Mike Salinas Relentless To Be His Best On And Off Dragstrip

It’s those darn squirrels.

Top Fuel owner-driver Mike Salinas says he’s “trying to learn how to get in that place that [NHRA legend Don “The Snake”] Prudhomme was, in his own little world.”

To most observers, the Scrappers Racing team boss and San Jose, Calif., business mogul has mastered that. He’s not keen on media-schmoozing. He’s not a glad-hander. He’s not a “Look at me! Look at me!” kind of person. He’s opinionated, unapologetic, and focused on being the best racer – and husband, father, businessman, and leader at whatever he does.

He says, “I’m here for one thing, nothing else” and “I want to go as fast as I can and do that. That’s why I’m here. I have my own reasons, and I don’t care what anybody in this world thinks but my four daughters. If I don’t win, how can they win? That’s just my theory of how we build our world.”

But the squirrels, as he calls them, keep him on high alert all day and night and prevent him from getting all but about two hours of sleep a night. The “squirrels” are ideas about how to improve his race team, grow his metal-scrap and waste materials business and serve his customers, how to maintain his reputation as a role model, and thoughts about how to juggle his constant swirl of decision-making.

I want to beat Steve Torrence. He’s the best. That’s what we’re going after. With this crew that we have, I believe we can do it. – Mike Salinas

“With this ADD stuff, it’s a little hard. Got squirrels bouncing off the wall,” Salinas said.

“I can’t sit still. I sleep about two hours a night. My brain’s on kill 24/7, and it’s hard to stop.  I don’t know how to stop,” he said. “Driving, when I first started, that’s what it did for me. It calmed me down when I got in the car. Now we created another company.

“You look at what [Don] Schumacher goes through. You look at what [John] Force goes through, Kalitta’s [Connie Kalitta]. Every time you add something on, it escalates. You know, we own a bunch of companies, so it escalates also there. More cars, more people, more funding, more this, more that. It doesn’t stop,” he said.

But when it comes to drag racing, Salinas has found some measure of peace. As contradictory as that sounds, traveling nearly 335 miles per hour in less than four seconds, he has, in one sense, from a self-satisfied perspective, found a way to let off on the gas for a split-second. But it’s actually a fraction of a split-second, so brief a flash that you wonder if you truly saw it at all.

“The thing for me is I have four daughters, and they all want to run, so that’s first and foremost. I’m lucky because they want to do it with us,” he said, referring to wife Monica, “and we’re together as a family. That’s all. The rest I don’t really care about.”

Salinas needs no interpreter, except when he says something like that. He does care – a lot about a lot of matters. And tuner Alan Johnson, who has guided six different drivers to a combined 12 Top Fuel championships, said he can see that in Salinas.

“Anytime somebody has the desire to race Top Fuel and has the financial ability to fund it on his own, you know that guy’s got some passion. We’re trying to reward him, our team, with some wins and a really good run at the championship. And this race here is a pretty good beginning to that,” Johnson said April 7 at the Las Vegas four-wide event moments after Salinas’ first victory in any form of racing.

“When he began driving, he didn’t really have very many runs at all. It’s one thing getting runs in a Top Fuel car, but [that and] getting runs in a Top Fuel car that’s quick enough to win a championship are two different things,” he said. “They’re a lot harder to drive when they’re really fast. He has done a good job of coming up to speed on that. This weekend he was flawless. He’s going to be a great driver.”

Salinas jumped into the conversation and said, “You’re only as good as who you surround yourself with. If you want to be the best, you get the best.”

He said, “There’s different levels of people and the ideology of how they do it. So if I shoot for the stars and go for the best, I’m going to get really close. We just keep knocking at the door. Nothing ever comes easy for us. It never has in this world, and it doesn’t come easy for anybody. All of us struggle every day. Things do not fall in your lap.”

Anytime somebody has the desire to race Top Fuel and has the financial ability to fund it on his own, you know that guy’s got some passion. We’re trying to reward him, our team, with some wins and a really good run at the championship. – Alan Johnson

Nothing fell into Salinas’ lap.

