Few things have come along in the history of our sport that have threatened the status quo in the way that no prep racing has. The relatively new genre, which has turned the very defining concepts of traction and track preparation on its head, is as controversial for its perceived danger as it is for the very personalities who promote it and compete within it. You might consider it to drag racing what Donald Trump is to politics: not only has it shaken up the sports’ establishment, but the more negative attention it receives, the more popular it becomes.
Considered to be a safe haven for street and grudge racers to partake in organized racing events, no prep continues an uphill battle to gain respect within the industry, but it certainly hasn’t deterred it’s growth, with ever-larger purses and crowds partaking in what is arguably drag racing in its very simplest of forms.
Dragzine sat down with two of no prep racing’s most esteemed promoters and respected voices to get their unfiltered thoughts on a host of topics concerning the fledgling no prep movement. This includes the man considered the pioneer of organized no prep racing, Chicago’s Steve Gillespie, known in racing circles as ‘Heyyo Steve’, who founded the still wildly popular King of the Streets (KOTS) events back in 2007, along with Shannon Morgan, who took inspiration from what she witnessed at KOTS and helped no prep racing to explode back in her native Texas with her succession of Redemption events.
What do they have to say about some of the more controversial topics in and around no prep? Well, read on to find out.
No prep racing still routinely gets a bad rap for crashes and the increased possibility of accidents, but do you feel that it’s just part of the territory in creating a racing genre that people can get interested in? To put it simply, is a degree of danger and a little carnage the cost of business?
SM: I don’t think that no prep racing causes crashes. I think drivers that don’t get their foot off the throttle, and are doing hero shit on a no prep track, cause crashes. If you’ve ever been to a no prep track, particularly one that allows ‘pimp juice’, by the end of the night, you have a drag radial track out to 200 feet from the cars dragging the traction compound off the starting line. The big end is a little bit loose, but you can pour the power to it early in the run and not do it further down the track and be okay. Anybody that races on little hometown tracks, on any given Sunday, it’s just as shitty as any no prep track. No prep racing isn’t dangerous … what makes it dangerous is a driver being a dumbass.
SG: I think early on it was; it was one of the risks we all took. But, we’ve come a long way, and I don’t believe that’s the truth. I believe this it’s a tuner’s race, and as long as you’re not trying to be superman, its’s just as safe as having a full-prepped track. You just have to know your limitations, and when you step out of that, that’s when racers get in trouble. If we have a crash, it’s either a mechanical failure, or driver error. I think it’s pretty safe, as long as racers realize they can’t put the same kind of power down as they would with prep.
Does a ‘light prep’ format have merit, in your opinion, or does that take away the very embodiment and excitement that makes no prep what it is? Does it really begin a slippery slope into fully-prepped drag racing?
SM: I think it’s dumb, and I don’t it’s an issue beyond American Outlaws, which the light prep was dictated by circumstances beyond the initial plan.
SG: To me, there’s no such thing as a light prep. It’s ether a no prep, or it’s prepped; there’s no in-between.
While we certainly hope it never happens, do you feel that no prep racing would survive (the backlash, the insurance regulations) a major, potentially fatal accident involving a driver and/or spectators?
I hope that there’s never a fatality at a no prep race, but there’s several fatalities a year at sticky track races. It’s the same race track, the same drivers, cars, and safety equipment. – Shannon Morgan
SG: I hope that never happens. I think it will survive if we have something like that happen, because to me, it’s the same thing. We’ve had people die on fully-prepped tracks, and racing continued. I know the first knee-jerk reaction would be, “see, it’s no prep, we told you,” but if you really look at data and statistics — and I’m a big numbers guy — I think it would prove to not be the case.
It’s difficult to argue that Street Outlaws has helped to inject interest into no prep racing, but do you feel that the genre fully stands on its own and will far outlive the show?
SM: If Street Outlaws were to go off the air today, no prep would still be here three years from now. KOTS is on its ninth year, and it’s packed every time. It grew on its own, and we’ve done the same with Redemption out here in Texas. Regardless of the style of racing, whether it’s 10.5W, drag radial, or whatever, if there isn’t parity among it, it fails, because big money comes in and takes over. So, that’s something that we’re struggling with, because everyone is bringing these lightweight, purpose-built cars and Pro Mods in. If we can achieve parity, then I think we have some life in this.
SG: 100 percent, yes. Those guys come out and supports KOTS and I support their show, but we had no prep racing before Street Outlaws and if the show ended next year, we’d still have no prep racing. They add to what we do, and I believe they bring other people out to see our racing and create a buzz that we might not have without them, and so I certainly respect them for that, but we’d still be no prep racing, for sure.
