Shaun Carlson, one of the more talented fabricators in the industry and the pilot of Mopar's Pro FWD Neon in the NHRA/Summit Sport Compact Racing series, made history as he pulled a sneak attack at the season-opening NHRA POWERade Winternationals at Pomona, Calif.
Carlson, a former staff editor at Turbo before venturing into the real world and opening NuFormz, substituted for an ailing Darrell Alderman in one of Mopar's three Stratus R/T Pro Stock racers. He became the first import driver to drive, qualify and advance a round in the domestic drag race world. We had a list of 12 to 15 questions for Shaun, but it took only one to get the ball rolling.
Turbo: So how did you get the ride? I saw in "Autoweek" a picture of two guys with the inside lane; you were mentioned as a longshot.
Shaun: I don't know where all that came from. Mopar doesn't know. As far as the Alderman thing, it was the Friday before Pomona and I got a phone call.
T: You had no idea. It was out of the blue?
S: We were kicking butt on the FWD car, working with Chris Weismann on the transmission and just trying to get things done for the first sport compact event. The call came from Kevin Miller, my boss at Mopar. He told me to buy a plane ticket for Las Vegas for that Sunday night because Darrell's back was hurting him.
I thought I'd be taking photos or something, but Kevin said, "You need to test Darrell Alderman's car Monday and Tuesday. He's not going to make it to the Winternationals. You'll test Monday and Tuesday. If you do somewhat well, get yourself to Pomona on Wednesday. Do whatever you have to do to get your Pro Stock license so you can try to qualify Thursday and Friday and get to the show on the weekend."
I'd never driven a Pro Stock car, never driven a rear-wheel-drive car down the track, never driven a V8, never driven a naturally aspirated V8, all these "never done before" things. About the only commonality was the matching paint scheme and the distance of a quarter of a mile. I wanted to get out of it, but Kevin usually doesn't tell me to do things, so when he does, I do them because they always work out.
Kevin said we needed to get a buzz started, and get people talking out there. He thinks we've done a good job getting to the youth in the sport compact market, but in the POWERade series, everyone is just getting older.
So I went to Las Vegas. On Monday morning I met with all the guys and we went out to the track. I was as nervous as all hell and followed Allen around and watched everything he did, from warming the car up to getting suited up. I was his student. I helped out when I could.
In the afternoon, it was my turn. I got in the car. I pulled up to the line. Seemingly every Pro Stocker that was going to run at the Nationals was there. Jeggy, Kurt Johnson, Warren Johnson and a bunch of others were waiting and watching me. I knew some of the guys from the Extreme Rush events. They knew me as the FWD guy. I know they were thinking, "Let's see what this import kid can do in our world. This put on a lot more pressure and, I'll be honest, I didn't want to be in that car. It was almost against my will, but I knew I couldn't say no to my boss. I did a couple of burnouts, staged the car and drove down the track trying to get my Pro Stock license in two days, which is unheard of. I did it by the book because officials had to sign my timeslips.
By the end of the day, it was time for me to really let out on the clutch. I remember pulling to the line with the clutch in and my leg shaking. The quickest I'd gone before was 8.02 and the fastest mph was about 184, so knowing I was about to go a hell of a lot faster made me nervous. I let the clutch out, short-shifted to second and drove through the clutch, so I got out of it and coasted to a 10.0 at 46 mph.
What a difference a rear-wheel-drive car made. The best 60-foot I ever pulled with my Neon was a 1.30, which is good for a FWD car. The first time I let out that clutch, even though I short-shifted second, I pulled a 1.02 60-foot.
Toward the end of the last session on Monday it was time to get all the way down the track. I had to get everything right. The first full pass was a 6.98 at 199. Through all these months of blood, sweat and tears, I tried to be the first in the 7s in a FWD, but instead I skipped the 7s and went right into the 6s. That was about what the other guys were running. We went back to the hotel pretty happy that day.
On Tuesday at the track, I was thinking too much about driving the FWD way, which screwed me up. I got down on myself after the first couple of burnouts, so I sat down and regrouped. The next two passes were a 6.98 and a 6.97, with the .97 coming at 200 mph.
On Wednesday, I came home and got back to work on the FWD. I met wtih the Mopar guys at Pomona. I went out Thursday for qualifying and did a 6.89 at 201 mph. At that point, the hype was in high gear. Everyone was talking about what the sport compact kid could do. The event was rained out, so the hype had more time to build.
At the next qualifying pass on the following Friday, I was the second car out. I worried about how Pomona has the shortest shut-down out of most strips; it's cold, kind of slippery and I had to hit the chute just the right way to avoid crashing.
In the final qualifying round, I left hard and did all the stuff in the cockpit I was supposed to do, and I made the show. My first thought was, "Shoot, that means I have to race tomorrow in front of even more people."
Fortunately, in the first round of eliminations I drew Jason Lines, Greg Andersen's teammate. He came over and told me he knew what it was like to be in my shoes (he flipped his car at his first-ever event at Columbus in 2003). This would be his 18th pass in a Pro Stock car and my sixth. Talking to him made it easier.
