NHRA POWERade Series Transcript: Jerry Toliver Jerry Toliver, who spent the last year-and-a-half working to put together a competitive Funny Car program to return to the NHRA POWERade Series, realized the fruit of his hard work by winning the...
NHRA POWERade Series Transcript: Jerry Toliver
Jerry Toliver, who spent the last year-and-a-half working to put together a competitive Funny Car program to return to the NHRA POWERade Series, realized the fruit of his hard work by winning the NHRA POWERade Series season-opening K&N Filters Winternationals Feb. 29 at Pomona (Calif.) Raceway. Toliver, nephew of the legendary Chrismans (Art and Jack) in NHRA drag racing lore, raced to a dramatic victory over Gary Densham in the final round, after eliminating much-hyped rookie Eric Medlen, journeyman Cory Lee and veteran Del Worsham in earlier rounds.
Toliver, who led the NHRA Funny Car championship chase for much of the 2000 season and ultimately finished third in the points order that year, has returned with a renewed enthusiasm and is hungrier than ever to resume his position as a top Funny Car challenger. With Schick Quattro as his primary sponsor, a sleek Toyota Celica at his command that produced the fourth-fastest run in NHRA history (328.22 mph) last weekend and Keith Adams, a protege of highly-regarded nitro tuner Alan Johnson, serving as crew chief, Toliver feels poised to make up for lost time.
In this candid Q&A, Toliver talks about his will to succeed, his desire to not take any success for granted this time around, and his goal of winning races and ultimately the POWERade Funny Car championship.
Q: Did your performance at the K&N Filters Winternationals surpass your wildest expectations?
TOLIVER: It was my wildest expectation to go back in there and just dominate. Somebody asked me if I was surprised with the performance. I wasn't surprised with the performance because I have a great team that is made up of a bunch of really good guys. They are all veterans. We have the best equipment and some great racing minds at work. I am not surprised, but I am certainly overwhelmed and pleased by what happened. For that to come together in the first race is a lot, for anybody. My guys really stepped up, did a great job, we got a little lucky and things just fell into place.
Q: How did you get your team to jell so quickly?
TOLIVER: My guys are all seasoned veterans. Every guy on my team has been out there for five years minimum. They all know the game, what to do, and they all do it well. Keith Adams, my crew chief, has been with Alan Johnson since 1996 and prior to that was with Dale Armstrong. This is his first year as a crew chief, but the guy has really been working with some of the best in the business. He is Alan's right-hand guy and has been instrumental in a lot of the technology that Alan has developed over the years. Obviously he went to school well because he applied all of that stuff to our team and he did a great job.
Q: How special was it for you to give Toyota its first NHRA national event victory?
TOLIVER: I think it is fantastic. I have been working on this Toyota deal since the end of 2001. We have been trying to put something together for a few years. I watched them struggle a little bit when they first came into the sport -- I think they went to five finals with Alan -- and I watched them get knocked off every time. I know how important it was for them to win a race. It was extremely special because I went in with a fresh approach and a new team. I came in with a major sponsor, so I think that opened up Toyota's eyes and they realized that it was a really good deal. They saw that we have a high-profile national company backing us and it was the right fit for them. Then, on top of all that, we come out of the gate and perform the way we did and bring them their first win. I think it's going to make them take a harder look at us and realize that this is a great program for them to be involved with for the future.
Q: Having had some great non-traditional sponsors in recent years, like Warner Brothers and the World Wrestling Federation, and now Schick Quattro, what is your formula for sponsorship success?
TOLIVER: I have been asked this question a thousand times. The basic formula is the same that you would apply to any business principle. There's certain things that are necessary to make it a viable program for the sponsor. You have to go into it, dissect it, and look and see what the sponsor wants to achieve, and how the sponsorship of the race team helps them to sell their products. That's really the bottom line. We go in and show them how we can help them sell their core products and get it out to their consumers. Whether it's WWF, Mad Magazine or Schick. The same principles apply in all of those cases. We develop programs to help the sponsor market their products through our race team. We show them results and how we achieve sales for them.
Q: What is your assessment of the competition level in Funny Car this year?
