BRISTOL — As soon as Ron Capps lands at Tri-Cities Regional Airport, he gets excited about racing at Bristol Dragway.
“When you get off the plane, the whole town is about the race,” said Capps, the defending Funny Car champion of the NHRA Ford Thunder Valley Nationals. “You go to a restaurant, a store, everybody is talking about the race. The news starts off talking about the race. The newspapers, the front page of the sports is about the race. For me, I feed off that.
“It’s like a good rock band showing up at a town. The fans are waiting outside the tour bus, you’re going to put on a good show. If you get there and there are crickets when you open up the door of the bus, it’s like they’re not going to be in it as much. The fans are really into it. It’s just a good time, just a fun time.”
His fun times have included three victories overall in the event. They are part of 39 career wins for Capps, who will turn 48 years old next week. However, a season championship has proven elusive for the Dodge Charger driver who lost last year’s title by just two points to Don Schumacher Racing teammate Jack Beckman.
“I’ve runnered-up now like four times,” he said. “Last year, it was fun to be a part of, but it was brutal. My daughter, who is 16, lost it. She started crying at the top end (of the track) when I lost. Then, I started crying when I saw her crying. If I ever win one, there will be a party for two weeks But I’m at the point of my career, I don’t think it will define me if I don’t win one.”
The Carlsbad, Calif. driver believes he would already own a Wally trophy for his season’s accomplishments if NHRA hadn’t changed the format of how a title is decided. Instead of the points based on the whole season, it’s broken into a regular-season and a six-race playoff called “The Countdown to the Championship.”
“The Countdown changed everything,” he said. “I was leading the points going into the first Countdown by a lot and it looked like I could win my first championship. They reset the points and I never saw the lead again. The guy in eighth or ninth when they reset the points won the championship. With the Countdown, it’s like the Chase (in NASCAR), you have to be hot and get the breaks at the right time.”
Still he insists he’s better nowadays at losing a championship than earlier in his career. When longtime nemesis John Force denied him of drag racing’s top honor a decade ago, it provided a restless offseason for Capps..
“A couple of times when I drove for Don Prudhomme and I lost to Force, I would wake up every morning and set on the edge of the bed with my head in my hands and would go, ‘I was that close to wearing a ring,’” he said. “Now I don’t worry about it as much.”
While it sounds like Capps is trying to convince himself of that more than others, he used the example of a 22-time NHRA race winning driver as someone who isn’t defined by not having a championship.
“One of my first wins here was with “Ace” McCulloch who was my mentor and crew chief with Don Prudhomme and then at Schumacher’s with the Brut car,” Capps said. “He was so much of a hero to me and so many people. He drove everything, Top Fuel and Funny Car, and won so many races that I just thought he had won a championship. It wasn’t until I had been with him eight or nine years, somebody told me that he had never won a championship. I just assumed he had.
“That told me that he’s not defined by not having a championship and if I don’t win, they will look back at history and I will be defined by the races I’ve won. It’s more than I ever thought I would in this sport.”