call him 'The General' and he doesn't mind. The reason he has the
nickname is why Tim Richards continues to be a successful crew chief
within NHRA POWERade Drag Racing. Richards and his wife Kim (daughter
of Miller Lite crew chief Dick LaHaie) tune one of the most competitive
cars in Top Fuel - the Budweiser/Lucas Oil dragster driven by Brandon
Bernstein. In his career, Richards has tuned Joe Amato and Kenny Bernstein
to championship seasons as well as the car that helped legendary driver
Connie Kalitta win his first and only Mac Tools U.S. Nationals. Last
year Richards guided Brandon to three wins in the first eight races
before a crash sent Brandon to the sidelines for the remainder of
the season. With six-time NHRA champion Kenny Bernstein forced to
come out of retirement, Richards led the team to four more wins before
the '03 season ended. With Brandon back in the seat, Richards and
Co. have been able to keep points leader Tony Schumacher honest, winning
two races so far this season. Richards and the rest of the Budweiser
dragster team will be working toward win No. 3 this weekend during
the 24th annual Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Southern Nationals at
Atlanta Dragway. In this Q&A session, Richards talks about why
they win, whether this is the best season in Top Fuel in a long time
and why he is the luckiest husband in the pits.
Q: What made you get involved with drag racing in the first
RICHARDS: Drag racing was something that every
kid back then could afford to do. Really all you had to do was take
your mother's car to the drag strip and race it. It didn't cost
a lot of money and it was something that was available to everyone
if you could find a drag strip that was close to you. I just happened
to be lucky and had one close to me.
Q: When did you decide that you were more suited for tuning
rather than driving?
RICHARDS: When I stopped racing my own cars. I
had been pretty serious about Super Stock racing and I was given
most of my equipment. I didn't have to buy much. When Chrysler pulled
out of racing at the end of 1971, I couldn't afford to have my own
cars anymore. That pretty much set the stage. I was very lucky when
a man by the name of Joe Amato happened to live in the same area.
He decided he wanted to go racing with Chrysler power, which he
had never used to that point and everyone knew I was into the Chrysler
stuff pretty heavy.
Q: What do you like most about your job?
RICHARDS: I enjoy the people. I enjoy the fact
that you can still, on any given day, be the best. I enjoy the competition
between the crew chiefs and the teams. It's very much a team sport,
as all motorsports are. If you don't have the right people working
for you the team probably won't go anywhere.
Q: You had to bring on new crew members this year and it
seems as though the Budweiser crew hasn't skipped a beat. How do
you develop team chemistry?
RICHARDS: To begin with you try to hire the right
person. There is a certain kind of person I go for and like to have
on my team. I feel like we are very lucky because we had to hire
three people this year and they have really taken to the team and
learned a lot since they came here. There is more involved with
hiring someone than just what they have done in the past. You need
to know what kind of person they are.
Q: Why is this team successful?
RICHARDS: Because this program was successful
before I got here. I think it comes from the leadership and the
ownership of this company. They have a program that allows you to
win if you believe in it. From every standpoint, whether getting
sponsors or the performance of the car, it's the leadership from
the top that allows success to happen.
Q: Kenny Bernstein has had Budweiser for 25 years. What
is it like to be the crew chief on a team that has such a strong
relationship with its sponsor?
RICHARDS: It's one less thing for us to worry
about. It's a big worry for everyone out here that six months down
the road you might not have a sponsor. That's the biggest thing
for every team owner, to be able to hold on to your sponsor. I think
the blue print is out there for everyone to take a look at and see
why (Bernstein) has been successful. You don't have to go too far
to see why it works. When we came here, I just had to worry about
how to get the team up and running and get the performance to where
it needed to be. Everything else was in place. We didn't have to
figure out a better way to pay bills, or anything like that.
Q: What was it like working for Joe Amato during his championship
RICHARDS: It was a very similar setup. The systems
were already in place. I just had to worry about the team itself
and our performance. That is a big deal to me. There are a lot of
people out here that I have a lot of respect and admiration for.
People like the Worshams that handle everything from tuning the
car all the way back. They take care of every aspect of running
a race team. Having your own race team is very complex and they
do it all. There are a lot of people out here who have to do it
all. I think if you ever want to grow in this business, modeling
yourself after this (Budweiser) team isn't a bad thing to do.
Q: What do you think about multiple-car teams?
RICHARDS: For myself, I would rather not be involved
in a multiple car team. If there was a two-car team here I would
try to work with it, obviously. But for me, I work a lot better
in a single-car effort. Why would I want to help the other car beat
me? That's what everyone with a two or three-car team is faced with.
