In what will certainly be one of the biggest feel-good stories of the 2024 drag racing season, sidelined Pro Mod driver Joey Oksas has been named the new driver for the twin-turbocharged “Wolverine II” ’69 Camaro Pro Mod formerly driven by the late Tim Slavens and most recently by Slavens’ longtime crew chief, Mark “Tydo” Werdehausen. The move will put Oksas, who paused his racing career after the sudden passing of his father, Pro Mod veteran Scott Oksas, in March 2022, back into a competitive race car. It will also allow Werdehausen to focus on the technical aspects of the racing program with the team’s longtime tuner, Joe Oplawski.
Werdehausen says he and the team, including car owners Matt and Anita Zimmerman and Mark Michael, started discussing the idea of bringing in a new driver about a month ago. Werdehausen took over the driving duties for the 2022 season after Slavens, who the car was built for, passed away after a lengthy COVID-19 battle in January 2022. Werdehausen finished fourth in the 2023 Summit Racing Equipment Mid-West Drag Racing Series presented by J&A Service Stroud Safety Pro Mod points, but he felt it was time to consider a dedicated driver.
“I feel like we have a pretty good hot rod as far as being competitive,” Werdehausen said. “I was losing focus on reaction times and stuff like that with everything that I do, so it’s going to be easier and better off for the whole team to bring in somebody who can concentrate just on the driving side of things.”
Enter Joey Oksas. Werdehausen made a Facebook post last week hinting that the team was looking for a new driver, with turbo experience as a bonus. The post was quickly flooded with comments from people suggesting possible drivers as well as drivers throwing their hat in the ring. Oksas immediately stood out as a leading contender.
“His name came up right in the beginning when we started talking about finding a new driver,” Werdehausen said. “I wasn’t sure what his driving plans were. He was on our mind. When I made that post, Jeff Pierce sent me a message and sent me Joey’s number and said, ‘Call him. You won’t be disappointed.’ I think I called him on Saturday and talked to him for probably an hour or so, just getting a feel for him because you can tell a lot by talking to somebody on the phone.”
Between the vote of confidence from Pierce, who tuned Oksas to the 2021 MWDRS Pro Mod championship, and the conversation the two had over the weekend, Werdehausen felt they found their guy.
“Just his whole demeanor and attitude to win, and he’s proven he is a good driver,” Werdehausen said. “His reaction times are really good – above average, if anything. That’s one spot where I was lacking, my reaction times. Now we get him in the seat with his good driving skills. It’ll give me more time to help Joe and focus on the car and making it faster. I think we’re going to be a contender again.”
Beyond his driving abilities, Werdehausen believes the 26-year-old SoCal native will fit in with the humble Midwestern, family-based Wolverine II team.
“I got probably 15 or 20 messages that weren’t on the Facebook post saying, ‘Hey, I want to drive, I can do this and I can do that,’” Werdehausen said. “Joey never sent me anything like that. He wasn’t bragging himself up before we talked on the phone. That kind of says a lot.”
Meanwhile, Oksas had been trying to figure out the right time and way to make his return to racing. The twin-turbo ’67 Shelby Mustang he drove for his father has been parked since Scott’s passing. After the initial conversation with Werdehausen and subsequent calls with the car owners and team members, Oksas found himself involved with another family-oriented, top-notch turbo Pro Mod program.
“We had a good 35-40-minute conversation together, just getting some information about me and background stuff and goals,” Oksas said. “After that, we all came to agreement on it and they decided they’d want me to pilot their operation for them this year. It was a good deal. We’ve raced with them in Mid-West when my dad and I were running the ’67. They’re good people and I look forward to it. It’s another turbo car, too, so I’m feeling right at home.”
Aside from Oksas joining the team and Werdehausen returning to his role outside the car, Team Wolverine isn’t making any major changes for the 2024 season. The crew will remain the same, and other than in-car modifications to suit Oksas, the car will remain the same as well.
“I’m actually flying to Bickel’s next Friday,” Oksas said, referring to Jerry Bickel Race Cars. “We’re going to do a pour-in seat for me there and just make sure the steering column and everything’s good. After that, Mark gets the car back from Bickel’s. He’s going to put it back together, and I think they want to try to go test in the middle of February.”
The group plans to run the eight-race 2024 MWDRS schedule with a few other events mixed in. If all goes as planned, Oksas will make his competition debut in the Wolverine II Camaro at the Drag Illustrated World Series of Pro Mod, March 1-3, at Bradenton Motorsports Park. No matter what happens on track, it will be a memorable weekend for Oksas, whose father won the 2019 World Series of Pro Mod when it was held at Bandimere Speedway near Denver, Colorado.
“Hopefully I can fill those big-ass shoes and get another one done. That would be spectacular,” Oksas said. “I’ve got my dad’s belt hanging up in my living room. I look forward to hopefully being able to add another one here in the near future. It’s a special race to me. Wes Buck and the DI team do such a fantastic job at promoting the race. It feels special to be there. You get treated like you’re royalty. I can’t wait to get to experience it again.”
Oksas, a 2021 DI 30 Under 30 honoree, realizes he’s been presented with a unique opportunity and he doesn’t take it for granted.
“Special thanks and appreciation to everyone involved,” Oksas said. “I’m more than blessed and fortunate to be able to do this deal. These good people are helping me out and hopefully I can help them out. I’m looking forward to seeing what comes from this situation. I’ve been itching to get back in a car, and I’m getting back in a car sooner than I thought I would be. I’m thrilled and I’m smiling ear to ear.”