NHRA TELECONFERENCE -- COUNTDOWN TO 1 FINAL SPOTS The following transcript includes excerpts from an interview with NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series drivers DAVID GRUBNIC, TERRY McMILLEN, TONY PEDREGON and JEFF AREND. ZAK ELCOCK: I'd...
NHRA TELECONFERENCE -- COUNTDOWN TO 1 FINAL SPOTS
The following transcript includes excerpts from an interview with NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series drivers DAVID GRUBNIC, TERRY McMILLEN, TONY PEDREGON and JEFF AREND.
ZAK ELCOCK: I'd like to welcome the media to this teleconference call for the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series. I'm Zak Elcock with NHRA media relations. This call is to discuss the remaining positions in the Countdown to One playoffs in both Top Fuel and Funny Car.
With just one race left in the NHRA Full Throttle Countdown to 10 regular season, drivers have one last chance to secure their spot in the top 10 points and ensure a chance to compete for a World Championship in the six-race playoff, Countdown to One.
As the Full Throttle Drag Racing Series heads to Brainerd, Minnesota this weekend for the 29th annual Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals, four drivers in Top Fuel and Funny Car are in a tight battle to secure the 10th and final spot in the points standings in their respective categories and secure their place in the 2010 Countdown to One playoffs.
Those drivers, Top Fuel's David Grubnic and Terry McMillen, and Funny Car's Tony Pedregon and Jeff Arend are joining us today. We'll have a brief introduction of each driver, then open it up for questions.
Let's begin with Top Fuel driver David Grubnic. David is currently 10th place in the Top Fuel points standings, just 64 points behind ninth place Steve Torrence and only 19 points ahead of 11th place Terry McMillen. His best finish at Brainerd International Raceway was in 2004 when he had a runner-up finish against Tony Schumacher.
David, what do you need to do to keep your dragster in the 10th spot by the end of the day on Sunday?
DAVID GRUBNIC: Win the event. That should secure it, I think. That's our goal for every event we go to.
You know, we strive to do that. Sometimes we do well, sometimes we don't. But we just got to go in there and stick to our game plan, which has been qualify well and try and win the event.
ZAK ELCOCK: We'll now turn to Top Fuel driver Terry McMillen. As previously mentioned Terry is in the 11th spot, just 19 points behind Grubnic. He's moved in and out of the top 10 points standings. But after a first-round loss to Doug Kalitta in Denver lost the 10th place spot.
Terry, how can you move around David Grubnic and secure your first berth in the Countdown to One playoffs?
TERRY McMILLEN: Well, I don't know. Obviously, it's not an easy task. David has a great (indiscernible) over there and all that. Our team has fought all year long to try to be in this position. It's definitely a big credit to my team, first year to come in here, mixing it up with the best in the business. To be in the position I felt very honored and all that.
Our goal, bottom line, is we just got to go one round better than David does. That's no easy task. It's a great team. We're going to go out there and give it all we got.
ZAK ELCOCK: We'll now move to Funny Car and two-time world champion Tony Pedregon. Tony is currently 10th in the points standings, just 33 points ahead of 11th-place driver Jeff Arend. Tony has back-to-back wins at Brainerd International Raceway 2008 and 2009, making him the defending event winner in Funny Car this season.
Tony, in the past 14 years, you've never finished a season outside of the top 10, dating all the way back to 1995. What do you need to do to make sure it doesn't happen this season?
TONY PEDREGON: I need to fix my car. I need to get the car so that it performs as it has in the past. That's been the challenge all along for the last five to six races. It's a tough position. But fortunately I've been staring at going into this last race here, the potential is to go in behind. You know, I can breathe a little easier.
But the approach is still going to be the same: we've got to go on offense instead of just trying to defend our position. We've got to somehow get by a couple rounds to hopefully secure that spot.
ZAK ELCOCK: We'll now move to our final driver on the panel today, Jeff Arend. Jeff is currently 11th in the Funny Car points standings, just 33 points behind 10th place Pedregon. Though Jeff has posted two final-round appearances this season in both Houston and Topeka, he's been unable to move out of the 11th spot and into the top 10 points standings.
