As a lead-in to the annual NHRA Western Swing, which begins July 20-22 in Denver, then rolls west to Sonoma July 27-29 and finishes in Seattle Aug. 3-5, NHRA hosted a national teleconference with several Full Throttle drivers. This interview is with NHRA Top Fuel driver Steve Torrence.
Torrence has emerged this season as a championship contender in Top Fuel. The Texas native who won the 2005 national championship in Top Alcohol Dragster raced to two victories in four final rounds this season and sits in fourth place in the standings. Torrence and crew chief Richard Hogan have had his Capco Contractors dragster running consistently quick; he has claimed two No. 1 qualifying positions.
Q: Steve, I guess this is your breakout season so far. Were you expecting this type of performance during the off-season?
Torrence: You know, when we started this team, we set out to just have a good, family-run team and to be competitive and go out and just see what we could do. We had every hope and dream of being able to go out and run with the big guys. I think that the way that this has all panned out and the success we've had in such a short period of time, I don't think anyone would have predicted that, including myself. It's been a little surreal up to this point.
But Richard Hogan has been out here for a long time and has quite a bit of experience, and I've just got a really good group of guys working on the race car. I've got great support from everyone at Capco Contractors. It's been just unbelievable the way that everything has taken place.
Q: Antron Brown has been saying the Top Fuel class is getting to be almost like a mini Pro Stock class with so many close finishes. You raced in Top Alcohol Dragster; you won the championship; you won the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals in Top Alcohol Dragster. That's a really competitive class in the Lucas Oil Series. What's your assessment of the competition level in Top Fuel?
Torrence: You know, my honest opinion, I talked to Antron about it numerous times, the class is at an all-time high for competitiveness. All the drivers out there are on the Tree. All the cars are so closely matched. You go through the top eight cars, and they will be within one- or two-hundredths during qualifying, and that's where it's at. Alan Johnson and those guys have had a little trouble this year, and the Schumacher cars, they're running strong. But I don't know if everything just hasn't stepped the level of competitiveness up across the board, and it's more difficult this year than in years past, and definitely the drivers are way ahead of the game. I mean, look at last year's average reaction time compared to this year; I think you'll see a significant difference.
Q: What led you to Richard Hogan as your crew chief? Were there ties there? I know there were a lot of crew chiefs in the off-season looking for work, and obviously the move has paid extreme dividends for you. What led you to Richard, and how is the relationship working out from your standpoint?
Torrence: Everything is great there. I chose Richard. Richard and I go back quite a few years just as friends. I got to know him and Jim Head pretty well, and I have a lot of respect for Richard. I know back in '07, he was the crew chief with Melanie Troxel at Schumacher Racing. Richard has been out here quite a while. He's worked with “Big Daddy” [Don Garlits] and just a lot of different race teams. He was my top choice, and I had spoken to him actually a couple years ago about it, if I ever wanted to do my own deal or coming over and helping with Dexter, and we brought him out a couple races while I was driving Dexter Tuttle's car and got some consulting through him. When we decided we were going to set out, build our own race team, Richard Hogan was my first choice across the board, and I didn't look any further.
Q: With the closeness of the competition in the class, does this make qualifying more critical? Is it more important than it has ever been?
Torrence: Yes, actually I think you're correct on that, because look at Norwalk; we were No. 1 qualifier there. We were just one of the few cars that was actually able to make a great run Friday night. The middle of the day Friday was a difficult run, and then both of the runs on Saturday, the conditions were so hot and just not conducive to any type of good e.t.s. So qualifying is definitely crucial. You get some cars that don't run that great in qualifying but are really top-tier teams. You've got Morgan [Lucas] and Brandon [Bernstein] that were the 15 and 16 qualifiers that I really didn't want to race Brandon first round. That car stepped up quite a bit and can really run a good number. Qualifying is pretty key in the spectrum of things, and like you said, I think it is more important now than ever.
Q: Does this put more of an emphasis on cutting a good light, and are we going to start seeing some red-lights in Top Fuel like you do in Pro Stock Motorcycle?
Torrence: You know, I really think it does. I go home, I practice all the time. I've got a driver cockpit at home and a full-sized LED Tree, and I led right into the final there in Chicago, and it wasn't because I anticipated the light. I had been .040 and .050 all day going shallow, and I knew Antron's car was just a touch quicker than ours for the final, so I thought if I rolled it in just a little bit, I could go maybe .030, maybe .020, and the light came on, I saw yellow, I stepped on the gas, and as I go by, I see the red-light. And the red-light on that thing, they're only 3-inch LED lights, but as I passed, it looked like it was a 36-inch LED light, and I'm driving by seeing red. I do think the competition is definitely stepping up on the reaction times. You've got Shawn Langdon, you've got Antron, you've got Spencer [Massey]. All those guys go up there, and if you're not on your game, you're going to go home on a holeshot loss just like Sunday at Norwalk. Spencer got me there in the final, and I was tired. I mean, the heat of Friday and Saturday and just I've been on the road for a month, I think I just was wore out, and I was off my game completely. We're living and dying by the reaction times at these races.
Q: How cool was it to race Spencer in a final as a Pro? He mentioned that you guys had competed against each other for many years in the Sportsman classes.
Torrence: Yeah, that was pretty neat. I've known Spencer for forever. He's from Dallas [Fort Worth], and I'm from about an hour and a half east of there, Kilgore, and we've grown up racing in Division 4 all our lives. We raced Super Comp together, we moved up into Top Alcohol relatively the same time. It was pretty neat. We've raced quite a bit in the Sportsman class, and to be able to go out and race him in a final, bragging rights are on the line there. We had a friendly wager there, and I got the better of him on that time, but he got the better of me in the final when it really counted. It's fun, it's a good rivalry there, just a friendly rivalry, and I enjoy racing him. He's always on his game. He makes you step up the bar a little bit when you go into the final or go into any race against him. And the guy is always on the Tree. And Phil Shuler and Todd Okuhara, they have that car on a string, and it's really going well. It's pretty neat to be able to go up there and do that.
