FRESNO, Calif. --
In this question-and-answer session, the 2005 Funny Car champion, driver of the Mopar/Oakley Dodge Charger R/T for Don Schumacher Racing, and native of Fresno, Calif., discusses his plans for the so-called "off-season," his future goals in NHRA, his status as a "soccer dad," safety issues and the recently-announced "blue boxes." He also does not hesitate to reiterate his views on NHRA's Countdown to the Championship format.
The popular drag racer and star of the "Scelzi Sez" series, featured during the television broadcasts of the NHRA POWERade events on ESPN2, ended the 2007 NHRA season third in the Funny Car championship, with a class-best four wins in four final rounds. He also scored one semifinal and six quarterfinal finishes, and was low qualifier twice. His round win-loss record for the year was 24-18. In all, since he began his pro career in 1997, "Wild Thing" (as he's known by his fans) has won 37 national events in 58 final rounds, qualified No. 1 44 times and holds a round win-loss record of 369-192.
Scelzi received numerous honors this season, including the prestigious Rick Mears Good Guy Award from the American Association of Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters (AARWBA).
Q&A WITH GARY SCELZI:
A. It is absolutely true. I own a USAC pavement car and a USAC dirt car that (17-year-old) Michael Faccinto drives. And one of the things I've wanted to do since I drove the Ford Focus celebrity race in 2003 (at the Chili Bowl) was to race the Chili Bowl itself. And now that I own my own USAC team I told everybody on my team that, OK I'm going to run the Chili Bowl this year.
I've been to Cory Kruseman's (Sprint Car and Midget Driving) school a couple of times, and I've raced in the Super 600cc Mini Sprint class in a couple of races at Plaza Park in Visalia, Calif. When I test at Plaza Park, I test with my son Dominic (10 years old), who drives the 600cc Restricted Mini Sprint at events there. In fact, we just had the track rented a couple of weekends in a row. We took the wings off both cars and he and I went at it. We absolutely had a ball.
I'm trying to get some experience because the last time I was at the Chili Bowl I had 30 minutes of experience, so now I probably have three hours of experience. I just want to go out there and have a good time. I don't want to get upside down. I just want to see if I can hold my own against a bunch of these guys.
Q. When was the last time you ran the Chili Bowl?
A. It was when I started with Don Schumacher Racing in 2003. It was a Ford Focus celebrity race with myself, Tony Stewart, Ron Capps, Danny Lasoski. We raced against a bunch of serious open-wheel racers.
A. No, absolutely not. It is a full-blown Midget race. Get it on, go for the gold.
Q. Whose car are you driving?
A. It's my own car. It's a Mopar-powered Spike that is sponsored by Jeg's, K&N Filters, and Scelzi Enterprises. And the race is going to be on Pay-Per-View. I called and talked to "Woody" (Scott Woodruff) from Jeg's, and 30 seconds later he said, "We're in." K&N Filters sponsors my USAC midget and they said, "Hey, you know what? This is going to be a great thing, so let's go do it."
Q. Any other drag racers running the Chili Bowl with you?
A. Cruz Pedregon is going to race it, but not (Scelzi's DSR teammate) Ron Capps this time. He's filming commercials for his new sponsor NAPA AUTO PARTS that weekend. I don't know of any other drag racers right now who are entered, except Cruz Pedregon and me.
I'm sure Cruz and I are setting our goals against each other as to who's going to be the highest-finishing drag racer. Obviously, I know that I can't hold a candle to Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne, Danny Lasoski and Cory Kruseman - who actually has his own driving school. I just want to go out there and try not to run into anybody and not spin out, and the higher position I earn for the main event, the better off I'll be.
A. Actually, I flipped on the first lap and the last lap. And my only goal was to beat Ron Capps and I did that. It was pretty exciting. I sold a bunch of tee shirts and made a lot of new fans and a lot of new friends. I am really excited about going back. It is one of the neatest things that I've ever done in my racing career. I've always had a passion for open-wheel racing and at 47 years old, obviously, I'm not going to trade occupations. And, since my son is following this path, I want to see what he'll be up against later in life. It's a whole different challenge going sideways in the dirt.
Q. So, where are you testing right now?
A. I'm in Ventura, California, driving a 360 wingless sprint car. And Cory Kruseman is instructing me and a couple of other drivers who are here just for the school. Cory is a very close personal friend of mine and, in fact, one of the young men here, Cole Cabrera, is 13 years old and is wanting to go the same route as Dominic in USAC racing and he's here driving a Ford Focus. I brought him up here because I know Cory will teach him the right way. And, I said, While you're at it, Cory, you can give me some pointers in the 360 to prepare me for the Chili Bowl. I need to get some seat time.