It's kind of a dilemma and I just assume not be in that dilemma.
When the possibility came up for this team back when a big sponsorship
deal was running around, my take on it was that you should hire
the best person you possibly can and try to keep us as separate
as possible. Obviously if one team is struggling really hard, you
need to try to help. But I think for me that would be the best way
to race a two-car team and have success with both cars. It's kind
of a dilemma in drag racing. It's not like in NASCAR where you absolutely
need someone to help you along. If you don't have a two-car team
there, you're in deep trouble. There are 30-40 cars in a race and
that's a different deal all together. Drag racing is so small and
you can impact a 16-car field so much if you have three cars in
it. I am not quite sure if that's a good thing for drag racing.
Q: What is it like working side-by-side with your wife?
RICHARDS: For me it's perfect. We get to be together
all the time. Like any kind of auto racing you spend so much time
away from home that it's a real good thing to be able to work together.
It's very important for us to be together. I'm sure that's all we
will ever do. If one of us is gone, then both of us are gone. That's
the way we look at it. We're not going to be separated. She is thoroughly
capable of running one of these cars on her own. She gives that
up so we can work together. She understands everything that goes
into this car. She understands the systems on the car, how they
work and in some areas, she knows more than I do about it because
she's the one doing the work on the car. She takes care of the whole
drive line of the car, from the engine to the back of the wheels,
that's her department completely. Beyond that, she takes car of
the pneumatic system of the car, which is very extensive. All of
these things are very big issues and she has no problem with them.
She certainly is my sounding board and what she has to say about
something carries a lot of weight on what I decide to do.
Q: Looking back on your career is there something that
you are most proud of?
RICHARDS: I think the race that I probably enjoyed
winning the most was the 1994 U.S. Nationals (Indianapolis) with
Connie Kalitta. The guy is a legendary racer. He is legendary person
and he had never won Indy and he raced as much as anyone out here.
He burned more nitro than anybody. Everyone always has a chance
to win Indy, but he had never won that race. To be there and to
be his crew chief when it finally did happen, I was very proud of
that. We've had a lot of big wins, but that one is probably the
single greatest win. As far as the season, 2001 was the best. When
we came here, there were some people who thought we couldn't do
this or maybe I was beyond doing this as well as other people. I
never thought that at all. We set out to change that and to prove
that our boss wasn't over the hill either. Certainly (Kenny Bernstein)
can jump in the car tomorrow and he is still one of the best drivers.
There's not many people that are beyond his level. Certainly there
are a few but he is a very fine race car driver. He wanted to win
(the championship) for us as much as we wanted to win it for him.
The season as a whole was really a tough battle but in the end,
we prevailed. That was our best season. It was special for Kim and
I because that was our first championship together, on the same
Q: How did Brandon Bernstein's crash at Englishtown in
2003 affect the team? Is he a better driver for having been through
RICHARDS: Certainly he is a better driver. Those
are the hard lessons that somewhere along the way, you learn out
here. Sometimes you get away with it without being seriously injured,
but sometimes you don't. I know he's learned plenty. It affected
the team a lot. Our driver, basically, was out for the year and
he got a pretty serious injury. That is going to affect everyone's
mind. Physically it affected us because we didn't have a back-up
car that was as good as the one he was driving. That was a new car
and it was an updated version of the first car we got from Murff
McKinney. It was a better car and it took us a while to replace
that and get back to a normal situation. As far as our performance
that year, we weren't as good as we wanted to be at all. Basically
it took me too long to figure out the difference in the tires.
Q: The O'Reilly Thunder Valley Nationals at Bristol Dragway
was the first race when both nitro categories were all racing on
the same new tire. How's the team adjusting to another tire change?
RICHARDS: Right now everyone is in the same boat
and everyone is going to have a hard time because there is a new
tire out here again. I listen to the radio and I hear them talking
about NASCAR and how the tires have impacted them. It's the same
thing over here. I think the reasons that change had to come over
here is to help make the tire safer. That's what drives change over
here. Over there, it's a different story. They were looking for
something else on the track, it wasn't a safety issue. Over here,
the cars keep going faster so the tires have to get better and they
have had problems for many years with the temperature of the tires.
They probably have made a big stride in fixing that problem. But
it's something that is going to happen every once in a while. You're
going to have a new tire to deal with and I think it's good they
decided that everyone needs to be working with the same tire. It's
going to be an adjustment for every body. We'll see what happens.
