Q&A with Ed McCulloch, the winningest U.S. Nationals Funny Car driver, and now crew chief on the Brut Dodge Stratus R/T Funny Car driven by Ron Capps in the 2005 NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series: As a Funny Car driver, Ed "the Ace" McCulloch ,...
Q&A with Ed McCulloch, the winningest U.S. Nationals Funny Car driver, and now crew chief on the Brut Dodge Stratus R/T Funny Car driven by Ron Capps in the 2005 NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series:
As a Funny Car driver, Ed "the Ace" McCulloch , has won the U.S. Nationals five times (1971, 1972, 1980, 1988 and 1990), more than any other Funny Car driver in the history of this event. He has also won the U.S. Nationals in the Top Fuel class in 1992, giving him a total of six victories at this prestigious event, the crown jewel of the NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series.
McCulloch, 62, a California native, began drag racing in 1964 and has collected 22 event victories but not a championship.
When he retired from driving in 1994, McCulloch turned his talents to becoming a top-notch (or "ace") crew chief, and today is the tuner of the Brut Dodge Stratus R/T Funny Car driven by Ron Capps.
Heading into the U.S. Nationals on Labor Day weekend, the NHRA's equivalent of NASCAR's Daytona 500 or IRL's Indy 500, Capps, who began drag racing in 1995, is in the middle of a heated battle for his first Funny Car championship.
With McCulloch making the calls this season, the first for both at the nine-team Don Schumacher Racing camp, Capps has won one event in five final rounds and has had five semifinal-round finishes. The consistency of his driving, McCulloch's tuning and the Brut Dodge's performance, have put Capps second in the Funny Car points championship with just six races remaining. He's only 30 points out of the lead and five points ahead of his teammate Gary Scelzi in third.
Capps has 15 event victories to his credit, but has never won the U.S. Nationals.
Q. WHAT WAS IT LIKE WHEN YOU WON YOUR FIRST U.S. NATIONALS IN 1971?
A. I've told this story many times. I thought that it didn't get any better than that. I thought I had reached the top, that life was as good as it got. It was the biggest thing that ever happened. To win my first national event at the U.S. Nationals, I thought that it couldn't be any better, ever.
Q. WHAT WAS IT LIKE WHEN YOU WON YOUR LAST U.S. NATIONALS IN FUNNY CAR IN 1990 AND IN TOP FUEL IN '92?
A. To win the U.S. Nationals is probably the most gratifying. To the generation today, this is just another race. But to anybody who's been around the sport since the early days, the U.S. Nationals is the most prestigious, biggest event that we run all year. And to win the U.S. Nationals, whether you win it once, twice, however many times, it's always very, very gratifying. It's big. I won it in Funny Car five times and once in Top Fuel. To win any time is big. It's always good. It means more than anything.
I have not had the privilege of winning an NHRA World Championship. I'll have to live with that the rest of my life. Saying that, I haven't done everything, but there are guys who have won championships and have never won the U.S. Nationals. They haven't done everything, either.
Q. WHAT DO YOU KNOW NOW THAT YOU WISH YOU KNEW THEN?
A. If we had the technology that we have now it would've been a lot different. Back then everything was by the seat of the pants. We didn't have the computer, the data recorders, all the technology, the amount of people, nor did we have the funding. There were just lots and lots of things back in my time frame that we didn't have that we do have now. I guess the root of all that is money, the funding to do what you do.
Q. WHEN DID YOU RETIRE AS AN NHRA DRIVER?
A. I guess that would have been in 1993 or 1994. I drove the McDonald's Top Fuel car in 1992 and in 1993. I drove a little bit in 1994, but, really, the end of my time was in 1993.
Q. WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO RETIRE?
A. I got fired by Larry Minor. At that time I was 50-some years old. That's what our sport goes through right now. You look at the guys that own the cars that are driving them and you've got John Force. You don't have very many owner/drivers who are every day out there beating it. You've got Del Worsham. He's OK there. But if you've got a team that has a hired driver, the sponsors dictate to a degree what they want, what's marketable for their demographics. Unless you're trying to market some old-timer's product, they want a new, young, fresh individual. That's what it is. That's why all of our new drivers are young drivers, whether it be in this sport, NASCAR, any of it. When you get 50 years old and over if you don't own it you'd better have something else to do.
