2021 PRO WINTER WARM UP - EVENT NOTEBOOK & RESULTS
SUNDAY - THE EVENT WRAPS UP A DAY EARLIER THAN EXPECTED
FORCES TO BE RECKONED WITH - At the end of three days of extended testing at the Pro Winter Warm-up test session in Palm Beach, Fla., the leaders of the pack in the fuel categories weren't those teams who challenged for an NHRA series championship in 2020. Instead, those who took top billing were two drivers who hadn't been behind the wheel in 54 weeks.
The daughter and father team of Brittany Force and John Force fought their way to the top of the Top Fuel and Funny Car leaderboards, respectively.
Brittany went to the top on the final day of testing in her first run down the drag strip, carding a 3.679, 331.04.
“It’s been a year since we’ve been out here and it feels awesome to be back in the car, back with my Monster Energy / Flav-R-Pac team, back with the fans and all of John Force Racing as a whole," Brittany said. "Our team rolled right back into things in our first pass,” said Force. “We made nine passes in total and I feel like we’re pretty close to where we left off over a year ago. Grubnic is happy, Savage is happy, I feel good in the car and the whole team is pumped to go to Gainesville. I’m ready to get there and we’ll be coming out swinging right out of the gate looking for our first win at the first race of the season.”
Other Top Fuel top runners included Mike Salinas (3.693, 328.30), Leah Pruett (3.695, 317.64), Doug Kalitta (3.732, 318.77) and Steve Torrence (3.708, 292.58).
Drag Racing most decorated fuel racer John Force showed his championship mettle on Sunday when he thundered by teammate Robert Hight for the top honors in testing with a 3.860, 329.02 pass.
“Testing has been good. Our teams, the new guys, the crew chiefs, all the drivers, things went well," John said. "You know we were gone a year but it sure don’t look like it,” said Force. “It feels good to be back in my car, back in the seat. BlueDEF PLATINUM looks good on the side and it’s comfortable, it’s home."
Hight was second quickest with a 3.866, 332.18, and was followed by Matt Hagan (3.880, 329.99), Ron Capps (3.891, 324.83), and Alexis DeJoria (3.919, 316.15).
The PRO Winter Warm-up was originally scheduled to run through Monday, but with cooler temperatures and higher than usual wind speeds forecast decided to end the session and head for Gainesville, Fla.
PATIENCE, GRASSHOPPER - Brittany Force was ready to drive her Monster Energy-sponsored dragster to the finish line on the first day of testing at the PRO Winter Warm-up testing at West Palm Beach, Fla. However, with 54 weeks of downtime since John Force Racing, crew chief David Grubnic wanted to take a more systematic approach to bring her and her dragster up to speed.
Ms. Force understood the game plan, even though she was as anxious as she'd ever been to return to her life of normalcy
"That's the longest time I've ever been out of the seat," Force said. "Usually, it's just a couple of months. And just with that time off, it's tough getting back in, getting yourself familiar with everything. But coming out this weekend, I think I was just so excited just to be back out at a race track, back with my team, the nerves weren't as crazy as I thought they'd be. But I jumped right back into a routine with my guys, and that first one felt awesome. We did a handful of runs just to the 330, half-track, and we did a full one earlier today. So we're getting back in the routine and ready to go racing in Gainesville."
Force didn't take long to find her groove.
"I wanted to go to the finish line our first day out here on Friday, but that's up to my crew chief, what he wants to do," Force said. "We worked our car down the racetrack and, again, didn't until today."
She ran 3.679, 331.04 on her first full pass, a run that stood as the quickest pass of testing.
"It was a beautiful run, and it definitely took me by surprise," Force said. "That was awesome for the first run out. Again, it felt good just to take it all the way down there. No breakage, no damage, no nothing. Smooth, perfect run, so we're happy with that."
MIND GAMES FOR THE G.O.A.T. - It was just another day for John Force. The iconic drag racer of over five decades had a lot of noise going through his mind prior to his first run in 54 weeks. To know Force, the 16-time champion, is to know there's always noise in the front, the back, and both sides of his mind at any given time.
In all honesty, Friday at the PRO Winter Warm-up test session was not just another day.
The event at Palm Beach International Raceway marked the first time he'd been in a race car since the 2020 NHRA Arizona Nationals.
There's a lot of energy to be contained in the mind of the 70-something year old drag racer.
"When I got in that car and they strapped me in, I started talking to myself, 'Okay. Are you John Force, or are you just a guy that, because of the great crew chiefs like Austin Coil, and all the money from sponsors all these years, is that what made you great?
"You fought back from being broke. You fought back, arms and legs broke, head injuries. They said you shouldn't go back. And on top of that, you fought back from a pandemic."
Still, the voices in his head kept rolling.
"And now the only thing you're worried about is a little bit of money? Force conveyed. "You got money, spend it." And that's what I'm doing. And I have to do it different than I did it before, but it hurt seeing only three teams."
Because of pandemic economics, Force had to park the dragster of up-and-coming star Austin Prock If there's one thing Force is better at than driving a race car and talking fast, it's in overanalyzing a situation. In the midst of dissecting economics, Force had to remain focused on the task at hand.
"Once I get back in that seat of the car, I know who I am," Force admitted, directing his thoughts back to driving. "That's pathetic, but that's the way the world works. "Your number one job is to get it down the lane, A to B. Number two, do everything right in the cockpit, turning on the switches, the fuel shut-offs, keeping the clutch in, doing all the stuff right. And then trying to react to a tree, had a pretty decent light. You don't forget when you get out of the seat; you don't forget. You pick it right up. "
Once you step on that gas on the burnout, yeah, your imagination runs away. But I'm like a Tiger Woods; I go into the zone. He went into the zone going over that cliff so much; God bless him that he's safe. But he went in the zone so much; he forgot he was driving."
In the meantime, daughter Brittany and Robert Hight popped in to make sure the cagey veteran was doing okay.
