INDIANAPOLIS (August 26, 1999) - A trip to the winner's circle is what Mark Pawuk is hoping to accomplish at the 45th annual U.S. Nationals on September 1 - 6. With the way the season is beginning to stack up, and the recent resurgence in ...
INDIANAPOLIS (August 26, 1999) - A trip to the winner's circle is what Mark Pawuk is hoping to accomplish at the 45th annual U.S. Nationals on September 1 - 6. With the way the season is beginning to stack up, and the recent resurgence in performance in the Summit Racing Firebird, Pawuk's Pontiac just may be one of the favorites to win the Pro Stock title when competition begins at Indianapolis Raceway Park.
Although Pawuk is yet to win a race in 1999, his qualifying efforts leading up to Sunday eliminations have been outstanding. Over the last 15 events, the "Buckeye State" native has qualified in the top-four positions seven times, and in the top-half of the field 12 times. On four different occasions, at Gainesville, Englishtown, Columbus and Seattle, Pawuk qualified his Firebird in the No. 3 position, his best efforts of the year. Earlier this season at the Pennzoil Nationals in Richmond, Va., Pawuk ran his career-best elapsed time at 6.883 seconds and became a member of the Speed-Pro 200 mph Pro Stock Club with a career-best top speed of 200.08 mph. Until recently, he has had trouble advancing past the second round of final eliminations, but at Brainerd last weekend he exorcised a number of ghosts by qualifying for his first race at BIR in three years and advancing to the semifinals before losing to four-time Winston champion Warren Johnson. Pawuk also won the Pro Stock Invitational at Woodburn, Ore., prior to the Autolite Nationals in Sonoma, Calif. He's confident that the team's recent progress could be a sign of better things to come as the season begins to wind down.
This year, Pawuk is in the middle of his 13th campaign as a Pro Stock racer on the NHRA Winston championship tour. Over the course of his career, he has won four national events and raced in 13 final rounds. His first win came at Houston in 1992 and his last victory came at Memphis in 1995. He has finished in the top-10 in the points standings eight times (1988, 1990-95, 1998), and is currently seventh in the Pro Stock standings, just 23 points out of sixth place and five rounds out of the top-five.
The 45th annual U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis Raceway Park on September 1 - 6 is the 16th race on the 22-event NHRA Winston championship tour. TNN will carry the final round of eliminations on Monday, September 6, beginning at 5 p.m. Eastern. First-round coverage can be seen beginning at 12:00 Eastern. The Big Bud Shootout for Funny Cars will be telecast on TNN on Saturday, September 5, beginning at 4:30 p.m. Eastern.
What have been some of the reasons for your team's resurgence this year? There are a lot of things I could point to. "At the beginning of the year we did struggle and missed the tune up at a few races. But the combination of me not driving as well as I should and just plain bad luck had us struggling. We're still, in my opinion, not where we should be, but we've been qualifying strong at the last three races, third and fourth, we've finally won some rounds on race day, I'm driving better, and it's just a matter of keeping the little stuff from biting us. We have a young crew that's learning what it takes to go down the track on race day and now we're beginning to put all of the pieces together."
Do you think there's an enthusiasm with a young team that carries over onto the racetrack? "It definitely does. After going to the semifinals at Brainerd for the first time this year, the attitude in the whole camp, including myself, has been very positive. It just helps our program move up to the next level. The more confidence we get by going rounds the better we're going to be. I've felt for a long time that we should have been to a final round by now, but you just have to be patient. I feel that the pieces of the puzzle are coming together, and even though it's not exactly where it needs to be, everybody's pulling in one common direction with the same goal in mind and that's making us better each race. A lot of good things are going to happen on down the road."
You're coming into a stretch of the season that last year put you in the top-10. Are you confident that you can duplicate that success? "I remember before Brainerd last year after we did well in Denver we were really optimistic with the way things were turning around for us. Then we went to Brainerd and Indy and failed to qualify. That killed our momentum even though we picked it up again at Reading. The difference now is that we're making smarter decisions. Indy is still going to be a tricky race and it could very well be a one-shot qualifying session on Friday night. But we're not at the point we were a few years ago where we lacked the performance to get into the field as the conditions went away. We ran fast enough in qualifying to make the field in every session last weekend in Brainerd. We're at the point now, even if we miss the best session, we still have enough power in the Summit Racing Pontiac Firebird that we can get into the show, but not good enough to jump up to No. 1 like Warren (Johnson) and Kurt (Johnson) can. But I feel that even if we miss it in Indy on Friday night, we have a lot better chance of qualifying on Saturday or Sunday compared to previous years. I'm hoping that the momentum we picked up in Brainerd is going to carry over to the final third of the season. We're carrying a lot of enthusiasm into the biggest race of the year. It's time that we take advantage of this opportunity to make some good things happen. I'm hoping that at Indy things start to click for the Summit Racing Pontiac team."
