Manny Buginga made his NHRA Pro Mod debut in a big way at the AMALIE Motor Oil Gatornationals. Not only did he pick the 2022 Champion of the class to make his mark, but he engaged Kris Thorne in a staging duel during the first round of eliminations.
Qualified No. 14, the Drag Illustrated Outlaw Driver of the Year felt the need to level the playing field when he was matched up with Thorne, who qualified No. 3. “Going into that round, we knew we didn’t have the car to be dominant,” explained Buginga.
After researching and watching tape of previous NHRA Pro Mod races, Buginga found Thorne’s weakness – his need to roll into the beams second. “My trick was to get him out of his comfort zone and put his car in the beams first,” he said.
The crowd was fully engaged during the staging duel. Fans were on their feet, cheering and clapping during the two-plus-minute spectacle. After both cars had sat idling on the starting line for nearly three minutes, Buginga eventually put the car in neutral and unintentionally rolled into the beams. Thorne followed and left with a 0.018-second reaction time to Buginga’s 0.043. However, it was Thorne who claimed the first-round victory.
“I see Kris [at the top end] running at me with a smile, and I think, ‘is he going to beat me up?’ But he comes over and gives me a bear bug,” said Buginga. As a matter of fact, he went over to Thorne’s pits after the first round and offered a motor to help the 2022 NHRA Pro Mod Champion advance to the next round. “It’s not something we did maliciously to hurt anybody’s parts.”
Buginga and Thorne’s starting line staging duel has created such a buzz, now Stevie “Fast” Jackson and Lyle Barnett, Pro Mod racers and “The Shake and Bake” Podcast Hosts, have put up a $3,000 bounty to the first driver that forces Kris Thorne into the beams first.
However, Buginga admitted that he lost a crew chief over the staging duel but stands by his motto, “if you want to be the best, you have to race the best.”
“I don’t care if you’re last year’s champion; I don’t care if you’re John Force. I want to beat you, and whatever I’ve got to do to make it happen – that’s my job,” said Buginga. “At any point during that staging duel, Kris could’ve rolled in. It came down to two very strong-minded and opinionated racers that were not rolling in.”
While some doors might’ve closed for Buginga, many have opened. “The amount of exposure we got for our sponsors – we feel like we won the lottery. Ninety-nine percent of the people don’t agree with the crew chief being lost in the whole deal,” stated Buginga. “I wish him well. We’ve been together for five and a half years. I feel bad about it. We won a lot together and set a lot of world records.”
Additionally, Buginga has received support from the Pro Mod community, like J.R. Gray, Mike Janis, Stan Shelton and Jose Gonzalez, to name a few. Plus, the veteran drag racer thanks both crews for their endless support.
“We need to give credit to my crew and Thorne’s crew,” said Buginga. “No parts flew off during the duel. My crew gives me a hot rod to go out there and do a two to three- minute staging duel. People forget about that piece of the puzzle.”
Furthermore, Buginga feels the tides are changing at the NHRA. “I think the NHRA is figuring out this is what they need. I think NHRA Pro Mod is turning the corner,” he proclaimed.
The next stop for the FuelTech NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series presented by Type A Motorsports is the Circle K NHRA Four-Wide Nationals at zMax Dragway April 28-30.
As far as what’s next for Buginga and “Pro Mod Fred,” the Jerry Bickel-built Camaro, coated in “Manny Race Red” paint, “We’ll put the pieces together – the cream always rises to the top.”