Top Fuel pilot Tony Schumacher, Funny Car driver Cruz Pedregon, and Pro Stock driver Jeg Coughlin Jr. took part in a national teleconference to discuss the season ahead and help promote the O'Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Winternationals presented by Super Start Batteries. All three have had their fair share of success at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona.
When one thinks of success at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona in the Top Fuel category, the name Schumacher soon follows. Schumacher has collected six wins at this historic track, which ties him for the most in the category with famed Top Fuel driver “Big Daddy” Don Garlits, and of those six, two are O'Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Winternationals titles. But after a rocky 2011 season in which Schumacher raced to seven final-round appearances but went winless for the season -- the first time in 10 years that he has done so -- he enters the 2012 season at the same track where he collected his last win 22 races ago.
Q: Tony, this had to have been the longest off-season for you and your team. Talk a little bit about what you and crew chief Mike Green have been able to do during this off-season to get ready for 2012.
Schumacher: What we haven't had to do is polish our trophies; it was a rough year [laughter]. Even looking back, we did a heck of a job. We had some amazing runs, ran fast. We got beat on some close races.
Our [Don Schumacher Racing] shop, we can look at Mike Green being my crew chief, but all the guys work so hard in the off-season. As long as it does seem to take to get back after a season like we had, we're looking forward to getting going. Those guys came up with some great things. We tested very well. Hopefully we get a chance to use all the stuff we developed.
But we're going to go out and win. Everyone on this call, all the drivers know at some point there's going to be adversity, and we had it last year. We had to get through it because a lot of teams probably would have gone out and fired a lot of guys. That's not how we act. Mike and I get along so good. The nine guys that build the car are phenomenal in developing and working.
We just had to look back on it and say, "Tough breaks, lost four-thousandths of a second, had some amazing battles." The teams we raced did a heck of a job when we raced them. All in all, we performed very well. We just have to do better this year. We're not used to getting beat. Something we'll have to get through, except not let it happen again.
Q: With all the competition that seems to be coming in the Top Fuel category, do you feel this is going to be the most highly competitive class of 2012?
Schumacher: Oh, you know, Pro Stock, Funny Car, Top Fuel, the last two years have been so incredible, it's hard to say that we're going to be more competitive. Pro Stock, like we were running last year, they've been doing that for years and years where there's a whole group of cars that can run within a hundredth of a second. The guy who leads first wins.
Top Fuel right now, it's fun to race. There was a time when our car was a tenth of a second faster than everybody. I was going to win the race unless something dramatic happened. It's not like that anymore. You have to be a machine out there. There are so many great cars.
There are five Army cars. The Army car was the only one at one point. Then DSR put two more. There's a handful just with that similar tune-up going fast. Then a whole bunch of other cars that are running pretty darn close.
I love it. You've got to show up and bring your A game. I do 200 speeches a year to kids. This is an amazing thing to be able to talk to these young kids and say, “See this car behind me? That is an A game car.” I ask the kids, “Who had a test this week?” I ask, “How many of you studied so much that you were going to get an A?” All their hands go down.
At some point, you have to figure out how to get an A. You don't bring a B attitude to this race. Anymore, you have to have everything and a little bit more to win these races.
It's awesome. I've said this for years. I don't race because I need that trophy; I race because I need the competition. I love a good battle, and right now we have it. All four of our classes, the bikes, too, I would be proud to be an NHRA fan right now, pay my money, sit in the stands, because I'm going to get one heck of a race.
Q: Obviously, there were a lot of changes in the off-season with Alan Johnson's Al-Anabi team. You guys have held steady. Do you think that continuity going into this year will be an advantage for you, especially early in the season?
Schumacher: I have no doubt about it. Alan had some wild changes over the course of the winter. Some of them were quite surprising. I think, like I said, getting through the adversity that we did last year, Spencer [Massey] getting another year under his belt, and Antron [Brown], too, our cars are going to perform pretty well.
Alan is going to have his work cut out for him with new drivers. His cars are very difficult to drive. They're very fast. Very critical to keep them in the center of the racetrack or put them where Alan would like them. [Shawn] Langdon is a phenomenal driver; we're going to have to see how it plays out. It's going to be difficult for them because both those guys are going to feel pressure they've never felt before. Our guys are just going to motor on.
