From The Snake Pit DICK LAHAIE Q&A VISTA, Calif. (April 5, 2005) -- Dick LaHaie is arguably the most respected crew chief in the Top Fuel ranks if not all of NHRA drag racing. The Michigan native raced to five wins en route to the NHRA Top Fuel...
From The Snake Pit
DICK LAHAIE Q&A
VISTA, Calif. (April 5, 2005) -- Dick LaHaie is arguably the most respected crew chief in the Top Fuel ranks if not all of NHRA drag racing. The Michigan native raced to five wins en route to the NHRA Top Fuel title in 1987 driving his Miller dragster to the crown with the help of just his family. After 33 years behind the wheel, LaHaie has spent most of the past 14 years tuning for the likes of Scott Kalitta, Doug Herbert and Larry Dixon. The Dixon/LaHaie tandem aims for a third NHRA Top Fuel championship in four seasons as the Miller Lite team looks to rebound from last season's sixth place finish. At the 2005 season-opener, LaHaie tuned his first 4.4-second elapsed time when Dixon blasted his Miller Lite dragster to a run of 4.496-seconds at Pomona Raceway. He then tuned Dixon to a career-best E.T. (4.481-seconds) a few hours later at the historic Southern California drag strip. In this Q&A recorded at Gainesville (Fla.) Raceway on Thursday, March 17, the 63-year-old crew chief talks about his five championships, the pressure of tuning a high-profile race car, Funny Cars, his rivals, and his passion for Hot Rods.
Q: You drove dragsters for 33 years. You're nearly 15 years in as a crew chief. Which do you enjoy more?
LAHAIE: The tuning aspect has always been there. When I drove, I was involved with both. I drove, tuned, worked on the cars, designed the cars, and designed the engine combination. When I quit driving, it was a blessing. It took a big load off of my mind and let me concentrate on different ways of trying to make the car run quicker and faster. If it came down to whether I like one or the other better, when I drove, it was the total package. Now, it's the total package without driving. I guess when you get right down to it, I enjoy what I'm doing more now than what I did back then because I don't have to worry about if I'm going to be late or when I'm staging the car if those bolts got tightened or if the clutch got set right. I don't think about that stuff any more. As far as actually enjoying it more now, yeah, I enjoy it more now because I get to see the result. When I drove, I never knew what went on at the starting line because I was at the finish line. I get to see the look on the Snake's face when the car runs well. I also get to see the look when it doesn't run well. I think I enjoy what I'm doing more now than when I was an owner/driver/crew chief/chief mechanic/body builder/chassis designer. I enjoy it more now because you can concentrate more and do a better job.
Q: You won a championship (1987) as a driver and four more as a tuner (1993-94, 2002-03). Is one more rewarding?
LAHAIE: The first, I feel, is more rewarding. I did it with my family, just my son (Jeff) and my daughter (Kim). It was a big thing. Plus, we were kind of the underdog. We weren't supposed to be able to do what we did. We were able to pull it off. Back then, we only had 14 races, but if you look at the total points -- the points were 10 times what they are now -- I think we had 13,000 and change. We averaged like 90 points a race and when you can run with that kind of consistency, you'll do pretty well. That was pretty rewarding. But then again, in 1993 and '94 when I worked at Kalittas, we assembled a group of guys and it took us about a year to gel, it was pretty darn rewarding to know that you could put together that group of guys and have it all work out. They're all rewarding. When we won the first one with Larry, how many years had it been since the Snake (Don Prudhomme) had won a championship? From '78 to 2002, that's 24 years, so that was a pretty big thing. Anytime you win a championship, it's a big thing. He finally realized that he could do it as an owner and Larry (Dixon) could do it as a driver, I was very pleased it turned out the way it did. I really felt in my heart that we should have won the championship in 2001. We had a couple of fluke things happen at the end of the year and it just put us out of contention. We were the car to beat at the closing end of the season and we kept ourselves in position where we took the lead and then we had a miscue at Vegas. I hate that place. We won there quite a few times, but that place keeps you very humble.
Q: You won your title racing with your family on a small budget. Now, you work for a top level team with a great budget. Is the sport better off today or was it better in the past when a lot of teams could come out and afford to compete?
LAHAIE: Back then, I did have some funding from Miller Brewing Co. The amount of money they gave me wasn't an astronomical amount, but the way that I took that money and used it, it was like it was a lot of money. I'm concerned about the sport. It looks like we're pricing ourselves out of competition. The optimum thing would be where everybody had funding and a sponsor and we could just go out and race and not have to worry about car counts. Obviously, the sport must be better, there are always lots of people in the stands.
Q: Do you feel more or less pressure these days?
