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Top Fuel's Mike Salinas: “I’m here for one thing, and that’s to win”

Mike Salinas doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to setting goals, especially in drag racing: After leading Friday qualifying at the Denso Spark Plugs NHRA Four-Wide Nationals, he seems primed for his first win.
06 Apr 2019
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
Race coverage
Mike Salinas

Mike Salinas doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to setting goals, especially in drag racing: “I’m here for one thing, and that’s to win.”

Beneath an easy-going, friendly exterior, the Northern California-based Top Fuel pilot admits he’s very demanding and expects success from everyone in his orbit, including his family. Over the winter, he hired the sport’s most successful nitro tuner, Alan Johnson and his protégé, Brian Husen, to bring their magic to the Scrappers Racing team.

And when daughters Jasmine and Jianna wanted to go racing this year –- in Top Alcohol Dragster and Pro Stock Motorcycle, respectively –- he made them put up the first $50,000 towards buying into their teams.

“Jasmine had to sell her couch to finish off her $50,000,” he said, a glint of pride in his eyes. ”It was kind of cool to see that. My kids have to work for everything and by seeing them put up the first $50,000, that means they’re dedicated.”

Salinas, who has built his scrap-metal and garbage-hauling company from the ground up, doesn’t want to hear anything about second place. Now 40-plus races into a Top Fuel career, he’s still looking for his first win, and that doesn’t set well with the goal-driven life he’s lived. He’s all business when it comes to the business of winning.

“I’m pretty hard on my girls” he admits. “To all of us, second isn’t best for us. It’s a rough household to live in when we’ve been No. 1 in everything else we’ve done our whole lives. We compete with ourselves for personal bests. I want them to live like they want to live and be as strong as they can. They’re both running companies now and I’ve got them believing that they can do anything.”

Salinas’ own career has seen checkered results. He’s been the No. 1 qualifier (last year at Indy) and been to a final round (last year in Bristol), but he’s also experienced the frustration of both breakage and pit-area oversights. So when Johnson and Husen left the John Force racing camp, where they’d helped propel Brittany Force to the Top Fuel championship ins 2017, Salinas went all-in to get them both.

“They’re top-notch and very professional,” he said. “I know what Alan and these guys are capable of. If that doesn’t happen with Alan, then maybe it’s just not meant to be.”

Having the mechanical end sorted out leaves Salinas free to concentrate on driving the car, where he admits he needs some improvement. He ranks 11th in reaction-time average among his tour regulars.

“I’m working on that this year; I need a lot of work,” he said. “I’m trying to learn how to get into that place that [Don] Prudhomme was, in his own little world, with is hard for me to do; I’ve got squirrels bouncing off the wall [in my head]. But it’s really nice [having Johnson and Husen]. Now I don’t have to worry about the car; I can just jump in and drive the car and have a great time.”

He’s also working on not worrying about his daughters -- not an easy feat -– but he’s following the model set by the sport’s most successful racer, John Force, who’s had three of his daughters competing alongside him.

“I stopped John at one of the races and asked him how he does this, with all of the emotions and driving. He told he just puts himself in a particular place when he drives. I’m going to have to learn a lot from him if we’re going to have our kids out here because there are dangers in what we’re doing. NHRA and the safety crews are the best there are, but you still have it in the back of your head that something could happen. 

“My wife, Monica, is a little nerve-racked, plus we still have two daughters [Jacquelin and Janae] coming in, so this is going to be fun. It’s been really fun and I’m happy that they’re out here doing this, but it is nerve-racking at times.”

After a strong semifinal finish at the season opener, the team “fell on our faces” in Phoenix and Gainesville, leading to a total racecar teardown between events that has apparently chased the gremlin from their camp. The results were obvious in Las Vegas with two strong runs, including Friday’s field-leading 3.705.

“We’re working diligently and surrounded by good people,” he said. “Antron [Brown] has helped me, Jack Beckman has helped me, Steve Torrence gave me some good advice. The whole group of people we race with is pretty amazing. They all want us to succeed until we get to [the starting line].

“The last couple of years you don’t take anyone lightly, because that’s when you’re going to get bit. Steve and Billy [Torrence] have a program that is amazing, and everyone in the class is chasing them.

“I want to beat Steve Torrence; he’s the best and that’s what we’re going after. With this crew we have I believe we can get it.”