TOLIVER: It's going to be brutal. Any one of the cars I raced on Sunday could have knocked me off. I started out with Eric Medlen from Force's stable. He's got a heck of a hot rod and that's the team that won the world championship last year. That's a great ride for a kid to get into for his first year. You've got the Force team with three cars, you have the Pedregon brothers (Cruz and Tony) teaming up, the Worsham team, Don Prudhomme's two cars and Don Schumacher has two cars. There's just a lot of multi-car teams with solid funding. I think this year Funny Car is going to be more competitive than it has been in the past. I don't see it stopping. I see the bar being raised at every race and you are going to need to have some luck with you to win these races. It's going to be great for the fans. They are going to enjoy the competition because there isn't one team that's going to run away with it this year.
Q: What did you learn from the 2000 season, the year you led the championship chase late into the year and eventually finished third overall in points?
TOLIVER: I think the big lesson I learned is to not take it for granted. I got thrown into the fire in 2000 from the start. We won the Winternationals and led the points from race one and kept it going. We just marched on through until mid-season. I had never been in that position before. I think now I appreciate more of what it takes to win a national event, much less lead the points chase in NHRA. It is very gratifying to be there. I'll just savor those moments more now and understand that it can be taken away from you just as quickly as you earned it. That's what happened to us in 2000. There was a point in time when I thought we could win the championship. Just about the time I thought that is when we started sliding down the back side and wound up third. It's a moving target. You have to stay on your game. You can't let up for one moment. You have to go out there and grind it out round after round.
Q: Four of the last six Winternationals Funny Car winners went on to finish first or second in the POWERade point standings. Does that stat add any pressure to your season?
TOLIVER: I love those kind of stats. I won the Winternationals in 2000, led the points for most of the year and finished in third place, so that kind of history is good to have on your side. Any time you can win a race it's big. I don't care if it is the Winternationals, Phoenix or Bristol. They're all big in my book. They all help you in the points race. Am I superstitious? I think all racers are superstitious in some way. We had a big deal going last weekend at Pomona that focused on the number four. Schick Quattro has four blades, the number 444 is on the side of my car, it was the 44th Winternationals, I hadn't won a race in four years, I had won four national events previously and I think the final round went off at 4:40 p.m. -- we had all that stuff going in our favor. When you have karma like that and it is on the good mojo side it certainly gives you a little bit of a boost. Anytime the odds are in our favor we love it.
Q: Following your season-opening victory at Pomona you said you really wanted to savor the moment. How did you celebrate the win afterwards?
TOLIVER: That's exactly what I told the press. I sat at home for the last year-and-a-half watching NHRA drag racing on ESPN wondering if I would ever get back out there. It got to a point where I began to think that there was a good possibility that I wouldn't race again. But I wasn't through yet and I knew I would really miss it if I didn't find a way to get back out here. I thought to myself, if I do get back out there I know how fleeting and difficult it is to win a national event. I said if I ever do win another race, which now luckily we have, that I would really think about it and feel the special experience that it is. I went back to the pit and celebrated with the team, went out to dinner and we enjoyed it, laughed and talked about the race. I woke up the next morning and couldn't believe that it actually happened and just thought what a great feeling it was. I am much more appreciative of the experience now than I was in the past.
Q: You have always brought an exciting, outgoing personality and an aggressive approach to your racing efforts in the past. What do you feel you add to the mix of characters in the Funny Car world?
TOLIVER: I am definitely an in-your-face kind of guy. I like to have fun with it. I like to razz guys just as any competitor does with their competition. If I can get it going I am not going to back down from anybody. I feel we are as good as anybody out there. I think we have as good a chance as anybody to win the championship. In fact, right now with the points lead, we have a better chance than the rest of the teams out there. We have a little bit of an edge right now. Coming in the goal was to qualify and go past first round. If we could have accomplished that I would have left Pomona saying we had a good weekend and we learned something. With that kind of expectation, after the first round it was all gravy, let alone winning the race. I went up to (Gary) Densham in the staging lanes before the final round and said 'win, lose or draw after this race we are both winners.' I really felt no pressure going into the final. I just felt like it was out of my control and if I was destined to win, I was going to win. Obviously I was.
