e's back! He's not the wild WWF ruffian you last saw in the Pontiac Firebird, terrorizing John Force in 2000. But Jerry Toliver vows never to be a regimented soldier as he prepares for Funny Car war in his Toyota Celica. He's no corporate Jerry, but he's all business. And he talks with DRO about his association with the increasingly busy Alan Johnson, Toyota, teammate Jim Head, and the XFL's ultimate sacking. Find out why third place doesn't suck (or does it?), what kind of a cake he has in the oven, why he hates cookie-cutter interviews and how he gained a fresh appreciation for the sport.
DRO: How is this partnership with you and Alan Johnson going to work?
TOLIVER: Alan has the Toyota Celica deal. I went to him and proposed to him, told him that I'd like to run the Toyota Celicas and he liked the idea. Of course, Toyota likes the idea. The car's back out here on the track. I've leased that equipment from Alan. So there's no partnership, if you will. He's not a part of my team.
DRO: I think we all were assuming Alan was part owner of your team.
TOLIVER: No. I'm leasing the stuff from Alan, his truck and his trailer. My tractor. The race team and stuff is mine. But we're leasing the Toyota Celicas from Alan.
DRO: Those are the very same cars that Scelzi and Sarver ran, correct?
TOLIVER: Yeah. Alan has had years of development with TRD, so it's really his pet project and we're just lucky it was available. I'm really excited about driving them. I think they're going to be very competitive cars.
DRO: How long has this deal been in the works?
TOLIVER: We've been trying to put this deal together since early 2002. We finally got it done, and that's the exciting part. I've got a great deal. It's very exciting. We're bringing somebody new into the sport.
DRO: And who is that?
TOLIVER: I can't wait to announce it.
DRO: Be my guest.
TOLIVER: We're buttoning up the finishing touches on the deal right now, and we're going to have a press conference on Wednesday at Pomona.
DRO: Will you tell us if we guess correctly?
TOLIVER: No. I am sworn to secrecy.
DRO: Is it one sponsor or two sponsors?
TOLIVER: Oh, it's a couple. One very large primary sponsor. But that's all I can say at this point, as much as I would love to brag about it. They've got some issues they have to work through. We were trying to announce this way back at SEMA (the SEMA show last fall). There have been a lot of rumors, because we've been trying to put something together for quite awhile, to resurrect this whole Celica program. I can tell you that Toyota and TRD are extremely excited about our new program. Alan started the deal with Whitecap in 2002 with Gary driving, then Sarver took over, and they had good results. They were in five finals in the short period of time they were out there.
DRO: Scelzi went 11 rounds and reached one final, and Sarver took it 34 rounds, including four finals. Sarver also was top qualifier at Topeka, the first Chicago event and the second Las Vegas race.
TOLIVER: The car actually showed a lot of promise. Alan's technology has advanced to the point these Toyota Celicas can be very, very competitive.
DRO: Was Toyota aggressive about trying to get back in on the Nitro drag-racing scene? I mean, Toyota was the first foreign manufacturer to enter NHRA competition and has stayed active, in the Sport Compact Series, with its Solaras, Supras and Celicas.
TOLIVER: Alan and I resurrected this entire project on our own.
DRO: Did you have to get Toyota re-interested?
TOLIVER: Toyota was always interested. The program showed a lot of merit to them. They got a lot of good feedback, so it was very exciting to them internally to do this drag racing program. So we went back to them and said, "Look, we've got a deal," and they were extremely excited.
DRO: Are you working with Mark Amstock and TRD?
TOLIVER: Mark [Toyota national marketing manager] is involved and so is Jim Aust [Toyota V.P. of Motorsports]. It's been a great collaboration. They're really good people, and I'm excited about working with them and really bringing to them a quality sponsor. Don't get me wrong, money is money. The Whitecap deal wasn't a real strong program. The size and scope of the program we're going to bring in is going to be national. It's a very big company.
DRO: Let's back up a bit. What happened to the WWF sponsorship?
TOLIVER: Let's go back to another era. WWF stopped its sponsorship in 2001. That's when their contract ran to, the end of 2001. They had a couple of options to extend it but they decided not to. The reason for that is pretty simple. First off, we were in a bad economic time in 2001. Then we had 9/11. WWF's core business was down. They went into the XFL. As everybody knows, the XFL was not successful. It was a big cash drain on the company. It put a big hurt on them. So they said, "We have to pull our wings back in and refocus on our core business and do what we do best," which is their wrestling program. And they did that. All the people we went in under with the racing program were gone. They whacked their staff by about 20 percent. They pulled the reins in. Now, don't get me wrong. They treated us extremely well. We have no regrets with those people. I really wish I could have raced with them forever. It's unfortunate it just didn't work out for me.
