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DI CLASSIC: Mick Snyder Is Making the Most of an Extreme Experience

Mick Snyder had just won his first ADRL Pro Extreme event. Or at least so he hoped.

There was no fist pumping in the car that warm, late-summer evening in September as the 29-year-old, second-generation driver rolled through the left shutdown lane at Summit Motorsports Park. No hootin’ and hollerin’ over the radio, no wave of relief, no sense of satisfaction or macho bravado at prevailing over the quickest eighth-mile door-car field ever assembled.

[Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in DI #48 in December of 2010.]

Snyder had seen his win light come on, of that he was certain, but he also knew he’d drifted awfully close to crossing the center line and disqualification just past the half-track point.

He reached the top-end turnoff, pulled his now silent and smoking Powersource Transportation-backed ’63 Corvette to a halt and unbuckled his safety harness, already knowing his 3.95-seconds pass—and his fate—were under review by ADRL officials glued to TV replays in the track’s control tower nearly a mile away. His heart sunk in his chest and a ball grew in his gut as he watched official ADRL reporter Bret Kepner gravitate toward Alex Hossler and his wounded 1970 Camaro for the traditional post-race winner’s interview.

With helmet in hand, Snyder approached Hossler, prepared to offer gracious congratulations and just in time to hear Kepner say, “We’re just waiting to hear if you crossed the center line or not.”

Struck by the coincidence, Snyder asked Hossler how close he came to crossing and was even more surprised to learn, “I wasn’t close at all; I don’t know what he’s talking about.”

“That’s when Kepner looks at Hossler and asks, ‘You were in the left lane, right?’ and we started figuring it out,” Snyder recalls with a laugh. “So then Kepner says, ‘Oh, then we’re waiting to see if Mick crossed the center line,’ and that made a lot more sense to me. It seemed like it took forever, but it was probably only two or three minutes before we got the official word that I’d won.”

As a former IHRA national event winner and three-time NHRA Alcohol Funny Car Division III champion, the victory placed the ADRL rookie in elite company among the likes of Pro Mod legends Mike Janis and Rickie Smith as drivers who can simultaneously point to IHRA Ironmen, NHRA Wallys and ADRL Minutemen on their trophy shelves. It also went a long way toward redeeming a season that opened on the opposite end of the racer’s spectrum with a serious crash in Snyder’s first-ever launch of a Pro Mod-style race car.

“Yeah, my first shot in a door car, left-hand drive, real steering wheel, the whole thing and it’s so much different than a Funny Car. The throttle sticks and I jerk the wheel like I would in the Funny Car and I found out real quick that’s just not something you do in a Pro Mod,” he says of his head-on meeting with the right-side wall at South Georgia Motorsports Park in March.

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“I knew pretty much right away that he was fine because he was talking to me on the radio,” says Snyder’s father and crew chief, Larry, himself a past IHRA world champion in the dragster-dominated Pro Outlaw class. “Actually, he was screaming bad words and telling me what went wrong with the car while it was still sliding down the race track.”

Like so many of his peers, Snyder literally grew up racing, cutting his go-fast teeth on go-carts at age 10, but finding new direction after a 1992 trip to the drag strip.

“We first saw Jr. Dragsters in an exhibition deal at the U.S. Nationals and Dad said to me that he thought we should get one, but I was already racing by that time so I said they looked kind of slow and I could go faster in the go-cart. But he promised me, ‘Yours won’t be that slow,’ and he was right. We won a lot of heads-up races when we went Junior racing; mine definitely wasn’t the slow one.”

Larry and Mick Snyder

Always a hot rodder at heart, at the same time Larry Snyder bought a small-block-powered, rear-engine dragster to campaign in Pro Outlaw. The weekend that Mick turned 16 he left the Juniors behind to join his dad behind the wheel of a “big car” at an IHRA national event, eventually becoming a force over the next couple of years in Quick Rod, which essentially mirrors the NHRA’s Super Comp program.

While waiting out a track clean-up at Epping, New Hampshire, however, near the end of his father’s 1999 championship roll, Mick heard over the track’s public address system that his dad planned to retire at the end of the year.

“I got on the radio to Dad and said to him, ‘Did you hear that?’ and he goes, ‘Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you. Start the car,’” Snyder says. “And that’s when I learned I would be driving that car the next year; or at least in that class.”

Winning three of seven final-round appearances in 2000 gave Snyder a second-place finish, just 10 points behind Laurie Cannister in the final year for Pro Outlaw, which prompted a move for him in 2001, over and up to NHRA Top Alcohol Dragster.

“We had been running a small-block with a Lencodrive and a converter in Pro Outlaw, so when we built our first alcohol Hemi we just put the same deal behind it for Top Alcohol,” Snyder says. “Everybody kind of laughed at us and said, ‘Oh man, take a look at this kid and his old man putting a converter behind their car.’ But after a few races I think everyone realized we weren’t kidding.”

