RICHMOND, Va. (April 23, 1999) Cory McClenathan drives the MBNA/Pontiac Top Fuel Dragster on the 22-event NHRA Winston championship tour and is a member of the Joe Gibbs Racing team that also fields the Interstate Batteries Pontiac Firebird Funny...
RICHMOND, Va. (April 23, 1999) Cory McClenathan drives the MBNA/Pontiac Top Fuel Dragster on the 22-event NHRA Winston championship tour and is a member of the Joe Gibbs Racing team that also fields the Interstate Batteries Pontiac Firebird Funny Car driven by Cruz Pedregon.
Since 1991 when he first competed in the class, McClenathan has finished in the top-10 every year with his best seasons coming in 1992, 1995 and 1997-98 when he finished second in the points standings. Over the course of a tremendously successful career "Cory Mac" has accumulated 22 career wins in 34 final rounds and was the first NHRA Top Fuel driver to exceed the 320 mph barrier with a pass of 321.77 mph at the 1997 Revell Nationals in Dallas, Tex. He reset the mark four months later at Phoenix in February, 1998 when he eclipsed the speed sensors at 322.92 mph. He is tied for third with Kenny Bernstein on the NHRA's list for all-time wins by a Top Fuel driver with 22. Only Joe Amato with 46 and Don Garlits with 35 have more victories in the category.
This year after four races, McClenathan is in seventh place in the championship chase, but less than four rounds out of third and just 135 points out of first. Although still searching for his first win of the season, he returns to a venue that has served him well in the past five years. On two different occasions, the first time in 1995 and again last year, the 36-year-old California native has been victorious at Virginia Motorsports Park. In addition to his two wins there, McClenathan was runner up in 1997.
McClenathan was featured on the NHRA weekly teleconference prior to the running of the Fifth Annual Pennzoil Nationals in Richmond, Va., on April 29 - May 2. Highlights of the race can be seen on TNN on Sunday, May 9, beginning at 12:00 p.m. Eastern.
Since 1995, you've made it to the finals three out of four years. Is that racetrack one of your better venues? "I'd have to say that we've done pretty well there. We won the first race there and that's always a big deal to me. We have good records for that track, and it's stayed the same except that the top end now is getting better and better. We're really going to see some big speeds this year. I think our tune up record has been good there and you have to have a little bit of luck. So for some reason, the Pennzoil Nationals have been really good to me."
What was it like winning at Virginia Motorsports Park last year? "Things changed a lot after that even though we did win six races last year. We just fell off after that. Right after Richmond we started to have some parts failure, and just weren't getting the job done, so we kind of changed things around. When you're in a points race and you're being chased by Gary Scelzi, you don't want to change too many things and we got caught up in that. Things have kind of gone on from there. We've even started this season off with some damage motor-wise, the guys have worked really hard to fix that and now that that's fixed we're just trying to be consistent. There are guys out there now running 4.52 and 4.53 and we're out there running 4.56 and 4.57. We need to be able to do that consistently and we'll win races. Like Mike Green my crew chief says, we're not out there to be the No. 1 qualifier but we would like to be in the top five or six."
How are things shaping up in the Top Fuel division this year from a competition standpoint? "I think we've seen some other people step up. Of course Mike Dunn seems to be on top of his game right now and with Ken Veney tuning that car they're doing really well. They're going to be awful tough. Tony Schumacher in the Exide Batteries Top Fuel dragster has kind of come around, not necessarily out of no where, but a lot of people weren't aware of some of the talent that was going to be over there this year. They've really stepped up. He was the first one to run 330 mph so you have to look at that also. There are other cars that are there like normal which would be Kenny Bernstein, Joe Amato and Eddie Hill. A lot of cars are running big numbers. The Winston car is kind of in the same boat that we're in. They're just having trouble getting going, but that's going to hurt us later because they're going to be that much tougher later on."
Are you somewhat surprised at the Winston teams drop off? "They're not really in a slump. They've just had some bad luck and it's just a matter of them getting it all together. With Alan Johnson doing the tuning over there and Gary driving, it's just a matter of time. It is tough to see a car that's only lost in the first round three times in the past two years, and now they've had three first-round losses in the first few races of the season. It's a tough pill to swallow, but they're tough over there and when they come back it will be with a vengeance."
So you would expect them to make their usual mid-season run? "I would say so and I would say the same thing about our team. We're getting really close to making our car run in the mid to low 4.50s and doing it consistently. I think some of the other names like Gary Scelzi and Cory Mac will be back fighting for a championship once again I hope."
Do you use the experiences from early in your career to deal with the current situation and to keep the team positive as you search for that consistency? "You hit it right on the head there. Because I've been in that position more than once in my career it's easier to look back and understand what the guys are going through. They're just as frustrated as I am. I just drive the car but my teammates put the car together and put in a lot of hours during the week. But you can reach down deep, and with your team's help, make it a better season all the way around and that's kind of where we're at right now. The car's kind of thrown us a bone like last weekend in Houston. It ran good, didn't hurt a lot of parts and now we're trying to do that and make it consistent. You get down a little bit, and realize you have to climb your way out of that hole, but we've just dug it a little deeper than normal and we're going to take our time getting out of it."
Are you concerned yet? "Nope, not at all. I'm always concerned when I'm not running on top and doing the job that I think I can do. But I think you see so much parity in the class, so many cars that have really stepped up, and the competition is so much tougher, that I highly doubt that you're going to see one guy win six races again. Whether it's Gary Scelzi, myself, Mike Dunn or anybody, if a guy wins four wins races this year he's going to feel pretty proud."
