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.
In just a few days, we'll be racing in Las Vegas. I always look forward to both the spring and fall races in Vegas.
Back in 2001 we did really well at the spring race. Ran Whit Bazemore in the final and got the win, and that is something I always think about when I go back there. We ran good that day – it was just a good weekend. Funny story: I was racing for Don Prudhomme then with Ron Capps, and I was driving the old style Camaro body that weekend. We were still waiting on the new design, but Capps had the new body. He got beat in the second round, though, so we took his green body off his car and I ran the green car in the semifinals and the final. It was more aerodynamic and had more down-force, and in the thin air of Vegas you want more down-force. We made my numbers out of black tape and away we went.
It was my birthday that weekend, and Prudhomme and I share a birthday, so it was his birthday, too. It was really special to get the first win of the year for that team and the first after they had expanded to a two-car team – and it was nice to do it on our birthday weekend. I'm a little disappointed that Vegas is a week early this year and won't be on my birthday, but I wouldn't mind giving myself an early birthday present with the win.
It was great to get that first win for Prudhomme as a two-car team, and it would be nice to repeat that and get Make-A-Wish their first win at Vegas.
That racetrack has always been a really good track to me. There are tracks you do well at and you don't know why, and Vegas is one of those racetracks for me. It's always been good to me, and I can't put my finger on what it is there, but I don't mind going to The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, let me tell ya. At least I have luck on one of the Strips in Vegas.
In 2002, I had Gary Densham in the final. We ran good all day, but we got to the final and smoked the tires. I kept pedaling it and pedaling it and pedaling it, and I thought to myself, "Oh, they're going to be mad at me for pedaling it so much." Then all of a sudden the blower belt broke on his car and he was just coasting. I almost ran him down. If I'd have had another three feet, I would've beaten him. I thought in my head, "Well, they're not going to be mad at me now as I was running him down." That was a close one.
Vegas is always a lot of fun, and this weekend my buddy Aaron Rowand, a former Major League Baseball player, is going to be there with us. He's been to the races many times with me in the past, and it's always great having him there. He lives in Vegas, so it's a great time for us to hang out. We met at the ESPY awards in 2005, and we've remained good friends ever since. I think he's about as excited to come watch me again as I am to be racing again.
As a team, our confidence level is pretty high going to this race. We've got John Collins getting comfortable as our crew chief, and boy he is fitting right in, just like we knew he would. As his confidence grows, ours does too. This could be a great race for us.
If you're in Las Vegas this weekend, come by and see us at the NHRA FanFest at the New York-New York Hotel & Casino on Thursday, March 27th from 5-7 p.m. I'll be signing autographs with the rest of the Don Schumacher Racing drivers. I've gone to the FanFest there for the last few years and it's a really neat deal, but it will be nice to be a participant again. Hope to see you there.
I guess I'm still having a real hard time feeling like this whole thing is sinking in. We've already had three races this year with Make-A-Wish on the side of our Funny Car, and you can't even begin to imagine how overwhelming it has been. I mean that in the best way. It is just so overwhelming, and so wonderful to be part of this. I never dreamed in a million years that we would have this response to our car.
I thought it was something really big in Pomona, at the first race of the year, but I was totally unprepared for Phoenix. The Make-A-Wish headquarters are in Phoenix, and we had a really big turnout at the race – I mean really big. To have all of those Make-A-Wish families there and to see those precious children, well, my heart was so full I thought it was going to bust. I really did. Just watching those kids and seeing their reaction was so emotional for me. It really touched my heart.
One of the little Wish Kids, a boy named Carter, kissed the Make-A-Wish Funny Car for good luck and I missed getting a picture of it, and I thought I'd never get him to do it again – but he did. Those kids just loved it, and that meant the world to all of us. Not just to me, but to our whole team. Every single person on this team that I care for so much left the weekend with a very full heart. The guys were sending me texts and talking about it, how much it meant to them. This is very, very important to all of us, and I'm so proud to be part of it.
I've never been real comfortable with public speaking, but a lot of people want to talk to me about this. I'm not really sure how to handle that part, to be honest, but mostly I just try to stay out of the spotlight. This brings me a lot of joy, but it is a year of giving, a year for others. On Saturday, though, when we had all of those families in the Don Schumacher Racing hospitality area, something just came over me and I had to tell them. I had to tell them that this isn't my car. This is our car. This is THEIR car. This car belongs to each and every one of those children. Seeing those big smiles, watching them talk to Tommy and the guys on the team, it was just about one of the most heartwarming days I've ever had.
That night I couldn't sleep, there was just so much running through my mind, and I called my husband, Doug. I said, "You know, I think I've lost my mind. I've been raising kids for a lot of years, and coming to the racetrack has been an escape for me. What on God's green earth did I do – I just fell in love with a million more."
When you meet these kids, you can't help but fall in love with them. There are so many Wish Kids out there waiting on a dream, and I hope that the Make-A-Wish car will inspire people to look into their own hearts. That's my hope, that's MY dream. I'm saying, if it's in your heart, get a hold of Make-A-Wish through their website, Wish.org.
It's really a humbling experience to be in the position I'm in and to be able to do this. Every weekend there are people coming up and thanking me, grandmas of Wish Kids coming up and hugging me, parents wanting their picture taken with me. I appreciate all of that so much – I appreciate each and every one of the people who have come up to talk to me. I want to thank them. But I also want everyone to know that this is about those precious children, it's not about me. I hope that the Make-A-Wish car that belongs to all of those kids does some amazing things this year, not just on the racetrack but by bringing awareness to the Make-A-Wish foundation. Wouldn't that be something?
