In 2002 veteran NHRA Funny Car driver Dean Skuza is unveiling his first new Dodge body in more than eight years. He hopes his new Stratus will be the final piece of the puzzle in transforming his team into a championship contender. With only two...
In 2002 veteran NHRA Funny Car driver Dean Skuza is unveiling his first new Dodge body in more than eight years. He hopes his new Stratus will be the final piece of the puzzle in transforming his team into a championship contender. With only two wins in a career that has spanned the last decade, Skuza is hoping this will be the breakout season he's been looking for that will lead to a career-best finish in the NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series. Skuza will be among Funny Car drivers competing in the 42nd annual K&N Filters Winternationals, Feb. 7-10 at historic Pomona Raceway, Pomona, Calif. The $1.9 million race is the first of 23 events in the $50 million NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series for 2002.
Q: What is your outlook for the new Dodge Stratus body?
SKUZA: It is going to amplify our program by 1,000 percent. The Avenger body was designed in 1992 when the performance max was high 290 speeds and low five-second runs. When I look at what we were able to do with that body over the years, especially last year when we were able to run some four-seventies with it at 315 and 318, I feel really good. That's amazing. I'm really proud of what we accomplished with the Avenger body given the circumstances. We had to walk on egg shells because it was so ginger with the tune-up. We couldn't get hog wild like some of these guys out here were doing. To get the best performance out of it, everything had to be just right. The Stratus body is going to increase the performance a lot. It will widen the parameters quite a bit. If our tune-up is marginal and is right on the edge of making it or not making it, we will have a lot more room to make adjustments. Not only will the Stratus body give us better performance but it is also going to give us more consistent performance.
Q: When you guys went to the drawing board with Roush Racing to design the body, what were you looking for and how involved was Dodge in setting the mold for the Stratus body?
SKUZA: The Mopar project engineers designed the body from day one. It took a year-and-a-half to design it. Not because it was so sophisticated and all the tunnel testing that took place and all the scale models they had built, but we also had to wait for NHRA to develop the right rules. For a while there, no one knew what was going to be legal and not legal. The first part was designing it and the second part was finding a manufacturer that could build the body the right way. That was Roush and it was the first body that went straight from the computer screen into real life. It was designed on a computer, but the body was built by hand. The symmetry is very difficult to see, side-to-side and front to back. This car was finished to a 1000th-of-an-inch everywhere and that's really the wave of the future. As the speeds increase, if the car is off just a quarter-of-an-inch here or there, these cars can start to act up. When we were going 300 it wasn't as important. What they were able to do was come up with 3,000 more pounds of downforce without changing the balance of the car or adding too much drag. It's really a work of art. It really is. These guys really worked their tails off. Now it puts a lot of pressure on us because the ball is in our court so to speak. You cannot build a better body. With today's technology it is impossible. You couldn't get more talented engineers to design it and more talented people at Roush's to manufacture it. If we don't come out and win five or six races, man, I won't know what to say. It'll be disappointing. I won't have any more excuses. With the Avenger body I've always felt like we were racing with one hand tied behind our back. We just couldn't do what the other guys were doing, because it was physically impossible. Now we are on the cutting edge of technology in that department and I'm really excited about the possibilities of what we can accomplish.
Q: You've been very successful marketing yourself over the years and have developed a big fan base. Many people who hear the name Dean Skuza would think that guy has won a lot of drag races. You've won only two times. Obviously that doesn't sit well with you does it?
SKUZA: People look at the 10-year career and there's only two wins -- believe me, that's not where I thought I would be at this point. It's difficult out here. It's not like anything I've ever done before. It takes a total commitment from the driver, the crew chief, the team, the financing and getting the right parts. It probably took us seven years to get the financing up to the adequate level. It gets to the point where it's almost a saturation point. In the last two years our car has gone to the starting line with all the best parts and pieces on it and I firmly believed that there wasn't anything we could do to the car to prepare it any better no matter how much money we spent. You have to be a smart shopper. I try really hard not to compare myself to others and that goes for all areas of life. If my neighbor has a Mercedes then I'm not going to have to get one just because of that. That can be a dangerous way to live your life because there's always going to be someone out there that has more than you do. Now that we've come to the level of adequate funding and we have this new body and a team that has stuck together for several years I really kind of feel like we're just starting. The body is like the last piece of the puzzle and the last ingredient that we need as a team to start winning on a regular basis.
Q: Do you feel like you need to have a multi-car operation to be successful?
