NorCal Racing

JR Todd seeking a repeat performance at NHRA Sonoma Nationals

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J.R. Todd knows where Victory Lane is at Sonoma Raceway. The Kalitta Motorsports driver has been there three times for victories in the finals at the Sonoma Nationals — none more noteworthy than an ever-challenging win during last year’s transition season for the lifetime drag racer.

He’s hoping be back there on Sunday after this year’s annual visit to wine country by the National Hot Rod Association.

Todd — a Lawrenceburg, Indiana native — earned an historic win at the raceway’s drag strip last year when he recorded a pair of firsts: becoming the first African-American to record a win in the Funny Car division (with his first win in the division) and becoming the second drag racer, after Don Prudhomme, to win in the two major circuits in the NHRA at Sonoma.

“A lot of things that happened that weekend … I’ll never forget,” Todd said.

The Sonoma win was no ordinary feat outside of its historic and sentimental aspects. It came in the midst of a switch for Todd from the Top Fuel division — which features a narrower and speedier dragster — to the heavier Funny Car vehicles. It was a benchmark victory in a season that was mostly an adjustment period.

“Last year, it was a bit of a struggle,” he said. “It’s a whole new learning curve and something that I’ve never really experienced in my career. It took some getting used to and I feel this year I’m way more comfortable than I was last year.”

The Funny Car is a bulkier, wider and more car-like vehicle that can reach speeds of more than 300 mph, but also moves around a lot more than a Top Fuel racer.

“The wheelbase overall is shorter,” Todd said. “They’re heavier. The engine is in front of you. It just takes quite a bit more steering input to drive one of these compared to a dragster, where you’re really finessing the dragster down the track, kind of guiding it.

“With a Funny Car, you’ve got to be really aggressive with the wheel, and with that engine in the front you can’t really see as well as you can out of a dragster.”

The change also affects how Todd visualizes racing down a quarter-mile drag strip.

“You’re not running blind. You just kind of have to retrain yourself on how to drive,” Todd said. “You look at a different point on a track as to where you would in a dragster. It’s a lot of feel, but at the same time it just comes with seat time and experience behind the wheel.

“I’ve driven dragster my entire life, so it becomes second nature when you do it so long,” Todd said. “You try to carry it over to driving a Funny Car and you can’t do that. You’ve got to retrain yourself and it takes some time to figure it out.”

Todd’s 2017 Sonoma Funny Car win was in front of friends and family members of his friend and former drag racer Eric Medlen, an Oakdale native who died during a testing crash in 2006.

“He was a Funny Car guy,” Todd said. “I just look back at it now and in my mind, I think he would be proud of what we’re doing here in the Funny Car class and how competitive it is. To be able to go out there and win races, he would have a smile on his face.”

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