NHRA TRANSCRIPT: SKOAL SHOWDOWN TELECONFERENCE
WITH TOMMY JOHNSON JR., RON CAPPS, GARY SCELZI AND JOHN FORCE
WITH TOMMY JOHNSON JR., RON CAPPS, GARY SCELZI AND JOHN FORCE
BOB FREY: For those who may not know, the rules for qualifying for the Skoal Showdown are fairly simple. Drivers get points based on their qualifying, and the higher you qualify the more points you get. One-hundred seventy-five points if you are number one and 165 if you are second. It drops in 10–point increments for the first four. It really does put a premium on being in the top four. It drops off by five points after that. If you are the 16th qualifier, you get 85 points. Unfortunately if you do not qualify, you get zero and that has happened to a couple of the drivers this year and we will talk more about that in a bit.
Points actually begin right at the U.S. Mac Tools Nationals. For example, after Indy last year, John Force was the number one qualifier. Six of the eight drivers in the top eight after Indy last year managed to hold on to the entire season and will run for the Skoal Showdown this year. It is pretty important to get off to a good start and make the other guys chase you.
This will be the 25th anniversary of the Skoal Showdown. It got started back in 1982 and a couple of Hall–of–Famers are the guys that won. Frank Hawley beat Don "the Snake" Prudhomme. Snake has a team running in the Skoal Showdown and it will be Tommy Johnson, Jr.
Some of the background on some of the numbers for people who competed. In the 24 previous events, 49 drivers have competed and that's a pretty select group over the last quarter of a century. Twenty-three different drivers made it into the final round and there have been 14 winners of the Skoal Showdown. Ironically with all the good drivers that have been in there, only six drivers have won it more than one time. Two of them we have on here for the teleconference; John Force has won it five times, and Ron Capps has won it three times.
It is tough to repeat. Just getting into the top eight is very tough, especially with the quality of the field, but it is tough to repeat. Believe it or not, in the previous 24 years, only two drivers have won this event in back–to–back years. Al Hoffman did it, and one of the drivers we have on the teleconference, Ron Capps, did it. It is a very tough thing to do.
Last year's winner of the Skoal Showdown, Del Worsham, won the Skoal Showdown and then won the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals the next day. He did not qualify for the event this year. It is not unprecedented. Prior to this season only five times did the defending champion not qualify for the event the next season. I am sure Del doesn't want his name to be on the list. As I always say, I don't write them, I just read them.
The race day purse is $147,000. That is just part of the money that the folks at U.S. Smokeless Tobacco and Skoal put up. During the course of the year they pay $4,000 at each race as low qualifier money. If you add it up, it is a quarter of a million dollars that the folks from Skoal and U.S. Smokeless Tobacco put up in cash against this event every season. Del Worsham last year wins the Skoal Showdown and then backs it up with a win at the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals. That's another $50,000 bonus. There are six drivers that have done that over the past few years.
In addition to the four drivers who were scheduled to be on the teleconference, we have Robert Hight in the program, Eric Medlen who went to the finals last year, Tony Pedregon who is the 2003 champ will not be happy when I mention this stat, has the distinction of the driver to beat in the Skoal Showdown the most times without a win. He has been in it 11 times coming into the season. Last year Del Worsham had been in it ten times and had one win.
It is interesting to note, while the drivers are racing it is part of the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals. The POWERade point battles qualifying to go into the Skoal Showdown is important. The points carry over or reflect where we are in the national standings. Last year the final champion, Gary Scelzi, who won the POWERade Championship, won it, even though he had less race wins than the guys who were right behind him and the qualifying points were very important for those drivers.
It is good to get off to a great start. And two of the drivers we have on for the teleconference, John Force and Ron Capps, are involved in that points battle this season.
That gives you a very quick history of what has gone on in the past. We will talk to a couple of our drivers. Ron Capps is on with us. Ron, are you there?
CAPPS: Yes, sir.
FREY: Ron has three Skoal Showdown wins. He won in '98, '99 and '02. This is the first time you have been back in here. How does it feel?
CAPPS: It feels good. Last year I was crushed I wasn't in it. You win it not only once but you win it like we did three times and you look so forward to this event, and to stand around and walk up and watch it when you are not in it, it was a pretty empty feeling. I talked with Ace (crew chief Ed McCulloch) and we said we would work real hard to make the field this year.
