Five-Time World Champ Jimmy DeFrank Humbled by Success, Grateful to Continue Racing Journey
Last season's NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series was another to remember for Super Stock racer Jimmy DeFrank, and he is more eager than ever to jump into a whole new year of doing what he loves. The pilot of the DeFrank & Sons Racing Chevrolet Cobalt accumulated a large amount of points towards the big trophy last year, and in the end, he and his team scored their fifth Super Stock world championship and 13th overall division title. In total, the Chatsworth, California-based racer heads into the 2017 season with 19 national event titles on his scorecard and 45 division wins.
At the heart of DeFrank's team is a small but powerful group – he and his father, Jim DeFrank Sr., and longtime Crew Chief Davey Allison. The '10 Cobalt that flies the colors of California Car Cover, California Car Duster, and Golden Shine Car Care, brought in a total of 681 points through their combined efforts last season, and DeFrank was 88 marks ahead of his closest competitor at final tally. The team dreams of the opportunity to repeat, but they are acutely aware that they must continue to learn and grow if another Lucas Oil championship is in the cards.
A Strong Start
Victory at the season-opening NHRA Winternationals in Pomona paved the way for their 2016 charge, and DeFrank's eight claimed races for the year included trophies earned at division events in Fontana, Calif.; and Woodburn, Ore.; final rounds at the earlier Woodburn event and Sonoma national; a trip to the semifinals at both the Phoenix divisional and the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis; and a quarterfinals finish at the spring Las Vegas division race.
Pomona has long been a favored race for DeFrank, a Southern California native who scored the very first win of his career at the NHRA Finals at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona in 1995, the season in which he made his debut as a Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series competitor. In 2016, DeFrank earned his fifth Winternationals trophy with a final-round defeat of Fred Moreno.
"I truly believe that the first race did set the tone for us in 2016," said DeFrank. "It's always – well, at least it is in most cases – important to have a national event win when looking towards a national championship. At that time, we weren't necessarily thinking about a championship, but that race did end up being a key factor. We always look forward to Pomona, and 2017 won't be any different. That first race comes with less pressure than the rest, actually. We're nervous and just trying to get back into the swing of things, but it's not a points crunch. Towards the end of the season is where you start to feel the pressure."
The 2017 season will mark the 20th anniversary of DeFrank's first Super Stock national championship, and the veteran driver will readily admit that no year in racing is perfect. He stresses the importance, though, of learning not to beat yourself up when you stumble and instead challenge yourself to do better the next time.
"This past season I made some mistakes in Boise, Idaho, at the Division 6 event, and then again at the Woodburn Division 6 race in July. I lost focus in a terrible fashion in Boise second round and in the final at Woodburn. I was late with .060 lights, and I was very mad at myself and worried that those two instances may cost us dearly in the big picture. As a team, though, we immediately put those races behind us and did not dwell on them. We just moved on to the next event, and I think that was very important.
"After we wrapped up the championship, I struggled again. I let the fire die down some, and that was absolutely a terrible thing to let happen. I was relieved that the points chase was over, and I did not give 100% at the last couple of races. That is not acceptable, and if I'm fortunate enough to win another championship in this way, I won't let it happen again."
Stopped in Sonoma
After starting the season with a win at the Winternationals, DeFrank had a milestone ahead of him. The Pomona victory was the 19th national event win of his career, and No. 20 was within reach. This past summer brought about a near miss at another favorite race for DeFrank, the NHRA Sonoma Nationals. There, DeFrank has three times visited the winner's circle at the national level, and in 2016 he was charging towards another but fouled out in the final round.
"I struggled getting a good light in Sonoma, and then I pushed too hard in the final and it bit us," admitted DeFrank. "It was my fault, but as a team we put it behind us and moved on to Indy. We felt thankful to even make it to the final round in Sonoma, and we lost to a good friend and one of the best drivers, Justin Lamb – so we were not upset. I was thankful for those 84 points and another great race at a great racetrack. We knew that race would be a keeper, but again, we left there hoping that losing that final wasn't going to cost us in the big picture."