How big of an impact has the five-disc clutch been? "A lot of these guys are taking their old tune ups from last year when they were running pretty well and have gone right to the five disc without changing anything. I can't say that for our team because we changed everything this year including going to the five disc. The people that kept basically the same tune up that went to the five disc, once they've gotten it figured out it has contributed to huge gains on mile-per-hour, being able to run the cars on marginal tracks, just smoothed everything up all the way around. A lot of guys like us and Scelzi are still trying to get a handle on things. There's a totally different combination for us from the fuel pump back and it's sometimes a tough thing to figure out. We're on our way to that theory also, but a lot of those guys are running exceptionally well and not hurting parts. I would have to say that 80 percent of the speeds, the records, everything you're seeing right now can be attributed to the five disc clutch. Sure, we can make more power but without the clutch we can't put it to the ground."
As a driver how much input do you have on your team? "The more years you do this the more you can feel what's going on with the car. Basically what I do is get out and tell Mike Green (crew chief) and Jim Brissette (advisor) what I felt in the car, what I thought it did and what I think it can use. Maybe it can run harder in the middle of the track, maybe more upstairs towards the end of the track, or maybe it's nosing over. Mike will get on the computer and see if I'm lying to them and then they'll come back and tell me what I actually felt. A computer can't tell you everything and that's where a good driver can help. I just give them more information to tune by especially if I'm doing the same thing every time I'm driving the car."
When you know that Scelzi's going to come back strong later in the year, how tough is that to handicap considering the number of things that can go wrong just trying to qualify? "Anybody can fail to qualify. You can do so much prep work and get a plan in place, but if the car doesn't do what you want it to or if you have problem - I mean a fuel line or an oil line, any little thing can bite you. Sometimes it's a two dollar part and sometimes it's a $2000 part. We all believe that a lot of this is luck and I'm a firm believer in that. I'd rather be lucky than good any day I'm racing. Considering Alan Johnson and the team that they have, and the same with my team, were not going to stay down very long. When we do come back, we're going to be twice as tough on everybody and that's how I look at it."
Where do you see the sport of NHRA Drag Racing going in the future? "The NHRA is making huge changes this year, they're bringing in whole new people and I look for attendance and the quality of racing to go way beyond where we are in just the next couple of years. That's going to bring the whole realm of racing around as far as spectators, the quality of the show, television, all the way around. As far as the race cars go these things are getting fast! They're a lot of fun to drive and people want to see them go faster and faster. I look at the year 2000 and I think we'll be running in the low 4.40s. I'd have to say that we'll see 340 or 345 before they finally decide to do something to slow the cars down. With everything else that we have, I believe that we can go closer to 350. The only questionable variable will be the tires and Goodyear says they're good for 350. We're just going to keep progressing and we'll find more things to keep us going faster. Someone's going to come up with something else down the road in a year or so and before you know it, we'll pick up speeds of five or six miles an hour at a time. That's what happened with this clutch deal. Things are happening much quicker and you're not waiting three years for something to happen."
How important would a win be this weekend? "It would really cap things off as far as turning things around for us. MBNA, Champion, Pontiac, Joe Gibbs and all the good people we have on the car - I don't know how much they expect us to run well and win races, but that's what I'm here for because you want to make your sponsors proud. But my team has worked extremely hard so a win right now would have to go in their favor and maybe we can start something there. We need to turn the points deal around and see if we can't catch some of these kids ahead of us."
Are you feeling that old to be calling other people kids? "Before Larry Dixon started driving they used to think of me as a kid. When he started driving I was just another guy. I don't know what they really think these days. I'm 36 years old and there's a few other drivers out there quicker, lighter and faster than I am. You just have to work harder and harder and that's what I'm after. I want to be here when I'm Amato's age or when I'm Bernstein's age, and I would feel very lucky if I were still doing it then."
Given Mike Dunn's struggle the last few years and Darrell Gwynn's perseverance, is it hard to root against that team? "It's definitely hard to root against them. Darrell's done some amazing things with the birth of his child, going on, helping to tune the race car and both Mike and Darrell together have done incredible things. I'm not surprised at all. Mike Dunn is one of the best drivers out there if he's given a consistent race car and Ken Veney has done that. He's one of the top crew chiefs. Mike got beat up on by Gary Scelzi quite a bit towards the end of last year and that makes you want to win pretty bad. You get that winning feeling and once you get it, you want to do it again and again. That's what we're seeing right now."
Can you speculate on the absolute fastest speed where you can do no more? I really couldn't. "That would probably be a better question for a crew chief. We'll drive as fast as we can with the equipment we have. I imagine that sooner or later they're going to have to change the aerodynamics, or the way the cars are built or make the tracks longer or something. Because pretty soon we're not going to have enough room to shut down. That's going to create a problem also."
Is the quarter-mile distance sacred in drag racing? "I think so. I don't think you'll ever see it go from anything but a quarter mile. That's just my feeling on the subject. It's been the basis of drag racing for quite some time and I don't see that changing."
How much have you enjoyed driving for Joe Gibbs? "It's been great. When he came into drag racing it was a great pleasure to finally meet him. We talked for about an hour on the telephone the first time we spoke. He's a very well thought out person. He's very good at communicating with people and it doesn't matter what kind of person you are. He has a way of putting a lot of different people from different walks of life together and getting them to work in unison. That's what it takes to build a successful team -one that works together. He did that in football and now he's doing it in drag racing and Winston Cup. A guy like that you have to look up to as far as I'm concerned."
Looking at your career, are you confident that you'll have a top-five finish again this year? "I would like to think so. We've had a whole bunch of runner-up finishes and I'd like to finally put it on top one of these days. As far as consistency goes, I'd have to say that we have the most consistent team out there as far as where we finish year after year. You try and keep everyone together year in and year out and it definitely shows at the end."