Interview with the Pros: Gary Scelzi
By NHRA Communications
Who would have ever thought a three-time Top Fuel champion like Gary Scelzi would sit out nearly an entire season? After racing in the first seven events of 2002 in a Funny Car, Scelzi and longtime crew chief Alan Johnson decided to end their association. Bruce Sarver stepped into the driver's seat and Scelzi spent the rest of the year trying to find a new ride. Mission accomplished. Scelzi now drives the second Oakley-sponsored Funny Car in the Don Schumacher Racing program. He's behind the wheel of the Oakley Dodge Stratus R/T with a new tuner making all of the wrenching decisions. In this Q&A session, Scelzi talks about what it was like to be on the sidelines, what he wants to prove, and why he seems so darn happy just one race into the season.
Q: What are you looking forward to the most in 2003?
SCELZI: Winning races in Funny Car. I want to win and I want to win early. I want to establish this team. We have everything we need to win. We have the brains, we have the money and we have the talent. I think we are going to jell well together. I love (crew chief) Mike Neff already. He is so laid back, he is so cool and he is very methodical. With Dan Olson overseeing this whole operation, and having Lee Beard with Whit Bazemore, Phil Shuler with Scotty Cannon and Wes Cerny with Tony Schumacher, I really think the entire Don Schumacher Racing organization has some of the best minds in the business. If we can keep everyone level-headed, I think it is endless what we can do. I think that is something that (John) Force has done so well in his group. He has meshed Austin Coil, Bernie Fedderly, John Medlen, Dickie Venables and Jimmy Prock. Those guys are all on the same page. Even though John is the guy in that camp, Tony Pedregon nearly unloaded him. If we can keep that focus, we can help the dragster team and Tony Schumacher and we can help Scotty even though he is running a different body and combination. All of our drivers get along with each other and I think the crew chiefs are OK, they just have to develop a trust between them. The sooner that happens, the sooner we will be a force to reckon with. I don't know if it is going to happen in a month, six months or a year. It looks good right now, and it is just the beginning.
Q: What is the best thing about having a four-car team, nonetheless a three-car Funny Car program?
SCELZI: No matter if we are running the same combination or not, it is still a car going down the race track. When you see and start to know how the other guy tunes, if he smokes the tires, you will have an idea on how to compare your data to his. If one car can get through the middle and another can't, we will be able to go over there and look at the data and learn a few things. It doesn't matter what is under the hood, two cars won't run the same no matter what. But, I also know that different guys run different timers in different ways and some are aggressive here and not so much there. As long as everyone keeps an open book, we can all take advantage of that. We have the talent and the want. We just have to get that chemistry working.
Q: What are the disadvantages of having a four-car team?
SCELZI: There is always the possibility of an ego getting in the way. One ego can spread like a cancer in the pits. You need someone to help the mix and not let anyone from the outside cause any problems. If they see us starting to get strong and we are building a program, there will be rumors, there will be things that can try to dismantle a team. I think that if we are all on the same page and if Bazemore says something or if Neff hears something, we need to face each other, be honest and believe our teammates. If we keep our house clean, and not let any strangers screw it up, I honestly believe that we are going to be players. This is a great opportunity for all of us and I think we all know that.
Q: What do your bring to this organization as far as your personality?
SCELZI: I think I am a pretty laid back guy with a lot of energy. I am like the town clown. I can definitely hang with Scotty. I have known Scotty since he started and we have gotten along from the beginning. Bazemore used to be my teammate. People get on Bazemore because he speaks his mind and I think there is no better person than Whit. We went to a dinner last year for Matco Tools in Cleveland, Ohio. Bazemore was almost as funny as I was. How about that? He was close. He was stealing the show. It was really refreshing. Bazemore is a great guy but Bazemore says what he thinks. Whether you love him or hate him, he is never going to lie to you. If he thinks your shirt is from the '60s, he is not going to say, 'Hey, nice shirt.' With Bazemore, what you see is what you get. I don't see any conflicts coming out of this group. Tony (Schumacher) and I used to hate each other when we were racing against each other (in Top Fuel), but we would always be able to have a beer after the race. Tony and I got along really good, especially after the crash after we had both been on our heads. We both care about each other even though we try not to show it. Tony was the first one to run to my car and I was the first one to run to his car during the crashes. All bull aside, when it is all laid out, we are all probably more family than we would all like to admit.
Q: What do you personally want to accomplish in 2003?
