We're getting ready for a big, full rest of this week, and it's been a while since I checked in with you all so I figured I better make sure you were all paying attention before we get going on full steam up on the mountain.
I consider Denver my home track, and it's a unique track for me because our Comp cars and our alcohol cars always ran real good up there. We won a lot up there and set records with the alcohol cars, and like I said in my pre-race release, that made us king of the hill, and I'd like to get back to that.
If you read my blog very often, you know that I have one heck of a crew chief in Rob Wendland, and he's sure bright for a young guy. He tells me that we have a good tune-up for this weekend, and I believe him. Between him and Rip – it's his home track, too, by the way – I think we'll have a pretty good time up there.
The thing everybody talks about with these three races in a row is the Big Sweep. Everybody wants to sweep the Western Swing and win each one of these things, and when you leave the house to go to any race, it doesn't matter what it is, your intention is always to win. There would be no other reason to go.
If we could pull something like that off with these three races here, well, we'd get out of this little dog fight we have going for third, fourth and fifth in the points and step ourselves up into battle for first, second and third. We'd sure like to do that, and we have the mindset for it. Like I said, if you don't think you have a chance of going out there and winning the Western Swing, well you don't have any business leaving the house. Just stay home. You know?
Here's a sneak peek at the SpeeDee Oil Change & Tune-Up lettering you'll see on our Dodge this weekend.
We've really, really been busy after the Norwalk race – I've been back in New Mexico getting everything caught up from being gone, and trying to get everything finished up before we leave again for three weeks is a big task, but everything came together. Now we're going to kick off the weekend with the Mopar Big Block Party. I sure home everyone who can will come on out to downtown Golden on Thursday night for this deal, because it sure is neat.
It's a great event put on by Mopar, and it's always real enjoyable for myself and for the fans. There will be a whole lot of people down there, and they always have a good car show. V. Gaines brings out some of his street toys, and we always look forward to seeing which ones he'll choose. It's a great show, and I know I look forward to it every year.
This weekend I'll be driving the Service Central Dodge Charger with a little bit of a new look to it. We're welcoming SpeeDee Oil Change & Tune-Up to the family, so we've got their decal on the hood and we're also supporting Big O Tires on the Western Swing. Come on by and get a hero card signed if you're in town for the show – my autograph may not excite you all that much, but there is a tear-off coupon on there for a few bucks off of an oil change at your local Big O Tires (or NTB, Merchants or Tire Kingdom).
It should be a great weekend, and we've got a lot of friends and family coming up from this part of the country to hang out with us. It's always a lot of fun, and I love John Bandimere and Larry and everybody there, they just treat you like family. It feels pretty good to start off this deal at Denver. Sure would be nice to be King of the Mountain up there again. Stay tuned.
It’s been a year since I became the crew chief of this Service Central Funny Car, so it seems like the perfect time to give you all a little run down on the last year – from my perspective. It’s been a wild ride so far, and wow, have I ever learned a lot.
After Norwalk last year, Don Schumacher let me know that I was going to run the car and that I should get with some of the other DSR crew chiefs to decide what I wanted to do with the Service Central Dodge. I got with Rahn Tobler, who tunes the NAPA car driven by Ron Capps, and I started in Chicago. Our car was the first that they were trying to duplicate to be just like Rahn’s – but there were a few things on the car that were modified, and they weren’t the same as Tobler’s.
We came out to Chicago, and did I feel the pressure? Of course; I was very nervous. I just wanted the car to start, because we made a lot of changes. It started, but we also ended up having little mechanical issues throughout the weekend. The team probably wasn’t as gelled as what we are now, that’s for sure. When we didn’t qualify for the race, it was very humbling, and I felt horrible. It was funny because we had been picked as the Castrol GTX High Mileage One to Watch, and at the fourth qualifier, here we had all this pressure trying to get qualified and they’re making a big story out of it – and we didn’t get in.
