TOP FUEL: Doug Kalitta, Brandon Bernstein, Tony Schumacher MODERATOR: We'll move on to Top Fuel. Doug Kalitta, our points leader. Doug has 29 career event wins, which ties him for the sixth winningest driver of all time in NHRA Top ...
TOP FUEL: Doug Kalitta, Brandon Bernstein, Tony Schumacher
MODERATOR: We'll move on to Top Fuel.
Doug Kalitta, our points leader. Doug has 29 career event wins, which ties him for the sixth winningest driver of all time in NHRA Top Fuel history. He finished in second place twice, 2003 and 2004, in the final POWERade Series championship standings. He's still searching for his first POWERade Series championship. He has five event wins this season.
Doug, with two events left in this season, you have an 83-point lead over Brandon, 89 over Tony. Share with everyone what's going through your mind, what your thoughts are going into the final two events.
KALITTA: Pretty much play it as normal. Really just try to go to these last two. The tracks are a couple of the best tracks we have on the circuit. It's going to be tough. It's going to be tight. My normal deal is just to go there with the hope you're going to get the win, let it all add up at the end of the day.
Round by round you can think about all the different things. But just really at the end, you've got to go up there, do the best you can. That's what it's about for me, just to go there and try to get the win, see how it all shakes out.
MODERATOR: Next up, Brandon Bernstein. Brandon is 83 points back right now. He drives the Budweiser Lucas Oil dragster. Brandon is the 2003 Auto Club Road to the Future Award winner. He also like Doug is seeking his first POWERade Series World Championship. Brandon has won four races, been to seven final rounds.
Brandon, feast or famine for you. Some great events, some where you have not been so good. I'm sure you'd like to find the magic the last two events. You're certainly within reach of that first championship.
BERNSTEIN: I think we are. Like you said, it has been kind of a rollercoaster season. You start second-guessing, looking back. The three races in the beginning of the season, the three in the middle of the season, the West Coast, man, if we would have gone one round in each one of those, it would have been a lot tighter.
We're fortunate. We still have a shot at it. We definitely need some help or some other cars to maybe take out Doug earlier or match up again like we did last week and maybe have it go the other way for us to get in the points.
That's a tough team over there. Tony is a tough team also. They're right behind us. It's going to be a battle. You know, it's definitely possible.
MODERATOR: The third driver we have on the call this afternoon from Top Fuel is Tony Schumacher. Tony is three-time POWERade Series champion. He's won the last two championships. He's currently 89 points behind Doug Kalitta. He drives the U.S. Army dragster.
Tony, why don't you talk about what your thoughts are going into the final two events. You've been here before, although obviously you've been with a bigger lead coming into the last two events. What is it like this year having to track a driver down instead of having the lead?
SCHUMACHER: Well, there's definitely less of an advantage, to say the least (laughter). We're not running against two cars that are ahead of us that are not completely capable of winning a championship. Those are two great teams, two great drivers. Unfortunately we're down to eight rounds and we're behind them. It's going to be intense. We're going to have to win the races, go for world records. Totally awesome.
Also it makes it fun. I think the people have to understand we don't drive race cars for a paycheck, we drive race cars because we enjoy the race. Between the three of us, actually four of us, it's awesome right now. There's a heck of a lot of cars that are really stepping up this year, making us earn our keep. Doug is humbling us out on the tree there. All of us are doing the best to get round wins. It's tight.
You're getting a good preview of what we're going to get next year (with the Countdown to the Championship) when they even the points out with two races to go. I wish they started it this year. I think me and Brandon both would be in a much better position (laughter).
MODERATOR: We'll open it up to questions.
Q: Tony, your mindset as compared to the last few years, are you feeling a little bit desperate?
SCHUMACHER: You know what, no, I'm not. If Doug wins the championship or if Brandon wins the championship this year, we don't, the guys did a great job. That's really what it comes down to. This is professional racing at its best, man.
If we can't pull it out ... we were 330 points back and did a heck of a job catching up. I hate to get this close and not pull it off. But in reality the reason we're not in the lead is because, man, we went 11 races the beginning of the year without winning. We struggled with the tire problem. Just to be able to do this, I'm more excited than I am nervous. If we don't pull it off, well, I mean, heck, it was tough. We had a tire problem at the beginning of the year. We had to figure it out.
If we do pull it off, this would be the greatest comeback ever. No, I'm looking forward to getting up in Vegas. I'm looking forward to the race itself. I'm looking forward to seeing what the outcome is. I hope we pull it off because we've got one of the greatest teams assembled in drag racing. Again, we're battling two outstanding race teams. We're making it fun. If you're a race fan and you can't enjoy this right now, you are watching the wrong channel.
