Cory McClenathan is a pretty happy man these days. After sitting out for an entire season, McClenathan is back in the seat of a Top Fuel dragster - right where he feels most at home. The 39-year-old just got married and as a continuing wedding ...
Cory McClenathan is a pretty happy man these days. After sitting out for an entire season, McClenathan is back in the seat of a Top Fuel dragster - right where he feels most at home. The 39-year-old just got married and as a continuing wedding present to himself and the team, he has had a season that has exceeded many people's expectations. After having little time to put the team and the car together, the Centennial Batteries Dragster went to the finals once and the semifinals four times in the first six races of the season. In this Q&A session, McClenathan talks about what it was like to be sidelined for a year and what he is doing to make the most of his new ride.
Q: How did the team come together and how much time did you have before the first race?
McClenathan: We went to the January testing in Tucson just to talk to some people. I went with Brad Anderson just to watch and check things out. Sunday night I got a call from Rick Henkelman and he said he sold his (Top Alcohol) equipment and that he wanted to go Top Fuel racing. He wanted Brad Anderson to sell him all of his equipment. Then he mentioned that he wanted me to drive it and I thought that we were looking down the road. It was eight days before the Winternationals at Pomona and he said he wanted to make it to Pomona. I was wondering how we were ever going to make it happen. But by the next day, we had the truck and trailer, we had the car out and we pulled all the stuff off of it. We still had to make belly pans, we still had to make certification. We had to re-certify everything. I couldn't believe how much there was to do, but at the same time, I was thinking of what I needed to do to go racing again. I was willing to do whatever work necessary because after sitting out a year, which was very humbling, I really missed being out here. I was trading every favor I had to get to Pomona. We just wanted to go there to qualify, and we ended up going to the semis. It was a whirlwind thing, but it is amazing how fast you can get things done when you put your mind to it.
Q: When did it finally hit you that you were back racing?
McClenathan: Not until I got into the car for the first time during qualifying. We just wanted to go there and make some kind of showing so we could go on the sponsor hunt. We didn't have a big sponsor on the car, we had some help to get there, but it was a good feeling to pull up to the water box and see all of the people in the stands and finally realize that I was back where I wanted to be.
Q: What did you miss the most about NHRA racing during the year off?
McClenathan: All of the fans and all of my friends that are out here. You travel with a certain group of people for 10 years, then all of the sudden that is taken away from you, and you are a side player. The first two months was like a great vacation, then after that, the races started and I knew I wasn't going to be out there and I just concentrated on how to get back out there. For me it was a complete re-evaluation of my life. It was my sixth year with (former team owner) Joe Gibbs and everything was going well, there weren't any problems and I didn't expect there to be. I didn't expect Joe to call and say that he wanted to back out of the season and tell me that he just wanted to concentrate on his Winston Cup teams.
Q: Prior to the year off, you had earned 26 career victories and finished in second place in the Top Fuel standings four times. What was the most frustrating thing about sitting out, especially knowing that you were a proven winner?
McClenathan: That was the hardest part. Knowing that your record speaks for itself normally and I think I have one that does that. I am not a vocal person but I didn't realize how much I was going to miss it until I didn't have it anymore. The biggest thing in the business world, they don't care what you have done. It doesn't matter. It is all about how you are going to sell their product and make them and their company richer to allow you to go racing. Not only am I trying to get money for myself, but also I have to make someone else richer so I can go racing. That is a tough thing because I never had to deal with that before, I always had someone else doing that stuff for me. When it came to dealing with the race car, the team or the people involved, that was always easy for me and I had no problem working on those things. When it comes to dealing with the business side of it, I had not ever been schooled on that aspect. I had always driven a race car or worked on a race car my whole life. I didn't go to business school. After high school I went to college for a couple of months and it basically interfered with my racing career, so I quit. On the business side, I wish I had dug a lot deeper before this all came about because it would have helped me a lot more.
Q: Do you think racers need to be more business savvy now more than when you first started racing?
