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Mr. Perfect: Dean Marinis and The Quest For Perfection

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The name doesn’t come up as “Dean Marinis.” Or “Dean.” Or “Marinis.” Or even “Mean Dean” as he’s affectionately known by many in the drag racing scene.

Instead, when the New York-native grudge racer turned successful X275, Pro Mod racer and standout tuner calls one of his New York racing friends, a different – but also very apt – nickname comes across their phone: “Mr. Perfect.”

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“He calls me ‘Perfect’ or ‘Mr. Perfect’ because that’s what I’m always striving for,” Marinis says with a laugh.

In true racer fashion, perfection remains a mythological creature. It drives everyone, but is there ever a perfect run? There’s always a little more left, a little better weather, a little better track.

[Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in DI #160, the Crew Chief Issue, in September of 2020.]

Perfect is a rarity and maybe even an impossibility in the never-stationary world of drag racing, but it’s also a moniker that suits Marinis well. A respected tuner and driver, Marinis is always after more, hopeful for that so-called perfect run.

Of course, that’s no different from any racer who has a similar mindset.

The difference is Marinis is willing to work to find it, no matter how impossible, how needle-in-the-haystack the concept may be.

Racing isn’t Marinis’ main job – he exports heavy equipment – but it may as well be his main priority.

Going fast is always top of mind, whether he’s doing the driving or doing the tuning. He’s enjoyed a career that’s spanned decades and whether it was grudge racing, X275 or a Pro Mod, Marinis has been dedicated to making people go fast in a nitrous car.

“If there’s anyone I can help out and make them go faster, I take pride in that. That’s important to me and it means a lot if I can help them,” Marinis says.

He’s helped grudge racer after grudge racer, and there’s barely a weekend that goes by where he isn’t tuning several people – either by phone or in person.

At the recent Shakedown Nationals at Virginia Motorsports Park, he drove the Harry Pappas-owned, Pat Musi Racing Engines-powered Camaro – the same nitrous car he went a record-breaking 5.572-seconds in last year.

Meanwhile, he’s helping Pat Musi on Lizzy Musi’s Pro Mod car, making the tuning decisions on radial cars for the likes of Jack Greene and Ron Rhodes.

While he’s planning their runs, he’s focused on going fast in the car he’s driving, a plethora of responsibilities and decisions wrapped up in one dizzying weekend.

But as the chase for perfection continues, it’s the type of organized chaos that Marinis loves. His ability to process, make adjustments and see immediate improvements is uncanny, if only because Marinis’ mind never stops working.

“Sometimes you just wake up in the middle of the night with an idea or a thought, or you’re just so excited to get to the office to help someone,” Marinis says. “I’m always ready to go, looking at weather conditions, maybe making converter decisions and changes, and figuring out other ways to go faster.”

Tara Bowker photo

It’s why Marinis is aptly named “Mr. Perfect” by a close friend and in all actuality, he may have experienced the closest thing a racer or tuner can come to perfection.

Maybe it was a run from NHRA Pro Mod standout Chad Green, who Marinis tuned to his first career NHRA Pro Mod victory a month.

Perhaps it was during the series of big races he won on the drag radial circuit, when he drove the striking orange nitrous-assisted Mustang to the winner’s circle at the likes of Lights Out and No Mercy – and every other major X275 race.

And the closest anyone has come to perfection in a nitrous car certainly came with Marinis driving and tuning when he had the first – and still only – blast in the 5.50s in a nitrous car at Maryland International Raceway last October.

But it’s all part of what continues to drive Marinis. If he went fast once – like really, really fast – he can do it again. When you love the sport as much as he does, it’s a process that never ends.

“Helping Chad get that first win, that meant a lot,” Marinis says. “But I’m just trying to go fast and I just want everything to be perfect.

“Give me something with an engine and I’ll make it fast.”

When he’s racing – or even during race season – Marinis doesn’t need an alarm clock. Forget a wake-up a call, too.

Marinis’ mind is so locked in on racing, the lure of the track simply lets him know when it’s time to get moving.

It’s a fascinating realization for Marinis, but it’s never a burden and it’s never overwhelming. In fact, the more opportunities the better, and the more he’s in a car, the better tuner he’s become.

“I’ve got so much going on, I think it is an advantage,” Marinis says. “That ability to tune has made me a better driver, and I get to experience it all front to back. That’s important for what I do. If you don’t experience it all, you’re just going by somebody else’s opinion.

“In this day and age, it makes me one of the few doing it, driving and tuning, and that’s something I take a lot of pride in.”

That makes Marinis’ expertise even more valuable, and that’s due to the wealth of experience he’s enjoyed at nearly every level imaginable.

It started with grudge racing on the local circuit near JFK airport in Queens where Marinis drove in so many different cars he lost count.

If there was an open car, Marinis was willing to drive it, and he learned on the fly. It gave him a special sense behind the wheel, but perhaps an even more valuable knowledge base for tuning.

