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.
We're headed to Denver this week for the Mopar Mile-High Nationals, and that's a race where there is a lot of pressure on the crew chiefs to get these cars to perform in conditions that you really don't find anywhere else on the tour. Our crew chief John Collins is doing a great job this year in his new role, and we're all really proud of him, but he isn't in this alone. John is assisted by Rip Reynolds, and Rip has been in the business a long time. Every guy in every role on the team matters, and we figured that now would be a great time to hand the blog over to our Assistant Crew Chief, especially since this is the week of the race where we return his home track in Denver. Take it away, Rip.
I grew up all over the United States because my dad was an air traffic controller, so we would move from time-to-time. We picked up and moved every three to four years, and it was really interesting – I think everyone should do it because I learned how to meet new people and adapt to my environment. To be honest, I think that really helps me in racing because we work with so many different people, and everyone has their own way of looking at things.
I spent my last year of high school in Colorado, and I lived there almost half of my life. I played a lot of softball and still keep in touch with a few people. When you move a lot, you don't get close to a lot of people, but you make a few really good friends and stick with them, and I enjoy getting together with them every time I come to town. It's great on a Friday at the racetrack when you can see your old friends and spend some time with them before everything really gets going. I always look forward to that in Denver.
You meet all kinds of people in racing, and how that all got started for me was back in 1978. I had a car I raced back then with some guys I worked with. I liked the mechanical side of it, and I've been a mechanic since I got out of high school. It just kind of happened that way. I never got into the driving side of things, although I built a 1970 1/2 Camaro that someone else was driving, and at one point I knew there was more in the car, so I got in and ran it – but as soon as I did I was like, 'Okay, now I know what I can do to make it better for them to drive.' I just like the mechanical side of things more than driving.
I was out of racing for a while and moved around some. I lived in Seattle and got married, and my wife passed away. Soon after that, I moved back to Colorado and met up with some friends that I played softball with. A friend of mine knew someone, Rick Salem, who raced a sprint car and needed help, so I became involved there. Through that partnership, I met Len Seroka, who had a Funny Car he raced here in Denver. Len and I became very good friends, and when he couldn't get a full time deal, he knew that his good friends Tim and Kim Richards needed someone to help on Chuck Etchells' car. They offered me a job – and even though it didn't pay very well, the wonderful parents that I had made up the difference and let me go racing.
That turned into proving myself and moving my way up to where I could afford to do this for a living, and eventually I was lucky enough to meet somebody out here who is very special to me. We've been married 13 years now. Racing has been very good to me.
I worked for Chuck Etchells in 2000 on the car that Whit Bazemore drove, and then when Whit was going to race the Matco car for Don Schumacher Racing, I went there to start building it. Things changed, and we went through a few crew chiefs – but a gentleman came in named Lee Beard. The funny part was, at the time, I was dating his sister but had never met him. I'm still with her today.
I worked on that car until the end of 2006 and from there I went to David Power Motorsports for a couple of years. When that team dissolved, I came back to DSR and worked with them on Jack Beckman's car. After that, I had the opportunity to work on the DSR dragsters in Abu Dhabi, and so I did that for a year and when that was done, the sponsorship came up for Johnny Gray to run a Funny Car, and I followed him until he was done racing. This year, I get to work with the same team but with Tommy Johnson Jr. as the driver, now known as the Make-A-Wish team that is sponsored by Johnny's sister Terry Chandler. This is a great team, and I'm proud to be part of it. Like I said, racing has been very good to me.