Jeff, with the final race remaining in the regular season, what do you need to do to go around Tony Pedregon and crack the top 10?
JEFF AREND: You know, basically we just have to go out there and again you have to qualify first, of course. After that, we just have to get back to go another final round, see how Tony does. Can't worry about him too much. Just have to worry about going rounds. If we go rounds, get to the final, I think we'll have a pretty good chance at it.
ZAK ELCOCK: We'll now open it up to the media for questions.
Q: David, with three teams potentially in the countdown this year, what do you think that says about how Kalitta Motorsports is doing?
DAVID GRUBNIC: I think it's great. All the teams, you can see this, pretty much a bit of a rollercoaster ride out there. We all go through our ups and downs. As long as we keep striving upwards, the curve is going up, it's a good thing. With all three of our cars getting in the count town, it will be great for Kalitta Motorsports. Once we do get into the Countdown, the door is wide open.
We got to take this one step at a time. But look at Robert Hight last year, just scraped into the Countdown and won the championship.
I think it's a good thing. We've just got to keep our heads up, keep our confidence up and keep heading towards that goal.
Q: Jeff, what do you think has changed this year to make Kalitta Motorsports so strong, to be up there with all the other teams fighting week in and week out?
JEFF AREND: Well, we've definitely got a little bit of an alliance going on with Allen Johnson and his team, which has helped a bit. It's not like he's tuning our cars, but we're able to work with him a little bit with the Top Fuel car and the Funny Car. Obviously it's showing in our Funny Car going to two finals this year.
As a matter of fact, right now I'm sitting at Indy, and we've made three runs today already testing. Kind of pulling out all the stops. Guys stayed up till 2:30 in the morning last night and were here at 7:30. We've made three runs already and are probably going to make another three runs before the day is over.
Q: Terry, with it being your first year in the battle for the championship, with several of the tracks that you've raced at being the first time you've raced there, how happy are you with your performance and even having a chance to get into that top 10 right now?
TERRY McMILLEN: Extremely happy. As racers, we all want to be great at what we do. When you come to racetracks that we really don't have any documentation, anyplace to start, we have to start on the ground floor, have to put a safe tune-up in the car and Richard has to get the car down the track. So it always keeps us behind the eight ball a little bit more because we don't have the records to look at and put our best numbers in from years past.
I think overall I'm extremely happy. I'm extremely proud of my team for what they've accomplished. The one thing that I really pride ourselves are on the fact that we're not throwing parts all over the racetrack, we're not dumping oil, we're not embarrassing our marketing partners.
When you look at it, to be knocking on the door to be racing with such great competitors like we are right now, having a chance to be in the top 10, it's definitely an honor and I'm extremely proud of my guys.
Q: Jeff, you're a veteran, but how hard is it to approach this race as just another event?
JEFF AREND: Well, you know, I've been racing for quite a while, so nothing I'm going to worry about is going to make it go any better. I'm a big golfer. I always have a golf analogy for everything. You basically have to go up there with confidence knowing you know how to drive the car well, get a good reaction time. The way it happens, you get the best reaction time, keep the car as straight as you can in the groove, if you get to the finish line first, your team was better that day, and if you don't, you congratulate the other guy and go on to the next race. That's really all you can do.
Q: You talked about your alliance with Alan Johnson. I think it's kind of interesting that people sort of forget that Alan Johnson tunes a Funny Car as well. We think of him with the dragsters. Are you finding that Allen is having fun with getting back into Funny Cars again with you?
JEFF AREND: Alan probably has become a little more hands-on with the Funny Car with the last few races over there. Obviously, he's a very smart guy. Not saying he's got Top Fuel totally wrapped up, but he's got a pretty good handle on it.
I think he finds the Funny Car pretty challenging, as do all the tuners, because the tuning window is a lot small in the Funny Car. When he talks to you, you have to listen. He has ideas. He was the one that designed the Toyota body that we run. So he has some good input there.
His team is helping us out a little bit. By no means are we a two-car team, but it's nice to have somebody to go talk to and make the car run better obviously.
