“Tombstone” Tommy Gray scored a major win at the inaugural Northeast Outlaw Pro Mod Challenge at Empire Dragway over the weekend, earning his first Pro Mod win since 2018. The Pro Mod veteran defeated New York’s own Melanie Salemi in a side-by-side 3.60-second final round.
“I’ve had five other national event wins in my career, and that was close to a topper,” said Gray, who won his first Pro Mod national event in 1994. “After all the adversity I’ve been through in the last year and a half, between getting injured and my crash last year and struggling, it was definitely a morale booster for me and my two guys. It’s just us three: Wayne Waldmann, Lonnie Pass and myself. I’ve been at it a long time, but gosh, we needed that.”
After qualifying No. 5, Gray posted a 3.709 at 204.08 in his screw-blown “Undertaker” ‘18 Corvette to get a first-round win over Matt Guenther, who went red by .0005 seconds and ran a 3.807 in his nitrous-fed ’69 Camaro. Gray dipped into the 3.60s with a 3.688 at 204.27 to eliminate Steve King and his 3.721 in the second round.
Gray recorded low elapsed time of the event, a 3.663 at 204.36, in his semifinal win over Ken Quartuccio, who ran a 3.685 in his ProCharger-boosted “Serial Killer” ’69 Camaro. The pass also gave Gray lane choice by just three thousandths of a second going into the final round against Salemi.
“I felt very confident the whole race,” Gray said. “That was my third race back. The first one I was pretty nervous. Todd Tutterow helped coach me through it. He told me, ‘You need to start driving like you used to and quit worrying about tuning.’ It took me about two races. We’re not a big-budget team, but we take this stuff very seriously. I bought my first practice tree and I’ve been home practicing on the full-size tree, trying to get my routine down to where I don’t have to think, I just react. It’s definitely starting to pay off.”
In the final round, Gray recorded a 3.664 at 204.36 to defeat Salemi’s 3.674 at 199.38 in her supercharged “Purple Reign” ’68 Firebird.
“Melanie’s definitely a very good driver and Jon’s a very good tuner,” Gray said. “I knew it was going to be a race. I just tried to keep my head clear. As Todd taught us, run the racetrack one race at a time. That’s what we did the whole weekend. Fortunately, we had the best outcome on that run.”
The win was Gray’s first win in his new Jerry Bickel-built ’18 Corvette, which features a screw-blown engine assembled by Tutterow’s Wyo Motorsports, as well as a Ty-Drive converter drive unit.
“I said I wouldn’t do this anymore if I couldn’t put the best pieces around me,” Gray said. “I have my Jerry Bickel car and I brought in Todd and Ty Tutterow to do their magic and make this car fast and consistent. He’s a friend of mine and we’ve raced for many years. It’s his engine combination, and the Ty-Drive is really working well and helping with my lights. I also get a lot of help from Carter Site Services, NGK Spark Plugs, and Connelly Funeral Homes.”
Salemi was a serious contender going into eliminations as the No. 2 qualifier. She started eliminations with a 3.766 at 200.80 over Jack Grainy’s 3.949. The Buffalo-based driver improved slightly to a 3.751 at 196.42 to move past a red-lighting Matt Deitsch. Tuned by husband Jon and brother-in-law Jim, Salemi made a big step up to a 3.666 at 202.43 in the semifinals, defeating Derek Ward and his 3.726.
The Northeast Outlaw Pro Mod Challenge also included a consolation race for drivers who didn’t qualify for the 16-car field or who were eliminated in the first round. The consolation race win went to Matt Hutter.
Hutter qualified No. 10 in his turbocharged, small-block-powered ’69 Camaro, then lost in the opening round of the main race with a 3.813 to Matt Deitsch’s 3.743. Hutter had a bye run in the first round of the consolation race before posting a 3.777 at 199.38 over David Texido’s 3.835. The former NASCAR driver ran his best pass of the weekend, a 3.774 at 198.68, to win in the final round over Dave Norris and his 3.862 at 176.40.
The event was the Northeast Outlaw Pro Mod Association’s first appearance at Empire Dragway. The former IHRA national event track has undergone major renovations under the direction of track owner Jerry Scaccia. The NEOPMA teams raved about the facility, and the local fans packed the stands, making for a win-win situation.
“I hadn’t been to Empire in probably 25 years since IHRA went there,” Gray said. “What [Scaccia] did with that racetrack was pretty astonishing. I haven’t seen that many fans in many years. They sure were nice. They made my heart grow stronger. After what I’ve been through with operations and all that stuff, coming up that return road every time made it feel worth it with the cheering and the little kids excited about the racing. Just a great bunch of people up there.”
The 2021 Northeast Outlaw Pro Mod Association schedule will resume August 20-21 when the series joins the IHRA Sportsman Spectacular at Maryland International Raceway in Budds Creek, Maryland.