Ten years ago, a multi-car team was considered to be something only afforded to a select few. Today's professional drag racing climate has made it a necessity, however, if one hopes to remain in the top tier of competition. It used to be limited to one car in each category and sometimes branching off into the sportsman ranks such as Budweiser did back in the mid-Eighties. There were a few instances of two like-sponsored cars in the same division, but after John Force added unheralded Top Fuel and Funny Car pilot Tony Pedregon to his team it started a growth trend that has evolved to the point where the sport is now literally a team competition. In some instances, there have been allegations that drag racing has become more about team results than individual contests.
Two decades ago, team orders were more accepted by race fans, but today's far more advanced spectator demands more integrity. The advent of message boards and the Internet has put team owners under more scrutiny than ever before.
|“The real issue that should be addressed here is that
it gives young drivers like Tony Pedregon a chance to compete.
He might not have had that chance if it wasn't for me, and it
kept Gary Densham in the game as well."– John Force
Two months ago in Seattle Team Schumacher put a higher qualified and quicker Gary Scelzi into the lesser favored lane via lane choice, enabling a second ranked Whit Bazemore to not only win but also to gain ground on points leader Pedregon. The move sparked a controversy among race fans that had only been previously addressed in passing. Team owner Don Schumacher first commented that the decision was left up to his crew chiefs, but he later admitted that it made sense for Bazemore to advance over Scelzi, who wasn't even in the top ten of points.
Blame it all on Force, some say. After all, he's the one that has had to endure the pointed finger for over a decade. The interesting thing is that members of the Schumacher camp used to point the finger on a regular basis at Force.
“It's not like I started the whole trend,” explained Force. “If you go back in time you will see that teams were in place with Don Schumacher, Raymond Beadle and Larry Minor. It was all about match racing and making money. Now, what it has done is enhance technology. I stood by and watched Minor share information back and forth with his cars while we were in the staging lanes and I asked Coil why we didn't have that.”
Minor was the first driver to make it obvious during the 1983 NHRA Cajun Nationals. His team driver Gary Beck was in the running for the championship and Minor was just fielding a second car to fill his need for speed. In a race that Beck was supposed to win, he suffered parts attrition which caused the car to slow to a crawl. Minor did everything he could to slow his car just short of pulling the parachute at mid-track. When Minor won, the Diamond P interview showed an embarrassed Minor pointing out the obvious that Beck was in the running for the championship and that the blunder had cost them points.
|“If the sponsors keep giving team owners sponsorships
for multi-car efforts, they are asking for it. Unless you have
a Top Fuel and Funny Car, you are going to run into that kind
of situation when the two cars in the class run into each other.
The fans don't want to see a jaded race and if you are a true
racer then you want no part of it.” – Gary Scelzi
Force saw the early benefits of having two cars in the same class and went to Castrol Syntec to bring in Pedregon. That later expanded to include Gary Densham, who was once a vocal opponent of the multi-car teams.
Force admits that whether or not people prefer to see more than one car in the class under the same ownership, it works for the advancement of the sport.
“The real issue that should be addressed here is that it gives young drivers like Tony Pedregon a chance to compete,” Force said. “He might not have had that chance if it wasn't for me, and it kept Gary Densham in the game as well. As a team owner, you want more than one car out there because it gives you more of a chance to win. It can be like a restaurant business. You get one or two, you can make good money. But, when you get five or six…you can start losing money because you run into each other two much.
“It's a good concept because it helps to grow the sport. There were days when we used to not be able to fill a Funny Car field. Multi-car teams make it hard to get in now.”
Force admitted that there have been times when one of the cars has been in the running for the championship and they did what they had to do to win it. The bottom line in his assessment is that it made business sense.
