Dave Connolly’s reputation on the track is that he can race a quarter-mile in just about anything with four wheels. Starting next year, he’ll get his chance to try it with the quickest and fastest hot rods on the planet.
Connolly starts the 2015 season behind the wheel of Bob Vandergriff Racing’s C&J Energy Top Fuel car along with new BVR teammate, Larry Dixon.
The 26-time Pro Stock winner had three victories in 2014, finishing third in the year end standings. He was lethal in his reaction times against any opponent at the starting line. That approach to racing perfection got the attention of Bob Vandergriff, who started thinking about Connelly as his replacement in that top seat.
The sun was setting on another qualifying day for Connolly in Sonoma, and he had no idea when he walked into his hotel that evening that his life was about to change. “We had gotten through with qualifying on Saturday and I was walking through the hotel lobby and Bob was sitting there,” said Connolly. “He asked me to give him a minute and he asked me if I’d ever thought about fuel racing. I told him I never really had any interest driving a Funny Car cause I didn’t want that bomb in my face. Then I told him I wouldn’t mind driving a dragster and one thing led to another and he told me he had things in the works and he’s changing the direction of his team, obviously with him getting out of the seat.
“We exchanged numbers and a week later we’re in Seattle. After the race we sat down and talked for a little while. He told me of his plans and I toldhim where I was with the Grays (team owner, Johnny, and teammates, Shane, and Jonathan). I didn’t want to do anything without speaking with Shane and all the guys at Gray Motorsports and I wouldn’t do anything without their blessings because they have been very good to me. That’s how the conversation kind of ended and I told him I was definitely interested. It sounded like he had some great things going on down the pipeline with C&J and with everyone involved. I got back home on Monday and talked with Shane and he said ‘Dude, you’re crazy not to take it, it’s a great opportunity’ which in the back of my mind, I kind of always felt that way. Not too many people get opportunities like that. I was very fortunate that he thought that much of me and I called him back telling him I was definitely interested and whatever the next steps needed to be from this point on. That’s kind of how it all shook down.”
Announcing his BVR alliance with two races remaining in the 2014 season set Connolly’s wheels into high gear and after the Las Vegas race, he started learning the ways of Top Fuel.
“I didn’t know what to expect to be honest,” smiled Connolly. “We were strapping in and obviously, the corners are a little tighter and I just knew it was time to go. The nerves kind of went away as soon as the car fired up.
“Yeah, the first time you hit the throttle on that thing, we were like a .834 60-feet, so by far the quickest 60 I’ve ever been. It was pretty neat. The crew did a good job and we made two runs in Vegas, a 300 foot and then a 500 foot. The further you go down the track the more impressive those cars get. That’s the crazy part for me. Anything I’ve ever driven in the past, the G-meter goes up and then kind of falls off and you sustain a constant speed from that point on. These Top Fuel cars, they have so much power that they continue to sit you back in the seat all the way down the racetrack.
“The G-Force is different at the initial hit of the tire. What’s crazy is when that clutch starts coming in on a Top Fuel car it starts pulling 4Gs and at one point on the track it pulls 6Gs probably around 600 feet down the track. There’s nothing that you can do to prepare you for that. There are no simulators. There’s nothing in the world that accelerates as hard as a Top Fuel dragster. I really enjoy it, though. We just got through testing in West Palm Beach Sunday and Monday and the learning curve is full steam ahead. Oh, I know I’ve got a lot to learn in a very short period of time. All the guys on the crew are very optimistic about everything and very patient with me and we’re taking it one step at a time.
“Everything is coming together and starting to gel – the procedures, the warm ups, all that is getting easier. I just want to be ready when we roll up at Pomona and feel comfortable blasting 3.7 runs down the track at 330 mph or so. When we first started this Top Fuel deal, I didn’t know if I would like it or not, but actually, I’m loving it. These cars are incredible and have a new respect for the driver that runs in one of these things.”
The learning curve for Connolly is definitely rocketing upward. His recent off-season test at Palm Beach International Raceway was a good time to bond with his Brownsburg, Indiana-based crew and crew chief, Kurt Elliott who helps define the different set of ideas in search of performance in a Top Fuel car.
“What’s so different with the fuel cars is that they can add or take away compression and tuners can sling their horsepower around, hundreds of horsepower at a time. That way they can compensate for the bad weather. I’m used to a Pro Stock car where if the weather gets worse, you going to go slower and that’s not necessarily the case in these cars. I know in time it will come easier and it has in just the couple of sessions we’ve made. You can prepare for it and it’s just a matter of time in the seat. Bob has invested a lot of time and money to get me my Top Fuel license. So, I’m going acclimate myself as best and as quickly as I can.”
Going back to test at PBIR for the PRO Winter Warm-up on January 16-17 will be proof of what’s he’s learned and how accepting he will be in his first side-by-side runs.
“By then we should have some of the new parts and pieces to run then,” says Connolly. “We’ll start testing the Tuesday and Wednesday and probably take Thursday off to regroup to get all the parts ready and then start back up for Friday and Saturday with more testing as well. We should be able to get in around 15 to 20 runs in under my belt before Pomona.
“I’m looking forward to doing a good job behind the wheel. There’s a lot to say as far as the Christmas Tree and the starting line. It’s got three ambers and you react to them. I’m hoping that’s going to be the smallest part of the equation. Just getting A to B is going to be a different task all by itself. I just want to get to a point where I’m not the weak link on the team and hold up my end behind the wheel.
Kurt Elliott is a great crew chief and I feel we’ll have a strong running car. If we can go out there and eventually find ourselves in the winner’s circle that would be huge our first year out.”