Little did Phil Shuler realize that an old friend’s chance meeting with Pro Mod legend Scotty Cannon at Darlington Dragway would set him on a meteoric rise to a pinnacle position in drag racing. As a member of the powerhouse Don Schumacher Racing team, he’s now serving as co-crew chief with Todd Okuhara to help Spencer Massey finish one position better than last season and win the 2012 NHRA Top Fuel world championship.
Shuler was working as an engine builder at Naylor Racing Engines in Sumter, South Carolina, when his friend, Bubba Livingston, was chatting with Cannon during a Wednesday night test-n-tune session late in 1997. Livingston learned that Cannon was looking for a good part-time crew member for the ’98 season and said he knew just the guy.
Shuler spent most weekends that year traveling with Cannon as he scored the last of six IHRA Pro Modified championships, with visits to drag strips with names like Summerduck and Shadyside and Ware Shoals in between IHRA events for match racing and one-off shows.
“The deal for me with Scotty was strictly if he did well, I did well; if he didn’t, I didn’t,” Shuler explains. “But I was also working with a guy that had a lot of tests and won a lot of races, so there was no time where it was a really bad weekend.”
Then came the day that changed Shuler’s life forever when Cannon met Oakley’s Jim Jannard during a rainout at the IHRA event late in ‘98 at Shreveport, Louisiana. Shuler remembers no one on the team, including Cannon, had any idea who Jannard was when he walked up with his wife and started looking around their pit and asking questions. All he knows is two days later Cannon was on a plane to California to meet with Jannard and four days later Cannon had complete backing to go nitro Funny Car racing the following year. It also allowed Shuler to finally make racing his full-time job as a cylinder-head specialist.
“I started out doing it as more of a hobby and just for the enjoyment and it turned out to be something I could actually make a living at,” Shuler says, still sounding somewhat surprised. “And I’m doing something that I enjoy, so it kind of makes it the best of both worlds.”
As Shuler learned more jobs and accepted more responsibility on Cannon’s car, by 2001 he was serving as assistant crew chief to Wes Cerny before embarking on a series of rapid-fire career moves that kept him learning from some of the finest minds in the business.
He began by leaving for John Force Racing mid-season in 2001, to work alongside crew chief Jimmy Prock as the clutch man on Gary Densham’s ride. But by the end of 2002 Cannon’s operation had become part of Schumacher’s racing stable and Shuler returned to resume guiding his old boss’ effort, a job that lasted only to mid-2003 before moving over to Don Prudhomme Racing as assistant crew chief to Okuhara on Ron Capps’ fuel flopper.
Though Okuhara left halfway through 2005 for Schumacher’s operation, Shuler remained with Prudhomme, working with the likes of crew chiefs Mike Green and Johnny West. He started 2006 as assistant to Green on Tommy Johnson Jr.’s Funny Car, but made the move over to Don Schumacher Racing by mid-year, where he was reunited with Okuhara on Whit Bazemore’s car.
The Okuhara-Shuler duo collaborated on both Jack Beckman’s and Gary Scelzi’s Funny Car campaigns in 2007, with Shuler concentrating his efforts on Beckman, who won twice that season. Shuler was rewarded in 2008 with the crew chief role on Jerry Toliver’s Funny Car, but in 2009 both he and Okuhara made the switch to the long cars as they co-crew chiefed on the Top Fuel dragster then driven by Cory McClenathan.
That combination remained intact throughout 2010, but prior to the start of the 2011 NHRA season Cory Mac was replaced by Massey, who qualified twice in the number-one spot and scored four wins in eight final-round appearances on his way to a second-place finish behind Del Worsham. Perhaps even more impressive from an overall team standpoint, Massey and his Okuhara-Shuler-led crew were the best in Top Fuel last year over the 22-race NHRA schedule in their averages for reaction time, elapsed time and speed.
It didn’t happen just because each person knows and does their job, though, Shuler insists; there has to be chemistry at work between driver and crew chief.
