SEATTLE — Informally, NHRA’s recent changes to its Countdown to the Championship requirements will be known as “The Billy Torrence Rule.”
In late January, the sanctioning body expanded its field of title-eligible racers in Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle. Since 2008, only the top 10 in each class could contend for the series title after the first 18 races.
The new format will allow racers who are ranked 11th or below by the end of the 18th race, the U.S. Nationals atLucas Oil Raceway, to race for the title — provided they show up at all scheduled events in the so-called “regular season.” That’s 18 races for Top Fuel and Funny Car, 13 for Pro Stock and 11 for the bikes.
NHRA officials deserve some credit for recognizing something needed to change. But their ready-fire-aim response missed the source of the problem: The cost of racing is too steep.
It’s a pat-on-the-head gesture that’s aimed at boosting car counts without understanding why car counts are sometimes low. Certainly, it was disappointing to Top Fuel owner-drivers Terry McMillen and Scott Palmer last fall to miss the Countdown after competing at all 18 races.
It felt especially perturbing because part-timer Billy Torrence skipped eight of the first 18 races, won two of the 10 he showed up for and was runner-up at another two, made the Countdown at No. 10, and won two of the final six to finish fifth.
Torrence didn’t do anything wrong. His son Steve Torrence, who earned his second straight Top Fuel championship, said, “It’s just a flaw in their points system that we were able to exploit.” The reigning champ called the situation “borderline embarrassing” for the sport.
Moreover, Top Fuel owner-driver Mike Salinas sat out three of the first 18 races, won twice and took the No. 5 Countdown berth. In 2014, Pro Stock’s Erica Enders omitted two summer races and ended up claiming the first of her three championships.
Bob Vandergriff Racing almost exposed the weaknesses in the system in 2018, when Blake Alexander ran a limited number of Top Fuel events and won twice. He could have made the Countdown as a part-timer, had he been scheduled to compete in an extra race or two. But the team owner didn’t see any need to spend more money for the “honor” of running the final six races, which weren’t in his budget. It was the same team, same scenario for rookie Jordan Vandergriff last year.
It’s difficult to imagine that any racer who couldn’t afford to attend the first 18 races deciding to spend more money for the privilege of saying he was in the Countdown.
Top Fuel owner-driver Jim Maroney was right that the new rule “means absolutely nothing to anybody.”
Billy Torrence will continue to race part time. So will Maroney. Salinas will skip the first four events. The Top Fuel class is hurting for touring regulars to fill out its field of 16. But Justin Ashley, Pat Dakin, Lex Joon, Shawn Reed, Audrey Worm, T.J. Zizzo and newest Top Fuel licensee Brandon Welch aren’t enticed to sign up for 18 races.
J.R. Todd, the 2018 Funny Car champion, said, “I don’t think that’s going to bring in more cars.”
Shawn Langdon, the 2013 Top Fuel champion, said, “You got to have full fields. I get that. But I’ve never been one for participation trophies. You play to win. You race to win. That’s the glory of the playoffs by having the best teams out there, not just those that keep showing up throughout the year. I think a couple people want to have that on their résumé at the end of the year, but I don’t think sponsors are flooding in just based off of people’s resumes that said they made the Countdown.
“But they do need to make a direction toward maintaining full fields at all the races, so I applaud them for their efforts,” Langdon added. “But my personal opinion is participation trophies never got anybody anywhere.”
Welch and Ashley want to live within their means.
“They made that change, I think, with the idea that they would provide an incentive to somebody. It doesn’t provide an incentive to me,” Welch said. “The key is that as a team owner you don’t want to overextend yourself just because you can. Just because you can make the Countdown, but you have to add four races that weren’t in the budget, that’s probably not a good idea. If I’m Billy Torrence, I don’t have to go to all 18 and I’d likely still make the Countdown anyway. Billy Torrence can afford it, but he doesn’t want to, so it doesn’t really provide an incentive.”
Ashley, meanwhile, wants to conduct his Top Fuel program in an intelligent manner.
“We’re not going to go out of our way to schedule our races around that,” Ashley said. “But we’re going to take one race at a time, just look at our results and then make an informed decision from there. We’re focused on ourselves. We’ve got to be the best team that we can be. We’d rather go to 12 events and have an opportunity to win each event than be at 24 events and spread ourselves too thin.”
“It’s not going to entice the lower-funded teams, like mine,” Maroney noted. “I don’t understand what’s being accomplished by it.”