Harry Strunk, former editor in chief of the Daily Nebraskan, is currently working on a biography of Don Schumacher and the history of his racing teams as well as a novel set within the world of drag racing called Burning More Than Rubber. After serving as a member of Jack Beckman/s Funny Car team this summer to gather research for these projects, he’s now signed on as a crewmember for Don Schumacher’s Gary Scelzi-driven Mopar/Oakley Funny Car during the final two Countdown to the Championship events and will chronicle his adventures for NHRA.com readers. Strunk can be reached at hstrunk100@gmail.com

Monday, November 05, 2007

End of season reflections

In wrapping up my time with the Gary Scelzi and Jack Beckman Funny Car pit crews, I throw my final thoughts down the track.

Drag racing seems to be a goofy but wonderful sport which uniquely bonds souls together each weekend. It is a place where drivers pat each other on the back, often with a word of encouragement. It is a place where opposing pit crews share tools, jokes, and camaraderie. It is a place which richly embraces fans by inviting them alongside the pits and staging areas. No professional sport allows fans access to celebrities and such closeness to the action as drag racing does.

This is a sport that doesn't do it justice by merely watching on TV. It attacks the senses of sight, smell, and sound unlike any adventure I've been on. It's not a passive activity, but rather an action-packed anomaly that pulls fans to it like a magnet.

My mission on the Scelzi and Beckman treks were two-fold. One is to write at least one book on the sport but secondly, and perhaps more importantly, to pass on to the fans a glimpse of the inner lives of their heroes and support staff who work so diligently to put on the show.

The untold stories on the road are of hard work, long days, and different motel rooms every week. They are of personal sacrifices in being away from family and friends for weeks at a time. A couple of the stories from the Mopar/Oakley camp I'll share include Joe and Erin Fitzpatrick. Married four years, Joe took a one year stint on the road to live his dream.

"The worst part is every time he leaves," says wife Erin. She keeps herself busy working two jobs, attending college and appears exuberant to have him coming home full time to work at the Don Schumacher Racing (DSR) headquarters in Indianapolis. Erin attended the race in Pomona, along with a few other races, and likes watching Joe help tear down the car in between races.

Then there is head specialist Rod Centorbi who takes his love of drag racing to the next level. A collector of more than 300 plastic model cars, Centorbi sometimes takes his model kits on the road and builds them in the motel at night.

"I've been collecting models since I was eight and have some really unique cars," says Centorbi. He has built some of the models utilizing "kit bashing." This is a term that refers to customizing a normal car kit by adding intricate details like decals and engine accessories in order to super comp them. His building skills have allowed him to sell completed models to fans.

Finally, there is assistant crew chief Aaron Brooks who was busy strapping his custom chopper into the Mopar/Oakley trailer Sunday night. He built the monster himself and takes relaxing rides in the evenings when they are on the road.

In closing, I hope my writing efforts will bring the warmth and attention to the sport that it deserves. The movie Days of Thunder helped bring to NASCAR an explosion of popularity. The NHRA story is still one to be told and who knows, maybe I'll be the fortunate one that God blesses to bring it forth.

Until then, thanks to National DRAGSTER's Phil Burgess, the great people at NHRA, Don Schumacher, and all of the wonderful people at DSR who accepted and put up with me for five races this season.

All the best,

Harry Strunk

Sunday, November 04, 2007

It's all over ...

It felt like long ago when I was the last kid chosen in a pickup game. Or when I watched my son's team lose in a high school football playoff. One has to go on after the bottomless emotions of losing first round, but Gary Scelzi and the Mopar/Oakley team are just too nice of guys to lose the last race of the year this way.

The day began with singing to the heavens. An enlightening church service was attended by about 250 drivers, crew, and fans as they gathered at the David Powers hospitality tent. Many racing teams were represented, including Tony Schumacher who has been hosting Bible studies on Saturday nights.

"Saturday night is a more relaxed time and I wanted to learn more about the Bible," said Schumacher. He is assisted by Racers for Christ, an organization of 270 volunteers who bring worship to a number of racers and fans during car, boat and airplane racing.

