The Atlanta Dragway temperatures were flirting with 90 degrees that Saturday afternoon in May, and the track surface already had broiled above 100. Don Schumacher Racing's personnel and guests were going to be hungry, and DSR executive chef Malcolm Clark had a problem.
The kitchen generator had shut down.
In stepped John Collins to avoid a gastronomic catastrophe.
Collins is more used to troubleshooting NHRA's elite Funny Cars, but he wired a special shore cord to carry power from the Valvoline NextGen team trailer to the hospitality area.
"That's just an example of how he helps keep an organization like Don Schumacher Racing running," company Senior Vice-President Mike Lewis said. "He's one of the unsung heroes at DSR. He astutely gets it done."
Tommy Johnson Jr. has known that for years. Johnson, who invited the fellow Ottumwa, Iowa, native to help out on his crew at one race and triggered Collins' passion for becoming a fulltime drag-racing mechanic, said, "He's one those guys who can fix your iPhone or the fuel pump on the race car. It doesn't matter what it is -- if it’s the generator or if the semi quit running or it's your air conditioner or your car or the tow vehicle -- he just knows how to do everything. I need him to come over and fix some stuff around my house!
"He's one of those guys it doesn't matter what it is, he can figure out how to make it work. If you can't figure out what you're doing or you have a question -- it doesn't matter what it is: it could be about the shop, it could be about the race car, it could be a computer question, whatever it is -- you go, 'Let me go ask John. He might know something about this.'
"We have an in-house mechanic [Anthony Davis] who does maintenance on all our rigs, our fleet, and he gets odd projects once in awhile. We have a floor scrubber and something went wrong with the circuit board on it, a broken connection. And he said, "I'm going to take this to John and see if he can fix it. I think he can fix this."
Floor scrubbers and generator cords are the least of what Collins has helped fix in the past two months. Collins also has helped restore life to Ron Capps' Funny Car career as assistant crew chief to Rahn Tobler for the NAPA Auto Parts Dodge Charger. Together, he and Tobler and Capps have reached six straight final rounds and won two of them, including last weekend's Ford Thunder Valley Nationals at Bristol, Tenn.
Nothing but the best
And it seems lately that everything surrounding Collins has proven to be the best.
He helped Tobler find the right combination in Friday night qualifying at Englishtown, N.J., to propel Capps to the quickest-ever Funny Car pass, a 3.964-second elapsed time on the 1,000-foot course.
Capps held onto the No. 1 spot through Toyota Super Nationals qualifying and reached the final round. It was Capps' his fifth straight final-round appearance since he failed to qualify at Las Vegas and Tobler and Collins moved over from Jack Beckman's team to replace Tim Richards.
Still, that Saturday at Englishtown, Collins was biting his nails. It had nothing to do with Capps' performance. Collins' daughter. Courtney, was back home in the Indianapolis area, engaged in her own quest to be No. 1.
Courtney Collins had been the ace all year for the Plainfield High School Quakers fast-pitch softball team that was on the verge of making it to the state Class 4-A tournament. If she could pitch
her team to two victories that day, she not only would lead her team to the championship game but also would assure that her father could watch her take the mound in her final prep game.
She ran her record to 13-1, best in Indiana, to put Plainfield in the finals against Huntington North High School. Then the Saturday after the Englishtown race, at Indianapolis, she pitched a
complete seven-inning game, scattering just five hits and striking out nine, including the final three batters. Her Quakers (23-9) won the state title with a 3-1 victory.
("He shows some emotion, but it's never out of check," Johnson said. "But his face lights up more than anything when he talks about her.")
Two weeks ago, Capps has made the NHRA record book for more than the quickest Funny Car pass. At Englishtown, he became only the fifth driver in Funny Car history to advance to five
straight final rounds, joining Don Prudhomme, John Force, Kenny Bernstein, and Cruz Pedregon. Prudhomme, his former boss, still leads the class with eight, but with his Bristol showing, Capps
is tied with Pedregon and just one behind Force and Bernstein.
