David Baca, driver of the American Racing Wheels dragster is not an ordinary rookie. An accomplished driver in NHRA's Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series in Top Alcohol Dragster, Baca, 45, decided to make the move to Top Fuel last season in a...
David Baca, driver of the American Racing Wheels dragster is not an ordinary rookie. An accomplished driver in NHRA's Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series in Top Alcohol Dragster, Baca, 45, decided to make the move to Top Fuel last season in a partnership with Rick Henkleman. After spending one season on the sidelines observing Cory McClenathan drive their 6,000 horsepower race car, Baca decided to move back into the driver's seat. Baca, an energetic second-generation racer from the Bay Area in Northern California, has had an impressive rookie season behind the wheel. He has earned two No. 1 qualifying awards -- including one at the prestigious Mac Tools U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis -- and posted a runner-up finish at his home track in Sonoma, Calif. He is working on a top five points finish in the NHRA POWERade championship standings and has been nominated for the Auto Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award, which recognizes NHRA's top rookie for the year. In this Q&A session, Baca talks about the transition required to drive a 330-mph Top Fuel dragster, his thoughts about being a top rookie candidate and why he enjoys being a thorn in the side of many of his competitors.
Q: When you moved into the cockpit to replace Cory McClenathan, who drove to four finals and earned one victory last year, what were your expectations for your first season behind the wheel?
BACA: Based on where we finished last year and as much attrition as we had from that team, this is basically a new team, so we had a bit of a slow start getting up to speed. Johnny West (crew chief) is known to be a little (more conservative) with parts, so we are fortunate to have him on our team. We feel like we should be equal to, if not better than we were last year. We are right on pace to do that. Our goal is to have a top five finish for the second year in a row -- one as a team owner last year and now one as a driver this year. Until we get our funding situation worked out, we feel a top-five finish is an attainable goal.
Q: How is your search for funding for next season coming along?
BACA: There are a lot of great inquiries. I think Corporate America is starting to loosen up a little bit. When I talk to people it looks like part of their advertising budgets are getting better in upcoming quarters. I am working a handful of deals, but I am still looking for potential partners.
Q: What do you think you have brought to the team as far as your driving style goes?
BACA: I do believe that in any type of racing, experience behind the wheel is good. You can't buy race experience. You have to earn experience and keep making laps. I have a good seat of the pants feel for the car, and I think that is a good thing. I have been in a couple of situations where I could've taken the car a little further and maybe got myself in trouble, but I didn't. I think my years of experience have helped me out in those situations. Driving these cars is an unbelievable experience. You can't compare it to anything else that you've ever driven.
Q: What has been the biggest adjustment for you from racing a Top Alcohol dragster to a Top Fuel dragster?
BACA: It's the acceleration. Things happen so quickly in a Top Fuel dragster. When we ran the A-Fuel car (Top Alcohol Dragster) and we were the baddest car in the country, I honestly didn't think it would be that big of a learning curve. Once you get to this level, you quickly realize that you need to just throw that mentality out. These cars are so powerful that they accelerate twice as fast. In the A-Fuel car I was running 274 mph in the quarter-mile and now I do that in 600 feet. The focus and concentration this car demands is just incredible. Once you leave the starting line you better be looking for the finish line because it's going to be there in a hurry.
Q: Your top end interviews have been extremely unpredictable and full of life. Do you feel like you have brought some energy to the category?
BACA: That's just me. I grew up as a clown and a jokester. I was always kind of the guy who tried to make everybody laugh. At the top end, that's just my body catching up to me. After a run, your body finally gets there about 30 seconds later and whatever happens, happens. I do believe that I am a very energetic person. Do I think we need more of that? Yes. I am watching my fan following and what I am seeing is that my fans will be there all day long. I work the ropes because you never know who you might come in contact with. That's how Jim Jannard's (president, Oakley) relationship got started with Scotty Cannon. You never know who's who. I am enjoying myself and living a dream. It took me a long time to get here and I hope to make a name for myself and stay here quite a while.
Q: You are a 45-year-old rookie. What was your career strategy for creating an opportunity to drive a Top Fuel dragster?
BACA: Most all of the drivers out here are entrepreneurs and pretty successful business people. With that in mind, when you decide to get started in this sport, you have to be able to fund it yourself, unless you are fortunate enough to get a major sponsor right from the start. From that perspective, I had to make sure my family was set, my house was in order per se, and that my business was running OK without me. I am fortunate to have some really strong people around me to make sure that our operation runs smoothly when I am out on the road. I am in the new home construction, flooring, tile and home center business. If you are building a new home, we sell tile, hardwood, carpet, linoleum and drapes. We have three stores in the greater Bay Area in Northern California, from San Jose to Sacramento.
Q: Have you found that it is tough for you to balance the travel with making sure everything is going well at home?
BACA: It affects both, but probably more my home life than my business life. Fortunately I have some key staffers at my business and I am not involved as much in the day to day operations and they run things very well. I just look at the statements, cash flow and those type of things. I go home every week and I am sitting at my desk every Monday morning.
Q: Do you feel like your competition has accepted you into the fraternity of drivers?
BACA: I've known most of these guys for a long time. I have raced against many of them in alcohol competition. I think I've been accepted. I don't think I've done anything stupid to where they don't feel comfortable if I am in the other lane. I think right now I may be a little bit of a thorn to some of them. We're here to be reckoned with. We still have to continue to work on making our Sunday tune-up a little quicker, but we're definitely a thorn. I think when other teams have to race us they know they better bring their "A" tune-up to the starting line or we could put them away.
Q: How special was your final round effort at your home track, Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif.?
