If you’re reading this, and you’re over the age of 35, you most likely got introduced to me and my racing through a regular column called On the Road. Beginning in the pages of American Drag News, then ultimately on DragRaceResults.com, On The Road was a staple contribution of mine for nearly 20 years: from the time I was a young upstart, through a pair of NHRA World Championships, and as those of you who read along know, all kinds of shenanigans and excitement in between! About a year and a half ago, I stopped writing On the Road for a variety of reasons. Social media has kind of replaced the demand for that type of information. Between my young family and a budding business, I don’t really race much anymore (On the Road is more like At the Ballfield or Behind the Computer Screen). And to be completely honest, life sort of got in the way: like you I’m sure, I’m a busy guy!
Recently, I’ve gotten several requests to bring back On the Road, and to be honest, I’ve shared some things about my personal life on the Sportsman Drag Racing Podcast that more racers empathized with than I realized. As it turns out, I’m not the only father and husband who struggles with a constant thread of guilt: when I’m working, a part of me feels bad that I’m not spending time with my family. When I am with my family, a part of me feels like I should be working to perfect my craft and get ahead. It’s a constant struggle that I’m sure many of you can relate to. Long story short, we’re bringing it back. The theme is a little different because, quite frankly, my life is in a much different place than it was 10, or even 5 years ago. Better – no question – but different. I’ll do my best to bring you up to date on our 2019 racing season as succinctly as possible…
New for 2019:
While we started the season with familiar race cars (my ThisIsBracketRacing ELITE dragster and my wife Jessica’s American Race Cars dragster), we did have a pretty eventful offseason. For one, we purchased a new (to us) Motorhome, a significant upgrade from the dually I pulled with a year ago. We also sold our smaller trailer (thankfully, I kept the stacker – which mainly sat in the driveway last season). We got the stacker painted over the winter (it turned out great)!
We also added an awesome new golf cart to the team this season, thanks to Ivey Hutto Golf Cart Sales.
But the biggest news for 2019 is that we expanded the team. Like I said earlier, business and family obligations take up the bulk of my time. Racing isn’t the priority that it used to be. At the same time, my wife and I still love the competition. We think the race track is an awesome place to raise our boys (it’s how we were brought up… And we didn’t turn out too bad). Plus I feel like racing has significant relevance to my business: ThisIsBracketRacing and ThisIsBracketRacing ELITE. And we still have a number of marketing partners willing to support whatever it is we want to do on the race track.
Long story short, we came to the conclusion that if we were going to continue to compete at a high level, we needed some help. Enter Chris Estep. Chris was a crew member on Clay Millican’s Top Fuel team for the last couple of years. He and his fiancé Diane just had a baby, so he was ready to slow down and stay closer to home. It’s really been a perfect fit for both of us: Chris handles basically all of the mechanical work, maintenance, and prep for our racing operation, while I run ThisIsBracketRacing, and Jessica and I raise our family.
Chris came on during the holidays, and he’s been an awesome addition to our team. Honestly at this point, I don’t know how we ever raced without him.
Head West Young Man:
My maiden voyage for the season (and first trip in the new motorhome) was a nice short trip around the block… 1500 miles to Las Vegas! This year, I decided to break the trip up (and test a little bit) by attending the Pro 1 Free 1 at Thunder Valley Raceway Park in Noble, OK. The year got off to a fantastic start: I was runner-up to Logan Diggs in the $2500-to-win main event on day one in Jessica’s car.
On day two, the weather was miserable: highs in the low 50’s with a persistent wind to make it even chillier. But Nick Duty and the TVRP staff not only raced through it, they kept the track in incredible shape. I parked Jessica’s car and focused on mine (again the idea was to test and make sure I was ready for Vegas). I advanced to the quarterfinal round of the $5,000-to-win main event, only to goof up the finish line .001 and lose a close race. Sunday, I did my best to avenge myself, advancing the $5,000 final, only to fall short yet again to my longtime buddy (and former boss) Nathan Martin.
