Go ahead and say it. He might just agree with you. Whit Bazemore is mouthy. But just know this: mouthy or not, Whit just tells it like he sees it. Is that so wrong? Bazemore drives the Matco Tools Dodge Stratus in the Funny Car division. After the first 12 events of the season, Bazemore has earned two victories in five final round appearances. He has a firm hold of the No. 2 spot in the Funny Car standings going into this weekend's Mopar NHRA Mile-High Nationals at Bandimere Speedway in Denver and is looking to quietly make his move to the top of the standings. Quietly? Yeah, sure. Even Bazemore needs to take a breath every now and then. In this Q&A session, Bazemore talks about what it is like to be racing for the championship again, how married life has made him a better man and why people just won't stop talking about his attitude toward racing.
Q: How have you evolved as a driver over the last year or so?
BAZEMORE: I think that you are always getting more experienced with every race you do. Which means you are always getting better because experience in this sport is one of the most important things. I think that I am more at ease with this team. I have more support from the team than I have had in the past so I feel really good here now. The first year here was somewhat uncomfortable at times and that can throw you off. When I drove for Chuck Etchells I had great support there. When I had my own team, obviously I had great support there. Support was never an issue and I never knew it even existed within team politics and stuff. The first year here we struggled a little bit with the car and that led me to struggle some. Then you get into a situation where you think you have to prove yourself to your own team all the time and you start trying too hard and it is not a positive way to win races. But things now have evolved to the point where I am very comfortable here and I have a good relationship with everyone. I have always had a good relationship with (crew chief) Lee Beard but now I think my relationship with Don (Schumacher, team owner) is the strongest it has ever been in the last three years and that is a real positive thing.
Q: How important is the chemistry between a crew chief and a driver?
BAZEMORE: It's very, very important. It is very important that the chemistry between the driver and crew chief is there along with the driver and everyone else as well. As a driver you have to have a lot of confidence in all of your people and you want your team to have a lot of confidence in you. That is one of the most important ingredients for a successful team is to have that belief in each other. We have that and that is one important reason as to why we are having the season we are having right now.
Q: How has the relationship between yourself and Lee Beard grown since you two started working together?
@!BAZEMORE: It has grown quite a bit. When Lee first came here I think he had heard that I had a reputation and I had heard about him, but it was no different than when I was with Chuck Etchells. (Crew chiefs) Tim and Kim Richards were there and people said then that the three of us would never work well together and that we would never last. The fact is that we all got along great and we all had common goals and common dedication. With Lee, I really like him as a person and I really like him as a crew chief and tuner. The way he runs and organizes his team is second to none. He gives me a very, competitive and very safe race car. That is all I want. He delivers. We get along great and I think he knows that I am giving it 110 percent all the time. Whatever car he gives me, I am going to make the most of it.
Q: You haven't always had a competitive or even the safest car to drive. As a driver, how have you worked through that to get to this point?
BAZEMORE: Some of the early days were tough. It comes from a desire to reach a certain level and having goals and being competitive. I wanted to be at this level and nothing is going to stop me, is basically my approach. When you have a goal and when you do everything you can to achieve it, you just don't except failure, and it is amazing what you can do with yourself.
Q: People often accuse you of being mouthy, or quick to voice your opinion. Do you agree?
BAZEMORE: I don't think I have ever been mouthy. Sometimes I just say what is top of mind. It just comes out. Compared to other sports and other people in other sports, I think I am pretty damn conservative, actually. Drag racing is very conservative and most of the drivers are very afraid of offending or even taking an opposing view of any establishment in this sport whether it is the corporate establishment, NHRA, the technical department or whatever it is. What ends up then is you have a bunch of people that are just puppets? Who wants to watch a sport like that? If you stand back and look at the sport, the big picture, you have to have people who are willing to voice another opinion. I get frustrated when decisions are made arbitrarily and I don't think that is right. I think there is a rule book and it should be followed to the letter and decisions should be made consistently and everyone should be given the same consideration. It doesn't always happen that way and that is when I get mouthy, as people say. But the rest of the time I am very pleasant.