LAHAIE: I've never let the position dictate anything to me. I make my own pressure. I put more pressure on myself than anybody out here ever could. Not to be cocky or over confident, I feel like I can take whatever we've got and do better than anybody else. Call it self confidence or maybe just because I've done this for 47 years and when it doesn't happen, yeah, it bugs me, but I won't let it eat me up. I can't do that. It will consume you. It will put you right out of the business. We've all got egos and a lot of people handle their egos better than other people. I've always told my guys that there's no room for egos around here, because they'll destroy the team. We took it on the chin last year, and we're kind of taking it on the chin right now, but that doesn't mean we're not working. Once we do turn the corner, I think we'll have a handle on it and we'll be able to stay with it.
Q: Last season, the sport experienced a lot of rule changes. The Top Fuel class is prided on being an unrestricted category. How do you feel about the sanctioning body restricting these race cars?
LAHAIE: With all these spec parts -- spec engines, spec chassis, this and that and so forth -- a lot of it has to do with if I can develop something a little better than the next guy. Basically, it takes part of my job away from me as we've known it in the past because maybe I'd come up with a different combination that worked a little bit better or maybe this widget that we made was a little better than what others had. In one way, I think that it's tough because they're tying our hands, but in another way, if it makes the sport better, safer, puts more people in the stands and keeps the sport going, so guys like Donnie Bender can be my age in 20 years and still be doing this, then yeah, that'll be fine.
Q: What do you enjoy most about being a crew chief? Do you like being in charge or having a faster car than the next guy or engineering different pieces, what do you like most?
LAHAIE: As far as being in charge, I hate that. That's why Donnie (Bender) is here. He's the guy. He makes sure that the day-to-day stuff is done and this team runs. We've been together long enough that he does it the way I did it. As far as the innovative part of it, yeah, I like to be on that side of it. It makes me think. I like the competition. I thrive on the competition. You may not think so, but that's what keeps you out here.
Q: You say you thrive on the competition. Snake has said that one major nitro category would be better for that sport. Would it be better for the sport if Dick LaHaie is competing against Austin Coil and Jimmy Prock and Alan Johnson and Connie Kalitta and Tim Richards?
LAHAIE: The better the competition, the better you will be. It's just that simple. If you're out there beating up the competition week in and week out, month in and month out, year after year, you get kind of stagnant. The only one that has done it and has been able to keep it going is John Force. The competition part of it, the better teams you've got out there running, the better you will be. If your heart is in it, that's the way it will be. It doesn't get to a point where you just roll over and let them beat on you every week. Pretty soon you get mad. There's a lot of teams out there right now that are real tired of Alan Johnson. And I'm sure they felt the same way about us a couple of years ago. Look at Greg Anderson, the last two years, he wore the Pro Stock guys out. He ruffled up enough feathers to where they went to work and caught up with him. But, in the long run, he's probably working on other programs to try and get that step back again, and that's basically what we're doing and what we did last year. We're still working on it. We've made some pretty good strides. There has only been a couple cars that have run their first 4.40 on 85-percent (nitromethane). Most 4.40 cars did it first on 90-percent when they knew which direction they had to go. Wayne Dupuy ran his first 4.40 on 85-pecent and so did we. It takes us a little longer. I want to know what got me there. Knowing how to do it again is the whole key.
Q: So, should there be one major fuel category in drag racing?
LAHAIE: One major fuel category, that's something that's been discussed since there have been two categories. Would it be better for the sport? I don't know. If it's just dragsters, why would Detroit want to be involved? Why would General Motors or Ford or Chrysler want to be involved? As far as the television package? Yeah, probably it would be better. The show would move a long a little bit faster. I don't think that you need to try and fix it right now. We have a unique sport here. This sport will never be NASCAR. If you really look at them, they have more than one category, it's just that the (Nextel) Cup boys get all the ink just like the fuel guys do over here. I think we better leave it alone for awhile and see what happens.
Q: Have you had any desire to tune a Funny Car?
LAHAIE: No, not really. I owned a Funny Car. I had it all together. This was in'73. I built a new Funny Car and a new dragster. They were sitting in the shop and I got in the Funny Car and had my firesuit on and everything. While sitting down inside of it with the body closed, I was mulling over it and I got out and told the guys to take the engine out of it and put it in the trailer and we'll use it as a spare for the dragster. I sold the Funny Car. Have I ever wanted to tune one? In a round about way, I've dabbled in it a little bit through other crew chiefs. I'll have them try this or try that. They have to be more difficult to tune, but once you get a program going with that, I don't know if it would be or not. Once you got a solid baseline as far as tuning, I don't know if it would be that tough or not because I've never really done it. I watch (Austin) Coil and those guys and they've got a handle on something that nobody else has and it's strictly data. It's data and common sense. They're not looking for the trick of the week.