Q: How proud are you of the fact that here you are with your family team running against the Don Schumacher juggernaut and Prestone and all the money they bring in? You've got to feel real proud of what you've accomplished in a short period of time.
Torrence: I'm very proud. I'm proud of every one of the guys that have had any part to do with it. The team that I have right now has performed flawlessly. Richard Hogan has a very good tune-up for the hot-weather setup, and it shows. We were low of every session this weekend on a racetrack that's 140 degrees. It's very gratifying to be able to go out, and I call Schumacher Racing, that's the racing factory. They produce top-notch drivers, top-notch crew chiefs, top-notch crew guys. Everything over there is built about being the best. To be able to come out and race with those guys and being fourth in the points right behind all three of those cars, that's huge. I couldn't be more proud of my guys and what we've put together here.
Q: Steve, you've had to overcome a lot to get to this point. You built a team from scratch. You've dealt with a major health issue, with cancer. Do you feel like going through all that has really made you more mentally resilient and ready for this opportunity?
Torrence: Yeah, it is fun. You know, there's too much work involved into putting every bit of this together for it not to be fun and enjoy what we do. You could have to get up and go to work and do something you don't enjoy and go every day, and to be able to go out, to go drag racing 23, 24 weekends a year and enjoy it with friends and family and people that have the same love and passion for the sport, it doesn't get any better than that. I have been through a lot of adversity. I went through cancer when I was 17. It changed my mind-set on a lot of things and the way that I view life every day. I'm more appreciative. I'm more of the guy that sits back and just enjoys everything, takes it in, and I realize that the success we've had is a testament to the hard work and time that these guys have put in. But you don't always run that well, and things don't always go as perfect as they have been. So we're going to take it and be appreciative of it as it's going right now and work hard to continue that success and maintain the level we're at right now.
Q: How is your team preparing for the Western Swing?
Torrence: We've been preparing for quite a while. That's the triathlon of drag racing. You get so many different variables there, you go to Denver, and it's hot and dry and high altitude. You leave and go to Sonoma and Seattle, and it's totally different. Seattle has got tons of oxygen in the air. There's a lot of trees there. It's a true test of your race team, of your parts, just the inventory of things you have, and you've got to pace yourself and be able to enjoy those three weeks because they're back to back, and you don't get to go home, you don't get to see your family, and it's just ... that's a trying time right there, and we've been preparing, we've been loading the trailer full of things, packing everything we possibly can and staying under weight to go out there; that way, anything that happens, you've got it there, and you're not having to ship things back and forth and red-label overnight. It's just a triathlon. You've got to be prepared for it.
Q: Could you kind of describe, are you different emotionally internally now with the recent success? Does winning change you?
Torrence: No, the winning doesn't change you. We still go out every day with the intention of going one lap at a time, doing the best we can, and consistency is the key here. You know, the car has been running great. It's going down the track consistent, and my driving has gotten better, and I attribute a lot of that to just the consistency of the race car and the confidence that I have that every time I go to the line that Richard Hogan and those guys have given me the best race car possible, and I don't have to worry about what it's going to do. I'm going to cut a good reaction time, I'm going to drive the car the best I can, keep it in the groove, and make the right decisions. And confidence is huge when you're getting in one of these things and you know that your car is on point. I don't think the win has changed me. I think it's made me hungry for more. We got two wins right away. We won the first final we went to against Tony [Schumacher], and that was huge for me. I look up to Tony as a driver a lot. I mean, that guy is a seven-time champion, and you don't get there without being good and being a machine. It's driven me more, and we're more hungry every time for more success and just trying to build the Torrence Racing brand and build ourselves and establish ourselves as a contender to go out there and win races and possibly be a contender for the championship.
Q: I know you make your PR guy's job a lot easier when you win, but how about the rest of your team, the attitude? How does this kind of winning do something that nothing else does?
Torrence: You know, that right there is the biggest morale booster for anything, that success. You get to see it there. Those guys get to see all the hard work and time, the late hours that they put in. It all comes to fruition when we get to go up there, take pictures, and hold that Wally in the air, and every one of those guys knows that they had an integral part in doing it. I drive the car, I get to talk on TV, I get to talk to you guys and take the glory for it, but without those guys, without every single one of them and Richard Hogan, that car doesn't go down the racetrack. So when we win, we go up there, and we get to do all the celebration; there's nothing better than that. That's what we're here for. We're here to get that little gold man, to get that Wally. My job is to drive the car and support that team, and that's what I try to do.
Q: With all the success you've had so far, have you readjusted your goals for the season?
Torrence: Well, you know, we've pretty much surpassed our goals already. We just wanted to go out and run well and not make a fool of ourselves, and we've won a couple races. We've made four finals. Right now, anything that we do is above and beyond. We're trying to maintain our consistency and hope that we haven't peaked too soon and just carry this momentum into the Countdown and for the rest of the year. We've got a really good car, and we're going to try to keep it that way. We're making preparations for the Countdown now. We're trying to get the inventory, clutch discs, and get our tune-ups relatively close to what they're going to be there and keep going and carry the momentum. I mean, that's huge right now. We're distancing ourselves a little bit from the cars behind us, but you know, after Indy, it all starts over, and we're all close again. We're racing as hard as we can to get that extra 20 points.