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NHRA Lucas Oil Super Gas champ Todd Stewart

Veteran earns first national title
with 14 round-wins in last two races

by John Jodauga, National DRAGSTER

Todd Stewart

Todd Stewart was in eighth place in the national standings, 89 points behind leader Tom Stalba Jr. going into the Division 7 finale in Las Vegas, and any chance of winning the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series Super Gas national title was a distant dream at best. "I've never finished in the top 10 since I began racing in Super Gas in 1990, so the chance of going a few rounds to possibly move up into the top five was a lot more realistic," he said.

But after Stewart won the Las Vegas event, an eight-round affair because of the mammoth 207-car field, he vaulted all the way up to second place, just three points behind Stalba (648 to 645), who had already run his full quota of races for the year. Stewart, who could earn additional points at the Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Finals if he improved upon a previous-best fourth-round finish, said, "We tried not to think about any of that as we were going rounds in Las Vegas. Our primary goal was to win the event because we hadn't won any other race this year. But all the other racers were following what was going on and doing the math. When it was all over, everyone told us that our chances looked pretty good."

Joe Harper (618 points), Frank Kohutek (598), and Gary Risk (596) also had mathematical chances to pass Stalba, so Super Gas was the category most wide open in terms of contenders who could win the title at the Finals.

Persistent showers at the Finals on Friday and Saturday delayed the first round of Super Gas until late Sunday afternoon, and this, of course, added to the anxiety for all the participants. "We had the car all prepped and ready to go," said Stewart. "We were chomping at the bit to race, and the last thing we needed was to have to stand around and stare at the rain for two days."

When the Super Gassers were finally called on late Sunday, Stewart noticed that Stalba was waiting in the back of the lanes. "I parked my car right next to his and said, 'Let's get this thing over with.' He thought that was pretty cool, too, but we ended up running against other cars."

"I had to race against Rick Beckstrom, who is always tough [but he red-lighted]," said Stewart, "and I was fortunate enough to [run] a 9.901, which made me the No. 1 qualifier and gave me a bye in the second round." On the bye run, Stewart served notice that he was on his game with a perfect 9.900. "That was real important for us," said Stewart. "We had a lot of faith in our car, and those numbers backed that up. We had just installed a new Jim Hughes converter before Vegas, and it was more repeatable than anything we've ever had before. It doesn't spin the tires on the starting line or when the throttle stop reactivates farther on down the track."

Harper was the first of the other contenders to lose when he fell to Glen Smith in the first round, and Risk red-lighted against Stalba in round three. Stewart then dispatched Kohutek in a fourth-round 9.88 to 9.86 double-breakout decision to set up a heads-up showdown against Stalba in round five. Said Stewart, "It's not very often that a championship gets decided like this, but I felt pretty calm before the run because I figured that it was Tom who had everything to lose."

Stewart jumped to a .404 to .427 starting-line advantage and then gave Stalba nothing to work with as he clocked a 9.904. "We had talked a lot between rounds during the race," said Stewart, "and when Tom came up to congratulate me after the race, I reminded him that he was still the winner of this year's Indy. That's something I still haven't done, and I appreciate the fact that he was very gracious throughout the weekend."

Stewart has been using Hughes Performance transmission and converter products for several seasons, and he purchased his current '00 Corvette from Hughes in 2001. "Jim had the car finished in January 2001 but hadn't raced it yet when he offered me the chance to drive it. After I won one of the Super Gas Association races on my first time out, I told him he wasn't getting the car back, so I ended up buying it from him."

Another major step was taken following Stewart's runner-up finish at this year's K&N Filters Winternationals. "I blew my engine in the first round of the Phoenix national event, and Sheldon Gecker Jr., who works at Wheeler Racing Engines in Jacksonville, Fla., offered me the chance to run one of their 555-cid engines, which we still use today."

Besides the two season-ending events in Las Vegas and Pomona, Stewart said that his most pivotal race was his lone out-of-division event at Tri-State Raceway in Earlville, Iowa. "I went there because I was competing in the Jeg's Allstars event in Chicago. We got beat in the semi's when I took too much win stripe. I ended up losing the Division 7 title [to Robert Burton] by one point, so that loss kept me from taking home three trophies after our trip to the West Coast. Still, winning the Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series national championship is a big thrill, so I'm certainly not complaining about anything."

Stewart was quick to credit the many individuals who contributed to his title season: Hughes and Kevin Kleineweber at Hughes Performance, Wheeler Racing Engines, and Don Davis Race Cars. "I also thank my crew chief, Bob 'the Geezer' Rajcevich; Howard Campbell; Dennis Sarmento; 76 Racing Fuel; Hoosier Tires; K&N Air Filters; the Geckers [Sheldon Sr. and his wife, Crystal]; my wife, Amanda; and my children, Chris, Taylor, and Kyle."

Return to 2002 Sportsman News Archive