Meanwhile, the Scelzi crew showed up shortly after 7 a.m. in a jovial mood for their final race of the year. Scelzi was joking and asked me if I knew how to move tires. We stacked four sets in case that many were needed. To illustrate the necessity of concentrating in the pit and double checking everything, I made a cardinal sin on Saturday. With only the simple job of cleaning oil pans, I forgot to replace the oil plug. I'm glad crew member Rick Pearson caught it before having an oil spill.

Everything was relatively quiet until the curfew was lifted at 9:30 a.m. The NHRA doesn't allow racers to tune their engines before that. It then seemed that everything broke loose. The ESPN camera and reporter showed up for an interview, the hospitality suite introduced all Don Schumacher drivers, celebrated Don Schumacher's birthday which was race day, and gave a farewell to pro stock motorcycle racers Angelle Sampey and Antron Brown. The two wheelers were making their final appearance for the U.S. Army. Whew!

Electricity flowed through my skin and into my bones as we waited in the staging area alongside the Mopar/Oakley car. We were lined up against Robert Hight, who was the only driver left with a chance of knocking Scelzi out of second. This would be one of the biggest races of Scelzi's year.

Like gladiators choosing their last minute armor, last minute gear and fin changes were made by both teams. Earlier this week Scelzi gave me the tip of breathing deeply just before a round but when there is burning nitro and rubber on the line, it's hard to do.

It reviewing the team's year, it has been feast or famine with Scelzi winning four races and going out twelve times in the first round. But as assistant crew chief Aaron Brooks said, "It was a good year and there's always next year."

Trying to recover from the road,

Harry Strunk

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Getting ready for the final day

You might get fired this weekend if you are racing at Pomona.

Then again, you might get the offer of your life. That’s seems to be the case in the pits after the last race of the season as owners and crew chiefs make final changes for 2008.

Sunday night is the grand social hour of the year as crew members tour each other’s pits as a last good bye to their friends and competitors.

“Its time to bring your resume along, that’s for sure,” said Todd Myers, public relations manager for Kalitta Motorsports. “It’s a pretty good time for everyone.”

However, according to team manager Bob Wilbur, the nitro-fueled margarita mixer won’t be in operation Sunday at Worsham Racing. It can make 15 gallons in a single run, but they have decided the potential liability is too great.

Whether I get a pink slip as a crew impostor is still up in the air. While Gary Scelzi and the Mopar/Oakley team are laying down some serious qualifying runs (currently third), I didn’t impress anyone showing up in time for the first-round loss in Las Vegas. Hopefully I’m over the hump with this crew. I even found some metal shavings while cleaning the oil pan on Saturday. By now my favorite crew chief, Todd Okuhara, knows I’m reporting anything unusual.

Additionally, I’m going all out to do whatever it takes for Scelzi to win. That includes attending Tony Schumacher’s Bible study Saturday evening and not shaving until after Sunday. "Fast Jack" Beckman attributes me shaving my beard with breaking the lucky charm tradition after I crewed “bearded” during his wins in Denver and Seattle earlier this year.

Regardless of this week’s outcome, Scelzi is already a winner. He was awarded the Rick Mears Good Guy Award on Saturday for his efforts to help the news media. The American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association tapped him on the shoulder for the prestigious acknowledgement. He joins past drivers Richard Petty, Mario Andretti, and Rusty Wallace.

Back to the pits, Scelzi’s crew has been great to work with and they have seem to accept me. Their mood was very good on Friday and Saturday, especially since Tony Pedregon (ranked 14th) has the possibility of not making the show on Sunday. That is one of the requirements for a possible fifth Scelzi world championship. Only time will tell.

Signing out,

Harry Strunk


Thursday, November 01, 2007

Pissed in Pomona

“This week I’m just pissed.”

