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. To gather research for these projects, he’s signed on as a crewmember for Don Schumacher’s Jack Beckman-driven Mail Terminal Services Funny Car during the Western Swing and will chronicle his adventures for NHRA.com readers. Strunk can be reached at hstrunk100@gmail.com

Monday, August 06, 2007

Final reflections from the Western Swing

If nitro and burning rubber are addicting, then I may have a problem. My wife is even a little nervous after I snuck out tonight to find a friend with Direct TV so I could watch Jack Beckman’s Wind Tunnel interview. We’re talking about a guy who before this week thought the Speed Channel might be a drug rehabilitation program.

So as the MTS crew finishes its first weekend off since mid June, enjoying their homes in Indy, I can’t seem to get the Western Swing fling out of my head. Moments keep reflecting back at me like a cold mountain lake after the ripples have settled. And there were a lot of fantastic ripples the past couple of weeks.

Forget the fact my Funny Car crew never lost... Denver win, Seattle win and Sonoma Full Throttle win. Forget the 75 emails I received from wonderful fans, the front page shot on National DRAGSTER this week or the rare pat on the back from owner Don Schumacher regarding my writing.

What really keeps sticking with me is my excitement about the explosion in popularity I think we are about to see in drag racing. The realization I was in the right place at the right time in July can’t help but count. But also take my two sons as a good starting place. Oldest son Todger just embarked on a Wall Street career, so I asked him to analyze the HD Partners/NHRA announcement for me. “Dad, this looks like a really good deal and the revenue potentials look real interesting.” I also take into consideration that two of my investment firm’s best money managers are presently stock holders in HD Partners.

Moving on to other son TJ, he has his fingers all over the new Sony PlayStation NHRA Drag Racing Countdown to the Championship game that I pawned off driver Ron Capps. TJ thought it was “way cool” except he is having a problem getting Tony Schumacher and John Force “unlocked.” With a player able to compete as one of 60 official NHRA Pro drivers, including Jack, and his bright and chipper Mad Magazine grin.

Promotion of the sport through computer games is a great idea. And after borrowing a headphone/scanner set in Sonoma from Racing Electronics, I came up with my own great idea. Racing Electronics rents affordable headsets so fans can listen in to racers and the track announcer. Why not figure out a way to get all fans into a headset, not only to protect their ears but so they can hear more of what is going on during racing? It could be like the airlines do for passengers wanting to watch movies; hand out headphones to the fans when they come in and have them deposit them at the gate on their way out. If you’re like me, I’m always missing the announcer due to warm ups and distractions. And the scanner conversations going on among the racers and their crews are awesome!

My other comment is: Who would go to a football game that didn’t have a scoreboard? I would love to see tracks use a giant digital readout sign which keeps brackets lit throughout the contest showing round matchings for reaction, elapsed and speed times including the next ensuing round matchups. My view is an educated fan is a happy fan.

My final memory is one in which I finally got to work on the car. Well, in this case, it was the cart. In a hurry to get back to the pits after a round, a crew member who will remain nameless knocked off the valve stem, flattening the MTS golf cart tire. As the pit came to life, the guys shouted at me to find another tire and replace it as soon as possible. The hospitality gang was not happy when I suggested taking a tire off their cart, but someone did show up soon with two good tires.

The crew missed my humor when I asked if I should call AAA, so I was now faced with changing a flat tire in front of 30-40 engaged fans lining the pit ropes. Unfortunately I wasn’t impressing anyone with my 12-inch ratchet handle and wrong size socket when crew member Tom Boyington slid me out of the way. He had a three-foot ratchet and the exact size socket – I think they call it a deep dish? Anyway, I always hate it when those guys can simply look at a nut and tell what size it is. I pleaded with Tom to let me finish the job since I knew he was needed to further feed the MTS monster for the next round. Tom left me trying to loosen the lugs evenly like I was taught in driver education class. I proudly went over and let the guys know the job was done, only to be told the other rear tire also needed changing since the new one was a different size. So that is why they brought two tires instead of one! Boy what an ego deflator something like that is.

