From The Snake Pit: Dick LaHaie VISTA, Calif. (March 15, 2004) -- Dick LaHaie is arguably the most respected professional tuner in the sport of drag racing. The Michigan resident won the 1987 NHRA Top Fuel championship at the final event of...
From The Snake Pit: Dick LaHaie
VISTA, Calif. (March 15, 2004) -- Dick LaHaie is arguably the most respected professional tuner in the sport of drag racing. The Michigan resident won the 1987 NHRA Top Fuel championship at the final event of the season in Pomona, Calif. following a season-long battle with rival Joe Amato. Since retiring from driving in 1991, LaHaie has tuned both Scott Kalitta (1994-95) and Larry Dixon (2002-03) to consecutive NHRA Top Fuel championships. The five-time champion got his start in drag racing in 1958 piloting a 1948 Mercury. He started driving nitromethane-powered dragsters in 1962. In this candid Q&A discussion, LaHaie talks about his early days in drag racing, why he left the sport, his initial conversation with Don "the Snake" Prudhomme about coming to work for Snake Racing, and how Dixon has grown as a person and driver.
Q: You grew up 90 minutes from the Motor City (Detroit) in Lansing, Mich. Were you involved in the muscle car era, racing on Woodward Ave. and that scene?
LAHAIE: I raced on the street in the early days of drag racing in the late 1950s. I never had a muscle car. I always had hot rods that could beat the muscle cars. I had a '56 Ford Coupe and in 1958 I went down to the Chevrolet dealer and bought a brand new Corvette motor and four speed transmission and put it in the Ford and I'd go race the Corvettes and those cars and just whip them. I did some street racing. I shouldn't have done it, but everybody did it back then, but once I started racing on the drag strip that was it. I started running fuel cars in 1962. It's pretty hard to run them on the street. Every now and then we'd pull the car out of the shop and start it on the street, but we'd drive it back into the shop.
Q: Why did you decide to retire from driving in 1991?
LAHAIE: I drove for 33 years. I was over it. I was fed up with the politics in the sport. I didn't like the way that the sport was going at that time. Just having to deal with not only sponsors, but the media, along with being both a crew chief and a driver, I got tired. I felt like anytime someone has done something for 33 years that they should be able to walk away from it and not feel bad about it.
Q: Did you have any second thoughts or reservations about not driving any longer?
LAHAIE: When I decided to quit, I woke up one morning and decided that I don't need to do this any more. That was it. I made the decision right after Indy in 1991 to retire from driving.
Q: How difficult was it to be team owner, driver and tuner of a car?
LAHAIE: When we first started, that's the way it was done. As the sport progressed, we needed more and more people to work on the cars. We had semi trailers to get around the country. We had sponsors to deal with and make appearances on their behalf. It got to a point where it got to be a lot of responsibility. It was time to think about doing something else.
Q: You first crew chief job was tuning Scott Kalitta's dragster in the early to mid 1990s. How did you join Kalitta Racing?
LAHAIE: I've known Connie (Kalitta) for over 30 years. We've been friends for a long time. I had been retired for a couple years and he called me and said, 'Hey, why don't you come down and run my kid's (Scott Kalitta) race team.' I said, 'No, I don't think that would be a good idea. You and I have been friends for a long time.' Connie invited me to lunch and I went to the shop and we talked. I looked at his cars and they weren't what we needed.
Connie was pretty proud of them and it's pretty hard to tell someone they've got an ugly baby. He ended up giving me full control. I told him it would cost him more than $1 million to run this team. He said, 'I spent $2 million last year.' We kicked it around for a while and finally I took it over in the winter of 1992. I had never been a crew chief. I didn't even know where to stand on the starting line. We put some guys together and ran the season and finished No. 2. We didn't have a real stellar year, but we qualified No. 1 seven times in 1993. We only won one race. We ran the fastest speed in the history of the sport at 308 mph, which was five mph faster than anybody had run at that time.
We had a good year. I think the 1994-95 seasons kind of speak for themselves when we won the two championships. Then we came back in 1996 and finished No. 2 again. The team and driver were just kind of ho-hum and it really pissed me off. I told those guys it would be the team itself that destroys itself. Some of the crew members felt that they could not pay attention and not stay focused and still win. And, some of the guys on the team did stay focused, but there were three of four that dragged the rest of us down. I also felt that Scott didn't want to drive any longer. So, one day in April of 1997, I gathered everyone together and said, 'I don't need to be here.' After that, I took the rest of the 1997 season off before going to work for Doug Herbert in 1998. I started with Prudhomme in the fall of 1999.
Q: When Don Prudhomme approached you about tuning the Miller Lite dragster, what was your reaction?
LAHAIE: He said, 'I'd like to have you come work for me.' I said, 'I don't think we can Snake, I don't think it would work'. He said, 'Why not?' And I said, 'Well, I never liked you.' And he said, 'I never wanted to go to dinner with you either.' That was great. I think we got off on the right foot. I've got a lot of respect for him and he respects me. He knows how hard I think and try to scheme and make this the best team out here. He's the same way. There's a competitiveness in both of us. So, it's worked out pretty well.
Q: Why do you feel the relationship with Prudhomme has worked so well?
LAHAIE: I think it has worked because he leaves me alone and I don't go to him with every petty issue. I know he's got a lot to do and deal with. He doesn't need to know the day-to-day b.s. that we have to put up with. He supplies us with everything we need. He's always asking if there's anything we need? Anything that he can help us out with he supplies. He's been very easy to work with.
Q: What has been your biggest thrill as a tuner?
LAHAIE: I would say the two championships with Larry have been the most dominant. In 2002 we led the thing wire-to-wire. I think had we not crashed at Bristol (Tenn.) last year, we'd have led the thing two years in a row wire-to-wire. We lost it for one week basically. That was a pretty scary crash we had at Bristol and to bounce back and to win the next race a week later and just continue on like nothing ever happened said a lot about the team. They are dedicated to winning races and championships.
