STEVE SCHMIDT Dynagear Pontiac Firebird INDIANAPOLIS (July 29, 1999) With the second half of the NHRA season in full swing, Pro Stock racer Steve Schmidt is hoping he can turn some recently rejuvenated performance into a couple of race wins...
STEVE SCHMIDT Dynagear Pontiac Firebird
INDIANAPOLIS (July 29, 1999) With the second half of the NHRA season in full swing, Pro Stock racer Steve Schmidt is hoping he can turn some recently rejuvenated performance into a couple of race wins and a top-five finish before the year comes to a close. With the recent addition of David Spitzer's GMC Sonoma Pro Stock Truck to Schmidt's racing program, the Indianapolis businessman and Pro Stock engine builder has juggled a full schedule as he works to keep his own race car competitive. But don't feel sorry for Steve Schmidt. Like most of his racing colleagues, he thrives on the hectic pace and feels extremely fortunate to be participating in a sport that, although it has its share of ups and downs, can be extremely rewarding for a competitor of Schmidt's caliber.
A former Sportsman racer, Schmidt made his Pro Stock debut in 1986. His breakout year was in 1994 when he won his first national event at the Northwest Nationals in Seattle. He finished the year seventh in the Winston standings, the first time that he had ended a season in the Winston top 10. His best season so far came the following year with a campaign in which he won two races at Columbus and Topeka and finished fourth in the Winston standings. In 1997, he became the 13th member of the NHRA Holley 6-second Pro Stock Club with a run of 6.962 seconds at the Mac Tools Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla. He ended the year fifth in the standings for his second top-five finish and his fourth top-10 finish.
This year, Schmidt has hired Terry Adams as crew chief on the Dynagear Pontiac Firebird. After 12 races, he is 11th in the points standings but within 40 points of the top 10. Earlier this season at Richmond, Schmidt ran his career-best elapsed time at 6.911 seconds and top speed at 199.67 mph. His best performance came at Englishtown where he qualified fifth and advanced to the semi finals.
How would you evaluate this year's effort? All in all, I guess so far we're a little bit disappointed. We haven't been to a final round yet, we've been to a couple of semi finals, but we are happy that at the halfway point we've regained our measured performance. We feel like we're competitive to the point where we can win races again. Our qualifying indicates that and we're starting to go rounds again. We're looking forward to the second half of the season.
Is there any specific factor that has kept you out of the winner's circle? I think a couple of things. Part of it stems from the fact that we have a new crew chief (Terry Adams) this year and I think it's taken him a little bit longer to adapt to this car and the changing track conditions than we both anticipated. Second, I haven't done nearly as good of a job driving the Dynagear Pontiac Firebird as I could or should be doing. I think that's part of the reason we're running better now too. I think Terry has finally got a handle on the chassis of this car and I think that's why we're even more confident now than we were at the beginning of the year. Terry is one of the best crew chiefs out there and it's beginning to show.
What has the addition of the Pro Stock Truck program meant to the overall racing program? I don't think it's taken away too much because it could be doing better than it is now, and the reason it isn't doing as well is because we've been focussed primarily on the Pro Stock Car. We're welcoming this break in the truck schedule so that we can get that program up to speed a little bit.
Does having the truck run on Thursday give you a better read of the track for your first Pro Stock Car run on Friday? Not really. Dave's (Spitzer) GMC Sonoma has a different wheel base and about 300 less horsepower than the Firebird so it doesn't help us too much as far as determining what we're going to do with our own race car. It might help Terry (Adams) gauge the race track to see where the track stacks up against facilities we've previously raced on.
How do you think David Spitzer has done so far this year? I think he's doing remarkably well. I think his worst light in competition has probably been in the .430s or certainly no worse than the .440s. He can definitely drive well enough to win races, we just need to get him some more power and get our truck straightened up a little bit. He's pretty cool in the cockpit of that Sonoma. He's a natural and the lineage that he comes from family-wise, I think that he's a born race car driver.
What has the high point been for you this year? Englishtown was probably one of the high points. Qualifying No. 3 on Friday night at Denver was another. From a performance standpoint, that's the neighborhood we should be in. We didn't do a good enough job on Saturday night at Denver because we didn't think the session was going to be that good and the changes that we made to the car slowed us down. We returned to that form on race day and I think we were about the fifth quickest car in both rounds. With the exception of a couple of cars that were out there in Never-never Land from a performance standpoint, we could run or outrun everybody else that was there. We're pretty pleased although you're never satisfied, but we'll just keep working and try to improve.
Why do you think the Pro Stock category has become so competitive? Even though this year is as tough as it's ever been, the last three or four years have been terribly competitive. We started doing this six years ago full time. At that time I think eleven or twelve hundredths of a second separated the field and that was pretty close. Then it got to about a tenth of a second and now it has got to where at some races it's five or six hundredths. I think in a nutshell this category truly is the factory hot rods and it's the pinnacle of the normally aspirated engine-type racing class. I think that most of the talented people that like that type of racing are all involved in Pro Stock whether it's as an engine builder, driver, crew chief, car owner, what have you. It takes a different type of person to run Pro Stock than it does to run in the Fuel categories. You can really gauge the effort you put in at the shop, and you can see based on how well the other racers are doing whether you're doing a good job and gaining, or if you're slipping away. Not to take anything from Top Fuel or Funny Car, but you see very few side-by-side races that are competitive, but almost every race in Pro Stock is somewhat competitive and a lot of them are decided by just two or three feet. Usually out of the first eight pairs in the first round, all 16 cars get down the race track, even when there's a decisive lane difference. I'm not necessarily saying that anyone in the bad lane wins, but they certainly make a race out of it. I think a pure drag racing fan wants to see that. They don't want to see one car go up in a ball of smoke and the other car go down the quarter mile.