Q. DID YOU DECIDE TO BECOME A CREW CHIEF RIGHT AWAY, OR WAS THERE A DOWN PERIOD?
A. What was fortunate for me to be able to make the transition was several things. First off, I was always hands-on throughout my entire racing career, whether I was driving my own cars or when I was with Minor. Whatever it was I was doing, I was hands-on. I worked on the car. I was involved in the tune-up. I was involved in how we ran the car. So I understood the mechanics of the car. I worked on the car up until the McDonald's dragster. Lee Beard was the crew chief on the McDonald's dragster and he said, "I want you to be the best driver you can be. I don't want you to work on the car. You do the p.r., you do all the other stuff, and don't worry about it."
That was pretty hard for me because I had always been involved. I did what I had to do, but I really didn't like it. After Minor replaced me, I tried to put my own deals together. I found that the funding was pretty hard to come up with. Then Dick Lahaie called me and asked me if I would be interested in coming to the Kalitta group. Scott and Connie were running two cars at that time and he said if I could come over there and work with them I would be the test driver and I would drive the cars on Monday and Tuesday. Well, (I thought), I'm not doing anything else so why not. When I got over there, I was able to be more involved in the workings of the car. I drove the cars on Mondays and Tuesdays or whenever we tested, and after a few months, Lahaie asked me if I would be interested in being the crew chief on Connie's car. I accepted that and that was the beginning of my crew chief role.
Q. YOU PRODUCED 22 VICTORIES IN YOUR DRIVING CAREER, BUT NO CHAMPIONSHIPS. DOES THAT SURPRISE YOU?
A. Yes. I don't know why. In the early days, the way that you became champion was different than it is now. In 1972, had the points system been the way it is now, I would have won. I won the Winternationals, the Gatornationals, the Springnationals, was runner-up at the Summernationals and won the U.S. Nationals. I won five races and there were only eight or nine races all year. But in order to be the World Champion, if you won the World Finals, which was the last race of the year, you were the World Champion.
I never won the World Finals.
Q. CAN YOU BELIEVE THAT YOU ARE STILL THE WINNINGEST U.S. NATIONALS FUNNY CAR DRIVER AFTER ALL THESE YEARS?
A. Well, there are two drivers within one race of tying my accomplishment, and one of those drivers is John Force who is still out there running today. The U.S. Nationals is special. It's special to everybody who understands the race. It's extra special to me because it made me the winningest Funny Car driver in the U.S. Nationals history.
Q. YOU ALSO DROVE TOP FUEL. WHICH DID YOU PREFER?
A. Top Fuel cars are a lot easier. And the reasons why I say that are: you can see the car's really comfortable, you're out in front of everything, and it's a fun ride. In my early career, I wanted to race Top Fuel dragsters, so that's what I did. When Funny Cars came into existence, I really didn't like them. Top Fuel was where it was at. Well, in the late '60s, the handwriting was on the wall. If you were going to try to make a living in drag racing you had to race a Funny Car. They paid Funny Cars to go race (in match races), they didn't pay dragsters to go race, or not as much. I opted to start racing in Funny Car because you could book a Funny Car and you could tour it. You would go all over the country. We'd run from three to five days a week and made a living doing it. In the early days, we match-raced to make enough money to be able to run the few NRHA national events that there were.
I don't mean to say that women can't drive Funny Cars, because they can, but a good Funny Car driver is a man's man.
Q. WAS IT EASIER TO WIN BACK THEN?
A. I don't think so. There wasn't the amount of cars that there is today. It's really no different from then to now. The good guys were still the good guys. There just was no cake walk in any of it. When the corporate sponsorship and the money started increasing and the team owners and the cars were getting sponsors, you began generating more and more revenue to supplement your budget, and that's when things started changing.
We used to have a good time and we had a lot of fun. We used to race with Force, Prudhomme, (Tom) McEwen and those guys in the old days and we had a pretty good time. And there wasn't a lot of pressure. The only pressure was what you put on yourself to win. Then when the corporate people got involved, the pressure came, and the fun went away.
Q. WAS BECOMING A CREW CHIEF A CASE OF SURVIVAL OR DID YOU HAVE SOMETHING TO PROVE OR ACCOMPLISH?
A. In my early days I struggled to make ends meet. In the very beginning that's all that we worried about. My family probably paid the price because I was gone a lot. I provided for my family, they didn't go without, but it wasn't a wonderful life for them, even though they went with me a lot. We had a nice house, nice vehicles. Still, the first priority was the race car. If the race car needed something, the race car got it before my family would get it. In all fairness to them, that was unfair, but as times went on, things got better and better.
In the early years it wasn't a matter of your 401K or the retirement account. That was not even a question, because there was nothing to be had there. It was quite a ways through my career before I got in a position that I could start thinking about our future, saving some money, making some investments and looking at where we were going to be.