I finished the job taking about as much time as it took the crew to rebuild the Dodge Funny Car, but at least the cart was ready for the next round. With that story I’m left to savor the multitude of memories and to check the internet on a regular basis so I can at least stay with the guys in spirit until next time. Boy, I can almost smell that nitro and rubber…

Signing off from home.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Sonoma up in smoke

Whoever said all good things must come to an end must have had a cold heart.

However, as I prepare to head home from the Sonoma race, I have anything but a cold heart. With mixed emotions I try to choke down a sense of sadness that swells from knowing I will never again share such an uplifting experience as the Western Swing. It reminds me of high school graduation with the sudden realization I probably won't ever be with this group of people again. I am humbled and honored to have had the opportunity to briefly become part of the Don Schumacher Racing family.

What can a guy say that shows up without any mechanical skills or drag racing experience and wins two Wallys in 15 magical days?

My only defense is to admit that I have been one of the luckiest guys in the world to land in the middle of an extremely professional Funny Car team that actually accepted me -- my initiation details to follow -- and who had put themselves in a position to sweep the Western Swing long before I got there.

But the problem with luck is it often tempts one to actually believe they are the reason for winning. I should know better than to fan the flames of my own ego in such a warped manner, but it doesn't help when comedian Gary Scelzi and a few others start making overtures for me to join their teams. Fortunately I haven't heard from John Force yet.

In fact, my unbelievable lucky streak the past two weeks prompts one MTS crewmember to suggest to owner Don Schumacher that I "shadow" him for three weeks at Schumacher Electric next. This suggestion is not well received by The Don.

Like most things in life that are self serving, trying to take credit for the efforts of others is the quickest way for a dream to vaporize … and so it does.

With heat vapors rising from the Sonoma asphalt Sunday afternoon, I witness the dreams of my cherished hero Jack Beckman go up in smoke during a first round loss to Cruz Pedregon. It is Jack's first loss in nine rounds.

Not only does Beckman get knocked out first round, but so does top qualifier Mike Ashley, who set the Sonoma track record on Friday night, points leader Ron Capps and past champion Gary Scelzi. It is not a good day for DSR Funny Cars, although Tony Schumacher does go on to win in Top Fuel later in the day.

I feel like someone just hit me in the stomach and knocked all the wind out. I had heard whispers about fears of first round eliminations. Now I know full well what they were talking about. From feast to famine. The adrenaline in the pits of fighting the clock to prepare for next round is replaced with just trying to keep busy to avoid the numbness. The MTS crew quickly packs up for the marathon ride back to Indy tomorrow.

"You have to be able to take losing because you are going to get a lot of it in drag racing," said crew chief Phil Shuler. "It’s just part of the sport."

I could see the disappointment in the eyes of my fellow crewmembers, especially the younger ones. Driving back to Indy Monday will be long enough; a first-round loss just made it that much longer. The only thing worse than a first-round loss I am told is not qualifying for the race at all. At least I was spared that unpleasantry.

But let's forget the glass that is half empty and grab the one that is half full. In addition to winning national events the past two weeks, MTS won the Full Throttle award in Sonoma. It recognizes a crew’s efforts in getting the car ready for Sunday by rewarding the most consistent results during the four qualifying rounds. This was only the second time this year the crew had won the prestigious award. In keeping with my new nickname "Mugshot" that the crew gave me due to all the publicity we have received from Denver and Seattle, crew chief Todd Okuhara selects me to go out on stage during pre-race ceremonies and claim the Full Throttle prize for the guys in the pits. Fighting off further guilt over my minor efforts and all of the hard work and sweat put in all year by the real guys, I go through the fanfare doors right behind the line up of Funny Car drivers. I sheepishly wave to the thousands of cheering fans in the stands and ask myself: Is this dream ever going to end?

George Plimpton has nothing on me. Two Wallys, accepting a Full Throttle award, and spending time among a unique fraternity of motor sports people with hearts as large as the horsepower they attempt to harness every week beats taking a few snaps in football any day.

