Texan Has No Final Round Appearances or No. 1 Starts in NHRA Gatornationals

March 12, 2020 -- Three weeks after soaring back into the drag racing spotlight by driving his Capco Contractors dragster to a convincing victory in the 36th annual NHRA Arizona Nationals at Phoenix, two-time reigning Mello Yello Top Fuel Champion Steve Torrence turns his attention this week to the one event in which he has done little more than spin his wheels in an otherwise stellar pro career.

While he has won 37 Mello Yello tour events in a relatively short pro career, 29 of them in the last 35 months, the 36-year-old Texan never has advanced beyond the semifinals in the Amalie Oil Gatornationals, contested this week (March 13-15) for the 51st time at Gainesville Raceway.

Not only has he been shut out of final rounds, he never has started the race from No.1, has lost to current point leader Doug Kalitta the only two times they have raced at the Florida track (2014 and 2019) and in 2018, after his best Gatornationals qualifying performance (No. 2), he was upset by Mike Salinas in the very first round.

Finally, of the 21 tracks that currently host NHRA tour events, Gainesville is the only one on which the man who swept the six races in the 2018 Countdown to the Championship has an overall losing record.  He’s won eight rounds; lost 10.

His Gainesville record notwithstanding, Torrence is confident that crew chiefs Richard Hogan and Bobby Lagana Jr. and their battle-tested crew of “Capco Boys” will put a car beneath him capable of turning his Florida frown completely upside down.

Given his record over the last three seasons, it would ludicrous to bet against it. 

After overcoming cancer as a teenager and a heart attack in his 30s, something as innocuous as a lack of success in a single event is not something that is going to cause nightmares for the only driver to have won NHRA championships in both the Fuel and Alcohol divisions.

Nevertheless, he will have some help this week that wasn’t available to him in previous trips to Gainesville Raceway.  For one thing, his dad Billy will be making his first ever Gatornationals appearance at the wheel of the Capco Contractors dragster in which he has won five times in the last 20 months while running a limited schedule.

For another, the team will be channeling “Big Daddy” Don Garlits with a special wrap honoring the Florida legend who in 2001 was voted the No. 1 racer of the NHRA’s first 50 years.

Before he became a drag racing icon, however, and long before he won the Gatornationals in 1972, 1977 and 1978, Garlits engaged in a spirited 1950s rivalry with fellow Floridian Charlie “the King” Hogan, father of Torrence’s celebrated engine tuner.  Later, “Big Daddy” hired the younger Hogan to work on the crew of his “Swamp Rat” dragster, and the two have remained close ever since.

“Hoagie’s from Florida originally,” Torrence said, “and he learned his stuff from Garlits.  So, to win the Gatornationals this year with the Garlits wrap would be extra special.  We’ve had a car good enough to win here before, we just didn’t get it done.”

Although he missed the season-opener at Pomona, Calif., Torrence stormed back at Phoenix where his trip to the winners’ circle included a 3.698-3.699 semifinal victory over his dad, against whom he now is 7-2 in his career and 1-1 in final rounds.

“He wants to beat me as bad as I want to beat him,” Torrence said of the Capco founder.  “We’re both really competitive and that’s the way it’s been as long as we’ve been racing as a family.  There’s nothing more fun than when we race each other.”

Ironically, until 2019, the Gatornationals was the only NHRA event in which a father and son had raced in a Top Fuel final.  The combatants were Connie Kalitta and son Scott with the father reaching the finish line first in a 1994 classic.

Steve Torrence beat his dad in the final round of last year’s Menard’s Heartland Nationals at Topeka, Kan. before Billy turned the tables in the AAA Insurance Midwest Nationals at St. Louis, denying his son what would have been his second straight season with double digit victories.

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