Don O’Neal: ‘I Still Have A Lot Of Things I Want To Finish’

NHRA Top Sportsman racer Don O’Neal dared to do something different, to shun what was safe, to march boldly into the unknown.

For five seasons he had excelled with his Monte Carlo and its big-block Chevy engine with three stages of nitrous oxide. But after leaning hard on the Strassweg family who owns the Evansville, Ind.-based racing operation, he convinced them to switch from the familiar to a Jerry Haas-built Magnuson-supercharged Camaro with a 427 cubic-inch Oakley Performance LS engine that’s essentially a Factory Stock Showdown-grade COPO Camaro engine in a Pro Stock chassis.

When the inspiration to make the change struck him, he told wife Diane Litto O’Neal, “It’s going to be horrible.” He warned her the transition was not going to be easy – and it wasn’t. But racing-performance struggles became intertwined with the harshness of real life, and he experienced a different dimension of “horrible.” Diane, who already soldiered on through Multiple Sclerosis, was diagnosed with terminal melanoma cancer.

After she lost her two-and-a-half-year fight this April, Don O’Neal has once again slogged into unknown territory, using his extensive U.S. Army experience to navigate the tough terrain of grief, carry on in the spirit of duty and selfless service, and triumph in the face of fatigue.

None of it has been easy, on the racetrack and certainly not off. But O’Neal won the Division 3 Top Sportsman trophy at the Aug. 29 Bowling Green, Kentucky race and called it “huge,” just as he said simply reaching the final round at the July 2020 Topeka Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series event was a coup. But more importantly, the Bowling Green victory was a salute to his perseverance, as he conquered both the jumbled emotions of sorrow and the aggravation of parts breakage and mechanical nuisances. Life isn’t perfect – “It’s extremely difficult to continue,” he said.  But he said he knows he has a loving support system and a conviction that “I’m still here to do something.”

…there were races we showed up to that we were the laughingstock of the pits: ‘Why in the world did they go and do this?’

O’Neal has that intuition that he needs to act, even when maybe others don’t understand.

“I was a nitrous guy. Drove a top-10 nitrous car for two years in a row. It was a great car,” he said. But he sensed it wasn’t enough, wasn’t in line with his duties for the Strassweg family as their driver and their day-to-day operations manager for Streetway Marketing and Media or for his sponsors.

O’Neal left the 2018 PRI Show and told his wife, “We need a Pro Stock Camaro with a COPO engine in it to go run Top Sportsman – because it’s a marketing-exposure attention-grabber. We’re going to struggle. It’s going to be horrible, because it’s never been done, but it’s what the public – it’s what the generation – understands now. They understand a supercharger and EFI. That’s what they know. And that’s who we’re trying to attract.” He said, “At that time, it was NGK, NTK, Tub O’ Towels…those companies are still with me, but those companies need consumer exposure and sales.”

It was a major risk, O’Neal said, for what he was asking them to do was “abandon something that was so easy for us to do. We turned on win lights. We were extremely competitive. We knew we were going to qualify wherever we went in the country. We never doubted anything. We just always were improving and being more consistent and fine-tuning.” However, what jolted him was the realization that “I’m sorry, at the end of the day, there was just nothing cool about what I was driving (to other companies, of what our success was: that we were a top-10 car, that people did know who I was, or that I had some brand value or equity to bring to the table.) On the performance side, there was nothing interesting about what we were doing.”

But it took O’Neal awhile to convince the Strasswegs. Naturally, they wondered, “Why in the world are we leaving a proven combination to go do this?!”

He said, “In the end, it was a marketing decision for business, had nothing to do with performance on the racetrack.”

But it was a grind to retool the program.

“I have no problem admitting it: there were races we showed up to that we were the laughingstock of the pits: ‘Why in the world did they go and do this?’ I’m not a bad driver, and we don’t have bad equipment. We do work hard. And we spend money on what it is that we need to spend money on. So [it was rough] when we struggled and didn’t qualify and broke engines and broke parts and were testing to the point that parts failures happened and I’m wreckin’ race cars right before a national event,” he said.

