NHRA's FUNNY CAR DRIVERS DISCUSS SKOAL SHOWDOWN, 51st MAC TOOLS U.S. NATIONALS AND TIGHT POINTS RACE INDIANAPOLIS -- Pressure is mounting for NHRA's top Funny Car Drivers. The 51st annual Mac Tools U.S. Nationals, the world's most prestigious...
NHRA's FUNNY CAR DRIVERS DISCUSS SKOAL SHOWDOWN, 51st MAC TOOLS U.S. NATIONALS AND TIGHT POINTS RACE
INDIANAPOLIS -- Pressure is mounting for NHRA's top Funny Car Drivers.
The 51st annual Mac Tools U.S. Nationals, the world's most prestigious drag racing event, opens on Wednesday at Indianapolis Raceway Park.
Drivers in four professional categories (Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle) are battling mounting nerves. The top eight Funny Car drivers in the NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series face even greater pressure to win in the lucrative Skoal Showdown, a race-within-a-race bonus event that grants $100,000 to the winner.
The eight quickest and most consistent Funny Car teams from the last year will compete for the purse and bragging rights on Sunday, Sept. 4. Elimination rounds are scheduled for 12:30 p.m., 2:15 p.m. and 4 p.m.
Until they pull up to the starting line for the first round, the drivers -- from seasoned five-time event winner John Force to rookie Robert Hight -- Force's son-in-law -- will handle their challenge in different ways. In this Q and A session, several competitors who are qualified for the Skoal Showdown describe what it is like to tackle the bonus event and the biggest race of the year in the same week.
SKOAL SHOWDOWN FAST FACTS:
* The eight Funny Car drivers who have earned the most points during qualifying earn a spot in the Skoal Showdown. Drivers started earning points for the 2005 bonus event at the historic 50th annual Mac Tools U.S. Nationals in 2004 and continued to earn them through the O'Reilly NHRA Mid-South Nationals at Memphis, Tenn. earlier this month.
* When the event began in 1982, drivers competed for Skoal Showdown points in just nine races. Now there are 23. In 1982, Frank Hawley defeated Don "the Snake" Prudhomme in a match-up of drag racing's finest. Hawley brought home $25,000 for the win. Prudhomme earned $5,000.
* Robert Hight, the third rookie to ever start in the bonus race, will compete in the car used by 2004 Showdown winner Gary Densham. Densham won the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals later that weekend, earning a $50,000 double-up bonus from the NHRA for winning both events in the same weekend. That amount is again up for the taking, should any driver be lucky enough to do the same.
From Tommy Johnson Jr., driver of the Skoal Racing Chevy Monte Carlo
Q: What is it like to drive the Skoal Funny Car in your title sponsor's bonus event?
JOHNSON JR.: "Last year we struggled and we didn't make it in. We had two Skoal cars and neither one of them made it into the Skoal Showdown. It was really disappointing for not only myself, but for the whole Skoal team. This year to focus on one car, and to have one car out there, really is a tribute to my guys. They really turned this whole program around. When we started the season this year, we were 10th in the standings. We weren't even in the Skoal Showdown. We really concentrated on qualifying and made some really strong efforts. We haven't been No. 1, but we've been in the top six at about every race ... The car has been running extremely well."
Q: Force said (the week) is a gut-ache. Scelzi said his stomach is tied up in a knot over the pressure of Indianapolis. Are you having fun?
JOHNSON JR.: "Yeah I am. The nerves haven't gotten to me yet. Maybe they will by Sunday. I'm actually enjoying Indy. This is one of the most fun times I've had in racing here in the last 10 years probably. I'm kind of on a high and relaxed as I can be. I'm sure once the Skoal execs show up to hand out that money my nerves might come up a little bit, but right now I'm on Easy Street."
Q: How has having only one Funny Car in the Don Prudhomme stable affected your year? (Johnson Jr.'s former teammate Ron Capps now drives for Don Schumacher Racing)
JOHNSON JR.: "I think it's allowed us to concentrate more on one car. A lot of things maybe fall through the cracks when you have several cars on one team. One team may know some information and you just assume the other team does it. As far as I'm concerned, we're just better focused ... it's not derogatory to have a one-car team right now and I'm proud that we're the only car in the top 10 that's a one-car team ... John Force told me at the beginning of the season that all you need is one, and only one can fit in the winner's circle at one time. So far this year that's worked out really well for us."