He became the go-to guru for his fellow grudge racers – which is where the “Mr. Perfect” nickname was born – and it became a critical part of Marinis’ tuning DNA.

Without those early experiences, Marinis doubts he would be the tuner or the driver he is today.

“You’re not going to go out and get into this game and just jump in headfirst, especially these days,” Marinis believes. “There’s so much going on in these cars suspension-wise, shocks-wise, engine-wise, and there’s just so many variables. You need something and someone to lead you in. You’re not doing this on your own, on this level, right away.

“I’ve been doing it for so long, it just kind of evolved to this whole deal. But I didn’t have to learn everything at once. It was a continual process and just trying to keep up with the evolution of things. I still try to come up with good ideas and come up with things that are the evolution.”

From grudge racing, Marinis moved into class racing in the late-2000s, making an immediate impression in the drag radial ranks.

He qualified third at his first race with radial tires on the 2000 Mustang, performing extremely well at the 2011 YellowBullet.com Nationals. From there, Marinis has been a major player wherever he’s raced in X275, finding success at Lights Out and No Mercy, winning MDIR’s World Cup Finals: Imports vs. Domestics race in the Mustang, despite having just an eighth-mile set-up for the quarter-mile event.

Tara Bowker photo

He’s won championships in the Northeast Outlaw Pro Mod Association, set records and guided Green to his first NHRA Pro Mod victory, picking up every piece of knowledge he can along the way. Marinis grabbed major headlines for his blast of 5.572 at 255.19, as the planets aligned and he was ready when the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity arrived.

Each run in the car – no matter the car – has made him a better tuner, and calling all the shots in a variety of cars in a variety of series has certainly made him a better driver.

“Feeling what the car is doing, that’s so important, but it can be hard to communicate it unless you know all those little things,” Marinis says. “Something you pick up on with one car can apply to the other, and that’s part of the advantage I have. All of it helps make me a better tuner. The computers are great and everything, but not having an eye for certain things, it can hurt you.”

Marinis has an eye for everything, making it a continually learning process. It leads to ideas at odd times, his brain simply firing because there’s work to be done and, of course, phone calls at every imaginable hour. “My phone never stops,” Marinis says with a laugh. “It’s always going.”

Off-weekends are non-existent and even if he’s not at a track, he expects the phone to be ringing with drivers seeking advice from a nitrous guru.

Just a week after the U.S. Nationals, Marinis was in his street car when he received a call from a grudge racer who was racing in Texas. He had a problem and he was certain Marinis could solve it – Marinis’ off-weekend be damned.

True to his ways, Marinis pulled over on the side of the road, pointed him in the right direction and waited to see if his suggestion worked. A thumbs-up text back gave him his answer –  another satisfied customer for the man who never stops working.

“In regard to the time thing, you make enough time if you love it,” Marinis says. “You stop what you’re doing and help someone out because you love to do it.”

It’s a full steam ahead approach that’s been a hallmark of Marinis’ demeanor. This time of year, it’s seven days a week for months at a time, and every spare minute is filled with racing in some way or fashion. With the rate the sport moves forward – especially in the wild radial and Pro Mod classes – even a little down time seems like lost time for Marinis.

“You can’t take time off of racing and be at the top of your game at this level,” Marinis says. “It’s a constant evolution and you’ve got to live it.

“The tires, the track prep, shocks, the lock-up converter, fuel injection, nitrous controllers, all of them have changed so much and it’s come so far that all have these changes have been game-changers.”

Tara Bowker photo

Good luck thinking all of this – on top of a regular, full-time job – is enough to wear out Marinis. Racing is his caffeine and he’s always loaded up on it.

“I really don’t consider the racing a workload. I enjoy it too much,” Marinis says. “I don’t know if you could pay me enough if I didn’t love it as much as I do.”

The love for the game is fueled by Marinis’ unending thirst to keep pushing forward. There’s never a chance to slow down or get complacent, but only the chance to push the envelope forward in as many ways possible.

He worked with Pat Musi on engine upgrades over the winter, talked with Jerry Bickel Race Cars about roll bar upgrades and discussed converter items with Marty Chance.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg, but there’s never an idle moment for Marinis when going fast is the goal. He’s constantly on the phone with Musi, talking improvements and set-ups and things they want to change. They’ll butt heads and hang up on each other, but a couple hours later, they’ll be back on the phone, picking apart everything in the quest to stay a step ahead, forging an impressive legacy along the way.

“The competition is so close your brain has to be in overdrive the whole time,” Marinis says. “When we leave the track, the wheels are still turning on the way home, planning for the next week and the next race.

“Things have definitely evolved and you have to look at all aspects of it. Every single aspect has become critical. Your bottles are filled to the ounce. You want the last check on the tires right as the thing is hitting the water box. There’s so much stuff on these cars now, it’s crazy.