Q: You mentioned how some of the crew members at the Kalitta camp lost focus after winning consecutive championships. Is that an issue you've addressed with the Miller Lite crew before the 2004 season?
LAHAIE: I had a talk with them a couple weeks back and we assessed a few things. They have to realize that we've had an excellent combination the past few years. We rode that thing for three years. We had a very fast car and a very dependable car. It did everything we wanted it to do. But, times have changed and we have to change with the times. It takes time to sort things out. It's really hard to keep a team up for as long as they have been. When things start going the other way, it starts crumbling real quick. When you're not winning races, that really tells you what the team is all about. Everyone likes to win races.
Q: You have a nine-member crew this season. When you won the 1987 Top Fuel title, you had a very small crew. What was it like to travel around the country with your family and win the NHRA championship?
LAHAIE: In 1987 it was my daughter Kim (Richards), my son Jeff, and me. We had some people come in and help us every now and then. It was very special because nobody else had ever done that. I think it brought us to a point in our lives that there was always a special bond. That was something that you can only dream about. It was very cool to accomplish. To this day, it's probably been the highlight of my life.
Q: Now, you and Kim compete at the race track. Has your relationship remained as strong since she became the assistant crew chief for arguably your biggest rival?
LAHAIE: She's my daughter. She'll always be my daughter. The red car is just another red car. Tim (Richards), her husband, and I have been friends a long, long time. He's won a lot of championships. As far as a competitive level, sure, it's there. As soon as we pull the wires off the car, we're after the throat, but they are too. As soon as we make the run, it's all back to business as normal.
Q: What do you enjoy more, driving or tuning a dragster?
LAHAIE: Driving is an entirely different sensation. For excitement, I prefer the tuning part of it. The driving is competitiveness; it's you and the guy next to you. As far as being a crew chief and tuning the car goes, the first time I stood on the starting line and we put a good number on the board and I heard all the people cheer. I looked around and thought what is that for? I didn't know. I had never experienced that. When you're in the race car and at the top end after you make a pass, there are two or three people there and it's no big deal. It makes a chill run through me to see Snake or Connie Kalitta when the car posts a good number. To see how excited they get; I get a lot of satisfaction from that. And the crew, they get pretty emotional. I don't get that emotional I guess.
Q: You're known for your consistency to get down the race track, especially on a hot, sticky race track. Do you take pride in that?
LAHAIE: First off, you have to deal with it. Everyone has to deal with it. I take a lot of pride in it because it means winning races and that's what I take pride in. It doesn't matter if it is 40 degrees or 140 degrees, you want to win. We haven't done very well on cold race tracks and other cars go out and just fly on cold tracks. I would like to have a combination to win on hot, cold or medium tracks. A combination to win on all of them, which I think we're working towards. And, we have won on cool race tracks, but we don't put up the stellar numbers. One thing I won't do is quit. I keep working on things and try to make them better.
Q: How have you seen Larry (Dixon) grow as a driver since your arrival to the team?
LAHAIE: When I got here, he was emotionally drained. He had no self satisfaction. He didn't feel he could do anything right. It took us about a year to come back out and flex our muscles. He and his wife (Allison) have had two babies (Donovan and Alanna). Larry has grown as a person and he's learned a lot of the ins and outs of drag racing. He's told me that the best thing that ever happened to him was when we lost the championship in 2001 because he learned how to deal with it. You have to grow in this sport. It wasn't like when I started and you were 20 years old doing this. He's living his dream. It's a good thing.
Q: Is the competition in 2004 the toughest you've seen in recent years?
LAHAIE: It's just at a quicker level now. There are a lot of quick cars out there. Kalitta owns three of them. The Army car (Tony Schumacher), (Joe) Amato's car, (Brandon) Bernstein, there's a good eight car field out there with very quick cars. Maybe the competition has closed up a little bit. It's probably going to be the toughest year to win.
Q: With that being said, if you win a third consecutive title, would this one be the sweetest?
LAHAIE: Oh yeah, no doubt. If we can pull it off and win it again, yeah. Most everyone thinks we won the championships because we came right out of the gate winning races. We won lots of races quickly and then coasted along. Well, that is true to a point, but I never liked doing it the way we did the past few years. I hated it. You started looking over your shoulder after the first race, and it's tough. It really is. You start making decisions on how to not lose any ground instead of being aggressive and that's how I won all my other championships, to really come after it. So, I would like to think we could do that again -- to keep the pressure on the opponents.
Q: Last season you won by such a large margin that many of the other teams were testing new engine and clutch combinations for this year. You changed your combinations with a new clutch, cylinder heads and supercharger. You didn't have much track time to test. Do you feel you're slightly behind?
LAHAIE: Sure, I feel we're behind a little bit. However, I have confidence in what this team can do. I'm not the type of person to ever throw in the towel. I really don't want our car to be a generic car like everyone else. Our chassis isn't like every other team in the sport. I want to keep our own identity. We'll work with that and see what happens.
Q: Following the Winternationals, you made the switch to the setback blower. What was the decision behind that?
LAHAIE: A couple different things. We were going down a different route. Something happened to our car after testing at Phoenix. I'm not quite sure it was the combination. You don't have to hit your thumb very many times with a hammer to realize you need to change something. I got to looking at the top eight cars and we're the only one running a standard placement blower. I called Snake and said those blowers setback makes everyone a tuner. He said, 'When everyone had the blower where you had yours, you were better than everybody else. So, I have the confidence that if you set the blower back you'll run better again.' It's that type of confidence that he has in me and the respect that I have in him that makes all this click.