Before he took the motorcycle drag racing world by storm by winning an NHRA Full Throttle championship as a rookie in the Pro Stock Motorcycle class, it was apparent that LE Tonglet was destined for greatness. One may have had to dig a little, but all the evidence was there. First of all, Tonglet has spent his entire life, all 20 years of it, at the races, first with his father, Gary, and later with his older brother, GT, who is also a former rookie of the year award winner. Once he finally got a chance to race at age 14, Tonglet proved to be a quick study, winning back to back V-Rod Destroyer Championships in the All Harley Drag Racing Association in 2007 and 2008.
Winning two V-Rod Destroyer titles is one thing, but dominating the highly competitive NHRA Pro Stock class is quite another but somehow, some way, Tonglet was able to author one of the greatest seasons in the history of the NHRA Full Throttle series and was ultimately crowned not just the rookie of the year, but the World Champion, becoming just the third driver in the 59-year history of the series to accomplish that feat. Even now, after taking a couple of weeks to digest all that has happened, Tonglet isn't quite sure exactly what transpired.
"This whole year was all a blur," said Tonglet, who was born Louis Earl, but is known simply as LE to everyone, including his parents and closest friends. "One minute my dad, my brother and I were going to the first race in Gainesville, just hoping to qualify and the next, I'm on a stage in Hollywood, and they're handing me a trophy and a really big check. It still seems like just a dream. I mean, we didn't even plan on running all the races this year. We figured maybe we'd run just the five or six that were closest to home and if we did any good, we might go to one or two more. Honestly, I would have been happy just to make a final or finish in the top 10. A championship? No way did I ever think that would happen to me. Maybe someday, but not this year."
Indeed, when the Tonglet family arrived in Gainesville, Florida, last March for the traditional season-opening Gatornationals, their goals were modest. They simply wanted to qualify for the 16-bike field and collect the $1200 in round money which would enable them to make it to the next two events in Charlotte and Houston, which is close to their Metairie, Louisiana, home.
Early on, Tonglet's results were steady, if not spectacular, but progress became evident when he reached the final round of the fourth-event in Madison, Illinois. Two races later, Tonglet bagged his first win when he defeated veteran Steve Johnson in the final round at Route 66 Raceway in Chicago. Tonglet was making just his eighth appearance in NHRA competition and Johnson was making in his 287th.
With the Chicago win, Tonglet suddenly became the front runner in the battle for the Rookie of the Year award. Perhaps more importantly, his father was hooked, vowing to do whatever was necessary to keep his son on the road for the remainder of the season.
"Winning Chicago was huge," said Tonglet. "We knew we had a good bike and I felt pretty good about my riding. I guess everything just kind of came together all at once. After that race, my dad was hooked. We weren't originally going to go out west for the races in Sonoma, Denver, and Brainerd, but after that, he said, 'Get the bike ready and let's go out there and see what happens.' "
Like most 20-somethings, Tonglet lives a care free existence. His level of concentration isn't impacted by outside distractions and that was evident in his riding as his reaction times ranked among the best in the class. His father, who has raced on a budget his entire career, also knew how to get a lot from a little as the team was able to make due with a very limited parts inventory.
At the Brainerd, Minnesota round, disaster struck as Tonglet blew up the team's only competitive engine in a first round loss to Mike Berry. Deeply in debt and with out as much as a spare head gasket in their trailer, the Tonglet's faced an uncertain future. With the sport's showcase event, the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals, less than two weeks away, Tonglet admitted their prospects for continuing were dim and they pondered their future during the long slow drive from Minnesota to Louisiana.
"After Brainerd, my dad said, 'That's it. We just can't afford to do this anymore,' " Tonglet said. "Even if we had the money to get the engine fixed, we didn't have the money to travel to Indy and spend a week there. We sent the engine back to Vance & Hines to see how badly it was hurt but at that point, it really didn't matter. We were done. I was pretty bummed, but I also thought, 'Hey, I won a race and was in another final so that's a pretty good year no matter what.' I didn't want it to end but if it did, I felt like we'd at least let people know that we were there."
