National Hot Rod Association Media Conference
July 8, 2008
MICHAEL PADIAN: The NHRA would like to welcome the members of the media who have joined us for today's teleconference, which marks both the start of the Western Swing and the homestretch of the Countdown to the Championship regular season.
There are six races left in the 18-race regular season, beginning with this weekend's Mopar Mile High NHRA Nationals in Denver, Colorado. As you know, there have been a couple modifications to the countdown format from 2007 to 2008. They are, first, 10 drivers, versus eight in 2007, will qualify for the playoffs. Second, there will be 18 regular-season races, as opposed to 17 in 2007, culminating with the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals Labor Day weekend.
Finally, first-place drivers, after the 18-race regular season, will receive a 20-point bonus when the points are reset entering the six-race playoff.
As to the last point, we have invited Tony Schumacher, driver of the U.S. Army Top Fuel dragster, to join us on today's call. Tony is a five-time world champion and he has won five races in 2008, to become the first driver to officially clinch a playoff berth.
He has not yet clinched the No. 1 seed, however, so there's plenty of work to be done this summer, right, Tony?
TONY SCHUMACHER: You bet you. Look forward to it.
MICHAEL PADIAN: What are your thoughts going into the final six races, for you being in first place, having already clinched, the value of that 20-point bonus?
TONY SCHUMACHER: We're just trying to win races. Ironically, people have been asking, you know, what did we do different, why are we leading. We were so good at finishing strong. The truth is, we didn't do anything different. We just had some of the breaks that didn't go our way the last couple years early in the season go our way.
I smoked the tires, for example, in Chicago and in Englishtown first round and could easily have been beaten. And we were lucky enough to go out, win that first round, and then go on and win the race. Those breaks weren't with us the last couple years.
We feel fortunate they're going our way right now. We got a huge lead. Yeah, they're going to take it away, we're going to start over. I'm all for that. It would be very hypocritical of me to go against what won us a championship last year. I mean, really we weren't in the lead. We came into the final race in fourth and won a championship that way.
So just look forward to winning. We're trying to win every race. We're not in any way, shape or form in a test mode. We're just out there doing what we do, trying to win these races. We're one of the teams that really looks forward to the Western Swing. Now with running to a thousand foot at these races, it's going to be a blast, man. I'm excited about it.
MICHAEL PADIAN: Tony is the only driver in any of the POWERade Series categories to have led the points standing wire to wire this season. As a note on that, in Funny Car four different drivers have been in first place at one point or another this season. Same in Pro Stock, four drivers have led. And in Pro Stock Motorcycle, two different riders have led the points standings this season.
The second driver joining us today is Gary Scelzi, a four-time world champion, who drives the Mopar Oakley Dodge Charger. Gary brings a much different perspective to today's call as he is currently in 12 points, 54 points behind rookie Bob Tasca for the 10th and final playoff berth in Funny Car.
Gary, I imagine this is not what you would have envisioned when the season started. Just as a matter of reference, John Force was in 13th place and 63 points out of the playoffs entering the 2007 race in Denver, and he climbed all the way to third place over the course of the final regular season races. Do you think that kind of move is possible in 2008 for the Mopar Oakley Dodge Charger?
GARY SCELZI: I do. Especially as of late, even though we've lost a couple races by nine-thousandth and three-thousandths of a second, I've been on the other end of those, too. Finally it seems like the car does what Todd Okuhara wants it to do. We've been good on hot tracks. Then in Chicago, we qualified in the top half of the field. We finally got the car to run hard there.
The only variable I'm a little concerned about now is the new Goodyear tire in Denver. But Todd doesn't seem to worry too much about it because we actually made some test runs with it last year. Some of the guys that have run the new tire, it seems to be a non-issue. So I don't think that's going to be too much.
Now Denver's going to be a whole different situation because we're up on the hill. I don't believe the thousand-foot thing is going to come into play. It's not a big deal. The cars still run really hard to the thousand foot. So I think historically I've won one race on the West Coast Swing here of late, but I don't do very good at the other two. Hopefully we can win a couple and keep the momentum going on the West Coast Swing because that can make a big swing in the points. Our first thing right now is to get into 10th, then we have to look at going forward. But I do think we have a car that can win and I do think we can make a move. I think by the time we get to Indy, we're going to be looking pretty good.