But before I forget, back to my initiation. It pleases me to report I am officially initiated into bonds of the MTS pit crew. Taking bathroom duty in Sonoma, I clean the two race trailer toilets and get over the hump. Unbeknownst to Beckman, I borrow his gas mask for any fumes I might encounter during the task. Sorry Jack, when duty calls you have to make due with what is at hand.

But what pleases me most are two comments I received my final weekend. One was from Okuhara, a true professional in every sense of the word. Todd simply said I was welcome to come back anytime. The other came from a fan that said I "pulled her into the pits with me" during my writing the past couple of weeks. Those two comments should propel me through at least a few dark nights as I face the daunting task of writing these books.

I wanted to again thank Don Schumacher and Okuhara for letting me join the MTS crew. I'm also appreciative of the dozens of fans that took the time to contact me either via e-mail or in person at the track. It has been a pleasure sharing my experiences.

Forever in my gratitude will remain the men who crossed my path for a short moment during the summer of 2007. Schumacher and Beckman are the obvious. But, more importantly, they include Okuhara, Shuler, Jim Marcellus, Joe Veyette, Michael Lance, Tom Boyington, Dave Fears, Ben Mathews and Wes Knop. There are also a number of DSR hospitality and support staff that aided me greatly… thank you all very much. Finally, I can't forget the terrific couple sponsoring the Mail Terminal Services car who also drag race in the sportsman division -– Rodger and Karen Comstock. It was impressive visiting one of the Mail Terminal Services locations in the San Francisco area and witnessing their strong compassion and interest in their employees.

As I return home, my hope is that I can somehow give back to this exhilarating sport for providing me a once in a lifetime experience. Perhaps my writing might enhance and attract new fans to this wonderful world of drag racing.

Thanks for reading, wish me luck on my mission and watch for my books.

Signing off for now… From the Road.

Friday, July 27, 2007


Curious thing they call this “burnout.”

That modern fire-snorting, smoke-billowing dragon with burning rubber stench for breath. They tell me that during the early days of hot rod racing long burnouts were considered a sign of manhood. Everyone's hero John Force said in his biography that his dream as a kid was doing a burnout like "the Snake." So with Angelle, Melanie, Hillary, Ashley, Erica, Karen, and the other gals out there today; it doesn’t seem right to follow that chauvinistic façade of manhood burnouts any longer. I have a different opinion.

It's what I call David Lee Roth taking the microphone stand between his legs or Mick Jagger strutting around stage like a rooster with its head cut off. It’s Barry Bonds pointing to the fence before a pitch or the Shaq stuffing a little orange ball - its little to him -- as hard as he can through a metal-rimmed hoop. It's plain ol' showmanship, my friend. And for all of the talk of elapsed times, holeshots and top speeds, they are all just ice cream on the cake... it melts away before you even know it. Down underneath, it's the time a crew spends in the staging area that bonds them to their fans. Look, if I'm lying under a messy, hot engine all day pressured by time and attention to detail, I want my time in front of the stands. Who wouldn't?

So the burnout allows critical time for sponsors to put their name out to fans, race owners and crew chiefs time in stoic stature with arms crossed in front of ESPN cameras, and crewmembers time to show their professionalism in front of the spectacle of tens of thousands of fans in the stands.

Obviously burnouts do get the tires hot, clean, and sticky; gets the track ready for better traction and gets the engine heated. Perhaps little known to race fans in the burnout process, however, are professional track specialists like Lanny Miglizzi. His job every week is to analyze the track for Don Schumacher Racing teams, which also includes advising on how to prep the track if necessary. Lanny looks for spots that might be bumpy or uneven so he can discuss these issues with drivers and crew chiefs. His comments include where to stage the vehicle on the starting line depending upon the success of earlier cars and which lane choice is advantageous.

“I look for imperfections in the track’s surface, measure the seams (difference between asphalt and concrete), and watch for the accumulation of rubber,” says Miglizzi. His tools include a creeper, binoculars, measuring wheel, and radio control car to help him photograph and diagram the entire track.