Q: Tony, you guys are always one round away from going home. Can you talk about the difference you feel now knowing it's in or out for the playoffs.
TONY PEDREGON: No, no, I think that's the benefit of experience. We all have the tendency, we're very competitive. It's just our nature that we want to get into it. There's some excitement. There's a little bit of drama. I think I'll settle down when I get to the track. It should be business as usual.
I've been in a lot of situations, some with more pressure, some with less. But, you know, it's all the same. I think that helps us focus as drivers. My responsibilities are more than just getting in the seat. You know, unlike the Kalitta team, I'm very limited to testing. I have to race within my means. I think that's been one of the biggest challenges for us.
But we've managed to get through it. We've managed to be competitive at all of the races, maybe not at the level that we once were. But that could change. I think that we're probably just close to getting our problems sorted out. And we have to. We know that the clock is ticking.
I think in the end I'll be up for it. I only hope that we have a car that performs the way we need it to. We're not competing one-on-one with Jeff. We've got a lot of cars and a lot of other variables that we have to deal with. We've got some good data from the Brainerd race.
As much as we reference what we've done in the past, we're finding that these cars change and they get heavier, clutch discs and parts. So we can only rely on some of the data. Outside of that we're just going to have to use our brains and hopefully make it work.
Q: David, I was talking to Australian Marcos Ambrose in NASCAR last week. He thought his accent was going to be a problem when he got to the United States. Now he finds it's an asset. Do you feel that way? What is your feeling about that?
DAVID GRUBNIC: Well, you know, to be quite honest with you, I don't think so. I've lived more of my adult life here in the United States than I have in Australia. This is pretty much home for me now.
But I have this accent. It's not going to go away. Does it open doors and stuff? I don't think so, no. Last year we were sidelined and I desperately tried to find funding. Whether I spoke English, Swahili, it didn't help the bottom line of trying to get the car funded.
If it helped Marcos, good for him and everything else. In the grand scheme of things, we're all the same: we're all trying to stay out there, make a living, race our cars, doing what we love to do. As I said, I spent more of my adult life here. I don't know, I'm just stuck with this accent, I guess. I don't believe it's done a great deal, though.
Q: Terry, I've watched your career over the last several years. What has been the biggest challenge for you this year coming into the series for the first time full-time?
TERRY McMILLEN: Well, I think a lot of things. Obviously the competition level over here is just tremendous. Nothing against IHRA, but coming over here, these guys have an A Game every time they show up to the starting line. So you know you have to figure out how to gather one of those really quick.
I think the other thing for us is to learn how to run 23 races. I mean, we've only run 12 races a year. We're like starting our third season right now it seems like from years past. It's just getting everybody on the same page, keeping everybody aligned in our goals, just going out and doing our job. That's the thing that's got us to this point.
So I think as long as we stay focused, we continue to do that job, then we're going to be successful over here. It's just a matter of time.
Q: Terry, if you don't make the playoff system here, would you still say the season is a success?
TERRY McMILLEN: Oh, absolutely. You know, like I said, to come over here and compete, it's crazy how tough it is. Certainly our long-term goal was to try to make the top 10, just because of the competition, the level. Just to be knocking on the door has been a great privilege.
I just think that in the future it holds some brighter things for our team. Certainly our marketing partners, as well. It's been a great ride. Just everybody has wrapped their arms around us and embraced us. It's been a great deal. I'm looking forward to bigger and better next year.
But we're not done yet. Obviously we have our work cut out for us with David. We're going to give it everything we got. We got nothing to lose. At the end of the day, whichever one gets in the top 10, I'm sure the other is going to be over there to congratulate him. We're going to make it a dogfight and see what happens.
Q: Tony, being a car owner and a driver, how tough is it on you mentally to find yourself in the same spot that Cruz was in a year ago?
TONY PEDREGON: Uhm, well, I did think about the contrast from last year to this year. You know, last year we went into that Brainerd event with a crew chief change and leading the points. I do remember going into that final, you know, going into Indy, that was going to determine whether myself or Capps was in the lead. Now I find myself just trying to stay in the top 10.
