Author: McKenna, Kevin
Date published: March 4, 2011
requested by Vince Hoda
What began more than a decade ago with a simple conversation between then-NHRA Division 2 Director Bill Holt and longtime racer Ronnie Davis has become a nationwide phenomenon: Top Sportsman is one of the most popular and fastest-growing classes at NHRA events. Prior to the 2002 season, Holt became interested in adding the exciting eliminator to NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series events, and he contacted Davis, who had won a pair of IHRA series titles and was extremely well-connected in the Top Sportsman community. Davis loved the idea, and the wheels were quickly set in motion to feature the first event at the Bristol Dragway Lucas Oil event July 18-20, 2002.
Davis, who is the reigning Southeast Division Top Sportsman champion and still sponsors the class through his business, Davis Custom Golf Carts, remembers the initial meetings to discuss the addition of Top Sportsman.
"Bill asked me what I thought, and I told him it was time to make it happen," he recalled. "He called me at the right time because I didn't like the direction the class was headed. We talked and came up with a proposal to try a five-race series. I had a lot of input regarding the rules. I even put together the first sponsorship with John Bleakley RV Centers, who sponsored my car at the time.
"Even after everyone agreed to do the deal, there was still a lot of work to be done. First of all, most of the current Top Sportsman racers did not have an NHRA license. I had to call a bunch of my IHRA friends and beg them to come and support it. We even sent a few drivers to a local doctor so they could get their licenses that weekend. We had 16 cars at the first event, and that was a pretty good turnout considering the short notice we had. That's how the whole thing started."
At the inaugural event in Bristol, Tony Russell qualified No. 1 with a 7.13, a run that likely wouldn't land a driver in the top half of the field at most events today, and Billy Vaughn captured the historic first NHRA Wally in Top Sportsman after taking a final-round victory over Glenn Maine.
Since the inaugural event in 2002, Top Sportsman has steadily grown as a presence at NHRA events. In 2003, the class spread to Divisions 3 and 4, and today it is contested in all seven divisions as well as at the JEGS NHRA SPORTSnationals races, the JEGS Allstars, and seven NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series events. Given the popularity of the class, it was a natural that a Top Dragster category would follow. Likewise, Top Dragster is contested in all seven divisions and featured at select Full Throttle events, the three JEGS NHRA SPORTSnationals, and the JEGS Allstars.
For the uninitiated, Top Sportsman is essentially an E.T. bracket class reserved for fullbodied cars that features a qualified field (usually 32 cars). With liberal engine rules that allow for unlimited cubic inches and power adders such as nitrous oxide, superchargers, and turbochargers, six-second runs at more than 200 mph are commonplace; some of the quicker qualifiers post elapsed times that are quicker than those of a competitive Pro Stock entry. Much like Pro Stock, the class originated in the Deep South, where various Quick 8, Quick, 16, and Quick 32 eliminators for doorslammer-type vehicles have been common at local tracks for decades. Around 1990, Top Sportsman spawned the heads-up racing that eventually became Pro Mod.
Other than sheer performance, the appeal of Top Sportsman is the diverse nature of its entries. At most events, the field is made up of not only late-model Pro Stock-style entries including the Pontiac GXP and Dodge Avenger, but also models such as early Corvettes, Barracudas, Studebakers, and even pickups.
To Davis, as well as many other racers, adding Top Sportsman (and later Top Dragster) made perfect sense because a significant number of Super Comp and Super Gas racers wanted to go quicker but couldn't make the commitment to race in Pro Mod, Comp, or the alcohol classes or to move into a Professional category. Davis also saw it as an opportunity to increase spectator appeal at Lucas Oil Series races.
