An Unlikely Hero: Bobby Lagana Jr. not your average wheelman At first glance, Top Fuel driver Bobby Lagana Jr. may look like your average drag racing enthusiast. A passionate wheelman who walks, talks, eats and breaths drag racing, Lagana...
An Unlikely Hero: Bobby Lagana Jr. not your average wheelman
At first glance, Top Fuel driver Bobby Lagana Jr. may look like your average drag racing enthusiast.
A passionate wheelman who walks, talks, eats and breaths drag racing, Lagana seems to fit the mold of just about every young driver who feels he can wheel a race car better than anyone in the world.
But try walking up to Lagana at the racetrack, or even on the street, and it doesn't take long to realize that this isn't your average, run-of-the-mill race car driver.
No, Lagana was molded from a different breed of racer, a breed that doesn't just race to live -- they live to race.
"Drag racing, for us, it has built our personalities, it has built our moral values -- it is who we are. A majority of our circle of family and friends, probably around 90 percent, are built around drag racing," Lagana said.
And it is for that reason that Lagana continues to do what he does week in and week out.
Heading up a band of road warriors that make up the small, family-owned Lagana Family Racing, Lagana, his father Bobby Lagana Sr., brother Dom Lagana and their crew travel the country competing in IHRA, NHRA, match races --anything to keep the season going, the car on the track and the family on the road.
"It is funny, I have thought about it so many different times, why do we do this? Why do we put ourselves through so much stress and financial hardship? It all comes down to this -- we are following our dream," Lagana said. "We are doing exactly what makes us happy. Being at the track, staying up late, looking at the track, the cars, the trailers, hanging out with everybody and throwing BS around the table -- that all means a lot to us. That is what keeps us going."
Lagana and his family are a throwback to the old school days of racing, a breed that is quickly dying from the sport.
He would rather leave the corporate appearances and fancy living to the pros, Lagana would rather spend his days at the track working on the car and sitting around telling stories with his family -- both immediate and extended.
"It all depends on what your goals are. If your financial goals are steep then this is definitely not what you want to endeavor. Not even 10 percent of the teams in all of drag racing are actually pulling a decent profit from this. It is mainly for the love of it," Lagana said. "I tell everybody that this is our lifestyle. It allows us to function daily. Our goals in life are actually pretty cheap. We just want to be happy, have a lot of close friends and drag racing allows us to have that."
Part of that lifestyle involves being on the road most of the year and living from town to town, even staying with IHRA officials as the season goes along.
"It is funny, I tell people when we are away from home for a long time everybody is begging for us to come back, but the moment we get back they can't wait for us to get back on the road," Lagana said with a laugh. "We love being on the road. We have so many friends across the whole country that we can meet up with and right now we are pretty much staying with the Weinerts. We have invaded their life; it is like they are our extended family.
"Being on the road is nice, being with friends and following the IHRA tour. We don't mind living in the truck and eating out, buying lunchables and grilling hamburgers. It's what we do."
Lagana and his band of misfits have been following the IHRA tour for 11 years now, racking up four wins and seven runner-up finishes with a career best finish of third coming in the 2006 point standings.
He loves to race and he loves to have fun and right now Lagana feels there is simply nothing else he would rather be doing -- he is living the American dream.
"If only we had a video camera rolling our entire life, we would be millionaires with the reality TV show we could produce," Lagana said. "To be able to accomplish what we have with what we've got and to have the amount of fun we have had doing it, it is indescribable."
And that passion for the sport was learned at a very young age.
Some of Lagana's earliest childhood memories involve being at the track with his father, learning the ins and outs of the sport.
"Our family was brought up around the sport. We have all been working on cars and hanging out at the track ever since we were old enough to walk," Lagana recalled. "I tell most people I was at my first race in my mother's womb."
Through that experience, it didn't take long for Lagana to realize what he wanted to do when he grew up.
"I wanted to race, that is all I ever wanted to do," Lagana said.
So at the age of 18, Lagana made his very first trip down the race track. But like everything else in Lagana's life, he decided to take a different approach to his racing career.
Instead of starting out in one of drag racing's smaller classes and working his way up the ladder, Lagana took a bit of a different approach -- jumping right in to one of the world's fastest vehicles, a Top Fuel dragster.
"That is the car that our family was campaigning at the time and when I got my driver's license my dad said hey, let's go try and get your Top Fuel license," Lagana said.
And he hasn't looked back since.
"We love Top Fuel. Something about the rear wing when the car is shaking, the mechanics of it, the way it looks, the sounds, the noise -- that is our life," Lagana said. "Sure the speed is nice, but the speed is not the addiction for us, it is the car itself. Putting that car together and watching it go down the track, that is what it is all about."