"Brittany was over three times, 'Are you okay, dad? Are you okay? You can do this!" "I know honey," Force recalled. "But just know what I mean? And Robert, same thing." Then Force's attention went to his cockpit, and of all the gadgets, it was the one new piece that quickly got his attention.
"It's what I do without thinking about it, but I made sure they didn't change anything in the cockpit," Force explained. "They got one new switch I keep looking over at trying to figure out what it does. They told me, but I don't ever have to touch it. But your own mind still thinks about it." Then Force's mind refocuses on the task at hand, and he returns to the topic. "I'm a pro at [overthinking]," Force said. "When I go up there, and I get a guy that just kills me on the Christmas tree if you think about that, you're dead when you're going to stage. I've learned how to turn it off like I've learned how to turn off pain. "When I got my first COVID shot, she put it in my arm and goes, 'You didn't even flinch." "I said, 'Lady, I live with pain, every day, of stress, emotion, how not to fail."
Force's crew fired the engine, and the iconic drag racer made a strong half-track pull out of the gates. He then made several planned half-track passes. Then when turned loose to go to the finish line, the ol' race car driver lit up the scoreboards with the quickest run of testing - a 3.860, 329.02 pass.
Outside of the car in his lounge, Force was focused on the season with the first run out of the way.
I can't guarantee I'm going to be a champion, but I'm going to fight like hell," Force said. "I promised Peak. I'm going to fight with everything I got."
THE ADJUSTMENT PERIOD - While Ron Capps is far from being an old dog, he did learn a few tricks at the PRO Winter Warm-up. The NAPA Auto Parts-sponsored driver will begin 2021 with a new but familiar crewchiefs and crew. After three days of adjusting to new routines, and Capps is confident things will be just fine for the NAPA team under the guidance of John Medlen and Guido Antonelli, formerly assigned to the Jack Beckman Infinite Hero team.
The three-day adjustment period has been more like a reunion of all friends, Capps believes.
'It's been fun. I've talked before about how long I've known Guido," Capps explained. "We go back to my rookie year in Top Fuel. I was on the road, driving the rig with my crew chief, Terry Manzerat the time. And we spent a couple of weeks in Dallas between races, and he was on John Force's crew. So, we got to be really close friends and just hung out in between races back then and since.
And of course, John Medlen, I got to work with him, and we actually won Sonoma, I think 2011, together, with him as my crew chief. And you couldn't really probably ask for a more emotional win, being in Sonoma with Eric's dad, and the history with what we do with Eric Medlen and the foundation with Sonoma, and all that stuff. And it's a blessing that Don kept his team together. Obviously, in hopes that Jack Beckman would get a deal and it's the same intact crew." Capps ended the Pro Winter Warm-up testing in the upper echelon of the Funny Car class with the fourth quickest run of the weekend, a 3.891, 324.83.
"Everything's different," Capps said. "It's a different cockpit, a lot of different stuff. So I felt like a rookie on Friday, and still sort of getting used to some things in the car that are just a lot different. So much different than what I'm used to, and you get this, since 2012, with Tgettinger and that team, you just sort of get into a comfort zone."
Capps isn't exaggerating about the differences.
"I've really had to adapt to a lot of different things," Capps explained. "I love the challenge and it's been fun. This car is so much different with a six-disc, compared to the five-disc we ran before with Tobler. And just a lot of different things in the car mechanically."
So, in other words, Capps is going back to school and he's just fine with the learning experience.
"I've had a smile the whole time. It's been a lot of fun," Capps said. "The car has got so much potential. We saw how it ran last year; it's the year before with Beckman driving it; it's a great race car. And honestly, I'm still learning the names of the guys on the crew. We went to dinner last night, so I'm slowly learning their names, which is another challenge. My team before had all nicknames, and I've learned that these guys don't. It's been fun. A good group of guys though."
Capps has been in championship situations and other demanding scenarios, but on Friday, he felt like a rookie of sorts.
"On Friday I was nervous," Capps said. "We warmed it up on Thursday, and I was as nervous as I was when I was a rookie in Top Fuel. I want to make sure that I adapt and do everything because I know how good this car has been over the last few years.
"The procedure, I actually went on looking for YouTube videos to see if even they posted a video of their warmup, just to see if it was different, to study on the airplane on the way to PBIR. But I ended up, the first time we warmed it, it felt like I'd been here already. So Guido and I had a short talk before we warmed up the first time, he told me what they did, and it's been smooth since then.
"I felt like it was a rookie or a sophomore season, where I got a little bit of the jitters, but that's good. It's a good thing. This has been, as good for them, testing new parts and new things, it's been that plus some for me, to be able to get used to some things in this car. So I needed this testing as much as they did or more."
When it was time to educate his tuners on the importance of West Coast Hip Hop and wine, Capps admits his instructions didn't completely resonate with his new tuners. These were the post-racing daily routines with previous crew chief Rahn Tobler.
"A name like Guido? C'mon," Capps reasoned. "He knows his food, and he knows his wine. Same with John Medlen. If anybody doesn't know John personally, he's salt of the earth. He's one of the finest humans on this earth. You got to be prepared; if you ask him a question about something, you're going to get the Einstein answer.
With those two, they know their wine. We went to dinner last night with our sponsors, and the whole team went with us; and the sponsor asked Guido to pick the wine. And the owner of the restaurant came and actually announced to the sponsor how impressed he was with whoever picked the wine. So Guido already made points with our new sponsor, Gear Wrench."
The West Coast rap music education? That one might take a while to catch on.
"Yeah, John doesn't know who Snoop Dog is," Capps admitted. "He's more of a Willie and Waylon kind of guy, so that part might take a little while."
A FRIEND RETURNS TO THE TRACK - Even back to the time when he lay in his hospital bed facing impossible odds, Dom Lagana dreamed of this day. On Friday, the first day of testing, Dom Lagana, injured in a non-racing automobile accident back in August 2020, rolled through the gates of Palm Beach Internationals Raceway as a member of the Steve Torrence Racing, ready to get to work at his passion of race cars.