DRO: And then you didn't have time to find another sponsor?
TOLIVER: They excused us in October 2001. We just went through 9/11, and it was at the end of 2001, not enough time to put a program together. When you start these programs with these corporations, usually it's a 5-6-month negotiating process. By October, there was nobody -- we really had nowhere to go. Then 2002 was really kind of a tough year. XFL took a lot of money from them.
DRO: NBC/G.E. was half-owner of that enterprise, and published reports said they took a $70 million bath on that.
TOLIVER: It was a lot of money -- could've run my program for a long time.
DRO: You had to hate sitting out.
TOLIVER: Don Prudhomme sat out a year or two.
DRO: So that goes to show that sitting out is not necessarily a reflection of the quality of the driver.
TOLIVER: It's unfortunate that those things happen. We had a quality program, but your program is only as good as your sponsors and as good as the support you get from your sponsors. We had a great season in 2000, and we're hoping to get back to that.
DRO: Now don't tell me, "We need to go rounds," but . . . How are you going to do that?
TOLIVER: We've already done it.
DRO: How's that?
TOLIVER: It's like a cake I've got right now in the oven baking. OK? I've assembled a great team. I've assembled some great minds. That's where it's at. Everybody here has the same parts. Everybody can go buy Alan Johnson's cylinder heads. Everybody can go buy somebody's blower or somebody's chassis. Those are all available. But utilizing those parts and knowing how to work them is obviously the key. So it's personnel -- it's all about people. Keith Adams is our crew chief. Keith was Alan's right-hand guy since '95, very instrumental in all the development of his parts. And he was right there with the Toyotas, as well. So it was a natural transition for Keith to step into the crew chief position. He was with Dale Armstrong
DRO: It does take some luck.
TOLIVER: Oh, it takes luck.
DRO: What's the deal with Jim Head?
TOLIVER: I'm excited for Jim. Jim is a gritty veteran. He has been around here since 1980. He was in Funny Car [until 1989]. I think there were some safety issues with the dragsters that he wasn't real comfortable with. I think that was part of his decision-making process. I wouldn't drive a dragster. No desire whatsoever. They scare me. I don't like the way those arch up and break in half. That's a ride I don't want to be on. Funny Cars have those big shock absorbers on both sides -- tires.
DRO: How safe do you feel?
TOLIVER: NHRA has done wonders in safety programs. Look at Schumacher's deal and Scelzi's deal. In Funny Car, look at Worsham's deal and Cruz Pedregon's deal. Those were horrendous. Those are big hits. It's a testimonial to Safety Safari that these guys walk away from that stuff. Every time something happens, hopefully we all learn from it and we put one more improvement in the cars.
DRO: Your teammate has quite a reputation as a safety advocate.
TOLIVER: Jim Head is probably one of the foremost guys in safety issues. Jim's very concerned. Jim's an engineer by trade, so he gets that engineer mind going: "Let's fix this thing." He's very analytical. He's the reason they've changed a lot of things in Top Fuel dragster structurally on the chassis. He's worked closely with Brad Hadman on some of the developments. He's already doing things to make Funny Car safer. That's going to help everybody. So we're lucky to have a guy like Jim Head, who has the mind for that stuff.
DRO: How are you and Jim coordinating?
TOLIVER: We're teammates in the sense that we're running the same program. We're running our own separate deals. That's Jim's own program over there. This is mine over here. What bonds us is Alan Johnson and the Celicas. We're going to share information. Two heads are better than one.
DRO: Good pun.
TOLIVER: Hah - I didn't think about that! I'm going to learn a lot from Jim. He knows the ins and outs of this program. And he loves drag racing. He's here for the love of drag racing.
DRO: He's quiet --
TOLIVER: Until you get to know him. He's not quiet.
DRO: He's not one to stand up and draw attention to himself. He seems to approach the sport from the analytical side. You have always struck everybody as someone more emotional, someone who's doing this because . . . "It's cool! It's fun! It's a rush!"
TOLIVER: Could be.
DRO: Are you more mechanically oriented than anyone knows?