"To me, the main appeal of Top Sportsman is to be able to run just about as fast as you want to go," he said. "A lot of racers who want to race fast cars can't afford to run Pro Mod or don't have the technical knowledge to try Pro Stock or Comp, so Top Sportsman and Top Dragster are perfect for them. Some divisions have opened it up and tried a 64-car field or even a 48-car field, but I prefer just 32 cars. That guarantees that you'll get a good show with a lot of fast cars. [At the Lucas Oil Series race Feb. 18-20] in Gainesville, all 32 cars in Top Dragster ran in the sixes, and that was exciting. I don't think we're ready to have a six-second field in Top Sportsman, but the cars are definitely getting quicker. The racers like that, and the fans like it, too."
It also stands to reason that manufacturers and engine and chassis builders like the Top Sportsman and Top Dragster classes. Putting a full-bodied car (or even a dragster) into the sixes is generally not an easy task, and it generally requires a significant financial investment. The arrival of Top Sportsman also has been a boon to Pro Stock racers who now have an additional market to sell used race cars.
Top Dragster has provided a great alternative for Super Comp racers who have tired of throttlestop racing. Today's Super Comp dragsters can typically run in the low-seven-second zone without a throttle stop, so it generally doesn't take much to make them competitive in Top Dragster. The first time that Top Dragster racers could compete for an NHRA national event Wally was at the 2006 JEGS NHRA Cajun SPORTSnationals in Belle Rose, La., where the title went to fivetime Pro Stock world champion Jeg Coughlin Jr.
From a driving standpoint, Top Sportsman and Top Dragster offer a unique challenge because a driver must not only focus on getting a six-second 200-mph race car to the finish line, but also apply the basic elements of E.T. bracket racing, including the ability to have competitive reaction times and to properly judge an opponent at the finish line.
The Chevy Corvette that Davis drives is equipped with an 822-cubic-inch engine and a multistage nitrous-oxide system. With performances in the 6.4- to 6.5-second range, Davis can generally qualify at or near the top of the field, and though he routinely runs more than 210 mph, he believes that he can still be an effective bracket racer.
"At those speeds, I'm chasing almost everyone I race, so I get a good view of the race," said Davis. "As part of my routine, I check out the finish line at every track we go to. I try to find a marker so I know where to lift. I've run right on the dial-in plenty of times. I was racing at an eighth-mile track not too long ago and ran 4.41 on nine straight runs. The technology in these cars has come a long way, especially the chassis technology, and they can be very consistent. Of course, a lot of it depends on the track conditions, but for the most part, we can make consistent runs just about anywhere. And, of course, with a delay box, almost anyone can hit the Tree, so the real challenge is what you do at the finish line.
"What people have to remember is that this is Top Sportsman," Davis continued. "It's not Medium Sportsman or Slow Sportsman. We're supposed to be one of the most elite of the Sportsman categories. If you want to make it, you've got to work hard and spend a few dollars and have a little knowledge in order to be successful. I know the economy is tough right now, but these two classes keep growing. That's a good sign."
Though Davis may be known to many as the godfather of NHRA Top Sportsman racing and his record includes multiple championships, he is far from the only driver to have success in the eliminator. Other hitters include Division 4's Keith Raftery, who has won a host of events in Top Sportsman and Top Dragster, including the first Top Sportsman national event in Belle Rose in 2005; part-time Pro Stock racer Ryan Ondrejko, the reigning Division 1 champ and winner at the inaugural NHRA 4-Wide Nationals last year in Charlotte; and JEGSbacked drivers Mike and John Coughlin, who have each won a pair of Division 3 titles in Top Sportsman and Top Dragster, respectively.
Davis believes that the sky is the limit for Top Sportsman and Top Dragster racing, and he'd ultimately like to see drivers compete for national championships.
"Oh, I believe it's definitely going to happen, hopefully sooner rather than later," he said. "Look at how far we've come in 10 years, from a little five-race series in Division 2 to races in all seven divisions and quite a few national events. I got lucky and won the championship last year, but helping to bring this class to NHRA and seeing how popular it has become is even more gratifying than winning the championship. I've been racing Top Sportsman for 20 years, and it's nice to see a whole new generation of racers coming up. I believe this deal will be around for a long, long time."