By Susan Wade – Photos by NHRA Staff
For longer than he cares to recollect, Ron Capps has heard the question over and over from the media: When are you going to win an NHRA Funny Car championship?
These days, after three victories in the five events before the Western Swing, the Don Schumacher Racing driver is hearing the words “dominance” and “championship” from the fans – which also makes him cringe at least a little.
But in the past month or so, what he has heard from his fellow competitors is . . . nothing.
“I’ve never had so many drivers not talk to me,” the affable Capps said at Chicago after earning his fourth No. 1 qualifying position of the season.
The sport’s fastest set of thumbs when it comes to social media and digital devices, Capps routinely text-messages his rivals when they win or score a performance milestone or he leaves them a voice-mail “Congratulations!” via cell phone. Now that he’s quickest and fastest on the throttle of the NAPA Dodge Charger, his buddies don’t reciprocate. Only Tommy Johnson Jr. took the time to return the favor following Capps’ triumph at Norwalk, Ohio, that closed his four-race Eastern Swing with three victories and a semifinal finish.
“I used to have everybody in the world talking to me when I was qualifying eighth or ninth and we were running ‘OK’ but not like now,” Capps said. “All of a sudden it’s crickets – no texts, no voice-mails.”
It clearly has stung the outgoing and popular Capps. And he might be more hurt or disillusioned if he didn’t understand why. But his appreciation for Schumacher, crew chief Rahn Tobler, assistant tuner Eric Lane, and the rest of his team is greater. The fun he’s having while it’s lasting trumps any possible garden-variety pettiness and jealousy. He recognizes that when you’re having fun because you’re succeeding, others might not be sharing in the merriment. That’s just human nature.
But it’s in Capps’ nature to be grateful for his accomplishments, the environment in which they happen, and their context in the NHRA history he has studied for decades.
“It’s fun right now in Funny Car. It’s not going to last,” he said of his superb streak of 3.9-second runs and his second stint this season as Funny Car points leader. “But as long as we’re one of the top cars and we can keep doing what we’re doing, we’re going to have fun until the end of the year.”
What he and his team have been doing definitely is the envy of the class.
Capps ended the first half of the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule with four victories and two runner-up efforts, a 29-8 record in eliminations that included just one first-round loss, topping the 600-round-win plateau, and notching his 49th overall victory that tie the legend (and his former boss) Don Prudhomme for No. 11 on the all-time nitro victories list. He ensured he’ll be in the mix for the $100,000-to-win Traxxas Shootout bonus race this Labor Day weekend at Indianapolis. And he extended to eight his number of seasons with at least one victory – while he goes for his 12th straight top-10 finish. His 3.865-second pass at Epping, N.H., was the second-quickest in NHRA Funny Car history, just three-thousandths of a tick off Matt Hagan’s all-time best of 3.862 in May at Topeka.
Considering he failed to qualify in early April at Las Vegas and four races later dropped out in the opening round (a notable stumble from his season-opening victory at Pomona and two-race lead in the standings), it’s a remarkable surge. Capps said he remembers that it wasn’t all that long ago (although it was about a calendar year) that he was knocking over cones and crossing the center line and wrestling this same Dodge when it was an ill-handling far-too-hard-charging Charger.
He said he has been blessed throughout his career to have great cars and prominent crew chiefs, among them Roland Leong, Dale Armstrong, Ed “The Ace” McCulloch, and Tim and Kim Richards.
However, Capps said, “Never have I had a car that has run this good for this many races . . . where you pull up in the staging lanes and we’re [in] the last pair and it’s that moment like, ‘OK, everybody’s throwing shots. I think we can better that.’ And it’s just confidence, not cockiness. Everyone who knows me knows it’s not cockiness.”
It’s a testament to the way he and Tobler communicate and how Tobler has responded to Capps’ input.
“Tobler and I had a pretty good heart-to-heart in the offseason,” Capps said, and even this February at Pomona. Oblivious to the fact that happened to be Valentine’s Day weekend, Capps said, “Saturday night at Pomona, we were like a married couple.” The result, the driver said, is that Tobler “went to work very hard in the offseason and made the car much more drivable for me. That’ the only reason I’m getting to the finish line and keeping it in the groove. We had this car last year – I just couldn’t control it. It’s not me – I’m just doing my little part.”
His “little part” in the equation has included a stretch in which Capps clocked sub-four-second elapsed times in 29 of 34 runs. But Capps saw even more in that string of accomplishments.
“The amount of runs we went down the track under power was in the high 40s / low 50s. That in itself blows my mind. Any Funny Car driver will tell you that,” he said. “It’s an amazing feat, to have a car go down the track that many times.”
The magic carpet ride stopped in the semifinals at Chicago, the most recent race, when Capps posted a 4.003-second E.T. in defeating Hagan.
