By RICK PETERSON
It's been a long time since former NHRA Funny Car star Jim Epler has been in Topeka..
"My last year was 2001 and I don't know that I've been back since then,'' Epler said in a phone interview.
But Epler will forever be linked to Heartland Motorsports Park, thanks to one landmark achievement on Oct. 3, 1993 when he raced down the quarter-mile stripe in 300.40 miles per hour, becoming the first driver in NHRA Funny Car history to top the 300-MPH mark.
"That was a magical time,'' said Epler, who is back in Topeka this weekend for the Menards NHRA Nationals..
Like most drag racers, Epler's said his main focus as a driver was on elapsed time, but he is proud to wear the mantle of Mr. 300 nearly three decades later.
"It was funny because back in the day when we did that, I know it was a huge deal, but drag racers are all about ET and of course being the first in the 4s was a big deal back then and that's what we were all shooting for and 300 was cool to do but races are won by ET,'' said Epler, who also eclipsed the 4-second mark in the '93 HMP race.
"But I will tell you this, the general public is certainly more knowledgeable and more in tune to speed than they are to ET, no question, and to this day to be called Mr. 300 and be the first over 300 has made an impact on my life forever since that happened.''
Epler, who got his start in boat racing before switching to NHRA, posted five national-event Funny Car wins, including the 2000 U.S. Nationals, while advancing to 14 final-round appearances and earning five top-10 point finishes.
After retiring as a driver following the 2001 season, Epler turned his attention to a career in business.
"It was funny because when I quit I just wanted to take a couple of years off and get our kids through high school and then re-join,'' Epler said. "Then I decided to get into the corporate world and get a job with one of our sponsors and learn about big business and the next thing you know it's 20 years later.''
And while business lured Epler away from racing it also brought him back.
Now the executive vice-president at Phillips Connect, Epler is once again a regular at tracks on the Camping World Drag Racing Series circuit, with Phillips Connect serving as a primary sponsor for Justin Ashley's Top Fuel team.
"The timing had to be right to get back into racing and the timing was right,'' Epler said. "We wanted to try it for a couple of races but Justin and the whole team made such an impression on us it just kind of sped up the whole process of doing it in a much bigger way, so we're pretty excited about that.
"I got everything I wanted (in business) and was able to get with a good start-up like Phillips Connect and do everything I wanted to do and now the timing was right to get back in the (racing) business.''
Epler said Phillips Connect's relationship with Ashley has been productive on and off the track, with Ashley currently a solid third in Top Fuel points while winning two races and going to four final rounds this season.
"It's been a great way to showcase our products and I've been a big fan of marketing through NHRA for a long time,'' Epler said. "We did hospitality before that was really popular and just getting the people to the races is always a good way to build a relationship. Justin's outstanding and when the car does well that's even better.''
While Epler's attention during race weekend will be on business, he's also looking forward to being able to rekindle some of the most special times of his career.
"There's a lof of great memories.'' he said. "I didn't want to come back as a spectator so I needed to have a reason to come back and now I do, so this is even better.''