Photo by Lester Barnes

“And on top of that,” O’Neal added, “you pour in the fact that Diane gets diagnosed with terminal cancer…so now we’re not testing as much as we really need to. We’re in and out of hospitals, traveling the country, trying to find some sort of treatment to try to prolong [her life] or cure something we’ve been told is not curable. And all the time with daughters going to college and COVID and just the things of the world to make you pull your hair out, oh yeah – we’re still over here, trying to prove a combination to move forward and be competitive and run a company.”

Today he can say, “We have had that success. We have numerous companies that have stuck with us and still are involved to this day and new companies that are coming on board on a regular basis.”

We got told we didn’t have a really good chance. So we push and we don’t stop and we keep pushing. She did everything she could. Collectively, we did everything we could. Nobody did anything wrong. It just didn’t work out. It was not in God’s plan for us to beat it.

“Right now there’s four Top Sportsman cars in the country that have an LS combination: J.C. Beattie, Mark Payne, Bob Reinhardt, and myself. J.C.Beattie started the trend at ATI with Chris Rini’s old car. Mark Payne followed shortly after with Tick Performance in his Cavalier. I came third with the Magnuson program, the COPO-based Factory Stock Showdown format. And Bob Reinhardt this year finished his GTO, an old Pro Stock GTO they took in [in Colorado] from Madcap [V Gaines’ company]. We also know that there’s three other cars that are being built or going to be built this winter that are also going to come on the scene,” O’Neal said.

“We talk about the expense of sports, how much it costs to race. It’s always a conversation. The fact is 900-inch motors and ProCharger motors and Vortech motors and roots-style blower engines, these engines are costly to run and maintain. And then you go and grab an LS, and you can put $30,000-$35,000 into one and go run 6.80s or be Mark Payne and run 6.60s with turbos. Now all of a sudden it’s a little more affordable,” O’Neal said. “It all has its place. But in the end for us, it’s about being different. It’s about grabbing that attention and doing well and exposing people to other manufacturers and other products and, ultimately, hoping it’ll further the engine platform – which, hopefully, companies like GM will see and want to stay involved in some way in our world of motorsports. We wanted to show that.”

So his hunch is paying off with the Litens/NGK/Magnuson Camaro, which started out as Alex Laughlin’s Gas Monkey-branded Pro Stocker but O’Neal repurposed as the NGK/NTK entry. “The engine is a naturally aspirated 427 from a COPO (based on a COPO engine) long block with the Factory Stock Showdown 350 combination – the blower and intake on the top half. So we took the best of both worlds for the LS program from GM and put it to work for us. It’s the same engine combination,” he said. “We’re just performing a lot better now.”

Combating continual parts breakage and mechanical issues was a performance nightmare. O’Neal said, “We have tested the strength and durability of so many of the parts and pieces in our combination. We’re just keeping our foot down as we continue to improve.”

So he’s seeing sunnier days ahead with his racecar – and in his personal life.

O’Neal triumphed at the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series North Central Division event at Beech Bend Raceway Park in Kentucky on August 29, his first win since the passing of wife, Diane.

“I don’t want to say that there was any one thing that got me through [the loss of Diane]. I think it goes back to life experiences. I lost my dad at young age to cancer. I lost friends and loved ones along the way. I’ve lost both sets of grandparents. I lost my mom to pancreatic cancer. I’ve lost a lot of people in my life. And at the end of the day, you have to continue to move,” O’Neal said. “They don’t want you to be miserable or to stop moving, stop progressing, stop trying to be a better person or not being happy, not furthering their memory.