Faced with a new normal of life with a wheelchair and prosthetic legs, Lagana was undeterred as he jumped right into his role without hesitation.
"It feels great; the best medicine is being out here," Lagana said. "It's good just to see everybody and thank everybody for all their support, and moral support, and everything. It went a long ways for me in the hospital. Just good to be back out here with my family."
If just being out there, which is the best medicine, then having fun and partaking in humor is even better.
"You gotta laugh, enjoy, and Florida sun," Lagana said. "How could be upset down there? It's great to see a race car launch again and to be racing with Steve, and Billy, and Mama Kay, and all the guys here. We had a great test session and look forward to going to Gainesville."
Make no mistake, the Torrence Family team was where he needed to be.
"This is a family-run team. Me and Bobby grew up family racing, and it's a great fit," Lagana confirmed. "Obviously, we're family way beyond the racetrack, and we enjoy each other's company, and we all love racing. It's a great combination, and the best team out of here, so I'm just happy to be here."
Lagana's support during his downtime was overwhelming, but for the first time, many got to offer their well wishes in person during the testing event.
"So many people came up this weekend, just that they wish me well, and they prayed for me, and I tell everybody, and it really is the truth-all their prayers, all the well thoughts, and everything, really went a long way for not only me, but all my family, my fiance, all these guys here that are my family," Lagana said. "It willed me back. And I'm back now; I didn't think I was going to make it here, but I'm back, and it's pretty awesome.'
Lagana understands he must always remain focused on the task at hand but also believes it was this kind of support system which pulled him through.
"Just gotta stay focused, and you've got to have a good support system, honestly," Lagana said. "I'm very fortunate to have a great support system. Without people around you, there's no way I could make it through this. I have a passion for racing, and I'm able to luckily come back and work on Billy and Steve's cars, so it's good medicine for me. Just look forward to doing more good stuff."
SIRIUS STUFF FOR BROWN - Antron Brown didn’t have to have the coronavirus to see how devastating the pandemic was on its victims and the world around him.
Brown, who is working towards being a team owner, watched as the virus brought the drag racing world to its knees. He was one of the many who wondered back in April if he’d get to drag race again.
Friday, Brown hit the track with a new marketing partner in Sirius XM was a sign NHRA Drag Racing is headed in a good direction.
Brown understands it’s easy to dwell on the negative, but looking to the positive always has it’s positives.
“I didn’t have COVID. What I’m saying is, is through all the struggles that we had last year, through the darkest of times where partnerships were hard to get. And to literally come through this time and have a partner come on, like Sirius XM Radio to come on through this time, it’s been incredible.
“But it was rough. When it was dark, I know the Lord always knows, God’s out there, but boy, he answered every one of our prayers to get through this.”
Bringing in a non-automotive sponsor is a real gem, at least that’s how Brown sees it.
“We got the oils, we’ve got the automotive manufacturers, we got all that. But to bring in a big time media, like I think Competition Plus needs a show on Sirius XM.”
Some lofty thinking on Brown’s behalf. Maybe, Maybe not.
“One thing abig-timethat I can tell you right now is that’s one thing that NASCAR has got their channel,” Brown said. “That’s one thing I’m looking for as far as Camping World sport of drag racing to have their channel.
I could always, always tell people that when the times get to us deepest or when one door is closed, there’s always opportunity. You just got to look for that opportunity.”
Brown hopes to never see the world, especially his, get shut down again like it did last March.
“It was like shutting my life off,” Brown admitted. “You know what I mean? Like a lot of people realize that drag racing is not just a sport. It’s a way of life for a lot of us. This is our life.
“Like when we wake up, we just don’t eat it and sleep it or dream about it. We walk it. We feel it. We carry it on our shoulders. We carry it our back and this is our livelihood.
“Last year it was rough. It was rough for everybody. It was rough for a lot of people. But in our world, we’re like, “Oh Lord.” You think about it, where you go, ‘Man, we just got to survive this.” Brown believes it can be easy to take some aspects of professional drag racing for granted. However, he said he’s never taken it for granted. “I am a man that never took nothing for granted,” Brown said. “Never took it for granted. And I work hard every day of my life. I always put OT in, baby. OT is like a normal 40 hours a week. You know what I mean? “When you come into this year now, and you’re seeing that coming back on, it like hammers down. And I know one thing. NHRA fans have been the best. But one thing about it is, I lost a part of my family literally for over a year. “We were coming to the tracks, and it was dim and grim where you couldn’t see the people flourishing, coming up. And now come here to this, PRO Winter Warm-up, man, you’re seeing the people come out, everybody’s looking alive.” Brown said the biggest lesson he learned during the pandemic, is he’s not built to be at a desk. “Antron Brown is not a good person to be a business person, to sit at a desk for eight hours a day,” he said with his trademark laugh. “Can’t do it. You’re talking about ADD and fidgeting. I have fidget spinners, going through emails, my eyes are locked up on the white screen typing stuff, doing different things and also trying to survive. You know what I mean?”
ANOTHER YEAR, SAME QUESTIONS - Some of Doug Kalitta's favorite times are getting out at the annual pre-season test events and knocking off the rust. They are also the time he hears the same old questions over and over.
"Is this going to be your year?"
Kalitta understands no one is trying to insult him. He knows they just want to see him win. It goes with the territory of being a contender multiple times and coming up short in the end.
For Kalitta, it's motivation.
" It's not going to be the end of the world if I don't win one, but it's still on the to-do list to get the championship," Kalitta explained. "I've got a lot of great supporters out here and it's something we're hoping to make happen here. So, a little criticism probably doesn't hurt."
As Kalitta sees it, it's not criticism per se.
"It's people bringing it up just to motivate you even more," Kalitta said.
And as always, Kalitta approaches the "criticism" even-keeled and determined. It's as Kalitta has complete control of his emotions in public, and he does.
