National Hot Rod Association Media Conference
August 23, 2012
THE MODERATOR: We welcome the media and the drivers who are joining us to todays teleconference to preview the 58th annual Mac Tools U.S. Nationals presented by Auto‑Plus. The worlds most prestigious drag race will be held August 29 to September 3 at historic Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis in Brownsburg, Indiana. The race is the 17th and final regular season event. It is the last chance for drivers to qualify for the top 10 and secure a spot in the Full Throttle Countdown to the Championship, NHRAs six‑race playoffs, which begins September 14 to 16 at zMAX Dragway in Charlotte, North Carolina.
On todays teleconference we will talk with some of the Bubble Boys who are looking to grab one of the final playoff spots in their respective categories at the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals. We will be joined on the call by two drivers in Pro Stock: Larry Morgan and Jeg Coughlin; four drivers in Funny Car: Jeff Rend, Bob Casca, Matt Hagan and Tim Wilkerson; and two drivers in Top Fuel: Bob Vandergriff and Clay Millican.
We will break each group into three segments in the call, with Pro Stock first, followed by Funny Car and then Top Fuel.
So we are going to start with veteran driver, Larry Morgan who pilots the Lucas Oil Ford Mustang.
Larry, you have not made it past the second round this year, eight quarterfinal exits and you've hovered on the bubble all season long. You've qualified for the Countdown playoffs in 2007. Are you pumped to try and make it back this year?
LARRY MORGAN: Well, it's so close right now, and I am pumped. But you know what, there's four guys that can get in. And each and every one of us better have our act together. That's the only way we are going to get in. It's just so tight.
Qualifying points mean a big thing now, and we just have to do well.
THE MODERATOR: With Indy being such a big race, what's your strategy going to be for the weekend with everything going on? You have an extra qualifying session, which is potential for more bonus points. Do you have anything like lined out?
LARRY MORGAN: We do have a test plan put together, Jeg and myself, are going to Michigan to test next week and both of us need to pick our cars up in the front part of the track. I think we both have plenty enough to qualify well and do well but we have got to get our heads out of our rear ends on the front part of the track and we are both terrible at that point.
To your question, I mean, the test plan, we do have that extra run, and we do have to take advantage of that.
THE MODERATOR: We have our four‑time Pro Stock world champion, Jeg Coughlin, driver of the JEGs.com/Mopar Dodge Avenger. Jeg has had one runner‑up finish this season and five quarterfinal exits this season. Jeg, as a four‑time champ in the class, this is kind of rare territory for you to be battling to make it into a Top‑10.
JEG COUGHLIN: It certainly has been a building year for us, which I don't think we anticipated this much of that kind of effort.
But you know, as Larry has mentioned and as you'll hear with all of the professional classes, the competitiveness right now in the sport, in NHRA Drag Racing, is really second to none. When we look at the lineup, as you mentioned, from Shane Grey to myself, Ronny Humphrey, and even Roger is a little distant in the 13th spot, there's still mathematically a lot of really good drivers, really good teams that are capable of getting into this elite Top‑10 challenge for the Full Throttle Pro Stock championship.
I can tell when you we started our new program and our alliance with Mopar and JEGS in 2012, that we want to have this car in that Top‑10; and as Larry echoed, we have got some big plans the first of the week before we led over to Indy and trying to get the efficiency of our car to behave a little better in the first, really, 200 to 300 feet. We are running the back half pretty well, meaning we are showing good speeds and horsepower, but our acceleration and the way we are navigating the front of the track has been lacking.
The Countdown, it's doing exactly what we have designed it to do, and that's create some excitement, create some drama and show the fans in the sport that there's a lot going on at all times.
And that's I think what's exciting at this point when you talk to myself, and here we are on the outside of this bubble, looking to climb in there and we have been in situations like this, volleying for world championships, and it feels no different, I can promise you. It's going to be exciting.
The granddaddy of them all, the U.S. Nationals, is going to be worked up more than ever this year, certainly in our camp, and we are looking to go in and make no mistakes and get our program in the Top‑10 and go for this championship.
THE MODERATOR: Jeg, you've proven to be master of the Countdown format in recent years as two of your titles have come in Countdown seasons. You've been in the playoffs four times, you've had countless big pressure races during your career and probably many different categories. How will all of that experience help you going into next weekend?
