The sun is setting at Qatar Racing Club as Ty Tutterow drives through the water box and starts his burnout during eliminations at the first race of the 2020 Arabian Drag Racing League season in January.
Standing directly behind the car is his father, Todd, a doorslammer legend who is no doubt beaming inside at the prospect of his son joining him in the Pro Mod ranks. At the moment, though, his focus is getting his son lined up and prepared to head down the eighth-mile in the low 3.70s, confident in the package he’s put together as his son’s tuner.
But just as important is something that happens a few minutes earlier, right as Ty gets in the car. It’s a routine the father and son have developed over the years, signifying a special bond between the two.
“Every time he gets in the car, he holds my hand and tells me he loves me,” Todd Tutterow says. “It’s very special to my heart. It doesn’t matter who’s standing there, he always tells me he loves me.”
Todd reciprocates when he puts his headset on, right before his son goes down the track, a tradition that he dearly appreciates. For all the championships Tutterow has won – and it’s almost too numerous to list – it’s moments like this the veteran treasures.
“He’s been with me the last 24 years at the track,” Tutterow says. “He does all the transmission work in my car and he’s sort of followed in my footsteps. He’s just a good kid and you can’t ask for anything more than that.”
On this day, the teacher proves he’s still got it – no surprise considering the 2019 season Tutterow just enjoyed on the NHRA Pro Mod circuit.
Father and son met up in the semifinals in Qatar after Ty qualified No. 1 with a run of 3.741 seconds at 199.94 mph. Ty runs quicker – another 3.741 to his dad’s 3.749 – but Todd was quicker off the line in eliminations, delivering a trademark performance of one of the sport’s greatest drivers. “The old guy’s still got it,” Tutterow says with a chuckle.
He followed that up by beating Mike Castellana in the final round, adding another victory a week later during the second race of the Arabian series. The North Carolina native lowered the boom with a stout 3.701 at 202.33 in testing just days after that, his best run since he’s been in Qatar this year.
If anything, it’s a momentum-building start to what Tutterow hopes is a year that includes his crowning achievement: a NHRA Pro Mod world championship.
He finished a career-best second in 2019 to Stevie “Fast” Jackson, winning the 50th annual Gatornationals to pick up his first career NHRA Pro Mod victory along the way.
This year, though, second place won’t do. For a man who has done it all and done it across the world, this is the only thing left to accomplish and Tutterow is leaving nothing to chance. He estimates he’ll make close to 60 runs overseas in his blown Al-Anabi Performance Camaro before returning home, testing everything from engine oil to converters to ignition systems to engines to camshafts, and everything else in between.
But there’s only one goal in mind in 2020 and Tutterow is not holding back.
“I’ve won 19 championships in different organizations, but I’ve never won a NHRA championship. That’s my goal,” Tutterow says. “Winning races in NHRA is big, but winning a championship in NHRA, that would be the icing on the cake. The championship, that’s what I’m going for, dude. I’m going wide open.”
The way Tutterow figures, the chance to win a championship was there a year ago. He started with the Gainesville win, beating Jackson in the final round on a holeshot in arguably the best drag race of the entire season, regardless of class.
Jackson returned the favor in Houston, beating Tutterow in the final round, but there were the makings of an epic season-long duel between the master and the master-in-training.
Jackson has long called Tutterow his idol, adding another scintillating layer to the title race, but things went awry for the veteran in Topeka.
He crashed after crossing the finish line following a first-round win, something Jackson experienced the previous season in Charlotte. With it coming in the midst of the busiest part of the Pro Mod season, Tutterow could never quite regain his footing to challenge Jackson.
“I think we had a car that could have won the championship and [the crash] kind of put a dampener on that,” Tutterow says. “We had a few issues, struggled at Bristol and every car has its own personality. We had a good combination the first part of the year and that’s what was so exciting.
“We kind of had to start over with no testing and it took some time to get back on our feet. We struggled a little and then we got it figured out toward the end of the year again.”
By then, Jackson had wrapped up the championship, finishing with the most round wins in NHRA Pro Mod history in a truly epic year. Tutterow went to the final round at the last race of the season in Las Vegas – which was preceded by back-to-back semifinals – vaulting him back into second.
It was a bittersweet feeling in some regards, but Tutterow believes it’s only strengthened his chances for 2020. “I feel like we should hit the ground running,” Tutterow says.
If it happens, it will come in another car, as Tutterow won’t be racing his current Camaro during the NHRA season. He’ll race a new 2020 Jerry Bickel Race Cars Camaro with a Five Star race body, a car that Tutterow actually designed.
Tutterow felt it was important to have a car personalized for his style and preferences, praising the autonomy Bickel gave him during the unique process. That means the motor is located where Tutterow wants, along with other driver-specific nuances, including wheelbase, wiring, body style and other items.
It puts the onus on Tutterow, but he’s always been the first one to bet on himself. The track record speaks for itself and Tutterow hopes it leads to major results in 2020.
“Based on what I have in the car now and the one I crashed, I tried to put the two cars together and make one great car,” says Tutterow, who also designed the rear wing. “I’ve designed other cars, but this is the first car Jerry ever built [specifically] for me. He was very open-minded, and I think we’re going to have a great car.
“It was just a personal preference of how I wanted things and hopefully we’ll see a difference in the performance.”
