HOUSTON (March 31) -- It was a brutally hot summer day in 1992 when a scrawny 13-year-old kid from New Orleans donned a cut-down firesuit and one of his father's racing helmets in preparation for his first trip down a drag strip. It was a ...
HOUSTON (March 31) -- It was a brutally hot summer day in 1992 when a scrawny 13-year-old kid from New Orleans donned a cut-down firesuit and one of his father's racing helmets in preparation for his first trip down a drag strip. It was a make-it-or-break-it day for the nervous youngster as he slipped into his five-horsepower, 80-mph Junior Dragster at Houston Raceway Park in Baytown, Texas -- he would either forever scare himself out of the sport he professed to love, or he would excel and prove he belonged.
"I was pretty anxious," he remembers. "I'd grown up watching my dad race and I loved the sport. But then there I was, after a bunch of begging, finally getting a chance to drive by myself. I was thinking that I'd better not screw up or I'd be done."
The young man didn't screw up. In fact, he surprised everyone in attendance by winning the event outright, surviving four rounds of extremely close elimination racing. "I'll never forget that day for the rest of my life," he said. "It was the first trophy I had ever won."
Four years later, with his real driver's license still gleaming and unscathed in his wallet, Richie "The Kid" Stevens pulled on a tailor-made firesuit and freshly-painted custom helmet and climbed into his 1,200-horsepower, 200-mph Pro Stock car in preparation for his first professional-level race. By coincidence, he found himself staring down the same quarter-mile strip that he had cut his racing teeth on four years ago.
"Everything I've done in racing, I did it first at Houston Raceway Park," Stevens said. "In my opinion it's the best track on the circuit. It's also the closest one to home so I always have a bunch of support. Plus, it's always been my lucky track."
Lucky indeed. Stevens used that first professional race in Houston -- in which he finished as runner-up to his driving mentor Roy Hill - to springboard into a racing career that has since grown at a meteoric rate. In his first full season as a pro, Stevens elected to get some experience on the International Hot Rod Association circuit where he promptly logged his first professional win and set a new IHRA Pro Stock elapsed time record of 6.711 seconds at 205.10 mph. He went on win the 1996 IHRA Rookie of the Year honors finishing seventh overall in the points standings. The next year would bring even greater success as Stevens earned another major win and finished third overall in the IHRA series points standings.
The switch to the elite ranks of the National Hot Rod Association was inevitable and in 1998 Stevens joined the Collins Racing organization as their No. 2 driver. Ten months later, he won his first NHRA event at the prestigious Winston Finals in Pomona, Calif., becoming the youngest champion in the history of drag racing. His 17 elimination round wins in 1998 earned him ninth place in the Winston championship points standings and he narrowly missed being named Rookie of the Year.
Now a new racing season and a fresh start as co-owner of his own racing program brings the 20-year-old from Louisiana back to his racing birthplace on April 8-11 for the 12th Annual O'Reilly Nationals sponsored by Pennzoil.
"I've had a lot of firsts at Houston Raceway Park," Stevens said. "I'd like to add my first national event win of 1999 and first win for our new sponsor Valspar Refinish to the list. We're coming off a good showing in Gainesville (Fla.) where we qualified well and ran well until Warren (Johnson) beat us by resetting both ends of the national record against us. But we didn't break anything and the car is in top shape. It's running really strong.
"We usually do well in Houston so I'm looking for a win. And don't forget, it's my lucky track."