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Todd savors return to ‘magical’ Sonoma Raceway | Motor Sports

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J.R. Todd’s win last year at the 30th annual Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals was the first ever by an African-American driver in a Funny Car.

While Todd was overjoyed with the victory at the track he refers to as “magical,” he was also acutely aware of what the win meant to other minorities.

“To me, it’s a pretty neat accomplishment to be able to say that you were the first to do it,” said the 36-year-old driver. “And it shows other minorities and African Americans that they can into the sport and they can be successful too. It also shows people how open and receptive our sport is.”

Todd is extremely proud of the fact that NHRA has long welcomed women, African Americans and other minorities. The legendary Shirley Muldowney broke barriers for women like Courtney and Brittany Force when she began racing Top Fuel cars in the 1970s, ultimately winning three championships. Tony and Cruz Pedregon, both of whom have won titles, are just two of the sport’s top Hispanic competitors.

“I honestly don’t know the reason for it but even if you go back 40 years or so in our sport, it’s been that way,” he said. “There has never been a diversity problem in NHRA but in other forms of motorsports there have been issues. It makes me proud. You’re never looked down on by anyone.”

Last year was Todd’s first in a Funny Car after years of competing in Top Fuel, where he picked up nine wins. At Sonoma he had earned two Top Fuel wins (2006, ’16), but his DHL Toyota Funny Car team had been struggling before making the July stop at Sonoma in 2017.

“We had struggled so bad most of the season,” said Todd. “Then I caught a lucky break in the semis against Jack Beckman. I had made good runs until then and during that run we smoked the tires as soon as I hit the gas, but I didn’t give up and I got back on the gas. Jack had a problem after his start – the car just quit running – and we went blowing past him with about 10 feet to spare.”

In the finals against Tim Wilkerson, he made a 4.049-second pass at 323.27 mph to get the win that made him the second driver in NHRA history to win in both Top Fuel and Funny Car at Sonoma. The first? The legend himself Don “The Snake” Prudhomme.

The Funny Car win, combined with his Top Fuel victories, also made Todd the 16th person in NHRA history to win in both classes.

“At the time, I had no idea,” Todd said about making history. “It was like when I won my first Top Fuel race at Sonoma in 2006, I had no idea it was a big deal really. I was just so excited to win in ‘06 and I was excited to win in Top Fuel in 2016. I was totally pumped.”

As is always the case, Todd carries the memory of his good friend Eric Medlen with him when he’s racing. Medlen, a native of Oakdale who also drove Funny Cars, died in 2007 after an accident at Gainesville Raceway. With Todd by his side, Medlen died three days after the incident.

Since Medlen’s death, Todd has had a picture of his friend taped in his car. Artist Kenny Youngblood has created artwork of Medlen the past two years at Sonoma and presented them to Medlen’s mother, Mimi. Last year, she presented the picture to Todd, who raced with the picture inside his fire suit.

“Eric was one of my very best friends,” said Todd. “He was someone I could lean on. I think about him every single day and I always will.”

Todd has a tattoo on his ankle that reads “Three Brothers,” which refers to himself, Medlen and retired driver Brandon Bernstein.

“I got that tattoo on my leg in memory of Eric,” said Todd. “And we have bracelets with his name on it that we wear. I can’t believe he’s been gone so long, but I can promise you, he’s not forgotten by any means.”

Todd, who hails from Lawrenceburg, Indiana, looks forward to returning to Sonoma, which holds a charity dinner and ice cream social in Medlen’s honor every year.

“It’s definitely one of my favorite tracks,” Todd said. “That staff and everybody out there treat you first class and they make you feel right at home. The track surface too is always great – it’s one of the better ones we race on and the conditions are usually pretty good. You can put together some good runs out there.

“You always like a place where you have some good success, but I love it out there too because it’s just such beautiful country. When the race weekend is over I always try to stay an extra couple of days just to relax and enjoy some wine. And that’s another cool thing – when you win at Sonoma, you get a goblet in winner’s circle full of wine.”

And does he feel like win No. 4 could be on the horizon at Sonoma?

“I mean I wouldn’t say just because we won last year that we’re going to go in there as the favorite this time,” said Todd. “It’s all about how the car is running and if we’ve got some momentum going. But yeah, it would be pretty awesome to carry it on and back up that win from last year.

When it comes to choosing whether his Funny Car win or Top Fuel win at Sonoma was more special, Todd doesn’t hesitate with his answer:

“Any win is a good win, but when it comes down to it, I’d have to say that it’s probably the Funny Car win,” he said. “Eric had always raced Funny Cars and he had always pushed for me to drive one. Then to get my first Funny Car win there, right in his backyard, in front of all our friends and family… yeah, the way that all happened, it was pretty special.”

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