It’s been more than a decade since veteran drag racer Mark Pawuk has gone after one of NHRA’s coveted Wally trophies, but the years since his last race have been full. Pawuk, known to fans as “The Cowboy,” acquired six hard-fought victories in the fiercely competitive Pro Stock category before stepping away in 2006 to focus on business and raising children Kassandra and Kyle with wife Bonnie.
For years, Pawuk shook his head “no” when asked about a return to the driver’s seat, but with the encouragement of longtime friend Don Schumacher, Pawuk is now saying yes. The Ohio native will join the Don Schumacher Racing (DSR) team as driver of the Empaco Equipment Mopar Dodge Challenger Drag Pak for five events this season, beginning in Bristol. Alongside DSR teammate and fellow Drag Pak campaigner Leah Pritchett, Pawuk plans to compete in the 2018 SAM Tech NHRA Factory Stock Showdown Series (FSXX) with three-time Lucas Oil Sportsman champion Kevin Helms as crew chief.
Pawuk’s return to the drag strip as a competitor was announced earlier this year at the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals in Charlotte, and DRAG ILLUSTRATEDhad the opportunity to speak with the amiable Ohioan before his FSXX debut at Bristol Dragway’s NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals.
Your last event was the NHRA race in Richmond in 2006; what prompted your departure from racing?
My kids were growing up and pretty active in sports, and my parents’ health had started to decline. I struggled the last few years of my Pro Stock career trying to finish in the top 10 and wasn’t able to get that done. The class is competitive now, but it was even more competitive then with 30 cars racing for 16 spots, and it was tough. I was growing my business at the time, and between all of that and my family commitments, it was definitely the right thing for me to step away. I never actually retired, but I wasn’t really thinking I would come back.
You’re a well-known Pro Stock racer. What was the draw to the Factory Stock cars?
The Factory Stock Showdown is very attractive to me because of the seven-race schedule. I can still run the business without having to commit to 24 races a year. All that said, having the opportunity to be involved with a first-class racing operation like DSR with a partner like Leah Pritchett, it just seemed like everything was falling into place. I decided to give it a shot.
After 11 years away from the driver’s seat, was there one final nudge that brought you back?
The final nudge was really the schedule and where the Factory Stock Showdown races will take place. I started my career in the ’70s in Norwalk, and I’ve known the Bader family forever. [Summit Motorsports Park] is my home track, and I grew up there.
It was disappointing that the year after I stepped away from Pro Stock, NHRA brought the national event there, so seeing it on the schedule for the Factory Stock Showdown was the final factor in my decision to give this a shot. Bill Bader Sr. and Bill Jr. do a great job of taking care of the fans, the spectators, and the racers, and it’s great for me that I can go to Norwalk and compete this year.
My wife, Bonnie, thinks I already have too much on my plate – and she’s probably right – but my son and daughter are very excited about it, and I see this as a way that we can all spend time together as a family.
Don Schumacher has said that your friendship goes back a long way. Where did your relationship begin?
I met [Schumacher’s son] Tony first. Don had a house in Florida in the same development as my parents, and Tony invited us to a cookout. Don wasn’t there at the time, but through Tony, I met Don later. My wife and I have become good friends with Don and his wife, Sarah, since then. We’ve built a real friendship, and Don is a great guy.
It’s truly an honor to be asked to be part of this program and part of an organization like DSR. I did not want the responsibility of starting a team on my own again, and this gave me the opportunity to drive and still fulfill the important obligations I have with the business and customers.
You licensed at zMAX Dragway in Charlotte earlier this year. Now that you’ve driven the Factory Stock car, how does it compare to Pro Stock?
It got my attention. The Mopar Challenger Drag Pak is a fast car, and we’re pulling a lot more weight than we did with our Pro Stock cars. The power curve is a little bit different, but being on a 9-inch tire makes it a pretty awesome ride.
I was a nervous wreck the first few runs. I’ve been away from the sport for over 11 years, and it’s changed a lot. The basic fundamentals are the same, but I was shocked. You have a very narrow window to tune these cars, and a lot of power on small tires. If you spin the tires on the starting line, the run is pretty much over. Kevin Helms, my crew chief, does a great job of getting the cars to make good, consistent runs, but that’s something I need to get used to – knowing how to finesse the car and get it down the track.
Leah Pritchett and Kevin Helms have been working together this year, now you’ve had a chance to get to know them a bit. Talk a little bit about the dynamics of the team.
I think it’s going to be awesome. Leah stayed Monday after the race in Charlotte, helped me get used to the car, and gave me advice on how to get it down the racetrack. She was a big help for me. I never really knew Kevin before, but he has a stellar resume, and he’s awesome. Me being the “old gun” and Leah being the “young gun,” I think we’ll mesh well together. I think we can learn from each other and be a very competitive team. Hopefully, we’ll win some races.
You’ll race five events this year. What are your plans for beyond 2018?
You know, I haven’t really thought about it yet. I really like that NHRA is giving the class some attention, and I think these cars could be the wave of the future. It’s great to see all three manufacturers back in the sport and being competitive. Chevrolet, Ford, Dodge, they’re all there. It’s great for the sport, and it’s great for the fans. As far as my future, I want to see how this year goes.
You’re a pro with plenty of experience behind the wheel, but are you a little nervous?
Oh yeah, I’m nervous. But I think it’s good to be nervous. You can never take anything for granted. You have to have a lot of respect for these race cars, because they can control you very easily. I hope I can do a good job, and I don’t know if I still have it after 11 years, but I’m looking forward to it. I know I’ll gain more confidence as we go, and hopefully I’ll win a few rounds.
Story by Kelly Wade
This story originally appeared in DI #134, the Interview Issue, in July of 2018.