Photos: Courtesy of NHRA
Nowadays, if someone at the dragstrip yells out, ‘hey champ’, don’t be surprised if Ron Capps turns around.
It’s been a fabulous year for the veteran Funny Car racer, turning a stellar season into his first NHRA Mello Yello championship. Even though Capps has 49 Funny Car and one Top Fuel victory, his legendary career was already sealed.
That’s because he came up through the ranks through love of the sport, kicking off in 1994 and maintaning the same charisma today for hi legion of drag racing fans, and more than a few rock‘ n roll bands who stay constantly in touch.
“I feel the primary reason is that I came up through the sport a crew member,” said Capps. “That’s the thing, I didn’t have the luxury to have wealthy parents or a big check to bring to somebody. I knew it was much like it was in the big leagues in baseball. You’re going to have a shot at the big time if you can get that far. But if ever you get a chance at it, you’re probably only going to get that one chance.
“The fact that I had worked on them and I knew what made to the count these cars tick. That what helped me as a driver is to be able to hear things and sort of know what it was and be able to smell things and feel things in the race car that really helped especially my first year of Top Fuel in 1995. The team owner didn’t have a huge budget nor his sponsors.
“We had to be very careful with the parts that we had and I think driving that discipline that first year really knowing when I should lift off the throttle when something was going wrong as a lot of drivers didn’t, it saved our butt and we were allowed to go to more races with Roger Primm. I still drive that way today. Even though we have one of the biggest budgets out there and have a massive amount of parts and pieces. The crew chief I have now, Rahn Tobler and Don Schumacher, the owner are very observant. They know they can rely on me to be able to manage, I guess, the race car as well as driving it.”
It was that kind of dedication to the sport that kept his interest, but more so, he knows how a quick a conversation can lead to him taking those first steps. Like talking to John Mitchell, owner of the Montana Express, a conversation that changed Capps’ life when Mitchell approached him about driving his car.
“I struck up a conversation with this distinguished looking gentleman that was standing next to me in our pits in Minnesota and lo and behold, the next day I found out he was the owner of that car. He enjoyed our conversation then and told me he would love to give me a shot at driving. He was the one that finally broke it for me and I drove the Montana Express Alcohol dragster for about a year and a half. That is what team owner Roger Primm, the Top Fuel team owner saw in me with my driving and it caught his eye in 1995. We were runner up at Atlanta on ABC Sports with that being one of the few networks that were broadcasting events back then. It was great to run in front of a big audience and later in the year, we won Seattle, my rookie year but on that day, we beat all the big dogs. It was driving that car that caught the eye of Don ‘the Snake’ Prudhomme. I got a phone call from him to see if I would be interested in a driving a car for him the next year in 1996.”
The following years, Capps was runner up four times (1998, 2000, 2005, and 2012) and lost to Force twice, Gary Scelzi and by a record 2 points to his Don Schumacher Racing teammate, Jack Beckman. He was becoming quite familiar with the championship scenario and was destined to keep pushing and when he was paired with Rahn Tobler in 2012 became a perfect recipe for winning.
“I’ve always loved racing with him from the time we got put together,” said a smiling Capps. “We went to 10 straight final rounds, just being teamed up for the very first time. As in the past, Roland Leong, Ed ‘The Ace’ McCulloch, Tim Richards and guys like that have been my crew chiefs throughout the years. I’ve come to love the old school kind of crew chiefs where they wear it on their sleeves; you know where you are with them and more than anything else all those fantastic crew chiefs have always relied on me to give them feedback even though they have a data computer on board. That’s the old school stuff that I love and I think it’s missed a lot for some of these new crew chiefs and drivers coming up through the ranks.”
Then in 2016, the consistency was there and all through the ups and down, they still survived to hold on for their championship fending off another DSR teammate, Tommy Johnson, Jr. to win it by 52 points. The longtime driver and longtime crew chief had a miracle moment that set the pattern for the rest of his season in the opening event.
“We won the Winternationals to start the year off and probably the biggest moment of the season was a prerace, I guess you could call it a ‘circus’ meeting on the Saturday night of the Winternationals,” said Capps. “It was concerning the race car and the views both of us had and this is what makes us so great. I can express myself, he can do the same with me like brothers, and the exchange we had on Saturday night was something we both had built up inside of us about the race car. We were able to hash it out on Saturday night and we ended up in the winner’s circle next day. While somebody else would have thought we fighting, that’s what has been awesome. We turned it around the next day and won the race.
“Rahn’s worked so hard this year and I think the biggest reason, of course, I had a great race car, and I wasn’t able to control it as much last year with the design of the new swept-back headers. He’s been working on making the car drivable and much more drivable because they are the hardest to drive now than they ever have been. He made it so well balanced and so nice to drive and that’s the reason we won so many races and the championship.”
Capps’ affiliation with many famous friends goes outside the normal drag racing circles, but as a fan of other forms of racing and rock ’n roll, it was a windfall of social media hype with many of those friends recognizing his accomplish of finally winning that first championship.
“I got a message from Jimmie Johnson right away which was cool because we’ve been friends for a long time,” said an excited Capps. “He sent me a video and got me on my phone that night which was amazing. Dale Jr. sent me a note. The video Don Prudhomme did, of course, with my crew chiefs Roland Leong and Ed ‘The Ace’ McCulloch was something special. Great getting that phone call from Snake was the best.
“The James Hetfield (Metallica) video was over the top. It was crazy that they got a hold of him. My daughter was in my phone trying to pull up phone numbers and be sneaky about it about a week beforehand and now I know why she was getting all that info for our PR people that do that. I heard from Night Ranger and Jack Blades and they sent a video. The guys in the band Seether sent a nice video congratulating us.
“Hetfield’s was the first to go up and I had no idea that night that it was going up and started to get flooded with phone calls that it was up on the internet. The president and CEO of NAPA Auto Parts called me, probably the coolest one so far. I know there’s some messages I haven’t seen.”
This offseason will be short for him making numerous sponsor appearances and other events as now the NHRA Funny Car champion and just how does Capps now feel after it’s finally over.
“It’s more of a relief than anything else,” grinned Capps. “It has been a long time coming. It still hasn’t settled in. In Hollywood Monday night getting up on that stage that was my first realization that we won the World Championship and little things here and there. It’s nice being introduced by somebody yelling out ‘champ’ from across the room. Honestly, it really hasn’t sunk in yet. I don’t think it will until we show up the next year and introduced as the reigning 2016 Mello Yello Funny Car champion.