DSR's Gary Scelzi pre-season interview

FRESNO, Calif. - Three-time Top Fuel champion Gary Scelzi returns in 2004 to the NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series for a second full season in Funny Car competition, driving the HEMI Oakley Dodge for Don Schumacher Racing. The team will test two...

FRESNO, Calif. - Three-time Top Fuel champion Gary Scelzi returns in 2004 to the NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series for a second full season in Funny Car competition, driving the HEMI Oakley Dodge for Don Schumacher Racing.

The team will test two Funny Cars at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Jan. 29-31, and at Firebird Raceway in Chandler, Ariz., on Feb. 6-8, in preparation for a serious charge in 2004 to earn Scelzi his first Funny Car championship.

The 23-event NHRA season begins at Pomona (Calif.) Raceway on Feb. 19-22.

GARY SCELZI QUICK FACTS:

* Age 43, born and raised in Fresno, Calif., lives in Fresno with wife Julianne and sons Dominic and Giovanni.

* Operates Scelzi Enterprises, Inc., a custom truck-body design and manufacturing business with his two brothers.

* Three-time NHRA Top Fuel champion (1997, 1998, 2000).

* Finished sixth in 2003 NHRA Funny Car championship, with one victory, two No. 1 qualifying efforts - his first full season in NHRA Funny Car competition and his first with Don Schumacher Racing.

* Is the fastest Funny Car driver on the planet, setting a national top-speed record of 329.18 mph at Route 66 Raceway in Joliet, Ill., in 2003.

* Holds the top-five fastest Funny Car speeds in NHRA history.

* In 1997 became first rookie to win an NHRA championship; was NHRA Rookie of the Year.

* Has 26 career Top Fuel/Funny Car victories since 1997, has qualified No. 1 35 times and holds a 20-21 win-loss record in 2003, and a career 248-113.

* Is the only driver in NHRA history to have won in Top Fuel Dragster, Funny Car, Top Alcohol Dragster and Top Alcohol Funny Car.

* Is seeking his first Funny Car championship.

* Is teammate to 2003 Funny Car runner-up Whit Bazemore.

Gary Scelzi Q&A

Q: WITH ONE FULL SEASON OF FUNNY CAR COMPETITION UNDER YOUR BELT, DO YOU FEEL BETTER PREPARED TO CONTEND FOR THE CHAMPIONSHIP IN 2004?

GS: Absolutely. After having a year to work with Mike Neff and all the guys on the team, we all know what each one wants. It actually came pretty quick - how well we got along and how well we worked together. But having a whole season and knowing everybody's emotions, and where to go and where not to go with each other and the timing of where to go and where not to go with each other's feelings, is only going to make things better. I've heard a lot of people say, 'Oh, yeah, the team has had time to gel.' I think our team gelled right away pretty much after testing in Phoenix in January. I think it's an advantage to have a year under your belt. We know the purpose that we're here for. We know what we all want and I think we can accomplish our goals this year.

Q: WHAT DID YOU LEARN IN 2003?

GS: We learned that with the combination we were running we couldn't press. Mike Neff likes to run low E.T. and he doesn't like to be outrun, and neither does Gary Scelzi. It just seemed that anytime we tried to make the car repeat and run as quick as we thought it could run it would smoke the tires. I think Mike knows that as a driver I'm going to do the same thing every time. He knows my reaction-time averages, he knows what I'm going to do in the car. There's no gray areas with me. I have the utmost confidence in my guys and Mike Neff. Like racing John Force in the second round in Pomona (final race). We got behind, we had some problems, we never had a chance to warm the car. And I never had a doubt in my mind about anything on the car not being prepared or being safe. And we went out there and kicked John's butt and ran a 4.75 (elapsed time). That speaks volumes of the confidence that I have in them and that they have in me. Those are the things we learned over the year.

Q: YOU WERE NOT CONSIDERED AN UNDERDOG COMING INTO FUNNY CAR AFTER CLAIMING THREE TOP FUEL CHAMPIONSHIPS, BUT YOU HAD A TOUGH 2003 SEASON. WHY?

GS: I don't know that it was a tough season. If you look at the competition, it may have been a tough season for Mike and me and the team because we had expectations of challenging for the POWERade Funny Car championship. But I think if you don't have those expectations there's no reason to be in there. We felt we could win every race. We went into Pomona (first race) with that attitude and that attitude never really left us. It was inconsistency in the race car that cost us a better finish than we had. But, realistically, when you look at what we did - we set the speed record twice, we won a race - we had the respect of everybody we pulled up next to, and they knew that we could beat them. It was to no one's surprise that we won Sonoma; I think it was a surprise that we didn't win more races. We never had a lucky card dealt to us. And we feel that we're just going to make our own luck. This year we feel that we're seasoned, we're ready, we know what we need to do and we're just going to go execute.

