Cool Hand Lucas

December 17th, 2011

Text by Bill Stephens

Photos by James Drew

Morgan Lucas has it Goin’ on—Everyone chill.

Okay, let’s review how several of the sport’s most popular Top Fuel drivers wound up in the NHRA’s quickest and fastest fraternity.How about Brandon Bernstein?

Having a legend for a dad, Kenny, gave him the DNA that any racer would kill for. BB cut his competitive teeth in the Darien and Meadows A/Fuel dragster, won the Division 7 Top Alcohol Dragster title in 2001, and climbed into his father’s vacant Top Fuel seat in 2003 after the King of Speed called it a career.

Larry Dixon? Similar deal.

His father, Larry Sr., was a terror in the Howard Cams Rattler 40 years ago, and his son jumped right into Don Prudhomme’s empty cockpit in 1995, a year after The Snake turned in his car keys. Larry Jr. was the NHRA Rookie of the Year in 1995, helped along by winning the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals on his first try, and since then has gathered up three Top Fuel world championships.

All right class, how about Tony Schumacher?

A different story for the seven-time champion. Granted, he has a famous drag racing old man, Don, who was a Funny Car team owner and driver in the ‘70s, but Tony didn’t buckle up in a Top Fuel dragster until after he had raced a few door cars and a jet dragster or two. Similar to Dixon, Tony’s first appearance at the U.S. Nationals was notable but ended in a near miss, losing in the final to Cory McClenathan. Save your sympathy. The U.S. Army’s deadliest offensive weapon has won the Big Go—uh, I forget how many times, but it’s a lot.

That brings us to Morgan Lucas. Compared to the previous three examples, Morgan made his way into Top Fuel via a parallel universe. Notice the following contrasts.

His dad Forrest was never a big time racer. Morgan did the Jr. Dragster thing before laboring his way through two years of sportsman racing in Super Comp, unlike his three aforementioned colleagues. And rather than flirting with U.S. Nationals glory in his first visit to the sport’s most esteemed event, he nearly stopped his own clock there in 2002 when he overbraked his Super Comp dragster, clobbered the wall and knocked his lights out. The following year (soaring, triumphant symphony music goes here), Morgan won the U.S. Nationals from the pole in Top Alcohol Dragster and won the Division 7 T/AD title, driving the same Darien and Meadows machine that groomed Brandon Bernstein, not to mention Melanie Troxel and Ashley Force Hood.

But maybe the starkest contrast between Morgan’s Top Fuel cotillion and that of Bernstein, Dixon and Schumacher—and just about every other Top Fuel fledgling in history (except for Gary Scelzi and you’re about to see why)—is that Morgan’s first Top Fuel gig was made available because of the death of another driver.

Darrell Russell was fatally injured in St. Louis in 2004. After his team owner, five-time Top Fuel champion Joe Amato, made the decision to soldier on, he awarded the ride to Morgan, a choice that puzzled some since more experienced men were, at that time, languishing in the talent pool—some with rather hefty credentials.

Of course, Scelzi’s first Top Fuel opportunity presented itself following the tragic loss of Blaine Johnson at the 1996 U.S. Nationals. And in a truly circuitous twist of fate, it was Scelzi who gave Amato the full court press to hire Darrell Russell when Joe found that his retinas were falling off from the negative Gs generated by his drag chutes deploying and implemented his own personal retirement plan at the end of 2000.

Want more circuitously twisted fate? When he was 11, Morgan took in the AAA Finals in Pomona with his father, where a young Top Alcohol Dragster speed merchant was getting rave reviews. Morgan got this driver’s autograph, who then gifted young Lucas with a front wheel from his dragster, which had been pranged. The driver signed it and Morgan got many an autograph from numerous other NHRA stars Sharpied onto that wheel that weekend. The racer who gave him that wheel was Darrell Russell, and to this day it’s one of Morgan’s most cherished keepsakes. “Sell it?” Morgan asks incredulously. “Never.”

Morgan remembers the call he received from Amato’s crew chief, Wayne Dupuy, not long after Darrell’s fatal accident, offering him the job that changed his life.

“Wayne asked me if I was interested in driving for Joe. This was the break I was waiting for. I asked if there was a sponsor, and Wayne said not to worry about that. Wayne reassured me I’d get good training and that Joe knew I could do the job. My dad wanted to be a sponsor on the car and I was really grateful for that. But I remember how Wayne was still hurting from Darrell’s death and that by getting me into the car and getting back to racing, it would be a good distraction for him. I got licensed in Reading [Pennsylvania] and my first race in Top Fuel was in Brainerd [Minnesota].”

Life has a way of putting you where you should be, unless your name is Osama bin Laden. From an early age, Morgan had always pictured himself racing in Top Fuel.

“The first time I ever saw and heard a Top Fuel dragster, I knew that’s what I wanted to race,” he says. “The thunder of the exhaust, the way it shakes your whole body; I was hooked from that moment on.”

He’s done double-duty in the past, racing both his Top Alcohol car and fuel car at the same national event but now devotes all his energies to his nitro whip. Born in Corydon (pronounced COR-a-dun), Indiana, Morgan spent most of his childhood growing up in Riverside, California, horseback riding, playing video games and getting taller and lankier with each passing day. He received his first influential exposure to what drag racing was really all about from Jason Rupert and his family, an accomplished Top Alcohol Dragster team. Jason and Morgan remain good friends and it was Rupert who introduced his pal to a host of NHRA A-listers, while Morgan was still getting his feet wet, such as Ken Meadows (of Darien and Meadows) and Gary Densham.

