Championship Drag Racing

NHRA Nationals
Las Vegas, NV
(April 6-9)

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Driver Profile
Phil Burkart

Burkart eager to replay 2004 Vegas win this weekend

Las Vegas, prerace: In 2004, Phil Burkart came to Las Vegas just beginning his tenure as the full-time driver of the blue Checker, Schuck's, Kragen Funny Car. His late-season audition in '03 had gone well enough to earn him the ride on a permanent basis, and though things weren't going exactly poorly at the first three races in '04, Burkart did enter the Vegas event outside the POWERade top ten with a 2-3 record. When he left the track on Sunday night, his record was 6-3, he was in 5th place in POWERade points, and he had a hefty golden trophy under his arm.

This week, Burkart again will bring his blue Checker, Schuck's, Kragen Monte Carlo to "The Strip" at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, but when we begins qualifying on Friday he will be doing so from a much different perspective. In both 2004 and 2005, Burkart and his team were clearly struggling when they arrived in Las Vegas. The big win in '04 righted the ship and sent Burkart on his way to the only top ten finish of his career, but last year a first round loss and a devastating engine explosion dropped Burkart out of the top ten, and he was never to find his way back in. This is 2006, however, and Phil Burkart seems to be a new man. A new man with the same crew, the same car, and much of the same equipment, but a new man nonetheless. He currently sits 4th in the POWERade points, and has consistently managed to win at least one round at every race to this point.

"It's hard to put your finger on what we've done, but things are different around here," Burkart said. "We've maximized our good stuff, minimized our mistakes, and made the most of what we've done. To this point, no one on this team thinks we've even hit our stride yet, but we're hanging around near the top of the points and we're beating some very good teams. We can still improve, and we plan to get a little bit better this weekend.

"A couple of years ago, we were still just learning how to work together as a group and we managed to come out of here with a huge win. I can remember standing at the end of the track surrounded by announcers and sponsors, but no teammates, while I waited for the guys to get down there after we won. I wanted to celebrate, but I needed my boys. I was kind of in shock, really, but when they all got down there and we got to let loose, it hit home what we had done. It's such an amazing feeling."

So far this season, Burkart has recorded a win over defending POWERade champ Gary Scelzi, along with victories over past champions John Force and Cruz Pedregon. All he's missing is a win over Tony Pedregon to have beaten every Funny Car champion since 1990, and this season is only four races old. Should he line up next to Tony Pedregon on Sunday in Las Vegas, you can place your bets on Burkart having no thought about his opponent or the other champs he has defeated. Instead, Burkart will only be focusing on his job, and the race track.

"We manage to beat some very tough opponents around here, not just this year but the last couple of years too," Burkart said. "To do that, you can't be thinking that it's John Force over there, or Gary Scelzi, or whoever it is. You have to think of what the track will give you, and I have to think of what I can do to help the team as the driver. When you do that, you minimize the stupid mistakes you can make when you try to do too much. Just think about all the rounds John Force has won over the years when the other team thought they needed to do something incredible to beat him. Those champions can intimidate some teams, and force them to make dumb mistakes, but we try to ignore that and just run our race. We don't always succeed, but we do it enough to ruin their day a lot of times."

Helping his capable team grab a few wins has been Burkart's specialty so far in 2006. His cat-like reactions at the starting line are made evident by his terrific reaction time average, which currently stands at just .056-seconds. Long known as a good leaver, Burkart has stepped it up a notch this season while he also develops into a much better driver through the full 1,320-feet.

"There have been a few times throughout the last few years when I knew I'd let the guys down a little," Burkart said. "Every driver goes through that because none of us are perfect. You may get left on, or you may let the car get out of the groove, and when you do that there's nowhere to hide. Coming into this season, I was focused on doing the best possible job I could inside the car. It's more than just good reaction times, it's also being ahead of the car, in control of things, and cool under pressure.

"I've become a believer that it takes a number of years for a person to really become a competent Funny Car driver. I'd heard people before compare it to becoming a really successful quarterback in the NFL. No matter how good you look when you come into the league, there's a ton to learn and it just takes time. Here, it's a long process to get enough seat time to gain the sort of experience the champions have. I'm getting there, and I plan to keep getting better."

If he does that, he'll most certainly continue to ruin the day for many other drivers. And he may just find his way back to that exciting place, waiting for his teammates to join him, holding that hefty golden trophy.

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