Author: Zizzo, T J
Date published: June 25, 2010
Hello drag racing world. It has always been a goal of mine to write an On the Run column. I have read many columns by drag racing greats, and I have always learned something new about who they were and what kept them racing. With that said, hopefully you can learn a little about the Zizzo dream.
The journey began in 1978, when my dad partnered with the late, great Al DaPozzo to race a Top Alcohol Dragster. Soon after that, my dad purchased a Top Alcohol Dragster. My parents traveled the Midwest in the two-door family duallie while I slept on top of a 100-gallon fuel tank in the bed of the truck that was topped off with a small camper. Now that's good parenting!
While growing up, my dad made sure I learned to work on every part of his car. At the tender age of 16, I competed at every Midwestern track with the UDRA and NHRA Division 3 competitors, and they taught me a lot. Trust me when I say that when driving at 1 o'clock in the morning, with dew rolling in from a nearby cornfield, there was a lot to be learned. At that time, I thought I would be doing that for my entire driving career, and I was content with that. I never imagined driving a Top Fuel car while I was competing in my dad's Top Alcohol Dragster.
Fast-forward 11 years, and with many sacrifices and risks, my dad purchased our Top Fuel dragster. It started in 2002, when he made a phone call to Fred Mandoline. We were performing well with our two (father and son) Top Alcohol Dragsters with roots-type superchargers, but we could not compete against the PSI supercharged and the A/Fuel cars coming into our class. We needed a change, but we did not know the answer. Fred told my dad to drive to Tim Wilkerson's shop and look at his Top Fuel dragster.
So the three Tonys (my dad, Tony Smith, and I) drove to his shop and marveled over it. Tim told us if we made the purchase, he would help us as long as we needed. So over a platter of hot wings at my favorite restaurant near my alma mater, Illinois State University, we decided to go for it. Little did we know what we were getting ourselves into at the time.
Simultaneously, we signed our first marketing partner, Champion Packaging. Through this, we learned a lot about the drag racing business and how to build relationships. Tom Pecora, owner of Champion Packaging, introduced us to Old World Industries (Peak Antifreeze and Motor Oil) in our first season of Top Fuel in 2004. I still call him and thank him for taking a chance on our team, supporting us for the first few years, and introducing us to Peak. Without him, none of this would have been possible. Our relationship with Peak has grown every year since. I am grateful that Rick Jago, Jerry Riccioni, Jim Spaeth, and Brian Bohlander at Peak continue to see the value in NHRA and believe in our team.
On the weekends, I get to drive a Top Fuel dragster (how cool is that), but in real life, I work in the family body shop sanding, prepping, and painting cars during the week. It's a boutique body shop that is on the same property as my dad's house, along with the "race car shop." The race car shop consists of my dad's attached three-car garage and accesses to the crawl space under his living room, where the front end of the Top Fueler sits. Our customers always marvel over the semi that sits outside under the trees. I'm always quick to point out that I can't paint enough cars to pay for our drag racing addiction and thank God everyday for our marketing partners.
I have always enjoyed a good challenge, and let me tell you, Top Fuel is as good as it gets. Sometimes I wake up at 2 a.m. tossing and turning, hoping that I'm not disturbing my wife's sleep and wondering if this is all worth it. In the end, this is the only thing I know. As long as I have great people who surround me and wonderful marketing partners that believe in Team Zizzo, we will keep the wheels on the semi rolling.
As Tim Wilkerson told us when we purchased this car from him, "Every team member must be a workaholic if you want to race and succeed." He wasn't kidding. Our team sacrifices a lot of their time to chase this dream, and their hard work is showing in the recent performance gains we have seen on the track. We only race part time, and every time we pull to the starting line, we look to play the part of a professional Top Fuel team. In 2007, we were the IHRA champion runner-up to Bruce Litton.
This is more of a team sport than most other sports. If just one fastener is left loose, a career or a life could be at stake. We discuss this at every team meeting. Our part-time, dedicated, and very professional team assembles every Tuesday night and Sunday, 50 weeks a year. If it were not for Mike Kern (crew chief), Tony Smith (who has been with us for 19 years, which is a story in and of itself), Joe Cluts, Rick Messmore, Ryan Ramos, Ricky Dale, Chris Schneider, Cathie Gallo, and Mike Adams, there is no way we could be as professional as we are. Together, they are making a little go a very long way.
We have been blessed to have many people in our corner while putting our best foot forward and listening intently. This column would not have been possible if it were not for the support of Tim Wilkerson, Fred Mandoline, Rahn Tobler, Dave Settles, John "Smitty" Harris, and Kalitta Motorsports, who have taught and guided us so much over the years. There are many more who I could acknowledge, but this column would be a list of names with no content. It really does take an army of people to run one of these cars successfully.
I can't finish this article without thanking my wife for putting up with me for 17 years; my two children, Maddie, 5, and Nick, 3, who will probably share my addiction; and Steve Kowalski and Tony Perez, who take care of the shop while I'm pursuing the dream.
I have learned that even with all of its ups and downs and sacrifices, racing is worth it all. I know I was blessed to have had an opportunity to drive a Top Alcohol Dragster at the age of 16, which progressed to an opportunity to drive the fastest-accelerating vehicle on earth. My next goal is to be listed in the Tricky Tipster section of this great publication.
I will see you again on the tour in Indy, Charlotte, Vegas, and Pomona. I'm usually standing at the ropes, rain or shine, signing hero cards and sharing stories with fans. Without fans, professional drag racing would not exist, period.
Follow us 24 hours a day at Twitter.com/tjzizzo, Facebook.com/tjzizzo, Zizzoracing.com, and, coming soon, our blog at NHRA.com.
As the late Tom Baum would have said, "Keep a cool tool in the motor pool. Toot-a-loo."
T.J. Zizzo is the driver of the Peak Performance Top Fuel dragster