Funny Car driver Ron Capps, crew chief Rahn Tobler and the rest of the NAPA car team are enjoying an unprecedented season. That’s saying something: the crew is coming off Capps’ first championship in 2016; how do you top an inaugural title? By doing it again, right? The team has already surpassed last year’s Wally total continue to dominate the flopper field.
Beyond just winning a whole lot, Capps and Tobler are doing it in a slightly different way than everyone else. Yes, they’re still making (most) of their runs at more than 300 miles an hour and down a 1,000-foot strip. But the way the team goes about its business isn’t quite the same as the rest of the class; that includes the teams racing out of their own shop at Don Schumacher Racing.
Let’s start with the obvious: I love “Hero Runs.” There are few things more fun than the slugfests between crew chiefs Dickie Venables and Jimmy Prock on a Friday night in Topeka while drivers Matt Hagan and Robert Hight do their darnedest to keep their Funny Cars in the grooves. Floppers ripping off record-breaking runs is part of why fans fill the stands and it’s why we love the sport.
It also helps win championships: Don’t forget Hagan’s a two-time world champion. Those big-time runs pick up qualifying bonus points and put the car in a favorable bracket position on Sunday. Don’t let boring narratives about ego and testosterone ruin the fun for you; drag racing is a sport and, last I checked, it’s okay for sport to be fun.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s spend a little bit of time squashing another narrative: The one that posits Ron Capps and Rahn Tobler are riding a disproportionate amount of luck to get to the top of the heap in the Funny Car category this season. The Rons (or Ron-Rahn, or maybe R^2 as I like to refer to them) have, by far, the best program in drag racing right now — and it’s not particularly close. Let’s hit the numbers.
You’ll hear a lot of people around our sport talk about “going from A to B,” especially when talking about the NAPA team. The numbers bear that out: on Sunday, Capps has made it down the track successfully 35 out of 39 times. Here’s how I came up with that number: He’s got 21 runs in the 3-second range and only four slower than 4.5 seconds. His average, excluding those four bad runs, is 3.99.
The overall class average on Sunday is 5.001 seconds. That includes 100 (of 326) runs slower than 4.5 seconds. We can comfortably say something is amiss on those runs, whether there’s a header (or two) out, tires smoking or … well, something else. You get the idea. That number isn’t worth anything to anybody, so let me get the memory wiper out so you can pretend you never saw it. The class average on only runs quicker than 4.5 seconds is 4.018.
Keeping those caveats in mind, Capps runs quicker and a heck of a lot more consistently than the rest of the class. It’s tempting to just look at a car’s average elapsed time, but that can be a little misleading (though still informative when you’re comparing cars that have run the same races). The reason Capps continues to run through the table, while everyone else trails by a (near) quarter mile is simple: the NAPA team doesn’t beat itself. Don’t take it from me, hear it from Tobler himself.
“Beat the people that you should beat and then race the people that you gotta race, and that’s where you press it,” said Tobler of his philosophy on Sunday. “But we don’t press it up until that point. So, we’re really looking at the ladder and we know who we’re gonna race.”
Playing the odds makes a whole lot of sense in a sport where everything happens head-to-head on elimination day. You don’t need the best car in the round (until the final); you just need the best car in the pairing. Don’t think your opponent can beat a 3.9? Run it, if the track can hold it, of course. That’s the next key to the R^2’s success: sweet, sweet data collection.
A team that’s been together as long as this one has a wealth of data, but every team wants a fresh collection when they unload a car at a track. That’s why every NHRA (hopefully) has four qualifying sessions. Teams with the budgets to make all four qualifying runs have an advantage because they have the most data; and the cars that make four successful passes on Friday and Saturday? They’re in good shape entering Sunday.
Things rarely work out that smoothly. Just look at Bristol for the Tobler-Capps duo. They hadn’t made a single decent run entering the fourth qualifying session, a night run, and while other cars were ripping off runs in the 3.90s, Tobler had one thing in mind: getting the NAPA car down the track.
“We weren’t going to go out there and do anything stupid because we wanted that data,” said Tobler. “We need data and that was more important to us than trying to run 3.95. We needed to run a full run and we needed to run race numbers.”
Capps qualified No. 10. That didn’t fool anyone, of course. It doesn’t matter where this car appears in the field: he’s a threat. How true that ended up being. The NAPA car charged through the field en route to the team’s fifth Wally. Here’s how Tobler explained the value of that data.
“We took some of that data and we were able to apply that to the later rounds in Bristol after the rain when it cooled down a little bit and we ran a 4.03 (in the fourth qualifying round) and a 4.05 in the final,” the crew chief said. “That 4.05 in the final was really more like a 4.04 because he was in pretty deep. But that 4.03 we ran in Q4 was comparative to that 4.05 we had.
“So yes, we were disappointed to qualify 10th, but you know, we were happy to have the data to use in round four. We knew were capable of doing that and taking that data and transferring it to round four.”
Drag racing offers an impossibly small amount of data to its crew chiefs, car chiefs and drivers; that just makes collecting it even more valuable. It’s not just Tobler and company that value it, of course. It’s just the NAPA guys that have managed to figure out how to make the data work for them best this season. They’ve had lucky runs, there’s no doubt about that, but it would be foolish (and a little insulting) to ignore the massive amount of hard work and preparation that goes into the success the team is enjoying right now.
They might not be throwing up the sexy numbers and breaking records right now, but they’re collecting those little gold statues at a breakneck speed. I can’t speak for you, but the methodical dominance of Ron and Rahn has been a lot of fun to watch from where I’m sitting. It’ll be just as much fun to watch everyone else try to catch up when the Countdown begins.