Steve Torrence and his family have celebrated every NHRA Top Fuel victory at El Charro restaurant in Tyler, Texas. That has added up to more than 40 times they have sat at the same table and ordered the same menu items.
The staff follows the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series races and keeps up with the action. This past November, they had the pleasure of serving lunch to the newly crowned two-time Top Fuel champion.
“They were all excited just to be part of it with me,” Torrence said. “They just know you as a regular.”
So do the folks who flock to the winner’s circle celebrations at dragstrips across the country.
Since 2017, Torrence has won 28 races – more than an entire season’s worth. In the past two year alone, he and teammate dad Billy Torrence have combined for 25 victories, also more than a full season could produce.
This past season, Steve won nine races for a two-year total of 20. That’s five times more than Doug Kalitta, the second-biggest winner in the past two seasons, earned. A deeper look showed Torrence with 28 victories in the past three campaigns. That’s quadruple the triumphs of both Brittany Force and Leah Pritchett in the same time frame – and more than five times the total of five each that Kalitta and Antron Brown had. Overall, Torrence has 36 victories, fewer than Brown’s 50 and Kalitta’s 47. But his Countdown victory last fall at Charlotte pushed him ahead of “Big Daddy” Don Garlits on the class’ all-time list and just three away from tying another legend, Kenny Bernstein.
That’s the best team out there, however you want to look at it. We win more races than anybody, and that’s because of that team.
Were it not for the NHRA’s manipulated Countdown to the Championship (or for an unfortunate cut tire during eliminations at Dallas in 2017 that caused his dragster to crash), Torrence would have scored three consecutive series titles. Nevertheless, his 2019 march to the championship was much different than in 2018.
“We’re racers, and we race to win, whether it’s one race or two races or 11 races or the championship. We go out there to race as hard as we possibly can and win. And I think that when everything happened in ’17, it just made us more hungry and more driven. The season that we had in ’18, it really was driving a stake and proving our point. And we tried to continue that in ’19,” he said. “You have these goals to go out and do well. And winning never gets old. Being dominant for 24 races is much more difficult than being dominant for six.”
As any multi-time champion will say, each crown has a different story behind it. It’s no different for Torrence. What’s the same, though, is his approach to each one of the races. The consistency of personnel, routine, cars, and parts – not to be flippant, but the consistency of consistency – is key to the Capco teams’ success. And with a “no-strategy strategy,” he’ll be ready for the Feb. 6-9 season-opening Winternationals at Pomona, Calif., after a testing session later this month at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
“We’re just going to continue doing what we’ve been doing,” he said. The group of guys that we’ve been able to assemble and keep together are unparalleled. I say this time and time again: I’m just the guy that gets to sit in the seat and drive it. Richard Hogan and Bobby Lagana and every one of those Capco boys, those are the guys that win races. That’s the best team out there, however you want to look at it. We win more races than anybody, and that’s because of that team.”
Torrence said the balance between crew chief Richard Hogan and car chief Bobby Lagana makes everything work: “Richard makes the calls on the car. Richard’s the crew chief. Bobby oversees all the guys, oversees everything at the shop. He is the blood of that team. Everybody there is driven by his work ethic and their loyalty to him and their loyalty to Richard. Richard is the guy that makes the tuning shots. He’s the one that is the mastermind, but without Bobby shielding everything from Richard, taking any dilemmas with the car or changing parts or changing pieces in between runs to make sure that everything is exactly how it should be. Without Bobby doing that, Richard wouldn’t be in the position that he’s in, in the crew chief lounge, just being able to scour over all that information.
“And so you can’t have one without the other,” Torrence said.” You can’t have the success of Richard Hogan without the ethic and burden that Bobby Lagana takes on himself to ease Richard’s mind. It takes a different kind of person to completely immerse himself in that. And the amount of focus and concentration that it takes to analyze all the data, to be able to go through each and every run and dissect what happened and what you tried and what it did and what you’re going to do for the next run and predict the weather – all the things that it takes to go out there and do what we’ve been able to accomplish. You’ve got to have a team of guys who don’t make mistakes, that give you the same racecar every time. You have to have someone that oversees all of that, and then you have to have a guy that makes the calls. That’s been the successful recipe.”
Ultimately, we race for fun. This is a business to us, but we’re not making money at this business. It’s something we enjoy to do as a family. We love this sport. We don’t want it to go away.
The Torrence team has been blessed to have a fleet of Morgan Lucas Racing-built cars that he finds comfortable and that behave alike.
“We’ve got a couple different cars right now. All of these Morgan Lucas Racing chassis that we have are so very similar. It’s pretty impressive how consistent the cars are. Some of them have different characteristics,” Torrence said. “Yeah, I’ve got one that’s my favorite. We ran it through the first of the year . We took it out of the rotation for the Western Swing then brought it back out for the Countdown. The product that Richie [Crampton] and ‘Squiggs’ [Jason Rush] and those guys at MLR turn out are by far the best racecars I’ve ever been in. You have some favorites, but they’re all pretty dadgum solid. We’ve had a lot of success with ‘em.”
