Adjusting to the nitro Funny Car tuning learning curve didn’t take long at all for Todd Smith.
Smith, who has predominately worked on Top Fuel dragsters since the 1980s, led Jack Beckman to the nitro Funny Car winner’s circle Sunday at the Summernationals in Topeka, Kan., in only his second race as Beckman’s crew chief.
If that wasn’t enough, Beckman also beat his Don Schumacher Racing teammate Ron Capps on a holeshot in the finals. Capps’ Funny Car is tuned by Beckman’s former crew chief Rahn Tobler.
“It wasn’t so much overwhelming or intimidating (to face Capps and Tobler), but obviously you have to have a healthy respect for them,” Smith, 49, said. “They have been running very good and odds are they are not going to smoke the tires. I’m really just trying to get my hands around the Funny Car. I’m no stranger to tuning, but I just believed I didn’t have a 4.12 in it, I wasn’t there yet for a 120 degree race track. I told Jack we are going to plug a 4.14 or 4.15 in the thing and we are going to do the best we can. I just didn’t want him to smoke the tires and give it away. Lucky for us it worked out good.”
Beckman clocked a 4.158-second elapsed time at 303.90 mph, while Capps recorded a faster 4.107-second ET at 304.39 mph. The difference was at the starting line. Beckman cut a near perfect light at .004 and Capps’ reaction time was .102.
Sunday at Topeka, Beckman eliminated Alexis DeJoria, Mike Neff, Tim Wilkerson and Capps for the win.
“When that win light came on (against Capps), I have to be honest I was stunned,” Smith said. “I was absolutely stunned. I knew we could give him (Capps) a good race, but as good as they had been running and as good as they ran in the final, I knew we had our work cut out for us. So, I was stunned, and very happy, especially for the crew guys because they have gone through so much with crew chief changes and that kind of stuff. For me, I’m just trying to give them some stability and I’m sure every crew chief before me tried to do the same thing. I’m just going to go race the race track and try not to beat ourselves.”
Once Beckman beat DeJoria in the first round, Smith felt good about what Beckman could accomplish. Beckman ran 4.123 seconds to defeat DeJoria’s 5.007-second effort.
“We plugged in a decent number for first round and it ran good and then from there my confidence each round went up and everyone’s did. We just kept believing we had as good a car as anybody and we had to go up there and not beat ourselves.”
Smith joined DSR on April 3. Last season Smith was the crew chief at Kenny Bernstein Racing for Brandon Bernstein’s dragster. Kenny Bernstein’s Top Fuel operation closed its doors in the offseason when he retired from the sport. Smith was with Bernstein for two years.
“They (DSR) made me the official crew chief from the very beginning, but when I came in (Rahn) Tobler set me up and got me going and said this is how the deal is,” Smith said. “(Don) Schumacher said Rahn is going to make the final calls for a couple of races until you get acclimated with everything and the business and how we run the day-to-day operations and the adjustments on the car.”
The last time Smith tuned a nitro Funny Car before arriving at DSR was for about six months in 2006 with Gary Densham. Smith left Densham to go to work for Don Prudhomme’s Snake Racing with drivers Larry Dixon and then Spencer Massey.
“I was glad that I got that opportunity (to work with Densham) because I got re-acclimated with things and the more modern parts and pieces like data recorders and clutch management that I didn’t have in the mid 1980s the last time I was a crew chief on a Funny Car,” Smith said. “Densham never had much money, but we always ran pretty good and we won an IHRA race that year (in 2006).”
Smith’s first race with DSR was at Houston and things didn’t go well as Beckman failed to qualify.
Beckman, who pilots the Valvoline NextGen Dodge for DSR, had qualified for 87 NHRA national events in row, dating back to his last DNQ at Englishtown in 2008.
“We stayed in Houston and tested after we didn’t qualify and we made some adjustments there and I put us in the direction I thought we needed to go,” Smith said. “I also got a little help from (Todd) Okuhara and Tommy D (DeLago), and away we went.”
Okuhara is the co-chief with Phil Shuler on the DSR dragster driven by Massey. DeLago is the crew chief for the DSR Funny Car driven by reigning world champion Matt Hagan.
Beckman qualified No. 8 at Atlanta, and lost in the first round to Courtney Force, but that performance obviously didn’t linger into Topeka.
“As a tuner, I’m confident with my abilities,” Smith about making the transition from a Top Fuel to Funny Car crew chief. “It is just a matter of parts and pieces and getting baseline information from Rahn (Tobler) which is obviously working very good. I’m surprised that I transitioned so fast, but when you step back and look at it and see how much information has been jammed in my head in the last six weeks, I’m not surprised in that respect. It is very humbling.”
Smith added he remains good friends with Donnie Bender. Bender and Smith worked closely together on Brandon Bernstein’s dragster and also were at Snake Racing together among other places.
“While I’m at (DSR’s) shop in Brownsburg, Ind., up here I just stay with Donnie,” said Smith, who resides in Cooper City, Fla., near Fort Lauderdale. “I have had a room at his house for six or seven years. We are old friends.”
Now that Smith has won a nitro Funny Car race, he isn’t changing his goals.
“Most of us who are in this business we are in it because we want to win races and win championships,” Smith said. “For us, we just have to keep going full steam ahead. Obviously it is a major boost to win that race and get over the DNQ in Houston and get back on track. So, it is just onward and upward. We have to stay with it because these guys (the other Funny Car competitors) are tough. We can’t let our guard down.”
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