Gary Scelzi returns to the NHRA Nationals this weekend practically a grizzled veteran compared to where he stood at this time last year, when he began his first full season of Funny Car competition for Don Schumacher Racing.

The three-time Top Fuel champion now has a complete year of Nitro Funny Car racing notched on his holster and prefers to forget his spectacular explosion here last year, which made the video highlights but helped put him on the DNQ list for the only time in all 23 events in 2003.

"It was definitely the worst of the season," he said. "The air was cold, our car was trying to run world-record time, it had the front end in the air. We learned a lot since then about balance. We learned a lot about a lot of things, which will definitely be a factor going into this race this weekend."

The rest of his 2003 season progressed quite well, thank you very much. He scored one victory, a yet-to-be-broken national top-speed record of 329.18 mph in his HEMI-powered Oakley Dodge Stratus and currently holds six of the top nine fastest Funny Car speeds in NHRA history. He also reached the semifinals four times, ending up sixth in the final point standings.

So far, in 2004, Scelzi is fifth in NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series Funny Car points after three races. He's qualified fourth twice, sixth once and reached the semifinal round at the season-opener in Pomona, Calif.

A Funny Car novice no longer, the Fresno resident is ready to attack The Strip again. "We've tested here and we've raced here," he said. "I've made several laps down the Vegas strip and I'm very comfortable with it. I'm pretty much comfortable with all the race tracks we go to now."

Every new season brings unique challenges when a team introduces new equipment into the mix, and Scelzi's HEMI-powered Oakley team led by crew chief Mike Neff is no different, after overcoming some early-season issues with a new chassis. "I think our car is a lot better," Scelzi said. "It has a more consistent tune-up now. We found some things testing in Gainesville (on Monday following the event) with the new Goodyear tire. We ran a 4.98 and a 4.96 (-second elapsed time), shutting off early, which obviously would have been good enough to win the race under the same conditions."

"We also found some problems we had with the fuel system, which we narrowed down to one thing, which we changed," he added. "So we fell pretty good and pretty confident about going into Vegas. And since it's only the fourth race of the year, we're not worried about the points as of yet. We just want to make sure we don't fall too far behind early - because it's awful hard to play catch-up."

Pro Nitro qualifying is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. on Friday, April 2, and 12 noon and 3 p.m. on Saturday, April 3. Final eliminations begin at 11 a.m. on Sunday, April 4.

ESPN2 will cover qualifying at 10 p.m. ET on April 3, eliminations at 11 p.m. ET on April 4, with a repeat eliminations show on April 9 at 1 a.m. ET.


* DNQ'd at NHRA Nationals in 2003

* Fifth in 2004 Funny Car points after three events

* Age 43, born and raised in Fresno, Calif., where he lives with wife Julianne and sons Dominic and Giovanni

* Is a three-time Top Fuel Dragster champion

* Has one Funny Car win, 25 Top Fuel wins

* Sixth in 2003 Funny Car points, his first full season in that class

* Is the only NHRA driver to have won in Top Fuel, Funny Car, Top Alcohol Dragster and Top Alcohol Funny Car

* Holds six of the top nine Funny Car top speeds:

1. 329.18, Sept. 28, 2003, Joliet, Ill.

2. 328.70, Sept. 28. 2003, Joliet, Ill.

3. 328.38, Nov. 8, 2003, Pomona, Calif.

5. 328.06, June 1, 2003, Joliet, Ill.

6. 327.98, May 31, 2003, Joliet, Ill.

9. 327.27, Nov. 8, 2003, Pomona, Calif.