Commentary

Juggling family life with work life a real challenge for Funny Car star Capps

Funny Car driver Ron Capps has a dream job, but he pays a steep price. Spending so much time away from his wife and children is the "absolute worst part," writes Joe Breeze.

Updated: August 8, 2008, 7:40 PM ET
By Joe Breeze | ESPN.com

Capps FamilyCourtesy Capps FamilyNo Walley World for the Capps family, from left: Taylor, Ron, Caden and Shelley.

Ron Capps absolutely loves his job. He gets to travel. He gets rock-star treatment at drag strips across the country. And he gets to wrestle an 8,000-horsepower, fire-breathing Funny Car at backbreaking speeds.

The worst part of the profession?

Meet Shelley, Taylor and Caden.

Shelley is his wife of almost 16 years. Taylor is his 12-year-old daughter who'll be a cheerleader in the seventh grade this fall. Caden is his 7-year-old son who wants to go racing, just like Dad.

They are the ones he leaves behind six months out of the year while he chases a dream.

"It's part of the deal," Capps said recently, shaking his head. "It's the worst part of what this dream job I have is."

Shelley can understand her husband's pain. And their children's, too.

Safety comes first

Funny Car driver Ron Capps says he supports the NHRA's decision to trim the track length from 1,320 feet to 1,000 feet for the nitro classes.

"On a track like this, it is still the same track they raced in 1970, and the guys were going 250 mph and it's the same shutdown area," Capps said recently at Pacific Raceways in Kent, Wash. "Especially after Scott Kalitta getting killed, and you show up at a track like this and not have a better shutdown. But we know they're working on it. So a thousand feet is not a bad thing right now.

"There's a lot of damage that occurs the last 300 feet, believe me. Only bad stuff happens down there. Very rarely does something good happen in the last 300 feet."

Capps knows firsthand. He was lucky enough to walk away from a fiery explosion in a 2002 race in Dallas.

"When you sign up to drive one of these it's not if it's going to happen, it's when it's going to happen," he said. "This year I know I'll have at least a couple of fires, probably an accident in the next five years. Hopefully it won't be bad. You know it's going to happen. You just try to protect yourself."

Capps says he'd like to see the NHRA move back to the quarter-mile as soon as conditions warrant.

"I love the history of the sport," he said. "I'd like to see it go back."

-- Joe Breeze

"It's tough. The kids have kind of grown up with it since they were babies," she said of his frequent departures from their Carlsbad, Calif., home. "It's all that they know. But that's why we enjoy the summertime, when we can all get together and go on the road with him and spend some quality time."

That time is coming to an end this weekend. The Capps Family Vacation began in late June in Norwalk, Ohio. It ends soon after the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals in Brainerd, Minn.

One of the more memorable stretch runs of the holiday had to be the three-race Western Swing, where stops in Denver, Seattle and Sonoma, Calif., were broken up with side trips to water parks and scenic locales.

You know, Hallmark moments.

If only Capps' on-track performances were as Kodak-worthy.

One of the most successful pro drivers never to have won a season title started enjoying the summertime a lot more after the Schuck's Auto Supply Northwest Nationals near Seattle three weeks ago. He lost to first-time winner Tony Bartone in the Funny Car final, but at least he put the Don Schumacher Racing Dodge Charger in position to win for the first time in 2008.

Unfortunately, Capps couldn't ride the momentum the following week in Sonoma, and the stumble cost him. He fell from sixth to seventh in the Funny Car standings after checking in 13th at Infineon Raceway. Only the top 10 in each category after the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals Aug. 27 to Sept. 1 in Indy make the playoffs.

The Seattle-Sonoma portion of the Western Swing was a microcosm of Capps' season -- one filled with peaks and valleys.

Problem is, Capps is used to peaks. Bloody-nose peaks. He's got 25 national event wins to his credit (24 in Funny Car, one in Top Fuel). He has finished second in Funny Car points three times (1998, 2000 and 2005). He won a class-high five times in 2006.

2008? It's been a struggle.

"The last three years we've been leading the points all year long and winning races left and right -- we took a lot of that for granted," Capps said during his stop at Pacific Raceways near Seattle. "For our standards, we're not doing very good.

"And there were a lot of rules changes this winter that really kind of threw us into a bind, especially since I'm a lighter driver and they added a lot weight this year [100 pounds] and a lot of the Funny Car guys are big guys and were already at that weight. … We had to add a lot of weight, whereas a lot of other drivers were already heavy and already knew how to run their car at that weight.

"Catapulting these cars zero to a hundred in less then one second is tough," Capps continued. "Then you throw another 100 pounds on a car and try to do that. Very tough. Our crew chief Ed McCulloch has his work cut out for him. That's probably the biggest hurdle we had this year, why we're not leading the points, why we're not doing the usual."

Fourteen-time Funny Car champ John Force agrees -- to an extent.

"He's like a jockey. I love Ron Capps," Force said of the 150-pound Capps. "I tried to hire him right here in Seattle years ago with Fram. … and [Don] Prudhomme snatched him up. [With him] being small frame, I've got 50 or 60 pounds on Capps and that's a big plus, and I know the weight has hurt him, but it's hurt all of us.

"Ed McCulloch is a sharp cookie. Capps has been a top contender for years. Don't count him out yet. He'll be OK. They know the drill."

When the wins don't come, that makes being apart from the family all the more painful. Even the constant sunny, 75-degree weather in Southern California doesn't ease the worry.

Ed McCulloch is a sharp cookie. Capps has been a top contender for years. Don't count him out yet. He'll be OK. They know the drill.

-- John Force

The fact that Don Schumacher Racing is based in Indiana doesn't help. The geographical distance between home and the race shop is just one more hurdle Capps must negotiate.

"Every time I land in San Diego and I get off the airplane and walk outside the terminal, it's like, 'Ah, this is why I pay the extra money, this is why I travel the extra miles, because for a lot of the guys Indy is so centrally located," Capps said. "Me, I gotta go across the country. But it's worth it when I get home."

When he's home, Shelley, Taylor and Caden get his undivided attention -- sort of. It takes Capps a few days to unwind and get his head on straight before he morphs back into loving father and husband.

"It's fun time when Dad comes home," Shelley says with just a hint of sarcasm. "He's the fun parent. I'm the one that does everything else."

Shelley's schedule is just as hectic. She tries to join Capps for half of his races, leaving the kids behind on occasion with grandparents who are eager to assist.

"It's really easy to grow apart otherwise, so it's very important for me to be there for him when I can," Shelley said. "But it's also important for me to be there for my kids."

Capps says he'd like to be more involved with his children's day-to-day lives. He smiles broadly when he talks about how Taylor is starting junior high and getting involved in the "girly things." And don't even mention young Caden's interest in fast cars.

"He's a madman about racing. He loves it," Capps said. "Junior Dragsters, the minimum age is 8. I guarantee you we'll have him in one when he turns 8. I've got him in a go-kart now. It's a good age. He loves it."

Understand now? See how this dream job often tugs hard on his heartstrings?

Leaving home, and leaving his family behind, is the hardest part.

"It's the absolutely worst part," Capps said.

Not for Shelley.

Her greatest worry, in the wake of Scott Kalitta's death in a June accident at Englishtown, N.J., just 15 months after a testing crash claimed the life of Eric Medlen, is the possibility that her husband doesn't come home.

"That is my biggest fear," she said. "It's something I try not to think a lot about, though. You have to block it out, because I'm not going to ask him not to do this.

"It's what he's meant to do."

Joe Breeze is a motorsports editor for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Joe.M.Breeze@espn3.com.