Lagana's very first pass in a race car came in a Top Fuel dragster in 1996 and just one year later Lagana was ready for competition after receiving his Top Fuel license at the age of 19.
Lagana made his first IHRA competition run at Bristol Dragway in the fall of 1997 and spent the rest of that year and the next learning the car and the sport.
But in the summer of 1998, Lagana's dream quickly turned into a nightmare when a serious accident threatened to end his racing career before it ever got started.
Lagana suffered numerous injuries including severed fingers on his right hand when his dragster flew off the end of the track at the '98 Empire Nationals due to a hung throttle.
It was a trying time for the Scarsdale, N.Y. native and his family, especially coming so early in his drag racing career, but Lagana was determined not to let the accident keep him away from the track for long.
"It was difficult because I was injured pretty good. I kept saying that if this is what happened to me on this run, what is going to happen to me on the next run. Is it going to be worse," Lagana said. "There were so many supporters and good friends that it only took me one race to get over what I call the 'heebie jeebies' and since then it has been an unbelievable run for us.
"Ever since that crash it seems like every year has been bigger and better for us."
Lagana was back in his dragster just two months later and, as a testament to his will, returned to the very same track where his accident took place one year later and won his first round of competition.
Later that year Lagana made his very first final round appearance at the North American Nationals at New England Dragway, losing to three-time world champion Paul Romine.
It would be five more years before Lagana would return to an IHRA final following that '99 season, but despite not making any finals during that span, Lagana accomplished something else during that time that he still considers his greatest accomplishment in a race car.
"Back in 2003 we ran our first sub-five second run off of a ramp truck," Lagana said. "Four seconds is something we had always dreamed about, but never thought it would actually happen and it did for us that day. We have four wins, and a couple were pretty emotional, but that four second run means the most to us."
And thus the Lagana legend was born.
Traveling around in a 1969 Ford ramp truck, with the nose of the dragster raised high in the air over the cab of the truck, the Lagana's traveled the country with just enough money and parts to get the car down the track.
Even more interesting, the garage that Lagana kept the dragster in wasn't even large enough to contain the lengthy machine it so he had to install a cat door for the tip of the dragster to stick out.
"That car was outside all of the time, we didn't have any cover. We had to cover it up with plastic, the wheels were hanging over the cab of the truck and that is what we became known as -- the ramp truck boys," Lagana said. "People respected us for that."
One year later Lagana was back in an IHRA final, once again at New England dragway. He would go on to post one more runner-up finish in 2005 before finally breaking through with his first career victory in 2006 at the Canadian Nationals in Grand Bend, Ontario, beating six-time world champion Clay Millican to claim the win.
He got his second victory later that year at the Motor City Nationals, leading to a career best finish of third in the 2006 IHRA point standings.
Since then Lagana has gone on to post two more victories, once more at New England Dragway and another at Maryland International Raceway; an event where he posted the top speed of the weekend at 312 miles per hour, eventually toppling Bruce Litton in the final.
This year, Lagana didn't wait long to reach his first championship round, making the final at the season opening Mardi Gras Nationals against winner Litton.
Along with picking up wins and making deep runs in both of drag racing's top sanctioning bodies, Lagana also accomplished something else he thought would never come to pass -- a second race team.
Lagana recently added a second car, this year driven by Nitro Funny Car veteran Paul Lee, to the stable and has hopes of continuing to grow the Lagana Family Racing stable in the years to come.
Now the only thing left on the checklist for the 31-year-old New York native is to go after the one thing that has eluded him all these years -- a series championship.
"A championship would prove to us that yes, we were that close all these years, we were just a step off. It is the reason we are running race to race like we are," Lagana said.
Lagana will have another chance at gaining points towards a championship in just a few short weeks when he and his team travel to the brand new, all-concrete Dallas Raceway in Crandall, Texas May 29-31 at the Amalie Oil Texas Nationals.
"I can't wait. We are going to come down there early to help pitch in," Lagana said. "I appreciate the owner of the track and his family for making the commitment to the fans, IHRA, the racers and the sponsors. I hope we go down there and put on a great show.
"The place looks incredible and I know we are all excited. It is going to be a lot of fun."
Part of that fun will be traveling to a new market as the IHRA headlines a Dallas event for the first time in over 20 years.
And for Lagana, that just means another chance to add to his growing band of "road warriors" who continue to come out in droves in support of one of racings unlikeliest of heroes.
"Everybody that reads this story played a part in our racing careers somewhere along the way and there are never enough thank yous to the people who have kept us out here," Lagana said. "Anybody is free to stop by our pit, BS with us, hang out and have a good time. We really enjoy the IHRA and this life. I hope we continue to do this for a long time."