It’s been a year since I became the crew chief of this Service Central Funny Car, so it seems like the perfect time to give you all a little run down on the last year – from my perspective. It’s been a wild ride so far, and wow, have I ever learned a lot.
After Norwalk last year, Don Schumacher let me know that I was going to run the car and that I should get with some of the other DSR crew chiefs to decide what I wanted to do with the Service Central Dodge. I got with Rahn Tobler, who tunes the NAPA car driven by Ron Capps, and I started in Chicago. Our car was the first that they were trying to duplicate to be just like Rahn’s – but there were a few things on the car that were modified, and they weren’t the same as Tobler’s.
We came out to Chicago, and did I feel the pressure? Of course; I was very nervous. I just wanted the car to start, because we made a lot of changes. It started, but we also ended up having little mechanical issues throughout the weekend. The team probably wasn’t as gelled as what we are now, that’s for sure. When we didn’t qualify for the race, it was very humbling, and I felt horrible. It was funny because we had been picked as the Castrol GTX High Mileage One to Watch, and at the fourth qualifier, here we had all this pressure trying to get qualified and they’re making a big story out of it – and we didn’t get in.
It was hot as heck, and as I was leaving the starting line, I was really sweating. Dave Rieff from ESPN came up to me and said, “Hey Rob, you got a second to talk on camera?” I said, “Yeah, I guess so.” So then we’re waiting and waiting, and I’m wiping the sweat off my face over and over, and then Dave Rieff hears something in his earpiece and goes, “What? What? I don’t think he’s crying.” Turns out they had the camera on me the whole time we were waiting, and they were seeing me wiping my face and thought I was getting pretty emotional. I was like, “No, I’m not crying! There’s no crying in drag racing! I’m pissed off!” Finally they interviewed me and I remember saying something along the lines of , we are a better car than that, and I feel bad for Service Central, Valvoline, and Don Schumacher Racing, but we’ll bounce back from this and try like hell to get into the top 10.
We tested Monday and it didn’t go very well. Rahn stayed with us, and he could tell there were still things upset with the car. We went back to the shop in Indy and then tested the car again in the middle of the week and had pretty decent luck. We had changed some things, and Rahn and Todd Okuhara from Spencer Massey’s car were with us trying to get the car back on track. But the next race was Denver, and everything is completely different in Denver because of the altitude. I was still following in the footsteps of Rahn, and he was trying to run his car, we were trying to run our car. We both qualified for the race, but we both went out first round. I felt bad for Tobler, because he was trying his hardest to do his best for both cars and it just didn’t turn out how we wanted to at all.
After that, we went to Sonoma, and we didn’t qualify spectacularly because the car still wasn’t at the performance level it needed to be, but we did qualify fairly well. Lo and behold, we had to run Tobler first round. Throughout qualifying, Tobler had been working with me every round, but oddly enough, I didn’t see Tobler Saturday night, and I didn’t see him Sunday morning. Of course I understood why: he had a job to do, and that was to win the race.
It was a good thing though, because I was kind of on my own. I wanted to try a couple of things, and that was my first real chance to make a crew chief decision – that day and that round. Tobler smoked the tires, and we ended up running second quickest of the round. You know, I got lucky. We went to Seattle and back to working with Tobler a little bit, but he’d definitely given me a little bit more of the reins. He had to wean me off because he had a car to run. So I started doing some stuff, and my confidence was growing. We ran really well on Saturday and were one of the only Funny Cars to get down the track that was really tricky early. I tried some stuff, pulled out some of my old Austin Coil-knowledge that he used to run, and we did fairly well. I remember Tobler coming over and saying, “Well, let’s see what you’re doing.” They were struggling a little bit on that day, and I’m not sure, but I think he may have used one or two little things. They ended up going to the final, though, and we ended up going out first round. Still, that was really cool, and it was an important weekend for me in terms of my own growth and confidence.
Another experience that really sticks out for me was a time when Tim Richards came over and sat down in my lounge. He’s just one of those crew chiefs who will always be talked about and remembered, and for him to come over and say, “Okay kid, let’s see what the hell you’re doing over here,” well, it was pretty cool.
I’ve looked to Tobler and the other DSR crew chiefs since then, and it’s awesome to have that option to bounce things off of them and for them to help me get this car turned around a little bit when it unturns. These things do that – well, except Tobler’s car. His car is pretty awesome.
We had a tough time for a little bit, but we’re back in form. There weren’t a whole lot of things that we had to change to get the car back, but there were some, and now we feel like we are on the right track. We are methodically doing things and testing things on the car to better ourselves on down the road. We fixed a couple more little things, and the car is really going to be super competition. One of the things I’m working on is stepping up the car’s game a little bit for reaction time. The car is hurting Johnny a little bit there, and I know I can make it better.
