From doorcar driver to Top Fuel pilot: Alex Laughlin's incredible 2021 season
Alex Laughlin had a problem. A big problem. As the NHRA tour prepared to head to Denver for the Mopar//SRT NHRA Mile-High Nationals, a huge marketplace for his primary sponsor, Havoline, Laughlin was informed that his leased racecar would not be making the trip.
Entering 2021, Laughlin was best known by NHRA fans as a race-winning Pro Stock driver, having accumulated four wins since 2016. His 2021 Pro Stock campaign however, ended after just two events over frustration that he wasn’t getting requisite power from his engine-providing partners at Elite Motorsports, so he stopped running Pro Stock to concentrate his efforts behind the wheel of Elite’s house Pro Mod entry, which he felt was much more competitive.
‘Hungry for more’
“I don't like running races anymore just to be there because after you start performing well and get some round wins that turn into race wins, you're hungry for more, and you don't want to do it just to do it,” he explained. “So I decided that the Pro Mod car was probably going to better suit me for the season.”
But, after a so-so-outing at the Summit Racing Equipment Nationals in Norwalk, Elite team owner Richard Freeman informed Laughlin that he wouldn’t be taking the car to Denver.
“We didn't run good in Ohio, and Richard said, ‘We're not going to learn anything in Denver and that going was just going to be a waste of time and money.’ I explained that I had a huge sponsor commitment and I had to be there.”
Even worse, Pro Stock was not scheduled to be contested at the event so that wasn’t even an option for Laughlin.
Out of options
“I searched high and low to get into another Pro Mod because that's what made sense,” he said, “and my only other options would have been Top Fuel, Funny Car, or Pro Stock Motorcycle because I had to be in a pro car to fulfill my obligations to Havoline. I couldn't get anybody on the hook to run a Pro Mod car and I was out of options, so I just thought, ‘Man, what are the chances that I could get into a Top Fuel car for one race and pull this off? How cool would that be?’ And it sounded really cool and everything in my mind until I was in Wichita, Kan., about to make a licensing run in a Top Fuel car on an asphalt track with metal guardrails.”
Although best known as a doorcar driver, Laughlin had competed in Top Alcohol Dragster in 2017, so the idea wasn’t completely far-fetched. After Top Fuel’s go-to Top Fuel owner/renter Del Worsham couldn’t pull together a deal in time to help Laughlin, he was steered toward Scott Palmer, who was already entered for the Denver event and planning to have his dragster at Kansas International Dragway for a Funny Car Chaos event if Laughlin could get there and get licensed. Until that time, the two had had barely met, perhaps exchanging a handshake or two at an event.
“Scott told me he was scheduled to run Denver for his sponsors, but he just needed to think about it and figure out what he needed to do or be able to move [the commitment] around to another race,” said Laughlin.” In all honesty, the easiest thing for Palmer to do would have been to just say no, because there's no doubt that he had to jump through all kinds of hoops to pull it off. And he did.”
There also was the not-small deal of convincing his friends at Havoline that this would work out, but they ultimately agreed that he could do it this one time but expected him back in a doorcar for future races.
‘I think I've made a mistake’
“Once I got to Wichita, Scott said, ‘You know, this is not the ideal place to try to get a license,’ and now that I've gotten to know him really well, it's funny, because it was kind of a ‘measuring stick’ for me, like 'How serious is this guy about getting in Top Fuel car and going into this race?’ If he's willing to come here and actually strap into this thing and hit the gas, then he's more of the real deal than he gave me credit for it.
“The car was ready to run right at noon but as they're putting the car on the ground, a little storm blew in and it started sprinkling. And I thought 'I am absolutely screwed,' but we waited it out, and luckily it only lasted for probably 30-45 minutes. When the track dried out, I went up there to run, and every breath I took was like swallowing a golf ball. I hit the gas in that thing, and it went .832[-second] to 60 feet and knocked me cross-eyed. I actually thought at that point, ‘I think I've made a mistake. I don't know if this is something that I can do.’
“The fortunate thing for me was that Scott’s car had the exact same type of MLR chassis as my Alcohol Dragster, and the process of driving the car is identical from how you do the burnout to backing up. Literally everything --every switch, every handle, everything -- is in the exact same spot, so I already had down the orientation of the car. Thank goodness, I didn't have to learn how to operate the car. I just had to learn how to handle what it does to you.
“As similar as the two cars look, they aren't even comparable. I've been drag racing since I was 15 -- so that's 18 years – and I might as well have never driven anything in my life to getting into that dragster. I mean, it's that different.”
Despite the conditions and his trepidation, Laughlin completed his licensing runs in four passes and the next day sent in his Top Fuel entry to run in Denver.
“Still, it was it was really nerve racking going into Denver thinking, I've never experienced 300 miles an hour, and I'm going to go out there and do it on national television, in front of everybody that's there. And there's this whole story about why I like just out of nowhere showed up in Top Fuel. So, all eyes on me, and I just I was thinking the same thing that I thought after I hit the gas the first time: 'I don't know if I can do this.' But the problem is, I had to and so, honestly, that's what made it made it all happen. I had no choice, I had to do it. And I've always said that, hopping in between all the different cars that I've raced over the years. I like the feeling. I'm comfortable being uncomfortable, but this was such a higher level of discomfort that it was it was sickening, really.”
