Is 2016 the year that this four-time Funny Car bridesmaid rumbles into the ranks of NHRA champions? His chances appear strong, but he’s not going to celebrate early, as Anne Proffit reveals.
A 50-race winner over his 19-year pro career, Capps comes into NHRA's Auto Club Finals in Pomona next week with an 86-point lead over his two-time champion teammate Matt Hagan. All three title contenders come from Don Schumacher Racing, for behind Capps is Tommy Johnson Jr. But with 113 points to make up, and 130 being the maximum available per race, Johnson would need Capps to suffer a disastrous weekend and his own team to have an utterly dominant event to steal the title.
While Capps is “definitely a little bit looser going into Pomona than we were going into Vegas,” his four stints as runner-up – 1998, 2000, 2005, 2012 – have rendered him cautious as he prepares for this final battle. Capps was the winner in the season opener at Pomona last February, and would like nothing more than to bookend the season.
“We still need to get there and do our business and clinch it,” said Capps, who has five Wally trophies and five runner-up results in the 23 races held to date this year. He led through the early season, then failed to make the 16-car field at Las Vegas in April. Waiting for the next round of mechanical updates from the DSR fabrication and engineering shop in Brownsburg, Ind., Capps felt he hit his stride when the parts arrived at Epping, NH, and he and crew chief Rahn Tobler and assistant Eric Lane, nabbed their second victory of the year.
“We started there [Epping] with a track record, and I think at the time the second-quickest run in history,” he recalls. “We went on to Englishtown and did the same thing. We just gained a lot of momentum through the summer.”
Leading the standings through to the end of the 18-race “regular” season and gaining a 20-point bonus coming into the six-event Countdown to the Championship, his NAPA Dodge Charger R/T has gone to either the semis or final round in each race. If there’s such a thing as momentum in motorsport, he appears to have it. There is such a thing as consistency, and he’s definitely shown that, too.
While many around Capps are telling him this is his year, he’s bound to be more circumspect, recalling his past. Capps recognizes he needs to keep his points tally 80 above Hagan through Friday and Saturday to be champion and to “know that we’re going to, for sure, clinch without having any pressure of having something go wrong on Sunday. If we gain those qualifying points and match Hagan’s team or gain more of those qualifying points than they do, we’ll keep it above 80.
“If they gain the points and outqualify us and get the total below 80, then we obviously have to win the first round [of eliminations on Sunday] to clinch it. But you don’t want to assume anything. [We’ve seen] some pretty miraculous things happen at Pomona over the years, and we definitely don’t want to be one of those statistics.
“That’s the cool thing about NHRA. You have to earn your spot every weekend. There’s no provisionals like NASCAR so you’re not guaranteed. So when we’re qualifying, we run a good lap - hopefully Friday on the first run - that’s the first step of our goal. There are 22 cars entered and it’s going to be a good show for the fans.”
Like just about every racer, Ron Capps has his own way of preparing for each run down any 1,000-foot dragstrip. He doesn’t think he’s superstitious, but Capps has own idiosyncrasies.
“I sit in the tow vehicle and kind of hang out with my crew guys a little bit before I get in the car, and two of them help me get in the car and strapped in, so it’s always the same thing, same sort of conversation, same handshakes from each one of them, put the left glove on first every time, little things that we just do naturally every time.”
Even after watching his brother Jon’s accident in the final, Las Vegas qualifying session and rushing to the top end to make sure he was okay, Capps continued his routine. “I found myself in Vegas, sitting in the staging lanes getting ready to run and laughing at myself, because I was touching the reverser lever, then making sure the ignition switch was off, then touching my air bottle, then touching the fuel lever over and over - I’ve done that religiously through my career.
“It’s kept me in check and made sure I didn’t make any mistakes in the car. I keep doing what we’ve been doing, and obviously I had a lot of anxiety in Vegas - all of us did - to make sure that we kept the points lead. Doing the same things really helped me, and especially on race day. I went up there and was able to act like it was just another run, and I think that’s probably what’s helped us most.”
The stress at Pomona might be a little off the charts for Capps, who is already getting added requests for his time from fans, actor and musician friends, as well as hometown folk from San Luis Obispo, on California’s central coast, and friends near his San Diego-area home. He expects the stands to be filled - and quite a lot of those fans to be in his camp - when the series settles its tents in Pomona next week.
“You know, I’m hoping we can do everything right and we can finally finish this deal and I can do it,” he remarks. “Somebody asked me about Vegas and I said, ‘I’m almost glad we didn’t clinch there because of the historical value that you get at Pomona with [NHRA founder] Wally Parks. The fact that it’s Pomona, it just could not be better.’
“On top of that, this is the 50th birthday of the Funny Car, and we’ve been counting down the history of the class all year long. It’s been fun to celebrate that all year. We’ll have all the [heavy] hitters, all my Funny Car heroes at the track, so I just couldn’t think of a better weekend to do it.”
Capps is not looking past the challenge that Matt Hagan and his crew chief Dickie Venables offer.
“A lot of us have been around the sport a long time, and it’s neat that you battle these people that are also our ‘family’. The hardest battles I have are against my teammates, and here we are fighting for a championship and the three guys behind me are my teammates.
“It has been tough, especially when they’re sharing information because our crew chiefs are close. That’s made it a little tougher. But it’s good that everybody has been able to stay friends… Monday through Friday at least!”