At his usual deliberate pace, Puyallup’s Jody Lang rolled down the door of his race-car trailer and made his way to the motorhome.
He took a minute to glance at all the vehicles parked in long rows on a field inside Pacific Raceways in Kent, waiting for the morning to arrive — and for the pits to open so he could set up camp for the upcoming NHRA Northwest Nationals, which begin Friday.
Lang, 48, couldn’t help but think of how far he has come as an NHRA sportsman racer, and how much he has accomplished. He is coming off a victory last week at the Sonoma Nationals in California, recording his 25th national-event win.
He defeated Staci Smith, of Lancaster, Calif., in the finals of Super Stock on Sunday afternoon to become just the 17th sportsman drag racer in NHRA history to win 25 or more national events. He is the winningest active driver from Washington.
People who know Lang hail his tireless preparation and consistent performance in the Stock and Super Stock classes. That makes arriving days early for NHRA races well worth the trouble.
But the scene also jogged Lang’s memory about his first NHRA race, in 1993 in Pomona, Calif. — where he arrived two hours after the first qualifying session.
“I was pitted next to one of the legends of the sport, Bill Kost,” Lang said. “And he said, ‘What are you thinking missing a run? We’ve only got three of them.’
“What was I thinking? I had a job, and I was trying to save time.”
Lang’s evolution has been astounding: He grew up playing baseball, basketball and golf at Auburn High School, graduating in 1983. His father, Dale, briefly raced cars, but those races were just stories Lang heard throughout his childhood.
Lang and his older brother, Toby, dabbled in riding motorcycles as teenagers. It grew into driving muscle cars in bracket races at Pacific Raceways. Lang eventually bought a 1969 Chevrolet Chevelle and began racing that at local tracks.
He was winning enough local races — and working enough at Boeing on the door-building crew of airplanes — to consider taking up a racing career in the NHRA.
At the end of 1991, he paid $7,000 to tow a 1981 Chevrolet Malibu station wagon back from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, to be
his first real racing car.
“I always had a weird fascination with wagons because my parents had one that we went to the drive-ins in,” Lang said. “People don’t think of them as race cars but I was looking for a particular class to race in Stock.
“I wanted to have a middle- to slower-speed car for the affordability and maintenance.”
Virtually any street car can race in the Stock class. Depending on what kind of car it is, the NHRA assigns it a national index, essentially a handicap. In this case, Lang’s Chevy Malibu wagon was an “M” stock automatic with a flat time for qualifying of 13 seconds for a quarter-mile.
In qualifying sessions for races, the more Lang’s time is less than 13 seconds, the higher his seed for elimination rounds.
Head-to-head elimination-round racing is where titles are won. Before every round, Lang must submit what he thinks his time will be. When the race starts, if he crosses the finish line first and does not finish faster than his locked-in time, he wins.
“The pros, they are going just straight on horsepower from start to finish,” said Martha Thompson, Lang’s girlfriend and a former Stock class drag racer. “Here, you have to predict things. So much is going on in your head going down the track.”
Three years after his 1993 NHRA debut, Lang won his first national event, at the Lucas Oil Slick Mist NHRA Nationals in Phoenix. He beat Thompson in the finals.
Over time, instead of trading up for a faster car, Lang has kept racing his Chevy Malibu wagon. He has won 17 national events in that car.
“He is one of the best slow-car racers I’ve ever seen, especially in that wagon and on windy tracks like (Las) Vegas and Sonoma,” Tacoma drag racer Mark Faul said. “He has really developed his (time dialing-in) skills, and he is really steady on reaction time.
“He is just very focused. It would take a miracle to distract him from anything he is doing. He is in his own little world.”
Racing in one class just wasn’t enough for Lang. Before the start of the 2004 season, he purchased a 1981 Chevy Malibu sedan from a former racer in Burlington for $14,000. He races that in Super Stock, the class he won last weekend.
“The reason I did it,” Lang said, “is I don’t want to sit.”
Twice — in Las Vegas in 2009 and in Kent in 2011 — Lang has won a national event in both classes at the same race. Only five other drag racers have done that.
The only thing missing from Lang’s list of accomplishments is a national points championship. Three times, Lang has finished as the Stock class runner-up — in 2001, 2005 and 2011.
Nothing hurt worse than what happened during his marvelous 2011 season. He won eight races between Stock and Super Stock, with five of those wins coming in Stock.
During the final weeks, he began receiving congratulatory text messages about his first points title. But he was caught and eventually edged out in the final two weeks by Joseph Santangelo II of Marlborough, Conn.
Santangelo won with 701 points. Lang was second with 699, a total that would have captured the Stock class title in each of the previous five years.
“It was heartbreaking,” Lang said.
But Lang is in the running this season. He sits in third place in Stock with a few races to go.
“What pays off is the success,” Lang said. “That keeps the hook in your mouth.”
WINNINGEST LOCAL NHRA DRIVERS
Pat AustinTacoma Alcohol Funny Car, Top Fuel73
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Mark FaulTacomaStock, Super Stock15
Toby LangAuburnStock, Super Stock13Todd Milles: 253-597-8442 firstname.lastname@example.org @ManyHatsMilles email@example.com