Matt Dadas and Gage Burch are hunched over the log books resting on their work bench, comparing notes before going into day two of the No Box Nationals at Summit Motorsports Park in Norwalk, Ohio. Last night, Dadas won a $7,500 race. Today, $20,000 is up for grabs.
The Dadas family’s three-car compound is inconspicuous among rows and rows of motorhomes, stackers and open trailers, yet it’s home to two of the most profitable race cars in drag racing this year. Dadas raced his father’s 1980 Oldsmobile Starfire to a runner-up finish at the Fall Fling 500K just a week ago, and he owns the 1984 Ford Ranger that carried Burch to victory at the SFG 500 in June.
“In both the 500s, to stage up two cars that were built in a pole barn in Vermilion, Ohio, that’s pretty cool,” Dadas admits. “Neither one of us have purpose-made race cars,” Burch adds. “They were on the street at one point. Whether we built them ourselves or bought them off somebody, they were originally street cars and we made them into what they are today.”
The fact that two basic, run-of-the-mill bracket cars raced in the money round of two of the richest-paying races in drag racing history isn’t nearly as cool as the fact that they were driven and owned by two not-so-average bracket racers. Dadas, 24, is finishing up school while working as a designer for his father, Jim. Burch, 19, is also a college student, studying at the State College of Florida.
Though they’re not like most hitters on the big-money bracket racing scene, the two are very similar themselves. They both grew up racing Jr. Dragsters, Dadas here at Norwalk, about 20 minutes from his childhood home, and Burch at Bradenton Motorsports Park and other tracks near his home in Palmetto, Florida. Both have fathers who raced as they were growing up and helped them make the transition to “big cars.” Both made that move before they were technically allowed to do so, winning major races before they turned 16. That head start set the young men on their current path to bracket racing hero status.
“It’s been a dream season, that’s for sure,” says Burch, who rang in the new year with a $10,000 No Box and $1,500 Jr. Dragster double-up win at the New Year’s Nationals at Palm Beach International Raceway. Eleven hundred miles north in frigid Ohio, Dadas was winning Dragway 42’s Hangover Nationals in his street car. It was the first sign of what turned out to be a remarkable year for the two.
Burch went on to score several more double-up victories in Florida through the early part of the year, collecting trophies and respectable checks, but those accomplishments are almost forgettable compared to what transpired over the summer.
It all started with a text message chain where Dadas agreed to let Burch drive his Ranger at the SFG 500 at U.S. 131 Motorsports Park in Martin, Michigan. The two were good friends who met at the World Footbrake Challenge in Bristol a few years ago, and their girlfriends’ friendship brought the two closer still. They trusted each other, but Burch hadn’t so much as sat in the truck until they met up at the track Wednesday morning.
“It’s cool having Gage drive the stuff because you don’t really have to tell him anything,” Dadas says. “You just kind of let him loose – ‘Here you go, try not to crash.’” “That’s literally what he said – ‘I don’t really care what you do, just keep it off the fence,’” Burch laughs.
Burch runnered up in Thursday’s $50,000 race, going .001 under with a .003 reaction time. “We knew we had a pretty decent horse for the race,” Dadas says. “It clicked after that.”
Two days later, Burch says he really started rolling in the third round of the SFG 500 main event. The field of over 600 racers had been whittled down to a manageable number, allowing an hour or so between rounds rather than the several hours between the first couple rounds. “I just felt like I was getting in a rhythm and everything started clicking like it did in the 50,” Burch says. “It just seemed like deja vu all over again.”
Burch worked his way through several rounds, defeating NHRA Pro Stock star Jeg Coughlin Jr. in the semifinals and 30 Under 30 Class of 2017 honoree Johnny “Bracket Racer” Ezell in the final round.
After bringing the Ranger to a stop in the shutdown area, Burch backed up back down the track to the starting line, where he celebrated with his girlfriend, Nichole Mediesis; Dadas and his girlfriend, Carly Truhler; and her brother, Austin; among a crowd of other friends and supporters.
“I really didn’t get that excited when I saw the win light, then I backed down the track and once I got out and saw Matt and everybody, we all went crazy,” Burch says. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of deal – or so we thought until the Fling and Matt runnered up. It was a crazy, unbelievable feeling, something you strive for and strive to get back to every day.”
The obvious perk of the win was Burch collecting his share of the winner’s purse, which was bumped up to $525,000 going into the weekend but split up when the race got down to 15 cars. Aside from the cash, the duo is most proud of the memories they made.
“There’s a picture of us five hanging out in the trailer and it’s a bunch of 20-year-old kids racing for $500,000,” Dadas says. “Our parents were there, but they just let us go. I don’t think I saw my mom or dad for five or six hours. We were having fun, laughing, joking around. I’ve said it a million times to a bunch of people, but you really would’ve thought we were racing for 500 bucks the way we were acting. We were having a blast.”
Right after the SFG 500, the boys headed to Bristol Dragway for the World Footbrake Challenge. Dadas returned to the seat of his Ranger with its new target on the tailgate, and both drivers ended up with a solid showing, getting down to six cars in one of the $10,000 races.
