Tim Richards They call him 'The General' and he doesn't mind. The reason he has the nickname is why Tim Richards continues to be a successful crew chief within NHRA POWERade Drag Racing. Richards and his wife Kim (daughter of Miller Lite crew...
They call him 'The General' and he doesn't mind. The reason he has the nickname is why Tim Richards continues to be a successful crew chief within NHRA POWERade Drag Racing. Richards and his wife Kim (daughter of Miller Lite crew chief Dick LaHaie) tune one of the most competitive cars in Top Fuel - the Budweiser/Lucas Oil dragster driven by Brandon Bernstein. In his career, Richards has tuned Joe Amato and Kenny Bernstein to championship seasons as well as the car that helped legendary driver Connie Kalitta win his first and only Mac Tools U.S. Nationals. Last year Richards guided Brandon to three wins in the first eight races before a crash sent Brandon to the sidelines for the remainder of the season. With six-time NHRA champion Kenny Bernstein forced to come out of retirement, Richards led the team to four more wins before the '03 season ended. With Brandon back in the seat, Richards and Co. have been able to keep points leader Tony Schumacher honest, winning two races so far this season. Richards and the rest of the Budweiser dragster team will be working toward win No. 3 this weekend during the 24th annual Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Southern Nationals at Atlanta Dragway. In this Q&A session, Richards talks about why they win, whether this is the best season in Top Fuel in a long time and why he is the luckiest husband in the pits.
Q: What made you get involved with drag racing in the first place?
RICHARDS: Drag racing was something that every kid back then could afford to do. Really all you had to do was take your mother's car to the drag strip and race it. It didn't cost a lot of money and it was something that was available to everyone if you could find a drag strip that was close to you. I just happened to be lucky and had one close to me.
Q: When did you decide that you were more suited for tuning rather than driving?
RICHARDS: When I stopped racing my own cars. I had been pretty serious about Super Stock racing and I was given most of my equipment. I didn't have to buy much. When Chrysler pulled out of racing at the end of 1971, I couldn't afford to have my own cars anymore. That pretty much set the stage. I was very lucky when a man by the name of Joe Amato happened to live in the same area. He decided he wanted to go racing with Chrysler power, which he had never used to that point and everyone knew I was into the Chrysler stuff pretty heavy.
Q: What do you like most about your job?
RICHARDS: I enjoy the people. I enjoy the fact that you can still, on any given day, be the best. I enjoy the competition between the crew chiefs and the teams. It's very much a team sport, as all motorsports are. If you don't have the right people working for you the team probably won't go anywhere.
Q: You had to bring on new crew members this year and it seems as though the Budweiser crew hasn't skipped a beat. How do you develop team chemistry?
RICHARDS: To begin with you try to hire the right person. There is a certain kind of person I go for and like to have on my team. I feel like we are very lucky because we had to hire three people this year and they have really taken to the team and learned a lot since they came here. There is more involved with hiring someone than just what they have done in the past. You need to know what kind of person they are.
Q: Why is this team successful?
RICHARDS: Because this program was successful before I got here. I think it comes from the leadership and the ownership of this company. They have a program that allows you to win if you believe in it. From every standpoint, whether getting sponsors or the performance of the car, it's the leadership from the top that allows success to happen.
Q: Kenny Bernstein has had Budweiser for 25 years. What is it like to be the crew chief on a team that has such a strong relationship with its sponsor?
RICHARDS: It's one less thing for us to worry about. It's a big worry for everyone out here that six months down the road you might not have a sponsor. That's the biggest thing for every team owner, to be able to hold on to your sponsor. I think the blue print is out there for everyone to take a look at and see why (Bernstein) has been successful. You don't have to go too far to see why it works. When we came here, I just had to worry about how to get the team up and running and get the performance to where it needed to be. Everything else was in place. We didn't have to figure out a better way to pay bills, or anything like that.
Q: What was it like working for Joe Amato during his championship seasons?
RICHARDS: It was a very similar setup. The systems were already in place. I just had to worry about the team itself and our performance. That is a big deal to me. There are a lot of people out here that I have a lot of respect and admiration for. People like the Worshams that handle everything from tuning the car all the way back. They take care of every aspect of running a race team. Having your own race team is very complex and they do it all. There are a lot of people out here who have to do it all. I think if you ever want to grow in this business, modeling yourself after this (Budweiser) team isn't a bad thing to do.
Q: What do you think about multiple-car teams?