As for his parts sources, he said, “We’re not smart enough to build our own parts – or maybe we’re smart enough not to build our own parts. We still buy parts from Alan Johnson, and everything is off the shelf. Sometimes I think that you could get yourself out on an island when you’re creating your own parts and pieces and fall behind. It would be easy just to get caught up in manufacturing parts and pieces and continue running the same thing over and over when some people are innovating and changing. So we just keep buying the most current stuff we can and trying to stay with it and go from there.”
After experiencing how the Countdown can kill momentum and observing how it can be used to one’s advantage, Torrence said back in April 2018: “We approached this season with a little different strategy than last year. We’re prepared right now for the latter part of the season. You always want to go rounds and win races, but you need to prepare for those last six. Who knows what would have happened in a different world if we wouldn’t have had the wreck [at Dallas]? That definitely put us behind, and we’re trying to diversify our set-up so we’re not solely dependent on just one car, one everything.”
Of this past season, he said: “I don’t know if we had a strategy. Maybe to a fault, we like to race. We’re racers. I don’t think that we’ve ever gone there with, really, a strategy to ‘OK, let’s waste our time and money for the first 18 races and just go out here and have fun and then really race for the last six,’ because I think that by doing that, you can find yourself in a lax position.”
Ultimately, he sticks to his line that “The Good Lord’s going to look after us, and if it’s in the cards for us to be the champ, we’ll be the champ. If it’s not, we won’t. But we’re going to do everything we possibly can. If it’s going to happen, can’t nobody beat us, anyway.”
One of the biggest impacts on the entire Top Fuel class in 2019 was the performance of Billy Torrence. The elder Torrence competed at just 10 for the 18 regular-season races and posted a 2-2 final-round mark, qualified 10th in the Countdown lineup, won two of the six deciding events, and finished fifth in the final standings. His feat prompted the NHRA to tweak the Countdown rules for 2020.
Son Steve calculated that had his dad run those eight races he skipped and even had lost in the first round at each of them, he likely would have been seeded in the top five at the outset of the so-called playoffs.
“My dad made it in the top 10. He competed in 55-percent of the races. It’s borderline embarrassing,” Steve Torrence said.
“The debate of the Countdown could go on forever,” he said. “But we race 24 races. We take the final six to decide a champion. So that’s a 25-percent sample rate. The deciding factor of who your champion is is [based] on a 25-percent sample rate. I personally don’t think that’s indicative of a true season champion. And people argue the fact that ‘It’s a Countdown. It’s a playoff system.’ Well, I get that, if that’s what you want to do. Then I don’t think that the people who didn’t make the Countdown should compete and it should be an elimination. Let’s just eliminate like you do in football: when you get beat, you go home. You can only race six races, and it’ll save all of us about three million bucks.”
Some have said Billy Torrence’s stunning achievement, which reportedly has inspired at least one multi-car team to consider skipping an event or two to save money, was a one-off feat that drag-racing fans might never see again. Steve Torrence disagreed: “I think it could easily be done. They don’t have 10 touring full-time cars.”
In all, the two-time champ said, “It was really special just to sit back and watch the success that he had and just how well he did. That team over there that Bobby assembled, there’s guys on that team that have multiple championships: Wes Barber and Jason McCulloch and all those guys are very accredited. Those guys, they’re in-the-moment kind of guys. They’ve been there with Tony [Schumacher] and A.J. [Alan Johnson] when they made ‘The Run’ [in 2006] and all the accomplishments they did. So they’re very seasoned. And they give my dad a lot of confidence. The way that he went out and drove, I was very, very proud. That was as much fun to watch as anything this year, seeing the success they had, racing 55-percent of the regular-season races and making the Countdown. There’s people who say that wasn’t fair. It’s just a flaw in their points system that we were able to exploit.”
Nevertheless, the points-and-a-half system – another reactionary monkey wrench in the championship-determining process – and the points reset after the U.S. Nationals are what, in Torrence’s words, “take a lot of the shine off of it. Honestly, it just takes a little bit of shine off of what you do in the regular season when you have just gimmicks and things of that nature.”
However, he said, “It’s something that you have to get over and get past and just race. Ultimately, we race for fun. This is a business to us, but we’re not making money at this business. It’s something we enjoy to do as a family. We love this sport. We don’t want it to go away. It gets frustrating at times.”
His frustration surfaced on the final day of last season, and reaction to his altercation with Cameron Ferré has spun out of control, despite his numerous apologies to his competitors, fans, and the NHRA.
“The last few months has soured my attitude towards any social media or any interviews to put myself out there,” Torrence said.
“Everybody seems to have their opinion of me and what they think about my family and what I do and all that. I would just rather they have their opinions and go on. I would prefer them to know as little about me as possible. It’s easy to point fingers and say this and say that, but people don’t know me and people don’t know my family. They don’t know anything about me, but it’s easier to judge and throw stones and talk trash when you’re sitting behind the keyboard and you’re never held accountable for your actions.”
He has been accountable for his. Moreover, on the dragstrip, he doesn’t have a thing to prove. And odds are pretty high that in 2020, the Torrences will be visiting El Charro quite a few times.