Melanie Troxel is back where she belongs for 2010, competing in the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series, and for that, the NHRA and its fans should be thankful. Thankful, that is, to In-N-Out Burger which, having supported her career in the Top Alcohol category a decade ago, has renewed support of its poster child and enabled Troxel to strap herself into the R2B2-run Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car.
It's not a full-time ride – yet – but all the Western races in the NHRA's 2010 calendar (in states where In-N-Out has a presence) means that at least eight events will feature one of NHRA's most popular drivers. As the economic meltdown eroded much of the racing world's funding last year, Troxel was forced to watch the eye-watering insanity of the 8000hp Funny Cars from the sidelines in 2009, instead spending the year racing a Pro Modified Corvette.
As the first woman to win a race in both Top Fuel (four times 2006-'07) and Funny Car (Bristol 2008), it's good to see Troxel once more through the haze of nitro fumes. RACER caught up with her at this weekend's 50th Kragen O'Reilly Auto Parts Winternationals at Pomona, Calif., the opening round of the NHRA's season.
Q: Welcome back! Obvious question first: how did this come about and how long have you been working on it?
Melanie Troxel: I drove for In-N-Out 11 years ago, so this is everything coming around full circle. The last two years that I drove alcohol dragsters was under the In-N-Out Burger banner and was the reason I got my break into Top Fuel  working with Guy Snyder, the CEO of In-N-Out at the time and he had agreed to put a TF program together under Jerry Darien and Ken Meadows who have helped a lot of different drivers come up through the ranks and get their big breaks. Unfortunately, December 1999 was when Guy passed away and put the racing program on hold. But I still got my license and got to run a few races early in 2000 before the whole deal came apart.
So, yeah, In-N-Out was the reason I got my break into the pro ranks and although it came to an end at the time, I stayed in contact with Lynsi Martinez, Guy's daughter, and whenever we were out here in Pomona, she'd come by and check in with me. She definitely got her dad's gene for racing and she's always been looking forward to the day when In-N-Out could get back involved in drag racing. We got in touch last fall, and Lynsi said “We're looking at it again,” and literally in the past 30-35 days, things came together.
Fortunately for us, Roger Burgess [owner of the R2B2 Racing team], the guy who ran me in 2008, still had all the equipment sitting there, ready to go, and that's why we were able to put the program together that quick. We just had to assemble the personnel, and we were able to re-sign the key people who were working with us in '08. Our clutch guy, Robb Hauser, is now the assistant crew chief and that's very welcome, because obviously the clutch system is one of the trickiest and most essential parts to getting these cars down the track. Lance Larsen, our crew chief, is someone I worked with in 2006 in Top Fuel. The rest of the guys are people we worked with before, with a few new guys in the mix.
Q: Given that you scored a win with R2B2 in your first Funny Car season, that must give you some optimism...
MT: Yeah, absolutely, because this is the equipment we ran in '08. We feel we can go out and pick up where we left off. It's not like we have a bunch of new equipment where you have to chase the bugs out of it. This was ready to go race when the operation got parked in late '08/early '09, so in that sense we feel good.
Q: And is drag racing a branch of the sport where a part-time team is at less of a disadvantage to its full-time competitors, when you compare it to say, IndyCar or NASCAR?
MT: Well, right now, I'd say we were on a fairly level playing field because everyone's had a little bit of preseason testing. But it will get tougher as the year goes on, when a lot of these teams have been running every race and maybe we've sat out three or four before diving back in. But the great thing is Roger Burgess has committed to run all the events in 2011 and 2012, and – this is a prediction on my part, not an official announcement – we will run more than the eight we've committed to already. We'll cover the California, Nevada, Arizona and Texas rounds with In-N-Out Burger as that's their market, but I think we'll run others, ones that Roger feels will make sense, according to deals we're able to put together between now and the end of the year. It would take crazy luck to find someone to pick up all the remaining rounds for the other two-thirds of the year, but it'll definitely be more than just these eight races. By next year, I don't think we'll be at any disadvantage at all.
What I can confirm here and now is that we will not be underfunded this year. A lot of times when a team runs only a partial season, it's because they haven't got enough money. We will not be underfunded at all, because we aren't struggling to find equipment: it's all there. All that we're going to miss are the runs that the full-time teams are able to make over the weekends when we're not there.
Q: Given that you've already made the switch from Top Fuel to Funny Car, would you have been OK with switching back if that's the way the deal had gone?
MT: Absolutely. Funny Cars were something I'd always wanted to do, partly because drivers are happy to drive anything that people will let them drive, but also there is this thing where a lot of the guys say, “Funny Cars are tougher to drive and women can't handle it,” so I think as females we want to go and knock that chip off somebody's shoulder.
Having driven Top Fuel and Funny Car, I like both of them and they are very different animals. For me, the most important thing is the team chemistry: I want to find the right people who I want to work with long term and whichever car that is, that's what I'll go for. Whichever car I think I've got a better chance of being competitive in, that's more important. So competitiveness and happiness are the most important things: I'm not picky about the car.