FYI WIRZ: NASCAR and NHRA Champions Talk Contender Catapult

Dwight Drum@@racetakeCorrespondent IIIDecember 5, 2012

Jimmie Johnson admires a flyover at Homestead-Miami Speedway.  Credit Dwight Drum at
Jimmie Johnson admires a flyover at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Credit Dwight Drum at

It’s not certain what it takes for a viable motorsports driver and team in NASCAR and NHRA to rise to the level of a national championship, but champions have clues.

Some champion's notions about trophy achievement have common threads, while all champions have thoughts that stand out.

NASCAR champions Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and James Buescher seem to know what a championship run takes.

NHRA champions John Force, “Big Daddy” Don Garlits and Allen Johnson also have high-speed winning beliefs.

All these great champions answered one challenging question recently from this reporter.

What must a contender do to rise to the level of champion?

Some champions, like Keselowski, seem to have catapulted to success. Becoming a champion may take a sudden huge lift.  Repeating as a champion may take even more energy and talent, but champions aren’t random competitors.

In the hectic world of speed, exclusive trophy triumphs are often the result of extensive preparation and heavy consumption of learning curves. 

Skill matters.

It’s often said that many potential NASCAR champions never get past their local dirt track. Many have a healthy share of physical and mental abilities, but making it to the top takes incredible drive and luck—being in the right place and being ready for that place so that top teams take notice.

Certainly, many have thoughts about how contenders become champions, but listening to what champions believe makes a champion is more than self-analysis.

Champion clues might really be hidden treasure, but that treasure chest is sometimes displayed.

Motorsports champions have to be vocal.

When they speak publicly, their thoughts can be guarded and geared for sponsors and protocol. Often, their honesty emerges when qualified questions come their way.

A hopeful champion-in-the-making might want to study the following words about achieving pinnacles.

NASCAR champions survive a grueling season that includes abundant hours and miles on high speed oval banks and more. They have to be representatives for their sponsors and fierce rivals in fast traffic.

NHRA champions face win-or-go home reality every round on race day.

Again, the question posed to eight great champions recently was: What must a contender do to rise to the level of champion?

Jeff Gordon (Four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion)

“I feel like it's the same ingredients that the champion has that come out on top every year,” Gordon said. “That’s teamwork, commitment, great leadership and just a lot of hard work and effort that goes into building that team up to be ready to go do what you have to do.”

Jimmie Johnson (Five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion)

“There's no prerequisite,” Johnson said. “No requirements for anybody. As you progress as a driver and become a champion, you start to assume the role—you start to better understand the role. Over five championships, I finally felt like I had a voice. I feel like from my standpoint I've always had to earn that right.”

Brad Keselowski (First-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion)

“It’s a constant commitment to improvement because you have to continue to progress throughout your career—every moment, every opportunity—seize it and learn from mistakes,” Keselowski said. “That's probably one of the most important attributes of a championship driver or a champion in any sport.”

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (Two-time NASCAR Nationwide champion)

“We work very hard,” Stenhouse said. “When I make mistakes, they rally behind me. When they make mistakes, I rally behind them. It's a huge team effort, and you've just got to be prepared to work as hard as you can. There's no slacking off in this sport.”

James Buescher (First-time NASCAR Camping World Truck champion)

“I had to find a way to keep my cool all the way down to the end of the year, Buescher said. “Keep my team motivated and calm all at the same time. Keep them excited, but make sure they didn’t make any mistakes. We were able to do that better than the rest of the teams. We rose above, not that much, but we did.”

NHRA drag racing contenders face fierce high-speed, side-by-side competition that can be a one round defeat or a four round triumph—the last car standing. Being that final car at the end of a long season to accumulate the most points is hectic and difficult. 

Yet, some thrive.

John Force (Fifteen-time NHRA Funny Car champion)

“Do it because you love it,” Force said. “Be true to it. Don’t do it for the money. You’re wasting your time. If you make money, well then you’re one of the lucky ones. Do it for a passion of loving a crowd.”

Allen Johnson (First-time NHRA Pro Stock champion)

“The difference for us is just consistency from previous years,” Johnson said. “We had to match up personnel-wise with the teams that were winning championships. You got to learn how to win to start with and that all adds up into points.”

“Big Daddy” Don Garlits (Three-time NHRA Top Fuel champion)

“You never got to take your eyes off of the goal,” Garlits said. “And every time somebody says it can’t be done and you run into an obstacle—think of that as a learning process and something that is going to catapult you even further.”

The next launch of a champion career waits. That person will likely encounter champions repeating their difficult and lofty successes.

Watching and listening to champions is vital for credible competitors. Not to mention fun for adoring fans.

FYI WIRZ is the select presentation of topics by Dwight Drum at Unless otherwise noted, quotes and information were obtained from personal interviews or official release materials provided by NASCAR or NHRA sanctions and team representatives.


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