JEG COUGHLIN: You know, when you look back, you would say it's worked out pretty well and as you look forward, you challenge yourself, you challenge your team to go out and try to make that zero tolerance effort, make no mistakes; that's in the pit area and that is in preparing the car and that's in the tune ups and that's in the set ups. Then they have to put me behind the wheel and try to let me get out and do my thing in a class and in a sport that's separated by 10,000th of a second.
It can be anyone's game. On the optimistic side, we looked at win lights‑‑ first we have to get qualified, qualify well. Don't let me get the cart before the horse here. We need to turn some win lights on Monday.
I can remember 2007, first year of the Countdown, winning on Sunday at Pomona, in front of an amazing crowd is probably one of the more electrifying events in my career. And I can tell you I'm feeling a lot of those things going on right now within myself and our team. Stay tuned. It's going to be awesome.
THE MODERATOR: With this kind of drama, do you feel like that it's kind of similar to being in a championship?
LARRY MORGAN: Yes, I do. I feel the same way Jeg does. We really have to be prepared on every part of the car: The driver, engine tune‑up, the track tune‑up. We can't miss in order to stay in this and have a shot to win the championship.
We have got to get in this to have a shot to win the championship, and then we are going to have guys out there protecting their positions. Richie Stevens is going to be running, Dave Connelly is going to be running. It's going to be kind of tough for the bottom cars qualifying to stay in and I'm just hoping that we are in a position that we make the right moves and move forward.
THE MODERATOR: Jeg, your family has had a lot of succession at Indy; does that give you confidence going to the track?
JEG COUGHLIN: Confidence is certainly at an all‑time high right now, I feel great behind the wheel, which is real exciting. If we can improve our performances on track, obviously that can answer a lot of questions.
Indy has been a great track for us, I can recall, think it was '75, when it felt like 110 degrees, I was five years old, cheering my dad on in the Alcohol Dragster class and I have not missed many since then. It's going to be a good event, so I think confidence is high right now.
Q. I wanted to ask you about Allen Johnson, and Allen has certainly been in this a long time, but certainly having quite a season. What is he kind of going through and can you talk about when you have that success, even with this format, it certainly doesn't guarantee anything once the playoffs start? How challenging is that?
JEG COUGHLIN: Well, I think that's probably first and foremost, the Countdown format has certainly played that out many times since 2007 where the frontrunner throughout the season ends up falling on a little hard times in the six‑race Countdown, and voila, they are out of championship contention. That's the game we sign up for and you have to be prepared for the format.
I think AJ right now, they have obviously a lot of horsepower and they are doing a really good job of using it efficiently, and not just on Q1, not just on Q2; throughout the entire event.
They have certainly racked up a great record this year in 2012 thus far, and they I'm sure would say they have missed a few opportunities, too, as quick as they have been. Nothing more than any of us on this call and any of the classes would like to be the front‑running car and earning the No.1 for the session bonus points. Those are huge, as well.
But I think the format is playing out as it should, and it will be interesting to see how Indy shapes out and then as we start the Countdown in Charlotte, it's a whole new ballgame at that point, and the intensity, race to race to race, the way it elevates, is really‑‑ it is pretty special, actually.
Q. How did you ride, though?
JEG COUGHLIN: You know, you've got to have a great team behind you. You have to have great confidence in your crew and crew chiefs in making the calls to give you as a driver the confidence to get behind the wheel and do what you've got to do.
In our case, we have always been a fast car and we have never been a dominant car like AJ is right now, or like some of the KB cars have been in the past.
So I had to just fire myself up in different ways, knowing if I might need a hundredth, or two or three off the starting line, what the game plan is going to be; to wave that want so to speak. You have to keep focus and that confidence level high to be able to get out and perform; and you have to have the team behind you to push you down the racetrack in that manner.
Q. This time of year in baseball, they always start scoreboard watching, and looking at the team they have to catch to make the playoffs and what they are doing on a given day. So in this situation, when you get to the U.S. Nationals, and especially when you get to the eliminations, are you looking at the other guy you're trying to catch to see what he does, and does that affect the setup of the car and things you may change, depending on where the guy or guys are that you have to beat to get in the Countdown, how they are running that given moment; is that different from other events in a regular‑‑ as the season goes along?
LARRY MORGAN: You do pay attention to it, but actually you really kind of put your nose to the grindstone and just do the best you can do, because in order to stay in this, we have to do well.
But do we look at that? Absolutely. I look at Jeg's less than a point‑‑ I think you're a point behind me. But if he goes out and qualifies‑‑ the rounds is what counts at this point. And there's a couple guys that ‑‑ if I don't win the first round, I'm out of there, and that's the bottom line.
