Jack Beckman, Ron Capps, and Mike Neff, who are locked in a three-way battle for the 2012 NHRA Full throttle Funny Car championship, took part in a national teleconference to discuss the final two events of the season.
Beckman is the current points leader on the strength of three wins this season, which also ties a career best for him. Capps is currently second, trailing by 23 with his four wins, and Neff sits in third just 54 points behind the two with his most recent win coming in Reading.
Q: Jack, with only eight rounds of eliminations left in 2012, what's the intensity level right now for you and your Don Schumacher Racing team?
Beckman: It's like the playoffs, and things just become more important down the stretch. There's hardly ever a year where you have a nitro Funny Car team go every single race without going into a slump. Now, you can get beat early in eliminations, but I guess I would define a slump as losing a handle on the tune-up on your car, and sometimes it lasts for one race and sometimes it lasts three or four races. So I think Ron would probably tell you they had a lot of issues at Maple Grove. They had built up such a substantial lead that they're still very, very much in contention. I think Mike would tell you he probably had a little bit of a slump a few races ago, and he seems to be figuring it out at just the right time.
When we won St. Louis, we kind of had a curveball thrown at us starting on Saturday and had to tune around on qualifying runs three and four and then all four eliminations runs on Sunday. Sometimes from the grandstands, it looks like a team is really on top of everything, but once you dive inside, you realize we're chasing a whole lot of maladies with the car. When we got to Maple Grove, we reset both ends of the national record, but we tore a lot of stuff up. When we beat Ron in the second round, we ruined a third of our clutch and had to rebuild that before the semifinals and hurt some more stuff in the semifinals. So it was a good time to have a two-week break, where the crew could drag our car back to the shop, completely disassemble it, and, most important, try to get a handle on why this thing is acting a little bit finicky lately.
With only eight rounds left and in a sport where when you lose you don't get those next few rounds, if somebody goes out second round at Vegas, they lose out on three rounds: That one, the semi's, and the final. I think all three of us would agree, we want to be able to contest all eight rounds to have a legitimate shot for the championship, so you can't have any screw-ups, mechanical issues, or tune-up question marks.
Q. Ron, talk about your mind-set, where you guys are right now.
Capps: We're sort of in the same place. I've said this before, we had a lot of people talking about the championship was going to be wrapped up by us when we had that 100-something points lead going into St. Louis, and it almost irritated me every time somebody would say something, whether it was media or just fans, because I think they forget how quickly things can turn around, which they have, and I told them nothing is over until we're in Pomona on Saturday night and you see where the points are for Sunday. I could almost tell you what was going to happen when we went out in St. Louis. Jack went on to win, and I just had a hunch that was the way it was going to go. It wasn't going to be an easy championship run for anybody. There are just too many good cars.
And I've said this before: You're going to have great weekends. Jack had a great weekend in Reading; Zippy did, as well. We did not. And those weekends when you're struggling, and Mike Neff will tell you more than anything because he tunes and drives, but when you're having those kinds of weekends where things just aren't going right, those weekends when you can gut out a round-win or even two and you're not doing well and just save a little bit of face and get out of there with some points, those are the weekends you're going to look back at the end of the year and you're going to say, "You know what, that's the weekend that probably won the championship for us." It's not those weekends when things are flying, the car is going down the track. We just had one of those hiccups in Reading. Tommy Johnson drove the car last Thursday in Indianapolis. We hadn't tested all year long, so we put our old stuff back in it, and the car went right down the track, and Tobler figured out what the problem was, which is a great sign. He also found a steering box that was going bad, which could have been disastrous in the first qualifying run in Vegas. So that test was, I think, huge for us, and so are those kind of weekends, just getting out of there and saving face a little bit, getting a couple of round-wins. I think now we can put that behind us and go forward.
Q: Mike, talk about where you and your team are right now.
Neff: Well, just fortunate to be in contention at this point. A few races back, Ron obviously had a pretty substantial lead, like he just hit on, and Jack has been running great. Fortunately, we felt good to have a good weekend in Reading and get out of there making some positive ground, especially with Jack setting the record and getting that extra 20 points there. You know, it's an exciting time right now. This is why you put all that work in over the last winter and go through this whole season to come to the very end here, and you just want to have a shot, especially with the way the Countdown system works now. You know, the point is we've been running better here lately; like I said, I ran my career best here this last weekend, which felt good. So I feel like I said, I'm just happy to be in contention, and definitely these last two races going out west is going to be exciting for everyone.
Q. Each of you have teammates, teammates who are very important to you until the final round. If you're facing each other in the final round, how do you deal with each other at that point in time?
