At the end of the racing season, any NHRA crew chief worth their mettle will quickly wonder about their year to see where they succeeded, what accomplishments were reached, and what needs to be improved. It’s a normal process to check your highlights in what changes were made throughout the year that affected your season’s outcome.
For the affable Dickie Venables, crew chief for two-time Funny Car Champion Matt Hagan, his MOPAR/Rocky Boots team might not have won the championship, but still had a season worth remembering.
With all the attention on the NHRA Funny Car frontrunners of Del Worsham and Jack Beckman battling for top honors in the flopper category, this Don Schumacher Racing MOPAR/Rocky Boots team’s accomplishments might have gone overlooked except when you reflect back, you’ll see the team had a phenomenal year.
What began as business as usual, they began the year defending their 2014 fuel coupe championship, winning back-to-back races at Pomona and Phoenix, appearing to be on cruise control. Then the decision was made that it was time to make improvements moving up to the six-disc clutch program starting in Houston.
“We started this year where we left off last year and managed to run well the first part of the season and win a couple of races,” said Venables, whose team finished fifth in the Final Funny Car points standings. “Shortly thereafter, we made the decision to switch over to the six-disc clutch, which we had tested. It was something that I believed would be better, but I also knew that, you know, there would be a learning curve there and we were going to take a couple of steps back before we really got a handle on it. That’s kind of what happened.
“We switched our clutch program going into the Houston race. There were times where I thought, ‘Man, is this the right thing to do or not’. We stuck with it and finally started to get the thing figured out. The next time we won was at Englishtown and then later Bristol. We knew we were hitting it at times when we had the car running quick in good conditions. It’s just that consistency wasn’t there. During that middle part of the year and the first part of the Countdown, it wasn’t there. We could make quick runs and run fast. I think finally towards the end of the Countdown in the last few races we got our consistency back and it’s a great place to start for 2016.
“Let’s face it, you win four races in the Countdown, you’re probably going to win the championship and that’s what the Kalitta guys and Del [Worsham] did. They stepped up when it counted the most and he had a good car those last six races.”
It was during the 11-race summer stretch that saw Hagan and Venables winning at Bristol and Englishtown along with a runner-up finish in Chicago, building up a substantial point lead of nearly 200 over Ron Capps going into the Western Swing at Denver.
Little did anyone know at that time that the Funny Car bracket was about to make a major upward turn in performance. With Jack Beckman’s Denver win, it was just at the starting point of what was about to come. As the summer was heating up, the Funny Car brigade of DSR broke out when crew chiefs Jimmy Prock, John Medlen, and Chris Cunningham with driver, Jack Beckman discovered a quicker way to get down the track.
“That was something they tried on Beckman’s car at Sonoma,” Venables said. “And it turned out it wasn’t just that one weekend where they were running really, really quick. They continued to run those low 3.90s going into Seattle and Brainerd. Those guys, I give them credit. They pretty much raised the bar. Yeah, and it was another thing to adapt to that. We were able to change the headers going into Brainerd and that’s where we ran that 3.879, but honestly we didn’t know how we did it!
“It was like wow, those really made a difference. Now we have to learn how to race it. That was part of the struggles from that point until the rest of the year, not only do we have a different clutch, but we had different headers that changed the whole way the car reacted, the way you apply power to the track. We had to relearn all that. A 3.99 used to be a quick run, now it won’t get you in the top half of the field.
“Honestly, when it ran the 3.87 ET, like I said, we hadn’t run those headers. We’ve played with headers on and off over the years, I thought okay, just another change. Before that run, I figured we might run 93 or 94 and 87 pops up there and we’re all, yeah, wow! Jimmy, Medlen, and their guys did their work. I’m glad they’re on our team.”
The National ET record fell in the lap of Beckman’s Infinite Hero Dodge team at the end of the season, lowering the mark to now 3.884 seconds set in Pomona at the Finals.
The sharing of knowledge between teams gave the input Venables needed in claiming for his team before the year was out a new NHRA National speed record of 331.45 mph, when Hagan rocketed to the feat at Pomona.
Don Schumacher knows what he’s doing by keeping Venables and Hagan together. It has proven fruitful building a strong team relationship, winning in 2015 four times, two runner-ups, four No. 1 qualifiers, 18 National event wins overall and finished the season with a 36-20 record.
“Matt is really the first guy I have worked for that works as hard as he does at just being good at driving,” smiled Venables. “It starts with just his physical health and mentally works on it during the middle of the week. He works on it at the racetrack.
“Nine times out of 10, you know a hundredth [of a second] or two there on the guy you’re racing for the most part is just the advantage you need. As close as the racing is nowadays, a hundredth or two is a big deal. It puts all the pressure on us to give him a good race car, obviously. He works at being in top shape physically. I’m very glad he’s driving our car.”
The outlook for 2016 is promising for the MOPAR/Rocky Boots Dodge team, when asked to Venables what can we look forward to this Mello Yello Season, and he was matter-of-fact.
“You know I’ve said, this has got to stop at some point,” said Venables, shaking his head in total amazement. “But, I’ve been saying that for 25 to 30 years. I would be afraid to venture to guess to say where it’s headed. I really believe that NHRA is happy with the racing right now. It’s close, it’s fast, and we have limitations put on us to try to keep everything within reason performance-wise of where we are now. Take the headers thing for example. You can take the same rules that we’ve had for the last two or three years and make one change like that and all of a sudden they’re going that much quicker.
“I don’t think you’re going to see any major jumps. I mean, I could be wrong. You know how that goes. We’re going to probably see 3.80s with regularity if the conditions are right. I don’t think we’ll see any 70s and I think we’re going as fast as NHRA wants us to go. It’s going to be very competitive in both Top Fuel and Funny Car classes. I thought this year was awesome and great and you just feel it’s going to be better in 2016 with all the TV stuff. I know we’re all looking forward to it.”
The NHRA Circle K Winternationals start on Feburary 11-14 at the Auto Club Raceway in Pomona.