FREY: You had one of the more emotional wins here. Tell us about it.
CAPPS: It was a snakeskin car. I have been with U.S. Smokeless Tobacco nine or ten years. We had a special car put up in the snakeskin. We caught it on fire first round and they sent me to the infield care center, the burn center and the late Steve Evans snuck me out in the golf cart and we got back to the pit area. And there were about 30 fans helping put the car back together because I think Del Worsham at the time had beaten Force. And I was in the burn center watching the TV. I said, we may have a shot at this. Steve Evans snuck me back and we went on to win the thing with our backup body. It was an emotional day.
FREY: Everybody on the team was walking off and Snake (then-owner Don Prudhomme) had tears in his eyes. It was impressive with the team you have together. You have qualified well for this thing and it has been consistent in your performance all year.
CAPPS: We haven't qualified as high as we wanted to. Last year we sat down and looked and the showdown points that Skoal put up is to get into the field, but you also have to look at it for points, at season–ending POWERade Championship points. So we lost a lot of points with our standings in qualifying and we really want to work on that, not only to get into the Skoal Showdown but to make sure we gain as many points as we can and everything that goes with that.
I have said it especially the last ten races, almost every interview, we are fighting for a championship right now but our second goal right behind that was to get into the Skoal Showdown. We got in. It is a tough field. Del is not in, like you said. There are tough cars that didn't make it. A few races ago I was pretty nervous. The last race we knew who you were and then you look at who you are going to run the first round. We are nervous on a race day where after Saturday qualifying you know who you are going to run. Now we know who we are going to run for a week so it has made it pretty difficult.
FREY: We wish you a lot of luck here this weekend.
FREY: Tommy Johnson is also on with us. He will be representing the Don Prudhomme team and the Skoal Smokeless Tobacco debuted the limited edition of the Skoal Monte Carlo a couple races ago. It is his third appearance in the show. How are you feeling?
JOHNSON JR.: Good, good. Proud to be in it. That's probably one of our team's most important goals throughout the season is to make sure we make the Skoal Showdown and to get the car and not only for the championship for the whole season, but that's probably one of the bigger things on our minds throughout the season.
FREY: Now, you have been in this twice before. You still get a little nervous going into these things with the kind of money and competition that you are competing against?
JOHNSON JR.: I guess you get a little nervous, but not really. This is the eight best guys out here as far as the eight best cars and the best guys you race against every week. It is not really more nervous, but it is definitely the toughest eight cars out here. It is not going to be an easy trip.
FREY: What about the fact that you are running for the Skoal folks? I know a lot of people say if their sponsors are sponsoring an event, it turns out to be a hectic time for them.
JOHNSON JR.: Yeah, you know, last year, this being the thing everybody kept asking me if there was added pressure, I kept thinking yeah, there is a little bit of added pressure. When it came down to it, the support they give us is win, lose or draw. I was actually most comfortable going into that first round last year and probably drove better than I've ever driven and still got beat. I think there is probably just more added pressure we put on ourselves, not from the sponsors, not from Skoal or anybody involved.
Skoal Racing Monte Carlo, you want to make sure that's in the deal and I think that's where the pressure comes from. And when you finally get in it, race day is kind of a relief. I feel more relaxed I think than I do all season.
FREY: You have a pretty good race car. The big win at Brainerd, Minn. and the low ET in the finals. You have to have as much confidence in (crew chief) Mike Green and your team as you have all season long.
JOHNSON JR.: Absolutely. I couldn't think of a better time to peak in the season than coming into Indy for the Skoal Showdown and the U.S. Nationals. Definitely the car running right now the way it is it gives me a lot of confidence and definitely gives you a hope that you have got the car to beat going into that. We qualified, I think –– I think this is the highest I have ever been in the Skoal Showdown coming into it and we missed getting lane choice by just ten points there last weekend.
I don't think that's important. We are trying to have a little bit of advantage, but I don't think it will hurt us at all. It will be a great race between Gary Scelzi and myself.
FREY: First of all, John (Force), nice to have you with us here today, getting set to go into the Skoal Showdown. This is like a regular part of your Indy ritual, isn't it? You know you are going to come here and run in the Skoal Showdown.
