THOSE WHO WORKED WITH HIM REMEMBER A LARGER THAN LIFE LAHAIE
On Dec. 5, Dick LaHaie passed away at the age of 76.
LaHaie was a world championship driver and crew chief, made a lasting impact in the sport, especially to those who had the opportunity to work with him like crew members Jim Oberhofer and Donnie Bender and driver Larry Dixon.
LaHaie won his lone Top Fuel world championship in ‘87. By 1991, LaHaie retired from driving and in ’93 he made the transition to crew chief for Kalitta Motorsports. Tuning Scott’s Top Fuel dragster, Kalitta was second in the points in ’93 and was first in 1994-95 and second in ’96.
Oberhofer remembered when LaHaie first came onboard with Kalitta Motorsports with him.
“For starters, the guy was an amazing guy,” Oberhofer said. “When Connie (Kalitta) hired him, most crew chiefs when they go somewhere, they like to bring their guys with them, guys they are comfortable with. When Connie hired Dick, he and Scott (Kalitta) told LaHaie here is your crew. The crew was myself, my brother, John (Oberhofer), Donnie Bender and Nicky Boninfante and Dick LaHaie had never worked with any of us. He had crew guys who he didn’t know a thing about, a chassis he had never run before, cylinder heads he had never run, blocks he had never run, everything you can imagine he had not worked with.”
Jim O acknowledged the transition to the Kalitta Motorsports didn’t look like it was going to be a smooth one for LaHaie.
“Dick LaHaie was used to driving this Cadillac and all of a sudden, Connie Kalitta tried to sell him a Yugo and tell him it was just as good as his Cadillac,” Jim said. “But, he (LaHaie) can bring things out of you that you didn’t know existed inside of you. He never focused on what people couldn’t do, he focused on what they could do. He never dwelled on if somebody couldn’t do a specific job right, if that was the case he would try and figure out what they could do right. That’s what I always liked about him. He was a guy, no matter who you were or what your talent level was high or low, he could bring out the best in you and make you the absolute best that you could possibly be. He was an awesome guy to work with and if it wasn’t for Dick LaHaie I would not be where I’m at. He took a program at Kalitta Motorsports that at time that was a team that wasn’t a destination for top crew members. It was a challenge at that time and when he came in there, he completely changed the whole culture of Kalitta Motorsports and made it what it is today. In my opinion, when Del Worsham won the championship in Funny Car in 2015 and then J.R. (Todd) winning it again in 2018, Dick LaHaie still has his fingerprints on that whole setup. He was an amazing guy.”
Jim O, who is now working for Paul Lee’s nitro Funny Car team, took time to talk about the memorable journey of working with LaHaie while he tuned Scott Kalitta to back-to-back Top Fuel championships in the 1994 and ’95 seasons.
“That was probably one of the best teams out there and very underrated,” Jim O said. “He taught all of us. He taught crew guys, he taught Scott what it was like to race and what it was like to win. He always told us when we were winning ‘Hey guys, there’s no other place to go but down.’ All of us had an appreciation for that because we basically started out at the bottom. Before Dick LaHaie got there, for us to win first round was almost like winning a race. He changed that mindset to where that was unacceptable, and we were out there to win races and championships. It was truly an exciting time. We won 11 races in a couple of years and I don’t how many final rounds.
In 1994, it was special because not only was Dick LaHaie running Scott Kalitta’s car, but Tim Richards and Kim Richards were running Connie’s car and they also did very well. It was a competition in our own building and it was an amazing time and probably some of the best times I’ve had racing in my life. He made you want to work harder for him and you wanted to run through a brick wall for him and do the absolute best you could possibly do. It was awesome. The things Dick LaHaie had to put up with us as crew guys, God Bless him, because I don’t think anybody else would have put up with that. We liked to have fun, but we also liked winning and competing against the corporate sponsored teams because we didn’t have a sponsor, Connie was our sponsor. That time in my life was the greatest times I’ve ever had racing just because nobody expected us to go out and do what we did. Dick LaHaie made everyone of us feel like we had a big part in how those championships happened.”
Bender not only enjoyed championship success with LaHaie at Kalitta Motorsports, but he also was with LaHaie with Don Prudhomme’s Top Fuel team when LaHaie guided Larry Dixon to consecutive world titles in 2002 and 2003.