Drivers say burnouts release pre-race pressure and tension. Some say it is also a lot of fun. But interestingly enough, many drivers and crew say the burnout really isn’t essential for a good run. Nitro cars that occasionally miss their burnout, for whatever reason, still have run fast with impressive results. Just look to Bristol where monster burnout specialist John Force didn’t even smoke his tires and still set the lowest elapsed time for the first round.

With today’s fuel cars sporting historic power and teams facing unprecedented competition, such things as Force’s monster burnouts are only foggy memories. In fact, reportedly all but three Top Fuel drivers out there today have throttle stops that limit their burnouts. Funny Car points leader Ron Capps of the Brut car adds that he would be more stressed out during the burnout without a throttle stop on the engine.

Don Schumacher talks about using throttle stops. “It’s like when you’re teeing off on a par 3 golf hole… do you use a tee? That’s the same thing as using a throttle stop. Why not use anything and everything that’s available to you? But we all have egos and at times our egos override what is sensible.”

Which reminds me of a Schumacher golf story which found “The Don” ricocheting his ball off a tree only four feet in front of him into his forehead leaving a two-inch indentation. Friend and former dragster Ron O’Donnell (Damn Yankee) continued his round while Don drove himself to the hospital for a visit with a plastic surgeon. Rumor has it that Ron kept playing because he didn’t want to pass up a chance to break 100.

Many fans may liken the burnout to a gladiator-like confrontation. But according to Funny Car driver Jack Beckman, there is little psychological impact from a competitor doing an extra fierce burnout.

“First of all, the cowlings are so high we can’t really pay attention to what the other guy is doing. And it’s all about consistency anyway. We want to do things exactly the same every time, and that especially includes the burnout.”

Handling the dragster consistently by managing the intensity and length of the burnout gives the crew chief a better opportunity to tune the car to its maximum potential adds Capps. “We almost want to become robot-like in the car during the burnout.”

Running a lengthy burnout requires longer backing up which can put added heat and pressure on the clutch. A hotter clutch can make the car run less consistent.

So next time you’re at the track, realize that the burnout probably isn’t as necessary as you once thought. But it sure provides that extra kick of fun, anticipation, and entertainment.

Monday, July 23, 2007

When everything goes right ...

I'm learning how to put on my game face.

I guess that's what you call it after you win your second national event in eight days and go on with life afterwards. A brief moment of jumps, high fives, hugs, and quick shouts of joy; and then it's back to normal without the typical into-the-evening celebration of other sports. It's the sign of a true professional and mature staff at the Mail Terminal Services Funny Car.

"It's just another race, Harry," was the comment I got from several of the crew members as I perused the hotel looking for further moments of glee. "We have to go to work tomorrow."

I knew in my heart they were right. Helping "Fast Jack” Beckman continue to break personal career records -- back to back national event wins, eight straight wins in a row, a possible sweep of the Western Swing only accomplished once in Funny Car history by John Force in 1994 – is called keeping your eye on the ball.

It appears that I am also setting a few records myself: the only new crew member to go eight days with two national event wins. If you recall, I missed qualifying sessions in Denver last week due to my late arrival on Sunday morning. God dropped me in the right place at the right time and when that happens, you just enjoy the ride. In fact Angela Lance, in charge of travel for DSR, asked me Sunday night during a political discussion if I was a Democrat. I replied no, I'm spiritual.

With all of the things that can and do go wrong in fuel racing, spirituality seems to play a huge part in the outcome of what goes on down at the track. From the fact that Beckman survived cancer and is even there in the first place to the failed engine parts we had along the way this past week. They included a blown burst plate, chewed up blower belt, broken crankshaft hub bolt, and the ultimate: a blown Force engine after John Force temporarily had taken the lead against Jack in the final at Seattle. The outcome of any of these things could have spelled a loss for the MTS team, but they didn't.

Which brings me to my next burning question that has been fanning the flames of my most recent obsession. How many parts does it take to build a Funny Car?