Q: Are you also more relaxed now that Melanie is bringing in a paycheck? (Johnson Jr.'s wife Melanie Troxel pilots the Skull Gear Top Fuel dragster for Don Schumacher Racing)
JOHNSON JR.: "I don't know about relaxed, but I sure am happier. It's made the home-life better. She's in a lot better mood. I think that's good. It's kind of nice on race day she's in a lot better mood, I don't have to try to cheer her up 'cause she has to sit and watch me race. It's a little more relaxed atmosphere not only at the race track, but away from the racetrack as well."
From John Force, driver of the Castrol GTX Start Up Ford Mustang
Q: With all of the success you've had as a 13-time Funny Car World Champion and five-time Skoal Showdown winner, do you still get excited about the big week?
FORCE: "Nothing gets old. It's always exciting, especially with the competition that we've put together this year. The guys that have made this Showdown, it was tough to make it. Robert Hight coming from behind made our program look real good, but I'm really looking forward to Indy, and I really want to thank Skoal for putting up the money to make this possible."
Q: Robert's historic move into the No. 8 spot means you will face each other in the first round. How will you handle that?
FORCE: "At least we know we'll have one car in the second round. We always take the positives and the negatives. Being on the other side of the ladder would have been better, but it is what it is. We'll see."
Q: What is your motivation to win the Skoal Showdown? Pride or money?
FORCE: "It's both. Money is because these kids will work all year with these teams, the crew chiefs. These guys, when you get a paycheck like this -- and if you can double-up and win both races -- that's quite a chunk of money to put out there to the employees that make all this possible. Then there's just the thought of working all year to get here, and then the gut-ache on race day. If you win it's victory, if you lose it's gut-ache. Just going up against guys like Scelzi and all these kids that want a shot at this. I really get up for it. It's really big if you can win it because it's two races in one. That's what's a turn-on for me."
Q: Do the results of the Showdown give you an indication of the race action to come during the weekend?
FORCE: "It's all kind of mental. When you win, you have that confidence. If you can win the Skoal Showdown, then you feel positive on race day because you've been there, you've done that, and you know that your car is running the numbers and your driver's doing the job. But also for this championship, it was tough to get there. There are guys that aren't in this show that should have been there. When other cars just come from behind. The bottom line, anytime that you go in there, you know you did your job, but there's two other kids that are not in it that could've been (Whit Bazemore and Capps), and we're all trying to get in. Those kids could still be shooting toward that championship. You don't get too cocky just because you're in the Showdown or if you win it. You've got to go to sleep at night and get ready for the next morning."
Q: How has drag racing's image changed over the years?
FORCE: "If you look back at the old days, before ("Big Daddy" Don) Garlits in the beginning, it all was a flat bed trailer and a greasy race car and a driver with leathers and a grease rag in his back pocket. The world has changed. Technology has taken over, computers on board. Hell, these things are turning into airplanes. They almost run as fast. The bottom line, I just think the whole scope of what NHRA has done, opened up the door, changing our midway, and that's just the half of it. When you go there, the Army's there ... you can try Funny Cars in a simulator. There's a lot of educational things. We have a John Force museum in our trailer. Things have changed. The show they put on is unbelievable from the grass roots -- the (sportsman) all the way to the pros. Even as much as NHRA tries to level the playing field to keep everybody in the sport, the guy with money and also the guy without money. I think they're doing a terrific job and I think the racing is more exciting than ever."
From Gary Scelzi, driver of the Mopar/Oakley Dodge Stratus R/T
Q: This is your second Funny Car start, but you won the Budweiser (Top Fuel) Shootout three times. How would it feel to join Kenny Bernstein as the second driver to win the bonus event in both categories?
SCELZI: "First of all, my name shouldn't be mentioned with Kenny Bernstein because he's a hero, and it's fun to be a part of this. Indy, in 1986 I had my own alcohol dragster. I was competing for the world championship at that time with Bill Walsh and instead of winning the race, I was runner-up and I was dead broke. I put all my heart into going to Indy. These shoot-outs with Skoal kicking in $100,000 just adds more pressure on top of an already pressure-packed race. I've got chills. I've been wound-up all week. I'm revved up about it. It's just a big, big deal."
Q: You've got one of the great young crew chiefs of the sport. How did you and Mike Neff work together this year to get into the Showdown?
SCELZI: "Mike has just been so good from the beginning. When I first started with Schumacher, that's who I wanted. I didn't know if I was going to get hired or not, but I told Don Schumacher that if I had a choice, I wanted to work with Mike Neff because he's such a level guy. He doesn't show his emotion a lot. Sometimes we have to beat him up to get him to beat on the hood and get me jacked up. All these great crew chiefs like my crew chief because he doesn't get excited. He doesn't brag, he doesn't get in anybody's face. He just wants to run with them."