Laughlin acquitted himself well in his official debut, qualifying with a 3.90 at 316 mph and although he lost in round one and then had to return to running Pro Stock at the next event in Sonoma, his heart was already in Top Fuel, and found himself back in the dragster two races later in Topeka with sponsorship from PowerBuilt Tools then ran with Havoline for the rest of the year.
“I definitely was finding my comfort zone,” he said. “Every single run got a little bit better and learned the do's and don't’s. For example, everything I've always driven is with one hand on the wheel and one on the shifter, but I started realizing is that [without a transmission to shift] I was overdriving the dragster by putting two hands on the wheel. As soon as I got both hands up there, I felt like I have to be doing something, so I was trying to correct little things that aren't even necessary and overdriving the car. So now when it rips the handbrake out of my hands leaving the starting line, I just put my hand on the parachute lever and drive the car with one hand the whole way. And it just flows right down through there, just straight as a string.”
Laughlin ultimately notched a pair of round wins, beating Justin Ashley in round one in Indy and Clay Millican in the opening frame in Las Vegas and finished a respectable 12th in points despite running only seven of the seasons; 20 events, not that points were ever a high priority.
“It was a perfect time to get into it and make that transition where points didn't really matter quite as much.” he reflected. “I was just there to learn more than anything. I would say my goals were met or exceeded. Winning a couple of rounds was big. Just qualifying well is huge. I just wanted to blend in. I wanted it to look like we just fit, like we've done it before. We're not going out to be No. 1 qualifier. I just wanted to look like we're a good team and have our stuff together.
“I would say right now that I have the perfect amount of comfort versus discomfort. With the Pro Stock car and even the Pro Mod, I've had so many runs that it eventually becomes a level of feeling tame. And that's when you start to get complacent. And you know, being complacent is bad, right? When an accident does happen and somebody's complacent with maybe their safety gear, it's always much worse. I'm comfortable in the dragster now, but I'm also uncomfortable enough that it's still very serious. I think it's the perfect balance of understanding its capabilities, good and bad, what it's capable of on the racetrack as far as what it does, on average, but what is capable of doing if things go wrong.”
Pro Stock legend Warren Johnson has long publicly expressed his disdain for the nitro cars – “belt-driven tunnel rams with liquid dynamite for fuel – and Laughlin admits that he, too, woefully underestimated his nitro compatriots during his time in Pro Stock.
“I did have those feelings,” he admits, “and it's hard not to because the Pro Stock cliques, and the Top Fuel cliques, they do it; it's the environment. Almost everybody in Pro Stock thinks there's nothing to it: A bunch of oil burners and just pour more fuel to it, and that's just what is beaten into you. And then, on the other hand, I've had some of the Top Fuel guys ask me, ‘What are you doing in that Pro Stock car? Just sipping coffee, driving up through there?’ And it's very much like that from both sides. But, after driving both categories, I realized I was very, very wrong about Top Fuel. The acceleration of the Top Fuel car is something that you can't compare to anything. It's just so different, like you’re just surviving to the finish line. It is pulling so hard, and it is so violent and intense that you are almost looking for any reason necessary to get off the gas pedal. Pro Stock’s not like that.
“And, and even from a technical standpoint, the way that they set these cars up, everybody's always told me, ‘Oh, they choose their compression based on the head gaskets,’ and there's, there's so much more than that. The Top Fuel stuff is, honestly, every bit as intricate as a Pro Stock engine setup, if not more. I was absolutely shocked at some of the stuff that goes into it, from the way that they choose pistons, the way that they choose the rods, the clutch setups -- there's absolutely as much as the Pro Stock car, for sure. No doubt about it.”
“The other thing that really surprised me was the publicity difference. I knew that the nitro stuff got better TV coverage but how much bigger of a deal it is was kind of a surprise to me. All of the people that are ‘Alex fans’ were absolutely just ecstatic with the swap. My sponsors, people on social media, everybody -- there was absolutely not one single negative thing that came with making this change.”
Plans for 2022
It’s no surprise that Laughlin will stick with Palmer and Top Fuel in 2022, and although a full season is not yet in the works, he's excited about continuing, with a scheduled 2022 debut in Gainesville.
“I've got Havoline on board for 10 races so far, and I'm hoping to get more sponsorship locked in, but unless something massive comes together, I just don't see it in the cards to run a full season. But if I could run 15 or 16. I would love to add another five or six to the schedule if there's any possible way.
"Scott has become a really close friend. We talk almost every day and we're very like-minded. We come from similar backgrounds. As far as the racing goes, we've never had just tons of funding thrown our way. We've both tried to make the best of what we've got and stretch a dollar as far as possible. I feel like we're just a generation different of each other but the same thing. You could ask every single person out there, what they think of Scott Palmer, and nobody has anything bad to say about him.
“I think that Scott had a good time. Of course, any racer wants to be in the driver's seat, but it seems like he's also he's really enjoyed himself, being able to focus on the performance of the car instead of driving and everything. And I know that I know how hard it is just operating your own team.
“What Scott did for me is something that I will absolutely forever be grateful for,” he added. “If it wasn't for him, I never would have been in a Top Fuel car. I don't know what would have happened at Denver. And now my entire direction of my career in drag racing has changed to something that I didn’t think was even remotely achievable from a financial standpoint.”