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Quest For Success Shakes Up Capps’ Team

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, June 24 2010

The team of Funny Car driver Ron Capps has under gone a shift of gears. (Photos courtesy of the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Physically, the re-assignment of Ed “Ace” McCulloch at Don Schumacher Racing will relocate the veteran crew chief/tuner from the front to the rear of Ron Capps’ Funny Car.

Just how that will play out emotionally for Capps, McCulloch and newly appointed crew chief John Medlen will begin to unfold  Friday during the opening rounds of qualifying for the fourth annual NHRA Nationals in Norwalk, Ohio.

“For me…it’s emotional because it’s my first race in a long time that I’m not going to have Ace pointing at me in the windshield before I stage the car. That’s going to be different,” Capps said during a telephone interview from his home in Carlsbad, Calif., earlier this week. “And I’ll have a guy, John Medlen – who’s an incredible guy – pointing into the windshield before I make a run.”

Team-owner Don Schumacher announced late Sunday that Medlen, who joined DSR from John Force Racing in mid-March, immediately would take over as crew chief on Capps’ NAPA Auto Parts Dodge Charger R/T. McCulloch, who has been Capps’ crew chief since both joined DSR in 2005, has been designated as a “consultant” to the team Funny Cars driven by his protégé as well as those of Matt Hagan and Jack Beckman.

“I’ve accepted what’s happened and I’m making the best of it,” McCulloch said during a phone interview from the team’s shop in Brownsburg, Ind. “I’m going to be at the starting line, behind the car, and I will watch. But to not have that (crew chief’s) role and not be able to do that (set the tuneup)…it’s going to be a lot different.

“My relationship with Ron…we have built a relationship that’s very, very close. He’s like a brother or son; he’s like family to me. I love him. And I wouldn’t want anybody else in that race car. Ron is my guy. Things change. We all have to make the best of it and all we can do is work towards the ultimate goal, and that’s for that car to win.”

Capps admittedly was “shocked” by Schumacher’s decision, which followed a first-round loss to Bob Tasca III in the NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals at Bristol (Tenn.) Dragway. Capps,

Funny Car driver Ron Capps has a new crew chief.

who turned 45 on Sunday, was at the airport waiting to fly home when Schumacher called to inform him of the impending personnel change.

“It’s totally about performance. That’s what Don told me and I understand,” said Capps, who has been trailered in the first round in five of 12 Full Throttle Drag Racing Series events in 2010. Capps is seventh in series points, 236 behind 14-time NHRA world champion and leader John Force and 62 behind sixth-place Tasca. Five races remain before the start of the Countdown to 1 championship playoffs at the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals at O’Reilly Raceway Park in Indianapolis Sept. 1-6.

“We went into a little bit of a slump trying some things and we slipped down,” said Capps, who won a class-best five races last year en route to a third-place point finish. “You start to get nervous with the Countdown approaching, with guys trying to get into that last spot. Even though we’re not close (to missing the 10-driver cut)…our NAPA team is way too good to be focused on that part of it.

“And I was consoled a little bit by Ace, believe it or not. Ace is the one who told me this is what happens and he wasn’t surprised. We were going in a direction we thought was fine, but a guy like Don has to make decisions like that. And it was a hard phone call for him to make to me, he said.”

Capps began the season in February with a runnerup finish to Ford archrival Force at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona (Calif.) But Capps has not advanced to a final round since, and he remains the only DSR Funny Car driver without a victory in 2010.

Capps’ most recent victory was scored against Ashley Force Hood of JFR at Bandimere Speedway in Morrison, Colo., on July 12, 2009 – 23 races ago. Capps has 30 career victories in 62 final-round appearances, and a high-profile owner and sponsor to please.

“The biggest thing is I’m trying to handle this in a professional manner, and to not go out here and bad-mouth people or say, ‘This is wrong’ or ‘This is screwed-up,’ ” said McCulloch, 68. “First off, in my opinion, Don Schumacher Racing is the best organization in our sport.

