NHRA interview with regular-season champions

  • Herald news services
  • Wednesday, September 3, 2008 8:38pm
  • SportsSports

The following is a transcript provided by the NHRA of a media interview held Wednesday, Sept. 3 with 2008 POWERade Series regular-season champions Tony Schumacher (Top Fuel), Tim Wilkerson (Pro Stock) and Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle).

THE MODERATOR: I’ll introduce each of the drivers and ask them to make an opening statement and then we will open it up to questions.

First I’d like to introduce No. 1 seed in the Pro Stock Motorcycle, Matt Smith, rider of the Nitro Fish Buell. Matt is the defending POWERade Series Champion, and he finished the regular season with a category‑leading four wins, good enough to earn him the No. 1 seed.

Matt, have you noticed any difference maybe in confidence in your attitude or approach to racing this season as the defending champion?

MATT SMITH: Not really. Everybody in the world out there, they shoot for you when you’re No. 1. Everybody wants to beat you it seems like. So a lot of people take shots and they go (.00) or (.01) on you on the light and it makes it tough.

THE MODERATOR: What are your thoughts, Matt, going into the playoffs as the No. 1 seed and what are your thoughts on defending the championship?

MATT SMITH: I like the new format. I like having the 30 extra bonus points over last year, and I like to have the ‑‑ the bikes have five races and everybody else has six, so I like that I think a lot better than last year when we had just like a two‑race shootout at the end.

THE MODERATOR: Next I’d like to introduce the No. 1 seed in Funny Car, Tim Wilkerson, who drives the Levi Ray &Shoup Chevy. Tim has been one of great stories in NHRA, if not all of sports, this season. He won almost as many races this year, four, as he won in his first 12 years in the POWERade Series, five races, and he led the points for the first time his entire career this year.

As an independent operator against the likes of Don Schumacher racing John Force Racing and the Pedregons, how have you managed?

TIM WILKERSON: Thanks for all the nice words, first of all. I think it’s just a group effort on the whole Levi Ray &Shoup team. The car is running terrific and the guys are just doing a great job. We’ve formed a technical alliance with Don Prudhomme Racing this year, so it gives me some opportunity to have access to some equipment that I never had access to before. In fact, last year Don Schumacher allowed me to use some of his stuff from time to time, and that really helped me towards the end of the year. I think there was just a great group of people involved with my old car, and we’re very excited to be in the position we’re in, and hopefully we can continue with our ride.

THE MODERATOR: And to follow up, what are your thoughts of trying to retain the first‑place perch with the playoffs coming up?

TIM WILKERSON: We’ll continue racing the way we have all year long. I talked with John Force about this last week a little bit, and he is a true racer and knows how hard we work to do this. And I told him, like what Matt said, it’s interesting being first. They take you a little differently than when you were just a guy that went down the racetrack from time to time.

Again I’m very proud of our efforts but we need to keep our eye focused on the ball and hopefully we can come out of there ‑‑ I told John, this really was his fault because everybody aspires to be like him and to be the fastest guy out there; so hopefully we can keep our momentum up and keep those others ‑‑ at least nine other people there that I can tell you that would have a very good chance of winning this deal, and after Robert Hight’s performance last week at Indy and now Jack Beckman’s car is running good, and you can’t count out the Pedregons and the other Force cars; and Gary Densham will hit you with a left hook when you’re looking the wrong way.

It will be an interesting six races and hopefully we can come out on top.

THE MODERATOR: Finally I’d like to introduce the No. 1 seed in Top Fuel, which is, of course, Tony Schumacher, who drives the U.S. Army Dragster. Tony just broke his own record for wins in a row, reaching six in a row at the U.S. Nationals and wins in a season, 11, which has never been reached before.

His win at the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals was also the 52nd win of his career, tying him with Joe Amato for first on the all‑time NHRA wins last. You said after your win on Monday, that the magnitude of what you accomplished has not sunk in; has it sunk in now, and how do you balance wanting to acknowledge and revel in all of these historic achievements, while at the same time remaining focused on the six races left and a 30‑point lead?

