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Toliver still tingling from Winternationals win
"I woke up the next morning and couldn't believe that it actually happened."
Jerry Toliver, who spent the last year-and-a-half working to put together a competitive Funny Car program to return to the NHRA POWERade Series, realized the fruit of his hard work by winning the NHRA POWERade Series season-opening K&N Filters Winternationals Feb. 29 at California's Pomona Raceway.
The nephew of the legendary drag racers Art and Jack Chrisman, Toliver raced to a dramatic victory over Gary Densham in the final round, after eliminating much-hyped rookie Eric Medlen, journeyman Cory Lee, and veteran Del Worsham in earlier rounds.
Toliver, who led the NHRA Funny Car championship chase for much of the 2000 season and ultimately finished third in the points order that year, has returned with a renewed enthusiasm and is hungrier than ever to resume his position as a top Funny Car challenger. With Schick Quattro as his primary sponsor, a sleek Toyota Celica at his command that produced the fourth-fastest run in NHRA history (328.22 mph) last weekend and Keith Adams, a protégé of highly-regarded nitro tuner Alan Johnson, serving as crew chief, Toliver feels poised to make up for lost time.
In this candid question and answer session, Toliver talks about his will to succeed, his desire to not take any success for granted this time around, and his goal of winning races and ultimately the POWERade Funny Car championship.
Q: Did this win surpass your wildest expectations?
Off the NHRA ciruit for nearly two years, Toliver
returned in grand style with a win in Pomona.Racers Edge Photography
Toliver: It was my wildest expectation to go back in there and just dominate. Somebody asked me if I was surprised with the performance. I wasn't surprised with the performance because I have a great team that is made up of a bunch of really good guys. They are all veterans. We have the best equipment and some great racing minds at work. I am not surprised, but I am certainly overwhelmed and pleased by what happened. For that to come together in the first race is a lot for anybody. My guys really stepped up, did a great job, we got a little lucky and things just fell into place.
Q: How did you get your team to jell so quickly?
Toliver: My guys are all seasoned veterans. Every guy on my team has been out there for five years minimum. They all know the game, what to do, and they all do it well. Keith has been with Alan Johnson since 1996 and prior to that was with Dale Armstrong. This is his first year as a crew chief, but the guy has really been working with some of the best in the business. He is Alan's right-hand guy and has been instrumental in a lot of the technology that Alan has developed over the years. Obviously he went to school well because he applied all of that stuff to our team and he did a great job.
Q: How special was it for you to give Toyota its first victory?
Toliver: I think it is fantastic. I have been working on this Toyota deal since the end of 2001. I watched them struggle a little bit when they first came into the sport I think they went to five finals with Alan and I watched them get knocked off every time. I know how important it was for them to win a race.
It was extremely special because I went in with a fresh approach and a new team. I came in with a major sponsor, so I think that opened up Toyota's eyes and they realized that it was a really good deal. They saw that we have a high-profile national company backing us and it was the right fit for them. Then, on top of all that, we come out of the gate and perform the way we did and bring them their first win. I think it's going to make them take a harder look at us and realize that this is a great program for them to be involved with for the future.
Q: What is your formula for sponsorship success?
Toliver: I have been asked this question a thousand times. The basic formula is the same that you would apply to any business principle. There's certain things that are necessary to make it a viable program for the sponsor. You have to go into it, dissect it, and look and see what the sponsor wants to achieve, and how the sponsorship of the race team helps them to sell their products. That's really the bottom line. We go in and show them how we can help them sell their core products and get it out to their consumers. Whether it's WWF, Mad Magazine, or Schick, the same principles apply. We develop programs to help the sponsor market their products through our race team. We show them results and how we achieve sales for them.
Q: What did you learn from the 2000 season?
Toliver: I think the big lesson I learned is to not take it for granted. I got thrown into the fire in 2000 from the start. We won the Winternationals and led the points from race one and kept it going. We just marched on through until mid-season. I had never been in that position before. I think now I appreciate more of what it takes to win a national event, much less lead the points. It is very gratifying to be there. I'll just savor those moments more now and understand that it can be taken away from you just as quickly as you earned it. That's what happened to us in 2000. There was a point in time when I thought we could win the championship. Just about the time I thought that is when we started sliding down the back side and wound up third. It's a moving target. You have to go out there and grind it out round after round.
I think all racers are superstitious in some way. We had a big deal going last weekend at Pomona that focused on the number four. Schick Quattro has four blades, the number 444 is on the side of my car, it was the 44th Winternationals, I hadn't won a race in four years, I had won four national events previously and I think the final round went off at 4:40 p.m. we had all that stuff going in our favor. When you have karma like that it certainly gives you a bit of a boost. Anytime the odds are in our favor we love it.
Q: How did you celebrate the win afterwards?
Toliver: I sat at home for the last year-and-a-half watching NHRA drag racing on ESPN wondering if I would ever get back out there. It got to a point where I began to think that there was a good possibility that I wouldn't race again. But I wasn't through yet and I knew I would really miss it if I didn't find a way to get back out here. I thought to myself, if I do get back out there I know how fleeting and difficult it is to win a national event. I said if I ever do win another race, which now luckily we have, that I would really think about it and feel the special experience that it is. I went back to the pit and celebrated with the team, went out to dinner and we enjoyed it, laughed and talked about the race. I woke up the next morning and couldn't believe that it actually happened and just thought what a great feeling it was. I am much more appreciative of the experience now than I was in the past.
Q: What do you feel you add to Funny Car?
Toliver: I am definitely an in-your-face kind of guy. I like to have fun with it. I like to razz guys just as any competitor does with their competition. I am not going to back down from anybody. I feel we are as good as anybody out there. I think we have as good a chance as anybody to win the championship. In fact, right now with the points lead, we have a better chance than the rest of the teams out there.
Q: What is your outlook for the Toyota body ?
Toliver: The Toyota body has proved itself and showed the world that when Alan Johnson and the team over at TRD developed this body they knew what they were doing. It's got good downforce and it's slippery, so the drag coefficient is down. It ran 4.73 at 328 and just went boom, I'm a contender.
Q: How important is it for you to keep the family tradition of successful drag racing alive and well?
Toliver: It is extremely important. I am very proud to be [Art and Jack Chrisman's] nephew. My uncle Art was at the race track this weekend with me and it was very special. I was born into a family that was really into drag racing and it's something that has been in my blood and something I've wanted to do since I was a kid. When I was a boy, I would go to my grandfather's house and there were racecars in the garage and all around the house. I just fell in love with racecars at that time. When my uncle Art comes out now and is proud of what I am doing, that makes me proud. I look at him and I can see it in his eyes. He's always supportive of what we are doing. His son Steve races too. We're all still in the game and we love it. To come out and be successful and carry on that tradition is wonderful. It makes you proud that they are proud of you
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