Interview with the Pros: Dick LaHaie
By NHRA Communications
Dick LaHaie is a champion. Period. After winning a Top Fuel championship as a driver in 1987, LaHaie woke up one morning and decided he didn't want to drive anymore. He has since become one of the most well respected crew chiefs in NHRA drag racing. LaHaie tuned Scott Kalitta to two championships in 1994-'95 before doing the unthinkable
-- going to work for racing legend Don "The Snake" Prudhomme. LaHaie made plenty of good calls in 2002 as the Miller Lite dragster team with Larry Dixon in the driver's seat went on to win the 2002 NHRA Top Fuel championship. In this Q&A session, LaHaie talks about his two career regrets, how he and Prudhomme have built a positive working relationship over the years and why Larry Dixon is the best driver he has ever worked with.
Q: What does it take to be a good NHRA crew chief?
LAHAIE: I've never thought about it. It's never entered my mind. I am sure there are some great crew chiefs out there that don't get the recognition they should. To be a good crew chief, you need good people working for you and you need good people working with you. You are only as good as the people you surround yourself with. They all have to be going in the same direction. There has to be a line of communication that you don't even think about or talk about. You just know it is there. It is something you build. Donnie (Bender, assistant crew chief) and I have been together for 10 years and even when we weren't working together, we were always in touch with each other, discussing cars and what needs to be done. I have got to give a lot of credit to my success to him and the crew and to Larry. It all works together. It's the decisions that I make, Larry drives the car, and Snake lets us spend the money. This isn't any one person. I get the title of being the crew chief, but when you get right down to it, it is 100 percent team effort. It really is. It's the owner letting us do whatever we want to do within the boundaries of what NHRA lets us do. As far as what it takes, it takes good people; it takes good funding and dedication.
Q: How do you keep this Miller Lite dragster team focused for 23 national events each season?
LAHAIE: It's the desire to be the best out here and they all have that desire. They are a pretty phenomenal team. To do what they do, I think it shows their drive. When we crashed the car in Bristol (Tenn.), we were back out there the next morning just like nothing happened. They were all a little tired, but we were all tending to business.
Q: During the final round of qualifying in Bristol, Larry was involved in a spectacular crash that destroyed the dragster. How did the team handle Larry's crash?
LAHAIE: The first thing was that Larry wasn't hurt. That took a big weight off our shoulders right there. When he jumped up out of that car, we all knew right then what we had to do. Before we ever got back into the pits, I was telling the guys the wrecked car needs to go here so we can look at it while everyone put the new car together. It felt as if it was something we had practiced. Obviously we hadn't, but we all got the work done. We were thinking about Sunday morning before the wrecked car ever got back into the pits. That is what I mean about this team. I am not saying that they are the best team out here because they work with me. It's because they really are the best team. They will rise up to any occasion and they never say a word, they never whine about anything. They are all just very determined.
Q: What did the team learn as a whole from the crash in Bristol?
LAHAIE: We were very thankful that we have the safety equipment that we do. If there is a piece of safety equipment that we don't have and it is something that we think will help, we'll get it. No holds barred. We need to keep Larry as safe as possible. He is very safety conscious too. I also think that experience proved that you can't be too well prepared for the unforeseen. I think that we were probably in the top 99 percent of being prepared for Bristol. We kind of looked at ourselves on Sunday morning and said, 'What's the big deal? We're ready.' And we were ready. Once the shock wears off that we lost the perfect car and the expense of the whole thing, then you start tending to business. I think we learned a lot about being prepared. I have to say that Donnie is the master of being prepared.
Q: Do you think the safety equipment available has kept up with the speed of the sport?
LAHAIE: I think so. I think everyone is pretty safety conscious. NHRA does its job. I think the cars have definitely been built safer over the years. It doesn't matter how much safety equipment you may have or how much precaution you take, there are times when you are going to get hurt. This is a dangerous business and all we try to do is keep everyone as safe as possible.
Q: When you won the 1987 NHRA Top Fuel championship as a driver, it wasn't the closest margin in history, but it was the second closest, as you won by less than five points. How did that championship run help you and this team win the Top Fuel crown in 2002? Did the close competition with such high stakes involved carry over?
LAHAIE: I think it did. I've never been one to give up on anything or to think that I can't do anything. If there is something that needs to be done, we will approach it and do it. The only thing that we haven't been able to do is run a 4.40 (-second pass). I mean I have tried for a lot of years now and I hope that one day we figure out how to do that. I never led the points in 1987. I think I won five races that year but I never had the points lead. We were always within striking distance. We (LaHaie and Joe Amato) raced in the semifinals of the final event of the season for the world championship. I remember it like it was yesterday. It was just as if neither one of us wanted it because we both had terrible lights. It was kind of phenomenal because his car broke an input shaft. If you go back that year at Englishtown (N.J.), we had set the record, was much quicker than any other car there, but we broke an input shaft (during eliminations). It kind of shows you how things come back around to you. When there is a problem with these cars, somebody has to be the first to have that problem. Then it gets in line and everyone eventually has that problem. It may take a while for everyone to have the same problem. But that is what happened that day. He broke the input shaft and I won the championship. It was my turn, I guess.
