So, Bruce Sarver has a ride!
I spoke several times earlier this year to the very capable driver
and he continued to assure that he was close with sponsorship dollars to
drive a second Alan Johnson-tuned Toyota. Even I didn't think it would
come this way.
The NHRA headline read "Scelzi abdicates seat to Sarver"
and the story following outlines the fact that Gary Scelzi removed
himself temporarily from the seat of the White Cap Toyota Funny Car
"citing the car's sporadic performance and uncomfortable fit as the
Oh that it were that easy...
Let's start this story from the beginning.
The Toyota bodies were mounted on chassis Bruce drove last year
built for him. Maybe, had he done all the Toyota testing, things would
be in a better place. He would have been more consistent in the switch,
Remember that the last two seasons, Johnson has been running two
cars, set up almost identical even though one was TF and one was FC. Due
mostly to less dollars (Remember Team Winston and Team E-Moola.com?)
he's lost that, plus doing driver training besides. There is not the
same driver input Alan had at one time. With less than half the computer
data, and a driver unsure if it is the car or himself, things cannot
have been comfortable.
After a recent race, during Monday tests, Scelzi failed to make a
complete run. As a lark, Sarver hopped in and ran super quick/fast,
nearly the best run for the team all year.
OK, so now, after a few pretty poor showings and only a couple
mediocre showings, with certainly limitless changes, why not throw a
driver change at it too, one fully dialed in to the way they run a car.
Sarver could care less whether it is a Celica or a Citroen. He's a GOOD
I don't mean to take away from Gary because he has proven himself
VERY capable first in alky cars (both funnies and dragsters) and of
course in TF. BUT nitro FCs are a totally different breed. He
took longer to license than predicted we blamed it on the car. Some
of the poor performance we blamed on the car too. Scelzi has a great
deal of alcohol FC experience that should translate well to nitro.
I will tell you that FCs and drivers don't always mix well either. If
they are uncomfortable or incompatible, neither will ever be happy.
Having just recently sat in mine for the first time, I'm concerned I
wish it were an inch wider. I am going to have to lose some girth and
hope my shoulders follow suit.
I hope for Alan Johnson's sake that there is enough sponsor dollars
to spread over two cars. That is what is needed now. It is obvious that
multi-car teams gain huge advantages over single car efforts. If they
build a chassis that fits Scelzi better, with a body that he can see out
of better (another potential problem), all will settle down. I think....
Scelzi certainly won't be away for long. As I write this, in my
hometown of Auburn, Washington, Brad Hadman is whittling out an all-new
Toyota Celica FC, perfectly suited to the Fresno, California native's
size and shape. Word is that it will test first then debut as soon as
As has been made quite clear here and many other places, much effort
has been made to give the Toyota FC huge potential for doing one thing
-- winning. So far, that hasn't happened.
Many will suspect that the whole problem rests on the driver's
shoulders -- in this case Gary Scelzi's and that he is out of a
ride. If you got any of that from what I've written here, that is not
my intent at all.
Mr. Scelzi is not only fully capable of wheeling everything from a
bass boat to the space shuttle, he will get back into a nitro FC and
prove it by winning this year. Alan Johnson has no intention of losing
this kind of talent that has given him a wall full of Wallys already.
As I said, all that was written May 13, before Bruce Sarver stepped
into the car at E-town.
Of course, little did anyone know that soon two weeks later a
far more dramatic PR would be issued.
Its headline offered that Scelzi and Johnson had split "after
five glorious seasons" and described Gary's new situation as a
free agent. The verbiage maintained that the split was "mutually
agreed upon" but the whole tone suggested things were less than
I have watched the Johnson family work and race for many years but
have never done more than say "hello" to Alan and Blaine
Johnson over the years. The same with Gary Scelzi, although many years
ago, I did a feature on the Miner Brother's TAFC while he was driving.
My outside observations helped me form an opinion: That the Johnson
family was close-knit and serious about their racing AND was among the
best team to work for
Furthermore, Scelzi's attitudes and desires
are so similar you'd think he was a Johnson family member. The mutual
admiration society was obvious.
For those that don't know, Blaine's death caused a strange
"wave" of feelings the likes of which may never happen again.
He was leading the points that season, and only the fact that he was no
longer out there did Kenny Bernstein eventually surpass his lead for the
1996 WC. Everyone, especially KB, knew that there should always be an
asterisk on the history books. Similar points anomalies involving death
had happened in other motorsports but never in drag racing.