Since boss Don Schumacher paired the Tobler-Collins brain trust with Capps, the NAPA-sponsored driver is 19-4 in eliminations (with all four losses in final rounds), with the one No. 1
qualifying position (Englishtown) and three No. 2 starts (Charlotte, Houston, Atlanta).
"Whatever it is, we have a good chemistry," Collins said.
Capps agreed and said he loves to soak up their conversation.
"The teamwork that he and Rahn have . . . Rahn really relies on him a lot, bounces stuff off of him," Capps said. "My closet, where I get dressed, is right there, so I get to listen to them talk . . . The chatter that they have . . . And I watch what they're doing. I know a little bit about it -- I've worked on these enough that I kind of follow what they’re talking about. It's neat for me to watch the pattern they're going to approach each run, and it’s impressive."
Collins said Tobler "is a real hands-on guy. I'm trying to do everything I can to make sure he can do nothing but tune that car."
Johnson, too, thinks Schumacher's decision was spot-on.
"I think it’s really good chemistry with him and Rahn. I think Rahn realizes how smart he is and realizes what an asset he is. It's not like he doesn't want to tell John something because 'I don't want him to go on and become a crew chief.' Chemistry between a crew chief and his assistant has to be really good, and that's what they have," Johnson said. "I think Rahn includes him as if John were tuning the car himself.
"That's one of the things I've noticed about all these teams is that . . . Mike and Neal [Strausbaugh] were with me on the Skoal car and they have perfect chemistry. Phil [Shuler] and Todd [Okuhara], I don't think either one of them would be as successful running a car by himself. I think it’s very good marriage between those two. Tommy D [DeLago] and Glenn [Huszar], they're a perfect pair. If you put somebody else in the shop with them, it wouldn't work. It just has to be very good chemistry between them.
"I see that with about every team we have here," Johnson said. "The crew chief and assistant crew chief are very well matched. If a crew chief was unable to attend an event for some reason, I don't think you'd see one of our cars miss a beat. About every car here, in my opinion, has two crew chiefs -- just one of them has the title of assistant."
Said Capps, "Don has put together such a great team that you could have somebody struggle a little bit and before you know it, standing right behind is a guy to help. I've always felt that way."
As for Collins, Johnson said, "I think he's relishing the role he's in right now. He works with the crew chief. He gets to gain that knowledge. He's the same as a crew chief right now, but he maybe doesn't have the pressure of making that call. At the same time, he knows what call to make."
Capps half-jokingly said he's almost afraid to showcase Collins for fear he might lose him from the NAPA team: "John Collins . . . Oh my gosh . . . I don’t want to talk too much or brag about him because he's a legitimate crew chief right now. Don could put him on any car right now and he's incredible."
Capps said, "If you look back at my tweets, there's a picture of him as a fan when I worked at Don Prudhomme's. He came to work a couple of months after that picture [was taken]. Just a great guy, good family. I worked at Snake's with him all those years, so when he came to DSR with Rahn, I was ecstatic when he texted me and said he was coming to work there. I told him, 'You're coming with the best team there is, believe me.' He's a great guy."
For all of his success in helping Capps flourish, Collins was quick to indicate that he hadn't turned his back on Jack Beckman, with whom he began the season and helped to a No. 2 finish last season.
"We still help Jack. We will not be leaving anybody behind," Collins said.
The switch from Beckman to Capps, Collins said, "wasn't hard for us. All we had to do was swap a trailer." He acknowledged that it was much more disruptive for the two drivers. And according to Collins, Beckman -- who was in third place when the changes occurred and found himself with new crew chief Todd Smith and whole new team -- "gets it. He still has a very good car underneath him."
Beckman proved Collins right by winning at Topeka.
A title for Capps?
Capps has worried out loud that he might wind up being the driver with the most races and no championships to show for it. He has 374 races behind him, no championships, three No. 2 finishes (1998, 2000, 2005), and only one year in the past 15 in which he ended the year outside the top 10.