“We've never lied about it. When you go after a championship you need all the help you can get. We've always raced through the years to see who would compete for the title. I was the guy in the lead and my team always supported me. We have never tried to bullshit anyone. The bottom line is if I was to lose the cup to Mopar or Chevrolet and it was my own guy that took me out…my sponsor would be asking me, ‘Your own guy took you out?”
|“I think the issue with Seattle shouldn't be that the
Oakley team handed the Matco Tools team lane choice. I think
the real issue should be, ‘Why in the hell are we racing on
a track that is that pathetic.' There was no excuse for that.
We won that race in 1997 from the left lane and it was bad back
then. I mentioned that the fans deserved more and so do the
competitors. The racers shouldn't have to be in that position
and that's the situation that should be addressed.” – Whit
“Then they would hire someone else to run their show. The bottom line is that we race at the first part of the season and in the end if we need a round here or there, then we'll help one another. We have a job to do; that's what we are paid to do.”
For his part, Bazemore says that the Seattle scenario was blown out of proportion.
“There's no doubt that it was exaggerated,” Bazemore explained. “It was blown out of proportion for one reason – we were racing. People don't want to believe it, but if Gary Scelzi was going to take a dive, I'd be the first one to say it. I'd be the first one to express my disappointment. What did happen is that they gave us lane choice because whoever won that round needed lane choice and there's no doubt that we needed lane choice.”
While the situation was listed as good business sense, it didn't make any sense at all for a competitive team at a race that was clearly a one-lane racetrack. Some might say that is a part of today's racing world will just have to accept in the future. Scelzi points out that the paying spectators don't have to accept anything they don't want to.
“No, I don't think that the fans should ever have to accept that,” Scelzi said. “The people that spend their money to come in that gate should never have to accept anything. They can refuse to spend their money - it's as simple as that. The order in Seattle came from Don Schumacher, which he admitted. It was his deal and Whit was up front in the points and that's how he was going to do the thing. I understand that if it comes down to the last race where he would win it or Force would win it, then I could see the situation change.
“Do I condone it? Absolutely not. I feel like if you're going to be the champion you need to beat everyone. Unfortunately, when you have multi-car teams with one owner, that kind of thing happens.”
|“I think it our job to maintain the integrity. It happens
in just about every sport and they have had teams that worked
together as one. Our sport is different because there aren't
43 cars on the track. If it becomes a problem, we will address
it.” – Graham Light
Schumacher was unavailable for comment at the time we requested an interview, but Bazemore justified the team's decision.
“The talk of a dive had been discussed,” explained Bazemore. “We ended up having an engine problem and there was no oil going to the right side of the motor. If we were going to have to take a dive that would have been the perfect scenario because we took the chance of blowing the body off. [Crew chief Lee] Beard actually told me that chances were good that Scelzi would smoke the tires in that lane. He told me that if the thing got to 1,000 feet and got weird then I ought to shut it off. I ran it to the finish line because that's what you are supposed to do. It was blown out of proportion.
“It happens in this sport and in all kinds of racing. I'll tell you, I'm a big Formula One fan and when his Ferrari teammate pulled over and let Michael Schumacher pass in Austria last year, as a fan that ruined it for me and I am not as big a fan as I used to be. It gives the sport a contrived result. It makes you wonder if you're watching a sport or a show. If I want to watch a show, I am going to go to New York and visit Broadway. I want to watch a sport.”
One race later Scelzi and Bazemore met in the late rounds of eliminations. After Scelzi emerged victorious, Schumacher's reaction appeared to be one of disappointed and some felt that he allowed a straight-up race to appease his critics. However, when Scelzi won the event, his team owner was celebrating as if no controversy had ever been present.
Scelzi didn't appear to be critical of Schumacher's decision, but it was evident that he wasn't exactly enthused about losing the upper hand in a race that many felt he could have won. With the multi-car teams, Scelzi expects that same kind of scenario as the one in Seattle to happen more often.
|“I would do the same. Give lane choice up and make
a race of it from there. That was perfect. No team dove. Just
a heavy advantage and race heads up. I would not lie about it
when asked on camera though.” – Race fan Buzzz Miller's
opinion on how Don Schumacher handled the Seattle situation.