You know, it's just one of those things, I think the reality of it is that what it really reminds me of when I put things in perspective is that I've been pretty fortunate in my career. I've been with some good teams. I've never struggled to make the top 10. I've always been in the top three or top five. I really view it as, you know, like any other business: you have ups and downs, and it's tough to be on top all the time, especially when you're limited and have limited resources.
I'm not going to let that affect me in a negative way. I'm more motivated than I ever have been. I've probably worked harder for less than I ever have. That's okay because, you know, I've been through tougher challenges when I was growing up.
This isn't unfamiliar territory for me. It just so happens to be a tough year for business as it is for a lot of business owners. I'm going to find the silver lining and go into this last race, not worry about Cruz, not worry about Jeff. Those components, I'm going to be asked so many times about it. That's okay because that's part of the excitement. I think in the end I'm going to be up for it.
I'm already getting excited. I'm good with that. Some of the races that I entered, it was more of a, How am I going to get through the weekend? Should I make one or two passes? When I get to the track, the sensible part of me just is no longer there and I end up making most of the runs. I told myself if I can do it one more time, stay in that top 10.
But even if I make the top 10, I still need to have a car that performs, because I don't want to get in the top 10 and hang on to 10th. I have a couple of goals, but the first one is to stay in.
Q: Dave, you were involved in that cliffhanger at Redding the first year of the Countdown. It didn't quite turn out the way you wanted it to go. You're in a better position now. Is this a different feeling for you?
DAVID GRUBNIC: Well, that's right. That was with Doug Herbert. It was rain-delayed. Doug had to win the event and he knocked me out of the Countdown by about two or three points. Ironically we were at Indy as well testing. Graham Light, he finished the event. He called me. He had his phone there sort of told me what happened. It was pretty disappointing, yeah, to say the least.
It's like what Tony said: You can't let it get to you; you just got to go and do your job. We're going to stick to our game plan of what we always do, and that's qualify well, get the car qualified, hopefully go rounds.
We go to each event to try to win it. Worrying about it, changing stuff or getting involved, it really can't change the situation. You just have to go and stick to your game plan. That's what we're going to do.
Whatever turns out, if we don't make it, Terry does, as Terry said, we go over and congratulate Terry and move on to the next event. I don't see any other way to do it. We do the same job we do every week, which is we give it our best and we give it our all. We get asked a lot if we're going to do anything different or change or procedure or what we do at the start line or how we drive the car. Realistically we don't. We can't. It's not all of a sudden I can't come up with 110% or 100%, go up to Connie and say, I've only been giving it 50% at all these previous events.
You always give it your best. That's the only thing you can do. We'll have to go to Brainerd and see how it all turns out.
Q: Terry, a lot of people who follow NHRA and don't know you, they probably think of you as a John Force-like persona with the crazy interviews you've been giving. You're not going to wear yourself out, are you?
TERRY McMILLEN: I would hope by the end of the day I have no voice left because that means I went a lot of rounds. It's exciting to me. It's kind of what I've lived for. At 14 years old I knew this is what I wanted to do.
So every time you get in that car and you have that opportunity to go out there and win a round, for me, winning a round in NHRA is like winning a championship somewhere else. It's that big of a deal. These guys are so much tougher. There are so many more cars that are capable of running any day of the week, taking you out.
None of us come here with the attitude that we're going to lose. We all come motivated to get in the car, win the race and do our job. As David alluded to, none of us can change what we do.
What I do, what's been overwhelming to me is the fans, the support has just been incredible. I've never been part of anything like it. I'm overwhelmed with it for sure.
Q: Jeff, what would this mean to you? You haven't had a championship. And, Tony, what would this mean to you in perspective of your other two championships?
JEFF AREND: For me, I never got into the top 10 before. I've been close. I've been racing -- got my license in '94, but never really had a full-time ride till I drove in '07. Did a respectable year, finished 11th, I think. Last year was my first full year with Kalitta. They've never had their Funny Car finish in the top 10 even though they've won championships and tons of races in Top Fuel. It's been a pretty good goal for us this year. We were doing pretty well for a little bit on the finals, making up some ground on Tony. The last few races, wish we could have them back obviously, but made a couple little mistakes here and there. It's pretty awesome to drive for a guy like Connie Kalitta and have a big sponsor like DHL because they give you everything you need. A perfect example, like I said, the testing today.
