When he’s back home in Alpharetta, Ga., Bob Vandergriff occasionally visits the grocery store to pick up some milk, eggs, bread, and the usual “Hey, Bob — are you going to run back up the racetrack the next time you win?!” inquiry.
You see, Tony Schumacher’s National Hot Rod Association legend was cemented in “The Run,” the evening in November 2006 when he won one of his seven Top Fuel championships in literally a do-or-die situation of nearly impossible proportions.
Bob Vandergriff, the man who beat him in the final round of last Sunday’s Big O Tires Nationals at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, also has his equally memorable version of “The Run.”
Image courtesy NHRA/National Dragster
In Schumacher’s case, it involves his U.S. Army Dragster. In Vandergriff’s, “The Run” is on foot.
Vandergriff has earned two career victories in 15 final rounds. Both times he has climbed from his car, left it sitting on the track, and run back up toward the starting line to meet his C&J Energy Services Dragster team, leaving a flabbergasted phalanx of photographers flatfooted.
It started last September at the Texas Motorplex, when he beat Spencer Massey in the final round and yelled over to Massey in the other lane, “Did I actually win?!”
Massey assured him, “You did, Brother!”
Said Vandergriff, “I just needed confirmation. Off I went to the starting line.”
Once he caught his breath and grabbed his pewter Wally trophy, Vandergriff bolted up the track, chugging away in his fire suit in the sweltering almost-triple-digit temperatures. About halfway back, the accomplished football and basketball player and golfer said the thought occurred to him that he needed to get back to his running regimen. “It’s a long way back to the starting line!” he said.
He had waited for years through 13 runner-up finishes to get the chance to celebrate, and he had planned to reunite with his team when the magic moment arrived.
Image courtesy NHRA/National Dragster
“I always said that if I did win, I didn’t want to be down there by myself and have my guys jumping around all over the starting line and me down there hearing cricket noises all by myself,” Vandergriff said.
So he had arranged for a buddy, usually either Brandon Bernstein or J.R. Todd, to stand by with a scooter to give him a lift back to the starting line. But that day at Dallas, Bernstein had family plans in his hometown and Todd wasn’t there that weekend, Vandergriff was on his own, and he improvised.
People would stop me in aisle-ways and ask me if I was going to run back to the starting line again if I win. I think the expectation level is pretty high.
No one ever had witnessed such a phenomenon, and surely retiring public-address announcer Bob Frey would count it among his craziest spontaneous play-by-play calls. Fans — especially independent-thinking, resourceful Texans — loved it, and so did those who saw it on ESPN or on Internet replays.
“It was worth it,” Vandergriff said. “It was something I’ve been waiting to do for a long time, and it’s something I’ll never forget.”
He doesn’t have to worry. People won’t let him forget about it.
“It’s funny,” Vandergriff said Sunday at Las Vegas after an encore run. “We did it the first time because it was something I waited so long for. I wanted to do something a little special. I didn’t want to be down there by myself.
“I had such a big response, even when I would go into the grocery store. People would stop me in aisle-ways and ask me if I was going to run back to the starting line again if I win. I think the expectation level is pretty high,” he said.
As he ran The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, close friend and three-time Top Fuel champion Larry Dixon approached him and gave him an “Attaboy,” then said, ‘It’s great you did that. But I won 12 races – let’s see if you can do this 12 times. I said I don’t think I would like to try.”
In all, Vandergriff said, “It’s great. The fans seem to love it. I love the support and the cheering running down the track. It makes it worth it.”
After he defeated tire-smoking Tony Schumacher with a 3.832-second, 324.75-mph pass last Sunday, he performed “The Run, Vandergriff-Style.” Along the way, he waved to the crowd, high-fived a couple of people, received his 10-pound trophy on the fly, and even changed hats for sponsor exposure before he reached crew chiefs Rob Flynn, Keith Stewart, Mike Guger, and the entire team.
This time “The Run” wasn’t a surprise. Neither was the fact he claimed the $50,000 victory, beating Dave Grubnic, Massey, and Doug Kalitta to reach his first final round of the season.
“We’ve had a great race car all weekend. Our car was pretty flawless,” he said.
Hiring J.R. Todd to drive a second team car, he acknowledged, was a smart move.
“J.R. Todd and that crew do such a great job. I think this is its [the car’s] sixth race and it will run Pomona,” he said, referring to the season finale Nov. 8-11 at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona. “Every time it comes out, it is competitive. It helps our car so much on the information. They had a car that could have met me in the final,” Vandergriff said.
“They had a gear breakage in the second round. They made a mess. They teased me that I needed to win just to cover the parts bill,” he said. “It’s a great car and we are working hard to get it out here next season. When we can have two cars we can be pretty darn competitive.”
The independent team owner-driver had won only eight elimination rounds in the season’s previous 21 events. But he denied Schumacher a 70th career Top Fuel victory and seventh at Las Vegas.
“Anytime you race that team, or one of those [Don Schumacher Racing] cars, you know you have your hands full. It’s obviously a premiere organization in our sport. To be able to beat them, you have to beat the best. We were able to do that.”
He recognized that his only other victory came more than a year ago but echoed what other winners have said this season, that the level of competition is insanely intense this year.
Everybody told me the next one would come easier, and I think they are full of it. They don’t come easy.
“I certainly didn’t think it would take this long to win again,” Vandergriff said. “Everybody told me the next one would come easier, and I think they are full of it. They don’t come easy.”
He said, “You can’t see out of these cars, and the whole way down there I couldn’t see or hear [Schumacher]. You get these thoughts in your head and it’s amazing you can have that in 3.8 seconds. You keep wondering, ‘Where is he at? Where is he at? Where is he at?’ Then you see the finish line and the light comes on. Then you don’t care where he’s at. To beat that team is as good as it comes.”
Still, Schumacher improved from third in the standings to second. He heads into the showdown just 65 points behind leader Antron Brown, who lost in the opening round to Al-Anabi Racing’s Khalid al Balooshi.
Vandergriff joined championship contenders Ron Capps (Funny Car), Allen Johnson (Pro Stock), and Eddie Krawiec (Pro Stock Motorcycle) in the winners circle.
The Top Fuel championship battle is one Vandergriff said he’s anticipating.
“It’s going to come down to the wire, and I guess that’s how it should be. I’d hate for anyone to clinch here and make that last race anticlimactic,” he said. “I’m going to be as excited to see that final race as anyone.”
Maybe sweetest of all for Vandergriff was winning in front of his father. This was the first race Bob Vandergriff Sr. was able to attend since this summer. Vandergriff Sr. visited the doctor in August for what he thought was a minor heart issue.
“The next thing you know, they are cracking him open for a double-bypass [surgery],” Vandergriff Jr. said. “He’s been out since the Seattle race. This is his first race back. It’s great just to see him back out there. To see how choked up with emotion he was when I win one of these things is pretty special. I am just glad he could be here.”
And he was there to see “The Run” again.