When Don O’Neal won the Top Sportsman class at the recent Division 3 NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series race in St. Louis, it was far more than just another win: Instead it was the fulfillment of a dream and a promise that was nearly a quarter-century in the making. O’Neal spent more than 20 years in the United States Army, attaining the rank of sergeant first class before calling it a career in 2013, so he knows a thing or two about commitment, dedication, and achieving goals, which helps explain why his St. Louis win was so gratifying. Each year, more than 1,000 Wally trophies are presented to racers in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series, Lucas Oil Series, and NHRA Summit Racing Series, but it would be hard to find one which has more sentimental meaning than the one O’Neal earned in St. Louis.
“I have chased after a Wally for 24 years since my father, Don Sr., passed away,” O’Neal explained. “I have always been looking to earn the right to take a Wally home. I’ve been close in the past, and that always made me wonder if I truly had it in me to win one, to be deserving of being a Wally owner. The road to get to the winner’s circle at Gateway Motorsports Park had numerous highs and lows, and I can tell you that there were quite a few more lows than highs, but giving up was never an option.”
During his tenure in the Army, where he spent the latter part of his career as a recruiter, O’Neal competed in the Super Comp class with a dragster that bore a striking resemblance to Tony Schumacher’s Top Fuel car. O’Neal almost fulfilled his dream of winning a Wally on NHRA’s biggest stage when he reached the final of the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals, but that dream ended at the hands of Troy Coughlin Jr. Seeking to change his fortunes, O’Neal ultimately made the move to the Top Sportsman class in 2014.
“I was as frustrated as one person can be when it comes to .90 [Super-class] racing,” O’Neal said. “Surely, this fast [Top Sportsman] class couldn’t be any harder than Super Comp, right? That was my mindset when I made the switch, but it turns out that the hardest thing about Top Sportsman racing was the concrete wall I drove my ‘Monster Carlo’ into on one horrific day at Lucas Oil Raceway in 2015.”
O’Neal wasn’t injured when he crashed his Top Sportsman car at the Division 3 opener, but his seven-second Chevrolet sustained a lot of damage from the impact. Beyond the financial cost of the accident, O’Neal was also concerned about keeping the promises he’d made to a group of supporters and corporate sponsors that, as he put it, “put their faith in a retired Army soldier to bring awareness and drive sales to their companies.” For the next two months, O’Neal thrashed to repair the car, including the installation of a new front clip and several other body panels that were destroyed in the impact.
“We got the car fixed, and once we got back to the track, there was a gremlin that got in the car that caused me to DNQ for four races,” O’Neal said. “That was something I’d never had to worry about in Super Comp.”
Writing off the majority of the 2015 season, O’Neal was more determined than ever to deliver the goods in 2016. He spent the offseason examining and evaluating every facet of his program with the goal of making the car quicker than it had been. Once he achieved that goal, it became increasingly difficult to make consistent runs.
“It took us until the Bristol race to figure out how to get the car down the track consistently,” O’Neal said. “The car just wasn’t a happy camper with all the newfound horsepower we had. We were lucky that most of our sponsors stayed onboard because they were convinced that we could deliver, but at some point, you have to keep your word and start winning for them.”
The Route 66 NHRA Nationals provided a glimmer of hope with an encouraging round-three finish and career-best numbers. The Division 5 doubleheader event at Heartland Park Topeka a week later offered a great opportunity to finally get on the board, but O’Neal’s luck was not good. His car broke a transmission and a rear-end gear on the same run in Q2. He got the car fixed with the help of fellow racer Terry Sullivan, Royce Freeman, Tim Papp, Joe Fuesting, Kimbra Fuesting, Darwin, and his wife, Diane.
“Getting the car fixed was a high, but there was also a low,” O’Neal said. “Anyone who knows me knows that I accept responsibility for everything, so I’ll come out and just say that I left the plug wires off the engine and we lost in the first round. We had another race the next day, and during our qualifying run, the passenger-side window blew out. Thankfully, the same group that helped fix the transmission and rear end also helped put the door and window back together. Then, I drove like a bona fide knucklehead.
“We repaired the door and headed to St. Louis for the next race,” said O’Neal. “We made two great qualifying runs, and then you know what happened on the third one? Yep, we blew the window out of the car again. And yes, the same folks who dropped everything to help me in Topeka also went to work in St. Louis to get me back on track. The good news is that they are all now very qualified to work on a NASCAR pit crew because they can fix anything and fix it quickly.”
In spite of all the hardships, O’Neal’s never-say-die attitude paid big dividends in the wee hours of Sunday morning when he won the rain-delayed final in the Top Sportsman presented by Racing RVs class. To some racers, it might have been "just another points race," but to O’Neal, the victory represented a microcosm of everything he’d worked toward in his entire career. For a career military man, it was the embodiment of the term “mission accomplished.”
“I began Saturday night feeling like I was living a bad dream, but at 1 a.m. on Sunday morning, I woke up with a Wally,” said O’Neal. “We had five tough rounds, and I was lucky when I needed to be lucky and good when I needed to be good. The late-night final was definitely lucky because I was asleep at the wheel with a reaction time of almost a century, but my opponent red-lighted.
"Never quit: It is part of the U.S. Army foundation, and I still try to live it every single day,” he added. “As I mentioned, I’ve been chasing this for 24 years, including 22 while I was wearing the Army uniform. Most people would have quit by now, and if there’s anyone who has been chasing their first Wally for longer than I have, I’d love to hear about their journey. I am still writing mine. I am completely committed to the sport of drag racing, and I am currently looking for my next goal, a big [national event] Wally.
“I do need to thank everyone who helped me along the way, including VP Racing Fuels, Quick Fuel, Mickey Thompson, Lucas Oil, NGK Spark Plugs, Simpson Safety, Modern Supply, AFCO, Greg Slack, Abruzzi, Carts Gone Wild, Moroso, Oakley Engine Performance and every customer, friend and family members that have been supportive of my journey to complete my father’s dream, which is now my own. I also want to thank everyone who stayed up late in St. Louis, sprayed water, beer, champagne, and even an entire cooler of ice water on me to celebrate. I’m not sure what you will do when I get the big Wally?