So I have to prepare for everything happening there. And I'm sure Jeg feels the same way.
JEG COUGHLIN: It's hard to go into a situation as we have watched it the last several weeks, to go in there with blinders on and stay 100 percent focused to see how things unfold.
You don't wish any evils on any of your opponents, but you are certainly are in it to win it yourself. And I think as Larry and Co have said this week already, every point is going to count. It's the final race. We need to win some rounds. And I know in both of our cases, we are certainly capable of it. And that's what's going to make it exciting.
Q. For both drivers, I wonder what your thoughts are on the U.S. Nationals, being the last race before‑‑ is it good positioning for that race?
LARRY MORGAN: I think it is. I mean, you're coming down to the end and I believe it's probably the best time. I mean, you add one part and start another. I think that's what this whole Countdown is about. I think it's great myself. I'm sure Jeg feels the same way.
JEG COUGHLIN: Yeah, I would echo the same.
Q. For Jeg and Larry, talking about the U.S. Nationals, it's a big thing, and having to go rounds to stay in to get into the playoff and Countdown; fans don't always get to really feel that. They get to watch all these events, but is there a special way you prepare for that? Could you kind of take a fan through what you go through to try to handle the extra pressure?
JEG COUGHLIN: Certainly a good question. Putting myself in a fan's perspective, you know, you're rooting for a number of teams or your favorite driver, and in my case, I'm outside of this Top‑10, and to put them in kind of a front row seat, I mean, it's a make or break situation.
It's just like a round in NHRA drag racing, if you don't turn the win light on, you're done. I think that's what Larry echoed a minute ago and what I would again here. It is that cutthroat right now, it is that intense, and, you know, you just need a little lady luck. You've prepared all year to put yourself in a position to be in the Countdown, and you just have to put your best foot forward and see how things turn out.
THE MODERATOR: That will wrap up our questions, we thank both Jeg and Larry for joining us on the car. Good luck at Indy.
We'll move on to our drivers in Funny Car. We are joined by three of our Funny Car drivers, Bob Tasca in the lanes at Indy making a test run, but we do have Jeff Arend, who is in ninth place, who drives the DHL Toyota Camery; we also have 11th place Matt Hagan, who drives the Aaron's/Mopar Dod Charger, and 12th place Tim Wilkerson, driver of the Levi Ray & Shoup Ford Shelby Mustang. These drivers are separated by 39 points, which is basically less than two rounds of racing.
We'll go ahead and start with Jeff, who has had a pretty good season with one win, two semis and five quarterfinal finishes. Does it speak to how competitive Funny Car is that a guy with a win can still be fighting to make it into the playoffs at the last regular‑season race?
JEFF AREND: Yeah, no kidding. We had a really good year this year so far. And it was looking good there for a while, but I tell you, Tim and Matt really stepped up their game lately and that's just the way things go.
You can't think about the other guys who are going to race, and we had a couple chances to race Matt and slow him down a little bit. He's really stepped up and that's the way things go. Certainly makes things exciting, that's for sure.
THE MODERATOR: How have you planned to handle the pressure of next weekend, trying to make it into the playoffs?
JEFF AREND: I'll tell you, we brought a new car out ‑‑ before bringing it, made one run on it before we went to Brainerd and showed a lot of promise.
I'm really happy with the way the car is running, with the calls the guys are making on the car and the way everything is going. I'm not overly worried about it. It is pretty tight, obviously. We have basically two rounds on Matt and on Tim, and that's not really including qualifying points. But I would rather go in there with a two‑round lead than two rounds behind obviously but there's only four rounds left.
I like our chances right now. Got a lot of confidence. Not overly worried but we'll see how things go.
THE MODERATOR: Next up is our defending Funny Car world champion, Matt Hagan. Yes, you heard that right, defending world champion. Matt and his team got off to a very slow start this season but has really gained a bunch of points in the last three races with runner‑up finishes in Sonoma and Seattle and a semifinal at Brainerd.
Matt, it seems like your team has a ton of momentum going into Indy and you all have found your stride.
MATT HAGAN: We had a horrible year this year. Nobody expected us to come out and struggle the way we have. But that's life and that's what you do and that's what you have to deal with.
It's just been nice that we have finally got combinations in the car that the car has responded and the car is finally coming around. We put a combo in there the last couple races and we have been in two finals and a semi since we have had it in there. Why we didn't do that a long time ago, I don't know, but I'm just glad it's in there now and we still have a fighting chance to go out there and do this thing.