RICHARDS: For myself, I would rather not be involved in a multiple car team. If there was a two-car team here I would try to work with it, obviously. But for me, I work a lot better in a single-car effort. Why would I want to help the other car beat me? That's what everyone with a two or three-car team is faced with. It's kind of a dilemma and I just assume not be in that dilemma. When the possibility came up for this team back when a big sponsorship deal was running around, my take on it was that you should hire the best person you possibly can and try to keep us as separate as possible. Obviously if one team is struggling really hard, you need to try to help. But I think for me that would be the best way to race a two-car team and have success with both cars. It's kind of a dilemma in drag racing. It's not like in NASCAR where you absolutely need someone to help you along. If you don't have a two-car team there, you're in deep trouble. There are 30-40 cars in a race and that's a different deal all together. Drag racing is so small and you can impact a 16-car field so much if you have three cars in it. I am not quite sure if that's a good thing for drag racing.
Q: What is it like working side-by-side with your wife?
RICHARDS: For me it's perfect. We get to be together all the time. Like any kind of auto racing you spend so much time away from home that it's a real good thing to be able to work together. It's very important for us to be together. I'm sure that's all we will ever do. If one of us is gone, then both of us are gone. That's the way we look at it. We're not going to be separated. She is thoroughly capable of running one of these cars on her own. She gives that up so we can work together. She understands everything that goes into this car. She understands the systems on the car, how they work and in some areas, she knows more than I do about it because she's the one doing the work on the car. She takes care of the whole drive line of the car, from the engine to the back of the wheels, that's her department completely. Beyond that, she takes car of the pneumatic system of the car, which is very extensive. All of these things are very big issues and she has no problem with them. She certainly is my sounding board and what she has to say about something carries a lot of weight on what I decide to do.
Q: Looking back on your career is there something that you are most proud of?
RICHARDS: I think the race that I probably enjoyed winning the most was the 1994 U.S. Nationals (Indianapolis) with Connie Kalitta. The guy is a legendary racer. He is legendary person and he had never won Indy and he raced as much as anyone out here. He burned more nitro than anybody. Everyone always has a chance to win Indy, but he had never won that race. To be there and to be his crew chief when it finally did happen, I was very proud of that. We've had a lot of big wins, but that one is probably the single greatest win. As far as the season, 2001 was the best. When we came here, there were some people who thought we couldn't do this or maybe I was beyond doing this as well as other people. I never thought that at all. We set out to change that and to prove that our boss wasn't over the hill either. Certainly (Kenny Bernstein) can jump in the car tomorrow and he is still one of the best drivers. There's not many people that are beyond his level. Certainly there are a few but he is a very fine race car driver. He wanted to win (the championship) for us as much as we wanted to win it for him. The season as a whole was really a tough battle but in the end, we prevailed. That was our best season. It was special for Kim and I because that was our first championship together, on the same team.
Q: How did Brandon Bernstein's crash at Englishtown in 2003 affect the team? Is he a better driver for having been through that incident?
RICHARDS: Certainly he is a better driver. Those are the hard lessons that somewhere along the way, you learn out here. Sometimes you get away with it without being seriously injured, but sometimes you don't. I know he's learned plenty. It affected the team a lot. Our driver, basically, was out for the year and he got a pretty serious injury. That is going to affect everyone's mind. Physically it affected us because we didn't have a back-up car that was as good as the one he was driving. That was a new car and it was an updated version of the first car we got from Murff McKinney. It was a better car and it took us a while to replace that and get back to a normal situation. As far as our performance that year, we weren't as good as we wanted to be at all. Basically it took me too long to figure out the difference in the tires.
Q: The O'Reilly Thunder Valley Nationals at Bristol Dragway was the first race when both nitro categories were all racing on the same new tire. How's the team adjusting to another tire change?
RICHARDS: Right now everyone is in the same boat and everyone is going to have a hard time because there is a new tire out here again. I listen to the radio and I hear them talking about NASCAR and how the tires have impacted them. It's the same thing over here. I think the reasons that change had to come over here is to help make the tire safer. That's what drives change over here. Over there, it's a different story. They were looking for something else on the track, it wasn't a safety issue. Over here, the cars keep going faster so the tires have to get better and they have had problems for many years with the temperature of the tires. They probably have made a big stride in fixing that problem. But it's something that is going to happen every once in a while. You're going to have a new tire to deal with and I think it's good they decided that everyone needs to be working with the same tire. It's going to be an adjustment for every body. We'll see what happens.