With the help of some close friends, the tide turned quickly as the Tonglet's not only got their engine repaired, but found the funding to get them to Indianapolis, which also happened to be the start of the Countdown to the Championship, NHRA's six-race playoff to determine the season champions. Tongelt began the Countdown as the No. 7 seed, and with the points re-set, he was just 80 points (or four rounds) behind leader Andrew Hines.
What happened next was almost too good to be true. In one fell swoop, Tonglet won the biggest race of the year, earned enough money to get his family out of debt, and move into second place in the points standings, well within striking distance of Hines. If that wasn't' enough, he also signed a sponsor for the remainder of the season when he caught the eye of Kenny Koretsky, the wealthy and flamboyant owner of the Nitro Fish Apparel company and a former sponsor of Matt Smith's Pro Stock Suzuki. Koretsky was sympathetic to Tonglet's plight and opened his wallet to proving backing for the young phenom for the remainder of the season. Before the ink had dried on the contract, Koretsky's investment paid immediate dividends as Tonglet went on an unbelievable tear, backing up his U.S. Nationals victory with two more wins at the next two events in Charlotte and Dallas. As the season entered the final few weeks, Tonglet was locked in a heated battle with Screamin' Eagle Harley-Davidson's Andrew Hines for the series championship.
Despite his incredible tear, Tonglet could not make much of a dent in Hines lead. In all four of his final rounds, the Screamin' Eagle V-Rod was in the other lane. At the penultimate round in Las Vegas, Tonglet hit the jackpot as he won his fifth race of the season. More importantly, Hines lost early in eliminations which trimmed the deficit to just 34 points, equal to less than two rounds of competition.
"When we won in Las Vegas, we knew we had a shot at the championship," Tonglet said. "I was still two rounds behind Andrew, but at least we were still in it. We just tried to make sure the bike was as good as it could be. We just figured that we shouldn't worry about the points because it was really out of our hands. If we went to the final round and Andrew was in the other lane, he was going to win the championship even if we won the race so we just kind of did our own thing."
On the final day of the season, the stars aligned for Tonglet as Hines, incredibly, inexplicably, red-lighted in the opening round of eliminations, losing to Steve Johnson in a race that he should easily have won. For Tonglet, the task was now clear. Win two rounds and win the championship. Seemingly unaffected by the pressure, Tonglet responded with a nearly perfect reaction time in his win over Matt Guidera setting up a must win race against Johnson's Suzuki. With a sizable performance advantage, there was no need for Tonglet to play games. He simply did what he had done all year which was ride a virtually flawless race as he soundly defeated Johnson, who later admitted that he was riding with a wounded engine. By a margin of just four points, Tonglet had become NHRA's youngest ever professional champion.
At the NHRA Champion's banquet the following evening, Tonglet not only collected the championship trophy and Rookie of the Year honors, but his team also ran the table by winning the Full Throttle Hard Working Crew award.
"This is just awesome," Tonglet said. "We were on a tight budget, and thankfully, Kenny Koretsky stepped up at the right time, and we've just been on a roll since Indy. This is huge for my dad because he hasn't won one of these [NHRA championship trophies]. He came close a few times but this one is for him and my brother.
"I guess I always dreamed about winning a championship, but I never really thought it would happen to me, at least not this soon. Even when things weren't going so good, we had a lot of fun this year. I wouldn't trade this for anything in the world."
Now that the dust has settled, Tonglet is already beginning adjust to his new role as a champion and he's starting to think about the 2011 season, when he gets to find out firsthand if defending a championship is indeed more difficult than winning one. He is expected to sign a multi-year contract with Koretsky and the Nitro Fish brand and the Tonglet team is likely to become a two-bike team as GT is expected to return to the tour on a second Vance & Hines powered Suzuki.
"Next year, we're just gonna go out and do the same thing we did this year," Tonglet said. "I don't see why we should feel any pressure. It will be nice to race with my brother. He is the one who helped me keep my head on straight this year. He knows what its like to be a rookie and to race for a championship so he was right there whenever I needed him. Also, with two bikes, we'll have a chance to try out some new ideas which should hopefully help keep us competitive. We've got a lot of work to do but I'm going to enjoy the off-season and by the time Gainesville comes around next March, we'll be ready to go out and try again. I'm not sure if anything could ever top this year but it will be fun to try."