What do you attribute your strong season-long qualifying effort to? "It's the engine program and the fact that it's made great strides over the winter. It's the fact that we're running the car differently and that we're making better calls on our tune up. It's just the whole team in general - everybody's thinking, everybody has ideas, we're putting everything together and it's been paying off for us. At Denver we ran really fast in testing but had a fluke problem in the best session. There's no reason why we shouldn't have qualified better than 11th, but it happened. That's one race that we really prepared for, so it was a disappointment when we didn't run as well as we had expected. When you have lane choice in the first round, that's a big advantage. Even though the tracks are more consistent than they used to be, lane choice is a vital factor and just being able to have that has helped us go farther. When you go out and make a good hit on your first run like we did at Brainerd, it gives you some runs to test and learn things. If you're always struggling to stay in the field, you're hesitant to try things that could hurt you. We got aggressive at Brainerd because we made two really good runs right off the bat, so we went into test mode and tried some things on Saturday that will help us for next year and into the future."
Are you confident that with your performance level that it's just a matter of time before you win a race? "Definitely. I know that you make your own luck, but we haven't had any this year. With just a little luck we can be in the winner's circle. We definitely have the ingredients in our program to win a race. My driving is starting to come around and we're starting to make better calls on race day. Looking at the semifinals at Brainerd, if we would have been racing any other car than Warren Johnson, we would have been in the final. Once you get to the final round anything can happen, we just didn't quite get there. We got that monkey off our backs, and finally got past second round, so we made tremendous strides there. We want to keep going in that direction but know it's not going to be possible to run great at every event. When you look at some of the cars that didn't qualify at Brainerd, there were at least three of the top-10 teams that didn't get in the show, that shows just how tough and how competitive our sport is. We're just happy that we got that non-qualifying monkey at Brainerd off our backs and now we have to worry about Indy. We're going there to test for two days and really try to prepare for the race. I'd like nothing more than to win the U.S. Nationals, but just to win a race this year would give this team the boost they need going into next season."
What does racing at the U.S. Nationals mean to you? "It's just tremendous. Every burnout you do you get a real appreciation of the sheer magnitude of the crowd. I was runner-up in 1981 in Super Gas, and was runner up in 1994 to Warren Johnson, so racing at Indy brings back a lot of great memories. I've never won Indy, but just getting to the final means so much. I remember after Warren beat me in the final the fans were just going nuts. I was really touched by all of the people who stayed, and stood and cheered. We want to win this race as bad as anybody that hasn't won it, and I feel that we're in as good a spot as any other Pro Stock team because of our recent performance. I just want to get on the starting line and get a round in because I haven't qualified there in the last couple of years."
What do you want to accomplish during the final seven races of the season? "We want to keep our consistency, keep qualifying well, go more rounds, win a race and move into the top-five. We feel that's very doable. We're only one round out of sixth place and just five rounds out of fifth. Those are the goals that we set for ourselves to help build the confidence and the momentum needed to get us ready for the 2000 season. I'm really happy with the progress this team has made and some of the other things that are happening. Revell has produced a new build-up model of the Summit Racing Firebird that will be in the stores soon and there's just a lot of positive things taking place within our program. We want to carry that to the next level. My dream has always been to win a world championship and that's what we'll be shooting for next year."
Do you still enjoy the competition? "I've got a lot more fire and drive than I had six months ago. It became a real drag for awhile, but I really feel that this resurgence in our performance has enabled me to get a different outlook, a different attitude and get more pumped up on race day. I attribute that to everything clicking, and everybody with the same common goal and getting along so well. It definitely makes my job easier and I'm enjoying going to the races much more than a year ago. Sure, there are times when it's tough without my family, but when you're out there and you know you have a shot at winning the race in contrast to if you're just praying that you qualify, there's a lot less pressure and it gives you a completely different mindset going into race day. Now I'm confident that we can win at any time."
How important is the support of your family? "I couldn't do this without them. My wife Bonnie and my kids -- when they're there they're great, and when they're not there, they are thinking about me and watching me. My mom and dad are also big supporters and without all of them this would be tough to do. With as much as we travel and as grueling as our schedules are, without the support and understanding of your family, racing would be impossible."
How is the engine development program coming along? "It's definitely been worth the investment. I had a program in California before we moved it to Ohio, and it's just a matter of putting the right group of guys together and having the right pieces in place. Everything has come together nicely and I have to attribute that to my staff; Scott Pastircak, John Roberts and Todd Goodwin. They work really hard, they're excellent thinkers, they use a lot of common sense and they've taken the parts and pieces that we have and continue to build on them. We're in the best position we've ever been as far as engines are concerned. I raced for a lot of years with one good engine and if that one got hurt, then we were in trouble. Now if we hurt a good engine, we have enough power to fall back on that we can still get in and win races. We've received help from General Motors with Harry Turner, Alba Colon and Larry Kubes, and have worked on the development of the new GM cylinder head castings. Everything put together makes the whole package gel and has us moving in a forward direction. We went through a lot of trial and error about a year-and-a-half ago. This year we've been able to spend a tremendous amount of our time on research and development, and assembling pieces instead of taking them back apart trying to fix problems. When you can be running your dyno on a daily basis, and testing parts and pieces, it's going to get you to the level that we are beginning to reach. We're not nearly as far along as Warren (Johnson) is yet, but we're making tremendous gains to catch him. Obviously I'd love to be where he is, but he's been doing this a long time compared to our young team, and I think we've done pretty well considering the short amount of time we've been together."