I don't know why some of the competitors out here want to discuss my personality all the time. I find it humorous. But the fact is that it is boring to me. It's boring when someone talks about someone else's personality. I'm here to race and that's it. It's hard to have friends among your competitors although there are a handful of guys that I really get along well with. We are friendly. There is also that other handful that is not necessarily bad guys, but they are people that you just don't know very well because of circumstances. Either you came up to the sport a different way or something happened early and you formed an opinion of them or vice versa and then you never took the time to change that opinion. That doesn't mean they are bad people. I just find it funny that my personality is always a subject of other people's intrigue. I just want to race and do my thing. I want to work hard for our team and our sponsors and our fans. You obviously have the hard-core Force fans, which God bless them, they are great. You also have the anti-Force establishment. I think it must be because we've been second for so long that even though we faltered last year, we are taking the good fight to them again this year and the anti-Force people naturally come this way and it's great. You get a lot of fans that might be wearing a Force T-shirt, which is great for John, but they tell me to go out there and beat him. That's a good thing. I'm sure as long as they are out there buying his shirts, John is happy and as long as we are doing everything we can to beat him, I'm happy.
Q: What makes you a good drag racer?
BAZEMORE: I think just making the commitment a long time ago to do this and not giving up is probably the biggest thing. Doing what it takes to be successful, always trying to get better and be better is something I strive for. Getting onto a winning team with winning people is great. Everyone around here has won a championship. Except me. To me, that is a great thing. I am surrounded by people who are better than me who have had more success and so that is going to lift me to their level.
Q: How is the new Dodge program working out for the team?
BAZEMORE: Having Dodge come on board was a big bonus for our team because Dodge has similar goals that we have in the fact that we all want to win a lot of races and contend for a championship. They have made a commitment financially and with products, engineering and support to help us make a better race car. That is what it takes. When you see our competition and what Ford does with John (Force), they are very aggressive. Dodge is aggressive as well. We wanted to be associated with a company that is aggressive and capable of giving us and helping us build a race car that is more competitive so we can challenge Force's team in a stronger way.
Q: Speaking of John Force, the 12-time champion has yet to win a race in the first 12 events of the season. Is this the most vulnerable he has been since he started winning championships?
BAZEMORE: Being halfway through the season he seems like he is vulnerable. Certainly. But there are a lot of other teams out there. His team cars are running very well. It's tough out there. His car runs well, they just haven't been consistent yet. But they just set a national record so they certainly have the ability still to go out and dominate. You can't write them off. But the class as a whole is very competitive. Just because John is not the top guy, unfortunately, does not make it any easier.
Q: What makes the Matco Tools team capable of winning races this year?
BAZEMORE: Well a lot of things, I think. Just our team chemistry is a big factor in itself. We also have the ability on the team from Lee Beard to (assistant crew chief) Don Olson to (teammate Gary Scelzi's crew chief) Mike Neff to every guy on this team. With all the effort they put into this, they make very few mistakes. That helps us have a good, consistent car. We also have the support of Dodge and Chrysler. They have helped us build a better race car that is more aerodynamically efficient. There are so many pieces of the puzzle that have to fall into place to have a winning team. A lot of those pieces have fallen into place with this team.
Q: With 11 races remaining on the schedule, what do you and the team need to accomplish to win the NHRA POWERade Funny Car championship?
BAZEMORE: We have to win more rounds than anyone else does. To do that, we have to obviously be very competitive performance-wise and we have to be consistent and not make mistakes. We are basically one race back (from points leader Tony Pedregon) but it is still too early to think about a championship. What it is not too early for is to try to be very consistent and try to make the most out of every opportunity we have. Every race is important. We have to make a perfect effort at every race and try to come out with the maximum amount of points possible.
Q: Do you have to tell yourself not to think about being in the race for the championship?
