Gary Densham interview

Gary Densham You can tell just by his demeanor that Gary Densham used to be a teacher. Sorry, that Gary Densham is a teacher. The Southern California native is a very patient person. Afterall, it took him 30 years to earn his first NHRA national ...

Gary Densham interview

Gary Densham

You can tell just by his demeanor that Gary Densham used to be a teacher. Sorry, that Gary Densham is a teacher. The Southern California native is a very patient person. Afterall, it took him 30 years to earn his first NHRA national event victory. In that time, however, Densham never stopped loving the sport of drag racing, he never stopped loving the people around him and he never got bitter. Ask him at the race track how he is doing and he will flash a wide grin, and say, "Any day at the race track is a great day." The difference between Densham and others is that he truly believes in his answer. Densham paired up with crew chief Jimmy Prock when he joined the John Force Racing team in 2001. Since then, the Automobile Club of Southern California Ford Mustang has been in winner's circle six times. Now Densham and the rest of the NHRA POWERade Drag Racing teams are headed south for this weekend's O'Reilly Mid-South NHRA Nationals at Memphis Motorsports Park. In this Q&A session, Densham talks about what he thinks about leaving Force Racing after the season, how teaching prepared him to be a team owner and why his mom better not challenge him to a drag race.

Q: What makes you a good racer and why do you race in the first place?

DENSHAM: I absolutely love to race and the fans are out here. That is the bottom line on why you come to the drag races. Sure, you have the thrill of driving the car at 320 mph at 4.7 seconds and it is the ultimate thrill. What really makes drag racing is the fans and the people. It is the only sport that allows them to come down in the pits and be part of the whole scene.

Q: How old were you when you got involved with drag racing and what made you venture into quarter-mile competition?

DENSHAM: I was dropped on my head as a small child and never recovered. No, it was simple. I grew up in Southern California and we had three nice race tracks and it was the muscle car era. In high school I played football on Friday nights and went to the drag races on Saturday night. It was what we all did.

Q: What are your plans for the 2004 season?

DENSHAM: Well at this particular moment nothing is set in stone. It appears that if I want to stay out here, which is what I want to do because all of my friends are out here and this is where my family is, I need to find some money and field my own team. Everything is up in the air, nothing is decided. I would love to stay out here forever. Obviously I won't be able to drive the car forever, but I don't see any time soon that I will want to quit. Especially when Chris Karamesines at 73 years old is running a career-best 4.60 at Sonoma (Calif.) and there's Kenny Bernstein, who won't let anyone print his age, but he is as competitive as ever. I don't see anything in the near future that would absolutely tell me that I don't want to drive the car. I still have the desire to do it. Obviously if I thought I was hurting the team I would be the first to step down, but I want to be part of this. I feel I have a reasonably good working knowledge of how the car works and I would probably be some sort of an asset to my own team or someone else's team in that capacity on how to make the car run.

Q: Do you think you will be better able to run your own team after having spent time with Force's three car operation?

DENSHAM: The good thing is that I learned some things. One thing I learned is that you need a lot of money. It all revolves around money. I've learned from here that you reach certain plateaus with the amount of money that you have available. I look back at what I was capable of doing with the little amount of money that I had and it makes me more proud of those years than I was at the time. I didn't realize I was running with such a handicap. You were just foolish enough to say that I had a car and I'll go race. So when I look back upon that, I think we did awful good especially with what we had to work with. The overall competition and the fields that are out here now, the cars that are out here, are probably as good as it has ever been, so obviously it is going to be tougher than it was before. All you can do is try to field the best team you can with what you have.

Q: What do you think about the level of competition in Funny Car racing right now?

DENSHAM: It is obviously as high as it has ever been. Look at the record bump spot (during the U.S. Nationals). There are a lot of great teams and cars out here. There are obviously those that are a little better, a little better funded, a little better equipped with better personnel at the top. Those that aren't are probably going to be toward the bottom. But that is the nice thing about drag racing because on any given day you can win.

Q: What do you think about going back to Memphis Motorsports Park?

DENSHAM: I love going there. I've had pretty good success there. It's been said that my first final round was at Brainerd, but it wasn't. My first runner-up was in Memphis. Then my first national event win was there. Memphis is one of the tracks I look forward to racing at because I've had success there. I hated going there in the middle of the summer, but they changed the date of the race and I think I will always have a soft spot in my heart for Memphis.

Q: How do you think the season is going for the Auto Club Ford Mustang team?

DENSHAM: The year is great. Working with Jimmy Prock has been one of the highlights of my career. He is a great young man, a lot of fun to work with and he is extremely talented. I think we have another win or two left in us. That's the plan.

Q: Describe your relationship with Jimmy Prock.

