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DI Roundtable: Dishing on Sweeping the Swing, Craig Sullivan’s ’49 Mercury and PDRA ProStars

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The DI Roundtable returns to tackle the hottest issues in drag racing. The DI team of Wes Buck, Nate Van Wagnen, Mike Carpenter and Josh Hachat touch on the biggest news in the sport, including Steve Torrence’s chance to sweep the Western Swing, Aaron Stanfield’s recent success, this weekend’s PDRA ProStars race and Craig Sullivan’s incredible new Pro Mod.

QUESTION: It’s been a while since we’ve seen a reception to a new car as Craig Sullivan got en route to his NMCA Pro Mod win last weekend. How cool was it to see a little variety in the class and how awestruck were you by it?

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MIKE CARPENTER: It’s probably not hard to guess how I feel about this given the era of Pro Mod I grew up around. We badly need more of this in Pro Mod before the class loses anymore of its identity, especially at the highest levels. What made this even cooler was that he went out there and won the event with the car at its first outing. The major knock on nostalgia bodystyles is their inherent performance disadvantage, but Craig sure made it work. I would love to see rulemakers incentivize unique or nostalgia bodies, even over-incentivize them intentionally to get some guys building more cars like this. Pro Mod was built on clashes between power adders and modern and nostalgia body styles and that has nearly been lost completely in today’s competition.

NATE VAN WAGNEN: I heard the rumors and saw the spy shots of Craig’s new car in the works over the last year or so, and I’ll admit I wondered if it would be competitive. Like Mike said, we’ve been made to think you need a ’69 or ’21 Camaro or something like that to be competitive in Pro Mod. Craig and everyone that contributed to that project certainly proved that wrong. It’s a major accomplishment to win with any brand-new car, but it’s an even bigger deal to do it with a car that could just as easily win a car show. The car looks like he took a Hot Wheels car out of the package and blew it up to full scale. Hat’s off to Craig for doing something different.

JOSH HACHAT: Hopefully, a performance like this in a car as cool as this is just the tip of the iceberg for getting some variety back in Pro Mod. We talked last week about the lack of diversity in power adders in NHRA Pro Mod, but it could certainly be extended to the total lack of imagination when it comes to body styles.

It’s huge for someone like Sullivan to take a risk and step outside the box when everyone else is choosing the safest path to quicker runs these days, and hopefully, it spurs a few other drivers to make a similar decision. I know I’ve talked to several who didn’t want to go the ’21 Camaro route but felt they had no other choice to be competitive. This should be a wake-up call that there’s still more than one way to be successful in Pro Mod. It’s what made the class so good for so long, so let’s cross our fingers we’ll look back at Sullivan’s decision as a trend-setting one for the class.

I’m also on board with an idea Doug Winters (and probably several others) have had: If you go the Camaro route, you get weight added to your car. Like Mike mentioned, find a way to incentivize those driving a Chevelle or another nostalgia-style car.

WES BUCK: It was absolutely awesome to see so much buzz around the debut of Craig “Sully” Sullivan’s new ’49 Mercury. I don’t know if he’s been listening to a lot of Alan Jackson or what, but the decision to venture way outside the box with his new NMCA Xtreme Pro Mod is certainly something I appreciate. The truth is he’s got a connection to these cars through his family – both his father and grandfather had or have one – and I love to see these kind of storylines unfold on the drag strip. Do you see anyone lamenting over how meaningful their new 2021 Chevy Camaro is to them? Because they’ve had generations of family members race those cars? No, you don’t.

The most important part of this whole deal was Sully winning the damn race. It’s great to see a badass new nostalgia car in one of drag racing’s premier doorslammer sanctions, but typically the enthusiasm solely surrounds how the car looks and wanes relatively quickly because the on-track performance isn’t there. Not the case here.

In a time when many drag racers aren’t full-time racers and have obligations away from the drag strip and therefore likely don’t have the time, ability or inclination to market themselves and create content designed to show their personality, we desperately need their cars to be as personalized, meaningful to them and as reflective of their personality as possible. It’s a way to immediately connect with a fan and it adds a layer/ripple to the storyline that is simply necessary to get people interested and invested. I’d argue that this extends to a racer’s helmet, fire suit, pit vehicle, truck and trailer, pit atmosphere, etc., but I’ll settle with a car – be it body style, paint job or nickname – that gives me a little insight as to who the driver is as a person.

