Sunday, June 6, 2004

Honolulu's Okuhara brothers help keep Ron Capps' Skoal Funny Car, at left, running in the National Hot Rod Association.

Need for speed
drives Okuharas

The Honolulu family has sent
two brothers to the National
Hot Rod Association

Everyone in racing has a secret, something under the hood that they believe is better than anyone else's.

Family Tree logo

For Ron Capps' Skoal Funny Car in the National Hot Rod Association, one of the secret ingredients is in a growing machine shop in Honolulu.

Capps' funny car drives on diversity, with a pair of island boys helping to build the racer from the ground up using a little bit of knowledge earned in the major leagues of their sport and a lot of memories of how things used to be in the bushes.

Thomas Okuhara gave up racing long ago. A mortgage and mouths to feed will do that. But his knowledge of what can make a car go safely down a track faster than everyone else is felt at the highest level.

Okuhara put two of his sons into the NHRA and gave them the base knowledge that allowed them to become the best in the world at what they do. Some say that Thomas is keeping the most talented member of the family for himself, as his oldest son, Darren, sparked the interest in cars and remains in the islands to run the family business. But for those who did venture out into the competitive world of the NHRA, there is only one place to go for answers.

"I still call him to get some tips from time to time," Snake Racing assistant crew chief Todd Okuhara of Honolulu said. "Even with the computers, there is always something he used to do that I can apply to the car here."

And a lot of what he applies to his 8,000-horsepower flopper -- one cylinder produces more power than the entire engine in a NASCAR stock machine -- was learned when the family was trying to build the fastest lawn mower in town.

32-year-old Scott Okuhara is tasked with overseeing the top of the engine and the blowers.

No, the Okuharas didn't actually race lawn mowers, it just seems like it in hindsight. While everyone else was trying to push their machines to the title of "fastest car on the island," the Okuharas were trying to be the first to coax a small-block engine down the track in seven seconds.

"Anyone could make the big block, but to run a small block in seven seconds is something nobody can do," Thomas Okuhara said. "Eventually I was thinking of changing, but the boys liked to run the small block."

After years of tweaking and learning, the family accomplished its goal and a friend of a friend heard about it, and the next thing the Okuharas knew Todd was on the crew of Hawaii legend Roland Leong's entrant in the NHRA.

Todd Okuhara, 36, wasn't sure he even wanted to go to the big time until hitting the shop and feeling like he belonged. Like so many of Hawaii's best and brightest, Todd Okuhara had to wonder what a simple mechanic from the middle of the ocean could bring to an organization trying to loosen John Force's grip on the NHRA.

"When I first got here, I had the assumption that everybody knew what I did and I had to get ahead somehow," Todd Okuhara said. "After a while I started realizing I know some things they don't know."

Todd Okuhara is now recognized as one of the finest crew chiefs on the circuit -- one of the kinds of talents an owner has to constantly guard against another team stealing away -- and his younger brother Scott is one of his best-kept secrets.

Scott Okuhara, 32, is in charge of the top of the engine and the blowers and is a pretty talented driver as well. But unlike Todd, Scott Okuhara is single and can take everyone else's dream job or leave it. He is only in it to win it.

"I like doing what I'm doing," Scott Okuhara said. "But if something goes wrong I could go back home and work in the shop. But for right now my main goal is to win a championship. After that, I don't know if I'll keep doing this."

One thing is sure, though -- whatever any Okuhara ends up doing it will be around machines. The only formal education either of the three boys have gotten is a few semesters of college by Todd before being called back into the shop.

But they received more education sweeping floors at Okuhara University than they could have writing a few papers on Henry Ford.

"Looking back on it I wish I would have paid more attention in school, it would have helped me in some areas," Todd Okuhara said. "But there is no school for what we do."

There are no more students at the school anyway. All of the boys are grown up and with two of them in the majors there is no more reason to tear up the track at Hawaii Raceway Park.

Hanging around the shop and watching their boys struggle to get out of the first round each week on television has replaced the roar of engines as the family pastime. Which is probably better for the mother of the clan, Helene Okuhara.

Helene Okuhara can talk racing with the best of them and was instrumental to the team's success on the track way back when. And now that the family has hit the big time, all it would take is a driving job for Scott Okuhara for Helene to actually watch her men do their thing on the track.

"I don't think I've ever seen Scotty drive at all," Helene said. "If it was how they are running the NHRA I would have gone, but over here you end up in the bushes if you don't stop. I wish Scotty could get a job driving up there."

Scott Okuhara says he has never had enough interest in driving, that listening to the tales Ron Capps tells for 15-20 minutes after a 5-second run is close enough for him. But one thing is for sure, if he ever could get a ride he would still be calling back home to ask the old driver for tips.

"I don't know about Todd," Scott Okuhara said. "But I don't think I could be in this position without what my dad taught me.

"He gave us a better bond as brothers, we can talk about cars and life. We can talk about stuff, it's not like 'I can beat you up, get away from me.' "


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