It’s undeniable that there’s a no prep movement in the sport that’s still gaining momentum, but where do you see it going in the future? Is the sky the limit, or do you believe it’s simply a ‘fad’ that will run it’s course? Is there longevity in this?
If this is the answer to keeping kids off the street, then I don’t see it going anywhere. And fortunately, between no prep racing and Street Outlaws, we’re growing new fans and new racers, and that’s what our industry needs. – Shannon Morgan
SG: If these promoters would get on the same team, use the same rules, don’t schedule on top of one another, and actually think about the racers, no prep is going to be here for a long time. But if everyone has different agendas, or they’re in it for the wrong reasons, I think it will die off in certain areas.
Drag racing has, over the last two to three decades, always had a ‘next big thing’, from Pro Mod racing, to Outlaw 10.5, and now drag radial. Do you think no prep is poised to supplant radial tire racing as the hot new thing?
SM: Drag radial has become so popular and so big that money has come in and taken over, so you’ve weeded out the lower budget guys. And a lot of those racers are coming over and running with us now at no prep races. I get several new ones at every race, because they can’t keep up with the resources that a lot of others can. Will no prep be here in 15 years like the NHRA is probably going to be? I can’t say that, but I can say no prep is good for our sport and I think we have many years left. I also think the NHRA needs to take their big brother hat off and realize that Street Outlaws and no prep are taking over the world and they need to figure out how to get on the bus with us, because we are good for the sport.
SG: I believe so, because radial tire racing took off just like no prep did — people could compete in the early 2000’s when it was all getting started for a reasonable amount of money, but now to run in those classes you’re spending a ton. With no prep racing, you don’t have to have a lot of money; you can field a $20,000 small tire car and be competitive, and as long as you’re on your game, and be consistent, you can win. You’re limiting the tire, the surface, and the chassis, and as long as everyone works together to keep it that way, anyone can be competitive.
There are no ladders, sometimes no qualifying, no points, no elapsed times or speeds, and very few rules. Do you feel that this simplicity of no prep racing is a large part of what makes it so popular and intriguing?
SM: There are a few rules in each class, and unfortunately, because of it becoming so popular and the need to maintain parity, there are going to be more rules. It started out as just big tire or small tire and let’s go, but if we were to keep things that way, we wouldn’t be here a year from now, because the rich guys will be there and the every-day guys that started this whole thing will be gone because they can’t compete with cubic collars. I think the novelty of it is that, at this time, 80 percent of these racers are grudge or street racers that didn’t fit anywhere in particular. This is the place for everyone. These are your every-day guys, they have a place they fit, and they have a home now. And, they get to race for big money.
Simplicity is what people enjoy about it, and as a blue collar, middle-class guy myself, I think no prep racing is Americana at it’s finest, comprised of hard-working, middle-class people that are just good people. – Steve Gillaspie
*It should be noted that KOTS allows drivers to touch or cross the centerline, as long as they are behind the other driver and the maneuver doesn’t effect the outcome of the race, providing a unique element not seen elsewhere in drag racing
Would someone trying to commercialize no prep racing, with a traveling series of events at elite tracks, points, and stringent rules — effectively taking away the down-home, “outlaw” nature of the genre — spell doom for no prep?
SM: I don’t think just because someone creates a series, that it would make no prep fail. If the wrong someone tried to do that, then it would fail miserably because their heart wouldn’t be in the right place with it.
SG: I’d say yes, because then it’s just another race but you’re not prepping the surface. People love the personalities in no prep racing, because there are guys that take pride in running on a low budget. If you commercialize it and make it just like the rest of the series out there, then people are going to be looking for the next thing that’s different. I try to stay true to my roots and to my people, and I don’t change. We’re not trying to grow KOTS bigger than we are — I’m comfortable being at the level that we are, because I can get out there and connect and talk to people, shake hands, give back to veterans. As long as these unique events stay true and unique, they’re going to outlast anything that becomes commercialized, that’s for sure.
Do you feel that allowing Pro Mod cars into Big Tire (and into no prep in general) not only gives them an unfair advantage over the traditional backhalf-style street cars, but could also disenchant the fans who are interested in stock-looking cars they can relate to? In essence, would allowing Pro Mods to take over spell the death of no prep?
I don’t enjoy seeing them [Pro Mods] race a back-half car with three kits and a big-block Chevy, because it’s a lopsided race. – Steve Gillaspie
I think if you did a poll right now, it would show that 80 percent of the fans don’t want Pro Mods in Big Tire. There are fans that enjoy seeing the Pro Mods at these races, but they want to see them beat someone with a car like theirs. They have fans, they really do … so, here’s a class for them, but they’re not going to come in and beat up on these other guys.