Adrenaline at Indy
The annual U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis is the most anticipated race on the NHRA tour for both class and national event eliminations. DeFrank was honored to win the main event trophy in 2010 and score a final-round finish in 2015, and this past season, he left with the SS/BS class title and locked into a semifinals finish during eliminations on Monday to bring home even more points towards the championship.
"Indy is so exciting, and it is so special for Stock and Super Stock. It is the race that my dad always looks forward to more than any other the entire season," said DeFrank. "It is our vacation, and we truly enjoy it as racers and NHRA drag racing fans. Indy is a race you work for all year long, to make your cars fast, and to also try to drive your best. We were very excited to win class as there were some great competitors in SS/BS with us, and then to make it to the semifinals in the big race was huge. We were let down to not make it to the final or win the race, but when we stopped and looked at the situation, we were thankful for those 83 points. As I said before, we learned this year to put those disappointments behind us and move right along to focusing on the next event. That, in itself, was a big deal for us."
Cashing in at The Strip
The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway is another racetrack filled with memorable moments for DeFrank. Las Vegas is where he scored the second national event double of his career with 2015 victories in Stock and Super Stock at the spring race. In all, the CEO of California Car Cover has reached six Las Vegas national event finals and has three national wins at the racetrack situated just outside of the glittering lights of one of the most infamous cities on the planet. It is also where he has finalized more than one championship, and in 2016, it was again where the final results were determined.
"Just like it was in 2009 and 2012, the championship was decided in Las Vegas," said DeFrank. "To tell you the truth, I was shocked when we finally sewed it up. I couldn't believe it, and I'm still not sure it's completely sunk in. We are beyond thankful that we were able to hang onto this championship and even get to race at all. I was nervous throughout the weekend, but I knew that we did try our best and that we still had a couple of races left to gain points if we needed to. When it was finally over and we had won, we were all so relieved and excited.
"I was actually sitting in the RFC [Racers for Christ] church service on Sunday morning when our competitors were racing in Las Vegas and Rockingham, and my dad came into church and told me. Yes, he did stay for the rest of the service, and it was the perfect place to be since we felt so blessed.
"I was very humbled to get to win this championship and stay ahead of some truly terrific racers. All the racers in the top 10 were equal, in my opinion, and we were just fortunate to make some good runs and get the breaks when we needed them."
The Game Plan
The DeFrank & Sons Racing team took a different approach to 2016, and that, says DeFrank, was a major contributing factor to the outcome of their efforts.
"This season was different in that we only ran one car," said DeFrank, who has regularly raced in two categories on the NHRA tour, hopping between his trusty Super Stock Cobalt and the team's Stock Eliminator '69 Camaro. Although the two-cars/one-driver formula has brought measurable success, including two national event doubles (the Las Vegas double-up in 2015 as well as a two-trophy finish at the Winternationals in 2013), DeFrank felt it was necessary to scale back and zero in.
"At the end of the 2015 season, I was a touch let down because we struggled during the last handful of races in both Stock and Super Stock," said DeFrank, who has claimed a total of four national wins in Stock Eliminator and 15 in Super Stock. "We were rushing around a lot to make runs in qualifying and eliminations, and that seemed to take away from our performance. It was like we had 90% attention on each car instead of 100%, and we started this past year determined to devote all of our efforts to one car.
"That's similar to my business personality as well; I like to focus on one task at a time and then move on to the next. Many great NHRA champions will most likely disagree with me, but I prefer racing just one car. It gives me more time to look at everything and make those important decisions. Thankfully, my dad and Davey went along with that line of thinking, and it actually went okay in 2016. I have no idea if it will ever work again, but I think that we would all agree that it worked this time.
"I have to give credit to my dad and our crew chief, Davey Allison. They worked so, so hard to realize this goal and dream. We race in an equal three parts as a team, and we all won this together with equal effort and focus. We three have raced together since the first time I went down the track in 1995. We also focused on just one car when we went after championships in 2009 and then in 2012 towards the end of the season. I remember our friend, Jeg Coughlin, going down to one car and focusing on Pro Stock in a couple of his championship seasons, and it worked well for him. So thank you, Jeg, for that great example."
In Good Company
DeFrank is just the second driver in the history of the class to win five Lucas Oil Series Super Stock championships; Northeast rival and friend Peter Biondo was the first to accomplish the feat with his fifth Super Stock title earned in 2014.
