As the first round of Pro Stock eliminations are set to begin during the 47th annual running of the NHRA Summernationals at Old Bridge Township Raceway Park in Englishtown, New Jersey, a crowd is starting to assemble in the staging lanes. Amidst a slew of racers, crewmembers, fans and officials – including familiar faces like Dave Connolly, Shane Gray and Alex Laughlin – stands a distinctly out-of-place Justin “Big Chief” Shearer, doing his best to ignore the fans shouting his name from the tower hospitality suites above and respond to every person in his face for a photo or autograph request while carrying on conversation with some of Pro Stock racing’s biggest names.
“Can you make your way over to the Funny Car pits after this?” asks one NHRA official. “There are some crew guys over there that would really like to meet you.”
Even for the ever-adjusting Shearer, a lifetime opportunist who has long since hung his hat on making the most out of any situation life deals him, it’s a bit of a head-trip. Though having fully embraced and become well acclimated to the level of fame associated with being the main character on television’s number-one unscripted television series, he’s quick to admit that it’s hard to believe he’s on the hallowed grounds of Old Bridge Township Raceway Park as an invited guest, posing for photos with men and women who are touring, professional race car drivers.
Though news broke on Saturday, June 11th, 2016, that the primary reason for Shearer’s trip was to film a PSA for NHRA and arrange for the reissuing of his competition license from the sanctioning body, when candidly asked to explain what he’s doing in Englishtown this weekend, his response leaves a lot to the imagination.
“I’m not 100-percent sure yet, to be honest,” says Shearer.
At it’s core, the New Jersey meet-up between the ultimate outlaw racer and drag racing’s premiere champions of safety, is about reconciliation.
“I’ve been in talks with NHRA forever,” continues Shearer. “We’ve been going back-and-forth for a long time. Basically, we went at it on Facebook. They sent us [STREET OUTLAWS cast members] a nasty letter, and I punched back with social media. And I think they took the brunt of it, they took the brunt of the blows, and I think they’ve been pretty salty about it. It was a weird situation. Not ideal for anyone.”
The highly publicized, much criticized ordeal between the two groups left many of the stars of Discovery Channel’s hit reality television show with revoked NHRA competition licenses and their fans fuming. Cleary, perception of the show by NHRA’s higher-ups has changed. And while any and everyone DRAG ILLUSTRATED spoke to at NHRA remain vehemently opposed to illegal street racing, they also recognize that the show – in its current form – is actually a far cry from what it portrays and romanticizes.
“All of a sudden – things have changed,” says Shearer. “They’re in a bit of a different place now. They changed networks, had some changes in management – there are some different people involved with different perspectives now. I don’t know everything that has changed, but I know the relationship is getting better.
“So, they invited me to come out this weekend, basically, to just enjoy the race and see what all they have going on here,” continues the Oklahoma-based prize racer. “I’ve never really spent like a full weekend at an NHRA race, done the whole deal.”
Shearer admits that his involvement in a violent, high-speed, two-car accident during the filming of a season 7 episode earlier this year left him with a newfound appreciation for the safety apparatus available to racers, as well as a strong sense of responsibility given his personal prominence and that of STREET OUTLAWS. He’s since become a strong and vocal proponent of safety within his personal racing circles, encouraging those around him to use the equipment available to them to stay safe wherever it is they race their cars.
“After my accident in the car, I do feel a little bit more responsibility to let people – especially young people – know a little bit more about the dangers of what I do, why I do it and that there are other options.”
Can “Big Chief” change, though? Could the leader of a rebel band of illegal street racers leave the streets behind and try to make it in the world of professional drag racing?
“The street racing thing,” starts Shearer, without an ounce of hesitation in his voice. “That’s where I’m from. That’s what I do. I eat in the street. That’s how I make my money; that’s how I have fun, and that’s how I hang out with my friends. But you get to a point where you have to ask yourself if the risk outweighs… Like the juice isn’t quite worth the squeeze.”
That notion, largely, is derived from the rapidly increasing performance of the cars that race on STREET OUTLAWS, and those in the underground street racing world in general.
“In cars like what we have now, we’re pushing it,” he says. “Let’s be honest. We’re pushing it way, way, way far beyond what it was ever supposed to be. But that competitive thing keeps everything moving forward, it keeps everyone pushing the envelope, keeps things escalating, and before you know it you’re in a 4.0 car on the street doing a 190mph in the eighth-mile. That’s [email protected]#$%!& insane.”
The question begs to be asked, though, does being insane mean he’s going to stop doing it?
“Does that mean I’m going to stop doing it?” Shearer proposes. “As long as there are guys out there with cars that are as fast or faster than mine with money in their pocket – you know where I’ll be.
“But this other deal – NHRA – it has me intrigued. I’m talking to a lot of these guys, listening to how these operations work, how fast the cars are and how hard some of them are to drive and, ya’ know – it’s drag racing, it’s a challenge, so I’m interested. They invited me to come out and check it out, so that’s what I’m doing. I’m looking it over.”
While there’s no official plan in place or even any serious proposals as of yet, the talk of the NHRA Summernationals was the possibility of “Big Chief” turning up in Pro Stock at some point in the future, though his personal interests lie in Pro Mod-style drag racing, especially since that’s where cars somewhat similar to his compete.
“We’ll see what happens from here,” he says. “I don’t know. NHRA is going to let me in their club for now, but I’m not sure they want me around as much as they think they do. Because once they actually get a real look at who I am and what I’m about, I’m not sure that I fit in here. But for now, we’re working on it. We’re mending the relationship. We’re in talks. We’re in couples counseling.”
Shearer may get his kicks and put money in his pockets on the street, but he won’t shy away from the fact that he’s a lifelong fan of drag racing.
“At the end of the day, I love drag racing. I’ve watched NHRA drag racing on TV and followed drag racing my entire life. Dude, when I went to Reher-Morrison [Racing Engines] just a couple weeks ago to have my motor looked at, I like freaked out because I was in the Pro Stock cylinder head room. I mean, Lee Shepherd was here; he was in this room. It’s like ‘holy shit’.”
For someone who has no problem admitting that his personal goal is to have a career in drag racing, it’s less than shocking that one of the biggest stars the racing industry has seen in years turned up at a NHRA Mello Yello Series Drag Racing event.
“I’m drag racing to the core,” he concludes. “They’re racing out here, and I want to at least know what it’s about. If there’s an opportunity for me to drag race for the rest of my life and not have to work on cars anymore? I’m always, always, always going to be about that. I’m going to be about finding a way to race and not have to work on cars to make a living.
“Right now, I’m just walking around, shaking hands and meeting people. There’s a lot of energy out here, but it’s not in the places you’d expect.”