Gary Scelzi - DSR pre-season interview

CATCHING UP WITH 2005 NHRA FUNNY CAR CHAMPION GARY SCELZI FRESNO, Calif. (Jan. 17, 2007) - As the NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series prepares to raise the curtain on a new season of outstanding competition at the Auto Club Raceway in Pomona,...

CATCHING UP WITH 2005 NHRA FUNNY CAR CHAMPION GARY SCELZI

FRESNO, Calif. (Jan. 17, 2007) - As the NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series prepares to raise the curtain on a new season of outstanding competition at the Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, Calif., on Feb 8-11, four-time NHRA champion Gary Scelzi reflects on his 2006 season attempting to defend his 2005 Funny Car crown, all that he is thankful for, his other non-NHRA racing ventures, and driving the Mopar/Oakley Dodge Charger R/T for a fifth year with Don Schumacher Racing.

The three-time Top Fuel (1997, '98, '00) and one-time Funny Car champion ('05) is coming off a tough year, in which he won one national event in three final rounds, placing seventh in the Funny Car point standings. His season also included one DNQ (did not qualify), rounding out his career statistics to 33 wins in 54 final rounds, 42 No. 1 qualifiers, a total of five DNQs, and a career round win-loss record of 345-174.

This season, the Mopar/Oakley Dodge Charger will sport a unique puzzle-themed paint scheme (with paint supplied by Valspar's House of Kolor). The reason behind choosing this design is best explained by Oakley's Mad Scientist Jim Jannard: "I think that making a Funny Car competitive is like solving a complicated puzzle."

Scelzi, who runs Scelzi Enterprises, a custom truck body design and manufacturing business in Fresno with his two brothers, is only the second NHRA driver to have won crowns in both Top Fuel and Funny Car. He is the first Funny Car driver to break the 330-mph barrier, won his first Top Fuel crown as a rookie, and is the only NHRA driver to have won in Top Fuel, Funny Car, Top Alcohol Dragster and Top Alcohol Funny Car. He has eight Funny Car national-event wins to his credit and 25 in Top Fuel.

Scelzi's career-best Funny Car stats include a 4.696-second ET (Pomona 2 '05), and a 332.51-mph top speed (Pomona 1 '06).

We caught up with the 46-year-old Fresno native after the holiday season.

GARY SCELZI Q&A:

1. Q. You had a tough 2006 season in Funny Car, but what are you most thankful for despite that?

A. I'm most thankful for being able to spend a month and a half with my family. Julie and I and the kids (Dominic, 9, and Giovanni, 5) have never been on a vacation since Dominic was born nine years ago. And we went to Disney World in Orlando, Florida, in December, spent three days just relaxing - which I haven't been able to do for a long time - and just had a ball with the kids. I did go to the PRI show on Thursday and Friday and then we went to Universal Studios and had a great time.

I'm just so thankful that I have two healthy children, and a wife who still loves me after what I put her through for 10 months out of the year. Actually, for 12 months out of the year, if you look at my life. And to have my family and friends and just be able to work on Dominic's race cars and spend time with him and kind of figure out what's going on with the family business, Scelzi Enterprises.

Aside from the car not running up to our expectations, I finally realized that I was just flat burned out last year, with the travel, rainouts, people in general. I just needed to get away and recharge my batteries. I feel a whole lot better now. I'm ready to go.

2. Q. Talk about your 2006 USAC National Ford Focus championship as a car owner with driver Michael Faccinto.

A. I kind of kept it on the down low just because it was my first venture into open-wheel racing. I had a 16-year-old rookie driver, Michael Faccinto, (of Hanford, Calif.) who had never driven asphalt. I had all the right parts for the season, but I had no idea we were going to have the success that we had. I had hoped for half as much success. Michael had six poles - the worst he qualified all year long was second - he won five main events, and he won the national championship for Ford Focus midgets in USAC. And I just can't even fathom that we could have a year like that. It was absolutely incredible.

So, what we've done for 2007 is we've switched everything over. Both my dirt car and my pavement Focuses are for sale, and we're going to run the whole West Coast USAC Midget Series on asphalt with Mopar engines and Bob East chassis, and we've got sponsorship from Mopar, K&N Filters and Oakley. I'm really excited to have close to the same sponsors that I have on the Funny Car.