“The good thing with Spencer is he understands a race car because he’s been around them; he grew up around them, working on them. I guess what makes that a good thing is that if you’re struggling, a lot of times the driver looks at you like you’ve got horns growing out of your head. But if a driver understands the race car, then they’re way more like, ‘Let’s just figure out what we’ve got to do.’ Spencer is like that; he understands the whole operation of the race car and I think he has good input, how he felt, how the car or different parts of the race track felt, those kinds of things.”
Shuler goes on to say it’s important for a crew chief, especially in the nitro ranks, to have a driver he can trust to get the most out of the car simply by sticking to what needs to be done in the cockpit.
“If you’re fuel racing, other than pedaling car, keeping it in the groove and leaving the starting line on time, there’s not a whole lot the driver can do to help the car—but he can do a whole lot to hurt it,” Shuler states. “It’s probably more important that a driver doesn’t do anything wrong more than it is he does everything right, I guess. I don’t know exactly how to word that where it doesn’t sound wrong, but there’s a lot that can go wrong and what Spencer is really, really good at is in those areas.
“Probably the most important thing in both fuel categories is keeping the car in the groove and leaving the starting line on time, because if he keeps it in the groove then we have a better chance of our setup performing like it we know it should. And if he leaves the starting line on time we have a better chance of that whole package giving us the win light.”
Also crucial to success is having a good clutch specialist, because “definitely the biggest challenge in fuel racing is the clutch,” Shuler adds, naming his own, Michael Knudsen, as one of the best in the business.
“The most important guys on a fuel car team are the crew chief, the assistant crew chiefs, the driver, and then the clutch guy for sure,” Shuler says. “He is somewhat of an assistant crew chief, too, because you’re depending on him because he looks at the parts all the time. He’s the guy who can help you catch a problem before it even becomes one.”
More important than anything else, however, Shuler stresses, is attention to detail, not only for himself but for every member of a team that lays a hand or wrench on the car. Unfortunately, the need for that focus sometimes comes at a price when dealing with fans, he points out.
“Probably the hardest part for the public to understand is that even though these guys are out here racing, out here doing what they love, this is their livelihood. It would be like if you walked up to talk to a guy who was running a machine in a factory; he probably wouldn’t be very friendly to talk to—because he’s at work, doing his job,” Shuler says.
“Every crew guy out here typically has someone else’s life in their hands. So they have to be focused on what they’re doing. Does that make them seem somewhat stand-offish at times? Well, I guess it does, but at some point if you’re a drag racing fan, you have to understand that they all have to perform their jobs and make sure everything’s done correctly and make sure there’s nothing left undone or mistakes made or anything like that. It’s not just about winning; there is someone’s life involved here, too.”
For himself and other crew chiefs, Shuler says the attention to detail leans heavily toward analyzing data. Much like an NFL coach going over game-day footage, after each run down the track he seeks out each and every little blip or movement on the car’s on-board, computer-generated graphs to try and decipher how each related to the outcome.
“You pay attention to every little thing. The biggest thing is collecting data, just having a big enough database of what doesn’t work is as beneficial as knowing what does work,” he says. “It’s one of those things, when it’s all going good you don’t scrutinize the data quite as much. And then when it goes bad, you start scrutinizing it a lot because that’s all you’ve got to help you get out of whatever situation you’re in that you’re struggling with.”
Additionally, personnel management is a big part of most crew chief’s responsibilities, though Shuler admits it never has been one of his strong points. “I learned working with Austin Coil over at Force’s place; both of us have very little patience in dealing with people.
“But the landscape of what a crew chief does today has changed,” he continues. “It used to be that there was one guy in charge, no matter what you were talking about. But there’s so much involved in the operation of a team now, the caliber of these cars we are running, that it’s very hard to be a one-guy deal anymore. There’s just so much responsibility and so many tasks that need to be handled.
“Definitely I’m not a real good people person; the personnel department is definitely not my strong suit. So we let Todd handle the personnel part and I handle the parts and operations, making sure we have everything we need. I don’t want the whole deal to myself and I pretty much put it to Don (Schumacher) that way.”
