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2014 NHRA: NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Teleconference
Posted by: newsla on Jan 30, 2014 - 10:38 AM
2014 NHRA: NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Teleconference: Erica Enders-Stevens, Richie Crampton And Tommy Johnson JR.

The following are excerpts from a teleconference featuring Pro Stock racer Erica Enders-Stevens; Top Fuel rookie Richie Crampton; and Funny Car racer Tommy Johnson Jr. in advance of the Circle K NHRA Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona Feb. 6-9.


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THE MODERATOR: The 2014 race season begins at the Circle K NHRA Winternationals February 6-9. A number of members of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series teams will have new lineups, whether that's crew members, new sponsors, new paint schemes or new drivers, a lot of fresh looks will be unveiled when the series takes to the track on Friday.

Today we're going to be joined by three racers who will be with a new team or new roles for the coming season. Erica Enders-Stevens in Pro Stock, Richie Crampton in Top Fuel, and Tommy Johnson, Jr., in Funny Car. Erica this year will join Elite Motorsports as the driver of their Chevy Camaro Pro Stock car tuned by the father and son duo of Rick and Rickie Jones, with in house horsepower crafted by Nick Ferri and Jake Hairston. Enders Stevens joined the team after a successful partnership with Victor Cagnazzi, and in her career has six wins and 17 final round appearances, and was the first female to win in a Pro Stock event in the history of the NHRA.

Erica, Rickie won that final event in Pro Stock at Pomona ending last year. Now you come into this team. How excited are you to join the team and enter a team with proven success?

ERICA ENDERS-STEVENS: I'm really excited. I think it's a great opportunity and a really positive step for the next chapter of my career. Richard (Freeman, team owner of Elite Motorsports) and I have been friends for a long time. I'm glad to have seen their program come together from last year. Shane Gray won the Vegas event with their power followed by Rickie Jones winning the final Pomona event last year. So they certainly have the horsepower, and we're about to leave in a couple days to go test in Phoenix and head out to Pomona. So time will tell. I'm just excited about the opportunity.

Q. First off, congratulations on securing a ride for the full season. Do you expect being able to secure that ride for the full season to make a big difference come the Countdown with missing five races last year and still doing as well as you did? How confident are you going into this season?

ERICA ENDERS-STEVENS: I'm very confident. It's going to be all new for me. I'm still driving a Chevy Camaro, and we're a factory team for GM this year, so I'm proud to announce that. So I think all positive things are on the horizon for us. I know that my new guys are going to bring everything they've got to the table. Rick and Rickie Jones are really awesome crew chiefs who have a true understanding for how the car works, being that they actually build the chasses themselves. And Nick and Jake in the engine shop can certainly produce the horsepower. So I think it's going to be a great year. Being able to run the entire 24-race schedule will be a positive thing especially coming off only running 18 of the 24 last year. So I know we'll be able to do good, and I certainly predict we'll be in the run during the Countdown at the end of the year.

Q. What do you think the level of Pro Stock, the competition level, will be like this year? What do you kind of look at with the magic crystal ball going into the year?
ERICA ENDERS-STEVENS: I was actually talking to my dad and Richie about it last night. It's going to be a really competitive year. I mean, Pro Stock is always the most competitive professional class out there, but it's going to be very interesting next year, I think. There are going to be eight to ten cars that are truly going to be capable of contending for the championship, which is quite a big number. You start with A.J. (Allen Johnson) and Jeg (Coughlin) who are the two previous years' world champions, then obviously the KB guys are always contenders, and they've got Vincent Nobile on their team this year, and our team with Elite with Shane (Gray) and (Dave) Connolly driving. So there are going to be quite a few drivers that are going to be able to contend for it. I think it's going to be the most competitive year yet.

Q. You kind of touched on this already, but it's a hurdle. First you have to hurdle getting a substantial ride like you have, and then you've got the hurdle of an extremely competitive nature of Pro Stock. So could you compare those two things and kind of tell us what will help you overcome the stiff competition that you have to face?

