Gary Densham says one of the three biggest days of the year in Northwest – along with Seafair weekend – is when the NHRA comes to Pacific Raceways in Kent.
Densham, 61, drives the Racebricks-sponsored Funny Car and has come to this track and blistered its drag strip in various cars for more than 30 years.
The Schucks Auto Supply NHRA Nationals rolls into town this weekend, bringing the thunder of nitromethane-fueled Funny Cars and Top Fuel dragsters as well as Pro Stock cars and hundreds of sportsman racers to Pacific Raceways.
The track is situated right off State Route 18, draws fans not just Covington, Kent and the Puget Sound area, but from the entire Western region of the United States and Canada.
It’s also a favorite place to race for drivers like Densham.
“We love coming to Seattle,” Densham said. “The fans are terrific. They’re now making improvements out at the race track. The pit area was kind of tragic and they hadn’t made any improvements in 25 years, even though the track was quite nice.”
And for Densham, who is based out of Southern California, it’s a bit easier to make the trip here while running the show on a shoestring budget as the costs of nitro and diesel fuel skyrocket.
“We’ve turned these things into such labor-intensive money pits,” he said. “The increase in the cost of nitromethane and diesel fuel from last year is about $4,000 more per race.”
But Densham loves to drive. And he’s having his best season in years as he sits in seventh place in the points race and is threatening three of the drivers of his former employer, John Force Racing. Ashley Force is in third followed by Robert Hight in fourth and John Force, the 14-time funny car world champion, in fifth. Cruz Pedregon is standing between Densham and Force in sixth place. Tim Wilkerson is well out in front of the standings.
John Force, who built his racing empire from the ground up, has seemingly limitless resources, Densham said. Densham, however, doesn’t mind running a single-car team on a small budget, and he’s glad to see Wilkerson, another single-car team leading the points race.
“The nice thing about the single car is that your crew are not only your employees, they’re your best friends,” Densham said. “You know about them, their wives and kids and families … we all share it together. When you walk around Force or (Don Schumacher Racing) pits with 80 or 90 employees, they don’t all know each other’s names.”
Kevin Sherron, a crew member for Densham who lives in North Bend, said there’s nobody better to work for in NHRA.
“Most of the team has been with Gary a long time and it’s painful to watch him struggle financially while having some good success on the track,” Sherron said. “Gary’s a great boss and friend. We all love the old guy and will do whatever it takes to keep him safely going down the track. We’ve been joking with the teams out there that we are going to put a box in everyone’s pit labeled ‘Densham Donations.’”
That kind of camaraderie is what Densham likes about his team.
“I was with John Force for four years and it was great to have all the resources of John Force Racing,” Densham said. “But it became so impersonal. It was nice to go back out on my own. I think I’ve got the best team in drag racing and by far the lowest budget of anybody out there.”
Wilkerson setting the pace
Like Densham, Wilkerson is having one of the best seasons of his career, having won three events out of the first 13, which is a career high for him.
Wilkerson, who began his career in the ‘70s when he purchased a car and took it bracket racing, said that while there are advantages that Force Racing and Schumacher Racing have by fielding multiple cars, that there are also plusses to running a single-car operation.
“There’s no doubt that having more than one car has some advantage for tune-up,” Wilkerson said. “Sometimes, I think two cars or more can be a distraction. I think if you get bigger than two cars, then the advantages would be outweighed by the disadvantages.”
During the past seven years, Wilkerson said he has been fortunate to have a great primary sponsor in Levi, Ray and Shoup, which has given him solid financial footing.
But he has been in Densham’s position before: a dedicated and skilled driver with an equally dedicated and skill crew.
“Qualifying is make or break for him, so they go conservative,” Wilkerson said. “They’re a much better car than they appear at qualifying. Then they go out on race day and throw caution to the wind and go rounds.”
Wilkerson said the key for both his and Densham’s success this year has been finding something that works and sticking with it.
“If you look at the overall picture, our cars are a little more consistent … and that’s what’s winning us rounds,” Wilkerson said. “Being consistent has been a big key in winning rounds.”
Densham also believes some rules changes by the NHRA – such as the allowance to run a higher percentage of nitro in the fuel mix as well as changes made to the minimum weight for the vehicles – has allowed both teams to be more competitive.
“Since both of our cars were a little heavy for last year’s minimum weight … adding a little weight kind of confused some of the bigger-name teams,” Densham said. “Enough people move between camps that there’s not really any secrets any more. It just comes with preparation and the right calls.”
Wilkerson said he has been trying not to focus on leading the points in the Funny Car class and instead tries to take it one weekend at a time.
“All I know is in the last race I got beat in the second round by Tony Pedregon, and I’m not happy about it,” he said.
Lovin’ it at sea level
The event at Pacific Raceways is the second stop of three consecutive races known as the Western Swing. They started at Bandimere Speedway in Denver last weekend, then, after the stop in Kent, head to Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif.
“The conditions and the altitude is so much different in Seattle than Denver,” Wilkerson said. “You’re always thinking about the next race, where the conditions are normal. It’s a challenging place if the weather holds out and it’s cool. Then, you got a lot of power (at Pacific Raceways) because it’s close to sea level.”
With temperatures expected to be in the mid to upper 70s, getting the cars down the strip will be a challenge since they generate anywhere from 7,000 to 8,000 horsepower while covering the quarter-mile distance in less than 5 seconds.
Still, like Densham, Wilkerson is looking forward to the race here.
“We’re excited to come there, and hopefully, we can do some good and make everybody in Seattle proud of us,” Wilkerson said. “We’re in the best shape we’ve ever been financially, or (with) our crew or with parts, so we’re really looking forward to it.”
NHRA NORTHWEST NATIONALS
• EVENT: 21st Annual Schuck’s Auto Supply NHRA Nationals, the 14th of 23 events on the NHRA Powerade Drag Racing Series.
• WHEN: Thursday through Sunday.
• TRACK: Pacific Raceways, located just off Highway 18.
• FIELD: Three pro and several sportsman categories.
• SCHEDULE: Friday qualifying, 9:15 a.m.-6 p.m.; Saturday qualifying/sportsman eliminations 9:15-5:15 p.m.; Sunday eliminations 11 a.m.
• TV: Saturday — 5-6 p.m., ESPN2 (tape delayed); Sunday — 6-9 p.m., ESPN2 (tape delayed).
• DEFENDING CHAMPIONS: Top Fuel — Tony Schumacher; Funny Car — Jack Beckman; Pro Stock — Dave Connolly.
• TICKET INFORMATION: (253) 639-5927 or Ticketmaster (206) 628-0888.