NHRA’s J.R. Todd back, on top thanks to perseverance – and sport’s history of diversity

Drag racer J.R. Todd is coming off a win at the NHRA U.S. Nationals, and he’ll race again in Charlotte this weekend.
Drag racer J.R. Todd is coming off a win at the NHRA U.S. Nationals, and he’ll race again in Charlotte this weekend. AP

When J.R. Todd takes the track at zMax Dragway in Charlotte this weekend, he could be introduced any number of ways: Drag racing veteran; NHRA U.S. Nationals champion; and now, Funny Car championship contender.

Those are all fine, but there’s other ways to introduce him too, just with more unconventional titles.

Diehard Cincinnati Bengals fan, for example, or almost-ex driver. Or maybe the thing that comes up when you Google his name: One of the best African-American racers the sport has seen.

J.R. Todd said he doesn’t think about his race when he’s in his dragster with his helmet on. Jerry Foss AP

But Todd, 35, doesn’t think about that nearly as much as others do.

“I feel like any other racer when I’m in the car with my helmet on,” Todd said ahead of this weekend’s race. “You can’t tell what color or gender I am – I just want to be known as the guy who can get the job done, not as a black racer or anything like that ... but I’m not ashamed of it by any means.”

“I’m just a guy that’s living out his childhood dream.”

Like it was yesterday

Todd still remembers the first time he drove in a dragster.

He was 10, growing up in Lawrenceburg, Ind. He’d grown up in love with racing, something passed down to him from his father, Mario, who raced dirt-track motorcycles. The younger Todd followed suit, riding four-wheelers and dirt bikes from the time he was little.

That was until the day he pulled a junior dragster out of its nearby garage to test it. The plan was to drive it up and down the street the family lived on, the one with the railroad tracks at the end of it.

“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Todd said. “From then on, it’s always been something I wanted to do.”

He continued racing junior dragsters until he turned 18 and graduated from high school. At that point he began competing in national events, expecting his career to continue on that same trajectory.

“At 18 years old, I just thought, ‘Hey, this is going to last forever. I’ll just drive a Top Fuel car forever,’” Todd said. “And then one thing leads to another, and by the end of the season things didn’t work out and you’re not driving full time.”

Todd’s team lost its funding by the end of that season, and for the next five years, Todd bounced from one crew to another, waiting for his next chance to drive. Eventually it came, and in 2006, Todd got a chance to drive in Top Fuel, the sport’s highest division. He won three races that year, including one in Denver, Colo.

For his efforts, he was named the 2006 Rookie of the Year.

“That was the moment I felt like I had finally made it,” Todd said.

But even a season’s success couldn’t deter the challenges still awaiting him.

Things fell into place

By 2008, sponsorship had become an issue again. Lack of funding meant Todd couldn’t drive consistently for a number of years.

The uncertainty took a toll on him, and by 2011, Todd began questioning if he was doing the right thing.

“There was a point where I didn’t know if this was going to work out,” Todd said. “You’re considering going and getting a 9-5 job, and if you do that, you’re kind of giving up on your dream of drag racing.

“I was really close to giving up on it and things just kind of fell into place at the perfect time.”

Todd opted to stick it out, and his resilience was rewarded in 2014. Drag racing legend Connie Kalitta called Todd and asked him to race one of his Top Fuel cars shortly after the beginning of the season. It was the opportunity Todd had been waiting for, and this time he wouldn’t let it go.

He won eight races later, again in Denver. That was enough to prove to Kalitta that Todd belonged in his car full-time.

Finally secure

Fast forward to this season, and Todd is one of the sports hottest drivers.

He’s coming off a win at the U.S. Nationals, NHRA’s equivalent of the Super Bowl. He’s eighth in the standings with a playoff berth already clinched. And for the first time in years, he has a secure team at Kalitta Motorsports.

But Todd’s rise and fall and rise again begs the question: Could something similar have happened to an African-American driver in NASCAR?

“Maybe, but at the same time, I feel like the other forms of racing like NASCAR and Indy Car are begging for that attention and they need diversity in the sport,” Todd said. “NHRA I feel like has always been at the front of diversity in motorsports, going back to the ‘70’s where there’s been African-Americans and females and Hispanics involved in the sport.

“Those other forms, they’ve never been as open to it as drag racing has been.”

But Todd doesn’t concern himself with those questions of race unless someone else brings them up. He’s got other things to be worried about, like the upcoming Countdown to the Championship – or the fact that his beloved Bengals got shut out in Week 1.

“This time of year,” Todd said, “I could spend a whole weekend sitting on the couch watching football.”

Todd said he tried making it to Cincinnati’s training camp this summer, but scheduling made it impossible. Still, he’s hoping to make it onto the field at a game in the near future, and if he’s lucky, meet his favorite player, receiver A.J. Green.

But there’s time for that later.

For now, Todd has a championship to worry about. After all the years he spent clawing to this point, it’s a problem he surely doesn’t mind having.

Brendan Marks: 704-358-5889, @brendanrmarks