The Nitro Joint w / "Chicago Jon" Hoffman

InnerView: T.J. Zizzo, Part 2

And so we pick up where we left off last month, with our visit to Zizzo Auto Body in Lincolnshire, Illinois. TJ Zizzo has taken the time to answer our many questions, so we venture back to the conference room where Chicago Jon’s state-of-the-art '80s boom box is recording away....


DRO: You were talking about some new marketing partners, can you tell us how that came together? It really wasn't your typical knock-on-the-door-wearing-a-suit deal, correct?


TJ: My dad (Tony Zizzo) and I were in Vegas for the SEMA Show, and while we were there we went to the track for the Divisional race that was going on...and we're just hanging out in the lanes, looking at Top Dragsters. Some guy comes up and introduces himself, Bob Button, never met him before...so we start bull-(spitting) and busting each other’s (chops), big (chop)-busting session. So we're standing there, and he asks ‘Why don't you race more?’ And I answer, ‘FUNDING.’ And he says, ‘Well, I want to sponsor your car.’ I ask why and his response is 'I've been following you guys for a long time, and you guys appear to do a good job.'


So, I'm hoping there are more people out there -- who knows, maybe even reading this article -- who appreciate the hard work we're doing and want to jump on board.


DRO: You were talking about a meeting the team had after Indy last year and the goals you set out for the 2019 season, can we touch on that?


TJ: We had a meeting after Indy, and I said my goal for next (this) year is to go to six races, and the guys were ‘That's GREAT,’ and we've been to two, and we're going to Indy, so I've fallen short on my goal. Truthfully, we could go to three more events, but we'd be a start-and-park kinda deal, ya know, it's not what we want. The guys said to me years ago, ‘we're done going to events just to be there; we want to show up with the right equipment, to WIN.’ And that's why it took us forty-one events, to win five rounds from 2010, to 2016...we've gone to SIX events since, and we've gone five rounds, so that was their goal...being there wasn't enough anymore, it was time to start winning rounds. I've been racing NHRA with my dad since (pauses) 1980? We've never won a Wally, even at the Divisional level; came CLOSE, a runner-up (Union Grove, 1989) but that's what we want.


DRO: The ritual of serving pancakes to the fans every Saturday morning in Joliet -- I'm still just a big old fan at heart and I know people really dig stuff like that, racers being real with the fans. Tell us more about that.


TJ: That is something people hear about and it's like osmosis, it GROWS. They’re like ‘Wait, that kid’s really making PANCAKES? He goes to the store, gets ingredients, mixing batter, POURING it, grilling it, serving it?!’ Trust me, there are other deals, breakfasts where the driver is just showing up and waving, but I'm INTO it, right? And THAT'S what separates us from other teams, I believe, we're doing what’s right for the fans, to get them to come back and enjoy what we're doing. The blow-back is that people start saying, ‘HEY, why weren't you doing THIS on the car, or THAT on the car. WHY?’ Because I want to take care of our fans, that's what gets us to the next event.


DRO: I know, at least it's MY opinion anyway, that Zizzo Racing seems to have a special bond with your fans.


TJ: I'm looking at -- right behind your shoulder there, on the wall -- of a model of our stuff that a fan built of our operation. He must've put hundreds of hours of work into that. He had to change the kit, to get the sleeper just right; that took a lot of WORK. That, to me, is pretty badass, so we've got the idea that there are some more people out there who want to contribute to our team, ya know, funding like Bob Button did, and the FANS are what keep me going, it motivates me, and I told our guys at our meeting, ‘Look, I want to WIN with you guys.’ Some of these guys have been with my dad and I for twenty-some PLUS years! Through thick and THIN! [TJ turns to a nearby employee] ‘Rick, you ever seen any THIN?’ Rick responds 'NEVER in RACING!] Rick’s a racer, so he knows getting through the thin, that's what motivates me.


DRO: The nattering nabobs of negativity would say that Top Fuel is no longer growing. What are your feelings on that one?


TJ: Well, I don't know how many teams there are, what, maybe less than thirty, but I know there are some new teams coming. I know Doug Foley is coming back, end of the year. Artie Allen, I believe I've got that name right, is coming out, he's a racer from Florida. I think that's pretty cool. we have Chuck Beal’s family getting back in, Jim Maroney is bringing out a car -- which is SUPER! Maybe we made it look too easy. People are going, ‘Well if ZIZZO can run a 3.75, then anyone can do it!’ But to see twenty-one cars at Joliet, that was awesome.


At this point a long-time customer comes into the room. I say this because of the busting of [chops] that ensures, these gentlemen CLEARLY know each other. Comments range from the size of stomachs to the quality of hair - "Seriously, that's a WIG, right?" and TJ, inquiring about the man’s car asks "Please tell me you tore that thing up to the tune of seventeen grand; I need a new wing." I ask incredulously, 'That's a joke right?' and TJ assures me that yes, THAT is the going price for a dragster wing in the modern era. Shows what I know, my brain is stuck in the '70s, and I still think bread should be twenty-nine cents a loaf.


DRO: Your crew chief Mike Kern has none other than Rahn Tobler offering up some input. What's that like?


TJ: Tobler is like Mike’s sounding board, O.K., right? And we ask him, ‘What race should we go to next?’ and he's all ‘You need to go to North Carolina, because we can go boating on this RIVER.’ It's always like that, because he says you need to have FUN while you’re racing. Rahn, he'll be all ‘Why are you going THERE?’ and we respond, ‘Uuuhh…’ And he's, ‘NO, you need to go to places that are FUN, you need to have FUN before the event!’


I mean VEGAS, right? Everyone wants to go to Vegas, right? We started working on this last year, after the last session, we'd dilly-dally around the pits ‘til one in the morning. My guys started asking, ‘Can't we start doing an hour and a half window to get the hell OUTTA here, let’s all go to DINNER or something.’ And it's paying off, the guys come in the next morning, and they're REFRESHED. I have to rely on smart people; I'm not SMART, but I work hard, so I rely on smart people like Rahn and my dad for advice. My guys give it their all, and a lot more, and the fans are just the best, so all that motivates me. This is a great sport, filled with great people and I'm having a ball, ya know? It's all so bitchin’.


The shop is pretty hectic at this point, so we let TJ get back to work. On Labor Day weekend, I'll be the fly on the wall (or is that the pain-in-the-ass) around the Zizzo pit for this year’s US Nationals. And the heart is pretty much firmly on the sleeve, as I'm hoping for great things for my guys. ‘Til then, time to say...C-YAAAAAAAAAAAAA!! 



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