After knowing him for 20 years, I can unequivocally say that Ron Capps is one of the nicest guys you’d ever want to meet.
It seems like he almost always has a smile on his face.
But that’s all a façade … kind of.
While Capps appears to be Mr. Happy Go Lucky away from a drag strip, the real truth is that behind the wheel, Capps has ice in his veins, making him one of the toughest competitors in NHRA Funny Car racing.
People talk a lot about 16-time champion and 147-race winner John Force as the toughest guy to beat in the class. That may be true, but Capps unquestionably is a close second.
Until he won his first career Funny Car championship this past weekend in the season-ending race at Pomona, California, Capps was stuck with a moniker that was both a blessing and a curse:
“The winningest Funny Car driver in history to never win a championship.”
But now, with that elusive first championship finally earned, he’s actually happy to be known as the second-winningest Funny Car driver in history.
“Yeah, it is a huge relief,” Capps said of finally winning his first title. “It did get old hearing that. … It’s easy to get a little quirky when that’s brought up by a reporter every time, and you start to get tired of hearing it. I’m glad to have that gone.”
Right around the midpoint of the 24-race season, Capps began looking like the favorite to win the championship. Of course, he still had to go through the six-race Countdown to the Championship, and that has become a playoff where championships are more often lost for the majority of competitors than won.
Capps worried that the he wouldn’t even win one race in the Countdown.
Ironically, he didn’t. But to compensate, he was the most consistent Funny Car pilot in the Countdown, reaching the final round in each of the first five races. He then clinched the title during qualifying Saturday.
“It was a bummer for me to think if we come up short after the season we had this year – by far the best I ever had with five wins, all the track records set and the killer runs we made – then it was going to hurt a little more this year if we didn’t do it,” Capps said. “Yeah, I did question could we keep up this pace, because this year was by far the toughest in Funny Car. I know we say that every year, but it was so tough this year.
“So, yeah, I was prepared if we didn’t get through it. But I don’t have to worry about that now.”
In a sense, Capps is still getting used to the idea of being a champion. Most other drivers in his position would too, given that 2016 was his 20th season as a full-time Funny Car driver.
But it was also a season that saw him win the season opener at Pomona, only to uncharacteristically fail to qualify three races later at Las Vegas.
It was also a year that he finally earned his 50th national event race win, shortly after his 51st birthday – and in the 50th anniversary year of Funny Car racing in the NHRA.
“Every day, it’s been just a little bit of kind of reality sinking in,” Capps said of winning the Funny Car crown. “The big one was getting up on the stage Monday night in Hollywood (at the NHRA season awards).
“I’ve been on the other side of that, out in that audience. To be up there talking to all the other racers, my peers, my family in the front row, that was kind of a big reality check there. So it’s starting to sink in.”
While he races with ice in his veins, Capps admitted he became very emotional when last season’s Funny Car champion and close friend Del Worsham got most of their fellow competitors to stand in line to welcome Capps when he formally accepted the championship at Monday night’s banquet.
“I walked out on the stage for driver intro … all of my competitors, not (just those in the) Countdown, but everybody was standing on the stage waiting and shook my hand,” Capps said. “I almost lost it. It was crazy. That’s hard to do.
“For those guys to come up there and do that, that was unbelievable. I can’t even tell you. Just thinking about it again kind of gets me a little worked up. But that was huge.”
Even though the end of the 2016 season is just a few days old, Capps is already building on his second championship starting three months from now when the 2017 season begins.
“I’m already thinking about next year,” Capps said on a NHRA teleconference Wednesday. “I was at dinner last night with (several fellow drivers). Everybody was already talking about what’s going on for Silly Season for 2017.
“I’m thinking to myself, ‘I’m not going to have any time to enjoy this because everybody is starting to talk about next year.’”
But there’s still plenty left to talk about this year still. Capps, who drives for Don Schumacher Racing, made sure to give credit for his championship to everyone associated with his team, particularly crew chief Rahn Tobler.
“I’m pretty lucky because I’m not as good as I was made to look this year with my racecar,” he said. “I wanted to go out there and do my job, but the racecar that was given to me by Tobler this season was unbelievable.
“It really would have taken a lot of messing up for a driver just to go up there and not win in this car. So it was just a good team effort.”
As for next season?
“I can’t wait,” Capps said. “It was such a relief to win, have the season over, get that monkey off my back with that.
“I can’t wait to defend it. I can’t wait to hear (NHRA announcer) Alan Reinhart announce, ‘Here is the defending world champion’s car coming up next.’ Things like that haven’t sunk in yet.
“It’s not just winning now and enjoying it, it’s representing the sport next year, wherever I go, being announced as the 2016 Mello Yello champion. Del (Worsham) said that made him so proud every time his name was mentioned this year as last year’s champion. I’m looking forward to soaking all that up.”