Funny Car driver Ron Capps' drag-racing career has leaped to life from a storyboard of larger-than-life superheroes.
The wide-eyed, student-of-the-sport protagonist has immersed himself in an almost comic-book like adventure, driving hot rods that zip more than 320 mph in less than four seconds. He slips into the cockpit, a colorful, swoopy-looking body lowers down over the top of him. Someone pounds on the contraption and gives him a thumbs-up for Godspeed. And from a standing start, Ron Capps hurtles off in a car emblazoned with NAPA that might as well say NASA, with all the Gs it pulls.
Even his name -- Ron Capps -- has the staccato beat of a dashing leading man.
So Ron Capps has mentors, guys who have names like Snake and Mongoose, guys who battled such scandalous villains as the Bounty Hunter, Snidely Whiplash, Mad Dog, Hand Grenade, and (gulp) Boston Strangler in action-figure flashbacks. They impressed upon Capps life's truths -- such as "You don't want to start drinking your own bath water" and other useful pieces of advice.
Now, with a jaw-dropping turnaround tale and an almost superhuman streak of his own, Capps has risen to the verge of hero status himself. He's all for Truth, Justice, and the Don Schumacher Way.
And he's here in the intriguing NHRA subculture to help stamp out appalling behavior from drivers he says "come into the sport nowadays that start flopping their gums, . . . win one race or they win a pole or they go a couple rounds early in their career and they get kind of floppy." No gum-flopping in drag racing.
Capps is here to pat guys on the butt -- he said it . . . just sayin' . . . -- and to do his own job well. ("One thing I learned is that as a driver in this sport, you become part cheerleader, because if you don't have a good horse to ride . . . There's no way John Force could win those championships with an 11th-place car," he said. "You have to understand that a driver's job in a nitro Funny Car is to not mess up. That car is given to you to do the best you can. [When you struggle], all you do is you keep patting them on the butt and saying, 'Man, keep it up. I'm here for you.' ")
He's here to get Rahn Tobler the praise he deserves. ("You've got to look at what he's done in the past. If you can give me a second, I want to remind people, this guy won not only the three championships with Shirley [Muldowney], but he went over to crew his first time on a Funny Car and won a championship a few years ago, first time out, and almost won it with Doug Kalitta the year that my teammate Tony Schumacher made 'The Run.' So he's very, very . . . I don't want to say underrated. I think he is underrated. But he shouldn't be underrated. He's done so much. Pretty talented guy, and I'm happy as heck right now to show up on Friday mornings." But we're getting ahead of our story . . . )
Oh, and Capps is here to win a championship.
The plot was grim just four and half months ago. April Fools' Day dawned in Las Vegas, that joker and teaser of all cities, and our protagonist found himself staggered with the zap-pow double-whammy of losing "The General" Tim Richards and his capable mechanical lieutenant, wife Kim, from the team. The hot rod was anything but hot. And Capps wasn't quick enough to join in any reindeer games that day when all the other Funny Car hot-shots got to play. It was as if all his superpowers had drained from him overnight.
Somehow, Capps had a feeling he would rebound: "I knew it would be turned around. Don Schumacher can't let it go that long where we were struggling."
Ah, but The Boss, Don Schumacher, The Shoe, was watching and calculating. Waiting for The Shoe to drop a decision was a little tense, but The Shoe had a plan to rescue Capps.
The Shoe, you see, is no loafer, no flip-flop, no sneaker. He's more like a cleat, strong and digging in. Or he's like an Army boot, sturdy and reliable. Or the fly-fisherman extraordinaire is like a wading boot -- ready for deep-water action with safety measures built in for maximum action and maneuverability. So The Shoe had a plan underfoot.
He reached into "Fast Jack" Beckman's camp and pulled a switcheroo, sending crew chief Tobler, assistance crew chief John Collins, and the Valvoline crew to the NAPA trailer and the NAPA crew to work with "Fast Jack."
It activated some sort of workplace chemistry, and immediately Capps streaked to six consecutive finals. He and Tobler's one team had accomplished what John Force's organization did to start the year, although it took three JFR cars to equal the Capps-Tobler-Collins feat. (JFR won all six races, but Capps won twice, at Atlanta and Bristol.)
How did The Shoe know his alchemy would work?
"By knowing the three of them very, very well," Schumacher said. "I work very close with my crew chiefs and my assistant crew chiefs. I spend a lot of my time up in the trailers. I certainly don't tell them how to tune a car or what to do.
"I also knew the professional that Ron Capps is, the ability he has," he said. "That's not taking anything away from Jack Beckman. Jack's been an amazing driver who has done a great job for DSR forever, for as long as he's been with DSR. That's not taking anything away from Jack, but putting Rahn Tobler and John Collins and Ron Capps together on the NAPA car has taken that team to a whole other level."
The Shoe will tell you he's not Spiderman, nor does he have Spidey's superpowers.
"It's not a spider sense, not a 'This feels right.' It's my knowledge and experience of working with a lot of people in a lot of organizations over my career," Schumacher said.
