Scelzi Racing Family
Interview + Photos: Saroyan Humphrey
Feature | It’s early afternoon on race day at Calistoga Speedway, and the Scelzi family are sitting together on their race car hauler discussing setup changes to the 410 winged-sprint-car that Giovani, 16, will drive tonight in the World of Outlaws event at the historic half-mile dirt track. These days, with a wide range of work and racing schedules, it’s rare for the Fresno clan to be under the same roof. Sons Dominic and Giovani have spent most of the summer racing sprint cars across the East Coast and Midwest. Wife and mom Julianne is busy running her business, Red Rose Transportation, while Gary and his two older brothers run Scelzi Enterprises, a truck body-building company based in Fresno.
Gary is a four-time NHRA Drag Racing champion with three driving titles in Top Fuel (1997, ‘98, 2000) and one in Funny Car (’05), making him one of only three drivers that has won in both top divisions. He retired from drag racing in 2008 to focus on his company and the mushrooming racing interests of their two sons. Racing micro sprints at the dirt ovals in Visalia and Lemoore, the young Scelzi boys crafted their racing interests and earned local and national success in the scaled-down open-wheel racers. Both moved on to full-size sprint cars when they were 14 and again found success in their rookie seasons and beyond.
For the Scelzis, racing is a family business. Yes, racing is in their blood but surprisingly, Dominic and Giovanni did not follow in their dad’s footsteps to drag racing.
“We get asked that all the time,” says Dominic. “What’s cool to me about it is, he never pushed us to race. He always pushed us to do other sports and everything else. But my love and my desire for it, and Gio’s as well, was always to race, and we both found a deep love for sprint car racing. It’s neat that we’ve got a dad that was one of the best drag racers of all time and you’ve got the two of us who are racing something completely different and having success in it.”
At 15, Dominic won his first sprint car main event in 2012 at Watsonville, California, and his climb has been steady since. Competing mostly in his home state, he’s won at most of California’s clay ovals that feature the high-powered machines. He was on the verge of winning the state 410 King of the West Series championship in 2015 when he was involved in a serious crash at Tulare, breaking his back. Carson Macedo, his closest challenger, would claim the title. Fully recovered in 2016, Dominic began to look east to expand his racing scope at national events, including the World of Outlaws.
Giovanni has been racing sprint cars since 2016. In that short time, he’s had quick success and caught the attention of the sprint car world, driving top-notch equipment, including his family’s machines. During the ultra-competitive and prestigious Knoxville Nationals in Iowa earlier this year, Gio became the youngest driver in its 58-year history to qualify for the 25-car A-main, eclipsing the mark held by Jeff Gordon, who qualified for the finale in 1989 at age 18. Racing throughout the U.S. in 2018, Giovanni has expanded his open-wheel horizon early and found success competing with the World of Outlaws, American Sprint Car Series and All Star Circuit.
Dominic, coming off a career-high, third-place Outlaws finish at Black Hills Speedway in South Dakota on Aug. 24, injured his leg a week later racing at Skagit Speedway in Washington. Recuperating, the 21-year-old driver is taking a short hiatus from driving to recover. Today, joining him in the office are Gary and Giovanni, with Julianne taking care of business at her laptop computer, to talk about one of their best racing seasons to date.
So, how are you feeling, Dom?
Dominic: I’m feeling good. I’ve got a little bit of a limp going on but I’m getting better every day. I’m hoping for October and I will be able to get back in and get racing again. That’s the plan anyway. There’s a 410 show in Bakersfield and the Cotton Classic (in Hanford) the weekend after. So hopefully I can run those two before we get to the Trophy Cup (in Tulare). Because anytime you’re sitting, you’re getting slower.
What happened at Skagit?
Dominic: I went into turn one and we were having a terrible night. We blew up in qualifying. I transferred out of the B-main and completed the first lap and went into turn one on lap two and a car kinda backed up the race track and I was wide open on the top. I had nowhere to go and there was no room above him. So, I just turned it left as hard as I could and stayed on the gas to try and power away from him. I got right into the side, bent the frame, bent the seat, I got into him pretty good. I fractured the top of my femur and I got some pulled muscles. It’s just going to take some time to heal; there’s nothing they can do about it. Just need to take it easy.
