Cory McClenathan Interview

CORY McCLENATHAN TELECONFERENCE McDonald’s/Pontiac Top Fuel Dragster DENVER (July 10, 1998)—The 20th Annual Mile-High Nationals at Bandimere Speedway on July 16-19 is the first leg of the three race Western swing of the 22-event NHRA...

CORY McCLENATHAN TELECONFERENCE McDonald’s/Pontiac Top Fuel Dragster

DENVER (July 10, 1998)—The 20th Annual Mile-High Nationals at Bandimere Speedway on July 16-19 is the first leg of the three race Western swing of the 22-event NHRA Winston Drag Racing tour. It is arguably the toughest three weeks of the season, and where last year, McDonald’s Pontiac Top Fuel driver Cory McClenathan began his charge to the front of the standings by winning the next four consecutive races, and five of the next six events. Although he ended the year in second place, his success during the second half of the 1997 season contributed to one of the most exciting points races in a long time.

This year, McClenathan enters the Mile-High Nationals at the top of the Winston standings and the driver that everyone else is chasing, just 20 points ahead of Joe Amato and 46 points ahead of defending champion Gary Scelzi. During the first half of the season, the 35-year-old California native picked up where he left off in 1997, charging out of the starting gates with wins at Phoenix, Houston, Atlanta and Richmond and a runner-up finish at Englishtown. At the ATSCO Nationals in Phoenix, he passed the finish line at 322.92 mph, the NHRA record at that time and a personal best breaking a mark he set previously in Dallas last October of 321.77 mph.

McClenathan was featured on the NHRA teleconference prior to the running of the Mile-High Nationals on July 16-19. It is the 12th race on the 22-event NHRA championship tour. --------------------------------------------------------------------------- ----------------------------------------------------- Are you confident the new car can put you back in the winner’s circle at Denver?

We’re definitely hoping that the new car will help us out some. I think we’ve been a little bit lax lately. We’ve made some more power with the old car, but haven’t been able to harness it and keep it from smoking the tires. Last weekend was total driver error. I got left on by Jim Head and got beat. We’re definitely hoping the new car will turn things around for us in Denver. You can’t really be cautious anymore whether it’s a new car or a used car. You need to go out there and qualify with the best of them. We didn’t test last year with the new car and I think we’ll just go with the same deal we started out with last year and go from there. Hopefully, we’ll have our stuff together.

With the competition as tight as it is, do you feel that you have to take some chances to stay ahead?

That’s the whole thing and that’s what we’ve experienced in the last three races. We just decided it was time to change things to try and help us down towards the end of the season. We need to make some more horsepower so we can just kind of work in the clutch area. That makes it easier for Mike Green and Jim Brissette to do that. Now we have a lot of horsepower, and now we’re just trying to get it to the ground without smoking the tires. That’s plagued us a little bit here and there, but all in all, it is definitely time for a new car. If we don’t try and progress then later on we won’t be able to stay at the front. We don’t want to fall behind here.

What wears out on an old car?

At first, a new car seems to have really good traction. Whether it’s because the car hasn’t really taken a set yet or what have you, and then when the car runs really well for a long period of time, I think after so many runs, it just maybe flexes too much or doesn’t twist in the middle like it should. I’m not a fabricator so it would be hard for me to answer that. Murf McKinney would be the best person to ask about that. I just notice that they get old. You bring out a new car and they work extremely well. That’s what we’re looking for right now.

Do you feel any pressure now that Amato and Scelzi appear to be closing in?

I don’t feel like I’m in the driver’s seat, let’s put it that way. I think that’s because we fell off a little bit and some people have made up some ground. We knew this would happen though. We were happy to get a good start and wanted to get a comfortable lead so that if something like this happened, we wouldn’t end up back in the pack. Right now I feel pretty good about our situation. On the other hand, Gary Scelzi’s coming, he’s really close, he’s going to be there, and he’s going to be one of the cars to be reckoned with, if not the car to be reckoned with. Right on the other side of him is Jimmy Prock. He and Joe Amato make a great pair and from here on out it’s going to be quite a dogfight. We’re going to have to see what happens during the next three races. This western swing is going to tell the tale.

Did you guys find yourself caught up in trying to run the big MPH?

You do find yourself caught up in the MPH thing, especially when our car has been running 320s. All of a sudden, it stops running the big MPH and you’re wondering why. Meanwhile, my teammate is still out there pounding the ground away. We have a lot of communication between both teams so it’s just something we need to hit on. You can’t find yourself getting lost in that. Let’s face it, ET is what wins races here and you need to be consistent. As far as MPH, we’re really not after that right now. We still want to be quick, run good ET, and MPH will come with that as long as the motor is happy. We’ll take that right along with it. Cruz’s Pontiac Firebird has definitely been thundering this year. Wes Cerny has got a good tune-up on that Funny Car.

Besides Amato and Scelzi, do you see anyone else possibly pushing through during this next swing?

Mike Dunn and Bob Vandergriff are both looking for a place to win a race. That’s going to happen this year. Mike was just on the wrong side of the ladder a lot of the time earlier this year, and we’re going to pay for it later on in the season. Ken Veney is an awesome tuner, a great guy to work with and Mike’s a great driver. We’re definitely going to see some other people moving up in the standings, but I think right now, between the three of us (McClenathan, Amato, and Scelzi) we have a little bit of a lead, so we’re not looking at that right now. But considering what I did to those guys last year, coming from seventh to second, we all know anything can happen. Kenny Bernstein is right there too, and Lee Beard has been doing a good job tuning his car. They’re another team that gets better as the year goes along. We just need to worry about ourselves.

