Point Proven: PDRA Extreme Pro Stock Champion Johnny Pluchino is Living His Childhood Dream
If Brownsburg, Indiana, is the capital of nitro racing and Mooresville, North Carolina, is the capital of NASCAR, then it could be said that New York’s Long Island is the Mountain Motor Pro Stock capital of the world.
The densely populated island to the east of New York City is home to three of the last five world champions in the PDRA’s Extreme Pro Stock division. Commack’s John Pluchino won the title in 2016. Around 45 minutes east in Center Moriches is the home base of John Montecalvo, a MMPS veteran who won the 2019 championship. In 2020, it was Johnny Pluchino bringing the hardware back to Oakdale, just 15 minutes south of the elder Pluchino’s shop.
[Editor’s Note: This cover story originally appeared in DI #164, the Champions Issue, in January of 2021.]
But unlike those other racing capitals of the world, you won’t find mega-shops or tractor-trailer race rigs running around town with massive corporate sponsors emblazoned across them here on Long Island. In Pluchino’s case, a small 24-by-24-square-foot shop houses the 2013 Ford Mustang that both Pluchinos drove to championship finishes. It was built before Johnny was born, and conveniently located in his childhood backyard, it’s where he grew to love drag racing.
“Any time my dad was working on the car, I was there,” Pluchino says. “You learn as much as you can as a six, seven, eight, nine, 10-year-old, but the one thing that I learned is how much I love drag racing. That was the time that I learned I wanted to drag race. That’s what I wanted to do. When I grew up, I needed to get a job so I could make enough money to go drag racing. That’s all I knew as a six, seven, eight, nine, 10-year-old.”
Pluchino spent his early years racing Jr. Dragsters while his father competed in local heads-up races like the Northeast Shootout, which eventually became the Northeast Pro Mod Association. When Johnny was 11, John decided to take a break from racing and sold the engine out of his car. Five years later, he put together plans for his first Mountain Motor Pro Stock car. “For those five years, every day, all I wanted to do was get an engine back in his car and go to the racetrack again,” Pluchino says.
In 2007, John entered his first IHRA Pro Stock race. With a small crew and a small truck and trailer, the Pluchinos went racing together at IHRA races up and down the East Coast. They battled with some of the biggest players in the class at a time when it wasn’t unusual for upwards of 30 cars to show up and try to qualify for a 16-car field. They “clawed and clawed,” incrementally setting and achieving new goals like qualifying, winning a round, and winning multiple rounds.
It was 2012 when Pluchino broke through to win the ADRL season opener at Houston Raceway Park. Trevor Eman’s Team Aruba team hauled Pluchino’s car out to Texas, while John took his first flight in over 30 years after Johnny urged him to run the season opener so he could run the full season.
“Those were the years I probably learned the most,” Pluchino says. “I went from almost a rookie in door car racing to someone who knew the car inside and out in a few years. That time probably really paved the way to where I’m at now more than anything.”
Through the years, Johnny learned everything by doing it. It’s the way John learned as he was growing up, and though at a much higher level, it’s how he taught Johnny during his formative years.
“We took every piece of the car apart, assembled the engine for it, built the transmissions, fit things in the car, sand it down to get it painted, take the car apart, fabricated, plumbed, wired – whatever had to be done,” Pluchino says. “You learn so much about a race car that way. That’s how we did things. That has given me more experience than I can really explain.”
Pluchino’s intimate knowledge of his father’s Pro Stock car started to pay off as soon as he started down the path of someday driving as well. Around 2011, he started doing burnouts in an ex-Pro Stock car making about a thousand horsepower. A few years went by, then he started putting together a car with car owner Dominic Addeo using one of John’s old Pro Stock cars. They didn’t know it at the time, but they were basically building an Outlaw 632 car.
After running some Top Sportsman races and local index events in 2014 and 2015, Pluchino found a race in Florida with a class – Outlaw 632 – that had a rules package that closely aligned with Addeo’s car, especially since it offered a weight break for naturally aspirated cars.
“We went down there and actually qualified No. 2 and went to the finals the first race,” Pluchino says. “We said, ‘Wow, this car is actually competitive and we just slapped this thing together. We can be better.’ Moving forward, Dominic wanted to run the 632 deal and it was great for me. It was a stepping stone to where I wanted to eventually get to.”
The PDRA picked up the class at a couple races in 2016, then added it to four races in 2017 before upgrading it to pro class status in 2018. That same year, Pluchino launched an assault on the class, going on to win the first of two Pro Outlaw 632 world championships.
