DI Roundtable: Honest Opinion on MMPS, Jim Halsey, Matt Hagan’s Star Turn & Thunder Mountain
The DI Roundtable is back and there’s plenty on their minds after a massive weekend in the sport. The team of Wes Buck, Nate Van Wagnen, Mike Carpenter and Josh Hachat hit all the key items, including a huge weekend in Denver, Mountain Motor Pro Stock’s resurgence, Jim Halsey’s dominance and a star-making performance from Matt Hagan.
QUESTION: Has interest in Mountain Motor Pro Stock racing successfully been reignited? Are we seeing things start to turn in the right direction?
WES BUCK: Interest and participation are absolutely headed in the right direction. Earlier this year we had Justin Kirk come out of nowhere basically and score the win at the PDRA national event in Kentucky behind the wheel of the Buck Bros. Racing Cavalier – a new team on the scene. A couple weeks ago, I heard that Robert Patrick was coming back multi-time championship-winning crew chief Chris Bell, and they turned up at the PDRA Summer Shootout this past weekend in Virginia. News broke just this week that Tony Gillig, who has been a standout in Pro Outlaw 632 the last several years with his oh-so-sweet Oldsmobile Cutlass, has a new car coming and intends to make his return to Mountain Motor Pro Stock as soon as he can.
We’ve also been hearing that Camrie Caruso, who I think is really doing a great job in her first season in a door car this year in Pro Outlaw 632, is likely destined for MMPS. How many other heads up, pro-level categories can name four (and likely more) new players coming into almost simultaneously? Factor in the that you’ve got Johnny Pluchino, a real star-in-the-making in my opinion, as your defending champion, and you’ve got a really exciting brand of racing on your hands. I do think this is a group of racers that need to get on the same page with what they want to do, where they want to race, etc., but I think it’s headed in the right direction.
MIKE CARPENTER: This is definitely a class on the upswing. Several fresh young faces either already competing (Pluchino, Kirk) or are making their way into the class soon (Caruso). It’s a passionate group of racers, that almost reminds of me Pro Mod racers, specifically Nitrous competitors. They’re passionate about their combination of choice, but fight some uphill battles. I think the splintering of the class that has happened over the last decade really created a hole for them to dig out of, but it seems as if they’re galvanizing around the PDRA platform.
NATE VAN WAGNEN: There’s no question Mountain Motor Pro Stock racing is on an upswing. There were three new cars on the grounds in Extreme Pro Stock over the weekend. Tony Gillig just announced he’s coming back with a new family-owned car, and I think you can expect to see Camrie Caruso in the class within the next 12 months. Plus, whenever the Canadian border opens, another 2-3 cars will be back. I wouldn’t be surprised to see close to 16 cars at the PDRA World Finals in mid-October.
HACHAT: It definitely is and I think it’s wild to see the parallels between this current rise in MMPS and the recent one in NHRA Pro Stock. Both classes were close to dire straits and now both are some of the hottest classes in the sport. Pro Stock did it with an infusion of young talent, and I think we’re seeing something similar in MMPS as well.
If we’re able to see a full field of 16 cars at the PDRA World Finals, then that would be a massive success and send the class into the off-season on the best possible note. It’s incredibly encouraging to see from a class that was seemingly just spinning its wheels for several seasons. That tide has turned and I’m excited to see the wave of momentum that comes with it, including new drivers and performance gains.
QUESTION: Jim Halsey has been on an incredible run as of late, only matched by what Steve Torrence has done in Top Fuel. What do you make of Halsey’s dominant performance in 2021?
BUCK: It’s fun to watch. I’ve got a little bit of a back and forth going with Jim Halsey based on me picking against him publicly on a few occasions here lately, but I love seeing him succeed like he is right now. Drag racing has had its fair share of dominating forces over the years, but I don’t think it makes it any less special when you see it unfolding in real time. Jim Halsey, longtime girlfriend Cathy Crouse, crew chief Eric Davis, nitrous tuner Brandon Switzer and his wife Melissa seem to be perfectly in sync right now – zero mistakes, other-worldly performance and consistency to boot.
It’s fun for me to call for someone to throw a wrench in the gears while I’m serving as a “talking head” in the industry, but I honestly don’t see anyone challenging these guys right now. It’s drag racing, so you never know…and there’s plenty of incredible teams in PDRA Pro Nitrous that could step up at any time, but I think Halsey has their number. I also have to say that it’s cool to see some real-deal engine builder competition out here. Pat Musi has all but run away with nitrous racing in recent years, and it’s cool to see a legend like Gene Fulton providing power to Halsey and seeing them fighting back against “Popeye” and all his front-running customers.
