Story By: SCOTT SMITH / NHRA – JOLIET, IL – As the defending Funny Car world champion, J.R. Todd has experienced a bigger spotlight than any other time in his standout drag racing career. But through eight races in the 2019 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season, Todd seems to be relishing the opportunity.
Todd is currently second in points heading to this weekend’s 22nd annual Route 66 NHRA Nationals at state-of-the-art Route 66 Raceway, putting him ahead of last year’s early-season pace. He has a victory in his 11,000-horsepower DHL Toyota Camry, the team has displayed impressive consistency no matter the weather conditions and Todd seems to be thriving with the added attention that has come his way. If anything, it’s pushed him to perform even better.
“There’s definitely been some perks that come along with winning the title,” Todd said. “The fans recognize you more, so there’s been more pictures and autographs and things like that, and that’s always cool. We definitely want to keep that No. 1 on the side of the car and try to grow the sport even more, just get involved in different forms of motorsports and raise the awareness of drag racing. But being able to do some of those things motivates you even more to try and repeat.”
Clay Millican (Top Fuel), Robert Hight (Funny Car), Jeg Coughlin Jr. (Pro Stock) and Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were last year’s winners of the event that will be televised on FOX Sports 1, including final eliminations coverage starting at 5:30 p.m. (ET) on Sunday, June 2. It is the ninth of 24 events during the 2019 NHRA season and also features the thrilling “Friday Night On Fire,” which puts Top Fuel and Funny Car drivers under the lights during the second qualifying session.
It starts at 9 p.m. and could showcase a prime example of how Todd and his team, led by crew chiefs Jon Oberhofer and Todd Smith, have run well in all conditions. They have proven to be quick, qualifying second in Atlanta, while also performing consistently on raceday, advancing to three finals and winning in Las Vegas. It adds up to an ideal combination, both during the start of this four-race stretch and if Todd wants to race for a second consecutive Funny Car world title.
“We’re in a better spot this year than at this time last year,” Todd said. “We’re second in points and we’ve run really well in hot conditions. That’s promising approaching these next four races and the summer, and that has everybody’s confidence up. We want to continue to build on our consistency, run hard when the conditions allow and get down the track when it’s warmer. You definitely have to be good in both conditions, and Jon O and Todd have done a great job with that.”
The key will be maintaining that consistency throughout the summer. Todd believes this four-race swing will give his team an idea of where it sits in the loaded Funny Car landscape. He trails only current points leader Robert Hight, but Ron Capps, who has back-to-back wins, Tommy Johnson Jr., John Force and Matt Hagan are all within 50 points off Todd. That means there’s no chance for a let-up, but Todd is confident in the Kalitta Motorsports team, especially watching the success of teammate Shawn Langdon, who recently picked up his first career Funny Car win.
“It’s been a positive for both of us,” Todd said. “There’s definitely differences between the two cars, but the crew chiefs and the teams feed off each other. That was a big monkey off their back getting that win, and now we can both focus on getting more wins. Richmond showed that both cars are going in the right direction and that’s a positive, having two really good cars moving forward.”
Top Fuel’s Clay Millican will look for a repeat win in Chicago and his first victory of 2019 against defending world champ and points leader Steve Torrence, Brittany Force and Antron Brown.
Five-time Pro Stock world champion Jeg Coughlin Jr. has six wins at Route 66 Raceway, but he’s chasing points leader Bo Butner, who already has four wins in five races in 2019.
Defending world champ Matt Smith will look to get his 2019 Pro Stock Motorcycle season on track as he looks to track down points leader Andrew Hines, who has four victories this season.
The JEGS Route 66 NHRA Nationals also features competition in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series, including the popular JEGS Allstars bonus event. This pits the best NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series racers from across the country in individual and team competition, creating one of the most anticipated and unique weekends in sportsman racing. After Nitro qualifying, stick around to see the spectacular Projet Motorsports “Hot Blade” jet dragster driven by Al Zukauskas. Known for their exciting pre-run flame shows and after burner pops, jet cars are thrust driven vehicles propelled by jet engines.
As always, fans can interact with their favorite drivers as they’re granted an exclusive pit pass to the most powerful and sensory-filled motorsports attraction on the planet. This unique opportunity gives fans direct access to the teams, allowing them to see firsthand the highly-skilled mechanics service their hot rods between rounds, and get autographs from their favorite NHRA drivers.
Fans also will want to visit NHRA’s popular Nitro Alley and Manufacturers Midway, where sponsors and race vendors create a carnival atmosphere, with interactive displays, simulated competitions, merchandise, food and fun for the entire family.
NHRA fans can take part in the Mello Yello Walking Tour to see the cars and teams hard at work in the pits. Fans can also attend Nitro School to learn more about how the cars operate and reach their thrilling speeds. Route 66 Raceway will host a Mello Yello autograph session and allow fans to meet their favorite drivers as well as the Cruising with Castello Sealmaster Track Walk hosted by NHRA announcer Joe Castello. A can’t-miss experience of any NHRA event is the winner’s circle celebration on Sunday after racing concludes. NHRA fans are invited to congratulate the winners of the event as they celebrate their Route 66 NHRA Nationals victories.
Mello Yello Drag Racing Series qualifying will feature two rounds at 5:30 and 8:00 p.m. on Friday, May 31 and the final two rounds of qualifying on Saturday, June 1, at 2:45 and 5:15 p.m. Final eliminations are scheduled for 11 a.m. on Sunday, June 2.