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.
Wow, the weather, right? I'm sure you've all heard about – or been part of – the major winter storm we had last week here in the United States. Boy, it was something, and that's the kind of weather I remember from when I was a kid growing up in Iowa. I haven't seen it like that in years.
The day before the storm hit, I had a chance to go to the Colts game with Will Truitt from DSR. It was great; we tailgated before the game and the game itself was probably one of the best that I've gone to at the new Lucas Oil stadium. I had a lot of fun. It was kind of interesting, too, because we were seated in a section that only had a couple of rows to it but after chitchatting with the man and his wife who were next to us, we found out that he was a drag racer who had recently moved to Indy. It was their first Colts game. We ended up sharing pictures of our racecars that we each had on our phones, and I think we've made a new fan. He says he's going to come to the U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway in September to see us. That was pretty neat.
I'm really glad I got to make it to that game because I've been so darn busy that it's about the only thing outside of working or traveling that I've been able to do all winter. Our team is about ready to head down with the other Don Schumacher Racing cars to West Palm for the Winter Warm-Up, the annual pre-season test session for the nitro cars down in Florida. I get home from testing a week from Sunday, and I fly back out again Monday to do another shoot for Performance TV and the Velocity Channel. We're about to wrap up the show for the year – it runs from October to March, and we'll start filming again in September right after Indy.
Back to the weather – I went to the grocery store as soon as it started snowing on Sunday morning. I don't normally get groceries because I'm really not home enough, but I thought I better get there so at least I could survive. I bought stuff to make chili, picked up some frozen pizzas and got some drinks. That's all you need to survive, right?
It got brutally cold out, and I shoveled off and on all day on Sunday trying to keep up with the snow as it came down. I was doing a really good job until Sunday night when the winds picked up and drifted it. I spent most of Monday in the house, looking outside and praying that my heat wouldn't quit. It was strange to stay inside and to look out there and not see a single person stirring. It was very different.
I tried to keep busy, watched a little TV and did a few of those jobs that you always put off. At one point I decided that I had better shovel the drifts in front of the garage so I could get out when I needed to. To keep warm, I wore my head sock that I wear under my helmet, and it actually worked very well. I shoveled a little bit, but you really couldn't stay out too long. Tuesday wasn't much better, but I had to venture out and head to the shop.
Everyone was off on Monday, just a few stragglers made it, but on Tuesday everyone was there despite the weather. The DSR shop was full. I walked in and went, "What's everybody doing here?" All of the guys on the team are that dedicated. They understand that that's just the way racing is. You do whatever it takes.
Usually during the off-season, everybody works close to a regular 8-5 at a steady pace to get things done, but when we lost Monday because of the weather, it became a "work until you get it done" week. The team put in a lot of extra hours, and there was some added stress with packages that were supposed to be delivered Monday not showing up until Wednesday or Thursday because of the weather. Thankfully, it all worked out – but for a while there were a lot of extra hours, a lot of worrying, and some nervousness about getting everything done in time for the trucks to leave on Sunday. They worked very hard, and on Friday, the guys were just finishing up and getting ready to load our second car into the trailer at around 5pm when I was leaving, so hopefully that means they all got to spend Saturday with their families before we leave for West Palm.
The last time we tested was in December, and we only took one car that time. This second car has a brand new front half on it, and that was one of the main things the guys were working on this week, getting the spare car finished and put back together after being front-halved. This time we're going testing with two cars, and we plan to run both. We'll spend a couple of days with the car we ran in December, and then we'll switch over and make some runs on the second car. When we leave testing, we should have two cars that are ready to go.
December was a real test session for our team where we were able to try a lot of different things. This time around will be a little different. It's still very much a test session, and there are things we want to continue with from the December test. But a lot of testing, especially this time, is for the team. The guys are working out a routine on servicing and making sure they're up to speed for a quick turnaround. A lot of teams will make certain changes like adding new toolboxes or changing how things are set up in the pits. Now is the time to get everyone used to everything so that they can do their job quickly and as best they can once Pomona rolls around. This is an opportunity to get everyone back in the swing of things, and it's almost like starting over again. It'll be great for me to get back in the Funny Car, for the guys to get back into their routines, and for all of us to continue what we started testing in December. The goal is to get to Pomona and pick up like the team never let off.
At the end of the day, this test session is also for a little bit of bragging rights – there will be one car that makes the quickest run, and although the guys who don't run very well will tell you this test session isn't a competition, the guys who do run well will tell you different. On Friday and Saturday they pair the cars up, and that gives you a little bit of practice, too. It's a whole lot different running a single than having somebody in the other lane, and that gets you back into the routine as well.
