We finished third in 2014, and overall, I would definitely say it was a great year. As a team, we were really happy and now, we're looking forward to the season ahead. Of course we were looking forward to the off-season and catching up on a few things, but now it's almost time to go racing again, and looking back it seems like there really wasn't much "off" in the "off-season." It went by so fast.
As soon as the NHRA season ended, I went to Australia to race, and then I sat in for my DSR teammate Ron Capps to test his car in West Palm. After that it was back to Indy to go to the PRI show, and then on to Tennessee to film PerformanceTV, then Christmas, then New Years, and now, oh my, it's the week to go testing.
The guys on my Make-A-Wish team started to work on getting ready for 2015 as soon as we got home from the last race of the year in Pomona. We actually built a new front-half for our Dodge Charger R/T, and we kept last year's car intact and put it upstairs to use as a spare. With our other car, we put a new front end on it and used a little different design based on things that we've learned over the season. The guys were on that as soon as we got home. They've been busy for a lot of days this winter, and we're sure hoping that's going to pay off come testing again in West Palm and then the Winternationals.
For me, I've almost been busier in the off-season than I was when we were racing, and it seems like I've been home a lot less, too. By the time I returned home from my parent's house in North Carolina after Christmas, I had only been home 11 days since Oct. 28.
Racing in Australia was a lot of fun. I flew down to drive the L.A. Hooker Nostalgia Funny Car for Graeme Cowin, and it was great to get that invitation. I had driven a Nostalgia car here in the U.S. before, but never that one, so it was really something I was looking forward to. I ended up having a blast. I made a lot of good friends while racing down there last year, and it was a nice opportunity to go see a lot of those folks, do some racing, and then it was even more fun because we won the race.
Really, the only break I got this off-season was after the Australia race when I had the chance to visit Perth with racing friends Anthony Begley and Damian Harris and another friend, Steve Flynn. We went out on the ocean in a boat, stepped back in time, kicked back, and pretty much did nothing besides get sunburned.
Since then, I've been busy filming PerformanceTV for Velocity Channel, and luckily we film mostly during fall and winter so I'm able to do that between racing and everything else that goes on. With all of that, it was nice to be able to relax and visit with my family over Christmas.
We had a great holiday, and I was able to spend time with my nephews, Gage and Zane. Gage, of course, wanted to negotiate another road trip with his uncle for next season. He not only wants to go to Chicago and Norwalk again but also on the Western Swing. We bargained and I told him if he gets straight A's, he can go on the Western Swing. He said, 'Well, what if there is one B+?' I told him we'd have to talk if that would happen.
While I was down there in North Carolina with the family, we even got to spend a little time working on Gage's Jr. Dragster. I built him a custom seat, but he's grown so much that he has almost grown out of it. I brought it back home with me, and I'm going to try to see if I can cut it out and trim it to see if I can give him a little more room for the season.
Christmas sort of launched a time of change for me, too. I asked for a juicer, and Santa (my parents) brought it. I got the idea watching a documentary called Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead that I should try the juicing diet, and I was a little nervous about it, but I thought I'd give it a shot. So far, it seems like a pretty good program. I started juicing on January 2nd and I've got to be honest, it's very hard to stick to it. It doesn't taste as good as what I normally have in my diet, that's for sure. It's a little bit like drinking grass out of your lawnmower bag, to tell you the truth, but I've been experimenting with different recipes and I don't know if I'm just getting used to it or better at it, but there are a couple that haven't been too bad. What's kept me going is the positive results that I've seen in a short period of time. I'm going to continue until we leave for testing, and then I think I'm going to work it into my regular diet.
Sunday we leave for West Palm to test, and I'm excited to get back in the Make-A-Wish Funny Car, get back out there with the guys and get back to the racetrack. We're excited to see how this new chassis drives and to get our momentum going for the 2015 season. I'm also excited about the new Dodge Charger R/T body. I was able to test it a couple times last season, but I'm really looking forward to being in there full time. As the driver, I'm not too worried about it being any faster than the last body – the visibility from the cockpit is so much better it's incredible. I think it's a great change.
