No funny business for Pleasant Grove drag racer
Brian Thiel, like so many others, was bitten by the drag racing bug after attending an event — the violent noise of 8,000-horsepower engines, the smell of burning rubber and nitro methane fuel, races lasting all of four seconds by cars accelerating to more than 300 mph.
Only Thiel, who has lived in Pleasant Grove since 2000, didn’t just continue attending races. He bought a car — a Funny Car.
Thiel will be at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma this weekend for the FRAM Autolite NHRA Nationals, hoping to build on a career that literally has been on the fast track.
Thiel hasn’t exactly gone about building a professional race team the conventional way. He didn’t start in the amateur sportsman classes and work his way up. He started at the top.
“It’s not the normal way of doing it, probably not the best way,” Thiel, 36, said Friday from his home. “I just think God gave me the talent to do it.”
Thiel has been racing since the Sonoma event three years ago. He earned his Alcohol Funny Car license around that time knowing full well he wanted to run a nitro Funny Car. His Alcohol Funny Car experience before licensing consisted of seven or eight runs.
He earned his Funny Car license six months later in Gainesville, Fla., and competed that year in national events in Houston, Las Vegas, Sonoma and Indianapolis for the Labor Day weekend U.S. Nationals.
He’s been assembling a team since. Thiel has a crew and an experienced crew chief in former Funny Car driver Johnny West. Now, Thiel needs what all professional teams need: a major sponsor.
“Motors, chassis, tools, we’re as good as anybody there,” said Thiel, disappointed he isn’t in the running for the Countdown to the Championship and won’t be the Rookie of the Year. “If I can get good backing, I think all the guys gotta watch out. We’ll be a force to be reckoned with. But it’s all about the money. We need to get this community behind me so we can keep going.”
That was why Thiel spent last weekend pouring concrete instead of competing in Denver for the NHRA’s first of three races on the annual western swing. After Sonoma, the circuit moves to Seattle. Thiel predicted he’d attend each race for the rest of the season.
Thiel said he saved money so he could start in the Funny Car class. He waited until he could arrive at a track with a Peterbilt truck towing a nice hauler.
“It had to be a fuel Funny Car,” Thiel said. “If it’s not a Funny Car, it’s nothing to me.”
Thiel said he drives on the road “like an old man” in his old Dodge flatbed. He never had a hot rod while growing up in Modesto.
“The fastest thing I ever drove was my Case tractor,” he said.
So, Thiel was in for a wild ride for his first few Funny Car passes. Just seven or eight runs in, Thiel said something clicked.
“Since then, I feel like I can drive that car with my eyes closed,” he said. “I want to make a living driving a fuel Funny Car. I figure I got 20, 25 years of driving one of these. I’m very confident. I feel I can drive these cars as good as anybody on the planet.”
That includes 15-time Funny Car champion John Force, who Thiel said has become a great friend. Force was the first to check on Thiel after he had a bad fire in Bristol, Tenn.
Thiel’s all-time quickest pass at 1,000 feet is 4.14 seconds at 305 mph. That was a test run. His best time this year is a 4.17 at 300 mph in Gainesville. Recent testing following a national event in Chicago revealed “gremlins,” racers’ reference to problems in the car. Thiel said eliminating those gremlins allowed the car to leave the starting line better.
“We’re nowhere where we should be, but we should run a low teen in Sonoma, possibly a high zero,” Thiel said. “The car ran good enough where it would have won that (Chicago) race easily. The crew chief has been in a good mood, so that tells me we’re on to something. Being it’s my home track, I’ll throw everything we have at it.”
FRAM Autolite NHRA Nationals
When: Friday through Sunday
Where: Infineon Raceway
Tickets: www.infineonraceway.com or 800-870-7223