Those comments by Gary Scelzi replaced last week’s relaxed mid-week mindset at Las Vegas. And while Scelzi was relaxed last week, the crew is probably breathing easier this week since the possibility of winning the 2007 championship is just a speck on the horizon at the moment. The Mopar/Oakley team could still win the championship, but forget me quoting the odds as I’m not very good at astronomics.

Perhaps a positive indicator; two team members were busy renting tuxedos Wednesday evening in order to attend the upcoming awards ceremony on Monday. Spirits on Thursday among several of the racing teams seemed lifted with Pomona being the last race of the year. During delays on staging row I overheard crew members from several teams taking about heading home. Additionally, the Mopar/Oakley trailer was sporting rock and roll music several hours before the first qualifying race.

Pomona is the only race event of the year with one qualifier per day on Thursday and Friday, thus pit activity isn’t as hectic as during two run qualifying days. It seemed preparations were calmer and it allowed the crew to go home earlier for the day. Pomona happens to be a fan’s paradise as, not only is it one of the best racing facilities in the country, it also is home of the National Hot Rod Association, National DRAGSTER magazine, and NHRA museum. Even being the neophyte fan that I am, I took time to check out all three, including visiting my editor and unofficial boss, Phil Burgess.

Addressing last week’s race in Las Vegas, it appeared everyone had gotten over the shock of going out first round. “I was even in shock after our four qualifying runs,” said crew chief Todd Okuhara. His crew had won the Full Throttle award during qualifying for their four run consistency. Okuhara is well aware they can at least take second for the year and indicated the Mopar/Oakley car would be aggressive when its needs to be.

According to Scelzi, the $100,000 second-place finish is the big motivator right now and winning Pomona would be a great way to end the season. “I race better when I’m pissed. In fact, sometimes I’ve had to settle myself down when racing certain individual drivers out here,” Scelzi said. He added that breathing deeply is a big part of getting relaxed before blasting off down the track. “I talk to myself a lot before a race and do a lot of praying.”

It was particularly a big disappointment in Las Vegas for Scelzi since the team wasn’t smoking the tires and he felt they ran real good. “I feed off the guys and they feed off of me,” Scelzi says of his winning tradition. “I feel a lot more confident when I know the guys are looking to me for the win. They’re like my lineman leading the way. Without them out there in front of me, I don’t go anywhere.”

Counting down in Pomona

Harry Strunk

Monday, October 29, 2007

A dismal return

It felt a lot like a funeral.

Dressed in Mopar/Oakley black, solemn faces look over an eerie silence in the pit as we wait for Gary Scelzi and his Funny Car to return from the first round loss. No one moves very quickly. There is no need to as the car is done for the day. Numbness and disbelief are the only emotions that can be read on blank faces. This is the other side of racing, the side that tests character and those teetering on whether its worth spending 23 weekends a year on the road.

It was fitting that it be Las Vegas to have Lady Luck shine her graceful face on Tony Pedregon and shun the efforts of Don Schumacher Racing’s three Funny Cars, all which were rejected in the first round.

“It was really frustrating to go out and make four great runs and then lose it in the first round,” said assistant crew chief Aaron Brooks. “Especially when the opportunity opened up... all the luck went their way.” He added the Full Throttle Award won by the crew during the week was a hollow victory.

Earlier on the track, Countdown finalists Robert Hight and Ron Capps had both just lost as we fired up the Mopar/Oakley Dodge. There was excitement among the crew -- one member was praying and looking skyward -- as mechanic Rod Centorbi helped Scelzi back his car to the line. This was a huge chance to make a move on the countdown field and everyone seemed to feel good about going against Cruz Pedregon, No. 14 qualifier.

Pushed aside were the dark clouds of bad luck that swirled over teammate Jack Beckman with an unusual blower bearing failure. Stranded only feet from the starting line, invaluable track data was lost. Earlier oildowns on both sides of the track added to delays and tension, as well as confusion over locating the best track groove. In the end, it was losing the groove that did us in and left Cruz Pedregon, who would later go on to aid his brother Tony by losing to him in the semifinals, as the victor.