BAZEMORE: Sometimes. But sometimes it is good to think about it because it can motivate you. Other times it is not good because it can start to affect you in a negative way. If you start expecting it or something, that is not good. It depends on what kind of mood we are in as to whether we are going to think about it or not. You have to channel your thoughts always in such a way that will make you positive and perform better. It can get me pretty fired up just thinking about it and that is a good thing.
Q: How is married life treating you?
BAZEMORE: Married life is great. We've been married two years in December, so we are still newlyweds. We're still on our honeymoon. It's a great thing. I'm just a lot happier person, especially when I am at home with Michelle or if she is out here at the races with me. We're a great match and I am very happily married and I think my wife is too and that is what it is all about. She is there for me and I try to be there for her all the time too. We support each other. She is an athlete and that is time consuming. She is making a big effort to try to win the national championship in August for track racing on the velodrome. Her training and the effort she puts into it is tremendous, especially right now since it is so close. It's exciting for me because I am really proud of her because of the effort she makes and how much success she has had with her bike racing career.
Q: Before you started racing full time you were a full-time photographer. Do you still make time for that as a hobby?
BAZEMORE: I don't do it anymore, but I would like to. I keep talking about making time for it again. But if I do photography again, it will be more art and more landscapes maybe. There is just no time. Not having time is such a convenient excuse for everything that you don't get done. With this sport and this lifestyle, it is really true. I have a shifter car that has been at a race track south of Indy for a year, and I haven't even seen it. I am just not there. There are things you want to do and you try to make time to do, but when you get home, by the time you take care of things, it is time to go again.
Q: What about your season goals. What did you set at the beginning of the season and how are you doing with that list?
BAZEMORE: The goal of the team is to win the NHRA POWERade championship. That is our goal. In order to accomplish that we know we have to win races. We have won races and we are contending for a championship in a way that we have never done before. I'd say that we are pretty much right on target.
Q: How does this season compare to the 2001 season when you finished second to Force, winning three races in eight final round appearances?
BAZEMORE: I think at the end of 2001, we had the best car for sure. Right now we don't. Right now we have the second or third best car, consistently. In that aspect, we are behind where we were, but we are still getting results. That is because of the team and the team making really good decisions on race day. We're doing things that will make both the Matco Tools car and the Oakley car a little bit quicker and hopefully we can start having low E.T.'s every round and having the quickest badest car. That is where our potential really is because we certainly have the ability to be there and we are working hard to get there. When we do, we're going to enjoy a lot more success.
Q: How do you feel about having Gary Scelzi as a teammate this season?
BAZEMORE: Scelzi is great. I knew the effort was being made for him to come here. I was kind of neutral on it because we'd been teammates before with Winston. We always got along, but he had so much success early on and I was a little jealous, let's be honest. This is a tough game and you have to pay your dues. I think the reputation he got when he drove the other Funny Car wasn't deserved at all. But he also had to adapt to a Funny Car from a dragster and apparently they are totally different animals. Gary's a very gifted driver and he is very hungry and very competitive. I really like that about him and we get along great. Both he and Scotty (Cannon) both have paid their dues in this class to where they both are in a position to win and they will. You have to pay your dues, you just can't get around that. Scelzi is a great teammate and he is a lot of fun to hang out with.
Q: You are racing at Bandimere Speedway this weekend for the Mopar NHRA Mile-High Nationals in a Dodge. How do you feel about that track?
BAZEMORE: Actually Denver is my favorite race on the schedule. We have had a lot of success there and it is just my favorite track. I love the track. I can't wait to get there. I think the Bandimere family truly cares about the facility and the sport and they make an effort to do things the right way. We as racers have to rely on NHRA and a whole bunch of other people to do their jobs in the best way possible so we can make a living. We have to perform as well. When other people perform in a good way like the Bandimeres, it is really satisfying to go there and be part of it. They have invested a lot of money in their facility and it shows. It is a very successful race and that makes it a place that I really enjoy. It is a top-notch facility.
Q: What has been the most enjoyable part of the 2003 season?
BAZEMORE: I would say that winning Englishtown was pretty good. Then coming back and winning Chicago with Tony Schumacher winning in Top Fuel. It doesn't get much better than that.