Catch 22

23 Nov 2016
Kevin McKenna, National Dragster Senior Editor

The fact that Matt Driskell won’t have to repaint the competition number on his six-second dragster is little consolation to the man who came up short of winning the championship in the Top Dragster presented by Racing RVs class for the second year in a row. The Kansas-based Driskell finished the 2016 season as the second-ranked driver in the class, just 22 points behind newly crowned champion Jeff Strickland. In 2015, in the inaugural season for Top Dragster and Top Sportsman as national championship categories, Driskell also finished second. Last year, he also came up 22 points short of the title that Marco Abruzzi won. Driskell isn’t bitter about either season, but he can’t help but wonder how things might have been different if he could have found a way to win an extra round or two in either season.

“Yes, I will save money on my vinyl bill because I won’t have to change numbers again,” Driskell laughed. “The last two years, both stories are the same. I didn’t intend to [pursue the championship], but I did anyway. It’s hard for me to get away early in the year because of my business. In 2015, we started off good, and it all just kind of came together, and we had a decent middle to end of the year. Then I finished second to Marco, and I said to myself, ‘Well, I ain’t doing that again.’ I didn’t want to get caught up in another points deal. So then, I started off 2016 with a divisional win and a runner-up and then a win in Chicago, and we were back in the thick of it. It’s a lot of fun, and I really enjoy the people, but it makes for a busy year travel-wise.”

Driskell has been in championship fights before, and as the 1996 NHRA Lucas Oil Super Comp champ, he knows what it takes to win a title. Driskell also admits that had he not won a championship previously, he would probably be a lot more disappointed about his back-to-back runner-up finishes.

“Having been a champion, that does take the sting out of it,” he said. “Some people like to win it multiple times, and I’m certainly not opposed to that, but if it turns out that I’m only going to win one championship, I’m good with that. The way I look at it, I am fortunate to be in the position I am. If you look at the points in 2015 and 2016, there are only three of us that finished in the top 10 both years. That’s not an easy feat.

“If nothing else, I am consistent. I had 589 points last year and 588 this year,” said Driskell. “The problem is that you pretty much need 600 to win the deal. It’s crazy to think that you need to average a runner-up for a whole eight-race season to win the championship, but that’s the reality of it. It’s a pretty daunting task.”

Driskell hovered around the top five in the standings for most of the season. At crunch time, he traveled to Las Vegas for the final NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series event of the season. At that race, he passed incoming leader Steve Furr but lost in the third round to Jeff Strickland, a race that tipped the championship battle in Strickland’s favor. Earlier in the season, Driskell had defeated Strickland in the final round of the AAA Insurance NHRA Midwest Nationals in St. Louis.

“When I went to Las Vegas, I did everything I needed to do except beat Jeff,” said Driskell. “I won enough rounds to pass Steve Furr; I just couldn’t finish the job. Looking back, I just needed to win one or two more rounds, but you don’t know that at the time. I gave a race back by a thousandth of a second at the [Mopar Mile-High NHRA Nationals] in Denver. That’s one round I’d like to have back. In the end, Jeff got the best of me twice; he also beat me in Topeka at the divisional race. They were all good races, and he’s a great guy. My hat is off to Jeff. He did a great job under some really trying circumstances. I’m genuinely happy for him.”

While Driskell admits that his experience in Super Comp has been helpful, he can’t help but marvel at the differences between the Super Comp and Top Dragster classes. He also acknowledges that the sport has changed in many ways since his championship season.

“Across the board, every car in Super Comp today is capable of winning, and it wasn’t that way in the 1990s,” said Driskell. “Today, everyone has good engines, good transmissions and converters, and the tires are much, much better than they used to be. And then you have guys like Luke [Bogacki] and Tommy [Phillips] that will teach you how to drive. Super Comp is just a bloodbath because it’s so tough. Most of the guys who run in Super Comp, that’s all they do, and they’re very good at it.

“Personally, I’m a bracket racer at heart, so Top Dragster works for me. I don’t want to make 15 runs in a day. I enjoy the laid-back atmosphere of a national event. I also like driving a fast car. It’s mind-blowing what’s happened in Top Dragster. Years ago, I got my Top Alcohol Dragster license at Frank Hawley’s school, and I think I ran 6.17. Now, that’s what Top Dragsters are running. When I won Chicago, I raced three cars that were dialed 6.00, so I had to look over my shoulder three times, and my car isn’t slow. I can run 6.3s.”

Driskell isn’t about to make any predictions for the 2017 season. He, like most racers, does not plan to pursue a championship, but if the opportunity presents itself, he will certainly adjust his schedule accordingly.

“To be honest, I’m very happy to be a part of this, and I have a lot of fun,” Driskell said. “I don’t enjoy the stress of racing for a championship, but if it happens, it happens. I will race in the Division 5 races and the national events that are close to home like Topeka and St. Louis and Chicago, then see where I’m at. Earlier this year, we switched from nitrous to a ProCharger, and the car didn’t skip a beat. The fact that we made it work was as gratifying to me as anything else. I just feel like I have nothing else to prove. Whatever happens, I’m good with it.”