Beckman: I think the record clearly shows it doesn't matter if Schumacher teammates are running first round or final round, it's exactly the same, and I've always said this, from burnout to turnout, you have no teammates, you have no friends. I love all those guys when we're in the staging lanes, but when the helmet goes on ... and Mike Neff is in a very unique situation. He's a driver and he's a crew chief, so you have to look at things from two slightly different angles, and he's got to find a way to marry those two emotions together when he drives the car, which is more than most of us mortals could handle. But if you look at Schumacher cars that line up head to head, and the one that really needs the points the most often loses the race, and I mean often. Matt Hagan beat Ron Capps in Denver. Ron Capps beat Matt Hagan in Brainerd. had Ron Capps let Matt Hagan win that one single round, Matt Hagan's team is in the Countdown and then who knows what could happen from there. Matt Hagan took us out, and Johnny Gray just beat us in Maple Grove. These are the things that, gosh, man, wouldn't it be nice if we had the ability to give team orders where we could pad our points lead and have a better chance at trying to get that Funny Car championship to stay with Schumacher Racing? It just doesn't happen. Our four Funny Cars and our three dragsters race exactly like they're independent teams, whether it's qualifying or the final round. All those crew guys on all of our teams get bonuses tied to the performance of the car, so you're never going to have the crew go up there and not care if they win. Their pocketbook depends on it, and a lot of them have families, so it's very important from a financial standpoint, and it's incredibly important from a competition standpoint that your team gets the win light.
Neff: Like Jack said, there's no question about it, when you have four cars on each team, Schumacher as well as John Force's team, that's a big problem when you end up running into each other, and that's the last thing you want to have happen is to have to race your teammate. Yeah, one of them is going to go on, but you hate to put the other one out. We have different sponsors, Castrol and Traxxas, and Courtney needs to do well in competing for the Rookie of the Year. John, he hasn't had his best year, either, so he needs wins. He's got people on his back about that. And then myself, as well, trying to do it the best I can. You know, it's a tough situation.
It was really unfortunate in Reading last week, the way that that went down when I had to race John Force that they left the throttle stop on there, which was clearly not intentional. John was upset about that because it made us look bad. We talked about it before we went, "Let's go race," and they knew I had the better car and the odds are that I was going to win, but let's go race. You know, if I do my job, I should win. We went up there with those intentions, and for them to leave the throttle stop on there and have it look like that was just a bad deal because you always have your critics. Furthermore, if they were going to throw the race, they would have gone up there and smoked the tires like half the other cars did in eliminations, not leave the throttle stop on. They're not that stupid, and it made us look bad because then I have to hear about it from everybody else as we all do about, oh, was that intentional. It wasn't, but it's just the way that it is, and you can't avoid what people are going to say or what they think.
Q. Ron, talk about racing your team cars and how nerve-racking or how you guys go about that during the course of a Sunday.
Capps: Well, I didn't hear what they said, but it's probably the most difficult thing because Don made a mistake a long time ago with the Oakley car. In fact, Neff was the crew chief on that car, and they were fighting for a championship, and since then, he realized how important it was not just for the fans and the sponsors but really everybody on the team to go up there and race heads up no matter what. And believe me, a couple of races ago, I would have wished we had team orders at certain times because my teammates have pretty much knocked me out of every race that we haven't won in the Countdown. You know, it's going to be better at the end of the year when you sit down and everybody reflects and you say, "Look, we raced straight up. No matter what happened, we did it the right way."
I can remember the year I barely lost to Neff and Gary Scelzi, we ended up beating them in the final in Vegas, and they should have wrapped it up there in Vegas. We didn't have lane choice, I don't think, and it was a really, really close race, and I was almost in the shutdown area with the chutes out coasting up the hill going, uh oh, what did we just do, and then we fought right back into the championship from there, and we had a legitimate shot mathematically going into Pomona, and we ended up making it really close.
You know, I've been on both sides of it. We watched Johnny Gray, what he did last year not being in the Countdown and racking all those points up. It can be deadly, and again, we've all said it, it is probably going to be these non-Countdown cars that are really upset they're not in it, but they want to make TV and they want to make headlines, and they're going to be fighting more than anybody and throwing things out there in their tune-ups that stick, and they're probably going to be more important in how the Countdown turns out than us Countdown cars.
Q. The long season that you guys work is certainly a team effort; is there a best way for you and your team to sustain team morale?
