Las Vegas is a city known more for its sins than confessions, but Steve Torrence had something he wanted to say there publicly last November, immediately after winning his third straight NHRA Top Fuel championship.
“I fall short a lot and everybody sees it. I get it. It ain’t something I’m proud of,” Torrence said.
He already had apologized several times for his part in the 2019 shoving incident with opponent Cameron Ferré the day he clinched his second title. Booed by the crowd at California’s Auto Club Raceway at Pomona that day, Torrence figured his achievement was tainted and said, “I’m probably the most hated champion ever.”
He owned his actions and the statute of limitations applies to any more mea culpas. But Torrence raised a relevant point: “You grow as a person. You can be mature in business and you can be mature in your everyday life. But competition brings out a different side of you, and you have to be able to harness that and those emotions.”
A strong role model in racing may be his Top Fuel rival Doug Kalitta, a Clark Kent-style airline owner, 1994 USAC national sprint car champion and 49-time Top Fuel winner.
Kalitta has had his share of disappointments as a five-time series runner-up. He’s human, so he surely is annoyed by the statistic and the fact it’s still a topic, but he never complains publicly. That self-control doesn’t mean he’s not a tiger at the Christmas Tree.
“He’s a pretty soft-spoken guy,” his Funny Car teammate J.R. Todd said, “but once he’s got the helmet on and is inside the race car, he’s an animal, for sure.”
Fellow Top Fuel competitor Leah Pruett said of Kalitta, “He’s so focused all the time. He’s got a business to run during the week. He flies in, he gets the job done, and he flies out. Drag racing isn’t his life. That’s maturity.”
But it can be such an elusive state to reach.
Todd said, “I don’t consider myself a bad ass, by any means. I don’t act like that, but at the same time, I want to go out there and rip everybody’s head off at the starting line.”
Antron Brown knows the feeling. He is playful, friendly and funny in conversation, a favorite among fans and competitors. But the three-time Top Fuel champion said that on the track, “We like to rip each other’s throats out and steal each other’s candy.”
For three-time Funny Car champion Matt Hagan, competition is innate.
“Life is just nothing but competition from the day you come out of your mama,” he said. “From the day you take your first breath, you’re competing to be alive. You’re fighting out here every day of your life in some way, shape or form.”
Hagen likened it to the “fight or flight syndrome” and described that aggression as, “Almost an old-school gladiator kind of feel. It’s the last of like what we do, of our primal instincts, to just be adrenaline-filled. And that’s why people used to come and watch people fight tigers in an arena. It’s a show.”
“You’re a showman, but you’re also putting your life on the line to do what we do,” Brown noted. “It’s something that you have to have respect with. You have to understand that it can hurt you in a blink of an eye, but you can’t fear it, either. You have to crawl in there with the intention of ‘I’m going to do whatever it takes to put this race car in the winner’s circle’ — however many times it blows up on me or however many times I got to eat parts and fire and everything else. That’s just a mentality that you have to have to be a champion.”
Hagan said, “You’re engaging all your senses to really kind of react to a situation. And it takes a little while for them to come down. It’s not a turn-it-on, turn-it-off kind of thing.”
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