Q: Is it more difficult to win a championship or to defend a championship?
LAHAIE: I told the guys and myself that last year was the hardest thing I have ever done in drag racing because we were looking over our shoulder all year. We won the first race and we had the points lead and we were trying to win races and protect that lead all year. Then it continued right on in to this year. We won the (season opening) Winternationals and so on. When we crashed in Bristol and lost the points lead that was like the first time in 28 races that we weren't in the No. 1 spot of the standings. I think that happening gave us the desire going into Atlanta that we had to get our No. 1 back. Thank God we did and it worked out. Sometimes in this sport no matter how hard you try, you can't force it. Things have to flow and they have to fall into place.
Q: Have you always been the kind of guy who will flow with each situation or have you grown into that philosophy over the years?
LAHAIE: I've always been the kind of guy that stood on the sidelines and didn't say much. When it is our turn to do something, we do it. We don't ever shoot our mouth off. I've never been real flashy about anything. I just go race. I love to race. I don't like to lose. I think that if you don't mind losing, then you are a loser. I don't like to lose and I think I work very hard to give it all we can to win.
Q: Has there ever been a time when you thought you wouldn't stay in drag racing as a career?
LAHAIE: Sure I've thought about that. I owned my own business for a few years. It was an automotive repair and machine shop. I was in the tool and dye businesses for a lot of years, but I raced the entire time I was doing this. I never really felt as though as I was going to fulfill my life unless I did some things in racing.
Q: What does it take to be a good NHRA driver?
LAHAIE: The obvious. You need to be on time. You need to make as few mistakes as possible in the car. You need to have focus and desire. The desire has to be to win. Some people have to have a killer instinct to be a good driver. They need to just go out there and bury the competition. Other people do it with finesse. When I drove, I think I was more under the finesse category. I was never worried about low E.T., I never worried about top speed, I just worried about winning the round. The drivers nowadays don't get to work on the cars. Their sole job is to drive the race car, with few exceptions. Larry packs his parachute, he mixes the fuel, and we try to keep him involved. Larry is around the shop quite a bit where some drivers never come by the shop. Larry is a born and raised racer. That is all he ever wanted to do in his life. Basically that is why he and I work so well together because this is all I ever wanted to do. I understand what he goes through from time to time. Driving changes as you go through your career. Doing the same thing time after time is very difficult. To be able to stay focused and do it, that is what I think makes a driver shine.
Q: You weren't working with Snake Racing at the time, but what did you think when Dixon was hired to replace Prudhomme in the driver's seat?
LAHAIE: The Snake was ready to retire. But he had groomed Larry to take his job. In fact, I told the Snake in Phoenix when we were testing that he couldn't have picked a better person. I took Snake off to the side and told him he did the right thing because Larry was a good kid. I told him Larry had a great personality, he didn't have any bad habits, and that I thought he was going to be very good. That was when I was crew chiefing for Scott Kalitta. We were in the process of winning a couple of championships then, but I knew Larry would live up to his potential.
Q: How has Larry improved since his first season in 1995?
LAHAIE: I think the thing that has helped a lot is his consistency. He is much more consistent in doing the same thing over and over. People say don't do the same thing over and over again because other drivers figure out your routine and then try to mess with it. I approach it the other way. I tell Larry to do the same thing every time because if you do the same thing every time, you'll get better at it and you will know when you mess up. It may not be much. He is a good listener. He wants to win races.
Q: Talk about your relationship with Don Prudhomme.
LAHAIE: Actually it is kind of funny. Snake and I used to race against each other for a lot of years and I never liked the guy. He knows it. He never even liked me. We were competitors. We weren't on the same page, we didn't go out to dinner, we didn't pal around. When he went to hire me, we both talked about it. I didn't particularly like him and I wasn't sure if it would work because we didn't like each other. We both agreed that it was a time long gone past and that we should at least give it a try and see what could happen. As it turned out, I found out that he is as competitive as I am and that is probably why we were butting heads all the time. Since I have come to work here we have gotten to know each other and we do have dinner and so forth now. I think he is a great guy and I think we have actually bonded and formed a good partnership. He keeps asking me how long I want to do this job and I ask him how long he plans on being out here. We figure that we will probably be wheeling each other around in wheel chairs before we retire. But really, we have a very good relationship. He is a very professional person whether he is in the shop or at the track. His wife Lynn and (daughter) Donna are all wonderful. This is all about a team. This isn't just about the team that works on the race car. It's the people that get our hotel rooms, books our flights and everyone involved. It makes my life a lot easier. Our relationship is like anyone else. You get out of it what you put in.