"It's comes from being out here for a number of years. I just love driving this thing. These cars get quicker and quicker each year and the competition is what it's all about. I'm just trying to beat these guys. As far as getting real nervous, you try not to. Obviously, different moments, the big rounds, there's probably a little more on the line. But, it's a great car to drive, a lot of fun."
Last season, Kalitta didn't get to drive his car as much as the pandemic ground the NHRA tour for a lengthy pause and inevitably a shortened schedule. Extreme situations demand extreme measures, and for Kalitta Motorsports, there was adjusting to do. "It was just really hard on obviously everybody," Kalitta said. "Our team, we kept the guys busy working, getting the cars ready, and then we put them to work in the airline stuff. But, it was a lot of time off from racing. I have to admit, business-wise, it slowed down initially and then really picked up, and it's been pretty busy with people. "A lot of the airlines not moving the cargo that they typically move in the bellies of the planes domestically and internationally has really opened up a lot of additional cargo to be moved. So, business-wise it's not been so bad. Fortunately, everybody's health has been good in my family. Knock on wood. So, I guess we're all getting through it." Kalitta reveled in the fact he gained more time with his family; a special treat not usually afforded him in a typical race season. "Work-wise, it was just as busy as always," Kalitta said. "But, having the few weekends off, only having 11 races in last year, we spent a little more time just hanging out on the weekends. So, it was a change for sure. It was definitely interesting. I've got a couple of young kids, and my daughter's 17. And my son's 20. So, they're still wanting to hang with me and do stuff. So, it was good to have a little extra time with the family." When Kalitta returns to the NHRA tour on Sunday in Gainesville, he will be surrounded by a gaggle of fans and teammates who indeed would love to see him seal the deal. "I've got a lot of great support out here. I've won a fair share of them, and it's cool. I appreciate all the support, obviously. And I hope I don't let them down. We're trying again this year to have a great effort. Again, Connie's given me a great opportunity, and Rob and Troy and all my guys that work on this thing. Yeah. We'll just keep our heads down and get after it again and see if we can make it happen this year.
CRUZING INTO CONTENTION - When it came to winning the offseason, some might say everyone else finished second to Cruz Pedregon.
Pedregon, the two-time NHRA Funny Campion, grabbed many headlines when he signed John Collins, most recently with the Tommy Johnson-driven Make A Wish Funny Car. He made even more when he also added the crew which worked under Collins.
The PRO Winter Warm-up was their first time on the field.
"We made seven runs here," Pedregon said. "Every one of them was encouraging. The car did what we asked it to do, and so yeah, so far so good. We'll go up to Gainesville, make a couple of runs there, just to be prepared as possible. I'm excited. Good to be back in the car again after a long off-season."
In seasons past, Pedregon came into the annual preseason tests looking to refine and improve on the previous year's efforts and from a tuner's standpoint. This time, Pedregon was playing a whole new ballgame.
"I learned that, from when the last time I packed parachutes, a few things have changed," Pedregon said. "I'm back to being the parachute guy again, which I'm enjoying. It's good to get out and mingle with the fans and to be a little more active. When you're in there studying data or doing what I did, it's just not the most fun thing. But I'm glad grateful that I have JC and Rip and Ryan and the whole team to take care of all the things that I was trying to take care of and do a lot."
In other words, Pedregon is perfectly content staying out of the kitchen and letting the Chefs prepare the meal.
"The plan all along was to a little less of that and really focus on owning and driving," Pedregon said. "When this opportunity came up with JC and this whole team, there were no second thoughts about it. These guys are proven champions. To win a race, to win races, and with the 11-race schedule, like we had last year, two qualifying runs, it was hard to qualify, let alone win races. So there was no question I wanted to do everything I could to make sure that they had everything that they needed from a parts inventory perspective. And then really, it's a lot different combination than I was running anyway."
Pedregon will be running the five-disc clutch combination this season.
"I was able to make a deal with Don Schumacher and purchase a lot of the stuff that was on that car," Pedregon said. "This only thing that's different, or the only thing that's the same, is the hard parts, the cylinder heads, and the blocks. The Snap-on car had a facelift, a heart transplant. You name it, we changed it, but it's all for good."
While Pedregon is eager to make a point he's going to challenge for a championship in 2021, he's content to remain patient in his ramp-up during testing. As he sees it, being the No. 1 runner in testing doesn't guarantee a championship.
"For me coming out here, testing, and within a few runs being right there, shutting the car off early, not hurting any parts is really great," Pedregon said. "I think, with experience, I've learned that I'd rather have a steady, consistent car thana really fast one. Because I've had really fast ones through the years, even going back when I was a driver driving for the teams I've driven for.
"The cars that are the most steady and the most consistent are going to be the cars that the driver wants to drive and an owner wants to own, and then this car, from what I've seen, that thing's not hurting parts a lot. So everything really is a right fit. If I were to hand-pick all those guys over there, I think I definitely got what fits our situation the best."
OF ADRENALIN, PANDEMIC AND TEQUILA - Alexis DeJoria is such an adrenaline connoisseur; when drag racing shutdown amid a global pandemic, she was not one bit happy. When the 2020 NHRA season ended one month earlier than usual, and the 2021 tour started over a month later than in years prior, she wasn't too enthused.
"It was a very long off-season," DeJoria said. "None of us liked that, that's for sure. Ending in October, and then not starting until March. It takes a toll on the whole team and everybody's itching to get back on the racetrack."
Then in the midst of some of her worst cabin fever, on February 15, 2021, a major ice storm struck her hometown of Austin, Texas, leaving her without power and water.
"That was no fun at all," DeJoria said. "Texas was not prepared obviously, for those kind of temperatures."
The severity of the storm took DeJoria aback. But she did know the cool temperatures would have adverse effects on her not-so-volatile hobby.
"I went out to the nursery, got a bunch of plants, and I didn't realize we had this huge storm coming," DeJoria explained. "I had to put all the plants inside until the freeze was done. So my house looked like an atrium. It was pretty nice.
