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Alex Laughlin Tries His Hand at No-Prep Racing at Winter Meltdown 4

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Alex Laughlin is known in the sport of drag racing for driving almost anything. Whether it’s Pro Stock, Pro Mod, Radial vs. the World, Mountain Motor Pro Stock, or various sportsman classes, he’s tried it all – except no-prep. That all changed this past weekend, when Laughlin took his screw-blown Corvette to Winter Meltdown 4 at Alamo City Motorplex, near San Antonio. Laughlin, piloting the car best known for winning Lights Out 10 earlier this year, won his first round of competition in Big Tire before falling to fellow Texan Cody Baker in round two. DRAG ILLUSTRATED caught up with Laughlin after the event to get his thoughts on competing in the no-prep world.  

You’ve raced just about everything in drag racing. What made you decide to try your hand at no-prep?

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Well, first I’ll go back to the Outlaw Armageddon deal. I went to that race last year. I just happened to be up in Oklahoma at Elite [Motorsports] when that race was going on, so I snuck on over there that night and watched the race. It seemed like a cool deal, and I decided then that I’d like to have a car there for the next year. We built one, and you know the whole story about how they decided it wasn’t legal for their race. We ended up taking that car back apart, and parting it out.

Then Matt Plotkin came by at Indy, and he said that if I’ve still got the car, that I’d be more than welcome to come run his race. I said I didn’t know if I’d have it then, but maybe worst case, I can swap the radial car over to big tires and come try it. I kind of forgot about it, to be honest, and it was on Thanksgiving Day that I remembered that race was coming up real quick. I looked it up, and saw it was literally the next weekend, like nine days away. I was like, it’s probably not a great idea to try to go, especially with not having any testing. I didn’t know what I really needed as far as gear ratios, shocks, what size tires I could fit.

The first thing I did was pull some tires down that we had in the shop that were 34.5 Hoosiers. I let all the air out of them, and I worked and worked trying to get the tire to fit, and it just absolutely wasn’t having it. What it came down to is I needed just a really unique offset wheel to make anything fit in there. Frankie Taylor ended up having it. It was like, what are the chances? It was the right offset wheel with the right bolt pattern, which is kind of a rare bolt pattern, with a 32-inch tire.

So we loaded the car up and went down to San Antonio, still on radials. Frankie met us there with his tires, and we still didn’t know if they were going to fit. We’re just thinking, theoretically, they should. We put ‘em on the car, and they fit just fine. It’s not the ideal tire to run. I can fit a bigger tire, but it just has to be a different wheel. Everybody else runs a 34 at minimum, a lot of guys run 36’s, and so they have a much larger contact patch than I would on the 32.

But we thought, this is what we’ve got to work with – the car works really good on radials, maybe we’ll just get lucky and make some good runs. I didn’t really care too much if we didn’t win the whole thing. I just wanted to show up and make some runs, and at least put on a good show and make it seem like we might halfway know what we’re doing.

Fans can easily see some of the differences you made to the car, like bigger tires and adding wheelie bars. But what other changes were necessary?

We changed the 4-link a lot, where it just puts a whole lot more bite in the car to make it hook up. We messed with pinion angle a little bit, and we even worked on the front struts of the car just to help get the front end up in the air. Obviously with the radial stuff, you don’t really want the front end up in the air. With big-tire stuff, you’ve gotta get it up to get the back tire planted and have that right transition, so we loosened up the front. We had to change the rear shocks. We actually ran the same radial shocks, we just changed the settings on ‘em. They weren’t perfect. There’s still a lot more to do, suspension-wise, to get it right. But for what it was, it ran really well, and we were pretty happy with it, to be honest.

Your first attempt on a no-prep surface was during testing right before Winter Meltdown. How big of a learning curve was that for you as a driver?

It was huge. Obviously I know that car really well, but I know it on radials. As far as sitting in it, and how I feel inside the car, that’s all the same. How it handles? It might as well have been somebody else’s car that I’ve never been in before. It was totally different. On radials, the car doesn’t move going down the track. It’s straight as a string. With those big tires on no prep, the back end of the car is just wagging the entire way. It’s one of those things, that it just takes runs to know what kind of steering inputs you can give it, and what it’ll take before you spin it around into the wall or somebody else. I wasn’t really willing to take a lot of chances. I just had to go a little further each time. It was almost like licensing runs. The first run was 300 ft., the next one was about 400 ft., just trying to go a little further every time, learn the car, and feel it under me. Because the last thing I wanted to do is tear my stuff up.

Although this was your first no-prep race, you had a man who is no stranger to sketchy surfaces helping you out with tuning. How much confidence did having Frankie Taylor in your corner give you?