I'm looking forward to this year for Michael to be running against Tony Stewart's teams, Kasey Kahne's teams, among others. All these big name Cup drivers are going to be together with us in the same league. It's going to be exciting to see how we stack up against these guys.

(Ed. note: Faccinto drove the Scelzi Enterprises/Village Tire Beast to the championship and both driver and owner names will be engraved on the Henry Ford Sweepstakes Trophy. They will also be honored in Indianapolis on Jan. 19 at the USAC "Night of Champions.")

3. Q. How did Dominic finish up his 2006 season in Junior Sprints?

A. Dominic ended up fifth by one point. He had four main event wins, which is the same as the kid who won the championship, but Dominic had five non-finishes. He got in a couple of accidents, flipped the car once, we had a couple of engine problems and we had a fuel line actually get pinched. So we had five races that we didn't finish and that probably cost us the championship. He had all top-five finishes, but we struggled with the consistency. If he didn't get taken out or if we didn't have an engine problem he would've won the race or finished in the top three.

This year, being that Dominic is 9, he can run the Junior Sprint series, which he races now, until he's 12. But being the father that I am, we jumped the gun and put him in a restricted 600 Mini Sprint just to see how he would do, and he was two tenths under the track record by the third session of testing. So, I went ahead and built a car and we're going to test him up until May until he turns 10, and when he turns 10 we'll run him in both classes for the rest of the year. And we'll see if we can't get that championship in Junior Sprints.

He races at two tracks, in Visalia, Calif., and Lemoore, Calif., but whenever I have time we're going to venture out of those two areas, and run Northern California and maybe even jump up to the state of Washington.

They're quarter-mile dirt race tracks. Last year he ran 15 or 16 events and he's going to run that many or more in 2007.

4. Q. Has anything changed on your Funny Car team for 2007?

A. We've got three new crew members, that's about it. And we've got a really neat new paint scheme. It's probably one of the best Oakley-designed cars we've had yet. It's unique, it's different, it's exciting and it's red, my favorite color.

5. Q. Jim Jannard, Oakley's Mad Scientist, came up with the new "puzzle" design on the car and says, "I think that making a Funny Car competitive is like solving a complicated puzzle." What do you say?

A. What's exciting about driving for Oakley is the clothes we get, our uniforms, the glasses and all that, but one of the main things is Jim Jannard always comes up with something exotic on the paint schemes. And sometimes when we see the renderings everybody bitches about it, and then when it gets painted it looks great. It's hard to have the vision that Jim has for his creativity and we mere mortals sometimes don't see it the same way, but once it's painted it looks great. So this year when I saw the rendering of the "puzzle" car I liked it from the beginning, and I knew that if I liked it as a rendering that after it was painted I would only like it more, and that's exactly what happened.

Funny Cars are the most finicky, miserable cars on the planet and one little thing can make it all better. Like Jim said, sometimes the missing piece of the puzzle brings everything together.

6. Q. Can you point to one thing that made your 2006 season so difficult while trying to defend your 2005 championship?

A. It was consistency. Not that there was anything wrong with the combination that we won the championship with, because obviously that combination was in Jack Beckman's car (in late 2006 when Beckman posted national records for elapsed time and top speed). It would throw us a bone and we just chased it for probably too long. Before you knew it, we were in trouble and the season was over. Our finish reflected that. But sometimes you have to take a step back to go forward. We know that's kind of a cliche, but we really felt and believed that the combination we were trying, with engine parts and clutch parts, was going to be able to take us to the next level, and it just didn't do it. And I'm not saying it won't do it, it's just that maybe we're missing a certain ingredient that didn't make it happen.

But we're going to go back to our old combination because obviously there's nothing wrong with it. It's the quickest and fastest combination and it's been tweaked a little bit by (Beckman's crew chief) Todd Okuhara and (assistant crew chief) Phil Shuler. So, with a few minor changes to that combination, as far as I know, all three cars will be running that same combination.

7. Q. Do you feel that John Force and everyone else had stepped up to the plate, giving you a run for your money last year?

A. Force is always the one who sets the bar. He's always in contention. He's never far out of the championship at all times. He and his team may stumble somewhere along the line, but they're always right in there. They always qualify well, and, despite some bad luck, his teams are always capable of winning the championship every year.

