Recent Four-Wide NHRA Nationals Top Sportsman winner Don O’Neal has been waiting to be called a champion for a long time. However, for what his actual career path had been until he retired, we’d have to call him a champion no matter if he ever held a Wally or not.
You see, O’Neal is one of those individuals we see all over the world who we thank for their service to our country. Unfortunately, O’Neal was also witness to a time when America wasn’t so thankful.
O’Neal’s father was a career Air Force veteran who spent his time in possibly one of the worst wars this country has seen, Vietnam. It was a war fought in the jungles and low-lands in an attempt to unify North and South Vietnam. But what it did was divide our country into people for and against the conflict.
Nonetheless, people like Don’s father did what they had to do and spent time in the service of our country. Unfortunately, we lost a lot of our youth, not only on the battlefield of another country, but also those who came back suffering from diseases contracted while serving. One of those was Don’s father who we lost in 1992 but not before he infected his son with our own kind of disease, drag racing.
“I think it was 1983 when my dad took me to the Springnationals in Ohio,” said O’Neal. “I met Shirley Muldowney and Don Garlits, and from that point I was hooked. I was born in Ohio while Dad was stationed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. When he was discharged, we moved back to North Carolina where I grew up. Baseball and cars were everything to me.”
However. O’Neal’s father was building a ’55 Chevy at the time which must have made more of an impression to young Don than playing baseball. Once out of high school, and with no one knocking on his door to play baseball, O’Neal wanted to enlist in the Air Force, but noting the size of the Air Force, it limited his ability for career advancements. Not so in the Army because of the size of the corps.
“I went in the Army and was schooled as an aviation mechanic,” said O’Neal.
Eventually moving into the recruitment side of the corps with a side of drag racing, O’Neal spent time not only behind the wheel of a dragster, but also explaining the good life of a soldier to many recruits. Now retired after 20-some odd years in service to our country, O’Neal still uses the lessons in his everyday life he learned while in uniform.
Fast forward now to the Four-Wide Nationals in Charlotte. Now behind the wheel of a Top Sportsman car in his third year in the class, it had been five times in the last year that he was unable to get past eight cars in eliminations. This race was different.
“During all of the years in the class,” he said, “I had numerous lessons in finish line driving but I never gave up. The first pass in Charlotte, I made a career best lap but admittingly was a little late getting the ‘chute out. As I’m spinning around in the shutdown area, I still had a smile on my face.”
Fortunate to not hit anything, O’Neal moved on with a new set of Mickey Thompson tires all the way around. The short 16-car field might have looked inviting, but as any racer knows, there was still going to be four tough rounds before anyone was able to hoist the Wally.
“I really don’t have an answer as to why we only had 16 cars there,” he said. “But I do know that this was PDRA country and a lot of Top Sportsman racers know the treatment on that side of the fence is so much better. Maybe that’s why some are reluctant to race under the NHRA banner.”
Nonetheless, with the first two rounds under his belt, his semifinal round opponent was going to be a partner of sorts and former owner of his car, Mark McDonald.
“I was told that Mark was having a problem so I was prepared to wait,” he says. “But when the officials came down and told me it was time to go, as I’ve learned in the service, when you’re told to do something, you do it. I got buckled up in the staging lanes and still no Mark, not knowing what he was up to. When I pulled down in the water box, they told me he was pulling in, so I shut the car off and waited.”
McDonald had yet to suit up and was doing so as his car sat in front of the water box. It was around this time when O’Neal was signaled by officials to get moving. A burnout ensued while McDonald readied himself with the same. “I did my burnout and noticed that Mark hadn’t done so yet, so I took my time,” says O’Neal. “I was not going to let anyone rush us.”
But a too quick red-light by McDonald moved O’Neal into only his second national event final of his career, the first a runner-up showing at the U.S. Nationals in 2010.
Standing in his way was Sandy Wilkins, the No 2 man in world points from 2017, and a multi-time national event winner in his own right. This time though, the win light was on in O’Neal’s lane and the smiling only got bigger.
In the 1991 movie City Slickers, Curly Washburn (Jack Palance) notes the secret of life was one thing, “that’s what you have to figure out.,” as he tells Mitch Robbins (Billy Crystal).
For O’Neal, we believe he’s sort of figured it out. He says, “My Dad would say, ‘when you wake up in the morning and look at yourself in the mirror, it really tells a lot about where and who you are.’ As you grow older in life, are you able to look yourself square in the eye? Are you in a happy place?”
Despite the obvious happiness after his first win, O’Neal seems to be in his “happy place.” The win may be icing on the cake as they say, but in general, his life, both with his wife Diane and daughters Logan, Emily and Claire and of course their pugs, puts a smile on the face in the mirror every morning. Collectively, he and his siblings are preparing to purchase back his father’s ’55 Chevy and that will only make him smile more. As part of Streetway Marketing & Media and Basden’s American RV, O’Neal knows what makes the world go round.
“There are so many people I have to thank,” he says. “I was a little disappointed that there was no return road interview because of the late running of the event. But I promise you, I would not have been short on things to say, people to thank and emotion to display.
“I would not be able to compete at this level without VP Racing Fuels, NGK Spark Plugs, Lucas Oil, Mickey Thompson Tires, Simpson Safety, Racepak, AFCO Racing Products, ATM Innovations, Holley Performance Products, Earls, Diamond Piston, Trend Performance, Nitrous Oxide Systems, Oakley Engine Performance, Carts Gone Wild, Coolshirt, Braille Battery, Modern Welding Company and special thanks to my wife, the Strassweg Family, Marvin and Angela Benoit and Jeffery Barker and each and every person who in my life was a positive supporter of my journey. Thank you to every mentor, military leadership and educator to get me to this point, I hope that I have more to come.”