We still have a big hill to climb. Bob Tasca is in front of us and it's just a matter of getting out there and making big plays and stepping up to the plate and trying to knock it out of the park. But things have got to line up, too, and we have had that happen for us. If Tasca goes out and wins a race, we can't change this that.
Obviously our plan is to go out and win the race, you can't change what other people do, you can only control what you have available in front of you and that's what we have to focus on, is going out there, digging deep, keep on time, keeping it in the groove, turning the win light on and the rest will take care of itself.
THE MODERATOR: After the tough regular season that you've had, are you pleased to have a shot at it? Two years ago you were runner‑up, and last year you won the championship, so just now to be in it, you've seen somebody win from tenth place.
MATT HAGAN: Yeah, obviously you have to be pleased to have a shot at this deal. I mean, we won it from sixth place last year. You just have to be in it to win it.
That's what our boss is about here. Don Schumacher Racing cares nothing about anything but championships and winning. And when you've got a guy that is that competitive and he's knocking on a trailer door every weekend about what's going on and how are you guys going to get this done, it's pretty important for us to be in there to run for a championship.
For our sponsors, as well, they want to be on TV and they want to do this deal. Sponsors are what keep us afloat out here, for Aaron's/Mopar Dod, they need it just as much as we do.
THE MODERATOR: Our last Funny Car driver, Tim Wilkerson, has a runner‑up finish and two semis on his scorecard for 2012. Hes a past winner of the U.S. Nationals and has been to the finals two times. Does that give you any confidence going into this race, knowing that you've done it before at Indy?
TIM WILKERSON: To me it's just another racetrack. We are just going to go there and do the best we can like Matt and Jeff already iterated for me, it's just a matter of being in the right place at the right time. We have all had good luck and bad luck in the last few races.
Jeff and I probably need to get together to get John Paul to put up enough money that we can just have Matt and Bob kidnapped, and we don't worry about that. What do you think about that, Jeff?
JEFF AREND: Sounds good to me.
TIM WILKERSON: We already got Bob. He's already out. Everything thinks he's out there testing; but he's gone; we got rid of him.
We are all in the same boat here. We all have got good cars and the beginning of the year, you knew there was going to be three or four good cars that would not make it to the Top 10. I mean if you look at the big picture, John Force was unlucky to not be one of the two, he was right there and if it was not for a mishap that Alexis had, he would be talking just like the rest of us.
So lady luck plays a lot into what happens.
THE MODERATOR: You've been a part of the Countdown playoffs the last fewer years and finished a career‑best second in 2008. I know you want to keep that streak going; what's your strategy going to be for the race weekend next weekend?
TIM WILKERSON: We had a good car the last three or four races, and we talked about this last weekend at Brainerd when we ran well there a couple times there, got back to talk to the crew and my wife and I are talking about it going down the road. It's like, how do we get in the better position like years ago? Well, it was let's stop being such a sissy, got to be more aggressive, and that's the way it goes. Showed that at Brainerd that we could be and our car can run good if we can do that.
That's our mind‑set going in, and these guys know that. They are not fools. We know that each other's cars can run as well as the other at any given time, and we just have to be able to go in there and not make any mistakes.
THE MODERATOR: I've been told Bob has made it to the phone and is joining us. He's holding on to that 10th spot right now and he has a runner‑up finish and a semifinal finish and several second round finishes.
Bob, you've qualified for the playoffs the last three seasons, I know you want to also make it in this year. What's your thoughts on having this many quality drivers battling for a couple of spots there?
BOB TASCA: We have them right where we want 'em.
I tell you, obviously, very disappointing season overall. I said to myself last year coming to this race, let's not put ourselves in this position. But we are where we are, and it's going to be a lot of drama. We are going to get a lot of TV time, me, Matt, Tim and Jeff Arend and the fans come to see is an exciting conclusion; to this playoff berth anyways.
But the bottom line is we are going to go out and run as hard as we can run and it will be what it will be. You have some great cars with Hagan and Arend and Wilkerson; we are all basically four cars fighting for two spots.
You know, end of the day, it's going to be what it's going to be and we are out here testing here today just trying to give ourselves the best shot. We had a car that was more consistent on Friday than Saturday all season, and truthfully, the last three races, we have not been much consistent on Friday or Saturday.