Q: Your Celica clocked the fourth fastest Funny Car speed (328.22 mph) in NHRA history at Pomona during eliminations. What are your performance predictions for the category this season?
TOLIVER: We didn't do very well in pre-season testing this year. Really the first time we got down the race track without major problems was the qualifying lap and on that run it dropped two cylinders, was spinning the tires and running away from the clutch. It still ran a 4.88 and we knew it still had a lot in it. When we came out for the semifinals and the car ran a 4.73 at 328 we were just starting to get a hold on the tune-up. I really think we are going to see a 4.60-something run at more than 330 miles per hour this year in Funny Car. There are too many teams that are close and knocking on the door. We are less than two miles per hour off getting to 330 and that's nothing. We are a little more than three-hundreths-of-a-second away from running a 4.699. I truly think we'll see those numbers this year.
Q: What is your outlook for the Toyota body ?
TOLIVER: The Toyota body has proved itself and showed the world that when Alan Johnson and the team over at TRD developed this body they knew what they were doing. It's got good downforce and it's slippery, so the drag coefficient is down. It ran 4.73 at 328 and just went boom, I'm a contender.
Q: Jim Head is driving a second Toyota Celica with primary sponsorship from one of your top associate sponsors, Lion's Gate Entertainment. What is the team association with Head's car?
TOLIVER: Jim has been a friend of Alan Johnson for many years. Jim has a lot of years of experience and decided to come back to Funny Car after racing a Top Fuel dragster for a while. He spoke with Alan and struck a deal to run a Toyota, just as we did. He brings a teammate that will be at most of the races. It gives us the advantage of having a multi-car team without the expense associated with having to support a multi-car team. In that sense it's a good situation. We run identical cars and are enjoying the advantages of being teammates, such as sharing data and technology, without having a single owner. He owns his team and I own my team. It's a unique situation. Jim is an engineer. He has a great mind and has been around the sport for many years. He has been very innovative in the sport through safety issues. I think we can learn a lot from Jim and I am looking forward to working with him.
Q: Your crew chief is a protege of Alan Johnson. How is Alan involved with your team?
TOLIVER: These cars are Alan Johnson-prepared Toyota Celicas. All of Alan's equipment and technology are in these cars. Alan has set these cars up, but that's where it ends. Alan is the crew chief for the U.S. Army Top Fuel team for Schumacher Racing and everybody knows that they have Funny Cars. So Alan and I both think it would be a conflict of interest for him to be involved directly with my team. Alan owns the Toyota deal, so there's no secret about that. We have a deal with Alan to run his Toyotas, but Keith Adams makes the tuning calls for my car. Alan is very busy over at the Schumacher camp and even if he wanted to come over and look at my car, he doesn't have the time. Keith Adams is our crew chief and he makes the decisions.
Q: What are you looking forward to most in 2004?
TOLIVER: Being competitive, winning races and the ultimate goal is to win the POWERade championship. That's why we are here. I would not have come out with a team that doesn't have the ability to do that. I wouldn't want to just race for the sake of racing. We want to win races and championships. That's the bottom line. Am I predicting we are going to win a championship? Not by any means. That's just the goal. To be realistic, we would love to finish in the top couple, but we will never take our sights off winning the championship.
Q: As a nephew of Art and Jack Chrisman, two NHRA legends, how important is it for you to keep the family tradition of successful drag racing alive and well?
TOLIVER: It is extremely important. I am very proud to be their nephew. My uncle Art was at the race track this weekend with me and it was very special. I was born into a family that was really into drag racing and it's something that has been in my blood and something I've wanted to do since I was a kid. When I was a boy, I would go to my grandfather's house and there were race cars in the garage and all around the house. I just fell in love with race cars at that time. I knew that's what I wanted to do later on. When my uncle Art comes out now and is proud of what I am doing, that makes me proud. I look at him and I can see it in his eyes. He's always supportive of what we are doing. His son Steve races too. We're all still in the game and we love it. To come out and be successful and carry on that tradition is wonderful. It makes you proud that they are proud of you.