- Bill Stephens
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There was a time when Jerry Toliver was every other Funny Car driver's worst nightmare -- including 14-time POWERade champion John Force.
Toliver had it all: a well-funded, multicar team with great personnel, a world-renowned sponsor in the WWF, a brash, boastful persona that made for entertaining and memorable interviews, and a realistic shot at winning the NHRA's Funny Car title.
But that feels like a very long time ago.
After his WWF deal vanished in 2002, Toliver literally disappeared from the NHRA scene as he worked around the clock to pull together a new sponsorship package that would put him back into the drag racing footlights.
He briefly landed a primary agreement with Schick in 2004, but by season's end, he was shopping for yet another corporate partner.
"Those were some tough times," said Toliver, now a member of Don Schumacher's immense four-car F/C outfit, driving the Rockstar Energy Drink Dodge Charger.
"But if you want to race out here, those are the things you learn to overcome. If you quit or begin to doubt yourself, you'll never be a champion, and that's something I learned a long time ago."
Toliver's racing roots go back to the 1950s and '60s as nephew of the Chrisman brothers, Art and Jack, who were two of the earliest West Coast stars of the sport.
Toliver raced drag boats before jumping into the NHRA's nitro ranks in 1997 when he bought the entire Funny Car operation of Gary Clapshaw. His early exploits in the category were humble at best as he cobbled together short-term sponsorships with the publishers of Mad magazine and DC Comics before hitting real paydirt with the WWF in 1999.
With Jim Epler handling a second team car, followed briefly by a third driven by Tony Bartone, Toliver was now a threat to win any national event, especially with the tuning expertise of the legendary Dale Armstrong, who had resigned from Kenny Bernstein's "Budweiser King" Top Fuel team in 1998.
Toliver finished a career-best third in points in 2000 thanks to three national event wins, but the ride was soon to turn rocky for the 57-year-old racer.
"There's nothing worse for a drag racer than sitting on the sidelines, especially after enjoying the success that we had for a couple of years," he said. "Looking for a sponsorship deal is hard work and I can tell you that driving the race car is a heck of a lot more fun.
"We're really happy with the relationship we have with the people at Rockstar and now we have to go out there and deliver for them."
This past weekend at the O'Reilly Summer Nationals in Topeka, Kan., Toliver broke through for his first round win of 2008 after some serious performance struggles in the first eight races of the season.
While he was beaten in Round 2 by points leader Tim Wilkerson by two-hundreths of a second, Toliver took that first round win as a symbolic indication that his fortunes may be on the upswing as the 2008 POWERade regular season reached its halfway point.
"It was extremely big to win that first round," said Toliver, who moved up one spot to 16th in the points standings. "Round wins are so important and they're so difficult to get because the competition is incredibly tough.
"The team came together this weekend. We lost the second round by a very small margin. But we go into the next race with our heads a lot higher. We needed that round win. That was a big, big deal for this team."
Big deals used to be a common occurrence for Toliver, who is working his way back into the upper echelon of the NHRA's Funny Car elite. It has been a swooping, swerving, unpredictable ride for the durable driver who learned long ago that quitters never win and winners never quit.
And that ride has been anything but boring.
Bill Stephens covers the NHRA for ESPN.com.