Lastly, I challenge rule makes throughout drag racing to take notice. I haven’t seen a car receive a reception like this online in many, many years. What can be done to encourage this type of thing? I believe we need weight breaks across the board – from NHRA to PDRA and NMCA to NEOPMA and MWDRS, etc. – that not only encourage racers to build a nostalgia-bodied car, but put them at an advantage for doing so. It’s been an advantage to build a late-model car for years now. What’s wrong with letting the pendulum swing in the other direction? It can’t be 25-pounds. It has to be significant – extremely significant – if you’re going to convince every championship-focused racer to spend something like $200,000 on a new rolling chassis with a ’57 Chevy body or a 69′ Chevelle body or ’41 Willys, you’re going to have to make it an obvious advantage and you’re going to have to leave it that way for awhile.

QUESTION: Steve Torrence has a chance to sweep the Swing and become the first driver in 12 years to do it. How would you rate his chances and where would this accomplishment stack up in his recent run of dominance?

CARPENTER: You have to rate his chances as being at least as good as anyone’s in recent memory that has been in position to sweep the swing, considering the guy seemingly wins nearly every race. I really thought we were going to see Leah pull off the win fresh off appearing on the cover of DI for the third time, but Torrence still prevailed. This team has been on another level for the last few years. Josh Hachat dropped a stat on us earlier this week that’s mind-blowing: by the end of the season, Torrence has a chance to be third all-time on the Top Fuel win list.

VAN WAGNEN: I’d say there’s a slightly better than zero chance someone other than Steve Torrence is in the winner’s circle on Sunday. That team is truly one step ahead of everyone else in Top Fuel. Others are close, but close doesn’t always cut it. That’s a team that thrives on challenges, and when you dangle the carrot that is a Western Swing sweep in front of them, they’re going to work hard to get it.

HACHAT: Others might be close from time to time, but nobody can keep up with Torrence for long. That’s been one of the amazing things in this latest run is that nobody can keep up with Torrence’s performance for more than a race. He’s had a ton of marquee challengers – Antron Brown, Brittany Force, Leah Pruett – but none of them can match his pace of consistent, quick runs. Torrence is doing it 7 times a weekend and it’s clearly a step ahead of everyone.

He’s racked up 46 career wins and nearly all of them have been in the last five years. It’s incredible he could possibly be third all-time in Top Fuel wins by the end of the year if he maintains this pace, passing guys like Antron and Doug Kalitta while they’re still competing at a high level.

So, on that note, I feel confident Torrence will find a way to get it done in what will be some hot and nasty conditions this weekend in Pomona to sweep the Western Swing. He’s done everything else lately, so why not this?

BUCK: Has it really been 12-years? That seems hard to believe. If that’s true (I’m assuming it is! LOL!), it’s hard to believe more isn’t being made of Steve Torrence’s seemingly really good chances of pulling it off.

I’ve said this before, but it’s worth saying again: People largely don’t understand how difficult it is to win a drag race. It’s hard to win four games of tic-tac-toe in a row, let alone four rounds of drag racing in cars that make 11,000-horsepower and are controlled by human beings. Consider that Steve Torrence has won 12-straight elimination rounds going into the last stop on the NHRA Western Swing. Seriously. Stop and think about how significant that really is. It’s freaking unbelievable, gang. It’s special.

I don’t know that Steve Torrence needs to do anything further to cement himself as a drag racing great – a legit first-ballot hall of famer – but a sweep of the swing would add another line item to one of drag racing’s most legit resumes.

Why isn’t this guy a superstar yet? What’s the issue? How much would it cost to get him a spot on whatever show Jay Leno is doing right now? How do we get him on some talk shows? How do we get him on some billboards and television commercials?

QUESTION: Are we watching Aaron Stanfield become a Pro Stock star before our eyes in a class filled with young guns?

CARPENTER: He’s a star on the track for sure, and hopefully we start to see him embrace that and reveal more of his personality as the wins stack up. He’s kind of the forgotten guy when we talk about the Pro Stock youth movement, as he’s overshadowed by bigger personalities that garner more of the attention. But he has all the ingredients to be a force in the class for a long time to come: second-generation racer, knows the car in-and-out, and has more experience than you’d think given his age.

