For NHRA’s Shawn Langdon, zMAX Dragway Is Site of Some Life-Changing History

·10 min read
Photo credit: Icon Sportswire - Getty Images
Photo credit: Icon Sportswire - Getty Images
  • Kalitta Motorsports racer Shawn Langdon earned his first NHRA pro trophy, in the Top Fuel class, at zMAX Dragway in Charlotte, N.C., in the fall of 2012,

  • The Funny Car breakthrough came just two weeks after Langdon promised a Wally trophy to his father, Chad Langdon, who was overcoming cancer and recuperating from a liver transplant.

  • Langdon and Del Worsham are the only drivers to win in both NHRA Top Fuel and Funny Car at zMAX Dragway.

In some regards, Shawn Langdon’s drag-racing career has been a blur of milestones and memories. But zMAX Dragway has been a major factor, in both tumult and triumph, for the DHL Toyota Dragster driver for Kalitta Motorsports.

As the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series prepares for this weekend’s NGK NTK Four-Wide Nationals there in the Charlotte suburb of Concord, N.C. on May 14-16, NHRA’s first visit since October 2019, Langdon is hoping to recapture some of its magic.

He earned his first pro trophy, in the Top Fuel class, at zMAX Dragway in the fall of 2012, igniting what he called “a pretty big tear” the following year. In 2013, he won seven races in 10 final rounds and led the starting lineup seven times, earned $100,000 in the Traxxas Shootout bonus race, dominated at the U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis, and commanded the Countdown for the Top Fuel championship (his fourth title, counting his 1997 Jr. Dragster and 2007-08 Super Comp crowns).

If zMAX Dragway put Langdon on the map in 2012, it vaulted him into the record book in 2019. That’s when he earned his first Funny Car victory there. With that, he became one of just 17 drivers to win in both nitro categories. More important for him personally was that his Funny Car breakthrough came just two weeks after he promised a Wally trophy to his father, Chad Langdon, who was overcoming cancer and recuperating from a liver transplant at nearby Duke University Medical Center.

Photo credit: Mark Rebilas
Photo credit: Mark Rebilas

With his father well on the mend and his blinders on for another four-wide victory and a second Top Fuel championship, Langdon sorted out his fond relationship with the venue he calls “one of the best facilities we have on our schedule, if not the best” and owner Bruton Smith calls “the Bellagio of dragstrips.”

Langdon said he remembers that first Charlotte victory as a whirlwind.

“The only memory that was as the day progressed, I remember we ran at night and I was running against Tony Schumacher in the final. At that point, I thought it was pretty cool to be in a final round against Tony Schumacher and the next thing I know we get a win light,” Langdon said. “I am doing my top-end interview, and then I am being taken to the media center for interviews. We are doing winner-circle pictures, and the next thing I know I am sitting in my hotel room thinking, ‘Wow, that went pretty quick.’

“After that, the advice I give to a lot of the younger drivers is when they do get their first victory is to savor the moment. You are getting dragged around in a hundred different directions. You don’t really get time to just sit back and appreciate where you are, standing in the winners' circle. You have cameras and you are taking pictures with different hats, and you are getting your picture with different people. It all goes so fast. It is definitely a good feeling.”

For Langdon, it seemed like a long time coming. And when he arrived in North Carolina, all he was thinking about was sloughing off that burden of needing a first success in a dragster.

Photo credit: Jason Zindroski
Photo credit: Jason Zindroski

“My first three seasons with Lucas Oil and Morgan Lucas Racing, I had a few runner-up finishes from 2009-2011 (four)," Langdon said. "When I got the phone call from (team owner) Alan Johnson and the job opportunity to race for Al Anabi Racing, the focus was to go over there and set up a team to race for a championship. We had the mentality of not if, but when, that first win would happen. We struggled for a majority of the year, and heading into Charlotte, at that point I was really just focused on not getting wrapped up in the questions of why we weren’t winning. I just really tried to block everything out and not focus on why we weren’t winning. I knew it was coming, and I knew I had to be patient.

“That weekend in Charlotte was kind of a perfect weekend. We were able to get our first win at the end of 2012 season, and the following year we went on a pretty big tear,” he said.

His second highlight at zMAX Dragway was laced with even more emotion.

Chad Langdon, a Super Gas/Super Comp sportsman-level racer, finally had a healthy new liver after his cancer diagnosis, more than a year of roller-coaster transplant teases and disappointments, and a cross-country move with wife Sherry for uncertain daily life in a travel trailer. And by that time, Shawn Langdon, who makes his living driving for three-to-four-second bursts at a time, was road-weary, having spent hours on the interstate highways that made him feel more like a long-haul trucker than a Funny Car competitor.

