Officially, it took just 5.59 seconds for Mendy Fry to become a March Meet Top Fuel champion a year ago at Auto Club Famoso Raceway.
In reality, it took decades and a never-ending commitment to a sport she was weaned on before that quarter-mile run that etched her name in the record books.
“I have to (race), if I don’t my world isn’t right,” said Fry, who begins defense of her title on Friday. “Even though we only go five times a year and then a couple of test sessions, if I don’t have that part of me to look forward too I think I’ll lose myself. It’s such a part of my DNA.”
All was right in Fry’s world last year as she was named driver of the High Speed Motorsports Top Fuel car and opened the season with the win at the March Meet, which concluded on a Monday after rain delayed the finals.
“It went from 20,000 people to 20 on Monday and it did not matter,” Fry said. “I mean, I got done, pulled the chutes, got the car shut off and I start to unlock my belts and I just started bawling. I mean just bawling.
“I’m down there all by myself, not one person around and not only was it my first real Top Fuel competition that I won, but it was the March Meet. The 59th March Meet, which was just overwhelmingly cool. I can’t explain it.”
Her devotion to the sport is easier to explain.
“My dad (Ron) was a chassis builder and engine builder in Northern California, he wanted a son and he got me,” the 48-year old who now resides in Southern California said with a laugh. “Honestly, I think he wanted to have a kid so he would have someone who could work in the shop.
“Most girls have house cleaning chores when they come home from school. I had a list like go pack the wheel bearings on the trailer, take the gears out of the rear end, that kind of stuff.”
With no junior drag racing program at that time, Ron Fry put his daughter in a Quarter Midget when she was 5. Drag racing would have to wait until she was 16.
Well, almost 16.
“I made my first lap in a dragster, a B/Econo dragster, at 15,” she said. “I was supposed to be 16. I got my NHRA (competition) license in the mail two days before I got my California Driver License on my birthday.”
She became the world’s quickest Top Alcohol driver at the age of 18 when she ran at 6.15 seconds in a dragster she built with her father.
“We ran out of money,” Fry said of the Top Alcohol project, which lasted only a couple of years. “We really didn’t have any business competing in that class with how funded we were were, or the lack of funding.”
Fry fared much better in her dad’s 1927 Ford Roadster, which she drove in Super Street races in the late 1980s and into 1990.
“We won every race we went to with that car, with the exception of the last two,” Fry noted.
Fry’s next-to-last race in that car was an eye-opener she said, as they put a blown alcohol motor in the car along with other changes and did not test before a race in Seattle.
“We were having all kinds of problems and I ended up crashing, sliding upside down on my head backwards,” she said. “There were a lot of things that went wrong. That crash actually, I think, saved my life.
“First, I learned if it’s not right to speak your mind and don’t get in it. The second thing I learned is don’t over-drive it. I over-drove it. It’s an amazing point where you think you’ve got it, you think you’ve got it and then you don’t have it.”
Fry moved from Northern California in 1990, got married and went to work in a San Diego chassis shop building race car bodies.
Racing ended up taking a back seat when Fry decided an education was a worthy pursuit.
“I realized I really needed to go to school, that I can’t bend tin for the rest of my life in this chassis shop,” Fry said.
Fry stopped racing around 1994 and her dad died right around the time she finished college in 1995.
A certified public accountant, Fry had little time for racing right after college as she went to work for a major accounting company.
“It was 16 hours a day, an extension of college,” she said. “I just had to focus on that and start my professional career. I basically went seven years without racing.”
Fry was lured back into the sport after attending the March Meet in 2000.
“I knew something was missing from my life but didn’t know what it was,” she said. “It was then I realized this is it, this is what I’m missing.”
Fry quickly landed a ride in Junior Fuel car, then built her own Junior Fuel car before being offered to ride the Master Cam Top Fuel dragster, which was then part of the High Speed Motorsports team.
In 2004, Fry became the first female driver to record a five-second run in a Nostalgia Top Fuel dragster, running 5.81 seconds at 251 mph during the California Hot Rod Reunion at Famoso. The speed earned her the seventh slot in the Nostalgia Top Fuel 250 mph club,
Since then she has driven for several different teams in both Top Fuel and Funny Car.
Both, she sad, are fun to drive and different animals.
“Believe it or not, the Funny Cars are more stable,” she said. “Yes, they have the shorter wheelbase and you have to be on top of that issue. But they have more downforce, bigger tires and once you get past the shift point (they utilize a two-speed transmission) it’s usually going to be good.”
Fry said the smaller tires on a dragster combined with less downforce means they tend to move around a lot more during the final eighth of a mile.
And the biggest difference, she said, comes at night where the header flames (not visible in daylight) in a Top Fuel Dragster envelop the driver.
“The best is your first run at night as a rookie and the header flames are super high,” she said. “The first time it happened to me, I’m like ‘whoa, that’s cool,’ then holy (crap), I’m looking at the header flames. I had no idea where I was on the track. It is amazing the first time. You can never be prepared for that.”
Fry knows she has the car and team to make a run at a second straight March Meet title but she also knows supercharged nitromethane-powered machines are some of the most temperamental beasts on the planet.
“It’s like being in charge of something that (you don’t) have the ability to be in charge of but somehow you are,” she said. “This thing that is just a being of its own. You know, it’s violent but there is a concert about it when it happens right. It’s like you’re in charge of a concert. You’re in this moment and it’s just you in this moment. It gets handed over to you, and now it’s up to you.
“From the moment you hit that throttle, no matter what this thing throws at you, you’ve got to figure it out and you have a very short time to figure it out. And it can do anything. It can make a great run. It can shake your teeth out. It can blow up. It can oil down. The chutes can not come out. There’s a lot of stuff that can go wrong. But when it goes right it could cure cancer.”