Jeff Strickland: Not racing for glory

Jeff Strickland

In the time it takes you to read this sentence, Jeff Strickland’s top fuel dragster could hit 200 miles per hour and already be slowing back down. But winning a drag race isn’t as simple as who is fastest – it’s who is closest to their target. And every split-second counts.

Strickland was “dialed in” last year in a way few drivers have ever been. And by few that means only one. Strickland became just the second driver in NHRA (National Hot Rod Association) history to win two national championships in the same season. He capped the 2016 campaign by winning the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series national championships in both the Top Dragster and Stock Car classes. 

The only other time a driver has won two championships in the same season was 1994, when Scotty Richardson won titles in the Super Comp and Super Gas classes. The odds of a race car driver winning one championship in a season is 1 in 18,000, so imagine the odds of winning two in a single season.

“There are thousands and thousands of racers that run in NHRA, and I know there’s a stat on how many racers win one race in their lifetime,” Strickland said. “That stat is one-and-a-half percent of all racers win just one race. To win a championship, that statistic is even smaller, and to win two in one year,” he said before trailing off, taking in for a moment the gravity of what he had accomplished. “Scotty Richardson, a good friend of mine, is the only one to have done it out of the millions of people who have tried since 1951.”

Strickland said late last year that winning the title wasn’t something he had set out to do, but there was a point during the season where he saw it might be a possibility.

“A world championship is not something I set out for when I go racing,” Strickland said. “When I set out to go racing, I go out to win each individual race. And if you win enough races, then you look at the points and go, ‘I’ve got a shot.’” 

It’s in his blood

Jeff Strickland credits his father, Don, for the success he’s found on the track.

“I was always his shadow growing up, so if he was in the shop, I was in the shop. If he was at the race track, I was at the race track. If he was at work, I was at work. Before school and after school, I was always at the shop,” Jeff said of his father.

“I started on a three-wheeler when I was six years old in the motorcycle class. That led to, and I don’t know why, but he put me in a car at 13 years old.”

Jeff said Don didn’t just hand the racing reins over to him, though; he had to earn every win by driving right and doing his best. Those early lessons were instrumental in building his career.

Don has long since retired from the sport and even retired in June from his tire and auto shop. But stepping out of actively racing hasn’t diminished his understanding of the sport, and Jeff said he’s a better racer because of his father’s guidance.

“He doesn’t race anymore, but he is still very involved,” Jeff said. “I talk to him five or six times a day while I’m racing to let him know what’s going on. That way if he hears me say anything or he may see something online and say, ‘Hey, you’re going to run this guy next round and he’s got problems,’ he’ll let me know that because I don’t have time to watch all that stuff.

“I had the best teacher ever in racing. People say, ‘how do you win a race?’ Well, because I was raised by him. He knows everything from front to back on a race car, from front to back on a motorhome and trailer. If anything tears up, he can fix it. Anything. That’s the way he’s built. He’s a perfectionist, which has turned me into kind of an OCD person. I load the trailer a certain way, the pins go in the lift a certain way, everything has its own place. When we get a new race car and I wire it, it takes me twice as long as it would anybody else but if you look at the wiring, every single wire is the exact same wire across the car, in the exact same place. It doesn’t help anything, but I feel like if you do everything perfect, if you prepare well, then you’re going to do well.”

Off the track

The amount of time spent on the track is miniscule compared to the work it takes to get there. Being a little OCD likely works in Jeff’s favor, but he’s also quick to point out the value of his supporters.

“(Racing preparation is) probably 80 percent mental, 20 percent physical,” he said. “We have the best parts that you can possibly put on race cars, thanks to the people who help us out. They make it to where we have the best parts. We’ve got the COPO (Camaro); that thing is a work of art. Roger Allen (of Chevrolet Performance) is behind that. And then we have that is the primary sponsor on the COPO. Matt Berger owns and Berger Chevrolet. Victor Cagnazzi owns the COPO. It doesn’t matter what we need. If we need a motor, get a motor. If we need a fitting, it doesn’t matter if it’s twelve-hundred bucks, get a fitting. If it’s three-thousand dollars if we need a transmission, get it. It doesn’t matter; get the best they have. When you have people around you like I have in racing, then you should be successful because it takes a lot of the mechanical pressure off of you. All I have to do is do my job; I’ve got the equipment – exceptional equipment, better than most people.”

For 2017 Strickland is racing a new 2017 COPO Camaro. The car Strickland won last year was retired, and Cagnazzi has it on display in the showroom at his shop. The dragster is the same one that I had last year. I have a new one on order, but I don’t want a new one. It’s time get a new one; that one is a 2014 car and we’ll have a new 2018 car at the end of this year. Between now and November we’ll have it ready. New motor, new car. New everything. I hope it’s as good as this one. I’m not touching this car until it’s proved it’s as good as this one.

The highs and lows

There are aspects of racing that Strickland doesn’t like. At all.

“When my win light doesn’t come on, that’s probably the lowest low – when you cross the finish line and that win light is not on,” he said. 

Given that it might be natural to think, then, that Strickland gets his high off winning.

Think again.

“Watching my family cheer. That’s probably the best part,” he said. “We had the video from Pamona (where he sealed both of last year’s titles), when they’re all in the stands . . . and I get chills thinking about it. The first time I watched the video, I cried like a baby, just to watch them because I don’t get to see them cheer, obviously. They are stressed out because they’re like, ‘I hope he does his job.’ I’m not worried about that part; I’m worried about winning. But to see the enjoyment that everybody around me gets out of it. And my racing family, my friends, the people that are involved – Victor, Matt Berger and Roger Allen – all those people, seeing those guys smile and cry when you win. That’s what I race for. It’s not the money. It’s not the glory – I don’t care anything about it. I race for the people around me. If my family wasn’t involved in racing, I don’t know if I would try to be as good as what I could possibly be. I would probably slack. But I have something to race for. It’s their joy that makes me happy.”

Next generation

Will Jeff see his own children follow in his shadow the way he did his father’s?

“I don’t know,” he said. “The younger generation is not mechanics, they don’t build transmissions, they don’t wire race cars. Now, they get in cars and drive but do they know how that vehicle works in any way? Ninety percent of them don’t. My son, I probably see that in him. My daughter would probably be really good at it because she is a very big perfectionist. Talan has tons of natural talent, whether it’s shooting a basketball, hitting a golf ball, throwing a fishing pole – when he got his first fishing pole he was two or three years old when we gave it to him and the next morning I get up and go to work and it’s 6:15 and he’s standing out in the driveway, in his underwear, casting the fishing pole, practicing, so that when he goes fishing he’ll be good at it. I don’t know if golf or racing will be in his future . . . you never know. But I would never say, ‘Hey, get in that car.’

‘Dear Younger Me’

Hindsight being what it is, there are a few lessons Jeff has learned that he would impart on a younger version of himself if that were possible.

“Don’t be greedy. Be aggressive, but be smart,” he said. “There are different ways to race. In years past I would be not as well mentally prepared as I am now that I’m older. We do have better equipment now, but I think it’s the level of focus, concentration, dedication . . . it’s better now.”

He said in years past he might go out the night before a race and eat out, go bowling and get it bed late. But then he would be the last one to get up in the morning, too.

“I still may bet in bed at 11 or 12 o’clock at the race track,” Strickland said. “But now I get up and it’s 5:30 or 6 o’clock in the morning and I’m more prepared. And when I go to the lanes I’m more prepared now than I used to be. I’ve just grown up. We’ve won races from Day 1, but I just wonder . . . .”