Once the regular season ended after Indy, I took advantage of the down time before Charlotte and the start of the Countdown playoffs to go dove hunting at a local farm near my house in Greeneville. It was the first time I had been dove hunting in 15 years. Tennessee has some great wild game — there were four of us and we bagged 62 doves, and I took 15 birds. I’ve got a special recipe for doves — I soak the meat in saltwater for about half a day, then marinate them in zesty Italian dressing for about four hours, and then wrap a piece of bacon around each piece and put them on the grill. My wife, Pamk and I feasted on a dinner of dove, mashed potatoes and rolls, and it was awesome!
The night before Charlotte we participated in a B.R.A.K.E.S. event to support Doug Herbert’s work to educate teens before they get behind wheel. I’ve been a big supporter of B.R.A.K.E.S. for years, and at the dinner and auction I was presented with the Danielle Lee Kennedy Award for going over and above in support of the organization. It means a lot to be able to support a cause like B.R.A.K.E.S. It’s an amazing group, and to receive an award from them is just humbling. During the auction I challenged audience members to pay for a B.R.A.K.E.S. school session, and if they did I would match their contribution. A great couple offered their support, and we were able to get it done.
We tested at Charlotte for two days to get ready for the first Countdown race. Charlotte is always a great event, but it was just unfortunate that we ran my friend Erica Enders-Stevens in the second round, because I believe we would have beaten anybody else in that round. I didn’t do my job very well, and she stepped up and did hers. That wasn’t how I wanted to start the Countdown, but that motivates you to do better. It was a great testament to our J&J Racing Mopar Hemi engine program that my teammate, Jeg Coughlin Jr., was able to score the win at Charlotte. He’s one of my competitors, too, and he’s going to be tough to beat. For Mopar, having three teams in competition for the Pro Stock championship, counting our J&J teammate Vincent Nobile (and four Mopars when you factor in V. Gaines, who runs his own team), is a good thing. But for me, of course, I want to win it myself.
Next up was Dallas, where we had some success with a win last year. I was pumped up because I wanted to ride the hood of our Dodge Avenger again wearing a cowboy hat and carrying the trophy! You know, we really found some speed and power in the engines at Dallas, and that showed in the last round of qualifying and in the first round of eliminations, where we were low of the round. We had a good package that we took into Sunday, but once again we were matched up with one of the quicker cars of the round, and we just didn’t make as good a run in the second round, where we lost to Jason Line.
But we came out of Dallas with a real optimism that we’re going to have a car to beat the last four races, and I think we’ve found a great a package. With the shakeup in the standings we didn’t lose too much ground, and only fell 10 more points behind the leader. We felt fortunate in that.
The team flew a couple of Hemi engines home to work on after Dallas in preparation for St. Louis. We ain’t quitting; the Mopar Dodge Avenger team is going to dig, dig, dig, and work to defend our 2012 championship. We’ve tested at St. Louis, tested really well there, and I think we hit on something in the engines. I think we’ve got the best package we’ve had. We scored a runner-up finish at St. Louis last year on our road to the title, and I can’t wait to get to the track and show off what we got. I’m fired up as a driver right now, and can’t wait to hit St. Louis this weekend.
(photos by Bruce Biegler)
It’s already mid-September! Where did the regular season go?! Can you believe we’re about to start the Countdown to the Championship?
My last post came just as the team was getting the Mopar Express Lane Dodge ready for the NHRA U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis after testing in St. Louis for two days.
Indy is always awesome event, but very long. It didn’t quite end up the way we had hoped. I’ll get back to that in a minute.
Away from the track there were some bright points. I took part in the 5th annual Eric Medlen Memorial Golf Tournament benefiting the Peyton Manning Children's Hospital at St. Vincent. The cause is awesome, and I got to play with ESPN NHRA anchor Dave Rieff and the whole event was really enjoyable.
On Saturday night, I invited all three Mopar teams (Johnson & Johnson, Jeg Coughlin Jr. and Team JEGS, and Vincent Nobile and the Mountain View Tire team) to an evening at one of my favorite places to visit while in Indy: the famous St. Elmo’s Steak House. There were 30 of us, and we all devoured a line-up of their signature shrimp with the famous (Real hot! Real good!) cocktail sauce, and some really rare prime rib. It was a great meal but it was having us all together that made for a fantastic time.
