When legendary NHRA team owner Connie Kalitta approached driver JR Todd about switching from Top Fuel to Funny Car in 2017, Todd readily agreed to the move, even though he had never driven a so-called “flopper” before.
Former NHRA Top Fuel and Funny Car champion Del Worsham had left Kalitta Motorsports after the 2016 season to return to and try to rebuild his family-owned team.
That left a void for Kalitta to fill. Because he oftentimes likes to promote from within, Kalitta felt that even without any prior Funny Car experience, Todd – who drove a Top Fueler for Kalitta Motorsports in 2016 – was the right man for the Funny Car job.
Once again, as has happened numerous times during his 50-plus year driving and team ownership career, Kalitta wound up making a genius move with Todd.
Now, with one race remaining on the 2018 schedule, next weekend’s season-ending AAA Finals in Pomona, California (Nov. 8-11), Todd is on track to win his first NHRA championship.
Todd has a 74-point lead over defending Funny Car champion Robert Hight. While that may seem like a big lead, it isn’t. The Pomona event will see drivers battling for 50 percent more points than usual, meaning a maximum of 191 points are available to be earned.
In basic terms, that means Todd has to go at least two rounds further than Hight in the final eliminations on Nov. 11. That may be easier said than done, given how tough a competitor the two-time Funny Car champ Hight is.
But Todd is definitely up for the task. When he reaches Pomona, Todd is going to keep doing what he’s been doing all season – particularly in the six-race Countdown to the Championship, where he’s reached the final round in four of the first five races, including a win last weekend at Las Vegas.
“You don’t change a thing,” Todd said about heading to Pomona. “I’m not going to change the way I drive and I don’t think that Jon O. or Todd (co-crew chiefs Jon Oberhofer and Todd Smith) are going to change the way they are running the car.
“We just need to keep making consistent runs. Step one is getting qualified there in Pomona and try to put it in the top half. Then we take it one round at a time.
“I said earlier this year that if we could win four Countdown races that we would have a shot at the championship. We haven’t won four, but we’ve gone to four finals and that’s what it takes along with getting some help along the way with the cars around you in points.”
Todd’s win at Las Vegas last weekend was his second victory in Sin City this year, also capturing the early-season race there. He also has wins at Houston, Redding (Pa.) and the biggest win of his career in the U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis on Labor Day weekend.
“We knew going into Indy that we had our hot rod back and it showed when we ran well there in qualifying and on race day,” Todd said. “We haven’t let up since then. It’s really about being consistent. We’re racing smart, not overthinking or over doing things.”
Todd knows the challenge Hight presents, he also has to try and put his rival out of mind and focus solely on his own task at hand.
“I’d much rather have a 70-point lead than an eight-point lead,” Todd said. “Points and a half (at Pomona) is going to make it interesting. We just need to maintain what we’ve been doing and go to the later rounds.”
Since shifting to Funny Car last season, the 36-year-old Todd has accumulated seven wins, nearly equaling his nine wins in his lengthy Top Fuel career.
That he’s taken to Funny Car so well is an understatement. Now it’s just a matter of putting the icing and cherry on top at Pomona and he’ll fulfill every drag racer’s dream of becoming an NHRA champion.
“It’s so awesome to drive a car like that when it’s so consistent that you don’t have to worry if you have to go out and pedal it,” Todd said after winning at Las Vegas. “You just go up there and smack the tree as hard as you can and get after it.
“It’s a lot of fun to drive, but we still have some unfinished business in Pomona. Hopefully, we can go out there and win two trophies (for capturing both the race and the Funny Car championship).
“It’s not over yet. We still have a lot of work to do in Pomona. We just need to keep after it and not let up.”
PALA, California – In his 450 bike debut, Jett Lawrence scored a perfect round at Fox Raceway in Pala, California to win Pro Motocross Round 1. He posted the fastest time in both qualification sessions, won the holeshot in both motos, and scored a pair of wins to take the overall victory and the early points’ lead.
No one seriously questioned Lawrence’s opportunity to make noise in the 450 class. Few would have been surprised to see him podium in his Pro Motocross National, but Lawrence outperformed all expectations by dominating Moto 1. He entered the weekend with zero points and his eye on 20th in the standings so he would receive an automatic invitation to the inaugural SuperMotocross World Championship (SMX).
He well surpassed expectations.
“It’s awesome,” Lawrence told NBC Sports’ Jason Thomas. “I can finally smile. I’ve been trying to stay serious and not get too excited with emotions coming up – and now I can finally let loose. The second one was a little harder, I couldn’t hear him but I’d look back and I’d still see the red bike. It was like a chess match.”
By the end of the race, Lawrence made up 30 percent of the points he needed to claim 20th and served notice that he will be one of the favorites to win the championship. He closed the gap even further in Moto 2, but the two races had entirely different storylines.
While Lawrence was able to run away from the field in the first race and win with a 10-second advantage, Honda teammate and defending Monster Energy Supercross champion Chase Sexton pressured him for the entire 30 minutes plus two laps that made up Moto 2.
Lawrence is the 16th rider to win in his first Pro Motocross race, the 10th to do so in an opener and second youngest, (behind Rick Johnson, 17 when he won at Hangtown in 1982).
