Interview with Cory McClenathan

DENVER, Colo. (July 12, 2000) - During the past three years the Mile-High Nationals has been the beginning of good things for MBNA/Pontiac driver Cory McClenathan. In 1997, McClenathan started a four-race winning streak at Bandimere Speedway that...

DENVER, Colo. (July 12, 2000) - During the past three years the Mile-High Nationals has been the beginning of good things for MBNA/Pontiac driver Cory McClenathan. In 1997, McClenathan started a four-race winning streak at Bandimere Speedway that lasted all the way to Labor Day and the U.S. Nationals before he finally fell in a final-round matchup with Jim Head. That streak went a long way towards securing Cory Mac a second-place finish in the Winston points standings.

In 1998 McClenathan once again claimed the winner's purse at the Mile-High Nationals, and last year a strong performance took the 37-year-old Californian to the semifinal round. This time, the Joe Gibbs Racing veteran comes to Bandimere with some added momentum and an extra $200,000 in his pocket after winning last week's Winston "No Bull" Showdown in Bristol, Tenn.

McClenathan was a guest on the NHRA teleconference on Tuesday, July 11, which was held in conjunction with the Mopar Parts Mile-High Nationals at Bandimere Speedway on July 13 - 16. Qualifying highlights of the Mile-High Nationals can be seen on ESPN2 on Saturday, July 15, starting at 10 p.m. Eastern. Early coverage of final eliminations can be seen on ESPN2 on Sunday, July 16, at 4:30 p.m. with final-round coverage beginning at 11:30 p.m. Eastern.

With the Winston All-Star results, it looks like you're ready for Denver. "I think we're going to see a lot of the same conditions in Denver. We're really excited for our MBNA Top Fuel dragster and Joe Gibbs Racing. We can chalk one up for the dragster guys and tie things up with the Funny Cars. I can't wait to see what happens next year. Winning at Bristol was like a dream come true. Things have not been fantastic for us during the last few months racing-wise, but the car seems to have turned around. Wes Cerny and the guys made this thing consistent this last weekend so I'm more excited than ever to get back in the car this weekend."

What is it about the Denver racetrack that you like? "My very first national-event win came in Denver in Alcohol Dragster, and for some reason after that it's always had a spot in my heart. The Bandimere family has always treated me like one of their own. They're great people, and for some reason I look forward to going there every year. I can't wait to see everybody - it's like going home even though I don't live there."

How have the rule changes affected your performance this year and do you feel they're good for the sport? "I think it's great for the sport, for television and for the fans. Joe (Amato) already touched on the five-year television package that we have now, and I don't know if that would have been signed without the 90-percent rule. Tom Compton and everyone at NHRA worked very hard to get that done and it's a big deal for us. The new rules have made our sport more fan-friendly and easier for us to go out there and do some racing. Now the conditions are pretty much the same all through the weekend. It helps us conserve parts, and you can still hurt stuff but it definitely makes running the car a lot more efficient. I think we've seen some great side-by-side races. At first I wasn't sure, that time would tell, and time has definitely told us that it was a great idea and a great deal for everybody. The 75-minute rule in between rounds has put the pinch on some of these guys, but luckily for us we've been able to get things done. You need to have your ducks in a row though. Everything that we can do to pick up a little time here or there has helped us. My guys have been pretty quick so that's never been a problem. Some of the people that maybe don't have spare motors on the side ready to go, it's been a little tough on them. Everybody seems to be doing a pretty good job with it though, and we haven't seen a car not make it to a round this year. For us the new rules have been a godsend. At the last two races we had the same motor in the car all the way up to the final round of last week's race, and then we took it out only because it had so many runs on the crank and we needed to change that out. Our biggest problem came when Wes (Cerny) took over the dragster this year -- he came back from vacation two weeks before the season started to find out that we were going to 90 percent. He had already planned how he wanted to set the car up and then he had to totally change that. Now we have things going in a groove where we like where things are, but it definitely threw us a curve at the beginning of the season."

Has there been any particular part of the car that's been an equalizer or a separator? "A lot of people had talked about going back to the four-disc clutch because of the power situation. Everybody was afraid that we wouldn't be able to make enough power and that the five-disc would hurt us rather than help us. We saw that a few races. I know we did in our camp anyway when we smoked the tires in some early rounds. That kind of hurt us. But like Wes told me last weekend, we have more than enough power and not to worry about it anymore. We're back to full steam ahead using the exact same stuff we did last year and not really changing that much. I think the clutch area was probably my biggest concern."