Just having him with me – it doesn’t matter what we’re doing – is a ton of confidence. He’s a legend in the Pro Mod world. He’s the door-car extraordinaire, as far as I’m concerned. He’s been down every type of surface there is, and the fact that he does have his own no-prep car and ran it a little bit, it certainly helped us get a better start. Obviously every car is different, but we at least had a general direction to go.

What were your main goals going into this event, and do you feel you met them?

The two main objectives were to just run good, and not tear up the car trying to prove a point. There’s been so many people that have said that we can’t do it, or that we won’t do it, it definitely started burning the internet up with the fact that we actually just showed up at all. All I wanted to do was make some good runs, go door-to-door with somebody – specifically somebody that runs well – and put on a good show. Was that met? I’d say absolutely.

It was pretty cool, starting out in the test runs Friday night, you’ve gotta pull up beside somebody. I’m pulling into the water box, there’s tons of people standing on the starting line, and they do their little bets. And nobody would point into my lane. Nobody really wanted to take a bet with me, because nobody’s seen the car go down the track yet.

By the fourth run, that had changed completely. Everybody’s hands are pointed into our lane, and man, this is nuts. People kept coming by after every run, and were like, ‘Man, this is just unbelievable. Just do that tomorrow, and we’re gonna win some money.’ And I kept telling them, ‘I don’t know about all that, I’m not saying bet on me, for sure. But every lap we make, we’re getting a little more data and getting a little better.’ We didn’t go the other direction one time. Every single run we made was progress. If we had the time to put the right wheel, and the right tire, and actually have a few days to test, I think that thing would be deadly.

Ever since the Mega Race specials on television, you’ve done some back and forth trash talking with various Street Outlaws stars on social media. Is there any real dislike there, or is it all done in fun?

I don’t have any real dislike for any of them. At the end of the day, they’re living the dream too. They’re making a living racing door cars, and door cars is what I love. So the fact that they’re promoting the sport that I care about the most, they’re on my team as far as I’m concerned. I do like to poke at ‘em from time to time, but more than anything, it’s just to get their fans riled up. I know what I’m getting into whenever I do it. I know exactly how they’re going to respond. I’ve got thick skin, and at the end of the day, every time they comment or share my posts, that engagement just helps build my social media and create a higher value for my pages that my sponsors pay for.

Having just finished up with Winter Meltdown, what are your overall thoughts on both the event, and no-prep in general?

It was a really good event. Matt did a really good job with all of the organization and everything. It seems like he really does pretty much everything himself. He’s got some good guys that help him out as far as getting the cars to the lanes and whatnot.

The biggest deal that I wasn’t really aware of going into it, is I really thought no-prep was absolutely nothing on the track. Apparently most of the no-prep races, whatever’s on the track, they just leave it. They wash and dry it and everything, and what’s there is what’s there. But Matt actually scrapes it literally down to the concrete. I was a little nervous about that, thinking, ‘Of all the no-prep races that I probably could’ve gone to, this is the one that is going to be the biggest challenge. Walking out on the track, it was a little nerve-racking.

The very first time I let go of the button to launch the car, it just smoked the tires. Going down the track, I was just giving it 10 or 20% throttle just to hurry up and get off the track so the next pair could fire up. And even at that little amount of throttle, the back tires were spinning underneath me, and I could feel the car drifting side to side. I’m thinking, ‘I don’t see how anybody’s gonna go down this thing.’ But after a few runs, the track starts tightening up, and by the final last night – I’m not kidding – the starting line was as good as an NHRA track. It would straight pull your shoes off. There’s no glue, it’s water burnout only, but with all the cars running, the starting line got really good. Obviously, down track is nothing like that, and that’s where the cars really get loose.

But it’s wild, because you absolutely have to wheel those cars. It’s the most driving that I’ve ever done in a drag car, for sure. Pro Stock, if it starts moving around, they won’t take a lot. The Pro Mods, they do take a lot, and that was new to me this year. But the no-prep stuff, I don’t know where the limit is, but it’ll take a lot more than I had ever imagined, for sure.               

Would you like to try out more events like this in 2020?

I’m actually building a brand-new car specifically for no-prep. It’ll probably be done in the next 3-4 months, from the chassis shop at least. If they’ll let me go and run on the TV show [Street Outlaws No Prep Kings] some, I would like to, whether it be a couple or all of them. It’s not something that I need to do, but it’s something that I’d like to do. I think it would be fun, and a good experience and good exposure, and just really help with everything else I’m doing, even with sponsorships. As far as running the Corvette again like that, we certainly can. So which car it’ll be, that’s up in the air, but I definitely would like to do it again.  

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