AN INTERVIEW WITH THE 2008 NHRA POWERADE SERIES' REGULAR SEASON CHAMPIONS: TONY SCHUMACHER, TOP FUEL TIM WILKERSON, FUNNY CAR MATT SMITH, PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE THE MODERATOR: I'll introduce each of the drivers and ask them to make an opening...
AN INTERVIEW WITH THE 2008 NHRA POWERADE SERIES' REGULAR SEASON CHAMPIONS:
TONY SCHUMACHER, TOP FUEL
TIM WILKERSON, FUNNY CAR
MATT SMITH, PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE
THE MODERATOR: I'll introduce each of the drivers and ask them to make an opening statement and then we will open it up to questions.
First I'd like to introduce No. 1 seed in the Pro Stock Motorcycle, Matt Smith, rider of the Nitro Fish Buell. Matt is the defending POWERade Series Champion, and he finished the regular season with a category-leading four wins, good enough to earn him the No. 1 seed.
Matt, have you noticed any difference maybe in confidence in your attitude or approach to racing this season as the defending champion?
MATT SMITH: Not really. Everybody in the world out there, they shoot for you when you're No. 1. Everybody wants to beat you it seems like. So a lot of people take shots and they go 00 or 01 on you on the light and it makes it tough.
THE MODERATOR: What are your thoughts, Matt, going into the playoffs as the No. 1 seed and what are your thoughts on defending the championship?
MATT SMITH: I like the new format. I like having the 30 extra bonus points over last year, and I like to have the -- the bikes have five races and everybody else has six, so I like that I think a lot better than last year when we had just like a two-race shootout at the end.
THE MODERATOR: Next I'd like to introduce the No. 1 seed in Funny Car, Tim Wilkerson, who drives the Levi Ray & Shoup Chevy. Tim has been one of great stories in NHRA, if not all of sports, this season. He won almost as many races this year, four, as he won in his first 12 years in the POWERade Series, five races, and he led the points for the first time his entire career this year.
As an independent operator against the likes of Don Schumacher racing John Force Racing and the Pedregons, how have you managed?
TIM WILKERSON: TIM WILKERSON: Thanks for all the nice words, first of all. I think it's just a group effort on the whole Levi Ray & Shoup team. The car is running terrific and the guys are just doing a great job. We've formed a technical alliance with Don Prudhomme Racing this year, so it gives me some opportunity to have access to some equipment that I never had access to before. In fact, last year Don Schumacher allowed me to use some of his stuff from time to time, and that really helped me towards the end of the year. I think there was just a great group of people involved with my old car, and we're very excited to be in the position we're in, and hopefully we can continue with our ride.
THE MODERATOR: And to follow up, what are your thoughts of trying to retain the first-place perch with the playoffs coming up?
TIM WILKERSON: We'll continue racing the way we have all year long. I talked with John Force about this last week a little bit, and he is a true racer and knows how hard we work to do this. And I told him, like what Matt said, it's interesting being first. They take you a little differently than when you were just a guy that went down the racetrack from time to time.
Again I'm very proud of our efforts but we need to keep our eye focused on the ball and hopefully we can come out of there -- I told John, this really was his fault because everybody aspires to be like him and to be the fastest guy out there; so hopefully we can keep our momentum up and keep those others -- at least nine other people there that I can tell you that would have a very good chance of winning this deal, and after Robert Hight's performance last week at Indy and now Jack Beckman's car is running good, and you can't count out the Pedregons and the other Force cars; and Gary Densham will hit you with a left hook when you're looking the wrong way.
It will be an interesting six races and hopefully we can come out on top.
THE MODERATOR: Finally I'd like to introduce the No. 1 seed in Top Fuel, which is, of course, Tony Schumacher, who drives the U.S. Army Dragster. Tony just broke his own record for wins in a row, reaching six in a row at the U.S. Nationals and wins in a season, 11, which has never been reached before.
His win at the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals was also the 52nd win of his career, tying him with Joe Amato for first on the all-time NHRA wins last. You said after your win on Monday, that the magnitude of what you accomplished has not sunk in; has it sunk in now, and how do you balance wanting to acknowledge and revel in all of these historic achievements, while at the same time remaining focused on the six races left and a 30-point lead?
TONY SCHUMACHER: We've been very good at staying focused through a lot of great achievements in the years past, and with the crew, those Army guys are so good at staying focused in the tough times.
You know we make it a point before each race to get together and say, 'Guys, this is the time to focus. We've come way too far to leave anything on the table right now.'
So we've won some great championships and we've won on the last run of the year coming back from 300 points, we have closed the biggest deficit ever. We have several records, and the last record in the world we want to add to our list is losing 550 points with six races to go.
You know, the Countdown is the Countdown. We extended our lead to 30 points now, and we need to get it back. We will go out and we will be a machine and we will do whatever it takes to win that race within the rule books, and we will be hard to beat. We have a great team. We have some things to overcome now with the loss of (crew chief) Alan Johnson next year, we are going to have to dig deep to make sure that we can I think win as many as we can while still having a great crew chief like that.
THE MODERATOR: To follow up about the six-race playoff, if you were handicapping it as not one of the drivers, how would you look at the Top Fuel playoff? You're clearly the playoff favorite. How do you protect that position?
