Gary Scelzi’s fight to return to driving; the three-time champion discusses everything from buying a ride to message boards to government versus big tobacco…
by Bobby Bennett Jr.
Photos from GaryScelzi.com, Racers Edge Photography www.racersedge.net
PUBLISHER'S MEMORIES: We love doing stories on Gary Scelzi because he doesn't mince words. There's no political correctness in his commentaries. It's the straight up truth. If he doesn't like you, he will go on the record and say it. If he's your friend, it is a friendship for life. This particular story was published following a serious bashing on a message board saying that Scelzi had lost his touch. Scelzi promptly contacted one of his critics for a little one-on-one session. He revealed this for the first time in this article. While we had him on a roll, we asked him all kinds of things and he didn't waste time in speaking his mind. (This article was originally published in August 2003)
who has ever had dealings with three-time NHRA World Champion Gary
Scelzi will attest to the fact that he’s a man who will never mince
words. The Fresno, Ca.-based driver of the Oakley Funny Car within the
Don Schumacher stable is a man that regards political correctness as a
waste of time. In other words, he feels sticking to the truth, no matter
how good or bad it is, is the way to go in life.
a large reason why the former Top Alcohol standout, who graduated to the
nitro ranks as the replacement for the late Blaine Johnson, has
developed into a working man’s champion since joining the professional
ranks in 1997. With the assistance of tuning genius Alan Johnson, Scelzi
captured three Top Fuel championships, but ultimately the government
versus big tobacco case in the Supreme Court left them without a
sponsor. The two carried their Top Fuel magic into the Funny Car class,
but the firm gel that had bonded the two together through the trials and
tribulations of Top Fuel quickly disintegrated. Before the first season
was halfway complete, the two decided to go their separate ways.
found himself the hot topic of a rumor-crazy racing community, and on
the outside looking in when it came to the competition clique. When
rumor after rumor, and lead after lead, lead him down a disheartening
path, Scelzi just decided that “the ride has been fun, but I’ll see
had pretty much accepted the fact that I was done in drag racing,”
explained Scelzi. “I had put my motorhome up for sale and everything.
I had talked to my brothers about coming back to the business. I really
had never left the business, but I wasn’t as involved.”
was content to return to the life of being primarily a family man, a
position that he had cherished so much in his time away from the
have a 5-year old and a 15-month old and I wanted them to know that Dad
gets up every morning and goes to work and has a job,” Scelzi
continued. “I knew I just couldn’t stay at home and play with them
all day. I didn’t feel like I could set a good example by chasing a
drag racing dream and not get the ride that I wanted.”
has always been a man who has lived by his convictions, and drag racing
was not about to force him to lower his standards.
didn’t want to settle for something that wouldn’t allow me a chance
to win. Don and I had talked extensively, and I had even talked to
Force. Those were pretty much the two resources I looked at. Those were
the only two places I contemplated going, because I felt that those were
the only avenues in which I could get the job done. There were no new
sponsors coming along.
got together with my brothers and they listened to me flap my mouth for
a while before telling me, ‘if we had given up on business as quick as
you have given up on this racing, we’d have been out of business a
long time ago.’” Ultimately, Scelzi’s brothers were very
supportive and agreed to pay him a salary so he could survive and feed
his family. They were willing to give him until January and the NHRA
Winternationals to find a quality ride. His brothers made it clear in no
certain terms that they supported his efforts.
let me know that we were in a financial position that they could afford
to do this,” Scelzi confided. “They wanted to know why I was so
worried about hurrying back. I just didn’t want them to feel like they
were feeding a bum, which they didn’t. I just wondered how many times
I could go knocking on doors when there weren’t that many doors to
frustrated Scelzi was prepared in his heart to walk the tough avenue
away from his second family – the drag racing community.
had already tried all of that stuff, but I don’t think I had accepted
it mentally,” he said. “I tried to accept that it may have been
over. I guess I could have taken my three World Championships, been
happy with that and gotten the hell out of the sport.”
last minute program with Don Schumacher and sponsorship from Oakley put
Scelzi back in business, however. It wasn’t an easy return, however,
and Scelzi traveled a tough road to get to the point he’s at today.
a man that had won three championships and given every ounce of passion
that he had to the sport feel that he deserved better? It was evident
that Scelzi felt that something should have been available based on his
merits as a driver.
never felt that I deserved anything,” said Scelzi. “The only thing
that pissed me off is that I didn’t bring any money. I’m one of the
few drivers that will not buy his ride. Even though I had won three
world championships…the sponsors liked me and the people liked me and
I was good for morale, that doesn’t necessarily constitute that you
have a steering wheel. I knew I didn’t have the money to buy a ride
and I wasn’t going to buy one. I am going to get a ride on my merits
and otherwise I was done with it…this sport can kiss my ass. That’s
pretty much how I felt.”
hear Scelzi speak of the practice of buying a ride, you might draw the
notion that he harbors mixed emotions about the practice.
really, I just believe in the old fashioned way,” Scelzi said. “If a
guy can get it done in the seat and he has a past, that’s fine. If a
guy doesn’t have a past and he’s trying and can bring money,
that’s a different story. I see that being okay. Whatever way it
is…is okay with me, I guess. The only way I can make it in this sport
is through my merit and my driving abilities. I can’t bring money and
I don’t bring money, but it’s not that I didn’t try.”
wants to point out that he doesn’t want to berate a driver that buys a
ride. He just wishes that potential teams would draw from the talent
pool that is available and on the sidelines.