MICHAEL PADIAN: Thanks, Gary.
At this point I'll open it up to the questions.
Q. Gary, you said basically the shortened distance is going to affect the way people approach things. Is someone going to try and increase their tune-up so that engine will live through a thousand feet and maybe go a little quicker since they don't have to go the full quarter mile?
GARY SCELZI: I've had that conversation with several crew chiefs and they're running them so hard now that normally it's right after the thousand foot that they're expiring because they're being pushed so hard early.
If you run them any harder than we're running them now, and I'm not saying that some crew chiefs won't try, they're pretty much tapped out right now. That's why if you notice, you're not seeing a lot of big speeds because everything is done, you know, at a thousand foot. The last 320 feet the thing is used up.
We're not changing our tune-up. The car is still pulling hard at a thousand foot. That's what you try to make your tune-up do. We're there. I think the majority of the teams are there. So I don't see it.
Q. There is a lot of concern about safety, the thousand foot rule. To laymen, they think what's the difference with that 320 feet. What is the difference with that 320 feet? What difference does it make? As a driver, do you drive the race any differently with it being a shorter course?
GARY SCELZI: You know, I don't think you drive any differently. We're not gonna be able to play catch-up because we're taking 320 feet away. And historically my car has made big top-end charges. So it's not going to be an issue of driving any differently.
Q. How much safer does that make driving, taking away that 320 feet?
GARY SCELZI: I tell you what, in a place like Denver, it's very important, 320 feet. We watched at least two Funny Cars that I'm familiar with, Tony Bartone, Jerry Toliver, get upside down in the sand last year. If they would have had another 320 feet, probably wouldn't have happened.
It's a huge thing of slowing down, especially on short racetracks. In Denver, more so than others because the air is so thin. There's not a lot of downforce. The chutes don't hit near as hard, even though we're not going as fast.
It's huge. When everything is right, we can stop on a dime. When everything is wrong, we need every inch we can get. I commend the NHRA in doing what they do, making such a bold move.
Q. Tony, your thoughts on this?
TONY SCHUMACHER: I'm going to start out first by saying, you know, NHRA went beyond anything I would have expected for a driver, for driver safety, so thank you for that.
Drag racing has been a quarter of a mile. We're known at it. World records have been set, world championships have been decided by world records. To make that drastic of a change for the driver, we all appreciate that a ton.
I can tell you the thousand foot, most of the cars that are very quick, that's where we hit a rev limiter. They come on. When you hit a rev limiter, you're going 320 miles an hour, it drops three or four cylinders, that has its own scary issues as a driver, when the car lays over that hard.
I think it's gonna play into some hands, some teams, and crew chiefs. It's going to play away from some. I'll give you an example. Kalitta, years ago their car was so outstanding early. Yet you'd get to Denver, they would get to a thousand foot, throw their blower belt off every time, so you had a good chance of passing them at the end. Now they're not going to do that.
My car is another great example. The rev limiter kicks on around a thousand foot to slow the really fast cars down. We're not going to hit it right now. So beyond just having 320 feet of extra slowdown time, we also aren't going to be destroying these engines by laying over three cylinders, you know, down there.
So I think there's several things that worked out well with this change. And I can't even really call it a change. It's an intermittent rule. We're just going to go that way and see how it works out. But I think it's great. I think the fans are still gonna get an outstanding show. I don't think we're running much quicker at all past a thousand foot because I've laid three cylinders over, and the car's out of power down there anyway. The fans are gonna get their money's worth. I don't want them to think in any way, shape or form they're not getting a great show. They're just taking away a little bit at the end until they fix some of the sand traps.
You know, a sand trap is a last resort. A sand trap is built when there's no other option, you're in trouble, you can't stop. We're not hitting a sand trap hoping we don't destroy a car. We're hitting a sand trap because we're out of options. There's nothing left. It needs to stop us. Who cares if it dusts up the car. Who cares if we got to clean it. We need to survive those impacts. That's what they're for.
Until NHRA can figure out the correct way, and they're trying hard, when they figure out the right gravel, the right amount of gravel, the right depth, all that, we'll go back I'm sure to doing it the other way. Until then, let's just go out and have a great time. We're here for entertainment and we'll continue doing that.