Sexton was within two seconds of Lawrence for the entire moto. He rode a patient race with the realistic expectation that the 450 rookie Lawrence might make a mistake. Lawrence bounced from rut to rut in this race, but would not be forced into losing his focus.
“Toward the finish line area I had some decent lines, I thought maybe, if I could get close enough, I could make a move,” Sexton said. “I tried my hardest; I got close. I made a bit of an attempt with maybe 10 minutes to go and messed up. Jett was obviously riding really good. We were pushing the pace and it was a fun moto. It felt a little like last year.”
With his 1-1 finish and the overall victory, Lawrence remains perfect at Fox Raceway after sweeping Victory Lane in five rounds his 250 career.
Dylan Ferrandis returned to the track after suffering a concussion in the Supercross season in Round 4 in Houston. He attempted to return for the Daytona Supercross race, but another hard crash on Media Day set him on the sideline.
“Earlier this week I was pretty far from a podium position, so got together with the team and we made it happen,” Ferrandis said. “It was very hard. [Aaron Plessinger] was pushing me and I had to dig very deep.”
In a pre-race news conference, he indicated that the best course of action was to get up to speed before he fully sent his bike into the turns. But adrenalin is a wonderful factor and once he got into the pace of the race, he held off charges from Cooper Webb in Moto 1 and Plessinger in Moto 2. Ferrandis’ 3-3 finishes in the two races earned 40 points and puts him back in the conversation to be among the top 20 in the combined SuperMotocross standings.
Plessinger and Webb each ended the day with 34 points. Plessinger won the tiebreaker for fifth overall in the standings. But it was an adventurous afternoon for Plessinger who had to overcome a pair of falls in the first Moto to finish fifth.
Round 1 of the Pro Motocross season marked the return of Webb after he suffered a Supercross series ending concussion in a heat race at Nashville.
“This was a last minute decision,” Webb said. “I sat out last summer and I didn’t want to do that again. Once I got cleared from the doctor, it was game on.”
The battle between Lawrence and Sexton gave Honda a 1-2 finish in this race for the second straight year, but perhaps most importantly, it provided a glimpse of what can be expected during the opening rounds.
I think there is more to come from Chase,” Lawrence said. “He had that crash in practice so it rung his head a bit, but I know it’s going to be a war in the outdoor season. I know there’s going to be times when I’m behind Chase and can’t get around him. It’s going to be an awesome season and I can’t wait to race my teammate.”
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Jett wasn’t the only Lawrence to win Fox Raceway Motocross. Hunter’s win in the 250 class marked the first time in history that brothers won a Motocross National on the same day.
The reigning 250 East Supercross champion scored the overall victory with a third in Moto 1 and a victory in Moto 2. A poor start in the first race forced Lawrence to mount a charge from behind. Riding with discomfort, Lawrence was out of his rhythm early. A spirited battle with Jo Shimoda and Justin Cooper for third through fifth forced him to push through the pain of an injury suffered at the start of the week.
“The start was crucial,” Lawrence said. “I had a massive crash Monday and could barely ride press day for three laps, I was in so much pain. This one goes out to Dr. [Rey Gubernick]. He has magic hands.”
Lawrence’s strong start to Moto 2 put him in a better zone and he pulled an eight-second advantage over the second-place rider.
Haiden Deegan got a taste of the Motocross series last year, but that was all it was: a nibble.
Deegan failed to crack the top 10 in either of two starts and had some questions for himself before the race began. Deegan did not believe there were high expectations placed on him for this race, which is precisely how he described his first Supercross attempt. In that inaugural SX race, he finished fourth and was as surprised as anyone in the field.
Again: The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Deegan surprised himself again by finishing second in only his third Motocross National. He finished sixth in Moto 1 and second in Moto 2, giving him a second-place finish overall.
“I’m actually a little surprised,” Deegan said. “A lot of people said I wouldn’t even be close to this. I guess we’re proving people wrong and that’s what we’ve got to do Second place in my first full season. I’m hyped.”
RJ Hampshire made a statement in Moto 1. An entirely new discipline allowed Hampshire to grab an early advantage. But then a poor start to Moto 2 provided an entirely different challenge. Two falls on Lap 1 dropped Hampshire to 39th in the running order.
“I didn’t have a great start and got mayhem in that second corner and went down,” Hampshire said. “Picked [myself] up in last and made some really good passes and then going uphill on the [backstretch], someone got out of whack – took me out and I was dead last again. I didn’t really know if I had a shot at the podium, but I was digging really deep.”
It took half of the race to get back into the points in 20th, but Hampshire kept digging. Passing riders one at a time, he climbed to 11th in Moto 2 and salvaged enough points to give him the third position overall.
Maximus Vohland made a statement of his own by holding off a determined Lawrence on the last two laps. Lawrence was able to pressure Vohland when they were slowed by a lapped rider who fell in front of the battle.
Tom Vialle was in a position to take the final overall podium spot with a solid third-place finish in the second moto. He did everything he could, but Hampshire’s determined charge from the back of the pack was capped off with a two-position advance on the final lap to slide onto the final step of the box.