“If the sponsors keep giving team owners sponsorships for multi-car efforts, they are asking for it,” explained Scelzi. “Unless you have a Top Fuel and Funny Car, you are going to run into that kind of situation when the two cars in the class run into each other. The fans don't want to see a jaded race and if you are a true racer then you want no part of it.”
Scelzi admits that he would rather have an over-funded single team so that he could test with a budget that would not be hampered by any explosions or misfortune.
“Usually, what happens on one car doesn't necessarily work on another,” added Scelzi. “Bazemore's car is different than my car and Scotty Cannon's is different than both. I don't see any advantage to any of it except the team owner can do more for less money because he already has hospitality and other things. It depends on what the corporation wants to accomplish.
“I will say that the only reason that I race is to win championships.”
The interesting part of the scenario is that had it not have been for Schumacher's team, Scelzi might still be sitting on the sidelines.
Bazemore contends that the issue might not have caused that much of a debate had the NHRA done their job in the first place.
“I think the issue with Seattle shouldn't be that the Oakley team handed the Matco Tools team lane choice,” said Bazemore. “I think the real issue should be why in the hell were we racing on a track that was that pathetic. There was no excuse for that. We won that race in 1997 from the left lane and it was bad back then. I mentioned that the fans deserved more and so do the competitors. The racers shouldn't have to be in that position and that's the situation that should be addressed.”
|“As a sportsman racer I am all for earning my way into
a race. However, multi-car teams are definitely taking over
the pits and bumping the sportsman racer out of already limited
pit parking.” – Super Comp racer Bob Wilson's opinion on
The issue of team sports has permeated into the Pro Stock ranks as well, and one of the more notorious situations arose when Warren Johnson and Kurt Johnson raced out of the same stable. It was largely rumored that the elder Johnson was to always receive the preferential treatment because that was the car gunning for the championship. Now that both cars run sponsorship under the same umbrella, Warren points out that neither car is designated as the “championship” entry. The end of the season points ranking is what determines the direction in which they travel.
“We aren't going to shortchange the sponsors by designating a car that will win the championship as some teams are,” said WJ. “Our approach is whatever car is going to win the championship is going to win it. If Kurt's ahead in the points then he deserves to win the championship because he has performed better. If I am ahead, then I will win it. We can't afford to shortchange the sponsors or the spectators. Without the spectators, we have no sponsor and in turn we have no drag racing.”
Jeg Coughlin, Jr., went on the record to say that their team races straight up, no matter the circumstances.
“Our team car concept goes back to the days when we raced sportsman and we always raced straight up. That's the God's honest truth. We've been in a situation where I have been vying for a championship and it was a situation where I was way out ahead in the points early in the season. You always want to pile on the points but I met up with Troy and he spanked me in the first round. There was a lot of speculation that Troy would lay down for me. You hear about all of that stuff in other forms of motorsports.”
|“We aren't going to shortchange the sponsors by designating
a car that will win the championship as some teams are. Our
approach is whatever car is going to win the championship is
going to win it. If Kurt's ahead in the points then he deserves
to win the championship because he has performed better. If
I am ahead, then I will win it. We can't afford to shortchange
the sponsors or the spectators. Without the spectators, we have
no sponsor and in turn we have no drag racing.” – Warren
The two car teams and multi-car teams have their place and Coughlin admits that their team is not as blunt as drivers like Greg Anderson that is bringing in a second car to help him win the championship.
Coughlin added, “I'm not quoting Greg by any stretch, I'm just repeating what I read on NHRA.com.”
Coughlin feels that the Schumacher incident does not put a black eye on the sport.
“I don't think so,” adds Coughlin. “I think if the wrong people talk about it the wrong way. Yeah, it could give a black eye. The fans are conditioned for this and they've already seen it. This is a multi-million dollar racing arena at its finest. As a team owner you want to see your best opportunity go after the championship.”
Bazemore sees the issue of team priorities as one that affects the spectator more than anyone in drag racing. The drag racers are affected secondly.
