Steven Densham understands how much his father loves driving the family’s fuel Funny Car. So much so, when the opportunity presented itself for the second-generation drag racer to fill the role usually reserved for Gary Densham, he hesitated to accept.
“I’m more nervous about the fact that I might do something wrong and hurt his race car than anything else,” Steven admitted.
Steven is a decorated AA/FC driver on the NHRA’s Heritage Series, having won a series championship in 2015, and last Fall earned his big show Funny Car credentials under the guidance of Gary. Driving an NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Funny Car is something the kid wanted to do.
“I’ve always wanted to see my dad do well, succeed, and everything because he’s been in the sport for so long, and he’s one of those independent racers that I just wish that he had his shot with his own team,” Steven explained. “He was with John Force Racing for all those years and did really, really well. And I know he could do just as well if we had the money and the backing.”
Gary admits he doesn’t give up his seat often, but when he does, there’s a good reason for it. He’s as protective of his position as a mother bear and her cubs.
“I did it for the very first time a couple of years ago with Paul Lee, and that was for financial reasons to help our overall program, which it did,” Gary explained. “And Paul did a great job. Trust me; I was nervous the first run. And this time is going to be for personal reasons. My son has obviously been around my whole racing career, and for years and years, when he started racing junior dragsters when he was eight years old, all I ever heard was, ‘When do I get to drive your car, Dad? When do I get to drive your car, Dad?”
“Finally, when he turned about 20, he finally realized these cars just cost too much money to go out and play with. So he kind of settled down and quit bugging me on that. We put together the Nostalgia Funny Car; we’ve had a great time with it. I’m glad we did that, but last year I was lucky enough to be able to have a couple extra pennies when we got done with Vegas and was able to let him get his [Big Show] license on the Monday after Vegas. Then we got some financial help from Button Transport, and Midwest Factory Finishes for this race and Vegas, and Steven gets to drive it, and I’m going to be nervous as hell, but it’s going to be fun.”
The Denshams will race at the NHRALas Vegas Nationals this weekend with support from Bob Button at Button Transport, Charlie Abdush at Midwest Factory Finishes, and Chris Johnson at Far West Freighters.
For Steven, the winning formula in life has been a like father, like son approach. Gary taught auto mechanics for over decades at Gahr High School (Cerritos California). Steven is a math teacher at Vista High School but soon could move into an engineering program.”
Gary wouldn’t go as far as to say this weekend’s plan is a passing of the torch.
“I don’t know,” Gary said. “I think to be honest with you, I love driving the car, I still do to a certain extent, but I don’t feel I do the job that I used to be able to do. Like, go back even to Seattle of this year. You know, the first run down the race track after six months off, the thing went 4.02, 315 miles an hour, and unlike when we used to race all the time when I was 20 years younger, we used to have a bet. When we raced full time, we had no radios in helmets, none of that sort of stuff. So the crew would come down and ask me what I thought I ran, and if I could get it within two-hundredths of a second, they owed me five dollars. If I couldn’t, I owed them five dollars.
“At the end of the year, I had a stack of five-dollar bills because I knew exactly what the car did. And I was very helpful to the crew chief and the crew by being able to say, ‘Hey, I think we put a little more clutch in it here. It was trying to rattle; I think it’s going to try and smoke the tires.”
“On that first run in Seattle, they said, ‘What do you think?’ I said, ‘It’s fast. It’s really, really, really fast.’ And that’s about the only thing I could tell. You know, hopefully, Steven can bring some of that back too if he gets a chance to run more than this particular race maybe with his age and his experience, and he’ll be more help to the crew than I am right now.”
Steven understands with more opportunities comes more experience, something he cherishes at this point in his career.
“I’ll gain more confidence when I get more runs,” Steven said. “Obviously, this will be the first qualifier, and it’ll be the third run in the car. So it’ll be a little stressful. We had the Reunion last weekend, so it won’t’ be like I haven’t driven a car since June.”
“Dad said, don’t worry about it, it’s kind of a learning curve, and so we’ll just see how it goes,” Steven said. “Hopefully, it’ll go fine. I mean, I did my licensing, and I ran 4.08, so hopefully, it’ll go out there and run another low four, maybe high three, and get us in.”
As Gary sees it, there’s a lot to be learned from outside of the car.
“I learned the experience isn’t as horrible as I thought it was going to be,” Gary said. “There’s something to be said to be on the starting line being responsible and help tune the car, work on the car, and be standing there with six of your other crew members when the car makes a good run, and you’ve got somebody to celebrate with.
“It’s wonderful when you make a great run, and you’re a driver, but it’s kind of like you get down at the end, and you’ve got to wait for them to all show up to be able to celebrate and say, ‘Hey, we did good.”
Earning a berth in the qualified field will be a testament to the teaching abilities of the elder Densham.
“He’s amazing,” Steven said. “My dad’s been racing for so many years, and stuff that I’ve seen him catch as far as when the car tries to get out of shape amazes me. And I still feel like I’m way behind, but he’s able to kind of help you out, and coach you. He’s coached Robert Hight and a lot of other people. So having him behind me definitely helps 100%.”
And for Steven, there’s nothing quite like making a 100 grade on a test, especially if it includes nitromethane.