- Bill Stephens
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It was a month ago, almost to the day, that the motorsports world was rallying around Danica Patrick in the wake of her first career IRL victory in Motegi, Japan. A week later, it was Ashley Force energizing the women's movement in major league racing with her breakthrough Funny Car win in Atlanta. And while all the hysteria was reverberating through the racing and mainstream media, Melanie Troxel was feeling a little left out.
Troxel's stubborn heroics and unbending determination all paid off in Bristol, Tenn., on Sunday after she outdrove the competition, outlasted the persistent rain and outmaneuvered her season-long slump to make an historic contribution of her own to the NHRA archives. While Ashley Force will get due credit for becoming the NHRA's first female Funny Car winner, Troxel will forever be remembered as the first of her gender to win national events in both Top Fuel and Funny Car.
Prior to Sunday's final-round victory over rookie Mike Neff, Troxel had failed to rack up a single round win in seven races and had agonized through four DNQs. Even her path to that long-awaited F/C event title provided several unsettling speed bumps, especially during her first-round encounter with defending POWERade champion Tony Pedregon. Intermittent rain showers gave NHRA officials fits throughout the day, and when Troxel and Pedregon were rolling to the starting line, things became unusually herky-jerky.
"It was crazy out there," Troxel said after she and Pedregon twice did burnouts only to be shut off by rain. "I think I was in the car five times and did three burnouts. I'd never seen anything like that happen before."
Her semifinal matchup was another nerve-wracking experience as she faced her only female adversary in the category, Ashley Force. With the Bristol Dragway crowd all on its feet, Troxel got past Force for her third round win of '08 and the right to face Neff in the Thunder Valley Nationals final.
And even that concluding chapter of the event -- delayed by rain until after 10 p.m. -- was anything but a textbook drag race. Neff's team had some difficulty securing the body of his Old Spice Mustang prior to staging the car. There was a last-second flurry of activity in Neff's lane as Troxel maintained her concentration as she moved to the starting line.
"You just try to keep your cool when he was having problems," she said. "The only thing that crossed my mind at the time was that I don't want to win this way. I didn't want them to shut him off. I was glad we were both able to get up there and run."
When both cars finally staged and got the green, Neff 's Mustang suffered an engine explosion at around 400 feet as Melanie deftly pedaled her ProCare RX Dodge down her lane, keeping it under power to a 5.066-second, 310.27 mph victory. Her team owner, Mike Ashley, was ecstatic to see his driver win the event, make history and put the disappointments of the previous seven races behind her.
"Melanie never doubted herself even when the team was fighting against all of those problems we were having," said Ashley. "That's what makes her such a great driver and why we believe this isn't the last time we'll be celebrating a win this year."
Troxel now joins a rather elite group of NHRA racers who have won national events in both Top Fuel and Funny Car, all of whom are men. The list includes Kenny Bernstein, Don "The Snake" Prudhomme, Frank Hawley, Mike Dunn -- and Melanie's husband, Tommy Johnson Jr.
But for Troxel, the real magic is to be found in finally feeling there is a brighter outlook for her team in 2008.
"Nobody likes to lose," she said. "The real excitement for me is the feeling I get when I come to the starting line and know I can beat whoever is in the other lane. When you bring any doubts up there, it's like you almost expect to lose and that's what usually happens.
"Winning gives you confidence, and now we have a lot more than we did."
Bill Stephens covers the NHRA for ESPN.com.
Melanie Troxel was feeling a little left out because Danica Patrick and Ashley Force stole the spotlight. Not any longer. Troxel joined an elite group herself with her historic pass at Bristol Dragway, writes Bill Stephens.