Richie Crampton came a long way to race in the NHRA. From the other side of the world, as a matter of fact. Crampton, who originally hails from Adelaide, South Australia, is in his rookie season driving the Geico Top Fuel dragster for Morgan Lucas Racing. He’s off to a fast start, scoring two victories already this season.
Crampton took time out to talk to Frontstretch’s Toni Montgomery and Mike Neff at the Carolina Nationals last month about how he got here from Australia and how he made the switch from working on the car to driving it.
Because we were also curious what the boss thought about Crampton’s driving skills so far, we also tracked down Morgan Lucas, and learned not only his thoughts on his new driver, but also about what it’s like seeing his family business in so many places sponsoring sports, and what it’s like to have your own television network.
Toni Montgomery, Frontstretch.com: They do have drag racing of a similar sort in Australia? But there’s still the question of how did you end up going from there to here?
Richie Crampton: Well so basically yeah, drag racing in Australia is very popular. Obviously it’s smaller scale. There’s less cars and less sponsorship opportunities and less race track venues. Australians love drag racing and there’s a pretty big following and that’s kind of where I got my feet wet. I started drag racing when I was 16 with my family, with my dad. One thing led to another and I really wanted to be around a Top Fuel car and work on one. I ended up getting a job with a team in Australia that traveled to the U.S. to compete for 18 months so I came over here as a crew member on an Australian team. We had some mixed success and when they decided to head back to Australia I was able to find another job out here working for Don Schumacher Racing and I kind of, in the end that team that I was working for at Don Schumacher Racing transplanted over here to Morgan Lucas Racing. It’s kind of a long story.
Montgomery: And you transplanted with them?
Crampton: That’s right.
Montgomery: How did you go from working on the crew to driving the car?
Crampton: It was one of those situations where Morgan really knew how much I wanted to drive a race car and how much I’d left behind to pursue that dream. I kind of just drove whatever race car I could along the way to just keep going down the race track and one thing led to another to where our second driver last season was Brandon Bernstein and he was having some back issues. He actually had to get back surgery at one point and there was a gray area on who was going to be Brandon’s replacement driver if he needed it so Morgan allowed me the opportunity to get my Top Fuel license in our Morgan Lucas Racing cars at Indianapolis. I kind of thought that was going to be the end of it. I thought I got to get my license and I never knew what would come of it but in the back of Morgan’s mind he had already decided that he was going to step away from full time competition this year and he was looking at possible replacements.
Montgomery: And he was thinking you?
Crampton: I got on the short list of possible replacements.
Montgomery: Let’s talk about your rookie season. You’ve had a heck of a year. You’ve got two wins and you just won the U.S. Nationals. So what do you think of it so far? How would you rate it?
Crampton: Obviously on paper it’s been a very good rookie season. I can look back and tell you a hundred things that I’ve done wrong as a driver, as a rookie learning. This is the pinnacle of drag racing of course. This is the toughest competition in the world. I’ve kind of tried to adapt quickly because I knew I had to. I’m racing against my heroes that I used to watch on television. I can look back and I can beat myself up a bit on what I’ve done so I’d probably rate myself a seven out of ten. But the team, as we all know, based upon how it finished out last season, this is a top five team and I have all the equipment to win races, to win rounds and one of the best crew chiefs in the industry and the best team out here so there was no reason why the Geico/Lucas Oil team shouldn’t win races this year. It’s been a good year. I have great equipment and I’m very spoiled as a rookie to get into such good stuff right out of the gate.
Montgomery: Do you think it gives you an advantage having come from the background of working as a crew person and understanding the workings of the car to then go to being a driver? Do you think that helps?
Crampton: Yeah, it helps a lot. It’s not every run that I can say it’s helped me or not helped me but it’s one of those deals where I can give a little bit of feedback and I can help the guys where there’s a rush or not enough time between rounds and stuff. I enjoy know the race car from front to back. That makes me a lot more comfortable as a driver so even if it’s not a situation where I’m giving feedback to benefit the team, I’m just that much more comfortable in the driver’s seat because I know every part of the race car. I think that makes me a better driver, just being comfortable.
Mike Neff, Frontstretch.com: From the driver’s side of things, when you guys roll up there, barring a catastrophic failure, you know within a tenth or so what you are going to run given the set up. If nothing goes wrong, how much input do you have? Basically the light turns green, you hit the throttle and unless you blow a hole through the block or something, you’re pretty much just down there until you hit the chute, right?
Crampton: Well yeah, you could say that. If everything goes well, you don’t have a lot to worry about and it’s just a matter of getting the race car from one end to the other but we’re talking about 10,000 horsepower race cars that want to go every which direction but straight.