Me and Pam with Captain Mike Wilson and his wife, Pam
Back at the track, it was great to meet so many fans each day and still get congratulations on last year’s championship. While signing autograph or taking photos with fans, they often see my championship ring and ask if I always wear it, even on runs. My answer is always the same; “You bet I do!” It took a lot of work and years of effort, and I am very proud of our accomplishment. I will take advantage of every minute and every day to wear it as long as I can call myself the Pro Stock World Champion. It also motivates me in this final stretch to go out and do everything I can to try to defend that championship.
I got to be a fan myself during that weekend when I met Captain Mike Wilson and his wife, Pam, from the reality show “The Deadliest Catch.” It’s an awesome show, and to hear him personally recount some of the stories and experiences from aboard the ‘Kiska Sea’ was pretty hair-raising.
Getting back to our performance on track, it was not what we had expected and hoped. Indy was very eye-opening for me as a driver. The Mopar team dug down deep and got it done against Mike Edwards and I screwed it up losing on a holeshot in the second round of eliminations. Makes you realize how important it is during the Countdown to be up and on your game. I get real motivation by screwing up, makes me work very hard. So in that respect, maybe that is the best way to head into the Countdown.
On the bright side, we might have hit on something on that last run that we’ve been fighting for a few races that will hopefully give us some momentum going into the playoffs. I feel like we gained more for the Countdown there, even though the driver didn’t do his job on the track.
The good news is that as of this weekend at Charlotte, it’s a whole new season now. We’re 30 points behind instead of 150. While I wasn’t so happy about the points resetting last season, I am definitely liking it more this year as it helped erase the gap between us.
While I find myself in a different situation this time around chasing Mike (Edwards) and battling my own teammates, I learned some valuable lessons last year that should help; Consistency. Consistency. Consistency! And after consistency, we need have lots of communication within the team to cover all bases and remember to have fun along the way.
Keeping that in mind, before heading to Charlotte, I made a quick stop to see my friends Justin and Gina Humphreys in Maryland to take part in the 12th annual Fore Dood golf outing in honor of his brother who was killed in a motorcycle accident. The family has a foundation that gives to charities in the area in his honor.
But it’s now time to get back to work. The NHRA Countdown to the Championship is officially under way, and it’s going to be a ‘knock down drag out’ fight. Of all the NHRA races coming up, I don’t think I am looking forward to one event over another. Each will be equally very important in my mind. However, this first one is probably has a bit more weight to it because it can easily define and set the tone toward getting good momentum and confidence for the rest of the Countdown.
I’m focused and hungry! It is time for the Express Lane Dodge Avenger to get HEMI mean for the Countdown. Time to go to Charlotte!
The summer sure is speeding by, but it’s been a pretty good one so far.
My last blog entry was posted in July right after our team’s big win at the Mopar Mile-High Nationals in Denver with two more races on the NHRA’s western swing ahead of us.
I love the Western Swing. It’s fun. It’s a family affair. We get to travel together and spend quality time and do fun things. And we did. After winning my fifth career title at Bandimere Speedway the whole team went into Sonoma on a “Mile-High” note.
Of course I was secretly hoping to do what we came one race short of doing last year; sweep the three race western swing with additional wins for the Mopar Express Lane Dodge Avenger at Sonoma and Seattle. It didn’t quite end up the way I had envisioning it, but instead of being a straight sweep for me as a driver, we did it as a TEAM. We made it a HEMI sweep with my pap Roy’s J&J tuned engines winning each of those races; under the hood of my Mopar at Denver and then on board with Vincent Nobile for both his wins.
The best part was really that every one of those three final eliminations rounds involved a Mopar versus Mopar, as I beat V. Gaines in Denver and then it was Vincent versus Jeg Coughlin Jr. for both finals at Sonoma and Seattle.
Sonoma was a pretty good weekend, even if I got beat in the semifinals by Jeg who went on to the finals against Vincent but any time we can have three out of the four Dodges in the semis, it’s a good weekend.
Between Sonoma and Seattle, the team stayed out west. Pam and I took a few days to enjoy ourselves heading to Seattle by way of Glacier National Park. We visited with an old friend of mine, Dave Daughtry, who took us on an eight-hour drive on the “Going-to-the-Sun” road to look at all the glaciers and everything worth seeing in the park. The next day we went white water rafting and I got to learn how to “drive” my own raft. Pam and I did some fishing and relaxing along the way and even saw two Grizzlies and a Black Bear up close. We really enjoyed visiting northern Montana.