It was hot as heck, and as I was leaving the starting line, I was really sweating. Dave Rieff from ESPN came up to me and said, “Hey Rob, you got a second to talk on camera?” I said, “Yeah, I guess so.” So then we’re waiting and waiting, and I’m wiping the sweat off my face over and over, and then Dave Rieff hears something in his earpiece and goes, “What? What? I don’t think he’s crying.” Turns out they had the camera on me the whole time we were waiting, and they were seeing me wiping my face and thought I was getting pretty emotional. I was like, “No, I’m not crying! There’s no crying in drag racing! I’m pissed off!” Finally they interviewed me and I remember saying something along the lines of , we are a better car than that, and I feel bad for Service Central, Valvoline, and Don Schumacher Racing, but we’ll bounce back from this and try like hell to get into the top 10.
We tested Monday and it didn’t go very well. Rahn stayed with us, and he could tell there were still things upset with the car. We went back to the shop in Indy and then tested the car again in the middle of the week and had pretty decent luck. We had changed some things, and Rahn and Todd Okuhara from Spencer Massey’s car were with us trying to get the car back on track. But the next race was Denver, and everything is completely different in Denver because of the altitude. I was still following in the footsteps of Rahn, and he was trying to run his car, we were trying to run our car. We both qualified for the race, but we both went out first round. I felt bad for Tobler, because he was trying his hardest to do his best for both cars and it just didn’t turn out how we wanted to at all.
After that, we went to Sonoma, and we didn’t qualify spectacularly because the car still wasn’t at the performance level it needed to be, but we did qualify fairly well. Lo and behold, we had to run Tobler first round. Throughout qualifying, Tobler had been working with me every round, but oddly enough, I didn’t see Tobler Saturday night, and I didn’t see him Sunday morning. Of course I understood why: he had a job to do, and that was to win the race.
It was a good thing though, because I was kind of on my own. I wanted to try a couple of things, and that was my first real chance to make a crew chief decision – that day and that round. Tobler smoked the tires, and we ended up running second quickest of the round. You know, I got lucky. We went to Seattle and back to working with Tobler a little bit, but he’d definitely given me a little bit more of the reins. He had to wean me off because he had a car to run. So I started doing some stuff, and my confidence was growing. We ran really well on Saturday and were one of the only Funny Cars to get down the track that was really tricky early. I tried some stuff, pulled out some of my old Austin Coil-knowledge that he used to run, and we did fairly well. I remember Tobler coming over and saying, “Well, let’s see what you’re doing.” They were struggling a little bit on that day, and I’m not sure, but I think he may have used one or two little things. They ended up going to the final, though, and we ended up going out first round. Still, that was really cool, and it was an important weekend for me in terms of my own growth and confidence.
Another experience that really sticks out for me was a time when Tim Richards came over and sat down in my lounge. He’s just one of those crew chiefs who will always be talked about and remembered, and for him to come over and say, “Okay kid, let’s see what the hell you’re doing over here,” well, it was pretty cool.
I’ve looked to Tobler and the other DSR crew chiefs since then, and it’s awesome to have that option to bounce things off of them and for them to help me get this car turned around a little bit when it unturns. These things do that – well, except Tobler’s car. His car is pretty awesome.
We had a tough time for a little bit, but we’re back in form. There weren’t a whole lot of things that we had to change to get the car back, but there were some, and now we feel like we are on the right track. We are methodically doing things and testing things on the car to better ourselves on down the road. We fixed a couple more little things, and the car is really going to be super competition. One of the things I’m working on is stepping up the car’s game a little bit for reaction time. The car is hurting Johnny a little bit there, and I know I can make it better.
Lining up in Bristol
We’re nitpicking on things right now to make the car go consistently down the track, and if you have a car that does that, they’re pretty hard to beat. I’m happy to say that the races that we have lost since we revived ourselves recently were ones where we just got beat. We’re making good runs, like in Bristol when we went 4.10 in the left lane that was giving everyone problems. That was damn respectable, and we got beat by a 4.09, but it was a lot easier to swallow when we know we made a good run for the circumstances. I’m pretty sure that 4.10 was low of eliminations for that side of the racetrack. We sure can’t hang our heads over that.
