Terry Capp’s moment of zen-like tranquility only comes when the engine of an 11,000 horsepower top-fuel dragster roars to life.
The fastest man in Canada lives in St. Albert. He’s won multiple top fuel and funny car championships, and in 2004 set the Canadian quarter-mile speed record of 319.78 mph in 4.72 seconds driving the Royal Canadian, Ron Hodgson’s top fuel dragster.
But the secret to his phenomenal success can be found at the centre of the race-day storm.
In the pit area, the noise of the activity all around, the sound from the loudspeakers of the announcers talking to the crowds — all of it disappears.
And forget the chit-chat.
“I have to be focused,” he said.
“I’m not very hospitable or cooperative — I’m focused,” he said.
But once he’s belted in and the engine starts, he gets into the zone.
“All I hear is the motor, and I’ve got control of it,” he said. “You actually feel relaxed. It’s quiet, you’re in charge, it’s just you and that motor.”
First there’s the burn-out. You screech 200 feet down the track, and there’s a crew member in front of you, and one behind as you back up in your own hot tracks. The heat of your tires makes both track and tires sticky before take-off — and sticky is good.
You can't drive that!
Some of the best memories of Capp’s youth swirl around cars — in particular, a 1932 Ford truck.
His parents owned a general store and truck transport business in the country, at the south end of Lake Wabamun.
He knew the farm agent for United Grain Growers elevators and hitched rides with him to Stony Plain, where the young Capp would go to a boxing gym. He sparred with his dad a lot at home, so he had the gloves.
They’d go to Stony Plain in the friend’s original 1932 Ford Deuce truck, but on the way back to Lake Wabamun, Capp, then 12 and 13, was often the designated driver. He’d deliver his friend home, then walk two miles to his own home.
“When you were a kid in the country, you’d drive as soon as you could reach the pedals,” he remembered. “When I was 14, my dad needed me to drive.”
Father and son arranged to meet at the Stony Plain RCMP, where his dad padded his son’s age, vouching that young Capp was 16 so he could get a licence.
However, when they went to take the driving portion of the test, the policeman — a family friend — got a shock as he prepared to administer the test.
Then 14, Capp had driven to the detachment in a five-ton tandem axle GMC with an oil tanker on the back. The officer was aghast.
“You can’t drive that! You have to be 18 to drive that.”
At that point, Capp's father calmly avowed that his son was, in fact, 18.
Capp got his licence.
In high school, Capp decided he wanted a 1932 Ford truck to remind him of the good old days. He found a rusty old junker in a barn north of 97th Street, back in the days when that was the sticks. It wasn’t running — and it was his for $50.
He started to restore it, but lacked the funding to make it street legal. Eventually, with the help of a Chevrolet Corvette motor, he turned it into a hot rod. (He has since rebuilt it, and the poker-inspired vanity plate reads DEUCE WLD.)
Capp and his buddies, including Hodgson, had a regular racing hub with the Capital City Hot Rod Association at the Supply Depot at Canadian Forces base Namao. A little snow fencing for safety and they were off to the races — literally.
Their Anglia B/Gasser, was a hit, and it took the Western Canadian Championship Series in 1967. The old Anglia B/Gasser is currently in the Reynolds-Alberta museum in Wetaskiwin.
Capp and buddy Bernie Fedderly helped put Canada on the map for National Hot Rod Association in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.
Capp and Fedderly connected with top fuels champ Wes Van Dusen as sponsor and part owner for the Wheeler Dealer Car. Capp bought a 426 Hemi and put in a front-motored dragster. At the Saskatchewan International Raceway, car and driver made a 6.42 second run, reaching 225 mph to set a Canadian record.
The US Top Fuels Nationals in Indianapolis in 1980 were something of a watershed moment for Capp. Pitting his skills against such titans as Shirley Muldowney and Dick Lahaie in the last 32-car field ever, he beat Jeb Allen in 5.82 seconds at 241.93 mph, the quickest side-by-side race ever.
But his buddy and collaborator Fedderly got an opportunity to be crew chief in California. Fedderly would go on to become top crew chief for John Force.
Fresh from the win on American soil, it was time to reflect. At that point, after a meteoric career in professional drag racing, Capp sat down with his wife Rachelle at the kitchen table and asked the big question: What happens to drag racers when they get old?
“The answer is ‘nothing,’” he said.
