J.R. Todd would rather have a car that dominates and turns in one stellar pass after another.
That’s often happened throughout his impressive Funny Car career with Kalitta Motorsports, but on those rare occasions when he’s had to take matters into his own hands, Todd has shown a flair for the dramatic.
There was the dramatic come-from-behind semifinal win in Sonoma against Jack Beckman in 2017 that will play on highlight reels forever, and now there’s the final round from Gainesville to open the 2021 season. Both Todd and Robert Hight smoked the tires almost immediately, but it was Todd who recovered quickly and legged out a memorable victory, going 5.184 seconds at 286.38 mph to win his first Gatornationals.
He lauded a team, led by crew chiefs Jon Oberhofer and Todd Smith, that consistently give him a good DHL Toyota Camry, but Todd was ready to do his job when adversity struck in that championship moment.
“As a driver, it feels good when you can win a final round in that fashion against one of the best drivers in the class in my opinion,” Todd said. “I would rather have a car that dominates, but whatever it takes to turn on the win light. The crew gave me a great car all weekend, but in the final, you take a win any way you can get it."
Todd notes there’s no way to practice those situations when a car instantly smokes the tires, but his driver instincts have been remarkable when it does happen.
He lived in the mid-3.90s most of the weekend in Gainesville up to the final round, putting him on a path for his first victory in nearly two years. But when Todd needed to be spectacular, he was — and in the blink of an eye.
“The No. 1 rule of thumb is you don’t give up until the guy or girl next to you crosses the finish line,” said Todd, who has 19 career victories across Top Fuel and Funny Car. “So, it blows the tires almost instantly and you get off the throttle as soon as possible, and you expect to see the person blowing past you.
“Now, this is all happening in a fraction of a second. Your mind slows it down, and I didn’t see Robert drive away. I let it calm down as much as possible and let the wheel speed slow far enough where I could roll into the throttle and get some momentum. I still don’t see Robert going past me, so I try to get back going, and you’re trying to go wide open as soon as possible.
“It’s all about being calm, and it goes back to the crew chiefs, too. The timing maps they put in, it makes me look a lot better. But it’s a great feeling to win a race like that. You’re just worried about trying to get it to the finish lines, so it’s definitely rewarding.”
Again, though, Todd would much rather have a dominant car, and his team showed strong signs of that early.
They’re also heading to an ideal spot at the upcoming Denso Spark Plugs NHRA Four-Wide Nationals in Las Vegas. While there were no four-wide races last year due to COVID-19, Todd has won the last two — and also the first two — four-wide events at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
He’s always seemed to run well in Vegas over the years, and after going winless in 2020 while Don Schumacher Racing dominated Funny Car, an opening-race win and a stop in Vegas gives Todd a great chance to start the year in remarkable fashion.
“It was nice to start the year fresh and in the winner’s circle, and I'm hoping we can keep riding that wave,” Todd said. “Todd and Jon O have a good handle on that track whether we’re running two or four-wide. Hopefully, we can get back there and have another good weekend.”