Story By: SCOTT SMITH / NHRA – INDIANAPOLIS, IN – For someone who grew up watching drag racing’s biggest race, winning the prestigious Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals was a career-making moment for J.R. Todd. But the Funny Car standout didn’t stop there after winning in 2017.
He followed it up by becoming just the sixth driver in class history to win the Big Go back-to-back years, using that momentum to win his first NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series world championship.
Now Todd can make even more history on drag racing’s biggest stage at this weekend’s 65th annual Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis. With a victory in his 11,000-horsepower DHL Toyota Camry, Todd would become the first Funny Car driver in NHRA history to win the legacy-making race three straight years. It’s a fact not lost on Todd, leaving him incredibly motivated to compete this weekend in Indy.
“To go there and try to win for the third time in a row, that would be pretty cool, there’s no doubt about that,” said Todd, who has 18 career wins. “Sometimes you think about it, and it’s just unbelievable to me. Going there as a kid, watching guys like (John) Force and (Ron) Capps, and now racing against them, it’s a surreal feeling. I never expected to win this event in Funny Car, and to do it back-to-back is pretty awesome. To try to do it three times and be the only one in the class ever to do would be something. But I’m not going to try to put a bunch of pressure on myself.”
Terry McMillen (Top Fuel), Todd (Funny Car), Tanner Gray (Pro Stock) and LE Tonglet (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were last year’s winners of a race that will be shown on the FOX national broadcast network and Fox Sports 1 (FS1), including a live broadcast of eliminations on both FOX and FS1 on Monday, Sept. 2. It is the 18th of 24 races and the final race of the regular season. With an increased amount of points via the points-and-a-half system, Todd also has the chance to gain momentum as he prepares a title defense in the Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship.
He’s currently eighth in the loaded Funny Car class, but could get a sizable bump with a strong showing in Indy. Todd has one win and three final-round appearances in 2019, but Indy also provides a chance to get right after a summer dip that’s included just five round wins since May. The team had a solid test session in Brainerd, which Todd hopes is a sign that his team, led by crew chief Jon Oberhofer and co-crew chief Todd Smith, is back on the right path.
“It would be a perfect time to dig out of this slump,” Todd said. “We’ve got good notes for this race and it definitely gives me confidence going into Indy. We were kind of in this position last summer, where we struggled and got our act together at the right time, and I know I’ve got a successful and great group of guys behind me. We had a good test session in Brainerd and we have to make that night run count (on Friday). It becomes a grind after that.”
Todd has been well-suited for that the last two years, but he’ll have to deal with the likes of points leader Robert Hight, Force, Brainerd winner Capps, Tommy Johnson Jr., Kalitta Motorsports teammate Shawn Langdon and Bob Tasca III in Indy. But those challenges have always been there for Todd this season with the No. 1 on his car. He’s managed to block out those distractions, though he is looking forward to the magical moments Indy can provide. Todd will reveal a special wrap on his car for this weekend’s prestigious event before Friday qualifying, while his story will be featured during a must-see “MY Journey” segment during the television broadcast on FOX.
“It’s about my story and watching some of the greats at Indy, which was pretty cool,” Todd said. “It’s definitely some added attention and eyeballs, but it’s a special weekend. It’s our Super Bowl and there’s a lot of people there, but at the end of the day we’re just focused on the mission at hand. More than anything, I want our hot rod to get back on track and showing its potential.”
In Top Fuel, McMillen claimed the biggest victory in his career a year ago, and he’ll try to do it again against the likes of points leader and defending champ Steve Torrence, three-time world champ Antron Brown, Doug Kalitta, Brittany Force, Leah Pritchett and Clay Millican.
Greg Anderson has the most wins of any active NHRA driver at Indy, as the four-time Pro Stock world champ has six Indy wins. Trying to prevent a seventh will be points leader Bo Butner, Alex Laughlin, five-time world champ Jeg Coughlin Jr., Deric Kramer, Jason Line and Erica Enders.
In Pro Stock Motorcycle, points leader Andrew Hines has two Indy wins and is in the midst of a dominating year with seven wins in nine races. He will look to enter the playoffs on a strong note against Eddie Krawiec, defending world champ Matt Smith, Hector Arana Jr. and Karen Stoffer.
Drivers in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series and the E3 Spark Plugs NHRA Pro Mod Series presented by J&A Service will also look to become winners of the prestigious event. It is the ninth of 12 events during the 2019 Pro Mod season, and points leader Stevie “Fast” Jackson is the defending event winner. The fastest Super Stock cars will challenge for ultimate bragging rights and bonus purse during the popular Dodge HEMI Challenge as well. Fans can check out special pit areas for Copo Camaros and the HEMI Shootout.
Racing in the Mickey Thompson Tires NHRA Top Fuel Harley Drag Racing Series will also take place in Indy, as well as the popular SAMTech.edu NHRA Factory Stock Showdown category, which will include a special 32-car field at the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals.
NHRA fans can take part in the Mello Yello Walking Tour to see the teams hard at work in the pits. Fans can also attend a number of different NHRA schools throughout the weekend, including Nitro School, to learn how the cars and motorcycles operate and reach their thrilling speeds. Factory Stock School will take place on Friday, while Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle Schools follow on Saturday. Pro Mod School and Nitro School will both take place on Sunday, giving fans an incredible behind-the-scenes learning experience throughout the weekend.
Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis will also host a Mello Yello autograph session and allow fans to meet their favorite drivers. Another can’t-miss experience is the winner’s circle celebration on Monday after racing concludes. NHRA fans can congratulate the winners as they celebrate their Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals victories.
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.
The first of five Mello Yello Series qualifying sessions is scheduled for 7:15 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 30. Two more sessions will take to the track on Saturday, Aug. 31 at 1:15 p.m. and 4:15 p.m., and the final two qualifying sessions will take place on Sunday, Sept. 1 at 1:15 p.m. and 4:15 p.m. Final eliminations begin at 11 a.m. on Monday, Sept. 2.
FOX national broadcast and FS1 will televise coverage of the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals, starting with qualifying on Sunday, Sept. 1 on FS1 at 2 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. EST. The broadcasts continue on FS1 with two hours of live coverage of eliminations on Monday, Sept. 2 starting at 11 a.m. EST, continuing live on FOX at 1 p.m. EST.