After testing, I'll fly right to Tennessee to film more for PerformanceTV, then it's a week and a half off and time to go to the Winternationals. It's pretty darn cold here in Indy right now, and I'm excited to get to Pomona for more reason than one.
Thanks to our wonderful sponsor Terry Chandler, we're able to keep this team going. We're all very thankful to Terry for giving us the opportunity to do this again. We did so well our first year together; I can't wait to see what we can do in 2015.
The last race of the season is here, and what a year it's been for the Make-A-Wish team. Our first year together, my first year back after a long layoff, John Collins as a rookie crew chief – what we've been able to do throughout the year has us all excited for 2015. We worked at it pretty hard, and I don't think we would have done anything differently. We can certainly recognize the weak areas and things we could have done better, but we learned from our mistakes along the way, and we continued to expect the best every week.
A couple weeks ago in Las Vegas we were fortunate enough to be part of something really cool. Austin is a 17-year-old Wish Kid whose wish was to win a race for his team, and when Make-A-Wish came to us and asked if we would like to be part of it, we jumped at the chance. Terry Chandler, Don Schumacher, and Doug Foley really pulled together to make it happen, and when they asked me to be Austin's co-pilot in the two-seater, I was really excited. Austin and I got to race Antron Brown and Jack Beckman before the third round of qualifying in Vegas, and it was really something.
There we were in the championship hunt and not wanting to take anything away from that, but at the same time I think I was more nervous about Austin's race than actually racing our Make-A-Wish Funny Car because I knew what it meant to him. We didn't want anything to take away from Austin's wish. We wanted it to be perfect.
It was a unique experience, to say the least, to be able to meet a person whose wish was to be a racecar driver, and you know you're going to help make that wish come true. Austin is a very enthusiastic kid, and when we first met I was a little blown away. He was looking at me as a hero for making all of this happen for him, but that's not who I am, and I certainly wasn't the only one making it happen. I'm just a guy who gets to do what I love, and to see him get to do what he really wanted to do and to be part of it was a very special feeling.
We all hit it off right away with Austin, he instantly became a member of the Make-A-Wish team and fit in like one of the guys. Austin is a jokester, and we were kidding each other a lot. It was a lot of fun.
When we were getting reading to race, my adrenaline was pretty high. I knew there was a lot on the line, and we wanted that trophy for Austin. At the same time, I knew it was important for him to soak in the whole experience, so as we pulled into the waterbox I was really focused on making sure he saw all the people in the grandstands cheering for him, and I pointed to Antron and Jack to make sure he saw them next to us. I wanted him to remember everything that we were doing, and I wanted to make sure any nerves he felt were calmed and that I was there and no matter what we were going to have a good race.
For me, the nerves came when the engine started. I knew it needed to be a perfect run to get the outcome we wanted.
It was a fun race, and wow, what a feeling when the win light came on in our lane. At the top end, it was really neat to see the smile on Austin's face. He thoroughly enjoyed that trip down the quarter mile, and to see him beaming with excitement when they handed him the trophy was something I'll never forget. That was his wish, to win for the team. Of course, I wanted to know how fast we ran, and as soon as I found out I let him know that we ran almost 147 mph. One of the biggest things for me was seeing how happy his parents were to see their son so happy. They were at a loss for words and extremely proud to see their son win the race.
It didn't end there, though. After the celebration at the top end, we got to take a ride back down in front of the grandstands, and that was a proud moment for Austin but also for me. Seeing the support of all of those people made me proud of NHRA drag racing and proud of our fans. They rallied behind Austin and the entire grandstand gave him a standing ovation. Feeling that support for Austin from every single person at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway was possibly the highlight of the whole experience.
We've had so much fun representing Make-A-Wish all season, promoting what they do, and entertaining Wish Kids across the country at each race. To be part of granting a wish and seeing how it works and how many people are involved, to see how it all works behind-the-scenes, made us realize that this is a really big deal. It's no small feat to grant wishes, and the foundation does a really, really good job.