Q. This is sort of the gauntlet stretch on the schedule. What separates the contenders from the pretenders in this stretch? If there's anything about the Western Swing that you could change, what would it be?
GARY SCELZI: I can tell you right now I'm glad to be with Don Schumacher Racing. This three-race stretch, you need to have a ton of parts. You need to have enough ammo to go into Denver to have four or five motors in case you have problems and not just go there with two or three. Running up on the mountain is very difficult. Then you've got to completely change your combination, go to sea level, which is in Seattle and Sonoma. You've got to have a stout team, which we have a 10-man team that are all veterans on our team. So you've got to be able to go the distance. It's like 15 rounds with Mike Tyson. So you've got to have all the guys with the stamina, the parts and the will to win. I think it's great.
The only thing I'd like to see is somehow Denver getting closer to Seattle and Seattle getting closer to Sonoma so the guys don't have such a drive. That's the only thing I would change.
TONY SCHUMACHER: You know, I love racing. I think it's a great combination. Three fun places to go to. Gary's got a great point, it's a lot of miles. The guys are worn out at the end. But it's fun. To cap it off in Sonoma, one of the finest racetracks on the circuit, it's outstanding.
I think there's nothing I can see changing. We've gone out there, we've been in three finals in a row out there the last two years, last year we won Sonoma. So it's my pleasure to go there. I think it's the right time and the right place, and just enjoy going there.
Q. Gary, you were pretty vocal on Sirius radio on July 1st about NHRA, the problems that you had on the scales. You also talked about the age of the scales. I'm wondering how you're feeling about it now. Are you guys changing the way you handle the scales in terms of your race day?
GARY SCELZI: We're just gonna run our car 50 pounds heavy. We can't take a chance on 30 pounds varying one way or another. Everybody out there that's in the deal knows the drill. We try to run 20 to 25 pounds over. What we did was wrong. There's no excuse for it. We should have been tossed for it. I just don't feel we should have been tossed for the full event.
I can't change it. That's the way the rules are. I didn't know the rules were that way. But, hey, I'm the driver, I should know what's going on. But I can tell you, we're not the only ones that have done it or are going to continue to do it in the past. We won't. We're just going to make our car awful heavy.
Q. After Scott Kalitta's crash, did all of the drivers or did you or did any of the drivers go down and look at the top end sand trap and is that something you're going to be doing as a group inspection at Denver?
GARY SCELZI: I go to the end of the racetrack at every single event except Englishtown. Why I didn't, I got into town late on Thursday, hungry, went and got something to eat. On Friday I had stuff to do, never went down and looked at it. I'm really angry at myself for doing it. Even if I would have saw what was down there, I don't know that I could have got anybody to change it. I don't think it would have mattered.
The one thing that I can tell you right now is, speaking with Jim Head, Tom Compton, Graham White, all these people, this is the first time I honestly believe that they're going to work as a group. And it's not all NHRA's fault. I'm going to tell you, us as the racers are as guilty as anyone of not being able to make decisions, and everybody not getting along. Not that NHRA doesn't have some problems, too. I had some conversations with Jim Head, all the major crew chiefs were talking yesterday, and agreeing on a lot of things, and there was very little bickering.
I think finally this one has put us over the edge and everyone is going to work together. I don't care what happened two weeks ago, I just care what's going to happen two weeks from now. And it all looks good, I've got to be honest with you. You know me, I'd tell you if I didn't think it was.
Q. Does changing it to a thousand feet at this critical juncture in the season change perhaps how the championship plays out? Does it significantly alter how things might go from here on out?
TONY SCHUMACHER: It might. I'll tell you this, if it changes everything and we could not win a championship because of it, but NHRA went into this for our safety, I do not care. It's too bad we don't win a championship. We don't want to lose drivers. Scott was a good guy. Every one of the guys we've lost were good people. We all get in these cars and risk our butts for entertainment. We all have kids at home. I know Gary does. I do. I don't want to walk out and know there's a one in 30 chance I'm not coming home. That's not right.
What NHRA is doing is in no way, shape or form trying to decide a championship by changing rules. They did it just 'cause they had to do something. And I commend them on that. A very difficult decision to change what's been going for 50 some years, but they're doing it for our safety.
