BRAINERD, Minn. - Gary Scelzi entered the 2001 season with 23 career victories in 33 final round appearances and three Winston Top Fuel titles in his four years of professional competition. Then something strange happened. He couldn't win....
BRAINERD, Minn. - Gary Scelzi entered the 2001 season with 23 career victories in 33 final round appearances and three Winston Top Fuel titles in his four years of professional competition.
Then something strange happened. He couldn't win. Scelzi, crew chief Alan Johnson and the entire Team Winston couldn't buy a win. They were close. The Team Winston dragster had appeared in three final rounds and were the runner-up each time. This is a driver and a team that had averaged one victory every four starts over the past four years. The 2001 season was more than halfway over and they had been denied a visit to the winner's circle during the NHRA's 50th Anniversary season.
Finally, a trip to the Pacific Northwest ended the unfamiliar winless streak. Scelzi defeated current points leader Kenny Bernstein in Seattle for his first win of the season. With Bernstein and Larry Dixon beginning to distance themselves from the rest of the Top Fuel field in the standings, Scelzi needed the win if he was going to challenge for another Winston crown.
Scelzi will try and earn that second win of the year and tighten up the points race when he competes in the 20th annual Colonels Truck Accessories NHRA Nationals, Aug. 16-19, at The Colonels Brainerd International Raceway. The $1.9 million race is the 17th of 24 events in the $50 million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series.
The win meant more to Scelzi than just a jump in the standings. Scelzi is hoping to impress potential sponsors for the upcoming seasons. Due to the guidelines established by the Master Settlement Agreement passed in 1998, RJ Reynolds will end their sponsorship of Scelzi's ride at the conclusion of this year.
"With RJR and Winston leaving at the end of the year, I didn't want to leave them and Gary Scelzi without a win in 2001 because I don't know what's going to happen next year," said the 41-year-old Scelzi. "I have been blessed, believe me I'm not complaining. There are people that would kill to have the season I'm having up until now."
Despite the sub-par performance this year by his standards, Scelzi and the entire Winston team have remained optimistic about the remainder of the season and their chances against the competition.
"If you start to show your emotions and start getting down on yourself, it reflects on the team," said Scelzi. "If I show signs of weakness, they are going to read right through me. The reason I can stay so positive is because I love what I'm doing. I would have been disappointed if I didn't win a race this year because I don't know my future and that bothers me. But I love what I do, and to have a job that you love doing no matter what the outcome is, that's pretty hard to find."
Bernstein followed up his runner-up finish to Scelzi with a win in Sonoma, which extended his points lead to 76 over Dixon, and 274 over the third place Scelzi entering the Brainerd event. With eight races remaining on the NHRA schedule, every Top Fuel point earned becomes critical. Scelzi is hoping for a repeat performance of 1998 when he won in Brainerd for the first of five wins in the final eight events which notched his second straight Winston crown.
"We are just trying to chisel away at our points deficit right now," said Scelzi. "Kenny and Larry are going to be hard to catch. That's a big deficit but we have a hot rod that can do it. If we can get within reaching distance, then I'm ready and so is Alan. This team can win three or for in a row. We've done it before and it wouldn't surprise me."