Last year's rule changes limited your pre-season testing options. What do you hope to accomplish during test sessions this year that you didn't before the 2000 season? LaHaie: "Last year there were a lot of changes made here in ...
Last year's rule changes limited your pre-season testing options. What do you hope to accomplish during test sessions this year that you didn't before the 2000 season?
LaHaie: "Last year there were a lot of changes made here in the organization. It was my first year here, we changed a lot of the components, the racecars were entirely different, and basically the reason we didn't have a lot of time to test is because we were spending time trying to get our program together and all of a sudden it was time to go test, so we went and tested with what we had. We put everything in a general area where we thought it needed to be and it was fairly successful. It wasn't anything to be ashamed about and as it turned out once the season started and we started learning what the car wanted and how to run the 90 percent and it started to come around pretty good."
What did you learn about how the 90-percent nitro rule affected the performance of the car and the Top Fuel Class after one full season?
LaHaie: "I was kind of disappointed in our performance as the season went on. We thought we should have gotten better, but we actually kind of got worse. It got to at one point in the season where we were trying things that we probably shouldn't have been doing, but the car told us the road not to go down for 2001. So we got some of that out of the way already. As far as what we are doing for 2001, we used 2000 as a building year, it got us all working together and on the same page and that was key. For 2001, now we can go with our new engine program. We thought we were always down on power a little bit and we have taken different approaches to correct that problem. The biggest thing we have to have, and it is something that I have tried to strive for all of my life, is the consistency. It has got to make more power and yet be consistent and that's maybe the tricky part of it."
Were there any specific problems with the car that you didn't expect to find last season and how did you deal with them?
LaHaie: "Actually, I was pretty comfortable with the performance of the car in the beginning part of the year. It went 320 mph and low 4.60s and it was very consistent. As the season went on, it got to a point where it was almost where we couldn't tune it. We could make it run middle 4.60s and 315, but we could give it that shove, that push it needed to get into the 4.50s and run over 320 all the time. So that's what made us start looking at different areas where we had problems and tried zero them out as we went along, knowing that the changes we were going to make for 2001 and we would try to incorporate everything together at one time."
With one year of 90 percent under your belts, will Top Fuel crew chiefs be able to put up the performance numbers that we saw in 1999?
LaHaie: "I think that there are guys out there right now that have a pretty good handle on making these cars run quick and fast. They are running faster at half-track then they were back with running the 100 percent. I look at that number right there for power. It isn't so much for E.T. or for mph at the finish line, but that mid-track speed that's what tells you if the car has power or not and there are some cars out there that are going to be real fast. I think that with the different tire combinations that Goodyear will be coming up with and as we get into the second season with 90 percent, you're probably going to see the 4.48 surpassed. I don't know about the speed, it's all going to depend on what's happening with our aero package as the season goes on and the new rule changes. We don't even know yet what the new rule changes are going to be, but one thing we know for certain is that the car has to weigh 25 pounds more. We don't know what the belly pans on these cars are going to do. If they are going to create lift and make it want to spin the tires, so we have to run more wing to keep it stuck, or if it's going to work as a ground effects and let us take wing out of it. It's kind of a guess and we are dancing around the area on eggshells."
What are your feelings on the job Larry did driving the car last year and what do you look for out of him this season?
LaHaie: "Larry and I worked pretty well this last year in 2000. It was our first full year together and it was what I expected, but we had to dig down and find it. Larry was pretty well beat up emotionally and mentally before last season. I don't know if it was from things that were happening with the car, or how the car was being run, or how it was perceived that he was driving the car, but we tried to start in 2000 with a clean slate and say, `OK, this is how we are going to do this and let's see what happens.' As we went along, I just let Larry do his own thing and then Donnie and I might stop him and say, `We need to think about this,' and he stepped up to the plate and definitely improved his stats, reaction time and so forth. I think it just turned out perfect and it's going to continue to get better. We were coming into a very good part of the year when we had the misfortune of crashing that car. That weekend, Larry had seven of the best reaction times he had ever had, off the top of my head I am going to say of the seven runs he had about a .460 average. Again, it was very unfortunate because I was looking at making a good, hard run at those guys toward the end of the year but it wasn't able to happen and that's OK. We all survived the crash and it probably made us stronger as a team, so I think that part of it was a good thing. Larry is going to continue to get better and is going to be a force to be reckoned with. People don't like to race him now and we want people to know that when they go up to the starting line, they are going to have to do something to beat him, and they are going to make mistakes."
How pleased were you with the way the Miller Lite Team worked together last season?
LaHaie: "The guys that we have got, I think they are great and they always work as a team and they want to learn, and I want to be able to teach them whatever I can about running a racecar because it makes the job easier for everybody. We are replacing one guy, Aaron Brooks, who decided to go in a different direction and I am sorry to lose him because he is a great guy. We now have Shawn Ford coming in who is kind of green, but he is eager to learn as the day is long and that's what we need. He is going to turn into a very good engine person.
What are your personal expectations for the team entering your second full season?
LaHaie: "Well, we always want to do better. As far as finishing third last year, it was okay. I felt that we could have finished second and should have really been pursuing the championship, but we got behind and couldn't step the car up when we needed to. The goal this year is that we need to proceed on. We need to do exactly what we did last year, which if you add the points up for 2000 and compared them to 1999, we would have won the championship. It was unfortunate that there we two cars out there that did a little better than we did and so it didn't happen, and I can accept all that. I want to make sure that we do better in 2001 than we did in 2000. I am not saying that we are going to win the championship, but we have a couple places we can go. We can go to second, or we can go to first, and everybody knows you can go backwards. There are an awful lot of good teams out there, so it's going to be a real dogfight to win this thing."
How will the addition of a second funny car help the Top Fuel team this season?
LaHaie: "There might be a little R&D that we might be able to work through on certain items, but I think the biggest thing it will help will be Larry because it will give him another driver to talk to that is not a competitor and because all three drivers get along well, I think it will be good for him. We got three drivers all about the same age and they all have the same goals. They want to do well, so I thinks it's going to be a plus."
Finally, what are your feelings about the NHRA's 50th Anniversary season in 2001?
LaHaie: "Wow, 50 years! I need to stop and think about that. It's come from a point where we used to go to junk yards to get our engines and blocks and crankshafts and so forth to build our racecars to the point now where you just pick up the phone and order pretty much anything you need. It's gone from a point where four and five crew members, if you were fortunate enough to have that many, stayed in one hotel room to where now you have got to have 10 hotel rooms for the crew to run the racecar. The sport has grown from what we all felt very fortunate to do as a hobby, to where it's a major impact on your income. Sometimes it's 100 percent of your income and there are a lot of people out there who depend on this sport to live. The involvement of corporate America in the sport is phenomenal which I think is going to keep growing and growing. Who would have thought back 20 or 30 years ago that there would be a television package that is going together like there is now, or that guys like Don Prudhomme are common household names and are known world wide? I feel that I was born at the right time and I am very fortunate to be involved in it."