If I got to hand a trophy over because that cost me a championship, I'm okay with that. I don't think it will in any way, shape or form. I don't think it will affect the way it goes. It may change a race or two here or there. Maybe that plays out at the end. But we had to do something.
It was a heck of a start, man. I tell you, very few people in the world are like me and Gary and have to buckle into that car and know that this is a tough track to stop on, this is short, this is difficult and this is risky. I tell you, man, it gets your heart pumping. When they made this change, I don't know what Gary did, but I relaxed immediately. Oh, man, I feel safer just by hearing the news. Then I'll figure out what we're gonna do later. But that was a heck of a start in making me feel more relaxed.
When we're loosing a driver every two years, we can't do that. We need to do some other things to change that we know are dangerous. We need to fix some problems before we lose guys. But I think the championship will go to the guy that can win with the rule changes no matter what it is.
Q. You have been through a lot the last couple of years with different things, even off track. Both of you are so positive. How do you manage to keep it light and positive and smiling for the fans because really you have been through a lot?
GARY SCELZI: I don't think we have any choice. Of course, when Tony wins as many races as he does, his biggest problem is his construction guy to add another room to his house to put the trophies, which I guess will keep us in a good mood (laughter).
But it's funny because I talked to Don, and we talked about Tony. Tony doesn't know this. But between Tony and I, we probably have an hours worth of crash video that we could be millionaires on.
I think we all have to make the decision that we know what we do is dangerous, and that's never not been the issue. We've always known that. And we go into this thing knowing that something can happen.
Now, we don't think something's gonna happen, obviously, or we couldn't perform the way we do. But we're also realists. There's been so many things on the Internet about NHRA are not giving anybody raises, they want to save the racers money, they want to do this, they're trying to conserve nitro, all this baloney. I tell you right now, they're trying to make this sport safer. This was the quickest, simplest way, we have little cost, minimal cost, mainly to the racetracks, putting a thousand foot mile-an-hour clock in there, that they could do. And they're going to do a lot of research, stuff that hasn't been done in the past with engineers, knowing how much that hundred pounds adds to the Funny Car, how much further it takes to stop, different materials from the manufactures to do the parachutes. Tire barriers. F1 doesn't use sand traps any more, they use old-fashioned tire barriers. Not that they're not going to look at something more high-tech, but that could be one of the safest things going, tire barrier, which is very minimal in costs and expense.
We have to keep positive. We love what we're doing. We know what can happen. We try not to. I've even called Tony and told him how much I love him and how impressed I am with the way he drives his racecar. You guys remember a few years back, Tony and I hated each other. So for me to call him and tell him that, you know that's big.
Q. Tony, on the safety issues, help us understand what's been going on here. The top speed records were set by you three years ago in Top Fuel and two years ago in Funny Car. The cars aren't going all that much faster. What has happened in the last 15 to 18 months that suddenly has brought all of this to a head? All of the drivers, every one of them, has completely applauded what the NHRA is doing, which makes me wonder whether the drivers were worried about the safety of the cars even before Scott's accident.
TONY SCHUMACHER: Well, you know, we're worried about certain things constantly. Here's a great example. I'm going 330 miles an hour at the finish line, yet there's still score boards down there, which to me are unnecessary. Yeah, we need to know the scoreboard. But maybe someone else likes it. That's where Gary was saying, two guys, we just don't all get along, and we're coming together right now.
I always say, why not move the scoreboard to half track. That's where the stands end. But that's just my opinion. I think every one of us get in these cars, we do know they're fairly dangerous. We do know there's a part of a risk. But we also know NHRA was formed 50 some years ago by Wally Parks to get kids off the street to make it from where it was very dangerous and put us on a racetrack to where we have the best safety guys in the world. We yeah, there's dangerous spots. We go to Seattle, there's no lights. We race into the sun. We run when it's too dark. There's a couple scary parts there.
I get in a racecar today that I feel is 10 times better than the one last year without heat-treated steel, which I love. I feel like I'm driving a much safer car. And we work towards that. We just try to get better.
Yeah, man, we know there's fear. We've had Pedregon blow up twice and be upside down. He's got some scary stuff happening. John Force blew a car in half last year. There's issues. But so long as we're working in the right direction, you can't take it away. Football is dangerous, man. What are you going to make it, flag football? There's a certain point where we know there's some risk. We get in the car. We wear our HANS devices. We wear our safety equipment. We put on the right everything that we can possibly put on. Even then we got a little bit of fear. But we're trying. We're trying to do the best thing we can. And we love racing, man.
