Bob Vandergriff has an eye for talent. The three-time NHRA National Event Top Fuel winner is now a car owner, and he’s put together a team of drivers and crew that could rival any nitro team in the pits. Success is the only motto in the Vandergriff camp, but the road this season has been a little rocky.
Three-time Top Fuel champion, Larry Dixon and rookie sensation, Dave Connolly, headline the racing team. But Dixon suffered a spectacular qualifying crash at the Gagornationals and has struggled to recover. His advance to the finals in Las Vegas has allowed Bob Vandergriff Racing to cautiously project a season of success.
However, Vandergriff still wants to build up his team and with C&J Energy Services support, his goal is getting closer every day. So after five races how does this 2015 team measure up?
“Not up to par, but improving,” said Vandergriff. “We have too many high expectations for our team. There are some of things we’ve done to improve our overall performance and raise the level of competitiveness of our team. We obviously had a little bit of adversity that we’re recovering from, but we do see signs of improvement. I’m looking forward to the next few races to capitalize on that.”
In Vegas, Dixon reached his 109th final round appearance and defeated Tony Schumacher with the lowest ET of the race in the first round, running a brand new car.
“That’s a new car we have Larry in and it acts differently than the other one, so it’s taken us a few runs to tune it up to speed,” said Vandergriff. “We struggled with it in qualifying there, but on Saturday night we all got together and made some decisions on how to maybe change our approach a little bit. First round, the thing responded. That was a positive for sure. Anytime you can go out and row low ET of the race first round and beat Tony Schumacher, it’s pretty uplifting for the team and puts a smile on everybody’s face. It kind of gives you hope you’re going in the right direction and all the hard work is going to pay off.”
Vandergriff also has a new apprentice in Dave Connolly, a Pro Stock driver who has amassed 26 wins to his credit. But Top Fuel is an entirely different animal and Vandergriff had his eye on this young talent for years.
“When I decided to get out of the car and replace myself, obviously you look for the best possible candidate,” said Vandergriff. “A lot of factors go into that as far as the different situations. Driving the car is one thing, someone you can build a car for the future is something else. When I sat back everything kept pointing at Dave Connolly. Obviously, he’s a very impressive driver and has a great resume, so far. Probably not on everyone’s radar screen as a Top Fuel driver just because he was pretty solidified in the Pro Stock category. It didn’t bother me. I’d been watching him drive over the years. I knew he’d be good in anything we put him in. It certainly wasn’t a concern about him stepping into Top Fuel. He was my first choice. There was no reason to look anywhere else.”
Building a two-car team takes time and after a few defections in the beginning, all the loyal players are in place.
“I think we’ve got all the people. I was talking with Josh Comstock, the CEO of C&J Energy Services, when we were in Vegas and he asked me what I thought,” said Vandergriff. “He’s a big supporter of our program. I told him finally we have all the right people in place, we have all the right parts and pieces and there isn’t any reason we can’t compete at the top level now. It’s a good feeling. From a crew chief standpoint, we’ve got two guys on each team (Larry Dixon’s – Mike Guger, Joe Barlem and Dave Connolly’s – Kurt Elliott, Jason McCulloch) that work really well with each other. They all bring a variety of different things to our team now. They complement each other attitude’s with what they are good about, so I don’t think there is anything that should hold us back from competing with the top teams.”
With growth comes setbacks. At the recent race in Gainesville, Vandergriff had a scare of his life when Dixon’s car broke its front nose during the third qualifying round, hurling the driver approximately 600 feet in the air down the track before landing hard, and coming to rest in the shutdown area. The new car owner couldn’t believe what he had just witnessed. Seeing Dixon emerge from this crash was a huge relief to Vandergriff.
“That was a pretty difficult position to be in,” said Vandergriff. “Especially after 20 years of being in the car and not standing on the starting line. People have always told me that it’s tough, watching me run. Like my son Josh. He wanted to almost throw up sometimes standing on the starting line watching me. I never knew. I never understood that side of it, always being in the car. I can tell you now standing up on the starting line watching two guys drive my cars, it’s really difficult. It’s a whole different environment and a whole different feeling for me.
“One minute you can tell the thing was on a really good run. He [Dixon] was driving away from Doug Kalitta and you could tell this one was going to be a good one and then all of the sudden things are flying through the air. Being so far away from it you have no idea. What part is he in and what’s the condition that part is in? I’m standing there helpless. It’s a pretty helpless feeling in especially as a team owner. I feel completely responsible for those two guys driving those cars. For that to happen under my watch is pretty difficult. That’s not something I would ever want to do again.”
As a former driver, Vandergriff knows the ups and downs of the business. That’s why he has a lot of patience with his young driver, Connolly and knows that all he needs is just more seat time. He’s a natural in the cockpit and deadly as ever at the starting line.
“You have to understand, I don’t care what kind of car you’re driven in the past, getting into a Top Fuel dragster is a whole different ball game,” said Vandergriff. “Maybe some people thought that he’s been in a Pro Stock car and he’s been close to 215 miles per hour. To see him get into that dragster and hit the throttle the first couple of times and seeing his face and him realizing that this is a lot different than he thought it was going to be. I don’t care who you are. It’s a learning curve. He’s done really well. On our part, we haven’t exactly given him the most consistent race car, yet. We’re working on that starting with a few things. We’ve seen some bright spots here recently with the car’s performance. Now, the times he has gone up and down the racetrack, he just keeps getting better and better. He’s a natural, a real killer on the starting line. It’s ridiculous to watch, his time slips and his reaction times, they are so consistent. You see a lot of guys that are all over the map, some good ones, some medium ones, some not so good ones. He is just about the same on every freaking run, so obviously, it’s not a fluke. Once we give him a race car that’s consistent and competitive, he’s going to win a lot of races.”
We wondered if, seeing his two talented drivers having so much fun, Vandergriff ever misses the driving part?
“You know, I haven’t,” Vandergriff said. “I haven’t missed it at all right now. For me, it’s always been kind of a means to an end. I’ve always been interested more in the business side. Being the driver just opened a lot of doors for me to do the business stuff. From a driving standpoint, I had done it for 20 years. It’s not going to give me a new experience in the car. Actually, I’m kind of excited about teaching and watching and see someone like Dave Connolly progress into the star he is going to be at some point.
“We laugh. Larry Dixon, he always feels that I’m neglecting him and we joke about it. It’s because I don’t have to worry about him. He’s a three-time world champion, he’s won 62 races. The last thing I need to worry about is Larry Dixon driving that race car. He does such a great job in the car. That’s one thing that’s out of my mind. I don’t have to feel like I have to be over there on top of Larry’s team and have to be on top of that. Honestly, he doesn’t need any help.
Dave is progressing so quickly in that car. It relieves a lot of pressure and stress off of me because he’s doing such a good job. He’s really progressing quickly to where it’s something else I won’t have to worry about. I am excited about the direction of our team. I think we have two great drivers in the cars. Great people working on them and I think we’re ready to make some noise here.”