For our Make-A-Wish Funny Car team, Don Schumacher, Terry Chandler, Antron Brown, Jack Beckman, and Doug Foley and his Pure Speed Drag Racing School that provided the two-seater dragsters, as well as every single person along the way who helped grant Austin's wish, this was huge. We wanted to make Austin's wish the best wish ever granted. We wanted it to be the best day of his life so far. If his smile and that great big laugh were any indication of that, we know that it was.
We've only got three races left in the Countdown to the Championship, and this weekend we get to race at Maple Grove Raceway in Reading. It's one of the racetracks where I really didn't race before I moved up to nitro, and once I started racing there it quickly turned into a place that I really enjoy going to. I like the track, it's in a beautiful setting and it's fast there with record e.t.'s Everyone looks forward to this race every year because it's just a lot of fun.
Back in Reading in 1999 I got my first Funny Car win there. I'd won a couple of times in Top Fuel, but that was my first Funny Car win ever, so it holds a very special memory for me. I've been No. 1 qualifier in Funny Car there, too, and it's just been a good place. I'm glad we're going there this weekend, because right now we're in a must-win situation. I've done it there before, so why not do it again?
I remember that win pretty well – it started four final rounds in a row, and I wouldn't mind doing that again. After I won in Reading, I went to the final round in Topeka, won Memphis, and was runner-up in Dallas.
I raced Ron Capps in the Reading final, and I was driving the Interstate Batteries car for Joe Gibbs. It was an all star team with Jason McCullough (who is crew chief on the Al-Anabi car driven by Khalid alBalooshi nowadays) on the clutch and Dave Fletcher as the cylinder head guy. It was just a really good team.
We didn't have cool conditions that day like it can be there. It was actually pretty hot and tricky to get down the racetrack that day. We weren't breaking track records, but we were able to get down the track. Every time we went out there, we made a good run for the conditions. Everybody was trying to get around us but they couldn't. We were running as good as the track would allow, and anybody that tried to run better than us just ended up smoking the tires. It was a fun day.
It's funny because every win I've ever had, I had a feeling I was going to win that morning when I woke up. You want to wake up every Sunday feeling like that, but it doesn't always happen. Sometimes you just know, and I sure knew it that day. You always hope when you go back to a place where you've done that before that it all comes back and you can do it again. I'm definitely looking forward to this weekend.
No matter what happens on the racetrack, we've really had a very special year with this Make-A-Wish Dodge. One of the neatest things has been having the Wish Kids in our pit area just about every Saturday. There were a few times this year where I was worried that certain kids may not like it, that maybe the environment would be too intense and uncomfortable, but they have loved it, and it's been really great to see them get behind the program and become drag racing fans if they weren't already.
Another thing that has been really incredible has been the fans. We've become a fan favorite out there, regardless of how we're doing on the racetrack because this means something to people. They cheer for the Make-A-Wish car, and we love it. Countless times this year, fans have come to the ropes to say thank you for what we're doing. I always tell them that they need to thank our sponsor, Terry Chandler, not me. I'm just part of this, but she is the reason we're here doing what we're doing. The fan support has been something that has really meant a lot to us. I may not be their favorite driver, we may not be their favorite team – but they still root for us. It's cool to see the reputation that Make-A-Wish has. They're a first-class organization, and to have so many folks behind you is kind of unique. In drag racing, you never have everybody behind you – but it feels like we do. For that, and to everyone who has gone to Wish.org to make a donation and make a difference in a child's life, we say thank you.
We sure have a great group of guys on this Make-A-Wish team, and the experience runs mighty deep. This year marks the 20th year of full-time racing for one of our crew members, Ed "Tuna" Tyler. That's a pretty big number, and this weekend we're going to Seattle to race the NHRA Northwest Nationals, which is Tuna's home race. Seems like a great time to have him take over on the blog, don't you think?
My dad took me to my first drag race in the late 1960s. We went to a racetrack in Baton Rouge, La., and I was probably 8 years old. I got to sit in the Sox & Martin Pro Stock car on a ramp truck, and that was my first "hands-on" experience with drag racing. I remember that day very well. I guess my appreciation for racing really began with my dad even before then – he always had what I considered fast cars, and from stop light to stop light it was always, "hang on," no matter what car he was driving. It was fun.
