COLUMBUS, Ohio (June 7, 2000)- The 36th annual Pontiac Excitement Nationals presented by Summit Racing is certain to keep Federal Mogul Funny Car racer Pat Austin a little busy. The 35- year-old driver of the ProMax/Valvoline Pontiac Firebird is...
COLUMBUS, Ohio (June 7, 2000)- The 36th annual Pontiac Excitement Nationals presented by Summit Racing is certain to keep Federal Mogul Funny Car racer Pat Austin a little busy. The 35- year-old driver of the ProMax/Valvoline Pontiac Firebird is looking to win his third consecutive national event to go along with career victories No. 70 and 71 that he picked up at Dallas and Chicago. Combine that with a win earlier in the year at Phoenix, and the Tacoma, Wash., resident is in contention to win his fifth Federal Mogul Funny Car National Championship (1987-88, 1990-91). Fourth on the NHRA list for all-time wins, Austin will also be competing in the Federal Mogul All Star race where he hopes to pick up an additional winner's check.
During the last month you won your 70th and 71st career national event victories. How big of a boost is that going into the second half of 2000? "The year started out good with the first race we went to in Phoenix when we won there. We felt the ProMax Pontiac Firebird had been running really well since the middle of last season, at the end of last year and coming into this season. We felt things were starting to come together, but it takes a little bit of chemistry to be able to keep that momentum and confidence going. What I mean by that is when we come back in between qualifying and eliminations, there are guys on the team that know what they're supposed to do. We help each other out in certain areas and everything just clicks together. It's a good experience when you have it that way. You can lose races by things falling off your car, by things not being right, and the preparation not being as good as it needs to be. I'm telling you, in between rounds in qualifying and eliminations things are just bang, bang, bang, bang. The decisions we have to make to get the car to go a little faster or quicker are easier when you have more time, and more focus on being able to look at how to make it go faster or quicker. When you get your work done faster, and everything is clicking, it makes it that much more enjoyable."
And that keeps you more focussed as well when you go up to the starting line. "Absolutely. We have the confidence in each other that if somebody gets tied up with a job that isn't going right in between rounds (when we're subject to 75 minute rounds now), that another guy can come in and pick up on what he should be doing when he is stuck on a problem. Terry Major, Joe Sevrlance, Rick Gratzer and my brother are the crew. They do an outstanding job and it gives us a lot of confidence. When the car runs good, the confidence just continues to build and build. When you go up to race the next competitor you have confidence in what you are doing and driving, and that makes it enjoyable."
Do you feel like you struggled a little bit last year in that respect? "No, I think to be quite honest with you when we went to the two-car team, which is the Top Fuel Car and the Federal Mogul Funny Car, it broke up the chemistry between my father, my brother and me. Honestly, it wasn't back until probably the beginning of last year. Towards the middle of the year it was back and it continues to build. My father (Walt Austin), and brother and I have raced together for 16 years, have won a lot of races and have had a lot of help along the way with other crew members. Mike (brother) is capable of doing anything on the car. But right now he doesn't have to do that and is helping out in other ways such as reading the track conditions, and analyzing the competition's cars. My dad does anything the team asks him to do. But he is more at an overseeing stage, and makes all the tuning decisions. He's the ambassador of the team and has been known as being one of the top alcohol tuners in NHRA history. When that got all broken up and we went to the two-car team, we each had to branch out - I went to the Fuel Car with Mike and Dad stayed with the Alcohol car. We had to hire extra people which we never had to do before. The conversations weren't there anymore between the three of us. I compare it to Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and Roger Craig-they clicked when they were together, but when they went to different teams they weren't as effective. We're trying to get that back. Fortunately we're young, and in a sport that we can race for a long period of time, and I think we will be fine. Do to the overwhelming schedule, and the way we run the cars today, it takes more than just the three of us. It takes two or three other crew members now and we're fortunate to have Rick Gratzer, who is full time and does the maintenance part of it. We also have two other guys (Terry Major, Joe Sevrlance) that have full-time jobs that fly in to help us on weekends and they do a great job. They're very good at what they do, and we all get along great."