SKUZA: We are really working toward that. We can't do it unless we have adequate funding. We have people working day in and day out to make it happen. I have been out here with just almost enough to compete and I'm definitely not going to do that with another car. Robbing a little bit from my car to make another car run is the worst scenario I could think of right now. Then you would have two underfunded cars. That's something we are looking toward. It's twice the headache. We're lucky with our guys. The hardest part of it is keeping a good team together. You can have the best team in the world but if you have one guy that doesn't pull his part it will destroy the team. In that department I feel very fortunate. I was watching a show about NAVY SEALS training and they go through Hell Week and all that. If there's someone there who can't pull their weight, he has to quit. The one thing you can't change is someone's attitude. Everyone has to get together because they are all traveling together. I look at my program right now and I'm thinking we are right where we need to be.
Q: Is there a strong feeling on your team that this could be your breakout year?
SKUZA: All I can do is look at it in terms of performance. I know what we are capable of doing. We know what we have to do and we're prepared to do our best job. The competition is so tough it's hard to predict what will happen. We could go out there and run great numbers and it might not be good enough. Everything is in place right now and we're looking forward to seeing what we can do.
Q: How long can John Force's streak go?
SKUZA: He's something else, I'll tell you. To be very, very honest, and I can't speak for the entire Funny Car category, but I think we secretly hope Austin Coil is going to get lost (forget his tune-up). But that never happens. When he does get lost, John Force just rises to the occasion as a driver. It's uncanny how those two work together. Some people think it's all the crew chief. Take a look at what they've been able to accomplish in the last decade. They really feed off each other. When John may not be driving great, there's Coil with a hundred-of-a-second advantage. When Coil is struggling, there's John with those .430 and .440 lights. I really can't see an end to their dynasty. All we can do is try and do our best to knock him off. I really want to be the one to do it, as does every other Funny Car driver out there. The guy that finally knocks him off can write his own ticket. There are so many manufacturers out here that want that to happen in the worst kind of way because they know what kind of buzz that would get.
Q: How weird is it for you that in your 10 year career as a Funny Car driver John has been the champion every year but one?
SKUZA: When I first started I would look at that team and the car and say 'Man, we've really got a long way to go to get to that level.' It takes so much money and so many years to get to that level. It has surprised me that someone could dominate that much for that long. But when things happen over and over and it wears on you the shock value sort of goes away. I think everybody feels that way. That's why it's important that when you win, you win decisively. He's really knocked the wind out of everybody's sails. I think that's how the excitement got going last year when (Whit) Bazemore started running really good. It doesn't matter who it is, I think everyone is ready to just have someone win that's different. In a way we are lucky. If there was only one guy in the category who could win all the time I would want it to be John. He's a great spokesperson for this sport. Some people might say that one guy that wins all the time and has three cars is bad for the sport. However John is such a great ambassador I think it actually helps us. I could think of a lot worse 11-time champions, that's for sure.
Q: What are your performance predictions for the year?
SKUZA: I always hate trying to predict what kind of numbers we'll see in the upcoming year. It's really hard to say. I think we'll see the E.T. increase by a couple of hundredths. I don't see major chunks being taken out of the mile per hour either. What I do think you'll see is a lot better performances on some of the tracks that are closer to sea level. Any time you lower the bar it becomes harder and harder to duplicate that. Everything has to be perfect as we dip into the low 4.70s. I'm probably wrong, but at least that's my opinion.
Q: What are your thoughts on Toyota getting involved in the sport?
SKUZA: I like it. I'm not one of those guys who say buy American or die. I do support American enterprise as often as possible. I think it's good. There are a lot of imports out there and it's becoming a rage. It's a positive step. It's different. It really opens up a lot more. There's always been the big three. When I heard about Toyota getting involved I started thinking about all the other manufacturers out there. It really opens the door. It could get ugly out here really quick.
Q: Not that Funny Car isn't tough enough, but now a three-time Top Fuel champion is joining the fun. What advice would you give Gary Scelzi as he starts chapter two of his driving career?
SKUZA: I wouldn't give Scelzi any advice. He's won a few championships and he's got a lot of seat time in an Alcohol Funny Car. They're such different animals. You manhandle one and the other you have to be very ginger. Both are hard to drive. What happens is when a guy comes out of a Top Fuel car and goes to a Funny Car he probably won't be as reactive. The opposite would be true for a guy coming out of a Funny Car and going into a Top Fuel dragster, he would probably want to oversteer the hell out of it. It's just a matter of getting used to it. I know Scelzi will be bad-ass when he does. His learning curve will come very quickly, probably by Pomona.
Q: You've been moonlighting as co-host of a popular motorsports program on TNN. What's tougher, driving a race car at 318 mph, or doing a television show?
