In a continuation of our “first-seasons” features, we caught up with three-time Top Fuel Champion Steve Torrence who reflects on his early years in NHRA.
Torrence, a Kilgore, Texas native, spoke about his early ranks in the sport including transitioning from Alcohol dragsters to Top Fuel dragsters, his first start at Richmond in 2006 and his first victory in Atlanta of 2012.
He also discussed various other topics surrounding the early years of his NHRA career.
SM: Your first Top Fuel season came in 2006 where you raced in three races that year at the age of 23 years old, which at the time was considered a fairly young age in the sport. Can you discuss what it was like making your debut during that time period and why that age was the right time to race professionally?
ST: “Honestly, it was the right place, right time for me in 2006,” Torrence said. “In 2005, I had started driving Alcohol dragsters in the top Alcohol class and won the championship, which then led me to a relationship with Evan Knoll. Late one night in ‘06, Evan called and said ‘Hey. I want to put you in a Top Fuel car with J.R. Todd.
“So, I flew to St. Louis and got my license the Monday after the race for J.R.’s car and made my debut later that year in a Top Fuel.”
SM: Prior to entering the Top Fuel ranks, you competed in different classes such as the Pro Modified Outlaw classes and the alcohol dragsters. As you were making your transition from alcohol to Top Fuel, was there a learning curve during that period, or were you starting to get comfortable racing Top Fuel since you had experience in the alcohol drags?
ST: “The people who tell you who don’t have a learning curve are full of shit, because nothing compares to the acceleration and power of a Top Fuel car,” he said. “There’s always a learning curve. It may not be nearly as steep coming from an Alcohol car, but definitely a curve.”
SM: As you entered the 2006 season, you only ran a part-time schedule, competing in three races, then taking ’07 off, before eventually running full time in 2010. In those early years, was it hard for you to manage expectations such as race wins despite running a part-time schedule? Could you expand a little bit on running part-time for a few years?
ST: “I was so blessed and thankful to even have an opportunity to drive a Top Fuel car, but it was an underfunded team,” Torrence said. “Somewhere in ‘09 or ‘10 had CAPCO (Torrence’s current sponsor now) on the side of it, but nothing compared to what it is today. We started our own team in 2011. You go out there, you utilize your opportunity as a stepping stone or a position to be able to drive for one of the bigger teams, or just get some name recognition.
“There was one opportunity I had to win a race at the time and (losing that race) lives with me forever. I lost on a holeshot, where I could have gone to the final. At those times though, you need to manage those expectations and say ‘Hey. Let’s go a round or two and be content, happy with that.’”
SM: Your first Top Fuel start came at Richmond in 2006. You qualified 11th and had your first-round matchup against Larry Dixon. Prior to that first-round matchup, what were the weeks of preparation like leading up to your first Top Fuel event? Were you starting to get anxious or nervous, or since you already had so many years under your belt, were you already feeling primed and ready?
ST: “Looking back on it (my first Top Fuel start), I was ecstatic,” the three-time Top Fuel champion said. “I mean, that was an opportunity of a lifetime to go drive a Top Fuel dragster. I could only imagine how excited I was. I went there ecstatic. I was the new kid on the block wanting to make a splash. The thing that stands out the most about that race was making a solid pass and throwing the parachutes and the parachutes came off. That’s what I remember about the whole weekend.”
SM: Back then, Larry Dixon was one of the greats in Top Fuel. As you were slated to face him in the first round, do you recall ever being somewhat intimidated or were you more excited that you would race Larry?
ST: “Probably not,” Torrence said. “Driving the A-Fuel car the year before, we went to 13 races and won nine of them. So as a driver, I was very confident. I probably wasn’t intimidated. Even though you’re nervous, I probably went into that thinking ‘I’ve got to prove myself.’ You have to go out there and say ‘I’ve done this.’”
SM: One race later at Las Vegas, you had your first career round victory against Cory McClenathan. How special was it for you to gain your first-round win by defeating McClenathan at Vegas? Just talk about the run.
ST: “Cory was one of my favorite drivers when I was a kid, so that’s pretty cool to be able to get that first career round win against him.”
SM: Eventually, six-years later, you earned your first runner up finish at Norwalk racing Spencer Massy. Even though you ran part-time in your early career, did you ever feel like that you were never going to get a runner up despite being solidly consistent up until that point?
ST: “From 2006 to 2011, we didn’t have that type of car caliber under me,” Torrence said. “I never had the thoughts of ‘no I can’t win.’ “It’s just a great race car, makes an okay driver look good. A great driver and an okay race car, is just okay. It takes both elements to be successful.
“When we started in ‘11, we ran well. In ‘12, that (runner-up) was fairly early in the season. I mean you go to Norwalk and you runner-up. I think we had a couple of runner-ups really quick. I will tell you, there is nothing more difficult than winning your first race, because those early rounds are just rounds. When you’re in the final, you’re racing for the Wally (NHRA’s trophy). Mentally out, you can psych out of winning. You can distract yourself, but once you’ve (won), the final becomes similar to the other rounds. However, you have to mentally overcome that and have that experience.”
