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Drag racing’s sanctioning body NHRA started its Countdown to the Championship in 2007. It wanted to stop yearly winners being called before the last races of any year. But it has had some unintended consequences that have dumped series winners “in the grease” as also-rans jump in late and take the prize. And two of Top Fuel’s 2021 NHRA series leaders are speaking out. Again. 

Steve and Billy Torrence call NHRA’s Countdown the “Loser Appreciation Program”

Drag racer Billy Torrence
Billy Torrence celebrates in victory lane after winning the NHRA Mellow Yellow Drag Racing Series AAA Midwest Nationals | Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Billy Torrence has won two races so far in 2021 Top Fuel racing. His son Steve, has been the 2021 season leader so far. Together, the duo dominates Top Fuel. But they’re speaking out about the “Loser Appreciation Program.” 

Winning Sunday at the Mopar Express Lane Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway in Pennsylvania, Billy said, “I don’t care too much for the Loser Appreciation program but, you know, we’ll take it. I’m not an advocate of the Loser Participation Program. I think I’ve started out about 900 points behind. If I were to actually win the season, I’d give the trophy away.”

Some of the negative acceptance comes from Top Fuel teams that only race a few races, and then hop over the full-time schedule winners later in the year. It happened to Steve in 2017 with driver Brittany Force. She was 562 points behind him when NHRA decided to lump the top 10 leaders together with only 10 points separating them. 

“This whole NHRA deal with the welfare points system is just a crock of crap”

Steve Torrence
Steve Torrence Capco Racing Top Fuel Dragster driver celebrates winning the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series Top Fuel Championship on Sunday, November 01, 2020, with father Billy | Matthew Bolt/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

“It is what it is,” Steve said then. “This whole NHRA deal with the welfare points system is just a crock of c**p. You come out here and race for 24 races and you only get to count six. Brittany got hot in the last few races and did good, and you can’t take that away from them, but those guys wouldn’t even be in contention if it wasn’t for this bullshit points system they’ve got. So it is what it is and we’ve got to play by their rules.”

How this all works is that the top 10 racers in each professional category get into the Countdown. It begins after drag racing’s biggest event; the US Nationals in Indianapolis in September. With six more races left in the season, points are reset. 

The lead points racer gets a 20-point advantage over the number two qualifier. Then, the rest of the drivers are separated by 10 points each. But those not in the top 10 can still enter the final six races. That in itself poses another level of issue. 

Here are three reasons why non-qualifiers in the NHRA Countdown can foul things up

Steve Torrence in Capco Top Fuel dragster
Top Fuel champion Steve Torrence warms up his dragster in the pits | Will Lester/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

First, the non-qualifiers can be spoilers. They can also be eligible for the top event prize money. And, if they prefer, they can use these last races to experiment and prepare for the next season. 

But fate can pose a myriad of problems with the well-intentioned Countdown. The NHRA has imposed “readjustments.” Those readjustments at mid-Countdown only add to the complexity and bewilderment of the fans and racers. Some years qualifiers got 1 ½ points at the US Nationals. 

“It’s not indicative of a true champion”

Billy and Steve Torrence
Top Fuel driver Steve Torrence defeats his father BillyTorrance during eliminations at the 54th annual NHRA Finals at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, CA | Will Lester/Digital First Media/Inland Valley Daily Bulletin via Getty Images

After losing in 2017, Steve said, “You throw all the hard work away that you’ve done to get here, and you reward a guy who was 500 points out of winning the championship and really no threat. Now that guy’s in the middle of everything. I don’t think it’s indicative of a true champion and who really had the better car all year, just who had the better car for the last six races. 

“You have to work for 18 races to be the top seed. Then you throw all that work away. We’ve got to race and do what we can and try to win every lap you possibly can. I’m not a fan of this Countdown. But hell, if you beat everybody every time, you win, no matter what.”

Top Fuel racer TJ Rizzo calls these occasional racers “super part-timers,” according to Autoweek. For its part, the NHRA has tried to address Torrence’s complaints. In 2020, it made more adjustments. Any racer that didn’t qualify for the Countdown could participate in it. But they had to have raced at every previous event. And they had to have made at least two qualifying runs. 

This week, Billy could become the first to win six consecutive events at the same venue

Four-wide at zMAX Raceway
Antron Brown Matco Tools, Clay Millican, Steve Torrence Capco, and Doug Kalitta Mac Tools NHRA Top Fuel Dragsters in action during the final round of eliminations at the DENSO Spark Plugs NHRA Four-Wide Nationals at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway Sunday, April 18, 2021, in Las Vegas | Marc Sanchez/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

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Of course, the 2020 season was a mess from the pandemic. But 2021 is a full season and this latest adjustment is in effect. Billy Torrence is on the precipice of being the first professional driver to win six consecutive events at a single venue. 

In this case, it is this weekend’s DeWalt Carolina Nationals at zMAX Dragway. Only two other drivers; John Force and Bob Glidden, have won five. So it is a big weekend for the Torrence family, in spite of their feelings about the Countdown.