Q: Who is your favorite driver that you've worked with
in your career?
RICHARDS: I would say the favorite driver to work
for is Conrad (Kalitta) because he is fun to race with. He loves
to race and he does it for fun. He enjoys racing. He doesn't do
it for the money. He just loves racing and he is very passionate
about it. I never met a guy who more properly fit the saying, 'A
spade is a spade.' The people who work for him love to work for
the guy because he is a lot of fun. You have a good time when you
race with him.
Q: What's it like working with Brandon?
RICHARDS: He's a great kid. He's the real deal.
His personality is what it is all the time whether he's at the track
or in the shop. He is very efficient and he takes care of business.
He is very much like his dad in those respects. It's a funny thing
because he is so different from his dad, and yet they are so similar.
He's a great kid and he really has it all. He doesn't have the experience
in a race car that I am sure two or three years won't cure. He's
not bad now and he works at getting better all the time.
Q: What makes the Kenny Bernstein Racing and the Budweiser
team a good place for you and Kim?
RICHARDS: We like the system. We buy into his
system because if you have any common sense, it works. We feel comfortable
with him. We have systems to take care of anything that arises in
this company and it doesn't cause a big ripple in anything that
goes on. It's comfortable if you like a system. I like a system.
I like to work in a place where just about any problem already has
a way to be solved.
Q: What do you like better, Funny Car or Top Fuel?
RICHARDS: That's a tough question. I would say
that Top Fuel cars are certainly the one I would rather work on.
Funny Car is much more of a challenge for everybody and that's from
the owner all the way down. The body presents a whole different
issue and taking care of it requires more crew. It's a huge deal.
I enjoyed our time with Funny Cars and I felt like we could do something.
I felt like we had pretty good success for what was available. Everybody
is trying to get where (John) Force is and not everyone will get
there. He's the pinnacle.
Q: Is there some technology for Top Fuel that is on the
horizon that we should expect to change the category?
RICHARDS: I doubt it. There might be something
out there and I am sure there are things out there that would change
the way these things run radically. I just don't think those things
will be allowed. I don't believe there is a need for these cars
to go faster than they do now as far as speed. Anytime you up the
ante in the speed area, it also ups the ante for what could happen
and the demands on these cars. I don't think it's necessary that
these cars go any faster. I don't think we need to go any faster
for the people to be entertained. I see no real gain if the cars
go 350 or 360 mph.
Q: What are the keys to being a successful crew chief?
RICHARDS: I think it's about hiring the right
people. It doesn't matter how good I am at doing my job. If I don't
have the best people working underneath me, it doesn't matter what
I do. It's very important to have the best people you can get to
do the work on the car. If you have one that doesn't do it, then
you've got a problem. Especially years like this when I have three
new people, it's important that the people who have been working
here follow up on everything they did until they learned their job.
We still follow up on each other. We have systems in place where
people check on other people's work and I think that is real important.
But you have to have the right people in the first place.
Q: How did you get the nickname 'The General?'
RICHARDS: I am big on doing things the same way
all the time. I am real big on the fact that we keep going up and
down the track. I am big on systems and being consistent. I guess
Joe Amato thought I was tough on the boys from time to time. I didn't
think I was, but Joe was quite sure I was so he put the name on
Q: How does Top Fuel competition today rate against the
last 30 years?
RICHARDS: It's as good as it's ever been. There's
more cars that have a chance to win the championship this year than
I think in quite a while.
Q: How does the Budweiser team rate in the group competing
for the NHRA POWERade Top Fuel championship?
RICHARDS: I think we have a chance. We have our
shot. It's not going to be easy for anyone to do it, but I think
we have a chance. Whether we do or don't, that's another story.
Q: Have you ever considered retirement and when you would
like to stop tuning cars?
RICHARDS: No, I haven't given that any thought.
I enjoy what I am doing out here and as long as I can do it, I will
be here. I see no reason to retire. The physical part of it for
me is back at the shop and I really enjoy that. When I get to the
race track everyone else does the physical work.
Q: If you weren't involved with the racing industry, what
would you do for a career?
RICHARDS: I started out as a tool maker. I worked
in machine shops and eventually became a tool maker. I do enjoy,
very much, machining parts and making up tools. I probably would
have stayed in that area. I don't know though because from a very
early age on I was a car nut. I was into cars. I would have still
been around cars. Like most of us out here, we are all car nuts.
Q: Do you send a Father's Day card to your father-in-law
and competitor, Dick LaHaie?
RICHARDS: You mean Dad? Of course. I put my name
on all the cards.