McClenathan: Yes because the days of going to dinner with someone who owned a multi-million dollar company and hitting it off with them and having them write a check right there don't exist anymore. Those days are done. It's all about co-ops and what you can do to sell a product. It's not necessarily what you can do performance wise. If you can win, yeah, they really like that. But if not, then it's not as big of a deal as long as you are making them money.
Q: Has the hectic pace of getting the team together made the season any less fun for you?
McClenathan: Hectic to me is fun. The busier I am, the more I have to do, the happier I am. Right now it is about what this team can prove. We can bring out old stuff, and a car that everyone says really isn't that good, and I feel we have done pretty well. We are in the No. 3 spot in the points and the competition is as tough as it ever has been. For sitting out a year, I feel like this is an accomplishment. Not really to anyone, not an 'in-your-face' to anyone, but it more or less is to please myself and realize that I can still do this the right way.
Q: The Centennial Batteries Dragster has been one of the more consistent cars our there. Are you surprised by the way the team has performed all season?
McClenathan: The one thing about this situation is that the operation we bought had good stuff. It had good parts and good cars. We were familiar with the equipment, we being (crew chief) Wes Cerny and myself. With a guy like Wes Cerny, I've worked with him long enough and I think we work very well together. We knew everything was there, but to make it a full package, how long would that take? This is not a flash in the pan thing, we are well into the season and we are still doing pretty well. We are no Larry Dixon or Kenny Bernstein by any means, but we are doing a lot with a lot less. If you look at it from that point, I think we are doing OK.
Q: Describe your relationship with Wes Cerny.
McClenathan: I think in a crew chief, I look for a couple of things. Performance is always something everyone looks at. You want somebody who is going to perform well. Where sometimes I think the big-name performing crew chiefs to me wouldn't be the one I choose because I need a guy who also is a family person, treats people with respect and is safety conscious. To me that is a huge, huge deal. Wes is all of those things. If that car has the slightest thing that is not right, he is not going to send me down the track. That is a big issue for me, probably the biggest issue. We communicate really well with the car, but for the most part, he is a father figure to me and I'm like the son he never wanted or never had, I'm not sure which one it is. But we play off that a lot. We have a lot of fun. We have a good time. People usually say that Wes Cerny is so quiet. But that's just it. He's a quiet person and he thinks a lot and I talk a lot. It's one of those things that help us get a long really well. He knows what I am thinking in the race car and he works around that. It makes it a win-win deal. We look out for each other. That's the best way to put it.
Q: One of the early concerns in the season was the team's financial situation. Do you have enough funding to race the rest of the year?
McClenathan: It's going to be really thin. We are going to have to watch what we spend. We may have to sit out a couple of (qualifying) rounds here and there. Our commitment with (team owners) David Baca and Rick Henkelman is really strong. I think we are going to be OK and we are hoping that we get some additional funding along the way. We could sure use it. But most people have spent their advertising dollars on the year. So now it is working on next year, basically, as well as the years after that. I don't want to come back just for one year. I want to come back for the rest of my career. I think we are going to be OK, but we are going to have to watch what we spend very carefully.
Q: How has the new series sponsor, POWERade, helped in your situation?
McClenathan: We all knew the conditions that Winston had to operate under. POWERade is a pure, family, non-conflicting deal. It has worked out great for us because I love the product. All I ever drink is Coke and they are owned by Coke, so that's even better for me. It's an easier sponsor to sell and put proposals together when you have Coke and POWERade attached to the deal. Winston was great to us, but I see a lot more opportunities in our future with POWERade.
Q: How long would you like to be driving a Top Fuel car?
McClenathan: I have thought a lot about that lately. I would like to drive for another four or five years. Then I would like to be an owner and get someone else to bring up through the ranks and train to drive the car. I would definitely go with a younger person so I can sit back and hopefully find myself someday in (three-car team owner Don Prudhomme) Snake's position. I would like to basically be in control of the whole thing, and teach someone how to do it the way I think it should be done. I would like to do that for a long time. I'd like to retire in this business. I don't want to do anything else. I love this sport, I love the people in it from the Safety Safari people all the way to the track officials and everyone else. This sport has grown to be something huge. I think it is going to be even bigger in the future. I'll never be the next John Force as far as making the sport like he has but I would like to help that and be a part of that.