"Besides the drag racing, I have another 2,000 employees on the other side of my business. In every company, you have to make decisions and look at the people who are there and coming up and moving around and make the decision to put the right people in the right place and to do the right thing at the right time. Undoubtedly that's some unknown ability that I seem to have been lucky with."
Capps said it was an amazing transformation for him.
"When I started driving for Don (The Snake) Prudhomme back when we had the Copenhagen car, they brought Roland Leong in, and it was a pretty big difference when we started that team. Roland kind of hit the ground rolling our first race, and we continued to do pretty well and won a lot of races -- but nothing like what's happened with Rahn Tobler and our NAPA team," Capps said.
"It's pretty crazy, because I know that reading press clippings, watching TV shows and just a lot of the press stuff, reading about what we had done with the six finals, I told somebody recently that it didn't seem like it was me in the car. It felt like I was reading about somebody else," he said. "It was an amazing thing to do, and the amount of runs that we made in a row without tire smoke, just a lot of those things just didn't seem like I was part of it, only in the sense that it was something really cool to read. You get so focused on that thing that when you're right in the middle of something that good, you don't want to lift your head up and look around. You want to keep your head down and keep going."
Even heroes struggle, and Capps did that at Joliet by losing in the opening round to Alexis DeJoria, then bowing out in the Norwalk quarterfinals when his car lurched left and crossed the center line.
Said Capps, "Rahn said he messed up in Chicago. He said he went out of his normal routine of racing the track on Sunday." He said Tobler regretted not using a more conservative set-up but added, "It was a learning experience, and it was cool to hear Rahn say that. We win as a team or lose as a team. What sets Rahn apart from a lot of crew chiefs is that he learns from something and isn't worried about admitting it and making a change. I'm pumped up that he knew why it pulled the tires loose at Chicago and has adjusted to that. He gives me a lot of confidence."
At Norwalk, Capps got out of the groove. He said when that happens, the car "just drives you. It was just driver error. I couldn't catch it in time. What's hard to swallow is we had good hot rod and were the quickest car in the first round."
So they'll have something for the rest of the class when they get to Denver next weekend for the Mopar Mile-High Nationals. But he said he doesn't want to harp on the fact he's within 87 points of leader Hight or if he takes the lead he won't brag. (See gum-flopping warning above.)
"I've been in this position before where I've led the points at a certain point in the season,. And you just try to keep everybody on the team even-keel and you don't want to get too excited about it," he said. "Snake used to say you don't want to start drinking your own bath water. What you don't want to do is start reading your own press clippings and getting excited about what's going on, because now we have a Countdown. It's completely different, and we're chasing Robert Hight's team for first place for the regular season, trying to gain those 20 points going into the Countdown. Just a lot of little things going on. It's neat.
"Come November, when we're off and I'm in Hawaii after the season is over and you can relax and reflect on the season and what we've done, then that'll be cool, and hopefully we're wearing a championship ring at the time," Capps said. "Right now I've been here. I don't want to get too excited about what's going on right now, because you can be humiliated pretty quick. It's part of our sport, but you definitely don't want to start looking around and puffing your chest out."
Capps did concede one thing: "I'll tell you, since Vegas it's a lot more fun to show up at the racetrack than it was sometimes at the end of last year. The biggest difference is I went back to booking my flights on Monday mornings instead of Sunday nights."
He said, "I'm really enjoying myself with everybody at Schumacher, with everybody on my crew. It's funny, because this was the Valvoline team at one time, and I had my guys that are now the Valvoline guys that were with me for, gosh, seven or eight years, and I'm closer to them than my family. I see them more than I do my own family. I never really got to know these guys on the Valvoline crew, and it's funny how you just see people walking through the pit area way to getting some food, in hospitality or something, and all of a sudden now I get to work with these guys. So it's just a whole new group of guys I get to call friends. And they gave me a great race car.
"And Tobler is unbelievable. I've always wanted to work with him," Capps said. "I thought it was going to happen a couple years ago that Don was going to put him on my car, and it didn't."
A Jimmy Olsen from some Daily Planet newspaper asked Capps if, when the going got tough, "Did you give some thought to stepping out of the car?"
It was as if someone had asked Superman, "Hey, how about holding this handful of Kryptonite for me for a minute?"
Get out of his car? Honestly.
"No. Are you kidding me? " Capps said.
Not having won a championship yet grates on the veteran who started his pro career in 1995 in a Top Fuel dragster and had raced Funny Cars exclusively since 1997. But, he said, "We've been close. But I'll be honest with you: My career could end right now, and I'm content with what I've done in the sport.
"I mean, I get to drive a great race car, [with] Don Schumacher and all the people he puts together. I got to drive for the Snake . . . all the stuff I've done . . . all the races I've won . . . If it's at the end, I'm OK with it. I'd love to win a championship. So to answer your question, no, I never thought about getting out of the car."
What a question for a legend in the making.
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