TONY SCHUMACHER: We’ve been very good at staying focused through a lot of great achievements in the years past, and with the crew, those Army guys are so good at staying focused in the tough times.

You know we make it a point before each race to get together and say, ‘Guys, this is the time to focus. We’ve come way too far to leave anything on the table right now.’

So we’ve won some great championships and we’ve won on the last run of the year coming back from 300 points, we have closed the biggest deficit ever. We have several records, and the last record in the world we want to add to our list is losing 550 points with six races to go.

You know, the Countdown is the Countdown. We extended our lead to 30 points now, and we need to get it back. We will go out and we will be a machine and we will do whatever it takes to win that race within the rule books, and we will be hard to beat. We have a great team. We have some things to overcome now with the loss of (crew chief) Alan Johnson next year, we are going to have to dig deep to make sure that we can I think win as many as we can while still having a great crew chief like that.

THE MODERATOR: To follow up about the six‑race playoff, if you were handicapping it as not one of the drivers, how would you look at the Top Fuel playoff? You’re clearly the playoff favorite. How do you protect that position?

TONY SCHUMACHER: Well, you try to win the next six races. We won the last six. It would be devastating to come this far and get beat; but, I understand the rules. I have read the rules. You know, you win three races and you say, okay, eventually we need to lose one so we don’t start out the series and lose one. But you get to Indy and you don’t want to see that one either.

So now we are going to (xMax Dragway @ Concord), which I was down there yesterday, it’s beautiful, an awesome facility and we want to go out there and win that one and extend the lead. We are not going to go into this thing ‑‑ inaudible ‑‑ we don’t know how to race that way. We’ll do exactly what we do every week and run low ET in the lane we are in, do the best we can do and keep our mind off all the garbage and try to win these races. Very, very important to close the deal when you’ve come this far and won this many races; when in the old system we would have won the championship probably at Indy, and now we have six to go and we’re starting over. So we need to not make mistakes and we need to just be a machine.

Q. Tony, every time I’ve been around when you won, you’re so gracious about giving credit to (crew chief) Alan (Johnson) for the success, this has got to be just an added challenge to keep the whole team’s focus, knowing he’s going to be gone and maybe take some of the crew guys with him?

TONY SCHUMACHER: Sure. It’s definitely going to be something we have to worry about next year, but I’ve said it a million times ‑‑ I said it before this weekend. I wake up in the morning and I believe in God and I have a beautiful family, and that’s what my focus is 99 percent of the time. Alan leaving a race team is not going to make me any less of a father or a husband. I’ll still come home and enjoy life.

Alan has added to the success of the trophy sitting on my shelf. We have gotten along wonderfully, and I always knew in the back of my mind, and we all did, that he wanted to have his own team, and just realize that he’s doing what his dream is. I understand that. I accept him and I commend him for it. It very difficult to do.

You know, we’ve had an incredible five years. People dream every day about having a guy like Alan Johnson for five years, and it’s been again a pleasure.

Now we are going to have new challenge and get up and race against him and we all know how difficult that is, but, it’s something that we’ll just have to face next year. It’s not like we have a choice in the matter. We have to get up. We have to cowboy up, saddle up in that race car and do our job.

Sure, when we beat him on certain occasions, it will be very gratifying. I understand why people jump up and beat us in any given round. It’s a great race team and he’s going to have a great team next year and we will have to battle against him.

Everything he’s done has been a blessing for us. He’s taught our team how to race and how to get through adverse conditions and he’s taught us how to go fast and how to enjoy life and respect the wins we’ve had.

I always said, three years ago, sometime for every picture because you never know if it’s your last one. You’ve got to do it, smell the roses while you’re there and we’ll get up in the morning and still race. I’m still a race car driver and I’m still going to wake up and get to sit in a race car and have a great time doing what I love.

Q. Have you and your dad had any discussions about trying to find an established crew chief with a winning record, or maybe going in another direction and trying to get an up and comer?

TONY SCHUMACHER: With Alan Johnson leaving the team I’m sure there’s a hundred resumés for drivers, sure, but there’s a hundred resumés for crew chiefs, too, and it’s the same deal. Everyone wants to drive because we have a chance of winning. We have a great car, great budget, great leaders, great teams, and the other crew chiefs on our team are outstanding. We have enough people that we have a pretty good list, too.