While competing for the second title in 2019, Pluchino was “called up to the big leagues.” He had put together a deal to drive the elder Pluchino’s Mustang in a few of the NHRA’s Mountain Motor Pro Stock exhibition races with backing from Strutmasters.com. The plan was for him to prepare for the experience by making eighth-mile runs and the occasional quarter-mile pass during prerace testing at the PDRA races, while John continued to run it in PDRA Extreme Pro Stock competition.
With the points lead after winning the season opener, John changed his mind. Going into the third race on the PDRA tour, he informed Johnny that it would be Johnny’s name going on the tech card this time around. He needed all the seat time he could get, and the handful of passes in testing wouldn’t be enough. Without fanfare – no farewell tour, no “going out on top” championship speech – the father tossed the keys to his son, setting Johnny on the fast track to an Extreme Pro Stock world championship of his own.
On a cold, quiet winter day, Pluchino sat down with DRAG ILLUSTRATED to share the stories behind his journey to Mountain Motor Pro Stock and the path he took to win the 2020 PDRA Liberty’s Gears Extreme Pro Stock world championship.
Looking back at Maryland in 2019, I remember running into you and your dad at the base of the tower when you had learned that you were going to run that race in the Pro Stock car. What was going through your mind in that moment when he broke the news to you that you were going to drive the car that weekend?
I guess I was so happy and sad at the same time. I didn’t know exactly how to feel. I had visions of 2019 pretty much being his last season in the car, and for someone who watched their dad race pretty much his whole life, I didn’t want it to end quickly like that. I wanted him to have one last chance at another championship, especially while I was racing and making a run at the 632 championship.
I really was saying, “Hey, man. Wouldn’t it be a picture-perfect 2019 if we can go out there and somehow manage to scrape two championships together?” That’s really what we went into 2019 looking like. Yeah, the driver side of me, the one who wants to be in a Mountain Motor Pro Stock car probably more than anyone on the planet was thrilled, but the son and the competitor that I am was upset because we were giving up our chance at running for a Pro Stock championship. Plus, I knew how hard it was for him to step out of the car.
It’s a weird way to feel and it’s kind of difficult to explain exactly what you’re feeling at that time. But I didn’t argue too long.
Him putting you in the car at that point, it was to help prepare you for the quarter-mile races you had planned and also because he had seen what you were capable of in the 632 car. How determined were you to prove him right after getting that opportunity?
I was very determined to prove multiple people right. One, being my father, since I’m getting in his car. As a smaller team, I know how much that car is worth to our program. In a split second, you can make a decision that could probably end your racing career. Even if I’m fine or whatever the case may be, replacing a car like that is not necessarily something we’d be able to do.
There’s a lot of faith that had to be placed in me to be able to do that. This is something that my dad has built up his whole entire life, to be able to get to the point we’re at now. That’s a huge amount of responsibility placed on you. The last person in the world you want to let down is your father and your best friend. You don’t want to do that.
Now beyond him, I had a sponsor that just came onboard, Chip Lofton [of Strutmasters], and he put his faith in me at a time when he was not sure he wanted to continue sponsoring race cars. He had some dealings that he wasn’t too happy about in the past and he was considering not sponsoring race cars for a little bit, and he put his faith in me to represent him and his company.
Then there’s my crew guys. They go there to compete just like I go there to compete. They’re not driving, but that doesn’t matter. They’re part of the team as well. You don’t want to be a downgrade. You don’t want to be a liability in a race car.
I’m as confident as anybody and if I didn’t think I could do it I wouldn’t be in the car. I’m not saying I was perfect by any means, but for a rookie in the car, I think I did an OK job.
For sure. On that note, you went out first round at the first couple races, then you went to the finals at Darlington at the end of the season. How motivating was that to reach a final round in your first season in the car?
When I went to the first two PDRA races, I stunk. We weren’t making great runs. I think I went red once. We just weren’t gelling with the Pro Stock car at that point. We weren’t clicking.
Then you start to look at it and go, “Is it me?” I want to go rounds. I want to be qualifying up front and I want to go rounds. That’s just how I am. I had some success immediately in 632 when I was in 632. You go over to Pro Stock and you’re like, “OK, this is where I want to be. OK, this isn’t that easy.”
You also went to the final round at the NHRA New England Nationals in July, one of the NHRA MMPS exhibition races. How did that change your mindset?
I had an opportunity at that NHRA race to just drive that car. That I think was a huge point for me where I was able to take some steps as a driver. We were able to focus more on just that car and make better decisions. Then I think that translated into success when we went back to PDRA. We had a little bit of luck on our side at the PDRA race where we went to the final as well. That made me take a little bit of a breath and say, “OK, we can go some rounds. We can be competitive. I can do this thing.” That definitely helped going into 2020.
