Mark Micke VS. The World
In just over seven days, Mark Micke will be strapped into Jason Carter’s 1978 Chevy Malibu, bumping the twin-turbocharged, steel-bodied machine into the stage beams for the first round of Radial vs. the World eliminations at promoter Donald Long’s Lights Out 10 at South Georgia Motorsports Park. Flash bulbs will flutter as fire shoots out of the headers and Micke inches closer to unleashing the big-block Chevy-powered beast down the infamous Valdosta eighth mile.
But right now, Micke is far from the chaos of Lights Out 10, where an incredible 75 Radial vs. the World entries will fight for a spot in the 32-car field. He’s just finished strapping down the Malibu in its trailer for the 900-mile trip from Micke’s M&M Transmission shop in Jefferson City, Missouri, to Valdosta. It’s Saturday evening and the rig will roll out Sunday morning, while Micke will fly down Wednesday morning after handling final-hour transmission and torque converter service and parts requests from his numerous drag radial customers.
“This is a busy time with Lights Out coming up,” Micke says. “That’s one of our core groups of customers. Everybody is getting ready for that and we always have guys calling with last-minute needs. A lot of guys are testing before the race too, so they could tear stuff up and need parts, so it could be a crazy week before we even get to the race.”
Truth be told, there aren’t many times when Micke and the M&M shop aren’t busy, especially over the winter. Between the winter series races in Bradenton, Florida, aggressive preseason testing schedules and a full winter of racing overseas in the Arabian Drag Racing League and Bahrain Drag Racing Championship, Micke and his team stay active servicing their customers through the bitter-cold Missouri winter months.
“The business has changed,” Micke explains. “It used to be that November, December and January were everyone getting their stuff freshened up and working on new builds because the season usually didn’t start until February and it usually quit around November.
“Now, hell, we have guys here in the U.S. racing until early December with the Snowbirds,” Micke says. “We do a lot of stuff for the guys racing in the Middle East, and they race in December, January and February. We’re wide open getting them what they need, then most guys here in the states are ready to start testing the first or second week of January. We don’t have a lot of off-time.”
The pace at M&M Transmission has been steadily trending in this direction for over 20 years. The business started in 1996 with a customer base made up of a mix of local racers and everyday street car owners. As Micke’s racing program evolved, his transmission business followed suit.
“We started out and have always been small-tire racers, from the Outlaw 10.5 days to the beginning of drag radial,” Micke says. “Drag radial cars were really our mainstay. That’s what we knew and we knew a lot about those cars. We were really good at it.
“Then we started getting into the Pro Mod scene,” Micke adds. “We raced a Pro Mod and won an NMCA championship in Pro Street in 2008 with our own car. That kind of got us going a little.”
With a firm grip on his small-tire program, Micke continued to develop his offerings for the burgeoning Pro Modified market. He credits a working relationship with Pro Line Racing and co-founder Eric Dillard for helping put M&M’s Pro Mod development program on the fast track starting in 2013.
“Working with Pro Line really elevated our Pro Mod game,” Micke says. “We got more and more involved with the Pro Mod stuff with Pro Line and then we got teamed up with some good customers.
Most of those customers were NHRA Pro Mod stars, like three-time world champion Troy Coughlin, but M&M’s expansion into the Pro Mod scene also bled over into the PDRA with its multiple eighth-mile outlaw doorslammer classes.
“Jay Cox has been with us forever,” Micke says of the perennial top 3 Pro Nitrous star. “We teamed up with Jay and got into the PDRA with him. It’s really taking off well for us now. Pro Mod is a huge part of our business.”
Micke first appeared on the cover of DRAG ILLUSTRATED in late 2013, shortly after being crowned the season champion in both ADRL Pro Drag Radial and NMCA Super Street. It was his first full season teamed up with Carter as the driver and tuner of the now-iconic blue Malibu. Even with all of Micke’s remarkable performances since partnering with Carter, he still considers that season to be his best yet.
“That was a good year for us,” Micke says. “It was a busy year because we ran the car in two different series with two different style tires, and one was quarter mile and one was eighth mile. That was probably our best overall year. That was a killer year.”