Q. We also hear you're running Nostalgia Funny Car races in 2008. So, what happened to all that time you wanted to spend with business and family?
A. Actually, Donnie Couch asked me if I would drive one, and I said, You know, if I'm home and I'm not racing with Dominic, I certainly would be interested in it. I have never spoken with the owners of the car; I only talked with Donnie Couch, actually, at a USAC race on Thanksgiving in Irwindale. I know it's on the Internet, but I haven't committed to anything.
Q. Any other non-NHRA adventures for you in 2008?
A. Well, Clint Bowyer, who drives the Jack Daniel's No. 07 Nextel Cup car for Richard Childress Racing is going to have a charity golf tournament and I think a modified race that I'll be doing some time in April, which will be during the week. I'm not sure exactly when that is, but I spent last week with him at the PRI show in Florida. Of course, I will do the Michael Ross Foundation charity event, that I do every year for Danny Lasoski, in Sedalia, Missouri, which will be a golf tournament, and a half-mile modified race at a World of Outlaws event.
Those are the only things outside of NHRA that I will be doing, except, of course, for the Chili Bowl. But the Visalia, Calif., Plaza Park people are hot on the trail of doing the (second annual) Gary Scelzi Celebrity race with the 600cc Mini Sprints again. I don't know if we're going to do it or not. We're talking about it right now.
A. It doesn't affect it at all. I have a great relationship with Mopar. The Funny Car team is solid. Mopar is very happy with the program and with our 2007 finish and being part of the Countdown. So, I don't see it affecting us at all. I see our relationship staying the same. Mopar is very positive and very upbeat.
Q. With the sale of Oakley by Jim Jannard, does this affect the Oakley sponsorship in any way?
A. It doesn't seem to be. As far as I know, we're solid for next year. I don't know about beyond next year. I'll leave that up to Don Schumacher, but I know we're solid for 2008.
Q. Now that the NHRA's Countdown to the Championship playoff system has one season under its belt, how do you feel it worked out for them and for the competitors?
A. I think it worked out OK for all the classes except for Funny Car. I don't like the format. I still think that we need to go from Indy on with the top eight, like I said from the very beginning. I'm not wavering a bit on my opinion. I don't like four cars coming down to two races. I feel that what happens from Indy on will decide the true world champion. That way, if a team has problems, like a few of us had in Vegas, they would still be in the running when they get to Pomona.
Q. What do you think of the new "blue boxes?"
A. I think it's outstanding. I commend Ford for stepping up and doing something like that. They've been very good about working on safety things for the NHRA drag races. But, I'd like to see NHRA take more of a stand on it, since I think it's not really Ford's issue. I appreciate them doing it, but I still think it's NHRA's problem. They talk about safety, so let's hope that they're going to do something about it.
I guess my feeling is, you can build the safest race car you want that you can crash and drivers can walk away from, but if you don't move the scoreboards, and you don't the move the light poles from next to the guard rails, then I think it's all for naught. You can't wear a helmet and not wear a fire suit. All these things go together. Hopefully they're going to look at everything and not just make everybody change their cars to make them safer, but also make these race tracks safer, and not run on tracks that are unsafe when they're badly lit.
Q. Knowing that you were ready to hang up your helmet, at least for a while, and now you're back for a full season, does this put you in a comfort zone for 2008? Do you think you will be more relaxed?
A. I don't know. I don't think I changed my driving techniques or my enthusiasm for drag racing even knowing I was going to leave. I don't look at it that way. When Gary Scelzi gets in a race car, you're probably not going to want to race him because he's going to want to rip your head off. That's how I race, that's how I've raced all my life, that's how I help my brothers run Scelzi Enterprises. We want to be the best. So, that's not going to change.
Q. What was the highlight of your 2007 season?
A. I'd have to say winning four races, and being able to do it with (former crew chief) Mike Neff after having my whole Funny Car career with him. And then having (new crew chief) Todd Okuhara come along and get along so well with us, because we were all a little down when Mike decided to leave and be a driver. But when we got Todd, he just brought some excitement back. I've been very fortunate, and I am really excited about seeing Todd make his mark in drag racing and hopefully win the Funny Car championship next year with the Mopar/Oakley Dodge team.
