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NHRA: Bazemore Ready to Put an End to Frustrating Season

15 July 1998

MORRISON, Colo. -- Perhaps no driver in the NHRA Funny Car pit area is as frustrated as Whit Bazemore. The former motorsports photographer, who toiled for several seasons in low-budget Funny Car operations, showed flashes of brilliance behind the wheel of the Team Winston machine last season in a mid-season championship run that produced four victories in five final rounds.

Considered by many drag racing insiders to be the leading candidate for a Winston championship this season, Bazemore has struggled to find the winning magic that he experienced one year ago. His disappointing start has included five first-round losses, four second-round defeats, a semi-final appearance and one victory. Currently eighth in the Winston standings, Bazemore needs to make a strong charge during the second-half of the season if he's going to get back on the championship winning track.

He'll have a good place to start as the circuit heads to the 20th annual Mopar Parts Mile-High Nationals, July 16-19 at scenic Bandimere Speedway, near Denver. Bazemore, 35, from Indianapolis, is the defending Funny Car winner of the $1.5 million event, the 12th of 22 events in the $30-million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series.

Bazemore, who defeated Chuck Etchells in a close, side-by-side tire-smoking contest last season, says winning that race was crucial for his team's confidence.

"The win at Denver last year was very important to this team because it was our second win," Bazemore said. "We wanted to get that second win right away to prove the first one wasn't a fluke. It took us nine years to win the first one at Topeka -- it was awfully hard to get. For the second one to come two races later, that felt really good."

It was also a dream come true for Bazemore to win at a track that he has always enjoyed, but never experienced a lot of success.

"For a long time I didn't like racing there because the altitude changes, and we have to change the car so much," Bazemore said. "It was like going there with a brand new car that you hadn't tested. You definitely tend to hurt more parts there, and in the past when we raced on a smaller budget we were always concerned about blowing the car up all the time.

"But Denver has always been my favorite track," he added. "I really enjoy the city and the facility is first class all the way. We have a good tune-up for the high altitude conditions now. I think we can improve on what we did there last year and hopefully it'll be a little ahead of the rest of the pack."

While the teams work hard to develop the perfect tune-up to ensure a smooth pass down Bandimere's tricky quarter-mile, most often the final outcome is left up to the guy steering the wheel. A quick review of the Mopar Parts Mile-High Nationals winner's roster reveals an honor roll of some of the best drivers in the business.

"It's a driver's race, no doubt," he said. "With the high altitude, Denver is probably the most difficult of all the tracks on the circuit. With the thin air we don't have any downforce and the car is really loose. Funny cars are on the verge of being loose all the time anyway. At Denver you just have to dig in and drive it for all you can. You have to pay close attention and keep it off the wall and the center-line. If you don't have a lot of experience in these cars, racing at Denver can be a frightening experience. I think that track separates the really good drivers from the rest of the pack."

Bazemore distinguished himself from his competitors earlier this season, winning the inaugural race at the new Route 66 Raceway, near Chicago. It ended an eight month victory drought.

"Winning at Chicago was incredibly important for this team," Bazemore said. "We've struggled a little bit to start the season. When you win four races really quick the year before and then go through a period where you don't win, you begin to question if you'll ever win again. Wins are hard to come by out here. You just have to convince yourself that you haven't lost the ability to win and keep going after it. We realize Team Winston wants winners. Our teammate is a Winston champion, so we're trying to live up to those expectations every time we race."

Bazemore hopes to begin another winning streak, similar to his run last year where in addition to Denver, he won Topeka's Parts America Nationals, Seattle's Northwest Nationals and the prestigious U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis, all in the span of two months. A quick burst like that this season would have his Team Winston Chevrolet Camaro back in the thick of the title hunt.

"Momentum is everything," Bazemore said. "This sport is such a mind game. If you think you're winning, you are. If you think you're beat, then you are. Even when you're struggling, you have to convince yourself, and the team has to convince itself, that you're the baddest people in the pit area. It can be hard to do when you're struggling, because you really want to go home and hide your head. But you have to continue to come to the track with confidence no matter the outcome of the previous race."