Hot rod racing may conjure up images of James Dean and the 1950s, but the sport is alive and thriving. And in 2006, J.R. Todd became the first Black driver to win a National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) Top Fuel event. (The NHRA is a drag racing governing body, which sets rules in drag racing all over the United States. Top Fuel dragsters are the fastest sanctioned category of drag racers.) Todd was named Rookie of the Year in 2006.
But despite his historic victory and fame in the business, Todd, 34, faced many challenges in his career. The financial crisis hit him and his career hard. He was riding high but by 2008 the money had dried up and he was without a ride. He turned to part-time drives for six years and sponsorship fell apart. “When the economy crashed, a lot of people out here lost their sponsorships. It has been tough; it has not bounced back to where it was prior to when I got my start. Without sponsorship, it is hard to get a ride out here,” he explains.
The troubled times were a learning experience, says Todd. “The biggest business lesson is sponsorship. It is tough and I am still learning…It is a never ending battle. A lot of these deals are coming together due to business-to-business deals. It is not about a company just giving you a pile of money to see their logo on a car. It is about the return, and I feel like we do a good job ensuring all of our sponsors a great return on their investment,” he shares.
Then things took a positive turn in 2014. Todd took over a ride three races into the season, won for the first time since 2008, and finished second in the standings, ahead of over 10 other drivers that had run every event. Todd is happy for his good fortune. “I had some help from some guys like [NHRA team owner] Bob Vandergriff. He had a multi-car team and offered me a driving job part-time,” he says. “It allowed me to keep my name out here and pay the bills. I was fortunate to get the lucky break when (Kalitta Motorsports team owner) Connie Kalitta gave me the call.”
It has been a slow, but satisfying, process to get back to the top. “We haven’t had a bad season, but we haven’t been great. We are in our seventh race of the season, and are in the top ten in points – which is good. We had some performance issues at the beginning of the year. Now we have those issues worked out and just need to work on our consistency and get a little bit lucky coming up,” he says.
Todd, who hails from from Lawrenceburg, Ind., is ready for the next phase of his career.
He has long had a passion for the sport. “I first got interested in motor sports because of my dad. He raced before I was born, and so I was always at the race track as a kid. Growing up, my plan was to race motorcycles like my dad, but with the injuries he had my mom and dad were never really gun-ho about me doing that, so it worked out that the construction company that he was working for had a drag car,” recalls Todd. “We got going to the local drag strip in Cincinnati with them, and about the same time NHRA came out with the Junior Dragster program. (The junior dragster program is a smaller dragster program for children.) My family got me a dragster and I have been hooked in drag racing ever since.”
For now, he’s looking to the future. “[I want to] win as many races as we can. Every race that we show up to we know that we can win and that is our plan. The first goal is to make the Countdown because that is tough. But then start up higher in the standings than we did last year. Then we would set ourselves up for a good shot at that championship,” he says.
For others, who like Todd, may be trailblazers, he has this to say: “The advice I would give to other trailblazers is to share the things you have learned with those that are coming behind you. Show them what it takes to get to that level. Let them know that anything is possible as long as you are dedicated and stick to it.”