I hate to -- don't tell my dad, but both Gary and I would do it for free.
GARY SCELZI: No, we won't (laughter).
TONY SCHUMACHER: But it's what we love to do, man. We get up in the morning, we love racing. And there's some risk. Yeah, it's scary. I can think of five or six things that would make it safer. Yeah, it would cost some of the racetracks some money. But maybe we have to do that before we lose a driver so that we can go. You know what would have been great, if Scott would have gone down there, crashed, not hit those poles, not hit a camera. We could have gone, man, I'm glad a camera wasn't there. Good thing last week we decided that was not a safe place to put it. But we didn't do that. But now we are. Now we're saying let's figure this out. Hey, you don't know how much it tears us all apart to have to lose someone to make a change. None of us want to do that. Not only do we want to lose a buddy, we don't want it to be us either. We don't want to have to call home and have our kids get that phone call like Kalitta did. That's brutal, which it could be avoided.
Putting a group of people together for safety, this is the first step. We need to go out, look at it, go, Why is this here, why is that here? I think that's what we're doing. It took 50 some years. In that 50 some years, that sport was designed for safety. I think that is the thing we have to remember. When people say on TV, Those kids, got killed drag racing. That's nonsense. We know that weren't drag racing. They were on the street. If they were drag racing, they would have been on a drag strip. That's what we put them there for, with guardrails, safety people, helicopters.
Am I answering your question?
Q. Sort of.
GARY SCELZI: That's not what scares me. These racetracks don't scare me, Tony scares me when he gets on a rant.
Q. My question is, for people like me and the public who might be a little confused, you're going actually a tad slower than your records that were set a couple years ago, yet it's been in the last year or 15 months that we've had these terrible accidents, and now we're having a reaction when the cars are actually going a tad slower than the record. So what is it about the speeds at current levels causing all of this to happen? You're not going any faster.
GARY SCELZI: Realistically for years, if you look at it, NHRA made us go to 90%, then 85% to cut down the explosions and things like that, trying to make things safer. They've implemented ref limiters. They've been trying to slow these cars down for the last few years. The crew chiefs have said, Uh-huh, watch this. So we put bigger fuel pumps on, more timing, better superchargers, all these things. We've known these cars need to be slowed down, too. It's not a secret.
But now what's happened, you haven't been able to get the crew chiefs and NHRA on the same page. So they've been doing things that neither one of them agree on. But they've been having to do something. Now for the first time, you've got the NHRA crew chiefs being told, Look, guys, we've been down this road before. You guys don't like the cures that we put to slow these cars down, so you need to come up with something because we're gonna slow 'em down. They have to do what NASCAR has done. They have to do what the IndyCar Racing League has done. They have to slow these cars down. As long as the racing is side-by-side and there's six-foot flame coming out of these headers, they are making noise, they are shaking your body, and your nose is running from smelling nitromethane, the fans are going to enjoy it. We are not going to lose any fans. They want side-by-side racing.
As far as I'm concerned, the same people that win now, no matter what you do to the rules, are going to win later. The smart guys are going to win and the guys aren't as smart, not as well-funded, aren't going to win. It's as simple as that.
We know they've needed to be slowed down. NHRA is doing it. They're just taking a little more forceful action right now.
TONY SCHUMACHER: Part of the reason we're going slower is we have a rev limiter. When you have an eight thousand horsepower car drop to four thousand horsepower at the finish line, we do blow some stuff up. And it wasn't NHRA's fault they had to slow it down. That's how they did it. When you have 12 gallons of fuel getting shoved through a motor, you unlight it in three or four of the cylinders, that is risky, too. We do some damage. That has done part of it. I mean, why is it more dangerous? I think when we ran 337, if we'd have gone 338 and they didn't slow is down, it would have been even more dangerous. All that's happened is we went from 337 to 325 and 330. That's not the part that's killing us isn't crashing seven miles an hour quicker, it's just a series of events, and each one of the three people we've lost in the last couple years that have done it. Eric Medlen wasn't at the finish line. He was at half track. It wasn't the miles an hour that did it.
