Ed "The Ace" McCulloch
by Susan Wade
Ace is the place -- for a candid look at life in NHRA's fast lanes. Driver-turned-crew chief Ed "The Ace" McCulloch talks about how he has found new life with Doug Herbert, how he plans to compete with the toughest Top Fuel tuners, how you just can't punch out a fellow like you used to, and how he and Don Prudhomme worked together (or didn't). Read why he's glad he's not Jimmy Prock and who's his best guess to earn the Top Fuel championship. By the way, think he has discovered The Snake's secret formula for being cool? Hehe. Find out for yourself and read this "Innerview".
DRO: Drag racing fans nearly didn't have you around this year. But thanks to Doug Herbert, you're still here. How could you think of walking away from something you put so much energy into?
Ace: At this stage of my life, how much aggravation is it worth? Our sport has changed tremendously over the years. The influx of the corporate sponsorship and responsibilities and what's expected . . . it's huge. I understand that. They pay a lot of money to win races. You either produce or you're not going to be there. When I used to drive, I said "when I'm not enjoying driving anymore or if I become afraid of the car, I'm going to quit." Last year was not a fun year (for me). Going into the second year of the two-car deal is when it really . . . maybe partway through the first year of the two-car deal, it started getting harder and harder. Then the fun meter (wasn't registering).
DRO: What was the problem? Was it pressure from sponsors that filtered down through Prudhomme, handling problems with the car or personalities or a whole bunch of different things?
Ace: The pressure comes ultimately from the top. I'm sure the sponsors went to Prudhomme and wanted to know why the cars are not winning. In my opinion, Don Prudhomme needs to be a car owner and take care of his sponsors and hire the people to run the car and leave 'em alone. He owns it; he can do anything he wants. But when he starts becoming more hands-on and gets involved, he makes it worse.
DRO: Do you think that's because he has such a fondness for Funny Cars? Would it have been different if you had been crew chief on the dragster side?
Ace: LaHaie was in a unique position. I'm saying some things here that probably could ruffle some feathers. But LaHaie went out and had performance. As long as he has performance, he can tell Prudhomme, "Get out of here and leave us alone." As soon as (he doesn't) have performance, he'll start getting the help that we had (from Prudhomme) and then LaHaie will walk.
DRO: When the Skoal Funny Car didn't produce the desired results, did you resent the fact that you took the fall?
Ace: Lynn's (Prudhomme) involvement in the company, which is in the background- she's a huge part of that company- plays an awfully big role behind the scenes and she does a great, great job. The way they treat their people, as far as taking care of them and paying their bills and all of the financial end of Prudhomme's organization, could not be any better. It's a premier [operation] out here. Now, that being said, sometimes when it comes time to make a change in personnel, how that's done, I mean I was on the cut list and I'm gone from there. He used to come in all the time [and say,] "We've got to get more people. OK, who do you want to get? We want to build our team. We want to get more people, a brain trust. This is not about firing anybody. Oh, by the way, you're fired."
DRO: Is there a missing component somewhere?
Ace: I don't know that it's a missing component. But there's a component there that really muddies the water, and it's the guy that owns the place.
DRO: What's your relationship with Don Prudhomme?
Ace: We're OK. We talk. It's business. When our deal ended, did I like it? Was I happy with it? No. But did I like the position that I was in there when it was going on? No. So probably all in all, it was best for everybody that it did end. Or something needed to change.
DRO: If you had wanted to stay there, what would you have liked to see change?
DRO: Nobody likes to get fired. Does the stigma of that bother you?
Ace: That really doesn't bother me, no, because in my opinion, anybody out here that counts knows the situation and knows how it is. So they either take me for what I am or they don't.
DRO: How did you and Doug Herbert get together? Who approached whom?
Ace: Really, I knew that Doug was looking and I said something . . . and he called and we talked about it. I flew down there (to Cherryville, N.C.) and we talked about it. There were a lot of other things going on right at that time.
DRO: Such as?
Ace: There were some other deals in the works.
DRO: Were you under contract to Bob Gilbertson?
Ace: I only went over there with Gilbertson for the last three races. Nicky Boninfante is the crew chief over there. He's a good friend of mine and he needed some help. I told him I'd go with them for the last three races, just to see if I could help 'em. They wanted me to stay over there and do that deal. I like the guys and everything. It's just that they're not really serious about the deal and what they need to do. That really wasn't a consideration, per se. That AT&T deal was floating around, and numerous people thought they had that in the bag. And there were numerous people who thought if they get that deal, "We want you." So I mean it's a wait-and-see game. Well, I waited until the first part of December, and Doug was in a position that we're either going to do this or we're not. So OK, let's do it.
DRO: Doug has tried a variety of things during the last few years in an effort to get the right mix of people working on his car. Did it concern you that maybe you wouldn't have the stability?
Ace: Our relationship, our agreement, is it's my call. He wants to win races. He wants this car to do well. He'll spend the money to do it. He has the enthusiasm and the ability to drive the thing. It's my call. If I don't like somebody who's here and [he's] not working the way you want him to, he's gone. It's my call. I'm not here to upset the apple cart. I don't want to cost anybody their job. I will try to make this as painless as possible. You need to adapt to my ways and I need to try to adapt to your ways and we need to try to meet in the middle somewhere. There are things I'm going to be pretty hard on, and there are going to be things I'll be flexible on. We've managed thus far to everybody get along. The guys are working very well. My relationship with Ron Douglas . . . he's a jewel. I'm very pleased with everything right now. We're just getting started. Our performance, we haven't had a chance yet because we're still building it. But in my heart, I know we're going to be just fine.
