Indianapolis: Funny Car Showdown transcript

Skoal Showdown Teleconference Transcript August 30, 2004 Whit Bazemore, Matco Tools Dodge Stratus, qualified No. 3 Gary Scelzi, Hemi Oakley Dodge Stratus, qualified No. 5 Tony Pedregon, Quaker State Chevy Monte Carlo, qualified No. 4 John Force,...

Skoal Showdown Teleconference Transcript
August 30, 2004

Whit Bazemore, Matco Tools Dodge Stratus, qualified No. 3
Gary Scelzi, Hemi Oakley Dodge Stratus, qualified No. 5
Tony Pedregon, Quaker State Chevy Monte Carlo, qualified No. 4
John Force, Castrol GTX Start Up Ford Mustang, qualified No. 1

The Skoal Showdown is a lucrative bonus event for qualified Funny Car drivers that will be contested Sunday, Sept. 5, during the running of the 50th annual Mac Tools U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis Raceway Park. The winner of the Skoal Showdown will earn $100,000 and have a shot at more than $235,000 for the weekend if that driver goes on to win the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals. The list of Funny Car drivers that have earned the "NHRA Double-Up" Bonus (winning the Skoal Showdown and Mac Tools U.S. Nationals on the same weekend) is impressive and exclusive. It includes Force (1993 and 1996); Jim White (1991); Don Prudhomme (1989) and Kenny Bernstein (1983).

Q: With as many appearances that you've had in the Skoal Showdown, how hungry is your team to put the Matco Dodge in the winner's circle this weekend?

Whit Bazemore: We're very hungry. It's a very special race. To know that I am the guy in the race with the second-most experience is really something because to me it is still such an honor just to qualify for the race. I can remember struggling to try and qualify for it and finally doing that in 1992 for the first time was such a huge accomplishment. Obviously to win this race and get the trophy would be very meaningful.

Q: Is it the money or the prestige of winning that attracts you to the Skoal Showdown and means the most to the teams?

Bazemore: It is definitely the prestige. The money is good, but it is the prestige that means the most to me. All across the board in our sport there aren't many who compete in NHRA POWERade Drag Racing for just the money, it is for the love of the sport. It is the desire to accomplish goals. For that reason, winning the race has way more meaning that the paycheck that comes with it.

Q: What do you think about your first round opponent, Tim Wilkerson, the defending Mac Tools U.S. Nationals champion?

Bazemore: Tim Wilkerson has been running really well here lately and they have a good team. Just qualifying for this race means that you are one of the very top guys in the sport. That makes it an elite event. If you come out on top it's really worth the effort. It will also help on Monday. The U.S. Nationals is our biggest event of the year and the one that everyone wants to win the most. To double-up and win them both would be very exciting.

Q:

You won the dragster Shootout three times, how cool would it be to win the Skoal Showdown for Funny Cars?

Gary Scelzi: It's a big deal. We definitely appreciate Skoal putting up the 100k. It's more about winning the Showdown than anything. To be able to take anything I did in dragster and translate that over to Funny Car means a lot to me as a driver. Kenny Bernstein has been one of the only ones to be successful going from Funny Car to dragsters. It's a big thing. We have a really good race car right now. We ran great in testing and it's going to be a whole different ballgame this weekend.

Q: You did run really good in Indy testing and put some pretty impressive numbers up, numbers that most of us didn't expect to see with the 85 percent rule. You have to like your chances going into the Skoal Showdown.

Scelzi: I do. The thing I like the most is that the car is responding to the changes that Mike Neff (crew chief) is making to his tune-up. We struggled a little early in the year or we may not be so far away from (John) Force in the POWERade points chase at this time of the year. Again, these are the eight-best cars from the past year. Unfortunately my first round draw is Tony Pedregon and we all know the damage he can cause. But if I get by him, there's just more hitters in line. Take your pick. Any one of them, you really don't want to race. I'd like to have three singles for that 100 grand myself.

Q: How satisfying would it be for you to win the Skoal Showdown this year as a team owner?

