- Bill Stephens
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Despite his attempts at dismissing it with sincere humility, Bob Vandergriff could probably be making a very nice living for himself as a professional golfer.
"I'm a scratch golfer," he maintains. "I'd need a lot of practice time to be able to play at the professional level."
But ask any of his friends or business acquaintances who have played a round of golf with the 41-year-old Top Fuel driver and they'll insist he'd need a lot less time than he professes.
But there's no immediate danger of Vandergriff abandoning his racing career to pursue the PGA Tour. After growing up around the hot rodding and drag racing ventures of his father, Bob Sr., in southern California in the 1960s, Vandergriff stubbornly chases major success on the NHRA POWERade trail. As the saying goes, he has paid his dues.
Vandergriff began his Top Fuel career in 1994, was named the NHRA's Rookie of the Year that season, and for seven years earned genuine respect for his driving talent and his ability to land the necessary sponsorship to keep racing. But between 2001 and 2005, funding was only adequate for him to race at a total of 12 national events.
This year, with veteran nitro tuner Jim Dupuy calling the tuning shots, Vandergriff hopes he finally has the kind of competitive operation that will lead to his first career national event win.
Late last year, Vandergriff put his signature to a multi-year sponsorship agreement with the United Parcel Service, a deal that he diligently assembled together and steadfastly nurtured with the international shipping giant. It has already paid measurable dividends for all parties as Vandergriff now has the kind of financial resources needed to race successfully in the NHRA's showcase category and UPS has been named the "Official Shipping Company of the NHRA."
This weekend, at the 26th Summit Racing Southern Nationals at Atlanta Dragway, Vandergriff is riding a wave of adrenaline, knowing that many of his friends from the Atlanta suburb he now calls home, Alpharetta, Ga., and a blue-chip contingent of supporters from UPS -- with corporate headquarters located in Atlanta -- will be in attendance. To capture his first career victory at this race would be quite an achievement.
"This is obviously a big race for us," Vandergriff said, just before qualifying got under way Friday. "I'm excited about being in front of my friends, family and supporters. There is a lot of added pressure, but if we perform well, there is no better place to be than Atlanta Dragway, in front of my hometown sponsor and fans."
Atlanta Dragway has been a home to Vandergriff in many ways. He served as vice president of Atlanta Dragway before embarking on his driving career and that job gave him his first taste of actually racing down the quarter-mile.
"We have made some steps towards performing better and more consistently in the past few races," Vandergriff said. "That should give us the opportunity to be very competitive this weekend and I think we're headed in a direction where that could be a reality. We're all looking forward to bringing home a trophy for everyone that has supported us this year and if that occurs, there will be quite a party in Atlanta."
A party the likes of which you'd never expect to see at the nearest country club.
Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com.
Bob Vandergriff hopes to put on a show for his home crowd, not to mention his Atlanta-based sponsor UPS, writes Bill Stephens.