I have to do and what other drivers have to do to win their own championships this weekend.

“I mean it’s cool to read all that, but none of that really matters. I just have to win the race and let it handle itself. I’m not saying that’s what we’re going to do, but that’s our mindset is to go there, qualify well and go four rounds.

“You can’t see the forest for the trees, but you’ve got to chop the forest down one tree at a time, and that’s what we’re doing.”

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Previous F1 competition doesn’t guarantee IndyCar success at COTA

Manor F1 Photo
Manor F1 Photo
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AUSTIN, Texas – Familiarity does not breed success, according to three NTT IndyCar Series drivers who have previous experience at Circuit of the Americas in the Formula One United States Grand Prix. Several other drivers, including IndyCar Series rookie Patricio O’Ward, competed in the LMPC IMSA race in 2017.

Although the course is the same – 20-turns and 3.41-miles – the cars are completely different. The highly-advanced, technologically-driven Formula One cars are advanced beyond the realm of anything allowed in the NTT IndyCar Series. It’s more about the driver in IndyCar, which uses an impressive, but simpler formula to help showcase driver skill more than technology in its races.

Money buys speed in Formula One, but an IndyCar team doesn’t need a $400 million budget to go racing. It can get by on $5 millions to $10 million a year and contend for plenty of race victories and championships.

Andretti Autosport star Alexander Rossi drove in five Formula One races with Manor in 2015. The above photo is from his only F1 contest at COTA that season. He was the first driver ever to turn laps at COTA shortly after it was constructed in 2012.

Rossi had his best F1 finish in the 2015 United States Grand Prix when he started 17thand finished 12th.

“When I’ve come here in the past, I came into the weekend fully knowing that there was no chance to ever really do anything from a results perspective,” Rossi said. “To could come here to a track that I’ve spent a lot of time at, not necessarily driven a whole lot, but spent a huge amount of time at. To come into this weekend’s race, competing on a level where we have as good a shot as any, to win the race would be pretty cool.

“There’s kind of an almost unfinished business box that we’d like to tick here in some way. I’m very excited to get the weekend started.”

Chilton raced the entire F1 season in 2013 and 2014 with Marussia. He started 21stand finished 21stin 2013. He started in the first 16 races during the 2014 F1 season but was out of a ride by the time F1 arrived at COTA that season.

Me and Alex probably had pretty similar experiences,” Chilton told NBC Sports.com “Obviously the more laps are better — but the car we were in, we weren’t doing much racing, so the sort of racing experience part isn’t going to help.

“It’s good to be back. I first came here in 2013 for the (United States) Grand Prix. I loved the track. I love the city. I really enjoyed the whole facility, the race track. It’s a pretty long track in an Indy car but it’s got lots of overtaking potential for us and hopefully we’ll put on a great show.

“It’s great to have an English band like Muse on Saturday night, as well.”

Marcus Ericsson of Sweden has the most experience at COTA of any driver in the field for Sunday’s INDYCAR Classic. He competed in 97 F1 contests from 2014-2018 before becoming an IndyCar rookie with Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports this season.

Ericsson was 15thin 2015, 14thin 2016, 15thin 2017 and 10thin last year’s USGP.

“I’ve been here quite a few times,” Ericsson said. “It’s one of the best tracks on F1 and I think it’s great we are going here with INDYCAR. It’s going to be a great weekend.

“The racing should be very good. It’s already good on F1 on this track and from what I’ve done in INDYCAR, it’s going to be a really good show from everyone and I’m really looking forward to it.”

Ericsson emphasized that the his F1 experience does not necessarily give him any type of advantage in an IndyCar.

“I think for me I was here a couple months ago in F1 doing the race in ’18. I had all my reference points and then I did the first run and realized that didn’t really work,” Ericsson explained to NBC Sports.com “So I don’t know that the experience — it’s good to know the track, but then the Indy cars are very different cars to the F1 (car) so you have to sort of drive it quite differently and in the end, I think it didn’t really help the maximum amount in my opinion.

“The problem is we had two days of testing already in IndyCar. If we had come here straightaway without any testing it would be an advantage of one hundredth approximate. But now, if you don’t get the track in two days, I don’t think you would be in IndyCar.

“I don’t think it’s a big advantage now going into the weekend.”

But every little bit helps and if all of those little “bits” of information are added up, previous experience can provide a benefit in the race.

“For sure there’s things I can bring from my experience there that helps in INDYCAR, but the Indy car to drive today is different than the Formula One cars with the power steering and everything,” Ericsson continued. “I think it’s two different cars and what I found here on the test; things that worked in the F1 car didn’t really work in the Indy car. I think both cars of very difficult to be fast in but in different ways.

“For sure my experience in F1, it’s helped me to get into INDYCAR.”

James Hinchcliffe, who has never driven in Formula One, or at COTA, believes he has the best experience of any driver in Austin this weekend.

“I know where the restaurants are, so that’s cool,” Hinchcliffe said.