J.R. Todd was born addicted to racing, possessing a thirst and passion for the craft that was passed down by his dad, who had an insatiable need for speed and motorcycles.
“As far back as I can remember, I was born and raised at the race track,” Todd told The Shadow League in an exclusive interview. “ My father, he used to race dirt track motorcycles. So I think I was 3 years old when I got my first three-wheeler, riding around my parents yard. The older I got, it advanced to four wheelers and dirt bikes as I continued to watch my dad race motorcycles.”
In 2006, Todd stormed the Top Fuel dragster circuit, becoming the first African-American driver in NHRA history to earn a win in the Top Fuel class.
Todd: “At the time I had no idea that I was the first ever African-American to win a Top Fuel event. I was just in shock that I had won my first pro race and the next day you’re getting calls from ESPN, Sports Center, CNN and USA Today and you’re like, ‘Wow, this is a huge deal.’ I’m glad I was able to be the first one to accomplish that.”
It was the classic example of being spoiled by success. Todd wasn’t a target or a hunted racer as he is now. His relative anonymity in the sport at the time allowed him to sneak up on the competition.
Nobody saw the kid from Lawrenceburg, Indiana coming through the thick cloud of smoke and flames of fury emitting from his winning dragster.
Todd: “At the beginning of 2006 I only entered a few races. We weren't a fully funded team to be out there and compete every week with the top teams. I didn't think we would have the success we did that early in my career. By my ninth race we got picked up with full-time sponsorship and I knocked off Tony Schumacher at Mopar Mile High NHRA Nationals. At that time Tony might have been the four or five-time reigning Top Fuel champion of the world. So to beat him in the final round like that was a dream come true for me and just snowballed into the start of my career from there.”
Being the first African-American event champion in a sport dominated by whites is a narrative that most mainstream media outlets use to tell Todd’s story. Ironically, however, Todd says he got into drag racing because of its inclusiveness.
Todd: “Drag racing is the most open form of motor sports where anyone can get involved. Whether it’s taking your street car out to the local drag strip and running it down the track to prove you can go out there and compete for pride...”
Or being a Top Fuel driver at the highest levels and an overnight success, as some described Todd a decade ago. Becoming a racing force was in Todd’s destiny, but as a youth he envisioned a different mode of transportation up the ladder of success.
Todd: “Due to past injuries my dad had from crashes, my parents were real hesitant to even let me ride those four wheelers and dirt bikes, let alone race them. So I never got the opportunity to race dirt track motorcycles like my dad did, which growing up that's all I wanted to do was be like him.”
Todd fed his adolescent attraction to drag racing by watching the pros on television and attending the closest national events in Columbus, Ohio and Indianapolis, Indiana.
Todd: “I saw the top fuel cars and the pros and said, ‘This is awesome. I’d love to do this when I get older.’ So you set goals and dream of doing it but you never really think it’s going to actually happen.”
As Todd matured, he says, everyone in his household knew that the time would come for him to race something. By the time he was 10, the construction company his dad worked for had a ‘57 Chevy Bel Air that they would take to a local drag strip. Todd got his feet wet with them a little bit.
The game changer for Todd was when the NHRA formed the Junior Drag Racing League, with specially-designed vehicles for kids 5 to 16 years old.
Todd: “As soon as they formed that league at the end of ‘92, we had a junior dragster and by the beginning of 1993 I was drag racing and haven’t looked back since.”
Just as quickly as Todd rose to Top Fuel racing prominence, the harsh realities of his chosen career smashed his dome like a rum bottle to the head of an unsuspecting victim at a nightclub, when he lost his best buddy and one of NHRA’s fan favorites Eric Medlen, in a 2007 testing accident.
As tore up as Todd was about it, he rationalized that it’s a part of the game and the true ride-or-die racers accept it.
Todd: “Racers... that’s just kind of how we are wired. You know that in the back of your mind the danger is out there and bad things can happen. I've witnessed some terrible things at the race track. I was there the day Eric crashed. I was in the hospital the next few days with him when he was fighting for his life.”
“That's definitely a reality check when you see those kind of things happen to someone you’re really close to and hang out with on a daily basis and live right down the street from and then they are taken from you. It puts things in perspective...I never second-guess my career or anything like that. Maybe other racers were second guessing if it was what they really wanted to do, but for me, I was anxious to get back in the car it was the best way for me to heal.”
Todd was able to win his first race after Eric’s death and hand the trophy to Medlen’s mom and dad, culminating a first few years on the pro circuit that was truly a whirlwind Hollywood film filled with glory, unexpected tragedy and triumph.
So what has the last 10 years brought J.R. Todd, now 35 years old and a seasoned veteran of the sport?
Todd: “Since that first win it's definitely been an up and down journey to get to this point in my career now. My rookie season in Top Fuel NHRA, I was 24 years old, I was Rookie of the Year and just on top of the world in my mind. You think you're going to continue riding that wave the rest of your career and then you get a reality check when the sponsorship goes away and you're back to the drawing board searching for your next deal out there. I did some bouncing around with different teams and even sat out a handful of seasons, only racing part time due to that lack of sponsorship.”
