DENVER, July 16, 2001 - Whit Bazemore is an NHRA Funny Car driver who knows how to end the season with a strong finish. Since entering into the lightening-fast world of Winston championship drag racing over a decade ago, the 38-year-old...
DENVER, July 16, 2001 - Whit Bazemore is an NHRA Funny Car driver who knows how to end the season with a strong finish. Since entering into the lightening-fast world of Winston championship drag racing over a decade ago, the 38-year-old driver of the Matco Tools Pontiac Firebird has scored five of his seven career victories during the second half of the year. Now the nations' premier straight-line racing series is ready to embark on the three-event western swing, a grueling series of stops which takes the tour into Denver, Seattle and Sonoma, Calif., on consecutive weekends. To say Bazemore is a little excited about this year's 22nd annual Mile-High Nationals at Bandimere Speedway would be a slight understatement.
"I'm pleased that we've run well and with the way the team has come together," said Bazemore. "We seem to be on the right track, but we're nowhere near from being totally happy with where we are. We've got issues that we've got to solve before we can really contend for a championship but we're close. It's not like we're out in left field."
The Mile-High Nationals in particular have been kind to Bazemore since it's at this scenic mountaintop venue that he's experienced some of his greatest exploits as a racer - success that includes two national-event victories ('00, '97) and a runner-up finish ('99). During last year's final round against Scotty Cannon, Bazemore became the first Funny Car driver to break the five-second barrier at Bandimere Speedway with a run of 4.990 seconds. Although past performance is never a guarantee of future success, don't bet against the Matco Tools Pontiac driver here.
"Bandimere Speedway is my favorite racetrack," Bazemore said. "As a driver you try not to have a favorite place to race, but Bandimere is such a great facility. The way it's situated at the foothills of the Rockies and the view you have of downtown is tremendous. It's such a cool place and the only race I've won twice.
"Running the first four-second pass in a Funny Car up on the mountain was something I won't forget. It's such a different race because of the altitude. Everyone's tune-ups are different so it's kind of a crapshoot. I don't know how we're going to do, but I'm sure we'll be competitive."
As the schedule passes the halfway juncture, Bazemore is looking for the catalyst that will propel him to his first win in 2001. Prior to the beginning of the season, the Indianapolis resident announced he would drive for team-owner Don Schumacher, and with the addition of crew chief Lee Beard in January, the program is beginning to pick up steam.
"I knew going in that there would be a period of time where the team would have to work together and go through a learning process," said Bazemore. "Considering all of that, I feel we're in a pretty good position. The Funny Car fields are pretty tight out there, but we've been able to be competitive in a sport that's difficult to begin with. This year the parity is greater than it's ever been.
"Our team has been getting stronger and stronger at each race. We know each other much better now and our communication has greatly improved. I enjoy driving for Lee and Don Schumacher and my relationship with Lee is great - it's an outstanding working relationship. We're very honest about what needs to be done. Sometimes it's me who says, 'you know, I'm sorry I didn't get the job done.' There have been other times where Lee has said, 'hey, sorry about not giving you the car that would win here.' That kind of dialogue leads to a better team and portends to an excellent finish."
A retrospective on the 2001 campaign at this juncture shows a Matco Tools Pontiac team on the cusp of a breakthrough, and it doesn't take an accountant to figure out that Bazemore, now in fourth place, is less than three rounds from moving into the No. 2 position. He was runner-up at the series' last event in Pomona and took the top qualifying spot there with a career-best elapsed time of 4.816 seconds. He was also runner-up in April at Las Vegas, and has qualified his nitro-powered Firebird second at Houston and third at Phoenix.
Bazemore will readily admit that the second half of the year is usually his strong suit with 13 of his 19 career final rounds occurring after the season's halfway point.
"I think it's just a case of getting on a roll, having the right opportunities go your way and taking advantage of every opportunity," said Bazemore. "Probably the most fun I had was in '91. We had a real small team, a tiny budget and went to the second round at each of the three races on the western swing. That was the first time we'd ever gone rounds. That was a big deal for us because everything was maxed out as far as credit cards and equipment. We were working on adrenaline pretty much and I think all of that has carried over. From that point on I've really enjoyed the challenge the western swing presents.
"Once we get a breakthrough win it's going to help us quite a bit, both from a motivational and momentum standpoint. We haven't had a lot of breaks go our way this year and a little good luck is imperative. We've lost some close races - that's how it goes. But you have to be patient and keep working away. If you keep making the effort it will eventually pay off. We're chipping away. We've got to take advantage of our potential on race day and once we do that we should be okay."
The 22nd annual Mile-High Nationals on July 19 -22 at Bandimere Speedway in Denver, Colo., is the 14th event on the 24-race NHRA Winston championship tour. Qualifying highlights can be seen on ESPN2 on Saturday, July 21, beginning at 6 p.m. Eastern. Final eliminations will be telecast on Sunday, July 22, starting at 5 p.m. Eastern.
"To be honest," said Bazemore, "it's hard for me to imagine myself racing another 10 years. But if the financial obligations are there, the challenge is there, and the satisfaction is there, then it's worth doing. It's hard to say. I'm not satisfied with my career at all right now, but I am having fun and I love driving the car. It's still very challenging and that's what drives me to succeed."