J.R. Todd wins Gatornationals to end DSR streak, spoil John Force Racing’s return

NHRA Gatornationals Todd
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports Images

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — J.R. Todd won the season-opening Gatornationals, ended the longest NHRA winning streak by one juggernaut and spoiled the much-hyped return of another.

Todd beat Robert Hight in the Funny Car finale Sunday at Gainesville Raceway, crossing the finish line first after both drivers had trouble getting traction on a hot and slippery track.

Hight was looking to give John Force Racing a dramatic return to the drag-racing series after the team sat out most of last year because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

But it was Todd celebrating with a Wally Trophy in one hand and a bottle of champagne in the other. Todd cracked open a can of beer in his pit stall as he reflected on one of the biggest wins of his career at a track where longtime friend Eric Medlen died in 2007. Todd already had notched wins at three of the NHRA’s four majors: the U.S. Nationals, the Winternationals and the NHRA Finals.

“Being able to win all the majors that are left on the schedule, that’s pretty special,” Todd said.

By the time Todd and his Kalitta Motorsports team made the Funny Car finale, Don Schumacher Racing already had started packing up for the day. The powerhouse team had won 14 consecutive events in Funny Car, the longest streak in NHRA history.

Schumacher was forced to cut his four-car team in half this season, parting ways with Tommy Johnson Jr. and 2012 champion Jack Beckman because of sponsorship issues. Defending champion Matt Hagan and No. 1 qualifier Ron Capps were left to try to extend the streak. Bob Tasca knocked out both in the elimination rounds Sunday, essentially clearing the way for Todd.

“We were definitely getting tired of getting our butts kicked by them last year, but 2021 is a new year,” Todd said. “It’s a good way to start off the season with a win in one of the biggest races of the year.”

Josh Hart, who lives in nearby Ocala, was the surprise winner in Top Fuel. The owner/driver beat Shawn Langdon to win his first national series event.

Greg Anderson won the Pro Stock class on his 60th birthday, and Matt Smith won the Pro Stock Motorcycle division.

Todd raised some eyebrows last week by saying, “winning this year, there won’t be an asterisk.”

“I’m not knocking the competition, by any means, because DSR cleaned house last year,” he said. “But we didn’t get to run a full schedule, and the Force cars weren’t out there.

“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 they’re out here competing and you beat them in a final round, you feel like, you’re like, `Ah, that’s something.’ ”

It was Todd’s 10th victory in Funny Car, becoming just the 18th driver to reach double digits in the class. This one looked a lot like his first one in 2017, when he won a spin-fest in Sonoma, California.

“I thought for sure he was going to be driving away from me,” Todd said. “I never seen him. Just kind of rolled back into the throttle and went all the way down with it and turned on the win light. Pretty special to do here in Gainesville.”

Josh Hart won the NHRA Top Fuel division during the Gatornationals at Gainesville Raceway (Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports).

Hart had been scheduled to make his Top Fuel debut last year with Bob Vandergriff Racing. But after the pandemic, Vandergriff and Hart decided it would be best for Hart to own his own team.

“Obviously, it’s not always going to be this easy,” Hart said.

SuperMotocross: Ken Roczen urgently needed change

Roczen change
Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media

Change can be frightening, but it is often exhilarating and Ken Roczen, a rider in his ninth season on a 450 bike, it was urgently needed.

Roczen ended the 2022 Supercross season with his worst performance in five years. After finishing outside of the top five in seven of his last eight rounds in the stadium series, well down the points’ standings in ninth, he decided to put that season on hold.

How it ended was in stark contrast to how it began. Roczen’s 2022 season got off to the best possible start. He won the Supercross opener at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, California by more than seven seconds over the 2021 champion Cooper Webb.

That would be his last podium and he scored only one more top-five in the Glendale, Arizona Triple Crown.