Everyone is status quo in our camp. Our guys are getting better at working together. Our crew chiefs are getting better at working together. We're going to be a tough one to beat.
That being said, Alan Johnson is still Alan Johnson. We have a killer respect for each other, all of us. It's going to be a tough battle right to the end.
Again, I love racing. I love racing in this situation. I love the fact that there are other great cars that can beat me. It makes me step up and be a better driver.
Any of the drivers that you happen to have online today, we've all been in these situations. We're three of the few out there that just love being in good competition.
I liked the trophies, don't get me wrong. I like the trophies a lot more that were tough to earn.
Q: Your other two drivers are the toughest guys you have to beat at this point; do you feel that way?
Schumacher: Absolutely. I've said that for a long time. Take those two guys away, and I'm world champ last year, and I didn't win a race because of those guys. They beat me more than anybody else.
That's fine. It's a great situation to know that if you win a championship, you had to beat those guys. No one laid down. No one had team orders. There was no easy way to do it.
I will beat the Matco car and the FRAM car if I'm going to be a champ. We have different sponsors. I'm not trying to win it for all the same names on the side. I drive the Army car. Antron drives the Matco car. Spencer drives the FRAM car. Matco wants to win. FRAM wants to win. Army wants me to win.
It's pretty cool that when it comes down to the end, you get called the champ, you can look back and say, "I earned that. It was a good battle, and I had to dig deep to get it."
Q: If you wanted a perfect season, how would you describe it for 2012?
Schumacher: Oh, gosh. We win the championship. I'll start backwards. It comes down to the last run again. It's a battle to do it amongst my three cars with the two Al-Anabi cars following. That's perfect. We're allowed to use our new Top Fuel canopy design; we go out and win a bunch of races.
But I don't want it to be a runaway. I never have. As cool as it is to win, it is amazing when it's those good, close races that just make you have to really sit up in the seat.
Most of you guys have seen the Top Fuel dragster canopy design. I really like that just for safety. The thing that makes a successful year is when all the drivers that start end up finishing at some point, that no one is hurt or injured. We're going awful fast out there. It's great to know that guys like my dad are out there working hard to make the cars go faster but safer at the same time.
Last year, if you would have asked me at the beginning, I wouldn't have said a successful season is winning one race. We have to win. We have to show we're the team we've always been. We expect to win. In the off-season, we do what it takes to win.
We have some great, great people, very hardworking men. We've got to go out and win. We're used to it. We're not used to going out and having a season like we did last year. As good as we were running, we had no lucky breaks. We need to pull some of those in for our sake this year and give the Army back what they're expecting.
After an impressive 2011 showing that included a win in Dallas and final-round appearances in Gainesville and Englishtown, along with a third-place finish in the points standings, Pedregon, a two-time Funny Car world champion, is ready to power his Snap-on Tools Toyota Camry back into title contention. Pedregon has competed in a final round at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona an impressive five times, but his last Winternationals win was in 1995.
Q: Both you and your brother Tony have had some extensive changes made to both teams over the off-season. How are you feeling heading into 2012?
Pedregon: Feeling great. We brought Lee Beard onboard, who comes over from the Don Schumacher team. Been there for many years. We're looking forward to tapping into some of his knowledge. He's a smart guy anyway.
I think he's one of those guys that he came to the right place. I think you have to have the right fit, with Lee, to maximize his knowledge. I really feel like we hit a home run in getting Lee onboard. He and I go way back. We raced together back in the Joe Gibbs days with the McDonald's sponsorship teams.
You know, I know his personality. I know his knowledge. I just can't wait to get out there and start to race. I'm looking forward to it.
Q: With the strength that you came on last fall, does that give you an incentive starting into the season?
Pedregon: Of course it does, yeah, absolutely. For some reason, I don't know what it is about the late season for us, but we kind of gain a momentum. It's been that way forever with me. We don't do anything different. It just works out that way.
Obviously, it's important to get a fast start. We're going to try to get a faster start. Again, we're not changing a lot with the car. People will be surprised. I'm sure people are thinking Lee is going to come in and change a bunch of stuff. Obviously, he recognized we had a fast car. We had the quickest average elapsed time of any Funny Car.
