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DI Roundtable: Van Wagnen, Hachat, Buck Break Down Pro Mod Restart, Favorites & More

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The location stays the same, but we get another NHRA debut this weekend, as the Pro Mod class makes its first appearance of 2020 in the series. The last time they raced under the NHRA umbrella, it was October and Stevie “Fast” Jackson was running away with his first world championship.

The class is now set for its 2020 debut at this weekend’s NHRA Summernationals at Lucas Oil Raceway, which hosts the second of back-to-back NHRA events. The nitro classes return for a second straight week as well, and Drag Illustrated’s Nate Van Wagnen, Wes Buck and Josh Hachat discuss that first weekend, what to expect from the Pro Mods this weekend and who to watch for in this exclusive roundtable.

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QUESTION: We’re finally seeing the Pro Mod field back in action, minus a couple of big names. What are you expecting this weekend and what are you hoping to see?

NATE: This is the first NHRA Pro Mod race since the ProCharger centrifugal supercharger and 959ci nitrous engine combinations were legalized, so I’m interested to see how those cars do. There aren’t any 959ci nitrous cars entered, but there are several ProCharger cars on the list. If their performances at the World Doorslammer Nationals in Orlando earlier this year was any indication of how they’ll run, I think you can expect to see some of those cars run at the front.

I hope we’ll see the now four power adders all be competitive in this Midwest summer heat. They all ran very well at Orlando in March, but Indianapolis in mid-July is a whole different ballgame.

JOSH: Just the fact that we have four power adders available is extremely exciting, but my hope is it’s not a race to just find the top two. What makes Pro Mod so cool is that diversity and I want there be opportunities for all the brilliant minds in this class to use them all. One of the cautionary things I’ve seen in recent years in that lack of diversity, whether it’s a lack of body styles or teams going with either a turbo or blower.

Maybe this will change things up a bit, but without question, it’s certainly exciting to see this class back in action. The class had question marks late last year, but the race in Orlando was again an incredible display of what Pro Mod is capable of. With only two qualifying shots on what will be a hot Indy track on Saturday, I’m certainly not expecting a record field, but I do expect plenty of great racing and that’s more than good enough for me at this point in 2020.

WES: Per usual…great points made by both Josh and Nate. I’m curious to see whether the Pro Mod division will be able to immediately re-create the momentum, energy, enthusiasm – whatever you want to call it – they had coming out of 2019 and following our race in Orlando back in early March. It seems like that kind of energy is something that fades over time, but can come back in an instant. It’ll be interesting to see which path things take this weekend.

The car count – around 19-20 cars, I believe – isn’t shocking to me considering the factors. It’s hard to forget, though, that just a few months ago we were all talking about and eagerly anticipating the biggest turnout of Pro Mod cars in NHRA history. People were talking 35-40 cars. Here we are in mid-2020 rather accepting of 19. Again, it’s not surprising considering everything going on in the world, but it is half the show we were expecting and that kind of turnout is going to have significant implications for the racers that do show up. Unless things have changed, the arrangement basically agreed upon at the U.S. Nationals last September had NHRA setting up something of a “sliding scale” for Pro Mod entry fees – the more cars, the lower the entry fee. At 20 cars…I’m thinking the entry fee will be a little shy of double what it was last year ($900). Granted, many of these teams aren’t racing for money, but don’t think for a second that it doesn’t matter. It does. Couple that entry fee with the fact that it pays $300 to qualify and it’s a horse pill, to say the least. Here’s hoping no significant changes have been made to the purse.

QUESTION: If you had to pick a few teams that come out strong this weekend, who would be your picks and why?

NATE: I’m expecting the usual strong performance out of some of the top guys from last season, Stevie “Fast” Jackson and Todd Tutterow. I think we’ll see those guys pick up where they left off.

I think Bo Butner is also going to be a threat in Rickie Smith’s car. The guy has won in just about every type of race car he’s stepped foot in. Filling in for the multi-time champ, he’s going to have a pretty good shot at adding Pro Mod to his list of classes he’s won in.

I’m also expecting to see Clint Satterfield go some rounds. Since switching to the ProCharger combination this season, Clint and tuner Bob Gardner have been running very well in eighth-mile competition with the Mid-West Pro Mod Series. Between that and a couple PDRA Pro Boost races, they’ve made a bunch of laps down the track this season.

JOSH: Well, you’d be a dummy to think Stevie “Fast” isn’t going to be ready. He’s been chomping at the bit to get his Pro Mod in competition since his crash in Orlando. But there’s been a lot of teams keeping busy during this downtime.