“But again, if you want to be up front you have to be locked in on every aspect of it.”

Like the classic racing story, Marinis’ need for speed started when he was young.

But when he’s asked if getting involved with the sport was a family thing, Marinis quickly states, “No, no. Definitely not a family thing. They wanted me to do anything but racing, you know.”

That directive came from his parents, but his brother’s ’69 Firebird gave him other ideas.

He marveled at the car and, suddenly, just as he was becoming a teenager, Marinis’ life revolved around working on that Firebird.

“Every day when he came home from school, we’d be doing something on the car – cam shafts, radiators, and probably when I was 14 we put our first nitrous plate system on that car,” Marinis remembers.

That same year, he started making passes in the car – two years before he even had his driver’s license. The hook was in and it wasn’t leaving. “My brother would just stick me in the car, and I’ve been racing ever since,” Marinis says.

Nitrous has always been his go-to, but he’s left no stone unturned in trying to make anything – and he means anything – go fast.

When he owned a tow truck and body shop in the late ‘90s, Marinis boldly claims he “definitely had nitrous oxide on one of my tow trucks.”

It’s always been about making things faster and it certainly isn’t limited to cars, either.

“I’ve raced dirt bikes, jet skis, cars, everything,” Marinis says. “It’s always been about racing and trying to go faster. You name it, I’m trying to make it faster.”

He’s accomplished that on multiple fronts, first moving onto the national stage thanks to his success in the orange Mustang.

It’s a car that’s served him well and even after selling it in 2018, it’s still a car he drives, tunes and maintains the engines.

Chad Green (Joe McHugh photo)

But despite a busy schedule in so many areas, Green is currently his No. 1 priority.

Green bolted onto the NHRA Pro Mod scene a few short years ago, and Marinis’ tutelage has been instrumental in his rapid ascension.

“There’s a lot of things that are special and unique about Dean,” Green says. “Where we’re at, Dean has so much to do with it. Without him, I wouldn’t be here. Pat [Musi] and Dean working together, we’ve done well.

“He’s a super-smart guy, he knows his stuff and he’s been racing his whole life,” Green continues. “He’s such a competitor and wants to win so bad, and he’s more ate up with drag racing than anybody I know.”

Green jokes if there’s a drag race somewhere, he can expect Marinis will be there driving or tuning someone. But it’s been a special journey for Green in 2020 after his brutal crash at Indy in 2019, where he suffered a major back injury.

With racing on hold in NHRA Pro Mod due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Green slowly got back in the groove, making nearly 50 test runs in his nitrous-fed Bond Coat Corvette before the NHRA season resumed.

When it happened, Marinis was ready. Green advanced to the final round of the first event, but rain postponed the championship round to the final qualifying session at the U.S. Nationals.

He chased down Jason Scruggs at the finish line with a run of 5.823 at 250.09, setting off an emotional celebration at the scene of Green’s horrific wreck a year earlier. It was meaningful for Marinis, who has treasured every moment of Green’s success.

“He’s a winner by nature. He wants to win, he wants you to succeed and that fits in well with this team,” Green says.

Thanks to Green, the gears in Marinis’ brain worked overtime this summer as well.

Green made his nitro Funny Car debut and while Daniel and Tim Wilkerson handled crew chief duties for that first foray, Marinis was a keenly interested observer.

It was all about soaking up the knowledge at that first race, but Marinis called it the next possibility and if it’s speed he’s after, the lure of a 330-mph Funny Car might be impossible to resist.

“There’s a long way to go on that, but my wheels are turning already,” Marinis says. “It’s a learning game and it’s just something that is at a whole other level.”

But…

“That’s the next frontier,” Marinis says. “I’m always trying to think of ways to do whatever I can to make things faster.”

Funny Car might be the next bold step he takes, but Marinis is completely focused on his numerous tasks at hand right now. It’s tuning multiple nitrous cars in a number of different classes and racing when he has the opportunity.

With Green fourth in points and just a round out of first in the NHRA Pro Mod standings with four races left, there’s also a chance to help lead Green to a world title.

That’s more than enough motivation for Marinis, who has no plans to slow his unbelievable pace. He loves every aspect of it and if there’s a moment where he would question that, Marinis has a simple indicator to determine if his love for the sport has wavered.

“I take a lot of pride in putting in the work,” Marinis says. “I like being able to put it all together from bumper-to-bumper. The day I give 95 percent, that’s when I call it a day.

“We’re never done. The day we’re done trying to advance this thing, it’s time to hang up everything.”

For now, Marinis is nowhere near that and he remains as driven as ever to be an innovator in a sport built on eye-popping performance.

The job is complex and it requires detailed intricacies, constant work and an ultra-attentive eye, but the end goal is simple.

“More wins, more records, all that is what I’m going after,” Marinis says. “I can never get enough wins, never set enough records. It’s always about getting better, going faster.”

And striving to be, well, perfect.

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