FORCE: It is really good because if you can win it, it is just kind of –– you have worked all year for this and part of last year qualifying. So it is kind of a way to flex your muscles if you can and back it up back–to–back, that's really cool, and make NHRA give you the extra bonus. We all like this.
FREY: John has been in the race 11 times in the final round. That's a record. He has five wins, that's a record. Six more runner–ups. A little bit of history is because you are not going in as the number one qualifier. It is the first time in 17 years that you haven't been the number one guy.
FORCE: Well, stuff happens.
FREY: Do you find it a little hard to swallow or what?
FORCE: Nope, yeah. It is just the way it goes. This year we have come out and we have pretty fast hot rods, just can't win races. Capps is whipping me in the heat. I hope we get a cold front here in Indy so I can survive. It is what it is.
FREY: You run for this thing, and there is an awful lot of money and you share that with your teams. We wonder what motivates a champ. It must be the money because in the whole history of the Skoal Showdown you are the only guy to win a whole round on one shot. Does that add up for this kind of thing?
FORCE: I better have to if I am going to whip these young guys. They have the energy. I have to find it through POWERade or something or Power Bars. I am on the Power Bars.
SCELZI: Yes, sir, Bob.
FREY: You are getting set to go into this thing with a very good team with your Mopar Oakley Dodge. How do you like running these big money events?
SCELZI: It is flattering to be in these because it is the eight best of the whole year and Funny Car is such a tough class anymore that it is like a normal race. Anybody can win from any spot. It is just the eight of us are the elite, and the $100,000 is always sweet, too.
FREY: It will be interesting now that you have raced in both the Top Fuel and the Funny Car classes. We were talking to Tommy and he said you don't have a prayer.
SCELZI: Tommy has been drinking a lot lately and I think he will try to get off the sauce before the Skoal Showdown. We will give Tommy all he wants, so to hell with Tommy.
FREY: He didn't say that.
SCELZI: Damn you, Frey.
FREY: You have been such a fixture in the Funny Car class we think you have been in the showdown a lot, but this is your third time in the Funny Car class. You run it the same way as you did with the Top Fuel cars. Just let it all hang out?
SCELZI: That's it. Hopefully we will get the car qualified early on Friday and Saturday so we don't have to mess around and we can go stand on it and see what we can get away with it because it is $100,000. It is a gamble. You have the best of the best. You have to see what you can do on Monday. The key is to make some good runs early so you have a good idea of where you are at and hope the weather doesn't throw you a curve.
Q. Ron, how is Ace doing, first of all?
CAPPS: He is good. He is pissed off; he is waiting in line with the car and he is up there and I am down here. He is back to normal.
Q. Is he all done with his chemo?
CAPPS: Yes. He didn't have to do it. The stuff they pulled out was noncancerous. That was the best news, he had no chemo to go through this time.
Q. This is for Tommy, Ron, and Gary. With the success of Force’s TV show (“Driving Force,” Mondays at 9 p.m. on A&E), has his head gotten any bigger?
SCELZI: If Force can't fit in the room, that's because he is talking from the parking lot.
Q. Is he wired?
SCELZI: He is always wired.
Q. Ron, what do you think? Tommy, is he the same quiet kind of guy?
CAPPS: He is looking a little older.
Q. This is for John. You have been a popular driver for several years. How much more popular are you now to the non–racing audience since your show has taken off?
FORCE: Well, the first question I'm asked every week, do you have any chance of catching Capps? Still has nothing to do with the TV show. People are caught up in what I do out here and it is exciting. We find a new group of fans with my family and just interested about racing. And I think if we are accomplishing anything, we are showing them what we do, and that will help the sport and that will help us find new sponsorship, all of us, not just my teams. We are getting a lot of new people looking. We will see.
Q. This is for Ron and Gary. What is it about Indy that has become –– it has been special for decades now. Is it the fact it is a little more special now knowing so many teams have moved to the area? This is for Ron, Gary or whoever else wants to answer this, how important Indy is to NHRA.
SCELZI: I think it is the prestige and the age of the race. From the beginning this is the race that the guys from the west coast would come out to, the guys from the east coast, from everywhere. If you didn't have money, you saved your hundred to come to Indy to make the splash. If you could do well here, that would be your ticket to paradise, you could land a sponsor, at least you would be recognized or try to become a household name.