ERICA ENDERS-STEVENS: Certainly. Testing is crucial in our class. We have unlimited testing, fortunately, so I'm excited about the opportunity, like I said. But like you touched on, the true challenge of it aside from the raw competition, is finding the funding to be able to do this. That is something that Richard Freeman, and Elite Motorsports and Elite Performance have provided this year. We have a number of associate sponsors on board, and I'm really proud that we're going to be able to run the full season. It's a true challenge to find the money as any other driver or crew member or anybody that knows anything about drag racing at all realizes. So it's definitely a challenge. Then once you get out there, the crazy competition is cutthroat, and you've got to be on your game every single time, so it makes it exciting. It keeps it fun, and definitely challenging, and I like that aspect of it. Lots of pressure and hopefully a lot of fun in the end.

Q. What are your thoughts when you first pull into Pomona Friday and this year the pro classes will have two runs on Friday, just the start of the season, what is the mindset going in with a clean slate going into the season?

ERICA ENDERS-STEVENS: The clean slate is always good, especially after a full year of racing. Everybody's really tired. It's a long season, so everybody should be really refreshed and in good spirits and good moods. After our test here in Phoenix this coming week we should have kind of a gelled pattern going with our new team and the chemistry and that is an important aspect of it as well. So I'm looking forward to Pomona. I'm glad it's a three day schedule this time around. The one on Thursday, one on Friday certainly makes for long days out there. But it will be great to start with a new slate, a new chapter in my book, and I'm very optimistic about it.

Q. We've heard a lot of good things coming out of that track in Phoenix the new Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park. You're testing there next Monday and Tuesday. But have you heard a lot of good things coming out of that facility with the expansions and upgrades and the new racing surface?

ERICA ENDERS-STEVENS: I have. I've heard a lot of good things. I also saw online last night that they're going to be having a Sportsman event there this coming weekend. So there will be a lot of race cars going up and down the racetrack and putting some good rubber down for us prior to the test session. And that will be crucial on the new surface especially. The test will tell us a lot. Phoenix is like a second home for me. Most of my family is from out there, and we've had a lot of success out there in the past, starting in junior dragsters moving on to Super Comp, and Super Gas, and then our win last season in Pro Stock. So I'm excited to go back. It will be great to get the test done headed into Pomona, but also collect that important data that a lot of the other teams won't be able to have for the new surface for the second event of the year here at Phoenix. So it's all around a good deal.

Q. I'm assuming you and Victor Cagnazzi parted on good terms. I'm just wondering what it was like for you personally when you think back of all you've accomplished with that team to move on? What are your thoughts about that?

ERICA ENDERS-STEVENS: It was certainly a hard move, and that is nothing derogatory toward my new team at all. Victor and I have a huge history. He gave me my start back in 2004 and my professional debut in '05 in a Pro Stock car. I'll be forever grateful to him and Brita for the opportunity. At the end of the day it was a business decision. I just turned 30 this year, and I've got to kind of start looking out for myself as far as my future and my family and finances are concerned. With the merger with the Gray deal, it was very difficult for me…So it was hard and sad, but we did part on good terms. It is what it is. I know next year they'll be out there trying to kick my butt just like I will theirs. So it was just a business decision.

Q. What's it going to be like having Rickie in the pits with you? Obviously, he drove the car and won in it in terms of the tuning aspect and understanding the car so well. And number two, is there a concern to you about not having a teammate in terms of making a run for the championship considering a lot of these teams that win championships in Pro Stock and all the divisions are multi car teams that have more data? I guess just a two part question about Rickie and not having a teammate.

ERICA ENDERS-STEVENS: I'm excited to work with Rickie and Rick. I mean, they're both so extremely knowledgeable, not only about the chassis, but tuning and air/fuel ratios and everything that goes into making a successful pass up and down the racetrack. I'm excited to be teamed up with Rickie being that he's a driver, he understands what I'm going through and he can relate just like the relationship that Connolly and I had in the past. But I'm looking forward to learning more. Rick and Rickie have talked over the off season. I went to the shop to get fitted for the new car, and just made it really evident that I want to learn more. This is going to be my tenth year in Pro Stock, which is crazy for me to think, but I should know more. I should be able to be on an assistant crew chief level not in the aspect of making the calls myself, but the knowledge of it. So I'm excited to get to learn more. They've indicated that they're going to take the time to teach me, and I'm really excited about that. As far as the second car goes, yeah, all the top teams out there have multiple cars and that is certainly an advantage. They've got twice the data and number of runs up and down the track. If your teammate goes down before you and they shake or whatever you can take that data and make your set up better to where you can get down the racetrack. So it certainly will be a disadvantage in that aspect. But at the same time, we have plans to run a second car some this year. Hopefully with Rickie driving some, and my husband, Richie Stevens, driving for ten races, so that is the plan as of now. Of course, it all depends on funding. Even though we've had people say they're going to step up, I've kind of learned over the past ten years that once the check is cashed, then you can get excited.
So we're hopeful to have that second car out there at some point this season, and we'll work with what we've got and do our best every time. That's all we can do.