I've been part of this even longer than 20 years because I was in it part time for two years before I started going full time. Before that I was in monster trucks. I've been racing a long time, but I don't think I've reached the pinnacle of my career yet. I still have a lot of years left in me – until they quit selling Geritol! All these young guys keep me going.
Going up there to Seattle for the race takes me back to where I consider my home track, but I was born in San Francisco and then we moved around a lot when I was younger – my dad was in the Army, so we lived all over, including Panama for a while. When he retired from the military, we moved up to the Seattle area and then settled in Vancouver, so that's where I got to finish my last year of high school.
After meeting Mike Kloeber, Jim Epler's crew chief, I went to a few races and they asked me to drive the race operation from Portland to Seattle. That was 1992, and then in 1993 I was working as a roofer but they asked me to come to Indy. They flew me in, and after that weekend when I got back home I realized I wanted to be in racing for a living, and I've been doing it since.
I wound up going to Tommy Johnson's Mopar dragster in 1995, and then in 1996 I went to Bruce Sarve and Ed Kenny's Top Fuel dragster. From 1997-98 I worked with Cristen Powell, and from 1999-2001 I was with Kenny Bernstein. I've worked with some great teams.
In the winter of 2001, I moved over to Don Schumacher Racing and was there until 2007. Probably the most memorable point in my career was winning the 2005 championship with Gary Scelzi. It was just a weird deal because it was like we couldn't do anything wrong. Everything fell into place. In Dallas, Scelzi red-lighted in the first round but then Ron Capps, who was right there with us in points, went out in round two. John Force won that race and took a small lead, but then we went to the final round in Vegas and got it back. In Pomona at the World Finals, we lost in the second round but so did Capps. Force could have won the championship if he would won the race, but Tony Pedregon beat him on a holeshot in the semifinals. That was when the championship was ours.
I was also part of the 2001 championship for Kenny Bernstein, even though I wasn't there the whole year, and that was a pretty neat deal. I was back with Bernstein for a couple of years – in 2007 with Kenny driving and then in 2008 with Tommy Johnson again, and then I decided to take a year off from racing. Funny, it didn't quite end up that way. Kloeber called me and told me about a guy up in Chicago named Tim Cullinan. He asked me if I would go up there and look at their Top Fuel dragster and see if I thought it was something they could run. I was supposed to just go and just run through their stuff and make sure it was ready to go; we were thinking maybe 1 or 2 days before, but it turned into 240 days that year. It was a full-time job that was a lot of fun, and they are really nice people. I was selected to be part of the Yas Marina team with Don Schumacher Racing and race over in Abu Dhabi, and that was another great opportunity with a lot of the guys that we race with now.
One of the things I'm most proud of in my career was after the Yas Marina deal, I went back with Tim Cullinan for two races and had the opportunity to tune the car for two races. I thought that was awesome. The first race, we didn't do very well. But in Pomona at the second race, we wet 4-flat. I was pretty excited about that, for never touching a car to making it go from dropping a hole and burning it up to going down the track with no problems to a 4-flat. Only eight laps and I got it to go down the track.
After that, Lee Beard asked me to be part of Johnny Gray's Funny Car team back at Don Schumacher Racing, and that was an easy decision. It was a great run with Johnny, and now we're having a great run with Tommy and our sponsor Terry Chandler. Back in 2005 when we won the championship with Scelzi, a friend of mine made a sign that says, "In it to win it." I brought it back this year, and it's been up on our wall in the hauler since the beginning of the year. It will be there the whole year, because it's a reminder that it can be done.
I'm looking forward to this weekend in Seattle. My best friend and his wife are coming up for the race, and I have some friends that have a car club, and they'll all be there. It's like a homecoming, and I'll see all kinds of people I haven't seen in a long time. You never know who will show up. One of the best parts is that I get to see my mom, Vera, on her birthday. This is the first time ever since I've been racing that I get to see her on her birthday. It'll be a great weekend.