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”
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”
“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
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”
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
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.