NHRA: Ron Capps talks Funny Car racing

Mar. 16, 2013; Gainesville, FL, USA; NHRA funny car driver Ron Capps poses for a portrait during qualifying for the Gatornationals at Auto-Plus Raceway at Gainesville. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Mar. 16, 2013; Gainesville, FL, USA; NHRA funny car driver Ron Capps poses for a portrait during qualifying for the Gatornationals at Auto-Plus Raceway at Gainesville. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports /

Ron Capps drives the NAPA Auto Parts NHRA Nitro Funny Car. He has 40 career Funny Car victories, and one career Top Fuel victory. Capps is currently fifth in the 2014 Mello Yello Championship Points Standings for the Funny Car category with half of the 18-event regular season complete.

More from F1

At the Toyota Summernationals at Old Bridge Township Raceway Park in Englishtown, NJ, Capps spoke about the team aspect of the NHRA, why he switched from Top Fuel to Funny Car racing, how he trains, and some nuggets of wisdom from legendary racer Don “The Snake” Prudhomme.

Talk about the team aspect of Funny Car racing.

"It’s funny because I was at an appearance, a sponsor appearance, and people were asking, jokingly, but, “Hey can I get in your car?” They don’t realize these cars take six guys to start. You don’t get in and maybe one guy start it, or a key or a button, it’s six guys, literally, to start it. You have to go through this process. If you don’t even start these the right way, they’re a bomb, they can blow up there in the pit area.So the team part of it is huge. I get to do a lot of cool racing away from drag racing, with Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, all those guys, race dirt with them and all kinds of really cool stuff, and it’s always kind of funny in a way…I always say this to people. You can take a tenth place car in NASCAR and take Jimmie or Tony or whoever in it, and they can make it a third place car. There are guys over in [NASCAR], or an Indy Car driver, certain guys who can take a tenth place car, and make it a little better car by driving it. Our deal is so different because I always try to tell those guys when they talk to me. I can’t make our car any better. You set it all up to go run what it’s going to run up there. And [the crew watches] the weather, and if it’s going to change, they will make the adjustments, but by the time I get suited up and get strapped in, they’ve set that car up for the ultimate conditions, and for me to keep it as straight as I can…I can’t make the car go any better than it’s already going to be set up to go, but I can certainly as a driver, Top Fuel and Funny Car, make it worse…I got one shot for all that work [the crew has] been doing for three days to do everything right in the car."

On the importance of racing in a great car.

"I used to drive with Don Prudhomme…He’s one of my heroes, and he had a great saying, “You can’t win a Kentucky Derby riding a mule.”"

On getting the call of a lifetime from Don Prudhomme, and working his way up from the bottom.

"I grew up working on them. So, when I started out, my Dad raced, as a hobby, so he never got to this level, but I worked my way up, and it was just the circumstances where a guy let me try his dragster. I got my license in a lower dragster, another guy saw me, and put me in Top Fuel like Tony [Schumacher]. And then Don “The Snake” Prudhomme, who’s a legend in the sport, who was watching me in that Top Fuel car, called me up one day and said, “Hey kid, you want to drive a Funny Car for me.” It was like having Joe Montana call you if you are a quarterback in high school. It was unbelievable."

"But I used to drive the truck. When I drove Top Fuel, I was a rookie, I drove the truck, I did the clutch on the race car, I worked on it, jumped in, helped them drive to the next track, so I was a crew member…And I started out wiping tires on a crew for a dragster, I mean cleaning oil cans. I worked up from the bottom. So I know what [the crew goes] through. I never disrespect the fact that they are the guys that really, and girls, there are girls that work on the cars out here too. I know how hard they work.When I go to a concert or I go somewhere I want to take care of my guys. I love to take care of them off the track."

Why did you make the switch from Top Fuel to Funny Car?

"Don Prudhomme. Yeah, that was pretty much the reason. As a kid, I watched Funny Cars, and I used to build these little models, and they just made a movie (Snake and Mongoose). Funny thing is, they just made a movie, a motion picture about Snake and Mongoose [Don Prudhomme and Tom McEwen]. And Snake is the guy I drove for, this legend, and it’s about how they had the Hot Wheels sponsorship years ago… So I got to play a part in that movie, and I got to play an owner from back in 1965, in the movie about my hero. Jesse Williams from Grey’s Anatomy played Don Prudhomme in the movie. It just went to DVD, it’s number one on Amazon for DVD’s. It had a lot of good actors in it…just a great story. So, if he hadn’t called me and offered me that job, I’d probably still be in Top Fuel, probably."

What is more challenging, driving a Top Fuel dragster or a Funny Car?

"Oh, dude, not even close. The [Top Fuel] dragster is so long and skinny, and sort of forgiving. You might steer it maybe this much (Ron gave a demonstration slightly moving his hands from left to right)… It’s long, it’s 300 inches long, and it’s kind of flexible, so you just kind of point it a little bit, barely move it. This thing (referring to his Funny Car), holy shit, I mean when you hit the gas, and [John] Force has made, I’ve made a lot of runs, but he has made a lot of runs over the years, and he’ll tell you there are no two runs ever the same. You can hit the gas, it’s the same engine, 10,000 horsepower, now you corral it into a short, stiff chassis. And now the engine is in front of you, it’s right by your front feet, so when it blows up and you’re on fire, you’re getting barbecued behind it, it’s right there. And even on a straight run, you are like this (Ron gave a mini-demonstration turning the wheel from left to right) the whole way down."

It’s hard to believe that’s going on.