So I went out there and courtesy staged like we do in sport compact. I didn't know that in Pro Stock they do anything possible to mess with you mentally. So I pre-staged, he pre-staged and I staged first because I needed the time to relax. As I lit the staged bulbs, he turned on a fan or something and when he looked up I was already staged. He staged too quickly, got sidetracked and redlit. I didn't know he had fouled, but I knew with the kind of power he makes, there was no way I could catch him down the track.
When I found out he redlit, I was stunned and happy. My timeslip was 6.794 at 203.40 mph. I walked over to the winner's side and was given a drink. By then I was excited and hyped up. I didn't plan on qualifying, didn't plan on going a round, so everything was a bonus from there on out.
On the way back to the pits, I had to walk along the grandstands. A lot of younger people and some sport compact people came down to the fence cheering my name. It was great to get the support at that point because I think people doubted me before.
I wasn't just Shaun Carlson anymore. I became an icon for the whole sport compact market. My performance reflected the entire sport compact side. If I performed poorly, it would have hurt the chances of anyone else coming over to the POWERade competition. Afterwards, I was glad I listened to Kevin and did what I did because now maybe people will look at the sport compact side a little more seriously.
When we pulled into our pit, it was packed with autograph seekers and magazine and newspaper reporters. I even got messages from some of the sport compact guys I race with.
In the second round, I was up against Warren Johnson, a guy I idolize. As long as I've been drag racing, he is who I wanted to become. The guys told me he was going to screw with me on the line so I pre-staged and waited for him. But if I knew then what I know now I would have just went ahead and staged. When he pre-staged, I staged and then had to wait 7 seconds, which seems like an eternity when you are in the car. I still cut a good light and could see that I was out on him.
I was doing well. I put it in fifth at a little past half-track. I could just see his nose start to creep up. At that speed, even though he beat me soundly, in Pro Stock terms, it's not like sport compact where an 8-second guy screams past a 10-second guy. At the finish, my time was 6.812 at 203 mph. Even though I lost, I had the biggest smile on my face because not only did I advance a round but I left on Warren Johnson. I did my job, but unfortunately we didn't have "The Professor's" trademark top-end power.
One attribute Warren doesn't have is people skills. When he was pushed by me, I said, "Warren, I just want to say it was an honor even being next to you." He looked at me and said, "Good job, Shaun." I remember thinking, "Whoa, he knows my name." Then I figured he probably just read it on the side of the car.
The crew congratulated me on my .023 light to his .047. They thought I had him for a while there. One of the guys said, "For coming here and doing as well as you did, you represented your sport compact crowd very well today."
In retrospect, it was an awesome time but it could have turned bad quickly and easily. If I crashed the car, I would've said that I knew I shouldn't have done this.
T: How were you received by the crew?
S: I had to earn their respect. Roy Johnson, the engine builder and Allen Johnson's dad, told me after the run against Warren, "When I was first told you were going to come out here and test the car I figured you were just going to mess around, just like my son." He said it wasn't until a few years ago that Allen partied less and took his work more seriously. But in Las Vegas he never once saw me go to the motor home, never saw me stop to do anything other than work, change tires, etc.
In my world, Rob (NuFormz' Robert Miller), Apple (Shaun's girlfriend) and I are the tire changers, the truck drivers, the janitors, the car builders; we're everything. I never considered myself a driver. I consider myself an innovator, someone who likes to come up with different ideas, parts that work.
My driving skills never seemed worthwhile. Roy said, "You guys really proved yourselves. I never thought you'd even qualify. Nor did I think you'd beat anyone or do as well as you did against Warren Johnson. I thought all you sport compact guys were a bunch of kids that liked to screw around. But I take that back. You really know what's going on." What he said was worth everything I endured.
The thing is, every one of the crew guys there had a Pro Stock license, every one of them could've driven that car. But because of Mopar and marketing, I was put there. I walked into this feeling like a bad guy because I was stepping on their feet, but those guys work hard. They were the best guys for setting up the car. Once they realized I wasn't there for a joy ride, they treated me great and wanted me to do well.
Import guys don't have a clue about how much work it takes to run a Pro Stock car consistently. We thought we knew a lot, we thought we were consistent, we thought we did a great job, but we don't know crap.
The Pro Stock guys are anal to the tee, doing everything exactly the same every time. To go round after round and race after race in such a small window (like a 6.78 being the quickest, to a 6.85 being the slowest), with 30-plus cars going for 16 spots is amazing. I give it up to all of them.
T: What about the rest of the year?
S: We're working on the Pro FWD car. We made some big changes. I just want to finish off 2004 and do well. We broke a lot of parts and had issues last year. It was our first year out with the car and the NHRA outlawed our engine before the first event, which kind of threw us off.
But with Chris Weismann's help on our new transmission and some things we're developing, and Gary Stanton on our engines, it's going to a good year.
T: What can you apply to the FWD program?
S: Consistency, which could be something as simple as warming up the car in the morning. In Pro Stock, it took me eight tries to finally warm it up the right way. That sounds dumb, but they do it the exact same way every time.
At 80 degrees, put it in first gear and then apply 100-psi brake pressure. Every detail is down to the degree. You have to work the fans and work the water pump to get it on the money. "Consistency" is an oxymoron in the front-wheel-drive world, but it has to be the goal.