Neff: Which means most of the time not everything goes well!
Crampton: The pressure of having just one opportunity to hit that reaction time as best as you can and obviously do the right things to get to the other end without messing up the run for everybody, when everything is going good it’s relatively easy but I think a good driver is a driver who can cope when things aren’t going well.
Neff: At the starting line, how hard is it to have your reaction time be the same off both sides of the tree? I”ve gotten the pleasure of doing this a couple times and on the right side looking out the left side I’m great but when I’m on the left side looking out the right side I lose 2 or 3 hundredths every time. Is that something, when you’re in your car, it doesn’t matter which side you’re on?
Crampton: When I first started racing as a kid, I had a preferred lane, which for me was the left lane, because I started in cars that had the steering wheel on the right hand side so I was closer to the tree, but that was definitely one of those things, I was always telling myself I don’t want to fall into that habit of preferring either lane because you don’t always have a choice where you’re going to run. We alternate during qualifying so it keeps you fresh on using both sides of the tree so I can’t tell you that I do better on one side or the other. I don’t know what kind of car you were in but sitting in the middle of a Top Fuel dragster it’s not like you really have to look past a passenger seat so that may help a little bit. It’s just one of those situations where you’ve got to work all that stuff out and try to be like a robot, just go out there and try to do the same thing every time no matter what’s thrown at you.
Neff: In a simulator, do you have the ability to move the tree from one side to the other?
Crampton: On our practice tree you can essentially just pick up the cockpit and move it here to here and further in and out. I’m not a huge fan of using those practice simulators at the shop because they’re just not real enough and you can trick yourself into thinking you’re doing really good or really poorly. It just really messes with your mind. It’s funny how much of a mind game it is to try and get that perfect reaction time in drag racing. It seems like the simplest concept but it’s tough.
Montgomery: And a lot of the time that’s where races are won or lost?
Montgomery: You’re actually not the first person to explain it to me as essentially your job is to not screw anything up.
Crampton: Yeah, exactly. On a good run, it kind of feels like you said, you just drive it to the other end and that was easy, but runs like that are few and far between.
After visiting with Richie Crampton, Frontstretch was also able to spend some time with his boss, and the former driver of the Geico/Lucas Oil Top Fuel dragster, Morgan Lucas.
Montgomery: You have scaled back to part time this year. Are you finding that more challenging when you do run because of not having the momentum or the rhythm of a regular racing schedule?
Morgan Lucas: I think when you lose the momentum in a situation like this, you gain it in the lack of pressure that’s on the situation. I used to find ways to turn pressure into a good thing when I was in the seat but now it’s just a different atmosphere. We have a lot of fun while we’re doing this. I’ve always had fun driving the cars but I don’t have to worry about points or the politics of it all. It just helps a lot. It helps your mindset stay at ease.
Montgomery: So your job when you do race is to just come out here and try to win, no pressure of points or anything else?
Lucas: Yeah. During the Countdown, you know this is obviously our Chase for the Cup. This is our Countdown to the Championship and Richie’s in that same scenario so we need that car to win the championship so for us, we’re going to try to run half of the Countdown races and we’re going to try to block for him as much as possible, try to come out and help them as much as we can. That’s what a team car should so and especially one that really doesn’t have a dog in the fight. We’re here just to help them. They can learn from this car. Our guys can help them in a scenario of quick turnarounds. There are a lot of benefits that can come from having the second car out here and for me it’s selfish needs of getting to have fun, but in the bit picture there are some big pluses to it.
Montgomery: Do you miss competing full time?
Lucas: I think the number one question I’ve had this year is if I’m missing it or not and I miss the people because this is my friends and family, this is basically where I’ve been for almost 20 years of my life, at the race track. But I’m only 30 so you’ve got to know that this is pretty much my concentration and people that I know, but the opportunities that I have outside the race track are so good, I’m so blessed to be able to be in that position, that I don’t miss it. I miss my guys but I don’t miss the monotony of the travel and a lot of those things. Don’t get me wrong, I know that I was fortunate to be in that position to be able to do that but I think I would be a fool not to try to pursue a career in Lucas Oil products.
Montgomery: It’s your family business, so it makes sense.