DeJoria, a California girl in the year's before moving to Texas, wasn't acclimated to the cold.
"I could see my breath when I was inside my own house," DeJoria said. "That's never good. It's never good."
Before the storm hit, DeJoria admitted she spent a great deal of her time strapped into her Funny Car simulator which is essentially the back-half of one of her old race car chassis with an unfuctioning motor.
"I used to get in there at least 20, 30 minutes, and then take a break, and then come back," DeJoria.
And when she wasn't virtual racing, DeJoria was working on her latest business - helping to develop a new Tequila brand, Banderro.
"It's a family business, with my sister, my brother, and we have a few other partners," DeJoria said. "It's really good. It's been winning awards. Just has a really good taste. Great packaging. So we'll get some out here for everybody to try it."
ALL GROWED UP - The drag racing community might find it hard to believe since it watched him grow up.
J.R. Todd, the energetic and talented drag racer who worked his way from Junior Dragster competition to the nitro ranks, is turning 40 years old in December.
Todd drove the Kalitta Motorsports-fielded DHL Toyota to a 3.927, 324.20 best in testing at the PRO Winter Warm-ups at Palm Beach International Raceway.
He drove his way like a seasoned veteran, even though there are those who still call him "kid."
"When I worked at Gilbertson, I was definitely a kid then," Todd said. "Looking back at pictures of seeing how young I looked and how much skinnier I was. And one of the guys that always hung out there with Nicky and me was Berserko Bob [Doerrer]. He came and saw me the other day, and just, he's like, "Man, how old are you now?"
"And I told him like, "Almost 40."
"He's like, "Good God, time flies." But yeah, just growing up with guys like Nicky and a lot of the guys, I've known since I got my start out here. Just yeah, I feel like I was a young guy at one time out here. But now I'm like that mid-pack guy. There's still guys older than me, but there's also plenty of younger guys younger than me."
In 2021, Todd is sporting a new look with longer hair up top and some ink on his toned arms. He appears to be cross between an NFL quarterback and an NBA basketball player with the ink.
"Usually, my shirt covers up whatever tattoos I have," Todd said. "I started letting my hair grow during the pandemic last year when we got called off at the first Gainesville race and from up to then until now, I haven't cut the top of my hair. And as you can see, when I don't have a hat on, or my helmet off, it gets pretty shaggy and ragged looking. But I fix it up whenever I go out to eat, that's for sure."
Todd always dreamed of the life he has now, and at times he's taken aback by the experience.
"Especially you go to the shop, and any race that we win," Todd said. "They get a banner from that race and they're all hanging up in the shop, and world championship banner and things like that. It definitely blows my mind to seeing stuff like that. But yeah, I'm very lucky to be driving for Connie Kalitta and representing great companies like DHL and Toyota and Mobil 1 and just living the dream, for sure."
And while he has learned to accept his status as a seasoned veteran, calling a younger driver "kid" is not territory he is prepared to chart.
"I don't know. It just seems weird to me, still, to call somebody a kid," Todd admitted. "Austin Prock is a kid. That's somebody you look at as a kid because he's younger. But I don't know. I'm not cool enough to call somebody a kid. I feel like only Snake can perfect that line."
THE SECOND SEASON - If there's one thing Blake Alexander has learned in a year of driving for Jim Head, it's that attention to detail is paramount. It's not that Alexander, a talented driver who has won in Top Fuel dragster but still seeking his first in Funny Car, didn't exercise this approach.
It's just when you work with Head; the level is pretty high.
"Never scared to try new things and learn a lot about how to do business operationally, from a racing perspective, and it parlays over from his other business," Alexander added. "We're business partners. We operate together, but separately. At the end of the day, we both have responsibility to each other to do well and we always are striving for that."
Alexander has raced on his own, but now that he's officially a business partner in the venture with Jim Head Racing. Still, Alexander races as if he's a hired driver in analyzing every move he makes while behind the wheel.
"Quite a bit more than when I just owned the car and drove it," Alexander admitted. "Obviously that's not a bad thing to try to always seek perfection, even though it's kind of impossible."
He may not concede to being perfect, but Alexander believes he's developed into a much better driver.
"Certainly there's different things that you do over here and it's made me more diverse, I guess you could say," Alexander explained. "I've enjoyed getting to learn from all the guys over here."
Alexander brings to the game a strong lineup of sponsors for 2021.
"This is my sixth or seventh year with Pronto now, and Monroe Gates Champion, Fel-Pro, Timken," Alexander said. "A lot of these guys have been sponsoring me since I was 17 years old, so now 16 years or something like that. So I have the good fortune of being aligned with people who have supported my dream and it's turned into a reality. Sometimes a harsh reality out here, but I'm very blessed that I get to continue doing it."
While Alexander enjoyed his time racing in Top Fuel, being back in a Funny Car is home.
"Personally, I don't miss driving a Top Fuel car," Alexander said. "These [Funny Cars] are a lot more fun to drive. Once you've driven one of these and then you drive a car that you don't steer, it doesn't interest me as much.
"Every run is an adventure, and you get to see more action upfront. Top fuel cars, sometimes you got to check and see if it blew up, even though you heard it. These things you don't ever have to check."
