For first time since 2009, drag racers able to enjoy Father’s Day at home

Photo courtesy Ron Capps' official Facebook page

Being a driver in NHRA’s top ranks comes with a lot of perks, but there are also a number of sacrifices that must be made, most notably being away from one’s family.

There are school graduations and proms, birthdays and anniversaries that invariably are missed because many drivers are hurtling down a drag strip somewhere in the U.S.

But one unexpected benefit of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing four-month hiatus of the NHRA is drivers have been able to spend significant quality time with their children and spouses.

That is no more apparent than Sunday, which is Father’s Day. With NHRA not set to resume racing until July 11-12 in Indianapolis, this will be the first Father’s Day drivers have been able to be home since 2009 – and only the fourth time since 1999.

Most Father’s Days have found teams racing most recently at Bristol Dragway, the now-defunct Englishtown (New Jersey) Raceway and before that, National Trail Raceway about 30 miles east of Columbus, Ohio.

While all NHRA teams have fathers who likely will enjoy Sunday’s respite from racing and traveling, being home will be especially key for four members of Don Schumacher Racing, namely Top Fuel driver Antron Brown and Funny Car pilots Ron Capps, Jack Beckman and Matt Hagan.

NBC Sports spoke with each about what it means for them to be home on “their” day:

Ron Capps has an especially strong connection with Father’s Day, perhaps more than most. He was born on Father’s Day in 1965 (he turned 55 Saturday). He believes the last Father’s Day he was able to spend at home was 1995, which was before his two children – daughter Taylor (24 years old — seen at the top of this story as a 4-year-old from Capps’ Facebook page) and son Caden (18) – were even born.

Because he’s been away from home for so many missed Father’s Days, Capps has tried to make it up by flying home on Mondays and celebrating with his family.

Ron Capps and son Caden. Photo courtesy Ron Capps.

Those belated Father’s Days have been made especially sweeter five times when Capps has come home with a “Wally” race winner’s trophy (named after NHRA founder Wally Parks).

Ron gave his father, former drag racer John Capps, one of the coolest Father’s Day presents when Ron handed his dad the Wally he won at Bristol (Tennessee) Dragway two years ago.

“There was nothing better than to win and call my dad in the winner’s circle and wish him a Happy Father’s Day,” Ron Capps said. “I’m holding a Wally for the guy that grew up drag racing and got me into it. There’s probably the coolest thing for him.

“He was taking the Wally around to his buddies and old driver friends he meets for lunch during the week,” Ron Capps told NBC Sports. “All of his buddies had never held a Wally. So that was fun.”

Capps will spend Sunday with a family barbecue at their suburban San Diego home.

“It’ll be good to be home, have fun, barbecue and play games,” Capps said. “We’ve been playing Rock Band a lot. This whole pandemic has sort of given me more time with the kids and my daughter’s in college. It’s her last year, and she lives at home, thankfully, and we’ve got to spend a lot of really cool time here the last few weeks.

“We’re just going to spend a whole weekend probably just hanging out and doing nothing. I mean, it’s unfortunate what we’ve got going on, but it’s going to be cool to be home.

“It’s going to be fun to wake up Sunday morning and not have to worry about driving the race car and competing and actually enjoy Father’s Day on Father’s Day.”

Antron Brown will spend Father’s Day, not surprisingly, drag racing. But Brown won’t be behind the wheel of his 330-mph Top Fuel dragster. Rather, he’ll be with his kids, watching them race their Junior Dragsters at a drag strip in Terre Haute, Indiana.

“It’s going to be a lot of fun,” Brown said. “That’s what we’re doing it for, we’re going out there to have fun, race and barbecue at the drag strip on Father’s Day. I mean, that’s what being a father means to me, being with family.”

Antron Brown and his family. Photo courtesy Antron Brown.

Brown has three children, daughter Arianna (18 years old) and sons Anson (15) and Adler (12). While he welcomes the fact he’ll be able to spend his first Father’s Day at home in over a decade, Brown has made it a point to always have at least one of his children with him on the road and at races that fell on Father’s Day weekend.

