Q: So when you went testing in Vegas in January, that was your first time in a nitro car for, what – 14, 15 months?
MT: Almost a year and a half, and my run here yesterday was my first run to the finish line in that long because we didn't go to more than half-track in testing because the track wasn't quite good enough at that time of year. So yesterday, it was great to cross the finish line and cross that one more thing off the list.
Q: What was it like to get back in after so long away? There's no way of building back up to it, I assume…MT:
No, there really isn't. No simulator, no way of practicing for it. A lot of it is about being mentally prepared for it. But fortunately, for me at least, it was nowhere near how it was for me in 2008, making the switch from Top Fuel to Funny Car for the first time. In Vegas, it was about getting in and shaking out the cobwebs a little bit and most of it comes back pretty quick. Of course, there are little things I want to get better at, finessing some things in the car, but it's not at all like switching from rear- to front-engined.
Q: I find that amazing. What was it that was so different?MT:
Well, there were some things that made my transition a little more tricky that wouldn't necessarily face everyone who switches. I like the steering wheel closer and lower than most drivers, and I think that has to do with the physical build. Guys tend to sit higher in the car, and because they're thicker build, maybe have the wheel set farther away. I move it closer but I think it was set too low, and I thought, “Well, I don't want them to tear the whole car apart to change it, so I'll be fine.” But we went two or three races where I was taking out cones and it was all over the place. I never hit the wall, but I was thinking to myself, “Oh my God, can I really drive this car? Why can't I keep my car in my lane?” But we realized that when I was stepping off the clutch, my left knee was under my left hand, so I wasn't able to steer properly. So we got that sorted out and it became a whole lot easier, but that whole switchover was painful.
Now, like I say, I've just got certain things to remember, making the start go smooth like the timing of the burn-out and the back-up. Obviously part of that is the gelling of the team, but it's all coming back. It's certainly not like starting from scratch.
Q: Are you going to be keeping up the Pro Mod racing? That Corvette is a great-looking car…MT:
Yes I will: it's an R2B2-run car as well, and it will have primary sponsorship from In-N-Out, too. It's going to be fun because, in my opinion, a nitro Funny Car and a Pro Mod car are the trickiest drag cars to drive, and yet very, very different. You'd expect, as they're both short-wheelbase cars, they'd both be squirrely and move around very similar, but it's not at all. In a Pro Mod, there is a lot of horsepower [approximately 3000] to put through a car with a lot of suspension movement. These Funny Cars are all solid, firmly planted with a lot of downforce and you can really crank on the wheel and get away with it, but in Pro Mod, the window of correction is very small. You start making corrections, and it's like the suspension movement amplifies everything you do; that's why you see them sideways so often. So it will be hard enough switching back and forth across the year, but I've got two events – Houston and the second Las Vegas round – where I'll be doing double duty on the same weekend, so I'm sweating a little about those!
Q: If you hadn't have had anything lined up with R2B2 for next year, would you have been looking to the big squads like Don Schumacher Racing for 2011?MT:
I wasn't looking for a job – I had a job and, unfortunately, Roger jumped into drag racing at about the worst time to find new sponsors. But we were very much working together to find potential backers. Come later this year, if we hadn't have been able to put something together, and I didn't have a contract for 2011 then I might have had to start making tough decisions, and considering teams that have open seats. But there are always more drivers than there are open seats, so it's tough – even more so in this economy. Drivers are being expected to bring sponsorship with them to the teams and that's not really our drivers' strong points. We can deal with sponsors and companies out here at the racetrack, but cold-calling them, going into board rooms and telling them why they should spend money in drag racing is not something that's our strong suit. I don't know how that would have worked, but fortunately it didn't have to happen.
Q: And how have you been able to activate the In-N-Out sponsorship?MT:
We had a good turnout for our first two events despite so few days to promote, but we've really been just working through all the basics so far, having had just 30-something days to get uniforms, fire-suits, cars painted and awnings made. Hopefully after this weekend we can get on with the merchandising and how to make it work for In-N-Out, because we need to learn what they'd like us to do to maximize the return on what they're spending.Q: So missing Gainesville [round three] will actually help you get that sort of stuff organized.
MT: Yeah…except we're there with the Pro Mod car! So it's going to be a little crazy. Q: What would be mission accomplished for you then this weekend?
MT: Conservatively, we want to qualify for Sunday. If we're out first round on Sunday, but we run a really good close race, I don't think we can be too disappointed. Coming together this quick, that would be acceptable. But…I always lean a bit toward the optimistic side and would like to see us qualify in the top half of the field and win a couple of rounds on Sunday. That's my goal, though, like I say, if we put down a good number on Sunday, even if we get beaten, then I think we can all hold our heads high.