You’ve been hurt before, I know; at Tulare you hurt your back in 2015.
Dominic: Yep, I got burned at Tulare one year, and then I hurt my back at Tulare another year. That’s all part of it. You go through the pit area and everybody has had some sort of injury. I was lucky, I guess, that it isn’t any worse than it is.
You were on the verge of a King of the West Series championship when you were injured at Tulare. Is that a goal to ever reclaim that dominance?
Dominic: You know, I think I almost want to make sure that I don’t win one because that, above everything else, lit a fire under my ass to win races and be successful. We were leading the points and then watching Carson Macedo win the championship that I felt I was going to win. It made me sit back and say, “OK, if I want to do this, I am going to have to give this 100%.” I think from that point on, I raced a lot smarter. Because before (the accident) I’d say, “If the car is tight, I’m just going to keep going and hopefully it will get better.” I started to realize in my head, if I’m tight, or I’m free, I can make changes as a driver to make the car better. I think that’s what’s really helped me out in the last couple of years. To just drive in the moment and be, like, OK. If I was a smarter racer then, I would have never been in that predicament.
I think my mom always gets mad at me, because she thinks I’m very negative. But I’m very much a realist when it comes to racing. I realized if you’re happy with running fifth, or running second, then you’re never going to get to first.
Donny Schatz is never happy when he runs second. Donny has helped me out a lot, especially with racing in the Midwest. He’s not really the type of person to help anybody but he’s really helped me a lot, and every time he would lap me the first two years, I was able to follow him and learn something. But the biggest thing that I ever learned from him was: hate losing more than you like winning. Those are words to live by.
What’s it like to have a four-time NHRA champion for a dad and car owner?
Dominic: He’s groomed us from a young age on how to be successful in anything we do. I think that shows. When we were younger and racing (micro sprints) with kids our age, we were always looked at like we were cheating. We were just so much better prepared than anyone else. These kids, they were playing baseball, football, or playing video games and we were working on our race cars. We were talking with guys who are racing with the Outlaws every week and asking, “How do we get faster? What do we need to do?” We were watching racing videos every Sunday morning, picking apart every mistake that we made and thinking, “How do we become a better race car driver?” I feel like we’ve been bred to be racers. From the get-go, we’ve just been taught how to race and what to do and I think the success that we’ve had is because of that.
Do you remember going to the drag races with your dad?
Dominic: Oh, yes, vividly. My best friends are still drag racers. Those are some of the best memories of my life. We went to the majority of the races. It was really cool, because his first professional year was the year that I was born (1997). That’s all I knew was racing on the road. So now, doing it myself, it’s just doing what you do.
How competitive are you guys with each other?
Giovanni: (laughing) Yeah, we race to the bathroom.
Dominic: Yeah, growing up, we raced everything. We had scooters, tricycles, you name it, we had it, and we raced ’em to the bitter end — to the death. (laughing)
Gary: …to the death. (laughing)
Dominic: We made all of our money from the used rods, or whatever, out of the motors (from drag racing). They could only go one run, so, the two of us we’d get ’em signed by drivers and sell ’em. We were peddling parts to make money to buy our things. We’d sell ’em around our neighborhood, in the pits — wherever — at school, everywhere. We had a group of probably 10 kids and there were five or six racers that lived by us growing up. We’d all try to sell the most.
How much would you get for a signed rod from your dad?
Dominic: Oh, 50 bucks.
Gary: They were into big money. We’d sign pistons … and actually, one time at the U.S. Nationals, they were camped out by Kenny Bernstein’s souvenir trailer and a guy came by and saw them with parts laying on the ground and he says, “Wow, I’d like to have a blower belt …” and he said, “Get it signed by your dad, John Force, and whoever… .” And they’d go get it done and the guy gave them a hundred bucks. I came into the motorhome one night and these kids looked like drug dealers. They had a kitchen table full of 10s, 5s, 20s and I don’t know what they had, it was a bunch of money.
Dominic: At the U.S. Nationals one year, we had sold $5,000 worth of stuff and the ladies told the NHRA, “If they’re going to be selling, they need to pay a booth fee” because we were selling an astronomical amount of stuff.
Did they shut you down?
Dominic: Nope, they never did.
Gary: Well, they said, “You gotta do something about your kids.”
