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A/Fuel School: Randy Meyer is Training Drag Racing’s Next Generation of Stars

Perched on the barstool that sits in front of his computer in his stacker trailer, Randy Meyer looks out at his pit area at Summit Motorsports Park in Norwalk, Ohio. The compound occupies two pit spots, as it’s the home of Meyer’s pair of nitro-burning A/Fuel dragsters and the crew members and equipment required to run them.

It’s Sunday morning and the team is preparing for the Top Alcohol Dragster semifinals at the Cavalcade of Stars NHRA Division 3 race. The announcer will call the competitors to the staging lanes in less than an hour, but Meyer is calm, cool and collected, seemingly unaffected by the idea that his two cars, driven this weekend by Julie Nataas and Camrie Caruso, will soon face off against each other for a spot in the team’s 11th consecutive final round.

This is business as usual for Meyer, who pioneered the “rent-a-ride” program in Top Alcohol Dragster in the early 2000s when he started renting out his car to drivers who wanted to give their sponsors a 270-plus-mph billboard capable of winning races right out of the gate.

Meyer had a successful career of his own in the driver’s seat, winning eight NHRA national events and 15 divisional races, but a bulk of his biggest accomplishments have come with other drivers in the seat. Collectively, his drivers have posted 35 NHRA event wins.

Megan Meyer

This season, the Randy Meyer Racing driver roster is a who’s-who list of rising stars, including Meyer’s daughters, Megan and Rachel. Megan, 26, is a two-time Central Region champion, a perennial national championship contender and is currently tied with Randi Lyn Shipp as the winningest women in the Lucas Oil Series with seven national event wins. Rachel, 24, won her first regional event in 2018 running a limited schedule and expects to run more races this season. Nataas, 22, is off to a hot start after winning the Four-Wide Nationals at Charlotte and the Columbus regional race. Matt Sackman, 26, won in his Top Alcohol Dragster debut with the team last season and started this year with a runner-up finish at the NHRA Winternationals. Caruso, 21, would go on to defeat Nataas in the Norwalk semifinals and then take down Will Smith in the final round to win her first NHRA Wally in just her second start in the class.

Together, Meyer’s drivers have won five races in 11 consecutive final-round appearances this season, including the Norwalk race. After this interview, Meyer and company would go on to add another two runner-up finishes to that total, as Rachel would reach the JEGS All-Stars final round in her first appearance at the prestigious specialty race held during the NHRA Route 66 Nationals. The next day, Megan went to the final round.

Your team has had an incredible start to the year – six wins in 11 consecutive final rounds. What does it take to reach that kind of consistency and performance?

Well, it all starts with the work that we did over the winter this year in the shop. A year ago, we got behind because we redid both cars and did a bunch of work on the chassis a year ago and focused on that. We got a little behind with the motor program, so this year we spent all winter – every day but two days – working on our motor program and getting our motors up where they need to be and getting our clutch program a lot better.

It’s a combination of multiple things, but the work that we did this winter shows up at the racetrack, and that’s where a lot of people missed the boat. They take the winter off or think it’s vacation time or whatever. For us, it’s an opportunity to go through everything with a fine-toothed comb and tweak everything.

Also, you’ve got to have good people and I’m fortunate to have really good crew people and I’ve got drivers that have been doing a better job this year than last year. We lost a lot of races on holeshots last year, so the drivers are doing a lot better on lights. It’s just about getting confidence built in the drivers and having them do their job. It’s been a team effort to where my guys have done good, we’ve had good parts and we’ve gone down the racetrack almost every single run. We’re not always trying to be the fastest car, but we’re trying to always go A to B and gather data and just tweak it, and we’ve been very fortunate to be able to do that.

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You just celebrated 40 years in drag racing. You’ve been able to consistently adapt and grow in the sport, and now you have one of the top programs out here. What have you done to continuously adapt and step up your game?

When I started my business (Meyer Truck Center), I started out real slow and small and every year I just tried to add to improve what I had. I’ve done the same thing with the racing deal. My brother had a little roadster and I drove that a little bit. I started out with a little front-motor dragster, then my Top Alcohol Dragster, then Top Fuel, then I took a small break from racing all the time, then we came back to do this A/Fuel deal. I’m not the type of guy who likes to jump around from class to class. I like to find something that’s challenging, and this class is definitely challenging.

A lot of people don’t really understand this, but I tell people that there’s one person out there who’s made me better today than I was a few years ago, and that’s Norm Grimes. He set the bar pretty high. When you look up to a guy like that, it’s like, “OK, it can be done.” Everybody has all these excuses. But he’s made me a better racer and a smarter racer today than what I used to be when I used to run with Bill Reichert and all the guys. Things have changed, and he’s the guy I think that’s made everybody step their game up a little bit.

The rent-a-ride program has become more popular in Top Alcohol Dragster over the last few years, but you’ve been doing that for quite some time. How did you get started renting out your car to other drivers and developing that program?

I was first approached in 2002 by Gary Ormsby Jr. He had a local sponsor in Kansas City, but he didn’t have a car and he didn’t want to mess with having a car and team. They came to me and asked, so we ended up putting a deal together. That’s when I thought, this is really a good deal for everybody. It gives the driver what they want to do, which is to advertise their company in the racing world, and it allows me to have an influx of cash so I can buy better, nicer parts. That’s where that deal started.