We looked at the areas that needed improvement, blower technology, different things like that that Lee brought. We're trying not to change the way we apply our race strategy. Lee and I are going to be together in the room mixing it up making sure we come up with a game plan that will allow us to come out there and beat these guys. They're not getting slower. They're getting stronger every year. They have crew chiefs stacked like cord wood over there. Our experience is strong, and I feel good.
Q: You're a Hispanic driver. You've been racing for a lot of years. You could run for president of Mexico and win and do a better job. Have you seen an increase of Hispanic fans in NHRA because of your involvement?
Pedregon: I think so. Especially when you look at Southern California; different markets like maybe Houston, even Gainesville, you get a lot of Hispanics, Puerto Rican Hispanics, Denver. Depends on different regions. But definitely I notice. I don't know how much credit we can take for it. The sport is exciting, all the different classes. So, you know, I don't know how you quantify that.
Of course, we're a little biased. We'd like to think we had a little bit to do with it. It's been a pleasure for me and honor for me to be in that role. It's something I never thought about. My dad was a racer. My brother and I, we just wanted to race. We've been given some great opportunities. We've had some great sponsors. The market side has opened some doors for us. Being Hispanic has some advantages.
What I'm trying to do now as an owner, I'm trying to get more Hispanic crewmembers on the team. Driving is a very hard thing to attain, as you can imagine. It's like being in a pro sport of any kind. It's hard to do. You get a lot more nos than you do yeses. I'm trying to give people opportunities that are doing a tech school or something, just really try to give them opportunities. I think that's going to grow the sport in the future. I think when Tony and I hang up our gloves and helmets, I don't see anybody coming up. I think when my driving days are over, I'll bring a Hispanic driver along and give him that opportunity.
But I think it's just great that you see the growth that we have through the years.
Q: With the addition of Lee in the off-season, has that allowed you to change your focus, focus more on the driving aspect of the car?
Pedregon: I think so. I've had a pretty full plate. Time will tell. I think Lee does some of the things that I'm really not that good at or things that I don't really have the time for. That's working alongside each and every crewmember on the team, organize and make sure they're doing the job.
Lee is real good about showing different people what to do so they can move around if they choose to. I think from that standpoint I'll be able to, yeah, step back. Like Tony said, these cars are running so close nowadays, I've got to be sharper, I've got to be better than I was last year.
Without a doubt, Lee is going to provide that opportunity for me because, like I said, the guys have raised their game. There are some guys out there, that's all they do, that's all they think about. They're sharpshooters. We've got to go out there and be as good as them if not better. But you've certainly got to be on time.
Q: Did doing everything yourself last year, where you finished in the points, give you any extra sense of pride knowing you had been the one calling the shots and driving, chasing the sponsors?
Pedregon: You know, it did in a way. No doubt about it. We all like that. There's ego involved. But I did it out of necessity. I didn't have a budget to go out and hire a crew. Even if I had the budget, a lot of these guys that are really good, they're not going to leave their team. They shouldn't. They should be loyal.
I did it out of necessity. I thought, "If I'm going to go down, I'm going to go down swinging."
I did have good guys, Danny, who moved on to John Force's team. He did a good job. I was surrounded by good guys. I'm not taking all the credit. It was tough, though. I'd get in the car. I was joking with guys like Tim Wilkerson and Mike Neff. I'm thinking, “Did I open that flow enough? Should I change the timing map? Is that air pressure right for these conditions? Did I put the wing right?” There are so many things.
I got tattooed a couple times. I felt like Lee fit the bill perfect. He does things the way I want them done. I don't have to look over his shoulder. He does things the way I feel things should be done.
Yeah, I don't have any excuses now. If I go out there, I feel like I can put in the effort that it takes, like Schumacher said, you have the car, then you have the driver. What's great about the driver, and even Jeg, Jeg is one of the best, you have to have the driver contribution and the car contribution. It's a combination of the two that equate to wins and losses.
The driver should matter. He's like the quarterback, the trigger man. The fans look for the driver. So you should have to earn your keep in that seat.
Perhaps one of the most exciting drivers to be returning to Auto Club Raceway at Pomona is four-time Pro Stock world champion Coughlin. After sitting out all of the 2011 season, he has returned to the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series with a new car and an entirely new engine shop. Coughlin will enter the 2012 NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series season behind the wheel of the JEGS.com Mopar Dodge Avenger. He enters the Winternationals with a record of six wins at the historic track, two being Winternationals titles.