Q: What do you like better, tuning cars or driving cars?
LAHAIE: It has been a long time since I drove. Driving doesn't interest me that much anymore. I don't even think about it. When I quit driving 12 years ago, I owned my own team, I didn't owe any bills, everything was in place, I didn't have a sponsor. I had run the car up until Indy out of my own pocket. I woke up one morning and was getting ready to go to Reading, Pennsylvania, and something inside of me told me that I didn't really need to do this anymore. So I didn't go to Reading. I called all of the guys on the team and told them that there were jobs out there that were available. (Force Racing crew chief) Jimmy Prock worked for me at that time. He went to work for Cory McClenathan that weekend when Cory had his own team. It was a good move for Jimmy. He learned a lot about the responsibility of running a team. As far as Kim, she worked for me at that time, she went on to drive Laurie Frazier's car. It was a hard thing for me to do at the time, but I was so glad that I did it. I was just over it. I got up that morning and I told myself I didn't need to do that anymore. I drove for 33 years. Now this is my 45th year in the sport.
Q: Your daughter Kim was the crew chief for your championship-winning team. She now works for the rival Budweiser team. Have you and Kim ever thought about working together again?
LAHAIE: We were a great team when we did work together but you have to remember that she is married now to Tim (Richards, Budweiser dragster crew chief) and he is a very capable crew chief. The guy has won half a dozen championships. I don't think there would be a reason for her and I to work together again. She is very comfortable where she is at and she and Tim get along so well. That is their life. It would be fun if we could work together again, but under the circumstances, I don't think it will happen.
Q: You have been a driver and crew chief and have been able to work with some very successful drivers. Who has been the best driver you have worked with?
LAHAIE: Day in and day out it has got to be Larry. He is very dedicated and he is doing what he has lived his life to accomplish. Larry knows the fundamentals of the race car and we can talk about what if we did this or if we did that. Larry understands how it works. He is very versatile.
Q: Over the 45 years you have spent in drag racing, there are obviously countless changes that have been made to all aspects to the sport. Is there any one particular change, accomplishment, or positive step that stands out in your mind the most?
LAHAIE: The media coverage. Back when I started, there might be a 1,000 people in the stands, and we thought that was a lot of people. With the television coverage and the print coverage the amount of people we can reach now it is just amazing. When I started the East Coast cars raced on the East Coast and the West Coast cars raced on the West Coast. We hardly ever met unless they went out to Bakersfield or something. I just think the exposure the sport has gotten over the years has dramatically increased.
Q: Do you have any career regrets?
LAHAIE: Yes. The biggest one that I can think of right now is not staying around long enough to win Indy. I won at it as a crew chief and that was probably one of the most emotional weekends I have ever had in my entire life of drag racing. More emotional than winning the championship. I can't explain it to you. I don't know if I should say that I didn't stay in the driver's seat long enough because I may still not have won it. There aren't very many people who have won that race. Larry has won it a couple of times. I guess that is the big regret, not winning Indy while I was driving. Another regret is that I don't think I am a very good teacher. Maybe I don't communicate as well as I should because I expect a lot out of the people that work in this organization. Maybe if I had explained myself a little better it would be easier on them. But we have always managed to get through it so maybe it isn't that bad. But really, I am not a good teacher. It is an enormous help that Donnie and I have worked together for so long. I will be in Michigan thinking about how we can run the car and he will call me up and tell me what he is thinking and we are right on the same page. That is the way the guys work on the car, they hardly talk. They all know what the other guys are doing. It flows.
Q: Over the years you have developed a reputation for being the best tuner on a hot track. How did that come about?
LAHAIE: Hot tracks make me absolutely crazy. The only thing that I can think of is that in the early days I took as much pride in winning a match race as I did winning a national event. Because if you won your match race, you could get more money the next time you raced there. Going down bad race tracks probably taught me enough about adjustments that need to be made on a car that allowed it to run pretty good, but not blow up. I think that is 90 percent of that. In the early days, it wasn't uncommon for us to run 50 dates a year. We would race Wednesday night, Friday night and so on. It made it so that we had to make sure the car stayed together and perform well at the same time.
Q: What do you like best about the 2003 season so far?
LAHAIE: The fact that we are leading the points. That is the best thing. Larry didn't get hurt in Bristol, we're leading the points, and our team has its health. We are healthy and strong and we are ready to charge on.