On the side of Tim Slavens’ trailer, there’s a small sign that everyone on the crew passes frequently. The sign is actually a game called the “Blame Game,” and the rules are actually quite simply. You screw up, you get a checkmark.
There’s a spot for Slavens, as well as Mark “Tydo” Werdehausen, who has raced with his longtime friend for more than 25 years. Tuner Joe Oplawski isn’t safe from the “Blame Game,” either, and they’ve also got a spot reserved for Mark Menscer, who has played a pivotal part in Slavens’ recent success.
[Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in DI #154, the Outlaw Issue, in March of 2020.]
Lastly, there’s a spot for a crew member and if it’s a brand-new addition to the team, well, they already have an uphill climb. “If it’s a new guy, he starts with a check,” Werdehausen says with a laugh.
It’s also a list that helps keep the mood light. Most importantly, the light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek game serves as a reminder of how the team operates.
Slavens is the driver of the famed steel-bodied Radial vs. the World Camaro owned by Matt and Anita Zimmerman, and Mark Michael, while Oplawski and Werdehausen share tuning duties on one of the last remaining stock-body cars racing in the ultra-quick radial class.
But in the time they’ve all worked together, nothing has ever been in disarray. Sure, the team has struggled from time to time – including a stretch this season that included a rough outing at Lights Out 11 – but egos have never gotten in the way.
The “Blame Game” has worked because, simply put, there’s never been any blame to go around.
“Everybody in our camp puts their ego aside,” Slavens says. “It’s OK to make mistakes. Mark and Joe play off each other very, very well and the reality of it is, I typically just let go of the button and break the thing. If we tear something up, one, ‘Why did we tear it up?’ We need to know why so we don’t make that mistake again. But two, if we tear it up, we have the ability to learn and move forward and advance the program from it.”
Adds Oplawski: “I think it’s ultimately a lack of ego on everyone’s part. We just want to make everybody happy and that’s what has helped with these guys. It’s the common goal of going fast and doing well, and it’s a team effort. It’s absolutely a family type of feel. It’s been pretty bitchin’ and there’s no two ways about it.”
Before Slavens-Mania took over the radial world a year ago – a stretch that briefly included the Wal-Mart manager holding the RvW world record with a monumental blast of 3.621 seconds at 217.74 mph – the Marshfield, Missouri, native was content destroying opponents at his home track, Ozark Raceway Park.
He had success with an Outlaw 10.5 nitrous car, but sold all his stuff when turbocharged cars started to take over the class.
That’s when he met with Michael and the Zimmermans, who offered Slavens the opportunity to race the Camaro. At that time, he raced Pro Street around his hometown and then Outlaw 10.5 with a twin-turbo combination, and Slavens had made a name for himself locally.
He won back-to-back championships, a variety of other local events and Slavens still holds the track records at Ozark in Pro Street (182.11 mph, set in 2014) and Outlaw 10.5 (4.228 at 189.55, set in 2015). It was a pretty good life, but Slavens – and the team owners – were ready to step up the program and go RvW racing.
“It was kind of a collective agreement that to be able to compete at a level that we wanted to compete at, we were going to have to step up the program obviously,” Slavens says. “We had some decent success but that was back when, this sounds funny, when a solid 10.5 car was running 4.50s.”
The 4.20s soon became the 4.10s with the twin-turbo combination and then the conversation soon moved to, “Think we can make a 3-second run?” It seemed unfathomable just a season or two before, but the pieces started to come together.
Slavens was initially skeptical about putting on radials because, quite frankly, it didn’t work at first. “We had tried it with my car, my old Outlaw 10.5 car, with zero success,” Slavens admits. “We just didn’t have a support mechanism to be able to go from a slick to a radial and be smart enough to run it.”
The support mechanism turned into better resources thanks to the car owners, and more resources soon turned into a guy like Oplawski coming on board. The team also started working with Menscer and his Menscer Motorsports shocks and struts, a move Slavens called pivotal for the team’s success.
It was the latest in a series of turning points, one that led to the team’s first 3-second run. By 2017, he was into the 3.80s, enjoying some mild success in the RvW ranks.
