Schumacher, Scelzi - NHRA teleconference, part 1

An interview with: TONY SCHUMACHER GARY SCELZI MICHAEL PADIAN: The NHRA would like to welcome the members of the media who have joined us for today's teleconference, which marks both the start of the Western Swing and the home stretch of the ...

An interview with:
TONY SCHUMACHER
GARY SCELZI

MICHAEL PADIAN: The NHRA would like to welcome the members of the media who have joined us for today's teleconference, which marks both the start of the Western Swing and the home stretch of the Countdown to the Championship regular season.

There are six races left in the 18-race regular season, beginning with this weekend's Mopar Mile-High NHRA Nationals in Denver, Colorado.

As you know, there have been a couple modifications to the countdown format from 2007 to 2008. as you know, there have been a couple of modifications to the countdown format from 2007 to 2008 and they are:

* 10 drivers -- versus eight in 2007 -- will qualify for the playoffs;

* there will be 18 regular season races -- instead of 17 in 2007 -- culminating with the mac tools U.S. NATIONALS LABOR DAY WEEKEND

* Finally, FIRST-PLACE DRIVERS AFTER THE 18-RACE REGULAR SEASON WILL RECEIVE A 20-POINT BONUS WHEN THE POINTS ARE RE-SET ENTERING THE SIX-RACE PLAYOFF.

As to the last point, we have invited Tony Schumacher, driver of the U.S. Army Top Fuel dragster, to join us on today's call. Tony is a five-time world champion and he has won five races in 2008 to become the first driver to officially clinch a playoff berth.

He has not yet clinched the No. 1 seed, however, so there's plenty of work to be done this summer, right, Tony?

TONY SCHUMACHER: You bet you. Look forward to it.

MICHAEL PADIAN: What are your thoughts going into the final six races, for you being in first place, having already clinched, the value of that 20-point bonus?

TONY SCHUMACHER: We're just trying to win races. Ironically, people have been asking, you know, what did we do different, why are we leading. We were so good at finishing strong. The truth is, we didn't do anything different. We just had some of the breaks that didn't go our way the last couple years early in the season go our way.

I smoked the tires, for example, in Chicago and in Englishtown, first round and could easily have been beaten. And we were lucky enough to go out, win that first round, and then go on and win the race. Those breaks weren't with us the last couple years.

We feel fortunate they're going our way right now. We've got a huge lead. Yeah, they're going to take it away (when the points reset at the start of the six-race playoff), we're going to start over. I'm all for that. It would be very hypocritical of me to go against what won us a championship last year. I mean, really we weren't in the lead. We came into the final race in fourth and won a championship that way.

So just look forward to winning. We're trying to win every race. We're not in any way, shape or form in a test mode. We're just out there doing what we do, trying to win these races. We're one of the teams that really looks forward to the Western Swing. Now with running to a thousand foot at these races, it's going to be a blast, man. I'm excited about it.

MICHAEL PADIAN: Tony is the only driver in any of the POWERade Series categories to have led the points standing wire to wire this season. As a note on that, in Funny Car four different drivers have been in first place at one point or another this season. Same in Pro Stock, four drivers have led. And in Pro Stock Motorcycle, two different riders have led the points standings this season.

The second driver joining us today is Gary Scelzi, a four-time world champion, who drives the Mopar/Oakley Dodge Charger. Gary brings a much different perspective to today's call as he is currently 12th in points, 54 points behind rookie Bob Tasca for the 10th and final playoff berth in Funny Car.

Gary, I imagine this is not what you would have envisioned when the season started. Just as a matter of reference, John Force was in 13th place and 63 points out of the playoffs entering the 2007 race in Denver, and he climbed all the way to third place over the course of the final (five) regular season races. Do you think that kind of move is possible in 2008 for the Mopar/Oakley Dodge Charger team?

GARY SCELZI: I do. Especially as of late, even though we've lost a couple races by nine-thousandths and three-thousandths of a second, I've been on the other end of those, too. Finally it seems like the car does what (Crew chief) Todd Okuhara wants it to do. We've been good on hot tracks. Then in Chicago, we qualified in the top half of the field. We finally got the car to run hard there.

The only variable I'm a little concerned about now is the new Goodyear tire in Denver. But Todd doesn't seem to worry too much about it because we actually made some test runs with it last year. Some of the guys that have run the new tire, it seems to be a non-issue. So I don't think that's going to be too much.