“You have these standards of expectations to live up to for them but also for yourself. You’re still an example to people, to tell your story and to continue to try to impact people. “Is it bad? Oh, God, yes, it’s horrible. Is it going to kill you?” He said, “what you’re exactly supposed to do” is not let a devastating setback “cause you to stop living, to stop being a productive person, stop trying to breathe some sense of motivation into other people around you or who follow you on social media.” That’s what they teach you in the military to do.

“We got told we didn’t have a really good chance. So we push and we don’t stop and we keep pushing. She did everything she could. Collectively, we did everything we could. Nobody did anything wrong. It just didn’t work out. It was not in God’s plan for us to beat it. That sucks to say. I still have to have faith that I’m still here,” he said. “We still have daughters. We still have loved ones. We still have sponsors. They are my family. We still have people who are depending on us to finish things. I say ‘us,’ because she [Diane] was there from the get-go. She was one of my biggest supporters. She’s always going to be here. She’s always going to be a supporter.We did push through, and it was difficult.”

A lingering glitch with the car prevented O’Neal from racing at the spring four-wide event at Charlotte – he didn’t want his NGK-sponsored car to look bad at the event it was sponsoring. But the NHRA, zMAX Dragway management, and NGK “went above and beyond to recognize her and make mention of” Diane throughout that weekend. “And I’m grateful for all of that,” O’Neal said.

“I have a huge racing family that I see more often than my own family. They’re getting me through everything and making me a better person every day and allowing me to grow and move forward and reinforcing the fact that Di would want me to be happy,” he said. “Am I ever going to get married again? Probably not. Does that mean I won’t find somebody to share my life with? Absolutely, I’m going to find somebody. If you don’t support the fact that it wasn’t in God’s plan for her to win, I can’t not support the fact I’m still here and it has to be in God’s plan for me to be happy and continue to do something. I have a lot of thoughts, and I still have a lot of things I want to finish, that I want to do, that I want to be involved in. And I’ve got some huge supporters with me that keep pushing and propping me up and letting me know they’re here for me and they’re here for my happiness. Most guys won’t say it, but I know I am loved by many people. I know that I have people out there that I can depend on and turn to.”

O’Neal said he receives messages regularly but emphasizes that “at the same time, I’m making social-media posts for other people, to let them know that there are people out here thinking about them as they’re battling and trying to get through life or find their motivation.”

He said, “I was talking to someone shortly after Di passed, and I said, ‘I’m just trying to look at it with a glass-half-full approach. And that person said, ‘Wrong perspective. Not half-full, not half-empty. You have a glass that’s refillable.’ That’s perfect. My glass is refillable. That’s how I look at it now. My glass is not broken. My glass is being refilled. I’m focused on doing the best I can, and I fail every day. I’m not a perfect human being. I’m trying to be better. I want to be successful every day for my family, my racing family, my team owners, my sponsors…to make sure that I’m attractive to companies. My next chapter of my life that I’m going to write…there are still so many things that I have to be ‘that person.’ I have to stand up, push my shoulders back, pick my chin up, and push forward.”

He is doing that at the racetrack and away from it. In the first of three straight weekends at Madison, Ill.’s World Wide Technology Raceway, he reached the third round at the Midwest Nationals. “We have had such the challenges to overcome that when we overcome them to the point that we’re having success, we find something else that we go, ‘Huh. I think we can change this. We can improve this.’” And that same ethic carries over to personal challenges.

U.S. Army literature spells out that the corps’ works “is a complex combination of missions, tasks, and responsibilities – all in constant motion.” That mirrors O’Neal’s “assignment,” and he is nothing if not a man bound to duty.

About the author

Susan Wade

Celebrating her 45th year in sports journalism, Susan Wade has emerged as one of the leading drag-racing writers with 20 seasons at the racetrack. She was the first non-NASCAR recipient of the prestigious Russ Catlin Award and has covered the sport for the Chicago Tribune, Newark Star-Ledger, St. Petersburg Times, and Seattle Times. Growing up in Indianapolis, motorsports is part of her DNA. She contributes to Power Automedia as a freelancer writer.
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