Madison: Capps/Johnson Jr preview

Capps, Johnson look forward to night racing at Gateway International Raceway ST. LOUIS, June 24, 2003 - Ron Capps won his first Funny Car race at Gateway International Raceway in 1997 yet he didn't develop an affinity for the racetrack. Tommy...

Capps, Johnson look forward to night racing at Gateway International Raceway

ST. LOUIS, June 24, 2003 - Ron Capps won his first Funny Car race at Gateway International Raceway in 1997 yet he didn't develop an affinity for the racetrack.

Tommy Johnson Jr. was the No. 1 qualifier and reached the semifinals in his first Funny Car event at Gateway in 1999. Two years later he finished second. But he doesn't consider it one of his favorite stops on the NHRA POWERade Series tour, either.

The Skoal Racing teammates have another thing in common that probably helps explain the capricious nature of the racing surface: Each has failed to qualify for the Sears Craftsman Nationals twice.

All that is history, of course, and that's why Capps and Johnson are looking forward to returning to Gateway - located across the Mississippi River in Madison, Ill. - for the seventh annual event, Friday through Sunday. This race, like the 1999 one, will be contested at night.

Heat, humidity and sun on the asphalt racing surface tends to make it quite tricky to negotiate and Capps and Johnson believe the nighttime temperatures and somewhat cooler temperatures should provide a better place to race in addition to making it more pleasant.

"I like racing at night. It's better for everybody," said Johnson, driver of the Don Prudhomme-owned Blue Camaro. "Every time we go to St. Louis it seems like it's the hottest place in the world. This is the tough part of the season where the heat really bothers the drivers and crews working on the cars. It's so much better at night."

"You never forget where you won your first race and St. Louis will always be special for that," said Capps, driver of the Green Camaro. "It still can present a lot of problems for the crew chiefs, although the racing at night should help. You just don't know what to expect. A crew chief really has to be on his game."

This event also marks the end of the first half of the season, prompting Capps and Johnson to take a look at where they've been and where they hope to go.

Capps has a win at Phoenix and a runner-up finish at Englishtown, N.J., and is fifth in points with 662. The Carlsbad, Calif., driver gives his team a B thus far.

"We were leading the points after the win at Phoenix and then we struggled for a few races after that," said Capps. "We had some unfortunate things happen with the car that put us behind the 8-ball a little bit - hitting the wall at Gainesville (Fla.) and the throttle sticking open at Atlanta. Obviously the crew's effort would be an A+ but I think anybody on the crew would grade us a B right now."

"You make a plan on what you need done and what parts you need and when things like that happen it sure puts a damper on things. Those things definitely set us back but you try to put it behind you."

"We've done a pretty good job and my crew chief, Ed 'Ace' McCulloch, is really concentrating on making the car safer and the performance quite a bit better."

Capps did take his first 4.7-second ride, and it was one to remember.

In the opening round at Joliet, Ill., June 1, Capps was timed in 4.753 seconds at 322.96 mph, his quickest time and fastest speed.

"The engine still had quite bit left in it on that run," Capps commented, "so we know when we get back to good racing conditions we can tune it up to run in the 4.70s. In the meantime, I think we're going to be pretty tough in the summer months, based on how we ran in Columbus (June 13-15) in those adverse conditions."

He qualified third (4.853 seconds), had the third-best time during eliminations (4.849), and advanced to the semifinals.

"When you look at both types of conditions we're going to get through the rest of year, I think you're going to see Ace has found some things in the tune-up that will help us."

"Right now we aren't up there where we want to be - fighting for the championship - but if we keep our head down and focus on each round and each qualifying run like we've done the last couple of races, the points start adding up."

Johnson advanced to his first final of the year at Joliet (June 1) and was runner-up. He's seventh in the standings with 587 points.

As for grading the first half, Johnson said, "On performance and overall turnaround of the crew I'd say we have about a B+ to an A-. We're not up to the A category because we haven't got where we want to yet."

"We're headed in the right direction," Johnson added. "At mid-season, Mike (Green, crew chief) said his goal was to be one of the top five cars and at Columbus (June 15) we qualified fourth. Now we have to work on our race day setups and tune-ups."

"Performance-wise we are running good and the climb in the Big Bud Shootout points (a special event for the eight Funny Cars earning the most qualifying points over 22 races) would give us an A in that department. We've gone from 13th to seventh from the start of the season so we're headed in the right direction with everything we've done so far. Now we need to finish it."

The Shootout is contested on Sunday, Aug. 31, at Indianapolis. Johnson has 2110 points and Capps, the defending Shootout champion, is sixth with 2245 with five more races remaining to earn points.

"We have to continue to improve and it excites me that while almost everybody else was taking last weekend off, we were testing at Indianapolis Raceway Park," Johnson said. "To me that's a good team. Even though we've been on the road and the crew has been working hard they were willing to go testing."

"That has to continue because we want to finish in the top five, and I think we can. We have a competitive racecar that can win races and we just have bear down and do it."

Capps: Another IROC Test Session at ChicagoLand Speedway

Capps has been asked to test International Race of Champions cars at the 1½-mile Joliet race track July 7-9 prior to the July 12 IROC race at ChicagoLand.

When he's finished testing, he plans to stay to watch the Saturday event. Also on tap at the track that weekend is a World of Outlaws sprint car race featuring Danny Lasosky, a friend of Capps and one of the drivers who has been tutoring him on driving around in circles.

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Series NHRA
Drivers Ron Capps , Don Prudhomme , Tommy Johnson Jr.