Beckman: Yeah, it's interesting. Let me back up for a minute. When I started racing, my first run in my '68 El Camino, it was at Lubbock Dragway, and I went a 15.06 at 90 mph, and I was in the Air Force at the time, and I got out, I brought it home, and I just kept doing things to the car to make it faster because everything was about that time slip, everything was about that piece of paper. You almost lived and died by it. I didn't care if it said win or lose, I just wanted to see a good e.t. and a good mile an hour. One guy was at the track, and I saw somebody loading their car up with a trophy in it, and I learned you could race for a trophy. And from that day on, everything was about making that car get to the final round, win it, and take home the trophy.
One day, I'm leaving with the trophy, and a guy mentioned to me as we were getting our trophies that he had made $5,000 racing. I thought, "Holy crap, you can make money doing this," so I actually detuned my car a little bit, made it more consistent, and was all about making some money, and I've come full circle. It's all about that time slip and that trophy now, and it's interesting, because from the crew guys' perspective — keep in mind that they don't get interviewed at the top end — they don't get to hold that trophy first. They're lucky if they get to hold it 20 minutes after you win it. They don't get listed in the record books. The things that mean everything to them are the numbers on the scoreboard that come up after a run, so if the car is running well, morale is guaranteed.
The problem is, and I touched on this earlier, we're all going to go through slumps. How do you keep the morale up when things aren't running well? Ron and I basically swapped teams right after Vegas, so it's awkward for Ron and I because the team stayed intact, the drivers just changed, so it's almost like we just switched classrooms at school, and we were the new people. Even though we knew all the crew guys from the shop from being teammates, it's different, so after a few races, I sat down with the new team and talked, and I said, “Guys, you realize now that we've got some momentum going again, we've figured out on this car, Todd Smith is up to speed and making great calls, we could be championship contenders. But I also think that we need to be able to take our losses in stride, keep our chins up, figure out what we can do better, and then go forward.”
And I always make that remark that I'm not the guy that's going to throw my helmet or kick the car unless NHRA says if I throw my helmet or kick the car they'll let us rerun after we lose. I don't think it does any good; it just damages perfectly good equipment and sends failure messages to you and your crew, and I think you're acting like an adolescent when you do that. I'm not saying we don't take this hard, and Ron and Michael will be the first to tell you, losing sucks. We're in this industry, we're in this business to win, and winning makes everybody feel good. But I think being on the same page, having everybody pull the rope in the same direction, having the crew know that you've got their back and they've got your back keeps that morale up in the tougher times.
Capps: Jack hit it on the head. Like he said, we switched teams earlier in the year, and that team was guys that I had for almost eight years, and it's like they're still like family, and I got to get together with a whole new group of guys now that I'm friends and family with. Sustaining it all year long, to answer your question, is setting small goals, and we had the goal of trying to get past Robert Hight and taking over the No. 1 spot and getting those 20 points bonus for being the leader of the regular season, and we barely did it. We just got in, but it was a nice carrot for us to shoot for, and I think that's what helped us. Mike probably has a different look at it, but for us, we had that to kind of set as a goal, and to look where we are in the points now, those 20 points could be crucial at the end.
Neff: You just want to try to finish strong, and like I said, the ultimate motivator is being in contention at the end of the year and running strong and finishing on a good note. That's why the best race to win is the last one of the year because that carries over all winter long. So just finishing strong is the best way, but also, even when you don't have a good year, you're glad for that becasue once that season is over, you know you've got all winter long to gear up and get to start fresh the next year.
Q. Do you welcome the time that you can regroup, check your equipment, what you're feeling on this little space of time you have between Vegas and the Pomona race, which are both very crucial to you winning the title?
Beckman: Well, I don't mind this time. The thing that's kind of odd about the Countdown is it's six races, and the first four of them are consecutive weekends, so in one month, you've already burned through two-thirds of the Countdown. Then you have two off weekends, and you find yourself kind of looking around; you've gotten in this rhythm of racing every weekend, and with the Indy delay, it was six weekends in a row for us. And people always ask me do you prefer to race a bunch of times or do you prefer time off. I said, I don't care, because the moment you commit yourself to preferring one way, when it doesn't go that way, it's getting in your head. I don't care. Whether they want to race us three times a week or once every two months, I'm incredibly fortunate to get to drive a nitro car that can win races. I don't really mind either way.
Capps: Yeah, I think it's nice to have the two weeks off. For us especially, we got to test last week. Tommy Johnson drove the car, and that I think really helped us more than I think we realized when we get to Vegas. The guys needed it. You know, easily a third of my job is just driving the race car and the stuff I do at the racetrack because I do so many appearances and run around the country doing things for our sponsors and for NAPA especially, so I'm kept pretty busy. For me, it's a nice couple of weeks off. Again, like Jack, you get to spend time with family and hanging out, and I live in California, so it's a little bit more difficult, but now that the races are coming out west, I can go back to California time and not have to worry about getting up so early.