But it’s not my call and I don’t want to be talking out of turn. But I love Jason McCulloch; I love my team, and at some point you have to give them a shot at it, too. And I’m not sure what they are going to do. I have no idea whether they want to go down or stay with us; I don’t know. We haven’t gotten that far yet, we’re still enjoying the success of Indy.

I wouldn’t mind sitting back for a year and saying, ‘You know, Jason, I don’t mind a learning curve.’ I don’t mind when Nick and Roger and the guys on that team, they have worked so hard and they have learned so much that it’s not just about winning. It’s about crunch time, being able to get through some tough times so that the future looks great. I think those guys deserve a chance. Not sure they will get it or not, but I’d like to see it happen. And I’d be willing to sit back and take a beating for a few races or years or whatever to keep that team together and you know, that’s my opinion, just one guy who gets in a race car, but I’d like to see it happen. A lot of great chew chiefs have come up and had the chance at that shot. I think those guys deserve it.

Q. With the points, you lost a lot of points obviously when it was re‑set, a lot more than Hot Rod lost last year, but do you think it’s a little ironic?

TONY SCHUMACHER: If we don’t win a championship, I’m going to walk over and shake the guy’s hands and hold the trophy over his head and say good job, brother, and say that’s the way it is, I’ll be a man about it. I knew the rule book and that doesn’t mean I want to show up at a race and lose less. We know what we have to do we have to go out and try to win races, and God forbid that’s a restart or we get beat, there’s a million different ways to lose and only a few to win.

The Countdown was made for that reason, to give people a shot, so it’s not closed at Indy and Reading. I understand. But if we don’t hold that trophy at the end of the year, that would kind of suck. But on the other hand, we’ve had an awesome year.

It has been an incredible season and it’s been gratifying and I’ve loved every minute of it. You know, it’s not, again, for the nine-millionth time, we have gotten over huge round wins and, you know, the Countdown is the Countdown, and I’m confident we can pull this thing off. Like I said, we don’t want to set the record for losing with the biggest lead, either. We have other records and I’d rather keep that one out of our book.

Q. How does it feel to be the overdog, so to speak, and not the underdog? Does that make you a little uncomfortable?

TONY SCHUMACHER: I love it. It doesn’t bother me at all. We are really good, though, when the pressure is on, and we are not running ten percent faster than everybody else like we used to.

It’s been very tight. We won some intense races. Last week at Indy was probably the biggest margin we had. We’ve won by a car length most of the runs there and most of the others are very tight where I had to set up in the seat and do a better job driving than I have in the past. I like that. I like the pressure and when it’s going to be close.

Now what, you’ve won six in a row, do you want it not to be seven? It gets harder as the time goes on because the odds get smaller of you winning and the pressure gets bigger and you have more chances to accomplish. It perfect example, sitting in the finals of Indy, you have got that far, and you are four seconds away from making history and doing something ‑‑ Joe Amato has won 52 races but other than that those records, were there for one round. If we didn’t make that round happen, it wasn’t like we could go to the next race and win six in a row. You had one shot at that.

I enjoy that moment, and I like the pressure and I like those moments and doing that with that team. Alan is the greatest chew chief out there, but I like the team. Those people know how to make me at ease. Some of us have been working together for eight years, some for ten years; Roger has been with me for ten years. It’s a unique group, and I like to go in a battle with those guys. I don’t even mind losing the points. Start over, okay, I mean, it’s what won us a championship last year, and I would be the biggest hypocrite in the world to complain about it now.

I’m going to sit back and show up in Charlotte and try to win the race with the bulls‑eye on our back, and so be it. People are going to take shots and there are an awful lot of people that do not want us to win that championship.

Q. Just looking over your record for 2007, Tim and there was nothing to write home about. What is this relationship with (Don “The Snake” Prudhomme) meant in terms of ‑‑ is that the edge that you have gotten this year?

