Larry Dixon isn't doing a celebration dance after each round of racing. He isn't even dancing between victories. The defending NHRA POWERade Top Fuel champion is too busy for celebrating. He is busy trying to win another Top Fuel championship in...
Larry Dixon isn't doing a celebration dance after each round of racing. He isn't even dancing between victories. The defending NHRA POWERade Top Fuel champion is too busy for celebrating. He is busy trying to win another Top Fuel championship in the Don Prudhomme-owned Miller Lite dragster. The 49th annual Mac Tools U.S. Nationals was postponed a week due to heavy rainfall in the Indianapolis area. The race will resume at Indianapolis Raceway Park, Sept. 5-7. Then Dixon will be at it again - working for another ring. His closest competitor is second-place Doug Kalitta. Dixon has earned eight wins in 11 final round appearances and holds a 271-point lead over Kalitta and the Mac Tools team. Kalitta has done his best to keep Dixon honest, winning a season-best four victories in eight final rounds. The biggest obstacle? Kalitta has faced Dixon in five of those final rounds. In this Q&A session, Dixon talks about what the Miller Lite team has done better in 2003, what it is going to take the win another championship and why he isn't doing his best imitation of John Travolta through the pits each weekend.
Q: The Mac Tools U.S. Nationals is held at your home track, so you don't have to go anywhere, but are you anxious for the race to start back up again?
DIXON: At this point right now you have really got three or four days to prepare for a big stretch instead of a week-and-a-half for a three-race swing (Reading, Pa., Memphis and Chicago). I just think it puts a bigger load on the teams. My kids won't be able to go to Cedar Point (amusement park) this year, but they get to go to the U.S. Nationals again. I think they will be OK, they like racing.
Q: You've already made a couple of qualifying runs, and the Miller Lite team is in the No. 2 spot with three qualifying sessions left on the schedule. Does it hurt the team's momentum in any way to have the race postponed?
DIXON: I don't think so. We made four runs here two weeks ago (during testing) and two runs here last weekend for qualifying. Hopefully we'll make seven runs this weekend. I think the more runs you have with the various track conditions the better off you really are. They certainly are not throwaway runs. You get more laps and more experience and more information for the team.
Q: What has the team done better this year than the 2002 campaign that ended in your first POWERade Top Fuel championship?
DIXON: I think we're still in pursuit of our second championship but right now if you compare to this point of both seasons, we haven't smoked the tires on race day nowhere near the way we did in 2002. With all of our runs, whether we get beat or not, we've made really good runs with the exception of two runs. Besides, when we smoked the tires in the second round in Houston and second round in Bristol, I think we've done a really good job and we've made four-second runs more than not. We've done a good job at being more consistent.
Q: The championship chase seems to be against yourselves more than anything else. How does the team maintain the sense of urgency needed to perform at a high level every weekend?
DIXON: For me, I think it goes back to driving bad race cars - driving a nag. Now, things are good and you are trying to win as many races as you can while you can. You don't know if this will last one more race and then it's all over or if it can last another year or 10 years. John Force's deal has lasted a dozen years. So you are trying to win every race you can while you can. If you do well enough between February and November then the best team is awarded the championship. We are trying to win races right now.
Q: How does crew chief Dick LaHaie factor into this equation?
DIXON: How doesn't he factor into all of this? Look at our results before he got here. I think I won five or six races before he got here and we have won a lot of races since he has got here. I think people get tired of hearing it, but I look at him as a Phil Jackson (NBA coach of the Los Angeles Lakers) type of individual. He comes in and most of the players are here, and he kind of brings in his game plan and shows the guys how to win and win on a continual basis. He brought good credentials with him and you would be a fool not to listen to someone like him. When he goes out and performs, he proves his worth and his point and makes any doubters true believers in his abilities.
Q: Do you remember the first race you had with LaHaie?
DIXON: He flew into Reading just to check out our program in 1999. He tuned the car the day after the race, just testing. We were having trouble getting down the race track. We gave him our chicken scratch (data notes) and he made chicken salad out of it. It wasn't more than a couple of races after that when we were in the winner's circle.
Q: Did you think it was going to be this good with LaHaie? Did you believe he was the missing piece of the puzzle?
DIXON: I absolutely knew that he knew how to make a race car win. From a personal standpoint, I didn't know if I could be a good enough driver for him. I really wasn't that good before he got here, I think. I could win a race here or there, but he has taught me a lot and he has made me a good driver. Not the best, but a good driver.
Q: What does it feel like to be the driver of this car, knowing that in the last two seasons, the Miller Lite dragster has been leading the Top Fuel points after all but one race?
DIXON: It makes me feel like the cat that ate the canary. I feel like I have won the lottery continually. Any guy that drives dreams of having an opportunity like this. Not to just go in and win, but to have the opportunity to win. I owe Snake everything for giving me the opportunity and I owe LaHaie everything for giving us everything beyond the opportunity. He made this the total package.
Q: When Brandon Bernstein crashed in Englishtown, he was second in points with three victories. Kenny Bernstein came out of retirement to fill in for his son, who is out for the season with a back injury. If you add up both Bernsteins' points, the Budweiser team would be in third place. Are you disappointed that Brandon didn't get to complete the season, and you guys didn't get to compete against each other for an entire year?
DIXON: If you added up both of their points and they were ahead of us, then I could see where people would have reason to talk about it. But we got into the warmer races and who knows what would have happened. Even in Englishtown, they smoked the tires and lost first round. We went to the finals of that race. I don't worry about it. I feel terrible that he had to go through what he did. No one should have to go through that. There are people who have gone through worse situations, so maybe it wasn't that bad of a situation. I still feed bad that he had to go through what he did. I also feel that he will be a better driver when he gets back out there, if his dad lets him have the keys back.
Q: What has been better about this season than last season when you won nine races in a record 14 final rounds?
DIXON: We qualified for St. Louis. Something else that has been better is that who would have thought that we could have a better year than last year? We had such a strong start last year then we kind of got tipped over a little bit and then had St. Louis (DNQ) and even after that it took a while to get everything back in the groove again. I think changing the tire in the middle of the year really upset the balance of the combination that we had at the start of the year. When we got to race tracks where the tire was a factor, it became a factor because we didn't have any previous experience. It took us a while to adjust to it and I think by the end of the season we were decent. We didn't win the rounds like we did at the beginning of the season, but we won our share.
Q: The 2004 NHRA POWERade Drag Racing schedule was released over the weekend. There are now four stretches during the year that feature three consecutive weekends of racing. What do you think about the changes that were made?
DIXON: I think it will probably end up being a factor, both good and bad, for teams next year. We are going to have nine races in a matter of 12 weeks and if you are running well, then great. If you are running bad, you aren't going to have time to fix it because you will be going on to the next race. I hope we're running well during that stretch.
Q: What does this Miller Lite team have to do to ensure a second consecutive NHRA POWERade Top Fuel championship?
DIXON: We have to go more rounds than Doug Kalitta does. That certainly won't be an easy task. They have another car now (with driver and two-time champion Scott Kalitta). We just have to keep doing what got us into this position in the first place. If it works out, great. If it doesn't, then we don't deserve it.