Q: You have a brand-new car with a brand-new team. How are you feeling going into next week's event?
Coughlin: We're feeling fantastic. Much like the teams you talked to, Tony and Cruz today, a lot of exciting stuff happening in the off-season for us. Our off-season has been slightly more than just the Pomona couple months' span. We started JNR Racing Engines back in April time frame, down in Mooresville, N.C. Roy Simmons and Nick Ferri, both well-known names in the Pro Stock world, head up the engine-development side. Later, we partnered with the Chrysler Corp., Dodge and Mopar branding in particular, started assembling a team.
When we went to our first test session a few weeks back, we went with a new transporter, a new car, a new engine, new parts. Everything was brand-new. It was probably the first time in my career that's ever taken place.
Everything went really well in testing. We accomplished quite a bit in just two days at Palm Beach [Fla.]. We're ready to do some more testing this weekend in Las Vegas before we head to Pomona for a great start to the 2012 season.
Q: With all the domination that the KB Racing team has had over the past two years, starting off with a brand-new program, how competitive do you feel you can be this year, or is this more of a building year?
Coughlin: Well, we certainly look to start off about where we left off, which was a top couple teams.
Pro Stock seems to go in phases where some teams dominate. We certainly had our run since 2000 where we've won a couple of championships. KB has won a handful with Jason [Line] and Greg [Anderson] and Mike Edwards as well.
There are a lot of extremely good teams out there right now, between the ones we mentioned, the Johnson family, the list goes on and on.
I think our goal with putting this team together is everyone on this team has been a world champion at one point in time in their career. There's a lot of experience, a lot of respect for one another that we've been able to assemble.
We're looking to hit the ground pretty darn hard and compete for round-wins and race wins right up front. We have yet to kind of race in a crowd, so to speak, and I think we'll get a taste of that this weekend at our preseason warmup at Las Vegas. The true test will be in Pomona in just two weeks.
But, yes, we're certainly looking to build our program. By the looks of our numbers that we ran in Palm Beach, it looks like we're going to be pretty close coming right out of the chute, which is pretty exciting. I know Nick and Roy with this new Hemi powerplant is all new to them. I think we're going to come out pretty strong and certainly improve from there.
Q: You've been driving GM powerplant Pro Stock cars all along. Now you're in a Chrysler. Is there a different way that the engine feels or accelerates at different places in the track with the Hemi?
Coughlin: I wouldn't say too much from the seat of the pants. Feel is different. Good question. When Roy or Nick are working on the dyno, we can see the torque is in a little different spot and the horsepower is in a little different spot. From their standpoint, they've been able to manipulate some things with their tune-up to garner more horsepower.
But as far as saying I feel it from the pants, it seems like this Dodge wants to rev a little higher than the GMs did. But we're just really getting our feet wet with it. Probably be able to tell with a little more runs under my belt. I've really just made seven runs to date.
I hadn't sat in a Pro Stock car in over a year and a half since Pomona 2010. There were a few questions in my mind before I did the first burnout and launch. We were looking to make a half-track run. We were successful with that. Started gathering that data to start tuning the Hemi engine in.
It's certainly been a learning curve, but I think we'll feel a little bit more of that power, and I'll have more information for you within the next week or two.
Q: With the JEGS-sponsored car and the Summit cars of Anderson and Line, how real is that rivalry for the parts stores?
Coughlin: I suppose it's what you make of it. We're pretty friendly competitors when it comes to the racetrack and the business world. I think sometimes you get poked at to try to get a rivalry going.
At the end of the day, it's a pretty small world. We're dealing with a lot of the same vendors; we're dealing with a lot of the same fans and customers out there. Our goal is to get out and entertain the fans that are physically at the Full Throttle events and also enjoying it on ESPN.
I wouldn't say there's too much rivalry personally. But I have heard that maybe they get little bonuses for beating the JEGS cars, but that's just hearsay.
Q: I'll admit I was prodding you.
Coughlin: We can handle it [laughter].
Q: Being away like you were and coming back, what is your feeling coming back into Pro Stock?
Coughlin: I got to sit on the sidelines and watch the action for the season. I enjoyed tuning in on Saturdays and Sundays, following it on the Internet.