So we will put a little different setup on the car. Like what Matt said, when you get the right combination, things come together and hopefully that happens for us at Indy.
THE MODERATOR: Over the years in the Countdown, we have seen quite a bit of drama at Indy with drivers coming down to the line to make it into the playoffs. Do you expect this one to be one of the most intense?
BOB TASCA: I said at the start of the season, this will be most competitive season we have ever seen in Funny Car; just to make the Top‑10 is going to be a real challenge. And you know, obviously it's all played out that way, very competitive season, and up‑and‑down, the teams here, and obviously this is going to go down to the wire.
Hagan could go down to the final round, who gets in and doesn't get in. It's great for the fans; it's great for the sport. That's what it's all about to really build some excitement going into the championship run.
Truthfully, I would rather not be in this story line, but we are not going to go down without a fight and like I said, you just have some tremendous teams out there that compete for these last two spots.
Q. Matt, we are talking about four guys going after two spots, but does that change your strategy and your preparation over had it been just two guys going for one spot?
MATT HAGAN: Not for us. You have to go out and run as hard as you can run every time you bring your car up to the line; that's the bottom line. You race the racetrack, and whatever is going to unfold is going to unfold. So I can tell you from our perspective, it's not going to change our philosophy.
BOB TASCA: I don't think it really matters as far as whether it's two guys, one guy, four guys, whatever, trying to get in this deal. It's going to come down to one ultimate spot. Obviously makes it more competitive but that's one of the things where your chances are just a little bit spread out a little bit more.
Like the championship last year came down to three guys in the semifinals, instead of one guy or two guys you're trying to beat out. But the end result is the same, you have to go out and do your job and focus on the task at hand.
Q. Do you think that the fans are going to get a better show because of the situation?
MATT HAGAN: Well, I think that if the media plays it up the right way, they will. It's one of those things that that you guys can make it as big as you want it. It's very competitive out there and there are some great cars and great teams and great sponsors that are really trying to get this thing going.
As far as the fans, it's just about the biggest show as we can make for them anyway. We are out here to win races and win championships.
Q. Matt, you've been in championship battles. Can you compare this? Is it like a championship battle? I think back to 2008, you went to the U.S. Nationals with your own team and just trying to make the show. Can you give me a sense, does this compare to 2008 in what you're trying to do in that situation, the pressure that you might have felt, or is it almost like what you've gone through in your championship battle?
MATT HAGAN: Absolutely. Without getting into this deal, there is no championship, so you feel the pressure there. I think that if anybody said there's no pressure, it's no big deal would be lying. It's just a matter of dealing with the pressure.
You know what I did in the championship deal is basically minimize what you have control over. You focus on what you can change out there. You know, if you worry about the guy beside you or who is bolting the heads on or what this guy in the next lane is doing, you get overwhelmed with the situation.
For me it's no different than going up there and doing the same thing I'm used to doing, and that's all I can control out there. So the pressure is there. There's no doubt about it. But it just a matter of really dealing with the pressure and making sure that you're doing the right things and that you're not a weak link in the chain.
Q. With all of the success that you've had the last couple of years to go through the struggles of this season, how has that‑‑ I guess what have you learned from that? How has that made you better? Obviously everybody doesn't want to go through those things. How has that challenge been for you personally, with all of the success you've had through the last couple of years, and what you went through with the early part of the season, would you think that would be easy to tear somebody up and maybe potentially prevent them from having such an opportunity as what you have this weekend or next weekend?
MATT HAGAN: It's obviously been a very humbling year this year and you have to learn to deal with that. Obviously we all have egos out here and we all have pride and we all want to beat on our chests and say, look what I did. In drag racing, you have ten guys that are wrenching on the car and two crew chiefs and assistant crew chief and everybody has to do their job.
This year, sometimes it's a helpless feeling and you just have to sit back and let it unfold. There are some things that you just can't change that are out of your control. You know, that's what I've had to learn to deal with this year is just feeling kind of helpless and no matter what you say or want to do, it doesn't really change a lot of things.
So being a driver for an organization and not having a lot of say in the deal, it's not really up to me. So I just kind of have to sit back and watch a lot of things unfold and know that in the back of your mind that you've got good quality people around you and you've had good guys that are doing their job and showing up and really caring about what they are doing and they all have one common goal. Still when you don't run well, it's still hard to keep that in the foresight of everything.