SCELZI: I want to earn the respect of the Funny Car drivers. When someone pulls next to me, I want them to say, 'Oh no, I've got Scelzi' instead of 'Oh yes, I've got Scelzi.' I want them to feel the same way about me as when I ran the dragster and won three titles. I want to know that I have a crew chief that is going to run this thing as hard as it will go. I want a crew that is not going to make mistakes and to know that their driver is going to be right there for them. Sometimes a driver might be able to steal one for them. I want to know that we have all of that in our corner.
Q: How did sitting out most of the 2002 season make you a better driver?
SCELZI: I don't know that it made me a better driver. I never let winning races get in the way of how I thought about myself. I always tried to pick up on the best and copy them. Some of the best drivers I have ever seen were Gary Beck, Pat Austin and Dale Pulde. I have always watched great guys. Larry Dixon in the last few years has really come into his own. I watch Tony Pedregon and I watch John Force. I watch guys like that because there are certain times when guys really have something going for them and their confidence level is high. I don't care what people say about me as long as I know in my mind that if I won five races in a row, I am going to know that there is someone hungrier than me out there so I can't lose that burning desire. I can't think I am that good because the minute you think you are good is the minute you are history. The one thing I learned when I was sitting out in 2002 was how fortunate I was with Winston as my primary sponsor during my Top Fuel years. I had a major sponsor and things were clicking between (former crew chief) Alan Johnson and myself. I knew it was good then, but when it is over, you think to yourself that it may never happen again. I may never have that closeness again. I didn't ever think of it as a job. We laughed, we cried, we partied. We all worked very well together. That is what I am looking for now. I don't think I am premature, but honestly, I am so comfortable with this group. I am so relaxed. One thing about (Oakley founder, CEO) Jim Jannard - I've known him for a long time - but honestly when I went to his office in January, I was so nervous. I have never been nervous around Jim, but now I am going to work for the man. He just has this soothing way about it. When you start to get nervous, he senses it and he will talk to you like one of the boys. He always has. He has a very unique way about him. When it comes to (team owner) Don Schumacher, when I was hanging out at the track during the four months that I didn't race, I was messing with Don like I would a buddy. I wasn't working for him and I never thought I was going to get hired by him anyway. We have a good relationship. I know where everybody is coming from.
Q: Why did you and Alan Johnson sever your working relationship?
SCELZI: It was just an unfortunate thing. Alan and I had a great conversation just a couple of weeks ago. I don't know and I am sure that Alan doesn't really know what happened. I think that we just lost the communication between us. But believe me, we are friends. I wish him the best and I know that he wishes me the best. We had a great time talking. We both got caught up in the rumors too. At the time, we didn't talk to each other about that, but we do now. So we have decided to be honest with each other and if something ever comes up, just talk about it instead of believing all of the rumors. We should have done that in the beginning. I am at peace with Alan and he is at peace with me and who knows, we may end up together somewhere down the road. You never know.
Q: What makes a championship-caliber driver?
SCELZI: Desire. Desire and the fear of losing. No matter how much success you have, I think you have to live with fear. The fear of getting beat, the fear of what people might say about you, the fear of everything. I think you can call it paranoia. Paranoia and fear are good in this line of work. John (Force) is a good example of someone who is driven by those things. In the business that my brothers and I have at home, I am always scared that some young company is going to move in and kick our butts. It is the same thing out here. As long as you have that desire and you want to be the best and are open-minded, I think someone can stay on top.
Q: How do you juggle a family with two small children, a business and a driving career?
SCELZI: Sometimes the stress level gets to be a record high and the only release you have is that race car. I have two great brothers that absolutely love me and run that business. I come back for a couple of weeks at a time and screw it up as best as I can and then I leave. I have a wife (Julie) that is very understanding. She knows how to read me and she never pushes my buttons. The kids sometimes makes it easier for me. They love their daddy and there is nothing better than bedtime when they want to snuggle with you and have you read them read a bedtime story. That makes all the bad things go away.
Q: Is it better to win races with a family behind you?
SCELZI: I think it is very empty without them. It used to kill me to be on the road for three weeks and have my little guy Dominic and only be able to talk to him on the phone. Especially now that he is 5 years old, he always asks when I am coming home. Giavanni will grab my leg as I am going out the door. There are going to be times when they can't come out to the race. It's hard, but knowing they are there is a very big deal. I wouldn't want to win without them. I wouldn't want to lose without them either.
Q: Is there a lot of pressure for your team to perform well early and win?
SCELZI: Maybe. Mike Neff and I are going to try very hard not to focus on that. But I can already see that look in his eyes that tells me how bad he wants to win. I am the same way. I think we need to do it early just to set a precedence. If it doesn't happen, we are going to work our way around it. We will win a race, at least. I would be very shocked if we didn't. I just want to get it done early. Mike has won with Bazemore, I have won with Alan, the guys working on the team have won, some of them with me on the Top Fuel team. I want all of these guys to know that we have all done different things, but this team, as one group, can be a winning combination.
