Top Fuel owner-driver Scott Palmer always might have wanted to be the leader of the pack.
But NHRA Senior Vice-President of Racing Operations Graham Light gave the perseverant Top Fuel owner-driver the dubious distinction of former “the leader of the pack with the oildowns.” The key word is “former.” Palmer’s name wasn’t on the sanctioning body’s 2016 year-end list of offenders. That’s something No. 1 Leah Pritchett (-105 points, $15,000), JR Todd (-75, $11,000), Terry McMillen (-45, $11,000), Doug Kalitta (-30, $3,000), and even champion Antron Brown (-15, $1,000) couldn’t say. Brittany Force and Dave Connolly each were dinged $3,000, and Tony Schumacher incurred a $1,000 fine.
Actually, Palmer’s improved performance has attracted fresh sponsorship that is enabling him to enter all 24 Mello Yello Drag Racing Series events this year. And who’s responsible for helping point Palmer’s career in the right direction?
Shrek, the animated film ogre? No, not exactly. The man who made the difference is the tech consultant Rich Schreckengost, affectionately known to drivers and NHRA colleagues as “Rich Shreck.”
What he does at the races is spearhead an initiative to solve a spectrum of problems that include oildown delays, low car counts, and fan- and sponsor-tuneout. The NHRA increasingly has taken a more benevolent approach to repeat offenders, and it successfully has enlisted some of the sport’s sharpest mechanics to share in the problem-fixing.
Light said the purpose of this tactic is “to get these smaller teams on the right course to reduce oildowns, reduce engine explosions, just try to make it so it doesn’t cost these guys an arm and a leg. Then they can afford to go to another race. We want them to make reliable, clean runs down the racetrack. If a guy blows up everything he has every run, well, he’s not going to go to many more races. We want him to go to more races, but we want him to do it safely. We don’t expect him to go and set a national record or win an event.”
The Kalitta, Force, and Schumacher teams have sent personnel to help the struggling teams, and Bobby and Dom Lagana from the Torrence team always are happy to lend a hand. Alan Johnson does his part.
“They’re very good at seeing the big picture,” Light said. “Drag racing years ago was [marked by] tunnel-vision: ‘It was what I’m doing. I couldn’t care less about what everybody else was doing. We just focused on our car.’
If the sport is in shambles and these cars can’t get down the racetrack, and they’re smoking the tires and blowing s— up, we start losing fans and we start losing sponsors. – Graham Light, NHRA
“While that’s important to focus on your car, I think the mindset now is we need to focus on the whole sport,” he said. “If the sport is in shambles and these cars can’t get down the racetrack, and they’re smoking the tires and blowing s— up, we start losing fans and we start losing sponsors. ‘Now that affects me.’ We’ve come to that realization. We’ve had very, very good cooperation the last two years, maybe more, with the teams.
“The general feeling I have is that the teams legitimately are more open to sharing information. I think they understand that we need more cars. The last thing we need is some guy coming down [the racetrack], blowing it up, and not being able to afford to come back to the next race – not to mention what it does for the show. They’re all onboard that we need to reduce oildowns, that we need to reduce delay times. We need to put on a better show – the show’s phenomenal, but we need to reduce downtime,” Light said.
“We need to work with these teams that are struggling. Our people, that’s their mindset. It’s most of the racers’ mindsets. It’s not just us. It’s not just them. It’s a combination of other teams and everybody pitching in and helping somebody like that,” he said.
“We need to continue to do that, because I remind people all the time that if we take a hard line with those people and say, ‘You’re a leaker. You’re a part-timer. You can’t race,’ John Force would have never been born. He used to be one of the worst in his early days. He was always on fire, leaking, off the end of the racetrack. I mean, he was awful. He was just as bad as the worst guy you can think of today,” Light said.
“Thank goodness that in those days, somebody didn’t say, ‘You’re done. You can never come back,’ because he and his family [racing together] and his empire would never have existed,” he said. “We don’t want to do that. We want to give those guys the opportunity to learn, to play in the big league. We want to help.”