Now Denver's going to be a whole different situation because we're up on the hill. I don't believe the thousand-foot thing is going to come into play. It's not a big deal. The cars still run really hard to the thousand foot. So I think historically I've won one race on the West Coast Swing here of late (2006 Denver), but I don't do very good at the other two. Hopefully we can win a couple and keep the momentum going on the West Coast Swing because that can make a big swing in the points. Our first thing right now is to get into 10th, then we have to look at going forward. But I do think we have a car that can win and I do think we can make a move. I think by the time we get to Indy, we're going to be looking pretty good.

MICHAEL PADIAN: Thanks, Gary.

At this point I'll open it up to the questions.

Q: Gary, you said basically the shortened distance is going to affect the way people approach things. Is someone going to try and increase their tune-up so that engine will live through a thousand feet and maybe go a little quicker since they don't have to go the full quarter mile?

GARY SCELZI: I've had that conversation with several crew chiefs and they're running them so hard now that normally it's right after the thousand foot that they're expiring because they're being pushed so hard early.

If you run them any harder than we're running them now, and I'm not saying that some crew chiefs won't try, they're pretty much tapped out right now. That's why if you notice, you're not seeing a lot of big speeds because everything is done, you know, at a thousand foot. The last 320 feet the thing is used up.

We're not changing our tune-up. The car is still pulling hard at a thousand foot. That's what you try to make your tune-up do. We're there. I think the majority of the teams are there. So I don't see it.

Q: There is a lot of concern about safety, the thousand foot rule. To laymen, they think what's the difference with that 320 feet. What is the difference with that 320 feet? What difference does it make? As a driver, do you drive the race any differently with it being a shorter course?

GARY SCELZI: You know, I don't think you drive any differently. We're not gonna be able to play catch-up because we're taking 320 feet away. And historically my car has made big top-end charges. So it's not going to be an issue of driving any differently.

Q: How much safer does that make driving, taking away that 320 feet?

GARY SCELZI: I tell you what, in a place like Denver, it's very important, 320 feet. We watched at least two Funny Cars that I'm familiar with, Tony Bartone, Jerry Toliver, get upside down in the sand last year. If they would have had another 320 feet, probably wouldn't have happened.

It's a huge thing of slowing down, especially on short racetracks. In Denver, more so than others because the air is so thin. There's not a lot of downforce. The chutes don't hit near as hard, even though we're not going as fast.

It's huge. When everything is right, we can stop on a dime. When everything is wrong, we need every inch we can get. I commend the NHRA in doing what they do, making such a bold move.

Q: Tony, your thoughts on this?

TONY SCHUMACHER: I'm going to start out first by saying, you know, NHRA went beyond anything I would have expected for a driver, for driver safety, so thank you for that.

Drag racing has been a quarter of a mile. We're known at it. World records have been set, world championships have been decided by world records. To make that drastic of a change for the driver, we all appreciate that a ton.

I can tell you the thousand foot, most of the cars that are very quick, that's where we hit a rev limiter. They come on. When you hit a rev limiter, you're going 320 miles an hour, it drops three or four cylinders, that has its own scary issues as a driver, when the car lays over that hard.

I think it's gonna play into some hands, some teams, and crew chiefs. It's going to play away from some. I'll give you an example. (Doug) Kalitta, years ago their car was so outstanding early. Yet you'd get to Denver, they would get to a thousand foot, throw their blower belt off every time, so you had a good chance of passing them at the end. Now they're not going to do that.

My car is another great example. The rev limiter kicks on around a thousand foot to slow the really fast cars down. We're not going to hit it right now. So beyond just having 320 feet of extra slowdown time, we also aren't going to be destroying these engines by laying over three cylinders, you know, down there.

So I think there's several things that worked out well with this change. And I can't even really call it a change. It's an interim rule. We're just going to go that way and see how it works out. But I think it's great. I think the fans are still gonna get an outstanding show. I don't think we're running much quicker at all past a thousand foot because I've laid three cylinders over, and the car's out of power down there anyway. The fans are gonna get their money's worth. I don't want them to think in any way, shape or form they're not getting a great show. They're just taking away a little bit at the end.

You know, a sand trap is a last resort. A sand trap is built when there's no other option, you're in trouble, you can't stop. We're not hitting a sand trap hoping we don't destroy a car. We're hitting a sand trap because we're out of options. There's nothing left. It needs to stop us. Who cares if it dusts up the car. Who cares if we've got to clean it. We need to survive those impacts. That's what they're there for.

Until NHRA can figure out the correct way, and they're trying hard, when they figure out the right gravel, the right amount of gravel, the right depth, all that, we'll go back I'm sure to doing it the other way. Until then, let's just go out and have a great time. We're here for entertainment and we'll continue doing that.