Well, in 1993, when I got fired, I took a really good hard look at my financial position. I was OK. Were we going to go on welfare? I didn't think so. We were OK. I thought, We might not be able to live quite the lifestyle that we'd like, but we're OK. So, anything that I've done from then on has probably been a bonus, per se, and it's been a very good bonus.
Q. WAS DRIVING LESS STRESSFUL THAN BEING A CREW CHIEF?
A. I would say yes. But then maybe the time frame comes into it, because back then, even when we had sponsors, the stress probably wasn't there as much as it is today. Back then, if you went out and lost a race it wasn't the end of the world. Today you go out and you get beat first round, it's like the end of the world. You're expected to win every race, every time you go out. Back then, if you got to the finals you still had a good day; if you got to the semifinals it was an OK day. Today, realistically, to get by first round is huge. When we drag that thing to the starting line for first round on Sunday, I feel more pressure right then than I do the rest of the day. And I think the drivers today have high expectations, especially all of our team drivers now. These guys are hired drivers. If they're not on their game, with reaction time, etc., all the time, the heat's on. And it's no different than if we go out there and the performance is not there for the guy to run. Then the heat's on me.
Q. DO YOU EVER WISH YOU WERE DRIVING AGAIN?
A. No, I don't. Once in a while I think it would be cool to get into one of these cars today and make a lap, but do I have a desire? No. To be good at what you do you have to have a desire. I always possessed that desire, it's a burning inside. It's a feeling that you have to do this, you want to do this so bad. This is what you want to do when you want to be successful. You have to have that burning desire. I've been through it, I've had it. Do I want to go back to it? No.
Q. YOU ARE NOW A MEMBER OF THE LARGEST PRO TEAM IN NHRA HISTORY. IS THAT AN ADVANTAGE IN YOUR WORK OR A DISADVANTAGE?
A. I think it's an extreme advantage. I don't want NHRA to read this and say we're going to have to do something about these multi-car teams. Everybody patterns themselves after the John Force operation. And I've been involved in multi-car teams before and you try to structure it that way. Their structure is the proper way, but it starts with the team owner and John Force knows how to handle his people and he does an outstanding job. Those guys work together, they go to breakfast together, they go to dinner together, they do a lot together. That's very important.
I think that the Don Schumacher Racing organization is close to Force's operation as far as being together as a group and working together and sharing information and the little things, like going together to have breakfast. We may all go have breakfast and we may not even talk about a race car. But there are times that we'll be having breakfast and we will be talking about something that pertains to the race car and it's something that you probably wouldn't be talking about later on in the day. So those few minutes of time that you spend together is still sharing information and it's good, it's extremely good.
I feel very very fortunate to be a part of this operation.
Q. YOU AND RON CAPPS HAVE WORKED TOGETHER BEFORE AND YOU TWO SEEM TO JELL WELL. WHAT'S THE SECRET?
A. When Ron first started driving Top Fuel, I was a driver and Ron would come talk to me and ask me things such as what does it feel like, or what should it feel like or what should I expect, and at that time I was flattered that this young guy would come over and ask my advice, or my opinion, or my thoughts of what it needed to be. So I automatically took a liking to the guy from the very beginning.
There are people who are born with an ability and there are people who have to learn to do what they need to do. Ron, I believe, was born with the ability to drive a race car. I think Ron can drive, and he's proven it. He can drive any kind of a race car. I've said for years and years that a true race-car driver can drive any race car. He has everything going for him. He's an outstanding driver, he rises to the occasion. He's extremely good with the fans, he's an attractive guy, he's wonderful with the sponsors. He has everything going for him and - this is coming from a crew chief - the guy weighs 155 pounds sopping wet. And he has a great personality. I've named it all.
Q. YOU ARE ALSO BATTLING HEALTH PROBLEMS. THAT HASN'T SLOWED YOU DOWN. WILL IT?
A. Hopefully it won't. What I'm going through right now at this point is preventative maintenance. The doctor explained to me that after surgery they felt that they got 100 percent of the cancer. But he said he didn't have a magic wand. He didn't know what else was floating around in there. If you took 1000 people in this instance with no follow-up treatment, within three years the likelihood of a recurrence was 65 percent. I don't like that number. So, we're doing chemo. It's pretty stringent, it's a pretty tough deal. I have to have 12 treatments. I've gone through three at this time. The week of the U.S. Nationals will be my fourth treatment.
I'm totally amazed with the amount of people who have heard about this, and I didn't mean this to be in the media and gaining attention. It's just that it got out and the amount of people who know about this and who have come up who are either in the same situation or have gone through it or someone close to them has gone through it, and the support from everybody, is tremendous. I'm a pretty strong-willed person and there is no option. I have to do this. My options were to go crawl in a corner over there and feel sorry for myself or get on with what I've gotta do. Well, I don't have time to feel sorry for myself, I gotta get on with what I gotta do.