Veteran Crew Chief Ed "Ace" McCulloch of the Ron Capps Brut car said, "Who cares? Who would possibly sit down and count them and on what day?" Evidently, the number varies with daily conditions due to shims and other such adjusting parts.

It is a question left over from my memories of the space shuttle disaster a couple decades ago when a defective O ring led to the fatal explosion in the space program. At the time I remember being amazed at hearing there were 80,000 suppliers to the space shuttle. But that number represented only suppliers. The number of parts would most likely be astronomical (pardon the pun).

The whole point? There are so many things that can and do go wrong with a modern Top Fuel car that most fans are unaware of the complexity and difficulty of getting one of these monsters successfully down the track on any given race.

I may be one of the few people who have never seen Jack Beckman lose a race. He says that if we keep winning, he's not letting me go home. Little does he know, my wife isn't letting me come home anyway unless I shave the beard I grew for the race circuit. If you recall, I grew it thinking it might help me fit in better. So here is the deal Jack. You win Sonoma and I'll shave my beard in the winners circle for my wife and come to the eliminations on Sunday in Brainerd for the team. That is, if you still want me by then.

How's that for a dedicated imposter crewmember?

Friday, July 20, 2007

A week in the life of a crew member

As a novice fan, drag racing reminds me of my days as a soccer parent.

I have a basic understanding of the sport but am usually too embarrassed to ask many questions. Diving in and asking dumb rookie questions for only a week now, I realize how little most fans probably understand about the complexity and time commitment involved in top fuel competition.

Monday is teardown day in Denver. It’s like going to the office from 8 to 5:30, except the office is on a hot asphalt parking lot and you don’t leave for lunch. It is another steady stream of activity cleaning up, preparing parts for next week, packing away the trucks and reviewing Denver’s results. It reminds me of the bartender who is continually cleaning glasses and keeping busy.

The MTS team had a very good week in the parts department with only minor failures. Even without much damage, it still requires measuring and tearing apart clutch plates, cylinder heads, measuring and matching pistons and rods, tearing down and servicing engine blocks … have I lost anyone yet besides myself?

I was shocked with the amount of work involved in getting ready to move on to Seattle, not only on the racing side, but also in the hospitality areas. Catering is a very important part of the racing experience. Providing sponsors and their guests with an enjoyable experience includes time-consuming setup and preparation. It also includes taking care of the racing crews and support teams. This whole racing scene reminds me of a finely catered party where the guests simply show up for an evening of dining and entertainment and go home from the evening oblivious to the planning, execution and clean up necessary for the event.

Tuesday is a full travel day with a 5 a.m. departure and 16-hour day. When you have 20 hours to drive in a day and half, you don’t stop for breaks until the tank is empty. I plan my drink intake accordingly.

The scenery blurs by in uninteresting fashion when you know you can’t stop to enjoy it. “I’ve been by the Grand Canyon 20 times and still haven’t seen it,” comments MTS’ Jim Marcellus. Jim is also the Road Mom. With crew chief Todd Okuhara and assistant Phil Shuler in the air, the Road Mom is in charge of getting rigs and vehicles to Seattle including a night over in Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho.

Racing crews are like big families; tensions over who gets to drive, where they are going to eat and that they all show up on time. The crew spends more time together than with their own families during the year. According to Marcellus, every team is different with personalities and dynamics all playing a part. Most of the time conflicts are worked out on the road, but if not they are referred up to Okuhara later in the week.

Our trip requires more than one-hour delay to clear up trucking permits due to new regulations on the Montana/Idaho border. Dinner Tuesday is late and another early departure Wednesday morning requires retiring early for the evening.

“You have to love the sport; it’s more than just a cool job,” says Tom Boyington, in charge of the “rack” of pistons and rods. I find it harder to put into words as I estimate how difficult it has been to keep up with these guys for a week and multiply it times 23 race weeks. I’m usually scratching my head as to where we are, where we are staying and where I’m to be next … but don’t tell the Road Mom.