TONY SCHUMACHER: Well, you try to win the next six races. We won the last six. It would be devastating to come this far and get beat; but, I understand the rules. I have read the rules. You know, you win three races and you say, okay, eventually we need to lose one so we don't start out the series and lose one. But you get to Indy and you don't want to see that one either.
So now we are going to (xMax Dragway @ Concord), which I was down there yesterday, it's beautiful, an awesome facility and we want to go out there and win that one and extend the lead. We are not going to go into this thing -- inaudible -- we don't know how to race that way. We'll do exactly what we do every week and run low ET in the lane we are in, do the best we can do and keep our mind off all the garbage and try to win these races. Very, very important to close the deal when you've come this far and won this many races; when in the old system we would have won the championship probably at Indy, and now we have six to go and we're starting over. So we need to not make mistakes and we need to just be a machine.
Q: Tony, every time I've been around when you won, you're so gracious about giving credit to (crew chief) Alan (Johnson) for the success, this has got to be just an added challenge to keep the whole team's focus, knowing he's going to be gone and maybe take some of the crew guys with him?
TONY SCHUMACHER: Sure. It's definitely going to be something we have to worry about next year, but I've said it a million times -- I said it before this weekend. I wake up in the morning and I believe in God and I have a beautiful family, and that's what my focus is 99 percent of the time. Alan leaving a race team is not going to make me any less of a father or a husband. I'll still come home and enjoy life.
Alan has added to the success of the trophy sitting on my shelf. We have gotten along wonderfully, and I always knew in the back of my mind, and we all did, that he wanted to have his own team, and just realize that he's doing what his dream is. I understand that. I accept him and I commend him for it. It very difficult to do.
You know, we've had an incredible five years. People dream every day about having a guy like Alan Johnson for five years, and it's been again a pleasure.
Now we are going to have new challenge and get up and race against him and we all know how difficult that is, but, it's something that we'll just have to face next year. It's not like we have a choice in the matter. We have to get up. We have to cowboy up, saddle up in that race car and do our job.
Sure, when we beat him on certain occasions, it will be very gratifying. I understand why people jump up and beat us in any given round. It's a great race team and he's going to have a great team next year and we will have to battle against him.
Everything he's done has been a blessing for us. He's taught our team how to race and how to get through adverse conditions and he's taught us how to go fast and how to enjoy life and respect the wins we've had.
I always said, three years ago, sometime for every picture because you never know if it's your last one. You've got to do it, smell the roses while you're there and we'll get up in the morning and still race. I'm still a race car driver and I'm still going to wake up and get to sit in a race car and have a great time doing what I love.
Q: Have you and your dad had any discussions about trying to find an established crew chief with a winning record, or maybe going in another direction and trying to get an up and comer?
TONY SCHUMACHER: With Alan Johnson leaving the team I'm sure there's a hundred resumes for drivers, sure, but there's a hundred resumes for crew chiefs, too, and it's the same deal. Everyone wants to drive because we have a chance of winning. We have a great car, great budget, great leaders, great teams, and the other crew chiefs on our team are outstanding. We have enough people that we have a pretty good list, too.
But it's not my call and I don't want to be talking out of turn. But I love Jason McCulloch; I love my team, and at some point you have to give them a shot at it, too. And I'm not sure what they are going to do. I have no idea whether they want to go down or stay with us; I don't know. We haven't gotten that far yet, we're still enjoying the success of Indy.
I wouldn't mind sitting back for a year and saying, 'You know, Jason, I don't mind a learning curve.' I don't mind when Nick and Roger and the guys on that team, they have worked so hard and they have learned so much that it's not just about winning. It's about crunch time, being able to get through some tough times so that the future looks great. I think those guys deserve a chance. Not sure they will get it or not, but I'd like to see it happen. And I'd be willing to sit back and take a beating for a few races or years or whatever to keep that team together and you know, that's my opinion, just one guy who gets in a race car, but I'd like to see it happen. A lot of great chew chiefs have come up and had the chance at that shot. I think those guys deserve it.
Q: With the points, you lost a lot of points obviously when it was re-set, a lot more than Hot Rod lost last year, but do you think it's a little ironic?
TONY SCHUMACHER: If we don't win a championship, I'm going to walk over and shake the guy's hands and hold the trophy over his head and say good job, brother, and say that's the way it is, I'll be a man about it. I knew the rule book and that doesn't mean I want to show up at a race and lose less. We know what we have to do we have to go out and try to win races, and God forbid that's a restart or we get beat, there's a million different ways to lose and only a few to win.
The Countdown was made for that reason, to give people a shot, so it's not closed at Indy and Reading. I understand. But if we don't hold that trophy at the end of the year, that would kind of suck. But on the other hand, we've had an awesome year.
It has been an incredible season and it's been gratifying and I've loved every minute of it. You know, it's not, again, for the nine-millionth time, we have gotten over huge round wins and, you know, the Countdown is the Countdown, and I'm confident we can pull this thing off. Like I said, we don't want to set the record for losing with the biggest lead, either. We have other records and I'd rather keep that one out of our book.
Continued in part 2