Growing up in Lawrenceburg, a town tucked into Indiana’s southeast border corner with Ohio and Kentucky, J.R. Todd was about two hours away from some of the best racing you could find anywhere in the country. He went with his parents to Brownsburg, just west of Indianapolis, to watch the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) drag racing nationals. His dream: to get there one day for himself.
Todd’s raced there, all right, but he’s also been setting a performance standard. He’s won the last two nationals and is looking to become the first Funny Car driver to win three straight titles when he races this weekend at Lucas Oil Raceway.
“It’s kind of surreal,” said Todd, who lives in Indianapolis. “… It’s a pretty weird feeling, but as a kid that’s the ultimate goal, to reach the top of the sport.”
NHRA racing, and especially drag racing, is more diverse than the more popular NASCAR and IndyCar series, but there are still celebrated milestones for African American drivers. Todd was the first African American to win the Funny Car championship.
“That’s a cool accomplishment to have,” he said. “… I didn’t even realize it at first, I was just so happy.”
Todd was also the second African American to win a major U.S. auto racing championship. The driver who did it first: Antron Brown, who will also be drag racing at nationals. Brown won his first Top Fuel world championship in 2012 and went on to win two more in 2015 and 2016.
“The crazy part about it is it feels good to be part of that racing, but at the end of the day it just feels good to be mentioned among the greats,” he said, noting racing legends such as Don Garlits and Joe Amato. “I’m looking at all of them, and like, man, those are my heroes, but to be mentioned among them … it’s pretty special. I still pinch myself every day, like, is this real?”
Brown, who lives in Indianapolis, followed in the footsteps of his grandfather, father and uncle, who were also drag racers. He used to travel with his family from their home in New Jersey to watch nationals. Brown’s father took him for the first time when he was 10. They were “weekend warriors,” he said, working hard Monday through Friday then going to a race on their days off.
“It’s something I always wanted to do, but you don’t know if it’s gonna happen,” he said of finding success in drag racing.
Legacies exist in every sport, and while lineage and exposure can go a long way in getting on the drag strip (or the field, court, etc.), they don’t guarantee success. That’s about being good.
Brown and Todd both mentioned that one reason drag racing has more diversity than other types of racing is because of initial cost to even access the sport. Taking a street car to the local drag strip and racing it for a trophy and maybe a couple hundred dollars is less expensive than trying to break into racing with sponsors and fancy cars. Although you can only get so far in drag racing without those upgrades, the entry point is accessible.
Even for those who haven’t raced or don’t think they’re interested in it, Brown said there’s something about seeing a race in person — which he insisted is much different from what you can see on TV — that can hook someone into the sport. Plus, there’s the prospect of interacting with the drivers. Brown has been praised for the way he interacts with fans.
“I’ve always been a fan of the sport. That’s where I came from, and you never forget where you came from,” he said. “… The fans, I mean, they’re into it. A lot of them each and every year are like part of the team.”
Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.
NHRA U.S. NATIONALS
The National Hot Rod Association drag racing nationals are at Lucas Oil Raceway, 10267 East U.S. Highway 136, from Aug. 28 to Sept. 2. Go to NHRA.com for tickets and a full race schedule.
Top Fuel Dragsters qualifying is 3 p.m. Aug. 30.
Funny Car qualifying is 2 p.m. Sept. 1.