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?

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Tom Blomqvist keeps eye on IndyCar during impressive rise: ‘ I would love to give it a go’

Tom Blomqvist
Rolex/Stephan Cooper

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – In between two of his latest superstar-driver-in-waiting performances, Tom Blomqvist walked through the Daytona International Speedway garage in anonymity.

“Nobody knows who the (expletive) I am,” he said to a team member with a laugh (and without a trace of being miffed), evincing the cheeky humor of someone born in England, raised in New Zealand and also of Swedish descent.

The lack of recognition in the garage might have been because he was clad in a relatively nondescript shirt, hat and sunglasses instead of a colorful firesuit covered by sponsor logos. But he also was on the way to a Friday race eve media availability where his entrance was greeted by only one reporter (after a few minutes).

During a news conference a day earlier, he sat patiently on the dais while his Indy 500-winning teammates and car owner fielded nearly all the questions – even though Blomqvist had turned maybe the most impressive lap of the month to win the Rolex 24 at Daytona pole position in the debut of the Grand Touring Prototype category.

The Meyer Shank Racing driver still might lack the attention commensurate with his already world-class CV (which expanded Sunday with his second consecutive Rolex 24  victory for MSR), but Blomqvist, 29, clearly isn’t bothered by it.

He carries the quiet confidence of knowing his immense talent will ensure results that will make him impossible to ignore.

“To a degree, I guess, it’s definitely ramped up a lot for me,” Blomqvist told NBC Sports. “In America, I’m starting to get a lot more (attention). In the last year, I’ve quite often got a lot of maybe what you’d call the glory moments. It’s been fun. And within the paddock, there’s a lot of respect for me anyway. It’s been good.”

There have been several moments of acclaim since he joined MSR barely a year ago in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. In his first start for the team at last year’s Rolex 24, Blomqvist turned in a Herculean performance to position the No. 60 Acura for the victory (giving way to Helio Castroneves because he was too “cooked” to complete the last 74 minutes).

He was even better this year at Daytona.

He ripped off a monster “one and done” pole-winning lap to beat the clock in qualifying on the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course. During the race, Blomqvist was as dominant in his first stint as his last in the ARX-06 while taking the checkered flag. He set the mark for the fastest time on Lap 6 that no one topped over the final 755 laps.

The 10 fastest laps in the race belonged to Blomqvist, carrying over his speed from the 2022 when he won the Petit Le Mans season finale to clinch the premier prototype championship at Michelin Road Atlanta.

A year earlier at the same track, he had burst onto the radar of car owner Mike Shank, who was intrigued by Blomqvist’s results as a BMW factory driver in the Formula E and DTM series. In 2014, Blomqvist also finished between second in F3, between champion Esteban Ocon (now with Alpine’s F1 team) and Max Verstappen (who has won the past two Formula One championships).

“He did a lot of high-level stuff, and then kind of fell out of favor, or I don’t know what happened, but he was a free agent,” Shank said. “I started looking at his numbers, and I’m like, ‘We should test this guy. So I take him to Road Atlanta in the fall of ’21, and he got in the car and just slayed it.”

Within minutes, he had called co-owner Jim Meyer.

“I’ve got our guy,” Shank said. “This is our guy. There’s no question about it.

“Now what’s happened, though, and I think if you look back at the Rolex here last year (and) what he did, he’s a gold nugget. He reminds me a little bit when (Robert) Wickens came into IndyCar out of DTM (as a rookie in 2018).

“He truly believes he’s the fastest guy out there, and he proved it (at the Rolex 24).”

Said David Salters, president for Honda Performance Development: “We love Tom. He’s the real deal, isn’t he? Immensely talented, super smart, and on it.

The great thing about our teams, the strength in depth is tremendous. But if you look through the sports car racing now, that’s the standard you have to have. Tom, brilliant, Filipe (Albuquerque), brilliant. Ricky (Taylor). You can go through that list. They’re all superstars. Tom is awesome. His lap in qualifying quite frankly was unbelievable.”

Having conquered one of the world’s greatest endurance races twice with Acura, Blomqvist could be ticketed for the world’s biggest race next – the Indy 500 — with HPD’s primary brand.

