From Ron Capps' view, the tempest on the inside never looks as bad from the inside as it does from the outside.
A crew chief change in mid-season, another crew chief reassignment at the end of the season and a year chock full of peaks and valleys was never as bad as it appeared.
Capps, driver of the NAPA Dodge Funny Car for Don Schumacher Racing, finished the season seventh in the standings by scoring one win in four final rounds. He began the season with a runner-up finish to eventual champion John Force at the season-opening Pomona event and rose as high as second but dropped no lower than fifth prior to the start of the Countdown.
To those looking on from the outside it appeared as if the team was positioning for the playoffs. In previous years the team had peaked too early.
In the 2009 season, Capps and the team qualified on the pole thrice and won five of seven races during the regular season. Yet, by the time the Countdown ended the team had dropped to fifth in the standings.
2009 raised a number of questions concerning the practice of testing during a national event.
“The mentality that a crew chief and a driver have is that you want to stay ahead of the competition,” Capps explained. “So that mentality will have you trying to think of things that will make you faster come September, October, and November. When it’s February and you’re rattling off wins and thinking you’re going to stay ahead – and you could stay ahead, but you are always looking over your shoulder like you know they are coming. You better just keep at it.”
Halfway into the 2010 season, team owner Don Schumacher made the decision to demote Ed McCulloch into an assistant role and reassigned John Medlen to the NAPA team as lead tuner and crew chief.
The switch came after three consecutive first round exits following the NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals in Bristol, Tenn.
“It came as a big shock to Ed McCulloch because when Medlen came over from Force Racing, he had all of these good ideas about stuff and Tommy Delago, Don Schumacher and Ed McCulloch were very receptive of ideas from a guy who’s been around that long,” Capps said.
“Ed McCulloch and this NAPA car, we were going to be the car, we decided, that would experiment with some of John’s ideas and test these ideas. The long term goal is to get into the Countdown obviously so you can win it. Just being in it you don’t have to win the regular season.”
Capps said the team decided they were going to sacrifice and get ahead with some of the ideas. The decision, he understands, put Schumacher in a precarious position.
“When you go out in the first round that many times the owner starts to get nervous … maybe the sponsors a little nervous, and so that kind of snowballs. The next thing you know the crew chief has been let go. Tommy Delago and his team had tried some things. When Tommy went back to his normal tune up he went on to win the race and set the record. We continued to try and work with the ideas that we wanted to test to get ahead. It’s hard to do that, you either have to be a owner/crew chief to do that because there’s sponsors to answer to; there’s a lot of things that go on.”
Capps was shocked by the decision to demote McCulloch but not surprised.
“I understand. Don’s position is he has to give a big sponsor like NAPA results and when you go out that many times in the first round it’s a difficult phone call he’s going to have to make on Monday mornings,” Capps said.
For years, Capps had developed a relationship with McCulloch which transcended that of tuner and driver. McCulloch often referred to Capps as “just like a son to me”. Capps believes at this point it’s easy to second guess.
“One thing I always felt with Ed McCulloch as my crew chief for all those years was even if we barely got in a show, I could show up Sunday morning and honestly think that not only did we have a shot; that we were going to win that race,” said Capps. “He just has a way of raising the bar for everyone around him, he always seemed to find a way even if he got off course a little bit or found some gremlins he could always get back to making sure our car was going to be a contender that day.
“That translates when you look at the weekends and the seasons that we’ve had in the past where we started off good and then in the end we faltered. It’s so easy; obviously we’re not the only team if you look back in the history it’s happened to a lot of teams. As good as we ran even going back a couple of seasons we thought we were that much better than the competition that we could have kept going. It’s easy to look back at it and say why didn’t you just keep the same tune up in it and keep going.”
When Medlen entered the picture what could have been a tough situation turned into a seamless transition.
“Medlen was brought in to take over and he does things so differently. He’s got so many ideas floating in his head. He’s like Einstein to me. He’s a guy that’s got these great ideas to look at going down the road but he wants to constantly try to implement them and it’s hard for him to do with a car with such a big sponsorship and such few races to do what he wanted to do.”
While Capps wasn't concerned about his job when Schumacher made the crew chief change, the release of Cory McClenathan as the driver of the Fram Top Fuel dragster is another issue.
Capps understands that with today’s drag racing economic climate his breed, an honest-to-goodness paid driver, is quickly vanishing.
“It always makes you nervous,” Capps said. “I’m a guy who’s a paid driver so when you hear the possibility of a guy that’s being brought in, that’s bringing money, an experienced driver like Cory Mac is being replaced by somebody. Especially in this day and age in the economy an owner or a sponsor may see that to keep a team going, somebody bring in money and it might be an advantage and it might keep that team alive. I’m not sure of the circumstances but when you start hearing those rumors, sure you get a little worried.
“I feel like I’ve done a good enough job and I am doing a good enough job that I’ve kind of cemented my place in the sport. I feel like I could land on my feet pretty easily if I was let go. But I feel pretty comfortable Don Schumacher has always been straight with me and the sponsors I’ve had whether it was Brut or NAPA.”
Keeping himself in the driver’s seat is more than just getting the job done on the track, according to Capps advises. The relationship between driver, car owner and sponsor is more than just strapping in and mashing the gas.
“People have to realize that the car’s performance was great … that’s a wonderful thing but the representation you have with these sponsors is tough,” Capps explained. “If people looked at the things I do and the appearances I make during the offseason, weeks before races and off weekends it would blow your mind how many days I’m on the road. That’s a big thing for this sponsor is being able to do things away from the track as well as on it. I felt I was always a good fit for a sponsor doing my job on the track but I really feel like I represent the sponsor well away from the race track in the things that you do with all these store owners is more important.”
Granted 2010 was one of his tougher seasons on the job, Capps believes his team was one of the strongest in the class. A few breaks here and there, and he believes the outcome could have been different.
“It’s easy for a person to get on a message board behind a screen name and type things they think they might know about a team or they saw a driver do this or a crew chief do that so they think they know what’s going on,” admitted Capps. “[About] 90% of the time you read what these people write on there and I think it’s great that these people are that into the sport that they get into posting comments. But some of the stuff that people write about (is not accurate).
“What they think is going on inside a team usually is so far from the truth it’s ridiculous. Sometimes you want to get on and correct these people but you can’t. Ironically some of these people that get on these screen names are people that if they knew who they were they’d be in a lot of trouble because they are people that are actually involved in a lot of these teams. So it’s easy for somebody to get on the internet and assume they know what’s going on with a team and you see it all the time.”
But for Capps, the inside didn’t look as bad as it did from the outside.
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