Q: Who is your favorite driver that you've worked with in your career?
RICHARDS: I would say the favorite driver to work for is Conrad (Kalitta) because he is fun to race with. He loves to race and he does it for fun. He enjoys racing. He doesn't do it for the money. He just loves racing and he is very passionate about it. I never met a guy who more properly fit the saying, 'A spade is a spade.' The people who work for him love to work for the guy because he is a lot of fun. You have a good time when you race with him.
Q: What's it like working with Brandon?
RICHARDS: He's a great kid. He's the real deal. His personality is what it is all the time whether he's at the track or in the shop. He is very efficient and he takes care of business. He is very much like his dad in those respects. It's a funny thing because he is so different from his dad, and yet they are so similar. He's a great kid and he really has it all. He doesn't have the experience in a race car that I am sure two or three years won't cure. He's not bad now and he works at getting better all the time.
Q: What makes the Kenny Bernstein Racing and the Budweiser team a good place for you and Kim?
RICHARDS: We like the system. We buy into his system because if you have any common sense, it works. We feel comfortable with him. We have systems to take care of anything that arises in this company and it doesn't cause a big ripple in anything that goes on. It's comfortable if you like a system. I like a system. I like to work in a place where just about any problem already has a way to be solved.
Q: What do you like better, Funny Car or Top Fuel?
RICHARDS: That's a tough question. I would say that Top Fuel cars are certainly the one I would rather work on. Funny Car is much more of a challenge for everybody and that's from the owner all the way down. The body presents a whole different issue and taking care of it requires more crew. It's a huge deal. I enjoyed our time with Funny Cars and I felt like we could do something. I felt like we had pretty good success for what was available. Everybody is trying to get where (John) Force is and not everyone will get there. He's the pinnacle.
Q: Is there some technology for Top Fuel that is on the horizon that we should expect to change the category?
RICHARDS: I doubt it. There might be something out there and I am sure there are things out there that would change the way these things run radically. I just don't think those things will be allowed. I don't believe there is a need for these cars to go faster than they do now as far as speed. Anytime you up the ante in the speed area, it also ups the ante for what could happen and the demands on these cars. I don't think it's necessary that these cars go any faster. I don't think we need to go any faster for the people to be entertained. I see no real gain if the cars go 350 or 360 mph.
Q: What are the keys to being a successful crew chief?
RICHARDS: I think it's about hiring the right people. It doesn't matter how good I am at doing my job. If I don't have the best people working underneath me, it doesn't matter what I do. It's very important to have the best people you can get to do the work on the car. If you have one that doesn't do it, then you've got a problem. Especially years like this when I have three new people, it's important that the people who have been working here follow up on everything they did until they learned their job. We still follow up on each other. We have systems in place where people check on other people's work and I think that is real important. But you have to have the right people in the first place.
Q: How did you get the nickname 'The General?'
RICHARDS: I am big on doing things the same way all the time. I am real big on the fact that we keep going up and down the track. I am big on systems and being consistent. I guess Joe Amato thought I was tough on the boys from time to time. I didn't think I was, but Joe was quite sure I was so he put the name on me.
Q: How does Top Fuel competition today rate against the last 30 years?
RICHARDS: It's as good as it's ever been. There's more cars that have a chance to win the championship this year than I think in quite a while.
Q: How does the Budweiser team rate in the group competing for the NHRA POWERade Top Fuel championship?
RICHARDS: I think we have a chance. We have our shot. It's not going to be easy for anyone to do it, but I think we have a chance. Whether we do or don't, that's another story.
Q: Have you ever considered retirement and when you would like to stop tuning cars?
RICHARDS: No, I haven't given that any thought. I enjoy what I am doing out here and as long as I can do it, I will be here. I see no reason to retire. The physical part of it for me is back at the shop and I really enjoy that. When I get to the race track everyone else does the physical work.
Q: If you weren't involved with the racing industry, what would you do for a career?
RICHARDS: I started out as a tool maker. I worked in machine shops and eventually became a tool maker. I do enjoy, very much, machining parts and making up tools. I probably would have stayed in that area. I don't know though because from a very early age on I was a car nut. I was into cars. I would have still been around cars. Like most of us out here, we are all car nuts.
Q: Do you send a Father's Day card to your father-in-law and competitor, Dick LaHaie?
RICHARDS: You mean Dad? Of course. I put my name on all the cards.