Steve Torrence’s seemingly sudden explosion onto the Top Fuel scene with a commanding victory two weeks ago at Atlanta Dragway shouldn’t have been a huge surprise to many.
The 29-year-old Texan basically put together a team from scratch in the span of a year and won a race in the team’s 10th start. For most of the season, his team was showing signs that the Capco Contractors dragster was getting ready to make a move.
He had qualified in the top two at three straight races, including earning his first No. 1 position at the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals. In Las Vegas and Houston, he lost in the semifinals in extremely close, good old-fashioned drag races with Spencer Massey and Antron Brown.
When he pulled to the Atlanta Dragway starting line two weeks ago in his first Top Fuel final against seven-time world champ Tony Schumacher, who was the event’s No. 1 qualifier and trying to put an end to a win drought and earn his first win at that track, Torrence was probably one of the few people at Georgia’s House of Speed who thought he had a chance to win.
When he powered away from Schumacher’s tire-smoking U.S. Army dragster and crossed the finish line first, Torrence felt as if he had finally arrived in the sport in which he has been working so hard to gain his footing since embarking on a Pro driving career in 2006, one year after he claimed the Top Alcohol Dragster national title in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series.
With a victory in hand, Torrence certainly will approach the Dollar General NHRA Summernationals, May 18-20 at Heartland Park Topeka, with more swagger. Spencer Massey (Top Fuel), Robert Hight (Funny Car), and Shane Gray (Pro Stock) are the defending winners of the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series event that will be televised on ESPN2HD.
“Anytime you can win a Top Fuel race – or any race – that definitely boosts your confidence, and it is just the motivation to go out and try harder,” Torrence said. “You are at the pinnacle of your sport, and you are driving a Top Fuel car and racing with the best teams and drivers – Schumacher, Alan Johnson, Morgan Lucas, and all of those guys. You can go out and say you won a race, and that’s a huge thing for us, especially.”
Torrence said the win has really pumped up his young crew, which he refers to as more than a team, led by veteran crew chief Richard Hogan, who has worked with some of the sport’s greats, including “Big Daddy” Don Garlits and Johnson, among others.
“We are really pleased to get that first win for the Capco team and Torrence Racing, but we are not satisfied with that,” Torrence said. “We want to keep going. If anything, it’s made us hungry for another win.”
He says the special circumstances surrounding his first win will always put it at the top of his personal highlight reel.
“Beating Tony in the finals was pretty special because I’ve looked up to that man for quite some time,” Torrence said. “He sets the bar for what a driver should be and do, in the car and the way he conducts himself at the tracks. That sets it apart for me, and it is something I will always remember.”
He also remembers his first NHRA national event victory, in 2005 during his TAD title run. He won that race at Heartland Park Topeka, a track that he says has always been good to him. With summer fast approaching, he expects similar weather conditions in Kansas that were present in Atlanta.
“The car performed well in the heat, and I think it will probably be hot for the race in Topeka,” Torrence said. “So that definitely bolsters our feelings quite a bit, knowing Richard has a good handle on the tune-up in the hot-weather conditions and on hot tracks.
“We are carrying a lot of confidence into Topeka.”
For Torrence to start a winning streak, he’ll have to outrun a host of challengers, including a very hungry Schumacher, defending winner Massey, Antron Brown, Lucas, Doug Kalitta, Brandon Bernstein, Shawn Langdon, David Grubnic, and Clay Millican.
“Our goal is to field a competitive race car,” Torrence said. “It would be awesome if we could win a race or two more and get established as a good team that can run with the Schumacher and Alan Johnson teams. What more could you ask for? If you look at the point standings right now, Tony Schumacher is the leader, and he hasn’t won in  races. Consistency is the key here. You don’t need to win a race here and go five or six races before winning another one. You need to be there every week and going rounds [in eliminations].”
In Funny Car, Hight will try to keep his HPT winning streak alive; the Auto Club Ford Mustang has won at the Kansas track the last two seasons. To turn the hat trick, Hight will need to hold off nine-time HPT winner John Force as well as four-time Topeka winner Cruz Pedregon. He’ll also have to contend with Atlanta winner Ron Capps, who has advanced to the last three final rounds in his NAPA Auto Parts Dodge Charger and is a three-time HPT winner. Others to watch in Funny Car include defending world champ Matt Hagan, who is trying to climb back into the top 10 after a slow start to the season, Houston winner Mike Neff, Jack Beckman, Bob Tasca III, Jeff Arend, Tony Pedregon, and high-profile rookies Courtney Force and Alexis DeJoria.
Greg Anderson has been leading the way in Pro Stock with three victories and holds the series lead over teammate Jason Line, the defending world champ who is also a winner this year. Team Mopar’s Allen Johnson, Mike Edwards, Vincent Nobile, Erica Enders, and Larry Morgan are among the top contenders in the 200-mph category.
* SCHEDULE: NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series qualifying sessions are scheduled for 4:30 and 7 p.m. on Friday, May 18, and noon and 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, May 19. Final eliminations will begin at 11 a.m. on Sunday, May 20.
* TICKETS: For tickets for the Dollar General NHRA Summernationals, call Heartland Park Topeka, 785-43-RACES (72237), or log on to www.hpt.com.
* ON TV: ESPN2 and ESPN2HD will televise two hours of qualifying coverage at 5 p.m. ET on Saturday, May 19. ESPN2 and ESPN2HD will televise three hours of eliminations coverage at 7 p.m. ET on Sunday, May 20.
* LUCAS OIL SERIES: The Dollar General NHRA Summernationals also will feature competition in seven categories in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series, where some of the future stars of the NHRA Full Throttle Series are born. Lucas Oil Series qualifying begins at 8 a.m. on May 18. Lucas Oil Series eliminations begin at 8 a.m. on May 19 and continue through May 20.