We all have limits. Some are physical. Some are mental. And some we simply can't do anything about.

But in most cases, our limits are self-imposed.

Which means many of us give up -- and give up on our dreams -- too soon.

But not drag racer J.R. Todd, the 2018 NHRA Funny Car World Champion.

His first big break came just after high school. He landed a Top Fuel drive. Then the owner's race shop burned down and the team folded. For the next five years J.R. worked as a crew member on other cars.Then, when he did land another driving gig in 2006, sponsorship problems meant it only lasted a year. 

But he kept going: As a driving instructor for a Qatar sheikh. As a crew member for other teams. Driving part-time for anyone that asked. Hustling. Grinding. And never giving up.

And then in 2014, legendary team owner Connie Kalitta called and asked J.R. to fly to a race to qualify one of his Top Fuel cars -- the next day. And he performed so well that Kalitta signed him to a contract that Monday.

Last year he switched from Top Fuel to Funny Cars. And now, J.R. Todd is a World Champion.

As I found out when I talked with J.R., sometimes finishing first means being the last to give up.

Were you ever tempted to give up on racing and get a "real" job?

I did think about packing it in and getting a 9 to 5 job. When you're out of a ride, going to races to stay visible... it's hard to pay your bills when you don't have an income. (Laughs.)

When it comes to that point, it's hard not to give up. Or just to take a step back. The problem is, though, that with motor sports... when you're out of sight you're definitely out of mind.  

So I just kept trying. Shaking as many hands as I could. Driving part time for different teams. Even if I only got to drive one or two races a year, that at least kept me visible and let me keep my license current.

It's hard to show what you do when you can't do it regularly, though.

It's incredibly hard when you only get a couple of shots a year. 

The rhythm of racing week in and week out is awesome. I can focus on making my reaction times better. I can focus on getting even better.

It's a vicious circle that anyone hoping for an opportunity understands. You can't show what people what you can do if you don't get the chance to show it... and it's hard to show your full potential when you don't get to do it regularly.

Like many drivers -- in all aspects of motor sports -- you spend a lot of time on physical and mental conditioning. 

I work with PitFit Training, a fitness facility that caters to race car drivers. A lot of IndyCar drivers go there. They have programs geared specifically for racers.

I do a lot of circuit training to get my heart rate up, and then do reaction time work to simulate being in the car.  When you're on the starting line, your heart rate is naturally higher than normal.

A little like basketball players practicing free throws after doing sprints.​ Shooting free throws when you aren't tired is relatively easy, and I assume keeping your reaction times short is also easier when you're relaxed and not under stress. 

Controlling your breathing, controlling your emotions... that's extremely important. It only makes sense to practice under the same conditions I face when I need to perform at my best.

Some people like to be pumped up. Others like to be calm and cool. I just try to stay calm and focused.

So I train that way.

You switched from Top Fuel to Funny Cars. While to those unfamiliar with the sport that might not seem like a big deal... but that's a huge change.

It definitely took some adjusting. Up until last year I had never driven anything but dragsters. Driving is like riding a bike: You build up habits and reflexes that become second nature... but when I tried to apply all that to Funny Cars, it didn't work. (Laughs.)

Funny Cars require a lot more steering input. They're shorter, they're heavier, it's harder to see with the engine sitting in front... it takes a whole different mindset. Top Fuel dragsters have such a long wheel base you tend to guide them more than steer them. Funny Cars have a short wheel base and you have to be a lot more aggressive in how you control the car.

In a way, going from Top Fuel to Funny Car was like starting over. It took time for my mind to slow down during a run so I could be ahead of the car and not behind. 

How did you deal with the pressure of needing to perform in such an unfamiliar car?

The key was to balance my expectations, and the expectations of others, with what was naturally going to be a transition period.

I really struggled early on. Last year during preseason testing I struggled just to get the car down the track. (Laughs.) I heard the whispers of, "He's not good enough to drive a Funny Car..."  and I just had to prove to myself and everyone else that I was capable.

But it was definitely frustrating, especially in the first few races. I expect a lot of out of myself as a driver. I expect more out of myself than other people expect from me. So it definitely wore on me when it wasn't going well.

Keep in mind it also took time for the team to gel. There were some crew member changes, it took a while for the crew chiefs to get a handle on the tune-up and on me as the driver...

So last year you're maybe "not being good enough to drive a Funny Car" and this year you're contending for a championship. How did you deal with that form of pressure?

(Laughs.) I had never been in a situation where I was competing for a World Championship. When we started the six-race countdown (the NHRA's form of playoffs), we won the first event. That's when I really felt we could make a run for it.

Honestly, though, the only pressure I feel is what I put on myself. So as the playoffs went on, we gave up the points lead for a bit, got it back with one race to go... and that's when I really felt the pressure. Chasing a leader is one thing. Trying not to lose the lead is another. (Laughs.)

It started to get to me. I didn't sleep much the night before. 

Finally I told myself to just enjoy the moment and not let it get too built up in my head. After all, those situations may not come around very often... so why not have fun?

Plus, the ups and downs of my career definitely helped me deal with the pressure. Driving for Kalitta Motorsports... I didn't have to worry about next week. I didn't have to worry about being out of a job. I could just focus on driving the car. 

And prove to Connie (Kalitta) that he made the right decision. 

How did it feel when you won? Many professional athletes tell me they feel a sense of relief rather than elation.

List as many emotions as you want and it was all of the above. (Laughs.)

Actually I don't even know how to explain it. I guess it came down to, "I really am who I said I was going to be." Ever since I was a kid I wanted to be a drag racer. Like every kid, I dreamed of winning a championship. But you never really think you will. (Laughs.) 

Are you a love to win, or hate to lose kind of guy?

I love to win, because that means I've accomplished a major milestone. The Funny Car class is so competitive, any time you win you feel like you've accomplished something special.

Wins don't come along that often. All of us lose a lot more than we win. You know going into it you will lose more than you win. Knowing that helps you deal with the losses... but yeah, for the first hour or so I'm still not real happy about losing. (Laughs.) 

Once you knew you were the champion, did you think about all the years of struggle?

Racing is a tough business. As a driver, there are so many things that are outside your control. The same is true for most people in the sport -- crew members, team owners... it's such a competitive business. You never really know what tomorrow might bring.

Winning the championship, though... that's something no one can ever take away from us. Or from me.

Published on: Dec 19, 2018
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