Shawn Langdon, a driver in the NHRA’s Top Fuel Dragster class, doesn’t get nervous.
Not when he and his team are prepping for a race. Not when he’s on the line, waiting for the green light. Not while he’s racing.
Not bad for a guy who’s driven 334.15 mph, an NHRA record.
Langdon is in his fifth season with the Mello Yello NHRA Drag Racing Series, which returns to Summit Racing Equipment Motorsports Park in Norwalk this weekend, and has been in first or second place in the standings for most of the season. The action and excitement of contending for a title after four frustrating years has gripped Langdon’s adrenaline, but not his nerves.
“Now, I have just fun with it,” Langdon said. “That adrenaline you get inside of you, you feel your body temperature rising up and you can feel your heart beat, I like that. ... But I don’t really get nervous. I’m able to embrace that energy and turn it into excitement because it’s all about entertaining the fans.”
It wasn’t always like that.
Like many other drivers, Langdon grew up with racing as a job, not just a hobby. He started driving at the age of 12 in Mira Loma, Calif. and gave up safer avenues for income. For most of his racing career thereafter, through his early 20s, winning meant putting food on the table. Losing meant going hungry.
That made him nervous.
“I was basically racing to get a paycheck,” Langdon said not in the way of greed but of necessity. “I was racing every week, traveling the country. If I won a race, I got paid, if I didn’t, I didn’t get paid. To me, that was nervous.”
Langdon is past the race-for-food level now as a veteran in the drag racing series. Though his first four full seasons at this level weren’t easy as he and his team finished ninth, fifth, ninth and fourth in the points, respectively. But last year’s record-breaking performance was the first indicator that they were finding their way.
And this season, with enough experience, things have clicked. Langdon has three wins already and has flipped between first and second place in the season standings with Tony Schumacher five weeks in a row.
“We just had an off year [last season], my first year with [Al-Anabi Racing Team manager] Alan Johnson,” Langdon said. “He said in the offseason ‘We’re not giving anybody a head start, so we’re going to go after them in the first race.’ And we were fortunate enough to win.”
Now it’s about doing the little things right that have to be experienced firsthand. Different adjustments to the car, how to stay consistent from week to week. Little things like how coming off the line, Langdon used to get back on the throttle too quickly and had to slow himself down. In a dragster capable of 300-plus mph speeds and in a race that lasts only a few seconds, slowing anything goes against every instinct.
“I’d only wait a tenth of a second to get off the gas and get back on it,” he said. “In order for it to settle down, you have to wait three-tenths of a second. So how do you train your mind to slow it down to a tenth of a second?
That’s all stuff, the more seat time you get, you eventually get it.”
As it’s turned out, that’s all Langdon and his team needed: time and experience. It took four seasons of trial and error but the 28-year-old has established a foothold as one of the sport’s biggest competitors.
But then again, maybe that should be expected.
He’s not racing on Sunday to see if he’ll get to eat on Monday anymore. Everything else is only a 330-mile-per-hour walk in the park.
Ryan Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the high school blog at http://www.ohio.com/preps. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/RyanLewisABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.