LAST MEN STANDING: SCELZI, CAPPS AND FORCE DISCUSS HISTORIC THREE-WAY FIGHT FOR NHRA POWERADE SERIES FUNNY CAR CROWN POMONA, Calif. -- This season's Funny Car points chase was destined for drama -- and the final conclusion to the closest ...
LAST MEN STANDING: SCELZI, CAPPS AND FORCE DISCUSS HISTORIC THREE-WAY FIGHT FOR NHRA POWERADE SERIES FUNNY CAR CROWN
POMONA, Calif. -- This season's Funny Car points chase was destined for drama -- and the final conclusion to the closest world championship battle in NHRA history will finally be determined next week at the Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Finals at historic Pomona Raceway in Southern California.
For the three men at the center of the story -- Gary Scelzi, Ron Capps and John Force -- the week will be one of mixed emotions: fear, nervousness and maybe even hope.
Scelzi, who leads the standings by two points over Capps, his Don Schumacher Racing teammate, is looking to become only the second man after the legendary Kenny Bernstein to win world championship titles in both Top Fuel and Funny Car. Capps is seeking his first world championship. Force desperately wants to defend his title -- but for perhaps the first time, the odds are against the 13-time champ.
In this Q and A session, Scelzi, Capps and Force discuss their approach to what will surely prove to be one of the biggest weekends of their lives.
Q: Gary, it's been a hectic month for you. Describe your state of mind going into the Finals.
SCELZI: "Lost. Spun out. Going to therapy three times a week. No, I'm gonna be just fine. Actually, I'm in Irwindale, Calif. right now. I've got an open-wheel team that I'm starting for next year with a Ford Focus (for the Focus Midgit Series). We're down here to do some testing. I'll try to keep my mind off of drag racing for a week or two."
Q: Ron, describe your state of mind going into the Finals.
CAPPS: "You find ways to keep your mind off of it. The one cool thing is that Gary and I, our trailers are connected. It's been that way all year. It's kind of bounced back and forth as far as where we've been in the points. We've never led all year long, we just kind of hung in there. (Our crew chiefs) have worked like long-lost brothers. It's made both of our teams better. Obviously we want to win the race. We definitely would like to win for Don Schumacher. But myself personally? I'm just going back to Las Vegas tonight and doing some things over there to try to keep my mind clear. I don't know what else to do. I've been in this position before, but not like this. Not like basically where whoever goes furthest this next race is going to win the whole enchilada. Every time I think about it, it makes my hair stand up. I'm going to just roll in there as if I'm a deer with headlights staring at me and do what I've done all year long."
Q: In most forms of racing, even though you have multi-car teams, they spend very little time together. It's the opposite in drag racing. What will it be like for the two of you to be near each other all weekend?
CAPPS: "It's been that way before. Gary and I, we love racing anything, but especially going off in the dirt and asphalt with an open-wheel car. We've done that a lot in the last few years ... Us racing each other, it's funny, we'll joke with each other at these other events, wherever we're out racing. But again, too, we get in the car and I want to beat him worse than anybody else out there. I'm sure he feels the same about me because it's kind of bragging rights. We've gone through this before. Now it's up a few levels and it's bragging rights within the team, within our category, and it's everything we've dreamed about. Gary has won a few championships in dragster, so he knows that feeling. I don't. Not that that means I'm any hungrier than he is. I could still walk over Sunday morning and if I had a serious question about the car, Gary would give me the best and honest answer he could."
Q: Are the three of you playing mind games with each other?
SCELZI: "John is a really close friend of mine, on and off the race track. There's one thing that we don't do -- we don't play games. In fact, I told Ron going into the finals in Vegas -- I said look, I'm going to take the chump. I'm rolling this thing in on you. I'm taking every advantage I can get. I wasn't going to lie to him about it. We all get along really well. Mind games? They don't work. I'm not smart enough to play them. They'll end up having a reverse affect on me."
Q: Ron, Gary has a championship in his back pocket. Don't you think it's your turn?
CAPPS: "Yeah, that'd be nice. No, I don't expect it, especially with these two guys ... After the race is over, you might not see us signing autographs way late in the day on Saturday. More than likely we're over together having a beer and talking about things away from the racetrack. The other thing is, you could be running next to Force (at qualifying), you could be pulling into the back gate of the pit area next to him in a rental car, and you still want to beat him. He's the champ, and no matter what happens this year, he's still John Force. Every time we read about him doing a contract extension for another five years it makes me excited. I know it makes every other Funny Car guy excited. Racing Force, racing Scelzi, it makes you get up more than anybody you can think of. I'm up for the challenge."