(RESULTS COMPILED BY COMPETITIONPLUS.COM )
1. Brittany Force 3.679, 331.04
2. Mike Salinas 3.693, 328.30
3. Leah Pruett 3.695, 317.64
4. Doug Kalitta 3.732, 318.77
4. Shawn Langdon 3.755, 323.27
5. Antron Brown 3.763, 313.73
6. Mike Bucher 4.003, 275.52
1. John Force 3.860, 329.02
2. Matt Hagan 3.880, 329.99
3. Ron Capps 3.891, 324.83
4. J.R. Todd 3.927, 324.20
5. Ron Capps 3.938, 324.90
6. Robert Hight 3.951, 322.58
7. Cruz Pedregon 3.996, 278.63
8. Blake Alexander 4.092, 280.89
9. Paul Lee 4.139, 237.55
1. Brittany Force 3.679, 331.04
2. Mike Salinas 3.693, 328.30
3. Leah Pruett 3.695, 317.64
4. Steve Torrence 3.708, 292.58
5. Doug Kalitta 3.716, 325.06
6. Shawn Langdon 3.755, 323.27
7. Antron Brown 3.763, 313.73
8. Justin Ashley 3.772, 324.51
9. Billy Torrence 3.832, 268.38
10. Mike Bucher 4.003, 275.52
1. John Force 3.860, 329.02
2. Robert Hight 3.866, 332.18
3. Matt Hagan 3.880, 329.99
4. Ron Capps 3.891, 324.83
5. Bob Tasca III 3.918, 321.65
6. Alexis DeJoria 3.919, 316.15
7. J.R. Todd 3.927, 324.20
8. . Cruz Pedregon 3.944, 313.22
9. Blake Alexander 4.092, 280.89
10. Paul Lee 4.139, 237.55
Brittany Force TOP SPEED 331.04 mph
Robert Hight TOP SPEED 333.33 mph
SATURDAY NOTEBOOK - FUNNY CAR RAISES THE BAR; TORRENCE REMAINS TOPS IN TOP FUEL
SPEED MERCHANTS - Three runs. That's all it took for 2019 NHRA Funny Car champion Robert Hight to find his groove after a 54-week break from driving a nitro groove.
Hight ran a 3.929, 325.61 during Friday's testing and ended up the quickest of the first day on a run that was less than optimum.
"It wasn't the perfect run for sure," Hight said. "I had to drive it a little bit. It goes to show you that we didn't forget how to do this. We are excited to be back, and that's for sure.
Then there was the run on Saturday before the rains rolled in to bring the day's action to an end. Hight thundered to the quickest Funny Car lap of the event with a 3.866, 332.18. He returned on the next pass for top speed with a 333.33 mph posting.
"These cars, even on a normal year when you take two months off in the winter and come out testing in January, it doesn't take long to see the cars are fast and you're behind it," Hight explained. "Honestly, we [JFR] are all rusty. We haven't gotten a groove yet. That's why we are all down here testing.
"Today, my objective was working on getting caught up with the race car. These things accelerate super, super fast. I spent the day getting caught up with this thing."
Slipping into second was John Force, as he laid down a 3.869, 320.20, and Ron Capps, the third driver into the 3.80s, laid down a 3.892, 327.35.
Defending Top Fuel champion Steve Torrence didn't participate in Saturday's test session. Quite frankly, he didn't need to either.
In his first run down the track, Torrence established the No. 1 time for Top Fuel with a 3.708, 292.58 on his very first pass of the event.
Doug Kalitta and Leah Pruett made a run for Torrence's perch with identical 3.716 elapsed times. Kalitta had the speed covered with a 325.06, ahead of Pruett's 320.20.
Testing resumes on Sunday at 9:30 AM, with a free livestream at www.youtube.com/CompetitionPlusTV
1. Doug Kalitta 3.716, 325.06
2. Leah Pruett 3.716, 320.20
3. Mike Salinas 3.754, 276.46
4. Justin Ashley 3.772, 324.51
5. Shawn Langdon 3.844, 261.27
6. Brittany Force 3.845, 249.30
7. Antron Brown 6.477, 103.25
8. Mike Bucher 9.316, 80.30
1. Robert Hight 3.866, 332.18
2. John Force 3.869, 320.20
3. Ron Capps 3.892, 327.35
4. Bob Tasca III 3.918, 321.65
5. Alexis DeJoria 3.919, 316.15
6. J.R. Todd 3.956, 294.88
7. Cruz Pedregon 3.996, 278.63
7. Blake Alexander 8.257, 75.76
8. Matt Hagan 8.911, 79.23
Robert Hight TOP SPEED 333.33 mph
1. Steve Torrence 3.708, 292.58
2. Doug Kalitta 3.716, 325.06
3. Leah Pruett 3.716, 320.20
4. Mike Salinas 3.754, 276.46
5. Justin Ashley 3.772, 324.51
6. Billy Torrence 3.832, 268.38
7. Shawn Langdon 3.844, 261.27
8. Brittany Force 3.845, 249.30
9. Antron Brown 3.855, 252.71
10. Mike Bucher 7.966, 31.83
1. Robert Hight 3.866, 332.18
2. John Force 3.869, 320.20
3. Ron Capps 3.892, 327.35
4. Alexis DeJoria 3.919, 316.15
5. Bob Tasca III 3.918, 321.65
6. J.R. Todd 3.956, 294.88
7. Cruz Pedregon 3.996, 278.63
8. Matt Hagan 4.020, 267.80
9. Paul Lee 4.528, 184.67
10. Blake Alexander 4.835, 160.42
OH YEAH, HE'S READY - Paul Lee will admit it. He's had those thoughts.
Lee, who during the week orchestrates the highly successful McLeod cutches product line and on the weekend races a fuel Funny Car, has asked himself a few times how he will improve on the most significant drag racing season of his career.
Lee finished the pandemic-affected season as ninth best in the Camping World champion points standings. He even finished in the top ten of the Virtual Reality Hot Rd Association, a fan-vote drag racing series hosted by CompetitionPlus.com.
"Looking into this year, we have high expectations," Lee said, following another successful early shutoff pass at the PRO Winter Warm-up at Palm Beach International Raceway. "We have a car that we believe that could be a top-five car, and that's our goal. Set your goals high and go for it, and that's what we're doing. "We have a good car, good team. Everybody's back from our team from last year. We have the same car, same tune-up. We're just continuing where we left off."
When it came to preparing for 2021, Lee and his team didn't make wholesale changes. Instead, the team, led by Jim Oberhofer, just focused on refreshing the arsenal.