Q: WHAT WILL BE YOUR BIGGEST CHALLENGES IN 2004?

GS: Ourselves. Our biggest challenge will be to stay focused and realize that we don't have to run low E.T. every round. If we run close to the maximum of what the car will run I think we'll be in better shape. I think we have a car now that is not going to be as finicky. We're going to do extensive testing right before the season starts and we'll continue to test after the season starts. If you look at the guy who's won 12 championships (John Force), when that team wins a race all three cars are testing on Monday. I don't think you're going to see anything different from Schumacher Racing - with me or Whit Bazemore.

Q: DO YOU BELIEVE THAT YOU CAN WIN THE FUNNY CAR CHAMPIONSHIP IN 2004?

GS: With all my heart. I think that we have everything in place to do that. Am I going to be on suicide watch if it doesn't happen? I don't know. I don't have 'doesn't' in my vocabulary. That's why we're here and that's what we're going to attempt to do. Only when there's no possible chance of us winning will I rethink it. But right now that's all I have on my mind. And I think that's what Mike and this whole team have on their mind. They are so excited about starting the season. One of the key things to winning a championship - I've won three of them so I think I have a little bit of experience with that - is, when things don't go well or when things look their worst, to stay focused and not let it get you down. There are 23 races and there are going to be a lot more down times than there are up times. It's just how you handle it when things don't go your way. I'm prepared to do whatever it takes to keep this team's morale where it needs to be and I think they're prepared to keep my morale where it needs to be. If we can do that then I think everyone's going to be pleasantly surprised with the results that the HEMI Oakley Dodge is going to achieve.

Q: YOU AND YOUR TEAM PROVED THAT THE OAKLEY DODGE WAS A ROCKETSHIP LAST YEAR. DO YOU THINK YOU CAN REACH 330 MPH IN 2004?

GS: Without question. I know the new combination has even more power than we had last year. The good news is that I think it has more usable power and is not as temperamental as it was last year. We ran 328 mph with the new combination in Pomona (final race). We ran 4.75 (-second elapsed time) and that was like the fifth full run with the new combination. We're just scratching the surface. That's why it's so important to be testing in Vegas and Phoenix before Pomona, so we have a few more runs under our belt. The other good news is we have a good idea, after running at Pomona, of what we may want to finesse a little bit. I have no question that we're going to run 330.

Q: WHAT HAVE YOU DONE OVER THE WINTER TO PREPARE YOURSELF FOR 2004?

GS: I've gotten on a strict workout program. I'm trying to get my body in the best possible physical shape that I can. I had knee surgery in November. I've been working hard with physical therapy and a personal trainer. And I've completed the physical therapy. The doctor has given me the green light and I'm walking back to normal, my legs are stronger than they've ever been and it's the new, improved Gary Scelzi. I think that, with as tight as Funny Car racing was last year and will continue to be this year, I need to be at the top of my game.

Q: YOU ALWAYS PRAISE MIKE NEFF. HOW VALUABLE IS A STRONG DRIVER/CREW CHIEF RELATIONSHIP TO ACHIEVING SUCCESS?

GS: I think it's the heart and soul of the whole thing. Your crew chief has to believe in you and has to be able to read you just by looking at you. Mike has the unique way of, I guess, praising me or never questioning my ability, which breeds confidence. Not that I'm not a confident driver, but a lot of times if things aren't going well, I'm thinking, 'Man, I've really got to dig deep and I've got to get a better light or I've got to be able to pedal this car.' And Mike always looks at me and says like, 'Shut up. You do it naturally. I've watched you for years. You're the best guy out here.' He makes me believe that. And I think that is the key. It goes just the same the other way. I believe in Mike Neff and I believe that if he's onto something, even if the car doesn't respond to what he's doing and it takes several tries to get there, I'm willing to go to the trenches with him and put my back against the wall right with him. If he believes in it and believes that strongly in it, then I need to be there with him.

Q: DODGE IS ON BOARD WITH THE HEMI PROMOTION THIS YEAR. WHAT DOES THIS MEAN TO YOU AS A DRIVER?

GS: This 'HEMI' thing is just so big, it's unbelievable. The television commercials are so humorous and they make Dodge's point come across. And if you look at the Hemi, the Hemi is the biggest thing that's every happened to drag racing, since the rear-engined dragster or since the timing devices. It's huge. Muscle cars have kind of become a thing of the past and they're starting to come back and the Hemi was the whole heart and soul of that era. When Dodge came out with the Hemi it crushed all the other manufacturers. And to be a part of it and to be a part of the advertising bandwagon that Dodge and Mopar Performance Parts are on right now with the Hemi, I can't think of a better time to be Gary Scelzi.