“One of my kids is always with me,” he said. “That’s the one thing about our sport that’s really cool, is that our sport is a sport that’s all about family, it’s a family environment.

“Actually being home this whole time during all this stuff, it’s actually been good for us to really get back to normal family life. We are literally with each other every single day.

“it’s actually cool to be back home where I’ve been able to do more stuff at home, a lot of honey-do’s, just keeping up with stuff.”

Like Capps, Brown spends more than 200 days a year on the road for races, sponsor appearances and the like. He’s now been home more than 120 days because of the COVID-19 hiatus.

But Brown recalls a few very special Father’s Day from years past, particularly when his children were very young.

“I think the coolest time for me and my experiences is just sharing a Father’s Day at a racetrack, my kids being there and when we won, we were all in the Winner’s Circle together on Father’s Day.

“That is like one of the most coolest experiences. I have pictures of my daughter and my son in my arms, and I’m holding them while one of them is holding the trophy. They’re looking at it and then looked at me and said, ‘Yeah, Dad, you won.’

“And I’m looking right back at them. Sure, the trophy is great, but they’re my real prized possessions and trophies.”

Matt Hagan is combining Father’s Day and a family vacation this weekend in South Dakota with his wife and their four children, sons Colby (13 years old) and Tucker (3) and daughters Penny (10) and Nelly (1).

“This will be my first Father’s Day not at the racetrack in 15 years,” Hagan said. “I’m currently on vacation in South Dakota with my family, so I’m taking full advantage of this time off and soaking in as much time with them as possible right now because it’s going to get crazy when we start racing again next month.”

Matt Hagan and his two youngest children. Photo courtesy Matt Hagan.

The NHRA will return to racing July 11-12 and again July 18-19, both times at Lucas Oil Raceway in suburban Indianapolis. Those will be the first races back for the drag racing sanctioning body since the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There’s beautiful scenery and wide open spaces out and an amazing amount of animal and wildlife here,” Hagan told NBC Sports. “The kids are just really enjoying it and having fun.”

The two-time NHRA Funny Car champ readily identifies with the experiences of both Capps and Brown.

“This is the first time in a long time that I haven’t been in a race car,” Hagan said.

And as much as he’s enjoying quality time with his family, he also is itching to get back on a drag strip in three weeks. “I’m ready to get back and turn on win lights.

“When I won Bristol (in 2015) my family was there; my dad, my wife, my kids, it was just really special and one of the most memorable races of my career.

“It meant more to me than winning the U.S. Nationals (the sport’s biggest race of the season each Labor Day weekend in Indianapolis) or any of these other really big races because to win on Father’s Day and have your family around to experience that with you, it doesn’t get any more special than that.

“But this year, we’re going to take advantage of the cards we were dealt and make this weekend super special too.”

Jack Beckman, known by the colorful nickname “Fast Jack,” has two children, son Jason (13) and daughter Layla (8), with whom he’ll be enjoying Father’s Day.

But Beckman, who will turn 54 on June 28, is also thankful for the fact he’ll also be able to spend Father’s Day with his own father, Bob, who is 83 years old.

Next to being in the winner’s circle, one of Jack Beckman and his family’s other happiest places on earth is Disneyland. Photo courtesy Jack Beckman.

In contrast to his son’s colorful nickname, the elder Beckman is good-naturedly nicknamed “Slow Bob.”

It was Bob who got young Jack interested in drag racing. In fact, the elder Beckman bought a 1968 Chevrolet El Camino in 1978 for $1,000. Four years later, he sold the same car to his then-16-year-old son, who used it as both his first daily commuting car to school and his part-time job, as well as his first drag racing ride.

Jack still has the car to this day, tucked away and fully restored in his family garage. And he never will be able to thank his father enough for that very special set of wheels.

“I think it’s a much bigger deal that my dad is still around for Father’s Day,” Jack Beckman told NBC Sports. “My kids are 13 and eight, so it’s not a huge deal.”