Satterfield has made tremendous progress in the ProCharger, while the likes of Chad Green and Doug Winters have made a lot of laps in testing as well. Two qualifying runs – and having them in the heat of the day – takes out the home run shots, so just getting down the track will be important. I think that plays into the hands of someone like Winters or Satterfield, who won’t blow up the scoreboard but won’t need to this weekend.

Mike Castellana was the last person to win at Indy in a Pro Mod car, taking the U.S. Nationals last year, so you can’t count him out, either. Plus, the likes of Tutterow and Mike Janis ran well overseas during the off-season, though that may as well have been 10 years ago after what we’ve dealt with this year.

WES: These guys aren’t leaving me much space here! But I’ll second (or third) the notion of Stevie Jackson picking up right where he left off. Jim Whiteley, who’s split-window ’63 Corvette is tuned by Jackson, is also due for a breakout performance, in my opinion. He’s stayed fresh behind the wheel of a Top Sportsman Chevy S10 in recent months and has likely done all the testing possible to be ready to contend with the best in the business. For a slew of reasons, including the fact that I think he’s a great guy who has done a tremendous amount for the sport of drag racing, Jim Whiteley in the winner’s circle at Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis sounds good to me.

I’m also genuinely excited for the three-car team of Jeff Jones, Justin Jones and Brandon Pesz to make their debut in NHRA competition. Pesz has made a few attempts in the past, but this will be the first time the trio has thrown their collective hat in the ring, and I think they’ll be in the mix.

Bo Butner making his Pro Mod debut in Rickie Smith’s car, as Nate noted, will be a big story and if you’ve somehow forgotten…Bo Knows Drag Racing. He’ll be an animal in the car, in my opinion, and certainly a solid bet to be there late in the day on Sunday.

Here’s a dark horse pick for you, though: Jeffrey Barker. This former Top Sportsman world champion is a bad hombre. He’s deadly on the starting line, cool as a cucumber and in the nitrous-injected Pro Mod that broke the internet earlier this year with a slew of what-would-be record-setting passes for the combination. With the brain trust of Stevie Jackson, Billy Stocklin and Phil Shuler calling the shots on the car and the elephant-sized chip they tend to keep on their shoulder – it’s hard for me to look past that program.

QUESTION: After seeing the NHRA return last weekend, what are your thoughts? Anything more you would like to see?

NATE: It was definitely great to see the NHRA pro classes back in action. The event had a very different feel than a usual national event. A lot of elements were missing, but the missing elements were all fair compromises.

As we talked about last week, the daytime qualifying sessions were very disappointing. Only two Funny Cars dipped into the 3-second zone, and if it weren’t for a storm that rolled in to cool off the later portion of the final Top Fuel session, we probably wouldn’t have seen the one Top Fuel pass in the 3.70s. Fortunately, the 9 a.m. Sunday start time ensured much quicker passes on race day, and the teams delivered some tight racing.

This weekend’s qualifying sessions are also scheduled to run in the heat of the day, so I expect much of the same. The one bright side here is the hot conditions tend to level the playing field a bit. We saw independent teams like Terry McMillen, T.J. Zizzo and Clay Millican out-qualify some of the mega-team cars in Top Fuel, and I’d like to see more of that this weekend.

JOSH: Here’s me returning to beat that dead horse again, but, man, I think last weekend looks far different if we’re racing under the lights, at least on Saturday. Sunday’s eliminations were fine and it was a pretty exciting show with some standout competitors, especially for the second round and beyond.

It took some time to get there, though. Saturday wasn’t overly smooth, you didn’t have any massive performances and I think a lot of that could be changed under the lights. But, again, we know that’s wishful thinking at that point. Still, it was hard to look at the empty stands and not have it affect you in some way. Hopefully – and my fingers are really, really crossed here – we’re able to change that the rest of the year, but there’s no doubt a crowd adds to it, even if you’re watching on TV.

As far as the performances, it was cool to see the teams that were running well to open the year – Doug Kalitta, Torrences, Tommy Johnson Jr. – basically pick right up where they left off five months ago. That’s incredibly hard to do in 11,000-horsepower machines, and I will admit Sunday was a lot of fun to watch. Seeing Ryan Oehler picked up his first career win was pretty cool, and Pro Stock always delivers.

WES: For starters, I’d like to see a little more public outreach and communication. I’m hopeful that kind of thing is happening in the background with pro-level race teams, but I feel like there’s been something of a deafening silence coming from NHRA. I’m sure it’s that there’s “nothing to report”, but it feels like the mainstream sports news cycle is provided near constant updates – fueling constant speculation and conversation – regarding the various professional sports leagues’ plans to return to competition, changes being made, programs being put in place, plans for the future, etc. I’ve heard more rumors regarding the remaining portion of the NHRA season over the course of the last two weeks – oftentimes contradicting – than I’ve heard about anything…ever. I’m not saying 100-percent transparency is needed, but considering the sheer number of stakeholders here – a little bit of outreach and communication seems reasonable.