When we last spoke, I was telling you all that we were getting ready to go back to West Palm for the winter warm-up. Well, things didn't go quite as smoothly as we would have hoped. We went there with a little different attitude than we normally would have. We were there in December and did some testing, and we wanted to continue that but also advance the team, get the guys back into the swing of everything. We did all that, except we struggled like everyone else to get down the racetrack. It was a tricky one. The weather was unusually cool for South Florida, and it threw us a curve. That made for a frustrating week, to go out there and smoke the tire and shake run after run. It was frustrating for our whole team, but especially for the driver. It'll give you headaches to be in the car under those circumstances, and I took plenty of Advil each day of testing.
It seemed like a marathon test session, and of course that took some of the fun out of it – but at the same time, it was still productive on the team side of things to get everybody back into a rhythm. The one thing that gave you solace out there was that it wasn't just our team struggling to get down the racetrack, it was pretty much everybody there. It can be very disheartening for the guys to go up there run after run and not make it down, but after every run we were like, "Let's do this again, we're going to get it." I've said it before, but this is a great team. We're going to test one day next week in Las Vegas before Pomona, but I think we'll be ready.
Okay, I guess I better tell you about the last run we made in testing. The whole week had just been so frustrating, and on the very last run, I did something that I've never done before: I hit the wall. Not that there was any pressure, but at the same time, we had such a frustrating week that I just wanted to get to the other end and make sure we got some data before we left. Well, it quivered the tire a little bit, and then it made it – it was going down the track. Then the clutch malfunctioned and the motor got away from it. It dropped a hole right before halftrack and was pulling to the left. I was fighting to get it back over and just get it to the other end. It happens all the time in racing, you drop a hole, get to a certain point, and you have to shut it off. It hadn't quite gotten there yet in my mind, but the groove was real narrow and the next thing I knew the car made a hard left. I lifted but I couldn't get the car back before it hit the wall. I have no problem admitting it was my fault, just tried to stay with it too long.
I can't tell you how mad it made me. I was pretty dejected, but the guys on the team told me, hey, at least we got it out of the way with the primered body and not our beautiful, new Make-A-Wish car. That's a good point. It's still aggravating though, and I felt bad for the team, for Don Schumacher, and for our sponsor Terry Chandler. But you have to take the valuable lesson you learned with you. The circumstances at that particular track were ones we weren't used to and certainly didn't expect, but it shows you that these cars can bite you at any time, and they have to be treated with a lot of respect and smart driving. Anyway, I'm just glad we got that out of the way. We sure won't be doing that again anytime soon, and hopefully not ever.
I was only home 24 hours after testing and then flew out to shoot Performance TV for a few days. While I was there, I got some news. I'm sure everyone has heard by now that our crew chief, Rob Wendland, and DSR have parted ways. Don Schumacher and I discussed it, and he felt it was the right decision for our team to move forward. He assured me and told me not to worry, that Todd Okuhara and the DSR Funny Car crew chiefs Rahn Tobler, Dickie Venables and Rob Flynn would oversee our car until a suitable replacement is found. Don's success is notable, and there is no reason for me not to trust him when he says that everything is going to be fine.
On a personal note, I've known Rob for a long time. I don't think he'll be on the sidelines for long, and I look forward to running against him in the other lane. Rob is a great guy, and I wish him the best.
In other news, I've had the opportunity to do several interviews lately, and I was on an NHRA teleconference this week with the media. It's been busy. One of the biggest things people keep asking me is what it's like getting used to being with a team full time again. It's not so much about getting use to being back in the driver's seat; it's really all the other things that go along with it like appearances, interviews, and the schedule. That's the biggest factor of getting used to it all again, the demands on your time. The biggest hurdle for me will be managing it all, but I'm definitely up for it, and once you get stuffed into the car on Friday at 1pm and get your helmet on, no one can get to you – it's just you and the car. I think that will be the moment I'm going to enjoy the most. It'll just be me and the Make-A-Wish Dodge.
While I was shooting for Performance TV, our car was painted, and the guys were all sending me pictures, and that was the first time I got to see it. I got back to town and was finally able to see the car in person on Friday. Steve Dekkenga and SD Enterprise did an outstanding job, but we already knew it would be a great-looking car because it was in their hands. Plus, I have a history with blue cars, so I'm partial to blue. It's a good-looking car, and I can't wait for everyone to see it on Friday in Pomona.
The guys on the Make-A-Wish team have worked hard all winter, and I've worked pretty hard, too. Everything is ready to go, the trailer is lettered, and our car is loaded and ready to roll. The means our guys will have a chance to take a couple of days off before the season starts, and I get to watch see Peyton Manning, an old Indianapolis Colt, in the Super Bowl this weekend. I'm really looking forward to Sunday, and then Monday I'll fly to Las Vegas for one last test session.
Like I told you, since we don't yet have a crew chief designated just for our car, we get the DSR community of Funny Car crew chiefs. They've made a lot of changes to the car set-up, and it should be very similar now to the cars driven by Capps, Hagan, and Beckman. The crew chiefs want to make sure everything is working properly, so we'll go out there on Tuesday in Vegas and make a few hits. It'll be more of a check-up than a full test session, and it will give us one last shot at ironing out a few things before Pomona. We've got a good group of guys on this team, and with the support of all those crew chiefs, I think we'll be in good shape. It isn't really like I don't have a crew chief – it's like I have four of them now.
Sometimes, when things have been a little rough – you have a tough test session, bounce the car off the wall, lose your crew chief – Cinderella shows up. You get that Cinderella story. It seems like when you've had a tough time, that's when things can turn around and be the brightest, and hopefully, our Cinderella will be at Pomona. I'll see you there.