This 2007 NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series season, beginning at the CARQUEST Auto Parts Winternationals at the Auto Club Raceway at Pomona Feb 8-11, will be his first full term with Don Schumacher Racing as a professional crew chief. The 38-year-old Hawaii native is gearing up for the challenge as he continues to tune the same car for the same driver, but with new primary sponsorship from Mail Terminal Services.
Okuhara has been building race cars since his childhood. Born and raised in Hawaii, where Okuhara1s father owned a machine shop, he spent much of his high-school days re-building engines.
The training began to pay off in 1993, when Okuhara relocated from Hawaii to build short blocks and work on cylinder heads for famed Hawaiian tuner Roland Leong.
Since then, Okuhara has paved his way to his own success in drag racing. He went to work for Don Prudhomme in 1994, and from 1995-96 was a member of Larry Dixon1s Top Fuel crew. He made the transition to the Funny Car class in 1998, tuning for Ron Capps as an assistant crew chief. Okuhara joined Don Schumacher Racing mid-season in 2005, to be assistant crew chief on the Matco Tools Funny Car, driven by Whit Bazemore.
In 2006, he remained the assistant crew chief on the Matco Tools Dodge for the first six races, then was promoted to crew chief beginning at the NHRA Southern Nationals at Atlanta. Eight races later, Okuhara claimed his first win as a crew chief, when Bazemore defeated Ron Capps in the final round of the NHRA Nationals in Seattle.
Okuhara now tunes for 2003 Super Comp champion and former Top Fuel driver Jack Beckman, who took over driving the Matco Tools Dodge following the 2006 U.S. Nationals. As a crew chief, Okuhara led Beckman to one victory in two final rounds in the last five races of the 2006 season, as well as setting national records by recording the quickest elapsed time (4.662 seconds) and fastest speed (333.66 mph).
We caught up with him during National Time Trials at Firebird Raceway in Chandler, Ariz.
1. Q. When did you find out that Jack Beckman would be driving a Funny Car in 2007 instead of a Top Fuel Dragster, which had originally been discussed.
A. Probably after Thanksgiving, in early December. We were kind of in limbo, expecting to go into Top Fuel, and it turned out to be a Funny Car, and it's all good.
2. Q. Were you already preparing a Top Fuel car?
A. Yes. We were working on getting parts and pieces for the dragster and actually working on both, getting both cars ready. Because of how the year ended we felt we might return to the Funny Car class. There had been talk about going to Top Fuel, and, at one point, it looked like we were going in that direction. I and the whole team were actually excited about doing something different.
3. Q. Do you have any preference as to which car you would work on?
A. I was really excited about the thought of running a Top Fuel car. It would have been a different challenge and learning more about that class interested me a lot. But picking up where we left off with the Funny Car is also very exciting.
4. Q. Was the transition between drivers, difficult, easy, smooth?
A. There's a downside to losing someone with Whit's experience and ability who is like a big part of the team. And then when Jack came aboard, of course, there was a learning curve. We had some new guys and I had not done this for a long time either, so there was a learning curve for me too. And, with our team being fairly new, we didn't really need a big change like that. And, fortunately, it all worked out for the best.
5. Q. This is your first full season as a crew chief. Are you ready for it?
A. Yes. We're trying some new stuff and it's exciting to be in a position where you can actually test and not just practice. A lot of times you come out here and you're trying to tweak your tune-up or combination and try to make it a little better. We ended last year pretty good and now we're trying different things during testing. And when we've gone back to how we ended up last year, the MTS Dodge seemed to respond. That's pretty exciting.
A. All throughout last year we have run here and there where it showed it could run with anybody out there. We just never really put it all together. And we brought in (assistant crew chief) Phil Shuler, and Tom Boyington (rods and piston maintenance, left-side engine), and the rest of the guys all just kind of jelled together and everything fell in place.
7. Q. Was it a surprise when Jack set the records?
A. No. You could see it every run at every race. He was getting better and more confident and confident with the car. It was hard, though. When Whit was driving we'd leave the trailer and head to the starting line and we'd never talk or say anything. With Jack driving we had to give him little reminders: don't forget about this or that. Towards the end of the year he knew what he needed to do, we knew what we needed to do, and everything just fell into place.