VAN WAGNEN: Jim Halsey, Brandon Switzer and that whole team are just on another level. There are some really solid drivers in PDRA Pro Nitrous – Jay Cox, Tommy Franklin and Tony Wilson come to mind but Halsey is just a couple steps ahead of everyone else. Jim and Brandon are two highly experienced, talented guys, and they’ll stop at nothing to win. They’ve won the last two Pro Nitrous world championships, they’re on track to win a third this year, and I’m sure they’ll be fighting just as hard for a fourth title in 2022. Someone is going to need to step up and take it from them, because they have a ton of momentum right now and I don’t see it slowing down anytime soon.
HACHAT: I’ll be honest – I love seeing dominance in any sport. Seeing a team go on an impressive run is wholly satisfying to me, warding off all challengers as they take their performance to another level. We’ve seen that from Steve Torrence for the last three – and soon to be four – seasons and we’re certainly seeing that from Halsey right now.
On that note, it’s also just as cool to see a driver reach this kind of dominance this far into their career. Halsey has achieved such great success in drag racing, made so many noteworthy runs and has done it over a long period of time. But to raise his game this much in recent years is simply spectacular. It’s a thoroughly incredible career arc and a testament to his attention to detail, never being satisfied and continuing to push the envelope despite so much prior success.
CARPENTER: I actually thought about this a lot over the weekend as Jim Halsey and his crew put on another show in at VMP. What makes them so tough to beat right now? I think it’s experience and continuity. Halsey has experience racing at the top levels of the sport since the early 90s, and no one else in the class can say that right now. He has come and gone from the Pro Mod scene a few times, but when he’s on, he’s on.
From Super Chevy, to IHRA, to NHRA, to ADRL, and now PDRA, he’s always been a force, moreso now than ever before. There’s also the continuity factor. Jim, Cathy Crouse, and Eric Davis have raced together for decades, and the addition of Brandon Switzer, who has been doing this longer than a lot of people probably realize, pushed them up another notch.
QUESTION: If you paid attention to driver interviews this weekend in Denver, you likely heard a huge number of shoutouts to the Bandimere family and the Denver fanbase. How impressed were you by the crowd and energy this weekend on Thunder Mountain?
VAN WAGNEN: The Bandimere family and their team deserve all the credit they received and more. They fought hard to stay in business through some major challenges from the local government last year. They’ve spent decades building an incredible fanbase in the Denver area, and it seems that whole group showed up over the weekend. We learned firsthand just how passionate the fans are in that area, so it was no surprise to see packed grandstands. I’m so happy for everyone involved that the spectator turnout was so big. I just hope the low car counts won’t turn the fans off from coming back next year.
HACHAT: It was legitimate goosebumps anytime a driver talked about the crowd and the mass of people would respond with a thunderous cheer. After bringing the crowd to its feet with a track-record run on Saturday night, Top Fuel’s Brittany Force was back on the starting line to watch her father, John, make his final qualifying run. After his pass, Force was interviewed on the starting line and remarked how special it was to race in front of such a huge, passionate crowd. The Bandimere Speedway responded with a massive, audible cheer and it was a moment you couldn’t forget.
It’s what makes drag racing special when you have a knowledgable crowd that shows up in big numbers to watch the sport they love. It’s not just something to do once a year for the fans in Denver. These fans live and breathe drag racing and after a year away, they made their voices heard on Thunder Mountain. The NHRA drivers and teams enjoyed every bit of it, too, and it’s part of that special relationship between crowd and driver that helps make Denver so unique.
CARPENTER: It was awesome to see a huge crowd at Bandimere, and that family and their fanbase deserved to have a successful event after the struggles of 2020. The Denver area is not the welcoming place for a dragstrip that it once was, due to a variety of socio-economic factors, but it remains the most unique venue on the NHRA tour and one of the best. It’s an uphill battle for everyone to run Denver, but it’s well worth it.
Denver always feature some of the best racing and best entertainment for the fans, which we seem to forget too quickly in this day and age. Every track and every location is not the same, and conquering each of them is part of the game. This is true in every form of motorsports, and we have to get back to embracing that instead of perfect track conditions and perfect air being the only acceptable standards.
BUCK: I get chills just thinking about it. Those images of the stands on Thunder Mountain absolutely packed, maybe even overflowing with fans are permanently embedded in my mind. First and foremost, the facility and the setting are so visually stunning that it’s hard to adequately describe – especially when you consider how similar so many of these race tracks really are. But, to answer the question, I was massively impressed, but not at all surprised.
I knew the Bandimere family would pack the house, and I actually really appreciated all the drivers that gave the fans a shoutout and praised the Bandimere team for what they are doing and have done for the sport of drag racing. My only wish is that there would have been more cars turn up in the pro categories, but that’s likely a conversation for another day.
QUESTION: What are the chances we see Pro Mod return to Denver?
CARPENTER: Almost zero, in my opinion. This relates to what I stated above. The sport has moved too far away from prioritizing putting on a show, which is what the Bandimere family does and has always been the reason to race there. As a sport, we’re so performance and record-oriented, especially in Pro Mod, that makes Denver this hot topic every year. Our group at Drag Illustrated knows and understands this better than almost anyone.