The mountainside facility played host to the other monumental weekend of the pair’s season, the Fall Fling 500K. Racing in the 10-year celebration of promoter Kyle Seipel and Peter Biondo’s Fling events, the two drivers found themselves racing for life-changing money yet again. This time, though, it was Dadas in the hot seat. Burch lost first round and the reentry round, leaving the first-ever $500,000 race winner to watch the second-ever $500,000 race as a spectator. “He literally looked at me when he came back – I don’t even think he was that mad – but he goes, ‘Well, it’s up to you now,’” Dadas remembers.
Burch, three months removed from his big win at this point, leaned on his experience in ultra-tight bracket races to help Dadas race through nine rounds to reach the final. His opponent would be Hunter “Hunny Wayne” Patton, another 2019 30 Under 30 honoree.
“It’s so weird how natural it felt,” Dadas said of his late-round mindset. “Gage kind of seasoned me for it. He staged up for $500,000 a couple months prior and it didn’t really seem like a huge deal. It seemed very relaxed because we had already done it.”
Lined up against Patton’s quicker dragster, Dadas left the line first. All was well until Patton’s side of the tree dropped and the Dadas’ green light switched to red. The delayed red light was due to Compulink’s TruStart system used at most major bracket races.
“After you make so many runs you can kind of tell when you’re red,” says Dadas, who was .010 on the red side. “When I left, I’m like, ‘Man, if that ends up hanging green, this is over.’ But I knew I left a little early and it could be red, then it popped red. It’s just one of those things.”
“Just to be in that position, regardless of the outcome, is pretty amazing,” Dadas continues. “I would’ve really liked to say that both of my cars won $500,000 this year, but runner-up isn’t too bad.” “Nah, we’ll take it, says Burch with a smirk. “That was the second-biggest race of the year anyway.”
Later this fall after the dust settled and Dadas’ cars were put away for the winter, Dadas, Burch and I got on a call to look back on the rest of their season. Financially, nothing compared to the two 500-granders. But Dadas’ weekend at Norwalk’s legendary Halloween Classic ranks right up there for sentimental reasons. Late on a chilly October Sunday night, Dadas runnered up in the rain-delayed Wednesday gambler’s race, won the $5,000 Super Pro race and won the Grand Championship runoff, repeating a feat his father accomplished 17 years ago.
“That’s one of our favorite races of the year,” Dadas says. “My dad’s won it twice and was grand champion once, and now I’ve won it twice and was grand champion once. I don’t think there’s many father-son grand champions and I definitely don’t think there’s many fathers and sons that’ve both won it twice. That was pretty special.”
Still, Dadas wasn’t done winning yet. He and longtime racing friend Jaeden Durst loaded up the Starfire and made the trek down to Montgomery, Alabama, for the original Million Dollar Race at Montgomery Motorsports Park. He netted a $15,000 win on Wednesday night, closing out what was a “100% dream season.”
“It’s still surreal to be in the position we are as young as we are,” Dadas says. “I’d have to say, and I’d speak for Gage, but as a kid growing up in bracket racing, you dream to be a part of these moments: the first $500,000 winner, stuff like that. That’s what we do it for. To make the memories, too. That’s stuff you can’t replace.”
Burch echoes that sentiment. “Some people can win the biggest race, but what we did it in and the friends we had there and the time we had, there’s nobody there that had a better time than us, whether we won or not,” he says. “It was just an awesome experience. As a kid growing up, I would always look up to people who won the Million and dreamed about doing it myself. Winning a race that’s bigger than that, it’s just a dream come true.”
Dadas and Burch are quick to mention the people who helped them reach this point in their young careers. Dadas offered up thanks to his parents, Jim and Lisa, sister Lauren, girlfriend Carly, and a slew of sponsors: Rick’s Speedway Performance, who builds and freshens the Starfire’s 406ci small-block Chevy and the Ranger’s 383ci small-block Chevy; Rick Cole Racing Transmissions, Mickey Thompson Tires, Wiseco Performance, Powermaster Performance, Bazell Race Fuels, TFC Transportation and Deichler’s Tire and Auto.
Burch added appreciation for his parents, Matt and Diane, and his girlfriend, Nichole, as well as BJ Bianchi, who owns the car Burch races when he’s closer to home. Burch’s sponsors include Mickey Thompson Tires, FTI Performance, Moser Engineering, Thor Trailer Sales and Innovative Racecraft.
“We’re not your average bracket racers,” Burch says. “A bunch of people help make it easier on us, and winning something big definitely helps, too. But the more people who can help us the better, for sure.”
This duo plans to continue racing together in 2020. They’re eyeing up the SFG Million at U.S. 131 Motorsports Park in July, along with a potential trip out West for the Spring Fling Million in Las Vegas. The goal is to strike while the iron is hot, all while making more memories in the process.
“For both of us, we’re living our dream right now,” Dadas says. “Hopefully that continues in the coming years. I’d like to be a name like a Kenny Underwood or a Troy Williams or Gary Williams at some point. I guess you just have to keep going to do that.”
This story originally appeared in DI #151, the 30 Under 30 Issue, in December of 2019.