He tested a Dallara-Honda for MSR last October at Sebring International Raceway, and while he plans to focus solely on IMSA this season, he remains very intrigued by IndyCar.

And with Castroneves, 47, beginning a one-year deal with MSR’s IndyCar team, there could be an obvious opening in 2024.

“Obviously, it’s not in the cards this year,” Blomqvist told NBC Sports the day before the Rolex. “Yeah, I would love to give it a go. To be honest, I think that would be an amazing step for me in my career. I enjoy the sports car stuff so much. It’s been really good to me lately. I really enjoyed the style of racing.

“But I feel like IndyCar would be a step up for me and my career. It would be fantastic if I could get that opportunity. But yeah, I guess I have to keep pushing Mike or something to give me a shot. But obviously for now, the focus is here in the sports car stuff. It’s not really down to me at the end of the day. And I’ve got to do my job and then the people who pay the bills and make the decisions obviously have to decide if that’s something worth pursuing.

“But yeah, I’d love to give it a go, and I definitely would be up for it.”

A transition from IMSA to IndyCar naturally would be easier than switching teams, but it also would be comfortable because Blomqvist already seems such a good fit at MSR.

It might have seemed an unusual pairing given his European-heavy background, but Blomqvist likes the Midwestern culture that’s been built at MSR. Based just outside Columbus, Ohio, the team’s shop has “no egos, and that just enables each and every one of to reach our potential.

“Obviously, with Honda, we obviously have some great resources, but we’re up against Porsche, BMW and some big heavy hitters in the motorsports world,” he said. “I wouldn’t say we’ve got a huge team compared to them, but we’ve obviously got a very capable team, and I think that’s what has been so impressive and really, really nice to see about the work that’s been done. No stone has been left unturned.”

Blomqvist still is living in Europe and planning to commute for the nine-race GTP schedule (which has a nearly two-month break after the Rolex 24 until the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring). But though he’s “got good friends in America, so I do have places to stay,” he seems open to being based more permanently near MSR in America.

“Let’s see what the future brings, and if that means me spending more time over here,” he said. “It’s a fantastic team. It’s a different environment to what I’m used to. It’s obviously now a hugely successful team, but it is a small team. It does feel like a very small family-operated team, which it is. I think Mike’s really just built this thing. It hasn’t happened overnight. Mike’s a great guy and put a lot of trust and faith in me, and I played a relatively good part in some of the success last year. I was able to reward him and give him my all every time I’m on track, and he respects that. But we are still a small team. In the grand scheme of things, we still are a really, really small team.”

Blomqvist said the BMW factory program would have two or three times the staffing of MSR – just on one of its two GTP cars.

“But it’s not the number of people that makes a difference, it’s the quality of people, and obviously Mike and HPD are a fantastic operation to go racing,” Blomqvist said. “We’re racers at heart.

“I’ve been part of some big outfits, and the European way of working is very, very different to how people go about racing in America. I’d say it’s more seat of your pants. A lot of emotion and kind of rides on that competitive spirt, competitive nature and on their personalities. It’s a lot more pure. It feels very pure. You want to win, so we go out and don’t cut corners on trying to win.”

Though it’s aligned with Liberty Media and has big-budget backing and support from Honda Performance Development, MSR also is much less corporate than most GTP teams.

A longtime and respected team owner who has built a sponsor portfolio, Shank also describes his maniacal dedication to success as “messed up,” and he’s known for dropping vulgarities into postrace interview with his blunt and self-deprecating sense of humor.

With a more laid-back but sometimes just as biting demeanor, Blomqvist has become the team’s unquestioned leader behind the wheel

“I definitely feel a lot more immersed,” he said. “Within the team, I was a bit more of an unknown quantity the start of last year. Obviously after last season, the team trusts me a lot. And that gives me a lot of pleasure, pride and confidence. In this sport, confidence is a huge aspect of drivers’ psychology in a way. We’re in extremely high-pressure moments where my job is to perform under the pressure of these organizations and the brand as well.

“It’s just a good, healthy team to be a part of. It’s a high-pressure environment, but the team obviously have put a lot of faith in me, and I’ve been able to deliver for them on occasions.”