Soon we were back on track in Seattle where I got beat by Vincent who went on to win the title. It was a close race and I lost to a teammate that went on to help us sweep the western swing so I am definitely happy for the team. It sure is looking more and more like I definitely hired my own assassins, but I can tell you that I think working as a three car team is making us all stronger and better.
It was also my 400th career national event. I had no idea until I got to the staging lanes for our first run and I saw a sticker saying “Congratulation from Mopar” on the car. That was pretty cool. That’s almost exactly half of all the NHRA events that have ever been held. To be around as long as we have been is wonderful and I still feel as if I were 29 like when I started. I don’t feel like it’s been that long but I guess it has. Time sure flies when you’re doing what you love.
I’m happy with how our western swing went. We made some good progress on the HEMI motors and I feel like we caught Mike Edwards on performance. The hard work starting to pay off and it was nice to have a little time off after a long stretch of seven races in eight week and before heading to Brainerd, Minnesota, for the next event.
Pam and I spent some quality time with friends at our second home on Sanibel Island on Florida’s west coast where we had a strict regimen of rest and relaxation, only broken up by a few rounds of golf, before heading back to work behind the wheel of the Mopar Express Lane Dodge in Brainerd.
Our weekend went “okay.” We got a little behind the eight ball with Jeggy and I lost in the quarterfinals to eventual winner, Edwards, in a really good race where I just simply got ‘whooped’. But it was good to see V. Gaines battling it out to finish runner-up to Edwards for a seventh straight final round appearance by a Mopar-powered car.
And now, here we are at the end of August with just one race left before the NHRA “Countdown to the Championship.” But before we get there, Jeg and I are going to do a little homework and test in St. Louis on Tuesday and Wednesday to get ready for the Countdown.
Wednesday night we’ll head to Indianapolis to set up for the prestigious U.S. Nationals. Of course we’d like to go into the playoffs on a high note with a good weekend, but Indy is special in a lot of ways. I’ve earned No.1 qualifier honors at Indy a few times and that holds its own prestige to brag about, but I have never made it to the finals there. That’ll be our goal. It’s definitely time for the “Big Go.”
The weekend before the Bristol race, back in mid-June, my high school buddies and I flew down to Sanibel Island on my plane, for some golf, some fishing and relaxing at my house down there. I caught about a 150-pound tarpon— it took me 22 minutes to get it in close to the boat. Right at the end my arms were completely worn out and I handed the pole to one of my buddies and told him he had to finish it off. It was right there at the boat, but then about a 500-pound. bull shark up and attacked the tarpon right beside our boat! We cut the line and let the tarpon go — the shark kept coming back to our boat looking for the fish.
The trip was a nice break before Bristol, our home race. You’ve got everybody coming to that race — friends, family, employees. You want to show them all the respect and hospitality you can, because they do it for me all year, allowing me to race. There’s a lot of prep for that event, and then when you get there, a lot of expectation. It’s just a big week. We qualified well at No. 2, but couldn’t get past Greg Anderson in the second round. We’ll just have to wait till next year to once again try to mark a Pro Stock win at Bristol off the to-do list.
Bristol was the first of a string of four consecutive races — I didn’t have time to do much, but I did have time to visit ESPN headquarters at another Bristol, this time in Connecticut. We took the Mopar rig and the Mopar Express Lane Dodge Avenger out to the ESPN compound. That’s a big place, with a lot to see. I met music star Darius Rucker, who was doing a little concert there — it just so happened he was also doing a concert later that week in my hometown. (More on that later).
We headed to the inaugural New Hampshire race after our ESPN stop. We were really impressed with the entire area. The facility did great for their first year, and the New Hampshire fans were just awesome. There were a lot of Mopar fans there, too, in the area. It was crowded, crowded, crowded! We gave them a lot to cheer about — our J&J Racing teammate Jeg Coughlin Jr. took the pole and I was once again No. 2. We used two big holeshot wins over Mike Edwards and Shane Gray to earn the third win of the year in our Mopar Dodge. I think I like New Hampshire!