Another thing I have to mention is that I’ve been working with a guy named Scott Garwood. His official title is Legacy Coach, but what the really means is that he is there to help you find confidence to be better at whatever it is that you’re trying to do. We started working together in Seattle last year – he came around to find out if Johnny would like to work with him, but Johnny said that he’s old enough that there isn’t any changing him. When I met Scott, I told him that crew chiefs make some pretty tough decisions and that confidence level is almost everything. When you walk up there to the starting line, you’ve got to have confidence in the decision you’re making. I couldn’t afford him, but Scott said that he’d work with me, and we put a deal together and worked together all last year.
Johnny after the Englishtown win
Immediately, he started working with me about going with my gut, not second guessing myself, standing tall, and being confident in my decisions. I feel that was one of the turning points on this Service Central car. This year we did a couple of things that were really cool, and I don’t want to give any secrets away, but I had the opportunity to do some awesome confidence building exercises right before the race in Englishtown, and look what happened there: we won. Did it truly help? Well, maybe. My confidence in the car was rejuvenated when we started running better in Topeka, and my confidence in my own abilities was definitely renewed in Englishtown. I have tended to think of myself as this young guy trying to do a veteran’s job. I would sometimes think, “Shoot, I don’t have the experience of Jimmy Prock, Rahn Tobler, or any of those guys. But when I step back and look at it, I have to say, we just won that race, and it wasn’t a giveaway. We qualified pretty darn well and beat some of the people that I look up to: Dean “Guido” Antonelli, Jim Head, Jimmy Prock, and in the final it was Rahn Tobler. I may not be able to look at myself as their equal quite yet, but when I see that we’re fourth in the points and winning races, I guess I’m not that bad just now.
It’s tough because you want to be confident, but you don’t want to be overly confident, and I always want to be respectful of the people I race.
It used to be with Jimmy Prock, we’d always smoke the tires against each other because I think we both felt the same way: “That dang Wendland can throw one down every once in a while.” And I’m looking over at him saying, “That dang Jimmy, he always throws one down.” You don’t want to be the weak one. Robert Hight is such a good driver, and when Jimmy Prock’s car smokes the tires, that kid does such a good job. I just haven’t given Johnny the car to be able to do that in those scenarios – until Englishtown. I changed it there, and then we got to run him again in Bristol. We had lane choice, and that was a big factor in getting down the track. I ran Jimmy Prock like he was going to run fast, but I ran the track and did not really try to think about who I was running. That seemed to work out a lot better, and it’s an example of how things have evolved for me.
I’m so blessed; this is the most wonderful job in the world, and I have the best team. I’d put them against anyone. Rip Reynolds, our assistant crew chief, has taken so much of the load off my shoulders. I don’t have to worry about the car when it goes up to the starting line because I know that Rip and the guys have done their jobs. We basically call Ryan Elliott the car chief, and I value his opinion up on the starting line so much. He’s not a “yes” man. He has a great set of eyes on the car and he’s a great kid to bounce things off of too.
The whole team is great: Ed Tyler, Mathew Archer, Levi Brubaker, Jimmy Wingo, Jason Hemphill, and Kirk Kenaga. Kirk is the newest member of the team – he came on at the Chicago race last year when I took over crew chief duties. He worked in the machine shop at DSR, and he’s been to mechanical Pro Stock school and is very knowledgeable. The job that he has right now is somewhat entry level – the body and the tires and stuff like that – but he’s taken it to a whole different level. This kid is really good, and he’s going to make a great mechanical crew member and be very valuable as we go along.
The past year has been unbelievable. When I look back at my career, I can pick out a handful of people that I’ve worked with who helped form the way that I think about cars and have been a huge influence in my life and on my abilities: Tim Baxter and his family, Austin Coil, Bernie Fedderly, Guido Antonelli, John Medlen, Mark Oswald, and Brian Corradi to name a few. I’m also very thankful to Don Schumacher for saying, okay kid, you’re going to run this car. That was huge because I had never run a fuel car on my own or pulled the trigger on a decision to make the car go down the racetrack. Don didn’t have to pick me, but that’s the guy who gave me my opportunity and my break to do this. I’d like to give something back after what he gave me, and hopefully, I’m doing him proud.