Dominic: So, Larry Dixon let us sell out of his trailer… (laughing)
So, what’s it like to race with each other on the track?
Giovanni: Um, in a way, you have to treat it like they’re anybody else. But when you’re going four-wide (pace lap) and you’re lined up next to your brother, it’s kinda cool because you see people in the stands and you see the guys around you, but it seems like the more you try to not be aggressive with him, and say, “I don’t want to wreck you, or whatever,” the more something happens. You know you’re going to leave the door open for somebody else to pass you. In racing, everything’s so unpredictable, especially in dirt racing. It depends on the racing surface and how the cars react. It’s just, you gotta race him like everybody else.
Gary: I watched them in Knoxville and I don’t know how they didn’t wreck each other coming out of four. One wasn’t giving and they banged wheels, and one was doing a slide job. Neither was giving.
Dominic: I wasn’t very happy at that point, but I try to always give him a little bit of extra room and like he said, it kinda hurts you sometimes because if I race him like I would anyone else, I’d make sure he lifted. Then you try to give him more room, well then, he’s not lifting, so, we’re bangin’ wheels and stuff. You try to give the guy more room and he’s like, “Well, I’m going to pass you.”
At Stockton earlier this year, we ran the SCCT (Sprint Car Challenge Tour) race and I was running second to him the whole race and I’d get a run and then I’d say, “I don’t think I can clear him …” Then finally, it’s either we’re going to win this race, or, “I’m going to run second and be upset.” It took me the whole race to realize, “Hey, look, I gotta race him like everybody else.” I can’t race him being cautious. Because the last person I want to wreck is him and the first person I want to beat is him. (laughs). You gotta weigh your options.
And you won that one …
Do you guys think about, debate, who’s better?
Dominic: Oh, I don’t even argue that. I see a talent in him that you don’t see. I put him in the category of Kyle Larson. From brains to everything. I don’t feel that’s downgrading me, I feel that my ability is special and I get can get the job done on any night, anywhere. But when you see a special talent like that, you have to admire it. You have to acknowledge it as well. I’m the biggest advocate for my brother and I completely believe that the sky’s the limit, if it’s Indy Car, NASCAR, whatever it is, he’s going to get there. He’s either going to win, or be right on your heels.
(To Julianne) What’s it like for you to watch your two kids out there?
Dominic: Miserable. (laughing)
Julianne: It’s torture. (laughing)
You’ve had a long career as a racing mom and wife.
Julianne: It’s been a long time.
Gary: She’s filmed almost every lap they’ve ever made.
Julianne: Yeah, I’ve actually never watched them other than through a camera. It gives me something to think about and do. Because god forbid, if they hit anything, or roll over, and I didn’t get it on film, I’m going to hear about it.
I’ve been doing it since way back when. Like I say, every time they’ve been in a car, I’m watching through an inch and a half (screen).
Dominic: I tried to get her to stay in the pits at Knoxville this year and she hung around for engine start and stuff and she left. She said, I can’t do this.
Where do you like to watch from?
Julianne: I’m in the stands — always in the stands — as high as I can go so that I can stand up and not be in front of somebody. When the two of them are racing against each other, thank goodness we’ve got Nicky (Dom’s girlfriend) now because she has her own camera, and we switch off. Sometimes on yellows, we’ll switch cameras, so we get to watch each one of them.
As a family team, it seems like there hasn’t been a lot pressure to go out and succeed right away.
Dominic: Well, actually, on the contrary, there’s been many times where him being the car owner, his knowledge is so high, but there are things that he just doesn’t understand because he’s never sat in the seat (of a sprint car). So, we’ve gone through different cars (chassis design) to where I’m telling him for two years, “We need to switch cars because these cars don’t work.” And, he’s like, “Nope; that’s what these guys run and it works.” But for me, it doesn’t work! It’s a difference in drivers. We’ve had to build this (team) for me and we’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way. I’ve made a lot of mistakes as a young kid, not really knowing what to do, trying to push things and make things happen that shouldn’t have happened. But I think now, that’s all part of the learning process and that’s why I feel it’s a 10-year tenure to be as good as you’re going to be.
I feel like we took the back roads to get there, but I think we’re there now.
(To Gio) Were you as avid about racing as your brother?
Giovanni: I tried baseball and football when I was seven or eight, but it always came back to racing.