Tony Pedregon My answer is different than Bazemore's. The prestige is good, but I can't eat the prestige. The money that they fling out there would go a long way as anyone can imagine, even Whit, as he was formerly his own boss. The start up cost of forming a new team, there is a lot of expense. A race is a race. Whether it is the Skoal Showdown, as they call it now. I actually still have a case of beer from last year. Maybe I will get to open that finally. It is a big event. Like Gary said, you are looking at the top eight cars. It says a lot for us if anyone thought when I left John, we would fall out of the Showdown lineup. I think it says a lot for what my team has achieved. When I started driving for John in 1996 I brought some bonus points with me, so when I left last year I called it even. I came with points and I left with points. I think it says a lot that we are able to stay in the top four. The one thing we have lacked is consistency. We did a match race in Cordova, Illinois over the weekend and have worked on some things to help us in that area with testing. We are going into the race with high hopes and high expectations. We can fire our own bullets. I hope it comes at the right time because we are going to need them. When you look back in history, I have been in a couple of finals in this race and winning this race last year, at some point someone is going to break the trend in history, in getting a break or two and then winning. For as long as I can remember no one has performed every round with authority. I think that is going to change this year and you are going to see the toughest field in a long time.

Q: It's interesting you say that because in the 1997 final you were the favorite and Kenji Okzaki won.

Pedregon: You had to remind me. I raced (Ron) Capps in a final a few years ago and we knew we had him beat but we threw the clutch out at half-track. I counted a couple seconds before he went driving by me. Then he was on fire every other round. Attrition has a lot to do with it and we are up against a lot of changing weather conditions. Regardless I think what you'll see this year are cars that are more competitive than they have ever been.

Q: Gary, breaking national records can't all be luck. What has contributed to your success this season?

Scelzi: A lot of it is the work that Dan Olson and the team has done and the aerodynamics that the Dodge Stratus gives us. We work well as a team and we know what the car wants to run those speeds. Speed doesn't win races unfortunately; it sure helps the car accelerate the last half of the quarter-mile. We have focused on ET the last half of the season and are able to make it go down the race track. That's the hardest thing with a Funny Car is to make it repeat and to back a car down even if you think the track is a little marginal. We've all had troubles with consistency. Everybody out here in the 16-car field that is going to be running at Indy or anywhere else we go can swing the bat as hard as anybody. Not blowing smoke up Tony's skirt, but he ran 331 mph with a low 70 and it's a new team. That's very impressive to do. Bazemore has run 4.71 and Worsham has run in the 4.70s. I think the Funny Car field is way deeper than Top Fuel. It's incredible. You better go down the race track every time and you've got to be on the edge and have a little horseshoe with you every now and then.

Q: Gary and Whit you have had an up and down season. Is there something you aren't talking about internally at Don Schumacher Racing?

Scelzi: We share all of our information, but no two cars are the same. Lee (Beard) helped us tremendously with the clutch right after Houston and we still didn't make the car perform right until three or four races later. Early on, Lee and Whit were running extremely well and now the tables have changed a little. Mike Neff and Lee have put my tune-up into Bazemore's car, but it doesn't seem to work well when the sun is out.

Bazemore: That's a big part of it. We have struggled getting a handle on the new tire. It is a lot different in hotter conditions on a new racetrack from what we had before. A lot of it comes down to decisions that are made between rounds. Our car has been on the edge. Here lately we've gone over the edge in the second round when the track gets hot. It is something we are working on. It's driving (Lee) Beard (crew chief) crazy. In order for us to be competitive this weekend, we are going to need a handle on a hot weather tune-up. We have tested a little bit for that. I feel confident that the team is going in the right direction. We do have Gary's team to help out and it is a two-way street of information.

Q: You've had a real strong second half, what are the major differences in getting it together. Is there still time to catch John?