TIM WILKERSON: Well, I think that’s part of it. Before that we didn’t really understand and didn’t really know what the blowers were producing and how our clutch was working, and believe it or not, running the car is such a tremendous expense and the track conditions and the heat, there’s so many variables, sometimes when you run the car; it doesn’t show you the exact same thing that a clutch or floor design (phonetic) will show you.

Just having that availability I think has made me a lot better to make a decision on the racetrack and that’s what Don has brought to the table for us this year and quite frankly, we have more money this year than we have ever had. Don sold us a lot of stuff off his Funny Car program last year at a very reasonable price, and Dick Levi, he came up with more money this year. I think the combination of those three things have made us a better race team.

Q. How much sharing is there on race day ‑‑

TIM WILKERSON: You mean between me and (Prudhomme’s Top Fuel crew chiefs for the U.S. Smokeless dragster) Tom bender and Don Smith?

Q. Yes.

TIM WILKERSON: We do very, very little. I tell you what goes on back and forth more than anything between the two camps is just some, hey, you know, have you ever seen this happen to this piston; or ours is wearing 100 instead of 80.

It’s just some general questions, because Dragsters and Funny Cars, they are boys and girls. You have to look at them differently. I can’t get caught up in the way they tune their Dragster trying to tune my Funny Car; it will screw me up, I firmly believe it will.

Those guys, they are really good at what they do over there, so when we go to the starting line a lot of times, we’ll talk to each other about how hard you think we ought to push, and sometimes, believe it or not, I think I even help them.

Q. As a follow‑up, do you see the Countdown any differently this year than you did last year?

TIM WILKERSON: No, not really. I have the same attitude of it that Tony really does, is that the rules are the rules, and I wasn’t fortunate enough to be in it last year. And last year I had a good back half of the year car, ran okay, but didn’t qualify at Vegas last year.

I think I just need to not worry about it, and I think it took me to the fifth race of the season this year to get the points lead, and I have not relinquished it since then. And so if it takes me five to get it back; if I stumble a little and I keep going, then that’s fine.

But we are not even ‑‑ believe it or not, it sounds cliché – (worrying) about the Countdown or anything. I go to each race, and like Tony even mentioned, we decide we’re going to be the fastest car down that lane at that run, and we’ve been fairly successful at that this year.

So we are not going to pound our chest about how great we are. We are going to do that every weekend we are going to go out there and say listen this track is 120 degrees, and by God, we think we can go 4.15 (seconds) down it and that’s what we are going to try to do. If it’s 80 degrees, we are going to try to go 4.05. And if we get it done or not that’s how we approach every run.

I really do not care one way or the other who I race. I learned that back in the Alcohol days, Tony and I raced in the Alcohol Funny Car, in fact. I was at the racetrack with my old friend, Fred (Mandoline), looking at somebody’s car, don’t remember who it was and he said we need to go look at Pat Austin or Brad Anderson because those are the guys that win races. We raced Pat one day, and he said, ‘If you see him go under the trailer and do three flips in his fire suit, you can be impressed; but until then he’s just another knucklehead like you, so you go whoop him.’

That’s the way it’s been, and they are men just like me and may have a championship under their belt and that makes them ‑‑ that makes them a little successful, but that didn’t make them any better than I am I don’t think.

Q. For Tim and Matt, Tim had a strong season and Matt had a coming‑on strong during the season; did you see good results coming kinds of like a rising tide or did something just all of sudden click for your team?

MATT SMITH: We debuted a brand new bike at Brainerd; one we built in‑house, and that meant a lot to us. Any time you put new tube underneath of you, it seems to enhance your performance.

We have had a strong showing. We have won three of the last five races, so I think we are right on par with where we need to be for this Countdown, and I think we’ll be pretty tough to beat. You know, I live in North Carolina, 45 minutes from (zMax Dragway @ Concord), so I’d love to win the first race there for us.

TIM WILKERSON: I think the rule change for this year, you heard a lot of sniveling about the extra weight that was put on the cars, and I’ve been told by a lot of crew chefs I had a real unfair advantage, because my car ‑‑ they actually used my car as an example, believe it or not, from last year. They took a weight of everybody’s car, what they weighed and mine, and Gary Densham’s weighed the most.