"I am so honored to be mentioned alongside my friend Peter Biondo, because of both the person and the racing champion that he is. Peter is truly the best in our sport, yet he still takes time to guide his friends along the way," said DeFrank, who finished No. 2 to Biondo in 2014 and battled against him for the title in 2000, 2001, 2006, and 2007, finishing not far behind his pal each time.
Division 7 Driver of the Year
At the conclusion of the season and in addition to achieving the Super Stock national title, DeFrank was awarded the Division 7 Super Stock crown and was honored as the division's Driver of the Year.
"I was very humbled and honored to receive that award, and it meant a lot to me for Division 7 Director Mike Rice, his staff, and our peers to present that to our team," said DeFrank. "That award wasn't just for me – it was for my dad and Davey, too, because we put those round wins and race wins together as a team. We lose together and we win together, but we always have fun. I was proud to clinch a national championship for Division 7, and I hope that our division can win another one in 2017 in at least one category."
The only time DeFrank's Stock Eliminator '69 Camaro saw the light of day in 2016 was when friend Jeff Adkinson wheeled it at the final national event of the year. This season, at least tentatively, DeFrank has other plans.
"I'm hoping that my brother, Tony, will join us for a few races this year," said DeFrank, who raced with his brother frequently in the early years of his career and trailed him by just one position in Super Stock points in both 2002 and 2003. In 2005, the brothers squared off in the final round at the Sonoma national event with Jimmy taking the win. Tony has six Super Stock victories in 10 final rounds and was undefeated in final round performances from 1993 to 2003.
"Other than hopefully seeing my brother wheel the Stocker here and there, we haven't made any solid plans for 2017," DeFrank continued. "We will probably race both cars, but we'll try to trade off races with them so we are only racing one per event. It's still open for discussion, though.
"Right now, I'm just grateful for what we've been able to accomplish. When I was standing up there on the stage at the banquet, I was still in shock. This is a very special feeling, and it is truly an honor. I always dreamed of winning a championship, and now to be able to say we've won five – it just does not even seem real. I am so very thankful to get to live these dreams and to do so alongside my family and friends."
Jimmy DeFrank's Five Keys to Championship No. 5
1. Tons of prayer power by all of us
2. Teamwork in equal parts and with equal focus between myself, my dad Jim, and our Crew Chief Davey Allison
3. When something bad happened, we thought about it, learned from it, then immediately put it behind us
4. Getting the breaks when we needed them
5. Strong focus and desire on racing, and expanding that focus and desire to the big picture of a championship when it became a possibility
Five Goals for 2017 and beyond
1. Have fun with family and friends
2. Chip away at the performance of our cars
3. Continue to learn consistency in driving style and with the runs we make
4. Get my brother, Tony, to some races
5. Win more races if we have the chance
"First, I have to thank God for the opportunity to be part of such a wonderful and loving family that even has the opportunity to race," said DeFrank. "I'd like to thank my mom Loraine, for her love and prayer support; my dad Jim, who leads our race team, is very detailed with every single racing item, and makes all the big decision behind the scenes and at the track; my brother Tony, for his love and encouragement, for watching all business activities at California Car Cover when we are away, and for teasing me so bad when I lose that it makes me try harder the next race; our Crew Chief Davey Allison, for everything he does to help us be at the races and win – he did the best job he has ever done this year, and it showed as we all won this championship together; my mentor Jeff Taylor, who has been helping us win since I first started and has taught me so much – I don't think we would have won this many races or championships if Jeff wasn't in our lives; Tom Kerr; Steve Decker; Wally Bose; Bo Butner; Randi Lyn Shipp; Jeff Adkinson; Willie Evans; Jeg Coughlin; Kyle Seipel; Peter Biondo; Justin Lamb; and every person at Racers for Christ."
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DeFrank also thanks his sponsors, including California Car Cover Co., California Car Duster Co., Golden Shine Car Care, K&N, Red Line Oil, Phoenix Tires, RFC, Jeg's, Jim Butner Auto, CFE, Pro Trans, Comp Cams, Jeff Taylor Performance, VP Race Fuels, and Biondo Racing.