“After a loss you don’t want to blame anyone or try and speculate on what happened,” explained crewmember Michael Knudsen. “You just wait to hear what they pass on.” That explained part of the silence. The other reason was waiting to hear if Tony Pedregon would go down in round two allowing Scelzi to get back into position to win the championship in Pomona. Good fortune, however, stayed in Pedregon’s corner as Jeff Arend, one of the best drivers at the line, served up a red-light. Only Lady Luck would have known that first two rounds of 5.43 and 7.49 seconds would end up the winning combination for a Pedregon event championship.

Being in Las Vegas also brought to light the superstition surrounding the track. One crewmember had lucky earplugs, one had his lucky t-shirt underneath, another failed to return a call to me earlier in the week for fear of jinxing the Mopar/Oakley crew, and finally, owner Don Schumacher told me I was bad luck afterwards. It appears I’ve officially lost my “lucky charm” title as Schumacher also laughingly requested I stay away from his favorite casino.

However, you don’t give up in motorsports. Just ask Tony Schumacher who pulled out a last-minute national record and event win in order to claim his fourth world championship last year. A record by Scelzi next week combined with a lot of Lady Luck could land him the same results. Regardless, a year-end event win in Pomona would make the offseason that much sweeter for the crew. Time will tell.

In the meantime, Las Vegas will continue to leave a lot of gamblers dejected, rejected and gloomy. The hard working Mopar/Oakley crew just got a taste of Las Vegas this weekend.

From the road,

Harry Strunk

Friday, October 26, 2007

Scelzi to give “lucky charm” impostor a chance

Gary Scelzi, my new driver as a pit crew impostor, says “it’s almost scary” about how good he feels this week preparing for the Las Vegas race.

“I almost feel too good,” said Gary as we discussed my new responsibilities on the Mopar/Oakley team. If you recall, team owner Don Schumacher gave me the crucial job of “staying out of the way” last summer during Jack Beckman’s back-to-back wins during the Western Swing. I intend to score high in that category again by staying out of the way. Hopefully, I’ll complete the task of dumping a few oil pans in the right barrel along the way.

Making the transition from Beckman’s Mail Terminal Services to Scelzi’s Mopar/Oakley crew is now complete -- the ship has been jumped. I attempted to smooth out any ruffled feathers that “Fast Jack” might have as he spreads his wings down the Las Vegas track this weekend.

“As long as you wear a MTS shirt under your Mopar/Oakley uniform, then I’m okay with it,” Beckman chuckled.

With two shirts on at trackside it could get hot, but I’m sure my fellow crewmembers will be sweating plenty themselves as every round feels like a Sunday final elimination pass. Beckman, who has two wins in Las Vegas and the national speed record in Pomona, says he hopes to be a good “blocker” and end up racing in the finals of both races against either Scelzi or Ron Capps. Capps is also with Don Schumacher Racing driving the Brut Revolution Funny Car.

As a blocker for Scelzi and Capps, Beckman can ruin the plans of Countdown finalists Robert Hight or Tony Pedregon by eliminating them in earlier rounds on Sunday. This is a new term for me and one that is interesting. I had been aware of the advantage of sporting multiple cars under common team ownership by sharing critical track and tuning data. But this was the first time I realized the four final cars might be aided by their respective team mate blockers. All four finalists have Funny Car drivers not in the Countdown as teammates.

“I’ve been in this position before and I feel like it's the best shot I’ve ever had,” said four-time world champion Scelzi. “I just need to go up there and get it done.” Although he says having crew chief Todd Okuhara in his corner gives him an extra shot of confidence, he’s sure he won’t feel as relaxed when he wakes up Sunday morning. However, Scelzi has dealt with pressure before ranking sixth on the all-time Top Fuel win list.

According to Okuhara and Phil Shuler who assists, things have proceeded according to plan and they believe crew members are ready to get the job done this weekend.

“It’s no different than any other race out there. We just do our best and let the chips fall where they may,” said Shuler. He added that every elimination round is important no matter which track you’re on or which weekend it happens to be. “You carry your own destiny in your hands,” Shuler added of the failed bid by the Beckman driven Mail Terminal Services team. They came in fifth, just out of the Final Four.