Rumors of Alan Johnson never fielding a car again were prevalent, but
when the announcement came that he'd chosen fellow Californian Scelzi
to ride an all-new TF team, few were surprised. Alan, Blaine, and Gary
had become close in their years of alcohol competition. The decision was
quickly justified when Scelzi won the first two races of 1997 on his way
to ten final rounds, the world title and Rookie of the Year. He was
champ again in 1998 and 2000, with a total of 25 national event wins in
38 final-round appearances over the five-year marriage with Johnson. Of
course, that on top of a number of alcohol national and regional wins.
By the way, his nine victories in 2000 still remains the most for TF in
a single season, although that footnote has a good shot at being
surpassed this year by Larry Dixon should he continue on his pace. After
such a superb piece of history, the Johnson/Scelzi team appeared to be
headed toward "forever." But
"Alan and I had some great times and accomplished so much
together," Scelzi was quoted in the PR. "This was a very tough
decision for both of us. But some recent developments with the team and
the way things have played out versus what I was told would happen
forced me to reevaluate my career. To a certain extent, I feel that my
hand was forced so I'll just pack up and move on and wish Alan and his
family the very best."
See what I meant by "tone"?
Alan's side of the equation went like this.
"I did all of this switchover to Funny Car for Gary. Without
question, he's a very marketable guy. That's why all these other teams
are after him. But right now, I feel like he needs time in the seat. I'm
not upset with Gary Scelzi at all. Circumstances just fell into place
this way and here we are.
"The timetable for the second car is not in concrete. So in
order to allow Gary to explore the many options that are coming his way
we decided to release him. If our deal comes through before he lands
somewhere else then he's more than welcome to come back here. But to be
fair we wanted to let him go out and do what he thinks is best for him
and his family. There are no hard feelings at all. I completely
understand his position.
"The idea was to get a second Funny Car up and running with no
pressure on Gary to win or try for the championship this year and let
Gary drive the wheels off of it until he feels totally comfortable. If
he's going to drive a Funny Car, he needs to learn how to drive them.
"Right now he needs to do what's right for Gary. I did what's
right for me. I had two choices - have a car with Gary Scelzi driving it
but with no sponsor, or have a car with a sponsor with Bruce driving
A mouthful indeed.
"I'd like to think I have a lot to offer a team," added
Scelzi. "I think my record on the drag strip speaks for itself and
my driving abilities and I'm also acutely aware of what it takes to keep
pace on the business side of drag racing in regards to attracting and
maintaining sponsorship commitments.
"My express wish is to land with a championship-caliber team, or
even to have my own operation if I could find the right corporate
backing, and win some more championship trophies. I'm not going to do
this on a thrown-together level. It's either run for the championship
legitimately or hang it up.
"It's getting to that time of the year when sponsors and teams
are putting their 2003 plans together," Scelzi said. "Without
a timetable from Alan, I didn't want to get caught sitting on the
sidelines waiting while all the best jobs are gobbled up. I thought
maybe it was time to pursue other interests.
"I've got nothing but good things to say about Alan Johnson and
his family. It was a great five years. He just made a decision to put
Bruce in the car with no guarantees as to when I'd be driving again
because he wasn't sure about the funding. I can understand that.
"It's sad to leave Alan. The last time we talked, he sounded a
little choked up and we all know how emotional I get. This is a crazy
sport. I thought Alan and I would be together forever. It just wasn't
meant to be, I guess, but I bet we both come out of this okay."
Rumors abound with various top-level teams discussing possibilities
with Gary Scelzi, including John Force. One of the reasons Scelzi wanted
to switch from TF to FC was due to the tire blowouts that took out wings
and caused crashes. Those troubles seem to have been alleviated by the
new Goodyear tires, so don't rule out a new TF ride for Gary.
After seven races with GS in the seat, the White Cap Toyota has been
to two finals for Bruce Sarver, and although no wins have happened yet,
I suspect those will come along. And, I would tend to agree with Scelzi
that both he and the Johnson team will come out of this OK.
Other major personnel changes on the NHRA tour?
Let's see, Mike Green bounced up as crew chief for Darrell Gwynn's
Andrew Cowin-driven Yankee dragster. I think Todd Smith is still on the
And, Don Prudhomme "stole" Rob Flynn away from Worsham
Racing to be crew chief on the blue Skoal FC driven by Tommy Johnson,
Jr. A second decision there put Ed McCulloch in charge of just Ron Capps'
green Skoal Camaro instead of both. This focus has already paid off with
For you stat freaks, Flynn is another of those deep-thinking
Canadians in the same vein as Dale Armstrong, Bernie Fedderly, and Les
Davenport. He was born in Edmonton, Alberta, began his Pro career in
1982 on Terry Capp's Wheeler Dealer alongside Fedderly. He worked for
several different teams before serving as Bazemore's crew chief from
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