It's been tough for me to deal with it a little bit but on the flipside, you know, we have won world championships, three world records in the last two years and a handful of races. I know what our team is capable of doing this and getting it done. I really believe in them and I believe in my crew chief and I believe in everybody. That's why we are all still together and nobody has jumped ship. We are just ready to go out and hunt this thing down, and we are really making sure we are doing everything we can to give ourselves a chance in the Countdown to run for the championship.
TIM WILKERSON: That's why it's going to be so much fun making sure you don't get that done. (Laughter) Matt forgot to mention his other four crew chiefs, too.
MATT HAGAN: There's a big brain trust over there. So it's our own fault if we don't get it done.
Q. With the crew chief being the driver‑‑ how do you feel‑‑ are you going to step it up? Stand on it a little harder and see if you can't work yourself into some of the bonus point that is make it a little bit easier should you go some rounds?
TIM WILKERSON: Yeah, that's kind of what I was talking about earlier. We did that at Brainerd a little bit. I picked up a half a round there on Matt doing that. If I can get that done, then I'll be within one round of him and that's kind of the show that we are trying to put on, there's no doubt about it.
But let's face facts. If we don't pick up those points, we are handicapping ourselves in the first place. So getting in the show is not even going to be a thought in my mind. Getting in the show as deep as I can and hoping that as the tree falls down, like last weekend, it really did not work out well for any of us. All of the Schumacher cars were on one side of ladder, and that didn't work out well for any of us, because none of us could beat him and get out of Matt's way, so that doesn't work out well.
To me if it all falls better, like Jeff said, he had a chance to race Matt a couple of times and get him out of there and he didn't get it done. So that's his fault. Not that I'm just picking on Matt. It's just obviously he's the‑‑ he's what we would all expect to be the toughest guy to deal with because he has the most behind him.
Anyhow that's the way I look at it. We'll be swinging for the fence every run, and if we come down to the fifth qualifying and we are not in, we might slide her down there then. But you're right; until then, we are looking for every point we can get.
Q. Jeff and Matt and Bob, are you going to be talking to the crew chiefs about the same thing?
JEFF AREND: We want to get in good obviously and then after that, on some of those rounds, you don't have to run all that quick, like the lightning fast runs will be during the day. The bonus points are going to make a little bit of a difference, I don't think quite as much with us; with Matt being 30 behind and Timmy being 39 behind, I guess we can maybe make Tim one more round behind us. But 21 points or 39 points is the same thing.
But, yeah, you're definitely looking for the bonus points and anything that you can do is going to make it better. Just have to be with a good car down there, and hopefully don't have to run Matt again for like the fourth or fifth time in five races, and we'll be all right.
TIM WILKERSON: We just want you to beat him, dang it. (Simultaneous speaking).
JEFF AREND: It's all about the timing, Buddy.
THE MODERATOR: That wraps up our Funny Car segment on the call, and we want to thank all of our Funny Car drivers for joining us today as you embark on a tough challenge for the playoffs. I know several of you are testing today at Indy and we want to thank you for your time for coming out and wish you all the best of luck.
Now we move on to our final two drivers on the call today come from Top Fuel, 10th place Bob Vandergriff and 11th place Clay Millican. These two drivers are separated by only three points. It is certainly one of the closest points battles to make the Countdown in recent history.
We'll start with Bob Vandergriff, driver of the C&J Energy Services dragster. Bob has one semifinal finish and five quarterfinal finishes this year. Last year you came to Indy in a similar position on the bubble with David Grubnic and Terry McMillen. Anything you can put into play from last year?
BOB VANDERGRIFF: Yeah, we have to keep doing this to our team and ourselves. Last year I lost in the second round in a close race. If I would have won that round, I would have made it into the Countdown. I think we just draw on the same experience. Last year we knew when we came here, we knew we had to run good and we had to make our own way in there, and we did that and we just got beat in a close race.
We are going to take that same mind‑set into this race.
THE MODERATOR: And you qualified one time for the Countdown the back in 2007. Last year, you actually hit your stride in the playoffs, even though you were not actually one of the championship contenders. You won a playoff race in Dallas and I know you want to go back there and defend your title as a playoff participant. Is there any extra pressure going into Indy knowing that you're currently in the 10th spot and that you just have to defend your turf?
BOB VANDERGRIFF: It's a little disappointing like you mentioned, how well we finished last year and winning a race. Pretty much winning rounds at every race all the way through the beginning of this season.
Then we have struggled and we tried things, changed things; and right now almost feel like right now that guy running the marathon, trying to run the last mile with a pulled hamstring, just struggling to get the to finish line. We have not got it done, and it's been right there in front of us.
