The way Gary Scelzi is burning rubber, he might end up as one of the greatest drag racers ever.
With an unprecedented run of three NHRA Top Fuel championships in just four seasons on the circuit, Scelzi is the undisputed top throttle -- the kind of concession once made to "Big Daddy" Don Garlits and others.
That's how good it's been for Scelzi, whose only non-championship season since entering the circuit in 1997 was a second-place finish last year. Nobody has ever had a better start, and the record of five Top Fuel championships by Joe Amato seems within reach.
"This is way better than I ever dreamed," said Scelzi, who with the title already won can relax this weekend in the season-ending event in Pomona, Calif. "But things can change in a hurry in this sport."
In fact, the 40-year-old Californian has come so far so fast that he took considerable heat for failing to win the title last year.
"A lot of people said I had a crummy year," he said. "That was a hell of a year. We won three races. You can't win the championship every year."
Scelzi came back in 2000 to set a record for most Top Fuel victories in a season with eight.
With 22 victories in his career, Scelzi has risen to the top about as fast as any driver in any form of racing. With a thriving truck-body manufacturing business, Scelzi doesn't have to race, but he's excited by the competition and just how far he can go in the sport.
"They start comparing you to Jeff Gordon," he said of the NASCAR ace who won three titles in four years. "I could retire today and be able to say I had a great career."
He gives much of the credit to team owner Alan Johnson, who needed a replacement when Johnson's brother, Blaine, died in a crash in 1996. Johnson said it didn't take long to decide that Scelzi -- whom he raced earlier at the grass-roots level -- was the driver he wanted.
"His name just popped into my head," Johnson said. "I called him and he just about fell out of the chair."
The decision looked good from the start, with Scelzi winning the first two races he entered. By the end of 1997, Scelzi had five victories and a championship. In 1998, there were a record-tying six victories and another title.
Then came last season, when things didn't go as well. But it was in defeat that Johnson learned Scelzi's greatest value was not necessarily mashing the accelerator.
"He's very valuable to team morale," said Johnson, also Scelzi's crew chief. "When we're not winning, he's keeps everybody happy. That's pretty important."
Scelzi enjoys the interaction with the crew and the approach of Johnson, who wants everyone to be humble regardless of success.
"We kind of have a rule in our camp if we win four races in a row nobody says we are the best," Scelzi explained. "That will come back to haunt you."
The danger of the sport can be unnerving. But Scelzi accepts the risk.
He escaped serious injury last year in Topeka, Kan., when he flipped after leaving the line. He didn't have time to experience fear despite sliding down the track at more than 300 mph with flames shooting from his dragster.
"I try not to think about that, because in this sport there's not much difference between winning and losing," he said. "A few thousandths of a second the other way and we could have lost all eight of those finals this year."
So, how does Scelzi want to be remembered? He thinks of his 3 1/2-year-old-son Dominic and smiles.
"Well, I hope some day he looks at me and says, 'Dad was a hell of a drag racer in his day."'
On the net:
Gary Scelzi: http://www.garyscelzi.com
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.