Seattle pit parking opens Wednesday in carnival fashion. Trucks, rigs, and vehicles get bathed by their crews and wait in endless lines scratching slowly along on their way to find assigned spots. Aligning the trucks and setting up the proper pit area takes a few hours in between the Seattle raindrops.

Thursday is prep day with another 8 a.m. departure from the hotel. A small city has sprung up around the cherished black strip. Track officials are already busy heating, rearranging, and grooming it for the incoming mechanical monsters which will soon scream down its grooved surface.

A new chassis is brought out of the trailer, surveyed, and cleaned in preparation for building it up from a bare bone frame. On Monday after racing, this skeleton will grow into a bright new shiny blue and yellow racer.

MTS tire technician Wes Knop picks over new tires at the Goodyear booth like his mother does buying new apples. Goodyear delivers tires to every race since space is limited aboard the two MTS semi trucks. Knop makes sure he is early. He wants to single out the best tires based on straight lines chalked around the outside diameter. This will indicate whether a tire will roll true.

Thursday ends early. The crew starts heading home at 4 p.m.

I awake Friday with a tinge of excitement and anticipation for the first qualifying sessions. Qualifying doesn’t start until mid afternoon and, with possible rain delays pushing racing into the evening, the crew is allowed a late morning start of 10 a.m.

As I get off the hotel elevator, I hear a lady mention she is glad it’s Friday so she can get home from a week’s worth of business travel. I sit down to let the words flow over my laptop once again, and the lady’s words keep ringing in my ears…

And so the show begins again in Seattle.

Signing off,
From the Road

Monday, July 16, 2007

Winning on my first day out


Super Bowl, Kentucky Derby, The Masters, Wimbledon, World Series, the Final Four … can they possibly come close to matching the adrenaline of winning four rounds and claiming a nitro Funny Car victory on Sunday afternoon?

I was dropped off at 9 a.m. Sunday at Denver's Bandimere race track with suitcase in hand to finally catch up with the Mail Terminal Services Funny Car team I've been assigned to join. Feeling the butterflies of a new kid on their first day to school, I was relieved when National DRAGSTER photographer Jerry Foss soon showed up to help break the ice by "staging" several photos with crew members. Little did I know that 10 hours later I would be writing about what it is like to be a member of a winning Funny Car team.

Where do I start? The fast-paced action in the pit rushes the heart and keeps the juices flowing unlike anything I've ever experienced. In between runs the MTS crew quickly picked apart their blue and yellow Funny Car like vultures on a carcass. It gave the term Chinese fire drill a whole new perspective. My contribution was dumping used oil into a barrel, carrying fuel bottles for mixing, and helping driver Jack Beckman pack his chutes. We packed them three times to be exact; that's the number required to win it all. Oh, and I stayed out of the way.

Lunch wasn't an option and bottles of water and POWERade were gulped down during rides to the staging area and breaks for track maintenance. While the crew occasionally came up with a quick joke or two, there wasn't much talking throughout the day. Chatting takes too much concentration away from missing a damaged part or loose fitting.

During the semifinals, cylinder head specialist Jim Marcellus sacrificed his pants when they were shredded by the starter. Beckman later said it was tough concentrating before the start with all of the Fruit of the Loom flying around. Marcellus was fortunate. There were no injuries and I scrambled over to the Oakley/Mopar team and found colleague Rod Centorbi, another cylinder head specialist. Not only do Jim and Rod have the same size cylinders, but they share the same waist size.

On the ride to the staging lanes before the final round, I absorbed the electricity in the air as the clouds started hanging over the Rocky Mountain foothills. Weather had nothing to do with it. This was the high energy connection which awakens one's senses when everything around them seems like a dream. This final wink on an eye moment – 4.93 seconds to be exact - was what had held tens of thousands of fans together all day, and I was standing in the middle of it.

So with camera in hand, I recorded for history the joys and hugs, delight and exultation, of the nine young men I had only met hours before as they watched their driver scream down the track and into the Bandimere record books on July 15, 2007. I say they are young men since I have bragging rights as the oldest team member at 49. Perhaps time to shave the beard?

