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by Phil R. Elliott

Gary Scelzi in Alan Johnson's White Cap Toyota in early 2002. Photo by Phil Elliott
Gary Scelzi in Alan Johnson's White Cap Toyota in early 2002. Photo by Phil Elliott

Please believe me, I wrote this May 13, the day I received the press release mentioning Gary Scelzi's "abdication." Phil

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 main reasons."

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, IMHO.

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 driver.

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 Columbus.

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 XXX.

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 amicable.

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 feel 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 it."

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 team too.

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 a win.

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 1994-98.

Thanks for checking out the PhilZone portion of Draglist.com. If you have accolades, complaints, comments, questions, or if you want to share a story, please feel free to post it on the PhilZone Message Board. Phil
 

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