Author: Littlefield, Brad
Date published: November 30, 2012
Frank Manzo has bad years that are better than most drivers' good years. Before the season, he predicted that it would take a perfect national scorecard to pull offthe title. That went out the window for Manzo when he lost in the first round at the Norwalk event, his fifth race of the season and fourth time that he didn't reach the final round, which ensured that a semifinal loss would stay on his record.
Timing is everything in this sport. If second-place Tony Bartone had his 2011 season this year or third-place Mickey Ferro had replicated his 2010 season, they might have hoisted the big Wally at the NHRA Lucas Oil awards banquet; however, Manzo closed the deal and surpassed John Force on the all-time list with his 16th NHRA championship.
Manzo was buoyed by a perfect three-win regional scorecard and a run of three wins in his last four national events. No single driver was able to capitalize on the window of opportunity that Manzo opened early in the season. Eleven different drivers scored national event wins in 2012 - an unprecedented total in the 16-race format - and only Manzo and championship runner-up Bartone won more than one.
Even when Manzo was winning rounds and races, he was fighting tire shake in the Al-Anabi Racing Monte Carlo. Frustrated at midseason with his performance and similar struggles with the doorslammer entry that he tunes for Sheikh Khalid bin Hamad Al Thani, he was inspired by a phone call from Qatar.
"My whole Funny Car thing got flat in the middle of the season, and even the Pro Mod car got flat," said Manzo. "Anything I touched wouldn't go down the track. I got a phone call from Sheikh Khalid one day. We talked for about an hour, and he got me going again. We talked about this and about that, and he told me he thought I might be pressing too hard. A week later, my Funny Car started to make the turn, and the Pro Mod started to get better. Sometimes you need to talk to somebody to kind of open your eyes. He gave me my confidence back, and I went out there and started doing good."
One of the keys to Manzo's 16th title was a change in strategy during August. The most successful NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series racer of all time with 21 Division 1 championships, including 16 in the last 17 years, sacrificed an opportunity at winning the East Region championship by attending the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals in Brainerd, where he won the event and took an upper hand in the national championship battle that would not be conceded.
"I guess not going to Cecil County [Md.] and giving up the regional title to go to Brainerd probably was the difference," said Manzo. "I can thank my wife for that. Originally, John [Glade] and I wanted to go to Cecil County for the regional. Michele said we were running out of national events and needed to go to Brainerd."
Another factor in Manzo's title run was the extension of his incredible final-round winning streak. His victories in Chicago, Brainerd, Charlotte, and Reading brought his streak to an amazing 39 national event finals without a loss (his last final-round loss was a red-light start against Jay Payne at the 2006 season opener in Pomona). In contrast, Bartone left63 points on the table in three final-round losses and came up 51 points short of the title.
Manzo locked up the title with a win in Reading that made him the second driver in NHRA history to score 100 national event wins.
"I can remember being a kid whose dream was to just get one win," said Manzo. "It came pretty fast. I've been a fortunate guy. I don't realize a lot of those stats until they're printed. I race my car. I go to the track with the car prepared the best I know how to prepare it. When the opportunity arises, I try to seize the moment."
One area where other teams pale in comparison to Manzo is in the experience of their crews. Manzo, who tunes the car and dives underneath it between rounds to look at the rod bearings, is surrounded by skill and experience. Glade does the clutch and has been his right-hand man since the 1970s. Fred Bauer and Ed Hofmann have been with him for all but his first two championships, and he added young Mike "Killer" Giaffino to the mix last season.
"You go and watch a football game, and all you hear them talk about is the quarterback," said Manzo. "How about the guys in front of him blocking or the wide receiver who goes up for a ball thrown 3 feet too high and catches it with one hand? It's a team effort. I couldn't do it without my guys.
"I always try to have my car wellprepared. Whether I come back from a race where I made one run or seven runs, my car gets taken completely apart at the shop. We go through it every time, every week, every race. I have a great crew that helps me work on it. We go back there and work as a team."
Manzo thanked his wife, Michele; Sheikh Khalid bin Hamad Al Thani and Al-Anabi Racing; Lucas Oil; JEGS; Hoosier Tire; and his crew.
Manzo had kicked around the idea of retirement and thought that his final-round victory at the Auto-Plus NHRA Nationals might have been his last run down the track, but he has decided to make a run at the 2013 title and has a new Murf McKinney chassis on order.
"One hundred wins is nice, but 101 sounds even better," said Manzo. "I was stressed [in Reading]. I was drained. It's hard to win. And who knows if that was going to be my last time climbing out of the thing or what. There were a lot of things going through my mind. We'll have to see. We're going to go on. By the time I got back to Indy and walked back in that shop, I said, 'I'm not done yet.'
"We got tested this year. Next year, we'll be tested a little harder. We'll just see what happens. I think I have to work a little harder on my car this year. And I still love to do it. I'll see everybody next year."