If we would have just ran what we are capable of doing, we would not even be on the phone call. But we have put ourselves in this place. Disappointing for our team.
But, like I said, we feel like we are driving the train. We are making our own breaks here. Clay can't catch us if we win rounds, and so I mean, that's a good position for us to be in. Once we get in this Countdown, we get a second life for our season, and that's kind of what we are hoping for.
THE MODERATOR: Clay Millican is three points behind Bob. Clay, who drives the Parts Plus dragster, The popular Tennessee driver has three semifinal finishes and four quarterfinals this season.
Clay, ever since Houston you have been floating around 10thor 11th in the standings. Do you feel like you've been stuck in quicksand during that stretch.
CLAY MILLICAN: I feel like I've been stuck in oil to be honest with you. Like Bob, we put ourselves in this position and for us, I wouldn't be on this phone call if it wasn't for that oil thing. We went through that stretch where we were having motor problems and we were putting oil all over the racetrack. I mean, that's bad for us, bad for our bank account and it was a big hit to our points. It's also bad for the fans because we slowed down the show.
But since then, the last few races, we kind of got that fixed but at the same time, we somewhat lost our performance. We were racking off some of those semifinal finishes and then we went to chasing the motor problem and seemed to have put ourselves behind as far as how the car runs and you know, there's certainly not a more fierce competitor out there, believe me, than Bob is. He and I have fun off the racetrack, and we are both pretty dang serious about it when we put our helmet on, that's for sure.
He's fun to race with. He does not mess around up there. It's kind of in our own hands. If Bob goes rounds, we have no choice but to go rounds.
Bob, I don't want to speak for you, but how cool would it be to race each other in the finals ‑‑ this coming race?
BOB VANDERGRIFF: I guess that would be a good way to go out.
THE MODERATOR: Clay, the only time you've qualified for the Countdown was 2009. How important is it for you to get into the down the and give yourself a shot at a title?
CLAY MILLICAN: That would be awesome. I would like to expand on that statement a little bit. That was the only time I had the opportunity to qualify for the Countdown.
I've been a Top Fuel racer for a long, long time and I've run different series and did different things. I mean, that was our goal at the start of the season to try to get ourselves into this Countdown and maybe have a shot at some of these big multi car teams.
Kind of theme that's going on. Bob is a single‑car team and we are a single car team and we are holding our own with the multi‑car teams. It makes it tough; they get three or four times the data out of the cars, and we don't have that opportunity.
So I'm pretty proud of our team and Bob's team. We have held our own pretty well against those guys.
THE MODERATOR: Does three points seem like 300 points?
CLAY MILLICAN: Oh, it might as well be 3,000 at the moment. We made up a whopping one point last weekend. I think that was just pure luck; one of those things, that I don't think that Bob is happy with his results last week end and we were not happy ours. That's the way it goes and that's why we are on this phone call.
Q. How big would it be for each of your teams to win Indy and secure that final berth in the playoffs?
BOB VANDERGRIFF: Indy has been one of those weird races for me my whole veer. We had some highlights and some serious lowlights. Been to the final round where I was ahead of the race and had a parachute fall out and been to another final round where I just got out run.
It's kind of been the highs and the lows here, and I guess it's what you would expect out of our biggest race of the season. I feel like this place owes us one.
We need to get our car straightened out and get it running and that's why we are here at Indy testing before we can even consider winning this race. We are trying to make some progress here so we can go into this race and feel like we have a shot to win that race.
But yeah, Indy, you go in here battling for tenth place and you walk out winning the race, that would be quite a setting.
CLAY MILLICAN: To win that race to be my first win would be just fantastic. I can tell you this for sure, I'm not running from the far end of the racetrackback to the starting line (laughter). He was talking about a pulled ham, maybe that's what it was.
I don't know what I would do if I won it, but that would certainly be a good way to get my first NHRA win would be the U.S. Nationals. It's such a big race ask there's so many days, there's so many things that can happen. You get an extra qualifying run; there's the track shootout and there's a lot of distractions going on and we are in this battle with Bob for the tenth spot. It's a big weekend coming up, that's for sure.
Q. Do you feel like because it's so close between the two of you, is the qualifying points more important than ever before for you guys? Do you feel like you can't waste a single round; every time out there, you've got to get everything you can get in qualifying because the points between you are so close?
