Todd’s transition works with U.S. Nationals win for Kalitta

David Goricki
The Detroit News

Jon Oberhofer has reached the pinnacle of his long career in the NHRA series for Kalitta Motorsports, first winning the Funny Car championship in 2015 as a crew chief, then watching driver J.R. Todd win the U.S. Nationals earlier this month in Indianapolis.

The U.S. Nationals is the “Super Bowl” race of the series, what the Daytona 500 means in NASCAR racing and the Indianapolis 500 in the IndyCar series.

And Todd, 35, is just getting comfortable behind the wheel of the DHL Toyota Camry since he is in the first year in the Funny Car division after several years in the Top Fuel class where he finished runnerup for the championship in 2014, his first year with Kalitta.

Oberhofer won the Funny Car championship with Del Worsham as the driver in 2015. The team entered the playoffs in the No. 4 seed and without a win during the 18-event regular season before winning four of the six playoff events to earn the championship, giving Kalitta Motorsports its first championship since 1995.

Well, Todd gave Kalitta Motorsports its first U.S. Nationals title since 1994 when Connie Kalitta — now the 79-year-old legendary team owner — won the Top Fuel race. And, now he enters the six-event playoff as the No. 8 seed, but the winner in two of the last four events, including defeating top seed Ron Capps in the U.S. Nationals final. The playoffs begin with this weekend’s Carolina Nationals in Concord, North Carolina.

“It’s our biggest race of the year for sure, money-wise, points-wise, just like winning the Super Bowl so it’s cool, everybody brings their best to that race for sure,” said Oberhofer, who has been with Kalitta Motorsports for nearly 25 years, as a crew member when the late Scott Kalitta won consecutive Top Fuel championships in 1994 and ’95.

In fact, it was Scott Kalitta who persuaded his father, Connie, to start a Funny Car team in the winter of 2005. Scott was killed in a race in Englishtown, N.J., in the Funny Car in 2008. The team has continued to run the car in Scott’s honor since that time and the championship in 2015 and the U.S. Nationals win earlier this month is so big to Oberhofer because of Scott’s passion for the sport.

Oberhofer is proud of Todd’s progression in the Funny Car class.

“He’s been driving Top Fuel for a number of years so he has nitro experience, but Funny Car is a new set of challenges for him,” Oberhofer said. “We struggled a lot early, but the car’s been getting better. We’ve been trying to give him a car as good as he’s been driving and the car is coming around and he’s just doing an awesome job at driving it.

“We’re gaining confidence and that’s a big, important thing, to have confidence in your driver, confidence in your car and confidence in your parts and all that other stuff so it makes it easier to tune and then you can get after it. It’s all about taking risk, taking calculated risk and usually the payoff is higher. Right now, we have a pretty good car that wants to go down the race track and now we just have to pick the performance up just a little bit.”

So, what is the biggest transition between Top Fuel and Funny Car?

“It takes some adjustments,” Todd said. “I knew that it was going to be difficult. The biggest difference is the wheel base. The dragster (Top Fuel car) is so much longer than the Funny Car and you don’t steer a dragster near what you would a Funny Car.

“It takes a whole lot more driving in a Funny Car and you can’t see as well. You have the engine in front of you. It takes some getting used to and in the first few races I definitely wasn’t as comfortable as I am now.

“Things are definitely coming together at the right time. Jon O and Todd (Smith, co-crew chief) are getting a handle on the tune-up and it looks like I’m getting better at driving the car. We’re definitely going in the right direction and the next six races is the time you let it all hang out and kind of go for broke. These guys did that in 2015 and ended up winning four races in the countdown.”