SKUZA: I never really thought of racing as work. I think of television as work. I have such a great passion for racing that it doesn't matter if I work 18 hours. Racing to me is like golf. That's my hobby that I've developed into my primary job. If you love to fish, do you consider rowing the boat to your favorite part of the lake work? It is work because you are expending energy to do it? You don't think of it like that. TV is work and racing is my passion.
Q: Obviously Dodge and Mopar have been great sponsors for you. If you didn't need to have a sponsor to compete, what would your car look like?
SKUZA: The cars that I started driving before I ever had a sponsor were always really bright in color. I always thought it was important to have flashy colors like bright yellow and purple. I couldn't imagine not having to have a sponsor, but if we didn't, I would have a lot of rock bands hanging around. I do anyway. I am such a music lover. I would probably do a Led Zeppelin commemorative car and get a really good artist to hand-paint it. Take an old photo from Rolling Stone and get Robert Plant and Jimmy Page together, where Page has on those free-flowing bell-bottom pants with the planets all over them. That's what I would like to see. That's the music I really love. I've got about 300 CDs.
Q: Now that POWERade is on board as the series sponsor, do you feel like all the pieces of the NHRA puzzle are in place?
SKUZA: I thought Winston did an outstanding job for 27 years, and no one will ever refute that. But we were limited. They were limited with what they could do to promote their product and unfortunately we sort of went along with that. That's what the government decided for the tobacco industry. Getting POWERade and the Coca-Cola Company is huge. I see all kinds of potential for promotions that POWERade could do where a tobacco company couldn't. They can be responsible for filling the stands with new fans instead of the ones who have already become hooked on the sport like we have. I think the sport is going to really grow in the next couple of years because of all the potential new fans that we can expose through a company that's our partner like Coke and the marketing potential through a popular product like POWERade.
Q: How do you think the partnership with ESPN is working out?
SKUZA: Before ESPN signed on last year, TV time was a major stumbling block for a lot of the teams out here unless you have an established name like a John Force or a Kenny Bernstein. Unless you were in the upper-echelon of the sport it was really tough to negotiate a sponsorship contract until the TV package was put in place. Now when I go into a meeting with a sponsor I show them the rock solid TV numbers we have with ESPN. That's a nice ally to have. There are so many off the wall cable channels out there now that we are fortunate to be aligned with a well-known entity like ESPN. Not only are we getting a lot of air time, but we're also getting quality air time on a great network with quality production. Much like our team getting the Stratus body to make our team complete, the NHRA has made a couple of moves in the last two years by partnering with ESPN and POWERade to put all of the pieces of the puzzle in place. Now, the sky is the limit really.
Q: What would be your dream drag racing scenario?
SKUZA: My dream scenario is not a round against one driver and it is more than just one race. It's a time when we're really clicking on all cylinders as a team and we win five or six straight races. I know that can happen and I can't wait until it does.
Q: What would you be doing if you weren't racing?
SKUZA: That's hard to say. I'd probably be pretty miserable. This takes up so much of my time that I don't really have any other hobbies. I'm pretty much full-time with this. If I wasn't in drag racing, I'd probably own a restaurant. It would be a little steak and seafood place with a nice bar where all the locals like to hang out. It'd be a cool place.
Q: What are some of the changes that you see between the old Avenger body and the new Stratus body?
SKUZA: The Stratus has a bigger wing and the deck is a little different. There's a lot more negative pressure under the body. Where you can really see it is in the wind tunnel. When you look at the numbers that is where it is night and day. It's like a bi-plane compared to a F-16, and I'm not exaggerating. We have a ton-and-a-half more downforce on the rear wheels. It's really a marvel when you look at the numbers. It's all within the rules too. It's not like we are stretching anything.
Q: Why did you decide to go with Roush Racing to manufacture the body?
SKUZA: Back in October we were going to go with Murf McKinney. Then the guys at Mopar had worked with Roush on the Neons and saw how sophisticated and technologically-advanced those guys were working on that project. They are probably the best in the business for doing any type of work like that. At first I was a little worried, but when I saw how they went about putting it together I was really amazed. They are definitely top of the line.
Q: What did you learn about the Stratus body during testing?
SKUZA: The numbers we were running in Tucson translate to 79s (4.79 seconds) and 80s at a lower altitude. I thought it was going to be a lot worse and that we would have to use a lot of horsepower to try and compensate for the bigger body. Really the car stuck so well to the track that it's a lot easier to drive. Last year I couldn't wait for the season to be over because the Avenger became so hard to drive. No matter what I did it would try and ride the centerline. I could even point the wheels to the right and it would end up heading to the middle. It was so ill-handling. The Stratus is a dream to drive. There's a different perspective from behind the wheel. Inside the car it's like driving a Station Wagon as compared to a Volkswagen.