Q: What is it like to be third in the standings at this point of the season?
McClenathan: Now that I am right in the middle of it, maybe I don't think about it as much. But maybe from the other side when you come in and you realize that you are third in points after taking so much time off, that is a good thing. To be this far in the season and to be third is good. We have a couple of people who are trying to chase us down points wise, and we are trying to chase down people ourselves. I can say that I would love to finish in the top five. I would prefer second or third. First place, I think, is out of our reach. No matter what, it has been a lot of fun and I am having a very good time.
Q: Three-time Top Fuel champion Gary Scelzi now finds himself out of a ride. Can you relate to his situation better than anyone else can?
McClenathan: I think right now, since I am fresh out of that situation, I can identify with exactly where Gary is at. I've been there. He is doing what it takes to get back out there and it is exactly what I did. You have to keep your face out there, sit in the booth on TV with the ESPN guys or with Bob Frey in the announcer's booth. I loved working with Bob Frey, I enjoyed doing that a lot. The biggest thing is that he needs to keep after it and keep going. Even though it may seem like there isn't a light at the end of the tunnel, eventually something will pop up. More sponsors are coming into this sport and there are going to be more cars out there. Gary Scelzi is the best, there is no doubt in my mind. The only thing that is missing right now is being able to race against Gary in this category. That would be the ultimate. That brings me back to the days when I raced and battled against Scott Kalitta. Gary and I had a lot of fun racing against each other. I hope he can come back out here and race where he wants to, whether that is in a Funny Car or dragster. I know right where he sits. It can be a very lonely place and it is tough. But Gary is a fighter and he will be back out here.
Q: You applied to be the co-host of ESPN's race coverage with Marty Reid. Mike Dunn got the job, but you got good reviews when you sat in the seat of a TV announcer's chair. Is that a possible career move down the line?
McClenathan: We both got good reviews during the interview process. I knew Mike Dunn was coming in after me and I think everyone gets nervous trying to do something like that. I can go in and do it now and not think twice about it. But the first time you go in there and you have (producer) Shawn Murphy in there looking at you, knowing he is the guy to make the decision, it can make you nervous. Marty helped me prepare for that and I think it went well. I was kind of bummed I didn't get the job, especially when you are out there looking for a job and you need the money. It's the only way to pay the bills. I wanted to get back (into driving) but at the same time, you know there are bills at home and you need a way to pay them and take care of the family. It's not an opportunity that won't present itself again. I think it will present itself again someday. Right now, I am in a race car and that is right where I want to be. I am very happy. The driving job came about a couple of weeks after that happened and I was not happy when I got the phone call that Mike Dunn was going to be the guy, but on the other side, I wouldn't be here now if it wasn't for that.
Q: Your former team owner is Joe Gibbs, still owns a two-car team in the NASCAR Winston Cup series. Do you ever talk to him or anyone on the Gibbs' teams?
McClenathan: I get cards from Pat Gibbs, Joe's wife. I go down to their shop when I am in North Carolina and I still talk to some of the guys on the phone that work on Bobby (Labonte's) car. Other than that, I don't have a lot of communication with anyone. There isn't any bad feeling and there aren't any burned bridges. I know I can walk in there with my head held high and walk right up to Joe and not have a problem doing that. I think we have a mutual respect for each other, we just both went into different directions.
Q: What is your relationship like with the new team?
McClenathan: It's been great, actually. We have three Australian guys on the team that I spend a lot of time on the road with. One thing about the team is that we are having to do a lot on such a small budget that I have to do a lot more things than I used to just to make it all work. But then again it brings me closer to the team and I like being around the guys. I have no problem with anyone whether it was my last team, this team or a future team. For some reason I identify better with the guys who are working on the car than I do with the corporate people. That part has been real easy and a lot of fun for me. I spent three weeks on the road with the Aussies earlier this season and that was something else. I drank more beer in that three week period than I did all year long. The guys on the team are a blast and they are a lot of fun and work real hard on the car. There have been a lot of good times so far. I am just glad that David Baca and Rick Henkelman have given us the opportunity for this whole thing to happen. I'm glad to be back.