That all goes back to the chemistry factor as well. "Absolutely, and it's all of us wanting to be there and having the same goals. You know you have a good crew when you lose and they aren't happy. They start thinking about what we could've done better, so when you see them get upset, as a driver, you know you have a good crew."
What does it take to run the full Federal Mogul schedule? "What's happened is that we've got another business in Tacoma, Wash. That's kept us real busy and that's why we've had to hire the full-time crew member. When we say full time, it means we're going to as many races as we possibly can. We would certainly like to win a world championship again, but our main goal is to win as many races as we can."
Is there more flexibility in your schedule running in the Federal Mogul Category than running the full 24-event schedule? "To be quiet honest with you 24 races for us is way too many. We would like to be able to do that, but on our kind of scale it would take $600,000 or $700,000 to run that many races, and it would be hard to accommodate a sponsor for a program like ours. We go through a lot of clutch parts, and the maintenance on the cars is overwhelming nowadays. Plus I have a couple of kids and a wife that I want to spend time with - family is the most important thing to me. My kids are in baseball now, and all kinds of different sports activities, and my wife is very busy so I think anywhere from 12-15 races a year is going to be max for us. If we can't win a world championship or win as many races as we would like in that amount of races then so be it."
With all the great drivers in Federal Mogul Funny Car, just how competitive is it? "I'll tell you what has really happened here, since the screw compressors have come out, which are the blowers that we run, the horsepower has picked up tremendously over the last eight years. During that time we've had a heck of a problem of shaking and spinning the tires, and the racing went from being real close each round to one guy that shook the tires and the other guy making it down the racetrack. We've been working really hard trying to get that figured out during the last eight years. The racing hasn't been very enjoyable when you go out and shake the tires all the time. Since the Hoosier tires have come along, that has made the racing more side by side. You now have eight or nine guys within five hundredths of a second in qualifying. You're also seeing races such as the one last weekend in Chicago where everyone is running in the 5.60s. I can't recall any race that I've been to where that many cars ran in the 5.60s, let alone the 5.80s. It's all because the manufacturers are producing a better part, and we're getting smarter with that part. We are still going to shake the tires, and we're still going to have some runs where we don't get down the racetrack, but the margin of error is a lot less now than what it was back then."
With 71 wins, is setting the all-time record something you'd like to accomplish someday? "Being real honest with you, I've never looked at how many wins and how many championships a guy has. We've won 71 national-event jackets and never in my life have I wore one of those jackets. They come in a box and I put them in my closet. I've never looked at it as though I have this many wins because we're not finished yet. When I'm all said and done as a driver, when my dad's all said and done as a team owner and my brother is done as a racer, we'll look at each other and say 'we did a heck of a job.' But at this point in time I don't look at that because I'm not ready to say it's over. When it's all over then I'll sit back and ask myself -how'd we do?"
Do you have any aspirations to return to the Fuel categories? "Not at this time. The reason for that is I have a family to raise, and my kids will come before my racecar. That's why I'm walking what I consider to be a very fine line right now. I want to raise my kids the way my dad raised us. I feel he did a wonderful job, and I've got so many wonderful memories with my family that I want my kids to have those same memories. I want to spend the time with them in their sports, and go camping and fishing with them because when they're all grown-up and in college, I'm not going to have that much time to spend with them, so it's very important to me not to lose those memories. If I can lay out a schedule to be able to accommodate Valvoline and Pontiac, and keep our name out there, keep racing, and winning races, plus spend time with my kids, then that's an accomplishment."
What are you striving for this year? "I feel that this is hopefully going to be the best year we've had since we took on our Top Fuel program and divided the teams up. My goal is to get back and do a great job for our sponsors: Valvoline, Pontiac, Hoosier tires, Flowmaster and ProMax. I want to win races so I can promote the products and do a good job so they will continue to help us race. I want to build that tradition of winning races so maybe someday when we are finished, and we count all the races we've won, we can say we were the winningest racer in NHRA history. I'm having a blast this year, and I'm more excited and determined about the racecar than I've been in a long time. It's been a fun experience. My dad's health is back and that's more important than anything. He went through bypass surgery over the winter and that was a big concern for all of us. The most important thing for me is that everybody has their health, and we can race the car and enjoy ourselves the way that we used to. This year we've done that and that means a lot to us."