DRO: Is Doug championship material?
Ace: He wants to win. The only -- the only -- negative thing that I see here with Doug -- and there's nothing we can do about it, is his size. A hundred pounds is a tenth of a second. That's a given.
DRO: For every hundred pounds, you give up a tenth of a second?
Ace: [Nods.] This car is 100 pounds overweight. If there were a 170-pound driver in it . . . that's not going to happen. It is what it is. He owns it. He drives it. This is how it is going to be. If we can get this thing . . . if we are fortunate to get really good and go out and run with the best of the best, we're giving up something there.
DRO: When you analyze some of Doug's stats, he seems to be an underrated. Is he much more of a contender than people think?
Ace: I think so. Last year they had a terrible year. They blew up a lot of stuff. That's all that anyone remembers: "Oh, that's Snap-On. It blows up every time it goes down the race track." Well, they did blow a lot of stuff, and that's probably one reason why I'm here. If they had had a good year last year and didn't blow up a lot of stuff, why would they need anybody else? There was turnover. I don't know what all went wrong. All I know we made some major, major changes in it. He asks me every day, "Is there anything we need? Is there anything we're short?" We're getting everything that I think we need, but if there's more, we get together and we make changes. I'm happy with what we've got. We're not where we need to be totally yet, but we're going closer.
DRO: When you think about champions, you think about John Force and how he has those blinders on. He is focused 100 percent on what he's doing; he has one thing on his mind. Doug has his business, his family, his plane, his home. He's not totally focused on the car like John Force is on his.
Ace: Sometimes that can be good, to get away. For me personally, I've always said a racecar is like a woman. She wants all your time. And it's true. If you start cheating that racecar and you don't put into it what it needs, it's not going to perform. I spend a lot of time with the car. Some of the people who have been here in the past, they fly in and they fly out. Not taking anything away from the guys who are here hands-on, but there hasn't been a whole lot of leadership, and I'd like to bring that to the table. I have brought that to the table. Go to the next level.
DRO: So you've had a "this-is-fun-again" feeling?
Ace: I had time from when the Prudhomme deal ended to sit down and look at my entire personal position, financial and otherwise. I needed to make a decision: What do I really want to do? Do I really want to do this anymore? Do I want to hang it up? Go play golf? Goof off? I'm not, excuse my French, shot in the ass with gold nuggets. But we're OK. More is better, but we're OK. So I was at a crossroads. If I didn't enjoy this, I wasn't going to do it. With all that being said, do I want to walk away on these terms, the way it is? Maybe not. This came about with these guys. I didn't know how it was going to do, but I said I'm going to try. We went over and we tested. We spent a week running the car. At the end of the week, I said I've enjoyed this week. I'd get up in the morning and I'd look forward to going
DRO: When was the last time you had this feeling of excitement?
Ace: I guess something that sort of blew me away was we were in the winners circle in Phoenix with Capps' car last year and I was told, "This is what you get paid to do." I know what we get paid to do. I understand all of that. But this moment right here, there's people who go through life who never get here. So you know, you're in the winners circle and you have to enjoy every second of that because it's going to last just a little while. And it's sort of like a low blow. "This is what you get paid to do." When you can't even come into the winners circle and enjoy it, why are you doing it?
DRO: Did Prudhomme say that to his drivers, too?
Ace: Oh, I'm sure no. He is very loyal to his guys. Larry is like a son to him. Larry worked for him through the years and ended up going into the dragster. Now, the personalities and lifestyles amongst them, Larry is not at all like Snake. Now, Capps is exactly like Snake. And Tommy's somewhere in between. Capps is a good driver. I love Ron. It's not fair to him everything that's going on. It's a very secure position, and it's very financially rewarding.
DRO: It seems like Doug is always positive.
Ace: Doug wants to go out here and he wants to enjoy what he's doing. You asked earlier about the business and the kids and everything taking his mind off of this, and my reply was I think sometimes that's good. Cruz Pedregon, I saw him -- he was a good driver and then he got into he was going to become more focused and more involved and more everything, and he went right in the tank. Doug has the ability to take one hat off and put the other one on and step right in there and become focused. When you hit the switch and you start, Doug's ready to go.
DRO: Do you see that in very many successful drivers?
Ace: I think that the guys somewhat have to do that, to a degree. Sometimes you can look at it and say there are distractions and they're not paying attention to what they're need to be. From my own experience, and I did that for a long time, trust me -- sure there are going to be days when you're off, but when that engine starts, you're there. I don't care if you've been off for a winter stretch or a week or from yesterday to today. You could make mistakes. I made a lot of mistakes as a driver. But you can't make a lot or you're not going to be there. I think Doug does a good job, as far as letting the team do what we need to do, being here, his involvement. He'll come in and look and throw his two cents in and be out of there. That's good. He has to become involved. If it's not doing what it needs to be, then it's his call. Just like Prudhomme. If it's not doing what it needs to do, you've got to make a change.
Coming in two weeks ... the second part of the Ace McCulloch interview and more on his career, Don Prudhomme and drag racing.
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