American Heroes – Steve Torrence, NHRA Top Fuel Champion
Steve Torrence’s rise to the pinnacle of drag racing success is one of the great Horatio Alger moments in American motorsports.
Diagnosed with Hodgkins lymphoma as a teenager, he underwent months of radiation and chemotherapy treatment before emerging cancer free and ready to make the most of his second chance.
The experience, which despite more than 25 NHRA tour victories he still identifies as “the biggest race I’ve ever won,” completely changed his perspective, spawning the laser focus that fueled his later success both on and off the track.
Incredibly, 15 years after emerging from cancer treatment and just three days before he was to compete in a Mello Yello tour event in Norwalk, Ohio, he again was reminded of the fragile nature of our existence when he suffered a heart attack at the conclusion of a particularly strenuous workout.
Undaunted, the one time black belt in taekwondo returned to competition 16 days later and ultimately finished third in the 2016 driver standings, a performance that would serve as a springboard to even greater success the next two years.
After losing the 2017 championship on the final day of the season, an outcome that likely was sealed weeks earlier when his primary race car was destroyed in a 300 mph crash at the Texas Motorplex, the 35-year-old left nothing to chance in 2018.
In addition to becoming the first driver ever to win NHRA series titles in both the Fuel and Alcohol divisions (he was the Top Alcohol Dragster Champion in 2005), he etched his name in NHRA history as the only driver in any discipline to win all six playoff races comprising the Countdown to the Championship.
That’s a feat akin to the Houston Astros negotiating the baseball playoffs without losing a single game or the San Antonio Spurs winning every game of every round en route to an NBA championship. It’s the motorsports equivalent of the 1972 Miami Dolphins’ perfect season.
Nevertheless, in becoming just the 21st Top Fuel driver in modern history to hoist the championship trophy and one of only a handful to win as many as 11 races in a single season, Torrence played down his own contributions as owner and driver, deferring instead to God, family and a crew of self-proclaimed “outlaws and misfits” led by crew chief Richard Hogan and veteran Bobby Lagana Jr.
Now the team is focused on eclipsing Tony Schumacher’s record for most Top Fuel victories over a three-season span. Schumacher, the eight-time series champion, won 26 races in the 2007, 2008 and 2009 seasons. Torrence has won 19 over the last two years and entered the 2019 campaign having won 12 straight final round matches.
Ironically, it probably was Schumacher’s dad, Hall of Famer Don Schumacher,
who put Torrence on the path to the championship.
When he was putting Torrence Racing together in 2012, he approached the elder Schumacher for advice and was told, basically, that there was no way he could compete as a single car team.
“I took it a little differently than it was intended,” Torrence recalled. “I have since gotten to know Don a lot better and I know he didn’t mean it in a malicious way, he was just trying to tell me that it’s very difficult to compete against multi-car teams like his.
“But at the time it put a burr under my saddle and it’s probably one of the reasons I raced with a chip on my shoulder,” he said. “I did way too much talking, though. Finally, I decided to just keep my mouth shut and let the car to the talking and, in the end, I think we proved that you can go out there and run with them no matter how many cars they have.”
Torrence’s championship was improbable for yet another reason. Unlike most of those against whom he regularly competes, the graduate of Kilgore College actually has a day job that consumes as much time as racing.
Five days a week, the outspoken Texan works at Capco Contractors, the family business, where he bids pipeline construction jobs and entertains active and potential clients. During racing season, he usually flies out of Kilgore on Friday and returns Sunday night, reporting for work Monday morning. He is the quintessential small town success story.
Although his race team leases shop space in Brownsburg, Ind., just a couple miles from Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis, the home of the world’s biggest drag race, he still lives in the town in which he grew up, one that once boasted the greatest concentration of producing oil wells in the world (1,100).
The only child of Capco founder, CEO and occasional Top Fuel driver Billy Torrence and his wife Kay, Steve doesn’t just project a cowboy lifestyle for television and social media. He actually lives it, dividing time between his home in Kilgore, a town of 15,000, and a modest south Texas ranch on which he runs cattle and entertains business clients and friends like Antron Brown, the three-time Top Fuel champion with whom he drove last year in the Mint 400 off road race.