SM: Later on in 2012, you won your first career race at Atlanta defeating Tony Schumacher. Have you ever had a chance to watch that race back and what does that victory still mean to you?
ST: “I have probably watched that race before, but I can tell you everything about that run,” he said. “We go up there and I had been good on the (Christmas) tree all day. I was .046 (reaction time) something, on the final. Tony, I believe, rolled the car a little bit early on the tree and was .031 on the tree. We were shallow. The car went out there and ran an 89 something, just a nice A to B run.
“Tony smokes the tires (went a 91 for ET) and to be able to get your first win against Tony Schumacher is pretty strong. He is the winningest Top Fuel driver ever and winning against him held more merit. You didn’t get there by luck or beating people. That (win) was pretty cool.”
SM: Do you ever remember getting any congratulations from Tony or a “good job” afterward?
ST: “He (Schumacher) came over and congratulated me and told me good job,” Torrence said. “I mean Tony’s a pretty cool guy. He gives credit where credit is due. I remember the whole conversation we had. Later in the year, we made a deal where I told him I want that helmet (Schumacher’s). He said, ‘you’re going to have to beat me to take it.’
“Later in the year, we raced and I beat him in a round. He came over and gave me that helmet. So, I have that helmet at home in my trophy case.”
SM: After Atlanta, you won two more races at Englishtown and Seattle before finishing ninth in the points that year. After winning that first race, were you and the crew starting to click together to get those victories and runner-up finishes?
ST: “Oh yeah, for sure,” he said. “At that time, you’re still kind of getting the right people and everything put together. Richard Hogan, he’s been my crew chief since day one. You know, everyone was kind of feeling each other out. I can say that now and see how long that’s taken us now. Though when you get to those final rounds and secure victories, it breeds confidence. Not only the driver, but the crew chief and everyone on the team.”
SM: As you continue to reflect on your career, are there any races from your early years that you look back on and you’re thinking ‘Man, I wish we had another chance to get this victory back’?’ Do any of those races come to mind?
ST: “Oh yeah definitely,” Torrence said. “I think I was in the final at Indy three or four times before we ever won it. It’s not that we were really beating ourselves, we were just losing close races. I think if you look at the final in Indy of ‘16, it was one of the closest races of the year. I raced (Tony) Schumacher in the final. It was just a crazy race, but we had a few of those.”
SM: Some racers collect their own merchandise and some don’t. Are you a driver that collects your own merchandise and if so, what do you have in your collection that reminds you of your rookie season(s)?
ST: “I actually don’t,” the three-time Top Fuel champion said. “There are some things I wished I would have kept. I’ve got some old hero cards that I kept. Those are kind of neat to look back and be like ‘Damn. I’ve been doing this for a long time.’
“There are certain things I’ve kept. I keep all of my helmets, certain firesuits, some of the hero cards. Now, I’m a little better about keeping those kinds of memorabilia.”
SM: I’ve been asking drivers what their favorite Wally is out of their collection. What is your favorite Wally and why?
ST: “The first ones that come to my mind are shiny, gold polished ones that say world champ,” Torrence jokingly says. “Atlanta 2012 will always stand out in my mind. When you win a race with your own team, that will always stand out the most.”
SM: Following up on your championships, talk about your first one in 2018.
ST: “I’m probably one of the drivers of late that has won a championship with and without the Countdown (NHRA’s version of the playoffs), he said. “Both ‘18 and ‘19 was the Countdown, but with ‘20 that was COVID so there was no Countdown. ‘18 was the year where we swept all six races of the Countdown. That (2018 championship) is by far my favorite.
“We were so close in ‘17. We had the wreck at Dallas in the middle of the Countdown and we weren’t prepared enough in the backup car to make that seamless transition and we ended up losing the race the last day of the season to Brittany Force. Had it not been for the Countdown, we would have won the championship well before the season ended.”
SM: Wrapping this interview up, it’s hard to believe your first Top Fuel start came 15 years ago. However, if time travel was available, what would a 38-year-old Steve Torrence tell a 23-year-old Steve Torrence? Is there anything you would do differently?
ST: “Oh yeah, I definitely would do things differently,” Torrence said. “I’ve had to learn those few lessons the last few years. Never lose your drive or intensity, always be you but be careful with what you say.”
In Torrence’s career, the CAPCO driver has won a total of 46 races in 259 starts. In addition, he has 23 career runner-up finishes along with 36 semi-final, 69 quarter-final round appearances and 81 first-round starts. He also has 30 No. 1 qualifiers and four DNQ’s with a record of 387-209.
So far in 2021, Steve has amassed six wins in 11 races, one runner-up finish, two semi-finals and three No. 1 qualifiers, generating a record of 30-5.
Many thanks to Natalie Torrence for coordinating and setting up the interview and special thanks to Steve Torrence for taking time out of his busy schedule to conduct the interview.