Did you learn from your brother’s experience along the way?
Giovanni: Oh yeah, absolutely. Now, I’m just old enough to run with the Outlaws and you see the hauler, the spare parts and all the guys working on the car. Everything’s already in place for me to just step right in and go fast. So, I’ve been very lucky to get in very good race cars, like the Roth car next door, Bernie Stuebgen and all the cars that I’ve gotten in have been very fast. People want me to drive and they already have their teams in place. So, getting into a fast car, where you can grow and the car is already where it needs to be, makes the learning curve a lot quicker. It makes it a lot easier when everything’s already in place.
You blasted out of California quickly and started racing in the Midwest earlier in your career than most young drivers.
Giovanni: Yeah, California has very unique race tracks, small, more rough, wet and they’re really only in California. So, once you get out of California, you race on half miles that are slick and more technical — with better competition, too. So, if you want to be something, you gotta get out of California.
You’ve been getting a lot of notice from racers.
Giovanni: Yeah, we’ve had a lot of good runs. We haven’t really contended for many wins but have made podiums, top fives, top tens, very consistent. We’ve qualified good on new race tracks. So, that’s the biggest thing, just getting comfortable with places you’ve never seen and very unique race tracks, very unlike California.
Dominic: It’s almost like learning how to race again.
Giovanni: Yeah, for the most part. Everywhere is just so much different, so much faster and with different competition. They race in a different way. So I think going back there has brought my game up, 100 times better than what it was when I left. Everywhere here is so small.
Dominic: I think what’s really helped him is that he didn’t race a whole lot out there (in California). He doesn’t have the habits that California drivers have. I think that’s big.
I know you must have thought about your future. What have you been thinking?
Giovanni: Yeah, I’ve gotten a couple of offers of different things in sprint car racing. Hopefully this year, or next year, I’ll get on some kind of pavement racing to hopefully go to NASCAR, if that works out, or if sprint car racing works out, whatever. Whatever I get a better opportunity in, I think I will follow. I’m really young, too, so, it’s not like crunch time to make a decision. I’m just trying to stay relaxed and make a decision that will make me the happiest and do something that I really want to do and not do it for anybody else, or any other reason. I love sprint car racing and you love whatever you do good at, so…
Dominic: And hopefully, if he makes it to NASCAR, he’ll just own my team and I’ll drive for him.
(To Gary) How did you get interested in racing initially?
Gary: When I was a kid I had a dirt bike and we lived on a street that was a dead end. There was a field where all the kids raced scrambles and I had a junky little Yamaha 100 and I would go out there and kick everybody’s ass. A guy followed me home one night and told my dad he owned a Yamaha shop and he would give me a bike to ride, take me to and from the races, buy my helmet, my leathers, everything, I think I was about 12 years old, and pay for everything because we didn’t have any money. And, my dad said, “No.”
I thought this was my ticket to be able to race and he said, “Who’s going to pay for the broken bones?” So I didn’t get to do it. That really, to this day, stung. I wanted to race. So my older brother Mike had a sand dragster and my dad kinda got interested in that and we used to work on it at my mom’s house and when I was 16, I got to drive it on my birthday. In my first race, I was runner-up and that’s when I became a driver and that’s kinda how ended up doing the drag race thing.
I wasn’t exposed to circle track racing, even though I watched it and liked it. I was a drag racer. My dad wasn’t interested in racing. My brother had a super modified. He didn’t drive, he sponsored it; he was a part of it. We’d always been around building stuff. We built stuff in the garage. We took a boat trailer and built a dragster trailer out of it. I was just kinda like a little flunky helper. My brother and my dad did all the stuff, because I was young. But that’s kinda how I went down that road.
How did open-wheel racing come into the picture?
Gary: Well, Danny Lasoski and I are best friends and have been for a long time. Along with that, when he drove at Tony Stewart we became close and I’ve always been a sprint car fan. When they (Outlaws) raced at Hanford, I’d always drive from Fresno to Hanford, even before I was a professional drag racer, to watch the Outlaws, and Brent Kaeding was the king of Kings Speedway. I didn’t know him personally, but I was a fan because he used to kick everybody’s butt.