it’s the shits for a guy that can bring a sponsor to the table, but if
I had my own sponsorship, I’d just have my own team. I don’t
downgrade the poor man, but when you have guys like Mike Dunn and Cory
Mac, at that time, that are out of a ride, I just wonder why they
weren’t being picked first. If the team had money, why didn’t they
look from the pool that we already have now?”
what if someone bought Scelzi’s ride out from under him?
think if they came and bought my ride out from under me, it might change
my thinking,” answered Scelzi. “If I was not getting the job done
and we had problems on the team, I’d just have to accept it. That’s
a part of life. Some of the IRL guys and Cart guys and others are buying
their rides, so it’s not like it’s something new and unique to drag
of Scelzi’s pet peeves has been the amount of criticism leveled
towards him on various Internet message boards. He is quick to point out
that the situation brought his temper to a boil and it even led him to
do some investigative work of his own to track down the culprits.
read that stuff and I probably shouldn’t,” Scelzi confided. “I
have even researched who some of these people are and I’ve even called
them. There were three or four of them that were pretty mouthy. One of
them said a dog could have driven the Alan Johnson car and won.
were guys that half of them had never been to a drag race and some of
them were just kids. My wife told me not to respond to that stuff. They
never sent me emails, but they were worms that would hide behind screen
names. These people, if they are going to be on chat rooms and message
boards, if they are going to say something they ought to put their name
and picture up and address. That way…if they are going to talk
crap…the person they are talking about can at least defend themselves.
majority of the people are good, but there are those few that I just
want to reach out and choke. You can tell me I’m short, fat and dumb,
but don’t go saying I can’t drive when you don’t know the
circumstances. That really gets me mad.”
Scelzi has learned, being the subject of criticism goes with the
territory when you’re in the public eye.
famous friend of mine told me that when we are in this business and in
the limelight, we need to have thick skin. He let me know that there
will always be people that will talk and write about you that know
nothing about you. He let me know that I needed to get over it and
accept it because they are at least talking about me.”
built his confidence by offering to put him in a car, as did Schumacher
following his departure from Johnson’s White Cap team. Schumacher took
it one step further by allowing him a test session in one of his
front-running entries. Scelzi passed the test with flying colors. He can
only speculate what went wrong during his final days with Johnson.
think it was a number of things,” said Scelzi. “Allen was trying to
make things happen…I was trying to make things happen. I backed myself
into a corner and he did too, and there was no way to get out. I still
talk to Alan. He will be out here soon. It’s such a shame that we
don’t have a man like him out there. Who knows I could end up driving
for Alan again one day. This sport is so fickle. I mean after all, who
would have thought I would be driving for Don Schumacher.”
has to wonder, would Scelzi ever entertain driving for Johnson again?
the circumstances were right, I’d drive for him again,” said Scelzi.
“I see no reason not to. We are still friends and we have a lot of
history together. If he was in a position to do everything that he
wanted to just like we did with Winston in the old days. Would I leave
Team Schumacher and what I’ve got now? I probably wouldn’t. I’m
happy where I’m at now. Don has first rights to get rid of me.”
has always meant everything in drag racing and Scelzi feels that he’s
more than flexible in that arena, although he has his limits.
think I can fit any image, although I don’t think I could do a Disney
Car unless it was ‘Goofy,” explained Scelzi. “I could fit that
mold. I think I could wear just about anything. I think my personality
can fit any product. I couldn’t run for the Catholic Church though.
only means something if the driver is true to himself and the community,
or at least that’s how Scelzi sees it.
have run for several sponsors, all of whom like me and the image I
portrayed,” Scelzi added. “The main thing in this business is to
just be yourself. Whether it’s sponsors or something…when you have
to be someone that you’re not, you might as well forget racing. People
commend me on my interviews and tell me how I use emotion. I don’t
know any other way to be.
myself has worked for me. If I feel like doing a cartwheel and running
into the cameraman…that’s what I’m going to do. That’s what
happens. Sorry for bumping into the cameraman, but that’s what I’m
going to do. If I’m pissed and I got my butt kicked, I’m going to
show that, too.
learned to try and not be negative because that sets a bad example for
my kids. I’ve learned not to bounce my helmet off of the ground and
tirade around because it looks immature. We are only racing. We are not
saving lives. I am not a doctor. It’s very important to win, but it
just brings the whole team down when you act like that. These guys work
too hard for their driver to act like a pansy ass.
Scelzi has repeatedly made it clear in the public eye the importance of
making himself a good role model for his children, some might question
if representing a tobacco company was a positive move. He thinks anyone
that draws that conclusion is full of it.
think all of that is bullshit,” explained Scelzi. “I have taught my
kids that smoking is bad for them. Do I want them to smoke? No, I
don’t. If people choose to smoke, I think it is their own damn
business. If you don’t smoke in a bar or in a restaurant because it
offends someone, that’s fine, I understand that. But…if I choose to
smoke in my car or alone somewhere…that’s my business. That’s my
right as an American. I don’t think any government agency should be
allowed to hold a gun to any tobacco company’s head for billions of
dollars because some moron that smoked didn’t know it wasn’t
healthy. I’m not with Winston any more, so this isn’t a paid
advertisement…it’s just the way I feel.
I eat too many cheeseburgers…is it the hamburger joint’s fault or
the end, Scelzi makes it clear that he’s no fan of politics and what
transpired in the court case that led to the demise of his sponsorship
as well as that of the sport with Winston. He is, however, quick to
point out that POWERade jumping in has been a blessing for drag racing.
He, just like all proud American citizens, has a few questions that will
make one think.
concluded by saying “I think all of the tobacco companies got a bad
deal. It’s just like these state-run lotteries; they told us how this
money was for the kids, but very little goes there. They are laying off
workers and all. Where does all of this money go? You tell me.”
© Competitionplus 2004