For over a decade, Funny Car Dave Richards has been chasing a family dream, and thanks to a new sponsor, the Florida-based racer has new energy and his best shot in years of racing at the highest level.
[Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in DI #184, the State of Drag Issue, in September/October of 2023.]
Richards broke onto the NHRA Funny Car scene at the inaugural New England Nationals in Epping, New Hampshire, and his first opponent was all-world Funny Car champion John Force. When Richards thinks back at that first race, a smile creeps across his face.
“I could easily have gotten overwhelmed by everything that weekend, but I just wanted to take it all in,” says Richards, who earned his nitro Funny Car license in January of 2013. “I kept reminding myself to enjoy this. Every run that weekend got a little bit easier, from staging to driving, and even just being in the car. I felt more and more comfortable, and that gave me a little more confidence. Having my first race against John Force was just a dream. I am so glad my mom and dad were there too. My dad passed away in 2020, and without their love and support, there is no way we could carry on this family tradition.”
Since that magical Sunday morning, Richards has raced a handful of races just about every season with mixed results. The team normally competes in four to six races, but in 2016 the team attended 10 NHRA national events. Heading into this season, Richards had re-evaluated his program and was looking to make a more organized and concerted effort to compete with the help and support of his brother, veteran racer, and team owner Paul Richards.
“It’s a struggle to race at this level and to keep the finances right,” says Dave Richards. “It makes you second-guess why we keep doing it, but we keep doing it because we love this stuff. Our program over the years has been up and down, but it’s getting back better again. We’ve learned a lot of how to try and run the team, and me and my brother, we’re doing better at it and figuring out the smart way to do things. We got hooked up with Randy [Gloede] and VersaTran, and things are looking positive to do more and more in the future. We want to come out here and not just be here to be here. We want to come out here and race and win.”
The relationship with VersaTran, a sister division to Scag Power Equipment, came about through one of Richards’ long-time sponsors and a surprising opportunity to be an honorary crew person for eight-time NHRA Top Fuel world champion Tony Schumacher.
“One of our longtime sponsors, Southern Lawn Equipment, is the biggest Scag mower dealer in South Florida,” Richards says. “He called us for Gainesville this year and he is feeling guilty because he was invited to be Schumacher’s honorary crew member in Gainesville. I told him you gotta go and enjoy the VIP experience. While he is there, he is talking with Randy Gloede, who’s the CEO, and my friend said that he helps another Funny Car team. Randy being the guy that he is, said, ‘I want to meet him.’ They came down, we met, we talked. We had all our local buddies on the car, and I had probably 25 bumper sponsor decals on the car. We call it the ‘people’s car,’ and all our buddies wanting us to go, they chip in.”
Ironically, one of Richards’ main competitors in the pool business has bought the spot right beside Richards’ own pool company on the VersaTran Funny Car. Gloede took in all the information about Richards, was thoroughly impressed, and the two businessmen agreed to talk further. Gloede assured Richards he would find a way to help, he just wanted to make sure it was the right fit for one of his companies.
“After the race, we got a call and Randy was like, ‘We’re going to do this. We’re going to put VersaTran on the car,’” Richards says. “And so that’s kind of how it started. Now that the car is getting a little better, our plan is to keep doing a few more races at a time, slow and steady, and keep building it. And that’s kind of where it’s gone.”
Richards took a hard look at how he had been operating over the years. He came to the realization that a lot of success for his team came from the shop before he even pulled the trailer onto the highway. He understood that having consistent crew people was another huge plus for his team.
“When we took a step back, it’s about being more prepared,” says Richards. “When you race part-time like we do, it’s hard to come to a race and be fully prepared. We come out and work 12-14-hour days and it is incredibly hard on everyone. One of the biggest things we’ve tried to work on is more preparation before we come to the track. We want to make sure we don’t forget anything. That’s probably one of the biggest things we’ve been trying to do.”
The influx of support and confidence has been apparent as this season has unfolded. Richards has competed most recently at Topeka and Brainerd, with plans to race at the Countdown races in Charlotte, Maple Grove, and Dallas, possibly.
“All the other drivers have said in the past, ‘Well, you have to have 100 runs or more before you even feel comfortable,’ and I’m close to that 100 number now,” says Richards. “When you don’t do it consistently – you don’t drive for six or eight months – you get back in the car and then you’re here trying to qualify and the stress factor and everything. I raced Bristol and we tested a couple of weeks before that, and then we raced Norwalk, Topeka, and Brainerd.
“Now our goal is just to get down the racetrack,” Richards continues. “Because if you get down the racetrack more than half the time, you got a good shot to win, right? I’m not gonna say we’re going to come out here and outrun these guys. We want to come down and just make good, clean runs. That’s where we’re going now. That’s encouraging. And the motor is in good shape and we are not tearing up parts.”
The back half of the season has Richards as excited as he was pulling up beside John Force on that Sunday morning in Epping 10 years ago. With the excitement comes new expectations and a new level of stress, but Richards isn’t letting that take away from the fun of chasing his dream. The support of VersaTran and the rest of the sponsors who have been with him for years keeps him focused.
“I’m probably more stressed out now with VersaTran and the expectations that are there to do well. It’s a good problem to have, and I love being here at the racetrack,” says Richards. “At the end of the day, we aren’t itching to leave the track and go to the hotel or go out to a restaurant. I love being with the guys at the track, and that’s one of my favorite things is being able to hang out with you guys, especially after a good day.“
For Richards, the Paul Richards Racing team, and VersaTran, there are lots of good days soon.