J.R. Todd ended the 2016 National Hot Rod Assn. season riding high.
He qualified first at the Auto Club NHRA Finals in Pomona, finished the event as the runner up, and was fourth in the final Countdown to the Championship points standings. Three months later, back in Pomona, Todd lined up for his first qualifying round of the new season at the Circle K Winternationals — this time, with an entirely different set of circumstances and expectations.
During the off-season, Todd made the switch from top fuel to funny car, a transition that’s been tried in the past with mixed results. So far, so good for Todd: in his opening qualifying run on Friday, he nabbed a time of 3.936 seconds, fourth best in the session and fifth best overall. That was his only attempt on the day, as the second funny car session was cut short by rain, which also cancelled out the second top fuel session entirely.
“I was a little nervous, but it was good to get that out of the way and go down the track,” Todd said. “We had a good, clean run.”
Because he had never officially participated in funny car before, Todd was the first qualifier out of the gate. At 35, with more than a decade of experience in drag racing, he’s a rookie again, and has no regrets about the decision.
“It didn’t take me long to think about it, trust me,” Todd said. “The team owner, Connie Kalitta, he wanted me to go and drive this funny car, so to have his blessing, that just made it easier.”
Todd was presented with the opportunity to drive a funny car for Kalitta Motorsports when Del Worsham left to race for his dad’s team. Worsham has been helping Todd adjust, and he’s got some experience in that regard as one of just three drivers to win a championship in both classes, along with Kenny Bernstein and Gary Scelzi.
“You can’t see as well, you’re more enclosed and your vision is different,” Todd said of driving funny cars. “You’ve got to train yourself where to look on the track. In a dragster, you look down in front of the car and you can see the track really well. It’s easier to point and guide a dragster around, where a funny car, being that it’s so much shorter with the same amount of power, it’s trying to drive all over the place.”
The added challenges involved with funny car are part of the allure for Todd, who always wanted to end up in the category.
“Ask any funny car driver, and they’ll tell you how much cooler a funny car is compared to a dragster,” Todd said. “I’m not knocking a top fuel car by any means — they’re the quickest and fastest cars on the planet — but funny car has a cool factor to it.”
At the Winternationals and for the remainder of the season, Todd’s priority is to fit in against a new group of competitors. He singled out back-to-back top fuel champion Antron Brown and eight-time champion Tony Schumacher as the two drivers he most enjoyed beating in the past, but doesn’t have any such rivalries in funny car —not yet, anyway.
“I want to go out and prove some naysayers wrong,” Todd said. “I’ve already heard how we’re not expected to do much our first couple races. I’m a competitive guy and I’m not out here just to make runs. I want to go out and win races and show that I’m capable, because I’ve got the team behind me that knows I’m capable.”
There are two more pro stock/nitro qualifiers on Saturday, scheduled to begin at 12:30 and 3:30 p.m. Funny car will not complete its partially rained out second session from Friday, and top fuel will not re-do its second round either.
• Greg Anderson qualified first in pro stock with a time of 6.557 seconds. He narrowly edged Jason Line at 6.563 seconds. Line barely beat Anderson in the Countdown to the Championship last year.
• Matt Hagan is the funny car qualifying leader, achieving a 3.840-second time. Second place is Courtney Force at 3.849 seconds.
• Doug Kalitta had a dominant 3.697-second performance in top fuel. He’s trailed by Brittany Force and Tony Schumacher.
“We definitely always love running out here,” Kalitta said. “The rain has been threatening all day and we were pretty fortunate we at least got one [run] in.”