If it seemed at times last season that Steve Torrence had a chip on his shoulder or felt disrespected that’s because he did.
“Well, I tend to get like that anyway,” Torrence told RACER. “But it definitely is a little bit frustrating when you’ve gone out and dominated as we did and then people say, ‘Oh well, they’re going to be out of it.’ They’re this. They’re that. Well, start writing Tony Schumacher off. You just can’t do it.”
The four-time NHRA Top Fuel champion did not have the season he and his Capco team expected or strived for, which drew out the critics. Torrence & company went until August before winning their first event at Brainerd and picked up the second and final win the following month at St. Louis.
But in between, Torrence grabbed the $80,000 bonus payday for capturing the Pep Boys NHRA All-Star Callout. Torrence did so by taking down the hottest driver in the class, Brittany Force. It was that day Torrence let the frustration out by saying on television:
“I’ll tell you what, tons of respect for Brittany Force and that team because they’ve been bad to the bone. But the Capco team and Toyota boys have been bad to the bone for five years. We didn’t forget what we were doing. We struggled a little bit, but you got to persevere and stay with the boys who brought you there. We’re standing proud right now. … We don’t look so stupid now because we’re walking off with the money, big dog.”
Torrence ended the year with three No. 1 qualifiers and sixth in the championship standings. It was a year of grinding it out and knowing they weren’t on the right path.
“We willingly went in a different direction,” Torrence said. “We know what we were stepping into, unchartered territory. It took us time to figure it out, but we’re the same Capco boys we were from 2018 to 2021, and so ’22 was just a product of self-inflicted injury. And it was frustrating because everyone doubts you saying, oh, they’re gone. They’re lucky. They rode the wave. Maybe that’s the case, but you don’t win as much as we did without hard work and determination.”
It was going to be a learning curve of a season with Torrence switching to Toyota, but choosing to change directions was a necessary evil. Torrence understood that just because he won four straight titles didn’t mean his team could be complacent and keep bringing the same weapon into battle.
“I think some of the stuff we started with was further off than where we needed to be,” Torrence said. “We refocused midway through the year, which helped get everything going in the right direction. But going so far off in left field initially really showed us some things we needed and helped us get turned in the direction we did. And they were hard-earned, very expensive lessons because these things don’t run on fairy dust. With that being said, it really fine-tuned what we were doing. So, I’m pretty excited (to get started in 2023).”
Torrence doesn’t want to discredit anyone but believes what happened last year was a result of his team taking a step back and not others stepping up as much as it may seem. It was a hard year for Torrence and his crew, a wild goose chase that resulted in tough conversations but also seeing who was sticking around and there for the right reasons. No one left the Torrence team.
“There were times where we all had to sit down and say, ‘What are we doing, boys?’” Torrence said. “Everybody believed in what we were doing. It was hard, but everybody did and we stuck together. That’s the testament of a team — being able to go through the lowest of lows.
“It’s easy for everybody to be happy when you’re winning all the time. Winning covers up a lot of issues or problems that losing or hardships might expose. We pulled together, and that shows the culture we’ve created.”
Part of the disappointment — and surprise for Torrence — was how long it took to turn things around.
“It was hard,” Torrence said. “It was hard just to digest and say, OK, eventually, this is going to work. Nothing comes together that quickly, but we’ve done so well in the past at making changes and adjusting that I probably had unrealistic expectations. And so did all of us that we’ll have it figured out immediately. We didn’t.
“One thing is, you’re not running as much and making as many laps because you’re not winning. You’re not going four rounds on Sunday and getting that information. It was a struggle, and we stayed and tested a couple of times in different places. The direction we trended toward at the end of the season is ultimately where we needed to be and where we need to be now.”
The NHRA kicks off its season this weekend at Gainesville, and Torrence’s is one of many teams who have done testing leading into the weekend. He was eager to get on track and work on what he said were a few small things the team was trying to hone in on.
Torrence’s Top Fuel dragster is notoriously good in hot weather, and he knows there is work to be done for when the weather is cooler. Those conditions are where Torrence feels the competition has gotten better.
“We’re not a four-time champ just because we got lucky, so I look forward to a good test session and getting to start (in Gainesville) where you tested,” said Torrence. “The racing will be really good. I think the competition will be stepping up. This will probably be a better, closer competitive-wise season than last year.”
Force was the dominant car from start to finish last season and won the championship, which was the way it should be, Torrence said. But the chip on his shoulder remains there as Torrence wants to reclaim the crown.
“My back is against the wall and I have something to prove,” Torrence said of 2023. “We’re the champs, and we lost our title, and now it’s our chance to take it back. It’s pretty cool to say that the last six championships have been won by the same two people (Torrence and Force).
“I definitely will be racing with some motivation and that’s good for me.”