Diversifying for the future
In diversifying, Capp was hired to do a project with the accounting firm KPMG insolvency department, dealing with an automotive bankruptcy.
The fellow who hired him got a partnership opportunity at Coopers & Lybrand, and asked Capp to come work for him. One of their first projects together was for Capp to manage a dealership in receivership. It wasn’t so much formal training — a few courses in business and law helped — as innate skill and deep subject knowledge that made it a natural fit for him.
“Now you’d have to have more degrees than a thermometer to do what I was doing,” Capp said.
He and his partner sold their operation to drag racing legend Larry Minor in California.
They bought a fancy fast boat with the money, and tinkered around with that.
But like Michael Corleone in The Godfather, just when he thought he was out, they pulled him back in.
In 1985, Hodgson came by with an envelope.
“I think we should go to the winter Nationals in February,” he told Capp. There were airline tickets in the envelope.
By May they had another race car. They were back in the game, and won the NHRA World Finals in Spokane.
After Capp reached official retirement age with the now-Price Waterhouse Coopers, he got the obligatory Rolex and a cheque. Then, the next week, they called him back to work as a contractor, which he does to this day.
He still has his competition licence, thanks to staying physically and mentally fit with the help of his home gym.
A lot of drag racers end up with perforated or detached retinas from the negative G-force that comes from going from 200 mph to zero in rapid succession.
“You don’t have a lot of room to stop, you need two parachutes, and when they come out, your eyeballs want to keep going,” Capp explained.
In his 70s, his vision is unclouded and there’s no sign of the career deal-breaker retinal detachment. He still has no need even for glasses.
“I don’t open my eyes until the parachutes are out,” he joked.
As might be imagined, Capp has seen his share of near-catastrophes.
There was the time he raced a new car on a new track (new to him.)
He’d been told there was a sand trap at the end of the track, and a mesh after that.
“I’m going to put this baby in the mesh,” he realized.
But as he approached the end of the track, he realized the mesh was made not of fabric or plastic, but of cold, hard steel.
“I thought, ‘If I’m going to hit this thing, I’m going to roll into it,” he recalled.
As it turned out, a hard left got him around the corner and away from the mesh, with the car taking damage to the body and frame instead of completely wiping out. The car was fixed in time for the next week’s race.
He singed his eyebrows in one close call.
His worst accident may have been in a funny car that caught fire. The Fiberglas exterior (the difference between a top fuel drag racer and a funny car) was lost in the flames — as were the parachutes.
At times like that, a driver is grateful for the fireproof socks, gloves — even underwear — layered under a 42-pound fire suit.
What it takes to win
The first defence against all of these is reflexes. Capp acknowledges that his are “killer.”
“When you’re going 200-300 mph, it doesn’t take much to deviate off. Your reactions are really important,” he said.
Having a grasp on mechanics is an asset. Capp has enough of a grasp that he can build a car from the ground up.
But a crew’s preparation is key, he said. When he’s hurtling down the track, he doesn’t want to have to second-guess whether or not he tightened the flywheel, he said.
Team is the first consideration, Capp said.
“You have to have a crew that prepares your car properly,” he said. “Driving is the easy part. The crew has to make sure you’re safe.”
As hobbies go, drag racing isn’t for the faint of wallet. It costs about $3,000 to make one run, Capp said, citing everything from 12 gallons of micro-methane for a quarter mile run to wear and tear on things like tires, clutches, rods, pistons and valves.
Just a gallon of paint for painting one of his personal cars costs $3,000.
“Driving is the easiest part,” he said.
A career that spans five decades rolls on, in one form or another.
There’s always something going on with Capp and cars.
When he retired from driving his own car, he drove Ron Hodgson dealership-sponsored cars.
In August, the Hot August drag races at RAD Torque Raceway by the Edmonton International Airport — called on account of rain. But then last weekend, the Rock’n August car show and festival was hopping in St. Albert.
He often fills in as a driver in Canada for U.S. racing teams when an American driver has to drop out or can’t make it across the border.
He’s got a full-time job, and does hot rods on the side. He and a small staff buy vehicles and recondition them for resale.
He’s been on the cover of the NHRA’s National Dragster magazine four times.
He’s done it before, but does Capp have any intention of retiring again any time soon?
“I can’t, I won’t. I’m having too much fun,” he said.