When J.R. Todd returns to The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the 16th annual SummitRacing.com NHRA Nationals, April 10-12, it will mark a full calendar year since one of the biggest life-changing moments of his Top Fuel career.
The whirlwind weekend remains crystal clear for Todd, who received a seemingly out-of-the-blue call from Connie Kalitta, flew to Las Vegas the next day, competed in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series event and then became a full-time driver for the second Kalitta Motorsports Top Fuel car.
A year later, Todd has a full-time spot as the driver for the 10,000-horsepower Red Line Oil/Kalitta Air dragster after winning an event, qualifying for the Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship and finishing second overall in Top Fuel in 2014. But it was the surreal turn of events in Las Vegas that got everything started.
"I remember the moment like it was just yesterday," Todd said. "Getting a call from Connie was for sure a life-changing experience. He asked if I would look into getting a flight to Vegas from Indy the following morning and qualify his car for the event. That was definitely a first for me, and I really cannot remember a situation happening like that in the past. Once I got to Vegas, I still wasn't sure if James (Riola, assistant crew chief) and the guys were going to be able to modify the cockpit enough for me to drive.
"Next thing I know, we are warming up the car and getting ready for (the third qualifying session). We were fortunate enough to get down the track both runs on Saturday and ended up winning the first round on Sunday. After the weekend, I was offered the job and we went back to the shop in Ypsilanti and got the car to where it was more comfortable for me. It is still one of those situations that I really can't believe happened."
Tony Schumacher (Top Fuel), Alexis DeJoria (Funny Car), and Erica Enders-Stevens (Pro Stock) were last year's winners of the event that will once again be televised on ESPN2. The SummitRacing.com NHRA Nationals is the fifth of 24 events during the 2015 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season.
Call it crazy Vegas luck or whatever. Some might even say Todd hit the figurative jackpot a year ago, but the talented driver has taken full advantage of the opportunity, showcasing a driving prowess that has led to seven career wins. One of those came in Denver in 2014 when Todd really started to hit his stride, and he came through in big fashion during the Countdown playoffs, advancing to two final rounds and finishing second to champion Tony Schumacher.
Currently in ninth place in the points standings, Todd is looking for his first final-round appearance in 2015. But with how quickly his team meshed a year ago, Todd has full confidence that his team will find its stride this season.
"The first handful of races (in 2014), it seemed like it took me a while to get comfortable driving the car," Todd said. "As the season went on, we got better as a team. Once Connie got a handle on (the car), we had one of the best cars in the Countdown. As for this year, we have gotten off to a bit of a slow start after the first three races.
"We stayed after Gainesville on Monday and tested, and I think we finally got the issues worked out. Once we get that consistency that we had at the end of the year back, I think we'll be in good shape to win some races. Thanks to the help of Jim O (Oberhofer, crew chief) and the Mac Tools team, I think we can get our performance back to where it should be."
Staying at the top of the field in the loaded Top Fuel class will be difficult in Vegas. Reigning world champion Schumacher began his run to capture a category record eighth championship at this event last season, defeating Todd's teammate Doug Kalitta in the final. Schumacher may be the winningest Top Fuel driver in Las Vegas history, but he will have to contend with the likes of three-time world champion Larry Dixon, a five-time winner at The Strip, Spencer Massey, Antron Brown, Richie Crampton and Brittany Force.
But considering what took place a year ago at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, a victory would also be extremely meaningful for Todd.
"The Vegas race always brings excitement," Todd said. "The race draws in a lot of fans who like to use the event as a reason for a vacation. It also draws in celebrity guests. When the conditions are right, you can lay down some awesome runs and I made my career-best run there last year during the fall race. The spring race will be a special event for me due to that is where it all started for me with the Kalitta group. I can't thank everybody involved enough, and hopefully our Red Line Oil/Kalitta Air team can come out of Vegas with the Wally."
In Funny Car, Alexis DeJoria claimed her second career victory at Las Vegas in 2014, just two races after her first career win in Phoenix. Robert Hight, who fell in the final round to DeJoria, is seeking his first win at the track since 2012, and will be joined by John Force Racing teammates John Force and Courtney Force. Other top stars expected to contend include five-time Vegas winner Ron Capps, defending world champ Matt Hagan, fall event winner Del Worsham, Tommy Johnson Jr. and two-time world champ Cruz Pedregon.
Pro Stock's Erica Enders-Stevens made a major statement at the SummitRacing.com NHRA Nationals last season, taking victory in both the national event and the K&N Horsepower Challenge bonus event. Enders-Stevens, who secured a category-leading six wins on the season, also finished with her first career Pro Stock world championship title, making her the first woman to win a championship in the category in NHRA history. Her teammate and rookie Drew Skillman is off to a stellar start, while other championship contenders include Summit Racing Equipment teammates Greg Anderson and Jason Line, Allen Johnson, current points leader Rodger Brogdon, Shane Gray, Jonathan Gray, Vincent Nobile and Chris McGaha.
The prestigious K&N Horsepower Challenge kicks off the Pro Stock event in style. Eight Pro Stock drivers will duel it out for bragging rights and a hefty paycheck on Saturday of race weekend. Enders-Stevens is the defending K&N Horsepower Challenge winner.
As always, fans will have the opportunity to interact with their favorite drivers as they're granted an exclusive pit pass to the most powerful and sensory-filled motorsports attraction on the planet. This unique opportunity in motorsports gives fans direct access to the teams, allowing them to see firsthand the highly skilled mechanics service their hot rods between rounds, and enjoy some cherished face time with their favorite NHRA drivers.
Pro qualifying begins on Friday, April 10, with sessions at 1:30 and 4:30 p.m. The final two qualifying sessions will take place Saturday, April 11, at 1:10 and 4:05 p.m. Pro Stock runs for the K&N Horsepower Challenge are scheduled for 1, 4 and 5 p.m. on Saturday. Final eliminations begin at 11 a.m. on Sunday, April 12.
Prior to the SummitRacing.com NHRA Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series will visit zMAX Dragway in Charlotte, N.C., March 27-29, for the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals. Follow all the action on ESPN and ESPN2.