Indianapolis: Epler preview

Epler Set To Defend U.S. Nationals Title With 35th Anniversary Chevy Camaro INDIANAPOLIS, August 27, 2001 - Defending U.S. Nationals champion. That's the well-deserved title Chevy Camaro Funny Car driver Jim Epler earned after winning last...

Epler Set To Defend U.S. Nationals Title With 35th Anniversary Chevy Camaro

INDIANAPOLIS, August 27, 2001 - Defending U.S. Nationals champion. That's the well-deserved title Chevy Camaro Funny Car driver Jim Epler earned after winning last year's event in a final-round showdown with Whit Bazemore. Now Epler returns to the "Big Go," driving out of the Chuck Etchells Racing camp, sporting a commemorative 35th anniversary Chevy Camaro paint scheme and seeking his second victory in a row at IRP. He was also runner-up at this event in '99.

"This paint scheme is particularly exciting to me because I started drag racing in a '67 Camaro," stated Epler. "Who would have thought that twenty years later I would help celebrate the Camaro's 35th anniversary with the ultimate hot rod - a 6,000 horsepower Nitro Funny Car painted to look like the special 35th Anniversary edition.

"It promises to be a very special weekend. We're going to have a large contingent representing Camaro Clubs from all across the United States on hand to cheer us on, so the pressure will be on us to give them a strong showing. The best way to do that is to have the 35th Anniversary Camaro win the NHRA's biggest race during its 50th anniversary season."

Epler is a drag racing veteran who's compiled four wins in 12 final rounds over the course of his career. He won his first race at the '92 Winternationals and was the first Funny Car driver to exceed the 300 mph barrier at Topeka, Kan., in '93.

This season Epler has a runner-up finish at Sonoma to his credit and sits 11th in the points standings, less than five rounds out of the top 10. After a slow start at the beginning of the year, the 43-year-old Phoenix, Ariz., resident has seen his fortunes improve with the July arrival of Roland Leong as crew chief.

Have you enjoyed being a part of the Chuck Etchells team? "Yes I have. We started a two-car team with Chuck (Etchells) after coming off two years with Jerry Toliver. I had an idea on how a two-car team should work so we put our heads together. I knew it would be a slow start. Putting a two-car team together is a lot of work. Getting the right mix of people took a lot of work too. Originally when we first put it together, Terry Manzer was going to be crew chief of both cars. It was very difficult for him to do that because we kept running into problems with our crew. People would quit on us, or they didn't get along and we'd have to let some go, etc. So we got off to a slow start from that standpoint. We didn't have a lot of success. We decided to bring Roland Leong in to help us out. He is concentrating solely on my Chevy Camaro and Terry is concentrating solely on Chuck's car now. We feel like it's going to work out a lot better that way. We're still working on the right combination to get our crew guys together. We've built a shop in Indianapolis. We wanted everyone to be based here and have more of a normal life for a crew guy. That's what we're working on for long-term arrangements. I think that's going in the right direction."

Are you happy with how your team has been running? "I've been to one semifinal and a final round. We would like to of course get some more of those. But really, what we're doing now is getting ready for next year with both cars. Sponsors are big pieces of that. I'm going to end up having 14 different-sponsored cars this season. For me that's been a lot of work. But the best thing has been getting those sponsors exposed to the sport. We have gotten some of those that will in turn be a part of the program in the long term. The goal is being accomplished that way. I wish we were running better and going for the championship, but now we have to look at it as a long-term goal. So if we come out of this with good, solid three-year programs I'll consider it a success. We'll have one year under our belt as a two-car team, and we'll know what works and what doesn't. Next year should be a lot more fun."

Are you going to try and keep the same crew members you have now for next year? "Well, I'm real happy with our top people. Roland (Leong), Dave (Hutchens), Terry (Manzer) and Larry (Meyer) are exceptional. We need to try and keep recruiting other key people. What will help with that is when we can sign some long-term sponsors, then that will attract better people."

Are you enjoying the season? "Yes I am. The thing is when I was with Toliver, I wasn't involved in the business end of things. In the past, I've always been involved in that. That's what I like to do. I don't like to just be a driver and I was just a driver there. We were successful to a certain extent, but it wasn't what I wanted. I'm happier being a part of a team with Chuck. I like Chuck and I like working with him. We have no ego problems and that means a lot."

Is it a confidence booster heading into Indy where you are defending champion? "Yes it is. We won last year and we were runner-up the year before. We've had success at this track. But I will say it is a completely different surface now. It's going to be just like Chicago where the really good cars are going to be fast and consistent. We can't rely on high 4.90s and 5.00s to win Indy this year. You're really going to have to run good. We tested there, and it looks like to have a good weekend you're going to have to run in the 4.80s every round if the conditions are right. The surface is that good. If it's cloudy and cool it will be really good. So, even though we won here, this year it's a totally different track."

What's a typical weekend for you and your team and how do you prepare? "Well, Roland is very methodical about how he wants to go about a race. As you can see from the past few races he gets progressively quicker every round. He likes to go out right away, get down the racetrack, figure out where it's good and where it isn't and where he can improve. Then he tries to get it better each round. Then when we go up to the line for first round on raceday, based on who we run, he'll have a pretty good idea as to what we'll need to do to beat him. I really like doing it that way. It takes a lot of pressure off of me even though sometimes we are at the bottom of the order, and during the last session we end up in the middle of the pack. What we want to do now is start out in the middle of the pack and then run more towards the top in the end. The way Roland is doing it is the right way. The thing about Roland is that he is such a good racer and he understands how to win. He's got a good understanding on what it takes to win."

What goals do you have set for the rest of the season? "Top 10 realistically. Based on our struggles, getting in the top-10 would be a great accomplishment. I hate to not finish in the top 10. Really my goal is to come out of this year with three, solid long-term sponsors for both cars. That is the goal. Performance is one thing but we really did this to put some solid backing in Etchell's racing."

What does your future look like in racing? "That's a good question. I look at a lot of guys and they're in their 50s and Force is still in his prime. I don't know if I want to do it that long, but I think I do. The key is to be competitive. Once you have a taste of that you have to always strive to do better. I hope it doesn't take until I'm 50 to get a championship, but I can see myself driving for another 10 years and then being involved in the sport long after that with sponsors."

Do you like being a part of the two-car team? "Absolutely. I think once we get it perfected, it will be better. But I do think it's the way to go. You look at (John) Force and Tony (Pedregon) and I think it's been successful for them, but they've been doing it longer. When there're only 16 spots to fill in the field and you have two of those, it's a much better feeling than just being one guy out there amongst 16 other guys. We run heads up when we run each other too. We did in Sonoma where I went on to the finals. Chuck didn't have a problem with me beating him because we did have the better car and had a better chance at winning the race. Realistically though, if the guy has a shot at the championship, and you can help him do that, then you do what you can to help."

-ER-

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Series NHRA
Drivers Jim Epler , Whit Bazemore , Chuck Etchells , Jerry Toliver