Interview with the Pros: Larry Dixon
by NHRA Communications
Larry Dixon is all about racing. Just ask him to talk about anything else. He'll try, but it won't last long. This guy knows racing and he would rather talk about that than most other topics. After finishing a close second in 2001, he is seeking his first NHRA POWERade Top Fuel championship. Going into the SummitRacing.com Nationals in Las Vegas, Dixon has been in the final round in the first three races of the season, taking home two victories. In this Q&A session, Dixon talks about what it is like to race for legendary Don "The Snake" Prudhomme, what he has had to do to earn the right to pilot the Miller Lite Dragster and tidbits in-between.
Q: What is your dream race? Who are you racing and where?
DIXON: My dream race is Indy. It is always Indy. We have a two-car team and Don Prudhomme comes back for this one race and we are using him as a blocker because we are in the points race. I would love to race Don Garlits, at least once. So we beat Garlits in the first round because I figure our car is running real good and he doesn't run all the races so we qualified up front and he qualified in the back, so we matched up in the first round. Obviously, we get the win. In the second round, we race anybody. I don't know who I would want to race next, but we get to the final round and we are racing Snake. He is on the other side of the ladder and he knocked off all the point guys. But now, we are in the final and he is done blocking and he wants to win the race because, this is Indy. When you are in the final round of Indy, you don't have any friends. So we have got to race him for the win and we beat him, fair and square. We beat him 4.43 to a 4.45 and we are both .460 on the tree. He went in deeper. No, he'll kill me for saying that. I would love that. That would be an all-time dream race for me. Anyone who has grown up around racing knows that Indy is the same for us as Daytona is for the Cup group. Indy is huge. Snake said he would never ever drive again. But Indy, I think he could be enticed. In the beginning of time, there was only one race and it was Indy. That was it. The Nationals. It was called the Nationals. It was the only one.
Q: What is something interesting about yourself that no one knows about?
DIXON: When I first started working for Don Prudhomme, I was washing oil pans. I cleaned up. I didn't even get to work on the car. I just cleaned stuff. Starting out from the very bottom and now getting to be close to the stop has helped me. It has helped me as far as getting to know different parts of the car. I feel very comfortable mechanically for everything behind me and how it all operates. If ever something is wrong, I would be able to tell if it is a major or minor thing going on back there. It is a sense of comfort. Some people don't care, but I do. Some people don't have any idea about how any of that stuff works. They are OK with that. I feel more comfortable knowing. You have to know what is going on otherwise they fire you because you are not a good worker. It was out of necessity that I knew what was going on with the car. The driving thing came along later.
Q: Have you learned how to win?
DIXON: I think I am closer now than I have ever been. I think that you see some guys like Force and Bernstein. When their cars are running well, they let the wins come to them. They don't have to go out and get it themselves. I think I am learning some of that just by being in such a great race car. You don't have to make it happen. You need everything it takes to win, on a consistent basis. I've learned that it takes everybody in a total, complete, 100 percent team effort to make that happen.
Q: What can you take from last year's second place finish and apply to the 2002 season?
DIXON: We had a great car, we had a great season, and I think Kenny just had a little bit better of a year. We had a great year, but his was just a little better. I'm not going to throw stones at our season last year. We won more races than we ever had in a year; we won more rounds than anybody ever had than any season ever, other than Kenny last year. We won Indy, again. Was it a bad year? Not a chance. But one person had a better year. I think that our goal over the winter was to make our total package a little better and have it from the start of the season.
Q: The race for the 2001 Top Fuel championship came down to the wire and you and Kenny Bernstein battled for the title up until the final race of the season. Did a season like that wear you out?
