GARY SCELZI: "IT'S A TWO-RACE WAR AND IT'S STARTING IN VEGAS"

Three-time Top Fuel Dragster champ fighting for first Funny Car crown

 

If you happened to stroll through the multi-team Don Schumacher Racing operation before the last race in Dallas, you would have seen a happy-go-lucky group of three Funny Car guys, patting each other on the back, smiling, kibitzing, poking fun at each other, and having a good ol' time.

 

What you wouldn't have seen was the turmoil going on in their stomachs, their heads, and maybe even their hearts. In what is unquestionably the tightest, toughest, most agonizing chase for the 2005 NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series Funny Car championship, drivers Gary Scelzi and Ron Capps -- with teammate Whit Bazemore, though virtually out of the running, egging them on -- are ready to keel over because of the intense pressure they have been under for the last four, if not 20, races.

 

That morning you would have found Capps missing the driver introductions because of gastric issues. Then there's Scelzi, the jovial one who never misses a bite of breakfast on race day, who couldn't get food down his nervous stomach. And of course, there's Bazemore, who claims to be in full support of his teammates to win the crown, yet unmercifully taunts them during a sponsor/driver meeting, while Capps throws wadded-up napkins at him.

 

Scelzi, driver of the Mopar/Oakley Dodge Stratus and the 2004 winner here at the NHRA ACDelco Las Vegas Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, who has won three Top Fuel championships and is seeking his first Funny Car crown, admits that this year's battle for the title is the hardest he's ever been through. Then in the next breath he proclaims how the intense pressure is invigorating him and spurring him on.

 

After a torturous mid-season when he couldn't purchase a move into first in the standings while wallowing seemingly forever in second place, Scelzi took over the lead by a mere point after his semifinal finish at the U.S. Nationals on Labor Day.

 

While the John Force Racing team of 13-time Funny Car champion Force, rookie Robert Hight and Eric Medlen stumbled perhaps a few more times than the DSR boys, Scelzi then actually padded his lead at the next race in Reading, Pa., to 26 points over Hight, who had held No. 1 through five races before Scelzi bumped him off at the U.S. Nationals.

 

The Fresno, Calif., native never stopped looking over his shoulder, both at Force creeping back up and his own teammate Capps who was starting to come on strong.

 

Perhaps that's what he was doing in the first round that Sunday in Ennis, Texas, as he red-lighted for only the second time in his career. John Force wasn't perfect that day either, but he was good enough to take the event victory and move into first place, while Scelzi fell back to second, 36 points back. Capps, meanwhile, survived the butterflies and gut issues, but lost in the second round and is now 57 points behind Force and 21 short of Scelzi.

 

"This one is worse," says Scelzi, comparing the Funny Car battle to any Top Fuel skirmishes he's had. "When I'd done it before, most of the time it was with Cory McClenathan or Tony Schumacher. But I had always felt like we (with crew chief Alan Johnson) were in command, we were always in control, even though it got close and it was tough. But those chases never went this long, with this many drivers and this many different consequences involved.

 

"It's all on the line right now," he adds. "There's no more time.

 

"It's going to be a big war and it's going to start in Las Vegas. We'll see what happens," he says.

 

In these two weeks since Dallas, Scelzi has had to answer to his fans as to why he fouled out in Dallas. "What happened? Everybody wants an excuse and I don't have one. I just blew it, and it happens," he responds. "Baseball players miss pop flies, they strike out. It's just a human element.

 

"It took me about four or five days to make myself believe that, but I'm not known as a screw-up driver and, hey, I blew it on that run. So be it.

 

"I'm coming to Vegas and do the best that I can do and hopefully that's going to be enough. And Mike (Neff, crew chief) is going to do his job and the Mopar/Oakley Dodge team is going to theirs and if we're the best car we're going to win.

 

"And that's what we need to do. We need to win Vegas, we need to win Pomona.

If we win both races, we've got this thing handled."

 

SCHEDULE:

Pro qualifying sessions are scheduled for noon and 3:30 on Friday, Oct. 21 and Saturday, Oct. 22. Budweiser Shootout rounds are scheduled for 1:30,

3:15 and 4:50 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 22. Final eliminations begin at 11 a.m.

on Sunday, Oct. 23.

 

TELEVISION:

ESPN2 and ESPN2HD will televise 30 minutes of Budweiser Shootout coverage at 10:30 p.m. (ET) on Saturday, Oct. 22. ESPN2 and ESPN2HD also will televise three hours of qualifying of the ACDelco Las Vegas NHRA Nationals at 11 p.m.

(ET) on Oct. 22. ESPN2 and ESPN2HD will televise three hours of final eliminations coverage beginning at 8 p.m. (ET) on Sunday, Oct. 23.

 

GARY SCELZI QUICK FACTS:

* Second in the 2005 Funny Car points after 21 races; has three wins (Bristol, Chicago 1 and Sonoma); was low qualifier four times (Las Vegas 1, Atlanta, St. Louis and Reading)

* Is in fierce battle with 13-time champion John Force, rookie Robert Hight, teammate Ron Capps and Eric Medlen for 2005 Funny Car crown; is 36 points behind Force in second, 21 points ahead of Capps in third, 68 ahead of Hight in fourth, and 97 in front of Medlen in fifth

* If he wins the Funny Car championship this year he will become only the second NHRA driver to have won crowns in both Top Fuel and Funny Car. Kenny Bernstein is the first.

* Has one Funny Car win here, in 2004 2, qualified No. 5

* At first event here in '05, he qualified No. 1, lost second round to Cruz Pedregon (his only No. 1 qualifying start in Vegas)

* Is a member of the largest team in NHRA pro history: Don Schumacher Racing, with nine teams - two in Top Fuel, three in Funny Car, two in Pro Stock, two in Pro Stock Motorcycle (all four pro categories)

* Is first Funny Car driver to break the 330-mph barrier (330.15 mph at Route 66 Raceway in 2004)

* Career Funny Car bests: 4.697-second ET (Chicago 2 '05), 331.53 mph (Pomona '05)

* Third in 2004 Funny Car points, with three wins in six final rounds

* Qualified in top five nine times in 2004, No. 1 once

* Age 45, born and raised in Fresno, Calif., where he lives with wife Julianne and sons Dominic and Giovanni

* Dominic, 8, races Junior Sprints

* Runs Scelzi Enterprises, a custom truck body design and manufacturing business in Fresno with his two brothers

* Is a three-time Top Fuel Dragster champion

* Won his first Top Fuel crown as a rookie

* Has seven Funny Car wins, 25 Top Fuel wins

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

* 2005 is his third straight season racing for Don Schumacher Racing

* Is the only NHRA driver to have won in Top Fuel, Funny Car, Top Alcohol Dragster and Top Alcohol Funny Car. He accomplished this feat at Infineon Raceway in 2003

* Is one of the few Funny Car drivers who has a round winning record against the 13-time Funny Car champion John Force: 9-8, 3-1 in final rounds

 

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