When they did that, you know, there was a bunch of talk about, well, the performance is going to be terrible for a car that’s that heavy, and I had two rounds of eliminations in Pomona in the fall and they decided that wasn’t going to be a big deal.

When they added that 50 to 75 pounds on these other cars over and above what they weighed last year, really threw the crew chiefs into a tizzy. And so I think they have a little bit of an advantage with that, and I’ll give them all that one. Towards the end of the year here, middle of the year, when we had to change chassis, I know there was a lot of talk about, well, those guys are not going to run worth a darn as soon as we do that and that’s going to get them.

Fortunately we’ve been able to prove them wrong and show it doesn’t matter, and if you can give us some plywood to hold the body and some tubing you made in your backyard, we’ll still be as fast as anybody else if we can get away with it.

Everybody has kind of caught up. Didn’t take them long to figure out that weight doesn’t mean anything.

Q. Tim, any chance you’ll have a second car with your son?

TIM WILKERSON: Thank you for asking that, he’s a special part of my program. Until the money is right and all that, I don’t think you’ll see that. There’s been some conversations with some other people about it, but I’m not in a position to say anything about it right now.

But it sure would be wonderful to me because he’s just such a great kid, and you know he does a good job in a car. We took him to an IHRA race this year, and was the No. 1 qualifier and had not driven in a year and got in the finals there. We’re having a good time with him and he’s a special kid. Thank you for asking that.

Q. Is he as good as Ashley Force?

TIM WILKERSON: He is not near as good or pretty. The other day with Ashley, I tell you, I said, ‘You’re driving me crazy, you’re not only cute, but you can drive a car and you smell good. It’s ridiculous. She really does a good job, and she’s a great kid. I hope everything works out for her. I don’t know what you guys think, but she’s done a lot for our sport.

Q. You’re a Funny Car driver and you’ve been there for several years, and if you did not have fun when you go to the track, I’m sure you’d have gotten out of it years ago. So how much more fun is it waking up on a qualifying day or on a Sunday of a national event, going to the track, with the season that you’ve had and the confidence that you’re having?

TIM WILKERSON: I think this is a lot more fun, yeah. We’ve always said, the old adage in the pit area has been the attitude of the crews depicted by the last time slip, and for me that’s the same way. I have some of (U.S. Army crew chief) Alan Johnson’s blood in me. I go up there and want to knock your head off and make you look like the biggest idiot in the world when you’re next to me.

I hope that’s finally coming out. We’ve really tried our best to always do that and we’ve just never had the resources and the people, and now we really have it all. Tony will tell you when we were racing Alcohol Funny Cars, we had a great time with that. And we went to the racetrack doing the same thing then with no money and a little bit of talent and a lot of heart, I guess, for lack of better terms and we still have that.

We still have the same opinion, and like I said, when I see one of them guys do some backflips under their fire suit, I’ll be impressed but until then, they are going to have to get in line.

Q. Matt, there seems to be a rash of red lights, and you said people are taking shots at the light. How do you deal with that? If you get too aggressive you’re liable to red light yourself and throw away a potential win; but you don’t want to leave any time on that, right, because the class has become so competitive; what do you do?

MATT SMITH: You know, there’s a lot of red lights in our class. The bikes, they are so light and they react so quick. It’s about like the second round of the ringers, the bike battle at Indy. Andrew Hines, you know, took a shot at me and went .003 on the light and I had an .040 light just right where I wanted to be. You know, I out ran him by a hundredth, so he beat me. So that’s part of our nature.

I feel like I have a fast enough bike and if I go up there and have an .02‑.04 light, I’ll win a lot of races, and we’ve won four this year, the most of anybody. Like Tony and Tim and even Greg, when you’re No. 1, everybody tries to shoot for you and everybody wants to beat you, especially in Tony’s case. With him winning six in a row, everybody goes up there because they want to put their name in the book as the ones that knocked him off that spot.

THE MODERATOR: Thanks to everyone who joined us, and the drivers for giving us some time out of a busy schedule as we get ready for the playoffs.

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