Ron Capps had been to the NHRA U.S. Nationals dozens of times, seeking the most prestigious victory in the sport, but had always walked away empty-handed no matter how he tried to approach the event. This year, in his 27th attempt, he finally conquered the Big Go, grasping that elusive brass ring that perhaps was the only hole in a Hall of Fame résumé.
Two months later, with the eyes of the drag racing world again watching, Capps and his NAPA Auto Parts crew pulled off another clutch performance at the season-ending Auto Club NHRA Finals in Pomona to earn Capps his third world championship.
Capps never led the points until when it mattered the most, on the last day of the season, but he nonetheless enjoyed a thrilling and highlight-filled season in his first year as a team owner.
“It’s just so overwhelming,” he said. “For me and my wife, Guido [crew chief Dean Antonelli], and John Medlen, it was a lot of hard work, and I never thought that success would come this quick. To get a win early [at the Las Vegas four-wide race] then switch to the Toyota body and get our first win with them in Bristol, and then go on to win five, including the U.S. Nationals, was unbelievable.”
After announcing late in 2021 that he was leaving the Don Schumacher camp to strike out on his own, there were plenty of sleepless winter nights wondering if he’d bitten off too much, but a No. 1 qualifying berth and runner-up at the season-opening Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals behind Robert Hight tempered those fears. While the business end of racing was never far from his brain, it only bit him once, at the second event in Phoenix, where he lost on a holeshot to John Force.
“I knew when I hit the gas that I’d made that mistake that I worried about,” he admitted. “The business side of things suddenly popped up in my head, and I knew it right away, and I was mad at myself. I asked Paul Mecca, our team manager, to help me not have those thoughts in my head with my helmet on. From then on, I did a pretty good job of separating the two.”
Hight went on to win the Phoenix race, too, then Matt Hagan won the two events that sandwiched around Capps’ Las Vegas win, charting a course they would follow all season of battling one another down to the wire. In consecutive early summer races, Hight won in Richmond, Hagan in Epping, and Capps in Bristol. Capps’ Bristol win, his first for Toyota, came in impressive fashion after heavily damaging the new body in a first-round blower explosion.
Resiliency was a keyword for the team as on multiple occasions – in Seattle, in Reading, and at the Finals in Pomona – as Antonelli, Medlen, and the team were able to quickly diagnose and solve problems.
“A lot of teams I’ve been around in the past would have taken one or two races, maybe a test session, to figure out what’s wrong, and I’ve been really lucky that these guys always figured it out,” he said. “By the next race, boom, it was fixed.”
Hight and a resurgent Bob Tasca III evenly split the wins at the next six races, and coming into the U.S. Nationals, Hight held a commanding 250-point edge on Hagan and 306 over Capps.
“Everybody just fell so far behind Hight but Indy for the points and a half,” he said. “We tested Monday in Brainerd and were really happy with everything, and I just felt like we had a good chance at that [Pep Boys All-Star Challenge] money.
“We hoped we could leave Indy and enter the Countdown [to the Championship] in second, but even third would be not too bad with the points reset. Then we rolled into Indy and just had an unbelievable weekend. We won the All-Stars event and then the race on Monday and made up a lot of ground in points. It was just a dream weekend. We raced Hight in the final and beat him. I was just trying to pretend it was any old race, but when I turned the corner [in the shutdown area], it hit me: ‘Oh, my gosh, I just won Indy … finally.’ ”
Capps entered the Countdown in second, and he and Hight each won two of the first four events – Hight in Reading and St. Louis and Capps in Charlotte and Dallas. The Dallas win was huge as he again beat Hight, this time in the semifinals, then bested Hagan in the final.
Hight’s lead over Capps was just 10 points entering the final two events, but Tasca knocked out Capps in round two in Las Vegas, and Hight and Hagan both went to the final. Capps couldn’t bear to even watch the damage being co-inflicted on his championship hopes.
“We watched the semi’s, and I’d had enough, so I headed back to town to take my family to the airport,” he said. “There’s a reason those teams are battling for a championship. Hagan just kept mowing through them, and the same thing with Robert. Obviously, I was pulling for Hagan, and someone texted me to tell me that he had won and how the points looked, and they weren’t as bad as I thought, just over two rounds. I instantly felt better.”
Capps was 61 points behind Hight and Hagan 63 back. With 30 points per round awarded in Pomona, both needed to try to cut Hight’s lead down to less than 60. Capps had a miserable first day and was barely qualified after Q2. The team again diagnosed their problem and, in a championship-crucial run – and perhaps the single most important run of the season – Capps fired off a stunning 3.837 that not only earned him four session points but also the 10 points awarded to the field leader. When the math was done, Hight’s lead over Capps was down to 57.
Hagan’s hopes ended early Sunday with a first-round loss to Steven Densham, and all eyes turned toward a possible semifinal clash between Hight and Capps. A win by Capps and then a victory in the final would clinch the title, but it never got that far. Tasca upset Hight in round two, and then Capps beat Tasca in the semifinals to take a three-point lead. But with a five-point centerline violation still a possibility in the final, Capps could not be crowned.
“Right away, I’m thinking, ‘OK, do I stage the car and idle down? Do I hit the gas and just coast down? Do we even make a run?’ I had a lot of thoughts,” said Capps. “There were a lot of fans out there, and I didn’t want to let anybody down, but we couldn’t risk crossing the centerline.”
Ultimately, it was Antonelli’s faith in Capps’ driving ability – and Antonelli’s desire to try to run 340 mph in the final after going 337 in qualifying – and similar affirmation from trusted friend Del Worsham that Capps decided to make a full run.
“Guido said, ‘You’re one of the best. Hit the gas, and if you don’t feel comfortable, shut it off. Nobody’s gonna blame you,’ but sometimes, you don’t get any notice. These cars will move over 15 feet in a heartbeat. You’re just hanging on trying to keep these things straight. You never feel like you’re in absolute control.
“Even when we fired the car, I still didn’t know what I was going to do. I did a long burnout, three times as long as I’ve done the last three years. I staged and hit the gas, and it was hauling, and I didn’t see Cruz or hear him. I inched it over a little bit to the left side of the groove because we had already asked NHRA if a guardwall hit was the same as a centerline cross, and they told us no. It really started hauling as the clutch came in, but I decided to shut it off early [880 feet, according to the data recorder]. It still went 3.85 to his 3.83, so I was a little mad at myself, and it would have been tough to beat him, but I would have been the biggest and dumbest team owner ever if I crossed the centerline. But Sunday night, every crew chief and driver went out of their way to come to me, [and] that was the coolest thing ever to watch when nobody expected me to run it down.”
Capps, who had heartbreakingly lost the 2012 championship by two points and the 2005 crown by eight – won the championship by just three points over Hight.
Capps thanked his team – Dean Antonelli, John Medlen, Paul Mecca, Tom Buckingham, Bob Peck, Travis Wirth, Jessie Freeman, Tim Dillon, Pearce Williford, and Matt Scott – and his sponsors, NAPA Auto Parts, Toyota, GearWrench, Dometic, Weld Wheels, and CHE Precision Inc.
The championship was a nice going-away gift for Medlen.
“When we found out in Dallas he was retiring, it was a mission. Obviously, we won that race, and I gave him that trophy because you just don’t know if we’re gonna win again or have another moment to hand him something that cool. I hoped I was able to [have] a chance to give him something, but I didn’t in a million years think because I was going to have a chance to be able to send him off into retirement with that big Camping World trophy.”