Ribbing Steve Torrence when she zoomed to within 16 points of him by winning the NHRA Top Fuel trophy Nov. 3 at Las Vegas, Brittany Force said, “Bet ya Steve-O is shaking in his boots.”
In pre-race ceremonies last Sunday at Pomona, just before he set out to repeat his 2018 series championship, Torrence declared, “These boots aren’t shakin’. They’re stomping today.”
Regrettably, Torrence stomped on his own hard-earned, well-deserved reputation as one of the steeliest single-team-overachiever drag racing ever has seen. An ugly exchange with first-round opponent Cameron Ferré marred his accomplishment of joining legends Don Garlits, Joe Amato, the late Scott Kalitta, Gary Scelzi, Tony Schumacher, Larry Dixon, and Antron Brown as the eighth Top Fuel driver to record back-to-back championships.
And by the end of his 2019 championship run – one that saw him win nine times in 14 final rounds and compile even more elimination round-wins than he did when he won all six Countdown races last season – the pure joy of winning had eroded.
By three points, he had saddled Doug Kalitta with his fifth No. 2 finish, and he had knocked off closest rival Force in their second-round head-to-head race as the final-day championship chase lived up to its thriller billing. But Torrence was way off his game.
His focus wavered from the start of eliminations when he gave Ferré a shocking open-hand shove to Ferré’s face that bent his head backward, whiplash-style. Fans booed the Capco Dragster driver loudly as he made his way back to the pits to prepare for his pivotal match-up with Force.
In the quarterfinal, he looked like the Steve Torrence fans have come to expect, leaving her about 24 feet in his wake and all but clinching his second straight title.
“I needed to race Brittany and we needed to win. If we didn’t win that round, we didn’t win the championship. So it just was what I had to do. There wasn’t ‘Can I?’ or ‘Will I?’ There was no option,” he said. I had to get that [Ferré confrontation] out of my mind and get in that car and be focused.”
Instead of conveying his elation that he was on the cusp of another championship, Torrence used his public-address opportunity to say about the Ferré incident, “I had to get my head out of my butt. I apologize to each and every fan out there, everybody who has supported me. I got to go find Cameron and apologize to him. Tensions are high, and there’s a lot of crap going on. I’ve been in his shoes where you go up there to win and you might not have the best car but you do everything you can on the starting line. With everything going on – and racing for the kid at home who lost his life . . .there’s no excuse to act that way. I apologize. I’m grateful for the team, and it kind of just soils the day. I’m sorry to every one of you guys.”
All Torrence had to do from there on out was drive arrow-straight down his lane and not commit a point-costing center-line infraction or graze the guard wall. But instead of celebration or contentment, Torrence recited a mea culpa. Then in the semifinal, he had an uncharacteristically sluggish 0.183 light – his season average was 0.0692 – and lost to eventual race runner-up Richie Crampton on a holeshot (3.751-second elapsed time to Crampton’s slower 3.762).
“I went up there racing not to lose instead of racing to win,” he said of his race with Crampton. “I know better. I was thinking about crossing the centerline instead of about doing my job. I messed up.”
Despite his missteps, Torrence claimed the championship. But he said, “The whole place here hates me. I’m the most hated champion ever, probably,” Torrence said. Still burdened by his actions from earlier in the day, Torrence said, “Nobody knows what was said. We were in a heated conversation down there. It went too far. Unless you know the whole story and what was said other than just watching it on TV, you don’t get it. I don’t just fly off. I went over and talked to Cameron and apologized. We have a mutual understanding. We’ll just leave it at that.”
He spent part of his much-anticipated day apologizing, but he didn’t owe anyone an apology for the performance of the Capco Dragster team throughout his season reign. Torrence won more than one-third of the races, and nine times in 14 final rounds on the 24-event Mello Yello Drag Racing Series tour.
What made Torrence’s year extra special was the fact he raced with his father Billy as his part-time teammate and that this year Dad won twice and was runner-up twice in his limited regular-season run to join the Countdown pool. They met twice in final rounds, splitting decisions at Topeka and St. Louis, and they combined throughout 24 races for 13 victories and 16 finals. Billy Torrence’s unexpected title bid, which started from the No. 10 position, ground to a halt in Sunday’s opening round when he lost a pedalfest with Shawn Reed. Billy Torrence ended up fifth in the standings, so father and son were top-five drivers.
“This season has been fun. I mean, I’m having a wonderful time,” the champion said. “My dad has come out and raced more with us and been very successful. So that’s been fun. We do this as a family. We do this for fun. It’s me and Nat [girlfriend Natalie Jahnke], my mom and dad, and every one of those boys [Capco crew members]. So it’s what we do. We share everything. Our two teams work together hand in hand.”
Crew chief Richard Hogan and car chief Bobby Lagana, Torrence said, are “the sole reason” for his success. “You could take anybody and put them in that car and probably get the results, as long as they did their job. It’s the team that Bobby Lagana has been able to assemble. You’ve got Richard Hogan leading it, but Bobby’s there at the shop day in and day out and hand-picks those guys. And that group of guys has been together for years. So that continuity is what has been the key recipe to our success.
“This championship is for all the guys who work on these two Capco cars, and it’s for all the Capco employees back in Texas whose hard work lets us do this as a family. Finally, it’s for the Seegers family that lost their son Brandon in a freak accident last week. He was such a big Torrence Racing fan, and I’d just ask everybody to pray for that family.”
In one of his apologies, Torrence said, “I had to get my head out of my butt.” Actually, it would have been a day truly befitting a two-time champion if he only had kept his hand out of Ferré’s face.