NHRA Champion Crew Chief Tommy DeLago Is Living The Dream

The daily grind of going to work requires a certain level of stress relief, whether that’s going to the lake to fish, hitting golf balls at the driving range, or just spending time with your family. When your job is to tune a 10,000 horsepower nitro Funny Car on the NHRA Mello Yello circuit, though, the normal methods of relaxation don’t cut it — at least if you’re Tommy DeLago, that is. Wheeling a race car of his own brings peace to the accomplished nitro tuner and it’s how he found his way into wrenching for the biggest names in drag racing.

For the better part of two decades, DeLago has been a fixture in the NHRA world, working in some fashion for various Top Fuel and Funny Car teams. Before he made nitro a way of life, DeLago was a hardcore racer himself that was bracket racing as often as he could; but he soon realized that it wasn’t working out how he wanted and had to take a chance on his dream.

Nitro Time

I decided that I wanted to be in the racing world full time, so I called a friend to see if he knew anybody who had an opening on a fuel car. – Tommy DeLago

“In 1995 I was bracket racing and spending every dime I had to go racing, to the point where I couldn’t afford socks or shoes because I was putting everything I had into the car and traveling from race to race. It got to a point where I realized how much I loved racing, but I couldn’t afford to keep doing it the way I was. I decided that I wanted to be in the racing world full-time, so I called a friend to see if he knew anybody who had an opening on a fuel car. It just seemed like the right thing for me to start working on them and go down that path,” DeLago says.

The first opportunity for DeLago to work on a big-show car came when he joined Tommy Johnson Jr. and his father on their Mopar-backed dragster in the mid-1990’s. This leap into the top levels of NHRA racing was all that DeLago needed to get him further hooked on racing, validating his choice to embark on a life on the road as a full-time crewmember. No loner was struggling to get to the races — he was being paid to make the stars of the NHRA perform.

With its current small-block, naturally-aspirated combination, DeLago's Nova screams down the track as he bangs gears on each pass.

Tommy had greater aspirations than simply working on the car, though — he wanted to learn in the in’s and out’s of making the thoroughbred racecars he spent so much time around perform their best. Soon, his talent and desire to learn began to shine and caught the attention of a legend in the sport, eventually pushing DeLago further than he ever dreamed possible.

“I worked with Ed ‘The Ace’ McCulloch for nine years and he’s the one that told me to keep paying attention, listen, learn, and stay out of trouble. He told me that if I did all of that there was no doubt in his mind I could be a crew chief on a car someday,” DeLago explains.

The prediction that McCulloch made came true when DeLago got his chance to tune for the Gilbertson family in 2005 as the crew chief on their Funny Car. Over the next three years DeLago worked on his craft. Team owners soon began to take notice of his talent, leading to an opportunity with one of the sport’s premier super-teams.

DeLago has become one of the sports’s elite tuners, spending the last handful of seasons guiding Alexis DeJoria’s Tequila Patron Funny Car. DeLago and DeJoria enjoyed their finest moment together when they won the U.S. Nationals in 2014.

“In 2008 I got the chance to go work for Don Schumacher. They brought me in to tune Jack Beckman’s car and that was a great experience. In 2009 Matt Hagan joined the team so Glen Huszar and I were tapped to help out with his car. We built the team from the ground-up and nearly won the Funny Car title that year,” DeLago says.

In 2011, Tommy was ready to prove the previous successes he experienced weren’t a fluke, so he challenged his team to step things up, and they answered the call in a big way. Under DeLago’s leadership, Hagan won the Funny Car championship and became the first team to run in the three-second zone in the 1,000-foot era along the way.

DeLago made another career move in 2012 when he re-joined Kalitta Motorsports to take over the tuning duties for Alexis DeJoria’s Funny Car. The team picked up some big wins with DeLago running the show, including a victory at the prestigious U.S. Nationals in 2014. This was DeLago’s second stint working for drag racing legend Connie Kalitta and it brought him back to Michigan, where a simple trip to a local drag strip motivated him to return to racing himself.

DeLago enjoys his more low-key time at the track as a racer with his team.

DeLago’s All-Motor Fun

So, what do you do to relax when your day job is guiding a nitro Funny Car into the three-second zone at over 330 mph? If you’re Tommy DeLago, you take the 1967 Chevy Nova you’ve owned since high school and bang some gears on the screaming small-block power under the hood. How this became DeLago’s preferred method of relaxation was truly an accident, but a good one.

“When I went back to work for Kalitta I moved to Dundee, Michigan with my wife Rachel. Dundee is six miles from Milan Dragway. I went to the track on a random Friday night to check things out, and that night they happened to be running their Friday Night Heads-Up Series. I watched all of the classes, and All-Motor looked like a blast — it’s also pretty close to the NMCA 10.5 class. So, I decided to switch the Nova over from a bracket car to heads-up because it just looked like that much fun,” DeLago tells.

Tommy’s Nova is powered by a nasty 405 cubic-inch small-block Chevy backed by a five-speed Jerico transmission that uses a 6.6-inch Bonifante clutch to assist with gear changes. This is a combination that Delago, along with Glen Huszar, Ian Landies, and Frank Cervelli have been working on for three years. As the team has refined the combination, the elapsed times have dropped dramatically, and DeLago recently smashed into the seven-second zone with a 7.93-second lap at Norwalk, Ohio this past season.

DeLago has owned his Nova since high school and it has seen MANY different combinations over the years.

It’s cool to have an old car that runs what is basically an Australian Pro Stock driveline. – Tommy DeLago

The Nova has some special meaning to DeLago since he has owned it for so long.

“I’ve had this car since high school and it’s a true Super Sport, so if I was a little older when I got it I wouldn’t have cut it up and made it into a race car like this. I used to jump it over train tracks and just get stupid with it. Frank Cervelli and I would cloverleaf race with it in the rain on the freeways in California. I’ve had a lot of fun days with it over the years and we’re starting to have more fun with it now,” DeLago says.

Getting the car out has been a bit of a challenge for DeLago due to his commitments at Kalitta Motorsports, which also influenced his decision to move away from bracket racing.

“With my schedule for the NHRA events, going heads-up racing made sense so I could enjoy the car more. When you’re bracket racing, you have to spend time at the track to get data and keep your skills up, and I just don’t have that time. I’ve always been a small-block guy and I just thought it would be a lot of fun to run. It’s cool to have an old car that runs what is basically an Australian Pro Stock driveline. Setting the car up the way we did seemed best so it could also fit in the NMCA 10.5 class rules, giving me another place to run the car,” DeLago says.

Having fun is what makes racing the Nova so enjoyable and relaxing for DeLago. The pressure of performing, satisfying sponsors and speaking on television, and overseeing his crew are all off his plate, allowing him to enjoy racing in its simplest of forms. His only concern? Making his Nova quicker and faster.

“This is just fun, especially when we went to our first NMCA race and got to experience how they ran things. We were amazed at how nice everyone is who works at and helps run the series — it’s a breath of fresh air. Racing should be fun and its fun coming here, and if our schedule permitted us to attend more of these events we totally would,” he explains.

Tommy DeLago has set records in the nitro world, been in the most prestigious of winner’s  circles, and won a title at the highest levels of drag racing. Although he wouldn’t change his career path or the priceless experiences that it’s provided him for anything, conquering a simple strip of pavement a few weekends a year in his prized Nova is all he needs to be happy.

About the author

Brian Wagner

Spending his childhood at different race tracks around Ohio with his family’s 1967 Nova, Brian developed a true love for drag racing. When Brian is not writing, you can find him at the track as a crew chief, doing freelance photography, or beating on his nitrous-fed 2000 Trans Am.
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