THE MODERATOR: Richie Crampton enters the season as a rookie in the Top Fuel category as he takes over driving duties for Morgan Lucas in the highly competitive GEICO / Lucas Oil Top Fuel dragster. Crampton is a 33-year-old native from Adelaide, South Australia, and has been with Morgan Lucas Racing in various capacities since the 2007 season. In addition to having a Top Fuel license, he also has his license in Super Comp and Top Alcohol Dragster. Now, Crampton has tested with the team this year before the start of the season. We'll start there, Richie. How has your testing gone so far down in South Florida?

RICHIE CRAMPTON: Yeah, thanks for having me on. You know, testing in Florida was a little challenging for us as it was for most of the teams that went down there to run. The weather was so cool that it made the racecars pretty prone to shaking and all that kind of stuff. But, nonetheless I was able to get 24 more runs under my belt and got some very valuable seat time, and learned a lot about what my mindset needed to be with how to go about rolling into the racetrack as a driver instead of a crew member. Beyond that, the car ran great numbers. It was 3.800 for me, which felt excellent to get that run under my belt because that was a huge confidence builder. Beyond that, Aaron Brooks made some good calls with a brand new racecar that we brought out for the test session, and confidence is pretty high after the test.

Q. I've asked a couple of Top Fuel rookies as they come into it, and even somebody like Tony Schumacher probably always learns a little bit of something each time down the track. But is there a number of those 24 runs where you're starting to feel comfortable or as comfortable as you can in a 9,000 horsepower car like that?

RICHIE CRAMPTON: Yeah, just being able to run back to back each day for an extended period like that made it to where I got extremely comfortable after the first day or two. It had been since last August since I last drove a Top Fuel car, so the last six months before we went down there I was kind of concerned about how long it would take to get acclimated to it and feel comfortable and just running for that many runs back to back made it easier for me to get really comfortable in the race car. So it was a good thing.

Q. From listening to you it sounds like you're not a rookie. You've got quite a bit of experience. But in your quest to go to this level, what in your past learning curves that you've been able to handle in your past will help you going into the NHRA season?

RICHIE CRAMPTON: Well, honestly, I think one of the biggest things I have up my sleeve, which isn't necessarily a driving related thing is the fact that I've just worked with this team for so long. The team chemistry is there right away. I've seen the way this team operates and how I paid close attention to how Morgan (Lucas) goes about handling things during the race weekend as a driver. I think the fact that I've been around it for so long is probably my biggest benefit. Beyond that, I definitely am a rookie. There are a lot of great alcohol races and such that have got a lot of runs up their sleeve that probably could have made the transition a lot easier. But, no, I think just the fact that I've been around this team and this car for so long, it just made it that much easier.

Q. You have a fellow countryman in David Grubnic in the NHRA Top Fuel; are you going to talk to him for advice?

RICHIE CRAMPTON: Yeah, absolutely. I do talk to Dave quite frequently at the track. Obviously, that's going to develop more and more once the season gets going and we're around each other a little more. But aside from that, he is on another team, so the main advice I'll be receiving will be from Morgan and people closer to the MLR group that I've been working with for the last seven years. But Grubnic has been a great, supportive person to me, and he's helped a lot he's taught me a thing or two already, and I can't wait to communicate with him more throughout the season. I'm sure we'll develop a healthy Australian rivalry.

Q. You've been working with the team for a while. I was just curious if they're going to make you still carry your duties that you've been doing and you get to drive the car, or are you just a driver now?

