Billy Torrence might have broken Jordan Vandergriff’s heart for a few minutes Sunday with his Top Fuel victory in the NHRA AAA Texas FallNationals at Texas Motorplex.
But he might be breaking the spirit – or at least maybe breaking the habits – of fulltime racers who always struggle through 18 regular-season races and sometimes don’t make the Countdown to the Championship.
Torrence denied rookie Vandergriff his first victory in only his 10th race by overcoming his massively-slow 0.319-second reaction time at the starting line and running down the traction-troubled first-time finalist.
In a showdown between the class’ two most intriguing part-time racers, Torrence won with a 3.775-second elapsed time at 319.67 mph in the Capco Contractors Dragster. On the 1,000-foot course at Ennis, Texas, south of Dallas. Vandergriff, driving the D-A Lubricants Dragster, responded with a 4.299, 246.03.
Steve Torrence – Billy Torrence’s son, reigning champion, and points leader – lost in a first-round stunner. It was his second Round 1 exit in four Countdown races. But he’s still at the top of the standings.
As the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series moves to Las Vegas for the Oct. 31-Nov. 3 Dodge Nationals, Steve Torrence has a 33-point edge over No. 2-ranked Doug Kalitta – who also lost Sunday in the opening round of eliminations and 46 points over No. 3 Brittany Force, Dallas’ top qualifier. Steve Torrence has led the standings after 49 of the past 58 races.
The elder Torrence’s fourth victory of the season in six final-round appearances is particularly remarkable, considering he has raced in only 14 of the 22 events completed so far this season – only 10 of the first 18 that determine the Countdown field. His is a strategy that is sure to cause other nitro-class racers in the future to enter enough selected races to qualify for the 10-car Countdown to the Championship field in an effort to mitigate the escalating costs of drag racing.
“I don’t know what they may do. We’ve had a stellar season . . . and it’s difficult to achieve that. It’s just a tough go. But there may be some guys that are out there that this would influence, seeing the success we’ve had. A few guys sitting on the couch may say, ‘Hey, that old guy can do that – I think I can come out and race.’ And I do hope it has a positive effect and continue to grow the sport. We race so many races, and it’s so grueling. I don’t make all of ’em. We’re a family race team. And Steve has to be at work Monday morning at six o’clock, no matter what. It’s just tough. So it may very well enlighten some people to get out here and do what we’ve done.”
Billy Torrence improved from sixth place to fourth and is just 71 points out of the lead. So he has a legitimate chance to earn the championship.
“Well, we’re just going to go out there and hopefully do a little better job than we did this weekend on the one hit (I did pretty good the rest of the time),” he said modestly. “We’ll go out there and race and be a support team for Steve and he for me. And we’ll just do the best job we can. That’s what we’ll be doing.”
Torrence explained his mistake at the starting line that almost gave Vandergriff the victory he was hoping would sway voters for the Auto Club of Southern California-sponsored top-rookie award.
“It was a very unusual deal,” Torrence said. “I was going to deep stage to get a little better light, and it threw my concentration off. I was sitting there long enough to see the other guy leave (but) we caught him pretty quick. He got in trouble about 300 feet (and) even though we didn’t have the best driver in the final, we did have the best car.”
“It looks like it’s going to come down to the Finals,” Steve Torrence said after losing to Shawn Reed. “No excuses. We had a little mechanical issue [in the first round], but it went out and ran 3.73 and got we just got beat. Dad ran 3.73 in the same round and won [against Terry McMillen].
“We know we’re going to get everybody’s best shot when they pull up beside us,” the younger Torrence said, “and we wouldn’t want it any other way. We know we’ve got a good hot rod going to Las Vegas. So we’ll just buckle up and get after it again.”
Steve Torrence’s intensity is well-known, and his dad indicated isn’t so sure winning a championship would bring lots of benefits and satisfaction and joy to him. He didn’t seem to look forward to a scenario in which he aces out his son and robs him of a second straight title.
“Oh, my Lord . . .” Dad said, imagining the prospect. “Steve always is a little better than I am at the tree, because he’s about 25 years younger. And he’s a little better driver. They seem to have a little performance advantage on me. I’ve been able to beat him a couple of times with treachery and that kind of deal. He’s difficult to deal with. I probably couldn’t beat Steve often.”
He said winning the championship might result in dire consequences.
“I would probably have to move from my home,” he said.
Alluding to the fact that his wife – a/k/a Mama Kay – owns and manages the race team, Torrence said, “You know how these moms are with these sons. That’d go bad.”
So far it’s all going really well. Tomorrow morning the family will pile in Billy’s pick-up truck and head over to El Charro Mexican restaurant at Tyler, Texas, around 11:15. It’s where they always go for the lunch the day after a victory.
The restaurant knows to expect them, especially lately. The Torrence tandem has won 25 of the past 46 races, throughout 2018 and 2019.
“That’s a testimony to the great team Kay has put together. These guys are dedicated. It’s humbling to be part of it,” Billy Torrence said.
So Steve will pick up the tab. Then they’ll go back to laying pipe and working until the longhorns come home. And the back-and-forth banter will continue until they go to The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Billy once again has to worry about whether he’ll be too good for his own good and have to look for an apartment when he goes back home to Kilgore.