Are They Kidding?
By Phil R. Elliott
Pretty amazing speculative stuff comes down the pike during silly season, everything from ridiculous sponsors to riders swapping horses.
Keep in mind that virtually everything I'll share here is in rumor stages only. And RUMORS are not truths, so please, no letters and nasty emails when this stuff doesn't fully pan out. I offer these items for entertainment value only, there is no wagering allowed. And, it is not my intention to ruffle feathers.
You all certainly know that Rhonda Hartman-Smith will forsake her ever-improving TF seat to attempt to add to her family. Sponsor Fram has already announced they'll move to the Carrier Boyz and their driver, Cory McClennethan. No announcement has been made as to the other Hartman Motorsports entry, John Smith's ride. However, patriarch Virgil has built two Mustang "nostalgia" funny cars, one which debuted with Richard Hartman at the wheel almost two months ago. Just maybe, Virgil is looking to slow things down somewhat.
Look for Ed McCulloch to crewchief one of the Schumacher team FCs for 2005, maybe the one Ron Capps will wheel. I hear that several teams have been bidding on Capps' talent, including John Force. But wait, my sources tell me Ron has two years to go on a contract with "The Snake." Do I hear buyout?
Team Schumacher is awash in rumors, especially in the new Bob Glidden-led Pro Stock garage, a totally separate entity to the huge complex on Nitro Alley being buttoned up as I write this. Glidden has gone on record to suggest that with all that will go on around the fuel teams, distractions would be way too much.
These will be Mopars of course, and after falling apart on a deal to purchase the entire Larry Morgan operation, Don Schumacher wrote a check to Steve Schmidt, then another to equip the place with tools and machinery. Considering the craziness, Bob still had the first engine on the dyno in less than thirty days.
The rumors are huge regarding drivers, and all my indicators point to Jeg Coughlin as the main one. If true, this will be huge to the followers of Team Jeg's, and I suspect his ride will wear the familiar yellow and black colors of the mail-order giant that bears his father's name. Most consider Schmidt a logical choice as a second driver, and maybe that was part of Schumacher's package deal. You know, X-amount plus a two-year, fully competitive ride. But my controversial nature wants to head out on that proverbial limb and stick Billy Glidden in the second car. He has obviously done everything possible with his 5.0 program in the small pond of Ford-only races. But a full-tilt deal with Daimler-Benz would curtail that.
Back to Force. Yes, longtime best friend Gary Densham is out. That co-op effort was only supposed to be short term, after all. In the seat may be John's son-in-law, Robert Hight, who has already tested and licensed with a string of 4.7s following the recent Las Vegas national event. It must be nice to climb into such a well-tuned machine as your first ride, and the team will run the wheels off their vehicles before 2005 starts to make sure he's right with the operation and correct for the sponsors. Like the choice of Eric Medlen, John Force likes to keep things in the family.
Of course, my cynical mind asks this question of John Force. "While considering putting your son-in-law in that nitro-snorting funny car, do you like him or hate him?" I'm not sure.
But back to reality, the two youngsters in the FCs make me believe John has a long-term plan to replace himself but with a twist. With the boys in the floppers, maybe he'll put the girls in the dragsters. Ashley is obviously being groomed for a Professional ride, and she will stay in the injected nitro dragster for 2005. I look for a guest/test driver in a Team Force TF entry next year, with Ashley stepping in by Indy or soon after. Her following would have to be huge by then.
And please don't think that I believe John Force has gotten too old. No way. This guy is unbelievably fit and ready to win twenty more championships.
I mentioned Ron Capps earlier so I'll next cover all the rumors about the Don Prudhomme camp. Would you believe that I've heard that, other than Don, Dick LaHaie and Larry Dixon Jr., the whole slate will be wiped clean? And having watched as seemingly dozens of crewchiefs and crewmembers experienced the revolving door there over the past couple years, I wouldn't be surprised.
I know that the dragster group has had a terribly "off" year (for them) but I doubt Dick LaHaie will enter 2005 without an all-new A-game to combat the enemy. They got slightly behind while holding off the opposition during their quest for the 2003 championship and it has taken a concerted effort to pull back even.
I want to hear that Bobby Brandt will head up the FC shop, but I doubt that'll happen. He and Prudhomme have such a great history, I just like the sound of it.
I hear rumors that Mike Dunn will de-bug the above rumored John Force fueler and he sure has a lot of TF experience. However, if the Prudhomme camp unravels, Tommy Johnson Jr. is my pick. This story will have to wait. Have I heard about replacement drivers for two funny cars? Not at all. Both Capps and Johnson may be right where they are now. Or maybe just one car? I still hear rumors about a second TF car in the Prudhomme camp with Mrs. Johnson at the controls.
Prudhomme's main backer Skoal, a product of U.S. Tobacco, must be under pressure due to their high profile sponsorship. Even smokeless tobacco products will eventually be shut out of such endeavors. Hopefully, Don Prudhomme the businessman has some alternatives waiting in the wings to help produce the performance so necessary to Don Prudhomme the racer.
I wonder if you know that Connie Kalitta leases many of the large aircraft seen in movies for the past dozen or more years. If the movie has scenes of planes taxiing, taking off, or presidents waving and walking down stairs, likely that giant background prop came from Mr. Kalitta. He has a fleet of transport planes, plus a business that buys/sells mostly large aircraft. Recently one of his 747s was in the news when an entire engine fell off somewhere over Lake Michigan!
I've been asked whether Connie will maintain the three car onslaught into 2005, and honestly, I don't know. It seems like the team gets along well, and it is obvious the cars and drivers have performed up to expectations. The biggest question is about Dave Grubnic, and whether Team Kalitta sees the wisdom in an "R&D" car for the future. Sponsorship has come along but I don't see lack of it to be a deal breaker. After all, they started the 2004 season without it on Grubnic's ride.
Did you ever wonder about testing, especially tire testing? In this day of ever-escalating costs in racing, racers get paid by Goodyear to test their latest offerings. Of course, they pick competitive AND consistent teams, then give the chosen team more than $4,000 per run plus a credit for five pairs of tires. That doesn't pay for everything but is a nice feeling at the end of the day, especially if a team doesn't hurt too many parts.
And, following many of these Goodyear test sessions, Akron scientists may just ask NHRA to let nitro teams return to 90%. Theory suggests that the constant chunking is caused by slower tire speeds and tire surface "cupping". With just the edges or shoulders in contact, those areas overheat and cause pieces to delaminate. With more nitro, Goodyear hopes the cars will get back up on their tire earlier in each run and stop the chunking problem.
Whatever is decided, I wish all of the nitro teams safety, strong, consistent performances, and a stable set of rules throughout 2005.
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