“For us, it was just huge to get into the 3s and start trying to chip away at it,” says Oplawski, who started working with the team at the start of the 2017 season. “That was pretty remarkable at the time.”
It’s only gotten more incredible since then, with the final straw being the Neal Chance Racing Converter they put into the car before the 2019 season. From there, it was like the car was running with a rocket launcher.
After going to the semifinals at Lights Out 9 – along with some wins at smaller races – Slavens was after a big 2019, but not one where he was expecting to become a folk hero of sorts for the class. In just a few runs, he was set to become the lifeline of the soul of Radial vs. the World racing.
“It’s the ‘No Mod.’ It’s very cool, very humbling,” Oplawski says.
Says Slavens: “It’s really unbelievable.”
The test run in Bradenton sent the first shockwave through the radial racing community. Making a test hit before the U.S. Street Nationals in January of 2019, Slavens obliterated his career-best, launching all the way into the 3.60s with a massive 3.643 at 214.79. Just like that – about as quickly as Slavens went from start to finish in emphatic fashion – cult hero status had arrived.
Fans now show up with pictures of their ’69 Camaro sitting in the garage or a different car from that era, explaining what that means to see Slavens rocketing down the eighth-mile in a steel-bodied Camaro.
That he’s one of the last remaining in that style adds to the lore, creating a mystique that is slowing fading with the immersion of Pro Mod-style cars in RvW. It’s a natural progression in a class and a sport hell-bent on technology and always going quicker, but Slavens – at least as recently as a year ago – was surviving with old school.
He’s not doing it to make a point, but Slavens will admit it is inspiring to see how much the fans have rallied around his team.
“It’s pretty humbling to be honest with you, and it’s probably not unlike many of us,” Slavens says. “We go to the racetrack and we see a Fox-body Mustang, or a fourth-gen Camaro, or our ‘69 Camaro going down the racetrack. All of us, almost, have owned some of those in our lifetime. So it’s easier for people to relate to those kinds of cars and be able to support that than it is the Pro Mod cars. So the people, the support is phenomenal. It’s unbelievable all the people that like the factory-style car. They can relate to it and I get where they’re coming from. ‘I grew up that way,’ that kind of thing.”
“There’s just what, three or four of us left with a stock-style car,” Slavens continues. “So I know (Mark Woodruff) and I have had that conversation about we’re carrying the torch. So we’re still going out there every time with the intent to let them know we’re still around.”
Which leads into one of the greatest runs of all time in RvW racing and it just so happens it came on the biggest stage, Lights Out 10.
With conditions nearly perfect, Slavens uncorked a run that will be played and replayed for years, going 3.621 at 217.74 in front of a huge Thursday night crowd in Valdosta. It eclipsed Mark Micke’s previous record, and though the record didn’t last the weekend – with drivers dipping into the 3.50s by the end of it – it was unquestionably the run that had everyone talking.
Mention Lights Out 10 and Slavens’ run is usually the first thing – and second, at worst – that is mentioned. “I’ll be perfectly honest. I never dreamed or had an idea that I could possibly compete at this level,” Slavens says.
It’s that humble approach that has made this all so enjoyable. For Werdehausen, it’s a throwback to when he and Slavens first started racing together. When the adulation comes and the fans are showering them with praise, it instantly sends Werdehausen back to the first days of racing with Slavens’ nitrous Camaro in Outlaw 10.5.
“Whenthey come to our pits or come over and talk to us, they like the fact that it’s a real car, they can relate to it. We’ve been those same people. We’d go to a track and, this is way back, they were real cars and this and that,” Werdehausen says.
“Just being able to connect with those kinds of people kind of brings us back down from the clouds to a more humbled level of this is where we came from, those kinds of people in the cars and this and that,” Werdehausen adds. “It’s just crazy to think about what we used to race and what we have the ability to race with now.”
What Slavens and his team race with now is comprised of everything they can think of to keep up with the high-tech, lightweight Pro Mods in the class. If the Pro Mod cars are Ivan Drago, taking full advantage of the body styles and technological advances, Slavens is Rocky, training in the snow and hopeful that old school equals an underdog victory.
But it’s not solely the little-guy status. The car owners provide him the necessary resources to get the most out of the Camaro, and the trio of main players work extremely well together.