Q: How is this season's close points race different from those you've seen in your career?
SCELZI: "Somebody is going to have to break away sooner or later, but anybody can throw anybody off here, and that's been the case over the years, but now they're not playing favorites. They're mowing me off, they're mowing John (Force) off, Robert (Hight) got sawed off the first round of Sonoma. You don't know whose going to do it; who's holding the loaded gun. Nobody can break away and get the clean air and get away from everybody. It could still happen, but right now one through four is right there, and even fifth place is right there. With six races left, the whole idea is if somebody jumps up with three in a row, now we're the ones chasing the rabbit ... There's no dominating anywhere."
From Eric Medlen, driver of the Castrol Syntec Ford Mustang
Q: You've been as hot as the weather at the last couple of races. Can you keep it up?
MEDLEN: "It's actually warming up in Indy as we speak. Like Gary and John and I'm sure everybody's gonna tell you, this is an extremely competitive race. Not only are you trying to win the race, but you've got to qualify at the same time as well. You don't want to get behind on your runs. You want to get in there and qualify and make your first run count, so to speak, so you can go ahead and race on Sunday for the (Showdown)."
Q: Do you, Force and Hight have a bet on the outcome of the Showdown?
MEDLEN: "I think Robert and I are going to try to team up on John a little bit. No, no side bets. We're all trying to race for the same goal, and that's to get a Ford into the winner's circle."
Q: Your season has recently picked up with wins at the last two events, in Brainerd and Memphis. Why?
MEDLEN: "I think if I had to pick one word, it might be 'determination.' Determination from the guys, my dad (and crew chief) John Medlen and our assistant crew chief. But not only them, but also (Hight's crew chief) Jimmy Prock and all the (Auto Club Ford Mustang) guys and (Force's crew chiefs) Austin Coil and Bernie Fedderly. We all work together real hard. The other two cars were running real good and our car was running good, but the consistency wasn't quite there. We've been working on it. It was a new combination from last year and we weren't really lost, so to speak, but we didn't really have a good handle on it. Help from the other two cars is what really kind of turned us around."
Q: What is it like in the office at John Force Racing on Monday when you've just beaten Force or Hight?
MEDLEN: "It's probably not what everybody really thinks. I laugh and joke a little bit about Donald Trump and all that stuff just to get a laugh, but I think more than anything it's pride, no matter what car wins. We've got six cars really, Brittany and Courtney, John's youngest two daughters, have Super Comp cars and of course Ashley's car (a Top Alcohol dragster). As long as somebody gets that little gold man and gets to take it home to Yorba Linda, Calif. for us, I think we're all real proud. Myself, I can't be more proud or having more fun just watching Robert this year ... and John, too. He's the biggest motivator out there. He's created a big team, a very successful team. When you look at it, he went through a few drivers on all these teams and there always seems to be a full amount of success. I think that starts with John Force and his ability to motivate all the guys and keep them all going in the same direction."
From Robert Hight, driver of the Auto Club Ford Mustang
Q: What kind of hints has Force given you about the Showdown?
HIGHT: "He really hasn't. I'm just excited to make it. We passed a lot of good cars to get here ... I'm just glad that my team who worked hard on the car the last half of last year and all of this year will be represented in the field. Did I ever think we would make it? No way. I didn't think we would ever have a shot at the beginning of the year, being down so many races. But Jimmy Prock and my team just did miracles ... I'm looking at the Showdown and thinking this is going to be fun ... There's no points involved here, so I'm just going to go out and make it really fun. The points chase, I've got like a pack of wolves behind me. This is just going to be fun. No pressure."
Q: Are you feeling pressure about the world championship as the current points leader (after 17 of 23 events)?
HIGHT: "I'm starting to feel a little pressure there, yes. There are six cars that can win this deal. We've just got to stay focused and do the best we can. I never dreamed that I would be here at this point of the year. We just have to stay focused and do what we've been doing and see what happens."
Q: To Hight from Gary Scelzi: "Robert, When are you going to start getting nervous?"
HIGHT: "Believe me, I'm nervous now."
SCELZI: "Well, you better start showing it, that's all I can say."
Q: "Have there been any hazing tricks, or has Force given you words of wisdom?"
HIGHT: "Everybody has been really good to me. There's not a single driver, especially in the top eight, that I couldn't go to for advice ... another thing is, John and I had to wash Eric's car the last couple of weeks. We're getting tired of that."