“Obviously the NHRA can't limit team owners to one team,” explained Bazemore. “From a commercial standpoint it's very advantageous. With my Winston deal I was looking forward to a multi-car deal. If you designate a team leader it becomes very obvious. I think the fans and media might just have to accept that it is going to come down to that from time to time. Now this is big business.”
Would the NHRA ever consider limiting ownership of teams if Schumacher, Force, the Worshams or Don Prudhomme wished to expand beyond two or three? We asked Graham Light, a Senior VP of Operations at the NHRA that same question.
“I think our job is to continue to monitor the sport and maintain the integrity and credibility of the contest,” explained Light. “We will need to continually look at the direction that the teams are going…not only in this area, but in rules and anything. As the caretaker of the sport, it is up to us to make the policies that will make this team move forward.
“I have to ask this question. If you wanted to limit teams to so many cars, how would you enforce it? There might be an arrangement that were made from a well-financed team owner that could come up with an agreement with a lesser financed team. It's not a multi-car team, but it could work the same.
“I think there's a positive side that people need to consider, whether it is the Hartman team or any of the other operations that have put two sponsored cars out there. They have shown a value for the product. I think that shows the health of our sport and the sponsors are establishing a value in their involvement.”
Bazemore feels that if Schumacher had it all to go over again things might have been handled differently.
“I think having spoken to Don regarding the backlash that he received, I am sure he most likely would have handled it in a different way if he had it to go all over again. It's a heat of the moment thing. I don't think anyone has a right to criticize anyone in a situation like that unless they are in their shoes. There are a lot of critics out there and I don't pay much attention to them.
“The bottom line is that Don is a successful businessman and he knows what he is doing.”
There's no doubt that most of the backlash on this issue has come from the fans. We took the time to quiz some racing fans on how they felt about the concept of multi-car teams, how they would react if dives became an integral part of the sport and how they might have handled the Seattle situation.
Paul Songas, from St. Paul , Minn. , loves having a team owner with more than one car in the same class because it gives sidelined drivers an opportunity to race again.
“Without multi-car teams, would we have full fields in FC?” Songas asks. “Where was Tommy Johnson Jr., before he was with Snake? Out of a ride. He had a chance to run with a terrible under-funded team owned by Chuck Etchells, but luckily for him, that didn't work out. Where would Cory Lee be without the CSK team? Or, driving part-time for the second Craftsman team? Nowhere. Where would Phil Burkart be without CSK? In the stands. Would Tony Pedregon have a ride? I doubt it. He drove part time for Larry Minor before he was with Force, and that was it.
|“Our team car concept goes back to the days when we
raced sportsman and we always raced straight up. That's the
God's honest truth. We've been in a situation where I have been
vying for a championship and it was a situation where I was
way out ahead in the points early in the season. You always
want to pile on the points but I met up with Troy and he spanked
me in the first round. There was a lot of speculation that Troy
would lay down for me. You hear about all of that stuff in other
forms of motorsports.” – Jeg Coughlin, Jr.
“Gary Densham would still be out there, but without the funds and Jimmy Prock, he would be field filler, running decent, but not going rounds or winning races. Scelzi would be out of a job, Cannon would probably be running Pro Mods. The list goes on and on. You can even look at the past five years. Melanie Troxel was on the sidelines until she drove a 2nd car for Shoe. Frankie Pedregon was out of a ride until he drove for CSK. I believe it seems easier to ask a current sponsor for another bit of cash, to get two times the exposure than it is to ask a new sponsor to the sport to fund an entire new team.”
Steve Reasbeck of Johnstown , Pa. , has a different view than Songas when it comes to judging the merits of multi-car teams.
