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Thunder Valley Nationals just days away

Jeff Birchfield • Jun 6, 2018 at 6:52 PM

BRISTOL — The Fitzgerald USA Thunder Valley Nationals at Bristol Dragway is one of the most anticipated races of the NHRA season for fans and drivers alike.

Funny Car driver J.R. Todd and defending Pro Stock winner Alex Laughlin were on hand Wednesday at the drag strip for a press conference to preview next week’s races. 

Todd, 36, drives the DHL Toyota Camry for Kalitta Motorsports. After six full seasons in Top Fuel where he scored nine wins, he switched to Funny Car a year ago. He won two races including the prestigious U.S. Nationals, but struggled other times and finished ninth in the Funny Car standings. This year, he’s already matched the win total with back-to-back wins at Las Vegas and Houston, and currently ranks fifth in the standings. 

“You’d think by this point of the year you would be comfortable making the transition to Funny Car,” Todd said. “But I wasn’t last season and didn’t really know what I needed inside the car. It took a while to get that ironed out, but the mid point of the summer, I got more comfortable driving. This year, we brought out a new chassis in Gainesville (where he posted a career-best speed of 332.51 mph) and since then, we’ve hit the ground running. So far, we can’t ask for anything, but to win more races.”

Todd, whose father was a flat-track motorcycle racer, found the Funny Car took a much different driving style than what he had been accustomed to. He has raced at Bristol since he was 11, coming to the track the first time in a Junior Dragster. But, all the cars he had driven had the engine behind the driver’s cockpit.

“You pick up all these habits driving a dragster,” said Todd, whose best Bristol finish making the semifinals in 2015. “You finesse it, guide it down the track, where the Funny Car you have to be real aggressive with the steering wheel and you have to be tell yourself that.”

SPONSOR RACE

Laughlin also won at St. Louis last year, although the Bristol race is memorable with the field he had to beat which included world champions Allen Johnson and Jeg Coughlin Jr. in the first two rounds. He then dispatched of Tanner Gray before beating eventual world champion Bo Butner with a perfect start and a pass of 6.718 seconds (205.04 mph).

“We started out the weekend behind the eight-ball,” Laughlin said. “We shook the tires in Q1 (the first qualifying session) and from there, we kept better runs. We kept going rounds, and I’m a firm believer whenever it’s your day, it’s your day. Regardless of who I lined up against, I got around them.”

With his car sponsor the same as his race sponsor, Laughlin feels the pressure to repeat this season. He has struggled the first part of this season, 11th in the Mello Yello point standings, but feels they have turned things around.

“The Fitzgerald guys are huge supporters, so you want to perform well,” Laughlin said. “You obviously do the best you can every weekend, but you want to go above and beyond to win it for them. It’s definitely a little more pressure, but I’m confident in our car and our team. I think we can do it.”

TEST SESSION

Beyond the drivers interviewed at the press conference, several others were at Bristol Dragway testing on Wednesday. It included KB Racing teammates Greg Anderson and Jason Line, defending Pro Stock World Champion Bo Butner and Greeneville’s Allen Johnson, who retired from Pro Stock at the end of last season.

Johnson was testing a purple Dodge Challenger that he is racing in a Factory Stock category.

Others on hand included Blountville racer Barry Brown and his son, Carson, with the Top Dragsters they will race at Bristol next week, and other drivers from the Top Dragster and Pro Mod ranks.

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