By Anthony Caruso III | Publisher
On Nov. 3, the wheels started in motion for Jeff Arend to take over the reigns of the Tequila Patrón Funny Car from Alexis DeJoria. He was expected to have a ride for the Auto Club NHRA Finals at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona this weekend; however, not in DeJoria’s car.
“I got a call from Jim Oberhofer last Thursday afternoon and he asked me what I was doing for Pomona,” Arend said. “I kind of already had a role with Peter and Helen Russo. He told me that they really wanted to run Alexis’ car there at the last race of the season and that she had a concussion and she couldn’t drive it, but Connie Kalitta and Alexis really wanted me to drive it, so that’s how it all started.
“I went over to have dinner with Peter and Helen that night — and I had to tell them. They weren’t overly impressed with it, but I told them that I would help them out with anything I can. The only difference is, I won’t be driving their car. In the end, we met with each other a couple of days later, and it was all good with them, so that made me feel better. Jim O was hesitant to call me, because he doesn’t like to do that to smaller teams.”
During the summer, DeJoria was involved in a crash at the Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals on July 31. She broke her pelvis after she hitting the wall.
After missing several weeks, she returned at the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway Labor Day weekend. When she returned, her team put an extra cushion around her in the driver’s seat.
“Luckily for me, after she had gotten hurt and broke her pelvis, Del Worsham drove the car at the Indy test session,” Arend said. “In order for him to do that, they had to make up a different steering column and a seat insert — the way he likes it — and since I drove for him before, I know his car and my car were awful close. There may be a couple of small tweaks to make, but there shouldn’t be much there. I’m pretty confident that I can get in there and drive it. It’s going to be relatively comfortable.”
Arend qualified eighth on Friday after going 3.930 at 288.15 mph in the Tequila Patrón Toyota Camry.
“Most of the guys on the team I know fairly well, because when Alexis first licensed with the Kalitta’s (in 2011), I helped her get licensed with Del (Worsham) in his family car,” Arend said. “The next year when it was full-time for her, she actually drove my DHL car in testing. That’s when I got to know a lot of the guys on her team. I’ve known Tommy DeLago (her crew chief) for a long-time obviously — and he’s a super respected crew chief. He came in second in the World one-year (with Matt Hagan), then won the championship the next year.
“To get a chance to go back there, it’s like a family reunion, because we’re all pretty good friends. It’s a great opportunity to work with the Kalitta’s and Tommy DeLago.”
Arend said he feels like a closer coming during the 9th inning.
“I have to come in there and do my job like a closer,” he said. “My whole idea is not to let people qualify, because I’d like to win. I’d like to win for my team. If we can do that, great! Unfortunately, that may affect some things if we did that. Ron (Capps) is a good friend of mine. I’m not going to say he won the championship yet, but he has the ball on the one-yard line and the other team went to the locker room. He doesn’t have to do a lot — qualify and win the first round. It is great for him, because he really deserves it.”
Two weeks ago, during the Toyota NHRA Fall Nationals, DeJoria was injured during Saturday qualifying when she slammed her car into the retaining wall. After sleeping and waking up on Sunday, it was announced that she wouldn’t be competing. It was later announced by Fox Sports 1’s Jamie Howe that she had a concussion.
“First of all, there are no expectations on my end than this one-race deal,” Arend said. “I want to see Alexis back out there, because she’s a great driver. With that being said, when I grew up in Canada, I had a friend of mine, Al Bilas, who was one of the best racers up there. He was a Pro Mod racer and his wheel broke and he hit the wall.
“He only got a concussion then a few weeks later, when he was running for points, he ran off the end off the track. He got another concussion and he’s never driven since. That was probably 25 years ago, so concussions are a big part of our sport. In the last 20-years since I’ve been following it, I don’t remember it happening that much or to one person. With the cars as fast as they are, there’s always the possibility there — and I’m really hoping that Alexis is able to come back. If there’s a way for them to make things better around her, you can bet the Kalitta team will do it. Concussions are very scary.”
On Friday during qualifying, Jack Beckman was the fastest car at the Auto Club NHRA Finals. When the Funny Cars, Top Fuel Dragsters, Pro Stock cars, or even Pro Stock Motorcycles go down the track, one thing they don’t think about is concussions.
“There’s a lot of things that maybe you think about in the downtime,” Arend said. “You know the chance of it happening is there, but you don’t think about it. If you’re thinking about anything other than driving the car, or a bike, to the best of your ability, then you shouldn’t even be doing this. Once the car, or bike, starts, you’re solely focused on driving. I would say everyone assumes the risk when they get in the cars or on the bike. They know the dangers and they know what a concussion is.”
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