Padecky: Breakthrough win for J.R. Todd at Sonoma Nationals

Funny Car champion, J.R. Todd, left, celebrates with Top Fuel champion, Steve Torrence, in the winner circle at the Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals in Sonoma, Calif., on Sunday, July 30, 2017. (Photo by Darryl Bush / For The Press Democrat)


Diana, can you do me a favor? I don’t want be pushy, said J.R. Todd. I was wondering about something. Could you send a text to Steve Page? Be great if you could.

Sure, said Diana Brennan, the vice president of communications and marketing at Sonoma Raceway. Diana excels at helping others in need. So 30 minutes after Todd won the Funny Car competition at the NHRA Sonoma Nationals Sunday, Diana sent this most unique text message to Page, president and general manager at Sonoma Raceway.

“J.R. Todd just said he might inquire about renting a room in your house since he can’t afford to live here (in Sonoma).”

When it comes to asking someone for a place to crash for the night, this may be the most polite request in the history of can-I-crash-at-your-place-for-the-night. This also may be the most polite request by any athlete who won a major sporting event. His achievement, after all, was without precedent: Todd became the first African-American to win both the Funny Car and Top Fuel competition in NHRA history (Todd won Top Fuel last year).

Yes, Todd operates without an air of entitlement and so does Page. Sure, the dude can stay the night. Does that mean Page will now make his house open to anyone who wins a motorsports race at the raceway?

When presented with that question, the look on Page’s face was that of someone standing at the bottom of an advancing avalanche. Sorry, Steve, that was an unfair, flippant question. Then again …

If every motorsports winner to stay at the Page Chateau had a story to tell like Todd’s, Page would build a granny unit just for that purpose. And that Todd is the first African-American to win both prime-time NHRA races may be the most pedestrian event in his background.

Sure, Todd said, he is aware of the significance: “When I look back at the crowd (in the pit area) and I see everyone (African-Americans).” The same crowd color that once followed a young Tiger Woods.

But the uniqueness does not move Todd, 35, to podium speeches or otherwise grand oratories.

“I think we are way beyond that,” Todd said. “Doesn’t matter if we’re black or white, purple, or male or female. It’s not like this barrier we had to jump over. Drag racing is the one sport that’s open to everyone. Just get in a car and go down the street.”

In a very real sense skin color has become as an uninteresting issue as it once was provocative. Antron Brown, an African-American, is a three-time Top Fuel champion. To that add Todd, as the latest example of why a person’s skin color doesn’t matter, and more to the point, should never have influenced an opinion of someone.

In Todd’s case, he offers a different human viewpoint and what a viewpoint it is.

We all should have friends like J.R. Todd.

Eric Medlen and Todd were best friends, their love of racing united them. Medlin, 33, was a five-time Funny Car winner. In March 20, 2007 at the Gainesville (Florida) Raceway a severe tire shake in his Funny Car caused during a testing session exerted a force, experts estimated, of at least 40,000 pounds of pressure. Medlen was bouncing against roll bars. Severe head trauma was the result. An operation to save his life failed. Medlen died three days later. Todd was there.

“I think about Eric every day,” Todd said. “I always will.”

Todd has a tattoo on his ankle that reads: “Three Brothers.” It refers to Medlen, Todd and Brandon Bernstein, a retired Top Alcohol driver. During the qualifying races Sunday and then in the final, Todd stuffed inside his race suit a multi-colored painting-drawing of Todd’s racecar with these words: “I’m J.R. Todd! This car’s for Eric!” It was given to Todd by Mimi Medlen, Eric’s mother.

“I’m gonna have it framed,” Todd said, “and give it back to her.”

Todd is not alone in his affection. Sonoma Raceway closes every NHRA weekend with an Eric Medlen Ice Cream Social at the track. Born in the Sierra foothill town of Oakdale, Medlen was a local favorite well-known for his love of ice cream.

So yes we should all have friends like J.R. Todd and Sonoma Raceway. It’s a warm, fuzzy memory Eric Medlen arouses. And it didn’t matter Medlen was white. And it didn’t matter Todd was African-American. And it didn’t matter to Steve Page that he didn’t know at the time if he had room at his house. He said yes immediately. He’d find a way. It’s what you do. And Page would do it, even if Todd had finished second. It’s what you do.

To contact Bob Padecky email him at