INDIANAPOLIS - At his job as a high school auto shop teacher, Gary Densham, the pilot of the NEC/Auto Club of Southern California Funny Car, routinely grades his students on their performance. As the National Hot Rod Association circuit arrives in Indy, Densham has decided to critique his 33rd year in professional drag racing.
"We're in the improved category right now," Densham said. "Our qualifying performances are up dramatically this year. Before NEC and the Auto Club of Southern California got behind his car we were qualifying in the 12th-16th-place range. Now, we are consistently in the fifth-10th-place range. This car is a lot better than anything we've had in the past and we're very happy with the results. It's just a matter of time now."
Densham's report card from the first 15 races of 1998 certainly back up his analysis. He has qualified for 13 elimination sessions so far this season, dipping below the 10th qualifying position on only one occasion while reaching as high as the No. 4 spot.
The season started well for Densham at his home track in Pomona, Calif. With several of his students looking on, Densham blistered the strip with an amazing 4.991-second pass at 305.49 mph. The breakneck time put Densham in the company of former point's champions John Force, Cruz Pedregon and Mark Oswald as one of only 13 Funny Car drivers that have covered the strip in less than five seconds. It also automatically made Densham a member of the elite Castrol 5-Second Club. Both the ET and the mph figures are career-best marks for Densham. "Aside from the $3,000 in tickets I bought for all my students, that was a great weekend," Densham said with a laugh.
Just a few weeks later in Houston, Densham proved that he belonged with the top drivers when he posted another sub-five second pass (4.998 seconds) during the qualifying session. In Atlanta, Densham shot over the 300-mph bar once again with a pass at 304.05 seconds en route to a quarterfinal appearance.
The 51-year-old Densham has continued to improve at all points on the track as the 1998 season has progressed, recording several 300-plus mph runs while keeping his ETs within fractions of the magical five-second mark. "We've raced a few people that are having career-best runs against us and that's held us down a little, but I've been around racing long enough to know that these things tend to work out," Densham said. "We'll keep plugging away and before long, the luck will turn our way."