Q. WHAT WOULD IT MEAN TO YOU IF YOU WON THIS YEAR'S U.S. NATIONALS WITH CAPPS?
A. You look at your resume, or your history or your bio. And, like I said, I've never won an NHRA World Championship. I've won the U.S. Nationals in Funny Car. I've won the U.S. Nationals in Top Fuel. There's nothing in this world right now that would make me more proud than to be able to win as a crew chief with Ron Capps. My first win was probably the best, and always will be he best, but for sure this would be the second best.
Q. IF YOU TWO WIN THE FUNNY CAR CHAMPIONSHIP THIS YEAR, WHAT'S NEXT FOR YOU?
A. I'm not dwelling on that subject, but to answer the question, [who wins the championship] takes place in November. The next for me, no matter what, would be to get back to the shop and get our new cars and stuff prepared for next year. Come Pomona time (first race of the year) everybody's forgotten about who won last year. Actually, it's not even at Pomona time. A week later they've forgotten who won.
I would love to win the championship. It would be wonderful. I would be proud. It would be absolutely wonderful. But business goes one, life goes. on. You jut have to get ready to go out and run next year.
Q. HOW HAS THE BRUT SPONSORSHIP BENEFITED YOU AND THE TEAM?
A. I think that we've complemented one another. They're a new sponsor. I really like their approach, the way they've done things. Running the print ads in the mainstream magazines is extremely huge, I think. They said initially that they didn't have the budget this year to do TV, but they were going to do this other stuff. I'm pretty impressed with what they've done.
Brut has been around a long time, that's sort of their ad campaign. It's OK that your dad or your granddad wore Brut. That's OK. They're working on new things, new fragrances. I really love their new fragrances. They have people at the races all the time. I'm really, really pleased with everything they've done and their involvement. I'm also pleased with what we've been able to do for them, as a first year sponsor: to go out and have the success we've had. Obviously, we would have liked to have won more, but we're in the hunt and I think it's good for them. I think it's just adding fuel to the fire. It should get bigger and better.
Q. DO YOU EVER THINK OF TOTAL RETIREMENT?
A. Sure. I think about it. Is it going to be this year? No. Is it going to be next year? Hopefully, not. What I have to do right now is get through this year and past the first of next year to see how I actually am health-wise and where that leads me. Obviously, if something comes up health-wise where I cannot perform my functions, I'm not going to stick around here and hinder the operation because I have to be here. As long as I can go out and perform and do what I do in a proper fashion, I want to stick around. How many years? I've got a contract through '07, so health-wise or otherwise, for sure I'm going to go through that. After that, I don't know.
Q. IF YES, WHAT WOULD YOU DO?
A. I'll tell you exactly what I'm going to do (if I retire healthy). I have some property out in California. It's up in the foothills. It's up in Oakhurst in Central California, on the way to Yosemite Park, and it's on a golf course. And I'm going to build a house there and I'm going to go out there and play golf. That's what I'm going to do.
Q. WHAT DO YOU LOVE MOST ABOUT THIS SPORT?
A. The people. We get really aggravated sometimes with other teams, other people, or the NHRA, but it's really the people. I was very close with a lot of the early NHRA people who were super, great, great people. I won't even start naming names because there were so many. In today's regime I don't know very many of them. Graham Light I've known for many, many years when he was driving a Top Fuel car. When they came through he would stay at my house and would work on the car at my shop. I go back a long way with Graham. I go back a long way with Ray Alley, but I don't really know the upper management at NHRA nowadays.
But to answer your question point blank, it's the people.
Q. WHAT DO YOU LOVE LEAST ABOUT THIS SPORT?
A. I have high expectations. I want to win every race that we go to. I want to win races and I want to win championships. I have this burning desire to do that. When you're out here and you're giving it your all and you're struggling and you're having problems, it's the pressure. When things are not going real well is probably what I like the least.
It sounds really wacky, but I would like to race more. I like the three-in-a -rows, the back-to-backs.
In '88 or '89 we ran all of the NHRA series and all of the IHRA series. It's like the old saying, "practice makes perfect." Now, you go out there and you run two, three races, and you get a break for two or three weeks. Of course, we've always got things to do, we've got maintenance, and it's a good time. You get a little rest, the guys get rested up and everything.
But, truthfully, if we were able to run this car every day of the week, you wouldn't believe how good the performance of the car would be.