The bar is set by Force, no matter what, even though we won it in '05. The guy that everyone is after is John Force, much like everyone is after (Tony Schumacher's crew chief) Alan Johnson and (2006 Top Fuel champion) Tony Schumacher now.

8. Q. How about some of the other drivers returning to or entering the Funny Car class in '07, such as Kenny Bernstein and Ashley Force?

A. I've raced Kenny for years in Top Fuel. It's not going to take him long. He's got the right people working on that car, he's going to be competitive. If Kenny was to be a pro bowler he'd be competitive from the beginning. He hires the right people, he gets the right deals, he spends the money that it takes to be a champion and he's going to be right in the middle of it, there's no doubt about it. It may take him a couple of races to get used to it, but I don't think so. I think Kenny is in great shape. Like I said, he's got the right pieces and parts and the right people.

Ashley Force is going to be good. Ashley goes in there and doesn't let things bother her. I watched her in the A-Fuel car and she doesn't care who she races, she does her own thing. She's going to have a car that's plenty capable of winning and it may take her a few races to get comfortable, but I think she's going to be fine.

I watched her in testing. I watched the car smoke the tires at half-track and get sideways. She never crossed the centerline, she lifted, she did everything right, and I think she's got the right attitude. I think she's going to surprise a lot of people, just like Robert Hight did.

But there are so many good teams. I don't think (Del) Worsham is going to continue to struggle. At the end of the year they ran some great numbers. I think they're going to be good. There's going to be a whole lot of good teams. The Pedregon brothers are always a threat. Just pick one. It's going to be a war. And that's what's so exciting about Funny Car; there is so much talent.

9. Q. What about your teammates?

A. Oh, God! We have Beckman now who set both ends of the national record, and (Ron) Capps has been a contender since he came to Schumacher Racing. That's not going to change. And we just want to be a part of it, and I think we will be.

10. Q. Truthfully, how do you feel about the new Countdown to the Championship?

A. I like it. The part I don't like, and it really bothers me, is when it comes down to four people for two races. To me that's not going to judge a true champion. I think that if we got the countdown to eight at Indy then those eight should be in it until Pomona (final event). You could have the best car all year long, be dominant, then you come down to those two races and you have one little air line break or something stupid happen like happened to Robert (Hight) this last year - the blower drive teeth broke - and you're done. To me it's not going to reflect the champion.

But I also think it's great. I praise NHRA for making a bold move like that, but I don't think they thought it through to have it come down to two races for four people. I think you don't have any room for error, and I don't believe it's going to crown the true champion.

11. Q. Do you have any New Year's resolutions for 2007?

A. No. You know what, I've been going to the gym three to four days a week. I'm working out, I'm trying to get healthy again. But, I've made no resolutions because I don't want to back up on my word. I don't want to be let down, I guess. Same method as I've used before. It's worked in the past, it should work again.

12. Q. Will you be racing anything other than Funny Car this year?

A. I will be doing the Chili Bowl in 2008, but not this year, and I may run some Mini Sprint races since I'll have two Mini Sprints. I may jump in one and race it a couple of times this year, which is basically the car that Dominic drives without a restrictor plate. I may do that because I think it sharpens you as a driver, because they're real twitchy, they're real quick reacting and you can't just hold the throttle down to the floor; you have to finesse the throttle. I think that helps whenever you have to pedal a Funny Car.

(Note: Scelzi will not be racing against son Dominic.)

13. Q. If you could change one thing about NHRA going into 2007 what would it be?

A. I'd like to see them promote the drivers more, because we have a lot of stars. I would just like to see more of the Bob Glibertsons, more of the Phil Burkarts - who doesn't have a ride now - promoted heavily. I would like to see them promote all of us a little bit more. And really push the J.R. Todds, the Hillary Wills, the new kids, and of course us elderly statesmen. The NHRA is made up of a variety of people and different personalities. I don't think that we're all so corporate. I think we're all a lot more like the general public, like some of the NASCAR teams cannot be. I think we've got a unique sport and I'd like to see NHRA push it more.

12. Q. Anything you want to add?

A. No. I just want to reiterate my comments about the Countdown.

-credit: dsr

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About this article
Series NHRA
Drivers Kenny Bernstein , John Force , Gary Scelzi , Kasey Kahne , Jack Beckman , Ashley Force , Phil Burkart , Don Schumacher , Robert Hight , Hillary Will