Take Two

By Susan Wade
Photos by Zak Hawthorne

He's talking about Schick Quattro razors these days instead of cutting- edge, in-your-face, smack-down rasslin' mayhem. But Jerry Toliver is back on the NHRA Funny Car scene, slightly older and a bit wiser but just as fresh and entertaining as he was when he had John Force spinning in 2000.

When he put his Schick Quattro Toyota Celica in the winners circle Feb. 29 at the K&N Filters Winternationals, defeating Gary Densham in the final round, the Pomona Raceway crowd seemed stunned. They expected dominance from Tony Schumacher in the Top Fuel class and from Greg Anderson in Pro Stock and got it. No one should have been surprised by Toliver, though.

After all, three of Toliver's five victories have come at Pomona Raceway, including the last race of the 1990s and the first of the 2000s in a back-to-back blitz. He began his career here in 1998 and a year later won his first race on this track that's just a 90-minute drive from his Temecula home. The storied Southern California drag strip is more than the cornerstone of the sport for Toliver. It's an almost- mystical shrine that connects him to his own drag-racing roots and pedigree traced through uncles Art and Jack Chrisman.

Admittedly overwhelmed by his former WWF-sponsored program and his quick rise to the Funny Car points lead four years ago, Toliver has had time to reflect, regroup and recharge. And at the Winternationals, he landed a blow for legitimacy -- not just
for himself but also for Toyota, which had been 0-5 in final rounds with initial drivers Bruce Sarver and Gary Scelzi.

This victory marked the first NHRA nitro-class victory for a foreign manufacturer. Although it received only passing mention by NHRA, this victory was exactly what Toyota Racing Development executive Pete Spence had in mind several years ago when he "got the feeling" that the Japanese automaker needed to cash in on this extreme-sport appeal. Spence had undergone the transformation from brie-and-wine Formula One and CART stylist to primal-scream-adrenalin-flooded drag-racing fan by standing at the starting line for a launch. ("He e-mailed everybody at Toyota and told them he had a religious experience," recalled parts manufacturer/U.S. Army Dragster crew chief Alan Johnson, who at this 2004 season-opener hit the Daily Double with this Toyota triumph and Schumacher's victory.)

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