NHRA's Troxel refuses free pass, garners respect

Morgan Lucas looked down at his Top Fuel dragster unsure of whether to kick it or himself.

His dour expression never gave a clue that moments before he had won a round of competition in an NHRA Powerade Drag Racing Series event.

Lucas' consternation came after he beat teammate Melanie Troxel in Sunday's first round of the NHRA national event near Reading, Pa.

Normally that wouldn't have made Lucas feel as if the end of the world were near. But putting Troxel's Top Fueler on the trailer meant she was eliminated from the event and from contending for a spot in the NHRA's new playoff format.

The team threw away a chance of getting a $500,000 bonus if she had made it into NHRA's inaugural Countdown for the Championship and finished the season as the Top Fuel champion.

Lucas could have taken a dive to help her advance and continue challenging to become one of eight Top Fuel drivers in the Countdown. He didn't have a chance of qualifying for it.

Troxel and her Vietnam Veterans POW/MIA team would have nothing to do with being handed a gimme.

"It's disappointing, but I wouldn't have wanted it any other way," Troxel said. "I wouldn't want them to hand that to us. I wouldn't have felt we earned our way in there (and were) deserving of a place in the Countdown.

"We went up there to race, and that's all there is to it."


Team orders have become commonplace in racing. In NASCAR, a race-leading driver often slows so a teammate running second can pass to lead a lap and collect five bonus points -- unworthy, unearned points.

Major league ball-and-stick teams having locked up spots in their postseasons often rest key players toward the end of the regular season.

Once the rain-delayed Reading event was completed Wednesday, Troxel was 26 points out of eighth place. Had she taken a freebie against Lucas and won the second round, she would be in the Countdown.

Troxel and her team, however, earned an intangible of greater value: respect.

For Troxel and her team, which is owned by Lucas' father, Forrest, winning always is paramount.

They brought added credibility to drag racing and motor sports by not taking a free pass. At least one team always is focused on winning the race, of being the best.

But turning your back on a 1-in-8 chance of winning a half-million bucks? Not many of us would pick principle over that much money.

Diving has become an accepted strategy in drag racing since owners began fielding more than one car in the same category. Before this season, diving wasn't prevalent until later in the season.

With the new Countdown, "diving" has become a midseason tactic, and we'll see more of it over the last six races of this playoff.

That cheats fans who pay to watch racing.

Some teams admit to tanking.

Jeff Arend, a Funny Car driver for the Del Worsham family, said he had no intention of challenging Worsham when they met in Monday's rain-delayed first round. Once Jim Head, who took the eighth and final spot in Funny Car, lost in the first round, Arend knew what he was going to do as Head's loss kept hope alive for Worsham.

Arend gave Worsham a two-second head start and handed him the win.

"I think we'd have to be the dumbest people in the world to let one (of our cars) that has absolutely no chance of making the postseason take out the one that still has a chance," Arend said. "We made the decision on our side of the pit. Del never asked, never even brought it up."

Another Funny Car driver, Tommy Johnson Jr., said he never would have taken the stance Troxel took.

"It's a good thing that wasn't me," Johnson said of Troxel, who, by the way, is his wife. "I wouldn't have chose to do that."

Johnson, who drives a Funny Car for Don Prudhomme, said the advantage of a multicar team is to help each other "when one car has a chance and the other doesn't."

"I respect her decision," Johnson said. "As a driver you don't want to have it held over you that it was given to (you).

"I'm not sure you can win in that situation."

It was an old-school call by Troxel, who won for losing.

Jeff Wolf's motor sports column is published Friday. He can be reached at 383-0247 or jwolf@reviewjournal.com.