Q: OAKLEY IS BACK FOR THE SECOND SEASON. TALK ABOUT YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH MAD SCIENTIST JIM JANNARD AND OAKLEY.

GS: Everyone knows that I've worn Oakley sunglasses since I drove the Winston dragster. I was friends with JIm at that time. I'm really looking forward to having an even stronger bond this year. I've been a part of the Oakley racing team for a year now, and Jim is just a good person. He and his wife Bobbie have always treated me with the utmost kindness and respect and I really want to leave a big mark for them and all the sponsors. It's important for us to set records and do things so all the people at Oakley can take pride in their drag-racing program. I think we started to show a little bit of that last year even though I don't think it's even a speck of what we plan on proving this year. It's a great relationship.

Q: ARE YOU GLAD YOU MOVED INTO FUNNY CAR?

GS: Yes, without question. Driving a Funny Car is so exciting, even when the car doesn't run well. You just never know what the car is going to do. It could do two things the same and just when you think it's going to do the same thing, on the third run it will do something totally different. You really have to be focused to stay on top of your game. That's what I really like about driving Funny Cars. They're unpredictable.

Q: HOW IS YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH TEAM OWNER DON SHCUMACHER?

GS: Don is a tough businessman. And if you see anybody who's successful, they're all that way. He is a very fair person and if you want to make your point to Don, he will listen to you. He's not going to tell you, 'Ah, you're just a dumb driver and I'll replace you.' He will listen to your point and he will talk the situation out with you. I was very leery when I first came on board, but the more I get to know him the more I realize he's a very fair individual. if you have a valid point, he's going to listen to it and he'll go to bat for you.

Q: ARE YOU AND WHIT BAZEMORE FRIENDS?

GS: Yeah (laughing). Baze and I have always been friends, but I would say we're probably closer friends now than we were when we were both on Team Winston. I don't know. Bazemore may have been a little bit jealous because the Team Winston Dragster won a lot of races and won World Championships. There may have been a little friction on Bazemore's (Funny Car) side. But now that we're on the same team and we're both racing Funny Cars we have the same goals. But we are two different people. We do a lot of things differently. Bazemore is a good person. He's been good to me when I've had questions on things that I feel in the car. He's been very receptive to helping me. I think he's a good guy and I think he's misread a lot.

Q: WHO WILL BE YOUR BIGGEST COMPETITION IN 2004?

GS: Anybody who qualifies. These fields are so tight and so tough that it doesn't matter if you're qualified on the pole or you're qualified 16th. Everyone in between can run the numbers. Everybody's got the same stuff. They just may not be able to do it consistently. But I'm going to tell you right now, anybody that's qualified for the show can saw anybody off right at the kneecaps.

Q: DO YOU HAVE ANY REGRETS FROM 2003?

GS: I don't know that I have any regrets. I don't know that I could have tried any harder at anything I've ever done. I wish we'd had a little bit more racing luck, but I'm not going to cry in my soup over it. A sixth-place finish is very respectable. But do I want more? Hell, yes, I want more. I want it all. I want the brass ring.

Q: WHAT HAS GIVEN YOU THE MOST SATISFACTION IN YOUR CAREER?

GS: I think earning the respect of other drivers and crew chiefs. A lot of people make their mark in drag racing by setting records and winning championships. And I've been fortunate to do a lot of those, but I would say that when I walk away from drag racing there's pretty much no one out there whose respect I don't feel I've earned. I believe they would honestly say that Scelzi was a good, hard racer and a fair racer. If there's nothing else that you ever accomplish in your life, having the respect of your peers is most important. I think I have that in Funny Car and in Dragster. I think that's the biggest thing. If I walk out of here with nothing else, having the respect of my peers is something I can be proud of.

Q: WHAT DO YOU DO TO KEEP YOUR MIND CLEAR WHEN YOU'RE NOT RACING?

GS: This year especially, with Dominic being 6-and-a-half-years old and Giovanni being 2, I've tried to spend as much time as I possibly can with my kids and try to let them know that being competitive is one thing, but winning isn't everything. But also winning is fun. So you don't want to go out there just to play games and not try to win. But if you don't win don't throw temper tantrums. Try to be like me. If you're going to throw a temper tantrum go inside the trailer. Don't let anybody see you, and get over it after the first five minutes. I've really tried to cherish my time with them, because they're only going to be kids for so long and they're both growing up so fast. As much time as I can spend with them, as many games as I can play with them, as much stuff that I can teach them before the season starts, that's what I've really put a lot of focus on.

-dsr-

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Series NHRA
Drivers Whit Bazemore , John Force , Gary Scelzi , Don Schumacher , Mike Neff