Although the title of this column is “Technically Speaking,” I’m going to stray from my usual nuts-and-bolts topics for this final column of the year. I’d like to comment on the only subject that concerns racers more than horsepower: money.
My fellow back-page columnist Ken Owen can certainly write with authority about the evil produced by the love of money. Our parents told us that money can’t buy happiness, and the Beatles sang to us that money can’t buy love. I’m going to add another item to the list of things that money can’t buy: success in racing.
I know that deep pockets are better than empty pockets. But I also know that without desire and determination, money is like gold plating – flash without substance.
Money is highly visible in auto racing because the sport depends so heavily on equipment. Racers compete in the pits as well as on the track. Who has the biggest trailer, the most lavish motor home, the biggest pile of spare engines, the most expensive toys? A marathon runner or a soccer player may be a multi-millionaire, but in a crowd of athletes wearing gym shorts, it’s difficult to gauge a person’s financial status.
I have nothing against rich people. In fact, I wouldn’t mind joining their ranks some day. But I am concerned about the intimidating effect that money has on new participants coming into drag racing. There’s a common belief among both sportsman and professional racers that you can’t compete successfully without big bucks. I think that’s dead wrong.
When you pull up to the starting line, nothing matters except your ability, your preparation, and your car. You can only race with one engine, one transmission, and one rearend. It doesn’t matter whether your race car arrived on an open trailer or inside an 18-wheeler. The timers don’t care whether you drove to the track in a clapped-out station wagon or flew in on a private jet. When the Christmas Tree flashes, what counts is your skill, not your stock portfolio.
As a professional engine builder and a professional racer, I am well aware that speed costs money. I urge my customers to buy the best parts they can afford because quality is usually less expensive in the long run. The trick is to identify what is really important. If I had to choose between a new pair of cylinder heads with five percent more airflow and a new set of chrome wheels for my trailer, I’d go for the heads every time.
Many years ago, I received a Rolex watch from a grateful customer after he won a national event. I also have a Timex watch that I bought for $30 at the local supermarket. I treasure the Rolex because of the memories I associate with it, and I appreciate it as modern art – but in all honesty, the Timex does a much better job of keeping time. In my perspective, the purpose of a watch is to keep time, and the purpose of a race car is to win races. Once you’ve covered the basics, spending more doesn’t necessarily make a watch better or a race car faster.
I respect racers who have worked hard for their success. I remember when Warren Johnson virtually lived in a bobtail truck with his wife, his race car, and his dog. I recall Funny Car crew chief Austin Coil hauling the Chi-Town Hustler around on an ancient ramp truck and winning a pair of Funny Car championships long before he hooked up with John Force’s armada. When I walk through the sportsman pits today, I’m gratified to see there are still championship-winning drivers with pickup trucks and tagalong trailers parked among the big rigs and motor coaches.
The reality is that success in business doesn’t necessarily translate into success in racing. I’ve seen men who made fortunes in the business world fail utterly on the race track. We’ve all watched big spenders arrive in our sport with a flourish – only to depart quietly a year later with nothing to show for the dollars they spent.
Our consumer culture tends to judge people by their possessions, and that is a troubling trend. We see an expensive car and think that the owner is well off – but the car may be leased and the driver up to his armpits in debt. We see an elaborate race car rig and decide that the team is invincible – but the truth is that anyone can be beaten by a sharp driver and a savvy crew chief.
Eleanor Roosevelt once said that no one can make you feel inferior without your consent. To my knowledge, Mrs. Roosevelt never drove a dragster, but she had the right idea. Don’t worry about keeping up with the Joneses. Instead, think about how you’re going to beat them.