I'm really looking forward to this week. Our team owner, Terry Chandler, is planning to be there, and it will be nice to get to see her again and have everyone all together. Pre-season testing, throughout my career, has always been one of my favorite times of the year. I missed it almost as much as I missed the racing sometimes. I've been looking forward to this for the last few years. There is something very special about it.
I'm very excited about everything that this year has in store for me and for this team. Since I found out last year that I would be driving this car, the excitement that I've shown has been somewhat tempered. I wasn't giddy or jumping up and down, I guess you could say, I was more in the "let's do it" frame of mind, and some people have mistaken that for me not being excited. But the truth is that I'm very excited, and as it's getting closer and actually beginning to materialize, that feeling of excitement about what's going to happen is really creeping up on me. It's time. Now it's time to do this.
That's it for now. I'll try to check in with you from West Palm. Everyone have a great week.
It's hard to believe that it's already Christmastime. I hope everyone is spending some time with family and friends and really enjoying the holiday season. I made the nine-hour drive down to North Carolina to spend Christmas with my family, and I figured I'd get you all caught up before too much more time passes.
A couple of weeks ago I went down to West Palm with the Funny Car team and got to get in the car and test for the first time. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't nervous for that first run; I was excited, but I was a little nervous at the same time. For the most part, everything went pretty smoothly. I did get to experience tire shake again, and let me tell you, tire shake is way more severe in a Funny Car than it is in a dragster. That first time feeling it again brought back the memory pretty fast.
On the second run it was hauling the mail, and not being in the Funny Car much lately, I was a little behind it. It got out of the groove a little and started to come loose on the top end. I clicked it early and when the guys told me it ran a 4.04 at 284 mph, I was surprised. They weren't trying to ease me back into this, that's for sure, and I realized pretty quickly that it is going to be my job to get up to speed in a hurry. We made a few more runs over the two days we were down there, and I'm feeling more and more comfortable every run. We tested a lot of different things – it was a test session for me, but also a test session for the team to try out as much as they could in that short amount of time.
It was interesting getting used to a Funny Car again after being in a dragster so much of the last few years. The last run on the first day was at night, and I thought, "Man, they're throwing everything at me out here." On that run, we made the quickest 60-foot run that this car has ever made. It rattled 'em loose about 150 feet, but it was a great way to end the night because it gave me a lot of confidence heading into day two.
Johnny came out to watch us some, and that was cool. It's funny because even though we were one of only three cars down there testing, there sure weren't any less ayes between Johnny Gray, Don Schumacher, and his daughter Megan.
The second day of testing started off with a 4.08 at 305, and it was a nice, good run. We tried a lot of different things, and the neat thing I really enjoyed seeing was that even though there were just the three cars out there, all of the DSR crew chiefs were there but two. It was a great learning session for everybody, not just our team. It was great for me to get in the car, and hopefully that December test session will lead to nice, full runs come the January test session. We were able to get a lot of "trying different things" out of the way, and there were a lot of things that showed promise even when we didn't make it down the track. I know crew chief Rob and the guys have a lot of ideas for when we come back in January. I'm looking forward to it.
I've been pretty much non-stop since the Las Vegas race when I actually found out I had this ride for next season. It's been wide open since then and hasn't let up: I flew home from the test session, went right over to the PRI show for two days of shooting Performance TV there with Kathy Fisher for the Velocity Channel, went to the USAC banquet with friends on Friday night, then Sunday I finally got to catch up on some things at home – laundry, paying bills, repacking. I got up bright and early on Monday and went to the doctor for a physical for my NHRA license, then left for the airport to fly out and do more filming for the TV show on Tuesday and Wednesday. I flew back to Indy on Wednesday, landed at 5:30 and was at the DSR Christmas party by 6:30. Since then I've been catching up on everything at the shop and going over things for my business to make sure everything is handled before year end. As much as I dreaded going into the big crowds, I had to wait until the weekend before Christmas to do my shopping, but that's all done now.
I've slept in my bed 18 or 19 days since the 24th of October, but I'm not going to complain about that one bit. Being this busy is a good problem to have.
I've really been looking forward to a few days of rest and time with the family. As much as I want to relax when I'm here in Charlotte with my parents, sister, her husband, and their two boys, I know my nephews aren't going to allow much time for that. Gage and Zane will keep me busy. I'll have some time at home before everyone gets back to the shop on January 6th, and I'm crossing my fingers that I'll be able to enjoy some down time at the house. But really, I'm looking forward to getting back to racing.
I know a lot of you have been asking, and you're just as excited as I am, but I really can't share too much at the moment about our plans for the year ahead. I can say that it's very exciting seeing some of the things that are going on, and it'll be a very neat year with some of the things that we'll feature on the car. It will be something special, and we all can't wait to share it with you.
