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Fri, 15 Dec 2000, 11:24 AM

Scelzi Won Third Top Fuel Title in Four Years
By Susan Wade

Gary Scelzi's third NHRA Winston Top Fuel Championship in four years was worth more than the $200,000 winner's check.

It awarded him a bully pulpit from which he plans to preach safety.

Scelzi beat keenest rival Tony Schumacher to win the Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Finals Nov. 11 at Pomona. And within minutes, he was speaking about preventing accidents like the terrifying ones in Memphis that could've turned tragic for Schumacher and Larry Dixon.

Gary Scelzi

Schumacher, the defending series titlist, miraculously cheated catastrophe and just as miraculously missed only two events after his over-the-wall flight with his Army-sponsored dragster disintegrating. He returned to competition at Pomona, reaching his 10th final of the season to leapfrog Dixon for second in points. Schumacher accomplished all that while still smarting from a multiple fracture of his left leg, three dislocated fingers in his right hand and teeth damage.

Dixon, whose Miller Lite rail had snapped apart as he went airborne the crashed down on its side, shrugged off a broken leg, saying, "It wasn’t what I considered a major injury." Like Schumacher, he underwent surgery at Indianapolis' Methodist Hospital, where, he said, "people bring their legs in shopping bags" and the medical staff wasn't terribly exercised about "my piddly ol' broken limb."

Schumacher gamely continued, explaining that "Driving is what makes me me." And Dixon dismissed his crash as a nuisance. "I'm still aggravated about losing the round. We don't have that many rounds to work with anymore," he said the following week.

But Scelzi, who was sitting in the opposite lane both times, took those accidents seriously.

"Just because the last three races have been pretty incident-free and Tony and Dixon are OK doesn't mean we need to stop the progress (of safety measures) . . . No matter what, you can always make it safer," Scelzi said. "I’m going to be very vocal about it. Trust me. I may piss some people off."

Then Scelzi rolled up his shirt to display the T-shirt he puts on first at every race: one that remembers Blaine Johnson, brother of team owner Alan Johnson and the man he succeeded in the Team Winston cockpit.

"I have never forgotten who I'm sitting in the seat of, and that's (Blaine Johnson), the guy right here," Scelzi said, pointing to the logo. "The reason he's not here is there was an opening in the guardrail. It took Blaine's life to put in concrete barriers -- that saved me in Topeka. I've watched the video a hundred times. Tony got over the wall. That's a rare incident, but he did get over it. So that proves it can happen.

"I don't want to be wearing somebody else's T-shirt, he said, "and I don't want somebody wearing my shirt because of something that was 'Aw, how stupid -- why didn't we think of that?' Unfortunately, accidents make things safer. But hopefully (more) can be like Tony and Dixon -- and myself -- and they can walk away from them."

Scelzi was equally wound up about asserting that his third crown was earned and not awarded by default. He laid out the evidence: NHRA single-season records for 11 final-round apearances, nine victories and 54 elimination-round wins.

Scelzi does burnout.

"We had a 120-point lead at one time and lost it and fell as far back as 79 points. We were on a roll when Tony had his accident," Scelzi said. "There's always going to be somebody that says, 'Aw well, it's tainted.' . . . For me, it's not tainted. We're no weak suck race team. We won the Winston Championship . . . and I'm enjoying the hell out of it.

"My hat's off to Tony. But you know what? They weren't as good as us, plain and simple," said Scelzi, who was 4-for-5 against Schumacher this season, including a final-round triumph at the the seson-opening Autozone Winternationals at Pomona. "I'm just clearing the air for certain people that think it was tainted. So I want to make a statement."

The Team Winston Dragster made plenty of statements on-track. Scelzi has more final-round appearances (33) than first- and second-round losses combined (29). The NHRA Finals victory made him 9-2 in final rounds during 2000 and 23 of 33 in his four-year Top Fuel career. He's tied with Kenny Bernstein for fourth on the all-time NHRA Winston Top Fuel career victories list with 23 and needs just four to pass Cory McClenathan. In his 88 national-event appearances, Scelzi has been ranked first in points following 42 (47.7 percent) of those events.