Micke points out that he and Carter first started racing together with Carter’s Malibu in 2012 after several years racing in the same circles. The duo formed the foundation of an ideal partnership over the course of their first two seasons together, proving to each other their intentions and the methods they would use to turn those intentions into results. The two each bring their own unique talents to the table, but they share a nearly identical mindset.
“One thing you’ve gotta understand about Jason: everything Jason does revolves around that race car,” Micke says. “It’s 24/7 for him. Everything is that race car. And that’s been my mindset too. If we’re racing that car, that’s what we think of 24/7. I’m always thinking of something to do on that car. We both want to win.
“To be honest, that’s all that matters – to win with that car,” he adds. “That’s the only reason we’re there (at the track). We’re not there to have fun and hang out with everybody. We’re there to win. Period. Both of us have that mindset.”
Carter entrusts Micke with making the tuning calls and piloting the car that Carter actually drove on the streets of Kansas City, Missouri, in high school. Meanwhile, he focuses on making sure the team has everything they need to contend for event titles at the biggest races in drag radial racing.
“Jason is unbelievable with sponsors,” Micke says. “That’s almost a full-time job with him, talking to the people who help us. And he’s working on new products and working on getting somebody to make a new trick part for us. I don’t ever have to deal with that. Jason is over there working on that stuff. All I have to do is focus on the race car, and that helps a lot.”
A major component of Micke’s focus on the race car is its status as the M&M Transmission “house car” used to develop new ideas and products for the company’s line of transmissions, torque converters and shifters.
“That car has elevated our business,” Micke says. “The benefit we have, at least in the transmission and torque converter department, with us doing everything ourselves, we can test and test and test. Let’s say 50 percent of it doesn’t work, but when that other 50 percent does work it’s a big deal. That helps us a bunch.”
Micke also admits there are downsides to the R&D program. He can be tempted to stay in test mode when it comes time to move into race mode, even though the two disciplines sometimes mesh, resulting in headline-worthy performances that get the phones ringing on Monday.
“Sometimes it hurts us because we’re out testing so much stuff we lose a little focus or we’ll struggle with the testing of it,” Micke offers. “It’s a double-edged sword. I have to keep myself in check because I’ll want to try all kinds of off-the-wall stuff. At the end of the day I have to stop and we still have to race the car.
“But they go hand in hand. The performance of that car directly relates to sales of transmissions and torque converters.”
If that’s the case, Micke’s performance at Duck X Productions’ inaugural Sweet 16 at South Georgia last March had to do wonders for the sales of M&M’s transmissions and torque converters. Micke dominated the event, qualifying on top of the record-breaking 34-car qualifying order with a booming 3.623-second pass in the ninth and final qualifying session paired with a 221.20 mph speed from a mid-week 3.677 lap.
He then charged through some of the most feared competitors in Radial vs. the World – Ty Tutterow in the former Barry Mitchell ’69 Camaro, Tim Slavens in his steel-bodied ’69 Camaro, Paolo Giust in the “Black Betty” ’69 Camaro, and finally “Big Daddy” DeWayne Mills in the “Golden Gorilla” ’68 Camaro – to claim the $101,000 payday.
“That was crazy. It was really good for business,” Micke says. “That sold a lot of transmissions and a lot of lock-up torque converters. It just showcased what we’re able to do.”
It’s easy to assume Micke is speaking solely of his own performance at Sweet 16, but it really was a powerful show of force by the entire list of M&M customers competing in the Radial vs. the World field.
“We won that race and had a hell of a weekend, but we also had a lot of customers in the race,” Micke says. “Ten of the 16 qualifiers were our guys. That was a big deal for us. Those 16 cars were the baddest 16 cars on the planet in drag radial. Period. That race was just a win-win for us all the way around.”
The Micke and Carter team didn’t realize at the time the monumental achievement they had just notched. “At the end of the race, to be honest, we were all wore the hell out,” Micke says. “It was nine qualifiers plus four rounds of the most intense racing. We were happy. We didn’t get crazy. We’ve won a lot of races in the past. I don’t want to say you get used to winning – we were pumped and excited – but we weren’t over the top.”
Instead of a concentrated, night-long celebration of epic proportions, Micke realized the magnitude of his Sweet 16 title over a period of days. Only now, nearly a year after the fact, does Micke fully realize his win – considered a routine victory at the time – is something people will be talking about for years to come.