VAN WAGNEN: I think Aaron has what it takes to become the next Jason Line or Greg Anderson. He’s been around Pro Stock racing and sportsman racing since he was a young child, and he’s proved he learned a lot from his dad, Greg Stanfield. He’s a proven driver and he knows what’s going on with the car. We featured Aaron in the 30 Under 30 issue back in 2017 before any talks of Pro Stock or even Factory Stock Showdown. It’s been really cool to see him jump into those classes and have a lot of success. I think he’s going to be a part of the conversation for years to come.

HACHAT: I don’t know if Stanfield’s laid-back demeanor will ever allow him to become a mega-star, but he could end up being one of the ultimate wheelmen in Pro Stock history. Plain and simple, Stanfield is a stud behind the wheel. He knows how to handle himself in tight situations, he’s a killer on the starting line and nothing seems to rattle him. The natural talent and driving skills just seem to ooze off him and it’s been impressive to see his performances the last two years in Factory Stock Showdown and now Pro Stock.

There’s so many talented, young drivers in Pro Stock right now – which is extremely exciting in its own right – but Stanfield may be the best of the bunch right now. He’s second in points, has won two of the last three races and seems completely poised to challenge for a world championship this season.

BUCK: I spoke to some of the crew chiefs and crew members that are around Aaron Stanfield earlier this week and posed the question, “What makes this young man special?” They all said it’s how “consistently great” he is. It’s not a .00-second reaction time every round, but it’s always a .017 or .020, and better if he needs it. In Pro Stock, perhaps more so than in any other drag racing eliminator, it’s all about the details – the way you do the burnout, the way you back up from the burnout, how you stage the car, hitting your shift points, not over-steering the car, etc. He’s just “got it”, and not everyone does. I think just about anyone can drag race, but only a few can do it well, and do it well all the time. He’s one of the few. To Mike’s point, though, I’m eager to see him come out of his shell a little bit and let us get to know him. Right now, we know him as a soft spoken, kinda quiet guy – the ol’ speak softly and carry a big stick approach. I think he can make it work, but I know we’re all dying to know a little bit more about him and who he is.

QUESTION: What’s the significance of PDRA holding an “allstar” event this weekend for all the pro classes, as well as sportsman racers and JR dragsters, and how excited are you to see Pro Nitrous face off with Pro Boost?

CARPENTER: Along with nostalgia body styles, this is another thing Pro Mod and drag racing in general needs more of. Shootout and exhibition-style special events were plentiful in the 80s and 90s, and I think they generate a good bit of excitement outside of the grind of chasing points in a yearlong series. There’s a reason we’re big on this type of event here at DRAG ILLUSTRATED! I hope this inaugural event is a success for PDRA and they continue to build on it each year. And Pro Nitrous vs. Pro Boost? Finally!

VAN WAGNEN: It’s a huge deal. I worked on a Top Alcohol Dragster team that qualified to compete in the JEGS Allstars race a couple times. Even though you’re racing against the same people on the same track, it feels like a bigger deal than a usual race. It’s an accomplishment to even qualify for these allstar events, so any kind of success you can have in the actual race is a bonus. So to that point, I’m excited for all the PDRA racers that earned their way into this event. Hopefully they recognize that accomplishment.

Pro Nitrous vs. Pro Boost will be interesting. You’re going to see matchups you wouldn’t normally see during the regular season races. I’m in the minority here at DI in that I think the two classes should remain separate in general, but I’m all for one-off races like this.

HACHAT: Done right, it’s hard to beat the one-race excitement of an All-Star race or shootout. We’ve seen it at the World Doorslammer Nationals or a variety of these special one-off races. The energy is off the charts, any worry about points are thrown out the window and you can kind of throw caution to the wind.

In that regard, I’m excited to see how this plays out. I’m all for Pro Boost vs. Pro Nitrous, which harkens back to those Bud Shootout days when Top Fuel raced Funny Car. The sport needs a little mixing things up from time to time, and I’m glad this race delivers that.

BUCK: Personally, I love it. I love anything that adds a little sizzle to what we’re doing out here on the drag strip. All-Star events are massively important to sports of all shapes and size and are a huge part of the stick-and-ball sports economy. However, even in the NBA and NFL and MLB struggle with enthusiasm for these deals from their players, so it can be a challenge to get buy-in from your participants, but it seems like PDRA has sweetened the deal and poured the coals to this deal enough promotion-wise to get racers on-board and excited. Here’s hoping it is a tremendous success for the PDRA and something that becomes a landmark happening on their schedule.

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