That’s because the last four-plus months have been like a daily Father’s Day for Beckman, being around his kids constantly and really sharing some great family time both individually and collectively.

“It’s been really interesting and nice in this time in their lives that I’ve been home with them so much and have been able to spend so much time with them,” Jack said.

But like his teammates, Beckman said it’s time to get back to work – after Father’s Day, of course.

“I’m ready to get back on the road again and maybe in some ways they’re ready too,” he said of his kids with a chuckle. “But as far as Father’s Day is concerned, we’re pretty low key. We’ll probably just hang around the house and enjoy each other’s company.”

And isn’t that what Father’s Day is all about anyway?

Follow @JerryBonkowski

With fierce racing, IndyCar found redemption and rebirth on the streets of downtown Detroit


DETROIT – A lap in the IndyCar Grand Prix had yet to be turned on the streets of Detroit, and race drivers were doing what they sometimes do best – expecting the worst of a new race course.

It was the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix, and some of the top drivers in the NTT IndyCar Series, including pole winner Alex Palou, were questioning the nine-turn, 1.645-mile street course in downtown Detroit. Even after he won the pole on Saturday, Palou had said the Indy cars were too big, the race course was too small, too tight and too bumpy for the series to put on a competitive race.

It was Sunday morning, five hours before the race, and the IndyCar morning warmup session just had ended. Penske Corp. president Bud Denker, the Detroit GP chairman, was talking to NBC Sports as the Indy cars were being wheeled back to the paddock following the warmup session.

Instead of his trademark smile and optimism, Denker was determined and stern. As Palou’s No. 10 Honda was being pulled by the team’s tire wagon into the paddock, Denker expressed his feelings.

“I’m really not happy with some of the comments that driver has been making,” Denker said.

Denker’s team had spent the better part of two years envisioning and developing a street course that could create a major racing event without shutting down the Detroit business community.

Jefferson Avenue, the main thoroughfare in the city’s business district, remained open thanks to some creative track design (because the race course crossed Jefferson over a bridge and also couldn’t impede the adjacent tunnel that was an international crossing to Windsor, Canada).

From an event standpoint, the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix was already electric with a vibe that brought tens of thousands daily to this revitalized urban center known as “Motor City.”

But would the actual race prove to be worthy?

Fast forward to Sunday late afternoon and – wouldn’t you know it – the winner of the race was its most vocal critic leading up to the green flag.

Alex Palou.

It was a chance for Denker and Palou to speak.

“Alex and I actually had a conversation after the race on the way to pit lane,” Denker told NBC Sports. “I congratulated him because he was a worthy champion, did a great job, great win, great run, pole qualifying also.

“His comment to me was, ‘This track proved very worthy.’

“I’ll take that from him.”

The race itself exceeded expectations. It may have been the best street race of the season on the NTT IndyCar Series schedule.

The racing was fierce, the competition phenomenal, and the restarts brought even the most jaded motorsports observers to their feet.

“Oh yeah, myself included,” Palou admitted to NBC Sports. “The event was amazing. The crowd we had was unbelievable. The energy was great. It was a really great race.”

Palou’s complaints entering the race were from his frustrations in finding a clean lap during qualification sims in practice and the actual qualifications on Saturday.

With 27 cars on a 1.645-mile street circuit, just do the math – it’s hard to get a gap.

But the race course proved to be a much better “race” track than a qualifying layout.

“Yes, 100 percent,” Palou said. “I like to go fast. I like to race. When you have traffic every single lap, you don’t like it that much, but for the race, it was great. It was a great event for the fans, for the teams and for the drivers.

“The energy we had here was amazing.”

The drivers’ worst fears never developed in the race. There were no blocked corners. No red flags. Plenty of passing zones.

Denker and his team could feel vindication and a strong sense of redemption.

“It is ironic,” Denker said of Palou winning the race. “I think a lot of the comments early on was because of the first practice. There was no rubber on the track. A new track for them. A lot of cars going into the runoff and stalling their cars in the runoff, not turning the cars around fast enough. I think a lot of perceptions were created in that first practice.