Scelzi: John is 220 points out right now. If John stumbles at two races and goes out early and we can capitalize on that by going to a final round and winning, it will be a whole new ballgame again. The problem is that John normally doesn't struggle. The main thing for us has been to get the car to respond to Mike Neff's changes. It is starting to respond to small changes. When you get into these types of races you are not making big changes because normally you are not lost. You may just want to change the timing or supercharger overdrive or make very little clutch weight changes. Our car is responding even when the sun is out. When you know you are going to drive a car that you are not wondering if you have to grab the brake and pedal it, you can focus on driving and doing your job on the starting line. That makes all the difference for a driver. We have been able to do that here for the last eight to 10 races.

Q: John Force has joined the call. John, what are your thoughts about the Skoal Showdown?

John Force I am just glad to be in the show. There's a lot of good cars. It's exciting that Skoal picked up the program after Budweiser decided to move on. I am looking forward to it.

Q: Gary, do you and Whit pursue different tune-ups on the car?

Scelzi: Mike Neff is his own man. The cars are similar, but they are different. We share our information with Lee Beard and if he chooses to use it, that is Lee's business and it is the same way with Mike. If Mike feels he needs to make a change, he doesn't exactly go to tell Lee. If each crew chief wants to do something different it is their own call. Neither one has to ask for permission to make any changes. Mike has his direction and Lee has his own. But at the same time, the books are open to either of them.

Q: Gary, do you remember your first U.S. Nationals and why this event is so important to you?

Scelzi: My first U.S. Nationals was in 1986. I had my own alcohol dragster and I had no money. I had a lot of people helping me. I made it to the final round and got beat by Eldon P. Slick. For the next 10 years all I heard about was Eldon P. Slick winning the U.S. Nationals. I finished No. 2 in the world that year and I was dead broke and had to sell everything. Fortunately for me, it was a couple of months later that my phone started ringing to become a hired driver in the alcohol classes. That was my first U.S. Nationals and I still remember it like it was yesterday because I was coming up the return road wondering how I was going to pay for my hotel rooms.

Q: Tony, how are you going to feel about racing Force or Densham in the Showdown?

Pedregon: It is not personal at this point. I have had to rely on my instincts and sometimes I will get caught up in the moment, because as John knows, I am an emotional person. It means a little bit more when you can beat the big dogs. John has reigned for a lot of years. John sticks out if you can beat him, not just once or twice, and I don't think anybody has been able to do it on a regular basis, but for me that's where it starts. If it is in the Showdown, it really doesn't change. They are the team to beat and are better at anyone at adjusting to the conditions. That's one of the things we have been deficient at. It could happen at Indy and it's great for the fans. It sure is tough. I don't know if my hair is falling out or if it is getting gray, but it sure is wearing on me.

Q: Does knowing John that well help you race against him?

Pedregon: In some ways. To tell you the truth I have a comfort zone with John. Eight years is a long time to have a relationship. It also has a reverse affect. I know John so well that he is at his best when he feels like his back is against the wall. That's what makes him so good. Any time that John feels threatened from another team, that's when he is at his best. Especially now when he is getting competition from Schumacher and from some other teams. We are a new team but we have had some performance. If you want to make cracks at John's age, you will just make him mad. When the Christmas Tree goes down, it is 50-percent car and 50-percent driver. I have a tendency to get caught up in it a little bit but that is because I know you have to go through John to get to the top. That may be one of the things we might be presented with at this next race. The fans love it and it keeps them on their toes.

Q: When you look at the U.S. Nationals and the whole weekend, if you win, do you come away from that thinking it is the pinnacle of your career, like winning the Super Bowl?

Bazemore: Anytime you win the U.S. Nationals, and I've been very fortunate to do it twice, it is beyond your wildest dreams. It is extremely meaningful. The points are the same and the payout is slightly larger than a normal race, but the U.S Nationals is tough because it is the toughest race to win. For some reason everyone that is competitive is able to dig a little deeper and raise their game that little bit extra when you think you are doing your best all season long. When you roll through the gates at Indy somehow you find that little bit of extra magic to try a little harder and it means more. When you have success there it's the trophy you have in front of the trophy case. The Skoal Showdown is no different. I saw it for the first time in 1982 when (Frank) Hawley won. And saw (Kenny) Bernstein win it a few times. It's just one of those events that has extra meaning.

