NHRA: J.R. Todd seeks more Dallas magic en route to 2nd Funny Car title

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J.R. Todd may be from the Indianapolis area, but Dallas – or more precisely, Texas Motorplex in suburban Ennis, Texas, site of this weekend’s AAA Texas NHRA Nationals – has played a key role in his life, particularly the last decade.

It was back in fall 2008 at the Motorplex – when Todd was racing in Top Fuel – that he pulled off what many people still remember as one of the biggest upsets in drag racing history.

Todd came into the final round of that race vs. Tony Schumacher, who had won a record seven previous races and 10 of the previous 12, one of the greatest winning streaks in the annals of NHRA drag racing.

But Todd emerged as the upstart David to Schumacher’s Goliath at Texas, beating Schumacher to the finish line. Schumacher would rebound the next race and win the next three en route to end the season with a record 15 wins, as well as the sixth of what would be his eight career Top Fuel championships.

Here’s a replay of that outstanding race win (the Schumacher-Todd battle starts about 7:05 into the tape).

While that win was up to that point the biggest of Todd’s career, the celebratory feeling was short-lived. The team Todd was racing for at the time closed up shop five races later due to lack of sponsorship. That left Todd to bounce around through the sport as a part-time driver for the next five seasons before being picked up by team owner Connie Kalitta to drive one of his Funny Cars three races into the 2014 season. Of note, after his 2008 win at Dallas, Todd would not reach the winner’s circle again until he won at Denver in his first season driving for Kalitta.

For whatever reason, I’ve had success in the past there at that event (Dallas),” Todd told NBC Sports. “The year I won there with Morgan Lucas, that was my one and only season driving for Morgan. We just had a terrible season, I remember. We missed the Countdown, didn’t have many round wins, Schumacher came in there on a real big hot streak, much like Steve Torrence did last year.

For us to knock Tony off in the final on a hole shot, that kind of made up for having a bad season. A lot of people haven’t forgotten that one, especially the way I celebrated after I got out of the car and saluted him (Schumacher was sponsored by the U.S. Army and has had the nickname of “The Sarge”). A guy and team like that, they were unstoppable back then. For us to be able to knock them off, that was a big moment for me and my career.

But then after that, it was back to the drawing board. The funding went away from that team and I on the sideline for a bit, was just part-time with several teams just trying to keep my name out there, keep my license and keep my skills sharp. That eventually paid off when Connie Kalitta gave me the call to drive his car. In the first year in 2014, we went to the final at Dallas and we finished second in the championship.

When I was a part-time racer, I thought my best days in drag racing had come and gone because you weren’t getting the breaks you thought you should get with the bigger teams. “When I saw drivers getting driving jobs over me, I felt like I could do a better person than this person or that person.

Photo: Kalitta Motorsports

It keeps you hungry and makes you try harder. Yeah, it can be frustrating. There was a time when I thought this is it, I’m going to give it up and go find a regular 9-5 to pay the bills and what have you. I just persevered, didn’t give up and it definitely paid off in the long run and has made me appreciate times like this more than anything just because you know that this could go away at any time, so you better make the best of it and prove that you deserve to be out here in this position.”

Fast forward to last fall, again at Dallas, as Todd reached the final round but lost to Robert Hight. But that loss ultimately led to the biggest achievement ever of Todd’s career – even bigger than beating Schumacher 10 years earlier – when he went on to win the Funny Car championship two races later. That season capped off the best in Todd’s career, including a personal best of six wins.

As the NHRA moves into the second half of the six-race Countdown to the Championship this weekend when it returns to the Texas Motorplex, Todd feels confident he still can rally back to earn a second straight Funny Car title. He comes into this weekend’s race sixth in the points, 144 points behind class leader Robert Hight.

Speaking of the Countdown, Todd has been on a roll. Even though he started this year’s Countdown in eighth place, he has come back, climbing to fifth two weeks ago before falling back to sixth after this past weekend’s race at Charlotte. It’s not surprising, since Todd — prior to Charlotte — either won, finished runner-up or advanced to the semifinals in the previous eight playoff races, dating back to the start of last year’s Countdown.

J.R. Todd 2018-2019 Countdown Results

Reading – Won
St. Louis – Semis
Dallas – Finals
Charlotte – Finals
Las Vegas – Won
Pomona – Won
Reading – Semis
St. Louis – Finals
Charlotte – Lost in first round; lost traction at starting line.

If there’s some secret or magic to it, I’m not going to reveal what it is,” Todd said with a hearty laugh. “It shows what kind of team I have behind me. (Co-crew chiefs) Todd Smith and Jon Oberhofer do a great job and never get down and out. They have a lot of fun at what they do but at the same time are extremely serious about it and rise to the occasion. They make my job a lot easier than what it actually it is.

