Old-timer Densham offering a lesson in resiliency

On Oct. 20, Gary Densham will be celebrating his 62nd birthday. And if he has any say in the matter, he'll be spending it preparing for his next 330 mph ride in his 8,000-horsepower Funny Car at the AC Delco Nationals in Las Vegas Oct. 30 through Nov. 2.

How many men his age can say that?

For Densham, the road upon which he has pursued his drag racing career has offered an infinite number of abrupt changes in direction. A high school shop teacher in his hometown of Bellflower, Calif., by trade, Densham embarked into the then-primitive roots of NHRA Funny Car racing in the 1970s. His first professional start was at the now-defunct Ontario Motor Speedway in Ontario, Calif., in 1979, but the gregarious, avuncular teacher-turned-racer supported his drag racing appetite primarily through match racing wherever promoters were willing to pay barnstorming teams a decent buck to travel to their tracks and put on an entertaining show.

"The sport has changed so much since I began," said Densham, who is hoping to compete at all 24 NHRA national events this year in his Racebricks Chevy Impala SS. "Back then, if you were ambitious and had the chance to travel on weekends, you could make enough money to race and put a few bucks in your pocket. Today, unless you have several million dollars in the bank, you can't stay out there very long."

Densham has always been a master of accomplishing a lot with a little. In his match racing days, he befriended another Southern Californian who he encountered while both were match racing in Australia. The younger driver had little money, roughshod equipment, and a tag-along crew consisting mostly of family members and devoted friends. Densham generously extended his knowledge and know-how to his new acquaintance with advice and counsel on how to run a profitable privateer drag racing team.

That young newcomer was John Force.

A lot of what ol' Densham taught me back then is just as valuable today. There are times when I think the only way I know what I'm doin' now is because of what he told me 30 years ago.

-- John Force

"Densham taught me plenty in those days," recalled the 14-time POWERade champion. "I was a kid with big dreams but didn't know the first thing about raising money, creating a budget, promoting my team. A lot of what ol' Densham taught me back then is just as valuable today. There are times when I think the only way I know what I'm doin' now is because of what he told me 30 years ago."

His relationship with Force opened the door for Densham to enjoy the most victorious period of his career when he joined John Force Racing in 2001, leading to Densham's first career national event win in Memphis, Tenn. Seven more event titles came Densham's way, including his remarkable "double-up" wins at the 2004 MAC Tools U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis and $100,000 U.S. Smokeless Showdown during qualifying.

Densham left Force's operation in 2005 and has used his vast experience and widespread popularity to assemble his latest privateer team -- quite similar to how he raced during his formative years. With help from Racebricks, he continues to seek out additional sponsorship that will allow him to attend the entire 2008 NHRA POWERade slate, and with the AC Delco Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla., coming up next week, the resilient, optimistic veteran, is planning on a good showing, something he feels will throttle up sponsorship interest.

"I've been out here a long time and I understand the system," Densham said. "My team works as hard as anyone else's out here and we understand that winning rounds and showing people what you're capable of leads to more opportunities. We plan on being out here all year, and if we can find the resources to do it, we think we have a lot to offer."

And how many 61-year-old men can say that?

Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com.