Between-rounds service became a topic of increased importance at last week’s NHRA Nationals when turnaround periods that were shortened to 55 minutes because of the live TV coverage created a challenge for crewmembers, particularly those who are still getting used to working with one another early in the season. When you’re part of a team that’s rebuilding the engine and clutch of a race car during short turnarounds, chemistry with your fellow crewmembers is important in getting the service completed efficiently.

Being a crewmember on a Top Fuel or Funny Car team is demanding work. It can be difficult for teams to keep crews intact because crewmembers often leave due to burnout or unhappiness with their situation. Maintaining a reliable crew year after year has great benefits, and Las Vegas Funny Car winner Robert Hight and reigning Top Fuel champion Larry Dixon have showed that it can be done.

Remarkably, Hight’s team has had no crew turnover in the last four seasons. The only new face on the Auto Club Ford Mustang team is that of Brad Robinson, who was added after Eric Lane was promoted from team leader to assistant crew chief and David “Shafty” Karcanes moved into the role of team leader. Chris Adams, Justin Covarrubias, Tim Dillon, Sam Fabiano, Ryan Heileson, and Alex Liggett have all been a part of the team since before the beginning of the 2008 season.

The members of the core group faced their biggest challenges shortly after they began working together. In early 2008, Hight went through engines like gangbusters as crew chief Jimmy Prock worked feverishly to solve issues that prevented Hight from getting to the finish line under power. In the first half of the season, they changed motors due to damage every other run on average. The lowlight was a five-for-seven weekend at that year’s Gatornationals, where rods exited the aluminum block five times during seven attempts in the race and Monday testing. As far as turnover is concerned, it helped that the crewmember most likely to get burned out in that situation, he who assembles the short blocks, happened to be the crew chief’s stepson (Fabiano).

“I felt bad for poor Sam that year,” said Hight. “It wasn’t just him, though. Everybody pitches in to help each other on this team.”

The team’s perseverance paid off with a great deal of success, the highlight being Hight winning the 2009 Full Throttle Funny Car world championship. Most recently, Hight won the Las Vegas event with uncanny consistency; his four runs were between 4.149 and 4.157.

“With all the factors that come into play with one of these cars, making four runs within .008-second is incredible,” said Hight. “As one example, I test clutch discs at the shop quite a bit, and those can vary between 8 and 10 percent. It goes to show you how consistently these guys put the car back together. It gives Jimmy a lot of confidence in the car when he’s coming up with the tune-up.

“During the 55-minute turnarounds, the guys took pride in being the first car to warm up and the first car to the staging lanes. As a driver, you hear the guys talking about that, and it pumps you up.”

Hight attributes the low turnover on his team to good fortune, having measureable success, and the personnel skills of Bernie Fedderly and John Force. As a crewmember on successful teams prior to the start of his driving career, Hight realizes how much more enjoyable drag racing is with a crew that likes to work and play together.

“The percentage of times you win is pretty low, so you don’t want guys who want to get away from each other as soon as the day’s done,” said Hight. “This team has a lot in common with teams I was on, working with ‘Guido’ [Dean Antonelli], Kevin McCarthy, and Eric Medlen. We knew each other’s jobs, and Eric and I used to switch between doing the supercharger and the right-side cylinder head. We encourage our guys to know each other’s jobs, too, because you can’t know too much.

“Having a group of people that like each other makes it more fun when we win and easier to handle when we lose. The joke here is that if one of our guys gets in trouble, I’ll have to bail them all out of jail.”

On the Al-Anabi Top Fuel team, the driver (Dixon) is one of the least familiar faces among the group in his third year with the team. Most of the crew followed Alan Johnson and Jason McCulloch from the U.S. Army team when they left at the end of the 2008 season.
Adam Baranski, Kevin Eckstein, Jim Marcellus, Nick Peters, and Robert Proctor were part of the Army team that moved to Al-Anabi. Chris Rose and Shawn Dill were added to the group. Brian Husen worked under McCulloch at the Army and Al-Anabi teams before being moved to the second Al-Anabi car in the crew-chief role. Ronnie Thompson, whom McCulloch worked with at Don Schumacher Racing, was brought in to fill Husen’s former role.

The number of wins that someone is going to score as part of a team that Johnson is involved in is an obvious reason why crewmembers would want to stay together, but it goes beyond that with this team. McCulloch, a crewmember for more than 20 years before becoming a crew chief, understands their plight and treats his crew with great respect.

“None of the guys are parts-changers on our team,” said McCulloch. “We have meetings every week to discuss what we did last week and what we need to do to get better, and they have a part in it. I want to hear their opinion, and so does Alan. Alan and I don’t touch the parts that often, so we take what they say into account. There is a computer in the back of the trailer that they are welcome to look at every run, which they do, and they’re always welcome to come to me with ideas.”

To keep guys from getting burned out and leaving, McCulloch has changed the positions of crewmembers from time to time. The strategy results in the added bonus of having crewmembers who can do several jobs and help each other.

“Dating back to the Army team, we’ve had guys that we didn’t want to lose who were burned out with their routine,” McCulloch recalled. “One way we’ve tried to keep our group together and motivated is changing their positions on the car. On several occasions, we’ve switched positions to make our short-block guy become our engine guy or our engine guy become our rack guy. With this particular team, we’ve had three different guys do the blower.”

I’ve always found it interesting that this particular crew, one of the best at what it does, is often one of the last big teams to arrive at the track on race days and is afforded more days away from the shop than is typical. The crewmembers are trusted by their superiors, and McCulloch sees the value in having his guys keep something in the tank for when they do have to thrash or work all night.

“Our guys are so efficient at what they do that they’re adults who don’t need to be told,” said McCulloch. “We’ve all worked at places where we’re told we’re going to work 8 to 5 for five to seven days a week regardless if there’s work to do or not. If we decided that we were going to build another team and had to work seven days a week, these guys would never go home. If they don’t have to, they don’t. They’re big boys and know what we have to do. When that day comes that we have a bad day on a Friday or Saturday and need to work all night fixing it, I don’t want them to be burned out because they worked all day and night at the shop when they didn’t need to be.”


Elsewhere in the NHRA Universe

My heart sank when I heard that Shawn Cowie had been involved in an accident on his motorcycle over the weekend. Cowie and friend Nik Duperon were riding their Harley-Davidsons in Nashville, Tenn., Saturday when a car struck Cowie from behind with enough force to send him off his bike, over a bridge railing, and into foliage approximately 27 feet below, according to reports. Cowie is listed in critical but stable condition with various injuries to his lower extremities.

Cowie, who scored the third national event win of his young Top Alcohol Dragster career at the NHRA Nationals in Las Vegas, had been sightseeing while he and Duperon took the team’s rig back East to compete at the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals in Charlotte. I spoke with the Delta, B.C., resident in the winner’s circle after he won in Las Vegas. He and his whole crew were elated. Cowie is a nice guy who is easy to get along with, and I looked at him as someone who’s truly in the prime of his life. He was a 29-year-old who drove a fast hot rod, was engaged to be married, and had plenty of good times ahead.

After making the quickest run in history by a blown Alcohol Dragster at the season-opening race in Pomona and already having national and divisional event victories, Cowie was an early front-runner for the season title. Now he’s in a fight for his life. Fortunately, the fact that he is a youthful person who has kept himself in good shape will be beneficial, and there has been no shortage of thoughts and prayers going his way from the racing community.

Cards may be sent to Cowie at the address below.

Patient: Shawn Cowie
Vanderbilt University Hospital, 10th Floor
1161 21st Ave. S
Nashville, TN 37232