The Top Fuel team that started out "Down Under" could before long become the team on top. Rapisarda Autosport International is on the rise, but that's not solely because of the powerhouse tandem of tuner Lee Beard and driver Larry Dixon.
It's largely because teenage brothers Santino Rapisarda and Santo Rapisarda Jr., who have served as the sport's youngest crew chiefs for the past couple of seasons, were willing to step back a bit and absorb some of Beard's expertise.
Beard, the team's new director of operations, is a three-time-champion tuner. And Dixon is a three-time champion driver whom the younger Rapisarda men say they can connect.
The result is a cohesive crew, and the Rapisardas said before Saturday qualifying for the Arizona Nationals at Phoenix's Firebird International Raceway that the "sacrifice" of any egos was worth it.
Santo Jr. indicated he and his brother naturally "might" have had some misgivings when they heard that Beard would head the team but said that quickly was erased.
"We thought we had a pretty good combination," he said with a bit of a playful grin. "But after seeing what Lee has brought to the table, it may have changed our minds a little bit. Lee's got a powerful combination, and we just needed to take a step back and learn from him."
Santino said he and his brother are open to change: "There's always a different way of doing things. Lee has a combination that can run a lot more power than we had last year." Besides, he said, "You can never learn enough, and these cars are constantly getting faster."
Beard emphasized that "we're a team. We're all working together. It's not a one-man show here, by any means." He said his new charges "have confidence in my skill, and they've been great students. They're very knowledgeable. The cars today are pretty complex, and they understand the car real well. So it's pretty easy to teach somebody who already has a real good background. They've been racing for a long time, and they want to be successful.
"They're getting to see firsthand how I do things, as far as organization of the equipment, the combination that I run, my thought process of tuning a fuel motor. They'll see it through a different set of eyes, different mind set," he said.
Though Beard often is busy at the side of the car and at the computer, he does take time to teach the Rapisardas why he makes the calls he does and doesn't just tell them what to do. According to Santino, "When he can, he explains bits and pieces to us. But we understand when he can't. We know enough where we can learn off his notes. We've been running a car by ourselves . . . Just learning Lee's way to do things. He's a very, very intelligent guy."
With the addition of Dixon and Beard, he said, "Communication has improved. When you talk about something related to the car, [Dixon] completely understands what you're talking about and we're all on the same page. It's all relevant to what Lee sees and what we see."
Beard was not unfamiliar to the Rapisarda team. He advised last year, but others were invited to do, too. "They [each] had their way of doing things," Santo Jr. said, "and we sort of got stuck in the middle."
But the team has a consolidated direction this season. And it's showing with Dixon's performances -- especially without the fresh parts they still are awaiting.
"They raced under the DSR umbrella for a year and a half with very little success," Beard said. "I think they won only one round of racing. We went quicker at the first race than they did the whole year and a half under the DSR umbrella [and had] a faster speed here. So we've already run quicker and faster in the first two races than they did [before]."
Team owner Santo Rapisarda Sr. said, "I can't wish for a better team than I've got now. Everybody's saying the same thing. People say it for me: 'You've got the best of the best.'
I'm spending money , but now I'm spending it for good reasons. Last year I spent a lot of money, but I didn't get anywhere."
He said he, like his sons, has a new role. It's simple: "paying the bills."
Today, he'll tell people, "I have a good package" in Beard and Dixon. "We're as good as anybody here."
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