A. Dominic is going to run the majority of the 600cc Restricted Mini Sprint races this year. We're going to try to run for a championship. Unless he has some problems and non-finishes, he's going to go to the majority of his races and miss quite a few of my races this year. I made an agreement with him that if he could finish in the top five and he's got a shot at the championship, then he can continue to go on to the rest of the races. That's kind of my plan. He wasn't able to win Rookie of the Year in '07, missing five or six races and having some non-finishes. It's a big thing for him to win a championship. I believe he finished 11th, but at 10 years old he's racing against 14- to 16-year-old kids, and I was very excited and very proud of the way he handled himself. He won one race this year and probably should have won three. He led one for 19 laps and flat out got taken out by a 16-year-old driver who didn't want to see a 10-year-old kid win. And then the last race of the year, which was a wingless race, he led on the last lap, but he had bumped the car that was in front and got called back two spots for rough driving. He ended up with a third, but the kid is definitely good enough to win any race. He can hold his own against all of them. The year of experience he got in the 600 has definitely paid big dividends. I know he's my son and I don't want to sound like a soccer mom, but I think he's as good as anybody out there.
I believe there are going to be 16 races this year. I told him he needs to get a big enough lead so that he can miss some races and still win the championship.
Q. Is 6-year-old Giovanni champing at the bit to go racing?
A. We've been testing with Giovanni on the weekends in the little Junior Sprint and he's doing really well. But he's by himself. He still has to learn to pass cars in a pack of 18 cars - that's normally how many make the main event. Dominic spent a year in go-karts, so he was able to learn how to pass and he built his strength up by driving the road courses. I'd still like to do that with Giovanni. I haven't made the decision yet, and that season starts the first of March. We'll just have to see how he does with the other kids on the race track. He's just turned 6 and he's going to be running against 6-year-old to 11-year-old kids.
A. Right now, we're waiting for the schedule to come out. We're definitely going to run more races and we're going to do as many pavement races as we can, but we're also going to fit some dirt races in. Michael won a race in Hanford, Calif. He finished in the top five in almost every event he raced in on pavement and dirt, I think, except for one, and that was Turkey Night. So, we're excited about him.
I'd love to run the USAC pavement car (with Faccinto) the night before the Indy 500 at O'Reilly Raceway Park, but we're just going to have to wait and see what happens. We're still looking for a little more funding, but we're going to run a first-class program, no question about it. And the sponsors on that car are still Mopar and K&N Filters.
Q. Do you feel you are too much of a "soccer dad" with Dominic?
A. You know what? I may be a soccer dad with him, but not around the other people. But he bugs me constantly about going to different race tracks, all over the United States. He wants to race extremely badly. It's the only thing I can hold over his head to clean his room and get his homework done, and he's getting As and Bs. So, as long as he holds up his end of the bargain, then I'm all for it. He also wants to play baseball, and he wants to play football. He does those things and I support him in anything. And I told him, and his brother Giovanni: I don't care if it's marbles, if that's what you want to do. But when we go to the races we go to win. We're not there to play grab-ass or to make it a social hour. We're there to race and win and, when the races are over, if you want to go play football or play with your friends, then that's fine. But we go to the races to win, at any age. That's why we work hard at it. But, if we don't win, it's not the end of the world.
Q. What is your personal goal for 2008?
A. My personal goal is to make that "4X" above my name a "5X." I want to win this Funny Car championship. I think Todd Okuhara is extremely capable of doing it. I think I can do it and I think we've assembled a new bunch of guys that are capable of doing it. I think that's a combination for winning.
Q. What makes you happy?
A. I guess knowing that my kids love me, that my family is behind me, and knowing that I have a race car that can win races. And my health.
Q. Talk about the family business. How has it benefited so far from your being more involved? Or are you more involved?
Q. What would you like to accomplish in your life/career that you haven't yet accomplished?
A. You know, I would like to win Indy (U.S. Nationals) in a Funny Car. I did it in Top Fuel, and when (the late) Steve Evans went to interview me for TV, the battery on his mic went dead, so I never got to do my interview.
I also want to win at every single race track that we go to on the POWERade tour. That's still one of the accomplishments that I haven't done. The tracks I haven't yet won at are Gainesville, Englishtown, Norwalk, and I have a feeling they're going to slip in Charlotte, so I'm going the other way on the race tracks I've wanted to win at.
And to be a two-time Funny Car champion would be wonderful.
Q. Anything else?
Just look for a refreshed, excited Gary Scelzi when we pull into the gates in Pomona (Calif., the 2008 season opener Feb. 7-9). We have a new paint scheme coming out on the Mopar Dodge Charger. I've had red cars and have been successful in red cars most of my life, but this is something totally different. Anyone who was at the SEMA show saw it, and it's pretty bitchin'.