MORE: Ken Roczen sweeps top five in Anaheim 2 Triple Crown

Before 2022, Roczen was a regular challenger for the championship despite being plagued by major accidents that required surgery in 2017 and 2018. On his return, he was diagnosed with the Epstein-Barr virus, which presents with symptoms of heavy fatigue, muscle weakness and loss of appetite and last year he tested positive for COVID-19.

Against those odds, he finished second in the outdoor season in 2019 and third in 2020. In the Supercross series, he finished third in 2020 and second in 2021.

But the abbreviated season of 2022 signaled a need for change for Roczen.

“I needed the change urgently,” Roczen said in last week’s post-race press conference at Angel Stadium. “I did a pretty big change in general.”

Those comments came three races into the 2023 with him sitting among the top three finishers for the first time in 10 Supercross rounds. It was the 57th podium of his career, only six behind 10th-place Ryan Villopoto. It was also the first for Suzuki since 2019 when Chad Reed gave them one in Detroit 63 rounds ago.

Taking time off at the end of the Supercross season had the needed effect. He rejoined SuperMotocross in the outdoor season and immediately stood on the podium at Fox Raceway in Pala, California. Two rounds later, he won at Thunder Valley in Lakewood, Colorado. The relief was short lived and he would not stand on the podium again until this year.

Roczen Motocross Round 3
Ken Roczen won Round 3 of the outdoor season in 2022 at Thunder Valley after finished second in Moto 1 and first in Moto 2. Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media

Winds of Change

Roczen’s offseason was dramatic. Citing differences over his announcement to compete in the World Supercross Championship, he split with Honda HRC and declared himself a free agent. It wasn’t a difficult decision; Roczen was signed only for the Supercross season.

That change had the desired effect. Roczen won the WSX championship in their two-race, pilot season. More importantly, he proved to himself that he could compete for wins.

Late in the offseason, Roczen announced he would also change manufacturers with a move to HEP Progressive Ecstar Suzuki. He won the 2016 Pro Motocross title for Suzuki with nine wins in 12 Nationals and finished no worse than second. He easily outran the competition with an advantage of 86 points over second-place Eli Tomac.

“I just think change overall made it happen – and these overseas races – it’s really just a snowball,” Roczen said. “You start somewhere and you feel like something works out and I got better and had more fun doing it. Working with the team as well and working on the motorcycle to get better and actually see it paying off. It’s just, it’s just a big boost in general.”

The return to Suzuki at this stage of his career, after nearly a decade of competing on 450 motorcycles, recharged Roczen. He is one of three riders, (along with Cooper Webb and his former Honda teammate Chase Sexton), with a sweep of the top five in the first three rounds of the 2023 Supercross season.

But last week’s podium really drove home how strong he’s been.

“I think we’re all trying to take it all in,” Roczen said. “I wouldn’t say it came out of nowhere really, but before the season starts you think about – or I thought of how my whole last season went – and it’s been a long time since I’ve been on the podium.”

Roczen’s most recent podium prior to Anaheim 2 came at Budds Creek Motocross Park in Mechanicsville, Maryland last August in Round 10 of the outdoor season. His last podium in Supercross was the 2022 season opener that raised expectations so high.

Supercross Round 1 results
Ken Roczen raised expectations with his season opening win at Anaheim but did not stand on the box again in the Supercross series. Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media

The change Roczen needed was not just a different team and bike. More importantly, he needed the freedom to set his own schedule and control his training schedule.

“It’s long days, but I’m really into it at the moment,” Roczen said. “Overall, I felt [that] throughout this off season and now my health has been really well, really good, so that helps. It’s needed to get to the top. I’m pretty confident that we’re, we’re doing the right thing – that I’m doing the right thing.

“I’m doing all my training on my own and I’m planning out my entire week. And I feel like I have a really good system going right now with recovery and putting in some hard days. Right now, I don’t really have anybody telling me what to do. I’m the best judge of that.

“It’s really hard to talk about how much work we’ve put in, but we’ve been doing some big changes and riding a lot throughout the week, some really, really late days. And they’re paying off right now; we’re heading in the right direction. We’re all pulling on the same string, and that helps me out big time.”