This year marks the 2016 Funny Car champion driver's 25th year on the NHRA circuit. In a sport where careers can often be counted on the fingers of one hand, Ron has maintained his competitive edge -- he's also the second-winningest Funny Car driver of all time -- for decades.
And just importantly, in a sport where sponsorship is absolutely essential, he's maintained his marketability: Ron just signed an a multi-year agreement with NAPA Auto Parts that extends their 11-year relationship.
A fact that, as you'll see, Ron is justifiably proud of.
I have to start with this. I've been at the starting line and the launch is so, well, violent. I have no idea how drivers don't go into total sensory overload. How do you do it?
(Laughs. I love hearing that. The honest answer is... we're not doing it very well.
It's mainly the vibration. Sure, we're experiencing more G-forces than a fighter pilot, but the vibration is incredible. So for the first 1.5 seconds or so we're trying to see... and we think we can see better than we actually can. (Laughs.)
Really we're just hoping the car goes straight until we get our bearings. But after that first second or so it really does clear up a lot and you can start focusing on looking way down the end of the track.
You were at Richmond where they had just poured a new track and it was flat and unbelievably smooth. A drag strip like, say, Norwalk, where the track temperature is 130 degrees... at the launch the car squats and twists.
But at Richmond, hit the gas and it shot straight out and you needed a lot less steering input. Which was nice. (Laughs.)
Talk to me about maintaining long-term sponsor relationships. That's become increasingly challenging in motorsports.
I feel my relationships with sponsors is the biggest feather in my cap. Motorsports have always been, to some degree, the rich person's sport. In every form of racing there were and are people who paid their way or who brought a big check with them. There were very few people when I started out -- and still today -- that are what we've called hired guns.
Meaning you don't bring a sponsor or family money or whatever -- you're hired because they want you to drive the car.
Exactly. So the fact that I've never had to bring a sponsor or bring a check... looking back, that's the thing I'm most proud of.
When Don Prudhomme asked me to drive for him... growing up around the sport, he was the biggest hero in our sport. He was my Joe Montana. I played with his toy cars. (Laughs.)
He me to represent his team and his sponsors. He didn't hire me because of how much money I could bring from a sponsor. I'm really proud of that.
I learned a lot from Don (Prudhomme) in those nine years. How he treated sponsors, the way people looked at him, the respect he had... he didn't have another business on the side. Racing was his business. I learned a lot from the things he did and didn't do.
Then when I moved over to drive for Don Schumacher... he's another business guy that has had huge success. I've learned a tremendous amount from him.
And I also learned over the years that driving the race car is the smallest part of the job. It's the most important thing when it is the most important thing... but in all honesty, driving the car is the last on the list of things I worry about.
When you won the championship in 2016, after two decades of trying -- and finishing in the top 3 a number of times -- what was the first emotion you felt? Excitement? Relief?
We locked up the championship in the last qualifying run at Pomona, the last race of the year. The session had gotten delayed, we were under the lights, the grandstands were packed... and all we had to do was out-run the car next to me and that would clinch the title.
Keep in mind I've lost one or two championships by 3 points or so on the last day of the season. (Laughs.) So that was weighing on my mind.
So when the win light came on... the first emotion was a huge exhale. Total relief. As I was coasting down from a great run -- we'd just gone 333 mph -- to come around the corner, and have all these cameras and the trophy sitting there... it was relief.
I think you get excited later. At first you're in shock. So it's relief until the shock wears off.
And then the next morning is the second-best time: When you look over, and the trophy is there, and you realize it wasn't a dream.
Relief, then excitement... and then you felt a sense of responsibility.
When I won in 2016 I wanted to make sure I represented our sport the best I could. If I had to hand the trophy off to someone else the next year, I wanted to hand it off in even better shape than when I got it. I got nominated for the ESPYs, I got to help take our sport to more sponsors and more people... I like to think I was a worthy champion.
I know all those years of waiting gave me a greater appreciation for what it meant to win it.
A question I like to ask: Do you love to win... or hate to lose?
Even though the season doesn't start until next week, just this morning I had ideas for the people at NAPA for something I think we should try. We'll send it to corporate and see what they think.
I like to win on the track, but I also like to feel that I'm doing a better job representing our sponsor than any other drivers do representing their sponsors. I felt like I had a great idea, something that will help our sponsor...so I guess to answer your question, I'm always trying to win.
On the track, and for our sponsors. I'm not working to make sure we don't lose them. I'm working to make sure they love what we do for them.
What is a typical week like during the season?
We're just at the end of January and my off weekends (non race weekends) are filled with requests for appearances through September.
That's one great thing about working with NAPA. I get to be out in the field a lot. I meet store owners, I do appearances on the way to a race, I speak at dinners, always do something on the Thursday nights of race weekends... then when those fill up we add appearnces on the way home, or mid-week...
People want to see you. Which is taxing, but also pretty great.
I sometimes get stopped in an airport wearing nothing that is race-related, and someone will recognize me and want a picture together. That makes my whole year.
Our fans are incredibly devoted to the sport. We're blessed to have the kind of fans we do. I really do have the coolest job ever.
The first time we were buying a house... or, more recently, filling out a form for our son's school... to get to write "race car driver" in the box where it asks for your profession is the coolest thing.
I never imagined I would be able to do that. But I'm really glad I do. (Laughs.)