Donnie Bender emerged from Dick LaHaie's shadow at Don Prudhomme Racing and earned his own acclaim as tuner for Larry Dixon and later with Todd Smith for Brandon Bernstein at Kenny Bernstein Racing. He's back in the tuning groove this year, with a more steady gig -- and a more global outlook on drag racing.
His driver is Sidnei Frigo, the Sao Paulo paper magnate and dragstrip owner who has been racing in the NHRA in the Top Alcohol Dragster class for the past couple of seasons and won a Division 2 race in 2012 at Charlotte's zMAX Dragway.
Frigo has had sportier rides, including a twin-turbo Lamborghini Gallardo Superleggera, but the Brazilian has stepped up to the Top Fuel ranks and this week at Florida's Palm Beach International Raceway is driving the colorful, fresh-off-the-line Murf McKinney-built dragster that carries the banner for Artivinco.
That's his company that manufactures environmentally friendly cardboard boxes, paper plates, and specialized refrigerated cartons. (With an emphasis on sustainability, his products contain a small percentage of wood pulp and use instead a variety of components, including fiber cane sugar and plant biomass.)
Bender, with capable help from brothers Bobby and Dom Lagana and a crew that includes Spencer Massey, has taken on the task of organizing a far-flung group of individuals. Frigo travels back and forth between Brazil and the U.S., where he and wife Daniela both completed a Super Comp dragster course at Frank Hawley's Drag Racing School. His friend, Fausto Frigo, has managed his Top Alcohol Dragster operation and the team's financials from South Florida.
But for at least the first few months of this year, Bender and his Top Fuel crew will work out of renowned sportsman driver-tuner Tom Conway's shop in Oklahoma. Conway tuned Frigo in the A/Fuel dragster.
"We really don't have a shop yet. Eventually we're going to have to get a shop, and Brownsburg would be the best place to have it," Bender said.
They might not be settled into their own race shop, but the team is settling into a routine and beginning to produce encouraging numbers. They didn't run Wednesday or Thursday, deferring to the tour regulars who come to this facility routinely, but Bender said, "Tuesday the car showed some promise." They made four runs Friday, including a 3.883-second elapsed time at 318.24 mph during the PRO Winter Warm-up, and the plan was to make four more Saturday.
"This first year we're going to take it a little slow and do the best we can and just learn and race good," crew chief Bender said.
Bender is at home in the Artivinco Racing hauler, for Frigo bought it from Prudhomme. So it's the trailer Bender worked in when he was Dixon's crew chief. While the "office" is familiar, Bender rather enjoys going out of his comfort zone, as well. And he said he'd like to see more foreign drivers stateside in the NHRA.
Lex Joon (The Netherlands), Urs Erbacher (Switzerland), Damien Harris (Australia), Thomas Nataas (Norway) are among the Top Fuel foreigners to join longtime NHRA drivers Dave Grubnic, a Montana resident by way of Australia, and Canadians Todd Paton, Ike Maier, and Tim Boychuk. Years ago, Japan's Yuichi Oyama raced a dragster. And one of the NHRA's brightest rising stars is Dubai native Khalid Al-Balooshi, who drives for the Qatar-owned Al-Anabi Racing team.
Funny Car also has had foreign competitors, including Kenji Okazaki (Japan), Todd Lesenko (Canada), Leif Helander (Sweden), and Grant Downing (New Zealand).
However, drag racing has attracted fewer foreign drivers than the modern open-wheel era has.
NASCAR largely has fielded all-American lineups, with notable exceptions Colombian Juan Pablo Montoya (who was a guest here Friday of Don Schumacher Racing/NAPA Funny Car driver Ron Capps), Marcos Ambrose (Tasmania), Ron Fellows (Canada), and briefly Dario Franchitti (Scotland). Moreover, a large and vocal segment of fans of the foreign-driver-dominated IndyCar Series have called for more American drivers to cheer for and are celebrating the achievement of current champion Ryan Hunter-Reay.
Bender, though, advocates a greater number of foreign drivers in drag racing -- a natural progression with NHRA's worldwide initiative. Of course, the sport is popular in Canada and Australia, but it's growing in the Middle East, Australia, South America, and throughout the Caribbean.
"I think it's cool. For our sport to grow, I think it's not bad to have people from different countries in it," Bender said. "Drag racing could become more international than some other styles [of motorsports]. In Europe there's a lot of drag racing . . . Germany, Finland, Sweden, and England. I went over there quite a bit to race with them. They have a real good program.
"It's a global economy, so if we can get global companies involved in drag racing, that will help," he said. "And to get global companies, you have to have global drivers."
Bender has done his part in bridging the talent. He spent a sizeable chunk of time last year with five-time world champion ski jumper Janne Ahonen, of Finland, who also has won two Olympic silver team medals. Ahonen bought Kenny Bernstein's dragster when the legend retired and charged Bender with selling his equipment. Ahonen has proven skilled in drag racing, too, winning Finnish and Nordic titles and setting a European record in 2006.
"I went over there six times last year, to Europe. Last year, I did a lot of stuff, but it wasn't all here [in the U.S.]," Bender, who helped the Laganas race the Service Central Dragster at six or seven NHRA races in 2012, said.
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