“I’ve worked with a little bit of everybody out there and he was probably the best teacher for sure, he was great,” Bender said. “You would ask him something and he would do something a certain way and he would tell you why exactly he did what he did. I don’t ever remember him telling me something to do that didn’t make sense to me. He’s the most common-sense guy I ever worked with. He would say something and then say this is why we do it this way. Like, lining up the bolts on a race car every head of it, the point would go straight up or if it was a side bolt or on top it would go point forward. I asked him, why are we doing this it is not a show car. He said because when you walk by the car you can see if the bolt is loose or not. It was every detail like that. He was the most detailed guy I ever worked with, that’s for sure.”
Like many people, Bender didn’t believe LaHaie would last long at Kalitta Motorsports.
“At first, we were all like ‘How long is Dick going to make it with Connie?’,” Bender said. “But, it worked OK. We got a car from Cory Mac (McClenathan) that he crashed into the sand traps. So, we went out to California to Cory’s shop and threw it together. We went to Phoenix to test and we made three laps and Dick O (LaHaie) says Ok, I’m ready to go work on some parts now. Connie said, ‘Three laps, what are we doing?’ All he had to do was see a few things he wanted and make sure was right and he was ready to go racing. It was just fun because all of us guys, Nicky, John O, Jim O, me and Doug (Kalitta) were still buddies and it was just a great time and some of the best times of my life.”
The respect LaHaie’s crew members had for him was obvious at his funeral Dec. 15 in Lansing, Mich.
“All the Kalitta guys were there that were at Kalitta when we won the championships, and all the guys (from Prudhomme’s team) were there when we won the championships and I thought that was really cool,” Bender said. “Dick O always took really good care of me and made sure that everything I needed was happening for the race car and me personally.”
When Bender rejoined LaHaie with Prudhomme’s team he brought high expectations.
“I knew if Dick O got everything the way he wanted that we do really good,” Bender said. “The way I rate crew chiefs, it is not all just about winning championships. It is about winning races and winning championships without blowing stuff up. Dick O was the best. If that engine looked bad or something he would almost cry. They were like his babies. To me, Dick O was the best engine guy I ever worked with and he was really good with the clutch as well. The best thing I liked was we could race and not blow stuff up.”
According to Dixon, living up to LaHaie’s standards wasn’t easy.
“It put a lot of pressure on you,” Dixon said about driving with LaHaie as his crew chief. “He wasn’t going to make very many mistakes, so if you were going to lose a round it might come at your expense. It forced you to be on top of your game and I loved working for him. I think of him, like you look back at school and some of the hardest teachers you had and the ones were the hardest to get along with are the ones you remember the most and that taught you the most and that you respect the most and I don’t think of Dick O any differently.”
Bender brought up an example of just how efficient LaHaie was with parts.
“When we were at Prudhomme’s, Snake goes ‘Hey how come you guys have so many parts? You have these many motors and these many heads and all that, and the Funny Car teams only have half of what you do. Dick O looked right at Snake and told him ‘You tell the guys to quit blowing their sh*t up and they will have parts.’ Snake just got up and walked away. In the time Dick O worked at Prudhomme’s we only hurt probably five motors in all years.”
LaHaie came onboard Prudhomme’s team at the end of the 1999 season, and in the winter of 2000, he could envision championships in Top Fuel with Dixon.
“He thought we had everything it took to win a championship, but we needed to learn how to race and then learn how to win,” Dixon said. “It really almost went like clockwork for him. The first full season we had him in 2000 we finished third, and in 2001 we finished second and I don’t know of a team that ever won as many rounds as we did ever and not win a championship. Then, we came back and won back-to-back championships in 2002 and 2003. He definitely knew what he was doing. The way he presented things to you, you didn’t want to let him down. It put pressure on you not to fail and you wanted to give him your best.”
LaHaie last win as a crew chief came at the U.S. Nationals in 2005 in Top Fuel with Dixon behind the wheel and he retired from his duties as a wrench boss at the end of that season.
“I can’t think of very many crew chiefs that know more about an engine than him, and that know how to win more than him,” Dixon said. “LaHaie’s engines stayed together and you didn’t damage them. He was really, really easy on the equipment. I’m sure team owners like Connie and Snake appreciated that because he ran the car like it was his own. He would go full seasons without oil down penalties.”
"At one point I told him that any aspirations I had to be a crew chief he shot those aspirations down. He looked at me and said, “Why would say that?’ I said because you can go to bed at night and come up with an idea on a camshaft and I watched it go down. He would want to change the position of the exhaust lobe a couple degrees and he would call up Engle Cams and have them grind that cam and have them put that camshaft in an engine and actually be able to see the difference. I told him, I don’t have a bone in my body to do what he was doing, and it was so impressive to watch.”