As competitive as you are, how difficult is it when you don't win? "It's been a learning experience. The one thing about drag racing is that you don't see a lot of drivers or crew chiefs out here with big egos because it's an up-and-down situation. You can go from champ to chump in a weekend. It's been hard to watch Gary Scelzi, Tony Schumacher, Kenny Bernstein, Joe Amato, all of these guys running for the championship and see how far we are behind right now. I'd say we're pretty much out of the championship running, but if we can get the car running I can make it pretty miserable for a lot of guys out there, and that's kind of what I intend to do. It's definitely been a learning curve for me, trying to be patient and waiting for the outcome to be better. I think this last week we cleared a huge hurdle. Hopefully we're going to be looking up from here and we can win some more races, but it's just been tough. I love watching Gary Scelzi win and Tony Schumacher's doing a great job. We're all friends, so it's kind of hard to think any bad thoughts for anybody else, I just wish I was right there with them."

How has the "Coach" (Joe Gibbs) been during this period? "Joe's been really easy on us. He has some pressure here and there from sponsors. The people that put money in these cars want to know why we're not winning, especially when we have the best of everything, and we feel the best crew as well. We try to let everyone know that we're close, we're getting better, the car's getting more consistent and it has been a concern. I would say if timing was everything then this last weekend was definitely the right time to go out and win. It's always tough when you're going through these hard times. I just thank God for MBNA, Circuit City, Hot Rod, Easy Care, Pontiac, all the people that are there for us that have stuck by us through the hard times. When I got done the other night I had a full mailbox from people and sponsors that called to congratulate us. It's been a long time coming for us to have something this great happen for us. One more thing, I was talking to Tony (Stewart) right after he won the Winston Cup race in Loudon. Joe (Gibbs) was even laughing because we made more money than they did this weekend, which is always a good thing to hear because that's never happened for us."

In 1997 you came into Denver under similar circumstances and were able to put a pretty good streak together. Is that possible again this year? "Definitely. It's always possible. I've been lucky enough in the past to be a real strong second-half season runner. I guess anything's possible. I may have jumped too quick when I said we were out of this points chase deal. If things go wrong for the guys up front, and we put together two or three or four races, then we can actually catch up. Anything can happen - I'm used to that kind of stuff. If we get on a roll, this thing runs consistent and the driver does his job, we can keep it going. We're going to be trying our hearts out. It's just that sitting back at No. 7 at this point and looking at how far everybody is ahead of us, it's going to be tough, but we'll do the best we can and won't give up."

At Denver, how much will the times be affected by the combination of the 90-percent rule and the thin air? "I don't think they'll be as far off as everybody thinks. Like I said earlier, Wes told me we were making plenty of horsepower. Yes, we're going to have to turn everything up and that's definitely hard on parts. But we have a lot of different compressions we're going to try, and we'll be able to change the motor on the bottom end of it and maybe not have to turn up the blower and the mags and everything as much to the extent where we're worried about blowing things up. Wes is so good at fuel curves so that's going to help us a lot. He's really good at tune-ups and making everything even. He makes me feel so safe in the car. I think you're going to see some great times this weekend and I look forward to being up there."

What job does Jason McCulloch have on the team? "Jason does all the clutch work on our car and takes care of the rear end. I don't think people realize how important the clutch area is when it comes to these Top Fuel and Funny Cars. He grew up rolling around in the grease and he's been doing this forever. It's a privilege for me to be able to work with him and he does such a good job for us. He's learned so much from his father by working with him before. It's a big deal. You get to a slick track, and conditions aren't what you want them to be, and Jason has a lot of input with Wes Cerny on the clutch area. It's one of those deals where Wes can tell him what to do, walk away and know it's going to be done right. That's a huge, huge area that has to be perfect. Just like you need horsepower, you gotta have the right kind of clutch and Jason does a great job."

What is life on the road like these days and what do you and Courtney do for a mailing address? "I had to keep the shop in Anaheim as a mailing address so that I could get stuff on the road. I've been getting a whole lot of Fed Ex packages from people at the racetrack. Courtney joined me this last weekend at the Bristol race, and she's going to go with me for the next three. She loves doing this stuff. The older she gets the more she loves drag racing, and I'm so happy to be able to spend time with her. I don't know if anyone knows this, but out of all my wins, this is the first time that my daughter has been with me when I won a race."

Do you think you might put her in the seat someday? "I kind of leave that up to her. We visit tracks here and there. When I lived in Lake Havasu we went to a little track there called Sahara Raceway and watched a lot of different classes. Right now, what she wants to do is the little Winston Cups cars, and if she wants to turn left that's fine with me. I'll help her do whatever she wants to do. If she wants to drive a Top Fuel car, we'll sit down and talk about it. But right now, just like everything else, you want your kid to do good in school and grow up to be good people. I'm so lucky. She has a great mother in Kimberly and she's a fine young lady for nine years old. She's very well behaved and she knows how to take care of herself."

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About this article
Series NHRA
Drivers Jim Head , Tony Schumacher , Joe Amato , Gary Scelzi , Cory McClenathan , Cory Mac
Teams Joe Gibbs Racing