“We were the broke, poor kids, and we had to work,” he said of his early years. “We built our companies. Monica and I, this is our 36th year in business. We started off with . . . she had $3,500 and I had $3,000 when we started our company 36 years ago – 20-hour days, seven days a week. We never realized what we were going to build. You built this thing, and I actually just went back and I’m walking through all the companies and watching what’s going on and it’s pretty amazing. You don’t realize it’s yours. We’ve been on that push for so long.”

Photo courtesy NHRA/National Dragster

He still is on it. However, Salinas, who will turn 58 on April 27, is a long way down the road from his teenage days, when – according to 10-4 Magazine editor Daniel Linss – his sister taught him to drive a truck and while he still was in high school bought a raggedy 1956 Kenworth that he used to haul junk cars to scrapyards after classes.

Someone on a social media site asked recently how Salinas got enough money to afford to hire Alan Johnson, crew chief Brian Husen, and their seasoned mechanics. The answer is simple: he earned every penny of it. That’s why he can enjoy it.

“It’s really nice, because now I don’t have to worry about the car. I can jump in the car and go drive the car and have a great time. [The team is] top notch, professional,” Salinas said. “I want to beat Steve Torrence. He’s the best. That’s what we’re going after. With this crew that we have, I believe we can do it.”

His four daughters believe they can do what they set their minds to do, too. And that for Salinas is worth all the Wally trophies in the world.

“I had five sisters, and I have four daughters and one wife, so I’ve been around women all my life. I built strong, confident young women and I want them to live what they want to live and be as strong as they can,” he said. “They’re running companies now, so I know they can do anything. The coolest thing is I got them believing they can do anything. That’s great.”

Daughters Jasmine and Jianna are the ones the racing community knows best. Jasmine, at 27 the oldest of the four, is a University of San Francisco graduate who majored in international and Asian studies and built superchargers for her father’s dragster before embarking on her Top Alcohol Dragster career. She is set to make her Top Fuel debut soon, as is sister Jianna. Mike Salinas said at Las Vegas that Jianna, 22, is planning to transition from a Pro Stock Motorcycle to a Top Fuel car, as well.

Jianna Salinas aboard her Pro Stock Motorcycle.

“The girls have never competed against each other. They don’t like that. They don’t like women that bash women. They’re an advocate for women, so a woman that bashes another woman, it’s a no-no for them because they want to empower women,” Mike said. “So that’s why I made [second-oldest] daughter [Jacquelin] CFO of all of our companies because she earned the spot and she’s amazing at it.”

Jacquelin is a San Jose State student majoring in industrial and systems engineering. Youngest daughter Janae is in Italy, studying fashion at Milan’s Istituto Marangoni at Milan and planning to launch her own clothing line one day and maybe one day launch a race car at the dragstrip.

“You know, it’s been really fun. I’m just really happy for them that they’re out here doing this,” Mike said. “On the other side, most people don’t get to see how hard they worked. The coolest part is both daughters, I made them put the first $50,000 to buy these teams out of their pockets. My kids, they work for everything. It’s really awesome. I told them, they put in the first 50 – that means they’re dedicated. So Jasmine sold her couch to finish off the $50,000.

I had five sisters, and I have four daughters and one wife, so I’ve been around women all my life. I built strong, confident young women and I want them to live what they want to live and be as strong as they can. – Mike Salinas

“So I’m pretty hard on my girls, I really am,” he said. “I don’t think I would be any different on a boy, but I know my girls. All of us, second isn’t best for us. It’s a rough household to live in when all we’ve done is No. 1 in our whole life. We don’t compete with anybody else in our world. We compete with ourselves, our personal bests.

“I’m having a great time,” Salinas’s said. “My wife’s a little nerve-wracked with it, but we still have two more daughters coming in, so this is going to be fun.”

Maybe it even will keep the squirrels quiet.

About the author

Susan Wade

Celebrating her 45th year in sports journalism, Susan Wade has emerged as one of the leading drag-racing writers with 20 seasons at the racetrack. She was the first non-NASCAR recipient of the prestigious Russ Catlin Award and has covered the sport for the Chicago Tribune, Newark Star-Ledger, St. Petersburg Times, and Seattle Times. Growing up in Indianapolis, motorsports is part of her DNA. She contributes to Power Automedia as a freelancer writer.
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