Columbus: Mark Pawuk preview

COLUMBUS, Ohio, June 6, 2001 - Summit Racing Pontiac Grand Am driver Mark Pawuk is focused sharply on one thing and that's defending his Pro Stock title at the 37th annual Pontiac Excitement Nationals presented by Summit Racing on June 14 - 17...

COLUMBUS, Ohio, June 6, 2001 - Summit Racing Pontiac Grand Am driver Mark Pawuk is focused sharply on one thing and that's defending his Pro Stock title at the 37th annual Pontiac Excitement Nationals presented by Summit Racing on June 14 - 17 at National Trail Raceway.

The 43-year-old Ohio native has a lot to be excited about this year. Driving one of the new 2001 Pontiac Grand Ams, he's entrenched in one of the closest NHRA Pro Stock points battles in recent memory. Closing in on the season's halfway point, Pawuk finds himself in second place in the Winston standings after advancing to three final rounds at Phoenix, Englishtown and Topeka. He was runner-up in the Holley Dominator Duel, set a national elapsed-time record of 6.806 seconds at Englishtown, captured the No. 1 qualifying spot at Gainesville and Englishtown and was at the top of the Winston standings for the first time in his career following the Advance Auto Parts Nationals at Heartland Park Topeka. Pawuk would like nothing more than to relive last year's trip to the Pontiac Excitement Nationals winner's circle.

The 37th annual Pontiac Excitement Nationals is the 11th race on the 24-event NHRA Winston Championship tour. Qualifying coverage can be seen on Saturday, June 16, on ESPN2 beginning at 10 p.m. Eastern. Same-day coverage of final eliminations will be telecast on ESPN2 on Sunday, June 17, starting at 8 p.m. Eastern.

How's it feel to be going back to Columbus after your big win last year? "It was an awesome victory last year for Pontiac, Summit, Matco Tools, Mr. Heater and all my associate and major sponsors based out of Ohio. Unfortunately, I think people expect that since it happened once that maybe the next one will come real easy and that's not the case in this class. You can have a performance advantage and still not get the victory, which is what happened to us in Englishtown. We're just going to stay focused as we have all year. Hopefully we will qualify well, and with some breaks on Sunday, you never know what could happen. I'd love to have that same Father's Day present again this year, but we're just trying to keep our focus right now."

Do you feel more pressure in Columbus since it's a home-track event? "Definitely. Especially since I have a history of struggling there. All of my employees are there, family, friends and the fans that support our program - I obviously want to do well for them. Summit's based in Akron and Jeg's is based in Columbus. There's nothing better than grabbing a race win in your competitor's home town. The whole team feels a lot of pressure and we're all really glad when that weekend's over. I'm pretty worn out once Sunday night rolls around no matter what the results are."

Do you get charged up a little more? "Absolutely. For my fans, sponsors and my family, I want to do well. If there were one race where I could say, 'Lord, I need this one,' it would be Columbus. No. 2 would be Indy because it's so prestigious and I've always wanted to win it - I've been in the finals a couple of times but never won it. The Pontiac Excitement Nationals is by far the most important race for us. Vegas is important too because it's a SummitRacing.com event. Our bottom line goal is to win the championship. We can't focus too much on one particular event because we have the same gameplan at every single race, and that's to try and qualify well and go rounds on raceday. There is more pressure in Columbus, and we want to do well but we still have to keep our eye on the big picture and remember what our overall goal is. It's only one race out of 24, it's a small percentage out of the whole package but it's an important part of it. We're just going to go out and do the best we can. We would love to win it again, but we'll just have to wait and see what happens."

What's your assessment on your performance this year? - "Our Pontiac Grand Am is a very consistent racecar. We've stumbled a couple of times where it cost us lane choice, and we're the only one in the top five that doesn't have a win, which is a disappointment, but at the same time it shows how consistent we've been. We've got guys around us in the standings that have won at least one race, a couple have two wins, but everyone on this team, from our race crew to the engine shop, is determined to stay focused. We're making good runs. I've been driving better this year, and when you go fast and stay consistent good things can happen. Unfortunately the season is only one-third of the way over, and there's a long way to go, but I'm very pleased with the performance of the Summit Racing Grand Am. It's by far the best start of my Pro Stock career."

How important is it to have the kind of chemistry you have with your team? "Very important. I decided to make a crew change a couple of years ago. I felt like we needed to go in a different direction. I was with Dave (Butner) for nine years, and he did a great job for me but I just felt it was time for a change. Rob (Downing) is a young, highly energized, intelligent individual. He had a learning curve to go through, and I thought the best thing to do was to go ahead, bite the bullet and work with him. Together we work very well, as the whole team does. He's done a great job. The guys think a lot alike. They come up with great ideas and everybody is very open-minded. There are not a lot of egos on this team, which I feel is very important to move the program forward. As the team has formed together, so has the performance, and that has to do with how focused they are and how well they work together."

