In 2003, David Baca, from Brentwood, Calif., qualified for all 23 events contested on the NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series. He qualified in the top half of the Top Fuel field at 13 of the 23 events. At the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis, he captured his first No. 1 qualifying position of his career and followed that with a top spot (No. 1) at Memphis.
His rookie season performance was right there with the veterans, running a career best elapsed time of 4.499 seconds and a career best speed of 326.32 mph on the quarter-mile track at Indianapolis Raceway Park.
Baca, 45, was runner-up at Sonoma and reached the semifinals at Gainesville, Las Vegas and Atlanta and finished seventh in the NHRA POWERade Top Fuel point standings.
Drag racing got into Baca's blood at an early age. As the son of a drag racer, it was a natural progression that he gravitated to the sport. Raised in the 60's and '70's on the race tracks of California, Baca went from the womb to the cradle to the stroller to the track watching Don Garlits and the other drivers that made the sport what it is today.
He first ventured into Top Alcohol Funny Car (TAFC) in the late 80s. Baca went to his first TAFC final in 1988 and won his first title in TAFC in 1989, both at his home track -- Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif.
In 1999, Baca formed an alliance with Ray Strasser with the duo fielding and advancing the technology of the A-Fuel Dragster in Top Alcohol Dragster (TAD). Baca racing an A-Fuel Dragster, was the first TAD driver to record a pass in the 5.2-second range. He also put his mark on the NHRA speed record books and until February of this year held the NHRA TAD national speed record at 274.44 mph, which he set at Phoenix in early 2001. By the end of 2001, Baca had his sights set higher.
The formation of Henkelman & Baca Motorsports began at the end of 2001 and the pair, Rick Henkelman, also an alcohol standout, and Baca, joined the Top Fuel ranks, as owners, at the season-opening 2002 K&N Filters Winternationals with Cory McClenathan handling the driving duties.
The Henkelman & Baca Motorsports team competed in all 23 national events on the 2002 NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series, advanced to four final rounds, winning one, and finished in fifth position in the final NHRA POWERade Top Fuel point standings. But Baca still had an unfulfilled dream.
"My ultimate goal since becoming a drag racer was to follow in my father's path and become a Top Fuel driver and becoming a Top Fuel team owner was only one step on the way to achieving that goal," reflected Baca.
In August of 2002, Baca took another step to realizing his goal when he was licensed as a Top Fuel driver. To get seat time in the Top Fuel dragster, Baca ran the final two events of the 2002, then moved full-time to the seat of the American Racing/Waterloo Tool Storage/Skill Clean Henkelman & Baca dragster in 2003.
The following is Baca's thoughts on 2003 and a look forward to 2004:
Q: In 2003, you finished No. 7 in the final NHRA POWERade Top Fuel point standings. Give an assessment of your rookie year in Top Fuel on the NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series.
DB: I initially said that it wouldn't be a big transition moving from A-fuel (Top Alcohol Dragster) to Top Fuel. Boy was I wrong! Anybody that believes that it is not two different worlds between Top Fuel and Alcohol has got a rude awakening coming and I was one of those. At the end of last year and the beginning of this year, I was very much a rookie. I made rookie mistakes like staying with it a little too long and blowing up engines. With seat time and the tutorship of crew chief Johnny West, I developed over the season and by season's end was driving as well as anybody out there. I feel I definitely lost my rookie stripe.
Q: What was the highlight of the 2003 season? Low point?
DB: There were a lot of highs and a lot of lows. I guess for a high point it would be a toss up between going to the final round at my hometown track (Infineon Raceway) and being a rookie at Indy and coming away with the low qualifier spot. Both were special but I guess if I had to choose one it would be being No. 1 at Indy. There were a couple of low points too. The one that stands out the most to me is going out in the first round too many times for my liking. I probably lost more drag races within a two- to three- foot margin than anybody. Losing eight or nine time like that in the first round adds up in points and probably meant a couple of positions in the final POWERade point standings.