I mentioned the story, years ago in 1986 I came here with my alcohol dragster. I was dead broke, battling for the championship with Bill Walsh. I made it to the final and I got beat by Eldon P. Slick. Nobody had heard of him before. Nobody heard of him ever. Every time this guy was in a drag race, it was Eldon P. Slick, the winner of the U.S. Nationals in 1986. I think he ended up winning two or three races. Great guy, but that was his tag, that was his deal that he won the U.S. Nationals.
It is one if you win the championship or you don't win a championship, if you have won the U.S. Nationals, you have done something.
CAPPS: Growing up in the sport, I used to it watch all the heroes. You watch all the other drag races but you particularly watch Indy. To watch all the guys who have won Indy over the years, the history, it is definitely something you want to put on your résumé as the driver.
FORCE: What makes me nervous about Indy, the guy we are up against right now –– we are up against everybody in the room, but Ron Capps' crew chief has won this thing ten times or something. He holds the record for wins here. No one has dominated at Indy like he has, so we will keep an eye on you.
Q. I have a question for TJ. TJ, Bob alluded to the fact that there is added pressure at the sponsor’s event. Since Indy is your transplanted home and the fact that not only do you have to race the rounds of the Skoal Showdown but you are also in qualifying for the elimination come race day, how does that all transpire or come to play into your philosophy for the weekend?
JOHNSON JR.: You definitely want to go out and try to get the car qualified Friday and Saturday so you don't have to worry about that. That's the last thing you want to worry about when you go into the first round of the Skoal Showdown. If you are not qualified, it puts more pressure on there. As long as the guys go out and get the show good Friday and Saturday, you can forget about qualifying for a short period of time and just go out there and go back to a normal Sunday race.
Being able to sleep in my own bed a couple miles from the racetrack, that helps a little bit and takes the pressure off. There is still added pressure. Indy is so big and you want to try to win the Skoal Showdown on Sunday and get back and win it on Monday. I think it will all go back on how you qualify Friday and Saturday. The first run may dictate how the whole weekend goes.
Q. This is for John. With all the distractions of taping this show, how are you managing to keep a focus going into the biggest race of the season, Indy?
FORCE: I thought I was going to be free at Indy, but A & E wants more shows so the cameras are coming to Indy, which is going to be a pain because it is hard to focus. You walk around with a radio stuck to you all day and a radio in your ear. I took a job, I have to do it.
Q. Are you adjusting or is it still difficult?
FORCE: It is hard on the whole family because you live it. It was fun at first and then it got painful. We are trying to work through it. To win a championship as everybody in the room knows, you have to focus every day on just that. If your focus isn't there, you can't win.
And that's the issue that I have of getting back to Castrol and Ford and Mac Tools and the money they are spending. They are great I have a TV show and it is doing good. But, you know, we are here to sell Mustangs and you need to get that job done. It is that way for any driver, Capps or Scelzi or Tommy here. So I just have to get my stuff together. There ain't no party and beer drinking in my life. It has pretty much come to an end here for a while.
Q. Here is a question for any of one of you. You struggled with the weather in Memphis. What's the weather forecast for the Indy race?
FORCE: I don't think it will be as bad as Memphis. If it is as good as it is here today it would be wonderful.
FORCE: It depends on the fans. The fans take it either way. Tires smoking, balls of fire or national records. They are always happy. We will give them something.
Q. Tommy, how is Melanie (Tommy’s wife, driver of the Skull Shine/Torco Race Fuels Top Fuel dragster) doing? Kind of fell into a slump after that great start.
JOHNSON JR.: She is not any easier to live with at home, I can tell you that. The TV show is affecting John's household, the slump is affecting mine. She is all right actually. She is enjoying the success they had earlier in the season and hopefully see will be up here on the starting line rooting for me on Sunday in the Skoal Showdown.
But I think they are on their way back. It is a little bump in the road. We all go through them. I went through it earlier in the season. We had some struggles and I used her for motivation. Hopefully I can kick her in the butt and she can do better the rest of the year.
THE MODERATOR: All right, thanks, John. Thanks to Skoal and thanks, Bob, for hosting today. Take care, everyone, and we will see you in Indy.
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