"They’re evil, they’re evil to drive…every time you get ready to stage a car, it’s like alright, I don’t know what’s going to happen here. Whereas with a dragster, you are pretty sure it’s going to take off, it’s going to go pretty straight, and [I] think most of the time they do…I always say [Top Fuel] is like a donky ride on a trail, and [Funny Car] is like a bull rider. It’s unbelievably different. But [Top Fuel] goes a little quicker, so it’s a little more G-force, it’s not much, but a little bit…and I would love to end my career going back someday to Top Fuel where I started."

How do you train?

"I train as often as I can. I try to pick the hotels that have decent exercise rooms. And at home, I work out. I used to play, when I was going to college, I played racquet ball for money, and I taught it. On weekends, I played money tournaments for school money, and that kept my hand-eye coordination really good for this.I train MMA, boxing, jui-jitsu, and Muay Thai…I wrestled growing up, so I love that UFC stuff. I do that a lot when I’m at home. Cardio, and then the main thing…we go through so many G forces, negative and positive, that I work my neck and my shoulders a lot."

So it’s very important to strengthen your neck and shoulders?

"Oh yeah. I used to see a chiropractor weekly, and I’m sure later on in life I’m going to be messed up because I can already tell. But the chiropractor, and I’ve had several tell me this, every run we make from one of these cars…is like being in a rear-end accident with somebody hitting you at 30 mph at a stoplight sitting still. That’s the jolts that our bodies go through every run in a Funny Car, so your body kind of gets used to it."

You feel playing racquet ball helped you with your hand-eye coordination?

"In racquet ball, the serves are 190 mph plus when you get to the open level or pro level, and you have to be so quick. Right away, I never had to practice with the tree (a tree is a training device that simulates the countdown lights at the start of a race) like some guys do because I would go play racquet ball. And I was so used to something quick, and having to be precise with a racket and hit a little blue ball that’s flying around at a couple hundred miles per hour."

You said you were in shape when you first came out here, do you feel like you influenced other guys?

"Yes…They used to laugh at me, and now you go look at Force…the older they get, they quit drinking as much. But when [Force] took me under his wing when I was a rookie…I used to preach to him all the time, just get in and do some cardio, and just work out a little bit. But back then the guys didn’t do it, they were old school."

(Earlier in the day, John Force told me he traded two hours at the bar for two hours in the gym.)

Does the competition drive racers to work out?

"You got the younger guys that come up and it’s like any sport. You got the quarterback who’s got a young guy coming in, and you feel a tiny bit threatened. You have to up your game to keep up with these guys who just have youth like I had back then."

18-events in the regular season, and six for the playoffs. You are fourth (currently fifth after the Toyota Summernationals) in the standings, is there a point in the schedule when you feel the pressure?

"When they started the playoffs it took a lot of pressure off every race during the regular season. It used to be urgent that you, I mean we still want to win every race, but it was urgent to get the points every race because if you didn’t…just the season went from here to there, and that was it, no playoffs, you could get behind and then you couldn’t catch up. And now, we get to Indianapolis and they reset. They take the top ten like NASCAR does and they just wipe it clean. So you can be number eight, and be way behind the leader, and they’re going to wipe the slate clean and your going to have a shot at it, now it’s going to be a six-race playoff…But I’ve been in a position where we were way out in the front going into that thing, and we had all those points taken away, and now everybody’s right on your butt…and I’ve also been eighth where I was way behind, so I’ve been on both sides of that. To answer your question, if your in eighth, ninth, or tenth right about now, you start feeling some pressure."

Do you like the new playoff system?

"I’ve liked it and I’ve hated it, but it is what it is. I think it’s good for the fans because when I started out, there were times with five races left and Force would clinch. I mean fans were yawning and bored already, and they’re like, “Gosh the guy wins everything,” and it’s boring. So the fact that it resets and makes it exciting, I like that. Unless I’m number one and they take all my points again."

Any pre-race routine?

"Just music. I’m big into music, I’ll get a song in my head or I’ll play something in the tow vehicle with the guys, whatever I’m into. I love live music and rock, and I’m friends with a lot of guys in bands…so that get’s me going, and once I get the helmet on, get in the car, that’s probably the only ritual I have."

Anything diet wise?

"Race day yes. On race day, I’ll eat a high protein bar or a drink."

"My old hero boss Don Prudhomme one time, sophomore year after my rookie year. I’d go over and pig out after winning the first run, and getting ready for the second one, and he called me over, and he goes, “You know a lion that’s hungry hunts a lot better.” And he walked away. He had all these little Yogi Berraisms. He’s the one who said the Kentucky Derby thing too. And he walked away, and I’m [thinking] what the hell does he mean by that, and it took me awhile. Then he goes, “Hey man, just remember when you eat all that blood is going to go to your stomach to help digest it, your going to need more blood up in your head for your reaction time and thinking,” and I thought, he’s got a point. So, yeah, during race day it’s just protein, and stay away from any big meals."

Talking about the adrenaline roller coaster on Sundays.

"This sport is different because you’ll race the first round at 11 o’clock on Sunday, and if you win that round, then you get ready for the quarterfinals about an hour and a half later. You get all this anxiety and all this adrenaline pumping, and you go out there and you win, and then you come back here and you kind of relax, pack your parachute and all that. And then you have to get going again for the next run, and if you win…it’s like this roller coaster man. When you win and you are here at the end of the day you are drained, mentally drained, physically drained, just the adrenaline spikes, it’s crazy."

Follow Ron Capps on Twitter @NapaRonCapps.

*The interview has been edited and condensed.