Q: John, you've been doing this for so long now, how do you approach the weekend?

Force: I try to stay focused and you have to look at the competition. They are all good cars that make the show. They have proven themselves over the past year. It's a race that anybody can win. We came to test at Indy last week. Our cars are in the hunt. I have a kid that's hungry in the first round with Phil Burkart of the Worsham group. We'll go up there and put the car from A to B. It's not like the old days when we partied and played. You get real serious on a paycheck like this. A guy at my age, you don't want to fail the team when you have a good race car and I've done that this year with a couple of red lights and Scelzi taking me out at Brainerd. I want to do my part. I am in town early this week and getting rested and having some fun. The next few days I will get up for the race and try to win.

Q: Rusty (Wallace) announced his retirement today, and you are older than him. How much longer do you plan on racing?

Force: Castrol is coming to my grand opening tomorrow. They may announce my retirement tomorrow (laughing). I may be driving for Pedregon (laughing). We have a five year deal left with the Auto Club and we are in negotiations with Castrol for the future. Not to joke around, drag racing is not like NASCAR, it's not a brutal thing -- unless you crash -- where you have to go out there for 500 miles. It's not like I have to go out there and wrestle with Bazemore and Pedregon. Although sometimes we do (laughing). It's not physically wearing on you. You only have to keep your mind fresh for those few seconds for four rounds a day. I want to do this as long as my vision is good and my heart is in the game. As long as I can do the job for the guys that prepare the cars. I know my time is going to run out. I figure I have five years left in me. The Prudhommes retired and I got spanked by those guys when I came into the game. I have done a few spankings over the years. Eventually someone will come along and the guard will change and life will move on and I will be out of the car and be a team owner.

Q: John, what does the U.S. Nationals mean to you? Do you feel a sense of history when you come in there?

Force: It's like comparing it to the Indy 500. They talk about the echoes and the sound of the cars going around in circles. I've never been there, I only know drag racing at IRP. I came in the old days with Shirley (Muldowney) and (Don) Garlits as a young kid and dreaming the dream and trying to figure out how to get enough nitro to race. It was a dream to be a part of it. Now my daughter (Ashley) is coming with me here to race and I have a kid like Eric Medlen out here having some fun. I enjoy being a part of it. I really think it is a growing sport. Pedregon proved that there is some sponsors out there. The sport is evolving. I am investing in a new shop here in Indy. My shop is around the corner from Tony Pedregon, and Don Schumacher is moving in down the street. I think this is the place.

Q: John, if you could make it to the final in the Skoal Showdown, who would you like to race the most and the least?

Force: I'd like to race Cruz Pedregon. He beat me in 1992 and I still haven't got over it, so to me he's like racing Prudhomme. I think the competition is good. The guy I hate racing the most is Tony Pedregon. With Tony, no matter what anybody says, we've raced together and we become family. It's harder for me to get up for Pedregon because he's like family. I'd rather race one of those Dodges, cause it's easier to get up for them.

Q: What it will be like to not have a Skoal Funny Car to race against in the Showdown?

Force: I think it is sad. You always want to be there for your sponsor. Don Prudhomme's cars have struggled. Tommy Johnson and Capps are starting to come around. These cars will go into a slump for a period of time. It's kind of a shame. Nobody has more respect than I do for Prudhomme's teams. Tommy and Capps are excellent drivers. It would've been nice to have them in the Skoal Showdown because their sponsor is putting up the money. That would've been nice for everybody in the sport.

-nhra-

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Series NHRA
Drivers Kenny Bernstein , Tony Pedregon , Whit Bazemore , John Force , Gary Scelzi , Tommy Johnson , Cruz Pedregon , Don Prudhomme , Tim Wilkerson , Phil Burkart , Eric Medlen , Don Schumacher , Mike Neff