He can breathe a little easier. That distinction goes to Pro Stock's Kurt Johnson, a four-times series runner-up (1993, 2000, '03, '05) with 428 races to his credit. He, too, has no championships but in 19 years has finished out of the top five only six times. Four have come in the past five years, after funding suddenly disappeared. But Capps is second, passing Top Fuel's Cory McClenathan with a 35th victory at Bristol.
So will Collins help Tobler, a Top Fuel and Funny Car championship tuner who most recently orchestrated Cruz Pedregon's 2008 series title run, bring out the best in Capps?
"Maybe this will be his year," Collins said. "I want to win a Funny Car championship. This is my best chance. "
After the Bristol victory, Capps wouldn’t go that far. All he would say is that "every year I've had a car here at DSR, I felt like I've had a great shot. I don't even want to look out there [into the future]."
Collins understood. "Just too many things can go wrong and you can end up not winning," he said. "Anything can happen. You have to be good every day. It's a performance-driven sport."
"You have to love this sport and be committed to it," Collins said.
His wife, Kelly, might think he needs to be committed. "My wife thinks I'm crazy," he said with a laugh. "It's very rewarding. They pay me to play. How can a guy not come to work happy?"
Johnson saw potential in Collins as a successful drag-racing tuner.
"John had a automotive repair shop and a body shop. He'd done paint work for us and auto-repair work for us. He's a very talented guy. He would come by our shop and hang out. He had some race cars he raced at the local track," Johnson said.
"The last race I drove in our family's dragster was Chicago in 1999, and we asked him if he wanted to go with us and help us. He said, 'Yeah, I'll go with you.' He came with us and did the bottom end. Then I went to work for Joe Gibbs, and John said he'd like to maybe try to get a job on one of those teams."
Johnson said he recommended Collins and Collins went to work at Joe Gibbs Racing, too, working on Cory McClenathan's dragster in 2000. In 2001, when the second Skoal Funny Car came out, he joined Snake Racing and spent time working on Larry Dixon's Miller Lite car. His first job at DSR was with Gary Scelzi's Funny Car. So he gravitates to the best in the business.
"Even back then," Jonson said of Collins' early days in drag racing, "you knew the guy was really sharp.
"He was a guy you could tell he needed to be doing something more than what he was doing. He was way more talented than the job he was doing, and he wanted to continue to grow," he said.
"There wasn't a position for him at certain times, but he was way above what we had him doing. He just needed to put more time in and get more experience. It takes time to learn a fuel car. But you give him something and he picks it up so quick. Just in a couple of months he's got that mastered . . . Now what? We've got to keep him going," Johnson said.
"You knew he was destined to be an assistant crew chief or a crew chief one of these days, because he picks stuff up so fast. He's thirsty for knowledge all the time," he said. "We took him to the races and he did the bottom end for us and 12 years later he's one of the assistant crew chiefs here [at DSR], doing great and winning races.
"He always had that in the back of his mind that he'd like to do that. We took him with us that weekend and it confirmed that he wanted to do that. Shortly after that, he said, 'I think I'd like to do this fulltime,' " Johnson said.
Collins actually moved to Indianapolis and worked on the Gibbs car and wife Kelly stayed back in Ottumwa and ran the family businesses for him. Shortly after that, Collins decided that drag racing is really what he wanted to pursue. So they sold the businesses and he became a fulltime drag-racing mechanic.
"That's the kind of guy he is," Johnson said. "He's not going to jump into something. He thinks everything through. You can see that in everything he does. Everything he does is well-thought-out.
"He doesn't say a lot. When he does talk, its definitely a well-thought-out answer," he said.
"There are some things on the cars we're running that are John's ideas. He looks at stuff and says, 'There's a better way of doing this.' He's always thinking," Johnson said.
"You knew if this guy ever got a shot they'd be surprised. And I think they realize, 'Hey he's sharp,' " Johnson said.
And all Johnson can say is, "Yeah, I told you he was."
Now everybody else is in on the secret.
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