"We acquired Ron Capps's car that he finished the year off," Lee said. "We ended up buying that car as a backup. It's up in our trailer. We bought Alan Johnson's hospitality rig. So we added a hospitality-utility rig tour team. So we'll have extra room to carry more parts. Basically, just upgrading our team, and just making it better all the time. We have plenty of fresh parts and we're ready for 2021."
Lee has an ace in the hole with newly retired championship tuner Rahn Tobler, who is willing to help out when needed.
"Rahn's always helped us," Lee confirmed. "Everybody knows that this is his tune-up in the car, and he and Jim O talk all the time. Anytime we need him to help us, he's a phone call away. And Jim O and Rahn talk a lot, and they talk about things and tune-ups, and we're happy with that five-disk tune-up.
Lee had an extra pep in his step on Friday, and one would be pressed to tell he is the same guy who suffered a near-fatal heart attack in 2017.
"I'm in the best shape of my life right now," Lee admitted. "One of the things I did in the off-season is I worked really hard. I hit the gym. I have a gym in my house, luckily, because all the gyms are closed in California. But I bought all the equipment I needed for my house, and pretty much five, six days a week, I'm hitting the gym, exercising, cardio, weights, eating right. I'm ready to fight these guys 2021."
FRIDAY NOTEBOOK - WE ARE BACK TO RACING
SUPER SOPHOMORE - If you believe Justin Ashley is concerned about a sophomore jinx, you're greatly mistaken.
"I'm not concerned about that at all," Ashley, the NHRA's 2020 Rookie of the Year, said. "Nothing's really going to change from a driving perspective compared to last year. I just have to continue to focus on doing my job and not worry about all that outside noise or jinxes or anything like that."
New for 2021 is the rookie whisper, Mike Green, who tuned Austin Prock to the 2019 Rookie of the Year honors with John Force Racing.
"We brought in Mike Green for a reason," Ashley said. "We're confident that he's going to take our program to the next level. He's just awesome in every way like this whole team, and I'm just looking forward to being a part of it."
Ashley said he and Green communicated multiple times about his driving style and Green's tendencies in tuning. This weekend the two have worked hard on just the first day of testing, finding their one-to-one common ground.
"There was quite a bit of back and forth in terms of my driving style but in terms of how he tunes the car," Ashley revealed. "I think at the end of the day we're going to work really well with each other. As far as being a driver, I think a lot of it comes down to just doing the same thing every single time you're behind the wheel."
And, it was equally important not to get intimidated by Green's past championship successes.
"When I first learned that everything was finalized and we hired Mike, I know the kind of experience that he has and the success he's had," Ashley said. "I know that he's a world champion. At first, maybe I was a little bit intimidated, but after I met him, all that went away. I just know he's just a cool dude, a good guy, and I'm looking forward to furthering our relationship."
It's been an off-season, chock full of adjustments for Ashley, who is a successful real estate developer on New York's Long Island. The fix and flip industry was greatly affected by the global pandemic.
"COVID-19 threw a pretty big loop into things from a business perspective, first of all, being in the fix and flip business and its effect on the real estate side of things," Ashley explained. "As far as the race team, I would have liked to spend some more time in Indianapolis, spend some more time with the team, spend some more time around Mike. But because of COVID-19 and a few other things that happened, that kind of made things a little bit more difficult than usual. But at the end of the day, we're all dealing with the same circumstances. We're here. We're fortunate to be here, and we do the very best we can with the circumstances that we're dealt."
Despite all of the obstacles, Ashley stayed true to his working regimen to remain sharp behind the wheel. However, when the car fired on Friday morning at the PRO Winter Warm-Up, it was the first time since the season-ending NHRA Nationals in Las Vegas last October.
"It's been a combination of different things that I've tried to do," Ashley said. "First, on the physical side of things, I've lost weight, maintained a steady diet and make sure I eat and eat the proper nutrition and then work out and make sure that I'm physically in shape. And then mentally, spend my time visualizing making runs in the car in my head so when I come here to West Palm, when I go to Gainesville, I've already made a bunch of laps in the car, and I feel more than comfortable already."
BEST RUNS FOR FRIDAY - The following are Friday's best runs at the PRO Winter Warm-up.
1. Steve Torrence 3.708, 292.58
2. Leah Pruett 3.745, 321.42
3. Doug Kalitta 3.771, 282.24
4. Mike Salinas 3.781, 275.17
5. Billy Torrence 3.832, 268.38
6. Antron Brown 3.855, 252.71
7. Brittany Force 3.916, 240.25
8. Justin Ashley 4.436, 177.70
9. Shawn Langdon 4.742, 152.90
10. Mike Bucher 7.966, 31.83
1. Robert Hight 3.929, 325.61
2. Ron Capps 3.942, 321.58
3. Bob Tasca III 3.961, 320.51
4. Matt Hagan 4.020, 267.80
5. JR Todd 4.081, 258.17
6. John Force 4.227, 216.69
7. Alexis DeJoria 4.286, 212.49
8. Paul Lee 4.528, 184.67
9. Cruz Pedregon 4.758, 165.25
10. Blake Alexander 4.835, 160.42
THE FORCE EFFECT ON HIGHT - Two-time Funny Car champion Robert Hight wouldn't come out and call it PTSD. But on the first day of drag racing, since his team suspended operations a year ago as the worldwide pandemic stopped drag racing in its tracks, the President of John Force Racing says he still feels the after-effects of being the man John Force clung closest to during the downtime.
"It's not something I want to do again; I'll tell you that, "Hight admitted. "It's like every day is Groundhog Day, the movie. It just never ends. It's the same stuff over and over and over again."
Let the record reflect; Hight's happy place is at a drag strip - even if it is just for testing.
"There's nothing better than the side of a racetrack," Hight explained. "You get here, and you see this racetrack and shows you how bad you've missed being here and getting around all your crew guys. That was cool; last week, we spent some time in Indy with all the teams, and then it started setting in. It's like, 'Wow, this is really going to happen now. After a year, we are going to get back to what we love to do, and that's racing."
