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.Q: So when you went testing in Vegas in January, that was your first time in a nitro car for, what – 14, 15 months?
MT: Almost a year and a half, and my run here yesterday was my first run to the finish line in that long because we didn't go to more than half-track in testing because the track wasn't quite good enough at that time of year. So yesterday, it was great to cross the finish line and cross that one more thing off the list.
Q: What was it like to get back in after so long away? There's no way of building back up to it, I assume…MT:
No, there really isn't. No simulator, no way of practicing for it. A lot of it is about being mentally prepared for it. But fortunately, for me at least, it was nowhere near how it was for me in 2008, making the switch from Top Fuel to Funny Car for the first time. In Vegas, it was about getting in and shaking out the cobwebs a little bit and most of it comes back pretty quick. Of course, there are little things I want to get better at, finessing some things in the car, but it's not at all like switching from rear- to front-engined.
Q: I find that amazing. What was it that was so different?MT:
Well, there were some things that made my transition a little more tricky that wouldn't necessarily face everyone who switches. I like the steering wheel closer and lower than most drivers, and I think that has to do with the physical build. Guys tend to sit higher in the car, and because they're thicker build, maybe have the wheel set farther away. I move it closer but I think it was set too low, and I thought, “Well, I don't want them to tear the whole car apart to change it, so I'll be fine.” But we went two or three races where I was taking out cones and it was all over the place. I never hit the wall, but I was thinking to myself, “Oh my God, can I really drive this car? Why can't I keep my car in my lane?” But we realized that when I was stepping off the clutch, my left knee was under my left hand, so I wasn't able to steer properly. So we got that sorted out and it became a whole lot easier, but that whole switchover was painful.
Now, like I say, I've just got certain things to remember, making the start go smooth like the timing of the burn-out and the back-up. Obviously part of that is the gelling of the team, but it's all coming back. It's certainly not like starting from scratch.
Q: Are you going to be keeping up the Pro Mod racing? That Corvette is a great-looking car…MT:
Yes I will: it's an R2B2-run car as well, and it will have primary sponsorship from In-N-Out, too. It's going to be fun because, in my opinion, a nitro Funny Car and a Pro Mod car are the trickiest drag cars to drive, and yet very, very different. You'd expect, as they're both short-wheelbase cars, they'd both be squirrely and move around very similar, but it's not at all. In a Pro Mod, there is a lot of horsepower [approximately 3000] to put through a car with a lot of suspension movement. These Funny Cars are all solid, firmly planted with a lot of downforce and you can really crank on the wheel and get away with it, but in Pro Mod, the window of correction is very small. You start making corrections, and it's like the suspension movement amplifies everything you do; that's why you see them sideways so often. So it will be hard enough switching back and forth across the year, but I've got two events – Houston and the second Las Vegas round – where I'll be doing double duty on the same weekend, so I'm sweating a little about those!
Q: If you hadn't have had anything lined up with R2B2 for next year, would you have been looking to the big squads like Don Schumacher Racing for 2011?MT:
I wasn't looking for a job – I had a job and, unfortunately, Roger jumped into drag racing at about the worst time to find new sponsors. But we were very much working together to find potential backers. Come later this year, if we hadn't have been able to put something together, and I didn't have a contract for 2011 then I might have had to start making tough decisions, and considering teams that have open seats. But there are always more drivers than there are open seats, so it's tough – even more so in this economy. Drivers are being expected to bring sponsorship with them to the teams and that's not really our drivers' strong points. We can deal with sponsors and companies out here at the racetrack, but cold-calling them, going into board rooms and telling them why they should spend money in drag racing is not something that's our strong suit. I don't know how that would have worked, but fortunately it didn't have to happen.
Q: And how have you been able to activate the In-N-Out sponsorship?MT:
We had a good turnout for our first two events despite so few days to promote, but we've really been just working through all the basics so far, having had just 30-something days to get uniforms, fire-suits, cars painted and awnings made. Hopefully after this weekend we can get on with the merchandising and how to make it work for In-N-Out, because we need to learn what they'd like us to do to maximize the return on what they're spending.Q: So missing Gainesville [round three] will actually help you get that sort of stuff organized.
MT: Yeah…except we're there with the Pro Mod car! So it's going to be a little crazy. Q: What would be mission accomplished for you then this weekend?
MT: Conservatively, we want to qualify for Sunday. If we're out first round on Sunday, but we run a really good close race, I don't think we can be too disappointed. Coming together this quick, that would be acceptable. But…I always lean a bit toward the optimistic side and would like to see us qualify in the top half of the field and win a couple of rounds on Sunday. That's my goal, though, like I say, if we put down a good number on Sunday, even if we get beaten, then I think we can all hold our heads high.