I understand your question. But I don't think the two are related. I don't think the drivers we've lost is because we've tried to slow 'em down. I just think it was bad timing on each one of them. I'd love to give you an answer why each one of these guys died, but I can't. And I don't think it's because we're going seven miles an hour slower or seven miles an hour faster. It's just the way it is.
Q. Tony, last year you were so dominant in Sonoma. What worked so well for you guys and are you optimistic you can do it again?
TONY SCHUMACHER: You know what, I had not won Sonoma before. I have to look back. I can't even tell you why we were so dominant. Allen Johnson and myself, I'd been to the finals many times there. I think it was just the year before we had lost in the final to I think JR Todd if I'm not mistaken. That would have been 10 years ago. It was the last race, we really wanted to win that race. Allen just really dedicated himself, the whole team did such a great job. But when you win a race, you look forward to getting there the next year. That's in no way, shape or form to say you're going to go pull off that miracle again. But the racetracks you go to that you win on, you definitely want to get back to. You want to carry that momentum. You can look back on simple notes and hopefully use them to your advantage.
Don Schumacher Racing has a huge advantage. With that many race teams, that many good qualified drivers, good qualified crew chiefs working together, we can share that information and try to win these races. I think that's critical to winning championships.
Q. Talking about Antron Brown, are you surprised with the success he's had so far this season?
TONY SCHUMACHER: He's great. He's just a great guy. We battle. He is a great athlete. He'd be great if you put him in any sport. He just wakes up in the morning. You can put him in a badminton or ping-pong table, give him five minutes, he'll figure it out. The difference between good drivers and great drivers is that they wake up in the morning and can't wait to do it. Some of the guys we race against are doing it for a paycheck, unfortunately. But we have a handful. Don Schumacher Racing has the collection of the probably the best guys that just wake up, can't wait to race, just love to race. Antron, even though he's not on our team, he was, he's one of those guys. He gets up. He doesn't think about the money, he doesn't think about the trophy, he just gets up, there's a racecar, loves to do it. That's what makes him good. He listens to people, but he doesn't take everyone's advice. He's sharp enough to separate what sounds likes good advice from bad advice. We spend a lot of time together. He just does a good job. He just does a great job driving these cars. He'd drive anything good.
Q. You answered the question about are we probably headed here in the long-term at slowing the cars down. The big question is, is always the problem of how you do that. From what I've been told, one way maybe to reduce the amount of fuel that's going through these fuel pumps, basically it's reducing kind of the size of the explosion. Is that where you think we're headed or is there other ways you guys see as better to try and slow the cars down? Both of you have been at this a long time. What do you see as the best solution in the long run?
GARY SCELZI: You know, as far as me, I can't answer that. I know that Dale Armstrong has talked about lowering compression. The fuel pump thing is obviously one thing. One other thing is one (indiscernible). I don't know. But I can tell you one thing, Austin Coil, Allen Johnson, a lot of other major crew chiefs, are definitely working in a direction. They're going to get it because they don't want to be told what NHRA wants to do to slow these things down. They're going to come up with a way, tell NHRA what they want, and I think NHRA is going to listen.
TONY SCHUMACHER: Same thing. There's so many ways. You could simply reduce the rear wing size and then tell the crew chiefs, Do what you want, but you're not going to have any downforce. By taking downforce away, you'd make the crew chiefs figure it out. A thousand different ways to do of it. Then you have to look at the tire problems. It takes people much smarter than me and Gary to figure this stuff out, trust me, and it takes a group of them. Because one way would help my crew win our championship, and one way will help Bernstein's crew. Each one of us would have, this is what we'd like, and it's going to take kind of an assembly and group of people to put their heads together and come up with something fair where we can all go out and race and give the fans a show that it's not like it was 10 years ago where one car is not 2/10ths of a second quicker. This year has been the best racing I've seen in a long time. We've won and lost, but we've won and lost by feet, not car lengths. I think that's part of how do we slow 'em down, how do we slow 'em down equally so we're all in the same boat, we can still give fans a good show.
MICHAEL PADIAN: Thanks to everyone who was able to join us on today's call, and Gary and Tony for participating as well. We'll be racing this weekend in Denver with the Mopar Mile High NHRA Nationals July 11th to 13th.
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