When J.R. Todd was picked for the cover of Drag Illustrated’s annual Champions Issue, one thing everyone at DI kept coming back to was the Funny Car world champion deserved to become a major superstar in the sport.
Not just a guy everyone knew, but like a real genuine star.
I can remember DI Founder and Editorial Director Wes Buck declaring on more than one occasion that he was intent on “making him a star in 2019.”
Well, appearing on the cover – looking like a genuine badass, by the way – certainly helps that, but let’s hope it’s just the start.
Todd has plenty of qualities to make him a star, whether you’re talking about the adversity he’s overcome to reach this point, his ethnicity, how he looks the part, his age or the fact he’s not afraid to speak his mind.
But most importantly, he’s a genuine racer, a guy any fan of the sport or just going fast can relate to. He loves the sport, loves every kind of racing and has a passion for driving and being the best.
When it comes down to it, being an incredible wheelman – a racer’s racer if you will – is what Todd’s story is based on and that means a lot to him.
“There’s plenty of good drivers out there that are capable of winning that can’t bring money to a deal, and I was one of them and I got a lucky break,” Todd said. “That’s the cool thing about where I’m at now. Shawn and Richie got their job based on talent and their ability to get the job done, and we kind of pride ourselves on that.”
Getting the job based on talent isn’t something that’s a given in this sport and it’s a tough pill Todd had to suffer through on several occasions.
Depending on the team, bringing money to the table and being marketable are just as important – if not more so – as pure driving skill.
It’s understandable, but compared to any other sport, it’s unconventional to put it mildly.
But Todd and Langdon have found a natural fit at Kalitta Motorsports and have made being throwback racers cool again, helped in part by being able to embrace the future in the process.
They’re old-school racers at heart, starting in Jr. Dragsters a young age and racing whatever they could get their hands on. But with their “Nomex Effect” podcast, they’ve brought a new age approach to being old-school, giving people a behind-the-scenes look at being a professional race car driver.
Langdon called it an opportunity to step outside the sometimes-vanilla box the sport gets in, which was a big step for the 2013 Top Fuel world champion. He’s found his niche with his dry, sarcastic personality and Todd matches that, combining into a duo that have a great rapport and aren’t afraid to jump into touchy subjects with both feet.
“It’s huge for us because we feel like we’re the voice of the voiceless,” Langdon said. “There’s so much talent in the sportsman classes and the bracket racing scene, from young kids to adults, there’s so much talent and personality that goes unseen. We feel like we can be the voice of that because everybody has to have a dream.
“For J.R. and I, we feel like we have one of the most relatable stories. We started in the Jr. Drag Racing category, we were able to get opportunities on the way – and obviously you have to take advantage of all your opportunities – but we felt like our story is one that is relatable to any average Joe out there who has a dream to drive a race car for a living. Now that we have that voice with Kalitta, I think it’s given an opportunity for people to think they could do that.”
The podcast gives them that voice, another step for Todd and Langdon taking the next step in growing their star power.
It makes them both seem more real and their profession more achievable to every racing fan out there, and that’s one way to build an audience.
Both have stayed true to themselves as well, and it’s been that genuine approach that Todd believes has drawn people to the show so quickly.
“People are all about it,” Todd said. “They can’t wait for the next episode and now people want to come on the show because it’s a platform where they can say what they feel. That’s what our sport needs. Everything that Shawn and I say, we’re so passionate about the sport. We just want to see it even better than it is because we know it has potential to be even better than it is.”
That potential includes Todd becoming a household name, which doesn’t happen overnight. There’s no superstar-by-numbers playbook that guarantees your name in bright lights, but Todd is doing his part and is ready to do even more.
But what he doesn’t lack is the backbone of any star and that’s an ability to perform when the lights are the brightest. Todd delivered one epic performance after another during the Countdown to the Championship, showcased incredible driving abilities and has displayed an unquestioned passion for working hard.
It’s been evident for team owner Connie Kalitta, a man who has seen it all in the sport. But with Todd, he recognizes the making of a brilliant driver.
“J.R. has been an exceptional driver, teammate and person in the time I’ve gotten to know him,” Kalitta said. “He works hard at his craft, because he truly cherishes the opportunity to drive that DHL Camry, and he wants to be the best. When you combine his work ethic with the natural ability that he has, you get a really special driver.”
Coming from Kalitta, that comment holds a lot of weight and is one more reason why Todd has all the makings of a superstar in this sport.
We chose “The Future Belongs To J.R. Todd” as the cover text for DI 140 because it simply made sense. Let’s hope that’s even more evident by the end of 2019.