Lining up in Bristol
We’re nitpicking on things right now to make the car go consistently down the track, and if you have a car that does that, they’re pretty hard to beat. I’m happy to say that the races that we have lost since we revived ourselves recently were ones where we just got beat. We’re making good runs, like in Bristol when we went 4.10 in the left lane that was giving everyone problems. That was damn respectable, and we got beat by a 4.09, but it was a lot easier to swallow when we know we made a good run for the circumstances. I’m pretty sure that 4.10 was low of eliminations for that side of the racetrack. We sure can’t hang our heads over that.
Another thing I have to mention is that I’ve been working with a guy named Scott Garwood. His official title is Legacy Coach, but what the really means is that he is there to help you find confidence to be better at whatever it is that you’re trying to do. We started working together in Seattle last year – he came around to find out if Johnny would like to work with him, but Johnny said that he’s old enough that there isn’t any changing him. When I met Scott, I told him that crew chiefs make some pretty tough decisions and that confidence level is almost everything. When you walk up there to the starting line, you’ve got to have confidence in the decision you’re making. I couldn’t afford him, but Scott said that he’d work with me, and we put a deal together and worked together all last year.
Johnny after the Englishtown win
Immediately, he started working with me about going with my gut, not second guessing myself, standing tall, and being confident in my decisions. I feel that was one of the turning points on this Service Central car. This year we did a couple of things that were really cool, and I don’t want to give any secrets away, but I had the opportunity to do some awesome confidence building exercises right before the race in Englishtown, and look what happened there: we won. Did it truly help? Well, maybe. My confidence in the car was rejuvenated when we started running better in Topeka, and my confidence in my own abilities was definitely renewed in Englishtown. I have tended to think of myself as this young guy trying to do a veteran’s job. I would sometimes think, “Shoot, I don’t have the experience of Jimmy Prock, Rahn Tobler, or any of those guys. But when I step back and look at it, I have to say, we just won that race, and it wasn’t a giveaway. We qualified pretty darn well and beat some of the people that I look up to: Dean “Guido” Antonelli, Jim Head, Jimmy Prock, and in the final it was Rahn Tobler. I may not be able to look at myself as their equal quite yet, but when I see that we’re fourth in the points and winning races, I guess I’m not that bad just now.
It’s tough because you want to be confident, but you don’t want to be overly confident, and I always want to be respectful of the people I race.
It used to be with Jimmy Prock, we’d always smoke the tires against each other because I think we both felt the same way: “That dang Wendland can throw one down every once in a while.” And I’m looking over at him saying, “That dang Jimmy, he always throws one down.” You don’t want to be the weak one. Robert Hight is such a good driver, and when Jimmy Prock’s car smokes the tires, that kid does such a good job. I just haven’t given Johnny the car to be able to do that in those scenarios – until Englishtown. I changed it there, and then we got to run him again in Bristol. We had lane choice, and that was a big factor in getting down the track. I ran Jimmy Prock like he was going to run fast, but I ran the track and did not really try to think about who I was running. That seemed to work out a lot better, and it’s an example of how things have evolved for me.
I’m so blessed; this is the most wonderful job in the world, and I have the best team. I’d put them against anyone. Rip Reynolds, our assistant crew chief, has taken so much of the load off my shoulders. I don’t have to worry about the car when it goes up to the starting line because I know that Rip and the guys have done their jobs. We basically call Ryan Elliott the car chief, and I value his opinion up on the starting line so much. He’s not a “yes” man. He has a great set of eyes on the car and he’s a great kid to bounce things off of too.
The whole team is great: Ed Tyler, Mathew Archer, Levi Brubaker, Jimmy Wingo, Jason Hemphill, and Kirk Kenaga. Kirk is the newest member of the team – he came on at the Chicago race last year when I took over crew chief duties. He worked in the machine shop at DSR, and he’s been to mechanical Pro Stock school and is very knowledgeable. The job that he has right now is somewhat entry level – the body and the tires and stuff like that – but he’s taken it to a whole different level. This kid is really good, and he’s going to make a great mechanical crew member and be very valuable as we go along.
The past year has been unbelievable. When I look back at my career, I can pick out a handful of people that I’ve worked with who helped form the way that I think about cars and have been a huge influence in my life and on my abilities: Tim Baxter and his family, Austin Coil, Bernie Fedderly, Guido Antonelli, John Medlen, Mark Oswald, and Brian Corradi to name a few. I’m also very thankful to Don Schumacher for saying, okay kid, you’re going to run this car. That was huge because I had never run a fuel car on my own or pulled the trigger on a decision to make the car go down the racetrack. Don didn’t have to pick me, but that’s the guy who gave me my opportunity and my break to do this. I’d like to give something back after what he gave me, and hopefully, I’m doing him proud.