On the way to the shutdown area to retrieve Jack, I wondered why I was the only one sitting inside the Durango. I soon found out. The guys were standing on the vehicle and hanging out the windows waving and cheering to the crowd in what is the victory lap of drag racing. Better I stayed out of the way again. People coming up to shake my hand and congratulate me, the imposter, brought on some feelings of guilt. It was soon tempered, however, with the warmth and camaraderie of the MTS members. These guys are great!

Afterwards, I just stood there and stared at it: "POWERade 2007 NHRA Event Champion." To some it may have only been a hat, but to me it was much more.

That hat represented the weeks and months of sweat, effort and disappointments for the MTS team; and I was truly humbled. Team member Dave Fears received the traditional POWERade shower for first time winners. It took Dave 16 years to finally make it into the winners circle as a crew member, yet I was standing next to him on my first day on the team. Life certainly isn't fair.

The winner’s circle included a continuous stream of photos taken with a dozen different sponsored hats. Crew members along with Beckman and crew chief Todd Okuhara were given a new hat every couple of minutes for promotional shots. In a flurry of camera shutters and photographer commands, I couldn't help but wonder where all of these pictures were going to end up.

But what was really puzzling were all of the hats. Certainly a windfall for me, but none of the crew members I was around all day even wore hats. Where do all of these hats end up?

At the end of the day, I asked team owner Don Schumacher about my bonus for the win and he replied that I'm already overpaid. I'm working for free, but he is absolutely correct. The compensation I received Sunday in being accepted by a band of men that so love their work and each other that it finally exploded onto the race track in the form of a Jack Beckman MTS victory is a memory that will last forever. As they say, priceless!

Signing off,
From the Road

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Doing the homework

With pen, notepad, and laptop in tow I decided to accept an invitation to join the Don Schumacher Racing team in Denver this week. I sported a brand new beard for the occasion -- my wife hates it -- as I thought it might help me fit in as an outsider. However, in preparing to join the Jack Beckman Mail Terminal Services team I soon realized few on DSR had facial hair. It reminded me of the time Don Schumacher was single and grew a goatee. Oh well. With my limited knowledge of the sport I’m bound to stick out anyway.

My assignment is to get up to speed on the NHRA, and the learning curve has not been easy. Especially when one is non-mechanical, non-racing and basically non-knowing. Given some direction, I have dove into National DRAGSTER magazine and NHRA.com on a weekly basis. I became an NHRA member and started asking a lot of questions to anyone that would listen.

My first field trip was attending the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame banquet in Gainesville last March so I could watch my friend Don Schumacher receive recognition along with nine other worthy recipients. While there I visited the amazing “Big Daddy” Garlits’ Museum of Drag Racing. Highlights of the tour included finding Garlits himself interviewing away in front of a camera explaining various racing exhibits. However, when I saw “Big Daddy” had problems hearing the interviewer’s questions, I made a mental note to get headphones before I joined the racing circuit. By the way, the museum is a fantastic collection and walk through of hot rod history. I would encourage anyone to stop by the I95 exit just south of Gainesville.

Sterotyping is the way of the world and I reluctantly plead guilty as charged. The professionalism of those in attendance at the Hall of Fame induction was impressive. Whether team owners, drivers, crew chiefs or support personnel, the level of business savvy and intellect of the NHRA far surpassed my expectations and humbled me. This is an organization that displays some of the most talented businessmen and athletes in the country. These guys and gals are at the top of their game and are leaders in a wide variety of non-related industries. NHRA is one of the world’s best-kept secrets. And that’s where I enter in.

My job these next few weeks is to tell the inside drag racing story through a couple of books I’m working on. Writing a novel is a serious undertaking and requires getting out of one’s comfort level. I thought I’d share some of the questions that I’ve asked already that have taken me far outside my comfort level:

- What is a tire machine?

- Is a blower some kind of A/C unit for the driver to stay cool on the track?