Would you favor expanding the Pro Stock class to a 32-car field? There are several schools of thought on that and there are pros and cons. There are people that feel that 32 cars may diminish the class a little bit, but I'm kind of on the fence because I see both good and bad. In the long run it would be good; I mean they run 45 to 50 Winston Cup cars. I think for us as a partner with NHRA, and I truly mean that because without NHRA we can't race and without racers there can't be an NHRA, for the sport to grow in the next millennium we have got to attract sponsors to our sport, and I don't think you can attract sponsors under the present format that we have now. In light of that, from a business standpoint, I think that 32 cars would make sense. They also need to do some things with the television package that would benefit both the NHRA and the Pro Stock racers. I think we have a heck of a package to offer television viewers; the racing's exciting, it's side-by-side and it's close. From a performance standpoint, I think the two most competitive forms of motorsports in the world are Winston Cup stock car racing and NHRA Pro Stock racing. If you talk to any manufacturer that makes hard core engine parts or is involved in motor racing, they'll tell you the same thing. I think as much as people like the noise and excitement of Top Fuel and Funny Car, they still like to see side-by-side racing. There is no truer form in drag racing than in Pro Stock. In Competition eliminator there's a Christmas tree, a handicap and an index system which is very confusing for spectators. But in Pro Stock, they know that two cars line up, the light comes on and whoever gets to the finish line first wins. It's pretty simple and people like simple.
Do you see a problem with escalating costs in the sport? Absolutely. I think you'll see a lot of good racers who are no longer able to continue to race because of lack of sponsorship help. There would not be a Winston Cup team out there if it weren't for sponsors. The days of somebody being able to race NHRA Pro Stock and being able to race off the funds that he can win are gone. The concept of match racing, which was around in the 1970s and somewhat in the 1980s where a team could generate extra income for their race program is almost a thing of the past. There are not a whole lot of ways for us to generate revenue without sponsorship support, and I don't think we'll be able to attract sufficient sponsorship help without assistance from the NHRA and the proper television package.
What can the NHRA do to help keep the costs down? I think it's important that the money be there to help fund this deal. There are certainly things that NHRA could do from a pay out standpoint. You have 35 to 45 cars showing up every weekend so that means you have 20 to 30 cars going home. There has to be somewhere between 25 and 30 Pro Stock cars that go to every race and I don't think under the present format it's fair to those guys because a lot of them don't have a chance to qualify. Those guys aren't going to keep coming if they can't generate enough money to keep racing. The argument could be made that they don't belong, but what are we going to do in the future to get new racers? The sport constantly needs to be nurturing new talent and the only way to do that is to make it so they can race and they can't do that under the present format.
How has moving into the new engine shop helped your program? The biggest advantage is that all of my racing personnel are under one roof now. From a communications standpoint, it's certainly better. From a standpoint of being organized and getting work finished, I know that we're a lot more efficient and we're getting a lot more done. We could actually be doing better, but it goes back to the sponsorship thing. You just have to have enough money to throw at this engine development program to be competitive with some of the better funded teams.
How did you get your start in racing? I guess it goes back to when I was a teenager. I just liked cars. I finished high school and went to Purdue University seeking an engineering degree. I was always fooling around with cars and engines, and what made them work and I just pursued a career in the automotive field. One thing led to another because of my love for building engines really more than racing. Drag racing gave me a venue to actually gauge my mechanical skills, and once I started racing I got to where I liked the racing aspect of it as well. But I still think to this day, even as long as I've been around the sport, I still like working on the engines more than I like the actual racing.
What's a typical day like at Steve Schmidt Racing? My normal day starts at about 8 o'clock, and I try to leave by 9 o'clock at night. Sometimes we'll knock off by 7 o'clock on Sunday nights except when I play golf on Sunday afternoon. This is the kind of business where you're never finished. You keep looking at your parts and your engines, you keep making changes, and you develop a plan where you want to be in a month or in a year. You constantly have projects going, or you're starting new projects, and every time you finish something, you look at it and think about how you may have done some things differently, or things you could have tried to make it better. That's why I've always maintained the idea that you're never finished. There's no such thing as enough hours in the day, and I don't think you could be successful at this sport if you didn't absolutely love it because the hours you put into it are much more than in a regular job. Your race car truly becomes your mistress.
How long do you want to continue racing? That goes back to the business side of it. As I've become older, I've become much more of a businessman than a racer. I'm a businessman first, an engine builder second and a racer third. When racing ceases to make business sense, I'll probably choose not to do it anymore. We keep hoping that we can truly develop a partnership with NHRA for the good of the sport, and I see some things that could be terrific for a racer, a team, a car owner and for NHRA. What we're selling here is entertainment and the way we present our product. Fifty percent of the problem and the solution rests with the racer -- it's not all NHRA. But I think there are things we can do to make our product more attractive. For the right fan, we still have the best deal going because of the fan's ability for interaction with the race teams. They can still do things in our sport that can't be done in Indy Car racing, or Winston Cup racing or even their local Saturday night circle track deal. They can actually be exposed to some of the fascinating engineering aspects of drag racing cars in all classes, they can interact with drivers and team owners, and they can truly see every side of the sport. I think through television and marketing we can attract a whole new fan base. We have a tremendous following now but I think there's a lot more out there. There are a lot of positive things that NHRA is doing right now in the marketing area that they're going to try and implement over the next 18 months that will benefit everybody, and we would certainly like to be a part of it.
What do you want to accomplish by the end of the season? We're just going to take it race by race. What we want to do is continue to improve. I would like to do a better job driving the car, and I think as a team we can do a better job in preparation and we can do a little bit better job when we get to the race track. We just want to be competitive because if we're at least that, then we'll let the chips fall where they may.