Q: John, you had a successful test session at Las Vegas after the event there. Do you have some tricks up your sleeve for Pomona?
FORCE: "There's not magic. We found some consistency. That's what we've been lacking. We'll see what happens in Pomona."
Q: How important is Thursday's qualifying going to be?
SCELZI: "It's the same as any race. You want to try to qualify in the top half of the field on the first run. To know that you're in there solid. You want to try to get a good run in early just in case there's weather, just so you can sleep on Thursday night. Then on Friday you can step it up, and by Saturday you can get after the thing, and if you're not in the top half of the field you can try to get in the top half."
Q: With the points difference, the qualifying this week is particularly important between you and Ron. Will that affect you?
SCELZI: "The bottom line is to get in the show, and if you lose qualifying points and Ron gets ahead of us after qualifying, then that's what's going to happen. We're not going to change our whole game plan just over those two points ... We're all going to look at it, I'm not going to lie to you, but if it doesn't, it's not the end of the world. The important thing is on Sunday. We're going there to try to win the race, just like we did in Vegas. We almost did it. Whether that happens in Pomona, we'll see. I don't have a crystal ball, but we're not going to change up our game plan and force ourselves to blow it pulling in the gate."
Q: What would it mean to join Bernstein as only the second driver to win a world championship in Top Fuel and Funny Car?
SCELZI: "I think it's more self-satisfaction. I've got to kind of laugh when they mention my name with Bernstein or Force or Amato - they used to do it in the dragster -- because I just don't consider myself as one of those guys. Those guys are legends. They're going to go down in history in this sport. I just don't think that I'm in that league. Yeah, I'm racing against them and I think I can hold my own against them, but I don't think they're ever going to mention Gary Scelzi and Kenny Bernstein in the same sentence. Not and really mean it."
Q: John, how tough is it to come back from a race like Las Vegas, when you go out in the first round? How difficult has it been on you mentally to get going again for this race?
FORCE: "You just get back in your hot rod and you go out and you test it, try to get your mind right. Our strategy is going to completely change because we went into Vegas and we had a lead and we knew we got that because of a destiny that took place in Dallas that put us out there. And we ran well, but we can't count on luck to win this race. Scelzi and Capps, they have to fight it out the way they're going to fight it. We have to look at the points structure, 28 points. We can't count on them to make a mistake. We have to beat them. In the process of that, if there was one car to race against we might have a different strategy. One car might make a mistake and be out, but not two of them. They're too good. We're kind of watching the weather man. He's kind of the key to this. That's why we stayed and tested ... We want to go into Pomona and try to set the national record because we might need that if we're going to win ... When we come out of the box, we're not going to just put it in the show. We're going to run as hard and push it to the max of what that track will hold, and try to get the national record. But that's all about weather. It could be there for all of us, but that's the way we're looking at this race."
Q: Ron, would winning a world championship title be a validation of your career?
CAPPS: "Sure. It's funny, we kind of bounced around in the top five and really thought we might have a shot at it, then after Dallas we really felt like we may have opened the door too far and let Force back in, then we rolled into Vegas and we said we're going to shoot for the pole and we're going to win this race, and everything else will take care of itself. And we did. We find ourselves with a legitimate shot at it, then all these thoughts start rolling through your head. I'm laying in bed last night, and I'm thinking, of all things, I'm thinking "oh my god, I'm worried. What if we win this deal? I'll have to write a speech on Monday morning for Monday night at the awards banquet. That to me is like homework and school, and I don't want to do that again. I was thinking about all this stressful stuff, and I had to stop myself and say 'you know what? Let's just keep going like I've been going and not worry about that.' Ace did his cancer treatments right after Vegas, so that's going to be good that he got them out of the way and had the week to recuperate. He's already pumped about everything -- and the way we've been qualifying and running the last few races in a row, I'm excited about going to Pomona. We know Force has been over there testing. We know Force runs good at Pomona. It's a good track for him, as well as Mike Neff and Ace have done well there. Everything's lining up to be one of the most exciting races for the fans. I wish Sunday morning was here now."
Q: Gary, how is this championship race different from the others you've won?