Light’s message to the under-experienced is this: “We want you to leave with a good feeling, to get your car running reasonable, not to break parts, to get down the track. You’ll feel good about yourself. All the other competitors will feel good. The fans feel good. Everything is positive.” He said, “That’s a big part of what our tech guys do during an event.”
Top Fuel racer Scott Palmer, the former “the leader of the pack with the oildowns.” Photo courtesy NHRA/National Dragster
Light made sure everyone understood the NHRA’s attitude about the part-time teams: “They don’t have the knowledge. It’s not that they’re stupid people. They don’t have the amount of runs down the racetrack that Ron Capps has or one of the Schumacher or Kalitta teams has. [The latter] run 24 events and they go two or three rounds in eliminations. They’ve just got more experience than a Smax Smith or a Terry Haddock. So our guys spend an awful lot of time with those types of teams. Rich Schreck spends an awful lot of time with the ones who aren’t full-time racers and have part-time crews.”
We want you to leave with a good feeling, to get your car running reasonable, not to break parts, to get down the track. You’ll feel good about yourself. All the other competitors will feel good. The fans feel good. Everything is positive. – Graham Light, NHRA
Sometimes Schreck has found items on the cars that don’t meet the spec or an outdated SFI part. For example, at the spring Las Vegas race last year, Schreck spotted some non-spec part on one of these part-time cars. He also found a larger team that had a spare of that part, and the larger team was willing to loan it so the smaller team could participate that weekend.
Surprisingly, the NHRA began to shift its thinking in 2000, when Ray Alley ushered in the task of a director of Top Fuel and Funny Car. Alley left in 2006 to help Kenny Bernstein with his Monster Funny Car operation. Dan Olson succeeded him, then Lee Beard followed. But it was during Alley’s tenure that the NHRA learned this task of helping the beleaguered teams was incredibly time-consuming. That’s when they turned to Schreck, their tech-department employee who had served on a fuel car crew before that.
“We made him the assistant nitro guru, for lack of a better term,” Light said. “He worked closely with Ray Alley, learned a lot about the cars, and now he’s pretty well the guy who looks after all these fuel cars.”
One was journeyman Luigi Novelli’s. Light said, “He used to be awful. His game has turned around. He makes reliable runs. He doesn’t blow up. He’s not going to win the world championship, but he goes down the racetrack and he doesn’t blow up his parts. The Kalitta team kind of took him under their wing, and they helped him and gave him a baseline.”
The Lagana brothers are helping Palmer. Light called the jovial Palmer “a very conscientious, great guy” and said, “He went to work. He got the Laganas’ help. He’s made a tremendous turnaround. And it’s not solely us. He had the desire to turn it around. He didn’t want to be an oiler. He wanted to be out here full-time. And he worked very hard at it. But he also was smart enough to realize, ‘I need a little bit of assistance and another set of eyes watching.’ Our guys have worked with him over the years. He had a couple of little problems in the last race or so, but prior to that he had been oil-free for quite a few races. Now, through that, he’s been able to get enough sponsorship and support and he’s going to run the whole series with us this year. Those are the sort of success stories we need.”
Light said they’re out there, waiting to happen … if a racer is open to receiving help, but “if he’s the type of person who’s going to do it his way because he knows better, and there has been some of those in the past that you can’t help, it’s frustrating.”
Australian Funny Car racer Anthony Begley accepted the help when he made his NHRA debut at Las Vegas. Light said the newcomer “was scared to death of ‘a big, bad NHRA – they’re so rigid. I want to be there but what’s going to happen?’ He was so complimentary of the way he was treated, the way everybody tried to help, not just NHRA but the teams. His perception of this rigid, big, bad organization had gone away. And he was welcomed.”
Begley missed the cut both there and at Pomona, but Schreck and others worked with him. At the finale, Light said, “He had a whole different outlook on it. He enjoyed it. He ran fairly decent, a lot better than he did at Las Vegas. He left with a good taste in his mouth.”