BACA: Sonoma was real good. We had struggled a few times before that and we had some first round losses. There were six or eight of those losses that were extremely close, so who knows what that could've done for us in the points if those rounds would've went our way. At Sonoma we stayed in our routine and didn't do anything different or push or press. We felt like if we continued doing things the right way eventually the tide would turn and go our way. Johnny is learning and I am learning. Hopefully I am becoming a better driver each week. Every now and then I still make a stupid mistake, but I am learning.
Q: Is there a driver out here that you feel more comfortable going to for advice or has taken you under his wing to teach you the ropes?
BACA: (Gary) Scelzi has become my mentor. When I got out there the first couple of times I kind of got over in the other lane and he told me to keep it in my lane. If he sees that I do something wrong he will tell me. If I have questions I will ask him, or Del Worsham. Johnny is an ex-driver and so is Rick (Henkleman, team owner), so we have three drivers in our own camp that I can go to for advice. I am always asking other drivers for their opinions on how they do things.
Q: How are things going with Johnny West?
BACA: Last year Cory (McClenathan) and Wes Cerny were on the team and I sat out a year because we wanted to give those two guys a try for marketing reasons. It didn't work as we had hoped. It did revitalize Cory's career because he is back now and Wes went to the highest bidder, which was Team Schumacher. We did everything within our power to see if Wes wanted to stay with this team, because we work things as a family around here. Even when we do go corporate, I want to keep that good old family feel. I look around at some of the teams out here and I don't see that. But I think that is a very important element and I think that is what some of the teams are missing. We had a short crew when I was licensed at Indy last year and Johnny helped us. On the first run he saw my eyes light up like a kid in a candy store and he knew I was having fun. Then I found out that he and Doug (Herbert) were having some issues. I didn't pursue it at that time and did all my research and looked at all of the options and I figured that he was my guy. I figured he was ready to be the next Dick LaHaie or Tim Richards, since he had been an understudy at so many different places. He can tune anything, build anything and he can drive. We aren't blowing up a lot of stuff and our car runs very clean. We've had four oildowns I think and two of them were early in the year because I stayed with it longer than I should have. Johnny West is here to stay. I have him under contract for two more years.
Q: What are your thoughts about being nominated along with Brandon Bernstein for the Auto Club Road to the Future Award, which recognizes the top NHRA rookie for the year?
BACA: It means a lot to me to even be nominated. If you are able to win that award and to be honored in that fashion it gets your name in the history book. It is something that nobody can take away from you, just like that 4.49 (No. 1 qualifying performance, track record) at Indy, nobody can take that away from me. I wish I had Brandon's hot rod. We are building this team and we are growing every day. Fortunately or unfortunately for Brandon, depending on how you look at it, he was able to step into one of the baddest hot rods out here. He has to win and maybe that's why he got in a little deep and hurt himself. We never want to see anybody get hurt out here. I wish he was here racing with us all year. He'd be going for the championship. Just to be mentioned (for the award) and the way this team is progressing with all the things I continue to do is great. I love what I am doing, whether it is over at the POWERade display, interacting with the fans at the ropes here in my pit or out in the market doing media tours. This is what I love to do. I am doing it because I like it and I am living a dream. It would be awesome to win it, and the cash wouldn't hurt either.
Q: The criteria for the Auto Club Road to the Future Award is based on a lot of different things, including driver performance on and off the track, including relationships with fans, media and sponsors and potential as a star of the future. The award is not given strictly on each driver's final position in the POWERade championship standings. What do you think should be the most important factor?
BACA: I don't want to get in the politics of it. I was always under the assumption that a driver needs to run the full year or a good portion of it to see where you started and then where you finished. If you started out 14th and moved to fifth, well that is a great progression. If you start out No. 1 and end up 14th, well then I don't know how you compare that. I am not going to get into all that. I just feel fortunate to be recognized as a candidate. I will leave the decision up to the committee that votes for the award.
Q: Your team been very close to victory this season. How important would a win be to your team at this point?
BACA: Without question this group is looking for a win and I am certain that it is going to happen sooner than later. We do everything right and do all the stuff that is needed. If we don't win this year, when we do win we are going to be on a roll. You'll see that this team is so consistent the way Johnny nibbles at it, we'll be right there like the (Tony) Schumacher team or (Larry) Dixon team is right now. I think once that first (victory) is out of the way, I believe you'll see a few more wins come along right behind it. Whether that is next week, or a few weeks, I am not sure. We're not a pretender, we're a contender.
Q: Do you think the competition in Top Fuel has more young energy than ever?
BACA: Technically I am the oldest young guy in the group and I can go toe to toe with any of them because I pride myself on staying in good physical shape. There's a lot of young lions out here and I think it's cool. I am not afraid of getting out there and mixing it up with these guys. I love the competition. I enjoy a challenge. If somebody tells me we won't win, I am going to prove them wrong. My dad used to tell me I wouldn't be able to do certain things as a motivating factor and it's always worked with me. If you tell me no, I am determined to prove you wrong.
Q: Your father Dennis won the U.S. Nationals in 1977. Do you feel any pressure as a second-generation racer?
BACA: There's no pressure. I was eating, living and drinking drag racing from a very young age. I think I went from the womb straight to the track. I went away from the scene from a while, but I really missed it and had to get back. You always want to do equal to or better than any relative just for bragging rights. If I could win the U.S. Nationals that would be the best, because it is our Super Bowl or Daytona 500. But I am just glad to see dad's name getting back in print this year, so he's getting some recognition out of my efforts. I know he's getting some goosebumps out of this and that's good for me. My dad is just like Connie (Kalitta), ornery and cantankerous, but he could still do this too. Connie could get in one of these cars tomorrow and run the wheels off of it and so could my old man. Maybe it's good for him to live vicariously through me. That's the good part of all this for me.