Jeff Diehl races the NHRA’s Funny Car division as a throwback to days gone by
Outside of the size of their budgets, Jeff Diehl understands the largest difference between his independent team and the multi-car Funny Car operations.
“We know that we can’t run as hard as them because they’ll blow it up to win,” Diehl said, matter-of-factly.
Money, or no money, Diehl pledges to race within his means to compete, and most importantly have fun. What keeps him coming back when the odds are clearly stacked against him?
“Why do I have such a passion?” Diehl responded. “I don’t know. I love driving them. I love the mechanics of them. That’s probably the best two reasons why I’m out here.”
The odds? Who pays attention to them anyway?
“You’re fighting money, big deal,” Diehl, said. “We have a handful of sponsors. But in the same note, we have a scale of where we should be able to run, and we’re not really there. So that’s kind of the biggest thing why you don’t give up. I think this car will run in the .90’s and not hurt it all day long. And its shame on us for not doing it right now.”
Would have, should have, could have; those are scenarios Diehl prefers to look past, but reality does slap him in the face when he does.
“I can count the rounds that I’ve given away by shutting the car off with a cylinder out,” Diehl said. “I gave away like 10 rounds, and last year I’m like, ‘I’m done with it.’
“I’m just going to keep the foot down, and if it blows up, it blows up. It taught me that where I thought it would blow up was a different situation. That it will make it to the finish line. I see a burned piston, and I’m like, ‘Oooh, we’re trying a little harder in eliminations.’”
Diehl admits he’s far from being an adrenaline junkie, but when he’s away from the asphalt, he can be found scoping the waves at the beach and surfing as much as he can.
“Surfing is a lifestyle, and it’s a way to work out and not go to the gym,” Diehl said. “It’s peaceful, and you turn everything off when you do it. It’s a nature thing, and I love that.”
If surfing is a nature thing, drag racing is a struggle between man and machine. At least this is how Diehl sees it.
“Drag racing is a rub the whole way,” Diehl said. “You’ve got to fight for it the whole time. And I’m stubborn and bullheaded, so I just keep doing it, you know. I never thought that I’d end up in one of these cars. I thought they were ridiculous when I raced slower classes like blowing up and all this stuff.”
Diehl isn’t shy about the reason why he graduated into racing nitro on the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series.
“The only reason why I came over to [Nitro Funny Car] was it was the only place you could really find sponsorship,” Diehl explained. “That’s why we’re here. Then once I drove one, I was like wow, I’ve got to keep driving it. It’s more of, not like the adrenaline or the speed. You don’t feel the speed; a good driver doesn’t feel the speed. They have so much going on in their head. Trying to keep it in the groove, and staging, is everything alright, you know. The only time you feel the speed is when you’re waiting for the chutes to come out.”
Diehl graduated into the major leagues of drag racing after stints in both Top Alcohol Dragster and Funny Car. He even raced a Nostalgia Top Fuel car as well.
“I was watching Funny Car, and they were getting paid $10,000 because the pay scale’s never changed since all this went down, which is bologna, but that’s a whole ‘nother subject,” Diehl said. “And I was watching guys running slower than me in Nitro Funny Car in qualifying to get $10,000. And if you qualify in Top Alcohol, you got $750. So I’m like whatever. So I sold my stuff, and I bought a Funny Car.”
Diehl doesn’t consider himself a working man’s hero, just a working man.
“The crew guys consider him a working man’s hero,” interjected wife Leeza, who serves as the team’s official back-up girl.
“I’m more on the level as a crew guy out here,” Diehl added. “I drive, I get in there and do the best I can. I don’t get to make enough laps, and that’s an issue. So I’ve really got to concentrate when I drive. One of my biggest problems is I’m in there paying attention to what’s going on with the motor, and each cylinder pipe, and I don’t think many Funny Car drivers outside of Del Worsham who concentrate on that. He’s a total mechanic too.
“Most of them get in there, and they’re just going to mow the tree down. You know, they have this whole scenario of driving and being a driver, what the other driver’s reaction time is and all that. I’m not that guy. I’m in there; I try to get it done. I don’t want to be the guy to screw up the driving part, so that’s my motivation.
“I don’t want to be at the end of the track going, ‘Sorry guys, I drove it out of the groove.’
“That’s my driving inspiration is not to screw up.”
Diehl agrees he’s a rare throwback to the 1970s when drag racers like him were the majority, and not in the minority. If he could ever find a time machine, he’d travel back to the 1970s.
“For sure,” Diehl confirmed boldly. “That’s more my style. Those guys worked on their cars. Even Snake [Don Prudhomme] told me, he goes, ‘Diehl, you can’t do it.’
“He goes, ‘I did it up until the 80’s. You can’t tune it, you can’t build it, you can’t drive it, you can’t haul it down the road. You can’t do it anymore.’”
If only Diehl could have tag-teamed with the late Jungle Jim Liberman.
“That would have been a way better scenario for me,” Diehl said. “I could have done it all with Leeza and me, and we probably would have done really good.”
Sage advice from Don “The Snake” Prudhomme, and for Diehl passion dictates it goes in one ear, and out the other.
Continuing the shtick, Leeza takes her role of back-up girl very seriously.
“Just getting to be out there with Jeff on the track, and getting to have a little bit of hands on inspires me,” Leeza admitted. “I’m not a mechanic, and I wasn’t born into this, I married into it. Just to be able to experience everything with him and get out there and see those cars. It’s pretty exciting.”
The Diehls might not be winning rounds, and might be racing on the fraction of a budget the bigger teams enjoy but this doesn’t mean they haven’t daydreamed about the day if their “ship” comes in.
“The biggest thing is the crew; it is all volunteer,” Diehl explained. “We take care of them on travel and stuff, and it’s hard. And these guys on all these teams, that’s the only thing I’m probably jealous of is they have a full crew, they have their positions, and they keep everything serviced. If we had that, even on the parts we had, we’d be running with them. I would know what to do, for sure.”
Diehl even has his dream crew chief in mind.
“Ed McCulloch, because he’s a fighter,” Diehl said with a smile.
Right now, more than anything, Diehl wishes to remain relevant. He’s in a slump right now and wants the bigger teams to know he’s no easy pickings in the first round. In the interest of fair reporting, Diehl has only raced teams from either Don Schumacher Racing or John Force Racing this season.
“They’ve told me, ‘We take you seriously,’” Diehl said. “That’s cool because they know that I’m not up there just screwing around. I’m up there trying. We’re kind or hit or miss right now. We’re really working on trying to make the car consistent, and that’s why it’s been a slow motion back to where we were last year. We found a bunch of problems that made our tuning window really small.”
To win four consecutive rounds on any given Sunday of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series, Diehl has a plan prepared.
“I’d retire for sure,” Diehl said with a serious look on his face. “On the spot. I’d go play the lotto too.”
Bobby Bennett is the Publisher/Editor of CompetitionPlus.com, a leading independent online drag racing magazine, since 1999. For the latest in dragster news worldwide, visit www.competitionplus.com or follow on Twitter @competitionplus