Top Fuel teammates Lucas, Langdon eager for Gatornationals


By Susan Wade

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — National Hot Rod Association Top Fuel racer Morgan Lucas was tired of being identified as the professional driver to accomplish the least with the most. He knew he had the talent and certainly the drive to find the winning combination on the track and in his own shop with the right personnel and parts and brains to know what to do with it all.

His teammate Shawn Langdon already had three sportsman-level series championships on his resume, and he was tired of reaching the final round and not being able to earn that first Top Fuel victory.

Together — just like they had fantasized during classes back in the early 2000s at Jurupa Valley High School in Mira Loma, Calif. — they met each other in the final round of the 2011 NHRA season-opening Winternationals.

But that cold California day in Pomona two weeks ago, neither fully shook that monkey from his back. However, each got a step closer to his dream. Each got that reassurance that his time in the spot light will come.

Lucas, driving the the Geico/Toyota Dragster, took the spotlight Feb. 27, beating Langdon in his Lucas Oil/Speedco entry for a $50,000 payout and one of the first specially designed pewter Wally trophies that will mark this year-long 60th Anniversary for the NHRA. Langdon was runner-up for the fourth time in 48 career Top Fuel events and received $22,000. So it was a $72,000 team victory for Morgan Lucas Racing.

“Honestly, I don’t want to project anything but being humble,” Lucas said, “because . . . we went on a big drought and this makes you appreciate all the success. We want to appreciate and enjoy this. Who knows when the next one is going to happen?”

If the two buddies-since-high-school have their way, it will be again this weekend at the Tire Kingdom Gatornationals at Gainesville Raceway in the second of 22 Full Throttle Drag Racing Series events this year.

They’re 1-2 in the standings, and they’d like to keep it that way, although Langdon wouldn’t mind trading places with Lucas.

“It was a huge confidence booster for us to start the season the way we did,” Langdon said. “Dating back to last year, we’ve been in three of four finals. It’s a testament to our team and the guys doing all the work on the car. We’ve had almost everything we’ve needed to get a win, except the luck. We’ve had a good car, a great crew. I’ve had good reaction times. We just needed that little bit of luck to pull it all together.”

The Gatornationals always has been NHRA’s so-called East Coast opener, a chance for fans outside Southern California, the cradle of drag racing, to watch the sport’s elite. This year, it will mark the NHRA’s official kickoff of the milestone birthday celebration, coinciding when founder Wally Parks signed the legal documents that organized the sport.

While Lucas and Langdon are respectful of all that, what matters most to them is another chance to get back into their dragsters and try to set up the same all-Morgan-Lucas-Racing final-round scenario.

“Gainesville always has a good track and a good atmosphere. It has the feel of the start of the season for racers on the East coast, so there’s a lot of excitement in the air. Plus, it’s always a full house. I love it,” Langdon said. “Conditions should be pretty close to Pomona, so we think we can finish what we didn’t get done out West.”

Said Lucas, “I look at Gainesville and see one of the most prestigious, historic, exciting races on the schedule. It’s an honor to get to race there, but it’s even more exciting to look at the race, knowing we have a great chance of winning there. It’s a great feeling, and I can’t wait. Everybody is just on Cloud 9 and now we’re ready to keep that feeling going.”

That breakthrough performance, he said, “really meant a lot to everybody involved with our race team.”

It showed him that if he kept working hard and smart, he could achieve his goals — and that hiring crew chief Dickie Venables and his assistant Kurt Elliott, even with their heavy Funny Car experience, was a bright idea.

“We know we’re a championship capable team,” Lucas said. “We weren’t 100 percent perfect in Pomona, but we made it down the track and outlasted everybody else on difficult track conditions.

“Now we know what it’s like. Now we’ve got the taste,” he said. “It only took Dickie Venables three tries to win his first race as our crew chief. We’ve got greater aspirations than this win. I feel like we’re on to something. All Dickie needs is more chances and we’ll do nothing but improve.”

Aaah, but Langdon has his sights set on winning it all, too.

“My guys want to win more than anyone out there,” Langdon said. “These guys are dedicated and it’s a huge team effort.”

He saw that in action after he had a major engine blow-up as he won the quarterfinals at Pomona. Lucas’ crew members and even the hospitality contingent came over to his pit to help him prepare for the semifinals. “It shows what kind of strong team Morgan Lucas Racing has,” Langdon said.

“Hopefully we can get this first win out of the way,” Langdon said. “It’s something the whole team wants really bad. We don’t want to get to a point where we’re trying too hard, because if you try too hard you’ll make mistakes. It just needs to happen and I know it will.”

As Lucas sat with reporters two weeks ago, holding his trophy, he said of Langdon, “He’s such a good driver — he’s going to win a ton. I think he’s going to have a long, massive career, and he’s going to win championships. I’m just Joe Schmo.”

Yes, Morgan Lucas is humble. But he’s hungry. He and Langdon will be fighting for all the food on the table, and they’ll have to contend with another impatient Top Fuel racer with an International Hot Rod Association championship to his credit, Spencer Massey.

“Spencer is a good driver, and he’s in a very good car,” Langdon said of the latest Don Schumacher racing hire. “You can’t really deny what the critics say, that he’s got a shot for the championship. He really does. That’s where we’re going to try to come in and we’re going to try to spoil that a little bit.”

The Lucas teams also must deal with Larry Dixon and Tony Schumacher, who have dominated more than a decade of racing, combining to win the past nine championships and 10 of the past 12. (Only Gary Scelzi in 2000 and Kenny Bernstein in 2001 interrupted the streak.) Both Dixon and 2010 winner Schumacher have won at Gainesville four times.

“We also think that we have a pretty good car,” Langdon said. “We have a lot to prove to people, to prove our side of the story, that we’ve got a good car, too. We’re just trying to have a good race car on Sundays and try to let our runs speak for themselves,” he said.

They screamed at Pomona. Morgan Lucas Racing is the force Lucas and Langdon knew it could be.

Antron Brown will be heard from, and soon, and so will Doug Kalitta, who has won twice at the Florida dragstrip . . . and Brandon Bernstein, whose 2003 victory woke up the echoes of his famous father’s first 300-mph blast and triumph here in 1998 . . . 2006 winner Dave Grubnic. Each will be ready to take a bite out of the Lucas momentum at the Gatornationals.

Pro-class action will begin Friday with qualifying at noon and 2:45 p.m. and Saturday time trials at 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Final eliminations are scheduled for 11 a.m. Sunday.

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