Almost as hard as carpooling with Force inside and outside of the office was remaining silent as the rumor mill rampant around his team.
"Just very fortunate that all the sponsors have stuck with us," Hight said. "There were all kinds of rumors that Auto Club was leaving, and that's the kind of stuff that drives me absolutely crazy because it's just all BS. There's not a better sponsor in all of motorsports than Auto Club and they're here with us long term."
Facing the unknown of what was going to happen to drag racing is what Hight said bothered him the most.
"It's painful too," Hight said. "Just as a driver, you take a normal month and a half, two months off during the off-season, and you're back usually testing in January. Well, you're behind the car from that time off. It's like these are rocket ships. They're fast."
Hight settled back into his groove, securing the top testing elapsed time on Friday at Pro Winter Warm-up by laying down a 3.929, 325.61.
"I'm just trying to get back in the groove of driving and catching up to this car that's going to seem like it's probably going 400 miles an hour," Hight said.
Hight realizes nothing replaces time behind the wheel of a 10,000-horse fuel-burning Funny Car, but his hobby of target shooting provided a nice diversion.
"I worked on reaction times, and I did a lot of shooting," Hight said. "That's some hand-eye coordination and some reaction time there. Hopefully, some of that's helped a little bit. It's also mental. You've really got to focus to shoot well."
Friday, Hight was shooting just fine back in his familiar office.
MR. JACK OF ALL TRADES - Top Fuel driver Mike Salinas learned a valuable lesson earlier this week.
One must never grab the brake in a Pro Modified car at the finish line.
In his latest quest to be a jack of all trades, and master of them all, Salinas for some reason didn't adhere to the sage advice given to him by his Pro Modified mentor Eric Dilliard.
"Eric was training me this week and he makes it to where it's very understandable," Salinas said.
Evidently it wasn't good enough in one aspect, because Salinas, at the end of a run grabbed the brake. He quickly learned a lesson, as his centrifically-supercharged 1969 Camaro became a handful.
"We were shutting off at 800 and I touched a brake, car made a left turn on me and kept it off the right wall, the left wall," Salinas said. "I got on the radio. I said, 'I know why you told me not to touch the brake."
Salinas quickly learned how valatile doorslammer racing could be despite running a 5.87 best in the test session at Orlando Speedworld Dragway in Florida.
For Salinas, his affection with doorslammer has been a growing attraction for decades. Not that he didn't respect the power of a Pro Modified, the Orlando incident ratcheted up his reverence.
Pro Mod is just as fast for the wheelbase," Salinas said. "You respect the speed for the short wheelbase, and they're fun cars. I got a lot to learn in Pro Mod, but we're going to have some fun with it."
Salinas plans to have so much fun that he's having a new 1957 Chevy Pro Mod built for him by Jerry Bickel Race Cars. Once it's done, he's going to put drag radials on the Camaro and go race some Duck X Productions events.
"Going to turn 60 years old, I'm going backwards," Salinas said. "I'm like a 16 year old. I've been wanting to race Pro Modified before any other racing that I was doing, and I'm looking forward to it."
And just like a television infomercial, wait ... there's more.
Salinas plans to also license on a Pro Stock Motorcycle soon.
"I want to race my kids," Salinas admitted. "I'm not going to be the guy that wished I could have done something. So I'm going to get my bike license. I want to race with my children."
And yes, he's considering a Nitro Harley. He just wants to make sure he can handle a Pro Stock Motorcycle first.
Salinas realizes he's ambitious. He's just wanting his family to share in the fun too.
"My kids, wife, and all the girls, they all want to race and have fun and, not my wife, but they all want to race and have a good time," Salinas said.
Apparently, daughter Jasmine will run a Rich McPhillips A/Fuel dragster and try her hand at Pro Modified.
"I don't know anything else except working and racing," Salinas admitted. "We've worked our whole lives and this is our 41st year in business. And we've been working and racing is a camping trip for our family. And you know what? We just want to come out, enjoy, have a great time with a lot of great people. So we're going to have some fun this year. And we're going to have all top notch, top tuners at the top end for what we're doing on all of our projects. So it'll be nice."
When the pandemic hit, Salinas immersed himself in work. However, before the world ground to a halt, Salinas had already made the decision to miss the first four races of the 2020 season.
"I just had a bad feeling about life and business," Salinas said. "So I chose to make sure that I take care of my house at home first, all the business, make sure that we're doing good. And then it just didn't feel right. And then the pandemic came and I gave Alan a call and told him, "We're going to sit this out. All the guys will stay employed. So we brought all the guys to California and they worked all year for us. We got everything ready for the car. Everything was ready to go. So what we did was we were just getting ready for this day. But all my guys, they all came to California. They worked, did a great job in the companies and we kept the team together and we're going to be together for quite a long time."
PROCK'S NEW ROLE - Austin Prock was probably busier on Friday at the PRO Winter Warm-up than he'd ever been when he was racing a Top Fuel car for John Force Racing.
Prock, the son of championship tuner Jimmy Prock, is in a new role at JFR since his Montana Brand Top Fuel dragster was parked due to the economic impact of the global pandemic.
"I'm going to be helping out my old man's car this year," Prock explained. "Building a supercharger, so it's something I'm familiar with. I built superchargers on Allen Johnson's dragster. It's going to be fun working with my old man this year."
Sure, Prock is disappointed not to be racing. But what intrigues him is the opportunity to learn more about nitro engines.
"The only thing I can do is look at this year as a time to learn," Prock said. "It's a free eight months that I can learn and get back on the money hustle inside, so I'll definitely be busy, and obviously, I really want to get back in the seat. It sucks not being able to race this year after sitting out last year, too, so to go another 12 months without getting that fix is going to hurt, but it will make me stronger, and I'll be back out there one day.
The 2019 NHRA Rookie of the Year recipient, Prock knows and understands he'll be better for the experience.
"I'll definitely be really hungry when I get back in the seat, and they're not going to like racing me once I get back out there," Prock advised.