Ed McCulloch has been re-assigned by Don Schumacher Racing.

I’ve been fortunate to be here for a lot of years and I understand the nature of our sport and the expectations. Sponsors pay for wins and owners hire their people to win races and that’s the expectation.

“We haven’t been doing that well here. We’re not having a good year, and the last few races we’ve gone out first round. Those things add up and the decision to make a change, that’s Don’s decision and I understand that.”

Capps said his team’s performance slide can be directly traced to the National Hot Rod Association’s limited testing policy, which is in its second season.

“It’s all a product of the NHRA testing policy, where you have only four days to test,” Capps said. “You have to have all your ducks lined up in a row. They’re (rival teams) testing at the racetrack…so that’s why I think you see a little bit of the racing show suffering on Saturday, because teams are going to try things. I’m here to tell you…if you get in good Friday night (top 12 spots) you can try what you want on Saturday.

“We had gone into test mode trying some drive train parts, the clutch area and other areas as well that were in-house. All three teams went in a different direction, so we could benefit from each other. And Ace saw so much positive out of what we were trying. Even though we were struggling, he could see a silver lining. We’d make a great qualifying run and the next day we wouldn’t do that well. That kept going on, and that was probably what ended up biting him (McCulloch). That was probably it.”

Capps, a three-time championship runnerup, said his team still has three of its four test days available.

McCulloch – a former Funny Car and Top Fuel driver with a combined 22 victories in those classes – has been a crew chief since 1995. And he agreed that testing-on-the-fly has factored into Capps’ slump.

“But the only way you’re going to advance is to try things,” said McCulloch, who was inducted into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 2000 and was listed 19th among the NHRA’s top 50 drivers in its first 50 years. “I used to be my own worst enemy when I would get a combination and get a good grip and wouldn’t deviate. But you can only ride that horse so long because the technology changes and other teams are working harder than you are. Over the years I learned you have to try things and test and work toward running quicker.

“I can tell you right now, without changing the NAPA car one bit, the NAPA car can go to Norwalk and win the race. That NAPA car is not that far out in left field. We’ll see how it goes.”

Both McCulloch and Capps said they are confident of clicking with Medlen and his tuneup parameters.

“I’ve known John for a lot of years,” McCulloch said. “I’ve got a lot of respect for the guy…a very knowledgeable guy. He’s almost like a dictionary. He’s so broadly diverse in his knowledge it amazes me. I was aware of John possibly coming over here at the tail end of last year. I encouraged that. We had a long conversation (Wednesday morning) and we don’t have any problem. I have no ill feeling and if there’s anything we can do to help him I will. I’m not sure what my role ultimately will be, but if I can help these guys in any way I will.”

A former race-car and race-boat driver, Medlen is an accomplished designer, fabricator and tuner. In the mid-1980s, he designed and built clutch systems and later developed one of the first multi-lever clutch systems and a fuel volume control device.

Medlen reportedly left Force’s juggernaut of Ford Mustangs because of his desire to tune a Funny Car on a regular basis, coincidentally at a time when Force decided to downsize from four teams to three because of a lack of sponsorship.

Medlen has scored 44 NHRA national-event victories as a tuner in both Top Fuel and Funny Car, winning six times in three full seasons with his late son, Eric.

Eric Medlen, 33, died on March 25, 2007 from head injuries suffered during a crash while testing at Gainesville (Fla.) Raceway. At Force’s request and with the technical assistance of Ford Racing, Medlen was put in charge of The Eric Medlen Project, which has remained at the forefront of improving Funny Car chassis construction and cockpit safety.

“John is an incredible guy,” Capps said. “He’s so well-versed in drag racing. And, of course, he won a championship with Tony Pedregon (at JFR in 2003). It’s neat to see the smile on John’s face, how much fun he’s having. So I’m excited to help him enjoy life a bit. He’s been through quite a bit with Eric.

“I was very close to Eric. And after all those years watching John point his finger at his son before he made a run, I am now going to be the one John points at before we make a run. It’s going to be a strange weekend.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, June 24 2010
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