TOLIVER: Drag racing has been in my blood since I was born. I wouldn't put me on the same level as Jim Head, no. I do get into the nuts and bolts of these cars. I learned a lot over the years. I learned a lot from Dale Armstrong about these cars and from my uncles [Jack and Art Chrisman] in the early years. I was always mechanically inclined, and I understand these cars very well. Am I on the same level as Jim Head and Alan Johnson? No. Maybe someday I would love to tune my own car. It might be fun. I really think apart from driving, that's the most exciting part of these races is to tinker with it and put it on the race track and watch it either fail or succeed. And to know that you did that, that's got to be very fulfilling. I look at these guys here and think, "They're the smartest guys out here. They're having more fun than even the drivers are."
DRO: But guys like Dick LaHaie and Connie Kalitta have experienced that feeling.
TOLIVER: Yeah, they're former drivers. I think you learn to feel the car. I don't think there's a driver here who's un-mechanically inclined.
DRO: You see that more in open-wheel ranks.
TOLIVER: Guy who probably weighs less than his wife. Little jockey -- throw him in there and hope he's got a lot of guts.
DRO: I always picture you as raucous and fun.
TOLIVER: I like that part. I enjoy this. I have fun at this. I feel very blessed to have this. It's something I've preparing for all my life.
DRO: How much of that exuberance was the real you before and how much was WWF?
TOLIVER: WWF allowed me to do anything within good taste. It allowed me to be vocal. With the deal I have today, I'm going to be the same guy. I'm not going to change me. I'm not going to turn into Corporate Jerry. I don't like that. I get more out of a guy who's doing an interview who shows some emotion -- it's really coming
DRO: Motorsports fans of all kinds appreciate someone who tells it like it is.
TOLIVER: A hundred percent of these guys aren't going to like me. But that's OK. I got 'em wound up. I'm here to put on a show. We're showmen here. Look at Dale Earnhardt. The Intimidator. He was a bad guy, a guy who didn't take any guff. He just knocked people off the track. The Guy in Black. And the fans really loved him.
DRO: When will NHRA figure that out?
TOLIVER: I think NHRA has figured it out. I think some of the things that happened between Force and me back in 2000 was part of that. That was all real. He'd get wound up, and I think somebody seriously challenged him for the first time in along time and he took notice to it.
DRO: How fun was that?
TOLIVER: It was a blast. Halfway through the season I had to pinch myself and say, "You really are leading this thing. You have a shot at this baby!"
DRO: What happened?
TOLIVER: I wish I could say exactly what happened -- we lost our tune-up. We ran out of some clutch disc parts. We truly think that's what turned it around. We ran out of clutch discs at Sonoma and we DNQd. And that's when the whole program turned around. We won only a couple of rounds after Sonoma that year. What really upset me . . . losing first place to Force was one thing. I got over that part. The last race of the year we lose to Ron Capps by a round and a half. Really upset me. I went into Pomona leading him by a half a round, and we just spiraled down. I really wanted second place bad.
DRO: It seemed so odd that you would finish third that year, as well as you ran all year.
TOLIVER: Hey, third is not bad. My second car [with Jim Epler driving] finished fifth. Outside John Force, I think Jerry Toliver is the only owner/driver ever to have two cars in the top five in the same year in Funny Car -- ever. It was a wonderful year. I learned a lot. I think I really matured as a driver and learned how to fight the fight. You can talk and talk, but you have to learn how to fight the fight. When you asked earlier, how are you going to get there? I'm seasoned; my guys are seasoned. We've all won races. Knowing how to win is important.
DRO: Do you lose or gain by sitting out? Sometimes sitting out can teach you something.
TOLIVER: I think you gain appreciation. I certainly have gained a lot of appreciation. When I sat there, there were times when I wondered, "Will I ever get back out there?" There's a chance that I won't get back out there. I'm not getting any younger. I'm not a 20-year-old kid out there with 30 years in front of me to drive a racecar. Fortunately for us, older guys can drive NHRA cars. But yeah, that bothered me. I worried about it. I thought there's a chance I won't land a sponsor.
DRO: What did you tell yourself?
TOLIVER: I'm not done. I went out there and I started a job, and I'm the kind who likes to finish what I start. I'd love to drive for the next three to five years or so until I decide to get out of a racecar -- then own a car and put some kid in it. I was off for a
DRO: Such as?
TOLIVER: If I ever got back, I would do some things differently, and I would certainly appreciate the moments. I just want to get in every day as much as I can get in. I want to live this thing, and I don't want to leave anything unturned. I can't wait to get back into the winners circle. And I'm hell-bent on getting there. When we do, that's going to be the crowning glory. I'll finally be able to say we've arrived again. I've finally been able to accomplish something that I've missed so dearly. That's going to be a good day.
DRO: Will it come soon?
TOLIVER: I like Pomona. That's my track.
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