Author: Beckman, Jack
Date published: May 20, 2011
Whew! What a relief. Getting back to the winner's circle at zMAX Dragway was beyond exhilarating. It was like having a 2-ton monkey taken off all of our shoulders. (Aside from King Kong, has anybody really ever seen a 4,000-pound simian?)
With another solid season in 2010, including reaching five final rounds, it may surprise many to know that it had been more than a year since our team last hoisted that beautiful 12-pound metal-and-wood wonder (the Wally) into the air. I learned early in my Sportsman career to never to take winning for granted, but sometimes that's easier said than done. Driving for Don Schumacher, in a car tuned by Rahn Tobler and John Collins - did I mention the 14 magic hands: Mark, Chris, Aidy, Tyler, Bill, Joe, and Dustin - it's natural to expect great results. While none of us were ever feeling down about last year, it was just so frustrating to not be able to celebrate a victory for so long.
Our last win prior to Charlotte came at the Phoenix race on a Monday after most of the television cameras and nearly all of the fans had vacated the premises, long before we defeated John Force, so there really wasn't a ton of celebration. We more than made up for that after winning the NHRA Four- Wide Nationals this year; we had us a proper ceremony with lots of photographers and wellwishers surrounding the team.
Going into the final in Charlotte, there was every reason to feel like it was our day. We had won our two preliminary rounds - there are only three rounds in this format, and technically you could have finished in second in the first two heats and still win the race - had low e.t. of each round, and had the best hot rod on the grounds. It was easy to be confident, but I had to check my emotions before we towed up to the starting line.
Last year in Brainerd, we also had the baddest fuel coupe on the property, setting a track record on Sunday and breezing through the first three rounds into the final, where first-time finalist Bob Bode, who was a tenth of a second behind us in performance, was waiting for us. Seemed like a lead-pipe cinch to me: burnout, stage, floor throttle, and collect trophy. Well, somewhere between numbers three and four on that list of instructions the wheels came off our car (or, more accurately, went into massive spin/smoke). As a fan, I was elated to see Bode, a really cool dude with a dedicated team, bag his first win. As the guy in the other lane, I kinda thought it sucked.
In this sport, there are zero guarantees. For example, funding for a championship nitro team can be difficult to maintain; crew chiefs retire, are reassigned, and sometimes move on to other teams; or crewmembers start families, want a job with less travel, or decide it's time for a career change. My point is that when you are in a final round, you need to treat it like you may never be in that position again and take full advantage of that opportunity to win. Anything less can be very disappointing, and I felt that in Brainerd. I also felt that four out of five times last year, and it can leave a bad taste in your mouth.
So back to Charlotte, where I'm strapped into our Aaron's/Valvoline/MTS hot rod waiting to figure out which one of the four lanes "Tobe" wants us in. This round will determine who gets the trophy, who will be listed as the runner-up, and the other two who will get credit for being "semifinalists" (confusing, but that's four-wide in a nutshell).
I want that trophy, and I know our nine guys are beyond hungry. I know Don Schumacher is anxious to see one of his cars get back into the winner's circle, and I know Aaron's has high expectations for us, especially after Antron's team got the company its first NHRA win at the Vegas race (his car will carry the Aaron's colors for three races this year). Valvoline has been incredibly supportive, even featuring our car in a new advertising campaign, and MTS has been with me since my first pass in a Top Fueler in 2005, but these sponsors pay to have their names in "lights" and deserve to be in the winner's circle.
For the third time that Sunday, our Dodge performed flawlessly, and the reward was as gratifying as we all expected, but there's more to it than that - much more.
Though we hadn't won in more than a year, I think our collective attitude is as much a component of our success as the parts that we use. The fact that Rahn and John lead by example makes it much easier, but each of our guys always seems to recognize that we're never more than four good runs away from victory each Sunday. In other words, losing doesn't change our direction or focus, and it never causes us to panic or second-guess ourselves. It simply reminds us that we participate in a sport where top-fives or podium finishes really have no significance. It reminds us that even in a phenomenal season, you're going to lose 15 or more times.
I wouldn't trade my nine musketeers for any other team win or lose. I feel that I am driving as good as ever, and much of that is due to the confidence I have with everyone on the car. It's not just from a mechanical standpoint - all drivers should trust their crew to do their jobs correctly every time - I'm talking more about how my guys seem to trust me to do my job right every time, and that makes it easier to perform at a high level on a consistent basis. I love that we all expect big things from each other, and the way we do it is conducive to fielding a car that will contend for the championship.
Just make sure to keep that overgrown gorilla away from us. We've got some races to win!
Jack Beckman is the driver of the Aaron's/Valvoline/MTS Dodge Charger Funny Car.