RICHIE CRAMPTON: I'm transitioning into being just the driver. A lot of times I've got to remind myself to basically stay away a little bit, and I don't need to be worrying about a lot of the little things I used to worry about and just concentrate on being ready to get in the racecar when it it's time to drive. It is going to be a little transition period where I'm still going to try to be involved with the clutch department because that was kind of my baby for the last seven years. It can be the smallest little thing that one person does differently to the next guy that can make or break the way these cars run. So I'm going to try to have input where it's just basically questions on how I used to do things and still try to be involved as much as I can. But Andrew Polk, the guy that's filled my position, he was working side by side with me in the clutch department for all that time anyhow. So it should be a fairly smooth transition. I'm not going to be like Mike Dunn, jumping out of the race car with my fire suit on and dragging the hot clutch out of the thing.

Q. With the passes that you've made so far, how valuable has Morgan's feedback been in driving the car?

RICHIE CRAMPTON: It's been extremely valuable. The biggest thing with Morgan is he's one of my best friends and from that are point of view there's just never been pressure. I kind of made a rookie mistake and two stepped it down there in Florida and kind of wasted a run, and thought, oh, oh, I might be in trouble here, and it was quite the opposite. It was just real supportive, good feedback. The fact that he's driven at the top level for so long, he's able to put it into words very well what you need to be feeling and thinking and how to drive these cars. Because there is definitely an art to it. I'm definitely going to be relying on Morgan throughout the season to help me get better. I just hope that I can fill his shoes.

Q. You said you and Morgan are good buddies, so I'm wondering, did you have inside information that he was going to step out of the cockpit at the end of the season? Did you think you'd be the number one choice to replace him?

RICHIE CRAMPTON: No, and no. That was actually a funny situation. I was fortunate enough that Anthony Dicero let me drive his A Fuel Dragster back last July to refresh my Top Alcohol license. Morgan had come out to the racetrack and signed off on that for me. You know, he knew that I would love to drive a Top Fuel Dragster or Funny Car. Honestly, I just never thought I'd get the chance, basically. Then with (Brandon) Bernstein's back problems that he was having, I kind of asked Morgan in the summer last year if, hey, if I were licensed could I fill in for Brandon, since JR had other commitments coming up and all that stuff. So from that point of view, Morgan allowed me to get my license in the car at the Indy test session. At that point there was definitely no idea that Morgan was going to be stepping away. So at the time I thought this is awesome. I get to get my Top Fuel license, which is a dream come true in one of the best Top Fuel dragsters on the planet. And from that point on, if Bernstein were to have any more back problems, I may get to sub for him. Then obviously, once October came around, things started to change a little bit, and I only found out about three days before the announcement that Morgan was working with GEICO to figure out what the solution may be then even once Morgan informed me that there was a short list of drivers that could possibly take that position, I still didn't believe that I would get chosen, because it was a pretty talented group of drivers that they could have chosen from. But the fact that I was chosen and got the job, it's an amazing feeling for me.

Q. As people are on the outside, what is one thing that people would be surprised the most about driving one of these cars, that you, yourself after being around it for so long didn't quite realize until you got in the cockpit?

RICHIE CRAMPTON: Driving these Top Fuel Dragsters is very hard to explain. I got to drive the A Fuel car, as I said, and shortly thereafter I got into the Top Fuel car, and I thought, the A Fuel car was a lot of fun. But a Top Fuel Dragster, once you get to half track and the clutch tries to go one to one, the race car just does not stop accelerating all the way to the finish line. It's just really hard to express how fast and how exciting it is when one of these Top Fuel Dragsters make a full run to the finish line. It's very hard to put it into words. But that's probably the biggest thing that I've noticed when I finally get in to drive these cars.

THE MODERATOR: Next up is our Funny Car category. As Tommy Johnson Jr., returns to Funny Car competition behind the wheel of the Make A Wish Dodge Charger R/T, with sponsor Terry Chandler, and the backing of Don Schumacher Racing. Johnson has nine national event victories in his career, and one of 15 drivers to have won events in both Top Fuel and Funny Car.
Tommy, you've been so closely involved with the sport since your last full time season in 2008, and you were always a constant fixture at the track. But was there ever worry in your mind that you may not get back to this position being in a championship caliber, full time ride?