We're going to give it our best shot like we always do. If we can get in the top 10, it certainly would be a lifetime goal of mine to get in the top 10. Obviously, after that we can try and contend for a championship.
TONY PEDREGON: You know, it would be a big accomplishment. However, you know, if I can make the top 10 and if I finished eighth or ninth, that's going to be hard for me to get excited about. Don't get me wrong, I hope we do have the opportunity to make a run at it. The end of the year, I've got a little bit better cash flow so my goal was, you know, to try to make it. I do feel that I could be more competitive.
I think I mentioned earlier that it wouldn't be a big accomplishment just to make the top 10 and finish 10th. I'm going to go out on a limb and be a little different than the other drivers and say my bigger goal is like we approach a race, we want to qualify, we never want to get ahead of ourselves because it is very competitive, but if I can make the top 10, there's probably a good chance I'd go and test at Indy before the event. If that doesn't happen, then I'll try to get through the year.
But the goal is when you're in the top 10, you know, I think all of our hopes are to take our best shot. I have every intention of doing that if I can stay in there.
Q: Dave, taking you back to the days when you were driving part-time Montana Express, to getting a full-time gig with Kalitta, heavily sponsored, then last year being part-time, how happy were you to find out that you were going to be able to race the entire circuit this year?
DAVID GRUBNIC: Well, extremely happy. For us drivers that do this for a living, that's a big goal. Very happy. As Jeff said, I can't say enough about Connie. He's the best owner out here. Last year with the economic climate, how things were, everybody has to I guess feel it in some way, what happened to us as well.
What we're talking about here, I've said this in another interviews as well, it's not a catastrophe. Last year there were people losing their houses, people struggling with other issues. It's something we have to work through. You take the good with the bad. We did come out last year on a limited schedule. We ran the car at about five or six races. Connie, he decided he wanted to run it again. Then just recently announced full-time.
In short, yes, it's thrilling and it's great and it's wonderful to be back out there. But ultimately we still got to find funding for the car. It's still unsponsored for next year. We still have to sort of keep searching. I'd love to put something on the car that's obviously a three-to-five-year deal. Again, that's absolutely fabulous. And that's all Connie Kalitta. I don't think there's anybody that's put more of his own personal money than he has over the years and I'm very thankful and grateful for that.
Q: Terry and Jeff, obviously this whole thing is for a championship. As far as past champions go in motorsports, all sports, do you think champions have common traits and abilities? If so, could you identify a few?
TERRY McMILLEN: Well, I think what you'll find in champions is they're just like the rest of us, they're driven. Sometimes they figure out the combination. It's a big jigsaw puzzle. This whole business is. We have to align all the pieces and parts. You just try to get everything pointed, all the energies you have, going that direction.
The guys that are successful in this business have done just that. They've got every piece in place. They've got all the manpower in place. They have the marketing partners in place. When you can go out there and have the funding, being out testing as much as you can possibly get away with, you're going to be good at what you do.
That's kind of motorsports in general. Doesn't really matter what form you're in, I believe.
JEFF AREND: As far as champions go, it's probably like any other sport: the more you've been in the position, the more confident you feel and the better you're probably going to do. The champions also surround themselves with key crew chiefs that have won championships or have done very well before. They have a good sponsors with a big budget. I can't think of too many people in the last 15 years that won championships that didn't have the key people that we're talking about, good crew chief, key sponsor. It's just not possible.
You can give somebody all the money in the world and tell them to go out and run a car for the first year. They're not going to do very well if they start off with new people. Champions build themselves up, build their team, work together. That's what you really need, you need time, take the pressure, have people that have been in those positions before, be able to go out there and win races.
ZAK ELCOCK: We'd like to thank our drivers for joining us on this conference call as well as the media from around the country. Thank you once again for joining us on this call. We hope you have a good day.