Noble put me a little over a third of the way to Vegas, which made the rest of the trip a walk in the park. I arrived in Nevada, and camped out at the Lamb household for a couple days (thanks Jeanine) before making my way to the NHRA Las Vegas Nationals. There, I got the unique opportunity to hop in Justin Lamb’s COPO Camaro Stocker. Worth noting: the car won the NHRA world championship last season with Justin behind the wheel… And the last time out, Peter Biondo drove it to a $10,000 victory. No pressure!
Unfortunately, my weekend ended abruptly with a -.002 red light in round one of Stock. I was however, able to continue my runner-up streak in Super Comp, where I advanced to the final round before falling to Marko Perivolaris.
At this point, I was actually a little bit dismayed: I know that three finals in the first two weeks of racing is an AWESOME way to start the season, but I was thinking I should probably just win one already. Well, the final leg of the trip quickly made me realize how much I should have appreciated those opening two weeks!
After a round 3 red light in the divisional event in Vegas, I set my sights on the Spring Fling Million. You may have heard of it: just a little race that paid some $350,000 to win! Coming in, I was pretty fired up. Back in 2017, the last time I made the full 3 week swing, I was runner-up in the national event and lost third round of the divisional… Then went on to win the biggest race of my career in the Spring Fling Million. If you’ve been paying attention you can see the parallels: I was convinced history was about to repeat itself!
That notion was short-lived. I started my Million week off by getting food poisoning, puking my guts out in the motorhome, and barely having the energy to sit down in the car the day prior to the main event. Thankfully by Friday I was feeling more like myself. I made a deal with my father-in-law, whose “Statuatory Grape” Nova had been along with me for the entire trip, to drive it in the Million in addition to my dragster. OK, truth: I was trying like hell to get my father-in-law to enter the Million himself. We ended up agreeing to split the entry fee, but only if we flipped a coin to see who would drive. I won (or lost, depending on how you look at it) the coin flip. As a result, my first lap in the Grape was the new entry time trial for the Million. Again, no pressure!
Jeff Verdi showed me what .006 total looked like in round 2, and ended the dream of Jack and I splitting that $350K. Later that same round, my weekend came to a crashing halt when the motor in my dragster broke a rod bolt mid-track, creating one of the more memorable explosions in recent bracket racing history (think smoke… Then think MORE smoke… Then think LOTS of holes in the oil pan). To steal a quote from the legendary Anthony Bertozzi, I can sum it up in 4 words: “That b*%&tch blew up.”
Jessica officially ended our hopes for Spring Fling Million glory when she bowed out in round 3 of the main event. As if the trip didn’t end poorly enough, a speeding ticket in Arizona was the icing on the cake. I guess the good news is that the 400HP engine in our motorhome has plenty of steam.
Back In Business:
The engine setback didn’t have us down long. The guys at Huntsville Engine were actually already in the process of building a sister motor to my BRODIX SR20 headed 632 that we were going to drop between the frame rails of Jessica’s dragster. When disaster struck, she got the short end of the stick horsepower-wise (I know, bless her heart: she had to go 4.70’s for another couple of months), and that motor got dropped into my machine.
Our next outing was the national event in Topeka. While I was the only one racing, we made a family event out of it: joining me, along with Jessica and our two boys, was my nephew Kyler. The only other time Kyler went on the road with us, I doubled up at the national event in Chicago a few years back, so I was hoping he’d be my good luck charm. But I dispelled that notion quickly when I got on the wrong side of a double breakout affair with Austin McClure in round 1.
After a couple weekends off, we ventured to US 131 Motorsports Park in Martin, MI for the inaugural SFG525. There, we were among 700+ entrants that had visions of bringing home the massive winner’s purse! The race was an absolute marathon, made even more difficult by the fact that I essentially worked on everything we brought to the race track. Jessica’s car got a new torque converter between rounds. I had the oil pan off of mine at one point. The generator quit. It was just one of those weekends. To top it off, I drove awful. It was the biggest paying event I’ve ever entered, and my worst driving performance in recent memory. I think I staged 13 times on the weekend. I still haven’t been .00! The best I could muster was a 5th round loss in the main event.
Jessica meanwhile, drove great and made really nice runs… But at the end of the weekend she didn’t have much more to show for it than I did.