Q: You were one of two candidates for Rookie of the Year, the Automobile Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award. Your thoughts on the award and the fact that you did not win.
DB: Not winning was a disappointment but I was one of the first in line to congratulate Brandon (Bernstein). The panel of voters spoke and we didn't come out on top. We could cuss and discuss this from can to can't but it doesn't change anything. I am proud of what our team and this American Racing/Waterloo Tool Storage/Skill Clean dragster accomplished this year on a limited budget. It is really tough to compete at this time with that level of corporate dollars but the Budweiser team is a great team and my congratulations continue to go out to Brandon. I look forward to doing battle with him again next year. It may sound trite but we are thankful that the Automobile Club of Southern California thought enough of our team to nominate us for the award.
Q: In a number of features on you and in comments you make while being interviewed your father's name is mentioned. Tell us about your father (Dennis) and your thoughts on being a second generation Top Fuel driver.
DB: Being a second generation driver gives you instant notoriety, especially among the older fans. My father was a great champion winning several of the major events including Indy. He's still an ornery SOB and I mean that in a very positive manner. He was a very aggressive individual as the competitors from his era know. My dad still gets up everyday to win no matter what he's doing that day. That's the way I was brought up -- you do everything with the intent to do the best you can and you do it to win. That's true in life in general, in business and running a race car. There are a few second generation drivers out there now -- Scott Kalitta, Larry Dixon, Brandon Bernstein and the three Pedregon brothers, to name a few -- that know what it's like to follow in dad's footsteps. It's quite an honor.
Q: Before moving to 2004, anything else on the 2003 season you want to share.
DB: The fans are awesome. Since the first of the season I've seen our fan base grow. The e-mails are getting almost too great to answer -- but I plan to continue to answer each and everyone of them no matter how many there are. The fans are what make me want to keep doing this for as long as I can. I love kids and the kids that come to drag racing are awesome. I'm still living a dream and I'm not going to get caught up in all the bull. I'm just going to go out there and enjoy what I'm doing. I love the fans. Heck, to add to a question from above: although we didn't win the voting by the media for Rookie of the Year, we did win, thanks to the fans, the NHRA.com vote regarding their choice. Thank you fans. We need you no matter who your favorite driver may be. Thanks for supporting NHRA POWERade Drag Racing.
Q: The first thing for 2004 is how is the hunt for a primary sponsor for the Henkelman & Baca Motorsports dragster proceeding and will you carryover any associates from the 2003 season.
DB: I'm going to hedge a little bit on this one. We'll definitely be carrying over some sponsors from this past year but all are in final negotiations. We are talking with both old and new marketing partners. We think that we'll have a good package for next season that will allow us to compete on more equal footing with the better financially-backed teams. I'll share more with everybody as everything is finalized.
Q: Your plans and goals for 2004.
DB: We want to grow our program for the future. Yes, we're going for it (No. 1) next year. We're going to up the ante. We're not shy. We were maybe a bit too conservative this season and that may be why we lost a few of those first round match ups that I mentioned earlier. Johnny (West), Rick (Henkelman) and I have all come to the conclusion that were going to be more aggressive next year. I feel we have as good a group of guys as any team out there. It not all about money. Teams have won championships and not had the most money. Look at the late Alan Kulwicki. He didn't have a lot of money but won the Winston Cup title, so why can't we. Through being aggressive and teamwork you can get a lot done. As Al Davis, owner of the Oakland Raiders, said: "Just win baby!"
Q: Who do you see as major players for 2004 POWERade Top Fuel Championship?
DB: The same ones you saw this season: Larry Dixon, Scott and Doug Kalitta, Tony Schumacher, Darrell Russell, Brandon Bernstein and, of course, us. Adding us to that list isn't bragging. I really feel with proper backing allowing us to do necessary things like testing, etc. and with luck we can be right there in the thick of things. Remember, my dad taught me to get up every morning intent on winning. I'm intent on winning all next season.