It was tough enough for Steve Matusek to not qualify at the first two races of the 2019 NHRA Pro Mod season.
But somewhere along the lines of the chassis breaking on his turbocharged Mustang via a freak occurrence during testing to his trailer catching fire coming home, the Pro Mod veteran wondered what he had done to deserve such a dubious string of events.
“To be honest, I felt like I needed to go through an exorcism,” Matusek joked.
Matusek didn’t need garlic cloves or a voodoo doll, but after an impressive semifinal appearance at the most recent NHRA race in Virginia, he is back on track.
Matusek and the Elite Motorsports team, which includes tuner Shane Tecklenburg and Justin Elkes from Modern Racing, found some fortune at the fifth race of the Pro Mod season, displaying consistency and the potential Matusek talked glowingly about before the season.
It took some time – and traversing through some deep waters – to get there, but Matusek, who qualified eighth in Virginia with a 5.817 at 257.58 mph, believes his team has finally found its footing – and that could prove dangerous for the rest of the class this season.
“I’m happy with where we’re at and I think we’re going to be very competitive,” Matusek said. “There’s a lot of talent and good cars out there, and I would like to think we’re one of them. I’m feeling very good about where we are at this point in the year, and I think we’re going to be a problem for a lot of teams for the rest of the year.”
Matusek knew it would take time to get there – and he’ll fully admit they’ve only touched the tip of what they’re capable of – but he didn’t foresee problems like breaking a chassis in testing the day after the Houston race.
Another “never seen that happen before” moment came on the drive home when the entire trailer almost burned down, and Matusek wasn’t sure if he wanted to see if this was the worst it was going to get.
It took a conversation with his life, Lori, to convince Matusek to take another run at things over the six-race stretch that started in early May in Atlanta and concludes next month in June.
“I had some deep discussions with my wife about maybe it’s time to get out of the seat and focus on some other things,” Matusek said. “It truly tests your will. It was a dark time. But my wife was very positive. She said, ‘We made this decision. Let’s see what happens by the time we go to the break at Norwalk and see where we’re at.’ That was kind of our gameplan.”
With that deadline in mind, Matusek went to his team. His message was simple: forget about the rough start and let’s focus on the now.
“I told them what happened is nobody’s fault. We’re a great team and when we get through this, we’re going to have exciting, big things happen,” Matusek said. “We’ve got too much talent, too much equipment, too much technology to stay down. I think that’s what happened when we went to Virginia.”
Matusek didn’t qualify in Atlanta, but the team made impressive progress during testing before Virginia. On a 138-degree track in Darlington, the Aeromotive Mustang put together a string of fast passes. That carried over to Virginia, as Matusek was cleanly in the field right off the bat and improved on his performance each of the next two qualifying runs.
He followed that up with elimination wins over Chad Green and No. 1 qualifier Khalid AlBalooshi – going 5.827 at 256.70 in the heat of the day – before falling to points leader Stevie “Fast” Jackson in the semifinals.
There was instant relief upon qualifying and it eventually turned to satisfaction over a weekend that finally went right.
“We try to be conservative and make the right moves, and that’s exactly what we did in Virginia,” Matusek said.
Matusek and his team are determined to make sure the bounce back performance in Virginia doesn’t go for naught. The innovative steps the team took in building and running the car are starting to pay off, and Matusek believes that will continue to drive the team heading to next week’s Menard’s NHRA Heartland Nationals in Topeka.
“We knew we had a good crew, a good car, a good strategy, but we just had a lot of issues with some systems on the car that typically shouldn’t happen, and that really set us back,” Matusek said. “Once we got that all addressed and started to pay attention to some of the things that are different about a turbo car, we started to go in the right direction.”