“I’ll be honest, later that week it started sinking in because I got so many calls from so many different people,” he says. “People calling, texting, messaging things like ‘congratulations.’ Once all that really sunk in, it was a really huge deal. It just was. For what we were able to do on that weekend with the quality of racers that were there…it was a big deal. We’ll still get calls about it and we still get a lot of recognition from it.”
Micke pauses when asked if he can top his overall event performance at Sweet 16. “We may never, ever duplicate that performance ever again,” he says. “Who knows? That’s a hard one to top, to be honest. What we did that weekend, there’s not much else we could’ve done at that race.”
The next step in Micke’s quest for Radial vs. the World domination is a trip into the 3.5-second zone. A performance marker thought to be simply impossible as recently as a few years ago is just around the corner, in the eyes of Micke and many other mechanical minds in the class. Micke feels there are more than a couple cars capable of dipping into the 3.50s, and you better believe one of those is a turbocharged ’78 Malibu.
“We have the car that can do it,” Micke declares. “We saw that in testing at Bradenton. We made a run down there that was three hundredths quicker to the 330 than our .62 run. We just didn’t run it out the back. It was a planned 330-foot run. If it would’ve stayed lit and everything worked, there was a possible .50 there. But that was in ideal conditions – below sea level, killer track; everything was perfect. If we get those conditions again, I know our car will do it.”
If the conditions at the second annual Sweet 16, March 21-23 at South Georgia Motorsports Park, are anywhere near as good as they were when Micke stunned the world there last year, watch out. The ultra-competitive Missourian plans to take advantage of the nine qualifying sessions to push the Malibu to its limits. While the money on the line at Sweet 16 is certainly intriguing, Micke is more drawn to the chance to make moonshot runs outside the pressure of eliminations.
“I love the horsepower these things make. We make a lot of power, and I think we make more power than most guys do,” Micke says. “When we get into these situations like Sweet 16, we can really lean on the car and make as much power as we can and just beat the hell out of the car. I just love that kind of stuff when you can just give it all the power you’ve got and just literally run the hell out of that race car. I’m not a conservative guy, so I’ll sometimes take a chance and throw more at it than maybe I should.”
So far, the trusty Malibu has taken everything Micke has thrown at it. With its steel body, stock wheelbase and stock-dimension big-block Chevy powerplant, it’s a bit of an anomaly in the upper echelon of Radial vs. the World cars. Micke and Carter have fought off the temptation to ditch the formerly street-driven Malibu for a purpose-built Pro Mod-style car like many of their competitors have done, but Micke wonders if that might soon change.
“We’ve been able to outrun or run with the Pro Mods with (the Malibu), but I think we’re getting to a point where we may be beyond that,” Micke says. “I don’t know yet. We’ll have to see how it goes in the next year or so. It depends on where the class progresses.”
According to Micke, the biggest advantage to running a Pro Mod in Radial vs. the World is their lower center of gravity, which is especially helpful when wheelie bars aren’t in use. “They probably have some aerodynamic benefits – because the ’78 Malibu sucks, I’m sure – but the center of gravity is probably the biggest thing we’re going to get into. If the class keeps progressing and getting faster, it might have to be all purpose-built race cars.”
Micke won’t come right out and say this is the last year of Radial vs. the World competition for the Malibu, but he does feel like this season will set the tone for the car’s future. “This year will be a good year to tell because I think you’re going to see some huge numbers out of a lot of other cars this year,” Micke says. “I’ve always learned in racing – and it’s not always me – but if one car goes out and runs a number, that gives all the other guys the blueprint on how to do it.”
Last year, Micke was indeed the one providing the blueprint for his competitors to join him in the low 3.6-second range. “There’s a lot of smart guys in this game,” he says. “They saw the time slip. That’s how you do it. The guys are figuring it out. We were just fortunate to figure it out before them.”
Given the incredible rate of progress in the class, Micke understands he’ll soon find himself on the other side of the equation, chasing the next guy who makes a leap forward. “I think that’s one of my stronger suits,” he adds. “I can watch the cars and see what they’re doing. I pay attention. If somebody figures out how to do something better than me, we’re going to try to do that.”