TOMMY JOHNSON JR.: Yeah, every day. You wonder every day. Especially the first year, okay, it was tough times economy wise. It's hard to put a sponsorship package together and get in a car. This second year, okay, it's getting a little tougher, but it's been five years since I ran full time in 2008 with Kenny Bernstein five years ago. So there was definitely some doubt along the way. But my love for the sport and just everybody asking me all the time what would you do if you didn't drive race cars, and that isn't an option. It's the only thing I've ever done, and the will to get back here. You get tired of hearing no. But if you want to do something bad enough, you put your mind to it, and you continue to put your head down and work towards that goal, and that's what I did. I just never gave up. It would have been easy to give up several times along the way. But it's what I want to do and my desire to do that paid off and the persistence. But to answer your question, every day I wondered, I don't know if I'm ever going to get this shot. I did a lot of part time stuff, but a full time ride, I didn't know if we'd get back there. But I stuck around, and fought hard and did all the right things. Just stayed there and kept in front of people, and kept in the forepart of their mind. When an opportunity came available, it finally happened this year. Don Schumacher was kind enough to give me that chance again.

Q. Everybody kind of gets some off season cob webs, but you're coming back. When do you feel like you'll find it will be easier for you do you think it will be much more of an effort or it will just come back to you like riding a bicycle? But what do you think will be the biggest hurdles for you as you get into the travel and routine again?

TOMMY JOHNSON JR.: There are going to be a lot of things. Just already we're not even to the racetrack yet, and just getting back up to speed with a lot of the commitments and all the things that go into a team. It's funny when people ask what do you do during the off season? And the off season is probably some of our busiest times. We're working nonstop to get ready for this season, and that is the biggest role lately. All the time constraints of trying to be here or trying to be two places at one time. But driving a car is relatively the same. I've managed to be able to stay in cars off and on throughout those five years. It's not like I got out of the car and haven't been in one since, so that's helped me a lot. Just to keep up to speed and the technology and some of the different things that evolve over the years in driving the cars. Different things change and little different techniques, so that I'm okay with. But it's just getting back into the grind of the Tour and all the appearance commitments, and then when it's time to get in the car and concentrate. That is one of the harder things for a driver, I believe, is keeping that focus. Your job is to drive the race car and do a great job and win races, but there is a lot that goes into that as far as appearances and other things. So keeping the focus and getting back there that when the engine starts you're 100% focused on doing the best job you can. So I think a couple races, we'll be back in the swing of it. It came back pretty quick in testing. As soon as they dropped the body, I felt like they dropped the body in the '09 season after the '08 full year. So it came back naturally.

Q. Do you feel like a rookie?

TOMMY JOHNSON JR.: Sometimes. There are certain things. You feel like you fell back to your rookie day, like been there and done that. It's brought back a little bit of memory of those days. But for the most part, you feel like a veteran rookie.

Q. Apart from the car, how much do you think you can contribute to the team now from what you've learned in the past?

TOMMY JOHNSON JR.: It's something I've always prided myself on is having a really good feel for the race car and what the car is doing. Driving by the seat of your pants as far as feel and sound of the engine and the car. Even in testing, the very first run I made in the car I said it did this, it did that. It moved here, I felt this. So that is a little bit of what I think I can bring. I feel like that will help along the way. I can't even count how many runs I've made in a Nitro car over the years. I think once you gain that experience and get that feel for the car, that is something you don't ever lose.

Q. Johnny Gray had four wins last year; does that put more added pressure on you to succeed this year?

TOMMY JOHNSON JR.: No, I mean, it's a very good team. Getting back full time is one thing, but to get back with an organization like Don Schumacher Racing and to know that you have the cars and the resources and the people there that are capable of winning, it gives you a great opportunity. I think you put pressure on yourself no matter what situation you're in. But to know that you have the car that is capable of winning races and not only winning races, they've won championships here in the past few years. So to go out there and have that shot at a competitive car and have a shot at a championship, definitely the goal as you start the season is to win races, make the Countdown, and to strive for that championship. I don't know that there's anymore added pressure. But it's certainly a lot because it is a high profile team, and that is the goal that I was shooting for. I'm going to get all the pressure I asked for.