Rather than become one of those shooting comets in sports that excites the masses and earns premature praise before fizzling out into mediocrity, 2014 became the beginning of Todd’s comeback and the rebirth of a drag racing roughrider.
Todd got the break of a lifetime when Kalitta Motorsports called him up in 2014 and asked him to ride with them. Todd was contacted by dragster legend and crew chief Connie Kalitta to replace Australian native David Grubnic. Kalitta, known as a maverick throughout the racing industry, pulled Grubnic out of the Optima Batteries Top Fuel dragster after the first two rounds of qualifying and replaced him with Todd in the middle of a race weekend in Las Vegas.
It was a touchy and pressure-filled situation to get thrust into, but Todd, who hadn’t had consistent work in years, needed the break.
Todd: “It’s definitely one of those situations that’s kind of unheard of in drag racing. The series was in Las Vegas and I was back home in Indianapolis just because at that time I was only racing part time for Bob Vandergriff and had no intentions on being in Las Vegas that weekend. I got a call from Connie on Friday night and he asked me what it would take to get to Las Vegas the next day, hop in the seat and continue qualifying his car.”
Todd went home and booked a flight, packed his bags, got a couple hours of sleep and was in Las Vegas to get fitted for a car to replace Grubnic. Back in full effect.
Todd: “I was happy, but it was an uneasy feeling. You don't know how the other driver or crew feels about you, but they made it an extremely comfortable situation for me. My biggest fear was not being able to properly fit in the car. Grubby is a tall guy around 6-3 and I'm only around 5-6. We did everything possible to make things more comfortable for me in the car to reach all the controls and physically drive. We qualified the car on Saturday and even won a round of competition on Sunday. Monday I flew back to Indianapolis and I get a call later that evening and got offered the job full time.”
"Since then things have become more comfortable for me as a member of Kalitta Motorsports and there’s no hard feelings between Grubnic (now a crew chief for another team) and myself.”
Todd's early success inspired other African-American Top Fuel guys such as two-time and defending NHRA Top Fuel champ Antron Brown, who won the NHRA New England Nationals in Epping, New Hampshire on Monday.
Brown is just 46 points off the Top Fuel lead heading into Brown’s home track in Englishtown, New Jersey for this weekend’s NHRA Summer Nationals at Old Bridge Township Raceway Park. It will be the 10th race in the 24-race Mello Yello Drag Racing Series.
Brown is the defending winner at Englishtown, where he captured his 50th career win of his overall NHRA career, first as a Pro Stock Motorcycle rider and then Top Fuel navigator. He’s gone on to win the 2015 Top Fuel championship and six other races.
(Photo Credit: motorsports.nbcsports.com)
Back To The Future
In 2015, SealMaster joined Todd as the primary sponsor on his Top Fuel dragster. SealMaster expanded their relationship with Todd from two events in 2015 to the complete season (24 events) in 2016.
So far, 2016 has been a strong season for Todd and his revived racing career. He was fifth in points entering last weekend's competition, but is currently 7th in the Top Fuel division standings of the NHRA Mello Yello Championship. Entering Monday's competition he had one final round appearance (Atlanta), two semi-final appearances (Pomona, Las Vegas) and an overall 9-8 round win record.
Todd: “Being in the Top 5 in points that early in the season is probably the best I've done yet in my career, but I feel like we can be doing so much better. Its an up and down season but definitely hasn't been bad at this point. We have room to improve and compete with our teammate."
That teammate is Doug Kalitta, who leads the Top Fuel points standings this season. Kalitta robbed Todd of his first win of 2016 by besting Todd at the Atlanta Top Fuel Final of the NHRA Drag Racing Series in May. Kalitta won in a dead heat, by less than .0001 seconds. That’s doesn’t happened in NHRA Top Fuel competition.
Todd: “Everyone keeps asking me what it's like to be part of the closest race in history ? Well being on the losing end of it sucks. The bright side is that it's against your teammate. It's a win-win for Kalitta Motorsports but you want to be on the winning side and not the losing side.”
Being able to lose tough races is part of surviving in NHRA Top Fuel comp. Todd says it’s his greatest strength.
Todd: “I'm extremely competitive. The hardest part for me is you lose a lot more than you win in this sport. I wouldn’t say I’m a sore loser but I don’t like it. So it’s hard to deal with because you don't get another shot at it. NASCAR, they are out there racing for three hours and 500 miles and get a chance to make their cars better throughout the day to win in the end. We only get one shot at it and you have to go out there as a driver and be as close to perfect as you can and hope that your car is better than the guy or the girl in the other lane competing with you."
There’s no social pressure or cultural pressure or performance pressure for NHRA's trailblazing African-American drag racing king. Todd says, "The only pressure I feel is self inflicted because I have high expectations for myself."
Striving to meet those expectations has brought Todd back into the VIP section of Top Fuel's dopest drag racers. This time, he plans to stay there long enough to become a racer history never forgets.