Gary Scelzi claimed his second event win of the season, the third of his Funny Car career, and his second against the legendary John Force, at the rain-postponed Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway today. Scelzi's win rounded off a first-time three-class sweep by Don Schumacher Racing, as Angelle Savoie in Pro Stock Bike and Tony Schumacher in Top Fuel were also winners.
The performance of the HEMI-powered Oakley Dodge Stratus was not up to its usual performance today, but grit, determination, outstanding driving, and perhaps a little luck, resulted in wins over Whit Bazemore, Gary Densham, Tony Pedregon (by five feet), and finally John Force in the final.
Had Force won today's race, he would have clinched his 13th Funny Car crown. Instead, the battle for the Funny Car championship goes to the next event. Scelzi's chances to win his first Funny Car championship once Force made it to the final round were permanently dashed, and the chase for second gets tighter among Del Worsham, Bazemore, Eric Medlen and Densham, with two events remaining.
Scelzi took the win with a 4.853-second elapsed time at 308.28 mph after Force smoked the tires at the hit of the throttle and slowed to an 11.507/86.39.
"You know, it just feels so good to win," said Scelzi in the winner's circle. "Don (Schumacher) said, Hey, good job, good job, every round, like he did in Indy (U.S. Nationals) and we made it to the semis there. But we didn't get 'er done, if you know what I mean.
"I'm not in the right part of the world to say 'get 'er done' here, but you get an empty feeling if you don't finish the job." He clearly finished the job here and his win-loss record against Force now stands at 8-5.
While Force was spitting out 4.7-second elapsed times today, Scelzi was winning on his side of the ladder with a 4.807, 4.851 and 4.837.
"We knew we were in trouble against Force. We knew that he'd probably unload a 4.73 or 4.74 on us," said the three-time Top Fuel champion, "but when you run that quick you're on the edge, and with the cloud cover (crew chief) Mike Neff started looking at the thing and what we need to do, what we thought we needed to do during the day, but we didn't want to take the chance. We just wanted to run as quick as we thought we could, safely.
"And we did that, but when we got to the final we said, Man, we've got to lower the boom on him because he's going to unload on us. So Alan Johnson (Tony Schumacher's crew chief) came over and they (Neff, Johnson and co-crew chief Dan Olson) looked at things, and they all got together and we tried something and it actually worked, believe it or not, in the middle of the race track. But when it got to the asphalt it knocked the tire off and it started spinning hard.
"I actually thought the motor revved so high it was going to blow up and I think it did right toward the finish line. We didn't want to be stupid just in case he smoked the tires, then you don't look so smart if you smoke them sooner or harder. We raced smart today."
"It definitely feels good to win," said a somewhat stoic Mike Neff. "That's what it's all about. We would have liked to have been running better, but we just didn't really have that good a handle on it. Down track it spun the tires every run. I just couldn't get it to stay hooked up. It was fortunate for us that Force must have had some kind of a problem in the final. Realistically, that was probably the only chance that we had unless I could have gotten it fixed. Obviously I didn't do that. We'll take it anyway we can get it, though."
"Fantastic weekend," said team owner Don Schumacher. "How can you have any better of a weekend than having a trifecta?"
Schumacher credited the people in his organization (which became a multi-car team in 2001) with his success. "That's really been my key to success," he said. "Getting great people to do a great, great job out there. I'm just fortunate to surround myself with great people and they're the ones doing the job."
As for the first Don Schumacher Racing three-class sweep: "Actually, last year at the fall race in Las Vegas I had three vehicles in the final then and none of them won," said Schumacher. "We had three in the final earlier this year and one car won. You don't set a timetable for something as phenomenal as this. You just hope it happens one day and I'm just excited to say that it happened at Maple Grove."
Next up is the ACDelco Las Vegas NHRA Nationals, Oct. 29-31, the penultimate round of the 2004 NHRA season.
NHRA POWERade DRAG RACING SERIES FUNNY CAR POINT STANDINGS:
1. John Force, 1672
2. Del Worsham, 1412
3. Gary Scelzi, 1376 (winner today)
v4. Whit Bazemore, 1271
5. Eric Medlen, 1265
6. Gary Densham, 1252