Despite not reaching victory lane the next couple of years, Snyder considers his time in Top Alcohol as instrumental to his development as a driver and his father’s as a tuner. He says they also gradually made converts or at least believers of a few of their rivals to the viability of a converter taking the place of a clutch in the high-horsepower rides. Still, the Snyders soon longed for a change.

“In mid-season 2003 we bought Von Smith’s old Funny Car. We had known him for years after sharing many IHRA winner’s circles with him and I can remember his crew chief, Howard Moon, telling me over and over, ‘Real men face their motors, real men face their motors.’ I had heard that from him for years, so I got it in my head that I wanted to drive a Funny Car next and I started telling my dad that,” Snyder says. “And it just worked out one time in Chicago when Von said he wanted to sell the car and Howard told him, ‘Well, your buyer’s right here in the pits,’ and Von looked around and there was nobody but us standing there. So Von named his price, Dad said, ‘Sold,’ and the next thing you know we had a Funny Car.”

The Lencodrive-converter package that Larry helped develop with Lenco’s Gary Sumek worked even better in the alky flopper, propelling Mick to 11 career divisional wins, three consecutive Division III championships from 2004 through 2006 and three NHRA national-event titles.

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“Then we put a clutch in the car in ’08 because we were trying to catch (Frank) Manzo,” Snyder admits. “Maybe that’s the reason why we couldn’t; or maybe it just turns out that Frank’s the man, because it didn’t work.”

Regardless, by last fall both Snyders say they were again feeling the itch to switch, this time to a blown doorslammer. About the same time, Jason Scruggs, the 2007 and 2008 ADRL Pro Extreme world champion, was thinking about acquiring a Lencodrive for testing over the winter. Maybe it was a happy coincidence or maybe a case of divine intervention, but unknown to either pairing, two of drag racing’s most successful father-son duos were about to intertwine.

Larry Snyder remembers simply having a conversation with a potential client while his son rifled through a magazine beside him, eventually stopping to highlight a couple of items and sliding the accompanying page into view.

“It was kind of a weird deal. Jason called to order a transmission and we got to talking because we were kind of looking for a Pro Mod car anyway and he had two for sale,” Mick explains. “They were in a magazine so I circled them and while my dad was talking I told him, ‘Hey, this might be our in.’ So he brought it up and Jason said he’d talk to his dad and then called back the next day and asked, ‘Are you guys serious?’ and when we answered that, yeah, we were, he just said, ‘Okay, I guess that’s what we’ll do then.’

“He was just so casual about it; it was pretty unreal, but we couldn’t have matched up with a better guy. I mean, we’ve known about him forever and he knew who we were and it’s all just kind of worked out.”

The car, the 1963 Corvette, the one Scruggs made the world’s first eighth-mile, 200 mile-per-hour lap in and the one in which he’d earned his first ADRL championship, exchanged hands very quickly following a side trip from Saltillo, Mississippi, to Garret Race Cars in Marble Hill, Missouri, for some chassis updates to accommodate a new Lencodrive set-up.

Neither Scruggs nor his father, Mitchell, met either of their historic ride’s new handlers before it was in the trailer and on its way to the home of Snyder Motorsports in Demotte, Indiana.

Being familiar with Larry’s and Mick’s success on the track and their reputations as Lencodrive experts, there was no question for Scruggs about whom he should call to explore the possibilities of putting a converter in his car for the first time. But it was their attitude and approach to racing that provided him the confidence and comfort to get involved with them as teammates.

“I eventually met Larry down in Florida when I was testing down there, but I felt like I already knew him just from talking on the phone,” Scruggs says. “Him and Mick, they’re good folks who like to have fun racing, just like me and my dad, so I wasn’t worried about meeting him at all. I mean they want to win and be competitive, but they also want to have fun at the end of the day and that’s really what it’s all about when you look at the big picture.”

Unfortunately, Snyder’s introduction to Pro Mod racing turned out to be not so much fun at all, ending as it did with him stranded in the middle of the South Georgia track looking down at a twisted frame of tubing, crushed suspension components and shattered carbon fiber. But he now looks at the Valdosta accident as little more than a rite of passage, just something to get out of the way sooner than later.

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“I take it really as a learning experience. I mean, cars crash, it’s just the way the racing world works,” he points out. “Especially these things; the more races I went to the more I came away thinking, ‘Geez, everybody crashes,’ kind of like an initiation into the club. I think pretty much everyone who’s ever driven these things has wrecked one, so at least I don’t feel so alone. Misery always loves company, I guess.”

If thought of as a club, Scruggs may well be its president or at the very least a charter member after experiencing more than his share of scrapes, scratches and impacts in the course of doing business at 200 miles per hour. He was there that day, too, when Snyder was inducted, but says he didn’t say much other than to remind his new friend that the car would be fixed and the whole incident forgotten after another race or two.