Going into 2020, your first full season and your first season focusing on just the MMPS car, was the championship your main goal?
Yeah. Going into every year, to me, everyone might have their own goals and what they feel is the mecca, but to be a champion in the class is superior to anything else, in my opinion. I’d rather wear the number one at the end of the year and not win any races than win three races and not wear the number one. You were the best car of the whole season. I’d rather be the best car of the whole season than the best car of one race or two races. It’s a different way of looking at things. That’ll always be what I strive for.
You were the best car at the first race of the season, winning the East Coast Nationals at GALOT. Did that win right out of the gate make the championship goal seem a little more realistic?
Oh, yeah. Then I was on top of the world. After the first race, that was it. We were winning the championship. That was it. It was over. I was like, “We won the first race. We’re good. We got this. Let’s just keep it up. We got really good horsepower. I won the last two years in 632, we’re good.” That’s what I thought after that race. It’s all coming together now, right?
Then we went to Darlington and JR Carr was so fast that I thought we were done. I went from the first race saying, “We’re good,’ to that. I left Darlington and said, “We’re done.”
After Darlington, you went on an absolute tear. You won three in a row in PDRA and you won the NHRA Indy race. What changed between Darlington and that next race?
A couple things. One, JR Carr and them kicked all our butts at Darlington. They made us all look stupid. They were fast and we were just out there. Dad and I went back to the drawing board and looked at some stuff and regrouped and said we got really good horsepower. We need to be doing a better job. We need to make better runs. We need to figure something out to get back on his level. We don’t have to be faster than him. We’ve got to be close and give ourselves a chance on race day. We need to be right there with him, right?
We went back and we went testing and made a change in two runs, loaded it back up, and said, “I think we got something for them.” At that point, I texted [PDRA race director] Tyler Crossnoe, and I said, “They’re all in trouble now.” You could see how much of a rollercoaster it was in the beginning of 2020 when I thought we were golden. Then I thought we were done. Then I thought we were good again.
That winning streak you went on was incredible. It wasn’t just the car’s performance. You were also winning on holeshots, doing a really good job driving. How rewarding was that to win those three races in that fashion?
It sucks as a tuner, right? I have pride there too. As a driver, I love it. You’re doing your job. In my opinion, if you’re doing your job you should win multiple rounds on a holeshot in Pro Stock because Pro Stock is a class where you’re close. You’re within a hundredth or two hundredths of most cars out there. As a driver, you’re going to be the make or break on a lot of rounds. The difference to where you could be from one to four in points at the end of the year.
If you want to win, you have to do your job at those times and it doesn’t just mean leaving with the guy and if you outrun him, you win. It means on those close rounds where you’re going to be within a hundredth or two of them, you have to let the clutch out first. To do it against extremely tough competitors, to do it multiple times, was rewarding.
With that being said, I had my fair share where I let it out a little too quick.
The second GALOT race win sealed up the championship. How long did it take for that to sink in, to realize that you had accomplished that goal?
Well, I went into the race saying, “We could do a number of things here. We could hold our current lead just by pacing JR Carr. We can give up the lead by sucking. Or we can go put a stranglehold on this thing and call it right now.”
JR was the pair out in front of me and he lost. That took a tremendous amount of pressure off me first round. At that point, I got a little bit more tardy on the starting line than I had planned. We were lucky to squeak that one out but I stepped up my game for the next two rounds. We got the win and I don’t know when it exactly sank in. Half of that reason is because the PDRA didn’t officially announce it for a day or two. I was waiting for that official announcement.
Once it was announced and it was official that we had it sewn up, it was a pretty good feeling. Let me rephrase that. It was an amazing feeling, especially if I look back at the mindset I had. Maybe it was 15 years ago, I’d say, “Man, I wish one day that we would be able to get a car together and qualify with these Mountain Motor Pro Stock guys.” The same guys that I was watching race in the mid-2000s, I’m running against some of those same guys, some of the same drivers and crew chiefs.
I’m able to say my rookie season as a Pro Stock racer I was able to lead the championship chase and collect it.
Having secured the championship after the GALOT race, did that take away the sting of going out early at the World Finals?
At the World Finals, our whole goal was to go out there, test and try some stuff on the race car because we were racing the whole year. We weren’t necessarily changing too much. We didn’t want to lose the combination we had, but we knew there was still a little bit of room for improvement. We thought there was no better time to work on our cool weather setup with the pressure off. If the stars aligned and the weather came to us, we were going to throw everything that we possibly had at it to be the first 3-second Pro Stock.