SG: Yes and no. I believe back-half cars should race back-half cars, and chassis cars should race chassis cars. I enjoy watching Pro Mods race, when they’re racing another Pro Mod, but I don’t enjoy seeing them race a back-half car with three kits and a big-block Chevy, because it’s a lopsided race. Who wants to see that? I know I don’t, and I know the fans don’t, because I talk to them. I think there’s a place for them in no prep, just not against cars that aren’t in their league. Again, you limit the tire, the surface, and chassis, and you race people that sit like you, and that’s the best racing you can put on.
You’ve revealed a plan to address the “Pro Mod’-style cars that are being entered in larger numbers for no prep racing. Can you successfully put a lid back on that can after it’s already been opened?
SM: We created a class for the Pro Mods at Redemption, and it pays a $10,000 purse. Let’s see how bad they want to run. It’s not $20,000 or $50,000. If they want to be no prep racers, they can come show me, pay their entry fees, and earn it like all of these other guys who have gotten to where they’re at with free entry with me.
It’s not personal against anyone, it’s just a different type of car and in a lot of ways a different kind of budget … it’s like if John Force decided to build a 315 drag radial car tomorrow. He has access to everything, so do you think he’d come out a be pretty successful at it?
**Editors Note: In addition to a standalone category, Shannon made the to-this-point unprecedented decision to lay out a specific ruleset to define the crossover between Pro Mods and the traditional Big Tire car at her events.
To what extent do you feel traction control devices/systems aid drivers in the Big Tire class? Do you think they’re a ‘crutch’ that eliminates driver skill and gives the fans a watered-down experience? If you could, would you ban them altogether for the sake of the long-term interest in no prep racing?
There are some really fast guys that still aren’t running any form of traction control, and one racer told me, “traction control is only as good as the person using it.” – Steve Gillaspie
But, living proof that you don’t need traction control to win races, Birdman [James Finney] doesn’t have one single piece of traction control on his car. He tried it and felt it was messing him up as a driver and they took it out. He looks at the data, they set the car up old-school for the track, and they’re absolutely dominating no prep racing.
SG: It does eliminate some of the excitement, because you don’t see a driver pedaling it … the ignition or traction control system is just pulling timing off of driveshaft speed. There are some really fast guys that still aren’t running any form of traction control, and one racer told me, “traction control is only as good as the person using it.” I know plenty of racers who were using traction control and took it off, because they just couldn’t get it together, so they went back to simplicity and tuned their car to the track and went down.
I do believe it takes some of the excitement out of it, but I don’t think there’s much we can do about it, because it’s just a part of the sport now. I’d say about three-fourths of the racers are using something to assist them.
Among no prep promoters and racers, is there a shared mission to keep the Small Tire class ‘pure’ — to restrict the cars from getting too exotic and outside the original street-style intent of the class?
SM: For me, personally, that’s most certainly the goal. Across the board with promoters in general, I don’t think all of their intentions are that, because I don’t think they look at our niche part of the sport three years down the road; they’re looking at right now and how they can make money. But, it’s one of the things I worry about.
SG: For the most part, yes. I’ve seen a few events come about where they’ve done some questionable things with their rules packages, allowing a big tire car to put a smaller tire on, but I believe the racers want to keep it pure and uniform. The good promoters are all trying to keep it very close, and as long as they keep the same basic rules, I think it will be fine.
If you could systematically change or fix one thing about no prep racing, what would it be?
SM: I’d have to say allowing Pro Mods into Big Tire. It’s been a hot mess.
SG: I would get rid of the perception of no prep racing as dangerous. Because it isn’t, and people that think it is, they don’t have enough knowledge or information to back that up, and when you give them that information, they understand. I have plenty of former class racers who thought it was crazy and dangerous and later realized that they simply needed to change their tune-up.
Everyone that lets go of a transbrake in a race car … no one is holding a gun to their head forcing them to do it. They know exactly what they’re doing and the conditions they’re going to race in. – Shannon Morgan
What would you say to the detractors of no prep racing, who think anyone that competes in these events deserves whatever happens to them?
SM: I would tell them that they’re in more danger when they get up and get in their car to go to work than they are at a no prep race. Everyone that lets go of a transbrake in a race car is doing so of their own will … no one is holding a gun to their head forcing them to do it. They know exactly what they’re doing and the conditions they’re going to race in. No prep is just a word — it’s a label. Everyone has raced on shitty tracks and on a given night is just as bad as a no prep race. We’ve all raced on a track that was basically a no prep. No everyone gets to run on an NHRA national event level or sticky drag radial track.
SG: What goes around, comes around. I’d just ask that person to get educated and understand what we’re doing and how we’re doing it and then make their judgement. Most people who say things like that don’t have the facts or really understand no prep racing.