Q: Brandon, you have snuck up on everybody. Lo and behold, you pass Tony. Is there enough time to get Doug?
BERNSTEIN: Well, I think there is. Like I said before, I think we need to be consistent in our race car and we need some help. Obviously something needs to happen to Doug early for Tony and I both to gain some points to get at least to Pomona when we're maybe only 20 or 40 or something a little bit closer, to get it to Pomona so we can try and win it.
I feel that our Budweiser Lucas Oil team has a chance, we really do. We need to be consistent and we do need a little bit of help along the way.
Q: Doug, being on top with two races left, do you consider the fact that you're pretty much a workaday driver, you're calm? From what you said earlier, you're taking it round to round. Is that going to be the factor that puts you in the championship circle at the end of Pomona?
KALITTA: Yeah, hopefully so. We've got two very good teams, strong teams, two great drivers there, all trying to get this championship. Yeah, just all I know is to do what we've been doing, just try to keep those rounds going. Like I say, I mean, these next two facilities (Las Vegas and Pomona) are as good as they come. Your car definitely is going to have to be running strong. Everybody is going to have to do their job to stay ahead.
Q: Tony, NHRA is a wonderful sport, but like all motorsports, NASCAR is the big elephant in the garage. Everybody is trying to carve its way around it. Do you foresee someday NHRA catching up with NASCAR, grabbing a share of the spotlight?
SCHUMACHER: That's a great question. I tell you, if every fan were to come to a drag race live, we'd pass them, period. This is the best, the best live sport there is. I understand NASCAR is a great sport, man. I go myself all the time. But when you come to a live sport, intense four-second brut power, there's just nothing like it in a sport. We can't ask for anything more than what we give. I can't tell you how many fans come up to tell me, 'We're big NASCAR fans, this is our first drag race.' Virginia was perfect this year. Being five years away from an NHRA event, these people had switched, gone to the NASCAR races. They came back. Having them at the drag race, NASCAR fans, they'd come back at the end and say, 'That is truly the best live sport we've ever seen.'
How do you make two eight-thousand horsepower cars look great on TV? I'm not sure how you pull that off. ESPN does the best they can do. I'm just not sure. NASCAR has that advantage. But for all practical purposes, man, if you are at home right now and you're thinking to yourself NASCAR is the biggest sport in the world ... I love it, it's a great race, but get to a drag race to watch live. You can walk up and meet your favorite drivers or walk up to somebody you don't know and make them your favorite driver. It's such a cool sport.
I'm telling you, are we going to pass them? Don't care. Not my job. I'm so happy to be able to drive a race car. Again, the question, normally, when it comes to something like that, if you get big like that, the payoffs are bigger, everything is bigger, that's all good. I think what keeps drag racing so real is the fact that we would do it for free if we had to. Every one of is so into what we do. We drive the baddest hotrods on the planet. Actually right now I drive the third baddest hotrod on the planet. Right, Doug? You're in the lead. Take it from there, man.
MODERATOR: If you've seen our sport on high-def, it rivals what it's like in person. I think what ESPN has done with their high-def program...
SCHUMACHER: It's awesome. I wish every one of you guys could get my view. It's so intense, so real. I think live, high-def, when you get to turn them speakers up, living like you're there, man, it's so intense. It's a two and a half on the Richter scale. It's something other sports can't give you. It's just not possible. When you get in your street car, when you're going to buy your car at home, whatever it is, those guys don't tell you to get up to 180 and turn left, they tell you to feel the power. Horsepower is a basic love for Americans. Get out there, see this thing live, you'll be hooked.
BERNSTEIN: I totally agree with what he's saying. It definitely is an adrenaline rush sport for the fans and the drivers. That's why we love doing it.
For the fans, it's awesome. You really need to get people out to our races to really experience it. Once they come, they're hooked. I think if we keep getting people out there, keep getting the attendance up, really see that explosion, I think there's a possibility we could get to where NASCAR is. I don't know that we'll ever surpass them. We definitely have the capabilities of getting there.
KALITTA: The only thing I could add to that, with POWERade and ESPN, I think Tony and Brandon covered it real well, but what they've done the last couple years to promote our sport has just been huge. Really, hats off to both those organizations for sure.
Q: Tony, not to bring up a bad memory, but all three of the top seeds in the eliminations were knocked out in the first round in Vegas on that Sunday in April (at the first of the two Las Vegas races). Do you want to qualify first this time? Do you feel there will be an advantage or are you thinking about that?
SCHUMACHER: I want Doug to qualify first (laughter). It's a killer, man. Other than (my win in) Indy (from the No. 1 qualifying position), in Top Fuel or Funny Car, I don't think a No. 1 qualifier has (won a race).