8. Q. Admittedly, that record ET run was not perfect. What if it had been?
A. When Jack got out the groove in the final round, it spun the tires a little bit and it got on the rev limiter a lot earlier, which hurt the performance, but the earlier numbers were like two hundredths (of a second) quicker than our previous 4.67 (-second) lap and faster at half-track by a little more than one mile per hour, so it would not have surprised me if a high 4.64 would have come up on the board.
9. Can you and the MTS Dodge team keep up this momentum in 2007?
A. We're going to try. There's a lot of good cars: Ashley on Force's team - they have a strong four-car team. Ace's (Ed McCulloch, teammate Ron Capps' crew chief) and Zippy's (Mike Neff, Gary Scelzi's crew chief) cars are running really well. You also have some new cars out here. It's going to be really challenging to perform the way we did the end of last year. The bar is definitely going to be raised.
10. Is it the speed and/or ET that's causing some of the parts breakage you experienced during testing?
A. Obviously, the faster and quicker the cars go the more strain there is on the parts. There's also a new weight limit - the cars have to be 25 pounds heavier - which is going to make it even harder on wear and tear on the parts that we're going to have to deal with. All that put together, it's definitely going to shorten up the parts life.
11. Q. Is it a challenge to work basically with a Funny Car rookie?
A. I still consider myself fairly new at this, so I would say when Whit was driving, it was probably a challenge for him working with me, so I can definitely see the other side of it. We'll do this as a team. We'll win as a team, we'll do everything as a team.
A. We have couple of new guys on the team and that's why we really wanted to go out to Vegas (for the first test session before Firebird) and run a week before everybody, just to make sure we have everybody on the same page and everybody's working really well together. As far as tune-up and everything else goes, we tried a couple of new things in testing and some of those look good. Some things will stay the same or change slightly, but mostly the car will not be a whole lot different.
13. Q. Do you have a to-do list as to what you want to accomplish in 2007?
A. I think you just have to go to every race with a mindset of qualifying as high as you can and winning as many rounds as you can. You have to have the same goal each and every race and, if you can do that and succeed at that, then everything will fall in line in the big picture. That's the way I look at it. We'll take it one race at a time and just try to do the best we can each race.
14. Q. Can you win a championship?
A. Everybody goes into the pre-season with those expectations. Like I said, there are so many good cars out there and guys who have been there before, and that's the big thing. It's not just having a good race here or there. Guys who can win the championship are the guys who do it in all different kinds of conditions, and year after year there are a few guys out there who can do that.
15. Q. What's Todd Okuhara's goal in life?
A. (Laughing). I don't know. That's the toughest question you've asked so far.
16. Q. Do you miss Hawaii?
A. Oh, yeah. Our whole family is back there (brother Scott Okuhara is assistant crew chief on the Brut Revolution Dodge driven by Ron Capps for DSR), and the only time we really get to visit friends and family is when they come to the races and you get five minutes here, five minutes there, and it's pretty cool. For the most part, everybody likes to come to the races, but yeah, I miss Hawaii.
17. Q. When were you last there?
A. Thanksgiving. We usually go back every Thanksgiving. It's good to get away, but after you get away for a couple of days, you're ready to get back to work.
A. That's really a good thing. With the right people in place, it's always a good thing. My relationship with Ace (Ed McCulloch) goes way back. I consider him like a father figure. He showed me a lot of things and helped me with a lot of things on and off the race track. To work with him is always cool. Zippy (Mike Neff) and I get along great. So it's a really good relationship within the three-car team.
19. Q. Has working with assistant crew chief Phil Shuler been productive?
A. It's funny. People on the outside looking in will look at us and see that we're about as 180 degrees different as you can get. But our working relationship and our personal relationship have always been really good. I wouldn't want to do it without him working with me.
20. Q. You certainly have a talented group of guys working with you on the MTS Dodge. Who are they and what do they do?
A. There's Joe Veyette, the Clutch and Driveline Specialist; Jim Marcellus, Right-Side Assembly, Cylinder Head Maintenance; Michael Lance, Superchargers, Ignition and Short Blocks; Tom Boyington, Left-Side Assembly, Rod, Piston, and Lifter Maintenance; Wes Knop, Driveline and Clutch Asst., Tires; Ben Matthews, Body Maintenance and Fuel; and David Fears, Bottom-End Assembly and Short-Block Asst. And they are definitely a talented bunch of hard workers, that's for sure.