So, when Dominic was born I bought him a little Honda 50 and thought my mother-in-law was going to kill me. He was five years old and we would go to my shop and there’s a little dirt field and we’d go there to play and practice. Actually, he learned how to ride it, even before he knew how to ride a bicycle. He was doing really well and then he decided he was going to do a superman off of a berm one day and I thought I’d killed him. So, I was looking for where I was going to bury him — and say he got kidnapped. (laughs) I knew between my wife and mother-in-law, they were going to kill me.
So, anyway, I ended up buying a go-kart because in Kerman, California, there used to have a really neat little kart track. On Wednesdays, I was always home and he’d get out of school at noon. So, I’d pick him up and go play with the go-kart during the day and go to gramma’s for dinner that night and on Thursday morning, I’d fly to wherever it was that I was going. So, he was racing go-karts and he won a championship and the next year he went to a faster go-kart and they would run about 80 mph. In the first race, he and another kid go into turn one wide open and there’s only enough room for one and they hit the hay bales. They just exploded the hay bales and he was fine, but mom said, “Roll cage and seat belt, or no racing!”
So, another friend of mine had a grandson who raced junior sprints, and I took Dom out to the track at Plaza Park in Visalia, put him in one and he took to it like a duck to water. We went from that to restricted micros, to micros, and Gio kinda followed the same footsteps.
Tell me about your business, Scelzi Enterprises.
Gary: We’re building about 450 trucks a month. We’re the largest in California. My older brother Mike and I started it in 1979, right as I got out of high school. He’s 14 years older than me. It’s gone from he and I building stuff on the floor of a 4,500-square-foot shop to now over 25 acres and over 200 50,000-square-foot buildings with 400 employees. We have a place in Fresno, Riverside and LaSalle, Colorado.
So, that’s something that the boys also have to fall back on. Dominic being hurt, he can’t work at the race shop, so, I’m actually going to stick him in with the purchasing department. We go through about 50,000 pounds of steel a day. He’s going to find out what we buy, the sizes we buy, what it does… . He’s worked in different places at the shop but I think Dom kinda likes being at home, instead of 100 races a year all over the road. Gio, he’s young, he’s still not sure what he wants to do but I think he’s pretty sure he doesn’t want to build truck bodies (laughs).
My wife works harder now than she’s ever worked. She’s up at 4 in the morning and runs her trucking brokerage company (Red Rose Transportation). I get up at 6 and try to meet her for breakfast and at least have 30 minutes of actually having a conversation and then go do our jobs and come home (like a) zombie.
How much are you involved with your race team these days?
Gary: I’m stepping back. Each day, I’m less and less hands on with the race cars and that’s hard for me because I’m a very hands-on guy. It’s a different generation now. It’s been a tough adjustment but it’s getting easier. Like when Gio races, or races for somebody else, I’m not a soccer mom. I kinda just stand back. One thing I’ve noticed with both of ’em, on race day, they don’t want to be messed with. It reminds me of my wife when on Sunday mornings she’d get me breakfast and say, “Get out. I don’t want to see you until the end of the day.”
They both are very serious, very focused, very intense.
Dominic: One more than the other. (laughs)
Gary: I don’t know; you’re both pretty intense.
What are your plans, Dom, for the near future?
Dominic: We’ve been racing a lot with the Outlaws and I really enjoy it. I love racing in the Midwest but I realize that every day that I stay away from the family business it’s taking away from my family goals because I realize I’m not going to do this forever. I want to race to the best of my ability and I love racing more than anything in the world and I want to complete what I want to complete but I don’t want to do it forever. I think a lot of people fall out of love with it when they just do it and do it and do it. It becomes very taxing. It’s a lot of work. It’s hard being away. And I love it with all of my heart but I don’t want to get to the point where I don’t love it.
There’s been a lot of times over the last few years that I’ve just thought, the last thing I want to do is race. There’s been a lot of lows from struggling, or whatever it is, and I really want to start learning the family business.
In my opinion, the three hardest workers that I know are my uncle, my dad and my mom. That’s something I really admire and I love the legacy that they’ve built. I want to be able to one day, when I’m 50 or 60 years old, say, I made something that was great, even better. But it’s hard to give something 100 percent when you still have your mind somewhere else because my number one thing that I want to do is win a World of Outlaw race.
Gary: I just support ’em in whatever they do.