It’s a lot of fun to drive that hot rod. We’re going to tracks in the Countdown where that car has run good at in the past. … We want to keep that No. 1 on the side, that way the vinyl guy (who applies the No. 1 sticker to the car) doesn’t have a lot of work to do in the off-season (meaning the ‘vinyl guy’ won’t have to change numbers on Todd’s car).”

While things went Todd’s way more often than not en route to last year’s championship, this season has been a struggle at times. He has earned just one win (Las Vegas in spring) and has three other runner-up finishes.

I feel like we haven’t been living up to our standards that we set for ourselves,” Todd said. “We have the No. 1 on the side of the car so you’re expected to go out and perform at a high level and win races, and we just haven’t done that.

We started off the year fairly well, went to the final at Phoenix and won in Las Vegas in the 4-Wide, and then in summer we just struggled and fell in the points. To start off the Countdown in the eighth spot is tough; you want to be close to the top-5, that way you’re not that far behind the leader when the points are reset.

But once the U.S. Nationals came around, I feel like the performance of the car came around. We’re still not as consistent as we’d like to be, but we’re going more to the later rounds and that’s key in trying to make a run to the championship. We’ve made a move in the points and we just need to keep going to those later rounds and keep pace with the leaders.”

Todd knows there are a lot of eyeballs upon him, wondering whether he can win two championships in a row. Plus, Hight is once again having a strong season (he has led in the points most of the year), legendary John Force is enjoying a rejuvenated season (he’s third in the points, just 79 points behind Hight), and others like “Fast Jack” Beckman (second), Ron Capps (fourth), Matt Hagan (seventh), Tommy Johnson Jr. (eighth) and Shawn Langdon (ninth) are others standing in Todd’s way of repeating as champion.

Kalitta Motorsports team owner Connie Kalitta with J.R. Todd. Photo: Gary Nastase/Auto Imagery.

It’s just hard to win, period,” Todd said. “All these events are tough and I feel the Funny Car category gets harder each year. Top to bottom, there’s 10 cars that can go out and win any given race. I feel the top five right now will battle it out for the championship, and even the top eight have a shot at it, really. It gets harder every year. What we did last year would be hard to repeat, going to five of the six finals. It definitely been harder this year because the competition has risen to the challenge and I think it will come down to more than one or two drivers at Pomona (season-ending race in mid-November) battling for the championship.”

Todd has had this weekend’s race at Dallas circled on his calendar all season. He remembers what happened in last year’s race very clearly – but also that it was the linchpin that led to his championship.

Last year (at Dallas), we got beat by Robert (Hight) in the final but we kept pace with the points and after that, that’s when we started making up a lot of ground of him,” Todd said. “That was a pivotal race in the championship.”

Could the championship battle once again come down to the final round of the final race, particularly since competitors at Pomona will earn 1.5 times more points per run (like at the U.S. Nationals) than in most other races?

It very well could,” Todd said. “I think it will come down to more than one or two drivers in Pomona. Plus points-and-a-half always make it interesting. It’s going to be hard for somebody to wrap it up early. The competition is way too stout for that to happen. I think there’s going to be as many as three or four in the mix battling it out and hope we’re one of those to come out on top.”

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Alexander Rossi hopes to dodge oncoming traffic in second Baja 1000

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One of the great viral videos of last year’s offseason was the sight of Alexander Rossi’s Honda Ridgeline off-road vehicle and its near head-on collision with a passenger SUV coming in the wrong direction of last year’s Baja 1000.

The video of the incident overshadowed an outstanding debut for Rossi in the SCORE OFF Road Desert race.

Rossi (pictured above on the right along with fellow driver Jeff Proctor) told NBCSports.com that driving down the same roads still used by passenger traffic is one of the unique challenges of the Baja 1000.

“The most demanding form of racing is IndyCar racing,” Rossi told NBC Sports.com. “But the big thing for me in the Baja 1000 is mentally being able to understand the terrain that is coming at you at 120 miles an hour in the dust and pedestrians and other cars, people and cattle that come along with this race.”

Rossi is becoming a modern-day Parnelli Jones, A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti. He wants to race anything on wheels and win.

Since the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season concluded with the Sept. 22 Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey, Rossi competed in the Bathurst 1000 in Australia on Oct. 13. Earlier this year, Rossi drove for Acura Team Penske in the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring.

This weekend, the winner of the 100th Indianapolis 500 in 2016 and a perennial contender for the NTT IndyCar Series championship will compete in the Baja 1000 for the second straight year.

Rossi will be driving for the Honda Ridgeline Racing team and is the sixth Indy 500 winner to compete in the Baja 1000.