Tuner Alan Johnson has 28 career victories as an owner, 27 in Top Fuel and one in Funny Car.

Joe Amato, the five-time NHRA Winston Top Fuel champion, said he expected Scelzi eventually to eclipse his numbers. Scelzi deflected the compliment: "I think Amato got in the sauce early today."

Still absorbing his 2000 feats, Scelzi said, "Records are made to be broken. If I'm around until I'm 50 years old, maybe I've got a shot at it. I don't know what the future holds for me. All I know is right now, I'm enjoying every minute of it. I'm doing what I love. I love the people I'm with."

He said he took an emotional step, professionally, this season.

"It's as much my team as it is Alan Johnson's," he decided. "They've given me that comfort level. This year I finally have gotten over the idea of me driving for Alan Johnson, The Genuis. I harass him as much as he harasses me, and I think I'm driving the car like an alcohol car now." Scelzi graduated to Top Fuel after mastering Top Alcohol dragsters and funny cars.

"If I don't think the car's right, I tell him. And he doesn't think I'm stupid, not that he ever did," Scelzi said. "But I was always afraid to jump up and say this is wrong or that is wrong. Not that he ever didn't listen to me. But it's Alan Johnson. And to me, you want to talk about records . . . To me, one of the greatest crew chiefs -- right up there with Austin Coil, Dale Armstrong, Don Garlits -- is Alan Johnson."

He said his success in the alcohol categories came because he was comfortable right away with his crew chief and owners. Getting used to Alan Johnson took a bit longer but undoubtedly has paid off.

"When Alan called me, I think I was more in shock that he called me. Because Blaine Johnson was one of the greatest drivers that ever was. And I think I was always intimidated by him. Now I feel more of a closeness to him, more so than like a boss."

Johnson's style took an adjustment. "Alan's not big on compliments," his driver said. "If he throws you one, you'd better cherish it. At first that bothered me, because a lot of people have patted me on the back for a lot of things. And maybe that's made me dig a little harder, too. I know how he feels. He's told other people. It's kind of like my dad. He never brags about me in front of me, but he'll tell everybody else, 'That's my boy out there.' I'm over that. I don't need to have him brag."

Only now can Scelzi say confidently that Johnson gives him equal credit for Team Winston's success. "I'd say it's 80/20 -- 80 percent Alan Johnson and 20 percent me. But he’ll say 50/50."

Scelzi said he sees a side of Alan Johnson many folks don't get a chance to see. "A lot of people have different opinions of Alan. They think he's arrogant, . . . above everybody. But Alan is just intense. If you get to know him, he's one of the greatest human beings around. He's got a big heart. He's genuine. But when he’s at the race track . . ."

At Pomona, Schumacher resolved not to take it easy on Schumacher or anybody else. And he said it was good thing: "We didn't have a dog at all. We had Kenny (Bernstein), Melanie (Troxel), Mike Dunn and Schumacher. Every round was just tougher and tougher for me instead of easier and easier."

Alan Johnson asked Scelzi if he wanted "to just slide it down there" for the final pass, but Scelzi retorted, "Hell no. We came in with bang. Let's go out with a bang."

Still, he said, "It was an emotional ride, because I kind of was looking at Schumacher all day long. After he went through that accident that he went through, my hat's off to Tony. He did one hell of a job. His hands hurt. I'm sure his legs hurt. It was a great mental victory for him."

He said he knew "Danny Olson (Schmacher’s crew chief) and those guys are stout. There was no question they could go (4.)58, (4.)56. Who knows what they could go?

"Tony brings me to my best," Scelzi said. "Tony and I aren't enemies. We're not friends. We're not going to dinner. We're not going to go kiss and hug. But what he did (that) weekend was great, and the rivalry's still on. It's not made for television. This is the real deal."

He knows that in less than two months, Schumacher will be trying to regain that bully pulpit for himself.

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