Is your shoulder 100% now?

Definitely. It stopped me for a month or so but everything’s great now.

Why won’t you test the new car before Denver?

We know exactly what we want to do. We’ve built a few special motors for Denver, and right now, the guys are concentrating on that. The car is pretty much all together and everyone is excited about it. We just feel that testing can hinder you as much as help you, depending on the situation. Since I’m in Arizona and they’re in Indianapolis, we just decided to go with the same deal we had last year and see how it works. For us to travel that far right now while we’re getting ready for a three race swing, we just didn’t want to use the parts up right now. We need every single piece and motor while trying to get the guys rested up for the next three weeks in-a-row. It’s not too tough on me, but it’s really tough on them. They’ve changed the rules a little bit with new cars where you don’t have to make a half-pass or anything like that. What they do make you do is make your first pass solo. The car went 4.80 off the trailer last year and believe me, you’re hoping every nut and bolt is tight. My guys are professionals and I feel that nobody else in the business is as good. I’m very comfortable getting in the car after they’re done working on it.

Were you expecting the rest of the field to catch up to you so quickly?

I’ve never had a quick start and we talk about that every single year at this time of the season. We’re usually sitting right around fifth to seventh place. Because we got off to a good start this year everyone’s asking, "Why have they fallen off?" At this point, I’m not too concerned and actually, I feel like we’re in a very good position. We’re still leading the points and we may not have had a stellar car for the last few races, but we’re hoping to change that. On the other hand, it can hurt you sometimes to get caught up in the points deal, and it seems like we do that earlier every single year. We used to wait until now to start worrying about it. It seems that now we worry about it right out of the box. We’ve had a lot of success this year. We just need to go out and try to go to some semi-finals and if the finals come, then they come. Going to the semi-finals at every race is definitely a plan we’re going to try and stick by.

Did you start counting the points too soon?

That can tend to happen. I looked over my shoulder and saw a couple of freight trains coming at me. I definitely worried about that, and maybe it is on my mind more than it was in the last few years because I’ve never been in this position. I’ve always been doing the chasing so I’m just trying to keep my mind off the points right now.

How do you like being the hunted instead of the hunter?

I like it. It’s a whole different feeling for me and it’s been a long time since we’ve been in the lead at all. The lead has definitely diminished quite a bit, but we just need to stick to our guns. It’s definitely a different feeling than being the chaser.

Since racing at Denver is unique to what you face the rest of the year, what can you learn there?

The air really seems to be pretty good there, it’s just the altitude factor. We all kind of do things differently regarding motor combinations, and Mike Green and Jim Brissette had a great tune-up last year, so I’m pretty sure we’ll stick to that deal. You just have to go out there, give it a shot and learn how to walk before you run. We build a few motors for Denver, then take the pieces out, and put the old pieces back in for the rest of the trip. We don’t learn a whole lot as far as the tune-up goes, but on the clutches and everything else we can learn a lot in Denver.

Does it surprise you that so many cars are bunched up at the top of the standings?

It seems to be that the class is getting more competitive every year. We have more cars that come in with new sponsors, and at mid-season, they start to pick up and run better. We have guys that have switched chassis makers that have definitely stepped up. I would love to be another 200 points ahead, but it’s going to be one of those years where it’s going to be a shoot out to the end. We may see our best season ever in Top Fuel.

What is your commitment from McDonald’s for next year?

The one-year commitment with McDonald’s was a shake hand deal, no paper work, no nothing with Joe Gibbs. We’ve already lobbied and talked to them a little bit here and there, and the new race in Chicago is where their headquarters are. So we spent a lot of time with them there and feel that things are going to work out for the best. I think we’ll definitely hear something at the end of this month. There are a lot of great people at McDonald’s and I’d like to see them stay in the sport.

How difficult is it to prepare for the three-race western swing?

Preparation is everything. You need to have as many motors as you can, enough parts to make it through, and we all know that if you have one bad weekend, you can go through a lot of motors. We’ll use our old car for a backup car so we’ll have it with us. It’s comfortable to know that you have two good cars. I think it’s tougher on the guys getting ready with all the work that they do than it is for the driver. A few weekends in the car, I love that! To get out of the car and to get back in the car the very next Friday makes me feel comfortable. When you have a lot of time off, maybe you think too much, but the western swing is tough mentally for the driver and physically for the crew members. Sonoma is real hot so that’s a particularly tough weekend.

You’re seeing more and more women getting into the sport. Can you see your daughter behind the wheel some day?

If she wants to she can. It’s one of those things where she is seven years old, and everything that we ride together, whether it’s a Seadoo or if we’re in the boat, if I let her control it, she stands on the gas and doesn’t let go. It’s definitely in the gene pool we know that. If she wants to drive a race car, then her dad will help her do what she wants to do. I think at this point though, she’s just having fun being a kid and I’m glad for that.

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Series NHRA
Drivers Jim Head , Mike Dunn , Kenny Bernstein , Joe Amato , Gary Scelzi , Cory McClenathan , Bob Vandergriff