How has the new 2001 Grand Am contributed to your program this year? "I love my Grand Am. The extra wheelbase has really helped us. It makes the car a little more stable downtrack. We've never really run a Jerry Bickel car before, we've always run Don Ness cars. A few weeks ago in testing we had a Ness car that ran pretty fast, but the Bickel car seems to be a little more forgiving. Even if we don't make a real good run it will still go down the track. We haven't given the Ness car that opportunity yet, but the extra wheelbase and the work General Motors did to design the body, aerodynamics, etc. before they went into production has been a positive. I've been very pleased. I have more leg room in this car and I think it's a more sporty, faster-looking racecar. We love it. I wouldn't trade my Grand Am for anything."

What's it going to take to stay in the thick of the points race this year? "Anybody could step up in a heartbeat and really start dominating this class. Everyone has gotten so close. There are about six or eight quality cars right now that could get on a roll and take this thing away, but right now consistency is the key. Every round we go is worth 20 points. At the end of the year the one who goes the most rounds gets the championship. We're just going to keep concentrating on the task at hand, try and go rounds and do the best we can. I'm not so sure anyone is going to take off with it as has happened in the last couple of years. I think this is the closest we've ever seen it with five cars within a couple of rounds of the points lead. Consistency in my opinion is the key factor."

How has your engine program developed over the last few years? "The guys have done a great job and we've gotten some help from GM in certain areas. The guys have been together for three or four years now, they think a lot alike and bounce ideas off of one another. We haven't been finding big gains, but we're finding a little bit here and there and it's keeping us in the hunt. At times I don't feel that we're the car with the most power, but I think we probably make the most consistent runs of anybody out there. Our Grand Am seems to be able to go down any racetrack, some better than others, but we've been No. 1 qualifier twice this year, which has to do with the kind of runs we've been making. We ran real fast at Englishtown and got the national record. The engine shop guys, just like the guys on the road, all have a dream they're trying to fulfill. You can tell by their inspiration, their drive and their ability to come up with new ideas to find additional horsepower. I have a real young team, probably the youngest team out there overall, except for the driver. I hope they can keep it going because we are definitely moving in a positive direction."

How has your racing program progressed over the years? "Our engine program has moved forward and that's been a real big asset. Our crew has moved forward. In the early days of Pro Stock to move ahead in this class you had to be creative in your thinking, and I think we've gotten a lot more creative than we've ever been and we're running on all eight cylinders. Not everything works. Probably about one percent of the things we do work, but you're never going to know if something's going to work if you don't try it. The creativity that has developed has really moved us to the point of the hit-and-miss synopsis, but we're hitting more then we're missing."

Are you having more fun this year than in past years? "I'm having fun. I was a little hard on myself in Englishtown. I was really disappointed; I really wanted to win that race. I'm having more fun than I did a few years ago. It's pretty tough being away from my family - I miss my wife and my kids a lot. They do get to come to quite a few races, but with me being gone as much as I am, the business suffers and the family life suffers. I try and do the best I can when I'm home. I have a great wife who's very supportive and my kids love racing. My son wants to start racing. He wants to drive a junior dragster. He can hardly wait. But they do understand where I am when I am gone. They're always pulling for me, which makes it a lot easier when you do have that support. It's hard. As much as I enjoy this sport, and as competitive a person that I am, it gets old every Thursday packing your suitcase and then going back home Sunday or Monday. But yeah, I'm having fun. I hope to have more fun as the year goes on."

How did you choose a career in drag racing? "Back when I was in high school, I worked at a transmission shop and the owner had a drag car. I went to the races with him a couple of times, ended up buying a car, started bracket racing and became very successful at it. I won several championships locally. There was a race every July 3rd called the Pro Stock Eve that people like Bill Jenkins, Don Nicholson and Ronnie Sox would come to. My parents, like they are today, were always very supportive. I told my dad one day that my dream would be to drive one of those cars. I thought they were the neatest things in the world. I worked hard, got the sponsorship together and started racing Pro Stock. I think I like drag racing because I'm such a competitive person, whether it's basketball, golf, football or anything that I'm participating in. That's probably why I get so down on myself when I don't win."

Has it been worth all the hard work? "It definitely has. There are a lot of things I've done that I never expected to accomplish. Winning that first national event was an honor, setting the national record in 1990 was a real honor and now we've got it again. We made three of the four quickest runs in NHRA Pro Stock history. We've also got great sponsors - Summit, Pontiac, Matco, Mr. Heater, Pennzoil and Holley. They've been with us for the long haul and they've helped our program move forward. I've built a lot of relationships with a lot of people and have a lot of friends in the sport. PRO has been a real plus for our organization. I've gained a lot of respect from the Fuel guys along with our fellow Pro Stock drivers. I'm proud of the accomplishments that I've made. Obviously I want to win a world championship. If that happens or not only God knows, but I can go away and hang my hat up some day and say that I've accomplished a lot during my tenure in the sport. It's been an experience I'll always treasure. I hope that someday I can park my driving shoes and put someone else in the car. I've always wanted to be involved as a team owner. How much longer I'm going to drive I don't know. I don't want to miss my kids growing up, but I'm sure I'll be around for a few more years. I've got a ways to go. Hopefully I won't ever have to be ashamed of what I've been able to accomplish for my family, my friends, the sport of drag racing or for Mark Pawuk."

MPR

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Series NHRA
Drivers Mark Pawuk