Q: What do you need to do to get the team to work well quickly?
SCELZI: I think we are all doing it now. We have a lot of new guys, including me, but we all seem very comfortable around each other. One thing that goes on here in Schumacher Racing is that we have a lot of team discussions. We meet almost every morning as well as at the end of the day. Mike lays out his game plan then. He is a very strong leader. He is a very quiet guy to people that don't know him, but everybody here is on the same page as he is and Mike listens to everyone. He doesn't intimidate anyone on the team. He is very easy to talk to. Sometimes when a person is quiet, you may take that as arrogant, or stand-offish. Mike just has a grin. He teases me and we all tease each other on the team, already. That just helps form the closeness that we are going to need to make this Funny Car go down the track quickly and win races. If we don't get our first win early, and it comes three months down the road, four months maybe, I think we are still going to be OK. I think the foundation of this team is solid. I am putting that weight on my shoulders. I need to keep our team happy. I need to give Bazemore's team a bad time, Scotty's team a bad time. I need to be the mischief maker. I need to keep everyone happy by going down there to give Tony a noogie. (Tony Schumacher's crew chief) Wes Cerny came up to me during testing and he told me how happy he was to be part of this team and how happy he is that I am also part of the team. Wes is tuning Tony's car. That made me feel so good for Wes, someone I have always admired, to say that. I don't want to sound like I am full of it, but it really is scary good how things are going right now. If it can get even better, great. If it doesn't get any worse than this, then it is going to be a beautiful thing. I am just thrilled.
Q: What is the best thing about being part of Don Schumacher Racing?
SCELZI: I can be extremely proud to represent his team and Oakley. They are both extremely serious and successful. I can be proud to bring people to the hospitality area that is second to none, to the race shop that is filled with every single tool that this team needs to win a championship. It is deep. We're deep with talent, money, parts and desire. That is what is so good about being part of Schumacher Racing.
Q: Tell us about the fundraiser you just had in January.
SCELZI: We had the absolute best time. I told a lot of drivers that I wanted to help build a go-kart track in Fresno. I called Force, Del Worsham, Tommy Johnson Jr., Ron Capps, Davey Hamilton, who I knew from when he raced in the Valley and Brandon Bernstein. We had Alan Reinhart on the microphone for the event. They all jumped at the chance to help, got in a plane, and showed up to donate some stuff. It really meant a lot to me that these guys would help us. We had around 300 people there and we raised $98,000. That was huge. Everybody rallied behind the idea which meant a lot to me because these guys are my friends, my peers and we needed help and they didn't ask, they just dove in. We are building a track with the money. It is going to be called the San Joaquin Raceway Park. We are going to start the project in October and we are going to build a first-class national event go-kart track for the kids. People will be able to come from all over the United States because it will be a first-rate deal. The race track that has been there for about 40 years is just a pile. Kids spin out and they get in the dirt and they are just full of stickers and weeds. We have done a major clean-up job, we have gotten everything ready. We are getting the property bought and doing everything we can to make this happen. I have never done a fundraiser before. I have been to tons of them but never put one on. On the way over to the event I told Julie to pull over because I was going to be sick. I was so nervous that people weren't going to have a good time or that any of guys weren't going to make it. But it all turned out great.
Q: What do you look forward to the most when you are pulling up to the line?
SCELZI: Knowing that I am in one of the baddest hot rods in the parking lot. I have everything it takes to win and that is all I have ever asked for. Every time I jump out of the race car I can say that I have one of the best things going in drag racing right now.
Q: Four months ago, did you think you would be in this situation?
SCELZI: Four months ago I was just about ready to give up. I went through a time when I put my motor home up for sale and I had made a decision that I was not going to do it own my own. I was not going to drive something that wasn't capable of winning. It's hard enough to win when you have good things. I had to think about raising my family. I wanted to set an example for my kids. I wanted them to know that if I couldn't get a job driving a race car, I could go back to the business and that I can weld truck bodies, paint truck bodies and sell truck bodies, like I did before all of this stuff came along. I didn't know until after the Finals at Pomona that everything was going to be OK. It is a horrible feeling. It's pretty great to be Gary Scelzi now. Hopefully I can show the fans and everyone else how appreciative I am to be back out here. Not that I wasn't before, but you know what? Even on a bad day of racing, it is not as bad as a good day at work. It is all good now.