BUCK: I can’t decide, and I think there are so many factors involved that it’s going to be hard to tell for a little while. Based solely on the participation we saw this past weekend (9 cars, including one non-touring, relatively local team in Robert Costa), I don’t think it’s looking good for Pro Mod to return for the Mile-High Nationals next year. Maybe enough changes can be made between now and then in regards to purse, purse structure and parity that we see a renewed interest in supporting the event, but as it sits now – with teams reporting a $25,000 investment being necessary to switch their cars over to race competitively at significant elevation – I don’t feel good about it.
The E3 Spark Plugs NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series went from the hottest thing in drag racing just two years ago to near complete disarray today. I think it’s fixable, they’ve just got some work to do.
VAN WAGNEN: I’d say 50/50 chance. NHRA had to know going into this venture that it would be hard to get cars to show up. They went ahead with it anyway. The Pro Mod class sent a pretty clear message with their participation. Will NHRA listen? I’m not sure.
HACHAT: It doesn’t seem likely that the class will return, but I think there’s far more pressing issues the class needs to worry about before contemplating a Denver return. For one, parity is almost completely gone in the class and that absolutely has to change. It’s a pressing concern that only seems to get more apparent with each passing race.
If Denver does take place again, maybe figure out a way to have a race the week before or the week after. I thought Doug Winters made an interesting point in that he traveled nearly 30 hours to Denver and then back just for one race. If you want teams to make the effort and the changes necessary to race on Thunder Mountain, maybe have a centralized race before or after to make it worth it for everyone.
QUESTION: Wes has passionately stated for years on his live show for racers to show how much these wins mean to them. What we saw from Matt Hagan in Denver, was that a star-making performance?
BUCK: I grew up watching professional wrestling. I loved WWF (now WWE) and WCW when I was a kid. I watched almost every show, subscribed to magazines, bought merchandise and everything else. What I saw on Sunday was, in my opinion, the birth of a star. In pro wrestling speak, you’d call this moment when a wrestler is “put over” – the fans react to him, the cheers pour in, chants are happening when he walks out, etc. Matt Hagan, whom I am now lovingly referring to as “Hulk Hagan”, and his over-the-top reaction winning Funny Car this past weekend at the Mile-High Nationals in Denver was exactly what we need to see from these drivers. He’s whipping the wheel back and forth while coasting to a stop from a 300-plus mph lap in his Dodge Charger Funny Car, beating on the rooftop escape hatch, jumping out of the car and grabbing the television camera, yelling into the microphone – it was a legitimate drag racing moment.
It was spectacular, and I truly believe this will be a defining moment for Matt Hagan’s career. Let’s be honest – Hagan has already accomplished all he needs to accomplish on the drag strip to qualify as a star. He’s won championships, set records and quite literally made history out on the drag strip, but I think he needed a moment like this where he put his heart on his shirt sleeve and let it all hang out. People got to see a glimpse of who this guy actually is in that moment. They got to see how much this means to him and how bad he wants it. If NHRA is looking for a new face – a star that could help carry the sport into the future – I truly believe they have one in Matt Hagan.
HACHAT: I loved every part of it. Like Wes, I immediately thought “pro wrestling” when I saw Hagan rapidly turning the wheel back and forth, grabbing the camera and then belting out a passionate promo that would have rivaled Hogan or Stone Cold Steve Austin. It was the perfect star-making interview and you could tell it came from the heart.
I’ve always thought Hagan to be one of the more animated drivers with a unique personality that needed to be showcased just a bit more. This is what I envisioned with that, and it showed just how much this win meant to Hagan. I would be replaying that speech and celebration at every turn, on every promo item and commercial and do everything possible to raise Hagan’s place in the sport.
He’s got the look, a major sponsor that loves drag racing and the personality to make it work.
CARPENTER: We’ve seen passion from Matt several times (the sitting and contemplating at the trailer on the top end in Pomona after Force grabbed the championship from him comes to mind) but it was great to see his enthusiasm, and maybe we’ll start to see this more often.
I think these wins start to mean more as the drivers get older and progress through their careers. They realize how hard it is to win, and they start to value each win a little more. They start creating these internal bucket lists of things they want to accomplish before they step away from the driver’s seat, and I think winning Denver was on Matt’s list.
VAN WAGNEN: I had to go back and watch this interview on the NHRA Instagram page. It was pretty cool to see that much emotion, especially from a guy who’s done it all in Funny Car. It was his first Denver win, which is big. It was also a big deal because he won his sponsor’s race during a year when that team hasn’t performed to the best of their abilities.
After winning the 2020 world championship, it’s crazy that this was Hagan’s first win of the season. It was cool to see him show the viewers just how much it meant to him.