“Some of our turns look tight. Turn 1 for instance, the apex is 27 feet, much larger than some other tracks where it is tight. The issue going into the race was, are you going to have two cars block the entire track and then you have to go Red Flag.

“We never had that situation today where you had a car block the track, even in the tightest turns. We never had an issue where cars could not get around you.

“The corners were wide enough to support the fact that when you had an issue, cars could get around and continue moving around without having a red flag.”

It also proved that in an actual competition, the teams and drivers in IndyCar can figure out how to adapt and put on a good race.

“We saw them figure it out in the Indy NXT race on Saturday,” Denker said. “It was a great race. We saw so many IndyCar drivers go off into the runoff on Friday that there were concerns. Many of them were stalling their cars and couldn’t get them spun around.

“That led to, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re going to have caution after caution after caution because we aren’t going to be able to get our cars stopped to make a turn, or slowed down to make a turn, and the runoff will happen continuously.’ “Guess what? We had seven cautions for 32 laps and very few of those were for a stalled car in the runoff. It was for a mistake on the race track made by a driver.

“We proved the thoughts that came out on Friday, we proved them very, very wrong in the race on Sunday.”

As the president of the Penske Corp., Denker is a man who understands business and decorum. He is one of Roger Penske’s most valued executives, practically his right-hand man.

The impeccably dressed Denker is never rattled, and he backs up his style with substance.

IndyCar racing, however, is a highly competitive game and in the heat of battle, the energy level tends to increase.

That is why Denker was more emphatic than usual once the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix had concluded.

“Eighteen months ago, it was an idea that Michael Montri had after the success of the Nashville Grand Prix and what it did for that city,” Denker said. “The businesses coming together, the community coming together and the city just glowing.

“We came back in August of 2021 and asked if that could ever happen in downtown Detroit and off Belle Isle. We found a great circuit that was worthy of that, that wouldn’t compromise business or the international tunnel in the middle of our race track. That was a dream at the time.

“It’s a cliché, but dreams really came true this weekend. We saw the success of great racing, competitive racing, safe racing and very importantly, fans that we haven’t seen came out in a very diverse way and enjoy this sport.”

It was certainly a major weekend for Detroit as the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix was the lead story on seemingly every TV newscast in the city. The business community of the city flourished – something that didn’t happen when the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix was held 4 miles up Jefferson at Belle Isle Park from 1992-2022.

“One hundred percent,” Denker agreed. “The fact of the matter is most of the people that come to our race are within a four-county area. Just like Indianapolis, one state for them.

“I think the fact is Belle Isle you came down, you parked in the same parking deck where the sponsors parked that had been there for 13 years, get in a bus, come back, get in their car, they go home.

“Here you had to park somewhere. You had to come downtown. Took the People Mover, the Q Line, all these different places and you came downtown. That was the difference for us.

“Belle Isle in my mind, it’s 50 miles away from Detroit in some respects because we didn’t see the benefit the city would get. We saw the benefit this time because of how busy it was. You saw it. You were staying here at a hotel somewhere and saw it.

“We know we made a big impact on the city. Why? Because the hotels were all filled up. They weren’t filled up when Belle Isle was there.”

Already on its way to have a dramatic economic impact to Detroit, on Sunday, the competitive level of IndyCar was on full display.

“The facts are there were 189 on-track passes at Detroit, 142 of them were for position,” Denker said proudly. “At St. Pete, great race this year, 170 on-track passes versus Detroit’s 189 and 128 for position versus Detroit’s 142.

“Long Beach, great race this year, had the same for position passes as Detroit had. I think we had a pretty good race.”

Although Palou won the race, it was Team Penske’s Will Power that put on the show. He was a master on the restarts, going full throttle into the end of the long straightaway, pulling out from behind Palou and taking the lead by diving to the inside in the turn.

That move worked throughout the race until the final restart, when Palou was able to protect the inside line and make Power go to the outside.

