Bobby Lagana Jr

Mo one, absolutely no one, would have blamed Bobby Lagana Jr. if he'd decided in 1998 to vacate the cockpit of his family-owned and operated Top Fuel entry after going off the end of the strip at full song with a stuck throttle during the IHRA ew York International Dragway. But despite suffering numerous injuries in the accident, including multiple severed fingers from his right hand, the determined nitro jockey returned to the saddle just two months later.

That level of resolve defines the career of Lagana and his entire Scarsdale, New York-based team. For years, racing alongside his father, Bobby Sr., and with brother Dom as crew chief, the "Twilight Zone" guys showed up at IHRA national events with their race car loaded on the back of an old, Ford ramp truck, requiring its pointy nose to poke high in the air above the truck's cab. More often than not, it took practically every dollar they had just to roll through the racer's gates; knowing full well that just to qualify on their shoestring allowance would be a challenge and an early exit from eliminations was almost a certainty.

But it took only 4.77 seconds at Virginia Motorsports Park last October to vindicate all those years of making do when Lagana became the inaugural Top Fuel champion in the IHRA's new Nitro Jam era. And then, just a couple of weeks later, with Dom behind the wheel and Bobby Jr. calling the shots as crew chief for the NHRA race at Las Vegas, the Laganas raced through no less than Clay Millican, the guy they'd watched win so many IHRA Top Fuel races and championships, 2010 NHRA champ Larry Dixon and multi-time event winner Antron Brown, only to get stopped by future hall-of-famer Tony Schumacher in the final round.

"For my dad it was almost like his whole racing career was fulfilled and justified in the span of three weeks," Lagana says. "To give the championship to him, just to see the look on his face, made it all so worth it to me. Then to have what happened in Vegas with us winning the Full Throttle Hardest Working Crew award and to finish runner-up, it's been just an awesome time."

In 2010, under the new ownership and direction of Feld Entertainment, purveyors of shows including Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Disney on Ice, Supercross and the Monster Jam monster truck series, the IHRA debuted its two-day Nitro Jam format to provide fans with a concise, three- to four-hour drag racing show highlighted by a pair of runs from four headlining Top Fuel entries at each event, with the winners of the first pairings Squaring off to determine daily champions.

As a match-racing veteran, Lagana recognizes the limitations of a booked-in show like Nitro Jam, but denies the suggestion it represents nothing more than glorified exhibition runs.

"If there's someone who thinks we're not really racing, they need to get there Friday morn-

Bobby Lagana Photos

THERE FRIDAY MORNING WITH US AND SEE HOW HARD WE WORK."

ing with us and see how hard we work to get that pit set up to make the two runs to judge the race track and complete the service between rounds before we get to enjoy the sweetness of a victory or taste the sours of a loss," he says. "I promise you, nobody walks away Friday or Saturday night from a Nitro Jam happy that they didn't get the trophy; they might be happy for the guy that did win it, but there's absolutely no thinking like, 'Oh well, it was his turn to win,'

no way!

"And there's nobody telling us who's supposed to win or what we're supposed to do; they just rely on our competition instincts to put on a good show," he adds.

The key to success in the new IHRA, Lagana says, is to embrace the showtime aspect of Nitro Jam, which he thinks translates just as well as a tune-up to NHRA competition, amply proven by the loyal fan following the Laganas built up even as underdogs when they advanced past the second round at Las Vegas.

"This one guy, he'd noticed we hit the gas twice before the second round to seat the throttle and I told him that's how we'd done it all year and we didn't want to change what works. So then he says, 'You're in the third round now; you better hit it three times,' and I told him, 'Hey, I'm sorry but it's part of our tune-up so I can't do that.' Well, the car's running on the jack stands and this crazy guy starts letting the exhaust hit him in the face and he's just loving it; he rips his shirt off and the fans are just going crazy. So I look at them and I think, 'You know what? These guys deserve it.' So I didn't tell anybody on the team I was going to do it but I hit the throttle an extra time, three times, and they just went nuts.

"Well, the car went a 3.89 so it obviously didn't hurt it and we were lucky enough again to win the third round and when we get back to the pits there had to be 200 people there waiting for us, and of course these guys were the first ones, they were right there. And the same guy looks at me right in the eye and I say, 'I know, you don't even have to tell me, I've gotta' hit it four times now.' So I did."

It's that passion, that positive attitude, that empathy, that combined make Lagana such a fan favorite. It's also what makes him appreciate the Nitro Jam championship for what it is, regardless of format; tangible proof that determination pays dividends.

"To see my dad get all this gratification for all the hard work he put in over the years was just awesome. He looks at that championship trophy like it's what he worked his whole life for; he cherishes it," Lagana says. "It's been so much fun and it makes it even better to think about coming back from our crash and all the years with the ramp truck and all the years of barely making it, all the people involved, the friends, the sponsors, the crew guys. I couldn't say thank you enough to everyone who got us to this point. It's just not possible."

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