When Steve Torrence dropped the hammer for the 2018 season, he did so with an ax to grind, and a point to prove. Torrence locked up the top seed in the NHRA Countdown to the Championship. By all means, he backed that up last week with a win at Dodge NHRA Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway and the Top Fuel championship.
All season long, he prepared to put a stranglehold on the Top Fuel points. That points lead was erased when the NHRA reset the points to kick off the countdown – by winning again.
“We wanted to lead the points after every single race this season,” he said. “We weren’t able to get the lead in the first race at Pomona (California). But, we’ve had it every race since, and we’ll have it every race from now to the end of the season.”
After closing his second straight dominant regular season with more than a 200 point lead in the standings, Torrence watched that lead disappear once again when the standings were reset prior to Maple Grove. He promptly opened the gap up, with a key moment coming when he took out Clay Millican in the semi-finals.
Millican came into the race hot, and could have passed Torrence with a win, but Torrence would have none of it. Ultimately, Torrence’s tenacity and drive paid off by winning this year’s NHRA Mello Yello Top Fuel Championship.
Torrence, the hyper-competitive pilot of the Capco sponsored Top Fuel dragster, took top honors over Tony Schumacher in the Top Fuel points by a staggering 304 markers. Consider that Torrence won every single race in the Countdown – all six of them.
The Kilgore, Texas resident entered last season’s Countdown at the top of the ladder. However, he struggled a bit after a violent crash in Dallas. Consequently, he watched his championship hopes fade as Brittany Force overtook him in the final race of the season to secure her first championship.
The loss left a bitter taste in his mouth. Not just because he is a competitor, but because he felt it exposed a flaw in the NHRA’s playoff points system.
Torrence discussed his opposition to the method of bunching up the field for the Countdown, NHRA’s version of the playoffs. The veteran racer noted how it rewards teams that finish strong.
Indeed, this scenario played out for Force, hurting teams that were consistent throughout the season. He made his displeasure known at the end of last season, and the disappointment still stings.
“Absolutely, it gives me more of a drive,” he said. “I want to beat those people even more and prove to them and everyone else that they got lucky to win the championship last year. I just hope it doesn’t happen again. Any racer or fan could see easily see that (championship) wasn’t indicative of who had the best racecar and team out there.”
Torrence noted that his frustration was not with Brittany Force, or the John Force Racing team. Rather, he clarified his displeasure was towards the points system.
“I don’t have a rivalry with Brittany,” he said. “I like Brittany. She’s a sweet girl. I lease my shop from John Force Racing. There’s no rivalry there. I just disagree with the points system; that just because they won three races at the end of the year, after only winning one before that, that should count for more. We won eight races and kicked their ass just about every time we faced them head to head.”
He said that his frustration last year was not only with what he considers a flawed points system. Instead, it’s because he is competitive and expects to win every time out.
“We go to win, not to participate,” he said. “We expect to win, and take the trophy home. When that doesn’t happen, you should be mad. Everyone here works too hard to settle for less than that.”
Torrence lost the momentum he had built up through the 2017 season when he was in a violent crash in Dallas. That crash forced his team to start over with its backup car.
While the team was playing from behind trying to get the new car up to where his previous car had, Force won three of the final six races to move past him for the championship.
“I’m totally certain that if that didn’t happen, we would’ve won that championship, hands down,” he said. “If we learned anything from (the crash in Dallas) it’s that we need to be a little more prepared for a catastrophic wreck, where everything you have going is thrown away.”
Although he certainly hopes he won’t have to go through that again in the future, Torrence said he feels his team is ready for any challenge that might face it.
“Them Capco boys are the baddest team out there,” he said of his team. “They are 99 percent of our success. These guys have to take the car completely apart and rebuild it in 45-50 minutes, exactly the way it needs to be between every round. There is a difference between just having a job, and having a desire to win. And these guys go the extra mile. That’s what separates our team from some of the others out there.”
He said the team’s consistency has been a key to his own success. Not only has the majority of his crew been with the team for several years, but they also work efficiently as a group, according to Torrence.
“That consistency is what separates championship teams from run-of-the-mill teams,” he said. “We work together like a well-oiled machine. What they have done has boosted my confidence and it’s 99 percent of my success.”
He said that – to a man – is team has the same goal as him, and the same determination to reach that goal. This is especially evident after feeling like they had a championship stolen from them last season.
“There’s no secret to winning,” he said. “It’s hard work, and having that drive and determination, that I see in every one of them Capco boys. There’s a difference between just having a job and having a desire to win. And we’ve all got that desire to win.”
At the Lucas Oil Nationals in Brainerd, Minn. Torrence got a rare opportunity to take pleasure in watching someone else win a Top Fuel race. Earlier this years, his father Billy, who races part time for Capco, picked up his first career win.
“That was pretty fun, seeing dad get a Wally,” Torrence said. “It was a very memorable weekend, qualifying (number 1) and (number 2). The only thing that would’ve made it better is if we could’ve raced in the finals.”
All things considered, Torrence said he would have to put the fun aspects of race weekend aside. All year long, the Lone Star State native exuded confidence and focus. If races such as Maple Grove likened to a band’s hit single, his championship served as his hit record.
“I try to drive the best I can in every round of qualifying, and every round on race day,” he said. “That preparation and execution, and the good Lord has allowed us to be successful.”
Last season, Torrence led the Top Fuel points after every race, except the final race of the season. This year, he has led the points after every race except the first race. This time, he was able to close out his first NHRA Top Fuel championship.
Ultimately, that juxtaposition reflected the turnaround for himself and his team after last season’s disappointment.
“I think we will need to get two or three wins and (reach) a couple (semi-final rounds) in the Countdown to get the championship,” he said prior to the kickoff of the Countdown. “That’s the goal.”
When asked how he would react if he manages to close the deal this season, Torrence was equally honest.
“Heck, I might cry or something,” he said. “When you start, you set the goal of winning a race, then you want to win Indy, then the championship. We’ve been able to accomplish every goal except the championship. So, it would be an emotional day to see the fruits of our labor and the hard work that every one of these guys has put in pay off.”
By all means, that diligence has paid off for Torrence and his team in grand fashion.