Capps simply shrugged it off. He’s still having fun and focusing on the numbers that matter.
That includes the qualifying bonus points. Capps has earned the No. 1 starting position four times this year and won from that spot twice. His other two victories came from the No. 2 slot. So during the Eastern Swing of four races in consecutive weekends (Epping, N.H.; Englishtown, N.J.; Bristol, Tenn.; and Norwalk, Ohio), he earned 23 of a possible 36 qualifying bonus points. The NHRA awards these valuable points after each qualifying session in 3-2-1 increments for those with the quickest elapsed times of each session). Before this year, the most No. 1-qualifier positions Capps ever had were three (in both 2009 and 2012).
So he’s paying attention to the so-called “little points” that have made such a difference in years past.
“We’ve lost championships in the past because we did not get enough of those bonus points,” Capps said, adding that in 2005 and 2012 he missed significant chances to accumulate those. “Both of those years, and really throughout my career, we never did that well in qualifying,” he said.
Capps missed his chances at championships by NHRA-record narrow margins: by two points in 2012 to Jack Beckman in the Countdown format and by eight points to Gary Scelzi in 2005 in the pre-Countdown era.
But he’s fully aware of how pivotal those points can be and is trying to amass as many as possible in the last half of the season.
He said, “Our car is very versatile to track conditions and is consistent. And that’s what it takes. We have as good a chance [as] I’ve ever had, and I’m in as good a race car [as] I’ve ever been in with Tobler, Eric Lane, and this NAPA team.”
“I’ll keep saying how much I love driving this NAPA Dodge,” he said. “It’s the best Funny Car I’ve driven in my 19 years of racing.”
He said Tobler has been looking ahead to the six-race Countdown to the Championship.
“Tobler used our [qualifying] runs on Saturday [at Chicago] to break in some new clutch discs for our rotation that will help us in the Countdown. That will pay off for us, Capps said. He said that in his final-round race against winner Jack Beckman, “it just got to be too much to control. This car is such an animal that you have to really work at keeping it under control.”
“We’ll be ready for the Denver race,” he said, eyeing the challenging three-event loop through Denver, Sonoma, and Seattle that throws three distinct sets of conditions and covers about 1,500 miles to test even the hardiest crew members. “The Western Swing is the best part of the season for me, because I’ll get to spend a lot of time between races with my family and friends from San Luis Obispo [Calif.].”
Capps probably is ready, too, for another round of questions about when he’ll nail down his first series title. He’s one of three professional drivers in NHRA history who have been runner-up four times without a championship, joining Pro Stock’s Kurt Johnson and Top Fuel’s Cory McClenathan. (Tony Pedregon was runner-up four times before he earned the first of his two Funny Car series titles.) Capps has the dubious distinction of being at the top of the list of successful drivers without a championship.
He went early to the Norwalk / Cleveland area for some personal appearances, and he hit town right when the exuberant and longsuffering Cleveland Cavaliers fans were celebrating the city’s first major sports crown. As if Capps needed any more motivation, the vibe might have pushed him to win that Funny Car trophy that weekend.
“I don’t care who your favorite team is or where you’re from, you want to cheer for Cleveland because of what the Cavs accomplished and have done for [their] part of Ohio,” Capps said. “You can see how the city has been lifted by a sports team. You don’t want teams or cities to go that long without winning a championship.”
Ditto for himself. Surely he agrees with friend and fellow Funny Car racer Tim Wilkerson, who once said, only half-kiddingly, “God should let everybody out here win once in a while. It’s just so hard.”
It is. But that’s what fuels Capps.
“Every year we say this is the most competitive Funny Car has ever been. To take that a step further,” Capps said, “I’ve always bragged about racing these magnificent minds of these crew chiefs in Funny Car. Funny Car is just unbelievable. So to do what we’ve done with the No. 1 qualifiers and win three of four races, it’s so above and beyond winning.”
He knows that compounds his difficulty to keep winning.
“All it’s doing is making these crew chiefs go back to the drawing board, And that’s what made Rahn Tobler go back to the drawing board after Topeka. We were off a little bit, and we went to Epping and made up for it.”
Technology, especially the swept-back exhaust headers which the NHRA decided July 12 to regulate, has gotten Capps’ attention. Before the NHRA handed down standardized specs on the headers, he said, “I really feel like for the first time in a long, long time – since [DSR crew chief] Jimmy Prock put those headers on last year and sent everybody back to the drawing board – drivers are back in it and it’s not a slot car. That makes me happy. This is the most fun I’ve had in my 19 years of driving Funny Car.”
Curiously, he added, “It’s high anxiety.”
Evidently, at least for Ron Capps, high anxiety is preferable to crickets.