With a young fan in Englishtown, celebrating the win. This is what drag racing is all about!
Watching Shane make a run in the new Service Central Pro Stock Camaro
In the car, strapped in, waiting to make a run in Bristol.
I think you all could guess that I’m having a real good time driving my Service Central Funny Car these days. But you know, there is always that list of things you want to do. I’m no different than any other driver out there – I’d absolutely love to win the championship. That’s why we do this, but there is more to it really than that. It’s just the thrill of getting to drive that car. When you’re going rounds, yeah, you’re getting points. But you’re also getting the opportunity to make one more run today. It’s a lot like being at the carnival with a free pass to go around and get right back on the ride every time. You can’t beat that feeling. It’s just great.
On the subject of things I haven’t done: I’ve had two or three people talk to me about driving a Top Fuel car, and actually when we did this deal with the Funny Car, folks were kind of leaning towards Top Fuel – but I’m just one of those people who really doesn’t care anything about driving a dragster. I had a pretty fast Comp Eliminator dragster once, and I had a pretty fast Alcohol dragster there for a while, and they just don’t do it for me. I like the excitement of closing the body on a Funny Car and being in there all by myself. I like the short wheel base, and I sure do like the wild ride.
Another thing I haven’t done yet in my career is win in a Pro Stock car. I can do all of that through my son Shane now, but will I ever drive a Pro Stock car again? Who knows. We own the engine shop and the cars, and when I quit driving fuel cars, I may get the hankerin’ to go out and make some runs in a Pro Stock car. Maybe I’d run two or three races a year. I just don’t know yet, but I guess it’s always in the back of your mind, you know?
Shane’s program is coming along. Pro Stock is just one of those deals that people cannot believe how tough it is to work your way to the top. The guys had a real good test session the other day, and the Camaro showed signs of grandeur – but it’s the same parts and pieces that we had at Bristol. This is one of those things where you have to continually work at it and move forward. We have some real exciting things going on in our Pro Stock program, and I have 100% no doubt in my mind that by this time next year, that Pro Stock car will be one of the top two or three cars out there.
Outside of racing, I’ve never been over to any of the European countries or anything like that, and that might be something we would like to do. I’ve been to Mexico and to Canada, but never overseas. I’d like to take Terry and go over to Venice or Rome and see the country sometime – but as Terry says, sooner or later I’ll grow up and we’ll go do that.
For now, I’m going to continue this carnival ride of driving the Service Central Funny Car. Things have been going pretty well, and we are extremely excited to go to the next race in Joliet. I’m not crazy about the weather over in that part of the country, and I’m always looking over my shoulder for a tornado somewhere, but I love the racetrack there. It would be a great place for us to work ourselves up to third in the points. We’re just having a ball trying to play leap frog and hop back and forth in the points right there for third, fourth and fifth between me, Beckman and Neff. Oh, it’s fun.
You never can say for sure what the future will hold, but I’m pretty optimistic about what’s ahead: It’s all good.
I really believe that I have a great team behind me, and I’m going to tell you, every person on this team has a great story. We all love drag racing, and you really have to if you’re going to come out here week after week and have any kind of success. I think you’ve all seen how this Service Central team digs and digs to get results, and every one of these guys has a never-give-up attitude. I tell you what, these guys are tireless. This week I’m introducing you to James Wingo – we call him Jimmy (among other things, but that’s just because we like him). Jimmy is our clutch man, and when he’s not working here on our Service Central Funny Car, he’s got plenty of other things to occupy his time.
Well, it starts with kids and baseball. Joshua plays coach pitch and Zackary plays minor league. It’s either practice on Wednesdays and Thursday or games on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and Joshua’s games are on Saturday. So most of the time on the weekdays it’s work on the racecar at DSR, take the kids to baseball, go to our shop, work on the racecar, go home, and go to bed. My wife, Amber, will tell you that I have a very busy life.