Fast forward one week and we were at Byron Dragway for the annual Firecracker Nationals. I really enjoy the format, organization, and efficiency of this event each season, and this year was no different. I drove far better than I did in Martin; but had similar results. My .010 package was no good on day one. In the $100,000 main event, I dropped only to see eventual runner-up Gary Williams light it up dead-on 0. And in the Sunday finale I went -.001 beside Kenny Underwood. Jessica drove really well again, and managed to make it down to the final 20 cars in $100K.
Remembering what success feels like:
After nearly a year (and 6 runner-ups between), I managed to find the winner’s circle again at the NHRA Division 3 event in Joliet. Long story short: I drove pretty well. My car was flawless. And basically everyone I ran made their worst run of the weekend beside me (that helps a lot)!
JEGS Summer Door Car Shootout:
As you can tell, our schedule really began to get hectic. In our first weekend “off” from racing in a month, we hosted the 9th annual JEGS Summer Door Car Shootout. The “Biggest Little Door Car Race in the Midwest” never disappoints, and this year’s event was no different, despite brutal temperatures. You can read complete results and details on this year’s event here.
Another Good Weekend:
Prior to the Topeka double header, we mounted up a fresh set of Mickey Thompson 3195 “Big Bubba’s” for my whip. It seems like I always do well on fresh tires! After failing to win an event for over a year, I managed to string together 15 round wins in a row, culminating in another Super Comp win at the first event of the Division 5 double header in Topeka. This time around, I didn’t really get the breaks I did in Chicago. 8 rounds. No byes. No red lights. And lots of strong runs beside me. But it all worked out in my favor and we were able to hoist Wally again.
As much as you’d think the victory would be the highlight of my weekend, that actually came in the following event despite my own first round exit. My wife Jessica advanced to the final 5 cars in Super Comp (from the 160+ car field) on the strength of phenomenal runs. Along the way, she defeated three drivers likely to finish in this season’s top ten nationally. In the 6th round, the dream came to an end with a -.006 red light beside last year’s 4th place finisher (and eventual event winner) Mark Grame. She’s a win waiting to happen at that level, and although we were both disappointed I was super proud of her.
I was also a nervous wreck in the last several rounds. How people crew for their significant other is beyond me: I’d have felt more at ease staging up with my pinky or one of my toes on the line than I was sitting at the fence cheering her on. The round she lost, we set her up to go 8.90 wide open (she’d been holding some all day prior to that point). I bet I ran the numbers and looked at my Computech weather pager 100 times in 10 minutes (at the last minute, I texted her to add .01 to the timer, and she went 8.911 after the red light).
And as much as Jessica’s performance was the highlight of my weekend, neither or our late finishes excited Gary as much as finding license plates from 47 different states throughout the trip (many of which we found at the race track). Good times!
So what’s next? Well, prior to the Chicago win, I was ready to take the month of August off and concentrate on getting my Vega finished. Now all of the sudden I’m in the NHRA title chase! I’d say that Ray Ray Miller, who started the season absolutely on fire is still definitely the front runner, but I’ve got a shot. And it’s not often in life that we’ll have a shot at a world championship, so we’re going to pursue it. Thankfully, with the exception of a trip to Brainerd for back-to-back events, the races needed to fill my quota are close to home, that I had intended on attending anyhow.
I guess I’m a bit of an adrenaline junkie, so staging up for rounds with potential championship ramifications really gets me fired up: win or lose, it’s one of my favorite feelings in the world.
Looking a little farther ahead:
As I mentioned earlier, the Vega is coming along nicely. I’m hopeful that it will hit the track before season’s end. You can see the latest progress in the Vega Resurrection blog. In addition, I just pulled the trigger and got Charlie Stewart started on a new Corvette for the 2020 season. I’m actually going to sell my dragster and bow out of the long skinny car ranks for awhile and turn my attention from Super Comp to Super Gas (and from dragster to Vega in the bracket ranks). So if you know of anyone looking for a good (I mean REALLY good) dragster, mine will be for sale at season’s end if it’s not spoken for before then.
Until then, take care & who knows… We may just cross paths On the Road!