Adding the Chance Racing Converter has paid major dividends, while the Emtron EFI system has been just as beneficial.
“Menscer gave us not just a good shock package, but Menscer is extremely sharp on a chassis setup itself,” Slavens says. “And it’s one of those deals I feel like these cars, especially the stock-wheelbase-type cars, they’re pretty fickle and pretty finicky. He came in and gave us some minor suggestions for chassis and then obviously shock settings, and made a whole different animal out of it.
“But the torque converter itself, also, it gave us a bigger tuning window to where we didn’t have to be just spot on every time we let go of the button. It had enough forgiveness to it that it will go down even a marginal setup kind of thing, versus where we just had to hit it right on the head before. We still firmly believe that the torque converter was the missing link, so to speak. Once it was in there, the numbers started coming together kind of thing.
“And then when Joe came on board, we converted over to the Emtron and from that point forward, we’ve been able and been fortunate enough to be able to keep him on board.”
There’s always the thought that too many intelligent minds working together can cause chaos. If one mind is the driver, three brains may be one too much for success and, depending on who you ask, it could be two too many. But three has always been the perfect number for this group.
Following the record-setting performance in Valdosta, Slavens went to the semifinals at Lights Out for the second straight year in 2019, following that up with a runner-up showing to Stevie “Fast” Jackson at No Mercy later in the season.
It firmly established Slavens as a major, consistent player in undoubtedly one of the most competitive classes in the entire sport. It was also clear what was making it work.
“Mark and Joe, it’s fun to watch them on the laptop, in the trailer, bouncing ideas off each other,” Slavens says. “You got two sets of eyes looking at the data. They play off each other very, very well, and it’s been a huge strength to the program to have both of them on board.”
Slavens says it with the idea that he’s very much interested in getting the full viewpoint from each of them. The more ideas, the more information, the better off everyone will be.
But it’s all meaningless if Oplawski and Werdehausen don’t mesh. Werdehausen has worked on Slavens’ cars for decades, establishing a trust and a friendship that has been there for ages. Oplawski jumping into that mix with both feet just a few years ago could have easily disrupted that flow.
Instead, it was like he was meant to be there. He’s been the final link to help get Slavens from 4.00s and high 3.90s to a record-breaking showstopper in a steel-bodied car. Combined, it’s been a pleasure, no matter the hardships they’ve suffered – and that’s very much been the case in 2020.
“Nobody’s pointing any fingers like, ‘Why can’t you figure this out?’ It’s, ‘Let’s get this figured out.’ We always try to keep that whole team thing going on,” Werdehausen says. “We win as a team, we struggle as a team, and we lose as a team. I’ve made mistakes before, Joe’s made mistakes before, Tim’s made mistakes before, but we don’t hang on to those, we just kind of learn from those mistakes. We leave our egos at the door and, when we do screw up, it’s like, ‘OK, we don’t want to do this again.’ We don’t hate anybody for a week or not talk to anybody for a week.
“Plus, me and Joe tend to think a lot alike, and then that helps a lot. I’ll go back, look at the data and go, ‘I think we need to do this,’ or, ‘I think we need to do that.’ And then he’ll come and look at it and go, ‘Well, I think we need to do this and we need to do that,’ and nine times out of 10, we’re thinking the exact same. It makes it easy when we’re not bumping heads.”
It’s also much easier to maintain good vibes within a team when things are going well, much like they had been for the last couple season. The team made constant improvements, became a bonafide contender in RvW and broke records. Things were good and Slavens was closing in on his first victory at a marquee RvW event.
But drag racing isn’t a continual ascent sport. They’ve taken 10 steps forward, which means Slavens and his team may have to take a few back to move forward again. And right now, there’s no denying they’re in a valley.
Slavens traces the struggles back to crashing into the wall in Orlando late last year. Since then, the team has been confounded, running into one problem after another. It culminated at Lights Out 11 – the site of so much glory just a year ago. This time, it was just massive disappointment, as Slavens couldn’t make one full run, qualifying 32nd before easily being dispatched by Jackson, who cruised to the victory.
They were far too deep into it to make radical changes on-site, but Werdehausen and Oplawski are confident they’ve got a remedy.