Cylinder and head specialist Rod Centorbi says its business as usual for the Mopar/Oakley team. “We give 100 percent all of the time, so we will do the same job whether in first place or last.” Centorbi added that Scelzi drives better when in a confident mood, so he was glad to hear how relaxed his driver is this week.

“We’ve been through this before,” said Greg Vick, a steady hand on Scelzi’s team since 2002. He points out that most of the present crew helped Scelzi win the Funny Car title back in 2005. “None of these final four teams have buckled under pressure and, when you look at winning the Full Throttle Award this year, these are probably four of the finest crews out there.”

When not at the track, Vick doubles as Chief Financial Officer for Scelzi Enterprises, which makes custom truck utility bodies and flatbeds. Vick doesn’t seem to accept the term “imposter” as well as I do, but he does admit that he is “living every fan’s dream” by being behind the ropes. “I help Gary pack the chutes, work on the body, serve as the team psychiatrist, and anything else that needs to be done.”

Although it sounds like the Mopar/Oakley team is not feeling additional pressure this week, I’ll most likely be a wreck by the time Sunday morning comes around. My “lucky charm” status is at stake and future crew invitations may hinge on Scelzi’s pedal. Win or lose though, trekking the NHRA trail has been an experience I’ll treasure for a life time. Hopefully potential fans not yet exposed to the sport will make it to the track and experience the thrills for themselves. What’s wrong with you NASCAR people anyway?

Signing off from the road,

Harry Strunk

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

A counting down of the final days

I jumped ship ...

Well in this case you could say 8,000-horsepower of Funny Car.

Confessions reportedly bring a cleansing and uplifting to the soul, so hopefully I'll be absolved by confessing that I'm changing pit crews as the newest member of the Gary Scelzi-driven Mopar/Oakley Funny Car team in Las Vegas. If you recall during the Western Swing, I had the good fortune of becoming "the imposter" by joining Jack Beckman and the Mail Terminal Services pit crew [From the Road blog]. Barely knowing the difference between a ratchet and a socket at the time, that dream wish came true when friend and racing legend Don Schumacher cautiously agreed to let me go on the road if I stayed out of the way.

Although it is probably presumptuous for me to worry about anyone on the MTS team actually missing me, I hope they all realize that joining Scelzi for the chance to win a second Funny Car championship from inside the pits and alongside the starting line was just too much to pass up. Yes guys, I am a traitor. I hope I'm absolved for my sins.

It all started when Scelzi was joking around (can you imagine Gary telling jokes?) about my fabulous luck of joining "Fast Jack" Beckman only seconds before his back-to-back victories in Denver and Seattle. "Jack doesn't need you anymore Harry, so come on over to our team now," Scelzi laughed during the Eric Medlen charity dinner in San Francisco. As they say Gary, be careful what you ask for.

Anyway, my cravings for more Funny Car action drove me to muster up the courage to ask Schumacher and crew chief Todd Okuhara if I could return for the final Countdown races in Las Vegas and Pomona. All of this just when you thought I was already the luckiest guy around by receiving Wallys from wins in Denver and Seattle and accepting the Full Throttle award for the MTS team while in Sonoma. Las Vegas here I come!

Since leaving the track in late July, I've been faithfully following my nitro heroes as they battled to make the Final Countdown. Writing on my novels creep along; I've actually rented a home in New England for the fall to try and ignite some creative sparks. My fingers have probably received a better workout from hitting my NHRA.com computer bookmark a zillion times during the past several race weekends. Damn this fiction writing is hard.

In preparing to return for my encore appearance as a pit crew imposter, I didn't have time to grow back my beard. My wife won't let me in the house with it anyway. However, I do look forward to the great fans, loud roars, adrenaline pit parties, burning nitro, and smell of fresh rubber. Hopefully you will join me on my Gary Scelzi and Mopar/Oakley team adventure.

Keeping my fingers crossed for Gary.