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NHRA Funny Car driver J.R. Todd riding March Madness wave

Updated April 6, 2019 - 4:26 pm

Sometimes a little March Madness carries into April. And beyond.

Five years ago, NHRA Funny Car driver J.R. Todd was watching the NCAA Tournament at a Buffalo Wild Wings in his hometown of Indianapolis when his cellphone rang.

It was Connie Kalitta. The NHRA legend wanted to know if Todd might be available to drive his dragster at relatively short notice.

Like the next day. In Las Vegas.

Todd got on the first flight out of Indy the next morning. He qualified Kalitta’s car at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in the afternoon on 1½ hours sleep. As they say on TV, do not attempt this at home.

Last year, while driving Kalitta’s familiar yellow DHL Toyota Camry Funny Car, Todd won the four-wide LVMS nationals in springtime.

He won the two-wide LVMS nationals in the fall.

He won four additional races and the 2018 Funny Car championship.

“That was a life-changing call for me,” Todd, 37, said Thursday before qualifying for the Denso Spark Plugs NHRA Four-Wide Nationals at LVMS began. “It changed my career, gave me a fresh breath of life. It’s kind of cool how things come full circle like that.”

Timing is also everything off the track, said Todd, who by then had lost several rides over lack of funding, and one when the shop for the team he was driving for burned down.

“I was only racing part time,” said Todd, who in 2006 became the first African-American to win a race in one of the NHRA’s Nitro classes. “Things weren’t looking up for me. I don’t come from a family with a lot of money, don’t bring a bunch of sponsorship to the team.

“I told myself when I got the call from Connie, now is the time to show everybody I deserve to be out there.”

A phone call from out of the blue during March Madness turned into not one but many shining moments for J.R. Todd.

Simon sez all’s good

Fifteen days after going into a San Diego hospital for a second heart transplant, former UNLV soccer star Simon Keith was texting friends and even sports writers to say he was feeling fine and on the road to recovery.

“All good bro. Glad to be out of the hospital and moving again,” read one. “Still thin. Eating like crazy, rehabbing. All is well.”

Keith, 53, lived 32 years with his first transplanted heart. He also underwent a kidney transplant this time. He hopes to be smoking cigars with llamas — although he might skip the cigars this year — at his foundation’s golf tournament in the fall that raises awareness and funds for organ donation. Llamas and cigars are always part of the festivities.

“No doubt. This year is gonna be a celebration for sure,” he said. “(But) our deepest and most heartfelt thanks belong to the donor and their family. Without the simple yet significant act of registering their wishes to donate, none of this would be possible.”

Blast from the past

The last time I saw Austin Kryszczuk, he was riding on a fire engine through downtown Las Vegas after he and his Mountain Ridge Little League buddies returned from the 2014 Little League World Series. Five years later, as a senior at Centennial High, he’s still ringing the bell.

Kryszczuk went 3-for-4 with a three-run homer Wednesday as the Bulldogs stunned Doral Academy of Florida, ranked No. 3 nationally by USA Today, 7-4 in a tournament at Bishop Gorman.

Local fans who haven’t seen Kryszczuk play grown-up baseball will have ample opportunity the next several years, as he was one of six locals to sign with UNLV in December.

Staying connected

Women’s basketball fans with a keen eye might have noticed a Las Vegas connection in the NCAA Chicago Regional championship game won by Notre Dame over Stanford.

Lindy La Rocque, who played in four Final Fours for the Cardinal, was seated on the Stanford bench. The Durango High product finished her second season on The Farm as an assistant under Hall of Fame coach Tara VanDerveer.

InFini Robinson, a former UNLV women’s basketball player and Southern Nevada Officials Association crew chief, was one of the referees.


USA Today’s Dan Wolken, after learning the NCAA provides free Wi-Fi to its basketball tournament teams:

“This is like the scene in ‘Trading Places’ where Randolph and Mortimer Duke handed out the Christmas bonuses.”

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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