DIXON: Did it wear me out? No. Had it been that we had a monstrous lead going into the last four or five races and suddenly Kenny is running great and he turns the tables and basically takes it from us, then that would have called for panic mode if we let it slip away. That would have worn me out. But that didn't happen. We ran great. Probably from Brainerd on every race we went to we had the potential to win. In the places we didn't win, we still had a strong car. We won Brainerd; we won Indy. We went to Memphis and lost to Kenny in the final because we had ignition trouble. We didn't catch it. The next race we go to is Chicago. We run a 4.57 and Kenny runs a 4.53. We go to Reading. We both run 4.51. It isn't like we screwed up or let up. We lost close drag races. We left Reading and we went to Dallas and ran great and won Dallas. In Vegas, we dropped a cylinder; we got beat. Flat out. Same thing happened to Kenny in the final. We went out in the second round; he went out in the final. Those kinds of things happen. Then we come to Pomona; we didn't win. We lost 4.52 to a 4.51. That could have been flip-flopped. If you ran the cars again and didn't tune them any different, it could have been a different ending. You can't get tipped over because you didn't win every single race. I didn't, because you keep knocking on the door, eventually the door will open and you will get in there.
Q: The Miller Lite team has started where you left off in 2001 and you have already been to winner's circle a couple of times. What are your expectations for the 2002 season?
DIXON: The natural progression is that if we finished third in 2000 and second in 2001, it would be nice to be No. 1 after this season. I know that from what we did last year we are going to try to improve in the places that we were weak. We just want to improve our team. Just like when an NFL team goes to the playoffs, they get knocked out in the playoffs and they find a weakness, whether it is in the offense, defense or special teams, they work on that and come back and try to do it again. That is us. We are trying to work on the weak spots and keep the strong areas strong. We are going to try again. If we had another season like we did last year and someone else won the championship because they had a better year, I don't know. If everybody is putting forth a total effort to get everything done, that is all you can do. We can try our hardest. If you happen to be better, the hard work paid off. If it doesn't, then you have to work harder.
Q: Are you prepared for another season of close battles and the title being on the line with one race left on the schedule?
DIXON: I would love that. The reason I love it is because it is a lot more fun being part of the battle as opposed to being in 12th place, watching it go on and being used as a stepping stone. I've been there before too. It is nice. It puts more pressure on you to be perfect in the car, tuning the car, everything. I think that experience last year helped me and I would like to think it helped the rest of the team the same way. As far as (crew chief Dick) LaHaie goes, he has been through all of this before. He's done it all, driving, and tuning. But he still wants more.
Q: What do you like most about Dick LaHaie?
DIXON: He doesn't beat around the bush. If you are not doing something right, he will call you right out on it. He doesn't paint a bunch of roses, and you may not like to hear it right then and there. But it cuts to the chase. He has helped me. He forces me and the team to get better. You either get better or you get out. He has a lot of goals that he still want to achieve and he wants everyone around him to have the same kind of attitude. It's nice to have someone with that kind of desire who has accomplished so much in his career.
Q: Why do you think LaHaie is still so passionate about the sport?
DIXON: He doesn't have any reason to do this other than the fact that he loves it. You can't put the kind of effort he puts in and the thought process he puts in without loving the sport. He wakes up at 4 a.m. and starts thinking about the clutch. He loves what he is doing.
Q: What is it like working for Don Prudhomme?
DIXON: (Snake Racing teammates) Ron Capps, Tommy Johnson Jr. and I were at dinner with Snake and we asked him about it. We asked him if ever thought he would have three teams, three young drivers. He didn't have three crew guys 40 years ago. Things have changed an awful lot since he was doing it. I think all changes for the good. He has built himself an empire here. For me, I look at him being in the sport and being very successful. He has had more successful years than not. There is a lot you can learn from that. Those are goals that I would like to achieve someday.
Q: Do you see yourself as a team owner someday?
DIXON: At some point you would think that Snake would have to eventually retire. I'm happy right where I am at until then. That part of it has been a real good experience for me. You learn things like how important it is to have the sponsor dollars, to have the right equipment, to get the right people and then have the ability to go out there and contend every single week. If you come up with a good package, then you can contend for wins and hopefully championships.
Q: What is the biggest difference you see in your driving style over the years?
DIXON: I have learned to have to be more versatile on the starting line. When I first started driving I had to do things a certain way all the time and every time just to be decent. I think as you gain experience, you learn to be more versatile. There are a lot of times when you can't go up there and you can't do the same routine. If you fall apart because of that, you are going to get run over. So you got to learn to go with the flow and be ready to hit the throttle when it's time no matter what happened before that. That is something Snake has helped me with. Bernstein has helped me with that along with Cory McClenathan, Gary Scelzi and Mike Dunn. When we are all out on the race track, we are all battling. But when you are not on the race track, which is more than 23 hours a day. This is your neighborhood. This a little city that we travel with town to town. This is our group. I am not too proud to ask for help and people have been nice enough to give me help.