SCELZI: "I think before, we've always gotten it done by just going to Pomona and qualifying. It's been tight like this, but only with basically one other driver. Either Cory (McClenthan) or (Tony) Schumacher. We've gotten it done early. This is down to three guys going at it basically all year round. No one's been able to get away with anything. No one's been able to pad that lead. Now time's run out. There's no more mistakes for any of us. We've gotta go and we've gotta do well. One, I think is no matter what about the Kenny Bernsteins or the Joe Amatos or the Cory McClenathans, this is John Force. He's a 13-time world champion, and if you watch his organization, everybody's tried to copy it, everybody's tried to duplicate it, and nobody's been successful. I think that it's the hardest it's ever been on him, or anybody else, the closest they've ever been. It's a different scenario. It's a different feeling. Even though he's a close friend of mine. He's John Force, and once you pull onto the starting line, you better not be coming with a knife to a gun fight, and you better be dead-on on your aim. And you know that, so that just kind of raises everything too -- the pressure, the hair on the back of your neck. It raises the level of everything, because this is a big deal."
Q: John, is this the toughest year for you?
FORCE: "Maybe I focused so much on Robert, Eric and Ashley and my two littlest girls, I forgot to watch Scelzi and Capps. I'm hoping it's not too late. We do all we can do. (Scelzi and Capps) have earned a shot at this title, and so have I. We're going to give our best shot. You can talk all you want or get sick all you want, but bottom line, it starts on Sunday morning. We're going to try to start it on Thursday, when we roll in the gate."
Q: John, Pomona has been very good to you. Do you have an advantage over Ron and Gary?
FORCE: "No, not really. I think Scelzi's the veteran, he knows the game, and we all make mistakes, but he knows it better than any because he's been there three times and won the championship. I'm sure Scelzi's hungry, but Capps is super-hungry because Capps has been there, he's way over-due, and he's really good on that Christmas tree. I hand it to both of them for what they do. I don't think there's any advantage. Cloud cover could change the course of a race. It's all about focus, the right parts, crew chiefs, camaraderie, all three teams have this, and they have multi-car teams. In the midst of all this, luck could be a factor here, but I'm not going to count on luck to beat two of them. If I only had one, I'd be playing the consistency game and hope one of them would go down. We're just going to have to flat beat them if we can. That means national records, I hate to throw that out there, but it's there ... the national record could be the difference for me. It won't be for them. All they've gotta do is win, and then it's between them and it's over for me. I'm gonna get me a beer and get up in the stands. Truth is, I love them both. I'll really struggle with who to root for. It's a struggle for me, but the real bonus for me is 60 employees that want that bonus check that have worked hard for it."
Q: You struggled through your final years with (previous owner) Don "the Snake" Prudhomme. What made you successful so quickly with (new owner) Don Schumacher?
CAPPS: "It's all the same parts, the same budget. There's no difference. It just happens to click. I've seen it a thousand times. I've seen teams that ran good with no money, and then you get a big sponsor and all of a sudden they can't run good. It's just things that happen. There's nothing bad to say about the way Snake ran things. Ace and I were together there, we ran well at the beginning there at Snake's. It's very hard to find a crew that doesn't have some kind of drama going on -- where one guy doesn't like another guy, or doesn't like the way he parts his hair. These guys live together all the time. This is the first time -- not ripping on anything in the past -- that I've had a crew where there is nothing like that going on. It's been unbelievable."
Q: Gary, how will you spend the week?
SCELZI: "I'll worry about it on Thursday. Right now it's really gravy. There's no reason to get nervous. A lot of guys start getting pumped up early, well, I fall out of the seat too soon. I can't get pumped up until I get in the car. When I get dressed and get my helmet on and I give my guys the A-high ten and I get in that car, that's what drives me. That's what pumps me up, is the people around me. Right now nothing is bothering me. I'm ready to go."
Q: If you could go to Force to ask a question right now, what would you ask?
CAPPS: "I would probably go to him and ask for some tickets for Pomona. I've got to give out 40 tickets for my friends and family. Man, I don't know what I'd ask him right now. I'd ask him not to show up."
FORCE: "I've got some extra tickets, because after Vegas all my friends sent them back!"
CAPPS: "I don't have an answer."
Q: You once said that Scelzi and Capps would be champions one day. You said you would hire them to drive for you. What did you see in them that told you they would be champions?
FORCE: "The same thing I saw in Eric (Medlen) and Robert (Hight). The energy, how bad they wanted it. Everything was focused -- everything was going one direction. But really, the honesty. The honesty of these two individuals. We (Force, Capps and Scelzi) stood in the staging lanes and we talked about how nervous we were and that I was nervous too. I joked with both of them -- you know what fear is? When you're young and you're poor and you're sitting at the breakfast table, and you look across the table, and your brother Louie is across the table and he wants that last piece of sausage. That's nervous. You reach for it, he'll put a fork in you. Everything has perspective of what creates the pressure. These guys talk about it. They're going to tell you they're gonna beat you, or they'll tell you they're going to lose, but they don't give you no bull."