Q: You mentioned that Alan Johnson is the guy right now. That people are sick of hearing about him like they were you for three straight years. What makes him and that team so good?
LAHAIE: Go back and look at this. Why is Alan Johnson good? When he and his brother were together running Alcohol dragsters, they won four championships. If Blaine hadn't got killed in 1996, they would have won the championship that year. When Gary (Scelzi) took over, they won three championships. It isn't like he just got good in the last year or two. He's been good for a long time. He uses common sense. He doesn't try to overwhelm the thing and he's not afraid to swing for a homerun. He's a very aggressive tuner and it works. Whatever he does, obviously it works. It isn't just one thing, it's the whole combination. People say, well he does this or he does that. What you don't know is that he's done four or five other things to make this one thing work. It's like that with everybody. There's followers and there's leaders and right now, he's the leader.
Q: Snake has this competitive, intense persona about him at the race track. You're much the same way. What are you like away from the drag strip? What does Dick LaHaie do at home in Michigan or during the off season?
LAHAIE: I like all kinds of things, I really do. I like rock-n-roll music. I don't go to concerts so much anymore. If Bob Seger or The (Rolling) Stones were in town, yeah, I'd go. I'm involved with street rods, anything that's mechanical basically. I like good food. I like sitting back with my feet up. If I want to think about the race car, I will. If I don't, I'll think about something else. I like sports. When I was young, I played softball, I played baseball. I was never big enough to play football. I guess I enjoy my friends. We get together and do things. I just enjoy life in general. I can't play golf anymore.
Q: What Hot Rod are you working on right now?
LAHAIE: If you ask some people, I'm building three of them. The one that I'm concentrating on trying to get done is a '49 Merc Woody. It's got a big block Chevy in it, air conditioning, power windows, four wheel disc brakes. It's got all the stuff. It's been quite a challenge because when we do a car, we touch every part of it. It isn't just take an old car and fix it up here and there. When you do a frame off, ground up, it's a task. This car will be about 2 0x00bd years in the works.
Q: Is it an escape for you? For so many people on tour, when they're away from the track, the last thing they want to see is a car.
LAHAIE: I like driving them. (Wife) Claudia and I might jump in one and just go to a car show. We won't even tell anybody we're going and we'll just go. Claudia has a car she drove from California to Michigan. She's done the Hot Rod Power Tour. She and I both enjoy the same thing. I don't mind a vacation every now and then. In November, we were in Hawaii. For the last two weeks, we were on Anna Maria Island down in Florida. It doesn't take much to entertain me. Going back to old cars, they're fun. I guess it's probably a childhood thing. I've always been involved in older vehicles.
Q: What's in your garage at home in Michigan?
LAHAIE: My everyday driver is a new Dodge Magnum. I have a '50 Ford pickup with a blown flathead in it. I have a '49 Ford couple that has an original 270-horse Corvette engine and drivetrain in it. I have a '39 Mercury convertible with a chopped top and all the latest bells and whistles. It has a full aluminum 388 cubic-inch Donovan small block in it. I have a '39 Mercury coupe with a 355-inch aluminum small block with air conditioning. I have a '37 Ford with a full Ford drivetrain. It's an HO 5.0 (liter) Mustang engine. I have a '33 Ford coupe that's in the process of being built. I have a '52 Crosley station wagon. I have a Lincoln LS that Claudia drives most of the time, and then I have an old beater Lumina van that's my work thing that I chase parts in. Just lots of vehicles. I also have a John Deere Gator that Don Prudhomme bought me for winning the championship and that gets used a lot. I've got 7 0x00bd acres and Claudia will jump in it and work on her flower garden. Yeah, we've got vehicles.
Q: You have accomplished a lot in drag racing. What motivates you to continue to do this?
LAHAIE: Wow. What keeps me out here? I would hope that over the years that the young guys that I've worked with would grasp onto enough knowledge. I try to instill this in all of them. Don't be afraid to ask questions. I'll give you the best possible answer that I can for the question that you've asked. I would like to see them be in my position in time. I don't feel as though I'm a good teacher, but I feel as though if somebody wants to pay attention that they'll learn a lot. Jimmy Prock is like a son to me. He worked for me for a lot of years. I love him like a son, I really do. I'm very proud of Jimmy. There's a lot of guys I've worked with that turned into crew chief material like the Oberhofer brothers (Jim and Jon). Most of the guys over at Kalittas that were there with Donnie (Bender) and I. It makes me feel good to know that I was able to help somebody.