“I guess it has evolved to this point, although I find the trend somewhat alarming,” Reasbeck explained. “The cost of racing, on a professional level, has gotten so expensive that without the multi-car teams the racing would not be as close or competitive as it is now. I also believe, however, that without the mega dollar teams dominating, you may well have actually more competitors, albeit the fields would not be as close. There would be a much larger spread from the pole to the sixteenth slot. Personally, I would not mind that, as it would be nice to see people such as Mitch King, Jack Ostrander, and others that can be in a position to compete at NHRA events as well as IHRA events. I believe that, in spite of the mass amount of corporate dollars spent marketing the sport, the overall health of the sport on a professional level would be better. The wider array of competitors would strengthen it.”
Reasbeck is one of the race fans that are quick to point out that if “team orders” became commonplace that it would affect as to whether he would pay money to come to the races.
“As far as corporate "strategy,” I believe it stinks and will eventually have an effect on spectator gates if it continues. The average Joe or Jane who shells out sixty bucks a seat for an NHRA national event when it comes to town pays to see what is here and now, not some ‘corporate strategy' designed for two races down the road, at another event hundreds of miles away. For a race to have a pre-arranged outcome is, to me, no different than stealing from the spectators and other supporters. I would no more pay to see a ‘fixed' race than I would a "fixed" Orange Bowl or Rose Bowl. As one who has been involved in drag racing since 1964, I find the entire concept insulting and offensive.”
Joe Sherwood of Albuquerque, NM., gets hot under the collar thinking about teams taking a dive in the sport he regards so highly.
Sherwood explained, “I'll never forget at the Winternationals one year. Tony Pedregon and John Force were paired in the second round. Force smoked the tires at the hit, Tony mysteriously lifted at halftrack winning with a seven-something. Tony's excuse was something broke, Steve Evans didn't seem impressed. Force came out with a comment later that week that a header on Tony's car broke. That's when my love affair with multi-car teams ended. The only thing separating that with what happened at Seattle was you had two separate sponsors involved. At Team Force, it's all Castrol. Question is, can NHRA do anything about it? I had far more respect for Force when he won by himself, no team orders, no diving!”
Bob Cole, of Longwood , Fla. , would take it all in stride but wouldn't stop coming to the races. He admitted, “Not me. I'm a nitro addict. Team orders would piss me off, and cause me to write long posts on Nitromater.com, but it wouldn't keep me away.”
While much of the emphasis on the multi-car teams is directed to what the spectators think, other such as Super Comp racer Bob Wilson offers another view. This is a sportsman racer's take on things.
“A few years back a grade point system was put in place due to pit limitations at some tracks,” Wilson explained. “This system only affects or applies to the sportsman racers. Last year, two Grade Points were required to enter the Winternationals. This year it is four. Multi-car teams have multiple semi-trucks that take up pit parking. I can see running two cars in the same class, but not three cars plus a dragster and two motorcycles. Due you realize how many semi-trucks are parked in the pits for team Schumacher? Somewhere between 9-12 rigs. Add team Force to that and there is about 20 rigs taking up pit parking.”
“As a sportsman racer I am all for earning my way into a race. However, multi-car teams are definitely taking over the pits and bumping the sportsman racer out of already limited pit parking.”
The majority of spectators that we quizzed about the Schumacher incident admitted that they would have handled the situation in the same general manner that he did.
Nunzio Valerie Jr., of Rochester , NY , suggests, “What I would have done different was said, ‘Because Whit is in the hunt for the title, we're giving his team lane choice. If Gary beats him so be it, but just as lower ET between two unrelated cars earns lane choice, under our team umbrella, the car higher in the points chase will get to choose."
The only thing Buzzz Miller of Peoria , Az., might have handled differently is Schumacher's response to criticism. Miller explained, “I would do the same. Give lane choice up and make a race of it from there. That was perfect. No team dove. Just a heavy advantage and race heads up. I would not lie about it when asked on camera, though.”
So how would the NHRA handle a situation if team orders became commonplace?
“I think it's our job to maintain integrity,” reiterated Light. “It happens in just about every sport and they have worked together as a team. Our sport is different because there aren't 43 cars on the track. If it becomes a problem, we will address it.”
Until then, the fans have the ultimate ruling by spending their hard-earned money to attend the drag races.