The Team Penske driver (whose race weekend highlight was hanging out with Flavor Flav) was unable to use the high line and then proceeded to get into a street fight with Scott Dixon and others for second place in the closing laps.

“The restarts were great because we have this long straightaway,” Denker said. “We started the restart between coming out of Turn 1. Those that got a good jump, like Will Power did on Alex Palou on the second-to-last restart, could make a good pass. Those that had push-to-passes left later on could make a good pass.

“The fact we had this seven-eighths of a mile straightaway where the restarts were coming into was a great place to start the race versus an area not as long. We had the benefit of having a straightway as long as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and speeds that were just unbelievable going down through this track.

“I thought the restarts were great because of the positions Kyle Novak (IndyCar Race Director) and his team made for that.

“The other thing was the dual pit lane. This was really interesting because it hasn’t been done before to have 13 cars pitted on one side and 14 cars pitting on the other side and have six lanes merging to one in 315 feet. How is that going to happen?

“This time, because of the yellows, we never had a situation with 27 cars coming in at the same time. It was sporadic. That issue we thought would happen to create a calamity on pit lane never happened.”

Two of the Arrow McLaren drivers got into their own shoving match on the track with Felix Rosenqvist getting the best of Alexander Rossi for third place.

But none of the Chevrolet drivers were able to catch Palou at the end as the No. 10 Honda took the checkered flag.

“When you have Chevrolet as the backdrop, and them being the key partner and sponsor of this thing, you want to keep them happy,” Denker said. “They also know competition drives this sport. We saw some great action. Will Power made a great move late, some great action there. The competition between the Arrow McLaren cars were unbelievable the last 10 laps. Will Power made a great pass of Alexander Rossi to get position to take over second place. I loved the competition.

“We saw some passes late between Turns 8 and 9 and Turns 1 and 2 that I don’t think anybody thought would happen. This turned into a very, very competitive race track.

“Once this track rubbered up, the drivers said this track was very worthy.

“It’s a new place. They have to learn new things. There are some bumps in certain corners. Guess what? We’ll fix those things.

“No one got to test here because we couldn’t close the roads down a week ahead of time or a month ahead of time or two days ahead of time. I got some feedback from drivers who did simulation. I ground some track areas they wanted fixed. I put new pavement in Turn 3 to drivers right because of feedback.

“I got no feedback to repaving drivers left. If I had, I would have repaved that, also. It shows that I will make those changes because I made those changes to driver right, but I never got that feedback.

“It goes both ways. Provide me the feedback, I’ll make those changes. But now that we’ve had the race, we have a lot more opportunity to make changes based off of what actually happened.”

There were accolades and plaudits from some of IndyCar’s most accomplished drivers afterwards, including six-time NTT IndyCar Series champion and 2008 Indianapolis 500 winner Scott Dixon.

“It was wild,” Dixon said. “I had a lot of fun. The car was super difficult. The track was difficult. It had a lot of character. It was interesting but very difficult on the restarts.

“These things aren’t meant to be easy. I had a lot of fun, just frustrated with how my day went and not getting the most out of a really good car.”

From both an event and race standpoint, team owner Dale Coyne believed it was a blockbuster.

“This is a really big event,” Coyne said. “We’ve brought Long Beach to a major city like Detroit. This is the type of event that we should be doing in IndyCar.

“I would rather be in Detroit than in Milwaukee. Events like this one in Detroit are IndyCar’s future. Milwaukee is IndyCar’s past.”

While that comment may not resonate with some of IndyCar’s older fan base who long for the days of The Milwaukee Mile as the first race after the Indianapolis 500, that distinction has belonged to Detroit since it returned to the IndyCar schedule in 2012.

Now that it’s back on the streets of downtown Detroit for the first time since 1991, Denker predicts even bigger events to come for the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix.

“Our city was showcased to the world in ways that people had probably never thought,” Denker said proudly. “The riverfront, you couldn’t tell if you were in San Diego, or even Monaco, these boats that were out there harbored. We couldn’t be more proud of our team.

“We are already planning for next year.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500