October

September 25th, 2009

Driving a Funny Car like my Castrol GTX high-mileage Ford Mustang definitely is a thrill. Going 0-to-300 in four seconds? That’ll suck you back in the seat and turn your eyeballs around, and it’s something I just love to do.

As drivers, we live right on the edge. It’s not like a normal job of getting up and driving a truck, although I’ve taken a couple of 18-wheelers to the edge a time or two. It’s full throttle; it’s 4 or 5 Gs when you leave the line, and 4 or 5 more when you pull the parachutes. It’s like taking off in the space shuttle. A driver said that once, but since I was never lucky enough to fly the space shuttle, I’d have to say it’s like driving a runaway 18-wheeler on the Grapevine, headed to Bakersfield. I have done that.

There’s always something you can learn about these cars. A Don Prudhomme, a Kenny Bernstein, a Don Garlits or a Shirley Muldowney can be watching the cars on the track, and you can see them every now and then pulling on an imaginary brake handle while they’re standing at the starting line. They know when the car has gone too far. A driver can feel what another car is doing. I’ve felt that with Robert Hight, Mike Neff and especially with my daughter, Ashley. She got in a little trouble this year at Denver when her Mustang got up on the tire and almost tipped over; it was almost like I was in the car. Over a period of time, you learn that there’s a line between being in control and being out of it. Every driver has to find that line for himself. To be honest, the minute you sit in one of these cars, it’s out of control. You just do the best you can. You’re talking about 8,000 hp here.

There are a lot of guys new at this who think they’re in control. I promise you, though, they’ll get a wake-up call. After years of driving, you do get your comfort level, but there’s a fine line when deciding whether to push it to the edge or pull it back to be safe. That’s the biggest issue we’ve had as a team since the crash of team driver, Eric Medlen, who lost his life during a testing accident in March, 2007. For me, getting back to pushing it to the edge has been difficult because now I know what lies out there. It’s like a NASCAR driver. In the early days, when they’re young and full of spunk and have no fear, they’ll drive it right down on the apron. They’ll put it right down on the bottom until one day they pile-up. A lot of guys, once they’ve had that wreck, never come back — at least not all the way. To drive through that cloud of smoke when there’s a major pile-up, as your spotter’s yelling “go, go, go,” — let me just tell you something: you’re risking your life on what another man is telling you, and you better hope he’s not up in the booth with a hangover. A Funny Car is no different. You’ve gotta run it right on the edge and believe what your crew chiefs tell you.

After my crash, the biggest problem was with my crew chiefs, Austin Coil and Bernie Fedderly, who witnessed it. Coil and I spent the last year fighting over safety. I want safety, but sometimes you have to push the limits. Coil fights me over safety options that all the other teams don’t run. He won’t give it up; Coil is more mental about it than me. But if a driver doesn’t get right back in the seat, sometimes he never comes back. It’s like being a kid. You fall off your bike; your dad doesn’t wait a week, he puts you right back on it. If you fall off your horse, you get right back on it. I’ve been there. I’ve had days when I sat there on the starting line and it went through my head. But I’m a pro and I know this game better than anybody. I’ve read books on how to handle fear and the truth is you have to control your fear; you can’t let the fear control you.

Right now, we’re struggling because we’re trying to find that line again. Even at 60, though, I’m still confident I can win the championship. I’m no miracle worker who can just make it happen. For Castrol, Ford, Auto Club and BrandSource, however, as a team—my guys, my car and I—will win again. I feel it in my heart. We just won’t win if we can’t be safe. That’s the balance.

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