Over nine seasons, from 2009 to 2017, Shawn Langdon spent 208 events and hundreds and hundreds of runs learning the finer points of driving a Top Fuel dragster, efforts that culminated in 14 national event victories and the 2013 NHRA Mello Yello world championship.
In 2018, he made the transition to the Funny Car class, where he spent two years in the shorter-wheelbase cousins of the fuel dragsters, again learning the ropes and again finding success with a pair of wins last season.
Now he’s back in Top Fuel and having to “unlearn” what he learned the last two years, and the back-and-forth transition has had his head spinning at times.
“I enjoyed my two-year stint in Funny Car,” he said. “They’re a bear to drive and its been a big learning curve for me. There were times I struggled with it and times where I felt very comfortable and felt like I was getting the hang of it at the end and had some success.
“Coming back to Top Fuel has been a big change. It’s everything I learned over the last two years and trying to reprogram my brain. I’ve really had to eliminate all of that.”
The re-education process began last week during three days of pre-season testing at The Strip at Las Vegas Motorsports Park, and the process was eye-opening, even for a guy with a lot of dragster experience already under his safety belts.
“In Las Vegas, I was driving the dragster like a Funny Car guy and was all over the place and had t do some things to slow my steering down,” he said. “Right now, I’m basically driving the car one-handed now to try to slow myself down to where I’m not oversteering it.”
Langdon and the DHL team, led by team owner Connie Kalitta and Kurt Elliott, made six runs in testing, and Langdon also got to drive the mac Tools machine of teammate Doug Kalitta, which also helped.
“As much as you sit in a car [in the shop] and have a seat poured and you think you have everything where you want it, everything changes once you’ve got your helmet on and you’re strapped in,” he said. “There were some things in Doug’s car that I liked better, so we made some changes before we came here. I felt it was very beneficial to me, not only in getting some more seat time but also having a second opinion on the setup.”
Langdon also said he notices a big difference in the acceleration between the two cars. Where a Funny Car covers the first 330 feet in 2.25 seconds, the dragster will do it in 2.09. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but it is.
“Your procedures – warmup, burnout, staging – are all the same, but the biggest difference I’ve noticed is that after you hit the gas, between 100 and 200 feet, the Top Fuel dragsters accelerate so much harder. It can get you mentally behind really quickly, which I think is where some of my oversteering came from.”
Based on Friday’s opening two qualifying runs in Pomona, Langdon and crew obviously are fast adopters. Langdon steered the DHL dragster to the provisional pole with a 3.69 boast in Q2.
“We made some really strong runs in testing and the two runs here,” said Langdon. “Connie and Kurt have given me a great car, which has accelerated my reacclimating phase. We had a cylinder out on that .69, so we still have a little left. We probably could have gone a .68. Cars will step up today; I hope it sticks.”
The fact that Langdon’s return is happening at the Southern California native’s hometrack is not lost on him. Five of his 23 wins – four in Top Fuel and one in Super Comp – have come at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona.
“There are tracks you go to and everything just clicks and you could stage the car in reverse and things just work out and then there are tracks where it feels like you even fall out of bed awkwardly,” he admitted. “Fortunately, Pomona is one of those tracks where I’ve had good success. Its where I got my starts, where I raced Jr., where my friends and family are.”