- What does a wind tunnel have to do with preparing for a motorcycle race and would that provide a good photo shoot for Angelle Sampey?

- Why does Rod Fuller drive an all white car without a sponsor?

- Wouldn’t it be dangerous to have a dragster in reverse at the start of a race like Tommy Johnson Jr. said he did as a rookie?

- Would Robert Hight be faster racing his dragster with his feet while sitting in his escape hatch?

- Does John Force get extra points for managing Charlie’s Angels?

- And the all time funny (no pun intended). When do I get my chance to race a Top Fuel car down the track?

Intimidation factors into asking a professional some of these questions, especially for a guy that doesn’t know a gasket from a crankshaft – well, I take that back. I do remember the crankshaft from the Revell clear plastic V-8 engine kit that I built as a kid. It even had spark plugs that lit up when it ran on battery power. Actually, mine didn’t run but that’s another story.

For some, the opportunity to spend three whole weeks traveling and working with a top Funny Car team would be heartstopping. For me, it just makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up from fear.

I’m going to keep my head low; stay out of trouble; and hopefully come back every week with an informative and entertaining report.

Until then, signing off… From the road.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Welcome to the road

I’m an imposter.

I’ve landed a spot with an NHRA race team during the Western Swing from Denver to Seattle to Sonoma. My official job: Clean Up and Stay Out of the Way.

Anyway, that’s what my friend Don Schumacher said when he agreed to give me a firsthand look at the life of a NHRA team member. He also said not to “grow” on people. Years of friendship have told him that I’ve got a tendency to ask questions and talk a lot when I find something intriguing.

Racing a machine for less than five seconds that roars like an atomic explosion and must be torn apart every two hours seemed intriguing enough to me. So does a show that attracts more than two million racing fans a year on tracks from Seattle to Gainesville. Whether Top Fuel competition at an NHRA national event or just plain stock drag racing at a local strip on Friday night, the drag racing universe continues to grow in numbers and stature.

Becoming an active team member of Don Schumacher Racing feels like winning some sort of NHRA contest when a few lucky chosen are allowed to go down to the staging area. Except not only will I be in the staging area, but also in the pits, trailers, at the hotel, and on the road.

So, in the words of George Plimpton, another imposter who briefly played quarterback to write about inside the NFL Detroit Lions in a book called Paper Lion, let the presses roll.

My job for the next three weeks will be to learn everything there is to know about the life of NHRA. You may say that is an impossible job, and you are right. But during the ride I hope to gain a perspective that not many enjoy. I hope to amass the beginnings of what will become a published Schumacher team biography. I also hope to continue to amass the ammunition required to finish my fiction novel, Burning More Than Rubber.

You may ask how I made my way to DSR in the first place. It happened during a routine trip to Las Vegas where I met “The Donald” himself on the other end of a golf club. Even though I have known Don Schumacher for almost two decades, it took me years to find out he was a professional racer -- yet only seconds to find out he wasn’t a professional golfer. Don’s connection to Las Vegas dates to the 1970s when his Stardust Funny Cars were the result of his father’s solicitation of the casino sponsor whose name graced Don’s Plymouth Barracudas.

Little did I know when I met Don in 1989 that he would get back into drag racing in 1998 and quickly score a national Top Fuel championship with son Tony. DSR is one-of-a-kind. It is a creature that has evolved and thrived within a competitive cottage industry. Nowhere will you find as much info and gather an inside look from seven different drivers and teams in four divisions including Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle. No where will you find the years of experience within one racing organization. DSR is not only unique within NHRA; it is unique in all of auto racing today, period. Okay, enough about Don already!

I’m happy and honored to be named a member of Jack Beckman’s Mail Terminal Services crew. Hopefully I’ll fit in without “growing” on anyone. Anything that helps NHRA get more into mainstream American sports is a good thing in my opinion. Hopefully my efforts to highlight the hard working men and women of the NHRA will bring in more fans and participants into the exciting sport of drag racing.

With that mission in mind I’m signing off… From the Road.