“It’s been very trying,” Oplawski says. “Ultimately, you have to know it’s not any one person’s doing. You can’t point the finger. Obviously something has happened, but it worked before and it will work again. It’s just a piece of the puzzle we’re missing. We’re fortunate to have owners that understand that as well. They know there’s highs and lows and they know we’ll get through it – hopefully sooner than later.”
Adds Werdehausen: “We’re at the point now where we both agree that we need to slow down to be able to go faster. But nobody’s pointing fingers. We know we have the car, and we know we have the people to do it.”
Ultimately, it comes down to Slavens. If he isn’t buying in, none of it works. That, however, has never been in question.
“Our relationship has been strong for way beyond this car and then I’m constantly learning,” Slavens says. “I still make plenty of mistakes, but it’s kind of one of those things, if Joe and Mark see something in the data that I have done that’s not optimizing the program, we talk about it. I can take criticism. It’s not going to be the first time I was told I was doing something wrong. Everybody’s got that open mind and if one of us is missing the mark, then tell us we’re missing the mark. Quite honestly, I wouldn’t know why or how we would want to change that part of the program in any shape, manner, or form.”
The only problem – and everyone involved knows it – is that things don’t slow down in RvW. Jackson seemingly made 100 runs in the 3.50s in Valdosta and he’s talking as though things are going to be even quicker at Sweet 16 3.0. That could mean even lower 3.50s or even 3.40s, and that’s somewhere Slavens knows he can’t get to.
Oplawski joked if they reach the 3.50s, it “might be a 3.59 with a 9” and even then it would have to be the perfect conditions. That’s just the nature of running a stock-body car in a class where that’s nowhere near the norm anymore.
It also begs the question: Can old-school still be successful in the undoubtedly new-school RvW?
“It’s a continual thing we have to look at,” Slavens says. “As far as going deep in the rounds, it will be a struggle to hang with them from that perspective. But we don’t want to lose focus on what we’re doing now. We still have goals that we want to achieve.”
That might include a run in the 3.50s, but it’s not the priority. The main objective is winning a Lights Out, a No Mercy, a Sweet 16 or a Shakedown race – a major event stocked with the best in Radial vs. the World.
Werdehausen admitted it will take consistency and luck, but that’s not much different than the recipe for success for any driver at any level of racing. Minus the moonshot at Lights Out last year, Slavens has built his program on consistency and making it down the track. The recent problems have plagued that approach, but everyone involved is confident – or at least optimistic – they can return to that level.
The trio will test before Sweet 16, having taken a step back and narrowed down what they believe is the problem.
“I’m going to be optimistic and tell you that I think that the wizards, as I call them, will figure it out again and that we’ll at least be competitive comes Sweet 16,” says Slavens, referring to Oplawski and Werdehausen. “So I think we feel fairly good about our findings and we’re anxious to go test and see if we can actually put it on rubber again.”
Is there a chance to put together another magical weekend and grab a victory? They all remain unrelenting, even as their car becomes a rarity in the class. Of course, this team wouldn’t have it any other way. “I think there’s still a place for the car and we’re up for the challenge, regardless,” Oplawski says.
There may be a time and place – and it may be in the not-too-distant future – where Slavens will have to weigh the options with Michael and the Zimmerman family. Maybe it makes more sense to jump to Pro 275, run in the 3.70s and 3.80s and try to win something major in a class that is gaining steam at an impressive rate.
But Slavens is not at that point yet and he’s thankful for the constant dedicated support from the team owners. He’ll look at that option when and if the time comes, but Slavens is steadfast in the belief it doesn’t have to be right now.
All three are driven by the hope of winning with the steel-bodied Camaro in RvW, knowing the celebration that would follow. With that in mind, the journey still remains very much worth it.
“I’ve imagined a lot of stuff and I don’t know that I can put into words what it would mean. I mean, it would be huge,” Werdehausen says. “We’ve had some success, we went to Milan last summer to a race and we won that deal, but it wasn’t like what winning one of the big races would be. To win against 50 or 60 other cars, that would be really meaningful.”
Photographs by John Fore III, James Sisk and Chris Sears