Three NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series rookie drivers – Jeff Diehl (Funny Car), Shane Gray (Pro Stock) and LE Tonglet (Pro Stock Motorcycle) – are the eligible candidates for the 2010 Automobile Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award, it was announced today by officials from NHRA and the Automobile Club of Southern California.
The award, which recognizes the top rookie competitor in the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series and offers a $20,000 prize and traditional trophy to the winner, will be presented during NHRA's annual championship awards ceremony on Monday, Nov. 15, at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza in Los Angeles.
"For more than 100 years, the Automobile Club of Southern California has represented integrity, commitment and professionalism to our millions of members. The Road to the Future Award has come to symbolize these same attributes in the sport of NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing," said Thomas V. McKernan, CEO of the Automobile Club of Southern California. "To be nominated, recognizes not only that a rookie driver had a noteworthy first season, but also that they demonstrated exceptional potential for the future. We congratulate all three of the nominees for this year's award and look forward to enjoying their achievements both on and off the racetrack for many years to come."
Diehl, 46, from Salinas, Calif., has become a fan-favorite for his old-school showman burnout procedure in his black and red Rimz One Chevy Monte Carlo SS. After the burnout, his wife Leeza runs onto the track and serves as a guide as he backs up his 7,000 horsepower Funny Car to get into position for the run. Among his highlights on the track, Diehl, nicknamed "The Surfer," qualified for the inaugural NHRA 4-Wide Nationals at Charlotte and for each stop on the grueling three-race Western Swing, among other races. He made national highlight reels after walking away from spectacular engine explosions at Charlotte and Chicago.
Gray, 38, from Artesia, N.M., drove his Tire Kingdom Pontiac GXP to runner-up finishes at Englishtown and Brainerd, and has qualified for every race so far in the ultra-competitive Pro Stock category. The second-generation racer qualified for the Countdown to the Championship playoffs and currently sits seventh overall in the point standings. In addition to the two final round appearances, his other season highlights include posting a season-best fifth qualifying position at Dallas and beating defending world champ Mike Edwards in the quarterfinal round at Sonoma.
Tonglet, 20, from Metairie, La., rode his NitroFish Gear Suzuki to four victories in five final rounds, including three consecutive victories to open the Countdown to the Championship playoffs. He is second in the Countdown point standings in Pro Stock Motorcycle and should he win the world championship title would become the first NHRA driver to win a championship in his rookie season since Gary Scelzi accomplished the feat in 1997 in Top Fuel. At Indy, he became the fourth rookie driver in NHRA history to win the prestigious Mac Tools U.S. Nationals.
In 2002 the Automobile Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award and the NHRA Rookie of the Year Award were combined to create one award recognizing the future stars of the sport. Past winners of the Automobile Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award have developed into some of NHRA's biggest stars, including Tony Pedregon (1996, Funny Car), Ron Capps (1997, Funny Car), Doug Kalitta (1998, Top Fuel), Antron Brown (1999, Pro Stock Motorcycle), Melanie Troxel (2000, Top Fuel), GT Tonglet (2001, Pro Stock Motorcycle), Gene Wilson (2002, Pro Stock); Brandon Bernstein (2003, Top Fuel); Jason Line (2004, Pro Stock); Robert Hight (2005, Funny Car); J.R. Todd (2006, Top Fuel); Ashley Force Hood (2007, Funny Car); Mike Neff (2008, Funny Car); and Spencer Massey (2009, Top Fuel).
NHRA Rookie of the Year winners prior to the merger of the two awards included the late Darrell Russell (2001, Top Fuel), Don Lampus (2000, Top Fuel), Scotty Cannon (1999, Funny Car), Jeg Coughlin (1998, Pro Stock), Gary Scelzi (1997, Top Fuel) and co-winners in 1996, Mike Edwards (Pro Stock) and Matt Hines (Pro Stock Motorcycle).
Rookie drivers in all four of NHRA's professional categories are eligible to win the Automobile Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award. More than 150 of the nation's leading auto racing journalists will select the winner through a voting system based on the following criteria: number of events participated; performance on and off the racetrack; participation in NHRA promotions; and relationships with fans, sponsors and media.