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One in a million

11 May 2016
Kevin McKenna, National Dragster Senior Editor
The Sports Report

Let’s face it: Almost everyone who visits Las Vegas dreams of hitting that huge jackpot that will lead to easy street, but the harsh reality is that only a tiny fraction of the gamblers, dreamers, and risk-takers who tempt fate in Sin City actually pull it off. And then there is Jeff Verdi, who recently broke the bank with a $270,000 windfall in Las Vegas. Verdi, a cabinetmaker from Virginia, didn’t get his newfound riches from a slot machine or roulette wheel; instead, he was rewarded richly after driving his trusty Pontiac Firebird to a win at the K&N Spring Fling Million, the E.T. bracket racing extravaganza held annually at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

“I’m still in shock a little bit,” said Verdi, nearly a month after the big win. “I can look over and see the big trophy sitting on the mantel, and I’m just surprised it’s sitting in my house. The money is cool; it certainly comes in handy, and it will make a difference, but someday it will be gone. The memories of that night and the win will be there forever. That’s the most important thing to me.”

Verdi has won multiple championships racing at tracks around his Virginia home, and he has a solid record at big-money bracket events, so he wasn’t the least bit afraid to tow across the country to take on the sport’s best E.T. drivers. As soon as Spring Fling promoters Peter Biondo and Kyle Seipel announced a possible $1 million payout for this year’s event, Verdi knew he couldn’t pass it up, even though it meant being away from work for a week and forking over a hefty $2,000 entry fee.

“I’ve been going to the other Spring Fling race in Bristol since 2010 because that’s only 350 miles from home,” said Verdi. “I also ran the other Million Dollar race in Alabama last year, and I did very well; I think I won 17 rounds over the weekend, so I decided to go to Vegas and give it a try. Yes, the competition is tough, but it doesn’t really scare me. I’ve found that the more you race against guys like Luke [Bogacki] and Anthony [Bertozzi] and all the other big hitters you read about, the better you’re going to be. Anyone can put together a package to beat you, so you can’t worry about who you’re running.

”I also didn’t think much about how much this cost,” added Verdi. “In my mind, when you sit around and think about racing for possibly a million dollars, that’s exciting. You know that it probably won’t happen to you, but just the possibility gives you a real positive feeling all day long.”

Before he could even dream of cashing one of the sport’s biggest paychecks, Verdi had to first get to Las Vegas, which meant a 2,200-mile one-way trip from his home in Glen Allen, Va. Verdi and his friend, engine builder Jerry Loan, headed west in a 15-year-old GMC pickup with Verdi’s ’69 Firebird race car on an open trailer. By the time they had made it to West Texas, their adventure began to resemble a scene from National Lampoon’s Vacation.

“The truck did break down a few times,” Verdi said. “The engine just kept cutting off. At first, we thought it was the fuel pump, but it turned out to be a bad crank sensor. We spent four hours by the side of the road in Texas changing the fuel pump, and once we got going again, it started acting up within a minute. That was really frustrating. We limped into New Mexico, but the problem got so bad that we couldn’t keep going. We got out our phones and did a Google search for ‘GMC truck engine cutting out,’ and the thing that came up most often was a bad crank sensor. Luckily, we found a local NAPA store, and they actually had one in stock. After that, we didn’t have any more problems.”

Verdi’s Firebird, a true Pontiac-powered car, may have looked a bit out of place among the sea of dragsters usually at bigger bracket events, but he insists that he’s not intimidated by racing against faster cars. Verdi boosted his confidence by going to the sixth round of eliminations in Thursday’s preliminary event. On the eve of the Million Dollar main event, Verdi was prepared to pony up the $2,000 entry fee, but he caught a break when his ticket was drawn in a $50 raffle. Coincidentally, Loan also won an entry through another raffle.

“I used Jerry’s entry and ended up selling my entry to Anthony Bertozzi because he brought four cars to this race,” said Verdi. “Johnny Labbous was also pitted near us, and he also won a raffle, so we did some swapping among ourselves. When it was all said and done, I basically ran the Million for $500.”

To race in the dry mountain air of Las Vegas, Verdi made a small rpm adjustment on his Firebird, and the car responded by running flawlessly. Relaxed and confident, Verdi reached the sixth round of the main event, where the 13 remaining racers from the starting field of 270 began negotiations to split more than $300,000 in prize money.

“We were supposed to get $3,000 if we lost in the sixth round, and by the time everyone finally agreed to the split, we got the round money up to $10,000,” said Verdi. “At that point, I didn’t feel any pressure because I knew that I was going to make a nice hit no matter what happened. In the next round, I had Luke Bogacki, but I went up there in a great frame of mind. I wasn’t thinking about the money, and I wasn’t nervous. I didn’t do anything differently than normal. I got past Luke, and that was another $10,000.”

Verdi defeated reigning NHRA Super Comp national champ Kevin Brannon in the semifinals, then returned for the biggest final of his life, where he was paired against Lane Dicken, a well-known high-stakes bracket racer with more than a few big wins. Undeterred, Verdi had a .014 reaction time and ran a 5.901 on his 5.90 dial on the eighth-mile track to win by a few thousandths. Dicken was quicker off the starting line with a .009 light but couldn’t catch Verdi with a 4.427 on his 4.41 dial.

“Before the final, I was still relaxed,” Verdi said. “I did roll two-thousandths into the delay box just so I didn’t red-light. I didn’t think that would change the outcome of the race. It all just played out perfectly for me.”

Once he returned to the starting line, Verdi was mobbed by a host of friends and well-wishers and greeted by a pair of Las Vegas showgirls. The final was run after midnight, but because Vegas is a city that never sleeps, the party ran well into the morning hours. Once the winner’s circle celebration wound down, Verdi was whisked away via a limousine to a Strip casino, where he got the VIP treatment for the night. To no one’s surprise, he found his way back to the track early the next morning for the final event of the weekend, a $10,000 race.

“I think I got maybe two hours sleep,” said Verdi. “My phone was going crazy with all the people calling me. I had a lot of friends back home in Virginia who watched the live [Internet] feed. At first, I honestly didn’t feel like I’d won a race. It wasn’t until I saw the big trophy and the showgirls and the limo that it all started to sink in. Then, when I got home, I did an interview with Channel 6, our local CBS affiliate, and then an interview for a Pontiac magazine. It’s been pretty crazy.

“I’m sure I’ll go back again next year,” said Verdi. “I build cabinets and countertops during the week, so I don’t have the same mindset as some of these pro racers do. The drive out there and all the mileage doesn’t bother me as much as taking the time off work. Still, I think it would be hard not to go back. Even if I hadn’t won, it would have been an awesome trip.”