DENSHAM: It's terrific. Like any situation it probably took us a couple of months to jell together. Probably even four or five months the first year. He came from a dragster, I came from a Funny Car but we were both thrown into this thing pretty quickly. I think it took him a little while to understand that I knew a little bit about the car and that I wasn't just a normal driver like he had had before. It's really nice and I feel very honored that he wants to talk about the tuneup with me and get an opinion. He's absolutely incredible. He is so meticulous and so dedicated and works so hard and yet he has the same attitude that I do that if that particular run didn't work out on that particular day it wasn't like we failed at trying to cure world hunger and 35,000 people died. We failed at making a good run with a race car, which means we will work harder and do better the next time.

Q: How have you maintained a passion and positive attitude toward drag racing after so many years?

DENSHAM: The people. The people who are involved in it such as the NHRA personnel, the other drivers, the other crew members, I get along with virtually everybody and I enjoy being around everyone. This is my family. Other people join the Lions Club or the Kiwanis Club or whatever they are interested in just so they can be around other people they like. I am lucky enough to be around people I like. I just enjoy being here.

Q: What are the advantages of being part of a three-car racing program?

DENSHAM: Well, obviously for myself the advantages are that I am not sweating over paying the bills every month. It's funny because I told everyone that before, when I owned my own car, I would have to go out to the mailbox everyday and I would need to bring a screwdriver to pry the mail out so I could pay all the bills. Now I walk out there and I have one thing that says 'addressed to occupant' and I can just throw that away. John has to deal with all that now. Just like any team, like when I was playing football, even when you played offense you knew the defense had to be there to win. That is the same thing over here. Don't get me wrong, when I race John or Tony Pedregon I want to beat them as bad as if I raced anyone else out there. That is obvious, but the nice thing about the team concept is the fact that if we lose, and John or Tony is still in, you are still part of the game. You are still out there trying to win. I might have dropped a touchdown pass but that didn't mean that another guy couldn't catch the next one and it would still be a great feeling. I am concerned about the multiple car teams in drag racing just for the fact that it makes it much more difficult for someone to break in and be part of it. I guess what I hate to see in the long run is John Force, Don Prudhomme, Don Schumacher and the Worshams controlling all the fuel classes or something like that. That would be bad for the sport in the long term. So far it hasn't been horrible and I understand as a business person, people like John and Snake and people like that want to build their empire and want to do a good job and they are capable of doing a good job for the sponsors. But our sport isn't really conducive to multiple car teams. If you are in NASCAR and you own four or five teams, all of the sponsors are getting great exposure for the 500 miles that the cars are going round and round the race track. If for whatever reason you, as the team owner, want to try to manipulate whoever wins the race, it probably doesn't affect the overall program a whole lot because everyone gets great exposure. If you own 16 cars in our sport, after the first round, I think eight of your sponsors are going to be pretty upset no matter what happens out there. That part of it becomes very difficult. Two cars with the same sponsor is a great idea. Double the exposure, double the opportunity to get great information about the car. I think when you get into multiple sponsors, I think there is a problem no matter how hard you try to protect them and support them.

Q: What did you learn from teaching that has helped you in your drag racing career?

DENSHAM: I think probably as far as running my own team that if I didn't learn the skills of teaching I would have never been able to do it for the simple fact that I had so many young, inexperienced people helping me with the car. To have the ability to be able to train them and show them how it is all done took patience. Looking back I think I know now we were more successful back then. Those are great skills to have. Teaching and racing also have some basics in common. You have to love people and you have to love young people and you have to have an enthusiasm toward what you are doing. Whether you are racing or trying to teach something, your goal is to have people relate to it.

Q: Are you going to miss being part of the John Force Racing program or are you looking forward to being a team owner again?

DENSHAM: I think it all comes down to whatever happens, happens. John and I have been friends for 30 years and we will continue to be friends for the next 30 years no matter what ends up happening. This particular decision has nothing to do with John or myself. John has been extremely happy with the performance of the car and what I have done and obviously I am extremely pleased with the opportunity that I have had. It is just that in the bigger scheme of things, John has bosses that tell him what has to be done, he is not always happy with that, but he has to comply too. That part of it is always going to remain the same. If I form my own team and come out here and kick their butts, I am going to think it was a great thing that happened. If I struggle or don't find the funding to make it happen, then I am going to miss it a bunch. Only time will tell. But the bottom line is that I have formed some great friendships here and I think I will always be welcomed in the pit area if I come wandering by.

Q: What is your perfect day at the race track?

DENSHAM: The perfect day is to come out here and have a great crowd, a great race and have four side-by-side races in which I win all of them. I always like to race, no matter who it is, because I really like all the competitors out here. With that said, it could be my mom or dad in the other lane and I don't care, I just want to beat them.


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