After we won the race I flew back home on Sunday, where I was invited to the after party for the Niswonger Children’s Hospital Golf Classic, held in Johnson City near my home in Greeneville. It was crazy — after just meeting Darius Rucker during our ESPN visit, I got to meet him again four days later, as he was performing in a concert to support the event! I also rubbed elbows with a bunch of other celebs who were in town to support the charity – NFL stars Dan Marino, Emmett Smith and Bruce Smith, and Bruce Pearl, a former coach at my favorite university — Tennessee. It was a big week!
After New Hampshire, the Mopar rig went straight to Chicago — it was on the road for all four events, and didn’t go back to the shop once. It seemed like Jeggy’s Dodge was out front for most of the race at Chicago. I had to race him in the semis, and he went on to win the event. That was a cool deal, getting two wins back-to-back for the J&J Racing team. Norwalk was up next. The Bader family does an awesome job up there. It was a good race for me and Jeggy — I was able to lock down the No. 1 spot, and I should have won the race. I had five hundredths on Mike (Edwards) off the starting line, and then I shook the tires. You win some, you lose some.
But we were coming into our stride during that stretch — I love all those races. After Norwalk I took all my grandsons out to my house on Douglas Lake in Tennessee. We fished, waterskied and I pulled them along on tubes, then my wife Pam came down and joined me on the weekend — all told I spent four days at our house relaxing before the Mopar Mile-High NHRA Nationals.
I left for Denver early last week before the event — we had a media tour on Wednesday, July 17, then a golf tournament, press conference and the Mopar Block Party on Thursday. Thursday was a busy day. At the Block Party in Golden, you just see so many Mopar fans, with their classic cars. I’m telling you — they’re stacked on top of one another. Mopar does an awesome job with that event.
It was nice seeing Gary Scelzi, the Grand Marshal at the Mopar Mile-High Nationals, out at the Block Party. I told him I remember him being only half as ugly as he looked. We compared championship rings — he said that mine looked like his on steroids! All joking aside, it was awesome to visit with Gary — he’s a four-time champ, a great guy and definitely a fan favorite. I hope he makes it out to more races.
Then it was Friday, and time to go racing. For Mopar’s big weekend, which was the 25th anniversary of their sponsorship of the event, we captured our fourth consecutive pole, seventh straight final-round appearance and fifth win in seven years at the Mopar Mile-High Nationals. I would say I love everything about visiting Thunder Mountain — it’s not just one thing. I love the Bandimere family, I love the surface, I love Mopar’s sponsorship, I love the altitude. It just fits us to a tee — we’ve been so successful there I can’t wait to go back. I want to go back right now!
I had a bye run in the Mopar Mile-Highs first round — it’s only the second time in 18 years I’ve had a bye run. The team was actually really smart during that bye run. We had lane choice for the bye run, of course, and we had just watched Mike (Edwards) make his run. We knew since he had made a really good run, there was a chance we might not have lane choice next round. We made the decision to take the right lane for our bye run and get some data from that lane, thinking Mike would take the left lane if he had lane choice against us next round. It proved to be very beneficial, because we did lose lane choice but had data on the right lane, and we went out there and beat Mike the next round. That was big, to take down the points leader, and then we beat Rickie Jones and another Mopar driver, V. Gaines, in the final to close out the win.
My grandson Drew had a special weekend in Denver as well — with my win in Pro Stock and his dad Shawn Gann’s win in Pro Stock Motorcycle, his father and grandpa both won an NHRA National event on the same day. I don’t think there are many kids who can say that! It was cool having him there — he had to hustle to take winner’s circle pictures with both of us.
Coming home from Denver we got invited to watch the Greeneville Astros, a minor league affiliate of MLB’s Houston Astros, just this past Tuesday. They have an awesome facility here for a minor league team, and the owner of the big league Astros comes in quite often from Houston. The team invited Pam and I out — with us not knowing what they had in mind.
They came into the suite before the game and told me, “You need to come with us.” I’m like, “What’s up?” and the guy said I was scheduled to do the national anthem! I said, “Are you crazy??” He led me on for a little before he said, “You better warm that arm up — you’re going to throw out the first pitch.” I did okay — it was close to being a strike.
We’re back to work this weekend at the drag strip. I think the Mopar Express Lane/J&J Racing Dodge Avenger team is starting to come into its own. With the remaining two segments of the Western Swing up next, at Sonoma and Seattle, I’m really not thinking about the sweep. Our team’s approach is to go to every race and go No. 1 and win the race, and it’ll be no different at Sonoma.