Lucas: It does. You know my dad has sacrificed so much and worked so hard to build the company to where it is and I have so much to learn and so far to go to even have any kind of serious role but what I do know is that there are a lot of great people there. It’s been a lot of fun so far and again I get the best of both worlds. I get to come out, I still get to have some fun, I still own the team, I manage it from a distance at times. Probably because of the fact that I’m married now, I’ve been married for about a year and a half, almost 2 years, and we have a 9 month old baby and I get to spend a lot more time with them, there’s a lot of pluses to the situation. It almost makes me want to petition for a shorter schedule, but I know that’s not up to me. I love getting to do both but at the same time when I’m not at home I miss it, I miss my baby. I called my wife, I could hear him in the background laughing and giggling and the next thing you know I’m melting on the other end of the phone pissed off that I’m not there but then I get hit the gas in this thing and I’m like “OK, that’s fun too.” I’m just really blessed to be in this position. God helps people, God loves people and He’s even patient with us mediocre Christians that are still working on our life. This is just one of those things where I know I probably don’t deserve to have this opportunity but I’m going to make the best of it.
Montgomery: What are your thoughts on Richie Crampton and how he’s doing this year?
Lucas: Richie’s a stud! There’s some crew chiefs, I was talking to another crew chief on another team who said you know a lot of times it takes drivers three years to get where they really fell like they’re there, where they can deal with all the BS, with all the stuff that doesn’t really matter to getting in the seat, the distractions. Richie is so passionate and so hungry to be successful in this sport that he has expedited that learning curve exponentially. The guy is just tremendous in that sense and he’s also one of the most loyal friends that I’ve ever had. He lives with a great sense of integrity and I think these are all good characteristics of people because there’s not a sense of prima donna issues or anything like that. He’s one of those guys who’s very realistic and wants to keep progressing and he wants to make a career out of driving one of these things and I think of all the people I’ve been around, and I’m not bashing anyone, because they’re all great people, but he’s probably got the best demeanor when it comes to the big picture.
Neff: Obviously you’ve grown up a Lucas, but when you turn on MAVTV or CBS Sports or pretty much any autosport and you see that there’s Lucas Oil products everywhere, what does that bring up inside of you to know that Yeah, that’s our business everywhere?
Lucas: I’ve got to be honest with you, every time my dad and everybody at Lucas Oil takes another big step with some form of marketing or whatever it is, I get this immediate sense of wow, that’s crazy. But then it seems like they find a way to one up that. I don’t know if they’re going to find a way to one up the stadium in Indianapolis. That’s a pretty big deal. It’s amazing, and that’s the kind of thing that for me when I see it now, it’s like wow this is great, getting the name out there, it’s effective. I’m looking at it from a different paradigm. My paradigm has shifted where I’m looking at it like OK, we’re doing business right now. MAVTV is a win win situation for motorsports enthusiasts because we get to air a lot of great racing that people typically don’t get to see. Great racing, fun stuff. We’re always trying to find other ways to bring new racing to the surface. There’s only so much time on the network but we do the best we can. Jason Patison, our Vice President’s son, is spearheading the time slots and making sure everything is organized and he’s a racer too. It’s kind of cool to have racers in there making stuff happen. MAVTV’s a great tool for the company and I say that because we use that to help sell oil. We just want to get our name out there but we’re also doing it with all our Team Lucas partners. We have a lot of great partners. I could go through the list right now but I don’t know if you have enough room, but it’s amazing how many people got involved. They run ads on it. They also they have their name all over these races we’re promoting. We have our own in house production studio so all the stuff on CBS and MAVTV, I would say 90% of that, we film it or we pay someone to film it and the we take it and we edit it, we do all our own graphics, announcing, overlays, whatever it is. Everything is done in house so we can have quality control and make sure the sponsors who are involved are getting their bang for their buck. All the while the fans are still getting a great show and great racing. It’s win win for the whole industry and that’s a big part of why we’re doing it. We’ve been involved with so many things where at the end of the day it felt like that really didn’t do anything for us. We spent X amount of dollars and it’s kind of pissing it down the drain. So now, OK, we have more control over it and we have control for other people too. Big picture, it’s a big help for creating that repetitious branding for people to know next time they go to the auto parts store they want to buy a quart of Lucas Oil stabilizer or they want to buy E3 Spark plugs, they know that brand because they’ve seen it in the motorsports world.
Neff: The thing I see that is so cool about it, I love the fact that you guys are willing to sponsor anything from dirt late models to drag boats to sprint cars, but I always thought it’s one thing to put your name on there and you’re getting the exposure to those fans but now you’ve upped your return on investment by turning around and showing those fans races on your network so you just went from yeah, we sponsor sprint cars, to sprint cars are now on national TV. So we just spent the same amount of money on it but now we’re on national TV.
Lucas: We control our activation. Really, it’s true. The partners that we make are the partners that we feel like we can grow with.