The Nitro Joint w / "Chicago Jon" Hoffman

InnerView: T.J. Zizzo, Part 1

To say that life has been hectic of late for TJ Zizzo and the family’s Top Fuel team would be an understatement. They don't run often, but when they do, people take notice. Going rounds or being the provisional Number One qualifier will do that for a team. We waited for the dust to settle from Joliet before we sat down with TJ for some Q&A at the family’s body shop in Lincolnshire, Illinois.


DRO: TJ, I thought the feelings you expressed in your interview after your round one win at Joliet were amazing. Was that difficult?' [Leah Pritchett exploded a tire, costing her the win.]


TJ: What I was trying to say...back when I boarded my kids onto their school bus on a Wednesday and I was off to a race...what I was thinking is that there is a chance that I may not see them again. Tony Schumacher put it best once, that there is a helicopter on the grounds to take us away in a heartbeat if need be. Anytime you’re doing something and there's a HELICOPTER there, you know what you're doing is pretty damn serious. And we all know that what we are doing is potentially dangerous....and that's what I took away from that. When I got out of the car, and I saw FOX TV, and the Safety Safari LEAVING me, that's when I realized something had happened to Leah, and I was, “What the Hell just happened?” She's an amazing professional and handled it perfectly, but there are racers I've faced over the years who I'm not sure would have done as well as she did.


DRO: We floated the theory this week of national events scaling qualifying back to one day. What are your thoughts on that?


TJ: It'd save me MONEY...uhm, what I would like, my opinion, opinions are like a (butt), everyone's got one, right? What I'd like is one run Friday night, one Saturday afternoon, and let’s race Saturday NIGHT! Eliminations under the LIGHTS! But I see (Jeff Burk’s) point, there are events with short fields; why make these cars run so much? And sometimes, guys sit out a session, I think it was Clay (Millican) in Richmond, he was number one, and third overall in the points, he sat out. There's reasons for everyone. Look at Salinas, he's trying a championship run, and still has to pass on certain events, so yeah, money can be thin sometimes. I think the push-back is that the tracks, and NHRA, want at least three days of racing.


DRO: Do you think fans in the modern era are different than say, a guy like me who'd spend six days at Indy in the '70s?


TJ: Ah, today’s fan I feel, doesn't want to spend three days at a drag race. That's what I see, drag racing is trying hard to reach out to the younger fan, there's still a lot of grey hair out there though, but the younger set, they don't want eight- or ten-hour days. They want it like a ballgame, four-some hours of fun, then let’s go have a nice dinner or something.

DRO: How have your interactions been with NHRA, given that TJ Zizzo Racing doesn't belong to PRO? (Professional Racers Owners Organization)


TJ: Glen (Cromwell, NHRA President) pulled me aside on Thursday, at Joliet, because I was complaining, because we had to spend out of pocket almost five thousand dollars on tickets, friends, family, sponsors...and our access was limited. So, I had some...pent-up aggravation, ya know. And Glen asked me, What can NHRA do better? And I was SHOCKED! First of all...there have been other people at the helm, that didn't want my opinion, but not Glen, he WANTED my opinion. So, when I explained we had 80 people from a construction company, over 50 from RUST-OLEUM, other marketing partners as well, all totaled over 250 tickets we had to buy, so it cost us a LOT of money to go to Chicago! And so Glen said I understand, next time, just come to us, we will help make things happen, and for the rest of the weekend, things got better.


RUST-OLEUM wanted to do some specific things and all that got to happen. [At this point TJ fields a phone call from his daughter: “Uh, yeah, if the storm picks up steam, secure the patio furniture, fer SURE.”] So, that was my bitch, we're trying to get this sport exposure, bring new money in, and I have to spend five thousand dollars on tickets, so Glen was very open and helpful. What this all boils down to is they are trying; I definitely believe NHRA is trying to work with the racers on things, to create a better product, and I think that's great.


DRO: Per chance, when you were talking with Mr. Cromwell, did you get the chance to talk about the TV package?


TJ: As a matter of fact, we did. His goal is to be like NASCAR and sell the package. We're PAYING for it now, right? The circle track guys, they carve it up and sell it to what, three different networks? Yeah, he definitely has goals on the subject, and it can only help the racers out.


DRO: Your thoughts on track prep?


TJ: There's some crew chiefs that don't like the track prep. Personally I think it's too good; they need to knock it down MORE. People didn't come to see those tractors, ya know? And there are crew chiefs that are up in arms. As long as there are TWO lanes, then just let us have at it. I think the racing now is closer than it’s ever been, I think the competition is pretty STOUT. I get it, we don't have [flails arms about] SIXTY-FOUR CARS, we don't have thirty-two cars, yet at Joliet we had sixteen cars that TRULY had a chance to win and another five that are on the verge of awesomeness. So, I was pretty impressed with that.


[At this point TJ has to break away, as he wears many hats at the family business. He has to attend to the water vendor, and does so in a manner that would have made Don Rickles proud, busting not only his chops, but his hocks, loins and spare ribs in the process. By the time TJ is annotating the check he's cutting with the FATE of the water that has been delivered, the guy is almost wiping his eyes from laughing.]


DRO: We have a lot of stars in this great sport of ours, but anyone in particular come to mind that you deal with at the track, good or bad?


TJ: Jack Beckman told me the other day -- and now Jack, he's a guy you listen to, he's a well-spoken individual -- he told me, “TJ, any time you speak, you have something to SAY.” And I was all, “I don't get it Jack, what do you mean?” He continued with some guys are opening their mouths, but not a lot is coming out, but not with you. Jack is, you know, JACK, so to hear stuff like that, coming from him, it means a lot to me.


Next month, we'll pick this up where we left off. Come back in July for the second half of our visit with TJ Zizzo Racing. Till then, time for me to say....C-YAAAAAAA!!!!!  



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