Other Indy 500 winners who have raced in the SCORE Baja 1000 include Jones, the 1963 Indianapolis winner and a two-time Baja 1000 race winner (1971 72); fellow Honda IndyCar Series driver and Andretti Autosport teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay, the Indy winner in 2014; Rick Mears, who won the Indianapolis 500 four times, 1985 Indy 500 champion Danny Sullivan and 2004 Indy winner Buddy Rice.

NTT IndyCar season champions who have raced in the Baja 1000 include Mears, Hunter-Reay, Sebastien Bourdais, Jimmy Vasser and Paul Tracy.

Rossi has a better understanding of what to expect in this year’s Baja 1000 after last year’s rookie experience.

How valuable was last years’ experience?

“It’s hugely valuable,” Rossi said. “The course changes each year. There will be some elements that are the same, but it’s a new route from start to finish this year. That is why we go down a week early. We do pre-running in a similar type of vehicle and take course notes and analyze each individual section of the course, find the danger areas and what you need to do come race day.

“Ultimately, the biggest thing is having the knowledge of how to prepare for the race and what to expect once you roll off the starting line. That is something I will have going for me this year that I didn’t have last year.”

As an off-road rookie, Rossi acclimated to the demands of desert racing as the Jeff Proctor-led Honda Off-Road Racing Team finished second in Class 7. It was the fourth consecutive time the team finished first or second in the Ridgeline Baja Race Truck at the Baja 1000.

“I don’t know that I can pinpoint any highlights other than just the whole experience,” Rossi said of last years’ experience. “The whole week and a half I had down there in 2018 was phenomenal. The team made me feel part of the family from Day One. I just love driving a desert truck through Baja California. It’s an experience unlike any other.

“The entire event was a highlight more than one specific moment.”

Getty Images

Driving an off-road Honda Ridgeline through the desert of Baja California in Mexico is vastly different than Rossi’s regular ride in the No. 27 NAPA Honda in the NTT IndyCar Series. But Rossi believes there are many similarities, also.

“It’s very different, for obvious reasons, but ultimately, a race car is a race car,” Rossi said. “It has four wheels, and you are trying to get it from Point A to Point B quicker than other people. The general underlying techniques of getting a car through the corner efficiently is all the same; it’s just a different style.

“Everyone here is very talented at what they do and very good so in order to win this race, you have to be at the top of your game.”

The Baja 1000, like most forms of off-road racing, is more against the clock than a wheel-to-wheel competition such as IndyCar. Rossi believes it is a different form of endurance racing, similar to IMSA in many ways.

“You have to compare it like an endurance race,” Rossi said. “It’s a race where the first part of it, you are trying to get through and not take chances and stay in touch with the people you are trying to stay in touch with.

“When you get down to the final 20 to 30 percent, that is when you try to either close the lead of extend the lead of whatever position you are in. That is similar to the Rolex 24 at Daytona. It comes down to the last three or four hours, and we take a mentality closer to that.

“The only difference is if you get it wrong at Daytona, you spin in the grass. Here, it can be more dramatic than that.”

As an off-road rookie in 2018, Rossi acclimated to the demands of desert racing as the Jeff Proctor-led Honda Off-Road Racing Team finished second in Class 7. It was the fourth consecutive time the team finished first or second in the Ridgeline Baja Race Truck at the Baja 1000.

“The Honda off-road guys and my co-driver/navigator Evan Weller make it so easy for me to just jump right in and go to work,” Rossi said. “I can’t wait to share the seat with Jeff [Proctor] and Pat [Dailey] once again, and hopefully, bring home a win.”

The Honda Off-Road Racing Team has had an outstanding 2019 season, including class wins for the Baja Ridgeline Race Truck at the Parker 425, the Mint 400 and the Baja 500; where the team successfully debuted the second-generation “TSCO” chassis; and a second-place Class 7 finish at the Vegas-to-Reno event.

Proctor won his class in the Baja 1000 in both 2015 and 2016 with the Ridgeline, finished second in class in 2017 and 2018; and won the companion SCORE Baja 500 race both in 2016, 2018 and again earlier this year. The Ridgeline competes in Class 7, for unlimited six-cylinder production-appearing trucks and SUVs.

“We are stoked to have Alexander back racing with us in Mexico for his sophomore attempt at this iconic off-road race,” Proctor said. “This year’s 52nd annual Baja 1000 course covers ALL of the toughest terrain and areas in Baja Norte….as always, it will be tough.

“Alex is one of the brightest motorsports minds I’ve worked with, and he is a great asset to our team.”

The Baja 1000 begins Friday and runs through the weekend along the Baja Peninsula of Mexico.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500