Q: What do you think about Kenny Bernstein retiring and him being involved with the season-long Forever Red farewell tour?
DIXON: I think it is good. He is having a tour and that is a great thing for him. Not too many people get to go out on their own terms. Snake got to do it with the Final Strike Tour, which was a better name, I think. Richard Petty, Mario Andretti. Other people lose their sponsorship and can't get it and they still want to keep racing. But being able to go out on your own terms is the way to go. Getting to go out and not just people phasing you out or sponsors not wanting you anymore. There is a lot to be said for that.
Q: What do you think about the competition level this season?
DIXON: I think there is always competition there. If you look 10 years ago, there was Joe Amato, Kenny Bernstein, Don Prudhomme, Ed McCulloch. At the end of this year, none of those guys are or will be driving anymore. But the sport is still going on. There will always be somebody to replace people. You go 20 years ago in Top Fuel, those same people weren't all driving. That is just how it goes. If you look at John Force, the first time he won a championship, who was he fighting the championship with? I guarantee you there isn't anyone in the top 10 from when he won his first championship in 1990 that are still out there racing right now.
Q: What is it going to take to win in this category in 2002?
DIXON: The same thing it took last year. It is going to take a strong car week in and week out. Winning rounds too. That is the only way you earn points. Winning races is very cool, and that gives you another round win, but you have to be in late rounds all year long to compete for the championship. The points championship is awarded to who has the best point average over 23 events. Not who wins the most races. I've seen Cory Mac do that a couple of times. He won more races than anyone else and came up No. 2. You have to have the best average over the course of the season. When I win my first championship, I want to do it the way Bernstein did it last year. I want to do it the way Scelzi did it the year before. I want to win more races than anyone, I want to have the quickest car, the best running car and try to be the best driver. That's the way I want to do it. That is the way Force has done it for the last 10 years.
Q: What do you think about Cory McClenathan being back in competition after being out for a season?
DIXON: I think it is great. I'm glad he is back. He is a talented driver and he shouldn't be sitting out, letting time go by. I would like to think that as the POWERade thing comes in, there will be more people able to come in as more sponsors look at our sport. Maybe sponsors that have never really looked to our sport will see Coke getting involved and wonder what's going on over here. Now they can watch our sport on ESPN and a company like Coca-Cola throwing a five-year contract on us. I think that is justification right there for other companies to look at our sport. That is a good thing because that means we are getting healthy. With everything that has happened since Sept. 11, it's real hard to be healthy. There aren't too many things that have been real healthy since 9-11 and I think our sport is very healthy.
Q: Miller Lite also sponsors NASCAR Winston Cup driver Rusty Wallace. Is there ever any confusion? Do you get some of Rusty's fans?
DIXON: I think it happens more to the guys going down the road with our rigs. You will see this big Miller Lite thing rolling by. I think it ought to be a rule that all the trailers that run should have the POWERade logo. It should be on the trucks so when we are all going down the road, people can see just how big our sport really is and how many people compete. There are only 40-45 Winston Cup cars in the country. There are a lot more people take part in the NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series. People need to know that and the only way to do that is get it out there.
Q: If you could be president of the NHRA for a day, what would you change?
DIXON: This is going to sound like I am totally buttering up (the NHRA) but I'm not. But ever since Tom Compton took over, he has made a lot of stuff happen. Flat out. He doesn't screw around. He has a plan. And everything he has said from the first day he took this job on and came to our meeting and let us know that he was running the ship, he has come through on everything, and then some. I don't know if taking over for a day, I might slow things down. I mean that. I am so excited. Last year we celebrated the first 50 years of the NHRA, and I am not really part of that. What I am really into is the next 50 years and I think we are in capable hands. That is what means something to me. That will hopefully put my son through college.
Q: What would you do if you weren't drag racing?
DIXON: I don't know. I really don't. I have put all of my eggs into this drag racing basket and I just hope I can stay involved with this sport for a long time. I used to clean the oil pans and if I had to do that again to stay involved, I probably would. I love drag racing and there isn't anything else I would rather be doing.