Every day, I drive over to the Don Schumacher Racing shop during the day to work on the Service Central Funny Car, then at night I go to our shop and work on the sprint car my brother Mike and I own. We have a great time racing that car with Scotty Weir as the driver. He’s 26 years old and does a real good job for us, and the big thing is that he understands the concept of “the more we get to race, the more fun we get to have.” If you tear it up every night, we don’t get to go play. Yeah, he does a real good job.
My brother got me started in sprint car racing; he showed up at my parent’s house with a go-kart in the back of a 1986 Dodge Charger that my mom and dad bought him for graduation, and it started from there. We went go-kart racing together, and he went on and came to know a family out of Milford, Delaware who are pretty well recognized. They won the 300 in Syracuse with Kenny Brightbill – that would be Blue Hen Racing owned by Eugene Mills. It started there, and I had a Northeastern Dirt Modified until 2005 when I took a job at Don Prudhomme’s in drag racing.
I moved to Indy then. We sold all the Modified stuff back in Delaware and my brother bought a house first and then I followed suit. Now we live in the same neighborhood about a block apart.
One Saturday night, we were all sitting around at the track, and a guy out here named Tony Shortall was with us. At the time, he worked for Alan Johnson on the Bruce Sarver Funny Car. I asked him to get me an application to come and work with them in drag racing. He told me that they didn’t have applications, so I asked him to help me get a job.
Scotty Weir in our car at Putnamville
My first time in the car at Looming, Ind.
With Johnny in the winner's circle in Englishtown
That’s where it started, and we raced all that year in Delaware with the Modified, and over the winter, about two weeks after we first talked about it, Tony Shortall called me and said, are you serious about a job? I said, yeah! So the next year I started with Jerry Toliver and the WWF Funny Car, and I was working on Tony Bartone’s car. We helped him get his license and then we raced with him for a little while until it wasn’t feasible to run two cars. Bartone stopped racing and Toliver kept me aboard, and I finished the year out with him. After that, I went to work for John Force and worked with him for four years. Then I worked at Prudhomme’s for two years, and after that I worked for David Powers and the Caterpillar dragster. I also got to work with Joe Hartley out of Omaha, Neb., for half a season until Indy and the Countdown. When we didn’t make the Countdown the Hartley’s quit racing, and I came to work for Schumacher on the Yas Marina team in Abu Dhabi with Lee Beard. It was fun, and it was different. I probably lost 15 pounds over there – if you have a taste for that kind of food, it’s probably really good, but it sure wasn’t what I’m used to. Everyone talks about how hot the weather is over there, and it was hot, but it wasn’t bad because we didn’t have to be to the track until two in the afternoon – and we didn’t run until the night time.
It was a great experience, and if you have a chance to go, there is a lot to see over there and plenty to do. I had a lot of fun, and when that deal went away, I worked around Indy wherever I could. A buddy of mine, Tom Miller there in Brownsburg, he has a little shop and I helped him work on cars before I got called to come help him build this deal here with Johnny Gray and the Service Central car. I’ve been here ever since, and I do the clutch and basically take care of the driveline system. Clutch, rear ends, and the back half of the car with Ryan Elliot and Kirk Kenaga.
Drag racing and sprint cars are different, but they’re both fun. I’ve been in drag racing 12 years now, and if I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t have kept at it for so long. It’s great working with Service Central because they are really good about getting us places, like we got to go to the Indy 500 this year, and that was cool. This is a great team, and I’m really happy to be part of it.
When I’m not here, I’m working on the sprint car. I’m happy to be part of that, too. This year we went to Eldora, the USAC show, and Scotty did a real good job. We were 6th quick out of 33 cars, started 6th in the feature, ran 4th in the whole thing and got passed the last two laps. Two guys got by us, but 6th is pretty good when you have our budget compared with what a lot of those other guys have. You’re running with Tony Stewart, Kasey Khane, and those guys can pretty much do whatever they want. This year we’ve done real well, and we know what we need to do to get to where we need to be. Every time we go out, we try to get a little more – just like we do with this Service Central Dodge.