Racing less but winning more, D.J. Cox's Dixie Construction Alcohol Funny Car team is in the middle of its best year ever. In just three starts, Cox already has a final-round appearance, a semifinal appearance, and the first No. 1 qualifying spot of his career.
Cox's family team, started by his dad, veteran driver Darrell Cox, has always done a lot with a little. D.J. ran a career-best 5.60 last year and has made huge strides in 2012, starting with the very first run of the year, a 5.66 at the Lucas Oil Series eastern regional at Virginia Motorsports Park.
"Every winter, we set aside money for the one big piece that we think is going to help the team the most, and this year it was a RacePak," Cox said. "We always had to tune the car the old-fashioned way – just looking at the parts and reading spark plugs – and the first time we warmed up the car, we learned a ton from the computer. Even at idle, the cylinder temperatures were all over the place. Most years, we'd go up for the first run of the season just hoping everything was put together right. This year, we were more ready than we've ever been."
After the off-the-trailer 5.66, Cox never ran slower than 5.72 all weekend and made his best run of eliminations in a close final-round loss, 5.66 to 5.69. "Being in that final was my best moment as an alcohol driver," he said. "The first race and especially the first run of the year is always hard. You're not just worried about driving the car; you're worried about all the work you did back at the shop. 'Did I do everything right? Is everything put together right?' We only have one 'bullet,' which adds pressure because you know you can be finished for the weekend at any time."
Cox's Dixie Construction team has run fewer races this year – largely because NHRA removed the Englishtown and Atco regionals and the Englishtown national event from the schedule – but they're making every one count. "Last year, we ran as many as we could, but four different times we had to let the other guy take a single because something broke and we couldn't come back," Cox said. "We easily could have been second or third in Division 1 points if it wasn't for that. This year, we're taking a different approach. We're going to run when the budget allows, and when we do, everything's going to be right. I want to be competitive everywhere we go and confident that everything's fresh, and if we have to miss a race or two, we will."
Every member of Cox's family and team contributes in a major way, but this offseason he took over more mechanical responsibilities because Darrell didn't have as much time to devote to the race car. He's making similar advances in his career. Just 32, Cox is a project manager at Dixie Construction, where he oversees multi-million dollar jobs and makes sure they're done on time and come in under budget.
"I'm on the phone all the time and sometimes have to manage projects while I'm at the track," he said. At the Lebanon Valley Dragway regional, he was on a conference call in the staging lanes until the minute he had to get in the car, qualified No. 1 on the run, and was back on the phone as soon as the car crossed the scales.
"It's no big deal," Cox said. "I'm the one who wanted to race, and it's just like anything else: You do what you have to do to get the job done. It's a lot of responsibility, and most of the people who do what I do have a college degree. The construction industry has been hit hard in this economy, and without Dixie Construction, we wouldn't be racing at this level. We don't have the biggest budget out there, but we're a sponsored race team, and over the last decade they've given me the opportunity to excel in racing and advance my career. It's a lot different than when I was 10 years younger and running Super Comp. I was an assistant dispatcher and didn't have a care in the world. My whole life was the race car."
Cox has been racing steadily for 20 years, since he was a 13-year-old Jr. Dragster driver. He bracket raced and occasionally ran Super Comp, but the plan was always to take over for his dad in the Funny Car. "The majority of my friends from bracket racing think I'm nuts for doing this," he said. "Your knees are bleeding, you're covered in grease, everybody's thrashing, and parts are lying all over the place. It takes four people just to start the car, and it seems like all you ever do is work on it. 'Why would you want to drive that thing?' they'll ask me. 'Who'd want to sit behind that engine?' I tell them that until they drive one, they'll never understand.
"It's just a completely different deal now. When I bracket raced, if I went some rounds and made a little money it was a successful weekend, but my heart was never completely in it. When you race in a class like Alcohol Funny Car against people like Frank Manzo, you learn to measure your success differently. If you think you're successful only when you win, you'll feel like a complete failure. I'd rather get beat by Frank every race and know that I'm improving every time we go out than go a bunch of rounds at some bracket race. When I had a bad weekend, I used to question myself: Is this worth it? By Monday morning, it was the same answer every time: Absolutely. It's a challenge, but there's nothing like racing a car like this against the best drivers in the country."
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