From The Snake Pit DON BENDER 2006 NHRA Q&A VISTA, Calif. (Feb. 20, 2006) & ...
From The Snake Pit
DON BENDER 2006 NHRA Q&A
VISTA, Calif. (Feb. 20, 2006) Hey you out there. You want to tune a Top Fuel dragster? Well, clean up your resume because anything is possible. In the case of Miller Lite dragster crew chief Don Bender, handing out resumes at the track is how he got his crack at working on an NHRA race crew. After working for Jim Head, Kalitta Motorsports and Don Prudhomme Racing, along with serving as champion tuner Dick LaHaie's right-hand man for many years, the Dayton, Ohio native is now calling the tuning shots for two-time NHRA Top Fuel champion Larry Dixon. In this Q&A, Bender, 45, talks about LaHaie, his veteran driver, what it will take to compete for the championship in 2006, and his first month as crew chief.
Q: How did you get your start in drag racing?
BENDER: I responded to an ad that I saw in National DRAGSTER. Jim Head was looking for a crew person and he used to run ads in DRAGSTER and he would get all sorts of resumes and he'd sort through them and pick somebody. Well, he was racing at, I think Dallas, and I went up and gave him my resume and he called the next week. He wondered why my resume was separate from the others, and I told him it was probably because I gave it to him at the track. He asked if I wanted to come to the race and try it out and that's how I got my start.
Q: When did you first start working with Dick LaHaie?
BENDER: In 1993. I was working for Kalitta Motorsports in 1992. Dicko (Dick LaHaie) came on board right after the holidays in 1992, before the '93 season. I was already there, so he had to put up with me.
Q: Will you and he still talk?
BENDER: I speak to him three of four times a week. I try not to bug him too much. I spoke with him twice during the weekend of the Winternationals.
Q: What's the most important thing he taught you about tuning a Top Fuel dragster?
BENDER: To make sure that you go down the track, don't beat yourself, and to look at the parts.
Q: What's your relationship like with Larry Dixon?
BENDER: It's good. He's my first driver as a crew chief and I feel like we have a really good relationship. I like the input that he gives when he hops out of the car on the other end. He'll say I felt this, and that's why I like to ride to the top end after he makes a run. He gives good input. Larry (Dixon) has been around racing a long time and he has a good knowledge about the sport and I really like that about him.
Q: How did you feel when Dicko told you he was going to retire?
BENDER: Dick had been talking about retirement to me for a couple years. I knew he was going to retire, so it wasn't a surprise. I didn't know exactly when it would be, so it was kind of the next step in his program. It's a big step for me. You're always a little hesitant, but I understand why he had to go. He got tired of a lot of things. I had been thinking about it for a couple years. When I came here to work with Dicko, I was going to be a crew chief on (Doug) Herbert's IHRA car. So, I've been moving towards this for some time now.
Q: You had run the car a few times in testing on your own with good success, did that give you some additional confidence?
BENDER: Yeah, it did. The first time was at Indy last summer. The first run, the car didn't move two inches before it smoked the tires. It was like, oh man, I've got quite a few more inches to get the car down there. We came out the next lap and it went right down through there. We made the right call and it was like, cool, we kind of know what we're doing. We also did ok after the second (Las) Vegas race last fall.
Q: What does the Miller Lite team need to do to compete for the Top Fuel title in '06?
BENDER: We need to be consistent and not too scared to make the changes we need to make. If it goes out and smokes the tires like it did in the first round at Pomona (Calif.), we need to come back and make the call to make it go down the track, but don't get too conservative like we did in the second round against (Doug) Herbert.
Q: How important was it to have most of the Miller Lite pit crew return for the 2006 season?
BENDER: It was very important. If I had come in with all new guys, then I would have had to look at them all the time and make sure everything is right on the car instead of just worrying about the tuning. Now, 90-percent of the time, I can worry about the tuning and the other 10-percent of the time I have to worry about them, and that's really only if we change something on the car. If we don't change a lot, they know exactly what to do and it's great to have the guys back.
Q: What's the biggest change for the team this season?
BENDER: Many of the crew guys are in different positions on the car, so they have to learn their job and handle that and they've done a great job of that so far. Everybody on the team needs to step up and help out with the car because everybody's input is important. I know I'm no Dick LaHaie, and if anybody on the team can bring something to the table and help the team out, that's just a bonus.
Q: Can you share data with Skoal RacingSM crew chief Mike Green? Do you two communicate on a regular basis?
BENDER: We talk. To be honest with you, I've never worked on a Funny Car, so I don't know how the data transfers back and forth from Top Fuel to Funny Car. We talk about parts, but I know nothing about Funny Cars. It's a different animal.
Q: Is a two-car team essential to competing for the championship?
BENDER: No. It's essential to go down the track and test as much as you can and get the data you need. I've been involved in a two-car team and what they bring to the table is more data. So, if you test enough and keep thinking ahead, I think you can do just fine with one car.
Q: Will you test every chance you can?
BENDER: Yes, I would test almost every other day if I could, but I don't think that I could have a crew that way. But, yes, we'll test more than in the past.
Q: You spent three weekends testing the car and just completed your first race as a crew chief. How have things gone so far?
BENDER: The first month went pretty well. We tried a lot of different things. We tried the new tire (2420), but they backpedaled and let us run the old tire (1430). It made me feel good that we can adapt to both. That's the biggest thing you have to do as a crew chief, adapt. In this day of racing, you better learn how to adapt quick or you're not going to make it.