Neff: Yes, it's like both of those guys said, that with the four races in a row and then Indy raining out, it turned into six weekends straight, and I think I know all of us here, including myself, that we were glad to have a break here, have a couple of weeks off, be able to just unwind and kind of regroup. I mean, it almost feels like that was it. We're on the downhill stretch. Now we get to go out west, race Vegas, have a weekend off, and then Pomona. The hard part is over with, so it's nice to have a break.
Q. And your teams probably welcome it, too, so they can check equipment more thoroughly.
Beckman: I think if you ask the crews, they prefer to be at the track, but you can service so many parts on Monday and Tuesday before you've got to pack up and go to the next race next week, so it's nice to get back to the shop and be able to get everything back in inventory.
Q. This is for Jack and Ron. Both of you guys have mentioned the crew change, and I know it's almost kind of like ancient history right now, but can you recount briefly how that was sold to you, presented to you by Don Schumacher, and how difficult was it to buy into the deal?
Beckman: Well, I've been driving for Don since the last five races of 2006, and Todd Smith would be my seventh crew chief during that period of time, so there's been some turnover. And it's not turnover because of lack of security over there, it's just because we've had so many different sponsors, so many different teammates, so many different Funny Car teams that Don has had to shuffle things around to keep everybody competitive. And I learned my lesson a long time ago. Yes, you get disappointed. Yes, you get used to the continuity of staying with the same team and change can be difficult, but I've never driven for a bad crew chief. In fact, all seven of them have given me a car that's won a race, so I knew that I had to just check my emotions and that things would eventually swing back to where they are now. It was difficult to go out there and end what at the time was the longest qualifying streak in Funny Car when we didn't make the program at Houston and watch us go from I think we were second or third in the points and we slipped down to sixth. That was tough, but we kept our chins up and kept gathering data, we kept picking away at it. I also want to say that Ron Culver and John Collins, Ron Capps' crew chief right now, never let us go. They always were there to offer advice and help us and support us. I'm pretty sure they're not going to be offering us any advice for the next two races, but as you can tell, the proof is the way things turned out for both teams. Schumacher is a genius at doing this, and I don't second-guess him.
Capps: From my point of view, I was shocked. I came back from the last qualifying run. I was doing an ESPN interview out in the pit area, and Julio, one of my crew guys, came up behind me right before we went on live and told me that Tim Richards was resigning and he was up packing his stuff up in the crew chief lounge, so I was floored. It was a rough weekend. It turned out we had some stuff wrong with that car we found out later, but he was just frustrated for whatever reason, so that's how I found out.
And then we spent the rest of Saturday night, and I didn't want to go anywhere. I went back to the hotel room, my family went out with my other part of my family, and I was devastated. I didn't know what was going to happen. So the next day when Schumacher told me what was going to happen, it is what it is, we had to do whatever was best for NAPA. I've seen guys change cars, and you always wonder, if somebody brings a sponsor in and things change, and I've never had to worry about either end of that; I've always had Ed McCulloch as a crew chief at “Snake's,” and then when I came in 2004 to Don Schumacher's, he was my crew chief for the whole first whatever six or seven years. When Don let “Ace” go, again, I was devastated by that phone call, but he brought in John Medlen on my car for a little while. So Don makes these changes with a lot of thought.
I took a lot of flak on the message boards. People thought the first instincts are I am stealing Jack's crew, and people outside the ropes, they have their thoughts, and it was unfortunate to read a lot of that stuff. It kind of hurt me personally when they don't know what's going on inside the camp. I've always told Don, whatever your choice is, I'm going to do what you want to do with full support, and Jack is the same way. This is what we do for a living. It was difficult because, for me, I felt like it was a no-win situation. If we go out and we did what we did — in fact, we went to six final rounds in a row — I'm doing it in Jack's old car, set the quickest run in history. Well, I did it with Jack's old team, so it was almost a no-win situation I was going into, and it's part of the deal. I watched actually when Jack came over to our team, he brought a sponsor, came into Whit Bazemore's car, and Don asked Whit to help him with driving that car. And so you know, I've seen things like that happen, and Don, you sometimes sit back and you sometimes wonder what he's thinking, but everything usually turns out like gold, and all you can do is give him your full support because he gives you everything you need to win, and you can't ask for any more than that.
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