NOTE: Schumacher is the only No. 1 qualifier from Top Fuel to win a race this season; in Funny Car, Robert Hight won as a No. 1 qualifier in Dallas and Eric Medlen won from the No. 1 position at Richmond.
I hate to play along with jinxes and everything. I'm religious, I believe in God. But let me tell you something, when it goes this long, it makes me believe. I start to get a little bit nervous. I don't care where we qualify, I want to win that race.
You know, unfortunately, really for me to win a championship this year, for Brandon to pull this off, you almost need to pair ourselves up with Doug the first round. Not that we can't do that. Not that we can't go out there, that would be the hardest round we ever have to accomplish. In order to win a championship, we need to go out and win a race and we need to make him exit early. The only way to do that is to do the job ourselves. Don't really care where we qualify. Just want to see a good outcome.
Most importantly, it's great that you talk big and everything, but it's great for the fans right now. It's going to give us three a heart attack 'til the very end. But these are three great teams. It's going to come down to who can really suck it up. You got three good teams. You got three people that at any given time can win a race. You also have three good teams that at any time can smoke the tires. I proved that last weekend. Great race car, decent racetrack, we smoked the tires, went out first round. Going to be fun.
Q: Doug, Melanie Troxel had dominated pretty much the first half of the year, qualifying for the (NHRA record in Top Fuel) five straight final rounds out of the gate. How did you adjust from the first half of the year to now?
KALITTA: Yeah, just sticking with your game plan. Obviously with Rahn (Tobler) and my team, we just obviously go to each of these races hoping that we're going to get the win. What Melanie did at the beginning of the year, it was awesome. Obviously I think all of us had kind of hoped she would quit going to the final there every race. But it was quite an accomplishment. Tony has been there winning consecutive races. It just kind of moves around. Every once in a while you hope you get your turn at some kind of run like that. Really hats off to anybody that can keep a string like that going.
MODERATOR: Doug, Melanie talked a lot about the launch, what it's like going to zero to a hundred in 8/10ths of a second. You're a pilot. Can you compare the two?
KALITTA: There's really not much comparison. Top Fuel car, initially it's like coming out of a cannon. Until you get out there a little ways, the front end gets back down, you just got to make sure you have the thing lined up straight.
But the sensation I always like is cruising right at the top of the clouds, where you're going real fast, that sensation. There's some similarity. Again, then you got to get the thing stopped.
Q: With so much at stake, how do you put the magnitude of what's at stake aside and just treat it like a regular race?
KALITTA: You just don't want to get yourself too worked up about it because, I mean, you just want to try to avoid making some kind of goof ball mistake.
We kind of go up there and do our same thing each time, try to block out even kind of who you're running. Sometimes you qualify. We just try not to pay too much attention.
But obviously you're looking for that win regardless of who you're running. It will be a challenge obviously these next two races. They're real important. I'm sure we'll all be hearing things, hoping that we're all doing the best we can with our teams.
BERNSTEIN: Same thing. I mean, you just really have to focus in on round by round, not really look at the big picture. If you keep looking at the big picture, putting more pressure on yourself, you're going to make a mistake. You just really need to focus in on just trying to do the best you can do every round and every time. Whatever falls into place falls into place. Just really need to be concentrating on a round at a time, what job you have to do at that moment.
SCHUMACHER: Totally agree. It's very difficult to do, but we're all professionals, we do our job. You have to remember back to when you were a young kid and you couldn't wait to race. Nothing to do with winning a championship. I kind of try to tell myself there's nothing in 10 minutes before a run that I'm going to learn that's going to make me any better. We all do our stuff in the morning to get ready. We stretch, work out, do whatever we got to do. When we're sitting in that car, it's a difficult four seconds coming up. You've got to just kind of trust yourself, drive a car. We all know when to leave the start line. Usually when we hear Doug leave, we know it's a good time, right, Doug?
KALITTA: I don't know about that (laughter).
BERNSTEIN: I definitely know about it.
SCHUMACHER: Me, too (laughter).
SCHUMACHER: You get in the car to do your best every single time. It's a tough deal. There's no 500 laps to make up a mistake. You know that. You got to do your job on the starting line. But there's a lot more to it. Being able to pedal a car. Knowing that you know how to drive a car. Last year Ron Capps asked me about this same thing. I told him, you're a great driver. Understand that going in 'cause nothing you can think about in the next 10 minutes is going to make you a better driver. Face the car the same way, be a machine. I think importantly in drag racing, you better know that your guys did a great job, your crew chief and your crew, did a great job so you get in that car and feel comfortable you got a winning race car.
Continued in part 2