Nothing comes easily for Terry Haddock. Nothing ever has. “If people ever knew my true story, knew what I do to race, they wouldn't believe it,” says Haddock, the ultimate drag racing underdog. “I don't win as many rounds as the heroes, but on a wins-per-dollars-spent basis, I'm not too bad.”
Racing against drivers with literally 20 times the budget he has, Haddock has entered 131 races and failed to qualify at 96 of them. His career win-loss record is 4-35. But among those four victories are upsets of the winningest drivers in the history of both Funny Car and Top Fuel: John Force and Tony Schumacher.
Just last month, Haddock was pulling away from Schumacher at the SuperNationals, only to watch an in-the-bag win dissolve when his seven-run-old blower belt snapped. Most teams change belts after every other run; Force has a new one every time his car comes to the line. Haddock? He digs through piles of other teams' discarded belts and keeps “the best-looking ones,” he says. And he drives a 10-year-old chassis that's powered largely by hand-me-down parts from Connie Kalitta and Tim Wilkerson and rides on Cory McClenathan's old tires.
“I do this on less money than anybody out here,” Haddock says. “People race on a million and a half a year and say it's not enough money – and it's not – but nobody does this like I do.”
It's not that Haddock doesn't have a big budget; it's that there is no budget. “I race off of my qualifying checks, go race to race, just try to survive,” he says. “Sometimes, I'll have maybe $2,500 in local sponsorship. Sometimes – most of the time – it's nothing. If I ever had the resources some teams have, things would look a lot different, I guarantee you. I've seen the TV shows. I know what commentators say about me, and sometimes it's not too nice. I'll be up against Schumacher, and they'll say, ‘This'll be an easy win for Schumacher.'
“I can run with these guys,” he says. “If I had the money, I could learn to race like they do. They could never race the way I do, and if they could, they wouldn't want to. It takes some people $5 million a year to do this, but when I'm up against Alan Johnson's car, he still has to stand on the starting line and wonder if that dumb ol' Haddock's going to beat him.”
Just two years ago, Haddock proved it. Racing on the lesser IHRA circuit, against teams with equally small war chests, Haddock racked up multiple event titles and the Funny Car championship. When IHRA killed that class at season's end, he had nowhere to race but the NHRA Full Throttle tour, facing the super teams.
Haddock doesn't pull up to his pit area in a luxury rental car on Friday mornings for the start of qualifying like most drivers do. “It would be great to roll in at nine, well rested, with everything ready to go,” he says. “I get there at 7 a.m. with a crew that's dead-ass tired from assembling everything out in the parking lot. Then I'll set up the pit – I have to. Who else will? I'm the only one who can drive the rig, so I have to get it there and help set up the circus. Then I get the car ready to run, and then I can start thinking about the tune-up.”
As much as Haddock desperately needs to bolster his meager parts inventory, there is another resource in even shorter supply: personnel. “I'd love to have more people,” he says. “I need people. Even just two more guys would make a huge difference. When you spread yourself this thin, it's hard to shine at any one job. But there's no choice.”
Instead of a crew of 10 professionals to maintain his car, Haddock races with two volunteers and whatever locals he can round up that weekend. Even the two who are with him every week go unpaid – one of them is his girlfriend's father.
“I tune the car, I drive it, I build everything that goes in there,” he says. “I'll have a couple of people take stuff apart, but I put everything back together myself. I put the clutch together, I put up the rear main, I adjust the valves. You have to work extra hard when you're using tired parts, but you really learn how hard you can push everything. This car can run 3.90s without hurting a thing. When I was winning events in IHRA, we didn't even take the heads off between rounds sometimes, but to run a 3.85 you shorten the life expectancy of your equipment. When something blows up, it's a parts failure – it's not because the tune-up wasn't right. It's because the fuel pump or a lifter has one too many runs on it. Then you've got a mess.”
And a lot less money. “I'm always trying to juggle money around to make sure I have enough to get through a weekend, make sure all the bills are paid before I leave home,” he says. “That's how I live, but that's how it's going to be until somebody notices me and wants to get behind me. I don't know anything else, and I'm so invested in this, I can't quit now. If you don't push for the things you want in life, you're never going to get there. This doesn't get me down. I get more discouraged with the politics than with blowing up parts. I came from nothing, and this is nothing but work, but I've always thought that if you work hard, eventually you'll get there.”
While still in his 20s, Haddock, now 39, sold a successful auto-repair and towing business in 1996, and spent it all to go Funny Car racing. Almost 15 years later, he's still here, spending every dime he has, and probably more competitive now than ever.
“If you want to be something in this sport, you have to stay at it,” he states. “And if I quit and went home, nobody would come looking for me. I have to have a dream, something to get me out of the bed in the morning, and this is it. You just hope that someday people notice. I don't want to be that ‘almost' guy, that guy who never quite made it. I'm not polished like Ron Capps, but look at the world we're living in right now. I'm just a regular guy – the kind of guy fans in the stands can relate to.
“A few times I've almost said, ‘The hell with this. It's not worth it.' But I've never quit at anything in my life, and I'm not about to now. I just need someone to believe in me and make Terry Haddock somebody, and you know what? Someday, it's going to happen.”OUTSIDE BETS
Surprising names could appear in the Countdown
Nobody's betting against Larry Dixon winning the Top Fuel championship this year, but Tony Schumacher, Antron Brown and Cory McClenathan aren't the only ones in his way. This year, more than any other, could produce a surprise champ in drag racing's premier class.
NHRA's Countdown to 1 playoff format was designed to add drama to the end of the season, and last year, it did. Robert Hight, the 10th-ranked Funny Car driver when the Countdown began, overtook all nine drivers ahead to win the championship.
This year, especially in Top Fuel, a few teams outside the traditional contenders have a legitimate shot at making the Top Fuel playoffs. Steve Torrence, who upset Schumacher to reach the semifinals in Phoenix, and former Alcohol Funny Car driver Terry McMillen (RIGHT), who reached the quarterfinals at three races in a row at midseason, are fighting for the last two spots. If the Countdown began today, both would be in.
In addition to Dexter Tuttle, Torrence now has veteran crew chiefs Richard Hogan and Kevin Poynter in his corner for the rest of 2010. McMillen has major backing from Amalie, experienced tuner and former driver Richard Hartman to call the shots, and the budget to run all 23 races. He's currently ahead of Dave Grubnic, from the vaunted Kalitta Motorsports team, and if he can hang on for just a few more races, McMillen will be in the top 10 by Labor Day and in the Countdown.
After that, as the Funny Car drivers ahead of Hight last year learned, all bets are off.