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Points Leader J.R. Todd Marks a Decade at Kalitta Motorsports, Rides Points Lead Into Las Vegas

Ten years ago this race, J.R. Todd was a part-time Top Fuel driver sitting in Indianapolis watching college basketball on television. Then on Friday evening of the spring Las Vegas race, his life would change forever. The 2024 NHRA Mission Foods Drag Racing Season resumes April 12-14, 2024 at the NHRA 4-Wide Nationals on the Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Todd received a call to join Kalitta Motorsports in Las Vegas following the first two rounds of qualifying. Unusual, yes, but definitely doable – especially if you’re a part-time driver looking for a fulltime ride.

“It’s crazy that it’s already been 10 years; it’s definitely flown by, and a lot of good things happened,” Todd said. “We won a lot of races since then, won a championship, and I’m very thankful for that call from Connie Kalitta 10 years ago. At the time, I was racing part-time for Bob Vandergriff, and we weren’t scheduled to race that weekend. I had been out used car shopping with my mom and dad, and it was March Madness. We were at Buffalo Wild Wings drinking beer, eating wings and watching college basketball when the call came. He called from someone else’s phone so I didn’t know it was him. I didn’t go into panic mode or anything when I knew it was him, but I was kind of like, ‘oh (shoot); it’s time to make it happen.’

“It was probably around 7 p.m. Eastern time; he asked me if I could find a flight to be in Las Vegas first thing Saturday morning, so that’s the first thing I did and then called him back and told him I had a flight. After that, I had to go home and pack and then get to Vandergriff’s to get my driving gear. I got maybe an hour or two of sleep. I rented a car and got to the track before pretty much anybody else. You leave Indy at seven in the morning, and you land in Las Vegas at like seven in the morning.

“The crew guys showed up not long after because they knew there was gonna be some extra work to do, and it was a little awkward at first, but once the ice was broken, we got to work and got me fitted in the car. Next thing you know, we’re warming it up and getting ready for Q3 (third round of qualifying) on Saturday, and the rest is history. We beat Richie Crampton; he’s one of my really good friends, and Steve Torrence beat us second round. He was a little chirpy about that. All in all, Connie was happy. I didn’t know if it was a one-race deal or if they were hiring me full-time. I’ll never forget, at the end of the day, what kind of assured me was after second round, Connie said, ‘We’re gonna win a lot of races together.’ So after that I thought, ‘I guess I’m getting hired.’

Indeed, he was. Todd would go on to finish second in the 2014 NHRA Top Fuel point standings that season. And now, a decade later, he and the DHL Funny Car team won the season-opening Amalie Oil NHRA Gatornationals in Florida and enter the season’s fourth race in Las Vegas as the Funny Car points leader. The 2018 Funny Car champion followed his Gainesville win with two semifinal showings giving he and the DHL GR Supra team the consistency that was lacking in recent years.

“Yeah, that’s pretty wild. It’s definitely cool to be able to say we’re the points leader; we haven’t been able to say that in a long time. Of course, you win the first race, you’re the points leader, but to stretch it out after the third race is pretty cool. We just need to keep riding the wave of momentum like we have been, keep clicking off those round wins, and we’ll be in a good position.”

When Todd advanced to the quarterfinals in Phoenix last weekend, he earned a spot in the Mission #2Fast2Tasty NHRA Challenge this week. During Saturday’s qualifying sessions, the drivers who reached the quarterfinals in Phoenix will re-run the quarterfinals in the 4-Wide format with the four winners advancing to the “finals” earning additional purse and championship bonus points. 

Anytime you’re making those Mission Foods races, it means you’re doing something right,” Todd added. “I said in Gainesville that if we can keep getting into those, we’ll be going in the right direction. When the car goes up and down the track like that, it gives everybody confidence especially when it’s one of the quickest cars out there. I’d say our Phoenix weekend gives us hope heading into the summer months that we’ll have a good, competitive car. It’s good that we’re in the Mission deal in Vegas for the Four-Wides. It’ll be the first time doing that so it’ll be unique for the fans on Saturday. Hopefully we can pick up some more points in that deal and leave with another Four-Wide trophy.”

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This story was originally published on April 10, 2024. Drag Illustrated

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