BOB VANDERGRIFF: Well, yes and no. I mean, right now, Clay and our car are not performing to the level they are capable of.
So as far as stealing those qualifying points from some of the other cars that typically run fast in qualifying, if we are table to do that, that's to going to be a great accomplishment for our team; and certainly, you can do that, maybe in the warmer sessions during the day, and that's kind of what we are going to point towards.
Because the night runs, the guys go out there and run 375, we don't have a car capable of doing that right now. We are going to point more towards the day runs. We got a few qualifying points in Denver and Sonoma during the day on runs like that where our car runs pretty good during the day.
We'll take advantage of that. But we can't stretch it enough in qualifying. The only benefit for the points would be for Clay because I can't get 17 more points during qualifying to put a round on him, and he could certainly steal three points or four points during qualifying and get ahead of us.
So I think that's more of an advantage towards Clay than our team.
CLAY MILLICAN: I have to agree with Bob; we can run the upper 370s, during the night session and we got close to making a few extra points in the daytime run this past race, but we ended up fourth quick, not third quick.
So it was one of those things where we have got to do our best when it is warm outside, exactly what Bob said. I mean, I can't add to that any more, because our car at the moment is not capable of those 370s and we can hopefully go out there and one some low 80s when it's warm outside and maybe we can makeup some of those three points. That would be awesome.
But it's still going to come down to elimination; hopefully. That means we both qualified and that would be, like I said, a really cool way for everybody to quit talk about the Top‑10 thing and Bob and I run in the final. That would be awesome.
Q. All of the talk today has been about the Countdown and the playoffs; do either of you think that the Countdown has overshadowed the U.S. Nationals as a media topic?
BOB VANDERGRIFF: Well, I don't think so. I think it just adds to the drama of the biggest race of the season. I think that's why the program was put in place, is to‑‑ and the timing of it, where the points stop right now, I think it's just created an even bigger event than it could have already been.
For the U.S. Nationals, to make that even bigger and put more pressure on you and more emphasis, you're already trying to win the race, it's so big you and just throw that on top of it, I think it's just added to the whole race.
CLAY MILLICAN: The Countdown is doing exactly what I think NHRA wanted it to do. It's got the media talking to two guys battling for the tenth spot. In the old system, you would not be talking to us and there would not be this story of two guys battling to get into the Countdown.
And I know our team and Bob's team is working our tail off to make our cars running with those multi‑team guys, and we may have got the championship. That's part of the deal. You can't really overshadow the U.S. Nationals. The only thing you can do is add to it, and I certainly think this story is adding to it.
Q. Obviously we are talking about U.S. Nationals and the pressure of the playoffs. Can you compare the pressure and this excitement‑‑ both of you have vast experience in this sport. Can you compare that to anything in your past?
BOB VANDERGRIFF: Well, for me, I have to compare it to my previous life in athletics. I come from a pretty highly competitive background, and my mentality has all been, once the game starts, I actually hate the other guy. I don't want to talk to him, I don't want to look at him and I actually kind of want to rip his head off.
For me, it's hard to change that mentality coming into this from the racing side of it; it's not the same as football or basketball or whatever. I still have that same mentality and it's hard for me to turn that off sometimes and look at the other guy over there and pretend he's a friend or be nice to him.
You know, with Clay, it's hard not to, because he's so nice all the time and so happy. But I found out the secret. He drinks like ten mountain dues a day. It's hard not to be happy and smiling and have all that energy if you drink 12 Mountain Dews.
Last year when I raced Tony Schumacher the first round, I didn't like his team, I didn't like his car, I didn't like anything about that group and I just wanted to rip his heart out and that's the same way I'm going into this race.
CLAY MILLICAN: As for me, do I drink a lot of highly‑caffeinated drinks a day; yes, I do, that's true.
But you know what, I go into this whole thing looking at it as: I get to drive one of the fastest, accelerating cars on the planet. I love what I get to do. I love my job. And when I put my helmet on, I take it pretty dang seriously and I want to be the best out there and I want our team to be the best out there. That's how I look at it.
If we were going around and around, I could go over there and maybe up‑draft on Bob a little bit and maybe spin him out and put him in the wall. But we can't do that. We have to depend on our team to get the job done. I look at it as, I have got a pretty cool job and I love what I get to do and I take it pretty serious when I put my helmet on.
THE MODERATOR: We certainly appreciate Bob and Clay joining us on the call today, and all of our drivers.
Good luck to everyone at the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals presented by Auto‑Plus next weekend.
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