Definitely coming back in, the game has definitely tightened up a little bit more through the '11 season. In our case, we assembled a team really from top to bottom. I'm really looking forward, from a behind-the-wheel standpoint, to getting back out and rubbing heads with some of these guys and gals again.
Being out of the seat for a year, I was out of the seat in Pro Stock, I still raced some, made close to 500 runs last year, mainly in what they call high-stakes bracket racing. Had a great season, probably one of my top five seasons in my career. So the competitiveness and the drive, I was challenged pretty much week in and week out last year. From that standpoint, I feel I'm as ready as ever.
I did take a season off in 2006, which was probably one of my best seasons ever in my life behind the wheel of race cars, came out swinging in '07 and '08, winning championships. Maybe we'll carry some of that momentum off of the idle season. If our performance is where we expect it to be, as you just heard, the driver needs to get in and make his contribution and make things happen.
Again, I'm really looking forward to the start of the season, excited we don't have to wait long between Pomona and Phoenix to get one under our belt. We're ready to go.
Q: [To all] Newer, less experienced drivers would be distracted by everything that is around the Winternationals, all the things going on with their teams. You three guys are extremely experienced. I'm wondering, starting with Cruz because you're in charge of the whole team, is it a distraction coming to the first race of the season having to worry about how the team is put together, how things are working, all the little stuff that becomes routine once you get into the season? Is the distraction coming from the team or are there no distractions, you just get in the car and drive?
Pedregon: No, there are a lot of distractions out there. There are always distractions with family and tickets. It's like we're all in the ticket business when racing comes along. You all know how that goes.
It's one of those things. You have to do the job, put the distractions either before or after the race. It's no more or less.
I think the testing helped myself out with Lee. We were fumbling around for a little bit. One thing about Lee, one of his strengths is his management style, his ability to really get the guys organized and in a routine right away. I'm anticipating a smooth Winternationals.
Obviously, we have to make some runs to get the car dialed in. But I feel good. We're not making a lot of changes. Clutch program we have had has been good. Kind of like Jeg said, we can hit the ground running fast.
Anybody tells you there are no distractions, they're lying to you.
Coughlin: I can kind of pick it up from there as well. From a team owner's standpoint, there are certainly plenty of vulnerabilities and distractions in that case. I think the team that communicates the best on a regular basis sometimes will feel like we're overcommunicating.
When you get into the heat of battle, you're at the races, being pulled from two or three different directions, that's when the team needs to be at its strongest.
Quite frankly, we have a much smaller team than on the Top Fuel and Funny Car side. I think there are seven of us in total that will be more or less hands-on with the JEGS car at Pomona. So we've spent some time preparing for Pomona in December and January both at a conference-room table, just trying to talk through what the potential issues could be, what the potential distractions could be. At the end of the day, what's our focus, and it is to perform at 100 percent.
In any of these Professional classes, in the bikes as mentioned earlier, too, we're racing for thousandths of a second. Any little distraction from any one of those seven people on our team can allow us to not perform to that level.
The bottom line is we're there to perform well for JEGS and the Chrysler Corp. We're also there to give the fans on hand a great show and the viewers that are watching a great show. We would all agree that the Countdown in 2011 was extremely exciting. Built an unbelievable amount of excitement to crown the champions. Here we are in 2012, and everybody is tied for first again, and we've got to earn our berth into the Countdown format. It's going to be a regular season, if you will.
Pomona can't come quick enough for us. We're ready to go mentally and physically. Just can't wait to see a lot of the new teams out there, the new colors, all the excitement within the NHRA. It's going to be awesome.
Schumacher: I could say exactly the same thing, all the business that goes into it, at the end, when it's time to start the cars, you forget about all that stuff.
I loved the big moments that we've had in the past. Our car and our team seem to be better when there's all kinds of stuff happening around it, pressure, all that. So it doesn't bother me one bit.
I think the fact that the pressure is starting to build because we didn't win a race last year, that's going to be more of a focus than what sponsor is on the side of the car this year, who owns, runs.
When the car starts, I sit in it, I forget about all that stuff. Jeg and Cruz might have a little bit more to deal with. I've never seen those guys crack under pressure. You're probably asking the wrong three guys about the pressure of the season.
The 2012 NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series season kicks off Feb. 9-12 at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona with the 52nd annual O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Winternationals presented by Super Start Batteries. Click here to get your tickets.