Q: With so many talented teams out there, is this going to be the toughest year yet in Funny Car?
SKUZA: Last year kinda showed us what tough is all about. Everyone would ask, who's the guy you would like to go up against in the first round? There are no easy rounds. Anyone that qualifies is running damn good. Last year there were guys running strong 80s and were 13th and 14th. It's like the price of poker went up in a hurry. It's crazy. There was a time when you knew you would qualify, it was just a matter of where. Now you look at it and there's a very real possibility that you may not qualify and that goes for everyone out here. If the car counts are anything like last year, it's definitely going to be hard-ball out there just to make the show. Forget about winning races and championships. You've got to qualify first.
Q: What does that do to your mental approach to racing?
SKUZA: I think our whole team has started to avoid thinking about outside influences. Even if we are going up against John Force, it doesn't matter. We don't care. We're going in with the attitude of bring everything we've got to the starting line and don't leave anything on the track. If you are good enough, you'll win and move on. If not, you try and get 'em next time. Coming into this season I'm confident that we will be a top three or four car. I'm thinking we'll be a No. 1 car at some races because we have all the pieces of the puzzle fitting together now. Deep down inside I love the competition. No matter who you are, the competition fuels you to be better. As long as you don't let it get to you too much, I think it can be a benefit. That's why it surprises me that Force stays so motivated. If you look at any team in any sport eventually they will get bored with winning and have a drop off. Our team has that killer instinct and we can stay motivated. We don't want to just win, we want to demoralize the opposition.
Q: Describe your relationship with your crew chief, Lance Larsen.
SKUZA: Lance is more than just a crew chief, he's a part of the family. He's the godfather of my son Donnie. He's one of the nicest guys I've ever met. He's a big guy, but he's like baby Huey, a big teddy bear. He brings a very pragmatic approach to the team. He's an old-school guy that has all the attributes of a new guy that's just coming up. I think his true talents will be shown this year with the new Stratus body. We knew once we got the new Stratus body we would be OK -- it was like the light at the end of the tunnel that kept us going.
Q: How would you describe your job description as a race car driver?
SKUZA: To be a champion it takes a lot. You have to be very versatile and adept at all areas in life. It used to be that if you had enough money and you wanted to drive a race car you could make it happen. Now that the stakes have gone up with corporate involvement, it's a different story. There used to be linemen in the NFL who were 6-3, 270 pounds that ran 5-second 40s. Now, the linemen are 6-7, 350 pounds and they run 4.7-second 40s. Bigger and faster. It's just the evolution of things. These days to be a quality race car driver you have to be light weight, you have to be a great spokesman for the camera, a great businessman and have a sense for marketing. You have to be able to deal with the corporate world. It's exciting to see that happening. I'm certain the sport is going to snowball over the next five years.
Q: Where do you think drag racing technology is compared to other forms of motorsports?
SKUZA: It depends which way you look at it. From a computer standpoint we are way back because we can't use them on our cars during racing. When you think of technology, you look at Formula One or CART and the ability to tune the car on the track from a remote location. That's pretty incredible. I think a lot of people look at drag racing as unsophisticated and that the car that can make the most horsepower always wins. If you look at what we accomplish without electronics, drag racing is amazing. The trick in this sport is getting the car to repeat and be consistent. We are able to put together management systems to make all that happen with air. Some of the best engineers would look at what we're doing and say that can't be. It just can't happen. But we're doing it. It just baffles the best in the business. As far as the technology we use with pneumatics, there's nothing else that even comes close. Some people look at drag racing and say how difficult can it be? I'll admit that making horsepower is easy. The hard part is getting it to hook up to the ground and then, getting it to repeat on a consistent basis. Meanwhile, you are on the edge. When a Funny Car travels a quarter-mile distance in 4.72-seconds, that's on the edge. I don't care what anyone says. With what technology offers I don't know how quick or how much faster that we can go. But the fact that we are always able to find that edge and are able to do it consistently is amazing.
Q: Did you think that the 90 percent rule would slow down the cars?
SKUZA: We never really ran a lot of nitro anyway, so I knew that wouldn't slow the times and speeds. I think that rule was one of the best things to happen to the sport. It makes better side-by-side racing, keeps the oildowns limited and makes the sport safer. There's other ways to go about making horsepower. It actually made it a little more expensive to race. Any time you limit someone in one way, they will find another way to get to their goal. Unfortunately that's through spending more money. I'm real happy where the rules are right now and hopefully we won't have any more limitations if we can help it.