NHRA Top Fuel racer Billy Torrence, the No. 3 ranked driver in his class and most recent winner in the Camping World Drag Racing Series, this week called the Countdown to the Championship system “The Loser Appreciation Program.”
The sanctioning body bent the rules to allow more racers beyond the top 10 to become eligible for the six-race (and this year the seven-race) “playoff.” They did so in response to Torrence’s achievement of qualifying for the 2019 Countdown after competing in just 10 of the 18 regular-season events. In those 10 events, he won twice in four final rounds; in the Countdown, he won twice and finished fifth in the final standings.
Fellow Top Fueler Mike Salinas skipped three races that same year, qualified fifth for the Countdown, and ended up No. 7. In Pro Stock, Erica Enders sat out two mid-summer races in 2014, and it paid off with the first of her four championships. So Torrence isn’t the only one not to run a full schedule and still make the Countdown and excel. Still, the new, more lenient rule, is referred to by insiders as “The Billy Torrence Rule.”
Maybe the sport’s executives figured they had to act after Steve Torrence asked at the time, “How’s it going to look if my dad goes out and wins the championship and he raced 16 of the 24 races?” The scenario wasn’t far-fetched. Steve Torrence contended that the Countdown sprint offers “zero incentive to go out and race all of the races and try to do well. Ultimately, all you have to do is skate into the top 10 and race really hard for six.”
The Torrences – and others – contend that the NHRA decision-makers have caved into the “Everybody gets a trophy for showing up” practice.
“I agree with him,” Top Fuel rookie Josh Hart said. “If you’re not worthy of making the top 10, you shouldn’t just automatically be in it.”
Hart, 11th in the standings but not in the Countdown, easily would have been title-eligible, had he not sat out two races this summer when some of his crew members became ill with RSV, a respiratory virus that can mimic COVID. It was his choice not to race unless the team could compete as a unit, and he takes responsibility for the decision: “I’m very loyal . . . Got to make hard choices.” He said that includes managing one’s racing program by setting goals and figuring out how to make them happen. “Every one of us has the same opportunity as [dominator Steve Torrence and Billy Torrence]. It’s up to us to capitalize on it.”
One purpose of the Countdown and its points-adjustment ritual to bunch the top 10 for more drama was to avoid any insurmountable margins for the leader. Billy Torrence’s contention is “That’s just the way it rolls. I always liked it when [Funny Car’s] John Force had it locked up by Dallas. I don’t care if it’s us or the Kalittas or the Forces or Josh Hart or whoever – if they have walked the walk, let ’em talk the talk.”
But not every racer agrees with the Torrences and Hart. Naturally, they include Funny Car’s Jim Campbell and Pro Stock’s Kenny Delco. They, along with Pro Stock Motorcycle’s Cory Reed, made the Countdown via the new rule, by entering every regular season race and making at least two qualifying passes at each.
Campbell, Funny Car’s No. 11 seed, said in response to Billy Torrence, “First off, those [Capco] cars run absolutely phenomenally, so they’re going to make the Countdown on points, even if they run half the season. We’re not like NASCAR, where we have 40 cars, and it goes to 20 or whatever. If you run the whole season, you should have a chance to make the top 10 by the end of the year.
“If it’s a Participation Award, then thank you. I participated in it, and I’m more than happy.”
“And I think that’s just fair because we’re out here every weekend. The other cars earn it on points, that’s fine. But if you’re a full-time car, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with these cars making the Countdown – because it takes a lot of time, work, and effort to go to every race,” the driver of the DiPinto Dodge Charger for Jim Dunn Racing said.
“So, put it this way: If there were only 10 cars in the Countdown and another six or seven cars didn’t show up, how fun is that going to make the sport to have 10 cars? Somebody’s going to get a bye. Somebody’s going to get two byes. So that wouldn’t make it any fun. So I don’t know,” Campbell said.
“But I’m stoked to make the Countdown,” he said. “So, if it’s a Participation Award, then thank you. I participated in it, and I’m more than happy. If I can wind up in the 10th, ninth, eighth, then it’s a great marketing tool for next year, saying we were a top-10 car.”
When he took the provisional No. 1 qualifying position at the Countdown opener last weekend at Reading, Pa., three-time Funny Car champion Robert Hight said, “I don’t honestly think we need a Countdown in Funny Car. With the quality of cars you have and as many as there are, you don’t need a Countdown.”
Campbell said, “We don’t have enough cars to really have a Countdown. If you run the races and all that stuff and you earn your way into the top 10 on points by the end of the year whether you ran 10 races or 20 races or nine race and you made it on points, you can do it on a points thing for the top 10. I think all touring cars should automatically make the Countdown. I get it that in some of the classes you have a [huge] points lead.
“I’m just stoked that I’m in the Countdown and I actually have a chance to make the top 10 for the first time in my career,” he said. “And however we got here . . . that’s what the rules say, and I’m happy with it. I showed up at every race. We made the minimum qualifying runs.
“It’s good for the sport. You got more cars in it,” Campbell said. “Pro Stock’s got the same thing and Pro Stock Motorcycle. I think it’s fair. I have no problem with it. The Capco cars obviously are stout cars. They’re well-funded cars. We’re out here trying to do the best we can with the budget that we have.”
Veteran Delco used the new rule to score his first Pro Stock Countdown berth this year as the No. 11-ranked driver, and he gave it a thumbs-up.
“It encourages racers to go to all the races and support NHRA and the fans. It has also given us full fields in Pro Stock every race this year,” the owner-driver of the KD Racing Camaro said. “This is great for our fans, and at the end of the year we are rewarded with the opportunity to compete for a position in the top 10. It’s a win-win.”
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