Q. Do you think when you were previously a test driver for them, do you think that helped you get this full time seat for the season?

TOMMY JOHNSON JR.: Yeah, it certainly didn't hurt anything. I worked at Schumacher for two or three years there. I drove for Don. We went to Abu Dhabi and drove in the Yas Marina Top Fuel cars over in Abu Dhabi for Don. And I worked in the shop as a purchasing manager and did a lot of different things in the facility, and also the track specialist job, reading the racetracks for all the crew chiefs. Really getting to know all the crew chiefs and all the personnel at DSR didn't hurt. Just got to be friends with everybody there. And I did a lot of things along the way that maybe Don didn't ask me to do, but I felt like needed to be done for the betterment of the team. That, coupled with when I went to work for Don two or three years ago, he said come to work for me. We'll work on a deal and get you in the car. Maybe it didn't happen as fast as we wanted it to, but it eventually happened, and I've got to thank him for the opportunity along with Terry Chandler, Johnny's sister. She had a lot of say in who got to drive. Got to know her over the last few years as well there working at Don Schumacher Racing when Johnny was driving the car. Just a great lady. Just can't thank them enough, both of them, for giving me the opportunity.

Q. John Force always talks about how much time he spends in the gym now to stay in shape after his injuries, but just to stay in shape and compete with the younger guys. Coming back for a full season, have you done anything off-season wise to get yourself in better shape?

TOMMY JOHNSON JR.: Yeah, you know, the older you get, the harder you have to work at it, it seems like. But that was one of the things that showed commitment to how bad I wanted to do this over the years. I hadn't been out there on the Tour. But you could have easily let yourself go and put on some pounds. But I kept focus on that I wanted to do this, and the opportunity may come tomorrow. You don't know when that opportunity is coming. I kept myself in shape, and didn't gain weight. I'm basically the same way I was when I got out of Bernstein's car. I ride bicycles in the summertime, and I've hit the treadmill this winter and been on the treadmill quite a bit. Basically it's something you do in your life. It's not something I do to drive the race car. It's just I want to keep myself in shape, and do some things. To do that, more than anything, I watch my diet. I really I try to eat well. I try to keep a good diet and a little exercise along the way. Hopefully some of the genetics are there that it works a little bit on the natural side.
But just the desire to be in the car and that's how bad I wanted to do it. I always made sure if the call came together I was ready to go.

Q. Those treadmills are lifesavers, so good luck.

TOMMY JOHNSON JR.: Especially when it's 20 below here (laughing).

Q. Pulling into Pomona with the start of the season and new hopes and new dreams, just how cool of an event is Pomona to kick off the start of the season here in Southern California back at the birthplace of NHRA Drag Racing?

TOMMY JOHNSON JR.: On the tour there are those special races. Of course, Indy and Englishtown has been a neat race because of the history there. But Pomona is the kickoff of the season. For the crews in racing, you've got to see where this guy ended up. He used to work there, but now he works there. And what uniform is that guy wearing, and all the new paint schemes. Like at Pomona, we're going to debut the Make-A-Wish paint scheme, and just a neat charity to be involved with. Terry Chandler is going to fund the team this year and wanted to put a charity on the car, and to have Make A Wish on our car is such a big deal to have all that happen at Pomona and to see everybody's cars get unveiled. In 2005 I was able to win Pomona Winter Nationals, and my dad was there. It's history. Our sport has a lot of history. To be able to win one of the big ones like Winter Nationals, to me, it's one of the big ones. It's one that's on the Tour that every year you look forward to. To kick off the season with a win and you're the guy leading the points, there is something special about that every year. It would be different if I had joined the tour maybe mid-season and I got a job driving a car. I've done that before. I started with Joe Gibbs Racing in the middle of the season. It wasn't a dramatic interest; it was just another race on the Tour in the middle of summer. But to start the Tour back full time with Don Schumacher Racing, and driving for Terry Chandler, and debuting Make-A-Wish at the Winternationals, it doesn't get any bigger than that to me.

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