It would be unwise to bet against Tutterow, who has thrived in any car in virtually every series.
He has raced in Qatar since 2009, tuning everything from hill climbers to Outlaw 10.5 cars to radial cars to Pro Mod cars. Name a doorslammer class and he’s probably won in it or tuned somebody to a championship in it, but the path to NHRA Pro Mod was never a certainty.
He had raced sporadically over the years, attending 21 races before 2018, but never with the consistency to win a race, let alone be a threat to win a championship.
But it became a priority in 2018, with Tutterow racing the full season for the first time, finishing ninth in points and advancing to a final round and two semifinals.
It was an up and down year – Tutterow didn’t qualify at three events – but a final round in Bristol and a No. 2 qualifier in Vegas opened eyes and created a new world of possibilities.
“I never really had the opportunity to do the full schedule like we do now,” Tutterow says. “It took almost the full season (in 2018) to get used to the engine combination over a quarter-mile and the track surface. When we finally got it (heading into 2019), we made some good laps, and Stevie and I had some really good races. Hopefully this year we’ll get to see who’s got what.”
It’s as close as Tutterow gets to talking trash.
He’s been the model of consistency for decades, a silent assassin who will take your soul on the starting line, shake your hand on the top end and then go back and do it again to the next person an hour later.
Make no mistake, though, despite a quiet demeanor, Tutterow is as competitive as anyone in the sport. He wants to race against the best, push himself and his car to the limits and see who comes out on top. Anything less would just be a bore.
“The competition is so fulfilling,” Tutterow says. “It makes you get up every morning. I want to be the best and I want to run against the best. The level of competition in this class, it pumps you up, there’s no question about that.”
It takes Tutterow a second to answer the question: After all these years and all these championships, is he still getting better?
It’s a tough thing to evaluate. After being on top of the sport for as long as he has, as a tuner, driver and, simply, a great mind in drag racing, how much better could he possibly get? To say he’s vastly better would be a slap in the face to the Tutterow that won championship after championship on tracks akin to a bumpy road compared to today’s glass surfaces.
But saying he’s already a finished product as a driver or crew chief eliminates the chance to advance the sport, something Tutterow has always enjoyed.
Instead, Tutterow lands somewhere in the middle, believing he’s still at the peak of his powers while continuing to refine everything that has made him so great for so long.
“I don’t know that I’m getting any better, but I think I have more wisdom and I’m probably a little more calm,” Tutterow posits. “There’s a lot more ways to lose than to win in this sport, but I’ve always seemed to do pretty well and I’ve run on some pretty nasty tracks.
“But I still have the drive to do it and I’m still trying to get better and better.”
He jokes that racing against guys who call him his idol – like Jackson has on frequent occasions – only makes him feel old, but it’s an honor he doesn’t take lightly.
He appreciates guys like Jackson who have a work ethic that matches his, pushing Tutterow to keep moving forward. In Qatar, he’ll work six days a week, putting in upwards of 12-14 hours a day on the car, but it’s the only way Tutterow knows how.
He knows Jackson is working, which keeps Tutterow’s fire burning as well.
“He gets at it and that’s good for me. It pushes me. It’s just like if you were going to play golf. I don’t play, but if I did, I would want to play with the best,” Tutterow says.
Of course, watching his son race in Pro Mod – driving the car Mike Janis piloted to the NHRA Pro Mod championship in 2018 – has also given him an enjoyable boost of energy and motivation. They’ve talked about him perhaps making his debut in 2020, a possibility that brings an instant smile to Todd’s face.
Even if has to wait a year, he’ll be there in the pits with him, working on his father’s transmission and taking his place as a vital part of the team. Todd’s wife, Denise, will be there as well, much like she has for all the years Tutterow has excelled.
It adds an element that makes the operation all the more enjoyable, especially in the midst of what has the chance to be a legacy-defining season.
“It’s been very, very special, (Sheikh KH Al-Thani) allowing us to have the opportunity for (Ty) to drive,” Tutterow says. “Ty has learned so much and anybody that’s seen him drive, you would think I was the one there in the seat. He grew up at the dragstrip and he’s taken it all in. It’s very proud for me and it’s just been very special.”
The buildup to racing for a championship in NHRA Pro Mod in 2020 puts a big load on Tutterow. With a blower car, he knows a fast start – much like the one he enjoyed last year – is necessary. He knows he’ll have to hit on something during first-time trips to Chicago and Brainerd, which are both new stops for the Pro Mod tour.
He’s also well aware he may have to find magic in the high-altitude conditions at Denver, where Tutterow put together a series of standout test passes during the 2018 World Series of Pro Mod. It’s an avalanche of challenges, on top of taking on the best Pro Mod drivers in the world and doing it with a new car.
But it’s all challenges that Tutterow craves. It’s why he goes halfway across the world to work endless hours and develop things that could make the difference on a track where he’s never raced.
The competition drives him, the chance for his first NHRA world championship is there and Tutterow is ready to try and do everything to grab it.
“I’m so excited about this year,” Tutterow says. “We’ve got the brand-new car, I’ve got two brand-new engines. We’ve got a good crew, and we’re ready to go. We’re set up for a good season.”
Photographs by Rick Belden and Shawn Crose
This story originally appeared in DI #153, the Season Preview Issue, in February of 2020.