Secondly, I think it’s our unwillingness to “play the game” with matters such of this that has helped relegate our sport to second-class-citizen status in the sports world. We have such a tremendous product, such an incredible community of competitors and fans, but we do very little of the things that other sports do. As a single point of comparison, NBA commissioner Adam Silver is a legitimate sports celebrity. UFC president Dana White is an A-List celebrity; he’s interviewed on TMZ almost weekly. His sport – mixed martial arts – was referred to as “human cockfighting” inside of the last decade and, at least initially, was banned in some states. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is so well known that, so talked about, that he’s something of a meme. Fans have turned booing him into a sport itself. These three men are in front of the camera almost constantly. They’re preaching the gospel of their sports, commenting on happenings and issues all the time. Getting a comment from NHRA officials can be painfully challenging, let alone getting face time, screen time or interview time.

Also, interestingly enough, I’d say the three aforementioned sporting leagues – NBA, UFC, NFL – are enjoying more success right now than almost any other. Is that a coincidence? That there are charismatic leaders at the helm? I think not.

If we’re specifically talking about what we want to see at this next race, though…I’d agree with night racing. I’ve never seen a greater opportunity for NHRA to re-write their playbook. Here’s a blank sheet of paper. Somehow, though, we’re nullifying one of drag racing’s most spectacular visual aspects (header flames) and we’re also missing the opportunity to pander to the hardcores with the potential of record-setting performances. That opportunity may not exist at all in July, but my point is just that we’re really not highlighting or showcasing anything our sport has to offer. Personally, I’d have gone to tremendous lengths to make sure we put our absolute best foot forward on network television, especially without a ton of competition.

For a group of people that were able to justify changing the format of our sport from racing on a quarter-mile to 1,000-feet – perhaps the only nuance of drag racing that has penetrated pop culture and has essentially been the barometer for all-things-automotive-performance since the beginning of time – I do find it puzzling they are so resistant to change or new ideas.

QUESTION: Obviously there’s a lot of other racing going on. What has impressed you outside the NHRA thus far in 2020?

NATE: I’m a little biased since I follow the PDRA series pretty heavily, but their program has really impressed me this year. We’ve seen Pro Nitrous and Pro Boost cars in the mid-3.60s, plus some great racing across their numerous other pro and sportsman classes.

The Mid-West Pro Mod Series has also been doing a great job putting on events this year. There are a ton of solid Pro Mod cars in middle America, and MWPMS has given them a place to race without having to travel too far. With the addition of Top Sportsman, Top Dragster, and now Top Alcohol Funny Car, it’s a great deal for racers and fans alike.

JOSH: Honestly, I’ve been impressed with a lot of different series and events. This hasn’t been easy or normal by any stretch, but a lot of tracks and races have handled it well, whether it’s been big-money bracket racing, the PDRA, MWPMS, one-off events like Donald Long’s Magic-8, or a whole heck of a lot of other races.

It’s really proven the viability and health of the sport amidst some pretty trying times and drag racing may be better for it. We’ve read reports of record entries all over the place in bracket racing events, and we’re seeing good turnouts across the Pro Mod board at eighth-mile racing events. Places like Xtreme Raceway Park have had big crowds for their events, and it seems like the entire drag racing community has forged together to excel in all this. That’s definitely a positive sign for the sport moving forward.

WES: I’m fully supportive and admittedly a fanboy of all sanctions and series outlined by Nate and Josh here. I love PDRA and what they represent. I’m super impressed with what Keith Haney has put together with the Mid-West Pro Mod Series/Drag Racing Series. Donald Long’s ability to turn chicken shit into chicken soup with these small, fan-free shootouts has been awesome, as well as interesting and inspiring.

What I’ve been most impressed with, however, has to be Chris Graves’ Pro Mod vs. Fuel Altered Showdown at Xtreme Raceway Park. That event – the fan turnout, the participation from racers for an event not featuring an obscene payout or hyper-competitive rule set – was amongst the coolest I’ve witnessed in all my years in and around the sport of drag racing. Clyde Scott’s Xtreme Raceway Park – an all-concrete heaven for racers – was packed with fans, the pits were piled full of race cars and the on-track action was off the hook. It was the kind of show that could make you fall in love with drag racing all over again, as if it were your first time at the track.

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