(Alan) Bradshaw, he ran a full season, which worked out really well. We ended up with a world championship with that. Then I went back to driving since I didn’t have anybody else. If I don’t have anybody tomorrow then I’ll jump back in the car and drive since we have a good program. But at this point, we’re very fortunate because we have some people on the waiting list that want to drive.

From your standpoint, what are the benefits of a program like this?

It’s allowed us to have nicer stuff and better parts because when you’re paying for it with your own dollar every day and you worked hard for it, sometimes we would be like most racers and we would run parts longer than we should’ve, then you end up blowing the motor up and it costs you 20 times more in the long run. Now we can put new parts in and keep good parts going all the time. We take our parts and sell them to some of the smaller teams that can’t afford new stuff. We have real good components that still have good life in them and we can cycle them through to those guys and help them out as well.

The five drivers you’re working with this year are all under 30 years old. What have you learned while working with those younger drivers and helping them develop their talent?

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Because I have my two daughters and I come from a big family with a lot of brothers and sisters, I’m used to working together with people and working with family. With Julie, we tease her all the time and call her my third daughter.

Rachel Meyer and Julie Nataas

But the thing I like about the younger people is, two things: one is I built my cars for lightweight drivers, so when I drive that’s why it doesn’t work as well because I’m a little heavier than these drivers. It just works better with smaller, lighter people.

But they’re young enough that most of them that come to me haven’t had bad habits from somebody else teaching them or not teaching them at all how to drive. We’ve been able to take people that were pretty green and just nurture them and teach them the way I want things done and do it my way. That’s one of the issues I’ve had with some of the older guys. They either thought they knew how to do it or somebody else told them something else one time and it just confused them, whereas these younger drivers, they pretty much come with a blank sheet of paper and I’ve been able to teach them. That’s worked out very well and I prefer it that way.

As someone who’s out here racing nearly every weekend, what are some of the challenges that you see facing the class?

 The class is kind of stale or stagnant. I’m trying hard to bring some new talent and some young people in it and some marketing stuff. Megan has done a tremendous job of marketing not only herself, but NHRA drag racing and women in drag racing. She’s worked really hard at marketing that.

But we just can’t seem to get the class to grow. I think a lot of it is because of the money. If you don’t have sponsorship money to make this happen, it pretty much can’t happen because the costs are out of control. We’re racing for the same amount of money we raced for 20 years ago when our costs were a tenth of what they are today. Travel expenses are higher and everything is higher. It gets harder every year to make ends meet to run one of these things. That’s where we work really hard on the marketing side to make that happen to keep enough money coming in to keep it going.

Whether it’s Megan or Rachel or one of your other drivers, how rewarding is it to be outside the car and see those win lights turn on as compared to when you were driving yourself?

Probably the biggest reward isn’t so much the win light, it’s the expression that the people have when they get out of the car at the other end. When you can have that smile that will last them a lifetime, that’s what’s more gratifying to me than driving myself. I drove for almost 40 years, so the excitement’s not there for me driving anymore. The excitement is more to put a smile on either my daughters’ face or whoever is driving, just a lasting smile that they’ll have forever, or if they have their family members there, they walk away with those memories. That’s very, very satisfying for me. I’ve been fortunate enough to see a lot of win lights come on – they haven’t all been in my lane – but I’ve seen a lot of them over the years.

You’ve raced with your daughters for years, starting in Jr. Dragsters and Super Comp, but now they’re both in Top Alcohol Dragster. Megan is racing for the national championship and Rachel is starting to drive more. What’s it been like getting to race with them?

It’s been great. I told my girls whenever they went through school, if you want to race, you’re going to need to do it when you get out of college because my health is so good right now and you never know what tomorrow or next year brings, but we’re in the position to do it now and do it before you decide to have a family. Once you make that decision, you can’t go racing, so if you want to race, now is the time to do it. Don’t wait until tomorrow or next year because you don’t know what it brings and there’s no guarantees.

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When the girls were little, I spent most of my time at my business. We had two shifts and I ran both shifts, so I hardly seen my kids when they were growing up and we did very little sports together because I raced too. But the industry that I’m in, we just worked a lot of hours. This is kind of my way to pay the girls back and spend a little bit of time with them before they go off and get married and go whatever direction they go. So that’s been really rewarding that we’re able to do that as a family and my wife can be involved some of the time as well.

What’s next for you?  

Obviously, our main goal is to try to improve ourselves toward a world championship. That’s Megan’s main goal. She’s not interested in running Top Fuel, but she’s more interested in trying to win a championship and maybe be the first female Top Alcohol Dragster champion. That’s our No. 1 goal.

On my bucket list is to do some racing overseas just because it would be something new and different. Every year we challenge ourselves to go to a different racetrack. My goal also is to get a Wally from each track that we go to. We’ve got a lot of them covered, but there’s a few that seem to keep slipping away. I’ll be happy if we can do that and take a little bit of time off and race overseas.

Here in the next year or two, that’s going to be our plan now that Australia is finally going to allow A/Fuel cars. We have some connections over there, people who are going to help us out and take care of some stuff. But in order to do that we have to do less racing over here because of when they race in Australia. And I have to get less behind with my business. But when the time’s right, we have all the pieces and everything is in place to do it, we just need the time to do it.

Right now, our focus is over here and trying to get either Megan or Julie a championship. They’re both doing very well and they might be fighting each other for a championship before it’s all over, but at least we know we’re going to be in the hunt somewhere.

Photographs by Cole Rokosky and Shawn Crose

This story originally appeared in DI #146, the Interview Issue, in July of 2019. 

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