As Micke finishes tidying up the shop with his German Shepherd, Max, by his side, the subject of our conversation moves from his achievements and goals to the people and supporters who help make those things possible. From his “self-sufficient” employees at M&M Transmission to his family, Micke is sure to heap on the praise for the people who make up his support system.
“This racing is all-consuming,” Micke says. “My family, my wife (Maria) and kids (daughters Lauren and Brooke, put up with all this craziness. My wife holds down the house and keeps the business stuff going when we’re out racing.”
Micke and Carter have also developed strong relationships with industry-leading manufacturers to turn the Malibu into an absolute rocket ship adorned with the latest and greatest parts and pieces.
One of those manufacturers is Garrett Advancing Motion, whose 98mm turbochargers can be found tucked neatly under the Malibu’s front clip. “We’ve been with Garrett since me and Jason started together,” Micke says. “That’s been a huge part of what we’ve been able to do. Garrett has gone above and beyond for us and supplied us with the products to do what we can do.”
Micke also credits Bill Miller Engineering’s own Bill Miller for not only providing the durable rods and pistons to slide into the 584ci engine, but also for serving as a mentor of sorts. “I’ve learned a ton of stuff from Bill on how the engine works and the dynamics inside with the fuel curve and compression ratios,” Micke adds. “Bill has helped us immensely. That was a huge turnaround in our program when we got with him. He’s kind of taken us under his wing and really helped us get a handle on what we’re doing.”
Continuing the topic of innovative performance partners, Micke brings up the time when he first synced up with FuelTech. Going into Lights Out a few years ago, Micke was struggling with the switch to methanol. The Malibu showed up to Valdosta with, as Micke puts it, “no engine in it, no fuel system, no anything.” The decision had been made to install FuelTech’s FT500 EFI system. “We actually got a FuelTech system, installed it at the track and rewired the whole car. Those guys came over and helped us with tuneups and we went out and ran a career-best ET and speed,” Micke says. “They’ve been a good company to keep us going on the straight and narrow.”
Finally, in the rundown of manufacturers influencing the Malibu’s performance is M&M Transmission itself. The Malibu uses one of M&M’s Turbo 400 transmissions, its lock-up torque converter and shifter. The combination has proven itself to be hard to beat. “We expect to be the best,” Micke says. “We feel we are the best in the transmission and torque converter game. That’s all we’ll settle for.”
Micke is set on making 2019 his best season yet in racing and business. On the business side, he wants to expand his customer base in the Pro Mod world while continuing to serve his existing clientele. Lead transmission guru Troy Williams will provide technical support out of Michael Biehle’s trailer at all 12 races on the NHRA Pro Mod tour, while M&M will also send their support truck to PDRA events, all three of Donald Long’s small-tire races, Tyler Crossnoe’s Outlaw Street Car Reunion (OSCR) in Bowling Green, Kentucky, and some Mid-West Pro Mod Series races.
“I think this is going to be one of our bigger years,” Micke says. “We really would love to get another NHRA championship in Pro Mod. Same in PDRA. We’ve got solid players in all the classes over there. I think it’s going to be a killer year for us all the way around.”
As for the Malibu, Micke and Carter will hit a smaller schedule of radial races, choosing to focus on major events like Lights Out, Sweet 16, OSCR, No Mercy, and likely the Shakedown Nationals at its new home, Virginia Motorsports Park. The decision came down to fielding the Malibu at races with favorable weather conditions and track prep. Plus, the maintenance routine required to run 3.60s and 3.70s – and maybe even a 3.50 – has made it impractical to run the car more than 10-12 times per year like they did in 2013 when Micke unloaded the car at 18 races.
“These cars just eat parts like crazy,” Micke says. “When that car comes home from a race, we basically rebuild the whole car it seems like. You’re going through the motor, transmission, torque converter, suspension, shocks, struts – everything on the race car, every race.”
But that’s exactly what it takes to perform at the top of the Radial vs. the World game. If nothing else, Micke and Carter have proven that such a dedication to excellence at the shop and in the pits will inevitably pay off on the racetrack.
“That’s the beauty of drag racing: it’s a result-driven sport,” Micke says. “There’s no subjectives or anything. You either win or you lose, period.”
This story originally appeared as the cover story in DI #142 in February of 2019.