Following the 2019 Gatornationals at Florida, Langdon was on his way from a buddy’s shop in Alabama to a bracket race in Tennessee. He was about five miles from the racetrack when he received the call that his father finally was scheduled to be the primary recipient of a replacement liver. Langdon immediately turned the truck and trailer around, drove back to the shop to drop off the racing equipment, then headed on the 11-hour trip to North Carolina. He arrived at 5:30 that Friday morning and stayed in Durham until Tuesday, then drove another 12 hours home to Danville, Ind., and flew to Las Vegas Thursday for another four-wide event. He didn’t win that race or the following one, at Houston. But when he got to Charlotte, he was able to deliver on his promise.

“That was a moment in time where my dad was out in North Carolina and he had just had his liver transplant from cancer. I remember being out with him the days before the event, and the last thing he said to me before I left was, ‘Go win it for me.’ And I said ‘OK,’ and the next thing you know, I won the race,” Shawn Langdon said. “Some questioned me when I got out of the car for not really showing any emotion. They said I just hopped out of the car and didn’t even look excited. At that moment in time, it was kind of a big feat for me and I was just kind of fighting back so many emotions at that moment. It was definitely an emotional win.”

Langdon has something that was better than a Wally statue. (Today he has 17 of them, 15 in Top Fuel.) He has his dad back and has made a commitment to being an organ donor.

After knowing his dad was in the medical winners circle that spring, he said, “To go into the ICU room and see him hooked up to all these machines . . . That moment kind of hit me how just how crazy all this stuff is, how fragile life really is. You kind of looked at your dad as an invincible person, the person who has shown you the way of life, and to see him in a situation like that, it just hit me so hard. I mean, his body was healthy, but his liver was failing. And somebody out there was an organ donor and saved my dad’s life. It just really hit me at that moment that I needed to become an organ donor. It was always something that I felt was an awesome thing to do, but I think it really hits you when it’s your family.

“For my dad, it saved his life," Langdon said. "He’s a very healthy individual. He just had a bad liver. I hope that I would be able to do for somebody else what somebody else was able to do for my dad. And that was to save his life. This kind of stuff is really difficult to talk about. If there’s one or two people who can read this story and know that if you become an organ donor, you can save somebody’s life, if we can inspire somebody to do that . . . I know the impact it had on my family. That was the first thing my dad said after he woke up: ‘I have a second chance at life.’ It takes you five minutes to save somebody else’s life."

Photo credit: Jason Zindroski/Rebilas Photography, courtesy of Toyota Racing
Photo credit: Jason Zindroski/Rebilas Photography, courtesy of Toyota Racing

These days, Chad Langdon “is doing great. He is active,” his son said. “He is currently helping on my nephew Caden’s (Caden Casner’s) Jr. Dragster in California. He helps with the maintenance and helps them run the car. He is out at the races with Cayden quite a lot.”

It wasn’t until later that Langdon digested his double-nitro accomplishment.

“The thought of that never went through my mind, because at the time I was just happy to have a job driving,” he said. “I was offered an opportunity that the organization felt was best for the team to move me over to Funny Car. I was able to make that move after Alexis DeJoria stepped away from racing and we were able to bring in Richie Crampton to drive the other Top Fuel dragster. My move to Funny Car wasn’t to get in any stat books. It was more of what is best for the team. Along the way, we were able to have some success in the class. (He won two Funny Car races.) It is very rewarding and gratifying to be able to get your name added to certain stats with drivers I grew up idolizing and heroes of mine as a kid. My focus was I just wanted to go out there and do the best job I could on every run.”

He has another Charlotte distinction. He and Del Worsham are the only drivers to win in both Top Fuel and Funny Car at zMAX Dragway. Worsham was his Funny Car crew chief.

“I am grateful to have the opportunity to have joined him on that list,” Langdon said. “Del has been around the sport for a long time, and he is one of the most accomplished racers. He is one of the best talents behind the wheel. I was fortunate enough to work with him when I was driving Funny Car when he was the crew chief with Nicky Boninfante. Just to be able to pick his brain and have him on my side was a huge added bonus for me when I was making that transition. He was great to talk [with] about runs after the fact, since he understood what I was saying from the driver’s perspective. He got it. We were a pretty good combination.”

Today, Worsham co-owns De Joria’s Toyota and will be trying to deny Langdon yet another piece of zMAX Dragway history: being the first to score back-to-back pro victories in two different classes.

Langdon is third in the Top Fuel standings behind Steve Torrence and Antron Brown.

“We are in contention," Langdon said. "We are right behind Steve Torrence, who has been dominant the last couple of years, and one of the most dominant combinations over the last decade in Antron Brown and Brian Corradi. We are up in the mix with them. We still haven’t won a race yet. I feel like we are there and we definitely have an opportunity. Everything just needs to fall our way, and I really feel like we have a DHL Toyota dragster that can race for wins. We are looking to be racing for a championship at the end of the year.”

And it all could start at zMAX Dragway.

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