Q: This is sort of the gauntlet stretch on the schedule. What separates the contenders from the pretenders in this stretch? If there's anything about the Western Swing that you could change, what would it be?

GARY SCELZI: I can tell you right now I'm glad to be with Don Schumacher Racing. This three-race stretch, you need to have a ton of parts. You need to have enough ammo to go into Denver to have four or five motors in case you have problems and not just go there with two or three. Running up on the mountain is very difficult. Then you've got to completely change your combination, go to sea level, which is in Seattle and Sonoma. You've got to have a stout team, which we have a 10-man team that are all veterans on our team. So you've got to be able to go the distance. It's like 15 rounds with Mike Tyson. So you've got to have all the guys with the stamina, the parts and the will to win. I think it's great.

The only thing I'd like to see is somehow Denver getting closer to Seattle and Seattle getting closer to Sonoma so the guys don't have such a drive. That's the only thing I would change.

TONY SCHUMACHER: You know, I love racing. I think it's a great combination. Three fun places to go to. Gary's got a great point, it's a lot of miles. The guys are worn out at the end. But it's fun. To cap it off in Sonoma, one of the finest racetracks on the circuit, it's outstanding.

I think there's nothing I can see changing. We've gone out there, we've been in three finals in a row out there the last two years, last year we won Sonoma. So it's my pleasure to go there. I think it's the right time and the right place, and just enjoy going there.

Q: After Scott Kalitta's crash, did all of the drivers or did you or did any of the drivers go down and look at the top end sand trap and is that something you're going to be doing as a group inspection at Denver?

GARY SCELZI: I go to the end of the racetrack at every single event except Englishtown. Why I didn't, I got into town late on Thursday, hungry, went and got something to eat. On Friday I had stuff to do, never went down and looked at it. I'm really angry at myself for doing it. Even if I would have saw what was down there, I don't know that I could have got anybody to change it. I don't think it would have mattered.

The one thing that I can tell you right now is, speaking with Jim Head, Tom Compton, Graham Light, all these people, this is the first time I honestly believe that they're going to work as a group. And it's not all NHRA's fault. I'm going to tell you, us as the racers are as guilty as anyone of not being able to make decisions, and everybody not getting along. Not that NHRA doesn't have some problems, too. I had some conversations with Jim Head, all the major crew chiefs were talking yesterday, and agreeing on a lot of things, and there was very little bickering.

I think finally this one has put us over the edge and everyone is going to work together. I don't care what happened two weeks ago, I just care what's going to happen two weeks from now. And it all looks good, I've got to be honest with you. You know me, I'd tell you if I didn't think it was.

Q: Does changing it to a thousand feet at this critical juncture in the season change perhaps how the championship plays out? Does it significantly alter how things might go from here on out?

TONY SCHUMACHER: It might. I'll tell you this, if it changes everything and we could not win a championship because of it, but NHRA went into this for our safety, I do not care. It's too bad we don't win a championship. We don't want to lose drivers. Scott (Kalitta) was a good guy. Every one of the guys we've lost were good people. We all get in these cars and risk our butts for entertainment. We all have kids at home. I know Gary does. I do. I don't want to walk out and know there's a one in 30 chance I'm not coming home. That's not right.

What NHRA is doing is in no way, shape or form trying to decide a championship by changing rules. They did it just 'cause they had to do something. And I commend them on that. A very difficult decision to change what's been going for 50-some years, but they're doing it for our safety.

If I had to hand a trophy over because that cost me a championship, I'm okay with that. I don't think it will in any way, shape or form. I don't think it will affect the way it goes. It may change a race or two here or there. Maybe that plays out at the end. But we had to do something.

It was a heck of a start, man. I tell you, very few people in the world are like me and Gary and have to buckle into that car and know that this is a tough track to stop on, this is short, this is difficult and this is risky. I tell you, man, it gets your heart pumping. When they made this change, I don't know what Gary did, but I relaxed immediately. Oh, man, I feel safer just by hearing the news. Then I'll figure out what we're gonna do later. But that was a heck of a start in making me feel more relaxed.

When we're losing drivers ... we can't do that. We need to do some other things to change that we know are dangerous. We need to fix some problems before we lose guys. But I think the championship will go to the guy that can win with the rule changes no matter what it is.

Continued in part 2

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Series NHRA
Drivers Jim Head , Tony Bartone , John Force , Tony Schumacher , Gary Scelzi , Scott Kalitta , Jerry Toliver , Don Schumacher