It’s not all about data and decision making and NHRA and 300-mile-an-hour dragsters for Shuler, though. He likes to get away and relax sometimes, too—at a race track.
“It would suit me to go to a race every weekend. I live and breathe drag racing,” the 42-year-old confirmed bachelor says. “It’s funny; you always dream of finding something you love to do and learn how to make a living at it, and I’m the ultimate epitome of that.”
Practicing what he preaches, just one week before the February start of this year’s NHRA season, Shuler was overseas, helping out on a Pro Mod-style car in Bahrain. In fact, he regularly remains true to his doorslammer roots, as he owns a tube-chassis 1990 Mustang and often can be found helping out Drag Radial standout Steve Jackson on his off weekends from the Top Fuel wars.
“I met Stevie when he was a local racer in South Carolina. He was into the drag radial stuff and I wanted someone to drive my car. So I talked to him one time at the track, he started messing with my car, and that got me to looking at his car. This sounds weird, but his car is harder to get down the track than a fuel car is,” Shuler claims.
“The class of car he runs is like a fuel class; there’s way more horsepower than the tire can consistently stand, so it’s all about power management and application to get it down the race track. Every category of racing, drag racing, is about power application. You want to pretty much apply the most power you can without spinning the tires.”
Shuler calls competing at a race with Jackson “almost like a vacation” since he’s able to temporarily escape the Top Fuel pressure cooker and simply enjoy watching some cars go down the track.
“When you’re racing in Top Fuel or Funny Car, you get to watch Top Fuel or Funny Car run and that’s it,” he says. “And if Top Fuel is first and that’s what you’re doing, you just get to watch Top Fuel until you run and that’s it. So you don’t get to see a lot of drag racing, which for me is not ideal.”
And for any weekend warrior crew members who may be interested in following his path to the pro ranks, Shuler goes back to stressing attention to detail—and getting a truck-driving license.
“Seriously, driving trucks is probably the number-one asset you can bring to this sport, to get into the sport at least. It’ll get your foot in the door quicker than anything else because every team’s got two trucks, usually, so that’s at least four guys you need that know how to drive them,” Shuler says. It’s not a life for the timid or uncommitted, though, he cautions.
“Honestly, you have to have a passion for it. There’s nobody I can think of that would ever stay in drag racing that strictly does it for a job. You would never last; you would never make it through the headaches. You definitely have to have a passion for it because then it helps you deal with the low spots to get to the high spots.”
That’s exactly the motivation Shuler says he’ll be drawing upon this season after experiencing a decided low spot last year in Phoenix at the third-last event of the season, where Massey failed to qualify and quite likely cost the team their shot at the title.
“That was definitely a big disappointment, but we had a great year last year and we’re treating this year just like it’s an extension of where we left off. We’ve got to go out there and keep winning rounds; the rest will take care of itself,” Shuler says. “But everybody out here, they want to win all the time. I think back to one of Stevie’s mottos that’s kind of rude to other racers, but he says we’re here to crush people’s hopes and dreams. You want to win every round, every race. It’s what we’re here for. If you’re not, you’re here for the wrong reasons.
“But there’s almost not anybody in the fuel categories that wants to see anybody else fail,” he somewhat ironically adds. “Yes, they’re competitors when you get out there, but when you’re not out there there’s not anybody in fuel racing that wouldn’t lend you a hand or loan you a part. That part is kind of a brotherhood that’s pretty cool.”
And regardless of the team owner who’s signing the checks, or the size of the sponsor on the side of the car, Shuler holds practically every crew member in every NHRA pit in his highest esteem.
“A lot of people don’t seem to realize that whether you do good or bad, it’s the same amount of work. It takes just as much effort to run a four (-second pass) as a three, so you either get some satisfaction from it and forget about it, or you get some disappointment from it and feel even worse. But it’s all pretty much the same work.
“I just don’t think crew guys get near enough recognition. Usually it’s the driver or maybe the crew chief and they get put up on a pedestal, but to me none of that matters as much as the crew guys. What I mean is you could be the best crew chief in the world and have a great driver and a great car, but you’ll never have any success if you’ve got the wrong people working on it with you.”