Christmas this year is very good for me. I can tell you that our theme for next year is to be a "giving back" team, and I'm the first recipient of that thanks to Terry Chandler and Don Schumacher and the opportunity they've given me. It's already making this holiday season a special one, and I can't thank them enough. Merry Christmas, everyone.
With Ed "Tuna" Tyler going over a few things before the trucks left for the test session this week.
Checking out the Funny Car bodies.
With Tom Patsis from the DSR fabrication shop, looking over a chassis.
It's been a long time since I've posted a blog on NHRA.com, but here I am, and I'm pretty darn excited about it. Really, there is a lot to be excited about, and the year ahead looks really, really good. I'm looking forward to sharing it with you here as we go.
This week, we're in Florida to test the Don Schumacher Racing Funny Car sponsored by Terry Chandler. The last time I was in a car wasn't really that long ago – it was in November, when I won the ANDRA race down in Australia driving the Rapisarda Top Fuel dragster. That was a lot of fun, and the Rapisarda family is a great group of people that I'd love to race with again. Now I'm ready for this new chapter in my career.
I'll tell you, it's been unusual to have the opportunity to drive for so many different teams the past four or five years after having been with a team on a full-time basis for so long. I've bounced around a lot, and I was able to gain a different perspective while keeping my driving skills sharp. But to be going testing and to know that this is the car that I'll be in for 24 races next season is a huge relief and very comforting. The excitement level of knowing you will finally be in a car on a full-time basis is hard to describe, and I'm very grateful to Terry Chandler and Don Schumacher for the opportunity.
We've already been busy preparing for the season. We poured the seat the Friday after Pomona after the teams got back to the race shop in Brownsburg, Ind., but the seat isn't something you can do in one day. Once it was poured and set, we made some adjustments – aside from being different in size, every driver likes different things to make them as comfortable as possible and set them up to do the best job they possibly can. We just made a few minor changes, but most everything else was fine with me.
I make a visit to the shop just about every day to see the guys and check out how things are going. I'm lucky because I already know most of the guys on our crew already, and wow, we have a great team. Last year they did really well with Johnny Gray as their driver, and it's sure a privilege to get to drive this car. I'm looking forward to this week and the chance to really work with them.
I've also been busy filming the TV show I host with Kathy Fisher for the Velocity Channel, PerformanceTV, and with my parts business which is, conveniently, right across the street from DSR. As usual, I have a lot going on – but it seems like everything is fitting together pretty well.
The car we're testing this week is the new Dodge Charger R/T that the team brought out at the beginning of the 2013 Countdown, so it has a few races on it, but it's a pretty fresh car that our crew chief Rob Wendland is looking forward to working on again and getting ready for this next year. We don't yet have a paint scheme to debut, but that's in the works. Stay tuned.
I'm excited about this first test session, and I'm looking forward to knocking the rust off in a Funny Car. I haven't had the chance to drive a Funny Car as much as I have a Top Fuel dragster here lately, and even in the past few years it seems like I've been in a dragster more often than a Funny Car. I did drive Johnny's car in testing last year, I drove the NAPA Dodge for Capps at a test session, and I got to drive Steve Plueger's Funny Car, so I have been in them. It'll just be nice to be back in a Funny Car on a full time basis. We're testing some stuff, and I know Rob has some stuff he wants to try to get a handle on a few of the things that challenged the team last year. A lot of test sessions are more for the team than the driver, but this one is for both.
I feel really good about working with this team. We are one of the DSR teams that didn't have any crew member turnover at the end of the season. Our whole team is planning on coming back next season, and that builds continuity and consistency. It shows that we have a good team without any weak links, and that's exciting for a driver.
I've actually worked with a couple of the guys before – Tuna [Ed Tyler] worked on my family's dragster way back in the mid 90s with me, and I'm not too sure I wasn't his first driver. I also worked with Jimmy Wingo when I drove Don Prudhomme's Skoal car, and one thing that made me feel really good recently was that Jimmy was debating on retiring from the road but when he found out I was driving, he decided to stay another year. That just makes you feel good as a person, and I'm looking forward to working with all of these guys.
This year is kind of a milestone year for me. The first national event I ever raced was at Gainesville in 1984. It's hard to believe it, but that was 30 years ago. I was racing Super Gas back then in a Camaro. There were 128 cars entered, and I got down to eight. I should have won the darn thing, but a rocker arm broke! Five years later, I got my Top Fuel license. Isn't it crazy how time flies?
Before you know it, we'll be talking about how fast this year went by. But right now, I'm just focused on enjoying each moment. Talk to you soon.