Coming off a 2022 season in which he won fewer than three tour events for the first time in seven years, four-time series champion Steve Torrence is poised to return to “beast mode” this week when he drives a re-engineered Capco Contractors dragster in pursuit of the Top Fuel title in the 54th annual Amalie Gatornationals at Gainesville Raceway.
“The longer you’re on top, the harder it is to stay there,” Torrence said of a 2022 season in which he slid to sixth place in points while crew chiefs Richard Hogan and Bobby Lagana Jr. transitioned to a new engine and clutch combination.
“The challenge for us is to climb back to the top,” he said. “We had a target on our backs last year (after winning four straight titles) and we were vulnerable because we were making some pretty big mechanical changes, but credit Brittany (Force) and Grubby (crew chief David Grubnic) for stepping up their performance.
“They definitely earned (the championship), but now they’re the ones with the target on their backs.”
Zeroing in on that bullseye, Torrence and his “Capco Boys” will try to win the Gatornationals for the second time in four years.
When he won in 2020, the 39 year-old Texan did so at the wheel of a tribute car built to recall “Swamp Rat 14,” the dragster designed, driven and maintained by Florida legend “Big Daddy” Don Garlits, the car that changed the face of drag racing in the ‘70s as the first rear-engine winner on the NHRA tour.
This time he’ll try to affect the same result without the Garlits’ influence in an event that always is a homecoming for Hogan, the Florida native whose dad, the late Charley “The King” Hogan, was a Garlits’ contemporary and one of his most formidable rivals.
Although he won but twice last year (after 43 victories the previous five seasons), Torrence was a top four driver throughout the regular season and still was in contention for a fifth title until first round losses in two of the last three events of the Countdown.
Before he launches his bid for a season-opening victory, though, he first will focus on successfully defending his title in the Pep Boys All-Star Call Out, a bonus race for touring pros contested in conjunction with Saturday qualifying. It offers up an $80,000 top prize independent of the Gatornationals purse.
The Call Out’s unique format gives the top-seeded drivers the option of choosing their first-round opponents. As the No. 2 seed, Torrence will “call out” whomever he wishes to race in Saturday’s first round provided he isn’t chosen by top qualifier Brittany Force as her first round foe. He beat Force in last year’s Call Out final.
A cancer survivor who prepped for his Top Fuel career by winning the NHRA Top Alcohol Dragster World Championship in 2005, Torrence has been the dominant pro driver on the Camping World over the last six seasons during which he has won almost twice as many events as any other driver, regardless of category.
Qualifying begins with nitro sessions at 1:30 p.m. and 4 p.m., Texas time, on Friday. Saturday’s first Top Fuel qualifying session will be followed at 12:20 p.m., Texas time, by the first round of the second Pep Boys All-Star Call Out with subsequent rounds at 2:45 and 4:25 pm, Texas time. Top Fuel first round is scheduled at 9 a.m., Texas time, Sunday.