During his last run at the Auto Club NHRA Finals, no one expected Ron Capps to drive his Funny Car to the finish line.
By the final elimination pairing on championship Sunday in Pomona, Calif., the NAPA Auto Parts driver essentially had the Funny Car title in his grasp — all he had to do was avoid crossing the centerline on his way down the track, or else he would be subject to a points penalty and would then lose the championship.
“I was staging the car for the final, thinking, do I throw everything away that we’ve worked at all season long if something goes wrong?” Capps said.
On paper, the weekend had been picture-perfect for Capps leading up to that moment.
The 26-year Funny Car veteran entered the event 61 points behind Robert Hight, but Capps rallied in qualifying on Saturday and picked up several key bonus points. He made one of the quickest runs in his career at 3.837 seconds, earning the No. 1 qualifier spot.
“To pull that off, that was probably run of the year for us,” Capps said. “That certainly made it a little better waking up Sunday morning. We had a little more mathematical chance.”
The deficit was 57 points — or two rounds, since Pomona awards points-and-a-half — as Capps strapped in for his opening battle against Jeff Arend. Capps stormed to victory, while Hight defeated Chad Green.
The two Funny Car rivals marched on to the second round, with Capps facing off to Tim Wilkerson and Hight lining up against Bob Tasca III.
Capps disposed of Wilkerson and was preparing to head back to the pits when the ball dropped for Hight.
“When Robert [Hight] lost, my guys were just getting the car hooked up to the tow vehicle and they were going berserk,” Capps said. “I was like, ‘Guys, calm down.’”
The title was his for the taking, but Capps did his best to remain composed.
Though his situation had changed in comparison to previous seasons, specifically with being a first-year team owner, Capps was all-too familiar with the heartbreak road that many almost-champions travel.
In past years, Capps has lost the title by frustrating margins — two points to Jack Beckman in 2012 and eight points to Gary Scelzi in 2005. The 57-year-old has learned the hard way that over-confidence can lead to a quick demise.
Perhaps loss has been one of his greatest teachers in that regard, but as Capps’ career has matured, he’s grown fond of a phrase Don Prudhomme once shared with him: “Don’t drink your own bath water.” Meaning, a driver’s time at the top will always end. So stay focused, stay humble and “don’t believe everything you read about yourself,” Capps added.
Capps found himself in position to claim his third Funny Car championship as the semifinal round of eliminations approached in Pomona, there was no smug smile or pre-round celebration in the NAPA pits.
It was back to work to get ready for their semifinal matchup against Tasca.
“Every round, I was a mess. It was the largest moment in my life. And then another hour-and-a-half later, I was living the largest moment in my life,” Capps said with a laugh.
The Toyota Supra tore down the drag strip at 334.65 mph, edging Tasca to flip the win light. But as Capps popped up out of the Funny Car at the finish line, thinking the title was his, NHRA officials informed him that he still had to make one last run.
“It was an emotional rollercoaster turn,” Capps said.
Capps and his crew chiefs, Dean “Guido” Antonelli and John Medlen, gathered for a closed-door meeting to make the imperative decision. Would they leave it all on the table and make the full run, or play it safe and shut the car off halfway down the track?
“Guido looked at me and he said, ‘You’re one of the best I’ve seen in a Funny Car, I say you go down until you’re not comfortable,’” Capps recalled. His apprehensive response to Antonelli was, “‘These Funny Cars can go down and in a heartbeat, turn left or right, put a cylinder or two out, and if it does, we lose everything.”
Ultimately, the choice was left to Capps. But as he pulled into the staging lane for the final time this season, he still didn’t know what he would do. Cruz Pedregon staged in the right lane and finally, the clock ran out.
The light went green, the Funny Cars launched off the start with a flash of flames and Capps chased Pedregon all the way to the finish line. Pedregon may have claimed the win, but Capps had put an exclamation point on his new name — 2022 NHRA Funny Car champion.
Capps claimed the title by three points over Hight. Capps recorded five wins and four runner-up finishes on the season with his team, Ron Capps Motorsports. He now has 73 career victories and 67 runner-up finishes.
He is also the first Funny Car driver in 20 years to win two consecutive championships, backing up his 2021 title.