J.R. Todd isn’t interested in easing into the opportunity of driving an 8,000-horsepower Optima Batteries Top Fuel dragster for Kalitta Motorsports. The way he sees it, Todd is ready for immediate results.
It has been just more than a month since Todd took over the duties of driving the second Top Fuel dragster for Kalitta Motorsports, but the talented driver doesn’t want to hear anything about a grace period. Todd will race for the fifth time in 2014 as part of the Kalitta Motorsports team at this weekend’s 26th annual NHRA Kansas Nationals at Heartland Park Topeka, and he has his eyes set on continuing to improve and ultimately winning races.
“As soon as I came on board with the team I had the confidence that we were and are going to win races,” Todd said. “All four (Kalitta Motorsports) cars have been running really well and looking at how well Doug (Kalitta), (crew chief) Jim (Oberhofer) and those Mac Tools guys have done, it makes me feel there is no reason our Optima batteries team can't go out and perform just as well. I feel extremely honored to be driving for (team owner) Conrad (Kalitta) and I want to get him in the winner’s circle as soon as possible.”
Shawn Langdon (Top Fuel), Johnny Gray (Funny Car) and Jeg Coughlin (Pro Stock) were last year’s winners of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series event that will be televised nationally on ESPN2. For the first time since 2006, the race moves back to Memorial Day weekend, one of the most celebrated weekends for motorsports each year.
It’s been a whirlwind turn of events for Todd since he assumed the duties of full-time driver of the Optima Batteries dragster in early April. Todd raced in Top Fuel at Gainesville earlier this for Bob Vandergriff Racing, but getting the chance to drive full-time for the rest of the 2014 season was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.
Todd has posted three round wins in the Optima Batteries dragster, already showing an impressive comfort level with the car. Todd, who has six career wins and became the first African-American to win a Top Fuel race in 2006, credited the hard work of the team for making the transition an easy one.
“My comfort level is great,” said Todd, whose last win came in 2008. “I love hanging out with everybody from all four teams. There are so many people within this group that I have known for a very long time and it's awesome to get the opportunity to work with them and call them teammates.”
The hectic schedule that started last weekend in Atlanta could also play in Todd’s favor. The Kansas Nationals marks the second of three straight race weekends and comes during a grueling stretch of 10 races in 12 weeks. The constant seat time could allow Todd to continue to gain confidence behind the wheel and he remains eager to see rapid improvements.
“I always want more runs,” Todd said. “I would run every day of the week if possible. I'm definitely getting more comfortable in the car and having a lot of fun working with the entire Kalitta group. There are still things I need to work on with my driving and I'm sure that will come over time.”
Todd doesn’t have to look far to find the winning combination. Kalitta, who won at Kansas in 2006, is the points leader in Top Fuel and has posted four final round appearances in 2014. Coupled with Alexis DeJoria’s two wins in Funny Car, it’s evident that things have been going well for Kalitta Motorsports.
Todd is ready to feed off that momentum, though a loaded Top Fuel field will make that difficult at Heartland Park Topeka. Antron Brown, who has two wins this season, is still searching for his first win in Topeka, while other class standouts include reigning world champion Langdon, who knocked off Tony Schumacher in the final round a year ago, Spencer Massey, who is the most recent winner in Atlanta, Steve Torrence and defending Auto Club of Southern California Road the Future Award winner Brittany Force.
“From what I remember about my past races at Topeka it has always been hot,” Todd said. “If it's warm this weekend it makes that Friday night qualifying run all the more important to establish your starting spot and then go to work on your race day set up during Saturday’s qualifying sessions.”
As always, fans will have the opportunity to interact with their favorite drivers as they’re granted an exclusive pit pass to the most powerful and sensory-filled motorsports attraction on the planet. This unique opportunity in motorsports gives fans direct access to the teams, allowing them to see firsthand the highly-skilled mechanics service their hot rods between rounds, and enjoy some cherished face time and get autographs from their favorite NHRA drivers.
Fans also will want to visit NHRA’s popular Nitro Alley and Manufacturers Midway, where sponsors and race vendors create a carnival atmosphere, with interactive displays, simulated competitions, merchandise, food and fun for the entire family.
Mello Yello Series qualifying begins Friday, May 23, with sessions at 4:30 and 7 p.m. The final two qualifying sessions will take place Saturday, May 24, at 1:30 and 4 p.m. Final eliminations are scheduled for 11 a.m. on Sunday, May 25.
To purchase general-admission or reserved seats, log on to www.NHRATIX.com or call 800-884-NHRA (6472). Children 12 and younger are free.