NASCAR & Auto Racing

Why drag racer J.R. Todd is looking forward to this weekend’s NHRA Heartland Nationals

Driver J.R. Todd is the defending Funny Car champion on the NHRA circuit. He brings his familiar yellow DHL ride to Topeka this weekend.
Driver J.R. Todd is the defending Funny Car champion on the NHRA circuit. He brings his familiar yellow DHL ride to Topeka this weekend. AP photo

J.R. Todd wants to be careful here, not because he earns his paychecks in potentially dangerous ways — drag racing is like that sometimes — or because he’s risen so high up the sport’s totem pole during his illustrious career to this point.

He wants to be clear about something else. It’s about his race. He’s African-American, and he’s earned several distinctions for it. Among them: He’s the first black man to win an NHRA Top Fuel race, and the first black winner in NHRA Funny Car history.

Ahead of this weekend’s NHRA Heartland Nationals in Topeka, Kansas, Todd has designs on climbing up the Funny Car standings — he’s currently in fifth — but also on making sure that he’s viewed through more lenses than just the one about his race.

“I take pride in it,” Todd said. “To me, it shows other minorities out there that it can be done, and it shows that if you set a goal for yourself and stick with it, like I did, that anything can happen. NHRA doesn’t have any barriers or anything like that. It’s pretty wide-open across the board, where diversity’s never really been a problem.”

That’s the first part. There’s another side to it.

Let Todd explain.

“It’s not something that you put in your mind,” he said. “Like, ‘Hey, if I win this race, you’re going to be the first African-American,’ or, ‘If you win the championship, you’re going to be the first one to do that.’ That’s been the goal from Day 1, when I started racing, to make it as a professional and to win races and win a championship. To be able to pull that off and then to get all those accolades that come with it, that’s just icing on the cake.”

For Todd, there’s much to be accomplished this weekend in Topeka, but let’s start with his background.

He credits much of it to his father. Todd was “pretty much born and raised at the racetrack,” he’ll tell you, and his dad raced dirt-track motorcycles. That, Todd said, was too much for his parents to handle. What if Todd got hurt?

Fortunately for Todd, he never had to answer the question.

In 1992, the NHRA unveiled the Junior Drag Racing League, a division of the sport geared specifically toward ages 5 and 17. Todd fit the age range, at 11, as well as the location. He lived in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, less than two hours from Indianapolis, where the NHRA put on the inaugural Drag Racing League National Championships at Lucas Oil Raceway.

So Todd’s career began. In 1993, he raced his first dragster.

“I was hooked at that point,” he said. “You never really know, as a kid, if you’ll make it racing professionally. You want to — it’s no different than a kid playing little league baseball or pee-wee football wanting to play sports for a living. I kind of met the right people at the right time and got lucky along the way.”

Two parts to that: first, the growing-up portion.

Todd has spent the better part of his life around racing, no matter the form. He’s familiar with it all. Thank the NHRA for that, in large part.

Here’s the catch, though: Todd insists his background has only had a positive impact on his career. There’s no downside, no pressure, to having that thorough of a history with the sport.

“The only pressure that I feel is whatever pressure I put on myself,” Todd said. “I think starting racing as a kid has helped me a better driver today — making that many laps on the track. I feel like kids that start racing at a young age and make it as a professional in this sport usually have more laps on the racetrack than a lot of other the professionals do in their career.

“That just, in turn, makes you a better driver. To me, it’s more about going out there and having fun and living in the moment and making the best of it. If you put pressure on yourself or allow other people to put pressure on you, you’re going to eventually fold, and that’s going to be bad.”

The other part of it has to do with the stroke of luck he mentioned. It came in 2014, via a phone call from Team Kalitta owner Connie Kalitta.

Todd wasn’t expecting his phone to ring, not while he was at an Indianapolis Buffalo Wild Wings watching the NCAA Tournament, and especially because he wasn’t even racing full-time, but it did. It was Kalitta.

He wanted Todd to fly to Las Vegas to replace one of his drivers at a series in which the team had already reached the qualifying round. And, to Todd, most importantly, he later started driving the car in which Kalitta’s son, Scott, died during a 2008 race.

“That, to me, was a career-changer. It kind of kick-started my career again,” Todd said. “I was pretty down and out. I didn’t know if I would ever be racing full-time again, and he gave me a second chance. I told myself to make the best of it.”

“That car holds a special place in everybody’s heart at Kalitta Motorsports. It means a lot to me to be driving it. It’s probably the biggest honor that I’ve had in my career. To be able to win a championship, that’s the only way we can pay back Connie for what he’s done for us.”

He’s done that already, winning the 2018 Funny Car championship, but he’s out for more.

It starts this weekend in Topeka.

“I don’t even know how many times I’ve raced there,” Todd said. “It’s a handful of times. We went to the semifinals there last year, so hopefully we can add to that, do one better, go to the finals and win the event.”