“That’s the only way you can look at it,” the two-time champ stresses. “In any kind of racing you’re going to have some down days, that’s just the way it is, and wrecking’s about as down as it gets, but as long as nobody gets hurt and the car gets fixed, hopefully it all works out.”

Following the accident, the car was returned to Garret’s, where in addition to attaching a required new front clip, the Snyder Motorsports team opted for a few chassis upgrades, too.

“I didn’t want to look like I was broke so I told him to put a little piece of titanium around the gas tank so I can kind of show off,” Larry laughs. “I had to add something to the car just to make it different so I had him add that one piece of titanium so I could tell everyone we have a lightweight car now, too.”

That takes care of the car, but for driver and crew chief, working things out also means getting back on the horse that threw them; that “second first hit,” as Scruggs likes to call it. It requires a new mindset, he says, one that almost always includes a more cautious attitude, but nothing that Snyder and his father didn’t already know about.

“When they went out for that first hit their mentality was to go from A to B, but then after they wrecked they just wanted to get used to the car. You know, anybody, once they wreck, they’re going to take a more defensive approach, especially if it’s a new car; it’d be hard not to and that’s basically what they did.”

The elder Snyder agrees and freely admits to still going through internal debates when setting up the car for his son to drive.

“Motor-wise it’s not that different from the Funny Car when we had the converter in it; the general principle of how to do things is reasonably the same. But with the suspension on these door cars if I’m wrong about something and it goes sideways, if it’s going fast enough and gets to a 45-degree angle we all know they can fly in the air so it adds a little extra challenge to the tune-up. With the Funny Car if I was wrong, he could still get it down the race track, it wouldn’t do anything bad, but with this one if I’m wrong it can do really bad stuff in a big, fat hurry. So it does make you think twice before trying certain things because you wonder; what if it does this or what if it does that?

“So we’re still running a little on the cautious side and don’t want to tear anything up. It costs enough money to do this if everything goes right. And of course I don’t want to get Mick hurt or even give him anything unusual to deal with. I want to make it as smooth and easy as possible for him in there.”

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From the driver’s perspective, Snyder jokes “only everything” is different in making the switch between the two rides before expanding his thoughts.

“I think the biggest difference is that when you’re sitting in the Funny Car you’re right between the tires and every quiver, every shake, every shimmy you can feel, but in this deal here with the Pro Mod the suspension seems to muffle things, I guess you could say. So by the time you feel something, it’s pretty much too late; you know more by the engine RPMs than you actually do by feeling it, which is just a different way of thinking about it,” he says.

“Then as far as looking down the track when nothing’s going wrong, there’s way more vision in the Pro Mod because you don’t have an injector right in your way, but with this car, because you’re off to the side of the motor you can’t see anything to your right and you lose cars, golf carts, people, everything over there. It’s pretty different in that respect, just trying to see what’s coming at you, but as far as looking straight ahead I can see a lot better now.”

The change certainly appears to agree with him more and more with each passing event. Until flirting with the center line that victorious day, Snyder was driving on rails in Norwalk, Ohio, qualifying sixth with a 3.70-seconds pass before matching a career-best 3.66 in the opening round of eliminations, then adding a pair of 3.68s to reach the final round. It was the kind of performance that Scruggs thinks everyone should come to expect.

“I had followed Mick and Larry for years in the Alcohol Funny Car stuff, so I knew that right away they’d be competitive in the door car. And that’s what they’ve done. They’ve qualified at every race they’ve been to in ADRL even though they had to get their feet wet in a few races while they learned about the door cars, got Mick used to driving it and Larry used to tuning it, but it’s all starting to gel and they’ve got a good, solid 3.60s race car now.”

Beyond the improving on-track performances, Snyder says he and his father are pleased with making the switch to Pro Modified racing, particularly within the ADRL’s Pro Extreme community.

“It’s cool to be the show for a change,” he says. “I mean, Pro Extreme is the top class over here and you get treated like you’re the top class. And the Pro Extreme group is pretty cool because we all know we have the baddest-ass cars on the planet and it’s just a matter of finding out who has the baddest-ass car that weekend.

“It’s a great group of guys, they’re just a bunch of real racers and what’s cool is that because they have no real rules, nobody whines or complains about anything. It’s all about figuring out how to make your car go faster, not worrying about what everybody else is doing.”

His father echoes the thought.

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“I never dreamed a class that has basically no rules could be as fun and competitive as this is. I always thought with no rules there would have to be someone doing something radically different, but it appears that most of the cars that are fast run a normal-type alcohol motor. I mean, you can do a lot of stuff, but mostly I think the limitation is the car itself and getting it down the race track.

“I also think at one time everybody thought that an Alcohol Funny Car was the hardest thing to drive, so that’s why Mick wanted one of those, but as soon as people started saying that these things are even harder to drive, that’s when Mick started saying, ‘Man it would be really cool to have one of those.’ I think he just wants to see if he can do it and so far I think he’s doing rather well.”

No doubt it would be difficult to find anyone who disagrees.

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