The weather didn’t align. We tested, we did what we said we were going to do, and I feel like we left Virginia with a much better race car than we went to Virginia with. Unfortunately, the driver’s left foot was ahead of where it should have been, so we didn’t get to hold the trophy at the end of the day. But that last race in Virginia I think we had a better race car than we had all year long.
Is the first 3-second pass going to be attainable in 2021? Is that your new goal?
If it’s not goal 1A, it’s 1B. Again, I want to win the championship for sure, but I want to be the first to the 3s. I’d rather go 3 seconds than win one race. I know it’s attainable, but we can’t attain it without certain conditions. The naturally aspirated cars, we rely heavily on the atmospheric conditions.
Unfortunately, in Virginia, we weren’t anywhere near what I thought it would take condition-wise to get to into that 3-second zone. That being said, the 4.01 and 4.02 flat that JR and myself ran, at those conditions, you give us something that we’re relatively even close to used to at the PDRA World Finals and that’s a 3-second run. We weren’t there. I know that if we can get some cooler conditions with the low water grains, it’s over. It just depends who’s going to get there first.
By winning this championship, you join your dad as a PDRA Extreme Pro Stock world champion. How much does that mean to you, being able to join him in that elite group?
It’s pretty special. I’m not sure if there are any other [father-son champions] in Mountain Motor Pro Stock. I’m sure there may be, but none that ring a bell right now. I don’t know how many professional classes have father-and-son combos that won championships. It’s a pretty special thing to me.
I think that at the end of my racing career, I’m going to look at what my dad and I accomplished together as the most special part of it all. For us to go out there, compete against teams who are put together because they are the best in the business, and for us to go out there against them and do what we have done. I would find it special if we could just run with them. To carry the number one multiple seasons – and we’re not done yet – it’s a pretty great feeling.
Beyond another championship and the first 3-second run in 2021, what are your goals? What’s your five-year vision?
I don’t know, man. It was easy to answer my five-year vision when I was running 632 and my five-year vision was to be a Mountain Motor Pro Stock champion, right? I’m here. I’m still more determined than ever. I want to go win the next race. That’s always my focus. I want to get better and win the next race.
I could tell you what my 2030 goal is probably easier than I could give you my five-year goal, and that’s to be one of, if not the best, Mountain Motor Pro Stock racers to do it, which is so crazy to say right now because I’m so fresh into it. If you don’t make a goal like that for a 30-year goal, what are you doing it for?
I understand the amount of people who have raced this class and success that they’ve had through the years, but I want to be named with them. That’s what I want to do. I love Mountain Motor Pro Stock. What I would like to see for myself and the class is for the class to grow to see higher participation, see the competition rise, and to still be at the top of that competition. That’s what I’d like to see. It’s a multi-part goal. I have to stay atop, but I want the class to grow as well. I want the best of the best to come at it. That would be ideal for me.
You talk about long-term goals focused on Mountain Motor Pro Stock. Do you ever see yourself dabbling in NHRA Pro Stock or is that just so far out in left field that that’s not really on your mind?
Yeah, I would. I’ve always thought about it. Pro Stock has always been what I love. I mean, 500 inches has its perks. It’s probably the mecca, right? Of doorslammer racing for the last 50 years, at least.
I don’t want to go there and be a class filler or someone who got a ride and is just going there for the experience. If I go there, I want to win rounds. If I go race anywhere, I want to know that it might take a lot and the stars may need to align, but I have a chance at winning. I’m a competitor. I understand how difficult, mainly financially, it is to race at a high level on that stage. I would love the opportunity, but it would have to be the right opportunity. That’s how I feel about that.
As we wrap up, who are the people and companies you want to thank for contributing to your championship efforts in 2020?
Obviously, it starts with my dad and our crew. Strutmasters is the major component of our team. They’ve allowed us to get past a setback, to move to the next level, and it’s an honor racing with Chip.
I would say 1B past that is Jon Kaase Racing Engines. Jon Kaase has given us an opportunity to race at a high level for a really long time. You don’t realize how your engine builder, how he treats you, and the service and product they provide you in this class, how important it is to your success. It’s the difference between winning and losing all day long. They are just the best. They are a major component of what we do.
RAM Clutches as well. I can’t say enough about Pat and Mike [Norcia] and the team there. Precision Racing Suspension, Feather-Lite Batteries, Voss Wheelie Bars, Book Carburetors and NGK Spark Plugs also help us out.
I also want to say a thank you to Liberty Gears just for helping our class. We don’t run a Liberty trans, but I definitely try to always mention Liberty Gears for helping our class out. Without companies that support our class, there’s no Mountain Motor Pro Stock, there’s no Extreme Pro Stock, there’s no championship for me this year. That’s much appreciated.