“The Ruperts taught me how to have fun racing,” says Morgan. “It was addicting and I felt like I was part of something big, like an extended family. Jason was like a big brother and he had a big impact on me.”

Darrell Russell and Gary Scelzi each won in their first pro start (File under: Even more fate that has been circuitously twisted). Morgan, however, did not. In fact, he won his first T/F national event in Atlanta in 2009, five full years after Wayne Dupuy first gave him a buzz. Five years is a long time to wait for that first pro winner’s circle, but we’ll avoid naming names and embarrassing the lengthy list of drivers who have been out there twice as long and still haven’t gone four on Sunday.

Morgan’s first successful final round was anything but an artistic milestone. Facing then-rookie Spencer Massey driving for Don Prudhomme, both cars smoked the tires just after they launched, and following a riotous pedal-palooza, Morgan’s dragster tossed its blower belt and coasted across the stripe ahead of Massey. Hey, a win is a win, especially when it’s your first one as a pro, but watching two enormously powerful Top Fuel Dragsters limp across the finish line—neither under power—is sort of like seeing your elderly grandparents tangle with each other in a UFC cage match.

“I learned a lot about pedaling that day,” reveals Morgan.

The Lucas family is pretty tightly wound, and that’s apparent whenever Morgan rolls up to the line. His father Forrest, the man at the top of Lucas Oil Products, and his mom Charlotte stand behind their youngest kid in their red, white and blue Lucas Oil crew shirts during every one of his qualifying runs and each one of his matchups in eliminations, hoping to see something good happen.

“My parents are great,” raves Morgan. “They’ve worked really hard and have always been there for me. They’ve allowed me to be my own person and let me make a lot of my own decisions, maybe too much so at times. My dad isn’t strict, but he’s not afraid to let me know when I’ve screwed up. I hate getting those lectures, but there’s nothing better than getting a pat on my back from him.

“My mother is the sweetest woman on earth. She’s always watching my back and does everything she can for me. My parents and I have disagreements sometimes like every other family, but we get through them. I sometimes have to remind myself they’re a lot smarter than I think I am.”

Forrest fathered five children from his previous marriage, while Charlotte’s first marriage produced one. Morgan’s half-brother Greg passed away in his sleep from a heart attack at the age of 35. “That was very tough,” the 28-year-old racer recalls. “Something like that really teaches you to appreciate your life.”

Morgan relates these various details of his family history with a casual, matter-of-fact tempo and cadence in his voice. He’s definitely not a drama king and he seems perfectly equipped to go with whatever flow happens to be flowing that day. If you had to sum up his overall biorhythm, you’d perhaps describe it this way: Kick back, Hoss. I’m chillin’ with my major dudes, fly. Cheezin’ in my crib, yo. I’m, like totally wrapped up in my game, clutch.

Morgan Lucas will never wear the label of a stress bucket. Having grown up in consummately laid-back Southern California, he gives you the feeling that if a UFO landed in his front yard and a squad of aliens tried to abduct him, he’d just grab a Diet Pepsi and go with them.

You can’t help but like him. The more you talk to Morgan Lucas, the more you realize he isn’t some prissy, bratty, obnoxious member of the Golden Sperm Club, surfing through life on the rushing headwaters of his parents’ bottom line.

“I know I’m fortunate to be in this position. Lots of people would love to be here and I don’t want to ever take it for granted. I want to be the best that I can be, and that means being aware of my team’s image. We keep our pits clean, our uniforms and race cars clean, and work at being professional out there. My parents have worked their butts off to make all of this possible, and my job is to have my team represent the company. I don’t have an actual position at Lucas Oil (http://www NULL.lucasoil, but the race team is a reflection of our business and that’s my responsibility.”

Morgan and his family believe in the principle of “pay it forward.” Their charity golf tournament on the Thursday before the U.S. Nationals at the Eagle Creek Golf Course in Indianapolis raised $35,000 last year.

“You have to give back and it shouldn’t always be up to the government to help those who need help,” Morgan professes. “We’ve got to help each other stay afloat.”

In the final analysis, there isn’t much Morgan Lucas doesn’t like about his life. How many young men can look up at an NFL stadium and see his family name over the front door? Lucas Oil Stadium (http://www NULL.lucasoilstadium is the home of the Indianapolis Colts, and it will bear the Lucas name until 2029.

“It makes you feel like you’ve made it,” Morgan beams. “I’m proud of my dad for making that deal happen.”

Although not a regular churchgoer, Morgan considers his spiritual home Racers for Christ, the motorsports ministry that lovingly undershepherds a sizable flock from the NHRA community.

“It’s nice to have that concept that someone is up there when you think you’re ready to drop. Some people need that and some people don’t. My mom and dad both believe in God, my mom more than my dad, and I think they’re happy with where they are spiritually right now.”

Yup, being Morgan Lucas doesn’t suck.

“I’m young, I’ve got my health, and I get to enjoy some of my dad’s labors. I’m 28 and I’ve got lots of time. My sponsor, Geico, has been great, and I have to admit there are lots of fun perks in all this. I love drag racing and when I retire from driving someday, if I were to run the family’s company that would be very important. This is my dad’s legacy and someday it may be mine. Lucas Oil has been the most important aspect of my family’s life, and I’ll always be aware of that. There’s still a lot I have to learn about how to run Lucas Oil, but my dad is the best teacher in the world.”

And if that isn’t enough to put a big smile on his kisser, Morgan’s girlfriend Katie Pallone is a dead ringer for a young Heather Locklear.

It’s all good, Dawg.

Tags: , , ,


Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.